Modern history


September 1792 to January 1793

The opening of the Convention – Valmy, the proclamation of the Republic, the clash between Gironde and Montagne, the trial and execution of the king

They were alone in the hall. Danton had before him a glass and a dust-covered bottle of wine, reminiscent of Luther’s beer mug; in front of Marat, a cup of coffee; and in front of Robespierre, just papers.

– Victor Hugo, Ninety-Three

Responsibility for the massacres – Marat

In the days and weeks that followed the massacres, the Girondins sought to pin the responsibility on their political opponents: the massacres were not the action of the people of Paris, but perpetrated by a small number of ‘hired brigands’. Under whose direction? That of a few ‘tyrants’ who sought to climb to power over the corpses of their enemies. These tyrants were to be found in the Commune of Paris and its surveillance committee, and among the leaders of the Montagne – Robespierre, Danton, and above all Marat.

There is a common opinion, maintained by many historians (including Jaurès, who could not find words harsh enough for this ‘theorist of systematic murder’1), that Marat had called for the massacre and bore sole responsibility for it. This view is based on an article in L’Ami du peuple on 19 August, in which Marat wrote: ‘The final option, which is the safest and most wise, is to proceed armed to the Abbaye, seize the traitors, particularly the Swiss officers and their accomplices, and put them to the sword.’ Between 19 August and 2 September, however, Marat published nothing (for the good reason that his paper did not appear in this interval), and it is hard to see people suddenly rushing to the prisons on the basis of an article two weeks old. One might just as well maintain that the staunchly Girondin Gorsas justified and supported the massacres, when he wrote in Le Courrier des 83 départements on 3 September: ‘Let them perish! The furious people, knowing that the prisons are full of conspirators, are meting out a terrible but necessary justice … for we cannot disguise from ourselves the fact that we are in open war with the enemies of our liberty.’

The Montagnards defended themselves vigorously against this accusation. Thus Marat, in Le Journal de la République française on 14 October: ‘Too commonly, slander … is the chosen weapon of public rogues, and it has sped from the platform of the Assembly and the offices of Roland to all points of the realm, painting the Commune of Paris as a horde of cannibals on the grounds of the disastrous events of 2 and 3 September’ (my emphasis). Robespierre defended the Commune in similar terms:

Could the magistrates have stopped the people? For it was a popular movement, not the partial sedition of a few wretches paid to murder their fellows … I have heard people coolly tell me that the municipality should have proclaimed martial law. Martial law on 2 September! Martial law, as the enemy approaches! Martial law, after 10 August! Martial law for the accomplices of the dethroned tyrant against the people!2

But the Montagnards did not wish for an extended debate on a subject they found troubling. Even the Société des Jacobins, in a circular of 30 November to its affiliated societies, struck a note of caution: ‘Let us draw a religious veil over all these events, leaving their judgement to posterity alone.’3

The elections to the Convention

As it spread across the departments, the news of the September massacres coincided with the elections to the Convention. The electoral assemblies started meeting on 2 September (for the second level of the elections). In the provinces, the Girondin candidates were the best placed. They had dominated the platform in the Legislative Assembly, and the Girondin press, by far the most widely read outside of Paris, campaigned against the ‘brigands’ responsible for the massacres. On 10 September, Brissot’s Le Patriote françaisproclaimed victory: ‘Today we can begin to cherish the highest hopes for the new assembly, following the good choices made in the departments.’ The provinces did indeed elect a large number of Girondins, including Brissot, Condorcet, Carra, Louvet and Gorsas.

Paris, on the other hand, voted for the party of the Commune. Not one of the Girondin candidates, criticized for their softness towards the king and their hostility to the Commune, was elected. Robespierre came top of the list, followed by Marat, Collot d’Herbois, Billaud-Varenne, Danton, Desmoulins, Panis, Sergent, David …

It is impossible to enumerate precisely how the Convention was divided between Girondins and Montagnards, as neither of these formed a compact bloc that could be represented by a diagram. The Gironde and the Montagne were groups centred around core leaders, around which there moved fluctuating majorities recruited from the Plaine, the great mass of those whose allegiance was sometimes to one of the opposing tendencies and sometimes to the other.


The Convention was the first of the revolutionary assemblies to be elected on universal (male) suffrage. But was it representative (leaving aside the theoretical aspect of the representation of the people)?

Looking just at the electoral system, the answer is unhesitatingly negative. The two-level ballot did not encourage participation (it seems people did not flood to the primary assemblies). Ultimately it favoured the selection of the new notables who were officials of the Revolution: judges, administrators of departments, districts and communes, procureurs, officers of the National Guard, etc., as well as more traditional notables such as doctors and notaries, landowners and large farmers. Given that the great majority of the French people at this time were peasants or artisans, we have to accept that the Convention was not a representative assembly in terms of composition.4

In terms of operation, however, the position was quite different. I do not mean the speeches and debates, which remained parliamentary exercises, even if their tone, their intensity and their consequences were of a quite different order than those of today. I mean rather the intervention of the people in the sessions of the Convention.

