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The French Revolution (1789–1799)

History SparkNotes

Escalating Violence: 1791–1792

The National Assembly: 1789–1791

The Reign of Terror and the Thermidorian Reaction: 1792–1795

June 20–21, 1791 Louis XVI and his family flee Paris but are caught near the Austrian border
August 27 Austria and Prussia issue Declaration of Pillnitz
September 14 Louis XVI approves National Assembly’s new constitution, which establishes constitutional monarchy
April 20, 1792 France declares war on Austria
August 10 Jacobins and sans-culottes storm Tuileries; depose and arrest Louis XVI
September 2 Sansculottes initiate prison massacres in Paris
Key People
Louis XVI -  French king; fled Paris with family in June 1791 but was captured near border with Austria
Jacques-Pierre Brissot -  Member of Legislative Assembly and National Convention; driving force behind moderate group called the Girondins
Sansculottes -  General term for underrepresented French laborers and commoners who, frustrated that their efforts were largely unrewarded and concerns unrecognized, resorted to mob violence

Louis XVI’s Flight

Although King Louis XVI maintained a supportive front toward the Revolution, he remained in contact with the rulers of Austria, Prussia, and Sweden, asking for their help in restoring his family to power. In late June 1791, Louis XVI and his family attempted to escape to the Austrian border, where they were supposed to meet the Austrian army and arrange an attack on the revolutionaries. However, the runaway party was caught just before reaching the border and brought back to Tuileries in Paris.

This escape attempt considerably weakened the king’s position and lowered his regard in the eyes of the French people. Beforehand, although he had little real power remaining, he at least still had the faith of his country. The king’s attempt to run away, however, made it clear to skeptics that he was a reluctant associate at best and would turn his back on the constitution and its system of limited monarchy at any moment. The more radical revolutionaries, who had never wanted a constitutional monarchy, trusted the king even less after his attempted escape. The more moderate revolutionaries, who once were staunch proponents of the constitutional monarchy, found themselves hard-pressed to defend a situation in which a monarch was abandoning his responsibilities. Therefore, although Louis XVI constitutionally retained some power after being returned to Paris, it was clear that his days were numbered.

The Declaration of Pillnitz

In response to Louis XVI’s capture and forced return to Paris, Prussia and Austria issued the Declaration of Pillnitz on August 27, 1791, warning the French against harming the king and demanding that the monarchy be restored. The declaration also implied that Prussia and Austria would intervene militarily in France if any harm came to the king.

Prussia and Austria’s initial concern was simply for Louis XVI’s well-being, but soon the countries began to worry that the French people’s revolutionary sentiment would infect their own citizens. The Declaration of Pillnitz was issued to force the French Revolutionaries to think twice about their actions and, if nothing else, make them aware that other countries were watching the Revolution closely.

The Constitution of 1791

In September 1791, the National Assembly released its much-anticipated Constitution of 1791, which created a constitutional monarchy, or limited monarchy, for France. This move allowed King Louis XVI to maintain control of the country, even though he and his ministers would have to answer to new legislature, which the new constitution dubbed the Legislative Assembly. The constitution also succeeded in eliminating the nobility as a legal order and struck down monopolies and guilds. It established a poll tax and barred servants from voting, ensuring that control of the country stayed firmly in the hands of the middle class.

The Jacobins and Girondins

Divisions quickly formed within the new Legislative Assembly, which coalesced into two main camps. On one side were the Jacobins, a group of radical liberals—consisting mainly of deputies, leading thinkers, and generally progressive society members—who wanted to drive the Revolution forward aggressively. The Jacobins found Louis’s actions contemptible and wanted to forgo the constitutional monarchy and declare France a republic.

Disagreeing with the Jacobins’ opinions were many of the more moderate members of the Legislative Assembly, who deemed a constitutional monarchy essential. The most notable of these moderates was Jacques-Pierre Brissot. His followers were thus labeled Brissotins, although they became more commonly known as Girondins.

