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Desmoulins, Lucile (1771–1794)

Desmoulins, Lucile (1771–1794)

Victim of the Terror in the French Revolution whose devotion to her family, and particularly her husband Camille Desmoulins, transcended political posturing and evoked a nobility of spirit admirable even to her enemies. Name variations: Lucille. Born Lucile Duplessis in or near Paris in 1771; died on the guillotine in Paris on April 13, 1794; daughter of a wealthy official in the French Ministry of Finance and Madame Duplessis; married Camille Desmoulins (a poor law student who, upon the outbreak of the Revolution, became a famous activist and journalist), on December 29, 1790; children: son, Horace (b. July 6, 1792).

Supported her husband in his shifting political stances and played host to the Jacobins, a circle of his political associates in Paris (1790–94); exerted heroic efforts to secure husband's release upon his arrest by Revolutionary authorities; died by order of the Committee of Public Safety one week after her husband was executed (April 1794).

A number of women left a mark on the history of the French Revolution, a great political and social convulsion that shook France from 1789 to 1799. Those who did are known to us primarily for their capacity to exert some political influence and thus overcome their inherent disadvantage of being female in a time when women were regarded as naturally unfit for political activity. Lucile Desmoulins generally shared the prevailing attitude, and for most of her brief life conformed to all the expectations her family and husband held for her. At the last, however, she drew upon some inner will that allowed her to transform herself from the "gentle Lucile" to a woman of unforgettable defiance to injustice and tyranny.

Good night, my dear mother. A tear falls from my eyes; it is for you. I am going to sleep in the tranquillity of the innocents.

—Lucile Desmoulins, on the eve of her execution during the French Revolution

Lucile Desmoulins was in most respects a typical woman of her time and place. She was born Lucile Duplessis, the daughter of an official in the French Ministry of Finance in the government of Louis XVI in the 1780s. Her father was a wealthy man, possessing property in Paris and at his estate at Bourg La Reine. Her mother was a woman of high spirits, flirtatious, amorous, and probably not overly burdened with the idea of marital fidelity. Apparently, as Lucile grew from her privileged childhood into her teens, she acquired not only a striking physical beauty, but also a female confidant in the form of her mother who, true to the emerging romantic mood of the age, instilled in her daughter the conviction that the ideal of femininity was overpowering physical, intellectual, and spiritual love. Lucile became a young woman in Paris, a city brimming with young men in search of love as much as she, and who could not but be attracted to her beauty and the 100,000 franc dowry that would come with her.

It was near her father's house, in the fashionable Luxembourg Gardens, that Lucile met the man upon whom she bestowed her limitless devotion. In the last year before the outbreak of the French Revolution, Lucile fell in love with Camille Desmoulins, a young student who had studied law with Maximilien Robespierre, a future leader of revolutionary France. Camille frequented the Luxembourg, posing and extolling various sentiments to passersby. It could not be said that he was handsome or well established. In fact, his prospects were flimsy when Lucile met him, but that seemed unimportant to her. After a courtship in the Gardens, Camille asked Lucile to marry him, but her father, suspecting Camille's motives and his chances, would not hear the young man's petition. The couple, having no alternative, reverted to their meetings in the Luxembourg and dreamed of a future together.

When the Revolution exploded in Paris in the spring and summer of 1789, Camille recognized that a wonderful opportunity had come his way. Well read in the law and the classics and convinced that his star would lead him to greatness, Camille followed the opening events of the upheaval hungrily. In July 1789, as Paris was in turmoil because of the high expectations aroused by the establishment of a National Constituent Assembly at nearby Versailles, and equally agitated for fear of a royal reaction in force, Camille seized the moment. When fear gripped the city on July 12, he leapt upon a table in a café in the popular entertainment area, the Palais Royal, and, with a pistol in hand, shouted to the citizens to arm themselves against the king. In the next two days, Camille was in the forefront of crowds seeking weapons, donning revolutionary cockades, and demanding the arming of the population against royal repression. On the glorious 14th of July, the young orator was among the leaders of the attack on the Bastille, a royal fortress prison in the heart of the city. As a "victor" at the Bastille, Camille Desmoulins became a famous name among patriots and revolutionaries.

