Modern history




Reason and Unreason

July–November 1789


In July 1789, Mme de La Tour du Pin went to the spa of Forges-les-Eaux in Normandy to take the waters. Just nineteen years old, she had found the labor and birth of her second child to be particularly traumatic, and the family physician had insisted on a rest cure. Intelligent and good-natured, Henrietta-Lucy came from the Anglo-Irish Catholic clan of the Dillons, some of whom had exiled themselves to France on the ejection of King James II in 1688. By the time that she was born in 1770, they had become well established in the military nobility with regiments of their own and connections to the richest and most sophisticated families of the land. A child of the Enlightenment, like all her generation, she read deeply in Richardson and Rousseau and even the Whig Defoe. Spotting her cleverness, her worldly great-great-uncle, the Archbishop of Narbonne, had provided Chaptal (later Napoleon’s minister of the interior) as a science tutor. Armed with expertise in chemistry, physics, geology and mineralogy, she was able to tour the Dillon coal and sulfur mines in the Cévennes as an informed visitor.

Received at court by the Queen, she was also launched into the fashionable society of the liberal nobility in Paris. Lally-Tollendal was a distant cousin; the even more militantly political de Lameth brothers were her relations through marriage to de La Tour du Pin. Throughout the last pleasures of the old regime in which, as she later wrote, “we laughed and drank our way to the precipice,” Lucy remained warily sensible.

In the summer of 1789 the Revolution closed in around her family. Her distinguished father-in-law was being spoken of as Necker’s minister of war (and was soon appointed to the post). Her husband was garrisoned forty miles away at Valenciennes but, increasingly anxious for her safety, left his regiment (belatedly securing leave) to join her in Normandy. Reunited, the family spent a last idyllic vacation of the kind sharply recalled by survivors of revolutions.

On the morning of July 28, she was about to go for her usual morning ride when she heard a great commotion in the street below her apartment. Crowds of villagers were standing about sobbing, wringing their hands, praying and wailing that “they were lost.” At their center was a man in “a disreputable torn green coat,” mounted on a gray horse that was still foaming at the mouth and bloodied on the flanks from being so hard ridden. “They will be here in three hours,” he told his terrified audience; “at Gaillefontaine [about five miles away] they are pillaging everything, setting fire to the barns.” Having delivered this helpful message, he then rode off to spread the good news at Neufchâtel.

“They” in this case meant Austrian troops said to have invaded France from the Netherlands. But in the panic-stricken weeks after the fall of the Bastille, “they” could as easily have been the British marines supposed to have landed at Brest and Saint-Malo, the regiment of Swedes led by the Comte d’Artois at the northeast frontier or the thirty thousand Spanish soldiers preparing to sack Bordeaux. Most commonly “they” were said to be “brigands,” massed in armies and paid by Artois and the princes or the aristocracy in general to wreak a bloody revenge on the Third Estate for its temerity. This was a particularly gruesome prospect, since the brigands were supposed to relish atrocities like rape, dismemberment and the wholesale burning of crops, barns and cottages.

Since her husband had gone off by himself to the spa, Lucy was left alone to try to calm these agitated spirits. There was no war, she assured the villagers. Her husband, whose station was right on the frontier of the Austrian Netherlands, would certainly have known if their troops had been mobilized. But Forges was in the center of an area already made jittery by continuing food riots in Rouen, twenty-five miles to the north-west, and instructions given at Lille to sound the tocsin at the slightest sign of danger. Walking to the church, Lucy found the curé just about topull the bell rope. Appreciating that with the first chime the panic would be irreversible, she seized the priest by the collar of his cassock and attempted to remonstrate with him while physically preventing him from sounding the alarm. The waters at Forges must have restored her powers, since when her husband returned he found the two still wrestling around the bell rope. Together, the de La Tour du Pins promised to go to Gaillefontaine, where the Austrians were supposed to be encamped, and then return to disabuse the village of its fears.

The day’s excitement was not yet over. At Gaillefontaine they were confronted by peasants with rusty flintlocks demanding to know if the soldiers weren’t at Forges. A gathering of the locals seemed persuaded by calming denials until one of them, looking intently at Lucy, identified her as the Queen. For a moment she was in danger; then a locksmith, braying with laughter, insisted that the real Queen was twice as old and twice as large as Mme de La Tour du Pin. Released, husband and wife returned to Forges, where the whole village had already assumed they had been taken prisoner by the Austrians and would never be heard from again.

