Les Sans-Culottes: Marat’s Heart and Soul of the French Revolution

| | February 26, 2024

The sans-culottes, the name for the commoners that fought against the monarchy during the rebellion, were arguably the heart and soul of the French Revolution

With their name derived from their choice in apparel — loose fitting pantaloons, wooden shoes, and red liberty caps — the sans-culottes were workers, artisans, and shopkeepers; patriotic, uncompromising, egalitarian, and, at times, viciously violent.  Ironically, given its origin as a term to describe men’s breeches, the term “culottes” in French was used to describe women’s underpants, an article of clothing that has little or no relation to the historic culottes, but now refers to apparent skirts that are actually split with two legs. The term “sans-culottes” has been used colloquially to mean not wearing underpants.

Sans-culottes were quick to take to the streets and deal out Revolutionary justice through extralegal means, and images of severed heads falling into baskets from the guillotine, others stuck on pikes, and general mob violence are closely associated with them. 

But, despite their reputation, this is a caricature — it does not fully capture the breadth of the sans-culottes’ impact on the course of the French Revolution.

They were not only a disorganized violent mob, but were also important political influencers who had ideas and visions of a republican France that hoped to do away, once and for all, with aristocratic privilege and corruption. 

Who Were the Sans-Culottes?

The sans-culottes were the shock troops that stormed the Bastille, the insurrectionaries that overthrew the monarchy, and the people who — on a weekly and sometimes even daily basis — gathered in the political clubs in Paris that gave representation to the masses. Here, they deliberated the most pressing political issues of the day.  

They had a distinct identity, exclaiming it for all to hear on September 8, 1793:

“We are the sans-culottes… the poor and virtuous… we know who our friends are. Those who freed us from the clergy and from the nobility, from feudalism, from tithes, from royalty and from all the plagues that follow in its wake.”  

The sans-culottes expressed their new freedoms through their clothing, transforming dress which had been a mark of poverty into a badge of

Sans-Culottes translates to “without breeches” and it was meant to help distinguish them from members of the French upper-classes who often wore three-piece suits with breeches — tight-fitting pants that hit just below the knee.  

The restrictiveness of this clothing signified a status of leisure, a status of being unfamiliar with the dirt and drudgery of hard work. French workers and craftsmen wore loose-fitting clothing which was much more practical for manual labor. 

Loose-fitting pantaloons contrasted so sharply with the restrictive breeches of the upper-classes that it would become the rebels’ namesake.  

During the most radical days of the French Revolution, loose fitting pants became such a symbol of egalitarian principles and Revolutionary virtue, that — at the peak of their influence — even the sans-culottes’ educated, wealthy bourgeois allies adopted the fashion of the lower classes [1]. The red ‘cap of liberty’ also became the normal headgear of the sans-culottes.

The dress of the sans-culottes was not new or different, it was the same
style of dress which had been worn by the working-class for years, but the context had changed. The celebration of lower-class dress by the sans-culottes was a celebration of the new freedoms of expression, socially, politically, and economically, that the French Revolution promised.

The Politics of the Sans Culottes

Sans-culotte politics were influenced by a mix of Roman Republican iconography and Enlightenment philosophy. Their allies in the National Assembly were the Jacobins, the radical republicans who wanted to get rid of the monarchy and revolutionize French society and culture, though — classically educated and sometimes wealthy — they were often frightened of the sans-culottes’ attacks on privilege and wealth.  

For the most part, the aims and objectives of the sans-culottes were democratic, egalitarian and wanted price controls on food and essential commodities. Beyond that, their aims are unclear and open to debate. 

Sans-culottes believed in a type of direct democratic politics which they practiced through the Paris Commune, the city’s governing body, and the Sections of Paris, which were administrative districts that arose after 1790 and dealt with issues in particular areas of the city; representing the people in the Paris Commune. Sans-culottes often commanded an armed force, which they used to make their voice heard in greater Parisian politics.

Although the Parisian sans-culottes are the most well known, they were active in municipal politics in towns and cities throughout all of France. Through these local institutions, shopkeepers and craftsmen could influence Revolutionary politics by petitions, demonstrations, and debates.  

But sans-culottes also practiced “politics of force” — to put it lightly — and tended to see people’s beliefs regarding the subject as a clear us versus them. Those who were traitors to the Revolution were to be dealt with swiftly and violently [2]. The sans-culottes were associated by their enemies with the street-mob excesses of the French Revolution.

