Peasants ignore feudal system — change in state of France — Royalist plans — Administration — Army — Lafayette — Feudal laws — King and Germans — Revolutionists fear popular risings — Robespierre — Revolutionary leaders at length join hands — People prepare to strike — New “commune” springs up — August 10 — Royalists anticipate victory — Indecision of Assemble — Abolition of royalty — Triumph of popular revolution — Decrees passed under compulsion by Assembly — Feudal laws — Lands of emigres — Proposal of Maihe — Legislative Assembly dissolves — Commune of Paris
We have seen what was the condition of France during the summer of 1792. For three years the country had been in open revolution and a return to the old state of affairs had been made absolutely impossible. For, if the feudal system still existed according to law, in actuality it was no longer acknowledged by the peasants. They paid the feudal dues no more; they got hold of the lands of the clergy and the emigrant nobles; and in certain places they, themselves, retook from the landlord the lands which formerly belonged to the village communities. In their village municipalities, they considered themselves the masters of their own affairs.
The State institutions were equally upset. The whole of the administrative structure, which seemed so formidable under the old regime, was crumbling away under the breath of the popular revolution. Who had any respect now for the ex-governor of the province, or for the Marshals' Courts and the judges of the old parlement? The new municipality, closely watched over by the local sans-culottes, the Popular Society of the place, the Primary Assembly, the men with the pikes-these represented the new powers of France.
The whole aspect of the country, the whole spirit of the people, its language, its manners, its ideas, had been changed by the Revolution. A new nation was born, and in its political and social conceptions it completely differed from what had been scarce twelve months before.
But still the old regime was left standing. Royalty continued to exist and represented an enormous force, round which the counter-revolutionists were ready to rally. The nation was living under provisional conditions. To give back to royalty its former power was clearly a dream in which no one but some Court fanatics believed any longer. But the powers of royalty for evil were still immense. If it could not restore the feudal system, what evil might it not do, all the same, to the liberated peasants, if, after having got the upper hand, its supporters should dispute in every village the land and the liberties the peasants had won. This was, in fact, what the King and a good many of the Constitutional Monarchists, the “Feuillants,” proposed to do as soon as the Court party should have crushed those whom they called the “Jacobins.”
As to the Administration in two-thirds of the departments, and even in Paris, the departmental administration and that of the districts were against the people, against the Revolution, they were ready to adapt themselves to any simulacrum of a constitution that would have permitted the middle classes to share the power of governing with the King and the Court.
The army, commanded by men like Lafayette and Luckner, could be used at any moment against the nation. In fact, we have seen how, after June 20, Lafayette left his camp and came to Paris to offer the King the support of “his” army against the people, to break up the patriotic societies and to make a coup d'etat in favour of the Court.
And to crown all, the feudal laws still remained in force. If the peasants had ceased to pay the feudal dues this was a breach of the law; and the moment the King recovered his authority the peasants would have been compelled to pay everything, so long as they had not freed themselves from the clutches of the feudal past by redeeming their servitude — they would have had to restore all the land they had taken from the landlord and even what they had bought from the State.
It was clear that this provisional state of things could not last long. A nation cannot go on living with a sword suspended over its head. And, moreover, the people, guided by their unfailing instincts, knew perfectly well that the King was conniving with the Germans, and inviting them to march on Paris. At that time, it is true, no written proof of his treachery was yet known. The correspondence of the King and Marie Antoinette had not been discovered, and it was not known how these two traitors were urging the Austrians and the Prussians to hasten their march on Paris; that they were keeping them informed as to all the movements of the French troops; transmitting to them all the military secrets, thus delivering up France to the invaders. All this was only learned later, and even then, rather vaguely, after the taking of the Tuileries, when certain papers of the King's were seized in a secret cupboard made for him by locksmith Gamain. But treason is not easily hidden, and by a thousand indications, upon which the men and women of the people were quick to seize, they were convinced that the Court had made an agreement with the Germans and that France was going to be delivered up to them.
The idea gradually spread then, through Paris and the provinces, that it was necessary to strike a great blow against the Tuileries: that the old regime would remain a perpetual menace to France so long as Louis XVI. remained on the throne.
