Modern history


Who can blame the Thermidorians for depicting France as a hecatomb? It was, of course, in their interest to represent the atrocities of the Terror as the special responsibility of Robespierre and his confederates, since the hands of men like Collot d’Herbois, Tallien and Fouché were by no means unstained. Their most useful scapegoat was the prosecutor of the Revolutionary Tribunal, Fouquier-Tinville. Four days after Robespierre’s execution, Fréron (who had been an enthusiast of the Law of Prairial) demanded in the Convention that Fouquier “expiate in hell the blood he has spilled.” After his arrest he was taken to the Conciergerie, where, on learning the identity of the new prisoner, even hardened Jacobins began to bang the walls and shout invective at the “monster.” On trial, Fouquier disappointed those expecting to see the incarnation of evil dissolve in shame and fear before his judges. But twentieth-century readers will recognize an ideal instrument of mass killing in the mild-mannered family man who pleaded that he had always obeyed the law and done his duty. He went to his execution in May 1795 worrying that the wife and children on whose behalf he had worked such long hours would now be threatened with poverty and ostracism. His last letter replicated exactly those of many of his prisoners: “Tell the children their father died unhappy but innocent.”

Even allowing for a good deal of cynicism and hypocrisy on the part of the Thermidorians who encouraged their production, there is no doubt that the outpouring of anti-Terror prints was a genuine expression of relief. In one of the most alarming of these images, Robespierre, dressed as he had appeared at the Festival of the Supreme Being, guillotines the executioner, “having guillotined all of France.” Each of the guillotines that extend behind him like some monstrous forest is labeled for a category of his victims: “L: Hébertistes; O: Old Men, Women and Children; P: Soldiers and Generals”; and so on. At the top of the obelisk bearing the legend “Here Lies All France,” an inverted liberty bonnet has been spiked through and turned into a chimney of cremation.

It is a horrifying and haunting image, and there were many more: of pyramids of skulls surmounted by Robespierre’s own death mask grimacing at the beholder; Marat dancing in hell, surrounded by writhing serpents; a danse macabre performed by a blindfolded France teased by the capering skeleton of Death. They all share a powerful sense of having drawn back from the edge of apocalypse.

The violence did not stop, however, with the Terror. Richard Cobb has written eloquently of the waves of the Counter-Terror, especially brutal in the Midi and the Rhone Valley; of anarchic murder gangs picking off selected targets implicated in Jacobinism. Republican officials; army officers; members of departmental administrations; conspicuous militants of the popular societies; and, in the south, Protestant farmers and merchants – all became prey for the sabreurs of the year III. Corpses were dumped in front of cafés and inns in the Midi or thrown into the Rhone or Saône. In many areas, the Counter-Terrorists would gather together at an inn as if for a day’s hunting, and go off in search of their quarry.

The winter of 1794–95 was almost as murderous, pushing into destitution those already hit by a drought-withered harvest and high prices. With the destruction of the Church, and the slow recovery of its pastoral functions, many of the traditional resources for succoring the needy had also disappeared. At the most bitter point of the cold, in Nivôse year III, the government finally did away with what was left of the maximum and the regulatory controls. The result was desperation and abnormally high mortality, not just in the poorest regions of France but even in coastal areas of Normandy, where frozen harbors precluded the import of emergency grain. In the starving cities, fights again broke out for bread and firewood. Coal became a great luxury and men stood in long lines for a number entitling a family to a ration. In Paris, gangs of men, women and children trudged off to hack at trees in the Bois de Boulogne or the forests of Vincennes and Meudon for their firewood. With all municipal water fountains frozen, the carriers had to go further for their supply and, on reentering Paris, pay steep tolls which they tried to pass on to their customers. The hunger and cold were so extreme that foraging animals – foxes and even wolves – began to appear on the perimeters of cities, looking for sustenance. No wonder that in the winter of “nonantecinq,” artisans began, once more, to look nostalgically back to the Terror, “when blood flowed and there was bread,” in the words of one of the rioters of Germinal year III.

These were short-term miseries. But the damage inflicted by the Revolution went much deeper. Considerable areas of the country – the Midi and Rhone Valley, Brittany and western Normandy – remained in a virtual state of civil war, though the violence now proceeded in a haphazard, hit-and-run fashion rather than by organized insurrection. The great engines of capitalist prosperity in late eighteenth-century France, the Atlantic and Mediterranean ports, had been broken by antifederalist repression and British naval blockade. When Samuel Romilly returned to Bordeaux during the peace of 1802, he was dismayed to find the docks silent and ghostly and grass growing tall between the flagstones of the quai des Chartrons. Marseille and Lyon only recovered as the Revolution receded and the reorientation of the Bonapartist state towards Italy offered new markets and trade routes.

In such textile towns as Lille, many trades went into steep decline. For obvious reasons, all those employed in the métiers de luxe – wigmakers, tailors, dancing masters, teachers, musicians and watchmakers – saw their clientele disappear. But Cobb’s research also showed more popular occupations, like shoemaking, suffering as badly, with the exception of the fortunate few who could land local contracts to supply the Armée du Nord. In the textile industries, manufacturers had been ruined by the maximum, which had forced them to sell at prices well below what they had paid for raw material before the controls were imposed. And given the dependence of weavers on piecework put out to them, the economic hurt would have extended right through the industry. What good was the freedom of the labor market, ostensibly available to them after the abolition of the guilds, if demand had collapsed? It is, in any event, far from certain that all artisans were universally thrilled with their new freedom, since it came with the stringent prohibition against any kind of labor organization in restraint of competition. Here too, at least in some industries, there was a tendency to fall back on the patterns of collective solidarity and organization of the old compagnonnages even when they were legally prohibited. In the heavy industries, such as iron-making, the spectacular opportunities generated by the ever-extending war again only accelerated and reinforced the concentrations of capital and labor and the technologically driven economies of scale that had already been apparent before the Revolution. De Wendel and the other great barons of metallurgy, it cannot be said too often, were by-products of the old monarchy, not the new revolution.

What had the Revolution accomplished to balance these penalties? Its two great social alterations – the end of the seigneurial regime and the abolition of the guilds – both promised more than they delivered. Though many artisans were undoubtedly happy to be free of the hierarchy of the corporations that constrained their labor and reward, they were, if anything, even more nakedly exposed to the economic inequities that persisted between masters and journeymen. Likewise the abolition of feudalism was more in the way of a legal than a social change and merely completed the evolution from lords to landlords that had been well under way in the old regime. There is no question that peasants were thankful for the end of seigneurial exactions that had imposed a crushing burden of payments on static rural incomes. Equally certainly, they were determined at all costs to oppose their reimposition. But it is hard to say whether the mass of the rural population were measurably better off in 1799 than they had been in 1789. Though the redemption tariff for feudal dues had been abolished outright in 1793, landlords often compensated themselves by various rent strategies that deepened the indebtedness of share-cropping métayers. Moreover, the taxes demanded by the Republic – among them the single land tax, the impôt foncier – were certainly no lighter than those exacted by the King. Before long the Consulate and Empire would revert to indirect taxes on at least as onerous a scale as under the old regime. All that they were spared, fiscally, were extraordinary poll taxes, including the old capitation and the vingtième, but this relief was only a consequence of the ever-expanding military frontier. Taxes lifted from the shoulders of the French were now dropped on those of the Italians, Germans and Dutch. When that frontier suddenly retreated in 1814, back to the old limits of the hexagonal patrie, the French were stuck with the bill, which, just as in 1789, they adamantly refused to pay, thus sealing the Empire’s fate.

