Monday, 25 April 2016

The Great Terror and the fall of Robespierre

Having run out of victims,
Robespierre executes himself

The Republic of Virtue

Danton’s death marked the inauguration of the Republic of Virtue, which was characterised by a concentration of power at the centre. On 7 May (18 floréal) the Rousseauean cult of the Supreme Being was established. Article I of the new constitution stated: 
‘The French people recognizes the existence of the Supreme Being and the immortality of the soul.’ 
Initiating the cult, Robespierre declared in a speech to the Convention:
‘The true priest of the Supreme Being is Nature itself; its temple is the universe; its religion virtue; its festivals the joy of a great people assembled under its eye to tie the sweet knot of universal fraternity and to present before [Nature] the homage of pure and feeling hearts.’ (Quoted Schama, Citizens, 831)
This was an attack on the policy of dechristianisation associated with the former priest, Fouché.

On 20 Prairial  (8 June, Whit Sunday in the old calendar) Paris celebrated the Festival of the Supreme Being in a ceremony stage-managed by the painter, Jacques-Louis David.

'Festival of the Supreme Being', Pierre-Antoine Demachy
Carnavalet Museum, Paris.
via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

The ideology of the Terror: a couple of quotes

 Wikimedia Commons - 
The Terror was about establishing purity, patriotism and virtue. In September 1792 at the time of the first meeting of the Convention, Robespierre wrote:
‘It is not enough to have overturned the throne: our concern is to erect upon his remains holy equality and the imprescriptible Rights of Man. It is not in the empty word itself that a republic consists, but in the character of the citizens. The soul of a republic is vertu – that is love of la patrie, and the high-minded devotion that resolves all private interests into the general interest. The enemies of the republic are those dastardly egoists, those ambitious and corrupt men. You have hunted down kings, but have you hunted out the vices that their deadly domination has engendered among you? Taken together, you are the most generous, the most moral of all peoples…but a people that nurtures within itself a multitude of adroit rogues and political charlatans, skilled at usurpation and the betrayal of trust.’ [quoted Ruth Scurr,  Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution (Vintage, 2007, 219-10]
‘The point was to ensure the triumph of the good, pure, general will of the people – what the people would want in ideal circumstances – and this needed to be intuited on their own behalf until they received sufficient education to understand their own good.’ [Scurr, 211]

Louis Antoine de St Just, February 1794:
‘The republic is built on the ruins of everything anti-republican. There are three sins against the republic: one is to be sorry for State prisoners; another is to be opposed to the rule of virtue; and the third is to be opposed to the Terror.’

The Terror (2)

As with previous posts, I have been  indebted to the following books: 
David Andress, The Terror: Civil War in the French Revolution (Abacus, 2005)
William Doyle, The Oxford History of the French Revolution (Oxford University Press, 1989)
Simon Schama, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (Viking, 1989)
Ruth Scurr, Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution (Vintage, 2007)

'Festival of the Supreme Being' 1794


The policy of dechristianisation that began in the autumn of 1793 arose out of the deism of the Enlightenment – the belief in a rational religion purged of superstition. On a less elevated level it arouse out of a long tradition of loathing the Church. It began not in Paris but in the provinces, instigated by the agents of the Terror in the Year II.

In the Nièvre in central France the representative-on-mission
Joseph Fouché  (1763-1820)
Wikimedia Commons
Joseph Fouché  presided over the policy, turning the area into a scene of religious terror. He ordered all crosses and statues removed from graveyards, and decreed that all cemetery gates must bear only one inscription – ‘Death is an eternal sleep’.

The dechristianisation of the provinces was accompanied by widespread vandalism. In Rheims the phial holding the sacred oil of Clovis used to anoint the kings of France was smashed. Images were destroyed, churches were trashed, bells were torn down, and church plate was recast into guns and cannons.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

The Terror (1)

Nine emigrants go the the guillotine
(October 1793) public domain
For this post, I have been especially indebted to the following books: 
David Andress, The Terror: Civil War in the French Revolution (Abacus, 2005)
William Doyle, The Oxford History of the French Revolution (Oxford University Press, 1989)
Antonia Fraser, Marie Antoinette: The Journey (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2001)
Simon Schama, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (Viking, 1989)
Ruth Scurr, Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution (Vintage, 2007)

‘Nobody had dreamed of establishing a system of terror. It established itself by force of circumstances.’  Quoted Doyle, Oxford History of the French Revolution, p. 266. 

Nevertheless, the Terror was the policy of the Jacobin government from the autumn of 1793 until its abandonment in August 1794. It is associated above all with Maximilian Robespierre and with two institutions, the Revolutionary Tribunal and the Committee of Public Safety.  On 6 September two hardliners were elected to the Committee:  Billaud-Varenne and Collot d’Herbois.

