The Second Revolution

The Revolution in France sparked much excitement and discussion in Europe and the United States. One commenter, Edmund Burke, of Great Britain, was troubled by the revolution. In his Reflections on the Revolution in France, (1790) Burke defended inherited privileges of the monarchy and aristocracy, and argued that the reform that was occurring in France would lead to chaos and tyranny. His argument was opposed by a liberated woman of the day, Mary Wollstonecraft, a middle class author who commented that "a desperate disease requires a powerful remedy," in France and Great Britain. Incensed at Burke’s remarks, she wrote and published A Vindication of the Rights of Man. (1790). She followed it up with A Vindication of the Rights of Women, in which she demanded that:

The Rights of Women be respected…[and] JUSTICE for one-half of the human race….It is time to effect a revolution in female manners, time to restore to them their lost dignity, and make them, as part of the human species, labor, by reforming themselves, to reform the world.

Wollstonecraft argued for coeducation which would make women better wives and mothers, good citizens, perhaps even economically independent. She believed that men would benefit from women’s rights as "the two sexes mutually corrupt and improve each other." Her work marked the birth of the modern woman’s movement.

Kings and Nobles throughout Europe were as disturbed as Burke by events in France. They at first were glad to see Louis XVI, a possible rival, weakened, but then feared that revolution might be contagious. In June, 1791 Louis and Marie Antoinette attempted to flee France in disguise, but were arrested and returned to Paris. In response, the monarchs of Prussia and Austria issued the Declaration of Pillnitz, which stated they were willing to intervene in France in certain circumstances (upon which they did not elaborate). It was anticipated that the Declaration would have a sobering effect in France but not provoke a war.

They were wrong. When the National Assembly disbanded, it attempted to win popular support by stating that none of its members would be eligible for election to the new Legislative Assembly. When the new Assembly convened in 1791, it had a different character than the old one. The new representatives were younger and less cautious than those who preceded them. Many were called "Jacobins" after the political club to which they belonged. They were passionately committed to liberal revolution and were distrustful of monarchy, particularly after Louis had tried to fly the coop. As a result, they tended to lump "useless aristocrats" and "despotic monarchs" together, and worked themselves up into a frenzy with bombastic oratory. In response to the perceived threat of war from other kings in Europe they threatened "we will incite a war of people against kings….Ten million Frenchmen, kindled by the fire of liberty, armed with the sword, with reason, with eloquence, would be able to change the face of the world and make the tyrants tremble on their thrones." France would "rise to the full height of her mission," and as a result, France declared war on Francis II, the Hapsburg ruler of Austria, in April, 1792.

Things went poorly for the French. Their forces broke and ran, and the road to Paris was opened to Prussian and Austrian troops. They were only saved by the conflict between eastern Monarchs over the division of Poland. The threat of invasion caused a patriotic fervor to sweep the country. The Assembly declared the country in danger; and volunteer armies were organized and marched through Paris singing the Marseillaise. Rumors of treason by Louis and Marie Antoinette swept the crowd, likely fueled by the fact that Marie was Austrian. On August 10, 1792, a mob attacked the royal palace at the Tuilleries where Louis and Marie were staying. The palace was captured after heavy fighting, and Louis and Marie fled to the nearby Legislative Assembly. The Assembly suspended the king from all his functions, imprisoned him, and called for a new National Convention to be elected by universal male suffrage. The French Monarchy was in its death throes.

Rumors swept the city that the French nobility and a number of priests, many of whom were imprisoned for opposing the revolution, were plotting with the Austrians and Prussians. An angry mob burst into the prisons of Paris and slaughtered half the men and women they found there. Many were hanged from lamp posts. In September, 1792, the National Assembly declared France a republic.

In keeping with its new outlook, the Republic of France attempted to create a new culture. A new calendar was adopted which eliminated saint’s days, and renamed days and months after the seasons of the year. Citizens were expected to address each other as "thou," a more informal and friendly term than the "you" employed by the rich and powerful. Open air democratic festivals were promoted which attempted to replace Catholic religious celebrations with secular holidays which instilled republican virtues and love of the nation. They were more successful in the large cities than in the smaller towns, where Catholicism was stronger.

