A young Parisian rugmaker joins a crowd of demonstrators. Some are armed with pikes, many wear red liberty caps, almost all wear the simple, loose fitting clothes of the artisans and workers of the city. Unsure of why they’re assembled, he asks the man beside him. A pamphlet is shoved into his hand; L’Ami du peuple — “The Friend of the People.”
He reads about the hoarders and speculators causing the high bread prices, the traitorous aristocrats and royalists scheming to return the old regime to power, and the right of the people to take matters into their own hands when the elites betray them. He decides to join the next meeting of his neighborhood Cordelier Club.
There, the benches are filled with working men like himself, and some come armed with pikes and muskets. They debate the day’s political issues, determining who is and who is not a friend of the people. Ever alert to the possibility of counter-revolution, they know that when the tocsin rings across Paris they are to assemble in the streets to defend their rights.
Across the city, an inquisitive provincial lawyer walks into his local Jacobin club, eager to hear the debates on the present state of the Legislative Assembly.
Busts of Roman heroes and Enlightenment philosophers decorate the walls, but in the most prominent spot is the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. Orators engage in fierce debate on the merits of democratic voting, the merits of price controls, and the basis of national sovereignty. They decry the intolerance of the Church and the corruption of the Ancien Régime.
The young lawyer is ambitious, fueled by his deep reading of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the idea of a democratic, egalitarian republic. Rejecting the pomp and fashion of high society, he discards his wig and proudly displays a tricolor cockade on his simple, dark suit. At the Jacobin club he can build a reputation as an orator and political leader — perhaps soon rising to be a representative in the Paris Commune — or, he can use his pen to write pamphlets to build up a reputation as a man of the people.
These two men, leading very different lives, are both caught up in the violent throes of the French Revolution. Before 1789, neither of them would have been involved in anything resembling democratic politics. The young rugmaker may have joined some kind of demonstration over food prices, but he never would have been handed a political pamphlet, nor have anything resembling a political ideology.
The lawyer would have been involved in the daily work of preparing for and arguing legal cases, maybe taking up the cause of a pauper wrongfully convicted of vagrancy, but never would he have thought to publicly question the authority of the king. The French Revolution split open French society and politics — the old order was collapsing, and nobody was sure what kind of new one was being created.
What Was the French Revolution?
The French Revolution can be reduced to three acts, where, in each, the existing political order fails and a new group struggles to assert authority and create a new political and social order. At the start of the first act, in 1789, the French state was bankrupt. But the nobility’s opposition prevented King Louis XVI and his ministers from implementing necessary fiscal reforms, and so, to be able to push through these reforms, the king called for a meeting of the Estates General — a feudal deliberate body of three orders: commoners, nobility, and clergy.
What he got instead was a revolution.
The commoners declared themselves the “National Assembly,” and in July of 1789 the people of Paris stormed the Bastille — a prison fortress and symbol of Royal power in the heart of the city, beginning a decade of social and political upheaval. Within the National Assembly, a coalition of bourgeois — middle-class — lawyers and reform minded nobles set about creating the new France. In 1789 they drafted a constitution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.
However, in keeping the right to vote and stand for election exclusive to men of property, they excluded most French people from politics and alienated the sans-culottes — the urban workers, artisans, and craftsmen who preferred direct action and put little trust in the bourgeois politicians within the National Assembly.
Act one ends in 1792, with the king attempting to flee Paris, only to be captured and returned to a Parisian people growing ever more radical and republican in their opinions. Act two starts, and the radical Revolutionaries — a loose grouping of radical lawyers, writers, and politicians calling themselves Jacobins — enter the stage.
In August of 1792, Jacobins and sans-culottes organized and executed an insurrection in Paris, overthrowing the Monarchy and establishing the French Republic. Their enemies soon multiplied though, and, by 1793, with internal rebellions spreading from North to South within France, most of Europe was at war with the country.
From 1793 to 1794, the Jacobins used terror to suppress the rebellions and organize society for total war. They also drafted the first democratic constitution of Europe, establishing a republic with a legislature elected by universal manhood suffrage. But those who either feared the terror or dreaded a radical democratic constitution schemed to end the Jacobins before they could complete their Revolution, and, in the summer of 1794, the leaders were sent to the guillotine.
With this, the Revolution entered its final act.
The coup in the summer of 1794, the “Thermidorian Reaction,” broke the power of the radical Jacobins and their sans-culottes allies. The newly empowered French bourgeois then created a far more limited republican constitution, with a small selected electorate and a strong five person executive — The Directory, which would rule France for the next 5 years.
And then a young general — Napoleon Bonaparte — won stunning victories in his campaigns through Italy, making sure to publicize his exploits so as to earn a popular following in France. In the final scene of the Revolution, he was the one to return to France and seize power in 1799 during what became known as “The Coup of 18 Brumaire.”
Bonaparte established himself as First Consul, effectively a dictator, thus ending the Revolution. This wildly contentious time in history had a diverse cast of actors. Some struggled to tear down the old order and create something new while others tried to preserve their social position and political power.
Sans-culottes and bourgeois, republicans and royalists, Revolutionary armies and Catholic rebels — they all clashed on battlefields as well as in the narrow streets of Paris, debating and deliberating in great chambers and humble meeting halls. Petitioning, demonstrating, prosecuting, executing, marching, cheering, and weeping. Singing songs and waving banners. What emerged from these struggles was not what anyone had planned for in 1789, but nonetheless it retained elements of all these different moments.
Institutions and laws, political and social struggles, national flags and anthems in France — and the wider world — would be forever filtered through the language and symbolism of the French Revolution. It’s probably still too soon to know the complete influence that the French Revolution has had, though historians have filled tens of thousands of pages debating this. But what is understood is that trying to come to terms with this event is essential, so as to be able to process the following two-hundred-and-some years of world history.
What Were the Causes of the French Revolution?
18th Century France: The Ancien Régime
When Louis XVI ascended to the throne in 1774 at the age of nineteen, he was, ostensibly, an absolute monarch. He ruled one of the great powers of Europe and was, according to the doctrine of the divine right of kings, anointed by God, from whom his authority derived. His great grandfather, the Sun King Louis XIV, had reigned for over 70 years, creating the basis for the modern state through success in war abroad and administrative reforms at home.
Ancien Régime politics happened at Versailles, where customs and etiquette were just as, if not more, important than one’s education and merit. There was no sitting legislator to propose laws, no independent judiciary, nor a constitution. The rules of politics were determined by the will of the king, so those who resided at Court were best positioned to influence national politics.
King Louis XIV constructed the Palace at Versailles in the 17th century to, on the one hand, keep nobles close to his person and by extension Royal authority, and on the other to keep Royal authority far from the potentially rebellious people of Paris. Political power was both physically and legally structured around the king’s person. But even this only held in good times.
When money was tight and defeats in battle mounted, bread prices rose and with that the system itself began to be questioned.
Successive ministers appointed by both Louis XVI and his grandfather attempted to reform this, appointing more competent administrators and rationalizing the complexity of overlapping traditional laws and customs.
Over the centuries the Crown had accumulated territories through marriages, conquest, treaties, and successions — these territories added up to the kingdom of France, but retained their specific laws and traditions, such as special taxes to the local lord or mandatory customs duties to be paid by those traveling through. This might have been a nice arrangement for the local lord, but it was a nightmare for a modernizing minister trying to run a kingdom.
The reality was that reformers faced serious opposition from those who benefited from the system. A noble’s power resided in their exclusive rights and privileges; further centralizing authority and rationalizing the administration meant that jobs and revenue went to bourgeois lawyers rather than the “first order” of nobles, whose fathers and grandfathers had proudly served in the king’s armies.
For the common people of France, the king had three basic duties — he was to see that his people had bread; that the realm was victorious in battle; and that there were heirs to the throne. Regarding the last point, King Louis XVI’s record was in doubt early in his reign, as the lack of an heir in the first seven years of his marriage was a cause of public concern.
Louis had married Marie Antoinette in 1770 — a woman who was the youngest daughter of Holy Roman Emperor Francis I, and was sent to Versailles when she was fourteen. She was outgoing and showered her friends and relatives with gifts and prominent positions, while also breaking with court fashion and etiquette.
Popular Parisian café songs depicted her as having an affair with the king’s younger brother, the Comte d’Artois, and mocking the king as a cuckold. Pornographic literature — a popular genre in the last decade of the Ancien Régime — as well as pamphlets for popular audiences, slandered her as having multiple affairs with court figures, as being corrupt, and as being disloyal (1).
In the Seven Years War (1756–1763) France suffered a staggering defeat. The war escalated from a regional conflict in North America, known as the French and Indian War, to engulf Europe and the Indian subcontinent. Pitting France and her allies against Great Britain and its own allies, the war ended with the French losing Canada, plus getting shut out of the lucrative colonial exploitation and trade in the Indian subcontinent.
It was a devastating defeat, and to many it demonstrated that France was falling behind its rival, Great Britain. It also demonstrated the very concrete need for fiscal reforms — war was expensive, and as armies increased in size and ships got bigger, more and more money was needed to maintain France’s power status. For the country’s twenty-three million commoners, the most acute need was bread. And it was on this issue, too, that the Royal authorities competence was in doubt.
France was an overwhelmingly rural country and the rhythms of the harvests determined the lives of both peasants and the urban workers. Bad harvests would send prices soaring, squeezing peasants with little to no land and urban workers reliant on the market for their food. Between 1770 and 1789, only only three harvests were abundant everywhere. Landlords and big farmers were well off, but for almost everyone else — the small independent farmers scratching at a meager plot, or the serf toiling away on some absentee nobles land — these were hard years of hungry winters, disease, and mortality (2).
France had been humiliated in battle, demonstrating for the world its relative decline to Great Britain; its people starved; its state finances idled in shambles. The reign of Louis XVI was at best difficult, and at worst devastating. The Ancien Régime was dealing with multiple converging crises in the 1780s; it would be its inability to handle them that precipitated its fall.
Limits of the Old Order
Of France’s twenty-three million people, four-hundred thousand were part of the nobility. In the feudal order, they were those who fought, as many had served as military officers.
But by the late 18th century, being a bold cavalry officer was not as useful to the French state as it had been in the 15th century — the state needed administrators, economists, and lawyers far more than it needed nobles who often scoffed at such disciplines as being beneath their social status.
In the two decades before the Revolution, the nobility would be obstinate towards any reforms that threatened their privileges — which were numerous and the basis of their incomes.
They were exempt from many taxes, and those who held titles to vast estates could count on guaranteed revenue from the peasants living and working there.
Seignorial rights — the authority of nobles — meant they also administered justice in these lands, essentially functioning as tyrants over the countryside. But over the course of the 18th century, their incomes from rents and feudal dues were eaten up by inflation, and, to counter this, they squeezed the peasants even more. A new profession — feudists — sprung up to dig through laws, deeds, and contracts so as to find every conceivable way of scrounging another livre from them.
But even this wasn’t enough, and the nobility increasingly competed with the French bourgeois — the middle class lawyers, merchants, and manufacturers — for government jobs. Nobles received the best posts in the military, but they also went after positions in the growing bureaucracy collecting taxes, serving as judges, and obtaining commissions in royal agencies (3).
The Rising Bourgeois
France was edging towards modernity both socially and economically, but the country’s administrative structures still remained archaic. Capitalism was steadily encroaching into social and economic life, and as markets expanded in colonial trade and manufacturing for domestic and foreign markets picked up the pace, a growing class (the French bourgeois) of merchants, lawyers, and manufacturers accumulated more wealth, power, and influence.
In the developing capitalist economy, the growing bourgeois relied on knowledge of markets, risk-taking, and innovation to secure their position. But the most successful aspired to live like the nobility — buying land, building chateaus, even buying a noble title; anything to secure the wealth and privilege of the upper class for their future generations.
The French bourgeois were a contradictory class in this period, and were certainly not self-aware enough in normal times to present a unified political program for the future of the nation. They were doing relatively well under the Ancien Régime — despite some of the archaic aspects of law and tradition, there was plenty of opportunity for the ambitious silk manufacturers of Lyon, the Meditaranean merchants of Toulon, and the trade in colonial goods extracted by slave-labor in the Caribbean. Money was being made all around.
Most industrial, and almost all commercial capital — about a fifth of all private wealth — belonged to the 2.75 million who counted among their ranks. The soft-hands and formal clothing of the bourgeois multiplied threefold in the time between Louis XIV and Louis XVI. They drove demand for colonial goods like coffee and sugar, silk from Lyon, and decorative prints and wallpapers.
Not only did the French bourgeois enjoy consuming these goods, but they also made a lot of money manufacturing and trading them (4).
But most of the French bourgeois did not have the ostentatious wealth to buy themselves into the nobility — they were not in control of vast lands and profitable industries. Most were like Maximilien Robespierre, a man whose unexceptional pre-Revolutionary bourgeois life contrasts sharply with his infamous Revolutionary exploits.
As a provincial lawyer in Arras, he made his living arguing cases before local judges and got into disputes with other lawyers for excluding him from their prestigious club. He, like many others of his class and profession, was frustrated by the noble judges who were often incompetent and corrupt.
The complex taxes and fees that could accumulate as a result of the archaic French bureaucracy impeded commerce; moving cargo from the region of Lorraine to the Mediterranean would require paying thirty-four duties along twenty-one stops. In order to finance itself, the Crown farmed out administrative jobs like tax collecting. Those who purchased a lucrative tax collecting position could count on steady earnings as well as the hatred of the commoners, who saw larger shares of their incomes consumed by the state machinery.
The Farmers-General were the king’s official tax collectors but operated more like a private business — any tax collection that exceeded their quotas could be kept as personal profit, making them some of the wealthiest and most influential members of high society.
But attempts to reform the complex system of tax collection and custom duties in line with liberal economic principles — such as the freedom of trade and exchange in an open market — met protest when they led to higher prices for bread and other staple goods.
And as those lucrative and prestigious government jobs often went to the well connected nobles rather than the competent bourgeois lawyers. It quickly became clear that the system was not conducive to a growing capitalist economy, which — according to the ideas of Enlightenment economists and philosophers — would flourish under a rational, uniform tax and legal code (5).It was through the process of creating a Revolution that the French bourgeois developed a distinct ideology and political program. They never formed what could be labeled a modern political party, but there was a general consensus around a few core ideas.
They were generally in agreement on basic principles of classical liberalism formulated by 18th century economists and philosophers — they were believers in constitutionalism, a secular state with civil liberties and guarantees for private enterprise, and a government by tax-payers and property owners.
They held no strong commitments to universal suffrage nor to a republican form of government; and they would have been quite content with an enlightened, reform minded Monarch, with clearly limited powers.
But the chances for gradual reform slipped further and further away as social crises mounted in the 1780s.
Social Crisis After Social Crisis
Most French people could not count themselves members of a rising middle-class of merchants and lawyers, nor as a part of the nobility. They were peasants, day-laborers, small craftsmens, peddlers, artisans, and shopkeepers. Peasants accounted for 80% of the French population; only one fifth of people lived in communities of more than two-thousand people. Poverty was ever present in urban and rural life.
Most peasant men and women labored in fields and dilapidated rural households without shoes or stockings, scraping by on meager plots of land and seasonal labor. While some productive landowning peasants made money in times of high prices, most struggled to provide for themselves when bad harvests hit. When they did, they led to skyrocketing costs, and poor peasants were forced to buy from the market at inflated prices.
Urban workers rarely saw their wages keep up with grain prices in times of scarcity. They, along with peasants, lived on the edge of deep, inescapable destitution where the only solace was in begging and vagrancy, abandoning children to overcrowded orphanages, prostitution, and crime.
Those hoping to escape rural poverty, or those forced to migrate for work, would find themselves part of the great masses moving into cities and towns. The 18th century was one of rapid urbanization — most who lived in urban areas had been born in the countryside before emigrating to the cities and towns for work. For perspective, Paris had grown by one-hundred thousand people, Bordeaux and Nantes had doubled in size, and Marseilles and Lyons had increased by half.
The best hope of steady income in cities and towns was in the skilled crafts, but these were organized and exclusive trades; the system of guilds required craftsmen to spend their early years as apprentices in a guild master’s shop. Most workshops were small and although days could be long — with sixteen hour shifts not uncommon — they had a measure of control over the pace of work.
But as the early Industrial Revolution advanced, the disciplined, modern workspaces of industrial capitalism were emerging. The Royal Glassworks of Paris employed five hundred workers; Réveillon’s wallpaper works employed three hundred. And, for the guild craftsmen whose jobs had been protected by their skill and organization, this was a sign of an uncertain future.
