Tiny Wiki :
Fast loading, text only version of Wikipedia.
The French Revolution (1789–1799) was a period of political and social upheaval and radical change in the history of France, during which the French governmental structure, previously an absolute monarchy with feudal privileges for the aristocracy and Catholic clergy, underwent radical change to forms based on Enlightenment principles of citizenship and inalienable rights.
These changes were accompanied by violent turmoil which included the trial and execution of the king, vast bloodshed and repression during the Reign of Terror, and warfare involving every other major European power. Subsequent events that can be traced to the Revolution include the Napoleonic Wars, two separate restorations of the monarchy, and two additional revolutions as modern France took shape.
In the following century, France would be governed at one point or another as a republic, constitutional monarchy, and two different empires.
Adherents of most historical models identify many of the same features of the ''Ancien Régime'' as being among the causes of the Revolution. Economic factors included widespread famine and malnutrition, due to rising bread prices (from a normal 8 sous for a 4-pound loaf to 12 sous by the end of 1789), which increased the likelihood of disease and death, and intentional starvation in the most destitute segments of the population in the months immediately before the Revolution. The famine extended even to other parts of Europe, and was not helped by a poor transportation infrastructure for bulk foods. (Recent research has also attributed the widespread famine to an El Niño effect following the 1783 Laki eruption on Iceland, or colder climate of the Little Ice Age combined with France's failure to adopt the potato as a staple crop.)
Another cause was the fact that Louis XV fought many wars, bringing France to the verge of bankruptcy, and Louis XVI supported the colonists during the American Revolution, exacerbating the precarious financial condition of the government. The national debt amounted to almost two billion livres. The social burdens caused by war included the huge war debt, made worse by the monarchy's military failures and ineptitude, and the lack of social services for war veterans. The inefficient and antiquated financial system was unable to manage the national debt, something which was both caused and exacerbated by the burden of a grossly inequitable system of taxation. Another cause was the continued conspicuous consumption of the noble class, especially the court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette at Versailles, despite the financial burden on the populace. High unemployment and high bread prices caused more money to be spent on food and less in other areas of the economy. The Roman Catholic Church, the largest landowner in the country, levied a tax on crops known as the ''dime'' or tithe. While the ''dîme'' lessened the severity of the monarchy's tax increases, it worsened the plight of the poorest who faced a daily struggle with malnutrition. There was too little internal trade and too many customs barriers.
There were also social and political factors, many of which involved resentments and aspirations given focus by the rise of Enlightenment ideals. These included resentment of royal absolutism; resentment by the ambitious professional and mercantile classes towards noble privileges and dominance in public life, as many of these classes were familiar with the lives of their peers in commercial cities in the Netherlands and Great Britain; resentment by peasants, wage-earners, and the bourgeoisie toward the traditional seigneurial privileges possessed by nobles; resentment of clerical advantage (anti-clericalism) and aspirations for freedom of religion, resentment of aristocratic bishops by the poorer rural clergy, continued hatred for Catholic control, and influence on institutions of all kinds by the large Protestant minorities; aspirations for liberty and (especially as the Revolution progressed) republicanism; and anger toward the King for firing Jacques Necker and A.R.J. Turgot (among other financial advisors), who were popularly seen as representatives of the people.
Finally, perhaps above all, was the almost total failure of Louis XVI and his advisers to deal effectively with any of these problems.
Louis XVI ascended to the throne amidst a financial crisis; the nation was nearing bankruptcy and outlays outpaced income. This was because of France’s involvement in the Seven Years War and its participation in the American Revolution. In May 1776, finance minister Turgot was dismissed, after he lost favour. The next year, Jacques Necker, a foreigner, was appointed Director-General of Finance. He was not made a minister because he was a Protestant, and could not become a naturalized French citizen.
[Hibbert, p. 35, 36] Necker realized that the country's tax system subjected some to an unfair burden; numerous exemptions existed for the nobility and clergy. [Frey, p. 2] He argued that the country could not be taxed higher, that the nobles and clergy should not be exempt from taxes, and proposed that borrowing would solve the country's fiscal problems. Necker published a report to support this claim that underestimated the deficit by roughly 36,000 livres; and proposed restricting the spending power of the ''parlements''. This was not received well by King's ministers and Necker, hoping to solidify his position, argued to be accepted as a minister. The King refused, Necker was fired, and Charles Alexandre de Calonne was appointed to the Directorship.
Calonne initially spent liberally, but he quickly realized the critical financial situation and put forth a new tax code.
[Doyle 2001, p. 34] The proposal included a consistent land tax, which would include taxation of the nobility and clergy, and the meeting of the Estates was planned for May 1789; a signal that the Bourbon monarchy was no longer absolute. [Doyle 2001, p. 36]
Estates-General of 1789
The Estates-General was organized into three estates, respectively: the clergy, the nobility, and the rest of France.