If the Revolution gave Camille his voice, it also presented him the opportunity to use another weapon, the pen. Forgetting the law, he became a journalist, publishing his Révolutions de France et de Brabant. Instantly popular in Paris and other locations, the journal attacked all counterrevolutionaries, foreign enemies, aristocrats, and, eventually, the king. Soon, Camille joined the popular Cordeliers Club and the Jacobin Club, an emerging power in Paris and in the National Assembly. Among others, Camille could count as friends, Maximilien Robespierre, Louis-Marie Freron, Jacques Danton, Jerome Pétion, Brissot de Warville, and other rising figures in the Revolution. The Revolution also gave him Lucile. Impressed with Camille's fame and prospects, in December 1789 Monsieur Duplessis bestowed his daughter's hand and dowry on the new child of fortune. Both Lucile and her fiancé were ecstatic, and they were married on December 29. Lucile was said to have been "joyfully weeping" as she accepted the congratulations of Robespierre and Brissot de Warville, both of whom would later be targets of Camille's criticisms.

As a married woman, partner to a man apparently touched by destiny, Lucile was more beautiful, more pleasant, more vivacious than ever. She and Camille became the center of a social circle of political leaders, mostly Jacobins, ever waxing in power as the Revolution veered in a more radical direction in the early 1790s. She never failed him. She helped him with his articles, she cooked for him, she sewed for him, she adored him, and she defended his every virtue and his every fault. No one, not even her father, was permitted to criticize Camille, even though, in fact, he could be factious, shallow, and pompous. Lucile did not see such failings: Camille was her great love, her ideal, her hero. When she gave birth to a son, Horace, on July 6, 1792, her happiness knew no bounds. Now she and Camille had achieved the ultimate fruit of their union.

Lucile's joy was shortly sullied, however, by raw fear. By August 1792, the struggle for control of the French government was coming to a crisis point. Loathing the changes forced upon him by the National Assembly and by the violence across France, Louis XVI attempted to escape France with his family in June 1791. He failed and was brought back to Paris. Louis, in these circumstances, publicly accepted the changes wrought by the Revolution and swore that he would abide by the new constitution. Few believed him, least of all the revolutionary press. Camille certainly doubted the king's sincerity and passed these views on to Lucile.

In April 1792, France went to war with the hostile German states of Prussia and Austria. Swearing enmity to kings, the French revolutionaries proposed to liberate Europe from all tyrants. The tyrants, however, fought back with professional armies against France's politicized divisions. By August, the enemy was marching on French soil, and Paris was threatened. Fear and suspicion against the king and queen, Marie Antoinette , an Austrian by birth, led to a conspiracy between the Jacobins, the revolutionary city government, the Commune, and the popular assemblies in the Sections, or political divisions, of Paris to overthrow the king. Camille and his friend, Danton, took part in the attack on the royal palace, the Tuileries, on August 10. Lucile was paralyzed with fear. In her diary she wrote: "Camille arrived with a fusil. O God, I hid myself … covered my face with my hands and wept. … I realized that he was run ning into danger."

The conspirators' victory brought Camille into the new provisional government as secretary to Danton, who had become minister of justice. Lucile echoed Camille's denunciations of the dethroned king and was not critical when Danton, and perhaps Camille, played a part in the judicial murder of thousands of royalist suspects in Parisian jails in September. Then, when the faction known as the Girondins, mostly men from the provinces who resented the Parisian's dominance in the nation's affairs, and which included old friends like Brissot and Jerome Pétion, resisted the increasingly radical populist policies of the Jacobins, Lucile said nothing as they were denounced by Camille in imitation of Robespierre. The Girondists were proscribed and Brissot died on the guillotine; Pétion killed himself.

