Modern history


July 1790 to September 1791

The Nancy massacre, the flight to Varennes, the massacre on the Champ-de-Mars, repression

The account of Louis XVI’s arrest at Varennes arrived this morning via M. le duc de Choiseul, peer of France. The narrowness of mind at the time, the moral pettiness of those people, a fine contrast with the natural spirit of Drouet in arresting the king. It is certainly attention to a thousand little things that shrank Louis XVI’s poor mind still more.

– Stendhal, Journal

Revolt and repression in Nancy

The soldiers’ revolt in Nancy, the most serious and bloody incident of the year 1790, broke out only a month after the great festival of fraternity. Discontent had been brewing in the army; the officers, all aristocrats, were annoyed at seeing their men on good terms with the population, attending local assemblies, organizing committees and fraternizing with the National Guard, for whom these nobles had scant consideration. But times had changed, and patriotic soldiers were beginning to demand justice from their officers, who were responsible for paying them but kept a veil of secrecy over the accounts. Instances of embezzlement soon came to light, but instead of the anticipated restitution a shower of punishments rained down. Revolts broke out in several garrisons – Lille, Strasbourg, the Toulon arsenal and Marseille. But the most dramatic of these took place in Nancy, in August 1790, in the region commanded by the marquis de Bouillé, cousin and friend of Lafayette.1

There were three regiments here, two French (the king’s regiment and that of the Mestre-de-Camp) and one Swiss, the Châteauvieux’s regiment made up of men from Geneva and the Vaud. It was remembered for playing a major role in July 1789, when its troops, stationed on the Champ-de-Mars, had said they would not fire on the people. Seeing their French friends demand accounts from their officers, they thought to do the same. But the Swiss patricians, who were by law supreme judges over their men, had the two soldiers who came to bring them the demand arrested and publicly whipped. Outraged, the patriotic soldiers and Nancy National Guards went to find the two Swiss soldiers, marched them through the streets in a lap of honour, and forced the officers to pay each of them 100 louis d’or by way of indemnity. At the same time, the two French regiments sent an eight-man delegation to the National Assembly, requesting a clarification of the accounts.

Lafayette opted for the big stick. He had the eight delegates arrested, and urged the Assembly to pass a decree enjoining the soldiers to recognize their error and express their repentance. At the same time, he sent Bouillé an order to repress the mutiny by force. Bouillé appointed a certain Malseigne to check the accounts, a man better known as a fencer than a calculator. No sooner had this swashbuckler arrived than he went to the quarters of the Swiss and provoked them, then ran off to seek refuge with the Lunéville carabineers, shouting that there had been an attempt on his life – the carabineers quickly handed him over to their friends in Nancy.

Bouillé had the pretext he needed. Assembling the garrison and a part of the Metz National Guard, he advanced towards Nancy. On 31 August he was at the city gates and imposed conditions: Malseigne was to be released, and the regiments to come out and each hand over four of their comrades – a terrible condition for the Swiss, who could only expect the worst. The two French regiments submitted and left the city, but Châteauvieux refused to surrender. Reinforced by a section of the National Guard and the people of Nancy, it occupied the Stainville gate, the only one that was fortified. Bouillé’s hussars attacked, took the gate and occupied the town under heavy fire from the windows. By evening, however, order was restored and hundreds of corpses lay in the streets. This was followed by the ‘legal’ repression: twenty-one Swiss soldiers were hanged, and one broken on the wheel. Fifty prisoners from Châteauvieux’s regiment were sent to Brest and on to the galleys.2 The political clubs in Nancy were closed, and Bouillé imposed martial law throughout the region.

The king and the Assembly were unanimous in their congratulations to Bouillé, and the Paris National Guard held a funeral ceremony on the Champ-de-Mars in honour of the victors killed in the battle. But the people of Paris showed their anger on 2 and 3 September, to cries of ‘Down with the ministers!’3 Loustalot wrote an article that was to be his last word, as he died suddenly a short while after:

We dare to accuse M. de Bouillé, we denounce him to the French people, not just for his criminal offence against the nation but for his crime against humanity … You ordered bloodshed without being forced to so do; you were moved neither by the tears of the unhappy inhabitants of city distraught at the impending siege, nor by the humble supplications of repentant soldiers who came and laid down their arms at your feet. Tiger! You needed blood to assuage your aristocratic rage, and you bathed with delight in the blood of patriots.4

In the wake of the Nancy affair, the popularity of Lafayette, who was rightly held to bear the main responsibility for it, steadily declined among the people, as did that of the king, the ministers, and the Assembly that had approved the crackdown.

The flight of the king and his arrest at Varennes

In our own day, when ‘politics’ no longer arouses so much passion, it is hard to imagine what went on in people’s minds when each day brought fresh rumours and surprises. It is particularly difficult to understand the depth and the ramification of fears among the people: fear of an émigré plot, fear of the machinations of aristocrats and priests, fear of foreign intervention and, recurrent since summer 1789, fear lest the king run away. Counter-revolutionary historians have portrayed these fears as the expression of a paranoia orchestrated by journalists, with Marat at their head, no matter that all these fears turned out to be well-founded in due course, particularly that of an attempted escape on the part of the king.

