Triumph of Jacobinism

Triumph of Jacobinism:

The French response was the insurrection of August 9-10, 1792. On those days the proletariat and the extreme element among the bourgeoisie of Paris revolted against the constitutional monarchy. They supplanted the legal commune with a radically revolutionary commune, in which Danton became the leading figure. They invaded the royal palace, massacred the Swiss Guards, and obliged the King and his family to flee for their lives to the Assembly. On August 10 a remnant of terror-stricken deputies voted to suspend the King from his office and to authorize the immediate election by universal manhood suffrage of a National Convention which should prepare a new constitution for France.

From the suspension of the King on August 10 to the assembling of the National Convention on September 20, France was practically anarchial. The royal family was incarcerated in the gloomy prison of the Temple. The regular government agencies were paralyzed. Lafayette protested against the insurrection in Paris and surrendered himself to the Allies.

Still, the Allies advanced into France. Fear deepened into a panic. Supreme control fell into the hands of the revolutionary commune. Danton became a virtual dictator. His policy was simple. The radicals should strike terror into the hearts of their domestic and foreign foes. “In my opinion,” said Danton, “the way to stop the enemy is to terrify the royalists. Audacity, more audacity, and always greater audacity!” The news of the investment of Verdun by the Allies, published in Paris on September 2, was the signal for the beginning of a massacre of royalists in the French capital. For five days some 2,000 persons were taken from the prisons and handed over by a self-constituted judicial body to the tender mercies of a band of cutthroats. Among the victims were women and children, nobles and magistrates, priests and bishops- anyone suspected of royalist sympathy.

Meanwhile, Danton was infusing new life and spirit into the French armies. Dumouriez replaced Lafayette in supreme command. And on September 20 the allies received their first check at Valmy.

The very day on which news reached Paris that it was saved and that Brunswick was in retreat, the newly elected National Convention, amid the wildest enthusiasm, unanimously decreed “that royalty is abolished in France”. Then it was resolved to date from September 22, 1792, Year I of the Republic. A decree of perpetual banishment was enacted against the emigres, and it was soon determined to bring the King to trial before the Convention.

The National Convention remained in session for three years (1792-1795), and its work constituted the second great phase of the Revolution. This work essentially two-fold: (i) It secured a series of victories in the foreign war, thereby rendering permanent the remarkable social reforms of the first period of the Revolution, that between 1789 and 1791; and (ii) it constructed a republican form of government, based on the principle of democracy.

Perhaps no legislative body in history has been called upon to solve such knotty problems as those that confronted the National Convention at the opening of its session. At that time it was necessary (i) to decide what should be done with the deposed and imprisoned King. (ii) to organize the national defense and turn back foreign invasion. (iii) To suppress insurrection within France. (iv) To provide a strong government for the country. (v) To complete and consolidate the social reforms of the earlier stage of the Revolution. (vi) To frame a new constitution and to establish permanent republican institutions. The Convention coped with all these questions with industry and much success.

Before taking up the work of the Convention, a word should be said about the personnel of that body. The elections had been in theory by universal manhood suffrage, but in practice indifference or intimidation reduced the actual voters to about a tenth of the total electorate. The result was the return of a large number of determined radicals, who agreed on fundamental republican doctrines but differed about details. On the right of the Convention sat nearly two hundred Girondists, including Brissot, Vergniaud, Condorcet, and the much-traveled Thomas Paine. These men were more radical in thought than in deed. They ardently desired a democratic republic, but they distrusted Paris and the proletariat. On the opposite side of the Convention sat nearly one hundred extreme radicals, called “Jacobins” because most of them were active in the Jacobin Club or “Mountainsists” because in the Convention they occupied a “mountain” of high seats. These including such men as Danton, Robespierre, Carnot, and St. Just, were middle-class persons, but they were militant disciples of Rousseau and allies of the Parisian populace.

Between the two factions of Mountainists and Girondists sat the “Plain,” as it was called, the real majority of the house, which had no policies or convictions of its own, but voted usually according to the dictates of expediency. Our tactful, trimming Abbe Sieyes belonged to the Plain. At the outset, the Plain voted with the Girondists, but as time went on and Parisians clamored more and more loudly against anyone who opposed the action of their allies, the Mountainsists, it gradually saw fit to vote with the extremists.

