Chapter 3
How it happened

A month before monarchical authority collapsed into bankruptcy, a colossal hailstorm swept across northern France and destroyed most of the ripening harvest. With reserves already low after Calonne had authorized free export of grain in 1787, the inevitable result was that the months before the harvest of 1789 would bring severe economic difficulties. Bread prices would rise, and as consumers spent more of their incomes on food, demand for other goods would fall. Manufactures, hit by cheaper British competition under the commercial treaty of 1786, were already slumping; and there were widespread layoffs at the very time when bread prices began to soar. On top of all this came an unusually cold winter, when rivers froze, immobilizing mills and bulk transport and producing widespread flooding when a thaw finally came. So the political storm that was about to break would take place against a background of economic crisis, and would be profoundly affected by it.

Electoral politics

Necker moved quickly on returning to office to reimpose controls on the grain trade. It was too late, but the gesture only added to his phenomenal popularity. He needed it all to deal with other problems. The most pressing was the form to be taken by the Estates-General. One of Brienne’s last acts had been to declare that the king had no fixed view on the question. To the parlement of Paris this seemed to imply a desire to rig the assembly in advance; and to prevent any such move the magistrates declared on 25 September that the Estates-General should be constituted in the same way as when they had last met, according to the forms of 1614. Well-informed observers realized at once that this was a recipe for prolonging the institutional paralysis which had brought down absolute monarchy. In 1614, the Estates-General had sat in three separate orders, representing clergy, nobility, and the third estate – meaning everybody else. They had voted by order, so any two could outvote a third. Such a distribution of powers and representation no longer reflected the realities of education, wealth, and property as they had developed over the eighteenth century; and a thoughtful group of Parisians, mostly noblemen, set out in a so-called ‘committee of thirty’ to arouse public opinion against it. They flooded the excited country with pamphlets, and their efforts were only lent strength when a reconvened Assembly of Notables rejected Necker’s urgings and rallied behind the forms of 1614. The Notables’ caution looked, or was made to look, like a bid for power by the old ‘privileged orders’ at the expense of the vast majority of the nation. For the first time since the beginning of the crisis in 1787, the politics of social antagonism began to dominate public debate. ‘What is the Third Estate?’ asked the title of the most celebrated pamphlet of that winter, by the renegade clergyman Sieyès, ‘Everything. What has it been until now in the public order? Nothing. What does it want to be? Something.’ Anyone laying claim to any sort of privilege, Sieyès went on to argue, excluded themselves by that very fact from the national community. Privileges were a cancer.

By December the clamour against the forms of 1614 was so well established that Necker felt emboldened to act. He decreed that, in recognition of their weight in the nation, the number of third-estate deputies would be doubled. It was obvious that this meant little if voting was still to be by order rather than by head, but Necker believed that the clergy and nobility could be induced to renounce the privilege for themselves once the Estates-General met. He relied on general dissatisfaction with the half-measure of doubling the third to dominate the elections of the spring of 1789 to such a degree that resistance to uniting the orders would become unthinkable. Vote by head was indeed one of the central preoccupations of the electoral assemblies; but since they too were separate, with each order electing its own deputies, the effect was to polarize matters still further. In the face of tumultuous popular support for third-estate aspirations, clerical and noble electors tended to see their privileges as an essential safeguard of their identity; and most of those they elected to represent them were intransigents. Opinion was crystallized further on all sides by the process of drafting cahiers (grievance lists which were also part of the forms of 1614) to guide the deputies chosen. Now emerged questions not only of how the estates were to be constituted, but of what they were actually to do. An amazing range of grievances and aspirations were articulated in what amounted to the first public opinion poll of modern times. Suddenly changes seemed possible that only a few months earlier had been the stuff of dreams; and the tone of the cahiers made clear that many electors actually expected them to happen through the agency of the Estates-General.

National sovereignty

But when the Estates-General met at Versailles on 5 May they proved a massive disappointment. Necker opened proceedings with a boring speech, and from the start the third-estate deputies made clear that they would transact no business as a separate order. Their calls to the nobility and clergy to unite with them, however, fell on deaf ears. Even the small number of noble deputies who favoured deliberation and voting in common refused to break ranks. The stalemate continued for six weeks, during which bread prices continued to rise, public order began to break down in many districts, and the widespread hopes of the spring began to turn sour. Eventually, on 10 June, Sieyès proposed that the third estate ‘cut the cable’ and begin proceedings unilaterally. After an overwhelming vote in favour, they invited the other orders to verify credentials in common, and three days later a handful of parish priests broke the solidarity of the privileged orders to answer the invitation. Other clergy trickled in over the next few days, and a body that was no longer just representative of the third estate recognized that it now needed a new name. Once again at Sieyès’ instigation, on 17 June it chose an obvious but uncompromising title: the National Assembly. Immediately afterwards it decreed the cancellation and then reauthorization of all taxes. The implication was clear. This assembly had seized sovereign power in the name of the French Nation.