On the last occasion that the Estates-General had met, in 1614, each estate held one vote, and any two could override the third. The ''Parlement'' of Paris feared the government would attempt to gerrymander an assembly to rig the results. Thus, they required that the Estates be arranged as in 1614. [Doyle 2001, p. 38]
The 1614 rules differed from practices of local assemblies, wherein each member had one vote and third estate membership was doubled. For instance, in the province of Dauphiné the provincial assembly agreed to double the number of members of the third estate, hold membership elections, and allow one vote per member, rather than one vote per estate. The "Committee of Thirty", a body of liberal Parisians, began to agitate against voting by estate. This group, largely composed of the wealthy, argued for the Estates-General to assume the voting mechanisms of Dauphiné. They argued that ancient precedent was not sufficient, because "the people were sovereign".
[Neely, p. 56] Necker convened a Second Assembly of the Notables, which rejected the notion of double representation by a vote of 111 to 333. The King, however, agreed to the proposition on 27 December; but he left discussion of the weight of each vote to the Estates-General itself. [Hibbert, pp.42-45]
Elections were held in the spring of 1789; suffrage requirements were: 25 years of age and over six ''livres'' paid in taxes. Strong turnout produced 1,201 delegates, including: "291 nobles, 300 clergy, and 610 members of the Third Estate."
[ To lead delegates, "Books of grievances" (''cahiers de doléances'') were compiled to list problems.] [Frey, pp. 4, 5] The books articulated ideas which would have seemed radical only months before; however, most supported the monarchical system in general. Many assumed the Estates-General would approve future taxes, and Enlightenment ideals were relatively rare. [Neely, pp. 63, 65] Pamphlets by liberal nobles and clergy became widespread after the lifting of press censorship. The Abbé Sieyès, argued the importance of the Third Estate in the pamphlet ''Qu'est-ce que le tiers état?'' (''What is the Third Estate?''), published in January 1789. He asserted: "What is the Third Estate? Everything. What has it been until now in the political order? Nothing. What does it want to be? Something."
The Estates-General convened in Versailles on 5 May 1789 and opened with a three hour speech by Necker. The basic strategy of the Third Estate was to make sure that no decisions of the Estates-General should be reached in separate chambers, but instead should be made by all deputies from all three estates together (in other words, the strategy was to merge all three estates into one assembly). Thus they demanded that the verification of deputies' credentials should be undertaken in common by all deputies, rather than each estate verifying the credentials of its own members internally; but negotiations with the other estates failed to achieve this.
The commoners appealed to the clergy who replied they required more time. Necker asserted that each estate verify credentials and "the king was to act as arbitrator". [Hibbert, p. 54] Negotiations with the other two estates to achieve this, however, were unsuccessful.
National Assembly (1789)
On 10 June 1789 Abbé Sieyès moved that the Third Estate, now meeting as the ''Communes'' (English: "Commons"), proceed with verification of its own powers and invite the other two estates to take part, but not to wait for them. They proceeded to do so two days later, completing the process on 17 June. Then they voted a measure far more radical, declaring themselves the National Assembly, an assembly not of the Estates but of "the People." They invited the other orders to join them, but made it clear they intended to conduct the nation's affairs with or without them.
In an attempt to keep control of the process and prevent the Assembly from convening, Louis XVI ordered the closure of the Salle des États where the Assembly met, making an excuse that the carpenters needed to prepare the hall for a royal speech in two days. Weather did not allow an outdoor meeting, so the Assembly moved their deliberations to a nearby indoor real tennis court, where they proceeded to swear the Tennis Court Oath (20 June 1789), under which they agreed not to separate until they had given France a constitution. A majority of the representatives of the clergy soon joined them, as did 47 members of the nobility. By 27 June, the royal party had overtly given in, although the military began to arrive in large numbers around Paris and Versailles. Messages of support for the Assembly poured in from Paris and other French cities.
National Constituent Assembly (1789–1791)
Storming of the Bastille
By this time, Necker had earned the enmity of many members of the French court for his support and guidance to the Third Estate. Marie Antoinette, the King's younger brother the Comte d'Artois, and other conservative members of the King's privy council urged him to dismiss Necker from his role as King's financial advisor. On 11 July 1789, after Necker suggested that the royal family live according to a budget to conserve funds, the King fired him, and completely reconstructed the finance ministry at the same time.
Many Parisians presumed Louis's actions to be the start of a royal coup by the conservatives and began open rebellion when they heard the news the next day. They were also afraid that arriving soldiers—mostly foreigners under French service rather than native French troops—had been summoned to shut down the National Constituent Assembly. The Assembly, meeting at Versailles, went into nonstop session to prevent eviction from their meeting place once again. Paris was soon consumed with riots, chaos, and widespread looting. The mobs soon had the support of the French Guard, including arms and trained soldiers.
