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.

Popular pages: The French Revolution (1789–1799)