Was the world of the village in 1799 so very different from what it had been ten years before? In particular regions of France where there had been heavy emigration and repression, rural life had indeed been emptied of noble dominance. But this obvious rupture disguises a continuity of some importance. It was exactly those sections of the population who had been gaining economically under the old regime that profited most from the sale of noble and church lands. Those sales were declared irreversible, so there was indeed a substantial transfer of wealth. But much of that transfer was within the landed classes – extending from well-to-do farmers up to “patriot” nobles who had managed to stay put and actually benefited from the confiscations. Fat cats got fatter. In Pulsieux-Pontoise in the Seine-et-Oise, the Marquis de Girardin’s biggest tenant and neighbor, Charles-Antoine Thomassin, was well positioned to snap up available lots and did so well that he competed with his former landlord for any remaining parcels. There were, to be sure, many regions of France where the nobility as a group lost a considerable part of their fortune. But there were also others – in the west, the center and the south – where, as Jean Tulard has shown, lands that remained unsold could be recovered by families who returned in substantial numbers after 1796. Thus, while many of the leading figures in this history ended their lives on the guillotine, many others stayed put and reemerged as the leading notables of their department. The callow young maître de cérémonieswho wilted before Mirabeau’s wrath on June 23, 1789, the Marquis de Dreux-Brezé, was still the fourth richest man in the department of the Sarthe during the Consulate and Empire. Barral de Montferrat, the ex-president of the Parlement of the Dauphinéwho became mayor of Grenoble during the Revolution, remained one of the great powers of the Isère well into the nineteenth century. In the Eure-et-Loir the Noailles family remained the great landed dynasty; in the Oise, the Rochefoucauld-Liancourts were still among the greatest proprietors, notwithstanding the disasters that had befallen the citizen-nobles of the clan.

By contrast, the rural poor gained very little at all from the Revolution. Saint-Just’s Ventôse laws remained a dead letter and it became harder than ever to pasture animals on common land or gather fuel from the open woods. In all these respects the Revolution was just an interlude in the inexorable modernization of property rights that had been well under way before 1789. No government – that of the Jacobins any more than that of the King – had really answered the cries for help that echoed through the rural cahiers de doléances in 1789.

Likewise, the brutal rupture of religious continuities under the Terror was only a passing phenomenon – though never forgotten in the villages. Liberty hats that had replaced crosses on spires and towers were abruptly removed and destroyed in the year III. The cult of the Supreme Being gradually gave way to open profession of the old faith, often pressed by women, who, in many parts of France, embarked on an angry campaign of reconsecration, forcing juring priests to scrape clean the tongue of anyone who had been polluted by a constitutional communion. Bells began to chime again over the fields and cottages and traditional festivals were restored, even if they had to be celebrated in Nivôse and Germinal rather than December and April.

Had the Revolution, at least, created state institutions which resolved the problems that brought down the monarchy? Here, too, as de Tocqueville emphasized, it is easier to discern continuities, especially of centralization, than any overwhelming change. In public finance, the creation of a paper currency came to be recognized as a catastrophe beside which the insolvencies of the old regime looked almost picayune. Eventually the Bonapartist Consulate (whose finances were administered overwhelmingly by surviving bureaucrats of the old regime) returned to a metallic system based on Calonne’s important monetary reform of 1785 fixing the ratio of silver to gold. Fiscally, too, post-Jacobin France slid inexorably back to the former mixture of loans and indirect as well as direct taxes. The Republic and Empire did no better funding a large army and navy from these domestic sources than had the monarchy and depended crucially on institutionalized extortion from occupied countries to keep the military pump primed.

The Napoleonic prefects have always been recognized as the heirs of the royal intendants (and the revolutionary représentants-en-mission), brokering administration between central government priorities and the interest of the local notability. Without any question that notability had suffered a violent shock during the height of the Jacobin Terror, especially in the great provincial cities, where, after the federalist revolt, they were virtually exterminated. The constitution of the year III, however, with its reintroduction of tax qualifications for the electoral assemblies, returned authority to those who had, in many places, exercised it continuously between the mid-1780s and 1792. As we have seen, in some small towns, such as Calais, where adroit mayors paid lip service to passing regimes, there was unbroken continuity of office from 1789 through to the Restoration. Looking at the department of the Orne, Louis Bergeron has found an extraordinary degree of continuity in the notability, whether measured by income, status or office. Goupil de Prefeln, for example, had been a conseiller du Parlement at Rouen and deputy to the Constituent, and became procureur-général of the Napoleonic court at Caen in 1812. Descorches de Sainte-Croix, who had been maréchal de camp in the old royal army, was now a prefect and baron of the Empire. For these men and countless others like them, the Revolution had been but a brutal though mercifully ephemeral interruption of their social and institutional power.

The Dictatorship of Virtue had also threatened the growing orthodoxy in the reign of Louis XVI according to which public officials ought to have a modicum of professional expertise, and at high levels should make full use of the “modern” professions: engineering, chemistry, mathematics. The great exponent of a state in which science and virtue would be mutually reinforcing, the Marquis de Condorcet, died in abject defeat, escaping from house arrest in Paris in May 1794 and walking all the way to Clamart only to arouse suspicion at an inn when he ordered an omelette. “How many eggs?” asked the patronne. “Twelve,” replied Condorcet, suggesting a damaging unfamiliarity with the cuisine of the common man. He was locked up for the Revolutionary Tribunal but was found dead in his cell before he could be transported to Paris. A choice of legends is available to explain the disaster: exhausted starvation or the more glamorous end of poison taken from a ring. If the latter is true, it would have been in keeping with the rage for suicide that swept through the Girondins after their proscription.