Scenes like this were repeated throughout eastern France from Hainaut and Picardy in the north, down through Champagne and Alsace to Burgundy and the Franche-Comté. A western trail of what contemporaries called “the Fear” marked the Poitou and reached as far as the countryside around Versailles. Even in normal times, the four thousand maréchaussée provincial constabulary would have been inadequate to deal with mass hysteria on this scale. But now that the authority of the central government had virtually collapsed, the effect of such a panic was to shatter France into fragments of self-arming militias and self-authorizing municipal communes, all mobilized to scan the horizon for armies of brigands, Spaniards or Austrians.

Sometimes the panic lasted but a matter of hours. At the tiny hamlet of Vaux, near Creil, Marie-Victoire Monnet, the eldest of a family of fifteen children, hid in a hayloft with three of her sisters. Their mother had provided them with a loaf of bread and a quarter of a Brie, enough to sustain the siege of some days expected by the village. Brigands were already said to have slaughtered the menfolk in the immediately neighboring town. After sitting for three hours in the hot, dusty, dark barn and consuming all of the bread and cheese, the girls’ terror had turned to boredom and boredom to disappointment. Marie, followed by her sisters, nervously clambered down, and with no sign of the guaranteed mayhem, returned to their house, where they found their mother and the rest of the children equally baffled by the nonappearance of the dreaded criminal element.

Elsewhere the consequences were more serious. In major cities like Lyon and Dijon, both quite close to the frontier, thousands of volunteer militiamen manned bridges and gates for weeks on end in the expectation that if they ever lowered their guard the brigands would be sure to materialize. At the same time, of course, they attempted to deal with violent attacks on grain stores, bakers’ shops and the houses of royal officials within the city limits. It was the first instance of the patrie en danger syndrome: the patriotic emergencies that would empower ever more radically punitive regimes.

The seizure of local depots of munitions and the creation of enforcing militia, accountable to improvised revolutionary committees, led later generations of royalist historians to assume that the panic was itself a plot, designed by conspirators like the Duc d’Orléans to turn France into an armed camp, irrecoverable for traditional authority. At the same time, the court, and by extension the whole of the nobility, was stigmatized as, literally, an enemy camp: foreigners who had no qualms about planning the massacre of French men and women to recover their lost privileges.

It is indeed true that the paranoid state (in both senses) that was the most obvious feature of revolutionary politics was the creation not of the Terror but of 1789. But it is equally obvious that theories of consciously organized conspiracies are themselves imaginary. The Great Fear, as its historian Georges Lefebvre pointed out, bears all the signs of a spontaneous panic.

It had happened before. In 1703, when Louis XIV’s armies appeared to be losing a war to resist the invasion of France and when famine had visited large parts of the country, the belief spread that King William III had instructed Protestant marauders to take indiscriminate revenge. Merely repeating the news that William had been dead for over a year had no effect on the hysteria. In 1789, the panic spread in the same way, by a rider abruptly appearing on a brutally ridden horse, announcing with obvious conviction that general slaughter was taking place in the next village. Very often such people were believed because they were types who were supposed to have special access to such information: innkeepers, letter carriers, soldiers. If they were men of quality their word was considered even more dependable. At Rochechouart near Limoges, on the twenty-ninth of July, for example, the Sieur Longeau de Bruyères galloped into town shouting, as he rode, that with his own eyes he had seen a massacre of old folk, women and little children. “It’s horrible, frightful; fire and blood everywhere… save yourselves… Adieu adieu perhaps for the last time…”

What he had actually seen we shall never know, although his reference to “burning houses” might have indicated one of the many fires of manorial rolls and feudal titles that were lit that summer. But much less could set off a chain reaction in the hair-trigger atmosphere of late July. And as Lefebvre noted, at a time when the provincial hunger for news from Paris was inadequately and unpredictably supplied by the mail coaches, the credibility of self-appointed “couriers” and “witnesses” was disproportionately high. Moreover, official statements had confirmed that there were indeed “brigands,” paid by the British, who were bent on sabotaging the new order with acts of random lawlessness.

