The Convention

September 21, 1792—October 26, 1795


THE election to this third assembly, which was to see both the culmination and the decline of the Revolution, was even more subtly managed by the Jacobins than that of 1791. The process was carefully indirect: the voters chose electors, who met in electoral committee and chose the deputies to represent their district in the Convention. Both elections were by voice vote and in public; at each stage the voter risked injury if he offended the local leaders.1 In the cities conservatives refused to vote; “the number of abstentions was enormous”;2 of 7 million persons qualified to vote, 6.3 million stayed away.3 In Paris the voting began on September 2, and continued for several days while, at the prison gates, massacres sent out hints how to vote and survive. In many districts pious Catholics refrained from voting; hence the strongly royalist Vendée elected nine deputies of whom six would vote for the execution of the King.4 In Paris the electoral assembly met in the Jacobin Club, with the result that all twenty-four of the deputies chosen to represent the capital were convinced republicans and supporters of the Commune: Danton, Robespierre, Marat, Desmoulins, Billaud-Varenne, Collot d’Herbois, Fréron, David (the painter)…. In the provinces the Girondins did some rigging of their own; so Brissot, Roland, Condorcet, Pétion, Gaudet, Barbaroux, and Buzot earned the right to serve and die. Among the foreigners elected were Priestley, Cloots, and Paine. The Duc d’Orléans, renamed Citizen Philippe Égalité, was chosen to represent a radical section of Paris.

When the Convention convened in the Tuileries on September 21, 1792, it had 750 members. All but two were of the middle class; two were workingmen; nearly all were lawyers. The 180 Girondins, organized, educated, and eloquent, took the lead in legislation. On the ground that there was no present danger of invasion, they secured a relaxation of the laws against suspects, émigrés, and priests, and of wartime control over the economy; free enterprise was restored; soon there were complaints of profiteering and price manipulation. To squelch a movement among radicals for the confiscation of large estates and their division among the people, the Gironde, on the first day of the Convention, carried a measure proclaiming the sanctity of private property. So appeased, the Gironde agreed with the Mountain and the Plain in declaring, on September 22, 1792, the First French Republic.

On the same day the Convention decreed that, after a year of readjustment, the Christian calendar should be replaced, in France and its possessions, by a Revolutionary Calendar, in which the years would be named I (from September 22, 1792, to September 21, 1793), II, III …, and the months would be named by their typical weather: Vendémiaire (vintage), Brumaire (mist), and Frimaire (frost), for autumn; Nivôse (snow), Pluviôse (rain), and Ventôse (wind), for winter; Germinal (budding), Floréal (flowering), and Prairial (meadows), for spring; and Messidor (harvest), Thermidor (warmth), and Fructidor (fruit), for summer. Each month was to be divided into three décades of ten days each; each décade was to end in a décadi, replacing Sunday as a day of rest. The five remaining days, called sans-culottides, were to be national festivals. The Convention hoped that this calendar would remind Frenchmen not of religious saints and seasons but of the earth and the tasks that made it fruitful; Nature would replace God. The new calendar came into use on November 24, 1793, and died at the end of Anno Domini 1805.

The Gironde and the Mountain agreed on private property, the republic, and the war upon Christianity; but on several other issues they differed to the point of death. The Girondins resented the geographically disproportionate influence of Paris—its deputies and its populace—on measures affecting all France; the Montagnards resented the influence of merchants and millionaires in determining the votes of the Girondins. Danton (whose section had given him 638 electoral votes out of a possible 700) resigned his place as minister of justice to undertake the task of uniting the Gironde and the Mountain in a policy of seeking peace with Prussia and Austria. But the Girondins distrusted him as the idol of radical Paris, and called for a record of his expenditures as minister; he could not account to their satisfaction for the sums he had laid out (he was a great believer in bribes), nor could he explain where he had found the money to buy three houses in or near Paris, and a large estate in the department of Aube; undeniably he had been living in a grand style. Calling his questioners ingrates, he gave up his labors for internal and external conciliation, and joined forces with Robespierre.

