Sunday, June 30, 2013

Camille Desmoulins: Journalist, Agitator, Fatality

This image of Camille Desmoulins is displayed in the Conciergerie Prison in Paris.  He was, in years and in presentation, younger than other prominent  revolutionaries and was attached, at different times, to older, more experienced men, including Mirabeau, Robespierre, and Danton.  The fact that he was known to his contemporaries, and is known to history, by his first name, seems to reinforce the image of youth and inexperience that I see in him.

Taking the Lead

Camille Desmoulins was from a respectable family in Guise, had studied law and was a long-time friend of Robespierre.  He'd chosen, against his father's advice, to try to make a living at writing instead of law and lent his talents to the cause of the budding Revolution.  Camille had not yet  reached his thirtieth year when his impassioned words, shouted from a tabletop to the crowd in the Palais Royal, fanned the flames of change and led to the storming of the Bastille.  Through his writing, he became a central player in the Revolution, and, through his writing, lost his head.

I have a soft spot for Camille.  Maybe it's the fact that he had a severe stammer.  Maybe it's because he loved his wife so much that he died clutching a lock of her hair.  His vitriolic writings notwithstanding, he just comes across as an idealistic, well-meaning, eager to please, very young man.

This letter to his father describes, in his Camille's own words, the heady afternoon at the Palais Royal.:

Dearest father,

I can now write to you. . . . How things have changed over the last three days! Last Sunday, Paris was dismayed at the dismissal of M. Necker. Although I was getting people worked up, no one would take up arms. About three o'clock I went to the Palais-Royal. I was deploring our lack of courage to a group of people when three young men came by, holding hands and shouting Aux armes! (To arms!) I joined them and since my enthusiasm was quite obvious, I was surrounded and pressed to climb up on a table. Immediately six thousand people gathered around me. . . .
I was choking from the hundreds of ideas that overwhelmed me and, my thoughts a jumble, I spoke: "To arms!' I cried, "To arms! Let us all wear green cockades, the color of hope." . . . I grabbed a green ribbon and was the first to pin it to my hat. My action spread like wildfire! The noise from the tumult reached the camp; the Cravates, the Swiss, the Dragoons, the Royal-Allemand all arrived. Prince Lambesc, leading the regiment of Royal-Allemands, entered the Tuileries on horseback. He personally cut down an unarmed French guardsman with his sword, and knocked over women and children. The crowd became furious, and from that point on, there was but a single cry heard across Paris: To Arms!

And, later, still hoping to impress his father:

"Mirabeau and I have become close friends.  Anyway, he calls me his very good friend.  He is always gripping me by the hand or giving me a friendly punch or two with his big fist…"

and, later still:

"The Cause of Liberty has triumphed!  And here I am lodged in the palace of Maupeou and Lamoignon! So, in spite of all your predictions that I should never amount to anything, here I now am at the top of the ladder!  How the people of Guise (his hometown,) so full of envy, will burst with jealousy today!"

Lucile Desmoulins

Camille loved his wife, Lucile.  Upon her accepting his marriage proposal (or, rather, her father accepting it), he wrote these words to his father.:

I have waited so long for happiness, but it has come to me at last, and today I am as happy as any man can ever be on this earth.  Lucile, about whom I've written so often and whom I have loved for eight years, has promised to marry me and her parents have at last consented.  A moment ago, her mother came, crying with joy, to tell me the good news…  She led me into her daughter's room and I threw myself on the floor before Lucile.  I heard her laugh and I raised my eyes in surprise.  But, like mine, her eyes were filled with tears of happiness and she was crying at the same time as she laughed.  Never have I seen anything so beautiful…."

Talk about wearing one's heart on one's sleeve.  I gotta love this guy.

Then, upon the birth of his son, Horace:

  "I have a son!  My only wish is that one day he will love me as much as I love my father."