First of all, there were ordinary people in the galleries who were not shy about making their opinion known. It is true that the size and layout of the Salle du Manège – as later, that of the Salle des Machines – prevented any large numbers from being admitted. InL’Ami du peuple on 15 September 1792, Marat warned:

Beware of holding the National Convention in the pestilent air of the Manège des Tuileries. Prepare premises for it that are large enough to hold three thousand citizens in galleries that are quite open and absolutely free from guards, in such a way that the deputies are constantly under the eyes of the people and have no other safeguard but their civic spirit and their virtue.

Of course, this advice was not implemented. But just as important as the direct pressure of the people was the way each session of the Convention began with several hours set aside for the reading of letters and hearing of delegations that were a direct emanation from the people. True, these were often simple revolutionary acts of faith, delegates from far-flung communes bringing their gifts to the Nation, asserting their support for their representatives or congratulating them on this or that measure. But they could also involve criticisms or proposals, which sometimes had immediate effects. On many occasions, as we shall see, the Convention listened to them and followed them on matters as important as the renewal of administrations, de-Christianization, or the setting of price caps (known as ‘le maximum’). In this respect, the Convention certainly was the first and only French national assembly in which the people were able to make their voice directly heard.


With the journées of 20 and 25 September 1792, events speeded up: first Valmy, then the opening of the Convention, where momentous decisions were taken right from the start.

Valmy, first of all, as it is impossible to relate everything at the same time. Late in September, Kellermann, a veteran of the Seven Years’ War, was commanding the army of the Centre, in Lorraine. To the south, the army of the Rhine was led by Biron, then Custine. Dumouriez headed the army of the North, part of which was around Sedan and the rest facing Belgium – which Dumouriez dreamed of conquering – from Maubeuge to Dunkirk. Opposite them, the Austro-Prussian army was commanded by the duke of Brunswick, whom Michelet describes as ‘a man of prodigious education, and all the more hesitant and sceptical as a result. Whoever knows much, doubts much.’ Brunswick would have preferred to methodically besiege the French strongholds in the East and then take up his winter quarters, but the émigrés would not stay still and even the king of Prussia was growing impatient.

Brunswick therefore moved to the attack on 12 September, north of the Argonne in the forest of La Croix-aux-Bois. Dumouriez had got peasants to block the gorges of the Argonne leading from Lorraine into Champagne (the ‘French Thermopylae’, as he said, ‘but we shall be more fortunate than Leonidas’). But the route via La Croix-aux-Bois was left unguarded. Dumouriez risked being cut off, but Brunswick was slow and indecisive, which enabled the French to retreat at night in the rain. Servan, minister of war, had given the order to retire to Châlons and hold a line on the Marne. Dumouriez disobeyed and retreated south towards Sainte-Menehould, which was daring, as it left the road to Paris wide open. The Prussians, however, had forgotten the lightning manoeuvres of the great Frederick: they took up position on the hills facing the French army, in a paradoxical situation in which they were on the Paris side whilst Kellermann, occupying a kind of forward promontory marked by the Valmy windmill, was on the far side. King Friedrich-Wilhelm gave the order to attack. The Prussians ‘assumed that the French who, for the most part, had never heard cannon fire, would be amazed by this novel concert of sixty guns. But sixty French guns responded, and for the whole day this army, made up in part by National Guard, withstood a harder test than any battle: immobility under fire.’5 At eleven in the morning, the Prussian infantry advanced in three columns through the valley separating them from the French, and prepared to attack. It was at this moment that Kellermann, in a famous gesture, brandished his hat on the point of his sword and cried: ‘Vive la Nation!’ The entire army followed suit, and their shout ‘filled the whole valley: it was like a shout of joy, but astonishingly prolonged; it lasted no less than a quarter of an hour, for whenever it subsided it started up again with still greater force, making the earth tremble: “Vive la Nation”.’6 The Prussian infantry halted. Brunswick dared not order the assault and had them return to their positions. A torrential rain began to fall, and that evening the two armies bivouacked where they were.


Valmy – a victory won by shouting. Strategically it meant very little, as the Prussian army remained intact and the road to Paris open. Symbolically, however, it was a tremendous event, and the Austro-Prussians understood that this army they so despised would not be so easily defeated. They retreated in good order in the rain, unimpeded by Dumouriez, eager as he was to resume his plans against Belgium.


The opposition of Gironde and Montagne

The news of the Valmy victory reached Paris on 21 September, the day after the opening of the Convention in the Salle du Manège.7 But right from the election of its bureau, the Girondins benefited from their majority position: Pétion was elected president almost unanimously,8 and the secretaries were all from the same side – Condorcet, Brissot, Rabaut Saint-Étienne, Vergniaud and Lasource, together with Camus, a former Feuillant.

