The Terror The Shadow of the Guillotine: France 1792--1794 Chapter One
To prevent a Revolution, one must want a Revolution and set about making it oneself.
Le Comte de Rivarol
Georges Jacques Danton was born in 1759 at Arcis-sur-Aube, in the lush countryside of the Champagne region. He grew up a boisterous farm boy and remained a countryman at heart: sucking milk straight from the cow’s udder, he was attacked, when he was two, by an irate bull who gashed his face with a horn – it gave Danton the pug face and lip carved into what looked like a permanent sneer. He played truant from school, swam in the river, ran wild in the fields, got a good education, came to love Latin and French literature. Of the great French tragedian whose lofty drama greatly inspired Charlotte Corday, Danton said: ‘Corneille was a thoroughgoing republican.’
Danton, a man of bustling energy, high animal spirits and acute intelligence, typifies the kind of men who made the Revolution: a coalition of the educated and the ambitious, shunted into limited and trivial careers, their considerable gifts cheated of wider recognition by the exclusive protocols of old-regime France, the France of an absolute monarchy bolstered by intransigent belief in the divine right of kings.
Voltaire had cautioned against the injudicious franchise of those not equipped mentally or socially to cope with it. ‘All is lost,’ he wrote, ‘once the people entangles itself in reasoning’, but the indignant frustrations of men like Danton were, one might almost say, generic, a crucial spur to revolution. ‘The old regime,’ he said, ‘made a crucial error. I was educated by it as an exhibitioner at the Collège du Plessis. I studied there with great nobles who . . . lived with me on equal terms. My studies over, I was left high and dry . . . my former schoolfellows turned their backs on me. The Revolution came: I and all those like me threw ourselves into it. The old regime drove us to it by giving us a good education without opening any opportunity for our talents.’
He studied law and was called to the Bar at Reims, where the necessary certificates were cheap to buy. After moving to Paris he drank and played dominoes at the Café du Parnasse, on the right bank by the Pont Neuf, and married Gabrielle Charpentier, the wealthy proprietor’s daughter. With her dowry and loans, he bought the legal practice and entrée to the law courts of Maître [‘Master’, the honorific title of a lawyer] Huet and was launched.
He and Gabrielle lived in the Cour du Commerce, in the Latin Quarter, very near the old Franciscan convent, by then disused, in the rue des Cordeliers. In its large refectory took place the meetings and debates of one of the foremost political clubs in the city, the Society of the Friends of the Rights of Men and Citizens, attended by all the patriots of the district: the Cordeliers, after the nickname of the Franciscan friars. This district of Paris, just south of the river, part of the old medieval city, an ill-lit, poky labyrinth of narrow vennels and criss-cross streets no wider than alleys, was a known hotbed of anarchists, a nest of truculent revolutionaries, intransigently opposed to all authority.
The Cordeliers were predominantly publishers, journalists, writers, booksellers and people of the theatre, among their most outspoken partisans men who played a central role in the Revolution: Fabre d’Eglantine, playwright, author of the revolutionary calendar; Jean-Nicolas Billaud-Varenne and Jean-Marie Collot d’Herbois, men of the theatre, both future members of the Committee for Public Safety; Jacques-René Hébert and the radical popular leader of the Commune Pierre-Gaspard Chaumette (who called himself Anaxagoras after the Greek philosopher who fell foul of the aristocratic faction in Athens in the fifth century BC); Jean-Paul Marat, ‘the people’s friend’, author of a fescennine journal of that name; Louis Fréron, author, in the same vein, of another newspaper, Orator of the People; the printer-publisher Momoro, churning out political pamphlets; Elysée Loustalot his Revolutions of Paris; and Camille Desmoulins, the progressive journalist – he and his wife Lucile were particular friends of the Dantons.
The cafés, restaurants and taverns of the Cordeliers district, centred on the club, were alive with radical thinking, heated talk, revolutionary fervour, polemical writing, the doctrines of social and political change, fermented by a potent mixed society of convinced intellectuals and impatient artisans. Desmoulins, addressing his readers as ‘my dear subscribers’, encouraged the notion that the area was the true heart of the Revolution, the home of the honest men who worked actively for its integrity, its universal good, its protection, without fear or favour, of the rights of all men and women, in stark contrast with the finaglers, the shifty, self-seeking, self-serving men of both the royal government and the Commune, the municipal authority of Paris. In the Cordeliers district, the republic of ideas and ideals had been brought into being. Even when the city’s 60 districts were reorganised into 48 sections, the Cordeliers remained the centre of political influence on the left bank.
