1794: Nicolas Luckner, German marshal of France

1 comment January 4th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1794, Nicolas Luckner was guillotined in Paris.

A count with his own manor on the German-Danish frontier, Luckner (English Wikipedia entry | German, where he’s Nikolaus von Luckner) made the sort of cross-national career pivot that was still possible in the pre-revolutionary world by going from commanding hussars against France in the Seven Years’ War to serving in the Bourbon army.

Allegedly convinced that Marie Antoinette had blocked his advancement, Luckner supported the French Revolution, and by 1791 had summited his profession as Marshal of France.

He was the very commander of the Army of the Rhine to whom Rouget de Lisle dedicated the 1792 Chant de Guerre pour l’Armée du Rhin … the marchable tune which later became the Marseillaise. (Luckner’s name also appears on the Arc de Triomphe.)

Things did not go as swimmingly with the Army of the North, where he bogged down in the Low Countries — and the incriminating defection of the Marquis de Lafayette to France’s royalist enemies did him no favors in the court of Jacobin opinion. Luckner was relieved of his command by the impatient National Convention.*

This septuagenarian foreign count showed a lordly blindness to his adoptive country’s situation both fiscal and political by journeying to Paris later in 1793 to complain that his pension was not being funded in full. Other officers had already fallen under the Terror’s blade for command failure, where any shortcoming in the field could be readily conflated with treachery — and Luckner, no surprise, was soon denounced as a royalist.

City hall in the small Bavarian town of Cham, where Luckner was born in 1722, still chimes the Marseillaise every day to honor its native son … whose name also associates with Germany’s World War I naval hero Felix von Luckner, the great grandson of our man Nicolas.

* The Convention’s emissary on this occasion was Choderlos de Laclos … best known now (and then) as the author of the viperous epistolary novel of ancien regime misbehavior Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

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1792: Barnabé Farmian Durosoy, royalist journalist

Add comment August 25th, 2015 Headsman

Litterateur Barnabé Farmian Durosoy was guillotined in Paris on this date in 1792.

Playwright, poet, and (most problematically) journalist, Durosoy‘s newspaper Gazette de Paris took issue with the French Revolution’s radical and anti-clerical turn — incurring the dangerous denunciation of Marat.

Durosoy had the boldness to denounce in print the 10 August coup whereby Georges Danton and the Paris Commune* toppled the monarchy.

“If these rebels dare to degrade the king then they dare to judge, and if they judge then their verdict is death!” Durosoy thundered.

He would not even live long enough to see his prophecy fulfilled: the Gazette was immediately suppressed and Durosoy brought to trial as “cashier of all the Anti-revolutionists of the interior.” (Carlyle)

He was the first journalist guillotined in revolutionary France — noting that he died as a royalist ought on the feast day of St. Louis.

* No, not that Paris Commune.

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1793: A Lyon mitraillade

Add comment December 14th, 2014 Headsman

The executions on December 14, 1793 illustrated above (image from here) date to Revolutionary France’s violent suppression that month of the France’s second city for its resistance to Jacobin power.

We have alluded before to this bloody interim, led by the National Convention‘s ruthless emissaries Collot d’Herbois and Joseph Fouche — two men well aware that any appearance of undue leniency in the chastisement of Lyons might send their own heads under the guillotine back in Paris.

To accomplish such an urgent task, they dispensed with the mere guillotine and rolled out a new death-dealing technology: the mitraillades, or execution by grapeshot.*

This bizarre killing method involved lining up the prisoners to be executed — scores or hundreds at once at the height of the Lyons crackdown — before the mouths of cannon loaded with anti-infantry balls. When the cannons fired, they mowed down the victims en masse. And then, gloated the executioners’ Convention ally Barere, “the corpses of the rebellious Lyonese, floating down the Rhone, would warn the citizens of Toulon of their coming fate!”

Now, grapeshot is an outstanding weapon in the right spot, but it is not at all certain to kill its targets. On the battlefield, mangled survivors were just about as good as dead bodies when it came to mauling the soldiery.

But executioners usually aim for something a bit more predictably lethal. The mitraillades could not offer anything close to dependable, near-universal slaughter … and so the horror of the artillery discharge was followed (as one sees in the drawing above) by the horror of the many stunned and injured survivors of the cannonade being finished one by one at close quarters with muskets and bayonets. Though a single coup de grace might count as a mercy, a hundred at once made for simple butchery.

The mitraillade did such brutal work that the national government soon ordered its Lyons deputation to lay off the innovation and return to the standard device for a Republican execution — the guillotine.

* Present-day Francophones will most likely associate the word mitrailleuse with the machine gun. That term dates to a a 19th century “volley gun” capable of spitting out 25 rounds from a cluster of rifle barrel activated by a single crank; for obvious reasons, this weapon inherited its name from the French word for grapeshot, mitraillade.

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1793: Antoine Barnave, constitutional monarchist

Add comment November 29th, 2014 Headsman

I want a hero: an uncommon want,
When every year and month sends forth a new one,
Till, after cloying the gazettes with cant,
The age discovers he is not the true one

Barnave, Brissot, Condorcet, Mirabeau,
Petion, Clootz, Danton, Marat, La Fayette
Were French, and famous people, as we know;
And there were others, scarce forgotten yet,
Joubert, Hoche Marceau, Lannes, Desaix, Moreau,
With many of the military set,
Exceedingly remarkable at times,
But not at all adapted to my rhymes.

-Lord Byron, Don Juan

On this date, French Revolution orator Antoine Barnave — a founder of the short-lived Feuillants faction — became short-lived himself courtesy of the Paris Terror.

