Jean Jaurès Socialist History of the French Revolution

The Great Fear

Source: Histoire Socialiste de la Révolution Française. Paris, Éditions Sociales, 1968;
Translated: for by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2011.

But it was in the countryside, among the peasants, that the taking of the Bastille had its most resounding effect. Since the opening of the Estates General the peasants had been waiting: when would the Assembly think of their sufferings? They followed from afar – though kept informed by those who had helped them prepare their Cahiers – the fight of the Third Estate against the privileged and the court. If only the Third Estate could emerge victorious, how quickly we’d bring down the tyranny of the nobles. And so July 14 was decisive. Paris had taken its Bastille; it was left to the peasants to take theirs, all the feudal Bastilles, all the châteaux with their watchtowers and dovecotes that loomed over the villages and the plains.

Suddenly, like a spring that is released, the countryside rose up. And in this prodigious movement there were apparently two distinct and even contradictory movements. There was a general movement of fear. The old royal authority, which for centuries had sheltered the peasant while squeezing him, appeared to have been shaken. And since it was the only visible form of authority for the people of the countryside, it at first seemed to the peasants that society itself was collapsing and that they were going to surrendered to all forms of brigandage if they didn’t defend themselves. In this power vacuum there grew a legend of terror. “Here come the brigands! They’re coming to burn down the woods, to cut down the wheat. Let’s get ready and arm ourselves.” From one end of France to the other the peasants armed themselves and beat the countryside to uncover these famous “brigands,” who incidentally could not be found.

This period of panic left a profound and durable impression on the spirit of the peasants. In the countryside of the south they still speak of “l’annado de la paou,” the year of fear; one would think that memory has erased all others. But what was the occasion, the immediate and concrete cause of this universal fright? It isn’t enough to say that the vast social upheaval of which the taking of the Bastille was the prologue disposed spirits to mysterious terrors, and that as a society ends, as when a day ends, vague and terrifying phantoms arise.

Because of this mystical interpretation people have failed to seek the true reasons of the phenomenon. Was there a watchword issued by the aristocracy, by counter-revolution seeking to spread fear everywhere? The Assembly seemed to believe this, or at least it attempted to explain the panic in this way.

It said in the considerations contained in its decree of August 10: “The National Assembly considers that the enemies of the nation, having lost the hope of preventing public regeneration and the establishment of liberty by violence and despotism appear to have conceived the criminal project of reaching the same goal by means of disorder and anarchy; that among other methods they have at the same moment and almost on the same day, spread false alarms in the different provinces of the kingdom.”

In fact, the movement did not have the suddenness of a conspiracy, and the Assembly itself used the words “almost on the same day.”

If these terrors would have broken out everywhere at the same time as the result of a watchword, they would have ended everywhere on the same date after having their futility was revealed. But I note that at the end of August the fair at Beaucaire was delayed a few days “from fear of brigands,” who in fact could have carried out quite an operation there. This was thus not simply a counter-revolutionary maneuver.

Had the peasants frightened themselves? Were the assemblies they formed in villages to march on chateaux and burn feudal property titles perceived from afar as gatherings of brigands? And was the panic a result of reciprocal misunderstandings? This is possible and even certain. But it is also certain that alongside this movement of peasant proprietors marching against the nobles to free their land of all feudal charges, at that moment of universal commotion there was also a movement of those without property, of the poor, of vagabonds, of the hungry. In more than one place they organized themselves in bands, crying out that they had the right to eat and live.

Several municipalities advised the National Assembly that on the night of July 25 “brigands had cut down unripened wheat.” On that date, and even in the north, it couldn’t have been far from being ripe, and those that were called “brigands” operating in behalf of the counter-revolution were probably the hungry who didn’t want to wait for the ripened harvest to fall beneath the sickle of the landlord and be hidden away in granges.

A few partial movements of this kind sufficed to spread terror in a countryside, where the fear of beggars was already chronic. I am ready to believe that “the great fear” was above all the exaggeration of this chronic fright. If we read the Cahiers of the rural bailiwicks and parishes we see the cultivators everywhere complaining of being at the mercy of beggars. They had to house them, feed them, give them succor. If not, they made threats, and nothing was easier for them than setting fire to farm buildings and the harvest.