It's a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (a tip of the hat to my old friend, Mr. Rogers)

Camille and his happy little family lived in the Cour du Commerce close to their friends Gabrielle and George-Jacques Danton.  I tracked down the neighborhood on my last trip to Paris and even though their particular apartments were destroyed, as part of the Haussman plan, and the corridor on which they lived, abbreviated, seeing it was one of the absolute highlights.  I went at least three times and it's now joined the Conciergerie as the place I'll always go on the last day of a visit.

I took this picture from the base of the huge statue of Danton that sits on the median in the middle of Boulevard Saint-Germain.  The archway marking the entrance to the Cour du Commerce has been moved from its original location which was at about the spot I was standing.  The Danton and Desmoulins families lived in the section of the neighborhood between where I took the picture and where the entrance was moved and stands now.  If that makes sense.  To the right of where I stood was Marat's home, also now destroyed.  (A building that belongs to the medical school stands on the site of Marat's home.  When I was there, construction workers were digging and I desperately wanted to help them dig in hopes of discovering some long-buried artifact.)

I crossed the street, passed through that historic entry and onto the cobblestone streets once trod by so many people I almost consider friends.  (They may as well be friends.  I damn sure think about them enough.)  It took my breath away.

Cour du Commerce - photo taken from just inside the archway, above

This section of the city, with its winding, narrow streets was teeming with citoyens battling for change.  Marat's printing press, a turret from the medieval wall that surrounded Paris, Le Procope, Dr. Guillotin's workshop were all located here.  Prime real estate.   Camille and Danton walked on these cobblestones. I wish I could see Spirits.  If there are such things.

Le Procope Interior

One of the oldest remaining restaurants in Paris, Le Procope, was a gathering place for philosophers, thinkers, activists.  The back wall and rear entrance are along the left side of the narrow Cour du Commerce street, pictured above, on which Danton and Camille lived with their families.

Le Procope Exterior

The back entrance to Le Procope faces the street on which Danton and Desmoulins lived.  They, among others including Diderot, Voltaire, Jefferson and Franklin were regulars.  I went there at almost midnight, had a glass of wine and hoped to see Spirits.  No go.

Inconspicuous sign on the side of the street

I don't remember what obscure spot I was hunting, still in the general area of Cour du Commerce, but was absolutely astonished when this caught my eye.  I had no idea that the Cordeliers' Club was still standing.

Words and More Words

The face of leadership during the French Revolution was ever-changing.  Some revolutionaries were well-meaning, idealistic, and, in light of the unfair system and poor living conditions of the common man, had valid reasons for wanting to up-end the system.  Camille Desmoulins was, I think, one of those men.  Vanity and pride in his writing and the success it brought him (Without the Revolution, he would've probably scratched out a meagre existence in obscurity.) sometimes led him to write words he dearly regretted.

The Revolution was too complicated for me to understand, much less communicate. So many factors influenced its path:  events and pressure from within and without of the city of Paris/ events and pressure from émigrés in Coblentz, Belgium, England and elsewhere/ events and pressure from Prussia, Austria and other countries.  Equally, or perhaps more importantly, because they interpreted and reacted to the events and pressures, were the personalities of the major players in Paris.  I suppose that's obvious and is the case in each and every of life's situations.  The personalities of those involved always affect the eventual outcome.  Obvious, but endlessly compelling to me.

The French Revolution is an especially riveting example of the influence of the media on popular thought.  The rivalries and competition between the various journalists had their sway as well.

The demise of a relatively moderate, reasonable group of insurgents, the Girondins, (most of whom, for example, supported the end of the monarchy, but not the death of the King) is an example of both the constant flux of leadership, the influence of personalities, and the effect of the pen.

The Girondins (also known as the Brissotins, making use of the name of a prominent member, Jean Pierre Brissot) decried the September Massacres which had been prompted by, among other things, the inflammatory writings of Marat and the incitement of Georges-Jacques Danton.  The September Massacres led to public criticism, led by the Girondins, of Camille's friend, Danton.  Danton, Robespierre, Marat and other radicals sought the downfall of their fellow, less-militant, revolutionaries, the Girondins.

