Chateaubriand's memoirs, IX, 3

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book IX - Chapter 3
The changing face of Paris – The Cordeliers Club – Marat

London, April to September 1822. (Revised December 1846)

The face of Paris, in 1792, was not that of 1789 and 1790; this was no longer a new-born Revolution; it was that of a nation marching drunkenly to its destiny, across abysses and by errant ways. People no longer appeared excited, curious, or eager; they were menacing. One met only fearful or ferocious figures in the streets, people hugging the walls of houses so as not to be noticed, or roaming in search of their prey: lowered, timorous glances turned away from you, or grim eyes gazed into yours to penetrate and fathom you.

Variety in clothing had ceased; the old world was stepping aside; men had donned the uniform cloak of the new world, a cloak which was as yet merely the last garment of the victims to follow. The social freedoms displayed at France’s rejuvenation, the freedoms of 1789, the wild, capricious freedoms of an order of things which is destroying itself and has not yet turned to anarchy, were falling back beneath the sceptre of the people: one sensed the approach of a new plebeian tyranny, fecund, it is true and full of hope, but also much more formidable than the decaying despotism of the old monarchy: since the sovereign people, existing everywhere, when it turns tyrant, is a tyrant everywhere; it displays the universal presence of a universal Tiberius.

An alien population of cut-throats from the south mingled with the Parisians; the vanguard of those from Marseilles whom Danton was bringing to Paris for the Tenth of August and the September Massacres, could be recognised by their rags, their bronzed faces, and their air of cowardice and criminality, but crime under a different sun: in vultu vitium, with vice in their faces.

I recognised none of the Legislative Assembly: Mirabeau and the earlier idols of the troubles, were either no more, or had lost their sacred status. To pick up the thread of history, broken by my travels in America, it is necessary to resume the story from a little further back.

A Retrospective View

The flight of the King on the 21st June 1791, forced the Revolution to take an immense step. Brought back to Paris on the 25th of that month, he had been dethroned for the first time, since the National Assembly declared that its decrees would have the force of law, without requiring royal sanction or acceptance. A high court of justice, anticipating the revolutionary tribunal, was established at Orléans. From this moment, Madame Roland, demanded the head of the Queen, thereafter the Revolution would demand hers. The crowd on the Champ-de-Mars had assembled in opposition to the decree which suspended the King from his functions, instead of trying him. His acceptance of the Constitution, on the 14th September, settled nothing. It was a matter of declaring the deposition of Louis XVI; if that had taken place, the crime of the 21st January would not have been committed; the position of the French people altered in relation to the monarchy and vis-à-vis posterity. The members of the Constituent Assembly who opposed his deposition thought to save the crown, and they destroyed it; those who thought to destroy it by demanding the deposition, might have saved it. Almost always, in political matters, the result is the opposite of what is anticipated.

On the 30th of that same month of September 1791, the Constituent Assembly held its last session; the unwise decree of the 17th May previous, which forbad the re-election of outgoing members, created the Convention. Nothing could be more dangerous, more inadequate, more inapplicable to general affairs, than their specific resolutions as individuals or as a body, even though they were honourable.

The decree of the 29th September for the regulation of the popular societies, only served to make them more violent. That was the last action of the Constituent Assembly; it dispersed the next day, and left to France a Revolution.

The Legislative Assembly – The Clubs

The Legislative Assembly, installed on the 1st October 1791, rolled along in that whirlwind which swept up the living and the dead. Disturbances bathed the regions in blood; at Caen, they had their fill of slaughter and ate the heart of Monsieur de Belzunce. The King used his veto to oppose the decree against the émigrés and that which deprived the non-juring priests of all income. These legal actions increased the disturbances. Pétion had become mayor of Paris. The deputies decreed the prosecution of the émigré Princes on the 1st January 1792; on the 2nd, they fixed the beginning of year IV of Liberty as that same 1st of January. Around the 13th of February, red bonnets appeared in the streets of Paris, and the municipality had pikes manufactured. The émigré manifesto appeared on the 1st of March. Austria was armed. Paris was divided into sections, more or less hostile to one another. On the 20th of March 1792, the Legislative Assembly adopted the deathly machine, without which the sentences of the Terror could not have been executed; it was first tried out on corpses, so as to learn its trade on them. One can speak of that instrument as if it were an executioner, since various people, impressed by its excellent service, made presents to it of sums of money, for its maintenance. The invention of that murderous machine, at the very moment when it was needed for crime, is a memorable proof of that intelligence which co-ordinates events, or rather a proof of the hidden action of Providence, when it wishes to change the face of empires.

The minister, Roland, at the instigation of the Girondins, had been summoned to the King’s council. On the 20th April, war was declared on the King of Hungary and Bohemia. Marat published L’ami du people, despite the decree which had been issued against him. The Royal-Allemand and Berchini regiments deserted. Isnard spoke of the perfidy of the Court. Gensonné and Brissot denounced the Austrian Committee. An insurrection broke out concerning the King’s Guard, which was dismissed. On the 28th of May, the Assembly entered permanent session. On the 20th of June, the Tuileries Palace was invaded by crowds from the Faubourg Saint-Antoine and Faubourg Saint-Marceau; the pretext was the refusal by Louis XVI to sanction the proscription of priests; the King was at risk of his life. The country was decreed to be in danger. An effigy of Monsieur de Lafayette was burnt. The citizen soldiers of the second federation arrived; those from Marseille, equipped by Danton, were on the way: they entered Paris on the 30th of July, and were quartered by Pétion in the Cordeliers.

