The French Revolution— Volume 1

Author: Hippolyte Adolphe Taine


Independence of the municipalities. - The causes of their initiative. - Sentiment of danger.- Issy-l’Evêque in 1789. - Exalted pride. - Brittany in 1790.- Usurpations of the municipalities. - Capture of the citadels. - Violence increased against their commanders. - Stoppage of convoys.- Powerlessness of the Directories and the ministers. - Marseilles in 1790.

Things could not work otherwise. For, before the 6th of October, and the King’s captivity in Paris, the Government had already been destroyed. Now, through the successive decrees of the Assembly, it is legally done away with, and each local group is left to itself. - The intendants have fled, military commanders are not obeyed, the bailiwicks dare hold no courts, the parliaments are suspended, and seven months elapse before the district and department administrations are elected, a year before the new judgeships are instituted, while afterwards, as well as before, the real power is in the hands of the communes. - The commune must arm itself, appoint its own chiefs, provide its own supplies, protect itself against brigands, and feed its own poor. It has to sell its national property, install the constitutional priest, and, amidst so many eager passions and injured interest, accomplish the transformation by which a new society replaces the ancient one. It alone has to ward off the perpetual and constantly reviving dangers which assail it or which it imagines. These are great, and it exaggerates them. It is inexperienced and alarmed. It is not surprising that, in the exercise of its extemporized power, it should pass beyond its natural or legal limit, and without being aware of it, overstep the metaphysical line which the Constitution defines between its rights and the rights of the State. Neither hunger, fear, rage, nor any of the popular passions can wait; there is no time to refer to Paris. Action is necessary, immediate action, and, with the means at hand, they must save themselves as well as they can. This or that mayor of a village is soon to find himself a general and a legislator. This or that petty town is to give itself a charter like Laon or Vezelay in the twelfth century. "On the 6th of October, 1789,[14] near Autun, the market-town of Issy-l’Evêque declares itself an independent State. The parish assembly is convoked by the priest, M. Carion, who is appointed member of the administrative committee and of the new military staff. In full session he secures the adoption of a complete code, political, judiciary, penal and military, consisting of sixty articles. Nothing is overlooked; we find ordinances concerning

"the town police, the laying out of streets and public squares, the repairs of prisons, the road taxes and price of grain, the administration of justice, fines, confiscations, and the diet of the National Guards."

He is a provincial Solon,[15] zealous for the public welfare, and a man of executive power, he expounds his ordinances from the pulpit, and threatens the refractory. He passes decrees and renders judgments in the town-hall: outside the town limits, at the head of the National Guard, saber in hand, he will enforce his own decisions. He causes it to be decided that, on the written order of the committee, every citizen may be imprisoned. He imposes and collects taxes; he has boundary walls torn down; he goes in person to the houses of cultivators and makes requisitions for grain; he seizes the convoys which have not deposited their quote in his own richly stored granaries. One day, preceded by a drummer, he marches outside the walls, makes proclamation of "his agrarian laws," and proceeds at once to the partition of the territory, and, by virtue of the ancient communal or church property rights, to assign to himself a portion of it. All this is done in public and consciously, the notary and the scrivener being called in to draw up the official record of his acts; he is satisfied that human society has come to an end, and that each local group has the right to begin over again and apply in its own way the Constitution which it has accorded to itself without reference to anybody else. - This man, undoubtedly, talks too loudly, an proceeds too quickly; and first the bailiwick, next the Châtelet, and afterwards the National Assembly temporarily put a stop to his proceedings; but his principle is a popular one, and the forty thousand communes of France are about to act like so many distinct republics, under the sentimental and constantly more powerless reprimands of the central authority.

