The great French revolution, 1789-1793


28. Arrest of the Revolution in 1790

Insurrections necessary — Extent of reaction — Work of Constituent and Legislative Assemblies — New Constitution — Local government opposed to centralisation — Difficulties in applying new laws — Directoires on side of reaction — “Disorder wanted” — Active and passive citizens — The gains of insurrection — Equality and agrarian law — Disappearance of manorial courts — Workers' demands answered by bullets — Middle classes' love of order and prosperity — “Intellectuals” turn against people — Success of counter-revolution — Plutocracy — Opposition to republican form of government — Danton and Marat persecuted and exiled — Discontent and dishonesty in army — Massacres at Nancy — Bouillé's “splendid behaviour”

We have seen what the economic conditions in the villages were during the year 1790. They were such that if the peasant insurrections had not gone on, in spite of all, the peasants, freed in their persons, would have remained economically under the yoke of the feudal system — as happened in Russia where feudalism was abolished, in 1861, by law, and not by a revolution.

Besides, all the political work of the Revolution not only remained unfinished in 1790, but it actually suffered a complete set-back. As soon as the first panic, produced by the unexpected breaking-out of the people, had passed, the Court, nobles, the rich men and the clergy promptly joined together for the reorganisation of the forces of reaction. And soon they felt themselves so well supported and so powerful that they began to see whether it would not be possible to crush the Revolution, and to re-establish the Court and the nobility in their rights.

All the historians undoubtedly mention this reaction; but they do not show all its depth and all its extent. The reality was that for two years, from the summer of 1790 to the summer of 1792, the whole work of the Revolution was suspended. People were asking if it was the Revolution which was going to get the upper hand or the counter-revolution. The beam of the balance wavered between the two. And it was in utter despair that the revolutionist “leaders of opinion” decided at last, in June 1792, once more to appeal to popular insurrection.

Of course it must be recognised that while the Constituent Assembly, and after it the Legislative, opposed the revolutionary abolition of the feudal rights and popular revolution altogether, they nevertheless accomplished an immense work for the destruction of the powers of the King and the Court, and for the creation of the political power of the middle classes. And when the legislators in both these Assemblies undertook to express, in the form of laws, the new Constitution of the Third Estate, it must be confessed that they went to work with a certain energy and sagacity.

They knew how to undermine the power of the nobility and how to express the rights of the citizen in a middle-class Constitution. They worked out a local self-government which was capable of checking the governmental centralisation, and they modified the laws of inheritance so as to democratise property and to divide it up among a greater number of persons.

They destroyed for ever the political distinctions between the various “orders” — clergy, nobility, Third Estate, which for that time was a very great thing; we have only to remember how slowly this is being done in Germany and Russia. They abolished all the titles of the nobility and the countless privileges which then existed, and they laid the foundations of a more equal basis for taxation. They avoided also the formation of an Upper Chamber, which would have been a stronghold for the aristocracy. And by the departmental law of December 1789, they did something which helped on the Revolution enormously: they abolished every representative of the central authority in the provinces.

Lastly, they took away from the Church her rich possessions, and they made the members of the clergy simple functionaries of the State. The army was reorganised; so were the courts of justice. The election of judges was left to the people. And in all these reforms the middle-class legislators avoided too much centralisation. In short, judged from the legislative point of view, they appear to have been clever, energetic men, and we find in their work certain elements of republican democratism, and a tendency towards local autonomy, which the advanced parties of the present day do not sufficiently appreciate.

However, in spite of all these laws, nothing was yet done. The reality was not on the same Ievel as the theory, for the simple reason that there lies always an abyss between a law which has iust been promulgated and its practical carrying out in life — a reason which is usually overlooked by those who do not thoroughly understand from their own experience the working of the machinery of State.

It is easy to say: “The property of the religious bodies shall pass into the hands of the State.” But how is that to be put into effect? Who will go, for example, to the Abbey of Saint Bernard at Clairvaux, and tell the abbot and the monks that they have to go? Who is to drive them out if they do not go? Who is to prevent them from coming back to-morrow, helped by all the pious folk in the neighbouring villages, and from chanting the mass in the abbey? Who is to organise an effective sale of their vast estates? And finally, who will turn the fine abbey buildings into a hospital for old men, as was actually done later on by the revolutionary government? We know, indeed, that if the “sections” of Paris had not taken the sale of the Church lands into their hands, the law concerning these sales would never have begun to take effect.