The antagonism between the Gironde and the Montagne was not based on social background. There was rather a geographical difference between them. The great figures of the Montagne, if not all Parisian, were at least Paris deputies, whereas the heroes of the Gironde (except for Brissot) came from the south.9 And the south was (and is still today) traditionally and culturally more jealous of its identity, more hostile to Parisian domination, than the rest of the country. The Protestant pastor Lasource, deputy for the Tarn, was among the Girondins who best expressed the sentiments of the group towards Paris:

I fear the despotism of Paris, and I do not want those who there command the opinions of men whom they lead astray to dominate the National Convention and all of France … Paris must be reduced to an eighty-third share of influence, the same as the other departments. I shall never consent to its tyrannizing the Republic, as sought by certain intriguers against whom I shall be the first to rise up, because I shall never remain silent before any species of tyrant.10

But the conflict was deeper still, with two opposing conceptions of the society to be created. The Girondins saw property as a basic natural right, and believed that the state had no business interfering in the free play of supply and demand. The Montagnards, while also upholding respect for property, defined this in a different way, subordinating it to the right to existence. There were discordant voices even among them. Thus Momoro, an influential member of the Cordeliers and a friend of Danton, who was sent as commissioner to the Eure department to recruit volunteers, distributed a declaration of rights there which affirmed that ‘1) the nation recognizes industrial properties, guaranteeing their inviolability; 2) the nation equally assures to citizens the guarantee and inviolability of what are mistakenly called landed properties, until such time as it will have promulgated laws on this subject.’11 In Lyon, a justice of the peace named Lange proposed the creation of a subscription system by which consumers would collectively purchase the whole of the harvest from proprietors and merchants on fixed terms. A farming company, controlled by the state, would store the harvest in 30,000 granaries, and set the price of bread which would be the same for the whole of France.12 Proposals of this kind scared the Girondins, who saw in them the hand of ‘those who wish to level everything – property, well-being, the price of commodities …, who want even to level talent, knowledge and virtue, as they have none of these things themselves!’13

Even the functioning of the two ‘parties’ was sufficiently different to be seen as symbolic. The Girondin leadership met in salons such as those of Madame Roland at her husband’s ministry or of Madame Dodun, the mistress of Vergniaud, on the place Vendôme. The Montagnards, for their part, made it a point of honour to deliberate only in public, at the Jacobins club.

The proclamation of the Republic and the Gironde’s attack on the ‘triumvirs’ (Danton, Robespierre, Marat)

Following the verification of mandates, the Convention began its proceedings on 21 September. In its opening session, major decisions were taken in an atmosphere of reconciliation. The only intervention that betrayed the underlying tension was that of Couthon: ‘I have heard talk, not without horror, of the establishment of a triumvirate, a dictatorship, a protectorate: these rumours are surely a means of disturbance dreamed up by enemies of the Revolution.’14

Danton, in a skilful speech, began by announcing his resignation as minister of justice: ‘I received [these functions] to the sound of the cannon with which the citizens of the capital were demolishing despotism … but now that the union of our armies is accomplished, and the political union of the people’s representatives effected, I am no more than a mandatory of the people and will confine myself to that honourable function, and proceed to speak in that capacity.’ He continued: ‘The empty phantoms of dictatorship, the extravagant idea of a triumvirate, all these absurdities invented to frighten the people, will disappear, since nothing will be constitutional that is not accepted by the people.’ He demanded ‘laws as pitiless against those who would attack them as the people were in overthrowing tyranny.’ On the other hand, to reassure the possessor classes, he proposed to decree that ‘all landed, individual and industrial property shall be held in perpetuity and placed under the safeguard of the entire French people.’15These proposals were well designed to disarm his critics – one of the supposed triumvirs denouncing the idea of a triumvirate, one of the supposed ‘disrupters’ (désorganisateurs) defending property.

In the discussion that ensued, Collot d’Herbois asked to speak on a motion of order: ‘You have just made a wise decision [on the collection of taxes]; but there is a great, salutary and indispensable one that you cannot postpone until tomorrow, that you cannot postpone to this evening, that you cannot delay a single moment without being disloyal to the wish of the nation: that is, the abolition of the monarchy.’ Grégoire supported him: ‘We have to destroy the word “king”, which is still a talisman with a magic power able to stupefy many men.’

‘The president sought to put the proposal to the vote, but the members of the assembly all rose spontaneously to their feet and, by unanimous acclamation, protested their hatred for a form of government that had caused so much harm to the patrie.’16 The next day, on Billaud-Varenne’s proposal, the Convention decided that, starting from the day before, all public acts would be dated from year I of the Republic, and that the state seal ‘would bear as motif a woman leaning with one hand on a fasces and holding in the other a lance topped by the bonnet of liberty, with the motto: La République française.’

