The great French revolution, 1789-1793


5. The Spirit of Revolt: the Riots

Reforms at beginning of reign of Louis XVI. — Turgot — Question of National Representation — Character of Louis XVI. — Revolution in America Riots on accession of Louis — Their consequences — Large towns revolt in turn — “Parliaments” and “Plenary Courts” — Paris parliament refuses to grant money to Court — Action of King — Insurrections in Brittany — Grenoble — Queen's letter to Count de Mercy — Gradual awakening of revolutionary spirit — Louis compelled to convoke Assembly of Notables and States-General

As is usual in every new reign, that of Louis XVI. began with some reforms. Two months after his accession Louis XVI. summoned Turgot to the ministry, and a month later he appointed him Controller-General of Finance. He even supported him at first against the violent opposition that Turgot, as an economist, a parsimonious middle-class man and an enemy of the effete aristocracy, was bound to meet with from the Court party.

Free trade in corn was proclaimed in September 1774,[2] and statute labour was abolished in 1776, as well as the old and corporations and guilds in the towns, which were no longer of use except to keep up a kind of industrial aristocracy, and by these measures hopes of reform were awakened among the people. The poor rejoiced to see the breaking down of the toll-gates, which had been put up all over France, and prevented the free circulation of corn, salt and other objects of prime necessity. For them it meant the first breach in the odious privileges of the landowners; while the peasants who were better off rejoiced to see the joint liability of the taxpayers abolished.[3] Finally, in the August of 1779, mortmain and personal servitude were suppressed upon the King's private estates, and the following year it was decided to abolish torture, which was used in the most atrocious forms established by the Ordinance of 1670.[4] “Representative Government,” such as was established by the English after their revolution, and was advocated in the writings of the contemporary philosophers, also began to be spoken of. With this end in view, Turgot had even prepared a scheme of provincial assemblies, to be followed later on by representative government for all France in which the propertied classes would have been called upon to constitute a parliament. Louis XVI. shrank from this proposal, and dismissed Turgot; but from that moment all educated France began to talk of a Constitution and national representation.[5] However, it was no longer possible to elude the question of national representation, and when Necker became minister in July 1777, it came up again for discussion. Necker, who understood very well the wishes of his master, and tried to bring his autocratic ideas into some accord with the requirements of finance, attempted to manoeuvre by proposing the introduction of provincial assemblies only and relegating the possibility of a national representation to the distant future. But he, too, was met by a formal refusal on the part of the King. “Would it not be a happy contingency,” wrote the crafty financier, “that your Majesty, having become an intermediary between your estates and your people, your authority should only appear to mark the limits between severity and justice?” To which Louis replied: “It is of the essence of my authority not to be an intermediary, but to be at the head.” It is well to remember these words in view of the sentimentalities concerning Louis XVI. which have been propagated by historians belonging to the party of reaction. Far from being the careless, inoffensive, good-natured person, interested only in hunting, that they wished to represent him, Louis XVI. for fifteen years, until 1789, managed to resist the necessity, felt and declared, for new political forms to take the place of royal despotism and the abominations of the old régime.

The weapon used by Louis XVI., in preference to all others was deceit. Only fear made him yield, and, using always the same weapons, deceit and hypocrisy, he resisted not only up to 1789, but even up to the last moment, to the very foot of tile scaffold. At any rate, in 1778, at a time when it was already evident to all minds of more or less perspicacity, as it was to Turgot and Necker, that the absolute power of the King had had its day, and that the hour had come for replacing it by some kind of national representation, Louis XVI. could never be brought to make any but the feeblest concessions. He convened the provincial assemblies of the provinces of Berri and Haute-Guienne (1778 and 1779). But in face of the opposition shown by the privileged classes, the plan of extending these assemblies to the other provinces was abandoned, and Necker was dismissed in 1781.

