Massacre of the Champ de Mars

Hello, and welcome to Revolutions.

So, last time, the Royal Family tried to break out of their de facto jail cell in the Tuileries Palace but were busted along the road and dragged ignobly back to Paris. The fate of the monarchy was suddenly on the tip of everyone’s tongue. Could it be saved? Would it be saved? Do we even want it to be saved? 

Now, locked up in an even tighter de facto jail cell, the King and his family could only sit and wait and wonder what the verdict would be. And in those first weeks after the flight to Varennes, it was not at all inconceivable that those same mobs that had stormed the Bastille, marched on Versailles, halted the trip to Saint-Cloud, might finally shrug off whatever restraints had bound them and come looking for blood. 

But this nightmare specter did not just haunt the dreams of the Royal Family, if and when they managed any sleep. It also haunted the dreams of the respectable political center of the Revolution, the liberal nobles, constitutional monarchists, civic minded bourgeoisie who currently held sway in the National Assembly and in the government of the Paris Commune. 

For over a year now, these guys had been working to erect this enlightened constitutional monarchy and now the King’s disastrous escape attempt was threatening to tear out the rock the new order was supposed to be built on. If they were going to salvage the situation, they’re going to have to scramble fast to clamp down on any angry populist uprisings. 

Now, as I mentioned when I was talking about the last days of Mirabeau, the revolutionaries were starting to drift into two camps: those who mostly feared an aristocratic-led counterrevolution and those who mostly feared lower class-led anarchy. Today we’re going to talk about what the men in that latter camp did to protect themselves from the unwashed masses who threatened the civilized and enlightened new regime. We’ll also talk about the response of the leaders of those unwashed masses and how they now identified their primary political enemies, not as the Royal Family or aristocratic emigrates, but rather that little clique of culotte wearing active citizens who had hijacked the Revolution for their own purposes, arrested its development and were now running it for their own benefit and no one else’s. 

In the months and now years since the storming of the Bastille, the pseudo Revolutionaries running the National Assembly in the Paris Commune had been steadily erecting a wall to protect their new regime from attacks by the far left radicals. And indeed, the coming massacre of the Champ de Mars has far more to do with this running conflict than the flight to Varennes itself. The King’s escape attempt was the final trigger that set the fatal showdown in motion but the tinder was already well stacked. 

At the heart of the conflict between the respectable bourgeois revolutionary politicians and the rabble rousing populist leaders was the conduct of the Paris Commune’s new government. Recall that in the aftermath of the fall of the Bastille, the Paris electors, all educated men of property, had declared themselves in charge of the capital. They elected the eminent astronomer Jean Sylvain Bailly as mayor and put the Marquis de Lafayette in charge of leading what would become the National Guard. 

From almost the minute he had been put into office, Bailly had been consolidating his power within Paris at the expense of the radical populists. The government of the Paris Commune under Bailly was elected by and run by men of active citizen rank who were terrified of the uncouth mobs. And so, by their own local decrees and then, working in concert with allies in the National Assembly, they did what they could to neutralize the masses. 

We’ve already seen how they tried to suppress the radical Cordeliers district by literally redrawing the map of Paris. Well, in the spring of 1791, this suppression picked up steam. Collective petitioning was suddenly forbidden and then a few weeks later, the National Assembly passed a far reaching ban on worker associations and declared labor strikes illegal

Now, this was perfectly in keeping with the typical active citizens belief that individual liberty was at the very core of civic virtue. But still, to the leaders of the lower classes in Paris, the thrust of all this was clear. Bailly and his fancy pants goons were trying to silence the people forever and simply replace the old aristocracy of traditional nobility with a new aristocracy of wealthy bourgeoisie. What would change for the poor worker? Nothing. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

By the time the King was making his run to Varennes, then the leaders of lower class Paris had already concluded that Bailly and Lafayette were not representatives of the Revolution, but rather its arch enemies. After the flight to Varennes, this conclusion would only be confirmed. 

So who were the leaders of lower class Paris? The people, as they liked to style themselves. The guys I’m talking about here formed the inner circle of the Cordeliers Club, which was founded in the wake of the Paris redistricting. Since these guys are about to move to the forefront of the story, I think it’s time to finally dig into them, introduce some new friends and play catch up with a few old friends we’ve already seen pop up in the story so far, and we must begin and use as our framework for these introductions and catchings up the life of the great giant of the Revolution: Georges Danton. And that’s not some kind of metaphor. Danton was a head, taller and twice as round as any other man in sight. You just couldn’t miss him. 

