The execution of the King was a victory for the “Mountain,” for the Commune, and for the policy of war. It united the “regicides” in fatal dedication to the Revolution, since they would be the chosen victims of a Bourbon restoration. It left the Girondins divided and desperate; they had split on the vote; they now moved in Paris in fear of their lives, and longed for the relative peace and order of the provinces. Roland, sick and disillusioned, resigned from the Executive Council the day after the execution of the King. Peace, which had been made possible by the absorption of Austria and Prussia in the partition of Poland, was now made impossible by the fury of European monarchs at the beheading of one of their fraternity.
In England William Pitt, prime minister, who had thought of making war against France, found nearly all resistance to that policy gone from a Parliament and a public shocked by the news that royalty itself had been laid under the guillotine—as if they themselves, through their ancestors, had never laid the axe upon Charles I. Pitt’s real reason, of course, was that French mastery of Antwerp would give to Britain’s ancient foe the key to the Rhine—the principal avenue of British trade with Central Europe. That danger took sharper form when, on December 15, 1792, the Convention decreed the annexation of Belgium to France. Now the road was open to French control of Holland and the Rhineland; all that rich and well-populated valley could then be closed to a Britain that lived by exporting the products of an expanding industry. On January 24, 1793, Pitt dismissed the French ambassador; on February 1 the Convention declared war upon both England and Holland. On March 7 Spain joined them, and the First Coalition—Prussia, Austria, Sardinia, England, Holland, Spain—began the second stage in the effort to check the Revolution.
A succession of disasters brought the Convention to a tardy realization of the difficulties it faced. The Revolutionary armies relaxed after their initial victories; thousands of volunteers quit after serving the term for which they had enlisted; the total of troops on the eastern front had fallen from 400,000 to 225,000; and these, through the incompetence and venality of the contractors whom Dumouriez protected and milked, were poorly clothed and fed. The generals repeatedly ignored the instructions sent them by the government. On February 24 the Convention resorted to conscription to raise new armies, but it favored the rich by allowing them to buy substitutes. Revolts against conscription broke out in several provinces. In the Vendée, dissatisfaction with conscription and the cost and scarcity of food joined with anger at the anti-Catholic legislation to generate so widespread a rebellion that an army had to be diverted from the front to control it. On February 16 Dumouriez led twenty thousand troops in an invasion of Holland; the regiments that he left as a garrison in Belgium were surprised and annihilated by an Austrian force under the Prince of Saxe-Coburg; Dumouriez himself was defeated at Neerwinden (March 18); and on April 5 he defected to the Austrians with a thousand men. In that month the representatives of England, Prussia, and Austria met and laid plans for the subjugation of France.
Internal difficulties, added to these external setbacks, threatened the collapse of the French government. Despite expropriation of ecclesiastical and émigré property, the new assignats were losing value almost overnight; valued at forty-seven percent of their face value in April, 1793, they fell to thirty-three percent three months later.20 New taxes were so widely resisted that the cost of their collection almost equaled their returns. Forced loans (as of May 20–25, 1793) despoiled the rising bourgeoisie; when this class used the Girondins to protect its interests in the government, it deepened the conflict between Gironde and Mountain in the Convention. Danton, Robespierre, and Marat won the Jacobin Club from its original bourgeois policies to more radical ideas. The Commune, led now by Pierre Chaumette and Jacques Hébert, used the latter’s fiery journal, Père Duchesne, to rouse the city and besiege the Convention with demands for the conscription of wealth. Day after day Marat waged war against the Girondins as protectors of the rich. In February, 1793, Jacques Roux and Jean Varlet led a group of proletarian “Enragés” in assailing the high cost of bread and insisting that the Convention should set maximum prices for the necessaries of life. Harassed by a storm of problems, the Convention surrendered the tasks of the year 1793 to committees whose decisions it came to accept with a minimum of debate.
