Chapter 11: Paris on the Eve of the Fourteenth

Submitted by GrouchoMarxist on April 27, 2012

Revolution centred in Paris, not in Assembly — Paris ready to rise — Districts organise people — Arrest of soldiers of Gardes françaises — Scarcity of bread — Fury of people increases — Dismissal of Necker — Camille Desmoulins appeals to arms — Struggle begins — Tocsin rung — People procure food and arms — Permanent Committee instituted — Formation of National Guard-Middle classes try to disarm people

The attention of the historians is generally absorbed by the National Assembly. The representatives of the people assembled at Versailles seem to personify the Revolution, and their last words or acts are chronicled with pious devotion. Nevertheless, it was not there that the passionate heart of the Revolution was throbbing during those July days: it was throbbing in Paris.

Without Paris, without her people, the Assembly was naught. If the fear of Paris in revolt had not restrained the Court, the Assembly would have been most certainly dispersed, as has been seen so many times since — on the I8th Brumaire and December 2 in France, and also recently in Hungary and in Russia. No doubt the deputies would have protested; no doubt they would have uttered some fine speeches, and some of them perhaps might have tried to raise the provinces; but without a people ready to rise, without a preliminary revolutionary work accomplished among the masses, without an appeal to the people for revolt made direct from man to man and not by manifestoes, a representative Assembly can do little when it has to face an established government backed by its legions of functionaries and its army.

Fortunately Paris was awake. Whilst the National Assembly slumbered in fancied security, and on July 10 tranquilly resumed the discussion on the scheme for a Constitution, the people of Paris, to whom the boldest and most clear-sighted of the middle classes had at last appealed, prepared for insurrection. Details of the military trap which the Court was preparing for the i6th were repeated in the faubourgs. Everything was known, even the King's threat to retire to Soissons and deliver up Paris to the army; and Paris, la grande fournaise organised itself in its various sections to answer force by force. The “seditious auxilliaries” with which Mirabeau had threatened the Court had been appealed to indeed, and in the gloomy wineshops of the suburbs the Paris proletarians discussed the means of “saving the country.” They armed themselves as best they could.

Hundreds of patriotic agitators, “unknown persons,” of course, did everything to keep up the ferment and to draw the people into the streets. Squibs and fireworks were, according to Arthur Young, one of the means used; they were sold at half-price, and whenever a crowd collected to see the fireworks let off at a street corner, some one would begin to harangue the people — tell them news of the Court plots. “Lately a company of Swiss would have crushed all this; a regiment would do it now if led with firmness; but let it last a fortnight, and an army will be wanting,”[33] said Arthur Young on the eve of July 14.

In fact, by the end of June the people of Paris were in full ferment and preparing for insurrection. At the beginning of the month there had already been riots on account of the dearness of corn, writes Hardy, the English bookseller; and if Paris remained calm until the 25th, it was only because, until the Royal Session, the people were always hoping that the Assembly would do something. But since the 25th, Paris understood already that no other hope remained but insurrection.

One party of Parisians marched that day towards Versailles, ready to fight the troops. In Paris itself, bands were formed “prepared to proceed to the direst extremities,” as we read in the secret Notes addressed to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, which were published by Chassin.[34] “The people have been in commotion all night, they have made bonfires and let off a prodigious number of rockets in front of the Palais Royal and the General Comptroller's Office. They were shouting, `Long live the Duke of Orléans!'”

The same day, the 25th, soldiers of the French Guards deserted their barracks, fraternising and drinking with the people, who carried them off to various quarters, shouting through the streets as they passed: “A bas la calotte!”

Meanwhile the “districts” of Paris, that is, the primary bodies of electors, especially those of the workmen's quarters, assembled regularly and took measures for organising resistance in Paris. The “districts” were kept in touch with each other, and their representatives made repeated efforts to constitute an independent municipal body. Even on the 25th Bonneville appealed to arms at an Assembly of the electors, and proposed that they should form themselves into a Commune, quoting historical precedent to give weight to his proposal. The next day, after having met first in the Museum, Rue Dauphine, the representatives of the “districts” at last transferred themselves to the Hôtel de Ville, and on July I they were already in their second session, a verbatim report of which is given by Chassin.[35] Thus they constituted the “Permanent Committee,” which we shall see acting on the day of July 14.

