The Reign of Terror



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.

Learning Objectives

Explain the structure and role of the Legislative Assembly

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • 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.

Key Terms

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

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.

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Medal of the First French Legislative Assembly (1791-1792), Augustin Challamel, Histoire-musée de la république Française, depuis l’assemblée des notables, Paris, Delloye, 1842.

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.

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The People Storming the Tuileries on 20 June, 1792, Jacques-Antoine Dulaure, Esquisses historiques des principaux événemens de la révolution, v. 2, Paris, Baudouin frères, 1823.: The King’s veto of the Legislative Assembly’s decrees was published on June 19, just one day before the 3rd anniversary of the Tennis Court Oath that inaugurated the Revolution. The popular demonstration of June 20, 1792, was organized to put pressure on the King.

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 First French Republic and Regicide

The execution of Louis XVI on January 21, 1793, radicalized the French Revolution at home and united European monarchies against revolutionary France.

Learning Objectives

Evaluate the decision to execute the king and queen

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Insurrection of August 10, 1792, led to the creation of the National Convention, elected by universal male suffrage and charged with writing a new constitution. On September 20, the Convention became the new de facto government of France, and the next day it abolished the monarchy and declared a republic.
  • A commission was established to examine evidence against the King while the Convention’s Legislation Committee considered legal aspects of any future trial. Most Montagnards (radical republicans) favored judgement and execution, while the Girondins (moderate republicans) were divided concerning Louis’s fate.
  • The trial began on December 3. The following day, the Convention’s president Bertrand Barère de Vieuzac presented it with the indictment and decreed the interrogation of Louis XVI. Louis XVI heard 33 charges.
  • Given overwhelming evidence of Louis’ collusion with the invaders during the ongoing war with Austria and Prussia, the verdict was a foregone conclusion. Ultimately, 693 deputies voted “yes” in favor of a guilty verdict. Not a single deputy voted “no,” although 26 attached some condition to their votes. For punishment, 361 voted for death without conditions, just carrying the vote by a marginal majority.
  • On January 21, 1793, the former Louis XVI, now simply named Citoyen Louis Capet (Citizen Louis Capet), was executed by guillotine. Marie Antoinette was tried separately, after Louis’s death. She was guillotined on October 16, 1793.
  • In France, the Reign of Terror followed. Across Europe, conservatives were horrified and monarchies called for war against revolutionary France. The execution of Louis XVI united all European governments, including Spain, Naples, and the Netherlands, against the Revolution.

Key Terms

  • 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.
  • Insurrection of August 10, 1792: One of the defining events in the history of the French Revolution, the storming of the Tuileries Palace by the National Guard of the insurrectional Paris Commune and revolutionary fédérés from Marseilles and Brittany resulted in the fall of the French monarchy. King Louis XVI and the royal family took shelter with the Legislative Assembly, which was suspended. The formal end of the monarchy six weeks later was one of the first acts of the new National Convention.
  • 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, 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.

The Aftermath of August 10

The Insurrection of August 10, 1792, was one of the defining events in the history of the French Revolution. The storming of the Tuileries Palace by the National Guard of the insurrectional Paris Commune and revolutionary fédérés (federates) from Marseilles and Brittany resulted in the fall of the French monarchy. King Louis XVI and the royal family took shelter with the Legislative Assembly, which was suspended. 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 next day the Convention abolished the monarchy and declared a republic.

The Convention’s unanimous declaration of a French Republic on September 21, 1792, left open the fate of the King. A commission was established to examine evidence against him while the Convention’s Legislation Committee considered legal aspects of any future trial. Most Montagnards (radical republicans) favored judgement and execution, while the Girondins (moderate republicans) were divided concerning Louis’s fate, with some arguing for royal inviolability, others for clemency, and still others for either lesser punishment or death. On November 20, opinion turned sharply against Louis following the discovery of a secret cache of 726 documents of his personal communications. Most of the pieces of correspondence in the cabinet involved ministers of Louis XVI, but others involved most of the big players of the Revolution. These documents, despite the likely gaps and pre-selection showed the duplicity of advisers and ministers—at least those that Louis XVI trusted—who had set up parallel policies.

The Trial

The trial began on December 3. The following day, the Convention’s president Bertrand Barère de Vieuzac presented it with the indictment and decreed the interrogation of Louis XVI. The Convention’s secretary read the charges: “the French people” accused Louis of committing “a multitude of crimes in order to establish [his] tyranny by destroying its liberty.” Louis XVI heard 33 charges.

Louis XVI sought the most illustrious legal minds in France as his defense team. The task of lead counsel eventually fell to Raymond Desèze, assisted by François Denis Tronchet and Guillaume-Chrétien de Lamoignon de Malesherbes. Although he had only two weeks to prepare his defense arguments, on December 26 Desèze pleaded the king’s case for three hours, arguing eloquently yet discreetly that the revolution spare his life.

Given overwhelming evidence of Louis’s collusion with the invaders during the ongoing war with Austria and Prussia, the verdict was a foregone conclusion. Ultimately, 693 deputies voted “yes” for a guilty verdict. Not a single deputy voted “no,” although 26 attached some condition to their votes. 26 deputies were absent from the vote, most on official business. 23 deputies abstained for various reasons, several because they felt they had been elected to make laws rather than to judge.

For the king’s sentence, deputy Jean-Baptiste Mailhe proposed “Death, but (…) I think it would be worthy of the Convention to consider whether it would be useful to policy to delay the execution.” This “Mailhe amendment,” supported by 26 deputies, was regarded by some of Mailhe’s contemporaries as a conspiracy to save the king’s life. It was even suggested that Mailhe had been paid, perhaps by Spanish gold. Paris voted overwhelmingly for death, 21 to 3. Robespierre voted first and said “The sentiment that led me to call for the abolition of the death penalty is the same that today forces me to demand that it be applied to the tyrant of my country.” Philippe Égalité, formerly the Duke of Orléans and Louis’ own cousin, voted for his execution, a cause of much future bitterness among French monarchists.

There were 721 voters in total. 34 voted for death with attached conditions (23 of whom invoked the Mailhe amendment), 2 voted for life imprisonment in irons, 319 voted for imprisonment until the end of the war (to be followed by banishment). and 361 voted for death without conditions, just carrying the vote by a marginal majority. Louis was to be put to death.

Execution

On January 21, 1793, Louis XVI awoke at 5 a.m. and heard his last Mass. Upon Father Edgeworth’s advice, he avoided a farewell scene with his family. His royal seal was to go to the Dauphin and his wedding ring to the Queen. At 10 a.m., a carriage with the king arrived at Place de la Révolution and proceeded to a space surrounded by guns and drums and a crowd carrying pikes and bayonets, which had been kept free at the foot of the scaffold. The former Louis XVI, now simply named Citoyen Louis Capet (Citizen Louis Capet), was executed by guillotine.

