Modern history


As the August sun came up over the site of the Bastille, a chorus of girls dressed in white greeted it with Gossec’s Hymn to Nature. The space had been landscaped so that trees and shrubs testified to the victory of benign Nature over the dead stones of despotism (the latter, of course, supplied by Palloy). In this renamed Champ de Réunion an enormous crowd witnessed the rites of revolutionary druidism. When the cantata based on Rousseau’s ecstatic pantheism in the Profession du Foi d’un Vicaire Savoyard had faded away, the President of the Convention, Hérault de Séchelles, slowly climbed a flight of white steps. Seated at its top was a statue in the Egyptian manner, enthroned between lions. Its hands cupped breasts from which water poured into a small tank below. Greeting both the statue and the crowd, the orator addressed it as the incarnation of Nature, whose fecundity was blessing the Revolution, and this day in particular – “the most beautiful that the Sun has ever lit since the first time it was suspended in the immensity of space.”

Aiming carefully, he held out an antique chalice to catch this miraculous fluid, then poured it onto the ground, rebaptizing the soil in the name of Liberty. Draining a second cup, he was followed in this ritual by eighty-six old men, each representing a department of France. As each stepped forward there were drum rolls and brass fanfares, silence while the cup was emptied, followed by cannon and the fraternal kiss.

This extraordinary ceremony had been devised by David, together with a team of collaborators that included Gossec and Marie-Joseph Chénier, to consummate the formal acceptance of the new constitution. It was designed to rehearse the history of the Revolution in an allegorical pageant, moving a large crowd from site to site and culminating on the Champ de Mars, where the “tablets” of the constitution were set up on the altar of the patrie. This Festival of Unity and Indivisibility, taking place on August 10, the first anniversary of the overthrow of the monarchy, was a supremely Parisian occasion. As if reaffirming that Paris was the Revolution, it used the topography of the city as a series of theatrical settings, each of which referred to some point in the recent past, the transforming present and the indeterminate but benign future.

It was also – as Mona Ozouf, the historian of revolutionary festivals, has pointed out – a carefully planned alternative to the spontaneous disorders and acts of violence which the Jacobin leadership found increasingly distasteful even when they profited from them. The chaotic people were to be overawed (and so defanged) by colossal statues representing, among other things, The People; by expansive music scored for enormous choirs (Gossec wrote five cantatas for the day); by imposing oratory and visual pyrotechnics. Jacques-Louis David would honor them with their own self-importance safely imprisoned in the calm, adamantine universe of symbols.

Accordingly, the second “station” of the ceremonies was a triumphal arch erected on the boulevard des Italiens. In deliberate repudiation of Caesaro-monarchist victories, the celebrated warriors were the women of October 5, 1789, who had brought the King from Versailles to Paris. But the disturbingly potent image of belligerent poissardes astride their cannon had been carefully neutralized in conformity with standard Rousseauean-Jacobin doctrine on the wife-mother role for women patriots. The authentic women of October were replaced by prettified actresses whose brows were crowned with laurel and who were told “O women! Liberty attacked by the tyrants has need of heroes to defend it. It is for you to breed them. Let all the martial and the generous virtues flow together in your maternal milk and in the heart of the nursing women of France.”

The most spectacular moment of the day occurred on the next “station,” on the place de la Révolution. The pedestal which had once borne the statue of Louis XV was now occupied by the figure of enthroned Liberty. At its feet were dumped a collection of the attributes of royalty: scepters, crowns, orbs – even busts, including one resembling the young Louis XIV. Like the pseudo poissardes, most were not the real thing, but had come from the prop rooms of the Paris theaters and had been carried on an immense coffin from the Bastille to the statue. At a given signal, a torch was put to the pile, and as the flames began to jump from the smoke, a great cloud of three thousand white doves was released into the sky. The doves were a stunning coup de théâtre, signifying the liberation of France from monarchy, rising, as the emblems of Christian peace and republican freedom, into a dazzling blue sky.

The entire day was, of course, an elaborately constructed, operatically executed fantasy. Even skeptical witnesses who thought the whole business foolish, such as the artist Georges Wille, confessed to being moved and elated by the proceedings, and there seems little doubt that the same was true of the crowds. But for all the bravura of the occasion there was something slightly desperate and defensive about it, built as it was on the systematic denial of revolutionary realities. The constitution, which had been rewritten by Hérault de Séchelles from the discredited Condorcet’s February draft, offered universal male suffrage, direct elections and even the commitment of the state to a “right of subsistence.” But the million who had ratified it paled into insignificance beside the six million who had abstained, either from bewilderment or prudence. And from the moment of its acceptance it was made meaningless, first by the Convention itself, which had been charged to dissolve itself on completion of the document, then by the construction of the working institutions of the Terror, which effectively superseded all its provisions.