1788 and 1789 were years wrought with terrible harvests. In the former, massive summer hail storms destroyed much of the crop in the areas surrounding Paris — one of the most productive agricultural regions of France. For the urban poor the crisis hit them from both sides, with bread prices inflating and work already hard to find.
With an increasing share of working people’s incomes going to food, the domestic market for manufactured goods shrunk, reducing the incomes — if not outright eliminating them — of the urban craftsmen, artisans, laborers, and shopkeepers.
The price of bread was a good way to gauge the temperature of the public mood — urban people believed that the price should be controlled at a level they could afford, to the frustration of believers in the tenets of classical liberalism. If prices were unjust, people adjusted the price themselves by looting warehouses, threatening bakers, and lynching suspected hoarders.
When price controls were removed in 1774 in the midst of a poor harvest, prices increased by 50% in Paris, and this set off a wave of riots known as the “Flour Wars.” Violent protests spread through the region, and it took sending in the army, mass arrests, and a few public executions to get things once again under control.
Events like this would be repeated throughout France in the following decade, from Le Havre on the English Channel Coast to Grenoble in the Alpine southwest; a preview of how quickly a bad harvest could turn into a social crisis that threatened all political authority, and the soon to be popular Revolutionary methods of justice (6).
Sentimentality and Reason: The Enlightenment in France
French society outside the court at Versailles was much more aware of politics than it had been only one-hundred years before. Pamphlets and literature slipped past the censors and often found their way into the hands of a growing reading public. The price of literature and journal subscriptions prevented literate craftsmen from accessing them, but the growing bourgeois were voracious readers.
Available for purchase or to be borrowed from reading societies and academies was a growing body of Enlightenment thought that implicitly — or, at the risk of censorship, explicitly — questioned the order and traditions of Ancien Régime France.
Arguably the most widely known figure of the French Enlightenment is François-Marie Arouet, better known by his pen name, Voltaire. He lived through the better part of the 18th century, dying at the age of eighty-three in 1778, and wrote thousands of books, pamphlets, and letters in which he advocated for free speech, religious freedom, and civil liberties.
Voltaire’s literature satirized much of French social and political life, from the hypocrisy of the Church to the depravity of the idle nobility. He believed that advancements in the understanding of the natural world and the practical application of reason would lead to human betterment; envisioning a reformed, enlightened monarchy as the embodiment of progress and reason.
Despite his sometimes vicious attacks on tradition, he was actually widely read by the nobility across Europe, and was not so much a Revolutionary as an irreverent advisor to the ruling class across the continent. A more controversial figure, on the other hand, was Jean-Jacques Rousseau. His views contrasted with other leading figures of the Enlightenment in that he saw man’s natural state as good and virtuous and society as the source of corruption. While others celebrated the progress of science and reason, Rousseau saw the individualism of the 18th century as a corruption of the virtuous state of nature.
He wrote popular emotional novels as well as works of political philosophy — his political writings, like On the Social Contract and Discourse on Inequality were read by future Revolutionaries. His ideal political community was a small republic of equal citizens where democratic deliberation would enable individuals to overcome their individual selfishness and act in accordance with the common interests of the community.
It wasn’t just abstract ideas that captivated educated French society, but the very real experience of the American War of Independence in which 8,000 French soldiers had first-hand experience.
The new American Republic’s first ambassador, Benjamin Franklin, was a popular figure whose simplicity and practical intellect seemed straight from the mind of Rousseau. The American struggle for Independence proved that people could create new, free, and rational laws and institutions (7).
But while the American Revolution was inspiring to many, it bankrupted the state of France. By 1788, and as a direct result of the expensive support for the Americans, one half of revenues went to servicing existing debts.
The Nobility Pushes Back
The decades before the Revolution were not without attempts at reform. As debts mounted and revenues stagnated, a rotating cast of ministers attempted to reform the state’s finances. First, the Royal Finance Minister, Calonne, convinced the king to call an “Assembly of Notables.”
Selected by the king from the nobility and clergy, this deliberative body was meant to legitimize the royal proposal so as to raise revenue by equalizing taxation and removing noble tax exemptions. Calonne presented a four-point program — a single land tax, conversion of the Corvée (mandatory labor by peasants) into a tax, abolitionment of internal tariffs, and the creation of provincial assemblies.
They began deliberation at Versaille in January of 1787. Calonne’s proposals were mostly accepted as rational solutions to the fiscal crisis, but he was a terrible politician with a reputation for spending lavishly. In March 1788, it was revealed that he and his friends had profited off of land deals on the same plots he had persuaded the king to sell.
Calonne resigned in disgrace and was forced to leave the country, and the king preserved his own reputation by stripping Calonne of his titles, which pleased a public upset by his misdeeds and questionable motives.
Despite his personal flaws, Calonne had brought to attention the dismal state of the financial situation and staked his career on reforms that even the Notables agreed were necessary, although they disagreed with the proposal for provincial assemblies and, most crucially demanded, to see the full accounting of the state finances (8).
The Marquis de Lafayette — a young noble; a veteran of the American Revolution; an admirer of George Washington — called for a “truly national assembly.” The Assembly of Notables had no mandate to represent the nation as a whole, and Lafayette was not alone in arguing that a body representing all, including commoners, was needed to solve the present crisis
The king’s brother, the Count d’Artois, responded by asking if he was calling for the Estates-General. Lafayette responded, “Yes, my lord, and even better than that.” (9)
Calonne’s replacement was the ambitious clergyman, Brienne. He had schemed against Calonne, but after being appointed his replacement he presented a modified version of the man’s reforms to the Notables.
But in the interim, the Notables had done little else than scrutinize the royal accounts and were now firmly demanding a permanent commission to audit royal finances. This was unacceptable to the king who saw this as a gross infringement on his authority.
The first publication of a balance sheet of royal finances had been in 1781, and everyone knew by now that this had been deceptive. At an impasse with the king over the issue of auditing, and without any kind of mandate to represent the wishes of the nation as a whole, the Notables were dismissed without much fanfare. Brienne, without the Notables, attempted to press forward with the reforms. But once again the royal authorities were met with resistance — this time by the parlements of Paris.
These were the highest Appellate courts in their respective provinces, and also registered royal edicts. They could stop laws by refusing to register them, which is exactly what the parlement of Paris did with Brienne’s tax reforms. Some — like the liberalization of the grain trade — were approved, but the Paris parlements declared that any new permanent taxes would require the consent of the Estates-General, a feudal deliberative body that had not met since 1614.
With that, there was an outpouring of public support for the parlements. Crowds assembled when it met, political clubs and discussion groups grew, and new pamphlets closely followed the unfolding confrontation.
Trying to claw back the initiative, the Crown exiled the parlements to Troyes in northeast France in August of 1787, but its attempts to thwart them were met with accusations of despotism, while, all the while, the financial crisis remained unresolved (10).
The intervention of catastrophic weather in the summer of 1788 (when that massive hail storm destroyed the crop of the Paris basin) furthered challenges, and more bad weather across France meant that peasants would have difficulty paying taxes in 1789.
The Crown was unable to acquire new loans to cover the gap in its finances, and Brienne announced the date for the meeting of the Estate-General — May 1789 — but even this failed to revive the credit markets.
Brienne, like Calonne before him, had tried and failed to reform state finances within the institutions of the absolutist monarchy. The king supported them at first, but he was unwilling to compromise when his own privileges were up for negotiation. Brienne resigned and convinced the king to replace him with a popular former minister, Jacques Necker. He did so, however reluctantly.
Necker — a protestant banker — was a man who had previously served as a finance minister during the American War of Independence, cleverly funding the war through loans. While this earned him public trust and reputation as a financial wizard, it also significantly contributed to the insolvency of the state. Necker thought that the publication of royal finances would strengthen the credit of the state, and that the official posts should be given to men of integrity and competence.
His belief in any kind of check on royal authority — along with his Protestantism — earned him few friends at Versaille where prestigious positions were earned through familial connections and mastery of court politics. But he had the people on his side in 1788; he was to be a caretaker until the Estates General could meet and, together with sensible royal authorities, work out a solution to the political and economic crises.
What Happened During the French Revolution?
King Louis XVI had tried to be a reforming king — but the state was bankrupt, and the traditional institutions were blocking changes to the tax laws that would bring in desperately needed revenue. Calling the Estates General could have been a way to implement gentle reforms and calm the financial markets, ensuring Louis XVI would be remembered in posterity as one of the great French rulers instead of how he is today — a tragic figure who failed to preserve the position he inherited.
But to the surprise of those who believed in the inherent strength of the monarchy and the loyalty of its subjects, social and political crises would lead to a revolution. The old order was unable to meet the needs of the French people, and so a new class of political leaders quickly figured out how to take matters into their own hands.
Calling the Estates General
The Estates General was a representative assembly of orders, based around a medieval understanding of society. The people were divided by social rank — nobles, the clergy, and commoners (the vast majority).
At the previous meeting of the Estates General in 1614, the members had voted by order rather than headcount — each deciding how they, as a whole, would choose — meaning that they were all allocated a vote and that their members deliberated as a class; nobles sat with nobles, commoners with commoners, and clergy with clergy.
This meant that the clergy and nobility — representing a smaller but privileged slice of French society — could effectively shut out the Third Estate and the vast majority of the French public from any kind of decision making.
Prior to the meeting of the Estates General in 1789, no one was exactly sure what the purpose of the representative assembly was, the form it would take, or how it would vote. Royal authorities intended for the Estate General to simply approve their proposed reforms — they didn’t see it as the start of some kind of legislature to check royal authority.
The deputies to the Estate General were to be selected by local electors — a kind of indirect election. With the spread of literature throughout France, the assembling bodies of electors meant that there was widespread discussion amongst the people about what exactly the Estate General would do.
The local assemblies of electors also collected Cahiers de doléances. These addressed the king and expressed grievances at everything — from prices on staple goods and the burdens of tithes, to exploitative nobles and tax collectors. Today, they are an incredible documentation of the concerns and anxieties of pre-revolutionary France.
The Cahiers were how those who were not delegates — such as workers, artisans, and peasants — could publicly express their concerns. These people were made much more aware of the events happening around them by the proliferation of pamphlets. Around 1,400 different leaflets circulated in 1788, and when the elections to the Estates General opened in 1789, over 2,000 were published in the first four months (11).
The Third Estate represented all French commoners, and the deputies sent to the Estate General — who were mostly bourgeoisie — believed that they were the representatives of the people and nation. Two-thirds of Third Estate deputies were legal professionals or in the royal service, businessmen and bankers made up around 13%, and farmers and landowners lingered around 10%.
They were generally in agreement that they wanted a constitutional monarchy — an end to feudal burdens and seigneurial justice system, as well as church reform. On economic matters, there was a bit more diversity.
Some were more interested in protecting local economic interests, while others believed in economic liberalism — the removal of most burdens to trade and commerce, such as guild restrictions for craftsmen and royal licenses restricting who could sell certain goods (12).
As the deputies elected to the Estates General traveled to Versaille, they carried with them ideas of reform, but they were not yet Revolutionaries.
But in retrospect, the Estates General would have never been capable of solving the fiscal crises — history shows that its archaic rules and unclear mandate would instead lead to a contestation between commoners and the Crown for political authority.
Tennis Court Oath
Abbé Sieyès, a clergyman more interested in Enlightenment philosophy than theology, wrote a widely read pamphlet titled, What is the Third Estate? in which he asked: “What is the Third Estate? Everything. What has it been until now in the political order? Nothing. What does it want to be? Something.”
Sieyès argued that the Third Estate was synonymous with the nation and that it was its task to create a representative assembly for France. The Third Estate, the workers, peasants, merchants, artists, and all other manner of commoners, not only created the wealth of the nation but were subject to common laws.
The nobility was defined by its particular titles and rights that marked them as different. These same privileges excluded the nobility from the shared experiences that bound the Third Estate together, and defined its role as the true representatives of the nation. What was a nation if not the shared experience of common people? Sieyès’ pamphlet was widely read by deputies and the wider public, defining for many what the true task of the Third Estate was during the summer of 1789 (13).
The Third Estate almost immediately adopted the title “the Commons” and agreed to not conduct any business in isolation, arguing that the orders should meet and vote together by headcount as a unified assembly. The nobility and clergy refused, and the Commons did not receive support from the Royal authorities — who had no intention for the Estates General to turn into a permanent legislative body passing laws and decrees.
On June 15th, Sieyès proposed the Commons call themselves the “Assembly of the known and verified representatives of the French Nation.” The legally minded deputies of the Third Estate were in uncharted territory — declaring themselves a sovereign national assembly would be an extra-legal maneuver not sanctioned by precedent or existing statutes. Two days of debates produced more wordy titles until Sieyès presented the title he always wanted, “The National Assembly.”
His proposal met overwhelming approval on June 17th. The more cautious deputies finally realized that Sieyès’ proposal was the only way forward, and there was no compromising on the issue with the other two orders.
The crowds watching their proceedings, as well as the wider French public eagerly following their deliberations, pressured them to act. The more assertive deputies moved to declare all existing taxes illegal but provisionally approved while the Assembly was in session — essentially declaring the sovereignty of the National Assembly.
Two days later, the Clergy — many of whom were poor parish priests with more in common with the deputies from the Third Estate than the nobility — voted to join the Assembly. With that, the Estates General was effectively supplanted by the Assembly, and the deputies eagerly awaited a response from the king (14).
On June 20th, the deputies discovered their meeting hall was locked and guarded by royal soldiers. Supposedly this was because the hall needed to be renovated for an upcoming royal session where the king was to present his proposals for the proceedings of the Estates General, but this did not appease deputies who now expected the king to try to dissolve their Assembly. Even those who had opposed the decision of June 17th were enraged by this act of despotism.
Undeterred by the show of Royal force, the deputies moved their proceedings to a nearby tennis court. The inside was austere — its high, bare walls contrasted sharply with the ostentatiousness and spectacle of the halls of Versaille.
The stands were packed with spectators, and soldiers left their official posts to guard the entryways. On the open court, 566 deputies placed one hand on their breast, extended the other forward, and swore to not separate until they drafted a constitution for France in what became known as “The Tennis Court Oath.”
Well educated in Roman history, they were inspired by the heroic moments of that ancient republic. Until that moment, the political institutions of France had been defined by particular persons carrying titles and privileges — like the king, or spaces, palaces of justice, the court at Versaille.
The Tennis Court Oath unmoored the representatives of the nation from these corporeal and physical spaces; the Assembly would meet wherever it could in order to achieve its historical task.
On June 23rd, the king was to speak at the royal session. The hall was surrounded by soldiers, many of whom were foreign mercenaries such as the Swiss guards. The first two orders, clergy and nobles, entered through the main entrance as dictated by tradition. The Commons, uniformly clad in simple black suits, waited in the rain to enter through the back door.
The king declared the Commons deliberations illegal and commanded the three orders to return to their respective rooms so as to deliberate distinctly from each other. In response, the deputies of the National Assembly remained seated.
Count Mirabeau — one of the few nobles elected to the Third Estate whose earlier career included stints in prison, writing erotic literature, and fighting with other nobles — declared that nothing but bayonets could force the National Assembly to move. But, at this point, dissolving it by force was not really an option. Days earlier, soldiers had begun leaving their barracks and mingling in public places in Versaille and in Paris going so far as to disarm Swiss and German mercenaries patrolling the city.
On June 27th, the king capitulated and wrote to the remaining clergy and nobility to join the National Assembly. On July 9th, they took the name “The National Constituent Assembly.”
The people of Paris had been following the events closely. Although Versaille was intentionally built away from the city in order to prevent popular influence on the business of government — thanks to widespread literature and daily reports from the proceedings of the Estates General — Parisians were well aware of what was going on inside the palace.
Their loyalty was to the Third Estate — now the National Assembly — and they would soon show their determination to defend the new representatives of the nation.
The Storming of the Bastille
The mood of Paris was tense in the summer of 1789. The price of bread — always a reliable measurement of the mood of the Parisian public — was rising. In early June, workers had rioted and burned down a wallpaper manufactory after rumors circulated that the owner wanted to cut wages. And, on June 30th, a crowd of 4,000 young men demolished the gates of a prison with the goal of liberating eleven French Guards accused of being members of a secret society.
Political events in Versaille were also raising the temperature of the city. Necker had remained popular with the public and was trusted as a patriotic, competent minister. But he was hated by the Court and nobility, particularly those who believed he was scheming to place limits on the authority of the king. The king finally heeded the advice of his wife, Marie Antoinette, and his brother the Comte d’Artois; he fired Necker on July 12th.
Parisians were outraged by Necker’s dismissal. The news was heard on a Sunday, when few were working — many filled the streets and public squares. The movement of Royal troops in and around the city alarmed people who already suspected a plan to disperse the National Assembly.
