“The feature is particularly exciting because it introduces a Monopoly-style virtual reality element. But instead of paper money, you can buy and trade property

Is there anyone that can explain the French Revolution in fairly simple terms? It all seems rather complicated and unorganized in chaotic.

The French Revolution was complicated, unorganised and chaotic. People at the time didn’t always know what was going on either.

However, it can help to summarise it in stages:

  • Constitutional Monarchy 1789–92
  • Radical Republic 1792–94
  • Reaction 1794–99

Napoleon seized power on 9 November 1799, marking the start of a new phase of history.

Origins of the Revolution

In 1789, France was an absolute monarchy. The King, in theory, made all the big decisions while appointing government ministers at his own discretion to handle smaller matters. In practice, there were limitations on royal power, since the king had to cope with entrenched bureaucracy, inertia, and the need to keep the goodwill of his influential supporters. Even so, ordinary people had little or no input into the way they were ruled. The nobility and the Church had immense privileges, including freedom from taxation, in return for supporting the monarchy and the social order.

France lost the Seven Years’ War (1756–63), a costly defeat that left the government’s treasury empty. Then they ‘won’ the American War of Independence (to 1783), but gained almost nothing from their victory except a large bill. France was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. The obvious solution was to raise taxes, but that was naturally very unpopular with the people. And because France wasn’t a democracy, the people had no way to express their anger against the government peacefully via the ballot box.

To make things worse, in the depths of the financial crisis the government of Louis XVI began to consider imposing taxes on the nobility as well for the first time. Under other circumstances this might be considered a positive move: the tax-free status of the aristocracy was a source of great resentment among ordinary French people, so making them pay a fair share of the burden would be a popular action. In the 1780s, however, such suggestions only managed to make the nobility (the Crown’s natural supporters) alarmed and angry at the King’s government, without satisfying the grievances of anybody else.

As a final push towards revolution, in 1789 France was suffering a severe economic depression. The harvests had been poor, and the price of bread rose beyond the reach of poor peasants. People were starving and desperate; and some were willing to turn to violence to feed their families. This was a crisis, and action needed to be taken quickly.

Constitutional Monarchy, 1789-1792

The first phase of the Revolution was an attempt to reform the government and constitution, not to abolish the monarchy entirely. It was a period of idealism, with people putting forward radical ideas to make France’s system of government both fair and efficient, based on the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity. However, violence was always there under the surface: and many of the reforms were pushed on by a fear of what people would do if their expectations were disappointed.

The Estates-general and the Tennis Court Oath

On 24 January 1789, King Louis XVI decided to summon an elected parliament, the États généraux (Estates-general), to discuss a solution to the financial problems facing the country. This was the first time this body had been called for almost two hundred years. The meeting of the parliament was set for May.

In the meantime, communities throughout France were requested to compile lists of grievances (‘cahiers de doléances‘ in French), to form the agenda for the Estates-general’s discussions. Many of these lists criticised the privileges of the elites, the unfair taxation system, and the lack of popular influence over government.

The Estates-general met in Versailles on 5 May 1789. However, it soon became bogged down in constitutional issues rather than addressing the financial crisis. The problem was that as its name implies, the Estates-general represented the three estates of the realm: Clergy, Nobility and Commons. The First Estate represented France’s 130,000 Catholic clergy. The Second Estate represented France’s 400,000 nobles. The Third Estate represented France’s 25 million commoners. And each Estate had one vote: so the Third Estate could be outvoted 2-1. Unsurprisingly, the Third Estate thought that this was enormously unfair and illogical.

After failing to reform the structure of the Estates-general, on 17 June 1789 the Third Estate withdrew from it and declared the formation of a new National Assembly. Two days later the clergy of the First Estate voted to join the National Assembly; but the King and the Second Estate rejected these developments as illegal and unconstitutional. On 20 June the King sought to shut down the National Assembly by sending soldiers to physically lock its members out of their meeting room. The delegates simply moved to a nearby indoor tennis court, and swore an oath not to disperse or disband until they had reformed France’s constitution.

The Tennis Court Oath, drawing by Jacques-Louis David

The Storming of the Bastille

The King backed down and allowed the National Assembly to meet, but the situation remained tense. Large numbers of royal troops began to surround Paris. On 11 July Louis XVI fired his Minister of Finance, which was widely interpreted as the start of a counter-coup to re-impose royal absolutism. In response large-scale riots broke out in Paris. To keep order, and not trusting the Royal troops, on 13 July the Assembly of Electors of Paris announced the formation of a ‘bourgeois militia’ of 48,000 men. However, they were lacking in weapons and gunpowder.