Though the author of the Esquisse du Progrès Humain (The Sketch of Human Progress) had perished, the intellectual elite of the academies continued the colonization of government they had begun in the reign of Louis XVI. The great reforms of higher education that embodied the thought of the late Enlightenment took place under the Directory with the creation of the écoles centrales. And the world of the musées and academies in both Paris and the provinces resumed its intellectual energy free from political intimidation (though not from infighting, since that is in the nature of the beasts) during the 1790s. The councils of state and ministries under the Consulate and Empire were filled with the intellectual eminences of the 1780s. Some had been, en route, ardent revolutionaries; some had not. Chaptal, the royal inspector of mines and professor of chemistry, ennobled by Louis XVI in 1788 on the usual meritocratic ladder, became a Napoleonic minister of the interior. Charles Gaudin, the Minister of Finance, was the son of a Parlementaire lawyer who had worked for the administration of the vingtième tax before 1789. Two ministers of justice, Abrial and Régnier, had both likewise been Parlementaires before the Revolution, had public careers early in the Revolution, survived the Terror and sailed on to power and status in the Directory and Consulate.

What killed the monarchy was its inability to create representative institutions through which the state could execute its program of reform. Had the Revolution done any better? On one level, the succession of elected legislatures, from the Estates-General to the National Convention, was one of the most impressive innovations of the Revolution. They took the intensive debate on the shape of governing institutions in France, which had been going on for at least half a century, into the arena of representation itself and articulated its principles with unparalleled eloquence. But for all their virtues as theaters of debate, none of the legislatures ever managed to solve the issue that had bedeviled the old regime: how to create a viable working partnership between the executive and the legislature? Once the Constituent had rejected Mounier and Mirabeau’s “British” proposal of drawing ministers from the assembly, it regarded the executive not as the administration of the country, working in good faith, but as a fifth column bent on subverting national sovereignty. With this doomed beginning, the executive and legislative branches of the constitution of 1791 simply intensified the war with each other until their mutual destruction in 1792. The Terror effectively reversed matters by putting the Convention under the thrall of the committees, but still made it impossible to change governments except by violence.

The framers of the constitution of the year III (1795) obviously learned something from this unhappy experience. A two-chamber legislature was introduced, elected indirectly from colleges in which property was the criterion for membership. A governing council was in theory accountable to the legislature (as indeed the committees had been). In practice, however, the experiment remained darkened by the long shadow of the Revolution itself, so that factions inevitably crystallized, not around specific issues of government but plans for the overthrow of the state, hatched either by royalists or neo-Jacobins. With the separate organs of the constitution in paralyzing conflict with each other, violence continued to determine the political direction of the state far more than did elections.

But the violence was, after the year III, no longer coming from the streets and sections but from the uniformed army. If one had to look for one indisputable story of transformation in the French Revolution, it would be the creation of the juridical entity of the citizen. But no sooner had this hypothetically free person been invented than his liberties were circumscribed by the police power of the state. This was always done in the name of republican patriotism, but the constraints were no less oppressive for that. Just as Mirabeau – and the Robespierre of 1791 – had feared, liberties were held hostage to the authority of the warrior state. Though this conclusion might be depressing, it should not really be all that surprising. The Revolution, after all, had begun as a response to a patriotism wounded by the humiliations of the Seven Years’ War. It was Vergennes’ decision to promote, at the same time, maritime imperialism and continental military power which generated the sense of fiscal panic that overcame the monarchy in its last days. A crucial element – perhaps, indeed, the crucial element – in the claim of the revolutionaries of 1789 was that they could better regenerate the patrie than could the appointees of the King. From the outset, then, the great continuing strand of militancy was patriotic. Militarized nationalism was not, in some accidental way, the unintended consequence of the French Revolution: it was its heart and soul. It was wholly logical that the multimillionaire inheritors of revolutionary power – the true “new class” of this period of French history – were not some bourgeoisie conquérante but real conquerors: the Napoleonic marshals, whose fortunes made even those of the surviving dynasts of the nobility look paltry by comparison.

For better or worse, the “modern men” who seemed poised to capture government under Louis XVI – engineers, noble industrialists, scientists, bureaucrats and generals – resumed their march to power once the irritations of revolutionary politics were brushed aside. “La tragédie, maintenant, c’est la politique,” claimed Napoleon, who, after the coup d’état that brought him to power in 1799, added his claim to that which had been made by so many optimistic governments before him, that “the Revolution is completed.”

At other times, though, he was not so sure. For if he understood that one last achievement of the Revolution had been the creation of a military-technocratic state of immense power and emotional solidarity, he also realized that its other principal invention had been a political culture that perennially and directly challenged it. What occurred between 1789 and 1793 was an unprecedented explosion of politics – in speech, print, image and even music – that broke all the barriers that had traditionally circumscribed it. Initially, this had been the monarchy’s own doing. For it was in the tens of thousands of little meetings convened to draft cahiers and elect deputies to the Estates-General that French men (and occasionally women) found their voice. In so doing, they became part of a process that tied the satisfaction of their immediate wants into the process of redefining sovereignty.

That was both the opportunity and the problem. Suddenly, subjects were told they had become Citizens; an aggregate of subjects held in place by injustice and intimidation had become a Nation. From this new thing, this Nation of Citizens, justice, freedom and plenty could be not only expected but required. By the same token, should it not materialize, only those who had spurned their citizenship, or who were by their birth or unrepentant beliefs incapable of exercising it, could be held responsible. Before the promise of 1789 could be realized, then, it was necessary to root out Uncitizens.

Thus began the cycle of violence which ended in the smoking obelisk and the forest of guillotines. However much the historian, in a year of celebration, may be tempted to see that violence as an unpleasant “aspect” of the Revolution which ought not to distract from its accomplishments, it would be jejune to do so. From the very beginning – from the summer of 1789 – violence was the motor of the Revolution. The journalist Loustalot’s knowing exploitation of the punitive murder and mutilation of Foulon and Bertier de Sauvigny conceded nothing in its calculated ferocity to the most extreme harangues of Marat and Hébert. “Il faut du sang pour cimenter la révolution” (There must be blood to cement revolution), said Mme Roland, who would herself perish by the logical application of her enthusiasm. While it would be grotesque to implicate the generation of 1789 in the kind of hideous atrocities perpetrated under the Terror, it would be equally naive not to recognize that the former made the latter possible. All the newspapers, the revolutionary festivals, the painted plates; the songs and street theater; the regiments of little boys waving their right arms in the air swearing patriotic oaths in piping voices – all these features of what historians have come to designate the “political culture of the Revolution” – were the products of the same morbid preoccupation with the just massacre and the heroic death.

Historians are also much given to distinguishing between “verbal” violence and the real thing. The assumption seems to be that such men as Javogues and Marat, who were given to screaming at people, calling for death, gloating at the spectacle of heads on pikes or processions of men with their hands tied behind their backs climbing the steps to the rasoir national were indulging only in brutal rhetoric. The screamers were not to be compared with such quiet bureaucrats of death as Fouquier-Tinville who did their jobs with stolid, silent efficiency. But the history of “Ville-Affranchie,” of the Vendée-Vengé, or of the September massacres suggests in fact a direct connection between all that orchestrated or spontaneous screaming for blood and its copious shedding. It contributed greatly to the complete dehumanization of those who became victims. As “brigands” or the “Austrian whore” or “fanatics” they became nonentities in the Nation of Citizens and not only could but had to be eliminated if it was to survive. Humiliation and abuse, then, were not just Jacobin fun and games; they were the prologues to killing.