Pamphlet writing was an important part of Parisian politics. The sans-culottes read radical journalists and discussed politics in their homes, public spaces, and at their workplaces.

A man, and a prominent member of sans-culottes, by the name of Jacques Hébert, was a member of the “Society of the Friends of the Rights of Man and the Citizen,” also known as the Cordeliers Club — a popular organization for the group. 

However, unlike other radical political clubs which had high membership fees that kept membership exclusive to the privileged, the Cordeliers Club had low membership fees and included uneducated and illiterate working people.   

To give an idea, Hébert’s pen name was Père Duchesne, which drew on a popular image of a Parisian common worker — haggard, a liberty cap on his head, wearing pantaloons, and smoking a pipe. He used the sometimes-vulgar language of the Parisian masses to criticize the privileged elites and agitate for revolutionary change.  

In an article criticizing those who denigrated women’s participation in Revolutionary politics, Hébert wrote, “F*&k! If I had my hands on one of these buggers who speak ill of beautiful national acts it would be my pleasure to give them a f^%king hard time.” [3]

Jacques Roux

Like Hébert, Jacques Roux was a popular sans-culottes figure. Roux was a priest from the lower-classes who seethed against the inequalities in French society, earning himself and his allies the name “Enragés.”  

In 1793, Roux delivered one of the more radical statements of sans-culottes politics; he attacked the institutions of private property, condemned rich merchants and those who profited from hoarding goods like food and clothes — calling for these staples of basic survival and welfare to be made affordable and readily-available for the lower classes who made up a large part of the sans-culottes.  

And Roux didn’t only make enemies of aristocrats and royalists — he went so far as to attack the bourgeois Jacobins, challenging those who professed to be for liberty, equality, and fraternity to turn their lofty rhetoric into concrete political and social change; making enemies amongst the wealthy and educated but self-declared “radical” leaders [4]. 

Jean-Paul Marat

Marat was an ardent Revolutionary, political writer, doctor, and scientist whose paper, The Friend of the People, called for the overthrow of the monarchy and the establishment of a republic.

He viciously criticized the Legislative Assembly for its corruption and betrayal of Revolutionary ideals, attacked unpatriotic military officers, bourgeois speculators exploiting the French Revolution for profit, and praised the patriotism and honesty of craftsmen [5].  

The Friend of the People was popular; it combined social grievances and fears of betrayal by liberal nobles in fiery polemics that inspired the sans-culottes to take the French Revolution into their own hands.  

In general, Marat tried to play the role of an outcast. He lived in the Cordellier — a neighborhood that would become synonymous with sans-culottes ideals. He was also rude and used combative and violent rhetoric that was displeasing to many Parisian elites, thus confirming his own virtuous nature.

The Sans-Culottes Make Their Voice Heard

The first hint of the potential power coming from sans-culotte street politics came in 1789. 

As the Third Estate — representing the commoners of France — was snubbed by the Crown, clergy, and nobility in Versailles, a rumor spread through the workers’ quarters of Paris that Jean-Baptiste Réveillon, a prominent wallpaper factory owner, was calling for cutting Parisians’ wages.  

In response, a crowd of hundreds of workers gathered, all armed with sticks, marching, shouting “Death to aristocrats!” and threatening to burn Réveillon’s factory to the ground.  

On the first day, they were stopped by armed guards; but on the second, brewers, tanners, and unemployed stevedores, among other workers along the Seine — the main river in Paris — formed a larger crowd. And this time, guards would fire into the mass of people.  

This would be the bloodiest riot in Paris until the insurrections of 1792 [6]. 

Storming the Bastille

As political events during the hot summer days of 1789 radicalized the commoners of France, the sans-culottes in Paris continued to organize and develop their own brand of influence.  

J. Humbert was a Parisian who, like thousands of others, took up arms in July of 1789 after hearing that the king had dismissed a popular and capable minister — Jacques Necker.  

Necker was seen by the Parisian sans-culottes as a friend of the people who solved the problems of aristocratic privilege, corruption, speculation, high bread prices, and poor government finances. Without him, vitriol spread through the public.

Humbert had spent his day patrolling the streets when he caught word that arms were being distributed to the sans-culottes; something big was happening. 

Managing to get his hands on a musket, no ammunition was left available to him. But as he learned that the Bastille was being sieged — the imposing fortress and prison that was a symbol of the power of the French monarchy and aristocracy — he packed his rifle with nails and set off to join the attack.  

