Women’s Participation in Riots over the Price of Sugar, February 1792
This fragment from a memoir by Charles Alexandre shows the anger of women when confronted by a sugar shortage. They readily attributed the shortage to hoarding by greedy merchants. This document also shows the new importance of colonial products such as sugar and coffee.
[Alexandre, speaking in general terms about the events of February 1792, in Paris, explains the motives of popular resentment and mobilization on the sugar issue:]
The people were justified in complaining, but not in using threats and violence. The speculators, or rather, the hoarders—that is what the people called them—said, to exonerate themselves, that because sugar was a luxury product, the price was not and could not be frozen—that in truth it had and could have no other [price] than that dictated by the consumer's fancy. This sophism, born of cupidity, made no common sense, but that's the ordinary mode of reasoning [by greedy persons]. Surely in principle, and before our colonies reached the level of prosperity we witnessed at the time of the Revolution, sugar was a luxury item, but long ago it became an essential foodstuff. The people, who always think out of a sense of their needs, saw perfectly well that the goal of these hoarders was to force them to pay at least double the old price and to reduce them to this necessity or to deprive them of a product on which a part of their subsistence consumption depended, because it was their custom every morning to drink a large quantity of coffee, which kept them going until they returned from work around four or five in the afternoon and took a second meal, with which they ended the day; but the women, above all, were the most enraged at the hoarders, and the most threatening. Already, in the heart of Paris several fairly violent rows have taken place over this issue, and M. d'André, a former deputy in the Constituent [Assembly] who, following the first restoration, was minister of the general police for a brief time, was very compromised in his goods and in his person.
[Alexandre goes on to give his account of events on the morning of the fourteenth of February, noting the tactics of taxation populaire invoked by the women to obtain "a kind of distributive justice, but one tainted in its principles by violence."]
. . . The people, all heated up, and delayed by what had occurred [disturbances which took place between seven and ten o'clock in the morning], abandoned their work and met in large numbers in the streets mentioned above; spirits were running high against the hoarders and hoarding; the most alarming measures were urged, nothing less [drastic] than breaking into the Monnery house, pillaging it, and even setting it on fire. I was being kept informed about all these discussions by some people who were less carried away than the others and who had some personal feeling for me. . . .
[Alexandre describes the scene:]
However, the people, who had gathered in larger numbers and earlier than the previous day, were very menacing; threats led to action. I had to sustain a very heavy initial assault from their quarter, but it was unsuccessful. A second, which followed soon after, yielded better results: the entrance and the first-floor windows were forced open and broken. There was talk of setting the house on fire. I came out and spoke to the most excited [ones], who nonetheless never committed any violence against me. "Burn the house down, if you want to," I told them, "but the neighboring houses will burn down also, and the people they belong to haven't done you any harm or wrong." "You are right," was their reply, and they didn't burn anything. That was a major gain.
However, there was a third attack, very heavy, but which was sustained by the defenders without a shot and in such a way as to prevent the assailants from gaining entry into the house. But because they were throwing stones, several cavalrymen and foot soldiers were seriously injured. The commissioner of police, M. Junie, got through to us and was hit in the head [with a stone] which inflicted a major wound, but not a dangerous one, which seemed to make the attackers very angry. The commanding officer of the cavalry wanted to attack; I stopped him, and, in fact, both he and his cavalrymen would soon have been cut to shreds by the more than fifty thousand people who were surrounding us, and then everything would have been lost. The women above all, were the most excited. They were real furies. They wanted to go to the barracks, break in, and by main force take out the cannon of the battalion and put them to use against the Monnery house. I was informed about this in time and had such a heavy guard posted that the project failed. . . . In truth, the rumor soon began spreading that a heavy column supported by six cannon, with the Mayor and the Commander-General at its head, was moving towards the Faubourg. When I went out into the street with my sword in hand, someone confirmed this news for me. Then a woman of the people, shoving her fist under my nose, said: "Oh shit! You sure have gotten us in deep!" "I!" I answered with a great deal of cool, "did I give you the advice to sound the alarm?" "No." "Okay then, it's your goddamned tocsin that got the police force mobilized and marching." "The swine! I think he's right". . . .
The sugar, whether it was the cause or the pretext of these disturbances, was removed and delivered safe and sound into the hands of its owners, along with the money collected from the sales of the first barrels which had been inopportunely pulled out; the crowds dispersed by themselves and with no violence. Calm was restored. In a word, it all appeared to be over. And nothing was, yet.
From Women in Revolutionary Paris, 1789–1795, edited and translated by Darline Gay Levy, Harriet Branson Applewhite, and Mary Durham Johnson. Copyright 1979 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used with the permission of the University of Illinois Press, 115–118.