The Bastille was a mediaeval castle within Paris, which was being used as both a storage depot for weapons and ammunition, and a royal prison. In the popular imagination it had become a symbol of absolutism and tyranny, the place where political prisoners and opponents of the regime were incarcerated. In reality, only 7 people were actually imprisoned there at the time: four forgers, two lunatics, and one imprisoned for ‘dissipation and bad conduct’.

On the morning of 14 July 1789, a crowd gathered around the Bastille and demanded that its governor, the Marquis de Launay, hand over the stores of munitions held there to the militia. At first Launay negotiated, but the crowd became impatient and around a thousand people stormed the gates. The defending garrison, comprising 32 Swiss mercenaries and 82 elderly French military pensioners, shot at them; the mob, reinforced by some soldiers from the local Paris regiment, returned fire.

The fighting lasted through the afternoon, resulting in the deaths of 98 attackers and 1 defender. However, after the garrison surrendered eight of the defenders, including the governor, were lynched or beaten to death by the angry crowd. In addition, a mob surrounded the Paris City Hall, accusing the mayor Jacques de Flesselles of being a royalist sympathiser who had conspired to prevent the militia from being armed. When he came out onto the steps to explain himself, he was shot dead by an anonymous gunman in the crowd. The heads of Launay and Flesselles were then cut off and stuck onto pikes, and displayed to the mob as ‘traitors’.

The surrender of the Bastille’s garrison. The artist has probably exaggerated the height of the fortress’s walls.

King Louis XVI kept a diary; and famously, his entry for 14 July was only one word long: Rien (‘Nothing’). This is often said to show his obliviousness to what was going on in the country around him; though in his partial defence it should be noted that he’d been out hunting that day, and ‘nothing’ referred to what he’d caught.

The day, however, gave rise to another famous quote. When woken late in the night and told of the storming of the Bastille and the murder of its governor the King exclaimed anxiously: “Mais c’est une révolte?” (But is it a revolt?)

And was told in reply: “Non, sire, c’est une révolution.” (No, Sire, it’s a revolution.)

As a footnote: exactly a year later on 14 July 1790, the French government ordered a ceremony of national reconciliation and unity, the Fête de la Fédération. The decision to make Bastille Day France’s national holiday was made in 1880, and those supporting it stressed that they were celebrating not only the fight against royal absolutism in 1789, but the willingness of the French people to join together in unity in 1790.

The Great Fear

A few days after the violent events in Paris, similar outbreaks of violence broke out throughout the country. Wild rumours flew that the nobility were planning to create an artificial famine by destroying the crops, to profit from higher grain prices as well as crushing popular opposition to their privileges. As part of their plan, it was claimed, they were recruiting armies of brigands and outlaws (or English or Italian mercenaries, in some versions of the rumour) to attack the villages. These stories created an atmosphere of near panic in many regions, and peasants took up arms to defend themselves from the ‘brigands’ — which in some tragic cases meant attacks on harmless strangers.

However, many of the peasant militias then took to attacking the manor houses of the nobility. A particular target were the land registers (‘terriers’) which recorded the feudal obligations, taxes and duties which individual peasants owed to their lord. Destroying these, it was hoped, would make it impossible for the nobility to impose these feudal levies in the future. In other places the peasants simply looted and burned, without a political justification.

Terrified by the outbreak of violence, many of the nobility and their servants fled their estates. Some gathered in the cities, but others left France entirely and went abroad. The King’s brother Charles, the Count of Artois, was one of the first of these emigrés, as they became known, leaving for Italy on 17 July along with his family and several other nobles.

The events of July-August 1789 became known as the Great Fear (la Grande Peur) since fear both drove the peasants’ actions, and was the effect they had on the nobles. In addition, the emigrés fleeing abroad spread stories of violence and terror, and helped turn opinion in other countries against the events unfolding in France.

Nobles flee as their manors and châteaux are set on fire


Louis XVI and his advisers decided that their best approach for the moment was to make concessions to the moderate reformers, in the hope of averting more violent outbreaks. He reinstated Necker, the Minister of Finance whose dismissal had provoked the storming of the Bastille, and gave official sanction to the creation of a National Guard based on the local militias. The Marquis de Lafayette, of American War of Independence fame, was appointed as its first commander.

Symbolically, on 17 July the King also put on a cockade (circular hat ribbon) in the colours of the city of Paris, red and blue. A few days later a new version of this cockade was introduced, with the red and blue separated by the white of the French royal banner: and thus the French tricolour was born.

Between 4 and 11 August the National Assembly passed a sweeping series of laws, the August Decrees, ending feudalism in France. Serfdom, and its related duties and obligations, was abolished without compensation. The special privileges of the nobility and clergy were swept away; in particular, they would now be liable for taxation on the same basis as everybody else. All positions in the government and armed forces were to be open to all citizens, not just nobles; and the sale of offices was made illegal. Tithes to the Church were also abolished.