So, near Angoulême, a dust storm was said to herald the arrival of the brigands. In Saint-Omer in the north and Beaucaire in the south, panic was started when a sunset seen reflected in the windows of the local château convinced people that the brigands had fired the property. In southern Champagne on the twenty-fourth, no less than three thousand men were fully mobilized to hunt down what had been reported to be a gang of brigands but which on closer inspection proved to be a large herd of cows.

The response was remarkably standard. As Mme de La Tour du Pin discovered, no one waited for further confirmation. The tocsin was rung, sending anyone in the fields running back to the village square. There a village militia would be assembled, armed with sickles and pitchforks if nothing more imposing was available. Women and children were evacuated or hidden, and the band was sent to warn the next hamlet and assist in its defense. Once on the road, however, their appearance as a motley, casually armed group would almost certainly be reported as evidence of the approach of the “brigands” they had mobilized against.

The phantom bandits were not conjured up fresh in 1789. The Great Fear was only an extremely concentrated form of general anxieties about drifters and vagrants – men without domicile who acknowledged no law – that was shared by villagers, townspeople and government officials alike in eighteenth-century France. Olwen Hufton has movingly reconstructed the great waves of migration that took the poorest rural laborers from their inadequate lots in mountainous and wooded regions down into the more densely settled plains for seasonal work at harvest time. Some provinces – among them the Auvergne in the center, the Limousin and the Pyrenees in the west and the Vosges, the Jura, the Morvan and Savoy, all in the east – lost the greater part of their male population to this wash of migration. The routes were well marked, and along them the migrants begged or often thieved fruit from orchards, eggs from unlocked hen-houses, to make up their precarious subsistence. Sometimes they came with a complete family in tow, since children always made a better effect for serious beggars.

Some never came back, remaining settled with those of their own region in immigrant quarters of big cities like Marseille and Paris. But the depression of the late 1780s simultaneously reduced the demand for harvest work and cut short the possibilities of casual labor in the construction industries, and even in the markets. At the same time, steep inflation in the price of food (for none of these people could feed themselves from their own lot) and indebtedness had turned innumerable smallholders into a rural proletariat. Hufton has traced a two-way flow of indigents in this “make-shift economy”: out from the towns back to the country in search of shrinking work, and from the villages towards the towns for the same thing.

When hardship turned into desperation, a number of those who had become accustomed to begging joined together. The line between begging and extortion became blurred, at least for the authorities who deemed errants (wanderers) to have become, successively, errants-mendiants (wandering beggars) and finally vagabonds. Criminal bands do seem to have been on the increase in the 1780s, and their occasionally spectacular exploits were widely reported and passed on by word of mouth. But it was the criminalization of poverty in official language which preyed on the general apprehensions of those only slightly superior to the destitute in the social hierarchy. What distinguished them from their imagined enemies was that, as villagers, they had stayed put to defend their patch of land or see in the harvest of 1789 (much better than that of the previous year). The local wars of July and August were, then, fought between those who had something to lose and those whom they imagined had nothing to lose.

In reality this was not the case. The violence which sparked the Great Fear was in most cases initiated not by the faceless, homeless hordes, but by settled countrymen like themselves. It was a continuation of the riots of the spring, directed against seigneurial game, the manorial rolls that recorded their obligations in kind and labor and other symbols of their subordination, like the lord’s weather vane and the emblazoned pews in church. In some clearly defined areas of France – the Norman Bocage, Picardy, Burgundy, Franche-Comté and Alsace – the attacks on châteaux were ubiquitous. In some cases, as at the great château at Senozan near Mâcon that belonged to Talleyrand’s brother, the house was literally razed. But there were remarkably few fatalities, and the attacking peas-ants were led by people who were recognizably from their own kind: some quite well-off farmers, even on many occasions the local village official, the syndic. In almost all cases, moreover, they claimed to be doing the King’s work, just as they assumed he had not merely sanctioned, but actually encouraged, them to stop paying any kind of feudal taxes. In the Franche-Comté, where the seigneurial regime was unusually antiquated, a group of armed peasants on their way to set fire to a château attempted to reassure the Baron Tricornot that “we have the King’s orders, they have been printed but don’t worry; you are not on the list.” In the Mâconnais, the curéof Péronne said that he had personally seen a paper written by hand in the name of the King that permitted peasants to enter châteaux and demand titles to seigneurial dues; if such documents were not forthcoming, they might then proceed to burn and plunder with impunity.

