🤩 Discover new information from across the web

French Revolution

Social and political revolution in France

Top 10 French Revolution related articles

French Revolution
Part of the Atlantic Revolutions
The Storming of the Bastille, 14 July 1789
Date5 May 1789 – 9 November 1799 (1789-05-05 – 1799-11-09)
(10 years, 6 months and 4 days)
LocationKingdom of France
Outcome

The French Revolution (French: Révolution française [ʁevɔlysjɔ̃ fʁɑ̃sɛːz]) refers to the period that began with the Estates General of 1789 and ended in November 1799 with the formation of the French Consulate. Many of its ideas are considered fundamental principles of Western liberal democracy.[1]

Between 1700 and 1789, the French population increased from 18 million to 26 million, leading to large numbers of unemployed, accompanied by sharp increases in food prices caused by years of bad harvests.[2] Widespread social distress led to the convocation of the Estates General in May 1789, the first since 1614. In June, the Estates were converted into a National Assembly, which passed a series of radical measures, among them the abolition of feudalism, state control of the Catholic Church and extending the right to vote.

The next three years were dominated by the struggle for political control, exacerbated by economic depression and social unrest. External powers like Austria, Britain and Prussia viewed the Revolution as a threat, leading to the outbreak of the French Revolutionary Wars in April 1792. Disillusionment with Louis XVI led to the establishment of the First French Republic on 22 September 1792, followed by his execution in January 1793. In June, an uprising in Paris replaced the Girondins who dominated the National Assembly with the Committee of Public Safety, headed by Maximilien Robespierre.

This sparked the Reign of Terror, an attempt to eradicate alleged "counter-revolutionaries"; by the time it ended in July 1794, over 16,600 had been executed in Paris and the provinces. As well as external enemies, the Republic faced a series of internal Royalist and Jacobin revolts; in order to deal with these, the French Directory took power in November 1795. Despite military success, the war led to economic stagnation and internal divisions, and in November 1799 the Directory was replaced by the Consulate.

Many Revolutionary symbols such as La Marseillaise and phrases like Liberté, égalité, fraternité reappeared in other revolts, such as the 1917 Russian Revolution.[3] Over the next two centuries, its key principles like equality would inspire campaigns for the abolition of slavery and universal suffrage.[4] Its values and institutions dominate French politics to this day, and many historians regard the Revolution as one of the most important events in recent history.[5]

French Revolution Intro articles: 20

Causes

Louis XVI, who came to the throne in 1774

Historians generally view the underlying causes of the French Revolution as the result of the Ancien Régime's failure to manage social and economic inequality. Rapid population growth and the inability to adequately finance government debt resulted in economic depression, unemployment and high food prices.[6] These combined with a regressive tax system and resistance to reform by the ruling elite to produce a crisis Louis XVI proved unable to manage.[7][8]

From the late 17th century on, political and cultural debate became part of wider European society, rather than being confined to a small elite. This took different forms, such as the English 'coffeehouse culture', and extended to areas colonised by Europeans, particularly British North America. Contacts between diverse groups in Edinburgh, Geneva, Boston, Amsterdam, Paris, London or Vienna were much greater than often appreciated.[9]

Transnational elites who shared ideas and styles were not new; what changed was their extent and the numbers involved.[10] Under Louis XIV, the Court at Versailles was the centre of culture, fashion and political power. Improvements in education and literacy over the course of the 18th century meant larger audiences for newspapers and journals, with Masonic lodges, coffee houses and reading clubs providing areas where people could debate and discuss ideas. The emergence of this so-called "public sphere" led to Paris replacing Versailles as the cultural and intellectual centre, leaving the Court isolated and less able to influence opinion.[11]

In addition to these social changes, the French population grew from 18 million in 1700 to 26 million in 1789, making it the most populous state in Europe; Paris had over 600,000 inhabitants, of whom roughly one third were either unemployed or had no regular work.[12] Inefficient agricultural methods meant domestic farmers could not support these numbers, while primitive transportation networks made it hard to maintain supplies even when there was sufficient. As a result, food prices rose by 65% between 1770 and 1790, yet real wages increased by only 22%.[13] Food shortages were particularly damaging for the regime, since many blamed price increases on government failure to prevent profiteering.[14] By the spring of 1789, a poor harvest followed by a severe winter had created a rural peasantry with nothing to sell, and an urban proletariat whose purchasing power had collapsed.[15]

By 1789, France was the most populous country in Europe.

