1902 Encyclopedia > Lucie Simplice Camille Benoît Desmoulins (Camille Desmoulins)

Lucie Simplice Camille Benoît Desmoulins
(commonly known as: Camille Desmoulins
French journalist and politician
(1760-94)




LUCIE SIMPLICE CAMILLE BENOIST DESMOULINS, (1760-1794), was born at Guise, in Picardy, on the 2d of March 1760. His father was lieutenant-general of the bailiwick of Guise, and was desirous that Camille his eldest son, who from his earliest years gave signs of unusual intelligence, should obtain as complete an education as France could then bestow. His wishes were seconded by a friend obtaining a " bourse " for the young Desmoulins, who at the age of fourteen left home for Paris, and entered the college of Louis le Grand. In this school, in which Robespierre was also a bursar and a distinguished student, Camille laid the solid foundation of his learning, and made an acquaintance with the literature and history of the classical nations so deep and extensive that it furnished him throughout the whole of his short and chequered life with illustrations which he applied with brilliancy and effect to the social manners and political events of his time.

Desmoulins having been destined by his father for the law, and having completed his legal studies, was admitted an advocate of the Parliament of Paris in 1785. His professional success was not great; his manner was violent, his appearance far from attractive, and his speech was impaired by the natural defect of a painful stammer. He indulged and fostered, however, his love for literature, he was closely observant of the course of public affairs, and he was thus gradually being prepared for the main duties of his life—those of a political litterateur.

In March 1789 Desmoulins began his political career. Having been nominated deputy from the bailiwick of Guise, he appeared at Laon as one of the commissioners for the election of deputies to the States General summoned by royal edict of 24th January. Camille heralded its meeting by his Ode to the States General. It is, moreover, highly probable that he was the author of a radical pamphlet entitled La Philosophie au peuple Français. His hopes of professional success were now scattered, and he was living in Paris in extreme poverty and almost in squalor. He, however, shared to the full the excitement which attended the meeting of the States General. As appears from his letters to his father, he watched with exultation the procession of deputies at Versailles, and with violent indignation the events of the latter part of June which followed the closing of the Salle des Menus to the deputies who had named themselves the National Assembly. It is further evident that Desmoulins was already sympathizing, not only with the enthusiasm, but also with the fury and cruelty, of the Parisian crowds.

The sudden dismissal of Necker by Louis was the event which brought Desmoulins to fame. On the 12th of July 1789 Camille, leaping upon a table in one of the cafés of the Palais Royal, startled a numerous crowd of listeners by the announcement of the dismissal of their favourite. Losing in his violent excitement the stammer which impeded his ordinary speech, he inflamed the passions of the mob by his burning words and his call " To arms ! " " This dismissal," he said, " is the tocsin of the St Bartholomew of the patriots." Drawing, at last, two pistols from under his coat, he declared that he would not fall alive into the hands of the police who were watching his movements. He descended amid the embraces of the crowd, and his cry " To arms ! " resounded on all sides. This scene was the beginning of the actual events of the Revolution. Following Desmoulins the crowd surged through Paris, procuring arms by force ; and on the 13th it was partly organized as the Parisian militia which was afterwards to be the National Guard. On the 14th the Bastille was taken.





Desmoulins may be said to have begun on the following day that public literary career which lasted till his death. In May and June 1789 he had written La France libre, which, to his chagrin, his publisher refused to print. The taking of the Bastille, however, and the events by which it was preceded, were a sign that the times had changed ; and on the 15th of July Desmoulins's work was issued. It attracted immediate attention. By its erudite, brilliant, and courageous examination of the rights of king, of nobles, of clergy, and of people, it attained a wide and sudden popularity ; it secured for the author the friendship and protection of Mirabeau, and the studied abuse of numerous royalist pamphleteers. Shortly afterwards, with his vanity and love of popularity inflamed, he pandered to the passions of the lower orders by the publication of his Discours de la lanterne aux Parisiens, which with an almost fiendish reference to the excesses of the mob he headed by a quota-tion from St John, Qui male agit odit lucem. Camille was dubbed " Procureur-général de la lanterne."

In November 1789 Desmoulins began his career as a journalist by the issue of the first number of a weekly-publication—Révolutions de France et de Brabant. He conducted this alone till July 1790, and thereafter with the assistance of Stanislas Fréron till July 1792, when the publication ceased. Success attended the Revolutions from its first to its last number, Camille was everywhere famous, and his poverty was relieved. These numbers are valuable as an exhibition not so much of events as of the feelings of the Parisian people during the most stormy period of their history ; they are adorned, moreover, by the erudi-tion, the wit, and the genius of the author, but they are disfigured, not only by the most biting personalities and the defence and even advocacy of the excesses of the mob, but by the entire absence of the forgiveness and pity for which the writer was afterwards so eloquently to plead.

Desmoulins had now become an acknowledged leader of public opinion. Its sudden changes suited his fickle temperament, and form the only excuse for the glaring inconsistencies which disfigure his published writings. Mirabeau, for instance, whose genius and hospitality he had frequently and openly lauded, he afterwards thought fit to denounce as the " god of orators, liars, and thieves." He was powerfully swayed by the influence of more vigorous minds ; and for some time before the death of Mirabeau, in April 1791, he had begun to be led by Danton, with whom he remained associated during the rest of his life. In July 1791 Camille appeared before the municipality of Paris as head of a deputation of petitioners for the deposition of the king. In that month, however, such a request was dangerous ; there was excitement in the city _over the presentation of the petition, and the private attacks to which Desmoulins had often been subject were tiow followed by a warrant for the arrest of himself and Danton. Danton left Paris for a littls ; Desmoulins, however, remained there, appearing occasionally at the Jacobins club. He resigned his functions as a journalist, and the issue of his Révolutions ceased.

