A Touchy Lot

Lynn Hunt

  • The Devil in the Holy Water, or, The Art of Slander from Louis XIV to Napoleon by Robert Darnton
    Pennsylvania, 534 pp, £23.00, December 2009, ISBN 978 0 8122 4183 9
  • Policing Public Opinion in the French Revolution: The Culture of Calumny and the Problem of Free Speech by Charles Walton
    Oxford, 348 pp, £32.50, February 2009, ISBN 978 0 19 536775 1

There is no doubt an art of political slander, as Robert Darnton terms it, and in many places something like what Charles Walton calls a ‘culture of calumny’. But in what ways are they particular to a time and place? How different, for example, are the charges of lesbianism and Machiavellian manoeuvring levelled against Hillary Clinton from those published two centuries earlier against Marie Antoinette (leaving aside for the moment the rather different outcomes for the two women)? True, Hillary was not accused of committing incest with her child, but she was linked with various financial scandals and even portrayed as ordering the murder of the deputy White House counsel Vince Foster (who committed suicide in 1993) in order to cover up her transgressions. John Knox was surely right to label his 1558 diatribe against powerful women only The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, so well developed is the tradition of denigrating women thought to exercise influence from behind the throne.

The particularity of slander matters because Darnton and Walton hang a great deal on its late 18th-century French version. Darnton argues here, as he has in a series of acclaimed books, that the libels proliferating like kudzu in the 1770s and especially the 1780s choked off the oxygen of legitimacy necessary to the survival of the monarchy. He endorses Pierre Bayle’s remark of the late 17th century that ‘the tongue and the pen of one man alone are sometimes more useful for a cause than an army of 40,000 soldiers,’ though Darnton has in mind not one man but a few handfuls of hacks. Walton, a student of Darnton’s, wants to push the effects of calumny further into the heart of the French Revolution. For him, the culture of calumny explains the violence of the Terror.

Although Darnton maintains that political smut eroded the authority of the French monarchy, he admits to being more interested in the ‘rocambolesque tale’, the adventures and misadventures in the lives of the libellers, and the hugger-mugger of illegal publishing than he is in explaining the origins of the Revolution. He has done more than anyone else to make the 18th-century history of the book – not their contents so much as the making and circulation of them – read like a John le Carré novel, hardly a likely development for a field bedevilled by bibliographilia. Scholars had always known that the great figures of the French Enlightenment – Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau – had had to publish their works outside France, most often in some Dutch city where refugee Protestants gleefully churned out anything that might infuriate French kings and Catholic clergy. But even Enlightenment scholars failed to detect the rising underground stream of vulgar pamphlets and books that recounted Louis XV’s satyriasis, Louis XVI’s impotence, Marie Antoinette’s nymphomania, the courtiers’ general turpitude and the clergy’s lasciviousness.

Darnton’s nose for a good story led him to this subterranean reservoir of defamatory pseudo-journalism. While tracing the fortunes of the Enlightenment’s great manifesto, the Encyclopédie, published legally, then illegally and then legally again between 1751 and 1772, he discovered that thousands of copies were pirated by Swiss publishers. He tracked down the circuits linking publishers with booksellers back in France, and not satisfied with that, he went on to ask what else the booksellers were offering under the counter to clients in the know. He discovered that in addition to Voltaire and Rousseau, the bestseller list of forbidden books included explicit pornography, attacks on religion and political slander. Having uncovered the practices of the publishers, the book smugglers and the sellers of banned books, and considered some of the more philosophical of the pornographic works, he turns in The Devil in the Holy Water to those who wrote and marketed political slander, a genre whose allusions are difficult to decipher more than two centuries later. In political slander everything is of the moment, and only someone as immersed as Darnton is in the particularities of 18th-century publishing, politics and cultural life could possibly do justice to its noisome unruliness.