By the way, it was this persecution, if it can be so-called, that inspired Girondin-supporter Charlotte Corday to murder Marat as he soaked in his medicinal bath.

Camille Desmoulins, influenced by the (older) men, particularly Robespierre,  became enmeshed in a public war of words with the Girondin leader, Jean Pierre Brissot, which led to Camille writing and publishing the pamphlet, Histoire des Brissotins, accusing Brissot and the other Girondins (AKA Brissotins) of counterrevolutionary, treasonous activities.  The backlash quickly led to the trial of the Girondins.  When they were sentenced to death, a remorse-filled Desmoulins cried out "Oh, my God,  oh, my God.  It is I who have killed them!" as he collapsed in the courtroom.

Twenty-one Girondins (including one who was already dead, having committed suicide, I believe, in the courtroom after being sentenced) were beheaded, one after another, on Oct. 31, 1793.  Several of the group had escaped Paris and were either hunted down or committed suicide, as in the case of Jean Roland, whose wife who wrote her memoirs, in prison, before being executed.

With the moderate Girondins out of the picture, the way was paved for the Reign of Terror.  Danton and Camille eventually became disgusted with the mad downward spiral and called for it's end which, in turn, led to their confrontations with Robespierre, their trial, their execution.

To make a long story short... and, hopefully, factual!  My point is… that it seems to me that Camille got carried away with his pride in his writing skills, was influenced by others, and was sometimes sorry he did.

Cordeliers' Club

I took Matt and Elissa to see the Cordeliers Convent (the building in which the Danton's and Desmoulins' political group met) and Matt took my picture.  Hallowed ground.  And, good picture of me, too.  Distant, and I look taller and thinner than I am.  Too bad my cute, orange, waterproof tennis shoes aren't visible enough.

Family Desmoulins

"Where are my fields of Guise?  Where can I hide from this world and be alone with my wife and child?" Camille Desmoulins, Summer 1793.

The fact that Robespierre was baby Horace's godfather didn't prevent his being orphaned, in effect, by Robespierre's hand.

Le Vieux Cordelier

The Cordelier Club, originally led by George-Jacques Danton, Camille Desmoulins and their friends, gradually changed leadership and became more radical.  Neither Robespierre nor Danton were politically aligned with the new Cordeliers, led by Hébert, and populated by anarchists, rabid atheists, and the remnants of Marat's horde.  Both Robespierre and Danton wanted them out of the way.

Hébert was the editor of the Pére Duchesne, a news rag that, according to author Stanley Loomis, made Marat's incendiary publication,  L'Ami du Peuple, read like the New York Times.  (Hébert, incidentally, was also the low-life that falsely accused Marie Antoinette, at her trial, of sexually abusing her son.)

In an effort to undermine Hébert's authority and power,  Danton, more closely allied to Camille than was Robespierre, at this point, and involved with an increasingly intense power struggle with Robespierre, encouraged Camille to pen and publish criticism of Hébert while subtly, at first, making jabs at Robespierre as well. Danton and Camille wanted to bring to a close the Reign of Terror which they believed had served its purpose and was running roughshod over the rights of men (to put it mildly.) One story goes that Danton and Camille were crossing the Pont Neuf, after a session at the Convention and paused, observing the way the light shone on the Seine, making the water appear red as if the river ran with blood.  No doubt, both men had become sickened by the course of the Revolution and regretted their parts in the some of the more pivotal, shameful events such as the September Massacres and the execution of the Girondins.  Danton told Camille to "Take up your pen and plead for clemency.  I will support you." encouraging him to use his writing to turn the bloody tide.  The vehicle by which Camille intended to advance these ideas was the publication Le Vieux Cordelier The name The Old Cordelier  was a reference to the good old days when the club was under the direction of Danton.