The other major drag on the economy was state debt. Traditional views of the French Revolution often attribute the financial crisis to the costs of the 1778–1783 Anglo-French War, but modern economic studies show this is only a partial explanation. In 1788, the ratio of debt to gross national income in France was 55.6%, compared to 181.8% in Britain, and although French borrowing costs were higher, the percentage of revenue devoted to interest payments was roughly the same in both countries.[16] One historian concludes "neither the level of French state debt in 1788, or its previous history, can be considered an explanation for the outbreak of revolution in 1789".[17]

The problem was French taxes were predominantly paid by the urban and rural poor, while attempts to share the burden more equally were blocked by the regional parlements which controlled financial policy.[18] The resulting impasse in the face of widespread economic distress led to the calling of the Estates-General, which became radicalised by the struggle for control of public finances.[19]

Although not indifferent to the crisis, when faced with opposition Louis tended to back down.[20] The court became the target of popular anger, especially Queen Marie-Antoinette, who was viewed as a spendthrift Austrian spy, and blamed for the dismissal of 'progressive' ministers like Jacques Necker. For their opponents, Enlightenment ideas on equality and democracy provided an intellectual framework for dealing with these issues, while the American Revolution was seen as confirmation of their practical application.[21]

French Revolution Causes articles: 25

Crisis of the Ancien Régime

Financial crisis

The regional Parlements in 1789; note area covered by the Parlement de Paris

The French state faced a series of budgetary crisis during the 18th century, caused primarily by structural deficiencies rather than lack of resources. Unlike Britain, where Parliament determined both expenditures and taxes, in France, the Crown controlled spending, but not revenue.[22] National taxes could only be approved by the Estates-General, which had not sat since 1614; its revenue functions had been assumed by regional parlements, the most powerful being the Parlement de Paris' (see Map).[23]

Although willing to authorise one-time taxes, these bodies were reluctant to pass long-term measures, while collection was outsourced to private individuals. This significantly reduced the yield from those that were approved and as a result, France struggled to service its debt despite being larger and wealthier than Britain.[22] Following partial default in 1770, reforms were instituted by Turgot, the Finance Minister, which by 1776 had balanced the budget and reduced government borrowing costs from 12% per year to under 6%. Despite this success, he was dismissed in May 1776 after arguing France could not afford intervention in North America.[24]

He was succeeded by Swiss Protestant Jacques Necker, who was replaced in 1781 by Charles de Calonne.[25] The war was financed by state debt, creating a large rentier class who lived on the interest, primarily members of the French nobility or commercial classes. By 1785 the government was struggling to cover these payments and since default would ruin much of French society, this meant increasing taxes. When the parlements refused to comply, Calonne persuaded Louis to summon the Assembly of Notables, an advisory council dominated by the upper nobility. The council refused, arguing this could only be approved by the Estates, and in May 1787 Calonne was replaced by the man responsible, de Brienne, a former archbishop of Toulouse.[26] [a] By 1788, debt owed by the French Crown totalled an unprecedented 4.5 billion livres, while devaluing the coinage caused runaway inflation.[28] In an effort to resolve the crisis, Necker was re-appointed Finance Minister in August 1788 but was unable to reach agreement on how to increase revenue and in May 1789 Louis summoned the Estates-General in an effort to break the deadlock.[29]

Estates-General of 1789

Caricature of the Third Estate carrying the First Estate (clergy) and the Second Estate (nobility) on its back

The Estates-General was divided into three parts; the First for members of the clergy, Second for the nobility, and Third for the "commons".[30] Each sat separately, enabling the First and Second Estates to outvote the Third, despite representing less than 5% of the population, while both were largely exempt from tax.[31]

In the 1789 elections, the First Estate returned 303 deputies, representing 100,000 Catholic clergy; nearly 10% of French lands were owned directly by individual bishops and monasteries, in addition to tithes paid by peasants.[32] More than two-thirds of the clergy lived on less than 500 livres per year, and were often closer to the urban and rural poor than those elected for the Third Estate, where voting was restricted to male French taxpayers, aged 25 or over.[33] As a result, half of the 610 deputies elected to the Third Estate in 1789 were lawyers or local officials, nearly a third businessmen, while fifty-one were wealthy land owners.[34]

The Second Estate elected 291 deputies, representing about 400,000 men and women, who owned about 25% of the land and collected seigneurial dues and rents from their tenants. Like the clergy, this was not a uniform body, and was divided into the noblesse d'épée, or traditional aristocracy, and the noblesse de robe. The latter derived rank from judicial or administrative posts and tended to be hard-working professionals, who dominated the regional parlements and were often intensely socially conservative.[35]

To assist delegates, each region completed a list of grievances, known as Cahiers de doléances.[36] Although they contained ideas that would have seemed radical only months before, most supported the monarchy, and assumed the Estates-General would agree to financial reforms, rather than fundamental constitutional change.[37] The lifting of press censorship allowed widespread distribution of political writings, mostly written by liberal members of the aristocracy and upper middle-class.[38] Abbé Sieyès, a political theorist and priest elected to the Third Estate, argued it should take precedence over the other two as it represented 95% of the population.[39]

The Estates-General convened in the Menus-Plaisirs du Roi on 5 May 1789, near the Palace of Versailles rather than in Paris; the choice of location was interpreted as an attempt to control their debates. As was customary, each Estate assembled in separate rooms, whose furnishings and opening ceremonies deliberately emphasised the superiority of the First and Second Estates. They also insisted on enforcing the rule that only those who owned land could sit as deputies for the Second Estate, and thus excluded the immensely popular Comte de Mirabeau.[40]