George Danton was born in the Champagne region east of France in 1759. When he was just a little kid, he survived a bout of smallpox and left his face pockmarked, and then he suffered not one, but two kicks to the face from a bull. So as he grew and grew, he was, by his own admission, a fairly ugly brute. Obviously a clever young lad though, his mother sent him off to a nearby seminary when he was twelve. But after briefly enduring the tedious routine of the church, he came home from a break and more or less refused to go back. So his mother looked around and landed Danton in a school run by the Oratorians, a small little liberal Catholic order that embraced and taught most of the advanced Enlightenment thinking of the day. It was there that Danton first discovered the classical writers who would become his heroes, most especially Cicero. 

Now, the thing that really set Danton apart at this point was that though he excelled at public speaking and had a memory like a steel trap, he was no good at writing and he struggled to make sense of words on a page. If he heard a passage read out loud, he could instantly recite it back verbatim. But what he read just seemed to slip away. In short, Danton was probably dyslexic. His teachers though just chastised him for being lazy. And though that was no doubt unfair, Danton’s habit of skipping class to go swimming or play cards didn’t much help his case. 

When he graduated, the law seemed to be the surest path to a better life for an energetic provincial with a head on his shoulders. And he managed to talk his way into a job as a clerk in a Paris law firm in 1780, despite his atrocious writing samples. This was because Danton’s new boss turned out to be a pretty good judge of character. Realizing that the lad was no good for office work, he sent his new clerk down to the Palais de Justice to observe court cases and report back everything he saw and heard. In this, Danton absolutely shined and he displayed a remarkable ability to come back with a prescient and precise accounting of the day’s advent, and with his massive frame, six feet at least now, with a huge barrel chest and a face that, well, let’s just say that Mrs. Revolution’s hasn’t been too excited about the cover of the Danton biography that’s been lying around the house the last week or so. 

The point is, Danton was now a recognizable fixture of the Paris legal scene. After three years as a clerk, he went back home to pass the bar and then returned to his firm as a junior partner. As he applied his new trade, the sociable and boisterous Danton also made the afterhours rounds in the Paris cafes and wine bars. It was in this scene that he first met Camille Desmoulins in 1787, and the two very quickly became friends, striking a somewhat ridiculous pair; Danton being this massive loudmouth and Desmoulins being this slender, sensitive little writer. 

But they shared a passion for the old Greek and Roman masters and were both positively bursting with energy to get out there and do something, who knew what. But with the monarchy slipping into bankruptcy, it sure seemed like they would have a chance to do that something and soon. 

Shortly after he fell in with Desmoulins, Danton married and then purchased a position on the King’s Council, a specialized and lucrative branch of the judicial system, the seller of the seat being an older gentleman who wanted to retire and who had just won the hand of a young heiress, Danton had himself been courting for a while. The seat acted as a kind of consolation prize, and Danton was able to move his family over to the Left Bank, into the heart of the Cordeliers. 

During the next few years, he continued to earn a reputation as a dynamite public speaker, and with the political atmosphere charging up, he was known to give some of the finest impromptu street orations of the day. But when the Estates General were finally called, he had neither the time nor the resources to stand for election, he had borrowed heavily to purchase his seat on the King’s Council and just couldn’t afford to not keep working. 

Though he would not be a delegate, Danton was still interested in politics, and he began to fashion himself as a champion of the people, working always side by side with his friend Desmoulins. And they made a great team, Danton could speak, but not write and Desmoulins could write, but not really speak. This is, of course, why it is one of history’s great ironies, that when the deal went down in July 1789, it was Desmoulins, not Danton, who wound up giving the speech that riled the Parisians up into armed insurrection. 

With Paris up in arms, Danton appointed himself captain of a self declared militia unit, but pointedly managed to miss the assault on the Bastille, a missed opportunity that wrangled him so badly that he actually led about 20 of his guys to the already stormed Bastille on July the 15th and demanded the new governor let him in to inspect the premises. When the new governor refused to let anyone in, as were his orders from the provisional Paris Commune, Danton hauled the guy out at gunpoint and marched him to the Hotel de Ville as a traitor to the people. But the guys running the Hotel de Ville didn’t have any idea what Danton thought he was doing, so they balled him out for being a giant doofus and let the governor go with their apologies. But Danton knew exactly what he was doing. He was earning a little street cred for his new role as revolutionary leader of the Cordeliers district

From that point on, Danton was more or less at war with the leadership of the Paris Commune, and its new mayor, Jean Sylvain Bailly, was his particular bête noire. Danton was elected president of something called the Cordeliers Assembly, and they unilaterally announced that no decree of the Paris Commune would be enforceable unless the Cordeliers Assembly ratified it. With Danton doing the talking, Desmoulins started a successful weekly paper to push their shared agenda. 