Half a dozen musket shots and the threat of firing a cannon later, the drawbridge was lowered, the garrison surrendering to the mob that stood at hundreds of people strong. Humbert was within the first group of ten to rush through the gates [7].  

There were few prisoners at the Bastille, but it represented the repressive power of the absolutist monarchy that possessed and starved the country. If it could be destroyed by the common people of Paris, there stood very few limits to the sans-culottes’ power.  

The Storming of the Bastille was a demonstration of the extralegal power that the people of Paris commanded — something which went against the political sensibilities of the lawyers and reformist nobles that filled the Constituent Assembly.

In October 1789, a crowd of Parisian women marched to Versailles — the home of the French monarchy and a symbol of the Crown’s distance from the people — demanding the royal family accompany them to Paris.  

Physically moving them was another important gesture, and one that came with political consequences.  

Like the Bastille, Versailles was a symbol of royal authority. Its extravagance, court intrigue, and physical distance from the commoners of Paris — being located outside the city proper and hard for anyone to get to — were markers of a sovereign royal authority that was not contingent on the support of the people.  

The assertion of power made by the women of Paris was too much for the legally minded property owners that composed the leading bloc in the Constituent Assembly — the first legislative body created after the outbreak of the French Revolution, which was busying itself with crafting the new constitution and considered itself as France’s source of political authority. 

In response to this march on Versailles, it was forced to pass a law banning “unofficial demonstrations” with the intentions of limiting the influence of the sans-culottes [8].  

The reform-minded Constituent Assembly saw the sans-culottes as a threat to the constitutional system they were trying to craft. This would have replaced the absolute, god-given authority of the pre-Revolutionary monarchy with a monarchy that was instead deriving authority from the constitution.  

The wrench in their plans was the sans-culottes and the power of the crowd, which had no interest in a monarch of any kind; a crowd that had shown itself to be capable of overturning royal power outside of the rules and norms of the Constituent Assembly, or any governmental body at all for that matter.  

The Sans-Culottes Enter Revolutionary Politics

In order to understand the role of the sans-culottes in Revolutionary politics, a quick sketch of the political map of Revolutionary France is in order.  

The Constituent Assembly

Revolutionary politics can be broken down into factions, but those factions did not correspond to one of today’s modern, organized political parties, and their ideological differences were not always very clear.  

This is when the idea of a left to right political spectrum — with those favoring social equality and political change on the left, and conservatives favoring tradition and order on the right — emerged into society’s collective consciousness. 

It came from the fact that those favoring change and a new order literally sat on the left side of the chamber in which constituents met, and those favoring order and maintaining traditional practices sat on the right side. 

The first elected legislative body was the Constituent Assembly, formed in 1789 at the start of the French Revolution. This was followed by the Legislative Assembly in 1791, which was then supplanted by the National Convention in 1792.  

Circumstances changed frequently and relatively quickly with the tumultuous political climate. The Constituent Assembly had tasked itself with crafting a constitution to replace the monarchy and the antiquated legal system of parliaments and estates — which divided French society into classes and determined representation, giving more to the wealthy elite who were much fewer in number but who controlled most of France’s property.  

The Constituent Assembly created a constitution and passed the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, which established universal, natural rights for individuals and protected everyone equally under the law; a document that remains a milestone in the history of liberal democracy today.  

However, the Constituent Assembly essentially dissolved itself under heavy political pressure, and, in 1791, elections were held for what was to be the new governing body — the Legislative Assembly. 

But under the direction of Maximilien Robespierre — who would eventually become one of the most notorious and powerful people in French Revolutionary politics — anyone who sat in the Constituent Assembly was ineligible to run for a seat in the Legislative Assembly. Meaning that it was filled with radicals, organized in Jacobin clubs. 

The Legislative Assembly

The Jacobin clubs were the predominant hang-out spot for republicans and radicals. They were mostly composed of educated middle-class French men, who would discuss politics and organize themselves through the clubs (which were spread throughout France).   

By 1792, those who sat more on the right-wing, wishing to preserve the old order of the aristocracy and the monarchy, were largely excluded from national politics. They had either fled like the Émigrés, who joined the Prussian and Austrian armies threatening France, or they would soon organize rebellions in the provinces outside of Paris.  

Constitutional monarchists previously had considerable influence in the Constituent Assembly, but that was significantly weakened in the new Legislative Assembly. 

