The French Revolution - an overview

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Work in Progress

Wow, I've bitten off more than I can chew, and no mistake!

Things to write about:

Main Section Headings

Thermidor and the end of the Convention

The Directory

Napoleon's rise to power and the 18 Brumaire and


  • Pétion
  • Brissot
  • Vergniaud
  • Roland
  • Gaudet
  • Dumouriez


  • Robespierre
  • Marat
  • Danton
  • StJust
  • Hébert
  • Couthon
  • Billaud-Varenne
  • Collot d'Herbois
  • Carnot
  • Fouquier-Tinville


  • Fouché - Terrorist, Lyon,
  • Collot d'Herbois- Terrorist, Lyon,
  • Carrier - Terrorist, Nantes;
  • Tallien - Terrorist, Bordeaux;
  • Le Bon - Terrorist, Arras;
  • Barras et Fréron - Terrorist, Provence;


The Estates-General, May 1789

An Introduction to the French Revolution

Everyone has something that they associate with the French Revolution - for many it may be the guillotine; others will think of the storming of the Bastille; Marie-Antoinette's famous suggestion that the peasants should 'eat cake'; crowds of angry peasants with pitch-forks impaling bewigged and powdered, greedy, decadent and effete aristocrats while their wives knit secret messages in silent insurrection. Those who have studied any of the personalities among the revolutionaries will often name one man as being most closely associated with the peak of the revolution and it's bloody consequences - the 'incorruptible' Robespierre.

No one man can truly embody the revolution that took place in France during the ten year period 1789-1799, though. If for no other reason than that there is no one 'true spirit of the revolution'. There are many events and political twists and turns involved and the many and varied personalities who brought this course of events about were rarely unopposed or acting with the whole approval of even the great men of the nation, let alone the whole French people.

Ok, here goes - the French Revolution in 250 words or less!

In 1789 France was ruled by an absolute monarch, assisted by the hereditary landed aristocracy. The kingdonm was in financial crisis, partly because of chronic mismanagement, partly because of a series of poor harvests. King Louis XVI was nonetheless relatively popular. But there were many groups who wished to break the aristrocratic monopoly on powerful jobs. The 'bourgeoisie' wanted to be able to influence state decisions and specifically bring about reform. A national council was called for spring 1789 and convened but from the outset there was disagreement between the three major groups - the nobility, the clergy, and the 'third estate' (basically representing the interests of the bourgeoisie).

This university project aims to present entries on the key events, people, and institutions involved in what can be seen as a ten year struggle to 'close' the revolution which can be said to have begun on May 5th 1789 with the opening of the Estates-General in Versailles.

The Ancien Regime

The administration of France before May 1789 has become known as the Ancien Regime. This can be translated as 'Old', or 'Previous' Regime. France was an absolute monarchy, meaning the king's word was law. Politically the population of 24 million Frenchman were divided into three categories, known as the three 'estates'. The nobility formed the first estate, the 130,000 members of the French clergy the second and the remaining population constituted the third estate, including some 20 million peasants. In medieval France monarchs had established these three estates to form a national representative council called the 'Estates-General', essentially to gain agreement to tax demands. The estates-general had not, however, been called since 1614, after which date France's government shifted towards centralised power and 150 years of absolutism.

The first of the three 'estates' into which the kingdom of France was divided was the the aristocratic ruling class, called the nobility. The remaining 98% of the population were simply called the 'third estate' and were practically denied any possibility of advancement and involvement in the affairs of the State.

The Nobility and the Clergy

Although nominally in 1789 the monarch wielded absolute power, that power originally stemmed from the feudal system. The French monarchy's power had been built upon the allegiance and obedience of the leading magnates in the regions being wrought into a nation by the powerful Capet dynasty based in Paris. The greatest provincial rulers formed a hereditary ruling 'court' of 'ultra-nobles', whose authority was in turn accepted by the lesser barons in their lands and so on down the hierarchical chain. In the feudal system, nobles were expected to fight for their overlord, bringing with them appropriate men and materials towards assembling an army, according to their rank. In return, they were granted certain privileges in the form of immunities to taxes and rights over their peasant tenants and serfs. This system of feudal rights is generally referred to as 'les privilèges' in French. For this reason it will be called the privilege system in this project.

