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The period during which the Convention governed France is really the phase of the revolution that has created the modern conception of the guillotine, the Terror, and the radical revolution that resulted in the rise and fall of the most famous French revolutionary of them all, Robespierre; the 'incorruptible'. Elections held in the aftermath of the August insurrection in Paris swept the 'bourgeois'1 candidates. 749 deputies grouping themselves loosely into factions: the Girondins, dominated by the influential industrialist Brissot; the Montagnards (so-called because they chose to sit together in the higher seats at the rear of the chamber) who tended to support more advanced revolutionary views, particularly regarding what should be done with the king; and in the middle, the Plaine, including many moderate deputies and independent opportunists.
Girondins vs Montagnards
The battle-lines were drawn from the first days of the Convention. On the right of the chamber the Girondins, led by Brissot, Pétion, Roland and Gaudet, all of whom had been influential in the Legislative Assembly. On the left the Montagnards were led by the more radical parisian deputies such as Danton - at the height of his popularity and influence after leading the parisian insurrection in August. powerful in the Commune.
The Trial of Louis XVI
Yep, he got it in the end!
The Vendee War
Bloody counter-revolutionary guerrilla war begun in March 1793 in opposition to the levy of 300,000 revolutionary troops. The insurrection began at Saint-Florent-le-Vieil on March 12th 1793 and quickly spread throughout the largely royalist and catholic department of La Vendée. Similar unrest began to manifest itself in Britanny, where the insurgents were known as 'chouans'. Many peasants, clergy and nobles alike were already upset over the execution of the king and the civil constitution of the clergy and were unwilling to fight for the Republic. Despite some early successes the struggle never seriously threatened the Republican regime. It did however force the Convention to devote considerable resources to combating the internal threat of counter-revolution while facing the constant threat of external invasion from the various coalitions organised against them. The conflict dragged on throughout the Convention, the Directory, and was only partially resolved with Napoleon's Concordat with the Pope in 1802.
The Constitution - Year I (1793)
With fall of the monarchy the 1791 constitution was no longer applicable and a new one was needed. A committee set to work on it, including Hérault de Séchelles and strongly influenced by Saint-Just. The text was adopted on June 24th, 1793. It was a democratic constitution, calling for a legislative Assembly elected by universal manhood suffrage for one year and an executive council of 24 nominated for two years by the assembly. A number of individual rights of the citizen were also guaranteed; education, employment, etc. Put to a referendum the constitution was approved by about 2 million votes to 12,000, with five million abstentions.
This was of little relevance, however, as the Convention promptly ruled that the Republic was in danger and that the constitution should not be instituted until the danger was passed. The document remained enshrined in its fine wooden casket until the new constitution of the Directory made it obsolete.
The Committee for Public Safety
In the spring of 1793 the situation reached a crisis. A coalition was formed against France and the Vendée was up in arms. On April 6th 1793 the Assembly created the Committee for Public Safety (CSP). It was based on the model of the Committee for General Security, formed on October 2nd 1792 as the Convention's political police and defence against counter-revolutionary activities. The new CSP quickly
In it's earliest incarnation the CSP comprised nine members (unofficially led by Danton and including Barère, Cambon and Lindet) elected for a mandate of one month and eligible for re-election. With the fall of the Girondins came three new appointments; Robespierre's supporters Hérault de Séchelles, Saint-Just and Couthon. Robespierre now questioned Danton's leadership, accusing him of being too soft to deal with the difficulties facing France in the summer of 1793. Danton was voted off the CSP and on July 27th Robespierre was voted on. For the next 12 months the 'incorruptible' would hold the reins of power as unofficial but effective leader of the all-powerful 'Grand Committee'.
By early 1793 Robespierre and his supporters had complete control of the Convention and thus of France. Always left-wing, the incorruptible now set out to create a systematic reign of terror against all perceived enemies of his beloved and virtuous republic. The instrument of this terror would be the Revolutionary Tribunal, under the Public Prosecutor Fouquier-Tinville. By June 1794 he would say that "heads are falling like roof-tiles!". This was the time of the 'great' terror.
As early as September 2nd 1792 there had been violent riots and massacres organised by 'people's tribunals' in Paris and some other cities. Although terribly bloody and often unjust, however, these were more in the nature of a violent outburst than any systematic purge. It was as a result of the genuine danger of counter-revolution in the provinces that extreme measures were pushed through the assembly in Paris1 and then ruthlessly carried out by the trusted commissioners sent out to the provinces by Robespierre and his colleagues on the Committee for Public Safety.
The 'festival' of the Supreme Being
There are several key decrees and laws that can be seen to have opened the way to the brutal and overwhelming violence of Robespierre's regime. On September 17th 1793, with the Girondins out of the way the Convention passed the Suspects Law, granting extensive powers to police and denying suspects almost any rights. Then there came the decree of October 10th which stated that the government would remain revolutionary until peace was achieved. Robespierre was not ashamed to describe his regime as "Fearsome towards the wicked, but favourable towards the good." and to declare that his government drew its strength from "Virtue, without which terror is iniquitous and terror, without which virtue is powerless." When the backlog of suspects to be tried the CPS passed the Prairial Year II Law (June 10 1794) effectively reducing the 'trial' process to a simple appearance before a judge without the right to speak and prompt sentencing. At this stage Robespierre and his supporters were seeking simply to eradicate all those they perceived as enemies of the republic, and justice must not be allowed to slow them down.
This intense period between June 10 1794 and the fall of Robespierre and his regime on July XX 1794 quickly became known as the 'Great Terror' and it may be said that by taking his principles so far Robespierre made even the dedicated revolutionary population of Paris feel that enough was enough. In all the Terror is estimated to have sentenced some 17,000 to death and claimed as many as 40,000 lives including the many summary executions, mass drownings and other atrocities. Huge crowds whooped at the spectacle of the hated noblility and clergy being publicly decapitated. They cheered just as loudly and fervently, though, when Samson lifted the one-time incorruptible defender of the Republic's disembodied head for their approval. The times were fickle were fickle, though, and the incorruptible turn was coming fast upon him.