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Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
Prehistory to Roman
French kingdoms
Normans and Capetians
The Valois dynasty
16th century
Louis XIII
Louis XIV
18th century
     Estates general and the third estat....
     Oath of the Tennis Court
     Fall of the Bastille
     Declaration of Rights
     Capture of the king
     Clubs and characters
     Varennes and the Champ de Mars
     French declaration of war
     Summer frenzy
     National Convention
     Murderous factions
     Terror and Thermidor
     Bread and civil war
     The Convention after Robespierre

Political turmoil
Third Republic
Fifth republic
To be completed

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The estates general and the third estate: 1789

The composition of the proposed estates general is a controversial topic during the autumn of 1788. The Paris parlement argues that the arrangement should be as on the previous occasion, in 1614, when each estate had an equal number of deputies and each of the three groups met and voted separately.

This proposal represents a firm plea for the status quo, since the first two estates (clergy and nobility) can together outvote the third estate (the rest of the nation) on every issue. Yet the third estate is precisely the part of the community which is seething with resentment at the privileges enjoyed by the other two under the ancien régime.


The most powerful pamphlet of the campaign is Qu'est-ce que le Tiers État? (What is the Third Estate?), by Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès. Published in January 1789, its opening words put the situation very clearly: 'What is the Third Estate? Everything. What has it been until now? Nothing. What does it ask to be? Something.'

The government resists the demands of the Paris parlement and elections are declared for approximately 300 deputies for each of the first two estates and some 600 representing the third. In several provincial assemblies it has long been the custom for the third estate to have double representation, so the proposal is not in itself surprising.


The electorate includes a large proportion of the male citizens over the age of twenty-five, since everyone appearing on a tax register - as the owner of even the smallest patch of land, or as an industrial worker or craftsman - is allowed to vote.

Thus the deputies convening for the opening ceremony at Versailles on 4 May 1789 are justifiably perceived as representative of the nation. And the majority of the nation, forming the third estate, have high hopes of them. But first the deputies of the third estate have an important political point to make.


Oath of the Tennis Court: 20 June 1789

In the opening ceremony the king announces that the estates must themselves decide whether to meet separately, as in the past, or in a joint assembly. The nobles and the clergy vote for separation. To avoid their numerical advantage being wasted by this arrangement, the deputies of the third estate engage in a blocking tactic. They resolve to take no action until the clergy and nobles join them. Deadlock ensues, until it is broken in a dramatic gesture.

On June 17 the third estate declare themselves to be an independent elected body. They choose for themselves a resonant name, the National Assembly.


For good measure, and knowing what prevails with any government, they exhort the people of France to continue paying taxes only as long as their assembly is sitting.

The king's response is to summon a meeting of all three estates in his presence. For this event the largest hall, where the third estate has been meeting, needs modification. Workmen are sent in and the deputies, arriving on June 20, find the door closed against them. In high dudgeon they repair to a nearby tennis court, where with only one abstention they take a famous oath - to maintain their assembly until a new constitution has been established for the realm. This act of defiance comes to be regarded later as the start of the French Revolution.


In the joint session, on June 23, Louis XVI orders the three estates to continue their deliberations separately on the following day. But when the deputies of the third estate refuse to leave the hall (unless 'at the point of the bayonet'), the king shrinks from force.

The deputies remain in their places. The day is won. Louis orders the clergy and the nobility to join with the third estate in forming an assembly charged with a specific task - to provide France with a written constitution. The unauthorized National Assembly becomes the official National Constituent Assembly.


Fall of the Bastille: 14 July 1789

In Paris the recent months have been a time of great political excitement, in the lengthy and complicated process of choosing local representatives of the third estate for the estates general. But these events have coincided with economic deprivation, resulting from a bad harvest in 1788 and a severe winter.

The result is that an unruly and volatile city observes with intense excitement the drama acted out a few miles away at Versailles. The news of the victory of the third estate is received ecstatically. But it is soon followed by rumours, not entirely false, that the king is inclining again to reactionary advisers and that there is a threatening build up of troops near the capital.