Over the centuries many of these privileges had become an unnecessary burden, and in some cases needy minor nobles insisted on reviving arcane special dispensations that were clearly unjust and were condemning the peasants to live in poverty. Some nobles were literally poor, though, struggling to make ends meet. Whether through failure to adapt to modern agricultural techniques, bad management or just bad weather, many nobles resorted to squeezing every last penny's worth of income out of their lands and the peasants who worked them.

The oldest and wealthiest families gravitated towards the glamorous court-life at Versailles and monopolised the corridors of power and the upper echelons of the clergy. Meanwhile there was a sharp division between the court and the provincial aristocracy, whether because of lack of status or lack of funds, or perhaps just plain modesty, many nobles never got near the capital, the court or the king. These provincial nobles held sway in their local cities and parlements, though, and were no less conservative, in the main, than the shining stars of Versailles.

There was another division within the nobility; over a question of status. On the one hand there were the 'noblesse d'épée'; families whose noble status went back beyond the earliest national records. On the other, there were the 'noblesse de robe'; those who had either bought in' to the nobility by means of letters patent signed by the king, or elevated to noble status through position, such as the magistrates in the parlements.

The two main sources of employment for the offspring of provincial noble families were the army and the clergy. The best positions in either could generally be aquired in return for a sum of money, keeping all the routes to advancement barred to those without the necessary wealth. This resulted in the only group among the nobles who were likely to support reforms, but by definition they were virtually powerless to bring changes to the establishment.

The Third Estate

Against the movement for reform, then, stood the strongly conservative noble caste. But in the latter half of the eighteenth century change was needed. This was the enlightenment and Rousseau and Voltaire were in the air. Equally, scientific theories of how to make the most of natural resources and raw materials.

France's economy was still primarily agrarian and the overwhelming majority of the population were peasant farm-workers1. Depending on the good-management and/or benevolence of their noble 'seigneurs', attitudes among peasants ranged from down-trodden and resentful to trusting, loyal and obedient. Too few landlords, though, were mindful of modern methods or indeed the sufferings of the peasantry.

In the cities there was a new working-class of poor industrial workers, such as the weavers of Lyons or the XXXXX in Paris and other emerging early industrial centres. This class was much smaller than its agricultural equivalent, but the conditions in cities made the poor industrial workers much more vocal in their complaints, politically active but largely impotent and thus frustrated.

Between the privileged nobles and the poor working class came what became known as the 'Bourgeoisie'; non-noble French subjects who had a disposable income. It can be deceptive to describe these people as a single 'class' because its representatives ranged from super-rich (but non-noble) industrialists or businessmen through to relatively lowly school-teachers etc, and all the doctors, lawyers and others in the 'liberal' professions. When historians talk about the 'bourgeois' revolution of 1789 they are very often referring to these educated, ambitious and often wealthy or at least well-off 'minor notables' of town and country.

The Parlements

In 13 major cities2 there were judicial institutions called 'parlements'. These were originally legal and administrative centres, largely made up of wealthy nobles. Once appointed, a seat on one of these parlements was heriditary. Seats were commonly bought and sold from as early as the 14th century. The president of each parlement, though, had to be a nominated by the monarch. They were divided into separate courts to deal with specific types of case.

At first parlements were strictly judicial institutions, but one specific function gave them considerable political power. Before any all royal edicts and letters patent became law they had to be ratified by the parlements. The “right of remonstrance” empowered the parlement to point out any breach of monarchic tradition after which the monarch could still force through by means of a 'lettre de jussion'3 or a 'lit de justice'4, so this was not a veto; merely a protest to be ignored at the monarch's discretion.

