Modern history


On the thirteenth of March, Pierre Vergniaud came to the tribune and delivered a speech which even by his standards was remarkable for its rhetorical power and political courage. After the routine denunciations of aristocratic machinations by which anarchy was doing the work of the counter-revolution, he deplored the fact that those convicted of violence in the February riots had been amnestied. When the laws were set aside out of fear of intimidation, “it is a great accomplishment for the enemies of the Republic thus to have perverted reason and set at naught all ideas of morality.” He then proceeded to a famous and terrible prophecy. “So, citizens, it must be feared that the Revolution, like Saturn, successively devouring its children, will engender, finally, only despotism with the calamities that accompany it.”

The Convention, he said, was brutally divided into two parties with conflicting visions for France. “One section of its members regarded the Revolution as finished the instant that France was constituted as a Republic. Henceforth it thought that the revolutionary movement should be stopped so as to give the people tranquillity and to make laws promptly that would make the Revolution endure. Other members, on the contrary, alarmed by the dangers with which the coalition of tyrants threaten us, believed that it was important for the energy of our defense to continue to sustain all the effervescence of the Revolution.”

Vergniaud spoke for a while as if he could see the merits of both points of view, but he was merely building to a tremendous denunciation of sectionnaire violence and in particular of the vandalism of March 10. Continuing the Girondin theme of the dangers posed to the “national representation” by the unconstrained lawlessness of the Paris crowds, he characterized the devotees of the sections as “idlers, men without work, unknown, often indeed strangers to the section or even to the city itself… ignoramuses, great putters of motions” in love with the sound of their own voice, men easily corrupted for bad causes. As for the central revolutionary committee they had organized, “what revolution does it want to make now that despotism is no longer?… It wants to overturn the national representation itself.” Vergniaud went so far as to name some individuals specifically: the Pole Lazowski, whose name he garbled to sound even more foreign, and Desfieux, whom he accused of being well known in his native city of Bordeaux for “all manner of crookery and bankruptcy.”

In the course of his speech, interrupted many times by angry shouts of “calumny” from the Mountain, it became clear that what had really angered Vergniaud was the destruction of the Girondin news presses and the continuing attempt to gag opinion that dissented from the Jacobins or the popular societies. He compared the mob smashing printing presses to the Muslim fanatics who burned Philo’s library at Alexandria, justifying their deed by commenting that the books were either the Koran or about some other matter. In the first instance they were redundant; in the second instance they were dangerous. The kind of liberty that was being imposed on the Republic was the tyranny of license, the freedom of brute force. As for the cries of equality, they reminded him, Vergniaud said, of the “tyrant of antiquity [Procrustes] on whose iron bed victims were mutilated if they were too long for its measurements.” To a storm of boos and whistles he added that “this tyrant also loved equality and voilá, that is the equality of the scoundrels that would tear you apart with their fury.”

“Citizens,” he ended, “let us profit from the lessons of experience. We can overturn empires by victories but we can only make revolutions for other peoples by the spectacle of our own happiness. We want to upset thrones. Let us prove that we know how to be happy with a Republic.”

I have quoted Vergniaud at length because his speech represents a rare attempt to stand back from the fray and survey the revolutionary landscape. Its purpose was, of course, partisan. Aware that he and his friends were being harried by the section militants, Vergniaud was trying to regain the polemical initiative. But the fact that he was nailing the colors of the Girondins to the mast so defiantly does not reduce the force of what was being said. Aside from any other considerations, he was attempting to defend the legislature against repeated attacks on its integrity and sovereignty.

It was also, transparently, an attempt to appeal to the Republic over the heads of the Parisians. Aware of the upheavals in provincial centers like Marseille and his own city of Bordeaux that were delivering power to the adversaries of the Jacobins, Vergniaud and the Gironde were playing to this budding federalism. They had already suggested that the Convention be protected by an armed guard drawn from the provinces and in May would resurrect Mirabeau’s plan to move the assembly out of the capital to the cathedral city of Bourges should its safety not be guaranteed.

