coins of the month - september 2015
The early symbols of political parties during the French revolution: Jacobins, Cordeliers, Exagerés and Montagnards
The French revolution saw the development of the early forms of political parties, with the creation of a number of political codes and symbolisms that have remained central in the political debate until now. The first of these is the archetypical division between left and right as a key defining barrier between political parties, a division which was inaugurated during the vote in the National Assembly in 1789 on the introduction in the Constitution of a royal veto to parliamentary decisions. The supporters of the royal veto sat on the right and its opponents on the left, inaugurating a spontaneous seating arrangement which identified the right with those opposing the advance of the revolution and the left those wishing to extend its conquests further. No proper political parties existed but what emerged were loose informal parliamentary groups, frequently linked to debating clubs (particularly the Jacobins, Cordeliers and Feuillants) and often divided into additional factions.
The evolution of the French revolution was such that the extreme right of the Assembly kept disappearing, as the moderate left of yesterday became the new right of the following phase, modifying its stance and demanding a stabilization of the revolution. These accelerated transformations were dictated by continuous shifts forward of the revolution under the pressure of war, the sans culottes, the clubs and the popular societies, especially in Paris, where the Commune had become a serious counterpower to the Assembly, with a military force at its disposal.
The initial extreme right of the aristocratic faction, opposing the end of absolutism, together with the slightly more moderate "monarchiens", progressively disappeared in 1789, through emigration, following the weakening of royal power, the attacks on aristocratic chateaux and the abolition of feudal privileges. Its place on the right was taken in 1789-91 by the moderate wing of the patriots (revolutionaries supporting a constitutional monarchy, such as La Fayette, Mirabeau, Barnave, Lameth, Sieyès). The Jacobins split after the attempted escape, in June 1791, of Louis XVI, seeking to join the Austrians, march back to Paris under the protection of a foreign army and restore absolutism. The right of the Jacobins club formed the Feuillants club, trying to counter any further advance of the revolution under La Fayette and Bailly, to the point of declaring martial law and firing on the crowd petitioning for a Republic in July 1791. On that occasion the Garde nationale marched against unarmed protesters carrying a red flag to signify martial law and an invitation to disband before the beginning of the repression. The red flag was then adopted by the left as the symbol of resistance to oppression.
After the neutralization of the Feuillants in 1792 and their disappearance from the newly elected Convention, following the storming of the Tuilleries and the deposition of the King on 10 August, the Girondins-Brissottins wing of the Jacobins became the new right, despite being republicans and supporters of the revolution, They were eliminated in 1793 by a new uprising of the people of Paris and its Garde nationale. Finally Danton and a group of Cordeliers and Jacobins, who had been at the forefront of the revolution and the left, became in early 1794 the new parliamentary right (the Indulgents), by calling for an end to the Terror. This dynamic, shifting parliamentary politics, ever more to the left, ended only with the fall of Robespierre and Saint Just in July 1794 and the elimination of their main supporters. The guillotine took all the main leaders of the Robespierristes, the Indulgents, the Exagérès, the Girondins and those of the Feuillants who did not escape or emigrate abroad.
We will examine here the political symbolism developed by the two main clubs of the left (Jacobins and Cordeliers) and by their parliamentary group when they were in power (the Montagnards of 1792-95), as the other political groups did not develop an independent set of symbols.
The Societé des amis de la Constitution was formed in December 1789 and rapidly became the centre of the debates of the patriots in Paris. It then created a large network of correspondents throughout France, remaining for five years the centre of the French political debate. It was nicknamed the Club des Jacobins because it met in the former convent of the religious order of the same name. The Cordeliers and Feuillants owed their name to similar circumstances, due to the availability of meeting spaces in Paris in convents formerly owned by the recently abolished religious orders. During the first two years the Jacobins club had a majority of constitutional monarchists as members. The symbol of the club therefore carried a Bourbon lily associated with the revolutionary motto "vivre libre ou mourir", surrounded by a crown of leaves. As the Revolution progressed, a red cap, symbol of freedom, was associated with the club and some of the associated provincial societies changed their motto in many different ways, including "Union, courage, liberté" (Clermont–Ferrand) or "Liberté, égualité" (Strasbourg) or the more loyalist "La Nation, la Loi, le Roi". The departure of the Feuillants "regenerated" the Jacobins and the creation of the Republic led to the change the name of the club to the Societé des amis de la liberté et de l'égalité. The symbol of the Bourbons was eliminated and the mention of the République française was inscribed at the centre of the Parisian logo. The red cap was placed on top of a pique (pike), the weapon of the sans culottes, at the centre of all revolutionary uprisings and the symbol of popular supremacy over the professional army of the aristocrats. The pike was easy and cheap to produce for any blacksmith of the Faubourgs of Paris, and did not require any military preparation to be used by working men. The motto on the façade of the building of the Jacobins was more complex: "Societé des Jacobins, unité, liberté, égalité, indivisibilité de la Republique, fraternité ou la mort". The club was provisionally closed after Robespierre's arrest and execution in 1794, purged, reopened and then finally closed in November 1794.
