In the last days of the Ancien Regime many reading clubs, debating societies and similar circles sprang up as centres of discussion over the problems of the day and in particular the poltical and economic reforms needed in France. The number and popularity of these groups, generally known as clubs, soared in 1789. The royalist clubs quickly disappeared but others were to play a central role in the early years of the revolution. One such club, founded on the basis of regional affiliation, would become a hub for revolutionary discussion and a proving-ground for the Montagne, the radical faction of the Convention.
The Club des Jacobins
Even before the Estates General assembled in May a group of third estate deputies from Brittany had formed a group in Versailles known as the 'club breton', intended as a forum where they could invite friends and colleagues from other regions to come and discuss the matters of the day. When the assembly moved to Paris the club adopted the name 'The Society of Friends of the Constitution' and took over premises in a former jacobin convent in the rue St-Honoré. This is the origin of the name of the Jacobin movement. In its early days in 1789 the leading figures were a group of three speakers referred to as 'the triumvirate' - Lameth, Barnave and Duport.
In 1790 the Jacobin club had over 1100 paid-up members in Paris alone and rapidly spread throughout the provinces. In 1791 there were 227 chapters, with large memberships in all the more important towns; by the end of the Constituent Assembly in 1790 there were some 406. Up until the arrest of the royal family at VarennesLINK the club included many supporters of a constitutional monarchy under Louis XVI. Most of these moderates left to form their own club, called the 'Feuillants' and not destined to outlive the constitutional monarchy they advocated. At the jacobin club influence passed into the hands of the group around Brissot, including Pétion, Sieyés, Grégoire and the young radical Robespierre. The Paris club was a centre for revolutionary oratory and discussion
The Club des Cordeliers
While the Jacobins were radical, they were by no means working class. The subscription fee was beyond the reach of the urban working class who nonetheless followed and were involved in political events and needed a voice. It was with this audience in mind that in May 1790 another new club was founded. It was actually called the 'Society of Friends of the Rights of Man and the Citizen' but it was popularly known as the 'Club des Cordeliers'. The founding figure of the Cordeliers was Georges Jacques Danton and other leading figures included Camille Desmoulins, Marat, and Hébert. It can be fairly said that some of the key Paris insurrections were planned in the Cordereliers and incited and led by its leading orators.
The speeches in the Cordeliers whipped the ordinary people of Paris into the revolutionary frenzy that resulted in the taking of the Tuileries on the August 10th 1792 and the radical turn that the revolution took from that day on. Throughout the period of the Convention Danton and the Club des Cordeliers wielded the constant threat of calling up the parisian insurrectionists to back their radical policies. But although this group were in part responsible for pushing the revolution further along the road that would lead to the extremism of 1794 and the Great Terror, its leaders would end up victims of their own revolutionary zeal.
The Cordelier deputies initially co-operated with Robespierre and the Montagne in the Convention, working against the Girondins and supporting their expulsion. As the death toll mounted, however, they became divided between those who wanted to slow down the Terror and those who wished to impose even more radical left-wing policies. In spring of 1794 Robespierre struck at his divided enemies, outlawing first Hébert's radical left-wing 'enragés' and just days later Danton, Desmoulins and their moderate 'indulgents'.
The decline of the clubs
After this purge and Robespierre's own fall from power that summer, the influence of the clubs over the Convention declined dramatically. Under the Directory new clubs appeared. The 'Club du Panthéon' initially comprised moderate former Jacobins but moved steadily left until it was disbanded in early 1796. There was also the 'Club de Clichy' which attracted many monarchists and was abolished after the Fructidor Coup d'Etat. There were also many 'cercles constitutionels' providing a forum for those who wished to steer a middle course between a return to monarchy and the excesses of the extreme left. Under the consulate all the clubs disappeared.
This entry is part of the French Revolution University Project.