The French Revolution Key dates

This gouache painting of the storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789 was by Claude Cholat, one of 31 wine merchants actively involved

Revolutions take time to ferment. This was as true in France as it was in America, site of the first successful 18th century Revolution. In America decades of resentment followed by revolutionary defiance took place before the ‘colonial’ residents finally forced the British Crown to sign the 1883 Treaty of Paris giving the 13 colonies their independence.

Property rights in the American Revolution

The American Revolution was essentially about the right of property-owners to govern without outside interference. The French unrest started with the same demands, but very quickly it became a revolution about the right of everyone (at least all adult males) to consent to government.

For the American colonials the 17th century philosopher John Locke justified self-government. As early as 1689 Locke opposed absolute monarchy and argued that individual consent (of property-owners) must be the basis of political legitimacy. His political theory argued that property precedes government and, an investor in slavery himself, that slaves were a form of property.

So, after 1763 when the British secured all of France’s North American territories east of the Mississippi River, the colonials resented having no control over new British taxes imposed on them. Resistance grew. In 1775 the British attempted to use force to impose taxation and the war with American militiamen began.

In 1776 the British migrant, Thetford-born Thomas Paine, published a pamphlet called Common Sense. He argued the 13 colonies should form a republic independent of the British crown. Hugely influential, the pamphlet sold around 100,000 copies to the then 2.5 million population of the North American colonies.

Thomas Paine painted by the American portraitist Matthew Pratt some time between 1775 and 1785. Paine defended the French Revolution and moved to Paris in 1791. He was made a French citizen in 1792 elected to the Convention. Arrested as a Girondin he narrowly escaped the guillotine in 1794, and lived in the Rue de l’Odeon from 1797. He returned to America in 1802

The struggle leading to American Independence in 1783 was for individual property rights against a distant Crown.

American property-owners were untrammelled by peasant ties to local aristocrats or by an ideologically authoritarian property-owning Catholic Church. In the American Revolutionary War the property-owning colonials saw little need to appeal for support to the slaves or Native Americans. After being promised a little freedom only 9,000 slaves did so on the American side, while the British with a stronger offer saw just 20,000 slaves enrol for them. At the time there were half a million slaves.

In the name of property rights, the 1787 American Constitution only awarded seats in the House of Representatives on the basis of the numbers of ‘free men’. But in the southern states 40% of the population were slaves to the Constitution gave the white male voters additional seats on the basis of three-fifths of the headcount of their slaves. Their property taxes stayed the same. The Constitution also endorsed the slave trade for the next 20 years and required fugitive slaves be returned to their ‘owners’.

France in the 1780s

The aspirations of the wealthy professional and merchant upper classes (an emerging bourgeoisie) were initially not dissimilar to those of the American colonists. They detested the arbitrarily imposed capitation poll tax from which the 400,000 nobility and 100,000 clergy were exempt. They resented being obliged to support the Church by paying tithes of up to 10% of their income or produce, often directly to absentee abbots and bishops.

The concentration of wealth and power among the half-a-million noble elite, the Crown’s tax farmers and the Catholic Church hierarchy that owned 10% of France was extraordinary.

Income inequality in France at that time was between the level of Britain and ‘substantially higher than elsewhere in Europe at about the same period’. Its Gini coefficient has been calculated to be 0.66 (the level of inequality reached in Africa’s most unequal country in 2006-7) – where a score of 1 means the entire income of the country goes to just one person.

Braudel found there were then around two million professionals and three million shopkeepers and skilled tradesmen out of a total French population of about 28 million.

The wealthy French were largely town-dwellers. In the 1780s half a million people lived in Paris, second only to London’s 800,000. Six of Europe’s largest cities were French.

Between 1784 and 1787 the immensely wealthy 40 Paris tax farmers of the Ferme générale cabal built a 24 km wall round the city to make it much more difficult to escape the customs taxes levied on all goods entering the city. They held leases from the king and organised their own special private armies to capture smugglers who could be sentenced to hard labour or hanging.

Alongside, France’s new wealthy professionals and merchants read Voltaire and Rousseau. They questioned nearly everything – including whether the monarchy was an ideal method of government and even the existence of god. Many looked to England, where absolutism had apparently ended, and to America where a Republic had been established.

The conflict of interests in France was between the 2% of nobles and clerics, the 20% of wealthy merchants, educated professionals and rich peasants, the 65% of poor peasants and the 10+% growing body of landless workers. Either another class would break the feudal dictatorship and establish its own dictatorship, or cross-class alliances would do it. Either way, direct centralised control from the capital would continue in a country where as late as 1863 the French spoken in Paris was still the first language of just three-quarters of the people.

The Bourbons on the brink

The Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), French support for the American War of Independence (1775-1783), the huge costs of building and maintaining the Versailles palace and court (up to 25% of all government income) and the conspicuous consumption of the Queen, Marie-Antoinette, meant that within ten years of his coronation Louis XVI was faced with an almost empty money chest.

Despite getting over half of the total public revenue from internal customs taxes, Crown expenditures (including massive interest payments on loans) considerably exceeded income. So in February 1787 the king called an advisory Assembly of Notables for the first time in 161 years.

The 144 nobles and richest men in France who attended were all hand-picked by the King. However, they would not support new tax laws that could mean most might have to pay taxes for the first time. The Assembly was dissolved in May.

Opposition to additional taxes was strongest among the 1,100 nobles and wealthy commoners who sat as judges in 13 courts known as Parlements covering France. These were both local final legal appeal courts and they they had the power to rule on whether laws issued by the King (including taxes) should apply within their local area.

The King’s attempt to get his new tax laws registered by these Parlements failed dismally. The Paris Parlement refused to do so, despite being surrounded by the king’s troops. Riots took place in Paris on May 5 and 6 as the Parlement argued that only the Estates-General had the power to allow the King to impose taxes in this way.

On May 8 1788 the Brittany Parlement unanimously refused to approve the new taxes. Street fighting took places in Rennes and the delegation sent to Paris to lobby the king was jailed in the Bastille. Anti-royalist Bretons in Paris then founded the Breton Club, which after the National Assembly moved to Paris began meeting in the canteen of the Jacobin Monastery in the Rue St Honoré, eventually becoming known as the Jacobins.

On June 7 1788 a major riot took places in Grenoble after the government moved troops there to try to force its Parlement to register the new tax law.

Right across France the failure of the 1788 harvest led to food riots and attacks on wholesalers and abbeys with stocks of corn. In face of riots and resistance the King backed down.

Seeking legitimacy

Louis’s final attempt to secure legitimacy for new tax increases was announced on January 24 1789. He called for elections to the Estates-General that would then convene its first meeting since 1614. This was the only body with the power to advise the King (effectively giving him permission) to bypass the parlements and raise taxes directly.

Around 1,200 delegates eventually attended the 1789 meeting of the Estates-General. The First Estate, representing the clergy, had 303 elected delegates with only 51 bishops and many impoverished local priests; the Second, representing the nobility, had 282 delegates, of whom about a third were nobles with minor holdings.

This 1789 caricature of the First Estate (the Clergy) and the Second Estate (the nobility) on the back of the Third Estate (the commoners, land owners, merchants, lawyers etc). The peasantry and landless labourers were invisible at this time

The Third Estate (supposed to be representing 95% of the French population) was exceptionally allowed 578 elected delegates, since Louis XVI believed its delegates would be more likely to support him against the intransigent nobles on the issue of taxation. The Tiers Etat were predominantly made up of magistrates and lawyers but including a handful of more progressive nobles.

The election to the Third Estate was only open to those men who were 25 years and older, property owners and registered taxpayers.

Tax districts used by Louis XVI for elections to the 1789 Estates-General meeting. In Paris only 11,706 voted out of 50,000 Third Estate electors. Parisian voters were divided into 60 tax districts.