This distinction between violent and unlawful acts – that such violence was in fact more lawful than that of those who resisted it – had its counterpart in the urban food riots that continued to explode throughout France during the summer. In Cherbourg and Strasbourg, on the same day, July 21, demands were made for bread at two sous a pound (instead of the market rate of nearly twice as much), again on the grounds that the King had ordered his citizen-subjects to be properly provisioned. In both town and country violent anger was then directed at those supposed to be thwarting his will: municipal officials who were said to have hoarded grain and flour to drive the price up, brigands and aristocrats who to starve the people had cut grain while it stood ripening in the fields. The result in both cases was incendiary. In the towns, the human targets not only had their houses ransacked (with the cellar always playing a prominent part) but sometimes, as at Saint-Denis, lost their lives too. In the countryside, human casualties were rarer but quite often stewards and bailiffs of seigneurial estates were badly beaten up before being driven off.

The result was a wholesale breakdown in the structure of local command, swiftly followed by the formation of new armed authorities, empowered to contain the unrest. But it was also these real outbreaks of disorder which, once reported, fed the expectations of an outbreak of brigandage. Town dwellers read reports of looting and burning in the countryside as evidence that the dreaded terror threatened by émigrés and aristocrats on the Third Estate was moving inexorably towards them. Country people heard accounts of riot and destruction in the towns and assumed that squadrons of gens sans aveu – men without calling – were fanning out from Paris and the other great cities towards their fields and cottages. Within the seriously crazy world of mutual misperceptions, individuals could appear in one guise in town and another in the country.

Frédéric Dietrich, for example, the talented scientist, ironmaster and businessman, exploited the hugely destructive riot of the twenty-first of July to eject the principal royal official of Strasbourg, Klinglin, from power. In his place Dietrich became the city’s first mayor, supported by an armed citizens’ militia. In the countryside, however, the hero of the Third Estate was also known as the Baron de Dietrich, lord of Rothau, whose Schloss was threatened with assault unless he abolished all his seigneurial rights. Even more vulnerable were his iron forges and the sawmills that provided them with their fuel. These were prime targets for the inflamed hatred of the peasantry, who had seen their customary rights to timber expropriated.

The real significance of the Great Fear was the vacuum of authority it exposed at the heart of the French government. Although it created, by default, a France of a myriad of communes, this armed decentralization was not at all what most people wanted. On the contrary, as the cahiers had shown over and over again, what was wanted was more, not less, policing. The repeated invocations of the King’s august and beneficent name by people about to commit or threaten violence suggest how deep their foreboding was of the emptiness opened up by the collapse of royal power. The same people who gleefully pelted the carriages of departing intendants with stones also yearned for the restoration of some great paternal authority that would feed them and shield them from the abuses of underlings. In this sense, the popular violence of 1789 – at least outside Paris – was not meant to be in the service of innovation, but protection.

If the intention of the riots and mass arming was not revolutionary, its consequences certainly were. Peasants and townsmen alike were vividly aware that some sort of boundary had been crossed when they burned manorial titles or took their knives to the pigeon coop. They reassured themselves that they were enacting a kind of primitive moral law authorized by the National Assembly and the King and which wholly superseded the institutions by which they had been held captive. But not far from the exhilaration of release was the apprehension of punishment. What if they had been led astray? Or what if the ministers who had separated the King from his loving people for so long should prevail again? In that case a terrible fate might yet befall them.

One response to this kind of graphically imagined fear of death, as René Girard has seen in the case of antiquity, is to externalize the terror and project it onto some third party on whom the fear of death may be sacrificially concentrated. Put another way, individuals or groups held responsible for the danger in which communities find themselves are first separated from the host in which they are said to have grown powerful and then destroyed in acts that are simultaneously defiance and propitiation. France in 1789 supplied all kinds of scapegoats in this way – some imaginary, some real. For villagers in the settled communities of the Mâconnais who had taken the torch to the feudal regime, their avenging nemesis might be the woodcutters and charcoal burners of the forests and mountains of the Morvan and the Jura. For the Alsatian peasantry the aliens to be expunged were emphatically the Jews, whose houses they pillaged and burned, and whose persons they injured in what can only be described as spontaneous pogroms. Peddlers who had been known as more or less harmless itinerants hawking mole pelts, rabbit skins or quack remedies now took on the sinister aspect of poisoners. Galley slaves were another favorite group in the demonology of the Fear; their rumored imminent release by the aristocrats was said to be a prelude to terrible revenge. Some peasants even claimed to have met released galley slaves, identifying them by the branding mark of GAL on their backs or shoulders.

