Champ de Mars Massacre

Last updated
Lafayette orders his troops to fire Lafayette fires on the Cordeliers Club.jpeg
Lafayette orders his troops to fire

The Champ de Mars Massacre took place on 17 July 1791 in Paris against a crowd of republican protesters in the midst of the French Revolution. The event is named after the site of the massacre, the Champ de Mars. Two days before, the National Constituent Assembly issued a decree that the king, Louis XVI, would retain his throne under a constitutional monarchy. This decision came after Louis and his family had unsuccessfully tried to flee France in the Flight to Varennes the month before. Later that day, leaders of the republicans in France rallied against this decision, eventually leading royalist Lafayette to order the massacre. [1]

Paris Capital of France

Paris is the capital and most populous city of France, with an area of 105 square kilometres and an official estimated population of 2,140,526 residents as of 1 January 2019. Since the 17th century, Paris has been one of Europe's major centres of finance, commerce, fashion, science, and the arts.

French Revolution social and political revolution in France and its colonies occurring from 1789 to 1798

The French Revolution was a period of far-reaching social and political upheaval in France and its colonies beginning in 1789. The Revolution overthrew the monarchy, established a republic, catalyzed violent periods of political turmoil, and finally culminated in a dictatorship under Napoleon who brought many of its principles to areas he conquered in Western Europe and beyond. Inspired by liberal and radical ideas, the Revolution profoundly altered the course of modern history, triggering the global decline of absolute monarchies while replacing them with republics and liberal democracies. Through the Revolutionary Wars, it unleashed a wave of global conflicts that extended from the Caribbean to the Middle East. Historians widely regard the Revolution as one of the most important events in human history.

Champ de Mars large public green space in Paris, France

The Champ de Mars is a large public greenspace in Paris, France, located in the seventh arrondissement, between the Eiffel Tower to the northwest and the École Militaire to the southeast. The park is named after the Campus Martius in Rome, a tribute to the Latin name of the Roman God of war. The name also alludes to the fact that the lawns here were formerly used as drilling and marching grounds by the French military.


Jacques Pierre Brissot, editor and main writer of Le Patriote français and president of the Comité des Recherches of Paris, drew up a petition demanding the removal of the king. A crowd of 50,000 people gathered at the Champ de Mars on July 17 to sign the petition, [2] with about 6,000 having signed the petition. However, earlier that day two suspicious people had been found hiding at the Champ de Mars, "possibly with the intention of getting a better view of the ladies' ankles", and were hanged by those who found them. Jean Sylvain Bailly, the mayor of Paris, used this incident to declare martial law. [3] The Marquis de Lafayette and the National Guard, which was under his command, were able to disperse the crowd.

Jacques Pierre Brissot French revolutionary

Jacques Pierre Brissot, who assumed the name of de Warville, was a leading member of the Girondins during the French Revolution and founder of the abolitionist Society of the Friends of the Blacks. Some sources give his name as Jean Pierre Brissot.

Jean Sylvain Bailly French astronomer, mathematician, freemason, and political leader

Jean Sylvain Bailly was a French astronomer, mathematician, freemason, and political leader of the early part of the French Revolution. He presided over the Tennis Court Oath, served as the mayor of Paris from 1789 to 1791, and was ultimately guillotined during the Reign of Terror.

Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette French general and politician

Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, known in the United States simply as Lafayette, was a French aristocrat and military officer who fought in the American Revolutionary War, commanding American troops in several battles, including the Siege of Yorktown. After returning to France, he was a key figure in the French Revolution of 1789 and the July Revolution of 1830.

Later in the afternoon, the crowd, led by Danton and Camille Desmoulins, returned in even greater numbers. The larger crowd was also more determined than the first. Lafayette again tried to disperse it. In retaliation, the crowd threw stones at the National Guard. After firing unsuccessful warning shots, the National Guard opened fire directly on the crowd. The exact numbers of dead and wounded are unknown; estimates range from a dozen to fifty dead. [2]

Georges Danton French revolutionary

Georges Jacques Danton was a leading figure in the early stages of the French Revolution, in particular as the first president of the Committee of Public Safety. Danton's role in the onset of the Revolution has been disputed; many historians describe him as "the chief force in the overthrow of the French monarchy and the establishment of the First French Republic".

