Portrait of Camille Desmoulins
2 March 1760|
|Died||5 April 1794
Lucie Simplice Camille Benoît Desmoulins (French pronunciation: [kamij demulɛ̃]; 2 March 1760 – 5 April 1794) was a journalist and politician who played an important role in the French Revolution. He was a childhood friend of Maximilien Robespierre and a close friend and political ally of Georges Danton, who were influential figures in the French Revolution. Desmoulins was tried and executed alongside Danton in response to Dantonist opposition to the Committee of Public Safety.
Desmoulins was born at Guise, Aisne, in Picardy. His father, Jean Benoît Nicolas Desmoulins, was a rural lawyer and lieutenant-general of the bailliage of Guise. Through the efforts of a friend, he obtained a scholarship for the fourteen-year-old Camille to enter the Collège Louis-le-Grand in Paris. Desmoulins proved an exceptional student even among such notable contemporaries as Maximilien Robespierre and Louis-Marie Stanislas Fréron. He excelled in the study of Classical literature and politics, and gained a particular affinity for Cicero, Tacitus and Livy. He pursued law, and succeeded in gaining acceptance as an advocate of the parlement of Paris in 1785; however, his serious stammer and ferocious temper proved severe obstacles to success in this arena. Thus stymied, he turned towards writing as an alternative outlet for his talents; his interest in public affairs led him to a career as a political journalist.
In March 1789, Jean Benoît Nicolas Desmoulins was nominated as deputy to the Estates-General from the bailliage of Guise; however, due to illness, he failed to take his seat. Camille Desmoulins, himself limited to the role of spectator at the procession of the Estates-General on 5 May 1789, wrote a response to the event: Ode aux Etats Generaux. The Comte de Mirabeau, a powerful political figure within the Estates-General who positioned himself as a bridge between the aristocracy and the emerging reformist movement, briefly enlisted Desmoulins to write for his newspaper at this time, strengthening Desmoulins' reputation as a journalist .
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 11 July 1789 proved the spark that lit the fuse of Desmoulins' fame. On 12 July, 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, the reactionary and conservative brother of the King, 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 12 July, embarked upon the Storming of the Bastille.
In May and June 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 18 July, 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 of Brabant 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 16 July 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 royalist and close friend of Desmoulins and his wife, 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 5 December 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.
Political career and downfall
Desmoulins took an active part in the 10 August 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 8 September, 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, although it was dedicated to Robespierre along with Danton and called them both friends, 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 rapidly expanded and intensified its criticisms of the Committee of Public Safety and the Revolutionary Tribunal. Desmoulins appealed to Robespierre to help steer these institutions in a more moderate direction. On 20 December, Robespierre had proposed the formation of a commission "to examine all detentions promptly and to free the innocent," an idea shot down by Billaud-Varenne, and Desmoulins "seized on this and called for something more dramatic: a committee of clemency" to put an end to the Terror.
On 7 January 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.
Meanwhile, the participation of Danton's personal secretary, Fabre d'Églantine, in a financial scam with the East India Company became exposed and he was arrested for corruption and forgery. This scandal cast doubt on Danton and his allies, and Robespierre now supported the expulsion of Desmoulins from the Jacobin club. After the condemnation and execution of the Hébertists in March 1794, the energies of the Montagnards (especially of Saint-Just) turned to the elimination of the indulgent faction headed by Danton and voiced by Desmoulins. They were accused of corruption and counter-revolutionary conspiracy, charges were brought before the Committee of Public Safety, and arrest warrants including for Desmoulins were finally issued on 31 March.
Trial and execution
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.
As Desmoulins was taken to the gallows, he was informed of his wife’s arrest and went mad. It took several men to get him to the tumbril. He struggled and tried to plead with the mob, ripping his shirt in the process. Lucile was also soon to be slated for execution and died only eight days later. Of the group of fifteen who were guillotined together on 5 April 1794, including Marie Jean Hérault de Séchelles, Philippe Fabre d'Églantine and Pierre Philippeaux, Desmoulins died third, and Danton last.
