The Balloon as a Symbol of the Republic

By Chanelle Reinhardt

The “aerostat” (a lighter-than-air aircraft also known as a “balloon”) was a pivotal element of French material culture in times of revolution. It can be counted among the various objects that became vectors of the changing political landscape and helped shape a new collective identity. Some of the most well-known examples are stones from the demolished Bastille sent around the country to be included as part of celebratory events, or reproductions of the Constitution engraved in monuments. Yet contrary to those, the balloon was not a product of the Revolution. In fact, this military, scientific, and spectacular object would prove to be incredibly versatile throughout the decade after its invention in 1783.

Engraving of a crowd gathered around a large monument.
Pierre-Gabriel Berthault, Entrée triomphale des monuments des sciences et des arts en France; fête à ce sujet les 9 et 10 thermidor an 6ème de la République, 1798. Detail.

For its first manned flight that same year, the balloon was decorated with symbols of the monarchy’s power: the fleurs-de-lys, zodiac signs, royal monograms, suns, and heraldic eagles rising upward against the sky, symbolizing Louis XVI’s reign over his newly conquered airspace. Nonetheless, its original association with the monarchy did not prevent it from becoming, after 1789, a strong, experiential, and unifying national symbol. The invention, once largely financed by the King, showed the span of its adaptability. The very nature of its technology—a floating device capable of carrying people and messages—quite naturally evoked the idea of freedom. These connotations led revolutionaries to identify the aerostat as an efficient instrument of “political pedagogy.”[1]

Attempts to re-signify the aerostat started soon after the outbreak of the Revolution. In the wake of the events surrounding the Fête de la Fédération in 1790, officials held a launch at the Champ-de-Mars. An aeronaut led the balloon, highly decorated in the nation’s colors, by a rope around the amphitheater at eye-level. While primarily an object of admiration, it also served, based on a somewhat lofty poetic description, to “see if the inhabitants of the moon were free; & if they were not, they [the aeronauts] would give them the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which makes tyrants grow pale.”[2] The balloon, however, failed to remain aloft and the vision of it as an instrument of freedom fell short. But for one pamphleteer, the unsuccessful aerostatic experiment became an opportunity to criticize the monarchy by equating the balloon’s rotund shape with that of the King’s: “far from being a bad omen, it seems we’d have been angry to see it [the machine] succeed […]. Indeed, a big balloon that cannot stay up might easily remind us of something else.”[3] In that instant, the balloon was momentarily re-associated with the monarchy, demonstrating both the versatility of its character and the potential instability of its meaning during the early days of the Revolution.

Engraving of a victorious army.
Pierre-Gabriel Berthault, after Swebach, Victoire remportée à Fleurus, par les Français, le 26 juin 1794 ou le 8 Messidor an 2ème de la République, 1797.

Exactly one year later, on the day of the proclamation of the Constitution, revolutionaries used the balloon more successfully to propagate, quite literally, new ideals. On July 18, 1791, aeronaut Lallemant de Saint-Croix rose up from the Champs-Élysées over a huge, enthusiastic crowd. That day, the balloon was the perfect image of its mission, with its rooster-shaped gondola adorned with effigies of liberty, love for the homeland, France, and the law. An entire liberty-themed ceremony was performed at altitude. First, the aeronaut enjoyed a snack and made a toast “to the health and freedom of all the people in the Universe.”[4] Once he had attained an altitude of 12,000 feet, he read the Declaration of the Rights of Man. On his descent, he distributed leaflets of the Constitution in dramatic fashion by throwing them overboard into the crowd below.

But it was its military utility that truly transformed the balloon into a revolutionary symbol. A few years later, on April 2, 1794, a fleet of military balloonists was established in Maubeuge. At the time, France was involved in a war against European monarchies, one that was haloed by a forceful discourse on freedom. After the decisive battle of Fleurus, still in 1794, the balloon was at the height of its glory in terms of its utility and pageantry. A balloon named the Entreprenant led the French troops to victory by allowing them to observe enemy lines and transmit intelligence. With its new military function, the balloon was in service to the national interest, making it more ripe for symbolic re-appropriation. Firstly, its usefulness was no longer questioned. But for some, the Entreprenant’s real function during this victorious battle appeared to be mainly symbolic; the mere sight of the balloon struck fear in enemy troops. Even in military use, the balloon never lost its ability to inspire awe and transfix people. The battle of Fleurus served to revitalize the balloon’s significance on national holidays, and from the period of the Directory (1795-1799) onwards, it would be part of nearly every celebration.[5]

