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The destruction of the ancien regime. The convergence of revolutions, 1789

1789 is a relevant date in History. The French Revolution started in the year. Historians have usually stressed the important changes it brought about: the Old Regime ceased to exist and a new way of devising politics began. Social changes took place as well: the privileged classes would be there no longer and “equality” was to take their place. Civil war broke up between revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries, as well as war with foreign powers. Good things are to be credited to this revolution, even though it was also bathed in blood. Later on, in the XXth century, Bolsheviks would admire the Jacobins and what they did. In our days there are realities which can be traced back there.

FRANCE IN THE XVIIIth CENTURY. At the beginning of the century France was the most important and influential country in Europe: it was the richest, the most populated, the most powerful and the most admired country. It had succeeded Spain in the hegemony of Europe and its influence could be felt as far as Russia.

At the same time the century will show some signs of gradual change: the absolutist monarchy will feel the strain of new realities.

SOCIETY. The bourgeoisie will claim a stronger role in politics, even though monarchs had been counting on bourgeoises for a long time in their administration. The court was the  place for part of the nobility, which found it hard to keep up with the expenses of living in the court. The upper clergy held high Church positions, which granted them both money and power. This three-tier society –nobility, clergy and third estate or commoners– was mirrored in an assembly which had last met in 1614, the Estates General, and which will be essential to explain the Revolution.

ECONOMY. Most of the people in France were peasants. The number of urban dwellers was on the rise. The main activity was agriculture, which could yield good produce, in spite of being at the mercy of bad weather and bad crops. This will be the case in the years before 1789. In the countryside the Old Regime was still applied in the ownership and leasing of the land. In towns a variety of trades was carried out: tradesmen, craftsmen, liberal professions… This made the population in towns uneven in a way. But most of these town people shared something: a growing desire to participate more fully in politics. The bourgeoisie is the group with the means to advance such expectations and make them happen.

The most pressing problem was the huge budget deficit, which had dramatically increased with the cost of the American Independence War, in which France had supported the rebels. But the bulk of the debt lay on the payment of state bonds interest. To try to solve this question, different measures were taken (Assembly of Notables, 1787; finally, the summoning of the Estates General, to meet in 1789).

IDEOLOGY. The former reasons did count in the events leading to the breakup of the Revolution, but there are some deeper and more important causes. The XVIIIth century is the Enlightenment century, the century of the Light of Reason: this way to look at things and to understand the world exerted a great influence on thinkers, and through them, on people, mostly bourgeoises. They were fond of meeting at the Parissalons of the nobility, where discussions and debates were held. Tradition and Revelation were despised and left aside; the philosophes trusted only Reason, which was enough –they thought– to explain and understand the world. Religion was a superstition and the Catholic Church stood for almost everything which could be rejected on the ground of the recently “re-discovered” reason. Freemasonry, started some time before these events, was a strong force in the development of the revolution. Most important, we can see the French Revolution as the starting point of an influential force: public opinion, which was shaped by journalism, pamphlets and some other sources.

(Introduction by your professor)

The juridical revolution

Louis XVI’s decision to convene the Estates-General in May 1789 became a turning point in French history. When he invited his subjects to express their opinions and grievances in preparation for this event—unprecedented in living memory—hundreds responded with pamphlets in which the liberal ideology of 1789 gradually began to take shape. Exactly how the Estates-General should deliberate proved to be the pivotal consciousness-raising issue. Each of the three Estates could vote separately (by order) as they had in the distant past, or they could vote jointly (by head). Because the Third Estate was to have twice as many deputies as the others, only voting by head would assure its preponderant influence. If the estates voted by order, the clergy and nobility would effectively exercise a veto power over important decisions. Most pamphleteers of 1789 considered themselves “patriots,” or reformers, and (though some were nobles themselves) identified the excessive influence of “aristocrats” as a chief obstacle to reform. In his influential tract Qu’est-ce que le tiers état? (1789; What Is the Third Estate?) the constitutional theorist Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès asserted that the Third Estate really was the French nation. While commoners did all the truly laborious and productive work of society, he claimed with some exaggeration, the nobility monopolized its lucrative sinecures and honours. As a condition of genuine reform, the Estates-General would have to change that situation.

A seismic shift was occurring in elite public opinion. What began in 1787–88 as a conflict between royal authority and traditional aristocratic groups had become a triangular struggle, with “the people” opposing both absolutism and privilege. A new kind of political discourse was emerging, and within a year it was to produce an entirely new concept of sovereignty with extremely far-reaching implications.

Patriots were driven to increasingly bold positions in part by the resistance and bad faith of royal and aristocratic forces. It is not surprising that some of the Third Estate’s most radical deputies came from Brittany, whose nobility was so hostile to change that it finally boycotted the Estates-General altogether. Hoping that the king would take the lead of the patriot cause, liberals were disappointed at the irresolute, business-as-usual attitude of the monarchy when the Estates opened at Versailles in May 1789. While the nobility organized itself into a separate chamber (by a vote of 141 to 47), as did the clergy (133 to 114), the Third Estate refused to do so. After pleading repeatedly for compromise and debating their course of action in the face of this deadlock, the Third Estate’s deputies finally acted decisively. On June 17 they proclaimed that they were not simply the Third Estate of the Estates-General but a National Assembly (Assemblée Nationale), which the other deputies were invited to join. A week later 150 deputies of the clergy did indeed join the National Assembly, but the nobility protested that the whole notion was illegal.

Now the king had to clarify his position. He began by closing the hall assigned to the Third Estate and ordering all deputies to hear a royal address on June 23. The deputies, however, adjourned to an indoor tennis court on the 20th and there swore a solemn oath to continue meeting until they had provided France with a constitution. Two days later they listened to the king’s program for reform. In the “royal session” of June 23, the king pledged to honour civil liberties, agreed to fiscal equality (already conceded by the nobility in its cahiers, or grievance petitions), and promised that the Estates-General would meet regularly in the future. But, he declared, they would deliberate separately by  order. France was to become a constitutional monarchy, but one in which “the ancient distinction of the three orders will be conserved in its entirety.” In effect the king was forging an alliance with the nobility, whose most articulate members—the judges of the parlements—only a year before had sought to hobble (poner trabas) him. For the patriots this was too little and too late.

In a scene of high drama, the deputies refused to adjourn to their own hall. When ordered to do so by the king’s chamberlain, the Assembly’s president, astronomer Jean-Sylvain Bailly (1736–93), responded—to the official’s amazement—that “the assembled nation cannot receive orders.” Such defiance unnerved (desconcertó, puso nervioso) the king. Backing down, he directed the nobles several days later to join a National Assembly whose existence he had just denied. Thus, the Third Estate, with its allies in the clergy and nobility, had apparently effected a successful nonviolent revolution from above. Having been elected in the bailliages (the monarchy’s judicial districts, which served as electoral circumscriptions) to represent particular constituents to their king, the deputies had transformed themselves into representatives of the entire nation. Deeming the nation alone to be sovereign, they, as its representatives, claimed sole authority to exercise that sovereignty. This was the juridical revolution of 1789.

Parisian revolt

In fact, the king had by no means reconciled himself to this revolutionary act. His concession was a strategic retreat until he could muster the military power to subdue the patriots. Between June 27 and July 1 he ordered 20,000 royal troops into the Paris region, ostensibly to protect the assembly and to prevent disorder in the restive capital. The assembly’s pleas to the king to withdraw these menacing and unnecessary troops fell on deaf ears. For all of their moral force, the deputies utterly lacked material force to counter the king’s obvious intentions. The assembly was saved from likely dissolution only by a massive popular mobilization.

During the momentous political events of 1788–89, much of the country lay in the grip of a classic subsistence crisis. Bad weather had reduced the grain crops that year by almost one-quarter the normal yield. An unusually cold winter compounded the problem, as frozen rivers halted the transport and milling of flour in many localities. Amid fears of hoarding (acaparamiento) and profiteering (especulación), grain and flour reserves dwindled. In Paris the price of the four-pound loaf of bread—the standard item of consumption accounting for most of the population’s calories and nutrition—rose from its usual 8 sous to 14 sous by January 1789. This intolerable trend set off traditional forms of popular protest. If royal officials did not assure basic food supplies at affordable prices, then people would act directly to seize food. During the winter and spring of 1789, urban consumers and peasants rioted at bakeries and markets and attacked millers and grain convoys. Then, in July, this anxiety merged with the looming political crisis at Versailles. Parisians believed that food shortages and royal troops would be used in tandem to starve the people and overwhelm them into submission. They feared an “aristocratic plot” to throttle (ahogar) the patriot cause.

When the king dismissed the still-popular finance minister Necker on July 11, Parisians correctly read this as a signal that the counterrevolution was about to begin. Instead of yielding, however, they rose in rebellion. Street-corner orators such as Camille Desmoulins stirred their compatriots to resist. Confronting royal troops in the streets, they won some soldiers to their side and induced officers to confine other potentially unreliable units to their barracks. On July 13, bands of Parisians ransacked armourers’ shops in a frantic search for weapons. The next day a large crowd invaded the Hôtel des Invalides and seized thousands of rifles without resistance. Then they moved to the Bastille, an old fortress commanding the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, which had served as a notorious royal prison earlier in the century but was now scheduled for demolition. Believing that gunpowder was stored there, the crowd laid siege to the Bastille. Unlike the troops at the Invalides, the Bastille’s tiny garrison resisted, a fierce battle erupted, and dozens of Parisians were killed. When the garrison finally capitulated, the irate crowd massacred several of the soldiers. In another part of town two leading royal officials were lynched for their presumed role in the plot against the people. Meanwhile, the electors of Paris, who had continued to meet after choosing their deputies to the Estates-General, ousted (expulsaron) the royal officials of the city government, formed a revolutionary municipality, and organized a citizens’ militia, or national guard, to patrol the streets. Similar municipal revolutions occurred in 26 of the 30 largest French cities, thus assuring that the capital’s defiance would not be an isolated act.

By any standard, the fall of the Bastille to the Parisian crowd was a spectacular symbolic event—a seemingly miraculous triumph of the people against the power of royal arms. The heroism of the crowd and the blood of its martyrs—ordinary Parisian artisans, tradesmen, and workers—sanctified the patriot cause. Most important, the elites and the people of Paris had made common cause, despite the inherent distrust and social distance between them. The mythic unity of the Third Estate—endlessly invoked by patriot writers and orators—seemed actually to exist, if only momentarily. Before this awesome material and moral force, Louis XVI capitulated. He did not want civil war in the streets. The Parisian insurrection of July 14 not only saved the National Assembly from dissolution but altered the course of the Revolution by giving it a far more active, popular, and violent dimension. On July 17 the king traveled to Paris, where he publicly donned a cockade bearing a new combination of colours: white for the Bourbons and blue and red for the city of Paris. This tricolour was to become the new national flag.