The libellers, Darnton’s focus here, were an unsavoury lot. Bankrupts, extortionists, police spies who turned coat, defrocked priests, desperate expatriates and various international adventurers could be found in their ranks. Downward social mobility seems to have been their signal characteristic, for among them were former doctors, lawyers, clergymen and booksellers. Having fallen on hard times for whatever reason, but still possessed of intelligence and wit, they were tempted by a form of literary speculation that promised a quick return in exchange for a life of constant anxiety. The only thing that was certain was that an agent of the French government would be looking for you, whether you worked out of London, Brussels or Amsterdam.

Unless, of course, that agent was himself a secret libeller, like one Jacquet, whose twists and turns make the plots of 18th-century novelists seem tame by comparison. Jean-Claude Jacquet came from an upstanding family and studied law. Bored with life in the provinces, or perhaps already in trouble, he came to Paris and enlisted as an inspector in the book trade, a post that took him abroad to ferret out salacious libels and if necessary buy up entire editions of the most outrageous of them. In 1779, the king’s ministers had paid the colossal sum of 192,000 livres to remove from circulation all the copies of a particularly vicious attack on Marie Antoinette published in London. Needless to say, this pay-off only increased the potential allure of such activities.

When Jacquet returned from his first foray with little to show for his efforts, the head of the Paris police asked one of his spies in London (another libeller, of course) to follow him on the next mission. His worst suspicions were confirmed: Jacquet was commissioning hacks in Paris to produce pages, printing them in London and various Dutch cities, and hiring smugglers to deliver the books back to Paris. Jacquet was arrested along with various confederates, among them a priest who wrote for him on commission and a bookseller who had signed on as a copyist. He had funded his illicit business in part by submitting extracts of libels (some written by himself) to the police and being paid to suppress them. Jacquet faked insanity and in 1781 was sent to Charenton mental asylum before ending up in the Bastille two years later, sentenced to indefinite confinement.

As Jacquet’s story shows, selling illicit books was only one means of capitalising on scandal. The mere threat of publication could elicit funds from the police or from the intended targets of blackmail. One of Jacquet’s Parisian enterprises was a 60-page anonymous denunciation of prominent figures supposedly involved in schemes to make money from gambling and prostitution in the capital. The names of high police and government officials appeared in italics in the text with detailed accounts of how they had raked off the profits (and enjoyed the whores) from these shady dealings. Jacquet’s collaborators printed a prospectus and sent it with anonymous letters to those named demanding payment in exchange for suppressing certain passages.

These stories are not neatly classified in some police archive for any researcher to find. Darnton has patiently assembled his accounts out of bits and pieces from an astonishing array of sources, ranging from manuscript memoirs to underground newsletters and stories told by the libellers themselves, who often denounced each other in their scandal sheets. The reader gets a taste of the thrill of the chase not just from the text but also from a number of telling illustrations taken from the illicit publications themselves. The return on Darnton’s investment of time, energy and determination is extraordinary. From him we have learned how French-language publishing really worked during the 18th century. Hundreds of official censors, thousands of edicts regulating the book trade, and a convoluted police network of inspectors and spies could not keep every libel out of public circulation any more than they could prevent Voltaire and Rousseau from becoming cultural icons. If Rousseau’s Social Contract had to be sold undercover, then various other forms of objectionable print were bound to slip through the same secret passageways into the hands of readers.

In fact, however, the story of scandal-mongering is even more surprising and more resonant with contemporary practices than the simplistic model of repression creating desire for the forbidden. The Paris police and the highest government ministers operated in a similar way to J. Edgar Hoover and countless domestic spy chiefs. They collected as much scandalous material as they could on potential opponents so that they could use it for political blackmail to maintain themselves in power. Spies and double agents monitored all the notorious public places in Paris hoping to ferret out information to carry back to their superiors, even if it was in the form of unsubstantiated rumour. Government ministers secretly sponsored defamatory writings against members of competing court factions, and against the queen herself. The king’s brother subsidised libels against the chief finance minister Necker, and Necker fell from grace in 1781, when one of his rivals persuaded the king that the minister could not be allowed to arrest those responsible. All was fair in the undeclared war for the king’s – and the public’s – favour. Anecdotes about the proclivities of the high and mighty circulated by whispers, ditties, songs, dubious epigraphs on broadsheet caricatures, and suggestive riddles and puzzles printed even in censored periodicals. Parisians loved participating, however vicariously, in what must have seemed a high-stakes game, not unlike the readers of the News of the World or the National Enquirer today.

