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French Revolution
French Revolution

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4.2 Political polarization and the fall of the monarchy

By 1792 the liberal constitutionalists of 1789, men like Lafayette, found themselves increasingly on the defensive. There was growing hostility to the National Assembly, with its limited franchise and ‘aristocracy of the rich’. A fringe of radical deputies seated on the left of the Assembly (the political terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ date from this period) were supported in Paris and across France by numerous radical political organizations or ‘clubs’, notably a club calling itself the Society of the Friends of the Constitution (and later Society of the Friends of Liberty and Equality) – better known as the Jacobin club. Foremost among the Jacobin deputies in the Assembly was Maximilien de Robespierre (1758–94), a fervent disciple of Rousseau, who seemed to believe himself the embodiment of the ‘general will’ and republican virtue.

In September 1791 the National Assembly, after the two years which it had allotted itself to enact a constitution, duly dissolved itself, transferring its powers to a Legislative Assembly, from election to which, at Robespierre's suggestion, it quixotically barred its own members. There were thus no experienced deputies, and there was an influx of younger radical revolutionaries. Half the deputies were under 30.

Outside the Assembly, the pressure of the ‘clubs’ and the growing politicisation of the sans-culottes were accompanied by a torrent of publications released under the right to freedom of the press laid down in the Declaration of the Rights of Man. By 1791 there were 150 newspapers, including much inflammatory journalism, in which issues were personalised and political opponents were blackguarded. Notorious among these ‘tabloids’ of the day were Jacques Hébert's Le Pere Duchesne (Old Man Duchesne), with a circulation running to 200,000, larded with foul invective, and Jean-Paul Marat's daily L'Ami du peuple (The People's Friend), both of which continually incited the sans-culottes to violence. As early as 1789 Marat had declared: ‘The political machine can only be wound up by violence, just as the air can only be cleared by words’ (Vovelle, 1984, p. 209). Objects of attack included the usual targets – aristocrats and priests and increasingly the royal family – and also extended to the ‘active citizens’ who supported and administered the new France – the authorities and members of the National Assembly.

In-fighting increased in the Assembly and radicalised it. By May 1792 the Assembly was falling under the influence of the Jacobins and other extreme factions such as the Girondins, who decreed the deportation of non-juring priests and the death sentence for counter-revolutionary émigrés. In June the Assembly called for a levy of 20,000 volunteers to defend Paris from its enemies at home and abroad. When the king vetoed the measure, the Girondins called for mass demonstrations outside the Tuileries. An armed crowd of sans-culottes broke into the palace and forced Louis to wear the red cap of liberty. On 10 August a body of sans-culottes, national guards and others sacked the Tuileries. The king's 600 Swiss guards, whom Louis ordered not to fire on the crowd, were massacred. The royal family took refuge in the Assembly, from where they were transferred, as prisoners, to a secure fortress in Paris. The cause of constitutional monarchy was drowned in violence and bloodshed.