Peasant insurgencies

Peasants in the countryside, meanwhile, carried on their own kind of rebellion, which combined traditional aspirations and anxieties with support of the patriot cause. The peasant revolt was autonomous, yet it reinforced the urban uprising to the benefit of the National Assembly.

Competition over the ownership and use of land had intensified in many regions. Peasants owned only about 40 percent of the land, leasing or sharecropping the rest from the nobility, the urban middle class, and the church. Population growth and subdivision of the land from generation to generation was reducing the margin of subsistence for many families. Innovations in estate management—the grouping of leaseholds (alquiler, arriendo), conversion of arable land to pasture, enclosure of open fields, division of common land at the lord’s initiative, discovery of new seigneurial dues or arrears (atrasos, impagos) in old ones—exasperated peasant tenants and smallholders. Historians debate whether these were capitalistic innovations or traditional varieties of seigneurial extraction, but in either case the countryside was boiling with discontent over these trends as well as over oppressive royal taxes and food shortages. Peasants were poised (hacer equilibrio) between great hopes for the future raised by the calling of the Estates-General and extreme anxiety—fear of losing land, fear of hunger (especially after the catastrophic harvest of 1788), and fear of a vengeful aristocracy.

In July peasants in several regions sacked the castles of nobles and burned the documents that recorded their feudal obligations. This peasant insurgency eventually merged into the movement known as the Great Fear. Rumours abounded that these vagrants were actually brigands (bandoleros) in the pay of nobles, who were marching on villages to destroy the new harvest and coerce the peasants into submission. The fear was baseless, but hundreds of false alarms and panics stirred up hatred and suspicion of nobles, led peasants to arm themselves as best they could, and set off widespread attacks on châteaus and feudal documents. The peasant revolt suggested that the unity of the Third Estate against “aristocrats” extended from Paris to villages across the country. The Third Estate truly seemed invincible.

The abolition of feudalism

Of course the violence of peasant insurgency worried the deputies of the National Assembly; to some it seemed as if the countryside were being engulfed by anarchy that threatened all property. But the majority were unwilling to turn against the rebellious peasants. Instead of denouncing the violence, they tried to appease peasant opinion. Liberal nobles and clergy began the session of August 4 by renouncing their ancient feudal privileges. Within hours the Assembly was propelled into decreeing “the abolition of feudalism” as well as the church tithe (diezmo), venality of office, regional privilege, and fiscal privilege. A few days later, to be sure, the Assembly clarified the August 4 decree to assure that “legitimate” seigneurial property rights were maintained. While personal feudal servitudes such as hunting rights, seigneurial justice, and labour services were suppressed outright, most seigneurial dues were to be abolished only if the peasants paid compensation to their lords, set at 20 to 25 times the annual value of the obligation. The vast majority of peasants rejected that requirement by passive resistance, until pressure built in 1792–93 for the complete abolition of all seigneurial dues without compensation.

The abolition of feudalism was crucial to the evolution of a modern, contractual notion of property and to the development of an unimpeded market in land. But it did not directly affect the ownership of land or the level of ordinary rents and leases. Seigneurs lost certain kinds of traditional income, but they remained landowners and landlords. While all peasants gained in dignity and status, only the landowning peasants came out substantially ahead economically. Tenant farmers found that what they had once paid for the tithe was added on to their rent. And the Assembly did virtually nothing to assure better lease terms for renters and sharecroppers, let alone their acquisition of the land they tilled.

The new regime

By sweeping away the old web of privileges, the August 4 decree permitted the Assembly to construct a new regime. Since it would take months to draft a constitution, the Assembly on August 27 promulgated its basic principles in a Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. A rallying point for the future, the declaration also stood as the death certificate of the ancien régime. The declaration’s authors believed it to have universal significance. “In the new hemisphere, the brave inhabitants of Philadelphia have given the example of a people who reestablished their liberty,” conceded one deputy, but “France would give that example to the rest of the world.” At the same time, the declaration responded to particular circumstances and was thus a calculated mixture of general principles and specific concerns. Its concept of natural rights meant that the Revolution would not be bound by history and tradition but could reshape the contours of society according to reason—a position vehemently denounced by Edmund Burke in England.

The very first article of the declaration resoundingly challenged Europe’s old order by affirming that “men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be based only on common utility.” Most of its articles concerned individual liberty, but the declaration’s emphasis fell equally on the prerogatives of the state as expressed through law. (Considering how drastically the erstwhile delegates to the Estates-General had exceeded their mandates, they certainly needed to underscore (enfatizar) the legitimacy of their new government and its laws.) The declaration, and subsequent Revolutionary constitutions, channeled the sovereignty of the nation into representative government, thereby negating claims by parlements, provincial estates, or divine-right monarchs as well as any conception of direct democracy. Though the declaration affirmed the separation of powers, by making no provision for a supreme court, it effectively left the French legislature as the ultimate judge of its own actions. The declaration defined liberty as “the ability to do whatever does not harm another…whose limits can only be determined by law.” The same limitation by positive law was attached to specific liberties, such as freedom from arbitrary arrest, freedom of expression, and freedom of religious conscience. The men of 1789 believed deeply in these liberties, yet they did not establish them in autonomous, absolute terms that would ensure their sanctity under any circumstances.

Restructuring France

From 1789 to 1791 the National Assembly acted as a constituent assembly, drafting a constitution for the new regime while also governing from day to day. The constitution established a limited monarchy, with a clear separation of powers in which the king was to name and dismiss his ministers. But sovereignty effectively resided in the legislative branch, to consist of a single house, the Legislative Assembly, elected by a system of indirect voting. (“The people or the nation can have only one voice, that of the national legislature,” wrote Sieyès. “The people can speak and act only through its representatives.”) Besides failing to win a bicameral system, the moderate Anglophile, or monarchien, faction lost a bitter debate on the king’s veto power: the Assembly granted the king only a suspensive or delaying veto over legislation; if a bill passed the Legislative Assembly in three successive sessions, it would become law even without royal approval.

Dismayed at what he deemed the ill-considered radicalism of such decisions, Jean-Joseph Mounier, a leading patriot deputy in the summer of 1789 and author of the Tennis Court Oath, resigned from the Assembly in October. In a similar vein, some late-20th-century historians (notably François Furet) suggested that the Assembly’s integral concept of national sovereignty and legislative supremacy effectively reestablished absolutism in a new guise, providing the new government with inherently unlimited powers. Nor, they believed, is it surprising that the revolutionaries abused those powers as their pursuit of utopian goals encountered resistance. In theory this may well be true, but it must be balanced against the actual institutions created to implement those powers and the spirit in which they were used. With a few exceptions—notably the religious issue—the National Assembly acted in a liberal spirit, more pragmatic than utopian, and was decidedly more constructive than repressive.

The revolutionaries took civil equality seriously but created a limited definition of political rights. They effectively transferred political power from the monarchy and the privileged estates to the general body of propertied citizens. Nobles lost their privileges in 1789 and their titles in 1790, but, as propertied individuals, they could readily join the new political elite. The constitution restricted the franchise to “active” citizens who paid a minimal sum in taxes, with higher property qualifications for eligibility for public office (a direct-tax payment equivalent to 3 days’ wages for voters and 10 days’ wages for electors and officeholders). Under this system about two-thirds of adult males had the right to vote for electors and to choose certain local officials directly. Although it favoured wealthier citizens, the system was vastly more democratic than Britain’s.

Predictably, the franchise (derecho a voto) did not extend to women, despite delegations and pamphlets advocating women’s rights. The Assembly responded brusquely that, because women were too emotional and easily misled, they must be kept out of public life and devote themselves to their nurturing and maternal roles. But the formal exclusion of women from politics did not keep them on the sidelines. Women were active combatants in local conflicts that soon erupted over religious policy, and they agitated over subsistence issues—Parisian women, for example, made a mass march to Versailles in October that forced the king to move back to the capital. In the towns, they formed auxiliaries to local Jacobin clubs and even a handful of independent women’s clubs, participated in civic festivals, and did public relief work.

The Assembly’s design for local government and administration proved to be one of the Revolution’s most durable legacies. Obliterating the political identity of France’s historic provinces, the deputies redivided the nation’s territory into 83 départements of roughly equal size. Unlike the old provinces, each département would have exactly the same institutions; départements were in turn subdivided into districts, cantons, and communes (the common designation for a village or town). On the one hand, this administrative transformation promoted decentralization and local autonomy: citizens of each département, district, and commune elected their own local officials. On the other hand, these local governments were subordinated to the national legislature and ministries in Paris. The départements therefore became instruments of national uniformity and integration, which is to say, centralization. This ambiguity the legislators fully appreciated, assuming that a healthy equilibrium could be maintained between the two tendencies. That the Revolutionary government of 1793 and Napoleon would later use these structures to concentrate power from the centre was not something they could anticipate.

The new administrative map also created the parameters for judicial reform. Sweeping away the entire judicial system of the ancien régime, the revolutionaries established a civil court in each district and a criminal court in each département. At the grass roots (base) they replaced seigneurial justice with a justice of the peace in each canton. Judges on all of these tribunals were to be elected. While rejecting the use of juries in civil cases, the Assembly decreed that felonies (delitos graves) would be tried by juries; if a jury convicted, judges would merely apply the mandatory sentences set out in the Assembly’s tough new penal code of 1791. Criminal defendants (acusados) also gained the right to counsel, which had been denied them under the jurisprudence of the ancien régime. In civil law, the Assembly encouraged arbitration and mediation to avoid the time-consuming and costly processes of formal litigation. In general, the revolutionaries hoped to make the administration of justice more accessible and expeditious.

Guided by laissez-faire doctrine and its hostility to privileged corporations, the Assembly sought to open up economic life to unimpeded individual initiative and competition. Besides proclaiming the right of all citizens to enter any trade and conduct it as they saw fit, the Assembly dismantled internal tariffs and chartered trading monopolies and abolished the guilds of merchants and artisans. Insisting that workers must bargain in the economic marketplace as individuals, the Le Chapelier Law of June 1791 (named after reformer Jean Le Chapelier) banned workers’ associations and strikes. The precepts of economic individualism extended to rural life as well. In theory, peasants and landlords were now free to cultivate their fields as they wished, regardless of traditional collective routines and constraints. In practice, however, communal restraints proved to be deep-rooted and resistant to legal abolition.

Sale of national lands

The Assembly had not lost sight of the financial crisis that precipitated the collapse of absolutism in the first place. Creating an entirely new option for its solution, the Assembly voted to place church property—about 10 percent of the land in France—“at the disposition of the nation.” This property was designated as biens nationaux, or national lands. The government then issued large-denomination notes called assignats, underwritten and guaranteed by the value of that land. It intended to sell national lands to the public, which would pay for it in assignats that would then be retired. Thus, church property would in effect pay off the national debt and obviate the need for further loans. Unfortunately, the temptation to print additional assignats proved too great. Within a year the assignat evolved into a paper currency in small and large denominations, with sharp inflationary effects.