On 14 July, the insurgents set their eyes on the large weapons and ammunition cache inside the Bastille fortress, which was also perceived to be a symbol of monarchist tyranny. After several hours of combat, the prison fell that afternoon. Despite ordering a cease fire, which prevented a mutual massacre, Governor Marquis Bernard de Launay was beaten, stabbed and decapitated; his head was placed on a pike and paraded about the city. Although the fortress had held only seven prisoners (four forgers, two noblemen kept for immoral behavior, and a murder suspect), the Bastille served as a potent symbol of everything hated under the ''Ancien Régime''. Returning to the Hôtel de Ville (city hall), the mob accused the ''prévôt des marchands'' (roughly, mayor) Jacques de Flesselles of treachery and he was shot.
The King and his military supporters backed down, at least for the time being. La Fayette took up command of the National Guard at Paris. Jean-Sylvain Bailly, president of the Assembly at the time of the Tennis Court Oath, became the city's mayor under a new governmental structure known as the ''commune''. The King visited Paris, where, on 17 July he accepted a tricolore cockade, to cries of ''Vive la Nation'' [Long live the Nation] and ''Vive le Roi'' [Long live the King].
Necker was recalled to power, but his triumph was short-lived. An astute financier but a less astute politician, Necker overplayed his hand by demanding and obtaining a general amnesty, losing much of the people's favour. He also felt he could save France all by himself, despite having few ideas.
Nobles were not assured by this apparent reconciliation of King and people. They began to flee the country as ''émigrés'', some of whom began plotting civil war within the kingdom and agitating for a European coalition against France.
By late July, insurrection and the spirit of popular sovereignty spread throughout France. In rural areas, many went beyond this: some burned title-deeds and no small number of châteaux, as part of a general agrarian insurrection known as "la Grande Peur" (the Great Fear). In addition, plotting at Versailles and the large numbers of men on the roads of France as a result of unemployment led to wild rumours and paranoia (particularly in the rural areas) that caused widespread unrest and civil disturbances and contributed to the Great Fear.
Working toward a constitution
On 4 August 1789 the National Constituent Assembly abolished feudalism (although at that point there had been sufficient peasant revolts to almost end feudalism already), in what is known as the August Decrees, sweeping away both the seigneurial rights of the Second Estate and the tithes gathered by the First Estate. In the course of a few hours, nobles, clergy, towns, provinces, companies, and cities lost their special privileges.
Looking to the Declaration of Independence of the United States for a model, on 26 August 1789, the Assembly published the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Like the U.S. Declaration, it comprised a statement of principles rather than a constitution with legal effect. The National Constituent Assembly functioned not only as a legislature, but also as a body to draft a new constitution.
Necker, Mounier, Lally-Tollendal and others argued unsuccessfully for a senate, with members appointed by the crown on the nomination of the people. The bulk of the nobles argued for an aristocratic upper house elected by the nobles. The popular party carried the day: France would have a single, unicameral assembly. The King retained only a "suspensive veto"; he could delay the implementation of a law, but not block it absolutely. The Assembly eventually replaced the historic provinces with 83 ''départements'', uniformly administered and roughly equal in area and population.
Originally summoned to deal with a financial crisis, by late 1789, the Assembly had focused on other matters and only worsened the deficit. Honoré Mirabeau now led the move to address this matter, and the Assembly gave Necker complete financial dictatorship.
Women's March on Versailles
Fueled by rumors of a reception by the King's bodyguards 1 October 1789 in which the national cockade had been trampled upon, on 5 October 1789 crowds of women began to assemble at Parisian markets. The women first marched to the Hôtel de Ville, demanding that city officials address their concerns. The women were responding to the harsh economic situations they faced, especially bread shortages. They also demanded an end to Royalist efforts to block the National Assembly, and for the King and his administration to move to Paris as a sign of good faith in addressing the widespread poverty.
Getting unsatisfactory responses from city officials, as many as 7,000 women joined the march to Versailles, bringing with them pieces of cannon and a variety of smaller weapons. Twenty thousand National Guardsmen under the command of La Fayette responded to keep order, and members of the mob stormed the palace, killing several guards. La Fayette ultimately convinced the king to accede to the demand of the crowd that the monarchy relocate to Paris.
On 6 October 1789, the King and the royal family moved from Versailles to Paris under the protection of the National Guards, thus legitimizing the National Assembly.
Revolution and the Church
The Revolution brought about a massive shifting of powers from the Roman Catholic Church to the state. Under the ''Ancien Régime'', the Church had been the largest landowner in the country. Legislation enacted in 1790 abolished the Church's authority to levy a tax on crops, known as the ''dîme'', cancelled special privileges for the clergy, and confiscated Church property. To no small extent, the Assembly addressed the financial crisis by having the nation take over the property of the Church (while taking on the Church's expenses), through the law of 2 December 1789. In order to rapidly monetize such an enormous amount of property, the government introduced a new paper currency, ''assignats'', backed by the confiscated church lands. Further legislation on 13 February 1790 abolished monastic vows. The Civil Constitution of the Clergy, passed on 12 July 1790 (although not signed by the King until 26 December 1790), turned the remaining clergy into employees of the State and required that they take an oath of loyalty to the constitution, taking Gallicanism to its logical conclusion by making the Catholic Church in France a department of the state, and clergy state employees.
