Chapter 23: The Fête of the Federation

Submitted by GrouchoMarxist on April 28, 2012

End of the first period of Revolution — Duel between King and Assembly — King bribes Mirabeau — He finds tools among middle class — Enemies of Revolution among all classes — Period of plots and counter-plots — The Fête of the Federation — Meaning of the fête — Joy of the people

With the removal of the King and the Assembly from Versailles to Paris the first period — the heroic period, so to speak, of the Great Revolution — ended. The meeting of the States-General, the Royal Session of June 23, the Oath of the Tennis Court, the taking of the Bastille, the revolt of the cities and villages in July and August, the night of August 4, and finally the march of the women on Versailles and their triumphal return with the King as prisoner; these were the chief stages of the period.

Now, when both the “legislative” and the “executive” power — the Assembly and the King — settled at Paris, a period of hidden, continuous struggle began between moribund royalty and the new Constitutional power which was being slowly consolidated by the legislative labours of the Assembly and by the constructive work done on the spot, in every town and village.

France had now, in the National Assembly, a constitutional power which the King had been forced to recognise. But, if he recognised it officially, he saw in it only a usurpation, an insult to his royal authority, of which he did not wish to admit any diminution. So he was always on the alert to find a thousand petty means of belittling the Assembly, and for disputing with it the smallest fragment of authority. Even to the last moment he never abandoned the hope of one day reducing to obedience this new power, which he reproached himself for having allowed to grow by the side of his own.

In this struggle every means seemed good to the King. He knew, by experience, that the men of his own surroundings easily sold themselves — some for a trifle, others demanding a high price — and he exerted himself to obtain money, plenty of money, borrowing it in London, so as to be able to buy the leaders of the parties in the Assembly and elsewhere. He succeeded only too well with one of those who stood in the forefront, with Mirabeau, who in return for heavy sums of money became the counsellor of the Court and the defender of the King, and spent his last days in an absurd luxury. But it was not only in the Assembly that royalty found its tools; the great number were outside it. They were found among those whom the Revolution had deprived of their privileges, of the handsome pensions which had been allotted to them in former days, and of their colossal incomes; among the clergy who saw their influence perishing; among the nobles who were losing, with their feudal rights, their privileged position; among the middle classes who were alarmed for the capital they had invested in manufactures, commerce and State loans — among those self — same middle classes who were now enriching themselves during and by means of the Revolution.

They were numerous, indeed, the enemies of the Revolution. They included all those who formerly had lived on the higher ecclesiastics, the nobles and the privileged members of the upper middle class. More than one-half of that active and thinking portion of the nation which contains the makers of its historic life stood in the ranks of these enemies. And if among the people of Paris, Strasbourg, Rouen and many other towns, both large and small, the Revolution found ardent champions — how many towns there were, like Lyons, where the centuries — old influence of the clergy and the economic servitude of the workers were such that the poor themselves supported the priests against the Revolution. How many towns, like the great seaports, Nantes, Bordeaux, Saint-Malo, where the great merchants and all the folk depending on the were already bound up with reaction.

Even among the peasants, whose interests should have lain with the Revolution — how many lower middle-class men there were in the villages who dreaded it, not to mention those peasants whom the mistakes of the revolutionists themselves were to alienate from the great cause. There were too many theorists amongst the leaders of the Revolution, too many worshippers of uniformity and regularity, incapable, therefore, of understanding the multiple forms of landed property recognised by the customary law; too many Voltaireans, on the other hand, who showed no toleration towards the prejudices of the masses steeped in poverty; and above all, too many politicians to comprehend the importance which the peasants attached to the land question. And the result was that in the Vendée, in Brittany and in, the south-east, the peasants themselves turned against the Revolution.

The counter-revolutionists knew how to attract partisans from each and all of these elements. A Fourteenth of July or a Fifth of October could certainly displace the centre of gravity of the ruling power; but it was in the thirty-six thousand communes of France that the Revolution had to be accomplished, and that required some time. And the counter-revolutionists took advantage of that time to win over to their cause all the discontented among the well-to-do classes, whose name was legion. For, if the radical middle classes put into the Revolution a prodigious amount of extraordinary intelligence, developed by the Revolution itself — intelligence, subtleness and experience in business were not wanting either among the provincial nobility or the wealthy merchants and clergy, who all joined hands for lending to royalty a formidable power of resistance.