In the late 18th century and particularly in the years leading up to 1789, there was little desire for reform within the parlements. On the contrary, they often stood in the way of liberal economic reforms proposed by Louis XVI. After centuries of these positions being bought off by wealthy nobles and then kept in the family, they protected the vested interests of the aristocratic ruling class first and foremost.

Economic Crisis

The Revolution of 1789

The Estates-General, May 1789

Historically, the only 'representave' council of the whole nation was called the Estates-General. The council was divided into three estates; the Aristocracy, the Clergy and the Third Estate. The Third Estate was made up of all those who were neither nobles nor clergymen (ie about 95% of the population) and in each region or major town, an electorate based on limited suffrage voted representatives from among the local notables.

It had not been called since 1614, largely because during the 17th century the Bourbon Kings Louis XIII (aided by Cardinal Richelieu) and Louis XIV had gathered all power around the person of the monarch, instituting the system of government known as Absolutism. In the summer of 1788, however, the Estates-General were called once more, in a bid to resolve the growing economic and political crisis. Louis wanted a rubber-stamp for his well-intended but totally inadequate reform proposals. He was in for a surprise!

When the Estates-General met there was an immediate problem because the estates were supposed to debate issues seperately and vote en bloc. This would mean that as long as the nobles and the church could vote together, the 3rd Estate could never veto. This was especially important because the 3rd Estate numbered twice as many representatives as each of the other two estates. There had been much politicking in the run-up to the opening of the estates and this question of whether the votes would be by order or by individual had been hotly debated without any resolution.

The National Assembly

The opening session on May 5th was a disappointment to any who were hoping for dramatic reform. The King's minister Necker delivered a three hour monologue listing the many economic difficulties to be resolved with a bewildering array of facts and figures to illustrate them. The next thing to be done was for all representatives to display their credentials and be registered for voting. The 3rd demanded that this process take place while all three orders were present, and when this requirement was rejected they refused to co-operate at all. For over a month neither side budged and on June 10th the 3rd decided to act unilaterally. Some of the 'low' clergy parish priests etc joined them and on June 17th they proclaimed themselves to be a 'National Assembly' and claimed the authority to pass decrees. The first blow had been struck in a struggle that was to last many years and cost many lives.

Despite the absence of any representatives from the aristocracy and only a few low church priests representing the Clergy, the Constituent Assembly went to work unilaterally on developing new financial legislation. The King was most disconcerted by this unilateral action and ordered the meeting hall to be locked up under the false pretence that it was being prepared for a banquet. When the representatives arrived on June 20th, they found the doors guarded by soldiers but they did not give up so easily.

They repaired to a nearby indoor tennis court5 and, at Mounier's suggestion, swore an oath not to disband until they had provided France with a new constitution. The next day the assembly met in a nearby church where they were joined by a further 148 priests and a handful of nobles from the ranks of the aristrocrat representatives. On June 23rd Louis XVI addressed the assembly, annulling the decisions it had made and prohibiting the three orders from acting together.

When the king left the chamber, the marquess de Deux-Brézé, master of ceremonies at the meeting, reminded the assembly of the King's orders, prompting a rebellious and impoverished noble to make a reply on behalf of the assembly that catapulted him to the front-line of the revolution. The comte de Mirabeau told Deux-Brézé to "Go and tell those that sent you that we are here at the will of the people and that we will not leave our places except by the force of your bayonettes!" He then proposed that the assembly declare itself inviolable. Louis is said to have commented when he heard the news, "Well, if they don't want to go, then let them stay!", even going as far as ordering the remaining representatives from the aristrocracy and clergy to take their places with the others in a single chamber. This was a true political revolution - the absolute monarch had been defied and had capitulated. It was only the beginning, though, of ten years of revolution, counter-revolution, blood, battles, political manoeuvring and exectutions.

The Fall of the Bastille

Meanwhile, back in Paris...