Then there were the radicals, sitting on the left side of the Assembly and who disagreed on much, but at least agreed on republicanism. Within this faction, there was a division between the Montagnard — who organized through the Jacobin clubs and saw centralizing power in Paris as the only way to defend the French Revolution against foreign and domestic enemies — and the Girondists — who tended to favor a more decentralized political arrangement, with power more distributed throughout France’s regions. 

And next to all of this, sitting on the far left of Revolutionary politics, were the sans-culottes and their allies like Hébert, Roux, and Marat.  

But as the conflict between the king and the Legislative Assembly grew, republican influence also strengthened. 

France’s new order would only survive by an unplanned alliance between the sans-culottes in Paris and the republicans in the Legislative Assembly that would depose of the monarchy and create the new French Republic.

Things Get Tense

It’s important to remember that the French Revolution was playing out within the context of European great-power politics.  

In 1791, the Holy Roman Emperor — the king of Prussia as well as the brother of France’s Queen, Marie Antoinette — declared their support for King Louis XVI against the Revolutionaries. This, of course, deeply offended those fighting against the government and further eroded the position of constitutional monarchists, prompting the Legislative Assembly, led by the Girondins, to declare war in 1792.  

The Girondins held the belief that war was necessary to defend the French Revolution and spread it through to Belgium and the Netherlands. Unfortunately for the Girondins, though, the plight of the war went rather poorly for France — there was a need for fresh troops.  

The king vetoed the Assembly’s call for a levy of 20,000 volunteers to help defend Paris and he dismissed the Girondin ministry.   

To radicals and their sympathizers, this seemed to confirm that the king was not, truly, a virtuous French patriot. Instead, he was more interested in helping his fellow monarchs end the French Revolution [9].  The administrators of police, urged the sans-culottes to lay down their weapons, telling them it was illegal to present a petition in arms, although their march to the Tuileries was not banned. They invited the officials to join the procession and march along with them.

Then, on June 20, 1792, demonstrations organized by popular sans-culottes leaders surrounded the Tuileries Palace, where the royal family was then residing. The demonstration was ostensibly to plant a “liberty tree,” a symbol of the French Revolution, in front of the palace. 

Two huge crowds converged, and the gates opened after a cannon was obviously put on display.  

In stormed the crowd.  

They found the king and his unarmed guards, and they waved their swords and pistols in his face. According to one account, they wielded a calf heart stuck on the end of a pike, meant to represent the heart of the aristocrat. 

Attempting to appease the sans-cullotes so they wouldn’t chop his head off, the king took a red liberty cap offered to him and placed it on his head, an action which was taken as a symbol that he was willing to listen to demands. 

The crowd eventually dispersed without further provocation, convinced to stand down by Girondin leaders who didn’t want to see the king killed by a mob. This moment was indicative of the monarchy’s weak position and it demonstrated the deep hostility of the Parisian sans-culottes toward the monarchy.  

It was also a precarious situation for the Girondists — they were no friend of the king, but they were fearful of the disorder and violence of the lower classes [10].   

In general, in the three-way struggle between Revolutionary politicians, the monarchy, and the sans-culottes, the monarchy was clearly in the weakest position. But the balance of forces between Girondist deputies and the sans-culottes of Paris was, as of yet, unsettled.

Unmaking a King

As the late summer rolled around, the Prussian army threatened serious consequences for Paris if any harm came to the royal family. 

This enraged the sans-culottes, who interpreted the threat as further evidence of the monarchy’s disloyalty. In response, leaders of the Sections of Paris began to organize for a seizure of power.  

Radicals from outside of Paris had been entering the city for months; from Marseille came armed Revolutionaries who introduced Parisians to “Le Marseille” — a quickly popular Revolutionary song that remains the French national anthem to this day.

On the tenth of August, the sans-culottes marched on the Tuilerie Palace, which had been fortified and was ready for a fight. Sulpice Huguenin, head of the sans-culottes in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, was appointed provisional president of the Insurrectionary Commune. Many National Guard units left their posts — partly because they had been poorly supplied for the defense, and on top of the fact that many were sympathizers to the French Revolution — leaving only the Swiss guards to defend the valuable goods protected inside.  

The sans-culottes — under the impression that the palace guard had surrendered — marched into the courtyard only to be met by a volley of musket fire. Upon realizing they were vastly outnumbered, King Louis ordered the guards to stand down, but the crowd continued to attack.  

Hundreds of Swiss guards were slaughtered in the fighting and subsequent massacre. Their bodies were stripped, mutilated, and burned [11]; a sign that the French Revolution was set to devolve into even more aggression towards the king and those in power.