While these measures apparently benefited the peasants to the great disadvantage of the nobility, historians have observed that in many cases landowners simply increased the rents they charged to compensate for their loss of feudal dues. As such, while the new system was objectively fairer in that there were no longer any hereditary privileges, the poor remained poor and the rich remained rich.

Despite such cynical reflections, at the time they were passed, the August Decrees were hailed as a major advance for liberty and equality. (For the record, the actual phrase Liberté, égalité, fraternité became the official motto of the revolution on 5 December 1790, when National Assembly member Maximilien Robespierre called for it to be written on the flags of the National Guard.)

As a follow-up, on 26 August 1789 the Assembly published the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Coincidentally, this was just five days after the US House of Representatives published its own Bill of Rights, though the American document would not be ratified until 1791. The French Declaration begins ‘Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions can be founded only on the common good’ and goes on to list 17 individual rights including freedom of speech and of religion, the presumption of innocence and right to due process and a fair trial, and a statement that taxation is only legal with the (collective, not individual) consent of the people.

Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen

The royal court leaves Versailles and returns to Paris

On 5 October 1789 another famous event took place, the Women’s March on Versailles. Four days earlier the King had organised a lavish banquet at Versailles for the officers of the royal guards. With food prices still high and many poor people forced to go hungry, this caused outrage in Paris as the news spread. A group of women in the market places of Paris began a demonstration which rapidly grew in numbers until about 7,000 people, mostly women but some men, filled the cold and rainy streets. They marched on the City Hall to demand bread, but then decided to head to Versailles instead and ‘bring the king back home to Paris’ so he would be forced to live among his people instead of being isolated in luxury in his palace. Many of the women armed themselves from weapons held in the city’s armouries; they even brought along several cannons.

Contemporary illustration of the Women’s March

On their arrival at Versailles there was a tense stand-off until the following morning, and some small-scale fighting broke out; but most of the king’s guards were unwilling to use force against the women. Louis XVI felt he had no option but to submit to the demands and return to Paris. In the afternoon of 6 October 60,000 people gathered to watch as he and his court arrived in Paris and took up residence in the disused palace of the Tuileries. It is said that the following evening, a pessimistic King Louis chose as his reading material a biography of King Charles I of England. The French monarch was now clearly at the mercy of his people.

Further reforms

For two years, 1789-91, the National Assembly worked on preparing a new constitution for France, as well as passing various reforms and new laws.

In December 1789 the old, mediaeval French provinces and duchies were replaced by a rational system of local government based on 83 equally-sized Départements, the system still in operation today.

Furthermore, the land owned by the Catholic Church in France — about 10% of all the land in the country — was nationalised, and in July 1790 the clergy became salaried employees of the state. These moves were strongly opposed by the Church, and many priests went into exile or became focuses of opposition to the new government. The nationalised land was sold off, and this fuelled inflation, a phenomenon that was little-understood at the time.

In March 1791, the National Assembly resolved to adopt the metric system, and instructed the Académie des sciences to implement it. It would be formally adopted on 7 April 1795. 1795 was also the year when the old currency system of 12 deniers to the sol, 20 sols to the livre, and 24 livres to the Louis d’or was abolished in favour of one of 100 centimes to the franc.

Debate over the future shape of France’s constitution led to the creation of factions or parties within the National Assembly. The practice emerged of the conservatives who favoured strong royal authority, with the King having a veto over legislation, sitting on the right-hand side of the National Assembly chamber; and the progressives who favoured more democracy and a monarch who would be merely a figurehead sitting on the left side of the chamber. This is the origin of the terms Right-wing and Left-wing in politics.

In 1789 some representatives to the National Assembly formed a social club, which rented premises in a former monastery called the Couvent des Jacobins. As a result, the members were nicknamed ‘Jacobins’, and eventually adopted this as their official name. The Jacobin Club staged political debates for its members, and discussed radical ideas such as calling for a republic or for universal suffrage. Membership grew rapidly; affiliate societies were set up in other cities in France — 152 of them by August 1790, over 7,000 by 1792. At its peak the Jacobin Club had half a million members. One of the purposes of the society, according to its constitution, was to discuss in advance questions which were going to be voted on by the National Assembly, so those Jacobins who were delegates to the assembly could form a united front. In effect, the Jacobin Club was an early form of organised political party, and one that was definitely on the left wing of politics as it was then understood.

Premises of the Jacobin Club

Flight to Varennes

During the period from 1789 to 1791 King Louis XVI often seemed paralysed by indecision: unwilling to accept the new democratic constitution that was being developed, but equally reluctant to reject it and crush the reformers by force. His wife, the Austrian-born Queen Marie Antoinette, was felt to have an unhealthy degree of influence over him, making her widely hated. In summer 1791 the King and Queen finally decided to take action.