During summer and autumn 1789, the king’s entourage had pressed Louis to flee on several occasions, but he had always refused. In spring 1791, two new factors led him to change his mind. First of all, the death of Mirabeau on 2 April; since becoming a paid adviser to the king, Mirabeau had exerted what influence he still had to persuade Louis to accept the Constitution. The Lameth brothers offered to replace him and the king accepted their services, but he hated and distrusted them, with the result that Mirabeau’s death left Louis under the thumb of Marie-Antoinette, who saw escape abroad as the only solution. The second factor was the pope’s rejection of the civil constitution of the clergy. Having accepted this himself, Louis XVI found himself in a delicate situation, particularly as far as his personal religious practice was concerned. On 17 April 1791, for example, he took communion in his private chapel from the hands of cardinal de Montmorency, who like almost all the high prelates had refused to take the oath. The National Guard who were in attendance made this known. The following day, Easter Saturday, Louis expressed his intention to go to Saint-Cloud. A great crowd, convinced that the king was seeking to avoid an Easter ceremony celebrated by a constitutional priest, and fearing that this departure would be simply the prelude to another, lengthier journey, blocked the road out of the Tuileries. Lafayette ordered the National Guard to clear a passage, but the guards refused to obey their general-in-chief. The crowd attacked the gentlemen-in-waiting and bodyguards, and the royal family were ultimately forced to return to the palace on foot, amid a hail of insults. After this, what remained of the royal court in the Tuileries was dismantled: nobles and bishops were forbidden to stay there, and the royal couple were now surrounded only by a revolutionary guard and domestic servants.

Louis justly felt himself to be a prisoner, and it was then that he accepted the plan drawn up by Axel von Fersen, a Swedish nobleman on intimate terms with the queen. The royal family would make for the Montmédy fortress in Lorraine, held by Bouillé’s troops, and close to Belgium that was now occupied by the Austrian army. This departure would mark the beginning of an intervention by the European powers led by Emperor Leopold of Austria, Marie-Antoinette’s brother.5

What followed has become part of the popular imaginary of the Revolution. On the night of 20 June, the king and the queen, together with their two children, the children’s governess and Madame Élisabeth, the king’s sister, secretly left the Tuileries and boarded a hired carriage – the only part of the plan that went without a hitch – which exited from Paris through the Saint-Martin barrier (now place Stalingrad) and took the road for Meaux. At a country rendezvous the heavy berline that Fersen had had specially constructed was waiting, and Fersen himself acted as coachman at the start of the journey. Very soon, however, things ceased to go according to plan.6 Bouillé’s hussars, who were supposed to await the fugitives after Châlons and escort them to Montmédy, did not turn up. Nor were they at Sainte-Menehould, where the horses were changed under the eye of the postmaster, a certain Drouet. At eleven in the evening the carriage reached Varennes, where neither the hussars nor the expected change of horses were to be seen. Drouet arrived shortly after, having recognized the king, he later said, from a fifty-livre assignat that bore his portrait. The tocsin was sounded, the bridge over the Aire was blocked, the town’s patriots were woken and the National Guard alerted. The royal family spent the night in the home of a grocer named Sauce, the commune procureur, and in the early morning they started back to Paris.

All these episodes have been related and illustrated a hundred times over. But how to explain that the small town of Varennes dared to prevent the king from continuing his journey to the frontier? What moved these people to take the enormous risk of a confrontation with Bouillé’s hussars – a risk they took knowingly, as the Nancy affair was fresh in every mind? Timothy Tackett has provided some elements of an answer.7 Like thousands of small French towns, Varennes had formed a citizens’ militia in summer 1789: two companies, each with its uniform – the chasseurs in green, the grenadiers in blue – its flags, and its officers (the inn-keeper, the lawyer’s son), elected by their men. And in March 1791 a local branch of the Amis de la Constitution had been founded, affiliated to the Jacobins club in Paris. They had recently removed the parish priest from his office after he refused to take the constitutional oath. Whenever an emergency arose, all the small towns and villages of the region, similarly organized, sent reinforcements of every kind. Thus ‘the small, undistinctive town of Varennes’, Tackett writes, ‘was far better prepared – institutionally, militarily, and psychologically – to meet the crisis of June 21 than any of the conspirators of the king’s flight might have imagined.’8 More generally, the failure of all the aristocratic intrigues and plots was undoubtedly due to the failure to grasp the transformations that had taken place in popular mentality and organization.

On the return journey, envoys from the Assembly9 who had come from Paris took up position in the royal carriage, initially accompanied by 6,000 National Guard from the nearby towns. But ‘as they made their way west, country people converged from every direction: men, women, and children, often whole villages arriving en masse, in carts or on foot, carrying every conceivable weapon.’10 In the Paris faubourgs, the crowd that had initially been just curious turned aggressive. The deputies thought it too dangerous to follow the direct route and decided to skirt round the city: the carriage reached the Tuileries via the Roule gate and the Champs-Élysées. ‘On the place Louis XV the statue’s eyes had been covered, so that the humiliating symbol would represent to Louis XVI the blindness of the monarchy. The heavy German carriage rolled slowly like a hearse, its blinds half down; it looked like the monarchy’s funeral procession.’11

Anger in Paris; the king on trial?