This relentless struggle of plots and counter-plots, of partial risings in the provinces and parliamentary contests in the Constituent Assembly, and later on in the Legislative — this concealed struggle lasted nearly three years, from the month of October 1789 to the month of June 1792, when the Revolution at last took a fresh start. It was a period poor in events historic import — the only ones deserving mention in that interval being the recrudescence of the peasants' rising, in January and February 1790, the Fête of the Federation, on July 14, 1790, the massacre at Nancy on August 31, 1790, the flight of the King on June 20, 1791, and the massacre of the people of Paris on the Champ-de-Mars on July 17, 1791

Of the peasants' insurrections we shall speak in a later chapter, but it is necessary to say something here about the Fête of the Federation. It sums up the first part of the Revolution. Its overflowing enthusiasm and the harmony displayed in it show what the Revolution might have been if the privileged classes and royalty, comprehending how irresistible was the change, had yielded with a good grace to what they were powerless to prevent.

Taine disparages the festivals of the Revolution, and it is true that those of 1793 and 1794 were often too theatrical. They were got up for the people, not by the people. But that of July 14, 1790, was one of the most beautiful popular festivals ever recorded in history.

Previous to 1789 France was not unified. It was an historic entity, but its various parts knew little of each other and cared for each other even less. But after the events of 1789, and after the axe had been laid at the roots of the survivals of feudalism, after several glorious moments had been lived together by the representatives of all parts of France, there was born a sentiment of union and solidarity between the provinces that had been linked together by history. All Europe was moved to enthusiasm over the words and deeds of the Revolution — how could the provinces resist this unification in the forward march towards a better future? This is what the Fête of the Federation symbolised.

It had also another striking feature. As a certain amount of work was necessary for this festival, the levelling of the soil, the making of terraces, the building of a triumphal arch, and as it became evident, eight days before the fête, that the fifteen thousand workmen engaged in this work could never finish it in time — what did Paris do? Some unknown person suggested that every one should go to work in the Champ-de-Mars; and all Paris, rich and poor, artists and labourers, monks and soldiers, went to work there with a light heart. France, represented by the thousands of delegates arrived from the provinces, found her national unity in digging the earth — a symbol of what equality and fraternity among men should one day lead to.

The oath that the scores of thousands of persons present took “to the Constitution, as decreed by the National Assembly and accepted by the King,” the oath taken by the King and spontaneously confirmed by the Queen for her son, are of little importance. Every one took his oath with some “mental reservations”; every one attached to it certain conditions. The King took his oath in these words: “I, King of the French, swear to use all the power reserved to me by the constitutional Act of the State to maintain the Constitution decreed by the National Assembly and accepted by me.” Which meant that he would indeed maintain the Constitution, but that it would be violated, and that he would not able to prevent it. In reality, at the very moment the King was taking the oath he was thinking only of how he was to get out of Paris — under the pretence of going to review the army. He was calculating the means of buying the influential members of the Assembly, and discounting the help that should come from the foreigners to check the Revolution which he himself had let loose through his opposition to the necessary changes and the trickery in his dealings with the National Assembly.

The oaths were worth little, but the important thing to note in this fête — beyond the proclamation of a new nation having a common ideal — is the remarkable good humour of the Revolution. One year after the taking of the Bastille, Marat had every reason for writing: “Why this unbridled joy? Why these evidences of foolish liveliness? The Revolution, as yet, has been merely a sorrowful dream for the people!” But although nothing had yet been done to satisfy the wants of the working people, and everything had been done, as we shall see presently, to prevent the real abolition of the feudal abuses, although the people had everywhere paid with their lives and by terrible sufferings every progress made in the political Revolution — in spite of all that, the people burst into transports of joy at the spectacle of the new democratic régime confirmed at this fête. Just as fifty-eight years later, in February 1848, the people of Paris were to place “three years of suffering at the service of the Republic,” so now the people showed themselves ready to endure anything, provided that the new Constitution promised to bring them some alleviation, provided that it held in it for them a little goodwill.

If then, three years later, the same people, so ready at first to be content with little, so ready to wait, became savage and began the extermination of the enemies of the Revolution, it was because they hoped to save, at least, some part of the Revolution by resorting to extreme means. It was because they saw the Revolution foundering before any substantial economic change had been accomplished for the benefit of the mass of the people. In July 1790 there was nothing to forecast this dark and savage character. “The Revolution, as yet, has been only a sorrowful dream for the people.” “It has not fulfilled its promises. No matter. It is moving. And that is enough.” And everywhere the people's hearts were filled with life.

But reaction, all armed, was watchful, and in a month or two it was to show itself in full force. After the next anniversary of July 14, on July 17, 1791, it was already strong enough to shoot down the people of Paris on this same Champ-de-Mars.