“Forced by an appalling financial deficit and imminent bankruptcy, at the suggestion of the ex-priest Talleyrand, the French legislators took over the property of the Catholic Church. They gave satisfactory and equable salaries to the Catholic priests whom they made state functionaries, to be chosen by election, like other municipal officers. The bulk of Church property was to be sold to provide the collateral for national bonds, as assignats, which would provide funds to alleviate the national bankruptcy” (John Coates, Chesterton for and against Burke, The Chesterton Review, Vol. XXXXI, Nos. 1 &2, Spring/Summer 2015  Seton Hall University, N.J., 83)

As the national lands went on sale, fiscal needs took priority over social policy. Sales were arranged in large lots and at auction in the district capitals—procedures that favoured wealthier buyers. True, for about a year in 1793–94, after émigré property was added to the biens nationaux, large lots were divided into small parcels. In addition, small-scale peasants acquired some of this land through resale by the original buyers. But overall the urban middle classes and large-scale peasants emerged with the bulk of this land, to the intense frustration of small-scale peasants. The French historian Georges Lefebvre’s study of the Nord département, for example, found that 7,500 bourgeois purchased 48 percent of the land, while 20,300 peasants bought 52 percent. But the top 10 percent of these peasant purchasers accounted for 60 percent of the peasants’ total. Whatever the social origins of the buyers, however, they were likely to be reliable supporters of the Revolution if only to guarantee the security of their new acquisitions.

Seeds of discord

Security could not be taken for granted, however, because the Revolution progressively alienated or disappointed important elements of French society. Among the elites, opposition began almost immediately when some of the king’s close relatives left the country in disgust after July 14, thus becoming the first émigrés. Each turning point in the Revolution touched off new waves of emigration, especially among the nobility. By 1792 an estimated two-thirds of the royal officer corps had resigned their commissions, and most had left the country. A contentious royalist press bitterly denounced the policies of the Assembly as spoliation and the Revolutionary atmosphere as a form of anarchy. Abroad, widespread enthusiasm for the events in France among the general public from London to Vienna was matched by intense hostility in ruling circles fearful  of revolutionary contagion within their own borders.

After the first months of solidarity, long-standing urban-rural tensions took on new force. Though peasants might vote in large numbers, the urban middle classes predictably emerged with the lion’s share of the new district and département offices after the first elections of 1790. Administrative and judicial reform gave these local officials more powers for intrusion into rural society than royal officials ever had, with battalions of armed national guards to back them up. Peasants might easily view urban revolutionary elites as battening on (aprovecharse de) political power and national lands. And, while the Assembly made the tax system more uniform and equitable, direct taxes remained heavy and actually rose in formerly privileged regions, while nothing was done to relieve the plight of tenant farmers. Later, when the Revolutionary government sought to draft young men into the army, another grievance was added to the list.

Religious tensions

It was religious policy that most divided French society and generated opposition to the Revolution. Most priests had initially hoped that sweeping reform might return Roman Catholicism to its basic ideals, shorn (esquilado) of aristocratic trappings and superfluous privileges, but they assumed that the church itself would collaborate in the process. In the Assembly’s view, however, nationalization of church property gave the state responsibility for regulating the church’s temporal affairs, such as salaries, jurisdictional boundaries, and modes of clerical appointment. On its own authority the Assembly reduced the number of dioceses and realigned their boundaries to coincide with the new départements, while requesting local authorities to redraw parish boundaries in conformity with population patterns. Under the Assembly’s Civil Constitution of the Clergy (July 1790), bishops were to be elected by départements‘ electoral assemblies, while parish priests were to be chosen by electors in the districts. Clerical spokesmen deplored the notion of lay authority in such matters and insisted that the Assembly must negotiate reforms with a national church council.

In November 1790 the Assembly forced the issue by requiring all sitting bishops and priests to take an oath of submission. Those who refused would lose their posts, be pensioned off, and be replaced by the prescribed procedures. Throughout France a mere seven bishops complied, while only 54 percent of the parish clergy took the oath. Contrary to the Assembly’s hopes, the clergy had split in two, with “constitutional” priests on one side and “refractory” priests on the other. Regional patterns accentuated this division: in the west of France, where clerical density was unusually high, only 15 percent of the clergy complied.

The schism quickly engulfed the laity. As refractories and constitutionals vied for popular support against their rivals, parishioners could not remain neutral. Intense local discord erupted over the implementation of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. District administrations backed by urban national guards intervened to install “outsiders” chosen to replace familiar or even beloved refractory priests in many parishes; villagers responded by badgering (molestando) or boycotting the hapless (desgraciados) priests who took the oath. Opinion on both sides tended to fateful extremes, linking either the Revolution with impiety or the Roman Catholic church with counterrevolution.

Political tensions

The political life of the new regime was also proving more contentious (polémico) than the revolutionaries had anticipated. With courage and consistency, the Assembly had provided that officials of all kinds be elected. But it was uncertain whether these officials, once the ballots were cast, could do their duty free from public pressure and agitation. Nor was it clear what the role of “public opinion” and the mechanisms for its expression would be. The spectacular development of a free press and political clubs provided an answer. Fearful that these extra-parliamentary institutions could be abused by demagogues, the Assembly tried to curb them from time to time but to no avail. Freed entirely from royal censorship, writers and publishers rushed to satisfy the appetite for news and political opinion. The first journalists included deputies reporting to their constituents by means of a newspaper. Paris, which had only 4 quasi-official newspapers at the start of 1789, saw more than 130 new periodicals by the end of the year, most admittedly short-lived, including 20 dailies. As the journalist Jacques-Pierre Brissot put it, newspapers are “the only way of educating a large nation unaccustomed to freedom or to reading, yet looking to free itself from ignorance.” Provincial publishers were as quick to found new periodicals in the larger towns. Bordeaux, for example, had only 1 newspaper in 1789, but 16 appeared within the next two years. While some papers remained bland and politically neutral, many had strong political opinions.

Like the National Assembly, revolutionary clubs also began at Versailles, when patriot deputies rallied to a caucus (reunión electoral) of outspoken Third Estate deputies from Brittany. Thus began the Club Breton—complete with bylaws (estatutos), minutes, committees, correspondence, and membership requirements—which later reorganized as the Society of the Friends of the Constitution. Soon it was known as the Jacobin Club, after the Dominican convent where the club met when the assembly transferred to Paris in October. Most prominent revolutionaries belonged to the Jacobin Club, from constitutional royalists such as the comte de Mirabeau, the marquis de Lafayette, and the comte de Barnave to radicals such as Brissot, Alexandre Sabès Pétion, and Maximilien Robespierre. By mid-1791, however, moderates became uncomfortable with the Jacobin Club, where Robespierre was emerging as a dominant figure.

The Jacobin Club was pushed from the left by the Club of the Cordeliers, one of the neighbourhood clubs in the capital. The Cordeliers militants rejected the Assembly’s concept of representation as the exclusive expression of popular sovereignty. They held to a more direct vision of popular sovereignty as relentless vigilance and participation by citizens through demonstrations, petitions, deputations, and, if necessary, insurrection. In his newspaper L’Ami du peuple (“The Friend of the People”) Jean-Paul Marat injected an extreme rhetoric about alleged conspiracies and the need for violence against counterrevolutionaries that exceeded anything heard in the Assembly’s political discourse.

Like the press, clubs quickly spread in the provinces. Building, no doubt, on old-regime patterns of sociability—reading clubs, Freemasonry, or confraternities—political clubs became a prime vehicle for participation in the Revolution. More than 300 towns had clubs by the end of 1790 and 900 by mid-1791. Later clubs spread to the villages as well: a study has counted 5,000 localities that had clubs at one time or another between 1790 and 1795. Many clubs affiliated with the Paris Jacobin Club, the “mother club,” in an informal nationwide network. Most began with membership limited to the middle class and a sprinkling of liberal nobles, but gradually artisans, shopkeepers, and peasants joined the rolls. Initially the clubs promoted civic education and publicized the Assembly’s reforms. But some became more activist, seeking to influence political decisions with petitions, to exercise surveillance over constituted authorities, and to denounce those they deemed remiss (negligente, descuidado).

By 1791 the Assembly found itself in a cross fire between the machinations of counterrevolutionaries—émigrés, royalist newspapers, refractory clergy—and the denunciations of radicals. Its ability to steer a stable course depended in part on the cooperation of the king. Publicly Louis XVI distanced himself from his émigré relatives, but privately he was in league with them and secretly corresponded with the royal houses of Spain and Austria to enlist their support. On June 21, 1791, the royal lfamily attempted to flee its “captivity” in the Tuileries Palace and escape across the Belgian border. Rashly (precipitadamente), Louis left behind a letter revealing his utter hostility to the Revolution. At the last minute, however, the king was recognized at the town of Varennes near the border, and the royal party was forcibly returned to Paris.

A great crisis for the Revolution ensued. While the Assembly reinforced the frontiers by calling for 100,000 volunteers from the national guard, its moderate leaders hoped that this fiasco would end Louis’s opposition once and for all. To preserve their constitutional compromise, they turned a blind eye to the king’s manifest treason by inventing the fiction that he had been kidnapped. As Antoine Barnave put it, “Are we or are we not going to terminate the Revolution? Or are we going to start it all over again?” Outside the Assembly, however, Jacobins and Cordeliers launched a petition campaign against reinstating the king. A mass demonstration on July 17 at the Champ de Mars against the king ended in a bloody riot, as the authorities called out the national guard under Lafayette’s command to disperse the demonstrators. This precipitated vehement recriminations in the Jacobin Club, which finally split apart under the pressure. The mass of moderate deputies abandoned the club to a rump of radicals and formed a new association called the Club of the Feuillants. Under the leadership of Robespierre and Jérôme Pétion (who later became mortal enemies), the purged Jacobin Club rallied (concentró) most provincial clubs and emerged from the crisis with a more unified, radical point of view. For the time being, however, the moderates prevailed in the Assembly. They completed the Constitution of 1791, and on the last day of September 1791 the National Assembly dissolved itself, having previously decreed the ineligibility of its members for the new Legislative Assembly.

When the newly elected Legislative Assembly convened in October, the question of counterrevolution dominated its proceedings. Such Jacobin deputies as Brissot argued that only war against the émigré army gathering at Coblenz across the Rhine could end the threat: “Do you wish at one blow to destroy the aristocracy, the refractory priests, and the malcontents: then destroy Coblenz.” Whereas the Feuillants opposed this war fever, Lafayette saw a successful military campaign as a way to gain power, while the king’s circle believed that war would bring military defeat to France and a restoration of royal authority. On the other side, the Habsburg monarch, Leopold II, had resisted the pleas of his sister Marie-Antoinette and opposed intervention against France, but his death in March 1792 brought his bellicose son Francis II to the throne, and the stage was set for war.

