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. 

The defection of Dumouriez 

The declaration of war on the Dutch Republic had widened the war at a time when the volunteers who had responded to patriotic appeals in the aftermath of the French victory at Jemappes were returning home, halving the army’s effective strength. In late February General Dumouriez led an assault on Holland and captured Breda but in doing so he over-extended the French lines. On 18 March an Austrian counter-attack under the Prince of Coburg defeated the French at Neerwinden thirty-five miles east of Brussels. 

'Bataille de Neerwinden (1793)'
 by Johann Nepomuk Geiger (1805-1880)
Licensed under Public domain via 
Dumouriez was a politician as well as a general, associated with the Girondins and also closely implicated with Danton in shady financial dealings. After Neerwinden he acted on his own initiative, made a truce with Coburg and evacuated Holland. When the War Minister and four Convention deputies came to the front to investigate, he declared himself against the Convention and handed them over to the Austrians. On 5 April he gave himself up to the Austrians, along with the duc de Chartres, the son of the regicide, Philippe Egalité. There could hardly have been a greater betrayal of the Republic. It echoed the earlier desertion of Lafayette in August 1792.

The Enragés

Even before this news reached Paris, radicals were arguing for a purge of the Convention. In the Commune a former priest, Jacques Roux headed a revolutionary group dubbed the Enragés by their opponents. 
'Jacques Roux'  by Unknown -
Licensed under Public domain
via Wikimedia Commons - 
They called for the death penalty for monopolists, hoarders and speculators and they attacked the Girondin printing presses, a programme with great appeal among the more militant sections.  On 9 and 10 March they attempted unsuccessfully to organise another revolutionary journée on the lines of 20 June and 10 August. The Convention responded on 18 March by propounding the guillotine for anyone proposing the forcible requisitioning of land.

The war in the Vendée 

This devoutly Catholic region of western France was already hostile to the revolution. In March the attempt to enforce the military levy triggered off a peasant revolt. On 11 March the rebels murdered five hundred inhabitants of Machecoul, the loyalist equivalent of the September Massacres.  

'Massacre de Machecoul' by François Flameng -
Collection musée d'art et d'histoire de Cholet.
Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - 
On the 14th they captured Cholet. On 5 May they grouped in the Royal Catholic Army and under the white flag of the Bourbon monarchy, went on to seize more towns. In May regular troops were sent against the rebels. It was a war of atrocity and counter-atrocity in which the locals carried out what would be later called guerrilla warfare against the government troops.

The representatives-on-mission

The Convention was already moving to establish its authority in the provinces. From 9 March eighty deputies were despatched as representatives-on-mission to designated groups of departments to take the measures that were necessary for the success of the Levy of Three Hundred Thousand. Once there they purged local authorities of subversives and imprisoned counter-revolutionaries. On 21 March Surveillance Committees were ordered to be set up in every municipality. 

The Revolutionary Tribunal

On 10 March the Convention created the Revolutionary Tribunal, a
court to deal with counter-revolutionary offences across France,
with the authority to impose the death penalty. It was to judge without appeal, and punishment was to be meted out within twenty-four hours of the sentence. There were to be five judges, a public prosecutor and two assistants. The court had an innovation taken from England – a jury – but both judges and jurors were picked from the revolutionary activists and the court’s power lay with the chief prosecutor, Antoine Fouquier-Tinville.

Antoine-Quentin Fouquier-Tinville

In defending the Tribunal before the Convention, Danton said, 
‘Let us be terrible so that the people will not have to be’. 
He meant that the disorder in Paris and the provinces could only be put down if the state recaptured its monopoly of organised violence.

On 29 March the Convention imposed the death penalty for using newspapers to advocate the dissolution of the Convention, the re-establishment of the monarchy, or for incitement to murder or criminal damage.

The Committee of Public Safety

On 5 -6 April the Convention established the Committee of Public Safety to be drawn from its members. Initially it had  just nine members. It would meet in secret and it had the power to take ‘all measures necessary for the internal and external defence of the Republic'. The Girondins were excluded and Danton became the Committee’s unofficial leader.

The fall of the Girondins

On 13 March the Girondin, Vergniaud, had made a remarkable speech at the tribune of the Convention: 
‘So, citizens, it must be feared that the Revolution, like Saturn, successively devouring its children, will engender, finally, only despotism with the calamities that accompany it.’ 
He went on to denounce the unrestrained lawlessness of the Paris crowds and in particular the militants in the sections.  The speech showed his alarm at the direction of the Revolution, and it was also an appeal to the rest of France over the heads of the Parisians.

To the Montagnards this sounded like a declaration of war.  In early April they moved against the Girondins.  On 5 April, the day the Committee of Public Safety was formed, Marat, who had just been appointed president of the Jacobin Club published a circular to all the affiliated provincial clubs urging them to recall and dismiss deputes who had voted the appel du peuple during the king’s trial. On 10 April Robespierre indicted by name Brissot, Vergniaud, and other leading Girondins as members of a ‘profoundly corrupt’ criminal conspiracy and demanded that they be brought before the Revolutionary Tribunal along with Marie-Antoinette and the duc d’Orléans.

