Modern history


The notion of national unity within Revolutionary culture involved the imposition of almost unrelenting unifying procedures on individuals and groupings, ranging from education, festive pedagogy and propaganda through to violence and terror. The pressure was such, however, that it ended up engendering opposition and fragmentation. There resulted the paradox of a political culture priding itself on its inclusiveness, yet fabricating a polarized opposition of outsiders and counter-revolutionary ‘others’.

Polarization – ‘othering’ – became more intense when the Republic found itself facing the military might of the European powers. It focused on the English, target over the previous century of much anglophobia (but probably even more anglophilia). ‘Perfidious Albion’ was now viewed as being responsible for funding the war efforts of the European powers, and suborning French politics through bribery, corruption and every nefarious trick in Prime Minister William Pitt’s book. British nationals found themselves receiving far more severe treatment than in any previous war. Sweeping laws (happily not much implemented, as far as can be seen) were passed, threatening English soldiers and sailors with summary execution if taken prisoner. England was the ‘new Carthage’, and Revolutionary orators lined up to play Cato. The demonization of the British, however, was matched by a sense of fraternal inclusiveness towards other Europeans. And it was perhaps less important for shaping the developing French nationalism than the way that the kinds of rhetorical strategies and ideological heat employed against enemies in war were turned inwards within France against putative opponents of the new regime. Revolutionary political culture had a fixation on unity and conspiracy which had not needed war as a trigger: it went back to 1788–9, and indeed had premonitory antecedents long before then. The Revolution’s ‘Other’ consequently tended to be French rather than foreign. The French resumed their sense of civilized superiority over the rest of the world, but had now honed that sense of betterness within the political culture of the Revolution. The mission civilisatrice of the Great Nation, like charity, began at home.

The process of political othering was not simply a rhetorical consequence of the Revolution’s own unifying political culture. ‘Othering’ also reflected the oscillations and reverses of the political quotidian, and it comprised groups and individuals whose opposition to the Revolutionary cause was anything but imaginary, and whose actions in turn helped shape the character and obsessions of the Revolutionaries. Nor were these interests squashed or eradicated by 1799. The scapegoats and the also-rans of Revolutionary political culture persisted as bearers of traditions and ideologies of diversity and resistance well into the following century. Their experiences, and their relationship to the Revolutionary project, are as important as the project itself in understanding post-Revolutionary France.

The Revolution had begun with the Third Estate setting itself up against the two ‘privileged orders’ of nobility and church. The trajectory of each over the course of the 1790s was rather different, but by 1799 both represented an other against which the Revolutionaries projected their dislike. Although ‘aristocrat’ had been not more than an academic term prior to the pre-Revolution, it emerged as a key term of hate in the Revolutionary lexicon. The word gave the semblance of homogeneity to noble groupings which were extremely divergent in their political views and social behaviour – indeed, which included many individuals who were political midwives to the birth of the Revolutionary nation in the 1789 crisis. From then onwards, ‘aristocrat’ both replaced the term ‘noble’ and was given the invariable meaning of opponent of the Revolution. This was especially the case when it was combined with another hate-term, émigré. Although a clear majority of these exiles were nobles and refractory ecclesiastics before the overthrow of the king, there was considerable change once war broke out. Over the decade as a whole, some 83 per cent of émigrés were non-nobles, and the grouping contained numerous peasants and workers. From 1793, moreover, the aristocracy of birth was joined by the aristocracy of wealth, who so exercised the venom of Jacques Roux and the Hébertists. By 1794, the term ‘aristocrat’ was being applied to full-blooded republicans – the Dantonists, the Hébertists, even the Robespierrists – who fell foul of the Revolutionary government.

Given this level of discursive demonization, it proved very difficult – though not impossible – for the nobility, brought up as top dogs in an unreflecting world of privilege, to adapt to the very different political culture and social world initiated in 1789. The wealthiest and the most aristocratic did worst of all. The only members of the royal family physically to survive the decade were those who ran away (Artois, Provence) or else (as, for example, in the case of Louis XVI’s youngest daughter, Marie-Clotilde, exchanged with the Austrians in 1795 against French prisoners of war) who were political nullities. Even trading his Bourbon patronym for the epithet ‘Equality’ had been insufficient to save the skin of Philippe, duc d’Orléans. The higher one was up the political ladder of the pre-Revolutionary polity the greater the risks and dangers run – and the more the need to know when to keep one’s head below the parapet. Thus the wealthiest group of private individuals under the Ancien Régime, the hated anobliFarmers General (including chemist Lavoisier), suffered the highest death-rate on the scaffold.