Across the river, the Jacobin club, the Society of Friends of the Revolution, met in the former friary of the Dominican order, named Jacobins after the rue Saint Jacques, in which their parent house stood. Closer to the heart of government, they had a more prestigious membership – though Marat and Danton belonged there, too – and the rivalry between the two most powerful political clubs in Paris came, in part, to identify the war of factions within the Revolution.
One of the Jacobins was a lawyer from Arras, a small town near the Belgian border. Maximilien Robespierre was born on 6 May 1758. On 16 July 1764, when he was but six years old, his mother, who had been pregnant most of his short life with his younger brother Augustin and sisters Charlotte and Henriette, died having just given birth to a fifth child who did not survive. She was 28. Was it she who taught Maximilien how to make lace? His father did not attend her funeral and a few months later left the family home for good. The two boys were taken in by their maternal grandfather and Maximilien was soon packed off to the local Oratorian school, where he was taught that Man was made to adore God and that God, the central pivot of all Creation, did not exist to oblige or serve Man.
In 1769 young Robespierre enrolled at the Louis-le-Grand College in Paris, named after Louis XIV. Former students included Voltaire and the Marquis de Sade and among those there with Robespierre were Fréron, Desmoulins and Lebrun, who became minister of War after 10 August 1792. The daily routine had remained unchanged since the school was run by the Jesuits:
Morning Afternoon, evening
5.30 Rise 1.15 Studies and class
6 Prayer 4.30 Snack and recreation
6.15 Study of holy scripture 5 Studies and class
7.15 Breakfast and recreation 7.15 Supper and recreation
8.15 Class and studies 8.45 Prayer
10.30 Mass 9 Bed
Noon Dinner and recreation
This was the pattern of his life for 11 years, until he left the college aged 23. He graduated in jurisprudence in 1780 and a year later was awarded a degree at the University of Paris. These qualifications permitted him to be enrolled on the register of lawyers attached to the Parlement of Paris. He returned to Arras and practised as a barrister, on one occasion delivering an impassioned panegyric on England in defence of an Englishwoman arrested on charges of debt; on another, denouncing arbitrary imprisonment by lettre de cachet (a sealed order guaranteed by the King’s private stamp) in the case of one Dupond. Under the old regime, any noble could issue this arrest warrant for the confinement or exile of anyone he deemed to be a criminal or an inconvenience: families seeking to safeguard the honour of their name in preventing misalliance, a family member disgracing them with debauchery, inebriation, debts. Abuse was rife. Strong representation against them increased during the reign of Louis XVI. A report of 1770 castigated a penal caprice which made ‘none so great as to be secure from the vindictiveness of a royal minister . . . none so small as not to incur that of a farm steward’. A lettre de cachet confined Voltaire in the Bastille for a short while.
In the peroration of his defence, Robespierre voiced the profound indignation which informed so much of his thinking: ‘The infinite being, who has created man for sublime purposes and endowed him with faculties worthy of those purposes, has destined him for society only in that state most proper for the development of those precious faculties, whose perfection is at once the object of all his strivings and the pledge of the felicity to which his nature is susceptible.
‘All forms of society, all types of government, under whatever name one designates them, are good, from the moment they can lead to this important principle, and are essentially vicious and worthless whenever they go contrary to it; thus this principle is the foundation of the social contract of which we speak, so much of which is not at all the work of a free and voluntary covenant on the part of men but a contract whose fundamental conditions, written in heaven, were for all time determined by the supreme legislator, the unique source of all order, of all happiness, of all justice.’
On the evening of 13 July 1789 a lawyer called Lavaux attended a meeting of the Cordeliers where a speaker harangued the audience from a table, telling them in a tone of high rage that the citizens must take up arms ‘to repulse the 15,000 brigands mustered in Montmartre and an army of 30,000 which is preparing to pour into Paris, to loot and massacre’. His whole demeanour was fanatical and he ranted on and on until he was hoarse and spent. The man was an old friend of Lavaux – Danton, whom he had always taken to be a rather peaceable, jovial, carefree fellow, but the times were neither peaceable nor carefree.