On 29 December 1790 Desmoulins married Lucile Duplessis, whom he had known for many years, describing her as "small, graceful, coy, a real Greuze." Lucile's father long denied permission for the marriage, believing that the life of a journalist could not support any sort of family. Eventually it was, of course, Desmoulins' journalistic profession that brought both of them to execution. Among the witnesses to the marriage were Robespierre, Brissot, and Jérôme Pétion de Villeneuve. The Desmoulins' only child, Horace Camille, was born on 6 July 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 13 April 1794, the same day as the widow of Jacques Hébert. In a last note to her mother she wrote, "A tear falls from my eyes for you. I shall go to sleep in the calm of innocence. Lucile."
In popular culture
Camille Desmoulins is among the central characters in the following works of fiction:
- A Place of Greater Safety (1993) by Hilary Mantel.
- Danton (film; 1982) dir. Andrzej Wajda.
- The Danton Case (play; 1929) by Stanislawa Przybyszewska
- La Révolution française (film/miniseries; 1989)
- Félix Charpentier. Sculptor of bronze statue of Camille Desmoulins in the place d'Armes in Guise
- Beraud, Henri (1928). Twelve Portraits of the French Revolution. New York: Books for Library Press, Inc. p. 145.
- Schama, 380.
- Hartcup, 238.
- Hammersley, 124.
- Claretie, 77
- Claretie, 91
- Claretie, 104
- Claretie, 248
- Scurr, 298
- McPhee, 179
- Scurr, 299
- Scurr, 301
- Claretie, 313
- Claretie, 303
- Andress, David (2005). The Terror. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. p. 275. ISBN 978-0-374-53073-0.
- Beraud, Henri (1928). Twelve Portraits of the French Revolution. New York: Books for Library Press, Inc. p. 144.
- Beraud, Henri (1928). Twelve Portraits of the French Revolution. New York: Books for Library Press, Inc. p. 155.
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- Andress, David. The Terror: The Merciless War for Freedom in Revolutionary France. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2004.
- Claretie, Jules. Camille Desmoulins and His Wife: Passages from the History of the Dantonists. London: Smith, Elder, & Co., 1876.
- Doyle, William. The Oxford History of the French Revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.
- Gilchrist, J.T., and Murray, W.J. The Press in the French Revolution: Selection of Documents taken from the Press of the Reovolution for the years 1789-1794. Melbourne: Cheshire, 1971.
- Hartcup, John. "Camille Desmoulins", History Today 25-4 (1975), p. 238-245.
- Hammersley, Rachel. "Camille Desmoulin’s ‘Le Vieux Cordelier’. A Link Between English and French Republicanism" History of European Ideas 27 (2001).
- Methley, Violet. Camille Desmoulins: A Biography. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1915.
- Schama, Simon. Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.
- Scurr, Ruth. Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution. New York: Owl Books, 2006.
- Whaley, Leigh. "Revolutionary Networking 1789-1791," p. 41-51 in Revolutionary Culture, Politics and Science. Belfast: Queen’s University, 1996.
- McPhee, Peter.Robespierre: A Revolutionary Life. Yale University Press, 2012.
This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Desmoulins, Lucie Simplice Camille Benoist". Encyclopædia Britannica 8 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 99–101. The Britannica gives the following references:
- J. Claretie, Œuvres de Camille Desmoulins avec une étude biographique ... etc. (Paris, 1874), and Camille Desmoulins, Lucile Desmoulins, étude sur les Dantonistes (Paris, 1875; Eng. trans., London, 1876)
- F. A. Aulard, Les Orateurs de la Législative et de la Convention (Paris, 1905, 2nd ed.)
- G. Lenôtre, "La Maison de Camille Desmoulins" (Le Temps, March 25, 1899).