Modern history


The Politics of Turpitude


“I know nothing so cruel as to wake up in a prison cell, in a place where the most horrible dream is less horrible than reality.” From his eminence as a minister of the Napoleonic Empire, Jacques-Claude Beugnot looked back with horror and loathing on his months spent in the Conciergerie at the end of 1793. In retrospect he was also amazed that he had survived, when so many hundreds of others, arrested on the flimsiest of pretexts, had exited by tumbril for their appointment with the guillotine.

More than fifty places of detention operated in Paris during the Terror. The September 17 Law of Suspects had made the criteria for arrest so elastic that it had swollen the prison population to around seven thousand by early December. Even allowing for serious overcrowding, the number of prisoners so exceeded the available space that major new sites were found to specialize in political detainees. Some of them, like the old headquarters of the Farmers-General (a batch of whom would be guillotined in the spring) and the splendid Palais de Luxembourg, might have been requisitioned with poetic justice in mind. Available room, however, was the major consideration; barracks, convents, schools and the famous Jansenist seminary and library of Port-Royal (renamed Port-Libre) were all converted to places of incarceration.

Of all these prisons, the Conciergerie, on the Ile de la Cité, had the most sinister reputation (though the dank unhealthy Sainte-Pélagie ran it a close second). Beugnot called it “a vast antechamber of death,” since it not only acted as a holding center before arraignment and a place of confinement for common criminals, but was also the temporary lodging of those awaiting their execution after sentence. Beugnot often lay awake at nights listening to sobbing and moaning, indistinguishably coming from the sick and the terrified, while the prison’s many dogs barked at the gloomy clock-tower bells chiming the hours.

Even by the standards of the time, the Conciergerie was a wretched hole, a place which managed to engender phenomenal squalor within imposing architectural precincts (for it too was a former princely residence). As another of its inmates who survived to tell his story, the journalist Claude-François Beaulieu, reported, many of the prisoners compared it to one of the lower circles of Dante’s Inferno, a house of vermin, smelling of sickness and ordure. On admission, Beugnot shared his fifteen-foot-square cell (one of the larger rooms) with a forty-year-old man who was accused of murdering his mother and whom Beugnot suspected of being a lunatic, and a more amiable young forger “from the aristocracy of crime.” Not everyone was so badly off. Wealthier prisoners (like Marie-Antoinette) were accommodated à la pistole, which is to say they could afford a bed at the rate of twenty-seven livres, twelve sous for the first month. Since this sum was payable in advance, the increasingly brisk turnover supplied by the Revolutionary Tribunal made it a major source of income for the prisons. At Sainte-Pélagie, the first question put to incoming prisoners was “As-tu de la sonnette?” (Have you the chinking stuff?). Those who did not (the vast majority) slept à la paille, on straw, in tiny cachots, deprived of air and water, with no place to relieve themselves except the floor. After a while prisoners ceased to care, sleeping by and in their own excrement, covered with lice and open sores. To vary the routine they could walk together under the ogival vaults of the long, somber corridor known as the “rue de Paris,” watch the scuttle of rats and exchange gossip about the latest admissions.

There was, however, one moment during the day to which all the male prisoners looked forward. Around noon, the women came down from the quarters à la pistole on the second floor to an open courtyard where, as best they could, they washed their clothes and themselves. Through a grille the men were able to exchange conversation, admire the women’s desperately kept-up appearances and even flirt a little. At the meal that followed, the men sat on benches placed directly beside those of the women, with only the barred partition separating them, so that at least for a short time they had the illusion of companionability. It was at one of these times that Beugnot discovered “Eglé.” She was busy berating the sixty-six-year-old Duc du Châtelet, the ex-commander of thegardes françaises, for losing his composure, telling him in no uncertain terms that carrying on so was unworthy of a duke. Her disapproval of his collapse of dignity suggested to Beugnot that she must have been a woman of quality.

