Who were the ‘Sans-Culottes’?

The fashion for both men and women to wear trousers ending at the knee, or just below it, has been with us for five years or more. Some shops even name this article of clothing in memory of the French Revolution, though that upheaval took place at the end of the eighteenth century. The workers in 1789 preferred the wearing of these well-ventilated trousers because they hated the knee-breeches worn by the upper classes, whom they had been inspired to hate by the republicans.

The sans culottes were not a new class apart; they included artisans and master craftsmen (possibly with the exception of tailors), men who owned their own workshops, blacksmiths and cooks in cafés. The sans culottes invaded the Bastille prison in 1789, effectively starting the movement that became the French Revolution, ending the Capetian dynasty, and making a Republic – eventually – out of France. It was the sans-culottes who brought the royal family to Paris from Versailles during the October Days, but then those in charge thought it best to control the unruly mob by using the still rather bourgeois National Guard. The latter even fired on these trousered Republicans in the Champ de Mars Massacre of 1791.

However, France declared war on Austria in April, 1792, and the sans-culottes were needed, if only to provide useful cannon fodder. Robespìerre (q.v.) declared the National Guard a part of the Sans-Culottes Movement. One month later they attacked the Tuileries Palace, overthrowing the monarchy.

From the summer of 1792 to the spring of 1794 they were all-powerful. No one could manage Paris without their support. They dominated the 48 sections of local self-government in the capital. They frightened the Convention, effectively closing it, but did not bother to close it officially. Their representatives, still half-trousered, demanded the arrest of leading members of the Girondin’s Club, thus bringing the more radical Jacobins into total power.

It is essential to realise that the sans-culottes hated the monarchy, aristocracy and Church. It is certain that this loathing made them blind to their own, often atrocious actions. They were determined everyone should be equal, and wore red caps to prove who they were (they borrowed this convention from association with freed slaves in America). The formal vous in every day speech was replaced by the informal tu. They had an embracing faith in what they were told was Democracy.

In 1793 a new Constitution was published which recognised the right to insurrection (i.e. revolution). The Government had to debate in public, and all adult males were given the vote. Meanwhile elected Deputies had to vote aloud (“stand up and be counted!”). They insisted on conscription (q.v.) for the wars, and supported the demand with a huge levée en masse in August, 1793. Later they forced the Government to proclaim ‘Terror as the order of the day!’

Until now the Revolution had been very much a Paris thing, but now a Parisian Armée Révolutionnaire was established by the sans-culottes, followed by the settingup of 56 other such private sans-culottes armies in the French provinces. Now the Terror occupied all France. Dreadful massacres took place. Guillotines were set up in many market squares, injudiciously cutting off the heads of ordinary folk every day. As in all ‘revolutions of the people’, this was when you got rid of your enemies ‘in the name of the Revolution’. Wealth was the first to be attacked. Many of France’s finest large houses and everything valuable they contained were destroyed in this period.

Inevitably there had to be a confrontation between the Revolutionary Government and the now uncontrollable mob. Across France revolutionary committees were doing as they pleased.

At the end of 1793 the Constitution was suspended ‘for the duration of the war’ and never put into operation again. The dreaded ‘Committee of Public Safety’ (q.v.) came into being, with dictatorial powers far, far more extended than any French King had boasted before. All armées révolutionnaires were disbanded, except those in Paris. Hebert went to the guillotine with half the Commune, and the power of the sans-culottes was effectively ended. Then the appalling harvest of acutely freezing winter of 1794/5 reduced them to despair. Many returned to the empty Church seeking charity but too late, as parish priests had already been murdered. They rose in the Germinal and  Prairial uprisings but were crushed. After this it would be fair to state that the workers- as such – took no further part in the Revolution.

 

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