Camille Desmoulins French politician

Lucie-Simplice-Camille-Benoît Desmoulins was a journalist and politician who played an important role in the French Revolution. He was a schoolmate of Maximilien Robespierre and a close friend and political ally of Georges Danton, who were influential figures in the French Revolution. Desmoulins was tried and executed alongside Danton when the Committee of Public Safety reacted against Dantonist opposition.


When Louis XVI and his family fled to Varennes, it set off political turmoil: people felt betrayed and had anger towards Louis. Earlier, information had been received by the assembly that there was potentially a plan for the king to flee. The idea that Louis planned on fleeing the Tuileries palace began in early 1791 and was one of the causes of the Day of Daggers on 28 February 1791. [4] The escape event was not subtly planned, and enough suspicions were aroused in those working in the palace that the information trickled down to newspapers. The Marquis de Lafayette promised on his own life that such a thing was not true, and was proven wrong when the king did try to escape. Lafayette and the Assembly created a lie that the king had been kidnapped. Ultimately the king and his family were brought back and the assembly decided that he needed to be a part of the government if he agreed to consent to the constitution. [1]

Day of Daggers Royalist action during the French Revolution on 28 February 1791, with noblemen wielding daggers coming to king Louis XVIs defence.

On the Day of Daggers, 28 February 1791, hundreds of nobles with concealed weapons, such as daggers, went to the Tuileries Palace in Paris to defend King Louis XVI while Marquis de Lafayette and the National Guard were in Vincennes stopping a riot. A confrontation between the guards and nobles started as the guards thought the nobles came to take the King away. The nobles were finally ordered to relinquish their weapons by the King and they were forcibly removed from the palace.

At the time of the massacre, divisions within the Third Estate had already begun to grow. Many workers were angered by the closing of various workshops, which took away jobs, leaving some unemployed. Higher skilled journeymen were also angered due to a lack of increase in wages since the beginning of the Revolution. The attempted flight of the King only increased the tensions between groups. The massacre was the direct result of various factions reacting to the decree by the Constituent Assembly in different ways. The Cordeliers Club, a populist group, chose to create a petition for a protest. This was originally backed by the Jacobins, though support was withdrawn at Robespierre's suggestion. The Cordeliers proceeded by creating a more radical petition calling for a republic and planning a protest that would help gain more signatures. [3]

Cordeliers Political group during the French Revolution (1790-1794)

The Society of the Friends of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, mainly known as Cordeliers Club, was a populist club during the French Revolution from 1790 to 1794, when the Reign of Terror ended and the Thermidorian Reaction began.

Based on records of the petition and of the dead bodies, the crowd was made up of individuals from the poorer sections of Paris, some of whom may not have been able to read. The organizers seemed to desire representation of Paris as a whole, rather than any specific section. [3]


After the massacre, the republican movement seemed to be over. 200 of the activists involved with the movement were arrested after the massacre, while others had to go into hiding. Organizations stopped meeting and radical newspapers no longer published. However this did not hold true for long. [5]

Lafayette, the commander of the National Guard, was previously long revered as the hero of the American Revolutionary War, and many French looked up to him with hope, expecting him to also lead the French Revolution in the right direction. One year before, on the very same Champ de Mars, he played an important ceremonial role during the first Fête de la Fédération (14 July 1790), in memory of the 1789 Storming of the Bastille. However, Lafayette's reputation among the French never recovered from this bloody episode. The people no longer looked towards him as an ally or supported him after he and his men shot into the crowd, causing the massacre. His influence in Paris diminished accordingly. [1] He would still command French armies from April to August 1792, but then he fled to the Austrian Netherlands, where he was taken prisoner.