What was the Terror? 

It was the period beginning on 5 September 1793 and ending with the death of Robespierre in July 1794. Famous victims included Marie Antoinette, the Girondins and eventually the Dantonist faction, but the bulk of the victims were ordinary people. 

In the course of the Terror, around 16,000 people were formally condemned to death, most of them in the provinces. An unknown number died in custody or were lynched without trial. Nearly 2,000 were executed in Lyon after the city fell to the revolutionaries. Over 3,500 were guillotined when the revolt in the Vendée was finally suppressed after terrible loss of life on the battlefield and the murder of an estimated 10,000 rebels and civilians in retreat. The most horrific event of the provincial Terror occurred in Nantes, the scene of the noyades.   At a rough estimate 30,000 died (though it should be noted that more people died in Ireland in 1798 and in Poland in 1794). In Paris, the scene of these executions was the Place de la Révolution. 

The Terror was accompanied by a policy of de-christianization – churches were closed and the calendar redrawn.

It was triggered by war, resistance within France to the Revolution, the increasingly violent actions of the sans-culottes in the face of economic hardship. It also developed its own momentum.

The ideology of the Terror

The Terror was  inspired by the quest for 'virtue' and the hunt for 'the enemy within'.
‘The point was to ensure the triumph of the good, pure, general will of the people – what the people would want in ideal circumstances – and this needed to be intuited on their own behalf until they received sufficient education to understand their own good.' Ruth Scurr, Fatal Purity, p. 211.

Monday, 11 April 2016

The coming of the Terror, June-September 1793

Jacques-Louis David,  'La Mort de Marat' -
 Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The Federalist Revolt

The purge of the Girondins (see earlier post) left the leadership of the Convention in a very difficult position, with many deputies profoundly uneasy about the way elected members had been ejected. Brissot was recaptured in Chartres and brought back to Paris under arrest, but other Girondins were at large, the bulk of them in Normandy, where they were campaigning to raise an army against Paris. At the same time the Convention was facing a series of provincial revolts.  All were inspired by conscription and the actions of the representatives-on-mission, but local factors also came into play.  In the south-east both Lyon and Marseille were suffering economically.  Lyon’s silk industry was collapsing while Marseille was blockaded by the Royal Navy.  Bordeaux was suffering from the loss of the Caribbean trade. Throughout May the Jacobins were purged from Marseille and on 29 May the Jacobin municipal government of Lyon was overthrown. This was particularly serious for the Convention as Lyon was a major centre for arms manufacture and a supply centre for armies in the Alps. 

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Books on Marie Antoinette

If you'd like to read more about Marie Antoinette, this blog post gives an account of the major books on her written in English.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

'Olympe au Panthéon'

Not many women have been thought worthy to be buried or memorialised in the Panthéon, the place where France honours its distinguished dead. Some French feminists are trying to put this right, by having a memorial set up there to Olympe de Gouges, the author of The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Citizeness, who was guillotined in 1793. This picture is taken from Amanda Foreman's ground-breaking TV series, 'The Ascent of Woman'.

La Force prison

There's an interesting post here on the prison of La Force, which housed many famous prisoners during the Revolution. (The post takes a little while to download.)

Monday, 14 March 2016

The Republic in crisis: the fall of the Girondins

Henri de la Rochejacquelein at the battle
of Cholet, Musée d'Art, Cholet

War and conscription

On 1 February France declared war on Britain and Holland, pre-empting a British declaration. With France at war with two major colonial powers, the war became a world war. On 7 March the Convention declared war on Spain. 

On 24 February the Convention announced a levy of 300,000 men for the armies. In effect, though not technically, this was conscription.  Each department was to meet a quota of new recruits, either by volunteering or by ballot.  

Food riots

In the early spring of 1793 troubles piled up for the Convention, both economic and military.

The government’s massive issue of paper assignats led to predictable results. The assignat lost fifty per cent of its value and food prices rose to new heights. On 13 February activists in the Paris sections petitioned for state control over the price of bread, but the Convention saw this as a contravention of market forces. From 24 February food riots broke out in Paris over the price of bread and soap as the population, including many women (especially laundresses), established a ‘just price' for these products.  Dozens were arrested and the riots convinced Robespierre that the people, virtuous in themselves, were being corrupted by 'aristocratic' elements. 