Calvary trying to disperse a crowd outside the Tuileries Palace were pelted with stones, and all throughout Paris, crowds formed to attack symbols of royal authority. From the 12th to the 13th, citizens destroyed the hated toll gates that taxed goods moving in and out of the city. The most hungry Parisians looted stores of food, including the monastery of Saint-Lazare — where it was rumored that fat monks sat on enormous stores of grain, cheese, and wine.
On the night of July 13th, Parisian workers, craftsmen, and small shopkeepers began arming themselves and patrolling the streets. They were joined by defectors from the French Guards — royal troops who were tasked with patrolling Paris. Rumors began to circulate that arms, shot, and powder was being moved to the Bastille — the towering fortress and prison in the heart of the city, infamous for its dungeons and cruel conditions.
It was not particularly well guarded in July of 1789, and was garrisoned with less than a hundred troops. But, in the eyes of the starving, angry people, it stood as a powerful symbol of royal power. The Bastille was a medieval fortress, an infamous prison, a symbol of royal power, and, most importantly for the Parisians on July 14th, well-stocked with weapons.
J. Humbert was a Parisian who — like thousands of others — took to the streets in July of 1789. At the Hotel de Ville, Parisians were distributing arms; Humbert managed to get his hands on a musket along with some powder, but no shot was available.
A man passing by suddenly exclaimed that the Bastille was being besieged, and Humbert made a decision. He loaded his musket with nails and set off to join the assault. The Bastille’s commander, Bernard René Jourdan de Launey, pulled his small garrison behind the ninety-foot high walls and ceded the outer courtyard to the insurgents. The shooting began sporadically after de Launey lost his nerve and ordered his troops to fire, but picked up in intensity as the Parisian insurrectionaries believed they had been led into a trap.
The citizens brought forward a cannon, but, before it was put to use, de Launay surrendered. At first, the Parisians were unwilling to accept this, but before the battle became a massacre cooler heads prevailed. Despite that, de Launay was not spared; after the battle, he was dragged to the Hotel de Ville and stabbed to death (15). Meanwhile, the representatives of the Third Estate in Paris were following the National Assembly in creating new political institutions. The electors of Paris had assembled to send deputies to the Estates General, but now they decided to seize local authority.
Jean-Sylvain Bailly — one of the instigators of the Tennis Court Oath — became the new mayor. They established the Commune of Paris as the municipal authority, consisting of 144 delegates elected by the neighborhood sections (meaning, at the time, the different territories of administrative divisions). It was based in the Hotel de Ville, and, through the sections of Paris, local activists practiced more intimate democratic politics and organized demonstrations.
The sections would become hotbeds of political radicalism as workers, craftsmen, shopkeepers, and radical lawyers would debate, vote, and petition. And it would be where Bailly and other radicals would make their foray into Revolutionary politics.
Parisians were no strangers to seeing criminals tortured and killed in public — an 18th century bread riot was often the site of a lynching. In the aftermath of the storming of the Bastille the prison’s commander, the Marquis de Launay, and a Parisian magistrate were killed, their heads stuck onto pikes to be paraded in front of the Hotel de Ville.
The bourgeois leaders in the Hotel de Ville — now calling themselves representatives of the Paris Commune — were alarmed by the sight, to say the least, and feared more potential violence. They were determined to limit the influence of what they saw as a senseless mob and anarchic barbarity, but a temporary alliance with the Parisian crowds was useful, as long as they were firmly in control (16).
What made the events of July 14th revolutionary was a number of things — the convergence of social grievances, the price of bread, the dismal economic situation, the political crisis as royal authority clashed with the National Assembly over who held political power. The people of Paris had taken the initiative to push events forward — the storming of the Bastille was not an isolated incident, nor was it senseless mob violence. It was part of the process of the people, learning to organize and execute insurrections while becoming a powerful, self-conscious political actor (17).
Camille Desmoulins — a young lawyer living in the working-class Cordelier neighborhood — was one such individual that helped organize the demonstrations on July 14th. In his own account, he inspired a crowd to take up arms after jumping onto a table and giving a rousing speech.
A man by the name of Georges Danton — a lawyer with an outsized personality and frame, a booming voice, and gifted with turn of phrase — began agitating in Parisian local politics.
These future Revolutionary leaders believed that the authority of the old order was crumbling, and it was up to the people of France to create a new society. Unlike the more moderate leaders at the Hotel de Ville, they embraced the sometimes-violent impulses of the Parisian crowd.
The old order had maintained itself through centuries of violence and oppression — it wasn’t going to give up when confronted with a good argument or a well worded petition. The people would have to be armed, organized, and ready to defend their rights.
A Revolution, Secured?
The bourgeois politicians had misgivings about the violence of the rural and urban revolts, but they understood that their position was secured through the strength of the popular movements. Distrusting the royal army as well as the Parisian crowd, the Revolutionaries set about creating a new force of citizen soldiers. But to ease fears of the National Guard turning into an armed mob, membership was restricted to those with a stable domicile and fixed income.
Lafayette — whose reputation as a patriot and veteran of the American War of Independence made him an ideal candidate to lead the National Guard — saw the need to create a patriotic spirit amongst the organization, and, lacking the means to provide enough uniforms, determined that the tricolor cockade would be a fitting symbol.
Combining the red and blue of Paris with the white of the Bourbon monarchy, it would be an enduring emblem of the Revolution, with the National Guard as well as civilians pinning cockades to themselves to indicate their patriotism. Meanwhile, the king, at this point, was not a direct object of ridicule — popular anger was directed at the corrupt hanger-ons, courtiers, and royal family members like Marie Antoinette and the Comte d’Artois, as well as those suspected of hoarding grain and exploiting uncertainty to raise prices.
After July 14th, the king announced that royal troops were to be moved away from Paris and that he would recall Necker. Only a few days later, on the 17th, he returned to Paris, and the crowd chanted “Long live the King!” and “Long live the nation!” as Mayor Bailey pinned a tricolor cockade to the monarch’s collar.
By all appearances, the king had declared his support for the National Assembly; expectations amongst its members was to create a constitutional monarchy and democratically elected legislature.
But an abstract feeling of patriotism didn’t necessarily translate to consensus on the concrete problems the National Assembly would have to solve — who would be able to vote and stand for office? What kind of constitutional authority would the monarchy have? What was to be done about the still unresolved fiscal crisis? These were all questions that would soon have to be answered, one way or another.
Along the borders of France, an obstinate royalist opposition was forming. The king’s brother, the Comte d’Artois, had been a vocal opponent of any limits to royal authority since the Assembly of Notables in 1787. He joined the first wave of émigré — supporters of the absolute monarchy and the political order of the Ancien Régime who fled France for the bordering principalities along the Rhine river.
Revolt Spreads to the Provinces
In towns and cities across France, the events of July 14th would be repeated. People seized arms from local arsenals, formed local National Guards, and created committees to govern towns and municipalities. Royal officials resigned, fled, or were imprisoned. The new committees would take orders only from the National Assembly.
France was — almost overnight — transformed from a highly centralized state into a confederation of municipalities where local committees had near absolute power (18). Already in the Spring of 1789, rural unrest had been growing. The grain shortages hit the peasantry hard, and while the drafting, the Cahiers, and the elections to the Third Estate had eased tensions, the news of July 14th set off a nationwide rural revolt.
Rumors of marauding bandits and mercenaries employed by nobles spread from village to village, and the urban merchants buying up grain were also highly suspect. The well stocked noble and church granaries were proof enough that aristocrats were scheming to starve the people. In Saint-Omer in the north, peasants organized an armed militia after the evening shimmer of the sun on the local chateau’s windows was misinterpreted as the glimmer of steel weapons in the hands of marauding bandits. At the same time, in the south, a herd of cows was mistaken for an armed band.
A climate of hysteria had gripped rural France.
The patterns were the same in hundreds of villages and towns across the country; rumors were false, but with the climate of fear and anxiety combined with a deficit of reliable news sources, they were readily believed — whether that meant a rider coming from some faraway town, or a messenger from a neighboring village bringing word of an impending threat of a regiment of Swedes commanded by the Comte d’Artois, brigades of British marines landing on the Northern coast, or thousands of Spanish troops marauding through the countryside.
The tocsin — the local town bell — was rung, and that brought in men from the fields while sending women and children into hiding. A local militia was then quickly assembled, some armed with little more than sickles and pitchforks (19). But when the rumored regiments of foreign troops or roaming gangs of bandits never materialized, peasants found closer targets.
Many went on the offensive against feudal privilege and noble property — the rural rebels’ favorite targets were the chateaus, where they often went straight for the papers documenting feudal dues and obligations (20).
This explosion of concentrated anxiety quickly became known as “The Great Fear” and lasted from July 20th to August 6th. While its proximate causes were ephemeral, its consequences were concrete and long-lasting; rural France’s social order would soon undergo dramatic legal changes.
Ending Noble Privilege
The widespread rural revolt was effectively destroying feudalism by force, and the National Assembly would have to do something, lest they be outpaced by peasant rebels out of their control. Deputies from Brittany — a region in the west of France — calling themselves the Breton Club decided that “a king of magic” was required to solve the crisis in rural France.
They persuaded the Duke d’Aiguillon — a rich Versaille courtier with liberal views — to propose abolitioning his own noble privileges on the evening of August 4th. But before the duke could present his motion, another nobleman, the Viscount de Noailles, came forward with his own similar proposal.
Although he was surprised that his carefully laid plan had been preempted, the duke immediately voiced his support and presented his own motion. With it, the Assembly was gripped by a kind of hysteria as other nobles then stood to renounce their privileges. This set off a chain of events that would wipe away centuries of tradition and legal privilege.
From August 5th to the 11th, 1789, the National Assembly worked frantically to pass what became known as the August Decrees — a series of resolutions that eliminated much of the legalized privileges that were the basis of the nobility’s class power.The justice system was upended — the parlements were gone, as were the rights of local nobles to preside over cases. Tax exemptions were removed, along with mandatory labor by peasants, exclusive hunting rights for nobles, exclusive rights to run grain mills and wine presses, rights to fish rivers, rights to levy taxes on village chimneys, and the myriad of tolls collected by local nobles.
Privilege had been eliminated — all Frenchman, regardless of inherited title, were to live under the same laws.
The National Assembly declared that it had destroyed the feudal regime, but, in actuality, much of the feudal dues that peasants had been paying would still be paid, albeit in different forms.
Feudal dues were redeemable, meaning they would have to be paid until they were fully compensated. Tithes, on the other hand — mandatory payments to the Catholic Church — were outright abolished.
But even still, these reforms largely benefited the French bourgeoisie and wealthier landlords; they were the ones who had the means to purchase land now for sale on an open market as well as repay the fees not outright eliminated by the new legislation.
Many French peasants would continue to pay dues to landlords because they lacked the money to buy out the contracts.
As much as the National Assembly was for equality before the law, they also respected property, and could not countenance the violation of the principles of private property that an outright elimination of all contractually obligated fees would entail (21).
The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen
From the beginning, the deputies of the Third Estate believed that their role was to create a constitution — and they were largely in agreement that it should be prefaced by a declaration of rights. Lafayette proposed a draft of a Declaration of Rights on July 11th, and he most certainly had the recent success of Revolutionary America in mind. Even the American ambassador (and future president), Thomas Jefferson, read all Lafayette’s drafts through the summer and added some of his own considerations.
Sieyès had, with his earlier writings, affirmed his reputation as one of the more radical members of the Assembly. He too contributed to the draft along with some of the members of the various committees appointed to draft the new constitution. But Lafayette’s proposal met polite applause, and little concrete support. It was on August 4th — just before the frantic evening session that began the end of feudalism — that the Assembly agreed that such a declaration of rights was a matter of urgency.
In the aftermath of the destruction of hundreds of years of tradition over less than a week, it was especially important to create a document that reflected new principles. On August 26th, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen was finally voted on. In its 17 articles, the Declaration affirmed values of equality, liberty, and national sovereignty. Man had inalienable rights to freedom of expression, to participate in the legislative process, and to private property. Authority derived not from a king appointed by God, but from the will of the people expressed through a representative government.
And what may be the most remarkable aspect of this document is its universality — it’s language did not limit it to France or French citizens, but expanded to include all mankind (22).But while the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen articulated a universal concept of citizenship based on natural rights and legal equality, it failed to actualize these universal principles. It excluded the rights of women, because, according to the text, only men could be citizens.
Despite being excluded from the active rights of citizens, voting, and standing for elected office, women played a critical role in the Paris rebellions that secured the Revolution — they were Revolutionaries in their own right, not an addendum to the men. The Declaration’s supposedly universal principles also didn’t apply to the hundreds of thousands of people enslaved on the sugar, tobacco, and indigo plantations of France’s most lucrative colony Saint-Domingue — present day Haiti.
Individual rights and liberties were secondary to the interests of the mercantile bourgeois who made enormous profits off of one of the most brutal labor regimes in world history — the average slave taken to Saint-Domingue was worked to death in little more than ten years.
The Constituent Assembly declared “unfree labor” — their euphanism for slavery — constitutional in 1791, but the people in bondage had other plans (23).
The slave rebellion in Saint-Domingue began in that same year and would end in 1804 with an independent Haiti. And it drew from the rhetoric of the Declaration, making real a more universal idea of human rights.
The ideals of the French bourgeoisie were undoubtedly far reaching. However, their practical application was limited by the material interests of the class that created them — property owning men had no interest in the rights of women or the enslaved.
The Revolution unleashed ideas of equality and universal rights that would be taken to lengths its creators did not intend.
While the legislature was busy at work crafting new laws, the people of Paris were becoming more and more skeptical of the king’s legislative veto — there was serious worry that he would do the same thing with the new legislation coming from the National Assembly, including the August Decrees.
Plus, the bad harvest of 1789 was still very much being felt by Parisians. The price of bread was still too high, and the emigration of aristocrats meant many workers making luxury goods were unemployed. So, for the second time within a few months, the people of Paris took it upon themselves to save the Revolution. On October 3rd, citizens were infuriated when they read in the radical press that, at a banquet in Versaille, royal officers tore off their tricolor cockade — a gesture of intended disrespect towards the Revolution.
The women of Paris, on whom much of the burden of feeding the family fell, first gathered in the poorer working class neighborhood of Faubourg Saint-Antoine, later moving to the Hotel de Ville where they brushed aside the guards, seizing an assortment of weapons — pikes, muskets, and two cannons — and setting off for Versaille.
By 5 o’clock in the afternoon, when they arrived at the palace, the march on Versaille consisted of 5,000 to 7,000 women plus the workers and defecting French Guards they’d picked up along the way. They sent a delegation to the Assembly demanding bread and punishment for those who disrespected patriotic cockade. In response, the Assembly then sent its president — a position that rotated amongst the deputies — to see the king.
They pressed him to accept the Declaration of Rights and the August Decrees, as well as provide the capital with needed grain and flour.
The king’s councillors advised that he should flee Versaille, but he refused. Instead, at ten in the evening, he validated both the August Decrees and the Declaration of Rights, and when the crowd heard the news they shouted,
“Long live the king!”
Their mood was jubilant, but the night wasn’t yet over (24). Lafayette had been trying to keep order in Paris, but by the time he arrived at the Hotel de Ville, the women’s march had already set off for Versaille. He had little interest in getting involved in the demonstrations, fearing that it would precipitate a breakdown in discipline and ruin the image of the orderly citizen-soldiers that he had staked his personal reputation to.
However, he was forced by the rank and file soldiers of the National Guard to follow the Parisians to the palace, arriving around midnight on the 5th.
On the morning of the 6th, the crowd began to shout, “The king to Paris!” and a group of armed demonstrators entered the grounds of the royal residence. The commander of the guards had left a stairway to the royal family’s residence exposed — as a group of demonstrators attempted to enter, one of the royal guards shot and killed a man in the crowd.
This set off a rampage and the Parisians attacked, killing two of the guards and carrying their heads away on pikes. The royal guards retreated room by room as the crowd surged through the apartments, and Marie Antoinette and her children huddled together with the king. And then the National Guard advanced, thus saving the royal family from immediate danger.
After regaining his composure, the king appeared on the balcony to address the crowd gathered in the courtyard.
He promised to move to Paris, entrusting himself to “the love and respect of [his] faithful subjects.” Seeing an opportunity, Lafayette proved himself a master of political gestures — he pinned a tricolor cockade on an officer of the royal guard, thus demonstrating their patriotism, and in response the crowd cheered. However, securing the reputation of the queen was a little more uncertain.