And in order to strike that blow, an appeal had to be made for a rising of the people of Paris — to the men with the pikes — as had been done in 1789 before July 14. And this was what the middle classes refused to do what they dreaded most. We find, indeed, in the writings of the period a kind of terror of “the men with the pikes.” Were they going to reappear, these men so terrible to the rich?
The worst was that this fear was felt not only by the propertied classes, but also by the advanced politicians. Robespierre up to June 1792 also opposed the appeal for a popular rising. “The overthrow of the Constitution at this moment,” he said, “can only kindle civil war, which will lead to anarchy and despotism.” He did not believe in the possibility of a republic. “What,” he exclaimed, “is it in the midst of so many fatal dissensions that they want to leave us suddenly without a Constitution!” The republic, in is opinion, would be “the arbitrary will of the few.” He meant of the Girondins. “This is the aim of all the intrigues which have agitated us this long while.” And to baffle these intrigues he preferred to retain the King and the intrigues of the Court! This was how he spoke as late as June, two months before August 10.
To convince the revolutionary “leaders of opinion” of the necessity of striking a blow at the Tuileries and of making an appeal, therefore, for a popular rising, nothing less was required than that they should have visible testimony of the reaction which began after June 20 — the comic.” of Lafayette to Paris to offer “his” army for a royalist coup d'etat, the Germans making ready to march on Paris “to deliver the King” and “to punish the Jacobins,” and finally, the active military preparations made by the Court for attacking Paris. Only then did they make up their minds, and understand the necessity of the rising. But once this was decided upon, the people undertook to do the rest.
It is certain that Danton, Robespierre, Marat, Robert and a few others came to a preliminary understanding. Robespierre detested everything about Marat; his military fervour, which he called exaggeration, his hatred of the rich, his absolute distrust of politicians — everything even to the poor and dirty clothing of the man, who since the Revolution had broken out had eaten nothing but the food of the people, bread and water, and had entirely devoted himself to the people's cause. And yet the elegant and punctil ous Robespierre, as well as Danton, approached Marat and his followers, approached the men of the Paris sections of the Commune, to come to an understanding with them as to the means of rousing the people again, as on July 14. They at last understood that if the provisional state of things lasted much longer the Revolution would die out without having accomplished anything durable.
Either an appeal should be made to the people, and then full liberty would have to be left to the poor to strike their enemies as it seemed best to them, and to levy what they could upon the property of the rich, or else the royal power would win in the struggle and this would mean the triumph of the counterrevolution, the destruction of the little that had been obtained in the direction of equality — the White Terror of 1794 would have begun in 1792.
An understanding was, therefore, arrived at between a small number of the more advanced Jacobins, and those of the people who wanted to strike a decisive blow at the Tuileries. But the moment they had come to this understanding, from the moment when “the leaders of opinion” — the Robespierres, the Dantons, and their followers — promised to oppose no longer a popular insurrection, and declared their readiness to support it, the rest was left to the people, who understood, much better than the leaders of the parties, the necessity for common action when the Revolution was on the point of striking such a decisive blow.
The people, the Great Unknown, now began to prepare for the rising and they created, spontaneously, for the needs of the moment, the kind of sectional organization which was judged the fittest to give the necessary cohesion to the movement. As to the details, they were left to the organizing spirit of the people of the faubourgs, and when the sun rose over Paris no one could have predicted how that great day would end. The two battalions of federals from Marseilles and Brest, well organised and armed, numbered only about a thousand men, no one except those who had been working the preceding days and nights in the red-hot furnace of the faubourgs could say whether the faubourgs would rise in a body or not.
“And the ordinary leaders, where were they and what were they doing? “asks Louis Blanc. “There is nothing to indicate,” he replies, “what action Robespierre took on this supreme night, or whether he did anything at all.” Nor does Danton seem to have taken any active part in the preparations for the rising or in the fight itself on August 10.
It is quite clear that, from the moment that the movement was decided, the people had no need of the politicians. What was necessary was to arm the people, to distribute weapons among those who knew how to use them, to organise the nucleus of each battalion, to form a column in each street of the faubourgs. For this work, the politicians would only have been in the way, and the men of the people told them to go to bed while the movement was being definitely organised on the night of August 9 and 10. That is what Danton did, and he slept peacefully, as we know from Lucile Desmoulin's journal.