The 3rd Class ‘Third Estate’

In Paris one candidate for the Third Estate was the Royal wall-paper manufacturer, Jean-Baptiste Réveillon. His mansion and workshops on the Rue de Montreuil were looted on April 28 1789 after he argued that deregulating the price of bread would allow lower wage costs. Some 25 people were killed by the troops restoring ‘law and order’.

On their arrival at Versailles on May 5 1789 delegates of the Third Estate were told they had to wear only black clothes and to enter the Versailles palace hall by a side door. Still more insulting they were informed that each Estate would only be allowed one, collective, vote, so decisions would rest in the hands of a minority of those present.

By May 27 1789 the Third Estate started to call itself the Communes (Commons) and to discuss the organisation of the legislative process on its own. This nomenclature followed the 14th century bifurcation in England of the earlier single chamber Parliament into a House of Lords and Clergy, and a House of Commons (made up of knights and burgher) representing the boroughs.

On June 17 1789 the decisive moment came when the Third Estate voted by 490 to 90 to declare themselves a National Assembly. It elected the man who had topped the Paris elections to the Third Estate, the astronomer who discovered Jupiter’s satellites Jean-Sylvain Bailly, as its president. No longer did the delegates see themselves as a bourgeois ‘estate’ owned by the Crown. Instead they were the representatives of ‘the people’.

Two days later the clergy of the First Estate voted to join them. Louis XVI then ordered the closure of the Assembly’s Versailles meeting place. On June 20 1789 the delegates adjourned to a nearby Tennis Court, where its delegates swore not to disperse until they had settled a new French Constitution.

In Paris on June 25 1789 the 12 Paris representatives of the Estates General joined the existing Paris municipal council and soon set up an Assembly of Voters.

On July 9 1789 in response to continuing harassment by the King they changed their name again to National Constituent Assembly.

Paris: the centre of the Revolution

As Louis XVI began to move troops into Paris and around Versailles, the Assembly requested the King remove the foreign-origin mercenary troops who made up half of the 25,000 soldiers in or near the capital. The King refused to do so. Following minor skirmishes between Parisian crowds and the Swiss and German troops loyal to the King, however, some rank and file soldiers of the Gardes Françaises infantry regiment that garrisoned Paris, began defecting.

On July 13 1789 the Paris Assembly of Voters (wealthy Parisians) created a Permanent Committee, which decided to establish a ‘bourgeois militia’ of 48,000 men from the voting tax districts of Paris to maintain order (and their property). They wore identifying badges of blue and red, the colours of the 14th century Paris coat of arms.

On the morning of Tuesday July 14 1789 members of the embryonic National Guard militia invaded the Hôtel des Invalides looking for weapons. They found muskets but the gunpowder had been taken to the formidable Bastille fort for safety. They marched to the Bastille and demanded entry.

By the late afternoon, after 98 of the approximately 1,000 attackers of the fort were killed, the governor of the Bastille surrendered to avoid still more bloodshed. He was immediately killed and In the evening the Paris Provost of the Merchants, was killed on the steps of the Town Hall (Hotel de Ville).

Built in the 14th century to guard the eastern entrance into Paris it became a state prison in the 15th century. In July 1789 it only held 7 prisoners. A symbol of despotism it was dntirely demolished by November 1789 with its stones and chains being distributed widely across France as symbols of revolutionary change

The capture of the Bastille, the defection of the Gardes Francaises and the arming of the new Paris bourgeois militia effectively transferred real power in France away from the Crown.

In Paris the Paris Assembly of Voters elected Jean-Sylvian Bailly as Mayor on July 15 1789. They also appointed Lafayette, a wealthy officer who had served in America’s Continental Army, and had been a delegate to the Second Estate, Commander of the new National Guard.

On July 17 the King travelled to the Hotel de Ville to review ‘his’ new National Guard. He is met at the city wall by 25 of the Paris Assembly Electors who travel with him to the Town Hall. There, Bailly received the King and gave him the three-coloured cockade badge signifying Paris’ victory. Lafayette had added the white of the Bourbon royal flag to the old red and blue coat of arms of Paris.

On July 20 each of the 60 Paris tax districts elected two delegates to form a 120-strong Paris Municipal Assembly. It comprised a majority of lawyers, doctors, merchants, along with some skilled workers and nobles. From July 25 1789 they formed the Paris Commune’s General Assembly of Representatives.

Across France the news the Bastille was being demolished sparked peasant attacks on aristocratic and church property. Law and social order appeared to have broken down. The days were called ‘The Great Fear‘. In Paris and across the country those with property (and some foresight) could see It was time to abolish feudalism.

The Liberal Revolution of wealthy France

On August 4 1789 the National Constituent Assembly passed the first of 19 August decrees it agreed within a week. Decided often without debate the first decree ended the privileges of the nobility. Other laws abolished the First Estate of the clergy and ended tithe payments to the Church. The wealthy men (including nobles and bishops) who voted to end feudalism and in many cases their own privileges did so partly to quieten peasant revolt and partly because many genuinely believed it was necessary for France to have a constitutional monarchy like that in England.

The French Revolution of 1789 inspired hope. ”The abolition of the nobility’s rights’ is written on the pillar.

Three weeks later, on August 26 1789, the National Assembly approved the preamble and 17 articles of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.

The first article declares: ‘Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Article 2 states: The goal of any political association is the conservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, safety and resistance against oppression.’

The Declaration extended ‘Active citizenship’ to French men aged over 25 who paid taxes equivalent to three days’ work a year, and who were not servants. The vote was thus given to 4.3 million men out of the 28 million population (this compares to the 220,000 male electorate out of the nearly 11 million British population in 1780).

Women start marching

Liberal words did not deal with continuing hunger and concerns about the price of bread. On October 5 1789, days after the news hit Paris that the King had held a lavish banquet at Versailles, up to 10,000 women marched for six hours in the pouring rain to the king’s palace there.

After a testing stand-off at the Palace Louis XVI realised he had to comply with their demand that he move from Versailles back to Paris. On October 6 the marchers accompanied the Royal family on their way back to Paris where they entered the Tuileries Palace, virtually unused for over a century by either Louis IV or Louis XV.

From November 9 1789 National Constituent Assembly began meeting in the covered riding ring (the Salle du Manège) on the western side of the Tuileries gardens. It was the largest indoor space in the city. There is a plaque on the Tuileries railings on Rue Rivoli marking the site of the Riding Ring where, on September 21 1792, they declared the Republic.

Opposite No 228 Rue Rivoli is the plaque showing the approximate location of the old Salle du Manege riding school where delegates voted to execute the King and declare a republic.

The decrees the Constituent Assembly passed transformed France. On November 2 1789 representatives voted to nationalise the wealth of the Church to solve the problem of the nation’s effective bankruptcy. This included land, buildings and goods that had been given to the clergy by believers over preceding centuries.

Faced with the end of all tax collection, November 2 1789 saw the lesser nobiility and emerging bourgeoisie agree to pay clerical salaries while filling state coffers through the nationalisation of all church property. To get paid the clercy had to swear an oath of allegiance to the Nation, the Law and to the King.

Wealthy peasants and professionals throughout France saw the opportunity to buy land at the auctions that followed.

On February 13 1790 the Constituent Assembly banned monastic vows and suppressed religious societies to get rid of the approximately 100,000 clergy who were not ‘useful’ to local parishes. The monasteries were closed immediately.

A Paris Commune is established

On May 21 the Constituent Assembly replaced the 60 Paris tax constituencies with 48 administrative sections, each of which had its own administrative committee, a revolutionary committee and a locally controlled armed guard. Each section also elected three delegates to the Paris Commune, the new municipal government of Paris. The electorate was made up of ‘active citizens’ – males aged 25 and over who paid taxes).

June 19 1790 saw the Constituent Assembly complete the abolition of hereditary peerages, honorary titles and of the entitlements associated with them.

