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.

Popular pages: The French Revolution (1789–1799)