Just one of the side courses when the Revolution devoured its own children, Barnave (English Wikipedia entry | French) was a smart young avocat in the 1780s who distinguished himself at the Parlement of Grenoble.

Avant-garde ideas like political power redistributed to reflect “the new distribution of wealth” were just the sort of revolution that a wealthy lawyer could get behind.

Duly elected at the ripe old age of 27 to France’s watershed (and last) Estates-General of 1789, Barnave was a very early member of the Jacobin Club. You know, before it was cool.

Barnave’s genteel vision of the Revolution transferring the estates of the ancien regime into the mercantile hands of his friends in the bourgeoisie fell spectacularly to pieces in 1791.

That April, Mirabeau died. He was Barnave’s great debating rival in the Jacobin Club, but both men actually represented the same fundamental persuasion: constitutional monarchy. Needless to say, this Revolution was not built to halt at that particular milepost.

Within mere weeks, almost as if the players had been awaiting the literal death of Mirabeau’s moderation, events hurtled past Barnave’s sensibilities. The desperate royal family made its ill-chosen flight to Varennes in June, and the well-regarded Barnave was one of the Constituent Assembly delegates sent to escort Louis XVI back to a Paris now boiling with republican sentiment. Did not the sovereign’s literally attempting to desert from his patrimony entail an abandonment of his station?

In perhaps the pinnacle of Barnave’s rich career in political oratory, he delivered to the National Assembly on July 15 a thundering no to that proposition, challenging his fellow delegates to choose “between attachment to the Constitution and resentment against a man.”

I ask to-day of him among you who may have conceived every kind of prepossession and the deepest and most violent resentment against the executive power — I ask him to tell us whether his anger with that power is greater than his attachment to the law of his country.

Those who would thus sacrifice the Constitution to their resentment against one man seem to me far too liable to sacrifice liberty in their enthusiasm for another; and since they love a republic, now is the time to say to them: How can you wish for a republic in a nation where you hope that the action, easily pardoned after all, of an individual who has much to plead in his justification, that the action of an individual, who though certain qualities of his are now condemned, long possessed the people’s affection — when, I say, you hoped that the deed he has done might change our Government, how was it that you were not afraid that this same variableness of the people, if once they were moved by enthusiasm for a great man, by gratitude for great deeds — because the French nation, you know it, can love much better than it can hate — would overthrow your absurd republic in one day? (Source)

Barnave, to his grief, was entirely clear on what he desired in July of 1791: “all change is fatal now; all prolongation of the Revolution is disastrous now; the real question to my thinking is this, and the national interest is bound up with it; are we going to end the Revolution, or are we going to begin it again?”

His speech carried the motion on July 15th: Louis remained king. Still, the Revolution did not exit into past tense on Barnave’s say-so, and certainly not on so insubstantial a basis as “a resolve to be peaceful, a common resolve, a drawing together.”

He had the applause of the Assembly, which printed his speech for national distribution. But tempestuous debates broke out in Jacobin clubs and other radical circles, and amid intemperate accusations of treasonable conduct by the all-change-is-fatal-now crowd there were oaths sworn never to recognize the kingship of Louis XVI.

On July 17, a huge crowd led by Georges Danton filled the Champs de Mars to petition Louis’s removal. And in response to the Jacobin Club’s announced intention to support this demonstration — which turned into a galvanizing massacre when the Marquis de Lafayette had his national guardsmen fire on the protesters — Barnave with his friends and political allies Adrien Duport and Alexandre Lameth dramatically abandoned the Jacobins and split off the rival Feuillants.

In their day, this so-called “triumvirate” had been the Jacbins’ left wing. By now, they were the the revolution’s conservatives: the monarchists against the republicans, and the guys who liked the Revolution’s existing changes just fine.

“If the Revolution takes one more step, it cannot do so without danger,” Barnave intoned in that July 15 address of his. (Source) “If it is in the direction of liberty, the first act to follow could be the destruction of royalty; if it is in the direction of equality, the first act to follow could be the violation of property … is there still to be destroyed an aristocracy other than that of property?”**

Not everyone found those one-more-steps quite so terrible to contemplate as did the the silver-tongued Grenoble barrister.


Political cartoon of the Janus-faced Barnave — the man of the people in 1789, turned the man of the royal court in 1791.

If we have the luxury from posterity to smile at the notion of the Revolution’s peacably halting itself in 1791, the Feuillants had cause in their moment to think they could pull the trick.

Their move at first dramatically weakened the Jacobins, as the ranks of moderates flocked to Barnave’s prestige and eloquence. The Paris Jacobin Club lost three-quarters of its membership almost overnight, and most of its Assembly deputies. Public sentiment, at least so well as its contemporaries could discern, veered towards Barnave as well, and he was able to finalize the long-awaited Constitution of September 1791 preserving a number of important executive powers for the king’s own person.

The period of governance under that constitution opened with an address by the king that Barnave had written for him; its first few months are the “Feuillant Ministry”. Barnave was the beleaguered royal family’s chief advisor in this period.

But the Feuillant Ministry was crumbling almost from its inception. Its supporting club was founded on abhorrence for the popular politics whose force was still being uncovered in the Revolution; Barnave wanted nothing so much as the end of such societies altogether. So while the monarchists had secretaries exchanging delegated backslaps at private confabs, the reduced Jacobins — now the most passionate rump, helpfully purged of their milquetoast liberals — redoubled themselves under the sway of men like Marat and Robespierre. Barnave’s apparent alignment with the now-constitutional monarch gave legs to the “royalist” charge that was more and more laid at his feet, and Jacobin Clubs soon began receiving as prodigals former members who had found their dalliances with the Feuillants unsatisfactory.