In fact, Eglé was a prostitute, who had lived for the past two years on the rue Fromenteaux. Her trade may have suffered from the Revolution: on the streets she worked, she took every opportunity of announcing her dislike for the new order. As the result of these tirades she had been denounced, arrested with a friend in the same line of trade and brought to the Conciergerie. Her primitive royalism was so passionate and so pithily expressed that, according to Beugnot, Chaumette had had the inspired notion of bringing the two girls to trial at the same time as Marie-Antoinette. To the procureur of the Commune, the spectacle of three whores sharing the same tumbril would provide an eloquent symbolic statement of the sans-culotte view of the ex-queen. The idea was, of course, too outrageous for the Revolutionary Tribunal. But though the Queen and the street whore did not share the same cart, their fates remained entangled since, three months after Marie-Antoinette’s beheading, when Eglé’s indictment was read, it was found to contain an article accusing her of “conspiratorial relations” with the Queen. Eglé cheerfully confessed to her unrepentant royalism but, Beugnot reported, when the interrogator came to her “plot,” she shrugged her shoulders and replied ironically, “That’s just fine, and ma foiyou certainly show some wit, but me, accomplice of the person you call widow Capet and who was very much the Queen, me who earned my living on street corners and would never have even made the humblest maid in her kitchen; that’s really worthy of a bunch of crooks and imbeciles like you.” Strangely enough, the audacity of this outburst led one of the jury to declare that she must be drunk. Her friend seized her only real chance for clemency by confessing herself pregnant (and therefore protected from the guillotine). Eglé, on the other hand, insisted that not only was she neither drunk nor pregnant but meant every word she said, and was duly condemned to death – but not before accusing of being a thief the judge who ordered the confiscation of her property. When the time came, “she leapt on to the tumbril,” says Beugnot with gallant romanticism, “like a bird.” She may have been “the prostitute Catherine Albourg” mentioned in the official list of the condemned as being guillotined on December 12.

There is no way of substantiating Beugnot’s account of Chaumette’s scheme. But given the violence of feeling against the Queen in Paris, it does not seem all that farfetched. Since the Dantoniste Committee of Public Safety had shown some reluctance in bringing her to trial in the spring and summer, Hébert was using the issue as a stick with which to beat them for “modérantisme,” the latest sin in the revolutionary catechism. With the change in policy and personnel in July, a process of systematic degradation and dehumanization got under way. Reports were leaking out of Marie-Antoinette’s tenderness as a mother to her son and daughter, both of whom were frequently sick and whom she tended with great devotion. The corrective was to separate her from the seven-year-old Louis-Charles, who was henceforth to be a ward of the Republic. After an hour of desperate weeping and pleading, he was taken down to a room immediately below the Queen’s where she could hear him sobbing for days on end. His education, over which, following Louis’ example, she had taken the greatest pains, was now given to a semiliterate shoemaker named Simon, who was himself later guillotined. Already sickly and possibly suffering, like his elder brother before him, from tuberculosis, the boy, after his mother and aunt’s death, would be treated like a caged animal, living in darkness and filth and dying sometime in 1795.

To preempt possibilities of escape as well as to sustain the intensity of her humiliation, Marie-Antoinette was then parted from what was left of her family. She was awoken in the middle of the night of August 2 and taken from the Temple to the Conciergerie, where she occupied a room about eleven feet by six feet off the main ground-floor corridor and directly next to the two gendarmes who were responsible for guarding her at all times. At the end of the month a halfhearted attempt at rescue was made but was aborted when one of the guards panicked and led her back to the cell. On the twelfth of October, thin and wasted, she was taken to the nearby Tribunal for interrogation. Hébert had prepared public opinion by stepping up his invective in the Père Duchesne. Thus she was commonly referred to as a ravening beast – the “Austrian she-wolf” or the “arch-tigress,” a “monster who needed to slake her thirst on the blood of the French… [who] wanted to roast alive all the poor Parisians… who caused the massacre at Nancy of the first soldiers for liberty” and so on. Even if she had not committed all these atrocities, Heábert wrote (echoing Saint-Just’s remark, “One cannot reign innocently”), merely having been queen was enough to condemn her, for those who reign are the most deadly enemies of humanity. Since such creatures are by their very nature biologically dangerous, “it is the duty of every free man to kill a king or those who are destined to be kings or those who have shared the crimes of kingship.” In this he was only parroting the general ultraview, expressed, for example, in Sylvain Maréchal’s apocalyptic drama Le Dernier Jugement des Rois (The Last Judgment of the Kings), where the “crowned monsters” (a standard euphemism), in the persons of Catherine the Great, the Emperor Francis II, the Pope, “George Dandin” of Britain and their brethren from Spain, Naples, Sardinia and Prussia were all taken by sans-culottes to a volcanic island, where in the last act they were satisfyingly consumed in a boiling eruption.