Excited and invigorated by a new sentiment, men now abandon themselves to the proud consciousness of their own power and independence. Nowhere is greater satisfaction found than among the new local chiefs, the municipal officers and commanders of the National Guard, for never before has such supreme authority and such great dignity fallen upon men previously so submissive and so insignificant. - Formerly the subordinates of an intendant or subdelegate, appointed, maintained, and ill-used by him, kept aloof from transactions of any importance, unable to defend themselves except by humble protestations against the aggravation of taxation, concerned with precedence and the conflicts of etiquette,[16] plain townspeople or peasants who never dreamt of interfering in military matters, henceforth become sovereigns in all military and civil affairs. This or that mayor or syndic of a little town or parish, a petty bourgeois or villager in a blouse, whom the intendant or military commander could imprison at will, now orders a gentleman, a captain of dragoons, to march or stand still, and the captain stands still or marches at his command. On the same bourgeois or villager depends the safety of the neighboring chateau, of the large landowner and his family, of the prelate, and of all the prominent personages of the district. in order that they may be out of harm’s way he must protect them; they will be pillaged if, in case of insurrection, he does not send troops and the National Guard to their assistance. It is he who, lending or refusing public force to the collection of their rents, gives them or deprives them of the means of living. He accordingly rules, and on the sole condition of ruling according to the wishes of his equals, the vociferous multitude, the restless, dominant mob which has elected him. - In the towns, especially, and notably in the large towns, the contrast between what he was and what he is immense, since to the plenitude of his power is added the extent of his jurisdiction. Judge of the effect on his brain in cities like those of Marseilles, Bordeaux, Nantes, Rouen and Lyons, where he holds in his hand the lives and property of eighty or a hundred thousand men. And the more as, amid the municipal officers of the towns, three-quarters of them, prosecutors or lawyers, are imbued with the new dogmas, and are persuaded that in themselves alone, the directly elected of the people, is vested all legitimate authority. Bewildered by their recent elevation, distrustful as upstarts, in revolt against all ancient or rival powers, they are additionally alarmed by their imagination and ignorance, their minds being vaguely disturbed by the contrast between their role in the past and their present role: anxious on their own account, they find no security but in abuse and use of power. The municipalities, on the strength of the reports emanating from the coffee-houses, decide that the ministry are traitors. With an obstinacy of conviction and a boldness of presumption alike extraordinary, they believe that they have the right to act without and against their orders, and against the orders of the National Assembly itself, as if, in the now disintegrated France, each municipality constituted the nation.

Thus, if the armed force of the country is now obedient to any body, it is to them and to them alone, and not only the National Guard, but also the regular troops which, placed under the orders of municipalities by a decree of the National Assembly,[17] will comply with no other. Military commanders in the provinces, after September, 1787, declare themselves powerless; when they and the municipality give orders, it is only those of the municipality which the troops recognize. "However pressing may be the necessity for moving the troops where their presence is required, they are stopped by the resistance of the village committee."[18] "Without any reasonable motive," writes the commander of the forces in Brittany, "Vannes and Auray made opposition to the detachment which I thought it prudent to send to Belle-Ile, to replace another one . . . The Government cannot move without encountering obstacles. . . . The Minister of War no longer has the direction of the army. . . . No orders are executed. . . Every one wants to command, and no one to obey. . . How could the King, the Government, or the Minister of War send troops where they are wanted if the towns believe that they have the right to countermand the orders given to the regiments and change their destination? "-And it is still worse, for, "on the false supposition of brigands and conspiracies which do not exist,[19] the towns and villages make demands on me for arms and even cannon. . . The whole of Brittany will soon be in a frightful belligerent state on this account, for, having no real enemies, they will turn their arms against each other." - This is of no consequence. The panic is an "epidemic." People are determined to believe in "brigands and enemies." At Nantes, the assertion is constantly repeated that the Spaniards are going to land, that the French regiments are going to make an attack, that an army of brigands is approaching, that the castle is threatened, that it is threatening, and that it contains too many engines of war. The commandant of the province writes in vain to the mayor to reassure him, and to explain to him that "the municipality, being master of the chateau, is likewise master of its magazine. Why then should it entertain fear about that which is in its own possession? Why should any surprise be manifested at an arsenal containing arms and gunpowder? " - Nothing is of any effect. The chateau is invaded; two hundred workmen set to work to demolish the fortifications; they listen only to their fears, and cannot exercise too great precaution. However inoffensive the citadels may be, they are held to be dangerous; however accommodating the commanders may be, they are regarded with suspicion. The people chafe against the bridle, relaxed and slack as it is. It is broken and cast aside, that it may not be used again when occasion requires. Each municipal body, each company of the National Guard, wants to reign on its own plot of ground out of the way of any foreign control; and this is what is called liberty. Its adversary, therefore, is the central power. This must be disarmed for fear that it may interpose. On all sides, with a sure and persistent instinct, through the capture of fortresses, the pillage of arsenals, the seduction of the soldiery, and the expulsion of generals, the municipality ensures its omnipotence by guaranteeing itself beforehand against all repression.