Lafayette again appeared on the balcony with her, kneeling and kissing her hand. What could have easily been seen as a ridiculous gesture was instead greeted by cheers of “Long live the queen!” — something that had not been heard for years, as the queen’s reputation had steadily deteriorated. At the front and back of the procession to Paris were National Guards, while in the middle was the royal family’s carriage (escorted by Lafayette), followed by ministeres, deputies of the National Assembly, the few remaining courtiers, and wagons of bread and flour.
The Parisians marched and sang that they were bringing, “The baker, the baker’s wife, and the baker’s lad back to Paris.” There, the royal family was moved into their new home, the Tuileries Palace — a massive structure which sat at the west end of what is now, today, the Louvre courtyard. The National Assembly followed them back to the city to their own new meeting hall, the Salle du Manège; just west of the Tuileries Palace (25). It was this march to Versaille that revealed deep fissures in Revolutionary politics.
The more conservative delegates in the National Constituent Assembly feared the people of Paris; the royal court feared the limits being imposed on the monarch by the Assembly, as well as the threat of the mob; and Parisians feared the Revolution that they had spilled blood to secure was at risk of being overturned by royalists and aristocrats.
It was at the Salle du Manège where deputies began to arrange their seating order in a political way — from left to right, in relation to the lectern.
On the right sat the monarchists — conservative deputies who opposed more radical measures. On the left sat those who had supported a single Assembly and significant limits to the king’s power, many being members of the Society of the Friends of the Constitution — a political club that had first operated in secret, but, by the fall of 1789, had begun to have public meetings to discuss the Constitution and debate politics. On the far left sat a few deputies, among them a lawyer from the provincial town Arras, named Maximillian Robespierre.
In the Revolutionary climate, people from all sorts of backgrounds and social classes needed spaces to discuss politics, organize, and agitate for their cause. Political clubs formed to fill these needs — but they were far from the well organized machines of modern political parties; even the best organized were more like loose coalitions of like minded people.
The more exclusive political club was “The Society of 1789,” founded by Sieyès and holding meetings in the Palais-Royal. It had a high entrance fee, restricting it to those in high society. Lafayette was also a member, as was Bailly — the mayor of Paris — and Mirabeau, who had played a leading role in the National Assembly in the Summer of 1789.
The “Society of the Friends of the Constitution” was founded in 1789 by anti-royalist deputies from Brittany. First known as the Breton Club, it then moved to Paris, changing its name and founding a cheap meeting location near the Jacobin convent — hence its members being derogatively referred to as “Jacobins.” But they quickly adopted the insult as their own.
The club’s members saw themselves as the guardians of the values and principles of the Revolution. Some were radical democrats, and, unlike the Society of 1789, they opened their membership to those outside Paris — although the membership fee was still high enough to keep out workers and artisans, it was accessible to middle-class professionals.
The walls of a typical Jacobin Club were adorned with busts of popular figures from antiquity, such as Cato and Brutus, along with more contemporary figures like Benjamin Franklin and Rousseau. The text of the Declaration of the Rights of Man was prominently displayed alongside engravings of Revolutionary events, and the spaces were loud — this was where aspiring politicians would have to master rhetoric to succeed.
A Jacobin club was a training ground for national politics, in an era when the success or failure of a legislative motion hinged on a well crafted speech (26).
By August of 1790, there were over 152 affiliated Jacobin clubs in France, with each keeping close contact with one another. They effectively used public opinion to force their decrees through the Assembly by contacting their affiliated clubs and circulating papers. When time came to vote on a decree — regardless of what was often an initial poor reaction from the Assembly — they would be accepted by a large majority. It was a system for spreading Revolutionary ideas, and, as events progressed, it provided the Jacobins with a level of organization and discipline that their opponents lacked (27).
An altogether different political club emerged from the streets of Paris in June of 1790. “The Society of the Friends of the Rights of Man and the Citizen,” also known as the Cordelier Club, met in the working class neighborhoods of Paris and had low membership fees. Its meetings were attended by the sans-culottes — artisans, shopkeepers, and wage workers who used political clubs to practice direct democratic politics.
More of a group of action and struggle than a debating society, it was not uncommon for members of the Cordelier Club to show up to a meeting armed with pikes. Along with red liberty caps and striped, loose fitting pantaloons — the opposite of the snug, knee high breeches favored by the bourgeoisie and nobility — the pike was a symbol of the sans-culotte, as well as a cheap weapon in urban insurgencies.
Sans-culotte translates to “without breeches.” The loose fitting pants the craftsmen, shopkeepers, and workers of Paris wore were cheap and more practical for manual labor — and soon were adopted by even the more wealthy men who supported the cause.
It was during all of this that the radical press grew with the Revolution. Radical papers were an important source of information for the working men and women of Paris, and — while illiteracy rates were high by contemporary standards — a working man who didn’t know his letters could sit and listen as cheap papers were read aloud by his literate colleagues.
Writing was the first step in the political careers of many radicals; popular pamphlets sometimes blended humor, irony, and violent language.
In one, called Le Père Duchesne, Jacques Hébert wrote as the name-sake character of Père Duchesne — a no-nonsense radical sans-culotte, unafraid of using vulgarity and slurs to denounce enemies of the people. Marat’s Friend of the People was another influential sans-culotte pamphlet. He had been a physician and scientist before the Revolution, and, living and writing in the poor quarters of France, Marat gained a loyal following among the sans-culottes, who demanded affordable staple goods like bread and soap, and called for the punishment of those who hoarded goods or speculated on prices. His pamphlets condemned royalists, traitors, and speculators with language familiar to the Parisian commoner.
Marat and Hébert built their political careers through the radical press, but also made a number of enemies. Not every Revolutionary was a friend of the people. In autumn of 1789, the Parisian authorities and the Assembly were trying to limit the sans-culottes and the disorder in Paris. That October, a baker accused of hoarding was hanged from a lamppost, and, following Mayor Bailly’s request, the Assembly passed a decree establishing martial law.
It was to be that — if a red flag was displayed at the Hotel De Ville — all gatherings would be declared illegal, and soldiers could disperse crowds by force (28).
Who is a citizen?
The Assembly was busy at work over the summer and fall, destroying the old order and trying to create a new one. The euphoria of the creation of the Assembly and the dramatic events of the demonstrations on July 14th had created a sense of unity of purpose, and that carried through the August Decrees and the passage of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.
But this unity quickly broke down over some very concrete issues. What were to be the limits of the king’s authority? Who counted as a citizen? What was to be done about the Church? What emerged from these sessions was a definition of citizenship that alienated the more radical members of the Assembly. Sieyès proposed two categories of citizenship — the people would be divided between active and passive citizens.
Active citizens were men with property who could elect deputies and serve in government, while passive citizens — the majority of French men who had little to no property — were excluded from electoral politics. As they didn’t meet these requirements and would have no role to play in elections of representative government, they were simply shut out. Needless to say, this did not appeal to those who had partaken in the events of July 14th and continued after that to organize in the assemblies of the sections of Paris.
The king’s authority was limited — he could use his suspensive veto to hold up legislation, but not outright dismiss it; he could appoint his own ministers, but their budgets were tightly controlled by the legislature that they also had to make monthly reports to, so as to be approved.
He was no longer King Louis XVI, by the Grace of God, King of France and Navarre.
Now, he was Louis, by the Grace of God and the constitutional law of the state, King of the French. A seemingly subtle distinction in title, but one that revealed a much more dramatic shift in his position. The absolutist monarch had governed a territory, whereas the constitutional king governed the French people — those who were now citizens rather than just subjects. And, as citizens, they could be much more demanding.
Reforming the Church
The French Catholic church also lost its special privileges and influence.
In July of 1790, the Civil Constitution of the Clergy passed. It required priests to swear oaths of loyalty to the Constitution, and priests and bishops were now public officials who would be appointed by local elected assemblies. So-called constitutional or juring priests took the oath, while non-juring priests refused; half of the local priests and only 7 out of 160 bishops took the oath. This caused a severe schism between the Church and the Revolution, since the state was essentially nationalizing the Catholic Church.
This, combined with the annexation of the Papal enclave of Avignon, prompted Pope Pius VI to denounce the Revolution. Eliminating tithes — essentially a tax that went directly to the Church — greatly reduced its income. The state fiscal crisis was still a looming issue, and the National Constituent Assembly needed to find a way to stabilize the value of the currency and settle debts.
In November of 1789, new laws seized vast tracts of Church property, which was to be used to back the value of a new interest bearing bond — the assignat — which would then pay off the state’s creditors. France’s old currency, the livre, continued to be in use, though the assignat quickly became a paper currency used to pay all sorts of state expenditures. But, despite the backing of the Church property sales, the assignat would be plagued by inflation throughout the Revolution (29).
The growing divide between the Church and the Revolutionary state would alienate millions of religious people — a demographic from which counter-Revolutionaries could draw support (30). Moreover, the Assembly forced millions to make a choice between religion and patriotism, dividing families and communities across the country.
Creating Modern France
The deputies of the National Constituent Assembly planned no less than the total reorganization of France’s administrative apparatuses. From courts to tax collection to local government, the business of government would be more rational and more efficient through the application of mathematics, geography, legal theory, and political economy. Before the Revolution, France was a country of hundreds of different legal jurisdictions cobbled together after centuries of conquest and assimilation of petty fiefdoms.
But with the administrative reforms of 1790, the country was reorganized into 83 departments with uniform laws and administration, new regional bodies that were drawn based on physical geography and the settlement patterns of the former provinces. Sieyès devised a system with a decentralized pattern of governance — each department would have its own electoral assembly that appointed a directorate responsible for administration. And, keeping in line with Sieyès’ views on qualified citizenship, it was only active citizens who could participate in local politics.
The justice system was also overhauled.
Gone was the system of parliaments and seigneurial justice. The Assembly established a hierarchy of courts following the administrative divisions. Professional judges were appointed by the Assemblies, replacing royally appointed ones, and there were new protections for the accused — public trials, a guaranteed appearance before a judge within a day of arrest, and the suppression of torture. Almost immediately the Assembly set out to liberalize the economy — a task which had doomed royal ministers in the past. By September of 1789, though, the price of wheat could be set with no legal limit. Internal dues, like the tolls that had to be paid upon entering city gates, were quickly eliminated.
The Bourse — a kind of proto-stock market — operated freely, and trading companies and city monopolies on trade were abolished. Prior to these reforms, cities and towns could have exclusive rights to trade with certain regions or traffic goods on certain rivers. Marseille, for example, had exclusive right to trade in the Western Mediterranean.To replace indirect taxes, the Assembly created three direct taxes on land, commercial profits, and movement of goods. All in all, these economic reforms followed the teachings of 18th century political economy.
The free movement of goods and services was the most rational and efficient way to allocate resources, and was in the general interest of the bourgeois men of property who were now firmly in control of national politics.
Taken together, these measures modernized France along the lines of liberal values of free trade and rationally organized administration. And, while there were heated debates — particularly on the role of active and passive citizens — most motions passed with comfortable majorities.
What emerged from the work of the National Constituent Assembly was a political system reflecting the values and interests of property-holding men in general. Their reforms were striking in their scope, especially after taking into account their diverse backgrounds.
Minor nobles, lawyers, ex-priests, landowners, and bourgeois came together to create a modern state on the ruins of the Ancien Régime — it was decentralized, yet unified; democratic in appearance, but anti-popular in reality.
Breakdown of Revolutionary Unity
To celebrate the first anniversary of the Revolution, a massive event was organized for July 14, 1790. At the Champ de Mars — a large public space in Paris where some of the great pageants of the Revolution took place — hundreds of thousands gathered to celebrate the Revolution and swear an oath to the yet unfinished constitution. Twelve-hundred musicians and two hundred priests proudly displayed the tricolor sash, and fifty-thousand soldiers paraded, with Lafayette standing stoically on his white horse.
But some were less than impressed with the displays of unity. Marat wrote on July 16th in his paper, “Do they think to impose, by means of this false image of public felicity on men who have constantly before their eyes the hordes of the destitute and the multitude of citizens reduced to beggary by the revolution?”
Less than a month later, in Nancy in the Northwest, a group of soldiers were arrested after protesting against their officers’ corruption. They sent a delegation to the Assembly to petition for the release of the imprisoned soldiers but were themselves, on Lafayette’s orders, arrested.Lafayette’s cousin, François de Bouillé, led a force to quell the rebellion in Nancy, but the mutinous soldiers had been joined by the local National Guard and citizens of the city, and hundreds were killed in a day of heavy fighting.
Bouillé was praised by the Assembly and the king on his return to Paris, but many of the people felt what had happened was a massacre. One radical paper denounced Bouillé for a crime against the nation and humanity, “You needed blood to assuage your aristocratic rage, and you bathed with delight in the blood of patriots” (31).
Meanwhile, things weren’t much better in rural France.
Many peasants were still legally responsible for paying off the feudal dues that had been formally eliminated in August of 1789 — the “redemption” of these was harder to enforce in practice, as it turned out. Peasants planted liberty trees, a popular Revolutionary symbol, on the noble’s land and said that if they stood for a year the noble’s rights to collect dues would be eliminated.
January 1790 saw a flurry of château burnings in the Brittany region of the Northwest. The Assembly insisted on the redemption of dues — as they had established by law — but local authorities again had little means of enforcing this.Nobles began to abandon their seats in the Assembly, and many joined the steady stream of émigré heading to Switzerland or the German principalities along the Rhine. They were losing any of the prestige they had left after 1789.
Titles, orders, ribbons, and coats of arms were abolished by the Assembly in June 1790 — they were now citizens, lacking even the rhetorical flourishes that set them apart from commoners. But those commoners had little respect for aristocrats who they accused of disloyalty, hoarding goods, and speculating on prices. It wasn’t long before a second line was added to the popular song Ça ira (“It’ll be fine”) — a favorite of the Parisian sans-culottes: “Let’s hang the aristocrats from the lanterns.” (32)
The Flight to Varennes
Since the events of 1789, the king had been pressured by courtiers and advisors to flee Paris. However, he had consistently refused to do so.
In his public pronouncements he said little to offend patriots and Revolutionaries, but he was in a delicate situation — he was the head of a rebelling state and was ostensibly protecting a Constitution that he didn’t believe in, too personally and politically weak to oppose it. Being deeply religious, he never really accepted the Constitution of the Clergy, especially after it had been denounced by the Pope. On April 2nd, Mirabeau died — which left the king without reliable counsel.
Mirabeau had turned from being an ardent denouncer of royal absolutism, in 1789, to the king’s trusted, secret advisor. He helped him navigate the intricacies of Assembly politics, and, without him, the king was more under the influence of his remaining courtiers and the queen, who had been urging him to abandon France and seek support from her brother, Emperor Joseph II of Austria.
The royal family had met hostile demonstrations in the spring of 1791. in April, their bodyguards were attacked by a crowd — convinced that the royal family was trying to flee the city — as they attempted to travel to Saint-Cloud, a western suburb of Paris. Afterwards, the remaining royal court was dismantled, and Revolutionary guards watched over the Tuileries Palace where the family resided.
With that, the king finally began to draw up concrete plans for escape.
On the night of June 20th, the king, the queen, and their two children snuck out from the Tuileries Palace and boarded a large, ornate carriage. Once outside Paris, they switched carriages — but the plan was already starting to unravel.
The cavalry escort did not turn up at either subsequent rendezvous points. And when the horses were changed in the small town of Sainte-Menehould, the local postmaster thought he recognized the king from the fifty-livre assignat that bore his portrait. The next planned stop was the town of Varennes, where they didn’t find their escort, either — the postmaster had arrived before them, notifying the local authorities and the local National Guard.
To make matters more dire, this unassuming town had — like hundreds of others since 1789 — organized its own militia and Jacobin Clubs, which made it prepared for an emergency exactly like the one they now found themselves in, where the royal family strolls in completely unawares.
Springing into action quickly, these small town Revolutionaries blocked the bridge, blocking the royal family from escape.
The cavalry also soon appeared, but fraternized with the locals rather than disperse them. The royal family spent the night in the grocers humble home and were on their way back to Paris under heavy guard by morning (33).
The king had left a lengthy declaration in Paris — one that was quickly discovered and then read aloud in the National Assembly before being posted in the streets.
In it, he renounced the National Assembly and the Constitution, claiming he had only accepted its laws and decisions under duress. With that, the monarchy lost all legitimacy in the eyes of Parisians — symbols of the royals disappeared from the streets of the city. The idea of a republic — a nation without a monarch — had been on the fringes of Revolutionary politics. Now it would burst into the mainstream.
On June 24th, thirty thousand Parisians supported a Cordelier Club petition to completely depose the king or consult a national referendum to decide his fate.
The National Assembly was in a bind — their work was almost complete, and they wanted to put Revolutionary upheaval behind them. So, they decided to publicize an obvious fiction: the king and his family, kidnapped, and his denunciations of the Revolution being written by wicked advisors.