This fine unanimity would not last. As early as 22 September, discord broke out when a delegation from Orléans arrived to complain of the city administrators. Billaud-Varenne: ‘I favour the re-election of all the administrators [not just those of Orléans]. As for the courts, I believe it is not enough to re-elect their members, they should be swept away. The courts have been nothing more than pillars of tyranny.’ There were shouts of ‘anarchy’. Lasource: ‘Nothing is worse than this mania for destruction without having any replacement to hand.’ But it was finally decreed that ‘the administrative, municipal and judicial bodies, the justices of the peace, the bailiffs, shall be renewed in their entirety, apart from those worthy of the patrie, who may be re-elected.’17

At this point, Tallien proposed that ‘any citizen may be elected judge without needing to be enrolled on the list of men of the law’. Despite violent protests from the right side of the hall, the Convention decided that ‘judges may be chosen from among all citizens without distinction’.18 This was a defeat for the Girondins, and the end of the truce.

The counter-attack was not long in coming. On 24 September, Buzot came to the platform to demand that the Convention be surrounded by a guard recruited in the departments, with a view to ensuring the safety of the deputies. Tallien, Collot d’Herbois and Billaud-Varenne denounced this sign of distrust towards Paris, but to no avail; the Convention decided to establish for its protection a public force drawn from the eighty-three departments.19

The memorable session of the next day, 25 September, was long and stormy. The Gironde had prepared a general attack on the ‘triumvirs’, the three most feared and hated leaders of the Montagne: Danton, Robespierre and Marat.

After Lasource had launched an anathema against ‘the men who have constantly incited daggers against those members of the Legislative Assembly who most firmly defended the cause of liberty’, Rebecqui, deputy for the Bouches-du-Rhône, made a short and strange intervention: ‘The party that has been denounced to you, whose intention is to establish a dictatorship, is the party of Robespierre; that was common knowledge in Marseille, as my colleague, M. Barbaroux, will testify, and it is to combat it that we were sent here.’20

Danton’s reaction to this was, characteristically, an attempt at pacification (‘a synthesis’, as we would say today). His proposal was in two parts: first of all, ‘it is incontestable that a vigorous law is needed against those who seek to destroy public liberty. Well, let us pass this law, let us pass a law that lays down the death penalty for anyone who speaks out in favour of dictatorship or a triumvirate’; secondly, he demanded that the death penalty be also applied ‘against anyone who seeks to destroy the unity of France’. At the end of this speech, aimed equally at both dictatorship and what would soon be called federalism, his appeal for unity brought loud applause: ‘The Austrians will tremble to learn of this sacred harmony, and at this point, I swear to you, our enemies are dead.’21

After Robespierre had supported Danton’s proposal, Barbaroux returned to the debate on dictatorship:

We don’t want a dictatorship! Why then oppose a decree by the Convention that citizens from all the departments should gather for its safety and that of Paris? … Marseille has sent 800 men drawn from the most patriotic and independent citizens. Their fathers have given them each two pistols, a sword, a musket and an assignat of 500 livres. They are accompanied by 200 cavalry, armed and equipped at their own cost … Hasten then to pass this decree, confirming the principle that the Convention belongs not only to Paris but to the whole of France.22

The discussion descended to invective when Marat came to the platform. Angry murmurs, cries of ‘Down with the speaker’ arose from all sides. Marat: ‘Do I have in this assembly so many personal enemies, then?’ – ‘All of us!’ Marat let the storm pass and continued: ‘I have a large number of enemies in this assembly; I call on them to behave with decorum and not oppose with vain shouts, boos or threats a man who is devoted to the patrie and to their own safety.’ He admitted having several times proposed the appointment of a dictator, but ‘in all fairness I must declare that my colleagues, Robespierre, Danton and all the rest have always disapproved of the idea either of a tribunal, or of a triumvirate, or of a dictatorship. If anyone is guilty of having thrown ideas of this kind to the public, it is I! I call down on my head the vengeance of the Nation: but before unleashing opprobrium or the sword, listen to me!’ Marat’s courage impressed the assembly and he was able to go on. ‘When the established authorities were doing nothing but murder patriots in the name of the law, do you call it a crime for me to have called for the avenging axe of the people to fall on the heads of traitors?’23 The remarkable boldness, sincerity and eloquence of this speech subdued the Convention, and when Vergniaud called Marat a ‘man dripping all over with slander, bile and blood’, he was interrupted by murmurs.

