Modern history


Improvising a Nation


The Marquis de Ferrières to Madame de Ferrières, 20th April 1789:

I have arrived at Orléans, ma bonne amie, so I am taking a few minutes to chat with you. The journey hasn’t tired me out at all; the weather has been superb; we slept at Orléans, crossing the river even though it was nearly eight o’clock; the collapse of the bridge has created a great inconvenience for travelers. I supped with a good appetite and slept very well. My travelling companions are all good fellows. M. de Châtre is much more agreeable than I was told; he reasons well though perhaps is a little outré in his ideas. There has been a revolt at Sainte-Maure that needed a hundred men of the regiment d’Anjou. Bread at Tours cost 5 sous a pound; at Blois it costs five and a half; the people are very worried and fear dying of hunger… We bought a cask of wine at Beaugency which we shall send on to Versailles. It cost us 195 livres without counting duties and shipment but at least we can be assured of decent and not adulterated wine.

You would do well to sell some wheat at market. One never knows what may happen. Don’t forget the poor and support charity in proportion to its needs…

We shall arrive tomorrow evening in Paris, lodging in the rue Jacob, I’m not sure which hotel.

Adieu, ma bonne amie, banish all anxiety. I know your devotion too well not to fear that you may easily alarm yourself. I feel well: that’s the essential thing; for the rest, it will go as God pleases but I will fulfill my duties without obstruction, neither for nor against, according to what seems to me to be right.

Kiss my Séraphine and my Charlotte; tell them that I love them very much. Remember me to M. de La Messelière. I’ll write Thursday.

So Charles-Elie de Ferrières-Marsay, gentleman-farmer and amateur des lettres, middle-aged and even-tempered, began a correspondence of more than a hundred letters to his wife, Henriette. From the spring to the late fall she remained at their château in the Poitou to oversee the harvest and then rejoined her husband in Paris for the winter. For two years, Ferrières became engaged in the political life of his country. By the time he completed his term in the Constituent Assembly, France was utterly transformed. The King and Queen had been returned to Paris in ignominy after an abortive flight to the frontier; war with the Queen’s brother the Emperor of Austria seemed a certainty; demonstrators demanding a republic had been shot down on the Champ de Mars. To his deep dismay, Ferrières’ own brother had joined the emigration, and during the Terror, Ferrières prudently dispatched to the local Commune six sacks full of seigneurial titles, rents and other documents that the National Convention had ordered suppressed “so that they could be burned at the feet of the Tree of Liberty, according to the law.”

That little expiation would take place in a dismal autumn of the revolutionary future. But in 1789, on his way to the Estates-General as a deputy for the nobility of Poitou, Ferrières was full of vernal optimism. The smoking scenery of disaster through which his carriage ambled did nothing to depress his boyish high spirits. Others, more attuned to the fashionable culture of melancholy, might have seen something more in the collapse of the bridge over the Loire than an inconvenience to travelers. At the height of the January thaw, just as the public coach from Saumur had begun to cross, the first arch caved in. Only the spontaneous action of the driver, who cut the reins of his first horse, sending it flying into the river, saved the lives of his passengers as the remaining arches crumbled one after the other.

The Pont de Tours had been a typical construction of ancien régime modernity: carefully engineered, designed to transform commercial and human communications. It had only been opened ten years before the disaster. And much of the ebullient optimism of that time was collapsing along Ferrières’ route. Reaching Paris, he burbled excitedly to his wife of dinners, theater and his gilt buttons à la mode. Like so many provincials he was thrilled with the Palais-Royal, taking in the circus, bookshops and cafés packed with people listening to political orators. But he quickly recognized that if the moment was charged with excitement, it was also charged with danger. One evening he went to the Opéra to see Gluck’s Iphigénie en Aulide but, as he recounted to Henriette, “while I was surrendering myself to the sweet emotions that stirred my soul, blood was flowing in the faubourg Saint-Antoine.” To his horror, a family friend, the Abbé Roy, was accused of being one of the instigators of the Réveillon riot. Four days after he left Orléans there was an attack on a grain store and the pillage of a Carthusian convent, led by boatmen, masons and other artisans and their wives, armed with hatchets. As in Paris and many other cities around the country there were deaths, the intervention of troops, the formation of citizens’ defense militia. “All this makes our poor Kingdom tremble – a tissue of horrors and abominations,” wrote the shaken Marquis.

