Levée en masse

Departure of the Conscripts

Levee en Masse (1793)

‘..The young men shall fight; the married men shall forge arms and transport provisions…’

So proclaimed the ‘levee en masse’ decree of the National Convention of Revolutionary France on 23 August 1793. King Louis XVII had been guillotined on 21st January 1792 as part of the rising tide of political radicalism of the French Revolution. In the months that followed, France found itself at war with Austria, Prussia, Spain, Britain, Piedmont and the United Provinces [Holland]. At home, a rebellion was raging in the Vendee region of west central France on the Atlantic coast. Defeat for the new republic seemed certain.

In desperation, the National Convention ‘requisitioned’ all French citizens for the last ditch defence ‘de la Patrie’.

“From this moment until such time as its enemies shall have been driven from the soil of the Republic, all Frenchmen are in permanent requisition for the services of the armies. The young men shall fight; the married men shall forge arms and transport provisions; the women shall make tents and clothes and shall serve in the hospitals; the children shall turn old lint into linen; the old men shall betake themselves to the public squares in order to arouse the courage of the warriors and preach hatred of kings and the unity of the Republic’.

France survived the immediate crisis. The French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars continued until 1815, raging backwards and forwards across Europe and beyond. In the immediate aftermath, reactionary governments were established across Europe determined to suppress the rising tide of radicalism unleashed by the French Revolution – the radical messages of liberty, fraternity and equality.

Those of us living in a modern liberal democracy can easily take our political freedoms for granted, yet the journey to achieve such freedoms was neither short nor painless. In part, this journey can be charted through its written legacy – from Magna Carta to the writings of the 18th Enlightenment era, from the thought leaders of the American and French Revolutions to those of the Revolutions of 1848, and from John Stuart Mill to John Rawls.

Arguably, the ‘levee en masse’ decree forms part of this canon of liberal and democratic philosophical texts.

For the modern political cynic (or anarchist) worn down by petty party politics, sectional interests and pedestrian political agendas, a government proclaiming a ‘levee en masse’ is proof positive of the true nature of government – even a liberal democratic government. It is simply a self-interested grab for political power.

For the modern political idealist, however, the ‘levee en masse’ conveys a powerful sentiment – people do not merely reside in a liberal democracy. They are not subjects of an autocratic ruler. Instead, its inhabitants are equal before the law. And they are also in control of their own destinies. In short, the inhabitants are citizens rather than subjects. Citizens consciously accept the burdens required to maintain the liberties that they wish to enjoy. In a liberal democracy, there is no room for passengers.

Title: (English) Departure of the Conscripts in 1807
Date: 1808. Photographic reproduction of the painting.
Painter: Louis-Léopold Boilly (1761–1845
Source: Wikipedia Commons
Copyright statement: This is a faithful photographic reproduction of an original two-dimensional work of art. The work of art itself is in the public domain for the following reason: This work is in the public domain in the United States, and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 100 years or less.