The Cordeliers

Alongside the national tribune, two concurrent tribunes were established: that of the Jacobins and that of the Cordeliers, at that time the most formidable, since it contributed members to the famous Paris Commune, and furnished it with the means of action. If the creation of the Commune had not taken place, Paris, lacking a focal point, would have divided, and the different district councils would have become rival powers.

The Cordeliers Club was established in the monastery of that name, a fine in reparation for a murder having provided for the building of the church, in 1259, under Saint Louis; it became, in 1590, a refuge for the most famous of the Leaguers.

There are places which seem to be laboratories for generating factions: ‘Notice had been given,’ says L’Estoile (12th July 1593), ‘to the Duc de Mayenne, that two hundred Cordeliers had arrived in Paris, furnished with arms and supportive of the Sixteen, who hold council in the Cordeliers of Paris every day…On that day, the Sixteen, assembled at the Cordeliers, discharged their weapons.’ The fanatics of the League have thus yielded the monastery of the Cordeliers, like a mortuary, to our philosophers of revolution.

The pictures, the sculpted or painted images, the veils, the curtains of the monastery had been pulled down; the basilica, gutted, presented to the gaze only its ruined skeleton. In the apse of the church, where the wind and rain entered through rose-windows without glass, carpenters’ benches served as the president’s office, when a meeting was held in the church. On these benches the red bonnets were deposited, which each orator doffed before mounting the rostrum. The rostrum consisted of four braced struts, with a plank across their X, like a scaffold. Behind the president, next to a statue of Liberty, instruments of ancient justice, so-called, could be seen; many instruments superseded by a single one, a bloodthirsty machine, as complicated mechanisms are replaced by a hydraulic piston. The Jacobin Club when purged borrowed some of these arrangements from the Cordeliers.


The orators, united in order to destroy, agreed neither on which leaders to choose nor the means to employ; they dealt with beggars, gypsies, thieves, rascals, murderers, to a cacophony of shouts and whistles from their different groups of devils. Their metaphors were derived from articles of murder, borrowed from the filthiest objects, from every species of rubbish heap and dunghill, or drawn from places consecrated to male and female prostitution. Their gestures rendered their imagery palpable; everything was called by its name, with the cynicism of dogs, with an obscene and impious pomp full of oaths and blasphemies. To destroy or create, for death or generation, one only had to interpret that savage argot which deafened the ears. Their harangues, in weak or thunderous voices, were not only interrupted by their opponents: the little black owls, of the cloister without monks and the bell-tower without bells, flew from the broken windows, in hope of spoils; they interrupted the speeches. At first they were called to order by the tinkling of an ineffectual little bell; but since they would not cease their cries, shots were fired at them to ensure their silence: they fell, quivering, fatally wounded, in the midst of the Pandemonium. The fallen timbers, shaky benches, dismantled stalls, fragments of saints overturned and pushed against the walls, served as terraces for the spectators, muddy, dusty, drunk, sweaty, in torn jackets, pikes on shoulders or with bare arms crossed.

The most deformed of that crew obtained preference in speaking. Infirmities of body and soul have played a part in our troubles: pride in suffering has made fine revolutionaries.

Marat and his friends

According to this precedence of hideousness, a series of Gorgon heads, mingling with the ghosts of the Sixteen, passed by in succession. The former doctor to the Comte d’Artois’ bodyguard, the Swiss abortion Marat, his bare feet in clogs or iron-rimmed shoes, gave the initial peroration, in virtue of his incontestable right. Appointed to the office of jester at the court of the people, he declaimed, with a dull face, and that half-smile of banal politeness that the old-style education gave to every face: ‘People, we must cut off two hundred and seventy thousand heads!’ To this Caligula of the crossroads, succeeded the atheistic cobbler, Chaumette. He was followed by the procureur-général de la lanterne, Camille Desmoulins, Cicero with a stammer, public advisor to murder, exhausted by solitary debauchery, thoughtless republican of the pun and the witty saying, teller of funereal jokes, who said of the September Massacres, everything has passed off well. He agreed to become a Spartan, as long as the recipe for making black broth was left to Méot the restaurateur.

Fouché, rushing there from Juilly and Nantes, studied disaster under those teachers: in the circle of ferocious and attentive beasts at the foot of the chair, he had the air of a well-dressed hyena. He panted for the imminent flow of blood; he already smelt the incense of the processions of dunces and executioners, waiting the day, when, driven from the Jacobin Club, as a thief, atheist, and assassin, he would be appointed a minister. When Marat was down from his plank, that Triboulet of the masses became the toy of his masters: they mocked him, stamped on his feet, crowded round him shouting, none of which prevented him from becoming the leader of the multitude, from climbing the clock tower of the Hôtel-de-Ville, from sounding the tocsin there for a general massacre, and from triumphing over the revolutionary tribunal.

Marat, like Milton’s Sin, was violated by Death: Chénier wrote his apotheosis, David painted him in his bath of blood, while he was compared to the divine author of the Gospels. This prayer was dedicated to him: ‘Heart of Jesus, heart of Marat; O sacred heart of Jesus, O sacred heart of Marat!’ That heart of Marat had for its ciborium a precious pyxis from the storehouse. In a cenotaph made of turf, erected on the Place du Carrousel, one visited the bust, the bath-tub, the lamp, and the writing-case of this divinity. Then the wind changed: the foul remains, poured from the agate urn into another vessel, were emptied into the sewer.