Most frightening of all were individuals now seen to be not properly French, not citoyens de la patrie, but foreigners, true aliens. By emigrating on July 16, Artois and Condé had revealed themselves to be the leaders of this foreign cabal. They had, it was commonly said, taken with them millions of livres’ worth of French gold to pay for the foreign mercenaries who would be the instruments of their revenge. And worst of all, tavern talk said, was Marie-Antoinette, who had only remained behind to organize the destruction of the National Assembly at its heart. Traveling through Burgundy and Franche-Comté, Arthur Young found otherwise quite intelligent and educated persons at Dijon and Besançon insisting that the Queen was preparing to mine the National Assembly, poison the King and put Artois in his place. Even more common was the story that she had written to her brother the Emperor in Vienna, asking for an invasion force of fifty thousand.

The effect of this prolonged state of anxiety was to create the politics of paranoia that would eventually engulf the entire Revolution. The notion that, between 1789 and 1791, France basked in some sort of liberal pleasure garden before the erection of the guillotine is a complete fantasy. From the very beginning, the violence which made the Revolution possible in the first place created exactly the brutal distinctions between Patriots and Enemies, Citizens and Aristocrats, within which there could be no human shades of gray.

To his dismay and intense irritation, Arthur Young found himself having to deal with passport-obsessed petty officials far more obstructive and obtuse than anything he had experienced under the old regime. Harassed repeatedly, he wrote with understandable vexation that “these passports are new things from new men in new power and show that they do not bear new honors too meekly.” As an Englishman traveling in France for no purpose local authorities could fathom (since agricultural and scientific research seemed a wildly unlikely reason to be riding on the roads of the Rhone and the Saône valleys), he came under intense suspicion. His frantic note-jotting was taken to be proof that he was a spy for the Queen, for Artois or, in the Vivarais, for the Comte d’Antraigues. Outside Besançon he was stopped for lacking a passport and then denied one on the grounds that he could prove no dependable acquaintances in the town. A hilarious encounter then followed in which the Suffolk farmer became increasingly more irate: “This is the first time I have had to deal with you Messieurs of the Third Estate and nothing gives me a very elevated idea of you gentlemen.” The official shrugged his shoulders, responding: “Monsieur, cela mest fort égal” (Monsieur, I don’t give ahang). Thoroughly exasperated, Young finally flourished the writer’s ultimate weapon: the promise to include the whole exchange in his next book. This terrible threat did not seem to reduce the official to jelly. “Monsieur, je regarde tout cela avec la dernière indifférence” (Monsieur, I regard that with the utmost indifference).

Young was repeatedly struck by the discrepancy between the expansive rhetoric of elite revolutionaries, especially in Paris, and the surly mistrust, political apathy and misinformation or chaotic violence he experienced in the provinces. As he watched a yelling mob sack the Hôtel de Ville in Strasbourg, he found it difficult to connect the scene with the grandiose sententiousness he was hearing from every side in the soirées of Paris and Versailles.

In fact, some of the most ardent disciples of change had been disturbed by matters getting out of hand. Lucy de La Tour du Pin’s kinsman Lally-Tollendal, for example, may have been hastened in his growing conservatism by the events at the Château de Saulcy, which belonged to his friends. He described Mme de Listenay fleeing from the burning château with her daughters, the Chevalier d’Ambly dragged to a dunghill with his hair and eyebrows torn out, others of their companions suspended over a well while the crowd debated what to do with them. Stanislas Clermont-Tonnerre’s family had been equally caught in the violent uprising at Vauvilliers that ended with twenty peasants either killed or seriously wounded by troops, and the Duchesse extracted from the hayloft where she had taken refuge.