Marie Antoinette was tried separately, after Louis’s death. She was guillotined on October 16, 1793.

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Execution of Louis XVI, German copperplate engraving, 1793, by Georg Heinrich Sieveking.

The body of Louis XVI was immediately transported to the old Church of the Madeleine (demolished in 1799), since the legislation in force forbade burial of his remains beside those of his father, the Dauphin Louis de France, at Sens. On January 21, 1815 Louis XVI and his wife’s remains were reburied in the Basilica of Saint-Denis where in 1816 his brother, King Louis XVIII, had a funerary monument erected by Edme Gaulle.

Aftermath of the Execution

In April 1793, members of the Montagnards went on to establish the Committee of Public Safety under Robespierre, which would be responsible for the Terror (September 5, 1793 – July 28, 1794), the bloodiest and one of the most controversial phases of the French Revolution. The time between 1792 and 1794 was dominated by the radical ideology until the execution of Robespierre in July 1794.

Across Europe, conservatives were horrified and monarchies called for war against revolutionary France. The execution of Louis XVI united all European governments, including Spain, Naples, and the Netherlands, against the Revolution. France declared war against Britain and the Netherlands on February 1, 1793, and soon afterwards against Spain. In the course of 1793, the Holy Roman Empire, the kings of Portugal and Naples, and the Grand-Duke of Tuscany declared war against France. Thus, the First Coalition was formed.

Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety

The period of the Jacobin rule known as the Reign of Terror, under the leadership of Maximilien Robespierre, was the first time in history that terror became an official government policy with the stated aim to use violence to achieve a higher political goal.

Learning Objectives

Break down the politics of fear and how Robespierre used them to control France

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Reign of Terror  (September 5, 1793 – July 28, 1794), also known as The Terror, was a period of violence during the French Revolution incited by conflict between two rival political factions, the Girondins (moderate republicans) and the Jacobins (radical republicans), and marked by mass executions of “the enemies of the revolution.”
  • The foundation of the Terror was centered around the April 1793 creation of the Committee of Public Safety. As a wartime measure, the Committee was given broad supervisory powers over military, judicial, and legislative efforts. Its power peaked between August 1793 and July 1794 under the leadership of Robespierre, who established a virtual dictatorship.
  • In June 1793, Paris sections took over the Convention, calling for administrative and political purges, a low fixed price for bread, and a limitation of the electoral franchise to sans-culottes alone. The Jacobins identified themselves with the popular movement and the sans-culottes, who in turn saw popular violence as a political right. The sans-culottes, exasperated by the inadequacies of the government, invaded the Convention and overthrew the Girondins. In their place they endorsed the political ascendancy of the Jacobins.
  • On June 24, the Convention adopted the first republican constitution of France, the French Constitution of 1793. It was ratified by public referendum, but never put into force. Like other laws, it was indefinitely suspended and in October, it was announced that the government of France would be “revolutionary until the peace.”
  • Although the Girondins and the Jacobins were both on the extreme left and shared many of the same radical republican convictions, the Jacobins were more brutally efficient in setting up a war government. The year of Jacobin rule was the first time in history that terror became an official government policy, with the stated aim to use violence to achieve a higher political goal.
  • In June 1794, Robespierre, who favored deism over atheism, recommended that the Convention acknowledge the existence of his god. The next day, the worship of the deistic Supreme Being was inaugurated as an official aspect of the revolution. As a result of Robespierre’s insistence on associating terror with virtue, his efforts to make the republic a morally united patriotic community became equated with the endless bloodshed. Shortly after that, following a decisive military victory over Austria at the Battle of Fleurus, Robespierre was overthrown on July 27, 1794.

Key Terms

  • National Convention: A single-chamber assembly in France from September 20, 1792, to October 26, 1795, during the French Revolution. It succeeded the Legislative Assembly and founded the First Republic after the insurrection of August 10, 1792.
  • Reign of Terror: A period of violence during the French Revolution incited by conflict between two rival political factions, the Girondins and the Jacobins, and marked by mass executions of “the enemies of the revolution.” The death toll ranged in the tens of thousands, with 16,594 executed by guillotine and another 25,000 in summary executions across France.
  • Committee of Public Safety: A committee created in April 1793 by the National Convention and then restructured in July 1793 to form the de facto executive government in France during the Reign of Terror (1793–94), a stage of the French Revolution.
  • sans-culottes: The common people of the lower classes in late 18th century France, a great many of whom became radical and militant partisans of the French Revolution in response to their poor quality of life under the Ancien Régime.

The Reign of Terror (September 5, 1793 – July 28, 1794), also known as The Terror, was a period of violence during the French Revolution incited by conflict between two rival political factions, the Girondins (moderate republicans) and the Jacobins (radical republicans), and marked by mass executions of “the enemies of the revolution.” The death toll ranged in the tens of thousands, with 16,594 executed by guillotine and another 25,000 in summary executions across France.

The Committee of Public Safety

The foundation of the Terror was the April 1793 creation of the Committee of Public Safety. The National Convention  believed that the Committee needed to rule with “near dictatorial power” and gave it new and expansive political powers to respond quickly to popular demands. The Committee—composed at first of nine and later of 12 members—assumed its role of protecting the newly established republic against foreign attacks and internal rebellion. As a wartime measure, the Committee was given broad supervisory powers over military, judicial, and legislative efforts. It was formed as an administrative body to supervise and expedite the work of the executive bodies of the Convention and the government ministers appointed by the Convention. As the Committee tried to meet the dangers of a coalition of European nations and counter-revolutionary forces within the country, it became more and more powerful.

In July 1793, following the defeat at the Convention of the Girondists, the prominent leaders of the radical Jacobins—Maximilien Robespierre and Saint-Just —were added to the Committee. The power of the Committee peaked between August 1793 and July 1794 under the leadership of Robespierre. In December 1793, the Convention formally conferred executive power upon the Committee and Robespierre established a virtual dictatorship.

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Portrait of Maximilien de Robespierre (1758-1794) by an unknown artist.

Influenced by 18th-century Enlightenment philosophes such as Rousseau and Montesquieu, Robespierre was a capable articulator of the beliefs of the left-wing bourgeoisie and a deist. He opposed the dechristianization of France during the French Revolution. His steadfast adherence and defense of the views he expressed earned him the nickname l’Incorruptible (The Incorruptible).

The Terror

In June 1793, Paris sections took over the Convention, calling for administrative and political purges, a low fixed price for bread, and a limitation of the electoral franchise to sans-culottes alone. The Jacobins identified themselves with the popular movement and the sans-culottes, who in turn saw popular violence as a political right. The sans-culottes, exasperated by the inadequacies of the government, invaded the Convention and overthrew the Girondins. In their place they endorsed the political ascendancy of the Jacobins. Robespierre came to power on the back of street violence.