The result is an insurrection, encouraged in its early stages on July 12 by local politicians but soon getting entirely out of hand. For two days mobs surge through the streets, smashing and looting. Their most meaningful targets are the only two sites in Paris held by royal troops. The first is the barracks of Les Invalides, where a large arsenal of muskets is seized early in the morning of July 14.

More significant as a symbol is the other focal point for the crowd's fury - the Bastille, constructed as a royal fortress in the 14th century. The high forbidding walls seem like a symbol of royal tyranny. But the building's feeble end exposes it as only a hollow threat to liberty.


Seeing the size and mood of the crowd around his building on July 14, the commander of the Bastille surrenders rapidly in return for safe conduct of his men - though such a promise is hard to fulfil in these circumstances. Several of the garrison die grisly deaths in the neighbouring streets.

The prisoners liberated from the Bastille number just seven, none of them victims of royal injustice. But drab reality cannot tarnish a useful symbol. The fall of this ancient fortress soon stands in popular memory for the overthrow of the ancien régime itself. And the event has consequences of lasting significance.


Order is eventually restored in Paris by a newly elected mayor and commune (or city council) with the help of a volunteer militia. Known as the National Guard, and commanded by Lafayette, the militia wear the tricolour cockade which later becomes the basis of the French national flag. The king himself bravely comes to Paris later in July, to be given the keys of the city. He even puts the tricolour in his hat, and returns to Versailles through enthusiastic crowds.

The example of Paris is rapidly followed in other cities. The institutions of royal authority are dismantled and are replaced by elected communes and by civic guards. The fall of the Bastille, in itself a minor event, is thus a major turning point. The king's officials are to be replaced by the people's.


Declaration of Rights: August 1789

In Versailles the Constituent Assembly sets about its business with commendable speed, given urgency by news of peasant violence and destruction of property in many parts of France.

This sudden and unexpected rural uprising is the result of panic sweeping many parts of the country. The excitement of the news from Versailles is followed by rumours that aristocrats are conspiring to suppress the National Assembly and that foreign troops have been called in. Peasants attack and burn the castles and manor houses of their feudal lords and then often flee into the woods in what becomes known as the Great Fear.


A similar sense of panic grips the noble deputies at Versailles, who compete with each other in volunteering to give up their ancient privileges. A brief debate on August 4 is sufficient to pass a resolution abolishing all traces of feudalism; legislation following on August 11 specifies the illegality of any form of serfdom, the ending of monopolies and tax exemptions, the opening of the professions to all classes, equality before the law, the free provision of justice, and the abolition of tithes payable to the clergy (who are subsequently required to take the Clergy's oath to the constitution).

These practical measures are followed, on August 27, by a ringing statement of principle which owes much to America's Declaration of Independence two decades earlier.


The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen begins by stating that 'all men are born free and equal in rights'. Jefferson, in idealistic vein when drafting the American document, defines the main human rights as 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness'. His French successors also make liberty their first choice. But they follow it with the right to private property.

The distinction points up an important theme of the developing French Revolution. It is the achievement of the third estate. But that estate is a broad constituency ranging from the rich bourgeoisie to craftsmen and traders in the towns and smallholders in the countryside.


All these classes, in revolutionary mood, covet the riches previously reserved for nobility and church (a decree of 2 November 1789 declares that all church property belongs to the nation and will be sold). Some are better placed to get and keep a share of this wealth than others. Enmity between the various groups is a continuing theme through the revolutionary years and into the Napoleonic era. Indeed all subsequent class warfare, including even capitalism versus communism, can be seen as a continuing battle between rival wings of the third estate.

Meanwhile a group of small entrepreneurs is the first to flex its muscles. The market women of Paris lead a march to Versailles to put their views, in forcible fashion, to the king himself.


