Violent Phase--1792-1794

[ Setting ] [ Political Phase ] [ Violent Phase ] [ Napoleon ]

The Marseillaise became the national anthem of the Revolution (and later of France) during this phase
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--with images
< >--Edith Piaf and male chorus

By 1791-1792, the unicameral Legislative Assembly, even though elected by indirect and limited manhood suffrage, hoped to transform the regime into one based on "equality, popular sovereignty, and civic virtue" (Kagan, et al. 609). The Girondists believed that a victorious war would rally the nation around the reforms achieved thus far. Louis XVI, too, hoped that a war against the BRAP powers would result both in his liberation and the restoration of d.r.r.a./society of privilege.

After French military defeat/Prussian-Austrian victory in April, 1792, the Prussian general, Brunswick, threatened to storm Paris, restore Louis XVI and the ancien régime, punish the revolutionaries--in short, initiate a counter-revolutionary blood bath! Paris responded to the Brunswick Manifesto; the radical Paris commune exploded into action: they arrested the royal family and slaughtered their Swiss Guards. In the Septembre Massacres that followed, they stormed various sites within the city, murdering 1200 of their perceived enemies. Dickens described the September Massacres in "the grindstone scene" of A Tale of Two Cities. Non-juring priests were particularly targetted.

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Prussia defeats French army 1792
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Fear of Brunswick and a restoration of d.r.r.a. triggered the violence that gripped Paris in the hot summer of 1792. The graphics illustrate the "Septembre Massacres": the mob stormed into the palace and took possession of Louis, Marie Antoinette, and the two children. Marie Antoinette's frail older son, the Dauphin Joseph Louis Xavier Francois, had died--perhaps of spinal meningitis--in the spring of 1789. The Queen, King, Madame Royale, and the little Dauphin Louis Charles huddled together to await their fate. It is worth noting here that there were royalists in Paris who hoped that Brunswick would hurry up and get there. Conservative newspapers published lists of jacobins to help Brunswick go about his business, if/when he ever got there.

An artist's rendering of the violence that rocked Paris, August-September, 1792. Gangs of assassins, egged on by the radical Paris commune seized demanded the abolition of monarchy and the establishment of a republic. The Girondists faded before the radical "Mountain" wing of the Jacobins and were forced to take the blame for the military defeats.

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   The radicals arrested and then executed aristocrats and royalists in the Prison of La Force. Although they went through the formal process of a trial, the verdicts were essentially predetermined. The later Law On Suspects made virtually anyone a potential enemy of the Republic.

   During the "September Days," as suggested above, the mob/sans culottes-- through the agency of the Paris commune--achieved their goal of the establishment of a Republic; they replaced the Assembly with the Convention based upon universal manhood suffrage. Day one of the new regime was designated September 22 of Year I (1792.) The Convention moved to the Left, especially the group known as the "Mountain," as they espoused the cause of the sans-culottes. Under the leadership of Maximilien Robespierre, the Convention mobilized the nation to wage war against internal and external enemies. Robespierre's vehicle, the Committee of Public Safety, ruled with unlimited power, 1793-1794. Robespierre's name is forever associated with the revolutionary epoch known as the Reign of Terror.
Cloud Biography of Robespierre
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"After voting unanimously to find the King guilty, the deputies held a separate vote on his punishment.
By a single, unanimous vote, Louis was sentenced to death, 'within twenty–four hours.'"
Thus, on 21 January 1793, Louis Capet, formerly King of France was beheaded by the guillotine.
For the first time in a thousand years, the French people were not ruled by a monarch.
Admiring and sympathetic onlookers commented on Louis’s dignity in the face of a humiliating, public death.

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Indictment of the king Dec., 1792 < >
On the death penalty decision, Jacobins and Girondists disagreed. Leading Girondists
like Brissot and publicist Olympe de Gouges paid with their lives for disagreeing with
the "Incorruptible" Robespierre after his accession to the Committee of Public Safety in 1793.