In June they made plans to leave Paris in secret and go to Montmédy, on the border with the Austrian Netherlands in northern France, where an army of 10,000 Royal troops was gathered. Louis would use these troops to impose martial law and force the National Assembly to submit. He would then roll back the reforms of the last two years, including the August Decrees of 1789, and restore the power of the monarchy.

At midnight on 21 June 1791 the King and Queen slipped out of the Tuileries palace in disguise: one of the Queen’s attendants played the role of a ‘Russian baroness’, with the King dressed as a valet and the Queen pretending to be the governess of the baroness’s children (who were actually her own children). The royal party made their way slowly in a six-horse carriage towards the border, but in the town of Varennes they were spotted when a postmaster recognised the King from seeing his portrait on the banknotes.

The royal family were placed under arrest and returned to Paris under armed guard. From then on, they were treated as virtual prisoners within the Tuileries palace.

The question of what to do with the King caused fierce debate. Some, including many Jacobins and the even more radical Cordeliers faction, demanded the abolition of the monarchy and the creation of a republic. Moderates wanted to keep the King, but oblige him to swear an oath to follow the new constitution which was being drawn up, and which would limit his powers similarly to those of the British monarchy.

On 17 July 1791 a crowd of 50,000 people assembled on the Champs de Mars in Paris to sign a petition calling for an end to the monarchy. The National Guard under the Marquis de Lafayette was ordered to disperse the crowd; stones were thrown and the Guard opened fire in response. Between 12 and 50 protesters were killed; around 200 of the organisers of the demonstration were arrested. This temporarily suppressed the republican movement, though creating much anger that would emerge later.

On 3 September 1791, the National Assembly finally published its new Constitution for France. This was comparatively moderate, calling for a separation of powers with the monarchy forming the executive, an elected Legislative Assembly forming the legislative, and an independent judiciary. All Frenchmen owning a certain amount of property would become ‘active citizens’ and be allowed to vote — in practice, about 4 million out of France’s 25 million people became these active citizens.

The King, under pressure, swore to uphold the constitution.

However, Louis XVI resented the compulsion he was under, and resisted implementing the new constitution. Instead, he began making rather inept preparations for another counter-coup. He pinned his hopes on foreign intervention, especially from his wife’s homeland of Austria.

Foreign Intervention

Many of the more conservative monarchies of Europe had become alarmed by the rise of republican sentiment in France. In particular the way the king had been treated after the flight to Varennes — being arrested like a common criminal — horrified them. There was growing sympathy to help Louis regain his full rights as king. More selfishly, the crowned heads of Europe were worried that if revolution in France were not crushed, the idea would spread to their own countries.

On 27 August 1791 King Frederick William II of Prussia and the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II of Austria (brother of Queen Marie Antoinette) issued the Declaration of Pillnitz. In this, they declared themselves willing to ‘act promptly and unanimously, with the forces necessary’ to help Louis XVI to strengthen ‘the foundations of a monarchical government suiting to the rights of the sovereigns’. In other words, they were willing to intervene by force in France to return Louis to the position of absolute monarch.

It is possible that emperor Leopold meant this threat merely as a bluff to pressure the French government into compromising with King Louis, and to satisfy the French emigrés who were gathering at his court that he would take action. However, the Legislative Assembly in France took it seriously as a threat of war.

Over the autumn and winter of 1791-2 the Legislative Assembly debated whether to accept the challenge and go to war with Austria, or try to preserve peace. In the end they decided on war, and indeed decided to strike first. In April 1792 the French army invaded the Austrian Netherlands (present-day Belgium), in the hope that the people there would rise up against their Habsburg overlords and join with the French in the name of fraternity (and also, liberty and equality).

Sadly that did not happen; and the French army proved to be thoroughly unprepared for war. This was not least because many of its most experienced officers, being noblemen, had fled the country. The invasion failed, and instead in July 1792 a Prussian army invaded France. Its commander, the Duke of Brunswick, issued a proclamation that his intention was to restore the King of France to his full powers, and any Frenchman who sought to prevent this would be treated as a traitor to France, and executed.

Europe at the start of the French Revolution

Radical Republic 1792–94

The Paris Commune and the September Massacres

Brunswick’s threats served only to radicalise the French people even further. Over the night of 9/10 August 1792 a new revolutionary city government (the Commune) took control of Paris, and organised an attack on the Tuileries palace the following day, using troops from the National Guard as well as masses of armed citizens, the ‘sans-culottes’. Over 4,000 soldiers guarded the palace, but most of them deserted their posts when the revolutionary army approached. The King’s Swiss Guard, however, refused to surrender and fought to the last: only about 100 of their 950 original number survived.