The capture of the king: 6 October 1789

The immediate intention of the Paris mob, marching the fourteen miles to Versailles on October 5, is to protest about the price of bread. They force their way into a sitting of the Assembly to demand a lower price, and they are allowed to send a deputation into the palace to see the king. They then camp outside during a rainy night.

In the morning they find their way into the palace through an unguarded door. They reach the queen's apartments, killing two guards on the way to ransacking Marie-Antoinette's bedroom (she escapes just before their arrival).


The crowd, by now filling the palace courtyard, is not calmed until the king appears on a balcony and promises to accompany them to Paris. At noon on October 6 he and his family leave Versailles and travel slowly towards the capital, surrounded by the throng and arriving only after dark. He takes up his residence in the Tuileries. The National Assembly, following him, establishes itself in the adjacent riding school.

Paris, in radical and tumultuous mood, has thus captured both king and assembly - within just three months of the fall of the Bastille. The revolution finds its home, and moves into a new phase.


Clubs and characters: from1789

One of the striking features of the French Revolution is the part played by political clubs. In France, home of the Enlightenment and the most intellectual of European nations, it is predictable that the great issues of the years following 1789 will be passionately debated.

More surprising is the degree of political power exercised by these informal debating societies - and the number of leading characters of the revolution who emerge from this passionate and often dangerous environment.


The most significant of the clubs is established in Paris shortly after the Assembly moves there in the autumn of 1789. It meets in a Jacobin convent in the Rue St Honoré and so becomes known as the Jacobin club. (Jacobin is a French name for the Dominicans, because their first convent in Paris was near the church of St Jacques.)

The term Jacobin eventually becomes associated with the most radical of policies owing to the club's dominance during the Terror of 1793, when its leading figures are Robespierre and Saint-Just. But in the early years of the revolution the Jacobin club includes a wide range of opinion. And its large membership throughout France makes it the debating chamber of the nation.


The club's aims, drawn up in February 1790, hint at what will later become its rigidly doctrinaire nature; they are 'to enlighten the people and to protect them from error'. The number of people arguing about the nature of error grows rapidly. By July 1790 the club in Paris has 1200 members and meets four evenings a week until 11 pm. In the rest of the country, by this summer, there are 152 affiliated Jacobin clubs. With policy documents issued regularly from the centre, this network represents a formidable political force.

At this same period another powerful club is formed in Paris, and one with more aggressive principles than the Jacobins.


The club of the Cordeliers, in existence by May 1790, also takes its name from the monastery where it first meets - that of the Franciscans, known in France as Cordeliers. Its stated function is 'to denounce to the tribunal of public opinion abuses of the various powers and all infractions of the rights of man'. (In 1793 the club promotes Liberté! Egalité! Fraternité! as the motto of the revolution, urging patriots to paint these words in large letters on the walls of their houses.)

Among the club's founding members are Danton and Marat. By the spring of 1791 their ability to appeal to the tribunal of public opinion, at least among the poorer classes in Paris, is made plain when the king and his family plan to leave the city for Easter.


Varennes and the Champ de Mars: June - July 1791

The royal family, trying to depart in carriages to spend Easter at their palace in St Cloud, are physically prevented from leaving the Tuileries by members of the National Guard, backed up by a noisy street demonstration inspired by the club of the Cordeliers. The incident makes the king's lack of freedom painfully apparent. It prompts the rash attempt at escape which leads, almost inexorably, to his death.

On the night of 20 June 1791 Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and their two children (a 12-year-old princess and the 6-year-old dauphin, known to history as Louis XVII) succeed in leaving the Tuileries in disguise with false passports. Their coach takes the road east, heading for the border with Germany.


The idea is to escape from France and to enlist the support of royalist allies (perhaps even the emperor of Austria, Leopold II, who is Marie Antoinette's brother) who might somehow restore Louis to his kingdom. But along the way the family is recognized. Pursuing forces overtake the carriage at Varennes. The flight has lasted twenty-four hours.

