During the French Revolution
The French Revolution , sometimes distinguished as the 'Great French Revolution' , was a period of radical social and political upheaval in France and Europe. The absolute monarchy that had ruled France for centuries collapsed in three years...
, on 17 July 1791, the Champ de Mars
The Champ de Mars is a large public greenspace in Paris, France, located in the seventh arrondissement, between the Eiffel Tower to the northwest and the École Militaire to the southeast. The park is named after the Campus Martius in Rome, a tribute to the Roman god of war...
Paris is the capital and largest city in France, situated on the river Seine, in northern France, at the heart of the Île-de-France region...
was the site of a massacre
, the . On that day, the National Constituent Assembly
The National Constituent Assembly was formed from the National Assembly on 9 July 1789, during the first stages of the French Revolution. It dissolved on 30 September 1791 and was succeeded by the Legislative Assembly.-Background:...
issued a decree that the king, Louis XVI, would remain king under a constitutional monarchy
Constitutional monarchy is a form of government in which a monarch acts as head of state within the parameters of a constitution, whether it be a written, uncodified or blended constitution...
. Later that day, leaders of the republicans
Republicanism is the ideology of governing a nation as a republic, where the head of state is appointed by means other than heredity, often elections. The exact meaning of republicanism varies depending on the cultural and historical context...
The French Republic , The French Republic , The French Republic , (commonly known as France , is a unitary semi-presidential republic in Western Europe with several overseas territories and islands located on other continents and in the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. Metropolitan France...
rallied against this decision.
In the previous month Louis and his family had unsuccessfully tried to flee France in the Flight to Varennes
The Flight to Varennes was a significant episode in the French Revolution during which King Louis XVI of France, his wife Marie Antoinette, and their immediate family attempted unsuccessfully to escape from Paris in order to initiate a counter-revolution...
Jacques Pierre Brissot
Jacques Pierre Brissot , who assumed the name of de Warville, was a leading member of the Girondist movement during the French Revolution. Some sources give his name as Jean Pierre Brissot.-Biography:...
, editor and main writer of Le Patriote français and president of the Comité des Recherches of Paris, drew up a petition demanding the removal of the king. A large crowd gathered at the Champ de Mars to sign the petition. The marquis de Lafayette and the National Guard
The National Guard was the name given at the time of the French Revolution to the militias formed in each city, in imitation of the National Guard created in Paris. It was a military force separate from the regular army...
, which was under his command, tried to preserve public order by marching on the crowd. They were successful in maintaining the peace, but, later in the afternoon, the crowd, led by Danton
Georges Jacques Danton was leading figure in the early stages of the French Revolution and the first President of the Committee of Public Safety. Danton's role in the onset of the Revolution has been disputed; many historians describe him as "the chief force in theoverthrow of the monarchy and the...
and Camille Desmoulins
Lucie Simplice Camille Benoît Desmoulins was a journalist and politician who played an important role in the French Revolution. He was a childhood friend of Maximilien Robespierre and a close friend and political ally of Georges Danton, who were influential figures in the French Revolution.-Early...
, returned in even greater numbers.
The larger crowd was also more determined than the first and proved to be more of a threat to safety. Lafayette again tried to disperse the crowd. In retaliation, the crowd threw stones at the National Guard. After firing unsuccessful warning shots, the National Guard opened fire directly on the crowd. The exact numbers of dead and wounded are unknown; estimates range from a dozen to fifty.
Contemporary news report
The following is an excerpt of a news report about the incident printed in the Les Révolutions de Paris, a republican newspaper with an obvious bias in favor of the anti-royalists who had assembled on the Champ de Mars:
Blood has just flowed on the field of the federation, staining the altar of the fatherland. Men and women have had their throats slashed and the citizens are at a loss. What shall become of liberty? Some say that it has been destroyed, and that the counterrevolution has won. Others are certain that liberty has been avenged, and that the Revolution has been unshakably consolidated. Let us impartially examine these two such strangely differing views. ...
The majority of the National Assembly, the department, the Paris municipality, and many of the writers say that the capital is overrun by brigands, that these brigands are paid by agents of foreign courts, and that they are in alliance with the factions that secretly conspire against France. They say that at ten o'clock on Sunday morning, two citizens were sacrificed to their fury. They say these citizens insulted, molested and provoked the National Guard, assassinated several of the citizen soldiers; that they went so far as to try to kill the Commandant-General. And finally they say that they gathered at the Champ de Mars for the sole purpose of disturbing public peace and order, getting so carried away that perhaps it was hard to restrain themselves two hours later. From this point of view, it is certain that the Paris municipality could have and should have taken the severe measures that it did. It is better to sacrifice some thirty wretched vagabonds than to risk the safety of twenty-five million citizens.
However, if the victims of Champ de Mars were not brigands, if these victims were peaceful citizens with their wives and children, and if that terrible scene is but the result of a formidable coalition against the progress of the Revolution, then liberty is truly in danger, and the declaration of martial law is a horrible crime, and the sure precursor of counterrevolution. ...
The field of the federation . . . is a vast plain, at the center of which the altar of the fatherland is located, and where the slopes surrounding the plain are cut at intervals to facilitate entry and exit. One section of the troops entered at the far side of the military school, another came through the entrance somewhat lower down, and a third by the gate that opens on to the Grande Rue de Chaillot, where the red flag was placed. The people at the altar, more than fifteen thousand strong, had hardly noticed the flag when shots were heard. "Do not move, they are firing blanks. They must come here to post the law." The troops advanced a second time. The composure of the faces of those who surrounded the altar did not change. But when a third volley mowed many of them down, the crowd fled, leaving only a group of a hundred people at the altar itself. Alas, they paid dearly for their courage and blind trust in the law. Men, women, even a child, were massacred there, massacred on the altar of the fatherland.
Text of the petition
The following is the text of the manifesto which was being read and signed by French citizens in the Champ de Mars on the day of the massacre, 17 July 1791:
THE undersigned Frenchmen, members of the sovereign people, considering that, in questions concerning the safety of the people, it is their right to express their will in order to enlighten and guide their deputies,
THAT no question has ever arisen more important than the King's desertion,
THAT the decree of 15 July contains no decision concerning Louis XVI,
THAT, in obeying this decree, it is necessary to decide promptly the future of this individual,
THAT his conduct must form the basis of this decision,
THAT Louis XVI, having accepted Royal functions, and sworn to defend the Constitution, has deserted the post entrusted to him; has protested against that very Constitution in a declaration written and signed in his own hand; has attempted, by his flight and his orders, to paralyze the executive power, and to upset the Constitution in complicity with men who are today awaiting trial for such an attempt,
THAT his perjury, his desertion, his protest, not to speak of all the other criminal acts which have proceeded, accompanied, and followed them, involve a formal abdication of the constitutional Crown entrusted to him,
THAT the National Assembly has so judged in assuming the executive power, suspending the Royal authority and holding him in a state of arrest,
THAT fresh promises from Louis XVI to observe the Constitution cannot offer the Nation a sufficient guarantee against a fresh perjury and a new conspiracy.
CONSIDERING finally that it would be as contrary to the majesty of the outraged Nation as it would be contrary to its interest to confide the reins of empire to a perjurer, a traitor, and a fugitive, [we] formally and specifically demand that the Assembly receive the abdication made on 21 June by Louis XVI of the crown which had been delegated to him, and provide for his successor in the constitutional manner, [and we] declare that the undersigned will never recognise Louis XVI as their King unless the majority of the Nation express a desire contrary to the present petition.
Among the French, the reputation of Lafayette, the commander of the National Guard, never recovered from this episode.