Meanwhile, on June 24, the Convention adopted the first republican constitution of France, the French Constitution of 1793. It was ratified by public referendum but never put into force. Like other laws, it was indefinitely suspended and in October, it was announced that the government of France would be “revolutionary until the peace.” In an attempt to make their stance known to the world, the National Convention, led by Robespierre, also released a statement of French foreign policy. It served to further highlight the convention’s fear of enemies of the Revolution. Because of this fear, several other pieces of legislation passed that furthered the Jacobin domination of the Revolution. This led to the consolidation, extension, and application of emergency government devices to maintain what the Revolution considered control.

Although the Girondins and the Jacobins were both on the extreme left and shared many of the same radical republican convictions, the Jacobins were more brutally efficient in setting up a war government. The year of Jacobin rule was the first time in history that terror became an official government policy, with the stated aim to use violence to achieve a higher political goal. The Jacobins were meticulous in maintaining a legal structure for the Terror, so clear records exist for official death sentences. However, many more were murdered without formal sentences pronounced in a court of law. The Revolutionary Tribunal summarily condemned thousands of people to death by guillotine, while mobs beat other victims to death. Sometimes people died for their political opinions or actions, but many for little reason beyond mere suspicion or because others had a stake in getting rid of them. Among people who were condemned by the revolutionary tribunals, about 8% were aristocrats, 6% clergy, 14% middle class, and 72% were workers or peasants accused of hoarding, evading the draft, desertion, or rebellion.

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The execution of the Girondins, moderate republicans, enemies of the more radical Jacobins. Author unknown; source: “La Guillotine en 1793” by Hector Fleischmann (1908).

The passing of the Law of Suspects stepped political terror up to a much higher level of cruelty. Anyone who ‘by their conduct, relations, words or writings showed themselves to be supporters of tyranny and federalism and enemies of freedom’ was targeted and suspected of treason. This created a mass overflow in the prison systems. As a result, the prison population of Paris increased from 1,417 to 4,525 people over a three months.

The Republic of Virtue and the Fall of Robespierre

In October 1793, a new law made all suspected priests and persons who harbored them liable to summary execution. The climax of extreme anti-clericalism was reached with the celebration of the goddess Reason in Notre Dame Cathedral in November. In June 1794, Robespierre, who favored deism over atheism and had previously condemned the Cult of Reason, recommended that the convention acknowledge the existence of his god. On the next day, the worship of the deistic Supreme Being was inaugurated as an official aspect of the revolution. This austere new religion of virtue was received with signs of hostility by the Parisian public. As a result of Robespierre’s insistence on associating Terror with Virtue, his efforts to make the republic a morally united patriotic community became equated with the endless bloodshed.

Following a decisive military victory over Austria at the Battle of Fleurus, Robespierre was overthrown on July 27, 1794. His fall was brought about by conflicts between those who wanted more power for the Committee of Public Safety (and a more radical policy than he was willing to allow) and moderates who completely opposed the revolutionary government. Robespierre tried to commit suicide before his execution by shooting himself, although the bullet only shattered his jaw. He was guillotined on July 28. The reign of the standing Committee of Public Safety was ended. New members were appointed the day after Robespierre’s execution and term limits were imposed. The Committee’s powers were reduced piece by piece.

The National Convention

The National Convention (1792-95), the first French assembly elected by universal male suffrage, transitioned from being paralyzed by factional conflicts to becoming the legislative body overseeing the Reign of Terror and eventually accepting the Constitution of 1795.

Learning Objectives

Recall the composition and role of the National Convention

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The National Convention was a single-chamber assembly in France from September 20, 1792, to October 26, 1795, during the French Revolution. It succeeded the Legislative Assembly  and founded the First Republic after the Insurrection of August 10, 1792. It was the first French assembly elected by universal male suffrage without distinctions of class.
  • Most historians divide the National Convention into two main factions: the Girondins and the Montagnards. The Girondins represented the more moderate elements of the Convention and protested the vast influence held in the Convention by Parisians. The Montagnards were much more radical and held strong connections to the sans-culottes of Paris. Traditionally, historians have also identified a centrist faction called the Plain, but many historians tend to blur the line between the Plain and the Girondins.
  • Within days, the Convention was overtaken by factional conflicts.The political deadlock, which had repercussions all over France, eventually drove both major factions to accept dangerous allies. In June 1792, under the pressure of armed sans-culottes, the Girondins ceased to be a political force.
  • Throughout the winter of 1792 and spring of 1793, Paris was plagued by food riots and mass hunger. The new Convention, occupied mostly with matters of war, did little to remedy the problem until late spring of 1793. In April 1793, the Convention created the Committee of Public Safety. Its dominance marked the Reign of Terror.
  • In June, the Convention drafted the Constitution of 1793, which was ratified by popular vote but not enacted. Simultaneously, the Committee of Public Safety carried out thousands of executions against supposed enemies of the young republic. Its laws and policies took the revolution to unprecedented heights—they introduced the revolutionary calendar in 1793, closed churches in and around Paris as a part of a movement of dechristianization, tried and executed Marie Antoinette, and instituted the Law of Suspects, among other initiatives. Members of various revolutionary factions and groups were executed.
  • In July 1794, Robespierre was overthrown, the Jacobin club was closed, and the surviving Girondins were reinstated. A year later, the National Convention adopted the Constitution of 1795. They reestablished freedom of worship, began releasing large numbers of prisoners, and initiated elections for a new legislative body. On November 3, 1795, a bicameral parliament called the Directory was established and the National Convention ceased to exist.

Key Terms

  • sans-culottes: The common people of the lower classes in late 18th century France, a great many of whom became radical and militant partisans of the French Revolution in response to their poor quality of life under the Ancien Régime.
  • National Convention: A single-chamber assembly in France from September 20, 1792, to October 26, 1795, during the French Revolution. It succeeded the Legislative Assembly and founded the First Republic after the Insurrection of August 10, 1792.
  • Committee of Public Safety: A committee created in April 1793 by the National Convention and then restructured in July 1793 that formed the de facto executive government in France during the Reign of Terror (1793–94), a stage of the French Revolution.
  • Thermidorian Reaction: A 1794 coup d’état within the French Revolution against the leaders of the Jacobin Club that dominated the Committee of Public Safety. It was triggered by a vote of the National Convention to execute Maximilien Robespierre, Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, and several other leading members of the revolutionary government. It ended the most radical phase of the French Revolution.
  • Insurrection of August 10, 1792: One of the defining events in the history of the French Revolution, the storming of the Tuileries Palace by the National Guard of the insurrectional Paris Commune and revolutionary fédérés from Marseilles and Brittany resulted in the fall of the French monarchy. King Loui  XVI and the royal family took shelter with the Legislative Assembly, which was suspended. The formal end of the monarchy six weeks later was one of the first acts of the new National Convention.
  • Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen: A fundamental document of the French Revolution and in the history of human and civil rights passed by France’s National Constituent Assembly in August 1789. It was influenced by the doctrine of natural right, stating that the rights of man are held to be universal. It became the basis for a nation of free individuals protected equally by law.
  • Reign of Terror: A period of violence during the French Revolution incited by conflict between two rival political factions, the Girondins and the Jacobins, and marked by mass executions of “the enemies of the revolution.” The death toll ranged in the tens of thousands, with 16,594 executed by guillotine and another 25,000 in summary executions across France.
  • Law of Suspects: A decree passed by the Committee of Public Safety in September 1793 during the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution. It marked a significant weakening of individual freedoms leading to “revolutionary paranoia” that swept the nation.
    The law ordered the arrest of all avowed enemies and likely enemies of the Revolution, which included nobles, relatives of émigrés, officials removed from office, officers suspected of treason, and hoarders of goods.

