Camille Desmoulins: A Little Ink to Fuel the Fire of Revolution
“I shall die in the belief that to make France free, republican and prosperous, a little ink would have sufficed – and only one guillotine.” ~ Camille Desmoulins
Revolution may be sparked by passion, ignited by action, and lit ablaze by the revolutionaries offering their lives to their causes. Yet the foundation of such movements, the kindling that leads to the flame is the words. Without the words, action is an empty sentiment, void of meaning and intention. To speak into the silence and object injustice is difficult when the world is unwilling to listen. But in times of turbulence, words may just catch the wind and spread like wildfire.
Without the press, referred to as the Fourth Estate during the 19th century, the revolution would have looked very different, and it could be surmised that the changes that followed may have never occurred. The widespread dissemination of radical political ideology set the stage for significant structural change within France, bringing forth a new age emphasizing the rights and freedoms in which many now understand to be natural human rights. Through analyzing the lives of the radical writers active during the French Revolution, the contemporary climate of journalism in conflict and human rights issues can be better understood.
Inked in History
Lucie Simplice Camille Benoist Desmoulins, better known to history as Camille Desmoulins, was a prominent journalist and political figure during the French Revolution. Born March 2nd 1760, Desmoulins went on to attend the College Louis le Grand where he studied alongside and befriended Maximilien Robespierre, who would ultimately be responsible for his demise. Desmoulins pursued a career in law, having been proficient in literature and politics during his education. Though being admitted to the bar in 1785, this career was short-lived, as he had a stutter and a notably fiery temper which led to Desmoulins spending a period of time in severe poverty. Seeking a new path, he embraced his passion for writing and political affairs.
When the revolution broke out, Desmoulins became a crowd orator, rallying the people to move against the oppressive rule of the loyalists. Desmoulins success in speaking was not deterred by his stutter, in fact in heated times he was able to speak passionately and compellingly, due to his complete devotion to his cause. Camille Desmoulins first gained political fame on 12th July 1789, in a public scene where he mounted a table in Cafe du Foy, many patrons being prominent political dissenters, and called the people to action, speaking of his concern pertaining to the potential for imminent violence against dissidents. When the attack on the Hotel des Invalides occurred in response to his words, Desmoulins was among those who armed themselves to move on Bastille.
Following the storming of the Bastille, Desmoulins released “La France Libre” to the public, a pamphlet that the printers originally refused to publish. The pamphlet, title translating to “Free France”, did much to garner public interest as Desmoulins wrote about the importance of a democratic government and denounced the rule of monarchy. He published “Discours de la lanterne aux Parisiens’ in the September of 1789, writing in support of the Revolutionary National Assembly and the ideology which worked to bring down the Ancien Regime. From this publication, Demoulins became known as the “Procureur-general de la lanterne”. He then created a newspaper only months later titled “Les Révolutions de France et de Brabant” which was now extremely specific in its criticisms, targeting policies and the King, aggressive in expressing the paramount need to hold those in power accountable and to implement structural reforms. The newspaper’s success enabled Desmoulins to progress from severe poverty to a life of fame.
The Ideals Off Page and in Practice
Desmoulins, alongside many prominent radical ideologists such as Danton and Saint-Just, was a member of the Jacobin Club, which was eventually led by his childhood friend Robespierre. Founded in 1789, the political club fought to establish power to the people, aligning with Desmoulins beliefs as he strived to ensure liberty, justice, equality, and reason for all. They worked to bring an end to the reign of the King and to build the French Republic upon republican ideals. The club was split into two factions, Desmoulin sitting with the Mountain (Montagnards), which was arguably more radical and held control of the club. The Girondists, more moderate in ideals, were the other faction, the two often finding themselves at odds with one another despite their common goal. The Mountain promoted violence, the Reign of Terror very much so coming to be due to their rhetoric and actions.
Striving for absolute societal change, the Jacobin Club was working towards a strong central government that diverted power from the long-reigning monarchy and handed it to the people. While the group is now considered controversial in its use of violence, the ideals that the actions sought to grant were not as condemnable, prioritizing equality and freedoms for the groups having faced long-lived injustice. They wanted free trade with a market economy. Their new republic was to be secular and built upon nationalistic ideology. As a member of the group, Desmoulins was a strong advocate for all of these ideals. He was at one point the Secretary-General to Danton, a was a part of the historic vote to execute Louis XVI.
