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.

Popular pages: The French Revolution (1789–1799)