The king is brought back to Paris, even more evidently a captive than before - and one now with possibly treasonable intentions. The hotheads in the club of the Cordeliers see their chance. On July 17 they organize a mass demonstration on the Champ de Mars (Paris's main open space for public events and festivities) in support of a petition to the National Assembly.


The petition demands the abdication and trial of the king. This is a step beyond what has yet been widely proposed, for the main revolutionary intention thus far has been to establish a constitutional monarchy. The scene, as often in such demonstrations, gets out of hand. Stones are thrown. The National Guards respond with rounds of fire. Some demonstrators are killed; others are trampled in the resulting panic, with about fifty deaths in all.

The event is dramatic enough to take its place in popular history as the 'massacre of the Champ de Mars'. It is the small beginning in a crescendo of violence over the next two years - on the battlefield against foreign armies, and in the streets of French cities.


French declaration of war: 20 April 1792

After his ignominious return from Varennes, Louis XVI has little option but to accept the detailed constitution devised, after two years of painstaking committee work, by members of the Constituent Assembly. It provides for its own replacement by a new assembly, to be known as the Legislative Assembly. The Constituent Assembly adds the self-denying proviso that the new assembly must consist entirely of new members.

The inexperienced deputies of the Legislative Assembly meet for the first time on 1 October 1791. Their institution exists for less than a year before coming to an abrupt end. But during that time the first clearly defined revolutionary factions begin to emerge.


The main issue between them is whether France should go to war against other nations to export the revolution at its present stage of development, or should concentrate on pushing the revolution in a more extreme direction within the nation.

The war party become known as the Girondins, because many of their leading members are deputies from the Gironde. Their own links are with the bourgeoisie - the merchants and professionals who have benifited from new opportunities thus far in the political upheaval, and who see self-interest in a period of consolidation and calm (which the shared purpose of war tends to bring to a nation).


The opposing party is the left wing of the Jacobins, headed by Robespierre. Inspired rather more by the ideals of political change, and with support among less wealthy sections of society, they are determined to concentrate on furthering the revolution at home.

The war party has a natural ally in the king. He is still head of state. Only he can declare war, and any clear outcome may prove to his benefit. If France wins a war, the credit may seem partly his. If she loses, the victor is certain to be a royalist nation which will have no wish to encourage revolution.


Other European nations are alarmed by the events in France. There are foreign armies in readiness beyond the Rhine. Among them are forces headed by French émigrés, who have already judged flight from France to be the safest course of action. The most significant opposing power is Austria, so the declaration of war - which the Girondins persuade Louis XVI to declare on 20 April 1792 - is addressed to the Austrian emperor.

This action launches the French revolutionary wars, and inaugurates a period of more than twenty years in which France is in armed conflict against European neighbours.


Summer frenzy: 1792

The summer months of 1792 bring a heady blend of excitement, alarm and escalating violence - most of it orchestrated by the rival revolutionary groups jockeying for power in Paris.

The sense of excitement is evident in the writing of the Marseillaise, just five days after France's declaration of war. On April 25 news of the war reaches Strasbourg. The mayor of the city, entertaining some of the officers due to depart for the front, deplores France's lack of a national anthem. One of the officers, Rouget de Lisle, accepts the challenge. That evening he writes the verses beginning Allons, enfants de la patrie!.


His song wins immediate popularity (the tune is possibly also his). It is known at first as the Battle Hymn of the Army of the Rhine. By June it is a favourite with the battalions of the National Guard in southern France, particularly with the units from Marseilles. They sing it lustily when they parade in Paris in July, and so the Parisians give it its lasting name - the Marseillaise.

On the date when the Marseillaise is written, April 25, history provides one of its more chilling coincidences. On that same day a highwayman is executed in a Paris square in the first public demonstration of a machine designed to comply with revolutionary principles - the Guillotine.