At Brest the municipal authorities insist that a naval officer shall be surrendered to the people, and on the refusal of the King’s lieutenant to give him up, the permanent committee orders the National Guard to load its guns.[20] At Nantes the municipal body refuses to recognize M. d’Hervilly, sent to take command of a camp, and the towns of the province write to declare that they will suffer no other than the federated troops on their territory. At Lille the permanent committee insists that the military authorities shall place the keys of the town in its keeping every evening, and, a few months after this, the National Guard, joined by mutinous soldiers, seize the citadel and the person of Livarot, its commander. At Toulon the commander of the arsenal, M. de Rioms, and several naval officers, are put in the dungeon. At Montpellier the citadel is surprised, and the club writes to the National Assembly to demand its demolition. At Valence, the commandant, M. de Voisin, on taking measures of defense, is massacred, and henceforth the municipality issues all orders to the garrison. At Bastia, Colonel de Rully falls under a shower of bullets, and the National Guard takes possession of the citadel and the powder magazine. These are not passing outbursts: at the end of two years the same insubordinate spirit is apparent everywhere.[21] In vain do the commissioners of the National Assembly seek to transfer the Nassau regiment from Metz. Sedan refuses to receive it; while Thionville declares that, if it comes, she will blow up the bridges, and Sarrebuis threatens, if it approaches, that it will open fire on it. At Caen neither the municipality nor the directory dares enforce the law which assigns the castle to the troops of the line; the National Guard refuses to leave it, and forbids the director of the artillery to inspect the munitions. - In this state of things a Government subsists in name but not in fact, for it no longer possesses the means of enforcing obedience. Each commune arrogates to itself the right of suspending or preventing the execution of the simplest and most urgent orders. Arnay-le-Duc, in spite of passports and legal injunctions, persists in retaining Mesdames; Arcis-sur-Aube retains Necker, and Montigny is about to retain M. Caillard, Ambassador of France.[22] - In the month of June, 1791, a convoy of eighty thousand crowns of six livres sets out from Paris for Switzerland; this is a repayment by the French Government to that of Soleure; the date of payment is fixed, the itinerary marked out; all the necessary documents are provided; it is important that it should arrive on the day when the bill falls due. But they have counted without the municipalities and the National Guards. Arrested at Bar-sur-Aube, it is only at the end of a month, and on a decree of the National Assembly, that the convoy can resume. its march. At Belfort it is seized again, and it still remains there in the month of November. In vain has the directory of the Bas-Rhin ordered its release; the Belfort municipality paid no attention to the order. In vain the same directory dispatches a commissioner, who is near being cut to pieces. The personal interference of General Luckner, with the strong arm, is necessary, before the convoy can pass the frontier, after five months of delay.[23] In the month of July 1791, a French vessel on the way from Rouen to Caudebec, said to be loaded with kegs of gold and silver, is stopped. On the examination being made, it has a right to leave; its papers are all correct, and the department enjoins the district to respect the law. The district, however, replies that it is impossible, since "all the municipalities on the banks of the Seine have armed and are awaiting the passing of the vessel," and the National Assembly itself is obliged to pass a decree that the vessel shall be discharged.

If the rebellion of the small communes is of this stamp, what must be that of the larger ones?[24] The departments and districts summon the municipality in vain; it disobeys or pays no attention to the summons.

"Since the session began," writes the directory of Saône-et-Loire; "the municipality of Maçon has taken no step in relation to us which has not been an encroachment. It has not uttered a word, which has not been an insult. It has not entered upon a deliberation which has not been an outrage."

"If the regiment of Aunis is not ordered here immediately," writes the directory of Calvados, "if prompt and efficient measures are not taken to provide us with an armed force, we shall abandon a post which we can not longer hold due to insubordination, license, contempt for all the authorities. We shall in this case be unable to perform the duties which were imposed upon us."

The directory of the Bouches-du-Rhone, on being attacked, flies before the bayonets of Marseilles. The members of the directory of Gers, in conflict with the municipality of Auch, are almost beaten to death. As to the ministers, who are distrusted by virtue of their office, they are still less respected than the directories, They are constantly denounced to the Assembly, while the municipalities send back their dispatches without deigning to open them,[25] and, towards the end of 1791, their increasing powerlessness ends in complete annihilation. We can judge of this by one example. In the month of December 1791, Limoges is not allowed to carry away the grain, which it had just purchased in Indre, a force of sixty horsemen being necessary to protect its transportation. The directory of Indre at once calls upon the ministers to furnish them with this small troop.[26] After trying for three weeks, the minister replies that it is out of his power; he has knocked at all doors in vain. "I have pointed out one way," he says, "to the deputies of your department in the National Assembly, namely, to withdraw the 20th regiment of cavalry from Orleans, and I have recommended them to broach the matter to the deputies of Loiret." The answer is still delayed: the deputies of the two departments have to come to an agreement, for, otherwise, the minister dares not displace sixty men to protect a convoy of grain. It is plain enough that there is no longer any executive power. There is no longer a central authority. There is no longer a France, but merely so many disintegrated and independent communes, like Orleans and Limoges, which, through their representatives, carry on negotiations with each other, one to secure itself from a deficiency of troops, and the other to secure itself from a want of bread.