In 1790 the most active district of Paris transformed itself into a club, the Club des Cordeliers, in order to escape the attempt of the Mayor of Paris to remove any political initiative from the districts. It became the centre of the most daring Parisian insurrections on the extreme left, under the leadership of Danton, Desmoulins and Marat. Later, in 1793-94, after Danton's group shifted to more moderate positions, the Hébertistes and enragés gained control of the club, pursuing price controls, expropriation of the rich and of the aristocrats and an intensification of terror. Initially in 1789 the District of the Cordeliers had issued a copper token to identify its members "under the chairmanship of Georges Jacques Danton" and with the words La Loi, le Roy and union fraternel[le]. On the other side a banner carried the word Libertas and was surmounted by the cap of freedom. The Cordeliers placed themselves on the extreme left of the political scene and adopted on the club's membership card the open eye of revolutionary vigilance and control.
After the fall of Louis XVI, during the insurrection of 10 August 1792, the Legislative Assembly, out of touch with the new developments of the revolution, was dissolved and a Convention was elected to replace it. The new parliamentary group of the left was then named Montagnards (mountaineers), because its members had chosen to sit on the highest steps of the left of the assembly. Most but not all Montagnards were Jacobins (Robespierre, Saint-Just, Collot d'Herbois) or Cordeliers (Danton, Marat, Billaud-Varenne) or both. Some later joined it from the centrist parliamentary group of the Plaine (Barère, Carnot, Lindet). It did not have a proper symbol and was divided in various factions but we can present here two images, one inspired by the Jacobins and the other by the Montagnards. The first one is probably a nineteenth century reinterpretation by the Montagnards of 1848 or of 1871 of the medallion held by the Musée Carnevalet in Paris. It shows a pike surmounted by a Phrygian cap at the top of a mountain on a blue background and carries the date 1793. The second is a high quality medal of 1793-94 (An II) by the engraver Pierre Joseph Tiolier, later chief engraver of the Napoleonic Empire. It shows the radiating eye of the Cordeliers on top of a mountain, with the motto "freedom, your sun is the eye of the mountain". On the other side a female allegory flies around the globe, carrying freedom (a red cap on a pike) and equality (a level) to a united world, reflecting the universalistic and expansionist view of the Revolution.
I have not found a specific symbol for the group of Hébert and of the Exagerés, but their programme can be clearly identified in the illustrated double sided medallion composed of couloured prints, protected by glass and a metallic frame. The Exagerés were leading the de-christianisation movement, aiming to replace the Christian religion with the cult of Reason and of the Revolutionary martyrs, and were characterized by their ultra-revolutionary commitment to equality. The medallion represents on one side the two most popular martyrs of 1793, both members of the Convention, crowned with laurels. Jean-Paul Marat (on the right of the image) was stabbed to death by Charlotte Corday because of his campaign for mass execution of counterrevolutionaries and Girondins, and his calls for dictatorship. Louis Michel Lepelletier Marquis de Saint-Fargeau was an aristocrat and a lawyer but had joined the patriotic party and the Jacobins and was killed in a café by a former bodyguard of Louis XVI, hours after voting for the death of the King at the Convention. The portraits of both men were painted by David (who was also a Jacobin MP) and they were exhibited inside the Convention Nationale. On the other side of the medallion, Equality is represented as a woman holding a surveying level, seated on a chair composed of fasces symbolizing unity and the strength of the people. She is trampling on a male peacock, keeping a foot on its neck, representing the defeat and submission of wealth and luxury to the triumph of Equality, as Hébert and his friends saw it.
Luca Einaudi, Centre for History and Economics