Barnave and his faction came under relentless siege by pamphleteers, journalists, and radical democrats. One wonders if, in the end, Barnave took some cold comfort in having seen an implacable antagonist like Brissot precede him to the guillotine when his own Girondin faction, formerly the fire-eaters, tipped over the Revolution’s starboard bulwarks.

Meanwhile, the impolitic demand emanating from Marie Antoinette’s brother, the Holy Roman Emperor that the French royal family be safeguarded put France on its way to war with Austria, an outcome entirely contrary to not taking one more revolutionary step.

The hounded Barnave retired to Grenoble in January 1792 by which time the constitution he had so diligently promulgated had already virtually ceased to function, and he himself lost influence with both the king and the Assembly. In the months to follow the war tocsin undid his fellow-constitutionalists remaining in Paris. Consigned to the sidelines, their faction was arrested as royalists after the August 10, 1792 overthrow of the Bourbons.

Barnave’s papers were inventoried for hints of treasonable correspondence with the fallen king and queen, but as the curtain had not yet raised on the Terror — and Barnave had not been deported to the prisons of the capital in time for the September Massacres — he had an uncommonly lengthy period of political imprisonment. Barnave exercised this time composing his De la Révolution et de la Constitution (later published as Introduction à la révolution française), an economic history arguing that the rise of industry and manufacturing had transferred the leading role from France’s aristocrats to her bourgeoisie.

With the onset of the Terror, he was shipped to Paris to face treason charges owing to correspondence with Marie Antoinette, where his famous oratory took its last public turn for an audience that had stopped up its ears.

Finally, citizens, I recall this to you; I might have left France in all safety. Perhaps those who still love me will have reason to lament that I did not do what was so easy for me; but, whatever happens, I shall not have to reproach myself with having challenged the judges of my country, with having cast doubts on their integrity, their justice. I shall be sacrificed perhaps, but I had rather owe my ruin to human error than have pronounced my own condemnation. I shall carry to the scaffold the same calmness which you have seen me show in the debate, and to the last moment I shall pray for the welfare of my country. (Source)

He was beheaded with four other people at the Place de la Revolution on the morning of the very next day.

French speakers might enjoy this public domain book by Jules Gabriel Janin. This post has also quoted several times from Eliza Dorothy Bradby’s 1915 English biography of the man.

* It later emerged that Mirabeau was being paid by the royalist party.

** One of the steps towards equality so troubling to Barnave had been a push among Jacobin radicals to resolve upon the emancipation of black slaves in the colonies. Fretting the loss of, e.g., the lucrative sugar revenues of Saint-Domingue (Haiti), Barnave staunchly opposed this; he was one of the leading lights of the pro-slavery Massiac Club. (French link)

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1793: Madame Roland, éminence grise

Add comment November 8th, 2014 Amelia Fedo

(Thanks to Amelia Fedo, a graduate student in French literature, for the guest post.)

On this date in 1793, Manon Roland (née Phlipon)* was guillotined as part of the Girondist purges in the Paris Terror.

As Olympe de Gouges — who preceded her to the guillotine by only a few days — observed, being a woman may have prevented her from holding political power under her own name, but it didn’t stop her from losing her own head.

Born in Paris to a bourgeois engraver, she married up through her alliance with quasi-aristocrat Jean-Marie Roland de la Platière. Twenty years her senior, he was chosen by her for his class status and intellect rather than for the love he inspired.

Ambitious from the start, Madame Roland took advantage of her husband’s (and later, her Girondin not-quite-lover François Buzot‘s) engagement in civic life to catapult herself into the role of behind-the-scenes stateswoman. She had been prepared for this role since childhood, when she had voraciously read Rousseau and Plutarch. Unlike Olympe de Gouges, she internalized the idea that women did not belong in politics — yet still she yearned to have an influence on the Republic.

And she did indeed succeed in wielding political power, with enough competence that Robespierre wanted her guillotined at least as much as her husband: everyone knew that she was the real force to be reckoned with.

Her political career was inextricably tied to her husband’s. Unable to hold political office herself, she lived vicariously through him. At first he was a bureaucrat, and she his secretary and personal assistant; but then he became involved in Parisian politics and was eventually appointed Minister of the Interior.

It was his wife who encouraged him to accept the position; for a year now she had been hosting salons frequented by a wide range of political movers and shakers, and she was itching to get in the game.

Monsieur Roland did not have a brilliant career as minister. His wife was the one with the vision and energy (the historian Lucy Moore claims that every good idea he had was hers); although devoted to Republican ideals he remained something of a milquetoast, and was attacked both by the snobby old guard (the lack of buckles on his shoes caused a scandal) and by the extreme left.

Although Madame Roland identified with Robespierre and was a good deal more radical than the Girondins (especially in her feelings about the monarchy), she and her husband were still officially associated with them. As such, they were swept up in Robespierre’s purges.

There were a few pre-Terror false alarms: a warrant was issued for Monsieur Roland’s arrest after the September Massacres, which Danton put the kibosh on; and in 1792, Madame Roland was dragged into court on trumped-up charges of corresponding with émigrés, but was able to use her oratorical skills to get herself acquitted.

When the Terror began, Monsieur Roland opted to keep his head down in the hopes of keeping it on, and resigned from his post as minister.

It was too late. In May 1793 Madame Roland was arrested again — unaccompanied by her husband, who had managed to escape into hiding.

She was subjected to a show trial like so many before and after her; although she had prepared a defense, she was not allowed to read it. Given that she was accused of “conspiring against the unity and the indivisibility of the Republic and attempting to introduce civil war,” neither her verdict nor her sentence are much of a surprise.

