Terror and Reaction (Sept, 1792-Oct., 1795)

September 24, 2012 3:04 pm

Growing chaos

Events moved quickly after the fall of the monarchy and quickly got out of hand.  For one thing, the weakened National Assembly, still the government until new delegates were elected for the convention, had lost most of its authority to the sans culottes.  This, combined with growing panic and suspicion of treason with each military defeat, led to large-scale arrests of nobles and non-juring priests (those refusing to take the loyalty oath).  Fear of a counter-revolution led by prison inmates triggered the September Massacres (9/2-7/1792) when armed mobs broke into jails, set up makeshift courts to condemn prisoners, and then turned them over to thugs for execution.  By the time the September Massacres had swept through Paris and France, between 1200 and 1500 prisoners had been murdered.  Only about a quarter of them had originally been jailed on political charges.

Symbolic of the switch from monarchy to republic was a new calendar of twelve months with three 10-day weeks each.  It started with Day I, Year I (9/22/1792) and stayed in effect for ten years.  This new calendar was largely an attack on the Church and symbolized the revolution’s complete break with the past.  However, it was quite unpopular with the mass of French people who remained devout Catholics, showing how out of touch with the feelings of most French people the radicals in Paris were becoming.

Another break with the past came with the execution of Louis, whose fate hinged on the growing struggle between the Girondins, who wanted to limit Paris’ influence on the revolution, and the radical Jacobins, who supported the sans culottes and used them in turn for support and intimidation.  The Jacobins’ call for putting Louis on trial forced the Girondins into the impossible choice of either giving in to radical pressure to try him or seeming like they were defending a very unpopular king.  Louis’ correspondence with the enemy sealed his fate as all the delegates voted him guilty of treason, and a narrow majority voted for execution.  On January 21, 1793, Louis was executed and over 1200 years of French monarchy came to an end.  In the process, the Girondins were quickly losing support to the Jacobins.  Mounting problems of war, inflation, and food shortages would finish them off.

On September 20, 1792, the French Revolutionary armies won their first battle of the war at Valmy against a Prussian army largely preoccupied with the Second Partition of Poland and also ill from eating too many grapes.  Inspired by this rather lackluster victory, French armies moved forward and overran Savoy, Nice, the Austrian Netherlands, and Holland.  This prompted the National Convention to declare a revolutionary struggle to liberate all people from the tyranny of kings.  Naturally, this alarmed kings across Europe and united them in The First Coalition to stop the French radicals.  What had been a somewhat half-hearted fight of France against Austria and Prussia, now escalated into total war against practically all of Europe.

The tide of events once again quickly turned against France.  Allied armies defeated the French, whose top general, Demouriez, and minister of war defected to the enemy.  Meanwhile, western France was rocked by a major revolt of peasants protesting the revolution’s church policies and military draft.  As enemy armies closed in on France, the economy nearly collapsed.  Inflation was rampant and the assignats fell to 50% of their face value.  The resulting grain shortages triggered food riots in Paris by the sans culottes and the Jacobins, who called for strong price controls.  Events were spinning out of control, and with each bit of bad news, the Girondins’ position became more dangerous.  Finally, on June 2, 1793, a crowd of 80,000 armed sans culottes and National Guardsmen overthrew the Girondins.  The Jacobins took control and established a dictatorship under the Committee of Public Safety, a group of nine men whose most famous member, Robespierre, symbolized the reign of terror about to unfold.

Jacobin Rule

The Jacobins had their work cut out for them.  Rampant inflation and food shortages were wrecking the economy, while France was beset by revolts from within and foreign invasions from without.  It was said that Paris and one-fourth of France were fighting three-fourths of France and the rest of Europe.  Given these circumstances, the Jacobins assumed dictatorial powers and initiated a number of extraordinary measures to save France.

The government took control of vital resources and production of munitions to ensure adequate military supplies for its armies. Paris alone was producing 1000 muskets a day.  Strict wage and price controls were imposed to stifle inflation.  Massive forced loans helped finance the effort.  Newspapers were strictly controlled to maintain morale. People wore wooden shoes to save leather for French soldiers’ shoes.   Even scientific research was directed toward the war effort as the famous chemist Lavoisier found a better formula for gunpowder.

