Modern history


The new National Convention which met for the first time on 20 September 1792, following national elections by what was pretty much universal male suffrage, scrambled together in late August and early September, had as its task the establishment of a new constitution for a kingless state. Like their immediate predecessors, the 749 Conventionnels constituted a solidly homogeneous body drawn from the middling sort: there were only a handful of peasants and artisans, and nearly a half of the body were lawyers, a further third were professionals (55 clergymen, for example, 51 state bureaucrats, 46 medical men, 36 army officers, and so on), and around 10 per cent were businessmen.

Almost as a kind of unconscious intellectual homage to both Montesquieu and Rousseau, who had doubted the viability of a republican regime in large states like France, even ardent Revolutionaries after 10 August had somehow found it difficult to cut the Gordian knot and pronounce the word ‘republic’. On 20–21 September, however, on abbé Grégoire’s motion, the Conventionnels steeled themselves to abolish the monarchy and establish a republic, which they dubbed ‘one and indivisible’ in order to signal their hostility to any divisive federal scheming. Constitutional arrangements for the new state were referred to a committee chaired by Condorcet. By December, even advocating the restoration of the monarchy was punishable by death. The king, now a prisoner in the domestic calm of his immediate family in the gothic Temple prison at the heart of Paris, would not, however, go gently into any good night of the Convention’s imaginings. One of the Assembly’s most pressing tasks was to decide what to do with the person of the ex-ruler, Louis ‘Capet’.

This fundamental issue had to be confronted, moreover, against a political background which had been transformed in three important ways. First, at the front, French armies were finding it possible to win battles. Once the Prussians had – at Valmy – tested French mettle and found it resistant, they reduced their military commitment, leaving inferior allied forces facing mass armies of French volunteers, shrewdly commanded and bursting with patriotic enthusiasm. On 6 November, some 40,000 men under Dumouriez defeated 13,000 Austrian troops at Jemappes and strode on to occupy Brussels. At the same time, Custine occupied the left bank of the Rhine, taking Mainz and a number of other German cities, while Anselme invaded Nice and Savoy. The émigréforces were breaking up in maximum disarray: ‘we are beginning to be weary of this war’, one émigré wrote home. ‘We have to fight frontline troops, none of whom deserts, national volunteers, and armed peasants who either fire on us or murder anyone they find alone.’ Theémigré leaders had promised ‘more butter than bread’ but they looked foolish now. 19

Military success was both consequence and cause of a swelling of popular patriotism, which was the second new factor complicating French political life in late 1792. Political muddles, electoral complexities, royalist abstentions, the demands of harvesting and other local factors had meant that the elections to the Convention mobilized less than one voter in five across the land, and there was still – as we shall see – a solid groundswell of popular opposition to the Revolution. Yet the summer crisis of 1792 had also given a tremendous boost to an increasingly vocal popular movement in the big cities, spearheaded by Paris’s sans-culottes, which articulated widespread enthusiasm for the gains of the Revolution. And the hordes of volunteers who made their way eagerly to the front to fight for those gains highlighted the energy and scale of popular enthusiasm. By late summer, around 200,000 men were under arms, and plans were afoot to bring another quarter of a million men to join the fray.

The third characteristic feature of the political scene in the autumn of 1792 was a new level of political divisiveness at the heart of the political class. From the very earliest of the Convention’s sessions, daggers were drawn between the ‘Girondins’ (the old Brissotin grouping plus some newcomers such as Buzot and Carra) and ‘Montagnards’ (‘Mountaineers’: left-wing Jacobin deputies clustering at the top of the steeply graduated amphitheatre benches within the Convention). The division – which unaligned deputies of ‘the Plain’ watched with appalled fascination – owed nothing to the social provenance of the two groups, which were split pretty evenly amongst the main socio-professional groupings which composed the Assembly as a whole. Although under the Convention the Girondins would be increasingly vilified by the radical movement as ‘aristocrats’ and ‘royalists’, in fact the social background and political career of many Girondins did not differ markedly from their radical opponents. A number, for example, had been activists in Cercle Social and Cordelier circles in 1790–91 – alongside subsequent sans-culotte and Montagnard militants. Although the Girondins had former nobles – or ci-devants – among their ranks, such as the marquis de Condorcet, the Montagnards included Philippe-Égalité (‘Philip Equality’), as the duc d’Orléans now called himself, the marquis de Lepeletier de Saint-Fargeau and others.