Many historians have attributed the rivalry of the Jacobins and Girondins to class differences, labeling the Jacobins the poorer, less prestigious of the two groups. However, a number of other factors were involved, as the two groups came from vastly different geographic and ideological backgrounds. The Jacobins were modern urban idealists: they wanted change and independence from any semblance of the ancien régime. Deemed radicals, they were students of the enlightened, progressive thought of the time. But the Jacobins, though wanting independence and equality, were more conservative and loyal and harbored less contempt for the monarchy. These fundamental differences would cause a schism that future revolutionary governments in France could not overcome.

The Sansculottes

Meanwhile, in cities throughout France, a group called the sans-culottes began to wield significant and unpredictable influence. The group’s name—literally, “without culottes,” the knee breeches that the privileged wore—indicated their disdain for the upper classes. The sans-culottes consisted mainly of urban laborers, peasants, and other French poor who disdained the nobility and wanted to see an end to privilege. Over the summer of 1792, the sans-culottes became increasingly violent and difficult to control.

War Against Austria and Prussia

Although the Girondin leader, Brissot, wanted Louis XVI to remain in power, he felt threatened by the Declaration of Pillnitz and rallied the Legislative Assembly to declare war against Austria on April 20, 1792. Austria and Prussia had anticipated this kind of reaction and already had their troops massed along the French border. The French army, unprepared as it was for the battle, was trounced and fled, leaving the country vulnerable to counterattack. In the wake of the embarrassing French defeat, Louis XVI saw to it that Brissot was removed from command. In response, a mob of Girondins marched on Tuileries on June 20 and demanded that Brissot be reinstated. The demand was ignored.

The Storming of Tuileries

Just weeks later, on August 10, anti-monarchy Jacobins rallied together a loyal crew of sans-culottes that stormed Tuileries outright, trashing the palace and capturing Louis XVI and his family as they tried to escape. The mob then arrested the king for treason. A month after that, beginning on September 2, 1792, the hysterical sans-culottes, having heard rumors of counterrevolutionary talk, raided Paris’s prisons and murdered more than 1,000 prisoners.

The Danger of the Sansculottes

If there was any indication throughout the Revolution that no governing body truly had control, it could be found with the sans-culottes. Members of this group were easily swayed and often fell into bouts of mob hysteria, which made them extraordinarily difficult to manage. The bourgeoisie groups “in charge” of the Revolution originally hoped to harness the power of the masses for their own bidding, but it soon became apparent that the sans-culottes were uncontrollable.

The Girondins, who had originally rallied the sans-culottes to their cause, quickly found that the rabble was more radical than they had expected. The massacres that began on September 2 revealed the true power of the sans-culottes and showed the chaos they were capable of creating. The group, after all, consisted of poor workers and peasants who wanted privilege outright eliminated. Despite all their contributions to the revolutionary cause, they still found themselves with little input into the government, which was dominated by bourgeoisie far richer than they. Having gained their freedom from monarchial oppression, the sans-culottes switched their cry from “Liberty!” to “Equality!”

Failures of the Legislative Assembly

Arguably, the Legislative Assembly’s complacency in 1792 opened the door to the violence that followed. The assembly did have some cause to rest on its laurels: the Revolution had accomplished everything that had been desired, and the new government had a binder full of legislation to back it up. But the confidence bred by this success was misleading: the assembly had not organized an army that was capable of taking on the combined forces of Austria and Prussia, nor had it sufficiently calmed its own internal feuds. The new government was still far too unsteady even to consider going to war—yet it did, and was soundly defeated. Even more peculiar was the fact that Brissot and his Girondin associates were radical enough to want to go to war, yet conservative enough to do so only under the rule of a constitutional monarch—the same monarch over whom the war was being fought. It was a baffling decision and left little question as to why the Jacobins and other more radical elements wanted to take control.

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