Three months afterwards, however, he again appeared in public, having been appointed secretary to the Society of the Friends of the Constitution. His second attempt at journalism was made in April and May 1792, in the issue of several numbers of the Tribune des Patriotes, but success did not attend the effort, and it was in his pamphlet Jean Pierre Brissot démasqué, which abounded in the most violent personalities, that Desmoulins again secured the eager attention of the public. This pamphlet, which had its origin in a petty squabble, was followed in 1793 by a Fragment de l'histoire secrète de la Révolution, in which the party of the Gironde, and specially Brissot, were most mercilessly attacked.

On the nomination of Danton, after the excesses of the 10th of August 1792, to the post of minister of justice, Desmoulins was appointed his secretary general. On September the 8th he was elected one of the deputies for Paris to the lately created National Convention. He was not successful as an orator. He was of the party of " the Mountain," and voted for the abolition of royalty and the death of the king. With Robespierre he was now more than ever associated, and the Histoire des Brissotins, the fragment above alluded to, was inspired by the arch-revolutionist. The success of the brochure, so terrible as to send the leaders of the Gironde to the guillotine, alarmed Danton and the author. Not so with Robespierre ; and the split was formed which was to end in the ruin of the Dantonists.





In December 1793 was issued the first number of the Vieux Cordelier, by which Danton's idea of a committee of clemency was formulated and upheld. From the first Robespierre, although revising the sheets, disapproved of it, and at the fifth number the actual rupture became visible. Robespierre took advantage of the popular indignation roused against the Hébertists to send them to death, but the time had come when Saint Just and he were to turn their attention not only to les enragés, but to les indulgents—the powerful faction of the Dantonists. On the 7th of January 1794 Robespierre, who on a former occasion had defended Camille when in danger at the hands of the National Assembly, in addressing the Jacobins club counselled not the expulsion of Desmoulins, but the burning of certain numbers of the Vieux Cordelier. Camille sharply replied that he would answer with Rousseau,—" burning is not answering," and a bitter quarrel thereupon ensued. By the end of March not only were Hébert and the leaders of the extreme party guillotined, but their opponents, Danton, Desmoulins, and the best of the moderates were arrested. On the 31st the warrant of arrest was signed and executed, and on the 3d, 4th, and 5th of April the trial took place before the Revolutionary Tribunal. It was a scene of terror not only to the accused but to judges and to jury. The retorts of the prisoners were notable. Camille on being asked his age, replied, " I am thirty-three, the age of the sans-culotte Jesus, a critical age for every patriot." This was false; he was thirty-four. Tinville, alarmed at the eloquence of Danton, procured from the Committee of Public Safety a decree which closed the mouths of the accused. Armed with this and the false report of a spy who charged the wife of Desmoulins with conspiring for the escape of her husband and the ruin of the republic, Tinville by threats and beseechings at last obtained from the jury a sentence of death. It was passed in absence of the accused, and their execution was appointed for the same day.

Since his arrest the courage of Camille had miserably failed. He had exhibited in the numbers of the Vieux Cordelier almost a disregard of the death which he must have known hovered over him. He had with consummate ability exposed the terrors of the Revolution, and had adorned his pages with illustrations from Tacitus, the force of which the commonest reader could feel. In his last number, the seventh, which his publisher refused to print, he had dared to attack even Robespierre, but at his trial it was found that he was devoid of physical courage. He had to be torn from his seat ere he was removed to prison, and as he sat next to Danton in the tumbrel which conveyed them to the guillotine, the calmness of the great leader failed to impress him. In his violence, bound as he was, he tore his clothes into shreds, and his bare shoulders and breast were exposed to the gaze of the surging crowd. Of the fifteen guillotined together, including among them Hérault de Séchelles, Westermann, and Philippeaux, Desmoulins died third; Danton, the greatest, died last. With them also died the hope of the Revolution. But a few months were to pass ere it was to be solemnly decreed that they had " deserved well of humanity."

On the 29th of December 1790, Camille had married Lucile Duplessis, and among the witnesses of the ceremony are observed the names of Brissot, Pétion, and Robespierre. The only child of the marriage, Horace-Camille, was born on the 6th of July 1792. Two days afterwards Desmoulins brought it into notice by appearing with it before the municipality of Paris to demand " the formal statement of the civil estate of his son." The boy was afterwards pensioned by the French Government. Lucile, Des-moulins's accomplished and affectionate wife was, a few days after her husband, and on a false charge, condemned to the guillotine. She astonished all onlookers by the calmness with which she braved death.

See the biographies of Desmoulins by Edward Fleury and Jules Claretie. The latter, entitled Camille Desmoulins and Ms Wife, has been translated into English (London, 1876). The work of Boeh Mercandier, Histoire des hommes de proie, is not trustworthy. See also the literature of the Revolution, and especially of the Dantonists. The standard edition of Desmoulins's works is that of Matton. (T. S.)




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