The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle

Chapter 12

Procession of the Black Breeches.

But is there a thinking man in France who, in these circumstances, can persuade himself that the Constitution will march? Brunswick is stirring; he, in few days now, will march. Shall France sit still, wrapped in dead cerements and grave-clothes, its right hand glued to its left, till the Brunswick Saint–Bartholomew arrive; till France be as Poland, and its Rights of Man become a Prussian Gibbet?

Verily, it is a moment frightful for all men. National Death; or else some preternatural convulsive outburst of National Life; — that same, daemonic outburst! Patriots whose audacity has limits had, in truth, better retire like Barnave; court private felicity at Grenoble. Patriots, whose audacity has no limits must sink down into the obscure; and, daring and defying all things, seek salvation in stratagem, in Plot of Insurrection. Roland and young Barbaroux have spread out the Map of France before them, Barbaroux says ‘with tears:’ they consider what Rivers, what Mountain ranges are in it: they will retire behind this Loire-stream, defend these Auvergne stone-labyrinths; save some little sacred Territory of the Free; die at least in their last ditch. Lafayette indites his emphatic Letter to the Legislative against Jacobinism; (Moniteur, Seance du 18 Juin 1792.) which emphatic Letter will not heal the unhealable.

Forward, ye Patriots whose audacity has no limits; it is you now that must either do or die! The sections of Paris sit in deep counsel; send out Deputation after Deputation to the Salle de Manege, to petition and denounce. Great is their ire against tyrannous Veto, Austrian Committee, and the combined Cimmerian Kings. What boots it? Legislative listens to the ‘tocsin in our hearts;’ grants us honours of the sitting, sees us defile with jingle and fanfaronade; but the Camp of Twenty Thousand, the Priest–Decree, be-vetoed by Majesty, are become impossible for Legislative. Fiery Isnard says, “We will have Equality, should we descend for it to the tomb.” Vergniaud utters, hypothetically, his stern Ezekiel-visions of the fate of Anti-national Kings. But the question is: Will hypothetic prophecies, will jingle and fanfaronade demolish the Veto; or will the Veto, secure in its Tuileries Chateau, remain undemolishable by these? Barbaroux, dashing away his tears, writes to the Marseilles Municipality, that they must send him ‘Six hundred men who know how to die, qui savent mourir.’ (Barbaroux, p. 40.) No wet-eyed message this, but a fire-eyed one; — which will be obeyed!

Meanwhile the Twentieth of June is nigh, anniversary of that world-famous Oath of the Tennis–Court: on which day, it is said, certain citizens have in view to plant a Mai or Tree of Liberty, in the Tuileries Terrace of the Feuillants; perhaps also to petition the Legislative and Hereditary Representative about these Vetos; — with such demonstration, jingle and evolution, as may seem profitable and practicable. Sections have gone singly, and jingled and evolved: but if they all went, or great part of them, and there, planting their Mai in these alarming circumstances, sounded the tocsin in their hearts?

Among King’s Friends there can be but one opinion as to such a step: among Nation’s Friends there may be two. On the one hand, might it not by possibility scare away these unblessed Vetos? Private Patriots and even Legislative Deputies may have each his own opinion, or own no-opinion: but the hardest task falls evidently on Mayor Petion and the Municipals, at once Patriots and Guardians of the public Tranquillity. Hushing the matter down with the one hand; tickling it up with the other! Mayor Petion and Municipality may lean this way; Department–Directory with Procureur–Syndic Roederer having a Feuillant tendency, may lean that. On the whole, each man must act according to his one opinion or to his two opinions; and all manner of influences, official representations cross one another in the foolishest way. Perhaps after all, the Project, desirable and yet not desirable, will dissipate itself, being run athwart by so many complexities; and coming to nothing?

Not so: on the Twentieth morning of June, a large Tree of Liberty, Lombardy Poplar by kind, lies visibly tied on its car, in the Suburb–Antoine. Suburb Saint–Marceau too, in the uttermost South–East, and all that remote Oriental region, Pikemen and Pikewomen, National Guards, and the unarmed curious are gathering, — with the peaceablest intentions in the world. A tricolor Municipal arrives; speaks. Tush, it is all peaceable, we tell thee, in the way of Law: are not Petitions allowable, and the Patriotism of Mais? The tricolor Municipal returns without effect: your Sansculottic rills continue flowing, combining into brooks: towards noontide, led by tall Santerre in blue uniform, by tall Saint–Huruge in white hat, it moves Westward, a respectable river, or complication of still-swelling rivers.

What Processions have we not seen: Corpus–Christi and Legendre waiting in Gig; Bones of Voltaire with bullock-chariots, and goadsmen in Roman Costume; Feasts of Chateau–Vieux and Simonneau; Gouvion Funerals, Rousseau Sham–Funerals, and the Baptism of Petion–National-Pike! Nevertheless this Procession has a character of its own. Tricolor ribands streaming aloft from pike-heads; ironshod batons; and emblems not a few; among which, see specially these two, of the tragic and the untragic sort: a Bull’s Heart transfixed with iron, bearing this epigraph, ‘Coeur d’Aristocrate, Aristocrat’s Heart;’ and, more striking still, properly the standard of the host, a pair of old Black Breeches (silk, they say), extended on cross-staff high overhead, with these memorable words: ‘Tremblez tyrans, voila les Sansculottes, Tremble tyrants, here are the Sans-indispensables!’ Also, the Procession trails two cannons.

