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Modern History Sourcebook:
Alphonse de Lamartine (1790-1869):
History of the Revolution of 1848 in France

Lamartine was a Romantic poet, a member of the provisional government, and a one-time presidential candidate. Here he recounts events in France in 1848. Initial demands were for liberal political reforms. Soon social and economic issues came quickly to the fore as an organized working class began to make demands.

The 12th arrondissement [note: district]of Paris had arranged a banquet. The opposition had promised to verify the right by its presence, and the banquet was to take place on the 20th of February. The ministry did not oppose it by force. They merely proposed to certify the offence by a commissary of police, and to try the question by the courts of law. The opposition was unanimous for accepting the judicial debate on this ground. Everything was prepared for this peaceable demonstration.

On the eve of it, the ministry, disturbed by a summons addressed to the National Guards, without arms, by the impatient republicans, declared at the tribune that they retracted their concessions, and would disperse the manifestation by force.

M. Barrot summoned the constitutional opposition to his house to deliberate.

It was proposed to keep aloof from the extreme resolution of the government, and M. Barrot and his friends yielded to this counsel.

On the next day a second deliberation took place at a restorator's in the Place de la Madeleine, and M. de Lamartine, M. Berryer, and M. de Laroche-jacquelein were invited to attend. They went thither.

About two hundred deputies of all complexions of moderate opposition were present. The course to be pursued was discussed. The discussion was long, varied and embarrassing, and no firm or worthy decision was reached in any quarter. If the opposition receded, it would destroy itself, dishonor its name, and lose its moral influence over the nation. It would pass under the Caudine yoke of the ministry. If it persisted, it would incur the risk of conquering too much, and giving victory to the party which desired-what it feared-a revolution. But revolution for revolution, the risk of an advanced revolution seemed more acceptable to certain minds than a backward revolution....

Night came without blood having been shed. It was silent as the day, disquieted as on the eve of a great event. However, the news of a probable change of ministry, which relaxed the danger, reassured the citizens. The troops bivouacked in the squares and streets. Some benches and chairs on the Champs-Elysées, set on fire by the children, lighted up the horizon with an irregular illumination. The government was everywhere master of Paris, except in that kind of citadel fortified by the nature of the construction and the narrow winding of the streets, near the convent Saint Méry, in the centre of Paris. There some indefatigable and intrepid republicans, who observed everything and despaired of nothing, were concentrated, either by a concerted plan of tactics, or by the same spontaneous revolutionary instincts. Even their chiefs disapproved their obstinacy and rashness. They were estimated at four or five hundred in number, more or less. Another detachment of republicans, without chiefs, disarmed during the night the National Guards of the Batignolles, burned the station of the barrier, and fortified themselves in a neighboring timber-yard to await the event. They did not attempt to dislodge them.

At dawn the routes which led to the gates of Paris were covered with columns of cavalry, infantry and artillery, which the commands of government had collected. These troops were imposing, obedient, well-disciplined, but sad and silent. The sadness of civil war clouded their brows. They took successively their position on the principal streets branching off from the quarters which pour forth the population of Parts. The multitude did not fight en masse upon any point. Dispersed and floating bands disarmed only isolated stations, broke open the armorers' shops, and fired invisible shots upon the troops. The barricades, starting from the centre of the church Saint M6ry, were raised, branching out and gradually multiplying almost under the feet of the army. Hardly were they reared when they were abandoned. The troops had only stones to contend with,-It was a silent battle, whose progress was felt without hearing the noise.

The National Guard, assembled by a tardy call, collected legion by legion. It remained neutral, and confined itself to interposing between the troops and the people, and demanding with loud voice the dismissal of the ministers, and reform. It thus served as a shield to the revolution....

