Modern history

Penguin walking logo


War and Terror (1791–5)


‘This assembly’, Marie-Antoinette secretly confided to her beloved Fersen, ‘ … is a gathering of scoundrels, madmen and fools.’1 The queen’s trenchant view of the Legislative Assembly, which met for the first time on 1 October 1791, augured ill for the spirit of conciliation which Barnave had enjoined upon the royal couple since Varennes. The summer elections under the property franchise of the new constitution (the latter a mere ‘tissue of absurdities’, as far as the queen could see)2 had produced a kind of Second Coming of the Third Estate. Among the 745 new deputies, there were only a score of nobles, none of whom owned to flagrantly counter-revolutionary views and indeed most of whom the queen would regard as class renegades, like the philosophe marquis, Condorcet. There were precious few patrician prelates either – the only bishops among the twenty or so clerics elected were constitutional ones like former Cercle Social activist Fauchet. On the whole, the new delegation was young – but unflashily solid. ‘New to glory’, as Necker sourly remarked,3 most were lawyers and middle-rank professionals, who owed their election to service in the lawcourts and bureaucracy of the new state. These men were the Revolution’s children, beyond deference, versed in constitutionality, trained in Revolutionary rhetoric and committed to an ideal of social improvement formulated in the Enlightenment. Elected during the summer of Varennes, they cherished few illusions about the king – a fact which revived Orléans’s dynastic hopes (though not for long). They took some time to get the hang of Parisian politics – 136 of them joined the famed Jacobin Club on arriving in Paris, but most left for the Feuillants when they were apprised of the post-Varennes split, leaving only around fifty hard-core Jacobins.

From the very start, foreign policy, which had hardly appeared on the radar of their predecessor, was at the heart of the preoccupations of the new deputies. The Constituent Assembly had tried to keep its nose clean in international company, deliberating on 22 May 1791 that the French nation renounced dynastic wars of conquest on the Ancien Régime model. But it was unable to avoid the need for careful, technically adept diplomacy required as a result of Avignon’s quest for annexation into France and of the wish of German princes who had feudal and seigneurial rights within French frontiers to be exempted from their abolition on the Night of 4 August. It was less these inherited issues which dominated the minds of the new assembly, however, than the perceived threat to national security caused by the émigrés, who had set about winning military support for their cause from foreign powers. Following Varennes, the Austrian Emperor had wanted to show support for his sister and brother-in-law and agreed to the so-called Pillnitz Convention of 27 August, whereby he joined with Frederick William II of Prussia to threaten intervention in France if the royal family were harmed. The proviso which he attached – combined action on the part of the powers – in fact made the threat hollow, for it was evident that England would not commit to adventurism. Furthermore, the eastern states – Austria, Prussia and Russia – were more concerned with affairs in Poland, which they would partition between them in 1793 and 1795. Yet though Pillnitz was little more than a sop to the sensibilities of Marie-Antoinette and the émigrés, it fostered serious alarm and anxiety within France.

There was a similar discrepancy between reality and appearance as regards the émigrés themselves. As those who joined the émigré armies later attested, the forces – though some 20,000 strong at one time over the summer – were a pathetic assemblage. Chateaubriand, with nostalgic tenderness, later recalled them as ‘a feudal levy … last image of a dying world’, ‘going back to their roots, and the roots of the monarchy … like an old man regressing to his childhood’.4 Many émigrés vengefully planned the integral restoration of an Ancien Régime which had bestowed abundant privileges upon them, but many also served out of a sense of chivalric honour, suffering unlooked-for campaign hardships while their very identity was being effaced in their homeland. They were, moreover, poorly equipped and cared for by counter-revolutionary headquarters in Coblentz. Chateaubriand claimed he went through the entire 1792 campaign with a musket which was inoperable. The prince de Condé’s equerry recounted that his fellow nobles served with ‘patience, courage and gaiety’, even though they had no sheets and half slept in their shirts and the other half in straw.5

