As 1791 ended, it appeared that the French Revolution had concluded. King Louis XVI, though clearly not dependable in his acceptance of political change, remained in the Tuileries Palace in Paris, where he could be prevented from orchestrating intrigues against the Revolution. The Legislative Assembly had come under the control of a new political organization, the moderate Feuillants Club, that wished to move the Revolution away from the streets and the crowd and into their own hands as elected representatives. Radical revolutionaries, who preferred a more democratic republic to a constitutional monarchy where King Louis still held power, found themselves confined to the fringes. As we shall see, however, the Revolution was not yet complete. It would be advanced and radicalized by a series of events both abroad and within France.
Many French royalists had fled the Revolution from its outset, moving eastward into the states comprising modern Germany. Most were aristocrats, and used their status to agitate the rulers of the fading Holy Roman Empire and up-and-coming Prussia to intervene in France. Their efforts focused on Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II, brother of Louis XVI’s Queen Marie Antoinette. Leopold, however, was reluctant to do so for numerous reasons. Firstly, the Holy Roman Empire had sharply declined since the Peace of Westphalia had fragmented it into several independent polities in 1648 following a devastating religious conflict. Secondly, if the German states turned their focus to France, Catherine the Great of Russia would have the freedom to invade Poland and the Ottoman Empire, tilting the European balance of power in her favor. Third, the German states benefitted from a weak and disorderly France. The strongest state in Europe had become the most disunited and disorganized. After the revolutionary government imprisoned Louis and Marie Antoinette following their failed flight to Varennes, however, Leopold felt compelled to act. In August 1791, he issued the Pillnitz Declaration along with Frederick William II of Prussia, stating that there would be war with France if – and only if – the major European states formed a coalition for that purpose. This unlikely condition rendered the announcement something of an idle threat.
In France, however, revolutionary leaders seized on the Declaration as evidence of a grand conspiracy to restore Louis to power, to surely be followed by harsh royalist revenge. If war was inevitable, some politicians argued, why not attack first and take the initiative? Jacques Pierre Brissot, the head of the French Legislative Assembly, led the pro-war camp in the French government. A centrist republican, he believed that war would unite the polarized French populace by promoting a rally-round-the-flag mentality. He also thought war would stimulate the moribund French economy, increasing the demand for arms, supplies and other materials needed for conflict. Additionally, he assumed French soldiers would be greeted as liberators in places like Belgium and the Netherlands, which were then under Austrian dominion. At Brissot’s instigation, France declared war on the Holy Roman Empire on April 20, 1792. It soon became apparent, however, that Brissot and his allies had been unfounded in their optimism. French forces suffered defeat after defeat – much to the delight of the royal family and their sympathizers, who had watched with glee as the revolutionaries had seemingly sprinted toward their ruin.
Internally, the French working classes remained discontent. A poor harvest in 1792 led to yet more scarcity of bread. Merchants again hoarded their supplies to drive up prices. This led to the rise of a very loose movement called the Enragés (“The Madmen”), including a priest-turned-politician named Jacques Roux. Proto-socialists, they demanded the implementation of price controls and argued for a more economically equal society. The French urban poor, the sans-culottes, were mostly self-employed, so it made more sense for them to fight for set prices as opposed to higher wages. Before this point, the sans-culottes had entrusted the Revolution to its bourgeois leaders. After 1792, however, they became much more politically involved, patronizing the growing number of political clubs.
Girondins & Jacobins
The preeminent club in 1791 had been the aforementioned Feuillants, who supported constitutional monarchy and reconciliation with the king. Their opposition to the 1792 declaration of war, however, led to them being labeled royalists and they were expelled from the Legislative Assembly. “Feuillant” became synonymous with “monarchist.” Following their downfall, power shifted to the Girondins, republicans so-named for their ties to the Gironde, a region in the southwest of France. They made up a majority in the Jacobin Club, although not all belonged to it. They represented the bourgeoisie and most had initially supported a constitutional monarch until King Louis’ flight shattered their faith in the crown to respect their liberal values. Brissot led them in the Assembly, inducing them to vote for war and to support the policy of spreading the Revolution by force. Before 1792, the Girondins would have been considered moderate left-wing members in the Assembly, but with the expulsion of the Feuillants, they became the leading right-wing faction by default.
The Girondins contended with the more radical Cordelier Club. The Cordeliers featured in the previous entry as the group that had organized demonstrations against the monarchy following the flight to Varennes. The Cordeliers were populist republicans that had argued from the outset of the Revolution that ultimate political authority belonged with the people, and that any body lacking the consent of the governed was illegitimate. In terms of leadership, they followed Georges Danton, a boisterous orator with a taste for extravagance, and Camille Desmoulins, a young political pamphleteer. There was also the Montagne (“Mountain”) minority within the Jacobins. They earned their sobriquet by sitting on the highest benches in the Assembly. The Montagnards opposed the war campaign waged by the Girondins, and their leader, Maximilien Robespierre, pointed out that nobody likes “armed missionaries.” What would most define the Montagnards from their Girondist rivals, however, would be their later support for the trial and execution of King Louis and his wife.
With the war going badly, the Girondist leadership in the Assembly sought to remove the remaining vestiges of royal power, for fear that Louis’ guards would aid the Austrian and Prussian invaders. Louis, however, moved to stop the dissolution of his bodyguard as well as the mustering of 20,000 volunteers to Paris. Once again mobilizing the people as a political tool, the Girondins organized a demonstration that soon escalated into a crowd entering the royal palace and haranguing Louis to his face. Alarmed by this activity in Paris as well as the poor course of the war, the Marquis de Lafayette came to the capital and condemned the republicans now leading the revolutionary government. He attempted to organize a coup to overthrow the Jacobins, but misread the public mood as well as his own support. Not only did most people support the Jacobins, they also remembered that Lafayette had led the troops that fired on the protesters in the 1791 Champ de Mars massacre. His political career was over, but the French government was so desperate for skilled officers that rather than arrest or exile him, Lafayette received command over the Army of the North. This could, however, be tantamount to a death sentence. At the outbreak of the war, Théobald Dillon, an aristocratic officer like Lafayette, had been killed by his own troops, who suspected Dillon had purposefully lost a recent battle.
Lafayette’s aborted coup attempt and the murder of Dillon show just how radicalized much of the population had become. When the government clamored for citizens to join the army and defend France from her enemies, hundreds of thousands volunteered. A contingent from Marseille arrived in Paris with their own song, “The Marseillaise,” which became the national anthem of France. The lyrics beckon citizens to take up arms against the “horde of slaves, of traitors and conspiratorial kings” coming to “cut the throats” of French women and children. In the past, men had been forced to fight on behalf of monarchs that did not represent them or their interests. The average French soldier of the medieval and early modern periods had no stake in the succession crises and religious conflicts that motivated wars. In the wars of the French Revolution, however, soldiers were fighting to defend the rights and freedoms they had won, however imperfect and incomplete. For all its faults, at least the Legislative Assembly was more accountable than the old feudal order.
There was also, as ever, the great fear that ordinary people would receive the worst punishment if the monarchy returned to absolute power. This dread grew colossally with the release of a manifesto by the Duke of Brunswick in July 1792. Charles William Ferdinand, the Duke of Brunswick, led the Austro-Prussian army marching on Paris, and released the document in the hopes of hastening surrender. A member of a cadet branch of the House of Bourbon had actually written it, and a copy of it approved clandestinely by Louis and Marie Antoinette. The Brunswick Manifesto stated that the Austro-Prussian forces would restore Louis and his queen to their previous positions. If any harm befell the royal family, the Manifesto promised, Paris would be burned and rebels subjected “to the death they have deserved.” Rather than intimidating the French people into submission, it resolved most of them to take even more extreme action to prevent the failure of the Revolution, which now hung on the precipice. Sensing that a second revolution was possible, the Cordeliers and the Jacobin Montagnards began to strategize.
The Second Revolution
On August 10, 1792, around 20,000 members of the National Guard marched on the Tuileries Palace. Twenty-eight of the 48 districts of Paris had pledged themselves to this new resurrection. Most of the National Guardsmen protecting the palace defected to the attackers. Instead of staying to fight, Louis and the rest of his family took shelter with the National Assembly. Royalist defenders, however, remained adamant in safeguarding their positions. The Swiss Guard refused to surrender despite overwhelming odds. The rebels won in the end, taking around 300 casualties while the royalist forces lost about 600 men. As with the storming of the Bastille, the insurrectionists placed heads on pikes and paraded them through the streets of Paris. Among the slain was the possibility of compromise. Louis, in typical fashion, had saved his own skin when his life was in the balance, but he had exhausted what little good faith had remained between him and the people. The Girondists, who had wavered once their gamble with the war went poorly, could not block a challenge from below. From this point, the Revolution would still be steered by the bourgeoisie, but by marginal figures like Danton and Robespierre. Their base was the sans-culottes. These city-dwelling artisans were mainly interested in universal suffrage and a rough vision of utopian socialism. Their top priority in the 1792 was saving the revolution.
The September Massacres
In early September bands of sans-culottes cut through Paris prisons killing jailed nobles and their sympathizers. The September Massacres remain one of the most divisive events of the Revolution. On one hand, the Austro-Prussian troops had captured the city of Verdun in Lorraine and were less than 200 miles from Paris. Those lords and ladies locked away in their cells could, potentially, become a fifth column for the invaders. Moreover, most prisoners received some form of tribunal before their executions. Of course, these tribunals hardly concerned themselves with fair representation and due process, but sometimes individuals were spared if they had no obvious royalist connections. How much of a threat the victims of the Massacres would have been had Paris been taken will forever be unknown. It is difficult to fathom how much of a difference the Princess of Lamballe, Marie Antoinette’s close friend, would have had if she had not been decapitated and her head strutted around Marie Antoinette’s window. Perhaps the modern analogue to the Massacres would be the occasional riots that transpire in the West among disadvantaged and dispossessed communities. Such riots tend to be limited to the stealing of property, not lives, and tend to do great economic damage to looters’ own neighborhoods. They are best regarded as actions signifying desperation and despair. The Massacres must be seen as similar light, as actions stemming more from emotion than logic. The average man or woman in the street probably did not believe Paris would be left standing in a few weeks and, already starving and resentful, had very little to lose. They could secure the Revolution and, by extension, their lives, but only if they mercifully rooted out anyone possibly aiding the royalist cause. For this reason, most of the people killed during the coming Reign of Terror were not nobles, as in the September Massacres, but the moderate revolutionaries who had pursued some reconciliation with the royal court in the moderate stage of the Revolution.
After the second revolution of August 10, the Legislative Assembly suspended the monarchy and called for new elections to select a National Convention to draft a new constitution. Once more, the relatively moderate Girondins led the legislative body, although it did not have an overwhelming majority. It would be more apt to say that most delegates to the Convention fell somewhere between the Girondins and the left-wing factions, switching their votes along with their interests. Soon after the Convention’s first meeting on September 20, the French army secured a decisive victory over the Prussians at Valmy, the start of a dramatic reversal in the course of the war. As the Prussians absconded back across the Rhine, the Convention felt heartened enough to dissolve the monarchy and declare the First French Republic. The Girondins next found themselves with a dilemma as what to do about the now dethroned Louis and his wife. The events of August 10 had been predicated on bringing the king to justice for collaborating with France’s enemies; to not put him on trial would be an injustice itself. It also followed that if Louis was guilty of treason then he had to die. Further damage was done to Louis in the court of public opinion when a locksmith discovered a hidden cache of over 700 documents in one of the king’s armoires. These exposed his correspondence with various promoters of counterrevolution, as well as with Mirabeau, the bourgeois leader of the early Revolution who had taken Austrian bribes. Whatever shred of trust remained in the public mind in regards to the king had to have been left in tatters. It also disgraced the Girondins who still argued for pardoning the king and, at the very least, using him as a hostage in future peace treaty negotiations. Now there would have to be a formal punishment for Louis for his crimes.
The Trial & Execution of Louis XVI
The trial started in December 1792. It was during this time that Robespierre earned his place as a voice of the extremist tendency of the revolution. Possessing a serious streak and a sour disposition, he was known as being so imbued with revolutionary virtue as to be incorruptible. In contrast to Danton, gluttonous and gregarious, Robespierre was introverted and somber. He opposed slavery and the death penalty. He had the calculating mind of a lawyer, but in this sense was not unlike the Founding Fathers of the United States, who had stated the reasons for their separation from Great Britain in a legal format. Yet, the U.S., as a colony, could detach itself from the British Empire, its institutions and traditions. The French Republic had to resolve the question of a monarch in their midst, one who made it plain it would never accept a constitution, much less true democracy. As long as Louis lived, there would be a figure for royalists to rally around and restore. There would be civil war whether he was deposed or not, given his support for counterrevolution, so how could the Revolution be safe with Louis alive? “Louis must die so that the nation may live,” Robespierre argued. In middle of January, the National Convention deputies found Louis guilty. Not one voted for his innocence. There was some attempt at a reprieve, but this was voted down, 380 to 310. The Girondins had split.
The majority of the bourgeois deputies did not want to commit regicide. Even the most ideologically committed republicans feared the reckoning that would follow, not just by the Austro-Prussian invaders, but by those among the French population who had tolerated the Revolution as long the monarchy was in some way preserved. The monarchy, though, had not just protested reform but acted to undo it. There could be no compromise with Louis, and the sans-culottes would ensure that the Convention lived up to its egalitarian rhetoric. If the Convention deputies knew Louis to be guilty, of which there could be no question, how could they not eliminate an enemy of the state without looking like hypocrites, willing to treat Louis as above the law just because of his bloodline? On January 21, 1793, Louis was beheaded before the people as a criminal. Marie Antoinette would go to the scaffold later in the year. They had not worked toward counterrevolution alone, though. They still accomplices among the elite, as evidenced by his uncovered letters of correspondence. The Convention would continue to make inquiry into conspiracies against the Revolution paramount.
In March, the Convention founded a Revolutionary Tribunal strictly for trying cases related to political offenses. Around the same time, the Revolution suffered major setbacks. Charles François Dumouriez, one of the two victorious revolutionary generals and Valmy, had aligned himself with the Girondists and opposed the execution of Louis. After failing to persuade his troops to attack Paris and overthrow the Jacobins, he defected to the Austro-Prussian army in April 1793. At the same, a royalist revolt broke out in central western France, led by an improvised Royal and Catholic Army. This “war in the Vendée” had been a long time coming. Unlike in other parts of the country, nobles in the Vendée tended to work alongside their peasants, and thus the class stratification between the aristocracy and commoners was less pronounced. There was also popular displeasure with the subordination of the Catholic Church to the state. The issue that sparked open rebellion, however, had been an effort to impose widespread conscription. Peasants resisted being drafted to fight for a government they did not support. There was a perception, with some basis, that Paris held an inordinate amount of influence over the Revolution, at the expense of provinces like the Vendée and the Gironde. This division only sharpened the already polarized Convention along factional lines.
In the next entry, we will see how these events emphasized the need for the Revolution to defend itself against its enemies. There is some justification for the classical Marxist interpretation that the Reign of Terror was vindicated as self-defense. Yet, it is also true that the Terror was not a sustainable enterprise with the exceedingly high standards Robespierre set for himself and his fellow revolutionaries. He could not kill his enemies fast enough because they multiplied with every execution. The Reign of Terror only lasted a year, but its legacy remains one of the most divisive topics in history.
Brinton, Crane. The Jacobins: An Essay in the New History. Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2011.
Censer, Jack R. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution. Penn State Press, 2001.
Doyle, William. The Oxford History of the French Revolution. Oxford Paperbacks, 1989.
Hibbert, Christopher. The Days of the French Revolution. William Morrow & Company, 1981.
Lefebvre, Georges. The French Revolution. Vol. 2. Columbia University Press, 1964.
Linton, Marisa, Choosing Terror: Virtue, Friendship and Authenticity in the French Revolution. Oxford University Press, 2013.
McGarr, Paul. “The Great French Revolution.” International Socialism 43 (1989): 15-110.
McPhee, Peter. Robespierre: a Revolutionary Life. Yale University Press, 2012.
Schama, Simon. Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. Penguin UK, 2004.
Scurr, Ruth. Fatal purity: Robespierre and the French revolution. Random House, 2012.
Whaley, Leigh Ann. Radicals: Politics and Republicanism in the French Revolution. Gloucestershire, England: Sutton Publishing, 2000.