At Versailles, he recovered his nerve, for the great day was approaching on which so many impossible expectations rested. Ferrières thought of himself as a Man of the Enlightenment: reasonable, benevolent, public-spirited and, above all, cultured, in a gentlemanly way. A descendant of the poet du Bellay, he combined philosophical and scientific enquiry with literary expression. A first book, called Theism (misleadingly, since it was full of deism and in it a country priest made the unlikely comment “theology is but a science of words”), appeared in 1785, and a year later another work, Woman in the Social and Natural Order. A number of his fellow peers at their assembly at Saumur were like-minded members of the club of reason, so it is not surprising to find theircahierone of the more liberal of the order. In its preamble it already insisted on equality before the law for all citizens, worried about the overrepresentation not of the commons but the clergy, and as insistently as any cahier of the Third declared that no taxes could be raised until certain fundamental civil and political freedoms had been established.

In keeping with this patrician individualism, the assembly decided not to impose on its deputies binding instructions as to whether they should deliberate and vote by head or order. It would, somehow, be the “establishment of the constitution” that, magically, would lead them to do the right thing. Thus the Poitou nobility seems to have belonged to that “mixed” group in which it was left to political contingencies to determine their conduct.

At any rate, the issue did not weigh very heavily on Ferrières’ mind as he preened himself for the ceremonial opening of the Estates. He had discovered among the nobility the virulent hostility against Necker as the instigator of their troubles and had been taken aback by it. And he saw, with misgivings, how easily some of his fellow deputies, like the Comte de Gallissonnière, could come under the sway of court reaction and behave quite differently than they had at Saumur. But in the days before the ceremonial opening he threw himself wholeheartedly into “the pleasant and almost ridiculous side” of the proceedings: its spectacle.

Ferrières poked gentle fun at himself as he strutted his finery before Henriette in a letter: “black silk coat… waistcoat of gold or silver cloth; lace cravat, plumed hat”; and for those in “grand mourning” (among whom he decided to count himself) the hat would, like the King’s, be à la Henri IV with its brim turned up at the front. The Marquis grumbled that the hat would set him back at the very least 180 livres (or a third of the average stipend of the country curates who made up a majority of the order of the clergy). But, instinctively, he understood that the matter of dress, as well as other aspects of the protocol, was not at all trivial. It was an integral part of a spectacle designed to suspend disbelief. In the place of skepticism, there was to be awe and exhilaration on the part of both participants and beholders. Through enactment, they were meant to feel themselves incorporated into a ritual of France Renovated: past, present and future arrayed and harmonized like some Ovidian metamorphosis. It was to be a second rising of the sun that had labored so hard to climb over the horizon on coronation day fourteen years before.

For Ferrières the strategy certainly worked. Throughout the opening ceremonies he was beside himself with patriotic ardor. On the sixth of May he wrote to Henriette in a tone of almost mystical devotion to the Idea of France – “France where I was born; where I spent the happiest days of my youth; where first was engendered my moral sensibility…” Evidently he had not minded the excruciatingly drawn-out reception of the deputies by the King on May 2. Instead, his heart had risen like the lark to the fanfare of silver trumpets, blown by heralds, seated on white chargers and dressed in purple velvet embossed with the fleur-de-lis. On Monday the fourth of May, he had beheld Louis XVI, greeted by flutes and drums at the Church of Notre Dame, enthroned with his family and court as choirs sang the Veni Creator. Then he had walked in procession to the Church of Saint-Louis behind the Cent Suisses with their Renaissance coats, paneled with lozenges of scarlet and gold; behind the Royal Falconers, who rode with hooded birds attached to their wrists. His own order followed – a river of silk, lace and plumage flowing between banks of Gobelin tapestries that were draped over the houses lining the streets.

Even as he marched slowly along, hearing the occasional shout of “Vive le Roi,” the rational side of Ferrières began to assert itself, and his reflections grew suddenly more somber. “France here showed itself in all its glory. But I said to myself, Could saboteurs, the ambitious, wicked men engaged only in their selfish interests, succeed in disuniting everything great and honorable so that all this glory would vanish like smoke blown away with the wind?” But at the place Saint-Louis he surrendered himself again to the ceremonial magic.

The beautiful windows decorated with the prettiest women, the variety of hats, feathers, gowns; the sympathetic gentleness expressed on everyone’s face, the drunken joy that shone from all eyes; the clapping of hands; gestures expressive of the tenderest concern; the looks that greeted us and followed us even when we were lost from sight. Oh my dear France, amiable and good people, I have made an eternal alliance with you. Before this day I had no patrie; now I have one and it will always be dear to me.