Monday, 29 February 2016

The Convention and the execution of the king

'The execution of Louis XVI' by Georg Heinrich Sieveking .
Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons 

The Convention

Though the Convention had been elected on manhood suffrage, barely one sixth of the electorate had taken part for the initial voting at town and village level. It had been elected when France was still officially a monarchy and it still met in the Manège, where the Legislative Assembly had sat. Of its 749 members almost half were lawyers. 200 had sat in the Legislative Assembly and eighty-three in the former Constituent Assembly, including Robespierre and the duc d’Orléans, now known as Philippe Egalité, both of whom sat for Paris.  Many members therefore had wide political experience. There were also a couple of foreigners, to demonstrate the cosmopolitan nature of the Revolution, one of them the Englishman, Thomas Paine, elected for Pas de Calais. 

Because there was no king and initially no constitution, the Convention gathered to itself all the powers of the state. There were no restraining bodies and the motions of the Convention automatically became law. It would even assume judicial power.

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Vigée Lebrun exhibition.

Self portrait, Elisabeth Vigée Lebrun
I saw this fabulous exhibition in Paris at the end of last year. It's now moved to New York and you might like to look at Simon Schama's review for the Financial Times.

Sunday, 21 February 2016

The coming of the Republic (1792)

The sans-culottes

The increasing radicalism of the Revolution was symbolized by the sans-culottes (without breeches). The sans-culotte wore trousers
instead of knee-breeches, wooden clogs rather than buckled shoes, a short-sleeved jacket, the carmagnole, his natural hair and the tricolour cockade on the red cap of liberty. The sans-culottes were working men, but they were artisans and craftsmen rather than unskilled labourers, and many of them were members of the National Guard.  Their targets were the speculators and food hoarders working for the ‘Austrian committee’, comprising ‘the enemy within’.

In the spring of 1792 the great marker of the true patriot became the bonnet rouge. The image was based on the Phrygian cap, and was widely used during the eighteenth century. The cap became adopted by many Jacobins (though not Robespierre), and even by some military officers. 

The Legislative Assembly and War (1791-2)

The Legislative Assembly

The Legislative Assembly, the successor to the Constituent Assembly, met on 1 October 1791. It was an overwhelmingly
'Jacques Pierre Brissot, by
Léonard Gallois,

middle-class body, mainly composed of lawyers, with only a scattering of nobles and constitutional clergy. The Feuillants were the dominant grouping. However, within the Assembly a new grouping emerged in the autumn, composed of Jacobins and led by the journalist, Brissot. At the time they were frequently referred to as Brissotins though they are now remembered as the Girondins, as many of them came from the department of the Gironde.  

The Assembly found itself confronted with two problems: the refractory priests and the perceived threat from the émigrés, led by the king’s brothers, the Counts of Provence and Artois.  On 9 November the Assembly passed a decree, first proposed by Brissot confiscating the revenues of the princes and all other public officials who were abroad without good cause; those who had not returned by 1 January 179s were to be deemed conspirators and guilty of a capital crime. 

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

1790-1: the turning-point?

1790 saw the breakdown of the previously united front in favour of the Revolution.

The attack on the Church

See here for a useful account of the French Revolution and the Catholic Church.

In 1789 the Catholic Church’s revenue was estimated at 150 million livres.  It owned about six per cent of the land and through its abbeys, convents and schools it dominated the religious and educational life of France. Although even some philosophes respected its charitable work, its wealth and its exaction of tithes from the population were much resented. 

The decree for the nationalisation of Church property of 2 November 1789 had been inspired by two motives. The first was to gain money to help stabilise the nation’s finances. The second was a general hostility to the religious orders.  On 29 October the Assembly had heard that two women in a nearby convent were being forced to enter the religious life. This story fitted in well with Diderot's popular novel, La Religieuse.  Abolishing convents was seen as a way of liberating such women. 

Monday, 1 February 2016

The period of reform

The Oath of Lafayette at the
Fête de la Fédération

The consequences of the night of 4 August when feudal privileges were abolished were momentous. Probably the nobles had not appreciated the knock-on effect of their actions. With the renunciation of privilege went the abolition of the whole structure of provincial, local and municipal government.  From the end of 1789 the Assembly dismantled the ancien régime. Ancient privilege was replaced by election.

The king’s power was dramatically lessened. He was now King of the French; he could propose no new laws; he had the power to veto legislation but only for two years.

When it had done its work the Constituent Assembly was to be replaced by a Legislative Assembly. On 29 October 1789 it was agreed that this Assembly was to be indirectly elected - and not by all men but by those who qualified as ‘active citizens’, defined as men over 25 paying the equivalent of three days unskilled labour in tax (almost 4.3 million Frenchmen).  This decree was passed under protest. Camille Desmoulins wrote: ‘The active citizens are the ones who took the Bastille.’ But there was still a widespread feeling that only men of property should be able to vote.

Monday, 25 January 2016

1789: year of revolution

By the beginning of July 1789 many contemporary observers, such as the Briton Arthur Young, thought that the French Revolution had come to an end. The king had been forced to concede to the demands of the Third Estate and the nobles had given up their tax privileges.  The National Constituent Assembly had been charged with the task of drawing up a new constitution. In reality, however, there were many problems ahead.

