"A Whiff Of Grapeshot"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: The French Revolution might have been avoided had those in power been alert to the needs of the country and moved toward policies of reform. However, they waited too long. France was wealthy, but its methods of taxation placed all the burden on those least able to pay–the lower and middle classes. This situation was enough to start a movement that would destroy an already shaky equilibrium. An example had just been set for the French people by the American colonists. By the spring of 1789 conflict seemed imminent. Louis XVI called a general assembly on May 5 because of the hopeless financial situation, but disputes arose among the three groups represented–the nobility, the clergy, and the third estate. This last, the free bourgeoisie, now claimed power equal to that of the other two. The meeting came to nothing, and on June 17 representatives of the third estate took the title of National Assembly and invited the other groups to meet with them; they were shortly to assume all power in France. The king reacted to this spirit of rebellion among the lower classes in ways calculated to infuriate them further and in June decided to bring foreign troops with cannon into Paris. The cannon would be loaded with either grapeshot or canister to disperse the mobs. Grapeshot is a cluster of small cannon-balls wired together, which scatter on firing; canister is another scattering charge which resembles a tin can full of ball bearings. Broglie, Minister of War, was confident of quelling the revolt; neither he nor the others among the ruling classes comprehended the extent of this spirit of open rebellion. Nor did they realize that the soldiers' sympathies lay with the common people. Carlyle's hectic, staccato prose vividly depicts the tension of those days:

. . . the hungry food-year, which runs from August to August, is getting older; becoming more and more a famine-year! With 'meal-husks and boiled grass,' Brigands may actually collect; and in crowds, at farm and mansion, howl angrily, Food! Food! It is in vain to send soldiers against them: at sight of soldiers they disperse, they vanish as under ground; then directly reassemble elsewhere for new tumult and plunder. . . . A universal hubbub there, as of dissolving worlds. . . . To the calmest man it is becoming too plain that battle is inevitable.
Inevitable, silently nod Messeigneurs and Broglie: Inevitable and brief! . . . those cannon of ours stand duly levelled; those troops are here. . . . The Parisians resist? scornfully cry Messeigneurs. As a meal-mob may! They have sat quiet, these five generations, submitting to all. Their Mercier declared, in these very years, that a Parisian revolt was henceforth 'impossible.' Stand by the royal Declaration of the Twenty-third of June. The Nobles of France, valorous, chivalrous as of old, will rally round us with one heart;–and as for this which you call Third Estate, and which we call canaille of unwashed Sansculottes, of Patelins, Scribblers, factious Spouters,–brave Broglie, 'with a whiff of grapeshot (salve de canons),' if need be, will give quick account of it. . . .