A Radical Turn

As a result of this attack, the monarchy was soon overthrown, but the political situation still remained uncertain.  

The war against the Prussian and Austrian armies was going poorly, threatening to end the French Revolution. And with the threat of invasion becoming more and more serious, the sans-culottes, agitated by radical pamphlets and speeches, feared that the prisoners of Paris — made up of people loyal to the monarchy — would be incited by the recently imprisoned and killed Swiss guards, priests, and royalist officers to revolt when patriotic volunteers left for the front.  

Therefore, Marat, who by now had become the face of the sans-culottes urged “good citizens to go to the Abbaye to seize priests, and especially the officers of the Swiss guards and their accomplices, and run a sword through them.”  

This call encouraged Parisians to march to prisons armed with swords, hatchets, pikes, and knives. From September 2nd to the 6th, over a thousand prisoners were massacred — approximately half of all in Paris at the time.  

Girondists, fearful of the sans-culottes’ potential for revolt, used the September Massacres to score political points against their Montagnard opponents [12] — they demonstrated that the panic induced by the uncertainties of war and revolution, all mixed together with the rhetoric of radical political leaders, created the conditions for terrible indiscriminate violence.  

On September 20th, the Legislative Assembly was replaced by a National Convention elected from universal manhood suffrage (meaning that all men could vote), although the participation in this election was lower than that of the Legislative Assembly’s, largely because people did not have faith that the institutions would truly represent them.  

And that was coupled with the fact that, despite expanded voting rights, the class composition of the candidates for the new National Convention was no more egalitarian than the Legislative Assembly had been.  

As a result, this new Convention was still dominated by gentleman lawyers rather than sans-culottes. The new legislative body established a Republic, but there would be no unity in victory for Republican political leaders. New divisions quickly emerged and would lead one faction to embrace the insurrectionary politics of the sans-culottes.

Insurrectionary Politics and Enlightened Gentlemen: A Fraught Alliance

What followed after overthrowing the monarchy and establishing a French Republic was not unity in victory.  

The Girondins were ascendant in the months after the August insurrection, but the situation in the National Convention quickly devolved into denunciations and political deadlock.  

Girondins attempted to delay the trial of the king, while the Montagnards wanted to have a quick trial before dealing with the outbreak of revolts in the provinces. The former group also repeatedly denounced the Paris Commune and the Sections as redoubts of anarchic violence, and they had a good argument for this after the September Massacres.  

After a trial before the National Convention, the former king, Louis XVI, was executed in January 1793, representing just how far to the left French politics had drifted over the previous few years; a defining moment of the French Revolution that hinted at the possibility of even more violence. 

As a demonstration of the drastic changes this execution was to bring about, the king was no longer referred to by his royal title but rather his commoner name — Louis Capet.

The Isolation of the Sans-Culottes

The Girondins appeared too soft on the monarchy in the lead up to the trial, and this drove the sans-culottes towards the Montagnard faction of the National Convention.  

However, not all the Enlightened gentlemen politicians of the Montagnard liked the egalitarian politics of the Parisian masses. They were radical, relative to the conservatism of the nobility and clergy, but they took liberal ideas about private property and legalism seriously.  

In addition, the sans-culottes’ more radical plans for price controls and guaranteed wages — along with their general ideas about the leveling of wealth and social status — went much further than the general platitudes about liberty and virtue expressed by Jacobins.  

Frenchmen with property did not want to see a leveling of wealth, and there was increasing skepticism about the independent power of the sans-culottes.      

All of this meant that while the sans-culottes were still influential in French politics, they were beginning to see themselves as being on the outside looking in.

Marat Turns From the Sans-Culottes

Marat — now a delegate at the National Convention — still used his signature firebrand language, but was not explicitly in favor of more radical egalitarian policies, suggesting he was beginning to move away from his sans-culottes base.  

For example, as the sans-culottes petitioned the Convention for price controls — an important demand for ordinary Parisians as the continuing upheavals of revolution, internal rebellions, and foreign invasion were causing spikes in food prices — Marat’s pamphlets promoted the looting of a few shops, while at the Convention itself he positioned himself against those price controls [13]. 

The War Changes French Politics

In September 1792, the Revolutionary Army forced the Prussians to retreat at Valmy, in Northeast France. 

For a time, this was a relief for the Revolutionary government, as it was the first major success by the French Army commanded by them. It was celebrated as a great victory for the French Revolution and as proof that the forces of European royalism could be fought off and turned away.  