The abolltion ‘for ever’ of titles such as Marquis, Knight, Count, Prince, Baron, Duke etc etc was turned over by Napoleon on March 1 1808 and in 1815 they were all reinstated

July 12 1790 saw Jansenite-influenced ‘primitive Catholic’ priests and lawyers in the Assembly successfully propose a new Civil Constitution for the Clergy. It justified the temporal role of the National Assembly, and introduced elections for Bishops and Priests within the French church, promoting cooperation rather than subordination within the church hierarchy. It also required an oath of fidelity to France, effectively recognising the nation’s authority over most religious matters.

The 1790 Civil Consitution of the Clergy gave France the right to send back Papal bubbles (Bulls) they disagreed with

Already condemned by Pope Pius VI, Louis XVI delayed signing the new decree but eventually did so. On January 16 1791 about half of all priests swore the oath, while nearly all the bishops and the other half of priests refused, being called ‘non-jurors’ or ‘refactory’.

Workers’ rights to organise denied

Rousseau had argued that the ‘general will’, individual rights and the Nation were undermined by intermediate ‘associations’. Chief among these he identified as the Catholic Church. But there were also the guilds. So it was still in the name of liberté that on March 2 and March 17 1791 the Constitutional Assembly passed the Allarde decree. This outlawed price-fixing anti-competitive corporations and guilds.

In June, when Parisian printers and carpenters were striking for higher wages, the Constitutional Assembly went further still. On June 14 1791 it passed the Le Chapelier law, moved by Isaac René Guy le Chapelier. Trade unions and any form of collective worker organisation  such as ‘discussions’, ‘posters’, ‘round Robins’ and ‘pressure against those who would work for a lower wage’ were banned.

The Jacobins, including Robespierre, painted here by Boilly in 1791, supported the suppression of workers’ rights to organise and strike. They believed in the free enterprise version of freedom.

The anti-collective organisation law went through without any debate at all. The only attack on it came from Jean-Paul Marat in L’Ami du peuple. Marat criticised the law as ‘usurping the sovereign rights of the people’. [The ban on trade unions and strikes was only finally removed in 1884.]

Louis XVI seizes the wrong time

While the Constitutional Assembly was liberalising France in the direction of free enterprise and capitalism, Louis XVI and those close to him begin to attempt to plot an end to what he saw as his imprisonment within a constitutional monarchy.

Late at night on June 20 1791 he escaped from the Tuileries Palace, hoping to get abroad to raise an army to recapture France. Marie Antoinette’s carriage getting lost on the Left Bank of the Seine after crossing the Pont Royale bridge she had never used before probably added the hour’s delay that scuppered their attempt to meet up with royalist forces.

The failed escape ended in Varennes, close to the border with the Austrian Netherlands and 30 miles only from a supportive Royalist army. The escape bid triggered a surge of republicanism in France. Many who had considered Louis XVI as genuine in his approving the range of liberalising laws, changed their minds.

Initially the constitutional monarchist-dominated Constituent Assembly issued the fake news that the King had been kidnapped. Then, on June 25 after the truth came out, it temporarily removed him from the throne. A minority called for the King to be put on trial.

Soon afterwards on July 15 and 16 the Constituent Assembly restored Louis XVI to the throne conditional on his approving the still-in-draft new Constitution.

The first Jacobin split

More radical liberal revolutionaries, led by Danton and Marat, then organised a petition demanding Louis XVI abdicate. The wealthy businessmen and lesser nobility who made up the bulk of the ‘soft’ ‘constitutional monarchist’ revolutionaries then split from the Friends of the Constitution club that met in the Jacobin monastery. The leavers began meeting in the other now unused Feuillant monastery building in the Rue St Honoré  and became known as the Feuillants.

One significant distinction with the few remaining radicals who met in the Jacobin monastery was that they allowed ‘passive citizens’ – those who did not pay taxes – to attend their meetings and to speak. The new Feuillant c;ub supporters did not.

The following afternoon, Sunday July 17 1791, up to 50,000 people gathered on the Champs de Mars on the Left Bank of the Seine to sign the petition demanding the king abdicate permanently. The Feuillant-supporting Paris mayor, Bailly, then declared martial law and Lafayette ordered the National Guard of wealthier Parisians to open fire. Up to 50 unarmed people were killed.

Nearly all the dead were workers known as the ‘sans-culottes‘ as an insult because they wore full length trousers without the silk knee-length shorts and stockings of wealthy men. This attack on poorer people and workers spread distrust of the new ‘soft revolutionary’ elite more widely.

The full-length trouser was the identity marker of a sans-culotte. In Paris most were labourers, paid by the day when they had work. This 1792-1793 painting is by Louis Léopold Boilly..

Lameth, Bailly and Lafayette then blamed the Jacobins associated with the petition for the deaths. They arrested many and closied their newspapers and printworks.

Danton fled to London for a few weeks. Marat stayed there from December to April 1792. Robespierre secretly moved house to avoid arrest to Maurice Duplay‘s house in a courtyard off the Rue St Honore.

The hundred republicans arrested were eventually amnestied on September 14, on the same day as the King, when he was also amnestied for his escape bid after he had agreed to the Constitution.

Some historians trace the radicalisation of the French Revolution back to this first major blood-letting between opponents of absolutism. It split the Jacobins and persuaded many workers that they were being betrayed not only by the King but also by the constitutional monarchists.

A Constitutional Monarchy?

The French Constitution was finally voted through on September 3 1791. It was endorsed by Louis XVI on September 13 1791, who then had his executive powers restored to him. He accepted with the qualification that ‘it would be judged by what happened next’. He was no longer ‘King of France by God’s grace’, but instead ‘King of the French by God’s grace and the State’s Constitution’.

The written Constitution gave executive power to the King. He had the power to nominate the six ministers who ran the country and who could not be members of the Assembly and was also head of the army. Legislative power, including the declaration of war and the setting of budget and taxation, based on Rousseau’s principles of popular sovereignty, was given to the National Assembly.

Jean-Louis Prieur engraved the Proclamation of the Constitution on September 14 1791 when it was published after Louis XVI had sworn to uphold it. The huge square had contained the Innocents cemetery and church, and from 1787 was a fruit and vegetable market. Half of the site was built over in 1860 and the Fountain of the Innocents is in the remaining square, since 1985 renamed the Place Joachim du Bellay by right-wing Paris mayor, Jacques Chirac.

The National Constituent Assembly finally dissolved itself on September 28 1791. Most of its delegates considered they had completed the Revolution: they had established a Constitutional Monarchy on the basis of the Declaration of the Rights of Man. The radical left, of perhaps 30 representatives, did not.

Maximilien de Robespierre, originally a Third Estate delegate, had argued without success in the Assembly for the extension of full democratic citizenship to Protestants, Jews, blacks and servants. Ironically as things turned out, on May 30 1791 he had also proposed that France abolish the death penalty, but was equally unsuccessful.

Legislative Assembly and Constitutional Monarchy 1791-1792

Two-tier elections took place across France between August 25 and September 5 1791. Thanks to a proposal by the 33-year-old lawyer Robespierre, anxious to renew as much as possible France’s political elite, no person who had participated in the Constituent Assembly was eligible to stand for the Legislative Assembly.

Participation in the Legislative Assembly elections was low: in Paris only 10% of those eligible voted; elsewhere participation rates varied between 25% and 40%. Yet coming soon after the July 17 massacre, the more sceptical candidates linked to the Jacobin network of clubs did well.

The 745 deputies to the National Legislative Assembly met on October 1 1791 in the Salle du Manège in the Tuileries garden close to the Palace where the King was now forced to live.

The Legislative Assembly was divided between the 264 ‘moderate right’ members of the Feuillants and the 136 ‘left’ Jacobins. The leadership of the Feuillants was partly outside the Assembly, including Lafayette, Lameth, Barnave, Duport and Le Chapelier.

