Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Joseph Chalier...continued

Chalier in power

10 August brought the Lyon "Jacobins", supported by the popular clubs, to power. On his return Chalier was named president of the tribunal of commerce, and took part in the electoral assembly which chose the deputies for the department of Rhone-et-Loire for the Convention. In November 1792 the Jacobins gained effective control of the municipality, though margins were small -the only failure was Chalier's failure to be elected mayor..

Chalier's official position was now, however, strictly subordinate to his role as unofficial figurehead of the radical Club central, set up just off the present Rue du Bat d'Argent near the town hall, which brought together delegates from the popular clubs of the twenty-nine sections of the town.  An effective political organ, the Club central held rowdy public sessions which were publicised via a Journal and passionately followed by a widely politicised crowd of shopkeepers, artisans and workers.  

Chalier, procureur of the  commune of  Lyon proposes to the Club central, on the 6th February, to seize all the rich of Lyon and chop off their heads" Engraving; Musée Carnavalet.  
Chalier's fiery speeches to the Club survive only in fragments, mostly from hostile sources, but they resemble the writings he left -  a mixture of declamations, enthusiastic effusions, sinister jokes, adjurations, violent threats and austere advice.  According to his enemies, he spoke as it came to him in the heat of the moment, at once threatening and familiar, with exaggerated and compulsive gestures:  "His monkey antics, his will-o'-the-wisps, his sniggerings, offered nothing more dangerous.  He talked about cutting off heads in the most burlesque and mocking way; he rolled his eyes, he foamed at the mouth, he wrung his hands,".  His biographer, M.Wahl,  points out that these club sessions were violent battlegrounds not calm debates and notes that Chalier, like Marat, successfully struck a chord with the sufferings and fears of ordinary people. At first the bourgeois affected not to take him too seriously but hatred grew in proportion to their fear,

It is hard, of course, not to feel that Chalier was entirely carried away by his own rhetoric beyond all rational assessment.  But he was not alone. Against a background of economic dislocation, popular suspicion and uncertain allegiances, mass hysteria was never far from the surface.  On 9th September, only shortly after Chalier's reappearance in Lyon the fortress of Pierre-Scize was attacked and eleven prisoners lynched in a local version of the September Massacres. A week of chaos and disorder followed, in which shops and bakeries were ransacked.  Chalier was accused of inciting the crowd, which seems probable, though there is no corroborating evidence. The massacreurs were almost certainly sheltered by the Club central  and according to the former mayor Louis Vitet Chalier won popularity by indulging in violent eulogies of their deeds (letter to Roland, 11 September 1792).

From December 1792, we have Chalier's suitably bloodthirsty verdict on the fate of Louis XVI; Brutus, he proclaimed, had no need of a trial - twenty blows of the dagger and Rome was freed.  In January 1793 he was in full flow celebrating the death of the "tyrant Capet" with a sweeping vow to exterminate "aristocrats, feuillants, moderatists, egoists, speculators, usurers and fanatical priests".  Meanwhile in the streets violence continued, with clashes between youths and petitioners for the king's execution.

Chalier's revolutionary agenda

Assessment of the policies of the Lyonnais Jacobins reveals that they echoed closely those of the Parisian popular movement - price control, direct democracy, punishment for hoarders, terror against counter-revolutionaries and vigorous prosecution of the war. Despite Chalier's later canonisation as "patron of the poor" and his opponents' claims that he supported "redistribution of wealth", he represented the unique socio-economic conflicts of Lyon only in the peculiar animus of his vendetta against  "the sect of merchant counter-revolutionaries".  The Jacobins essentially exalted political equality - the speeches of Chalier's fellow-Jacobin Achard celebrated "this liberty which secures equality for you" and promised that "the simple tiller of the soil will be raised above the opulent egoist" - but didn't really want economic levelling.  Identification of the "mercantile class" with counter-revolution justified economic measures against it, but these were seen as temporary expedients, for example taxes to meet costs of volunteers for the army.  Chalier backed a maximum on grain and bread prices but the municipality lacked the capacity to do more than continue its predecessor's policy of subsidising bread and prices remained high.