In Paris, amazement rapidly gave way to anger. The lengthy ‘Declaration from the king addressed to all the French upon his leaving Paris’, which Louis XVI had left behind on his departure, was read out in the National Assembly, then posted in the streets; in it he wrote that he had accepted the laws and decisions of the Assembly only under duress: ‘What remains for the king, other than the vain simulacrum of monarchy? … Would you wish the anarchy and despotism of the clubs to replace the monarchical government under which the nation has prospered for 1,400 years?’ After listing all the vexations he had suffered, Louis concluded: ‘Given all these reasons, and the impossibility in which the king finds himself of acting for the good and preventing the harm that is being committed, is it surprising that the king should seek to regain his freedom and place himself in safety along with his family?’12

The king’s perjury and false oath were clear enough. In no. 61 of Hébert’s Père Duchesne, a dialogue expressed the feeling of the people:

‘How are you, Père Duchesne, my good friend,’ the great lout says to me.

‘Good friend you say, you bleeding coward, friends, are we, after what you’ve just done? You clapped-out hypocrite! Putting me and everyone else in the shit. I knew well enough you were a blockhead, but I didn’t realize you were the biggest scoundrel and most abominable of men!’

‘Cheeky rogue,’ the drunkard replies, ‘remember that you’re speaking to your king.’

‘My king, are you! Not anymore! You’re just a cowardly deserter; a king must be the father of the people and not their executioner. A nation that has come into its rights won’t be fool enough to take back a capon like you. You, king? You’re not even a citizen, and you’ll be fortunate enough if, for wanting to slaughter millions of men, you don’t end up with your head on the block.’

Within a matter of hours, portraits, busts, signs, coats of arms, all the symbols of monarchy disappeared from the city. But the movement was not confined to hostility towards the monarchy; the idea of a republic, limited until that point to small circles of intellectuals, suddenly burst into broad daylight. As early as 21 June, the Cordeliers club addressed a petition to the Assembly that was read by Desmoulins:

It no longer exists, this pretence of a convention between a people and its king. Louis has abdicated the throne; now Louis means nothing to us, unless he becomes our enemy. Here we are then at the same point as we were when the Bastille was taken: free and without a king. It remains to be seen whether it is advantageous to appoint another … We beseech you, in the name of the patrie, either to declare right away that France is no longer a monarchy, but rather a republic; or, at least, to wait for all the departments, all the primary assemblies, to express their desire on this important question, before thinking of plunging the finest realm in the world into the chains and trammels of monarchy for a second time.13

This petition, posted on Paris walls the next day, received the enthusiastic approval of fraternal societies in Paris and of many societies in the provinces.

On 23 June, the celebration of Fête-Dieu (Corpus Christi) around Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois spontaneously turned into a popular rally to celebrate the news of the king’s arrest. Religious music was replaced by patriotic songs, including the new ‘Ça ira!’ Finally, the National Guard, who took part in the parade along with the deputies, asked to follow these to the National Assembly and swear an oath to the Constitution. And in the evening thousands of Parisians, grouped by quartiers or fraternal societies, flocked to the Salle du Manège to take the oath themselves. For two hours they filed past to the sound of music played by an improvised orchestra that took up position in the benches left empty on the right side: ‘Marching through the hall, six abreast, were butchers and colliers and fishwives, bakers with loaves of bread on the end of pikes, and stocky porters [from the Halles] with their large round hats …’; ‘in one door and out another, joining in the songs and raising their hands to shout “I so swear!” as they passed in front of the Assembly’s president.’14

The next day, 24 June, a great crowd gathered on place Vendôme to bring the Assembly a petition ‘of 30,000 citizens’ drafted by the Cordeliers. Lafayette had positioned a detachment of National Guard in the square, complete with cannon. The demonstrators appointed seven delegates to take the petition to the Assembly. Beauharnais, who was in the chair, put it aside. It was only read the next day by a secretary, in a manner designed not to be heard.

Over the days that followed, the Cordeliers and fraternal societies kept up their pressure, organizing public debates and sending petition after petition that violently attacked Bailly, Lafayette, the liberticidal laws recently passed by the Assembly and the property-based electoral system: ‘If you do not set the date for universal sanction of the law by the absolute totality of citizens, if you do not end the cruel demarcation you have drawn with your decree of the silver marc, if you do not get rid of these different degrees of eligibility that so blatantly violate your Declaration of the rights of man, then the patrie is in danger.’15

The Assembly was all the more terrified in that Paris workers were causing trouble independently: there were strikes by typographers, carpenters, blacksmiths … Every day in July, the National Guard were required in the faubourgs to quell these movements.

And this was not the only reason for concern. It was widely believed that the king’s attempted flight was a portent of war with the European powers. In L’Ami du roi, abbé Royou, a royalist pamphleteer, wrote on 28 June: ‘We are no longer for our neighbours simply an object of pity for our misfortunes, we have become for them a veritable plague; we have become born enemies of all authorities that had up to now been regarded as legitimate; and it is we ourselves who have summoned up all the powers of the earth and forced them to ally against us.’ The Assembly had the frontiers closed, mobilized National Guards in the north and east, and decreed the raising of 100,000 volunteers. Representatives of the people went off to inspect fortresses and arsenals.

These fears, moreover, were not unfounded. On 6 July, the Habsburg emperor had written to all the European sovereigns asking them to join him ‘in reclaiming the liberty and honour of the most Christian king and his family, and setting limits to the dangerous extremities of the French Revolution’. But this coalition did not happen, and the emperor was reduced, together with the Prussian king Friedrich-Wilhelm, to issuing the very cautious Pillnitz declaration on 27 August. The two sovereigns declared themselves ready to intervene, but only if the other powers joined in as well. This declaration was clearly only a matter of form, but it had a great resonance in French public opinion.

