The September Massacres

Hello, and welcome to Revolutions.

So last week we witnessed a massive turning point in the French Revolution; a massive turning point in world history. The Insurrectionary Commune backed by an army of militant sans-culottes, an ultra patriotic national guardsmen, violently seized control of Paris on August 10, 1792. The King was now suspended, the Royal Family in prison. And though it wasn’t yet official, this insurrection had just brought an end to a 1,000 year old monarchy. And for the men who successfully pulled it off, that was hopefully just the beginning. 

And it was just the beginning. That wasn’t necessarily a good thing. Because the second French Revolution is about to open the door for all the worst excesses we think of when we think of the French Revolution. And today the revolutionaries will officially set out on the bloody road that will lead them all to the reign of terror. 

In the days after August 10, power was shared haphazardly by three institutions. First, the Insurrectionary Commune, who had just seized control of Paris by force. Second, the Legislative Assembly, who were trying to put on a brave face, but who surely recognized that they had just been rendered impotent. And finally, a new thing called the Provisional Executive Council. The six man council was essentially the restored Girondin Royal Ministry, plus Danton as Minister of Justice. But because the entire constitutional order had just been overturned, it was difficult to tell who had authority over what.

But in those first few days, it became clear that the Legislative Assembly was now taking its orders from the Insurrectionary Commune. That is, if they knew what was good for them. So, under pressure from the radical Parisians, the Legislative Assembly passed a law granting municipalities the right to arrest anyone they thought suspicious for any reason

Then the Assembly appointed commissioners to head out into the departments to make sure that the provincials understood that August 10 meant that there was a new sheriff in town, and that anyone who didn’t like it, or who was suspected of supporting the now suspended King, or who just happened to make a joke at the wrong time, faced arrest or worse. These commissioners also spread the word that new elections would commence in a few weeks to elect a National Convention whose job it would be to write a constitution that reflected true revolutionary principles, and that in keeping with those principles, every man would be allowed to vote. 

Back in the capital, the Legislative Assembly then took no steps to halt the suppression of royalist leaning newspapers. Conservative editors were arrested and their presses seized by armed units under the direction of the Insurrectionary Commune. Because the revolutionary principle of freedom of speech could not possibly apply to men who advocated counterrevolution

While the Legislative Assembly deferred to the will of the Commune, the Provisional Executive Council deferred to the will of new Minister of Justice Danton. If any one man could be said to be in control in these chaotic days after the second French Revolution, it was Danton. The Insurrectionary Commune was basically his creation. The sans-culottes out in the streets hailed him as their champion, and the Legislative Assembly had just given him more votes than any other member of the Provisional Council. So it was not surprising that Danton, now all of 32 years old, found himself the most powerful man in Paris

But most powerful does not mean all powerful. Danton was not some dictator, not by a long shot. He simply radiated a bit more authority than any other man in the city. Yielding to this radiant authority, the Legislative Assembly appointed Danton’s close confidants, Camille Desmoulins and Fabre d’Églantine, to be his official secretaries. And then they voted the Justice Minister 550,000 livre to go attend to his duties. 

Danton and his friends then started spending this money right away, mostly to build up a network of spies and informants to quickly root out all the internal enemies of France before they could form a fifth column to aid the about to invade allied armies. Now, just to foreshadow a little bit, though, the liberal spending of all this money, the inadequate receipts kept, and the elevation of d’Églantine to a position of official power would all come back to haunt Danton. But for the moment, he had things to do, money to pay for it and trusted friends to help him get it done.

After the insurrection, Danton himself was pretty much forward looking. That is, what can we do to prepare Paris to defend itself from the Austrians and Prussians? But his sans-culottes friends out in the streets and their representatives in the Paris Sections and the Insurrectionary Commune were stuck looking backward. Specifically, they wanted revenge on all those who had spilled patriot blood on August 10. So that meant a few Swiss guards left alive and a few other random army officers and court functionaries who had been taken into custody. 

The whole insurrection was now being cast as a necessary response to some vaguely defined royalist conspiracy and the conspirators had to be punished. But more generally, the sans-culottes now demanded all the revolution’s enemies be hunted down and locked up, reserving particular wrath for non-juring priests who had abused the leniency with which they had been treated to foment counterrevolution. It was time for that leniency to end. So, under pressure from the Sections, the Legislative Assembly decreed that a new new civic oath must be taken immediately to distinguish the patriotic clergy from the traitorous clergy.