New men, “unknown ones,” came to the front in those days, when a new General Council, the Revolutionary Commune of August 10, was appointed by the sections. Taking the law into their own hands, each section nominated three commissioners, “to save the country,” and the people's choice fell, so the historians tell us, upon obscure men. The “extremist,” Hebert, was one of them, that was a matter of course; but we find neither Marat nor Danton among them at first.
Thus it was that a new “Commune” — the insurrectionary Commune — sprang up in the midst of the people and took upon itself the direction of the rising. And we shall see this Commune exercising a powerful influence over the progress of subsequent events; dominating the Convention and urging “the Mountain” to revolutionary action so as to secure, at least, the conquests already won by the Revolution.
It would be useless to narrate here the whole day's doings on August 10. The dramatic side of the Revolution is what has been told best by the historians, and excellent descriptions of its events will be found in Michelet and Louis Blanc. We shall, therefore, confine ourselves to recalling the chief features of that day.
Ever since Marseilles had declared for the dethronement of the King, petitions and addresses for the dethronement had come in great numbers to the Assembly. In Paris forty two elections had pronounced in favour of it. Petion had even gone on August 4 to bring forward this resolution of the sections at the bar of the Assembly.
As to the politicians they did not realise in the least the gravity of the situation, and though we find in letters written from Paris by Madame Jullien on August 7 and 8, such passages as these: “A terrible storm is coming up on the horizon.... At this moment the horizon is heavy with vapours which must produce a terrible explosion” — the Assembly in its sitting of the 5th calmly voted the absolution of Lafayette for his letter as if no such thing as a movement of hatred against royalty existed.
Al the while the people of Paris were preparing for a decisive battle. The insurrectionary committee had, however, the good sense not to fix any date for the rising beforehand. They merely sounded the varying moods of the population of Paris, did their best to brace up their minds, and kept watch for the moment when the appeal to arms could be made. Thus, they tried, apparently, to provoke a rising on June 26, after a popular banquet among the ruins of the Bastille, in which the whole faubourg had taken part — people bringing to it their tables and provisions.. And they tried another rising on July 30, but again the attempt did not succeed.
Altogether the preparations for the rising, badly seconded by “the leaders of opinion,” would, perhaps, have dragged out to some length, if the plots of the Court had not helped to precipitate matters. With the aid of the courtiers, who had sworn to die for the King, along with some battalions of the National Guard that had remained faithful to the Court and the Swiss, the royalists felt sure of victory. They had fixed August to for their coup d'etat. “That was the day fixed for the counter-revolution,” we read in one of the letters of the period; “the following day was to see all the Jacobins of the kingdom drowned in their own blood.”
The insurrection, therefore, could not be postponed any longer. On the night of the 9th and 10th, just about midnight, the tocsin rang in Paris. At first, however, its call seemed not to be well attended, and it was asked at the Commune whether the rising should not be countermanded. At seven o'clock in the morning certain quarters were still tranquil. In reality, however, it appears that the people of Paris, with their admirable instinct for revolution, did not want to enter into conflict with the royal troops in the dark, because such a fight might easily have ended in their being routed.
In the meantime the Insurrectionary Commune had taken possession of the Hotel de Ville during the night, and the legal council of the Commune had abdicated in the presence of this new revolutionary power, which immediately gave an impetus to the insurrection.
About seven o'clock in the morning only some men with pikes, led by the Federates from Marseilles, debouched upon the Place du Carrousel; but an hour later large masses of the people began to move, and the King was informed that “all Paris” was marching on the Tuileries.
It was indeed all Paris, that is, all the Paris of the poor, supported by the National Guards from the workers' and artisans' quarters.
About half-past eight, as these masses were already approaching the palace, the King, haunted by the recent memory of what had happened on June 20, and fearing to be killed this time by the people, quitted the Tuileries, and went to take refuge with the Assembly, leaving his faithful servitors to defend the palace and to massacre its assailants. But as soon as the King had gone, entire battalions of National Guards from the rich middle-class quarters dispersed, so as not to have to face the people in revolt.