Besides the agitation in France and the foreign threat, there was a third reason that motivated the Assembly to keep Louis XVI on the throne; after months of work, it was putting the final touches to the Constitution, and did not want to see the result of its efforts compromised. The representatives agreed on urgent temporary measures to keep the government functioning without the king. They abolished the royal assent to decrees, so that those awaiting this had immediate force of law. They entrusted executive power to the ministers in place and the committees of the Assembly. But this unity would not hold: the right wing wanted the king to be rapidly restored to his duties.

To appease the furious indignation aroused by his flight – and even more by the letter he left behind – it was quickly put about, on Bailly’s initiative, that the king had really been abducted, and so was not guilty of any crime. Already, on 21 June, Beauharnais had opened the session from the presidential chair with the words: ‘I have a very sad piece of news to announce. M. Bailly just came to my home to tell me that the king and members of his family were taken away tonight by enemies of the public good.’ The deputies that followed him all spoke in similar terms, until a certain Gouvion, the officer responsible for the guard at the Tuileries, struck a different note, referring to ‘activity that indicated, on the part of the queen, the project of leaving along with the dauphin and Madame Royale’. The word ‘abduction’ then gave way to that of ‘departure’, without that of ‘flight’ yet being spoken.16

Rejecting this convenient excuse, the left side of the Assembly held that the king should be prosecuted; but even the Jacobins were divided. Robespierre violently accused ‘the near totality of my colleagues, members of the Assembly’, of being ‘counter-revolutionaries: some through ignorance, others through fear, some through resentment and injured pride, but others because they are corrupt’.17 The majority of the club, however, led by Charles Lameth, Barnave and Sieyès, preferred to deal with the crisis by a policy of reconciliation.

The Assembly charged seven of its committees with presenting a report on the Varennes events, which was adopted on 15 July after a lengthy discussion on the inviolability of the king. Grégoire spoke in favour of prosecution (‘The highest public official deserts his post and equips himself with a false passport, … he breaks his word, and leaves the French people a declaration contrary to the principles of our liberty …’), whereas Barnave argued for moderation, mentioning the threat of civil war. Finally it was decided that the king would not go on trial, but that his powers would remain suspended until the Constitution was completed. He would only recover them if he accepted this, including its final modifications. In the contrary case he would be deposed.18

The massacre on the Champ-de-Mars; the ‘tricolour terror’

When they saw that the National Assembly committees were determined to absolve the king, the Cordeliers resorted to threats. In an Appel à la Nation written by Chaumette on 12 July, they invited the electoral assemblies to appoint a ‘national directory’, a new government not envisaged in the Constitution.19 They were seconded in this by the fraternal societies; that which met at the Jacobins launched an address to the French people on 13 July, urging them to ‘reclaim the exercise of sovereign power’. Les Révolutions de Paris clearly threatened deputies with lynching: ‘Remember well that Launay [the governor of the Bastille whose head was paraded on a pike] had committed no other crime than that of supporting your Louis XVI in the face of public opinion … We have only too much reason to fear that the present senate seeks to perpetuate its dominion; if it resists, there are cases when insurrection is the holiest of duties.’20 On 16 July, Hébert entitled his article ‘Great anger of Père Duchesne against the traitors of the National Assembly who want to hand back the crown to Gilles Capet, the former king of France’.

The Assembly decided to stand up to the petitioners, whom it now regarded as nothing but trouble-makers. It called on the backing of large bodies of troops, and asked Lafayette and Bailly to show the greatest firmness. On the evening of 15 July, the Cordeliers who had been rebuffed in the Assembly proceeded en masse to the Jacobins, enjoining the club’s members to support their decision no longer to recognize Louis XVI as king, unless the departments when consulted decided otherwise. A great tumult ensued, which marked the beginning of a split in the Jacobins club; almost all the deputies present left the room, vowing never to return.

The day of the 16th was spent in preparing a giant petition for signature on the altar of the patrie, with or without the Jacobins.21 The planned procession was to assemble on the place de la Bastille and cross Paris to reach the Champ-de-Mars. But on the morning of Sunday 17 July, Lafayette had the square occupied by the National Guard. The procession could not take place, and the demonstrators, an estimated 20,000 people, reached the Champ-de-Mars in scattered groups, calm and without arms.22 Copies of the petition were distributed at different points on the wide expanse and were signed by a large number, from all strata of the Paris population, including those unable to write their name. An estimated 6,000 signatures had been collected by the time things began to deteriorate.

Around three o’clock, a few stones were thrown at Lafayette’s aides-de-camp on their way to the École Militaire. Lafayette used this pretext to move his troops towards the Champ-de-Mars, where he set up two cannon. During this time, under pressure from the Assembly, Bailly proclaimed martial law. At six o’clock the Paris municipal council set out from the Hôtel de Ville towards the Champ-de-Mars, escorted by infantry and cavalry detachments. At their head, the red flag was carried by the colonel of the city guards. In the rue Saint-Dominique, Lafayette took up position beside the flag.