The great economic evolution of the second half of the eighteenth century, the growth of industry and cities, and the transformation of the rural economy had uprooted many existences. The roads and the countryside were covered with wandering men, the fear of whom obsessed the cultivators. The latter speak of them with anger, fright, and contempt. Nothing is more poignant than to see the peasants, in the same Cahiers where they complain of the oppression and theft of lords, and where they demand the right to harvest the grass of the forests for their livestock, denounce the vagabonds as a peril or, as they said “the dregs of society.”

Beneath orderly poverty there is a wandering poverty, and the latter is an object of contempt and terror for the former. We should recall the complaints of the peasant landowners against the masses of gleaners who invaded the newly harvested fields. I wonder if it is not these men and women who, impelled by hunger and excited by the revolutionary ferment, didn’t form themselves into troops and cut the wheat. It was thus that the poorest of each village, the landless, were mixed in with vagabonds and wanderers.

The newspaper “Les Révolutions de Paris,” in its news from the provinces from the beginning of September, said the following: “The letters from Geneva announce that individuals from the neighboring mountains have advanced en masse on Ferney. The Geneva garrison backed by a large number of volunteers has marched there. Cannons were sent there and the mountaineers fled. The ignorance or rather the ineptitude of the people of a few provinces led them to believe that equality and liberty allowed them to share property. It is from this that flowed most of the ravages that desolated our provinces.”

It thus seems evident that in the days that followed the upheaval July 14 there was a rising of the poor. The Revolution would not cease to be haunted by the fear of the “agrarian law.”

There is no question that this fear dates from the first days of the revolution, which were the most tumultuous, the most agitated. We have almost no precise information on this movement of the rural proletariat. It was in all likelihood purely instinctive: we nowhere find a clear formula and it doesn’t seem there were any conscious leaders.

For the most part it was limited to the nocturnal and furtive pillaging of crops harvested before their time, or else it was simply mingled with the revolutionary movement of peasant property. When the peasants of the Mâconnais and the Lyonnais for example set the chateaux on fire and burn the papers of land registry offices it’s impossible for me not to recall that it was often the case that in the Cahiers of the parishes “the rich and sterile bourgeois” was named alongside the noble. And it would doubtless require little for the angry mobs armed with pitchforks who attacked the nobles’ chateaux to also go after large scale bourgeois property.

Pretty much everywhere the bourgeoisie understood the peril, and the bourgeois guard of the cities rushed to the countryside to contain and repress the peasants. On the days of July 27, 28, and 29 people could see from Lyon the chateaux of Loras, Leuze, Comba, Pusignan, and Saint-Priest in flames. The bourgeois guard marched against the peasants, and when it returned to the city it was attacked with stones and tiles by the workers of la Guillotière, who took the side of the insurgent peasants. It appeared for a moment as if the entire poor proletariat, workers and peasants, was going to rise against the old feudal regime and the new bourgeois regime and that a profound and formidable class struggle, a struggle of all the have-nots against the haves was going to substitute itself for the superficial revolution of bourgeois and peasant property against the privileges of the nobles. Impotent impulses! Confused and vain attempts!

The time wasn’t right, and these first unplanned uprisings were symbolized by the furtive night robberies of unripe wheat by wandering bands. But there was a moment when the established peasants, the small landowners, the inhabitants of the villages who had an enclosure, a garden, a bit of a field, felt from down below the movement of the poor.

How is it possible to fully commit to the revolution, how can one attack the feudal Bastilles if one risks being overwhelmed by a mendicant and threatening proletariat?

What’s the good of wresting for the lord sheaths of wheat he takes by feudal right if the humble gleaners of yesterday, become rebellious harvesters today, carry away all the sheaths? And will people expose themselves to losing their property because they wanted to liberate it?

The best thing to do then is to confront the “brigands,” to arm oneself, to organize. It was thus that from one end of France to the other village municipalities were formed. And when they realized that there were few if any ‘brigands,” that the proletarians are neither daring enough, conscious enough, nor organized enough to substitute their revolution for the Revolution, they marched light heartedly against the chateaux and they turned against the ancien régime the weapons they’d seized in their instinctive fright.