Most of these committees were assigned to particular areas of activity and rule: agriculture, industry and commerce, accounting, finance, education, welfare, or colonial affairs. Usually manned by specialists, they did much good work, even amid the mounting crises; they prepared a new constitution, and left a heritage of constructive legislation that Bonaparte found helpful in forming the Code Napoléon.
To guard against foreign agents, internal subversion, and political offenses, the Convention (March 10, 1793) appointed a Committee of General Security as a national department of police, with practically absolute authority to make domiciliary visits without warning and to arrest anyone on suspicion of disloyalty or crime. Additional committees of surveillance were organized for the communes and sections of the cities.
Also on March 10 the Convention set up a Revolutionary Tribunal to try suspects sent to it; these were allowed defenders, but the judgment of the jurors was not subject to appeal or review. On April 5 the Convention appointed, as principal prosecutor before the Tribunal, Antoine-Quentin Fouquier-Tinville, a lawyer famous for searching and merciless examinations, but capable, now and then, of humane sentiments;21 however, he has come down to us in an engraving that shows him with a face like an eagle and a nose like a sword. The Tribunal began its sittings on April 6 in the Palais de Justice. As the war proceeded, and the number of persons sent up for trial became unmanageably large, the Tribunal more and more syncopated its legal procedure, and tended to pronounce an early verdict of guilty in nearly all cases sent to it by the Committee of Public Safety.
This Comité de Salut Public, established on April 6, 1793, replaced the Executive Council, and became the principal arm of the state. It was a war cabinet; it must be viewed not as a civil government acknowledging constitutional restraints, but as a body legally authorized to lead and command a nation fighting for its life. Its powers were limited only by its responsibility to the Convention; its decisions had to be submitted to the Convention, which in nearly all cases turned them into decrees. It controlled foreign policy, the armies and their generals, the civil functionaries, the committees on religion and the arts, the secret service of the state. It could open private and public correspondence; it disposed of secret funds; and through its own “representatives on mission” it controlled life and death in the provinces. It met in the rooms of the Pavillon de Flore, between the Tuileries and the Seine, and gathered for conference around a “green [cloth-covered] table” which for a year became the seat of the French government.
At its head, till July 10, sat Danton, now for the second time chosen to be leader of the nation in peril. He began at once by persuading his colleagues, and then the Convention, that the government should publicly renounce any intention to meddle in the internal affairs of any other nation.22 At his urging, and over the objections of Robespierre, the Convention sent out tentatives for peace to each member of the Coalition. He persuaded the Duke of Brunswick to halt his advance, and he succeeded in arranging an alliance with Sweden.23 He tried again to make peace between the Mountain and the Gironde, but their differences were too deep.
Marat intensified his attacks upon the Girondins, and with such mounting violence that they secured (April 14, 1793) a decree of the Convention that he should be tried by the Revolutionary Tribunal for advocating murder and dictatorship. At his trial a multitude of sansculottes gathered in the Palais de Justice and the adjacent streets, vowing to “avenge any outrage perpetrated on their favorite defender.” When the frightened jurors freed him his followers carried him in triumph on their shoulders to the Convention. There he threatened vengeance on his accusers. Thence he was carried through a cheering crowd to the Jacobin Club, where he was enthroned in the presidential chair.24 He resumed his campaign, demanding that the Girondins be excluded from the Convention as bourgeois betrayers of the Revolution.
He won a precarious victory when the Convention, over the protests and warnings of the Gironde, decreed a maximum price for grains at every stage of their passage from producer to consumer, and ordered governmental agents to requisition from the growers all produce needed to meet the public need.25 On September 29 these measures were extended into a “general maximum” fixing the price of all basic commodities.26 The eternal war between producer and consumer was now accentuated; peasants revolted against conscription of their crops;27 production fell as the profit motive felt blocked by the new laws; a “black market” developed, supplying at high prices those who could afford to pay. Markets that obeyed the maximum ran out of grain and bread; hunger riots again ran through city streets.