Let us consider this general dissolution on the spot, and take up a case in detail. On the 18th of January 1790, the new municipal authorities of Marseilles enter upon their duties. As is generally the case, the majority of the electors have had nothing to do with the balloting. The mayor, Martin, having been elected by only an eighth of the active citizens.[27] If, however, the dominant minority is a small one, it is resolute and not inclined to stop at trifles. "Scarcely is it organized,"[28] when it sends deputies to the King to have him withdraw his troops from Marseilles. The King, always weak and accommodating, finally consents; and, the orders to march being prepared, the municipality is duly advised of them. But the municipality will tolerate no delay, and immediately "draws up, prints, and issues a denunciation to the National Assembly" against the commandant and the two ministers who, according to it, are guilty of having forged or suppressed the King’s orders. In the meantime it equips and fortifies itself as for a combat. At its first establishment the municipality broke up the bourgeois guard, which was too great a lover of order, and organized a National Guard, in which those who have no property are soon to be admitted. "Daily additions are made to its military apparatus;[29] entrenchments and barricades at the Hôtel-de-Ville, are increasing, the artillery is increased; the town is filled with the excitement of a military camp in the immediate presence of an enemy." Thus, in possession of force, it makes use of it, and in the first place against justice. — A popular insurrection had been suppressed in the month of August 1789, and the three principal leaders, Rebecqui, Pascal, and Granet, had been imprisoned in the Chateau d’If. They are the friends of the municipal authorities, and they must be set free. At the demand of this body the affair is taken out of the hands of the grand-prévôt and put into those of the sénéchaussée, the former, meanwhile, together with his councilors, undergoing punishment for having performed their duty. The municipality, on its own authority, forbids them from further exercise of their functions. They are publicly denounced, "threatened with poniards, the scaffold, and every species of assassination." [30] No printer dares publish their defense, for fear of "municipal annoyances." It is not long before the royal procureur and a councillor are reduced to seeking refuge in Fort Saint-Jean, while the grand-prévôt after having resisted a little longer, leaves Marseilles in order to save his life. As to the three imprisoned men, the municipal authorities visit them in a body and demand their provisional release. One of them having made his escape, they refuse to give the commandant the order for his re-arrest. The other two triumphantly leave the chateau on the 11th of April, escorted by eight hundred National Guards. They go, for form’s sake, to the prisons of the sénéchaussée but the next day are set at liberty, and further prosecution ceases. As an offset to this, M. d’Ambert, colonel in the Royal Marine, guilty of expressing himself too warmly against the National Guard, although acquitted by the tribunal before which he was brought, can be set at liberty only in secret and under the protection of two thousand soldiers. The populace want to burn the house of the criminal lieutenant that dared absolve him. The magistrate himself is in danger, and is forced to take refuge in the house of the military commander.[31] Meanwhile, printed and written papers, insulting libels by the municipal body and the club, the seditious or violent discussions of the district assemblies, and a lot of pamphlets, are freely distributed among the people and the soldiers: the latter are purposely stirred up in advance against their chiefs. - - In vain are the officers mild, conciliatory, and cautious. In vain does the commander-in-chief depart with a portion of the troops. The object now is to dislodge the regiment occupying the three forts. The club sets the ball in motion, and, forcibly or otherwise, the will of the people must be carried out. On the 29th of April, two actors, supported by fifty volunteers, surprise a sentinel and get possession of Notre-Dame de la Garde. On the same day, six thousand National Guards invest the forts of Saint-Jean and Saint-Nicolas. The municipal authorities, summoned to respect the fortresses, reply by demanding the opening of the gates to the National Guard, that it may do duty jointly with the soldiers. The commandants hesitate, refer to the law, and demand time to consult their superiors. A second requisition, more urgent, is made; the commandants are held responsible for the disturbances they provoke by their refusal. If they resist they are declared promoters of civil war.[32] They accordingly yield and sign a capitulation. One among them, the Chevalier de Beausset, major in Fort Saint-Jean, is opposed to this, and refuses his signature. On the following day he is seized as he is about to enter the Hôtel-de-Ville, and massacred, his head being borne about on the end of a pike, while the band of assassins, the soldiers, and the rabble dance about and shout over his remains. - " It is a sad accident," writes the municipality.