On June 30, a simple incident, the arrest of eleven soldiers of the Gardes françaises, who had been sent to the Abbaye prison for refusing to load their muskets, sufficed to cause a serious riot in Paris. When Loustalot, editor of the Révolutions de Paris, mounted a chair in front of the Café Foy in the Palais Royal, and harangued the crowd on this matter, four thousand men went immediately to the Abbaye and set the arrested soldiers at liberty. The jailers, seeing the crowd arrive, realised that resistance was useless, and handed over the prisoners and the dragoons, riding full gallop to cut down the people, halted thrust back their sabres into their sheaths, and fraternised with the crowd. A shudder ran through the Assembly when they learned next day of this fraternisation of the troops and the rioters. “Are we to be the tribunes of a people in revolt?” these gentlemen asked one another.

But revolt was already growing in the outskirts of Paris. At Nangis the people had refused to pay the taxes, so long as they were not fixed by the Assembly, and as there was a scarcity of bread (only two bushels of wheat were sold to each buyer) and the people were in an uproar, the market was surrounded by dragoons. But notwithstanding the presence of the troops there were several riots at Nangis and in other little towns on the outskirts. “The people quarrel with the bakers,” says Young, “and then run away with the bread and wheat for nothing.”[36]

The Mercure de France (July 27) even mentions some attempts made in several places, especially at Saint-Quentin, to cut the green crops, so great was the scarcity.

In Paris, on June 30, the patriots were already enrolling themselves at the Café du Caveau for insurrection, and when they heard the next day that Broglie had taken command of the army, the people, say the secret reports, openly declared and posted up everywhere that “should the troops fire a single shot they would put everything to fire and sword.” “Many other things much stronger than that were said,” adds the official. “Wise men dare not show themselves.”

On July 2 the fury of the populace broke out against the Count d'Artois and the Polignacs. There was talk of killing them and sacking their palaces. There was talk also of seizing upon all the cannon distributed through Paris. The crowds in the streets were larger and the fury of the people inconceivable, say the same reports. “This very day,” said Hardy, the bookseller, in his journal, “a raging multitude was on the point of setting out from the Palais Royal to rescue the deputies of the Third Estate, who it was said were exposed to the danger of being assassinated by the nobles.” The people now began to talk of seizing on the arms at the Hôtel des Invalides.

The fury inspired by hunger kept pace with the fury against the Court. Consequently, on July 4 and 6, fearing an attack on the bakers, parties of Garde françaises had to be sent out to patrol the streets and superintend the distribution of bread.

On July 8, a prelude to the insurrection broke out in Paris itself, at the camp of twenty thousand unemployed workmen engaged by the Government in road-making at Montmartre. Two days after, on the 10th, blood was already flowing, and on the same day they began to set fire to the toll-gates. The one in the Chaussée d'Antin was burnt, and the people took advantage of this by letting in provisions and wine free of duty.

Would Camille Desmoulins ever have made his appeal to arms on the 12th if he had not been sure that the people would listen to him, if he had not known that Paris was already in revolt, that only twelve days before Loustalot had stirred up the crowd over a matter of less importance, and that Paris and the faubourgs were even then merely waiting for the signal for some one to begin and it would flame into insurrection?

The impetuosity of the princes, who were certain of success, precipitated the coup d'état planned for the 16th, and the King was compelled to act before reinforcements for the troops had arrived at Versailles.[37]

Necker was dismissed on the 11th, the Count d'Artois shaking his fist in the minister's face as he passed into the council chamber of the ministers, and the King, with his usual duplicity, pretending to know nothing about it, although he had already signed the dismissal. Necker submitted to his master's orders without a word. He even fell in with his plans, and arranged for his departure for Brussels in such a way that it passed unnoticed at Versailles.

