1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Desmoulins, Lucie Simplice Camille Benoist
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Desmoulins, Lucie Simplice Camille Benoist
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DESMOULINS, LUCIE SIMPLICE CAMILLE BENOIST (1760-1794), French journalist and politician, who played an important part in the French Revolution, was born at Guise, in Picardy, on the 2nd of March 1760. His father was lieutenant-general of the bailliage of Guise, and through the efforts of a friend obtained a bourse for his son, who at the age of fourteen left home for Paris, and entered the college of Louis le Grand. In this school, in which Robespierre was also a bursar and a distinguished student, Camille Desmoulins laid the solid foundation of his learning. Destined by his father for the law, at the completion of his legal studies he was admitted an advocate of the parlement of Paris in 1785. His professional success was not great; his manner was violent, his appearance unattractive, and his speech impaired by a painful stammer. He indulged, however, his love for literature, was closely observant of public affairs, and thus gradually prepared himself for the main duties of his life — those of a political littérateur.
In March 1789 Desmoulins began his political career. Having been nominated deputy from the bailliage of Guise, he appeared at Laon as one of the commissioners for the election of deputies to the States-General summoned by royal edict of January 24th. Camille heralded its meeting by his Ode to the States-General. It is, moreover, highly probable that he was the author of a radical pamphlet entitled La Philosophie au peuple français, published in 1788, the text of which is not known. His hopes of professional success were now scattered, and he was living in Paris in extreme poverty. He, however, shared to the full the excitement which attended the meeting of the States-General. As appears from his letters to his father, he watched with exultation the procession of deputies at Versailles, and with violent indignation the events of the latter part of June which followed the closing of the Salle des Menus to the deputies who had named themselves the National Assembly. It is further evident that Desmoulins was already sympathizing, not only with the enthusiasm, but also with the fury and cruelty, of the Parisian crowds.
The sudden dismissal of Necker by Louis XVI. was the event which brought Desmoulins to fame. On the 12th of July 1789 Camille, leaping upon a table outside one of the cafés in the garden of the Palais Royal, announced to the crowd the dismissal of their favourite. Losing, in his violent excitement, his stammer, he inflamed the passions of the mob by his burning words and his call “To arms!” “This dismissal,” he said, “is the tocsin of the St Bartholomew of the patriots.” Drawing, at last, two pistols from under his coat, he declared that he would not fall alive into the hands of the police who were watching his movements. He descended amid the embraces of the crowd, and his cry “To arms!” resounded on all sides. This scene was the beginning of the actual events of the Revolution. Following Desmoulins the crowd surged through Paris, procuring arms by force; and on the 13th it was partly organized as the Parisian militia which was afterwards to be the National Guard. On the 14th the Bastille was taken.
Desmoulins may be said to have begun on the following day that public literary career which lasted till his death. In May and June 1789 he had written La France libre, which, to his chagrin, his publisher refused to print. The taking of the Bastille, however, and the events by which it was preceded, were a sign that the times had changed; and on the 18th of July Desmoulins's work was issued. Considerably in advance of public opinion, it already pronounced in favour of a republic. By its erudite, brilliant and courageous examination of the rights of king, of nobles, of clergy and of people, it attained a wide and sudden popularity; it secured for the author the friendship and protection of Mirabeau, and the studied abuse of numerous royalist pamphleteers. Shortly afterwards, with his vanity and love of popularity inflamed, he pandered to the passions of the lower orders by the publication of his Discours de la lanterne aux Parisians which, with an almost fiendish reference to the excesses of the mob, he headed by a quotation from St John, Qui male agit odit lucem. Camille was dubbed “Procureur-général de la lanterne.”
In November 1789 Desmoulins began his career as a journalist by the issue of the first number of a weekly publication, Les Révolutions de France et de Brabant. The title of the publication changed after the 73rd number. It ceased to appear at the end of July 1791.
Success attended the Révolutions from its first to its last number, Camille was everywhere famous, and his poverty was relieved. These numbers are valuable as an exhibition not so much of events as of the feelings of the Parisian people; they are adorned, moreover, by the erudition, the wit and the genius of the author, but they are disfigured, not only by the most biting personalities and the defence and even advocacy of the excesses of the mob, but by the entire absence of the forgiveness and pity for which the writer was afterwards so eloquently to plead.