This was, however, the tip of the noble iceberg. Physical survival was less of a problem closer to the waterline. The vast majority of the pre-1789 noble order survived the Revolution living within France. Fewer than 1 per cent of the noble males – some 1,156 (around half of them in Paris), out of around 120,000 – were executed. More nobles took the road into emigration – some 16,431 in total, around one-third of whom were army officers. The democratization of politics in the Revolution had not liquidated the nobility – nor eradicated them definitively from public life. Although many hobereaux and impoverished nobles sank without trace into the commoner world once they had lost the oxygen of place and privilege, others proved altogether more resilient. Ex-nobles in national political life such as Barras or Talleyrand were rare after 1792–3, but at a subordinate level, lying low in their country estates proved a safe place of hibernation for a great many nobles, even those ‘émigrés of the heart’ who harboured counter-revolutionary sentiments.52 Many nobles who had emigrated were, moreover, returning to France in the late 1790s, and Napoleon would be even more welcoming. Prior to the Revolution, the nobility had owned between a fifth and a quarter of land, and their travails in the 1790s, including the expropriation and sale of émigré land, cut this sharply. The full impact of the sales was offset by a number of strategies, such as purchase of one’s own property through front-men (prête-noms). In the department of the Meurthe around 15 per cent ofémigré land was acquired by their relatives. Although there was an enormous amount of variation across the country, it would seem that overall the nobility lost around a half of their property over the Revolutionary period. The nobility re-emerged in national politics after 1799 (and especially after 1815, when the restored Bourbons would seek to be especially accommodating to reintegrated émigrés). But it only retained much local influence in conservative regions like the west. The abolition of feudalism had ended their unreflecting dominance over local politics, and the new elected municipal and village authorities established from 1790 proved more than capable of resisting their influence.

If ‘aristocrat’ was one of the key terms of hate in the Revolutionaries’ lexicon, it was run close by ‘fanatic’ – a term which conventionally denoted any Catholic who had not rallied to the Revolution (and in some contexts any Catholic at all). Given the domination of Revolutionary institutions and language by the professional bourgeoisie, it is perhaps surprising – and it was certainly unpredicted – that the Catholic clergy should end the 1790s as a prime target of Revolutionary vituperation. With the exception of the aristocratic upper clergy, stern upholders of discipline and corporative hierarchy within the church, most clerics in the Estates General had been firm supporters of the Third Estate in 1789 and in many respects were arch-professionals. The Revolutionaries were highly receptive to their integration within the Revolutionary project. It was Te Deums rather than civic festivals which celebrated great revolutionary events down to 1792 at least. At first sight, moreover, many of the measures in the Civil Constitution of the Clergy reforming the church – such as democratic procedures, rational hierarchies, better pay, a clear career structure, elective principles – conformed to the civic professional notions popularized before 1789 by ‘citizen priests’. The oath on the Civil Constitution had, however, split the church from top to bottom. The zealous rejection of the oath by the refractory clergy smacked at best of atavistic commitment to corporatism, at worst as treachery to the patrie.

The advent of war made the more pessimistic estimations prevail. As the clergy became associated with emigration, civil unrest and, from early 1793, counter-revolution in the west, it proved increasingly difficult for most Revolutionary politicians to conjugate patriotism and Christianity. Despite the efforts of dwindling and demoralized Constitutional clerics to uphold the ethos of civic professionalism, republicans lost faith in the ability of the church to act as a medium for the Revolution’s regenerative mission, and increasingly developed their own cults, withdrawing many customary functions from the hands of the clergy. From September 1792, for example, the registration of births, marriages and deaths was made a purely civil function, while legislation on divorce introduced at the same time was also entirely areligious. Dechristianizing Terror in 1793–4 completed the rout of the Constitutional clergy and the demonization of refractory Catholicism.

Furthermore, disestablishing the Catholic church in February 1795 essentially instituted a free field in religious belief. This lost Catholicism – in both its Constitutional and refractory versions – any semblance of a claim to special status, and also highlighted the gains which other religious formations had derived from the Revolution. Protestants, whom the crown had accorded a measure of tolerance in 1787, were unequivocally awarded full citizenship by the Declaration of the Rights of Man, and several Protestants, such as Rabaut de Saint-Étienne and Jean Bon Saint-André played a very full part in national political life, while in Protestant strongholds like the Lower Languedoc they took over local government. (Under the provisions of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, they were even allowed to vote for their locality’s priest.)

