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Camille Desmoulins, Revolutionary Orator, 1760-94

For a few years an impoverished barrister became one of the most effective orators and journalists of the French Revolution, writes John Hartcup.

The studious and childlike nature of Camille Desmoulins blossomed into revolutionary vigour on the day that he called the mob to arms in the gardens of the Palais Royal. Only then did his talents as a writer and rabble-rouser emerge. Up to this time he was miserably poor. What could be less promising than a barrister without a brief, a writer without a public, a tub-thumper with an impediment in his speech?

He was given a battery of names: Lucie-Simplice-Camille-Benoît Desmoulins. He was born at Guise in the province of Picardy on March 2nd, 1760, his father being Jean-Benoist-Nicolas Desmoulins, a lawyer practising in that town. At the age of ten he entered the College Louis-le-Grand. It was not long before his masters recognized in him a love for the classics that was to influence his political life so strongly and endue his writings with the learning of the ancients to whom he so constantly turned for parallels. At this college he began a life-long friendship with Maximilien Robespierre, which was to end so tragically. At twenty-four, following his father’s wish, he studied law and qualified as a barrister at the Grand Chambre de Parlement. But, finding insufficient work in Paris, he returned to his home town where he was also called to the bar. There he was equally unsuccessful.

Due to the imminent bankruptcy of the state finances, Louis XVI, in 1789, had recourse to the States General, which had not been convened for 175 years. Camille, together with his father and two cousins de Viefville, put up for nomination as delegates, one of which would be chosen to represent Guise in Paris. In this Camille also failed, one of the cousins de Viefville being elected. His disappointment was in no way lessened when he learned that his former college friend, Robespierre, had been chosen for Arras.

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