It was the founding act of the French Revolution. If the Nation was sovereign, the king no longer was. Louis XVI, shaking off the grief which had paralysed him since the death of his elder son a few days before, now declared that he would hold a Royal Session to promulgate a programme of his own. Locked out of its usual meeting place by preparations for this, the suspicious self-proclaimed National Assembly convened on 20 June in an indoor tennis court and took an emotional oath never to separate until they had given France a constitution. The first test of the deputies’ resolution came three days later at the Royal Session when the king, after announcing a number of concessions, quashed all the claims made between 10 and 17 June, and instructed the orders to reconvene separately. They refused; and, flustered by news that Necker had resigned, the king let them stay. By now Versailles was filled daily with restive crowds from Paris. Aware that they could no longer rely on support from the throne, noble and clerical separatists found their solidarity crumbling. Soon they were joining the National Assembly in droves, and on 27 June the king formally ordered the last diehards to do so. Necker withdrew his resignation. The royal surrender seemed complete.

Unknown to Necker, however, and perhaps at first to the king himself, ministerial orders had been issued on 26 June to certain regiments to converge on Versailles. More were ordered up in the weeks that followed, and by early July the nervous Assembly was importuning the king to withdraw the troops. He replied, plausibly enough, that their presence was necessary to secure public order; but when on 12 July Necker was dismissed more sinister suspicions seemed borne out. The 20,000 soldiers now encamped around the Île de France appeared poised to overawe the capital while action was taken to subdue the Assembly. On hearing the news about Necker, Paris exploded with a mixture of fear and indignation. Tentative moves by German mercenary troops to disperse crowds only made things worse, and members of the permanent Paris garrison of French Guards began to desert. Soon bands of hungry insurgents were ransacking strongpoints in the city for arms, powder, and hoards of flour. On 14 July they converged on the massive state prison of the Bastille, which commanded the entire east end of the city with its guns. With the help of military deserters, they stormed the prison and forced its surrender, massacring the commander who had fired on them early in the attack. Paris was now in rebel hands. There were certainly enough troops surrounding the city to subdue the revolt, but commanders advised the king that they might not obey orders to shoot. In these circumstances he was powerless, and ordered a withdrawal. A counter-revolution had been defeated. The National Assembly had been saved.


4. 20 June 1789: The Tennis Court Oath. The National Assembly vows never to disperse until it has given France a constitution.

The first reforms

The 14 July was not, therefore, the beginning of the French Revolution. It was the end of the beginning. Nor did the opening of the grim and mysterious Bastille release the expected host of languishing victims of despotism. There were only seven prisoners. But the medieval fortress was a symbol of royal power, and the spontaneous demolition of it which began at once was equally symbolic of the end of a discredited old order. Those who had orchestrated royal resistance over the month since 17 June recognized the situation, too: the king’s brother Artois and his closest courtier friends left the country at once, the first émigrés. After the king had been to Paris and, accepting the new tricolour cockade of revolution from a hastily formed citizens’ militia (soon to be called the National Guard), confirmed a self-appointed municipal administration, the National Assembly at last began work on the constitution to which it had committed itself in the tennis court oath. Binding mandates imposed by electors in the spring were abrogated, and a preamble to the constitution, a declaration of rights, began to be drafted. But by now upheavals in Paris and certain provincial cities had spread to the countryside, where the weeks before the new harvest ripened were marked by a ‘great fear’ that ‘brigands’ were scouring the land to destroy crops and pillage helpless peasant communities. In this paranoid atmosphere there were widespread attacks on the houses of lords and the symbols of feudal power, which, as the cahiers had shown, peasants regarded as the least justifiable of the many burdens they bore. The men of property who made up the Assembly, whether owners of feudal rights or not, were genuinely alarmed that the country was collapsing into anarchy. To defuse the chaos, a radical group planned a dramatic gesture in which feudal dues would be abolished. It was launched by a great nobleman on the evening of 4 August, and was greeted with a rush of enthusiasm in an Assembly that had impatiently held back from positive action for much of the three months of its existence. Soon more than feudal rights were proposed for abolition. All sorts of privileges, the very lifeblood of ancien régime social organization, were grandiloquently renounced. So was venality of offices, from which many privileges had derived. Free justice was proclaimed, and equality of taxation. The Church was deprived of tithes, the basic income of the parish clergy. By the end of the session, when the Assembly declared the king ‘Restorer of French Liberties’ much of the fabric of French social life had been condemned to destruction in the most radical few hours of the entire Revolution.