She was preoccupied with her husband (whom she declared would be driven to suicide by her execution), with Buzot (who was in grave danger of suffering her same fate), and with her own legacy. She seized the opportunity to be a martyr like the men she so admired — men who had been able to act in the open, rather than behind the scenes — and took advantage of the free time she had in prison to write her memoirs.

Most sources give similar accounts of her behavior before and during the execution. Content to die for her principles — or, perhaps, simply resolved to make a show of contentment — she maintained great calm and resignation in her final hours. The only favor she asked of anyone was that her childhood friend Sophie Grandchamp wait for her on the Pont-Neuf so that they could see each other when the tumbrel passed.

Influencing people up to the very end, Roland’s last political act was an attempt to impart some of her courage to the man who would share her tumbrel, a forger of assignats named Lamarche.

Lacking the sort of great social narrative that would give meaning to his death (such as a personal feud with Robespierre), Lamarche did not share Roland’s sanguine attitude; he thus found himself the recipient of a performance designed to alter his mood, consisting mostly of jokes, distractions, and modeled behavior. The events surrounding her execution have passed into legend, but various sources agree that she quipped to Lamarche after his hair was cut, “It suits you wonderfully. You have the head of a Roman.”

She also urged the executioner to leave her own hair long enough to serve as a suitable handle — for him to show her head to the crowd, of course.

As much as she detested Danton, it appears she had a few things in common with him after all.

Counterintuitively, it was considered a privilege to be guillotined first; it was merciful, the reasoning went, to kill someone before they could see others die. Roland chose to pass up this “privilege”; most attribute this to her desire to spare Lamarche the sight of her death, but Lucy Moore points out in Liberty: The Lives and Times of Six Women in Revolutionary France that she may have rejected the logic of such a “mercy” altogether and wished to live — like Madame du Barry — even a few moments longer.

After mounting the scaffold, she addressed a statue of Marianne, left over from a festival held in the Place de la Révolution; she is traditionally said to have exclaimed, “O liberty, what crimes are committed in your name!”, although a less reputable source (i.e., the apocryphal Sanson memoirs) assigns her the more prosaic last words, “Oh! Liberty, how they’ve tricked you!”

As she had predicted, her husband committed suicide two days later, falling on his sword as soon as he learned of her fate.

*This is only one of many names she has been called; Siân Reynolds explains in Marriage and Revolution: Monsieur and Madame Roland that “Manon” is a childhood name, and her adult name remains mysterious; it was either “Marie,” “Jeanne,” or “Marie-Jeanne.”

A few books about Madame Roland

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1796: Thirty Jacobins for the Affaire du camp de Grenelle

Add comment October 9th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1796, 30 Jacobins were shot by a military commission in under the French Directory for attempting to subert the army.

This final, failed enterprise of Gracchus Babeuf‘s “Conspiracy of Equals” took place months after Babeuf himself had been arrested on the eve of his envisioned revolution.

“Song of the Equals”
Babouvist popular song from 1796

For too long a wretched code
Enslaved men to men:
May the reign of the brigands fall!
Let us finally know what our condition is
Awaken to our voice
And leave the darkest night behind,
People! Take hold of your rights,
The sun shines for all.

You created us to be equal,
Nature, oh beneficent mother!
Why, in property and labors,
This murderous inequality? Awaken!

People, smash the ancient charm
Of a too lethargic slumber:
With the most terrible of awakenings
Spread alarm to grinning crime.
Lend an ear to our voice
And leave the darkest night behind.
People, take hold of your rights,
The sun shines for all.

In the uncertain aftermath of Robespierre’s fall, the interregnum of the Directory saw both royalists and republicans jockey for a restoration of their former prerogatives (and jockey against one another, of course). Babeuf’s conspiracy might have been the boldest stroke of all had it come off; instead, a projected rising for May 11, 1796 was scotched by Babeuf’s pre-emptive arrest.

But to strike the head was not to slay the movement. The economy was a mess and the political authority a rudderless, unpopular clique. The coup attempt didn’t happen but Jacobin agitation continued to mount — met in its turn by royalist agitation, the two parties dangerously hellbent for one another’s blood. The imprisoned Babeuf (he wouldn’t be guillotined until the following year) made one such focus of agitation — and eventually, of more conspiring.

Babeuf’s allies conceived a plan of swaying the regiment of dragoons then encamped on the plain of Grenelle outside of Paris. (Today, part of the 15th arrondissement.)

On the night of September 9-10, several hundred armed Jacobins assembled and descended on the camp of Grenelle — intending not to fight, but to fraternize, hoping that sympathetic soldiery could be swung to liberate Babeuf and mount a rising against the Directory. This strange and desperate episode was in the end the acme of babouvisme, and was crushed out of hand by officers of the regiment.

Most of the would-be fraternizers scattered but 132 were arrested. At snap military trials — legally questionable since most of the instigators were civilians — 33 death sentences were meted out. Three were delivered in absentia; the 30 others were all enforced by musketry on this date.

The most notable casualties among those 30 were (these are French Wikipedia links all):


More about Babeuf, “the first modern communist”, by the speaker in this lecture here.

* All three had in their day voted the death of King Louis XVI.

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1794: Rosalie Lubomirska, mother of Balzac’s antagonist

Add comment June 30th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1794, the Polish princess Rosalie Lubomirska was guillotined during the Paris Terror.

The hottest thing to come out of Chernobyl before 1986, the glamorous young Lubomirska had it all going for her before Europe turned revolutionary.

Her support for the reformist Patriotic Party in her homeland required her flight on to France when a Russian invasion defeated that movement in 1792. Indeed, short as her own thread was cut, Rosalie Lubomirska was only barely outlived by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth itself.