Perhaps the most defiantly optimistic of all David’s monuments was sited on the Invalides, where he had built a gigantic Hercules representing the French people crushing federalism. The hero was already familiar as one of the standard attributes of the Renaissance princes and under Henri IV had been appropriated as the “Gallic Hercules.” In David’s version, one arm prepared to smite the monster federalism that writhed at his feet, while the other was placed about the Roman lictor’s bound sticks, or fasces, representing the unity of the departments of France.

In the midsummer of 1793, however, this happy outcome of an omnipotent and united People vanquishing its enemies was by no means assured. There was some good news to enjoy. On July 13 the modest Norman “army” commanded by de Puisaye encountered a republican force at Pacy-sur-Eure. Both sides had run away on hearing the first cannon shots, but the federalists had run faster and further and so were more decisively demoralized. Since significant parts of Normandy had failed to rally to their cause, it was, in effect, the end of the attempt to create a federalist arc from the Pas-de-Calais to upper Brittany. In the south, on July 27, General Carteaux had retaken Avignon from the little expeditionary force from Marseille and so precluded any junction between the federalists of the Midi and those of Lyon.

Those crucial victories were, however, offset by a more alarming string of disasters. During the last two weeks of July, the frontier fortresses of Condé and Valenciennes fell to Coburg’s Austrian army, which then began to besiege Maubeuge. If that last stronghold fell, the valley of the Marne would lie open for an advance on Paris. On the Rhine, General Custine decided to evacuate Mainz and leave it to the Prussians (and was promptly declared a traitor in Paris). In the northeast, the Duke of York’s army in the Netherlands was advancing on Dunkirk; and in the southwest, the Spanish were threatening Perpignan. In the Vendée, small successes had not compensated for major defeats at Châtillon and Vihiers. Sans-culotte generals such as Ronsin and Rossignol bickered with such ci-devants as Lafayette’s old comrade-in-arms Biron, while Barère compared the republican army to the baggage train of the King of Persia: dragging 120 wagons behind it while the “brigands” marched with a crust of black bread in their bags. Finally, though the federalist cities had been separated, they had not been defeated. Marseille and Toulon were known to be negotiating with the British fleet for food supplies and the Lyonnais had responded to the Convention’s formal proscription of their rebellion by executing Chalier on the same day that Charlotte Corday went to the guillotine.

What made this alarming situation worse were the bitter divisions (notwithstanding the cult of unity) within the various revolutionary authorities and factions over how best to confront the crisis. Until July 10 the dominant presence on the Committee of Public Safety had been Danton. He was now faced with the same dilemma that had sabotaged the governments of the Girondins, the Feuillants and the King: How to create a viable state amid political turmoil? His answer, like those of all of his predecessors, the King excepted, was pragmatic rather than dogmatic. But he was astute enough to disguise his pragmatism in rhetorical vehemence. At the tribune, Danton could brush off criticism by the sheer power of his aggressive personality. Unlike Robespierre, whose rhetorical delivery was relatively flat and academic, and who depended for persuasion on carefully crafted arguments and confessions of personal integrity, Danton had developed a style that was improvised, and unpredictable. Like Mirabeau (whom he much resembled) he used his big, solid head, often compared by contemporaries to that of a bull, to maximum effect, growling at enemies, bringing the voice up to its full, resonant volume to shake the Convention into assent.

In the summer of 1793, Danton’s was the counsel of restraint and skepticism. Using the bludgeon of his ridicule, he attacked Anacharsis Cloots in particular for his revolutionary messianism, which would take the revolution in arms ever further from France’s frontiers until a universal republic had been established. Had not Cloots even claimed that he would not rest until there was a republic on the moon? For the present, Danton reminded his listeners, it was enough to try to save France. To do this he was prepared to undertake initiatives he had violently condemned a year before when the Republic was facing a similar situation. Like Dumouriez he hoped to detach the Prussians from the coalition. Though the Austrian Emperor was unlikely to negotiate, especially since his military position seemed powerful, Danton believed that the security of Marie-Antoinette might be used as a diplomatic card and so resisted demands from the Commune for her trial.