To the Mountain, all this sounded remarkably like a declaration of war on their own power base. Having held back for a long time from associating with the revolutionary committee at the Evêché, Robespierre and the leading Jacobins were pushed closer toward cooperation by the beginning of the Girondin offensive. Apart from anything else, their concern not to let the enragés or even the militants of the Commune like Hébert, Chaumette and Hanriot control the timing and magnitude of insurrection dictated a more activist policy. Nor is it impossible that the Jacobin leaders actually believed in the conspiracy theory that tied together the Girondins with military defeat, financial speculation and treasonable dalliance with the enemy. They were quite sure that, after Neerwinden, France had come close to a military coup mounted by Dumouriez and supported by the Gironde.

The first half of April, then, saw a series of statements, both at the Convention and at the Jacobins, in which the Mountain embraced social egalitarianism as a proper goal for the patriotic revolution. Danton (who had been rebuffed in private overtures to the Girondins) came out endorsing the principle of loans forced from the rich to subsidize the price of bread. Other items of the enragé program which now received favorable attention were a legally enforceable rate of exchange for the assignat and public works programs also to be funded from levies on the rich. On April 10 Robespierre signaled his conversion to the enragé axiom that the people were entitled to exercise direct democracy by “recalling faithless mandatories” whensoever the General Will beckoned.

By this time it was evident that a trial of strength was at hand in the Convention. The Girondins decided to test their power by attacking their most immoderate and relentless antagonist, Jean-Paul Marat, who had, moreover, just succeeded to the presidency of the Jacobins. He took every opportunity to abuse them from his eyrie seat high up on the Mountain, descending to trade insults and sometimes even physical blows at the bar of the tribune. “Croaking toad,” shouted Guadet in one heated exchange; “Vile bird,” yelled back Marat. Another deputy had demanded that the tribune be disinfected after every speech by the Friend of the People. Marat returned the compliment by characterizing his enemies as “Isnard the charlatan, Buzot the hypocrite, Lasource the maniac and Vergniaud the stool-pigeon.”

Taking advantage of the absence of deputies en mission in the departments, the Girondins collected evidence from Marat’s writings to show that he had violated the integrity of the Convention by calling for violent attacks on its membership. Given the general tenor of his journalism, this was not difficult to do. A nineteen-page indictment was drawn up for the Revolutionary Tribunal quoting passages from his Journal de la République, in which he enthused over a revolutionary dictatorship and regretted that a few hundred heads had been spared so as to preserve hundreds of thousands of innocents. He had repeatedly denounced those associated with Roland – who would include Clavière, Brissot, most of the Girondin leaders – as “statesmen” (a deeply insulting term in Marat’s vocabulary), “criminal accomplices of royalty,” “enemies to all liberty and equality,” “charlatans,” “atrocious men who every day seek to bury us further in anarchy and who try to kindle the flames of civil war.” Using the individual appel nominal, which Marat himself had insisted on in the trial of the King, the Convention voted the indictment by 221 against 93, but with 128 on mission and 238 absentees.

What then followed turned into a dangerous fiasco for the Girondins. After eluding the police for three days, Marat finally turned himself in and was given a large room in the Conciergerie, where he received deputations of officials of the Commune and other citizens all eager to pledge their loyalty to the persecuted Friend of the People. On entering the courtroom on the twenty-fourth he was greeted with a storm of cheering from assembled spectators, which periodically burst out again, so that Marat had to ask his own supporters for quiet. He defended himself with great agility and conviction, claiming, not altogether disingenuously, that many of the apparently incriminating passages had been taken out of context; that he had never preached “murder and pillage” but had argued for energetic measures to avoid precisely those evils; that he had not called for the dissolution of the Convention but had said that the assembly would stand or fall by its own deeds and utterances. The judges, though approved by the Girondins in March, were plainly sympathetic to the accused, and the public prosecutor, a relative of Camille Desmoulins named Fouquier-Tinville, was less than zealous in his interrogation. They also concurred with Marat’s argument that his denunciations had been righteous and patriotic and for that matter generalized in their targets.