But escaping to her friend Marie Antoinette in France might not have been the savviest choice.

The irrepressible Melanie “Madame Guillotine” Clegane, author of such topical historical fiction as The Secret Diary of a Princess: A Novel of Marie Antoinette, has everything you need to know about Rosalie Lubomirska’s activities from that point in this post: going royalist after the execution of Louis XVI, taking Vendee rebels into her salon and/or bed, and seeing her lovers precede her to the guillotine while she desperately bought time by feigning pregnancy.

She left behind a young daughter. In much later years, this little girl grown up and married to noted Orientalist scholar Waclaw Seweryn Rzeuwski would manifest as a side character in a very different story: she is “Aunt Rozalia”, whose niece was Ewelina Hanska, the admirer turned wife of the novelist Honore de Balzac. Aunt Rozalia was a bitter foe of Ewelina’s declasse romance with the bourgeois scribbler and to judge by the correspondence of the lovers was continually trafficking in rumors that Balzac — who was in actuality a legendary workaholic — was a gambler, boozer, or suchlike dissipated wastrel.

Balzac gave his antagonist the gift of literary immortality by using her as an inspiration (one inspiration: his own mother was another) for the titular killjoy spinster in his novel Cousin Bette.

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1793: Philibert Francois Rouxel de Blanchelande, governor of Saint-Domingue

Add comment April 15th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1793, Philibert Francois Rouxel de Blanchelande was guillotined in Paris — victim of two revolutions an ocean apart.

Blanchelande (English Wikipedia entry | French) was a comfortable henchmen of the ancien regime, descended of a marshal.

At the outbreak of the French Revolution, Blanchelande was the governor of the Caribbean sugar colony of Saint-Domingue.

Like other New World colonies, Saint-Domingue’s brutal slave plantations generated vast wealth for the grand blancs, a tiny white oligopoly which was massively outnumbered by its black servile chattel. The demographics made for a perpetual source of conflict and danger — but that was the price of doing business for Europe’s sweet tooth.

The promised liberte, egalite, fraternite of 1789 fell into this tinderbox like a torch.

By 1791, slaves were in full rebellion. Mirabeau had once said that Saint-Domingue’s masters “slept at the foot of Vesuvius”; when it exploded, Blanchelande fell into the caldera with the grand blancs. The slave rebellion quickly overran the western third of Saint-Domingue — the germ of the imminent Republic of Haiti. But the situation on the ground in the early 1790s was extremely fluid, and perilous from the French perspective: Great Britain lurked at nearby Jamaica, scheming to swipe the lucrative island away from its rival amid the chaos. So here Britain accepted Saint-Domingue’s white refugees, and there she treated with black rebels to grant their emancipation in exchange for their allegiance.

The old royal hand Blanchelande was impotent to control the cataclysm with only a handful of troops, and he must have looked increasingly antiquated by the rapid progress of the Revolution too. A 1792 relief force of 6,000 soldiers arrived bearing word of the National Assembly’s too-little-too-late grant of political rights to free blacks, and bearing also Blanchelande’s replacement: a Girondin envoy named Leger-Felicite Sonthonax.

Both these steps were also swiftly overrun by the eruption. Blanchelande returned to Paris and was forgettably guillotined as a counterrevolutionary on April 15, 1793, not long after France and Britain officially went to war. “For losing Saint-Domingo,” Carlyle says a bit dismissively, and maybe that’s even right. But if so the loss reounded to the glory of the Jacobins. The Revolution’s ideals would soon come to mesh with the pragmatics of maintaining the allegiance of Saint-Domingue.

On February 4, 1794 — 16 Pluviose Year II, if you like the revolutionary calendar — the National Convention thrilled to “launch liberty into the colonies” (Danton) with a momentous proclamation abolishing slavery throughout the empire.

Slavery of the blacks is abolished in all the colonies … all men living in the colonies, without distinction of color, are French citizens and enjoy all the rights guaranteed by the constitution.


“Les Mortels sont égaux, ce n’est pas la naissance c’est la seule vertu qui fait la différence…” (Via).

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1794: Jean-Baptiste Carrier, of the Noyades de Nantes

5 comments December 16th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1794,* a revolutionary Montagnard who had overstayed his welcome made his departure through the guillotine’s window.

Carrier (English Wikipedia entry | French) was the Revolutionary Convention’s proxy in Nantes where he distinguished himself in bloodthirstiness while putting down a counterrevolutionary revolt.

He’s most particularly noted for the Noyades de Nantes, a series of mass drownings in the Loire that claimed two thousand or more victims — mostly priests and civilians viewed as refractory. Overall the casualties in the Vendee ran to six figures; there’s been latter-day debate over whether the Republican policy there rose to the level of genocide.


Les noyades de Nantes en 1793, by Joseph Aubert (1882).

He was “one of those inferior and violent spirits, who, in the excitement of civil wars, become monsters of cruelty and extravagance” Adolphe Thiers judged him. (Ironically, considering Thiers’ subsequent career.) “This frantic wretch imagined that he had no other mission than to slaughter.”

Now, one could author a bloodbath in the provinces and still stick around for posterity, but that play depended on a timely volte-face with the Thermidorean reaction.

Unlike Fouche and Tallien, Carrier couldn’t pull that off. He was left in an increasingly untenable position after Robespierre fell.

What would follow Robespierre? Carrier’s own person and the Noyades de Nantes were central to this question in the tumultuous latter half of 1794. His beheading would be the climax of a string of pivotal trials.