Maréchal’s play placed great emphasis not just on the despotism but on the moral corruption of the princes. “Has there ever existed a nation that, at the same time, could have a King and morals?” asks his sans-culotte rhetorically. Before the explosion, the monarchs lose their semblance of pride and fall to their characteristic vices, fighting each other with scepters and crosses, the libidinous Catherine inviting anyone interested to follow her into a cave. This was in direct contrast to the sans-culotte, who, it is explained to an old man who has been exiled to the island, “is a free man, a patriot par excellence… they are pure citizens… who eat their bread by the sweat of their brow; who love work, who are good sons, good fathers, good husbands, good relatives, good friends, and good neighbors…”

The case against Marie-Antoinette (and in fact virtually all of those who followed her to the guillotine during the Terror) was much the same. She was, essentially, impure in body, thought and deed. Her conspiracies thus followed axiomatically from this moral turpitude. In the initial interrogation by Tribunal president Herman, she was represented as an ungovernable wife, forcing Louis, for example, to issue the veto against anticlerical legislation and organizing the flight to Varennes. Like all uncontrollable women she was simultaneously greedy for money and prodigal with it, “passing the gold of patriots out of the country.” The infamous “orgy” of the Swiss guards at Versailles in 1789 was another instance of her lust for domination. One of the forty-one witnesses called against the Queen reported having seen bottles under her bed, which, he said, led him to believe she was intent on making the soldiers drunk.

The testimony on her immoral character culminated in Hébert’s own notorious intervention, and the statement he had induced Louis-Charles to sign, confessing that his mother and aunt had taught him to masturbate and had forced him to commit incest. Some of these exertions had actually injured him, and it was only since he had been removed from their tainting presence, Hébert claimed (in direct contradiction of the truth), that his health had taken a turn for the better. There were other ways in which she had forfeited the right to be considered a good mother. Instead of bringing up her son as a virtuous republican, she had attempted to indoctrinate him with royalism. Proof of that was the damning fact that he was served first at meals, by virtue of his sovereign rights as “Louis XVII.” A Sacred Heart, pierced by an arrow (a gift from Mme Elisabeth, the Queen said – alas for her sister-in-law), the well-known totem of the Vendéan brigands, had been found among the boy’s possessions, indicating that he was being groomed by her to be the mascot of that barbarous horde. Not content with destroying one of the male Capets, she was now determined to do her worst with another. This was all conclusive proof of her “unnatural” character, “féconde” (the word was surely not casually chosen) only in intrigues.

More to the point than all of this were the letters, produced by Fouquier-Tinville, the prosecutor, showing the Queen in treasonable correspondence with the Austrian court at about the time the two countries were preparing for war. But this actually damning piece of evidence was somehow swallowed up in the more generalized character assassination. The jury was told, in effect, that the shrunken, white-haired woman they had before them was a furie, someone who had bitten open the cartridges for the Swiss guards on the tenth of August so they need waste no time in murdering as many patriots as possible. Such animals required swift extermination.

After the inevitable sentence, Marie-Antoinette was taken back to the Conciergerie, where she wept, wrote a last letter to her sister-in-law, confiding the children to her, and changed into a white dress, a plain bonnet and the plum shoes with raised heels that she had managed to keep with her in prison. Prepared for death with her hair cut, she flinched on seeing the open cart, for she had been expecting, or at least hoping for, the same closed carriage that had carried Louis to the place de la Révolution, sparing her the obloquy of the crowd. Sitting erect and gaunt as she was driven through the streets, she was sketched by Jacques-Louis David as an object of curiosity, and only at the very last minute on the scaffold itself did she begin to tremble. This was not enough for the Père Duchesne, who would have liked to have seen much more terror on her face – the kind that would, in fact, be exhibited by Hébert when his turn came to follow her. “The bitch was audacious and insolent right to the very end. However, her legs failed her at the moment of being tipped over to shake the hot hand” (jouer la main chaude) – Hébert’s current favorite nickname for the guillotine. It was, all the same, as his front page announced, “the greatest of all the joys of the Père Duchesne, having with his own eyes seen the head of the female veto separated from her fucking tart’s neck.”

