Thursday, July 17, 2008

July 17

On 17 July 1791 -- two years to the day after he proposed the tricolor cockade that would serve as the basis for the modern French flag -- Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette, presided over one of the most notorious and consequential massacres in his nation’s history. For several days prior to the killings, tens of thousands of Parisians had gathered in the Champ de Mars to petition for the abdication of King Louis XVI. In response to these public demonstrations -- which the authorities feared might provoke radical uprisings against the monarchy and the National Assembly -- Jean-Sylvain Bailly, the mayor of Paris, declared martial law and ordered the crowds dispersed.

Carrying out his orders, Lafayette, the national hero who had been tapped as Commander in Chief of the National Guard, led three columns of soldiers toward the unarmed masses who had assembled near the “altar of the fatherland.” Many Parisians were drawn to the Champ de Mars by the declaration of martial law, which they apparently did not believe could be enforced against a crowd so large. Harassed by the angry demonstrators and pelted by stones and clumps of mud, the soldiers opened fire on Lafayette’s orders, killing scores of people. Implausibly, some partisans claimed at the time that 10,000 had perished; historians generally believe the actual number was around 50.

A sympathetic French historian, writing in the mid-19th century, described the aftermath of the massacre as a mixture of despair, melodrama and heroism.
In an instant the Champ-de-Mars was cleared, and nought remained on it save the dead bodies of women, and children, trampled under foot, or flying before the cavalry; and a few intrepid men on the steps of the altar of their country, who, amidst a murderous fire and at the cannon’s mouth, collected, in order to preserve them, the sheets of the petition, as proofs of the wishes, or bloody pledges of the future vengeance, of the people . . . .
The course of the French Revolution, which was already beginning to unravel, only grew more violent in subsequent years; when the Jacobins took full control of the revolution in 1792, Lafayette fled the country and spent several years in Austrian and Prussian prisons before returning to France during the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte. Americans, who remembered fondly Lafayette’s contributions to their own revolution, eventually rewarded him with a massive land grant and a $200,000 gift.

Two years after the bloodbath at the Champ de Mars, the assassin Charlotte Corday -- who famously slew the Jacobin journalist Jean-Paul Marat as he lay in his bathtub -- surrendered her head at the guillotine. Her executioner then lofted her head in the air and slapped it, an indignity that earned him several months in prison. Corday’s body, like so many others during the Reign of Terror, was dumped in a trench and buried. The whereabouts of her head has never been determined.