Toward the end of the session, as invective and accusation flew in all directions, suddenly Couthon spoke up: ‘I ask that we speak of the Revolution and not of individuals. I ask the Convention to decree the unity of the Republic.’ After a lengthy debate on the best possible formulation, the Convention opted for the famous phrase: ‘The French Republic is one and indivisible.’24

The fédérés in Paris – the Girondins leave the Jacobins club

Despite no official decision, the Girondin departments sent contingents of fédérés to Paris. Those from Marseille, as announced by Barbaroux, arrived on 19 October. Marat went to see them in their barracks, showed concern for their arrangements and invited three from each company to dine with him. By mid-November, the 15,000 or so fédérés now in Paris were thoroughly beguiled by the Parisians. Many would leave for the front, while the others formed the Société des Fédérés des 83 Départements, a kind of club inspired by the Jacobins.25 The Girondin manoeuvre had misfired.

On 29 October, Roland presented an interminable report on the situation in Paris, in which he attacked the Commune as an institution ‘precipitated by the revolutionary movement, carried away by its zeal, mistaken in its aims, [which] has seized all powers and not always exercised them justly’.26 Robespierre asked to speak against the printing of this speech.27 In the stormy discussion that ensued, he lamented that no one dared accuse him to his face. Louvet then advanced to the platform: ‘I present myself against you, Robespierre, and demand the right to accuse you.’28 His speech was one of the most vicious and dangerous attacks that Robespierre had yet been forced to hear: a long and rhetorically effective speech, punctuated by a rapid volley of accusations: of having persecuted and demeaned the national representation, ‘of having continually presented yourself as an object of idolatry, of having accepted its being said in your presence that you are the only virtuous man in France’, of having tyrannized the electoral assembly of Paris, and of ‘clearly marching towards supreme power, which is proved both by the facts I have indicated, and by your whole conduct, which will speak louder to accuse you than I can.’29 The assembly decided to have the speech printed, and deferred Robespierre’s reply to 5 November.

In this response, not only did Robespierre ridicule Louvet’s accusations, he took the opportunity to justify revolutionary illegality:

What idea have we formed, then, of the recent revolution? Did the fall of the throne seem so easy before its success? Was it just a matter of a surprise attack on the Tuileries? Was it not necessary to annihilate the party of tyrants throughout France? … Citizens, did you want a revolution without revolution? What is this spirit of persecution that wants to revise, so to speak, the actions that broke our chains? Who can mark after the event the precise point at which the swell of popular insurrection is to break? If this were the price, what people would ever be able to shake off the yoke of despotism?30

This was the context in which the Girondins abandoned the Jacobins club. Brissot had been summoned to explain himself on the subject of an article in Le Patriote français (23 September) in which he had slandered the Paris deputation and the Commune, denouncing the presence of a ‘disruptive party’ in the Convention. He did not show up. Expelled from the club on 10 October, he replied with a pamphlet inviting his supporters to follow him, and the provincial societies to break their ties with the rue Saint-Honoré.31 The Montagnards now had a free hand in the Jacobins club.

Provisions crisis and peasant insurrections

Of the many failures of the Girondin ministry under Roland, the most serious was certainly in economic policy, and above all the question of provisions. A serious crisis broke out in autumn 1792, despite the harvest being good: as Beffroy put it, procureur of Laon and deputy to the Convention: ‘It is in the midst of abundance that the people are threatened with famine.’32 An artificial famine, whose causes were clear – not least to Saint-Just, in his speech on provisions of 29 November: ‘Everything is converted into money, the fruits of the soil are hoarded or hidden; in all the state I see nothing but poverty, pride and paper.’33 The assignat was steadily falling, producers were little inclined to exchange their grain for paper, and traders covered themselves against the depreciation of that paper by raising their prices. The massive purchases for the army and the prohibition, in the name of equality, of putting rye in the bread, also contributed to the scarcity and expense of a product vital to the majority of the population. There were certainly grass-roots movements to have wages raised in line with the cost of bread, but without the right to organize, the workers had no power to press their demands. And, to quote Saint-Just again: ‘It is said that the pay of artisans rises with the price of foodstuffs; but if the artisan has no work, who will pay for his idleness?’34

Le Père Duchesne (no. 199, December 1792) railed against Roland:

Twenty cooks loaded with the finest delicacies cry out: ‘Make way, make way, these are the entrées of the virtuous Roland’; others, ‘the hors-d’oeuvres of the virtuous Roland’; others again, ‘the roasts of the virtuous Roland’. – ‘What do you want?’ says the virtuous Roland’s valet to the deputation. – ‘We want to speak to the virtuous Roland.’ – ‘He’s not to be seen at the moment.’ – ‘Tell him that he must always be available for the magistrates of the people.’

Jacques Roux, spokesman for the Gravilliers section, accused the Convention of covering up for speculators and hoarders, and denounced ‘senatorial despotism’. Varlet, a postal clerk, set up a mobile platform outside the Assembly from which he harangued the crowd, accusing members of the Convention on all sides of forming an oligarchy and confiscating the sovereignty of the people.

