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.