The Champ de Mars massacre

champ de mars massacre
An engraving depicting the Champ de Mars massacre of July 1791

The Champ de Mars massacre unfolded on a military parade ground in Paris in July 1791. In the wake of the king’s failed attempt to flee from the revolution, radicals in the political clubs called for the abolition of the monarchy. Leading this republican spirit was the Society of Cordeliers Club and a radical faction within the Jacobin Club. Both drafted petitions demanding the king’s abdication, the dissolution of the monarchy and the creation of a republican state. They called on Parisians to gather and sign these petitions on July 17th. With the city already tense due to high prices, falling wages and strikes, the leaders of the Paris Commune were concerned that a large gathering might develop into an insurrection. The Commune responded by banning the assembly and deploying the National Guard on the Champ de Mars. In the turmoil that followed, as many as 50 people were killed and dozens more wounded. The Champ de Mars massacre was a turning point in the new society. It shattered the reputations of moderates like Lafayette and Bailly, sparked a rise in political radicalism, facilitated a split in the Jacobin club and helped seal the fate of the king.

The catalyst for the Champ de Mars incident was the royal family’s attempt to flee Paris in June 1791 and their subsequent arrest at Varennes. To many Parisians, the flight to Varennes exposed the king as untrustworthy and made the constitutional monarchy unworkable. They were also concerned by the actions of the National Constituent Assembly, which had attempted to paint the king’s flight as an abduction (the Assembly’s official statement was that Antoine Barnave and Jérôme Pétion had been sent to “rescue” the king, not arrest him). This political spin fooled few people, particularly after the contents of the king’s farewell note to the Assembly were made public. For three days Paris thrummed with demands that the king be sent to trial and that France become a republic – or, at the very least, a national referendum be scheduled. On June 24th around 30,000 Parisians marched on the Assembly’s chambers in the Tuileries, carrying a petition demanding a republic. When the royal family arrived back from Varennes the following day, crowds lined the streets in a menacing fashion.

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The Champ de Mars today, photographed from the top of the Eiffel Tower

The government now faced a dilemma. The Assembly was about to sign off on the Constitution of 1791, formalising France’s transition into a constitutional monarchy – but the reigning monarch, through his attempt to flee, had disowned the revolution and the constitution. The Assembly, which had few republicans on its benches, chose to continue as if nothing had occurred. Moving to punish or depose the king would provoke Austria and Prussia, who were already threatening war against revolutionary France. With strikes and unrest growing, the Assembly also feared that removing the king and the monarchy – two symbols of national continuity and stability – would invite further destabilisation. They wanted to pass the new constitution and finish the revolution, not start it again. Redeeming the king and reinstalling him with limited political power seemed the safest option. These sentiments were echoed by Barnave, who on July 15th told the Assembly that “any change today would be fatal, any prolonging of the revolution today would be disastrous… It is time to bring the revolution to an end”.

The same day, July 15th, the Assembly decreed that the king had been abducted, that his monarchy was inviolable and that he was restored to the throne. A supplementary decree suspended Louis from political duties until the constitution had been adopted and the king had personally sworn to honour and uphold it. These decrees sparked outrage on the streets of Paris. Republicans dubbed the Assembly’s July 15th resolution “the Great Lie”. It drove a wedge through the centre of the Jacobin club, which for weeks had succumbed to factional bickering between its Monarchien leadership and a growing number of republican members. According to Furet, “between the vote of July 15th and fusillade on the Champ de Mars on July 17th, a new Jacobinism was born”. The Cordeliers, a more radical political club with an open door membership policy, drafted a petition that challenged the authority of the National Constituent Assembly:

“Legislators! You have allocated the powers of the nation you represent. You have invested Louis XVI with excessive authority. You have consecrated tyranny in establishing him as an irremovable, inviolable and hereditary king. You had sanctioned the enslavement of the French in declaring that France was a monarchy… But now, times have changed. The so-called convention between the people and their king no longer exists. Louis has abdicated the throne. From now on, Louis is nothing to us.”