King Louis XVI sought refuge with the Legislative Assembly, who had not been directly involved in the insurrection. They took him in, but later on 10 August they declared the monarchy ‘suspended’, ‘relieving the king of his task’.

The following day, 11 August, they issued a decree starting with the words, “Citoyens, la Patrie est en danger” (Citizens, the country is in danger), and calling on all those who were ‘French and free’ to ‘march to defend all that they hold most dear’. This is often seen as the beginning of the ideology of total war, where an entire people fights rather than war being seen as only a matter for professional soldiers and the government.

The new city government of Paris, the Commune (not to be confused with the more notorious Paris Commune of 1871), was dominated by radicals and Jacobins, in particular Georges Danton. While in theory it was only a local government, its effective monopoly of armed force in Paris after the Insurrection of 10 August meant that it had power over the Legislative Assembly, which in effect now met solely by the Commune’s grace and favour. The Commune demanded universal suffrage and the arming of the people.

One sign of the growing instability in France was the September Massacres. Faced by the advancing Prussian army, many radicals became nervous that the royalists and foreign invaders planned to release the prisoners in the country’s jails and arm them to fight against the government. On 2 September, an armed mob including many National Guardsmen attacked prisons in Paris and killed 135 imprisoned people, and also massacred 150 monks in a monastery. Similar massacres took place over the next few days, with kangaroo courts being set up to try prisoners for ‘counter-revolutionary activities’ and execute them. The Princesse de Lamballe, one of Marie Antoinette’s ladies-in-waiting, was among those killed. The Paris Commune did not order these atrocities, but nor did it make any attempt to prevent them.

Defeat of the Swiss Guard at the Tuileries on 10 August

The end of the Monarchy

Following the Insurrection of 10 August and the rise of the radical Paris Commune, the Legislative Assembly agreed to step down in favour of a new National Convention. This would be elected by universal male suffrage, rather than the wealth-based franchise introduced previously. An electoral college system was adopted, with primary assemblies held on 26 August, then the indirect election of delegates on 2-10 September. It is estimated that only about 12% of those eligible to vote actually did so; democracy was still new and mistrusted.

The National Convention first met on 20 September 1792. It acted as both legislature and executive, setting up committees to handle specific matters: the Comité de salut public (Committee of Public Safety), set up in April 1793 to handle both exterior defence and internal security, is the most notorious. The Convention elected a new President to chair its discussions every two weeks.

One day after being formed, on 21 September 1793, the National Convention passed the fateful decree by a unanimous voice vote:

La Convention nationale décrète que la royauté est abolie en France.

(The National Convention decrees that royalty is abolished in France)

The following day news reached Paris of the Battle of Valmy, which had been fought on 20 September. The invading Prussian and Austrian army of the Duke of Brunswick, 84,000 strong, had been advancing methodically towards Paris through August and September. At Valmy they were confronted by a French army, slightly smaller and comprised of about half old-line regulars from the Royal army, and half enthusiastic but inexperienced volunteers. Despite the French inferiority, the Germans did not press their attack, but after a brief skirmish retreated from the field and headed back to the Rhine. Total casualties were very light — only a couple of hundred or so on each side — but since the French had been anticipating disaster, it seemed a miraculous victory.

To commemorate this, 22 September 1793 was retrospectively renamed the first day of the new year, Year One of the Republic.

Battle of Valmy: in Goethe’s words, a new epoch in the history of the world begins

Execution of Louis XVI

The National Convention had abolished the monarchy, but argument raged over what to do with the former monarch. France was still at war with multiple foreign powers which were determined to restore Louis XVI to power.

The Jacobins dominated the National Convention, but now a division had arisen within their own ranks. The Girondin faction, whose most notable spokesman was Jacques Brissot, were more moderate and argued for clemency towards the ex-king. The Montagnards, led by Maximilien Robespierre, were more radical, and saw Louis as a traitor to France and a tool in the hands of its enemies. Robespierre made an influential speech declaring that while he felt no hatred for Louis personally, liberty would never be secure while he remained alive:

With regret I pronounce this fatal truth: Louis must die so that the nation may live.

On 20 November, a secret cabinet, the armoire de fer (‘iron wardrobe’) was discovered hidden in the walls of the Tuileries palace. This contained copies of the King’s correspondence with his ministers over the last few years, proving that he really had been conspiring with foreign powers to overthrow the democratic government and the constitution, just as his opponents had charged. The papers also revealed large-scale bribery and corruption. The discovery triggered great anger against Louis XVI, and gave the Montagnard faction the upper hand in deciding his fate.

On 10 December 1792 Citizen Louis Capet, as he was described, was placed on trial before the National Convention. The indictment contained 33 charges, but they were summed up as “committing a multitude of crimes to establish your tyranny and destroy the freedom of the French Nation”.