Between the centre-right constitutional monarchists and the sceptical left were 345 independents. These deputies were known as ‘Constitutionnels’ and were not members of any of the existing political clubs. The Assembly’s composition had shifted to the left after the King’s escape bid and the shooting of demonstrators protesting the King’s amnesty at the Champs de Mars on July 17 1791.

Divided France

The political, religious as well as social and economic divisions in France deepened in the early 1790s.

One divide was between those wanting constitutional monarchy and those wanting to restore absolutism. The wealthy bourgeoisie and enlightened nobility were convinced that a British-style monarchy in which power was shared between themselves and the King was the best solution. That view was not shared by the absolutist Bourbon court. And, rightly, many educated professionals just did not believe the King could be trusted to share anything. Nor were many disenfranchised workers and peasants convinced that keeping a monarchy would change their lives for the better.

Another divide concerned the real external threat to the liberalising French Revolution of 1789-91. Counter-revolutionary opponents were already being encouraged by Europe’s existing royal families and an army of emigres was just on the other side of the border . On August 27 1791 Leopold II, Austrian Emperor, and Frederick-William II, Prussian King, at the request of the future Charles X, issued a declaration that they would do what they could to ‘free the King of France’.

This ‘external intervention’ in French affairs infuriated the French. The Feuillant deputies were divided over whether they should respond by going to war. Lafayette believed war would allow him as a great general to enlist the Legislative Assembly behind him and put the Constitutional Monarchy onto a secure footing. Other Feuillants, like Lameth, believed the shock of an external war could strengthen the outright republicans.

Learning from Machiavelli, Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette encouraged this anti-Austrian war sentiment. Their logic was that because most aristocratic army officers had emigrated, the French army was so weak it would lose and the Queen’s brother (Leopold II) would win and restore Bourbon absolutism in France.

The Jacobins were also deeply divided. The majority of them, whom historians later described as the Girondins, saw war as an opportunity to spread the revolution militarily. Jacques Pierre Brissot‘s newspaper The French Patriot had a wide circulation. Brissot argued that the oppressed peoples of Europe would rise up to support the ideals of the French Revolution.

Robespierre and a minority of Jacobin deputies, subsequently called the Montagnards because they sat on the highest benches in the Salle du Manège Assembly meetings, disagreed with prioritising war against Austria. They believed dealing with internal challenges to the Revolution and extending it to benefit the working class was more important.

Robespierre also argued perceptively that ‘no-one appreciates armed missionaries’ and that war would be a threat to French freedom. His opposition was supported by Danton, Marat, Hébert, Sylvain Maréchal and Camille Desmoulins.

A third dividing line encouraged by the Pope and by the royalists was between those who agreed that the clergy should be paid by the state and swear allegiance to the country, the law and the king, and those who refused to accept the Church’s new civil status. Rome was particularly angered by the annexation by France on September 14 1791 of the papal city state of Avignon and a large part of the surrounding Vaucluse.

The two papal states of the Comtat (created by Rome in 1274) Avignon (bought by Rome in 1348) were annexed to France on 14 September 1791

On November 11 1791 the King vetoed a law passed in the Assembly requiring the emigres to return to France or face the nationalisation of their property. On December 19 he did the same for a law requiring the clerical refuseniks swear a new oath recognising civil law or face being evicted from their parishes.

Another division was between highly urbanised Paris and still 90% rural France. In Paris, after the resignation of Bailly, Jérôme Pétion de Villeneuve, a leading Jacobin lawyer and supporter at that time of Robespierre, defeated Lafayette and was elected by Mayor of the Paris Commune. He won 6,708 votes out of 10,632 on November 14 1791.

The King became known as the ‘Mr Veto’, opening himself and the 1791 Constitution itself up to increasing attacks in the National Assembly from the Montagnards.

Revolutionary war

On April 20 1792, after dismissing the Feuillant ministers who opposed war and replacing them with Girondin pro-war ministers, Louis XVI proposed a declaration of war on Austria to the Legislative Assembly. It was passed by a massive majority with only seven votes against war out of 750.

Early defeats with soldiers then fleeing as soon as the Austrians came into sight exacerbated the divisions in Paris. Lafayette got the King to ask the Austrians for a three months’ truce. The Montagnard Jacobins feared Lafayette would then march on Paris to suppress the revolution.

The Royal Family then lost all remaining credibility when the King vetoed a law to create a 20,000-strong National Guard to defend Paris.

June 22 1792 saw a demonstration organised by the Cordeliers club against the King’s vetos and his dismissal of a pro-war minister. The armed demonstrators went first to the Salle du Manège and then on to the Tuileries Palace, where the King was forced to put on a Phrygian bonnet and drink drank a toast to the Nation.

With Austrian and Prussian armies getting closer to the frontiers, the Assembly took to issuing Decrees rather than laws that risked the King’s veto. One decree invited all national guard volunteers to come to Paris for the 14 July celebration of the seizure of the Bastille.

On July 11 1792, after Prussia had also declared war on France, the Assembly decreed that the country was in danger (‘Citoyens, La Patrie est en danger‘). On July 15 many of the national guard who had arrived in Paris for the Batille Day commemoration decided not to go home.

The King kept refusing to sign laws. He was waiting for the Austrian and Prussian armies to arrive in Paris and then restore his Bourbon absolutism.

On July 25 the commander of the Prussian army, the Duke of Brunswick, after secretly consulting the Royal Couple, put his name to a Manifesto to the people of Paris. It emanated from the French royalist emigres at the prompting of Marie Antoinette and possibly included wording drafted by Louis XVI.

On July 30 1792 the national guard volunteers from Marseille who had answered the Assembly’s call to defend Paris finally marched in to Paris. They were singing a song called the Rhine Army marching song that had been written after the declaration of war on Austria.

The Marseillais arrived in time to read the Brunswick Manifesto that threatened summary execution to anyone in Paris who harmed or insulted the royal family. This was published in Paris on August 3.

The Second French Revolution

Instead of intimidating Parisians and the national guardsmen who were still there, the Brunswick Manifesto had the opposite effect. Meetings on August 9 1792 in 47 of the 48 Paris constituency sections voted to depose the King at midnight. Initially voting had been restricted to ‘active’ tax paying citizens. It had been extended to include the ‘passive’ trousered workers known as the sans-culottes. Twenty-eight of the sections nominated Commissioners to whom they gave unlimited powers.

The Commissioners then occupied the Hôtel de ville and set up what has become known as the ‘Insurrectional Paris Commune’ led by Danton, Desmoulins and Hebert from the Cordeliers Club. On August 10 1792 an assault on the Tuileries Palace by two columns of insurrectionaries from different parts of Paris was organised. It was supported by many National Guard soldiers. After killing around 300 of those assaulting the palace very few of the 900 Swiss Guards survived the battle and the retreat ordered by Louis XVI.

Taking of the Tuileries Palace on August 10 1792. The Palace was captured but the King and his family had already fled to the nearby Salle de Menage, where the Assembly was meeting.

Under pressure from the angry crowds who had entered the Assembly and from the new Paris Commune, the deputies present then agreed to call for elections to a ‘National Convention’ by universal male suffrage, to sack all the government ministers, to nominate a Provisional Executive Council of six new ministers (including Danton), and to suspend the King.

The Convention’s purpose, aping the American 1787 Philadelphia Convention, was to design a new French constitution to govern France without a King.

Louis XVI and his family were then taken as prisoners to the Knights Templar Tower (destroyed by Napoleon in 1808 after it became a place for royalist pilgrims to visit, and then turned into the Square du Temple garden by Haussmann in 1857).

The Convention

The Austiran and Prussian armies occupy more of France in August 1792 and with more rumours circulating of royalist treason, a panic gripped many revolutionaries.

Between September 2 and September 7 1792 a group of 200-300 people travelled round Paris’ nine jails murdering some 1,300 people on the basis that many of them were plotting to restore the King to full power. The reality was that most of those killed were common law prisoners rather than political or royalist prisoners and the event became known as the September Massacres.

