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Eighteenth-Century Studies 34.3 (2001) 363-382

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Can the Uniform Make the Citizen? Paris, 1789-1791

Dale L. Clifford

If "the clothes make the man," can the uniform make the citizen? In Paris during the early years of the French Revolution, the answer was yes, both literally and symbolically. From the beginning, the National Guard uniform symbolized the citizens-in-arms who stormed the Bastille and seized their liberty. But in the summer of 1790, Parisians observed the change from an ad-hoc system in which almost anyone who wanted to act as a citizen could do so, to the régime censitaire of the new constitution, which restricted political participation to those whose residence and level of tax payment qualified them as active citizens. The Parisian National Guard uniform became a key element in this process (see fig. 1). Constitutional legislation passed in the spring and summer of 1790 tied Guard membership to active citizenship by requiring proof of Guard registration in order to vote, at the same time limiting Guard service to active citizens. There was even a ruling that since the cost of the showy uniform, which each Parisian National Guardsman had to purchase for himself, far exceeded the level of taxation required for active citizen status, a man who had bought his uniform could be placed on the voting rolls regardless of the tax he paid. 1 The uniform and citizenship were therefore literally equivalent.

Generations of historians saw this literal equivalence as proof that the National Guard was a bourgeois institution within a bourgeois Revolution. However, I will argue that the Parisian National Guard uniform reflects more than an attempt to limit political activity to the bourgeoisie. The uniform marked its wearers as equal members of the indivisible sovereign nation, or, in the words of the law [End Page 363] on public force: "as the nation is one, there is only one national guard . . . wearing the same uniform." 2 As the distinguishing sign of National Guard service, the uniform also symbolized the link between political rights and duties, the emphasis on civic virtue that formed an important part of the popular conception of citizenship. Thus, the history of its development can serve to anchor the National Assembly's constitutional debates about the political rights of citizens in what Lynn Hunt has called "the logic of practice," the attempt to understand the connections between revolutionary ideology and practice. 3

The political culture of the period offered multiple definitions of citizenship. At the end of the twentieth century we take for granted a definition that joins three historically distinct aspects of citizenship: civil rights, political rights, and the duty to support the nation. Yet, the conflation of those three at the end of the eigheenth century was not inevitable, not any more than was the liberal definition of the nation as an abstract entity whose wishes can be expressed by a majority vote of its citizens. The elements of citizenship set forth in the constitution of 1791 reflected ideological choices made by men deeply affected by the ideas of the Enlightenment and influenced by their own social and economic perceptions. But these choices were also the product of practical efforts at working out citizenship and had roots in historical memory. [End Page 364]

While their deputies debated constitutional principles in the Assembly, ordinary people all over France acted politically and thus defined citizenship in their municipalities and National Guard units. 4 The role of Paris as the capital meant that it was both typical and exceptional. As was the case elsewhere, its National Guard reflected the nature of the municipal government to which it answered, as well as the social and political culture of the neighborhoods from which units were drawn. But the Parisian National Guard also figured largely in the national Revolution. Although it was not the first citizen militia of 1789, it came to be the example for many others because of its actions on 14 July. Its role during the 5-6 October march to Versailles directly affected the national debates, both...


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