Bearing Arms and Arming Citizens in the French Revolution

By Noah Shusterman

On July 14, 1789, the citizens of Paris stormed the Bastille prison. In one way or another, the day has been celebrated ever since, but the links between “Bastille Day” and the events of July 1789 have become less clear. The holiday today represents some vague sense of French Republicanism—a celebration of the Revolution (or perhaps just its first two years) and an appreciation of “liberty, equality, and fraternity.” The Bastille represented France’s despotic Old Regime, but that symbolism had very little to do with why Parisians stormed it that day. Bearing arms, however, had everything to do with why the Parisians stormed the Bastille. So as an entry point to understanding the role of bearing arms in the French Revolution, a good first question to ask is, “why were Parisians so intent on taking over the Bastille that they were willing to kill and die for it?”

The short answer is that they wanted to get the ammunition and gunpowder being stored inside. The more substantive answer is that for the people who stormed the prison, the ammunition and gunpowder were the last items needed in order to transform the population of Paris from subjects into citizens. And for these Parisians in 1789, being a citizen meant bearing arms.

The connection between citizenship and  “bearing arms” is normally associated with the Anglophone world in the Age of Revolutions, but there is a French version of the story, as well, and that story, too, is based on the links between citizenship and participation in the militia, the fear of standing armies, and the importance of citizen soldiers and the right to bear arms. The storming of the Bastille was the most dramatic episode in a much larger transformation that took place during the summer of 1789. Throughout France, cities, towns, and villages set up their own militia units (Paris had inspired many of these other municipalities, but not all; some towns had begun to form their own militias before Paris, or before word of the Bastille’s fall had reached them). Men who had nothing remotely resembling a military background began bearing arms and patrolling their neighborhoods. Things did not always go smoothly. Units from neighboring towns would fight each other, and at times, even competing units from the same town would take up arms against one another. Given the rapid transformation from a kingdom with negligible militia participation to one where, in all likelihood, over a million men were participating in their local units, some hang-ups were inevitable. But for many of those who participated, being a member of the local militia unit was what the Revolution was about. They had taken up arms to protect their freedom. It was no accident that on 14 July 1790, during the first anniversary of the Bastille’s destruction, the festivities revolved around a celebration of France’s new militia – since rechristened the National Guard – and the new citizen-soldiers. 

[Casablanca clip]

France, then, has a place in the eighteenth-century story about bearing arms. By certain metrics, it should have the leading place. It had the largest militia, if judged only by total membership. France would end the revolutionary era with an enormous citizens’ army. Indeed, in its most climactic lines, the new Revolutionary national anthem cried out “arm yourselves, citizens! form your batallions!” No other eighteenth-century nation did as much as France to link citizenship with militia service.

True, in 1789 the association of citizenship and bearing arms was relatively new to the French political scene. There are traces of it in Old Regime French writings, and by the 1780s educated French readers were familiar with the ideal of the citizen-soldier, both from discussions of the American Revolution and from a classics-based education that made the lessons of the Roman Republic foundational for English and French students alike. Still, before the summer of 1789 arming citizens and organizing militias remained a back-burner issue among a French elite more focused on other aspects of Enlightenment thought. Nor did the French Revolution leave the sort of constitutional legacy linking citizenship and bearing arms that the English and American Revolutions did. England and the United States both produced Bills of Rights which included guarantees of the right to bear arms. France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man included no such prevision.

If it does not deserve the leading place, the French case still provides a new angle from which to examine the history of bearing arms, one with its own dynamics. France’s attempt to arm its citizens and to use them as patrols throughout the kingdom was intense and widespread, but also short-lived. It came to an end for a variety of reasons, but the most important explanation for the absence of a French “Second Amendment” was that France began a war in 1792 that did not really come to an end until 1815.

In 1789, the radical journalist Jean-Paul Marat wrote that “it was without a doubt the happiest development, when citizens took up arms to recover their freedom.” Such an idea was not new to Marat, who had spent considerable time in England and was familiar with the political traditions there. But there was a limit to this line of thought for him, and he had balked at a proposal that year for an end to France’s standing army. “Let us not fool ourselves,” he wrote, “the saddest would be if they could not put their arms back down.” In Marat’s mind, then, the storming of the Bastille and the formation of the militias had sufficed. In 1793, however, France declared that “all Frenchmen are in permanent requisition” for the armies. The transformation of French men from unarmed subjects into armed citizens, then, ended not with the right to bear arms but with the obligation to go to war.

Noah Shusterman teaches at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is the author of two books, The French Revolution: Faith, Desire, and Politics and Religion and the Politics of Time, and is currently writing a history of militias and citizen weapon access in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world. He tweets at @militiastudies and can be reached via email at ncshust@arts.cuhk.edu.hk.

Title image: Jean-Démosthène Dugourc, Egalité des rangs : puissance : [estampe], 1793-4.

For further reading: materials on France’s National Guard are astonishingly rare, even in French. Micah Alpaugh’s ” A Self-Defining “Bourgeoisie” in the Early French Revolution: The Milice Bourgeoise, the Bastille Days of 1789, and Their Aftermath,” Journal of Social History (Spring 2014) 47 (3): 696-720 is a good place to start. For the path to war, see David Bell, Total War. For the Old Regime and the early Revolution, see the works of Julia Osman, including Citizen Soldiers and the Key to the Bastille (2015). Primary sources in English are another good starting point; letters from Lafayette, Jefferson, and Gouverneur Morris all provide accounts of the early fighting and the formation of militias.

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