Almost all members of the Assembly were republican and belonged to the Jacobin club of Paris. Most were well educated middle class members. But control was contested by two groups who opposed each other bitterly: The Gerondins, named after a department in southwestern France, and the Mountain, led by two young lawyers, Maximilien Robespierre and Georges Jacques Danton. The Mountain was so called because its members set on the uppermost left hand benches of the hall.

In January, 1793, the Assembly overwhelmingly convicted Louis XVI of treason, and sentenced him to death. He was executed on the guillotine. His last words were "I am innocent and shall die without fear. I would that my death might bring happiness to the French, and ward off the dangers which I foresee."

The Guillotine was invented by a dentist who was a member of the assembly, Dr. Guillotin. It had been developed as a more humane way to inflict the death penalty. Beheading, the method primarily used for noblemen as it was a quick death, was sometimes cruel and gory, as the axe tended to crush the spine of the victim rather than cut it cleanly. The blade of the guillotine was angled so that it would slice rather than chop. The victim lay on a wooden bed with his head placed in a clamp called a lunette ("little moon.") It was used in France for executions until France abolished the death penalty in the 1970’s. Dr. Guillotin and his family were so embarrassed at the frenzy with which the guillotine was used that they changed their surname.

The Gerondins and the Mountain were both determined to continue their "war against tyranny," and sent troops to battle the Prussians. They defeated the Prussian army at the Battle of Valmy and later captured the city of Frankfurt. They later occupied a large portion of the Netherlands. In each instance, they found support from the common people, chased away ruling princes, and in their own eyes, "abolished feudalism." However, in doing so, they lived off the land, plundering local treasuries, requisitioning food and supplies which the peasants could not afford to part with, such that they seemed more like foreign mercenaries than an army of liberation. In a frenzy, the National Convention declared war on Britain, Holland, and Spain, thus putting it at war with all of Europe. Peasants in western France rebelled against being drafted into the army and were encouraged by devout Catholics, royalists and foreign agents.

In the meantime, the Gerondins and Mountain ended up in a deadly struggle. Although they both agreed in principle, each side feared that the other would impose a dictatorship composed of its own members. The situation was resolved by the working poor of Paris, called sans culottes (without breeches) because they work trousers instead of the knee breeches of the aristocracy and wealthy middle class. Their interests were primarily economic, and in the spring of 1793, the economic situation was as bad as ever, with inflation, unemployment, and food shortages.

As the situation worsened, the sans culottes demanded a political solution to their problems. At first the Gerondins and the Mountain both rejected their demands; however with military defeat imminent and hatred of the Gerondins growing, the Mountain, led by Robespierre, worked with the sans culottes to engineer a popular uprising (yet again) and forced the Convention to arrest thirty one Gerondist deputies for treason. At that point, the Mountain had full control of the assembly. Since a national emergency was apparent, the Assembly created a Committee on Public Safety with dictatorial powers. Robespierre became its head. Peasants in the outlying areas were opposed to events in Paris and demanded a decentralized government. The revolt spread, and the republic’s armies were driven back on all fronts. By July, 1793, only the area around Paris and the eastern frontier were held by the central government. Defeat seemed almost certain.

In order to save the revolution, Robespierre and the Committee on Public safety allied with the sans culottes by imposing an economic dictatorship. Rather than supply and demand, the government set the maximum price on a number of products. It did not have the power to enforce all the regulations, but did fix the price of bread in Paris at a level the poor could afford. Bread was rationed, and bakers were told they could only prepare the "bread of equality," brown bread made from a mixture of all available flours. White bread and pastries were outlawed as luxuries. Aside from bread, arms production and munitions were produced by decree. Workshops and raw materials were nationalized, often on a moments notice. An example is the command that "ten thousand soldiers lack shoes. You will take the shoes of all the aristocrats in Strasbourg and deliver them ready for transport to headquarters at 10 a.m. tomorrow."

