The great French revolution, 1789-1793


35. The September Days

People roused to fury — Massacres at Abbaye prison — Commune tries to put an end to massacres — Massacres continue — Attitude of Girondins — Explanation of massacres — Address of Assembly to people — End of massacres

The tocsin sounding all over Paris, the drums beating in the streets, the alarum-gun, the reports of which rang out every quarter of an hour, the songs of the volunteers setting out for the frontier, all contributed that Sunday, September 2, to rouse the anger of the people to fury.

Soon after midday, crowds began to gather around the prisons. Some priests who were being transferred from the Town Hall to the Abbaye prison, to the number of twenty-five,[161] in closed carriages, were assailed in the streets by the Federates from Marseilles or Avignon. Four priests were killed before they reached the prison. Two were massacred on arriving there, at the gate. The others were admitted; but just as they were being put through some simple form of interrogation, a multitude, armed with pikes, swords and sabres, forced the door of the prison and killed all the priests with the exception of Abb Picard, head of the Deaf and Dumb Institution, and his assistant.

This was how the massacres began at the Abbaye — a prison which had a especially bad reputation in the quarter where it stood. The crowd, which had formed around this prison, composed chiefly of small tradespeople living in that part of the town, demanded that all the royalist arrested since August 10 should be put to death. It was known in the quarter that gold was plentiful among them, that they feasted and received their wives and friends quite freely. The prisoners had made illuminations after the defeat of the French army at Mons, and sang songs of victory after the taking of Longwy. They insulted the passers-by from behind the bars and promised the immediate arrival of the Prussians and the slaughter of the revolutionists. The whole of Paris was talking of the plots concocted in the prisons, of arms introduced, and it was widely known that the prisons had become actual manufactories of false paper-money and false drafts on the “Maison de Secours,” by which they were trying to ruin the public credit.

All this was said and repeated among the crowds that gathered round the Abbaye, La Force; and the Conciergerie. Soon these crowds forced the doors and began killing the officers of the Swiss regiments, the King's guards, the priests who were to have been deported because of their refusal to take the Oath to the Constitution, and the royalist conspirators, arrested after August 10.

The spontaneity of this attack seems to have struck every one by its unexpectedness. Far from having been arranged by the Commune and Danton, as the royalist historians are pleased to declare,[162] the massacres were so little foreseen that the Commune had to take measures in the greatest haste to protect the Temple, and to save those who were imprisoned for debt or for arrears of payments, as well as the ladies attending on Marie-Antoinette. These ladies could only be saved under cover of the night by the commissioners of the Commune, who carried out their tasks with much difficulty and at the risk of perishing themselves by the hands of the crowds that surrounded the prisons, or were stationed in the neighbouring streets.[163]

As soon as the massacres began at the Abbaye, and it is known that they began at about half-past two A.M.,[164] the Commune immediately took measures to prevent them. It immediately notified them to the Assembly, which appointed Commissioners to speak to the people;[165] and at the sitting of the General Council of the Commune, which opened in the afternoon, Manuel, the attorney, was already, by six o'clock, giving an account of his fruitless efforts to stop the massacres. “He stated that the efforts of the National Assembly's twelve commissioners, his own, and those of his colleagues from the municipality, had been ineffectual to save the criminals from death.” At the evening sitting the Commune received the report of its commissioners sent to La Force; and decided that they should be sent there again to calm the minds of the people.[166]

During the night of the 2nd and 3rd, the Commune had even ordered Santerre, commandant of the National Guard, to send detachments to stop the massacres. But the National Guard did not wish to interfere; otherwise, it is clear that the battalions of the moderate sections would have gone. An opinion was evidently forming in Paris that for the National Guard to march upon the crowds would have been to kindle civil war, at the very moment when the enemy was but a few days distant, and when union was most necessary. “They divide you; they disseminate hatred; they want to kindle civil war,” said the Assembly in its proclamation of September 3, in which it called on the people to stand united. Under the circumstances there was no other weapon but persuasion. But to the exhortations of the Commune's envoys, who were trying to stop the massacres, a man of the people aptly replied at the Abbaye by asking Manuel, “If those rascals of Prussians and Austrians entered Paris, would they try to distinguish between the innocent and guilty.”[167] And another, or perhaps the same, added: “This is Montmorin's blood and his companions! We are at our post, go back to yours; if all those whom we set up to do justice had done their duty, we should not be here.”[168] This is what the people of Paris and all the revolutionists understood thoroughly that day.