The disproportionate anxiety which these raggle-taggle émigré forces caused within France derived as much from the links which they were held to have with secret counter-revolutionary networks throughout France as from their supposed military strength and diplomatic connections. The clandestine plotting of the comte d’Antraigues in the Midi and the web of royalist committees which the marquis de La Rouërie was discovered to have established throughout western France in 1791–2 tautened the Revolutionaries’ sinews. The émigrés were also believed to be working in league with the refractory clergy – an association which did neither party any favours. Cardinal Rohan, of Diamond Necklace fame, and other ecclesiastics sat on Artois’s council; refractories on the eastern frontier were said to be recruiting for Coblentz; while in the western Maine-et-Loire and Vendée departments, violence against the Constitutional clergy was becoming so fierce that there seemed a real risk of civil war and counter-revolution.

The new Assembly’s response to this threat was to toughen its stance on the refractory clergy and to issue punitive legislation against the émigrés. On 14 October 1791, the king responded to the groundswell of opinion by formally inviting his brother, the comte de Provence, to return to France – and this was followed up on 31 October by an Assembly decree which stripped the count of his succession rights if he had not returned by the end of the year. A further decree of 9 November declared that émigrés who did not return to their homeland would be adjudged conspirators, subject to the death penalty and threatened with state sequestration of their property. The Assembly seemed to have no qualms about using the supposedly indefeasible rights of the individual for purposes of political leverage. For in a related move, on 29 November, the deputies declared that any refractory priest who did not come forward within a week to take the civic oath would be held to be a political suspect, placed under surveillance and, at his fellow citizens’ request, exiled from his home. On the same day, the Assembly requested the rulers of Mainz and Trier to disperse the émigré formations within their territories.

The king’s attitude towards these developments was characteristically sphinx-like. He was not as antagonistic to the new constitution as was his wife: he told Navy Minister Bertrand de Molleville that he thought it flawed but would observe it in the hope that its defects would become so apparent that constitutional reform would ensue. Yet even though he dreaded becoming overly dependent on the émigrés for release from his Babylonian captivity, he still seems to have been hankering for a noble-dominated constitutional arrangement in which returned and reintegrated émigrés would have a leading part to play. He also felt that ties of kinship and loyalty barred him from acceding to the Assembly’s punitive legislation against the émigrés and the refractory clergy, and he consequently imposed his veto.

The political temperature in a rapidly polarizing situation was raised by the deteriorating economic situation and by related financial problems which the state was facing. The 1791 harvest was poor, causing food prices to start rising by the turn of the year. Many localities in northern France experienced subsistence riots, which culminated in the murder of mayor Simmoneau of Étampes, just south of Paris, in early March 1792., for failing to agree to the fixing of bread prices. The capital itself was rocked by food riots in January and February 1792 over shortages of sugar (by now a staple of popular diet). This particular deficiency was caused by a deteriorating situation in the Caribbean colonies: after sporadic troubles earlier in the year, a full-scale slave revolt had begun in Saint-Domingue in August 1791, causing plantation production and profits to plummet. The consequences of crisis in colonial trade, which had been the most profitable sector of the eighteenth-century economy, were worsened by the slump in luxury trades caused by the emigration of wealthy noble plutocrats. The plight of workers thrown into unemployment by these changes was made all the more poignant by the erosion of poor relief provision. Many charitable institutions, including hospitals, monasteries and nursing communities, had lost out in the Night of 4 August, notably from the abolition of municipal tolls, and also as a consequence of related attacks on ecclesiastical privilege. Voluntary giving, which the church had always encouraged among the laity, seemed to dry up, worsening matters. The Constituent Assembly’s Mendicity Committee sketched out a kind of embryonic welfare state which aimed to shift responsibility for relief of poverty away from the church – but the plans remained unimplemented. Short-term government credits and poorly funded charity workshops were insufficient to cope with the scale of the problems unfolding.