In April 1792 France went to war against a coalition of Austria, Prussia, and the émigrés. Each camp expected rapid victory, but both were disappointed. The allies repulsed a French offensive and soon invaded French territory. The Legislative Assembly called for a new levy of 100,000 military volunteers, but, when it voted to incarcerate refractory clergy, the king vetoed the decree. Though many Frenchmen remained respectful of the king, the most vocal elements of public opinion denounced Louis and demonstrated against him; but the Legislative Assembly refused to act. As Prussian forces drove toward Paris, their commander, the duke of Brunswick, proclaimed his aim of restoring the full authority of the monarchy and warned that any action against the king would bring down “exemplary and memorable vengeance” against the capital. Far from terrifying the Parisians, the Brunswick Manifesto enraged them and drove them into decisive action.

Militants in the Paris Commune, the Revolutionary government of Paris set up by the capital’s 48 wards, or sections, gave the Legislative Assembly a deadline in which to suspend the king. When it passed unheeded, they organized an insurrection. On August 10, 1792, a huge crowd of armed Parisians stormed the royal palace after a fierce battle with the garrison. The Legislative Assembly then had no choice but to declare the king suspended. That night more than half the deputies themselves fled Paris, for the Legislative Assembly, too, had lost its mandate. Those who remained ordered the election by universal male suffrage of a National Convention. It would judge the king, draft a new republican constitution, and govern France during the emergency. The constitution of 1791 had lasted less than a year, and the second revolution dreaded by the Feuillants had begun.

The FirstFrenchRepublic

The second revolution

The insurrection of August 10, 1792, did not, of course, stop the Prussian advance on the capital. As enthusiastic contingents of volunteers left for the front, fear of counterrevolutionary plots gripped the capital. Journalists such as Jean-Paul Marat pointed to the prisons bursting with vagrants and criminals as well as refractory clergy and royalists and asked what would happen if traitors forced open the jails and released these hordes of fanatics and brigands. In response, Parisians took the law into their own hands with an orgy of mass lynching.

On their own initiative, citizens entered the prisons, set up “popular tribunals” to hold perfunctory trials, and summarily executed between 1,100 and 1,400 prisoners out of a total of 2,800, stabbing and hacking (descuartizar) them to death with any instruments at hand. These prison massacres –also known as September massacres– were no momentary fit of frenzy but went on for four days. At the time, no one in authority dared try to stop the slaughter. Officials of the provisional government and the Paris Commune “drew a veil” over this appalling event as it ran its course, though soon political rivals were accusing each other of instigating the massacres. In a different vein, Robespierre among others concluded that popular demands for vengeance and terror had to be channeled into legal forms; to prevent such anarchy, the state itself must become the orderly instrument of the people’s punitive will.

The next two weeks brought this period of extreme uncertainty to a close. On September 20 the French army turned back the invaders at the Battle of Valmy, and in November at the Battle of Jemappes it won control of the Austrian Netherlands (now Belgium). On September 21 the National Convention convened, ending the vacuum of authority that had followed the August 10 insurrection. Its first major task was to decide the fate of the ex-king. The Convention’s trial of Louis became an educational experience for the French people in which the institution of monarchy was to be completely desacralized.

Hard evidence of Louis’s treason produced a unanimous guilty verdict, but the issue of punishment divided the deputies sharply. In a painstaking and solemn debate each deputy cast his vote individually and explained it. At the end the Convention voted the death sentence, 387 to 334. A motion for reprieve (aplazamiento) was defeated (380 to 310), and one to submit the verdict to a national referendum was rejected (425 to 286). This ill-considered proposal left the impression that certain deputies were frantic to save the king’s life, and their Jacobin opponents were quick to raise vague accusations of treasonous intent against them. In any event, the former king Louis XVI, now known simply as “Citizen Capet,” was executed on January 21, 1793, in an act of immense symbolic importance. For the deputies to the National Convention, now regicides, there could be no turning back. Laws to deport the refractory clergy, to bar the émigrés forever upon pain of death, and to confiscate their property rounded out the Convention’s program for eliminating the Revolution’s most determined enemies.

A republic in crisis

By the spring of 1793, however, the republic was beleaguered (asediada, acosada). In the second round of the war, the coalition—now reinforced by Spain, Piedmont, and Britain—routed French forces in the Austrian Netherlands and the Rhineland and breached the Pyrenees. Fighting on five different fronts and bereft (despojado, carente) of effective leadership, French armies seemed to be losing everywhere. Even General Charles-François du Périer Dumouriez, the hero of the first Netherlands campaign, had gone over to the enemy in April after quarreling with the Convention. Meanwhile, civil war had broken out within France. Rural disaffection in western France, especially over the religious question referred to earlier, had been building steadily, leaving republicans in the region’s cities and small towns an unpopular and vulnerable minority. Rural rage finally erupted into armed rebellion in March 1793 when the Convention decreed that each département must produce a quota of citizens for the army. In four départements south of the LoireRiver, the Vendée rebellion began with assaults on the towns and the massacre of patriots. Gradually, royalist nobles assumed the leadership of the peasants and weavers who had risen on their own initiative. Forging them into a “Catholic and Royalist Army,” they hoped to overthrow the republic and restore the Bourbons.

The Convention could take no comfort from the economic situation either. An accelerating depreciation of the assignats compounded severe shortages of grain and flour in 1793. Inflation, scarcity, and hoarding made life unbearable for the urban masses and hampered efforts to provision the republic’s armies. In reaction to such economic hardships and to the advance of antirepublican forces at the frontiers and within France, Parisian radicals clamoured relentlessly for decisive action such as price controls and the repression of counterrevolutionaries.

Girondins and Montagnards

The Convention was bitterly divided almost to the point of paralysis. From the opening day, two outspoken groups of deputies vied for the support of their less factional colleagues. The roots of this rivalry lay in a conflict between Robespierre and Brissot for leadership of the Jacobin Club in the spring and summer of 1792. At that time Robespierre had argued almost alone against the war that Brissot passionately advocated. Later, when the war went badly and the Brissotins, anxious to wield executive power, acted equivocally in their relations with the king, the Jacobins turned on them. Brissot was formally expelled from the club in October, but his expulsion merely formalized a division that had already crystallized during the elections to the Convention in the previous month.

The Paris electoral assembly sent Robespierre, Marat, Georges Danton, and other stalwarts (incondicionales) of the Paris Commune and the Jacobin Club to the Convention, while systematically rejecting Brissot and his allies such as the former mayor of Paris, Pétion. The Parisian deputies and their provincial supporters, numbering between 200 and 300 (depending on which historian’s taxonomy one accepts), took seats on the Convention’s upper benches and came to be known as the Montagnards.

Supported by a network of journalists and by politicians such as Interior Minister Jean-Marie Roland, however, the Brissotins retained their popularity in the provinces and were returned as deputies by other départements. In the Convention the Brissotin group included most deputies from the département of the Gironde, and the group came to be known by their opponents as the Girondins. The inner core of this loose faction, who often socialized in Roland’s salon, numbered about 60 or, with their supporters, perhaps 150 to 175.

At bottom the Girondin-Montagnard conflict stemmed from a clash of personalities and ambitions. Over the years, historians have made the case for each side by arguing that their opponents constituted the truly aggressive or obstructive minority seeking to dominate the Convention. Clearly most deputies were put off by the bitter personal attacks that regularly intruded on their deliberations. The two factions differed most over the role of Paris and the best way to deal with popular demands. Though of a middle-class background similar to that of their rivals, the Montagnards sympathized more readily with the sansculottes (the local activists) of the capital and proved temperamentally bolder in their response to economic, military, and political problems. United by an extreme hostility to Parisian militance, the Girondins never forgave the Paris Commune for its inquisitorial activity after August 10. Indeed, some Girondins did not feel physically secure in the capital. They also appeared more committed to political and economic liberties and therefore less willing to adopt extreme revolutionary measures no matter how dire the circumstances. Ready to set aside similar constitutional scruples, the Montagnards tailored their policies to the imperatives of “revolutionary necessity” and unity.

While the Girondins repeatedly attacked Parisian militants—at one point demanding the dissolution of the Paris Commune and the arrest of its leaders—the Montagnards gradually forged an informal alliance with the sansculottes. Similarly, the Montagnards supported deputies sent “on mission” to the départements when they clashed with locally elected officials, while the Girondins tended to back the officials. The Montagnards therefore alienated many moderate republicans in the provinces. As deputies of the centre, or “Plain,” such as Bertrand Barère, vainly tried to mediate between the two sides, the Convention navigated through this factionalism as best it could and improvised new responses to the crisis: a Revolutionary Tribunal to try political crimes; local surveillance committees to seek out subversives; and a Committee of Public Safety to coordinate measures of revolutionary defense. By the end of May 1793 a majority seemed ready to support the Montagnards.

Believing that the Girondins had betrayed and endangered the republic, the Paris sections (with the connivance of the Montagnards and the Paris Jacobin Club) demanded in petitions that the Convention expel the “perfidious deputies.” On May 31 they mounted a mass demonstration, and on June 2 they forced a showdown (enfrentamiento) by deploying armed national guards around the convention’s hall. Backed by a huge crowd of unarmed men and women, their solid phalanx of fixed bayonets made it impossible for the deputies to leave without risking serious violence. Inside, the Montagnards applauded this insurrection as an expression of popular sovereignty, akin to that of July 14 or August 10. When the people thus spoke directly, they argued, the deputies had no choice but to comply. Centrists did everything they could to avoid a purge but in the end decided that only this fateful act could preserve the Revolution’s unity. Barère composed a report to the French people justifying the expulsion of 29 Girondins. Later 120 deputies who signed a protest against the purge were themselves suspended from the Convention, and in October the original Girondins stood trial before the Revolutionary Tribunal, which sentenced them to death. The Montagnard ascendancy had begun.

Though the deadlock in the Convention was now broken, the balance of forces in the country was by no means clear. The Parisian sansculottes might well have continued to intimidate the Convention and emerge as the dominant partner in their alliance with the Montagnards—just as Girondin orators had warned. Conversely, provincial opinion might have rebelled against this mutilation of the National Convention by Paris and its Montagnard partisans. Purged of the Girondins, the Convention itself was able to reach consensus more readily, but the nation as a whole was more divided than ever.