5. 14 July 1789: The taking of the Bastille

As several of those present observed, there had been a sort of magic in the air that night: but the magic worked. Gradually rural disorder subsided. The Assembly (now calling itself the National Constituent Assembly) returned to its constitution-making. On 26 August it finally promulgated a Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, and over subsequent weeks it established the first principles of a constitutional monarchy, ruling out a bicameral legislature and granting the king limited powers of veto on new laws. The king, however, seemed in no hurry to accept this restriction, or indeed any of the great measures enacted in August. Suspicions aroused in July now began to fester anew in Paris, whose populace clearly regarded themselves as the saviours and watchdogs of the Revolution. When, early in October, new military arrivals were reported from Versailles by a Parisian press now free and constantly proliferating, fear spread that the king was about to attempt again what had failed in the summer. Sweeping aside attempts by the National Guard to restrain them, thousands of women marched on Versailles to coerce the king. There they invaded the hall of the Assembly, broke into the palace, and threatened the life of the queen. The only thing that would satisfy them, they eventually clamoured, was for the royal family to come with them to Paris. The monarch quickly saw that he had little choice, and on 6 October he was escorted back to his capital by the triumphant women. The Assembly followed a few days later.

Polarization: religion

Louis XVI was now the prisoner of Paris. Apart from an ill-fated attempt to escape in June 1791, he would remain so until the monarchy was overthrown in August 1792. So, however, would the Assembly. Although the deputies knew that they probably owed their survival to Parisian popular action, most of them remained deeply uneasy about the obligation. That was shown by their enactment of a martial law against tumults, and by the way they confined political rights under the constitution to substantial taxpayers. Their aim was to set up a constitutional monarchy controlled by the elected representatives of substantial men of property. Their commitment to property owners was also shown in their refusal to renounce the debt bequeathed by absolute monarchy, and indeed a massive expansion of it by promises to compensate all those, such as venal office-holders, whose property would disappear as a result of their reforms. They soon saw that all this could not possibly be met out of taxation. Tax revenues, in fact, were falling catastrophically in the absence of any effective means of coercion. Their solution was to satisfy the nation’s creditors at the expense of the Church.

By the abolition of tithe on 4 August the Assembly had already committed itself to ecclesiastical reform. Finding an alternative source of income for the parish clergy was not the least of the new obligations it had taken on. But the Church remained rich in lands and endowments and already on 4 August isolated voices had claimed that the rightful owner of these assets was the Nation. On 2 November it was decided to place them ‘at the disposal of the Nation’. They were to be sold to support an issue of state bonds, calledassignats, in which other public debts would be redeemed. To many clergy and devout laity these measures looked like part of a wider attack on the Catholic faith. Amid triumphant invocations of the philosophers who had attacked the Church throughout the eighteenth century, the Assembly proclaimed civil equality for Protestants and prohibited monastic vows. When urged in April 1790 to declare Catholicism the state religion, it refused; and by then civil strife had broken out between Catholics and Protestants in the south, around Nîmes. Finally, given that the Nation was now to pay the clergy out of public funds, the Assembly decided to reorganize the Church in accordance with the same broad principles it was applying to the country at large. And so the civil constitution of the clergy, enacted in July 1790, provided for lay election of priests and bishops, nationalization of ecclesiastical boundaries, and a purely honorific role for the pope – who as a foreign ruler was not consulted on any of these principles. Nor were the clergy themselves, which left many of them uncertain whether such a radical reorganization was acceptable to the Church as a whole. The Assembly saw their hesitation as a deliberate obstruction of the national will, and in November imposed an oath of obedience on all clergy. ‘Refractories’ who refused it were to be ineligible for benefices under the new order.

They expected that to settle matters; but in fact only around half of the clergy complied. Many retracted when in the spring of 1791 the pope publicly denounced the civil constitution. It was the beginning of the first, deepest, and most persistent polarization of the Revolution. As revolutionary ‘patriots’ mobilized to promote compliance with the oath, producing a massive expansion of the political ‘Jacobin’ clubs that had begun to be established over the previous winter, counter-revolutionaries were quick to associate their own cause with threatened Christianity. Acceptance of the sacraments from a ‘constitutional’ priest who had taken the oath became a touchstone of loyalty to the entire Revolution. No sincere Catholic could evade this decision; and this included the king.

Polarization: monarchy

After his return to Paris, Louis XVI had grudgingly accepted all the reforms of the Constituent Assembly, with occasional displays almost of enthusiasm. He even sanctioned the ecclesiastical legislation, although he privately knew of the pope’s hostility. It was soon obvious in the spring of 1791, however, that he was avoiding receiving the sacraments from constitutionals. Threatening demonstrations began to occur around the Tuileries palace, for in Paris there was overwhelming support for oath-taking. This renewed popular hostility determined the royal family to attempt escape. On the night of 20 June they slipped out of Paris, making for the eastern frontier. The king imprudently left behind him an open letter denouncing much of the work of the Revolution. But the fugitives were captured at Varennes, and brought back to Paris in disgrace.