The case lasted several weeks. On 14-15 January the convention found Louis guilty, by a vote of 693 to none with 49 abstentions or absences. They then proceeded to vote on what punishment he should face: 395 voted for death, 321 for imprisonment or banishment.

A guillotine was set up in the Place de la Révolution (now the Place de la Concorde) in the centre of Paris, and at 10:22 on the morning of 21 January 1793 the former King was beheaded.

The (former) King’s execution

Worsening situation

The Battle of Valmy back in August 1792 had stopped the foreign invasion, and French armies even followed it up by advancing into Belgium and over the Rhine into Germany. However, the execution of ex-King Louis horrified the rest of Europe, and by the middle of 1793 France was not only at war with Austria and Prussia, but also with Britain, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, Sardinia, Naples, and the Holy Roman Empire.

Civil war also erupted in parts of France. The Vendée region lay along the west coast, and in March 1793 the people there began rioting in protest against the imposition of conscription. The protests quickly assumed an anti-revolutionary tone, and a rebel force calling itself the ‘Catholic and Royal Army’ took up arms against the Republic. The National Convention responded by sending 45,000 troops to suppress the rebellion, but their initial efforts met with defeat. The situation in the Vendée became a full-scale war.

The conflict in the Vendée was the most serious, but smaller-scale outbreaks of violence occurred throughout France. Most were suppressed with harsh measures, but they contributed to an atmosphere of fear and growing instability.

The economic situation remained in crisis as well. The government had attempted to finance its operations by printing paper money, leading inevitably to inflation. Poor harvests and the disruption caused by war added to the misery. The government attempted to rectify the situation by passing the ‘Law of the Maximum’ in May 1793 which imposed price controls on the cost of bread and other essentials, with harsh penalties for hoarders and profiteers. By the end of the year they were reduced to sending troops out into the countryside to confiscate food from farmers by force and bring it back to the cities to feed the hungry people there.

Vendée rebellion

The Reign of Terror

The National Convention responded to the growing unrest by creating two powerful bodies in spring 1793: the Tribunal révolutionnaire (Revolutionary Tribunal), a court set up to try enemies of the revolution; and the Comité de salut public (Committee of Public Safety), with powers to supervise both military and judicial affairs to ensure the safety of the nation. Georges Danton described the Committee as ‘a hand to grasp the weapon of the Revolutionary Tribunal’: it quickly became the de facto ruling body of France.

Jean-Paul Marat was a radical journalist who advocated for the sans-culottes, the working-class poor of Paris who were becoming increasingly angry at the situation facing them. He was elected to the National Convention in September 1792 and became an outspoken opponent of the moderate Girondins. They arranged for him to be put on trial before the Revolutionary Tribunal in April 1793, but he was acquitted. (Marat’s vindication did not last long: he was murdered, in his bath, three months later.)

Undaunted by this setback, the Girondins ordered the arrest of several more radical members of the Paris Commune in May. This backfired on them: on 31 May an insurrection led by radical Montagnards and the National Guard under François Hanriot seized power in Paris, and it was the Girondins who suffered mass arrests. Sans-culottes filled the streets of Paris demanding the deaths of their enemies. On 24 October 22 leading Girondin politicians were accused of treason before the Revolutionary Tribunal, and were executed en masse a week later. Many other Girondins fled from Paris, but they were mostly also rounded up and executed. The Montagnards were now in control.

Faced with rebellion in the Vendée, foreign invasion, rampant inflation and food shortages, and a belief that there were spies and counter-revolutionaries everywhere, the Committee of Public Safety decided to impose the harshest possible measures to suppress opposition. Robespierre justified the use of terror (la terreur) as a way to ensure peace and stability:

Terror is nothing more than speedy, severe and inflexible justice; it is thus an emanation of virtue; it is less a principle in itself, than a consequence of the general principle of democracy, applied to the most pressing needs of the fatherland.

In a single year, June 1793-July 1794, the revolutionary government imposed no less than 16,594 official death sentences, but the actual death toll of the Terror is believed to be around 100,000, most of them in the western regions of the Vendée and Brittany where those suspected of supporting the rebels were massacred.

Notable victims of the Terror included former Queen Marie Antoinette, the scientist Antoine Lavoisier, the Girondin leader Jacques Brissot, the proto-feminist Olympe de Gouges — and also, many former revolutionary leaders who now found themselves on the wrong side of the tribunal bench. In a pamphlet written in 1793 the journalist Jacques Mallet du Pan coined the expression ‘the Revolution eats its own children’.

The ‘incorruptible’ Maximilien Robespierre

The peak of radicalism

While the guillotine was busy in Paris and counter-revolutionaries were being drowned or shot in Nantes, the Committee of Public Safety continued to push its revolutionary agenda further. What made people like Robespierre terrifying was that they were not greedy for power for its own sake: they were genuine idealists convinced that they were right, and that any who opposed them deserved death.