The revolution in America had, meanwhile, helped also to awaken minds, and to inspire them with a breath of liberty and republican democracy. On July 4, 1776, the English colonies in North America had proclaimed their independence,and the new United States were recognised by France in 1778, which led to a war with England that lasted until 1783. All historians mention the effect which this war had on men's minds. There is, in fact, no doubt that the revolt of the English colonies and the constitution of the United States exercised a far-reaching influence in France, and helped powerfully in arousing the revolutionary spirit. We know, too, that the Declaration of Rights, drawn up by the young American States influenced the French Revolutionists profoundly, and was taken by them as a model for their declaration. It might be said also that the war in America, during which France had to build an entire fleet to oppose England's, completed the financial ruin of the old régime and hastened its downfall. But it is nevertheless certain that this war was also the beginning of those terrible wars which England soon waged against France, and the coalitions which she organised against the Republic. As soon as England recovered from her defeats and felt that France was weakened by internal struggles, she used every means, open and secret, to bring about the wars which we shall see waged relentlessly from 1783 till 1815.

All these causes of the Great Revolution must be clearly indicated, for like every event of primordial importance, it was the result of many causes, converging at a given moment, and creating the men who in their turn contributed to strengthen the effect of those causes. But it must be understood that in spite of the events which prepared the Revolution, and in spite of all the intelligence and ambitions of the middle classes, those ever-prudent people would have gone on a long time waiting for a change if the people had not hastened matters. The popular revolts, growing and increasing in number and assuming proportions quite unforeseen, were the new elements which gave the middle class the power of attack they themselves did not possess.

The people had patiently endured misery and oppression under Louis XV., but as soon as that King died, in 1774, they began to revolt, knowing well that, with a change of masters at the palace, there comes an inevitable slackening of authority. A continuous series of riots broke out between 1775 and 1777.

These were the riots of hunger that had been repressed until then only by force. The harvest of 1774 had been bad, and bread was scarce. Accordingly rioting broke out in April 1775. At Dijon the people took possession of the houses of the monopolists, destroyed their furniture and smashed up their flour-mills. It was on this occasion that the governor of the town — one of the superfine gentlemen of whom Taine has written with so much complacence — said to the people those fatal words which were to be so often repeated during the Revolution: “The grass has sprouted, go to the fields and browse on it.” Auxerre, Amiens, Lille, followed Dijon. A few days later the “robbers,” for so the majority of historians designate the famished rioters, having assembled at Pontoise, Passy and Saint-Germain with the intention of pillaging the granaries, turned their steps towards Versailles. Louis XVI, wanted to go out on the balcony of the palace to speak to them, to tell them that he would reduce the price of bread; but Turgot, like a true economist, opposed this. The reduction in the price of bread was not made. The “robbers,” in the meantime, entered Paris and plundered the bakeries, distributing whatever food they could seize among the crowd; but they were dispersed by the troops, and two of the rioters were hanged at the Place de la Grève, and as they were being hanged they cried out that they were dying for the people. Since that time the legend began to circulate in France about “robbers” overrunning the country — a legend which had such an important effect in 1789, as it furnished the middle classes in the towns with a pretext for arming themselves. And from that time also began the placards insulting the King and his ministers which were pasted up at Versailles, containing threats to execute the King the day after his coronation, and even to exterminate the whole of the royal family if bread remained at the same price. Forged governmental edicts, too, began to be circulated through the country. One of them asserted that the State Council had reduced the price of wheat to twelve livres (francs) the measure.

These riots were of course suppressed, but they had far-reaching consequences. Strife was let loose among the various parties. it rained pamphlets. Some of these accused the minister, while others spoke of a plot of the princes against the King, or made fun of the royal authority. In short, with men's minds already in a state of ferment, the popular out breaks were the sparks which ignited the powder. Concessions to the people, never dreamed of before, were openly discussed; public works were set on foot; taxes on milling were abolished, and this measure led the people of Rouen to declare that all manorial dues had been abolished, so that they rose in July to protest against ever paying them again. The malcontents evidently lost no time and profited by the occasion to extend the popular risings.

