FRENCH REVOLUTION        home | history

The French Revolution: Fervor and Foolishness to 1795

The revolution by August 1789 had produced 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 (almost the same age). 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 Paris, where they would be more exposed to the public. And 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 challenging the 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 for the nation a Church that was less opulent. 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.

The Church issue boiled through 1790. That was the year that the National Constituent Assembly abolished all aristocratic and hereditary titles. That year, harvests improved, with some believing that God had sided with the revolution. But during the year in places across the country, violence broke out between supporters of the revolution and defenders of the Church, and in March, 1791, Pope Pius VI damned the attempt to apply state authority over the Church.

Writing France's new constitution was completed 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. But they didn't respond. The revolution's legislative body, now called the Legislative Assembly, were offended. They began over-reacting. 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 a tendency toward a black-and-white (Manichaean) view of events. It intensified animosities and extremes. 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 monarchy, and the constitution, were 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 was King Louis, on 31 January 1793.

The year 1793 continued to be 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 of citizens, including peasants, began. And the government would soon be battling anti-draft rebellions.

With the greater inclination to see enemies, on 3 October, 1793, seventy-three deputies of the revolution's legislature were accused of conspiring against the French people, charges inspired by the accused not having voted for the expulsion of the 31 moderates earlier in the year. The accused were charged with treason. One of them, Thomas Paine (who had been a participant in the American Revolution) was sent to prison instead — spared being guillotined 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 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, and accused them of conspiracy and of collusion with foreign powers. 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. Robespierre asked how a man "with so little notion of morality ever became a champion of freedom." On 29 March 1794, the Committee if Public Safety had Danton and a few of his allies 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. They killed 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 military. 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 began to display their affluence again. People were addressing each other as "mister" (monsieur) again, rather than as "citizen." The revolution's legislature created a new constitution. The legislature dissolved itself on 26 October 1795, to be replaced by a bicameral parliament.

The French Revolution to then had suffered from common faults: irrationalities, ignorance, mob stupidies and leadership mismanagement. The Revolution might have fared better had it left the Catholic Church free from state control, had it chosen a separation of state and religion and left people free to worship or not worship as they pleased. The Revolution might have fared better had it just let the exiles be, dealing with them only if they tried to return to France as part of a conspiracy. The Revolution might have fared better with Louis XVI alive and free than it did with him dead. Executing Louis XVI made the Revolution less secure, not more secure. The Revolution would have fared better if its supporters had been less filled with the fright commonly associated with the weak and childlike. If they had been less intense in trying to defend the Revolution there might not have been the war that generated so much fervor, animosity and burden. It was unfortunate that the Revolution didn't devote less energy creating and fighting enemies more energy meeting France's economic challenges.

In 1795 France was still at war. The French Revolution had a military hero, France's First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte, to be declared Emperor Napoleon in 1804. The ideals of the revolution — "Liberty, Equality and Brotherhood — would, however, live on, to be associated with the Second French Republic (1848-51), the Third Republic (1870-1940), the Fourth Republic (1946-58) and today's Fifth Republic to today.


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