At issue between Girondins and Montagnards were matters of history and personality more than social origins or even political philosophy. Particularly pertinent was the line of blood drawn by the buveurs de sang in the September Massacres. Brissot, Roland and the Girondin deputies were not willing to forgive or forget threats to their lives in that sombre episode, and they came into the Convention bearing personal grudges against those they held responsible for their discomfiture. Almost at once, they launched vicious attacks against arch-buveur de sang Marat, against Robespierre (whose dictatorial laying-down of the law to the Legislative Assembly at the head of the Insurrectionary Commune had caused resentment) and against Danton (now also accused of fiddling the books as Justice Minister). They also tried to relaunch plans to establish a guard of fédérés near Paris to protect the assembly against the violence of the Parisian popular militants, whose continued impunity for the September atrocities infuriated them.

The Montagnards reacted by driving the Girondins out of the Paris Jacobin Club and seeking to blacken their names on the national club network. Yet the Girondins fought back spiritedly. They began the Convention with their orators the most listened to by the Plain, and with their friends in ministerial positions (Roland remained at the Interior while Girondin allies Lebrun-Tondu and Pache took over Foreign Affairs and War). In August, Interior Minister Roland was granted 100,000 livres to propagandize in the provinces, and his Bureau de l’esprit public utilized Girondin papers such as Bonneville’s Chronique du mots, Louvet’s Sentinelle and the Bulletin des Amis de la Vérité to partisan effect: the news-sheets poured calumny on the heads of deputies associated with the Parisian popular movement and presented a picture of a patriotic and politically responsible Girondin leadership in peril of destruction by Jacobins and sans-culottes.

The atmosphere of hate and recrimination between the two sides was all the more regrettable in that on the two main issues of the day – the future of the war and the fate of the king – Girondin and Montagnard attitudes were surprisingly close. From late 1791, the Brissotins had been the most forceful supporters of war policy, and in the Convention the Montagnards followed their lead, embracing the patriotic cause with brio. The edict of 19 November 1792 promising fraternal aid to all peoples struggling to regain their liberty seemed merely to be a tardy enactment of Brissot’s 1791 calls for a crusade for universal liberty. Similarly, on 15 December a further decree stipulated that Revolutionary legislation and reforms should be introduced in occupied territories – a programme which extended to the nationalization of church lands, the abolition of tithes and feudal dues, and the introduction of taxes and assignats. Though there were (increasingly half-hearted) efforts to orchestrate local consent to these innovations, these paled into insignificance against an annexationist reflex common to Girondins and Montagnards alike. In January 1793, for example, it was the Girondins’ bête noire, Danton, who launched the overheated proposal that French frontiers should be fixed at the ‘natural frontiers’ of the Alps, the Pyrenees and the Rhine. Savoy had been incorporated into France in November 1792, followed by Nice in January 1793 and then Monaco and a scattering of German and Belgian territories. From November 1792, the river Scheldt was opened up to French shipping, breaking international conventions affirmed at Utrecht in 1713.

There is no reason to doubt that the Girondins had become any more monarchist or any less patriotic than their fellow Conventionnels – indeed, they were as rhapsodic as anyone at the declaration of the Republic, and several were to go to the scaffold defiantly singing the ‘Marseillaise’. Yet their handling of the trial of the king became ever more arcane, obstructive and opportunistic, and their intemperate attacks on their Montagnard opponents led many disinterested observers in the assembly to wonder whether they might not revert to pro-monarchism if only to spike the guns of Montagnards who were becoming increasingly inflamed with expansionist rhetoric: ‘Rolland [sic] and Brissot’s party’, British secret agent Colonel George Munro confidently asserted, ‘are certainly struggling to save the king in order to humble Robespierre’s party.’20