The first serious question which faced the Convention was the disposition of the King. The discovery of an iron chest containing accounts of expenditures for bribing members of the National Constituent Assembly, coupled with the suspicion of Louis’s double dealings with France and with foreign foes, sealed his doom. He was brought to trial before the Convention in December 1792, and condemned to death by a vote of 387 to 334. With the majority voted for the King’s cousin, the Duke of Orleans, an ambitious radical who had assumed the name of Citizen Philippe Egalite (Equality). On January 21, 1793, Louis XVI was beheaded near the overthrown statue of his predecessor, Louis XV, in the Place de la Revolution (now called the Place de la Concorde). The unruffled dignity with which he met death was the finest behavior of his reign.

Meanwhile, the tide of Austrian and Prussian invasions was rolling away from France. After Valmy, Dumouriez pursued the retreating foreigners across the Rhine and carried the war into the Austrian Netherlands, where a large party regarded the French as deliverers. The French commander entered Brussels without serious resistance and speedily mastered the whole country. It seemed as though the French would have an easy task in delivering the peoples of Europe from their old regimes.

Emboldened by the ease with which its armies were overrunning the neighboring states, the National Convention proposed to propagate liberty and reform throughout Europe and in December 1792 issued the following significant decree: “The French nation declares that it will treat as enemies every people who, refusing liberty and equality or renouncing them, may wish to maintain, recall, or treat with a prince and the privileged classes; on the other hand, it engages not to subscribe to any treat and not to lay down its arms until the sovereignty and independence of the people whose territory the troops of the republic shall have entered shall be established, and until the people shall have adopted the principles of equality and founded a free and democratic government.”

In thus throwing down the gauntlet to all the monarchs of Europe and putting the issue clearly between them and democratic nationalism, the French revolutionaries took a most fateful step. Although some middle-class intellectuals among foreign peoples sympathized with the aims and achievements of the French Revolution, the rulers and upper classes of Russia, Austria, Prussia, Spain, and Great Britain were still deeply entrenched in the patriotism and unquestioning loyalty of the masses. Then, too, the execution of Louis XVI in January 1793 increased the bitterness. In France itself, a royalist reaction precipitated a civil war in La Vendee, while Dumouriez, the ablest general of the day, was so disgusted that he followed Lafayette’s example and deserted to the Austrians. Abroad, a formidable coalition of revengeful monarchies was formed to overthrow the French Republic. To Austria and Prussia, already in the field, were added Great Britain, Holland, Spain, and Sardinia.

For a brief time, the Allied armies threatened to overwhelm France; they reoccupied Belgium and the Rhine provinces and took the roads toward Paris. But the republic soon proved itself a more resourceful and efficient government than the monarchy had been. Under the experienced leadership of Carnot, and with the enthusiastic support of his fellow Jacobins, the Convention inaugurated a militarism which was quite novel in the world’s annals. In February 1793, a compulsory levy of half a million men was decreed, and in the following August, it was enacted that every Frenchman between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five might be drafted for military service. Carnot labored incessantly to render these laws effectual and to organize the new “national” army. He drafted men, silenced complaints, secured extra volunteers, drilled the troops, and hurried them to the frontiers. He prepared plans of the campaign, appointed trusty officers, and infused them and their men with fighting zeal. By the end of 1793, he had 770,000 men under arms, and most of them were fanatically attached to the cause of the Revolution. Bourgeois citizens, whose social and financial gains in the earlier stage of the Revolution would be threatened by French defeat, applauded the new military measures. Artisans and peasants, who had won something and hoped to win more from the success of the Revolution, were put into the new armies, singing the Marseillaise and displaying the banners of “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity”.

In organizing the new armies, Carnot, unhampered by tradition, made several significant innovations. He created the “division” as a military unit. He improved the mechanism of supply in order to make his forces more mobile than their opponents. He detailed members of the government as “deputies on mission” to watch the generalship and movements of the various French armies and to dispatch to the guillotine any suspected or unsuccessful commander. Gradually, a new group of dashing young Republican generals rose to distinction, including Moreau, Pichegru, and Jourdan.

The militarism of Carnot and the Jacobins was based on the revolutionary principle of “the nation in arms”. It meant a large army of eager young conscripted citizens in place of a relatively small army of older and more easygoing professional soldiers, and a staff of officers whose position depended on merit rather than on birth. It was itself quite revolutionary. It broke utterly with the military traditions of monarchical France and all the other countries of the time.

