Champ De Mars Massacre Historiography Essay

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 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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

1. The Champ de Mars Massacre refers to 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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The Champ de Mars Massacre took place on 17 July 1791 in Paris in the midst of the French Revolution. The event is named after the site of the massacre, the Champ de Mars. Two days before, the National Constituent Assembly issued a decree that the king, Louis XVI, would remain king under a constitutional monarchy. This decision came after King Louis XVI and his family had unsuccessfully tried to flee France in the Flight to Varennes the month before. Later that day, leaders of the republicans in France rallied against this decision, eventually leading royalist Lafayette to order the massacre.[1]

Jacques Pierre Brissot, editor and main writer of Le Patriote français and president of the Comité des Recherches of Paris, drew up a petition demanding the removal of the king. A crowd of 50,000 people gathered at the Champ de Mars on July 17 to sign the petition,[2] with about 6,000 having signed the petition. However, earlier that day two suspicious people had been found hiding at the Champ de Mars, "possibly with the intention of getting a better view of the ladies' ankles", and were hanged by those who found them. Jean Sylvain Bailly, the mayor of Paris, used this incident to declare martial law.[3]The Marquis de Lafayette and the National Guard, which was under his command, were able to disperse the crowd.

Later in the afternoon, the crowd, led by Danton and Camille Desmoulins, returned in even greater numbers. The larger crowd was also more determined than the first. Lafayette again tried to disperse it. In retaliation, the crowd threw stones at the National Guard. After firing unsuccessful warning shots, the National Guard opened fire directly on the crowd. The exact numbers of dead and wounded are unknown; estimates range from a dozen to fifty dead.[2]


When Louis XVI and his family fled to Varennes, it set off political turmoil: people felt betrayed and had anger towards Louis. Earlier, information had been received by the assembly that there was potentially a plan for the king to flee. The idea that Louis planned on fleeing the Tuileries palace began in early 1791 and was one of the causes of the Day of Daggers on 28 February 1791.[4] The escape event was not subtly planned, and enough suspicions were aroused in those working in the palace that the information trickled down to newspapers. The Marquis de Lafayette promised on his own life that such a thing was not true, and was proven wrong when the king did try to escape. Lafayette and the Assembly created a lie that the king had been kidnapped. Ultimately the king and his family were brought back and the assembly decided that he needed to be a part of the government if he agreed to consent to the constitution.[1]

At the time of the massacre, divisions within the Third Estate had already began to grow. Many workers were already angered by the closing of various workshops, which took away jobs, leaving some unemployed. Higher skilled journeymen were also angered due to a lack of increase in wages since the beginning of the Revolution. The attempted flight of the King only increased the tensions between groups. The massacre was the direct result of various factions reacting to the decree by the Constituent Assembly in different ways. The Cordeliers Club, a populist group, chose to create a petition for a protest. This was originally backed by the Jacobins, though support was withdrawn at Robespierre's suggestion. The Cordeliers proceeded by creating a more radical petition calling for a republic and planning a protest that would help gain more signatures.[3]

Based on records of the petition and of the dead bodies, the crowd was made up of individuals from the poorer sections of Paris, some of whom may not have been able to read. The organizers seemed to desire representation of Paris as a whole, rather than any specific section.[3]


After the massacre, the Republican movement seemed to be over. 200 of the activists involved with the movement were arrested after the massacre, while others had to go into hiding. Organizations stopped meeting and radical newspapers no longer published. However this did not hold true for long.[5]

Among the French, the reputation of Lafayette, the commander of the National Guard, never recovered from this episode. The people no longer looked towards him as an ally or supported him after he and his men shot into the crowd, causing the massacre. His influence in Paris diminished accordingly.[1]

In 1793, the former mayor of Paris, Bailly, was executed, and one of the crimes he was charged with and punished for was inciting the massacre.[6]

Contemporary news report[edit]

The following is an excerpt of a news report about the incident printed in the Les Révolutions de Paris, a republican newspaper in support of the anti-royalists who had assembled on the Champ de Mars:

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, and that the counter revolution has won. Others are certain that liberty has been avenged, and that the Revolution has been unshakably consolidated. Let us impartially examine these two such strangely differing views. ...
The majority of the National Assembly, the department, the Paris municipality, and many of the writers say that the capital is overrun by brigands, that these brigands are paid by agents of foreign courts, and that they are in alliance with the factions that secretly conspire against France. They say that at ten 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 have 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 twenty-five million citizens.
However, 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 center 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[fn 1] was placed. The people at the altar, more than fifteen thousand 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.[7]

Text of the petition[edit]

The following is the text of the manifesto which was being read and signed by French citizens in the Champ de Mars on the day of the massacre, 17 July 1791:

THE undersigned Frenchmen, members of the sovereign people, considering that, in questions concerning the safety of the people, it is their right to express their will in order to enlighten and guide their deputies,[8]
THAT no question has ever arisen more important than the King's desertion,[fn 2]
THAT the decree of 15 July contains no decision concerning Louis XVI,
THAT, in obeying this decree, it is necessary to decide promptly the future of this individual,
THAT his conduct must form the basis of this decision,
THAT Louis XVI, having accepted Royal functions, and sworn to defend the Constitution, has deserted the post entrusted to him; has protested against that very Constitution in a declaration written and signed in his own hand; has attempted, by his flight and his orders, to paralyze the executive power, and to upset the Constitution in complicity with men who are today awaiting trial for such an attempt,
THAT his perjury, his desertion, his protest, not to speak of all the other criminal acts which have proceeded, accompanied, and followed them, involve a formal abdication of the constitutional Crown entrusted to him,
THAT the National Assembly has so judged in assuming the executive power, suspending the Royal authority and holding him in a state of arrest,
THAT fresh promises from Louis XVI to observe the Constitution cannot offer the Nation a sufficient guarantee against a fresh perjury and a new conspiracy.
CONSIDERING finally that it would be as contrary to the majesty of the outraged Nation as it would be contrary to its interest to confide the reins of empire to a perjurer, a traitor, and a fugitive, [we] formally and specifically demand that the Assembly receive the abdication made on 21 June by Louis XVI of the crown which had been delegated to him, and provide for his successor in the constitutional manner, [and we] declare that the undersigned will never recognise Louis XVI as their King unless the majority of the Nation express a desire contrary to the present petition.[9]



  1. ^ abcWoodward, W. E. (1938). Lafayette. New York: Farrar & Rinehart. 
  2. ^ abAndress, David (2004). The French Revolution and the People. London, UK: Hambledon and London. p. 151. ISBN 978-1-85285-295-5. 
  3. ^ abcRudé, George Frederick Elliot (1959). The Crowd in the French Revolution. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press. 
  4. ^de la Rocheterie, Maxime (1893). The Life of Marie Antoinette. London, UK: J. R. Osgood, McIlvaine & Co. pp. 109–111. 
  5. ^Doyle, William (1989). The Oxford History of the French Revolution. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19822-781-6. 
  6. ^Scott, Samuel F.; Rothaus, Barry (1985). Historical dictionary of the French Revolution, 1789-1799. Vol. 1 : A-K. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press. ISBN 978-0-31321-141-6. 
  7. ^Les Révolutions de Paris, no. 106, (16–23 July 1791), 53–55, 63, 65–66.
  8. ^Rousseau, Jean-Jacques (1923). The Social Contract. Everyman's Library. Translated, with an introduction by, G. D. H. Cole. London, UK: J. M. Dent & Sons. p. 253. Retrieved 17 July 2016. 
  9. ^Andress, David (2000). Massacre at the Champ de Mars: Popular Dissent and Political Culture in the French Revolution. Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Royal Historical Society. ISBN 978-0-86193-247-4. 

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 48°51′22″N2°17′54″E / 48.856111°N 2.298333°E / 48.856111; 2.298333

Lafayette orders his troops to fire
  1. ^The red flag was a widely understood signal that martial law had been declared and that normal civil policing would not necessarily be conducted. Under martial law, the National Guard was permitted, when ordered, to discharge their weapons.
  2. ^The previous month, on 20 and 21 June 1791, the king and his family had, with the connivance of others (some of them foreign), escaped from Paris in an attempt to reach the fortress of Montmédy in the northeast. There, they expected to find an enclave of royalists in sufficient numbers to ensure their safety and, perhaps, to mount a counter-revolution. They were, however, promptly apprehended at a place called Varennes in the Argonne and returned to Paris.

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