The Cordeliers Club was formed by Desmoulins and Danton in 1790, serving as a populist group that spoke for those often not represented along with holding accountable abuses of power occurring in the changing political landscape. The group actively spoke out and called into question the actions of Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety. The Insurrection of 31st Mary through 2nd June 1793 was a turning point for many of the radical politicians. Desmoulins shifted to far more moderate-leaning sentiments, following Danton as he formed a new group called the Indulgents. The group condemned the terror instituted by the Committee of Public Safety, believing it to be harmful to the Revolution.
When the Ink Dried
Desmoulins work spoke a testament to his integrity, his ideals were unwavering as he lived and died for the France he envisioned. In a journal titled “Vieux Cordelier”, the writer spoke out against the Hebertist faction and held criticism for the Committee of Public Safety. He called for a shift in the radical state that had claimed what was to be the newly forming republic, denouncing the extremism and reign of terror. It was on March 31st 1794, that Desmoulins fate was signed and set in motion, in the form of an arrest warrant. Robespierre, despite having been a notable supporter of the writer, turned on his friend as he could no longer support Desmoulins condemnation of how the Committee sought to bring about a strong democracy.
The following trial was completely politically driven, as Desmoulin along with other prominent Indulgents were accused of counter-revolutionary actions and corruption. The Revolutionary Tribunal refused witnesses and the accused were denied from defending themselves. Desmoulins was sentenced to death. In his final moments, Desmoulins wrote to his wife from the confines of prison, “I have dreamed of a Republic such as all the world would have adored. I could never have believed that men could be so ferocious and so unjust.” At the mere age of 34, on the 5th of April 1794, Camille Desmoulins was executed. In a short time, Camille Desmoulins went from lawyer to martyr. Like many, he never got to see France rise from the ashes, despite having spent his life sitting among the flames.
The Stains of Revolution
By no means can it be claimed that Camille Desmoulins kicked off the Revolution, nor did he carry it and bear the burden alone. And yet, he can be attributed with fueling the fire and playing an integral role in instituting change. Even in the ashes, as the Revolution died down and a new France was built, Desmoulins remains a crucial part of the nation for which he lived for. His life’s work sits within the foundations of France’s democracy, and his identity will forever serve as a symbol of revolution. The legacy of Camille Desmoulins surpasses his achievements in life, and even the reach of France, as the journalistic move during the French Revolution can be traced back to from current day practices. The Fourth estate played a huge role in the development and shaping of the press in modern society. Desmoulins is now widely attributed as being the most influential pamphleteer during the Revolution. His engagement in politics can be related to the activist nature of many press outlets in today’s society.
The Revolution saw journalism take a shift from socio-economic focused media to a press with an emphasis placed upon public opinion. Like today’s politicized nature of journalism, the Revolution utilized print media to circulate differing perspectives that were not promoted by those in power. Pamphlets and journals became the weapons in which revolutionary activists could wield, striking many. Following the Revolution, the press became uncensored and diverse, now openly able to express political ideology and representing a plethora of perspectives. The French Revolution largely fought for the freedom of speech and press, which is now a basic right enjoyed by many. That is not to say that the issues that arose during the revolutionary period aren’t still present.
Concealing the Ink: Censorship
France’s history of censorship proved to be a key issue throughout the Revolution, as activists felt the Loyalists’ clutches barring down on them in many ways. Printing Press’ required a royal license to operate. During the early revolutionary period, there were few printing presses, all of which spread pro-royalist propaganda. With the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1789 abolishing censorship, revolutionary writers gained traction, and yet there was still mass suppression of dissenters, along with regulations targeting radical republicans. Desmoulin felt the censorship in his own writing, his printing shop at one point being forcibly closed. In the short time before execution, the Jacobin Club attempted to remove Desmoulins from their group. Attempting to protect his friend, Robespierre suggested for “Vieux Cordelier” to be burnt instead – a public show of condemning the writing. Desmoulins did not stand for this blatant form of censorship. In a way, death was the final form of censorship committed against Desmoulins, as it was his beliefs and writing that condemned him to a sentence of silence.
