Modern history



September 1791–August 1792


On the eighteenth of September 1791, a hot-air balloon, trailing tricolor ribbons, floated above the Champs Elysées to announce the formal acceptance of the constitution by the King. Though not without some misgivings, Louis had come to the Constituent four days earlier, to swear “to maintain it at home and defend it against attacks from abroad and to use all the means which it places in my power to execute it faithfully.” The Queen had told him to indicate his acceptance with dignified terseness, and he made an effort to make it sound conditional on the Assembly’s resolution “to re-establish order.” But during the session he sat in an armchair conspicuously on the same level as that of the President of the Assembly, scandalizing the royalist right. No less than 150 of them declared they would never adhere to a document signed under duress by a “prisoner-king.” At the same time, the left poured scorn on the notion that the fugitive of Varennes could possibly be acting in good faith.

That, however, still left a broad majority in the center. Ferrières, for one, believed the King had been chastened by his experience and clung to the constitution as a protection against both counter-revolution and anarchy. So for the moment, at any rate, innocent festivities drowned out the noise of dissent. A Te Deum was sung in Notre Dame; and when the King and Queen appeared at the Opára for a suitably penitential performance of Oedipus at Colonus, they were greeted, for a change, with rousing cheers. Illuminations and fireworks lit the autumn night skies, and at public dances toasts were drunk to the constitution and the new era it announced.

The completion of what was declared to be the “Gospel” of the Revolution signified the end of the long travail of the Constituent Assembly. Though altered by defections, withdrawals and a few substitutions, it was still, for the greatest part, the same body of men who had arrived as members of three separate orders in Versailles in May 1789. Now the product of their labors began with a preamble declaring:

there is no longer any nobility nor peerage nor hereditary distinctions of orders nor feudal regime nor patrimonial justice nor any title, denomination or prerogative… there is no longer venality nor heredity in any public office and neither for any section of the nation nor for any individual can there be any exemption from the common law of the French.

It was one of the most astonishing collective personality changes in political history, this transformation from a realm based on ceremonially defined orders and corporations to that of the uniform entity of the sovereign nation. But the concept on which it was created was not, of course, invented in the two years since the calling of the Estates-General. In many respects the constitution was the realization of an Enlightenment project: of d’Argenson’s dream of a “democratic monarchy” grounded on the political obliteration of the nobility.

Now that it was instituted and the long travail of the Assembly was coming to an end, there were increasingly frequent attempts to proclaim that the Revolution was finished. Adrien Duport had announced this in May; Le Chapelier made the same claim in proposing a law to restrict the freedom of clubs in September; and a majority in the Assembly endorsed a resolution proclaiming a terme to the Revolution. No one was more concerned than Barnave that France should emerge from a perpetual state of “becoming” to one of institutional arrival. Well before he had sat in the coach between Louis and Marie-Antoinette, making polite conversation and playing with the Dauphin, Barnave had been convinced of the need to strengthen the monarchy and defend the central organs of the French state against perpetual threats of popular insurrection. In fact his thoughts on these matters were very close to Mirabeau’s. But ever since his sniping at the now officially designated “Grand Homme” in the National Assembly, Barnave had made a career out of outflanking Mirabeau on the left. With his old adversary dead he was free to adopt many of his cautionary ideas. Neither was Lafayette a stumbling block any longer. Even before the King’s flight there had been a conspicuous warming between the General and the Lameths, and Lafayette’s embarrassment in June meant that he was easier to co-opt into Barnave’s plans to use force, if necessary, to terminate the insurrectionary phase of the Revolution.

