The great French revolution, 1789-1793


31. The Counter-Revolution in the South of France

Condition of provinces — Coblentz centre of royalist plots — Counter-revolutionary federation — Loyalist activity — Royalists receive money from Pitt, and help from other Powers — Risings and counter-risings in provinces

When studying the Great Revolution, one is so much attracted the magnitude of the struggles which unfolded themselves in Paris, that one is tempted to neglect the condition of the provinces, and to overlook the power which the counter-revolution possessed there all the time. This power, however, was enormous. The counter-revolution had for it the support of the past centuries, and the interests of the present; and it is necessary to study it in order to understand how small is the power of a representative assembly during a revolution — even if its members could all be inspired with the very best intentions only. When it comes to a struggle, in every town and in every little village, against the forces of the old régime, which, after a moment of stupor, reorganise themselves to stop the revolution — it is only the impulse of the revolutionists on the spot which can overcome that powerful resistance.

It would take years and years of study in the local archives to trace out all the doings of the royalists during the Great Revolution. A few episodes will, however, allow us to gain me idea of them.

The insurrection in the Vendée is more or less known. But we are only too much inclined to believe that there, in the midst of a half-savage population, inspired by religious fanaticism, is to be found the only real hotbed of the counter-revolution.Southern France represented a similar hotbed, all the more dangerous as there the country districts and cities had furnished some of the best contingents to the Revolution.

The direction of these various movements emanated from Coblentz, the little German town situated in the Electorate of Trèves, which had become the chief centre of the royalist emigration. Since the summer of 1791, when the Count d'Artois, followed by the ex-minister Calonne, and, later, by his brother, the Count de Provence, had settled in this town, it had become the head centre of the royalist plots. Thence came the emissaries who were organising throughout the whole of France anti-revolutionary risings. Everywhere soldiers were being recruited for Coblentz, even in Paris, where the Editor of the Gazette de Paris publicly offered sixty livres for each recruit. For some time these men were almost openly sent to Metz and afterwards to Coblentz.

“Society followed them,” says Ernest Daudet, in his monograph, Les, Conspirations royalistes dans le Midi; “the nobility imitated the princes, and many of the middle class and common people imitated the nobility. They emigrated for fashion, for poverty or for fear. A young woman who was met in a diligence by a secret agent of the Government, and questioned by him, replied: “I am a dressmaker; my customers are all gone off to Germany; so I have turned émigrette in order to go and find them.”

A complete Court, with its ministers, its chamberlains and its official receptions, and also its intrigues and its infamies, was evolved round the King's brothers, and the European sovereigns recognised this Court, and treated and plotted with it. Meanwhile, they were expecting to see Louis XVI. arrive and set himself at the head of the troops formed by the émigrés. He was expected in June 1791, when he fled to Varennes, ant later, in November 1791, and in January 1792. Finally it was decided to prepare for a great stroke in July 1792, when the royalist armies of western ant southern France, supported by English, German, Sardinian and Spanish invasions, were to march on Paris, rousing Lyons and other large towns on the way, whilst the royalists of Paris would strike their greatblow, disperse the Assembly and punish the hot-headed Jacobins.

“To replace the King on the throne,” which really meant making him again an absolute monarch, and reintroducing the old regime as it had existed at the time of the Convocation of the States-General — that was their intention. And when the King of Prussia, more intelligent than those phantoms of Versailles, asked them: “Would it not be justice, as well as prudence, to make the nation the sacrifice of certain abuses of the old government?” “Sire,” they replied, “not a single change, not a single favour!”[145]

It is needless to add that all the cabals, all the tale-bearings, all the jealousies, which characterised Versailles were reproduced at Coblentz. The two brothers had each his Court his acknowledged mistress, his receptions, his circle, while the nobles indulged in Court gossip which grew more and more malicious according as they grew poorer and poorer.

Around this centre gravitated, quite openly now, those fanatical priests who preferred civil war to the constitutional submission proposed by the new decrees, as well as those noble adventurers who chose to risk a conspiracy rather than resign themselves to the loss of their privileged position. They went to Coblentz, obtained the prince's sanction for their plots, and returned to the mountainous regions of the Cévennes or to the shores of the Vendée, to kindle the religious fanaticism of the peasants and to organise royalist risings.