During the radical period in 1793-94, propaganda and popular culture hailed the sans-culottes as the humble vanguard of the French Revolution. Their political impact, however, was negated by the growing centralisation of Jacobin power.

But by the spring of 1793, Holland, Britain, and Spain had joined the fight against the French Revolutionaries, all believing that if the country’s Revolution succeeded in its endeavour, their own monarchies would soon fall as well.  

Seeing their fight threatened, the Girondins and Montagnards began exploring the possibility of working with one another — something that had been unthinkable just a few months prior but that now seemed the only way to save the French Revolution.

Meanwhile, the Girondins were effectively trying to neutralize the sans-culottes’ ability to act independently. They had stepped up their efforts to repress them — arresting one of their primary members, Hébert, among others — and had demanded an investigation into the Paris Commune and the behavior of the Sections, as these had been the main local institutions of sans-culottes politics. 

This provoked the final effective Parisian insurrection of the Revolutionary period. 

And like they had at the Bastille and during the August insurrection that overthrew the monarchy, the Parisian sans-culottes answered the call from the Sections of the Paris Commune, forming an uprising. 

An Unlikely Alliance

The Montagnard saw this as an opportunity to get one over on their opponents in the National Convention, and abandoned their plans to cooperate with the Girondins. Meanwhile, the Paris Commune, dominated by the sans-culottes, demanded Girondin leaders be tried for treason.  

The Montagnard did not wish to violate immunity for delegates — a stipulation that kept lawmakers from being fraudulently charged and removed from office — so they only placed them on house arrest. This appeased the sans-culottes but also displayed the immediate tensions between the politicians in the Convention and the sans-culottes on the streets.  

Despite their differences, the Montagnard thought that their educated minority, supported by the urban sans-culottes, would be able to defend the French Revolution from foreign and domestic enemies [14]. In other words, they were working to form a coalition that didn’t depend on the mood swings of the mob.

All of this meant that, by 1793, the Montagnard held a lot of power. They established centralized political control through newly established committees — like the Committee of Public Safety — which would come to function as an impromptu dictatorship controlled by famous Jacobins like Robespierre and Louis Antoine de Saint-Just.

But the sans-culottes were immediately disappointed by the National Convention’s unwillingness to implement social reforms and their refusal to fully back them as an independent force; stifling their vision of Revolutionary justice.  

While some price controls at the local level were implemented, the new government did not provide for armed sans-culotte units in Paris, enforce general price controls throughout France, nor did they purge all noble officers — all key demands of the sans-culotte.

The Attack on the Church 

The sans-culottes were very serious about destroying the power of the Catholic Church in France, and this was something that the Jacobins could agree on.  

Church property was seized, conservative priests were banished from towns and parishes, and public religious celebrations were replaced with more secular celebrations of Revolutionary events.  

A Revolutionary calendar replaced what radicals saw as the religious and superstitious Gregorian calendar (the one most Westerners are familiar with). It decimalized weeks and renamed months, and is why some famous French Revolutionary events refer to unfamiliar dates — such as the Thermidorian coup or the 18th of Brumaire [15].  

During this period of the Revolution, the sans-culottes, along with the Jacobins, were genuinely trying to overturn the social order of France. And while it was, in many ways, the most idealistic phase of the French Revolution, it was also a brutally violent period as the guillotine — the infamous device that chopped people’s heads clean off their shoulders — became a permanent part of the Parisian urban landscape.

An Assassination

On July 13, 1793, Marat was bathing in his apartment, as he frequently did — treating a debilitating skin condition from which he had suffered for most of his life. 

A woman by the name of Charlotte Corday, an aristocrat republican sympathetic to the Girondins who was furious with Marat for his role in the September Massacres, had purchased a kitchen knife, dark intent behind the decision.  

On her first attempted visit, she was turned away — Marat was ill, she was told. But he was said to have an open door for visitors, and so she left a letter saying she knew of traitors in Normandy, and made to return later that same evening.  

She sat beside him while he bathed in the tub, and then plunged the knife into his chest.   

Marat’s funeral drew large crowds, and he was memorialized by Jacobins [16]. While he himself was not a sans-culotte, his pamphlets had been an early favorite of Parisians and he had a reputation as being a friend of the group.  

His death coincides with the gradual decline of sans-culotte influence.

Oppression Returns

Over the autumn and winter of 1793–1794, more and more power was being centralized in the committees controlled by the Montagnard. The Committee of Public Safety was, by now, in the group’s firm control, ruling through decrees and appointments while also trying and arresting anyone suspected of treason and espionage — charges which were becoming increasingly difficult to define and therefore refute. 