With these two alternative centers of power effectively neutralized, Barnave assumed leadership of those who had an interest in making the constitutional monarchy operational. He was supported by those who had been his closest associates in the old Jacobins – Duport, Le Chapelier and the Lameths – and who now dominated the Feuillants. They all shared the general view that the “new” France would not survive repeated physical intimidation from the Paris sections, unrestrained polemics from the clubs and the press and most important of all, the democratization of discipline in the army and navy. At the same time, they believed it necessary to protect the state from any kind of counter-revolutionary plots or armed incursions. The wave of strikes and labor riots in the spring had also convinced them that the Turgot side of the modernization project of the Revolution – a liberal economic order – would also require protection against the social collectivism of revolutionary artisans and their advocates in the Cordeliers and Fauchet’s Cercle Social.

Barnave’s strategy in dealing with these challenges was carefully worked out. Having brushed off the threat of republicanism after Varennes, he negotiated secretly with the Queen, whom he expected to be sufficiently grateful to listen attentively to his advice. He counseled her to forswear, forever and in good faith, any kind of flirtation with armed counter-revolution; to make sure her brother the Emperor withdrew support from the émigrés; and to have the King persuade his brothers to return to France. In return for this he was prepared to work for the revision of the constitution so that it would strengthen the role of the royal executive. And throughout August and September, a lively and regular correspondence flew back and forth between Barnave and Marie-Antoinette. “The constitution,” the Queen had written, “is a tissue of impracticable absurdities.” “No no,” he had protested, “it is très monarchique,” and if only the King and Queen would try to establish “confidence and make themselves loved,” all France’s troubles would be over; “no prince of Europe would be more solidly seated on his throne than the King of France.”

Yet nothing very radical emerged from all Barnave’s efforts in the Assembly to strengthen the executive. He failed to secure the bicameral parliament, with ministers chosen from the Assembly, that (he now agreed with Mirabeau) would be most likely to escape deadlock between the separate branches of the constitution. But his work was not completely fruitless either. Under the new provision, the King could choose his own ambassadors and was officially made commander in chief of the army; his ministers were permitted to defend policies before the Assembly. Even amendments which appeared to be more democratic – for example, the abolition of the silver mark (equivalent to fifty days’ wages) as a fiscal criterion for eligibility to the legislature – were in fact a concentration of power. While the franchise was broadened for elections to local offices like justice of the peace, real estate ownership became the criterion for membership in the electoral college and eligibility as deputy. In practice this translated into anarrowerelectorate at the levels where it really counted – which was exactly the social strategy that reflected the boundaries of the cultural elite of the 1770s and 1780s and which created the long-lived “notabilities” of nineteenth-century France. In practice this meant that in a relatively poor department like the Aveyron, for example, this political power would lie in the hands of just two hundred-odd citizens who fulfilled the eligibility criteria.

This program did not go unchallenged. On September 29, the penultimate day of the Assembly’s life, RenéLe Chapelier, speaking for the constitutional committee, tried to hurry through a law that would have the most profound consequences for French political life. It proposed an emasculation of political clubs by returning them to the status of private associations or organizations authorized to “instruct” citizens, in the tamest manner, on the content of decrees already passed by the legislature. Any kind of petitioning movement, any sort of critical examination of the conduct of the government and, most of all, any attacks on deputies of the Assembly would be construed as seditious and the malefactors deprived of their rights as citizens for a specified period of time. For the same reasons, affiliations between organizations would also be prohibited as conspiratorial threats to legally authorized institutions. It was, in other words, a crucial weapon (as was a similar law introduced by Duport to curb the press) in the Feuillant offensive against popular insurrection.

Le Chapelier justified the law with an eloquent analysis of the Revolution, praising the clubs for “rallying minds, forming centers of common opinion” in the “time of storms,” but insisting that now that “the revolution is terminated” such “spontaneous institutions” had to give way before the crucial principle of the uncontested sovereignty of the people, vested in representatives. “The time of destructions is past,” Le Chapelier proclaimed, “everyone has sworn to the Constitution; everyone calls for order and public peace; everyone wishes that the Revolution be over: these, now, are the unequivocal signs of patriotism.” Only those “perverse or ambitious men” who wanted to manipulate the clubs for their own purposes and foment campaigns of libel against honest citizens could possibly object to the measure.