The suppression of the Girondins touched off civil war in France, and, combined with an expanding list of foreign enemies, meant that the National Convention, elected in late 1792 and controlled by the Jacobins, especially those associated with Robespierre, was at war with much of France and much of Europe. Everywhere there were rumors, fears, suspicions, and spontaneous violence. The Convention, to respond to the threat of chaos and uncontrolled terror, created the Committee of Public Safety and granted it extraordinary executive powers.

One group that now became a target of the Jacobin Committee of Public Safety was the urban proto-socialists known as the Enragés. Regarded as undisciplined and unreliable, they were soon arrested. More formidable than the Enragés was the group centered on the journalist, Jacques Hébert. Hébert published a scandalous paper called Père Duchesne which pressed for the destruction of the Christian religion as counterrevolutionary. When Camille began his new newspaper in December 1793, Le Vieux Cordelier, he joined the mounting attack led by Danton and Robespierre against the Hébertists. Lucile, typically, followed her husband's lead and added that Hébert had been rude and indecent toward her. In any event, Hébert's ideas on drastic taxation of the wealthy served to frighten Lucile and perhaps her newly rich husband as well. In March, Hébert and his followers were sent to the guillotine. Hébert had once been Camille's comrade in the Cordeliers Club.

Following the Committee of Public Safety's destruction of the Hébertists, powerful elements in the National Convention, the Committee of Public Safety, and the Jacobins began to pressure Robespierre, the unofficial leader of the Committee, to move against the group now referred to as the Indulgents. This band of revolutionaries, led by Danton, demanded a moderation of the Terror. The Terror had succeeded, they argued, in suppressing internal rebellion, stabilizing the economy, and turning back the many foreign enemies of France. To continue the Terror would be to discredit the Revolution and foster ever more enemies. In Le Vieux Cordelier, Camille began to make similar appeals. It was a dangerous course for him, and Lucile sensed it, for he was pitting himself against the formidable Robespierre. The "Incorruptible," as Robespierre was called, was not prepared to relax the Terror. Even though hundreds were going to the guillotine each week in Paris and in the countryside, Robespierre and his closest associates thought that counterrevolution was still possible and that France had to be compelled to make the herculean efforts required to save the nation. It is likely that the "Incorruptible" also meant to remove "unvirtuous" men, a task of enormous proportions indeed.

Lucile Desmoulins sensed the danger. She urged Camille to leave Paris and let matters settle. Yet, even though very worried, Camille loved the role he played in shaping public opinion in his journal and in the clubs. As the days passed, however, the friendship between the two old schoolmates cooled. When Camille called for clemency and denounced the more ferocious laws of the Terror, Robespierre assumed that it was he under attack. He struck back at the Jacobins, denouncing Le Vieux Cordelier. Without reflection, Camille answered Robespierre by asserting that Maximilien was playing a double game. In March, Camille was expelled from the Cordeliers and the Jacobins. Lucile's fears were proving to be justified.

Actually, while Camille had angered Robe-spierre and other members of the Committee, his offenses were but a part of the larger crime of being associated with Danton. Openly demanding an end to the extraordinary decrees and power of the Committee, Danton made himself an enemy of Robespierre; there were others on the Committee who wanted Danton's head as payment for their support of Robespierre against the Hébertists. Camille knew he had misstepped, but it was too late to turn back. When his printer refused to publish his last issue of Le Vieux Cordelier, Camille succumbed to despair. It could only be a matter of time.

On March 30, pressured by others on the Committee, Robespierre consented to an arrest order for Danton, Camille Desmoulins, and others. Soldiers came in the middle of the night to take Camille to the Luxembourg Prison. Lucile was helpless and terrified. By morning, however, she had gained her composure. Now began her gallant, if futile, fight to save her husband. From one office to another, up this street and down that one, across the city she appealed, she implored, she begged for Camille's release. No one would help her. When exhausted, she stood silently outside the Luxembourg, yearning for the sight of him. With Danton's 16-year-old wife Louise , Lucile frantically appealed to Robe-spierre, the only man who could save Camille and Danton. Pitifully, without pride, she wrote to the "Incorruptible," reminding him of his old friendship, of their old friendship, of the nights Robespierre had been a part of the Desmoulins family circle. But Maximilien, who had attended Lucile's wedding, would not answer her letter, nor would he permit her to come to him at his house in the rue Saint-Honoré. He had already decided that Danton and Camille must die that the Revolution might live.

