1. Morality and Law

Having discarded the religious basis of morals—love and fear of a watchful, recording, rewarding, and punishing God, and obedience to laws and commandments ascribed to him—the liberated spirits of France found themselves with no defense, except through the ethical echoes of their abandoned creeds, against their oldest, strongest, most individualistic instincts, ingrained in them by primitive centuries of hunger, greed, insecurity, and strife. Leaving the Christian ethic to their wives and daughters, they cast about for a new conception that might serve as a moral anchor in a sea of turbulent individuals who feared nothing but force. They hoped to find this in civisme—citizenship in the sense of accepting the duties as well as the privileges of belonging to an organized and protective society; in every moral choice the individual, in return for that protection and many communal services, must recognize the good of the community to be the overriding law—salus populi suprema lex. It was a noble attempt to establish a natural ethic. Going back across Christian centuries, the philosopher deputies—Mirabeau, Condorcet, Vergniaud, Roland, Saint-Just, Robespierre—discovered in classical history or legend the models they sought: Leonidas, Epaminondas, Aristides, the Brutuses, Catos, and Scipios; these were men to whom patriotism was the sovereign obligation, so that a man might righteously kill his children or his parents if he thought it necessary for the good of the state.

The first round of revolutionaries fared reasonably well with the new morality. The second round began on August 10, 1792: the Paris populace deposed Louis XVI, and assumed the irresponsible absolutism of power. Under the Old Regime some graces of the aristocracy, some touches of the humanitarianism preached by philosophers and saints, had mitigated the natural tendencies of men to despoil and attack one another; but now there followed, in macabre procession, the September Massacres, the execution of the King and the Queen, and the spread of the Terror and the guillotine in what one victim, Mme. Roland, described as “a vast Golgotha of carnage.”14 The Revolutionary leaders became profiteers of war, making the liberated regions pay liberally for the Rights of Man; the French armies were told to live on the conquered regions; the art treasures of the liberated or the defeated belonged to victorious France. Meanwhile legislators and army officers connived with suppliers to cheat the government and the troops. In thelaissez-faireeconomy, producers, distributors, and consumers labored to mulct one another, or to evade the maximum allowable price or wage. These or analogous deviltries had of course existed for some millenniums before the Revolution; but in the attempt to control them the new morality of civisme seemed as helpless as the fear of the gods.

As the Revolution increased the insecurity of life and the instability of laws, the rising tensions in the people expressed themselves in crime, and sought distraction in gambling. Duels continued, but less frequently than before. Gambling was forbidden by edicts of 1791 and 1792, but secret maisons de jeu multiplied, and by 1794 there were three thousand gambling houses in Paris.15 During the upper-class affluence of the Directory years men wagered large sums, and many families were ruined by the turn of the wheel. In 1796 the Directory entered the game by restoring the Loterie Nationale. In a petition to the Convention the Tuileries section of the Paris Commune asked for a law suppressing all gambling houses and brothels. “Without morals,” it argued, “there can be no law and order; without personal safety, no liberty.”16

The Revolutionary governments labored to give a new system of laws to a people excitable, violent, and left morally and legally unmoored by the decline of faith and the death of the King. Voltaire had called for a total revision of French law, and a unifying reconciliation of the 360 provincial or district codes into one coherent digest for all of France. That call was not heard amid the uproar of revolution; it had to wait for Napoleon. In 1780 the Academy of Châlons-sur-Marne offered a prize for the best essay on “The Best Way of Mitigating the Harshness of French Penal Law Without Endangering Public Safety.”17 Louis XVI responded by abolishing torture (1780), and in 1788 he announced his intention to have all French criminal law revised into a consistent national code; moreover, “we shall seek all means of mitigating the severity of punishments without compromising good order.” The conservative lawyers then dominating the parlements of Paris, Metz, and Besançon opposed the plan, and the King, fighting for his life, laid it aside.