The early Assemblies were unsure what to make of France’s 40,000-odd Jews, who were a divided grouping. The more vocal, wealthier and more integrated Sephardic community in Bordeaux was contemptuous of the poorer, less assimilated and, as they called them, ‘mongrel’ Ashkenazim community in Alsace and eastern France. On 28 January 1790, the Constituent Assembly granted the status of active citizen to Sephardic Jews with the required financial standing, but it was not until September 1791 that citizenship was formally extended to all Jews – a decision which the Legislative Assembly subsequently ratified. There were some vicious anti-Semites in the National Assembly, such as the Alsatian lawyer (and future Director) Reubell, who kept up a constant critique of the Ashkenazim. The group calling for Jewish rights was led by the abbé Grégoire, who in 1785 had won an essay prize organized by the Metz Academy on the best means of regenerating the Jews. The notion of regeneration was both strength and weakness of the pro-Jewish lobby. It conformed so closely to the general regeneratory mission of the Revolutionaries that it seemed apposite to be inclusive towards Jews. On the other hand, there was a strong sense, even among Grégoire and his allies, that the existing forms of Jewish organization and mores were part of a barbarian, superstitious and corporative past which should now be cast off. The fact that few Jews seemed keen to renounce their beliefs and their customary structures and enter the Revolutionary nation as regenerated individuals only made matters more problematic.

As political life polarized under the Legislative Assembly, then the Convention, and as organized religion fell more directly under the spotlight of Revolutionary suspicion, Protestant churches and Jewish communities came under increasing pressure. Both were subjected to iconoclastic attacks of the ‘dechristianizing’ type.53 Protestant temples were sacked, and the church suffered real decline, with public worship starting again only very slowly in the late 1790s. Local and national authorities headed off peasant anti-Semitic pogroms in the east, but not without themselves subscribing to the language of hatred. Deputy on mission in the east Baudot threatened with ‘regeneration by guillotine’ any Jew ‘placing cupidity in the place of love of the patrie, and their ridiculous superstitions in the place of Reason’.54 Alsatian synagogues were smashed too, their treasures handed over for the war effort, and rabbis abjured their faith like Catholic priests, while observation of the sabbath (rather than the décadi) and the wearing of Jewish side-locks and beards were regarded as ‘uncivic’ offences.

The model of regenerative assimilationism which the Revolutionaries displayed towards the Jews was evident in regard to other groupings whose commitment to the patriotic cause was for whatever reason in doubt. This normative approach usually took a more anodyne form after the coercive episodes of the Terror. Aberrant behaviour could often to be ascribed to ignorance rather than error. Abbé Grégoire attacked the use of Yiddish in Ashkenazim communities, for example, but thought Jewish ‘backwardness’ required civic education rather than ‘regeneration by guillotine’. An argument from utility was also made that linguistic unification would produce a more efficient commerce of ideas, just as uniform weights and measures helped in the commerce of commodities. Furthermore, the Revolutionaries viewed French – the pilot tongue of civilization and Enlightenment before 1789 – as the quintessential language of freedom, and thus far superior not only to Yiddish but also to any other tongue used within France. There were efforts early in the Revolution to spread the gospel of the Right of Man in other than its native French (in January 1790, for example, the Constituent Assembly agreed that all decrees should be translated into German and Flemish). The exhortatory tone turned more bullyingly intolerant of diversity as time went on. One Jacobin pamphleteer called for ‘linguistic regeneration’ to be made the order of the day.55 Particular concern was shown towards the areas of federalism and counter-revolution, where local peasants were allegedly being kept in ignorance through their failure to manage the French language. ‘Federalism and superstition’, thundered Barére in January 1794, ‘speak Breton; the emigration and hatred of the Republic speak German; the Counter-Revolution speaks Italian; and Fanaticism speaks Basque.’56 The rhetorical thunder produced little lightning – no programme of linguistic terrorism was formulated, and after Thermidor, the Revolutionaries fell back on a vague belief in formal education as the best means of producing a single, French language. It would require the compulsory primary schooling of the Third Republic to make French the language of the French people.