This whittled away the independent political power of the sans-culotte, whose influence was in the Sections and Communes of urban areas. These institutions met in the evenings and close to people’s workplaces — which allowed artisans and laborers to participate in politics.  

Their declining influence meant the sans-culottes had little means to sway Revolutionary politics.  

In August 1793, Roux — at the peak of his influence within the sans-culotte — was arrested on flimsy charges of corruption. By March of 1794, the Cordelier Club in Paris was discussing another insurrection, but on the 12th of that month, leading sans-culottes were arrested, including Hébert and his allies.  

Quickly tried and executed, their deaths effectively subordinated Paris to the Committee of Public Safety — but it also sowed the seeds of the end of the institution. Not only were sans-culotte radicals arrested, moderate members of the Montagnard were as well, which meant the Committee of Public Safety was losing allies left and right [17].

A Leaderless Movement

The sans-culottes’ one-time allies had wiped out their leadership, either by arresting or executing them, and so had neutralized their political establishments. But after thousands more executions over the coming months, the Committee of Public Safety found its own enemies multiplying and lacked support in the National Convention to protect itself.  

Robespierre — a leader throughout the French Revolution who was now operating as a de facto dictator — was wielding near absolute power through the Committee of Public Safety. But, at the same time, he was alienating many in the National Convention who feared they would end up on the wrong side of an anti-corruption campaign, or worse, denounced as traitors.   

Robespierre was himself denounced in the Convention, along with his allies. 

Saint-Just, once an ally of Robespierre on the Committee of Public Safety, was known as “the angel of death” for his youthful looks and dark reputation in dealing out swift Revolutionary justice. He spoke in Robespierre’s defense but was promptly shouted down, and this signaled a shift in power away from the Committee of Public Safety.  

On the 9th of Thermidor, Year II — or July 27th, 1794 to non-Revolutionaries — the Jacobin government was overthrown by an alliance of its opponents.    

The sans-culottes briefly saw this as an opportunity to reignite their insurrectionary politics, but they were quickly removed from positions of authority by the Thermidorian government. With their remaining Montagnard allies lying low, they were without friends in the National Assembly.   

Many public figures and revolutionaries who were not strictly working class styled themselves citoyens sans-culottes in solidarity and recognition. However, in the period immediately following the Thermidorian Reaction the sans-culottes and other far-left political factions were heavily persecuted and repressed by the likes of the Muscadins.

The new government withdrew price controls just as a bad harvest and harsh winter reduced food supplies. This was an intolerable situation for the Parisian sans-culottes, but cold and hunger left little time for political organizing, and their last attempts to shift the course of the French Revolution were dismal failures. 

Demonstrations were met with repression, and without the power of the Sections of Paris, they had no institutions left to rally Parisians to uprising.  

In May of 1795, for the first time since the storming of the Bastille, the government brought in troops to repress sans-culotte rebellion, breaking the power of street politics for good [18].  

This marked the end of the cycle of the Revolution in which the independent power of artisans, shopkeepers, and working people could alter the course of French politics. After the defeat of the 1795 popular revolt in Paris, the sans-culottes ceased to play any effective political role in France until the July Revolution of 1830.

The Sans-Culottes After the French Revolution

After the Thermidorian coup, the sans-culottes were a spent political force. Their leaders were either imprisoned, executed, or had given up on politics, and this left them with little ability for furthering their ideals. 

Corruption and cynicism had become widespread in post-Thermidor France, and there would be echoes of sans-culotte influence in Babeuff’s Conspiracy of Equals, which attempted to seize power and establish a proto-socialist republic in 1796.   

But despite these hints of sans-culotte political action, their time on the scene of Revolutionary politics was at its end.  

The organized workers, artisans, and shopkeepers would no longer play a decisive role under the rule of the Directory. Nor would they have much of an independent influence under Napoleon’s rule as Consul and then Emperor.  

The long-term influence of the sans-culottes is most apparent in their alliance with the Jacobins, which provided the template for subsequent European revolutions. The pattern of an alliance between a section of the educated middle-classes with the organized and mobilized urban-poor would repeat itself in 1831 in France, 1848 in European-wide revolutions, 1871 in the tragedy of the Paris Commune, and again in the 1917 Russian revolutions. 