And finally, there was one guy above all who the sans-culottes out for intense hatred: the Marquis de Lafayette, aka the Butcher of the Champ de Mars. The Parisians wanted his head on a platter and they wanted it right now. Danton himself personally loathed Lafayette, and so he wasted no time obliging his people. On August 14, a warrant was issued for Lafayette’s arrest

Out on the frontier, Lafayette was tipped off about the warrant and knowing full well that if he gave himself up, he would likely be put on trial and executed, he did the prudent thing. Accompanied by a few loyal officers, he packed his bags and on August 17, he crossed the lines into the Austrian Netherlands

Now, since the start of the war, the French officers who deserted across the lines had, for the most part, been allowed to pass through Austrian territory unmolested. It made sense to encourage defections. So Lafayette’s plan was to find a port and sail to the United States, where his adoptive countrymen would welcome him with open arms, unlike his actual countrymen, who were now trying to cut his head off. 

But when Lafayette’s party encountered another French émigré officer attached to the Austrian army, the émigré recognized Lafayette and Lafayette was in way too deep with the revolution to just be allowed to pass like some disgruntled second lieutenant. Lafayette was taken into custody, declared a prisoner of state by a military tribunal, and then transferred to an old fortress run by the Prussians. He would remain in Prussian custody until May 1794, when he was handed back over to the Austrians, who would then keep him locked up until Napoleon negotiated his release in the Treaty of Campo Formio in 1797, which will get to roughly 147 episodes from now. 

During Lafayette’s captivity, emissaries from the United States tried to get him released, but they lacked the standing to pull it off. They did, however, do him one signal favor. Congress passed a bill granting Lafayette full back pay for his six years service as a General in the Continental Army, a bill quickly signed by Lafayette’s surrogate father and now president of the United States, George Washington. And that money is what Lafayette would live on during his five years in prison

The same day Lafayette slipped over the lines, August 17, the Legislative Assembly gave in to further pressure from Paris and established an extraordinary tribunal to prosecute those who had committed counterrevolutionary crimes on August 10. A few days later, this tribunal handed down its first guilty verdict, an administrative secretary of the Paris National Guard was sentenced to death for his role in the alleged royalist conspiracy. His execution on August 21 would have been unremarkable were it not for the method of his execution, because that’s right, my friends, it’s time to finally introduce one of the most famous characters of the French Revolution, Madame La Guillotin. The unfortunate secretary of the Paris National Guard holds the distinction of being the first political prisoner executed with the guillotine. And, oh, boy, will he not be the last. 

Now, some of you may know the guillotine, or as it was initially called, the machine, was conceived as an instrument of humanitarian reform. Capital punishment in the battle days was a brutal process. Criminals were hanged, broken on the wheel, drawn and quartered. So as the waves of reform washed over France in those idealistic days of 1789, eminent physician and National Assembly delegate Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin proposed all executions be carried out by a new device he had invented, a device I’m sure you’re all familiar with, so there’s no need to describe how it works in detail. 

The benefits of Guillotin’s machine were twofold. First, it would end needless and, frankly, barbaric suffering inflicted on the condemned. Second, it would bring a measure of equality to the process of executions. In the new era, ushered in by the Declaration of the Rights of Man, why should nobles alone enjoy the privilege of having their heads chopped off? But the National Assembly never moved on the proposal, and Guillotin shelved his plans for the machine. 

After the Legislative Assembly convened in 1791, however, radicals in the Jacobin Club started agitating again for the idea that every condemned citizen should die in the same way. That is, if they weren’t as radical as Robespierre who wanted to abolish capital punishment altogether. So these radicals started working on a plan to extend the privilege of beheading to everyone. But nervous Paris executioners explained that beheading someone took precision and concentration, and if the lines got long, the quality of their work might suffer and if the quality of their work suffered, who knew how much the condemned would suffer. So the plans for Dr. Guillotin’s machine were dusted off and the problem was considered solved. 