In 1790, 1791, 1792, the old régime was still there, intact, and ready to be reconstituted in its entirety — with but slight modifications — just as the Second Empire of Napoleon III. Was ready to come back to life at any moment in the days of Thiers and MacMahon. The clergy, the nobility, the old officialism, and above all the old spirit, were all ready to lift up their heads again, and to clap into gaol those who had dared to put on the tri-colour sash. They were watching for the opportunity; they were preparing for it. Moreover the new Directories (directoires) of the departments, established by the Revolution, but drawn from the wealthy class, were the framework, always ready for the re-establishment of the old régime. They were the citadels of the counter-revolution.

Both the Constituent and the Legislative Assembly had certainly drawn up a number of laws, of which people admire the lucidity and style to this day; but nevertheless, the greater majority of these laws remained a dead letter. It must not be forgotten that for more than two-thirds of the fundamental laws made between 1789 and 1793 no attempt was even made to put them into execution.

The fact is, that it is not enough to make a new law. It is necessary also, nearly always, to create the mechanism for its application; and as soon as the new law strikes at any vested interest, some sort of revolutionary organisation is usually required in order to apply this law to life, with all its consequences. We have only to think of the small results produced by the laws of the Convention concerning education, which all remained a dead letter.

To-day even, in spite of the present bureaucratic concentration and the armies of officials who converge towards their centre at Paris, we see that every new law, however triffing it may be, takes years before it passes into life. And again, how often it becomes completely mutilated in its application! But at the time of the Great Revolution this bureaucratic mechanism did not exist; it took more than fifty years for its actual development.

How then could the laws of the Assembly enter into everyday life without a revolution by deed being accomplished in every town, in every, village, in each of the thirty-six thousand communes all over France.

Yet such was the blindness of the middle-class revolutionists that, on the one hand, they took every precaution to prevent the people — the poor people, who alone were throwing themselves with all their heart into the Revolution — from having too much share in the direction of communal affairs, and on the other hand, they opposed with all their might the breakingout and the successful carrying-through of the Revolution in every town and village.

Before any vital work could result from the decrees of the Assembly, disorder was wanted. It was necessary that in every little hamlet, men of action, the patriots who hated the old régime, should seize upon the municipality; that a revolution should be made in that hamlet; that the whole order of life should be turned upside down; that all authority should be ignored; that the revolution should be a social one, if they wished to bring about the political revolution.

It was necessary for the peasant to take the land and begin to plough it without waiting for the orders of some authority, which orders evidently would never have been given. It was necessary for an entirely new life to begin in the village. But without disorder, without a great deal of social disorder, this could not be done.

Now it was precisely this disorder the legislators wanted to prevent.

Not only had they eliminated the people from the administration, by means of the municipal law of December 1789, which placed the administrative power in the hands of the active citizens only, and under the name of passive citizens excluded from it all the poor peasants and nearly all the workers in towns. And not only did they hand over all the provincial authority to the middle classes: they also armed these middle classes with the most terrifying powers to prevent the poor folk from continuing their insurrections.

And yet it was only these insurrections of the poor people which later on permitted them to deal mortal blows at the old régime in 1792 and 1793.[133]

[missing 218-219]

it became so powerful that in 1791 the whole Revolution was set back, this was because the middle classes had joined hands with the nobility and the clergy who had rallied round the banner of royalty. The new force constituted by the Revolution itself — the middle classes — brought their business ability, their love of “order” and of property, and their hatred of popular tumult to lend support to the forces of the old régime. Moreover, the majority of the “intellectuals,” in whom the people had put their trust, as soon as they perceived the first glimmer of a rising, turned their backs on the masses, and hurried into the ranks of the defenders of “order” to join them in keeping down the people and in opposing the popular tendencies towards equality.

Reinforced in this fashion, the counter-revolutionists succeeded so well, that if the peasants had not continued their risings in the provinces, and if the people in the towns, on seeing the foreigners invading France, had not risen again during the summer of 1792, the progress of the Revolution would have been stopped, without anything lasting having been effected.

Altogether, the situation was very gloomy in 1790. “A plutocracy is already established shamelessly,” wrote Loustallot on November 28, 1789, in the Révolution de Paris. Who knows if it is not already a treasonable crime to say, “The nation is the sovereign.”[134] But since then reaction had gained a good deal of ground, and it was still visibly progressing.