This budding inner circle was soon joined by a long struggling actor and dramatist named Fabre d’Églantine, who had suddenly found his calling as inventor of a whole new genre of revolutionary theater that he believed would be as important to the overturning of the Ancien Régime as any direct political action. 

Joined by a few others I won’t bore you with, the little corps that formed around Danton became the driving force of radical revolutionary politics in Paris. But for the moment, none of them were as well known publicly as the crazy little hermit in their midst, Jean Paul Marat, who was pumping his diatribes out of a basement in the Cordeliers so fast he practically invented the daily newspaper singlehandedly. Danton didn’t care much for Marat, I mean, no one really did, but the force of Marat’s onslaught was undeniable and Danton was happy enough to let Marat rail against Bailly and Lafayette and every other culotte wearing faux revolutionary who planned to crush the spirit of the people as completely as any aristocratic swine might try. 

When the Central Commune government had finally had enough of Marat and sent in bailiffs backed by 3,000 National Guardsmen to arrest him in January 1790, Danton was the one who openly defied them and promised that he would raise 20,000 of his closest friends immediately if the bailiffs tried to take Marat out. While the authorities fretted, Marat managed to slip away, whereupon Danton stood down and invited the bailiffs to search wherever they pleased. This, among many other affronts, is what led Bailly to initiate the Paris redistricting that led the Cordeliers District to be subsumed into a larger section, hopefully smothering the populist movement with a pillow. 

But of course, the vigorous Cordeliers leadership simply took over the larger section. And when the first real elections for the Paris Commune government were held in July 1790, Danton was a top vote getter. But Bailly had apparently inserted some language into the election rules that the other sections had to confirm a delegate before they could be seated. Of the 600,000 people living in Paris, only 14,000 had the vote. And these middle class lawyers and businessmen, men of letters now made up the Paris Commune government, wanted no part of this ogre of the people. 

Danton was barred from taking his seat in the Commune and he bitterly returned to his unpaid position as head of the newly created Cordeliers Club, where he could plot his revenge. To try to capture some political standing and make contact with key players in the National Assembly. Danton, Desmoulins and d’Églantine joined the Jacobin Club in September 1791

One of the leading members of the Jacobins was of course Desmoulins’ old friend from school, Maximilian Robespierre. Danton had met Robespierre before and did not like the humorless little lawyer from Arras who drank milk when everyone else drank wine. But there was no doubt that his politics were sound and his drive unrelenting. 

In January 1791, Danton was finally elected to an official position when he got himself a seat on the governing board of the newly created Department of Paris, which was supposed to be above the Paris Commune. But in all practical sense, the Paris Commune was still independent. So though the position came with little real power, it was nice to have a salary finally to help underwrite his Revolutionary expenses. 

Around this time, he also started up a working relationship with the Comte de Mirabeau, who resembled Danton so much in style and in manner and especially in frame. And Danton  absolutely admired and envied the public stature Mirabeau had built up for himself. But of course, Mirabeau died before the budding partnership went anywhere. 

So that pretty much catches us up with everything that went down last week. One last thing I need to mention is that through all of this Danton was at heart a monarchist. To be anything else in that time and at that place was to indulge in unrealistic flights of fancy. And it was, in fact, one of the few political disagreements he had with Desmoulins, who had been long advocating out and out republican principles. 

Now, obviously, Danton’s vision for the monarchy included its benevolent protection of the lower classes. But until mid 1791, he never would have considered himself a republican. But as the rumors that the King was planning to escape began to swirl, Danton began to doubt whether Louis could ever be trusted to play things straight. And he was among the organizers of the mob that stopped the Royal Family from trying to go to Saint-Cloud for holy week. Though in the aftermath of that confrontation, he reserved most of his wrath for Lafayette, who, he told the Jacobin Club later that evening, had been dying to fire into the crowd and was only stopped when the Guardsmen refused the order

So Danton was teetering on a political brink when he woke up on the morning of June 21, 1791, and was told that the King had run off. The flight to Varennes, pushed onto over the brink and gave him a whole new purpose. Until now, he had been something of a revolutionary opportunist, using his charismatic persona to lead the people without really ever leading them anywhere. Now he had somewhere to lead them. France must be a republic

