Chapter 15: The Towns

Submitted by GrouchoMarxist on April 28, 2012

Condition of municipal institutions — Feudal rights still exist — Need of municipal reform — Townspeople revolt — New municipality voted — Importance of communalist movement — Paris Commune — Other cities follow — Troubles at Strasbourg — New corporation constituted — Middle classes freed from feudalism — Riots in Troyes, Amiens and other cities — Significance of popular action during Revolution

In the eighteenth century the municipal institutions had fallen to utter decay, owing to the numerous measures taken by royal authority against them for two hundred years.

Since the abolition of the plenary assembly of the townspeople, which formerly had the control of urban justice and administration, the affairs of the large cities were going from bad to worse. The posts of “town councillors” introduced in the eighteenth century had to be bought from the commune, and, often enough, the patent so purchased was for life.[52] The councils met seldom, in some towns about once in six months, and even then the attendance was not regular. The registrar managed the whole business, and as a rule did not fail to make those interested in it pay him handsomely. The attorneys and advocates, and still more the governor of the province, continually interfered to obstruct all municipal autonomy.

Under these conditions the affairs of the city fell more and more into the hands of five or six families, who shared a good deal of the revenues among themselves. The patrimonial revenues which some towns had retained, the proceeds, of the octrois, the city's trade and the taxes all went to enrich them. Besides this, mayors and officials began to trade in corn and meat, and soon became monopolists. As a rule, the working population hated them. The servility of the officials, councilors and aldermen towards “Monsieur l'Intendant” (the Governor) was such that his whim became law. And the contributions from the town towards the governor's lodging, towards increasing his salary, to make him presents, for the honour of holding his children at the baptismal font, and so forth, went on growing larger — not to mention the presents which had to be sent every year to various personages in Paris.

In the towns, as in the country, the feudal rights still existed. They were attached to property. The bishop was still a feudal lord, and the lords, both lay and ecclesiastical — such, for instance, as the fifty canons of Brioude — maintained not only honorary rights, or even the right of intervening in the nomination of aldermen, but also, in some towns, the right of administering justice. At Angers there were sixteen manorial tribunals. Dijon had preserved, besides the municipal tribunals, six ecclesiastical courts — “the bishopric, the chapter, the monks of Saint-Bénigne, La Sainte-Chapelle, La Chartreuse and the commandery of La Madeleine.” All of these were waxing fat in the midst of the half-starved people. Troyes had nine of these tribunals, beside “two royal mayoral courts.” So that the police did not always belong to the towns, but to those who administered “justice.” In short, it was the feudal system in full swing.[53]

But what chiefly excited the anger of the citizens was that all kinds of feudal taxes, the poll tax, the twentieths, often the taille and the “voluntary gifts” (imposed in 1758 and abolished only in 1789), as well as the lods et ventes (which were the, dues levied by the lord on all sales and purchases made by his vassals), weighed heavily upon the homes of the citizens, and especially on those of the working classes. Not so heavily, perhaps, as in the country, but still very eavily when added to all the other urban taxes.

What made these dues more detestable was that when the town was making the assessment hundreds of privileged persons claimed exemption. The clergy, the nobles and officers in the army were exempt by law, as well as the “officers of the King's household,” “honorary equerries,” and others those offices without service, to flatter their own vanity and to escape from the taxes. An indication of their titles inscribed over the door was enough to excuse their paying anything to the town. One can readily imagine the hatred that these privileged persons inspired in the people.

The entire municipal system had, therefore, to be reformed. But who can tell how many years it would have lasted yet, if the task of reforming it had been left to the Constituent Assembly. Happily enough, the people undertook to do it themselves, the more so that during the summer of 1789 a fresh cause of discontent was added to all those which have just been enumerated. This cause was the famine — the exorbitant price of bread, for lack of which bread the poorer classes were suffering in most of the towns. Even in those places where the municipality did its best to lower the price of it by purchasing corn, or by proclaiming a fixed-price, bread was always scarce, and the hungry people formed in long queues outside the bakers' doors.

