How freedom of the theater promised to be a major extension of liberty
Early on in the French Revolution, in his memoir on press freedom submitted to the Estates-General in June 1789, Jean-Pierre Brissot (1754–93), later a prominent revolutionary leader, proclaimed liberty of the press “un droit naturel à l’homme.” Loathed by Maximilien Robespierre, Brissot, together with his political allies, was later guillotined in October 1793 by the Montagne, the political faction that organized the Terror of 1793–94. During 1789 and throughout the period down to the coup that brought the Montagne to power in June 1793, no one publicized the demand for full freedom of expression more vigorously than Brissot. He also raised the issue of liberty from theater censorship, something which at that time existed nowhere in Europe, or indeed anywhere else, and never had. Theater freedom mattered more for renewing “liberty” than people think, he explained, since the theater exerts a great influence “sur l’esprit public,” a point he would develop further, he adds, were not a writer of talent—the playwright Marie-Joseph Chénier (1762–1811)—already doing so. Among the Revolution’s principal champions of free expression, this literary ally of Brissot’s was the brother of the poet André Chénier who was guillotined by the Montagne in July 1794.
By July 1789, the month of the storming of the Bastille, the question was no longer whether revolutionary France should possess freedom of expression and of the press—all the revolutionaries then agreed that it should—but rather whether this freedom required limits. Should there be “liberté illimité de la presse” without legal responsibility for calumny or inciting violence? This posed a dilemma for the national legislature, for aside from the principle itself, there was much uncertainty and anxiety about the unpredictable consequences. Many believed the campaign to bring “philosophy” and Enlightenment to the people would fail. Press freedom and the other new rights were justified in the people’s name, and yet, not one-hundredth part of the people actually read, warned the veteran republican writer and future deputy, Louis-Sébastien Mercier (1740–1814), while only one-thousandth part read with sufficient discernment and knowledge to separate truth from falsehood. The “ordinary man, being ignorant,” he admonished, judges politicians’ reputations by popular reputation rather than talent or knowledge—with predictably disastrous results.READ MORE>