In response to this legislation, the archbishop of Aix and François de Bonal, the bishop of Clermont, led a walkout of clergy from the National Constituent Assembly. The Pope Pius VI never accepted the new arrangement, and it led to a schism between those clergy who swore the required oath and accepted the new arrangement ("jurors" or "constitutional clergy") and the "non-jurors" or "refractory priests" who refused to do so. The ensuing years saw violent repression of the clergy, including the imprisonment and massacre of priests throughout France. The Concordat of 1801 between Napoleon and the Church ended the dechristianisation period and established the rules for a relationship between the Catholic Church and the French State that lasted until it was abrogated by the Third Republic via the separation of church and state on 11 December 1905.
Appearance of factions
Factions within the Assembly began to clarify. The aristocrat Jacques Antoine Marie de Cazalès and the abbé Jean-Sifrein Maury led what would become known as the right wing, the opposition to revolution (this party sat on the right-hand side of the Assembly). The "Royalist democrats" or ''monarchiens'', allied with Necker, inclined toward organising France along lines similar to the British constitutional model; they included Jean Joseph Mounier, the Comte de Lally-Tollendal, the comte de Clermont-Tonnerre, and Pierre Victor Malouet, comte de Virieu.
The "National Party", representing the centre or centre-left of the assembly, included Honoré Mirabeau, La Fayette, and Bailly; while Adrien Duport, Barnave and Alexandre Lameth represented somewhat more extreme views. Almost alone in his radicalism on the left was the Arras lawyer Maximilien Robespierre. Abbé Sieyès led in proposing legislation in this period and successfully forged consensus for some time between the political centre and the left. In Paris, various committees, the mayor, the assembly of representatives, and the individual districts each claimed authority independent of the others. The increasingly middle-class National Guard under La Fayette also slowly emerged as a power in its own right, as did other self-generated assemblies.
Intrigues and radicalism
The Assembly abolished the symbolic paraphernalia of the ''Ancien Régime''—armorial bearings, liveries, etc.—which further alienated the more conservative nobles, and added to the ranks of the ''émigrés''. On 14 July 1790, and for several days following, crowds in the Champ de Mars celebrated the anniversary of the fall of the Bastille with a ''Fête de la Fédération''; Talleyrand performed a mass; participants swore an oath of "fidelity to the nation, the law, and the king"; and the King and the royal family actively participated.
The electors had originally chosen the members of the Estates-General to serve for a single year. However, by the terms of the Tennis Court Oath, the ''communes'' had bound themselves to meet continuously until France had a constitution. Right-wing elements now argued for a new election, but Mirabeau carried the day, asserting that the status of the assembly had fundamentally changed, and that no new election should take place before completing the constitution.
In late 1790, several small counter-revolutionary uprisings broke out and efforts took place to turn all or part of the army against the Revolution. These uniformly failed. The royal court "encouraged every anti-revolutionary enterprise and avowed none."
The army faced considerable internal turmoil: General Bouillé successfully put down a small rebellion, which added to his (accurate) reputation for counter-revolutionary sympathies. The new military code, under which promotion depended on seniority and proven competence (rather than on nobility) alienated some of the existing officer corps, who joined the ranks of the émigrés or became counter-revolutionaries from within.
This period saw the rise of the political "clubs" in French politics, foremost among these the Jacobin Club; 152 clubs had affiliated with the Jacobins by 10 August 1790. As the Jacobins became more of a broad popular organisation, some of its founders abandoned it to form the Club of '89. Royalists established first the short-lived ''Club des Impartiaux'' and later the ''Club Monarchique''. The latter attempted unsuccessfully to curry public favour by distributing bread. Nonetheless, they became the frequent target of protests and even riots, and the Paris municipal authorities finally closed down the Club Monarchique in January 1791.
Amidst these intrigues, the Assembly continued to work on developing a constitution. A new judicial organisation made all magistracies temporary and independent of the throne. The legislators abolished hereditary offices, except for the monarchy itself. Jury trials started for criminal cases. The King would have the unique power to propose war, with the legislature then deciding whether to declare war. The Assembly abolished all internal trade barriers and suppressed guilds, masterships, and workers' organisations: any individual gained the right to practice a trade through the purchase of a license; strikes became illegal.
In the winter of 1791, the Assembly considered, for the first time, legislation against the ''émigrés''. The debate pitted the safety of the State against the liberty of individuals to leave. Mirabeau carried the day against the measure, which he referred to as "worthy of being placed in the code of Draco".
