For several centuries, France had been the strongest, richest and most centralized monarchy in Europe, so it had no reason to change. While weaker governments in other countries gradually adjusted as society evolved, the French government stayed firmly rooted in the past; however, the pressure was building, especially since the crown was going broke.
For starters, the court at Versailles, which set the standards of fashionable extravagance across Europe, cost a lot of money. Even worse, as top dog in the world’s power rankings, France tended to jump into every war that came its way – and win or lose, wars cost a lot of money. The crown still owed money from the Seven Years War (1756-63), which they lost, and from the American War of Independence, which they won.
As the government spent beyond its means, they had to raise taxes, but the crown couldn’t impose new taxes without the approval of parliament, called the Estates General. Finally the king broke down and called parliament into session in May 1789 for the first time in 175 years.
Remember those three estates that stood like three pillars holding up medieval society? The nobles and the church were both exempt from taxation because they were expected to pay their debts to the crown with support – the nobles with military support and the church with moral support. The crown only taxed the Third Estate – the commoners, especially the new middle class of businessmen (the bourgeoisie) who were the only people with actual cash on hand. Over time, however, the first two estates had become less useful, while the third grew larger. The church had lost control of education as the middle class expanded and had their children schooled and tutored in worldly matters instead. The nobility became less important as warmaking shifted to mass armies of commoners firing muskets and cannon. Unfortunately, the government had not changed to reflect these shifts in power.
Any Frenchman over 25 years old and on the tax rolls could vote for the Third Estate, so this was the people’s most representative body. The most radical proposals for change came from here, but these were frustrated by the inflexible conservatism of Estates 1 & 2, which outvoted the commoners 2:1. The clergy and nobility refused to surrender their tax exemptions, so there was no way to raise more money for the government.
Meanwhile, the winter of 1788-89 saw the worst harvests in many years. Crops failed. Bread prices shot up. The poor starved. While the Crown was hoping just to settle the nation’s finances, the hungry citizens of Paris were rallying and marching to pressure the government into making more radical changes, such as putting food in their bellies. Every extravagance at Versailles was a slap in the face to the starving poor of France, and stories of pampered life at court fueled the people’s anger. The Estates General was caught in the middle.
The Third Estate was becoming dangerously frustrated, so it turned to desperate measures. On June 17, it renamed itself the National Assembly and declared itself the only legitimate legislature of France. A handful of liberals in the clergy and nobility abandoned their own estates and drifted over to join them. To keep this lunacy from getting out of hand, King Louis ordered the Third Estate locked out of the room before the meeting on June 20. Refusing to be beaten so easily, the delegates found an empty tennis court big enough to hold them all and there they dramatically swore an oath to stay in session until they fixed the government by writing a fair constitution. Meanwhile, the king gathered 30,000 troops around Paris, planning to break up the National Assembly, and the common people formed into a militia to stand up against any such attack. The Marquis de Lafayette, the young French idealist who had joined the American Revolution at the age of 19 and returned to France to spread freedom to his homeland, took command of the Paris National Guard.
On July 11, 1789, the king dismissed his finance minister, Jacques Necker, who had been sympathetic to the poor. Suspecting that this was the beginning of a conservative backlash, the people of Paris marched through the streets. The crown worried about the loyalty of the French Guard, a local garrison with ties in Paris, and sent cavalry to neutralize and disarm them. The Guard fought off the royalist troops and joined the rioters, considerably boosting the Parisians’ firepower.
On July 14, the mob turned against the Bastille, a hulking, infamous but largely abandoned old royal prison in which political prisoners had once been kept, but now it mostly held guns and powder, which the Parisians felt might soon become useful. While the crowd milled about the undefended outer courtyard, their leaders negotiated the peaceful surrender of the fortress until someone inside started shooting the rioters. Now the angry mob swarmed forward, but nearly a hundred of them were killed before they took the fortress. They released the handful of prisoners still kept there and tore apart the commandant and his officers like zombies in a feeding frenzy. The guns were distributed to the mob, and the enlisted soldiers of the Bastille’s garrison were safely escorted to a nearby army camp. Everyone realized that this was the point of no return. To mark the occasion, Lafayette had the Bastille torn down with sledgehammers and crowbars, brick by brick. He sent the keys to the fortress to his old friend George Washington.