Initially the Girondins accused the Montagnards (the leftist ‘Mountain’ deputies) and the Paris Commune of being responsible for the bloodletting. Later, the Montagnards accused the Girondins of having provoked ir.

The elections to the Convention also started on September 2 and lasted until September 19 1792. For the first time they were held by universal male suffrage with 21 years of age, living in the area for a year, earning income and not being a servant the eligibility criteria. While the electorate doubled by comparison with September 1791, participation only rose from 10% to just below 12%.

Voting took place at mass meetings held throughout the country in areas not occupied by the Prussians and Austrians. The delegates elected for two-year terms came from different political tendencies, according both to their local notoriety and their national political positions.

One of the exceptions who was elected was Thomas Paine. In London on February 16 1792 he had published the Rights of Man in London. This pamphlet sold half a million copies denouncing Edmund Burke’s critique of the French Revolution. As a result he had been given French nationality by the Assembly and was then elected to the Convention from the Pas-de-Calais department. Prosecuted for sedition in England he fled to France on September 13, shortly before his trial was due to begin.

The revolutionaries elected to the Convention were divided. The Montagnards gave greater consideration to the interests of working people. The economic liberals, now known as Girondins, were closer to the merchant classes. In the middle were less ideological deputies whose support moved from one side to the other.

The First Republic

On September 20 1792, the day before the National Convention opened in Paris, French troops won their first major victory over the Prussians. The Battle of Valmy, 200 kilometres to the East of Paris, gave the Convention the psychological boost it needed to declare the end of the constitutional monarchy and to establish the Republic.

The intended religious altar in the centre of the Panthéon was finally filled in 1920 by Sicard’s secular monument to the glory of the National Convention.

The vote to abolish the monarchy on September 21 1792 was unanimous. The next day the Convention declared France a Republic and decided to rename September 22 1792, ‘The Day of Reason’, the first day of a new Republic calendar, 1er vendémiaire of Year 1. In the Occitan language, which was spoken throughout the southern part of France, the word vendemiaire meant a person who participated in the grape harvest. Fortuitously, this was the first day of the Autumnal equinox.

Arguments began immediately about whether to put the King on trial. The Girondins initially opposed this, since they feared it would provide fuel to the counter-revolution in France and in France’s neighbouring monarchies.

On November 20 1792, however, the results of a search of the Tuileries Palace that had found a hidden iron safe behind a sliding panel were shown to the Convention. Some of Louis and Marie-Antoinette’s correspondence and evidence of the Royals’ attempt to bribe deputies and leaders of revolutionary clubs became public knowledge. Louis’ trial then became inevitable.

The trial of Citizen Louis Capet for treason and conspiracy against the State began on December 10 and ended on December 26 1792.

On Tuesday January 15 1793 the National Convention delegates formulated the first two questions it would put to the vote:

(1) Is Louis guilty of conspiracy against public freedom and of of acting against the State, yes or no? 673 voted yes to 45 abstentions or other statements. 31 deputies were absent out of the 749.

(2) Should the National Convention’s decision be submitted for ratification to the people, yes or no? 286 voted yes, of whom 109 explained why; but 423 voted no, with 116 giving explanations.

Then the deputies turned to the key question: (3) What punishment should Louis suffer?

Voting and speeches took place for over 24 hours, from 6 pm on January 16 to 7 pm in the evening of January 17 1792. 361 then voted unconditionally for the death penalty; 26 for death but with a discussion first of its timing; 44 voted for death but for it to be suspended; 290 voted for other penalties.

Finally, a fourth question was put. (4) Should the judgement on Louis be suspended? 310 voted yes, while 380 voted no. Louis was then executed in the Place de la Revolution on January 21 1793.

First Revolutionary War

Initially the enthusiasm of the new Republic’s national guard volunteers allowed the French armies to mount offensives on all fronts. Nice was taken and after the victory at Jemappes the key European port of Anvers, followed by the Savoie.

The radical Cordeliers club associated with Danton, Marat and Hebert popularised the slogan Liberte Egalite Fraternite or Death. This print is dated December 31 1792

Yet once France had executed the King the anti-French coalition broadened. The French ambassador to London was told to leave on January 24 1793, and on February 1 1793 the Convention declared war on Great Britain. France especially wanted to control the major European currency exchange bank, the Bank of Amsterdam.

On February 23 1793 the Convention decided to conscript 300,000 single men aged 18-25. France then had only 200,000 soldiers in ten armies. the conscription aimed to replenish the losses that had already incurred and the return to their homes of many of the volunteers who felt the job was done once the invaders had been pushed back beyond the frontiers.

Conscription worked. By July the army had 500,000 men. But the first six months of 1793 saw the Convention back on the defensive. And there was a price to pay.

Yet the first mass conscription was opposed by large numbers of peasants and triggered a civil war in the strongly Catholic north-west, especially the Vendée, but also where royalists were still influential. Rioting by young men at the balloting meetings to decide who would be conscripted broke out in several other towns throughout France.

Britain then waged a land war by proxy, hiring continental armies to do its fighting while using its naval power to blockade France and to seize French colonies. Spain withdrew its ambassador and the Convention declared war on it on March 7 1793.

After rioting in Paris against food shortages, on March 10 1793 the Convention voted narrowly to re-establish an extraordinary legal Revolutionary Tribunal. Supported by Robespierre, Danton argued against the danger of a repeat of the September massacres of 1792: ‘Let us be terrible, so that the people will not have to be‘. Comprising five judges and 12 jurymen it began sitting at the Justice Palace on April 6.

In the following 15 months in 4,021 cases it condemned 2,585 to death and acquitted 1,306 people.

The external military situation also turned against revolutionary France in the spring of 1793 . After General Dumouriez, a supporter of the Girondin leaders of the Convention, lost the Battle of Neerwinden on March 18, Dumouriez and the young future King Louis-Philippe, the son of the king’s cousin, the Duke of Orléans Philippe Égalité, defected to the Austrians.

Immediately after learning of Dumouriez’s threat to march on Paris and unseat the Convention, on April 6 1793 its Girondin and Montagnard wings united to set up a Comité de salut public. But on the proposal of the centrists, they decided to elect nine of its members to a governing executive. The nine included the Montagnard Georges Danton (with the fifth highest vote). There were four other Montagnards, two Girondin members and two centrists from what was called the Maraisard (The Plain).

Faced with treachery in the army and an internal civil war, the Convention decided to established a Committee of Public Safety on April 6 1793

Paris radicalises

Dumouriez’s treachery took place in a recession when unemployment was rising with inflation hitting the roof. In Paris a radical priest, Jacques Roux denounced the Convention for failing to fulfill the promise of the French Revolution for ordinary workers. The group of which he was a figurehead became known as the Enragés (The Furious). They mobilised working class men and women demanding controls on the price of bread and other necessities and for action against ‘treasonable’ speculators and monopolies.

Many of the most radical workers and political activists joined the Cordeliers club that from 1791 met in the large hall of the Paris Museum in the Rue Dauphine in left-bank Paris. Called the Cordeliers after the monastery of that name in the Rue de l’École-de-Médecine where they met until the repression that followed the Champ de Mars massacre.

Most Montagnards, including Marat, opposed the enragés for their ‘subversive’ demands. Similarly to the Girondin, the Montagnards believed private property was sacred. Only after thousands of sans culottes demonstrated outside the Convention on May 4 1793 did the Montagnards support the introduction of price controls on grains and flour.

Danton, meanwhile, secretely used his position as responsible for foreign affairs in the Committee of Public Safety to try and negotiate a peace with the invading Coalition. He was prepared to offer the release of Marie-Antoinette, but not the withdrawal from the conquered lands. The coalition monarchies were not interested: they believed they could dismantle France.

