THE FRENCH REVOLUTION 1789 - 1799  (G3b)


xxxxxFrance was declared a Republic in September 1792 and the king’s fate was sealed. The Girondists tried to save his life, but found guilty of treason, he was sentenced to death and guillotined in January 1793. This event, plus an earlier promise by the Convention to assist all oppressed peoples, led to the formation of a powerful alliance of monarchies against the new Republic. France was soon under threat, and this brought widespread unrest within the country itself. In response, the Committee of Public Safety was set up, and by June, with the aid of the military strategist Lazare Carnot, a huge army of some 800,000 men was under construction. By the end of the year this military force had been used to repel the invaders, and put down insurrection at home. Meanwhile, however, another means was used to purge the country of anti-revolutionaries. In September 1793 the Committee established a Reign of Terror. Destined to last ten months, the nobility, as we shall see, were not to be the only victims of this bloodbath.

xxxxxAs we have seen, the day after the republican victory at the Battle of Valmy (20th September 1792), the new National Convention declared France a Republic. The king having been dismissed from his office, a decision had to be made as to what should become of him. There was firm evidence that Louis had intrigued with the Austrians against the Republic, and was thereby guilty of treason, but the Girondins made last-minute efforts to save his life. They failed. By a narrow majority of 70 votes the Convention sentenced the so-named “Louis Capet” to death on the 18th January, 1793. He was executed three days later, neatly beheaded by a guillotine, a machine recently installed to do the work of the executioner’s axe more quickly and efficiently.

xxxxxThe execution of the French king, coming hard on the heels of a promise by the Convention to assist “oppressed people” everywhere, sent shock waves through monarchical Europe. On the 13th February the first coalition was formed against France by nations determined to nip in the bud this republican crusade. Austria and Prussia were joined by Britain, Holland, Spain, Sardinia and, in March, the Holy Roman Empire. This formidable alliance appeared to hold France in a vice. Plans were drawn up for a Spanish invasion across the Pyrenees, a strike over the Alps by the (Austrian) Piedmontese, an advance of Austrian and Prussian troops from the east, and attacks on the French coasts by British naval forces.

xxxxxIt followed that for the best part of 1793, the Republic had its back to the wall. In March, a French invasion of Holland, led by General Dumouriez (illustrated), was repulsed at Neerwinden. After the battle he deserted to the enemy, and the French were forced to evacuate the Austrian Netherlands. Then in July the allies recaptured Mainz and drove the French out of the Rhineland. Meanwhile, Spanish troops overran the regions of Roussillon and Navarre, and in the Mediterranean a British force occupied the island of Corsica. At home, too, troubles mounted. The city of Lyons threw off the authority of the Convention, the port of Toulon chose to surrender to the British, and uprisings verging on civil war broke out in a number of regions, especially in the Vendée and Brittany. There was violent opposition to the nationalisation of the Church and the introduction of compulsory national service, and a number of areas demanded a federal system of government.

xxxxxIn response to this catalogue of threats, in April an emergency body known as the Committee of Public Safety was set up, dominated by Danton. However, it was not until June, when the moderate Girondists were expelled, and the Montagnards took control, that it assumed dictatorial powers and began its work in earnest. Robespierre became its leading figure on joining in July, but the committee’s most active member was the military strategist Lazare Carnot (1753-1823). As head of a team, he introduced compulsory national service for all able-bodied men, and assembled and equipped 14 armies from some 800,000 men, a fighting force of unprecedented size. If Danton worked to defend Paris in 1792, then Carnot certainly played a major part in saving France two years later. He was seen by his supporters as the “Organiser of Victory” - and not without some justification - but his reforms were carried out by the use of force, and this ultimately depended upon the efficiency of the Terror.

xxxxxDue almost entirely to these swift and large-scale measures, the military tide began to turn in favour of the Republic towards the end of the year. In September a British army under the Duke of York was defeated at Hondschoote, and the French began to advance into the Austrian Netherlands. At home, Lyon was recaptured from the rebels in October - much of the city being destroyed in the process - and in December Toulon was taken, chiefly due to the skill of a young officer named Napoleon Bonaparte (illustrated). By the end of the year, too, Republican troops had defeated the insurgents of the Vendée and Brittany once again, bringing the entire country under the central control of the revolutionaries. In 1794, as we shall see, the republican forces were to be successful on all fronts. Their victory at the Battle of Fleurus in June was to put an end to the threat of invasion, and mark the beginning of an impressive advance into neighbouring countries.


xxxxxBut suppressing civil disobedience at home was not confined to military action. The Committee of Public Safety, aided and abetted by the Revolutionary Tribunal, also used terror as a highly successful weapon to enforce conformity. In June, the militant Montagnards in the Convention, having ruthlessly overthrown their deadly rivals, the moderate Girondists, seized control of the Committee. With the strong support of the sans-culottes - such as the craftsmen, shopkeepers and agricultural labourers who wore baggy trousers, not knee breeches (as shown on right) - they introduced a programme of reform which included assistance to the poor, taxing the rich, the provision of free and compulsory education, and the confiscation and sale of property once owned by the émigres. But alongside these reforms went violent measures to purge France of the “enemies of the revolution”. The guillotine, the instrument which had so swiftly rid the nation of its king, was now to become the main weapon of this cleansing process in a period that came to be known as the Reign of Terror. As we shall see (1793), its victims were by no means confined to the nobility and clergy.

xxxxxIncidentally, the guillotine was not a product of the French Revolution. A similar instrument had been used earlier in a number of other countries, and in Scotland it was known as “the maiden”. The National Assembly adopted it in 1792 when one of its members, a physician named Joseph Ignace Guillotin (1738-1814) (illustrated), recommended it as an efficient and painless way of execution. It has become ever associated with the revolution’s Reign of Terror (1793-94), but, in fact, it continued to be used in France until the abolition of capital punishment in 1981. The instrument has a heavy, sharp blade that, on release, slides down between two uprights and cuts off the victim’s head.


