Episode 11: The Parisian Powder Keg


Episode 11, ‘The Parisian Powder Keg’, details the events in Paris as Necker is dismissed from the ministry on July 11, 1789, and a counter-revolutionary coup is commenced by the King and his allies. This episode examines how the effects of hunger, freedom of the press and rumored conspiracy impacted Paris’ willingness to revolt, as well as the actions undertaken by various social classes within the city to protect themselves against numerous enemies (counter-revolutionary or otherwise).

The Parisian Powder Keg

Paris was a powder keg waiting to explode for three key reasons.

1) The price of food and basic commodities;

2) The radical nature of the free press; and

3) The widespread belief of conspiracy and counter-revolutionary plots.

Bread Prices

Since the disastrous thunderstorm of July 1788, the scarcity of bread, and the associated impacts on household economics had been destabilizing the nation. Throughout the kingdom, in the 4 months preceding the fall of the Bastille, more than 300 accounts of violence and disorder were recorded due to bread crisis. As the National Assembly began their first meetings, violence around grain was becoming so common in Paris that troops had to be posted at customs barriers and marketplaces in order to keep the peace. In Lyon at the end of June, mobs had seized the custom barriers and had forcibly lowered the price of grain.

The L’Ami du Roi was a newspaper covering the crisis, and wrote this account of the situation after the Bastille had fallen:

“The nearer July 14th came, the greater became the shortage of food. The crowd, besieging every baker’s shop, received a parsimonious distribution of bread, always with warnings about possible shortages next day. Fears were redoubled by the complaints of people who had spent the whole day waiting at the baker’s door without receiving anything. There was frequent bloodshed; food was snatched from the hand as people came to blows; workshops were deserted; workmen and craftsmen wasted their time in quarreling, in trying to get hold of even small amounts of food and, by losing working time in queuing, found themselves unable to pay for the next day’s supply.”

That first-hand report encapsulates the violent, desperate and dire situation a hungry and miserable Paris found itself in during the first week of July. The situation was undeniably bleak. To make matters worse, that same week also required the settlement of debts from the previous few months. With so much of the poor’s income having been redirected to food, the bread crisis impacted their ability to settle those debts, resulting in many poor families being forced from their homes by unpaid and unhappy landlords. The result was a city full of hungry and potentially homeless people.

The Press

The second ingredient in the Parisian powder keg was the press. With censorship non-existent, the volume and audacity of political pamphlets had only increased since in recent weeks and months. The deadlock of the Estates General, and then the creation of the National Assembly, unsurprisingly accelerated the growth and radicalism of the press.

“The business going forward at present in the pamphlet shops of Paris is incredible. I went to the Palais Royal to see what new things were published, and to procure a catalogue of all. Every hour produces something new. Thirteen came out to-day, sixteen yesterday, and ninety-two last week. We think sometimes that Debrett’s or Stockdale’s shops at London are crowded, but they are mere deserts, compared to Desein’s, and some others here, in which one can scarcely squeeze from the door to the counter…. This spirit of reading political tracts, they say, spreads into the provinces, so that all the presses of France are equally employed. Nineteen-twentieths of these productions are in favour of liberty, and commonly violent against the clergy and nobility; I have to-day bespoke many of this description, that have reputation; but enquiring for such as had appeared on the other side of the question, to my astonishment I find there are but two or three that have merit enough to be known. Is it not wonderful, that while the press teems with the most levelling and even seditious principles, that if put in execution would overturn the monarchy, nothing in reply appears, and not the least step is taken by the court to restrain this extreme licentiousness of publication. It is easy to conceive the spirit that must thus be raised among the people.” – Arthur Young, 9 June 1789

Not only were publications becoming more frequent, but they were becoming more radical. These pamphlets were spreading the conspiracy that the nobility was hoarding grain and that counter-revolutionaries in the court were planning a royal coup. These pamphlets also attacked the privileged orders and called for dramatic changes, some even proclaiming the need for civil war, the necessity of bloodletting, and a national purge of the parasitic privileged orders. While the vast majority of the press was not this radical, the increasing radicalization of the press and the public forums these pamphlets were debated in was significant. Paired with severe hunger and fear, it was a delicious recipe for disaster.

Historian Shalier Matthews recounts his interpretation of Arthur Young’s journal entry, and the impact the radicalized press had on creating the necessary foundations for a revolutionary eruption:

“Paris in 1789 was by no means the beautiful city of to- day. Its streets were narrow, crooked, and dirty. Its population was without community of spirit and its government was inefficient and venal. During the past few months of want it had attracted crowds of beggars and desperate men from all parts of France, and its lower classes were incomparably brutalized. Order had been kept with difficulty, and the fatal lack of the police force of a modern city was evidenced in the impunity with which a mob could sack a great establishment like that of the papermaker Reveillon. [Gouverneur] Morris may have looked on its character with too puritanical eyes, but his words are certainly explicit: “Paris is perhaps as wicked a spot as exists. Incest, murder, bestiality, fraud, rapine, oppression, baseness, cruelty, are common.””