As Ferrières uneasily sensed, though, the very means used to induce his flight of patriotic rapture worked against it being shared by the Third Estate. Historically, public ritual that supported the myth of a single community deliberately gave great prominence, in costume and banners, to precisely those groups that were, in reality, excluded from power. So in Renaissance Venice or seventeenth-century Amsterdam, on days of parade, confraternities and militiamen fully shared in the color and show of the festivity. Through this incorporation myth was much more than a pretext for fancy dress: it generated and bonded allegiance.

The exact opposite happened in the first week of May at Versailles. The opening of the Estates-General was treated not like a public occasion in which rank would be dissolved into patriotic duty, but as an extension of court ceremony. Instead of being inclusive, it was exclusive; instead of opening up space, it closed it off. Instead of reflecting the social reality of late eighteenth-century France in which station was actually eroded by property and culture, it asserted an anachronistic hierarchy. Necker may have feared this. Like Turgot in 1775 he wanted the ceremonies to be perfunctory and the occasion to be moved to Paris. When the King declined, he was captive to the expertise of masters of ceremonies and those who laid down the law about historical precedent. Much of this was spurious. The chapeau à la mode de Henri IV actually owed more to the Henri IV fashions of the 1780s than to serious antiquarian research into the costume of 1614. Tradition was being reinvented for the occasion just as coronations in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Britain would manufacture it to invest the monarchy with an imperial aura.

The consequence of all this was to ensure that the form of the Estates-General was at war with its substance. The more brilliantly the first two orders swaggered, the more they alienated the Third Estate and provoked it into exploding the institution altogether. From the beginning they were stung by gratuitous slights. While the King received the deputies of the privileged orders in the cahinet du roi, those of the Third were removed to another hall where they filed past him like a crocodile of sullen schoolboys. Their costume was as dowdy as that of the clergy and nobility was lustrous. In black from head to foot, they looked like crows amidst peacocks or like stage caricatures of the bourgeois: a convention of apothecaries. Some of them, however, taking a cue from Franklin’s costume of the honnête homme, knew how to turn this humiliation totheir own advantage. One old man from Rennes, Michel Gérard, had refused to wear the assigned black-and-white costume and took his seat in the Salle des Menus Plaisirs dressed in brown fustian. Instantly recognizable as “Père Gérard,” he looked the very picture of rustic virtue, as though he had modeled for Moreau’s engravings of Rousseau’s works.

But there was another immensely commanding presence among the deputies of the Third that defied absorption into an undifferentiated throng. Sheer size singled out Mirabeau: a mountain of flesh and muscle crammed with difficulty into black coat and hose. His already remarkable height was extended by celebrated bolts of hair brushed back and piled up into a Gothic tower of fantastic cloudy forms. At the back, hanks of it fell into a black taffeta bag that swung about his shoulders. Some compared this shaggy brute with Samson, who drew his strength from his locks. Others, like the deputy Adrien Duquesnoy, thought he resembled a tiger whose expression was disfigured in a snarl when he sounded off. Fully conscious of this reputation as a wild man, Mirabeau made the most of it, throwing his head back as he walked, in an exaggerated gesture of unappeasable disdain. To everyone who saw him – and people craned their necks to do so – he was a force of nature: pagan, dangerous and uncontainable within clothes or custom. His huge face seemed to have been formed by some volcanic eruption that had cooled, possibly temporarily, into a crust of pumice: pitted with dark holes, scabs and craters. (Its remarkable surface was the result of his mother’s misguided faith in a herbal healer who had smeared his smallpox pustules with a concoction from which it had never recovered.) Germaine de Staël, who had no reason to appreciate a man who publicly calumniated her father, Necker, for vanity and pusillanimity, confessed that it was impossible to take her eyes off this apparition once it had been beheld.

Honoré-Gabriel Riqueti, Comte de Mirabeau, but deputy for the Third Estate, had long understood how to trade on his appearance and, just as important, his history. His father, Victor, was already a practitioner of the paradoxes of nobility, styling himself theAmi des Hommes and, before he abruptly turned physiocrat, transposing his brand of Provençal feudal paternalism into a theory of social relations. “The Friend of Man,” his son tartly remarked, “was friend to neither wife nor children.” Mirabeau grew up in embattled defiance of his alarming father, hating him, yet in many ways doomed to resemble the person he hated. Mirabeau père fell for his wife’s maid, installed her in the house and eventually turned his tormented wife out, as she complained in her suit against him, without a patch of clothing. Blaming his father but little loved by his mother – who at one point shot at him with a pistol and missed – Mirabeau fils embarked on a long, spectacular career of philandering. He became another Casanova but not in the sense in which Casanova is usually misread as the relentless discharger of libido, rather the true Casanova, who fell absurdly in love with virtually every pretty woman he beheld. Gabriel’s stupendous ugliness, like Talleyrand’s limp, was no handicap in these conquests. He used it as an instrument of desire and accompanied it with a booming baritone that might have been made for the ardent crescendi demanded by Romanticism. He was, in short, like his father: sublime and terrible.

