The Champ de Mars Massacre (Marcel Dorigny)
Following the announcement of the king’s flight in the night from 20 to 21 June 1791, a republican movement developed in Paris: on 21 June, the Cordeliers Club launched an open call for « tyrannicide », and on 22 June, a petition written by François Robert demanded the republic ; in the following days the calls in this sense multiplied. On 1 July, Condorcet and Thomas Paine launched the journal Le Républicain, whose avowed aim was the change of the political system. With this journal, the republican movement overflowed the popular clubs of Paris and was taken into account by the leading elements of the bourgeoisie ; Roland supported Condorcet’s republican campaign, and the Cercle social was its favoured place of expression. On 15 July, all fraternal societies of Paris assembled in the Cercle social in order to elaborate a republican programme.
Facing this republican mobilisation, the Assembly remained resolutely monarchist ; the Jacobin Club also leaned towards strict legality: Brissot, who had encouraged the republic, revised his call and affirmed that a king was compatible with liberty ; Robespierre also refused to join the calls of the Cordeliers ; as to Sieyès, he resolutely spoke out in favour of upholding the monarchy (6 July). In order to cut short the surging of petitions demanding the indictment of the king, the Assembly decreed, on 15 July, that Louis XVI had been the victim of an abduction and was innocent ; this decree had been inspired by Barnave and Charles Lameth. In order to obtain this vote, false petitions, which were overtly hostile towards the Assembly, had been put into circulation on the same morning. Henceforth, demanding the indictment of the king and his replacement at the head of the State was an illegal act.
When this decree was passed, the petition written in the Cercle social demanded the convocation of primary assemblies in order to decide on the king’s fate ; the National Assembly refused to receive the delegates from the fraternal societies. This refusal provoked movements in Paris during the whole night. In the morning of the next day, 16 July, the Jacobin Club, indignant over the vote of the Assembly, in turn wrote a petition on the initiative of Choderlos de Laclos ; the signatories were Lanthenas, Sergent, Ducancel, Danton and Brissot, who was the author of the text. It demanded the abdication of Louis XVI and his replacement by « all constitutional means ». This formula, which has probably been added by Laclos unbeknownst to Brissot, precluded the Republic and seemed to open the doors of power to the Duke of Orléans. Formulated in this way, the text was the object of very lively controversies: signatories added to their name that they would not acknowledge any other king. La Bouche de Fer printed the text of the petition with this mention and suppressed any reference to a constitutional solution. This petition of Jacobin origin was withdrawn on the very evening of 16 July, when the decree became known which re-established Louis XVI in the plenitude of his rights. This withdrawal was the consequence of the division in the Jacobins provoked by the departure of several hundred members, who would come to found the Club des Feuillants.
The democrats refused this Jacobin recoil and gathered on 17 July on the Champ de Mars. A third petition was written immediately ; being of Cordelier origin, its main author was probably François Robert ; it asked the Assembly to revise its decrees of 15 and 16 July. No direct reference to the republic appeared through, but the republican spirit of the petition was clear. Placed on the Autel de la Patrie, it was signed by over 6,000 Parisians, having come in a procession on this Sunday of July. Having been declared contrary to the Constitution and to the law, this petition was the pretext to the brutal repression against all democrats. The municipality of Paris, on order of Bailly, proclaimed martial law and let the National Guard, commanded by La Fayette, march against the crowd. After having hoisted the red flag, La Fayette ordered the troops to open fire ; panic seized the crowd, which partly consisted of women and children ; the cavalry pursued the fleeing civilians into the neighbouring streets. In total, over 50 people were killed and hundreds injured.
The consequences of this tragedy were enormous: it was an irreversible rupture within the Third Estate. The republicans were persecuted and arrested, their newspapers were forbidden: La Bouche de Fer, Le Républicain, Le Journal du Club des Cordeliers. Finally, this bloody day paved the way to the revision of the Constitution. The cens électoral was reinforced considerably: in order to be able to vote, one had to prove the property of a good valued at more than 200 workdays in the city and 150 days on the countryside. The powers of the king were increased ; the constituent bourgeoisie feared democracy more than the republic itself, and it took legislative precautions in order to cut off any new attempt of this kind: every possibility to revise the Constitution was made illegal before 1801. A veritable break in the history of the Revolution occurred on 17 July.