News of the king's dismissal of the popular minister Necker had been badly received among the already discontented people of Paris, and radical orators were daily to be heard inciting the people to rise up against the nobles and claim their rights. There was fear among the population of brigands and also of troops that the king had stationed near the capital to suppress any revolt. The defiant attitude of the Third Estate and their claiming the title of National Assembly inspired many to increase their demands for reforms from the king. On the 13th a committee had been formed from members of the Third Estate to draw up plans for the creation of a city militia. The next day a crowd entered Les Invalides military hospital and armed themselves with 3,000 rifles and a few cannon. From there they made for the looming Bastille tower to the east (an approximate equivalent to The Tower of London in the UK) where they hoped to aquire more arms.

The officer in command of the small garrison in the Bastille was a noble, the Marquis de Launay. While attempting to negotiate with the parisians he unwisely allowed them into the outer courtyard. A shot was fired and in the confusion several of the defending cannoniers changed sides and opened fire on the keep. After four hours of fighting Launay surrendered on condition he would not be killed. He was promptly dragged to the Hotel de Ville and executed along with some of his officers and an unpopular state official called Flesselles. Their heads were paraded through the streets on pikes.

Often the main event associated with the French revolution, the Bastille was not a significant victory in itself. The 'political prisoners' released from the Bastille that day comprised 'two madmen, a débauché and four forgers'. When the king received the news he agreed to dismiss the nearby troops, recalled Necker and publicly accepted the 'patriotic' symbol of the tricolour cockade at the Hotel de Ville. The next day the parisian insurgents were organised into a National Guard and placed under the command of Lafayette, the hero of the American Revolution.

As news of the fall of the Bastille spread across the country, peasants in many areas panicked and attacked their lords' chateaux, often burning tax records. This is sometimes called the 'agrarian revolution'. Although these violent eruptions of peasant anger and frustration must have contributed to the political tension of the times, it is not true to say that they *are* the French Revolution; not an uncommon misconception. In 1789, it was a political revolution that was taking place.

The Constituent Assembly

The National Assembly became the Constituent Assembly on July 9th 1789 as a result of the Tennis Court Oath. Formed from the representatives sent to the Estates General the Constituent sat from July 1789 to September 1791. It's self-proclaimed raison d'etre was to draft a just and 'democratic' constitution for the kingdom of France. Key figures were Sieyès, Mirabeau, Bailly, Mounier. The 'triumvirate' of influential revolutionary figures in this first assembly Barnave, Duport and Lameth. Among the moderate conservative ranks Lafayette, Mounier, Clermont-Tonnerre, and Noailles. And the more extreme but relatively obscure figures of Pétion, Buzot and Robespierre.

The Constituent Assembly may have been formed with the sole aim of creating a constitution from which the new regime could be established, but in reality it effectively ran the country for over two years. One of the key issues was whether the representatives of the nation should sit together in a single chamber or, like the British 'commons' and 'lords', be divided into two. On August 4th 1789, in a night of enthusiastic and rash legislation, almost all aristocratic privileges were abolished. In the days that followed it became clear that some of the radical changes they had voted would be difficult to put into practice. None-the-less, the resulting decree signed on August 11th constituted a great step towards the end of the feudal system and a new regime. On August 26th, after considerable debate, the Assembly adopted the 'Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen'.

Declaration info

The October Troubles

During the last few weeks of September the political clubs had been exhorting their public to demand that the king and his government return to Paris from Versailles. On October 1st a banquet was given at Versailles by the king's bodyguard for the officers of the Flanders regiment, recently called to the royal palace by Louis. The next day rumours spread around Paris - of dubious origin - that the officers had 'trampled the tricolour cocard'. This incident added fuel to the dissatisfaction of a Parisian public who were already suffering under the 'disette' GLOSSARY and high unemployment.

The revolutionary newssheets and also agents in the employ of the Duke of Orleans LINK leapt onto these existing problems, warning of an impending 'aristocratic plot' and the danger of famine. On October 5th a mob of some 6,000 parisian women set out from the capital led by a huissier GLOSSARY named Maillard. There were also a number of armed men who slipped into the crowd along the way. La Fayette followed several hours behind with a detachment of National Guard troops.

