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

By Charles Walton | Go to book overview
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Conclusion

Today, everyone agrees that the press must be free, but not everyone attaches the
same meaning to this word, freedom.

Pétion de Villeneuve, Discours sur la liberté de la presse, 1791

On her way to the scaffold in November 1793, Madame Roland showed remarkable poise, even cheerfulness according to some accounts. Whereas others condemned to the guillotine succumbed to cackling or fits of hysterical laughter (in the morbid wit of Le glaive vengeur, they had already “lost their heads”), she appeared entirely “indifferent to her fate.”1 Legend has it that before mounting the guillotine, she fixed her gaze on a statue of Liberty by Jacques-Louis David in the distance and cried out, “Oh liberty, what crimes are done in your name!”2

A year earlier, however, Madame Roland and her husband, the Minister of the Interior, believed that liberty without limits made no sense. In their essay on public spirit, they characterized the acts of censuring the law and dishonoring magistrates as crimes worthy of exclusion from the social body. It is doubtful, of course, that they had executions foremost in mind. As their efforts to spread public spirit suggest, they wanted to see civic consciousness raised, not calumniators killed. Still, the bluster of their statements reflected the general climate of intolerance. It expressed the anxieties and frustrations generated by years of unchecked calumny and weak political legitimacy.

This study has examined how the culture of calumny and honor and the problem of free speech fueled such anxieties and frustrations after 1789, contributing to radicalization and terror. I have shown how the advent of free speech in the Revolution’s early years disrupted traditional patterns of honor, esteem,

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