Compact masses of the people then thronged into the approaches to the Tuileries, and their vanguard, encouraged by the Swiss Guards, who flung their cartridges out of the palace windows, penetrated into one of the courtyards of the Tuileries. But here, others of the Swiss, commanded by the officers of the Court and posted on the great staircase of the chief entrance, fired upon the crowd, and in a few minutes four hundred of the assailants lay dead in heaps at the foot of the stairs.
This shooting decided the issue of the day. The cries of “Treachery! Death to the King! Death to the Austrian woman!” rapidly spread all over the town, and the people of Paris ran towards the Tuileries from all sides-the Faubourgs Saint Antoine and Saint-Marceau rushed there in a body — and soon the Swiss, under the furious assault of the people, were either disarmed or massacred.
Need we recall the fact that even at the supreme moment the Assembly remained undecided, not knowing what to do? They acted only when the armed people burst into the hall where they were sitting threatening to kill the King and his family, as well as the deputies who did not dare to pronounce the dethronement. Even after the Tuileries had been taken and when royalty no longer existed in fact, the Girondins, who formerly had loved to orate about the Republic, still hesitated to face any decisive action. All that Vergniaud dared demand was “a provisional suspension of the head of the executive power” — who, henceforth, should be installed in the Palace of the Luxembourg.
It was only two or three days later that the Revolutionary Commune transferred Louis XVI. and his family from the Luxembourg, whence they might easily have escaped, to the tower of the Temple, and undertook to hold them there as the people's prisoners.
Royalty was thus abolished De Facto Henceforth the Revolution was able to develop for awhile without fear of being suddenly checked in its progress by a royalist coup d'eat or by a massacre of the revolutionists by the “White Terror.”
For the politicians the chief interests of the revolution of August 10 lay in the blow it had struck at royalty. For the people it lay especially in the abolition of that force, which was opposing the carrying out of the decrees against the feudal rights, against the emigrant nobles and against the priests, and which at the same time had appealed to a German invasion to re-establish the feudal monarchy. It lay in the triumph of a popular revolution, in a triumph of the masses, who could now push on the Revolution towards Equality — that dream and aim of the poor. Consequently, on the very day after August 10, the Legislative Assembly, reactionary as it was, had to pass, under pressure from without, some decrees which were to send the Revolution a step forward.
Every priest who had not yet taken the oath (so ran these decrees), and who, within the next fortnight, did not swear to obey the Constitution, and yet was found after that time upon French territory, should be transported to Cayenne.
All the lands of the emigrant nobles, in France and in the colonies, were to be sequestrated, and put up for sale in small lots.
All distinctions between passive citizen, (the poor) and active citizens (the propertied classes) were abolished. Every one became an elector on attaining his twenty-first year, and was eligible for election at twenty-five.
As to the feudal laws, we have seen how the Constituent Assembly, on March 15, 1790, had made a decree, according to which the feudal dues were supposed to represent the price of a certain concession of land, made once upon a time by the landowner to the tenant which was, of course, false — and, as such, all the feudal dues had to be paid so long as they were not redeemed by the tenant. This decree, by that confounding the personal dues, the outcome of rent, wiped out, de facto, the decree of August 4, 1789, which had declared the former to be abolished. By the decree of March 15, 1790, these decrees came up again under the fiction which represented them as payment for the possession of the land. This is what Couthon had made quite evident in his report, read before the Assembly on February 29, 1792.
But on June 14, 1792, that is to say, when June 20 was close at hand, and it was necessary to conciliate the people, the Left, taking advantage of the accidental absence of certain members of the Right, abolished without indemnity some of the personal feudal dues, the most noteworthy being the casuel, that is, the right of the lord to levy dues in cases of legacies left by his tenants, on marriages, on sales and on the wine-press, the mil1 and other communal necessaries.
After three years of revolution a parliamentary trick was thus necessary to obtain from the Assembly the abolition of these odious dues. In reality even this decree did not finally abolish them: in certain cases they still had to be redeemed; but let us pass over that.
As to the annral feudal levies, such as the quit-rents, the field-tax and so on, which were paid in addition to the rent and represented relics of the ancient servitude, they remained in full force.
