IV. THE MASSACRE: SEPTEMBER 2–6, 1792

The emotional fever that came to its peak on September 2 took some remote sources of its heat from the swelling conflict between religion and the state, and the effort to make worship of the state a substitute for religion. The Constituent Assembly had accepted Catholicism as the official religion, and had undertaken to pay the priests as salaried employees of the state. But the dominant radicals in the Paris Commune saw no reason why the government should finance the propagation of what it looked upon as an Oriental myth so long allied with feudalism and monarchy. These views found acceptance in the clubs, and finally in the Legislative Assembly. The result was a series of measures that made the enmity of Church and state a recurrent threat to the Revolution.

A few hours after the dethronement of the King the Commune sent to the sections a list of priests suspected of antirevolutionary sentiments and aims; as many of these as could be apprehended were sent to various prisons, where they soon played a leading part in the massacres. On August 11 the Assembly ended all control of education by the Church. On August 12 the Commune forbade the public wearing of religious vestments. On August 18 the Assembly renewed a nationwide decree to the same effect, and suppressed all surviving religious orders. On August 28 it called for the deportation of all priests who had not sworn allegiance to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy; they were given a fortnight in which to leave France; some 25,000 priests fled to other lands, and reinforced there the propaganda of the émigrés. Since the clergy had heretofore kept parish registers of births, marriages, and deaths, the Assembly had to transfer this function to lay authorities. As most of the population insisted on solemnizing these events with sacraments, the attempt to discard the ancient ceremonies widened the breach between the piety of the people and the secularism of the state.28 The Commune, the Jacobins, the Girondins, and the Montagnards all concurred in hoping that devotion to the young republic would become the religion of the people; that Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity would replace God, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, and that the furtherance of the new Trinity could be made the overriding aim of social order and the final test of morality.

The official opening of the new republic was deferred to September 22, first day of the new year. Meanwhile some eager futurists petitioned the Assembly that, as a gesture toward the universal democracy of their dreams, “the title of French citizen should be granted to all foreign philosophers who have with courage upheld the cause of liberty and have deserved well of humanity.” On August 26 the Assembly responded by conferring French citizenship upon Joseph Priestley, Jeremy Bentham, William Wilberforce, Anacharsis Cloots, Johann Pestalozzi, Thaddeus Kosciusko, Friedrich Schiller, George Washington, Thomas Paine, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton.29 Alexander von Humboldt came to France, he said, “to breathe the air of liberty, and to assist at the obloquies of despotism.”30 The new religion seemed to be spreading its branches so soon after taking root.

On September 2 it put on its Sunday clothes, and expressed its devotion in diverse ways. Young and middle-aged men gathered at recruiting points to volunteer for service in the Army. Women lovingly sewed warm garments for them, and grimly prepared bandages for prospective wounds. Men, women, and children came to their section centers to offer weapons, jewelry, money for the war. Mothers adopted children dependent upon soldiers or nurses who were leaving for the front. Some men went to the prisons to kill priests and other enemies of the new faith.

Ever since the Duke of Brunswick’s manifesto (July 25, 1792) the revolutionary leaders had acted as men tend to act when their lives are threatened. On August 11 the public commissioners at the Hôtel de Ville sent a strange note to Antoine Santerre, then in military command of the sections: “We are informed that a plan is being formed for going round the prisons of Paris and carrying off all the prisoners, in order to execute prompt justice upon them. We beg you to extend your supervision to those of the Châtelet, the Conciergerie, and La Force”—three main centers of detention in Paris.31 We do not know how Santerre interpreted this message. On August 14 the Assembly appointed an “extraordinary tribunal” to try all enemies of the Revolution; but the sentences there decreed fell far short of satisfying Marat. In his Ami du Peuple of August 19 he told his readers: “The wisest and best course to pursue is to go armed to the Abbaye [another prison], drag out the traitors, especially the Swiss officers [of the royal guard] and their accomplices, and put them to the sword. What folly it is to give them a trial!”32 Moved with this enthusiasm, the Commune made Marat its official editor, assigned him a place in its assembly room, and added him to its Comité de Surveillance.33

If the populace heard Marat, and obeyed him to the best of their ability, it was because they too were in a fury and tremor of hate and fear. On August 19 the Prussians had crossed the frontiers, led by King Frederick William II and the Duke of Brunswick, and accompanied by a small force of émigrés vowing vengeance upon all revolutionists. On August 23 the invaders captured the Fortress of Longwy, allegedly through connivance by its aristocratic officers; by September 2 they had reached Verdun, and a premature report reached Paris that morning that this supposedly impregnable bastion had fallen (it fell that afternoon); now the road to Paris was open to the enemy, for no French army was on that route to stop them. The capital seemed at their mercy; the Duke of Brunswick expected soon to dine in Paris.34

Meanwhile revolution against the Revolution had broken out in far separate regions of France—the Vendée and Dauphiné; and Paris itself harbored thousands of people who sympathized with the fallen King. Since September I a pamphlet had been circulating which warned that a plot existed to free the prisoners and lead them in a massacre of all revolutionists.35 The Assembly and the Commune were calling upon all able-bodied men to join the army that would march out to meet the advancing enemy; how could these men leave their women and children to the mercy of such an outpouring of royalists, priests, and habitual criminals from the prisons of Paris? Some sections voted a resolution that all priests and suspected persons should be put to death before the departure of the volunteers.36

About 2 P.M. Sunday, September 2, six carriages bearing nonjuring priests approached the Abbaye jail. A crowd hooted them; a man leaped upon the step of one carriage; a priest struck him with a cane; the crowd, cursing and multiplying, attacked the prisoners as they alighted at the gate; their guards joined in the attack upon them; all thirty were slain. Exalted by the sight of blood and the safe ecstasy of anonymous killing, the crowd rushed over to the Carmelite Convent and killed the priests who had been incarcerated there. In the evening, after a rest, the crowd, now enlarged by criminals and ruffians, and by lusty Fédérés troops from Marseilles, Avignon, and Brittany, returned to the Abbaye, forced all its prisoners to march out, sat in a rapid informal judgment upon them, and delivered the great majority of them—any Swiss or priest, or monarchist, or ex-servant of the King or Queen—to a gauntlet of men who dispatched them with swords, knives, pikes, and clubs.