Initially, Camille had the support of Robespierre and even submitted the first couple of issues for his approval.  In the first issue, he not only brutally criticized Hébert and the Cordeliers, he pushed it further, into Robespierre's territory, urging, "Open the prisons and release the two hundred thousand suspects that are in them!  In the Declaration of Man's Rights there is no house of suspicion.  There are only houses of arrest." The premier edition was a resounding success, selling out within hours. Robespierre was not amused.  He was notably lacking in humor in every situation, so no surprise there.

The public was encouraged and inspired by Camille's words and, emboldened by the show of public support, Camille increased the pressure in the second and third editions.  Crowds began to appear at the Convention calling for release of prisoners.  These challenges to the authority of Robespierre's Committee of Public Safety were, at the same time, expressed by Danton's booming voice from the rostrum of the Convention.  Robespierre became alarmed at the budding insurrection and began, with the aid of his ice-cold right-hand man, Louis-Antoine de St. Just, his counter-attack.

In the fourth edition of Le Vieux Cordelier, Camille, ill-advisedly and/or bravely, wrote, in an obvious reference to Robespierre, "Love of country cannot exist where there is neither pity nor love for one's fellow countrymen, but only a soul dried up and withered by self-love…"  Within days, sinister rumblings from men on the Committee of Public Safety and the Revolutionary Tribunal, caused Camille to rein in and redirect his criticisms from Robespierre and the government back to Hébert.  Who wouldn't back peddle, in such a climate, at such overheard statements as "Camille is skirting very close to the guillotine." and "The man who complains about everything during a Revolution, is a suspect."?  The young journalist knew he had reason to fear.

Confrontation in the Jacobin Club

I don't know at what ages Camille is portrayed in the posted portraits, but he seems older and wearier in this one than in the others.

I'll borrow Stanley Loomis' words in "Paris in the Terror" to relate a scene that took place at the Jacobin Club in the days approaching the trial of the Dantonists that typifies Robespierre's sleazy, back-handed way of operating and Camille's impetuousity..:

"The quarrel between Camille and Hébert came to a head a few days later in the Jacobin Club, that theatre in which was enacted most of the crucial political dramas of the Revolution.  They went at each other's throat over Camille's accusation that Hébert was a thief.  Robespierre suggested that explanations and a frank "purifying scrutiny" were now called for.  This was exactly the kind of situation on which Robespierre thrived.  Affecting to be a dispassionate judge, he would be able to pass judgement on two quarreling factions, both of which were a danger to him.  On January 7, Robespierre went to the rostrum of the Jacobin Club and in a paternal tone of voice called on Camille to "abjure his errors."

"Camille," he declared in words that betray his rankling envy of Desmoulins' success, "who sits there all puffed up over the prodigious sale of his newspaper and by the perfidious praise which the aristocrats have showered on him, has not left the path of error.  His writings are dangerous.  They give hope to our enemies and they stir up public malignity…..  Camille's writings are to be condemned, but we must distinguish between the person and his works.  Camille is a spoiled child who once had good inclinations but who is now led astray by bad companions.  We must use severity towards his paper… yet we must keep Camille among us."  Robespierre lifted his spectacles, in that gesture described by Fievée, and gazed about the room with the long, searching stare that is said to have paralyzed the will of his auditors.  His glasses came down again as he returned to his theme.  "I demand," he concluded,
"that the offensive issues of this journal be burned in the hall of the Society!"

Provoked at first by Robespierre's patronizing tone, then angered beyond control by his demand for book burning…, Camille's too-quick tongue ran away with him.  His answer came with the speed of a rapier and it struck Robespierre where he was the most vulnerable.

"Brûler," replied Camille, "n'est pas répondre."  They were the famous words of Rousseau, used by him when Émile had been condemned to the fire by the magistrates of the ancien régime:   "To burn is not to answer."  Camille's audacious identification of himself with Rousseau (and Robespierre with tyranny) left Robespierre momentarily speechless.  His green face is said to have suddenly turned red."

(Rousseau, incidently, was Robespierre's idol.)