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Lafayette taking the oath at the Fête de la Fédération, at the site of the massacre

The republican faction of the Jacobin club, which had grown in size and outspokenness since the flight to Varennes, issued a similar petition. The “outraged nation”, this petition warned, “cannot entrust its interests and the reins of its empire to a perfidious, traitorous fugitive”. On the morning of Sunday July 17th, a crowd began to assemble on the Champ de Mars (‘Field of Mars’), a huge parade ground on the western fringe of Paris, where the Eiffel Tower now stands. The second Fête de la Fédération, an annual celebration of the storming of the Bastille and the achievements of the revolution, was held there three days before. Now, several thousand people were gathering there in defiance of the National Constituent Assembly, which had decreed that “no club or society could meet without a certificate”. Those assembled heard speeches from radical orators, while around 6,000 people signed or put their mark to the republican petitions.

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A drawing showing Lafayette ordering troops to fire on civilians at the Champ de Mars

The morning was punctuated by insults and scuffles between republican protestors, gendarmerie and members of the National Guard, but no real violence. By the afternoon the crowd on the Champ de Mars had swelled significantly (conservative reports suggest it reached 25,000, some have claimed as many as 50,000). The mayor of Paris, Jean-Sylvain Bailly, received police reports suggesting the assembly at the Champ de Mars was relatively peaceful, however an apparently unrelated incident – the lynching of some itinerants by a local gang – convinced Bailly to call out a battalion of the National Guard and declare martial law. Bailly and Lafayette led the National Guard to the Champ de Mars late in the afternoon. On arrival there they were mobbed, insulted and, according to some reports, pelted with stones. This fracas became deadly when several National Guard soldiers opened fire. It is unclear if soldiers were ordered to fire and, if they were, who gave them. Within an hour between 30 and 50 people lay dead, while dozens more nursed gunshot and powder wounds.

“Even though the incident at the Champ de Mars may have united the patriot deputies, the violence unquestionably tarnished those who favoured the constitution. The killings and the wave of arrests that followed made a mockery of Barnave’s exhortation: to make France a nation in which all patriotic citizens could live in peace, irrespective of their opinions… The massacre at the Champ de Mars underscored the need to complete the constitution, for political life was frozen and, for the first time, an alternative course had arisen from outside the Assembly.”
Michael P. Fitzsimmons, historian

The deaths on the Champ de Mars caused a pivotal shift in the French Revolution. The National Constituent Assembly’s response to the Champ de Mars incident was to blame it on political radicals and the gutter press. Several newspapers were forcibly closed, some radical leaders were arrested and provocateurs like Jean-Paul Marat, Georges Danton and Camille Desmoulins were forced into hiding. The violence caused an enduring split in the Jacobin club. Its constitutional monarchists abandoned the club to form the Feuillants, while those who remained were further radicalised. The Champ de Mars incident also ended the unspoken between the people of Paris, the Commune and the National Guard. Whatever respect and affection Parisians still felt for Bailly and Lafayette had been shattered. Bailly in particular was condemned for his betrayal of the people, for calling out armed troops against civilians exercising their freedom to assemble. When arrested and tried during the Reign of Terror, Bailly was accused of having a “thirst for blood”. The great astronomer and the first mayor of Paris was guillotined on the Champ de Mars in November 1793, an act of symbolic retribution.

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1. The Champ de Mars massacre describes the killing of 30-50 Parisian civilians by soldiers of the National Guard at a political protest on July 17th 1791.
2. This incident was precipitated by the king’s flight to Varennes and the National Constituent Assembly’s response to it, which fuelled republican sentiment, protests and petitions in Paris.
3. This was particularly evident in the Cordeliers and Jacobin clubs, whose members drafted petitions calling for the deposition of the king and urged Parisians to sign these petitions on July 17th.
4. Fearing this gathering may turn insurrectionary, Paris mayor Jean-Sylvain Bailly called out the National Guard. Their arrival at the Champ de Mars led to a confrontation, gunfire, deaths and injuries.
5. The Champ de Mars massacre increased radicalism in Paris, caused a split in the Jacobin club and caused many Parisians to lose faith in the Assembly and the Commune. It also shattered the reputations of Bailly and Lafayette.

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This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
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