At first it seemed as if the expulsion of the Girondins would indeed backfire. More than half of the departmental directories protested against the purge. But, faced with pleas for unity and threats from the Convention, most of this opposition subsided quickly. Only 13 départements continued their defiant stance (postura), and only 6 of these passed into overt armed rebellion against the Convention’s authority. Still, this was a serious threat in a country already beleaguered by civil war and military reversals. The Jacobins stigmatized this new opposition as the heresy of federalism—implying that the “federalists” no longer believed in a unified republic. Jacobin propaganda depicted the federalists as counterrevolutionaries. In fact, most were moderate republicans hostile to the royalists and committed to constitutional liberties. They did not intend to overthrow the republic or separate from it. Rather they hoped to wrest power back from what they deemed the tyrannical alliance of Montagnards and Parisian sansculottes.

In Lyon, Marseille, Toulon, and Bordeaux, bitter conflicts between local moderates and Jacobins contributed decisively to the rebellion. Uprisings in Lyon and Marseille (France’s second and third largest cities, respectively) began in late May when moderates seized power from local Jacobin authorities who had threatened their lives and property—Jacobins such as the firebrand Marie-Joseph Chalier in Lyon, who was supported by Montagnard representatives-on-mission. The expulsion of the Girondins was merely the last straw. Whatever its causes, however, “federalist” rebellion did threaten national unity and the Convention’s sovereign authority. Royalists, moreover, did gain control of the movement in Toulon and opened that port to the British. Holding out no offer of negotiation, the Convention organized military force to crush the rebellions and promised the leaders exemplary punishment. “Lyon has made war against liberty,” declared the Convention, “Lyon no longer exists.” When the republic’s forces recaptured the city in October, they changed its name to “LiberatedCity,” demolished the houses of the wealthy, and summarily executed more than 2,000 Lyonnais, including many wealthy merchants.

The Reign of Terror

After their victory in expelling the Girondins, Parisian militants “regenerated” their own sectional assemblies by purging local moderates, while radicals such as Jacques-René Hébert and Pierre-Gaspard Chaumette tightened their grip on the Paris Commune. On September 5, 1793, they mounted another mass demonstration to demand that the Convention assure food at affordable prices and “place terror on the order of the day.” Led by its Committee of Public Safety, the Convention placated the popular movement with decisive actions. It proclaimed the need for terror against the Revolution’s enemies, made economic crimes such as hoarding into capital offenses, and decreed a system of price and wage controls known as the Maximum. The Law of Suspects empowered local revolutionary committees to arrest “those who by their conduct, relations or language spoken or written, have shown themselves partisans of tyranny or federalism and enemies of liberty.” In 1793–94 well over 200,000 citizens were detained under this law; though most of them never stood trial, they languished in pestiferous jails, where an estimated 10,000 perished. About 17,000 death sentences were handed down by the military commissions and revolutionary tribunals of the Terror, 72 percent for charges of armed rebellion in the two major zones of civil war—the federalist southeast and the western Vendée region. One-third of the départements, however, had fewer than 10 death sentences passed on their inhabitants and were relatively tranquil.

To help police the Maximum and requisition grain in the countryside, as well as to carry out arrest warrants and guard political prisoners, the Convention authorized local authorities to create paramilitary forces. About 50 such armées révolutionnaires came into being as ambulatory instruments of the Terror in the provinces. Fraternizing with peasants and artisans in the hinterland, these forces helped raise revolutionary enthusiasm but ultimately left such village sansculottes vulnerable to the wrath of the wealthy citizens whom they harassed.

Back in June the Convention had quickly drafted a new democratic constitution, incorporating such popular demands as universal male suffrage, the right to subsistence, and the right to free public education. In a referendum this Jacobin constitution of 1793 was approved virtually without dissent by about two million voters. Because of the emergency, however, the Convention placed the new constitution on the shelf in October and declared that “the provisional government of France is revolutionary until the peace.” There would be no elections, no local autonomy, no guarantees of individual liberties for the duration of the emergency. The Convention would rule with a sovereignty more absolute than the old monarchy had ever claimed. Nor would serious popular protest be tolerated any longer, now that the Jacobins had used such intervention to secure power. The balance in the alliance between Montagnards and sansculottes gradually shifted from the streets of Paris to the halls and committee rooms of the Convention.

From the beginning a popular terrorist mentality had helped shape the Revolution. Peasants and townspeople alike had been galvanized by fear and rage over “aristocratic plots” in 1789. Lynchings of “enemies of the people” punctuated the Revolution, culminating in the September massacres, which reflected an extreme fear of betrayal and an unbridled (desenfrenado) punitive will. Now the Revolution’s leaders were pre-empting (anticipando) this punitive will in order to control it: they conceived of terror as rational rather than emotional and as organized rather than instinctive. Paradoxically they were trying to render terror lawful—legality being an article of faith among most revolutionaries—but without the procedural safeguards that accompanied the regular criminal code of 1791.

For the more pragmatic Montagnards that deviation was justified by the unparalleled emergency situation confronting France in 1793: before the benefits of the Revolution could be enjoyed, they must be secured against their enemies by force. (“Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible.… Is force made only to protect crime?” declared Robespierre.) For the more ideologically exalted Jacobins such as Robespierre and Louis de Saint-Just, however, the Terror would also regenerate the nation by promoting equality and the public interest. In their minds a link existed between terror and virtue: “virtue, without which terror is fatal; terror, without which virtue is powerless.” Whoever could claim to speak for the interests of the people held the mantle of virtue and the power of revolutionary terror.

The Jacobin dictatorship

One of the changes affected by the Convention was the creation of the French republican calendar to replace the Gregorian calendar, which was viewed as nonscientific and tainted with religious associations. (N.B. This is one of the most conspicuous facts in the attempt to de-Christianize society). The Revolutionary calendar was proclaimed on 14 Vendémiaire, year II (October 5, 1793), but its starting point was set to be about a year prior, on 1 Vendémiaire, year I (September 22, 1792). The new calendar featured a 10-day week called the décade, designed to swallow up the Christian Sunday in a new cycle of work and recreation. Three décades formed a month of 30 days, and 12 months formed a year, with 5 to 6 additional days at the end of each year.

The Convention consolidated its revolutionary government in the Law of 14 Frimaire, year II (December 4, 1793). To organize the Revolution, to promote confidence and compliance (cumplimiento), efficiency and control, this law centralized authority in a parliamentary dictatorship, with the Committee of Public Safety at the helm. The committee already controlled military policy and patronage; henceforth local administrators (renamed national agents), tribunals, and revolutionary committees also came under its scrutiny and control. The network of Jacobin clubs was enlisted to monitor local officials, nominate new appointees, and in general serve as “arsenals of public opinion.”

Opposed to “ultrarevolutionary” behaviour and uncoordinated actions even by its own deputies-on-mission, the committee tried to stop the de-Christianization campaigns that had erupted during the anarchic phase of the Terror in the fall of 1793. Usually instigated by radical deputies, the de-Christianizers vandalized churches or closed them down altogether, intimidated constitutional priests into resigning their vocation, and often pressured them into marrying to demonstrate the sincerity of their conversion. Favouring a deistic form of civil religion, Robespierre implied that the atheism displayed by some de-Christianizers was a variant of counterrevolution. He insisted that citizens must be left free to practice the Roman Catholic religion, though for the time being most priests were not holding services.

The committee also felt strong enough a few months later to curb the activism of the Paris sections, dissolve the armées révolutionnaires, and purge the Paris Commune—ironically what the Girondins had hoped to do months before. But in this atmosphere no serious dissent to official policy was tolerated. The once vibrant free press had been muzzled (amordazado) after the purge of the Girondins. In March 1794 Hébert and other “ultrarevolutionaries” were arrested, sent to the Revolutionary Tribunal, and guillotined. A month later Danton and other so-called “indulgents” met the same fate for seeking to end the Terror—prematurely in the eyes of the committee. Then the Convention passed the infamous law of 22 Prairial, year II (June 10, 1794), to streamline (reestructurar) revolutionary justice, denying the accused any effective right to self-defense and eliminating all sentences other than acquittal (absolución, exculpación) or death. Indictments (acusaciones) by the public prosecutor, now virtually tantamount (equivalente) to a death sentence, multiplied rapidly.

The Terror was being escalated just when danger no longer threatened the republic—after French armies had prevailed against Austria at the decisive Battle of Fleurus on 8 Messidor (June 26) and long after rebel forces in the Vendée, Lyon, and elsewhere had been vanquished. By that time the Jacobin dictatorship had forged an effective government and had mobilized the nation’s resources, thereby mastering the crisis that had brought it into being. Yet, on 8 Thermidor (July 26), Robespierre took the rostrum (tribuna) to proclaim his own probity (honradez) and to denounce yet another unnamed group as traitors hatching “a conspiracy against liberty.” Robespierre had clearly lost his grip on reality in his obsession with national unity and virtue. An awkward coalition of moderates, Jacobin pragmatists, rival deputies, and extremists who rightly felt threatened by the “Incorruptible” (as he was known) finally combined to topple (derribar) Robespierre and his closest followers. On 9 Thermidor, year II (July 27, 1794), the Convention ordered the arrest of Robespierre and Saint-Just, and, after a failed resistance by loyalists in the Paris Commune, they were guillotined without trial the following day. The Terror was over.

The Thermidorian Reaction

With control passing from the Montagnards after Robespierre’s fall, moderates in the Convention hoped to put the Terror and sansculotte militance behind them while standing fast (firmemente) against counterrevolution and rallying (reunir) all patriots around the original principles of the Revolution. But far from stabilizing the Revolution, the fall of “the tyrant” on 9 Thermidor set in motion a brutal struggle for power. Those who had suffered under the Terror now clamoured for retribution, and moderation quickly gave way to reaction. As federalists were released, Jacobins were arrested; as the suspended Girondins were reinstated, Montagnards were purged; as moderates could feel safe, Jacobins and sansculottes were threatened. Like the Terror, the Thermidorian Reaction had an uncontrollable momentum (ímpetu, potencia) of its own. Antiterrorism—in the press, the theatre, the streets—degenerated into a “white terror” against the men of year II. In the south, especially in Provence and the Rhône valley, the frontier between private feuds and political reaction blurred as law and order broke down. Accounts were settled by lynchings, murder gangs, and prison massacres of arrested sansculottes.

In addition to these political consequences, the Thermidorian Reaction set off a new economic and monetary crisis. Committed to free-trade principles, the Thermidorians dismantled the economic regulation and price controls of year II, along with the apparatus of the Terror that had put teeth into that system. The depreciation of the assignats, which the Terror had halted, quickly resumed. By 1795 the cities were desperately short of grain and flour, while meat, fuel, dairy products, and soap were entirely beyond the reach of ordinary consumers. By the spring of 1795 scarcity was turning into famine for working people of the capital and other cities. Surviving cadres (cuadros, grupos) of sansculottes in the Paris sections mobilized to halt the reaction and the economic catastrophe it had unleashed. After trying petitions and demonstrations, a crowd of sansculottes invaded the Convention on 1 Prairial, year III (May 20, 1795), in the last popular uprising of the French Revolution. “Bread is the goal of their insurrection, physically speaking,” reported a police observer, “but the Constitution of 1793 is its soul.” This rearguard rebellion of despair was doomed to fail, despite the support of a few remaining Montagnard deputies, whose fraternization with the demonstrators was to cost them their lives after the insurgents were routed (derrotados) the following day.