The agrarian sector of the economy was also experiencing problems. The implementation of the ‘abolition’ of feudalism in a way which secured respect for landed property was raising peasant hackles, and there were violent anti-seigneurial disturbances in early 1792 across the Midi in particular which took on an overtly political edge. ‘We have no seigneur,’ one peasant petition to the Assembly stated pointedly. ‘He is in Coblentz.’6 Peasant scepticism about the gains promised by the Revolution showed up with brutal clarity in the countryside’s refusal to garner taxes following the introduction in 1791–2 of the new post-taille unitary direct tax, the contribution foncière. Fraud, non-payment, evasion and administrative confusion produced a national tax take nearly a quarter less than forecast. Reduced confidence in the credit of government in turn affected the success of the state-backed assignat, whose use as a paper money had driven much coinage off the marketplace. The assignat had traded at around 90 per cent of its face value in March 1791, but the political crisis, the state’s continuing financial problems and the threat of counter-revolution caused its value to plummet. By the autumn, paper currency was at around 80 per cent of its face value, and by March 1792, around 50 per cent. In the Assembly in that month, the Jacobin Thuriot blamed popular disturbances on brigands in the pay of the likes of Bouillé, the villain of Varennes. Citing ‘a great and determined conspiracy’, he went on to blame the émigrés for speculating on currency and exporting coinage into Germany so that the country could not afford to pay for the grain imports essential for social harmony.7

The lineaments of the economic trajectory of the 1790s were already clearly discernible by late 1791 and early 1792: decay in the booming sectors of the pre-1789 economy; the government Pèrennially harassed by shortage of money, which even the sale of church lands was unable to remedy; the running sore of a paper currency miserably failing to command public support; and a concomitant collapse of business confidence. Also apparent was a further factor which was both consequence of this sorry economic situation, and cause of its aggravation: namely, the growing articulacy of popular protest. Symptomatic in this respect were not only provincial subsistence and anti-seigneurial riots, but also popular protest within Paris. The radical Parisian press and the Cordeliers and popular societies scored a signal success, when in November 1791, their man, Pétion, formerly a radical deputy in the Constituent Assembly, defeated Lafayette in the contest to succeed Bailly (the other villain of the Champ de Mars massacre) as mayor of Paris. Lafayette’s defeat tolled the knell for the influence of the ‘Americans’ on Revolutionary politics. More significant now was the voice of extra-parliamentary radicalism in the capital, which was clearly growing well-organized as well as articulate. Parisian popular pressure had contributed to the king’s sense of being kept a prisoner in the city after October 1789. By early 1792, many deputies were also starting to feel a sense of entrapment, with popular militants pleading eloquently from the bar of the house, reacting noisily from the public galleries, from street-corners and every imaginable site of sociability, and also contributing to debates in print.

A distinctive culture of protest was emerging from the pullulating extra-parliamentary activities of the capital. Newspapers and clubs spoke of popular militants as sans-culottes (‘no breeches’) – signifying that they wore straight workmen’s trousers rather than the knee-breeches which denoted gentility. This sparked a trend of political ‘dressing down’ which had its own vestimentary rules. One necessary fashion item for the dutiful sans-culotte, for example, was the red cap (bonnet rouge), which was alleged to recall the cap worn in Antiquity by emancipated slaves. The Paris publisher Ruault thought the mode – which was invariably accompanied by the sporting of a tricolour cockade – ‘the height of vulgarity’ and ‘totally unnecessary’. Yet he noted how it spread like wildfire in late March 1792 – ‘in the streets, in the squares, in the gardens and even at the theatre’, so that it seemed destined to become ‘the obligatory headgear of all French patriots’.8 The language of patriotism now took on a rough demotic tone too in the burgeoning press associated with the popular movement. Prominent here was the Pére Duchesne, eponymous newspaper of Jacques-René Hébert, whose brutally frank columns (to some extent modelled on scurrilous counter-revolutionary journalism) were littered with banteringly aggressive bougres and foutres. The swearwords were supposed to give sans-culotte language a raw plebeian authenticity – though readers probably found them more redolent of music-hall versions of popular speech. This playfulness was also evident in the poor typography and faded newsprint of such publications, which were specially ‘roughed up’ for their audience’s delectation.