The flight to Varennes opened up the second great schism of the Revolution. There had been hardly any republicanism in 1789, and what there was abated once the king was back in Paris and accepting all the Assembly sent him. But, after Varennes, the mistrust built up by his long record of apparent ambivalence burst out into widespread demands from the populace of the capital and a number of radical publicists for the king to be dethroned. Most members of the Assembly, however, were horrified, conniving hastily at the obvious official lie that the keystone of their constitution had been abducted. When the Paris Jacobin club flirted with a republican petition, most deputies seceded from it to form a more moderate ‘Feuillant’ club; and when crowds gathered in the great military parade ground to the west of the city, the Champ de Mars, to sign the same petition National Guards opened fire on them. The Assembly decided that the constitution must now be quickly finished, and revised at the same time to make it more acceptable to the king, so that normal political life could begin. After hurried changes to exclude religious clauses and limit the freedom of the press and of political clubs, the constitution of 1791 was presented to the king who, having publicly accepted it, was officially reinstated. On the last day of September, the Constituent Assembly came to an end, its members having formally disqualified themselves from sitting in the Legislative Assembly that was now to assume power.


6. National Guards in uniform, with the tricolour

The Legislative Assembly met in an atmosphere of international crisis. For the first time since 1787, the flight to Varennes had made French affairs a subject of concern rather than disdainful satisfaction to foreign powers. In May 1790 the Constituent Assembly had positively renounced war as an instrument of policy, except in self-defence. But after the ignominious recapture of a king who appeared bent on internationalizing his plight, other monarchs were alarmed. In the Declaration of Pillnitz (27 August 1791) the Emperor and the king of Prussia were induced by Louis XVI’s two émigré brothers, Artois and Provence, to threaten military intervention. Thousands of army officers had joined the émigrés after Varennes, and were now massing across the frontier dreaming of a return with foreign armies. The king and queen shared these dreams; but the new deputies saw them as a provocation. Over the autumn and winter their language became hysterically belligerent towards the German princelings who harboured the émigrés and, behind them, the Habsburg Emperor. They also sought to provoke Louis XVI into compromising himself by passing decrees intensifying penalties against refractory priests and émigrés which they knew he would not sanction. General paranoia was intensified by news of a massive slave uprising in the Caribbean, and the coffee and sugar shortages that followed. Despite fears, evinced by Jacobins like Robespierre, that the debilitated army was in no state to defeat the disciplined forces of Austria and Prussia, most of the country was carried away by war fever. The king (who shared Robespierre’s analysis but saw it as a sign of hope for his own rescue) was therefore happy to declare war on the Emperor on 20 April 1792.

Polarization: war

War was the third great polarizing issue of the Revolution. As was intended, it forced everybody to take sides on everything else. It identified the defeat or survival of the Revolution with that of the nation itself, so that critics of anything achieved since 1789 could be plausibly stigmatized as traitors. Most vulnerable to this charge was the king himself, who persisted in his vetoes of laws against refractories and émigrés despite being mobbed in his palace on 20 June by Parisians now calling themselves sansculottes. No doubt his resolution was steeled by news of disasters from the front, as Prussia entered the war and prepared to invade French territory. Even French generals called for peace negotiations. But this too looked like little less than treason, and the Assembly decreed the reinforcement of the line army by National Guard volunteers (féderés). As they began to arrive in Paris, those from Marseilles singing a new and bloodthirsty battle hymn that would forever afterwards bear their name, the Prussian commander threatened to destroy Paris if the king was harmed. That completed the identification of Louis XVI with the enemy, and on 10 August an insurrectionary commune of Paris launched a force of sansculottes and féderés against the royal palace. The king took refuge with the Assembly while his Swiss life-guards were massacred defending his empty residence; but this did not save his throne. The Assembly voted to suspend the monarchy and convoke a new body elected by manhood suffrage, the Convention, to draw up a republican constitution for the country.

The full impact and implications of the overthrow of monarchy took the rest of the year to become manifest. Meanwhile the Prussians pushed into France, and Paris remained panic-stricken. A provisional executive council dominated by the Parisian demagogue Danton frenziedly attempted to organize defence with a series of draconian emergency powers which filled the prisons with suspects. As patriotic sansculottes were urged to join up, anxiety spread about a possible prison breakout in their absence. On 2 September, as news arrived that the Prussians had captured Verdun, prisons were broken into and their inmates taken out and massacred. The carnage went on for four days, leaving about 1400 victims dead, among them many refractory priests. Although the inflammatory populist journalist Marat urged provincial France to follow the capital’s example, news of the massacres horrified opinion both in France and abroad. This was something altogether more serious than the occasional lynchings of 1789 and since, a grim lesson of what happened if the lower orders were not kept under control. Enemies of the Revolution had always predicted bloody chaos; those who wished it well mostly found the massacres equally hard to justify. Everybody in Paris, however, lived henceforth in the fear that they might very well happen again.