In this way, France met the coalition which would have staggered Louis XIV. The country was cleared of foreign enemies. The war was pressed in the Netherlands, along the Rhine, in Savoy and across the Pyrenees. So successful were the French that Carnot’s popular title of “organizer of defense” was magnified to that of “organizer of victory”. Of course, it is impossible in our limited survey to do justice to these amazing campaigns of 1794 and 1795. It will suffice to point out that when the National Convention finally adjourned in 1795, the First Coalition was in the process of dissolution. The pitiful Charles IV of Spain humbled himself to contract a close alliance with the republic which had put his Bourbon cousin to death. By the separate treaty of Basel (1795), Frederick William II of Prussia gave France a free hand on the left bank of the Rhine and turned his attention to the portion of Poland. William V, the Orange Stadholder of Holland, was deposed and his country transformed into the Batavian Republic, allied with France. French troops were in full possession of the Austrian Netherlands and all other territories up to the Rhine. The lifelong ambition of Louis XIV appeared to have been realized by the new France in two brief years. Only Great Britain, Austria, and Sardinia remained in arms against the republic.

Yet the military successes of the republic were achieved at a terrific cost. They aroused an intolerant, militaristic spirit among large numbers of Frenchmen. They made the national army the chief concern and pride of the revolutionaries. Public policies were subordinated to the maintenance of soldiers and the assurance of military triumph. For the recruitment of the army, peasants were taken from fields and shops; and for its financial support, oppressive burdens were laid on French commerce and industry, while plunderings and indemnities were ruthlessly inflicted on conquered lands. No wonder that there was some protest at home and that abroad the masses as well as the monarchs were filled with dread.

Within France, opposition to Carnot’s drafting of soldiers was utilized by reactionary agitators to stir up an insurrection of the peasants in La Vendee in order to restore the monarchy and to reestablish the Catholic Church. Provincial and bourgeois dislike of the radicalism of the Parisian proletariat caused riots and outbreaks in such important and widely separated cities as Lyons, Marseilles, and Bordeaux. With the same thoroughness that characterized their foreign policy, and with even greater sternness, the officials of the National Convention utilized the new militarism to stamp out domestic riots and insurrections. By 1795 all France, except only the emigres and secret conspirators, had seemingly accepted the republic.

The explanation of these impressive achievements, whether at home or abroad, lies in the new militarism, and also in the dictatorial central government that the National Convention established.

In the spring of 1793, the National Convention entrusted the supreme executive authority of France to a special committee, composed of nine (later twelve) of its members, who were styled the Committee of Public Safety. This small body, which included such Jacobin leaders as Carnot, Robespierre, and St. Just, acting secretly, directed the ministers of state, appointed the local officials, and undertook the administration of the whole country. Manifold were the duties it was called upon to discharge. It must conduct foreign relations, supervise the armies, and secure the active support of the French people. Diligently and effectively did it apply itself to its various activities.

“Terrorism” was the word usually employed to describe the internal policy of the Committee of Public Safety and the “Reign of Terror”, the period of the Committee’s chief work, from the summer of 1793 to the summer of 1794. So sensational and sanguinary was the period that many persons have regarded it as the central feature of the Revolution. As a matter of fact, however, the Reign of Terror was but an incident, though obviously an awful incident, in a great political and social upheaval. Because basic new principles and far-reaching reforms were endangered by a host of foreign and domestic enemies, it seemed to the nationalist republican leaders of France that the country must present a united front and that this could be achieved only by terrorizing potential opponents of the new regime.

The chief agencies of the Committee of Public Safety in conducting terrorism were the Committee of General Security and the Revolutionary Tribunal. The former was given police power, in order to maintain order throughout the country. The latter was charged with trying and condemning any person suspected of disloyalty to the republic. Both were responsible to the Committee of Public Safety. A decree of the Convention called the Law of Suspects, rendered liable to arbitrary arrest every person who was of noble birth, or had held office before the Revolution, or had any relation with an empire, or could not produce a signed certificate of citizenship.

With such instruments of despotism, France became revolutionary by strokes of the guillotine. It is estimated that about 5,000 persons were executed in Paris during the Reign of Terror. Among others, Marie Antoinette, Philippe Egalite, and Madame Roland suffered death.

