Helen Maria Williams

Letters written in France (1790): the Fete of Federation, July 14 1790.


I arrived at Paris, by a very rapid journey, the day before the federation; and when I am disposed to murmur at the evils of my destiny, I shall henceforth put this piece of good fortune into the opposite scale, and reflect how many disappointments it ought to counterbalance. Had the packet which conveyed me from Brighton to Dieppe sailed a few hours later; had the wind been contrary; in short, had I not reached Paris at the moment that I did reach it, I should [P 2] have missed the most sublime spectacle which, perhaps, was ever represented on the theatre of this earth.

I shall send you once a week the details which I promised when we parted, though I am well aware how very imperfectly I shall be able to describe the images which press upon my mind. It is much easier to feel what is sublime than to paint it; and all I shall be able to give you will be a faint sketch, to which your own imagination must add colouring and spirit. The night before the federation, by way of prelude to the solemnities of that memorable day, the Te Deum was performed at the church of Notre Dame, by a greater number of musicians than have ever been assembled together, excepting at Westminster Abbey. The overture which preceded the Te Deum was simple and majestic: the music, highly expressive, had the power of electrifying the hearers: and near the [P 3] conclusion of the piece, the composer, by artful discords, produced a melancholy emotion, and then, by exciting ideas of trouble and inquietude, prepared the mind for a recitative which affected the audience in a very powerful manner, by recalling the images of that consternation and horror which prevailed in Paris on the 13th of July, 1789, the day before that on which the Bastille was taken. The words were, as well as I can recollect, what follows: -- "People, your enemies advance, with hostile sentiments, with menacing looks! They come to bathe their hands in your blood! Already they encompass the walls of your city! Rise, rise from the inaction in which you are plunged, seize your arms, and fly to the combat! God will combat with you!" These words were succeeded by a chorus of instruments and voices, deep and solemn, which seemed to chill the soul. But what completed the effect was, when the [P 4] sound of a loud and heavy bell mixed itself with this awful concert, in imitation of the alarm-bell, which, the day before the taking of the Bastille, was rung in every church and convent in Paris, and which, it is said, produced a confusion of sounds inexpressibly horrible. At this moment the audience appeared to breathe with difficulty; every heart seemed frozen with terror; till at length the bell ceased, the music changed its tone, and another recitative announced the entire defeat of the enemy; and the whole terminated, after a flourish of drums and trumpets, with an hymn of thanksgiving to the Supreme Being.

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I promised to send you a description of the federation: but it is not to be described! One must have been present, to form any judgment of a scene, the sublimity of which depended much less on its external magnificence than on the effect it produced on the minds of the spectators. "The people, sure, the people were the sight!" I may tell you of pavilions, of triumphal arches, of altars on which incense was burnt, of two hundred thousand men walking in procession; but how am I to give you an adequate idea of the behaviour of the spectators? How am I to paint the impetuous feelings of that immense, that exulting multitude? Half a million of people assembled at a spectacle, which furnished every image that [P 6] can elevate the mind of man; which connected the enthusiasm of moral sentiment with the solemn pomp of religious ceremonies; which addressed itself at once to the imagination, the understanding, and the heart!

The Champ de Mars was formed into an immense amphitheatre, round which were erected forty rows of seats, raised one above another with earth, on which wooden forms were placed. Twenty days labour, animated by the enthusiasm of the people, accomplished what seemed to require the toil of years. Already in the Champ de Mars the distinctions of rank were forgotten; and, inspired by the same spirit, the highest and lowest orders of citizens gloried in taking up the spade, and assisting the persons employed in a work on which the common welfare of the state depended. Ladies took the instruments of labour in their hands, and removed a little of the earth, that they [P 7] might be able to boast that they also had assisted in the preparations at the Champ de Mars; and a number of old soldiers were seen voluntarily bestowing on their country the last remains of their strength. A young Abbé of my acquaintance told me, that the people beat a drum at the door of the convent where he lived, and obliged the Superior to let all the Monks come out and work in the Champ de Mars. The Superior with great reluctance acquiesced, "Quant à moi," said the young Abbé, "je me demandois pas mieux." [As for me, I desired nothing better.]

At the upper end of the amphitheatre a pavilion was built for the reception of the King, the Queen, their attendants, and the National Assembly, covered with striped tent-cloth of the national colours, and decorated with streamers of the same beloved tints, and fleur de lys. The [P 8] white flag was displayed above the spot were the King was seated. In the middle of the Champ de Mars L'Autel de la Patrie was placed, on which incence was burnt by priests dressed in long white robes, with sashes of national ribbon. Several inscriptions were written on the altar, but the words visible at the greatest distance were, La Nation, la Loi, et le Roi. [The Nation, the Law, and the King.]

At the lower end of the amphitheatre, opposite to the pavilion, three triumphal arches were erected, adorned with emblems and allegorical figures.

The procession marched to the Champ de Mars, through the central streets of Paris. At La Place de Louis Quinze, the escorts, who carried the colours, received under their banners, ranged in two lines, the National Assembly, who came from the Tuileries. When the procession passed the street where Henry the Fourth was assassinated, every man paused as if by general consent: the cries of joy were suspended, and succeeded by a solemn silence. This tribute of regret, paid from the sudden impulse of feeling at such a moment, was perhaps the most honourable testimony to the virtues of that amiable Prince which his memory has yet received.

In the streets, at the windows, and on the roofs of the houses, the people, transported with joy, shouted and wept as the procession passed. Old men were seen kneeling in the streets, blessing God that they had lived to witness that happy moment. The people ran to the doors of their houses loaded with refreshments, which they offered to the troops; and crouds of women surrounded the soldiers, and holding up their infants in their arms, and melting into tears, promised to make their children imbibe, from their earliest [P 10] age, an inviolable attachment to the principles of the new constitution.