Were these highly placed sponsors of scurrilous screeds unwittingly digging their own graves? Darnton’s previous work has generated a lively but largely inconclusive debate on the relationship between smut and regime change. It is not possible to prove that scandal-mongering played a significant role in bringing down the monarchy; true, libels proliferated just before the monarchy fell, but this chronological proximity in itself cannot establish the causal force of libel. On the other hand, it is equally impossible to prove that they had no such significance. Having set the debate in motion, Darnton no longer seems all that interested in it. Instead, he wants to use his evidence to establish a general taxonomy of 18th-century libel – to explain its appeal – and then wants to use this taxonomy to show how slander changed, and didn’t change, during the revolutionary years. It turns out that many of the libellers went on to illustrious revolutionary careers. Jacquet, for example, got out of the Bastille just five days before it fell and ended up helping another former libeller, Pierre Manuel, edit a sensational collection of police dossiers found in the famous prison.

Darnton’s taxonomy of libel draws our attention to certain recurring features – the prominence of seemingly authentic anecdotes, the development of telling verbal character portraits, and the claim to offer news that could not be printed in officially sanctioned venues – but as he himself admits, 18th-century libels resist most efforts at categorisation. They came in different shapes and sizes, and ranged from rapier-edged, witty and sophisticated styles of defamation – a parlour game for the knowing in high society – to the venal and vulgar bludgeons of Grub Street. It is hardly surprising that enterprising hacks could move seamlessly from reviling the queen in the 1780s to writing exposés about the Bastille and the Paris police – and, for that matter, the queen – in the 1790s.

Long fascinated by the appearance of former Grub Street hacks among the revolutionary leadership, Darnton takes that theme up again here, focusing on Jacquet’s associate Pierre Manuel, whose topsy turvy career should by now sound familiar. Arrested for peddling libellous pamphlets in 1786, author in 1789, with Jacquet’s help, of The Bastille Revealed, and then overseer of the book trade for the Paris police once the Revolution began, Manuel was elected as a deputy to the National Convention in 1792 and executed as a traitor to the republic a year later. Along the way he wrote an exposé of the Paris police filled with slanderous anecdotes about priests, aristocrats and even libellers, and became himself the subject of a defamatory Secret Life of Pierre Manuel, which charged that he sold those police dossiers for money and used them for blackmail. He became the victim of precisely the sort of character assassination he had been peddling for years.

Although Darnton traces the literature of libel right through the decade of the 1790s, he is reluctant to draw bold conclusions from his examination. Libels during the Revolution were more direct about their targets, less obsessed with sex and generally less fun. A whole series of ‘secret lives’ of prominent politicians (Necker, Mirabeau, the duc d’Orléans, Brissot, Robespierre, as well as Manuel) tended to attack their supposed financial corruption and political duplicity rather than their sexual depravity and moral hypocrisy. These pamphlets were more lethal than their predecessors, Darnton maintains, because they screamed for blood and retribution rather than remaining content with derision and ridicule. Their actual influence on events is unclear, however, since most of them accompanied political campaigns already underway in assemblies, clubs and newspapers or followed the execution of those deemed traitors.