In early November, the knotty legal and constitutional issue of the means of determining the fate of Louis Capet was resolved when the Convention agreed that it alone should try him. Almost at once, the removal of the king became less a symbol of national unity than an awkward political football. Interior Minister Roland attempted to seize the initiative for the Girondins by rushing to the Convention on 20 November to announce the discovery of compromising political documents in a secret iron wallsafe in the Tuileries palace (the so-called armnoire de fer). The coup blew up in Roland’s face: the Montagnards accused him of removing documents which compromised the Girondins, whose negotiations with the king in July 1792 were also coming to be known. The tone for the debates was set by the uncompromising Robespierre and his adoring young acolyte, Saint-Just, whose chilling maiden speech proposed the axiom that ‘no king rules innocently’: the acts of the journée of 10 August had found Louis guilty and it only remained for the Convention to exterminate the tyrannicidal Capet.21

The Girondins were not the only deputies to be frightened by such scary political geometry, as trial proceedings began on 11 December. Defended by his doughty ex-minister, Malesherbes, Louis managed a pathetic dignity. But he stood no chance. The armoire de fer had sealed his fate – less perhaps as a result of its contents (which were not systematically analysed) than because of its symbolic value as a duplicitous infraction of the cherished values of political transparency. Just as everything seemed to be moving to a straightforward conclusion, however, the Girondins threw in a tactical manoeuvre. Expressing fears that the king’s execution might trigger civil war and inflame Europe against France, they began to argue that the Convention’s decision needed to be ratified by the country at large in primary assemblies. The reasoning for such an appel au peuple looked specious to most deputies, and in the context of the poor electoral turnout of September 1792 it was easy to believe that it might even result in a reprieve which would itself lead on to massive civil turbulence.

In the event, even a number of the Girondins swung round against the appel au peuple – highlighting the extent to which it had been an anti-Montagnard tactical manoeuvre – and the Convention embraced what to many seemed a historic mission. On 14 January, the deputies voted, nem. con., the guilt of the king, and rejected by roughly a two-thirds majority the appel au peuple. Between 16 and 20 January, they came to the rostrum one by one to cast, and to justify, their vote before their peers and in full view of the lowering sans-culottes cramming the public galleries. In this hypercharged existential moment, the deputies confronted their own political careers and the real possibility of their own death as a consequence of their decision – for whoever prevailed, their lives were on the line. Some 387 deputies (including Philippe-Égalité) eventually decided for the king’s death – as against 334 who made some other proposal (imprisonment, exile, etc.). A call for a reprieve was definitively rejected by 380 votes to 310. The king’s execution was carried out with great pomp and circumstance on 21 January 1793. A new line of blood had been traced at the heart of the Revolution: on one side stood the Montagnards, the regicidal deputies and the Parisian popular movement; on the other were not merely the forces of monarchical reaction but also the Girondin deputies and their supporters in the Convention and in the country at large.

The trial of Louis Capet had presented the unedifying spectacle of fellow republicans falling out for reasons of comparative political advantage. Matters did not end there. The spring of 1793 saw the exacerbation of political division under the pressure of three developments which, in different but obliquely interlocked ways, threatened the viability of the new Republic: war, counter-revolutionary civil turbulence and economic distress.

Post-Valmy military success had flattered only to deceive. Seeming to believe its own rhetoric, the Convention felt confident enough to extend the European conflict, declaring war against England and Holland on 1 February and Spain on 7 March 1793; by the autumn most of the rest of Europe was drawn into the conflict. Yet the army needed serious attention, many of the patriotic volunteers of summer 1792 having chosen to return to their homes over the winter. Dumouriez’s advance into Holland was checked by an Austrian counter-attack, and defeat at Neerwinden on 18 March led to the evacuation of Holland and Belgium. Things went badly on the eastern front too, where Custine lost control of the Rhineland to the duke of Brunswick, who besieged the French in Mainz. Lafayette-style, Dumouriez attempted a political coup, seeking to lead his army on Paris, with the aim of crushing the Jacobins and reinstituting the 1791 constitution. His army refused to follow his lead, however, and, after handing over to the enemy the four Conventionnels sent to arrest him, the errant general rode over to Austrian lines, with republican bullets whistling around his ears, taking with him Orléans’s son, the duc de Chartres (the future king Louis-Philippe).