Around the altar of the patrie, the organizers of the demonstration calmed the crowd, saying that they would disperse at the first summons. But no such summons was given:23 instead, a pistol shot gave the signal for a massacre. The National Guard responded to stones with a hail of bullets. The demonstrators fled, some towards the river where the cavalry was waiting for them, others towards the plaine de Grenelle were they were met by musket fire.

Bailly estimated the dead at around a dozen. Marat for his part asserted that 400 corpses had been thrown into the Seine. Chaumette, in Les Révolutions de Paris, gave the number at around fifty. In the evening, the Cordeliers found the doors of their premises closed when they arrived for a meeting. Two cannon prevented them from entering. The repression had begun.

On the following day, 18 July, Bailly and the city council gave their version of events to the Assembly:

This part of the glacis [on the side of the Gros Caillou] and the part on the same side that extends towards the river were full of rebels who insulted the National Guard, threw stones, and even fired shots from muskets and pistols. The National Guard used the power given by Article 7 [of the martial law decree]: it deployed force because the most criminal violence had made a summons impossible; and it was here that the most of the firing occurred.24

Charles Lameth, presiding, congratulated the mayor and praised the National Guard. A decree on sedition – with retroactive effect – was voted that very morning: its second article provided that ‘Any person who, in a gathering or riot, is heard to issue a cry of provocation to murder, will be punished with three years in chains if the murder was not committed, and as an accomplice to murder if it was.’ Over the following days, the investigation committee and the Paris departmental council collaborated on raids and arrests, particularly among the editors and printers of Le Père Duchesne, L’Orateur du peuple and L’Ami du peuple. On 9 August, the public prosecutor demanded a series of arrests, particularly those of Desmoulins, Santerre, Robert, Momoro, Danton, Fabre d’Églantine and others … What Mathiez called the ‘tricolour terror’ would last until the general amnesty of 14 September.

The split in the Jacobins club

The dead of the Champ-de-Mars were not the only victims of that day. What also died was such understanding as still remained between the possessor classes and the poor, between those who had come to power on the shoulders of the people and those who had no hesitation in shooting them down. In the months and years that followed, the memory of the ‘July dead’ would continue to haunt those who would soon call themselves sans-culottes.

A further direct consequence of this journée was to finalize the split in the Jacobins. All members of the club who were deputies decided to leave it permanently, except for just four: Robespierre, Pétion, Anthoine and Coroller. For their part, Duport, Barnave and Alexandre Lameth, in a sharp turn to the right, established with their supporters the Club des Feuillants, with premises in a disused convent close by.25 There would be violent clashes between the two clubs, particularly in the provinces, where the Jacobins still had the majority of local societies.

The triumvirate pressed the king to sign the Constitution, duly amended after his return26 – which he did on 14 September, before the Assembly. On the same occasion he proposed a general amnesty, and the prison gates were opened for political prisoners of every stripe.

Liberticidal laws

In its final months, the Constituent Assembly passed a series of laws with the combined effect of strictly limiting the right of the people to associate and express themselves: a law on the right of petition and bill-posting, a law on assemblies of citizens of the same occupation, a law on popular societies. All three were the work of the same rapporteur, Le Chapelier, who had moved a long way to the right since the time that he was one of the pillars of the Breton club. In practice, these laws were a complement to martial law.

On 9 May 1791, in his report on the right of petition and bill-posting, Le Chapelier stated first of all that the right of petition was ‘the right of each active citizen to present his wishes to the legislative body, to the king and to the administrators on matters of legislation regarding public order and administration … The right of petition is a right that the citizen may and consequently must exercise individually.’27 From this he concluded that ‘no body, no administration and no society may exercise the non-transferable right of petition; a petition may not be drawn up under a collective name, and only those who sign their petition may be considered as petitioners.’ On the principle of limiting this right to active citizens:

No one may join [a political association] if they are nothing within it, or if they attack society instead of serving it, if they do not contribute to its expenses, if this failure to contribute comes from a failure to work and apply themselves … It should be said to those who, almost always by their own fault, are tormented by poverty: use your limbs usefully, take up work, plough this fertile soil, and you will receive the title of citizen.

On the right to put up posters: ‘The streets and public places are common property; they do not belong to anyone, they belong to all … It is not in the streets that education is acquired; it is in peaceable societies where people discuss without arguing, where they gain enlightenment without passion or partisan spirit; it is in books, and finally in laws dictated by sound philosophy.’

This report was strongly criticized by Pétion, as well as Grégoire, who retorted: ‘I attack the proposal presented to you as unjust, impolitic, contradictory and contrary to the natural rights of man.’ Robespierre, too, objected: ‘Should not the right of petition be particularly assured to non-active citizens? The more unfortunate a man is, the more needs he has, the more such prayers are necessary to him. And you would refuse to accept petitions presented to you by the poorest class of citizens?’ Despite this opposition, the Le Chapelier law was passed without amendment.

