22.5: The Reign of Terror
22.5.1: The Legislative Assembly
The Legislative Assembly, the legislature of revolutionary France from October 1, 1791 to September 20, 1792, provided the focus of political debate and revolutionary law-making. However, its tenure overlapped with a period of extreme political and social chaos.
Explain the structure and role of the Legislative Assembly
- The Legislative Assembly first met on October 1, 1791, under the Constitution of 1791, consisting of 745 members. Few were nobles, very few were clergymen, and the majority came from the middle class. The members were generally young, and since none had sat in the previous Assembly they largely lacked national political experience.
- From the beginning, relations between the king and the Legislative Assembly were hostile. Louis repeatedly vetoed decrees proposed by the Assembly and the war against Austria (soon joined by Prussia) intensified tensions. Soon, the King dismissed Girondins from the Ministry.
- When the king formed a new cabinet mostly of Feuillants, the breach with the king and the Assembly on one side and the majority of the common people of Paris on the other. Events came to a head in June when Lafayette sent a letter to the Assembly recommending the suppression of the “anarchists” and political clubs in the capital. The Demonstration of June 20 followed.
- The Girondins made a last advance to Louis, offering to save the monarchy if he would accept them as ministers. His refusal united all the Jacobins in the project of overturning the monarchy by force. The local leaders of this new stage of the revolution were assisted in their work by the fear of invasion by the allied army.
- On the night of August 10, 1792, insurgents and popular militias, supported by the revolutionary Paris Commune, assailed the Tuileries Palace and massacred the Swiss Guards assigned for the protection of the king. The royal family became prisoners and a rump session of the Legislative Assembly suspended the monarchy.
- Chaos persisted until the National Convention, elected by universal male suffrage and charged with writing a new constitution, met on September 20, 1792, and became the new de facto government of France. By the same token, the Legislative Assembly ceased to exist.
- September Massacres
- A wave of killings in Paris (September 2-7, 1792) and other cities in late summer 1792, during the French Revolution. They were partly triggered by a fear that foreign and royalist armies would attack Paris and that the inmates of the city’s prisons would be freed and join them. Radicals called for preemptive action, which was undertaken by mobs of National Guardsmen and some fédérés. It was tolerated by the city government, the Paris Commune, which called on other cities to follow suit.
- Brunswick Manifesto
- A proclamation issued by Charles William Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick, commander of the Allied Army (principally Austrian and Prussian), on July 25, 1792, to the population of Paris during the War of the First Coalition. It threatened that if the French royal family were harmed, French civilians would be harmed. This measure was intended to intimidate Paris,but instead helped further spur the increasingly radical French Revolution.
- Demonstration of June 20
- The last peaceful attempt (1792) made by the people of Paris during the French Revolution to persuade King Louis XVI of France to abandon his current policy and attempt to follow what they believed to be a more empathetic approach to governing. Its objectives were to convince the government to enforce the Legislative Assembly’s rulings, defend France against foreign invasion, and preserve the spirit of the French Constitution of 1791. The demonstrators hoped that the king would withdraw his veto and recall the Girondin ministers. It was the last phase of the unsuccessful attempt to establish a constitutional monarchy in France.
- Paris Commune
- During the French Revolution, the government of Paris from 1789 until 1795. Established in the Hôtel de Ville just after the storming of the Bastille, it consisted of 144 delegates elected by the 48 divisions of the city. It became insurrectionary in the summer of 1792, essentially refusing to take orders from the central French government. It took charge of routine civic functions but is best known for mobilizing extreme views. It lost much power in 1794 and was replaced in 1795.
- Legislative Assembly
- The legislature of France from October 1, 1791, to September 20, 1792, during the years of the French Revolution. It provided the focus of political debate and revolutionary law-making between the periods of the National Constituent Assembly and the National Convention.
Political Power at the Legislative Assembly
The Legislative Assembly first met on October 1, 1791 under the Constitution of 1791, and consisted of 745 members. Few were nobles, very few were clergymen, and the majority came from the middle class. The members were generally young, and since none had sat in the previous Assembly, largely lacked national political experience.
The rightists within the assembly consisted of about 260 Feuillants (constitutional monarchists), whose chief leaders, Gilbert du Motier de La Fayette and Antoine Barnave, remained outside the Assembly because of their ineligibility for re-election. They were staunch constitutional monarchists, firm in their defense of the King against the popular agitation. The leftists were 136 Jacobins (still including the party later known as the Girondins or Girondists) and Cordeliers (a populist group, whose many members would later become the radical Montagnards). Its most famous leaders were Jacques Pierre Brissot, the philosopher Condorcet, and Pierre Victurnien Vergniaud. The Left drew its inspiration from the more radical tendency of the Enlightenment, regarded the émigré nobles as traitors, and espoused anticlericalism. They were suspicious of Louis XVI, some favoring a general European war both to spread the new ideals of liberty and equality and to put the king’s loyalty to the test. The remainder of the House, 345 deputies, belonged to no definite party and were called the Marsh (Le Marais) or the Plain (La Plaine). They were committed to the ideals of the Revolution and thus generally inclined to side with the left but would also occasionally back proposals from the right.
