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. 

In the weeks after the expulsion of the Girondins, the revolts intensified and protest turned in some cases to counter-revolutionOn 7 June Bordeaux declared itself in insurrection until the purged deputies were restored.  On 12 June Marseille formally declared itself ‘in a legal state of resistance against oppression’ and announced the formation of an army that would march on Paris. On 24 June Lyon established a ‘Popular commission’, which ordered the raising of a departmental force. On 12 July the Convention declared Lyon to be in a state of rebellion. The Lyonnais responded by guillotining the Jacobin ex-mayor, Joseph Chalier on 17 July. Major areas of France had slipped out of the control of the Convention, though the Federalists never succeeded in coming together in concerted action.  On 13 July they were dispersed in Normandy. Some Girondins then headed for Bordeaux, others went into hiding. 

The assassination of Marat

On 13 July a young woman from Caen, Charlotte Corday, arrived at Marat’s lodgings, ostensibly with a note that promised information on Girondist plots at Caen.  She was taken to see him in his bath and stabbed him to death with one blow to the chest.  Politically she identified herself with the Girondins, some of whom she had met in Caen, though she always insisted that she alone had instigated the assassination. She was guillotined on 17 July after a short hearing in front of the Revolutionary Tribunal.
'Charlotte Corday' by François Séraphin Delpech -
Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Marat’s body was embalmed and exhibited to the public for three days in the church of the Cordeliers. It was buried in the club garden on 16 July.  He was probably more useful to the Jacobins dead than alive.  David’s painting, now in Brussels, was completed in October.

The Constitution of 1793

On 10 June the Convention had produced a new constitution, providing for a one-chamber legislature elected annually by direct manhood suffrage, and containing the right to state education and the right to resist oppression.  But this all seemed academic to the sans-culottes and the radicals of the enragés, still preoccupied with rising food prices. 

In this new climate Danton was judged too moderate. He had wanted to see a negotiated settlement with the rebels in the Vendée, and he was resisting demands for Marie-Antoinette to be put on trial.   The members of the Committee of Public Safety were elected by the Convention every month.  On 17 July Danton was voted off (probably to his relief) and replaced by Robespierre ten days later. In the present state of emergency the new constitution had to remain a dead letter and the Convention continued in office. 

On 10 August a ceremony orchestrated by David proclaimed the Unity and Indivisibility of the Republic  – but there was no unity. On the preceding day the Convention’s troops had begun to besiege Lyon.

The Levée en Masse

By the end of July the Committee of Public Safety was becoming the controlling body on the state, described by Simon Schama (Citizens, p, 755) as ‘the most concentrated state machine France had ever experienced’.  It now comprised twelve members though all twelve were never together at the same time. It was a mixed body including Montagnard radicals like Antoine de Saint-Just and Georges-Auguste Couthon, the military engineer, Lazare Carnot, and the technocrat, Robert Lindet.

On 26 July the Convention decreed the death penalty for hoarders.  Villages were ransacked for concealed sacks of wheat, fields were guarded lest the peasants cut the crops while they were still green rather than surrender at dictated prices. This was a dramatic escalation of the power of the state.

On 23 August the Convention, on the initiative of the Committee of Public Safety, proclaimed the levée en masse, which placed the whole population of France on a war footing.  All single men between eighteen and twenty-five were to march to district capitals to drill there until further orders arrived. Of all the revolutionary innovations of 1793 this was the most important.  It was the creation of a national conscript army that would evolve into a professional and highly disciplined force. It was an all-out mobilization that would not be seen again until the twentieth century. 

However, one of the immediate results of the levée was the intensification of the revolts. In Brittany and western Normandy, that had already seen a revolt against the earlier Levy of Three Hundred Thousand, young men who evaded the call joined guerrilla bands, and took the name chouans from the call of the owl used as a recognition signal. Between 1794 and mid-1796 they assassinated hundreds of local republican officials.

The debate over Marie-Antoinette

While Danton wanted Marie-Antoinette to be kept alive as a bargaining chip with the Austrians, the attitude of the Committee of Public Safety was hardening towards her. On the night of 3 July commissioners arrived in the Tower of the Temple prison and informed her of the Convention’s decree that her son was to be separated from her. In August she was separated from her daughter and sister-in-law and taken to the Conciergerie prison.

The journée of 5 September

On 2 September news reached Paris that the anti-Jacobin leaders of the Mediterranean port of Toulon had handed over the city to the British fleet under Admiral Hood on 27 August.  As the atmosphere in Paris grew more tense and angry the Committee of Public Safety itself came under threat from the Parisian radicals, Pierre Chaumette, the procurator of the Commune and Hébert, his deputy, who now believed that it might be possible to bypass the Convention and its committees, take control of the executive directly and prosecute the war with true vigour.  On 4 September crowds demonstrated outside the Hôtel de Ville for higher wages and more bread.  This provided the opportunity for Hébert and his allies in the Commune and the clubs to use these economic demands for their own purposes. On the following day the crowds reassembled and marched on the Convention. Speaking for them all Chaumette denounced hoarders and demanded the formation of a ‘Revolutionary Armies’, equipped with portable guillotines, to hunt down these internal enemies. 

In a speech that was greeted with wild enthusiasm Danton proposed that revolutionary armies be sent out from Paris to the provinces, and that the Revolutionary Tribunal should be divided so as to get through more business. He also moved that the ‘permanence’ of the sectional assemblies should be ended and instead held twice a week; and that men should be paid to attend their sectional assemblies.  This was a masterstroke. Under the cloak of inflammatory revolutionary language he had undermined the sectional radicals, normally men of some means, and opened up the sections to the genuinely poor whose grievances were economic rather than political. The revolutionary armies would also rid Paris of many subversive elements.  

Following the acceptance of these resolutions the Convention then resolved that 
‘Terror is the order of the day’. 
This marks the official beginning of the Reign of Terror.

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