(The FRENCH REVOLUTION – continued)

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Fear, Overreaction and War (1792-93)

In accordance with France's new constitution, the National Assembly disbanded itself. Power passed to a newly elected Legislative Assembly (parliament), consisting of 745 deputies, mostly youthful lawyers of moderate wealth. Amnesty was offered those who had fled the revolution. On October 15, King Louis asked émigrés to return to help make the constitution work. Improved relations followed between the Louis XVI and the public. But it did not last long.

Few émigrés returned. Instead, they continued expressing their hostility toward the revolution. Some members of the Legislative Assembly were deeply offended. The Assembly debated and then voted in favor of declaring that all émigrés were plotting against the revolution. An ultimatum was sent to Austria, demanding the expulsion of those Frenchmen hostile to the revolution, and the Legislative Assembly declared that those who did not return by January 1, 1792, would be considered guilty of a capital crime. Accommodating public opinion and the Legislative Assembly, King Louis XVI came to parliament in December and announced an ultimatum to the elector of Trier (in the German Rhineland), a demand that he put an end to hostile émigré activity in his realm, and delegates to the Legislative Assembly gave King Louis long applause.

Some deputies were optimistic about sending troops into neighboring countries, believing that people there would be eager for liberation in the form of French-style political and social changes. With support of local peoples, they believed, defeat of old-world absolute monarchy by French soldiers would be easy. Adding to the support for war were military men, including Lafayette, who thought that war would reinvigorate the army. The leading spokesman for those in the Convention favoring war, Jacques Brissot, had his mind not on fraternity but on weeding out terrorists. Brissot was a passionate speaker who represented the educated middle-class and the interests of the provinces over Paris. He had been impressed by the American Revolution, and he was an absolutist in his approach to loyalty to the French Revolution. The war, he believed, would help expose traitors.

The brother of Marie-Antoinette, Leopold II of Austria (who was also the Holy Roman Emperor), had hoped to avoid war with France. Earlier he had stated his readiness to defend Louis XVI, and he was now ready to defend that part of the Holy Roman Empire that was Trier. France could easily have avoided war with Leopold, but on April 20, 1792, the Legislative Assembly took the momentous step of declaring war, and France launched an offensive into the Austrian Netherlands.

Prussia had allied itself with the Austrians, and against the two the French offensive fell apart when it met its first resistance. Patriotic enthusiasm for the offensive turned into a search for scapegoats. More intense now was the belief that the enemies of the revolution had to be defeated. There was little or no mood of reconciliation among supporters of the revolution – the kind of reconciliation that the United States was then applying to those who had favored the British during the revolutionary war.

The war was still on, and France's Legislative Assembly rapidly passed laws to combat treason. All foreigners were to be under surveillance. Priests who had not taken an oath to the state were suspected of disloyalty and to be deported, and on May 29, the king's special bodyguard was disbanded and replaced by National Guardsmen thought to be loyal to the revolution.

In a letter to Lafayette, dated June 16, the US Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson spoke of his support for France and its "exterminating the monster aristocracy," prefacing this with "May heaven favor your cause."

Amid the patriotic fervor, volunteers were joining the military, and from the provinces they passed through Paris, fraternizing with the revolutionary Parisians and singing patriotic songs, including the Marseillaise – later to be the revolution's anthem.

Believing that King Louis was insufficiently loyal to the revolution, on June 20 a mob invaded his palace, threatened and humiliated him but left him physically unharmed. There was a response from the commander of the Prussian-Austrian army, the Duke of Brunswick, whose force was poised on France's border. On July 25 he issued a manifesto – the Brunswick Manifesto, which reached Paris on August 1. It promised that if France's royal family remained unharmed that his army would not harm French civilians or loot. If the royal family were subject to acts of violence or humiliations, the manifesto warned, his armies would take vengeance on Paris.

The threat did not work. From August 10 to 13, a mob of several thousand Parisians sacked the king's palace and killed a few of the king's Swiss guards. Louis escaped, but the Legislative Assembly gave in to the passions of the Parisians, voted for the removal of the remainder of the king's powers and declared him a prisoner. France was to be a republic. Newspaper support for the monarchy was prohibited. And it was decided that the constitution of 1789 had to be replaced by a constitution for a republic.

