The French Revolution (1789–1799)
The Reign of Terror and the Thermidorian Reaction: 1792–1795
The National Convention and the French Republic
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.
The Execution of Louis XVI
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.
The Committee of Public Safety
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 Jacobins’ Coup
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.
The Constitution of 1793
Yet another new constitution, the Constitution of 1793, premiered in June. However, it was quickly overshadowed by the resurgence of the Committee of Public Safety in July, when some of the more radical Jacobin leaders, including Robespierre, installed themselves in charge of the committee and immediately began to make drastic changes. Among the changes was the suspension of many clauses of the new constitution. One of the most sweeping new Jacobin policies was the Maximum, a decree that fixed prices in an attempt to stop the rampant inflation that was ruining the economy.
Although Robespierre soon resorted to extreme measures, his tenure as chairman of the Committee of Public Safety actually began on a productive note. His inspiring, nationalistic propaganda campaign spoke to the disgruntled citizens on their own level. Though he was a lawyer, Robespierre had a middle-class upbringing and could relate to the sans-culottes. His approach to the economy also proved effective in the short run: by using the Maximum to freeze prices, he provided an opportunity for French citizens to get their economic bearings.
Carnot and the Military
In August, military strategist Lazare Carnot was appointed head of the French war effort and immediately set about instituting conscription throughout France. Propaganda and discipline helped tighten and reenergize the nation, particularly in rural areas. Carnot’s effort succeeded, and the newly refreshed army managed to push back the invading Austrian and Prussian forces and reestablish France’s traditional boundaries.
The Reign of Terror
In the autumn of 1793, Robespierre and the Jacobins focused on addressing economic and political threats within France. What began as a proactive approach to reclaiming the nation quickly turned bloody as the government instituted its infamous campaign against internal opposition known as the Reign of Terror.
Beginning in September, Robespierre, under the auspices of the Committee of Public Safety, began pointing an accusing finger at anyone whose beliefs seemed to be counterrevolutionary—citizens who had committed no crime but merely had social or political agendas that varied too much from Robespierre’s. The committee targeted even those who shared many Jacobin views but were perceived as just slightly too radical or conservative. A rash of executions ensued in Paris and soon spread to smaller towns and rural areas.
During the nine-month period that followed, anywhere from 15,000 to 50,000 French citizens were beheaded at the guillotine. Even longtime associates of Robespierre such as Georges Danton, who had helped orchestrate the Jacobin rise to power, fell victim to the paranoia. When Danton wavered in his conviction, questioned Robespierre’s increasingly rash actions, and tried to arrange a truce between France and the warring countries, he himself lost his life to the guillotine, in April 1794.
Robespierre’s bloody attempt to protect the sanctity of the Revolution had exactly the opposite result. Rather than galvanize his supporters and the revolutionary nation, the Reign of Terror instead prompted a weakening on every front. Indeed, the Terror accomplished almost nothing productive, as Robespierre quickly burned his bridges and killed many former allies. As the mortuaries started to fill up, the commoners shifted their focus from equality to peace.
By the time the French army had almost completely staved off foreign invaders, Robespierre no longer had a justification for his extreme actions in the name of public “safety.” The final straw was his proposal of a “Republic of Virtue,” which would entail a move away from the morals of Christianity and into a new set of values. On July 27, 1794, a group of Jacobin allies arrested Robespierre. Receiving the same treatment that he had mandated for his enemies, he lost his head at the guillotine the following day. Undoubtedly, a collective sigh of relief echoed throughout the country.
The Thermidorian Reaction
With Robespierre out of the picture, a number of the bourgeoisie who had been repressed under the Reign of Terror—many of them Girondins—burst back onto the scene at the National Convention in the late summer of 1794. These moderates freed many of the Jacobins’ prisoners, neutralized the power of the Committee for Public Safety, and had many of Robespierre’s cohorts executed in a movement that became known as the Thermidorian Reaction.
However, the moderate and conservative initiatives that the convention subsequently implemented were aimed at the bourgeoisie and undid real accomplishments that Robespierre and his regime had achieved for the poor. To address economic concerns, for instance, the National Convention did away with price controls and printed more money, which allowed prices to skyrocket. This inflation hit the poor hard, and the peasants attempted yet another revolt. However, lacking a strong leader like Robespierre, the peasant uprising was quickly quashed by the government.