From prison, Camille wrote to Lucile begging her to live, to protect their son. "Adieu, Loulou," he wrote, "my life, my soul, my divinity on earth." The words stirred her to action. Across the city she rambled, damning the Committee, cursing Robespierre. Plots and schemes filled her head: she would bribe Camille's jailers; she would somehow raise an insurrection in the city; she would do something. To everyone and to no one she cried: "Why am I at liberty? Do people think that just because I am a woman I do not dare to raise my voice?" But no one listened.

On the day before the Dantonists were to die, Saint-Just, a close associate of Robespierre, accused Lucile of fomenting a rebellion in the prison and of conspiring with known counterrevolutionaries. She was soon under arrest. It is fortunate she did not see her husband's last journey across Paris to the guillotine. In the tumbrel with Danton, Camille completely broke down. Hysterically, he tore his clothes, shouted his name to the crowd lining the avenues, and, apparently, believed the citizens would surge forward to save him and Danton, or that somehow Lucile might rescue him. Danton tried to encourage his friend to display dignity, commenting with his usual dark humor on the mobs now calling for their blood who had a few weeks before all but worshipped them as idols. Camille could not, however, bring himself under control. As they passed Robespierre's house in the rue Saint-Honoré, Danton, defiant to the end, bellowed toward Robespierre's abode: "You will follow me!" At the scaffold, Danton hesitated, then reproached himself: "Come, Danton, no weakness!" Then, to the executioner, "Show my head to the people; it is worth showing." Camille followed, weeping over his lost Lucile.

Danton, Louise (1777–1856)

Young French wife of Jacques Danton. Name variations: Sebastienne-Louise Gély; Louise Gély; Louise Dupin. Born Sébastienne-Louise Gély in 1777; died at age 80 in Paris in 1856; daughter of Marc-Antoine Gély (a former Admiralty official); married Jacques Danton, in 1793 (guillotined, 1794); married Claude-François Dupin (prefect, officer of the Legion of Honor, under Napoleon).

Following the death of his first wife Gabrielle Danton , who had died giving birth to their fourth son in February 1793, and concerned about his motherless sons, Jacques Danton married 16-year-old Louise Gély, a friend of the family, on June 12, 1793. Less than one year later, she was a widow. Soon after, Louise Danton remarried but, in her sorrow, never mentioned Danton's name again.

Hébert, Madame (d. 1794)

French Revolutionary. Died on the guillotine in Paris on April 13, 1794; married Jacques René Hébert (1757–1794).

Lucile was to live another week. Before the Revolutionary Tribunal, she made no defense. Her thoughts were on her coming death, and she believed intensely that she would be reunited with Camille in another world. On April 13, she mounted the tumbrel, ironically with Madame Hébert , whose husband she had hated. Lucile wore a white veil over her hair, just as she had on her wedding day, At the guillotine, she displayed no fear. She all but danced up the steps and quickly placed herself in the correct position. A moment later, she was dead.

sources:

Cher, Marie. Charlotte Corday and Certain Men of the Revolutionary Torment. NY: D. Appleton, 1929, pp. 160–170.

Soboul, Albert. The French Revolution 1787–1799. NY: Vintage Books, 1975, pp. 364–368.

Sokolnikova, Galina Osipovna. Nine Women Drawn from the Epoch of the French Revolution. Translated by H.C. Stevens. Books for Libraries Press, 1932, reprinted 1969, pp. 193–220.

suggested reading:

Connally, Owen D. French Revolution and Napoleonic Era. Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1979, pp. 157–167.

C. David Rice , Professor of History, Central Missouri State University, Warrensburg, Missouri

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