The historians who sympathise with the Revolution pass, as a rule, too rapidly over these counter-revolutionary resistances, so that many readers may consider them as unimportant events, or as the work of but a few fanatics who could have been easily subdued by the Revolution. But in reality, the royalist plots extended over whole regions, and as they found support among the big men of the middle classes, in the great commercial cities — and, in certain regions, in the religious hatred between Protestants and Catholics as in the south — the revolutionists had to carry on a terrible struggle for life in every town and in every little commune to save the Revolution from defeat.

Thus, while the people of Paris were preparing for July 14, 1790, the great Fête of the Federation, in which all France took part, and which was to give to the Revolution a firm communal basis — the royalists were preparing the federation of the counter-revolutionists in the south-east. On August 18 of the same year, nearly 20,000 representatives of 185 communes of the Vivarais assembled on the plain of Jalès, all wearing the white cross on their hats. Led by the nobles, they formed that day the nucleus of the royalist federation of the south, which was solemnly constituted in the month of February following.

This federation prepared, first, a series of insurrections for the summer of 1971, and afterwards the great insurrection which was to break out in July 1792, simultaneously with the foreign invasion, and which was expected to give the finishing blow to the Revolution. The Jalès confederation existed in this way for two years, keeping up regular correspondence with both the Tuileries and Coblentz. Its oath was “to reinstate the King in all his glory, the clergy in their possessions, and the nobility in their honours.” And when their first attempts failed, they organised, with the help of Claude Allier, the prior of Chambonnaz, a widely spread conspiracy, which was to bring out more than fifty thousand men. Led by a large number of priests, marching under the folds of the white flag, and supported by Sardinia, Spain and Austria, this army would have gone to Paris “to free” the King, to dissolve the Assembly, and to chastise the patriots.

In the Lozère, Charrier, notary and ex-deputy to the National Assembly, whose wife belonged to the nobility, was invested with the supreme command by the Count d'Artois. He openly organised a counter-revolutionary militia, and even got together some artillery.

Chambéry, at that time a town in the kingdom of Sardinia, was another centre of the émigrés. Bussy had even formed there a royalist legion which exercised in open day. In this way the counter-revolution we, being organised in the south,while in the west the priests and nobles were preparing for the rising of the Vendée, with the help of England

It may perhaps be said that, even all taken together, the conspirators and the confederations of south-eastern France were not very numerous. But the revolutionists, too, those at least who were determined to act, were not numerous either. Everywhere and in all times, the men of action have been an insignificant minority. But thanks to inertia, to prejudice, to acquired interests, to money and to religion, the counter-revolution held entire provinces; and it was this terrible power of reaction which explains the fury of the Revolution in 1793 and 1794 when it had to make a supreme effort to escape from the clutches that were strangling it.

Whether the adherents of Claude Allier, ready to take arms, really amounted to sixty thousand men, as he stated when he visited Coblentz in January 1792, may be doubted. But this much is certain, that in every town in the south, the struggle between the revolutionists and the counter-revolutionists continued without intertnission, making the balance sway sometimes to one side and sometimes to the other.

At Perpignan, the military royalists were ready to open the frontier to the Spanish army. At Arles, in the local struggle between the monnetiers and the chiffonistes, that is, between the patriots and the counter-revolutionists, the latter were victorious. “Warned,” says one writer, “that the Marseillais were organising an expedition against them, that they had even piIlaged the arsenal of Marseilles the better to be able to make the campaign, they prepared for resistance. They fortified themselves, built up the gates of their town, deepened the fosses along the enclosure, made safe their communications with the sea, and reorganised the National Guard in such a way as to reduce the patriots to impotence.”

These few lines borrowed from Ernest Daudet[146] are characteristic. They give a picture of what was taking place more or less all through France. Four years of revolution, that is, the absence of a strong government for four years, and incessant fighting on the part of the revolutionists were necessary to paralyse to some extent the reaction.