We have not the necessary documents for giving a full account of the popular insurrections during the reign of Louis XVI. — the historians did not trouble about them; the archives have not been examined, and it is only by accident that we learn that in such-and-such a place there were “disorders.” Thus, there were riots of a somewhat serious nature in Paris, after the abolition of the trade-guilds in 1776 — and all over France, in the course of the same year as a result of the false reports respecting the abolition of all obligations in the matter of statute labour and dues claimed by the landowners. But, according to the printed documents, it would appear also that there was a decrease in the rioting in the years 1777 to 1783, the American war having perhaps something to do with this.

However, in 1782 and 1783, the riots recommenced, and from that time went on increasing until the Revolution. Poitiers revolted in 1782; in 1786 it was Vizille's turn; from 1783 to 1789 rioting broke out in the Cevennes, the Vivarais and the Gévaudan. The malcontents, who were nicknamed mascarats, wanting to punish the “practitioners” who sowed dissension among the peasants to incite them to go to law, broke into the law courts and into the houses of the notaries and attorney and burned all the deeds and contracts. Three of the leaders were hanged, others were sent to penal servitude, but the disorders broke out afresh, as soon as the closing of the parlements (Courts of Justice) furnished them with a new pretext.[6] In 1786 it was Lyons that revolted.[7] The silk-weavers went on strike; they were promised an increase of wages, but troops were called out, whereupon there was a fight and three of the leaders were hanged. From that moment, up to the Revolution, Lyons became a hotbed of revolt, and in 1789 it was the rioters of 1786 who were chosen as electors.

Sometimes these risings had a religious character; sometimes they were to resist military enlistment — every levy of soldiers led to a riot, says Turgot; or it might be the salt tax against which the people rebelled, or the exactions of the tithes. But revolts went on without intermission, and it was the east, south-east and north-east — future hotbeds of the Revolution — that these revolts broke out in the greatest number. They went on steadily growing in importance, — and at last, in 1788, after the dissolution of the Courts of Justice, which were called parlements and were replaced by “Plenary Courts,” insurrections broke out in every part of France.

It is evident that for the mass of the people there was not much to choose between a parlement and a “Plenary Court.” If the parlements had refused sometimes to register edicts made by the King and his minister, they had on the other hand displayed no solicitude for the people. But the parlements had shown opposition to the Court, that was enough; and when emissaries of the middle classes sought popular support for rioting, they were given it willingly, because it was a way of demonstrating against the Court and the rich.

In the June of 1787 the Paris parlement had made itself very popular by refusing a grant of money to the Court. The law of the country was that the edicts of the King should be registered by the parlement, and the Paris parlement unhesitatingly registered certain edicts concerning the corn trade, the convocation of provincial assemblies and statute labour. But it refused to register the edict which was to establish fresh taxes — a new “territorial subvention,” and a new stamp duty. Upon this the King convoked what was called a “Bed of Justice,” and compelled his edicts to be registered. The parlement protested, and so won the sympathy of the middle classes and the people. There were crowds round the Courts at every sitting; clerks, curious idlers and common men collected there to applaud the members. To Stop this, the King banished the parlement to Troyes, and then riotous demonstrations began in Paris. The popular hatred was then being directed against the princes chiefly, especially against the Duke d'Artois and the Queen, who was nicknamed “Madame Déficit.”

The Exchequer Court of Paris (Cour des Aides), supported by the popular outburst, as well as by the provincial parlements and the Court of Justice, protested against this act of royal power, and, as the agitation was growing, the King was compelled to recall the exiled parlement. This was done on September 9, and evoked fresh demonstrations in Paris, during which the minister Calonne was burnt in effigy.

These disturbances were chiefly confined to the lower middle classes. But in other localities they assumed a more popular character.