The angry women went first to the Assembly where they demanded bread. Then they headed for the chateau where they were met by a delegation from the king. In a bid to calm the situation down Louis agreed to accept the decrees passed in the Assembly on the night of August 4th LINK. Night had fallen by the time La Fayette finally arrived and when he did he simply set up camp outside the gates of the chateau and went to bed.

At dawn some of the crowd forced their way through the gates. In a hail of insults against the Queen they murdered several bodyguards, brandishing the heads on the end of poles, and broke into the royal appartments. Marie-Antoinette only just escaped to the king's chamber through a secret passage. When La Fayette finally restored some semblance of order the king and queen had to face the the mob from a balcony where they were met with cries of "To Paris with them!"

Fearing the worst, the king agreed to return to the capital. They must have made a strange sight for those who witnessed their progress. The royal party in their carriage, surrounded by soldiers and La Fayette trotting alongside, all surrounded by the parisian mob, some triumphantly waving the heads of their earlier victims. At about 7 o'clock they arrived at the Town Hall where Bailly made a speech. That night the royal family and their entourage returned to the empty Tuileries palace where they were effectively prisoners of the people of Paris.

Although the king was now at the mercy of revolutionary Paris, he accepted the role of constitutional monarch and, with Mirabeau as his chief advisor, seemed to have every chance of prospering as such. The people did not hate the unfortunate king but the regime over which he ruled. As time went by, however, Louis was extremely reluctant to accept the more radical proposals of the National Assembly, particularly the Civic Constitution of the Clergy. He also feared the more left-wing elements in the new Assembly with their radical democratic ideas. It was under these circumstances that he formed a plan to escape his captivity in Paris.

The Church in Crisis

Debates raged over the powers of the constitutional monarch, national appropriation of church property and the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, finally adopted on July 12th 1790. This bill required all priests to swear allegience to the nation, above all other authority. This meant Rome and the Pope and resulted in excommunication of those who signed. The French priests were divided. Many refused to sign, either fleeing or remaining to incite counter-revolution among the peasantry in already largely royalist regions like the Vendée and Brittany.

The Fête de la Fédération

The Assembly organised an impressive 'Fete de la Federation' for July 14th 1790 to celebrate the successful revolution. The term 'Fédération' came from the name given to the associations that sprang up in towns in Brittany to promote co-operation between patriots at a local level. This was imitated across France and soon the 'federations' were organising at a regional and then national level, with 'branches' in every village, town and city. This can be seen as a precursor to the later phenomenal success of the popular jacobin movement.

In early June 1790 Bailly proposed to the Assembly that a national 'federation' should be held in Paris to unite the nation. 14,000 delegates from across the nation congregated in the capital where they came under the authority of La Fayette in his capacity as commander of the National Guard. On July 14th the delegates swore an oath of allegiance to the king, who in turn swore to uphold the constitution. Talleyrand presided over mass backed by some 300 priests who had accepted the civil constitution of the clergy, earning himself excommunication from the Catholic Church.

The main task of the CA had always been to produce a written constitution for the future government of France. On September 4th 1791 the text was voted in the Assembly and ratified by the King on the 14th. On September the 30th the deputies parted company for the last time, making way for the new Legislative Assembly. With the best intentions they had ruled that no member of the Constituent could be eligible for the Legislative.

They had inaugurated a new regime of constitutional monarchy which was to guarantee French citizens equality, freedom of speech, the right to own property and national sovereignty. They had completely overhauled the taxation system as well as the administrative organisation of the nation through the creation of the departments. They had also set up a completely new judiciary system. Many of those deputies must have imagined that with the new constitution signed by the king and elections organised for the new assembly, the revolution was over. They could not have been more wrong.

The Flight of the Royal Family

On June 25th 1791, fearing for his safety, Louis XVI fled Paris in disguise, taking his family with him. It seems he aimed to reach Vienna and take the head of the emigrés organising a counter-revolution. Unfortunately for Louis, the getaway plan did not go smoothely and the royal party were recognised and arrested by revolutionary authorities in the small town of Varennes. Up until this point, the person of the king had always been
respected and he had retained his status as head of state. Indeed, the Constitution, ready to be signed, required a monarch as head of state and executive power of the nation.

