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Off with His Head: The Reign of Terror

For the elections of the new Assembly in 1791, none of the members of the National Assembly were eligible to be elected. The Assembly took on a new character and personality. The new members proved to be more zealous about liberal Enlightenment ideals and more wary of the monarchy. Amidst the panic of impending war with Austria and Prussia, the poor of Paris stormed the royal gardens where Louis and his family lived. The Assembly stripped the king of all his powers and imprisoned him, then called for a popular election of a new legislative body called the National Convention.

This began what historians often call the “second revolution.” The second revolution began immediately after the imprisonment of the king when mobs attacked prisons and massacred nobles who they believed were conspiring with their foreign enemies. These attacks were known as the “September Massacres.” One of the main features of the second revolution was the work of the new National Convention. In 1792, the National Convention moved even further away from monarchy and declared France a republic, a radical break from the old France.

Define Your Terms

republic is a form of government in which political power lies in the hands of representatives elected by the people.

The Girondists and the Mountain

The entire National Convention stood firmly committed to creating a republic and making it work. The convention’s members despised the privileges of the aristocracy and they were dead set on fighting oppression. Most of the members of the convention were Jacobins, or members of the Jacobin political club in Paris. Despite many seemingly similar political and social views, though, the National Convention faced a rift as a result of two sides competing for power within the Convention.

The moderate and conservative Girondists, named for a region in France, and the radical Mountain, named for high-up seats in the assembly hall upon which they sat, fought bitterly for control. The Girondists believed that the Mountain would institute a dictatorship in France if they gained control. The Mountain believed the Girondists would sympathize with the king and the aristocracy. Though the National Convention easily convicted Louis XVI of treason, the next decision came less easily.

The Girondists wanted to imprison Louis, but the radical Mountain called for his head. In the end, the Mountain won the vote and Louis XVI paid for his “treason” on the guillotine in January of 1793. Marie Antoinette, after being carted through the streets like a common criminal, died upon the guillotine in October of the same year.

Define Your Terms

Sans culottes means "without breeches." The urban poor often were called sans culottes because they wore pants instead of the breeches worn by the wealthy.

The deciding factor in the battle for control of the National Convention lay outside the Convention itself. The urban poor, known as sans-culottes, became involved in politics over the course of 1792 and 1793. They demanded radical changes that would result in a government guarantee of food for the poor. The Mountain seized the opportunity to join the sans culottes to prevent riots and to shift power away from the Girondists. After some sneaky politics, the Mountain had dozens of Girondists arrested for treason, leaving the Convention easily controlled by the Mountain.

Robespierre and the Reign of Terror

During the crisis of war with the First Coalition, food shortages, and peasant uprisings around France, the National Convention created an organization known as the Committee of Public Safety, granting it dictatorial powers to effectively deal with the crisis. Ideally, the committee maintained order and provided for internal peace and stability. After the Mountain gained control of the National Convention, the radical Maximilien Robespierre (1758-1794) and his followers took control of the Committee of Public Safety.

Would You Believe?

The committee outlawed white bread and pastries and ordered that all grains, including both high- and low-quality grains, be mixed together to create a “bread of equality"—a very mediocre bread barely suitable for consumption.

Their first task was to fight off the foreign forces, which they did in commanding fashion by appealing to the nationalistic pride of the French people, particularly the sans culottes. They also instituted a controlled economy in which the committee fixed prices, regulated production, and enforced a system of rationing. The committee determined what craftsmen and artisans produced and when and where the products were shipped. Initially, the national economy was focused solely on supplying the military with its needs. This attempt at nationalizing the economy was the largest such endeavor in the history of Europe.

One of Robespierre’s goals was to create a republic of virtue in France. He wanted to nationalize everything, and the more radical revolutionaries wanted to de-Christianize everything. Robespierre made sure that books, pamphlets, and even everyday items were branded with revolutionary messages. The government encouraged the creation of patriotic art and the staging of patriotic festivals. The government closed churches of all denominations and replaced Catholicism first with the Cult of Reason and then with the Cult of the Supreme Being. Once, the government sponsored the Festival of Reason inside the esteemed Notre Dame Cathedral.

The new religion had no foundations in former religions; it was created entirely by Robespierre and those around him. The bottom line of the cult was that all men possessed souls and that there existed one god, the Supreme Being. Robespierre, apparently proud of his new religion, declared, “Never has the world which He created offered to Him a spectacle so worthy of His notice.” Ironically, the man who was directly responsible for tens of thousands of imprisonments and executions also declared, “He created men to help each other, to love each other mutually ....”

As a Matter of Fact

In one of the most interesting moves of the de-Christianization movement, the new government even replaced the Gregorian calendar with a new French Republican Calendar consisting of 12 months of 30 days each. Each month consisted of three 10- day weeks. The months were given names that translated roughly as “snowy," “windy," “flower," “meadow," and “hot." Each day of each month was also associated with plants, animals, and tools. All these efforts show the new government's determination to eliminate anything that would remind the French of the old order and the old way of doing things.