  1. There was widespread mistrust of the king – would he use the armed forces to overthrow the Revolution?
  2. The poor harvest of 1788 meant that France, in particular, the urban areas, was faced with severe food shortages.
  3. Both in Paris and the countryside a range of economic and political grievances that had not been addressed.

The Estates-General

"Le Serment du Jeu de paume" by Jacques-Louis David
Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - 

The American War

In January 1777 Louis XVI granted the American rebels 2 million livres, without interest, to be repaid only when ‘the United States are settled in peace and prosperity’. This was a politically smart but financially disastrous decision as France was suffering from a series of bad harvests and attacks on farmers and bakers. The responsibility for balancing the books rested with, the Genevan banker, Jacques Necker, who became Director-General of Finances in June.   
'Jacques Necker'  Joseph-Siffrein Duplessis -
Licensed under Public domain v
ia Wikimedia Commons 
In February 1778 France formally allied with the Americans and in July declared war on Britain.  In October 1781 Lord Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown to French and American troops. Since 1689 France had fought four wars with Britain. Unlike the others, this was a decisive victory. At the Peace of Paris in September 1783 Britain was forced to recognise the independence of the American colonies.

Monday, 18 January 2016

Challenges to the Ancien Régime

The Encyclopaedia,
the great achievement of the 

 French Enlightenment

The first challenge to the ancien régime came from the great eighteenth-century intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment

There are many debates and controversies about the Enlightenment, but the following features are generally agreed. The Enlightenment is often seen as a project. This implies

It was coherent
It was self-conscious
It depended on the existence of a ‘public sphere’

Its fundamental belief was that the increase of knowledge would produce happier, more virtuous people. This meant that it was opposed to what it saw as bigotry and obscurantism, especially as represented by the Catholic Church. 

Monday, 11 January 2016

Introduction: websites and bibliography

There is a huge literature on the French Revolution and some excellent websites. See here, and, in particular, here.

I have made particular use of the following books:

Andress, David, The Terror: Civil War in the French Revolution (Abacus, 2005)
Cadbury, Deborah, The Lost King of France: The Tragic Story of Marie-Antoinette’s Favourite Son (Fourth Estate, 2003)
Doyle, William, The Oxford History of the French Revolution (Oxford University Press, 1989)
Fraser, Antonia, Marie Antoinette: The Journey (Weidenfield and Nicolson, 2001)
Christopher Hibbert, The French Revolution (Penguin, 1982)
Jones, Colin (ed.), The Longman Companion to the French Revolution (Longman, 1990)
Moorhead, Caroline, Dancing to the Precipice: Lucie De La Tour Du Pin and the French Revolution (Chatto and Windus, 2009)
Nagel, Susan, Marie-Thérèse: The Fate of Marie Antoinette’s Daughter (Bloomsbury, 2008)
Schama, Simon, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution ( Alfred Knopf, 1989)
Scurr, Ruth, Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution (Metropolitan Books, 2006).
I have also made use of the excellent material produced by the Open University for courses A103 ('Introduction to the Humanities) and A207 (Enlightenment to Romanticism).

The Ancien Régime

Louis XVI, 1775 by Joseph-Siffrein Duplessis 
Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons  

The ‘ancien régime’ is the name given to the French government before the Revolution. It was marked by privilege, inequality, injustice and economic inefficiency. With its population of 28 million (compared with 13 million in Britain) the country ought to have been prosperous, but many lived in great poverty.

The Three Estates

The nation was divided into three Estates: the First (the clergy); the Second (the nobility); the Third (the rest).  The first two Estates had important tax privileges, notably exemption from the taille, the main direct tax, and the gabelle, the hated salt monopoly.  The Catholic Church exercised monopoly religious power and the nobility exercised feudal privileges. 

The First Estate: In law, the 130,000 clergy ranked ahead of the nobility. Over half were monks or nuns, and parish priests were in a minority. All the king’s subjects were legally Catholic, and those who were not enjoyed no legal toleration or civil rights. The Church controlled education and poor relief. About a tenth of the land was in the hands of the church and the parish clergy were in theory entitled to tithes from their parishioners. Ecclesiastical revenues were exempt from ordinary taxation. Because the clergy were an estate rather than a class, clerical incomes varied wildly from wealthy bishops and abbots to parish curés, who, though wealthier than most of their parishioners, resented the unfair distribution of the Church’s wealth. Many of the most sought-after livings in the Church went to the younger sons of the greater nobility. They could also achieve political office, as when Loménie de Brienne, archbishop of Toulouse, became chief minister in 1787.