But in many of the towns the mayor and the aldermen followed the example of the Court and the princes, and speculated themselves in the dearth. This is why, after the, news of the taking of the Bastille, as well as of the executions of Foulon and Berthier, had spread into the provinces, the townspeople began to revolt more or less everywhere. First, they exacted a fixed price on bread and meat; they destroyed the houses of the principal monopolists, often of the municipal officials, they took possession of the Town Hall and nominated by election on the popular vote a new municipality, without heeding the limitations fixed by law or the legal rights of the old municipal body, or yet the offices purchased by the “councillors.” A movement of the highest revolutionary importance was thus set on foot, for the town affirmed, not only its autonomy but also its determination to take an active part in the general government of the nation. It was, as Aulard has aptly remarked, a communalist movement of the very greatest importance,[54] in which the province imitated Paris, where, as we have seen, the Commune had been established on July 13th is evident that this movement was far from being general. It displayed itself dearly only in a certain number of cities and small towns, chiefly in the east of France. But everywhere the old municipality of the ancient regime had to submit to the will of the people, or, at least, to the will of the electorate in the local assemblies.

Thus was accomplished, at the outset, in July and August, the great Communalist Revolution, which the Constituent Assembly legalised later on by the municipal laws of December 14, 1789, and June 21, 1790. Obviously this movement gave the Revolution a powerful access of life and vigour. The whole strength of the Revolution concentrated, as we shall see, in 1792 and 1793, in the municipalities of the towns and villages, of which the revolutionary Commune of Paris was the prototype.

The signal for this reconstruction came from Paris. Without waiting for the municipal law, which some day would be voted by the Assembly, Paris gave herself a Commune. Her Municipal Council, her Mayor (Bailly), and the Commander of her National Guard (Lafayette) were elected. Better still, her sixty districts were organised — “sixty republics,” as Montjoie happily terms them: for if these districts did delegate authority to the assembled representatives of the Commune and to the Mayor, they at the same time retained some of it. “Authority is everything,” said Bailly, “and there is none at the centre.” “Each district is an independent power,” declare with regret the friends of the rule and compass, without understanding that this is how revolutions are made.

While the National Assembly had to struggle against its own dissolution, and had its hands full of so many things, when could it have been able to enter on the discussion of a law concerning the reorganisation of the Courts of justice? It hardly got as far as that at the end of ten months of its existence. But “the district of the Petits-Augustins decided on its own account,” says Bailly, in his Mémories, “that justices of the peace should be established.” And the district proceeded then and there to elect them. Other districts and other cities, Strasbourg especially, did the same, and when the night of August 4 arrived and the nobility had to abdicate their rights of seigniorial justice, they had lost it already in several towns, where new judges had been appointed by the people. The Constituent Assembly had thus nothing else to do but incorporate the accomplished fact in the Constitution of 1791.

Taine and all the admirers of the administrative order of the somnolent ministers are shocked no doubt at the thought of these districts forestalling the Assembly by their votes and pointing out to it the will of the people by their decisions but it is in this way human institutions develop when they are not the product of bureaucracy. In this way all the great cities were built up; we can see them still being thus built. Here a group of houses and a few shops beside them; this will be an important point in the future city; there a track, as yet scarcely discernible, and that one day will be one of its great streets. This is the “anarchic” evolution, the only way pertaining to free Nature. It is the same even with institutions when they are the organic product of life, and this is why revolutions have such immense importance in the life of societies. They allow men to start with the organic reconstructive work without being hampered by an authority which, perforce, always represents the past ages.

Let us therefore glance at some of these communal revolutions.

In 1789 news spread with what would seem to us almost inconceivable slowness. Thus at Château-Thierry on July 12, and at Besançon on the 27th, Arthur Young did not find a single café or a single newspaper. The news that was being talked about was a fortnight old. At Dijon, nine days after the great rising in Strasbourg and the taking of the Town Hall by the insurgents, no one knew anything about it. Still the news that was coming from Paris, even when it came in the form of legend, could not but stimulate the people to rise. All the deputies, it was said, had been put in the Bastille; and as to the “atrocities” committed by Marie-Antoinette, every one was discussing them with perfect assurance.

At Strasbourg the troubles began on July 19, as soon as the news of the taking of the Bastille and the execution of de Launey spread through the town. The people had already a grudge against the municipal council for their slowness in communicating to the people's “representatives” — that is, to the electors-the results of their deliberations over the cahier de doléances, the “writ of grievances,” drawn up by the poorer classes. The people, therefore, attacked the house of Lemp, the Mayor (or Ammeister), and destroyed it.