At Lyon, where 30,000 silk-workers were unemployed, other Enragés stirred up the crowds: Dodieu, who proposed a special tribunal to punish hoarders, and Hidins, who presented the Lyon Commune with a project that included the abolition of trade in grain, the creation of a national board for subsistence goods, the nationalization of mills and the regulation of baking. Priests also joined the movement: Dolivier, the parish priest of Mauchamp, had already defended the peasants arrested for the killing of Simonneau, the mayor of Étampes who had opposed the fixing of prices; Petitjean, parish priest of Épineuil in the Cher, preached that ‘goods will be common, there will be only one cellar and one barn, from which each will take whatever they need.’35

On 19 November, a deputation from the electoral body of the Seine-et-Oise, led by a certain Goujon, came to the bar of the Convention with an unusual proposal:

Citizens, the first principle we put before you is this: free trading in grain is incompatible with our republic. What is our republic made up of? A small number of capitalists and a large number of the poor. Who trades in grain? The small number of capitalists. Why do they do so? To grow rich. How can they grow rich? By increasing the price of grain when they sell it to the consumer … The second truth: we must act so that there is grain, and that the invariable price of this grain is always proportionate to the daily wage … Decree that all grain shall be sold by weight. Set a maximum price. Make it for this year 9 livres a quintal, an average price that is equally good for the producer and the consumer.36

In response to this, Grégoire, who was chairing the session, read out a letter from Roland: ‘Perhaps the only thing that the Assembly can permit itself on the question of staples is to pronounce that it must do nothing, that it suppresses all restrictions and declares the most total freedom in the circulation of commodities.’ The Convention decided not to have the dangerous petition printed, lest it ‘spread terror among owners of property’.

This vote was soon followed by a peasant insurrection that spread rapidly to the whole of the Beauce. Bands led by the local authorities fixed food prices; on 21 November at Nogent-le-Rotrou, on the 23rd at Vendôme, they did so while dancing around liberty trees to the cry of ‘Vive la Nation! Wheat will come down.’ Early in December, 10,000 peasants marched on Tours:

The three commissioners sent by the Convention to the Eure-et-Loir, Birotteau, Maure and Lecointe-Puyraveau, proceeded on 29 November to the great market at Courville. They were surrounded by 6,000 armed men who threatened to throw them into the river or hang them. To save their lives, they were forced to approve not only the fixing of the wheat price, but also the prices of barley, candles, beef, cloth, shoes and iron.37

The Convention decided to send troops under the command of a general, and repression was unleashed throughout the Beauce.

Robespierre made a final effort in his speech on provisions of 2 December, in which he spelled out his conception of property: ‘The first social law is therefore the one that guarantees all members of society the means to live; all the others are subordinate to that one; property was only instituted and guaranteed to consolidate it … Everything essential to conserve life is property common to the whole of society. Only the surplus can be individual property and left subject to the enterprise of merchants.’38 But to no avail. On 8 December, all regulation was abolished and it was decreed that ‘the fullest freedom shall continue to prevail in trade in grains, flours and pulses throughout the territory of the Republic’.39 This was a victory for Roland, but hatred of the Gironde now spread among the people of both town and country.

The trial, judgement and execution of the king

With the accusation and trial of the king, violence and confrontation rose a further notch. The Montagnards wanted the tyrant punished. The Girondins could not frontally oppose this without giving succour to the accusation of royalism, but they put up a series of obstacles designed to avoid, delay or divert what would seem the inevitable outcome of any trial: the execution of the king.40 It is not that they were inclined to ‘royalism’ in any shape or form; everything shows the Girondins to have been sincerely republican. To say that they worked against that outcome for the simple reason that the Montagnards were working for it, and they did not want their opponents to have this satisfaction, is not sufficient. Perhaps Jaurès’s insight was closer to the mark:

Sometimes, therefore, in rapid and secret melancholies, the tragic mystery of their own destiny led them to sense the tragic mystery of the king’s destiny. Their thoughts encountered, on the threshold of annihilation, the monarchy abolished and the king under threat. And like shadows that touch at the edges, the fate of the Gironde seemed contiguous with the fate of the king. Were the Girondins sure that in striking, they would not be striking themselves?41

The legislation committee, tasked on 16 October with proposing the procedure to be followed, worked slowly. It was only on 7 November that Jean-Baptiste Mailhe, a lawyer from Toulouse, presented his report. He began by discarding the argument of the inviolability of the king as inscribed in the 1791 Constitution: ‘Citizens, the nation has spoken; the nation has chosen you to be the organ of its sovereign wishes; here royal inviolability is as if it had never existed.’ He went on to show that only the Convention – and not a regular court, or one set up for the occasion – could judge the king, as only it represented the nation.

In the discussion on this report, Saint-Just spoke on 13 November in a quite different vein. His speech caused a sensation, as the speaker was a man of twenty-five who was previously unknown, and his tone, words and arguments were quite different from anything commonly heard.

