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French Revolution
French Revolution

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4.3 Birth of the republic: war, civil war and terror

After the church and monarchy, ‘war was the third great polarizing issue of the Revolution’ (Doyle, 2001, p. 50). With a declaration by the Assembly in July 1792 of la patrie en danger (the fatherland in danger), Prussian troops on French soil in August, and the fall of the border fortress of Verdun in September, there was mass panic in Paris, with accusations of treachery against the king and queen, Lafayette (who fled abroad), ‘aristocrats’ and priests. In the ‘September massacre’, some 1,400 priests and suspected counter-revolutionaries were dragged from prison by rampaging sans-culottes, and together with common criminals and prostitutes were wantonly butchered. Le Père Duchesne egged on the perpetrators, while the minister of justice, Georges Danton (1759–94), did nothing. ‘The French Revolution, anti-noble almost from the start, had also turned anti-clerical, anti-monarchical and (with the September massacres) terroristic’ (Doyle, 1999, p. xv).

On 20 September 1792, under pressure from Robespierre and the Jacobins, the Legislative Assembly was replaced by a National Convention. (The term was taken from the Constitutional Convention which drew up the US Constitution in 1787.) The significance of this appeared two days later, when the Convention duly decreed the abolition of the monarchy and the creation of the French Republic with a new constitution. Theoretically, the legislature was now – for the first time in modern history – elected by universal male suffrage. In practice, only one-tenth of the electorate – the sans-culottes – ventured to vote.

In January 1793 Louis XVI was tried by the Convention for so-called crimes against the nation. Addressed by his surname (‘citizen Capet’) just like any other citizen, he was, by a narrow majority vote, sentenced to death. He was guillotined in what became the place de la Revolution (formerly place Louis XV, now place de la Concorde). Marie-Antoinette, long defamed as ‘the Austrian bitch’ on suspicion of scheming for Austria's interests, was guillotined in October. Again, the Revolution made a violent break with the French past and in doing so issued a defiant challenge to the rest of Europe. In Danton's words, ‘France threw down its gauntlet to Europe, and that gauntlet was the head of a king’ (quoted in Doyle, 1989, p. 4; Figure 4 shows, beneath the severed head of Louis XVI, the words from the Marseillaise: ‘Let impure blood water our furrows.’ The caption reads: ‘Monday 21 January 1793 at 10.15 a.m. on the place de la Revolution formerly called place Louis XV. The tyrant fell beneath the sword of the laws. This great act of justice appalled the aristocracy, destroyed the superstition of royalty, and created the republic. It stamps a great character on the National Convention and renders it worthy of the confidence of the French …In vain did an audacious faction and some insidious orators exhaust all the resources of calumny, charlatanism and chicane; the courage of the republicans triumphed: the majority of the Convention remained unshakeable in its principles, and the genius of intrigue yielded to the genius of Liberty and the ascendancy of virtue. Extract from the 3rd letter of Maximilien Robespierre to his constituents’ (trans. Lentin)).

Figure 4
Figure 4 Villeneuve, Matière à réflection pour les jongleurs couronnees (Matter for thought for crowned twisters), 1793, engraving, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris

Attitudes became still more polarised. The Convention organized a determined resistance to foreign invasion, combined with action against those in France still loyal to the cause of monarchy. By 1793 France was not only at war with most of the European states, a war which continued until 1799, but also in a state of virtual civil war – and with intensified civil war came mounting violence and extremism. Figure 5 shows the invasion points of the First Coalition against France (Austria, Prussia, Holland, Britain, Spain and the kingdom of Sardinia) and the locations of internal resistance to the Revolution in 1792–3. There were two key centres of long-term resistance: the royalist insurgents, known as the ‘Chouans’, of Normandy and Brittany, and a massive uprising in the Vendee south of the Loire in 1793.

From this time, until the enemies of France have been expelled from the territory of the Republic, all Frenchmen are in a state of permanent requisition for the army.

(Anthology I, p. 90)

Figure 5
Figure 5 The republic under internal and external attack, 1793. Photo: Marc Bouloiseau, The Jacobin Republic 1792–1794, Cambridge University Press, 1983

So began the decree on the Levée en masse issued by the Convention in August 1793, a compulsory call-up of 750,000 men (all single men aged 18–25) and the harnessing of all human and material resources. It was in effect a ‘declaration of total war’ (Blanning, 2000, p. 253), which unleashed enthusiastic support from the forces of popular radicalism in Paris and elsewhere – notably the sans-culottes – and provoked armed resistance from the forces of counter-revolution in the Vendee and around Bordeaux, Lyons and Marseilles. The Mediterranean port of Toulon, occupied by the British fleet, defected to the British. By August 1793, 60 departments, or three-quarters of the total, were declared to be in a state of rebellion.

The Girondins, who dominated the Convention from September 1792, were ousted in May 1793 by the Jacobins under Robespierre with the help of 80,000 armed sans-culottes. A further constitution was introduced in June 1793, more democratic than that of 1791, but it was suspended for the duration of the war. The twelve months from July 1793 to July 1794 were known as the period of war government, revolutionary government, or simply the Terror. Real power was vested in a so-called Committee of Public Safety, in effect a war cabinet of 12 members of the Convention. The Committee took direct charge of mobilising France's material and human resources, fixing wages and prices, calling up and provisioning the army – and eradicating internal opposition.