In April 1792, just as war fever was hitting a fever pitch, the Legislative Assembly took time out of its day to order a piano maker to build a prototype of Guillotin’s machine. Once the prototype proved effective on corpses, it was handed over to the executioners of Paris. On April 25, a convicted highwayman became the first official victim of La Guillotine, and everyone in the crowd that day agreed it was a major letdown. Usually they got to watch the victim flail around for a bit, but this was all zip, thud, the end. What is the fun in that? 

So, getting back to it, although the extraordinary tribunal had just found a royalist conspirator guilty and executed him, and would, over the next few weeks, find more men guilty and execute them, the pace of their work was far too slow for the liking of the sans-culottes. And these hungry lower classes of Paris were fed red meat by that friend of the people, Jean Paul Marat. Now, up until this point, Marat had been regarded by Danton’s inner circle of the Cordeliers leadership as a crank to be tolerated. His angry screeds were lively and certainly directed at the right people, but they also never circulated widely enough to really be a problem. So the leaders of the Cordeliers indulged and protected Marat. But after August 10, Marat suddenly became the voice of the Parisian sans-culottes and his circulation skyrocketed. He seemed to be the only man willing to say what they were all trying to say: there are enemies in our midst and they must be destroyed before we are destroyed

Marat really came into his own after August 10, and the articles he wrote left little to the imagination. The enemies of the revolution should be rounded up and killed. France must be cleansed if she was going to be saved. Marat was no longer a fringe crank. He was now a murderous force to be reckoned with

In the midst of all this, really, really bad news started coming in on the warfront. On August the 19th, the allied army of Prussians, Austrians and French emigrates, led by the Duke of Brunswick, finally launched their invasion and took the fortress at Longwy without a fight. Word of this got back to the capital on August 26, sparking a new round of paranoid fears that the French army was full of traitors happily clearing the allies a path to Paris, and that Paris was full of traitors ready to hand over the keys to the city once they arrived. The Legislative Assembly immediately gave all non-juring priests two weeks to either take the new new civic oath or leave the country. After that, if they were caught, they would be deported to Guiana. 

But, of course, these days, no one was allowed to leave Paris without a passport, and those passports were issued by the Paris sections. So you can imagine how many non-juring priests strolled into the sectional assemblies to ask for said passport. So while the city slowly locked down and the enemies of the state were locked in, Marat howled for counterrevolutionary blood. And the pressure inside Paris began to grow unbearable. 

With the capital now seriously threatened by the allied army, there was some loose talk, specifically from Interior Minister Roland, that the revolutionary leadership should withdraw from Paris to avoid being captured by the enemy. But Danton would have absolutely none of this. And on that point, he and Jacques Pierre Brissot agreed. They would die before they ran. 

To organize the defense of the city, Danton organized a systematic search of Paris, ostensibly to look for guns, ammunition, or able bodied men who could be used to fight the approaching allied army. But that was really just a pretext fed to the Legislative Assembly to get them to approve the house searches. Really, it was about barging into homes and rounding up anybody who was suspect, knew someone who was suspect, or had the same name as someone who was suspect. On August 30 and 31st, armed companies started banging down doors and hauling out suspects. In all, about 3,000 were rounded up and shoved into the various Paris prisons, all of which were now badly overcrowded. What to do with these prisoners became a topic of heated discussion. But the direction things were headed became clear when the Insurrectionary Commune appointed Jean Paul Marat to serve on its Committee of Surveillance, a committee that had jurisdiction over the prisons

After agreeing with Danton about not abandoning the capital, Brissot then tried to pivot and reassert the overarching authority of the Legislative Assembly. He engineered a vote demanding the Paris Commune hold new elections to replace the likely illegal Insurrectionary Commune. But of course, the Insurrectionary Commune ignored this order. Well, they didn’t just ignore the order, they used it as proof that the Faction from Gironde, as Robespierre was just now dubbing them, were themselves suspects. Why was Brissot trying to dissolve the Commune? Why had Roland just advocated abandoning the people of Paris to the enemy? 

