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The September Massacres and the Nature of the French Revolution
Nothing “Went Wrong” With the French Revolution: It Relied on Murder and Terror From the Start
Yesterday was the anniversary of the beginning of the 1792 “September Massacres” by the French Revolution. Downplayed in the historiography for a long time, the September Massacres deserve a more central role in the narrative, providing as they do a demonstration of the nature, ideologically and operationally, of the Revolution.
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THE FRENCH REVOLUTION
The financial problems of the ancien régime trace back to the Seven Years’ War (1756-63), in which France led a coalition in a proto-world war against a British-led alliance. France was defeated, but the removal of the French threat in North America emboldened the colonists in the British possessions to believe they could do without the protection of the Mother Country, no matter how minimal a contribution they were asked to make to the security of the Empire.1 When the colonial rebellion erupted in 1775, France took revenge on Britain by leading the rebels to victory, allowing the creation of the American Republic in 1783.2 The cost was shattering, however, and after various attempts to solve the problem, King Louis XVI (r. 1774-92) agreed to convoke the Estates General, which had last met in 1614.
The Estates General assembled on 3 May 1789. Six weeks later, on 17 June, the Third Estate declared itself to be a “National Assembly” and three days after that took its “Tennis Court Oath”, vowing not to disband without the formation of a written Constitution. What is notable is that none of these statements or manoeuvres in Versailles are remembered as the beginning of the Revolution: the date that is commemorated is the storming of the Bastille in Paris on 14 July, and for good reason.
The Bastille was held up in the Revolution’s iconography as a terrible fortress of despotism. In reality, there were seven prisoners in the Bastille: four forgers, a suspected murderer, a man who had attempted Regicide, and a lunatic confined for his own safety.3 What was far more telling was that, first, the mob which stormed the prison lynched the guards after they had surrendered and paraded the severed head of the commander around on a pike. Second, this atrocity at the Bastille and the threat of further such conduct is what transferred power from the legitimate government to the ad hoc “National Constituent Assembly”, as the Third Estate had renamed itself five days earlier. The dependence of the Revolution on hysterical crowds and violence was locked in from the beginning, a fact that unsettled even some of the Assembly’s legislators.4
Over the next few weeks, mob carnage spread around the country, undertaken by gangs of the lower orders, the sans-culottes, indoctrinated and directed by the revolutionary elite. The King, far from the counter-Enlightenment figure he is often made out to be, tried to compromise with the revolutionaries: he was sympathetic to many of the ideas they espoused and wanted to find a path to reform that avoided chaos and bloodshed. As was found with the heirs of the French Revolution, the apocalyptic sense—the belief in the cleansing power of violence—was too powerful to allow that. Urged on and manipulated by particularly the Jacobin faction of the Revolution, the voice of whom was “journalist” Jean-Paul Marat, the sans-culottes violently rejected the reformist Royal decrees of August 1789.
Later that month, the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” was issued by the Assembly, and was used as the basis for ever-escalating rhetorical and riotous attacks on aristocrats and other symbols of the old order. The administrative districts of the Paris Commune (the revolutionary city government) were refashioned in May 1790 to sections, nominally ruled by a civil committee and a revolutionary committee, supported by a militia. This in effect institutionalised the sans-culottes and their arbitrary rule in the capital, an important part of the infrastructural context for the September Massacres.
The Civil Constitution of the Clergy, passed by the Assembly in July 1790 and signed by a King with no other choice that December, sought to subordinate the Roman Catholic Church to the Revolution by severing the connection to the transnational Church hierarchy and forcing clerics to swear an oath to the national revolutionary State. In the face of this militant secularism, 118 out of 125 bishops refused to take the oath by the time the deadline passed in January 1791. The first written Constitution, adopted in September 1791, hardened the schism between the “constitutional” Church served by “juring” priests and the “refractory” Church that retained its loyalty to the Pope.5 This, too, would prove important in September 1792.
Amid the rising hostility of the revolutionary Assembly, the King and Queen Marie Antoinette tried to flee the capital in June 1791; they were captured and returned to Paris. The King’s attempted flight was used as the pretext to suspend Royal power entirely for a time and the Royals were essentially prisoners after this point. The Jacobins and other radical democrats used the episode to incite the population against the Monarchy as an institution. This was made worse after the late August 1791 “Declaration of Pillnitz” by the Prussian King Frederick William II (r. 1786-97) and the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II (r. 1790-92), the French Queen’s brother. The declaration was meant to pressure the revolutionaries to restore the prerogatives of the French Crown and as a warning against harming the Royal Family, but it added fuel to the Jacobin accusations of treason against the King and Queen.