The laws against profiteering and hoarding were extended, and in September 1793 wage control was introduced in a (futile) attempt to stop the spiralling inflation. The lands and property of ‘enemies of the people’ were subject to confiscation, to be distributed among the poor. Laws were passed guaranteeing free education for all, though in practice there was neither the money nor the teachers to make this possible.

Slavery was abolished throughout the French empire on 4 February 1794, following a slave revolt in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti):

The National Convention declares that the slavery of the Negroes in all the Colonies is abolished; consequently, it decrees that all men, without distinction of colour, domiciled in the colonies, are French citizens, and will enjoy all the rights guaranteed by the constitution.

Sadly, slavery was reintroduced in 1802 after Napoleon took power, and would not be abolished for good in French colonies until 1848.

In October a new revolutionary calendar was introduced, with twelve months of 30 days plus five (or six) extra days at the end of the year. The first day of the Republic (22 September 1792) was declared ‘1 Vendémiaire, Year I’; the date the calendar was adopted (24 October 1793) was 3 Brumaire, Year II.

A symbolic measure was the Décret sur le tutoiement obligatoire of 8 November 1793, which made it obligatory for French citizens to address everybody using the familiar ‘tu’ rather than the respectful ‘vous’, in order to remove hierarchical distinctions in society. This law failed in its objective and was soon forgotten.

Dechristianisation measures were introduced, building on the widespread hatred of the Church as a former ally of the nobility and monarchy. Catholic churches were closed down, and religious iconography and artefacts such as statues, crosses and bells were destroyed or sold off. Around 30,000 priests fled France. Robespierre, however, was an opponent of atheism, and promoted a deistic ‘Cult of the Supreme Being’ which acknowledged the existence of God and the immortal soul, but claimed to be founded on reason and civic virtue rather than Christian superstition. Under Robespierre’s urging, the Cult of the Supreme Being was declared France’s official religion on 7 May 1794.

Festival of the Supreme Being

War of the First Coalition

With France at war with most of Europe, emergency measures were necessary to ensure survival. On 23 August 1793 the National Convention declared the levée en masse (‘mass levy’), the total mobilisation for war of the French nation:

From this moment until its enemies have been driven from the soil of the Republic, the French people are in permanent requisition for the service of the armies. The young men shall fight; the married men shall forge arms and transport provisions; the women shall make tents and clothes and shall serve in the hospitals; the children shall turn old linen into bandages; the old men shall betake themselves to the public squares in order to arouse the courage of the warriors and preach hatred of kings and the unity of the Republic.

This was, quite literally, a revolutionary move. The Austrians and Prussians had invaded France the previous year with 84,000 men. Thanks to the levée en masse, France would now raise an army 804,000 strong, ten times larger and made up of highly-motivated citizen soldiers. This was the biggest army Europe had ever seen, and France’s enemies would be overwhelmed by its power.

The coalition of Great Powers which had formed to strangle the revolution in its cradle instead found itself under attack. French armies overran Belgium, invaded Italy and Spain, occupied western Germany, and conquered Switzerland and the Netherlands. Prussia surrendered to France in April 1795, Spain surrendered in July 1795, and Austria surrendered in October 1797. Of the Great Powers, only Britain remained at war with revolutionary France, and they could do little except impose a naval blockade.

As the French armies marched, they created a series of ‘sister republics’ in their wake. The most important of these was the Batavian Republic, formerly the Republic of the Netherlands, proclaimed on 19 January 1795. Others included the Cisalpine Republic of 1797 in northern Italy and the Helvetic Republic (formerly Switzerland) of 1798.

The French saw themselves as liberating the ordinary people of these new republics from the chains of monarchy and feudalism. It does seem to be true that many people welcomed them at first (though obviously, the kings and feudal nobles were unhappy), though the goodwill faded during Napoleon’s endless wars and his demands for troops and support.

The preamble of the constitution of the Cisalpine Republic issued on 29 June 1797 gives a taste of the ideas in play:

For a great number of years there existed no republic in Italy. The sacred fire of liberty was extinguished, and the finest part of Europe was under the yoke of strangers. It belongs to the Cisalpine Republic to show to the world by its wisdom, its energy, and the good organisation of its armies, that modern Italy is not degenerated, and is still worthy of liberty.

War of the First Coalition: the opposing sides



By July 1794, the Committee of Public Safety under Robespierre appeared to be stabilising its power. The Vendée rebellion had been brutally brought under control, and the Battle of Fleurus (in Flanders) on 26 June was a major French victory. In Paris, the Festival of the Supreme Being on 8 June was an ostentatious demonstration of Robespierre’s favoured new religion.

