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In the autumn of 1792, the revolutionary government, having written off the idea of a constitutional monarchy, set about electing a National Convention of delegates to oversee the country. In late September, therefore, the first election took place under the rules of the Constitution of 1791. As it turned out, only a third of the newly elected convention members had sat on a previous assembly, and a great number of new faces belonged to either the Jacobins or the Girondins. The first action of the convention, on September 21, 1792, was to abolish the monarchy. The next day, the Republic of France was founded.
As a sign of the republic’s newfound resolve and contempt for the monarchy, the next proposal before the National Convention was the execution of Louis XVI. Once again, the moderates objected and eventually forced a trial, but the effort was in vain. Louis XVI was ultimately found guilty of treason and, on January 21, 1793, executed at the guillotine. Months later, on October 16, 1793, his wife, Marie-Antoinette, met the same fate.
Symbolically speaking, the declaration of sovereignty and the beheading of the monarch were powerful motivators within France. Unfortunately, the moment of bliss was brief, as the governmental powers quickly realized that all of their achievements were being threatened by internal and external fighting.
In the weeks after the execution of the king, the internal and external wars in France continued to grow. Prussian and Austrian forces pushed into the French countryside, and one noted French general even defected to the opposition. Unable to assemble an army out of the disgruntled and protesting peasants, the Girondin-led National Convention started to panic. In an effort to restore peace and order, the convention created the Committee of Public Safety on April 6, 1793, to maintain order within France and protect the country from external threats.
The Committee of Public Safety followed a moderate course after its creation but proved weak and ineffective. After a few fruitless months under the committee, the sans-culottes finally reached their boiling point. They stormed the National Convention and accused the Girondins of representing the aristocracy. Seeing an opportunity, Maximilien Robespierre, the leader of the Jacobins, harnessed the fury of the sans-culottes to take control of the convention, banish the Girondins, and install the Jacobins in power.
Once again, the sans-culottes proved to be a formidable force in effecting change during the Revolution. Already upset about the composition of the National Convention—which remained dominated by middle- and upper-class bourgeoisie and was influenced by big thinkers of the time—they became even more angry upon learning that many of the Girondin leaders expected them to bolster the failing war effort. Sieyès had originally rallied the Third Estate by reminding them that they numbered many and that their numbers gave them strength. This message clearly stuck with the sans-culottes throughout the Revolution, and they took advantage of their strength at every possible opportunity.
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