Sunday, 21 February 2016

The coming of the Republic (1792)

The sans-culottes

The increasing radicalism of the Revolution was symbolized by the sans-culottes (without breeches). The sans-culotte wore trousers
instead of knee-breeches, wooden clogs rather than buckled shoes, a short-sleeved jacket, the carmagnole, his natural hair and the tricolour cockade on the red cap of liberty. The sans-culottes were working men, but they were artisans and craftsmen rather than unskilled labourers, and many of them were members of the National Guard.  Their targets were the speculators and food hoarders working for the ‘Austrian committee’, comprising ‘the enemy within’.

In the spring of 1792 the great marker of the true patriot became the bonnet rouge. The image was based on the Phrygian cap, and was widely used during the eighteenth century. The cap became adopted by many Jacobins (though not Robespierre), and even by some military officers. 

The symbolism was given added weight when the mayor of Paris, Jérôme Pétion, a member of the Jacobin Club, permitted, and even encouraged the distribution of arms among the section assemblies, believing that they might be needed to defend the Brissotins against a military coup. The pike became a symbol of the sans-culottes along with the red bonnet. The radical journalist, Réné Hébert wrote in his scurrilous newspaper, Père Duchesne
‘To your pikes, good sans-culottes, sharpen them and exterminate aristocrats!’  
Along with the pikes went muskets, rifles and cannon. Brissot described Hébert and his readers as Enragés, and false friends of the people, compared with ‘Patriots’ like himself.

The guillotine

The bonnet rouge and the pike were two symbols of the Revolution. The guillotine was a third. Before it disbanded, the Constituent Assembly had voted to retain the death penalty, with Robespierre one of the few deputies to protest. Once this had been agreed in principle, the search was one for a humane method of execution.  In March 1792 the deputies of the Legislative Assembly voted to accept the guillotine, a mechanical decapitator operating according to the principles of Newtonian physics that guaranteed (it was argued) a quick and painless death. Though it was not the invention of Dr Guillotin he had proposed the original idea. On 25 April it claimed its first victim, a highwayman.

The journée of 20 June

Meanwhile tensions mounted between the king and the Assembly. On 27 May the Assembly passed a law that non-juring priests were to be deported on the denunciation of twenty citizens. On 29 May the Assembly agreed to the dissolution of the king’s personal guard of 1,800, to be replaced by the National Guard. The king agreed to this because he planned to veto the law against the non-jurors, but in doing so he left himself at the mercy of the sans-culottes.  At the same time 20,000 troops were approaching Paris. These were fédérés from the provinces coming to celebrate the 14 July Fête de la Fédération. On 8 June the Assembly proposed that they set up camp near Paris.

Faced with the two unacceptable decrees – of 27 May and 8 June - the king proposed to veto the measures. In response Roland wrote a letter of reproach to the king (probably composed by his wife). On 13 June the king dismissed the Girondin ministers and replaced them with Feuillant nonentities. 

On the morning of 20 June between 10,000 and 20,000 armed
'Louis le dernier'
by Unknown -
Library of Congress
rioters converged on the Tuileries, dragged cannon up the stairs and made for the king’s apartments. For two hours they filed past Louis, uttering threats and demanding the reinstatement of the ministers. The king responded bravely. He proclaimed his loyalty to the constitution, put on the cap of liberty and drank to the health of the nation. It was a moment of humiliation but also one in which he managed to retain his dignity. Throughout his ordeal he refused to withdraw the veto or recall the Brissotin ministers.  When Pétion arrived at about six, the demonstrators dispersed.  

This had been a show of strength exposing the royal family’s vulnerability. There was a backlash in the king’s favour throughout the country, but there was no guarantee of his physical safety. 

The journée of 10 August

In July National Guard fédérés converged on Paris. On 5 July the Assembly elaborated a procedure for proclaiming 'La patrie en danger', allowing legislative and administrative bodies to assume emergency powers. On 11 July, with Prussian forces assembling on the French frontiers, the proclamation came into force.  It militarised the National Guard for front-line service and gave the Assembly the ability to negate the royal veto. In effect, the constitution had been abandoned.   

Although the king had presided over the Fête de la Fédération and taken the usual oath to the constitution, he was under increasing threat. The assemblies in the Paris sections became ever more militant and were beginning to coordinate their activities with the fédérés.  The Jacobin club was now openly calling for an insurrection to overthrow the monarchy.  Marat’s L’Ami du Peuple appealed to the poor to ‘harvest the fruits of the revolution’ that had hitherto been denied them.

On 30 July the Marseille volunteers arrived in the capital singing the infantry captain Rouget de Lisle’s battle hymn. It had been composed at Strasbourg on 25-6 April with the title ‘Battle Hymn of the Army of the Rhine’. It had been brought to Marseille by a group of fédéré Guards from Montpellier, and when the Marseille volunteers brought it to Paris it gained its new name. You can listen to it here. (There is an advert first!)

On 25 July the allied commander, the Duke of Brunswick issued a declaration proclaiming that the war aim was to end the anarchy in France and ‘liberate’ the royal family. Parisians were explicitly warned that if any harm came to the king the city would be subjected to 
‘exemplary and forever memorable vengeance’.   
This achieved the opposite of its intention; far from protecting he royal family it endangered them. When news of the declaration reached Paris on 28 July the Assembly authorised the distribution of arms to all citizens, active or not, and to declare all defenders of the country active citizens. From being a body composed of propertied men, the National Guard became a democratic body with radical ideas. 

