The massacre of the Champs de Mars

This is a letter from Madame Marie-Jeanne Roland to a confidant and is therefore a private, discursive source. The letter, written the day following the massacre was her private views of what took place. The information within the letter leads the reader to believe that Madame Roland was present at the Champs de Mars when the massacre occurred. However, as we do not know where exactly she was whilst this event took place, we cannot say how true this version of the events leading up to the massacre is.

If she was in the Champs de Mars whilst these events took place then this is a strong source for a study of the massacre. However if she heard what took place second hand, it will have its limitations. Some questions, like the following, would need to be answered – from whom has she heard this information, are they for or against the monarchy, were they at the Champs de Mars when the massacre happened?. To write a study on the massacre of the Champs de Mars, there are certain words and phrases that would need to be explained in order to understand better what happened.

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In paragraph 1 “the altar of the fatherland” was a wooden erection established in the Champs de Mars in 1790; “functionaries” were government officials, whilst the phrases “the municipality had been previously informed according to the rules”, “with its iron sceptre outstretched” and “in the confidence of the most sacred rights and legitimate intentions” would need to be clarified. In paragraph 2 “the red flag” was a symbol of martial law and the phrase ” the three summonses prescribed by law were neglected” would also need to be explained.

Information in the letter tells us wittingly, that “death and mourning are within our walls” – she, and the city of Paris, is obviously very upset about the massacre of the people at the Champs de Mars. She tells us that the crowd, which includes women and children, “all were without arms and sticks” arrived at the Champs de Mars unarmed and with the intention of a peaceful demonstration. “The municipality had previously been informed according to the rules” and “in the confidence of their most sacred rights and legitimate intentions,” tell us that this demonstration was a legal demonstration.

The unwitting testimony within the letter tells us that the National Guard has taken control of Paris and turned against their fellow Parisians – “there is no longer liberty in Paris except for the National Guard wanting to cut their brothers’ throats”. Also the two men who were hanged, when found beneath the “altar of the fatherland”, were more than likely royalists who refused to say why they were found where they were.

The three municipal officers appear to be in sympathy with the crowd signing the petition as “they would have signed it had they not been functionaries”. “The citizens, seated and signing on the altar” were still peaceful in the afternoon when more National Guard arrived carrying the “red flag” a symbol of martial law. Unintentionally, the writer tells us that the National Guard takes the law into their own hands and fires live rounds into the crowd.

This by fact that “the three summonses prescribed by law were neglected” and that the first volley “which should have been blank” was illegal. Madame Roland is married to an elected member of the General Council of the Commune and is a supporter of a constitutional monarchy. This letter is about a crowd gathering to petition against the retention of the monarchy. As a supporter of the monarchy one would expect her to have some sympathy with the National Guard and the actions they have taken.

However her comment that “tyranny sits on a blood-stained throne” would imply that she believes the government (or the king? ) has acted in an aggressive and oppressive manner using the National Guard to disperse the crowd with violence. Madame Roland appears to be in sympathy with the reasons the crowd had gathered and that the National Guard were in a rather blood thirsty mood as once they had fired their volleys, the cavalry charged after the fleeing crowd and cut them down with their sabres and “this peaceful and trusting assembly of honest men put to rout”.

As a whole I would say that this is a reasonably strong document to use as a study of “The massacre of the Champs de Mars”. However, as a historian I would only be able to produce a weak article if I did not investigate information from other groups and sources to give me a more complete picture of what happened at the Champs de Mars on 18 July 1791.

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