In order to take control of the unfolding events and put them on a solid philosophical footing, Lafayette introduced the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen to the Assembly. Revised in committee and passed on August 29, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen not only formalized human rights but also firmly asserted that national sovereignty derived from the people, not from the king or God.
The Assembly quickly solved a lot of the nation’s problems. The tax exemptions of the upper classes were revoked. The power of the Catholic Church was broken. The Assembly seized church lands for the state and made the clergy a branch of the civil service, subordinate to the people. Meanwhile, the king found it best to lie low as his authority was stripped away. He didn’t dare refuse the new legislation. He rubber-stamped all the new laws and watched France move ahead without him.
An earlier King Louis (the 14th) had originally built his magnificent new suburban palace at Versailles in the 1660s in order to put a safe distance between the court and the rude mobs of Paris. On October 5, 1789 the mobs crossed the distance. Hundreds of hungry peasant women led by fishwives with scaling knives marched on Versailles, intending to force King Louis XVI to assent to Enlightenment ideals and sign the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Negotiating through an intermediary, the king agreed in principle but stalled about actually doing it. The mob lost its patience, as mobs often do, and swarmed forward to confront the king face to face. Most guards fled or surrendered but a few fired into the mob and were quickly overwhelmed, butchered and filleted by the experienced fishwives. Versailles was looted and the king was forced to move his court to the Tuileries Palace in Paris where the mob could keep their eye on him. His carriage was escorted by a parade of jolly peasant women waving the heads of his guards on pikes ahead of him.
In September 1791, when the National Assembly decided its job was done, they passed a constitution and went home to hold new elections for the permanent Legislative Assembly. This constitutional monarchy divided the citizenry into “active” (with voting rights) and “passive” (no votes, but all other civil rights). Because only taxpayers or property owners of a certain level were allowed to be classified as “active” in government, some 40% of adult males (2.5 million) were ineligible to vote.Ⓐ
In June 1791, getting seriously worried by oncoming democracy, King Louis XVI and his family snuck out of Paris in the dead of night and fled towards Belgium, hoping to escape France and find refuge with Queen Marie Antoinette’s brother, the emperor of Austria. Unfortunately, the royal party was recognized at a rest stop and seized. They were then brought back to Paris to face angry revolutionaries, who were not at all happy about the king’s lack of trust.
Louis’s fellow monarchs across Europe were also horrified by the outbreak of democracy in France, and they threatened to invade if anything bad happened to Louis. To show that no one could tell them what they could or couldn’t do inside their own country, the French declared war in April 1792, first on Austria, then on everyone else. Pretty soon armies from all over Europe invaded France to put a stop to this popular sovereignty nonsense. As their enemies closed in, the French worried that the invaders might restore absolute monarchy, so in August 10, 1792, the mob swarmed the Tuileries, massacred the Swiss Guards and carried the royal family off to prison. The monarchy was abolished and a republic declared in September. In January 1793, the former King Louis XVI was beheaded, and cartloads of nobles followed him to the guillotine.
Believe it or not, the government was still under moderate control at this point, until a new constitution in September 1792 reorganized the republican legislature as the National Convention, a unicameral body elected by all Frenchmen (25 years or older, domiciled for one year or more). It was the first modern government elected by universal male suffrage. The ordinary people now became a political force, called (in loose translation) the People Without Knickers (sans-culottes, pronounced Song/Cool/Lots) because they wore the tough, functional trousers of honest workmen instead of culottes - the elegant silk knee britches of the snooty rich. The mass influx of voters without knickers shifted France far, far to the left.
In fact, the seating arrangements of the Convention gave us this term. At the 1789 meeting of the Estates General, the supporters of the king sat on the right, the traditional place of honor, while opponents sat across the aisle on the left, scowling at them. The Convention continued this arrangement, and pretty soon, everyone was using the terms “Right” and “Left” as nicknames for conservative and progressive factions.