In 1788 insurrections broke out in Brittany. When the military Commander of Rennes and the Governor of the province went to the Breton parlement to announce the edict by which that body was abolished, the whole town turned out immediately. The crowd insulted and hustled the two functionaries. The people in their hearts hated the Governor, Bertrand de Moleville, and the middle classes profited by this to spread a rumour that the edict was all owing to the Governor. “He is a monster that deserves to be strangled,” said one of the leaflets distributed among the crowd. When he came out of the palace, therefore, they pelted him with stones, and after several attempts some one threw a cord with a slip-knot over him. Fighting was about to begin — the young men in the crowd breaking through the ranks of the soldiers — when an officer threw down his sword and fraternised with the people.

By degrees troubles of the same kind broke out in several other towns in Brittany, and the peasants rose in their turn when grain was being shipped at Quimper, Saint-Brieuc,Morlaix, Pont-l'Abbé, Lamballe and other places. It is interesting to note the active part taken in these disorders by the students at Rennes, who from that time fraternised with the rioters.[8] in Dauphiné, especially at Grenoble, the insurrection assumed a still more serious character. As soon as the military commander, Clermont-Tonnerre, had promulgated the edict which dissolved the parlement the people of Grenoble rose. The tocsin was rung, and the alarm spreading quickly to the neighbouring villages, the peasants hastened in crowds the town. There was a sanguinary affray and many were killed. The commander's guard was helpless and his palace was sacked. Clermont-Tonnerre, with an axe held over his head, had to revoke the royal edict.

It was the people, and chiefly the women, who acted on this occasion. As to the members of the parlement, the people had a good deal of trouble to find them. They hid themselves, and wrote to Paris that the people had risen against their will, and when the people laid hands on them they were kept prisoners — their presence giving an air of legality to the insurrection. The women mounted guard over these arrested members, unwilling to trust them even to the men, lest they should be allowed to escape.

The middle classes of Grenoble were in a state of terror. During the night they organised a militia of citizens that took possession of the town gates as well as of some military posts, which they yielded to the troops soon after. Cannon were trained on the rebels, while the parlement took advantage the darkness to disappear. From June 9 to 14 reaction triumphed, but on the 14th news came that there had been a rising at Besancon and that the Swiss soldiers had refused to fire on the people. Upon this the people's spirit revived, and it was proposed to convoke the Estates of the province. But fresh reinforcements of troops having been sent from Paris the disturbance subsided by degrees. The agitation, however, kept up chiefly by the women, lasted some time longer.[9]

Besides these two rising' mentioned by the majority of the historians. many others broke out at the same time in Provence, Languedoc, Rousillon, Béarn, Flanders, Franche-Comté and Burgundy. Even where no serious riots occurred advantage was taken of the prevailing excitement to keep up the discontent and to make demonstrations.

At Paris, after the dismissal of the Archbishop of Sens, there were numerous demonstrations. The Pont Neuf was guarded by troops, and several conflicts occurred between them and the people, of whom the leaders were, as Bertrand de Moleville remarks,[10] “those who later on took part in all the popular movements of the Revolution.” Marie-Antoinette's letter to the Count de Mercy should also be read in this connection. It is dated August 24, 1788, and in it she tells him of her fears, and announces the retirement of the Archbishop of Sens and the steps she had taken to recall Necker; the effect produced on the Court by those riotous crowds can therefore be understood. The Queen foresaw that this recall of Necker would lessen the King's authority; she feared “that they may be compelled to nominate a prime minister,” but “the moment is pressing. It is very essential that Necker should accept.”[11]

Three weeks later, September 14, 1788, when the retirement of Lamoignon became known, the riotings were renewed. The mob rushed to set fire to the houses of the two ministers, Lamoignon and Brienne, as well as to that of Dubois. The troops were called out, and in the Rue Mélée and the Rue de Grenelle there was a horrible slaughter of poor folk who could not defend themselves. Dubois fled from Paris. “The people themselves would execute justice,” said Les deux amis de la liberté. Later still, in October 1788, when the parlement that had been banished to Troyes was recalled, “the clerks and the populace” illuminated the Place Dauphine for several evenings in succession. They demanded money from the passers-by to expend on fireworks, and forced gentlemen to alight from their carriages to salute the statue of Henri Quatre. Figures representing Calonne, Breteuil and the Duchess de Polignac were burned. It was also proposed to burn the Queen in effigy. These riotous assemblies gradually spread to other quarters, and troops were sent to disperse them. Blood was shed and many were killed and wounded in the Place de la Grèe. Those who were arrested, however, were tried by the parlement judges, who let them off with light penalties.