Ninety-four Bretons already under arrest by the revolutionary committee were put to trial in the weeks following Thermidor. En route to their spectacular acquittal, these accused

subpoenaed as witnesses the members of the Nantes revolutionary committee, who had also been arrested … [and] charged that they were guilty of summary executions and of mass drownings in the Loire; they acknowledged these acts but placed the responsibility for them on Carrier. This meant that there were three trials — that of the ninety-four, that of the Nantes revolutionary committee, and that of Carrier — each revealing ghastly atrocities, which were given wide coverage in the anti-Jacobin press throughout France. (Gilded Youth of Thermidor)

The atrocious stories from Nantes promulgated in Paris by these first trials soon had the city in an uproar and dealt the already-reeling Jacobins “a terrible blow in public opinion” according to one newspaper also quoted in Gilded Youth. The Nantes revelations would provide the impetus (or the pretext) for the riots that soon shuttered the Jacobin Club and placed the Parisian bourgeoisie firmly in control.

If Carrier was the casualty in all this, well, he wasn’t exactly in a position to complain about being sacrificed for someone’s ideology.

Gracchus Babeuf, later to drop his own head into the basket, campaigned against Carrier furiously during a robust pamphlet war.

Carrier: this horrible name strikes all ears, is issued from all mouths. Merely speaking it causes a shiver of horror. There is not a single Frenchman for whom this word does not suffice to tell the story of the man it designates. It reminds all of his contemporaries of the most irascible of carnivorous beings. Posterity will not be able to find in any tradition an exterminator who was his equal. The crimes of this master villain are recognized by, and proven to, all, and yet he has unofficial defenders in the National Convention, and it even appears that there exists a strong party that wants to save him. Even more, there are signs that announce that there are those who want to influence, even terrify the just tribunal that, with its usual wisdom, is investigating the affair of the infamous drowner who has far surpassed Nero and all the other great executioners. …

they’ll justify the mass killer of the west with the excuse that the terrorism he provided the earth an example of was necessary for the salvation of the Fatherland.

Exterminable system! It was necessary for the salvation of France to erase the entire population of its western parts! It was necessary for the salvation of the Fatherland to turn its most beautiful countryside into a horrible desert, to make it the lair of voracious animals both terrestrial and aquatic by covering the waters, fields, and woods with corpses! …

In order to save the Fatherland were the 23 noyades of Nantes, one of 600 children, needed? Were “republican marriages” necessary, where young boys and girls tied together naked were knocked unconscious with saber blows and then tossed into the Loire? (Deposition by Philippe Tronjoli and Bourier) Was it necessary (another deposition of 25 Vendémiaire) to cause to die in the prisons of Nantes through hunger, infection, and misery, 10,000 citizens, 30,000 if we include the executions and noyades? Were the sabrades necessary (deposition of Laéné) on the departmental square, which occupied 300 men for six weeks filling the mass graves with those who perished from this torture? Was it necessary for Carrier (deposition of Tronjoli of the 27) to sleep with three beautiful women and then drown them? Was it necessary to execute (deposition of Renaudot) infantry and cavalry detachments of the rebel army who had voluntarily surrendered? Was it necessary to drown or execute (deposition of Thomas) 500 children, the oldest of whom wasn’t fourteen and who Carrier called vipers that must be suppressed? Was it necessary (same deposition) to drown 30-40 women eight and eight and a half months pregnant and to offer horrified eyes the still palpitating corpses of the babies tossed into a tub filled with excrement? Was it necessary (deposition of Abraham and goodwife Puchotte) to kill in one night by suffocation (caused by infection and lack of air) 50-60 prisoners in a galleon whose side panels were shut expressly to cause suffocation?

Carrier’s likeness is preserved in wax at Madame Tussaud’s.

* A few sources give November 16; this is unambiguously mistaken. (See e.g. London Times, Jan. 15, 1795, reporting the December 16 execution.)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Murder,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Scandal

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1793: Jean-Jacques Ampère, father of a savant, for Joseph Chalier

2 comments November 22nd, 2013 Amelia Fedo

(Thanks to Amelia Fedo, a graduate student in French literature, for the guest post.)

He didn’t know it yet, but on this date in 1793, a brilliant adolescent named André-Marie Ampère lost his father to the guillotine. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because it would eventually become the SI unit of electrical current.

Andre-Marie Ampere, one of the founding pioneers of electromagnetism (Ampere called the new field “electrodynamics”) lost his father to the French Revolution’s guillotines.

The father in question was Jean-Jacques Ampère, an intelligent and levelheaded man whose sense of duty outweighed his instincts of self-preservation.

He was determined to do every job he had to the best of his ability — whether the task was educating a son or discharging the office of justice of the peace — and this diligence cost him his life.

A bourgeois silk merchant (a quintessentially Lyonnais occupation), he lived with his wife and son in a tiny village outside of Lyon called Poleymieux-au-Mont-d’Or. It was there that he and his wife, who were one of only five bourgeois families in a primarily peasant population, raised the boy who would grow up to be the father of electrodynamics.

In 1782, he retired and devoted himself full-time to his children’s upbringing — particularly that of his son, whom he soon realized was not an ordinary child. Born partly of necessity (Poleymieux lacked a school) and partly of choice (Jean-Jacques had, after all, opted to move to Poleymieux, and some speculate that he wished to give his son an upbringing like the one advocated by Rousseau in Émile), André-Marie’s unorthodox education resembled what today’s DIY pedagogues might call “unschooling”: he was encouraged to take charge of his own learning, given access to his father’s library, and taught a variety of eclectic subjects according to what most held his interest at the moment.

For most children, this technique is questionable; but when your kid happens to be a genius and a polymath, it works just fine. André-Marie was an audodidact and proactive in his learning, which would be a force for good in his life: as we’ll see, it was what pulled him out of his depression after his father’s death.