Through the organ of its “Assembly of Burgesses” the people demanded measures — I quote from the text — “for assuring the political equality of the citizens, and their influence in the elections of the administrators of the public property and of the freely elected judges freely eligible.”[55]

They insisted upon no notice being taken of the existing law, and upon electing by universal suffrage a new town council, as well as all the judges. The Magistracy, or Municipal Government, on its side had no great wish to do this, “and opposed the observance of several centuries to the proposed change.” Whereupon the people gathered to besiege the Town Hall, and a storm of stones began to fall in the apartment where negotiations were taking place between the Magistracy and the revolutionary representatives, and to this argument the Magistracy at once yielded.

Meanwhile, seeing poor and starving persons assembling in the streets, the well-to-do middle classes armed themselves against the people, and going to the house of Count Rochambeau, the governor of the province, they asked his permission for the respectable citizens to carry arms, and to form themselves into a police, jointly with the troops, a request which the officer in command, “imbued with aristocratic ideas,” unhesitatingly refused, as de Launey had done at the Bastille.

The next day, a rumour having spread in the town that the Magistracy had revoked their concessions, the people went again to attack the Town Hall, demanding the abolition of the town-dues and subsidies (octrois and bureaux des aides). Since this had been done in Paris, it could very well be done in Strasbourg. About six o'clock masses of “workmen, armed with axes and hammers,” advanced from three streets towards the Town Hall. They smashed open the doors with their hatchets, broke into the vaults, and in their fury destroyed all the old papers accumulated in the offices. “They have wreaked a blind rage upon the papers: they have been all thrown out of the windows and destroyed,” wrote the new Magistracy. The double doors of all the archives were forced open in order to burn the old documents, and in their hatred of the Magistracy the people even broke the furniture of the Town Hall and threw it out into the streets. The Record Office, “the depôt of estates in litigation, met with the same fate. At the tax-collector's office the doors were broken open and the receipts carried off. The troops stationed in front of the Town Hall could do nothing; the people did as they liked.

The Magistracy, seized with terror, hurriedly lowered the prices of meat and bread: they fixed the six-pound loaf at twelve sous.[56] Then they opened amicable negotiations with the twenty tribus (or guilds) of the city for the elaboration of a new municipal constitution. They had to hurry, as rioting still went on in Strasbourg and in the neighbouring districts, where the people were turning out the “established” provosts of the communes, and were nominating others at will, while formulating claims to the forests and claiming other rights directly opposed to legally established property. “It is a moment when every one believed himself in a fair way to obtain the restoration of pretended rights,” said the Magistracy in the letter dated August 5.

On top of this the news of the night of August 4 in the Assembly arrived at Strasbourg on the 11th, and the disturbance became still more threatening, all the more as the army made common cause with the rebels. Whereupon the old Corporation resolved to resign.[57] The next day, August 12, the three hundred aldermen in their turn resigned their “offices,” or rather their privileges. New aldermen were elected, and they appointed the judges.

Thus, on August 14, a new Corporation was constituted, a provisional Senate, which was to direct the affairs of the city until the Assembly at Versailles should establish a new municipal constitution. Without waiting for this constitution Strasbourg had in this way given herself a Commune and judges to her liking.

The old régime was thus breaking up at Strasbourg, and on August 17 M. Dietrich congratulated the new aldermen in these terms:

“Gentlemen, the revolution which has just taken place in our town will mark the epoch of the return of the confidence that should unite the citizens of the same commune. This august assembly has just been freely elected by their fellow citizens to be their representatives. . . . The first use that you have made of your powers has been to appoint your judges. . . . What strength may grow from this union!” Dietrich, moreover, proposed to decree that August 14, the day of the revolution in Strasbourg, should be an annual civic fête.

An important fact stands out in this revolution. The middle classes of Strasbourg were freed from the feudal system. They had given themselves a democratic municipal government. But they had no intention of giving up the feudal (patrimonial) rights which belonged to them over certain surrounding lands. When the two deputies from Strasbourg in the National Assembly were pressed by their fellows to abdicate their rights, during the night of August 4, they refused to do so. And when later on one of these two deputies, Schwendt, urged the matter before the Strasbourg middle classes, begging them not to oppose the current of the Revolution, his constituents persisted nevertheless in claiming their feudal rights. Thus we see forming in this city, since 1789, a party which will rally round the King, “the best of kings,” “the most conciliatory of monarchs,” with the purpose of preserving their rights over “the rich seignories,” which belonged to the city under feudal law. The letter[58] in which the other Strasbourg deputy, Türckheim, sent in his resignation after escaping from Versailles on October 5, is a document of the highest interest in this connection; one sees there already how and why the Gironde will rally under its middle-class flag the “defenders of property” as well as the Royalists.