In response to the flight to Varennes, Danton quickly commissioned a petition from the Cordeliers Club declaring monarchy and liberty incompatible. This was, of course, an inflammatory message, and doubly so because the medium itself was inflammatory, ignoring as it did the recent ban on mass petitioning. And activists circulating the petition were harassed by National Guardsmen. And I need to talk about those guardsmen here for a second, because though I’ve highlighted the two big times the National Guard openly defied orders to move in against an angry crowd, that is, during the Women’s March on Versailles and then when the Royal Family tried to go to Saint-Cloud, that doesn’t mean they saw eye to eye with the people. Just that there were sometimes lines they wouldn’t cross. 

Remember, by now, not just officers, but all rank and file members of the Guard were of active citizen rank. They all had money, they had the vote, and they did not really identify much with all these dirty lowlifes. The Parisian National Guard actually spent most of their time policing the streets of Paris, arresting and locking up radical agitators for disturbing the peace or whatever other charges they felt like coming up with. So despite a couple of dramatic moments of insubordination, the National Guard was, in the main, loyal to the government of the Paris Commune; those 3,000 guardsmen didn’t seem to have much problem marching down to try and arrest Marat, for example. 

So all through this period, clashes between mouthy laborers on one side and haughty guardsmen on the other became fairly routine. These clashes started picking up over the spring of 1791, as the Paris Commune unveiled its new restrictions on mass mobilization and then really started picking up after the King ran off and republicanism started spreading like wildfire in late June and early July 1791. As the second anniversary of the Fall of the Bastille approached – and yes, we are now at the second anniversary – the mood in Paris was very different from the first anniversary. A second Feast of the Federation was still planned, but it was on a considerably lower scale. The altar of the fatherland was re-erected, but there would be no glittering parades or solemn oaths or mass demonstrations of national solidarity. There was just too much bad blood going around for everyone to want to get down and party with men they neither liked nor trusted. 

Unfortunately for those of us who like to tell a good story, Danton and his friends in the Cordeliers did not use the anniversary of the Fall of the Bastille to launch a mass demonstration in favor of kicking Louis out of power. That would have been just too neat and tidy. 

And part of the reason for that is that by the time July 14 came around, no one yet knew what the National Assembly had decided to do with the King. The leadership of the Cordeliers had made it clear they wanted a republic. But even the radicals in the Jacobin Club weren’t ready to bite at that apple quite yet. When Danton thundered a call for a republic in the Jacobins one night, no less a radical than Robespierre silenced him with a curt: What is a republic? Translation: there’s no such thing. We can put the King in a tiny, powerless box, but he cannot simply be gotten rid of. Not only would it be constitutionally unworkable, but it would probably invite all the monarchs of Europe to simultaneously invade. 

So it was not until July 15, probably intentionally waiting for the anniversary of the Fall of the Bastille to come and go, that the National Assembly announced the result of its weeks of negotiations with the King. They officially concluded that Louis had not tried to escape, but had in fact been abducted, digging in on that transparent fiction that everyone knew was a transparent fiction

Further, they also declared that the King would still be the center of the constitution: inviolable, personally sacrosanct. There would be no republic. But that said, his provisional suspension from political activity would continue until the delegates finally put the finishing touches on what will become known as the Constitution of 1791, which we’re going to talk about next week. 

If Louis accepted the package without reservation, addendum, or amendment, all powers they had agreed to vest in him, and those powers were not purely ceremonial, would be his. All of this, of course, enraged Danton, Desmoulins, Marat and the rest of the Cordeliers agitators. The fact that the King wouldn’t have to answer for his obvious attempt to slip out of France and probably then come back the head of a foreign army to attack his own people was an utterly contemptuous settlement

And that the constitution was going to entrench the distinction between active and passive citizens? Permanently disenfranchising the mass majority of the French people so that men like Bailly and Lafayette, who now cared only about maintaining the status quo, could rule their little bourgeois Kingdom as they saw fit, arresting honest workers whose only crime was exercising their right to free speech by criticizing the Paris Commune, or telling the truth, like the King had not been abducted, he had run for it. It was time for a mass demonstration to remind the Paris Commune and the National Assembly that just because they wanted to pretend like a half million Parisians just didn’t exist, it didn’t mean a half million Parisians didn’t exist

On the night of July the 16th, it started going around that there was going to be a mass demonstration calling for the removal of Louis from power the next day at the Champ de Mars. This put the Paris Commune government on high alert and Bailly agreed with Lafayette that the time had come to declare martial law. So when a crowd started to gather at the Champ de Mars the late morning of July 17, 1791, Lafayette and his guardsmen came down in a show of force, intimidating them up and driving them off. But that would not be the end of that. 