At the same time, he offered relatively magnanimous terms to the Isère and other departments which had been leaning towards federalism but which had prudently stopped short of military commitment. He even approached Montpellier with a view to deflecting the federalists’ troops away from Paris and towards Lyon. In the Vendée, Biron had been appointed to see if there was any possibility of a political settlement. And another of Danton’s allies, Westermann, was endeavoring to impose the discipline of the old professional army of the line on the sans-culotte generals. Finally, in Paris itself, Danton opposed the proposals for the economic Terror – extensive price controls, poor relief funded by draconian forced loans and taxes on the rich – that were emanating from theenragés and the Commune.

A startling appearance by Jacques Roux in the Convention on the evening of June 25 seemed to play into the hands of this pragmatism. He was accompanied by a group of sans-culottes and asked to read an address that had been adopted by the sections of Gravilliers and Bonnes-Nouvelles and the Cordeliers’ Club. It was, in fact, a diatribe against its audience. “Legislators,” he shouted at them, “you have done nothing for the happiness of the people. For four years only the rich have profited from the Revolution.” The “commercial aristocracy, even more terrible than the nobility, has played a cruel game with… the treasure of the Republic.” And what has been done to exterminate these “vampires”? Nothing. Has the death penalty against hoarding been enacted? Have the people been protected against brutal price rises created by speculators?

Roux was greeted with irritated fidgeting, organized coughing, forced sighs and rolling of the eyeballs to the ceiling. This was the kind of thing, Barére felt, they had to sit through in the name of humoring the sans-culottes. Five minutes into the speech, though, one particular remark of the orator-priest had them sitting bolt upright or standing indignantly, shouting back, waving papers at his audacity. It was, he had said, “the shame of the eighteenth century… that the representatives of the people had declared war on external tyrants but had been too cowardly to crush those within France [the rich]. Under the old regime it would never have been permitted for basic commodities to be sold at three times their value” (my emphasis). The new constitution would do nothing to remedy these miseries and the Convention continued to commit lèse-nation by allowing the assignat to fall and prepare the way for bankruptcy.

The imputation that the Republic was actually harsher toward the common people than the old monarchy had been was so shocking that it moved some of Roux’s enemies (of whom there were many on virtually all sides of the Convention) to suggest that he had been put up to his attack by counter-revolutionaries. The offense was enough to get him arrested and for the Committee of General Security to run an aggressive campaign in Gravilliers that forced the section authorities to disown him. But in his disheveled sincerity Roux had in fact hit on an essential truth. Many of those whose violence in 1788 and 1789 had made Paris ungovernable, and thus allowed the Revolution to succeed, had never been much enamored of economic liberalism or individualism. Much of their anger had been a reaction against the unpredictable and impersonal operation of the market. They had clung to the traditional mind-set which saw in price rises and shortages the operation of a “famine plot” and, so far from wanting the state to dismantle all customary protection, wanted a more interventionist policy. They were not only indifferent, then, but actually hostile to much of the modernizing and reformist enterprise embarked on, first by the monarchy and then by successive revolutionary inheritor regimes.

This had put them at odds with the revolutionary elite, including most of the Jacobin leadership. As recently as February 1793, the grocery riots had provoked denunciations against popular price-fixing by the threat or reality of violence. By the summer, however, bread was being sold for six sous a pound and much of the enragé program – the death penalty for hoarders and speculators; price ceilings and enforced acceptance of the assignat – had become articles of faith, not just in the Cordeliers but in the Commune as well. Robespierre’s speech the previous autumn, suggesting that property rights were not absolute but limited by a responsibility not to hurt the subsistence of others, opened the way for a serious change of heart among a section of the Jacobins themselves. Attacks on “riches égoïstes” and “bloodsuckers,” and proposals for progressive taxes and forced levies on the rich to subsidize public-relief works and the price ceilings became commonplace.

Mid-July was a crucial turning point. Undercut by a succession of reverses and accumulating chaos, the Dantonist position crumbled. Westermann was recalled, possibly to face the Revolutionary Tribunal. The position was not helped by Danton’s own casualness about defending himself and his allies in the Jacobins. When on July 10, in new elections, the Convention dropped him and his close colleague Lacroix from the membership of the Committee of Public Safety, he seemed not much put out. Indeed he showed visible relief at recovering his freedom of action outside the government. He may well have calculated that the position the Republic found itself in was so serious that no revolutionary government could survive without some further great upheaval.