The Terror spread to the provinces. Local tribunals were established to search out and condemn suspected persons. The city of Lyons, which ventured to resist the revolutionary government, was partially demolished and hundreds of its citizens were put to death. At Nantes, a brutal Jacobin deputy, Carrier by name, loaded unhappy victims on old hulks which were towed out into the Loire and sunk. The total number of those who perished in the provinces is unknown, but it probably surpassed fifteen thousand.

In addition to the arbitrary slaughter of royalists and reactionaries, a sorry feature of the Terror was the wretched quarreling among various factions of the radicals and the destruction of one for the benefit of another. Thus, the efforts of the Girondists to stay the execution of the King and to appeal to the provinces against the violence in Paris, coupled with the treason of Dumouriez, seemed to the Parisian proletariat to mark the alliance of the Girondists with the reactionaries. Accordingly, Parisian workmen, responding to appeals of Marat, revolted on May 31, 1793, and two days later obliged the Convention to expel twenty-nine Girondist members. The assassination of Marat, in July, by Charlotte Corday, a supporter of the Girondists, made matters worse for them; and their leaders, including Brissot and Vergniaud, were guillotined in October 1793. Next, leaders of the Commune of Paris, who had gone to such extreme lengths as to proclaim atheism and suppress all churches in the city, were dispatched in March 1794 by a coalition of the followers of Danton and Robespierre. Then in April, when Danton at length wearied of the Terror and counseled moderation, that redoubtable revolutionary, together with his friend, Desmoulins, was guillotined. Finally, Robespierre himself, after enjoying a brief dictatorship, during which time he vainly endeavored to establish a Rousseau-like “republic of virtue”, was sent, in company with St. Just, to the guillotine by the more conservative members of the National Convention in July 1794.

The death of Robespierre ended the Reign of Terror. The purpose of the Terror, however, was already achieved. The Revolution was preserved in France, and France was victorious in Europe. The Thermidorian Reaction, as the end of the Terror was called, left the National Convention free to resume its task of devising a permanent republican constitution for the country. A few subsequent attempts were made, now by reactionaries, now by extreme radicals, to interfere with the Convention, but they were suppressed with comparative ease. The last uprising of the Parisian populace which threatened the Convention was effectually quelled (October 1795) by a “whiff of grape-shot”, discharged at the command of a young captain of artillery, Napoleon Bonaparte by name.

In the midst of foreign war and internal dissension, even in the midst of the Terror, the National Convention found time to make many significant contributions to the fashioning of new institutions and new practices. On all occasions, it emphasized the new gospel of nationalism. With the idea of creating a truly national army, it decreed in August 1793, as we have seen, compulsory military service for all able-bodied young Frenchmen. This decree contained the emotional instructions that “the young men shall go to the battle; the married men shall forge arms and transport provisions; the women shall make tents and clothing, and shall serve in the hospitals; the children shall turn old linen into lint; the aged shall betake themselves to the public places in order to rouse the courage of the warriors and preach hatred of kings and the unity of the Republic”. It was a bit rhetorical, but it foreshadowed what has been known in the twentieth century as a totalitarian war.

With the idea of establishing a national school-system, the Convention elaborated plans which had been broached by the National Assembly, and it prescribed that the French language should be the sole language of national; instruction throughout the “republic, one and indivisible”. Likewise, the Convention assumed the arduous task of preparing a single comprehensive code of law for the whole country and adopted certain basic social reforms that were to be included in the code. Imprisonment for debt was abolished. Negro slavery in the French colonies was ended. Women’s claim on property was protected in common with men’s. Primogeniture was forbidden; that is, the property might not be inherited exclusively by the eldest son or be willed to any one heir but must be distributed, almost equally, among all “next of kin”. Besides, as a preliminary step toward the reform of commercial law, the Convention established a new and uniform system of weights and measures, the so-called metric system, which not only proved permanent in France but also, on account of its convenience, was subsequently adopted by nearly all civilized nations except the English-speaking peoples.

In matters of religion, the National Convention authorized several novel experiments. From the first, it attached an essentially religious significance to the principle of nationalism, and at the same time, it displayed hostility to traditional Christianity. During the Terror, it not only treated clergymen as suspects but took radical steps to de-Christianize France. It adopted a revolutionary calendar, partly for “scientific” reasons and partly to do away with Sunday observance: the year was divided anew into twelve months, each containing three weeks of ten days (“decades”), every tenth day (“decadi”) being for rest, and the five or six days left over at the end of the year styled “sans-culottes”, being national holidays; the names of the months were changed, and the whole calendar was dated from the establishment of the republic, September 22, 1792.

