Friday, 15 July 2011

Camille Desmoulins

Owing to his difficulties in establishing a career as a lawyer, Desmoulins' position in Paris was a precarious one, and he often lived in poverty. However, he was greatly inspired and enthused by the current of political reform that surrounded the summoning of the Estates-General. In letters to his father at the time, he rhapsodized over the procession of deputies entering the Palace of Versailles, and criticized the events surrounding the closing of the Salle des Menus Plaisirs to the deputies who had declared themselves the National Assembly - events which lead to the famous swearing of the Tennis Court Oath.
The sudden dismissal of popular finance minister Jacques Necker by King Louis XVI on July 11, 1789 proved the spark that lit the fuse of Desmoulins' fame. On July 12, spurred by the news of this politically unsettling dismissal, Desmoulins leapt onto a table outside the Cafe du Foy (one of many cafés in the garden of the Palais Royal frequented in large part by political dissidents) and delivered an impassioned call to arms. Shedding his customary stammer in the excitement, he urged the volatile crowd to "...take up arms and adopt cockades by which we may know each other", calling Necker's dismissal the tocsin of the St. Bartholomew of the patriots." The stationing of a large number of troops in Paris, many foreign, had led Desmoulins and other political radicals to believe that a massacre of dissidents in the city was indeed imminent. This was an idea that his audience also found plausible and threatening, and they were quick to embrace Desmoulins and take up arms in riots that spread throughout Paris rapidly.
The "cockades" worn by the crowd were initially green, a color associated with liberty, and made at first from the leaves of the trees that lined the Palais Royal. However, the color green was also associated with the Comte d'Artois, a reactionary aristocrat, and the cockades therefore were quickly replaced by others in the traditional colors of Paris: red and blue. The forces semi-organized under this banner attacked the Hôtel des Invalides to gain arms and, on July 12, embarked upon the Storming of the Bastille.
May and June of 1789, Desmoulins had written a radical pamphlet entitled La France Libre, which his publisher at that time had refused to print. The rioting surrounding the storming of the Bastille, however, and especially Desmoulins' personal and publicized involvement in it, altered the situation considerably. On July 18, Desmoulins's work was finally issued. The politics of the pamphlet ran considerably in advance of public opinion; in it, Desmoulins called explicitly for a republic, stating, "... popular and democratic government is the only constitution which suits France, and all those who are worthy of the name of men." La France Libre also examined and criticized in detail the role and rights of kings, of the nobility, and of the Roman Catholic clergy.
Desmoulins' renown as a radical pamphleteer was furthered by the publication, in September 1789, of his Discours de la lanterne aux Parisiens,which featured as its epigraph a quotation from the Gospel of John: Qui male agit odit lucem ("He who does evil hates the light" John 3:20). This was understood to allude to the iron bracket of a lamppost at the corner of the Place de Grève and the Rue de la Vannerie, often used by rioters as a makeshift gallows for anti-revolutionaries and those accused of profiteering. A famous Revolutionary song, the Ça ira ("It shall be"), also immortalizes this lantern, in the lines, "Les aristocrates à la lanterne... Les aristocrates, on les pendra!" ("To the lantern with the aristocrats... The aristocrats, we'll hang them!")
The Discours de la lanterne, written from the perspective of the Place de Grève lamppost, was aggressive in its celebration of political violence, and attributed exalted qualities of loyalty and patriotism to the citizens who made up the Parisian mob. This hard-edged fervor found an appreciative audience in Paris, and Desmoulins, as a result of the pamphlet, became known as the "Procureur-général de la lanterne" ("the Lanterne Prosecutor" or "Lanterne Attorney").
In November 1789, Desmoulins issued the first number of a weekly publication, Histoire des Révolutions de France et de Brabant, which would run until the end of July 1791. This publication combined political reportage, revolutionary polemics, satire, and cultural commentary; "The universe and all its follies," Desmoulins had announced, "shall be included in the jurisdiction of this hypercritical journal." The Révolutions de France et de Brabant proved extremely popular from its first to its last number. Desmoulins became notorious, and was able to leave behind the poverty that had marked his previous life in Paris.