The procession entered the Champ de Mars by a long road, which thousands of people had assisted in forming, by filling up deep hollows, levelling the rising grounds, and erecting a temporary bridge across the Seine, opposite to the triumphal arches. The order of the procession was as follows:

A troop of horse, with trumpets.
A great band of music.
A detachment of grenadiers.
The electors chosen at Paris in 1789.
A band of volunteers.
The assembly of the representatives of the people.
The military committee.
Company of chasseurs.
A band of drums.
The Presidents of sixty districts.
The Deputies of the people sent to the Federation.
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The Administrators of the municipality.
Bands of music and drums.
Battalion of children, carrying a standard, on which was written, L'Esperance de la Patrie.
[The Hope of the Country.]
Detachment with the colours of the national guard of Paris.
Battalion of veterans.
Deputies from forty-two departments, arranged alphabetically.
The Oriflamme, or grand standard of the Kings of France.
Deputies from the regular troops.
Deputies from the navy.
Deputies from forty-one departments, arranged also alphabetically.
Band of volunteer chasseurs.
Troop of horse, with trumpets.

The procession, which was formed with eight persons abreast, entered the Champ de Mars beneath triumphal arches, [P 12] with a discharge of cannon. The deputies placed themselves round the inside of the amphitheatre. Between them and the seats of the spectators, the national guard of Paris were ranged; and the seats round the amphitheatre were filled with four hundred thousand people. The middle of the amphitheatre was crouded with an immense number of soldiers. The National Assembly walked towards the pavilion, where they placed themselves with the King, the Queen, the royal family, and their attendants; and opposite this group, rose in perspective the hills of Passy and Chaillot, covered with people. The standards, of which one was presented to each department of the kingdom, as a mark of brotherhood, by the citizens of Paris, were carried to the altar to be consecrated by the bishop. High mass was performed, after which Monsieur de la Fayette, who had been appointed by the King Major General of [P 13] the Federation, ascended the altar, gave the signal, and himself took the national oath. In an instant every sword was drawn, and every arm lifted up. The King pronounced the oath, which the President of the National Assembly repeated, and the solemn words were echoed by six hundred thousand voices; while the Queen raised the Dauphin in her arms, shewing him to the people and the army. At the moment the consecrated banners were displayed, the sun, which had been obscured by frequent showers in the course of the morning, burst forth, while the people lifted their eyes to heaven, and called upon the Deity to look down and witness the sacred engagement into which they entered. A respectful silence was succeeded by the cries, the shouts, the acclamations of the multitude: they wept, they embraced each other, and then dispersed.

You will not suspect that I was an [P 14] indifferent witness of such a scene. Oh no! this was not a time in which the distinctions of country were remembered. It was the triumph of human kind; it was man asserting the noblest privileges of his nature; and it required but the common feelings of humanity to become in that moment a citizen of the world. For myself, I acknowledge that my heart caught with enthusiasm the general sympathy; my eyes were filled with tears; and I shall never forget the sensations of that day, "while memory holds her seat in my bosom."

The weather proved very unfavourable during the morning of the federation; but the minds of people were too much elevated by ideas of moral good, to attend to the physical evils of the day. Several heavy showers were far from interrupting the general gaiety. The people, when drenched by the rain, called out with exultation rather than regret, "Nous [P 15] sommes mouillez a la nation." [We are wet for the nation.] Some exclaimed, "La revolution Françoise est cimentée avec l'eau, au lieu de sang." [The French revolution is cemented with water, instead of blood.] The national guard, during the hours which preceded the arrival of the procession, amused the spectators d'une dance ronde [with dancing in a circle], and with a thousand whimsical and playful evolutions, highly expressive of the gaiety which distinguishes the French character. I believe none but Frenchmen would have diverted themselves, and half a million people, who were waiting in expectation of a scene the most solemn upon record, by circles of ten thousand men galloping en dance ronde [in the round dance]. But if you are disposed to think of this gaiety with the contempt of superior gravity, for I will not call it wisdom, recollect that these dancers were the very men whose bravery formed the great epocha of French liberty; the heroes who [P 16] demolished the towers of the Bastille, and whose fame will descend to the latest posterity.

Such was the admirable order with which this august spectacle was conducted, that no accident interrupted the universal festivity. All carriages were forbidden during that day, and the entrances to the Champ de Mars were so numerous, that half a million of people were collected together without a croud.

The people had only one subject of regret: they murmured that the king had taken the national oath in the pavilion, instead of performing that ceremony at the foot of the altar; and some of them, crouding round Mons. de la Fayette, conjured him to persuade the king to go to the altar, and take the oath a second time. "Mes enfants," said Mons. de la Fayette, "le ferment n'est pas une ariette, on ne peut pas le jouer deux fois." [My friends, the oath is not an air which can be played twice over.]

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Mons. de la Fayette, after the Federation, went to the Chateau de la Muette, where a public dinner was prepared for the national guard. An immense croud gathered round him when he alighted from his horse, at a little distance from the chateau, and some Aristocrates, mixing themselves with the true worshippers of him who is so justly the idol of the French nation, attempted to stifle him with their embraces. He called out "Mais, mes amis, vous m'etoussez!" [But, my friends, you stifle me.] and one of his aide de camps, who perceived the danger of his general, threw himself from his horse, which he intreated Mons. de la Fayette to mount. He did so, and hastened to the chateau.

This incident reminds me of a line in Racine's fine tragedy of Britannicus, where Nero says, "J'embrasse mon rival, mais c'est pour l'etousser." [I embrace my rival, but it is to destroy him.]


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