When the acquittal came, it was transformed into a spectacular personal triumph. Laurel wreaths were thrown on Marat’s head; his “large yellow face,” as Michelet described it, grinned with pleasure as he was borne shoulder-high to the Convention. The roaring crowds paraded up and down the aisles of the assembly chanting and singing. On the twenty-sixth of April the Jacobins gave a special fête in his honor where so large a crowd gathered to celebrate their hero that one of the rows of benches collapsed under their pressing weight.

To say that the trial of Marat was a collective disaster for the Girondins would be to understate the case. They had selectively set aside the immunity of a deputy of the Convention, convinced that it could be shown he had himself abused its privilege. Indeed, from the many times Marat had fulminated that traitors existed “in the bosom of the Convention itself,” they were confident the case could be proved. Now that it had failed, the withdrawal of immunity would be turned against them. Petitions and deputations from the more militant sections like Cité, Droits de l’Homme, where Varlet was president, and Bon-Conseil, demanding the exclusion of the “Twenty-two” (the number had virtually become a sans-culotte symbol of infamy) that had begun before the trial now began to knock more steadily on the Convention’s door.

At the beginning of May the Girondins backed themselves further into a corner by arguing vigorously against the imposition of a maximum on grain prices. Charles Barbaroux, in particular, insisted that, however devised, the ceiling would have the effect of aggravating rather than easing supply. If it was set too high, no farmer would sell his goods below the stipulated ceiling; if it was set too low, he would not sell at all and consumers in all likelihood would simply rush to buy as much as they could, creating instant scarcity. How was the price mechanism to be set for different regions? If it was uniform throughout France, no producers would have any interest in shipping goods at their own expense; if it was variable, it would invite smuggling on a scale that would make the evasion of the old gabelle look like child’s play. For that matter, how could such a system be enforced without recourse to the regiments of the Farmers-General? “Do you want to establish domiciliary visits in the town and country to uncover a sétier of wheat as once was done with tobacco and salt? Do you want to arm the French against each other and have this group be the food victors over that group?”

Barbaroux’s objections were an accurate prediction of exactly the problems the maximum would encounter. But its introduction had become a rallying cry among the sans-culottes. On May 1 a deputation arrived at the Convention from the faubourg Saint-Antoine demanding its imposition, as well as the immediate creation of a fund to assist the poor funded by a levy of half of all incomes over two thousand livres, and the conscription of anyone deemed “rich” into the army. The deputation backed its demands with threats of an immediate insurrection should they not be acceded to. On the very next day, the Convention voted in principle to regulate the grain trade and on the fourth enacted decrees which went straight back to old-regime paternalism. Ceilings were to be set by departmental authorities based on the mean average of prices fetched for the first four months of the year to date. Provincial printers started once again cranking out their old forms for requisitions, confiscations, market and milling licenses, which had not seen the light of day since the early 1780s. It was a classic instance of the French Revolution’s yearning for security over freedom; for the values of paternalism over those of individualism.

In mid-May, the battle for survival between the Mountain and the Gironde was joined in deadly earnest. Moreover, since the disasters at the front had continued to accumulate, many of the uncommitted deputies of the Plain had begun to shift towards the Jacobins, much as they had done over the issue of the King’s trial and sentence. Pressure from armed sans-culotte demonstrations, as well as their own sense that the Girondins were the aggressive party in sustaining the feud, led many of them to this conclusion. But until very late in May the balance of strength within the Convention seesawed this way and that. Isnard was elected president on the sixteenth, and two days later Guadet alleged that a plot to dissolve the Convention was under way. A new assembly should be convened at Bourges, the Commune dismantled, the leaders of the plot in the sections exposed and arrested. To deflect this kind of drastic action, a Committee of Twelve was instituted to investigate the threat to the national legislature posed by the popular societies and section committees. This rapidly turned into an organ of prosecution against leading enragés like Varlet and Claude-Emmanuel Dobsen. But by extending its writ against Jacques-René Hébert (whose denunciations of the Girondins in the Père Duchesne made Marat’s look quite temperate by comparison), the Girondins made allies, instead of rivals, of the Commune and the Evêché committee. To Hébert’s horror, he was even forced to share a cell with the despicable gadfly Varlet. When the Commune protested to the Convention, Isnard thundered back in tones that made him sound like the Duke of Brunswick: “I tell you, in the name of the whole of France, that if these endless insurrections should cause harm to the parliament of the nation, Paris will be annihilated and men will search the banks of the Seine for signs of the city.”