On 3 August all but one of the 48 sections the petitioned the Assembly to depose the king. The Assembly formed a committee to report to them on the 9th.  But events were slipping out of its control and the Girondins in the Assembly were becoming irrelevant, attacked from their own side for still wishing to retain the monarchy.  

From the end of July a committee of around a dozen leaders, including Jacobins, Girondins, Cordeliers, and men from the sections had been meeting, though none of their leaders were directly involved.  On the night of 9 August they decided that they had to act.
Jacques Berceaux. 'Prise du palais des Tuileries'  
by Jean Duplessis-Bertaux.

On the morning of 10 August the tocsin sounded. The central committee of the sections proclaimed an ‘Insurrectionary Commune’ and ordered the fédérés and the newly democratized National Guard to march on the Tuileries. The palace was defended by two thousand regular troops, eight hundred of them the king’s personal Swiss Guards, and the rest mainly loyal members of the National Guard but the king was told that they would not be able to stand out against the insurgents.  Accompanied by some 450 defenders the royal family took refuge in the Manège, the meeting place of the Assembly, where they were confined in a little space assigned to reporters. Meanwhile, having been given no orders to lay down their arms, the Swiss defended the palace against the insurgents. After and hour’s fighting they were forced to retreat, and 600 of them were killed amid scenes of savage carnage. 

The stalemate in the Assembly was broken by an oration from Vergniaud, who proposed suspending the king from the exercise of his functions. The measure was passed by a show of hands. The monarchy had not been formally abolished, but in effect, it was over. The Assembly itself was to be replaced by a National Convention, to be elected by universal manhood suffrage with the task of drawing up a new constitution. On 12 August the royal family were taken to the Temple prison, a medieval fortress in the north-east of the city. It was clear that only a foreign intervention could save them.  From the front Lafayette tried to save the monarchy by demanding that his troops follow him in a march on Paris. When they refused to do so, he fled to the Austrians.

The September Massacres

On 13 August the dismissed Girondin ministers were restored, with the Jacobin, Danton, now the Minister of Justice – a sensational appointment.  However, power increasingly lay with the militant Paris Commune. Crowds rampaged through Paris destroying all symbols and images of royalty while sans-culotte vigilantes sought out traitors, in particular refractory priests. 

On 17 August an ‘Extraordinary Tribunal’ was set up to try those guilty of political crimes. This tribunal, the Comité de Surveillance resumed many of the police and surveillance powers of the old regime. More than a thousand people were taken into custody, the majority of them refractory priests. Many of the king and queen’s personal friends servants were arrested, including the queen’s friend the Princess de Lamballe. 

On 18 August all teaching and charitable religious orders were suppressed. 

The paranoia was deepening as news was reaching Paris that the Prussians had invaded France. On 26 August the Parisians learned that Longwy had fallen. In a stirring speech, Danton called for 30,000 volunteers to go to the front to defend the country. On 30-31 August there was a general search for hidden arms and 3,000 were arrested. The prisons of Paris were now crammed with presumed traitors. 

On 2 September news came that the Prussians had bypassed Verdun, leaving the road to Paris open.  Danton tried to rouse resistance in a famous speech,  but there was widespread panic in Paris.  That afternoon a convoy of prisoners going from the Hôtel de Ville to the Abbaye prison was stopped and attached by sans-culottes. Seventeen of them were hacked to death. A kangaroo court then massacred prisoners at the old Carmelite convent. The Commune then intervened, not to stop the massacres but to make the procedures more orderly. All but two of the Parisian prisons were broken into and makeshift tribunals dispensed the ‘people’s justice’. Though many were acquitted, between 2 and 7 September about half the prison population, between 1,100 and 1,400 were killed. Among the dead were the surviving Swiss defenders of the Tuileries, over 200 priests and a prominent relic of the ancient regime, the queen’s friend the Princess de Lamballe.  However, most of those who died were common criminals, in particular forgers of assigns, though others were prostitutes and boys in a reformatory. 

Danton, as Minister of Justice, might have prevented the bloodshed, but he said, 
'No power on earth could have stopped the national vengeance from spilling over.'  

In his book on the Terror and in a recent article in History Today, David Andress puts the best possible gloss on these events.

‘Stories of the September Massacres were used, consciously and persistently, to paint their perpetrators as subhuman monsters of perversion when they seem to have been men grimly committed to a bloody solution to a clear problem of political and military survival.’ History Today, February 2016

When the bloodletting was over and there was almost universal horror, the politicians began to blame each other. Septembriseur became a term of abuse. The widows and orphans were given pensions.

The war turned

On 20 September the war turned dramatically in favour of the French when the Prussians were defeated at Valmy. A ‘citizens’ army’ fired with enthusiasm for the revolution, commanded by officers who had graduated from the pre-revolutionary schools, defeated the army of the greatest military power in Europe. The German writer, Goethe, who was present, declared, 
‘Here and today a new epoch in the history of the world had begun, and you can boast that you were present at its birth.’ 

The Republic

On the same day the Convention had its first meeting, 700 men elected by manhood suffrage. On the following day it voted for the abolition of the monarchy. On 22 September it voted that this was Year One of the French Republic.

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