Scarfed tricolor Municipals do now again meet it, in the Quai Saint–Bernard; and plead earnestly, having called halt. Peaceable, ye virtuous tricolor Municipals, peaceable are we as the sucking dove. Behold our Tennis–Court Mai. Petition is legal; and as for arms, did not an august Legislative receive the so-called Eight Thousand in arms, Feuillants though they were? Our Pikes, are they not of National iron? Law is our father and mother, whom we will not dishonour; but Patriotism is our own soul. Peaceable, ye virtuous Municipals; — and on the whole, limited as to time! Stop we cannot; march ye with us. — The Black Breeches agitate themselves, impatient; the cannon-wheels grumble: the many-footed Host tramps on.

How it reached the Salle de Manege, like an ever-waxing river; got admittance, after debate; read its Address; and defiled, dancing and ca-ira-ing, led by tall sonorous Santerre and tall sonorous Saint–Huruge: how it flowed, not now a waxing river but a shut Caspian lake, round all Precincts of the Tuileries; the front Patriot squeezed by the rearward, against barred iron Grates, like to have the life squeezed out of him, and looking too into the dread throat of cannon, for National Battalions stand ranked within: how tricolor Municipals ran assiduous, and Royalists with Tickets of Entry; and both Majesties sat in the interior surrounded by men in black: all this the human mind shall fancy for itself, or read in old Newspapers, and Syndic Roederer’s Chronicle of Fifty Days. (Roederer, &c. &c. in Hist. Parl. xv. 98–194.)

Our Mai is planted; if not in the Feuillants Terrace, whither is no ingate, then in the Garden of the Capuchins, as near as we could get. National Assembly has adjourned till the Evening Session: perhaps this shut lake, finding no ingate, will retire to its sources again; and disappear in peace? Alas, not yet: rearward still presses on; rearward knows little what pressure is in the front. One would wish at all events, were it possible, to have a word with his Majesty first!

The shadows fall longer, eastward; it is four o’clock: will his Majesty not come out? Hardly he! In that case, Commandant Santerre, Cattle-butcher Legendre, Patriot Huguenin with the tocsin in his heart; they, and others of authority, will enter in. Petition and request to wearied uncertain National Guard; louder and louder petition; backed by the rattle of our two cannons! The reluctant Grate opens: endless Sansculottic multitudes flood the stairs; knock at the wooden guardian of your privacy. Knocks, in such case, grow strokes, grow smashings: the wooden guardian flies in shivers. And now ensues a Scene over which the world has long wailed; and not unjustly; for a sorrier spectacle, of Incongruity fronting Incongruity, and as it were recognising themselves incongruous, and staring stupidly in each other’s face, the world seldom saw.

King Louis, his door being beaten on, opens it; stands with free bosom; asking, “What do you want?” The Sansculottic flood recoils awestruck; returns however, the rear pressing on the front, with cries of “Veto! Patriot Ministers! Remove Veto!” — which things, Louis valiantly answers, this is not the time to do, nor this the way to ask him to do. Honour what virtue is in a man. Louis does not want courage; he has even the higher kind called moral-courage, though only the passive half of that. His few National Grenadiers shuffle back with him, into the embrasure of a window: there he stands, with unimpeachable passivity, amid the shouldering and the braying; a spectacle to men. They hand him a Red Cap of Liberty; he sets it quietly on his head, forgets it there. He complains of thirst; half-drunk Rascality offers him a bottle, he drinks of it. “Sire, do not fear,” says one of his Grenadiers. “Fear?” answers Louis: “feel then,” putting the man’s hand on his heart. So stands Majesty in Red woollen Cap; black Sansculottism weltering round him, far and wide, aimless, with in-articulate dissonance, with cries of “Veto! Patriot Ministers!”

For the space of three hours or more! The National Assembly is adjourned; tricolor Municipals avail almost nothing: Mayor Petion tarries absent; Authority is none. The Queen with her Children and Sister Elizabeth, in tears and terror not for themselves only, are sitting behind barricaded tables and Grenadiers in an inner room. The Men in Black have all wisely disappeared. Blind lake of Sansculottism welters stagnant through the King’s Chateau, for the space of three hours.

Nevertheless all things do end. Vergniaud arrives with Legislative Deputation, the Evening Session having now opened. Mayor Petion has arrived; is haranguing, ‘lifted on the shoulders of two Grenadiers.’ In this uneasy attitude and in others, at various places without and within, Mayor Petion harangues; many men harangue: finally Commandant Santerre defiles; passes out, with his Sansculottism, by the opposite side of the Chateau. Passing through the room where the Queen, with an air of dignity and sorrowful resignation, sat among the tables and Grenadiers, a woman offers her too a Red Cap; she holds it in her hand, even puts it on the little Prince Royal. “Madame,” said Santerre, “this People loves you more than you think.” (Toulongeon, ii. 173; Campan, ii. c. 20.) — About eight o’clock the Royal Family fall into each other’s arms amid ‘torrents of tears.’ Unhappy Family! Who would not weep for it, were there not a whole world to be wept for?

Thus has the Age of Chivalry gone, and that of Hunger come. Thus does all-needing Sansculottism look in the face of its Roi, Regulator, King or Ableman; and find that he has nothing to give it. Thus do the two Parties, brought face to face after long centuries, stare stupidly at one another, This am I; but, Good Heaven, is that thou? — and depart, not knowing what to make of it. And yet, Incongruities having recognised themselves to be incongruous, something must be made of it. The Fates know what.

This is the world-famous Twentieth of June, more worthy to be called the Procession of the Black Breeches. With which, what we had to say of this First French biennial Parliament, and its products and activities, may perhaps fitly enough terminate.

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Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:30