Those calculations turned out to be seriously misplaced. Following the death of Marat, the stripped-down and rebuilt Committee of Public Safety rapidly turned itself into the most concentrated state machine France had ever experienced. It grasped the nettle of revolutionary government with a determination that had eluded all its predecessors. For the first time since Brienne, or indeed Chancellor Maupeou, the interests of the warrior state were given absolute priority over those of political expression. The Terror thus represented the liquidation of the initial dream of the Revolution: that liberty and patriotic power were not only reconcilable but mutually dependent. Accordingly, what had seemed the most irrepressible feature of the French Revolution – its political effervescence – was trapped inside the bottle of a national dictatorship. Politics had to end so that patriotism might conquer: that would be the founding creed of Bonapartism.

There were to be four elements to this new revolutionary state: a return to traditional economic regulation; the massive mobilization of military resources; the reabsorption into the state of the powers of punitive violence; and the replacement of spontaneous politics by a program of official ideology. (It is sobering to realize how all the items on this list could equally describe the France of Louis XIV.) The men who set themselves these tasks were, for once, ideally equipped for the work. Robespierre, Saint-Just and Georges Couthon were the ideologues, eloquent at representing the Committee to the Convention, carefully orchestrating the timing and intensity of judicial offensives designed to preempt flanking movements against the Committee, either from Danton’s supporters to the right or Hébert’s on the left. While Robespierre and Saint-Just provided high-flown incriminating rhetoric against “foreign plots,” Bertrand Barère and Hérault de Séchelles organized the deputies of the Plain, without whose assent the dictatorship could not have been sustained. Another group in the Committee saw themselves as war bureaucrats: managers of logistics. Lazare Carnot and Prieur de La Côte d’Or were both engineers who devoted themselves to supplying the army, while Jeanbon Saint-Andréattended to the navy. Robert Lindet, the ex-priest, became the head of the Commission des Subsistances, moving huge supplies of food to the army and major centers of population. A year later, these two different visions of a France steeled in the fire of war would pull the Committee of Public Safety apart. To the bureaucrats and engineers – the inheritors of the monarchy’s passion for technological government – Robespierre’s Rousseauean concept of the Republic as an immense enterprise in moral instruction would seem not just farfetched, but actually subversive. For the next nine months, however, as the Republic steadily beat back its enemies, the division of labor among those who ran the Terror worked with surprisingly little friction.

A first priority was to neutralize centers of opposition. The highly democratic electoral provisions of the new constitution had the potential to decentralize power even further. So on August 11, a day after the festival celebrating its acceptance, a proposal to dissolve the Convention and hold new elections was indignantly brushed aside. And since successive revolutionary governments had fallen to disaffected groups prepared to sponsor or legitimate popular insurrections, the current contenders – Hébert’s supporters in the Commune – had to be cut adrift from their rank and file in the sections. Just as Hébert and Chaumette had taken over enragé doctrine minus the enragés, so the Jacobins were now prepared to preempt the Hébertistes. This was not just a matter of political tactics. A decisive number on the Committee and in the Convention were convinced, by late July, that the kind of measures they had long resisted now were actually indispensable for the survival of the Republic.

On the twenty-sixth of July, for example, the Convention finally adopted Collot d’Herbois’ proposal to institute the death penalty for hoarders. The same law itemized a long list of “goods of the first necessity” that included not just bread, salt and wine but butter, meat, vegetables, soap, sugar, hemp, wool, oil and vinegar. Anyone possessing stocks of this market basket was required to make a formal declaration to the authorities within eight days. With this information on hand municipalities could oblige wholesalers or retailers to put their wares on the market at any time on pain of being declared a “hoarder.” On the ninth of August another giant step backwards to pre-Louis XVI practice was made when, on the urging of Léonard Bourdon (deputy for Gravilliers and thus especially concerned with preempting Jacques Roux), “greniers d’abondance” (grain storage silos) were instituted throughout the country. In times and places of good harvests, surplus grain was to be stored against years of shortage, when it could be released onto the market, helping to lower prices. This “revolutionary” act was more or less identical with one of the standard regulating institutions of the old regime. The only difference was that under the monarchy the provinces had had more authority to act on their own initiative than was now granted by the more paternalist economic Terror.

These measures presupposed, of course, a great network of information about crops and harvests that in turn implied an unprecedented intrusion into the rural economy by the bureaucratic state. Even the Terror had inadequate resources for this enormous exercise in snooping, and very often it degenerated into the sans-culotte armées révolutionnaires, sent to enforce the economic Terror, ransacking villages for concealed sacks of wheat or guarding fields, lest the peasants cut the crop while it was still green rather than surrender it at dictated prices.