Why was the French Revolution like this? Why, from the beginning, was it powered by brutality? The question might seem to be circular since if, in fact, reform had been all that had been required, there would have been no Revolution in the first place. The question nonetheless remains important if we are ever to understand why successive generations of those who tried to stabilize its course – Mirabeau, Barnave, Danton – met with such failure. Was it just that French popular culture was already brutalized before the Revolution and responded to the spectacle of terrifying public punishments handed out by royal justice with its own forms of spontaneous sanguinary retribution? That all naive revolutionaries would do, would be to give the people the chance to exact such retribution and make it part of the regular conduct of politics? This may be part of the explanation, but even a cursory look beyond French borders, and especially over the Channel to Britain, makes it difficult to see France as uniquely damaged, either by a more dangerous distance between rich and poor or indeed by higher rates of crime and popular violence, than places which avoided violent revolution.

Popular revolutionary violence was not some sort of boiling subterranean lava that finally forced its way onto the surface of French politics and then proceeded to scald all those who stepped in its way. Perhaps it would be better to think of the revolutionary elite as rash geologists, themselves gouging open great holes in the crust of polite discourse and then feeding the angry matter through the pipes of their rhetoric out into the open. Volcanoes and steam holes do not seem inappropriate metaphors here, because contemporaries were themselves constantly invoking them. Many of those who were to sponsor or become caught up in violent change were fascinated by seismic violence, by the great primordial eruptions which geologists now said were not part of a single Creation, but which happened periodically in geological time. These events were, to borrow from Burke, both sublime and terrible. And it was perhaps Romanticism, with its addiction to the Absolute and the Ideal; its fondness for the vertiginous and the macabre; its concept of political energy as, above all, electrical; its obsession with the heart; its preference for passion over reason, for virtue over peace, that supplied a crucial ingredient in the mentality of the revolutionary elite: its association of liberty with wildness. What began with Lafayette’s infatuation with the hyena of the Gévaudan surely ended in the ceremonies of the pike-stuck heads.

There was another obsession which converged with this Romanticization of violence: the neoclassical fixation with the patriotic death. The annals of Rome (and occasionally the doomed battles of Athens and Sparta) were the mirrors into which revolutionaries constantly gazed in search of self-recognition. Their France would be Rome reborn, but purified by the benison of the feeling heart. It thus followed, surely, that for such a Nation to be born, many would necessarily die. And both the birth and death would be simultaneously beautiful.


On a crisp late September day in 1794, in the Hudson Valley, a young woman sat outside her log house boning a leg of lamb. Above her, the leaves of the oaks and maples had turned to brilliant scarlets and golds, hues of an intensity she could never have seen in France. Though she had been in America for less than a year, she already looked the part of a modest farmer’s wife, her hair cut short and pushed into a white bonnet, her skirts covered with an apron. It was the kind of dress which French girls, cultivated in rusticsensibilité, had labored to reproduce in the 1780s. Now it came, as Jean-Jacques would have said, naturally. The lamb trimmed and boned, she made ready to stick it on the open-air spit, where it would roast for the hour or two that, in the French manner (to the shock of her Dutch neighbors), would guarantee that it was done. As she pushed it onto the iron, a big voice startled her from behind: “On ne peut embrocher un gigot avec plus de majesté” (One could hardly spit a leg of lamb with greater majesty). Lucy de La Tour du Pin looked up to see the famous smile of M. de Talleyrand beaming at her and at his own wit, which seemed not to have been much damaged by the displacement to the New World.

Like so many others – Fanny Burney, for example – she wanted to dislike Talleyrand. Indeed, she felt public decency demanded that she despise him, but she couldn’t. He had known her since she was a child and “talked to me with an almost paternal kindness which was delightful. One might,” she confessed, “in one’s inmost mind regret having so many reasons for not holding him in respect, but memories of his wrongdoings were always dispelled by an hour of his conversation.” Seeing him standing over her in the American autumn, with his friend Beaumetz, was not a complete shock since he had written to her from Philadelphia inquiring where he could find her after one of his expeditions into the interior in search of land to sell to French émigrés. But Lucy had not expected him to look so intact. His elaborate concern not to trespass on her demureness (or at least to offer smiling apologies when he did) was almost an exaggerated version of the elegant politeness she remembered at home, as if in insistence that America could not, in what he called his “old age” (forty), remake Talleyrand. Moreover, the compliment about the gigot betrayed a certain hungry sincerity, so she asked him to return the following day for dinner with her husband.

He was staying in Albany for just two days with an English friend named Thomas Law who had been something in British India and with whom Talleyrand was concocting a trading venture between Calcutta and Philadelphia. If he needs must travel, then why not think globally? Her mentor, General Schuyler in Albany, had told him where to find her and had commissioned Talleyrand to ask the de La Tours du Pin back to dine with him the next day. Since he had agreed to return and Lucy, for all her misgivings, was still obviously greedy for his company, they decided to travel back to Albany together, leaving the children with the maid. Talleyrand and Beaumetz had come from Niagara. Though he notoriously affected indifference to the brutish splendors of the American landscape, in his memoirs Talleyrand would own up to being emotionally stirred by the virgin wilderness; but on the road back to Albany what he and Lucy wanted to talk about was France and the intertwining of their personal and public histories.

They were stories worth telling, full of peril and sadness. Lucy and her husband had found themselves trapped in Bordeaux in September 1793 and had witnessed the antifederalist Terror there. Though it was not nearly as grim as the events in Lyon or even Marseille, the guillotine on the place Dauphiné was still busy and, since both husband and wife were members of families of the military nobility, they had every reason to be frightened. Long lines for bread and meat rations were endured while they watched serving boys take the best cuts and loaves to the représentants-en-mission. Lucy faithfully posted on the door the names of the residents of her house, writing, like everyone else, as illegibly as possible and hoping for rain. Since he was the son of the Minister of War in 1790, de La Tour du Pin’s name was too well known and the revolutionary authorities began to drop ominous hints. Nearing the term of her pregnancy, Lucy found shelter at Canole in the house of her doctor, M. Brouquens, while her husband went into hiding. He was first concealed in a tiny room, barely bigger than a closet, belonging to a locksmith relative of one of their servants. When the man understandably panicked at the fate awaiting those caught hiding wanted men, de La Tour du Pin left and climbed through a back window of his own country house at Tesson, which had been locked and bolted. When a troop of soldiers and revolutionary officers arrived to make an inventory of the property, he was nearly discovered.