So in spite of patriot demands for the king's impeachment, the Assembly absolve Louis of any responsibility, claiming he was kidnapped and went against his will. The republicans were furious and organised petitions in the clubs, organising a demonstration at the Champs-de-Mars for July 15th at which to canvas for signatures. They were met by LaFayette who ordered national guard troops to fire on the demonstrators, killing over fifty. Lafayette would never again be the popular hero of 1789 and the people of Paris were left . So the situation was by no means stable.

The Legislative Assembly

Deputies were elected to the Legislative Assembly for two years by a two-tier limited suffrage system. None of them served those two years, though, as it only sat from October 1st, 1791 to August 10th, 1792, when it was dissolved at pike-point by the parisian insurgents. Initially the king chose his cabinet from among the constitional monarchists, known as the 'feuillants'. They were opposed by a group known as the 'Brissotins' (after their most influential speaker, Brissot). There were only a few more radical revolutionaries among the deputies at this stage.

The biggest issue of this period was war. Many nobles had fled France and were now congregating in the Rhineland in preparation for counter-revolution, supported by the Hapsburg royal family in Vienna. The Brissotins supported a declaration of war against Austria in the interests of galvanising revolutionary France into action and thereby strengthening the new regime. The royal court was convinced that in the case of success, the war would strengthen the king's position, while in the case of defeat, it would allow his foreign royalist allies to re-establish him as absolute monarch. On April 20th 1792 France declared war on Austria.

After Varennes, the slippery slope

The war against Austria initially went badly, with French armies suffering several defeats in April and May 1792. This situation was made all the more urgent by the counter-revolutionary peasant uprisings in the staunchly royalist regions of the Vendée and Brittany. The Legistlative Assembly reacted by voting three new decrees; ordering the deportation of refractory priests, the abolition of the king's bodyguard and the creation of a 20,000 strong national guard division based close to Paris. The king vetoed the first and third of these decrees and dismissed the Girondin cabinet. Replacing them with In response to this unco-operative attitude, a major popular demonstration was planned in Paris for June 20th.

The demonstrators, mostly from the poorer parisian suburbs broke into the Tuileries palace where the king faced them for over three hours. In spite of this, he remained firm on his position regarding the vetoed decrees. In the assembly, this riot actually resulted in a swing of opinion in favour of the king, in the interests of maintaining order. In July the assembly called for national guard divisions from all over France to congregate in Paris for that year's 'Fete de la Federation'. This constituted a direct threat to the king's authority, further exacerbated when he and his court were accused in the assembly of treason. On July 10th the cabinet was forced to resign and the Girondins pressed for their candidates to replace the outgoing ministers. Meanwhile, in the clubs, radicals such as Danton and Robespierre were imploring the people of Paris to rise up against the king.

Towards the end of July the national guard divisions from Brest and Marseille arrived in Paris to public acclaim. They immediately petitioned the assembly for the king to deposed but were refused. In this tense atmosphere, the people of Paris learned of the Brunswick Manifesto in which ........ threatened to raze Paris to the ground if any harm was done to any member of the royal family. Representatives from the Parisian sections were sent to the assembly, once again to petition for Louis to be deposed. The new regime was becoming increasingly troubled and events beyond the control of the Legislative Assembly would soon bring it tumbling down in a single day.

The Storming of the Tuileries Palace

At midnight of August 9th/10th 1792 church bells rang out all over Paris giving the signal for insurrection. Organised in the clubs, the
Paris sections first attacked Town Hall where the legally elected municipal council, the Commune, was based. They set up an 'insurrectional commune' and summoned the commanding officer of the national guard, a conservative named Mandat. Mandat was summarily executed, effectively paralysing the only direct form of defence open to the constitional regime. The insurgents quickly regrouped with the recently arrived national guard troops from the provinces and surrounded the Tuileries palace.