Prussia, Habsburg Austria, and Britain had discussed the possibility of intervening in France as early as the summer of 1790. By that time, the revolutionary contagion was already spreading, with the “Brabant Revolution” in the Austrian Netherlands (Belgium). The revolutionary French government had blocked Austria’s access to deal with the upheaval, and in the summer of 1791 a slave revolt broke out in Haiti. In the course of events, it was the revolutionary French Assembly that declared war on Austria in April 1792, though the war would not arrive on French territory for several months. The initial move was Austria’s invasion of Belgium.
France had been deprived of supplies of sugar and coffee because of the Haitian rebellion, and the dissatisfaction had caused riots. Now, initiating a war the Assembly was wholly unprepared to wage, the French State was in disarray and the economy crumbled. The misery of the Revolution was deflected onto the Monarch. An insurrectionary mob was directed to invade the King’s residence at the Tuileries Palace in June 1792, on the third anniversary of the Tennis Court Oath, accusing the King of “treason” and blaming the disaster in the early stages of the war on the King vetoing the formation of a permanent “popular” militia that was parallel to the Army. This first insurrection, largely unarmed, was dispersed.
A second, armed storming of the King’s Palace on 10 August was in all practical senses the end of the French Monarchy. The mob was backed up this time by the National Guard of the Paris Commune and the fédérés—the volunteers imported from Marseille and Brittany at the end of July, who were nominally part of the Guard: in other words, the very paramilitary structure the King had sought to block. The Swiss Guards, the King’s Praetorians, fought back and killed maybe 400 armed insurrectionists. But the Royalist forces were overwhelmed: 600 Swiss Guards and dozens of members of the Court perished in a mob slaughter, and the survivors, including the King and Queen and her ladies-in-waiting, were taken off to prisons around Paris. The Tenth of August was to be both a prefiguring of, and a direct set-up to, the September Massacres: many of those taken prisoner during the second insurrection were victims in the massacres three weeks later.
THE SEPTEMBER MASSACRES
After the Tenth of August, the Commune government of Paris, its sections dominated by Jacobins, ceased any pretence of answering to Royal authority. A week after the second insurrection at Tuileries, one of the Commune’s leading members, Maximilien Robespierre, forced the creation of a provisional Revolutionary Tribunal, which quickly got to work. Louis Collenot d’Angremont, a Royalist and former National Guardsman, was the first man guillotined by the French Revolution for political thought crime, on 21 August 1792.6
The clumsy 25 July 1792 declaration from Charles William Ferdinand, the Duke of Brunswick who was leading the Austro-Prussian forces, abetted the Revolution’s next moves. The Brunswick Manifesto, issued directly to the French populace, stated that so long as the French King remained unmolested, the Allied Army would ensure the safety of France’s population—implicitly threatening reprisals against the civilian population if the Monarch was harmed. This was certainly used by radicals as “proof” the King was a traitor in league with the Austrians and Prussians, though the impact of Brunswick’s declaration on the 10 August events is probably overstated. The impact was more serious when Brunswick’s troops took Verdun on 2 September 1792.
There had been Royalist protests against the Revolutionary Tribunal that spiralled into riots in multiple cities, including in the Vendée on the west coast, the zone that would soon rise so bravely against the Revolution and be so mercilessly ravaged. These riots were taken as an ex post facto justification of the Tribunal, and fed into the agitation of the Jacobins against a supposed Royalist fifth column. The Swiss Guards had been removed from the Palace and the refractory priests had been ruthlessly persecuted; these two groups made up a significant percentage of the political prisoners at this point. But the revolutionaries were uneasy leaving them alive.