They were saved by a combination of gallantry and corruption. One of the two représentants in Bordeaux was Tallien; the other, the more austere and sinister ex-capucin Ysabeau. Tallien’s mistress was Theresa Cabarrus, already famous as a spectacular beauty, who divorced as soon as the revolutionary laws allowed and had considerable influence over her twenty-six-year-old paramour. She had met the de La Tours du Pin only once, at the theater, but was concerned about their fate to the extent that she persuaded Tallien to grant a safe-conduct to the family on the pretext of their visiting their estates in Martinique. (This was only days before Tallien was himself summoned back to Paris to answer Ysabeau’s complaints about unseemly leniency.)

After a nerve-racking departure by river from his hiding place, de La Tour du Pin was reunited with his wife at the house of a Dutch merchant and commercial consul named Meyer. The next day Theresa Cabarrus saw them off from a jetty of the quai des Chartrons, “her beautiful face wet with tears.”

When the Captain seated himself at the tiller and shouted “Off,” an inexpressible happiness flowed through me. Seated opposite my husband whose life I was saving, with my two children on my knee, nothing seemed impossible. Poverty, work, misery, nothing was difficult beside me. There is no doubt that the heave of the oar with which the sailor pushed us off from the shore was the happiest moment of my life.

Bound for Boston aboard the Diana, which avoided French warships with the help of fog, she performed her own revolution. One day, dressing her hair, it seemed to her absurd to go through the elaborate rigmarole of pomades and curls. She took scissors to herself and cut it, “anticipating as it happened the ‘Titus’ fashion. My husband was very angry. I dropped the hair overboard and with it went all the frivolous ideas which my pretty fair curls had encouraged.” The rites of passage continued with her sitting in a half-covered galley boiling haricot beans with the ship’s cook while she tried to learn from him the nature of the land she was going to.

From the moment she laid eyes on it, America was a blessed shelter from the dark storm of the Revolution. Her four-year-old son Humbert understood enough of what had been happening in France to know that the family was running away because men in red hats wanted to kill his father. On board the ship he cried a good deal, “but when from the narrow creek through which we were passing [in Boston harbor] he saw the green fields, the flowering trees and all the beauty of a luxuriant vegetation his joy was beyond words.” For Lucy, New England and New York were more than just asylum. In the affability and simplicity of people she encountered, she saw all the virtues she had been taught to admire: candor, artlessness, thrift and industry. It was as if, in a revolution on one side of the Atlantic, the culture of sensibilité had been forced into a grotesque caricature of the gentle morals it was supposed to embody, while on the other it had been miraculously preserved. Without affecting it, America still had the innocence and spontaneous freshness that had to be legislated in France. To her grateful eyes, the country was a procession of idylls which even her real material hardship could not spoil. At Wrentham, Massachusetts, she stayed at the house of a West Indian planter, where “there were lakes strewn with small forested islands that looked like floating gardens.” At a farmhouse near Albany they dined with three generations of a family that evidently should have posed for Greuze: a white-haired grandfather, a husband and wife, “both remarkable for their strength and beauty,” and children who were the nearest things on this earth to creations by Raphael and Rubens. After lunch the patriarch rose, took off his cap and announced that the company “will drink to the health of our beloved President.”

The inevitable news of her father’s execution only made Mme de La Tour du Pin the more determined to have her own family survive. While they were waiting, first to buy a small farm and then to be able to move into it, she threw herself into the routine of a countrywoman, rising at dawn to feed animals or milk the cows, attend to the cooking or read to the children. Settled in, she transformed a dirty and broken-down house into a hive of activity and was proud of the team of eight cows that produced butter “that was much in demand” in the locality. Once a seigneurial family, the de La Tours du Pin now paid rent, in bushels of corn, to the Dutch patroon Rensselaer. Lucy went about in the blue-and-black-striped woollen skirts and calico bodices of the Hudson Dutch farmwives, shocking La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt when he arrived to pay his respects, though when she had changed to go into town she, in her turn, fretted about his much-mended nankeen breeches.

Every so often, packages would arrive from Talleyrand tracking the route of his peregrinations: some from Maine; some from Pennsylvania; some from New York. They were all godsends: a fat, sweating, Stilton cheese to impress the neighbors; a spectacular lady’s saddle and saddlecloth; a box of quinine when he heard through some roundabout route on the émigré gossip circuit that she was laid low again with tertian fever; and, most precious of all, timely information that her husband’s American banker was about to go bankrupt. A prompt visit from Talleyrand, armed with an expression indicating serious business (not to mention the threat of publicity), extracted from the defaulter the Dutch bills of exchange that constituted the savings of the de La Tours du Pin. When her husband went to Philadelphia to settle the business, she went with him as far as New York, where they joined Talleyrand again at the house of his Anglo-Indian friend Law.

There she met up with Alexander Hamilton, whom she had already encountered in Albany. He had just resigned from the Treasury to repair the family fortunes in a private law practice. Talleyrand was aghast at the idea that government office anywhere in the world should actually make men poorer, but was immediately sparked by Hamilton’s darting inquisitorial intelligence into long discussions of the vices and virtues of the two revolutions. Tea was served on the veranda and Lucy sat with the group of men – Law, Talleyrand, Beaumetz and others who came by, among them Emmery, another ex-deputy of the Constituent – talking politics and history, the caprices of fortune and the follies of men, until the stars came out in the June Manhattan sky.

The enchantment disappeared from America with cruel abruptness when her two-year-old daughter Séraphine, born in Bordeaux at the height of the Terror, died of an intestinal fever. Lucy and her husband attempted to distract themselves with new farm projects, such as harvesting their big orchard for apple cider, pressed and drawn into old Médoc casks. News of political changes in France began to open the possibility of return. Many of her refugee friends, including Talleyrand, had already decided to go, but she had mixed feelings about a return. “France had left me only memories of horror. It was there that I had lost my youth, crushed from my being by numberless, unforgettable terrors.” But she felt she could not stand in the way of her husband’s obvious wish to go back. To arm herself against what she feared would be a new chapter of anxieties, Lucy decided on a public deed: an act of liberation that had no hint of revolutionary terror about it. In a public ceremony she freed her four black servants, much to the displeasure of thepatroon’s steward. In May 1796 the family embarked for France and Mme de La Tour du Pin watched New York harbor slip away, feeling pangs of regret and longing for her small patch of freedom in the Hudson Valley.