Le Chapelier’s peroration was interrupted by a familiar high-pitched metallic voice coming from a slight bony man with immaculately curled and powdered hair and steel-rimmed spectacles. It was probably the aspersions cast by Le Chapelier on the supporters of political clubs that prompted an outburst from Maximilien Robespierre, who insisted that he be given the opportunity to respond, since a law had been proposed in direct conflict with principles of the constitution. But from the long speech that followed, it was evident that Robespierre had been carefully preparing for this confrontation. Since his own eloquence had persuaded the deputies to disqualify themselves from reelection to the new legislature, this would be the last occasion to impress on them, and the political nation beyond, his emphatic denial that the Revolution was indeed accomplished if not actually dead and buried.

It was the climax of his political career up to this point. In 1789 he had come to the Estates-General with two black suits, one wool, one velour; he was the fifth deputy of the Third for Arras, and a pure nonentity. Since then he had made more than a hundred and fifty speeches, sixty in the nine months of 1791 alone, and had survived brutal heckling in the Assembly and withering ridicule in the conservative press to become the manifest leader of the revolutionary left. He had done this largely by sheer consistency in a political world already notable for changes of mind and heart. The absolute conviction that he brought to his speeches, that only those of unimpeachable integrity could be made responsible for the public good, provoked mirth among the witty but as time went on the laughter became progressively more uncomfortable.

These lessons in moral earnestness he had learned from his lawyer father, from devotion to the precepts and life of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and from the passion for Latin history and oratory that earned him annual prizes at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris as well as the nickname “the Roman.” Robespierre had been sent to this most famous of the Oratorian colleges on a scholarship, the protégé of his local bishop, yet another success story of the old regime’s characteristic meritocracy. His years there formed a personality that would be exclusively committed to politics and, moreover, the intensely moral politics recommended by Rousseau: the reforming state must needs be a school of virtue, one capable of bringing about a great moral regeneration in individuals and in its collective life, or else it forfeited the right to allegiance. In his early trial cases in Arras, defending M. Vissery’s lightning conductor and in 1788 an army officer who had been imprisoned by his own family under a lettre de cachet, Robespierre made his clients embodiments of general principles: victims in a Manichaean struggle between virtue and vice, freedom and tyranny. This kind of righteous indignation became his natural form of utterance, no less dramatic when spoken, as it often was, in tones of threatening and studious calm. And it found a responsive audience beyond the Assembly in a whole generation of like-minded young Ciceros and Catos waiting for the republic of virtues to be inaugurated. As early as August 1789 Robespierre received an adoring letter from one such obscure devotee, Antoine Saint-Just:

You who sustain the vacillating country against the torrent of despotism and intrigue, you whom I know as I know God by your miracles, I address myself to you, monsieur, to beg you to join with me in saving my poor region. I don’t know you but you are a great man. You are not merely the deputy of a province, you are the representative of humanity and the republic.

Through the two years of the Constituent, Robespierre had done his best to live up to this weighty vocation by speaking out candidly on every topic that aroused his interest. The more his views placed him in a minority, the more eloquent he became – urging the emancipation of Jews and slaves, the abolition of the death penalty, the stripping from the monarch of any kind of veto whatsoever. During the crisis of 1791, with Danton in England and much of the radical press shut down, his own part in sustaining the confidence and above all in articulating the legitimacy of the militant revolution was crucial to its survival. The desertion of the Jacobins by the Feuillants only gave him an unopposed forum for his views, and he exploited the occasion to pin on his enemies the blame for the continuing schism, knowing that a majority of the thousand affiliated clubs in the provinces wanted nothing so much as a reunion.