The Girondins responded with a formal proposal that Marat be brought before the Tribunal. On 14 April the Convention voted 226/93 that he be impeached for his 5 April circular. This was a highly risky strategy. On the following day thirty-five of Paris’s forty-eight sections petitioned the Convention for the expulsion of twenty-two ‘notorious’ Girondins. The Girondins, whose support lay in the provinces rather than Paris, found themselves in hostile territory.

'The Triumph of Marat',  by Louis-Léopold Boilly -
Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons 

On 24 April Marat’s trial opened, with the spectators in the public galleries providing noisy support.  After Fouquier-Tinville made half-hearted prosecution case, he was acquitted on the same day. He was crowned with a laurel wreath and carried back to the Convention by a cheering crowd. Simon Schama writes (Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, 1989), p. 719)
‘To say that the trial of Marat was a collective disaster for the Girondins is to understate the case. They had selectively set aside the immunity of a deputy of the Convention, convinced that it could be shown he had himself abused its privilege …confident that the case could be proved. Now that it had failed, the withdrawal of immunity could be turned against them.’ 
The acquittal was ‘confirmation that a struggle to the death, a struggle now clearly between Paris and the Gironde, was under way’.

The acquittal encouraged the sections to renew their pressure to secure a 'Maximum' (price controls on bread and grain). As believers in the free market, the Girondins were opposed to interference in prices but this set them at odds with the Parisians who were enduring genuine hardship.  On 1 May the Convention was mobbed by 8,000 demonstrators from the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, who declared themselves in a state of insurrection until price controls on bread were introduced.  The Montagnards had by this time come out in support of a ‘Maximum’ and on 3 May the Convention promulgated a law stipulating a maximum price for bread.

The disputes between the Girondins and their opponents took place against a background of a worsening military situation on the frontier, an intensification of the Vendée revolt, and the revolt of some major provincial cities against central authority.  The Republic was in deep crisis and many uncommitted deputies were moving towards the Girondins.

To their enemies it seemed that the Girondins were more interested in attaching the ‘diabolical triumvirate’ of Robespierre, Marat and Danton than in suppressing rebellion or protecting France from invasion.  But the danger to the Brissotins came not from the Convention, many of whose members were out on missions but from the sections.  On 10 May the Convention moved from the Manège to the much more spacious Tuileries, and this gave the sections more space to watch the debates.  

On 18 May a thinly attended Convention agreed to set up a Commission of Twelve to investigate insurrectionary activity in Paris. This rapidly turned into an organ of prosecution against the leading enragés. On 24 May the Commission ordered the arrest of the inflammatory journalist, René Hébert. When a delegation from the Commune protested on the following day, the Girondin president of the Convention, Maximin Isnard, responded with threats of massacre: 
‘I tell you, in the name of the whole of France, that if these endless insurrections should cause harm to the parliament of the nation, Paris will be annihilated and men will search the banks of the Seine for signs of the city.' 
It was an empty threat but it was an ominous echo of the duke of Brunswick’s manifesto and was understandably seen as a provocation.  On 26 May Robespierre, abandoning his earlier position that the Convention was inviolable, addressed the Jacobins, inviting ‘the people’ to rise up against the Convention and its ‘corrupt deputies’. Late the same evening members of rival sections poured into the Convention and fought each other.  The few deputies who were there voted to abolish the Commission and to secure the release of Hébert.

The journée of 31 May

See here for an account of the tumultuous events of 31 May to 2 June. On the night of 30-31 May members of different bodies from the sections and the Commune formed themselves into a Central Revolutionary Committee.  In the early morning of 31 May the tocsin was rung, the insurrectionaries formally deposed the Commune and reinstated it under their own orders. Crowds gathered round the Convention calling for the arrest of twenty-two deputies named in the 15 April petition. But the deputies held out, and the crowds dispersed.

The journée of 2 June

On 1 June news reached Paris of the overthrow of the Jacobin commune in Lyon and of more defeats in the Vendée. On Sunday 2 June a deputation from the Commune demanded the arrest of the Girondin ‘Twenty-two’.  Since the previous evening the Convention had been surrounded by between 75,000 and 100,000 insurrectionary National Guardsmen and cannon were primed outside the chamber. At the end of the day the Convention, feeling itself helpless in the face of threats, decreed the arrest of twenty-nine deputies, ten of whom had sat on the Commission of Twelve. Two ministers were arrested under the same decree. When the vote was finished Vergniaud offered the Convention a glass of blood. The troops then withdrew from the Convention.

'The elimination of Girondins',  by Unknown - personal library.
Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons 

In particular the Rolands were in deep trouble. Roland had been in hiding since 31 May. Madame Roland had been taken to the Abbaye prison (Roland was not at home).

The expelled Girondins were held under rather perfunctory  house arrest from which many escaped in the following weeks. They fled to the provinces, aiming to stir up resistance to Paris.  Roland went to Normandy, but without his wife. She had been arrested on 1 June and from 24 June she was imprisoned in Sainte-Pélagie, a former hospice for prostitutes. 

The arrest of the Girondins showed that the Convention, an elected body, had been humiliated by an armed minority of a portion of the people of Paris. There was no legality and the Revolution could no longer claim to be the true representative of the people of France. 

No comments:

Post a Comment