Instead of implementing the democratic Constitution of 1793, the Thermidorian Convention was preparing a new, more conservative charter. Anti-Jacobin and antiroyalist, the Thermidorians clung to the elusive centre of the political spectrum. Their constitution of year III (1795) established a liberal republic with a franchise (sufragio) based on the payment of taxes similar to that of 1791, a two-house legislature to slow down the legislative process, and a five-man executive Directory to be chosen by the legislature. Within a liberal framework, the central government retained great power, including emergency powers to curb freedom of the press and freedom of association. Departmental and municipal administrators were to be elected but could be removed by the Directory, and commissioners (inspectores) appointed by the Directory were to monitor them and report on their compliance with the laws.

The Directory

The new regime, referred to as the Directory, began auspiciously (felizmente) in October 1795 with a successful constitutional plebiscite and a general amnesty for political prisoners. But as one of its final acts the Convention added the “Two-thirds Decree” to the package, requiring for the sake of continuity that two-thirds of its deputies must sit by right in the new legislature regardless of voting in the départements. This outraged conservatives and royalists hoping to regain power legally, but their armed uprising in Paris was easily suppressed by the army. The Directory also weathered (resistió) a conspiracy on the far left by a cabal of unreconciled militants organized around a program of communistic equality and revolutionary dictatorship. The Babeuf plot was exposed in May 1796 by a police spy, and a lengthy trial ensued in which François-Noël (“Gracchus”) Babeuf, the self-styled “Tribune of the People,” was sentenced to death.

Apart from these conspiracies, the political life of the Directory revolved around annual elections to replace one-third of the deputies and local administrators. The spirit of the Two-thirds Decree haunted this process, however, since the directors believed that stability required their continuation in power and the exclusion of royalists or Jacobins. The Directory would tolerate no organized opposition. During or immediately after each election, the government in effect violated the constitution in order to save it, whenever the right or the left seemed to be gaining ground.

As a legacy of the nation’s revolutionary upheavals, elections under the Directory displayed an unhealthy combination of massive apathy and rancorous partisanship (partidismo) by small minorities. When the elections of 1797 produced a royalist resurgence, the government responded with the coup of Fructidor, year V (September 1797), ousting (destituir) two of the current directors, arresting leading royalist politicians, annulling the elections in 49 départements, shutting down the royalist press, and resuming the vigorous pursuit of returned émigrés and refractory clergy. This heartened the Neo-Jacobins, who organized new clubs called “constitutional circles” to emphasize their adherence to the regime. But this independent political activism on the left raised the spectre of 1793 for the Directory, and in turn it closed down the Neo-Jacobin clubs and newspapers, warned citizens against voting for “anarchists” in the elections of 1798, and promoted schisms in electoral assemblies when voters spurned this advice. When democrats (or Neo-Jacobins) prevailed nonetheless, the Directory organized another purge in the coup of Floréal, year VI (May 1798), by annulling all or some elections in 29 départements. Ambivalent and fainthearted (pusilánime) in its republican commitment, the Directory was eroding political liberty from within. But as long as the Constitution of 1795 endured, it remained possible that political liberty and free elections might one day take root.

Sister republics

Meanwhile the Directory regime successfully exported revolution abroad by helping to create “sister republics” in western Europe. During the Revolution’s most radical phase, in 1793–94, French expansion had stopped more or less at the nation’s self-proclaimed “natural frontiers”—the Rhine, Alps, and Pyrenees. The Austrian Netherlands (now Belgium) and the left bank of the Rhine had been major battlefields in the war against the coalition, and French victories in those sectors were followed by military occupation, requisitions, and taxation but also by the abolition of feudalism and similar reforms. In 1795 Belgium was annexed to France and divided into departments, which would henceforth be treated like other French départements.

Strategic considerations and French national interest were the main engines of French foreign policy in the Revolutionary decade but not the only ones. Elsewhere in Europe, native patriots invited French support against their own ruling princes or oligarchies. Europe was divided not simply by a conflict between Revolutionary France and other states but by conflicts within various states between revolutionary or democratic forces and conservative or traditional forces. Indeed, abortive revolutionary movements had already occurred in the Austrian Netherlands and in the United Provinces (Dutch Netherlands). When French troops occupied their country in 1795, Dutch “Patriots” set up the BatavianRepublic, the first of what became a belt of “sister republics” along France’s borders.

By 1797 Prussia and Spain had made peace with France, but Austria and Britain continued the struggle. In 1796 the French had launched an attack across the Alps aimed at Habsburg Lombardy, from which they hoped to drive north toward Vienna. Commanded by General Napoleon Bonaparte, this campaign succeeded beyond expectations. In the process, northern Italy was liberated from Austria, and the Habsburgs were driven to the peace table, where they signed the Treaty of Campo Formio on 26 Vendémiaire, year VI (October 17, 1797). Italian revolutionaries under French protection proclaimed the Cisalpine Republic in northern Italy, later joined by the Helvetic Republic in Switzerland, and two very shaky republics—the Roman Republic in central Italy and the Parthenopean Republic in the south around Naples. All these republics were exploited financially by the French, but then again their survival depended on the costly presence of French troops. The French interfered in their internal politics, but this was no more than the Directory was doing at home. Because these republics could not defend themselves in isolation, they acted like sponges on French resources as much as they provided treasure or other benefits to France. France’s extended lines of occupation made it extremely vulnerable to attack when Britain organized a second coalition in 1798 that included Russia and Austria. But when the battles were over, Switzerland, northern Italy, and the Netherlands remained in the French sphere of influence.

The treasure coming from the sister republics was desperately needed in Paris since French finances were in total disarray. The collapse of the assignats and the hyperinflation of 1795–96 not only destroyed such social programs as public assistance pensions and free public schooling but also strained the regime’s capacity to keep its basic institutions running. In 1797 the government finally engineered a painful return to hard currency and in effect wrote down the accumulated national debt by two-thirds of its value in exchange for guaranteeing the integrity of the remaining third.

Alienation and coups

After the Fructidor coup of 1797 the Directory imprudently resumed the republic’s assault on the Roman Catholic religion. Besides prohibiting the outward signs of Catholicism, such as the ringing of church bells or the display of crosses, the government revived the Revolutionary calendar, which had fallen into disuse after the Thermidorian Reaction. The Directory ordered in 1798 that décadi (the final day of the 10-day week, or décade) be treated as the official day of rest for workers and businesses as well as public employees and schoolchildren. Forbidding organized recreation on Sundays, the regime also pressured Catholic priests to celebrate mass on décadis rather than on ex-Sundays. This aggressive confrontation with the habits and beliefs of most French citizens sapped (debilitó) whatever shreds of popularity the regime still had.

French citizens were already alienated by the Directory’s foreign policy and its new conscription law. Conscription became a permanent obligation of young men between the ages of 20 and 25 under the Jourdan Law of 19 Fructidor, year VI (September 5, 1798), named for its sponsor, the comte de Jourdan. To fight the War of the Second Coalition that began in 1799, the Directory mobilized three “classes,” or age cohorts, of young men but encountered massive draft resistance and desertion in many regions. Meanwhile, retreating armies in the field lacked rations and supplies because, it was alleged, corrupt military contractors operated in collusion (conspiración, conjura) with government officials. This war crisis prompted the legislature to oust four of the directors in the coup on 30 Prairial, year VII (June 18, 1799), and allowed a brief resurgence of Neo-Jacobin agitation for drastic emergency measures.

In reality the balance of power was swinging toward a group of disaffected conservatives. Led by Sieyès, one of the new directors, these “revisionists” wished to escape from the instability of the Directory regime, especially its tumultuous annual elections and its cumbersome (incómodo) separation of powers. They wanted a more reliable structure of political power, which would allow the new elite to govern securely and thereby guarantee the basic reforms and property rights of 1789. Ironically, the Neo-Jacobins stood as the constitution’s most ardent defenders against the maneuvers of these “oligarchs.”

Using mendacious (mendaz, mentiroso) allegations about Neo-Jacobin plots as a cover, the revisionists prepared a parliamentary coup to jettison (deshacerse de) the constitution. To provide the necessary military insurance, the plotters sought a leading general. Though he was not their first choice, they eventually enlisted Napoleon—recently returned from his Egyptian campaign, about whose disasters the public knew almost nothing. Given a central role in the coup, which occurred on 18 Brumaire, year VIII (November 9, 1799), General Bonaparte addressed the legislature, and, when some deputies balked (oponerse) at his call for scrapping (desechar) the constitution, his troopers cleared the hall. A rump of each house then convened to draft a new constitution, and during these deliberations Napoleon shouldered aside Sieyès and emerged as the dominant figure in the new regime. The Brumaire event was not really a military coup and did not at first produce a dictatorship. It was a parliamentary coup to create a new constitution and was welcomed by people of differing opinions who saw in it what they wished to see. The image of an energetic military hero impatient with the abuses of the past must have seemed reassuring.

The Napoleonic era

The Consulate

The revisionists who engineered the Brumaire coup intended to create a strong, elitist government that would curb the republic’s political turmoil and guarantee the conquests of 1789. They had in mind what might be called a senatorial oligarchy rather than a personal dictatorship. General Bonaparte, however, advocated a more drastic concentration of power. Within days of the coup, Napoleon emerged as the dominant figure, an insistent and persuasive presence who inspired confidence. Clearly outmaneuvered (superado en astucia), Sieyès soon withdrew from the scene, taking with him his complex notions of checks and balances. While the regime, known as the Consulate, maintained a republican form, Napoleon became from its inception a new kind of authoritarian leader.

Approved almost unanimously in a plebiscite by 3,000,000 votes (of which half may have been manufactured out of thin air), the Constitution of the year VIII created an executive consisting of three consuls, but the first consul wielded all real power. That office was, of course, vested in Napoleon. In 1802, after a string of military and diplomatic victories, another plebiscite endowed him with the position for life. By 1804 Napoleon’s grip on power was complete, and belief in his indispensability was pervasive (generalizado) in the governing class. In April 1804 various government bodies agreed “that Napoleon Bonaparte be declared Emperor and that the imperial dignity be declared hereditary in his family.” The constitution of the year XII (May 1804), establishing the empire, was approved in a plebiscite by more than 3,500,000 votes against about 2,500. (After this point General Bonaparte was known officially as Emperor Napoleon I.)