The Marseilles contingent arrives in the capital city on July 30 in time to take part in Paris's next major outbreak of political violence. The war party, that of the Girondins, has lost some of its influence owing to early French reverses against the Austrians. Meanwhile the radical wing of the revolution has extended its power base by skilful infiltration of the committees of the Paris commune. A particularly prominent new voice in the affairs of the commune is that of Danton.

The predictable outcome of an increasingly excitable mood, inflamed by a committee of insurrection set up by the commune, is an attack on the residence of the royal family in the Tuileries.


The attack comes on August 10. The royal family retreat for safety to the Assembly, while the mob slaughter the king's Swiss guards (ordered by Louis XVI to hold their fire) and ransack the royal apartments.

In a room in the Assembly the king and queen await the next developments. They prove disastrous. On this same day the king's rule is 'suspended'. On the 11th it is decreed that the Assembly will be replaced by a newly elected Convention. The radical Paris commune is given the responsibility for tracking down those guilty of crimes against the state; citizens are encouraged to come forward and denounce the guilty. On the 13th the king is delivered into the hands of the commune.


The king is imprisoned in the Temple. But his fate remains undecided until the election of the new Convention, scheduled for early September. Meanwhile the approach of the election prompts the next step in Paris's relentless escalation of bloodshed.

It suits the extremist Jacobins, whose support among the public is little more than slight, to hold the elections in an atmosphere of terror calculated to deter opposition. A committee of the commune, supported by the poisonous pen of Marat ('Rise and let the blood of traitors flow, it is the only way to save the fatherland'), orchestrates the brutal events which become known as the September massacres.


Over a period of four days, from September 2, thugs enter the Paris prisons and drag the inmates out to summary execution. Most of the victims are priests and aristocrats, though many common criminals die as well. There is already a mood of public alarm, with foreign armies now on French soil, so it is easy for the commune to argue that the victims were dangerous royalist conspirators. About 1400 die in Paris. There are attempts, not very successful, to spread the massacre to provincial centres.

In the next few days electors pick their way past piles of corpses to the polling stations, where the Jacobins insist on a public ballot. The left wing is better represented in the resulting Convention than might otherwise have been expected.


National Convention: 1792-1793

The Parisian deputies in the new Convention are mainly Jacobins (Robespierre and Danton are elected as the first two deputies for the city), but the largest party is still the Girondins. They sit on one side of the assembly; opposite them are the Jacobins, sitting on a raised platform which becomes known as the Mountain (giving them the name Montagnards, or mountaineers).

By analogy the centre of the hall becomes known as the Plain. Here sit the large majority of deputies, unaffiliated but highly susceptible to the terrorist tactics of the Mountain.


On the most urgent business before the assembly - the defence and the future government of the nation - everyone is agreed. Welcome news on the first count gets the Convention off to a confident start. The deputies gather on September 21. On the previous day the French revolutionary army has won its its first decisive victory, halting the combined forces of Austria and Prussia at Valmy and thus removing the immediate danger to Paris.

On the other issue the deputies feel equally sure of themselves. On their first day of deliberation they 'decree unanimously that royalty is abolished in France'.


By this decree the French republic is established. In the new Republican calendar (devised over the next few months), the very next day, September 22, becomes the first day of Vendémiaire (the 'grape harvest' month) of Year 1 of the new era. The future looks bright.

The next issue confronting the Convention will not be so easily solved - what to do with the king, now referred to in the new republic as plain Louis Capet or Citizen Capet. There is much debate as to the legal grounds on which he might be tried. His case is weakened by the discovery on November 20, in an iron chest in the Tuileries, of documents apparently implicating him in treasonable correspondence with royalist enemies of France.


On December 11 Louis is charged with crimes which include complicity in 'plots against the nation'. He denies all the charges but is given little chance to defend himself. In his absence the deputies debate for days not about his guilt (which hardly anyone dares to dispute) but about the appropriate punishment. Eventually, out of 721 deputies, 361 vote for death without delay or referendum - a majority of just one. In view of the closeness of this result, a further vote is taken on the question of delay. There is again a majority for immediate action.