In any case the Watch Committee of the Commune,[169] as soon as they learned the result of Manuel's mission on the afternoon of September 2, published the following appeal: “In the Name of the People. Comrades, — It is enjoined upon you to try all the prisoners in the Abbaye, without distinction, with the exception of the Abbé Lenfant, whom you shall put in a secure place. At the Hótel de Ville, September 2. (Signed: Panis, Sergent, Administrators.) “

A provisional tribunal, composed of twelve jurors chosen by the people, was at once set up, and Usher Maillard, so well known in Paris since July 4 and October 15, 1789, was appointed president of it. A similar tribunal was improvised at La Force by two or three members of the Commune, and these two tribunals set themselves to save as many of the prisoners as was possible. Thus Maillard succeeded in saving Cazotte, who was gravely compromised,[170] and Sombreuil, known to be a declared enemy of the Revolution. Taking advantage of the presence of their daughters, Mademoiselle Cazotte and Mademoiselle Sombreuil, who had obtained leave to share their fathers' imprisonment, and also the advanced age of Sombreuil, he succeeded in having them acquitted. Later on, in a document which [171] has reproduced in facsimile, Maillard could say with pride that in this way he saved the lives of forty-three persons. Needless to say that “the glass of blood,” said to have been drunk by Mademoiselle Sombreuil to save her father, is one of the infamous inventions of the royalist writers.[172]

At La Force prison there were also many acquittals, and, according to Tallien, there was only one woman who perished, Madame de Lamballe. Every acquittal was hailed with cries of “Vive la Nation!” and the acquitted person was escorted to his residence by men of the crowd with every mark of sympathy; but his escort refused absolutely to accept money from either the man set at liberty or his family. Thus they acquitted the royalists against whom there were no established facts, as, for example, the brother of the minister Bertrand de Molleville; and even a bitter enemy of the Revolution, Weber, the Austrian, who was foster-brother to the queen; and they conducted them back in triumph, with transports of joy, to the houses of their relations or friends.

At the Carmelite Convent, priests began to be imprisoned from August 11 — among them being the famous Archbishop of Arles, who was accused of having been the cause of the massacre of the patriots in that town. All of them would have been deported but for what happened on September 2. A certain number of men armed with sabres broke into the convent that day and, after a summary trial, killed the archbishop, as well as a great many of the priests who refused to take the civic oath. Several, however, saved themselves by climbing over a wall; others were saved, as is shown in the narrative of the Abbé Berthelet de Barbot, by members of the Luxembourg section, and by some pikemen who were on duty in the prison.

The massacres continued also on the 3rd, and in the evening the Watch Committee of the Commune sent out to the departments, in envelopes of the Ministry of Justice, a circular, drawn up by Marat, in which the Assembly was attacked, the events recounted, and the departments recommended to imitate Paris.

The tumult among the people, however, subsided, Saint Méard says, and on the 3rd, about eight o'clock, he heard several voices calling out: “Mercy, mercy for those who remain!” Moreover, only a few political prisoners were left in the prisons. But then there happened what must needs happen. With those who had attacked the prison on principle, there began to mingle other elements — the dubious elements. And finally there appeared what Michelet has aptly called “the fury of purification” — the desire to purge Paris, not only of royalist conspirators, but also of coiners, the forgers of bills of exchange, swindlers, and even the prostitutes, who were, they said, all royalists. On the 3rd the thieves in the Grand Châtelet and the convicts at the Bernardins had already been massacred, and on the 4th a band of men went out to kill at the Salpêtrière, and at Bicêtre, even at the “House of Correction” at Bicêtre, which the people ought to have respected as a place of suffering for the poor, like themselves, especially the children. At last the Commune succeeded in putting an end to these massacres, on the 4th, according to Maton de la Varenne.[173]

More than a thousand persons in all perished, of whom two hundred and two were priests, twenty-six of the Royal Guards, about thirty of the Swiss belonging to the Staff, and more than three hundred prisoners under the common law, some of whom, imprisoned in the Conciergerie, were fabricating during their detention false paper-money. Maton de la Varenne, who has given[174] an alphabetical list of persons killed during those September days, makes a total of 1086, plus three unknown persons who perished accidentally. Upon which the royalist historians embroidered their romances, and wrote about 8000 and even 12,852 killed[175]

All the historians of the Great Revolution, beginning with Buchez and Roux, have given the opinions of various well-known revolutionists concerning these massacres, and one striking trait stands out in the numerous quotations which they have published. This is, that the Girondins, who later on made use of the September days to attack violently and persistently the “Mountain,” in no wise departed during those days from this very attitude of laissez faire with which later on they reproached Danton, Robespierre and. the Commune. The Commune alone, in its General Council and in its Watch Committee, took measures, more or less efficacious, to stop the massacres, or, at least, to circumscribe and legalise them, when they saw that it was impossible to prevent them. The others acted feebly, or thought that they ought not to interfere, and the majority approved after the thing was done. This proves up to what point, in spite of the cry of outraged humanity necessarily raised by these massacres, it was generally understood that they were the inevitable consequence of August 10, and of the political equivocations of the governing classes themselves during the twenty days which followed the taking of the Tuileries.