When the attack on the palace began in earnest the king and his family took refuge with the deputies in their debating chamber (situated in the same building). Santerre and Westermann led the insurgents against the king's Swiss guards and although initially successful, were soon pushed back. They were only finally victorious when the king, prompted by the deputies, ordered a cease fire to prevent further blood-shed. In fact, when the Swiss guards obeyed, most of them were killed anyway and the insurgents ransacked the Tuileries. The assembly was dissolved and Danton took the head of a provisional executive council until a national convention could be elected by universal manhood suffrage. This was the end of monarchy in France6

The September Massacres

Tensions run high as news reaches the capital of new military defeats at Longwy and Verdun; the Austro-Prussian troops are now on French soil. While Danton and other leaders of the Paris Commune frantically organise the sans-culottes volunteers from the parisian sections into an army journalists like Marat, Fréron and Gorsas daily exacerbate the popular ill-feeling against the counter-revolutionary 'traitors'. In a pre-emptive measure against counter-revolutionary 'suspects' in Paris Danton orders widespread raids on homes all over Paris before the troops set out to defend the Republic. Initially it is by decree of the Assembly, but as the wave of violence intensifies, the political leaders lose control of the Paris mobs and have to stand back in horror as prisons are emptied and inmates brutally slaughtered en masse.

By the September 2nd, in a matter of days, the wave of arrests had resulted in a sense of total autonomy among the leaders of the sans-culottes sections. The bloodbath began in earnest that day when a cartload of prisoners in transit simply had their throats cut where they stood. Their 'executioners' immediately made for the nearby Abbaye prison where the cart had been taking their victims and the bodies soon began to pile up. Not far away dozens of refractory priests were being slaughtered at the Carmes Convent where they were being held. For the next four days bands of vigilante sans-culottes men and women (reputed to be even more wildly enthusiastic in these scenes of butchery than the men) passed from prison to prison, cell to cell, pronouncing and executing summary justice in the form of a kangaroo 'revolutionary tribunal'. Few went free. Some victims came from the aristrocracy, many from the clergy, but a great many too were common law criminals, thieves, prostitutes or even madmen. It is estimated that there were as many as 1400 killed in Paris alone, with similar massacres taking place in Orleans, Versailles, Meaux and Reims. The Assembly did nothing to condemn these massacres, outfaced by the temporarily all-powerful Commune.

The Victory at Valmy - Sept 20th, 1792

Key military victory over the invading Prussians for the revolutionary armies led by Dumouriez and Kellerman. Surprised by the resistance of the French and more interested in the partition of Poland, the Duke of Brunswick withdraws from French territory pursued by Dumouriez.

The Convention: Sept 1792 - Oct 1795

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'7 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 independant 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 Legistlative 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 guerilla 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 combatting 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 committe 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 it's fine wooden casket until the new constitution of the Directory made it obsolete.

The Committe 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 includng 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'.

The Terror

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 Saftey.

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 decapited. 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 incorruptibles turn was coming fast upon him.

Thermidor and the Constitution of Year III

It can be difficult to follow the history of this period in France, purely because of the republican calendar.

The 9 Thermidor coup

The Constitution - Year III

Napoleon - The 13 Vendémiaire, Year IV

The Directory

Monetary crisis

Napoleon - Italy and Egypt

Napoleon - Coup d'Etat, 18-19 Brumaire, Year VII

This entry is part of the French Revolution University Project.

120 million out of a population of 24 million2In 1789 there were parlements in Paris, Aix-en-Provence, Arras, Besançon, Bordeaux, Colmar, Dijon, Douai, Grenoble, Metz, Nancy, Pau, Rennes, Rouen, and Toulouse.3peremptory order4a plenary session of the parlement personally attended by the monarch5Don't start imagining school gyms or centre court at Wimbledon here, it was just a large, well-lit room nearby in Versailles Castle6Until the restoration of 1815-1830)7not working class; predominantly middle to upper-middle class lawyers, businessmen and other 'notables'

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