Meeting of the Estates General on 5 May 1789 at Versailles

As separate assemblies meant the Third Estate could always be outvoted by the other two, Sieyès sought to combine all three. His method was to require all deputies be approved by the Estates-General as a whole, instead of each Estate verifying its own members. Since this meant the legitimacy of deputies derived from the Estates-General, they would have to continue sitting as one body.[41] After an extended stalemate, on 10 June the Third Estate proceeded to verify its own deputies, a process completed on 17 June; two days later, they were joined by over 100 members of the First Estate, and declared themselves the National Assembly. The remaining deputies from the other two Estates were invited to join, but the Assembly made it clear they intended to legislate with or without their support.[42]

In an attempt to prevent the Assembly from convening, Louis XVI ordered the Salle des États closed down, claiming it needed to be prepared for a royal speech. On 20 June, the Assembly met in a tennis court outside Versailles and swore not to disperse until a new constitution had been agreed. Messages of support poured in from Paris and other cities; by 27 June, they had been joined by the majority of the First Estate, plus forty-seven members of the Second, and Louis backed down.[43]

French Revolution Crisis of the Ancien Régime articles: 21

Constitutional monarchy (July 1789 – September 1792)

Abolition of the Ancien Régime

Even these limited reforms went too far for reactionaries like Marie Antoinette and Louis' younger brother the Comte d'Artois; on their advice, Louis dismissed Necker again as chief minister on 11 July.[44] On 12 July, the Assembly went into a non-stop session after rumours circulated he was planning to use the Swiss Guards to force it to close. The news brought crowds of protestors into the streets, and soldiers of the elite Gardes Françaises regiment refused to disperse them.[45]

On the 14th, many of these soldiers joined the mob in attacking the Bastille, a royal fortress with large stores of arms and ammunition. The governor de Launay surrendered after several hours of fighting that cost the lives of 83 attackers. Taken to the Hôtel de Ville, he was executed, his head placed on a pike and paraded around the city; the fortress was then torn down in a remarkably short time. Although rumoured to hold many prisoners, the Bastille held only seven: four forgers, two noblemen held for "immoral behaviour", and a murder suspect. Nevertheless, as a potent symbol of the Ancien Régime, its destruction was viewed as a triumph and Bastille Day is still celebrated every year.[46]

The Storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789; the iconic event of the Revolution, still commemorated each year as Bastille Day

Alarmed by the prospect of losing control of the capital, Louis appointed Lafayette commander of the National Guard, with Jean-Sylvain Bailly as head of a new administrative structure known as the Commune. On 17 July, he visited Paris accompanied by 100 deputies, where he was greeted by Bailly and accepted a tricolore cockade to loud cheers. However, it was clear power had shifted from his court; he was welcomed as 'Louis XVI, father of the French and king of a free people.'[47]

The short-lived unity enforced on the Assembly by a common threat quickly dissipated. Deputies argued over constitutional forms, while civil authority rapidly deteriorated. On 22 July, former Finance Minister Joseph Foullon and his son were lynched by a Parisian mob, and neither Bailly nor Lafayette could prevent it. In rural areas, wild rumours and paranoia resulted in the formation of militia and an agrarian insurrection known as la Grande Peur.[48] The breakdown of law and order and frequent attacks on aristocratic property led much of the nobility to flee abroad. These émigrés funded reactionary forces within France and urged foreign monarchs to back a counter-revolution.[49]

In response, the Assembly published the August Decrees which abolished feudalism and other privileges held by the nobility, notably exemption from tax. Other decrees included equality before the law, opening public office to all, freedom of worship, and cancellation of special privileges held by provinces and towns.[50] Over 25% of French farmland was subject to feudal dues, which provided most of the income for large landowners; these were now cancelled, along with tithes due to the church. The intention was for tenants to pay compensation for these losses but the majority refused to comply and the obligation was cancelled in 1793.[51]

With the suspension of the 13 regional parlements in November, the key institutional pillars of the old regime had all been abolished in less than four months. From its early stages, the Revolution therefore displayed signs of its radical nature; what remained unclear was the constitutional mechanism for turning intentions into practical applications.[52]

Creating a new constitution

Assisted by Thomas Jefferson, Lafayette prepared a draft constitution known as the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which echoed some of the provisions of the Declaration of Independence. However France had reached no consensus on the role of the Crown, and until this question was settled, it was impossible to create political institutions. When presented to the legislative committee on 11 July, it was rejected by pragmatists such as Jean Joseph Mounier, President of the Assembly, who feared creating expectations that could not be satisfied.[53]

After editing by Mirabeau, it was published on 26 August as a statement of principle.[54] It contained provisions considered radical in any European society, let alone 1789 France, and while historians continue to debate responsibility for its wording, most agree the reality is a mix. Although Jefferson made major contributions to Lafayette's draft, he himself acknowledged an intellectual debt to Montesquieu, and the final version was significantly different.[55] French historian Georges Lefebvre argues that combined with the elimination of privilege and feudalism, it "highlighted equality in a way the (American Declaration of Independence) did not".[56]

More importantly, the two differed in intent; Jefferson saw the US Constitution and Bill of Rights as fixing the political system at a specific point in time, claiming they 'contained no original thought...but expressed the American mind' at that stage.[57] The 1791 French Constitution was viewed as a starting point, the Declaration providing an aspirational vision, a key difference between the two Revolutions. Attached as a preamble to the French Constitution of 1791, and that of the 1870 to 1940 French Third Republic, it was incorporated into the current Constitution of France in 1958.[58]