In a context in which the solutions to internal problems seemed to be situated outside French frontiers, Louis, more duplicitous by the hour, welcomed the prospect of a war in Europe. In a secret communication to the king of Prussia in early December 1791 he called for an alliance of the European powers, backed up by armed force, as a means of rectifying his sorry position. Yet as if to offset the impact of his use of the veto on anti-émigré legislation, he also made ever more forceful pronouncements against the Electors of Mainz and Trier, who were harbouring émigré formations. He made an enormous fuss of telling the German princelings to disperse the émigrés – whilst secretly intimating to Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II that he wished the opposite to happen. When the Electors did make a show of doing as requested, the king upped the ante by publicly demanding that the Emperor renounce any treaties which threatened French sovereignty – by which he meant the Pillnitz declaration of August 1791. ‘The whole nation,’ noted US envoy Gouverneur Morris in February 1792, ‘though with different views, are desirous of war.’9 An aggressive foreign policy was an issue on which king and Assembly – beset by external threat and internal turbulence – could unite, and deputies blissfully welcomed the king’s apparent conversion to defence of the Revolution’s interests, little suspecting his double game. The queen thought this drift to war full of black humour: ‘the idiots don’t see that it will help our cause,’ she told Fersen, ‘because … all the powers will have to become involved’.10

Bellicose sabre-rattling was the stock-in-trade of a grouping of deputies, revolving around Jacques-Paul Brissot, who seized the political initiative from the Feuillants in the early days of the Legislative Assembly. A journalist, hack writer and political campaigner who had founded the abolitionist Amis des Noirs (and who may well have turned his hand to spying for the Paris police when times were hard in the 1780s), Brissot developed a nexus of activists in Parisian municipal politics in 1790. This included many individuals in Fauchet’s Cercle social plus the former factory inspector, Roland, whose wife, Manon Phlipon, ran a political salon for the group. In the Legislative Assembly, the Brissot grouping found soul-mates in delegates for the department of the Gironde, notably Vergniaud, Guadet, Gensonné and Grangeneuve. In an ensemble of electrifying performances within the Assembly, often replicated in the Jacobin Club, which they came to dominate, the Brissotins (or Girondins) argued for war with such persuasive force that the air was endlessly rent by cries of ‘aux armes!’ (‘To arms!’). War, it was claimed, would end the armed threat to the Revolution personified by the émigrés and would deter European powers from ill-considered adventurism. At home, it would clarify and hopefully tranquillize the political landscape by forcing waverers to declare for or against the Revolution, by bringing illicit counter-revolutionary activity into the open, and by making the king to quit havering and to join the Revolutionary ranks. The rhetoric not uncommonly got out of hand and the Brissotins went on to imagine a ring of sympathetic buffer states insulating France from Ancien Régime Europe, and they called for a crusade to spread Revolutionary principles throughout the world, to unshackle humanity from its feudal yoke. Robespierre was a biting critic of the latter argument, and strove to demonstrate that the logic of 1789 did not lead on ineluctably to violent aggression. Nobody, he reminded members of the Jacobin Club, likes ‘armed missionaries’.11 He suspected that the Brissotin calls for war were merely a platform for their own political elevation. Since war would also, he held, increase rather then diminish the powers of the executive over the legislature, it was more, a threat to the Revolution than a promise of its consummation.