[33] How does it happen that, "after having thus far merited and obtained all praise, a Beausset, whom we were unable to protect against the decrees of Providence, should sully our laurels? Having had nothing to do with this tragic affair, it is not for us to prosecute the authors of it." Moreover, he was "culpable . . .. rebellious, condemned by public opinion, and Providence itself seems to have abandoned him to the irrevocable decrees of its vengeance." - As to the taking of the forts, nothing is more legitimate. "These places were in the hands of the enemies of the State, while now they are in the hands of the defenders of the Constitution of the empire. Woe to whoever would take them from us again, to convert them into a focus of counter-revolution " - M. de Miran, commandant of the province, has, it is true, made a demand for them. But, "is it not somewhat pitiable to see the requisition of a Sieur de Miran, made in the name of the King he betrays, to surrender to his Majesty’s troops places which, henceforth in our hands, guarantee public security to the nation, to the law, and to the King?" In vain does the King, at the request of the National Assembly,[34] order the municipality to restore the forts to the commandants, and to make the National Guards leave them. The municipal authorities become indignant, and resist. According to them the wrong is all on the side of the commandant and the ministers. It is the commandants who, "with the threatening equipment of their citadels, their stores of provisions and of artillery, are disturbers of the public peace. What does the minister mean by driving the national troops out of the forts, in order to entrust their guardianship to foreign troops? His object is apparent in this plan . . . . he wants to kindle civil war." - "All the misfortunes of Marseilles originate in the secret under-standing existing between the ministers and the enemies of the State." The municipal corps is at last obliged to evacuate the forts, but it is determined not to give them up. The day following that on which it receives the decree of the National Assembly, it conceives the design of demolishing them. On the 17th of May, two hundred laborers, paid in advance, begin the work of destruction. To save appearances the municipal body betakes itself at eleven o’clock in the morning to the different localities, and orders them to stop. But, on its departure, the laborers keep on; and, at six o’clock in the evening, a resolution is passed that, "to prevent the entire demolition of the citadel, it is deemed advisable to authorize only that of the part overlooking the town." On the 18th of May the Jacobin club, at once agent, accomplice, and councilor of the municipal body, compels private individuals to contribute something towards defraying the expenses of the demolition. It "sends round to every house, and to the syndics of all corporations, exacting their quotas, and making all citizens subscribe a document by which they appear to sanction the action of the municipal body, and to express their thanks to it. People had to sign it, pay, and keep silent. Woe to any one that refused !" On the 20th of May the municipal body presumes to write to the Assembly, that "this threatening citadel, this odious monument of a stupendous despotism, is about to disappear." To justify its disobedience, it takes occasion to remark, "that the love of country is the most powerful and most enduring of an empire’s ramparts." On the 28th of May it secures the performance in two theaters of a piece representing the capture of the forts of Marseilles, for the benefit of the men engaged in their demolition. Meanwhile, it has summoned the Paris Jacobins to its support; it has proposed to invite the Lyons federation and all the municipalities of the kingdom to denounce the minister. It has forced M. de Miran, threatened with death and watched by a party in ambush on the road, to quit Aix, and then demands his recall.[35] Only on the 6th of June does it decide, at the express command of the National Assembly, to suspend the almost completed demolition. - ?Authorities to which obedience is due could not be treated more insolently. The end, however, is attained; there is no longer a citadel, and the troops have departed; the regiment commanded by Ernest alone remains, to be tampered with, insulted, and then sent off. It is ordered to Aix, and the National Guard of Marseilles will go there to disarm and disband it. Henceforth the municipal body has full sway. It "observes only those laws which suit it, makes others to its own liking, and, in short, governs in the most despotic and arbitrary manner."[36] And not only at Marseilles, but throughout the department where, under no authority but its own, it undertakes armed expeditions and makes raids and sudden attacks.


Related Resources

French Revolution

Download Options

Title: The French Revolution— Volume 1

Select an option:

*Note: A download may not start for up to 60 seconds.

Email Options

Title: The French Revolution— Volume 1

Select an option:

Email addres:

*Note: It may take up to 60 seconds for for the email to be generated.

Chicago: Hippolyte Adolphe Taine, "II.," The French Revolution— Volume 1, ed. Braybrooke, Richard Griffin, Baron, 1783-1853 and trans. Ingram, J. H. (James Henry) in The French Revolution—Volume 1 (New York: Doubleday, Page, 1909), Original Sources, accessed March 2, 2024,

MLA: Taine, Hippolyte Adolphe. "II." The French Revolution— Volume 1, edited by Braybrooke, Richard Griffin, Baron, 1783-1853, and translated by Ingram, J. H. (James Henry), in The French Revolution—Volume 1, Vol. 36, New York, Doubleday, Page, 1909, Original Sources. 2 Mar. 2024.

Harvard: Taine, HA, 'II.' in The French Revolution— Volume 1, ed. and trans. . cited in 1909, The French Revolution—Volume 1, Doubleday, Page, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 2 March 2024, from