A military revolution

Probably the most significant changes came in the military realm (covered in FC.105D).  For one thing, the crisis of the Revolution forced the Jacobins to institute a universal draft of unmarried men for the army, while married men produced and transported weapons and women made tents and uniforms.  This created a huge army compared to the relatively small and expensive mercenary armies that other countries fielded.  However, the draft had importance for French armies that went far beyond numbers.  For one thing, the recruits were too numerous and too quickly mobilized to be trained with the strict mechanical discipline and precision of professional armies. 

However, the Revolution also freed and inspired the French to create powerful new symbols and ideas, in particular nationalism.  For the first time in history a people sharing the same language, culture, and government had found a unifying spirit to inspire them in the common defense of their homeland.  For this was the France of the French people, not the French king, and that fact motivated the French soldiers to fight with a spirit totally lacking in mercenaries serving merely for money.  Nationalism was what allowed these much larger French armies to forage, because desertion was less of a problem or threat to generals who knew their men had a cause to fight for.  This, in turn, freed French armies from cumbersome supply lines, making them more mobile despite their numbers.

The Revolution also freed French generals from the traditional thinking of the old regime, allowing them to come up with innovative new tactics and formations.  Many of these new generals had been junior officers who rose through the ranks to command positions left vacant when noble officers had fled France.  In order to take advantage of the large numbers of recruits, they used massed firepower and charging in blocks or columns of men through strategic points of the enemy line.  Together, the mobility, new tactics, and spirit of nationalism saved Fance from the armies of the First Coalition.

The Reign of Terror and Thermidorean Reaction

Not surprisingly the strict repressive measures used by the Committee of Public Safety were unpopular and met heavy resistance, especially outside of Paris.  Therefore, the Jacobins launched the famous Reign of Terror.  Special officials, known as Representatives on Mission, went to the army and provinces to maintain the war effort and enforce the government’s will with deadly efficiency and the guillotine.  They raised money, seized supplies for the army, drafted recruits, cleaned up the army and local governments, crushed revolts, and killed anyone who got in their way.  (An estimated 500,000 people died in the Vendean uprising in western France.)  Paris especially suffered from the Terror since the Jacobins were caught in a vicious cycle.  The more enemies they killed, the more reprisals from the victims’ friends and families they feared.  This inspired more executions, more fear, and so on.  As one observer watching the Jacobins turn on their former allies and devoted revolutionaries put it, the revolution was eating its own children.

By the summer of 1794, the Committee of Public Safety’s drastic measures had accomplished their purpose.  They had suppressed the revolts, stabilized the economy, and secured France’s borders.  To many, the end of the crisis should have signaled the end of the government’s repressive measures.  But the Jacobins were caught up in their own cycle of repression and paranoia that merely intensified the Reign of Terror.  Nearly 1400 people fell victim to the guillotine in Paris alone between June and July 1794.  The Jacobins, increasingly out of touch with the feelings of most French people outside of Paris, shut down churches or turned them into “temples of reason” for their new Deistic style religion, the Cult of the Supreme Being.  Growing fear and dissatisfaction with the Committee of Public Safety’s Republic of Virtue finally led to a conspiracy known as the Thermidorean Reaction, which ousted Robespierre and his colleagues (7/28/1794).

The revolution now started to wind down, but its effects did not.  The results of the French Revolution can be summarized by the revolutionary motto: “liberty, equality, and brotherhood.”  Briefly put, liberty referred to the right of all men to live freely with certain guaranteed rights such as free speech and religion.  Equality referred to the equality of all men before the law as opposed to the inequities of the old feudal system that the revolution had swept away.  Brotherhood (nationalism) referred to the right of a people united by a common language and culture to be autonomous and live under its own laws and government.

In October 1795, a new constitution and government, the Directory, took over, but not without incident.  An uprising against the new government threatened it before it even took over.  A young artillery officer, Napoleon Bonaparte, was called in to save the day.  With his famous “whiff of grapeshot,” he saved the new government and launched his own career, which would spread French power across the continent.  French power would not last, but the seeds of the revolution’s liberal and nationalist ideals that were planted in the process would take root and transform the face of Europe and eventually the world.

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