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Philippe Lenoir, (1785-1867), French painter, in his National Guard uniform. By Horace Vernet (1789-1863)

The National Guard (French language: la Garde nationale) was the name given at the time of the French Revolution to the militias formed in each city, in imitation of the National Guard created in Paris. It was a military force separate from the regular army. Initially under the command of the Marquis de Lafayette, then briefly under the Marquis de Mandat, it was strongly identified until the summer of 1792 with the middle class and its support for constitutional monarchy. The National Guard had some impact on the Revolution, but was disarmed by Napoleon except for its recall in 1809 and 1814 to help defend France. Reestablished after his exile, it continued to play a significant role in each French Revolution of the 19th century.


Mr Hepp, commander of the National Guard of Strasbourg in 1790

With disorder and theft spreading in Paris, the citizens of the city met and agreed to create a militia made up of the middle-class to ensure the maintenance of law and order and the defence of the Constitution. La Fayette was elected to the post of commander in chief of the militia on July 15, and it was named the National Guard. Each city of France set up its own National Guard.


The officers of the National Guard were elected. Under the law of October 14, 1791, all active citizens and their children over 18 years were obliged to join the National Guard. Their role was the maintenance of law and order and, if necessary, the defense of the territory. The citizens kept their weapons and their uniforms at home, and set forth with them when required. The initially multi-coloured uniforms of the various provincial National Guard units were standardized in 1791, using as a model the dark blue coats with red collars, white lapels and cuffs worn by the Paris National Guard since its creation.[1] This combination of colours matched those of the revolutionary tricolour.

Role during the Revolution

Soldiers of the Garde nationale of Quimper escorting royalist rebels in Britanny (1792). Painting by Jules Girardet.

The former Guet royal had held responsibility for the maintenance of law and order in Paris from 1254 to 1791, when the National Guard took over this role. In fact, the last commander of the Guet royal (Chevalier du Guet), de La Rothière, was elected to head the National Guard in 1791. In the summer of 1792, the fundamental character of the guard changed. The fédérés were admitted to the guard and the subsequent takeover of the guard by Antoine Joseph Santerre when Mandat was murdered in the first hours of the insurrection of the 10 August placed a radical revolutionary at the head of the Guard. After the abolition of the monarchy (September 21, 1792), the National Guard fought for the Revolution and it had an important role in forcing the wishes of the capital on the French National Assembly which was obliged to give way in front of the force of the "patriotic" bayonets. After 9 Thermidor, year II (July 27, 1794), the new government of the Thermidorian Reaction placed the National Guard under the control of royalists. The National Guard then attempted to overthrow the Directory during the royalist insurrection on the 13 Vendémiaire, year IV (October 5, 1795), but it was defeated by forces led by Napoleon Bonaparte in the Battle of 13 Vendémiaire. Thereafter, it was disarmed.

The Empire

Napoleon did not believe that the middle-class National Guard would be able to maintain order and suppress riots. Therefore he created a Municipal Guard of Paris, a full time gendarmerie which was strongly militarized. However, he did not abolish the National Guard, but was content to partially disarm it. He kept the force in reserve and mobilized it for the defense of French territory in 1809 and 1814. In Paris during this period the National Guard comprised twelve thousand bourgeois property owners, serving part-time and equipped at their own expense, whose prime function was to guard public buildings on a roster basis.[2]

Six thousand national guardsmen took part in the Battle of Paris in 1814.Following the occupation of the city by the allied armies, the National Guard was expanded to 35,000 men and became the primary force for maintaining order.[3]

The Restoration

Under the Restoration in 1814, the National Guard was maintained by Louis XVIII. Initially the Guard, purged of its Napoleonic leadership, maintained good relations with the restored monarchy. The future Charles X served as its Colonel-General, reviewed the force regularly and intervened to veto its proposed disbandment on the grounds of economy by the Conseil Municipal of Paris.[4] However by 1827, the middle-class men who still composed the Guard had come to feel a degree of hostility towards the reactionary monarchy. Following hostile cries at a review on 29 April Charles X dissolved the Guard the following day, on the grounds of offensive behaviour towards the crown.[5] He neglected to disarm the disbanded force, and its muskets resurfaced in 1830 during the July Revolution.

National Guard of 1831

French Garde Nationale soldier with Tabatière rifle, 1870.

A new National Guard was established in 1831 following the July Revolution in 1830. It fought in the Revolution of 1848 in favour of the republicans. Napoleon III confined it during the Second Empire to subordinate tasks in order to reduce its liberal and republican influence. During the Franco-Prussian War the Government of National Defense of 1870 called on it take a major role in defending Paris against Prussia. During the uprising of the Paris Commune, from March to May 1871, the National Guard in Paris was expanded to include all able-bodied citizens capable of carrying weapons. Following the Commune's defeat by the French Army, the Guard was suppressed and disbanded on 14 March 1872.


  • Jean Tulard, Jean-François Fayard, Alfred Fierro, Histoire et dictionnaire de la Révolution française, 1789–1799, Éditions Robert Laffont, collection Bouquins, Paris, 1987. ISBN 2-7028-2076-X
  1. Philip Haythornthwaite, page 87 "Uniforms of the French Revolutionary Wars, ISBN0 7137 0936 7
  2. Philip Mansel, page 4 "Paris Between Empires - Monarchy and Revolution 1814-1852, ISBN0-312-30857-4
  3. Philip Mansel, page 13 "Paris Between Empires - Monarchy and Revolution 1814-1852, ISBN0-312-30857-4
  4. Philip Mansel, page 217 "Paris Between Empires - Monarchy and Revolution 1814-1852, ISBN0-312-30857-4
  5. Philip Mansel, page 218 "Paris Between Empires - Monarchy and Revolution 1814-1852, ISBN0-312-30857-4

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