The politics of the Révolutions de France et de Brabant were anti-royalist and pro-Revolutionary. The newspaper celebrated the Revolutionary zeal of "patriots" from the battlefields ofBrabant to the Cordeliers district in Paris (home to the well-known and powerful revolutionary Club des Cordeliers, of which Desmoulins was a prominent member), and also criticized the excesses and inequities of, among a wide range of targets, the aristocratic regime. The savagery with which Desmoulins attacked those with whom he disagreed drew lawsuits, criticism, and reciprocal attacks. His previous friendships with powerful figures such as the Comte de Mirabeau and Baron Malouet, suffered. Both men, angered by what they perceived as libellous statements, declared that Desmoulins should be denounced and Malouet “went so far as to ask that Camille be certified insane.” The Actes des Apôtres, the equally savage royalist newspaper that served as the Révolutions' opposite number, engaged in a continual war of insults with the Révolutions, and particularly with Desmoulins, whom it dubbed, in a satirical poem, "l'ânon des moulins".
Upon the death of the Comte de Mirabeau in April 1791, Desmoulins (to whom Mirabeau had, at one time, been a great patron and friend) countered the predominantly sentimental and forgiving eulogies that appeared in the Parisian press by publishing a brutal attack in which he declared the late Mirabeau to be the "god of orators, liars, and thieves."This presaged later about-face attacks against prominent and once-sympathetic Revolutionary figures, such as Jean Pierre Brissot, by Desmoulins - a method which would, ultimately, be turned against him by his own former friends.
On July 16, 1791, Desmoulins appeared before the Paris Commune as the head of a group petitioning for the deposition of Louis XVI, who had, in June of that year, briefly fled Paris with his family before being captured and escorted back to the city. The flight of the king had caused civil unrest, and the petition, presented a day before the anniversary of the Fête de la Fédération, contributed to this agitation. On July 17, a large crowd that had gathered at the Champs de Mars in support of the petition was fired upon by military forces under the command of the Marquis de Lafayette, an incident which became known as the Champs de Mars Massacre.
 Accounts differ as to whether or not Desmoulins was present at the Champs de Mars; in the subsequent upheaval, warrants for the arrest of himself and Georges Danton were issued. Danton fled Paris, and Desmoulins, though he remained in the city, and spoke on several occasions at the Jacobin Club, decreased his journalistic activities for a time.
Early in 1792, following a bitter quarrel with Jean Pierre Brissot over a legal case which Desmoulins had taken up and discussed in several broadsheets, Desmoulins published a pamphlet, Jean Pierre Brissot démasqué, which attacked Brissot savagely and personally. In it, Desmoulins claimed that the invented verb brissoter had taken on the meaning "to cheat," and accused Brissot of betraying republicanism. The case constructed against Brissot in this pamphlet was expanded and used to terrible and destructive effect in Desmoulins' later, 1793 publication, Fragment de l'histoire secrète de la Révolution (also known as the Histoire des Brissotins), in which the Girondist political faction, of which Brissot was a prominent member, was accused of traitorous and counter-revolutionary activities. This "history," produced in response to calls by Brissot and his followers for the dissolution of the Paris Commune and of the Jacobins, contributed to the arrest and execution of many Girondist leaders, including Brissot himself, in October 1793. Desmoulins intensely regretted his role in the death of the Girondists; present at their trial, he was heard to lament, "O my God! my God! It is I who kill them!" He was seen to collapse in the courtroom when the public prosecutor pronounced the sentence of death.
This growing remorse was accompanied by an element of recklessness. In the summer of 1793, General Arthur Dillon, a close friend of Desmoulins and his wife, a known royalist, was imprisoned. In an openly published Lettre au General Dillon, Desmoulins went far beyond the politically delicate act of defending Dillon, and attacked powerful members of the Committee of Public Safety - notably Saint-Just and Billaud-Varenne.
Beginning December 5, 1793, Desmoulins published the journal for which he would be best known and most celebrated: Le Vieux Cordelier. Even the title of this short-lived publication spoke of conflict with the current regime, implying that Desmoulins spoke on behalf of the "old" or original members of the Club des Cordeliers, in opposition to the more radical and extreme factions that had now come into power. In the seven issues that comprised the Vieux Cordelier, Desmoulins condemned the suspicion, brutality, and fear that had come to characterize the Revolution, comparing the ongoing Revolutionary Terror to the oppressive reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius and calling for the establishment of a "Committee of Clemency" to counter the climate of mercilessness fostered by the Committee of Public Safety. In the fourth number of the journal, Desmoulins addressed Robespierre directly, writing, "My dear Robespierre... my old school friend... Remember the lessons of history and philosophy: love is stronger, more lasting than fear. The perceived counter-revolutionary tone in these calls for clemency led to Desmoulins' expulsion from the Club des Cordeliers and denunciation at the Jacobins, as well as, ultimately, to his arrest and execution.