Talleyrand, on the other hand, was eager to get back. Germaine de Staël had, as usual, fixed things miraculously. By sheer relentless persuasion she had managed to get Boissy d’Anglas to make a speech in the Legislative Corps insisting that Talleyrand had been unjustly proscribed since he had not emigrated in 1792 but had actually been dispatched on an official mission. Fugitives from the September massacres, in any case, were now to be properly distinguished from craven lackeys of the old monarchy who had fled, tails between their legs, to Coblenz or Turin in 1789. That dependable old hack Marie-Joseph Chénier had used what was left of his stagecraft to make an even more impassioned appeal for the wronged patriot, and the long and short of it was that France awaited Talleyrand: “Citoyen, La France t’ouvre ses bras.” He was never one to spurn a proffered embrace.

For Talleyrand, in any case, America had been primarily a matter of real estate. He appreciated its shelter and had even grown fond of the way in which perfect strangers behaved with disturbing cordiality, as though they had known him all his life. Occasionally he felt they must have been brought up by the tutor of Emile. Unlike Lucy de La Tour du Pin, he had never rated candor, artlessness and simplicity high on his scale of qualities that made life worthwhile. So he affected great boredom on reaching Philadelphia. “I arrived, full of indifference to the novelties which generally interested travellers.” He also was depressed by the grandees of local society turning their back on the sacrilegious rake, just as they had done in London. Worse, Washington, whom he had been eager to meet, would not see him. The French Ambassador of the Terror, Fauchet, had in effect made him persona non grata. As for the Philadelphia Quakers of William Penn’s city, he could see they were, well, honorable, in the way in which Bonhomme Richard was honorable, but behind that mask of virtue there was Benjamin Franklin, which was more, alas, than one could say for many of his fellow citizens. So Talleyrand enjoyed outraging them, parading down Market Street with his limping gait, his black mistress on his arm and his little dog at his heel. His mistress was more to him, however, than someone to shock the burghers. Her house on North Third Street was one of the two places in his American exile he could call home.

The other was a bookshop on First Street, owned by his old friend from the Society of Thirty and the Constituent, Moreau de Saint-Méry. From its back room, Moreau put out a modest publication for the émigré community called Le Courrier de la France et des Colonies, which acted as a journalistic postal service, letting the community know where each of its wanderers had washed up and what the prospects were for return, and allowing them to rejoice at the news of their enemies’ eclipse, especially after the ninth of Thermidor. Chez Moreau, Talleyrand met up with a number of his companions: Noailles, who almost alone of the veterans of the American war had managed to return; Omer Talon, the constitutional Bishop of Chartres; the Marquis de Blacon; and the ubiquitous La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt. At such gatherings they could escape the cramping gait of their awkward English and fly into the garrulous, bubbling French of the salons. Drink and noisy talk would continue deep into the night until Moreau’s wife complained that while it was all very well for them to carouse and bellow until God knows what hour, some people had to be up early in the morning. Often, Talleyrand slept over, surrounded by Moreau’s books and the smell of the printing press, as happy as he could be in exile.

There were, in any case, some aspects of America which appealed to him immediately, not least its potential for making a great fortune at high speed. In the New World he was constantly struck by the great store society set by sheer wealth, and though money for him was merely the means to be liberated from humiliating dependence or to enjoy the pleasures of generosity, these were reasons enough to set about realizing his own American fortune. Not that Talleyrand, again unlike his little farmer Lucy de La Tour du Pin, cared for the approved route of industry and perseverance. The equally authentic American way of speculative adventure was more to his taste. “One of the special characteristics of the revolutions of this century, whether for or against liberty,” he wrote, “is to hold capital captive.” From Panchaud in Paris he had learned the importance of its liberation, and one of the aspects of Jacobinism he most detested was its irrational hatred of the money market. It was typical, he thought, of their utopianism, their hopeless antimodernism, their dogmatic simplicities; and he was not surprised to learn that Cambon’s prescription for arresting inflation had been to close the Bourse.

He, by contrast, would liberate risk capital, making it work for both himself and the interests of his new country (to which he had sworn allegiance in a Philadelphia magistrate’s courtroom). In the first instance, he attempted to float American bank and government securities on the London market. But despite his friend Hamilton’s best efforts, financial conditions in the New World were not yet secure enough to attract a sufficient number of buyers in the Old to make the venture worthwhile. Then he tried buying grain in the primitive futures market, almost as if deliberately defying the ordained economic moralities of the Terror. The land market seemed more promising then either of these enterprises, for northern New England and New York had thousands of acres that might attract investment capital for development. Talleyrand would take a commission on purchases from big vendors – among them General Knox, the Secretary of War, who had large holdings in Maine – or make profits from speculative transfers conducted through such businesses as the Holland Land Company, based in Amsterdam but operating in America through a Philadelphia office. Through Thomas Law he even dreamed up the original idea of selling American lands in India to the great moneyed plunderers of the British East India Company, who would acquire attractive investments while bypassing all the scrutiny (and taxes) they incurred when remitting payments to London.

The historian in search of French capitalism need look no further than Talleyrand in 1794– 95. Educated by a Swiss banker in the 1780s; frustrated by what he took to be the Revolution’s reactionary dogma of economic regulation; liberated in America to play with bonds, futures, land, urban real estate – whatever came his way – Talleyrand the noble, the bishop, the constitutionalist, the diplomat, was also Talleyrand the capitalist: the herald of the modern world.

By an irony which he keenly appreciated, realizing this dream of easy money meant turning himself into a backwoodsman. In the fall of 1794, before the snows set in, he embarked with his servant, Courtiade, and Beaumetz on two journeys of survey and exploration. One took him up the coast of Maine, past Portland as far as Champlain’s Ile des Monts Déserts. The extensive notes he took are largely confined to careful explanations of economic opportunities for agriculture, descriptions of the excellence of the natural harbors to be found at the mouth of the Kennebec, and a damning account of the fishermen whom he chided for their lack of enterprise in seldom going beyond a couple of miles offshore and “dangling an arm over the side of their boat.” Instead of clusters of poor, windswept cottages clinging to the rocks, Talleyrand envisaged a great agricultural hinterland, rich in pasture and arable crops, feeding both itself and the more densely settled regions of Massachusetts.

Bald rock and dense forest provoked in Talleyrand a rationalist, not a Romantic, response. Where the revolutionary sensibility might have swooned at being enveloped in the wilderness, or meditated darkly on the origins of liberty rising from the primeval woods, or gazed in rapture on the crashing waterfalls, the modern entrepreneur in him brooded on what might be done with all this real estate. Even when, as on one instance, he allowed himself to surrender to the beauties of landscape, his thoughts were never far from projects to domesticate it. “There were forests as old as the world itself; green and luxuriant grass decking the banks of rivers; large natural meadows; strange and delicate flowers quite new to me… in the face of these immense solitudes we gave vent to our imagination. Our minds built cities, villages and hamlets…”

At some points, however, the civilization that Talleyrand carried around in his head, and to which he always yearned to return, seemed to be almost swallowed up by American savagery. But every time he was faced with the ghost of Jean-Jacques, he fought it off with the counter-shade of Voltaire. Once he completely lost sight of his servant in the darkness of the forest and had to shout out, “Courtiade, are you there?” Back came the reply: “Alas, oui Monseigneur, I am.” That he should be ceremoniously addressed with his full ecclesiastical title struck both men as so richly comic that their laughter cut through the arboreal thickness like Talleyrand’s civilizing hatchet.