At first the executioners were exemplary; there was no thievery—the valuables taken from the victims were transmitted to the Communal authorities; later the tired laborers kept such trophies as their due. Each received, for a day’s work, six francs, three meals, and all the wine he wanted. Some showed signs of tenderness; they congratulated those exonerated, and escorted the distinguished among them to their homes.37 Some were especially ferocious; they prolonged the sufferings of the condemned for the keeneramusement of spectators; and one enthusiast, after withdrawing his sword from General Laleu’s breast, inserted his hand into the wound, tore out the heart, and put it to his mouth as if to eat it38—a custom once popular in savage days. Each killer, when tired, took a rest, drank, and soon resumed his labors, until all the prisoners in the Abbaye had passed through the street-side court to liberty or death.

On September 3 the judges and the executioners moved toward other prisons—La Force and the Conciergerie; there, with fresh workers and new victims, the holocaust went on. Here was a famous lady, the Princesse de Lamballe, once very rich and very beautiful, beloved of Marie Antoinette; she had shared in plots to save the royal family; now, forty-three years old, she was beheaded and mutilated; her heart was snatched out of her body, and was eaten by a fervent republican;39 her head was borne on a pike and paraded beneath a window of the Queen’s cell at the Temple.40

On September 4 the slaughter moved to the prisons of Tour St.-Bernard, St.-Firmin, the Châtelet, the Salpêtrière; there, in the case of young women, rape replaced murder. Among the inmates at Bicêtre, an insane asylum, were forty-three youths, from seventeen to nineteen years of age, most of them placed there by their parents for treatment; all were slain.41

For two days more the massacre continued in Paris, until its victims totaled between 1,24742 and 1,368.43 The people were divided in judgment on the event: Catholics and royalists were horrified, but revolutionists argued that the violent response was warranted by the threats of Brunswick and the exigencies of war. Pétion, the new mayor of Paris, received the executioners as hard-working patriots, and refreshed them with drink.44 The Legislative Assembly sent some members to the Abbaye scene to recommend due process of law; they returned to report that the massacre could not be stopped; finally the Assembly leaders—Girondins as well as Montagnards—agreed that the safest attitude was one of approval.45 The Commune sent representatives to share in the task of the extempore judges. Billaud-Varenne, deputy attorney for the Commune, joined the scene at the Abbaye, and congratulated the killers: “Fellow citizens, you are immolating your enemies; you are performing your duty.”46 Marat proudly took credit for the entire operation. At her trial a year later Charlotte Corday, asked why she had killed Marat, answered, “Because it was he who caused the massacres of September.” Challenged for proof, she replied, “I can give you no proof; it is the opinion of all France.”47

When Danton was asked to stop the slaughter he shrugged his shoulders; “it would be impossible,” he argued; and “why,” he asked, “should I disturb myself about those royalists and priests, who were only waiting the approach of foreigners to massacre us? … We must put our enemies in fear.”48 Secretly he withdrew from the prisons more than one of his friends, and even some of his personal enemies.49 When a fellow member of the Executive Council protested against the killings Danton told him, “Sit down. It was necessary.”50 And to a youth who had asked, “How can you help calling it horrible?” he answered, “You are too young to understand these matters…. A river of blood had to flow between the Parisians and the émigrés.”51 The Parisians, he thought, were now pledged to the Revolution. And those volunteers who were leaving to meet the invaders knew now that they could expect no mercy if they surrendered. They would in every sense be fighting for their lives.

September 2 was also the day on which the Legislative Assembly, feeling that the turn of events had made a ruin of the constitution which it had been chosen to implement, voted to call a national election for a Convention that would draw up a fresh constitution suited to the new condition of France and the rising demands of the war. And since peasants, proletaires, and bourgeois alike were being called to defend a country called theirs, it seemed intolerable that any of these, taxpayers or not, should be kept from the ballot box. So Robespierre won his first major victory: the Convention in which he was to be a major figure was chosen by manhood suffrage.

On September 20 the Legislative Assembly ended its last session, not knowing that on that day, at a village called Valmy, between Verdun and Paris, a French army under Dumouriez and François-Christophe Kellermann had met the professional troops of Prussia and Austria under the Duke of Brunswick, and had fought them to a draw—in effect a victory, since after the battle the King of Prussia ordered his battered regiments to retreat—abandoning Verdun and Longwy—from French territory. Frederick William II could not afford to be bothered with distant France now that he was competing with his neighbors Russia and Austria to see which would take the biggest bite in partitioning Poland; moreover, his soldiers were suffering disgracefully from diarrhea inflicted by the grapes of Champagne.52

It was at that battle that Goethe, present on the staff of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, made (we are told) a famous remark: “From today and from this place begins a new epoch in the history of the world.”53

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