But Mirabeau died on 2 April 1791 and, before the end of the year, the new Legislative Assembly would adopt this "draconian" measure.
Royal flight to Varennes
Louis XVI, opposed to the course of the Revolution, but rejecting the potentially treacherous aid of the other monarchs of Europe, cast his lot with General Bouillé, who condemned both the emigration and the assembly, and promised him refuge and support in his camp at Montmédy. On the night of 20 June 1791 the royal family fled the Tuileries wearing the clothes of servants, while their servants dressed as nobles.
However, the next day the King was recognised and arrested at Varennes (in the Meuse ''département'') late on 21 June. He and his family were paraded back to Paris under guard, still dressed as servants. Pétion, Latour-Maubourg, and Antoine Pierre Joseph Marie Barnave, representing the Assembly, met the royal family at Épernay and returned with them. From this time, Barnave became a counselor and supporter of the royal family. When they reached Paris, the crowd remained silent. The Assembly provisionally suspended the King. He and Queen Marie Antoinette remained held under guard.
Completing the constitution
As most of the Assembly still favoured a constitutional monarchy rather than a republic, the various groupings reached a compromise which left Louis XVI as little more than a figurehead: he had perforce to swear an oath to the constitution, and a decree declared that retracting the oath, heading an army for the purpose of making war upon the nation, or permitting anyone to do so in his name would amount to ''de facto'' abdication.
Jacques Pierre Brissot drafted a petition, insisting that in the eyes of the nation Louis XVI was deposed since his flight. An immense crowd gathered in the Champ de Mars to sign the petition. Georges Danton and Camille Desmoulins gave fiery speeches. The Assembly called for the municipal authorities to "preserve public order". The National Guard under La Fayette's command confronted the crowd. The soldiers responded to a barrage of stones by firing into the crowd, thus killing between 13 and 50 people.
In the wake of this massacre the authorities closed many of the patriotic clubs, as well as radical newspapers such as Jean-Paul Marat's ''L'Ami du Peuple''. Danton fled to England; Desmoulins and Marat went into hiding.
Meanwhile, a new threat arose from abroad: Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II, Frederick William II of Prussia, and the King's brother Charles-Philippe, comte d'Artois issued the Declaration of Pillnitz which considered the cause of Louis XVI as their own, demanded his absolute liberty and implied an invasion of France on his behalf if the revolutionary authorities refused its conditions. The French people expressed no respect for the dictates of foreign monarchs, and the threat of force merely caused the militarisation of the frontiers.
Even before his "Flight to Varennes", the Assembly members had determined to debar themselves from the legislature that would succeed them, the Legislative Assembly. They now gathered the various constitutional laws they had passed into a single constitution, showed remarkable strength in choosing not to use this as an occasion for major revisions, and submitted it to the recently restored Louis XVI, who accepted it, writing "I engage to maintain it at home, to defend it from all attacks from abroad, and to cause its execution by all the means it places at my disposal". The King addressed the Assembly and received enthusiastic applause from members and spectators. The Assembly set the end of its term for 29 September 1791.
Mignet argued that the "constitution of 1791... was the work of the middle class, then the strongest; for, as is well known, the predominant force ever takes possession of institutions... In this constitution the people was the source of all powers, but it exercised none."
Legislative Assembly (1791–1792)
Failure of the constitutional monarchy
Under the Constitution of 1791, France would function as a constitutional monarchy. The King had to share power with the elected Legislative Assembly, but he still retained his royal veto and the ability to select ministers. The Legislative Assembly first met on 1 October 1791, and degenerated into chaos less than a year later. In the words of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica: "In the attempt to govern, the Assembly failed altogether. It left behind an empty treasury, an undisciplined army and navy, and a people debauched by safe and successful riot." The Legislative Assembly consisted of about 165 Feuillants (constitutional monarchists) on the right, about 330 Girondists (liberal republicans) and Jacobins (radical revolutionaries) on the left, and about 250 deputies unaffiliated with either faction. Early on, the King vetoed legislation that threatened the ''émigrés'' with death and that decreed that every non-juring clergyman must take within eight days the civic oath mandated by the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. Over the course of a year, such disagreements would lead to a constitutional crisis.
On the night of 10 August 1792, insurgents, supported by a new revolutionary Paris Commune, assailed the Tuileries. The King and queen ended up prisoners and a rump session of the Legislative Assembly suspended the monarchy; little more than a third of the deputies were present, almost all of them Jacobins.
What remained of a national government depended on the support of the insurrectionary Commune. The Commune sent gangs into the prisons to try arbitrarily and butcher 1400 victims, and addressed a circular letter to the other cities of France inviting them to follow this example. The Assembly could offer only feeble resistance. This situation persisted until the Convention, charged with writing a new constitution, met on 20 September 1792 and became the new ''de facto'' government of France. The next day it abolished the monarchy and declared a republic. This date was later retroactively adopted as the beginning of Year One of the French Republican Calendar.