Marie-Antoinette was not the only woman at about this time to be incriminated for conspiring against the Jacobin ideology of obedient wife-mother. The wretched Mme Du Barry, Louis XV’s last mistress, had in fact been absurdly imprudent in trips to London, where she made elaborate arrangements with, among others, the ex-minister Bertrand de Moleville to smuggle her jewelry out of France. But it seems likely that even had she been more careful in these matters, her reputation would have caught up with her. When she was interrogated, it was the spurious Countess of Pidanzat de Mairobert’s Mémoires du Du Barry that the court had in mind, squandering the country’s money on jewels, houses and favorites and in cahoots with the notorious Abbé Terray of unlamented memory. One especially poisonous polemic called her “this barrel of infection; this drain of iniquity; this impure cloaca who not content with devouring the finances of France nourished herself on human flesh on the model of the anthropophagi.”

Mme Roland was not subjected to quite this degree of sexual patho-phobia, but nonetheless, after testifying at the trial of the Girondins, she returned to Sainte-Pélagie smarting at “questions which outraged her honor.” Since her admirer Buzot had been one of the ringleaders of the attempt to raise a federalist rebellion in the Calvados, it seems quite likely that she was questioned about her relations with him. At her own trial on November 8, Fouquier-Tinville had the easy job of simply connecting her to the Girondins, who had already been convicted and executed ten days before. But there was some effort to depict her too as an unnatural wife, someone who had turned her home – a place which by the lights of Jacobin orthodoxy should have been the seat of patriotic domesticity – into a nest of conspiracy. It smacked too much of the salon, an institution with a flavor of aristocratic patronage and ingratiation about it.

In fact, the precise period of these trials marks the stormiest phase of sexual politics in the Revolution. Fights had broken out between the feminist Society of Republican Women and the poissardes over the propriety of women wearing the cockade and thebonnet rouge. Claire Lacombe and other militants believed that women not only should be permitted but ought to be obligated to do this and even sought entry to the National Guard. In late September the Convention had acceded to some of the radical demands about dress, but on October 28 there was a violent encounter between the two groups that ended in ferocious beatings inflicted on the feminists. The Convention then reversed itself and on November 5 ordered the closure of all women’s revolutionary clubs in Paris. The decree came three days before Mme Roland’s trial and execution and two days after that of the actress Olympe de Gouges. The latter had already had the temerity to present herself as a defender of Louis XVI and had compounded that sin by openly advocating federalist solutions and calling for popular referenda to determine the form of government. Even after her arrest on the twentieth of July, she attempted to publicize her direct attacks on Robespierre and Fouquier-Tinville by having friends post them in public places throughout Paris.

Given the efforts expended to represent these women as dangerous deviants from the prescribed norms of domestic life, it is striking how virtually all of them (Jeanne Du Barry excepted) in their parting letters showed themselves models of tender and conscientious motherhood. In her passionate defense of the Queen, Germaine de Staël emphasized her selfless devotion to her sick children and appealed to the women of France in the name of “sacrificed motherhood” to demand that she be reunited with her son. Olympe de Gouges wrote to her son serving in the army, telling him to pass on her own sense of the unjust perversion of the Revolution. And in her touching letter to her twelve-year-old daughter Eudora, Manon Roland reminded her of the deepest bonds that tied them together:

I do not know, my little friend, if it will be given to me to see you or to write you again. Remember your mother. These few words contain all that I can best tell you… Be worthy of your parents, they leave you great examples and if you profit from them your existence will not be without value. Adieu beloved child, you whom I have nourished with my milk and whom I would like to penetrate with all my sentiments. A time will come when you will be able to judge the effort that I make at this time not to weaken [at the thought of] your sweet face. I press you to my breast. Adieu my Eudora.

Husbands, even ones whose wives had taken a lover, were equally capable of dramatic demonstrations of sensibilité. At the time of the Girondin flight north from Paris, Roland de La Platière had gone not to Caen but to Rouen, and had stayed there as a fugitive throughout the summer and autumn. When he heard, first of the execution of the Girondins and then on the tenth of November of his wife’s death, he decided on suicide. A few miles outside Rouen on the Paris road, sitting on the ground against a tree, he leaned hard into his swordstick. The passerby who found him the next day thought he was asleep, until he found a note by Roland’s side which ended with the words “I left my refuge as soon as I heard my wife had been murdered. I no longer desire to remain in a world covered with crime.”

