Episode 18: A Popular Revolution

Episode 18, ‘A Popular Revolution’, examines the popular nationalism that erupted across France in 1789 and 1790, and the manners in which this nationalism was expressed. 

See ‘Symbols and Ceremonies of the Revolution of 1789′ for visual references.


The Revolution of 1789 unleashed a variety of popular ideas across France. These ideas included liberty, equality, fraternity and democracy. Unsurprisingly, defining the scope and limitations of these popular concepts proved difficult. What was far easier to define, however, was the ways in which one could express their support for these ideas. Throughout 1789 and 1790, a whole host of new traditions, ceremonies and customs were created so people could demonstrate their support for the revolution. 

Liberty Trees

One tradition which became widespread was the planting of liberty trees. The tradition originated from the spring-time tradition of erecting maypoles in village centres at the time of spring planting. While the traditional maypoles represented fertility, the living nature of their replacements meant that liberty trees also came to represent growth and rejuvenation. 

The planting of liberty trees was often accompanied by elaborate demonstrations of revolutionary allegiance. In these ceremonies, members of the local municipal authorities and National Guard battalions would swear allegiance to the revolution. Additionally, musicians would play, priests might give a sermon, and the townsfolk would hold hands and sing and dance around their newly planted symbol of freedom. Children would also participate, forming miniature National Guard units (referred to as Battalions of Hope), and reciting oaths such as, “We live for our patrie and our last sighs will be for her”. 

Liberty trees became such a potent symbol of the revolution that it eventually became a capital offence to cut them down. The trees themselves were often young saplings, and were generally Elm, Linden, Oak, Ash, or Fir. Maypoles draped in blue, red and white ribbons sprouted up across the country as alternatives to living trees as well, as some liberty trees died after planting.


Initial Federations

Ceremonies that brought together multiple communities in revolutionary celebrations became prevalent across the nation. In these ceremonies, delegations from towns and municipalities would put aside their historic differences to join in unison as a common people. On the 29th of November 1789, for example, in the town of Valence, 12,000 national guardsmen from the Vivarais and the Dauphine congregated on the banks of the Rhone River and promised, “to remain for ever united, to insure the circulation of grain, and to maintain the laws passed by the National Assembly.” 

This event, referred to as a federation, heralded many others across the nation. On the 21st of February 1790, guardsmen from the regions of Brittany and Anjou swore at Pontivy the following oath:

“We, the French citizens of Brittany and Anjou, assembled in the patriotic congress in Pontivy declare to be united by indissoluble bonds of a holy fraternity, and to defend to our last breath the Constitution of the State and the decrees of the National Assembly

We solemnly declare that, being neither Bretons nor Angevins, but French and Citizens of the same empire, we renounce all our local and special privileges.

We declare that happy and proud to be free, we will never suffer that we wait for our Rights as Men and Citizens, and that we will oppose the enemies of Public Affairs, with all the energy that comes from the feeling of long oppression and the confidence of great strength.”

As the revolution progressed, the extravagencies and size of these federations grew.  At the end of May, for example, 50,000 guardsmen gathered in the city of Lyon to participate in its federation. 200,000 spectators watched the guard swear oaths in front of a grand Temple of Concord which had been built for the federation. On top of the temple was a mountain built of plaster, and on top the mountain was a statue of liberty. The statue held a pike in one hand and a phrygian cap in the other. The eye witness Luc-Antoine de Champagneux describes the sentiments and feelings that many participants and spectators possessed. de Champagneux states:

“We considered the Lyonnese federation as the dawn of a fine day: our souls conceived the sweetest hopes: we beheld in the revolution nothing but the period of abuses, and the encouragement of talents and virtues; we thought that France was going to be peopled by none but friends; that she would become the abode of industry and commerce; that the sciences and the fine arts would there establish their empire; and we abandoned ourselves to these sweet ideas; and they were, I may say it, in the heart of the majority of the French.”

Federations and popular nationalism 

According to Luc-Antoine de Champagneux, these sorts of patriotic sentiments can be found throughout France. It’s because of these unifying and nation building sentiments and ceremonies that historian Boyd Shafer makes a bold declaration. Shafer proclaims:

“That France more than any other country was the home of national patriotism is all too easily forgotten after the aweful June of 1940. If, in fact, popular national patriotism can be said to have a birth year and a birth place, it was 1789-90 and in France…. No similar widespread outburst of national patriotism had ever occurred in previous history, nor one as significant for the later development of popular nationalism.”

Origin of the federations

The origin of the federations was not symbolic, but rather practical. During the Great Fear, many newly installed municipal governments feared for their safety. The result was that these municipalities created mutual defence pacts with neighbouring communities. As early as the 8th of August 1789, the communities of Rodez, Millau and Villefranche united in a confederation. Across the nation, confederations, unions, coalitions, reconciliations, and ceremonies of fraternity or patriotism were held as local communities banded together for mutual defence. It was only over time that the term federation was universally adopted. Thus, despite the symbolic significance the federations would eventually possess, these ceremonies originated from far more practical origins.