In the pursuit to emphasize the importance of words and journalism, it is essential that the topic of censorship be considered. It is perhaps not until we find freedoms restricted that we feel their true value. Writing and words powered the French Revolution, censorship occurred as individuals identified the threat it posed – the power it held. History shows this in many forms. Even after achieving an uncensored and free press, France has still experienced periods of suppression, such as during World War 2. This period saw heavy German supervision, as the country was invaded and lost control to opposing forces. The French Revolution highlights the importance of speaking out when the world forces one’s mouth shut. Change was brought about by the voices which were amplified not by those in power but by the injustices dealt by them.
Modern-day censorship within the press is an ongoing issue, in countries such as China, Russia, Venezuela, and Cuba. Censorship tends to come alongside other human rights violations, as it is an infringement upon one’s personal freedoms. The Columbia Journalism Review writes, “how a government censor often reflects the tension between projecting an image of democracy and ruthlessly suppressing dissent” (Bennett, 2015). These countries are each dealing with dictatorships, communism and authoritarian regimes – freedom of thought and press posing an intense threat as allowing for amplification of public opinion could dismantle the governments from within their own borders. This highlights the power of words, as even the harshest of regimes fear the will of the people, and this sentiment can be easily tied back to the social and political climate during the French Revolution.
Contemporary Journalism in Conflict
A specific avenue of Journalism that is rooted in conflict and human rights issues is that that emanates from International Non-Governmental Organizations (INGOs). INGOs are a great example of the modern intersection of journalism and the pursuit of human rights during conflict, which Desmoulins spearheaded. These organizations work to institute change, bringing awareness to issues so that the distribution of resources and disseminating of information can occur. INGOs operate out of the realm of government, meaning they are not restricted by jurisdiction and can be on the ground offering relief in a much more immediate and practical way. INGOs have two different functional outlets: advocacy and operations. Meaning as much as they intend to inform, INGOs are also putting in the work, combatting the issues in which their journalist outlets bring to light. Well known examples of such entities include the Humans Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and International Rescue Committee.
Desmoulins proved that journalism has a place in politics, social issues, and the pursuit of human rights. He did not passively state the changes he wanted but was a part of the people taking action against the oppressive rule. He saw a future France that he wished to come to be, and stepped up to be involved in laying the building blocks. It is the actions of individuals such as Desmoulins that journalists hold the power they do now. Society now sees the power of words in every aspect of life. International non-governmental organizations, like Desmoulins and the other radical writers of the time, are challenging injustice. Journalism can be the stepping stone to action.
Power of Words
I am personally drawn to writers. It could be that I romanticize the process of putting pen to paper, and how it enables speech in a way that transcends one’s audible voice. I have always used writing as a coping mechanism, a way to reclaim control when I feel it slip through my fingers. I grasp at false realities to find strength in my own life, rooting myself in fiction. I believe that it is due to this that I see the power of Desmoulins actions on a more impactful scale. The writer embraced reality, even when it was dark and hard, and framed it in a way where those around him were forced to see and feel complicit in the need for change. It is easy to live in fiction, but to face the truth and be compelled to act – that takes courage and strength.
His devotion to holding those in power accountable and his commitment to the pursuit of human rights inspires me in my own endeavors. Desmoulins grasped control during a time of great instability and held true to his convictions till the very end. His life has shaped the contemporary landscape of journalism and political change. I am hugely passionate about human rights issues that will require widespread support to be addressed and want to see a world that better embodies the ideals that Desmoulins himself strove towards. There is a misconception that the modern age has progressed enough to where basic human rights are guaranteed. Violations are widespread and continuous, requiring significant action. I aspire to be a part of something bigger than myself, playing a role in lasting change. The lives of individuals such as Camille Desmoulins encourage me to continue down a path pertaining to the protection of human rights and reminds me that no voice is too small.
Perhaps, one day, I’ll put pen to page and be involved in fueling the fire of change.
Portrait of Camille Desmoulins. 1790, Musee Carnavalet, Paris, France.
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