A year later he was ready to go back to Paris. In May 1795 much of his personal property had been auctioned off to keep him going in Philadelphia. Violet soutanes, lace cuffs, spectacular furniture, paintings and drawings all went on the block for niggardly sums which Talleyrand, as an accomplished speculator, bitterly resented. The item which seemed to confirm his reputation was an enormous wardrobe full of exquisite women’s clothing – silks, taffetas, muslins, gowns, hats, even stockings. Had they belonged to Adelaide de Flahaut? Or were they simply an expression of Talleyrand’s excessive sense of hospitality? The sense of personal loss he may have felt over the disappearance of his possessions may have been more acute since he had, by the sheerest luck, been able to return a precious treasure to Lucy de La Tour du Pin. A woman he knew in Philadelphia had shown him a cameo of Marie-Antoinette, curious to know if it was a good likeness. On seeing the piece, he started, recognizing it immediately as belonging to his friend. It had been “entrusted” by the family’s Dutch agents to a young American diplomat for safekeeping and instead the man had kept it for himself. Talleyrand snatched the piece and sent it directly back to its grateful owner.

Perhaps it was this haunting coincidence that made him even keener to return home. On receiving the news of his exoneration, Talleyrand wrote a letter of heartfelt thanks to Germaine de Staël and prepared, somewhat unhurriedly, to leave by a spring sailing. Before his departure, in June 1796, he walked along the Battery ramparts of Manhattan with his old friend Beaumetz, trying to soften the blow of his departure, of his sabotaging their carefully laid plans to make a fortune in India. With his companion relapsed into a strange Romantic silence, Talleyrand had the sudden presentiment that Beaumetz was about to do something violent, something revolutionary: to kill him, to commit suicide or both. He confronted him with this and the miserable Beaumetz collapsed in tears in his arms.

It was pathetic, but these passions could not hold up serious business. His Danish ship, Den Ny Proeve, waited. Its rather forbidding name meant “The New Ordeal.” But Talleyrand embarked feeling confident that he had already weathered more than his fair share of ordeals. What terrors could the Atlantic Ocean hold when he had survived the September massacres?

While Talleyrand tasted American freedom, the Frenchman most honored by the New World was languishing in an Austrian prison. The generation of 1776 had fared disastrously at the hands of the Terror. Kersaint and d’Estaing, the idols of the new navy of Louis XVI, had both been guillotined. Rochambeau had been due to mount the tumbril immediately after Malesherbes but somehow had been overlooked and spent the rest of the Terror in prison, from which Thermidor released him. Biron, Lafayette’s companion-in-arms (the former Duc de Lauzun), had fallen to the Hébertiste offensive against noble generals in the Vendée and he too had lost his head on the place de la Révolution.

While Lafayette was still alive – as were friends of his who went with him to the Austrian lines in 1792, among them the constitutionnels Bureau de Pusy and Mirabeau’s old nemesis, Alexandre de Lameth – their ordeal was nonetheless serious enough. Characteristically it was made worse by Lafayette’s self-righteousness. Unlike Talleyrand the pragmatist, Lafayette invariably believed everything he did to be in strict conformity with particular principles. Even when he had deserted his own army, he told himself that it was not France, but the cutthroats who had made off with it, that he was escaping. This made him a patriot, not a traitor. So when the Austrians and Prussians asked him, first, whether he had brought the “treasure” with him, he laughed in disbelief that they, too, had fallen for the caricature of the émigré according to which everyone who left France had to have done so for the most dishonorable reasons. Then they asked him if he would let them have details of French military strategy, a suggestion he received with indignation.

Since Lafayette seemed determined to behave like a republican, the Austrians thought they might as well treat him like one. An official declaration proclaimed that “the existence of Lafayette is incompatible with the security of the governments of Europe.” The Prussians took charge of him first, taking him to Magdeburg prison, where he was given a damp and airless cell of five and a half paces square. He remained intractable, even refusing personal requests from King Frederick William of Prussia, and so was moved in January 1794 to the fortress of Neisse, where for a few months the French prisoners were allowed the luxury of seeing each other and even receiving an occasional letter.

Some time towards the end of that year, however, Lafayette was handed back to the Austrians like a parcel no one really wanted, for his plight was generating hostile criticism both in America and among Whig circles in Britain. He was taken to Olmütz Castle, a grim moated citadel. There all pretensions of special treatment were abandoned. His possessions were removed, except for a watch and one change of clothing. He was forbidden to see anyone, to communicate with the outside world or his fellow prisoners or to receive any kind of official news on the progress of the Revolution or the war, much less personal news of his family, trapped in France. The jailors were even forbidden to use his name. He was to be a Nonperson, entombed alive in just the way Linguet had written of the Bastille.

At some point, almost certainly in response to hostile publicity relayed by the American Ambassador in Vienna, John Jay, his routine changed. He was now allowed daily walks in the woods and fields, under armed escort. And it was from this small relaxation of his confinement that an attempt at escape was made. Its author was a young German physician, Justus Bollmann, who had been a visitor to Juniper Hall and had been swept off his feet by Germaine de Staël, Talleyrand, Narbonne and the rest. Determined to rescue Lafayette, he befriended the prison doctor and managed to smuggle in letters, to which the Marquis replied either with paper pricked with toothpicks or an invisible ink made with lemon juice, water and soot. At the pre-assigned day, Bollmann had horses waiting just beyond Lafayette’s walking route, but when the prisoner pretended to admire his guard’s saber and asked if he might see it, the soldier became suspicious. A struggle ensued in which Lafayette got away, but only after the guard, evidently an unsporting fellow, had bitten off part of his finger. In pain and panic, he heard Bollmann shout “Hoff,” which he assumed meant, in the broken English they shared, “Get off” or “Go away.” In fact, it meant the village of Hoff, where fresh horses and help had been stationed. Lafayette took the wrong road, and twenty miles away, at the hamlet of Sternberg, he was caught and returned to Olmütz.

There now began the most desperate part of his imprisonment: solitary confinement, barely enough rations to keep him alive, no books. He fell sick constantly, lost much of his hair and grew thin and wasted. The darkness seemed to be closing around his life.