The king had effectively been relieved of any political authority, and the ministers were controlled by the Assembly, but there was never doubt that they would keep him on as a figurehead.
The majority of deputies feared the radical popular forces, like the Cordelier Clubs, too much to amend the Constitution in a republican direction.
Mobilizing the Émigré
The nobility had been the big loser in the Revolution — they had lost all of their titles and privileges and had no special representation in national politics, all while the people accused them of being behind every political and economic problem. More and more decided to leave France and join the exiled nobles, the Émigré.
Since 1789, the Émigré had scattered throughout Europe. The king’s brother and leading figure in the émigrés movement — the Comte d’Artois — had moved his court to Koblenz, a German city in the Rhineland near the French border. From there he imagined himself returning to France with an army of loyal royalists to repress the Assembly, and turn back the clock on the Revolution.
Louis XVI’s relationship with the émigré had been fraught since 1789. He had accused them of abandoning the royal family and endangering their safety with unrealistic schemes to invade France. But some other European rulers supported the émigré invasion plans — Catherine the Great of Russia and Gustavus of Sweden wanted “to destroy French anarchy” immediately while others, like the Austrian Emperor Leopold II, were more cautious. They said they supported King Louis XVI against the National Assembly, but were not willing to do anything concrete.
The French king thought that a show of force — maybe mobilization along the frontier — would be enough to bring the Assembly to heel. European monarchies valued order, tradition, and their national interests. Before 1792, their national interests precluded any intervention in France. Conflicts with the Ottoman Empire and the Partitions of Poland, disputes over colonial possessions, and revolts in the Netherlands busied the heads of state of the great powers of Europe. French domestic affairs could wait.
However, the more radical Revolutionaries did little to ease fears that they aimed to overthrow all the monarchies of Europe. Political refugees from all over the continent flocked to France, some even becoming active in politics. In 1790, an international delegation spoke before the Assembly, declaring that the French had shown the people of Europe how to end centuries of slavery to tyrants — the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen was, afterall, universal.
But after the king’s Flight to Varennes in June, 1791 the European situation had changed. The settling of old disputes freed the Prussians and Austrians to cooperate over the French question, and, in July, the Austrian Emperor Leopold the II invited fellow monarchs to join in “restoring the liberty of the French royal family.”
In August, Prussian king, Willhelm II, joined Leopold in signing the “Declaration of Pillnitz,” which read that the situation of the king of France was of common interest to the sovereigns of Europe. But, after King Louis signed the French Constitution in September 1791, Emperor Leopold — who had saved monarchical prestige, family honor, and maybe even had a moderating effect on events in France — regarded any follow up to the Declaration of Pillnitz as unnecessary: the king had given his consent to the Revolution.
The Declaration did not go over well in France, where — rather than having a moderating effect — it was interpreted as an attempt by foreigners, aristocrats, and royalists, to overthrow the Revolution (34).
The Champ de Mars Massacre
In the aftermath of the Flight to Varennes, the popular societies, the largest of which was the Cordelier Club — the center of sans-culottes radicalism in Paris — began to agitate against the king and the Constitution, circulating petitions demanding a new elected Assembly and demanding the replacement or abolishment of the monarchy. On July 14th, the Cordeliers marched to the Jacobin Club to call on them to support their petition to no longer recognize the king. Almost all the deputies present there left the room, never to return.
On Sunday, July 17th, the popular societies planned a demonstration at the Champ de Mars to circulate a petition declaring that Louis XVI had abdicated his post and should no longer be recognized as king.
That morning, the demonstrators arrived in scattered groups until a crowd of 50,000 had formed. Lafayette moved his National Guard and two cannons into place in the afternoon, and, at six in the evening, Mayor Bailly set out from the Hôtel de Ville, escorted by cavalry and carrying the red flag signaling martial law.
The National Guard, largely from the bourgeois, had little sympathy for the “rabble” assembled that day. As the crowd and the Guard began jostling, stones were thrown, and a pistol shot rang out. The demonstration turned into a massacre as the National Guard responded to the stones with volleys of musket fire.
Around 50 people were killed. Although — at the time — the mayor said only a dozen while Marat announced the death toll to be over 400 (35).
The Champ de Mars massacre was not an isolated incident.
In the last months of the National Constituent Assembly, a series of laws were passed that limited the right of people — particularly passive citizens — to associate and express themselves. The right to put up posters in streets and public spaces was curtailed, and the right to petition was limited to individual active citizens, meaning Parisians could no longer present petitions through their political clubs.
Between August 9th and September 14th, the authorities raided popular papers like Hébert’s Le Père Duchesne and Marat’s Friend of the People, arresting the editors and printers along with the popular Parisian radicals, Danton and Desmoulin. The political crisis that broke out in the aftermath of the Flight to Varennes split the influential Society of the Friends of the Constitution — also known as the Jacobin club — between moderates and radicals.
The moderates left the clubs, which in Paris was increasingly dominated by radicals like Robespierre. They instead formed the “Feuillant Club” to organize support for the Constitution of 1791. Lafayette, Sieyès, and Barnave — they who had, at one time, been radicals calling for a National Assembly — were now the moderates fighting to preserve a monarchy that was rapidly losing its legitimacy and popular support.
The End of the National Constituent Assembly
On September 3rd, the king signed the Constitution. Less than a month later, the National Constituent Assembly dissolved itself, to be replaced by a newly elected Legislative Assembly. The deputies had worked for just over two years to reinvent France from top to bottom; the Constitution created a strong legislative body to create laws to govern the country in cooperation with a benign monarch. Its laws and reforms had gone a long way towards fulfilling the ambitions of those like Sieyès, Lafayette, Barnave, and Mirabeau, along with the countless educated, property owning men that filled the political clubs and electoral assemblies.
But, they had also separated themselves from the social forces that had lived and been the Revolution on the streets in July of 1789. The division between active and passive citizens had left a large part of the people without any political representation through official channels. In Paris, passive citizens increasingly filled the meeting halls of the Cordelier Club and the local sections of the Paris Commune; more and more people proudly calling themselves sans-culottes.
While they were not able to elect representatives — nor stand for office themselves — they were reading, discussing, and organizing. They had potential political power, but it wouldn’t be expressed through constitutional means. It was the Church and the nobility that had been the big losers since 1789. They had no special role in the new constitutional order; Church property had been seized; feudal obligations were voided by law or erased in effect by peasant rebellions; the ranks of the émigrés swelled; and priests continued to refuse the Constitutional oath.
There was a distinct counter-Revolutionary constituency of devout catholics and revanchist nobles. In the fall of 1791, France elected its first representative body under the new Constitution. That body — the Legislative Assembly — would not be what the partisans of the Constitution of 1791 hoped it would be. This would not be the end of the Revolution, but the beginning of a new, more radical phase.
Rise of the Girondins
The new deputies of the Legislative Assembly began their work in October of 1791. They were overwhelmingly drawn from the educated middle classes, and many had gained experience in local politics through the Revolution. Of the 745 deputies, only 136 were Jacobins — but they were by far the most talented leaders and orators. Far more, 264, belonged to the moderate Feuillant Club.
There were much fewer noblemen and clergy members in the Legislative Assembly, as many had left France or expressed their opposition to the new order by abstention. The Constitution of 1791 prevented those who had sat in the National Constituent Assembly from standing for election for the new Legislative Assembly, opening the way for younger — and potentially more radical — deputies to enter national politics.
While the Fuillant’s controlled the ministries in 1791, it would not take long for Jacques Pierre Brissot to seize the initiative. As the editor of a popular paper, he had earned a following in both the Jacobin Clubs and the Legislative Assembly.
Brissot and his allies became known as the Girondins as a number of the deputies came from the Gironde region in the Southwest. Madame Roland — the ambitious wife of the interior minister Jean-Marie Roland — hosted the deputies at her salon. There, they ate, drank wine, gossipped, and planned their speeches. They were skilled orators, and it was almost through their speeches alone that they pushed France into war in 1792 (36).
In the Paris Jacobin Club, Robespierre and Brissot were locked in fierce debate over a potential war with Austria and Prussia.
Robespierre protested vehemently against the war, arguing that it would strengthen the counter-Revolutionary forces or would lead to a dictatorship of generals. Moreover, he argued that the real threat to the Revolution was not abroad in foreign armies or the ridiculous gestures of the émigrés, but hidden in France.
Brissot countered not by addressing Robespierre’s concerns, but by arguing that the war would unite the country — that it would even improve the value of the assignat and save the economy. Austria and Prussia had violated France by threatening the Assembly and supporting renegade émigrés; a patriotic Revolutionary army was sure to beat the servants of other continental tyrants (37).
Outside the Jacobin Clubs the war interested those who thought it would increase their power and influence. Lafayette thought war would allow the moderates to consolidate their position, or even enable him to march on Paris with an army if the up-risings got out of hand.
The king also believed a war could only end with him in a better situation — he would be commander in chief of a victorious army that he could then use to restore order at home; that, or a victory over Austria would put an end to the Revolution and return him to his previous position. In April of 1792, the king — with almost unanimous support from the Assembly — declared war on Austria. In response, Austria’s ally, Prussia, declared war on France.
But French armies fared poorly in the early part of the campaign — at first contact with the Austrians near the Belgian border, the French army melted away. And in one infamous incident, retreating troops killed their own commanding officer, suspecting him of treason.
Overthrowing the Monarchy
The Girondins immediately searched for potential scapegoats for the unfolding military disaster. The king, the generals, a secret Austrian plot within France — they were all blamed, and a slew of legislative proposals were drafted to root out suspected traitors and defend the Revolution.
Two bills presented to the king were vetoed; one called for the deportation of priests who refused to take the Constitutional oath while the other called for the formation of a camp of 20,000 fédérés (National Guard volunteers from the provinces) to defend Paris.
He vetoed the first, because he hated the Constitutional oath and was deeply Catholic. But in vetoing the fédérés bill, he hoped to create a rift between the Paris National Guards, jealous of their position in the capitol, and the provincial fédérés — unfortunately, though, this was widely interpreted in Paris as being a move to intentionally sabotage the war effort and leave the city undefended (38). The Girondin, Jean-Marie Roland — at the behest of his ambitious wife — sent a letter warning that the king must choose between the Revolution and its enemies. The king could not countenance such a defiant public message and dismissed Roland, along with the rest of the Girondin ministers, on June 12th.
While the Girondins and the king sparred, the Prussians continued their march into France, and the radical popular forces planned their next move. In July, the National Guard units from the provinces — the fédérés — marched into Paris, defying the king’s veto. The contingent from Marseille entered the city singing what quickly became one of the most popular Revolutionary songs and remains the French national anthem to this day, Le Marseille.
On the 20th of that month, Parisian sans-culottes invaded the Tuileries Palace, where the royal family was housed. There, they harassed them — King Louis XVI was forced to wear a red liberty cap while the sans-culottes waved around their pikes.
Parisians had spent the summer agitating against the monarchy; petitions to depose the king circulated amongst the sections of Paris — the neighborhood assemblies that were hotbeds of sans-culottes politics. By the end of July, they had set up networks of communication whereby they could quickly organize insurrection if circumstances deemed it necessary.
On the first of August, Paris received word of the Prussian Duke of Brunswick’s manifesto.
He warned that, if the Tuileries Palace was breached or if any harm came to the royal family, the Austrian and Prussian armies would “take an exemplary and unforgettable revenge” on Paris.
Citizens of the city were outraged by the threat and even more determined to overthrow the monarchy. Brunswick’s manifesto was proof that the king didn’t defend the nation and no longer represented the general will of the people.
An insurrectionary commune was formed from delegates from each of the 48 sections, while, at the Jacobin Club, Robespierre was now convinced of the necessity of insurrection. Danton took a leading role in the Commune, administering the various armed groups that had formed in the city.
Together, the Jacobins and sans-culottes planned to overthrow the Constitution of 1789.
On the night of August 9th, Desmoulin — who had been so active in Cordelier Club politics since 1789 — went with his wife to Danton’s home, where they tried to fortify their spirits with speeches and drink. Desmoulin’s wife was in tears as he grabbed a musket and set out in the night; no one was certain what forces would remain loyal to the king, if troops would be moved in from outside of Paris, or if the people would hold their ground in the face of musket fire from disciplined palace guards.
On the night of August 9th to 10th, the tocsins were rung throughout Paris. The bells signalled for the sans-culottes and fédérés to assemble. They were under the command of Antoine Joseph Santerre — a brewery owner and sans-culottes leader — and by six in the morning they were on the move through the city. Santerre formed three columns so as to cover the flanks on the approach to the Tuileries.
The Tuileries was defended by a mix of National Guards, Swiss Guards — mercenaries fiercely loyal to the king — and around 3,000 cannons stationed in the courtyards and gardens. When they received word of an imminent attack, the king and royal family crossed the gardens to seek shelter with the Assembly in the neighboring Salle du Manège.
With the king gone, there seemed little point in resisting. The National Guards in the courtyard fraternized with the rebels and soon turned their guns on the palace. Sans-culottes slipped in and called on the Swiss Guards to also lay down their arms, but, as they entered the interior, a shot rang out and the guards opened fire. The insurgents were raked with volleys of gunfire from the interior, forcing a retreat.
After regrouping, the fédérés reinforced them and the insurgents pushed forward once again across the open courtyard, firing into the palace. The remaining guards were quickly overwhelmed and gave up, but the insurgents — thinking that they’d been led into a trap — massacred some of them as they tried to surrender.
Over a thousand were wounded or killed in just two hours of fighting.
Louis XVI watched the Parisians — bloodied and covered in gunpowder from the battle across the square — from the stenographer’s booth, and entered the Assembly’s hall crying, “Long live the nation!”
The new Paris Commune presented itself to the Assembly. As representatives of the people, they called on the Assembly to dissolve itself and be replaced by a new National Convention elected by all citizens over twenty-five, abolishing the distinction between active and passive citizens.
King Louis XVI was now Citizen Louis Capet, his powers suspended until the new Convention could decide his ultimate fate.
Until then, he and his family were imprisoned in the Temple — an ancient fortress in Paris. The new Paris Commune was very different from the Paris Commune of 1789. Artisans, craftsmen, and small shopkeepers replaced lawyers and bourgeois merchants; the salons — where aristocrats and bourgeois wined, dined, and gossipped about politics — were closed, their attendants starting to keep a low profile.
Most of the moderate and conservative deputies fled the Assembly in the days before August 10th, and Lafayette would soon walk over to Austrian lines after failing to mobilize an army to restore the Constitution of 1789. He would sit out the rest of the Revolution as an Austrian prisoner (39).
In deposing the king and the Constitution, the sans-culottes and Jacobins had overturned the fragile sources of political legitimacy and authority, setting the Revolution on a new, fraught path. It was almost certain that France would now be a republic, but who would wield power and influence in that republic was to be determined in the coming months.
The September Massacres
The hysteria of war and political instability spiraled out of control in September. In the aftermath of the August insurrection, Danton took over the Ministry of Justice and set about arresting suspected traitors and royalists — the prisons of Paris were soon filled to capacity with over 3,000 people. Rumors began to spread that imprisoned priests and aristocrats were plotting with other counter-Revolutionaries, Austrians, and Prussians, and on the afternoon of September 2nd, a group of imprisoned priests were massacred en route to the Abbaye prison.
After that, the killings spread to prisons around the entire city, carried out by sans-culottes and some National Guardsmen, with a few even establishing ad-hoc tribunals to try prisoners. Over the course of several days, between 1,100 and 1,400 prisoners were killed — about half the prison population of Paris.
The September Massacres were arguably the most cruel and violent event of a very cruel and violent period — some of the prisoners were killed in open courtyards, and the youngest victim was only twelve years old.
Most were common criminals — not counter-Revolutionaries — but this didn’t stop the sans-culottes from believing they were defending the Revolution from traitorous plots.
And this wasn’t a totally unjustified feeling — prisons in Paris were not particularly secure at this point, and with thousands of Parisian men leaving for the frontlines, many citizens were genuinely fearful of the newly imprisoned aristocrats and priests using common criminals to stage a counter-movement. The massacres immediately became a political fight between the factions led by Brissot and Robesspierre. There is certainly evidence that Robespierre and his allies — while they did not anticipate nor welcome a massacre of this size — had been unashamed in using violent rhetoric over the summer.
Marat, never shy about extreme rhetoric, had called for executing imprisoned traitors before August 10th; Danton didn’t voice any opposition to the massacres as they were occurring; Brissot’s allies blamed the Parisian sans-culottes and extremist Jacobins led by Robespierre (40).