On 21 January 1793 Louis XVI is guillotined - a successor to Charles I in Europe's long constitutional debate.


Murderous factions: 1793-1794

With the stage cleared by the death of the king, France lapses into a vivid and extreme example of political in-fighting - a process often described as lethal and in this case literally so.

With the guillotine waiting in the Place de la Révolution (the present-day Place de la Concorde), and with the concept of Terror already introduced in the September massacres of 1792, political failure in revolutionary Paris no longer entails the loss just of seat or salary. It means a tumbril dragged through the streets and a very public end. The stakes are high.


The first contest is between the only two clear-cut parties in the Convention, the Girondins and the Jacobins. They draw their support respectively from the country and from Paris, which gives the Jacobins a local advantage. It is used to ruthless effect when the Jacobins and the Paris commune persuade national guardsmen and large numbers of armed citizens to surround the Convention on 2 June 1793. The deputies are prevented from leaving until they pass a resolution for the arrest of twenty-nine leading Girondins.

In the event the Girondins are allowed their freedom for some months, while a debate is carried out as to how to deal with them. This debate exposes the next fatal rift among the leading deputies.


Danton, who exercises considerable power through his dominance of the Convention's committee of public safety, is interested only in achieving a stronger government than the Girondins were capable of providing. He sees the revolution as now secure, with no need for further victimisation. He and his allies, operating as a group distinct from the Jacobins, become known as the Indulgents.

By contrast the Jacobins, led by Robespierre, are determined to secure their own radical version of the revolution by eliminating all opposition. They have the Girondins in their sights. Their case is strengthened when Charlotte Corday, avenging the Girondins, assassinates Marat, the most poisonous voice of the radical left.


Marat, an impossible colleague, becomes a useful martyr. His death, on 13 July 1793, makes it easy to justify harsh measures against the leading Girondins. More than thirty of them are guillotined in October 1793.

By this time Robespierre is firmly in control of the committee of public safety, which has become the ruthlessly efficient executive wing of the Convention. The committee gradually acquires all the centralized and unaccountable powers of a police state, and uses them with the arbitrary cruelty which has become known as the Terror.


The Terror and Thermidor: 1793-1794

During the winter of 1793 the number of victims of the guillotine in France's cities rises dramatically. The October total (including the Girondin leaders) is 180, followed by 500 in November, 3380 in December and 3500 in January. These are the national figures, of which those for Paris form a surprisingly low proportion - 59, 61, 66 and 61 for the given months.

During the peak of the Terror, Danton continues to argue against this severity. His argument is inevitably a criticism of Robespierre and his closest ally, Saint-Just. At the end of March the committee takes the risk of ordering the arrest of Danton and his faction.


It is a dangerous move because Danton is one of the revolution's most powerful orators and he nearly sways the Convention. But Robespierre and Saint-Just carry the day with some fabricated evidence. In April the Dantonistes go to the guillotine.

Robespierre's power is now absolute, or seems so, but within two months that very perception proves his undoing. He seems remote; he rarely attends the Convention; there are mutterings about dictatorship. In July (or Thermidor as it now is known) a majority in the Convention suddenly turn against him and order his arrest, together with Saint-Just and other close allies.


In late July 1794 the tumbrils carry the Robespierre faction to the guillotine, as many as 105 of them over three days. With their departure the judicial blood lust of the Terror at last dies down, though in the coming months Jacobins are massacred in many parts of the country in revenge for the events of 1792-4.

Politically the events of Thermidor result in power returning from the committee of public safety to the full Convention. The moderates (or Thermidorians, as they become known from their victory in this month's confrontation) now have the practical everyday problems of economics and war to contend with.


Bread and civil war: to1794

When Robespierre is carried through the streets on the way to his death, he is jeered by the crowd with cries of À bas le maximum! (down with the maximum). This reaction reveals that for all the infighting of recent months, the everyday realities of life remain the most important factor in politics.

