The Sans-Culottes

            The Sans-Culottes were a short-lived social group that existed during the Reign of Terror of 1793 and supported it with violence and bloodshed. The term “sans-culottes” means “without knee-breeches” and refers to urban workers, artisans, and shopkeepers who wore trousers and a red bonnet and despised anything remotely connected with the aristocracy of the First and Second Estates. Tired of the abuse and indifference of the nobles and aristocrats and the inequality of French society, the sans-culottes determined that the only way to have a truly egalitarian France was to rid it of all noble clergy, aristocrats and merchants.

            The sans-culottes refused to adopt a subordinate position in social relations; they did not tolerate pride, disdain, or indifference from those they called “respectable people”. They refused to tolerate others taking advantage of their social or economic status. Although the aristocracy of the old regime was the main enemy of the sans-culottes, the meaning “aristocrat” was extended to include those who regretted the passing of the ancient regime, disapproved of the Revolution, did nothing to further its cause, did not swear allegiance to it, did not enlist in the National Guard, did not purchase expropriated land- although he could afford to, one who left land uncultivated without selling it at its true value or leasing it, did nothing to improve the lives of the poor and his patriotic countrymen…. The list goes on. The sans-culottes denounced the rich in general, and some extremists were not far from considering the Revolution as a war “between the rich and the poor”.

            The economic crisis, scarcity, and high prices intensified the antagonism among the sans-culottes, who were insistent upon taxation and controls and included the mercantile aristocracy in their persecution. Violence and pillaging by the sans-culottes was legitimated by the inequality of living conditions. Militants even considered the execution of the aristocrats as an excellent remedy to the food shortages of the time. The majority of popular militants approved of, if not exalted, the use of the guillotine as a means to dispatch those who had so much as a haughty attitude toward the sans-culottes.

            The militant sans-culottes were ordinarily good citizens- reported to be good mothers and fathers and upstanding people. The feeling that the nation was threatened, the belief in an aristocratic plot, the atmosphere of turbulent days, and the issuing of arms to these men and women created in them an alternate, violent personality eager for bloodshed as a means to achieve social equality and alleviate their frustrations. Being composed of socially different elements, the sans-culottes were undermined by internal dissent, which eventually led to their defeat.