Moderates attacked Septemberists — not just those directly responsible for the massacres but any anarchic sans-culotte or Jacobin calling for violent revolution — calling them agents of chaos and disorder. What the September Massacres exposed was the terrifying mixture of a crisis of political authority and the palpable fear of a people threatened by foreign invasion.
The citizens of Paris had taken matters in their own hands, to deadly results.
While events were playing out in Paris, the Prussian army continued its march into France. On September 20th, they met the French army at the heights of Valmy. The fighting started as both sides battered one another with cannon-fire, French troops singing Le Marseille and Ça Ira from the heights. The Prussians advanced under blistering attack, but it wasn’t long before they halted and promptly withdrew from the field.
While it was more of an artillery duel than a clash of infantry, the Battle of Valmy was nonetheless celebrated as a great victory of the French citizen soldier against the armies of old Europe’s despots. The French commander, General Dumouriez, had halted the Prussian advance, but now he needed to push into Austrian occupied Belgium — possibly finishing the War of the First Coalition before the fighting season was over.
Valmy was followed by a stunning victory in November at the small, hilly town of Jemappes in Belgium. To make the most of his troops patriotic fervor and minimize the potential for mistakes by inexperienced volunteers, Dumouriez attacked the Austrian lines with swarms of singing sans-culottes columns.
It was a different style of warfare, held together in tight line formations — in contrast, European armies had followed the model set by Frederick the Great of Prussia; meaning harshly disciplined, but poorly motivated troops, literally beaten into submission by commanding officers (41). After the Battle of Jemappes the Austrians were forced to retreat from Belgium. The French, drunk with revolutionary spirit, expected to be greeted as liberators for freeing the Belgians from feudalism and despots. But instead, the deeply Catholic Belgians weren’t won over by the more radical elements of the Revolution.
Expropriating Church property was unpopular, and the sister republic set up by the occupying French was soon felt to be more exploitative than liberatory. Danton described the Revolutionary army’s new style of warfare in a speech on September 2nd; there was “a burning wish to fight” and that “one part of the people will head for the frontiers; another will dig trenches, and a third will defend our town centres with pikes…”
He concluded, “In order to conquer, gentlemen, we need boldness, more boldness, and boldness again, and France will be saved.” (42) Not only would the scale of the fighting be different with larger bodies of men mobilized and more and more of the economy geared for war — the stakes of the Revolutionary War were higher. 18th century wars ended with territorial concessions, trading of colonies, and maybe a payment to the victor.
Now, the conflict was a fight to save the Revolution and the French nation, but also to make universal the rights of men and citizens. It was a total war.
The National Convention
On September 20th, 1792, the Legislative Assembly was replaced by a National Convention elected by universal manhood suffrage. Two days later, they declared France a republic and marked the first day of Year I of the French Republican calendar. The Republican calendar, sometimes referred to as the Revolutionary calendar, officially replaced the Gregorian calendar — the one used by most Westerners, today — and was in general use for over twenty years.
Like the metric system adopted in the same period, it was decimalized. The year was divided into ten months of 30 days, which were then divided into three weeks, each made up of ten days. The Jacobin politician and mathematician, Charles Gilbert Romme developed the calendar with a multidisciplinary team of astronomers, mathematicians, and scientists. With it, reason and science replaced superstition and tradition.
The new months were given names after natural phenomena — Brumaire (mist), Prairial (meadow), Thermidor (heat) — and would mark Revolutionary events.
The National Convention would be led by men who believed that the Revolution needed to sweep away hundreds of years of tradition and superstition, and replace it with new republican traditions and practices. The Republican calendar was one small part of that project.
All French men — with the exception of criminals and the unemployed — were eligible to vote in the two-stage elections, with a first round selecting electors who would then select the deputies to the Convention. It was the most democratic election ever seen by a European state, and much more democratic than even most of the elections in North American states.
But, like every election in this period, voter participation was low.
The new Convention was markably younger, and — with the shift in public mood following the overthrow of the king and the outbreak of the war — more radical. Paris elected Jacobins like Robespierre, Marat, and Danton, who would continue to build networks of influence through their oratory, publishing, and connections with the sans-culottes.
Maximillian Robespierre had arrived at the Estates General in 1789 as a deputy for the Third Estate of Arras. He was a prolific speaker and made a hundred and fifty speeches before the Assembly in 1791 alone. Plus, he was a follower of the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose writings on democracy, equality, and education were popular amongst Revolutionaries.
In the Assembly, Robespierre spoke for the emancipation of Jews and slaves, abolishment of the death penalty, and removing the monarch’s veto. His consistency and strong-will earned him followers, and he made no distinction between his public persona and private life, living by all accounts an austere lifestyle (43).
The Convention was divided into loosely organized groups of deputies who shared similar views and planned agendas together, but they were far from an organized political party — instead, they were derogatively labeled factions. It’s probably more accurate to think of them as amorphous groups formed around certain leaders. Already in the Legislative Assembly, there were two groups of Jacobins gathering around Brissot as well as the Montagnard, who were followers of Robespierre.
Brissot and the Girondins were more commercially minded and skeptical of the Parisian sans-culottes. They derived their support from outside of Paris in commercial centers like Bordeaux, Marseille, and Lyon, and attacked more radical Jacobins and the sans-culottes as Septemberists — blaming them for the anarchic violence in Paris that disrupted national politics.
Residing on the far left of the Convention, seated on the upper benches, were the Montagnards.
Led by Robespierre and including famous Jacobins like Danton, Desmoullin, and Marat, they were a core group of 24 Parisian deputies, but could count on the support of another 50 or 60.
All were republicans, and believed in creating a more democratic constitution. They cooperated with and were influenced by the Parisian sans-culottes, which pushed them to adopt more egalitarian politics such as calling for maximum prices on food and staple goods. They were also shamelessly radical, unafraid to overturn every tradition and superstition that hinted of royalism.
Over two-thirds of deputies had no affiliation, and comprised the “Plain,” where deputies could vote one way in the morning and another way in the evening. With most votes up for contestation, a persuasive orator or the intimidating display of sans-culotte pikes could win the day. They were derogatively referred to as “the marsh” or “the toads” by the radical press for their lack of principles and shifting views on the issues of the day. But the Montagnard and Girondins needed to control a sizable chunk of the Plain in order to control the Convention.
The Convention was never going to be a calm deliberative body — too much was at stake, and there was little room for compromise. Most of Europe had broken off diplomatic relations with France after the August 10th insurrection, indicating the war might soon expand, and they had to decide what to do with the deposed king. The war was going well by then, but that could just as quickly turn. With things like this, there were few easy problems presented to this newly elected body.
“One Cannot Reign Innocently”
Louis Antoine de Saint-Just entered Revolutionary politics as a 25 year-old deputy to the Legislative Assembly. He was a dedicated Jacobin and follower of Robespierre, and cultivated an image of Revolutionary purity — preferring his long black hair to a powdered wig, and often pairing that with a single golden earring. During the Convention’s debate on the fate of the king, Saint-Just argued that to provide the king with a trial presupposed the possibility of his innocence, which in turn put into question the Revolution of August 10th that had established the legitimacy of the Republic and the authority of the National Convention.
Saint-Just said that Louis Capet could not be tried as a citizen, because, as a king — and as tyrant, because “one cannot reign innocently” — he was outside of republican law and therefore could not stand trial in a republic (44). The majority disagreed, and they voted to proceed with the trial. But Saint-Just had made a poignant argument: how could the sovereignty of the National Convention be established if it was possible to acquit the sovereign that it had overthrown?
Essentially, he was questioning the loyalty of those — particularly the Girondins — who were eager to put the question to a public referendum. But such a forceful condemnation of the Girondins was too much for deputies who had no interest in escalating the factional fighting and voted to proceed with a trial. Louis Capet’s indictment presented his conduct since 1789 as deceitful and traitorous — that, at every move he had tried to sabotage the war, harm the people, and disgrace the nation. His attempted flight to Saint-Cloud, the near successful Flight to Varennes, and the vetoes of war measures in 1792 added up to treason.
The former king’s lawyers tried to convince him to question the credentials of the Conventions dual role of judge and jury, but instead, he stubbornly defended his record as a citizen-king and tried to refute the case point by point.
It was never in doubt that the Republican Convention would convict Louis of treason — the real debate was over how he should be convicted. The Girondins argued that a popular vote was the only way for the people to express their general will, while Brissot added that conviction by the Convention would aid foreign enemies by showing that France was ruled by factions rather than the people.
Betrand Barère said the choice for the Convention was to take responsibility as the repository of sovereign power and convict the former king, or to abdicate its authority by putting the decision to a popular mandate. Barère sat in the Plain, and his argument proved to be more persuasive amongst the unaffiliated deputies than the extreme rhetoric from Marat and other Montagnards. And just like that, the mood in the Convention swiftly turned against the Girondin position.
Louis Capet was convicted of treason by a decisive majority, with Marat demanding the vote be taken orally to expose any traitors. The Convention voted, and the verdict was 387 to 334 for the death penalty.
On the wintry morning of January 21, 1793 Louis said goodbye to his family, giving his son a small pocket watch decorated with the royal seal as a sign of succession. An escort of 1,200 — led by Santerre, the brewer in command of the sans-culottes on August 10th — arrived to take him to the guillotine at the Place de la Concorde. Paris had been turned into a garrison — city gates were closed, windows were shuttered, and the crowds that watched the escort go by were not cheering or jeering the former king, as was their habit. Instead, they were eerily silent.
Upon arriving at the square, he was pushed up the steep scaffold, keeping his balance by leaning on the priest. He tried to address the crowd, saying,
“I die innocent of all the crimes of which I have been charged, I pardon those who have brought about my death and I pray that the blood you are about to shed may never be required of France…”
A drumroll drowned out the last of his words. The executioner cropped his hair to ensure a clean cut, and then Louise was made to lay down. The blade fell in front of a crowd of eight thousand. His head was displayed by the executioner to the public, as was standard practice. It was then that the crowd erupted in cheers.
The Fall of the Girondins.
The harvest of 1792 was decent, but the falling value of paper money — the assignat — made purchasing it increasingly difficult. Producers were reluctant to exchange grain for money that was losing its value, and traders raised prices to compensate for the inflated currency. In turn, working men and women needed more wages to pay the higher prices.
Parisians presented petitions calling for a maximum price on staple goods — coffee, sugar, and soap had at least doubled in price over the preceding months — but their demands were dismissed as unrealistic or dangerous by deputies concerned with keeping the free trade of goods flowing.
In February, Parisians began fixing prices themselves. Most often it was women — on whom the burden of feeding and clothing families fell — that marched to grocers and warehouses, took what they needed, and left whatever they deemed a fair price. But outright looting was also common.
The Girondins blamed the Montagnard — particularly the firebrand, Marat — for the violence (45).
The Convention was wracked by the constant struggle between Girondin and Montagnard — neither could compromise with the other. The Girondins accused the Montagnard of constantly agitating for insurrection, while Montagnards denounced Girondins as traitors sabotaging the war effort and conspiring with generals to overthrow the convention. Neither side could hold a majority of deputies, so no clear executive leadership could coalesce around a stable majority.
Adding to social crisis and political deadlock, the war took a turn for the worse in the opening months of the 1793 campaigns. Dumouriez had been a friend of the Girondins when he was winning, but his army was pushed out of Belgium in March.
Montagnards attacked Dumouriez, blaming him for the loss of Belgium and accusing him of trying to organize a coup. And on this point they were certainly right — he was actively conspiring to march his army on Paris and throw out the radicals. But when he found little support amongst the rank and file soldiers, he, like Lafayette before him, walked over to the Austrian lines and surrendered.
News of this reached Paris in April, which greatly strengthened the position of Marat, who had spent months warning of an imminent Girondin coup.
Within France, rebellions were springing up — in the Western Vendees region, in rural Brittany in the north, and in the major city of Marseille in the south. The Convention was losing control of the nation, and the political infighting between factions was only escalating.
In the spring, the Convention established a new system of courts to handle prosecution of suspected traitors. These Revolutionary Tribunals would handle cases of treason — and their case-load would grow immensely over the coming year.
Marat was now president of the Paris Jacobin Club, and was one of the most eloquent and influential Montagnard deputies. He had signed a document that called for the expulsion of traitors from the Convention, and this was pretext enough for the Girondins to move against him. They brought forward charges of sedition and presented a motion for his arrest. With so many Montagnards away from the Convention on official assignments — such as Danton, who was checking in on the situation in Belgium — the Girondins were able to hammer through their motion.
Marat slipped away from the bailiffs with the help of a crowd of supporters. He had previously spent long stretches of his Revolutionary career as a fugitive, but this time — after three days in hiding — he decided to come out and face his accusers.
He showed up to court with a throng of supporters. Speaking in his own defense, he demonstrated all his rhetorical skills and controlled the pace of the trial from the beginning. The indictment against him took excerpts extensively from his pamphlets, pulling quotes that called for a dictatorship and for extrajudicial killings. Marat responded by rightfully arguing that it was all taken out of context — he had never advocated murders and pillaging. In fact, the measures he called for were to stop that from occurring.
He didn’t call for insurrection against the Convention, but argued that it would succeed or fail on its own volition. Some of the more outlandish accusations were laughed off — like that of a man having been driven to suicide because he feared Marat would become dictator. Marat easily disproved this by bringing forward that man to show he was very much alive.
The jury really had no choice but to unanimously acquit “the fearless protector of the people’s rights,” and Marat was carried back to the Convention on the shoulders of his supporters (46). The Girondins had made a fatal mistake in trying Marat — in doing so, they had removed immunity from deputies sitting in the Convention. Their rivals were now free to use the Revolutionary Tribunals against them. And Paris loathed the Girondins — they spent a lot of their time attacking the city as a den of sedition where lawless sans-culottes bullied the nation’s deputies.
In April, the Convention — at the behest of the Girondins — created the “Commission of the Twelve” to investigate the sans-culottes dominated Paris Commune and sections. Sans-culottes leaders were arrested for sedition, among them Hébert — author of the influential voice, Le Père Duchesne, and leading figure in the Paris Commune.
One Girondin deputy, Maximin Isnard, called for patriots from the Departments outside Paris to march on the city if there was another insurrection. Around this same time, word was reaching Paris of rumors of disaffected factions in provincial cities like Toulouse and Marseille — there was even talk of open rebellion against the Convention, which some thought was completely under the sway of the Parisian sans-culottes.
The sans-culottes feared that the Girondins would stop at nothing to destroy them, and the Montagnards were now sure that the only end to the political deadlock was to expel the Girondins from the Convention altogether.
Robespierre had been wary of any further insurrections, insisting that politics should stay within the Convention and democratically elected deputies. By May, he was in the Paris Jacobin Club calling for a “moral insurrection” against the corrupt deputies of the National Convention.
Armed sans-culottes entered the Convention’s hall on May 31st to present their Revolutionary program. They demanded a tax on the rich, the creation of a paid army of sans-culottes volunteers, and that Convention disband the Commission of the Twelve and expel 29 Girondin deputies.
Mingling among the deputies, waving their pikes and muskets, the sans-culottes jeered at their enemies and cheered their friends. The Convention agreed to present their petition to the Committee of Public Safety for consideration. Two days later, they showed up again — this time with National Guards — to hear the Committee of Public Safety’s report and the Convention’s decision. As the proceedings dragged on, one sans-culotte commander delivered the message (with a cannon aimed at the door to the hall so as to emphasize his seriousness),
“Tell your f*&king president that he and his Assembly can go f^#k themselves, and if within one hour the Twenty-two are not delivered, we will blow them all up.”
Deputies were encouraged to go and mingle with the people to diffuse the situation, but an awkward scene developed where deputies were wandering around the grounds looking for exits only to find them blocked by more guards. Upon returning to their chamber, they found the sans-culottes sitting on the benches with the Montagnard.
George Couthon — a radical Jacobin who sat with the Montagnard — said that, now that the deputies had mingled with them, they knew they were free and understood that the people simply wanted the malefactors expelled. Couthoun read the accusation against the Girondins which passed a vote, expelling the 29 deputies from the Convention and placing them under house arrest (47).
The insurrection had broken the deadlock through intimidation and the threat of political violence, enabling the Montagnard to take control over the Convention and govern the Republic. But it was not greeted with the collective celebrations that broke out after previous Paris insurrections.
Because — while all these political infighting had been going on in Paris — a war was being lost on France’s borders, and rebellions were breaking out within the country. Moreover, the people were probably aware that what had occured was effectively a coup.
The Convention vote was not free, and it was hardly legal to surround the nations representative with cannons, pikes, and muskets and demand a decision — the French Republic was confronting nothing less than a life or death struggle.
Hard decisions would need to be made.