The geography of seating in the Convention was further subdivided by height. The vast uncommitted unwashed majority sat down in the Swamp (or Marais), while the radicals sat high in the back bleachers on the “Mountain”, and were called the Montagnards or Highlanders. The Montagnards gathered regularly at the Jacobin Club to drink, dine and debate. Maximilien Robespierre, a young dandy, true believer and provincial lawyer descended from a long line of lawyers, came to be the spokesman for this radical Jacobin faction.①
As the economy deteriorated and wars raged along all the borders, France continued its death spiral into oblivion. In desperation, the Convention set up the Committee of Public Safety in April 1793 with emergency powers to cut through all the legislative bickering and save the Republic. Meanwhile, the Convention squashed all economic reforms aimed at lifting the masses out of poverty. On May 31, hungry sans-culottes of Paris converged on the Convention to insist. Over the next couple of days, the people without knickers swarmed, took control of the Convention, and expelled the moderate Girondist② faction that had been running the Republic so far. Robespierre ascended to the top rank, and took over the Committee of Public Safety in July.
He had quite a mess on his hands. On July 13 Charlotte Corday, a young woman of Girondist sympathies, tried to stop the rise of the Jacobins by assassinating the rabble-rouser Jean-Paul Marat in his bath. In the Vendee region of France, conservatives had counter-revolted in favor of God and Crown, trying to force a return to the comfortable old ways. In the city of Lyons, solid republican burghers who had originally supported the Revolution now resisted the radical new direction taken by the Jacobins. These revolts had to be crushed.
The energy behind the counterrevolutions scared the radicals into a savage overreaction, known as the Reign of Terror. The Jacobins became so thorough at wiping out every trace of opposition that it began to resemble genocide against the inhabitants of any unfortunate locality that caught their attention. In the city of Lyons, and the region of Vendee for example, entire families were wiped out for any disagreement with the Revolution. Robespierre enforced his very strict definition of republican purity. Even generals and legislators with solid revolutionary credentials faced execution if simple mistakes or bad luck resulted in failure and made it appear they weren’t giving 110% to the Revolution. On October 31, twenty-one former Girondist legislators were guillotined in one very messy half hour. As the Reign of Terror cranked up, the Committee of Public Safety found enemies lurking everywhere and killed them all by the tens of thousands rather than risk seeing the guilty slip through their fingers.
The Royalist journalist Jacques Mallet du Pan wrote in exile “The revolution, like Saturn, devours its own children”.
By now, France had become an evangelically militarized state. The only way they could beat the professional armies of the encircling monarchies was by mobilizing every warm body to serve the homeland. According to a proclamation issued by the Convention in August 1793
"The young men shall fight; the married men shall forge arms and transport provisions; the women shall make tents and clothes and shall serve in the hospitals; the children shall turn linen into lint; the old men shall betake themselves to the public squares in order to arouse the courage of the warriors and preach hatred of kings and the unity of the Republic"
The master organizer of the Army, Lazare Carnot, worked miracles when scrounging up enough guns and ammunition to keep his armies fighting, but he fell behind on the less deadly supplies – food, clothing, salaries and transport for example - so the only way the French army could eat was by moving forward into fresh, unplundered territory and confiscating supplies. France expanded her boundaries outward and shipped tons of loot home from Italy, Germany and the Low Countries. Soon the wars against the rest of Europe were turning a profit. The army also soaked up a lot of the surplus population and kept the unemployed out of mischief.
The Jacobins started to redo civilization from the ground up and replace a thousand years of medieval tradition with the humanist, democratic principles of the Enlightenment, especially those of the social philosopher Rousseau. Slavery was abolished in February 1794. France standardized weights and measures into the decimal Metric System in 1791; they even tried replacing the 7-day Sabbath-anchored week with a 10-day metric week in 1793. Months were renamed and realigned according to the agricultural cycles, for example, they had Fructidor and Thermidor named after Fruit and Heat. Years were counted from the birth of the Republic, instead of from the approximate birth of Christ. The official role of the Catholic Church was replaced by the Cult of the Supreme Being, but Robespierre was starting to act like that was him.
