Revolution and After: Tragedies and Farce

The Radical Revolution

   In the summer of 1792, disaffection with the Revolution was growing among the lower classes, especially the peasantry. The Revolution, after all, had been staged by the middle class and the wealthier members of the Third Estate; most of the reforms, especially the economic reforms, benefitted only these two groups. In many ways, life had become harder for the lower classes. Agricultural enclosure threw many peasants off their farms and into the arms of starvation; economic reforms had spurred tremendous growth in industries, but had also resulted in wildly fluctuating prices and rampant inflation. You might say that bread was the fuel that fired the Revolution, for just about every major turning point got its start in some civil unrest over the price of bread.

   However, this wasn't enough to push the Revolution into its radical phase. Almost from its beginning, the French Revolution frightened and dismayed the other powers of Europe. From the very moment that the National Assembly declared itself the legislative body of France, revolts broke out in countries such as Germany, and prominent intellectuals all over Europe began calling for the overthrow of the aristocracy. Fearing the consequences should the revolution spill over the borders of France, the European powers soon launched an uncoordinated counter-revolution. In August of 1791, Austria and Prussia declared that order, the rights of the monarch, and the privileges of the aristocracy should be restored in France. By the summer of 1792, it looked like all of Europe was ready to overthrow the revolution.

The Girondists

   The Assembly was controlled by a moderate faction called the Girondists, so-called because most of them came from the Gironde Department, which oversaw mercantile activity. Anxious to secure their political position, they rose with the popular tide and declared Austria's and Prussia's declaration to be a threat to national security and declared war on April 20, 1792.

   The war, however, went very badly. By August of 1792, Prussian and Austrian forces had not only crossed the French border, but were heading straight for Paris. Their purpose was to restore the monarchy, and it looked like the days of the Revolution were coming to an end. The Austrians were motivated in part by Marie Antoinette; the Emperor of Austria, Leopold II, was her brother. Although Louis seemed to vacillate, Marie was determined to see the Revolution fail. To this end, she had plotted counter-revolution with Leopold and even tried to escape with Louis in June of 1791. They almost made it, but were caught near the border at Varennes and forced to turn back. The French knew, then, that the monarch was committed to counter-revolution and they effectively turned him into a prisoner.

   With the Austrians and the Prussians headed for Paris, the population flew into a frenzy. Convinced that the king was behind the invasion, a Paris mob attacked the royal palace; Louis fled to the Legislative Assembly for asylum. The hours, however, were winding down. Shortly after the crowd invaded the palace, radicals seized the municipal government of Paris and declared it to be a Commune. They then persuaded the Assembly to hand the king and his family over to them for punishment.

The Jacobins

   Keep in mind what the situation was. It looked like the revolution was almost over. The Prussians and the Austrians were within a hair's breadth of restoring the monarch to the throne. The king had made obvious his allegiance to the counter-revolution rather than the Legislative Assembly. The revolution had benefitted only the middle and wealthy classes of the Third Estate. The poor were worse off. The moderates had mismanaged the war. That's the stage. Here's the play.

   All these affairs led to the downfall of the Girondists; power now fell to a faction called the Jacobins, named after the political club they belonged. The Jacobins were more radical than the Girondists, but they were still relatively moderate. Unlike the Girondists, they were strict equalitarians, that is, they wanted to completely do away with all aspects of social distinction. They also believed that the vote should be universal and that government should provide for the welfare of the poor.

   The Jacobins, as soon as they rose to power, called for a national convention. Members of this convention would be elected by a universal vote, and the job of the new convention would be to dismantle the constitution of 1791 in favor of a republican constitution, that is, a constitution without a monarch. The members of the convention were elected in September of 1792 and the convention they made up became the effective national government of France until 1794. On September 20, the French successfully turned back the Prussian army at Valmy, and on September 21, the Convention met. Its first act was declare France a republic and completely abolished the monarchy. The Revolution, it seemed, was back on track.

   The character of the Revolution had changed, however. During the first week of September, the Paris Commune executed all of the prisoners in the city jails, about twelve hundred people, in public executions. Even though most of these prisoners were simply criminals, they were declared counter-revolutionaries and the Parisian crowds ate it up. While the Jacobins, slightly more radical than the Girondists, controlled the government, the rise of the Jacobins also saw the rise of another, even more radical group, the sans-culottes .

The Sans-culottes

   The sans-culottes (so named because they didn't wear upper class breeches or culottes ) were the common people of Paris. They were working people: shop owners, tradespeople, artisans, and even factory workers. They, like the poor, were among the prominent losers of the first, more moderate revolution. While the middle class and wealthy classes benefitted greatly from the revolution, the sans-culottes saw their livelihoods disappearing and inflation driving them to bare subsistence. Of all the groups of France, it is the hopes, dreams, and views of the sans-culottes that drove the radical revolution from 1792 to 1794.

   The desires of the sans-culottes were simple: subsistence was a right for all people; inequality of any kind was to be abolished; the aristocracy and the monarchy was to be abolished; property was not to be completely eliminated, but to be shared in communal groups. These ideas were, on the whole, far more radical than what the Jacobins had in mind. However, more radical Jacobins sympathized with the sans-culotte and began to work with them. This radical group of Jacobins were called the Mountain, because they took the highest seats in the assembly (which was held in a multi-tiered hall).

   As the convention came more under the control of the Mountain and the sans-culottes , it turned its attention to doing away with the monarchy by starting at the source—Louis XVI. In December, 1792, the Convention put Louis XVI on trial. The Girondists and more moderate Jacobins struggled to save his life, but the Convention narrowly voted to execute him. On January 31, 1793, he was beheaded.

   In February, 1793, the Convention then declared war on Great Britain. It then declared war on Holland. Then it declared war on Spain. The Prussia drove French armies from Belgium. Then a revolution broke out in the Vendée, led by royalist and aristocratic sympathizers. France was at war with the whole European world, including itself, and it all fell into the lap of the moderate Girondists.

   The downfall of the Girondists the accelerated the radical revolution, which had been brewing and boiling in the upper tiers of the convention. By the spring of 1793, the Mountain and the sans-culottes had effectively taken over the Convention, and in April they began to take measures to protect the new Republic. This new phase would produce a level of cruelty and fear unprecedented in European history: the Reign of Terror.

The Reign of Terror

   The "Reign of Terror" lasted from September of 1793 to July of the following year; these nine months make up the events we normally associate with the French Revolution. The Terror, however, was a relatively brief episode in a process that was begun in 1789 and really didn't conclude until Napolean's coup d'état in 1799. Simply put, the Terror was a dictatorship in part by the Convention, but mainly by a group of leaders called the Committee of Public Safety. Its hallmark event, of course, was the massive extermination of counter-revolutionaries and so-called enemies of the Republic; over forty thousand Frenchmen lost their lives to the guillotine in these years. (Abbé Sièyes, when asked what his great accomplishment was during the months of terror, replied simply, "I survived"). Despite the sheer volume of executions, almost all of which were done without due process, the dictatorship of the Terror were facing a hopeless situation and, to their credit, they turned the tide. It is almost certain that the Revolution would not have survived but for the dictators during the Reign of Terror who managed, through reorganizing the army and ruthlessly pursuing internal dissidents, to secure the French Republic (for its eventual downfall, of course, at the hands of Napolean).

   This is what the Jacobins faced in September, 1793. All of Europe was at war with France; the alliance between England, Holland, and Spain, was particularly threatening. The French army, though it had turned back the Prussians, was now losing again. Counter-revolution had begun in earnest in France; a monarchist revolt in the Vendée threatened to spill over into the rest of the country. But the conservative counter-revolution wasn't all that worried the Jacobins. Although the Jacobins were fairly radical, in that they saw themselves as representing the oppressed lower classes, they were still middle class and still primarily represented the interests of the middle class. Arrayed on the left were even more radical agitators who were called the enragées , and were led by a fiery journalist named Jacques Hébert. These radicals were even more devoted to the ideas of Rousseau, particularly his condemnation of property as a fundamental perversion of moral human society; their thought, with some exaggeration, came much closer to what we would call communism.

   The Convention completely reorganized the army and did so with brilliance and effectiveness. In desperation, they instituted a draft on all males capable of fighting and hastily put together over a dozen armies. By the middle of 1794, these ill-trained and poorly led armies managed to secure French borders; by 1795, they conquered southern Holland and part of Spain and Switzerland. By 1796, they had effectively won the war.

   At home, the Convention delayed its creation of a democratic government because of the wars abroad and the insurgencies at home. Instead they created a Committee of Public Safety, and as the months of Terror passed, the Convention increasingly transferred its powers to this small committee. By the summer of 1794, the national government of France was almost solely in the hands of this committee.

   The committee was made up of twelve men and particularly led by three, the most famous names in the French Revolution: Jean-Paul Marat (1743-1793), Georges Jacques Danton (1759-1794), and Maximilien Robespierre (1758-1794).

   Marat was a prominent physician who had been a radical revolutionary from the very start; because of his radicality, he was soon oppressed and hunted down and spent part of the Revolution hiding in sewers. From the sewers he contracted an incurable skin disease which required that he bathe constantly to ease the pain; it was while he was bathing, that a Girondist extremist named Catherine Corday stabbed him to death in the early months of the Terror.

   Danton, on the other hand, only rose to prominence in the Revolution when the Jacobins seized control of the Convention. It was Danton that set up the revolutionary tribunals both in Paris and throughout the country, and who also helped to engineer the transfer of power from the Convention to the Committee. The revolutionary tribunals had as their charge the trials and executions of the "enemies" of the Republic. What actually constituted an "enemy" was never fully defined, and as the tribunals spread from Paris to the countryside, they became a flash point for popular resentments and old wrongs. The tribunals first beheaded members of the aristocracy, including Marie Antoinette, in October of 1793. Soon, however, the heads of Girondists began to fall from the guillotines, then the sans-culottes , then the enragées , then opposing members in the Jacobin party, and eventually a pile of innocent victims. All told, by the end of the Terror, far more peasants, laborers, republicans, and democrats lost their lives to the tribunals than aristocrats or monarchists. It is these tribunals and their executions, largely accomplished through a beheading machine called a guillotine, that we popularly associate with the Revolution—the spread of the tribunals, however, was only a brief chapter in the Revolution's history. Danton himself was eventually declared an enemy of the Republic by one of these tribunals and was beheaded in April of 1794.

   For sheer power and creative, the most conspicuous of the radical leaders of the Committee was Maximilien Robespierre, a man of incredibly passionate principle; however, like all people who live by principle alone, he was ruthless and heartless in his pursuit of morality and principle. He, like other extremists, was passionately attached to the ideas of Rousseau and the creation of a society free from inequality. He had little to do with building the machinery of the terror—that was largely due to the perverse genius of Georges Danton—he nevertheless was responsible for the amplification of this machinery across the face of France. It was Robespierre who gave the Terror its character, for he believed that virtue was ineffective without terror and he openly advocated terror as a political virtue. To this end, he expanded the powers of the tribunals and led them against other leaders in his government. On June 10, he managed to legislate the Law of 22 Prairial (see the discussion of the French calendar below), which allowed tribunals to convict accused enemies without hearing any evidence whatsoever .

   Both the Convention and the Committee saw themselves as building a new destiny for humanity. They believed that they were going to replace the old, property-based, monarchy and aristocracy with a new, equality-based republic of civic virtue. France would, under their guidance, become the Republic of Virtue, and it would rebuild society from the ground up in order to build this republic. For the old system was founded on a bad social contract and bad foundations, such as property, Christianity, and social distinction.

   The first move, then, was to eliminate Christianity. They first began by throwing the old Christian calendar, which, though based on the Roman calendar, set its dates from the (supposed) death of Christ. In October, 1793, shortly after seizing control of France, the Convention threw out the old calendar and replaced it with a Revolutionary calendar. On this new calendar, the first day of the calendar was the first day of the Revolution. Each month consisted of thirty days, and the old Roman names were replaced by names describing the season (since July is hot, for instance, it became "Thermidor"). In order to fully dechrisianize the calendar, they threw out the old sabbath system and made every tenth day a holiday rather than every seventh. (Part of the reason for going into such detail over this silliness is that all the major events of the Revolution to follow are traditionally dated using the Revolutionary calendar—historians are not quite so open-minded, however, about Islamic dates which, in the Islamic world, are dated not on a Christian calendar but on an Islamic calendar).

   The Christian religion had to go completely. In November of 1793, the Convention founded a Religion of Reason and renamed Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, the "Temple of Reason. While all this went over more or less smoothly in Paris, the results in the countryside were less than stellar. The Convention created a group of officials, called "mission deputies," to enforce the dechristianization of the French republic. Mostly this consisted of closing down churches, but it sometimes meant persecution and execution. Some priests were even forced to marry (and, what the historians don't tell you, women were forced to marry priests—the coercion functioned in both directions). Perhaps more than anything, the efforts to dechristianize France dramatically eroded support for the radical revolution throughout the countryside.

   Eventually, Robespierre decided that the religion of Reason was a bit too difficult for the average person to grasp., so he changed the new French religion into the "Cult of the Supreme Being."

   On July 27, Robespierre was arrested as an enemy of the Republic and, like Danton before him, died at the hands of his own bloody machinery of justice along with twenty-one other radical leaders of the Convention. The Terror came to an end. While historians point to the dechristianization of France and the sheer bloodiness of the Terror as motives for a counter-reaction, in reality the Terror came to an end because it succeeded so well. The tribunals had managed to execute so many people—probably forty thousand people—so efficiently that all the uprisings, both radical and monarchist, had been effectively snuffed out by the summer of 1794. The Revolution entered its third and final stage, a return to the original, more moderate Revolution called the Thermidorean Reaction.

The Thermidorean Reaction

   In 1794, during the month of July, a month that the French had renamed "Thermidor," the radical leaders of the Convention, including Robespierre, were exterminated or powerless. The new, more moderate Convention instantly repealed the Law of 22 Prairial, freed political prisoners, and stripped the Committee of Public Safety of all its powers. The radical Jacobins, fearful that they might suffer the same headless fate as their political enemies in the preceding year, all went into hiding. As the Revolution turned back to middle class concerns, monarchists and priests returned back to France and added, with their conservatism, even more momentum to the Thermidorean reaction.

   Under the leadership of the moderate Revolutionaries, the Convention finally finished its task of drafting a Constitution in 1795. France officially became a democratic republic; all adult males who could read and write were given the vote. They would vote for electors who, in their turn, would vote for the members of the primary legislative body of the country. The system, more or less, looked identical to the constitution drafted in 1791; its only substantial difference was the lack of a king.

   The Constitution replaced the monarch, who traditionally controlled the executive powers of government, with a Directory of five men chosen by the legislative assembly. The Directory was largely controlled by middle class business-men and speculators, many of whom had gained their wealth from the revolutionary wars of the preceding years. While they were deeply despised throughout France (and are still despised by historians), nevertheless, they did manage to hold onto the revolution despite threats from both the right and left.

   In March of 1797, France held its first democratic elections. The results were a bit surprising. The French voted in an overwhelming amount of constitutional monarchists—leaders who wanted to see the return of a (weakened) monarchy. This, of course, would not do. So, in September of 1797, the Directory simply declared the elections to be invalid. Far from solving the problem, France fell into chaos and uprisings. The Directory called on a brilliant young general, Napolean Bonaparte, who had achieved astonishing military victories in Italy and the Middle East, to help bail them out. The leader of the Directory, Abbé Sièyes, invited Bonaparte to help overthrow the government and set up a triumvirate with himself and one other Director. On November 9, 1799, Bonaparte arrived in Paris and on 19 Brumaire (November 10), 1799, Bonaparte and his troops expelled the legislators from Paris. In December, 1799, Napolean and his colleagues legislated a new constitution, one that modelled the French Republic on the old Roman Republic. Executive powers were to be held by a consulate of three men; the legislature was still democratically elected (pleasing the democrats), the Council of State was modelled on Louis XIV's Council (pleasing the monarchists), and power was divided among branches of government (pleasing the republicans). In reality, the consulate was a more or less disguised dictatorship under Bonaparte himself. The Revolution, and the eighteenth century, was at an end.


World Cultures

World Cultures Home Page

�1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 2-4-97