Roland, in his letter of September 3rd, so often quoted, spoke of the massacres in terms which recognised their necessity.[176] The essential thing for him was to develop the theory which was to become the favourite theory of the Girondins — namely, that if disorder was necessary before August 10, all must now return again to order. In general, the Girondins, as Buchez and Roux[177] have well said, “were chiefly preoccupied with themselves . . . They saw with regret the power passing out of their hands into those of their adversaries . . . but they found no motive for condemning the movement that had been made . . . they did not deny that it alone could save the national independence, and guard themselves from the vengeance of the army directed by the émigrés.”

The chief newspapers, such as the Moniteur and Prudhomme's Révolutions de Paris, approved, whilst the others, such as the Annales patriotiques and the Chronique de Paris, and even Brissot in the Patriote français, limited themselves to a few cold and indifferent words concerning those days. As to the royalist press, it is evident that they seized upon these facts to put in circulation for a whole century the most fantastic tales. We shall not take upon ourselves to contradict them. But there is an error of appreciation deserving of reference, which is to he found among the republican historians.

It is true that the number of those who did the killing in the prisons did not exceed more than three hundred men, wherefore all the republicans have been accused by some writers of cowardice for not having put a stop to it. Nothing is, however, more erroneous than this reckoning. The number of three or four hundred is correct. But it is enough to read the narratives of Weber, Mademoiselle de Tourzel, Maton de la Varenne and others, to see that if the murders were the work of a limited number of men, there were around each person and in the neighbouring streets crowds of people who approved of the massacres, and who would have taken arms against any one who might have tried to prevent them. Besides, the bulletins of the sections, the attitude of the National Guard, and the attitude even of the best-known revolutionists, proved that every one understood that military intervention would have been the signal for a civil war, and, no matter to which side the victory went, this would have led to massacres still more widespread and still more terrible than those in the prisons.

On the other hand, Michelet has said, and his words have been repeated since, that it was fear, groundless fear, always ferocious, which had inspired these massacres. A few hundreds of royalists more or less in Paris did not mean danger for the Revolution. But to reason so is to underrate, it seems to me, the strength of the reaction. These few hundred royalists had on their side the majority, the immense majority of the well to-do middle classes, all the aristocracy, the Legislative Assembly, the Directory of the department, the greater number of the justices of peace, and the enormous majority of the officials. It was this compact mass of elements opposed to the Revolution which was merely awaiting the approach of the Germans to receive them with open arms, and to inaugurate with their aid the counter-revolutionary Terror, the Black Massacre. We have only to remember the White Terror under the Bourbons, when they returned in 1814 under the powerful protection of armed foreigners.

Besides, there is one fact which is not sufficiently appreciated by the historians, but which sums up the whole situation, and gives the true reason for the movement of September 2.

It was on the morning of September 4, while the massacres were still going on, that the Assembly decided at last, on the motion of Chabot, to utter the word so long awaited from the legislators by the people. In an address to the French people, it declared that respect for the decisions of the future Convention prevented its members “from forestalling by their resolution whit they must expect from the French nation”; but that they took now, as individuals, the oath which they could not take as representatives of the people: “to combat with all their might both kings and royalty! — No king; capitulation, never; a foreign king, never!” shouted the members. And as soon as this address was voted, despite the restriction just mentioned, certain commissioners of the Assembly went immediately with it to the Sections, where these Commissioners were promptly welcomed, and the sections took upon themselves to put an end at once to the massacres.

But this address was not voted in the Assembly before Marat had advised the people to massacre the royalist knaves of the Legislative Assembly; nor before Robespierre had denounced Carra and the Girondins in general as ready to accept a foreign king, and the Commune had ordered the searching of Roland's and Brissot's dwellings. It was on September 4 — only on the 4th — that the Girondin Guadet invited the representatives to swear their readiness to combat with all their might both kings and royalties. If a frank declaration of this kind had been voted immediately after August 10, and if Louis XVI. had been brought to trial there and then, the massacres would certainly not have taken place. The people would have realised the powerlessness of the royalist conspiracy from the moment the Assembly and the Government declared their readiness to combat the supporters of the throne.