The constitution of 1791, the Convention, and the Directory alike had been organized around representation and legislative supremacy, the fundamental political principles first proclaimed in June 1789 by the National Assembly. This tradition came to an end with the Consulate. Its new bicameral legislature lost the power to initiate legislation; now the executive branch drafted new laws. One house (the Tribunate) debated such proposals, either endorsed or opposed them, and then sent deputies to present its opinion to the other house, the Corps Législatif, which also heard from government spokesmen. Without the right to debate, the Corps Législatif then voted on whether to enact the bill. Even these limited powers were rarely used independently, since both houses were appointed in the first instance by the government and later renewed by co-option. When certain tribunes such as Benjamin Constant did manifest a critical spirit, they were eventually purged, and in 1807 the Tribunate was suppressed altogether. On the whole, then, the legislative branch of government became little more than a rubber stamp.

After the Brumaire coup, Sieyès had envisaged (pensado en) an independent institution called the Senate to conserve the constitution by interpreting it in the light of changing circumstances. In practice, the Senate became the handmaiden of Napoleon’s expanding authority, sanctioning changes such as the life consulship, the purge of the Tribunate, and Napoleon’s elevation to the rank of hereditary emperor. For creating “legislation above the laws” at Napoleon’s behest (orden, petición), its 80 handpicked members were opulently rewarded with money and honours. As power shifted decisively to the executive branch, Napoleon enlisted a new institution called the Conseil d’État (Council of State) to formulate policy, draft legislation, and supervise the ministries. Appointed by the first consul, this body of experienced jurists and legislators was drawn from across the former political spectrum. Talent and loyalty to the new government were the relevant criteria for these coveted posts.

The Consulate did not entirely eliminate the electoral principle from the new regime, but voters were left with no real power, and elections became an elaborate charade (farsa). Citizens voted only for electoral colleges, which in turn created lists of candidates from which the government might fill occasional vacancies in the Conseil d’État or Senate. In the event, the primary assemblies of voters were rarely convened, and membership in the electoral colleges became a kind of honorific lifetime position. The judiciary, too, lost its elective status. In the hope of creating a more professional and compliant judiciary, the Consulate’s sweeping judicial reform provided for lifetime appointments of judges—which did not prevent Napoleon from purging the judiciary in 1808. Napoleon was also disposed to eliminate criminal juries as well, but the Conseil d’État prevailed on him to maintain them.

Successive Revolutionary regimes had always balanced local elections with central control, but the Consulate destroyed that balance completely. The Local Government Act of February 1800 eliminated elections for local office entirely and organized local administration from the top down. To run each département, the Consulate appointed a prefect, reminiscent of the old royal intendants, who was assisted by subprefects on the level of the arrondissements (subdistricts of the départements) and by appointed mayors in each commune. The original Revolutionary commitment to local autonomy gave way before the rival principles of centralization and uniformity. The prefect became the cornerstone of the Napoleonic dictatorship, supervising local government at all levels, keeping careful watch over his département‘s “public spirit,” and above all assuring that taxes and conscripts flowed in smoothly. While even the most trivial local matter had to be referred to the prefect, all major decisions taken by the prefect had in turn to be sanctioned by the interior ministry in Paris.

Loss of political freedom

Politics during the Directory had been marked by an unwholesome (moralmente insano, dañino) combination of ferocious partisanship (partidismo) and massive apathy. Weary of political turmoil and disillusioned by politicians of all kinds, most Frenchmen now accepted the disappearance of political freedom and participation with equanimity. The few who still cared passionately enough to resist collided with the apparatus of a police state. A regime that entirely avoided genuine elections would scarcely permit open political dissent. Where the Directory had been ambivalent about freedom of association, for example, the Consulate simply banned political clubs outright and placed Jacobin and royalist cadres under surveillance by the police ministry. In 1801, blaming democratic militants for a botched (chapucero) attempt to assassinate him with a bomb as his carriage drove down the rue Saint-Nicaise—a plot actually hatched by fanatical royalists—Napoleon ordered the arrest and deportation to Guiana of about 100 former Jacobin and sansculotte militants. In 1804 he had the duc d’Enghien, a member of the Bourbon family, abducted from abroad, convicted of conspiracy by a court-martial, and executed.

Outspoken liberals also felt the lash of Napoleon’s intolerance for any kind of opposition. After he purged the Tribunate, the consul registered his displeasure with the salon politics of liberal intellectuals by dissolving the Class of Moral and Political Science of the National Institute in 1803. One of the most principled liberals, Madame de Staël, chose to go into exile rather than exercise the self-censorship demanded by the regime. Meanwhile, the only newspapers tolerated were heavily censored. Paris, for example, had more than 70 newspapers at the time of the Brumaire coup; by 1811 only 4 quasi-official newspapers survived, ironically the same number as had existed before 1789. In the provinces each département had at most 1 newspaper, likewise of quasi-official character. The reimposition of censorship was matched by Napoleon’s astute management of news and propaganda.

Society in Napoleonic France
Religious policy

If the Consulate’s motto was “Authority from above, confidence from below,” Napoleon’s religious policy helped secure that confidence. The concordat negotiated with the papacy in 1802 reintegrated the Roman Catholic church into French society and ended the cycle of bare toleration and persecution that had begun in 1792. Having immediately halted the campaign to enforce the republican calendar (which was quietly abolished on January 1, 1806), the Consulate then extended an olive branch to the refractory clergy. The state continued to respect the religious freedom of non-Catholics, but the concordat recognized Catholicism as “the preferred religion” of France—in effect, though not in name, the nation’s established religion. Upkeep of the church became a significant item in local budgets, and the clergy regained de facto control over primary education. The state, however, retained the upper hand in church-state relations. By signing the concordat, the pope accepted the nationalization of church property in France and its sale as biens nationaux. Bishops, though again consecrated by Rome, were named by the head of state, and the government retained the right to police (controlar) public worship.

The most conservative Catholics looked askance (con recelo) at the concordat, which in their eyes promoted an excessively national or Gallican church rather than a truly Roman Catholic church. They correctly suspected that Napoleon—personally a religious skeptic—would use it as a tool of his own ambitions. Indeed, he claimed that the clergy would become his “moral prefects,” propagating traditional values and obedience to authority. Later, for example, the clergy was asked to teach an imperial catechism, which would “bind the consciences of the young to the august person of the Emperor.”

The Napoleonic regime also organized France’s approximately 1,000,000 Calvinists into hierarchical “consistories” subject to oversight by the state. Protestant pastors, paid by the state, were designated by the elders who led local congregations and consistories; the more democratic tendencies of Calvinism were thus weakened in exchange for official recognition. France’s 60,000 Jews, residing mainly in Alsace and Lorraine, were also organized into consistories. Like priests and pastors, their rabbis were enlisted to promote obedience to the laws, though they were not salaried by the state. Napoleon’s convocation in 1807 of a “Grand Sanhedrin” of Jewish religious authorities to reconcile French and Jewish law attracted widespread attention. Official recognition, however, did not prevent discriminatory measures against Jews. A law of 1808, ostensibly for “the social reformation of the Jews,” appeased peasant debtors in Alsace by canceling their debts to Jewish moneylenders.

The civil code

The Napoleonic Code had a far greater impact on postrevolutionary society than did the social innovations. This ambitious work of legal codification, perhaps the crowning glory of the Conseil d’État, consolidated certain basic principles established in 1789: civil equality and equality before the law; the abolition of feudalism in favour of modern contractual forms of property; and the secularization of civil relations. Codification also made it easier to export those principles beyond the borders of France. In the area of family relations, however, the Napoleonic Code was less a codification of Revolutionary innovations than a reaction against them. By reverting to patriarchal standards that strengthened the prerogatives of the husband and father, it wiped out important gains that women had made during the Revolution. The code’s spirit on this subject was summed up in its statement that “a husband owes protection to his wife; a wife owes obedience to her husband.” Wives were again barred from signing contracts without their husbands’ consent, and a wife’s portion of the family’s community property fell completely under her husband’s control during his lifetime. The code also curbed the right of equal inheritance, which the Revolution had extended even to illegitimate children, and increased the father’s disciplinary control over his children.

The code also rolled back the Revolution’s extremely liberal divorce legislation. When marriage became a civil rite rather than an obligatory religious sacrament in 1792, divorce became possible for the first time. Divorce could be obtained by mutual consent but also for a range of causes including desertion and simple incompatibility. Under the Napoleonic Code, contested divorce was possible only for unusually cruel treatment resulting in grave injury and for adultery on the part of the wife. Faced with an unfaithful husband, however, “the wife may demand divorce on the ground of adultery by her husband [only] when he shall have brought his concubine into their common residence.”

Napoleonic policy frequently reacted against the Revolution’s liberal individualism. While the regime did not restore the guilds (gremios) outright, for example, it reimposed restrictive or even monopolistic state regulation on such occupational groups as publishers and booksellers, the Parisian building trades, attorneys, barristers, notaries, and doctors. Napoleon wished to strengthen the ties that bound individuals together, which derived from religion, the family, and state authority. Napoleon’s domestic innovations—the prefectorial system, with its extreme centralization of administrative authority; the university, a centralized educational bureaucracy that scrutinized all types of teachers; the concordat with the Vatican that reversed the secularizing tendencies of the Revolution; the civil code, which strengthened property rights and patriarchal authority; and the Legion of Honour, which rewarded service to the state—all endured in the 19th century despite a succession of political upheavals. Historians who admire Napoleon consider these innovations the “granite masses” on which modern French society developed.

 Napoleon and the Revolution

The Revolutionary legacy for Napoleon consisted above all in the abolition of the ancien régime’s most archaic features—“feudalism,” seigneurialism, legal privileges, and provincial liberties. No matter how aristocratic his style became, he had no use for the ineffective institutions and abuses of the ancien régime. Napoleon was “modern” in temperament as well as destructively aggressive. But in either guise (apariencia, aspecto, pose) he was an authoritarian, with little patience for argument, who profited from the Revolution’s clearing operations to construct and mobilize in his own fashion. His concept of reform exaggerated the Revolution’s emphasis on uniformity and centralization. Napoleon also accepted the Revolutionary principles of civil equality and equality of opportunity, meaning the recognition of merit. Other rights and liberties did not seem essential. Unlike others before him who had tried and failed, Napoleon terminated the Revolution, but at the price of suppressing the electoral process and partisan politics altogether. Toward the end of the empire, his centralizing vision took over completely, reinforcing his personal will to power. France was merely a launching pad for Napoleon’s boundless military and imperial ambition, its prime function being to raise men and money for war. In utter contrast to the Revolution, then, militarism became the defining quality of the Napoleonic regime.