Execution: 18th century, artist unknown – National Library of France, Paris. Dumouriez: by the French painter Jean-Sébastien Rouillard (1789-1852), 1834 – Château de Versailles, France. Napoleon: detail, by the French painter Antoine Jean Gros (1771-1835), c1801 – The Louvre, Paris. Sans-culottes: by the French artist Louis-Léopold Boilly (1761-1845). Guillotin: date and artist unknown – Musée Carnavalet, Paris. Louis XVI: by the French painter Joseph-Siffrein Duplessis (1725-1802), 1775 – Château de Versailles, France. Return: by the French engraver Jean Duplessis-Bertaux (1750-1818), 1791, after a work by the French designer Jean-Louis Prieur (1725-c1785). Reproduced in Les Tableaux Historiques de la Revolution Française by the French artist Pierre Gabriel Berthault (1748-1819). Death: by the English portrait painter Charles Benazech (c1767-1791) – Carnavalet Museum, Paris.


Louis XVI

xxxxxLouis XVI (1774-93) succeeded his grandfather when France was close to bankruptcy and seething with discontent. His ministers attempted to improve the country’s finances, but by 1788 he was obliged to recall the States General. Politically out of his depth, a prey to poor advice, and for ever wavering in his policy, he was forced to accept a National Assembly led by the Third Estate, the commoners. His unwise use of force to try to quell an uprising in July 1789 led to the Storming of the Bastille and, in October, his removal from Versailles. A captive in Paris and having to play the “citizen king”, he tried to escape in June 1791, and this virtually sealed his fate. When an Austro-Prussian army invaded France in August 1792, the Paris mob stormed his palace. He managed to escape to the Legislative Assembly, but was put under arrest. In the September, France was declared a Republic, and Louis was then put on trial. There was ample evidence of his seeking help from the Austrians, and he was guillotined for treason in January 1793.

xxxxxLouis XVI (1774-93) became heir to the French throne on the death of his father in 1765. He married the Austrian archduchess Marie Antoinette in 1770, and succeeded his grandfather four years later. Had he become king in earlier times his lack of interest in politics, his love of the good life, and his indecisive nature, would probably have mattered little in the artificial, rarefied atmosphere of his court at Versailles. But unfortunately for him, and his Austrian-born wife, he came to the throne at a time when his country was nearing bankruptcy, and his whole realm was seething with social and political unrest. His grandfather had predicted that, after him, there would be “le deluge”. So it proved to be. Sadly for France, the king who faced this flood of problems was totally incapable of holding back the waves. Indeed, to be fair to him, it would have taken a monarch of extraordinary talent to have done so.

xxxxxTo meet the financial crisis, Louis appointed a string of able controller-generals, including Baron Turgot, Jacques Necker and Charles Calonne. These made some improvements, but constantly came up against the vested interest of the ruling classes. Neither the nobility nor the upper clergy were likely to give up their exemption from taxation without a fight! In 1788, with the country on the brink of bankruptcy following the enormous cost of French intervention in the American War of Independence, Louis was obliged to recall the States General. It proved the start of a slippery slope to revolution.

xxxxxThe archaic States General, resurrected in May 1789 after an absence of no less than 174 years, brought the three Estates together - nobility, upper clergy and commoners - but in separate assemblies. A more workable voting system was clearly required, but Louis vacillated and was then obliged to give way to the demands of the Third Estate for a single National Assembly. Then, when troubles flared up in Paris, stirred up by a people impatient for change, Louis foolishly listened to the advice of his wife Marie Antoinette and his brother the Count of Artois. He sent in the troops and then abruptly dismissed Necker, the people’s friend. The response was predictable. In July the Paris mob stormed the Bastille and, three months later, marched on Versailles and forcibly brought their monarch and his family back with them to the capital. From this time onwards Louis was a captive of his people, a “citizen king” forced to publicly support a revolutionary constitution which stripped away what little he had of his absolute powers. It is perhaps not surprising that he should attempt to escape in June 1791 - the so-called Flight to Varennes - but his humiliating failure provided the last nail in his coffin. He was seen as a traitor to his country, plotting, with his Austrian-born wife, to overthrow the rights of his people.

xxxxxReinstated simply to keep his fellow monarchs at bay, particularly Leopold II (his wife’s brother), this seemed of little value once an Austro-Prussian army had invaded France in August 1792. The Paris mob took to the streets again, this time to wreak revenge on the king. He managed to escape from the Tuilleries, and seek refuge in the Legislative Assembly, but there he was promptly arrested and moved one step nearer to his day of judgement. This came following the declaration of a French Republic in September. At his trial in December ample evidence was produced of his collusion with the Austrians. He was found guilty of treason, and sent to the guillotine on 21st January 1793, four months to the day of his country becoming a republic.

xxxxxIt is said that, on coming to the throne, Louis remarked “What I should like most is to be loved”. It was a worthy thought from a basically kind and well-meaning man, but events - many not of his making - were to produce quite the opposite. Such was the parlous state of the France he inherited, that a monarch of outstanding ability and courage was required to hold out even the slightest hope of restoring the nation’s economy and improving its social and political welfare. Louis, however, had little or no understanding of politics, was easily persuaded by others, and, in any case, lacked the will-power and decisiveness to carry out worthwhile measures of reform. From the moment of his accession, he was a hostage to misfortune.