The cahiers presented to the States-General of 1789 appealed for several legal reforms: trials should be public, the accused should be allowed the help of counsel, lettres de cachet should be banned, trial by jury should be established. In June the King announced an end to lettres de cachet, and the other reforms were soon made law by the Constituent Assembly. The jury system, which had existed in medieval France, was restored. The legislators were now sufficiently immune to ecclesiastical influence, and alert to business needs, to proclaim, October 3, 1789 (centuries after the fact), that the charging of interest was not a crime. Two laws of 1794 freed all slaves in France and her colonies, and gave Negroes the rights of French citizens. On the ground that “an absolutely free state cannot allow any corporation within its bosom,” diverse laws of 1792–94 forbade all fraternities, academies, literary societies, religious organizations, and business associations. Strangely enough, the Jacobin clubs were spared, but labor unions were forbidden. The Revolution was rapidly replacing the absolute monarch with the omnipotent state.

The diversity of old legislation, the enactment of new laws, and the growing complexity of business relations fostered the multiplication of lawyers, who now replaced the clergy as the first estate. Since the dissolution of the parlements they were not formally organized, but their knowledge of the law in all its loopholes, and of legal procedure in all its devices and delays, gave them a power which the state—itself a conglomerate of lawyersfound it hard to control. Citizens began to protest against the law’s delays, the subtleties of attorneys, and the expensive legislation that made exasperatingly unreal the equality of all citizens before the courts.18 The successive assemblies tried various measures to reduce the number and the power of the attorneys. In a fury of antilawyer laws they suppressed notaries (September 23, 1791), closed all schools of law (September 15, 1793), and decreed (October 24, 1793): “The office of attorney-at-law is abolished, but litigants may empower mere mandatories to represent them.”19 These regulations, often evaded, remained on the books until Napoleon reinstated the attorneys on March 18, 1800.

The Revolution made better headway in reforming the criminal code. Procedure was made more public; there was to be an end (for a while) to secrecy of examinations and anonymity of witnesses. Prisons ceased to be prime instruments of torture; in many prisons the inmates were allowed to bring in books and furniture, and to pay for imported meals; persons jailed as suspects, but not yet convicted, might visit one another, play games,20 and at least play at love; we hear of some warm affairs, like that of prisoner Josephine de Beauharnais with prisoner General Hoche. The Convention, which had sanctioned hundreds of executions, announced at its final session (October 26, 1795): “The penalty of death will be abolished throughout the French Republic from the day of the proclamation of peace.”

Meanwhile the Revolution could claim that it had improved the method of capital punishment. In 1789 Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, member of the States-General, proposed to replace the hangman and the axe man with a massive mechanical blade whose fall would separate a man from his head before he had any time to feel physical pain. The idea was not new; it had been used in Italy and Germany since the thirteenth century.21 After some experimental use of the doctor’s knife on dead bodies, the “guillotine” was erected (April 25, 1792) in the Place de Grève (now the Place de la Hôtel de Ville) and then elsewhere, and executions were accelerated. For a time they attracted large crowds, some of them merry, and including women and children;22 but soon they were so frequent that they became a negligible commonplace; “people,” reported a contemporary, “just went on working in their shops when the tumbrils passed, not even bothering to raise their heads.”23 Lowered heads lasted longest.

2. Sexual Morality

Between the tumbrils, among the ruins, love and venery survived. The Revolution had neglected the hospitals, but there, and on battlefields and in the slums, charity eased pain and grief, goodness countered evil, and parental affection survived filial independence. Many sons wondered at parental inability to understand their revolutionary ardor and new ways; some of them threw off the old moral restraints, and became careless epicureans. Promiscuity flourished, venereal disease spread, foundlings multiplied, perversions floundered on.

Comte Donatien-Alphonse-François de Sade (1740–1814) came of a high-placed Provençal family, rose to be governor general of the districts Bresse and Bugey, and seemed destined for the life of a provincial administrator. But he seethed and fermented with sexual imagery and desires, and sought for a philosophy that might justify them. After an affair involving four girls, he was sentenced to death at Aix-en-Provence (1772) for “crimes of poisoning and sodomy.”24 He escaped, was captured, escaped, committed further enormities, fled to Italy, returned to France, was arrested in Paris, was imprisoned in Vincennes (1778–84), in the Bastille, and at Charenton (1789). Released in 1790, he supported the Revolution; in 1792 he was secretary of the Section des Piques. During the Terror he was arrested on the false assumption that he was a returned émigré. He was released after a year, but in 1801, under Napoleon, he was imprisoned for having published Justine (1791) and Juliette (1792). These were novels of sexual experience, normal and abnormal; the author preferred the abnormal, and spent his considerable literary skill in defending it; all sexual desires, he argued, are natural, and should be indulged with a clear conscience, even to deriving erotic pleasure from the infliction of pain; in this last sense he became immortal with a word. He spent the last years of his life in various prisons, wrote clever plays, and died in the insane asylum at Charenton.