Though second only to Danton in popularity with the sections, Robespierre was as yet a secondary figure among the deputies. In their balloting for the presidency of the Convention he received six votes, Roland 235. To most of the deputies he was a dogmatist fertile in generalities and moral platitudes, a cautious opportunist who waited patiently for every opening to added power. An underlying consistency in his proposals had given him a slowly rising influence. He had kept from direct involvement in the attack upon the Tuileries or in the September Massacres, but he had accepted them as putting the fear of the people into the policies of the bourgeoisie. From the beginning he had advocated adult male suffrage—though in practice he had winked at keeping royalists and Catholics from the polls. He had defended the institution of private property, and had discouraged the appeal of a few impoverished souls for the confiscation and redistribution of possessions; however, he had proposed inheritance and other taxes that would “reduce by gentle but efficacious measures the extreme inequalities of wealth.”5 Meanwhile he bided his time, and allowed his rivals to wear themselves out with passion and extremes. He seemed convinced that someday he would rule—and predicted that someday he would be killed.6 “He knew, as all these men knew, that almost from hour to hour he carried his life in his hand.”7

It was neither Robespierre nor Danton but Marat who completely championed the proletariat. On September 25, to celebrate the new republic, he changed the name of his periodical to Journal de la République française. He was now forty-nine years old (Robespierre was thirty-four, Danton thirty-three); he had less than a year of life remaining to him, but he filled it with an uncompromising campaign against the Girondins as enemies of the people, agents of that rising commercial bourgeoisie which seemed resolved to make the Revolution the political arm of a “free enterprise” economy. His violent diatribes reverberated through Paris, stirring the sections to insurgency, and generating in the Convention an almost universal hostility. The Girondins denounced what they called the “triumvirate” of Danton, Robespierre, and Marat, but Danton disowned him and Robespierre avoided him; he sat with the Mountain, but usually friendless and alone. On September 25, 1792, Vergniaud and others read to the Convention documents indicating that Marat had called for a dictatorship and had evoked the massacres. When the ailing “tribune of the people” rose to defend himself he was assailed with cries of “Sit down!” “It seems,” he said, “that I have a great number of personal enemies in this assembly.” “All of us!” cried out the Girondins. Marat proceeded to repeat his demand for a dictatorship on the limited Roman style, and acknowledged his incitations to violence, but he exonerated Danton and Robespierre from any association with his plans. A deputy proposed that he be arrested and tried for treason; the motion was defeated. Marat took a pistol from his pocket, held it to his head, and announced, “If my indictment had been decreed, I would have blown my brains out at the foot of the tribune.”8

The Girondins—who had led France into war—were strengthened in these months by the victories of French troops and the extension of French power and revolutionary ideas. On September 21, 1792, General Anne-Pierre de Montesquiou-Fezensac led his forces to the easy conquest of Savoy (then part of the kingdom of Sardinia); “the progress of my army,” he reported to the Convention, “is a triumph; in both country and town the people come out to meet us; the tricolor cockade is worn on all sides.”9 On September 27 another French division entered Nice unopposed; on September 29 it took Villefranche. On November 27, at the request of local political leaders, Savoy was incorporated into France.

The conquest of the Rhineland was more difficult. On September 25 General Adam-Philippe de Custine led his volunteers to the capture of Speyer, taking three thousand prisoners; on October 5 he entered Worms; on October 19, Mainz; on October 21, Frankfurt-am-Main. To win Belgium (a dependency of Austria) to the Revolution, Dumouriez had to fight at Jemappes (November 6) one of the major battles of the war; the Austrians, after long resistance, retreated, leaving four thousand dead on the field. Brussels fell on November 14, Liège on the twenty-fourth, Antwerp on the thirtieth; in these cities the French were welcomed as liberators. Instead of obeying the Convention’s orders to move south and join his forces with Custine’s, Dumouriez dallied in Belgium and enriched himself in dealings with speculators in army supplies. Reprimanded, he threatened to resign. Danton was sent to appease him; he succeeded, but suffered guilt by association when (April 5, 1793) Dumouriez defected to the enemy.