In 1793, the former mayor of Paris, Bailly, was executed, and one of the crimes he was charged with and punished for was inciting the massacre. [6]

Contemporary news report

The following is an excerpt of a news report about the incident printed in the Les Révolutions de Paris, a republican newspaper in support of the anti-royalists who had assembled on the Champ de Mars:

Blood has just flowed on the field of the federation, staining the altar of the fatherland. Men and women have had their throats slashed and the citizens are at a loss. What shall become of liberty? Some say that it has been destroyed, and that the counter revolution has won. Others are certain that liberty has been avenged, and that the Revolution has been unshakably consolidated. Let us impartially examine these two such strangely differing views. ...
The majority of the National Assembly, the department, the Paris municipality, and many of the writers say that the capital is overrun by brigands, that these brigands are paid by agents of foreign courts, and that they are in alliance with the factions that secretly conspire against France. They say that at ten o'clock on Sunday morning, two citizens were sacrificed to their fury. They say these citizens insulted, molested and provoked the National Guard, assassinated several of the citizen soldiers; that they went so far as to try to kill the Commandant-General. And finally they say that they gathered at the Champ de Mars for the sole purpose of disturbing public peace and order, getting so carried away that perhaps it was hard to restrain themselves two hours later. From this point of view, it is certain that the Paris municipality could have and should have taken the severe measures that it did. It is better to sacrifice some thirty wretched vagabonds than to risk the safety of twenty-five million citizens.
However, if the victims of Champ de Mars were not brigands, if these victims were peaceful citizens with their wives and children, and if that terrible scene is but the result of a formidable coalition against the progress of the Revolution, then liberty is truly in danger, and the declaration of martial law is a horrible crime, and the sure precursor of counterrevolution. ...
The field of the federation . . . is a vast plain, at the center of which the altar of the fatherland is located, and where the slopes surrounding the plain are cut at intervals to facilitate entry and exit. One section of the troops entered at the far side of the military school, another came through the entrance somewhat lower down, and a third by the gate that opens on to the Grande Rue de Chaillot, where the red flag [fn 1] was placed. The people at the altar, more than fifteen thousand strong, had hardly noticed the flag when shots were heard. "Do not move, they are firing blanks. They must come here to post the law." The troops advanced a second time. The composure of the faces of those who surrounded the altar did not change. But when a third volley mowed many of them down, the crowd fled, leaving only a group of a hundred people at the altar itself. Alas, they paid dearly for their courage and blind trust in the law. Men, women, even a child, were massacred there, massacred on the altar of the fatherland. [7]

Text of the petition

The following is the text of the manifesto which was being read and signed by French citizens in the Champ de Mars on the day of the massacre, 17 July 1791:

THE undersigned Frenchmen, members of the sovereign people, considering that, in questions concerning the safety of the people, it is their right to express their will in order to enlighten and guide their deputies, [8]
THAT no question has ever arisen more important than the King's desertion, [fn 2]
THAT the decree of 15 July contains no decision concerning Louis XVI,
THAT, in obeying this decree, it is necessary to decide promptly the future of this individual,
THAT his conduct must form the basis of this decision,
THAT Louis XVI, having accepted Royal functions, and sworn to defend the Constitution, has deserted the post entrusted to him; has protested against that very Constitution in a declaration written and signed in his own hand; has attempted, by his flight and his orders, to paralyze the executive power, and to upset the Constitution in complicity with men who are today awaiting trial for such an attempt,
THAT his perjury, his desertion, his protest, not to speak of all the other criminal acts which have proceeded, accompanied, and followed them, involve a formal abdication of the constitutional Crown entrusted to him,
THAT the National Assembly has so judged in assuming the executive power, suspending the Royal authority and holding him in a state of arrest,
THAT fresh promises from Louis XVI to observe the Constitution cannot offer the Nation a sufficient guarantee against a fresh perjury and a new conspiracy.
CONSIDERING finally that it would be as contrary to the majesty of the outraged Nation as it would be contrary to its interest to confide the reins of empire to a perjurer, a traitor, and a fugitive, [we] formally and specifically demand that the Assembly receive the abdication made on 21 June by Louis XVI of the crown which had been delegated to him, and provide for his successor in the constitutional manner, [and we] declare that the undersigned will never recognise Louis XVI as their King unless the majority of the Nation express a desire contrary to the present petition. [9]


  1. The red flag was a widely understood signal that martial law had been declared and that normal civil policing would not necessarily be conducted. Under martial law, the National Guard was permitted, when ordered, to discharge their weapons.
  2. The previous month, on 20 and 21 June 1791, the king and his family had, with the connivance of others (some of them foreign), escaped from Paris in an attempt to reach the fortress of Montmédy in the northeast. There, they expected to find an enclave of royalists in sufficient numbers to ensure their safety and, perhaps, to mount a counter-revolution. They were, however, promptly apprehended at a place called Varennes in the Argonne and returned to Paris.