And yet within weeks the crisis seemed to be over. On the day before the Convention replaced the Legislative, a French army confronted the Prussian invaders at Valmy and defeated them (20 September). It was the beginning of six months of brilliant military success in which the Austrian Netherlands and the left bank of the Rhine were overrun. By November, intoxicated by the apparent ease of their success, the French were offering ‘Fraternity and help to all peoples wishing to recover their liberty’ and ‘war on the castles, peace to the cottages’ in the path of their armies. They promised to implement revolutionary social policies wherever they went, and make churches and nobles pay for the process. ‘We cannot be calm’, declared the journalist deputy Brissot, consistently the leading advocate of war since October 1791, ‘until Europe, all Europe, is in flames.’ The challenge was compounded by the fate of Louis XVI. The first act of the Convention was to declare the monarchy abolished. Later it would retrospectively date a new republican calendar from this moment, the Year I of Liberty. That left the question of what to do with ‘Louis Capet’ or ‘Louis the Last’. When it was argued that he should be put on trial for crimes against the nation, some argued that his very overthrow by the populace constituted a trial and guilty verdict. But a trial before the Convention was eventually agreed, the indictment covering the king’s whole record since 1789. It took less than two days in December, and despite the defendant’s denial of all the charges, there was never any doubt what the verdict would be. Only the sentence was contentious, a decision to execute him passing by a single vote. There were also unsuccessful proposals to subject the result to a referendum, and to grant clemency. But the majority knew that the watching sansculottes would probably not have allowed either; and so on 21 January 1793 the former king went to public execution. ‘You have thrown down your gauntlet’, Danton exulted in the Convention, ‘and this gauntlet is a king’s head!’

Civil war and terror

The challenge was soon taken up. Within days of the execution Great Britain and the Dutch Republic joined the Republic’s enemies, soon followed by Spain and several Italian states. When the Convention sought to augment its armed forces by conscripting 300,000 new recruits, there was widespread resistance across the west of the country, where the persecution of refractory priests had already caused rioting. In the Vendée, south of the Loire, civil war was soon raging, with the rebels organizing themselves into a self-styled ‘Catholic and Royal Army’ dedicated to restoring the heirs of the martyred king. Now, too, the war against the Republic’s foreign enemies began to go badly. French forces were driven out of the Rhineland and Belgium, where their general deserted to the enemy. The crisis exacerbated long-standing political divisions within the Convention. The advocates of open-ended war, led by Brissot and a number of Bordeaux deputies whom Robespierre called the ‘faction of the Gironde’ thought that it could and should be conducted without compromising the Revolution’s original and representative principles at home. It was they who sought national endorsement of the judgements against the king. And, in the wake of the September massacres, the Girondins argued loudly against the intimidation of the Convention’s proceedings by the bloodstained populace of Paris. These stances won them expulsion from the Jacobin club, whose leaders, such as Robespierre, were soon called Montagnards (literally ‘mountain men’, from the high benches they occupied in the Convention). Montagnards, apart from personal dislike, thought the Girondins’ vendetta against Paris suicidally distracting from more practical priorities. They saw no safe alternative to humouring the sansculottes, even if that meant turning a blind eye to their more violent instincts and excesses. By May, with bad news arriving from all sides, they had concluded that the only way to silence the Girondins was to accept sansculotte demands for their expulsion from the Convention. On 2 June, 29 of them were arrested.


7. 21 January 1793: The execution of Louis XVI. Note the vacant pedestal where his grandfather’s statue had previously stood.

The immediate effect was only to intensify the crisis. Already restive at their inability to influence events in Paris, several provincial cities now came out into open revolt. Over the summer, Marseille, Bordeaux, and Lyon were beyond the Convention’s control, and at the end of August the great Mediterranean naval port of Toulon surrendered to the British. On 13 July, meanwhile, Marat, the journalistic idol of the sansculottes, was assassinated in his bath by Charlotte Corday, an insurgent from Caen. Much of this so-called ‘Federalist Revolt’ was not counter-revolutionary in the way the Vendée uprising quite explicitly was. It was a protest against extremism and instability in the capital. But rebellion, however motivated, in time of war was undoubtedly treasonable; and as, over the autumn, the Convention’s forces re-established control over centres which proved unable to coordinate their efforts, rebel leaders and activists paid the traitors’ penalty. Almost 14,000 were sentenced to death by special courts in the provinces over the autumn and winter. Over half were in the west, where the last Vendéan army was defeated in December. Some were shot or drowned, but most died under the instrument that had dispatched the king, the guillotine – introduced only in April 1792 and designed as a humane means of execution by rational men who failed to foresee the effect of the rivers of blood it released when used on large numbers of victims.