In the growing tensions over price rises and the direction of the war, on May 13 1793 two supporters of the Enragés, Pauline Léon, a chocolate maker, and Claire Lacombe, an actress, founded the Women’s Revolutionary Republican Society. They led a delegation to the Convention on June 2 demanding women be admitted.

Pauline Leon of the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women

On May 10 1793 the Convention moved its meeting place from the over-crowded Salle du Manège to the now vacant Tuileries Palace’s Salle des Machines. This was a huge theatre hall with room for at least 6,000 people, including public galleries. The presence and participation through heckling and applause of the Paris working class public exercised a new form of democratic influence over debates.

For the nine months since the September 1792 massacres the ‘left’ Montagnards had been continuously challenging the Girondin constitutional monarchist ‘right’. The Girondin stepped up their attacks on the enragés as ‘anarchists’. On May 24 1793 they won a Convention majority to arrest the radical journalist Jacques-René Hébert. He was a supporter of the Montagnard with a huge following among the Parisian working class, and a member of the Paris Commune.

On May 26 1793 the Girondin leadership of the Convention threatened repression in Paris rather than release Hébert. From prison Hébert then drafted a poster for his paper, le Père Duchesne, that was plastered throughout Paris calling for working people to rise up against the Girondin deputies.

Robespierre’s Montagnard insurrection

Robespierre then called on the Montagnard Jacobins to organise an insurrection. On May 31 a 25-strong central revolutionary committee was formed from delegates of the Paris Commune sections, with an additional 15 representatives from the Commune and the Departments. It organised a massive show of strength outside and inside the Convention. A petition calling for the Girondin leaders to be excluded, suspects to be arrested and the creation of a revolutionary army was presented. Its demands were largely rejected.

On Sunday June 2 1793 some 80,000 national guard and citizens surrounded the Convention and trained canon on it. This time those present agreed to the arrests of 39 leading Girondins. Other Girondin deputies still at liberty then called for ‘federalist’ uprisings against the Montagnards. They were called ‘federalist’ because the Girondins, hating the significance of Paris in shaping central policy, argued that the 83 French departments should carry equal weight within a French Confederation.

Faced with insurrections organised by the Girondins (federalists), by the war in the Vendée, which occurred intermittently from 1793 to 1796, by military defeats fighting the First Coalition, assassination attempts on Robespierre and on Jean-Marie Collot d’Herbois as well as an economic recession, the Montagnards decided to create a dictatorship.

In near absolute power after the coup of June 2 1793 the Montagnards initially tried to win broader support. They began to legislate in the interests of the Paris workers and poor peasants, but without making any concessions on their support for economic liberalism.

On June 3 1793 the purged Convention passed a law stating that the auctions of property seized from the emigrés should be done in small bits so that poorer peasants could buy them and that they could have up to 10 years to pay for them. Later, on July 26 1793 it voted to introduce the death penalty for those monopolisers who hoarded food to sell it later at a higher price.

Danton soon came under increasing criticism from Marat and Robespierre for his apparent inaction on the governing Committee of Public Safety. On June 10 the Convention added 3 Robespierre supporters and one of Danton’s friends to the Committee. This Committee, re-elected every month, was France’s government for the next year.

On June 24 1793 the Convention agreed a new French Constitution. This saw insurrection as a right and a duty if the government violates the rights of the people. It also abolished slavery. It also declared that people have social and economic rights to associate, meet, work, to have assistance and education.

Political power over law-making was to be devolved in an entirely radical way. Government would be direct and by universal male suffrage. Primary assemblies of between 200 and 600 voters who had lived in the locality for at least six months would vote on all laws to be put to the National Assembly. Only those laws winning a majority of all departments in which no more than 10% of primaries had rejected the proposal would be enacted. These primary assemblies would also annually delegates to the national assembly.

Put to the first ever French referendum in July 1793, it was endorsed. But there were over 5 million abstentions men who did not attend the mass meetings where voting took place – out of the estimated 7 million electorate. This bottom-up constitution was, however, never given the time to be implemented.

On July 10 a new governing Committee was elected. Danton does not defend his record in office and steps down. Of the new Comité de salut public six were Montagnards and three ‘centrists’ from the ‘Plain‘. Two weeks later Robespierre took the place of one of the Plain members.

Forced to stay at home by his illness, Marat no longer played an active part in the Convention. However, his assassination by Charlotte Corday, a supporter of the Girondins on July 17 1793, created enormous anger and intensified the sense of paranoia felt by the Montagnards leading the Convention.

Marat was 50 when he was murdered by Charlotte Corday on July 17 1793. Jacques-Louis David‘s ikonising painting, The Death of Marat, now hangs in the Louvre. It presents him as a heroic young man without any traces of the debilitating skin disease from which he suffered and had so incapacitated him he rarely left the bath he had transformed into his writing desk.

The war was going badly that summer. On August 27 Toulon was captured by Royalists supported by the French and British navies. This military disaster took place just a few days after a new mass conscription was ordered on August 23. Every single or married man without children between the ages of 18 and 25 was required to join the army, increasing its size to three-quarters of a million men.

Working-class riots in Paris also kept up the pressure on the Montagnards to intervene in the economy. On July 26 the Convention voted for the death penalty to be carried out on speculators in food. After another people’s invasion of the Convention on September 4 and September 5 1793, the Convection agreed to raise a Parisian revolutionary army, to requisition stocks of flour and the means of transporting it to Paris.

The Convention also voted to strengthen the Montagnard numbers on the governing Committee of Public Safety.

The Terror

From September 5 1793 the third Committee of Public Safety (Comité de salut public) centralised government power in its hands. It was initially made up of ten Montagnard and two Plain members. Bertrand Barère, a surviving Feuillant who had also voted to execute the king was one of these. He had a reputation for running with whoever was likely to win a vote. The average age of this French governing committee was just over 30, and Robespierre became its principal spokesman.

The radical priest Jacques Roux was arrested immediately, and the other leading Enragés speakers like Claire Lacombe went into hiding.

On September 17 1793 a Law of Suspects formally installed terror in France. Suspects of treason now included all the enemies of the Revolution and people in their families: aristocrats, emigres, priests who refused to take the oath of allegiance to the French nation, the Federalists (Girondins) and speculators.

The terror was initially implemented by the Committee of General Security and Surveillance (Comité de sûreté générale et de surveillance). All of its 12 members were Montagnards, most of them sympathetic to the radical workers’ demands for government intervention in favour of the poor and to Hébert.

The Comité de sûreté générale had responsibilities for investigations, arrests, interrogations, prisons and ‘revolutionary justice’. The Law of Suspects also required local Committees of Revolutionary Surveillance present in most local areas to regularly send it the files of all people arrested.

Some 130 people worked in the offices of the Committee of General Security in the Brionne town house (demolished in 1808). The Hotel Brionne was connected by a covered passageway to the Tuileries Palace, where the National Convention now met. The governing Committee of Public Safety was based in the former apartments of Marie-Antoinette on the Palace ground floor facing the garden.

There was just enough physical separation between the two most important Convention committees to allow political and power tensions between them to emerge when the external threat that had united them in 1793 began to diminish.

Calm before the storm?

On September 11 the Convention established maximum prices for flour and grain and on September 29, after another food riot, it fixed maximum prices for 39 commodities in daily use.

With newly mobilised men joining the army the war situation began to improve. As early as September 8 the Republican victory at the battle of Hondschoote relieved Dunkirk and slowed the Coalition invasion. This was a turning point. On October 15-16 another battle was won at Wattignies and the northern frontier of France was effectively secured.

The ex-Queen Marie-Antoinette was executed on October 16 for high treason after a two-day trial by the Revolutionary Tribunal. During the trial Hébert, as Paris municipal official responsible for the prisoners in the Temple, claimed on the strength of an interrogation of her nine-year-old son by the Committee of General Security that she had committed incest.