The National Convention was a single-chamber assembly in France from September 20, 1792, to October 26, 1795, during the French Revolution. It succeeded the Legislative Assembly and founded the First Republic after the Insurrection of August 10, 1792. The Legislative Assembly decreed the provisional suspension of King Louis XVI and the convocation of a National Convention which was to draw up a constitution. At the same time, it was decided that deputies to that convention should be elected by all Frenchmen ages 25 and older domiciled for a year and living by the product of their labor. The National Convention was therefore the first French assembly elected by universal male suffrage, without distinctions of class.

The election took place in September 1792. Owing to the abstention of aristocrats and anti-republicans and the fear of victimization, the voter turnout was low – 11.9% of the electorate. The universal male suffrage had thus very little impact and the voters elected the same sort of men that the active citizens had chosen in 1791. 75 members sat in the National Constituent Assembly and 183 in the Legislative Assembly. The full number of deputies was 749, not counting 33 from the French colonies, of whom only some arrived in Paris.

According to its own ruling, the Convention elected its President, who was eligible for re-election, every fortnight. For both legislative and administrative purposes, the Convention used committees, with powers regulated by successive laws.

Girondins v. Montagnards

Most historians divide the National Convention into two main factions: the Girondins and the Mountain or the Montagnards (in this context, also referred to as Jacobins). The Girondins represented the more moderate elements of the Convention and protested the vast influence held in the Convention by Parisians. The Montagnards, representing a considerably larger portion of the deputies, were much more radical and held strong connections to the sans-culottes of Paris. Traditionally, historians have identified a centrist faction called the Plain, but many historians tend to blur the line between the Plain and the Girondins.

Within days, the Convention was overtaken by factional conflicts. Girondins were convinced that their opponents aspired to a bloody dictatorship, while the Montagnards believed that Girondins were ready for any compromise with conservatives and royalists that would guarantee their remaining in power. The bitter enmity soon paralyzed the Convention. The political deadlock, which had repercussions all over France, eventually drove both major factions to accept dangerous allies, royalists in the case of Girondins and the sans-culottes in that of the Montagnards. In June 1792, 80,000 armed sans-culottes surrounded the Convention. After deputies who attempted to leave were met with guns, they resigned themselves to declare the arrest of 29 leading Girondins. Thus, the Girondins ceased to be a political force.

Throughout the winter of 1792 and spring of 1793, Paris was plagued by food riots and mass hunger. The new Convention, occupied mostly with matters of war, did little to remedy the problem until April 1793 when they created the Committee of Public Safety. Eventually headed by Maximilien Robespierre, this committee was given the monumental task of dealing with radical movements, food shortages, riots and revolts (most notably in the Vendée and Brittany), and recent defeats of its armies. In response, the Committee of Public Safety instated a policy of terror and perceived enemies of the republic were persecuted at an ever-increasing rate. The period of the Committee’s dominance during the Revolution is known today as the Reign of Terror.

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The Marseillais volunteers departing, sculpted on the Arc de Triomphe.

“La Marseillaise” is the national anthem of France. The song was written in 1792 by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle in Strasbourg after the declaration of war by France against Austria. The National Convention adopted it as the Republic’s anthem in 1795. It acquired its nickname after being sung in Paris by volunteers from Marseille marching on the capital.

Despite growing discontent with the National Convention as a ruling body, in June the Convention drafted the Constitution of 1793, which was ratified by popular vote in early August. However, the Committee of Public Safety was seen as an “emergency” government and the rights guaranteed by the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen and the new constitution were suspended under its control. The Committee carried out thousands of executions against supposed enemies of the young Republic. Its laws and policies took the revolution to unprecedented heights—they introduced the revolutionary calendar in 1793, closed churches in and around Paris as a part of a movement of dechristianization, tried and executed Marie Antoinette, and instituted the Law of Suspects, among others. Members of various revolutionary factions and groups were executed including the Hébertists and the Dantonists.

Shortly after a decisive military victory over Austria at the Battle of Fleurus, Robespierre was overthrown in July 1794 and the reign of the standing Committee of Public Safety was ended. After the arrest and execution of Robespierre, the Jacobin club was closed, and the surviving Girondins were reinstated (Thermidorian Reaction). A year later, the National Convention adopted the Constitution of 1795. They reestablished freedom of worship, began releasing large numbers of prisoners, and most importantly, initiated elections for a new legislative body. On November 3, 1795, the Directory – a bicameral parliament – was established and the National Convention ceased to exist.

The Thermidorian Reaction

The Thermidorian Reaction was a coup d’état during the French Revolution resulting in a Thermidorian regime characterized by the violent elimination of its perceived opponents.

Learning Objectives

Describe the events of the Thermidorian Reaction

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Thermidorian Reaction  was a coup d’état within the French Revolution against the leaders of the Jacobin Club who dominated the Committee of Public Safety. It was triggered by a vote of the National Convention  to execute Maximilien Robespierre, Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, and several other leading members of the revolutionary government.
  • With Robespierre the sole remaining strongman of the Revolution, his apparent total grasp on power became increasingly illusory. In addition to widespread reaction to the Reign of Terror, Robespierre’s tight personal control of the military, distrust of military might and banks, and opposition to supposedly corrupt individuals in government made him the subject of a number of conspiracies.
  • The conspiracies came together on Thermidor 9 (July 27) when members of the national bodies of the revolutionary government arrested Robespierre and the leaders of the Paris city government. Not all of the conspiratorial groupings were ideologically motivated.
  • The prime mover for the events was a Montagnard conspiracy, which was gradually coalescing and came to pass when the Montagnards finally swayed the deputies of the right over to their side. In the end, Robespierre himself united his enemies when he gave a speech to the Convention in which he railed against enemies and conspiracies, some within the powerful committees. As he did not give the names of the “traitors,” all in the Convention had reason to fear that they were the targets.
  • The Thermidorian regime that followed proved unpopular, facing many rebellions after the execution of Robespierre and his allies. The people who were involved with Robespierre became the target, including many members of the Jacobin club, their supporters, and individuals suspected of being past revolutionaries. In addition, the sans-culottes were violently suppressed by the Muscadin, a group of street fighters organized by the new government. The massacre of these groups became known as the White Terror.
  • Meanwhile, French armies overran the Netherlands and established the Batavian Republic, occupied the left bank of the Rhine and forced Spain, Prussia and several German states to sue for peace, enhancing the prestige of the National was drawn up, which eased back some of the democratic elements of the Constitution of 1793 and the Thermidorian regime ended.