But now came August 10. The people had taken possession of the Tuileries, and the King was dethroned and imprisoned. And as soon as this news spread to the villages, petitions from the peasants flooded the Assembly, demanding the total abolition o$ the feudal rights.
These were the days before September 2, when the attitude of the people of Paris was not altogether reassuring for the:Legislative Assembly, which was accused of plotting with royalty, and the Assembly, seeing itself compelled to take some steps forward. issued the decrees of August 16 to 25, 1792
In virtue of these decrees all prosecution for nonpayment of feudal dues was suspended. The feudal and seigniorial rights of all kinds, which were not the price of an original concession of land, were suppressed without indemnity.
And by the decree of August 20, it was permitted to redeem separately, either the casuel rights, or the annual rights, the legitimacy of which could be proved by presenting the original title of the concession of land. All this, however, only in case of a new purchase by a new owner.
The abolition of the prosecutions represented, undoubtedly, a great step in advance. But the feudal rights still remained. They had still to be redeemed. The new law only added to the confusion — the result being that, henceforth, the peasants could pay nothing and redeem nothing. And this was what the peasants did while waiting for some new victory for the people and some new concession on the part of the ruling classes.
At the same time all tithes and presentations, or obligatory unpaid labour for the clergy, which had been retained from the days of serfdom or mortmain, were suppressed without indemnity. This was a substantial gain. If the Assembly protected the lands and the middle-class monopolists, they, at least, delivered up the priests, since the King was no longer there to defend them.
But at the same time the Assembly took a measure which, if it had been applied, would have stirred up the whole of the French peasantry against the Republic. It abolished the joint responsibility for payments which existed in the peasant communes, and accepting the motion of Francois de Neufchateau, the Assembly ordered the communal lands to be divided among the citizens. It appears, however, that this decree, expressed in a few lines and in very vague terms, was never taken seriously. Its application, besides, would have involved such difficulties that it remained a dead letter; and when the question came up again, the Legislative Assembly, having finished its term of Dice, dissolved without coming to any decision.
Concerning the lands of the emigrant nobles it was decided to put them up for sale in small lots of two, three, or not more than four acres. And this sale was to be made, “on lease, at a money rent,” always redeemable. That is to say, he who had not the money could purchase all the same, on condition of paying a perpetual rent, which he might, some day, be able to redeem. This was, of course, to the advantage of the poor peasant, but all sorts of difficulties were evidently put in the way of small purchasers. Well-to-do middle-class people preferred to buy the estates of the emigrant nobles in bulk and to speculate in the sale of them broken up into lots later on.
Finally — and this, too, was typical — one of the members, Mailhe, took advantage of the condition of men's minds at this moment to propose a measure which was really revolutionary and was accepted later on, in 1793, after the fall of the Girondins. He demanded that the effects of the royal ordinance of 1669 might be broken, and that the lords should be compelled to restore to the village communes the land which they had taken away from them in virtue of that ordinance. His proposal, however, was not accepted; a new revolution was required for that.
These then were the results of August to: Royalty was overthrown, and now it was possible for the Revolution to turn over a new page in the direction of equality, provided the Assembly and the governing classes in general did not oppose it.
The King and his family were in prison. A new Assembly, a National Convention, was convoked. The elections were to be made by universal suffrage, but still in two degrees.
Some measures were taken against the priests who refused to recognise the Constitution, and against the emigrant notes. Orders were given to put up for sale the lands of the emigres which had been sequestrated in accordance with the decree of March 30, 1792.
The war against the invaders was to be pushed on vigorously by the sans-culotte volunteers.
But the great question — “what was to be done with the traitor King” — and that other great question, which was so vital for fifteen million peasants — the question of the feudal rights — remained in suspense. It was still necessary to redeem those rights in order to do away with them. And the new law concerning the partition of the communal lands threw the villages into alarm.
It was over this that the Legislative assembly dissolved, after doing all they could to prevent the Revolution from developing normally, and from putting an end to those two heritages of the past: the absolute authority of the King and the feudal laws.
But by the side of the Legislative Assembly there had grown up, since August 10, a new power, the Commune of Paris, which took into its hands the revolutionary initiative and, as we shall see presently, managed to retain it for nearly two years.