Arbitrary imprisonments; more than 1200 citizens are thrown into the cellars of
the Town Hall in Lyonon the orders of Laussel, Chalier and their supporters.
Anonymous engraving.  1793 .Bibl. Nationale
 The Jacobins did little better as effective exponents of terror.  In February 1793 the Club central and its adherents in the town hall organised the arrest of several hundred "suspects" and - in a dramatic closed session on 6th February -  called for the establishment of a revolutionary tribunal to judge "all the enemies of equality" starting with the moderate members of the municipality. This was the occasion of Chalier's memorable and melodramatic demand that the guillotine be set up on the pont Morand and the bodies of the executed thrown in the Rhone.  Slightly surreally, the meeting even laid down the formula for judgement; the president of the tribunal must break in two a a loaf of bread with the solemn pronouncement, that it is as impossible for the condemned to remain on the earth as for these two ends of bagette to rejoin  - to the bridge with him!  The mayor Nivière-Chol at first complied with house-to-house searches and arrest of suspects but demurred at the establishment of a revolutionary tribunal and guillotine. Happily pieces of the guillotine were at this stage stashed safely away in three different locations. 

There followed a complicated struggle within the municipality and in the streets, which culminated in the sacking of the club on the 18th by a crowd of over one thousand people. The Jacobins contrived to have their mayorial candidate elected, but initiative for implementing the Terror now fell increasingly to the Parisian representatives on mission, who drove through a series of increasingly extreme measures - revolutionary army, forced taxation, maximum on grain. Conflict culminated finally in the fall of the town hall to an armed federalist assault on the night of 29th May.  From April 1793 survives a last "Oath of the three hundred Romans" clearly from the hand of Joseph Chalier, threatening "the incalculable number of the enemies of Lyon":

.... Aristocrats, feuillants, moderates, egoists tremble!  At the first attempts you make against liberty the bloody waters of the the Rhône and Sôane will carry your bodies to the terrifying seas.". 

Histrionic to the end : The last words of Joseph Chalier in prison in Lyons: "Why are you crying?  Death is nothing to him whose intentions are just and whose conscience is clear."  Engraving by Tassaert from a design by Caresme, Bibl. Nat..
Chalier, leaving prison for the scaffold; addresses his friend the presence of his companions in misfortune, these remarkable words:  "Friend, I know your heart: you are made for me and for liberty, do not grieve. You know my most secret thoughts my soul is fully revealed to you".  Engraving by Carpentier; engraved by Marchand, Bibl. Nationale.

Arrest and last days

And so the arrests began. Chalier refused to flee and on the morning of 30th May was sleeping soundly when they came to take him.  He was paraded through the town, from his house to the arsenal, from the arsenal to the town hall and finally to the Roanne prison on the opposite bank of the Sôane. Everywhere he was met with a barrage of hate. In despair at this reception he attempted suicide by swallowing a pocketful of nails and a ball of his own hair (that's what it says I think!) but he soon rallied, considering it less cowardly to be put to death than to seek it at one's own hand.

He remained in prison for six weeks, in the course of which he wrote much - mainly letters to his friend Bernascon, a Piedmontese plasterer, which were later published.  At first he appeared stunned, lamenting his plight and begging his friends to make representations to the Convention and the Jacobins of Paris on his behalf. He  complained that he was harshly treated, kept in the dark, guarded night and day, that everyday at midnight ten or twelve soldiers would arrive to make a show of leading him out to execution.  He occupied himself with his affairs, with the house that he had constructed in la Croix-Rousse district, and with comforting his housekeeper / mistress Pie, who "did nothing but cry".Bernascon and his friends planned futilely to break him out of prison.
Other Jacobins likewise awaited their fates; the ex-actor Gaillard committed suicide and another municipal officer Sautemouche was acquitted but lynched by a vengeful mob.  

On 15th July Chalier's trial opened to packed crowds.Such was the hostility toward him, that the women Marteau, Pie and Madame Bernascon, who had come as witnesses for the defence, fled in terror.  Only Bernascon himself was able to make himself heard.  Chalier himself was shouted down when he tried to speak.

Moulin the lawyer for the defence answered the accusations of incitement to murder and pillage skilfully, presenting Chalier as a sincere enthusiast and recalling his life of sobriety and devotion to duty.  Chalier himself mustered calm and dignity, even sleeping through the deliberations of the jury. It was not until four in the morning that the condemnation was pronounced before the huge crowd - 10,000 strong it was claimed - which had waited up for the verdict.

Chalier was allowed to return to prison to finalise his will and say for his last goodbyes. He found courage for one last dramatic performance and went to his death bravely, requesting the constitutional priest who accompanied him to testify that "I die for liberty, that I would be happy if my death and my blood could consolidate it." He began to address the crowd, asking that he might be only victim and others pardoned;  he was drowned out by the drum roll.


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

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