The Radical Republic and the Terror
The fall of the monarchy marked the triumph of popular democracy and a return to universal manhood suffrage (introduced in 1789 but abandoned in 1791).
In Paris, charismatic leaders like Georges Danton and Maximilien Robespierre jockeyed for power and influence. Political clubs (like the radical Jacobins) and factions formed. Meetings of the assembly were attended by crowds of regular folk who jeered, cheered, shouted, and threw things at political leaders and speakers. Such crowd participation had a dramatic influence on both the policies adopted and changes in leadership, of which there were many. In Paris and the provinces, local clubs and “section assemblies” drew large numbers of sans-culottes (those “without fancy pants”) into almost daily political activity.
In the National Assembly, the first order of business for the newly elected deputies was the fate of the former king. Some argued that he should be tried for treason; others argued that he should be executed immediately without trial, whereas conservatives held that he enjoyed royal immunity from either trial or prosecution. The deputies finally decided on a trial, conducted by the National Convention itself. Louis appeared twice in his own defense, but after a month, the deputies voted unanimously to convict him of collusion with foreign powers and then, by a narrow majority, to execute him. In January 1793, he was beheaded on the guillotine, as was his wife, Marie Antoinette, nine months later. The guillotine, a mechanical beheading device recently introduced as a painless (thus, more humane) and efficient means of execution, became another symbol of the Revolution.
Within a month of Louis’s execution, Britain, Holland, and Spain joined Austria and Prussia in the war against France. The threat that the French revolutionaries posed to the monarchies of Europe was made more immediate and personal by the fact that Marie Antoinette was the sister of the ruler of Austria. In France, the combined threats of counterrevolution and foreign war strengthened the hand of more radical factions within the National Convention, which set up a Committee of Public Safety to defend the gains of the Revolution and eliminate its enemies. Led first by Danton and then by Robespierre, the committee officially proclaimed the Terror, responding both to internal enemies and the threat of foreign invasion. Those who opposed the Revolution were now classified as suspects subject to arrest and trial. As Robespierre put it, “To good citizens revolutionary government owes the full protection of the state; to the enemies of the people it owes only death.” The guillotine was the usual method of execution. Overall, about forty thousand people perished during the Terror. Within a year, the Terror had run its course, but not before consuming its own. Upon being led to the scaffold, Danton told the ex-executioner, “Show them my head; it is a sight worth seeing.” A few months later, Robespierre followed him to the guillotine.
After the death of Robespierre, the convention dismantled the revolutionary dictatorship, wrote yet another constitution, and established a five man Directory to hold executive power. The Directory would last for four years, trying to find middle ground between radical revolution and royalist reaction. Still at war with the rest of Europe and facing continuing political ferment, the Directory increasingly came to rely for support on the military as its own political legitimacy waned. The directors themselves supported a coup d’état in late 1799, placing the levers of power in the hands of a dynamic young military officer named Napoleon Bonaparte.
Charles Dickens on the Guillotine
The legacy and meaning of the French Revolution are among the most hotly contested matters in all of history. It was, after all, a time of magnificent achievements but also of much suffering. In England, where political change had come in mostly peaceful ways, many people were appalled by the violence of the French Revolution. Charles Dickens, for example, who was born a generation after the Revolution, writes in A Tale of Two Cities of his revulsion of the worship of the guillotine during the Terror: It was the National Razor which shaved close. . . . It was the sign of regeneration of the human race. It superseded the Cross. Models of it were worn on breasts from which the Cross was discarded, and it was bowed down to and believed in where the Cross was denied.