His allies, the Girondins, had suffered through a long and particularly distorted judicial process that had culminated in a notorious effort by Fouquier-Tinville to cut short proceedings. Whenever his smoothly organized prosecutions seemed to be slowing down unduly, or the defense beginning to sway the jury, he had the right to ask them if they “had heard enough to be illuminated” as to the facts of the case and to be in a position to give a verdict. This was all the more urgent in the case of the Girondins, since Brissot and Vergniaud in particular had given a powerful account of their own conduct, refuting point by point the initial indictment contained in a report to the Convention by Saint-Just and later expanded by Amar, for one of the leading members of the Committee of General Security. Its principal thrust was that the group, whatever its outward professions, had always been devoted to royalism and had done their utmost to preserve it.

The key figure in this determination was Brissot, so every effort was made to reveal his own character in as unsavory a light as possible. He was exposed as having been a police spy, something he denied but which in fact had been the case before the Revolution. He was also described as a common forger, having gone to Switzerland at some point to obtain a false passport. From this evidence of a double life in the 1780s it was possible to build a case in which his entire revolutionary career had been a lie, a stratagem for self-promotion; so that while he professed to be, in the title of his journal, the Patriote Français, the reality, according to the act of accusation, was that he had, all along, been an enemy agent. Indeed, at the very moment he had claimed to have been an ardent republican, he had actually conspired to put the Duke of York on the throne of France. Even if he was at times unaware of it, Brissot had been, throughout, the devoted creature of William Pitt’s strategy. “Pitt wanted to vilify and dissolve the convention, they [the ‘Brissotins,’ as they were called throughout the trial] have worked to dissolve the convention; Pitt wanted to assassinate the faithful representatives of the people, they have assassinated Marat and Lepeletier.” Even Brissot’s passionate advocacy of a war was interpreted through the revolutionary obsession with the guêt-apens – the ambush – as a way of drawing France prematurely and gratuitously into conflict with the Coalition, the better to destroy French unity. The British eyed the French empire, Brissot gave them the opportunity to seize it; Pitt wanted to destroy Paris, “they did what they could to destroy Paris.”

The mentality of Jacobin prosecution (like that of all other revolutionary dictatorships) was necessarily holistic. Accidents, contingencies, changes of heart and plans were by definition impossible, ruses presented to distract the inquisitor from understanding the true coherence, the necessary interconnectedness of his enemy’s thoughts and deeds. Just as the pure revolutionary was all of a piece, his moral direction established early in life and unwaveringly pursued, so the counter-revolutionary, however he might attempt to represent his conduct as sometimes haphazard or unplanned, was also all of a piece. All that needed to be exposed, like flipping open the back of a timepiece, was the essential motion of the machine. In the case of the Brissotins this was easy: their motive was shared self-interest. Their stigmatization as a “faction” suggested that all of their revolutionary conduct could be explained as an appropriation of personal power. The selfish immorality of such careers was the precise opposite of true patriotism, defined as selflessness. And the means by which they pursued wealth, vanity and power were, first, the creation of a puppet dynasty and, when that had been ruled out, the dismemberment of France itself into baronial fiefs.

Once the Brissotins’ defense had been cut short by Fouquier’s suggestion to the jury that they might have heard enough, the verdict and sentence were not in question. Nonetheless, the jury’s formal announcement created a moment of extraordinary drama. Brissot’s head fell sadly onto his chest and, according to one of the jurors, Camille Desmoulins started and shouted, “My God I am sorry for this.” While Boileau continued to protest his innocence, Dufriche-Valazésuddenly fell backward off his bench. One of his friends thought he too had been emotionally overcome, but in seconds it was seen that he had stabbed himself with a knife concealed in his papers. He was dead a few minutes later, as blood poured onto the courtroom floor. Miffed at being denied an execution, Fouquier-Tinville demanded that the cadaver be guillotined anyway, along with the rest of the prisoners, and so it was.

Though there was something like an epidemic of suicides among the fallen revolutionaries, the Girondins seem to have been especially susceptible to the poetry of self-destruction. Clavière also took his life and, later, Condorcet, as we shall see, may have taken poison to avoid the humiliation of the Revolutionary Tribunal. Vergniaud had also secreted poison but decided, according to Riouffe, who saw him in the Conciergerie the last night of his life, to share the fate of his friends. The next morning, October 31, they mounted the steps of their cart defiantly singing the “Marseillaise.” It was their own last gesture of fraternité. On the scaffold, Sanson took just thirty-six minutes to cut twenty-two heads, and was remarkably pleased at this further evidence of the efficiency of therasoir national.

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