Robespierre, however, lost the debate, and the war issue developed into a roller-coaster which brooked no counter-argument. The Feuillant position upheld by ex-Triumvir Barnave was by now utterly outflanked. Barnave, who since Varennes had been acting as the royal family’s secret adviser, was increasingly dismayed at the way in which his counsels were ignored, and he retired from politics in disgust in early 1792, thus removing an ideological brake on the gadarene rush into war. The Feuillants had soon lost the initiative in the Assembly too: their Paris headquarters failed to tempt the majority of provincial Jacobin clubs into their ranks, while many new recruits began to migrate either into the more Brissotin Jacobin Club, or towards the equally pro-war centrist faction headed by the ambitious Lafayette. The Brissotin cause received royal endorsement in early March 1792, when the king dismissed his Feuillant-oriented ministers and replaced them with a so-called ‘Patriot Ministry’ stuffed with Brissot’s friends, including Roland as Interior Minister, former anti-Calonne speculator Clavière in Finance and the veteran soldier Dumouriez in the War Department. On 25 March, Louis came to the Assembly to issue a further ultimatum to Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II’s successor, Francis II. On 20 April, he returned to declare that, because his ultimatum had been ignored, he regarded France as in a state of war with ‘the king of Bohemia and Hungary’.12 Only seven obscure deputies dared vote against a declaration of war which seemed to unify public opinion in a mood of revolutionary patriotism mixed with traditional Austrophobia. From Coblentz, Provence declared himself quite ‘delighted’ with the decision: the Revolutionaries seemed to be doing the émigrés’ job for them.13

The Legislative Assembly had embraced the cause of war as a political convenience, an exit route out of the bafflingly intricate domestic situation in which the deputies found themselves. Most deputies imagined that they were embarking on a war of relatively restricted aims. History was to give them the lie. The next quarter of a century-with a few aberrant years of peace – would see France perpetually at war with Europe, with a total domestic casualty list which would amount to over a million and a half individuals. Despite the very many brilliant successes which France enjoyed and which inflated France’s self-image as a great nation, and the role that war played in the formation of French national spirit, the state at the end of the period would have made no acquisitions beyond those of its 1792 borders. It would also have lost the colonial empire which had been the motor of its eighteenth-century wealth. War would also bear a heavy responsibility, as we shall see, for denaturing the Revolutionary process, dividing the nation, delegitimizing political opposition and, down to 1795, stimulating the frenetic crescendo of Terror.

The wisdom of hindsight was not, of course, on offer to those deputies making the momentous decision of 20 April 1792. And the momentous war began with sundry whimpers rather than a single bang. Lafayette, Rochambeau and Luckner, the three army commanders – all ‘Americans’ – soon realized that the men under them needed careful handling. The emigration of nearly half the officer corps, and the influx of over 100,000 enthusiastic volunteers, posed severe problems of military cohesion. Even those officers who remained in the force were suspect to the rank and file: as early as 29 April, for example, following an unsuccessful skirmish near Valenciennes, General Dillon was murdered by his own men. The state of military administration seemed appalling: ‘I cannot imagine’, Lafayette wrote to the War Office, ‘how war could have been declared in such a state of unreadiness.’14 Within a month, the three commanders were urging a truce – which scarcely seemed a viable political option. Continued fighting only produced reverses, engendering a growing sense of panic in Paris.

The king, who had placed himself at the head of a united nation on 20 April, proved chronically unable to maintain this posture. In the Assembly, Brissot and Vergniaud launched bitter attacks on a putative ‘Austrian committee’ at court headed by Marie-Antoinette (who was, indeed, secretly passing classified military intelligence to her family in Austria). On 8 June, a proposed encampment near to Paris of some 20,000 provincial National Guardsmen (the so-called fédérés) was decreed, with the aim of offering a measure of protection to the capital if the enemy broke through the front. The king, however, vetoed the measure on 18 June. When the going got tough, the king got tender towards ‘his’ aristocratic servants and the refractory clergy, and he added further vetoes to a law of 27 May on the forced deportation of refractory priests and one on 29 May on a measure disbanding royal bodyguard troops. He dismissed the ‘Patriot Ministry’ in June, appointing in their stead insignificant political figures who failed to secure the confidence of the Assembly. Lafayette’s call from the front for the Assembly to suppress political clubs only worsened matters for the king, and on 20 June a popular demonstration over the use of the royal veto led on to an invasion of the Tuileries palace. Louis was made to don the red cap – as if even an erstwhile absolutist monarch needed to be emancipated from his own enslavement – and to drink the health of the nation in scenes which were only broken up by the National Guard after many hours of pressure.