Betrayal was on everyone’s lips. The plot mentality which had characterized the course of Revolutionary history back to the summer of the Great Fear of 1789 was, moreover, finding new – domestic – targets. The demands of external war had helped to catalyse a movement of resistance across the land which in the west developed into outright counter-revolution. To compensate for gaps in the ranks caused by returning volunteers, the Convention on 21 February issued the ‘decree of 300,000 men’, which envisaged the recruitment of these massive numbers by means left to the devices of local authorities. A measure which recalled the hated militia recruitment of the pre-revolutionary days was certain to be unpopular, and it sparked nationwide protests. In western France, moreover, from 11 March onwards, protest metamorphosed into thunderous waves of civil disobedience: attacks on National Guardsmen, republican mayors and Constitutional clergy and, above all, outright refusal to join the armed forces.

It was church rather than king which mobilized the rebels. Silence, possibly indifference, had greeted the edict which the comte de Provence issued on 28 January, a week after his brother’s guillotining: whilst recognizing the young, imprisoned son Louis XVII as the rightful monarch, Provence assumed power himself as a regent and promised a return to the status quo ante 1789, and exemplary punishment for crimes committed since then. The rebellious western areas did not want an en bloc restoration of the Ancien Régime: they had fêted rather than lamented the passing of seigneurialism, and shrugged off the execution of their monarch. Yet the religious issue had really got under their skin. The missionary zeal of the Counter-Reformation in these regions had left deep marks on the mentalities of the peasantry, who had placed their clergymen under intense pressure to reject the Civil Constitution in 1791: Normandy, Brittany, Maine, Anjou and lower Poitou had been among the most solidly refractory zones over the oath issue, and these regions had seen a great deal of religious turbulence since then, including much ‘juror-baiting’. The demand in early 1793 that local populations should send off cohorts to fight for a Revolution whose basic precepts were far from universally accepted led to the tocsin being sounded for counter-revolutionary action. This produced the complete collapse of government in a wide swathe of territory which became known as the ‘military Vendée’ – the area south of the river Loire to roughly the level of Fontenay-le-Comte, and covering parts of the departments of Maine-et-Loire, Loire-Inférieure and Deux-Sèvres as well as the Vendée.

This spontaneous peasant uprising soon produced levels of stomach-churning atrocity which stood comparison with the Parisian September massacres. The rebels liquidated republican officials in their takeover of towns such as Cholet and Machecoul (in which locality some 500 supporters of the Republic were coldly butchered). The initial leaders of the revolt, which grew daily in numbers and military sophistication, were drawn from humble social backgrounds – Cathelineau was a weaver, for example, Stofflet a gamekeeper. Though some of the region’s most outstanding nobles had emigrated, there was a plethora of petty hobereaux whom it subsequently proved possible to draw in. Prominent amongst these was the comte de La Rochejacquelein, a former royal bodyguard, who was appointed generalissimo of a ‘Royal Catholic Army’, which developed its own command structure, provisioning infrastructure, and insignia (prominent among which was the sacred heart) and which even issued assignats bearing the image of the infant Louis XVII.

The specifically royalist element in the Vendée revolt thus came in late. It owed nothing at all to émigré leaders, moreover, whose slowness to react to the counter-revolutionary potential revealed in the Vendée sprang from their conviction (shared by the British) that war was best conducted in classically conventional military style, and not by indisciplined hordes of pitchfork-wielding peasants. The latter, however, were able to exploit the relative depletion of republican troops in the interior as a result of the military crisis at the front to score signal early successes over raw National Guardsmen. The rebels seized Thouars on 5 May, before going on to take Parthenay and Fontenay later in the month.