The Revolution portrayed the imprisoned Swiss Guards and the non-juring priests as in league with the invading Allied troops, who were believed to be planning to break them from prison and use the freed common criminals as the shock troops of counter-revolution, while Royalist writers goaded the reactionary elements of the populace to incinerate Paris and slaughter the “patriotic” (pro-revolutionary) citizens and their families as threatened in the Brunswick Manifesto. By the revolutionaries’ logic, the war against the external enemy could only be won after a purge of the internal enemy had purified the community. This was the conspiratorial framework Marat was operating in when he incited “good citizens to go to the Abbaye, to seize priests, and especially the officers of the Swiss Guards and their accomplices, and run a sword through them”. Marat had at this time moved on from simply writing in the newspapers; he was writing placards that were posted around the city as semi-official decrees. A pre-emptive strike against prisoners in Paris was widely promoted by the “voices” of the Revolution. Fabre d’Eglantine, a poet and playwright, one of the closest friends of Georges Danton, bluntly called for “everyone [to] be a soldier” to clear out “these vile slaves of tyranny”: “let the blood of traitors be the first holocaust to liberty”.7
In this sense, the war clearly did play a part in setting the conditions for the Massacres. It is not the whole explanation, though; the ideological convictions of the revolutionaries when the war came are crucial. The genocidal outlook of the revolutionaries—viewing their ideological foes as an infection in the body politic that had to be cut out immediately and entirely, lest it spread and bring about the downfall of the whole community—was deep-rooted and clearly conditioned by the Catholic perception of heresy. The important difference is that unlike the Inquisition, the Revolution made little effort to distinguish between healthy and diseased tissue.8
Stanislas Maillard, famous for participating in the storming of the Bastille and the women’s march to Versailles on 5 October 1789, was by this point formally a Captain in the National Guard. In practice, Maillard led a squad of the most militant sans-culottes. It was in this capacity that Maillard now presided over the “trials” that provided pseudo-legal cover to literal butchery. The committees in the sections of the Insurrectionary Commune followed the lead of staging pre-determined “trials”, with death “sentences” carried out by mingled death squads of Guardsmen, fédérés, and sans-culottes.9
The first site of mass-killing, on 2 September, was the Abbaye, and the first victims were priests. Twenty-four priests, having barely survived a move from the mairie, such was the mood of the crowd, arrived outside the Abbaye, where the crowd demanded “judgment” and Maillard’s men obliged.10 “All the priests were asked the same question: ‘Have you taken the oath?’ Not one was prepared to save his life by means of a lie.”11 The priests were summarily condemned, and pushed out into the garden where two lines of killers waited with knives, hatchets, and sabres. Over ninety minutes, nineteen of the priests were cut to pieces. Five of the priests were spared by the intervention of a National Guardsman. One of the survivors was Roch-Ambroise Cucurron Sicard, the AbbéSicard, well-known in France for running a school for the deaf.12
The Abbaye process was repeated in the makeshift prison at the Carmelite convent run by Joachim Ceyrat, a monk-turned-Jacobin: 150 priests held at the convent were hacked to death. The arrival of the commissaire of the Luxembourg section, Jean-Denis Violette, slowed things down temporarily and even “formalised” the “trials” to an extent that there were a couple of acquittals. The pace soon picked back up and the victims by the end of 2 September included the Archbishop of Arles, the Bishops of Saintes and Beauvais, and the monarchist Charles de Valfons.13
The institutionalised nature of the September Massacres can be seen in the fact that the killers, who returned for several more rounds at the Abbaye up to 6 September when the Massacres in the capital finally halted, referred to what they had done as “travail” (labour), and they were paid specific wage rates for it. “About two thirds of the prisoners at the Abbaye were killed, including a valet of the King, Champlosse, the ex-minister Montmorin, and two justices of the peace, Buob and Bosquillon, who had committed the ‘liberticide’ crime of trying to prosecute those responsible for the invasion of the Tuileries on 20 June.” One of the few who managed to get out alive was Jourgniac de Saint-Méard, an Army officer, whose account, along with the AbbéSicard’s, is one of our better sources for what happened over those few days.14
In the early hours of 3 September, the General Council of the Commune was told by its secretary, Jean-Lambert Tallien—who was later elected to the National Convention with Danton’s help—that orders had been given to protect prisoners, but there were simply too many armed men in the city to put a stop to the killings. “This was a prime instance of the conspiracy of disingenuousness”.15
At the Legislative Assembly, things were even worse. It was claimed there had been a prison mutiny at Bicêtre that threatened the whole city:
What was really taking place at Bicêtre was the systematic butchering of adolescent boys. While the inmates at the Abbaye, the Carmelites, and another holding cell at the Monastery of Saint-Firmin, were nearly all priests and political prisoners rounded up over the previous two weeks, those at Bicêtre, La Force, and La Salpêtrière, the scenes of similar slaughters, were common criminals, beggars, and persons detained at the request of their own families under the conventions of the old regime. Forty-three of the one hundred and sixty-two persons killed at Bicêtre were under eighteen, including thirteen age fifteen, three age fourteen, two age thirteen, and one twelve-year-old. … At Saint-Bernard another seventy or so convicts waiting to be taken to the hulks were murdered; at La Salpêtrière over forty prostitutes were killed after being, in all likelihood, subjected to physical humiliation at the hands of their killers.16
Marie Thérèse Louise of Savoy, the Princesse de Lamballe, a close friend of Queen Marie Antoinette, is possibly the most infamous victim of this spasm of bloodletting. The Princesse de Lamballe was dragged from her cell, where she had been caring for the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting, in the morning of 3 September. Put before a revolutionary tribunal at La Force, she displayed considerable fortitude in refusing to play along with this show trial, denying not only her own involvement in or knowledge of the “plots of the tenth of August”, but denying there had been any such plots. When it was demanded she swear two oaths—one to Liberty and Equality, and one of hatred to the King, Queen, and the Monarchy—she acceded to the former and rejected the latter. The Princesse was taken into an alley, stripped naked (her clothes were later sold, as were those of many other victims), and a gang of men with axes then cut her down. Her corpse was hideously mutilated, with a grisly focus on her genitals, and her head was then paraded on a pike to the Temple prison with the intent to show it to the Queen, “so you may know how the people avenge themselves on tyrants”. As Marie Antoinette fainted, she never did see it.17
In total, 1,400 people were slaughtered in the September Massacres in Paris, 250 of them bishops, priests, and nuns. About half the prisoners in the capital were murdered, and in places like the Abbaye and the Carmelites monastery over-80% of the detainees were killed.18
The Interior Minister, Jean-Marie Roland, the leader of the ostensibly “moderate” Girondins, and Danton, are the two leaders of the Revolution most responsible for the September Massacres. At a minimum, these two men could have done more to stop the killing and refused to. Roland did begin raising a protest about the “excesses” in the afternoon of 3 September, after the bulk of the killing had been completed, but he remained studiously silent when it mattered. Danton did not even do that much, and Danton was better placed to make a difference, given his influence over the sections and the police committees. There is a case for Danton’s responsibility being even more direct: his defenders, at the time and since, would say he could not be responsible because he was in the Assembly giving perhaps the best speech of his career, but the contents of that speech at 13:00 called for the liquidation of everyone who did not take up arms for the Revolution; the killings began less than two hours later.19
Some responsibility also rests with Robespierre, who was present at the Commune meeting on 2 September when news of the massacre at the Abbaye came in: he and his fellow Commune leaders did nothing to try to stop the bloodshed, and Robespierre shows every sign of having supported it. Robespierre went to visit the Temple prison on behalf of the Insurrectionary Commune to ensure the safety of the King and Queen—they were valuable hostages in case Brunswick’s troops could not be stopped on the battlefield—but Robespierre’s only active manoeuvre during the September Massacres was to try to lengthen the death lists: he pushed the Commune to arrest two of his factional Girondin enemies—Roland and the abolitionist activist Jacques Pierre Brissot—in the hope they would then be murdered in prison. Danton’s intervention saved Roland and Brissot, underlining his responsibility for the massacres: Danton was obviously well-informed about what was happening in Paris and had extensive influence over events.20
The signal from the centre was unmistakeable and over the next two weeks the Paris process of slaughtering prisoners after perfunctory show trials was replicated in cities all across France. In this, the September Massacres have a strong echo of the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre that took place two centuries before. There is much debate in both cases about exactly how the slaughter from the capital spread to the provinces, but the outline is clear: the distinct lack of official disapproval that such a thing should happen was taken by provincial officials as approval for something they had wanted to do all along. And there is evidence that things went beyond the opportunism of local zealots. For example, what happened with the fifty or so people, including Antoine de Lessart, the former Foreign Minister, who were butchered on the road from Versailles as they were being brought to Paris, “looks remarkably like a premeditated plan”.21
LEGACY AND MEMORY