This extraordinary occasion – despite which, Louis stuck by his vetoes – produced something of a pro-monarchist backlash, both in the Assembly and in the country more generally. More significant than expressions of sympathy, however, was the fact that the king was being increasingly excluded from the decision-making process. On 2 July, for example, the camp des fédérés was decreed in open defiance of the royal veto, and a couple of days later a law on la patrie en danger (‘the fatherland in danger’) was passed, stipulating that when this state of affairs was decreed legislative and administrative authorities would assume emergency powers. On 11 July, as Prussian forces prepared to invade, la patrie en danger was duly declared, allowing the royal veto to be bypassed in the cause of national security. Significantly, even at this very late stage, such was the continuing tug of court prestige, that a number of Girondin deputies led by Vergniaud entered into secret negotiations with the king to see if there was some way of resuscitating the ‘Patriot Ministry’. The sorcerer’s apprentices seemed to be having second thoughts about the demiurgic powers they had unleashed. There proved not to be the basis for negotiation, however, and indeed as the military situation worsened, it was not simply the king but also the whole Legislative Assembly which appeared to be increasingly out of the loop.

The republican air which Paris had voiced following the flight to Varennes was now replayed on the national scale – and fortissimo. On 23 July, a petition originating from a group of fédérés – National Guardsmen called up to defend Paris, attend the third Fête de la Fédération on 14 July, and then to proceed to the front – called for the removal of the king. Within days, a coordinating committee representing popular societies and activists started meeting in the Hôtel-de-Ville to plan the king’s overthrow. On 3 August, a petition from forty-seven of Paris’s forty-eight sections demanded the removal of Louis – but the Assembly, fearful of starting a civil war, temporized. The progress of the war contributed to the sense of crisis. In early August, news filtered through to Paris of the Brunswick Manifesto, in which the allied commander-in-chief, the duke of Brunswick, threatened with death any citizen opposing the allied advance, and fulminated exemplary violence against the city of Paris if the royal family was harmed. In June, Louis had specifically requested his fellow monarchs not to allow the conflict to become like war between states: ‘such conduct’, the king maintained, ‘would provoke civil war, endanger the lives of the king and his family [and] mean the overthrow of the throne, cause the royalists to be slaughtered and throw support behind the Jacobins’.15 The Brunswick Manifesto ignored the king’s warning – and proved him right.

The ‘Revolutionary day’ – or journée – of 10 August 1792 by which Louis XVI was overthrown was a defeat for the Legislative Assembly as well as the king. The Assembly’s failure to do more than dither at this critical moment massively damaged its prestige. On 8 August, it refused Brissot’s call for Lafayette’s impeachment. The overthrow had to be planned within the Parisian popular movement. On 9 August, Parisian radicals established an insurrectionary committee to plan armed action on the following day. Though grounded in Parisian popular radicalism, the king’s overthrow was more than a Parisian achievement, for provincial fédérés played a major role in it, especially the fearsome Marseille battalion, whose arrival in late July had boosted the republican movement (to which it also bestowed a national hymn, the ‘War Song of the Army of the Rhine’ by Rouget de l’lsle, soon to be better known as the ‘Marseillaise’). A popular insurrection on the day of the 10th, involving fierce fighting after the king’s Swiss guards opened fire on the demonstrating crowds and ending in the horrors of the guards’ outright massacre, saw the Assembly bowing to popular pressure and voting the king’s removal. The deputies also decreed the establishment of a new national assembly, the Convention, to be elected by universal manhood franchise rather than by property franchise. It was entrusted with the task of drawing up a new – republican – constitution.

Power was now hopelessly fragmented. The association of the Legislative Assembly with the disgraced king damaged the authority of the deputies, who were unable to prevent other sources of authority exercising wide-ranging powers. A Provisional Executive Council of ‘Patriot’ ministers – whose most dynamic figure proved to be the radical Danton at the Justice Ministry – claimed executive powers, while the new insurrectionary Paris Commune, to whom Robespierre and other popular luminaries were now added, also exerted great moral authority as a result of its role on 10 August. All three power sources acted to bolster national resistance, sending out commissioners into the departments to purge local administration of royalists, arrest suspects and set up patriotic committees to pursue the war effort.