The Girondins, bitterly resentful of the pressure placed upon the Convention by the lower orders of Paris, appealed to their middle-class electors in the provinces to rescue them from the tyranny of the mob. Vergniaud wrote to his electors in Bordeaux, May 4, 1793: “I summon you to the tribune to defend us, if there is still time, to avenge liberty by exterminating tyrants”;28 and Barbaroux wrote likewise to his supporters in Marseilles. There and at Lyons the bourgeois minority allied themselves with former nobles to expel their radical mayors.
On May 18 the Girondin deputies persuaded the Convention to appoint a committee to examine the operations of the Paris Commune and its sections in attempting to influence legislation. All of the members of the committee were Girondins. On May 24 the Convention ordered the arrest of Hébert and Varlet as agitators; the Commune, with sixteen sections concurring, demanded their release; the Convention refused. Robespierre, at the Jacobin Club on May 26, urged the citizens to revolt: “When the people is oppressed, when it has no resource left but itself, he would be a coward indeed who should not call upon it to rise. It is when all laws are violated, it is when despotism is at its height, it is when good faith and decency are being trampled under foot, that the people ought to rise in insurrection. That moment has arrived.”29 In the Convention on May 27 Marat demanded the suppression of the committee “as hostile to liberty, and as tending to provoke that insurrection of the people which is only too imminent, owing to the negligence with which you have allowed commodities to rise to an excessive price.” That night the Mountain secured passage of a measure abolishing the committee; the prisoners were freed; but on May 28 the Girondins reestablished the committee by a vote of 279 to 238. On May 30 Danton joined Robespierre and Marat in calling for “revolutionary vigor.”
On May 31 the sections sounded the tocsin for a rising of the citizens. Gathering at the Hôtel de Ville, these formed an insurrectionary council, and secured the support of the Paris National Guard under the radical leader Hanriot. Protected by these and a swelling crowd, the new council entered the Convention hall and demanded that the Girondins be indicted before the Revolutionary Tribunal; that the price of bread be fixed at three sous a pound throughout France; that any resulting deficit be met by a levy on the rich; and that the right to vote be provisionally reserved to sansculottes.30 The Convention conceded only the second suppression of the hated committee. The warring parties retired for the night.
Returning to the Convention on June 1, the council called for the arrest of Roland, whom the sansculottes identified with the bourgeois interests. He escaped to southern hospitality. Mme. Roland tarried behind, planning to plead for him before the Convention; she was arrested and was lodged in the Abbaye jail; she never saw her husband again. On June 2 a crowd of eighty thousand men and women, many armed, surrounded the Convention hall, and the Guard aimed its cannon at the building. The council informed thedeputies that none of them would be permitted to leave until all its demands had been met. Marat, dominating the rostrum, called out the names of those Girondins whom he recommended for arrest. Some managed to elude the Guard and the crowd, and fled to the provinces; twenty-two were put under house arrest in Paris. From that day till July 26, 1794, the Convention was to be the obedient servant of the Mountain, the Committee of Public Safety, and the people of Paris. The Second Revolution had defeated the bourgeoisie, and had established, pro tem, the dictatorship of the proletariat.
The victors gave form to the new order by commissioning Hérault de Séchelles and Saint-Just to formulate the new constitution that had been ordered on October 11, 1792. It restored adult male suffrage, and added the right of every citizen to subsistence, education, and insurrection. It limited the rights of property by considerations of public interest. It proclaimed freedom of religious worship, graciously recognized a Supreme Being, and declared morality to be the indispensable faith of society. Carlyle, who could not stomach democracy, called this “the most democratic constitution ever committed to paper.”31 It was accepted by the Convention (June 4, 1793), and was ratified by a vote of one fourth of the electorate, 1,801,918 to 11,610. This Constitution of 1793 remained on paper only, for on July 10 the Convention renewed the Committee of Public Safety as a ruling power, superior to all constitutions, till peace should return.