Court Conspiracy

As alluded to be Mathews, there were rumors that a plot had been hatched which would suppress the National Assembly. The rumors were true.  The Queen and the King’s brother, the Comte Artois, were actively plotting against the newly created legislature, and the people rightly suspected them of it. The evidence for this coup came in the form of newly arriving troops from the frontier. The palace had called to Paris and Versailles new regiments under the pretense of maintaining law and order. More than 15 regiments had been called up, and without a connection to Paris it was feared these frontier troops would be more than willing to suppress the people and their assembly. By the 8th of July, Mirabeau was sounding the alarm as deputations from the Assembly begged the King to withdraw the troops. Mirabeau proclaimed to his companions in the National Assembly that the preparations for war were obvious..

With an apparent military suppression seemingly days away at the hands of German-speaking troops and mercenaries, Paris was a powder keg waiting to explode. As Historian Francois Mignet summed up, “The perils that threatened the representatives of the nation, and itself, and the scarcity of food disposed it to insurrection.”

Necker’s Dismissal

On the 11th of July, two weeks after the Estates General officially became the National Assembly, the King provided the circumstances for Paris’ eruption. King Louis XVI dismissed Necker from the government and exiled him from France.

Necker had only ever been brought back to court against the will of the King, and many within Versailles continued to loathe him upon his return in August 1788. The events of recent weeks and empowered Necker’s enemies, who blamed the minister for the National Assembly’s creation and derailment of the Estates General. Even before that had occurred however, the knives were out for the Swiss banker. On the 26th of April 1789, a week before the Estates General commenced, the Marquis de Ferrieres wrote the following to his wife:

“You cannot believe what a powerful movement is afoot against Necker among the high-placed, the financiers, the parlements: calumny, pamphlets, denouncing him to the King as the most dangerous man alive… The Comte d’Artois is said to have spoken most forcefully to the King, telling him that his crown and his very life were in danger, and that Necker was a second Cromwell”.

While not popular at court, Necker remained hugely popular amongst the people.

The news of Necker’s demise reached Paris on Sunday the 12th of July, and the Palais Royale erupted. The Palais Royale was a palace owned by the Duke of Orleans and had become a hotbed of resistance and radicalism. It was here that Arthur Young wrote in his diary about the circulation of increasingly radical pamphlets, and this is what he wrote about the increasingly radical orators who spoke in the grounds of the Palais Royale:

“But the coffee-houses in the Palais Royal present yet more singular and astonishing spectacles; they are not only crowded within, but other expectant crowds are at the doors and windows, listening a gorge deployé to certain orators, who from chairs or tables harangue each his little audience: the eagerness with which they are heard, and the thunder of applause they receive for every sentiment of more than common hardiness or violence against the present government, cannot easily be imagined. I am all amazement at the ministry permitting such nests and hotbeds of sedition and revolt, which disseminate amongst the people, every hour, principles that by and by must be opposed with vigor, and therefore it seems little short of madness to allow the propagation at present.”

It was in the Palais Royale, an incubator for insurrection and disobedience, that the powder keg that was Paris finally exploded. Upon hearing the news of Necker’s dismissal, the people of Paris began to panic. Necker’s presence in the ministry had acted as a public testament to the safety of both the National Assembly and the people. His removal was interpreted as the first stage of the long-rumored counter-revolutionary coup. Seizing the initiative, a young lawyer named Camille Desmoulins jumped onto a table and mobilized the crowd to defend Paris.

“Camille Desmoulins, a young man, more daring than the rest, one of the usual orators of the crowd, mounted on a table, pistol in hand, exclaiming: “Citizens, there is no time to lose; the dismissal of Necker is the knell of a Saint Bartholomew for patriots! This very night all the Swiss and German battalions will leave the Champ de Mars to massacre us all; one resource is left; to take arms!” These words were received with violent acclamations. He proposed that cockades should be worn for mutual recognition and protection. “Shall they be green,” he cried, “the colour of hope; or red, the colour of the free order of Cincinnatus?” “Green! green!” shouted the multitude. The speaker descended from the table, and fastened the sprig of a tree in his hat. Every one imitated him. The chestnut-trees of the palace were almost stripped of their leaves, and the crowd went in tumult to the house of the sculptor Curtius.” – Historian Francois Mignet

At one point as Desmoulins stood on the table, waved his pistol around, and pointed to his heart with his spare hand and shouted, “Yes, Yes, it is I who call my brothers to freedom, I would rather die than submit to servitude.”

The great revolt had begun.