On the subject of ‘assemblies of citizens of the same occupation’, Le Chapelier’s project, presented on 14 June 1791, was a direct consequence of the abolition of corporations. A previous law, whose rapporteur was the baron d’Allarde, a deputy of the nobility for Saint-Pierre-le-Moûtier, had been passed on 16 February, with an Article 8 that spelled out: ‘Every person shall be free to conduct any business or exercise any occupation, art or trade that they deem suitable, after being provided with a patent and having paid the price’, signifying the disappearance of the corporation system – the legal status of which had in any case been unclear since summer 1789.28 But once corporations were abolished, workers sought to strengthen their own organizations the better to stand up to their employers against a background of economic crisis and unemployment. In certain respects – mutual aid, assistance for elderly and infirm members – the associations now established or reinforced were close to the old fraternities or guilds that had undertaken since the Middle Ages what is today called social protection. The Club Typographique et Philanthropique, founded in July 1790, organized the Paris typographers and proceeded according to the principles born of the Revolution: each print-works elected two delegates and these in turn elected the club’s bureau, which had no compunction about calling a strike to obtain satisfaction over wages. The Union Fraternelle des Ouvriers en l’Art de la Charpente, established in April 1791, represented carpenters from across Paris. It held its meetings in the same premises on rue Dauphine as the Cordeliers club, and was affiliated to the central committee that this club, as we have seen, set up to coordinate the activity of fraternal societies.29 It was the threat presented by clubs and unions such as these that lay behind the Le Chapelier law.

His report was skilfully couched, presenting the new workers’ associations as revivals of the former corporations, ‘an infringement of the constitutional principles that abolished the corporations, one which entails great danger for public order.’30 We must return, he said, ‘to the principle of free agreements between individuals to settle each man’s working day’. As for popular social policy and the distribution of assistance, these too ‘tend to revive the corporations, requiring the frequent meeting of individuals of the same occupation, the appointment of syndics and other officers, the establishment of regulations; thus it is that privileges, masteries and the like are reborn.’ The law prohibiting workers’ associations was passed immediately, with no objections, even from the left. Perhaps the habitual champions of the popular cause were unwilling to appear as defenders of corporations, one of the symbols of the old order.

The day before the Assembly was due to adjourn, on 28 September 1791, Le Chapelier presented a report ‘on popular societies’. He began by praising ‘these societies that were formed out of enthusiasm for liberty’, but went on to note that they ‘had soon departed from their purpose and acquired a kind of political existence that they should not have’.31

This report was one long harangue against agitators: ‘Everyone wants the Revolution to come to an end. The time of destruction has passed, there are no further abuses to remedy or prejudices to combat … Those who seek to slander or denigrate the established authorities, to take over certain societies and make them take an active role in public administration, must be regarded as our most fearsome enemies.’ The grounds for this decree give a good idea of its intention: ‘The National Assembly, considering that no society, club or citizens’ association may have a political existence in any form whatsoever, or exercise any influence or inspection over the acts of the established authorities …’

In his report, Le Chapelier explicitly targeted the Société des Amis de la Constitution – the Jacobins – and in particular the correspondence between its provincial branches: ‘The societies that were founded to teach and support the maxims [of the Constitution] are simply meetings, clubs of friends who are no more the sentinels of the Constitution than all other citizens.’

In his reply, Robespierre argued:

[The report] has contrived to speak the language of liberty and of the Constitution in order to destroy these and hide personal views and particular resentments … It is from within these societies that a large number of those who now occupy our seats have emerged (applause from the far left and the galleries) … When I see the extraordinary means that they [the right side] are employing to kill the public spirit by resurrecting old prejudices, frivolities and idolatries, I do not believe that the Revolution is at an end. Far from condemning the spirit of intoxication that inspires those who surround me, I see only the spirit of vertigo that propagates the enslavement of nations and the despotism of tyrants.

The Le Chapelier bill was passed without amendments.


When this topic is discussed, which is not often, it is presented as a kind of appendix, despite its being patently obvious that the colonial question was a key neuralgic point, the detonator of unusually violent confrontations between the left and the slave-owning planters supported by the Moderates, with Barnave as their leader. The matter was important for two reasons: it spotlighted the participation of slaves and free men of colour in a common humanity, and involved a substantial economic interest. Saint-Domingue, the most important colony, was at this time the leading sugar producer in the world, not counting its cotton, tobacco, indigo, cocoa and rum. All this agriculture was based on slave labour, provided entirely by the slave trade. Purchased in Africa and shipped out in horrendous conditions, the slaves were rapidly worn out by work; their lifespan on the island was scarcely more than ten years, after which they were replaced by new captives.32 With such a labour force at their disposal, the planters had little incentive to invest in equipment or even draught animals. But towards the end of the century the picture began to change. Slaves could only be obtained by penetrating deeper into the African continent, which made the business more expensive. It was then projected to replace the African trade by raising slaves in the colonies themselves, and to economize on labour with the help of machines and animals. In France, the Société des Amis des Noirs, founded in 1788 by the Swiss banker Clavière – with such major figures as Brissot, Sieyès, Mirabeau, Condorcet and Lafayette among its members – supported this development. Often wrongly presented as abolitionist,33 the Society supported ending the slave trade and easing the conditions of slavery in the colonies. The benefits of this would be twofold: on the one hand an improvement in yield, ‘because with the black population increasing of itself in the islands, the result would be more labour, more new land brought into cultivation, and less mortality, as it has been shown that blacks born in the islands are more hard-working, more placid, better acclimatized and consequently less prone to disease than are African blacks.’34 On the other hand, the possibility of exploiting local labour in Africa itself: ‘Would it not be more just and worthwhile to leave in Africa the men that divine providence has placed there, and teach them to cultivate a land whose riches they would bring forth?’35