In his great work upon the political history of the Great Revolution, M. Aulard has described at some length the opposition that the idea of a republican form of government encountered among the middle classes and the “intellectuals” of the period — even when the abolition of monarchy was tendered unavoidable by the treacheries of the Court and the monarchists. In fact, while in 1789 the revolutionists had acted as if they wished to get rid of royalty altogether, a decidedly monarchical movement began now, among these very revolutionists, in proportion as the constitutional power of the Assembly was asserted.[135] Even more may be said. After October 5 and 6, 1789, especially after the flight of the King in June 1791, every time that the people displayed themselves as a revolutionary force, the middle classes an the “leaders of opinion” of the Revolution became more and more monarchical.

That is a very important fact; but neither must it be forgotten that the essential thing for both middle class and intellectuals was the “preservation of property,” as they use to say in those days. We see, in reality, this question of the maintenance of property running like a black thread all through the Revolution up to the fall of the Girondins.[136] It is also certain that if the idea of a Republic so greatly frightened the middle classes, and even the ardent Jacobins (while the Cordeliers accepted it willingly), it was because the popular masses linked it with that of equality, and this meant for them equality of fortune and the agrarian law — that is, the ideal of the Levellers, the Communists, the Expropriators, the “Anarchists” of the period.

It was therefore chiefly to prevent the people from attacking the sacrosanct principle of property that the middle classes were anxious to put a check on the Revolution. After October 1789, the Assembly had passed the famous martial law which permitted the shooting of the peasants in revolt, and later on, in July 1791, the massacre of the people of Paris. They put obstacles also in the way of the men of the people coming to Paris for the Fête of the Federation, on July 14, 1790. And they took a series of measures against the local revolutionary societies which gave strength to the popular revolution, even at the risk of killing, in so doing, what had been the germ of their own power.

Since the first outbreaks of the Revolution some thousands of political associations had sprung into being throughout France. It was not only the primary or electoral assemblies continuing to meet; it was not only the numerous Jacobin societies, branches of the parent society at Paris — it was the sections chiefly, the Popular Societies and the Fraternal Societies, which came into existence spontaneously and often without the least formality; it was the thousands of committees and local powers — almost independent — substituting themselves for the royal authority, which all helped to spread among the people the idea of social equality by means of a revolution.

Therefore the middle classes eagerly applied themselves to the task of crushing, paralysing, or at least demoralising these thousands of local centres, and they succeeded so well that the monarchists, the clergy, and the nobles began once more to get the upper hand in the towns and boroughs of more than half of France.

Presently they resorted to judicial prosecutions, and in January 1790, Necker obtained an order of arrest against Marat, who had openly espoused the cause of the people, the poorest classes. Fearing a popular outbreak, they despatched both infantry and cavalry to arrest the people's tribune; his printing press was smashed, and Marat, at the high-tide of the Revolution, was forced to take refuge in England. When he returned, four months after, he had to remain hidden all the time, and in December 1791 he had to cross the Channel once more.

In short, the middle classes and the “intellectuals,” both defenders of property, did so much to crush the popular movement that they stopped the Revolution itself. According as middle-class authority constituted itself, the authority of the King was seen to recover its youthful vigour.

“The true Revolution, an enemy to licence, grows stronger every day,” wrote the monarchist, Mallet du Pan, in June 1790. And so it was. Three months later, the counter-revolution felt itself already so powerful that it strewed the streets of Nancy with corpses.

At first, the revolutionary spirit had touched the army but little, composed, as it then was, of mercenaries, partly foreign — either Germans or Swiss. But it penetrated by degrees. The Fête of the Federation, to which delegates from the soldiers had been invited to take part as citizens, helped in this, and in the course of the month of August, a spirit of discontent began to show itself a little everywhere, but especially in the eastern garrisons, in a series of movements among the soldiers. They wanted to compel their officers to give an account of the sums which had passed through their hands, and to make restitution of what had been withheld from the soldiers. These sums were enormous. In the regiment of Beauce they amounted to more than 240,000 livres, and from 100,000 even to two millions in other garrisons. The ferment went on growing; but, as might be expected of men brutalised by long service, part of them remained faithful to the officers, and the counter-revolutionists took advantage of this to provoke conflicts and sanguinary quarrels between the soldiers themselves. Thus, at Lille, four regiments fought among themselves — royalists against patriots — and left fifty dead and wounded on the spot.