Paris only learned about it towards noon the next day, Sunday, the 12th. Every one had been expecting this dismissal, which was to be the beginning of the coup d'état. The people were already repeating the saying of the Duke de Broglie, who, with his thirty thousand soldiers massed between Paris and Versailles, was “answerable for Paris,” and as sinister rumours were circulating all the morning concerning the massacres prepared by the Court, “all revolutionary Paris” rushed in a body to the Palais Royal. Just then the courier had arrived bringing news of Necker's exile. The Court had decided to open hostilities. . . . Whereupon Camille Desmoulins, coming out of one of the cafés in the Palais Royal, the Café Foy, with a sword in one hand and a pistol in the other, mounted upon a chair and made his appeal to arms. Breaking a branch from a tree, he took, as is known, a green leaf as a badge, a rallying-sign. And his cry, “There is not a moment to lose, haste to arms!” spread through the faubourgs.

In the afternoon an immense procession, carrying the busts of the Duke of Orléans and Necker, veiled in crape (it was said that the Duke of Orléans also had been banished), passed through the Palais Royal, along the Rue Richelieu, and turned towards the Place Louis XV. (now Place de la Concorde), which was occupied by troops — Swiss, French Infantry, Hussars and Dragoons — under the command of the Marquis de Besenval. The troops soon found themselves surrounded by the people. They tried to keep them back with sabre-thrusts; they even fired upon them, but before an innumerable crowd that pushed and jostled, pressing in and breaking through their ranks on every side, the soldiers were forced to retire. From other sources we learn that the French Guards fired a few shots at the “Royal German” regiment, which adhered to the King, and that the Swiss refused to fire on the people. Besenval, who seems not to have had much confidence in the Court, withdrew, therefore, before an overwhelming torrent of the people and went to camp on the Champ-de-Mars.[38]

Thus the struggle began. But what would be the final outcome of it if the troops, still faithful to the King, received orders to march on Paris? In this eventuality, the middle classes decided to accept, with reluctance, the supreme measure, the appeal to the people. The tocsin was rung throughout Paris, and the faubourgs began to forge pikes.[39]

By degrees armed men began to appear in the streets. All night long men of the people compelled the passers-by to give them money to buy powder. The toll-gates were in flames. All the gates on the right bank, from the Faubourg Saint-Antoine to that of Saint-Honoré, as well as those at Saint-Marcel et Saint-Jacques, were burnt, and provisions and wine entered Paris freely. All night the tocsin rang and the middle classes trembled for their possessions, because men armed with pikes and cudgels spread themselves through every quarter and plundered the houses of some monopolists, known to be enemies of the people, and knocking at the doors of the rich they demanded money and arms.

The next day, the 13th, the people went first of all to the places where there was food. They attacked the monastery of Saint-Lazare, with cries of “Bread, bread!” Fifty-two carts were laden with flour, which, instead of being emptied then and there, were dragged to the Halles, so that the food might be used by every one. It was to the Halles that the people also sent the provisions let into Paris without paying duty.[40]

At the same time the people seized the prison of La Force, where debtors were imprisoned, and the liberated prisoners went about the city thanking the people; but an outbreak of prisoners in the Châtelet was quelled, apparently by some of the middle classes who had armed in hot haste and were already patrolling the streets. By six o'clock the middle-class militia were already formed and marching towards the Hôtel de Ville, and at ten o'clock that evening, says Chassin, they were on duty.

Taine and his followers, faithful echoes of the fears of the middle class, try to make us believe that, on the 13th, Paris was in the hands of thieves. But this allegation is contradicted by all contemporary evidence. There were, no doubt, wayfarers stopped by men with pikes, who demanded money to procure arms; and there were also, on the nights between the 12th and 14th, armed men who knocked at the doors of the well-to-do to ask for food and drink, or for arms and money.

It is also averred that there were attempts at pillage, since two credible witnesses mention persons executed at night, between the 13th and 15th, for attempts of that kind.[41] But here, as elsewhere, Taine exaggerates.

Whether the modern middle-class Republicans like it or not, it is certain that the revolutionaries of 1789 did appeal to the “compromising auxiliaries” of whom Mirabeau spoke. They went to the hovels on the outskirts to find them. And they were quite right to do so, because even if there were a few cases of pillaging, most of these “auxilliaries,” understanding the seriousness of the situation, put their arms at the service of the general cause, much more than they used them to gratify their personal hatreds or to alleviate their own misery.