Along the same lines, Cambon’s answer to the depreciation of the assignat was to demonetize it, detaching it entirely from nominal values set by the old royal hard currency. In part this action was taken in deference to objections against money still bearing the King’s likeness. But it was somehow hoped that by this crude sleight of hand producers would stop treating the assignat as a fraction of “real” money and so refrain from the inevitable upward adjustment of their prices. It was in keeping with this naive exercise in financial ideology that the Bourse was closed, officially putting out of work the “vile speculators” who infested the money market and unofficially creating an instant black market in hard money. At the same time, the state decided to restore secrecy surrounding decisions concerning the issue of money.

When the next revolutionary journée duly occurred on September 4–5, the orators of the Commune who demanded economic protection and aggressive punishment of malefactors found themselves knocking on an open door. Indeed, an important group of the Jacobins had actually spurred on the “insurrection” by holding a mass demonstration before the Convention on August 23, demanding a purge of nobles in the army, a more inclusive policy towards suspects, and a sans-culotte “revolutionary army” to enforce revolutionary laws in the departments. On the twentyeighth, the Jacobins went so far as to “invite” the Paris sections to petition the Convention for those demands. All the evidence, then, points not to some anonymous and spontaneous movement bubbling up from the militant and the poor, but a carefully cultivated strategy. Though on the second of September Hébert made a specific appeal for the sections to join the Commune in petitioning the Convention, he seems to have been surprised two days later, when crowds of unemployed workers, mostly from the northeast section Temple, forced their way into the Hôtel de Ville.

The Commune’s leaders did, however, turn the opportunity to their advantage. Chaumette got on a table in the General Council to declare that “we now have open war between the rich and the poor” and urged the immediate mobilization of the armée révolutionnaire to go into the countryside, uncover the machinations of the malveillants and the riches égoïstes, liberate food from their clutches and deliver them to republican punishment. For good measure Hébert added that each battalion should be accompanied by a mobile guillotine. This demand, he said, should be taken to the Convention the following day.

Since the Commune had also ordered the closure of workshops, it guaranteed that a large turnout would, as on May 31, surround the Convention. And while Robespierre in particular did not care to share his bench with the “People” he rhetorically embraced from the tribune, the day should not be read as the imposition of sans-culottism on a reluctant and frightened Convention. In fact the occasion was dominated not by the economic crisis but by the shattering news that Toulon had opened its harbor and city to the British fleet commanded by Admiral Hood. This created the atmosphere of patriotic emergency in which Danton and Barère thrived. It was no hard thing, then, to decree that “terror will be the order of the day,” since the Convention and the Committee of Public Safety had a shrewd idea that they would be its executors.

As enacted, on September 5, the armée révolutionnaire was also a long way from being the mass squadrons of republican vengeance. Instead of the great sans-culotte army of a hundred thousand envisaged in the earliest petitions, or the thirty thousand demanded by the Commune, the Convention authorized a force of just six thousand infantrymen and twelve hundred cavalry to operate in the Paris region. (By the end of the year, however, the creation of departmental armies had raised the total number of troops to forty thousand, spread around the country.) It was also deprived of the kind of summary punitive powers Hébert had anticipated. For the Jacobins it was less a matter of launching a republican mission than exporting some of the most troublesome militants to the countryside and applying force to the crucial issue of food supply for the capital, thus disburdening themselves of two of their most intractable problems at the same time.

Following the same tactical route, Danton was particularly inspired in coming up with a scheme that appeared to be surrendering to the militants while it was actually taking the first decisive step to undermine their power base. He understood, perhaps from his own days in the “republic of the Cordeliers,” that those who called themselves sans-culottes and purported to be of the common clay were not, by and large, the wageearning poor. Indeed many of the leading sectionnaires – never more than 10 percent of the adult male population of their neighborhoods – were not even master artisans. They were predominantly petty-professionals, tradesmen, hack intellectuals and journalists, and they had achieved their ascendancy in the sections by sheer relentless assiduousness in the popular societies and the section assemblies as well as by staffing such local institutions as the revolutionary committees of surveillance. Turning their own populist rhetoric against them, Danton proposed ending the “permanence” of the section assemblies and instead limiting meetings to twice a week, when sans-culottes would be paid forty sous a day for attendance. Dressed up in patriotic imperatives this looked like a way to subsidize the participation of the common people in democratic politics. But what the Jacobins had in mind was exactly the opposite: the cultivation of a poor constituency that would be less, not more, susceptible to the Commune’s control. They knew what they were doing. More money for less politics echoed precisely what the hard-pressed wage earner wanted to hear. And if he was slipped a little bonus here and there for spying for the Committee for General Security, or disrupting sections where the Hébertistes were strong, so much the better. All this could be reinforced by the decision (taken in the name of containing “anarchy”) to replace the elected local revolutionary committees with appointed bodies, accountable to the executive committees of the Convention.