It was a mixture of apprehension and demonstrative patriotism that swept up the noble and clerical deputies of the National Assembly on the night of the fourth of August. The seigneurial regime had long been eroding in France outside bastions of feudalism like Burgundy, Brittany and the Franche-Comté. In much of the country it had been converted into a form of commercial business practice, and there was no reason why the business should not continue after the formal apparatus of seigneurial power had been done away with. Typically the citizen-nobles who rose to their feet in the session of the fourth to propose and then to demand the extinction of their own customary society were from the upper crust: men like the Duc du Châtelet and the Duc d’Aiguillon, whose considerable wealth could easily withstand the subtraction of milling rights and labor levies. But those same aristocrats also had a consistent history of lending serious support to the cause of patriotic liberty that went back to their service to America in the 1770s. Thus one should not judge their famous intervention as a matter of feckless posturing or a cynical attempt to save something from the wreckage.

The outburst was unpredictable since the Assembly was ostensibly discussing the urgent need to maintain, rather than suspend, current taxes until new ones could be legislated. The Vicomte de Noailles, Lafayette’s brother-in-law, then transformed a parochial debate into a set piece of revolutionary oratory. The kingdom, he said, “floated between the alternatives of a complete destruction of society and a government which would be admired and followed throughout Europe.” To accomplish the latter it was necessary to calm the people by showing them that the Assembly was actively concerned with their happiness. With that in mind he proposed the formal obligation of all citizens to pay taxes according to their means, the abrogation of all feudal dues subject to their redemption and the outright abolition of any remnants of personal servitude like mainmorte and the corvée.

Noailles was seconded by his friend the Duc d’Aiguillon, one of the most heavily landed men in France, who specifically referred to “scenes of horror” in France and an insurrection which might be excused by the vexations endured by the people. Nothing would demonstrate better the Assembly’s commitment to equality of rights than to remove the remnants of the “feudal barbarism” of which the people complained.

It was a moment of improvised self-discovery, though it had been prepared by the cultural revolution that had taken place in the heart of the nobility since the Peace of Paris. The vanguard of the liberal nobility had long professed to want to exchange their titular status and feudal “superstitions” for the new aristocratic dignity of “citizen.” Now they had the opportunity to make good that claim. On the night of the fourth of August they took it. Following Noailles and d’Aiguillon, like nervous acolytes made giggly with the thrill of initiation, successive ducs, marquis, vicomtes, bishops and archbishops stripped themselves down to the happy nakedness of citizenship.

The Breton gentleman Le Guen de Kergall spoke of humiliating titles that “required men to be tied to the plow like draft animals” and that “forced men to spend whole nights beating swamps to prevent bullfrogs from disturbing the slumber of voluptuous seigneurs.” The Duc du Châtelet (probably to the horror of many curés in the Assembly) proposed the abolition of tithes; the Bishop of Chartres and the Marquis de Saint-Fargeau proposed the extinction of all exclusive rights of game and the authorization of peasants to kill any animals interfering with their crops or merely for their own food. The Vicomte de Beauharnais spoke of the necessity for absolute equality of criminal sentencing and equal admission of all citizens to both civil and military office, only to find himself bested by the Marquis de Blacon, who boasted that the Estates of Dauphiné, that notoriously vanguard body, had already instituted such a regime. The Marquis de Saint-Fargeau, Hérault de Séchelles’ colleague in the Parlement of Paris, not only proposed the abolition of all noble exemption from taxes but that the decree be made retrospective to the beginning of 1789.

Then followed a bonfire of particularisms. The same provincial privileges and special constitutions that had been so stubbornly defended against the reforms of the old regime as irreducible elements of the “French constitution” were now carelessly slung onto the heap of demolished anachronisms. Representatives of the old pays détats – Burgundy, Artois, Languedoc, Dauphiné, Alsace, Franche-Comté, Normandy and the Limousin – all came forward to sacrifice their privileges; they were followed by deputies of privileged cities like Lyon, Bordeaux, Marseille and, not least, Paris. Venality and heredity of offices – other “liberties” for which Maupeou and Brienne had been condemned for threatening – were likewise jettisoned, as was any kind of plurality of benefices for the clergy. Gone were Talleyrand’s portfolio of income-producing abbacies; gone were Lafayette’s proprietary regiments. It was, said Ferrières, who was himself lost in admiration, “a moment of patriotic drunkenness.”