While elections took place in this crisis situation, the worsening war situation set a frenzied tempo for political life, sparking new, terrifying symptoms of collective stress. Moves were made to enfranchise, motivate and rush out to the front hordes of volunteers. Parisian sections were allowed to sit in permanent session, the division between active and passive citizens was dissolved, and all citizens were admitted to the National Guard. Under the emergency conditions, the royalist press was closed down, all state functionaries, including priests, were made to take an oath of loyalty, and decrees were passed limiting the scope of public worship and tightening sanctions against the refractory clergy. Emergency legislation ended all seigneurial dues without indemnity, confiscated émigré property in the name of the nation, and allowed requisitioning for grain. The punitive dimension to political regeneration reached a sickening finale following the arrival of news about the fall on 1 September of Verdun, the last fortress remaining between the advancing allied troops and the capital. From 2 September, stimulated by (utterly ill-founded) rumours of a prison plot by noble detainees to break out and form a fifth column in the heart of Paris, vigilante groups started to form in the Paris sections, and these proceeded to tour the Parisian prisons massacring detainees. Between 1,100 and 1,500 inmates were killed over the next couple of days, sometimes with the travesty of trial, sometimes in an ambience of pure carnage. To these were added scores more caught up in similar butchery in provincial cities. The vast majority of victims were common criminals, though the cull also accounted for a handful of politicians and courtiers (Foreign Ministers de Lessart and Montmorin, the princesse de Lamballe, etc.) and a good number of refractory priests.

The pitiless killing of the king’s Swiss guards on 10 August and the prison massacres of 2–5 September proved a bloody baptism for Paris’s political movement, which had profited from the vacuum left by the king to set its own agenda. This was not the first time that popular violence by Parisians had inflected the course of the Revolution. Yet the journées of 14 July and 5–6 October 1789 had been far more moderate in their violence and had essentially pulled the National Assembly’s chestnuts from the fire. On 10 August 1792, in contrast, the people in arms attacked the Legislative Assembly as well as the king. No other such event thus far had split the ranks of the Revolutionaries so emphatically. A Parisian bourgeois strolling past the Carmes prison with his wife and two children while the prison massacres were taking place reacted complacently on hearing the screams of the victims: ‘It’s ineffably sad,’ he told his wife, ‘but they are implacable enemies, and those who are ridding the fatherland of them are saving your life and the lives of our poor children.’16 Yet on 5 September, in contrast, Brissotin salonnière Madame Roland expressed her fear at being ‘under the knife’ of Robespierre (who winked at the violence), Danton (who as Justice Minister should have stopped it) and Marat (who luridly justified it). ‘You know my enthusiasm for the Revolution,’ she wrote to the deputy Bancal des Issarts, ‘well, I am ashamed of it! Its reputation is tarnished by these scoundrels, it is becoming hideous … ’17

One of the most difficult political issues of the French Revolution was shaping up. The sanguinary power politics of August and September were not incompatible with high moral principle. The ‘scoundrels’ believed themselves to be acting in disinterested and patriotic ways. And the very kinds of people who committed the acts of bloody terror were also responsible for saving the nation from crushing military defeat. Over 20,000 volunteers left Paris for the front in the fortnight after the September massacres. On 20 September 1792 – the same day that the Legislative Assembly met for the last time – French volunteers and regulars combined to check the allied advance in the so-called ‘cannonade of Valmy’. The German writer Goethe, present at the battle with the Prussian forces, reflected to his fellows, ‘This is the beginning of a new epoch in history, and you can claim to have witnessed it.’18 The Revolutionaries could show their teeth to the wider world, not simply bare them in internecine internal bloodbaths. The buveur de sangwas also the super-patriotic citizen in arms.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!