Countenancing both a downturn in military fortunes at the front and the emergence of an obdurate zone of rebellion in the west, the Convention also found itself in the midst of economic difficulties which mobilized Paris and caused widespread discontent throughout the land. The Civil Constitution and military recruitment issues exacerbated more generalized discontent about the economic impact of the Revolution. Though the scale of reforms since 1789 had been substantial, many French men and women were distinctly underwhelmed by the Revolution’s palpable effects on their conditions of life. Tax relief had been slight; it had needed direct action from below to get successive national assemblies to liquidate seigneurialism; and in areas of widespread tenant-farming like the west the population was probably 30 per cent worse off in 1793 than in 1789. In addition, the new political class of townsmen had extended their influence and control over rural areas, notably by purchasing church lands, and they maintained their grip through town-based National Guards. The Revolutionary assemblies also proved unable to handle the deepening economic problems. The war with Europe was crippling foreign exchange, even before English naval blockade effectively wiped out valuable colonial trade. With the tax take still in the doldrums following fiscal and administrative reorganization, the only way the government could pay for war was by issuing ever more paper money, fuelling inflation and thereby undermining state credit. By February 1793,assignats were changing hands at around half of their face value. On the 12th of that month, the radical ex-curé Jacques Roux led a delegation from the Parisian faubourgs into the assembly demanding action to remedy popular distress; and a fortnight later, there were consumer riots in the capital, with much pillaging and enforced discount sales of colonial products (sugar, coffee, soap).

There was a chorus of disapproval within the Convention. Even deputies on the Left were unwilling to see the symptoms of economic distress as motivated by bread-and-butter issues rather than political principle. Marat felt that an aristocratic conspiracy must be behind riots over ‘luxury goods’, for example, while Robespierre chided the populace for ‘unworthy’ concern with ‘paltry merchandise’: ‘the people’, he orotundly declared, ‘should rise not to collect sugar but to fell tyrants’.22 Roux was, however, only one of an increasingly notorious group of so-called ‘wild ones’ (enragés) making their way in sectional politics and in radical journalism at this time. The grouping also included Jean Varlet, Théophile Leclerc and two feminist radicals, Claire Lacombe and Pauline Léon (Leclerc’s partner). Although personal animosities complicated matters, their radical demands were close to those being peddled in the Paris Commune by ‘Anaxagoras’ Chaumette, the Commune’s procurator, and by his deputy, Jacques Hébert, of Père Duchènefame. Following news of Dumouriez’s treason, Varlet set up a central coordinating committee based in the Évêché to follow events and to develop a distinctively sans-culotte programme, which was grounded in the conviction that sectional assemblies constituted a more authentic democratic expression of popular sovereignty than the elected Conventionnels. The economic dimension of this campaign included calls to eradicate hoarding and speculation (mainly through killing hoarders and speculators), plus a desire for the state to fix prices and enforce the legal value (the cours forcé) of assignats.

Under grave external threat, encumbered by internal counterrevolution, and harassed by a Parisian sans-culotte movement which seemed to be outflanking the Convention from the left, the deputies reacted strongly. On 18 March, they passed a law threatening the death penalty for anyone advocating the loi agraire – that is, the expropriation of the rich and the redistribution of their land to the needy. Yet in order to pre-empt popular radical agitation, they initiated a sweeping suspension of personal freedoms and natural rights, installing the dark machinery of state political terror: ‘let us become terrible’, Danton urged his fellows, in a grim nod towards the September massacres, ‘so as to prevent the people from becoming so’.23 On 10 March, a Revolutionary Tribunal was established to judge counter-revolutionary offences; on the 19th, summary execution was threatened for anyone rebelling against the nation; on the 21st, draconian legislation against non-juring priests was further tightened up; and on the 28th, anti-émigrélegislation was codified and made more punitive. Particular attention was given to enforcement of this battery of Revolutionary measures. On 9 March, nearly 100 Conventionnels were despatched as ‘deputies on mission’ (représentants en mission) to call departmental authorities to account, supervise the arrest of suspects, ensure the grain trade functioned effectively and oversee conscription. On 21 March, communes were instructed to establish surveillance committees to vet strangers and to issue ‘civic certificates’ (certificats de civisme) to individuals of proven patriotism, while on 6 April, a Committee of Public Safety, composed of nine Conventionnels headed by Danton, was established to coordinate the war effort within France as well as at the front.