In the army, Mirabeau served in the French invasion of Corsica in 1769, helping to extinguish its freedom in the year of Napoleon Bonaparte’s birth. Forbidden a military career by Victor, he spent the rest of his young manhood leading a gypsy life: writing inflammatory tracts; eloping with heiresses, seducing wives; running up debts that amazed even the Provençal nobility; doing everything he possibly could to guarantee the rage of his father. But in old-regime France paternal rage could take the form of imprisonment, and Victor had Gabriel locked up for his delinquency, first on the Château d’If in the Midi; later, when he had run away with Sophie Monnier, but had been caught in Amsterdam and the lovers separated, in the Château de Vincennes. Though this latter detention lasted a full three years, from 1777 to 1781, it was not as much of an ordeal as Mirabeau made it sound, since he enjoyed private quarters, amiable companions and even a private garden in which (naturally) he could attempt the seduction of his jailor’s wife.

It was a Dutch girl who finally succeeded, for a while, in taking Mirabeau off the boil. She too had complicated paternal relations, being the illegitimate daughter of a famous Dutch writer, Onno Zwier van Haren. In a disingenuous exercise that revealed more than it concealed, he had given her the surname “Nehra” as an anagram of his own. Over the course of their wanderings in Holland, London, Paris and Berlin, Henriette-Amélie (“Yet-Lie,” Mirabeau called her, rather unfunnily), from the land of water, quenched Mirabeau’s fire and made him, for the first time, a reflective man: someone capable of self-knowledge. More than is usually appreciated Mirabeau’s politics were the product of intelligent roving: a kind of magpie cosmopolitanism. From the Dutch he picked up the rhetoric of Patriot polemics and the history of heroic republicanism; from the English, an institutional model for representation; from the Genevan Swiss, journalistic practice. But his flair for temerity and the theatrical gift through which it was communicated was pure Riqueti.

In 1789 he broke with “Yet-Lie” but he finally exorcised the demon of paternal wrath by becoming, in the eyes of the Provençal population, their collective father: le père de sa patrie, as he was called in public. He returned to his native region in that exceptionally wintry January to seek election as a noble deputy to the Estates-General. Provence, being a pays d’ état, was permitted election through its provincial Estates. Spontaneous resistance to this arrangement had already expressed itself at a “General Assembly” of the towns, convened by their mayors at Lambesc the previous May. And that resistance had been given greater momentum through inspirational example in the Dauphiné and the pamphlet campaign of the fall. In December a petition signed by over two hundred contradicted the right of the Estates to monopolize the representation of the province.

The reform movement was made possible precisely because it had allies within the nobility and clergy. The Estates had foolishly sustained the tradition of excluding all nobles without fiefs – manorial estates – from their order. Within the clergy, there was bitter resentment among impoverished village curates at the enormous wealth of the bishops, all of them drawn predictably from the leading aristocratic dynasties, and they were supported in this hostility by a substantial population of Protestants in the region. Within the towns, the mayors and aldermanic “consuls” were equally drawn for the most part from the wealthier sector of the privileged and drew on themselves the antagonism of both journeymen and masters of the guilds.

Finally, but not least, Provence was going through an acute food crisis, and popular anger focused on the list of identifiable villains to blame for it. A new representation of citizens, it was believed – as it was believed throughout France – would provide the answer. Mirabeau was quick to pick up on the significance of all this and to cast himself as the noble champion of the People. He announced this role even in the procession of the Estates at Aix, where he carefully placed himself a distance apart from and behind the file of nobles and thus some distance ahead of the Third.

Inside the assembly Mirabeau attacked the legality of its constitution. Whom did it purport to represent? The nobility did not represent the many without fiefs; the clergy did not represent the humble pastors of the Church, and as for the Third, it was nothing but a bunch of mayors, many of them aristocrats themselves who were cravenly dependent on the privileged for their office. “Woe to the privileged orders, for privileges will cease, but the People are eternal” was the threatening prophecy of his peroration. Taken aback by the outburst, and alarmed by the wild acclaim which greeted it from the public galleries, the President of the assembly suspended the proceedings in an attempt to gag Mirabeau. It was of no avail. Within twenty-four hours he produced a fifty-six-page manifesto,To the Provençal Nation, distributed on the streets of Aix.