Discussions continued. Mounier, supported by conservatives like Gérard de Lally-Tollendal, wanted a bicameral system, with an upper house appointed by the king, who would have the right of veto. On 10 September, the majority led by Sieyès and Talleyrand rejected this in favour of a single assembly, while Louis retained only a "suspensive veto"; this meant he could delay the implementation of a law, but not block it. On this basis, a new committee was convened to agree on a constitution; the most controversial issue was citizenship, linked to the debate on the balance between individual rights and obligations. Ultimately, the 1791 Constitution distinguished between 'active citizens' who held political rights, defined as French males over the age of 25, who paid direct taxes equal to three days' labour, and 'passive citizens', who were restricted to 'civil rights'. As a result, it was never fully accepted by radicals in the Jacobin club.[59]

Food shortages and the worsening economy caused frustration at the lack of progress, and the Parisian working-class, or sans culottes, became increasingly restive. This came to a head in late September, when the Flanders Regiment arrived in Versailles to take over as the royal bodyguard and in line with normal practice were welcomed with a ceremonial banquet. Popular anger was fuelled by press descriptions of this as a 'gluttonous orgy', and claims the tricolor cockade had been abused. The arrival of these troops was also viewed as an attempt to intimidate the Assembly.[60]

On 5 October 1789, crowds of women assembled outside the Hôtel de Ville, urging action to reduce prices and improve bread supplies.[61] These protests quickly turned political, and after seizing weapons stored at the Hôtel de Ville, some 7,000 marched on Versailles, where they entered the Assembly to present their demands. They were followed by 15,000 members of the National Guard under Lafayette, who tried to dissuade them, but took command when it became clear they would desert if he did not grant their request.[62]

When the National Guard arrived later that evening, Lafayette persuaded Louis the safety of his family required relocation to Paris. Next morning, some of the protestors broke into the Royal apartments, searching for Marie Antoinette, who escaped. They ransacked the palace, killing several guards. Although the situation remained tense, order was eventually restored, and the Royal family and Assembly left for Paris, escorted by the National Guard.[63] Announcing his acceptance of the August Decrees and the Declaration, Louis committed to constitutional monarchy, and his official title changed from 'King of France' to 'King of the French'.[64]

Revolution and the church

Historian John McManners argues "in eighteenth-century France, throne and altar were commonly spoken of as in close alliance; their simultaneous collapse ... would one day provide the final proof of their interdependence." One suggestion is that after a century of persecution, some French Protestants actively supported an anti-Catholic regime, a resentment fuelled by Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire.[65] Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote it was "manifestly contrary to the law of nature... that a handful of people should gorge themselves with superfluities while the hungry multitude goes in want of necessities."[66]

In this caricature, monks and nuns enjoy their new freedom after the decree of 16 February 1790.

The Revolution caused a massive shift of power from the Catholic Church to the state; although the extent of religious belief has been questioned, elimination of tolerance for religious minorities meant by 1789 being French also meant being Catholic.[67] The church was the largest individual landowner in France, controlling nearly 10% of all estates and levied tithes, effectively a 10% tax on income, collected from peasant farmers in the form of crops. In return, it provided a minimal level of social support.[68]

The August decrees abolished tithes, and on 2 November the Assembly confiscated all church property, the value of which was used to back a new paper currency known as assignats. In return, the state assumed responsibilities such as paying the clergy and caring for the poor, the sick and the orphaned.[69] On 13 February 1790, religious orders and monasteries were dissolved, while monks and nuns were encouraged to return to private life.[70]

The Civil Constitution of the Clergy of 12 July 1790 made them employees of the state, as well as establishing rates of pay and a system for electing priests and bishops. Pope Pius VI and many French Catholics objected to this since it denied the authority of the Pope over the French Church. In October, thirty bishops wrote a declaration denouncing the law, further fuelling opposition.[71]

When clergy were required to swear loyalty to the Civil Constitution in November 1790, it split the church between the 24% who complied, and the majority who refused.[72] This stiffened popular resistance against state interference, especially in traditionally Catholic areas such as Normandy, Brittany and the Vendée, where only a few priests took the oath and the civilian population turned against the revolution.[71] The result was state-led persecution of "Refractory clergy", many of whom were forced into exile, deported, or executed.[73]

Political divisions

The period from October 1789 to spring 1791 is usually seen as one of relative tranquility, when some of the most important legislative reforms were enacted. While certainly true, many provincial areas experienced conflict over the source of legitimate authority, where officers of the Ancien Régime had been swept away, but new structures were not yet in place. This was less obvious in Paris, since the formation of the National Guard made it the best policed city in Europe, but growing disorder in the provinces inevitably affected members of the Assembly.[74]

The Fête de la Fédération on 14 July 1790 celebrated the establishment of the constitutional monarchy.