By 28 July 1794 Robespierre was dead, killed by his own guillotine.

The reasons for his sudden overthrow were many. Some were upset with his religious policy. Others felt that the defeat of France’s foreign enemies by the armies of the Republic meant that the extreme policies of the Committee of Public Safety were no longer necessary. The final trigger was a speech Robespierre gave to the National Convention on 26 July denouncing ‘traitors and conspirators’ within the government. Many of his opponents feared that this was a prelude to their arrest and execution, and decided to act first.

27 July 1794 was 9 Thermidor Year II according to the revolutionary calendar, so the events of that day became known as ‘Thermidor’. Robespierre’s ally Louis Antoine de Saint-Just was making a speech when deputies of the National Convention began loudly denouncing the government. Robespierre attempted to intervene but was shouted down. He retreated to the city hall, while the Convention voted for his arrest.

There was a stand-off between troops loyal to Robespierre and those loyal to the National Convention, but the Robespierre loyalists had no heart for a confrontation and retreated. At two o’clock in the morning soldiers under Paul Barras stormed the Hôtel de Ville. Robespierre was shot in the face, breaking his jaw — it is not known if he was injured by one of the soldiers trying to capture him, or if this was a failed attempt at suicide. The following day he was summarily executed, with no trial, along with 21 of his close allies. The day after, 70 members of the Paris Commune were also executed.

The Thermidorian Reaction

The National Convention regained power after the Thermidor coup, and the Committee of Public Safety lost much of its influence (it was abolished in October 1795). The Jacobin Club was closed down in October 1794. There were widespread arrests of supporters of the previous regime. Food riots by the sans-culottes of Paris in April 1795 were harshly suppressed, with 36 executions and over 1,000 imprisoned.

Many of the more disliked laws of the last year or two were repealed: the Cult of the Supreme Being was wound down and freedom of worship reintroduced. Controls over prices and wages were removed, which was popular but led to even more inflation. Press censorship was relaxed.

Public anger against the people responsible for the Terror was slow to grow, but grew stronger and often spilled over into illegal activities. The so-called ‘White Terror’ of April-June 1795 saw over a thousand suspected or former Jacobins being murdered by mobs, with notable incidents in Marseilles and Lyon.

The Directory

Soon after the overthrow of Robespierre, the National Convention began drafting a new constitution, which was deliberately designed to include checks and balances to prevent any one person from ever again gaining supreme power in the state. The constitution was published on 5 Fructidor Year III (22 August 1795) and is thus known as the ‘Constitution of Year III’.

The new system included an elected judiciary, a bicameral parliament, and a five-man executive called the Directoire (Directory). The Conseil des Cinq-Cents (Council of 500) was elected by property-owning citizens and served as the main legislative body. The Conseil des Anciens (Council of Elders) comprised 250 members who had a veto over laws proposed by the lower house, but could not propose laws of their own; membership was restricted to those over 40. The Directory was formed by the Council of 500 drawing up a list of names, and the Council of Elders choosing five people from the list. One member of the Directory was required to step down and be replaced each year.

The Directory ruled France for four years, until November 1799 when it was overthrown by Napoleon. Only one man served on the Directory for the entire duration of its term: Paul Barras, the man who had led the troops to attack Robespierre during the Thermidor coup. Although it lasted longer in power than previous republican governments, the Directory’s rule was not without incident.

In September 1795 a force of 2,000 Royalist emigrés and 1,000 British troops commanded by the Comte d’Artois (brother of the deceased King Louis XVI) landed in the Vendée and joined with the insurgents there. Rumours that they were marching on Paris sparkled off a Royalist revolt in the capital itself. The troops loyal to the Directory there were outnumbered. However on 5 October (13 Vendémiaire) the 26-year old Brigadier-General Napoleon Buonaparte sent a subordinate, Sub-Lieutenant Murat, to seize 40 cannons from a nearby depot and set them up in the streets of Paris. In a two-hour battle Napoleon’s force, outnumbered six to one, drove off the attacking rebels with a ‘whiff of grapeshot’. As a reward, he was promoted to command of the French army in Italy.

The whiff of grapeshot

The Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle, writing in 1837, declared that the events of 13 Vendémiaire marked the end of the Revolution: “the thing we specifically call French Revolution is blown into space by it, and become a thing that was!” The Paris mob was no longer able to dictate the course of events, as it had ever since the storming of the Bastille.

Order had reimposed itself, even if it was now a republican order. A new upper middle class of bankers, officials and army officers replaced the old hereditary aristocracy and grew rich: fashionable restaurants and theatres sprang up in Paris, and a new dance, the waltz, took society by storm. In 1797 General Buonaparte sent wagon-loads of Renaissance artworks back from his victories in Italy, which were used to set up an art museum in the old royal palace of the Louvre…