The liberation of this latest batch of “martyrs” then became a rallying cry in the general assemblies of the sections. As Richard Cobb memorably noted, historians of the sans-culottes were once much given to describing them as though they moved about in massive blocks and battalions, deployed here and there like marionette regiments of the workers. What we now know of the numbers of their activists suggests a much more modest participation. In all likelihood no more than 10 percent of the adult male population ever attended the “general assemblies” of the sections, and while there might have been between a hundred or two hundred at moments of crisis, attendance fell down to fifty or so immediately once the crisis was over. The whole sans-culotte “movement” at its height in Paris was made up of no more than two to three thousand committed revolutionary zealots. The same people came to the popular societies, drafted petitions, showed up with pikes at the doors of the Convention, “fraternized” with each other by showing up in force when fellow militants were threatened in their section by a hostile or “moderate” majority. Within Paris itself, moreover, they by no means dominated all forty-eight sections. The popular movement commanded dependable support only in twenty to thirtysections in a belt extending from Poissonnière and the faubourg Saint-Denis in the north, eastwards down through the ultramilitant Temple, Popincourt, Montreuil and Quinze-Vingts and down through the center of the city to thesections of Saint-Marcel in the south – Gobelins and Observatoire.

Its leaders, even outside the immediate circle of the enragés, were seldom artisans, much less wage earners. Claude-Emmanuel Dobsen, who would play a key role in the insurrection against the Girondins, was a lawyer, first judge of one of the Paris courts, ardent Mason, and officer in the National Guard since 1790. J-B Loys was a Marseillais lawyer and merchant who had denounced his own two brothers as royalists and who had been honorably wounded in the attack on the Tuileries. Two of those prominent among the militants were even of noble origins: Rousselin, who, like Varlet, had gone to Talleyrand’s old school for young aristocrats, the Collège d’Harcourt, and Louis-Henri “Scipio” Duroure, who was a black-sheep Patriot turning to revolutionary politics after fathering a child by the family’s English maid and continuing to live off an income of more than twenty thousand livres a year.

It would be a mistake, though, to imagine these men as playboy sans-culottes. They all lived in the neighborhoods they represented, often in lodgings indistinguishable from the artisans’. As a consequence, many of them were a great deal closer to the “people” than Robespierre, who so freely apostrophized them from the parlor of the Duplays. Though they were undoubtedly a minority in the relentlessness of their revolutionary convictions, the militants were capable, on days of crisis, of mobilizing armed crowds of tens of thousands. Success in creating an insurrection, however, required the assent, if not the participation, of figures higher in the revolutionary hierarchy. Summonses from leading figures in the Commune like Hébert, speeches from Danton or Robespierre and articles in Marat’s paper were needed to recruit crowds from beyond the inner core of zealots.

What was also needed to trigger a decisive journée was a perceived sense of peril. After Isnard’s threat to raise the departments against Paris, there was a rowdy sans-culotte invasion of the Convention on the twenty-seventh that succeeded in getting the deputies to abolish the inquisitory Committee of Twelve. On the following day, however, the decision was overturned when the Girondins demanded a new vote, claiming that spectators, mingling with the members, had voted illegally in the proceedings. Hébert and Varlet, however, had their liberation confirmed. Most important of all, Robespierre, who as late as the end of March had insisted on the inviolability of the Convention, now seemed to have given a green light for the uprising. At the Jacobins on the twenty-sixth he invited “the people to place themselves in insurrection against the corrupt deputies” and several more times that week spoke of the necessity for a “moral insurrection.”