Liberty caps (Phrygian caps) & Tricolour Cockades 

Two articles of clothing which became popular ways to express support for the revolution were the Phrygian cap (otherwise known as the liberty cap) and the tricolour cockade. Liberty caps became widespread throughout 1790 and steadily rose in popularity as the revolution progressed. The hats themselves were a soft, flopply, brimless cap which were typically red, often sprouted a revolutionary cockade, and generally characterised by a pointed crown that curled forward. The caps were associated with the felt caps given to recently freed slaves in ancient Rome, and thus the caps became a symbol for liberty.  Symbolising the fact that the french people had been liberated from the slavery of the Old Regime, liberty caps became one of the most widespread and reconsible symbols of the revolution. By 1793, these liberty caps regularly created a sea of red at sectional Assemblies in Paris, as the caps were commonly worn by the city’s working class. Additionally, the caps were often featured with female statues of liberty.

Typically placed on these caps, as well as worn independently, were tri-colour revolutionary cockades. Blue, red and white cockades were donned by many french citizens who were keen to express their support for the revolution. Blue and red were the colours of Paris, and white (the colour of the King) was added to these to make the famous tricolour of France. 

Fête de la Fédération (Festival of the Federation) 

Preparations for the Festival

The National Assembly and the Paris Commune decided that Paris should host the Fête de la Fédération on the 14th of July, 1790. By the time the Assembly approved of the plans for the festival on the 21st of June, there wasn’t much time left for the preparations to occur. The site selected for the celebration was the Champ de Mars, and the organisers envisioned that an amipheletre would be constructed on the site that could hold 400,000 spectators. For this to occur, however, the site required a significant amount of excavation. Heavy rains at the end of June hampered the original workforce of some 12,000 people.  Disaster loomed.

The result of this seemingly inevitable fiasco, however, was anything but. Underscoring the popular nature of these Federation, the population of Paris mobilised itself in order to complete the necessary preparations. Tens of thousands of people volunteered to help excavate the site, prepare the route of the parade, and construct the necessary pavilions and stages. Furthermore, everyone seemingly got it on the act, including rich people, poor people, well-dressed people, people in rags, old men, boys, comedians, clerks, actors, scholars, nuns, priests, prostitutes, watchmakers, semptresses, shopkeepers and soldiers.  Men and women, young and old, rich and poor all pitched in to help the revolutionary cause. Louis-Sebastien Mercier wrote of the truly miraculous site he saw as people from all stations joined as one: 

“I saw one hundred and fifty thousand citizens of all classes, ages and sexes making the most superb picture of concord, labor, movement and joy that has ever been witnessed… What fine men and splendid citizens of Paris who could transform eight days of work into the most touching, unexpected and most novel festival that there has ever been. It is a type of spectacle so original that even the most blasé of men can hardly fail to be moved.”

A Grand Spectacle 

The Fete de la Federation itself was a truly impressive event. At 8 in the morning, some 50,000 national guardsmen commenced a huge parade throughout the city of Paris. Arriving at the Champ de Mars, the parade was greeted by some 400,000 spectators. Tallyrand held a grand mass and benediction. Helen Maria Williams recorded the events:

“The middle of the amphitheatre was crowded with an immense multitude of soldiers. The National Assembly walked towards the pavilion, where they placed themselves with the King, the Queen, the Royal Family, and their attendants; and opposite this group, rise in perspective the hills of Passy and Chaillor, covered with people. The standards, of which one was presented to each department of the kingdom, as a mark of brotherhood, by the citizens of Paris, were carried to the altar, to be consecrated by the bishop. High mass was performed, afterwhich Mons. de Lafayette, who had been appointed by the King Major-General of the Federation, ascended the altar, gave the signal, and himself took the national oath. In an instant every sword was drawn, and every arm lifted up. The King pronounced the oath, which the President of the National Assembly repeated, and the solemn words were re-echoed by six hundred thousand voices; while the Queen raised the Dauphin in her arms, showing him to the people and the army. At the moment the consecrated banners were displayed, the sun, which had been obscured by frequent showers in the course of the morning, burst forth; while the people lifted their eyes to heaven, and called upon the Deity to look down and witness the sacred engagement into which they entered. A respectful silence was succeeded by the cries, the shouts, the acclamations of the multitude: they wept, they embraced each other, and then dispersed.”

Lafayette, who dominated the proceedings, led the guard in an oath to the Nation, Law and King. The President of the Assembly led the deputies in their own oath, and the King proclaimed, “‘I, King of the French, swear to employ the power delegated to me in maintaining the constitution decreed by the National Assembly and accepted by me.”

