Citizens known as sans-culottes or peasants in the countryside, their role in fueling the French Revolution is inestimable. However, it is quite important to emphasize throughout the paper the areas and periods of the Revolution where they helped trigger events and differentiate these periods from those where they were used as a manipulative mass by the political factions that were leading the country. Less evident for peasants, the manipulation of the sans-culottes into reaching the political desiderates and eliminating the political competition is quite obvious. Further more, it is often the case that the sans-culottes and the people were used as sympathetic forms of defense, as is the case for Danton, and that they sustained governmental changes, as is the case for the proclamation of the Republic and Robespierre's downfall.
In order to approach and discuss the presence and import of the people during the French Revolution, we need to briefly have a look at their influence and actions before the Revolution. As David Andress, lecturer in Modern European History at the University of Portsmouth mentioned in one of his lectures, following an idea from Arlette Farge, "the presence of the crowd as witness was essential to the display of power central to absolutist notions of governance -- at executions, royal processions, religious and civil celebrations" (Andress, David). So, the 18th century was characterized by the presence of the crowd to different events, especially as a vote of confidence for the autocratic monarchy. However, it is important to emphasize the fact that this presence was controlled. Indeed, signs that this control was becoming looser and was not able to touch on all categories of citizens became obvious in the 1780s. Turbulences occurred in this decade, especially in the countryside, with brief repressions from the government. I am referring here to the Reveillon riots, where discontented workers were repressed by the Gardes francaises in April 1789.
As such, the pre-Revolutionary period was somewhat able to prepare the crowd for the fall of Bastille in July 1789. I will classify this act as a spontaneous act of the people. Indeed, there are several argumentations in this sense. First of all, there was still no real attempt at a political level to end the monarchy. Sure, we have the formation of the National Assembly and attempts towards a structural democratization and a reduction of aristocratic influence, however, this was not a revolutionary explosion, but rather a pacifist attempt towards change. The revolutionary structures were not formed yet and would not be for another year or two.
Second of all, the fall of the Bastille had no real strategic consequence, but was rather a symbolical act. For many years, the Bastille was considered the symbol of French absolutism, where those who spread ideas about freedom and democracy were kept. When the Bastille was stormed, less than twenty prisoners were found by the people, for the most part common thieves. So, it is less likely that the storming of the Bastille was politically directed, but more a popular reaction against tyranny or what was perceived as its symbol.
Following the assertion argued previously, according to which the storming of the Bastille was a spontaneous act of the people and Parisian crowd, we may show that, in the first months of the Revolution, the common people of France triggered events and were the primary impulse for action. This is also supported by actions of rural inhabitants during these months.
Indeed, high prices and the feudal tax system that was imposed on them, a system where the levels and number of taxes seemed to be continuously increasing, led to peasant uprisings from July to September, uprisings involving burning down aristocracy's manors and, with them, the odious book keepings where the taxes to be paid were recorded.
What David Andress has called "the second great journee of the Revolution" (Andress), the March on Versailles to bring the king to Paris, under closer public scrutiny, is believed to have been started by women, concerned about the increased bread price. Of course, they had been involved in the storming of the Bastille as well, as documents of the time and secondary sources suggest (we may mention Romain Rolland's play "Theater of the Revolution," although its historical reliability may be doubted), however, the March may be considered an action in which they were not only fully involved, but also helped trigger it.
The period from September 1789 to September 1791 was, in my opinion, the only period during which the mob and the people acted separately from political control and coordination. Many of the historians would disagree with me and would tend to associate the September massacres and the Terror period with spontaneous popular actions. However, this cannot be true and I believe that the political factions in power, be they the Girondins, Danton's moderates, Hebert's enraged or Robespierre, used the masses as a formidable tool to exercise power, scare away opposition and impose their will. My strongest argumentation comes from historical facts themselves and from the similitude with the Russian Revolution of 1917. Here, just as much as during the French Revolution, the masses were maneuvered to sustain the goals of the Bolshevik political class.
The historical events during this period were tough and tough times call for tough measures. Indeed, the Prussians were sweeping across France and anyone even closely associated with the aristocracy or the clergy could be suspected of favoring foreign intervention. The people in power during those days, starting with Danton, needed to pursue measure to save the Revolution. First of all, the enemies in the interior needed to be eliminated in order to provide a reasonably unsuspicious atmosphere on the inside. The force of the mob would be an excellent mean to pursue this: fast and ruthless. Second of all, the new political class needed to be stabilized and make the return to the past impossible. The September massacres would be a way to cut all ties with the Past. Here is Danton speaking in the National Assembly on September 2nd 1792: "When the tocsin sounds, it will not be a signal of alarm, but the signal to charge against the enemies of our country... To defeat them, gentlemen, we need boldness, and again boldness, and always boldness; and France will then be saved" (http://www.historywiz.com).Boldness can be interpreted in many ways
However, one thing is clear: as in many cases when politicians use the masses to achieve certain goals, things got terribly out of hand and what started as a repressive act against possible enemies from the inside soon turned into a blood bath. According to official figures, approximately 1200 prisoners died, half of which were in Parisian prisons (Schama; 635). The work was carried out by less than two hundred killers. Terror was achieved and it was only natural that it would become a governance style in 1793.
I want to briefly recapitulate my thesis here and note that the role played by the common people of France continuously changed and evolved during the period from 1785 to 1799. First of all, we had the controlled mobs gatherings at public events, before 1789, followed by uncontrolled outburst, with the storming of the Bastille. During the September massacres, the common people, sans-culottes or peasantry action was initially supposed to be controlled and directed towards suppressing potential political adversaries, identified as enemies of the interior and counterrevolutionaries, aristocrats and clergy. It is now the time to see how the common people turned victims and passive voices.
Indeed, during the Terror, which may be approximated as lasting from October 1793 to Robespierre's fall, in July 1794, more than 70% of the 18,000 citizens that were guillotined (here figures vary, this was taken from Tiscali) were either peasants or poor urban citizens. The proportion of guillotines people who had absolutely nothing to do with the aristocracy or clergy fully supports my thesis according to which the common people who helped trigger the first events of the Revolution, became victims during later periods.
Further more, during this period the popular fervor from the beginning related to leadership and that included ad-hoc popular committees, popular reunions, etc. was now over, because power was in strong hands and those people wouldn't let go. If the period 1789 to 1792, we could assert that we dealt with a revolutionary anarchy, in which the King, still head of State, had virtual no more power and was practically a prisoner of the people, and there was no real leadership, the government is now in the hands of Robespierre and the Committee and there is no more room for the common people to act as an impetus for action.
Napoleon came five years after the Revolution was officially declared over. Indeed, in 1799, he became Consul. Again, I must disagree with the idea that the common people, the peasants and the sans-culotte, brought about Napoleon's reign. Indeed, there were two strong factors that were on Napoleon's side and that helped him rule with…