The link which Barère made between linguistic diversity and peripheral areas of France was a characteristic one. The majority of the 6 million individuals who did not speak French, he reckoned, plus the 6 million others who could not sustain a conversation in it, were most likely to be peasants shut off from the civilizing current of urban Enlightenment. With the exception of the interlude of the Terror, when all adult males were accorded the franchise (although in the conditions of the Revolutionary government, they could not use them) only peasants who reached certain levels of landholding enjoyed full political rights. It was not, however, that all peasants were inevitably civically challenged. The peasant revolution of 1789 had marked them out as participatory members of the new nation and there was a constant panegyrization of the bon cultivateur in Revolutionary discourse, which stressed the involvement of the countryside in the forging of national unity. Newspapers were specially targeted at them – such as Cérutti’s highly popular La Feuille villageoise, replaced under the Directory by the progressive Interior Minister, François de Neufchâteau, with the semi-official organ La Feuille du cultivateur. Clubs and societies penetrated into rural areas as well as in towns. In some areas in the south-east, nearly every village had a Jacobin club. There were rural Terrorists and dechristianizers as well as urban ones. François de Neufchâteau restarted agricultural societies (whose commitment to the cause of the potato, every town-dweller’s idea of what peasants ought to be eating, remained undiminished). Moreover, all of France’s 40,000 communes were equipped with elective local government, and maybe more than a million peasants profited from this widening of democratic space. In addition the new system of lawcourts dispensed a fairer, cheaper and more available justice than had been on offer to most rural communities prior to 1789.

Protective, patronizing and panegyric by turns, Revolutionary discourse turned nasty when peasants protested, resisted or showed they had minds of their own. The peasantry had to fight hard to gain the benefits from successive National Assemblies which they thought they had won for themselves in the 1789 insurrection. The Constituent Assembly’s efforts to enforce the staged redemption of many seigneurial rights caused widespread peasant resistance. First the Legislative Assembly, then the Convention bowed to this grassroots pressure: the decree of 17 July 1793 definitively abolished all seigneurial rights without compensation. Peasant resistance also took the edge off the wish of the Revolutionary assemblies to impose Physiocratic-style agrarian reforms aimed at stimulating agrarian individualism. The hard-pressed legislators feared provoking further anti-revolutionary movements in the countryside which could push peasants into the arms of royalists and counter-revolutionaries. The Rural Code of 6 October 1791 was a timid document which left the initiative for enclosure, removal of use-rights, enclosure of common lands and the like in the hands of the rural community. It largely remained there for the remainder of the decade.

There was a strong tendency in the National Assembly to ascribe rural discontent to the manipulations of nobles and, particularly, priests. Peasant ignorance was the consequence of Catholic ‘fanaticism’ – a further item to add to the charge-sheet against the church. Around a fifth of known émigrés were peasants, as were about a quarter of known victims of Revolutionary justice during the Terror. To the latter number should be added the majority of the 200,000 individuals killed in civil war conditions in the Vendée, where after August 1793 Revolutionary commanders were given order to establish free fire zones as a means of establishing republican order among the rebellious peasantry. This civil strife underlined how strikingly the Revolution split social groupings.

Yet if peasants were amongst the most recalcitrant opponents of the political culture of the Revolution, they also figured amongst its principal beneficiaries of 1789. The benefits of Revolution were extremely diversely and unevenly spread, both geographically and socially within the rural community. Not all members of the rural community had benefited from the gains of 1789. The abolition of feudalism and the suppression of the tithe, hunting rights, seigneurial justice, labour services and the rest had removed significant claims on peasant surplus production. Yet the decision of the Constituent Assembly to allow landlords to add the amount of the tithe to their rents produced enormous resentment among all tenants, including sharecroppers. New national taxes increased many peasants’ fiscal burden. The lot of many peasants engaged in proto-industrializing activity in their homes was worsened by the industrial crisis. The jewellery and precious metal industry in the Rouergue was just about wiped out, for example, while many home workers in the linen and wool trades in the hinterland behind the Atlantic ports also suffered badly. Additional impositions by the state tipped many areas into open revolt, notably over the imposition of the Constitutional clergy from 1791 in the numerous regions which were antagonistic to the oath of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy; and then from 1793, the obligation of military service.