Far from being the high-water mark of popular democracy, September 5 was the beginning of the end of revolutionary insurrection in Paris. It was also the end of revolutionary innocence. Instead of being continually surprised by the contingencies and unforeseen consequences of their actions, the Jacobin elite had learned enough to manipulate the language and tactics of popular mobilization for the reinforcement, rather than the subversion, of state power. It was a Faustian moment.

With September 5 behind them, the Committee of Public Safety and the Convention could safely ignore some of the more extreme demands of the Commune. There would be no purge of all aristocratic army officers; the armée révolutionnaire would not have summary powers of surveillance, judgment and punishment, but would be restricted to enforcing the laws of the Convention. A maximum was applied to grain on September 11, and on the twenty-ninth the prices of forty grocery and household items were fixed at no more than one third above their level in 1790. But at the same time, the government equally reserved the right to set a maximum on wages. Predictably, the immediate results of this ambitious regulation were disastrous. As soon as the statutory prices were announced, thousands descended on the shops, picking them clean and thus creating an immediate shortage. Once inventories were exhausted, producers refused to supply new stock, and at least some hungry workers were employed as vérificateurs to make searches of shops, cellars and attics for hidden bars of soap or sacks of sugar.

Ultimately, such institutions as the maximum, the forty-sou subsidy and the armée révolutionnaire should be seen as improvised ways by which the Committee of Public Safety contained the political consequences of hunger. None of them, however, addressed the critical issue of military mobilization. The Revolution, after all, had begun as a patriotic argument about the inadequacies of the French state, and its latest custodians would stand or fall by the verdict of battle. Though later generations would flatter themselves into imagining that the French created a great “empire of laws” in the Europe they dominated for the next two decades, the nineteenth-century historian Gabriel Hanotaux was more accurate in describing it as “an empire of recruitment.” For good or ill, it was as a military banner that the tricolor made its appearance from Lisbon to Cairo.

Of all the innovations of 1793, then, the levée en masse – the creation of a national conscript army – was by far the most important. Its success would determine the ability of the Republic to retake Lyon and the Vendée and to prevent the French rebels from linking up with foreign armies. It also provides another instance of an institution created in a fit of Romantic enthusiasm evolving into a professionally organized and highly disciplined arm of the state. The levée was born in desperation: an attempt to mobilize the population of areas immediately threatened with being overrun by the invader. At Lille in July, for example, a general conscription was proposed so that citizen-soldiers would “fall en masse like the Gauls on the brigand hordes.” In August the représentant-enmission and career soldier Milhaud, memorably painted by David, had the tocsin sounded in the area of Wissembourg in the Moselle. Peasants were given rudimentary drill and armed (sometimes with nothing more than their pitchforks and hunting knives) to fall on the Austrians. “One alone killed seventeen Austrians,” it was reported after the skirmish, “and women threw themselves into the battle with rifles.”

In its original incarnation, then, the levée was meant to be a spontaneous explosion of martial enthusiasm involving large numbers of men, loosely organized and separated from the professional army. It need hardly be said that this version of anarchic belligerence did not recommend itself to the engineers and technologists of the Committee of Public Safety. But it was a nonmember, namely Danton, who in the third week of August tried to put the concept of a conscript army back on the rails by making its expansion strictly proportionate to the amount of munitions, clothing and food with which it could be supplied. The inspiring rhetoric of the Convention’s decree on August 23 was less a prescription for an uncoordinated call to arms than a vision of a militarized commonwealth with every lever and pulley working in perfect mechanical articulation. The language drew heavily on Roman history but the vision was that of Guibert’s total war.

From this moment on, until the enemies have been chased from the territory of the Republic, all Frenchmen are in permanent requisition for the service of the armies. The young men will go to combat; married men will forge weapons and transport food; women will make tents and uniforms and will serve in the hospitals; children will make bandages from old linen; old men will present themselves at public places to excite the courage of the warriors, to preach hatred of kings and the unity of the Republic.