In Citizens, the wonderful book Simon Schama wrote for the bicentennial of the French Revolution, he notes that the September Massacres have generally been dealt with either in terms of Catholic counter-revolutionary martyrology, or with a heavy reliance on the work of Pierre Caron, a historian in the 1930s who “self-consciously set out to purge the record of hagiographic myths”, yet who ended up producing a work that was “a monument of intellectual cowardice and moral self-delusion”. Caron proclaimed his book a fact-first enterprise, devoid of moralising, but what he turned out to mean by that was a dismissal of the prisoner accounts, like that of AbbéSicard, and a discounting, too, of the cruelties these eyewitnesses recorded—specifically the sexual attacks on the prostitutes of La Salpêtrière and the mutilation of the Princesse de Lamballe—while privileging orthodox revolutionary narratives. In the end, as Schama puts it, Caron concluded “the massacres were, somehow, no one’s responsibility. Rather, they were the inevitable product of impersonal historical forces: mass fear and, he often implies, justifiable desire for revenge against the casualties of the tenth of August. The overall effect is meant to be comforting for the revolutionary historian: the scholarly normalization of evil.”22
The Revolution, having purified itself and bound the masses to it with the blood of the innocent,23 cast aside the compromise stance of working within the old system after the September Massacres: the Assembly was replaced by the National Convention on 20 September 1792 and the next day the Monarchy was formally abolished; a Republic based on popular sovereignty was announced in its place.24 Within the Convention, the Girondins and Jacobins would trade accusations of responsibility for the September Massacres: this has tended to lead to the Massacres being written off as “just another episode in the polemics of faction”, writes Schama, while many fall back on the idea the killings were “a psychological aberration linked to the war panic”. The result is that “the event has been marginalized as somehow of interest only to sensationalist, anecdotal history and beneath the attention of serious analysis”.25
The most charitable explanation for the September Massacres fading from view in much historiography is that, when set against Robespierre’s ascent in 1793 to preside over the Terror, the episode is a drop in the bucket. This is a mistake, not only because the September Massacres strongly suggest that the date for the beginning of the Terror should be pushed back to at least the foundation of the French Republic, but because, in Schama’s words, “a good case … might be made for seeing the September Massacres as the event which more than almost any other exposed a central truth of the French Revolution: its dependence on organized killing to accomplish political ends. For however virtuous the principles of the kingless France were supposed to be, their power to command allegiance depended, from the very beginning, on the spectacle of death.”26
Post has been updated.
The taxes asked from the Thirteen Colonies were “exceptionally light”, even after the exertions made on their behalf in the 1750s and 1760s. See: Andrew Roberts (2021), George III: The Life and Reign of Britain's Most Misunderstood Monarch, p. 203.
France saw the American rebels to victory in at least four key ways: (1) resource provision: it was French money, weapons, ammunition, food, and clothes that sustained the American rebels’ Continental Army; (2) leadership: as well as padding out the American rebellion with thousands of French troops, embedded French commanders led the American insurgents, notably the Comte de Rochambeau at the decisive Battle of Yorktown; (3) the French Navy protected the American rebels from the British fleet, both in the sense of direct fire and in the sense of preventing Britain bringing in supplies and reinforcements from the sea; and (4) the French attacked the British in the Caribbean and elsewhere, creating a costly global conflict that physically tied down resources that might otherwise have been used against the colonists and politically deprioritised the American theatre in London, leading to Parliament pulling the plug on the effort to suppress the rebellion.
The Marquis de Sade, a sadistic deviant imprisoned under a lettre de cachet since 1777 for abducting and raping children who was later a deputy in the Revolution’s National Convention, had been transferred out of the Bastille ten days before it was stormed because he was inciting the mobs outside to attack it by falsely claiming that prisoners were being killed.
Laura Mason and Tracey Rizzo [eds.] (1999), The French Revolution: A Document Collection, pp. 4-6.
Michael Davies (1997), For Altar and Throne: The Rising in the Vendée.
Richard D. E. Burton (1999), Blood in the City: Violence and Revelation in Paris, 1789–1945, p. 99.
Simon Schama (1989), Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, pp. 790-91.
Tom Holland (2019), Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind, pp. 458-59.
Schama, Citizens, p. 795.
Schama, Citizens, p. 795.
For Altar and Throne.
Schama, Citizens, p. 795; and, For Altar and Throne.
Schama, Citizens, p. 796.
Schama, Citizens, pp. 796-97.
Schama, Citizens, p. 797.
Schama, Citizens, pp. 797-98.
Schama, Citizens, p. 798.
Schama, Citizens, p. 799.
Schama, Citizens, p. 793.
Ruth Scurr (2006), Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution, pp. 220-21.
Schama, Citizens, pp. 800.
Schama, Citizens, pp. 792-93.
François-Noël Babeuf, a Jacobin “journalist” and the first Communist, understood the need for atrocities to trap people into loyalty to the Revolution, once writing: “It is essential to make the people perpetrate deeds that will prevent them from turning back.” See: For Altar and Throne.
It was the struggle to define “the people” who held this popular sovereignty that provided the underlying motive for the faction fights and purges during the republican phase of the French Revolution up to Napoleon Bonaparte’s coup. See: Brian Singer (1986), Society, Theory, and the French Revolution: Studies in the Revolutionary Imagination, p. 195.
Schama, Citizens, pp. 800-01.
Schama, Citizens, pp. 801.