Policing Public Opinion in the French Revolution: The Culture of Calumny and the Problem of Free Speech

By Charles Walton | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FIVE
From Lèse-Nation to the
Law of Suspects

Legislating Limits

To punish calumny without violating the freedom of the press is the most difficult
problem to resolve in politics.

—Jacques Pierre Brissot, Patriote français, 1790


The Explosion of Calumny

On October 5, 1789, as hungry Parisians marched to his palace at Versailles, Louis XVI signed the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Free speech was thus ratified, representing one of the most important achievements of the French Revolution. But deputies in the National Assembly had no time to celebrate. France was seething with calumny, and pressure to work on the fine print of Articles 10 and 11—defining abuses—mounted quickly.

Only days after drafting the Declaration, deputies confronted the kind of political speech that would proliferate in coming months. On August 31, as they deliberated on whether to accord the king absolute veto powers, they received an anonymous letter warning them that “two thousand letters are ready to be sent to inform the provinces about the conduct of their deputies.”1 The letter, Motion faite au Palais-Royal, pour être envoyée aux différents districts et aux provinces, was read aloud in the Assembly. Its authors asserted their right to circulate their opinions, citing Article 11, after which they urged voters to immediately “revoke all ignorant, corrupt, and suspect deputies.”2 A subsequent letter from the Palais-Royal, where crowds were preparing to march on Versailles, went further. It counseled deputies against approving the royal veto, warning that “fifteen thousand men are ready to ‘enlighten’ your châteaux.”3

-97-

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