European History Pt. 40 — The Emergency Republic ’92-’95

Last time I looked at the end of the early phase of the French Revolution. This was the years of the national assembly, from ’89 to roughly ’92. Things get confusing because the national assembly was a continuation of the estates general, which had a legally recognized role in the ancient regime. Things had proceeded in a semi-lawful manner. But after the peasant outbreaks in Paris during 1792, the national assembly died and was replaced by the NATIONAL CONVENTION (sounds similar). The national convention wanted to try again to draft a constitution, but it ended up just ruling itself without making much progress on the constitution it was supposed to be writing.

I’ve read about the period of the national convention before, and its bafflingly complex. I almost think it would be better for me to write nothing about it than follow the books’ AMAZINGLY simple characterizations of what went on. Nonetheless, I’ll do it. But only with a descriptive caveat about this period. This was a time of decreasingly lawfulness and increased political participation by average people. At home, clubs grew and interacted in Paris. They met in the streets by chance, at bars, and in halls, and there was a rush toward radicalization. Any resistance to “moving forward” with the revolution or an attempt to consolidate the gains of the revolution was met with purges. One always wanted to be the most progressive and at the head of change. To be left behind was to be killed. Paranoia and suspicion began to run high and mobs roamed France in the name of revolution or counterrevolution — it all became the same. At large, France was caught up in war, sometimes winning sometimes losing, always spilling more and more resources. But let’s begin a basic look at what happened at this time.

Basic Timeline

In August 1792, the national assembly was formed. It was more radical than the national convention which was now defunct. In December 1792, Louis XVI was put to death by a vote that was won by a single person. All of those deputies who voted for his death were now COMMITTED in a new way to preventing the return of the Bourbon monarchy. They could not turn back and so were radicalized further by this already radical decision.

At this time, the San Culottes, the workers without the knee-breeches worn by the middle and upper class became very active in the revolution. They wanted price controls and currency controls and other measures to help them in a time of need. They radicalized the deputies in the national convention, which resulted in the purging of the Girondins by a new faction, the Mountain (so called because Mountain deputies preferred to sit high up in the assembly hall). This was an instance of the mood of PARIS dictating the revolution to all of France, because it was the commune of Paris who organized the San Culottes into invading the national convention and arrested the Girondins.

In 1793, Robespierre largely headed the Committee of Public Safety, an emergency panel that largely ran the country. I read a biography on Robespierre at this point, and he came off as a very scary person. He conducted executions (ultimately of one of his best friends) from his office, filing papers and worrying about the “internal” foes of the revolution. He sought to root them out wherever he could. About 40,000 perished during the terror, most of which were peasants. However, it was at this time that Marie Antoinette was guillotined.

In 1793, the national convention adopted a republican constitution that allowed for universal male suffrage. Pretty good right? If you think so, you haven’t understood the pattern of the French Revolution. The constitution was “suspended” indefinitely and the government was declared “revolutionary until the peace.” This meant basically that AGAIN France had failed to consolidate its societal changes into a public document.

In 1794, the national convention decreed slavery illegal everywhere in the French colonies. This was laudatory, but Napoleon would reverse it in 1802.

In 1793-1794, the national convention proved to be what I think was its dictatorial leanings by clamping down on the clubs and informal revolutionary groups that helped put it into power. Women’s revolutionary clubs were outlawed and the leading “enrages” (the most extreme revolutionaries) were arrested.

Another pattern though is that France just kept producing ideological splinter groups that were more and more insane. After the enrages were locked up, the Hebertists came to prominence. Even ROBESPIERRE thought they were insane (they were responsible for drowning roughly 200 people in barges in Nantes at this time). The Hebertists also wanted to thoroughly dechristianize France, but Robespierre resisted, trying to preserve the popularity of the revolution. In vain, he introduced the cult of the supreme being as a compromise. He was also at this time pressed by hebertists and those accusing him of being right wing (Robespierre RIGHT-wing? c’mon). In concession, he killed many moderate (right wing) members of the Mountain including his friend Danton. At this point though, the national convention was become terrified (as it were) of their own ruling committee. They made Robespierre “illegal” and he was Guillotined.

This whole period was closed out by the Thermidorian reaction; a kind of collective “whew” uttered by all of France. The Jacobin club was closed down, extreme price controls were removed. Latent peasant revolts were put down. It was a bourgeois moment. The constitution that was made in 1793 and suspended on emergency grounds was thrown away and ANOTHER constitution was drafted (this is constitution number 3).

and we’ll pick it up there next time.


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