On the pretext that the credentials for his qualifying fief or estate were not in order, Mirabeau was then barred from the Estates, but this of course only added to his popularity. Everywhere he went, he was surrounded by jubilant crowds chanting his name, snaking about his sedan chair in Provençal dances, serenading him with shrieking fifes and jangling tambourines. At Marseille, palms were strewn blasphemously at his feet and laurels crowned his brow. Mothers offered the most famous debauchee in France their infants to cuddle and kiss. At Lambesc the church bells tolled in his honor and his considerable weight was borne aloft on strong shoulders. “My friends,” he responded with a word for all occasions, “men were not made to carry a man, and you support too much already.”

Drinking in this spontaneous adulation Mirabeau was cool enough to know how to exploit it. Together with the lawyer Brémont-Julien, who acted as the manager of his election campaign, he put together the features of a custom-designed public personality: the Tribune of the People. In Aix (where memories of Rome ran strong) he compared himself with Marius of the Gracchi, harried by the patricians. In Marseille he produced his own promotional pamphlet purporting to come from “A Citizen of Marseille to one of his Friends on MM. Mirabeau and Raynal.” After a few obligatory comments on Raynal, the author of an immensely popular indictment of European colonization, Mirabeau proceeded with a shy description:

This good citizen [is] the most eloquent man of his time; his voice dominates public meetings as the thunder overbears the roaring of the sea; his courage arouses yet more astonishment than his talent and there is no human power that could make him abandon a principle.

Mere bombast, though, would not have been enough to give Mirabeau credibility. His blood may have boiled, but his head was cool enough to retain full self-possession in crisis. Most crucially for revolutionary circumstances, he knew how to use his immense standing with the crowds of the cities and villages of Provence to contain riot. For by late March, much of the province had become ungovernable. The first target was the episcopacy. On the fourteenth, the Bishop of Sisteron had barely escaped stoning at Manosque. At Riez the Bishop had to ransom himself and his palace for fifty thousand livres, but his counterpart at Toulon was not given the option. His palace was torched as companies of sailors and troops declined to come to his rescue. Attacks on châteaux in the country-side became commonplace. “There is open war here on landowners and property,” wrote the intendant, de La Tour. And all of it was being carried out in the name of the King’s will and pleasure!

On the twenty-third, the town hall of Marseille and the headquarters of the intendant were wrecked and looted. Riding hard from Aix, Mirabeau took command from the unnerved military governor, de Caraman, and became, on the spot, a self-authorized provisional dictator, prohibiting the departure of a grain ship from the port, organizing a citizens’ militia (the first of its kind in France), distributing red rosettes as the insignia of his revolutionary authority. The town was full of addresses, orders and exhortations all written by him, printed up and posted in marketplaces where once the edicts of the King had been attended to.

The tone of these notices, moreover, announced a new political language: that of conversational brotherhood. Their hero was no longer “the Count” but plain “Mirabeau,” who spoke directly to “the People.” His speech was not so much written as uttered, much as one might explain something in a company of drinking friends. It was the diction of transparency: of the honnête homme of Rousseau’s ideal. Mastering its expression, Mirabeau was bold enough not only to try to calm the inflamed feeling of the Marseillais but even to justify taxation:

My good friends, I have come to tell you what I think about the events of the past three days in your proud city. Listen to me, I want only to be helpful to you and not deceive you. Each one of you wants only what is good because you are all honest men; but not every one of you knows what needs doing. One often makes mistakes even about one’s own interest. Let us first consider bread… At the present time, dear friends, since wheat is expensive everywhere, how could it be cheap at Marseille?… The town of Marseille, like every other town, pays something toward the expenses of the kingdom and the support of our good king. Money is taken from this source and a little from that…

Two days later, Aix followed Marseille in a riot, answered with troops firing into the crowds. The Archbishop, a Breton, was terrified. “The common people in their hatred threaten nothing but death and speak of nothing but tearing our hearts out and eating them.” Mirabeau was once again summoned as a pacifier, creating a citizen militia to provide an order that would be trusted by the people and distributing bread at regulated prices. Not surprisingly all these efforts paid off handsomely. He was elected by substantial margins for the Third Estate at both Aix and Marseille. After flattering orations to the citizens of Marseille to avoid giving offense, he finally decided that he would go to Versailles as the deputy for Aix.

By his own account Mirabeau was not just esteemed. He was loved. The black sheep of his family had become the white knight of the People. The man whose own reactionary brother hated and despised him had a whole province of brothers. The son who could never please his implacable father had become father to a country of adopted children. “I was obeyed like an adored father,” he wrote of this time, “women and children bathed my hands, clothes, steps, with their tears.”

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