Figures in a Revolution: Jacques-René Hébert & the Sans-Culottes

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Figures in a Revolution: Jacques-René Hébert & the Sans-Culottes

Hebert /

Hebert /

This French journalist and revolutionary was born in 1757, just thirty-two years before the French Revolution exploded on an astonished and cowed world. Hébert was not just a jobbing newspaperman, he owned the newspaper Le Père Duchesne, vulgar, scurrilous, earthy and therefore popular with the Paris mob known as the Sans Culottes In 1791 he intelligently joined a radical revolutionary club which was neither jacobin nor girondin. It was the Cordeliers. With his fellow members he joined in the assault of the Tuileries on 10 August, 1792 and was elected to the Paris Commune afterwards.

When the inevitable infighting began between the Jacobins and Girondins he supported the right side – for him – the Jacobins, and when they began slaughtering the Girondins he thought he might get high office, but did not. Then he made a stupid mistake: he accused the Jacobins  making up the Committee of Public Safety (q.v. yesterday) of tyranny and attempted to make himself a hero of ‘the people’ – effectively the Sans Culottes. He wished them to treat him as the leader of their discontent.

Thus, he was behind the planned invasion of the Convention on 5 September, for which he had a speech prepared demanding a drastic reduction in food prices; he would also call for the dismantling of the Christian Church in France, intensification (if that were possible) of the Terror, and (the great favourite of all revolutionaries – a re-distribution of wealth and property.

Young M. Hébert had few supporters in the Convention, but a great many in the Cordeliers, in his Commune, in the revolutionary army in Paris. He made a fatal announcement before Robespierre at a meeting of the Cordeliers Club: ‘An insurrection is necessary that shall bring death to those who oppress us’. Robespierre made up his mind that Hébert, one of the youngest of the revolutionaries, should live no longer.

He and eighteen of his strongest supporters (also young) were arrested in March 1794. The next day they were accused of being ‘foreign agents’ planning a military dictatorship. Robespierre knew this charge would reduce Hébert’s popularity with the mob. They were all guillotined quicker than it took to say ‘knife!’


First, the name: modern fashion puts men into trousers cut off just below the knee, especially in summer months. This style, which keeps men’s legs cool in hot climates, is wrongly dubbed sans-culotte. But culotte means knickers or underwear. The expression came from the fact that French urban workers wore trousers, not knee britches as worn by the upper classes. You could not claim them as a class, as they included artisans with their own businesses such as carpenters and plumbers, coachmen who owned carriages for hire etc. They were also wage-earners. They had played an important part in the first stirrings of the Revolution by assaulting and taking The Bastille, and in bringing King Louis XVI to Paris during the October Days. Revolutionary leaders had been using them, of course, as all revolutionary leaders do, so that their cry of ‘For the People’ could ring true. Very soon the National Guard was brought in to maintain control of the Sans-Culottes.

Notwithstanding, on 2 June, 1793 80,000 National Guardsmen recruited from the mobs surrounded the Convention and demanded the heads of all leading Girondin deputies. Not much savoir-faire is needed to see that it was the Jacobins behind the manoeuvre.

The S.C loathed the aristocracy or anyone richer than them, and were staunchly devoted to ‘equality’, a valuable word in the socialist vocabulary. They wore floppy red caps, and used the familiar tu instead of the more usual vous. They believed in what they called ‘direct democracy’ by which was meant that sovereignty of the people could not be delegated to representatives, and if there were to be representatives, the people should be free to change them at will. They said that if the Assembly abused the People, they had earned the right to insurrection.

A new Constitution in 1793 recognised the people’s right to revolt, and also gave all adult males the vote. In September the S-C marched again on the Convention, because the economic situation of an enfeebled France was demanding attention that it was not getting. They forced the government to declare that ‘Terror is the Order of the Day’. It became obvious that there were revolutions within revolutions within revolutions and by September the Committee of Public Safety (q.v.) was formed with dictatorial powers, mainly to deal with the small armies of S-C gathering across France (there were at least fifty-seven of them).

The Committee, as we have seen above, soon killed Hébert, and his end effectively marked the end of the Sans-Culottes too. The bad harvest and appalling winter conditions of 1794/5 brought despair, and their subsequent risings were easily quelled. Soon the ‘Power of the Workers’ disappeared as the professional middle classes took over the Revolution, and the S-C soon found themselves in a much worse situation than they had suffered in 1792. It is the same sad story in all national revolutions, for Power never stays with ‘The People’. They are used, usually cruelly, by people with an interest in the removal of existing government, and its immediate replacement by themselves.

In under French History you can find many articles with the subject of the French Revolution: The Continental System; Joseph Fouché; The Leaders of the French Revolution; Louis XVI & Marie-Antoinette; Marat & Charlotte Corday; The French Revolution 1789 etc.)

By | 2012-08-02T07:11:07+00:00 August 2nd, 2012|French History|0 Comments

About the Author:

‘Dean Swift’ is a pen name: the author has been a soldier; he has worked in sales, TV, the making of films, as a teacher of English and history and a journalist. He is married with three grown-up children. They live in Spain.

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