One morning in October 1795, without any warning, the double doors of his cell were opened. In the light that suddenly shone on the cell, he beheld his wife, Adrienne, with their two daughters, Virginie and Anastasie. It was not a trick of his imprisoned imagination. Fantastically, they stood before him, the joy of reunion shattered by his spectral appearance, a ragged skeleton barely alive, gripped by a hacking cough. Adrienne’s determination to go to Austria to find her husband surpassed in its courage and devotion anything that could have been conjured up by the novelists of sensibilité. First she had had to survive the Terror and in fact had been for some time imprisoned in Paris, before Thermidor rescued her from the guillotine. But it was not until January 1795 that, with the help of the American Ambassador in Paris, James Monroe, she was released. She moved into his house and, using his kind offices again, managed to get a visa for herself and her daughters; she had gone to Vienna and secured an interview with the Emperor Francis II. It was thus by imperial writ that she had secured the right to share her husband’s imprisonment.

A bizarre life, at once wretched and consoling, then unfolded for nearly a year and a half. Adrienne and Gilbert shared one wretched cell; the girls, thirteen and eighteen years old, another. The only missing member of the family was their brother, George Washington Lafayette, who was safe in Mount Vernon, being taken care of by his illustrious godfather. It was virtually impossible to re-create in Olmütz the domestic idyll –that obsession of the eighteenth-century citizen-nobility – but the three women tried their utmost. The family ate their horrible meals together from unwashed wooden bowls, but even these little rituals were brutally interrupted by guards who sent the girls away after only ten minutes or so. As Lafayette got somewhat better, Adrienne’s health began to deteriorate badly. Finally, in May 1796, George Washington, who had been restrained by the need to preserve American neutrality, wrote a personal letter directly to the Emperor:

Permit me only to submit to your Majesty’s consideration whether [Lafayette’s] long imprisonment and the confiscation of his Estate and the Indigence and dispersion of his family – and the painful anxieties incident to all these circumstances, do not form an assemblage of sufferings, which recommend him to the mediation of Humanity?

Might he not be allowed to come to America?

Appeals to the humane conscience, however, had little effect on Reason of State. It was only the following spring, when the Austrian armies in Italy were so decisively demolished by Napoleon Bonaparte that they needed to sue for peace, that Lafayette’s condition became a matter for negotiation. By 1797 Talleyrand was back in France; indeed, in the thick of politics. Sieyès and other men of 1789 were once again in positions of power and influence, and Lafayette’s name was no longer an abomination. The French governing the Directory, however, beleaguered by royalists on one side and neo-Jacobins on the other, were not sure they wanted to risk having him back home. His release, along with that of Latour-Marbourg and Bureau de Pusy, was demanded on the assumption he would go to America and on condition he did not travel to France. The Austrian Chancellor, Thugut, at first refused, and it was only because of Bonaparte’s insistence that the release was eventually secured.

On the very brink of freedom, though, as the nervous French consul at Hamburg (where the Lafayettes had arrived) wrote to the new Foreign Minister Talleyrand, the Marquis had raised an issue of principle. The Austrians had consented to his liberation on condition that he sign a document promising never again to set foot in the domains of the Emperor. This Lafayette refused to do, since there was only one country that had “sacred rights” over him, and in the future he would have to go wherever it might decide to send him. In spite of this last adamant silliness, the arrangements for the release went on without him. To Lafayette this was of no concern. He had remained constant to his only abiding faith: patriotism and freedom. To these principles he was resolved to be constant, even when France betrayed them. Indeed, however many times she would betray them, in revolution or reaction, she would find Lafayette still loyal to the spirit of 1790: the man on the white horse with the tricolor wrapped about his body.

For Lafayette, throughout his life, revolutionary memories were a liberation; for Théroigne de Méricourt they were imprisonment.

In the spring of 1793, while speechifying on the Terrasse des Feuillants for the Sociétédes Femmes Républicaines, she had been violently attacked by market-women supporters of the Mountain. They were tired of being lectured to on the duties of citizenesses and detested her attempts to defend the Girondins. Stripped and beaten senseless, she was rescued, some claimed by Marat. Whether or not the stories were true, Théroignerecovered her consciousness but not her sanity. She was taken to a hospital for the poor and the deranged in the faubourg Saint-Marceau. She would stay locked up for the remainder of her life, another twenty-three years, moved from one gloomy hospital to the next, ending up in La Salpêtrière, more a prison than an asylum, where she died in 1817.

Théroigne had been in prison before. In an imprudent journey back to her native Liège in 1791, she had been arrested by the Austrians and treated as though she were a great and important spy. After interrogation in Belgium, she was transported to Kufstein Castle in the Tyrol (where, two years later, the balloonist Blanchard was confined after crash-landing in the mountains, also on the assumption that he was a spy). After more intensive interrogation, the Austrians could get nothing out of her and had to be satisfied with a diagnosis from the prison doctor that she was suffering from “revolutionary fever.”

After her skull had been staved in, that fever returned with all the force of an unstoppable delirium. She sat in a cell, her hair cropped, glaring at the walls. Periodically the black silence that descended on her would be interrupted by a torrent of denunciation in half-intelligible revolutionary phrases: “comitéde salut public,” “liberté,” “coquins.” In the fiercest paroxysms of her dementia she would rage against “moderates.” In a period of relative lucidity around 1808, someone who remembered the belle liègoise of 1789 asked to see her and was immediately accused by Théroigne of “betraying the cause of the people.” He left not knowing how mad she really was.

To some, Théroigne became a source of amusement; to others, a quaint kind of living museum of half-forgotten and embarrassing slogans. Periodically, well-meaning officials attempted to trace her family and wrote to the prefect of the department of the Ourthe for information. The physician and specialist in the insane Esquirol, who was writing a treatise, Les Maladies Mentales, classified her as lypémanique or suffering from a form of manic depression. The autopsy he performed after her death convinced him its cause lay in the irregular alignment of her colon.

By 1810 she had disappeared from the land of the living in all but biological fact. Clothes had become abhorrent to her, so she sat naked in her cell, angrily refusing even the simplest wool dressing gown offered to protect her from the winter cold. On the rare occasions when she emerged for air or to drink from the filthy puddles that formed in the courtyard, she consented, sometimes, to wear a light chemise but nothing more. Every day she would throw cold water on the straw of her bed, sometimes breaking the ice in the yard to get at it, as if only glacial saturation could cool the heat of her dementia. Periodically she was heard, still, to mutter imprecations against those who had betrayed the Revolution.

Oblivious of all visitors, concerned or callous, who saw her, Théroigne, it seems, now lived entirely inside the Revolution and the Revolution inside her. Sympathy seems out of place here, for in some sense the madness of Théroigne de Méricourt was a logical destination for the compulsions of revolutionary Idealism. Discovering, at last, a person of almost sublime transparency and presocial innocence, someone naked and purified with dousings of ice water, the Revolution could fill her up like a vessel. In her little cell at La Salpêtrière, there was at least some-where where revolutionary memory could persist, quite undisturbed by the quotidian mess of the human condition.

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