At the same time, the Reign of Terror (1793-94) was in full swing. The Committee on Public Safety created special Revolutionary Courts responsible only to the Committee and tried "enemies of the nation" for political crimes. They ignored legal procedures and acted mainly to keep the sans culottes happy. Over 40,000 French people were either guillotined or died in prison. Over 300,000 were imprisoned until the end of the Revolution. These actions terrified many in Europe who felt that the French had replaced a weak king with a bloody dictatorship, and perverted the ideals on which the revolution was founded.

Executions were often conducted with a crazed frenzy. A trial often consisted of two phrases: "State your name, Citizen," and "This way, Citizen" (to the guillotine.) The Committee had insisted that the people of Paris address each other as "citizen."

The Committee also managed to draw on patriotism in the French people, glorifying their common language and common tradition together with ideas of popular sovereignty and democracy. The result was modern nationalism, something not experienced in Europe previously. All French resources were mobilized and fervent nationalism combined with it to produce an awesome fighting machine. By January, 1794, the French army had over 800,000 soldiers on active duty in fourteen armies, unprecedented in modern history. They were well trained and well equipped, and led by generals who had risen from the ranks. Often attacking at bayonet point, they managed to overwhelm their enemies, and save the Republic.

With the success of the army against foreign foes, Robespierre and the Committee on Public Safety relaxed emergency economic controls, but extended the political Reign of Terror. The wanted to establish an ideal democratic republic where justice would reign and there would be neither rich nor poor. They did so by guillotining any who opposed them. In March, 1794, the Terror executed over 1300 men who had criticized Robespierre for being soft on the wealthy. This last action horrified the sans culottes, who felt that Robespierre had gone too far. Moderates in the Convention feared they would be next on Robespierre’s list and formed a conspiracy against him. On July 27, 1794 (9th of Thermidor on the Revolutionary calendar) When Robespierre tried to address the convention, they howled him down. He ran to his office to sign an order for the arrest of the conspirators, but they beat him to the punch and sent officers to arrest him. Robespierre had just finished the order and had written the "R" in his last name when the officers broke in. He pulled a pistol, and a struggle broke out, in the course of which part of his jaw was blown away. A makeshift bandage was tied around his head and on the next day, he was guillotined.

Robespierre planned to die bravely, in fact his last remarks to the Convention were, "I ask for death." However, when his head was placed in the lunette, the executioner handled him roughly and jarred the shattered jaw, which caused Robespierre to scream in pain. Those who heard him scream were convinced that he had died a coward.

Robespierre’s supporters followed him to the guillotine. A reaction to the reign of terror, known as a "Thermidorian reaction" was similar to the early days of the revolution. Middle class lawyers and professionals who had led the original revolution regained authority. The National Convention abolished Robespierre’s economic controls, printed more paper currency, and allowed prices to rise sharply. Political organizations, where the sans culottes were strongest, were severely restricted. Wealthy bankers and speculators who grew rich from the sudden rise in prices celebrated the end of the Terror with an orgy of self indulgence, symbolized by the low-cut gowns worn by their wives and mistresses.

The poor were hit hard again by the rise in prices and removal of economic controls. They revolted again, but the Convention quickly used the army to put down the revolt. No concessions were made to the poor, and their revolutionary fervor subsided. They would have no interest in politics for another fifty years. The only serious change was a return to religion by women in rural areas.

In 1795, the National Convention wrote still another constitution, which they believed would guarantee their economic position and political supremacy. The mass of the population were to vote only for electors whose number was cut back to men of substantial means. Electors then elected the members of the assembly, which was to have a five man council known as the Directory. The Directory was no more successful than its predecessors. It continued military campaigns abroad as a means of ending unemployment at home, as drafted soldiers were no longer unemployed. Two demonstrations erupted demanding a return of the price regulations on bread, but the Directory put them down. The demonstrations encouraged royalists who promoted the count of Provence, Louis XVI’s brother, as the rightful king. (Louis’ son had died in a Paris prison in 1795.) An army of nobles supported by the British landed in Brittany on June 27, but they were turned back easily. On October 5, 1795, royalists attempted an insurrection in Paris; however the Directory called in a young general, Napoleon Bonaparte, who defeated the royalists with a "whiff of grapeshot." Continued insurrections revealed that the army would be the final arbiter of who controlled France, and that army was under the leadership of Bonaparte.