It is at any rate certain that cases of pillage were extremely rare. On the contrary, the spirit of the armed crowds became very serious when they learned about the engagement that had been entered into by the troops and the middle classes. The men with the pikes evidently looked upon themselves as the defenders of the town, upon whom a heavy responsibility rested. Marmontel, a declared enemy of the Revolution, nevertheless notices this interesting feature. “The thieves themselves, seized with the general terror [?], committed no depredations. The armourers' shops were the only ones broken open, and only arms were stolen,” he says in his Mélmoires. And when the people brought the carriage of the Prince de Lambesc to the Place de la Grève to burn it, they sent back the trunk and all the effects found in the carriage to the Hôtel de Ville. At the Lazarite Monastery the people refused money and took only the flour, arms and wine, which were all conveyed to the Place de la Grève. “Nothing was touched that day, either at the Treasury or at the Bank,” remarks the English Ambassador in his account.

What is quite true is the fear felt by the middle classes at the sight of these men and women, ragged, pinched with hunger and armed with clubs and pikes “of all shapes.” The terror inspired by these spectres of famine thronging the streets was such that the middle classes could not get over it. Later on, in 1791 and 1792, even those among them who wanted to put an end to Royalty preferred reaction rather than make a fresh appeal to the popular revolution. The memory of the famished people swarming in the streets of whom they had caught a glimpse on July 12, 13 and 14 haunted them.

“Arms!” was the cry of the people after they had found a little bread. They sought everywhere for them, without finding any, while night and day in the faubourgs pikes of every kind were being forged from any iron that came to hand.

The middle classes, meanwhile, without losing a moment, were constituting their executive power in the municipality at the Hótel de Ville, and their militia.

We know that the elections for the National Assembly took place in two degrees; but the elections over, the electors of the Third Estate, to whom were added some of the electors of the clergy and of the nobility, had continued to meet at the Hôtel de Ville, since June 27, with the authorisation of the Town Council and the “Ministers for Paris.” Now these electors took the lead in organising the middle-class militia. We have already seen them holding their second sitting on July I.

On July 12 they instituted a Permanent Committee, presided over by Flesselles, the Provost of the Merchants, and they decided that each of the sixty districts should choose two hundred well-known citizens, capable of bearing arms, which should form a body of militia numbering 12,000 men, to watch over the public safety. This militia was to be increased in four days to a total of 48,000 men; meanwhile the same Committee was trying to disarm the people.

In this way, Louis Blanc says very truly, the middle classes obtained for themselves a Pretorian Guard of 12,000 men and at the risk of supporting the Court they wanted to disarm the mass of the people.

Instead of the green badge of the earlier days, this militia had now to wear the red and blue cockade, and the Permanent Committee took measures to prevent the people, who were arming themselves, from invading the ranks of this militia. It was decreed that any one with arms and wearing the red and blue cockade, without having been registered in one of the districts, should be brought for judgment before the Committee. The general commandant of this National Guard had been nominated by the Permanent Committee on the night of July 13 and 14; he was a noble, the Duke d'Aumont. He would not accept the post, and another nobleman, the Marquis de la Salle, who had been nominated second in command, took his place.

In short, while the people were forging pikes and arming themselves, while they were taking measures to prevent the ammunition from being sent out of Paris, while they were seizing the bread-stuffs and sending them to the Halles or to the Place de la Grève, while on the 14th they were constructing barricades to prevent the troops entering Paris, and had seized the arms at the Hôtel des Invalides and were marching in a body towards the Bastille to compel it to capitulate, the middle classes were mainly preoccupied in taking measures for keeping the newly acquired power entirely in their own hands. They constituted the middle-class Commune of Paris, which tried to restrain the popular movement, and at the head of this Commune they placed Flesselles, the Provost of the Merchants, who was corresponding with the Duchess de Polignac about checking the insurrection in Paris. We know, indeed, that on the 13th, when the people went to ask Flesselles for arms, he sent them boxes containing old linen instead of muskets, and the next day he used all his influence to prevent the people from taking the Bastille.

Thus began on the side of the adroit middle-class leaders the system of betraying the Revolution, which, as we shall see, developed so much during the next few years.