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

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

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

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

Synopsis

In the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, French revolutionaries proclaimed the freedom of speech, religion, and opinion. Censorship was abolished, and France appeared to be on a path towards tolerance, pluralism, and civil liberties. A mere four years later, the country descended into a period of political terror, as thousands were arrested, tried, and executed for crimes of expression and opinion.

In Policing Public Opinion in the French Revolution, Charles Walton traces the origins of this reversal back to the Old Regime. He shows that while early advocates of press freedom sought to abolish pre-publication censorship, the majority still firmly believed injurious speech--or calumny-constituted a crime, even treason if it undermined the honor of sovereign authority or sacred collective values, such as religion and civic spirit.

With the collapse of institutions responsible for regulating honor and morality in 1789, calumny proliferated, as did obsessions with it. Drawing on wide-ranging sources, from National Assembly debates to local police archives, Walton shows how struggles to set legal and moral limits on free speech led to the radicalization of politics, and eventually to the brutal liquidation of "calumniators" and fanatical efforts to rebuild society's moral foundation during the Terror of 1793-1794.

With its emphasis on how revolutionaries drew upon cultural and political legacies of the Old Regime, this study sheds new light on the origins of the Terror and the French Revolution, as well as the history of free expression.

Excerpt

By spring 1793, as France edged toward the Terror, even Tom Paine’s patience with free speech began wearing thin. in a letter to Georges Danton, deputy to the French National Convention and founding member of the Committee of Public Safety, Paine expressed his alarm about the relentless insults and slander plaguing revolutionary politics. a deputy himself, Paine urged Danton to take repressive measures. “Calumny,” this champion of civil liberties insisted, “is a species of treachery that ought to be punished as well as any other kind of treachery.” He explained why: “[It] is a private vice productive of public evil, because it is possible to irritate men into disaffection by continual calumny who never intended to be disaffected.” in other words, calumny weakened the bonds between citizens and their political system, fomenting agitation or, worse, civil war. “The danger increases every day of a rupture between Paris and the departments,” he presciently warned. “The departments did not send their deputies to Paris to be insulted, and every insult shown to them is an insult to the departments that elected and sent them.” a month later, sixty departments went into rebellion against Paris.

Paine’s letter is historically ironic. Just months earlier, the former American revolutionary and British radical had been tried in absentia by a special court set up by William Pitt in London. He was convicted for his Rights of Man, declared to be seditious libel and an insult to the English monarchy. Paine’s election to . . .

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