What happened at Strasbourg gives us a clear enough idea of what was going on in the other large towns. For instance, at Troyes, a town about which we have also sufficiently complete documents, we see the movement made up of the same elements. The people, with the help of the neighbouring peasants, rebelled since July 18, after they had heard about the burning of the toll-gates at Paris. On July 20, some peasants, armed with pitchforks, scythes and flails, entered the town, probably to seize the wheat they needed for food and seed, which they expected to find there in the warehouses of the monopolists. But the middle classes formed themselves into a National Guard and repulsed the peasants, whom they already called “the brigands.” During the ten or fifteen days following, taking advantage of the panic which was spreading, five hundred “brigands” were talked of as coming from Paris to ravage everything; the middle classes organised their National Guard, and all the small towns armed themselves likewise. But the people were ill-pleased at this. On August 8, probably on hearing news of the night of August 4, the people demanded arms for all volunteers, and a maximum price for bread. The municipality hesitated. Whereupon the people deposed the members on August 19, and, as had been done at Strasbourg, a new municipality was elected.

The people overran the Town Hall, seized the arms and distributed them among themselves. They broke into the Government salt-stores; but here, too, they did not plunder, “they only caused the salt to be served out at six sous.” Finally, on September 9, the disturbance, which had never ceased since August 19, reached its culminating-point. The people seized upon the Mayor (Huez), whom they accused of having tried to defend the trading monopolists, and killed him. They sacked his house, and also a notary's, and the house of the old Commandant Saint-Georges, who a fortnight before had given the order to fire on the. people, as well as that of the lieutenant of the mounted police, who had caused a man to be hanged during the preceding riot; and they threatened, as they had done in Paris after July 14, to sack many others. After this, for about a fortnight, terror reigned among the upper middle classes. But they managed during that time to reorganise their own National Guard, and on September 26 they ended by getting the upper hand of the unarmed people.

As a rule the anger of the people was directed much more against the representatives of the middle classes who monopololised the food-stuffs than against the nobility who monopolised the land. Thus at Amiens, as at Troyes, the insurgent people almost killed three merchants; whereupon the middle classes hastened to arm their militia. We may even say that this formation of militias in the towns, which was carried out every-where in August and September, would probably have never taken place if the popular rising had been confined to the country parts, and had been directed solely against the nobility.

At Cherbourg on July 21, at Rouen on the 24th, and in many other towns of less importance, almost the same thing happened. The hungry people rose with cries of “Bread! Death to the monopolists! Down with the toll-gates!” which meant free entrance of all supplies coming in from the country. They compelled the municipality to reduce the price of bread, or else they took possession of the monopolists' storehouses and carried off the grain; they sacked the houses of those who were known to have trafficked in the price of bread-stuffs. The middle classes took advantage of this movement to turn out the old municipal government imbued with feudalism, and to set up a new municipality elected on a democratic basis. At the same time, taking advantage of the panic produced by the rising of the “lower classes” in the towns, and of the “brigands” in the country, they armed themselves and organised their Municipal Guard. After that they “restored order,” executed the popular leaders, and very often went into the country to restore order there; where they fought with the peasants and hanged the “leaders” of the revolted peasantry.

After the night of August 4, these urban insurrections spread still more. Indications of them are seen everywhere. The taxes, the town-dues, the levies and excise were no longer paid. “The collectors of the taille are at their last shift,” said Necker, in his report of August 7. The price of salt has been compulsorily reduced one-half in two of the revolted localities,” the collection of taxes “is no longer made,” and so forth. “An infinity of places” was in revolt against the treasury clerks. The people would no longer pay the indirect tax; as to the direct taxes, they are not refused, but conditions were laid down for their payment. In Alsace, for instance, “the people generally refused to pay anything until the exempts and privileged persons had been added to the lists of taxpayers.”

In this way the people, long before the Assembly, were making the Revolution on the spot; they gave themselves, by revolutionary means, a new municipal administration, they made a distinction between the taxes that they accepted and those which they refused to pay, and they prescribed the mode of equal division of the taxes that they agreed to pay to the State or to the Commune.

It is chiefly by studying this method of action among the people, and not by devoting oneself to the study of the Assembly's legislative work, that one grasps the genius of the Great Revolution — the Genius, in the main, of all revolutions, past and to come.