CHAPTER EIGHT: THE FRENCH REVOLUTION
AND THE REIGN OF TERROR
Oath of the Tennis Court
Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen
Women’s March on Versailles
Civil Constitution of the Clergy
Declaration of Pillnitz
Duke of Brunswick
George Jacques Danton
Law of the Maximum
Reign of Terror
Committee of Public Safety
Olympe de Gouges
Levée en Masse
What sparked the beginnings of revolutionary activity in France in the late 1780s?
To what extent was the first half of the French Revolution a “revolutionary” event?
In what ways did the Revolution become more radical in 1793?
How did the Reign of Terror come to an end?
Political Crisis: The Aristocratic Revolution:
The economic crisis in France in 1787 (see Chapter 7) led to the beginning of the French Revolution. This beginning phase is sometimes called the aristocratic revolution. Louis felt that the solution to the financial problems was to apply the same taxes that the peasants were paying to the high clergy and the nobles (the first and second estates) – the taille, the gabelle, etc. Unsurprisingly, the efforts of the king to raise money by taxing the nobility to balance the budget was refused by those nobles, unless the government promised to make major concessions to those same nobility. That is, the nobles hoped to use the financial crisis to gain more control over the state, and in August 1788 they forced the government to call a meeting of the Estates General in order to discuss taxes and concessions.
The Estates General
The Estates General was an advisory body, made up of representatives of each of the three Estates of French society (hence the name), who provided guidance and suggestions to the king (who was still an Absolutist King). The meeting would be held in May 1789, but the Estates General had not been convened for 175 years. This meant both that the rules for how to convene it were not easily remembered but also that, for anyone who wanted to make a change in the way things were going in France, this meeting seemed like the best chance they were going to get. As to the rules, the King had to appoint a committee to research and find out how it was supposed to operate. It is important to remember that the Estates General was not the same thing as the American Congress or the British Parliament – the Estates General could not, on its own, write new legislation and force it to become law. They could only give advice to the king.
Nonetheless, excitement was high across France, and elections were held across France for each estate. Each estate voted within itself, with the high clergy of the First Estate choosing representatives from amongst themselves, the nobility of the Second Estate choosing representatives from among themselves and the Commoners of the Third Estate choosing from among themselves. The French Revolution grew out of the Estates General. So, the nobility, in a way, started the French Revolution by insisting on a meeting of the Estates General. When it met in May of 1789, the King had no agenda or legislation to be placed before the assembly -- therefore the King was not leading it. That was a problem.
The Third Estate contained roughly the same number of delegates that the other two estates had combined, since it represented most of the French population. Immediately after the delegates arrived in Versailles there arose a controversy over how voting was to be done inside the Estates General. Traditionally, each estate would meet separately and vote on a piece of legislation within their estates. Whatever the majority vote was in each estate would decide the position of the whole estate on a certain issue. (This was called voting by order.) However, this set up meant that the nobility would always get their way because the nobility and the high clergy would always vote together and therefore would have two of the three votes in the Estates General.
The Third Estate wanted instead for the three Estates to meet and allow each individual representative to vote on their own for whatever policy was up for discussion. (This was called voting by head – each person [or their head] would be counted as one individual vote.) The reason for this suggestion was that, with their huge number of delegates, the Third Estate would be able to have more control in the assembly. Members of the Third Estate hoped for the creation of a constitutional monarchy like Britain and wanted to make other changes to end aristocratic privileges. It was about this time that the King’s eldest son died and so he went into a period of mourning, which meant that he also remained silent on the matter of how the estates were to meet and vote for some weeks. This gave the Third Estate time to get organized.
The National Assembly
The Third Estate on June 17, 1789 declared that it was a National Assembly that could speak and legislate for all of France. In response to this provocation, the king locked the Third Estate out of its meeting hall. But deputies of the Third Estate found an empty indoor tennis court, and they met there and swore an oath not to disband until they had drafted a constitution. This was known as the Oath of the Tennis Court (June 20, 1789). Thus, Louis was faced with a real (or would-be) parliament organized by the Third Estate and found that he could not stop it -- he had lost the initiative. On June 27th, he ordered the nobles to go over and join the National Assembly. (The First Estate/clergy had already joined with the National Assembly.)
PAUSE for 60-second Quiz #1: What sparked the beginnings of revolutionary activity in France in the late 1780s? Which statement is not true?
The economic crisis made the king want to tax the nobility
The nobles’ objections to being taxed forced the king to convene the Estates General
The representatives of the Third Estate formed the National Assembly
The representatives of the Third Estate arrested the king and cut off his head.
The French Revolution
The Revolution Begins: The Storming of the Bastille
When Louis ordered the nobility to join the National Assembly, he appeared to have surrendered and become a constitutional monarch, but he was not quite done fighting yet. He also summoned troops to Paris to try and restore his absolute authority. However, the commanders were very inept, and the troops were badly managed. Instead of containing the Parisians, they just stirred them up. There were rumors circulating that the king and the nobility were plotting to punish the people, so the mere presence of the king’s troops was read as an attempt to punish the Parisians.
On July 14, 1789, mobs of angry Parisians marched on the King’s fortress in central Paris -- the Bastille. This was a solid rock fortress that had been around since the 1400’s. Since the reign of Louis XIV, it had served as a prison, the famous “man in the iron mask” had been imprisoned there. The walls of the Bastille were impregnable to the artillery of the day, as these walls were 20-foot-thick at the bottom and 10-foot-thick at the top. The fortress was surrounded by two moats, making it difficult to attack with infantry, let alone common civilians.
The commander of the Bastille could have held the fortress, but he did not want to. There were 80,000 Parisians surrounding the Bastille and nearly 2/3 were women and children. He had not been trained to fire on women and children and so he decided to bargain with the crowd. He said that he would give over the Bastille, if they would allow, he and his soldiers to march out. Unfortunately for the soldiers, the crowd had no leader, so there was no one there to negotiate with.
When the commander got no answer, he assumed that the crowd had accepted his offer. He opened the gate, and the crowd came in. The commander was arrested and was being escorted to city hall when a butcher cut his throat and placed his head on a pike. Had he stood his ground; the Bastille would have survived. However, the Bastille, which was a prison as well as a fortress (it only had 7 prisoners at the time of the revolution: four counterfeiters, one drunk, and two mental cases), appeared to the people as the symbol of the “Old Regime” – that is, absolutism and the exploitation of the lower classes. So, in some ways, the falling of the Bastille offers another point where we could say that the French Revolution was really beginning. (Indeed, today, July 14th is celebrated as a French national holiday- like our 4th of July.)
Reforms of the National Assembly
Next, the National Assembly began making reforms. On August 26, 1789, the National Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. It was modeled after the American Declaration of Independence, and the English Bill of Rights. (In fact, the Marquis de Lafayette, a French nobleman who had fought for the Americans in the American Revolution, helped write this Declaration for France with the assistance of Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the American version.) This Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen declared that every Frenchman was born free; that he could not be arrested or imprisoned without due process of law; that he was to have a voice in making the law; that he was entitled to freedom of speech and the press; and that he was to enjoy full religious liberty. The Declaration asserted that the aim of government was to preserve the citizens’ natural rights, and that the government did not belong to the king or to the nobility. The Declaration is evidence of the effect that the ideas of the Enlightenment had on France.
Women’s March on Versailles
In Early October 1789, Parisian women became upset because of the lack of bread in Paris, due to ongoing problems with bad harvests, unemployment in the cities, and inflation (see above). At this time, bread the main staple of French peoples’ diet, so this was a big deal. These frustrated women began to gather at City Hall in Paris on October 5th, when it was suggested that they march the twelve miles out to Versailles and present their problems to the king. The king was still beloved by his people at this time and they felt that the problems of the past were the fault of the king’s counselors, who had given the king poor advice.
This angry mob of women gained strength on the walk from Paris to Versailles and, when they got there, Louis agreed to see a delegation of them. He received them and they began to cry and tell him their problems and Louis also broke down in tears. He told them that he would do whatever he could to alleviate their problems. The ladies and others called for the king to leave Versailles and come back to Paris, where they (the people who were upset but not anti-monarchists) could protect him from all of the bad people who wished him harm. He announced that he and his family would move to Paris and take up residence in the Tuileries Palace.
Interestingly, the commander of the Paris National Guard (a group of newly-formed militias sympathetic to the Revolution but separate from the royal army) that had gone with the women out to Versailles was the Marquis de Lafayette, who was part of this revolutionary movement to create the National Assembly and reform France but who, as we shall later see, was not quite as radical as some of his contemporaries. Lafayette escorted the Royal Family Back to Paris. The National Assembly, which had been meeting at Versailles, also moved to Paris.
Thus, the king became a virtual prisoner in the city. The Parisians were nice to him, but he could not leave the city even to go hunting in the suburbs. After moving to Paris, the king approved the abolition of aristocratic privileges, which the Assembly had demanded, and he signed the Declaration of the Rights of Man. The Women’s March on Versailles shows the importance of the crowd during the French Revolution.
Flight to Varennes
The National Assembly continued its assault on the Old Regime. (“Old Regime,” or ancien regime, is the French term that became a catch-all to refer to many different aspects of life in France before the Revolution – Absolute monarchy, feudal social order, powerful Catholic Church, and so forth.) One of its targets was the Catholic Church. Fearful of the ways in which the Catholic Church had used its power and influence to reinforce the authority of the Kings of France, the National Assembly moved to abolish the monastic orders and seize the property of the church. This anti-Catholic activity culminated with the Assembly’s adoption of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy in July 1790. This was a law setting pay scales for the clergy and providing that the voters elect their own parish priests and bishops, just as they elected other officials. In November 1790, the Assembly went further, requiring clergy to swear an oath of loyalty to the French state, which was quite an insult (or at least a crisis of conscience) for many clergy, if not for their parishioners. For clergy who did not take this oath, they could be exiled from the country or even executed for their opposition to the Revolution.
Louis XVI, being a devout, religious man, disagreed with this, but had no choice but to accept it- he basically was at the mercy of the Assembly. However, he felt that, by agreeing to this legislation, he was committing a mortal sin. Louis XVI finally decided in the spring of 1791 to leave Paris and run away with his family to the German border. A lot of the nobility had already fled France into Germany and were forming armies to return to France and try and stop the revolution. The Emperor of Austria, Leopold II (who was Marie-Antoinette’s nephew), promised Louis that he would supply Austrian troops to help fight the revolution.
Louis’ flight was not successful, mainly because of the king and his habits. Once he got out into the countryside, Louis began to want to stop and have cooked meals prepared for him. He got off schedule and was finally recognized in the village of Varennes by the local postmaster. The National Guard from Paris got to Varennes and hauled Louis back to Paris. The National Assembly covered for the King and said that he had been kidnapped and taken away against his will. However, there was growing agitation for the creation of a republic which is a government without a King. After Varennes, Louis became a virtual prisoner of the state.
The New Constitution
In return for their support after his failed flight to Varennes, the King had agreed to support the new constitution which the assembly was in the process of adopting. In September 1791, the National Assembly wrote and adopted a constitution that created a constitutional monarchy with a restricted electorate and an indirectly elected Legislative Assembly which held most of the power and which replaced the National Assembly. Only males over twenty-five, and who paid a certain amount in taxes (meaning they met a minimum property-holding restriction) could vote. But still, this meant that about 4.3 million men could vote. This was far more democratic than in Britain at that time. Overall, this system benefited the bourgeoisie because it reduced the power of the nobility and kept the common people (“the rabble,” in the eyes of many bourgeois and nobility) from gaining power. It made Louis XVI a Constitutional Monarch, like George III of Britain. (This limited extension of voting rights was also the case in the American Republic, until about the 1820s or so. Even then, it was not 100% democratic.)
When the new Legislative Assembly met, it was divided into three factions: The Right, the Center, and the Left. The members of the Right were constitutional monarchists, who favored the settlement that had been worked out by the National Assembly, whereby France had a limited monarchy. The members of the Left were known as the Jacobins, who were extremists who sought to completely overthrow the monarchy and establish a Republic. The Center group were somewhere in between constitutional monarchy and republic. These shorthand names (right, left, center) were used because of where these groups of representatives tended to sit in the assembly hall, but they have remained in use ever since, in both European and American politics.
The Jacobins developed the idea that France was surrounded by enemies, such as the French nobles who had fled France to try and raise foreign armies to put down the revolution, as well as unfriendly foreign nations who would like to undo this revolution and restore the king’s Absolutist order, such as Austria and Prussia. It is true that all these groups wanted to overturn the Revolution, and so the Jacobins were (at least, somewhat) justified in their sense of alarm. Because of this eminent threat, the Jacobins felt that France’s only chance was to strike at its enemies first. The Jacobins were aided in this idea in August of 1791 when the Emperor of Austria, Leopold II and the King of Prussia, Frederick William II issued the Declaration of Pillnitz that stated that the security of the French monarchy was “of common interest to all sovereigns of Europe.” The Jacobins won the legislative assembly over to this idea and they pushed Louis to ask for a declaration of war. On April 21st, 1792, France declared war on Austria, and Prussia entered the war as an ally of Austria. The war would only make it more challenging for the Revolutionaries to be successful.
The French felt that the best way to win was to strike into the Austrian Netherlands, which is present day Belgium. However, the fact that so many of the French nobles had fled the country meant that the army now had very few qualified officers. The army was also poorly disciplined and the soldiers espoused revolutionary principles of egalitarianism. This might not have been a bad thing, in the abstract, but in this case, the revolutionary army let the soldiers vote on the strategy to be used. Asking soldier to vote on whether or not to charge and be killed is probably not going to win the war, at least not all the time.
The attack on Belgium that resulted was a complete disaster. French armies only got 10-15 miles into Belgium and were totally routed, and they ran like hell back to France. Although he had nothing to do with the attack, Louis was blamed for the failure. People were beginning to turn away from the king. In the summer of 1792, Prussian and Austrian forces crossed over into France. By the middle of July, the French situation was critical, and so was the position of the moderates, meaning the supporters of the King, in the Legislative Assembly. As supporters of the constitutional monarchy, their position became utterly hopeless on 27 July, for on that date, the Duke of Brunswick, commander of the allied forces invading France, issued a manifesto, warning all Frenchmen that, if they refused to lay down their arms, they would be treated as rebels to their king, and promised, if any harm came to Louis or his queen, that Paris would be razed to the ground. This document played right into the hands of the Jacobins (the extremists within the Legislative Assembly), because it made it seem that Louis was in collusion with the enemies of France and the revolution.
The Paris Insurrection
The reply to Brunswick’s manifesto was the Paris insurrection of 9-10 August 1792. The revolt was mainly the work of the Jacobins, who decided that the monarchy would have to be destroyed. On August 10th, the Jacobins organized a march on the Tuilleries Palace. The King had been forewarned and he fled to the Legislative Assembly (which was meeting at the time) and he took refuge there. The crowd of 60,000- 80,000 people stormed the palace and killed about 600 of the King’s very loyal Swiss Guards.
The French Monarchy is considered to be overthrown with the storming of the Tuilleries palace on August 10th. The Legislative Assembly, dominated by the Jacobins, voted then to suspend the monarchy, place the country under a provisional government, and call for a National Convention to change the constitution. (Remember, at this time the constitution involved the monarchy, so to be complete republic would require a new constitution.) At the head of this provisional government was the Jacobin leader, George Jacques Danton. Danton became, in effect, dictator of France until the National Convention was to meet in September.
In the interval between Louis’ overthrow and the meeting of the National Convention, Danton and his provisional government managed to keep the country going. Untiringly, he saw to the recruitment of troops to resist the Austrians and Prussians, who were defeated on September 20th at Valmy and forced into a temporary retreat from France. To prevent the possibility of counter-revolution in favor of the king, Danton ordered a house-to-house search for aristocrats and enemy sympathizers. With this many arrests, the prisons of Paris were soon crowded. Much to his discredit, however, he allowed the people of Paris to take justice into their own hands. From September 2nd to the 7th, the prisons of Paris were emptied. After mock trials conducted by self-appointed judges, nearly 2,000 people were butchered in the prison courtyards. These senseless murders have gone down in history as the September Massacres. Those massacred were mainly aristocrats and supposed enemy sympathizers.
The overthrow of the monarchy initiated a much more radical phase of the Revolution. That is, this early period (which we’ve just explored) did make important and groundbreaking changes to the French state and its relationship to the French people. However, there was only moderate violence (compared to what would come later). The second phase of the Revolution (below) has become associated with an exponential increase in violence, often deployed in the service of admonishing critics and encouraging cohesion to the principles of Revolution (as defined by those in charge). “Radical” here refers to the goal of the Revolution, as well as the means with which that goal was achieved. In comparison, the early phase of the Revolution is sometimes called the “liberal” phase of the Revolution, where leaders achieved recognition for natural rights and other ideas that would be later associated with the philosophy of Liberalism (more on that later), but without the massive cost in lives among those who opposed change.
PAUSE for 60-second Quiz #2: To what extent was the first half of the French Revolution a “revolutionary” event? Which statement is not true?
The National Assembly voted to abolish the monarchy
The National Assembly voted to abolish the Catholic Church
The National Assembly voted to declare war on Austria
The National Assembly voted to execute all members of the royal family and their supporters
The Radical Republic
Inauguration of the Republic
Elections for the new National Convention (to write another new constitution) were held and on September 21st, 1792, the National Convention met for the first time and France officially became a republic. The monarchy was no more – the king was still there but he was just a regular citizen, like everyone else – and the Legislative Assembly had been replaced by the National Convention. The Convention contained no supporters of the King – all the members were for the republic. In the Convention, these republicans began to fight among themselves. The Girondins, who had been a part of the Jacobins, but had more moderate views than the Jacobins, split off and formed their own faction. The radicals were still the Jacobins. As time went on, the Convention got more and more radical and there was great in-fighting between the Girondins and the Jacobins for power.
One of the first acts of the extremists Jacobins in the Convention was to create a new revolutionary calendar in which the first day of the year was September 22 (September 22, 1792 was declared the beginning of Year I of the Republic). The purpose of the Jacobins in forming the new calendar was to break the power of the Catholic Church over the people. Most revolutionaries were very anti-clerical (another idea coming out of the enlightenment) and did not like the role that the clergy played in the government and their indoctrination of the people.
Under this new calendar, the standard religious holidays were abolished (like Christmas, Easter, Saint’s Days, etc.…) There also were no Sundays. There were ten-day weeks, with three weeks to the month, twelve months to the year. The remaining five days at the end of the year were set aside for a holiday celebrating the virtue of the Revolution. The Revolutionaries were not necessarily trying to destroy religion but they wanted people to worship the Revolution as they had previously worshiped god. Some of these Jacobins really wanted to make the Revolution into a sort of religion. At the same time, other legislators felt that getting rid of Sundays and holidays would increase the work potential of the French people, since there would be less time off for feasting and worshipping, as in the Catholic tradition.
Problems Facing the National Convention
The National Convention remained in session for three years. At the outset it was faced with serious problems:
Foreign armies had to be defeated and driven from France.
It had to decide what to do with the King.
A new constitution based on a republican form of government had to be written.
They had to decide what form of government the Republic was to have.
Revolts that were breaking out all over France against the Revolution had to be put down
Let us take a closer look at how the Convention dealt with these problems.
The Prosecution of the War
Largely due to the recruitment work of Danton, the first problem facing the National Convention was eradicated. Untiringly, during the provisional government he had seen to the recruitment of troops to resist the Austrians and Prussians. On September 21st, the same day that the Convention opened, news was received in Paris that the French had defeated the Austrians and Prussians the previous day at Valmy and they forced into a temporary retreat. This victory was a crucial turning point in the progress of the Revolution. Had the French been defeated, the Revolution would have probably collapsed and more than twenty years of wars and conquest that were to carry French armies and revolutionary ideals all over Europe would have been nipped in the bud. Valmy saved the Revolution, and the Revolution paved the way for the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte. After Valmy, the French forces took the offensive. The Austrian and Prussian armies were driven back across the Rhine.
The Fate of Louis XVI
This was the second problem facing the Convention, and it was soon settled as well. In December 1792, the king was brought to trial on the charge of treason, and on 14 January 1793, he was sentenced to death. The Jacobins, led by Danton and Maximilien Robespierre. gave speeches in the Convention calling for the King’s execution; while the Girondins caused harm to themselves by attempting to save the king’s life and called for a national plebiscite to be held to determine the king’s fate. (They felt that the conservative peasantry would vote to spare his life.) The Jacobins blocked the plebiscite and on 21 January, the king was executed.
On the scaffold, the king acted with quiet dignity and with a great show of courage, which made many Frenchmen regret the action they had taken. Like Charles I of England, Louis was greater in his death than he had been as a king. Louis’ execution was the first victory of the Jacobins over the Girondins. Because they had supported Louis, the Jacobins branded the Girondins as counterrevolutionaries and enemies of the state.
An interesting interpretive question to ponder is, was Louis XVI to blame for his own demise? Louis XVI can neither be praised nor blamed for his actions during the decisive years from 1789 to 1792. He had been born into a role, which he had been expected to play, the symbol of a political philosophy which had been accepted in France and indeed throughout Europe for centuries. He had been trained and conditioned as an Absolute monarch. To expect him—a rather dull man—to have had the vision and foresight to accept what was happening in France was too much to expect of him. Louis played the game as he thought it should have been played, not understanding that a new movement was underfoot, a new spirit of democracy.
Framing a New Constitution
In regard to forming a new constitution, the members of the Convention found themselves at odds. Early in 1793, the Girondins drafted a moderate constitution, which called for a federal system of government, one in which the various French departments, which were like our states, would have a considerable amount of self-government. They also favored laissez-faire economics. In contrast, the Jacobins favored an all-powerful central government over federalism. Instead of laissez-faire, the Jacobins demanded government control over trade and commerce. The chief spokesman for the Jacobins was Maximilian Robespierre, a political fanatic who had eclipsed Danton and who really believed that if he could gain control of the government, he could create a political utopia. In the end, Robespierre and the Jacobins won out in their view of the constitution, because in February of 1793, the Convention rejected the constitution drafted by the Girondins. This was the second victory of the Jacobins over the Girondins.
War with the First Coalition
After Louis XVI’s execution, Britain, Holland and Spain withdrew their ambassadors from France. The Convention, thinking that this was a prelude to an attack by these powers, in February of 1793 declared war on Britain, Piedmont-Sardinia, Spain, and the Netherlands. These countries, along with Austria and Prussia, formed the First Coalition against revolutionary France. France was now at war with virtually all the “great powers” of Europe except for Russia. The fighting itself was to last continually, except for a few intervals of peace, down to the final defeat of Napoleon in 1815. The French army in 1793 was under the control of General Dumouriez, who was a Girondin. After suffering a series of disastrous defeats, in March Dumouriez deserted to the enemy, and brought discredit on his party, the Girondins.
Final Defeat of the Girondins
At home, the French people were faced with high unemployment, high prices for goods and food, and food shortages to boot. To these problems, the Girondins, with their laissez-faire policies could offer no relief. However, the leaders of the Jacobins urged price controls such as the Law of the Maximum, which was put forth in May of 1793 to freeze the price of grain. The Jacobins also supported the requisitioning of food, which they proposed to pass out to the people. The Girondins voted against the Law of the Maximum, which infuriated the Parisians. Finally, on June 2nd, the Jacobins, backed by the Paris mob, arrested the last remaining 23 Girondins in the Convention (many of them knew what was coming and had fled). The Jacobins then ordered the execution of the arrested Girondins. This began the so-called Reign of Terror in France, which would last from June 1793 to July 1794.
Well, the situation for France in the summer of 1793 was grim. The country was under attack by the world’s greatest powers, her major cities (except for Paris) were in revolt against the Jacobin government (Bordeaux, Lyon, Marseilles, and Toulon), a counterrevolutionary army was in control of the Vendée, which was a large area in the North and West of France. To meet these threats, the Republic required a government of maximum possible force who could mobilize her resources and manpower for total war. This desperate situation produced the Government of Terror – a war government that was granted exceptional powers to deal with the emergencies facing France, in order to help the Revolution survive.
Committee of Public Safety
To meet the challenge of insurrection, the Jacobin controlled National Convention entrusted its power to a Committee of Public Safety, which was made up of twelve members of supposed equal power, but Robespierre was the real leader. Also created were two subsidiary bodies: the Committee of General Security and the Revolutionary Tribunal. The task of the first was to seek out traitors to the Revolution and the task of the second was to try and execute them. The Convention remained the legislative body, but they pretty much passed whatever legislation Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety wanted.
The Reign of Terror
The government led by Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety was to take some 25,000 lives. They specifically targeted Girondins, and suspected royalists. Robespierre and the Terrorists took as their bible Rousseau’s Social Contract, and they especially were fond of his idea that if anyone went against the General Will of the state, it was the duty of the executive – who was in this case the Committee of Public Safety – to show them the error of their ways and make them conform to the General Will. This usually meant chopping off their head with the guillotine. The guillotine is the execution device that is probably most famously (or infamously) associated with the French Revolution. This contraption dropped a heavy metal blade down a frame, quickly and neatly severing the head of the victim. (Although, after lots of executions, things were not always so quick and neat, as the blade would get dull and dirty.)
Thousands of suspected royalists were arrested and thrown into prison. After the mere formality of a trial, many of them were thrown into carts and taken to the public square for their execution by the guillotine. In some parts of France, this became too time consuming and they would put a bunch of the prisoners in a boat tied up and sink the boat in a river. However, the Committee of Public safety was able to keep order by the threat of the guillotine, as this threat worked. They assured the obedience of the people. Marie Antoinette was one victim of the Terror- she was executed by the guillotine on October 16, 1793. Olympe de Gouges was another. She was a pro-Revolutionary activist who had written a pamphlet in 1791 called the “Declaration of the Rights of Women,” which had built on the principles of the Declaration of the Rights of Man but called out the hypocrisy of Revolutionary leaders who talked about the goals of the Revolution – liberty, equality, fraternity – but did not extend those rights and liberties to women. Any opposition to, or criticism of, the Revolution made one suspect, and so de Gouges met the same fate as the Old Regime queen.
The War Effort
The Reign of Terror was successful in crushing all subversive activity on the home front, so the Committee of Public Safety were able to turn their full attention to the danger of the foreign armies. To meet her enemies, France led by Lazare Carnot, the so called “Organizer of Victory” initiated a program of compulsory military service known as the Levée en Masse- which was a draft. All men between the ages of 18 and 40 were subject to the draft, with the result that 300,000 Frenchmen were inducted into the armed services.
To ensure the best leadership, the old military system of rank and privilege was ignored. Instead, men were promoted to command on the basis of ability -- not birth. Results were demanded from these officers; it was either victory or the guillotine. The military program of the republic was a great success. During 1794 and 1795, the armies of France won some great victories, largely due to the fact that the French citizen-soldiers were motivated by a spirit not found in the armies of their enemies. The Frenchmen believed that they were fighting for their own liberty and the right to enjoy the fruits of the Revolution. They knew that if they were defeated, that the Old Regime would be reinstated.
End of the Terror
Well, in the end the Committee of Public Safety and the Reign of Terror killed themselves by their own successes. By the spring of 1794, the First Coalition had ceased to be a threat, and practically all the plots and revolts within France had been stamped out. There was no longer any need for the continuance of the Reign of Terror, but the fanatical Robespierre and his friends on the Committee of Public Safety continued their policy of intimidation. While Robespierre remained in control, many of the more prominent leaders of the Revolution were executed because they dared to disagree with him. Danton was one of these -- he was arrested and beheaded because he suggested that the Reign of Terror be brought to an end. In the end, though, Robespierre fell victim to his own bloodlust.
In late July, there was a Conservative Backlash in the National Convention called the Thermidorian Reaction, named after the month of Thermidor (July) on the Revolutionary calendar. The Convention overthrew Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety and sent Robespierre and many of his compatriots to the guillotine.
PAUSE for 60-second Quiz #3: In what ways did the Revolution become more radical in 1793? Which statement is correct?
The Committee of Public Safety released all prisoners from prison, so they could loot and pillage the countryside
The Jacobins surrendered to France’s enemies and gave up lots of territory in exchange for protection
The Jacobins arrested and executed many people who voiced opposition to the Revolution
The Committee of Public Safety voted to name Napoleon Bonaparte dictator for life.
The Directory (1795-99)
After the execution of Robespierre, many Frenchmen hoped that things might return to normal. They had had enough of the executions. Thousands of political prisoners all over France were released from prisons, and the extraordinary powers which had been placed at the disposal of the Committee of Public Safety were revoked. In Paris, gangs of young men attacked Jacobins, while in the provinces many of them were mobbed, beaten and even murdered.
Conservatism was now the order of the day. It was not that people wanted a return to the old ways, they were simply fed up with the extremism, fanaticism and killing and wanted to see that the social and political gains that they had won during the revolution preserved. They wanted Peace.
The Thermidorian Reaction which brought down Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety also put an end to the effective rule of the National Convention. Despite its association with the Reign of Terror, the National Convention had achieved a number of positive reforms including the establishment of a national system of education and the abolition of slavery in the French colonies. So, they weren’t all bad.
In addition, the National Convention drafted a new system of government, which was composed of two legislative chambers and an executive body of five members called Directors. (Council of Elders- 250; Council of the 500). This period in France is known as the Directory. With the Directory came yet another new constitution, which was put to a vote to the French people in September 1795.
Most of the French voted for this new constitution but the Parisians voted against it. The Parisians did not like it because the Constitution said that 2/3rds of the new legislative assembly would be composed of members of the old National Convention. As usual, the Parisians were influenced by hunger -- bread was still scarce there and very expensive. They did not like the old convention.
Parisians rioted and the mob went to attack the Tuileries Palace on October 5th, where the National Convention was still meeting (it had not yet been dissolved). In Paris was a young Brigadier General named Napoleon Buonaparte from Corsica. He later (1796) changed the spelling of his name to Bonaparte to sound more French instead of the Italian sounding Buonaparte. Napoleon was called in to defend the Tuileries and set up his cannon guarding the approaches to the building. With a “whiff of grapeshot” (which is like a 6-inch wide shotgun) from the cannon, Napoleon put down the revolt. He was the first general to use mass cannon against a mob of civilians. He killed about 100 and wounded another 200. However, there was not another mass uprising in Paris for the rest of the French Revolution/Napoleonic Period.
In late October, the National Convention dissolved itself and the Directory assumed full power of the government of France. However, it soon proved to be incompetent and graft ridden. Most of the deputies in the assemblies were middle-class, therefore it catered to the middle-class, with the result that the poorer elements in French society continued to suffer from lack of employment and the necessities of life.
In International affairs, the most pressing problem facing the Directory when it came to power was the need to deal with the remnants of the First Coalition. The Directory’s main objective in 1796 was to defeat Austria, the only major opponent on the continent. Britain, though still at war, confined herself to the seas, where the British Navy was supreme. Prussia and Spain had both made peace in 1795. The French plan was to send two large armies to drive down the Danube to Vienna. Meanwhile, a third smaller force led by Napoleon was to create a diversion in Italy, where Austria also had troops stationed and to tie down those troops and discourage Austria’s ally, Piedmont-Sardinia, from staying in the war.
In mid-April of 1796 the Army of Italy (commanded by Napoleon) crossed the Alps into Italy. Within five days, Napoleon had won major battles that caused Piedmont-Sardinia to sue for peace and leave the First Coalition. However, Napoleon was not satisfied and he took the offensive against the Austrians. In two brilliant battles: Arcola in mid-November 1796 and Rivoli in mid-January 1797, he outflanked the Austrians, drove them from the field, and advanced into Austria where the Austrian Emperor, Francis II, sued for peace.
Napoleon was not supposed to be able to defeat the Austrians, who had a good army. In most of the battles that he fought, Napoleon was facing armies larger than his own. Napoleon had forced the Austrians out of the war and made a worldwide name for himself. He also collected reparations from each country he marched through and sent millions in treasure back to the Directory. He also sent art treasures back to the Louvre, which is now the great art museum of France. Napoleon built the collection of the Louvre in his campaigns. He returned to Paris as a conquering hero.
Napoleon Rises to Power:
Following his victories in Italy and Austria, Napoleon next gained the consent of the Directory to invade Egypt, in the hope of cutting Britain’s sea lanes to her most prized colonial possession, India. In the years before the Suez canal was built, goods were sent overland from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean through Egypt. Evading the British fleet in the Mediterranean, Napoleon seized the Island of Malta on 12 June 1798 and then proceeded on to Egypt, where he first met with success. He was easily able to overrun Egypt, but the French could not gain control the seas. On August 1st, 1798, the British Admiral Horatio Nelson, attacked and destroyed Napoleon’s fleet at the Battle of the Nile, near Alexandria. Napoleon lost 12 of his 13 ships of the line at the Battle of the Nile. Napoleon was a great propagandist and he carefully managed reports of his Egyptian campaign in order to prevent news of the extent of the debacle from leaking back to France.
Napoleon could go on conquering Egypt and all of Africa if he wanted to, but he was shut off from Europe and pretty much imprisoned with his army in Africa. Napoleon tried to relieve his situation by invading Syria in February 1799 but was stopped and forced to retreat back to Egypt. Napoleon, after his fleet was sunk, had been cut off from any news from France. He found out that the Directory was in a lot of trouble at home and a new, Second Coalition, had been formed in 1798 against France. This coalition was made up of Britain, Austria and Russia. Napoleon saw his chance and deserted his army in Egypt in August of 1799 to return to France. He landed on October 9th.
Even though his entire army was lost, the French people welcomed him, they still remembered his glorious victories against the Austrians and the Piedmontese and they received him as a national hero. On November 9th, 1799 (18 Brumaire), a coup swept the Directory from power and a new government called the Consulate was established. Under the consulate, the government of France was in the hands of three men: Emmanuel Sieyes, Pierre Roger Ducos, and Napoleon, who was named First Consul. Ostensibly, the Consulate was a Republic, but in reality, Napoleon held all the power in the state. Indeed, Sieyes had conspired with Napoleon to overthrow the Directory and thought that he could use Napoleon as a military strongman and then cast him aside, but this assumption proved to have been misguided. Napoleon became the most prominent of three consuls that ran the government.
PAUSE for 60-second Quiz #4: How did the Reign of Terror come to an end? Which statement is true?
France was conquered by Austria and the Jacobins were executed.
A coup overthrew the Jacobins and brought the Directory to power.
Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself King of France.
Louis XVIII invaded France and crowned himself King of France
Key to 60-second Quizzes
D. The king was arrested and executed at the end of 1792-1793 but that was not until the end of the “liberal” phase of the Revolution, much later than the Estates General and the beginning of the Revolution in 1789
D. The National Assembly did not vote to execute the king; the Convention was the name of the body who did find the king guilty and sentenced him to death but that was at the end of the “liberal” phase of the Revolution, in December 1792.
C. The Jacobins kept fighting the wars and used terror to make people obedient.
B. France had more or less won its wars, but the continued use of terror was too much to endure, so Robespierre’s supporters turned on him and arrested him.
Primary Source Exercise
After you have read the primary source listed above (as well as Chapter 8), answer the following questions, based on what you have learned so far:
What do you think is important to know about the author of this text? What can you learn from the words he wrote on the page? What can you infer or piece together from the background information in the textbook chapter? Why is this important?
What are the author’s goals in writing this text? To whom did he address it? What purpose did it serve? Can you point to one or more examples to support this analysis?
What, if any, hidden assumptions can you detect in this text? That is, can you find word choices, phrasing, innuendo, or other examples of the author’s (explicit or implicit) bias with regard to the subject matter? Does this bias (or these assumptions) affect how you understand and react to the authors’ words? Why or why not?