Furthermore, Robespierre's suspicions were not pure fancy. Condorcet, the old republican, the only representative in the Legislative Assembly who since 1791 had openly pronounced for the Republic while repudiating on his own account — but only on his own account — all idea of desiring the Duke of Brunswick on the throne of France, admitted, however, in the Chronique de Paris that the Duke had been mentioned to him sometimes.[178] The fact is that during those days of interrengnum several candidates for the throne of France — the Duke of York, the Duke of Orléans, the Duke of Chartres (who was the candidate of Dumouriez) and the Duke of Brunswick — were undoubtedly discussed, not only by those politicians who, like the Feuillants, did not want to have a republic, but also by those who, like the Girondins, did not believe in the chances of victory for France.

In these hesitations, in this pusillanimity, this want of honesty among the statesmen in power, lies the true cause of the despair which seized upon the people of Paris on September 2.


[161]^ Sixteen, says Méhée fils (Felhémési, La vérité toute entière sur les vrais acteurs de la journée du 2 septembre, et sur plusieurs journées et nuits secrètes des anciens comités de gouvernement, Paris, 1794). I maintain the exact orthography of the printed title, “Felhémési” in the anagram of Méhée fils.

[162]^ They quote, to prove this, that persons were liberated, between August 30 and September 2, thanks to the intervention of Danton and other revolutionary personages, and say: “You see very well bow they saved their friends!” They forget, however, to say that out of the three thousand persons arrested on the 30th, more than two thousand were released. It was sufficient that any patriot of the prisoners' section should claim his release. For the part played by Danton in the September days, see the careful study of A. Aulard, in his Etudes et leçons sur la Révolution française, 1893-1897, 3rd series.

[163]^ Madame de Tourzel, the Dauphin's governess, and her young daughter Pauline, three of the Queen's waiting-women, Madame de Lamballe and her waiting-woman, had been transferred from the Temple to La Force, and from this prison they were all saved, except Madame de Lamballe, by the Commissioners of the Commune. At half-past two in the night of September 2 and 3, these Commissioners, Truchot, Tallien end Guiraud, came to render an account of their efforts to the Assembly. At the prison of La Force and that of Sainte-Pélagie, they had taken out all the persons detained for debt. After reporting to the Commune, about midnight, Truchot returned to La Force, to take out all the women, “I was able to take out twenty-four,” he said. “We have placed especially under our protection Mademoiselle de Tourzel and Madame Sainte-Brice. . . For our own safety we withdrew, for they were threatening us ton. We have conducted those ladies to the section of the `Rights of Man,' to stay there until they are tried” (Buchez and Roux, xvii, p. 353). These words of Truchot are absolutely trustworthy, because as we know, by the narrative of Pauline de Tourzel, with what difficulty the commissioner of the Commune (she did not know who he was, and spoke of him as a stranger) succeeded in getting her through the streets near the prison, full of people watching to see that none of the prisoners were removed. Madame de Lamballe, tea, was about to be saved by Pétion, the mayor, but some forces unknown opposed it. Emissaries of the Duke of Orléans are mentioned, who desired her death, and names even are given. However, one thing only is certain; there were so many influential persons who, since the Diamond Necklace affair, were interested in the silence of this confidante of the Queen's, that the Impossibility of saving her need not surprise us.

[164]^ Mon agonie de trente-huit heures, by Jourgniac de Saint-Méard.

[165]^ Bazire, Dussaulx, François de Neufchâteau, the famous Girondin Isnard, and Laquinio were among the number. Bazire invited Chabot, who was beloved in the faubourgs, to join theta (Louis Blanc, quarto edition, ii, p. 19).

[166]^ See the minutes of the Commune, quoted by Buchez and Roux, xvii, p. 368. Tallien, in his report to the Assembly, which was given in later during the night, confirms the words of Manuel: “The procurator of the Commune,” said he, went first to the Abbaye and used every means suggested to him by his zeal and humanity. He could not make any impression, and saw several victims killed at his feet. He himself was in danger of his life, and they were obliged to force him away for fear that lie should fall a victim to his zeal.” At midnight, when the people went over to La Force, “our commissioners,” says Tallien, “followed them there, but could not gain anything. Some deputations came after them, and when we left to come here, another deputation was then going thither.”