Key Terms

  • Committee of Public Safety: A committee created in April 1793 by the National Convention and then restructured in July 1793. It formed the de facto executive government in France during the Reign of Terror (1793–94), a stage of the French Revolution.
  • National Convention: A single-chamber assembly in France from September 20, 1792, to October 26, 1795, during the French  Revolution. It succeeded the Legislative Assembly and founded the First Republic after the Insurrection of August 10, 1792.
  • 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.
  • White Terror: A period of political violence during the French Revolution following the death of Robespierre and the end of the Reign of Terror. It was started by a group in the south of France calling themselves The Companions of Jehu. They planned a double uprising to coincide with invasions by Great Britain in the west and Austria in the east.
  • Reign of Terror: A period of violence during the French Revolution incited by conflict between two rival political factions, the Girondins and the Jacobins, and marked by mass executions of “the enemies of the revolution.” The death toll ranged in the tens of thousands, with 16,594 executed by guillotine and another 25,000 in summary executions across France.
  • Thermidorian Reaction: A 1794 coup d’état within the French Revolution against the leaders of the Jacobin Club that dominated the Committee of Public Safety. It was triggered by a vote of the National Convention to execute Maximilien Robespierre, Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, and several other leaders of the revolutionary government. It ended the most radical phase of the French Revolution.

The Thermidorian Reaction was a coup d’état within the French Revolution against the leaders of the Jacobin Club who dominated the Committee of Public Safety. It was triggered by a vote of the National Convention to execute Maximilien Robespierre, Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, and several other leaders of the revolutionary government. The name Thermidorian refers to Thermidor 9, Year II (July 27, 1794), the date according to the French Republican Calendar when Robespierre and other radical revolutionaries came under concerted attack in the National Convention. Thermidorian Reaction also refers to the period until the National Convention was superseded by the Directory (also called the era of the Thermidorian Convention).

Conspiracies against Robespierre

With Robespierre the sole remaining strongman of the Revolution following the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat and the executions of Jacques Hébert, Georges Danton, and Camille Desmoulins, his apparent total grasp on power became increasingly illusory, especially support from factions to his right. Robespierre’s only real political power at the time lay in the Jacobin Club, which had extended itself beyond the borders of Paris and into the country. In addition to widespread reaction to the Reign of Terror, Robespierre’s tight personal control of the military, distrust of military might and of banks, and opposition to supposedly corrupt individuals in government made him the subject of a number of conspiracies. The conspiracies came together on Thermidor 9 (July 27) when members of the national bodies of the revolutionary government arrested Robespierre and the leaders of the Paris city government. Not all the conspiratorial groupings were ideological in motivation. Many who conspired against Robespierre did so for strong practical and personal reasons, most notably self-preservation. The left was opposed to Robespierre because he rejected atheism and was not sufficiently radical.

The prime mover, however, for the events of Thermidor 9 was a Montagnard conspiracy led by Jean-Lambert Tallien and Bourdon de l’Oise, which was gradually coalescing and came to pass when the Montagnards finally swayed the deputies of the right over to their side (Robespierre and Saint-Just were themselves Montagnards).  Joseph Fouché also played an important role as instigator of the events. In the end, iRobespierre himself united his enemies. On Thermidor 8 (July 26), he gave a speech to the Convention in which he railed against enemies and conspiracies, some within the powerful committees. As he did not give the names of the “traitors,” all in the Convention had reason to fear that they were the targets.

Robespierre was declared an outlaw and condemned without judicial process. The following day, Thermidor 10 (July 28, 1794), he was executed with 21 of his closest associates.

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The Closing of the Jacobin Club, during the night of July 27-28, 1794. Print by Claude Nicolas Malapeau (1755-1803) after an etching by Jean Duplessis-Bertaux (1747-1819).

For historians of revolutionary movements, the term Thermidor has come to mean the phase in some revolutions when power slips from the hands of the original revolutionary leadership and a radical regime is replaced by a more conservative regime, sometimes to the point at which the political pendulum swings back towards something resembling a pre-revolutionary state.

Thermidorian Regime

The Thermidorian regime that followed proved unpopular, facing many rebellions after the execution of Robespierre and his allies along with 70 members of the Paris Commune. This was the largest mass execution that ever took place in Paris and led to a fragile situation in France. The hostility towards Robespierre did not just vanish with his execution. Instead, the people involved with Robespierre became the target, including many members of the Jacobin club, their supporters, and individuals suspected of being past revolutionaries. In addition, the sans-culottes faced violent suppression by the Muscadin, a group of street fighters organized by the new government. The massacre of these groups became known as the White Terror. Often members of targeted groups were the victims of prison massacres or put on trial without due process, similar conditions to those provided to the counter-revolutionaries during the Reign of Terror. The Thermidorian regime excluded the remaining Montagnards from power, even those who had joined in conspiring against Robespierre and Saint-Just. The White Terror of 1795 resulted in numerous imprisonments and several hundred executions, almost exclusively of people on the political left.

Meanwhile, French armies overran the Netherlands and established the Batavian Republic, occupied the left bank of the Rhine, and forced Spain, Prussia and several German states to sue for peace, enhancing the prestige of the National Convention. A new constitution called the Constitution of the Year III (1795) was drawn up, which eased back some of the democratic elements of the Constitution of 1793. On October 25, the Convention declared itself dissolved and was replaced by the French Directory on November 2.

Structure of the Directory

The Directory, a five-member committee that governed France from November 1795 to November 1799, failed to reform the disastrous economy, relied heavily on army and violence, and represented another turn towards dictatorship during the French Revolution.