But before this movement to arrest the Girondin leadership picked up too much momentum, Danton appears to have stepped in to squash it, likely saving, at least for the moment, all of their lives. He also probably saved the life of Talleyrand, who came around one day asking if maybe he couldn’t get one of those passports out of the city. Despite having just rendered his most revolutionary service yet, drafting a defense of the August 10 insurrection that would be transmitted to the courts of Europe, Talleyrand could see that at the moment, Paris was no place for anyone connected to the Church or the nobility. And he was connected to both. Danton, who liked and respected Talleyrand, wrote out a passport in his own hand, and Talleyrand managed to duck out of Paris one day before the September massacres began

Now, through all of this, the Allies continued their methodical advance on Paris. Danton had already called for 30,000 men to stand up and go fight them, but he was having difficulty convincing volunteers to leave the city. The sans-culottes were ready to answer the call, eager to answer the call but there was a problem. All those recently apprehended prisoners were dangerous. The general belief was that the minute the volunteers walked out of Paris, the prisoners would be able to break out of jail and attack the defenseless families that the volunteers left behind. We simply cannot allow our women and children to fall into the hands of the evil counterrevolutionary swine. So the debate about what to do with the prisoners got even more urgent. Then, early on September 2, everything came to a head when word arrived, premature, as it turned out, but not by much that the fortress at Verdun had fallen. The fortress at Verdun was the last fortress standing between the Allies and Paris

When this terrible news landed, Danton took to the floor of the Legislative Assembly and refused to be anything but heroic, defiant and fearless. He gave a rousing and completely improvised speech, culminating with the call to stand and not shrink before the danger. The tocsin bell which is about to sound is not a signal of alarm, he thundered, it is a call to charge upon the enemies of the country. To vanquish them, gentlemen, we must be bold and bolder still and forever bold, and France will be saved! 

The speech gave Paris the energetic boost it probably needed to survive. But it also meant that the time to act was now. We have to go fight now. And that is when the terrible solution to the problem of the prisoners unfolded

At 2:00 in the afternoon on September 2, a group of about 20 prisoners were being transferred in an open cart from the Hotel de Ville to the abbey Saint Germain, now the main political prison in Paris. That little convoy was soon set upon by an angry mob of sans-culottes. The mob dragged the prisoners off the cart. A few of these unfortunate souls were spared, but the rest were killed on the spot. Later that day, another armed band broke into a Carmelite monastery that had been transformed into a prison. This time, the angry mob set up a little kangaroo court to dispense the people’s justice. 

One by one, prisoners were brought forward and accused, convicted and sentenced, all in one breath. Then they were pushed towards a group of sans-culottes, armed with pikes, sabers, daggers and clubs, who proceeded to just gang murder the condemned. Next prisoner. After these initial outbursts, the Commune then stepped in to restore order. But that did not mean halting the executions that meant organizing them and making them more systematic. The Committee of Surveillance and its leading light Jean-Paul Marat ensured that the people’s justice would be swift and bloody and uncompromising. The men who did the killing would be voted wages for their good work

Once the Commune took over the process, the rest of the Paris prisons were pushed into and ad hoc tribunals were convened to judge those held inside. Those judged were usually found guilty and killed immediately, though, if you can believe it, there were a few acquittals. This horrifying brand of justice continued unabated for the next five days before tapering off for lack of further victims on September 7. In all, somewhere between one 1,100 and 1,600 were executed, that included men, women and children. Yes, children. In one prison, the executed included kids as young as twelve and thirteen years old

Among the dead were 200 non-juring priests, all the remaining Swiss Guards, and man, you got a feel for those guys, survive one frenzied massacre, sit around in jail for a month just to get killed in another more systematic massacre (yeesh) as well as a handful of aristocrats who had been swept up in the recent house rates. These last included Princess Lamballe, one of the Queen’s best friends, who had been with the Royal Family on the long night of August 9. 

The tribunal the Princess faced demanded she swear allegiance to France and then swear a hatred for monarchy in general and the Royal Family in particular. She said she would do the former, but could not do the latter. So they pushed her into an alleyway where the waiting murder gang stabbed her to death, hacked off her head, and paraded it down to the Temple so the Queen could get a good look. And in case you’re wondering, the Royal Family themselves escaped the September massacres, but only because when an armed soldier burst into their quarters, Louis dressed the soldier down and ordered him to get the hell out of there. A lifetime of deference to the Sovereign was apparently a hard habit to break, and the Royal Family was spared for the moment. 