Just as the Committee of Public Safety devoted much attention to foreign enemies, it turned its attention inward, too, and focused on the “enemies” at home. Led by the increasingly paranoid Robespierre, the committee launched what became known as the Reign of Terror. Robespierre used the committee as a tool to eliminate those who opposed either the republic or the committee, rounding up political enemies of the republic and trying them in special courts not bound by the usual laws of France. The committee’s courts tried and convicted hundreds of thousands of French for treason and related crimes. Tens of thousands lost their lives under the Reign of Terror, while more than a quarter-million more found themselves in prison. The Reign of Terror targeted all enemies of the state, young and old, rich and poor, men and women. The oppressive king had been replaced by a ruthless, blood-thirsty dictatorship. The paranoid Robespierre even had some of the men within his circle executed.

The brutality and repression of the republic met with much resistance among the common people in France, especially women, who resented the changes in religion and in everyday life. Perhaps the best example of such resistance by women was the work of Charlotte Corday (1768-1793), a staunch supporter of the Girondists.

Corday became repulsed by Jean-Paul Marat, a newspaper man who called for more violence and who was responsible for the arrests of numerous Girondists. Corday told Marat that she could provide him names of more Girondists and Marat finally gave her an audience. Marat had a terrible skin disease so he spent most of his time in the bathtub. She entered his bathroom and dictated several names to him. As he wrote, she pulled a knife and stabbed Marat in the chest. Corday paid for her efforts on the guillotine. The assassination was immortalized by the painter Jacques Louis David in his famous Death of Marat. The painting shows an assassinated Marat lying lifeless in his tub.

The Thermidorian Reaction

Those around Robespierre, and many others in the National Convention, began to fear they might be the next victims of Robespierre’s Reign of Terror. Therefore, when Robespierre stood to address the National Convention on the ninth day of the month of Thermidor, or July 27, 1794, by the Gregorian calendar, his opponents grabbed him and arrested him. The next day, Robespierre met the same fate as tens of thousands of his victims. As the guillotine added the names of Robespierre and some of his followers to the list of casualties of the French Revolution, the Reign of Terror ended and the Thermidorian Reaction began.

The National Convention, controlled now by moderates, ended the terror, released many political prisoners, and removed Jacobins from scores of government positions. The new leadership also eased the economic restrictions and worked to make France more in line with middle-class values. The Convention’s new policies were hard on the poor. Prices rose and shortages resulted from the wealthy buying things like crazy. In a strange turn of events, the wealthy women even reacted wildly by wearing lipstick and dresses made of revealing fabric that showed an unprecedented amount of cleavage. In contrast to such wildness, many people sought to reopen churches. The movements to bring back the Church were most often headed by women.

Things were good for the middle-class and bad for the poor. Eventually, the poor revolted again as a result of food shortages. Rather than granting concessions to the poor, the Convention used the army to crush the uprisings. The poor were effectively made irrelevant in politics for another generation. To solidify its hold on the government and economy, the middle-class-dominated Convention created a new constitution in 1795.

The Establishment of the Directory

The new constitution created the first bicameral legislature in French history, made up of the Council of Five Hundred and the Council of Ancients, and a new executive, a five-man body known as the Directory. The Directory relied on the military to maintain power and chase away the remaining Jacobins and Royalists. The Directory also used the military to sustain the economy. The Directory kept the army busy abroad adding lands to the holdings of the French republic. Under the Directory, the French armies marched all over Europe, especially in Italy and the Netherlands, even venturing into Egypt.

By 1799, the Directory had managed only to hang on to control in France. The wars abroad weren’t going as well as they had in previous years and turmoil emerged at home. Some politicians wanted to revise the constitution and some generals seemed to be doing their own thing. Disunity prevailed, which provided the opportunity for a strong leader to step in and take control.

The Least You Need to Know

The 13 British colonies in America rebelled against Britain. Aided by France, the colonies declared and eventually won their independence from Britain.

• Many of the French who fought in America took ideas about liberty, equality, and opposing tyranny back to France after the war.

The enormous debt left by Louis XIV and Louis XV, coupled with the enormous expenses incurred during the Seven Years’ War and American Revolution, left Louis XVI in a terrible financial mess.

Three social orders, or estates, existed before the French Revolution and were represented in the Estates-General. Louis XVI called the first meeting of the Estates-General since 1614 because he needed to raise taxes.

The poor of Paris played a major role in the revolution. First, mobs stormed the Bastille and later hungry women marched to Versailles where they captured the royal family.

The National Convention, the leading body of the new French Republic, saw its power eventually go to the radical Mountain, led by Robespierre, whose Committee of Public Safety instituted the Reign of Terror, an attempt to rid France of all opposed to the new republic.

After Robespierre was guillotined, a new constitution placed power in a bicameral legislature and an executive called the Directory.

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