But slaves were not the only problematic human beings in Saint-Domingue in the late eighteenth century: there were also the Creoles, free descendants of white colonists and African women. These free people of colour – often described in deprecating terms as ‘mulattos’ or ‘half-breeds’ – found themselves increasingly discriminated against by the colour prejudice that appeared at that time: ‘The system of segregation went as far as residential quarters: fleeing the white-dominated towns, free people of colour tended to concentrate in particular zones of the colony. A note of racial background was included in their official papers, stating the degree of mixed blood and accompanied by occupational prohibitions and exclusion from white society.’36

In the wake of disturbances in the colonies, this question was the subject of a long and tumultuous debate in the Assembly, occupying nearly ten days in May 1791. In the name of the committees on the Constitution, the colonies, the navy, and agriculture and trade, Delattre presented on 7 May a draft of a constitutional decree whose first article spelled out that ‘the legislative body shall make no law on the status of persons except on the express and formal demand of the colonial assemblies’,37 which amounted to leaving the fate of both slaves and free people of colour – the focus of the greater part of the debate – to the colonists. The committees proposed the formation of a general colonial committee: each colonial assembly would appoint commissioners, who would meet on the island of Saint-Martin.

Grégoire spoke as follows: ‘I see here only the means to a more cunning oppression, a way of perpetuating the oppression of a class of men who are free by nature and by law,38 and an attempt to reduce them to slavery by delivering them to the domination of others.’ Moreau de Saint-Méry, the main spokesman for the slave-owning planters, threatened secession:

You must either renounce your wealth and your trade, or declare frankly that the Declaration of Rights does not apply to the colonies … If you want the Declaration of Rights, then as far as we are concerned there will be no more colonies … If this is the case, I draw the necessary conclusion and I ask, by way of amendment, the deputies of the colonies to withdraw from this Assembly.

Pétion exhorted the Assembly not to cave in: ‘Will you sacrifice the existing laws and the tranquillity of the colonies to the pretensions of a few colonists? Do you believe that if there are two classes of men fully conscious of their rights, the ones condemned to slavery and the others entitled to oppress, tranquillity can last very long?’ After very heated exchanges, the debate was adjourned.

Discussions resumed on 11 May. The left demanded a vote on the previous question, thus sending the decree back to the committees. Grégoire proposed that ‘the Assembly [should enjoin] the commissioners charged with restoring order in the islands to do everything in their power to ensure that men of colour enjoy all the rights of active citizens’.39 Barnave’s reply emphasized the dangers of English competition and the need for caution; best to settle matters case by case. ‘By pronouncing on the political status of people of colour, you run the risk of losing the colonies.’

On 13 May, after a further heated discussion on the question as to which ‘persons’ were affected by the first article of Delattre’s draft, Moreau de Saint-Méry proposed a modification that removed any ambiguity: ‘The National Assembly decrees, as a constitutional article, that no law on the state of slaves in the American colonies shall be made …’40

At that point Robespierre stood up:

The moment you pronounce, in one of your decrees, the word slave, you will be pronouncing your own dishonour and the overthrow of your constitution … [T]he supreme interest of the nation and of the colonies themselves is that you conserve your liberty and do not overturn the foundations of that liberty with your own hands. Faugh! Perish your colonies, if you are keeping them at that price. Yes, if you had either to lose your colonies, or to lose your happiness, your glory, your liberty, I would repeat: perish your colonies.41

In the end, the Assembly decided to replace the word ‘slave’ by the word ‘unfree’ – which amounted to the same thing – and passed the decree that made slavery constitutional. The debate thus ended with a victory for the colonial party.42

The end of the Constituent Assembly

At almost the same moment, and in a quite surprising way, the Constituent Assembly did unanimously adopt a courageous measure, renouncing their own re-election to a future Legislative Assembly. This decision was carried on 13 May 1791 thanks to a single speech by one man, Robespierre, whose ascending star was confirmed even though he was still regularly in a minority, not to say a lone voice, in the positions he took. ‘Can you imagine,’ he said, ‘what imposing authority could accrue to your Constitution by the sacrifice, pronounced by you, of the greatest honours to which your fellow citizens could call you? … We have neither the right nor the presumption to think that a nation of 25 million people, free and enlightened, is reduced to the inability to find 720 defenders as worthy as ourselves.’43

The Constituent Assembly ceased to exist on 30 September 1791. Most representatives doubtless thought that they no longer needed to fear a royal reaction, that the people were calm, that the Revolution had come to an end, in short, that they had done their work well. Some were of a different opinion: ‘This National Assembly that was previously such a good woman, so prudent and honest, has become a shameless hussy, a prostitute sold to the highest bidder. Ambition, avarice and tricks have turned her head, and the wretch has ended up so vile that the day on which she clears off to hell will be a day of joy for all good citizens.’44

1The region was already tense, as Austrian forces were active across the border, crushing the revolution in Brabant.

2They would be released and rehabilitated by the Legislative Assembly.

3This was aimed particularly at Necker and above all Montmorin, held responsible for the repression.

4Les Révolutions de Paris, no. 53.

5Prussia and Austria met together at Reichenbach in July 1790, under English mediation. Breteuil, who acted in exile as Louis XVI’s foreign minister, sought a coalition with these two powers, along with Spain, Russia, Sweden, the pope and the Catholic Swiss cantons. But Leopold played for time, refusing Louis the 15 million he had requested, and decided that if he did send troops, it would only be when the king and queen had left Paris and published a manifesto rejecting the constitution.