The majority of those killed in the September massacres, however, were simply common criminals who had been arrested at a really, really bad time. So what political crime could they be guilty of? Well, the tribunal settled on this: their bad character and rotten circumstances would make them easy tools for the evil counter revolutionaries to employ in their evil counterrevolutionary work. And so those common criminals, too, had to die

As the tribunals wound down, one last massacre was staged on September 9, as a group of prisoners was being transferred down to Paris from Versailles. This group included former members of the National Assembly, now suspected to be counter revolutionaries, as well as Antoine de Lessart, remember him? The hapless Foreign Minister who was impeached by the Legislative Assembly for not being sufficiently tough with the Austrians. Well, he had been held in custody ever since, and was now among those being brought down from Versailles. Along the way, the officer in charge of the convoy simply stopped short. And wouldn’t you know it, a whole group of armed Parisians were waiting to greet them. They cut every prisoner’s throat and left the bodies littered on the ground. 

The response to the September massacres among the respectable bourgeois revolutionaries was complete silence. Whatever their own personal feelings, no one made a move to stop it. Now, it’s hard to tell what level of involvement anyone played in orchestrating the massacres, because in the aftermath, everyone blamed everyone else for being in on it. Brissot and the Girondins would accuse Robespierre of masterminding the slaughter in the hopes of getting Brissot and the Girondins sucked into the wood chipper. Robespierre would, in turn, make counter accusations, blaming the Girondins. Of course, everyone believed Danton had to be involved somehow, because as Justice Minister, he just seemed to be inescapably guilty. Madame Roland certainly thought he was the puppet master behind the whole thing. But Danton’s crime appears to have been merely to do nothing to stop it. To consciously sacrifice the prisoners to the Paris streets as an unfortunate but necessary part of maintaining patriotic unity and getting the sans-culottes ready to go fight the looming Allied army. If the price to be paid for saving the revolution was the death of treasonous priests, mercenary Swiss, counter revolutionary aristocrats and common criminals, was that really so high a price to pay? Danton made it clear he did not think so

In the aftermath of the slaughter, though, Danton was proved right about one thing. The prison massacres freed the sans-culottes lot from any fear they had about marching to the front. And 20,000 quickly volunteered to heed the new tocsin bell and go charge upon the enemies of the country. And there was no time to lose. An army of 35,000 Prussians and Austrians and the hated émigrés was aiming right for them. And nothing, it seemed, could stop them. But then, suddenly, before the new recruits could even get out there, that army was not only stopped, it was turned around. 

Okay, so the last time we checked up on the front lines, there were three French armies out there in the field, but none of the generals thought their armies were in any shape to fight. But since then, there had been a few changes at the top. I wrote a whole thing, trying to explain the game of musical chairs that occupied the French High Command in the summer of 1792, detailing who went where, when and then why they were moved again. But I decided going through all the details would probably make this less comprehensible, not more comprehensible. So the bottom line is that after Lafayette skipped town back in August, ex Minister of War and rabid Austrian hater Charles Francois Dumouriez took command of the army of the north. A guy named Francois Kellermann, a career officer, born in France but into an ethnically German family was promoted to command the army of the center. And the Prussian born Nicolas Luckner still commanded the army of the Rhine. 

After taking command of the north, Dumouriez had been planning to relaunch the invasion of the Austrian Netherlands as the surest way to force the Allied army to leave France. But with Longwy and Verdun falling so quickly, he had to break off preparations and rush down to try to put something between the Allies and Paris. He ordered Kellermann’s army to rendezvous with him at St. Minou, a town which was, well, and I suppose still is, just about 200 km from Paris. Dumouriez then lined up his army running north south along the main road to Paris to block Brunswick, who was coming in from the east. But Brunswick managed to swing north and scramble up the French left wing, which forced Dumouriez to pull them back, pivoting the direction of his entire line. So now he had the French lined up, running east west, watching the Allies march past them to the north. 

Now, at this point, Brunswick could have easily bypassed the French army and plunged towards Paris, but that would have cut off his supply and communication lines and he didn’t like the thought of his army being isolated so deep in French territory, especially with a bout of dysentery sweeping through his camp. Kellermann showed up the next day to reinforce the French army and Dumouriez put him in charge of the left. Kellermann took up this command on September 20, just as Brunswick was deciding to wheel his army around in a big flanking maneuver to come in at the French from the west. 