At Montpellier, the patriots had founded a league of defence against the royalists, in order to protect the priests who had taken the oath to the Constitution, as well as those parishioners who attended mass when the constitutional priests officiated. There was frequent fighting in the streets. At Lunel in the Hérault, at Yssingeaux in the Haute-Loire, at Mende in the Lozère, it was the same. People remained in arms. It might be truly said that in every town in that region similar struggles took place between the royalists, or the “Feuillants” of the place, and the “patriots,” and later on between the Girondins and the “anarchists.” We may even add that in the vast majority of the towns of the centre and of the west, the reactionaries got the upper hand, and that the Revolution was seriously supported only in thirty out of the eighty-three departments. More than that; the revolutionists themselves, for the most part, began to defy the royalists only by degrees and in proportion as their own revolutionary education was effected by events.

In all these towns the anti-revolutionists joined hands. The rich people had a thousand means, which the generality of the patriots did not possess, of moving about, of corresponding by means of special messengers, of hiding in their châteaux, and of accumulating arms in them. The patriots corresponded undoubtedly with the Popular Societies and the Paris Fraternities, with the Society of the Indigent, as well as with the mother society of the Jacobins; but they were very poor! Arms and means of moving about both failed them.

Besides, those who were against the Revolution were supported from without. England has always followed the policy she pursues to this day: that of weakening her rivals and creating partisans among them. “Pitt's money” was no phantom. Very far from that. With the help of this money the royalists passed quite freely from their centre and depôtof arms, Jersey, to St. Malo and Nantes, and in all the great seaports of France, especially those of St. Malo, Nantes, Bordeaux, the English money gained adherents and supported “commercialists” (les commerçantistes) who took sides against the Revolution. Catherine II. of Russia did as Pitt did. In reality, all the European monarchs took part in this. If in Brittanv, in the Vendée, at Bordeaux, and at Toulon the royalists counted upon England, in Alsace and Lorraine they counted on Germany, and in the south upon the armed help promised by Sardinia, as well as on the Spanish army which was to land at Aigues-Mortes. Even the Knights of Malta were going to help with two frigates in this expedition.

In the beginning of 1792, the department of the Lozère and hat of the Ardèche, both rendezvous of the refractory priests, were covered with a network of royalist conspiracies, of which the centre was Mende, a little town hidden away in the mountains of the Vivarais, where the population was very backward, and where the rich and the nobles held the municipality in their hands. Their emissaries went through the villages of the province, enjoining on the peasants to arm themselves with guns, scythes and pitch-forks, and to be ready to turn out at the first call. In this way they were preparing for the insurrection which, they hoped, would raise the Gévaudan and the Velay, and compel the Vivarais to follow suit.

It is true that none of the royalist insurrections which took place in 1791 and 1792, at Perpignan, Arles, Mende, Yssingeaux in the Vivarais, were successful. It was not enough to shout “Down with the patriots!” to rally a sufficient number of insurgents, and the patriots promptly dispersed the royalist bands. But during those two years the struggle was incessant. There were moments when the whole country was a prey to civil war, and the tocsin rang without intermission in the villages.

There was even a moment when it was necessary that armed bands of the Marseillais should come to hunt out the counter-revoutionists in that region, to take possession of Arles and Aigues-Mortes, and to inaugurate the reign of terror which,later on, attained such vast proportions in the South of Lyons, and in the Ardèche. As to the rising organised by the Count de Saillans, which broke out in July 1792, at the same time as that of the Vendée, and at the moment when the German armies were marching on Paris, it would certainly have had a fatal influence on the progress of the Revolution if the people had not promptly suppressed it. Fortunately, the people took this upon themselves, while Paris, on her side, made preparations to seize, at last, the centre of all royalist conspiracies — the Tuileries.


[145]^ Document in the Archives des étrangères, quoted by E. Daudet

[146]^ Histoire des Conspirations royalistes du Midi sous la Révolution (Paris, 1881). Daudet is a moderate, or rather a reactionary, but his history is documentary, and he has consulted the local archives.

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