The Montagnards were among the most enthusiastic supporters of this battery of legislation, and increasingly laid claim to be the embodiment of Revolutionary opinion throughout France. Outside Paris, the Jacobin society was extending and consolidating its hold over provincial clubs. Whereas some 126 provincial clubs (notably in the west and south-west) expressed support for the Gironde in May 1793, 195 were paid-up supporters of the Paris Jacobins. The closure of Roland’s Bureau de l’esprit public in January 1793 saw the initiative in political propaganda also passing to the Montagnard-Jacobin camp. In late March, restrictions were placed on press freedom, and many Montagnard deputies on mission used this as a pretext to impound pro-Girondin news-sheets in the provinces for ‘revolting partiality, and for their corruption of public opinion’.24

These developments troubled Girondin deputies, who were increasingly reflective about the direction in which the Revolution was headed, and into whose hands it was falling. Although they sometimes shivered at the consequences of the Terror which the Convention was busy designing, they were not counter-revolutionaries, and they wanted to win the war. Yet they found that their hated Montagnard rivals were more successful at presenting an energetic and patriotic posture against the threat to national security: the Montagnards were disproportionately highly represented, for example, among deputies on mission, who were proving to be the backbone of patriotic resistance. Girondin frustration was compounded by the failure of the Convention to accept the new constitution which their colleague, Condorcet, presented in February, and which came back on to the agenda in April. Resentful at being ‘out-patriotized’ by the Montagnards within the Convention, the Girondins also developed rampant anti-Parisian sentiment as a core value. One could understand why, for their loathing was amply reciprocated by the Parisian sans-culottes. Girondin unpopularity over the appel au peuple during the king’s trial was exacerbated by the group’s reiterated denunciations of Parisian radicalism. The Girondins also came to represent for militant sans-culottes the fiercest opponents of the directed economy which the radicals demanded. At bottom, the Girondins were no more and no less doctrinaire in political economy than the Montagnards, but they stuck to their laisser-faire guns more unbendingly just as, by April and May, the Montagnards began to show signs of pragmatically accepting the need for some of the economic controls called for by the enragés. The latter, in turn, began to assail individual Girondins as profiteers and hard-faced men doing well out of the war through alleged complicity with corrupt business interests. On 9–10 March a day of popular action (journée) saw militant crowds attacking the printshops responsible for producing leading Girondin newspapers (notably Gorsas’s Courrier des 83 départements and Condorcet’s Chronique de Paris). The action was contained but this did not prevent the sans-culottes calling for the purge from the ranks of the Convention of twenty-two leading Girondins.

A few days later, the Girondin Vergniaud’s thundering denunciation in the Convention of the events of 9–10 March inaugurated a vicious period of political fighting which would only end with the expulsion of many Girondin deputies on 2. June 1793. Vergniaud joined his attack on the radical Paris sections with reproaches against the Montagnards for maintaining popular effervescence at a time when tranquillity was called for, and making the return of despotism possible as the Revolution, ‘like Saturn, devour[ed] its own children’.25 The poisoning of relations with the Montagnards was consummated, as the latter started to embrace elements of the political and economic programme of the enragés. On 11 April, under Montagnard pressure, the Convention passed the cours forcé of theassignat and this was followed on 4 May by the ‘First’ Maximum, which regulated grain and bread prices in the consumers’ interests. By late May, plans were afoot for a forced loan on the wealthy and for a scheme of public works.

As the Montagnards were coming to endorse sans-culotte demands for the expulsion of the Girondins, the latter realized that their necks were in the noose, and reacted by taking the battle to their avowed enemies on the increasingly Jacobin-dominated public sphere. Girondin supporters in the Paris sections endeavoured to counter the influence of the enragés; Girondin deputies urged the departments to protest against the domination of the popular movement over the Convention; moderate opponents of the Jacobins in provincial cities such as Lyon, Marseille and Bordeaux received Girondin support; and attempts were made to rejuvenate the Girondin press. Nor did the Girondins refrain from attempting to utilize the new machinery of Terror to try to pick off their opponents – a move which rebounded badly against them. On 14 April, benefiting from the absence en mission of many of their Montagnard opponents, the Girondins got the Convention to impeach Marat on grounds of sedition. Marat gave himself up, and the ensuing trial before the new Revolutionary Tribunal turned into a Girondin fiasco: the ‘Friend of the People’ was acquitted and borne shoulder-high in triumph through the streets of Paris.