It is highly probable that, the royalist plots having redoubled in activity since the end of 1789, especially among the officers of the Army of the East, commanded by Bouillé, it fell in with the plans of the conspirators to take advantage of the first outbreak of the soldiers by drowning it in blood, thus helping the royalist regiments to remain faithful to their commanders.

The occasion was soon found at Nancy.

The National Assembly, on hearing of the agitation among the soldiers, passed, on August 6, 1790, a law, which diminished the effectives in the army and forbade the “deliberate associations” of the soldiers in the service, but at the same timeordered also the money accounts to be rendered without delay by the officers to their respective regiments.

As soon as this decree became known at Nancy on the 9th, the soldiers, chiefly the Swiss of the Châteauvieux regiment, made up mainly of men from the cantons of Vaud and Geneva, demanded the accounts from their officers. They carried off the pay-chest of their regiment and placed it in the safe keeping of their own sentinels; they threatened their officers with violence, and sent eight delegates to Paris to plead their cause before the National Assembly. The massing of Austrian troops, on the frontier helped to increase the disturbance.

The Assembly, meanwhile, acting on false reports sent from Nancy, and incited by the Commandant of the National Guard, Lafayette, in whom the middle class had full confidence, voted on the 16th a decree condemning the soldiers for their breach of discipline, and ordering the garrisons of the National Guard of the Meurthe department to “repress the authors of the rebellion.” Their delegates were arrested, and Lafayette, on his part, ssued a circular summoning the National Guards from the towns nearest Nancy to take arms against the revolted garrison in that town.

At Nancy itself, however, everything seemed as if it were going to pass off peaceably, the majority of the men who had rebelled having even signed “a deed of repentance.” But apparently that was not what the royalists wanted.[137]

Bouillé set out from Metz on the 28th, at the head of three thousand faithful soldiers, with the firm intention of dealing the rebels the crushing blow desired by the Court,

The double-dealing of the Directory of the department helped Bouillé, and while everything could yet be arranged peacefully, Bouillé offered the garrison quite impossible conditions, and immediately attacked it. His soldiers committed the most frightful carnage, they killed the citizens as well as the rebellious soldiers, and plundered the houses.

Three thousand corpses strewed the streets of Nancy as outcome of the fight, and after that came the “legal” reprisals. Thirty-two rebels were executed by being broken on the wheel, and forty-one were sent to penal servitude.

The King at once expressed his approval by letter of “the splendid behaviour of M. Bouillé”; the National Assembly thanked the assassins; and the municipality of Paris held a funeral service in honour of the conquerors who had fallen in the battle. No one dared to protest, Robespierre no than the others. Thus ended the year 1790. Armed reaction was uppermost.


[133]^ It is interesting to read in M. Aulard's Hisltoire politique de la Révolution française (2nd edition, Paris, 1903) the pages 55 to 60, in which he shows how the Assembly laboured to prevent the power falling into the hands of the people. The remarks of this writer, concerning the law of October 14, 1790, prohibiting the assembling of the citizens of the communes to discuss their affairs more than once a year for the elections, are very true.

[134]^ Aulard, Histoire politique de la Révolution française, p. 72. A detailed analysis of what had been done by the Assembly against the spirit of democracy will be found in Aulard.

[135]^ Among others, a very interesting instance of this may be found in the letters of Madame Jullien (de la Drôme): “I am cured, therefore of my Roman fever, which did not, however, go as far as republicanism for fear of civil war. I am shut up with animals of all sorts in the sacred Ark of the Constitution. . . . One is somewhat of a Huron squaw (North American Indian) when playing the Spartan or Roman woman in Paris.” Elsewhere she asks her son: “Tell me if the Jacobins have become Feuillants” (the Club of the Feuillants was the monarchist club). Journal d'une bourgeoise pendant la Révolution, published by Edouard Lockroy, Paris, 1881, 2nd edition, PP. 31, 32, 35.

[136]^ Marat alone had dared to put in his newspaper the following epigraph: “Ut redeat miseris abeat fortuna superbis.” (May fortune desert the rich and come back to the poor.)

[137]^ Vide Grands détails par pièces authentiques de l'affaire de Nancy (Paris, 1790) Détail très exast des ravages commis . . à Nancy (Paris, 1790) Relation exacte de ce qui s'est passe à Nancy le 31 août 1790; Le sens commun du banhomme Richard sur l'affaire de Nancy (Philadelphie (?)), l'an second de la liberté framçaise, and other pamphlet, in the rich collection at the British Museum, vol. vii. Pp. 326, 327, 328 962.

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