Just where Darnton seems reluctant to tread, Walton rushes in with extensive argument and analysis. He wants to draw a line through the dots connecting calumny and the Terror, though in a fashion very different from that suggested by his mentor. Walton leaves the libellers and their marketing aside and concentrates on those who felt slandered. The French were always a touchy lot. You did not have to be the subject of an all-out attack by a libeller in London to feel that your honour had been impugned. Injurious speech could and apparently did take place at every social level. Servants talking back to their masters, children to their parents and wives to their husbands could all become police matters and were the subject of very precise legal regulations under the Old Regime. When the chevalier de Rohan felt ridiculed by things Voltaire had said in polite company, he sent his thugs to beat the writer up. If he had considered Voltaire an equal, he would have demanded a duel. Later, when Voltaire felt threatened by libels published against him, he got the police to investigate and went to court – unsuccessfully – to get satisfaction. The records of the French tribunals are filled with such cases. It is a pity that Walton doesn’t give us more of a flavour of them. He prefers to focus on the spine of his argument whereas Darnton always goes after the flesh and fingernails, if not blushes and warts.

Since Walton’s chief aim is to link the violence of revolutionary Terror in 1793-94 to this preceding culture of calumny and honour, he has to maintain a fine balance between emphasising continuity and difference. ‘There is no greater crime than calumny,’ wrote one mid-17th century observer whose opinion Walton considers typical. Calumny threatened honour and with it one’s social, political and economic credit. It required an adamant response, which the monarchy preferred to see offered by the courts, rather than in duels or street violence. After 1789, however, calumny turned political. Opposing sides stoked public outrage by claiming that they, and with them the true nation, had been defamed, and in this fashion raised the political temperature to boiling point. During a period of upheaval in all legal institutions, the courts could no longer adjudicate these forms of injurious speech. As a result, Walton argues, ‘the sudden democratisation of honour unleashed a sudden democratisation of vengeance.’ It was no longer a matter of masters demanding punishment of their servants; after 1789 servants could feel that their new nation was being defamed and exact their own, infinitely harsher, retribution.

Crucial to the development of this ingenious line of reasoning is a focus on the question of free speech. How could a revolution based on the right to free expression end up so fiercely repressing all public signs of dissent? The question has been endlessly debated with no general consensus on an answer. Walton turns away from the now tired polemics between those who favour the ‘thesis of circumstances’ – the Terror was a response to a prolonged national emergency – and those who argue that the Revolution was totalitarian from the start. Walton wants to weave elements of both into his own distinctive explanation. The Terror did have proto-totalitarian elements, he grants, such as widespread denunciation and political purges, but these took shape only in the combustion created by Old Regime customs rubbing up against the institutional weaknesses of the new regime. Free speech set this explosive mix on fire. Calumny multiplied a hundredfold with the unexpected and therefore unregulated freedom of the press after 1789 and very quickly polarised the political camps.

In 1789, everyone assumed that the new regime would set some kind of limit on publications that attacked the king, the Church, individual honour or the social order more generally, but the deputies had a hard time agreeing on how to criminalise calumny and even more difficulty setting up courts to hear such cases. As a consequence, calumny, and with it political violence, threatened to spiral out of control. Given its importance to his argument, Walton is surprisingly vague about the legal status of free speech during the Revolution. He gives much more attention to the pamphlets written about freedom of expression than to legislation, court cases or police actions. But the legislative trajectory is hard to follow because Walton’s analysis is thematic rather than chronological. We do not learn, for example, that the press law of July 1790 was repealed until 80 pages after its initial characterisation.

What becomes clear, nonetheless, is that restrictions on press freedom invariably reflected the political conflicts of the moment. When Pierre-Victor Malouet proposed the law of July 1790, which ordered the prosecution of any writer who incited the people to revolt against the law, he had in mind the radical journalists Desmoulins and Marat. A subsequent decree of July 1791 that outlawed ‘seditious’ speech was designed to suppress the popular appeals of republican militants. As might be expected, the radicals of 1790-91, Robespierre included, favoured unrestricted freedom of the press. When the tide turned in favour of the republicans in late 1792, however, they imposed the death penalty on anyone who proposed the re-establishment of the monarchy. At the same time, moderate republicans insisted on a law that punished those who incited the people to pillage and murder. Walton concludes, therefore, that the notorious laws defining suspects during the Terror (in September 1793 and June 1794) ‘amounted to little more than hyperbolic reformulations of legislation passed prior to the Terror’. The government constantly widened the definition of speech and writing that slandered the nation, he argues, because they lacked institutional mechanisms for assuaging the wounds of calumny.

