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The French Revolution: Ferver and Foolishness to 1795

The revolution from May to August 1789 had brought no economic relief. Orders for luxury goods were in decline, and unemployment had begun to rise among those who made these goods. International trade was also down. And harvests failed for the second year in a row. Economic hardship and hunger remained for common people in France. A rumor was being passed around that aristocrats were conspiring to prolong the hunger in order to bring the common people to their knees and to block reforms.

Conspiracy theory was accompanied by the vilification of the king, Louis XVI (age 35) and his queen: Marie Antoinette. Newspapers supporting revolutions were accusing the queen of having affairs and participating in orgies including homosexuality (considered by the French to be a German vice). And there was the false rumor of her having no concern for the poor and having said: "Let them eat cake." Encouraged by revolutionary agitators, in early October 1789, the women ransacked the city armory for weapons and marched to the royal palace at Versailles (12 miles from the heart of Paris). Thomas Jefferson's friend, Lafayette, who supported the revolution had helped write the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, had been appointed head of the revolution's National Guard, and he saved King Louis and his queen. The mob settled on accompanying the royal couple out of Versailles to the less splendid palace in the center of town, where they would be more exposed to public intrusions. There in his own palace he was to be made a prisoner, with revolutionary soldiers keeping an eye on his wife as she slept.

The revolution's legislature, the National Constituent Assembly, exacerbated the revolution's difficulties by taking on the influential Roman Catholic Church. In November 1789, it nationalized Church lands (ten percent of France's available land), claiming that it was retrieving land that belonged to the nation which the Church had been holding in trust. The legislature was mostly Christians who saw their religion as a civilizing, moral and humanistic force. But they wanted a church for the nation that was less opulent than the Catholic Church. They wanted the government to oversee the elections of pastors and bishops, and they wanted clergymen to swear loyalty to this plan. About half of the clergy refused. It would have been better for the revolution had the kept the state and religion separate except for a guarantee of freedom to worship as one pleased.

The legislature's attempt at intrusion into Church matters boiled as an issue through 1790. In places across the country violence broke out between supporters of the revolution and defenders of the Church. That was the year that the Revolution's legislature, also called the National Constituent Assembly, effectively became France's sovereign parliament. The assembly abolished all aristocratic and hereditary titles. And 1790 was a year when harvests improved, with many believing that God had sided with the revolution. But the Vatican saw it differenly. In March, 1791, Pope Pius VI damned the attempt to apply state authority over the Church.

Writing the constitution was completed on in early September 1791. King Louis made gestures of cooperation and obedience to his new status as a constitutional monarch. He asked those who had fled abroad to return and help make the new constitution work. They didn't respond. The revolution's legislative body, now called the Legislative Assembly, was foolishly hot-headed about the issue. Many of its deputies were overly offended. They sent an ultimatum to Austria demanding that Austria expel 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.

The result was war with Austria — a war that France and its revolution could have avoided, and for the sake of the revolution should have. The war intensified animosities and enemy-think. The 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. Already many Parisians were wanting to save France from a traitor-king. 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 and voted for the removal of the remainder of the king's powers and declared him a prisoner. The constitutional of 1789 and the constitutional monarchy was dead. France was to be a republic. Newspaper support for the monarchy was prohibited.

Responding to a passion for action against treason, the Legislative Assembly set up a Revolutionary Tribunal and emergency measures. There were to be no appeals against the death sentences handed down by the tribunal — sentences employing a device called the guillotine. Among the executed were King Louis, on 31 January 1793.

The year 1793 was tumultuous for the revolution. France was now at war not only with Austria but also Prussia and Britain. In the legislature a Committee of Public Safety was aiming to eliminate all counter-revolutionary elements within France. It was 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. The drafting people, including peasants, began. The revolutionary government would soon be battling anti-draft rebellions.

On 3 October 1793, seventy-three deputies of the revolution's legislature were accused of conspiring against the French people. They had not voted against the expulsion of the 31 moderates earlier in the year, and they faced treason charges. One of them, Thomas Paine (a participant in the American Revolution) was sent to prison instead — spared because he was not French.

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.

By the end of 1793, revolts outside Paris against the revolutionary government were largely crushed, with a lot of bloodshed. In the city of Lyon, 1,800 were sentenced to death. In Marseille and Bordeaux, hundreds were executed. The revolutionaries imprisoned thousands, and many of the imprisoned were to die by early 1795.

The leader of the Committee of Public Safety (and the "terror") was Maximilien de Robespierre, a devout Christian. He viewed morality and virtue as rising from the faith, and he described the revolution as grounded in virtue. He found fault with those in the convention whom he identified as atheists and anti-Christians. He targeted a faction of revolutionaries, the Hébertists, accused them of conspiracy and of collusion with foreign powers. And, on 24 March 1794, Hébert and nineteen of his faction were guillotined.

Robespierre then came into conflict with another prominent deputy, Georges Jacques Danton. Initially, Danton supported executing suspected enemies of the revolution, but in 1793 he was having second thoughts about continuing the war. His fellow deputies spoke of his opposition to the terror as encouraging those opposed to the revolution. Danton was an outstanding orator with a following among the deputies. The Committee of Public Safety feared that he might be able to rally the convention against their positions. Robespierre disliked Danton, Danton having rejected his talk of virtue, and Robespierre asked how a man "with so little notion of morality ever became a champion of freedom." On 29 March 1794, Danton and a few of his allies were arrested. A phony trial was conducted, the judge himself fearing accusations against him by the Committee of Public Safety. Danton and his friends were accused of conspiring against the French people, of attempting to restore the monarchy, embezzling state funds and other charges. They were guillotined on the 5th of April.

Some in the legislature remained fond of Danton, and there were those who believed that the terror had gone too far and feared they might be next. There were enough of them to succeed in a power struggle against Robespierre and his allies. Robespierre and 21 of his associates were guillotined in late July, 1794.

The surviving deputies of the National Convention felt obliged to dismantle the laws that had given free reign to the Terror. They wanted order and stability. Many of those in prison as a result of these laws were released, including Thomas Paine in November 1794.

In March 1795, the legislature was still rationing bread, and supplies of grain were running out. Hunger produced more rioting in Paris. The rioting extended into May, when a mob invaded the legislature, demanding bread and killing one of the deputies, whose head someone put on a pike. Six deputies went over to the side of the mob, but most of the deputies resisted the mob, and they were rescued by the revolution's army. The turmoil in Paris lasted three days, ending with the arrest of thousands. Many of the mob activists had their weapons taken away, and around twenty of their leaders were executed. The six deputies who had sided with the demonstrators were tried and given a sentence of death, and four of them committed suicide.

The protesters in Paris felt defeated. Some began turning to their religious heritage. In the countryside, communities were searching for priests to perform mass. Among the poor, nostalgia was developing for the good old days when the king looked out for the basic needs of his subjects. Outside Paris, people released from prison and those who had lost friends and family during the Terror were demanding and initiating revenge against those who had terrorized them. Former terrorists were imprisoned, and a few were killed in what was called the White Terror, which lasted through May and June of 1795.

People with substantial wealth were beginning to display their affluence again. People were addressing each other as "mister" (monsieur) again, rather than as "citizen." In August the revolution's legislature created a new constitution. In October, royalists attempt a coup, wanting to create a constitutional monarchy. General Bonaparte Napoleon crushed the coup, and the revolution's legislature dissolved itself in favor of a bicameral parliament.

As a vague abstraction the revolution lived on, to be associated with the Second French Republic (1848-51), the Third Republic (1870-1940), the Fourth Republic (1946-58), and the Fifth Republic (1958 to today).

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Copyright © 2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.