The aim of such retribution was as much to terrorize as to punish; and by September the sansculottes, unable to understand why the elimination of their legislator enemies had not produced more positive results, were pressing for terror to be adopted as a principle of government. Intimidated once more by mass demonstrations on 5 September, the Convention declared terror the order of the day. Within a few weeks it had decreed the arrest of all suspects, expanded a revolutionary tribunal established earlier in the year to try political crimes, imposed price controls on all basic commodities (the ‘maximum’), and authorized so-called ‘revolutionary armies’ of sansculottes to force peasants to disgorge their surpluses to feed the cities. The government of the Republic was now to be ‘revolutionary until the peace’ – centralized, arbitrary, and armed with emergency powers, all the very opposite of the constitutional conduct of affairs to which the Revolution had committed itself from the outset.

Now the Girondins arrested in June, and the hated widow of Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette, were sent to the scaffold, for what they symbolized as much as for what they had done. A number of deputies, dispatched to disturbed provinces as ‘representatives on mission’ and invested with the full powers of the Convention also began to identify, reasonably enough in many cases, religion as the life-blood of counter-revolution. They decided to ‘dechristianize’ their districts, and by November this fashion reached Paris. As a new ‘revolutionary calendar’ replaced the old Christian one, large numbers of churches began to be closed. The aim was to stamp out all forms of Christian practice if not belief. The government, now largely vested in the hands of the Convention’s Committee of Public Safety, never officially sponsored a policy which it recognized as likely to alienate more citizens than it won over, but before it was strong enough to stem the dechristianizing tide in the spring of 1794, virtually every church in France had been closed down, and throughout much of this ‘Year II of Liberty’ most priests were in exile or hiding.

Terror appeared to have achieved its purpose of crushing internal opposition from every quarter. Even the sansculottes, drafted into the service of a ruthless and decisive state, seemed satisfied. The fortunes of war were improving too. The levée en masse, an attempt to mobilize the Nation’s entire human resources, proclaimed in August 1793, was helping to man and equip armies of unprecedented size. Late in December the British were driven from Toulon, and by the spring the Republic’s territory was once more free from foreign occupation. By now some deputies were arguing for an end to terror. When popular leaders in Paris, called Hébertistes after their journalist spokesman Hébert, attempted to silence terror’s critics by mounting a coup d’état, they were outmanoeuvred by the Committee of Public Safety and themselves guillotined. But Robespierre, increasingly the dominant voice on the committee, was also suspicious of the self-serving motives of the so-called ‘indulgents’, all friends of the unpredictable Danton, and three weeks later (5 April 1794) it was their turn to be executed. The rhythm of terror began to accelerate again, and with all political trials now channelled through the Paris revolutionary tribunal, the 2000 victims condemned there down to July made more impact on the world outside than the thousands more who had perished in previous months in the provinces. In early June the last judicial safeguards for innocence were removed by the notorious Law of 22 prairial, two days after the introduction under Robespierre’s sponsorship of a new, non-Christian state religion, the cult of the Supreme Being.


8. 16 October 1793: Jacques-Louis David’s sketch of Marie-Antoinette on her way to the scaffold

This was the period of the so-called ‘Great Terror’, often known, too, from the moralistic rationale given to it in the speeches of Robespierre, as the Republic of Virtue. Political crimes were now so widely defined that nobody felt safe. Many were now being executed almost for their counter-revolutionary potential alone: the number of noble victims, for instance, hitherto quite modest, rose markedly. What nobody could imagine was how it would all end, since even to express doubt about the need for terror was to invite suspicion. And yet the necessity for government by bloodletting was less and less obvious. The whole country was now firmly back under the Convention’s control, and the armies were taking the war once more to the enemy. People began to blame the continuing terror on the suspicious mind of Robespierre, and a group of deputies who feared they might be his next target began to plot against him. Matters came to a head in a confrontation in the Convention on 26 July, when the ‘Incorruptible’ underwent the novel experience of being shouted down. He appealed for support the next day to the Jacobin club and to the sansculottes; but not enough rallied to him to make his appeal seem more than defiance of the Convention. He was outlawed, which meant that when he was arrested there was no need for a trial. Having failed to kill himself prior to arrest, he and his closest associates were guillotined on 28 July.

The thermidorean dilemma

The fall of Robespierre, on 9 thermidor in the revolutionary calendar, has often been seen as the end of the Revolution. It was nothing of the sort. The terror, which did come to an end with his execution, was certainly a spectacular climax to developments since 1789, but it solved none of the problems which had torn the Revolution apart – religion, monarchy, and war. In fact it added another, in the form of Jacobinism.