All bachelors and childless widowers between eighteen and twenty-five were conscripted in this call. There were no restrictions on height, though serious disabilities and sicknesses would disqualify a recruit from service. (The decree naturally provoked an immediate epidemic of mutilations.) No substitutes were officially permitted, although in practice brothers or friends over twenty-five were often allowed to serve in place of a recruit needed to work the farm. The most popular musical of the Paris theater in the year II (and indeed throughout the Revolution) was Au Retour, a melodrama. Even though the hero, Justin, will be twenty-five in three days – and so, overage for the draft – he refuses to wait. “It is today I must obey,” he tells his tear-stained but admiring fiancée, Lucette. He even declines the offer of a young lad, not quite eighteen, to stand in for him, and goes off to war, exchanging cockades with Lucette as keepsakes. “Day and night we will keep it on our hearts,” they warble. At the tear-jerking climax, a screen was lowered from the wings during the verses of the hit song and the whole audience stood to bid the conscript farewell with a chorus of “Au Retour.” Notwithstanding this commendable selflessness, the exemption of married men produced a mass rush into conjugality in many departments. Local authorities had to rule on whether marriage after the decree would be allowed to stand as exemption. Usually it did, and so did marriage to a pregnant fiancée, even if the conception had postdated the decree. In keeping with Rousseauean doctrine on the sacred nature of the family, “It is not the legal condition but the act of paternity which constitutes marriage.”

The vast majority of the recruits were, of course, peasants, and it was with this in mind that the Convention, in July, finally abolished, without compensation, the last vestiges of the seigneurial regime. Official propaganda tried to sweeten the serious loss of manpower to family farms that conscription represented by explaining that the armies of the Republic were defending the peasants’ own interest. Should they lose the war, they could expect to see the return of the seigneurial regime, the priestly tithe and all manner of taxes which had been abolished by the Revolution, not to mention those parasites the bailiffs and stewards who had tabulated their services and evicted the delinquents. Worse still the “anthropophagi” (a favorite term in the year II for counterrevolutionaries) would exact a terrible revenge, seizing the peasants’ property, enslaving or abducting their wives and daughters, cutting off the hands of anyone who had planted a liberty tree, ripping apart pregnant women.

This rather bleak picture of the penalties of defeat must have impressed many of the rural population to whom it was addressed. For while there were anticonscription riots in the Finistère, the Vosges, the Tarn, and the Ariége, none of them threatened to develop into “little Vendées.” Though the most recent historian of the lévee, J-P Berthaud, cautions about the difficulty of even guessing desertion and no-show rates, he estimates that these first waves of conscription probably raised some three hundred thousand men for the Republic. That was considerably less than the half million required by the Committee of Public Safety, but it was an extraordinary accomplishment nonetheless. During the autumn of 1793 villages and small towns throughout France witnessed the same sad ceremonies of departure. Two or three days after the Convention’s proclamation had been publicly read and posted, a local commission would publish a list of men of draft age who were called and of those exempted. Weapons would be requisitioned and hastily adapted to take bayonets, and the little troop would move off under a temporarily appointed officer to the sound of drums, the crying of women, and the singing of the “Marseillaise.” Small children would run alongside the line of un-uniformed men, waving little tricolor flags until the men disappeared over a hill towards the town where they would join other detachments bound for the brigades.

Once in camp, they would be subject to the competing influences of the professional amalgame, designed to integrate them with the regular troops of the line, and sans-culotte officers who wanted to keep them politically pure. The latter goal was helped by the fact that the Ministry of War remained an Hébertiste fief until quite late in 1793 and even took upon itself the spending of over a hundred thousand livres to distribute copies of the Père Duchesne gratis to the soldiers. Some units, in particular those serving in the Vendée, where the Hébertiste commanders were powerful, were even subjected to political lectures or given time off to attend meetings of the local Jacobin club, events from which many undoubtedly slipped away towards the nearest hostelry. Some commanders, among them General Houchard, insisted on wearing their liberty hats during councils of war (a gesture that did not spare Houchard from the guillotine), and for a while there was a movement to have officers elected for a specific term and then rotated amongst other men of the ranks. Should citizen-soldiers wish to write to their senior officers, they could begin their letter “Salut et fraternité, from your equal in rights.”

This could not last. The amalgame, which combined forty conscript companies with twenty companies of the line in a single half-brigade, gradually came to exert its influence in professionalizing the recruits. Increasingly too, military discipline was restored by the intervention of représentants-en-mission and such members of the Committee of Public Safety as Prieur de La Marne and Carnot, who in their own right showed a remarkable grasp of the elements of strategy. The young Saint-Just, who made several trips to the Belgian front, was capable of draconian acts of punishment if he discovered looting or other acts of military disorder on which his excessively tidy mind frowned. More than once he had delinquent officers cashiered and shot in front of their own troops, pour encourager les autres.