In 1787 an Assembly of Notables, hand-picked to eliminate troublemakers, had brusquely dismissed plans for much-needed fiscal reform. This can be seen as the first salvo of the Revolution. Ever more insistent demands were made for a meeting of the Estates-General, a sort of parliament called at the king’s bidding which had not met since 1614. This, said the marquis de Lafayette, was the only ‘true national Assembly’ and only such a body, representing the whole nation, could agree to wholesale changes in taxation.
The Estates-General comprised elected members of the Three Estates: the First, the clergy; the Second, the nobility; the Third, the commoners, who had always been denied partnership in the Parlements, the sovereign courts established to render justice in the last resort in the King’s name. The Third Estate, which groaned under the heaviest weight of taxation yet ordinarily had no say, was demanding to be heard. Under Louis XIV, the saying went, no one dared speak. Under Louis XV, they whispered. Under Louis XVI, they talked aloud. A contemporary cartoon shows a female commoner carrying a nun and an elegantly dressed noblewoman on her back. The caption: ‘Let’s hope they play fair.’ The Abbé Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès, one of the leading theorists of revolutionary principles, put the point succinctly in his famous pamphlet What Is the Third Estate?, January 1789: ‘What is the Third Estate? Everything. What has it been until the present time? Nothing. What does it ask? To become something.’
Marat reiterated much the same sentiments in his own pamphlet An Offering to the Nation.
Acceding to the pressure of calls for reform, the King formally summoned a meeting of the Estates-General in January 1789; elected deputies of all three Estates convened on 5 May. The debates and arguments foundered in the shoals of vagary, the indecision of the government and abject failure to agree on the way forward.
On 17 June the Third Estate, exasperated with the glaring insincerity of their partners in this supposed democracy, robustly declared that they alone embodied the true national Assembly and on 20 June swore an oath on the Tennis Court at Versailles to remain in session until a constitution had been established. The King reverted to type; such defiance could not go unchecked; he gave orders summoning an army of 30,000 to Paris and by 4 July the troops were encamped in the city and the surrounding area. It was neither a remedy nor an answer.
On Saturday 12 July barracking crowds invaded the theatres and forced them to close; dragoons tried to restore order; a mob occupied the Tuileries Palace. Paris was like a powder keg; one spark would set it off.
That same day Danton’s friend Desmoulins addressed an ‘expectant crowd in open-necked shirts’ gathered outside the Café Foy in the Palais Royal, the gardens of which Philippe, duc d’Orléans, the King’s cousin, had opened to the people of Paris, further making himself popular by periodic doles of bread. These gardens, enjoying Orléans’ extra-legal status by proxy, were a sort of free enclave within Paris, flanked with cafés, haunted by prostitutes, rabble-rousers and intellectual agitators, seething with seditious talk.
Drawing on the text of a tract he had just published, Desmoulins bade his audience: ‘Listen, listen to the voices of Paris and Lyon, of Rouen and Bordeaux, of Calais and Marseille. From end to end of the nation there is one united cry: we want to be free.’
Free from what, exactly?
Of France’s total population of around 26 million in 1789, only about 4.3 million lived in towns and, of that figure, 700,000 in Paris. This lopsided aspect of the country’s demography was reflected in an equally lopsided cast in society, where the divisions cut by privilege, wealth and power effectively made France two nations: the enfranchised minority of the First and Second Estates, and the rest. The fearsome burden of taxation lay most heavily on those least endowed to support it: the poor were required to pay royal tax, church tax and dues to their local lords, the nobles, the seigneurs. Since many individuals, nearly crushed by the onus of this composite expropriation, had grown adept at evasion, and most were suspected of it, tolls were often levied on communities as a whole rather than on their individual members, which meant that those who were solvent would, most often resentfully, have to stump up to cover the shortfall due to the failure – or stubborn reluctance – of the insolvent to contribute. Moreover, taxes were calculated on gross product not net profit. Thus a tithe might levy a twelfth – a small slice of the gross but this could work out to as much as two-thirds of the net profit.