Desmoulins was powerfully swayed by the influence of more vigorous minds; and for some time before the death of Mirabeau, in April 1791, he had begun to be led by Danton, with whom he remained associated during the rest of his life. In July 1791 Camille appeared before the municipality of Paris as head of a deputation of petitioners for the deposition of the king. In that month, however, such a request was dangerous; there was excitement in the city over the presentation of the petition, and the private attacks to which Desmoulins had often been subject were now followed by a warrant for the arrest of himself and Danton. Danton left Paris for a little; Desmoulins, however, remained there, appearing occasionally at the Jacobin club. Upon the failure of this attempt of his opponents, Desmoulins published a pamphlet, Jean Pierre Brissot démasqué, which abounded in the most violent personalities. This pamphlet, which had its origin in a petty squabble, was followed in 1793 by a Fragment de l'histoire secrète de la Révolution, in which the party of the Gironde, and specially Brissot, were most mercilessly attacked. Desmoulins took an active part on the 10th of August and became secretary to Danton, when the latter became minister of justice. On the 8th of September he was elected one of the deputies for Paris to the National Convention, where, however, he was not successful as an orator. He was of the party of the “Mountain,” and voted for the abolition of royalty and the death of the king. With Robespierre he was now more than ever associated, and the Histoire des Brissotins, the fragment above alluded to, was inspired by the arch-revolutionist. The success of the brochure, so terrible as to send the leaders of the Gironde to the guillotine, alarmed Danton and the author. Yet the role of Desmoulins during the Convention was of but secondary importance.
In December 1793 was issued the first number of the Vieux Cordelier, which was at first directed against the Hébertists and approved of by Robespierre, but which soon formulated Danton's idea of a committee of clemency. Then Robespierre turned against Desmoulins and took advantage of the popular indignation roused against the Hébertists to send them to death. The time had come, however, when Saint Just and he were to turn their attention not only to les enragés, but to les indulgents — the powerful faction of the Dantonists. On the 7th of January 1794 Robespierre, who on a former occasion had defended Camille when in danger at the hands of the National Convention, in addressing the Jacobin club counselled not the expulsion of Desmoulins, but the burning of certain numbers of the Vieux Cordelier. Camille sharply replied that he would answer with Rousseau, — “burning is not answering,” and a bitter quarrel thereupon ensued. By the end of March not only were Hébert and the leaders of the extreme party guillotined, but their opponents, Danton, Desmoulins and the best of the moderates, were arrested. On the 31st the warrant of arrest was signed and executed, and on the 3rd, 4th and 5th of April the trial took place before the Revolutionary Tribunal. It was a scene of terror not only to the accused but to judges and to jury. The retorts of the prisoners were notable. Camille on being asked his age, replied, “I am thirty-three, the age of the sans-culotte Jesus, a critical age for every patriot.” This was false; he was thirty-four. The accused were prevented from defending themselves; a decree of the Convention denied them the right of speech. Armed with this and the false report of a spy, who charged the wife of Desmoulins with conspiring for the escape of her husband and the ruin of the republic, Fouquier-Tinville by threats and entreaties obtained from the jury a sentence of death. It was passed in absence of the accused, and their execution was appointed for the same day.
Since his arrest the courage of Camille had miserably failed. He had exhibited in the numbers of the Vieux Cordelier almost a disregard of the death which he must have known hovered over him. He had with consummate ability exposed the terrors of the Revolution, and had adorned his pages with illustrations from Tacitus, the force of which the commonest reader could feel. In his last number, the seventh, which his publisher refused to print, he had dared to attack even Robespierre, but at his trial it was found that he was devoid of physical courage. He had to be torn from his seat ere he was removed to prison, and as he sat next to Danton in the tumbrel which conveyed them to the guillotine, the calmness of the great leader failed to impress him. In his violence, bound as he was, he tore his clothes into shreds, and his bare shoulders and breast were exposed to the gaze of the surging crowd. Of the fifteen guillotined together, including among them Marie Jean Hérault de Sechelles, François Joseph Westermann and Pierre Philippeaux, Desmoulins died third; Danton, the greatest, died last.
On the 29th of December 1790 Camille had married Lucile Duplessis, and among the witnesses of the ceremony are observed the names of Brissot, Pétion and Robespierre. The only child of the marriage, Horace Camille, was born on the 6th of July 1792. Two days afterwards Desmoulins brought it into notice by appearing with it before the municipality of Paris to demand “the formal statement of the civil estate of his son.” The boy was afterwards pensioned by the French government, and died in Haiti in 1825. Lucile, Desmoulins's accomplished and affectionate wife, was, a few days after her husband, and on a false charge, condemned to the guillotine. She astonished all onlookers by the calmness with which she braved death (April 13, 1794).
See J. Claretie, Œuvres de Camille Desmoulins avec une étude biographique . . . &c. (Paris, 1874), and Camille Desmoulins, Lucile Desmoulins, étude sur les Dantonistes (Paris, 1875; Eng. trans., London, 1876); F. A. Aulard, Les Orateurs de la Législative et de la Convention (Paris, 1905, 2nd ed.); G. Lenôtre, “La Maison de Camille Desmoulins” (Le Temps, March 25, 1899).
- In April 1792 Desmoulins founded with Stanislas Fréron a new journal, La Tribune des patriotes, but only four numbers appeared.
- This is borne out by the register of his birth and baptism, and by words in his last letter to his wife, — “I die at thirty-four.” The dates (1762-1794) given in so many biographies of Desmoulins are certainly inaccurate.