Execution of the King <>

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image source right < >

Under Robespierre ("The Incorruptible,")--the "patriots"--"citizens" and "citizennesses"--moved the Revolution
in a more egalitarian and violent direction than the original bourgeois reformers intended. The radical
"patriots" feared above all things that domestic, royalist/Catholic internal enemies would/could link up with
foreign enemies (Austria, Prussia.) The defections of Mirabeau and Dumouriez made many fearful of enemies within.
Consider, for example, what happened to Japanese-Americas after Pearl Harbor, or "ethnic profiling" after 9/11.

Another radical Jacobin, Jean-Paul Marat, used his vitriolic pen and his inflammatory newspaper, L'Ami du Peuple to arouse public opinion against the Republic's internal and external enemies. An early advocate of destruction of monarchy-aristocracy-Church, Marat demanded, "five or six hundred heads" to ensure France's "freedom and happiness." He recommended "committees of surveillance" to identify and eliminate traitors. On a more personal note, Marat suffered from a painful, disfiguring skin disease and spent much of his time in his bathtub soaked in an oatmeal bath.

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Charlotte Corday, a devout, young Catholic girl from the countryside, hated Marat and his scurrilous rag, L'Ami du Peuple. She determined to rid France of him, even at the risk of her own life. On July 13, 1793, pretending to be a radical with a list of suspected traitors to submit to Marat, she gained entry to his private quarters, stabbed him in the bath, and went four days later, herself, to the guillotine. He rather than she emerged as the martyred hero of the Revolutionary Republic.

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"The Death of Marat"

Jacques-Louis David immortalized Marat in this iconic portrait. Famed as an influential artist of the classical revival, David also sat as a Deputy in the Convention that tried and convicted the King and Queen. The (later) fall of the Republic brought hard times to David, but his powerful portraits attracted the attention of Napoleon who named him his official painter.


This clip links the assassination of Marat and the Great Terror overseen by Robespierre
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The Convention set up revolutionary tribunals to try emigrés and other suspected enemies. Throughout, the Terror, especially the period known as the "Great Terror," 1793-1794, the guillotine, the "national razor," operated on a regular schedule, with "the knitters" in daily attendance. The Convention suspended its own constitution until internal and foreign enemies were completely eliminated.


"Patriots" who spoke out against the Terror and the Committee of Public Safety
earned the enmity of Robespierre, including his former ally, Danton.
Follow link to hear Robespierre defend his policies.

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Both Louis XVI (Louis Capet as the Tribunal that tried his case called him) and Marie Antoinette went to the guillotine: he mounted the platform in January, 1793, and she in October. In a decision designed to humiliate her publically, the Convention ordered that she ride in an open tumbril to her date with Madame la Guillotine. Jacques-Louis David sketched her as she rode in the tumbril to face Samson's blade. Her appearance was so dramatically altered that many in the streets did not recognize her, so different was she from their image of the Queen.

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Death of the queen < >

What happened to Louis XVI's and Marie Antoinette's children?
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 Women played a role in the "violent phase" of the French Revolution." The "knitters," upon whom Dickens based the character of Madame Defarge in A Tale of Two Cities, attended the daily executions. As early as 1791, Olympe de Gouges had demanded that the Revolution grant women full civil rights. She, alas, offended the men and went to the guillotine. Before the Convention ordered women back into the "domestic sphere," some, like Pauline Léon, demanded the right to bear arms for their nation.


 As can be seen in the contemporary graphic, many women were enthusiastic revolutionaries; here, one orates to her friends demanding the blood of traitors and tyrants. Pauline Léon and Claire Lacombe founded the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women, but in 1793, Robespierre and the Convention disbanded their club and moved them back into the "domestic sphere" where they belonged, at least according to Rousseau and his ilk. That said, the Convention extended some rights to women regarding divorce, ownership of property, and custody of their children.