Desmoulins took an active part in the August 10, 1792 attack on the Tuileries Palace. Immediately afterwards, as the Legislative Assembly (France) crumbled and various factions contended for control of the country, he was appointed Secretary-General to Georges Danton, who had assumed the role of Justice Minister. On September 8, he was elected as a deputy from Paris to the new National Convention. He was affiliated with The Mountain, and voted for the establishment of the Republic and the Execution of Louis XVI. His political views were closely aligned with those of Danton and, initially, Robespierre.
The appearance of the Vieux Cordelier in December 1793 marked the start of a rift between Desmoulins and Robespierre. Initially directed, with Robespierre's approval, against the excesses of the ultra-radical Hébertist faction, the journal was rapidly turned against Robespierre himself and his allies in the Committee of Public Safety. Its calls for a Committee of Clemency sharply divided Danton and Desmoulins, who advocated such a committee, from Robespierre, who viewed the idea as indulgent and dangerous.
On January 7, 1794, the Jacobin Club sought to expel Desmoulins from its number. Robespierre, seeking to protect Desmoulins, suggested as an alternative that the offending issues of the Vieux Cordelier be publicly burnt. Desmoulins' response,"Brûler n'est pas répondre" ("Burning is not answering"), echoed the cry of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the influential philosopher whose work was central to Robespierre's own vision of the Republic. Robespierre persisted in his attempt to protect his childhood friend (his argument was that Desmoulins was a "spoilt child" whom others had led astray), but Desmoulins' refusal to renounce the Vieux Cordelier made it politically difficult for any tolerance to be extended to him.
The condemnation and execution of the Hébertists in March 1794 meant that the sole remaining serious source of dissent within the Committee of Public Safety's regime was theindulgent faction headed by Danton and voiced by Desmoulins. The energies of the Committee, and especially of Saint-Just, therefore turned to the elimination of the Dantonists. Charges were brought before the Committee of Public Safety, and an arrest warrant for Danton and Desmoulins was finally issued on March 31.
Danton, Desmoulins, and many other actual or accused Dantonist associates were tried from April 3 through 5th before the Revolutionary Tribunal. The trial was less criminal in nature than political, and as such unfolded in an irregular fashion. The accused were prevented from defending themselves by a decree of the National Convention. This fact, together with confusing and often incidental denunciations (for instance, a report that Danton, while engaged in political work in Brussels, had appropriated a carriage filled with several hundred thousand livres of table linen)and threats made by prosecutor Antoine Quentin Fouquier-Tinville towards members of the jury, helped to ensure a guilty verdict. Additionally, the accused were denied the right to have witnesses appear on their behalf, though they had submitted requests for several - including, in Desmoulins' case, Robespierre. The verdict was passed in the absence of the accused, who had been removed from the courtroom to prevent unrest among the trial's observers. Their execution was scheduled for the same day.
In a letter to his wife from the Luxembourg Prison, Desmoulins wrote, "[I]t is marvellous that I have walked for five years along the precipices of the Revolution without falling over them, and that I am still living; and I rest my head calmly upon the pillow of my writings... I have dreamed of a Republic such as all the world would have adored. I could never have believed that men could be so ferocious and so unjust."
Of the group of fifteen who were guillotined together on April 5, 1794, including Marie Jean Hérault de Séchelles, Philippe Fabre d'Églantine and Pierre Philippeaux, Desmoulins died third, and Danton last.
On December 29, 1790 Desmoulins married Lucile Duplessis. Among the witnesses to the marriage were Robespierre, Brissot, Jérôme Pétion de Villeneuve. The Desmoulins' only child, Horace Camille, was born on July 6, 1792; his godfather was Robespierre.
Lucile Desmoulins was arrested mere days after her husband, and condemned to the guillotine on charges of conspiring to free her husband from prison and plotting the "ruin of the Republic." She was executed on April 13, 1794.
Horace Camille Desmoulins was raised by Adèle and Annette Duplessis (the sister and mother of Lucile, respectively). He was later pensioned by the French government, and died in 1825 in Haiti.

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