Growing in confidence, the government began to deal with its political rivals. The Girondins (to the ‘right’) who had largely opposed executing Louis VI had been evicted from the Convention and their rebellion suppressed. Twenty-two Girondins were guillotined on November 1 1793. They went to the guillotine singing the Marseillaise. The leading Enragés figures who demanded action against poverty were in prison or in hiding.

In the last three months of 1793 the Revolutionary Tribunal sentenced 177 to death.

Other victories in December 1793 against the Austrians and Prussians, as well as against the Spanish, put the Coalition armies on the defensive in the winter of 1793/1794.

At the same the internal revolts ran out of steam. Marseille was retaken in August, Bordeaux in September, Lyon in October and Toulon, finally, in December. The Vendee royalist revolt was also suppressed, but with an even greater level of brutality that it refuelled outbreaks of resistance that recurred over the next three years. Several thousand rebels and priests were drowned or shot in Nantes alone.

Revolutionary faction fights

The remaining internal threats within the Convention to Robespierre’s government all came from Jacobin Montagnards. There were those like Danton who believed the Revolution no longer needed the Terror to survive. They were called the ‘indulgents’. And there were those demanding the Revolution go much further in attacking wealth and privilege. Called the ‘exaggerators‘ they were now mainly sans culottes and supporters of Hébert, Marat’s successor in terms of radical revolutionary popularity.

Robespierre moved to consolidate the revolutionary bourgeois regime in three ways. He reduced the power of the sans culottes workers to force anti-property measures through the Convention. This meant curbing or suppressing the mobilising capacity of Paris’ working class districts and then beheading (literally as well as figuratively) the Hébertists and other critics.

Robespierre also challenged the widespread deChristianisation agitation he considered was both a cover for the corrupt practices of its promoters, and a fuel for wider external and internal opposition to the Revolution. This led Robespierre to try to resurrect belief in God and Providence creating the Cult of the Supreme Being as an alternative belief system both to the Catholic Church and to atheism and the Hébertists’ Cult of Reason.

After Danton and Desmoulins had supported Robespierre’s attacks on the Hébertists, Robespierre then turned on the ‘indulgents’.

The elimination of most of the leading Montagnard Jacobins took nearly six months and required the increased centralisation of power in the nine-men Committee of Public Safety where Robespierre’s dominant personality held sway.

On October 10 1793 the Convention suspended the new constitution until peace was restored. Until then France would be run by its revolutionary war-time government, the Comité de salut public.

On October 30 1793 all women’s clubs were dissolved after the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women became more critical of the Montagnards for not implementing more of the Enragés’ demands. Only one deputy to the Convention, the Montagnard Louis-Joseph Charlier, spoke against the law banning women-only associations.

In November 1793 after the guillotining of the Girondins disagreements surfaced about the direction and pace of revolutionary change.

Hébert and his supporters were very influential within the Paris Commune, supporting the Cult of Reason. On November 10 the elected Paris prosecutor, Pierre-Gaspard Chaumette, organised a ‘Festival of Reason’ in Notre-Dame Cathedral. On November 23 the Paris Commune decreed that all the Churches in Paris should be closed. Notre-Dame became the ‘Temple de la Raison‘.

The invitation to the whole Convention to attend the Festival of Reason in Notre Dame Cathedral on November 10 1793 was opposed by Robespierre. He attacked its atheism and the DeChristianisation campaign. Only a minority of Convention delegates then went to Notre Dame.

Robespierre then formed a temporary and fragile political alliance with Danton and Desmoulins. They, like Robespierre, were strongly opposed to Hébert’s ‘ultra-revolutionary’ demands and to the DeChristianisation movement.

Danton also began to speak out against the Terror. On December 2 1793 he argued ‘we must save men’s blood’ and proposed setting up a ‘leniency’ committee to review sentences. Believing it was time to end the terror and make peace, he and his supporters became known as the ‘indulgents’.

On December 4 1793 the Comité de salut public introduced a provisional constitution that disbanded the ‘revolutionary departmental armies’ and local revolutionary tribunals. This deprived the much more radical Hebertists of their local military strength and legal power. The Provisional Constitution also made the Convention the only governing power, thereby emasculating the power of the Paris Commune and other municipal governing bodies.

With the support of Danton on December 6 the Convention confirmed its support for religious freedom and a few days later two leading Hébertists were arrested.

Paris 1794

On February 4 1794 (16 pluviose an II) the Convention passed a law abolishing slavery in the colonies considered ‘a crime against humanity’, although it said nothing about the slave trade. This law followed the August 29 and September 21 1793 local decisions by the Girdondin Civil Commissioners in Saint Domingue, Sonthonax and Polverel, to decree the freedom of the slaves in France’s richest colony. At that moment the island was on the verge of falling to the English and Royalist forces and many of its slaves were already fighting for their freedom under Toussaint Louverture.

Abolition was supported by all three Montagnard factions in the Convention, Robespierre’s, Danton’s and Hébert’s. Robespierre had been the only delegate to condemn the earlier ‘compromise’ of May 15 1791 that had given free-born colonial men full political rights, but had denied them to slaves and had maintained the slave trade.

At the time food shortages were widespread in a freezing cold Paris. The peasantry and shopkeepers had reacted to price controls by watering wine and diluting flour with other ingredients. The Convention, which had abolished Lent a year earlier, introduced a ‘civic fast’ using the argument that it was good for the individual and the Revolution not to eat fatty foods in February and March.

In the Cordeliers club Hébert argued for extending the terror from wholesalers to shop keepers and for sending out a revolutionary army to requisition food. Robespierre responded with accusations of corruption against the Cordeliers leaders and prepared to undermine working class opposition to their arrests by passing laws ensuring that the property of traitors would be sold and given directly to ‘poor patriots’.

In February and March the Hébertists first tried to win over the Jacobins to take even stronger action, and then to convince the Convention. Failing in both, on March 4 they called for a sans-culottes insurrection against the inaction of the Committee of Public Safety. but could not win the support of the Paris Commune.

Germinal 1794

On March 13 a report by Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, at 26 the youngest representative elected to the Convention, accused the Hébertists of creating a false famine in order to seize power led to the arrests of 20 of their leaders. All except one (who had provided inside information) were executed on March 24 (4 Germinal An II) after a rigged trial in which they were accused of plotting with the English.

On March 23 another report by Saint-Just was passed by the Convention. It denounced factions supporting France’s enemies, without listing names, and was described as the last purge of the Convention that would be needed. It was clearly aimed at the ‘indulgents’, the remaining opposition faction challenging Robespierre.

On March 30, the Hébertists on the Committee of General Security demanded and got the arrests of the ‘moderates’. Danton, Desmoulins and another 13 were accused of speculation and guillotined after another rigged trial on April 5 (16 Germinal An II) .

On April 13 the final act of Germinal ended with the executions of the widows of Desmoulins and Hébert and another 27 assorted condemned oppositionists. In total around 60 were executed during the Germinal purge, including nine Convention deputies.

Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety thus executed the entire leadership of the Cordeliers Club, which had been the most steadfast supporter of workers’ rights and the radicalisation of the Revolution. Perhaps unintentionally, it thus cut its links with the popular base that had mobilised in August 1792 to bring the Jacobins to power, to establish the Republic and to execute the King.

Without opposition, Robespierre then set about ending the deChristianisation agitation. On May 7 1794 his report to the Convention was adopted. It created a calender of republic festivals that would substitute for Catholic holidays. asserting his own deism and the Cult of the Supreme Being.

On May 7 1794 the Convention decreed that ‘The French people recognise the Supreme Being and the Immortality of the Soul’. The 1789 statement of the rights of man itself had begun: ‘The National Assembly recognises and declares in the presence and under the auspices of the Supreme Being, the following rights of man and of the citizen’.

