Write a critical commentary of no more than 1500 words on the following passage. In your commentary, which should take the form of a continuous piece of prose, you should:
i) Locate the source concisely in the context of the French Revolution;
ii) Indicate, with examples, what the passage tells us about the French Revolution; and
iii) Indicate briefly how far (if at all) you detect in it Enlightenment influences.
The anonymous passage entitled “What is a sans-culotte?” is, as is evident from the date given, from the year 1793. The year of 1793 to 1794 represents perhaps the bloodiest and most extreme year of the French Revolution popularly known as, “The Terror”. A leading faction in this state authorized Terror were the “Sans Culottes”, part of the Jacobin led government faction, literally meaning ‘without breeches’ in order to distinguish them from the upper classes who wore them.
The Sans Culottes had seized power under the auspices of Maximilen Robespierre from the Girondins and took control of the Committee of Public Safety. This had previously been set up by the Girondins to maintain order within France and protect the country from external threats. The Sans Culottes consisted of peasants, urban labourers and other French poor who were extremely militant and wanted to see an end to privilege and the nobility. They were seen as a disparate and uncontrollable mob who despite all their contributions to the Revolution still found that the privileged, in one shape or form controlled the new republic with little input from the likes of them.
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The passage itself is undoubtedly an attack on the perceived enemies of the republic, at the time of writing this being, the bourgeoisies the privileged the nobility and the previous ruling Girondin led republic which was formed of more conservative members who had advocated a constitutional monarchy. The passage talks of “Gorsa’s muck with reference to the Girondin journalist and Girondin newspapers. In June of 1793 the Jacobins under Robespierre had taken over the National Convention and in the autumn of that year the so called “reign of terror” had begun with the Sans Culottes leading the way. As the passage is quite descriptive of what a Sans Culottes is and what he is prepared to do, “ready to cut off the ears of all opponents of the revolution” it is arguably after June of 1793 as this was the time the Girondins were disposed from power.
The exert itself tells us several things about the Revolution. As is evident from the passage, the direction of the revolution was heading further and further away from any whiff of privileged nobility in ruling power and the more moderate Girondin led faction and more and more towards the empowerment of the ordinary working man. “Who has no chateaux, no valets to wait on him, and who lives simply with his wife and children”. The sentence is arguably a clear swipe at the nobility and contrasts the hard working honest nature of the working man, the Sans Culottes, against the over privileged and pampered elite. The eulogizing of violence later on in the passage also points the way towards the authorized state terror and the justified use of violence, “Ready to cut the ears of all his opponents.” The sentence referring to, “Gorsa’s muck” also shows the direction towards the more radical Sans Culottes movement, clearly showing that the, “despised politicians” i.e. the Girondins were already a focus of disillusionment.
The passage also gives us an insight into the character of the revolution itself which was clearly one of action, orientated towards the empowerment of the ordinary working man as represented by the Sans Culottes and his supposed innate honesty and capacity for useful hard work, “He is useful because he knows how to till a field.” The passage also perhaps tells us a little about the style of the revolution. The language used points towards the fact that the revolution was bloody and violent and militant in its style, “Ready to support sound proposals with all his might and ready to pulverise..”
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One could almost argue that the passage shows the reader that the revolution at this stage had become, almost anti intellectual. The piece refers, with contempt, to the fact that others, most notably the Girondins would spend time debating in, “literary clubs” and pursuing what could be termed elitist and slightly intellectual pursuits such as attending the theatre and reading the “Chronique” and “Patriote Francais”. The emphasis at this stage of the movement was one of action not thought, of honest hard working ordinary people not “powdered and perfumed” upper classes or the big thinkers of the bourgeoisie Girondin led Committee of Public Safety.
In terms of Enlightenment influences within the passage there are perhaps several instances of this. Perhaps one of the key Enlightenment principles within the passage is the anti establishment leanings of it. The Philosophes themselves when compiling the Encyclopedie had advocated a more critical view of the status quo such as the Church and the Government as can be seen in articles such as ‘Natural Equality and Political Authority’ (Unit 6, p 285) and this can arguably be seen quite clearly within the passage with many references to contempt of the upper classes, “powdered wigs” a Sans Culottes having no Châteaux etc.
The passage itself is perhaps an Enlightenment influenced declaration just as Sieyes document, “What is the Third Estate” was. In Sieyes essay he sets forth what the Third Estate is and what it should be, there are arguably direct parallels between that and the, “What is a Sans Culottes” document. The Sans Culottes piece sets forth what a Sans Culottes is, “Someone who always goes about on foot” etc and then sets forth what he is not, he is not someone to be found in the gaming houses or at the theatre etc. The article can then if viewed along similar lines as the Sieyes one be viewed as having Enlightenment influences in these terms. It is debateable though how far the Philosophes themselves advocated this kind of revolution. While there are perhaps Enlightenment influences within the passage and therefore the Revolution, these have perhaps been hijacked to serve a cause for which they were maybe not intended. Most Philosophes were not radically politically minded and were fairly open minded about forms of government. Certainly Voltaire and Rousseau who were later on hailed as heroes by the Revolutionaries did not advocate violence and bloodshed (Unit 6, p 285).
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In conclusion the article itself would seem to be directed at those who were perhaps not so enamoured by the activities and political and social aspirations of the Sans Culottes. In the opening sentence the essay calls an imaginary group of people, “you Rogues” which is perhaps the Girondins and the upper classes who he is directing his criticism to later on. It could be argued that it is a piece which calls forth and bolsters the feeling of the Sans Culottes and seeks to contrast them favourably against the present and previous ruling class.
The piece arguably marks a significant turn of events within the course of the Revolution whereby the ordinary working man with a mind for action and political violence is afforded some true status and respect and is encouraged to be respected as can be seen by Hebert’s Le Pere Duchesne and Marat’s L’ami du people (Unit 6, p273).
It is perhaps fitting though that those who had championed the cause of the Sans Culottes like the author of the passage and most notably Robespierre himself would later die at the hands of those who felt that the cult of the Sans Culottes had now gone to far.
1 A207 From Enlightenment to Romanticism. Block 1 Death of the Old Regime. The Open University.
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2 Donnachie and Lavin. (2003) From Enlightenment to Romanticism. Anthology I. Manchester University Press.