Furthermore, the collective memory of the French Revolution often evokes the image of a tattered Parisian artisan wearing loose trousers, perhaps with a pair of wooden shoes and a red cap, gripping the tricolor flag — the uniform of the sans-culottes.  

The Marxist historian Albert Soboul emphasized the importance of the sans-culottes as a social class, a sort of proto-proletariat that played a central role in the French Revolution. That view has been sharply attacked by scholars who say the sans-culottes were not a class at all. Indeed, as one historian points out, Soboul’s concept has not been used by scholars in any other period of French history.

According to another prominent historian, Sally Waller, part of the sans-culottes slogan was “permanent anticipation of betrayal and treachery”. The members of the sans-culottes were constantly on edge and fearing betrayal, which can be attributed to their violent and radical rebellion tactics.

Other historians, like Albert Soboul and George Rudé, have deciphered the identities, motives and methods of the sans-culottes and found greater complexity. Whatever your interpretations of the sans-culottes and their motives, their impact on the French Revolution, particularly between 1792 and 1794, is undeniable.

Therefore, the era that the sans-culotte had a sway in French politics and society marks a period of European history in which the urban-poor would no longer only riot over bread. Their immediate, concrete need for food, work, and housing were expressed through rebellion; thus proving that the mob was not always just a disorganized, violent mass.  

By the end of 1795, the Sans-culottes were broken and gone, and it is perhaps no accident France was able to bring in a form of government that managed change without the need for much violence.

In this more pragmatic world, shopkeepers, brewers, tanners, bakers, craftsmen of different sorts, and day-laborers had political demands that they could articulate through Revolutionary language.

Liberty, equality, fraternity.  

These words were a way of translating the specific needs of the common people into a universal political understanding. As a result, governments and establishments would have to expand beyond the thoughts and plans of aristocrats and the privileged to include the needs and demands of urban commoners.  

It is important to realise that the sans-culottes loathed the monarchy, aristocracy and Church. It is certain that this loathing made them blind to their own, often atrocious actions. They were determined everyone should be equal, and wore red caps to prove who they were (they borrowed this convention from association with freed slaves in America). The formal vous in every day speech was replaced by the informal tu. They had an embracing faith in what they were told was Democracy.

The ruling classes of Europe would have to either more effectively repress the angered masses, incorporate them into politics through social reforms, or risk revolutionary insurrection.


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[1] Werlin, Katy. “Baggy Trousers Are Revolting: The sans-Culottes of the French Revolution Transformed Peasant Dress into a Badge of Honour.” Index on Censorship, vol. 45, no. 4, 2016, pp. 36–38., doi:10.1177/0306422016685978.

[2] Hampson, Norman. A Social History of the French Revolution. University of Toronto Press, 1968.  (139-140).

[3] H, Jacques. The Great Anger of Pre Duchesne by Jacques Hbert 1791, https://www.marxists.org/history/france/revolution/hebert/1791/great-anger.htm.

[4] Roux, Jacques.  Manifesto of the Enrages https://www.marxists.org/history/france/revolution/roux/1793/enrages01.htm

[5] Schama, Simon. Citizens: a Chronicle of the French Revolution. Random House, 1990. (603, 610, 733)

[6] Schama, Simon. Citizens: a Chronicle of the French Revolution. Random House, 1990. (330-332)

[7] https://alphahistory.com/frenchrevolution/humbert-taking-of-the-bastille-1789/

[8] Lewis Gwynne. The French Revolution: Rethinking the Debate. Routledge, 2016. (28-29).

[9] Lewis, Gwynne. The French Revolution: Rethinking the Debate. Routledge, 2016. (35-36)

[10] Schama, Simon. Citizens: a Chronicle of the French Revolution. Random House, 1990.


[11] Schama, Simon. Citizens: a Chronicle of the French Revolution. Random House, 1990. (603, 610)

[12] Schama, Simon. Citizens: a Chronicle of the French Revolution. Random House, 1990. (629 -638)

[13] Social history 162

[14] Hampson, Norman. A Social History of the French Revolution. University of Toronto Press, 1968. (190-92)

[15] Hampson, Norman. A Social History of the French Revolution. University of Toronto Press, 1968.  (193)

[16] Schama, Simon. Citizens: a Chronicle of the French Revolution. Random House, 1990. (734-736)

[17] Hampson, Norman. A Social History of the French Revolution. University of Toronto Press, 1968. (221-222)

[18] Hampson, Norman. A Social History of the French Revolution. University of Toronto Press, 1968. (240-41)

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