Such was the state of Paris on the morning of the twenty-fourth of February. The troops, fatigued from seeing no enemy, yet feeling hostility on all sides, stood faithful but sad at their different posts. The generals and officers discussed with low voices the inexplicable indecision of events. Groups of cavalry were seen at the ends of the principal v

streets, enveloped in their gray cloaks, with drawn swords in their hands, immovably stationed for thirty-six hours in the same place, allowing their horses to sleep under them, trembling with cold and hunger. The officers of ordnance gallop by every moment, carrying from one part of Paris to another orders and counter-orders. There was heard in the distance, on the side of the Hotel de Ville [note: City Hall], and the deep and winding labyrinths of the adjacent streets, some firing from groups of people, which appeared to subside and become silent as the day advanced. The people were not numerous in the streets; they seemed to allow the invisible spirit of revolution to fight for them, and

that small band of obstinate combatants who were dying for them in the heart o Paris. It is said there was a watch-word between the masses of the people and that group of republicans-a silent signal of intelligence, which said to some, "Resist a few hours longer," and to others, "You have no need of mingling in the contest, and shedding French blood. The genius of the revolution fights for all; the monarchy is falling; it is only necessary to push it; before the sun sets the republic will have triumphed." . . .

The fate of the day was at the disposal of the National Guard. The government thus far had not wished to sound its equivocal disposition, by asking ii to take an active part in the affair, and fire on the citizens of Paris...

The National Guards, called, in fact, on the morning of the 24th, to interpose between the people and the troops of the line, answered slowly and weakly to the appeal. They recognized, in the prolonged movement of the people, an anti-ministerial demonstration, an armed petition in favor of electoral reform, which they were far from disapproving. They smiled upon it in secret. They felt an antipathy to the name of M Guizot. His irritating and prolonged authority oppressed them. They loved his principles of government, perhaps; they did not love the man. They saw in him at one time a complaisance, at another an imprudent vexation, of England. They reproached him for a peace too dearly purchased by political servility in Portugal; they reproached him for the war too rashly risked, for the aggrandizement of the Orleans family at Madrid. They rejoiced at the downfall and humiliation of this minister, equally unpopular in peace and war.

They wee not too much alarmed by seeing the people vote with musket-shot against the system pursued by the king....

A small number of combatants, concentrated in that quarter of Paris which forms by the crookedness and narrowness of its streets, the natural citadel of insurrections, preserved alone a hostile attitude and an inaccessible position. These men were nearly all veterans of the republic, formed by the voluntary discipline of sects in the secret societies of the two monarchies; trained to the struggle, and even to martyrdom, in all the battles which had made Paris bleed, and contested the establishment of the monarchy. Their invisible chief had no name nor rank. It was the invisible breath of revolution; the spirit of sect, the soul of the people, suffering from the present, aspiring to bring light from the future; the cool and disinterested enthusiasm which rejoices in death, if by its death posterity can find a germ of amelioration and life.

To these men were joined two other kinds of combatants, who always throw themselves into the tumultuous movements of seditions; the ferocious spirits whom blood allures and death delights, and the light natures whom the whirlwind attracts and draws in, the children of Paris. But this germ did not increase. It watched in silence, musket in hand. It contented itself with thus giving time for the general insurrection.

This insurrection was nowhere manifested. It needed a war-cry to excite it, a cry of horror to sow fury and vengeance in that mass of floating population, equally ready to retire to their homes, or to go forth to overthrow the government. Some silent groups collected here and there at the extremity of the faubourgs of the Temple and of St. Antoine. Other groups, few in number, appeared at the entrance of the streets which open from the Chaussée d'Antin upon the boulevards.

These two kinds of groups were different in costume and attitude. The one was composed of young men belonging to the rich and elegant classes of the bourgeoisie, to the schools, to commerce, to the National Guard, to literature, and above all to Journalism. These harangued the people, roused their anger against the king, the ministry, the Chambers, spoke of the humiliation of' France to the foreigner, of the diplomatic treasons of the court, of the corruption and insolent servility of the deputies sold to the discretion of Louis Philippe. They discussed aloud the names of the popular ministers whom the insurrection must impose upon the Tuileries. The numerous loiterers and persons passing by, eager for news, stopped near the orators, and applauded their proposals.