Later in the day, the leaders of the Cordeliers regrouped, and they managed to wrangle up a good 20,000 people. I mean, not the half million they claimed to represent, but a good showing nonetheless and they marched back down to the Champ de Mars. This crowd was more committed and better led than the early morning arrivals. And when they got to the great field, they posted their newly written petition on the still standing altar of the fatherland and invited everyone to come sign. 

The petition, written by Pierre Brissot, I should probably note, began with a sequence of lines establishing the justice of their conclusion, which finally read:

“that it would be as contrary to the majesty of the outraged nation as it would be contrary to its interests to confide the reins of empire to a perjurer, a traitor and a fugitive. We formally and specifically demand that the Assembly receive the abdication made on 21 June by Louis XVI of the Crown which had been delegated to him and provide for his successor in the constitutional manner. And we declare that the undersigned will never recognize Louis XVI as their King unless the majority of the nation expresses a desire contrary to the present petition”.

Now, this obviously falls short of out and out calling for a republic, but it clearly said that Louis was done unless a majority of the nation decided otherwise and not some little click of active voters, mind you. The whole nation! About 6,000 had signed a petition when Lafayette and his National Guard moved back in to halt the rally. Lafayette announced that Paris was under martial law and that everyone was to immediately disperse

This, however, was greeted by jeering insults and then by flying rocks. The Guard fired off a few warning shots, but the crowd was unmoved. With the projectile still reining in discipline in the National Guard ranks broke and they started firing into the crowd. Now, no order to fire was ever given when Lafayette scrambled to restore order and stopped the shooting. But the damage was already done

There are conflicting reports, but when the field finally cleared out, something like 20 to 50 Parisians lay dead. The radical press, led, of course, by Marat, immediately denounced the massacre of the Champ de Mars and called for Lafayette’s head. And in the end, the reputation of Lafayette, already sinking fast, would never really be salvaged. And when Jean Sylvain Bailly was hauled out of retirement and led to the guillotine in November of 1793, it would be for his role in ordering the massacre that he was convicted. They even moved the guillotine to the Champ to Mars, so they could kill him on the spot where he had allegedly betrayed the Revolution

For the moment, however, it was the radical leaders who had the most to fear and the inner circle of the Cordeliers club dispersed and agreed to keep their heads down for a little bit. Danton, for example, thought this might be a fine time to go visit England for a little bit, and he managed to slip away before the authorities could catch up with him. 

The other immediate effect of the massacre was to tear the Jacobin Club in two. And next week, that little engine of the revolution will once again bear the brunt of a mass walkout as those truly committed to the monarchy will decide that they had to sever all ties to their more radical colleagues who seem to be coming around to the idea that monarchy and liberty were, in fact, incompatible. 

Next week, these committed monarchists will desert from the Jacobins in droves, go off to found a new club led by that triumvirate of Barnave, Duport and Lameth, and it will be left to them to defend the Constitution of 1791, a defense they would ultimately fail at as distrust for Louis and his family only grew and then the European powers made it all worse by making noise that maybe they were interested in armed intervention after all. 

I want to end this week by teasing something that I’m pretty excited about, and I hope you will be, too. When I got going on the French Revolution, I mentioned that I was going to have to get a little bit more serious about the money thing. And so next week, for the first time in the seven odd years I’ve been podcasting, I’m going to launch a dedicated fundraising drive. To drive this drive, I also, for the first time in the seven odd years I’ve been podcasting, finally have some merchandise to offer as a little reward for your support. That Gentleman Johnny’s Party Train t-shirt… It exists and for a limited time you will be able to buy it. There’s going to be a bunch of other cool stuff, including a Livia Did It shirt for those of you who have been bugging me about that since the history of Rome days, and even a brand new audio book for those of you who like to see what happens when I try my hand at fiction. 

I’ll get into all the details next week but just know that this is going to be a limited time thing. So this is the moment when you should support the show cause you’ll get to pick up some really cool stuff along the way and then hopefully keep me chained to my desk for at least another year.

Return to The French Revolution >>

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: