French Revolution

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The Storming of the Bastille, 14 July 1789

The French Revolution was a period of social and political upheaval in France and its colonies beginning in 1789 and ending in 1799. The Revolution overthrew the monarchy; established a republic; catalyzed violent periods of political turmoil; and finally culminated in a dictatorship under Napoleon, who brought many of the revolution's principles to areas he conquered in Western Europe and beyond. Inspired by liberal and radical ideas such as equality before the law, the Revolution influenced the decline of absolute monarchies while replacing them with republics and liberal democracies.

Comparisons to the earlier American Revolution were first made in 1800 by conservative reactionary Friedrich von Gentz. The 1789 National Assembly was initially dominated by aristocrats like Lafayette, who idealised the American Patriot cause; the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was based on the US Declaration of Independence. However, since the causes of the French Revolution were very different, the solutions proposed became far more radical, and the nobility quickly superseded.

Between 1700 to 1789, the French population increased from 18 million to 26 million, leading to large numbers of unemployed. High levels of state debt, incurred during the Seven Years' War and the American Revolutionary War, required increases in taxes, which were borne disproportionately by the lower classes. This was accompanied by sharp rises in food prices caused by years of bad harvests, worsened by deregulation of the grain industry and fifty consecutive days of below-freezing temperatures in the winter of 1788/1789.

The result was widespread resentment at the privileges enjoyed by the French aristocracy and the Catholic clergy; underpinned by Enlightenment ideals on democracy, it led to the convocation of the Estates General in May 1789. During the first year of the Revolution, members of the Third Estate (commoners) took control; the Bastille was attacked in July; the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was passed in August; and the Women's March on Versailles forced the royal court back to Paris in October. A central event of the first stage, in August 1789, was the abolition of feudalism and the old rules and privileges left over from the Ancien Régime.

The next few years featured political struggles between various liberal assemblies and supporters of the monarchy intent on thwarting major reforms, promoted by the Jacobins, led to the Insurrection of 10 August 1792 and the arrest of Louis XVI and the royal family. The Republic was proclaimed in 22 September after the first French elections and the victory at Valmy. Its goal was to unify France and to introduce the same taxes and democratic elections for more citizens. It opposed prerogatives. In a momentous event that led to international condemnation and an internal struggle in the Convention between the Girondins and Montagnards, Louis XVI was executed in January 1793.

External threats closely shaped the course of the Revolution. The French Revolutionary Wars unleashed a wave of global conflicts that extended from the Caribbean to the Middle East. Internally, popular agitation by the Sans-culottes radicalised the Revolution significantly, followed by the Insurrection at the end of May, and the rise of Maximilien Robespierre. A levée en masse, an army of volunteers to beat the external and internal enemy, culminated in a federalist revolt in the South and the West. The dictatorship imposed by the Committee of Public Safety established price controls on food and soap, introduced a secular Republican calendar, de-established the Catholic church (dechristianised society). During what was called the Reign of Terror, counter-revolutionaries were expelled, arrested or executed; and the borders of the new republic were secured from its enemies.

After the Fall of Robespierre and Thermidorian Reaction, an executive council known as the Directory assumed control of the French state in 1795. They suspended elections, repudiated debts (creating financial instability in the process), persecuted the Catholic clergy, and made significant military conquests on the Italian Peninsula. Dogged by charges of corruption, the Directory collapsed in a coup led by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1799. Napoleon, who ended and became the hero of the Revolution, established the Consulate and later the First French Empire.

Many future revolutionary movements were influenced by the French Revolution. For example, its central phrases and cultural symbols, such as La Marseillaise and Liberté, fraternité, égalité, ou la mort, became the clarion call for other major upheavals in modern history, including the Russian Revolution over a century later. Some of its central documents, such as the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, continued to inspire movements for abolitionism and universal suffrage in the next two centuries.

The Revolution resulted in the suppression of the feudal system, emancipation of the individual, a greater division of landed property, abolition of the privileges of noble birth, and nominal establishment of equality among men. The Revolution also witnessed the birth of total war by organising the resources of France and the lives of its citizens towards the objective of national defence. Globally, the Revolution became the focal point for the development of most modern political ideologies, leading to the spread of liberalism, radicalism, nationalism, and secularism, among many others, accelerating the rise of republics and democracies. The values and institutions of the Revolution dominate French politics to this day. Many historians regard the Revolution as one of the most important events in human history.

Reign of Terror

The Reign of Terror, or more commonly The Terror (French: la Terreur), refers to a period of the French Revolution when numerous public executions took place in response to revolutionary fervour, anti-clerical, anti-federalist and anti-aristocratic sentiment, and spurious accusations of treason by Maximilien Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety. There is disagreement among historians over when exactly “the Terror” started, either in June 1793 or September 1793.

In July the Committee of Public Safety came under the control of Maximilien Robespierre, and the Jacobins unleashed the Reign of Terror (1793–94). According to archival records, at least 16,594 people died under the guillotine or otherwise after accusations of counter-revolutionary activities. As many as 40,000 accused prisoners may have been summarily executed without trial or died awaiting trial.

On 2 June 1793, Paris sections – encouraged by the enragés ("enraged ones") Jacques Roux and Jacques Hébert – took over the Convention, calling for administrative and political purges, a low fixed price for bread, and a limitation of the electoral franchise to sans-culottes alone. With the backing of the National Guard, they managed to persuade the convention to arrest ten members of the Commission of Twelve and 21 Girondin leaders, including Jacques Pierre Brissot. Following these arrests, the Jacobins gained control of the Committee of Public Safety on 10 June, installing the revolutionary dictatorship.

Queen Marie Antoinette on the way to the guillotine on 16 October 1793 (drawing by Jacques-Louis David)

On 24 June, the Convention adopted the first republican constitution of France, variously referred to as the French Constitution of 1793 or Constitution of the Year I. It was progressive and radical in several respects, in particular by establishing universal male suffrage. It was ratified by public referendum, but normal legal processes were suspended before it could take effect.

On 13 July, the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat – a Jacobin leader and journalist known for his bloodthirsty rhetoric – by Charlotte Corday, a Girondin, resulted in further increase of Jacobin political influence. Georges Danton was removed from the Committee and Robespierre, "the Incorruptible", became its most influential member as it moved to take radical measures against the Revolution's domestic and foreign enemies.

The Reign of Terror ultimately weakened the revolutionary government, while temporarily ending internal opposition. The Jacobins expanded the size of the army, and Carnot replaced many aristocratic officers with soldiers who had demonstrated their patriotism, if not their ability. The Republican army repulsed the Austrians, Prussians, British, and Spanish. At the end of 1793, the army began to prevail and revolts were defeated with ease. The Ventôse Decrees (February–March 1794) proposed the confiscation of the goods of exiles and opponents of the Revolution, and their redistribution to the needy. However, this policy was never fully implemented.

Three approaches attempt to explain the Reign of Terror imposed by the Jacobins in 1793–94. The older Marxist interpretation argued the Terror was a necessary response to outside threats (in terms of other countries going to war with France) and internal threats (of traitors inside France threatening to frustrate the Revolution). In this interpretation, as expressed by the Marxist historian Albert Soboul, Robespierre and the sans-culottes were heroes for defending the revolution from its enemies. François Furet has argued that foreign threats had little to do with the terror. Instead, the extreme violence was an inherent part of the intense ideological commitment of the revolutionaries – their Utopian goals required exterminating opposition. Soboul's Marxist interpretation has been largely abandoned by most historians since the 1990s. Hanson (2009) takes a middle position, recognising the importance of the foreign enemies, and sees the terror as a contingency that was caused by the interaction of a series of complex events and the foreign threat. Hanson says the terror was not inherent in the ideology of the Revolution, but that circumstances made it necessary. Scholars have argued that the violence in the revolution served a sacrificial function.

Internal and external wars

Introduction of a nationwide conscription for the army in February 1793 was the spark that in March made the Vendée, already rebellious since 1790 because of the changes imposed on the Roman Catholic Church by the Civil Constitution of the Clergy (1790), ignite into civil (guerrilla) war against the French Revolutionary government in Paris.

North of the Loire, similar revolts were started by the so-called Chouans (royalist rebels). In March 1793, France also declared war on Spain, the Vendée rebels won some victories against Paris, and the French army was defeated in Belgium by Austria with the French general Dumouriez defecting to the Austrians: the French Republic's survival was now in real danger. Facing local revolts and foreign invasions in both the East and West of the country, the most urgent government business was the war. On 6 April 1793, to prevent the Convention from losing itself in abstract debate and to streamline government decisions, the Comité de salut public (Committee of Public Prosperity) was created, as executive government which was accountable to the convention.

The War in the Vendée was a royalist uprising that was suppressed by the republican forces in 1796.

Girondins expelled

In April 1793, the Girondins indicted Jean-Paul Marat before the Revolutionary Tribunal for 'attempting to destroy the sovereignty of the people' and 'preaching plunder and massacre', referring to his behaviour during the September massacres. Marat was quickly acquitted but the incident further exacerbated the 'Girondins' versus 'Montagnards' party strife in the convention.

Jacques Hébert, Convention member leaning to the 'Cordeliers' group, on 24 May 1793 called on the sans-culottes to rise in revolt against the "henchmen of Capet [the ex-king] and Dumouriez [the defected general]". Hébert was arrested by a Convention committee. While that committee consisted only of members from The Plain and the Girondins, the anger of the sans-culottes was directed towards the Girondins. 25 May, a delegation of la Commune (the Paris city council) protested against Hébert's arrest. The convention's President Isnard, a Girondin, answered them: "Members of la Commune [...] If by your incessant rebellions something befalls to the representatives of the nation, I declare, in the name of France, that Paris will be totally obliterated".

On 2 June 1793, the convention's session in Tuileries Palace degenerated into chaos and pandemonium. Crowds of people swarmed in and around the palace. Incessant screaming from the public galleries suggested that all of Paris was against the Girondins. Petitions circulated, indicting and condemning 22 Girondins. Barère, member of the Comité de salut public, suggested: to end this division which is harming the Republic, the Girondin leaders should lay down their offices voluntarily. Late that night after much more tumultuous debate, dozens of Girondins had resigned and left the convention.

Abounding civil war

By the summer of 1793, most French departments in one way or another opposed the central Paris government. Girondins who fled from Paris after 2 June led those revolts. In Brittany's countryside, the people rejecting the Civil Constitution of the Clergy of 1790 had taken to a guerrilla warfare known as Chouannerie. But generally, the French opposition against 'Paris' had now evolved into a plain struggle for power over the country against the 'Montagnards' around Robespierre and Marat now dominating Paris.

In June–July 1793, Bordeaux, Lyon, Toulon, Marseilles, Caen, Brittany and the rest of Normandy gathered armies to march on Paris and against 'the revolution'. In July, the deposed 'Montagnard' head of the Lyon city council was guillotined. On 1 August Barère incited the convention to tougher measures against the Vendée, at war with Paris since March: "We'll have peace only when no Vendée remains [...] we'll have to exterminate that rebellious people". In August, Convention troops besieged Lyon. On 17 August 1793, the Convention voted for general conscription, a second levée en masse, which mobilised all citizens to serve as soldiers or suppliers in the war effort. By August, political disagreement seemed enough to be summoned before the Tribunal; appeal against a Tribunal verdict was impossible. Late August 1793, Adam Philippe Custine an army general had been guillotined on the accusation of choosing too timid strategies on the battlefield.

The assassination of Jean-Paul Marat by Girondist sympathizer Charlotte Corday on 13 July 1793

Early September 1793, militants urged the convention to do more to quell the counter-revolution. A delegation of the Commune (Paris city council) suggested to form revolutionary armies to arrest hoarders and conspirators. Barère, on 5 September reacted favorably, saying: let's "make terror the order of the day!" Criteria for bringing someone before the Revolutionary Tribunal had always been vast and vague. On 9 September The National Convention voted to establish sans-culottes paramilitary forces, revolutionary armies, and to force farmers to surrender grain demanded by the government. On 17 September, the Law of Suspects was passed, which ordered the arrest of suspected counter-revolutionaries and people who had revealed themselves as "enemies of freedom". This decree was one of the causes for some 17,000 legal death sentences until the end of July 1794, an average of 370 per week – reason for historians to label those 10 months 'the (Reign of) Terror'. On 19 September the Vendée rebels again defeated a Republican Convention army. On 29 September, the Convention extended price limits from grain and bread to other household goods and established the Law of the Maximum, intended to prevent price gouging and supply food to the cities.

On 1 October Barère repeated his plea to subdue the Vendée: "refuge of fanaticism, where priests have raised their altars". On 9 October the Convention troops captured Lyon and reinstated a Montagnard government there. On 10 October the Convention decreed to recognize the Committee of Public Safety as the supreme "Revolutionary Government", (which was consolidated on 4 December). The provisional government would be revolutionary until peace according to Saint-Just. Though the French Constitution of 1793 was overwhelmingly popular and its drafting and ratification buoyed popular support for the Montagnards, the Convention set it aside indefinitely until a future peace. Mid-October, the widowed former queen Marie Antoinette was on trial for a long list of charges such as "teaching [her husband] Louis Capet the art of dissimulation" and incest with her son, she too was guillotined. At the end of October 1793, 21 former 'Girondins' Convention members who hadn't left Paris after June were convicted to death and executed, on the charge of federalism, verbally supporting the preparation of an insurrection in Caen by fellow-Girondins.

Suppressing and retaliating the revolts

17 October 1793, the 'blue' Republican army near Cholet defeated the 'white' Vendéan insubordinate army and all surviving Vendée residents, counting in tens of thousands, fled over the river Loire north into Brittany. A Convention's representative on mission in Nantes commissioned in October to pacify the region did so by simply drowning prisoners in the river Loire: until February 1794 he drowned at least 4,000.

Meanwhile, the instalment of the Republican Calendar on 24 October 1793 caused an anti-clerical uprising. Hébert's and Chaumette's atheist movement campaigned to dechristianise society. The climax was reached with the celebration of the flame of Reason in Notre Dame Cathedral on 10 November.

By November 1793, the revolts in Normandy, Bordeaux and Lyon were overcome, in December also that in Toulon. Two representatives on mission sent to punish Lyon between November 1793 and April 1794 executed 2,000 people to death by guillotine or firing-squad. The Vendéan army since October roaming through Brittany on 12 December 1793 again ran up against Republican troops and saw 10,000 of its rebels perish, meaning the end of this once threatening army.

Some historians claim that after that Vendéan defeat Convention Republic armies in 1794 massacred 117,000 Vendéan civilians to obliterate the Vendéan people, but others contest that claim. Some historians consider the total civil war to have lasted until 1796 with a toll of 170,000 or 450,000 lives.

Because of the extremely brutal forms that the Republican repression took in many places, historians such as Reynald Secher have called the event a "genocide". Historian François Furet concluded that the repression in the Vendee "not only revealed massacre and destruction on an unprecedented scale but also a zeal so violent that it has bestowed as its legacy much of the region's identity".

Mass shootings at Nantes in 1793

Profuse executions

The guillotine became the tool for a string of executions. Louis XVI had already been guillotined before the start of the terror; Queen Marie Antoinette, Barnave, Bailly, Brissot and other leading Girondins, Philippe Égalité (despite his vote for the death of the King), Madame Roland and many others were executed by guillotine. The Revolutionary Tribunal summarily condemned thousands of people to death by the guillotine, while mobs beat other victims to death.

At the peak of the terror, the slightest hint of counter-revolutionary thoughts or activities (or, as in the case of Jacques Hébert, revolutionary zeal exceeding that of those in power) could place one under suspicion, and trials did not always proceed according to contemporary standards of due process. Sometimes people died for their political opinions or actions, but many for little reason beyond mere suspicion, or because some others had a stake in getting rid of them. Most of the victims received an unceremonious trip to the guillotine in an open wooden cart (the tumbrel). In the rebellious provinces, the government representatives had unlimited authority and some engaged in extreme repressions and abuses. For example, Jean-Baptiste Carrier became notorious for the Noyades ("drownings") he organised in Nantes; his conduct was judged unacceptable even by the Jacobin government and he was recalled.

Nine emigrants go to the guillotine in 1793

Guillotining politicians

Maximilien Robespierre, since July 1793 member of the Committee of Public Prosperity, on 5 February 1794 in a speech in the Convention identified Jacques Hébert and his faction as "internal enemies" working toward the triumph of tyranny. After a dubious trial Hébert and some allies, charged with counter-revolutionary activities, were guillotined in March.

On 5 April, again at the instigation of Robespierre, Danton, a moderate Montagnard, and 13 associated politicians, charged with counter-revolutionary activities, were executed. A week later again 19 politicians. This hushed the Convention deputies: if henceforth they disagreed with Robespierre they hardly dared to speak out. On 22 April three politicians were taken to the scaffold: Malesherbes and the deputés Isaac René Guy le Chapelier and Jacques Guillaume Thouret, four times elected president of the Constituent Assembly.

On 7 June 1794, Robespierre advocated a new state religion and recommended the Convention acknowledge the existence of the "Supreme Being". A law enacted on 10 June 1794 (22 Prairial II) further streamlined criminal procedures: if the Revolutionary Tribunal saw sufficient proof of someone being an "enemy of the people" a counsel for defence would not be allowed. The frequency of guillotine executions in Paris now rose from on average three a day to an average of 29 a day.

The Festival of the Supreme Being on 8 June 1794

Meanwhile, France's external wars were going well, with victories over Austrian and British troops in May and June 1794 opening up Belgium for French conquest. But cooperation within the Committee of Public Prosperity, since April 1793 the de facto executive government, started to break down. On 29 June 1794, three colleagues of Robespierre at 'the Committee' called him a dictator in his face – Robespierre baffled left the meeting. This encouraged other Convention members to also defy Robespierre. On 26 July, a long and vague speech of Robespierre wasn't met with thunderous applause as usual but with hostility; some deputies yelled that Robespierre should have the courage to say which deputies he deemed necessary to be killed next, what Robespierre refused to do.

In the Convention session of 27 July 1794 (9 Thermidor of Year II), Robespierre and his allies hardly managed to say a word as they were constantly interrupted by a row of critics such as Tallien, Billaud-Varenne, Vadier, Barère and acting president Thuriot. Finally, even Robespierre's own voice failed on him: it faltered at his last attempt to beg permission to speak.

A decree was adopted to arrest Robespierre, Saint-Just and Couthon. 28 July, they and 19 other leading Jacobins were beheaded. 29 July, again 70 members of the Parisian Commune were guillotined.

Subsequently, the Law of 22 Prairial (10 June 1794) was repealed, and the 'Girondins' expelled from the Convention in June 1793, if not dead yet, were reinstated as Convention deputies. In November the Jacobin Club was closed and banned.

The execution of Robespierre on 28 July 1794 marked the end of the Reign of Terror.


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Published in 18/09/2020

Updated in 19/02/2021

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