Centrists led by Sieyès, Lafayette, Mirabeau and Bailly created a majority by forging consensus with monarchiens like Mounier, and independents including Adrien Duport, Barnave and Alexandre Lameth. At one end of the political spectrum, reactionaries like Cazalès and Maury denounced the Revolution in all its forms, with extremists like Maximilien Robespierre at the other. He and Jean-Paul Marat gained increasing support for opposing the criteria for 'active citizens', which had disenfranchised much of the Parisian proletariat. In January 1790, the National Guard tried to arrest Marat for denouncing Lafayette and Bailly as 'enemies of the people'.[75]

On 14 July 1790, celebrations were held throughout France commemorating the fall of the Bastille, with participants swearing an oath of fidelity to 'the nation, the law and the king.' The Fête de la Fédération in Paris was attended by Louis XVI and his family, with Talleyrand performing a mass. Despite this show of unity, the Assembly was increasingly divided, while external players like the Paris Commune and National Guard competed for power. One of the most significant was the Jacobin club; originally a forum for general debate, by August 1790 it had over 150 members, split into different factions.[76]

The Assembly continued to develop new institutions; in September 1790, the regional Parlements were abolished and their legal functions replaced by a new independent judiciary, with jury trials for criminal cases. However, moderate deputies were uneasy at popular demands for universal suffrage, labour unions and cheap bread, and over the winter of 1790 and 1791, they passed a series of measures intended to disarm popular radicalism. These included exclusion of poorer citizens from the National Guard, limits on use of petitions and posters, and the June 1791 Le Chapelier Law suppressing trade guilds and any form of worker organisation.[77]

The traditional force for preserving law and order was the army, which was increasingly divided between officers, who largely came from the nobility, and ordinary soldiers. In August 1790, the loyalist General Bouillé suppressed a serious mutiny at Nancy; although congratulated by the Assembly, he was criticised by Jacobin radicals for the severity of his actions. Growing disorder meant many professional officers either left or became émigrés, further destabilising the institution.[78]

Varennes and after

Held in the Tuileries Palace under virtual house arrest, Louis XVI was urged by his brother and wife to re-assert his independence by taking refuge with Bouillé, who was based at Montmédy with 10,000 soldiers considered loyal to the Crown.[79] The royal family left the palace in disguise on the night of 20 June 1791; late the next day, Louis was recognised as he passed through Varennes, arrested and taken back to Paris. The attempted escape had a profound impact on public opinion; since it was clear Louis had been seeking refuge in Austria, the Assembly now demanded oaths of loyalty to the regime, and began preparing for war, while fear of 'spies and traitors' became pervasive.[80]

Flight to Varennes; the Royal family returns to Paris

Despite calls to replace the monarchy with a republic, Louis retained his position but was generally regarded with acute suspicion and forced to swear allegiance to the constitution. A new decree stated retracting this oath, making war upon the nation, or permitting anyone to do so in his name would be considered abdication. However, radicals led by Jacques Pierre Brissot prepared a petition demanding his deposition, and on 17 July, an immense crowd gathered in the Champ de Mars to sign. Led by Lafayette, the National Guard was ordered to "preserve public order" and responded to a barrage of stones by firing into the crowd, killing between 13 and 50 people.[81]

The massacre badly damaged Lafayette's reputation; the authorities responded by closing radical clubs and newspapers, while their leaders went into exile or hiding, including Marat. [82] On 27 August, Emperor Leopold II and Frederick William II of Prussia issued the Declaration of Pillnitz declaring their support for Louis, and hinting at an invasion of France on his behalf. In reality, Leopold and Frederick had met to discuss the Partitions of Poland, and the Declaration was primarily made to satisfy Comte d'Artois and other émigrés. Nevertheless, the threat rallied popular support behind the regime.[83]

Based on a motion proposed by Robespierre, existing deputies were barred from elections held in early September for the French Legislative Assembly. Although Robespierre himself was one of those excluded, his support in the clubs gave him a political power base not available to Lafayette and Bailly, who resigned respectively as head of the National Guard and the Paris Commune. The new laws were gathered together in the 1791 Constitution, and submitted to Louis XVI, who pledged to defend it "from enemies at home and abroad". On 30 September, the Constituent Assembly was dissolved, and the Legislative Assembly convened the next day.[84]

Fall of the monarchy

The Legislative Assembly is often dismissed as an ineffective body, compromised by divisions over the role of the monarchy and exacerbated by Louis' resistance to limitations on his powers and his attempts to reverse them with external support. These issues combined with inflation and rising prices which particularly impacted the urban working class.[85] Restricting the franchise to those who paid a minimum amount of tax meant only 4 out of 6 million Frenchmen over 25 were able to vote; it largely excluded the sans culottes, who increasingly saw the new regime as failing to meet their demands for bread and work.[86]

This meant the new constitution was opposed by significant elements inside and outside the Assembly, itself split into three main groups. 245 members were affiliated with Barnave's Feuillants, constitutional monarchists who considered the Revolution had gone far enough, while another 136 were Jacobin leftists who supported a republic, led by Brissot and usually referred to as Brissotins.[87] The remaining 345 belonged to La Plaine, a central faction who switched votes depending on the issue; many of whom shared Brissotins suspicions as to Louis' commitment to the Revolution.[87] After Louis officially accepted the new Constitution, one response was recorded as being "Vive le roi, s'il est de bon foi!", or "Long live the king – if he keeps his word".[88]