Paris Erupts

Having acquired busts of Necker and the Duke of Orleans (who also rumored to have been banished), the masses paraded them about as they closed theatres, looted customer barriers, and dragged more people into the streets to aid the insurrection. On the afternoon of the 12th, the mob was confronted by German cavalry intent on quelling the unrest. The Germans were beaten back near the Place Louis XIV, and members of the French Guard began defecting en mass. The next day, on the 13th, 3000 guardsmen defected to the people, while mutiny affected the Swiss regiments and men had to be hung for insubordination.

On the 13th, the Saint-Lazare was raided by the mob and large amounts of grain were found inside (52 carts of flour were discovered, as well as oil, vinegar, wine, and other staples). The stockpiled supplies were seen as proof of the rumored counter-revolutionary plot. As tensions rose, the crowd became rowdier, and those who were not wearing a makeshift green cockade were liable to abuse and harassment. Property was raided too, with 40 of the 54 custom houses being destroyed by the mob between the 12th and 16th of July.

Historiography of Paris’ Revolt

In the midst of this revolt, is perhaps no surprise that Historians have polarised views over who comprised the crowd, and how noble their revolt against the Court’s tyranny truly was.  Historian Hippolyte Taine describes the events as bringing the dregs of society to the surface:

“On the following day, the 13th, the capital appears to be given up to bandits and the lowest of the low.  One of the bands hews down the gate of the Lazarists, destroys the library and clothes-presses, the pictures, the windows and laboratory, and rushes to the cellars; where it staves in the casks and gets drunk: twenty-four hours after this, about thirty of them are found dead and dying, drowned in wine, men and women, one of these being at the point of childbirth. In front of the house the street is full of the wreckage, and of ruffians who hold in their hands, “some, eatables, others a jug, forcing the passers-by to drink, and pouring out wine to all comers. Wine runs down into the gutter, and the scent of it fills the air;” it is a drinking bout: meanwhile they carry away the grain and flour which the monks kept on hand according to law, fifty-two loads of it being taken to the market.  Another troop comes to La Force, to deliver those imprisoned for debt; a third breaks into the Garde Meuble, carrying away valuable arms and armour. Mobs assemble before the hotel of Madame de Breteuil and the Palais-Bourbon, which they intend to ransack, in order to punish their proprietors. M. de Crosne, one of the most liberal and most respected men of Paris, but, unfortunately for himself a lieutenant of the police, is pursued, escaping with difficulty, and his hotel is sacked. — During the night between the 13th and 14th of May, the baker’s shops and the wine shops are pillaged; “men of the vilest class, armed with guns, pikes, and turnspits, make people open their doors and give them something to eat and drink, as well as money and arms.” Vagrants, ragged men, several of them “almost naked,” and “most of them armed like savages, and of hideous appearance;” they are ” such as one does not remember to have seen in broad daylight;” many of them are strangers, come from nobody knows where.”

On the polar-opposite end of spectrum, Historian Peter Kropotkin retells a completely different version of events. Conceding unnecessary violence and banditry, Kropotkin argues that these are merely isolated incidents. Instead, the majority of the mob acted in a manner becoming of patriotic citizens according to the anarcho-communist historian:

“Taine and his followers, faithful echoes of the fears of the middle class, try to make us believe that, on the 13th, Paris was in the hands of thieves. But this allegation is contradicted by all contemporary evidence. There were, no doubt, wayfarers stopped by men with pikes, who demanded money to procure arms; and there were also, on the nights between the 12 th and 14th , armed men who knocked at the doors of the well-to-do to ask for food and drink, or for arms and money. It is also averred that there were attempts at pillage, since two credible witnesses mention persons executed at night, between the 13th and 15th, for attempts of that kind. But here, as elsewhere, Taine exaggerates. Whether the modern middle-class Republicans like it or not, it is certain that the revolutionaries of 1789 did appeal to the “compromising auxiliaries” of whom Mirabeau spoke. They went to the hovels on the outskirts to find them. And they were quite right to do so, because even if there were a few cases of pillaging, most of these “auxilliaries,” understanding the seriousness of the situation, put their arms at the service of the general cause, much more than they used them to gratify their personal hatreds or to alleviate their own misery. It is at any rate certain that cases of pillage were extremely rare. On the contrary, the spirit of the armed crowds became very serious when they learned about the engagement that had been entered into by the troops and the middle classes. The men with the pikes evidently looked upon themselves as the defenders of the town, upon whom a heavy responsibility rested. Marmontel, a declared enemy of the Revolution, nevertheless notices this interesting feature. “The thieves themselves, seized with the general terror, committed no depredations. The armourers’ shops were the only ones broken open, and only arms were stolen,” he says in his Mélmoires. And when the people brought the carriage of the Prince de Lambesc to the Place de la Grève to burn it, they sent back the trunk and all the effects found in the carriage to the Hôtel de Ville. At the Lazarite Monastery the people refused money and took only the flour, arms and wine, which were all conveyed to the Place de la Grève. “Nothing was touched that day, either at the Treasury or at the Bank,” remarks the English Ambassador in his account.”

Grey History