Among its reforms, the Convention enacted National Mobilization (levée en masse,) the Law on Suspects, the abolition of slavery in the colonies, abolition of the Catholic Church (and Christianity,) and a new calendar. The Convention founded the Cult of the Supreme Being, turning the Cathedral of Notre Dame into a "Temple of Reason." De-christianization enthusiasts desecrated churches, forced priests to marry, and created opposition to the Republic. On the positive side, the Convention began to develop a free, public, secular educational system for boys and to incorporate "The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen" into a new law code.

By 1794, the Terror had claimed--by some estimates--30,000-40,000 lives (Kagan says 25,000.)
"The Terror demonstrated no class prejudice. Estimates are that the nobles constituted 8% of its victims,
the middle classes 25%, the clergy 6%, and the peasant and laboring classes 60%" (Duiker and Spielvogel 712).
These statistics seem alarming given the rhetoric of the Terror's spokespersons about who the enemies of the
"Republic One and Indivisible of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, or Death" (Dickens 245) really were.
The alarming Law of 22 Prairial, pushed through the Convention by Robespierre, allowed for
the suppression of evidence against suspects and dispensed with "due process."
The pace of executions accelerated as the Committee of Public Safety eliminated its internal enemies
(and defeated its external enemies in the War of the First Coalition.)
   However, as popular opinion hoped for an end to the Terror, Robespierre demanded more. On 9 Thermidor (Year II,) his enemies attacked Robespierre in his office, shot off his jaw, and carried him bleeding to the guillotine where he, too, met "Samson," the executioner. Thanks to the Law of 22 Prairial, Robespierre did not have the experience of due process (trial, etc.) 21 of Robespierre's allies were also "shaved by the national razor." In the days that followed, leaders of the Thermidorian Reaction emptied the prisons, closed the Jacobin clubs, began the process of initiating a new constitution and redefinition of the Republic.

Execution of the Robespierre < >
Conflicting views on Robespierre and the Terror
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long intro, begin here < >

Robespierre himself was "shortened by a head," July 28, 1794/10 Thermidore Year II of the Republic. His legacy remains controversial, even in the 21st century: did he kill too many or too few?

image source--"Execution of Robespierre" < >

Historicans still debate the pros and cons of Robespierre's radical republic and its Reign of Terror:
Pros = establishment of a republic
universal manhood suffrage
civic equality (especially regarding taxes and military service)
abolition of slavery in the colonies
some rights for women (divorce, custody, property)
work on the codification of French law and secular educational system

Cons =Law on Suspects
Reign of Terror
abolition of Christianity
new calendar ("decades" of 10 days > weeks of 7 days)
Cult of the Supreme Being
Dictatorship (economic and political)
War (internal and external enemies)

Some historians (e.g. Eugen Weber) while praising the pros acknowledge
that the promises and pledges listed under pros above,
did not actually come into being due to the internal and foreign crises

The Directory, under a new constitution (Year III) remained republican in form with
a plural executive (5 Directors) and a bicameral legislature, elected by indirect universal manhood suffrage;
the new regime restored religious toleration (including Catholicism) and
upheld "The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen ";
it rescinded the few rights granted to women and fully restored them to their domestic sphere (home, church);
it abolished the abolition of slavery in the French colonies;
it removed the sans-culottes from access to power and reserved it to the propertied elites,
that is, the bourgeoisie.
The Directory continued to work on codification of the
law and development of free, secular, public education for boys.

Without going into detai here, suffice it to say that after 1795,
Napoleon Bonaparte dominated France...and increasingly the continent as well.



Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. New York: A Signet Classic, 1960.

Duiker, William and Jackson Spielvogel. World History, vol. ii, Since 1500. Belmont, CA, et. al.: West/Wadsworth, 1998.

Isbell, Dr. "French Civilization." Bloomington, IN: Indiana University, 1996. Online Available.

Kagan, Donald, et al. The Civilization of the West. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1997.

Kagan, Donald, et. al. The Western Heritage , 9th edition, vol. c. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2007.

McPhee, Peter. "The French Revolution." Coursera. 2014.

Pioch, Nicholas. "Jacques-Louis David." WebMuseum, Paris. Online Available.
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Project Gutenberg. A History of the French Revolution. Online available.
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