At about the same time, the Convention authorized the transformation of churches into temples of reason; several Catholic bishops and priests formally abjured Christianity; and under the auspices of the Paris Commune, the atheistic “religion of reason” was formally integrated into the cathedral of Notre Dame (November 1793). Later, under Robespierre’s auspices, the deistic cult of the Supreme Being was officially substituted for the atheistic worship of reason (June 1794).

Still later, after the downfall of Robespierre, the Convention took the attitude that religion was a private, rather than a public, concern and that the state should not attempt to establish or maintain an official religion. While renewing earlier enactments against the “non-juring” clergy, the Convention in 1795 promised toleration to all others and restored many of the church buildings to Christian worship.

During the Terror, moreover, and so long as the Jacobins were in control, the National Convention pursued radical social, even socialist, policies in economic matters. The property of the emigres was confiscated for the benefit of the state and the lower classes. Persons of wealth, as well as clergymen and persons of noble families, were treated as suspects. Large landed estates were broken up and offered for sale in small parcels and on easy terms. Compensation which had been promised in connection with the earlier abolition of serfdom and feudalism was canceled. “The rich”, said Marat, “have so long sucked out the marrow of the people that they are now visited with a crushing retribution”. At the same time, to provide public funds, the Convention authorized forced loans, or, as we would say, “capital levies”; and, to keep down the cost of living, it enacted a series of “laws of the maximum”, fixing the price of grain and other commodities and likewise the rates of wages. Then, too, catering to the proletarian clamor for equality, the Convention decreed that everybody, without distinction, should be addressed as “citizens”. The official record of the expense of Marie Antoinette’s funeral was the simple entry, “Five francs for a coffin for the widow of Citizen Capet”. Ornate clothing went out of fashion, at least for men, and the silk stockings and knee breeches (culottes) of the old regime were generally supplanted by the plain long trousers which had hitherto been worn only by the lowest class of workmen (sans-culottes).

The fall of Robespierre- the so-called Thermidorian Reaction- meant, as we have seen, the end of the Terror. It meant also the decline of the influence of the Parisian populace on the National Convention and the resulting ability of the middle-class members of the Convention to direct the last stage of its activity in accordance with their own economic desires. The law against suspects was repealed, and so were the “laws of the maximum”. The Revolutionary Tribunal was suppressed, and the Place de la Revolution was renamed the Place de la Concorde. But while the National Convention thus showed signs of lessening fanaticism and recurring bourgeois spirit, it preserved to the end its devotion to republicanism and at least lip service to democracy. By 1795 France seemed to be definitely committed to a republican form of government. This, however, would not be extremely radical, certainly not socialistic.

The National Convention had originally been convoked in 1792 to draw up a new constitution for France. It drew up such a constitution in 1793- a Rousseau-like constitution, republican and very democratic and quite Jacobin- but, by reason of the Terror and the exigencies of foreign war, this “Constitution of the Year I” was not put into effect. Then, after the Thermidorian Reaction, when the National Convention was more moderate in thought and action, it drafted still another constitution for the French Republic. This went into effect in 1795 and is known as the “Constitution of the Year III”. It entrusted the legislative power to two chambers, chosen by indirect and somewhat restricted election: a lower house of 500 members, to propose laws; and a Council of Ancients, of 250 members, to examine and enact the laws. The executive authority was vested in a Directory of five members, who were to be elected by the legislature and who should appoint the ministers of state, or cabinet, and supervise the enforcement of the laws.

Important Links:

Intellectual Enlightenment
Political Causes of the French Revolution
Economic Causes of the French Revolution
Beginning of the French Revolution
Functions of the Constituent Assembly
Unsuccessful Attempt of the Royal Family to Flee the Country
Phases of the French Revolution
Role of Philosophers in the French Revolution
Nature of the French Revolution
Correlation Between the Objectives and Achievements of the French Revolution
Do you agree that the French Revolution achieved far less than what it intended to achieve?
Transformation of the Republic into a Military Dictatorship
Importance of the French Revolution
French Revolution of 1848
The Foreign Policy of Louis Philippe
Causes of the Revolution of February 1848
Short Note on the French Revolution of 1848
The United States and the French Revolution, 1789–1799