Oaths, Honor, and the Sacred
Foundations of Authority
When legislators protected the freedom of religious opinions [in 1789], it never
entered their minds to allow all religions to be free, except for one, the religion that
has been the national religion for more than twelve hundred years.
—Deputy-bishops of the National Assembly, October 30, 1790
On the morning of October 21, 1790, the comte de Mirabeau thundered at the podium in the National Assembly. Debate concerned a measure that would require the French Navy to raise the revolutionary tricolor flag instead of the traditional white one. In arguing for the revolutionary ensign, Mirabeau excoriated the opposition in terms that amounted to an accusation of treason.
I demand a judgment. I insist that it is not only disrespectful or unconstitutional
to question [the tricolor flag]. I insist that it is profoundly criminal.… I denounce as
seditious conspirators those who would speak of maintaining old prejudices.… No,
my fellow deputies, these tricolors will sail the seas; [they will] earn the respect of
all countries and strike terror in the hearts of conspirators and tyrants.1
Mirabeau’s incendiary speech riled the opposition, prompting one deputy on the right, Jean-François-César de Guilhermy, to mutter injurious epithets. Overhearing them, Mirabeau’s allies demanded Guilhermy’s arrest, “for the honor of the National Assembly.”2 After a vote—and, as evidence suggests, communication between individuals in the Assembly and crowds outside—the deputies expelled Guilhermy for three days, keeping him under house arrest during that time. Mirabeau endorsed the measure. Despite having championed the freedom