Just what distinguished a moral insurrection from any other kind was obscure, though evidently Robespierre wanted to avoid the kind of indiscriminate bloodshed of the previous autumn. Once initiated by Dobsen, Varlet and the central revolutionary committee at the Evêché, the event took on its own momentum. Under the direction of François Hanriot, a former customs clerk who had just been appointed commander of the National Guard in place of Santerre, then serving in the Vendée, armed sans-culotte guards accompanied the leaders of the Evêché committee to the Commune. Drummers and guardsmen entered the hall of the General Council to inform it that its mandate had been revoked by the “sovereign people.” Once the General Council had accepted the essential points of the revolutionary program – a tax on the rich; the arrest of the Girondins and ex-ministers like Roland, Clavière and Lebrun; the creation of a sans-culotte army to enforce revolutionary laws, including the maximum, on the departments; and a payment of forty sous per diem to working citizens under arms – the Commune was reinstated.

These demands were then put to the Convention with the justification that the committee at the Evêché had discovered a conspiracy against liberty and equality that required a new uprising if the Revolution was to be saved. Though this was more or less exactly what Robespierre had himself signaled at the Jacobins, the Convention, and especially the deputies of the Plain, did not care to be dictated to in this manner. The leaders of the Gironde marked for expulsion and arrest had armed themselves in the early hours of the thirty-first on hearing the tocsin but could not bring themselves to accept Louvet’s advice to leave Paris and raise the standard of anti-Jacobin revolt in the provinces. Not only did they not want to be responsible for all-out civil war, but it may well have been that with the experience of the failed uprising of March 10 behind them, they believed they could still prevail in the Convention itself. It was there, at any rate, that they chose to make their stand, attacking Hanriot for intimidation and asking for armed protection for the deputies. During the commotion, with sans-culotte soldiers standing about the aisles, waving pikes and rifles, cheering or scowling ominously, Vergniaud became curiously subdued. During Robespierre’s long prosecutorial harangue he finally interrupted: “Conclude then.” “I will conclude,” returned Robespierre, “and against you.” In the end the demands were referred to the Committee of Public Safety.

Matters were obviously not going to rest there. Two days later, on June 2, a Sunday, when people of the faubourgs and the villages hors des murs crowded into the city, an immense throng surrounded the Convention. Most estimates place the numbers at eighty thousand, the majority of whom were carrying some sort of weapon. They had gathered to hear the report of the Committee of Public Safety and the response of the deputies, and made it plain that there would be a serious price to pay should their demands go unsatisfied. News of a rebellion in Lyon against the Jacobin municipality on the twenty-ninth had arrived in Paris, giving credence to the revolutionary committee’s claim that they were confronting a counter-revolutionary conspiracy.

From the outset it was obvious that the Convention was willing, if not exactly eager, to do their bidding in order to avoid either a general massacre or the relinquishment of all effective power to the revolutionary committee. On behalf of the Committee of Public Safety, Delacroix conceded the formation of a revolutionary army paid forty sous a day, but Barère proposed that the offending Girondins be suspended rather than arrested and then only for a specified term.

This was unlikely to satisfy the sans-culottes, who were becoming angrier as the proceedings went on. Deputies were jostled and pushed about; Boissy d’Anglas’ elegant scarf was torn from his neck; Grégoire was accompanied by four armed guards as he made his way to the privy. When Hanriot, commanding the guards outside the hall, was given a message from the President, Hérault de Séchelles, to end the intimidation, he replied, “Tell your fucking President that he and his Assembly can go fuck themselves, and if within one hour the Twenty-two are not delivered, we will blow them all up.” Cannon were duly moved towards the doors of the Manège to suggest that he was not joking.

Desperate for some way to assert their authority or at least give the semblance of political free will, Barère suggested that the deputies as a body leave the debating hall and walk outside to mingle with the armed men. That would, he thought, defuse the dangerous polarization between soldiers and politicians. A hundred or so then trooped off behind Hérault de Séchelles like anxious schoolboys. Walking into the bright sunlight they found Hanriot on his horse, positioned before rank after rank of daunting, moustached guards obviously bristling with anger and waving their weapons. Hérault asked Hanriot to respect the obligation to free the entrance and exits of the Manège. The Commandant replied by assuring Hérault that the President himself was an approved patriot but asked for a promise “on your head” that the twenty-two villains would be delivered up within twenty-four hours. It was not an undertaking (especially with the price attached) that Hérault was prepared to give, so cannon were primed and pointed directly at the chamber. The pathetic column of deputies, under the glare of the soldiers, walked round the perimeter garden path outside the hall looking for some way out, but at each gate the exit was barred by yet more guardsmen. Finally they returned inside to find yet more sectionnaires sitting on the benches with the deputies of the Mountain.