"Now know this, Camille, " he replied with menace.  "If you were not Camille, the amount of indulgence shown you here would be unthinkable.  Your attitude proves to me that your intentions are dishonest."  Robespierre, in effect, pronounced Camille's death sentence that night at the Jacobin Club.  "I retract my motion, therefore.  If Camille wishes it so, then let him be covered with ignominy.  A man who so stubbornly defends such perfidious writings is more perhaps than a mere laggard."

Too late, Camille realized where his reckless tongue had led him.  He blanched.  Danton noticed his fear-ridden expression and spoke a few comforting words, exhorting him not to be frightened…."

The Warning

There was a flurry of activity right before the arrest of Danton, Desmoulins and their followers, as they maneuvered to avoid what was rapidly becoming a crisis.  It must've been surreal to them and difficult to accept that they could be brought to trial by men who'd been their friends and fellow politicians.

The Trial

Danton, hugely popular with the people of Paris, seemed nearly poised to win the day, as his powerful voice, punctuated by thunder and lightning outside, resounded throughout the Palais de Justice on the day of his "trial."  Robespierre and his cohorts eliminated that possibility by refusing to allow neither witnesses nor a defense and by handpicking a suitable jury from among their supporters.

The most horrifying development in the procedure, for Camille, certainly must've been the accusation that his wife was a conspirator and would be brought to trial.  "Trial" such as it was.  No defense, no witnesses, no justice.

The conviction was a foregone conclusion virtually unavoidable unless by an uprising of men terrified for their own lives.  That didn't happen.  So, to the scaffold went the Dantonists.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Prison and Execution

The letters Camille Desmoulins wrote to Lucile from his cell in the Luxembourg prison are heartbreaking, but since when has that stopped me from dwelling on something?  I feel that I owe it to these people to learn, to remember, to care.

So, here goes...

From his prison window, Camille could see the gardens he'd strolled with his wife in better days and  he wrote, as his tears stained the paper.:

"It brings back to me so many recollections of our love…then I throw myself on my knees, I stretch out to embrace you…"

"I sleep and heaven has pity on me, for in sleep one is free again.  Just a moment ago I saw you in a dream and held you in my arms again.  You and our little Horace and Daronne [Lucile's mother], who had come to visit us.  But, our little boy had lost an eye and my grief awoke me…  I married a wife who was heavenly in her virtues.  I have been a good husband and son.  I would've been a good father.

And, "Oh, my beloved Lucile, I was born to write poetry, to defend the unfortunate and to make you happy."

And, "The shores of life are receding from me!  I see you still, my Lucile, my beloved!  My bound hands embrace you and my head as it falls into the basket will rest its dying eyes on you."

Poor Camille was so distraught at the knowledge of his fate, and the fact that his wife would soon follow, that at the final "toilette" he had to be restrained, actually tied to the bench, so that his hair could be cut in preparation for the blade.  He asked Danton to reach into his pocket and place the lock of Lucile's hair into his bound hands.

As the loaded tumbrel traveled the length of rue St. Honoré, it passed the home where Robespierre lived with the Duplay family and Danton roared, "Vile Robespierre!  You will follow me.  Your house will be leveled and the ground where it stood will be sowed with salt."  His prediction didn't entirely come to pass.  Robespierre followed in short order, but the house, most of it, anyway, remains.  I visit it every time I go to Paris.

Camille completely lost his composure as the tumbrel passed through the crowd.  Danton tried to console his friend, but at one point, Camille began screaming "People!  They have lied to you.  They are sacrificing your servants!  My only crime is to have shed tears."  Danton turned to him and said. "Be quiet.  Leave that vile rabble alone." 

Perhaps, as I've said about the Comtesse du Barry's rare show of emotionally charged panic on the scaffold, if fewer people had gone to their deaths frozen with horror, resignedly, or too proud to show emotion and more had reacted like Camille Desmoulins, sympathetic public opinion would've been aroused and the whole tragic episode in history would've ended sooner.  

Camille and Danton (pictured, bold to the end) were executed within minutes of each other with Camille the third  and Danton the last of the group.

