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French Revolution
French Revolution

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3.2 Popular violence and the Revolution

The deputies were concerned to protect property and maintain order (as the 1790 decree on the abolition of nobility suggests) in the face of a growing breakdown of public order; and their attitude to the masses – to what the demagogic journalist Jean-Paul Marat (1744–93) called le petit peuple (the little people), the millions of propertyless, distressed, violent and unpredictable ‘fellow citizens’ – was one of growing apprehension. The people traditionally rioted when bread was short, and increasingly they came out on the streets to take ‘direct action’ – that is, to take the law into their own hands – their expectations aroused by the sweeping changes taking place.

The masses were an ever-present threat to orderly reform. The leaders of the Paris crowd were political activists who called themselves sans-culottes (literally ‘without breeches’, because they wore trousers rather than the knee-breeches or culottes associated with the upper classes –see Plate 1). The sans-culottes were from what may be called the lower middle class – to be distinguished from the idle and the unemployed. The ‘cream’ of the sans-culottes included artisans and tradesmen, master craftsmen and small shopkeepers, but their followers were hired labourers, porters, waiters, janitors and barbers. Through demonstrations and street violence the sans-culottes forced events faster and further than the current leaders of opinion desired.

Click to view Plate 1: Louis-Léopold Boilly, The Actor Chenard as a ‘Sans-Culotte’ 1792, oil on panel, 33.5 x 22.5 cm, Musée de la Ville de Paris, Musée Carnavelet, Paris. Photo: Giraudon/Bridgeman Art Library [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .

A nationwide panic or ‘Great Fear’ accompanied the Assembly's decrees of August 1789 abolishing feudalism and privilege in France. The king, unhappy at his new, diminished role and at being required to assent to so many revolutionary measures, and encouraged by his family and royalist supporters to resist, at first refused to promulgate the decrees of 4 August and the Declaration of the Rights of Man. ‘I will never allow my clergy and my nobility to be stripped of their assets’, he declared (quoted in Vovelle, 1984, p.114).

In October, when the king's personal guards at Versailles were seen to trample on the tricolour, the National Guard reacted, caught up in a revived fear that Louis might attempt to close the Assembly by force. A crowd of Parisian women, marching to the Assembly at Versailles to protest against rising bread prices, advanced on the royal palace. With the acquiescence and even cooperation of the National Guard, including Lafayette, they forced the royal family to return with them to Paris, where the king, virtually a prisoner in the Tuileries palace, now ignominiously assented to the decrees.

Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France became the bible across Europe of what was to become known as conservatism. From the first, Burke opposed the Revolution on principle. He deplored the sudden break with custom and tradition, and the implementation of change based on abstract principles (such as the rights of man) drawn from the Enlightenment. He abhorred the egalitarianism and lack of deference to nobility and monarchy, and the running amok of what he called ‘the swinish multitude’. He foresaw bloodshed.

The majority of the deputies, under Lafayette, were determined to preserve order and to keep power in the hands of the representatives of the responsible and the propertied. Branches of the National Guard were established across France. In December 1789 the Assembly drew a distinction between ‘active’ (that is, monied) and ‘passive’ (propertyless) citizens. Only the former were eligible to participate in the election of deputies. An electorate of four and a half million male taxpayers chose some 50,000 ‘electors’, who paid even higher tax and who in turn elected the deputies to the Assembly (and the candidates for public office). The deputies and office-holders themselves were qualified to stand by virtue of the still higher taxes which they paid. Even so, the electorate was far broader than any in the rest of Europe, where even these provisions seemed ‘madly democratic’ (Palmer, 1971, p. 70). The French radicals, however, pointed to the ‘aristocracy of the rich’ (a phrase coined by Marat), which was replacing the old feudal ‘aristocracy of birth’.