Related Research Articles

Marie Antoinette Last Queen of France prior to the French Revolution

Marie Antoinette was the last Queen of France before the French Revolution. She was born an Archduchess of Austria and was the penultimate child and youngest daughter of Empress Maria Theresa and Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor. She became Dauphine of France in May 1770 at age 14 upon her marriage to Louis-Auguste, heir apparent to the French throne. On 10 May 1774, her husband ascended the throne as Louis XVI and she assumed the title Queen of France and Navarre, which she held until September 1791, when she became Queen of the French as the French Revolution proceeded, a title that she held until 21 September 1792.

Louis XVI of France King of France and Navarre

Louis XVI, born Louis-Auguste, was the last King of France before the fall of the monarchy during the French Revolution. He was referred to as Citizen Louis Capet during the four months before he was guillotined. In 1765, at the death of his father, Louis, son and heir apparent of Louis XV, Louis-Auguste became the new Dauphin of France. Upon his grandfather's death on 10 May 1774, he assumed the title "King of France and Navarre", which he used until 4 September 1791, when he received the title of "King of the French" until the monarchy was abolished on 21 September 1792.

Flight to Varennes

The royal Flight to Varennes during the night of 20–21 June 1791 was a significant episode in the French Revolution in which King Louis XVI of France, his queen Marie Antoinette, and their immediate family unsuccessfully attempted to escape from Paris in order to initiate a counter-revolution at the head of loyal troops under royalist officers concentrated at Montmédy near the frontier. They escaped only as far as the small town of Varennes, where they were arrested after having been recognized at their previous stop in Sainte-Menehould.

National Constituent Assembly (France) former political body formed from the National Assembly on 9 July 1789 during the first stages of the French Revolution

The National Constituent Assembly was formed from the National Assembly on 9 July 1789 during the first stages of the French Revolution. It dissolved on 30 September 1791 and was succeeded by the Legislative Assembly.

Declaration of Pillnitz political event

The Declaration of Pilnite, more commonly referred to as the Declaration of Pillnitz, was a statement issued on 27 August 1791 at Pillnitz Castle near Dresden (Saxony) by Frederick William II of Prussia and the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II who was Marie Antoinette's brother. It declared the joint support of the Holy Roman Empire and of Prussia for King Louis XVI of France against the French Revolution.

September Massacres Wave of killings in France in 2–7 Sept. 1792 during the French Revolution, in which half the prison population of Paris (that is, approx. 1200–1400 people) were summarily executed

The September Massacres were a number of killings in Paris and other cities that occurred from 2–4 September 1792 during the French Revolution.

The French Revolution was a period in the history of France covering the years 1789 to 1799, in which republicans overthrew the Bourbon monarchy and the Roman Catholic Church perforce underwent radical restructuring. This article covers a period of time slightly longer than a year, from 14 July 1790, the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, to the establishment of the Legislative Assembly on 1 October 1791.

French Constitution of 1791 constitution

The short-lived French Constitution of 1791 was the first written constitution in France, created after the collapse of the absolute monarchy of the Ancien Régime. One of the basic precepts of the revolution was adopting constitutionality and establishing popular sovereignty.

Insurrection of 10 August 1792 insurrection and its outcome in French Revolution

The Insurrection of 10 August 1792 was a defining event of the French Revolution. The storming of the Tuileries Palace by the National Guard of the Paris Commune and fédérés from Marseille and Brittany caused the fall of the French monarchy. King Louis XVI and the royal family took shelter with the suspended Legislative Assembly. The formal end of the monarchy occurred six weeks later as one of the first acts of the new National Convention. This insurrection and its outcomes are most commonly referred to by historians of the Revolution simply as "the 10 August"; other common designations include "the day of the 10 August" or "the Second Revolution".