Although a minority, the Brissotins control of key committees allowed them to focus on two issues, both intended to portray Louis as hostile to the Revolution by provoking him into using his veto. The first concerned émigrés; between October and November, the Assembly approved measures confiscating their property and threatening them with the death penalty.[89] The second was non-juring priests, whose opposition to the Civil Constitution led to a state of near civil war in southern France, which Bernave tried to defuse by relaxing the more punitive provisions. On 29 November, the Assembly passed a decree giving refractory clergy eight days to comply, or face charges of 'conspiracy against the nation', which even Robespierre viewed as too far, too soon. As expected, Louis vetoed both.[90]

The storming of the Tuileries Palace, 10 August 1792

Accompanying this was a campaign for war against Austria and Prussia, also led by Brissot, whose aims have been interpreted as a mixture of cynical calculation and revolutionary idealism. While exploiting popular anti-Austrianism, it reflected a genuine belief in exporting the values of political liberty and popular sovereignty.[91] Ironically, Marie Antoinette headed a faction within the court that also favoured war, seeing it as a way to win control of the military, and restore royal authority. In December 1791, Louis made a speech in the Assembly giving foreign powers a month to disband the émigrés or face war, which was greeted with enthusiasm by supporters and suspicion from opponents.[92]

Bernave's inability to build a consensus in the Assembly resulted in the appointment of a new government, chiefly composed of Brissotins. On 20 April 1792 the French Revolutionary Wars began when France armies attacked Austrian and Prussian forces along their borders, before suffering a series of disastrous defeats. In an effort to mobilise popular support, the government ordered non-juring priests to swear the oath or be deported, dissolved the Constitutional Guard and replaced it with 20,000 fédérés; Louis agreed to disband the Guard, but vetoed the other two proposals, while Lafayette called on the Assembly to suppress the clubs.[93]

Popular anger increased when details of the Brunswick Manifesto reached Paris on 1 August, threatening 'unforgettable vengeance' should any oppose the Allies in seeking to restore the power of the monarchy. On the morning of 10 August, a combined force of Parisian National Guard and provincial fédérés attacked the Tuileries Palace, killing many of the Swiss Guard protecting it.[94] Louis and his family took refuge with the Assembly and shortly after 11:00 am, the deputies present voted to 'temporarily relieve the king', effectively suspending the monarchy.[95]

French Revolution Constitutional monarchy (July 1789 – September 1792) articles: 91

First Republic (1792–1795)

Proclamation of the First Republic

Execution of Louis XVI in the Place de la Concorde, facing the empty pedestal where the statue of his grandfather, Louis XV previously stood

In late August, elections were held for the National Convention; voter restrictions meant those cast fell to 3.3 million, versus 4 million in 1791, while intimidation was widespread.[96] The former Brissotins now split into moderate Girondins led by Brissot, and radical Montagnards, headed by Maximilien Robespierre, Georges Danton and Jean-Paul Marat. While loyalties constantly shifted, around 160 of the 749 deputies were Girondists, 200 Montagnards and 389 members of La Plaine. Led by Bertrand Barère, Pierre Joseph Cambon and Lazare Carnot, as before this central faction acted as a swing vote.[97]

In the September Massacres, between 1,100 to 1,600 prisoners held in Parisian jails were summarily executed, the vast majority of whom were common criminals.[98] A response to the capture of Longwy and Verdun by Prussia, the perpetrators were largely National Guard members and fédérés on their way to the front. Responsibility is disputed, but even moderates expressed sympathy for the action, which soon spread to the provinces; the killings reflected widespread concern over social disorder [99]

On 20 September, the French army won a stunning victory over the Prussians at Valmy. Emboldened by this, on 22 September the Convention replaced the monarchy with the French First Republic and introduced a new calendar, with 1792 becoming "Year One".[100] The next few months were taken up with the trial of Citoyen Louis Capet, formerly Louis XVI. While the Convention was evenly divided on the question of his guilt, members were increasingly influenced by radicals centred in the Jacobin clubs and Paris Commune. The Brunswick Manifesto made it easy to portray Louis as a threat to the Revolution, apparently confirmed when extracts from his personal correspondence were published showed him conspiring with Royalist exiles serving in the Prussian and Austrian armies.[101]

On 17 January 1793, the Assembly condemned Louis to death for "conspiracy against public liberty and general safety", by 361 to 288; another 72 members voted to execute him subject to a variety of delaying conditions. The sentence was carried out on 21 January on the Place de la Révolution, now the Place de la Concorde.[102] Horrified conservatives across Europe called for the destruction of revolutionary France; in February the Convention anticipated this by declaring war on Britain and the Dutch Republic; these countries were later joined by Spain, Portugal, Naples and the Tuscany in the War of the First Coalition.[103]