Learning Objectives

Explain the structure and role of the Directory

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Constitution of 1795 created the Directory with a bicameral legislature consisting of the Council of Five Hundred (lower house) and the Council of Ancients (upper house). Besides functioning as legislative bodies, the Council of Five Hundred proposed the list from which the Council of Ancients chose five directors who jointly held executive power. The new Constitution sought to create a separation of powers, but in reality power was in the hands of the five members of the Directory.
  • In October 1795, the elections for the new Councils decreed by the new constitution took place, with the universal male suffrage of 1793 replaced by limited suffrage based on property. 379 members of the National Convention, for the most part moderate republicans, were elected to the new legislature. To assure that the Directory did not abandon the Revolution entirely, the Council required all members of the Directory to be former members of the Convention and regicides, those who had voted for the execution of Louis XVI.
  • On October 31, 1795, the members of the Council of Five Hundred submitted a list of candidates to the Council of Ancients, which chose the first Directory. Only one out of the five original members served on the Directory throughout its entire existence.
  • State finances were in total disarray. The government could only cover its expenses through the plunder and the tribute of foreign countries. The Directory was continually at war with foreign coalitions. The wars exhausted the state budget but if peace were made, the armies would return home and the directors would have to face the exasperation of the rank-and-file who had lost their livelihood, as well as the ambition of generals who could, in a moment, brush them aside.
  • The Directory denounced the arbitrary executions of the Reign of Terror, but it also engaged in large-scale illegal repressions and even massacres of civilians. Although committed to republicanism, it distrusted the existing, albeit limited, democracy. It also increasingly depended on the Army in foreign and domestic affairs, including finance. The patronage of the directors was ill-bestowed and the general maladministration heightened their unpopularity.
  • On November 9, 1799 (18 Brumaire of the Year VIII), Napoleon Bonaparte staged the Coup of 18 Brumaire which installed the Consulate. This effectively led to Bonaparte’s dictatorship and in 1804 to his proclamation as emperor, which ended the specifically republican phase of the French Revolution.

Key Terms

  • National Convention: A single-chamber assembly in France from September 20, 1792, to October 26, 1795, during the French Revolution. It succeeded the Legislative Assembly and founded the First Republic after the Insurrection of August 10, 1792.
  • Council of Five Hundred: The lower house of the legislature of France during the period commonly known (from the name of the executive branch during this time) as the Directory, from August 22, 1795, until November 9, 1799, roughly the second half of the French Revolution.
  • War in the Vendée: A 1793-1796 uprising in the Vendée region of France during the French Revolution. Initially, the war was similar to the 14th-century Jacquerie peasant uprising, but quickly acquired themes considered by the Paris government to be counter-revolutionary and Royalist.
  • Coup of 18 Brumaire: A bloodless coup d’état under the leadership of Napoleon Bonaparte that overthrew the Directory, replacing it with the French Consulate. It took place on November 9, 1799, 18 Brumaire, Year VIII under the French Republican Calendar.
  • Reign of Terror: A period of violence during the French Revolution incited by conflict between two rival political factions, the Girondins and the Jacobins, and marked by mass executions of “the enemies of the revolution.” The death toll ranged in the tens of thousands, with 16,594 executed by guillotine and another 25,000 in summary executions across France.
  • Council of Ancients: The upper house of the legislature of France during the period commonly known (from the name of the executive branch during this time) as the Directory, from August 22, 1795 until November 9, 1799, roughly the second half of the French Revolution.
  • Coup of 18 Fructidor: A seizure of power by members of the French Directory on September 4, 1797, when their opponents, the Royalists, were gaining strength.
  • The Directory: A five-member committee that governed France from November 1795, when it replaced the Committee of Public Safety, until it was overthrown by Napoleon Bonaparte in the Coup of 18 Brumaire (November 8-9, 1799) and replaced by the Consulate. It gave its name to the final four years of the French Revolution.

The New Legislature and the Government

The Constitution of 1795 created the Directory with a bicameral legislature consisting of the Council of Five Hundred (lower house) and the Council of Ancients (upper house). Besides functioning as legislative bodies, the Council of Five Hundred proposed the list from which the Council of Ancients chose five Directors who jointly held executive power. The new Constitution sought to create a separation of powers: the Directors had no voice in legislation or taxation, nor could Directors or Ministers sit in either house. In essence, however, power was in the hands of the five members of the Directory.

In October 1795, immediately after the suppression of a royalist uprising in Paris, the elections for the new Councils decreed by the new constitution took place. The universal male suffrage of 1793 was replaced by limited suffrage based on property. 379 members of the National Convention, for the most part moderate republicans, were elected to the new legislature. To assure that the Directory did not abandon the Revolution entirely, the Council required all the members of the Directory to be former members of the Convention and regicides, those who had voted for the execution of Louis XVI. Due to the rules established by the National Convention, a majority of members of the new legislature had served in the Convention and were ardent republicans, but many new deputies were royalists: 118 versus 11 from the left. The members of the upper house, the Council of Ancients, were chosen by lot from among all of the deputies.

On October 31, 1795, the members of the Council of Five Hundred submitted a list of candidates to the Council of Ancients, which chose the first Directory. It consisted of Paul François Jean Nicolas (commonly known as Paul Barras; the dominant figure in the Directory known for his skills in political intrigue), Louis Marie de La Révellière-Lépeaux (a fierce republican and anti-Catholic), Jean-François Rewbell (expert in foreign relations and a firm moderate republican), Étienne-François Le Tourneur (a specialist in military and naval affairs), and Lazare Nicolas Marguerite Carnot (an energetic and efficient manager who restructured the French military). Out of the five members, only Barras served during the entire time the Directory existed.

Administration of the Directory

State finances were in total disarray. The government could only cover its expenses through the plunder and tribute of foreign countries. The Directory was continually at war with foreign coalitions, which at different times included Britain, Austria, Prussia, the Kingdom of Naples, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire. It annexed Belgium and the left bank of the Rhine, while Napoleon Bonaparte conquered a large part of Italy. The Directory established six short-lived sister republics modeled after France in Italy, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. The conquered cities and states were required to send to France huge amounts of money as well as art treasures, which were used to fill the new Louvre museum in Paris. An army led by Bonaparte conquered Egypt and marched as far as Saint-Jean-d’Acre in Syria. The Directory defeated a resurgence of the War in the Vendée, the royalist-led civil war in the Vendée region, but failed in its venture to support the Irish Rebellion of 1798 and create an Irish Republic. The wars exhausted the state budget but if peace was made, the armies would return home and the directors would have to face the exasperation of the rank-and-file who had lost their livelihoods and the ambition of generals who could at any moment brush them aside.

The Directory denounced the arbitrary executions of the Reign of Terror, but also engaged in large-scale illegal repressions and even massacres of civilians (War in the Vendée). The failing economy and high cost of food especially hurt the poor. Although committed to republicanism, the Directory distrusted the existing, albeit limited, democracy. When the elections of 1798 and 1799 were carried by the opposition, it used the Army to imprison and exile opposition leaders and close opposition newspapers. It also increasingly depended on the Army in foreign and domestic affairs, including finance. Barras and Rewbell were notoriously corrupt and screened corruption in others. The patronage of the directors was ill-bestowed and the general maladministration heightened their unpopularity.

Public Discord

With the establishment of the Directory, contemporary observers might have assumed that the Revolution was finished. Citizens of the war-weary nation wanted stability, peace, and an end to conditions that at times bordered on chaos. Those on the right who wished to restore the monarchy by putting Louis XVIII on the throne, and those on the left who would have renewed the Reign of Terror tried but failed to overthrow the Directory. The earlier atrocities had made confidence or goodwill between parties impossible.