Storming of the Bastille part of the French Revolution

The Storming of the Bastille occurred in Paris, France, on the afternoon of 14 July 1789.

<i>Fête de la Fédération</i> ceremony

The Fête de la Fédération was a massive holiday festival held throughout France in honour of the French Revolution. It is the precursor of the 14 juillet French National Day which is celebrated every year in France on July 14. Celebrating the Revolution itself, as well as National Unity.

Womens March on Versailles

The Women's March on Versailles, also known as The October March, The October Days, or simply The March on Versailles, was one of the earliest and most significant events of the French Revolution. The march began among women in the marketplaces of Paris who, on the morning of 5 October 1789, were near rioting over the high price and scarcity of bread. Their demonstrations quickly became intertwined with the activities of revolutionaries, who were seeking liberal political reforms and a constitutional monarchy for France. The market women and their various allies grew into a mob of thousands. Encouraged by revolutionary agitators, they ransacked the city armory for weapons and marched to the Palace of Versailles. The crowd besieged the palace, and in a dramatic and violent confrontation, they successfully pressed their demands upon King Louis XVI. The next day, the crowd compelled the king, his family, and most of the French Assembly to return with them to Paris.

Feuillant (political group) political party

The Society of the Friends of the Constitution, better known as Feuillants Club, was a political grouping that emerged during the French Revolution. It came into existence on 16 July 1791 when the left-wing Jacobins split between moderates (Feuillants), who sought to preserve the position of the king and supported the proposed plan of the National Constituent Assembly for a constitutional monarchy; and radicals (Jacobins), who wished to press for a continuation of direct democratic action to overthrow Louis XVI. It represented the last and most vigorous attempt of the moderate constitutional monarchists to steer the course of the revolution away from the radical Jacobins.

When the National Constituent Assembly dissolved itself on 3 September 1791, it decreed as a final measure that King Louis XVI should have a Constitutional Guard, also known as the garde Brissac after its commander Louis Hercule Timolon de Cossé, duc de Brissac. This guard's formation was the only court reform to be put into effect, but it only lasted a few months, being superseded by the National Guard.

Demonstration of 20 June 1792 riot

The Demonstration of 20 June 1792 was the last peaceful attempt made by the people of Paris to persuade King Louis XVI of France to abandon his current policy and attempt to follow what they believed to be a more empathetic approach to governing. The demonstration occurred during the French Revolution. Its objectives were to convince the government to enforce the Legislative Assembly's rulings, defend France against foreign invasion, and preserve the spirit of the French Constitution of 1791. The demonstrators hoped that the king would withdraw his veto and recall the Girondin ministers.

Events from the year 1791 in France.


  1. 1 2 3 Woodward, W. E. (1938). Lafayette. New York: Farrar & Rinehart.
  2. 1 2 Andress, David (2004). The French Revolution and the People. London, UK: Hambledon and London. p. 151. ISBN   978-1-85285-295-5.
  3. 1 2 3 Rudé, George Frederick Elliot (1959). The Crowd in the French Revolution. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press.
  4. de la Rocheterie, Maxime (1893). The Life of Marie Antoinette. London, UK: J. R. Osgood, McIlvaine & Co. pp. 109–111.
  5. Doyle, William (1989). The Oxford History of the French Revolution . Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. ISBN   978-0-19822-781-6.
  6. Scott, Samuel F.; Rothaus, Barry (1985). Historical dictionary of the French Revolution, 1789-1799. Vol. 1 : A-K. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press. ISBN   978-0-31321-141-6.
  7. Les Révolutions de Paris, no. 106, (16–23 July 1791), 53–55, 63, 65–66.
  8. Rousseau, Jean-Jacques (1923). The Social Contract. Everyman's Library. Translated, with an introduction by, G. D. H. Cole. London, UK: J. M. Dent & Sons. p. 253. Retrieved 17 July 2016.
  9. Andress, David (2000). Massacre at the Champ de Mars: Popular Dissent and Political Culture in the French Revolution. Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Royal Historical Society. ISBN   978-0-86193-247-4.

Coordinates: 48°51′22″N2°17′54″E / 48.856111°N 2.298333°E / 48.856111; 2.298333