War and Counter-Revolution (1792–1797)
The politics of the period inevitably drove France towards war with Austria and its allies. The King, the Feuillants and the Girondins specifically wanted to wage war. The King (and many Feuillants with him) expected war would increase his personal popularity; he also foresaw an opportunity to exploit any defeat: either result would make him stronger. The Girondins wanted to export the Revolution throughout Europe and, by extension, to defend the Revolution within France. Only some of the radical Jacobins opposed war, preferring to consolidate and expand the Revolution at home. The Austrian emperor Leopold II, brother of Marie Antoinette, may have wished to avoid war, but he died on 1 March 1792. France declared war on Austria (20 April 1792) and Prussia joined on the Austrian side a few weeks later. The invading Prussian army faced little resistance until checked at the Battle of Valmy (20 September 1792), and forced to withdraw. However, by this time, France stood in turmoil and the monarchy had effectively become a thing of the past.
National Convention (1792–1795)
Execution of Louis XVI
In the Brunswick Manifesto, the Imperial and Prussian armies threatened retaliation on the French population if it were to resist their advance or the reinstatement of the monarchy. This made Louis appear to be conspiring with the enemies of France. 17 January 1793 saw Louis condemned to death for "conspiracy against the public liberty and the general safety" by a close majority in Convention: 361 voted to execute the king, 288 voted against, and another 72 voted to execute him subject to a variety of delaying conditions. The former Louis XVI, now simply named ''Citoyen Louis Capet'' (Citizen Louis Capet), was executed by guillotine on 21 January 1793 in the area now called the Place de la Concorde. After he was executed, some of the citizens who witnessed the beheading ran forth to have their clothes soaked in the late King's blood, dripping from his head. Others in the crowd went mad, slit their throats or jumped into the river Seine
– according to historian Adam Zamoyski this was not so much due to their love for the King but as he was seen as a representative of God on earth. In his book ''The Rebel'', Albert Camus wrote that the execution was the turning point of French contemporary history, "an act that secularized the French world and banished God from the subsequent history of the French people".
The 21 January execution led to more wars with other European countries. Louis' Austrian-born queen, Marie Antoinette, would follow him to the guillotine on 16 October.
When war went badly, prices rose and the ''sans-culottes'' — poor labourers and radical Jacobins — rioted; counter-revolutionary activities began in some regions. This encouraged the Jacobins to seize power through a parliamentary ''coup'', backed up by force effected by mobilising public support against the Girondist faction, and by utilising the mob power of the Parisian ''sans-culottes''. An alliance of Jacobin and ''sans-culottes'' elements thus became the effective centre of the new government. Policy became considerably more radical, as "The Law of the Maximum" set food prices and led to executions of offenders. This policy of price control was coeval with the Committee of Public Safety's rise to power and the Reign of Terror. The Committee first attempted to set the price for only a limited number of grain products, but by September of 1793 it expanded the "maximum" to cover all foodstuffs and a long list of other goods. Widespread shortages and famine ensued. The Committee reacted by sending dragoons into the countryside to arrest farmers and seize crops. This temporarily solved the problem in Paris, but the rest of the country suffered. By the spring of 1794 forced collection of food was not sufficient to feed even Paris and the days of the Committee were numbered. When Robespierre went to the guillotine in July of that year the crowd jeered, "There goes the dirty maximum!"
Reign of Terror
The Committee of Public Safety came under the control of Maximilien Robespierre, a lawyer, and the Jacobins unleashed the Reign of Terror (1793-1794). According to archival records, at least 16,594 people died under the guillotine or otherwise after accusations of counter-revolutionary activities.
A number of historians note that as many as 40,000 accused prisoners may have been summarily executed without trial or died awaiting trial.
On 2 June 1793, Paris sections — encouraged by the ''enragés'' ("enraged ones") Jacques Roux and Jacques Hébert — took over the Convention, calling for administrative and political purges, a low fixed price for bread, and a limitation of the electoral franchise to "sans-culottes" alone. With the backing of the National Guard, they managed to convince the Convention to arrest 31 Girondin leaders, including Jacques Pierre Brissot. Following these arrests, the Jacobins gained control of the Committee of Public Safety on 10 June, installing the ''revolutionary dictatorship''. On 13 July, the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat — a Jacobin leader and journalist known for his bloodthirsty rhetoric — by Charlotte Corday, a Girondin, resulted in further increase of Jacobin political influence. Georges Danton, the leader of the August 1792 uprising against the King, undermined by several political reversals, was removed from the Committee and Robespierre, "the Incorruptible", became its most influential member as it moved to take radical measures against the Revolution's domestic and foreign enemies.