The balloon’s new military feats were reflected in the deployment of the fête de la Fondation de la République (1798). Two Republican balloons flew over a simulated English boat installed in the middle of the Champ-de-Mars. The aeronauts on board threw cannonballs onto the ship, which then burst into flames. According to La Décade Philosophique, the spectacle was “in keeping with the sentiments of the Republic,” and revived France’s dream of aerial domination, one that could neutralize the British naval empire in the name of liberty.[6] Later that same year, a balloon was used to cap off festivities during the Entrée triomphale des objets de sciences et darts recueillis en Italie (Triumphal entry [into France] of the monuments of the sciences and arts collected in Italy).[7] Following a military display, a balloon emblazoned with symbols of Liberty and the Arts was launched. The symbol of liberation conveyed by its flight was obvious. As an analogy, the balloon’s release into the sky—the ultimate borderless space—was not unlike the recent arrival of many precious objects onto French soil following the conquest of Italy by the French army, led by Bonaparte. This event symbolized their passage from a world of tyranny to a land of freedom, which, according to the regime’s rhetoric, the French Revolution could provide.

Between 1789 and 1799, the balloon became particularly well-suited to the staging of political events, proudly displaying the nation’s colors and symbols during various missions. But the balloon was more than simply ornamental. It was, to borrow a term coined by the sociologist Chandra Mukerji, “materially exemplary.”[8] Through its technological properties, it transformed itself into a vehicle for the ideals of the time, namely the universal message of freedom. After the Revolution, however, the balloon lost much of its political lustre and became primarily a form of entertainment. In short, as stated in a government memo from 1798, the balloon is “a child of the Revolution, the history of which is linked to the success of the Republic.”[9]

Chanelle Reinhardt is a PhD candidate in Art History at the Université de Montréal. Her dissertation explores the propaganda mechanisms of the 1798 French revolutionary festival l’Entrée triomphale des objets de sciences et d’arts. She recently published a paper on the matter in Revue Dix-huitième siècle. Her research interests include mass politics, nationalism, material culture, visual culture and multiple issues linked to representation.

Title image:Nicolas-Jacques Conté, Fabrication des aérostats militaires au château de Meudon en France. Étalage du vernis et vérification des joints, de l’étanchéité du ballon, c. 1796.

Further Readings

Richard Gillespie, “Ballooning in France and Britain, 1783-1786: Aerostation and Adventurism.” Isis 74, no. 2 (Jun. 1984): 248-268.

Mi Gyung Kim, The Imagined Empire. Balloon Enlightenments in Revolutionary Europe (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016).

Michael R. Lynn, The Sublime Invention: Ballooning in Europe, 1783-1820 (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2010).

Kate Turner, “The Spectacle of Democracy in the Balloon plays of the Revolutionary Period.” Forum for Modern Language Studies 39, no. 3 (2003): 241-253.

Further Readings in French

Jacques Godechot, “L’aérostation militaire sous le Directoire”. Annales historiques de la Révolution française 8, 1931 : 213-218.

Marie Thébaud-Sorger, L’aérostation au temps des Lumières (Rennes : Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2009).

Marie Thébaud-Sorger, Une histoire des ballons : invention, culture matérielle et imaginaire, 1983-1909 (Paris : Éditions du Patrimoine, 2010).


[1] Chandra Mukerji, “Space and Political Pedagogy at the Gardens of Versailles,” Public Culture 24, no. 3 (2012): 509.

[2] Fête aérostatique; Qui sera célébrée aujourd’hui au champ de Mars (Paris: Garnier, 1790), 5.

[3] Confédération nationale, ou Récit exact et circonstancié de tout ce qui s’est passé à Paris, le 14 juillet 1790, à la Fédération (Paris: Garnéry, 1790), 154.

[4] Procès-verbal très-intéressant du voyage aérien qui a eu lieu aux Champs-Élysées le 18 septembre 1791, jour de la proclamation de la Constitution (Paris: Imprimerie du patriote françois, 1791), 6.

[5] James Martin Hunn, The Balloon Craze in France, 1783-1799, Ph.D. diss. (Nashville: Vanderbilt University, 1982), 452.

[6] La Décade philosophique, littéraire et politique, 10 fructidor an VI (August 27, 1798), 437.

[7] See : Entrée triomphale des objets de sciences et d’arts recueillis en Italie. Programme (Paris: Imprimerie de la République, 1798).

[8] Mukerji, “Space and Political Pedagogy at the Gardens of Versailles,” 511.

[9] Memorandum dated 26 Floréal an VI (May 15, 1798), cited in Hunn, The Balloon Craze in France, 453.

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