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Jul 26, '20

Vive le Revolution

The sans-culottes (French: [sɑ̃kylɔt], literally "without breeches") were the common people of the lower classes in late 18th century France, a great many of whom became radical and militant partisans of the French Revolution in response to their poor quality of life under the Ancien Régime. The word sans-culotte, which is opposed to that of the aristocrat, seems to have been used for the first time on 28 February 1791 by officer Gauthier in a derogatory sense, speaking about a "sans-culottes army". The word came in vogue during the demonstration of 20 June 1792.

The name sans-culottes refers to their clothing, and through that to their lower-class status: culottes were the fashionable silk knee-breeches of the 18th-century nobility and bourgeoisie, and the working class sans-culottes wore pantaloons, or trousers, instead. The sans-culottes, most of them urban labourers, served as the driving popular force behind the revolution. They were judged by the other revolutionaries as "radicals" because they advocated a direct democracy, that is to say, without intermediaries such as members of parliament. Though ill-clad people and ill-equipped, with little or no support from the upper class, they made up the bulk of the Revolutionary army and were responsible for many executions during the early years of the French Revolutionary Wars.

Political ideals

A sans-culotte with a sabre

A sans-culotte with a halberd

They were expressing their demands through petitions of the sections presented to the assemblies (the Legislative, and Convention) by the delegates. The sans-culottes had a third way of putting pressure on the policy: the police and the courts received thousands of denunciations of traitors and supposed conspirators. The most fundamental political ideals of the sans-culottes were social equality, economic equality, and popular democracy. They supported the abolition of all the authority and privileges of the monarchy, nobility, and Roman Catholic clergy, the establishment of fixed wages, the implementation of price controls to ensure affordable food and other essentials, and vigilance against counter-revolutionaries. The height of their influence spanned roughly from the original overthrow of the monarchy in 1792 to the Thermidorian Reaction in 1794. Throughout the revolution, the sans-culottes provided the principal support behind the more radical and anti-bourgeoisie factions of the Paris Commune, such as the Enragés and the Hébertists, and were led by populist revolutionaries such as Jacques Roux and Jacques Hébert. The sans-culottes also populated the ranks of paramilitary forces charged with physically enforcing the policies and legislation of the revolutionary government, a task that commonly included violence and the carrying out of executions against perceived enemies of the revolution.

During the peak of their influence, the sans-culottes were seen as the truest and most authentic sons of the French Revolution, held up as living representations of the revolutionary spirit. During the height of revolutionary fervor, such as during the Reign of Terror when it was dangerous to be associated with anything counter-revolutionary, even public functionaries and officials actually from middle or upper-class backgrounds adopted the clothing and label of the sans-culottes as a demonstration of solidarity with the working class and patriotism for the new French Republic.

But by early 1794, as the bourgeois and middle class elements of the revolution began to gain more political influence, the fervent working class radicalism of the sans-culottes rapidly began falling out of favor within the National Convention. It was not long before Maximilien de Robespierre and the now dominant Jacobin Club turned against the radical factions of the National Convention, including the sans-culottes, despite their having previously been the strongest supporters of the revolution and its government. Several important leaders of the Enragés and Hébertists were imprisoned and executed by the very revolutionary tribunals they had supported. The execution of radical leader Jacques Hébert spelled the decline of the sans-culottes, and with the successive rise of even more conservative governments, the Thermidorian Convention and the French Directory, they were definitively silenced as a political force. After the defeat of the 1795 popular revolt in Paris, the sans-culottes ceased to play any effective political role in France until the July Revolution of 1830.


The distinctive costume of typical sans-culottes featured:

the pantalon (long trousers) – in place of the culottes (silk knee-breeches) worn by the upper classes

the carmagnole (short-skirted coat)

the red Phrygian cap, also known as a "liberty cap"

sabots (a type of wooden clog)


Montagnard influence

The working class was especially hurt by a hail storm which damaged grain crops in 1788, which caused bread prices to skyrocket. While the peasants of rural France could sustain themselves with their farms, and the wealthy aristocracy could still afford bread, the urban workers of France, the group that comprised the sans-culottes, suffered. In the city, division grew between the sans-culottes and these wealthy aristocrats; the former had a particular hostility “towards those with large private incomes.”

The faction known as the Montagnards expressed concern for the working classes of France. When the National Convention met to discuss the fate of the former king Louis XVI in 1792, the sans-culottes vehemently opposed a proper trial, instead opting for an immediate execution. The moderate Girondin faction voted for a trial, but the radical Montagnards sided with the sans-culottes, deeming that a trial was not necessary, and won with a slim majority. Louis XVI was executed on January 21, 1793.

The demands of the sans-culottes did not stop with the execution of the King, and the Montagnards worked hard to fulfill their mounting orders. This increased pressure from the radical masses exacerbated the ideological split between the Montagnards and the Girondins, and tensions began to grow within the Convention. Eventually, by May of 1793, the Montagnards worked with the National Guard -- which was, at this time, mostly sans-culottes -- to depose many of the Girondin deputies. Jeremy Popkin writes, “[the Montagnards and the sans-culottes] surrounded the Convention, and two days later the intimidated assembly suspended twenty-nine Girondin deputies. The defeated Girondin leaders fled to the provinces. The Montagnards were left in control of the Convention, which itself was clearly at the mercy of whoever could command the armed sans-culottes battalions.” Now, whoever was in control of France’s destiny had to answer to the sans-culottes, who “effectively exercised legislative power” in situations of unrest. Otherwise, they would risk a similar uprising and their own exile, or possibly even execution. This political shift towards radicalism would soon turn into the Reign of Terror.

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Jul 26, '20
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