Furthermore, the appalling experiences of the countryside from 1793 to 1797 alienated many rural areas from the Revolutionary cause.57 Following the impositions of the planned economy of Year II, harvests between 1795 and 1798 were not bad, but they were framed by a poor one in 1799 and an appalling one in 1794–5. The requisitioning and dechristianization of the Terror of 1793–4 had led many peasants deliberately to reduce output so as to avoid generating a surplus which could be picked off by urban authorities and exigent sans-culottes. Post-Thermidorian deregulation of the grain trade caused bread prices to soar further, and the situation was worsened for most purchasers by the hyper-depreciation of the currency. The swelling of the ranks of beggars and vagrants caused by poor conditions in the countryside aggravated many peasants’ plight. There was rural insecurity throughout the late 1790s, with rural brigandage and highway robbery on the increase.

The rural world passed through hell and high water during the 1790s. Significantly, however, even in the violently counter-revolutionary Vendée department there was little demand for the return of the Ancien Régime. Nostalgia for ‘the time of the seigneurs’ was kept at bay by an awareness of the Revolution’s benefits to much of the rural community. Probably the main reason for any air of contentment detectable in the countryside by 1799 was that the previous decade had gone a long way to meeting the most pressing peasant demand in 1789, namely, land. Besides the abolition of seigneurial controls over peasant landownership, the dissolution of ecclesiastical and feudal authority stimulated peasants in many areas into a kind of land-grab on common lands and forests. Peasants were treating these, one authority in the department of the Aude complained, ‘like their own garden cabbages’,58 as they continued the incremental extension of cultivable land surface which had characterized the eighteenth century. In addition, the nationalization and sale of church, and from 1793 émigré’; property gave peasants an opportunity to enter or extend their holdings in the property market. The lion’s share of church property from 1790 was snapped up by the urban bourgeoisie, causing a good deal of rural resentment. Some of this, however, had been purchased speculatively and was subsequently recycled back into the peasant pool. Procedures instituted for the sale of emigré land from 1793 onwards were more deliberately peasant-friendly. Sale in small lots was envisaged, for example, and though this practice was withdrawn after 1796, the fact that purchase could be made in depreciated assignats meant that anyone able to scrabble together a purchase price made a financial killing. Like John Law’s system, the assignatexperience cancelled much peasant indebtedness and left bigger farmers in particular well set for economic recovery.

Levels of agricultural production levels at the turn of the century were still well below 1789 levels. Yet recovery was in the air after 1796. Poor peasants might have lost out after 1796 in regard to acquisition of landed property, but they were compensated by the rise in agricultural incomes, while the Revolutionary decade overall had probably seen a rise of around one-third in the number of peasant owner-occupiers and an increase in the amount of land owned by the peasantry from around 30 to around 40 per cent. If rural involvement in the market still seemed somewhat problematical, this arguably owed less to a peasant reflex of seeking to fall back on low consumption patterns than to the material losses most had experienced, which required restocking and paying off debts. The appalling state of the marketing infrastructure was also a factor in this: canals had been left abandoned, road repair was nugatory, and the security of the main routes, infested with highway robbers and brigands, left much to be desired. The peasantry was certainly, moreover, proving adaptive in one sphere. Following the introduction of partible inheritance in 1793, peasants reacted by using systematic birth control for the first time so as to restrict the number of heirs among whom their property would have to be divided – causing a sharp and enduring drop in France’s birth-rate. The peasantry seemed as adaptive as ever, and had not retreated into a shell. Their gains were not necessarily at the expense of the economy as a whole.

By 1799, the post-Thermidor deregulation of the economy had disenchanted most of the urban labouring classes from support for the Revolution. This group, like the peasantry, elicited ambiguous attitudes from the Revolutionary bourgeoisie. The urban worker could be both idealized as the icon of popular sovereignty, yet also condemned out of hand as a rapacious buveur de sang. The economic programme developed by the Parisian popular movement in 1793 had been adopted by the Montagnard Convention as the basis for its strategy of ‘mobilizing the people’, so as to win the war. But, as we have seen, no sooner had this been done than Revolutionary government was seeking to gaol the popular movement’s leaders, draw its claws and subvert its notions and practices of direct democracy. After Thermidor, and with the sole exception of the image of the patriotic footsoldier, the sans-culotte of Year II was viciously vilified across the political spectrum. The Directory performed a U-turn from the Revolutionary government’s commitment to welfare support for the poor and needy. The revival of private charity was insufficient to compensate for the losses experienced by the very poor over the Revolutionary decade.