The other groups were composed of men of the people, come from their workshops two days since at the sound of musketry; their working-clothes upon their shoulders, their blue shirts open at the breast, their hands yet black with the smoke of charcoal. These descended in silence, by small companies, grazing the walls of the streets which lead to Clichy, la Villette, and the Canal de l'Ourcq. One or two workmen, better clothed than the others, in cloth vests, or in surt0UtS with long skirts, marched before them, spoke to them in low tones, and appeared to give them the word of command. These were the chiefs of the sections of' the Rights of Man, or of the Families.

The society of the Rights of Man, and of the Families, was a kind of democratic masonry, instituted, since 1830, by some active republicans. These societies preserved, under different names, since the destruction of the first republic by Bonaparte, the rancor of betrayed liberty, as well as some traditions of Jacobinism, transmitted from Babeuf to Buonarotti, and from Buonarotti to the young republicans of this school. The members of these purely political societies were recruited almost entirely from among the chiefs of the mechanic workshops, locksmiths, cabinet-makers, printers, joiners, and carpenters of Paris.

Parallel to these permanent conspiracies against royalty, the keystone of the arch of privilege, philosophical societies were organized, composed of almost the same elements,-some under the auspices of St. Simon, others under those of Fourier,-the former comprising the followers of Cabet, the latter those of Raspail, of Pierre Leroux and of Louis Blanc. These conspiracies in open day were alone spread by means of eloquence, association and journalism. Sects so far pacific, these societies discussed their opinions, and caused them to be discussed freely.

The difference between these two kinds of revolutionists is, that the first were inspired by the hatred of royalty, the second by the progress of humanity. The republic and equality was the aim of the one; social renovation and fraternity the aim of the other. They had nothing in common but impatience against that which existed, and hope for that which they saw dawning in an approaching revolution.

Towards ten o'clock in the evening, a small column of republicans of the young bourgeoisie passed through the rue Lepelletier; it formed a group in silence around the gate of the journal Le National, as if a rendezvous had been appointed. In all our revolutions, counsel is held, the word of command is given, the impulse comes, from the journal office. It is the comitia, of public union, the ambulatory tribune of the people. We hear a long conference between the republicans within and the republicans without. Short and feverish words were exchanged through the low, closed window of the porter's lodge. The column, inspired with the enthusiasm which had just been communicated to it, advanced with cries of Vive la refornie! à bas les ministres! [note: long live reform! Down with the ministers] towards the boulevards.

Hardly had it quitted the office of Le National, when another column of workmen and men of the people presented itself, and halted there, at the command of its chief. It seemed to have been expected. It was applauded by the clapping of hands from within the house....

A red flag floated amidst the smoke of torches over the foremost ranks of this multitude. Its numbers thickened as it continued to advance. A sinister curiosity became intent upon this cloud of men, which seemed to bear the mystery of the day.

In front of the Hotel of Foreign Affairs, a battalion of the line, drawn up in battle array, with loaded arms, its commander at the head, barred the boulevard. The column suddenly halts before this hedge of bayonets. The floating of the flag and the gleaming of torches frighten the horse of the commander. Rearing and whirling on its hind legs, the horse throws itself back towards the battalion, which opens to surround its leader. A discharge of fire-arms resounds in the confusion of this movement. Did it proceed, as has been said, from a concealed and perverse hand, fired upon the people by an . agitator of the people, in order to revive by the sight of blood the cooling ardor of the struggle? Did it come from the hand of one of the insurgents upon the troop? In fine, what is more likely, did it come accidentally from the movement of some loaded weapon, or from the hand of some soldier who believed his commander was wounded when he saw the fright of his horse? No one knows. Crime or chance, that discharge of fire-arms rekindled a revolution.


Source:

From Alphonse de Lamartine: History of the Revolution of 1848 (Boston: Phillips, Sampson & Co., 1849), pp. 28-29, 3C-38, 46-49, 51.


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© Paul Halsall, July 1998
halsall@murray.fordham.edu