When the Bastille fell in 1789, not much changed at first. Jean-Jacques embraced the ideals of the Revolution and even wrote a play called Artaxerxe ou le Roi constitutionnel [Artaxerxe or the constitutional king], which James Hofmann, author of André-Marie Ampère: Enlightenment and Electrodynamics, sees as a parable containing Revolutionary themes.

A month after the fall of the Bastille, he lost his job as local aristocrat Guillin Dumontet’s procureur fiscal (a “judicial and administrative position,” according to Hofmann). Then, in the fall of 1791, he took another bureaucratic job: justice of the peace and “presiding legal functionary for the police tribunal” in Lyon. He may have done it voluntarily, out of sincere political fervor; but he may also have done it to protect his family, since his former boss, Guillin Dumontet, had been beheaded and partially cannibalized by his peasants a few months prior. If he had indeed taken this post for the good of his family, his plan backfired horribly…

As has been detailed in the post on Joseph Chalier, 1793 was not a good year for the Lyonnais.

The Revolution ran counter to the grain of Lyonnais culture for a number of historical reasons (the strong Catholic tradition and the silk trade being two of them). More immediately, famine and taxes had not disposed the people of Lyon towards the local Revolutionary government — particularly the far-left Jacobin faction, which continuously struggled for control of the city.

When the Jacobins seized power in March 1793, they provoked opposition from Girondins and royalists alike, and on May 29 important members of the Jacobin leadership were arrested. Among those apprehended was Joseph Chalier, head of a major Jacobin club known as the “Central Club.” Someone had to open the case against Chalier, and that someone was Jean-Jacques Ampère.

In spite of the Convention’s attempts at negotiation (which quickly turned to threats), Chalier was sentenced to death on July 16 and guillotined the next day. It was not Jean-Jacques who condemned Chalier to death — that does not appear to have been part of his job — but it was he who sent out the warrant for his arrest, and this was more than enough to get him sentenced to death when the political tides turned. (If the judges who actually sentenced Chalier to death — Cozon, Pourret, Régnier, and Maret — were ever punished, I haven’t found any evidence for it.)

Paris responded by placing Lyon under siege on August 9, and two months later, the city surrendered to the Convention. Rather than flee, Jean-Jacques remained in the city, resolved to see his duty through to the bitter end. Throughout the siege, he instructed his wife not to tell their children of the danger he was in. When Lyon was taken, he was immediately arrested, and in the six weeks he spent in prison, he had little doubt about his fate.

Trial and execution

Much of his trial is preserved in court documents. They refer to Lyon as “Ville-Affranchie” — “Liberated City,” the name Bertrand Barère gave to the town before declaring, “Lyon has made war against liberty; Lyon is no more” — so you know they mean business.

During his interrogation, Ampère père was accused not only of having issued the warrant for Chalier’s arrest, but also of having sentenced male and female Jacobin club members to public humiliation and having their eyebrows shaved off, respectively — as well as just generally having been a jerk to Jacobin detainees during interrogations.

The responses he gives show a man resolved to keep both his pride and his honor in the face of certain death, a functionary convinced that he had committed no wrong. Ampère admits to having had Chalier arrested but vehemently denies the other charges. He was also asked if he had left his post and/or sent a revocation to Paris, and responded that he had kept his post and had “no revocation to make.” This probably sealed his fate.

Here’s the full text of his interrogation, from Histoire des tribunaux révolutionnaires de Lyon (take my translations of legalese with a grain of salt; I don’t speak it in any language):

Frimaire 2, Year 2 (November 22)

Interrogation of Jean-Jacques Ampère, 61 years of age, justice of the peace of the canton of Halle-aux-Blés, residing in Lyon, Quai Saint-Antoine, Number 44. — Responses he gave.

I was in Lyon during the siege.

I never had any correspondence with the so-called constituent authorities in Lyon.

Question: You are accused of having filed the whole procedure against the patriots, of having been president of the correctional police during the whole time of the counter-Revolution, and of having judged those who had committed no crime other than belonging to the [Jacobin] club, sentencing the men to be tied to the post [this refers to a punishment formally known as “exhibition,” which was sort of like the pillory] and the women to having their eyebrows cut off; of having condemned, among others, Cadet Rufard, member of the [Jacobin] club, to six months of imprisonment for having sought bread for his brother, put in chains on May 29. You are reproached with having said to all of those whom you interrogated, “You are scoundrels, you people with your clubs; you had agents all the way out in the country, and your plot was the destruction of honest people.” In a word, you are accused of the assassination of the virtuous Chalier, since it was you who filed the first procedure, and it’s thanks to your arrest warrant that he mounted the scaffold.

Response: I never had any part in the judgments against patriots, men or women, which pronounced the sentence of pillory against the men and shaved eyebrows against the women; I admit to having filed the procedure against Citizen Chalier, on the declaration that had been made to me on May 27 by the public prosecutor who had the right to provoke my ministry; I also made several investigations against certain municipal officers after May 29, and in ruling on these procedures, I followed the law in sending back the accused in the presence of the director of the jury, the indictment alone regulating the jurisdiction. I conformed to the investigation of the functions of police officers who are uniformly employed to gather the vestiges of crimes and send the judgment back to the courts who should be informed of them. The circumstances were such that prudence joined with my sense of duty in making me carry out the measure indicated by the law. Before ruling on the procedure against the municipal officers, I had also ruled on the fate of a municipal named Sautemouche. I let him out under an oath to return, and soon after his release, the unfortunate Sautemouche succumbed to the blows of malicious persons. He was murdered, and most of the sections shouted for my arrest, because I had obeyed my conscience and my opinion by delivering an innocent man.