This led Kellerman to advance his own forces towards some high ground near the small village of Valmy. And that is where the two armies met. Now, crazily, of course, when the two sides faced each other, the Allies were the ones standing between the French and Paris, instead of the other way around, which is a bit reminiscent of the early days of the first English Civil War, when the Royalist army of Charles I kept winding up between the parliamentary army and London, even though the parliamentary army was supposed to be out there to stop Charles from reaching London. 

So, in a miserable rain, the Allied and French army stared at each other for a little bit at Valmy and then decided to settle into an artillery duel to see if the other side would run off. But as it turns out, at this point in history, the French ran the best artillery schools in Europe, and Kellermann’s veteran artillery officers pounded the Allies with more precision than the Allies managed to pound the French. But what really surprised the hell out of everyone was that the French troops did not break and run when the shells started falling. Indeed, after a little while, it looked like the ultra professional Prussians were the ones ready to crack. Continuing to pour on the artillery, Kellermann then started waving his hat, crying “vive la nacion” and all his troops took up the cheer. And for whatever combination of reasons; the rain, the dysentery, the sight of surprisingly solid French infantrymen cheering and singing, Brunswick ordered his men to retreat from the field. And then, to the massive shock of just about everyone, he ordered them to march back the way they came, away from Paris, back east, toward the frontier. Brunswick was withdrawing the Allied army from France

So just like that, the seemingly inevitable sack of Paris was called off. It should come as no surprise that even the radical anticlericals in the capitol had no trouble describing the Battle of Valmy as a miracle. And no one doubted it was one of the greatest victories in French history. But, of course, it really wasn’t. It was barely a skirmish. And clearly, had he wanted to, Brunswick could have forced another battle somewhere else if he just didn’t like the high ground Kellermnan had secured at Valmy. So what gives? How did this light artillery skirmish lead to the total withdrawal of the Allied army from France? The answer is, no one quite knows. We know the Allied troops were wracked by dysentery. We know that they expected this to be a cakewalk, and indeed it had been. But it also appears they really didn’t like all those Frenchmen cheering and singing together while getting blasted with artillery. It was unsettling. The commanders also knew that tens of thousands of French reinforcements were on the way. 

Now, the utterly outraged French émigrés could not explain it any other way than to assert that Brunswick had been bribed by revolutionary agents who offered him the Bourbon family jewels in exchange for retreating. I mean, what other explanation could there be? Now, what role or partial role, any of these factors played in the decision to withdraw is ultimately speculation. We don’t have a good answer, although the bribery charge does seem paper thin. 

But then, of course, there was one other thing. There was Poland. That’s right, Poland. While the Prussians and Austrians were preparing to invade France, Catherine the Great moved her armies into Poland, and the Poles had surrendered, probably prematurely. The Prussian King, Frederick William II, did not like the idea of the Russian armies milling around in his now clearly under defended backyard. So he decided that if the invasion of France was going to take even one minute longer than anticipated, that he needed the hell out of there. And it looked like it might now indeed take more than one minute longer. So he wanted his guys the hell out of there. So maybe it was for this reason, maybe it was for all those other reasons. But whatever it was, the allies were now in retreat and Paris was saved

The great and miraculous victory of Valmy on September 21, 1792, just so happened to coincide with the opening of the next great political phase of the French Revolution. Because the very next day, the newly elected national convention replaced the now defunct Legislative Assembly in the ménage of the Tuileries Palace. Next week, we will introduce the Convention, which will become the battleground within which and over which those worst excesses of the French Revolution will now play out. 

But next week is going to be insanely busy for me on the home front so next week’s episode might be a bit shorter than usual, but my plan is, at a minimum, to get the National Convention off the ground. Finally, I’m going to end with an enormous and heartfelt thank you to all of you who supported the fundraiser. It was a huge success. We sold 2,060 shirts, 1,590 copies of the five sided cross, and a good number of books from the History of Rome Library. 

Now, no one bit at the pick-a-revolution, any revolution, but I’ve got an idea about that for next time. So the big bulk t-shirt order is now being processed. I’m not sure of the exact timeline of when everything will be approved, printed, and then start shipping, but if you’ve been waiting patiently for your shirt, you will hopefully be getting an email confirmation about shipping soon. Thank you all very, very much. I’m not going anywhere.

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