It could hardly be said that he had a private life, since it was an article of faith that private and public were, for the true patriot, dissolved in a single existence of unselfish activism and moral regularity. But his domestic arrangements were well known and advertised as exemplary. From mid-1791 he lodged with the family of the Duplays in the rue Saint-Honoré. Duplay was a carpenter and cabinet maker but hardly a poverty-stricken son of toil, since besides his house he owned two other properties in Paris and employed a dozen journeymen. He was, in fact, exactly the kind of educated small tradesman glorified in Rousseau’s panegyrics to craft and in Greuze’s genre rhapsodies. Settled in a small room with writing desk and chair, Maximilien Robespierre emerged in the evenings to take a simple meal and read to the Duplay girls Corneille or Rousseau while peeling the oranges of which he was inordinately fond.

His other home was the Jacobins, where he felt safe among friends, as he did not in the Assembly. After the July split, his sense of moral proprietorship was even more marked, so that he would enter with studied informality, sit down at the very back of the vaulted room, cross his legs and wait for something of interest to strike him. Speakers at the tribune must have wilted on sighting the powdered hair and the thin, long nose cross the threshold.

Robespierre’s speech refuting Le Chapelier was a typical example of the genre he had made his own. Its distinctive technique was the presentation of general principles as an account of his own personal life and standing. This oratory of the ego also attracted criticism from the ironically disposed but it corresponded brilliantly to the confessional manner invented by Rousseau. It also probed the emotions much more directly than the deliberately quiet, slightly fussy manner of speaking suggested. Passages, moreover, were invariably punctuated by professions of martyrdom, of invitations to death rather than the living ignominy of pragmatism, which heightened the dramatic pitch of the sentiment and made Robespierre sound exactly as though he were intoning lines from Corneille or Racine. He even adopted from the theater the mannerism of pausing lengthily after especially telling lines to let the full import sink in.

To Le Chapelier, and by extension to all the moderates, he retorted that what they sought was in direct and irrefutable conflict with the most important principles of the constitution: the right to assemble peacefully, to speak in freedom on matters of public concern and by writing or publishing to communicate with other like-minded citizens. Brushing aside Le Chapelier’s furious interruption – “M. Robespierre knows not a word of the Constitution” – he then returned to one of his favorite refrains, scored to melodies composed by Jean-Jacques: the “unmasking” of hypocrites. How dare Le Chapelier patronize the clubs by pretending to acknowledge their services when his real purpose was their destruction and for that matter the destruction of all constitutional freedoms? So the Revolution is finished, is it? “I don’t quite understand what you could mean by this proposition,” said Robespierre, affecting bewilderment, since to believe the Revolution to be truly finished presupposes the solid establishment of the constitution. And everywhere he looked he saw enemies, within and without, concerting to sabotage it. He then built up to a tremendous crescendo, using the phrase “I see” over and again as he surveyed the scene of perils to the patrie, not least from men “fighting less for the Revolution than for their own domination under the name of the monarch.” Then came the usual offer of salutary martyrdom: patriotic paranoia at its most creative.

If I am forced to use another kind of language, if I have to cease to speak against the projects of enemies of the patrie; if I must applaud the ruin of my country, well then order me to do what you will; let me perish myself before the death of liberty.

Finally, Robespierre turned himself into the implacable Roman tribune:

I know that my candor has something harsh about it, but it is the only consolation that can remain to good citizens in the danger in which these men [contemptuous wave of the hand] have placed the public interest, to judge them in a severe manner.

Inside the Constituent, there was a war of the claques, but the Feuillants had enough votes to have their law enacted, even though it would never be enforced. Robespierre’s speech, however, ensured him a public triumph. On the following day, when the Assembly finally ended its own existence, he was carried on the shoulders of a huge cheering crowd along with Jérôme Pétion, the hero of the working faubourgs. On a trip back to Artois the acclamation became something like an apotheosis, with his carriage mobbed wherever he went, flower petals raining down on his smartly coiffed hair. When he returned to Paris to establish a newspaper that would continue to project his views now that the parliamentary forum was denied him, its title, La Défenseur de la Constitution, did not seem absurdly grandiose.

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