The new régime met opposition from Jacobins on the left and Royalists (secretly subsidized by the British government) on the right. The army suppressed riots and counter-revolutionary activities, but the rebellion and in particular Napoleon gained massive power. In the elections of 1797 for one-third of the seats, the Royalists won the great majority and were poised to take control of the Directory in the next election. The Directory reacted by purging all the winners in the Coup of 18 Fructidor, banishing 57 leaders to certain death in Guiana and closing 42 newspapers. By the same token, it rejected democratic elections and kept its old leaders in power.

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Sent by Napoleon from Italy, Pierre Augereau and his troops storm Tuileries and capture Generals Charles Pichegru and Willot. Coup d’état of 18 Fructidor, year V (September 4, 1797). Engraving by Berthault, based on a drawing by Girardet.

On September 4, 1797, with the army in place, the Coup d’état of 18 Fructidor, Year V was set in motion. General Augereau’s soldiers arrested Pichegru, Barthélemy, and the leading royalist deputies of the Councils. The next day, the Directory annulled the elections of about two hundred deputies in 53 departments. 65 deputies were deported to Guiana, 42 royalist newspapers were closed, and 65 journalists and editors were deported.

On November 9, 1799 (18 Brumaire of the Year VIII) Napoleon Bonaparte staged the Coup of 18 Brumaire, which installed the Consulate. This effectively led to Bonaparte’s dictatorship and in 1804 to his proclamation as emperor. This ended the specifically republican phase of the French Revolution.

Historians have assessed the Directory as a government of self-interest rather than virtue that lost any claim on idealism. It never had a strong base of popular support. When elections were held, most of its candidates were defeated. Its achievements were minor and the approach reflected another turn towards dictatorship and the failure of liberal democracy. Violence, arbitrary and dubious forms of justice, and heavy-handed repression were methods commonly employed by the Directory.

Napoleon’s Rise to Power

Napoleon’s Italian victories overshadowed his Egyptian defeats during the French Revolutionary Wars, while his position at home strengthened after the Directory became dependent on the military. This made Napoleon the greatest enemy of the same government that relied on his protection.

Learning Objectives

Review Napoleon’s career from the military to the Directory

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Upon graduating from the prestigious École Militaire (military academy) in Paris in September 1785, Bonaparte was commissioned as a second lieutenant in an artillery regiment. He spent the early years of the Revolution in Corsica, fighting in a complex three-way struggle among royalists, revolutionaries, and Corsican nationalists. He supported the republican Jacobin movement and was promoted to captain in 1792, despite exceeding his leave of absence and leading a riot against a French army in Corsica.
  • Bonaparte was promoted to brigadier general at the age of 24. Catching the attention of the Committee of Public Safety, he was put in charge of the artillery of France’s Army of Italy.
  • Following the fall of Robespierre and the Thermidorian Reaction in July 1794, Napoleon, although closely associated with Robespierre, was released from the arrest within two weeks and asked to draw up plans to attack Italian positions in the context of France’s war with Austria.
  • In October 1795, royalists in Paris declared a rebellion against the National Convention. Under the leadership of Napoleon, the attackers were repelled on October 5, 1795 (13 Vendémiaire). 1,400 royalists died and the rest fled.  The defeat of the royalist insurrection earned Bonaparte sudden fame, wealth, and the patronage of the new government, the Directory.
  • During the French Revolutionary Wars, Napoleon was successful in a daring invasion of Italy although he failed to seize Egypt and thereby undermine Britain’s access to its trade interests in India. After the victories in the Italian campaign and despite the defeats in the Egyptian campaign, Napoleon was welcomed in France as a hero.
  • Napoleon drew together an alliance with a number of prominent political figures and they overthrew the Directory by a coup d’état on November 9, 1799 (Coup of 18th Brumaire). His power was confirmed by the new Constitution of 1799, which preserved the appearance of a republic but in reality established a dictatorship.

Key Terms

  • Coup of 18 Fructidor: A seizure of power by members of the French Directory on September 4, 1797, when their opponents, the Royalists, were gaining strength.
  • French Revolutionary Wars: A series of sweeping military conflicts lasting from 1792 until 1802, resulting from the French Revolution. They pitted the French First Republic against Britain, Austria, and several other monarchies. They are divided in two periods: the War of the First Coalition (1792–1797) and the War of the Second Coalition (1798–1802). Initially confined to Europe, the fighting gradually assumed a global dimension as the political ambitions of the Revolution expanded.
  • Coup of 18th Brumaire: A bloodless coup d’état under the leadership of Napoleon Bonaparte that overthrew the Directory, replacing it with the French Consulate. It took place on November 9, 1799, 18 Brumaire, Year VIII under the French Republican Calendar.
  • National Convention: A single-chamber assembly in France from September 20, 1792, to October 26, 1795, during the French Revolution. It succeeded the Legislative Assembly and founded the First Republic after the Insurrection of August 10, 1792.
  • Directory: A five-member committee that governed France from November 1795, when it replaced the Committee of Public Safety, until it was overthrown by Napoleon Bonaparte in the Coup of 18 Brumaire (November 8-9, 1799) and replaced by the Consulate. It gave its name to the final four years of the French Revolution.
  • 13 Vendémiaire: A name given to an October 5, 1795,  battle between the French Revolutionary troops and royalist forces in the streets of Paris. The battle was largely responsible for the rapid advancement of Republican General Napoleon Bonaparte’s career. The name comes from the date of the battle according to the French Republican Calendar.
  • Committee of Public Safety: A committee created in April 1793 by the National Convention and restructured in July 1793 that formed the de facto executive government in France during the Reign of Terror (1793–94), a stage of the French Revolution.
  • Thermidorian Reaction: A 1794 coup d’état within the French Revolution against the leaders of the Jacobin Club that dominated the Committee of Public Safety. It was triggered by a vote of the National Convention to execute Maximilien Robespierre, Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, and several other leaders of the revolutionary government. It ended the most radical phase of the French Revolution.

Napoleon Bonaparte (1769 – 1821) was a French military and political leader who rose to prominence during the French Revolution and led several successful campaigns during the Revolutionary Wars. As Napoleon I, he was emperor of the French from 1804 until 1814, and again in 1815. He dominated European and global affairs for more than a decade while leading France against a series of coalitions in the Napoleonic Wars. He remains one of the most celebrated and controversial political figures in human history.