There was thus a kind of conservative movement of contraction, of tightening, which was followed by a revolutionary expansion. Under the fear of the unknown and before the uprising of the have-nots the communities of the villages withdrew into themselves, elected men of whom they were sure, established a militia, and, having thus guaranteed the order of property within the revolution, fell on the feudal system.

Or rather there were two movements, one conservative and the other revolutionary, which were connected and virtually combined in this prodigious epoch where overexcited aggrandized spirits seemed to suffice to solve all problems. Just as in Paris in the threatening days that preceded July 14 the revolutionary bourgeoisie armed the militias against the court’s regiments and disarmed the men it considered a threat to property, in the countryside the rural Third Estate organized itself both to protect peasant property against any aggression and to bring down feudalism.

The new order stood up against all threats, and this was the sign of its historical legitimacy. But the historian would be superficial if, under the revolution of the bourgeoisie and peasant property that organized themselves and triumph in these fertile days of July and August, he didn’t note the profound disquiet and instinctive revolt of those without a scrap of land. Having no property they didn’t understand the Revolution as a liberation of property freed of feudal levies. They considered it the liberation of man freed from poverty and hunger. Instinctively, with a ferocious ingenuousness, like the mountaineers of the Alps descending on Ferney who were doubtless going to share out the property left by Voltaire, they thought that the moment had come for all men to enjoy the fruits of the earth, and they peacefully settled themselves in the Revolution as if it were their home. But they collided with the cannons of the bourgeoisie and pitchforks of the peasant landowner and they returned to their property, muttering to themselves that they had misunderstood things.

The truth is that they understood too soon. History shut the door on these “beggars” and rudely told them: “You’ll pass this way again.” And in fact they would pass that way again, and the door would one day open, on a day when they would no longer be “beggars,” on a day when they would have property of their own. I mean when they would have an idea, when they would carry in their heads the formula for a new world, when they would be peasant socialists.

While the consequences of July 14 developed in this way in the countryside, the National Assembly sought equilibrium in its victory.

It was at one and the same time saved, enthusiastic, and worried. Necker was recalled. The king, accompanied by a deputation from the Assembly, had to go to Paris on July 17, and though people might have tried to distinguish between the king and his “evil advisors” and grant him a triumphal reception, it was nonetheless a visit paid by the defeated to the victor.

Paris was quickly coming of age and the Assembly felt the rising up of a friendly and rival power. It gathered a bit nervously around the king, seeking to forget Louis XVI’s criminal errors in order to make France forget them. Strange and bothersome solidarity of the revolutionary Assembly and the king of the ancien régime, unwillingly converted to the new regime by the force of the people. Disorders broke out in Saint-Germain; the tax barriers were forced and the tax farmer Thomassin, accused of hoarding, was threatened with death. The moderates of the Assembly, on Lally-Tollendal’s motion, quickly proposed an address to the nation against those who disturbed public order, an address which, through its very exaggeration, was of a nature to spread panic and worsen the peril. In addition, the movement in Saint-Germain was a continuation of the great movement in Paris. Through these oblique proceedings were they going to disavow the magnificent revolutionary devotion of the capital?

The Breton deputies protested, as did Robespierre. He immediately revealed the peril that conservative moderation caused the Revolution, still caught up in intrigues and hatreds. “We must love peace, but we must also love liberty. But is there anything more legitimate that rising up against a horrible conspiracy aimed at destroying the nation? A riot was caused in Poissy under the pretext of hoarding; Brittany is peaceful as are the provinces; the proclamation would spread alarm there and would cause the loss of confidence. We must do nothing hastily. Who dares to say that the enemies of the state are tired of intrigue?”

What constituted Robespierre’s strength, and what would assure it for some time, was that wanting the Revolution he accepted its consequences and conditions, and wasn’t foolishly or hypocritically moved by the disorders that the armed resistance to royal arbitrariness necessarily caused.

The Assembly rejected Lally-Tollendal’s motion, but it had briefly applauded it, and these oscillations revealed that if it needed the people it had also begun to fear them. But this fleeting worry didn’t yet slow down its momentum, and it was with a magnificent faith in reason that it immediately began the elaboration of the Rights of Man and the constitution.