Question: Did you leave Lyon and did you send your revocation to the Committee of Public Safety, according to the law?

Response: I have no revocation to make.

Question: Did you continue your functions during the siege in a city in revolt?

Response: Yes, from May 27 until the beginning of August.

Question: Did you issue the warrant for Chalier’s arrest?

Response: Yes, on June 7.

On November 22, the same day as his trial (other sources give the date as November 23, 24 or 25, but I’m going by the date of execution given in legal documents), he was guillotined in Place Bellecour along with three men who appear not to have been involved in the affair: Étienne Chazottier, a lawyer and the president and secretary of the “permanent section” (a local political office), for “offenses against patriots”; Pierre-Elisabeth Chaponnay, an aristocrat, for “giving considerable sums to, and favoring the plans of, counterrevolutionaries”; and Jean Freidière, a geometer and secretary of the “surveillance committee” — no crime given. Ampère was 61 years old.

Shortly before his execution, he was allowed to write a final letter to his wife. Here’s the most complete version I can find, taken from Portraits Littéraires by Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve:

My dear angel, I have received your comforting letter; it was a life-giving balm to the emotional wounds that had been inflicted on my soul by my regret at being misunderstood by my fellow-citizens, who have denied me, through the most cruel separation, a homeland that I have cherished so much and whose prosperity is so close to my heart. I wish for my death to be the seal of a general reconciliation between our fellow-men. I pardon those who rejoice in it, those who caused it, and those who ordered it. I have reason to believe that the national vengeance, of which I am one of the most innocent victims, will not extend to the few possessions that have been sustaining us, thanks to your wise money-saving and our frugality, which was your favorite virtue … After my trust in the Eternal, to whose breast I hope will be taken that which remains of me, my sweetest consolation is that you will cherish my memory as much as I cherished you. That much is owed me. If from my home in Eternity, where our dear daughter has preceded me, I am able to attend to things on earth, you and my dear children will be the object of my care and concern. May they enjoy a better fate than their father and always have before their eyes the fear of God, that salutary fear that makes innocence and justice act on our hearts in spite of the fragility of our nature! … Do not speak to Josephine [André-Marie’s younger sister, then about eight years old] of her father’s misfortune — make sure she does not know about it; as for my son, there is nothing I do not expect of him. As long as you have them, and they have you, embrace each other in my memory: I leave you all my heart.

The author then explains that “There follow a few pieces of advice concerning the household economy, notes about paying off debts, and meticulous scruples regarding antique probity, signed with these words: J.-J. Ampère, husband, father, friend, and forever-faithful citizen.”

He continues with a sentiment shared by most nineteenth-century commentators on this affair: “Thus died, with resignation, with grandeur, and expressing himself almost as Jean-Jacques [Rousseau] would have been able to, this simple man, this reclusive merchant, this justice of the peace from Lyon. He died like so many members of the National Assembly, like so many Girondins, sons of [the spirit of] ’89 and ’91, children of the Revolution, devoured by it, but pious to the end, and not cursing it!”

We are also treated to some of Ampère’s actual notes (it would have been nice if Sainte-Beuve had just reprinted them in their entirety instead of only snatches): “It is impossible, my dear friend, for me to leave you rich, or even moderately comfortable; you cannot attribute this to my bad conduct nor to any spendthrift behavior. My greatest expense was the purchase of books and geometrical instruments which our son could not do without; but that expense was itself a bargain, because he never had any tutor except for himself.”

The Jacobins greatly spun the proceedings against Ampère; in a November 25 letter to the Convention, Collot d’Herbois and Fouché claimed that: “It was liberty that they wanted to assassinate in killing Chalier; his executioners have confessed it; before coming under the blade of justice, they were heard to say that they were dying for the king, that they had wanted to give him a successor.” It goes without saying that there is no reason to believe that Ampère said any such thing on the scaffold—he lived and died a Republican.

Aftermath

To say the execution was a shock to the eighteen-year-old André-Marie would be an understatement.

He never truly recovered from the death of his father, which was neither the first nor the last personal tragedy that would befall him; his older sister Antoinette had died a year earlier, and he would also lose his first wife after only four years of marriage. James Hofmann points out in Enlightenment and Electrodynamics that Jean-Jacques was André-Marie’s only link to the world outside Poleymieux, where he was socially isolated in addition to being intellectually stimulated (his undersocialization did indeed have a permanent effect; he was extremely awkward all his life).

Although André-Marie made a “return to normalcy” through study, he was scarred for life; Hofmann asserts that the event “contributed to the permanently melancholy cast of his adult temperament.”

After hearing the news, André-Marie became catatonic for a year; according to his friend and fellow-scientist François Arago, “The blow was too hard; it was beyond the strength of a young man of eighteen: Ampère was shattered. His intellectual faculties, so active, so intense, so developed, suddenly gave way to a veritable idiocy. He spent his days mechanically contemplating the earth and sky, or making little heaps of sand.”

Yikes. Arago claims that André-Marie was able to snap out of it with the help of Rousseau’s writings on, of all things, botany: “This lethargy of all moral and intellectual feeling had lasted for more than a year, when the letters of J.-J. Rousseau, on botany, came into Ampère’s hands. The limpid and harmonious language of this work entered the soul of the sick young man and partially gave him his nerves back, as the rays of the rising sun pierce the thick fogs of morning and bring life to the heart of plants stiff from the night’s chill.” With that, Ampère’s intellectual life reawakened; he began to study, and eventually became more or less functional — although, according to Hofmann, direct discussion of the event remained a taboo subject.

Indirect references are another matter; he named his son Jean-Jacques, in memory of his father and also, some speculate, as an homage to Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

On this day..

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