Outside France, the term had become as early as 1790 shorthand for all the Revolution’s excesses. Now it began to acquire the same connotations in France – a legacy of clubs, populism, social levelling, and authoritarianism in the name of these principles, all underpinned by terror. The so-called Thermidoreans in the Convention who had taken over power were committed to dismantling all that had made Jacobinism possible. Thus the prisons were emptied of suspects, the Jacobin club and its affiliates closed, economic controls like the maximum abandoned. The assignats, whose value had been eroded by massive overissue after war broke out, had been somewhat sustained as legal tender by the controlled economy of the Year II: now they went into free fall. As in 1788–9 accidents of nature exacerbated the situation. A mediocre harvest and perhaps the coldest winter since 1709 left the sansculottes so miserable that by the spring they were clamouring for a return to the times when bread and blood were both plentiful. In April and May (germinal and prairial in the revolutionary calendar) the Convention was twice mobbed by angry crowds and a deputy was lynched. But they lacked the old organization, and for the first time since 1789 the authorities felt they could rely on soldiers to restore domestic order. The Convention spurned the insurgents’ demands; and although latter-day Jacobins would continue to dream of a return to the Year II, the people of Paris were finished as a political force for two generations. Hitherto persecuted Catholics and Royalists now began to take their revenge. In Paris, extravagantly clad ‘gilded youths’ beat up veteran sansculottes and Jacobin activists, while in the south a far-reaching ‘White Terror’ brought informal but brutal retribution to those who had wielded local power during the Year II.

If the recent past had been a series of terrible mistakes, when had they begun? Probably, thought the Thermidoreans, in 1791. Their dream was to recover the lost consensus and civic idealism of the early revolution. That meant conciliating those alienated in the meantime – Catholics and Royalists. And so although the Republic now disclaimed any religion, churches were allowed to reopen, and the policy of depopulation applied in the Vendée over the Year II was ostentatiously abandoned. Serious talk was also heard in the spring of 1795 of restoring monarchy in the person of Louis XVI’s surviving son, a sickly child who might be made acceptable by a carefully controlled, public-spirited education. These hopes, however, were destroyed in June 1795 when ‘Louis XVII’ died; and from his exile in Verona the next month, his uncle the Count de Provence proclaimed his own succession as Louis XVIII in a chillingly uncompromising declaration which promised an almost total restoration of the old regime in the event of his return. That obviously meant giving back national lands to the Church and to émigrés who had incurred confiscation once war broke out. Some émigrés chose this moment to demonstrate their continued intransigence by attempting to invade Brittany with British support in the hope of marching on Paris at the head of a horde of Breton Royalists. They never got beyond the beaches at Quiberon and were shot in their hundreds by their republican captors.

All this blighted any hopes of a restoration. Yet, conscious that the Convention had been elected to give France a new constitution, the deputies knew they had now sat long enough. Technically, a constitution already existed: an extremely democratic one, embodying various provisions for social welfare and even the right to legalized insurrection, had been framed and adopted in 1793 in the aftermath of the downfall of the Girondins. It had been suspended at once for the war’s duration. The insurgents of germinal and prairial had called for it to be implemented, but that alone ensured that it was unthinkable. Accordingly the Convention spent the summer of 1795 elaborating a new republican constitution, more heavily dependent on large property owners even than that of 1791. It was full of elaborate checks and balances, including annual elections and a constantly rotating five-man executive, the Directory. Nor did its drafters make what they saw as the fundamental mistake of 1791 by excluding themselves from the new machinery. Indeed, they insisted that two-thirds of the first deputies in the two new legislative ‘councils’ should be drawn from their own ranks. Royalists, who had hoped that they might win free elections, were outraged, but a mass protest in Paris was dispersed by the army under the command of young general Bonaparte (insurrection of vendémiaire: 5 October).

The Directory

During all this time, French armies had been triumphant everywhere. Belgium was overrun, and annexed under the doctrine first proclaimed in 1793, of France’s ‘natural’ frontiers along the Rhine. The Dutch Republic was invaded, and surrendered. The Prussians and the Spaniards made peace. By the end of 1795 only the Austrians and the British were still at war with the Republic, and neither of them threatened its territory. For 1796 a knockout blow was planned against the Emperor, with armies striking towards Vienna from Germany and Italy. The Italian command was given to Bonaparte. The front was supposed to be secondary, but in the twelve months from April 1796 he drove the Austrians out of Italy to within striking distance of their capital, and on his own initiative concluded peace preliminaries at Leoben.