European monarchies withdrew their ambassadors from Paris, while the administration of George Washington also considered withdrawing. Washington's friend, Lafayette, was hostile to the direction that revolution was taking and he became the target of a decree of impeachment. An American as well as French citizen, on August 19 Lafayette fled northward, hoping to reach the United States by way of the United Netherlands (the Dutch Republic), but he was captured by confused Germans hostile to the French and put in an Austrian prison.

Responding to passions for action against treason, the Legislative Assembly set up a Revolutionary Tribunal. Legal guarantees in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen were superseded by what was considered emergency measures. There was to be no appeal of sentences handed down by the tribunal - sentences that were frequently death by a new mechanical device called the guillotine.

Military Victories and the Beheading of Louis XVI

Marie Antoinette, circa 1791

Marie Antoinette, around the year 1791.

Marie Antoinette, on the way to the guillotine

Marie Antoinette, headed for the Guillotine, sketch by Jacques-Louis David, October 16, 1793.

On August 23, 1792, the Prussians captured Longwy, just inside France and south of the Austrian Netherlands border. On September 2 the Prussians captured Verdun, 50 kilometers to the southwest. Rumors spread that nobles and priests were plotting with the invaders. Parisians went on a five-day rampage, to monasteries and from prison to prison, killing political prisoners, priests and nobles, as they went. And the dead were counted at around 1,500.

The Legislative Assembly had been the creation of the constitution of 1789, and with the constitution now defunct the Legislative Assembly voted itself out of existence. Elections were held for a new governing body: the National Convention. Only 7.5 percent of the electorate voted.

Deputies to the National Convention debated issues concerning a new constitution and pursued the revolution's war effort. A great number of volunteers were mobilized, and on September 20 France's regular army artillerists won one of the great battles of the decade by blowing to bits an advancing Prussian and Austrian force 50 kilometers west of Verdun, at Valmy.

Following their defeat at Valmy, the Prussian and Austrian force withdrew from France. In late September, the French army advanced, occupying the coastal town of Nice – a town that had been under Sardinian rule. The French pursued their enemy and pushed into the Austrian Netherlands, and on November 6 a force of 45,000 French defeated an army of 13,000 Austrians near Jemappes, 50 kilometers southwest of Brussels. Then on November 14 the French overran Brussels. By now the French had annexed the Kingdom of Savoy, whose king had been hostile to the revolution, and on December 2 the French captured the German city of Frankfurt.

These victories calmed France's revolutionaries, but their calm was not lasting. On December 11 the trial of Louis XVI began. Some in the National Convention joined with the Parisians in their belief that the death of the king would advance the revolution. Louis XVI, once known to his people as Louis the Beneficent was now called Louis the Last. Tom Paine, respected in France for his role in the American Revolution, was back in France and had been chosen to be a member of the National Convention, and he voted against execution, seeing no point in it and favoring exile for the king to the United States, whose revolution he had supported. On January 20, 1793, the National Convention voted 380 to 310 in favor of execution, and the following day, in downtown Paris, Louis climbed the wooden stairs to the guillotine, and with calm and dignity he submitted to his execution.

France against the Rest of Europe

Intemperance was to weigh heavily on the revolution. Much of Europe outside France was revulsed by the execution of Louis XVI. This included people in London, where liberal Whigs had been supporting the revolution going into 1792 – with the notable exception of the Whig politician Edmund Burke. Now, in early 1793, Britain joined Holland, Spain, Russia, Sardinia, Naples, Portugal, Prussia and Austria in an alliance against France, with small German states eager to give soldiers for a price to the British. France's National Convention declared war on Great Britain and Holland. There were food shortages again, and food riots. French money, the assignat, plunged in value and prices skyrocketed.

To meet the challenge from abroad, the National Convention on February 24th decreed military conscription, which was met with hostility in places outside Paris. On March 1, the Austrians began an offensive in the Austrian Netherlands, throwing back the French. In the United States, Thomas Jefferson continued to support France. Alexander Hamilton gave his support to England, and President George Washington chose neutrality – the proclamation of neutrality to be issued on March 4.

Among peasants in western France, around the area called Vendee, an anti-draft rebellion arose and grew in intensity, and the new rebels proclaimed a war to restore the monarchy and the Church.

In Paris the desire to strike at the revolution's enemies intensified. Among deputies to the National Convention the renewed reverses brought fear of more massacres like those of the previous year. Taking the side of moderation were the followers of Brissot, also called the Girondin. They accused the more radical deputies, called Montagnards, of having encouraged the earlier prison massacres. Divisions within the Conventions were widening, with Parisians most hostile toward the moderates, the Girondin.

