Monday, 3 February 2014

Joseph Chalier, Lyonnais Jacobin...

In a generation of crazed idealists, Joseph Chalier, leader of the Jacobins of Lyon, was one of the most extreme. At points his impassioned allegiance to the Revolution seemed a product of almost pure emotion. Like Marat - no doubt his role model - he defined the Revolution chiefly in terms of its enemies; his one constant was acute sense of social injustice, born in part of social tensions peculiar to Lyon and its silk industry.

Chalier had a huge gift for rhetoric and for self-dramatization,but, despite his bloodcurdling oratory, he retained a certain appealing naivety.  He had little time to put his appetite for Revolutionary violence to the test ; but I doubt very much he would have had stomach for Collot d'Herbois's brand of Revolutionary bloodletting. As far as we know,  Chalier himself was never directly responsible for the death of anyone  - definitely a big plus point in his favour! 

Most of what follows is summarised from Maurice Wahl's study of 1887 which is still commonly acknowledged as the standard account of Chalier's career.

Early life

Joseph Chalier was born in 1747 in the hamlet of Baulard a few miles outside Briançon in the Haute-Dauphiné, nowadays part of the Italian town of Oulx, close to the ski resorts of the Alps. His grandfather held minor office as local procurateur and his father was a lawyer. As M. Wahl comments, this was a bourgeois family but not necessarily one that was comfortably off.

Further details of Chalier's early life come down to us almost entirely from his own testimony at his trial in 1793.

At the age of 15 he moved to Lyon and found work first as an elementary teacher in the Collège de Charly, then as a private tutor among the merchant families of Lyon.  At the same time completed his own studies, taking a course of philosophy among the Dominicans - according to some sources he himself briefly entertained the idea of a monastic career - then taking lessons in drawing and architecture.  A talented and determined young man, he was noticed by the great architect Soufflot, at that time working in Lyon; Soufflot even offered to take him to Paris.  In the event, he "placed himself under the laws of Plutus" and took employment with a wealthy silk merchant whose children he had taught. His sole aim, so he later claimed,was to see the world. As commis voyageur for the house of Muguet and later Bertrand,his career was certainly unusually far-flung: 1775 saw him in Constantinople and the Levant, and subsequently travelling through Italy, Spain and Portugal. The youthful idealist was not impressed by the conditions he encountered:

"Everywhere I saw, observed and reflected upon despotism, tyranny and abuses of all sorts.  In the Levant ,in Italy, in Naples, Rome, Florence, Genoa, Palermo, Cadiz and Madrid, everywhere I saw the people oppressed, and when I recalled from my reading the great days of Athens and Rome, the comparison was terrible".

We must allow for hindsight here but there is evidence of his collision with the authorities - in 1783 he had to leave Lisbon in haste and in 1790 the Neopolitan police in Sicily constrained him to leave the country in three days.  We have no idea of the circumstances.  However, the extent of his dealings suggests he was successful in trade and one suspects a more level-headed side to Chalier beneath the hyperbole. There are hints of considerable money owned him in Sicily and even at height of revolution he had a personal business with new premises in the Croix-Rousse district.

The first phase of revolution 1789-91

Chalier was the kind of  man just waiting for the opportunities of 1789. The Revolution "electrified him". He rushed to Paris, made the acquaintance of the journalist Élisée Loustalot, Marat, Desmoulins, Cérutti and Robespierre; and rose at four o'clock in the morning so as not to miss the sessions of the Assembly.  After the fall of the Bastille, he purchased fragments of writings found in the dungeons plus stones from the demolition. According to one hostile source, he kept a stone from the fortress and a fragment of Mirabeau's coat about his person as holy relics which he would brandish ecstatically  and force people to kiss.

 On his return to Lyon, Chalier began his career as a café orator, hoping to shake off the apathy of his compatriots and create "proselytes to liberty" .  In a letter published in February 1790 in Loustalot's Révolutions de Paris he complained that Lyon politics were "more anchored than ever in aristocracy", with the municipal corps de volontaires  "manifestly opposed to the spirit of patriotism which reigned in the decrees of the National Assembly".  It was partly in response to this that a rising against the volunteers took place; a crowd converged on the Arsenal, attacked several bourgeois houses,and was only appeased by the  dismissal of the premier échevin Imbert-Colomès.  Chalier, now marked out as an agitator, fled temporarily to Sicily.

 In his absence municipal elections brought the Lyon patriotes to power.  Chalier himself was chosen as one of the notables on the town council, finally taking up his post in September 1790, and in November was elected a municipal officer.  He threw himself heart and soul into the huge task of restructuring to the point of neglecting his own affairs, "for a patriot ...counts as nothing his own interests when he sees those of the State in peril".  For all his torrents of emotional excess, Chalier was actually a capable and conscientious administrator.  He held a number of minor positions  - members of the inspectorate of commerce and industry and a judge in the commercial tribunal.   In November 1791 he was elected first in the ballot to municipal office and henceforth presided over the inspectorate of commerce and industry.  He was entrusted with delicate tasks - reorganising taxation, imposing the constitutional oath on the clergy. Until the end of 1791 there was nothing in his conduct or language to suggest ungovernable radicalism or violence.

Meanwhile the political situation in Lyon remained uncertain, with conflict between the municipality and fledgling popular movement on the one hand, and the more conservative departmental and district authorities  against a background of counter-revolutionary threat, both real and imagined, from the émigre court in nearby Turin. At this point, in December 1791 Chalier's high-handed treatment of suspects led to his suspension from office. He repaired to Paris to plead his case.  By the time the Legislative Assembly ruled in his favour on August 15 1792  the monarchy had been overthrown and elections to a National Convention scheduled for Autumn;  Chalier returned to Lyon in triumph, both personally vindicated and imbued with Robespierre's crusade against the Rolandists, his former allies among the Lyon patriots.


Maurice Wahl, "Joseph Chalier: Etude sur la Revolution Française a Lyon"
Revue Historique t. 34, fasc. 1 (1887), p. 1-30

Paul R.Hanson,  "Voices from the streets in the French Revolution" in
The human tradition in modern France, edited by K. Steven Vincent  and Alison Klairmont-Lingo (2000). p.12 [Extracts on Google Books]

A translation of Chalier's address of 1792 to the National Assembly is included in the archive.

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