Intoxicated with these victories, the Convention leaders adopted two complementary policies: to extend France to her “natural boundaries”—the Rhine, the Alps, the Pyrenees, and the seas—and to win the frontier populations by pledging them military aid in achieving economic and political freedom. Hence the bold decree of December 15, 1792:

From this moment the French nation proclaims the sovereignty of the people [in all cooperating regions], the suppression of all civil and military authorities which have hitherto governed you, and of all the taxes which you bear, under whatever form; the abolition of the tithe, of feudalism, … of serfdom …; it also proclaims the abolition among you of all noble and ecclesiastical corporations, and of all prerogatives and privileges as opposed to equality. You are, from this moment, brothers and friends, all are citizens, equal in rights, and all alike are called to govern, to serve, and to defend your country.10

This “Edict of Fraternity” brought a mess of problems upon the young republic. When the conquered (“liberated”) territories were taxed to support the French occupation, they complained that one master and his tax had been replaced by another. When the church hierarchy in Belgium, Liège, and the Rhineland, long accustomed to hold or share the ruling authority, saw itself challenged in both theology and power, it joined hands across frontiers and creeds, to repel, and if possible to destroy, the French Revolution. When, on November 16, 1792, to win the merchants of Antwerp to the French cause, the Convention decreed the opening of the River Scheldt to all navigation—whereas the Peace of Westphalia (1648) had closed it to all but the Dutch—Holland prepared to resist. The monarchs of Europe interpreted the Convention’s pledge as a declaration of war against all kings and feudal lords. The First Coalition against France began to take form.

The Convention decided to burn all bridges behind it by bringing Louis XVI to trial for treason. Since August 10 the Temple had given a semihumane imprisonment to most of the royal family: the King, thirty-eight; the Queen, thirty-seven; his sister, “Madame Élisabeth,” twenty-eight; his daughter, Marie-Thérèse (“Madame Royale”), fourteen; and his son, the Dauphin Louis-Charles, seven. The Girondins did all they could to delay the trial, for they knew that the evidence would compel conviction and execution, and that would intensify the attack of the Powers upon France. Danton agreed with them, but a new figure on the scene, Louis-Antoine Saint-Just, aged twenty-five, caught the attention of the Convention by his impassioned call for regicide: “Louis has combated the people and has been defeated. He is a barbarian, a foreign prisoner of war; you have seen his perfidious designs…. He is the murderer of the Bastille, of Nancy, of the Champ-de-Mars, … of the Tuileries. What enemy, what foreigner has done you more harm?”11This attack might have made the judicious pause, but on November 20 an iron box discovered in a wall of the royal chambers in the Tuileries, and brought to the Convention by Roland, powerfully supported the charge of treason. It contained 625 secret documents, which revealed the King’s dealings with Lafayette, Mirabeau, Talleyrand, Barnave, various émigrés and conservative journalists; clearly Louis, despite his affirmation of loyalty to the constitution, had plotted the defeat of the Revolution. The Convention ordered a veil to be thrown over the bust of Mirabeau; the Jacobins smashed a statue that had commemorated Mirabeau in their club. Barnave was arrested in Grenoble; Lafayette fled to his army; Talleyrand, as always, escaped. On December 2 some delegates from the sections appeared before the Convention and demanded immediate trial of the King; soon the Paris Commune sent strong recommendations to the same effect. On December 3 Robespierre joined in the cry. Marat carried a motion that all voting in the trial should be by voice and in public—which placed the hesitant Girondins at the mercy of the sansculottes in the galleries and in the streets.