In this way the revolutionary spirit awoke and developed in the van of the Great Revolution.11 The initiative came from the middle classes certainly — chiefly from the lower middle cIasses — but, generally speaking, the middle classes took care not to compromise themselves, and the number of them who opposed the Court, more or less openly, before the convoking of the States-General was very limited. If there had been only their few attempts at resistance France might have waited many years for the overthrow of royal despotism. Fortunately a thousand circumstances impelled the masses to revolt. And in spite of the fact that after every outbreak there were summary hangings, wholesale arrests and even torture for those arrested, the people did revolt, pressed on one side by their desperate misery' and spurred on the other by those vague hopes of which the old woman spore to Arthur Young. They rose in numbers against the governors of provinces, tax-collectors, salt-tax agents and even against the troops, and by so doing completely disorganised the governmental machine.

From 1788 the peasant risings became so general that it was impossible to provide for the expenses of the State, and Louis XVI., after having refused for fourteen years to convoke the representatives of the nation, lest his kingly authority should suffer, at last found himself compelled to convoke, first the two Assemblies of Notables, and finally the States-General.


[2]^ Before that the farmer could not sell his corn for three months after the harvest, the lord of the manor alone being entitled to do that. It was one of the feudal privileges, which enabled the lord to sell it at a high price.

[3]^ This has been abolished in Russia also.

[4]^ Statute of August 24, 1780. Breaking on the wheel existed still in 1785. The parliaments, in spite of the Yoltaireanism of the period, and the general refinement in the conception of life, enthusiastically defended the use of torture, which was abolished definitely only by the National Assembly. It is interesting to find (E. Seligman, La justice en France pendant la Revolution, p. 97) that Bnssot, Marat and Robespierre by their writings contributed to the agitation for the reform of the penal code.

[5]^ The arguments upon which Louis XVI. took his stand are of the highest interest. I sum them up here according to E. Samichon's Les réformes sous Louis XVI.: assemblies provinciales et parlements. The King found Turgot's schemes dangerous, and wrote: “Though coming from a man who has good ideas, his constitution would overthrow the existing State.” And again, further on: “The system of a rent-paying electorate would tend to make malcontents of the non-propertied classes, and if these were allowed to assemble they would form a hotbed of disorder.... The transition from the abolished system to the system M. Turgot now proposes ought to be considered; we see well enough what is, but only in our thoughts do we see what does not yet exist, and we must not make dangerous experiments if we do not see where they will end.” Vide also, in Samichon's Appendix A, the very interesting list of the chief laws under Louis XVI. between 1774 and 1789.

[6]^ C. de Vic and J. de Vaissete, Histoire générale du Languedoc, continued by du Mège 10 vole., 1840-1846.

[7]^ Chassin, Génie de la Révolution.

[8]^ Du Châtellier, Histoire de la Révolution dans les départements de l'ancienne Bretagne, 6 vole., 1836; vol. ii. pp. 60 70, 161, &c.

[9]^ Vic and Vaissete. vol. x. p. 637.

[10]^ Vic and Vaissete, p. I 36.

[11]^ J. Feuillet de Conches, Lettres de Louis XVI., Marie-Antoinette et Madame Elisabeth (Paris, 1864), vol. i. pp. 214-216; “The Abbé has” written to you this evening, sir, and has notified my wish to you,” wrote the Queen. “I think more than ever that the moment is pressing, and that it is very essential that he (Necker) should accept. The King fully agrees with me, and has just brought me a paper with his own hand containing his ideas, of which I send you a copy.” The next day she wrote again “We must no longer hesitate. If he can get to work to-morrow all the better. It is most urgent. I fear that we may be compelled to nominate a prime minister.”

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