Is freedom of the press the problem, then, rather than the solution? Walton claims that it is problematic in this case only because of the continuing existence of ‘hierarchical, authoritarian reflexes’ inherited from the Old Regime. The abruptness of regime change was the source of the violence. The deputies could not give up their fixation with calumny, and they could not get redress for their wounded honour from the new order. By focusing on the ‘culture of calumny’ Walton is able to reframe the thesis of circumstances by redefining them. It is not the war with its threat to national survival that matters as much as an inherited culture of honour.

It would be easy, and perhaps even satisfying, to ridicule this conclusion as a reductio ad absurdum of the current tendency to explain everything in cultural terms. Would the successful establishment of ‘gentler, civil (and civilising) forms of censure’ really have blocked the emergence of the Terror, as Walton seems to suggest? He convincingly demonstrates the omnipresence of talk of calumny, defamation and slander, but there was an equally ubiquitous obsession with conspiracy. Calumny was visible and as a result, immediately felt as outrage, while conspiracy was invisible and therefore all the more fear-inducing. In September 1793, when ‘terror’ was introduced as a shorthand for decisive policies of repression, a frenzy of suspicion fouled the air. Why had cannon fallen apart after delivering the volleys that had successfully kept the Austrians at bay? Why did some towns lack food while others did not? Why was the army having so much trouble retaking Lyon from a ragtag militia? How could the people of Toulon have allowed the British to occupy their city? In short, was there not a massive web of plotters working to undermine the republic and were its agents not everywhere? The war – or rather wars – kept feeding the fever of conspiracy, making draconian measures seem like the only possible life-savers.

Even though the culture of calumny is not able to bear the weight that Walton wants to rest on it, the complementary part of his explanation does work well: the emphasis on the abruptness of regime change and especially on the resultant institutional weakness of the new republic. Jean-Clément Martin, in Violence et révolution: Essai sur la naissance d’un mythe national (2006), attributed the violence of the Terror to the weakness of the French state rather than to its totalitarian ambitions. Walton doesn’t mention Martin’s work, but his conclusions go in the same general direction. The concordance of views would be clearer still if Walton paid more attention to the actions, rather than legislative efforts, of the various revolutionary governments. The local police did not wait for decrees from above to prohibit publications in the name of public tranquillity; the problem was that different areas moved in opposing directions, some repressing radicals and others counter-revolutionaries. No one knew precisely how to maintain public calm because division ran too deep. In 1791, Robespierre himself argued that ‘the empire of public opinion is gentle, salutary, natural and irresistible’; but once in power, he did everything possible to dismantle the opposition presses, whether they were royalist (1792), Girondin (1793) or part of the supposedly friendly opposition (1794). Napoleon eliminated the ambiguity by strictly supervising the press. He recognised that a regime of dubious legitimacy could ill afford spirited public discussion.

Walton is right in refusing to draw cynical conclusions from this sometimes sorry history. The revolutionaries sincerely aspired to freedom of the press. Article 11 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789 captured the two sides of the issue: the right to free expression and the need for certain limits. ‘The free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man. Every citizen may, accordingly, speak, write and print with freedom, but shall be responsible for such abuses of this freedom as shall be defined by law.’ The problems, the struggles and ultimately the tragedy all lay in the second half of the article: what was an abuse and how should it be punished? Only states that are willing to grant such rights face the dilemmas that are an inevitable correlation of them, and only states that are confident in their legitimacy survive to consider the dilemmas another day. The concern with limits never disappears. How could it when the size of the field for democratic dispute is never and has never been unbounded?