By July, Robespierre had made enemies of almost everyone important by killing at least one of their friends on flimsy evidence, and now his speeches to the Convention sounded like he was tightening the noose around them as well. On July 27, 1794 (9 Thermidor in the Revolutionary Calendar in effect at the time) the Convention denounced the Montagnards and dispatched troops which burst into a Jacobin meeting and arrested Robespierre after a short firefight or attempted suicide (stories vary) that shattered his jaw. He was quickly bandaged up, put on trial and shoved into the guillotine before anyone had a chance to change their minds. The Jacobins were hunted down and eradicated as mercilessly as they had hunted their own enemies.
The Thermidor Reaction put bourgeois moderates back in control, followed by a new constitution in August 1795 (officially “Constitution of Year III”). This established a bicameral legislature elected only by taxpayers meeting certain qualifications, and a five-member executive body called the Directory. To further protect the government from mob rule, legislators were chosen indirectly, by electors chosen by the people. To jump-start this new government with experienced lawmakers, 500 holdovers from the old Convention got to keep 2/3 of the seats in the new legislature.
After the blood-soaked madness of the Reign of Terror, many Frenchmen wanted a return to the stability of a monarchy, but the 2/3 from the prior regime packed the Assembly with the same tired faces the voters had long grown sick of. New factions couldn’t run fresh candidates to represent their side. Angry protests erupted in Paris. When royalist protesters stormed towards the Convention, Republican artillery quickly deployed across their path and blasted grapeshot into the mob, killing hundreds and scattering the survivors in panic. This endeared the young artillery commander, Napoleon Bonaparte, to the Directory, and they gave him plum assignments after this.
Despite the deck being stacked against them, the conservative backlash to the Reign of Terror was strong enough to elect some outright monarchists to the Assembly in 1795. Two years later, when royalists made even more gains in the latest elections, the republicans acted to stop the rightward drift. In the Coup of 18 Fructidor, Year V, (September 4, 1797 to the rest of us) the members of the Directory seized all power for themselves. They arrested opposition deputies in the Assembly and closed opposition newspapers. New elections were postponed indefinitely.
By now, victorious French armies were spreading the Revolution and setting up copycat republics in conquered neighbors such as the Netherlands (which became the Batavian Republic in January 1795) and Switzerland (which became the Helvetic Republic in April 1798). Heroic new generals stirred the imaginations of France. The most successful general of the republican armies was Napoleon Bonaparte, covering himself with glory in Italy and Egypt. Finally, fed up with the chaos of France under the Directory and completely convinced he could do better, Napoleon launched a military coup on November 9, 1799 (18 Brumaire in the Revolutionary Calendar) and brought one-man rule back to France. Wars between Napoleon and everyone else would continue across Europe for another 16 years until France was finally defeated and the monarchy restored in 1815.
-- Matthew White
① The word Jacobin has a magnificently convoluted history which is almost the history of France in a nutshell. It begins with Latin Jacobus which became French Jacques, Spanish Iago and English James. The original Jacobus/Jacques/James in this case was Saint James the Apostle, who was the patron saint of Spain under the name Santiago. The medieval pilgrimage route to the shrine in Spain where his bones (or someone’s bones) were buried was called the Camino de Santiago in Spanish and Chemin de St. Jacques in French, and everything associated with the route was also named for St. James. The gate in the walls of Paris by which Parisians left for the pilgrimage route was the Porte Saint-Jacques. The city street that led to the gate that opened onto the pilgrimage route was the Rue Saint-Jacques. The Dominican chapel built on the street that led to the gate that went to Spain was the Chapelle Saint-Jacques. Monks who lived at the Chapelle Saint-Jacques were called Jacobins after the Latin form of the word. Since this was the most important Dominican chapel in Paris, Jacobin eventually became city slang for all Dominicans in Paris, so a branch office way across town was called the Convent of the Jacobins on the Rue Saint-Honoré. This was shut down by the revolutionaries, who rented the building out to a social club which called itself the Jacobin Club out of a sense of irony. The radical faction that met there became the Jacobins.
② Named after the Gironde region where many of the leaders were from. Refreshingly simple compared to “Jacobin”.
Ⓐ Malcolm Crook, Elections in the French Revolution: An Apprenticeship in Democracy, 1789-1799 (Cambridge University Press, 1996) p.43
Copyright © November 2017 by Matthew White