We hear of homosexuality among college students during the Revolution,25 and may presume its popularity in jails. Prostitutes and brothels were especially numerous near the Palais-Royal, in the Gardens of the Tuileries, in the Rue St.-Hilaire and the Rue des Petits Champs; they could be found also at theaters and the opera, and even in the galleries of the Legislative Assembly and the Convention. Pamphlets were circulated giving the addresses and fees of houses and women. On April 24, 1793, the Temple section issued an order: “The General Assembly, … desiring to put a stop to the incalculable misfortune caused by the dissoluteness of public morals, and by the lubricity and immodesty of the female sex, hereby nominates commissioners,” etc.26 Other sections took up the campaign; private patrols were formed, and some careless offenders were arrested. Robespierre supported the effort, but after his death the assiduity of the guardians relaxed, the filles reappeared, and prospered under the Directory, when women of wide sexual experience became leaders of fashion and society.

The evil may have been mitigated by the increasing facility of early marriage. No priest was necessary; after September 20, 1792, only civil marriage was legal; and this required merely a mutual pledge signed before a civil authority. In the lower classes there were many cases of a couple living together unwed and unmolested. Bastards were plentiful; in 1796 France recorded 44,000 foundlings.27 Between 1789 and 1839, twenty-four percent of all brides in the typical town of Meulan were pregnant when they came to the altar.28 As in the Ancien Régime, adultery in the husband was often condoned; men of means were likely to have mistresses, and under the Directory these were displayed as openly as wives. Divorce was legalized by a decree of September 20, 1792; thereafter it could be obtained through mutual agreement before a municipal officer.

Paternal authority was lessened by the moderate growth of women’s legal rights, and still more by the self-assertion of emancipated youth. Anne Plumptre, who traveled in France in 1802, reported a gardener as telling her:

“During the Revolution we dared not scold our children for their faults. Those who called themselves patriots regarded it as against the fundamental principles of liberty to correct children. This made these so unruly that very often, when a parent presumed to scold his child, the latter would tell him to mind his own business, adding, ‘We are free and equal; the Republic is our only father, and no other.’ … It will take a good many years to bring them back to minding.”29

Pornographic literature abounded, and (according to a contemporary newspaper) was the favorite reading of the young.30 Some previously radical parents began by 1795 (as in 1871) to send their sons to schools directed by priests, in the hope of saving them from the general loosening of manners and morals.31 For a time it seemed that the family must be a casualty of the French Revolution, but the restoration of discipline under Napoleon reprieved it until the Industrial Revolution fell upon it with more gradual but more sustained and fundamental force.

Women had held a high place in the Old Regime through the grace and refining influence of their manners, and by the cultivation of their minds; but these developments were mostly confined to the aristocracy and the upper middle class. By 1789, however, the women of the commonalty visibly emerged into politics; they almost made the Revolution by marching to Versailles and bringing King and Queen back to Paris as the captives of a commune bursting with its newly discovered power.*In July, 1790, Condorcet published an article “On the Admission of Women to the Rights of the State.” In December an attempt was made by a Mme. Aëlders to establish clubs devoted to woman’s liberation.32 Women made themselves heard in the galleries of the Assemblies, but attempts to organize them for the advancement of their political rights were lost in the excitement of war, the fury of the Terror, and the conservative reaction after Thermidor. Some gains were made: the wife, like the husband, could sue for divorce, and the mother’s consent, as well as the father’s, was required for the marriage of her children under age.33 Under the Directory, women, though voteless, became an open power in politics, promoting ministers and generals, and proudly displaying their new freedom in manners, morals, and dress. Napoleon, aged twenty-six, described them in 1795:

The women are everywhere—at plays, on public walks, in libraries. You see very pretty women in the scholar’s study room. Only here [in Paris], of all the places on earth, do women deserve such influence, and indeed the men are mad about them, think of nothing else, and live only through and for them. A woman, in order to know what is due her, and what power she has, must live in Paris for six months.34

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