Revolution of Year II
Year II of the Republic — according to the Revolutionary calendar that now documented all official events (Year I had marked the overthrow of the monarchy and the establishment of the Republic) — was not an easy start for the Convention. Split by internal fighting, facing foreign invasion, civil war, and an economic crisis, the Convention needed to act fast and take hard measures in order to secure the Republic.In the spring of 1793, the Convention formed the Committee of Public Safety to oversee issues of national security.
Originally only nine members, it was expanded to twelve after the arrest of the Girondins. Its decisions — decided by a two-thirds majority — were to be immediately implemented by the ministries, which essentially subordinated all executive duties to the Committee. Robespierre and Saint-Just took seats on the Committee in the summer, but there were also more moderate deputies — as well as opponents of Robespierre — present. It met late into the night, working furiously under a mountain of paperwork.
Reams of documents and a small army of clerical workers decided what would be requisitioned from where, who was charged for what, where this sentence was to be carried out and when. Saint-Just remarked that the Republic was falling victim to a dictatorship of paperwork.
Young, inexperienced, and with large wine tabs and hot tempters, the Committee was a chaotic but remarkably effective leader. It never became a dictatorship, or even a proper executive, but was able to exert the centralized leadership the Convention needed during a period where crisis after crisis threatened to destroy the Republic (48).
The Convention sent out représentants en missions to establish better control over the Departments outside Paris — these were officials with wide judicial and political authority, who would report directly back to the city. They were originally sent to secure army recruitment, but their powers expanded to touch every aspect of political and economic life. They could requisition grain and other supplies, present charges of treason, arrest suspects, and — when attached to army units — they kept a watchful eye over commanders whose mistakes could easily lead to charges of treason.
Provincial Jacobins also organized their own local comités de surveillance to monitor suspected traitors and counter-Revolutionaries. All reported directly to Paris.
This created, for the first time for the Republic, a centralized administrative system by which the Convention could monitor and intervene in events unfolding throughout the country. The National Assembly, back in 1789–1790, had created a decentralized system of governance; municipalities and the larger regional Departments had wide authority to deal with their own internal matters.
Now, with a war requiring vast resources and manpower, the Convention took direct control over governing the country. With the expulsion of the Girondins, the Convention was more unified — able to work without the constant back and forth struggles between factions. But the sans-culottes were still a powerful, independant force, and they used their influence to pressure the Convention into implementing a list of radical measures from the criminalization of looters and hoarders, to price controls on basic goods, to the trial and execution of Marie Antoinette.
Around 40,000 ex-soldiers and sans-culottes were mustered into Revolutionary militias to spread the sans-culottes social Revolution, to claim grain for the war effort, and to seize Church treasure in a widespread dechristianization campaign.
Churches were closed and looted, priests arrested, and celebrations of the Republic replaced masses and religious holidays. Dechristianization wasn’t popular amongst the people nor amongst deputies — Robespierre thought it needlessly divisive and a threat to public morality — but the sans-culottes were at the peak of their influence.
Although they weren’t always in agreement with middle-class Jacobins, they were able to get off the streets and out of their meeting halls, into positions in local government and the expanding bureaucracy to become a part of the Republican system (49). Meanwhile, the Jacobins weren’t just dealing with the acute crises afflicting the Republic, but also had plans to create a more just and egalitarian Republican society.
The remaining feudal dues — that had persisted after the reforms of 1789 — were eliminated. Slavery was abolished, peasants were given the opportunity to buy émigré land. They even managed to stabilize the value of the assignat, which had been plagued by chronic inflation throughout the Revolution. A new Constitution was drafted in 1793, and passed by a popular referendum. It was the world’s first truly democratic constitution with a directly elected legislature.
The Constitution of Year II was placed in a coffin and suspended above the Convention — an allegory for the suspension of the Constitution in a time of crisis — to be cut down and implemented once the crisis of foreign invasion and civil war passed (50).
Europe at War
In the early 18th century, tens of thousands faced off in the battles between European dynasties. These wars resulted in territorial concessions, and often an exchange of colonial territories. The French Revolutionary Wars would be fought between armies of hundreds of thousands — with them, the map of the entire continent was redrawn. Old empires crumbled and new states were formed.
The stakes of the conflicts were much higher than the squabbles between princes and kings. Why Republican France found itself at war with most of Europe is — like much of this period — a complicated question; one that’s affected by a number of different nationally specific factors. At the start, Austria and Prussia had first threatened to invade France to protect the royal family. This led to an escalating exchange of threats, until the Legislative Assembly declared war in 1792. But it was in 1793 that the conflict escalated to envelop most of Europe.
Many citizens in the British public had welcomed the Revolution in 1789, but by 1793 the public’s mood had turned against France. The French army’s advancements into the low countries threatened their British interests, so they began coordinating interventions on the side of Austria and Prussia by offering subsidies to those willing to put troops in the field against France, and by supplying rebels within France.
Other European states had different interests.
On one hand, Spain was ruled by a conservative Bourbon dynasty that loathed the treatment of their French relatives. But on the other, Russia’s rulers hated the French Revolution, because they feared it would inspire some of their rivals — like the Polish revolutionaries hoping to create an independent Polish nation-state. With the Russians were the small Italian states, also ruled by conservative families and who relied on the support of Austria or Spain. They, too, knew that domestic revolutionaries were a potential threat to their rule.
Everyone was concerned by the French Convention — declaring that its Revolutionary army would export the laws of newly-transformed France by squashing feudalism and the power of the nobility wherever it marched. The “War of the First Coalition” — there would be a number of Coalitions formed against France over the coming years — pitted Revolutionary France against virtually all of continental Europe; Spain, Britain, Austria, Prussia, the Dutch Republic, Sardinia, Naples, and Tuscany.
The monarchies of Europe were ideologically opposed to the Revolution, deeply disturbed by the treatment of the monarchy, and fearful of the Parisian mob. They also saw opportunity to profit from the apparent decline of a rival great power. And, in the first year of the conflict, it seemed inevitable that Revolutionary France would collapse under the advance of the armies of the First Coalition.
Following the victory of Valmy, the army led by Dumouriez had marched into Belgium and planned an invasion of Holland. But this went poorly — the ranks thinned over the fall of 1792, as volunteers had signed up for a short campaign and chose to return home at the end of the season.
By the spring of 1793, the army was pushed out of Holland and Belgium and was fighting in French territory.
To save the Revolution, the Convention set about reorganizing French society for war. Lazare Carnot — a military engineer, mathematician, and one of the moderates on the Committee of Public Safety — oversaw much of the military reforms.
The levée en masse, the first modern mass conscription, swelled the ranks of the army by the hundreds of thousands — all unmarried men between eighteen to twenty-five were to present themselves for military service.
National workshops crafted arms and ammunition from the melted down church bells and ornaments seized by the roving bands of sans-culottes militias carrying out dechristianization campaigns. By 1794, France had an army of 1.2 million — the largest ever seen in Europe.
Carnot broke down massive troop formations into more mobile, independent units. The new Revolutionary army combined the patriotic enthusiasm of volunteers with battle-hardened veterans, and its columns swarmed the armies of old Europe.
With better commanders, more recruits, and an organized state to back it, the Revolutionary army was able to beat back the First Coalition (51).
In September, they broke a British and Austrian siege at Dunkirk and expelled the Coalition from Northern France; in the south, they pushed the Spanish back across the Pyrenees; in the east, they secured the Alpine border. But it was in Belgium in the summer of 1794 that the French Republic delivered a decisive blow to her greatest continental rival — Austria — and relieved Revolutionary France of the threat of foreign invasion.
The previous year, the Committee of Public Safety had ordered the army to begin experimenting with balloons. While hard-nosed generals resisted — saying they needed battalions not balloons — at the Battle of Fleurus they proved useful.
Jean-Marie Coutelle, the engineer who founded the Aeronautics corp — the world’s first air force — was suspended above the battlefield for 9 hours in the balloon L’Entreprenant, lowering hand written notes and signalling with flags to communicate the Austrian troop’s movements. By combining the patriotism of the rank-and-file soldiers with skilled officers as well as new strategies and tactics, the French were able to crush the Austrian army in Belgium. The Revolutionary army had been made into the best fighting force on the European continent — it was a long way from the chaotic retreats of the first year of the war.
But as it was fighting against the Coalition, internal rebellions were threatening to tear the Republic apart.
The Revolt in the Vendées
Discontent towards the Revolution had been brewing since 1789.
When the Convention tried to draft young men into the army, that slowly simmering discontent exploded into open rebellion. The Vendées was a region in western France of tight hedgerows, small fields, and sunken roads — something that made it difficult to control. There, in the countryside, social life centered around the Church, but in the region’s towns, citizens were loyal to the Revolution. This set the stage for a potentially dangerous rivalry between town and country.
In 1793, rebels began to attack the towns, killing local Jacobins and government officials. A Royal-Catholic army formed and openly declared its intention to restore the monarchy. Rebels could melt away into the countryside and draw on civilian support, and they could also manage to successfully fight pitched battles early in the conflict.
The Convention moved quickly to send both sans-culottes militias and army units into the region. The presiding représentants en missions, Jean-Baptiste Carrier, was particularly cruel — he ordered the sinking river barges to be loaded with bound prisoners in what were called “republican baptisms.” Over the winter of 1793–1794, over 2,000 people were drowned this way.
The French army and sans-culottes militias carried out a brutal oppression in the countryside, and civilian and military casualties during the conflict would approach nearly 200,000. Over the summer of 1793, the Revolutionary armies managed to finally disperse the main bodies of rebel armies, but armed bands would remain hidden in the hedgerows and fields for years to come (52).
The Federalist Revolt
The Revolution of 1789 was, in the eyes of many of its supporters, a revolt against the centralized power of the monarchy. Devolving more authority to the regional Departments and municipal governments was one of the driving principles of the work of the National Assembly. The Convention was supposed to continue that work, but, by the summer of 1793, it was conscripting hundreds of thousands into the army, représentants en missions were dictating policy in the Departments, property was being seized, and wealthy bourgeois were being forced to loan money to the government.
Paris was controlled by the sans-culottes who threatened to hang the rich and Montagnard would-be dictators. And after those radicals purged the Girondins from the Convention, a number of French cities declared themselves in open rebellion against them.
“The Federalist Revolts” spread across France in the summer of 1793. From Paris, it looked like much of the country was in rebellion — from Brittany in the north to Marseille in the south, rebel armies were formed. And they threatened to march on the capital. Many of the influential local bourgeois in cities like Lyon and Marseille — major centers of commerce and trade — had never been supporters of the radical turn in the Revolution. They had lost money and influence as more and more power accumulated in Paris and local Jacobin Clubs tried to take over urban politics.
A mixture of outrage at national politics and local economic concerns pushed provincial cities to revolt — Lyon’s silk merchants had been devastated by the decline in their trade, since the émigré nobles were no longer buying luxury goods, and Marseille’s Mediterranean merchants had lost business because of naval blockades.
But while the rebels were able to muster thousands of troops, they never could match the numbers, discipline, and organization of the French army. The Revolutionary army had been revamped by Carnot’s reforms, and with the Committee of Public Safety functioning as a war-time executive, the Convention was able to respond quickly to the rebellions. The rebels in the north were dispersed after their first battle, but things in the south drew out longer — Marseille was cut off from the surrounding region in August, and when bread supplies started running thin, rioting broke out.
The rebellious city government began executing known Jacobins, and invited British ships into the port. This was outright treason, and it split the rebel forces — urban civil war spiralled out of control as Federalists and Jacobins killed each other in the streets. It didn’t take long for the French army to capture the city; the remaining rebels fled to Toulon.
Toulon — reinforced by the hardline rebels from Marseille — welcomed British ships into the port, which was a significant setback for the French Navy as the bulk of the Mediterranean fleet was docked there. A young artillery officer — Napoleon Bonaparte — made a name for himself organizing the artillery batteries that ended the siege months later, in December. Bonaparte realized that, if they seized one fort guarding the city, they could position artillery to threaten the harbor. His suggestion was ignored for months, until December, when a new commander approved of his plans.
The two fortresses were stormed and artillery batteries were placed there, which quickly ended the siege that month. It was Bonaparte’s first battle and an early example of his innovative and aggressive strategy. Repression followed, in the wake of the revolts. Hundreds of royalists were massacred in Toulon after the city was retaken by republican forces, and Lyon suffered particularly harsh measures — the Jacobins renamed the town Ville-Affranchie (or “liberated town”) and demolished hundreds of buildings.
The revolt against the Convention also ended one of the most controversial Montagnard partisans.
On July 13, 1793, Marat was bathing in his home — which he was frequently required to do to treat a debilitating skin condition — when Charlotte Corday, an aristocrat and Girondin sympathizer, visited him. There, she plunged a knife into his chest. The scene was immortalized in one of the period’s most famous works of art — The Death of Marat, by Jacques-Louis David, a Jacobin politician and popular artist. Marat’s public funeral was attended by thousands of mourners.
Since then, The Friend of the People has developed a nasty reputation for his violent rhetoric — but to the Parisian sans-culottes and Jacobins of the time, he was a patriot and defender of the people.
He would not be the last of the radicals to die for the Revolution.
“Let Us Be terrible, so That the People Do Not Have to Be”
Danton was speaking literally when he said, “let us be terrible.” The Revolution had seen outbursts of popular violence since 1789, with the September Massacres being particularly brutal. Danton was arguing that it was the responsibility of the Convention, as representatives of the nation, to take responsibility for violence, rather than leave it to the people.
In September 1793, the Convention passed a motion declaring “Terror is the order of the day.” What this meant in practice is more complex than guillotines and denunciations, although these were essential characteristics of the Terror. Robespierre defined “terror” as synonymous with “swift, virtuous justice.”
Terror was, in effect, a series of emergency measures which expanded the definition of political crimes and the policing power of the state. The Law of Suspects passed in September and empowered authorities to arrest anyone who “either by their conduct, their contacts, their words, or their writings showed themselves to be supporters of tyranny, of federalism, or to be enemies of liberty.”
A month later, Saint-Just said before the convention that the government must be Revolutionary until peace, and that the Committee of Public Safety should take on the central direction of the state apparatuses (53).
The Revolutionary Tribunals were courts for cases of political crime — treason. Established in early 1973 by the Girondins, in their first 8 months, the tribunals acquitted 214 suspects and sentenced 92 to death. It would be far more active after the winter 1793–1794 as the definition of treason became more expansive and the burden of proof ever lighter. Those sentenced to death by a tribunal would be killed by Dr. Joseph Guillotine’s machine.
Dr. Guillotine had proposed a reform of capital punishment in 1789 that would replace public torture with a simple execution machine — a weighted, angled blade hanging from a high scaffold. Whereas in pre-Revolutionary France punishments differed based on social status — common criminals were tortured to death in public, while noblemen were beheaded by sword — the guillotine killed all equally. The machine was utilitarian and humane, fitting with the Revolutions Enlightenment principles.
The first Paris guillotine was put into sporadic use in the spring of 1792. Against the intentions of its namesake, guillotines were constructed on public squares in hundreds of towns and cities. But during the height of the Terror, the pace of executions was so high in Paris that they were no longer cause for spectacle (54).
Over the course of around nine months, around 16,000 people would die under the guillotine. Relatives of émigrés were arrested along with Federalist rebels and priests who refused to take the Constitutional oath. Even Marie Antoinette, once queen, was sent to the scaffold on October 17; and two weeks later, twenty Girondin deputies would follow her, including Brissot.
But most of the victims were, and still remain, obscure. They mostly lived where there had been open rebellion, like the Vendeés or Lyon. And despite the anti-aristocratic rhetoric coming from Jacobins and sans-culottes, most victims weren’t relatives of émigrés — they were people who ended up on the wrong side of a political dispute, or said or wrote the wrong thing at the wrong time. Much more rarely did they actually turn out to be actively working to overthrow the Republic.
As time passed, the Terror had gradually taken on a logic of its own — political disagreements turned to denunciations, which then led to prosecution and even eventually execution.
The Terror Turns in on Itself
Hébert had begun his Revolutionary career as a writer and publisher, and through that he developed a following among the sans-culottes, becoming a capable politician in his own right. But Robespierre had never been enthusiastic about the anti-clerical campaign, and had begun to suspect that Hébert was an agent of the Coalition.
Hébert and his allies had begun to openly call for a new insurrection, but they were met with a tepid response from the rank-and-file sans-culotte, with only one of the forty-eight Paris sections supporting them. On March 13th, Saint-Just delivered a blistering attack on the Hébertist faction, accusing them of conspiring with foreign agents to starve Paris and corrupt the government (55).