The Directory’s ambiguity towards the urban populations below the level of the bourgeoisie was particularly evident in disputes over the franchise, one of the flash-points in the area of tension marked out by a rhetoric of universal rights and a set of practices of exclusion. Disputes over the notion of active citizenship, which restricted political rights to significant property-holding, categorizing as passive citizen any male who failed to reach the requisite property-owning threshold, were ended with the overthrow of the king and the dissolution of the distinction. Universal male suffrage was an icon of popular republicanism – but not much of a working one, in that the period of Revolutionary government put on hold the exercise of the democratic rights outlined in the 1793 Constitution. The closure of Revolutionary government brought not the implementation of constitutionally guaranteed democratic rights but a move back to a property franchise which was deliberately intended to keep the property-poor under control and prevent a repeat of Year II.

Characteristically, perhaps, it was at the moment when political rights for the unpropertied were on the statute-books, but not enforced, that the Revolutionaries abolished slavery. The Constituent and Legislative Assemblies had proved unwilling to end plantation slavery, on which so much French prosperity depended. The token gesture of abolishing slavery within France was made on 28 September 1791. When finally in February 1794 Danton persuaded his fellow Conventionnels to agree to the abolition of slavery in the colonies, all contact with its Caribbean colonies had long been severed by England’s naval blockade. It was a rhetorical gesture of a piece with the 1793 Constitution. Slavery would be reimposed by Napoleon.

Another grouping whose hopes for the enjoyment of full political rights did not achieve fruition were women. Women took advantage of the realm of freedom and equality mapped out by the Revolutionaries to play a significant and, on a global scale, highly precocious, role in the Revolutionary process over the 1790s, particularly before 1795. Such was the range of their activity that they invented and popularized the term ‘citizeness’ (citoyenne), to make a claim for political entitlement and in order to signify that the famed universalism of the Declaration of the Rights of Man (sic) should be gender-blind. There were women present and active in all the Revolutionary journées – and indeed they actually led one (5–6 October 1789). They benefited from the freedom of the press to write books, plays and (especially) pamphlets and to contribute to newspapers. The customary salonnière might be misprized, but the number of women contributing to the public sphere in print mushroomed from seventy-eight in the whole of the period from 1750 to 1789 to 330 in the Revolutionary decade. They also utilized the new-found freedom of association to attend and also to petition the meetings of representative bodies (including the National Assembly) and a wide range of clubs and societies, including the Paris Jacobin Club. They participated in the activities of certain mixed-sex clubs, such as Fauchet’s Cercle social, and they also established their own associations, the most significant of which was the Society of Revolutionary Republican Citizenesses, established byenragées Claire Lacombe and Pauline Léon in May 1793. The outbreak of war amplified many activist women’s conscious attachment to Revolutionary principles: not only did they look after their families in the absence of their volunteer husbands, they played a critical role in the enforcement of the Maximum by denouncing infringements and black-marketeering, and also knitted socks, collected clothes and gathered saltpetre for the war effort. Pauline Léon argued forcefully that women should be formally permitted to bear arms (and a handful of women did manage to fight at the front). Olympe de Gouges, author of the eloquently pointed Declaration of the Rights of Woman (1791), similarly contended that if women were extended the right to tread the steps of the scaffold, they should not be prevented from holding other rights (an ironic comment, in the light of her own execution in November 1793).

‘Why should women, endowed with the faculty of feeling and expressing their views,’ demanded an anonymous orator at a meeting of the Society for Revolutionary Republican Citizenesses, ‘be excluded from public affairs?’59 Why indeed? The natural law tradition adopted by the Revolutionaries, the stark break with the national past, the reduced influence of the clergy on public affairs in the 1790s and the challenge to patriarchalism comprised by the killing of the Father-King, all suggested that women might well benefit from the Revolution’s inclusive universalism. There certainly were male participants in Revolutionary politics – most notably Condorcet, whose ‘Essay on the Admission of Women to Political Rights’ appeared in 179060 – who supported their political rights. And much of the legislation of the early 1790s showed consideration for the position of women: egalitarian inheritance laws, for example, and the introduction in 1792 of civil divorce (a measure which, far from being a Don Juan’s charter, as had been predicted, was utilized by women in violent and unhappy marriages to give themselves a fresh start). Yet when it came to political involvement, women found themselves up against more than a generation of Rousseau-influenced texts which had argued the case for women being lovable (certainly), but essentially creatures of feeling and sensibility, physical weaklings who were constitutionally incapable of rational thought. An influential medical discourse evolved, furthering Rousseau’s influence, which purported to confirm the biological inferiority of women. Pierre Roussel’s popular Système physique et morale de la femme (1775) had assigned to women the production and care of children, and his influence is evident on the work of the Class of Moral and Political Sciences of the Institut after 1795. The symbolic figure of Marianne might emblematize the Republic on official seals and letter-heads; but there was no thought that any real woman could represent anything but her own feelings.