The maximum is a fixed price which the Jacobins have put on bread and certain other basic commodities in an attempt to solve extreme shortages in the cities. Like many such centralized measures, it fails to solve the problem and only shifts more squarely onto government shoulders the blame for the underlying shortage.


The national economy also lurches ever deeper into crisis. Since 1789 the Assembly has issued paper currency (assignats) to boost the economy and to enable citizens to buy the property of the church, appropriated in that year by the state. To cope with escalating expenses and, from 1792, the cost of war, the government prints more and more assignats. The inevitable result is rapid inflation. In January 1793 the assignat is worth 60% of its face value. By July it has halved again.

Meanwhile the seizure of church property has itself brought immense problems in its wake.


The Civil Constitution of the Clergy, passed by the Assembly in July 1790, turns the French church into a department of the French government and requires priests to take an appropriate oath. This profoundly offends many, particularly after pope Pius VI condemns the arrangement in March 1791. Priests who refuse to swear the oath find themselves without a salary. But often, in country districts, they have the support of passionately loyal parishioners bewildered and resentful on their behalf.

Similarly the massive programme of conscription, made necessary by the foreign wars, causes much resentment in many areas - as does the centralized tyranny of Jacobin rule.


The result of these various discontents is pockets of armed insurrection during 1793, with royalist interests eager to foment unrest wherever it occurs. The important cities of Lyons and Marseilles are in rebel hands during the summer and early autumn of that year, requiring sieges to bring them back under control.

Even more serious is a large-scale civil war which breaks out in the Vendée (the Atlantic region between the Loire and the Gironde). In this poor rural area there is much peasant support for Non-juring priests and great resentment at the extensive conscription imposed in 1793. Moreover the Atlantic coast exposes the region to émigré influence from England.


In March 1793 unrest in the Vendée explodes into full-scale insurrection. A peasant army, some 30,000 strong and enjoying the support of the local aristocracy, captures several towns before crossing the Loire with the intention of marching on Paris. Government forces eventually defeat and dispel the rebels in a series of bloody encounters towards the end of the year.

Further unrest in the region erupts in July 1795 when a French émigré army lands from British ships in Quiberon Bay. On this occasion, a year after the fall of Robespierre and his faction, the insurgents are rapidly defeated by a government army - a rare success for the Convention in Paris as it struggles to maintain order.


The Convention after Robespierre: 1794-1795

An initial sense of euphoria at the ending of the Terror, in July 1794, is rapidly followed by the continuation of the revolution's underlying problems. The maximum is abolished in December 1794, leading to an even more severe shortage of food. Inflation continues to accelerate; by July 1795 the assignat is worth less than 5% of its face value.

On the political front, violent recriminations throughout the country against the extremist Jacobins give encouragement to the royalists and increase the dangers of a coup. The main concern of the moderates or Thermidorians, now in control of the Convention, is to balance the factions and avoid a lurch to either extreme.


The central thrust of their policy is to devise a new constitution which safeguards the perceived benefits of the revolution (guaranteeing certain individual liberties, for example, and assuring the new owners of church and émigré lands that their tenure is secure) and at the same time protects society against the unsettling populist pressures of the past two years (political clubs, for example, are banned).

The resulting Constitution of the Year III (i.e. 1794-5) proposes an executive of five directors - not directly elected, but chosen by the members of two elected legislative chambers.


The new constitution is a clear step back from the brink of full democracy. It replaces universal male suffrage with a tax-paying qualification for electors and a property-owning threshold for candidates. This, together with the announcement that two thirds of the seats in the new assembly are to be reserved for members of the existing Convention, causes much agitation in political circles in the districts of Paris. The mood of unrest is used by royalist agents to foment an armed insurrection against the Convention.

The result, in Vendémiaire of year IV (October 1795), is the last popular uprising of the revolution. It brings to the fore a young artillery officer - Napoleon.


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