Historical view points on the federations

The festivities didn’t stop on the 14th however, with parties and events held throughout Paris in the following days. But, while the festivities did not end on July the 14th 1790, the harmony did. Historian Adolphe Thiers notes that despite the public spectacle preaching harmony and unity, the exact opposite reemerged almost immediately.

“This Fête de la Fédération, though so affecting a spectacle, excited only a momentary emotion. On the next day all hearts returned to their old animosities, and the war of parties was renewed. Petty minsiterial quarrels recommenced.”

If the official purpose of the Federation was to celebrate harmony, its unofficial purpose was to create it. In celebrating unity, the Festival’s grand spectacle succeeded, yet in creating unity, the Fete de la Federation undoubtedly failed. The Federation’s blazen attempt to celebrate a harmony that didn’t exist is criticized by some historians, including Historian Jonathan Israel.

“Understandably, the first anniversary of the Bastille’s fall, though lavishly celebrated with splendid illuminations and firework displays, was far from being the harmonious occasion many historians have claimed it to have been. Rather, despite the hype, it reflected deep and irresolvable splits that increasingly menaced the monarchy and the Revolution’s future.”

The ways in which the Fete de la Federation reflected the deep divisions within France can be found by looking off centre stage. For example, in the days leading up to the festival, many aristocratic families left Paris, and conservative pamphlets denounced the festival as sacrilege. 

Other historians critique the shortcomings and contradictions of not just the Fete de la Federation in Paris, but the regional federations which had been occurring for months. Historian Alphonse Aulard, for example, criticises the entrenched division between the participants of the federations, primarily the middle class national guard (active citizens), and the spectators of the federations, the common people (passive citizens). 

However, while one can question the success of the Fete de la Federation in fostering harmony, and while one can criticise it’s obviously staged nature, one cannot question the popular support for the Federations more broadly. Numerous eye witness accounts allude to the event’s popular support, including the british absorber Helen Maria Williams.

“I promised to send you a description of the federation! One must have been present, to form any judgment of a scene, the sublimity of which depended much less on its external magnificence than the effect it produced on the minds of its spectators. “The People, sure, the people were the sight!” I may tell you of pavilions, of triumphal arches, of alters on which incense was burnt, of two hundred thousand men walking in procession; but how am i to give you an adequate idea of the behaviour of the spectators? How am I to paint the impetuous feelings of that immense, that exulting multitude? Half a million of people assembled at a spectacle, which furnished every image that can elevate the mind of man; which connected the enthusiasm of moral sentiment with the solemn pomp of religious ceremonies; which addressed itself at once to the imagination, the understanding, and the heart.”

Other reports confirm the notion of the event’s popular support. The London Times reported on the 20th of July, “Such a magnificent association of free men, emancipated from the shackles of despotism within so short a space of time, is hitherto unparalleled in the annals of history.” 

These sentiments are shared by Historian Hippolyte Taine. Usually the first to criticize the revolution, Taine has nothing but praise for the events held on July the 14th, both in Paris and the country as a whole.

“In every principal town of every district, department, and commune in France there is the same oath on the same day.  Never was there a more perfect social compact heard of. Here, for the first time in the world, everybody beholds a veritable legitimate society, for it is founded on free pledges, on solemn stipulations, and on actual consent.”

Taine isn’t alone in his considerable praise for the controversial revolutionary celebrations. Historian Simon Schama vigorously defends the federations which occurred throughout 1789 and 1790. 

“While the manifestations of the new revolutionary religion – the cult of Federation – were theatrical and necessarily ephemeral, they were no less important for being that. In the emotive climate of 1790 they arguably made more of an impact through arresting spectacle than any of the elaborate institutional alterations on which historians have, until quite recently, concentrated. And it would be quite mistaken to see them as so much orchestrated mummery, staged by defensive politicians to disguise the frailty of their legitimacy. Overwhelming evidence from many regions of France suggests not only that many of the “federations” of 1790 were spontaneous, but also that they engaged enormous numbers of people in their dramatizations of shared patriotic enthusiasm. Notwithstanding the fact that the organizing forces were always National Guardsmen who, at this time, were better-off “active citizens,” the numbers of those involved both as participants and spectators make a better case for regarding the revolution of 1790 as more of a “popular revolution” than the coercive Jacobinism of 1793–94 to which the term has been more frequently applied.”

According to Schama, the revolution of 1789-90 was a popular revolution, and there is ample evidence to support his position. Citizens and foreigners alike recorded the patriotic sentiments that captured the nation. Millions of people nationwide participated in all sorts of ceremonies, festivals and celebrations. People of all walks of life purchased revolutionary trinkets, wore revolutionary clothing, and joined revolutionary clubs and societies. From liberty trees to liberty hats, from revolutionary cockades to revolutionary parades, there is overwhelming evidence to suggest the revolution of 1789 and 1790 was a popular one.

Grey History