The sole aim of the committee was to persuade you that the king should be judged as a simple citizen, but I say that the king must be judged as an enemy: that we have not to judge him but to fight him, and that having no place in the contract that binds the French people, the forms of procedure are not to be found in civil law, but in the law of nations … The men who will judge Louis have a Republic to found; those who attach the least importance to the matter of a king’s just punishment will never found a Republic. Among us, fineness of mind and character is a great obstacle to liberty … It is impossible to reign innocently, the folly of it is too clear … He is the murderer of the Bastille, of Nancy, of the Champ-de-Mars, of Tournai, of the Tuileries: what enemy or foreigner has done us greater harm? He is a kind of hostage kept by the fripons.42

A week later, the famous ‘iron cabinet’ was discovered in a wall of the Tuileries, containing documents that proved the collusion between Louis and the nation’s enemies. It was no longer possible to delay the trial.

Robespierre, on 3 December, took up Saint-Just’s argument:

This assembly has been led, without realizing it, far from the real question. There is no trial to be held here. Louis is not a defendant. You are not judges. You are not, you cannot be, anything but statesmen and representatives of the nation … Louis has been dethroned by his crimes; Louis denounced the French people as rebellious; to chastise them he called on the arms of his fellow tyrants; victory and the people decided that he was the rebellious one: therefore Louis cannot be judged; either he is already condemned, or the Republic is not acquitted … Peoples do not judge in the same way as courts of law; they do not hand down sentences, they throw thunderbolts; they do not condemn kings, they drop them back into the void; and this justice is worth just as much as that of the courts.43

The motion proposed by Robespierre signified execution without trial: ‘Louis XVI, traitor to the nation, enemy of humanity, shall be punished by death in the place where the defenders of liberty perished on 10 August.’

This position was so radical that it did not attract unanimous support even among the Montagnards. Marat himself feared that it went against the grain of public sentiment: ‘The ex-monarch must be judged, there is no doubt about it,’ he wrote, presenting the trial as an educational tool: ‘The gathering of evidence for his trial is the most certain means to finally deliver the nation from its most fearsome enemies, to terrify traitors, to root out every conspiracy, and to at last ensure the liberty, tranquillity, and felicity of the public.’

On 6 December, the Convention appointed a twenty-one-man commission charged with drawing up the indictment. It decided at the same time that voting at the trial would be by roll call. On 10 December, Robert Lindet handed over in the name of the commission ‘the charge sheet of the crimes of Louis Capet’, from the military preparations of July 1789 through to the shootings of 10 August 1792. The following day, Louis came to the bar of the Convention to hear the reading of this act and reply to the questions put by Barère. As Marat reported: ‘Here was a completely new and sublime spectacle for the philanthropist, that of a despot previously surrounded by the brilliance of his pomp and the formidable apparatus of his power, stripped of all the imposing signs of his former grandeur and brought like a criminal to the foot of a popular tribunal, to accept its judgement and pay the penalty for his misdeeds.’44

In actual fact, the atmosphere was muted. Louis replied in placid and cautious terms, blaming his ministers and denying the evidence of the iron cabinet. He appeared a second time on 26 December together with his three advocates, the old Malesherbes, Tronchet, and de Sèze who read a long plea on the theme that the whole trial was illegal: ‘Louis would thus be the only Frenchman for whom there exists no law and no due process. He will have neither the rights of a citizen nor the prerogatives of a king. What a strange and unimaginable fate!’45

The Girondin deputies then attempted a diversion by calling for an appeal to the people – the primary assemblies – as embodying the direct sovereignty of the nation. The leaders of the Gironde spoke one after the other in favour of this referendum. Vergniaud: ‘Any act emanating from the representatives of the people is an attack on its sovereignty if it is not subject to the people’s formal or tacit ratification. Only the people, who promised Louis inviolability, can declare that it wishes to employ the right to punish that it had renounced.’46

Robespierre had answered this point already, on 28 December, denouncing the risk of civil war it involved:

Can you not see that it is impossible for such a great multitude of assemblies to be entirely in agreement; and that this very division, at a moment when enemies are approaching, is the greatest of all calamities? In this way, the fury of civil war will combine with the plague of foreign war; and ambitious plotters will compromise with the enemies of the people over the ruins of the patrie and the bloody corpses of its defenders.47

After Buzot had proposed that the people be consulted not as to the appropriateness of the verdict but rather upon the sentence pronounced, and Pétion had argued for the king’s imprisonment for reasons of foreign policy, voting began on 14 January.

The members of the Convention had to respond, one at a time and aloud, to three questions: ‘Is Louis Capet guilty of conspiracy against liberty and offences against national safety? Shall there be an appeal to the nation as to the sentence passed? What punishment shall be inflicted on Louis?’ The king’s guilt was pronounced almost unanimously. The appeal to the people was rejected by 426 votes to 278. The death penalty was carried by 387 votes to 334, but as twenty-six of the former had also pronounced for a reprieve, a final vote was required, which rejected the reprieve by 380 votes to 310.