After this tidal wave of revolutionary altruism, it was not surprising that the Archbishop of Paris proposed a Te Deum to celebrate the event. Others wanted a national feast to be held on the fourth of August each year and a special medal minted in commemoration. Through it all, Lally-Tollendal, one of the earliest and most passionate paladins of liberty, sat with an accumulating sense of unease. He was becoming educated in the callow quality of romantic inebriation and passed an urgent note to his friend the Duc de Liancourt, who was presiding. “They are not in their right minds,” he wrote, “adjourn the session.” But Liancourt was neither courageous nor foolhardy enough to try. Instead, the sunrise shone through the windows of the Salle des Menus Plaisirs as deputies wept, embraced, sang and surrendered themselves to the patriotic rhapsody. At least, thought Lally-Tollendal, the monarchy should gain some credit from the discharge of all this brotherly love.

So, last of all, he rose, and with some effort confessed himself, also, to be “drunk with joy.” Stretching the truth a good deal, he asked the deputies to remember the king at whose invitation they had been convened, who had summoned them to the joyous reunion of minds and hearts. It was, after all, in the midst of his nation that the good King Louis XII was declared “Father of his People” and it should now be in the midst of the National Assembly that they should proclaim Louis XVI “Restorer of French Liberty.”

The night of the fourth of August created a cult of self-dispossession. Giving something of one’s own to the Nation became a demonstration of patriotic probity. Those who did not have feudal titles or abbacies to give away could contribute to the hard-pressed coffers of the government through other kinds of donation. On September 7, for example, a delegation of painters’ wives, led by Mme Moitte and including Mmes David, Vestier, Vien, Vernet, Peyron and Fragonard, appeared before the Assembly to offer them their jewels as a patriotic contribution. It seems likely that (like the painters themselves) they had begun to live in the realm of neoclassical virtues, for the discarding of jewelry was highly reminiscent of the much-depicted story of Cornelia, the mother of the Gracchi, who, when asked by a visiting patrician where her jewels were, proudly presented her children. Mme Moitte and the other women were careful to dress themselves in white, hair simply coiffed as if they had stepped directly from a Roman history painting, and described the jewelry as baubles “they would blush to wear when patriotism commanded them to sacrifice.” After hearing the official recognition and vote of gratitude, the women were given a torchlight procession to the Louvre with an honor guard from the students of the Academy of Painting, while a band played the familiar air “Where Better Could One Be Than in the Bosom of One’s Family?”

Women then led the campaign for patriotic contributions. The nuns of the Priory of Belle-Chasse at Versailles sent their silver; the Marquise de Massolles her earrings; the Dame Pagès three thousand livres from her manufacturing business. The nine-year-old Lucile Arthur sent a gold chain, her savings of two louis d’or and a letter imploring the Assembly to receive them, since to decline would cause her “too much grief and pain.” Even courtesans contributed something from their hearts of gold: Rabaut Saint-Etienne on September 22 read a letter from one of the “Magdalenes” announcing to the Assembly, “Messieurs, I have a heart made for love and I have accumulated some things through loving; now I place in your hands my homage to the patrie. May my example be imitated by my colleagues of all ranks.”

While women undoubtedly set the tone, men too began to come forward and demonstrate their devotion to the common good. Camille Desmoulins’ newspaper, Les Révolutions de France et de Brabant, care-fully itemized the contributions as a way of expressing provincial solidarity with the patriotic cause. In Lyon a group of young people offered jewels and a poem dedicated to the “Fathers of the Patrie, august Senators”; eleven servants of an English milord sent 120 livres; the customers of the Café Procope (where Desmoulins himself drank with Danton and the printer Momoro) filled a tub with silver buckles from their shoes and made a chain of forty pairs that was then carried to the Assembly. Predictably an epidemic of silver-buckle removal then broke out in Paris and all the major provincial towns. To be caught with any on one’s shoes was tantamount to self-incrimination.

The French Revolution, then, began with acts of giving as well as acts of taking. But its immediate future depended on what its first citizen, Louis XVI, could bring himself to offer up for the patrie. At one point when the needs of the Treasury were particularly pressing, and when taxes still required collection from his subjects, he sacrificed much of the royal table silver for the mint. Louis XIV had, after all, melted down the silver furniture in the Hall of Mirrors when the war chest called for it. But more was being asked of this King. The sacrifice he was called on to make was of his prerogatives rather than his ingots. And that seemed an altogether more painful dispossession.

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