Radicals Fight for Power and Declare War
In October 1791, the newly elected Legislative Assembly took office. Faced with crises at home and abroad, it survived for less than a year. Economic problems fed renewed turmoil. Assignats (as ig nats), the revolutionary currency, dropped in value, causing prices to rise rapidly. Uncertainty about prices led to hoarding and caused additional food shortages.
In Paris and other cities, working-class men and women, called sans-culottes (sanz koo lahts), pushed the revolution into more radical action. They were called sans-culottes, which means “without breeches,” because they wore long trousers instead of the fancy knee breeches that upper-class men wore. By 1791, many sans-culottes demanded a republic, or government ruled by elected representatives instead of a monarch.
Within the Legislative Assembly, several hostile factions competed for power. The sans-culottes found support among radicals in the Legislative Assembly, especially the Jacobins. A revolutionary political club, the Jacobins were mostly middle-class lawyers or intellectuals. They used pamphleteers and sympathetic newspaper editors to advance the republican cause. Opposing the radicals were moderate reformers and political officials who wanted no more reforms at all.
Radicals Take Control and Execute the King
Backed by Paris crowds, radicals then took control of the Assembly. Radicals called for the election of a new legislative body called the National Convention. Suffrage, the right to vote, was to be extended to all male citizens, not just to property owners.
The Convention that met in September 1792 was a more radical body than earlier assemblies. It voted to abolish the monarchy and establish a republic—the French Republic. Deputies then drew up a new constitution for France. The Jacobins, who controlled the Convention, set out to erase all traces of the old order. They seized lands of nobles and abolished titles of nobility.
During the early months of the Republic, the Convention put Louis XVI on trial as a traitor to France. The king was convicted by a single vote and sentenced to death. He was beheaded on a foggy morning in January 1793. His wife, Marie Antoinette would be executed in October of that year.
Robespierre “the Incorruptible”
By early 1793, danger threatened France on all sides. The country was at war with much of Europe, including Britain, the Netherlands, Span, and Prussia. Rebellions were occurring all over France, led by both royalists and priests. In Paris, the sans-culottes demanded relief from food shortages and inflation. The Convention itself was bitterly divided between Jacobins and a rival group, the Girondins.
At home, the government battled counterrevolutionaries under the guiding hand of Maximilien Robespierre (rohbz pyehr). Robespierre, a shrewd lawyer and politician, quickly rose to the leadership of the Committee of Public Safety. Among Jacobins, his selfless dedication to the revolution earned him the nickname “the incorruptible.” The enemies of Robespierre called him a tyrant.
Though cold and humorless, he was popular with the sans-culottes, who hated the old regime as much as he did. He believed that France could achieve a “republic of virtue” only through the use of terror, which he coolly defined as nothing more than “prompt, severe, inflexible justice.” “Liberty cannot be secured,” Robespierre cried, “unless criminals lose their heads.”
The Guillotine Defines the Reign of Terror
Robespierre was one of the chief architects of the Reign of Terror, which lasted from September 1793 to July 1794. Revolutionary courts conducted hasty trials. Spectators greeted death sentences with cries of “Hail the Republic!” or “Death to the traitors!”
Suspect were those who resisted the revolution. About 300,000 were arrested during the Reign of Terror. Seventeen thousand were executed. Many were victims of mistaken identity or were falsely accused by their neighbors. Many more were packed into hideous prisons, where deaths from disease were common.
The engine of the Terror was the guillotine (gil uh teen). Its fast-falling blade extinguished life instantly. A member of the legislature, Dr. Joseph Guillotin (gee oh tan), had introduced it as a more humane method of beheading than the uncertain ax. But the guillotine quickly became a symbol of horror.
Revolution and war gave the French people a strong sense of national identity. In earlier times, people had felt loyalty to local authorities. As monarchs centralized power, loyalty shifted to the king or queen. Now, the government rallied sons and daughters of the revolution to defend the nation itself. Nationalism, a strong feeling of pride in and devotion to one’s country, spread throughout France. The French people attended civic festivals that celebrated the nation and the revolution. A variety of dances and songs on themes of the revolution became immensely popular.
Radicals Take Over the French Revolution – for iPhone and iPod Touch