An account of the Champ de Mars massacre (1791)

In late July 1791 the radical newspaper Les Révolutions de Paris published this editorial about the deaths on the Champ de Mars on July 17th:

“Blood has just flowed on the field of the federation, staining the altar of the fatherland. Men and women have had their throats slashed and the citizens are at a loss. What shall become of liberty? Some say that it has been destroyed, that the counterrevolution has won. Others are certain that liberty has been avenged, and that the Revolution has been unshakeably consolidated. Let us impartially examine these two such strangely differing views…

The majority of the National Constituent Assembly, the department, the Paris municipality and many of the writers say the capital is overrun by brigands, that these brigands are paid by agents of foreign courts, that they are in alliance with the factions that secretly conspire against France. They say that at 10 o’clock on Sunday morning two citizens were sacrificed to their fury. They say these citizens insulted, molested and provoked the National Guard, assassinated several of the citizen soldiers, that they went so far as to try to kill the Commandant-General. And finally they say that they gathered at the Champ de Mars for the sole purpose of disturbing public peace and order, getting so carried away that perhaps it was hard to restrain themselves two hours later.

From this point of view, it is certain that the Paris municipality could and should have taken the severe measures that it did. It is better to sacrifice some thirty wretched vagabonds than to risk the safety of 25 million citizens.

But if the victims of Champ de Mars were not brigands, if these victims were peaceful citizens with their wives and children, and if that terrible scene is but the result of a formidable coalition against the progress of the Revolution, then liberty is truly in danger, and the declaration of martial law is a horrible crime, and the sure precursor of counterrevolution…

The field of the federation is a vast plain, at the centre of which the altar of the fatherland is located, and where the slopes surrounding the plain are cut at intervals to facilitate entry and exit. One section of the troops entered at the far side of the military school, another came through the entrance somewhat lower down, and a third by the gate that opens on to the Grande Rue de Chaillot, where the red flag was placed.

The people at the altar, more than 15,000 strong, had hardly noticed the flag when shots were heard. “Do not move, they are firing blanks. They must come here to post the law.” The troops advanced a second time. The composure of the faces of those who surrounded the altar did not change. But when a third volley mowed many of them down, the crowd fled, leaving only a group of a hundred people at the altar itself. Alas, they paid dearly for their courage and blind trust in the law. Men, women, even a child were massacred there. Massacred on the altar of the fatherland.”