Even the British were now negotiating; but the results of the first regular elections under the constitution of 1795 led all parties to drag their feet. The Directory had begun, in the aftermath of the vendémiaire insurrection, in a militant mood, and concessions were made to Jacobins persecuted since germinal and prairial. But they emerged radicalized from prison and hiding, and by the spring of 1796 some were calling for the 1793 constitution and the equalization of property. Forced underground again, a small group led by the journalist Babeuf plotted a coup. This ‘conspiracy of equals’, the first attempt at communistic revolution in history, was soon thwarted; but it provoked a new swing to the right which was reflected in the results of the 1797 elections. In a reaction against the remaining ‘perpetuals’ of the Convention, conservative and Royalist deputies were much reinforced, giving the British and Austrians hopes of a more advantageous peace than their military position warranted. Fearing that the fruits of his Italian victories might be jeopardized, Bonaparte gave his support to three of the directors equally alarmed by the reactionary tide. In the coup of fructidor Year V (September 1797), election results were annulled in over half the departments, and 177 deputies were purged. Both subsequent rounds of election under the directorial constitution, in 1798 and 1799, would also be adjusted in accordance with political convenience; so that this constitution was never allowed the time and opportunity to work freely. There is little wonder that so few in 1799 would mourn its passing.

Meanwhile fructidor seemed to justify itself by results. The very next month the Austrians made peace at Campo Formio, recognizing the loss of Belgium and their old Italian possessions, now transformed by Bonaparte into the Cisalpine Republic, a French puppet state. At home, a confident new Directory broke the Revolution’s longest-standing commitment by renouncing most of the state’s debts. It acted too with renewed harshness against priests and nobles. The British, however, so far from following their Austrian allies in coming to terms, now chose to fight on alone, emphasizing their naval power in October 1797 in the victory of Camperdown. Bonaparte, back from Italy, was put in charge of invasion plans; but soon decided that the commercial British were more likely to make peace if France could threaten the source of their wealth in India. This at any rate was the main justification for his expedition to Egypt in May 1798 – although the directors were happy enough to see such an ambitious general go. The diplomatic effect, however, especially after Nelson cut him off in Egypt by destroying his fleet at the battle of the Nile in August, was to trigger the formation of a new coalition led by Russia. When Austria allowed Russian troops to cross her territory to reach the French adversary in Italy, the whole peninsula rose up against the puppet regimes set up there by Bonaparte and his successors. The French withdrew, taking the pope with them as a prisoner, and he died in French captivity. Suddenly the Republic seemed as dangerously isolated as in 1793. Was the answer the same as it had been then? Amid talk of forced loans and hostage-taking, General Jourdan moved a comprehensive law on conscription. The effect was to stir up the west once more, and produce a new Vendée in the form of a priest-led peasant uprising in the annexed Belgian territories (October 1798). It was soon put down, but the military crisis lasted until new victories the next summer, and prolonged political uncertainties as neo-Jacobins opened clubs and clamoured for emergency measures to save the country. Sieyès, re-emerging as a director after years of prudent obscurity, concluded that the constitution was unworkable. What France needed was ‘authority from above, confidence from below’. He cast about for a reliable general to help him mount a coup. It was at this moment that Napoleon Bonaparte made his famous escape from the isolation of Egypt.


He was more than willing to cooperate with Sieyès in dissolving the legislative councils in brumaire Year VIII (November 1799), but he, rather than his would-be patron had the decisive voice in framing the new authoritarian constitution which was promulgated after a hasty referendum in December. It invested Napoleon with practically limitless powers as First Consul of the Republic. ‘Citizens’, he proclaimed, ‘the Revolution is established on the principles with which it began. It is over.’

None of this was true, but over the next two years Napoleon ensured that the second sentence at least began to seem credible. By defeating the Austrians (himself at Marengo in 1800, and through General Moreau at Hohenlinden the next year) he ended the war on the continent. The war-weary British gave up the struggle too in 1802 at the peace of Amiens. The revolutionary war was won, in a complete victory for France. That in turn gave Napoleon the strength to dash all Louis XVIII’s hopes that he might prove the instrument of a Bourbon restoration. If France was to have a monarch, Napoleon himself was now a more credible candidate, as he was to demonstrate by crowning himself in 1804. By then, too, he had deprived the Bourbons of their main source of support by settling the quarrel between France and Rome. Under the concordat negotiated with a new pope, Pius VII, in 1801, open Catholic worship was restored in France and paid for by the state. But to secure this deal, the pope was forced to recognize Napoleon’s one precondition: that the lands of the Church confiscated and sold since 1789 were gone for ever. Their new owners could at last feel secure in their gains, and became natural supporters of the new regime, rather than of the only parties hitherto to promise them such guarantees – the discredited Directory, and the bloodstained Jacobins. The Brumaire coup itself had been glorified as saving the country from these two tainted prescriptions, and shortly afterwards the last Jacobin activists were rounded up and blamed when desperate Royalists tried to assassinate the First Consul. The nationwide sigh of relief was practically audible. Napoleonic rule would bring its own problems and contradictions, but it endured because it began by resolving others that had torn the country apart for more than a decade.

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