The trial began on December 11, 1792, before the full Convention. According to Sébastien Mercier, one of the deputies, “the back of the hall was converted into boxes, as in a theater, in which ladies wearing the most charming attire ate ices and oranges and drank liqueurs…. One could see ushers … escorting the mistresses of the Duke of Orléans.”12 The King was shown some of the documents found in the box; he denied his signature and all knowledge of the box. He met questions by pleading lapses of memory or putting the responsibility upon his ministers. He asked for a four-day deferral to let him employ his attorneys. Chrétien de Malesherbes, who had protected the philosophes and the Encyclopédie under Louis XV, offered to defend the King; Louis sadly accepted, saying, “Your sacrifice is the greater because you are exposing your own life, though you cannot save mine.”13 (Malesherbes was guillotined in April, 1794.) Meanwhile agents of the foreign Powers proposed to buy some votes for the King; Danton agreed to serve as purchasing agent; but the sum required proved to be more than their Majesties were willing to invest.14

On December 26 Romain de Sèze presented the case for the defense. The Constitution, he argued, gave no authority to the deputies to try the King; he had been within his human rights in fighting for his life. He was one of the kindest and most humane men, and one of the most liberal rulers, who had ever sat on the throne of France. Had the deputies forgotten his many reforms? Had he not inaugurated the Revolution by summoning the States-General, and inviting all Frenchmen to tell him of their wrongs and their desires? The prosecutors replied that the King had negotiated with foreign powers for the defeat of the Revolution. Why should an exception be made because the man guilty of treason had inherited the throne? As long as he remained alive, plots would be laid to restore him to his pre-Revolution powers. It would be well to make an example which all monarchs might contemplate before betraying the hopes of their people.

Voting on the King’s guilt began on January 15, 1793. Out of 749 members 683, including his cousin Philippe d’Orléans, declared for conviction.15 A motion to submit this verdict to ratification or repeal by the people of France through the primary assemblies was opposed by Robespierre, Marat, and Saint-Just, and was defeated by 424 votes to 287. “An appeal to the people—” said Saint-Just, “would not that be the recall of the monarchy?” Robespierre had long advocated democracy and universal male suffrage, but now he hesitated to trust it; “virtue,” he said (meaning republican fervor), “has always been in a minority on the earth.”16

When, on January 16, the final question was put—”What sentence has Louis, King of the French, incurred?”—both factions broke out into violence in the streets. There and in the galleries the crowd cried out for the death sentence, and threatened the life of anyone who should vote for anything less. Deputies who, the evening before, had vowed never to ask for the King’s execution, now fearing for their lives, voted for his death. Danton yielded. Paine held firm; Philippe d’Orléans, ready to succeed his cousin, voted for his elimination. Marat voted for “death within twenty-four hours”; Robespierre, who had always opposed capital punishment, now argued that a live king would be a danger to the republic;17 Condorcet appealed for the abolition of capital punishment now and forever. Brissot warned that a verdict of death would bring all the monarchs of Europe into war against France. Some deputies added a comment to their votes: Paganel said, “Death!—a king is made useful only by death”; Millaud said, “Today, if death did not exist, it would have to be invented”—echoing Voltaire on God. Duchâtel, dying, had himself borne to the tribunal, voted against Louis’ death, and then died.18 The final tally was 361 for death, 334 for a reprieve.

On January 20 a former member of the King’s Garde du Corps killed Louis-Michel Lepeletier de Saint-Fargeau, who had voted for death. On January 21 a coach, surrounded by an armed escort, and passing along streets lined by the National Guard, carried Louis XVI to the Place de la Révolution (now the Place de la Concorde). Before the guillotine he tried to speak to the multitude: “Frenchmen, I die innocent; it is from the scaffold and near to appearing before God that I tell you so. I pardon my enemies. I desire that France—” but at that point Santerre, head of the Paris National Guard, called, “Tambours!” and the drums drowned out the rest. The populace looked in somber silence as the heavy blade fell, tearing through flesh and bone. “On that day,” a spectator later recalled, “everyone walked slowly, and we hardly dared look at one another.”19

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!