Napoleon’s ambiguous legacy helps explain the dizzying (vertiginosos) events that shook France in 1814 and 1815. Even before Napoleon’s abdication, the Imperial Senate, led by the former foreign minister Talleyrand, had begun negotiations with the allies to ensure a transition to a regime that would protect the positions of those who had gained from the Revolution and the Napoleonic period. Louis XVI’s long-exiled brother was allowed to return as King Louis XVIII, but he had to agree to rule under a constitution (called the Charter) that provided for legislative control over budgets and taxes and guaranteed basic liberties. However, the Bourbons alienated the officer corps by retiring many at half pay and frightened many citizens by not making clear how much of their property and power the church and émigrés would regain. As the anti-Napoleonic allies argued among themselves about the spoils of war, Napoleon slipped back to France for a last adventure, believing that he could reach Paris without firing a shot. At various points along the way, troops disobeyed royalist officers and rallied to the emperor, while Louis fled the country. Between March and June 1815—a period known as the Hundred Days—Napoleon again ruled France. Contrary to his expectation, however, the allies patched up their differences and were determined to rout “the usurper.” At the Battle of Waterloo (June 18, 1815) British and Prussian forces defeated Napoleon’s army decisively, and he abdicated again a few days later. Placed on the remote island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic, he died in 1821. The “Napoleonic legend”—the retrospective version of events created by Napoleon during his exile—burnished (pulir, dar lustre) his image in France for decades to come. But in the final analysis Napoleon’s impact on future generations was not nearly as powerful as the legacy of the French Revolution itself.

Isser Woloch      Jeremy David Popkin

MLA Style:   “France.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica 2009 Ultimate Reference Suite.  Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2009.



Accessed Sep 2 2019; 14’ 46; Somewhat casual, but it may help.

Things had really changed ever since 1789. The Old Regime had passed away: the bourgeoisie was in power, the map of Europe had been altered. It was impossible to return to the situation before 1789. There were also two tendencies around: those who wanted to return to stability and those who wanted to spread the principles of the revolution around Europe. Most of the XIXth century history can be seen through the strife of these two forces in action. The powers which had defeated Napoleon gathered in Vienna to discuss about the situation. They decided to base the future of Europe on three pillars: balance, legitimacy and restoration. Restoration meant putting back on the throne, when possible, monarchs who had been expelled; legitimacy meant to reinstall the same dynasties; balance tried to prevent any country from exerting a hegemonic role in Europe. This plan would be followed and supported by periodical meetings to control how things were going: this was known as the Europe of the congresses, and a number of those did take place.

On the part of Austria prince von Metternich was the host; France, in spite of being the loser, managed to attend the meeting. Talleyrand, a former priest, was the representative. The first meeting started in 1814, and had to be interrupted when Napoleon fled Elba. After Waterloo, the Congress could go on again.

Some of the new borders were not changed: France was allowed to keep the eastern border along the Rhine (a cherished dream for centuries); but some states were placed around that border to discourage the French from any attempt to expand; the Netherlands, which had been French for some years, were given part of current Belgium; Saxony was given to Prussia; Poland was given to Russia; the kingdom of Sardinia got Genoa; Italy, but for the Papal States, was given to the Hapsburgs; Great Britain was given Malta, South Africa, part of Guiana and lesser colonial territories; but maybe the most important decision concerned the German Confederation, a loose union of thirty-eight small states under the nominal dependence of the Diet and a predominant part of Austria.

Czar Alexander I proposed the creation of an alliance based also on Christian principles: the Holy Alliance. Great Britain did not take part, but Prussia and Austria did. It was not very effective. On a more practical level, these three countries, along with Great Britain, formed the Quadruple Alliance: they would see to the calling of periodical congresses and they would control revolutionary disturbances. Historians refer to this period as the Concert of Europe.

(This part was written by your professor).


The liberal revolutions in the first part of the XIXth century developed and put into practice those principles started in the French Revolution which would be exported throughout Europe thanks to Napoleon’s army. The French Revolution gave birth to what we call the liberal regime:

-It was opposed to the Old Regime. It rejected both absolutism and the division of society into estates

-It was based on a written constitution, suffrage (even though it may be restricted), democracy, elections

The 1791 Constitution showed the main features in political liberalism: separation of power branches –executive, legislative, judiciary–. They should remain independent. The Constitution defined an executive branch headed by the king, who was no longer King of France, but King of the French. The National Assembly was made up by the representatives who had been elected. Suffrage was restricted, according to income. This was an achievement for the bourgeoisie and a drawback for those below the income threshold. The latter couldn’t elect nor be elected. Laws were issued by the Assembly and signed by the King. The judiciary counted on two juries, the first one deciding on whether there was enough motive for a trial, and, being so, the second one would try the defendant.

This system would be established throughout Europe.

Once the King was deposed a new constitution was needed, 1793: universal male suffrage. The constitution was left aside during the Terror period. The Directory issued a new constitution, 1795 (Year III), restricted suffrage.

The French expansion across Europe spreads liberal principles around. Napoleon would play a great part. A new nobility arose, but there was no longer a three-tier society.

After Napoleon’s fall the Restoration tried to recover the Old Regime, but it was no longer possible. Liberalism was there to stay, even though it seemed to disappear in some places (Spain, Ferdinand VII).

After Napoleon’s fall, the Senate in France offered the crown to Louis XVI’s brother. He would bear the name of Louis XVIII –the heir, the Dauphin, Louis XVII, a child, had died in prison during the French Revolution. The Senate wanted to pass a Constitution, which the King rejected. He stated his intention to issue a kind of Constitution, called Charter. It was not issued by a Parliament.

The Restoration was based on three principles, usually named after Metternich, the Austrian host at the Congress of Vienna:

  1. legitimacy – states belonged to their kings. They had a right, passed on to them through history and their dynasties, to reign there
  2. intervention – a revolution in Europe was a European revolution. European powers were granted the right to intervene when needed
  3. balance – conflicts would be solved in congresses. No nation was entitled to conquer other lands. One-state hegemony had to be avoided. Could this be seen as a remote precedent for the League of Nations and the United Nations?

The Metternich system would last until 1830.

The liberal revolutions can be seen in three cycles: 1820, 1830, 1848

1820s. It started in Spain, trienio liberal, 1820-23. The army units about to embark to South America rebelled. They issued a manifesto and marched to Madrid. The leaders were officers Riego and Quiroga and politician Mendizábal. Freemasonry was very active in this matter. They were revolting against Ferdinand VII and his return to absolutism. Spain lost the American lands. In 1823 the King yielded to liberals, who made him take an oath to the 1812 Constitution – Cádiz. Monasteries were taken by the state, the Jesuits –members of the Society of Jesus– were expelled for the second time. As in France, the state confiscated goods belonging to the Church. Persecution took place. Some royalists revolted. As agreed in the Congress of Vienna, the Holy Alliance decided to intervene. A French unit, at the command of the Duke of Angouleme, was sent to Spain.

The King was put back in command. He declared the 1812 Constitution void and started absolutism again, up to his death in 1933.

Portugal also saw revolution, stirred years before by general Freire, a Freemason, executed in 1817. King John VI, who was living in Brazil, came back. Italy –Naples and Piedmont– tried to imitate the Spanish constitution.

In Greece liberalism and nationalism walked hand in hand. The Greeks had been trying to break away from the Ottoman Empire. This was the most successful liberal revolution in the 1820 cycle. Greece finally became independent years later, with help from abroad (Lord Byron fought along with the Greeks).

In Russia some officers tried to make liberalism succeed, but they failed, both in 1920 and 1925 (Decembrists).

It is usually army officers who spread liberalism across Europe. This cycle was a failure, because the principles set by the Congress of Vienna still applied.

1830. It started in France. The King at the time was Charles X, brother to both Louis XVI and Louis XVIII. Charles X was a more absolutist king than his brother: he compensated those nobles who had lost lands, he counted on former nobles to rule, such as the prince of Polignac. There was strife with Parliament: they vetoed Polignac’s measures and the King dissolved the Chamber. The revolution started because of the antagonism between King and Parliament.

July is the crucial month. While the King was away revolution started and the King went into exile, never to return. There was some talk about another republic, but in the end the monarchy was to stay. The new King was a relative of the later kings: Louis Philippe d’Orleans, son of the Duke of Orleans –a former liberal revolutionary leader who had voted to execute Louis XVI. Louis Philippe, Roi citizen, bourgeois king, was a liberal king. He was king from 1830 to 1848.

Some things changed, others did not. Suffrage was still restricted, but changes in the required income to be an elector slightly increased the number of those. The Bourbons had rejected the new three-coloured flag, which the King adopted.

France enjoyed prosperity, the bourgeoisie was satisfied, and industrialisation was on its way.

In August 1830 Belgium revolted and became independent from Holland, to whom they had been assigned in the Congress of Vienna. The crown was offered to a German prince, Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, who reigned over a liberal system. He was supported by Great Britain.

Italy, Greece and Germany also were examples of revolts in this cycle. It was more successful than the 1820 cycle. The Metternich system did not hold any longer, no armies were sent to suppress the revolts. One of the reasons for the failure of the system was the enmity between Russia and Austria, which clashed in the Balkans.

In Spain, Ferdinand VII had died in 1833. His wife and regent, María Cristina, ruled by a Charter (1834, Estatuto Real). The first Carlist war started in 1833. The Carlist wars are an example of the struggle between liberalism and the remains of the Old Regime. In the end liberalism prevailed. There were bloody episodes (killing of friars, Madrid 1834, backed by Masonic loggias) and confiscation of Church lands (Mendizábal’s Desamortización, 1836).

1848. It was different from the previous ones. It also started in Paris. The bourgeosie wanted to widen suffrage. They began gathering in banquets, but a new group, most important, is now on the stage: workers. They had been left out of politics ever since the French Revolution, in which they had been a very active part, along with part of the bourgeosie. They had also been deprived of their guilds, which had been suppressed in the French Revolution. In the middle of the XIXth centuries workers were organized, in the wake of industrialisation (1848, Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx). The 1st International had been started. Workers claimed against the excesses of unbridled capitalism, which flourished in some periods of the liberal regime. There is a lack of social legislation and blatant injustice prompted workers to associate. In the case of the 1st International, Marxist-inspired, their goal was the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The bourgeoisie, once allied to workers, did not trust them any longer. The army was called and fighting took place on the streets, with barricades and shots.

In the meantime the King abdicated and left for England.

The second republic started. Universal suffrage was established and elections were held. Socialists got few votes. The general who suppressed the revolution got 1,5 million votes. Two Socialist ministers were appointed. 5 million voters chose a relative of Napoleon’s, his nephew Louis Napoleon Bonaparte. For these people, there were reminiscences in him of France’s glorious past and hope for liberalism as well. France was headed by a “Prince President”. He was the President of the Republic and later named himself President for life. In 1850 he declared himself Emperor, Second Empire.

This revolution echoed beyond France. In Vienna the Emperor abdicated and was succeeded by his nephew, Francis Joseph.

The revolutionary cycles were over. Liberalism was virtually ruling all of Western Europe. We were entering a new era. The liberal system would develop and evolve and it would face a serious crisis after World War I. Totalitarianism was on the horizon.