And thus, Hébert and his allies were sent to the guillotine. The Convention had tried to minimize the independence of the Paris Commune, replacing democratically elected commissioners with appointed administrators. Because the sans-culottes had been integrated with the official administration — and many of them saw the Jacobins as their supporters and allies and the Republic as their government — many may have disagreed with the decision, but this wasn’t enough to motivate an insurrection against it.
A group of Jacobins known as the “Indulgents” — led by Desmoulin and Danton — were arguing for ending the excesses of the Terror in 1794.
They were moderate Jacobins who believed that the Republic was safe — terror had been a necessary temporary measure, but now that the rebellions were repressed and the war was going well on all fronts, there was no need for such exceptional measures. They were fierce critics of the Hébertists and hoped that after purging them, the Convention could return to normal governance.
However, after the execution of the Hébertists, suspicion only turned on the Indulgents. A number of deputies were accused of being part of a complicated corruption scheme involving a colonial trading company. And Danton’s secretary was among the accused, immediately casting doubt on him and his allies.
Desmoulins and Danton — two of the most well-known Jacobins; men who had risen from the Paris Cordelier Club and street demonstrations to the National Convention — were sentenced to death by the Convention.
Their trial was irregular and blatantly political. Danton was accused of smuggling table linens from Belgium, amongst other charges of corruption; no witnesses were called, and it quickly devolved into a denunciation of Danton and his allies, none of whom were present.
On April 5th, Danton, Desmoulin, and the others went to the guillotine.
The death of Danton marked the beginning of a new phase of the Terror. “The Law of 22 Prairial” (June 10th) expanded the definition of “enemies of the people” to include crimes such as spreading fake news, causing famine, and corrupting public morals.
A defending counsel was eliminated, as was the defendant’s right to present evidence. The only possible penalty upon conviction was death.
During the last phase of the Terror, a much higher portion of victims were from the upper ranks of society — over a third of the 1,515 sentenced to death by the Revolutionary Tribunal.
The Committee of Public Safety had further centralized power in Paris by moving trials and executions to the capital, and the machinery of the Terror operated at a frantic pace at Place du Trône-Renversé (The Square of the Toppled Throne) (56).
Republic of Virtue
Robespierre justified the Terror as a necessary measure to secure a virtuous Republic. He envisioned a society where “citizens are subject to the magistrate, the magistrate to the people, the people to justice.” Virtue was, according to him, love of the laws and the fatherland, and it could only be secured through terror.
“Terror without virtue is murderous, virtue without terror is powerless. Terror is nothing else than swift, severe, indomitable justice — it flows, then, from virtue.”
Laws alone could not create a virtuous citizenry. Robespierre was, like all good Revolutionaries, schooled in classical antiquity — he knew from the classics that virtue required cultivation through education and practice (57).
“The Cult of the Supreme Being” replaced the de-christianization campaigns through the spring of 1794. It was intended to be a civic religion that promoted Republican virtue; prose, music, painting, and theatre were to express traits like self-sacrifice, humility, and patriotism. The festival of the Supreme Being, held in Paris in June 1794, was a mass theatrical and musical performance. Robespierre descended from the gigantic plaster mountain scene to give the headlining speech while his rivals whispered that all he was doing was displaying his dictatorial and messianic ambitions.
Robespierre was spending less time at the Convention and the Committee of Public Safety, and instead was speaking about Republican virtue at the Jacobin clubs. With his focus shifted from governing and the politics of the Convention to educating and propagating his version of Jacobin ideology, he was unaware of the machinations of his rivals and the general climate of paranoia gripping the Convention.
He was never a dictator, although his opponents accused him of aspiring to be one — his personal power always derived from his ability to lobby for votes in the Convention and in the Committee of Public Safety. However, he was morally inflexible and could not tolerate the corruption and deal-making that was a part of pluralistic, democratic politics.
This was his great weakness, and would be the thing that would lead to his downfall.
He had, since the beginning of the summer, avoided the Convention. He had stopped regularly attending meetings of the Committee of Public Safety, and may have had a nervous breakdown — leaving him isolated from any potential allies. Without support in the Convention, Robespierre and his allies on the Committee were powerless.
When Did the French Revolution End?
By the summer of 1794, the original justifications for the Terror were no longer applicable. The foreign armies had been beaten and internal rebellions quelled, yet enemies seemed to multiply the more the crises faded away. As the Terror turned from being a means of suppressing internal rebellion to a campaign to purify the Republic, deputies began to wonder who and what qualified as virtuous.
By late July, Robespierre’s influence was wavering; he had spent so much time away from the Convention that he had lost his grip on the day-to-day politics of it. He appeared before the Convention on July 26th and delivered a long, rambling speech in which he claimed there existed a conspiracy against public liberty that included unnamed deputies on important committees.
The Convention was confused and worried — the accusations were vague and threatening. A group of deputies began to plot to remove Robespierre and his allies, and with so many fearful that they were included in this unnamed conspiracy, the plotters had a large potential pool of supporters.
The next morning, Saint-Just spoke in defense of Robespierre against accusations that he conspired to dictatorship. The hall exploded in yells and hollers, and he was shouted down, members of the Committee of Public Safety speaking out against him and Robespierre both. Robespierre attempted to speak, but he too was interrupted.
His voice, which had once been the source of his power and influence, now failed him. A deputy even shouted, “The blood of Danton chokes him!” The convention had turned against Robespierre and his allies.
They had successfully prosecuted the war, defeated domestic rebellions, and brought some measure of stability back to the economy. But the last few months of the Terror had alienated many in the Convention, and — because they had successfully defended the Revolution against the existential crises of war and rebellion — the mood shifted against extreme Revolutionary measures (58).
On the 9th of Thermidor (July 27th), Robespierre, Saint-Just, and dozens of their allies were detained. Shortly after, they were freed from prison by a delegation from the Paris Commune and together fled to the Hotel de Ville.
That night they tried to rally Paris to insurrection, but only a few thousand National Guards showed up — the Convention had arrested the leaders suspected of supporting Robespierre as well as dispatched soldiers to arrest the fugitive deputies.
When all hope of escape or insurrection was lost, Robespierre tried to shoot himself with a pistol but missed and destroyed his jaw, his brother threw himself out of a window, and Saint-Just remained quiet and calm.
The next morning — with Robespierre’s jaw dangling from his face, roughly held in place by a bloodied bandage — he was taken, along with 22 of his supporters, to the Place du Trône-Renversé and executed. The next day, another 70 were killed.
In the months after Thermidor, the radical Jacobins were purged from politics. A number were executed, many were arrested, and all of their ideas were discredited. The Revolutionary Tribunals were purged, the Committee of Public Safety’s broad mandate revoked, and thousands of prisoners were released. On top of this, the maximum on prices were revoked, enabling a free market to flourish.
The Jacobin phase of the Revolution — starting with the August insurrection that overthrew the king — ended with Thermidor, and so did the Revolution as a political project to create a more equal and just society.
After Thermidor, the Revolution was celebrated in name, but anything that was Revolutionary in practice was repressed.
Calls for equality were met with accusations of anarchy and brigandry; liberty and patriotism were alluded to in words, but none of the perpetrators of the Thermidorian Reaction had plans to radically transform society in line with these ideas. Sans-culottes were kept under police surveillance, their clubs broken up, and their weapons seized. A newly emergent elite wanted to bring back the distinction between active and passive citizens, keeping those without property away from politics — it was time once again to let the elites govern.
The Last Insurrection
The winter of 1794–1795 was a hard one for Parisians — demonstrations in the spring for bread were complemented by demands for the Constitution of 1793. Ostensibly, the National Convention’s role had been to create the document, but its implementation was delayed by the crisis of that winter.
Now, it became a symbol for rebellion against the Thermidorians.
On the First of Prairial (May 15th), the Paris insurgency was set in motion one last time. Rallying outside the Convention were over twenty-thousand Parisians pressing to implement the Constitution of 1793, provide bread, and rehabilitate Montagnards prosecuted after Thermidor. Inside, the dozen remaining Montagnard deputies presented motions reflecting these demands. But soon, the Convention was reinforced by tens of thousands of National Guardsmen and regular army troops.
The standoff ended after the Convention agreed to distribute bread and the demonstrators agreed to disperse before a serious outbreak of violence.
But the Convention had no intention of giving in to the demands of the Parisian demonstrators. The voting rolls were burned, and the Montagnards who presented motions — having exposed themselves as allies of the sans-culottes — were expelled and prosecuted. In June, six were condemned to death, but four cheated the guillotine by stabbing themselves on route to their execution.
The rebellious neighborhoods of Paris that had been the center of sans-culottes politics were surrounded by National Guards and Muscadin gangs — wealthy, dandyish streetfighters who fought Jacobins and sans-culottes. Thousands were arrested, neutralizing them as an independent political force (59).
Across France, there would be a new campaign of violence — “The White Terror” — in the spring and summer of 1795. Tens of thousands of Jacobins were imprisoned, with Jacobin prisoners even massacred in Lyon.
All over Southern France, gangs imitating the Parisian Muscadins attacked their opponents. A nostalgia for royalism encouraged some of the violence, but much of it was revenge for the excesses of the Terror and the suppression of the Federalist revolts.
The Convention needed to create a new constitution — the Constitution of Year II was too tainted by radicalism, having largely been drafted by Saint-Just and expressing now unfavourable ideas about social equality and democracy.
They set about writing a new constitution that returned to the principles of 1789 and would prevent any kind of popular radicalism from influencing national politics. It was a reactionary moment — there was widespread dissatisfaction amongst the elite in the radicalism of the Jacobin period from 1793–1794, and the people were exhausted from years of political struggle and war. Stability and prosperity would be guaranteed by the governance of the property-holding classes.
The new constitution — the Constitution of Year III — created for the first time, during the Revolution, a bicameral legislature with a “Council of Ancients” and “The Counsel of 500,” with a return of the property qualification for voting.
Real power resided in the Directory, an executive body of five directors. Two of the five would be selected by lottery to retire at the end of a term, a system which was easily fixed by power-hungry politicians. The two legislative bodies’ powers were curtailed by the Directory, which tended to nullify elections if results did not favor their interests.
In the new political order, the French bourgeois could rest knowing that the popular movements would have no real influence over politics.
The threat of another Jacobin revolution or Royalist counter-revolution was an ever-present concern to the rotating cast of Directors — royalists actually won a majority in the 1797 elections, but a coup in September annulled this election and ejected deputies with royalist sympathies. This was followed by a coup against the revitalized Jacobins in 1798. The schemes of the Directory left it with few supporters.
Soon, cynicism set in as elections were obviously rigged and results thrown out if they weren’t to the Directory’s liking (60). What kept the Directory in power were their coups and successes in foreign wars, thanks in large part to the brilliance of Napoleon Bonaparte. His stunning victories in his Italian campaign filled the state treasury with loot, and he showed brilliance on the battlefield. He also fancied himself an independant statement.
He created satellite republics throughout Northern Italy and essentially conducted his own foreign policy, something that worried the Directory which was well aware of its own unpopularity and feared a potential coup.
Napoleon’s personal popularity grew as his military successes did. He was a master of public relations; his victories at famous battles during the Italian campaign, like the Siege of Mantua and the Battle of Arcole, were carefully narrated in the dispatches he sent back to France.
These stories built his reputation with the French public and created a favorable contrast between the virtuous republican genius of Napoleon and the dottering corruption of the Directory.
When political instability threatened social order, Napoleon used the opportunity and seized power in a coup in November 1799 — on the 18th of Brumaire, according to the Revolutionary calendar. He and his allies drafted a new constitution that named him First Consul, a term taken from the days of ancient Rome.
The legislature was mostly there to approve the First Consul’s proposals and Napoleon effectively ruled as a dictator, albeit a relatively benign one.
Napoleon’s legacy is complicated — in many ways, he consolidated the legacy of the Revolution. Reforms, not revolutionary social and political change, created an efficient bureaucracy to run France, manage state finances, and keep the army well supplied.
And while nobles were invited back into political and social life, there was no return of feudalism. The people admired him for bringing glory to France through successful military campaigns as well as the economic stability that came with his rule. In 1804, he crowned himself Emperor, but the rulers of Europe would never see him as a fellow monarch.
Although the early years of his rule were peaceful, from 1803 until his exile in 1815, Napoleonic France would be in an almost constant state of war against a series of European Coalitions. To put it simply, France had — through the Revolution and Napoleon’s rule — become too strong for Europe. The two sides would struggle until one capitulated.
After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815, the House of Bourbon returned to the French throne. Louis XVIII — brother to the deposed Louis XVI — ruled as a constitutional monarch, not an absolute one like his brother.
There was no going back to the social order of the Ancien Régime — revolution was an ever present threat to monarchs in France and the rest of Europe.
What Happened After the French Revolution?
After the Revolution, the Bourbon dynasty returned to France, ruling in cooperation with elected legislatures. But while they ruled, they never recovered the absolute authority they’d once wielded, before 1789 — the Revolution had broken them. Louis XVIII ruled until his death in 1824, and the monarchs that followed him were overthrown in future revolutions — Charles X in the July Revolution of 1830, and then his successor Louis-Philippe in 1848.
For the working person in France, life was hard after the Revolution, as it had been before it. As the years passed, the development of the Industrial Revolution and 19th century capitalism threw peasants off their land and workers into dirty, smoke filled factories across Europe. And the class that formed the backbone of the sans-culottes — the small shopkeepers, artisans, and craftsmen — persisted in France in the face of this.
Because of the Revolution and its legacy, they were able to resist the turning of artisans into proletarians better than most. But, during the 19th century, there was a general trend of class differentiation irresistible even in France. As the working classes toiling away in mines and factories grew, so did the power of the real winners of the French Revolution — the French bourgeois.
The clearing away of the debris of absolutism and feudalism had opened the world to them — industrialists and financiers would dominate French politics after the restoration; law was rationalized to be conducive to doing business, creating contracts, and forming corporations; markets were liberalized to facilitate trade and commerce.
With the development of new technologies of industry, transportation, and communication, they could fully exploit the fruits of the Revolution. The 19th century was their century — it probably wouldn’t have been, without the violence and disorder of the late 18th century. But the Revolution happened, and it’s hard to see how it wouldn’t have. An emerging new order butted up against the old, and one had to give way to the other.
Why Was the French Revolution Important?
Before 1789, revolutions were cyclical — they were defined as a return to a normal situation which had been violated by some outside force, such as when cities threw off a foreign ruler to return to domestic tranquility.
The French Revolution literally redefined the word “revolution.” After 1789, it meant the overthrow of a social and political order, and its replacement by something new.
There is no shortage of debate on the causes and effects of the Revolution, and how one sees it is often a reflection of the contemporary political climate. During the mid twentieth century, French Marxists interpreted the Revolution as a class conflict, while later revisionists saw it as the result of Enlightenment ideas getting out of hand.
Contemporary historians continue the debate, while also diving into the details of daily life; they study Revolutionary culture, and interpret the thoughts and ideas that animated Revolutionaries. To try to do justice to the sweeping of effects of the Revolution is extremely challenging, but nonetheless, a rough sketch can give some ideas. First and foremost, it ended feudalism in France and in other parts of Europe where the Revolutionary armies upended it, often together with local Jacobins.
In Revolutionary politics and society came new ways of thinking and being; equality and liberty became tangible goals for the people of France, rather than the topic of dinner conversation amongst elites. The languages and symbols became a template for subsequent revolutionaries — the tricolor flag, patriotism, liberty, equality, and fraternity.
But the human cost of the Revolution was staggering — the Terror alone had claimed thousands of victims. On top of that, the wars unleashed by the Revolution killed millions and devastated large swaths of Europe as hundreds of thousands of troops marched through the countryside looting farmlands and spreading disease. In this way, the immediate global effects of the Revolution are difficult to overemphasize.
It inspired fear in the old order of Europe and hope in those who wanted to overthrow it. From Haiti to Poland, revolutionaries followed the French example — conservatives and reactionaries had a cause to demonize.
The Jacobin Revolution, carried out by an alliance of middle-class leaders and a radical popular movement, would be the paradigmatic example of a revolutionary agent.
In the eyes of the bourgeois and establishment political classes, the violent excesses of the Revolution — the September Massacres, the Reign of Terror, the sans-culottes storming the Assembly — all became synonymous with democracy and egalitarianism. The Revolutionary Assembly’s sitting order from left to right, radicals to conservatives, social levelers to preservers of order and hierarchy — it’s all still the spectrum on which political struggle plays out in our world today.
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(2) Doyle, William. Oxford History of the French Revolution. Oxford University Press, 1989, pp. 11-12-
(3) Hobsbawm, Eric. The Age of Revolution. Vintage Books, 1996, pp. 56-57.
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