Lucie Simplice Camille Benoist Desmoulins (March 2, 1760 – April 5, 1794) was a French journalist and politician who played an important role in the French Revolution. He was closely associated with Georges Danton.
In March 1789, Desmoulins was nominated deputy from the bailliage of Guise. He came to Laon as a commissioner for the election of deputies to the Estates-General. As a spectator of the procession of the Three Estates on May 5, 1789, Camille wrote a response, an Ode aux Etats Generaux and later Mirabeau enlisted him to write for his newspaper, although it was ephemeral, for it was banned by royal decree on May 6, 1789.
Because of his lack of success at the law, he was living in Paris in extreme poverty. However, he showed enthusiasm for the political changes announced by the meeting of the Estates-General. According to his letters to his father, he watched with excitement the procession of deputies at the Palace of Versailles, and with indignation the events following the closing of the Salle des Menus to the deputies who had named themselves the National Assembly - leading to the Tennis Court Oath.
The sudden dismissal of Jacques Necker by King Louis XVI brought fame to Desmoulins. On July 12, 1789 he leapt on a table outside one of the cafés in the garden of the Palais Royal, and announced to the crowd the dismissal of the reformer. Apparently losing his stammer due to the excitement, he addressed the passions of the public, calling them to "...take up arms and adopt cockades by which we may know each other, and adding:
He adopted green as the color for rallying liberty and the masses followed, for he had become their leader. Finally, after drawing two pistols from under his coat, he declared that he would not fall alive into the hands of the police who were watching his movements. He descended, embraced by the crowd.
Following Desmoulins, riots started throughout Paris. The mob, procuring arms by force on July 13, was partly organized as the Parisian militia, which was afterwards to be the National Guard. On July 14, the storming of the Bastille occurred.
The following day, Desmoulins began the most publicised phase of his writing career. In May and June 1789 he had written La France Libre, which his publisher had refused to print. The taking of the Bastille, however, was a sign of changing times, and, on July 18, Desmoulins's work was issued. Considerably in advance of public opinion, it called explicitly for a republic, his sixth issue stating, "...popular and democratic government is the only constitution which suits France, and all those who are worthy of the name of men. "La France Libre" also elaborately examined the rights of king, of nobles, of Roman Catholic clergy and of the people, it became instantly popular, securing Desmoulins a partnership with Honoré Mirabeau. It was immediately followed by a slander campaign from Royalist pamphleteers.
Through his support for a republic, even a democratic one, he was also a member of the Cordeliers Club, who were among the first revolutionaries to advocate republican government, for it had been associated for preserving liberty, which Camille always supported.
Exhilarated, he appealed to the lower orders by printing his Discours de la lanterne aux Parisiens which began with a quotation from the Gospel of John, Qui male agit odit lucem ("He that does evil hates light" ). Consequently, Desmoulins was dubbed "Procureur-général de la lanterne" ("The Lanterne Prosecutor"). In this pamphlet, he argued that revolutionary violence was justified.
In November 1789, he began a career as a journalist with the first number of a weekly publication, Histoire des Révolutions de France et de Brabant, which ceased at the end of July 1791. The publication was extremely popular from its first to its last number - Camille became famous and was no longer poor. The Histoire des Révolutions is a measure of the ideas in circulation in revolutionary Paris, but it has drawn criticism for its extremely violent tone.
It was in "Revolutions de France et de Brabant" that scholars begin noting Camille as a “volatile” writer. As the Revolution progressed the French government suffered a great shortage of money and the country entered inflation, Desmoulins did not portray it in this light, however, and “painted a wholly erroneous picture of the situation.” Because of his inconsistencies, Camille’s friendship with important figures, such as Mirabeau and Malouet, suffered. Both men, fed up with Camille’s publishing and libels declared that Camille should be denounced and Malouet, “went so far as to ask that Camille be certified insane.” Robespierre came to Camille’s rescue, defending his childhood friend and preventing his arrest.
Desmoulins was influenced by the theorists of the Revolution - for some time before the death of Mirabeau in April 1791, he had begun his collaboration with Georges Danton (his associate for the rest of their lives). In July 1791, he appeared before the Paris Commune—the local government of Paris—as head of a group petitioning to depose the king. At the time, under the constitutional monarchy, such a request was dangerous; the gesture enhanced agitation in the city, and the frequent attacks to which Desmoulins had often been subject were followed by a warrant for the arrest of himself and Danton.
Danton briefly left Paris, while Desmoulins chose to remain and even to make occasional appearances at the Jacobin Club. Upon the failure of this attempt to arrest him, Desmoulins published a pamphlet, Jean Pierre Brissot démasqué, which contained violent attacks. It originated in a conflict between the two, and was followed in 1793 by a Fragment de l'histoire secrète de la Révolution (more usually known by the name Histoire des Brissotins), in which the Girondists, and especially Brissot, were subjected to a populist attack.
Camille published this in response to Brissot calling for the dissolution of the Paris Commune and the Jacobins. It violently attacked the Girondists and Brissot as enemies of the Revolution, resulting in many being arrested and guillotined and in the defacement of Brissot’s career. Camille later regretted writing this. This pamphlet illustrates the constant shift in opinions and friendship of those in the Revolution, because Brissot many times had defended the journals of Camille when he was threatened, almost acting “as a father guiding his son.” Brissot once warned Camille and said, “’You are young Camille Desmoulins, candor is on your lips…but you are often fooled by that very candor.’”
In December 1793 the first number of the Vieux Cordelier was issued. At first it was directed against the Hébertists and their mission for dechristianization (this was approved by Robespierre), but the third number supported Danton's idea of a Committee of clemency, which earned them Robespierre's epithet les indulgents. This caused Robespierre to turn against Desmoulins, who took advantage of the popular indignation roused against the Hébertists to send them to death. Robespierre and Louis de Saint-Just then turned their attention to both the enragés (Jacques Roux's faction) and the indulgents.
On January 7, 1794, Robespierre, who on a former occasion had defended Danton and Desmoulins in the National Convention, urged the burning of certain numbers of the Vieux Cordelier in a speech at the Jacobin Club (though he did not at this time condemn Desmoulins or Danton as individuals). Desmoulins replied using a quote from Jean-Jacques Rousseau (who was widely perceived as the intellectual authority for all revolutionary gestures): "burning is not answering". The implied insult led to a bitter conflict. By the end of March, the Hébertists had been guillotined, while Danton, Desmoulins and other leaders of the moderates were placed under arrest.
The accused were prevented from defending themselves by a decree of the Convention. This, together with the false report of a spy (who charged Desmoulins' wife with conspiring in her husband's escape and plotting the "ruin of the Republic"), obtained for prosecutor Antoine Quentin Fouquier-Tinville a death sentence after threatening the jury. The verdict was passed in the accuseds' absence, and their execution was scheduled for the same day.
Desmoulins struggled before his death, allegedly tearing his clothes to shreds. Of the group of fifteen guillotined together (also including Marie Jean Hérault de Séchelles, François Joseph Westermann and Pierre Philippeaux), Desmoulins died third, and Danton last.
Desmoulins is the central character in Tanith Lee's The Gods are Thirsty.
Camille’s lasting influence over the French Revolution and the Terror was his denouncement of Brissot and the Girondists, and his Vieux Cordelier that called for the earlier held principles of the Revolution and the Cordeliers Club. Camille, as a significant journalist, illustrated the power of the newspapers during the Revolution and how easily they persuaded the passions of the people, especially the Parisian mobs. He also signifies the increasingly radical situation the Terror became, as group after group became denounced and seen as a threat to the goals of the Revolution.