The painter and member of the Committee of General Security, Jacques-Louis David, organised the only festival that was actually held, the one on June 8 1794. In Paris it began at the round basin at the eastern end of the Tuileries Garden. A huge monster portraying Atheism floated in the centre, surrounded by figures representing Ambition, Egoism, Discord and False Simplicity. Robespierre dressed in a sky blue suit covered by a tricolour scarf, set fire to the display which, when it had burnt down, revealed a statue of Wisdom.

Robespierre, as President of the Convention from June 4 to June 19, then led the deputies across the Seine to the Champs de Mars. Many commentators present recorded how some of the deputies refused to walk in step, chatted and sneered at Robespierre. Some of the public heckled. Although the event attracted possibly more than one in five of Paris’ population of 600,000, the impression it gave of Robespierre as ‘Pope’ to the ‘supreme being’, helped undermine support for him.

Huge crowds attend the Festival of the Supreme Being, held on June 8 1794, the same day as the banned Catholic Trinity Sunday. The painting by Pierre-Antoine Demarchy shows the statue Wisdom being pulled towards the holy mountain on which the Liberty Tree stands.

9 & 10 Thermidor 1794

In the absence of organised factional opposition the Republic was under threat. This was despite the continued success of the revolutionary armies, and the massacres in the Vendee of at least 20,000 people with hundreds of villages burnt to the ground.

Robespierre further concentrated power within the governing Committee of Public Safety by creating a Police Bureau separate from the Committee of General Security.

On June 10 1794, as the prisons in Paris began to overflow as a result of the decision to scrap local revolutionary Tribunals, Robespierre introduced the Law of 22 Prairial. After some hesitation this was passed, considerably shortening trials and sentencing.

In future no witnesses could appear. The jury would decide its verdict after hearing only the accusation and the accused’s self-defence. This was presented as introducing equality into the justice system, ensuring that people without money to employe lawyers would have the same rights as aristorcats.

The Tribunal’s verdict could only be either aquittal or death. And of greatest concern to the Convention deputies, their protection from summary arrest was removed. Previously they could only be arrested after a debate at the Convention.

The execution rate increased immediately. In the month of Germinal 155 death sentences were announced. Over the next three months the numbers went up from 354 to 509 and 796, and in the first ten of the 30 days of Thermidor, before Robespierre’s arrest, there were 342 executions.

So many, indeed, that four days after the Law of the Great Terror, the guillotine was moved there from the Place de la Revolution to the Place du Trône-Renversé. The average of 30 bodies a day were thrown into communal graves in the nearby Picpus Cemetery dug for the purpose at the end of a Convent garden. The names of the 197 women and 1,109 men buried there, half of them ordinary people, many of whom had participated in demonstrations and strikes against rising prices and starvation, are now on plaques in the chapel now on the site.

A lengthy debate has taken place about whether the ‘great terror’ was Robespierre’s sole or principal responsibility. Some evidence suggests it was not. When called a dictator, Robespierre stormed out of the Public Safety Committee on June 27 after it refused to support his demand for the recall of the main prosecutor, Antoine Foughier-Tinville. Robespierre felt he was too close to the Public Security Committee, still showing the influence of the Hebertists. Robespierre did not return to a meeting of the government until July 23 1794, 5 Thermidor.

He only spoke once more at the Convention. On July 26 he admitted responsibility for the June 10 law, but argued that it had been taken too far by his opponents. He called for purging of the Committee of General Security and of certain members of the Committee of Public Safety. In the same speech he opposed proposals to abolish the life insurance revenues that many wealthy men received when they loaned out money, arguing that this would set several ‘good citizens’ against the Revolution.

Robespierre had effectively forged an unholy alliance against himself. The Jacobin sympathisers with the executed Danton and Hébert as well as the Girdondins opponents of the Montagne all felt they were being targeted. During the night of 8 thermidor an alliance was created with a strategy to prevent Robespierre and his supporters from speaking to the Convention.

The next day, 9 thermidor an II (July 27 1794) a Danton supporter Louis Louchet moved a motion to arrest Robespierre. The Marais/La Plaine deputies, tired of the terror and no longer concerned about external threats to the Revolution following the June 26 French victory at the battle of Fleurus, voted in favour.

At 5 pm the news of the arrests broke and at the Hotel de Ville the Paris Commune voted for an insurrection and forbade all Paris prisons from holding Robespierre, his brother Augustin, Saint-Just, Couthon and another eight deputies who had associated themselves with those arrested.

Initially several of those arrested were freed by the troops that rallied to the Commune and made their way to the Hotel de Ville. But only a small number of sans-culottes mobilised alongside them, and Robespierre himself did not decide to participate in an illegal insurrection until it was too late.

Two columns of National Guard sent by the Convention arrived at the Hotel de Ville at 2 am in the morning, by which time most of its defenders had gone home. One of Robespierre’s supporters committed suicide. Robespierre is wounded. They are all taken to the Conciergerie, the prison of the former palace on the Isle du Cite.

Without a trial at 4.30 pm in the afternoon of July 28 1794 (10 thermidor) Robespierre and another 20 supporters were taken in carts to the Place de la Revolution. When they passed the address where Robespierre lived in the Rue St Honore, blood is sprayed onto the house. The guillotine started to fall at 6.15 pm. Maximillien Robespierre was the second to last to die.

The next day another 71 supporters, largely those who formed the Insurrectional Paris Commune, were also guillotined. Three more supporters died between then and early September. Then the Terror ended.

A contemporary print of Robespierre’s execution on 10 Thermidor 1794. 71 are executed the next day and three more in August and September. The Revolutionary Tribunal and the June 10 Law are abolished over the next two weeks.


Rue de l’Odéon

Arrondissement 6

Numbers: 7, 10, 12, 22

Rue de l Odeon photographed in 1905 from the steps of the Theatre. The bust of the playwright Emile Augier in the centre of the square was melted down in 1942 to be turned into German guns

The gently climbing slope from the crossroads with the Boulevard St Germain up to what is now called the Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe, was opened up in 1779 as the rue du Théâtre Français. The theatre at the southern top of the slope was built between 1779 and 1782 in the garden of the huge Hôtel de Condé private house, owned by a junior branch of the Bourbons.

Thanks to the opening of the theatre, in 1782 the road was the very first in Paris to be given pavements with gutters running next to them. It was given its current name in 1797 under the Directorate.

A watercolour and ink painting by a contemporary JD Periel of the fire at the Odeon Theatre on March 20 1818

The surrealist poets André Breton and Louis Aragon first met each other in 1917 at No. 7, the bookshop called ‘The Friends of Books’ (Maison des Amis des Livres). This bookshop was also frequented by Jacques Prévert. On March 19 1918 Breton and Aragon launched their magazine, Littérature, from there.  Among the other literary left figures who wrote for it were André Gide and Paul Valéry.

The bookshop’s owner, Adrienne Monnier, held a launch party at No. 7 for James Joyce‘s novel Ulysses on December 7 1922.

No. 10 was where Thomas Paine lived from 1797 to 1802, when, describing Bonaparte ‘as the biggest charlatan the world as ever seen’, he took the opportunity of a brief peace with England to leave Paris for America.

Tom Paine lived for five years at No. 10 Rue de l’Odeon. While initially hoping Bonaparte would spread freedom throughout Europe he quickly became disillusioned, and left France at the earliest opportunity in 1802.

Next door was another famous bookshop. No 12 was the first site of the English-language bookshop Shakespeare & Company. Owned by an American, Sylvia Beach, it became a major draw for radical writers living in Paris in the interwar years such as Hemingway, James Joyce and Simone de Beauvoir.

Shakespeare and Co at No 12 with Sylvia Beach and Ernest Hemingway on the right around 1922

Further up the street, on March 31 1794, this was where at No. 22 rue du Théâtre Français that Camille Desmoulins was arrested. He had lived there since 1782. He was executed with Danton on April 5. His wife, Lucile, was executed a week later. They had married in 1790 with Robespierre a witness who in 1792 became their son’s godfather.


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