A critical moment had come. A damp silence of guilt, fear and embarrassment settled on the Convention. It was broken by the cripple Georges Couthon, speaking from his wheelchair, who suggested that since, having mingled with the guards, the deputies knew that they were now “free” and that all the good people wanted was the removal of malefactors, they could surely proceed with their indictment. He then read the document of accusation against Clavière and Lebrun as well as twenty-nine deputies, ten of whom had sat on the Committee of Twelve. When the vote was finished, Vergniaud rose in sarcastic defiance to offer the Convention a glass of blood to gratify its thirst.

All this had happened while Hérault de Séchelles was in the President’s chair. It is a measure of how far the Revolution had come to remember that this was the same young President of the Parlement of Paris who, in the 1780s, had been lionized as the paragon of legal eloquence. Like his dead friend Lepeletier, he had become a Jacobin able to turn out the standard denunciation of the malevolence of his own aristocratic class whenever required. None of this was in bad faith. There is every sign that Hérault had succeeded in replacing his aristocratic sense of elite status with that of the citizen’s tribune. But what he abandoned on June 2, 1793, was the last scrap of pretense that the Revolution was founded on legality or indeed on representation – the issues on which, in 1789, he had asserted France must stand or fall.

Judgment of that day has perhaps been clouded by the partisan passions which in the centenary years of the Revolution divided historians between latter-day Girondins and Jacobins. The former were even unhistorically conscripted to stand as collective symbols for nineteenth-and twentieth-century concerns: liberals or social democrats. Romantic historians like Lamartine saw the Gironde as his political ancestors; he kindled his prose on the funeral pyre of their political extinction. Marxist historians of a later generation found that sentimentality typical of the bourgeois mawkishness of weak stomachs and flabby patriotism. The most recent, and excellent, account of the uprising even echoes the Marxist Albert Soboul’s pastiche of Robespierriste denunciation, which says that the Girondins richly deserved to perish because “they had denounced the king but had recoiled before his condemnation; had sought the support of the people against the monarchy but refused to govern with it.”

One does not have to subscribe to the “neo-liberal myth of the Gironde” to see through this appalling casuistry. Preference for a republic did not of itself necessarily entail enthusiasm for the King’s execution; for that, not the conviction, is what was at issue. Still less did the creation of a new national representation require its deputies to accept what Morris Slavin calls, euphemistically, “participatory democracy” whenever it chose to exercise its rights in the form of heavy artillery. Even Robespierre, while undoubtedly happy with the results of the uprising, both in the removal of his enemies and in the avoidance of massacre and political chaos, was hostile to the chronic destabilization of government that would have resulted from the populace exercising its Rousseauean rights to “recall its mandatories” whenever the sections so chose.

It is also often said that such were the dire straits in which France found itself that some sort of purge was needed if the Revolution was to be preserved. The Republic could not have survived both reverses on the field of battle and endless contention within the Convention. That indeed had been Danton’s point all along, even though he announced that he was “outraged” at the violation of the assembly on June 2. But what kind of revolution was it that merited preservation? One in which law had prostrated itself before the crudest form of bullying; one in which elected representatives of the nation could be humiliated by the armed minority of a portion of the people of Paris?

There was, however, a grim truth to this miserable episode of threat and surrender. The French Revolution had, from 1788 onward, been made possible by force of arms, by violence and riot. At each stage of its progress those who had profited from its force sought to disarm those who had put them in power. And at each successive stage they became, in turn, prisoners rather than beneficiaries. This would continue so long as the people of Paris were allowed to pursue their chaotic resort to arms. And it is probably not too much to say that from June 2 onward, the Jacobins were already planning to end this dangerous state of affairs. Unlike all their predecessors they would not hesitate to return to the revolutionary state the violence that had been liberated in 1789. Revolutionary democracy would be guillotined in the name of revolutionary government.

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