General Dumouriez, who had led the victories against the Austrians and Prussians, the year before, had been in sympathy with the moderates in Paris. He disliked the more radical deputies and wanted to re-establish the constitution of 1791. He failed in his attempt to enlist his forces to march on Paris. On April 5, under threat from the convention, he fled to the Austrians. The day after his defection the National Convention created the Committee of Public Safety, a body of twelve with emergency or dictatorial powers. Having been associated with Dumouriez, the Girondists came under greater suspicion. The Girondists accused their more radical colleagues of joining with the people of Paris for the purpose of purging the Convention.

There were Parisians who believed that the Convention had to be cleansed of moderates. Moderation was seen as counter-revolutionary and traitorous. Suspicion was a patriotic duty, and anger was a virtue. The "people" of Paris stormed the convention. Many of the deputies sided with the mob, some perhaps from fear. The National Convention voted in favor of expelling 31 moderates, who were charged with treason and arrested. This shifted the National Convention further to the Left. Outside Paris, various local governments withdrew recognition from the purged Convention. On June 10, 1793, the National Convention passed a law that deprived the accused of counsel and their ability to call witnesses. And, to make prosecution easier, juries were allowed to convict on the basis of rumor.

On June 24 the National Convention approved a new constitution. It proclaimed the people's right to employment and to an education. It created universal manhood suffrage, and it declared the right to insurrection against a government that was violating the "rights of the people." A nation referendum on the new constitution was to be held on August 4.

There was to be no such national referendum. Elsewhere in France, moderates had turned against Paris and were demanding decentralized government. By July only the area around Paris was firmly under the control of the National Convention. From Lyon (France's second largest city) and from Marseille came accusations that the National Convention had become puppets of the Paris mob. Some had spoken of raising an army to march on Paris, but this also was not to happen, as various localities remained weakened by a lack of unity.

On July 13, an admirer of the moderate Girondists, Charlotte Corday, assassinated one of the more prominent of the radical revolutionaries, Jean Paul Marat. Marat believed in the redistribution of wealth, dictatorship representing the poor and he was a passionate supporter of terror. Charlotte Corday believed that in killing Marat she was saving the revolution. Instead, it intensified the passions and fears of the more radical members of the National Convention, who became even less inclined to compromise.

In August, the Committee of Public Safety was pursuing its aim of eliminating all counterrevolutionary elements within France, raising new armies, and making sure that food was supplied to the armies and cities. The economy was put on wartime controls. Wages were regulated. Hoarding was now a capital offense. Price controls were created that left retailers little or no profit. Some would soon stop ordering more goods, putting themselves and wholesalers out of business. Ration cards were distributed to assure that limited supplies, including bread, were shared fairly. White bread and pastries were outlawed in favor of making more nutritious brown bread. An illegal (black) market developed in the sale of wood, meat, eggs, butter and vegetables. In market places, women who complained of prices that were higher than the law allowed were cowed by market women who showered insults and vulgarities upon them. All horses and public buildings were drafted into the war effort. Workshops were compelled to make arms and munitions and told when their orders were to be completed. All unmarried men capable of bearing arms were subject to the draft.

On August 27, citizens of Toulon, on the Mediterranean coast, expressed their hostility to the central government by giving control of their harbor, arsenal and French ships to a Spanish and British military force. Paris sent troops to Toulon in early September and retook the city. Mobilization was paying off for Paris, and French ground forces forced the British to withdraw from Dunkirk.

These successes were followed on September 5 by an armed mob surrounding the National Convention and demanding more arrests. The deputies accommodated them, announcing that terror was "the order of the day." The deputies created a new force of six thousand men, 1,200 artillery pieces and guillotines-on-wheels, which went into the countryside in search of hoarders, spies and counter-revolutionary priests.

On October 3, seventy-three deputies of the National Convention were considered not revolutionary enough. They had not voted against the expulsion of the 31 moderates earlier in the year and they were accused of conspiring against the French people. One of them, Thomas Paine, was spared because he was not French. Paine was imprisoned. The search for traitors found some others in Paris who were arrested for violating price controls. People were tried in batches and sent to the guillotine all in one day. On October 16, Marie-Antoinette, who had been languishing in prison and charged with treason, was guillotined. From October through December, 177 persons were executed in Paris.


Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.