[167]^ “Tell me, Mr. Citizen, if those rascals of Prussians and Austrians came to Paris, would they too seek out the guilty? Would they not strike right and left, as the Swiss did on August 10? As for me, I am no orator, I put no one to sleep, and I tell you I am a father of a family; I have a wife and five children whom I want to leave here in the keeping of the section, so that I can go and fight the enemy, but I don't intend that these scoundrels who are in prison, for whom the other scoundrels are coming to open the doors, shall be able to go and slaughter my wife and children.” I quote from Felhémési (Méhée fils), La vérité toute entière, &c.

[168]^ Prudhomme, in his journal, gives in these words the reply made by a man of the people, on the first visit to the Abbaye by a deputation from the Legislative Assembly and from the municipality.

[169]^ The Watch Committee of the Commune, which had taken the place of the preceding administration, and was composed at first of fifteen members of the municipal police, had been reorganised by a decree of the General Council of the Commune on August 30: it was then formed of four members, Panis, Sergent, Duplian and Sourdeuil, who, with the authorisation of the Council, and “seeing the critical state of circumstances and the divers and important works to which it was necessary to devote themselves,” added on September 2 seven other members: Marat, Deforgues, Lenfant, Leclerc, Durfort, Cailly and Guermeur (Buchez and Roux, vol. xvii. pp. 405, 433 vol. xviii. pp. 186, 187). Michelet, who saw the original document, speaks only of six; he does not mention Durfort; Robespierre was sitting on the General Council, Marat took part in it “as journalist “— the Commune having decreed that a gallery should be erected in the Council Chamber for a journalist (Michelet. vol. vii. ch. iv.). Danton tried to reconcile the Commune with the executive of the Assembly; that is to say, with the Ministry of which he was a member.

[170]^ Michelet, vol. vii. ch. v.

[171]^ Histoire des Girondins et des massacres de Septembre, 2 vols., 1860.

[172]^ Vide Louis Blanc, Book viii. ch. ii.; L. Combes, Episodes et curiosités révolutionnaires, 1872.

[173]^ Maton de la Varenne, Histoire particulière des évènements qui ont eu lieu en France pendant les moi de j uin, de juillet, d'août et de septembre, et qui ont opéré la chute du trûne royal (Paris, 1806). There were a few more isolated massacres on the 5th.

[174]^ Histoire particulière, pp. 419-460.

[175]^ Peltier, arch-royalist writer and liar, giving every detail, put the figure at 1005 but he added that there had been some killed at the Bicêtre and in the streets, which permitted him to being the total up to 8000! (Dernier tableau de Parts, ou récit historique de la Révolution du 10 août, 2 vols., London, 1792- 1793). On this Buchez and Roux have justly remarked that “Peltier is the only one to say that people were killed in other pieces besides the prisons,” in contradiction to all his contemporaries.

[176]^ I know that revolutions are not to he judged by ordinary rules; but I know, also, that the power which makes them must soon take its place under the ægis of the law, if total annihilation is not desired. The anger of the people and the beginning of the insurrection are comparable to the action of a torrent that overthrows the obstacles that no other power could have annihilated, and the ravage and devastation which the flood will carry far onward if it does not soon return to its channel. Yesterday was a day of events over which perhaps we ought to draw a veil; I know that the people, terrible In their vengeance, had in it some kind of justice; they did not take as their victims every one who came in the way of their fury, they directed it upon those whom they believed to have been too long spared by the sword of justice; and who, the peril of circumstances persuaded them, must be immolated without delay. But the safety of Paris demands that all the powers shall return at once to their respective limits.

[177]^ P. 397. There is no doubt that the Girondist ministers knew very well what was going on in the prisons. We know that Servan, the Minister of War, on the afternoon of the 2nd, went to the Commune, where he had made an appointment for eight o'clock with Santerre, Pétion, Hérbert, Billaud-Varenne and others, to discuss military measures. It is obvious that the massacres must have been mentioned at the Commune, and that Roland was informed about them, but that Servan, as well as the others, thought that they should attend to the most pressing business — the war on the frontiers — and on no account provoke civil war in Paris.

[178]^ Carra, the editor of the Annales patriotiques, one of the chief organs of the Girondist party, mentioned Brunswick in these terms, in the number dated July 19, 1792: “He is the greatest warrior and the cleverest statesman in Europe, this Duke of Brunswick; he is very learned, very enlightened, very amiable; he wants but one thing, perhaps — a crown — to be, I do not say, the greatest king on earth, but to be the true restorer of the liberty of Europe. If he comes to Paris, I wager that his first step will be to come to the Jacobins and put on the bonnet rouge.”

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