The most flagrant inequality operated in the levy of the gabelle, the hated tax on salt, a royal monopoly, which was levied per capita on a pre-assessed and obligatory consumption: a poll tax, in other words. However, the kingdom was divided into six regions of the gabelle, five paying substantially different levels of taxation and one entirely exempt, relative to the availability of salt from salt mines and the ease of manufacture in salt pans. The royal salt-houses took a varying proportion of the regional production by way of sanction. Cross-border smugglers were active.
The collection of taxes was the responsibility of the royal tax farm, a syndicate of private shareholders who leased a monopoly on the levy of all indirect taxation, by contract with the King, renewable every six years. The tax farmers were among the richest men in France and hated for it. Like the Roman publicani (the ‘publicans’ of the Bible) they mulcted the population in the name of the King and reaped a fat profit. Indirect taxes took the form of aides – customs duties paid by rich and poor alike; traits – stamp duty; octrois – local tolls on all goods and produce brought into a town; excise on the state monopolies of tobacco and salt and numerous other imposts on trade and consumption. A contemporary joke has dinner-party guests telling stories about thieves and thievery. It comes to Voltaire’s turn. He begins: ‘There once was a tax farmer . . . oh dear, I’ve forgotten the rest.’ In his polemic The Wealth of Nations (1776) the political economist Adam Smith wrote of the French excise system: ‘Those who consider the blood of the people as nothing in comparison with the revenue of a prince may perhaps approve of this method of levying taxes.’
France was a conglomerate of regions, each with a strong sense of identity and many with a long history of independence from Paris, straitjacketed into an idea of oneness but in fact totally at odds with itself. One, the Franche-Comté, ‘Free County’, made the point starkly in its very name. The despotic rule of Louis XIV, called the Sun King because everything in the kingdom revolved round him, might compel obedience but his death let loose the forces of dissent. The entire structure, already teetering, began to collapse. His successor, Louis XV, saw it and said: ‘After me, to hell with it.’
The inequalities of the tax structure merely underlined the creaking inadequacies of the entire fabric of administration, but these inequalities were most cuttingly felt – and resented – in the system of privileges by which successive monarchs had bought the loyalty of noble grandees who would otherwise have been disinclined to pay any degree of fealty to the king. In England, with a population of around eight million in 1790, there were 220 male peers of the realm. By contrast, in France, with more than three times as many people, there were about 25,000 noble families and altogether some 110,000–120,000 nobles, most very far from being as rich as Croesus, but not one who did not enjoy exemption, enshrined in ancient privilege, from a large swathe of taxes. In 1788, when government expenditure totalled 630 million livres, over half the total was gobbled up in payment of interest on debt. The country was bankrupt by gross over-expenditure at court, the grievous toll of four wars waged between 1733 and 1783, chronic financial maladministration, and yet still the entrenched exemption of nobles from taxes held.
Privilege, which included the much-loathed right to hunt at will over whatever land they owned, extended over every aspect of the lives of the tenants of their estates, all beholden to the seigneur by feudal dues – even when feudal dependence had lost its meaning and usefulness. Tenants had to pay, in cash or kind, a bewildering number of imposts, such as several bushels of oats annually from anyone producing fire and smoke from that fire; to perform stints of guard duty (unpaid) on the lord’s chateau, latterly commuted to a cash fee in lieu; to grind their grain, bake their bread and press their fruit exclusively in the seigneurial mill, oven and wine press. The celebrated right of the seigneur to deflower a newly married wife had fallen into desuetude long since but those who enjoyed privilege were very sensitive to the widespread popular hostility to them. Louis XVI refused to give Beaumarchais a licence for the performance of his play The Marriage of Figaro (1778), which satirised the ‘right of the first night’ and seigneurial arrogance, until 1784: he saw the danger in it. When it was at last performed, to great acclaim, the court looked on complacently at what Napoleon called ‘Revolution already in action’. (Mozart’s opera based on the play was actually banned from Paris.)