Early Career

Upon graduating from the prestigious École Militaire (military academy) in Paris in September 1785, Bonaparte was commissioned as a second lieutenant in an artillery regiment. He served in Valence and Auxonne until after the outbreak of the Revolution in 1789 and took nearly two years’ leave in Corsica (where he was born and spent his early years) and Paris during this period. At this time, he was a fervent Corsican nationalist. He spent the early years of the Revolution in Corsica, fighting in a complex three-way struggle among royalists, revolutionaries, and Corsican nationalists. He was a supporter of the republican Jacobin movement, organizing clubs in Corsica, and was given command over a battalion of volunteers. He was promoted to captain in the regular army in 1792, despite exceeding his leave of absence and leading a riot against a French army in Corsica.

He returned to Corsica and came into conflict with the Corsican leader Pasquale Paoli, who decided to split with France and sabotage the French assault on the Sardinian island of La Maddalena. Bonaparte and his family fled to the French mainland in June 1793 because of the conflict with Paoli.

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Napoleon Bonaparte, aged 23, lieutenant-colonel of a battalion of Corsican Republican volunteers, paitning by Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux, ca. 1834.: Born and raised in Corsica, Napoleon’s first language was Corsican and he always spoke French with a marked Corsican accent. The Corsican Buonapartes were descended from minor Italian nobility of Tuscan origin, who had come to Corsica from Liguria in the 16th century. His father Carlo Buonaparte was named Corsica’s representative to the court of Louis XVI in 1777.

Bonaparte was promoted to brigadier general at the age of 24. Catching the attention of the Committee of Public Safety, he was put in charge of the artillery of France’s Army of Italy. He devised plans for attacking the Kingdom of Sardinia as part of France’s campaign against the First Coalition. The French army carried out Bonaparte’s plan in the Battle of Saorgio in April 1794 and then advanced to seize Ormea in the mountains. From Ormea, they headed west to outflank the Austro-Sardinian positions around Saorge. After this campaign, he was sent on a mission to the Republic of Genoa to determine that country’s intentions towards France.

Rise as a Military Leader

Following the fall of Robespierre and the Thermidorian Reaction in July 1794, Napoleon, although closely associated with Robespierre, was released from the arrest within two weeks. He was asked to draw up plans to attack Italian positions in the context of France’s war with Austria. He also took part in an expedition to take back Corsica from the British, but the French were repelled by the British Royal Navy.

In October 1795, royalists in Paris declared a rebellion against the National Convention. Paul Barras, a leader of the Thermidorian Reaction, knew of Bonaparte’s earlier military exploits and gave him command of the improvised forces in defense of the Convention in the Tuileries Palace. Napoleon had seen the massacre of the King’s Swiss Guard there three years earlier and realized that artillery would be the key to its defense. He ordered a young cavalry officer named Joachim Murat to seize large cannons and used them to repel the attackers on October 5, 1795 (13 Vendémiaire in the French Republican Calendar). 1,400 royalists died and the rest fled.  The defeat of the royalist insurrection extinguished the threat to the Convention and earned Bonaparte sudden fame, wealth, and the patronage of the new government, the Directory. He was promoted to Commander of the Interior and given command of the Army of Italy.

Conquest of Italy

During the French Revolutionary Wars, Napoleon was successful in a daring invasion of Italy. In the Montenotte Campaign, he separated the armies of Sardinia and Austria, defeating each one in turn, and then forced a peace on Sardinia. Following this, his army captured Milan and started the Siege of Mantua. Bonaparte defeated successive Austrian armies under three different leaders while continuing the siege.

The next phase of the conflict featured the French invasion of the Habsburg heartlands. In the first encounter between the two armies, Napoleon pushed back his opponents and advanced deep into Austrian territory. The Austrians were alarmed by the French thrust that reached all the way to Leoben, not very far from Vienna, and finally decided to sue for peace. The Treaty of Leoben, followed by the more comprehensive Treaty of Campo Formio, gave France control of most of northern Italy and the Low Countries, and a secret clause promised the Republic of Venice to Austria. Bonaparte marched on Venice and forced its surrender, ending 1,100 years of independence. He also authorized the French to loot treasures.

In the Italian campaign, Bonaparte’s army captured 150,000 prisoners, 540 cannons, and 170 standards. The French army fought 67 actions and won 18 pitched battles through superior artillery technology and Bonaparte’s tactics. During the campaign, Bonaparte became increasingly influential in French politics. The royalists attacked Bonaparte for looting Italy and warned that he might become a dictator. Bonaparte also sent General Pierre Augereau to Paris to lead a coup d’état and purge the royalists on September  4 (Coup of 18 Fructidor). This left Barras and his republican allies in control again but dependent on Bonaparte, who proceeded to peace negotiations with Austria. These negotiations resulted in the Treaty of Campo Formio, and Bonaparte returned to Paris in December as a hero. He met Talleyrand, France’s new Foreign Minister—who served in the same capacity for Emperor Napoleon—and they began to prepare for an invasion of Britain.

Expedition to Egypt

Bonaparte decided on a military expedition to seize Egypt and thereby undermine Britain’s access to its trade interests in India. Bonaparte wished to establish a French presence in the Middle East, with the ultimate dream of linking with Tipu Sultan, a Muslim enemy of the British in India. In May 1798, Bonaparte was elected a member of the French Academy of Sciences. His Egyptian expedition included a group of 167 scientists, with mathematicians, naturalists, chemists, and geodesists among them (their discoveries included the Rosetta Stone).

General Bonaparte and his expedition eluded pursuit by the Royal Navy and landed at Alexandria in July. In August, the British fleet under Horatio Nelson captured or destroyed all but two French vessels in the Battle of the Nile, defeating Bonaparte’s goal to strengthen the French position in the Mediterranean. In early 1799, he moved an army into the Ottoman province of Damascus (Syria and Galilee). Bonaparte led 13,000 French soldiers in the conquest of the coastal towns of Arish, Gaza, Jaffa, and Haifa. The attack on Jaffa was particularly brutal. Bonaparte discovered that many of the defenders were former prisoners of war, ostensibly on parole, so he ordered the garrison and 1,400 prisoners to be executed by bayonet or drowning to save bullets. Men, women, and children were robbed and murdered for three days.

Bonaparte began with an army of 13,000 men: 1,500 were reported missing, 1,200 died in combat, and thousands perished from disease. He failed to reduce the fortress of Acre, so he marched his army back to Egypt in May. To speed up the retreat, Bonaparte ordered plague-stricken men to be poisoned with opium. The number who died remains disputed, ranging from a low of 30 to a high of 580. He also brought out 1,000 wounded men.

The 18th Brumaire

Despite the failures in Egypt, Napoleon returned to a hero’s welcome. He allied with a number of prominent political figures tooverthrew the Directory by a coup d’état on November 9, 1799 (Coup of 18th Brumaire, according to the revolutionary calendar), closing down the Council of Five Hundred. Napoleon became “first consul” for ten years, and appointed two consuls who had consultative voices only. His power was confirmed by the new Constitution of 1799, which preserved the appearance of a republic but in reality established a dictatorship.