Political crisis and fall of the Girondins

The Girondins hoped war would unite the people behind the government and provide an excuse for rising prices and food shortages, but found themselves the target of popular anger. Many left for the provinces. The first conscription measure or levée en masse on 24 February sparked riots in Paris and other regional centres. Already unsettled by changes imposed on the church, in March the traditionally conservative and royalist Vendée rose in revolt. On 18th, Dumouriez was defeated at Neerwinden and defected to the Austrians. Uprisings followed in Bordeaux, Lyon, Toulon, Marseilles and Caen. The Republic seemed on the verge of collapse.[104]

The crisis led to the creation on 6 April 1793 of the Committee of Public Safety, an executive committee accountable to the convention.[105] The Girondins made a fatal political error by indicting Marat before the Revolutionary Tribunal for allegedly directing the September massacres; he was quickly acquitted, further isolating the Girondins from the sans-culottes. When Jacques Hébert called for a popular revolt against the "henchmen of Louis Capet" on 24 May, he was arrested by the Commission of Twelve, a Girondin-dominated tribunal set up to expose 'plots'. In response to protests by the Commune, the Commission warned "if by your incessant rebellions something befalls the representatives of the nation,...Paris will be obliterated".[104]

Growing discontent allowed the clubs to mobilise against the Girondins. Backed by the Commune and elements of the National Guard, on 31 May they attempted to seize power in a coup. Although the coup failed, on 2 June the convention was surrounded by a crowd of up to 80,000, demanding cheap bread, unemployment pay and political reforms, including restriction of the vote to the sans-culottes, and the right to remove deputies at will.[106] Ten members of the commission and another twenty-nine members of the Girondin faction were arrested, and on 10 June, the Montagnards took over the Committee of Public Safety.[107]

Meanwhile, a committee led by Robespierre's close ally Saint-Just was tasked with preparing a new Constitution. Completed in only eight days, it was ratified by the convention on 24 June, and contained radical reforms, including universal male suffrage and abolition of slavery in French colonies. However, normal legal processes were suspended following the assassination of Marat on 13 July by the Girondist Charlotte Corday, which the Committee of Public Safety used as an excuse to take control. The 1793 Constitution itself was suspended indefinitely in October.[108]

Key areas of focus for the new government included creating a new state ideology, economic regulation and winning the war.[109] The urgent task of suppressing internal dissent was helped by divisions among their opponents; while areas like the Vendée and Brittany wanted to restore the monarchy, most supported the Republic but opposed the regime in Paris. On 17 August, the Convention voted a second levée en masse; despite initial problems in equipping and supplying such large numbers, by mid-October Republican forces had re-taken Lyon, Marseilles and Bordeaux, while defeating Coalition armies at Hondschoote and Wattignies.[110]

Reign of Terror

Nine émigrés are executed by guillotine, 1793

The Reign of Terror began as a way to harness revolutionary fervour, but quickly degenerated into the settlement of personal grievances. At the end of July, the Convention set price controls over a wide range of goods, with the death penalty for hoarders, and on 9 September 'revolutionary groups' were established to enforce them. On 17th, the Law of Suspects ordered the arrest of suspected "enemies of freedom", initiating what became known as the "Terror". According to archival records, from September 1793 to July 1794 some 16,600 people were executed on charges of counter-revolutionary activity; another 40,000 may have been summarily executed or died awaiting trial.[111]

Fixed prices, death for 'hoarders' or 'profiteers', and confiscation of grain stocks by groups of armed workers meant that by early September Paris was suffering acute food shortages. However, France's biggest challenge was servicing the huge public debt inherited from the former regime, which continued to expand due to the war. Initially the debt was financed by sales of confiscated property, but this was hugely inefficient; since few would buy assets that might be repossessed, fiscal stability could only be achieved by continuing the war until French counter-revolutionaries had been defeated. As internal and external threats to the Republic increased, the position worsened; dealing with this by printing assignats led to inflation and higher prices.[112]

On 10 October, the Convention recognised the Committee of Public Safety as the supreme Revolutionary Government, and suspended the Constitution until peace was achieved.[108] In mid-October, Marie Antoinette was found guilty of a long list of crimes and guillotined; two weeks later, the Girondist leaders arrested in June were also executed, along with Philippe Égalité. Terror was not confined to Paris; over 2,000 were killed after the recapture of Lyons.[113]

Georges Danton; Robespierre's close friend and Montagnard leader, executed 5 April 1794

At Cholet on 17 October, the Republican army won a decisive victory over the Vendée rebels, and the survivors escaped into Brittany. Another defeat at Le Mans on 23 December ended the rebellion as a major threat, although the insurgency continued until 1796. The extent of the brutal repression that followed has been debated by French historians since the mid-19th century.[114] Between November 1793 to February 1794, over 4,000 were drowned in the Loire at Nantes under the supervision of Jean-Baptiste Carrier. Historian Reynald Secher claims that as many as 117,000 died between 1793 and 1796. Although those numbers have been challenged, François Furet concluded it "not only revealed massacre and destruction on an unprecedented scale, but a zeal so violent that it has bestowed as its legacy much of the region's identity."[115] [b]