Privilege alienated not only the underclass but all those beholden to royal appointees: lawyers to high magistrates of sovereign courts; the minor clergy to those elevated to princely ranks in the church by patronage; town and city officials to great nobles, prelates, military governors and the King’s personal agents in the provinces, the intendants, who wielded the full power of the absolute monarchy and acted as the King’s long arm in every corner of the realm. There was no central government as such. The King, remote and godlike in the court at Versailles, did nothing which, according to sophisticated thought on enlightened despotism, entirely befitted his being and presence. And if, someone might ask, the King did nothing, who would govern? Why, the laws. This was, however, a queer even sentimental fiction riddled with incongruity, for those who supervised the quality and enforcement of the laws were generally the very people whose interests the laws best served. Besides, which laws, exactly?
In 1789 France had some 300 differing legal codes; those in the south based on paternalistic Roman law with particularly restrictive inheritance and property rights; those of the north rooted in customary law derived from the Frankish legal system. Attempts to unify the legal codex would inevitably seem draconian, insensitive to long tradition. Should the unified system disregard existing traditions and prejudices to reflect an abstract natural law, the basis of a perceived justice, or develop from the system known best to the lawyers of the legislative Assembly, precursor of the Convention, inevitably biased towards the customary law which prevailed in the north? Another cause of tension ready to add further strain. It was, however, entirely to be expected that the main motive power of the Revolution should come from hitherto obscure lawyers who seized the chance to transfer their pleading for justice in small-town courtrooms to the bar of the national legislature.
All royal office-holders, whether in lucrative sinecures or appointments of significant power, held their place in the hierarchy of influence, at whose apex sat the King, by a system of purchase, the paulette after Paulet, the man who initiated the idea in 1604. It was this antiquated mode of open promotion by wealth – as in the purchase of rank in the English army – which obstructed men of talent from the corridors of court and therefore of power; moreover, the paulette institutionalised the rot at the core of the governance of France: venality, the direct exchange of money for place and power.
The King spent some 5 per cent of the exchequer’s annual revenue on the royal household, around 10,000 courtiers and servants. Versailles itself was the tenth-largest town in France, with a population of 50,000. The elaborate ceremonial, the étiquette, which surrounded the King’s every appearance and action, from spectacles of state to the procession of the King’s meat, was a complex apparatus of pomp designed to elevate him to that untouchable eminence above the people over whom he reigned. Not without cause did the master cook Vatel suffer a gross conniption of dismay and commit suicide when the arrival of the fish was delayed.
Since the majority of the people was ingrained with tradition, the popularity of the King’s person was never much challenged, except by the one section of the people less awed by his majesty – a large proportion of the population of Paris – but then only spasmodically. When the young Louis XVI and his queen, Marie-Antoinette, daughter of Francis I and Maria Theresa of Austria, emerged from the ancient cathedral in Reims having been crowned and anointed with oil from the phial of sacred unguent bequeathed by Clovis, first king of the Franks (481–511), the people wept for joy. It was a very emotional, perhaps unthinking but nevertheless highly charged popularity: he was a king of France and the French people entire and as such he must be accorded all that made him their king, supreme, greatest king of all kings. He was the father and the saviour of the nation, a nation which had really only been defined as such, and paradoxically, in the wake of the disastrous defeats sustained in the Seven Years War (1756–63), at the cessation of which France gave up national sovereignty over a large proportion of her colonial holdings. In an essay of 1763 on National Education, the prominent political writer La Chalotais used the word ‘citizen’ in a specific, a French national sense, for probably the first time. And, while the King’s person might be deemed to be inviolable, political thinkers had already begun to expose the cracks in the idea of monarchy vis-à-vis the reality. As the Abbé de Véri said: ‘Today hardly anyone dare say in Parisian society: “I serve the King” . . . he would be taken for one of the chief valets in Versailles. “I serve the state” is the norm.’ Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract (1762) offered a quite contrary depiction of a free and just society to that of the hopelessly constrained and unequal society that obtained, inequalities which descended from and were most typified by the most sclerotic privilege of all: the royal privilege, whose tentacles had the whole country in a frequently brutal grip.
Copyright © 2004 by Graeme Fife. All rights reserved. Continues...
Excerpted from The Terror by Fife, Graeme Copyright © 2006 by Fife, Graeme. Excerpted by permission.
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