6For a detailed and vivid description of the flight to Varennes, see Mona Ozouf, Varennes, la mort de la royauté, Paris: Gallimard, 2005.

7Timothy Tackett, When the King Took Flight, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004.

8Ibid., p. 16.

9These were Pétion, Barnave and La Tour-Maubourg. Michelet claims it was then that Barnave fell under the spell of the queen. Whatever the reason, this marked the beginning of his sharp turn to the right.

10Tackett, When the King Took Flight, p. 79.

11Michelet, Histoire de la Révolution française, vol. 1, p. 507.

12A. P., vol. 27, pp. 378–83.

13Mathiez, Le Club des Cordeliers, p. 47.

14Tackett, When the King Took Flight, pp. 107, 106.

15Ibid., p. 31.

16Le Moniteur, vol. 8, pp. 715–9.

17Les Révolutions de France et de Brabant, no. 82; Tackett, When the King Took Flight, p. 136.

18A. P., vol. 28, p. 311ff.

19Mathiez, Le Club des Cordeliers, p. 108. The following quotations are all from this book unless explicitly stated.

20Les Révolutions de Paris, no. 105, certainly written by Chaumette.

21These withdrew their signatures at the last minute, so that the final version was actually written on the spot by François Robert, a long-time republican, on his knee. It demanded ‘in the name of the whole of France that this decree [absolving the king] be revoked, taking into consideration that the crime of Louis XVI is proven, that the king has abdicated; accepting his abdication, and convening a new constituent body to proceed to a judgement of the guilty party and above all to the replacement and organization of a new executive power’.

22Before the arrival of the demonstrators, local inhabitants had noticed two individuals hidden beneath the altar. Accused of seeking to place a bomb, they were lynched by the crowd and decapitated. The incident would be used as a pretext for the proclamation of martial law.

23Bailly subsequently recognized this, in the Assembly (see below) and at his trial before the revolutionary tribunal. He would also be criticized for not having marched at the head of the armed force as the law specified.

24A. P., vol. 28, pp. 398–401.

25On what is now rue de Castiglione, on the corner with rue de Rivoli.

26Abbé Grégoire: ‘There then came the revisers of the Constitution, who made it that much worse’ (Mémoires de Grégoire, p. 408). The civil constitution of the clergy was no longer inscribed in the Constitution, and became an ordinary law. And though the silver marc was no longer required to be elected a deputy, the property conditions for being an elector were increased. These measures came too late to be applied in the election of the Legislative Assembly.

27A. P., vol. 25, p. 678ff.

28A. P., vol. 23, p. 218.

29See on these points: William H. Sewell, Jr, Work and Revolution in France: the Language of Labor from the Old Regime to 1848, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980, pp. 92–100.

30A. P., vol. 27, p. 210ff.

31A. P., vol. 31, p. 617ff.

32For a good explanation, see Florence Gauthier, ‘La Révolution française et le problème colonial, 1787–1804. État des connaissances et perspectives de recherche’, in M. Lapied and C. Peyrard (eds), La Révolution française au carrefour des recherches, Aix-en-Provence: Publications de l’Université de Provence, 2003, pp. 101–11.

33See for example Brissot’s article in Le Patriote français on 24 August 1789: ‘Not only does the Société des Amis des Noirs by no means demand the abolition of slavery at this time, it would be dismayed were this to be proposed.’

34‘Adresse pour l’abolition de la traite des Noirs’, February 1790, cited by Gauthier, ‘La Révolution française et le problème colonial’, p. 105.

35A. Bonnemain, Régénération des colonies, ou moyens de restituer graduellement aux hommes leur état politique et d’assurer la prospérité des nations, Imprimerie du Cercle Social, 1792, p. 43. Cited by Marcel Dorigny, ‘La Société des amis des Noirs et les projets de colonisation en Afrique’, in Révolution aux colonies, Paris: Publications des Annales historiques de la Révolution française, 1993, p. 84.

36Gauthier, ‘La Révolution française et le problème colonial’, p. 107.

37A. P., vol. 25. All the following quotations are taken from vols 25 and 36 of this work.

38According to Colbert’s Code Noir, freedmen (and also free people of colour) had ‘the same rights, privileges and immunities as are enjoyed by persons who were born free’.

39A. P., vol. 25, p. 743.

40A. P., vol. 26, p. 48.

41Robespierre, Virtue and Terror, pp. 20–1; A. P., vol. 26, p. 60.

42On 15 May, Reubell proposed an amendment: ‘The National Assembly decrees that the legislative body shall never debate the political status of people of colour who are not born of a free father and mother without the preliminary desire of the colonies expressed freely and spontaneously’, and that ‘people of colour born of a free father and mother shall be admitted to all future parochial and colonial assemblies if they otherwise meet the requisite conditions’ (A. P., vol. 26, p. 90). This amendment was opposed by the colonial party. Robespierre refused to vote for it unless the words ‘born of a free father and mother’ were withdrawn, since: ‘All free men of colour must enjoy all the rights that belong to them.’ The Reubell amendment was finally adopted unchanged.

43A. P., vol. 26, pp. 111, 123.

44Hébert, in Le Père Duchesne, no. 81, late September 1791.

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