The execution took place on 21 January 1793. ‘The tyrant has fallen under the sword of the law. This great act of justice has caused consternation to the aristocracy, destroyed the superstition around royalty and established the Republic. It has impressed a great character on the National Convention and made it worthy of the trust of the French people.’48

The trial and execution of the king represented a major defeat for the Gironde. On 23 January Roland resigned, to be replaced at the ministry by Garat, a prudent man who was always quick to side with the winners.

1Jaurès, Histoire socialiste, vol. 3, p. 140.

2At the Convention on 5 November, in his speech in reply to Louvet (see below, p. 208), A. P., vol. 52, p. 162.

3Caron, Les Massacres de septembre, pp. 168–70.

4As for wage-earners, a quite small category at this time, there were only two: a cabinet-maker from Saint-Étienne and a wool-carder from the Marne.

5Michelet, Histoire de la Révolution, vol. 1, p. 892.

6Ibid., p. 893.

7Work was not yet finished in the Salle des Machines, the Tuileries theatre transformed by Soufflot, where Sophie Arnould had triumphed in Rameau’s Castor et Pollux. The Convention did not move there until 10 May 1793.

8Marat, in the final number of L’Ami du peuple (21 September): ‘Pétion is a good man, an honest man, I am sure; he would cut a marvellous figure as a justice of the peace, an arbitrator, a municipal treasurer or a college bursar; but he has eyes that see nothing, ears that hear nothing, and a head that reflects on nothing.’

9Though we should not forget that the Midi elected several of the most resolute Montagnards: Moïse Bayle, Baille, Granet, Gasparin, Rovère.

10In the Convention on 25 September 1792, A. P., vol. 52, p. 130.

11My emphasis. Momoro retracted in May 1793. In his Opinion sur la fixation du maximum du prix des grains, he denied the cultivator the ownership of those products of the soil ‘destined for the provisioning of society’.

12On Lange (or L’Ange), see Jaurès, Histoire socialiste, vol. 3, pp. 415–31.

13Brissot, in ‘Appel à tous les républicains de France’, cited by Jaurès, Histoire socialiste, vol. 3, p. 68.

14A. P., vol. 52, p. 70.

15Discours de Danton, pp. 55–6.

16A. P., vol. 52, p. 73.

17Ibid., p. 84.

18Ibid., p. 87.

19Ibid., pp. 124–8. The following day, when the session opened, Maure (‘What need have we of a formidable apparatus in the midst of the citizens of Paris who opposed tyranny with invincible courage?’) and Merlin de Thionville (‘I put the motion that no project for an armed force to secure the Convention be presented’) sought in vain to have the decree rescinded.

20A. P., vol. 52, p. 131.


22Ibid., p. 135.

23Ibid., p. 139.

24Ibid., pp. 142–3.

25Mathiez, La Révolution française, pp. 118–19.

26A. P., vol. 53, p. 38.

27A vote by the assembly to have a speech printed was a sign of approval, compounded by sending it to the departments.

28Jean-Baptiste Louvet, author of Les Amours du chevalier de Faublas, was one of the most talented Girondin deputies.

29A. P., vol. 53, p. 170 (as appendix to the session of 29 October). For Mathiez, Robespierre was being ‘conspiratorial’. I would rather see it as a great polemical speech.

30Robespierre, Pour le bonheur et pour la liberté, pp. 163–4.

31The Marseille and Bordeaux clubs followed Brissot; a few others threatened to secede but did not.

32A. P., vol. 53, p. 438.

33Saint-Just, Œuvres complètes (ed. Michel Abensour), Paris: Gallimard, 2004, p. 490.


35Albert Mathiez, La Vie chère et le mouvement social sous la Terreur [1927], Paris: Payot, 1973, vol. 1, p. 88.

36A. P., vol. 53, p. 475.

37A. Mathiez, La Vie chère, pp. 101–2.

38Robespierre, Virtue and Terror, p. 51.

39A. P., vol. 54, p. 687.

40Danton: ‘If he is tried, he is dead.’

41Jaurès, Histoire socialiste, vol. 5, pp. 21–2.

42Saint-Just, Œuvres complètes, pp. 476–84. [‘Fripon, a rather general word meaning ‘rogue’, came to be particularly used in 1793–4 for rich capitalists suspected of political manipulations in their own interest. – Translator]

43Robespierre, Virtue and Terror, pp. 57–9.

44Journal de la République française, 14 December 1792.

45A. P., vol. 55, p. 617.

46A. P., vol. 56, pp. 90–5.

47Ibid., pp. 16–23.

48Robespierre, Lettres à ses commettants, second series, no. 3, 25 January 1793. Œuvres complètes, vol. 5, p. 226.

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