Meanwhile, on 24 June, the Convention adopted the first republican constitution of France, variously referred to as the French Constitution of 1793 or Constitution of the Year I. It was progressive and radical in several respects, in particular by establishing universal male suffrage. It was ratified by public referendum, but never applied, because normal legal processes were suspended before it could take effect.
In Vendée, peasants revolted against the French Revolutionary government in 1793. They resented the changes imposed on the Roman Catholic Church by the Civil Constitution of the Clergy (1790) and broke into open revolt in defiance of the Revolutionary government's military conscription. This became a guerrilla war, known as the War in the Vendée. North of the Loire, similar revolts were started by the so-called Chouans (royalist rebels).
After the defeat at Savenay, when regular warfare in the Vendée was at an end, the French general Francois Joseph Westermann penned a letter to the Committee of Public Safety stating
“There is no more Vendée. It died with its wives and its children by our free sabres. I have just buried it in the woods and the swamps of Savenay. According to the orders that you gave me, I crushed the children under the feet of the horses, massacred the women who, at least for these, will not give birth to any more brigands. I do not have a prisoner to reproach me. I have exterminated all. The roads are sown with corpses. At Savenay, brigands are arriving all the time claiming to surrender, and we are shooting them non-stop... Mercy is not a revolutionary sentiment."''
However, some historians doubt the existence of this document and others point out that the claims in it were patently false - there were in fact thousands of (living) Vendean prisoners, the revolt had been far from crushed, and the Convention had explicitly decreed that women, children and unarmed men were to be treated humanely. It has been hypothesized that if the letter is authentic, that may have been Westermann's attempt to exaggerate the intensity of his actions and his success, because he was eager to avoid being purged for his incompetent military leadership and for his opposition to sans-culotte generals (he failed to avoid that, since he was guillotined together with Danton's group).
The revolt and its suppression (including both combat casualties and massacres and executions on both sides) are thought to have taken between 117 000 and 250 000 lives (170 000 according to the latest estimates). Because of the extremely brutal forms that the Republican repression took in many places, certain historians such as Reynald Secher have called the event a "genocide". This description has become popular in the mass media, but it has attracted much criticism in academia as being unrealistic and biased.
Facing local revolts and foreign invasions in both the East and West of the country, the most urgent government business was the war. On 17 August, the Convention voted for general conscription, the ''levée en masse'', which mobilized all citizens to serve as soldiers or suppliers in the war effort.
The result was a policy through which the state used violent repression to crush resistance to the government. Under control of the effectively dictatorial Committee, the Convention quickly enacted more legislation. On 9 September, the Convention established ''sans-culottes'' paramilitary forces, the ''revolutionary armies'', to force farmers to surrender grain demanded by the government. On 17 September, the ''Law of Suspects'' was passed, which authorized the charging of counter-revolutionaries with vaguely defined crimes against liberty. On 29 September, the Convention extended price-fixing from grain and bread to other household goods and declared the right to set a limit on wages.
The guillotine became the symbol of a string of executions. Louis XVI had already been guillotined before the start of the terror; Queen Marie Antoinette, the Girondins, Philippe Égalité (despite his vote for the death of the King), Madame Roland and many others were executed by guillotine. The Revolutionary Tribunal summarily condemned thousands of people to death by the guillotine, while mobs beat other victims to death.
At the peak of the terror, the slightest hint of counter-revolutionary thoughts or activities (or, as in the case of Jacques Hébert, revolutionary zeal exceeding that of those in power) could place one under suspicion, and trials did not always proceed according to contemporary standards of due process. Sometimes people died for their political opinions or actions, but many for little reason beyond mere suspicion, or because some others had a stake in getting rid of them. Most of the victims received an unceremonious trip to the guillotine in an open wooden cart (the tumbrel). In the rebellious provinces, the government representatives had unlimited authority and some engaged in extreme repressions and abuses. For example, Jean-Baptiste Carrier became notorious for the ''Noyades'' ["drownings"] - he organized in Nantes; his conduct was judged unacceptable even by the Jacobin government and he was recalled.
Another anti-clerical uprising was made possible by the installment of the Republican Calendar on 24 October 1793. Against Robespierre's concepts of Deism and Virtue, Hébert's (and Chaumette's) atheist movement initiated a religious campaign to dechristianize society. The climax was reached with the celebration of the flame of Reason in Notre Dame Cathedral on 10 November.
The Reign of Terror enabled the revolutionary government to avoid military defeat. The Jacobins expanded the size of the army, and Carnot replaced many aristocratic officers with younger soldiers who had demonstrated their ability and patriotism. The Republican army was able to throw back the Austrians, Prussians, British, and Spanish. At the end of 1793, the army began to prevail and revolts were defeated with ease. The Ventôse Decrees (February–March 1794) proposed the confiscation of the goods of exiles and opponents of the Revolution, and their redistribution to the needy.