The fragility of the position of women contributing to public life in the 1790s was underlined by the extent to which femininity was utilized as a stock-in-trade of political insult. Even before the Revolution, Austrophobe court factions had assailed Marie-Antoinette – l’Autrichienne (‘the Austrian bitch’) – for unseemly interfering in politics, which had left, it was confidently reported, her poor husband limply impotent. The Diamond Necklace affair had seemed a Rousseauist parable, underlining the crucial importance of keeping women firmly under male control. This line of critique did not confine itself to Revolutionaries: counter-revolutionary propaganda routinely attacked the Revolution for allowing political space to beings who should by rights be confined within the cosier worlds of domesticity and maternity. But the way in which Revolutionaries’ own self-presentation highlighted virile stoical actions – dramatized, for example, in David’s taut characterization of the Tennis Court Oath – made this line of argument seem particularly relevant. They extended the gendered view of royal politics to suggest that all their opponents were somehow feminized and lacking good Revolutionary manliness. Berouged and beribboned aristocrats were assailed on these grounds as much as unreproductive ecclesiastics who spent their time consorting with females. This gendering of the public sphere became even more pronounced once war had been declared, and the virile republican became the pike-bearing sans-culotte or the patriotic musketeer. Political virtue and moral worth were thus gendered militaristically male – a tendency which Bonaparte’s regime would strongly reinforce.

Such was the consensus across the political spectrum of the impropriety of women involving themselves in public life, that it seemed only a matter of time before the Revolutionaries drove the point home. Finally, in the autumn of 1793, the issue crystallized following clashes between members of the Society of Revolutionary Republican Citizenesses and Parisian market women over the issue of the compulsory wearing of the red cap. On 30 October 1793 (a fortnight after the execution of Marie-Antoinette, following a show trial which had melodramatized the dangers of letting a woman loose in national politics), Amar, spokesperson of the Committee of General Security, studding his speech with the cliches of Rousseauist sensibility, ordered the disbanding of the Society, and forbade such women’s clubs in the future. Patriotic women, it appeared, displayed ‘an over-excitation which would be deadly in public affairs’; they should stay at home and bring up young republicans.61

In some ways, Amar’s order was an incidental spin-off from the Revolutionary government’s campaign to control the enragé movement in Paris, to which both Léon and Lacombe subscribed, and it certainly triggered little comment or debate. Yet it represented a highly significant moment, for it marked the far limit of female political radicalism in the Revolutionary decade. The further marginalization of female activists followed easily from here onwards. On 20 March 1795, women were forbidden even from attending meetings of the Convention, and prohibited from assembling in groups in the streets, squares and marketplaces.

In the final analysis, the vast majority of male Revolutionaries found it impossible to break free from contemporary gender stereotyping, and to endow women with a part to play within the Revolutionary project save in decorative, supportive or reproductive roles. The late 1790s saw this rejection hardening even more. Particularly significant in this respect was the way that activist women came back into the political limelight, which was sure to win them republican disapprobation. For from the mid-1790s, women had begun to take a leading role in running the underground activities of the refractory Catholic church. They acted as defenders of their faith, obstructing the secular cults of republican officials, petitioning for the opening of churches, hiding ‘suitcase curés’ (itinerant under-cover priests) on their clandestine tours of their flocks, and organizing charity. The growth of religious indifference in the Enlightenment had been more marked among men than women, and iconoclastic dechristianization always seemed a more virile than feminine activity. By working hand in glove with the refractory clergy in this way, women seemed merely to confirm the weakness of their brains, by allowing themselves to be gulled by the ‘fanatical’ clergy. Though the French state (in Napoleon’s Concordat with the pope in 1801) would relegitimize Catholicism and make it a state-approved cult, the conjoining of two of the Revolution’s most hated ‘others’ – fanatical Catholics and ‘public’ women – would be a highly important legacy of the Revolution in the following century. The struggle between clericalism and anti-clericalism would be about gender as well as politics.

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