‘It was they’, Danton would later recall of the Girondins, ‘who forced us to throw ourselves into the sans-culottery which devoured them’.26 This was retrospective special pleading by a Montagnard who had long been in cahoots with the popular movement – yet he had a point. By their relentless attack on the Jacobins from autumn 1792 onwards, the Girondins left their opponents with less room for manoeuvre as regards the sans-culottes than the Montagnards would have liked. They also served up on a platter the mechanisms for their own indictment, by breaking the idea of the immunity of deputies in their campaign to nail Marat. And the shrillness and often partisan character of their anti-Jacobinism ended up disenchanting many centrist deputies of the Plain. With bad news from the front and from western France piling up, the Girondins preferred to garner their forces in Paris – and to complain about the Montagnards, even as the latter hurled themselves daemonically into the war effort as deputies on mission. The Girondins’ apparent lack of patriotism in war circumstances which – and the heavy irony was lost on no one – they had themselves energetically initiated, looked like appalling bad faith, and it drove many prominent moderates such as Couthon, Cambon, Lindet, Carnot and Barère into the arms of the Montagnards. As the physician-deputy Baudot later noted,

the Girondins wanted to halt the revolution with the bourgeoisie in power but at a time when it was both impossible and impolitic to do so: there was open war on the frontiers and civil war threatened; the foreign forces could only be repulsed by the masses; they had to be mobilized and given a stake in our fate.27

It was the sans-culotte spokespersons of these ‘masses’ of course on whom the Girondin deputies were launching their most vitriolic attacks.

This left the Girondins isolated when matters came to a head in late May. Their call for the maintenance of the rule of law, for the rights of the departments, and for the notion of national sovereignty embodied in the Convention were excellent in themselves. But they seemed frankly obstructive, out of touch and hypocritical. Attempts to appeal over the heads of the Parisians to provincial – and allegedly moderate – France by urging the relocation of the Convention in homely Bourges were combined with a new bout of aggression towards radical sans-culottes. On 18 May, the Convention established at their behest a ‘Commission of Twelve’ to investigate allegations of popular insurrectionary conspiracy, and its report on 25 May led to the arrest of Hébert, Varlet and a couple of other sans-culotte leaders – only for them to be released untried a few days later. The Girondin Isnard used his position as presiding chair of the Convention to launch a blistering attack on the sans-culottes for daring to threaten the Convention: if the deputies were harmed, he blustered, ‘Paris will be annihilated and men will search the banks of the Seine for signs of the city’ – a formulation whose similarity to the 1792 Brunswick Manifesto caused maximum offence.28

With the Montagnards in the Convention standing well back, the Parisian radicals began to organize for a new journée which would expel the Girondins from the Convention and inaugurate a full sans-culotte reform programme. On 31 May, the insurrectionary committee which Varlet had organized at the Évêché several days earlier took over the Paris Commune, and the Insurrectionary Commune appointed the radical ex-tax-clerk Hanriot to the post of National Guard Commander. A massive popular demonstration in the Convention urged the expulsion of the Girondin deputies, the suppression of the Commission of Twelve, sweeping arrests of hoarders and political suspects, and other radical welfare measures. The assembly agreed to the removal of the Twelve, but baulked at further action. Another day of insurrectionary action, on 2 June, however, forced them to go further. Although the deputies initially refused to renege on their fellows, their attempt to leave the assembly hall was frustrated by an encircling crowd of sans-culottes who refused to give them passage. As Hanriot threatened to order his National Guard cannoneers to open fire on the deputies, the latter meekly bowed to the fate mapped out for them: they returned to the assembly hall and voted the expulsion of some twenty-nine alleged Girondins (many of whom had already physically absented themselves from Paris). The sans-culottes had won a famous victory: though whether they – or the Montagnards – would reap the fuller rewards remained to be seen.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!