All these efforts would have been in vain had not the government, at the same time, managed to supply its massively increased manpower with arms, food and clothing. Despite Danton’s sensible warnings, it seems plain that recruitment did in fact run ahead of supplies; in the Vendée, in particular, the bleus were often much less well-equipped than their enemies, who had come off the farms and lacked the most basic necessities – especially, and most crucially, decent shoes (not to mention boots). By midautumn, however, the revolutionary state had committed itself to an all-out mobilization of resources that would not be seen again in Europe until the twentieth century. Advisory committees were formed from the chemists, engineers, and mathematicians who like Monge, Berthollet and Chaptal were ardent revolutionaries. The great metallurgical factories of Le Creusot and others at Charleville in the Vosges were effectively transformed into state enterprises turning out cannon, rifle, ball and shot to government specifications and contracts. Church bells from all over France were removed and taken to the foundries, some of them arriving at the open-air forges that had been set up in public parks in Paris, at the Invalides and the gardens of the Tuileries and the Luxembourg. By the spring of 1794 three thousand workers were producing seven hundred guns a day and, according to Bertrand Barère, six thousand workshops were busy making gunpowder.

Finally, Robert Lindet’s provisioning agency, the Commission des Subsistances, working with what by the standards of the time was an enormous staff of over five hundred, used whatever authority or force was necessary to feed the armies. Inspirational propaganda was in order here too, with part of the Tuileries dug up and turned over to potatoes. In theory, at least, the soldiers of the Republic were entitled to a ration consisting of a pound and three quarters of bread, together with a few ounces of meat, beans or some other dried vegetable and wine or ale. If they were lucky they might get an onion and a slab of cheese, and where there was no brandy, gin or tobacco to start the day, the officers could expect trouble.

By the autumn of 1793 this enormous but still disjointed military machine had begun to make its force felt on several fronts. General Carteaux defeated the Marseillais army on August 25 and entered the city; those federalist leaders who could escape in time fled to Toulon. The siege of Lyon had begun early in August but it took two months before the military noose tightened enough to force the capitulation of the starving city on October 9. On the northern fronts the British advance was halted at Hondschoote on September 8 and the Austrians at Wattignies on October 16. Perhaps most important of all, the Vendéan armies had suffered their most serious defeat at Cholet on October 17.

This recovery was substantial enough to persuade the Convention and its committees that the Republic had come through its baptism of fire. Some of the Jacobins, notably Danton and Desmoulins, now saw no reason not to relax somewhat the institutional coercion of the Terror. Through journalism and oratory they created an “Indulgent” policy that was designed to resist show trials of Marie-Antoinette and the Girondins and work for a new elected legislature and a negotiated peace, based on the frontiers of 1792, with the Coalition powers.

After some initial success they were overwhelmed by a solid phalanx of opponents. Their most implacable adversaries were Hébert, Chaumette, Hanriot and the leaders of the Commune together with their supporters in the popular societies of the sections. Within the Committee of Public Safety, the “Indulgent” policy was opposed not only by its two most fanatically punitive members – Collot d’Herbois and Billaud-Varennes, who had been co-opted on September 5 – but also by more bureaucratically minded members such as Carnot and the Prieurs, who thought it dangerously imprudent to loosen the Terror just at the point at which it seemed to have rescued the Republic from disaster.

On October 10 Saint-Just came before the Convention to issue a report in the name of the Committee of Public Safety on the “troubles affecting the state.” He took the righteously self-scrutinizing line of declaring that the people had only one enemy, namely the government itself, infected as it was with all sorts of spineless, corrupt and compromised creatures of the old regime. The remedy was unremitting austerity of purpose, implacable punishment for the backsliders and the hypocrites. The charter of the Terror – the Law of Suspects, enacted on September 17, which gave the Committee and its representatives sweeping powers of arrest and punishment over extraordinarily broad categories of people defined as harboring counter-revolutionary designs – should be applied with the utmost rigor. “Between the people and their enemies there can be nothing in common but the sword; we must govern by iron those who cannot be governed by justice; we must oppress the tyrant… It is impossible for revolutionary laws to be executed unless the government itself is truly revolutionary.”

A new Sparta was needed. Citizens must be ever vigilant; the representatives on mission must be the “fathers and friends of the soldier,” sleeping in the same tent, sharing their food, frugal and inflexible. The Republic had to be terrible if it was to prevail, and those who governed must never, ever relax their guard. “Those who would make revolutions in the world,” said Saint-Just, the very clay from which Leninism was to be shaped, “those who want to do good in this world must sleep only in the tomb.”

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