One last thought from Camille Desmoulins:

"J'avais rêvé une republique que tout le monde eût adorée.  Je n'ai pu croire que les hommes fussent si féroces et si injustes."  Camille Desmoulins to his wife, Lucile, from prison, April 4, 1794.

"I dreamed of a republic that everyone would love.  I could not believe that men were so fierce and so unjust." 

Lucile's Unfortunate End

                                                      19th Century guillotine blade on
                                                     display in the Conciergerie Prison

An excerpt from "Paris in the Terror," by Stanley Loomis:

As Camille Desmoulins had foreseen, his wife soon followed his footsteps to the guillotine … Lucile was arrested immediately after Camille’s execution. It suited the Committee [of Public Safety] to support St. Just’s story of a “dangerous conspiracy in the prisons.” Along with having been seen in the vicinity of the Luxembourg (carrying the baby Horace in her arms in the hope that Camille might catch a glimpse of him),* Lucile had gone to Robespierre’s house and tried to gain admittance in order to plead with the Incorruptible on her husband’s behalf. No man was less accessible to the pleas of wailing women than Robespierre, and his door remained adamantly closed. Such manifestations of despair conveniently lent themselves to St. Just’s contention that revolt was afoot, and Lucile was accordingly arrested.
Lucile was condemned to death on April 13, along with eighteen other victims. She accepted her sentence with serenity. “In a few hours I shall see my Camille again,” she declared to her judges. “I am therefore less to be pitied than you, for at your death, which will be infamous, you will be haunted by remorse for what you have done.” At the same trial, the widow of Hebert was also condemned. The two women whose husbands had so bitterly hated each other struck up a friendship in the last few days of their life. “You are lucky,” Mme. Hebert said to Lucile as they departed for the scaffold. “Nobody speaks ill of you. There is no shadow upon your character. You are leaving life by the grand staircase.”
Upon hearing the news of her daughter’s sentence [Lucile's mother] sent a frantic letter to Robespierre. “It is not enough for you to have murdered your best friend [Camille],” she cried. “You must have his wife’s blood as well. Your monster Fouquier-Tinville has just ordered Lucile to be taken to the scaffold. In less than two hours’ time she will be dead. If you aren’t a human tiger, if Camille’s blood hasn’t driven you mad, if you are still able to remember the happy evenings you once spent before our fire fondling our Horace, spare an innocent victim. If not — then hurry and take us all, Horace, myself and my other daughter Adele. Hurry and tear us apart with your claws that still drip with Camille’s blood … hurry, hurry so that we can all sleep in the same grave!”

Monday, June 24, 2013

Think I Can Do It?

My inner voice is taking a ride on the crazy bus. Luckily, summer vacation allows me plenty of free time, so I'm counting on manic productivity grabbing the steering wheel before said bus careens into orbit.  And, productive I'll be.  Besides quieting the household work always screaming for attention, I'm going to immerse myself in French history and try to work it all out in my head; read up on world affairs (in the magazine edited by brother, Jim - and try to work them all out in my head; record family stories and try to work them all out in my head.  That's a lot to work out in my head.  Think I can I do it?

While I'm at it, I'll do Rosetta Stone every day, to give myself confidence enough to exchange pleasantries with Yasmine, my ever-patient French teacher; walk with Emma until she can't take any more; write letters from my heart; cook and take care of my husband and daughter.  Oh, and riding lessons.

Combined with my family and friends and the rest of my life and obligations, these activities ought to keep me busy enough to quell that damn inner voice.

Having said all that, instead of saying what this post was originally going to say, which was something along the lines of "I love this picture that Elissa took of Micah and Lanie.  See more of her work at," I'd better go.  Meeting Terry for dinner.

Btw, Elissa, my dear, oft-mentioned, French-history-loving friend is moving to Galveston, so we'll have all sorts of time to discuss our shared interest.  I'm going to visit her there in a couple of days.  So, yay.  Busy.

Hmmm.  This picture has nothing to do with what I wrote in this post.