At the height of the Terror, the slightest hint of counter-revolutionary thought could place one under suspicion, and even its supporters were not immune. Under the pressure of events, splits appeared within the Montagnard faction, with violent disagreements between radical Hébertists and moderates led by Danton.[c] Robespierre saw their dispute as de-stabilising the regime, and as a deist he objected to the anti-religious policies advocated by the atheist Hébert. He was arrested and executed on 24 March with 19 of his colleagues, including Carrier.[119] To retain the loyalty of the remaining Hébertists, Danton was arrested and executed on 5 April with Camille Desmoulins, after a show trial that arguably did more damage to Robespierre than any other act in this period.[120]

The Law of 22 Prairial (10 June) denied "enemies of the people" the right to defend themselves. Those arrested in the provinces were now sent to Paris for judgement; from March to July, executions in Paris increased from five to twenty-six a day.[121] Many Jacobins ridiculed the festival of the Cult of the Supreme Being on 8 June, a lavish and expensive ceremony led by Robespierre, who was also accused of circulating claims he was a second Messiah. Relaxation of price controls and rampant inflation caused increasing unrest among the sans-culottes, but the improved military situation reduced fears the Republic was in danger. Many feared their own survival depended on Robespierre's removal; during a meeting on 29 June, three members of the Committee of Public Safety called him a dictator in his face.[122]

The execution of Robespierre on 28 July 1794 marked the end of the Reign of Terror.

Robespierre responded by not attending sessions, allowing his opponents to build a coalition against him. In a speech made to the convention on 26 July, he claimed certain members were conspiring against the Republic, an almost certain death sentence if confirmed. When he refused to give names, the session broke up in confusion. That evening he made the same speech at the Jacobins club, where it was greeted with huge applause and demands for execution of the 'traitors'. It was clear if his opponents did not act, he would; in the Convention next day, Robespierre and his allies were shouted down. His voice failed when he tried to speak, a deputy crying "The blood of Danton chokes him!"[123]

The Convention authorised his arrest; he and his supporters took refuge in the Hotel de Ville, defended by the National Guard. That evening, units loyal to the Convention stormed the building, and Robespierre was arrested after a failed suicide attempt. He was executed on 28 July with 19 colleagues, including Saint-Just and Georges Couthon, followed by 83 members of the Commune.[124] The Law of 22 Prairial was repealed, any surviving Girondists reinstated as deputies, and the Jacobin Club was closed and banned.[125]

There are various interpretations of the Terror and the violence with which it was conducted; Marxist historian Albert Soboul saw it as essential to defend the Revolution from external and internal threats. François Furet argues the intense ideological commitment of the revolutionaries and their utopian goals required the extermination of any opposition.[126] A middle position suggests violence was not inevitable but the product of a series of complex internal events, exacerbated by war.[127]

Thermidorean reaction

The bloodshed did not end with the death of Robespierre; Southern France saw a wave of revenge killings, directed against alleged Jacobins, Republican officials and Protestants. Although the victors of Thermidor asserted control over the Commune by executing their leaders, some of the leading "terrorists" retained their positions. They included Paul Barras, later chief executive of the French Directory, and Joseph Fouché, director of the killings in Lyon who served as Minister of Police under the Directory, the Consulate and Empire. Others were exiled or prosecuted, a process that took several months.[128]

Former Viscount and Montagnard Paul Barras, who took part in the Thermidorean reaction and later headed the French Directory

The December 1794 Treaty of La Jaunaye ended the Chouannerie in western France by allowing freedom of worship and the return of non-juring priests.[129] This was accompanied by military success; in January 1795, French forces helped the Dutch Patriots set up the Batavian Republic, securing their northern border.[130] The war with Prussia was concluded in favour of France by the Peace of Basel in April 1795, while Spain made peace shortly thereafter.[131]

However, the Republic still faced a crisis at home. Food shortages arising from a poor 1794 harvest were exacerbated in Northern France by the need to supply the army in Flanders, while the winter was the worst since 1709.[132] By April 1795, people were starving and the assignat was worth only 8% of its face value; in desperation, the Parisian poor rose again.[133] They were quickly dispersed and the main impact was another round of arrests, while Jacobin prisoners in Lyon were summarily executed.[134]

A committee drafted a new constitution, approved by plebiscite on 23 September 1795 and put into place on 27th.[135] Largely designed by Pierre Daunou and Boissy d'Anglas, it established a bicameral legislature, intended to slow down the legislative process, ending the wild swings of policy under the previous unicameral systems. The Council of 500 was responsible for drafting legislation, which was reviewed and approved by the Council of Ancients, an upper house containing 250 men over the age of 40. Executive power was in the hands of five Directors, selected by the Council of Ancients from a list provided by the lower house, with a five-year mandate.[136]

Deputies were chosen by indirect election, a total franchise of around 5 million voting in primaries for 30,000 electors, or 0.5% of the population. Since they were also subject to stringent property qualification, it guaranteed the return of conservative or moderate deputies. In addition, rather than dissolving the previous legislature as in 1791 and 1792, the so-called 'law of two-thirds' ruled only 150 new deputies would be elected each year. The remaining 600 Conventionnels kept their seats, a move intended to ensure stability.[137]

French Revolution First Republic (1792–1795) articles: 88