Some historians dispute these numbers and estimate that the Legislative Assembly consisted of about 165 Feuillants (the right), about 330 Jacobins (including Girondins; the left), and about 350 deputies, who did not belong to any definite party but voted most often with the left. The differences emerge from how historians approach data in primary sources, where numbers reported by the clubs do not overlap with analyses of club membership conducted independently by name.
The Legislative Assembly was driven by two opposing groups. The first were conservative members of the bourgeoisie (wealthy middle class in the Third Estate) that favored a constitutional monarchy, represented by the Feuillants, who felt that the revolution had already achieved its goal. The other group was the democratic faction for whom the king could no longer be trusted, represented by the new members of the Jacobin club that claimed that more revolutionary measures were necessary.
Louis XVI’s Relationship with the Assembly
From the beginning, relations between the king and the Legislative Assembly were hostile. Louis vetoed two decrees proposed in November: that the émigrés assembled on the frontiers should be liable to the penalties of death and confiscation if they remained so assembled and that every non-juring clergyman must take the civic oath on pain of losing his pension and potential deportation.
The war declared on April 20, 1792, against Austria (soon joined by Prussia) started as a disaster for the French. Tensions between Louis XVI and the Legislative Assembly intensified and the blame for war failures was thrown first upon the king and his ministers and the Girondins party. The Legislative Assembly passed decrees sentencing any priest denounced by 20 citizens to immediate deportation, dissolving the King’s guard on the grounds that it was manned by aristocrats, and establishing a camp of 20,000 national guardsmen (Fédérés) near Paris. The King vetoed the decrees and dismissed Girondins from the Ministry. When the king formed a new cabinet mostly of Feuillants, the breach between the king on the one hand and the Assembly and the majority of the common people of Paris on the other widened. Events came to a head in June when Lafayette sent a letter to the Assembly recommending the suppression of the “anarchists” and political clubs in the capital. The Demonstration of June 20, 1792, followed as the last peaceful attempt made by the people of Paris to persuade King Louis XVI of France to abandon his current policy and attempt to follow what they believed to be a more empathetic approach to governing .
Events of August 10
The Girondins made a last advance to Louis offering to save the monarchy if he would accept them as ministers. His refusal united all the Jacobins in the project of overturning the monarchy by force. The local leaders of this new stage of the revolution were assisted in their work by the fear of invasion by the allied army. The Assembly declared the country in danger and the Brunswick Manifesto, combined with the news that Austrian and Prussian armies had marched into French soil, heated the republican spirit to fury.
On the night of August 10, 1792, insurgents and popular militias supported by the revolutionary Paris Commune assailed the Tuileries Palace and massacred the Swiss Guards assigned for the protection of the king. The royal family became prisoners and a rump session of the Legislative Assembly suspended the monarchy. Little more than a third of the deputies were present, almost all of them Jacobins. What remained of a national government depended on the support of the insurrectionary Commune. With enemy troops advancing, the Commune looked for potential traitors in Paris and sent a circular letter to the other cities of France inviting them to follow this example. In Paris and many other cities, the massacres of prisoners and priests (known as September Massacres) followed. The Assembly could offer only feeble resistance. In October, however, there was a counterattack accusing the instigators of being terrorists. This led to a political contest between the more moderate Girondists and the more radical Montagnards inside the Convention, with rumor used as a weapon by both sides. The Girondists lost ground when they seemed too conciliatory, but the pendulum swung again after the men who endorsed the massacres were denounced as terrorists.
Chaos persisted until the National Convention, elected by universal male suffrage and charged with writing a new constitution, met on September 20, 1792, and became the new de facto government of France. The Legislative Assembly ceased to exist. The next day, the Convention abolished the monarchy and declared a republic.
- The Legislative Assembly
“Louis XVI and the Legislative Assembly.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louis_XVI_and_the_Legislative_Assembly. Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0.
“Legislative Assembly (France).” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Legislative_Assembly_(France). Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0.
“10 August (French Revolution).” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/10_August_(French_Revolution). Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0.
“Demonstration of 20 June 1792.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demonstration_of_20_June_1792. Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0.
“LegislativeAssemblyMedal.jpg.” https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:LegislativeAssemblyMedal.jpg. Wikimedia Commons Public domain.
“PeopleStormingTuileries.jpg.” https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:PeopleStormingTuileries.jpg. Wikimedia Commons Public domain.
- The Legislative Assembly