In the spring of 1794, both extremist ''enragés'' such as Hébert and moderate Montagnard ''indulgents'' such as Danton were charged with counter-revolutionary activities, tried and guillotined. On 7 June Robespierre, who had previously condemned the ''Cult of Reason'', advocated a new state religion and recommended the Convention acknowledge the existence of the "Supreme Being".
On 27 July 1794, the Thermidorian Reaction led to the arrest and execution of Robespierre and Louis de Saint-Just. The new government was predominantly made up of Girondists who had survived the Terror, and after taking power, they took revenge as well by persecuting even those Jacobins who had helped to overthrow Robespierre, banning the Jacobin Club, and executing many of its former members in what was known as the White Terror.
In the wake of excesses of the Terror, the Convention approved the new "Constitution of the Year III" on 22 August 1795. A French plebiscite ratified the document, with about 1,057,000 votes for the constitution and 49,000 against.
[Doyle 1989, p.320] The results of the voting were announced on 23 September 1795, and the new constitution took effect on 27 September 1795.
The Directory (1795–1799)
The new constitution created the ''Directoire'' (Directory) and the first bicameral legislature in French history. The parliament consisted of 500 representatives — the ''Conseil des Cinq-Cents'' (Council of the Five Hundred) — and 250 senators — the ''Conseil des Anciens'' (Council of Elders). Executive power went to five "directors," named annually by the ''Conseil des Anciens'' from a list submitted by the ''Conseil des Cinq-Cents''. Furthermore, the universal suffrage of 1793 was replaced by limited suffrage based on property.
With the establishment of the Directory, contemporary observers might have assumed that the Revolution was finished. Citizens of the war-weary nation wanted stability, peace, and an end to conditions that at times bordered on chaos. Those who wished to restore the monarchy and the ''Ancien Régime'' by putting Louis XVIII on the throne, and those who would have renewed the Reign of Terror were insignificant in number. The possibility of foreign interference had vanished with the failure of the First Coalition. The earlier atrocities had made confidence or goodwill between parties impossible. The same instinct of self-preservation which had led the members of the Convention to claim so large a part in the new legislature and the whole of the Directory impelled them to keep their predominance.
As many French citizens distrusted the Directory, the directors could achieve their purposes only by extraordinary means. They habitually disregarded the terms of the constitution, and, even when the elections that they rigged went against them, the directors routinely used draconian police measures to quell dissent. Moreover, the Directory used war as the best expedient for prolonging their power, and the directors were thus driven to rely on the armies, which also desired war and grew less and less civic-minded.
Other reasons influenced them in this direction. State finances during the earlier phases of the Revolution had been so thoroughly ruined that the government could not have met its expenses without the plunder and the tribute of foreign countries. If peace were made, the armies would return home and the directors would have to face the exasperation of the rank-and-file who had lost their livelihood, as well as the ambition of generals who could, in a moment, brush them aside. Barras and Rewbell were notoriously corrupt themselves and screened corruption in others. The patronage of the directors was ill-bestowed, and the general maladministration heightened their unpopularity.
The constitutional party in the legislature desired toleration of the nonjuring clergy, the repeal of the laws against the relatives of the émigrés, and some merciful discrimination toward the émigrés themselves. The directors baffled all such endeavours. On the other hand, the socialist conspiracy of Babeuf was easily quelled. Little was done to improve the finances, and the assignats continued to fall in value.
The new régime met opposition from remaining Jacobins and the royalists. The army suppressed riots and counter-revolutionary activities. In this way the army and its successful general, Napoleon Bonaparte eventually gained much power.
On 9 November 1799 (18 Brumaire of the Year VIII) Napoleon Bonaparte staged the ''coup of 18 Brumaire'' which installed the Consulate. This effectively led to Bonaparte's dictatorship and eventually (in 1804) to his proclamation as ''Empereur'' (emperor), which brought to a close the specifically republican phase of the French Revolution.
The constitutional assembly failed for many reasons: there were too many monarchists to have a republic and too many republicans to have a monarch; too many people opposed the King (especially after the flight to Varennes), which meant that the people who supported the King had their reputation slashed; the Civil Constitution of the Clergy; and many more.
Historians disagree about the political and socioeconomic nature of the Revolution. Traditional Marxist interpretations, such as that presented by Georges Lefebvre, described the revolution as the result of the clash between a feudalistic noble class and the capitalist bourgeois class. Some historians argue that the old aristocratic order of the ''Ancien Régime'' succumbed to an alliance of the rising bourgeoisie, aggrieved peasants, and urban wage-earners.
Yet another interpretation asserts that the revolution resulted when various aristocratic and bourgeois reform movements spun out of control. According to this model, these movements coincided with popular movements of the new wage-earning classes and the provincial peasantry, but any alliance between classes was contingent and incidental.
A contributing factor to the Revolution was the considerable increases in poverty in the preceding years. Some scholars trace this to several years of recurrent weather aberrations, caused by the Laki eruption of 1783 and the severe El Niño effects that were to follow.