Modern history


There must be a single will. It must either be republican or royalist … The internal dangers derive from the bourgeoisie; to overcome the bourgeoisie we must rally the people … The people must ally themselves to the Convention and the Convention must make use of the people … We must encourage enthusiasm for the republic by all possible means.29

These diarized meditations of Maximilien Robespierre date from early June 1793, when the Revolution was confronted by armed conflict on every front and by raging civil war. The ‘Incorruptible’ would emerge in the post-Girondin Convention as the principal ideologist of Terror, and from July 1793 as the leading spokesperson of the revitalized Committee of Public Safety (CPS). His musings contained a prescription for action. Given the dichotomization of the political map between republican Revolutionaries and crypto-royalist counter-revolutionaries, given the fact that even a good part of the bourgeoisie (represented by the Girondins) had gone over to the enemy, a single national and Revolutionary will was – in Robespierre’s vision – imperative. It should be based, he held, on a symbiotic mobilizing alliance between Montagnard Conventionnels such as himself and the sans-culottes who had just, on 31 May-2 June, imposed their wishes on the assembly.

Terror, canalizing Revolutionary energy and enthusiasm within a crushing singleness of political purpose, would shape the destiny of French men and women, for better and for worse, for richer and for poorer, over the next year. These were to be, as Charles Dickens was later to reflect, simultaneously both ‘the best of times [and] the worst of times’.30 The Montagnard strategy involved enlisting widespread popular support so as to enact a programme of radical social, economic and political innovations which linked directly back to the Enlightenment project of societal amelioration, and sprang from equally high moral motives. At the same time, however, the threat of unflinching state violence hovered over the head of any individual or group – and these proved to be ever more legion – unlucky enough to be adjudged politically delinquent. As all deputies, with their classical educations, knew, the idea of Terror was an old Roman republican one: if a Roman legion did not do its duty, then indiscriminate punishment would be meted out. What was both terrifying and sobering about the Terror of 1793–4 was the aura of randomness which hovered over the violence it visited out – even when (or precisely because) it was being conducted by individuals of impeccable Latinate education and high moral principle.

The popular movement with which Robespierre and the Montagnards sought to ally was a social and political hybrid. The Parisian sans-culottes had redoubts in Bouchotte’s War Ministry and in the Commune, but their characteristic milieu was the neighbourhood meeting of Paris’s forty-eight sections and – in the capital and the provinces – the clubs, now called ‘popular societies’ (the most prominent of which in Paris was the Cordelier Club). The surveillance committees established in March 1793 drew on these reservoirs of patriotism and imprinted a strongly plebeian character on the implementation of Terror at local level. The movement as a whole comprised a mixture of the labouring classes and members of the petty bourgeoisie (artisans, shopkeepers, minor clerks, etc.) plus many individuals of modest wealth who in less socially deflationary times would have claimed gentility. The movement had more than its fair share of déclassé intellectuals and journalists too, plus the odd eccentric noble, such as the ci-devant roué, the marquis de Sade, who refashioned himself as a sans-culotte militant in the Section des Piques. The term sans-culotte was in fact something of a fashion pose: most eighteenth-century artisans and shopkeepers had worn knee-breeches before it had become politically correct to sport the plebeian trouser and the red cap of liberty.

The extent to which these Parisian radicals ‘represented’ the French people as a whole was very moot. Though they retained more of a separate identity in Paris, the demarcation line in the provinces separating them from the forces of Jacobinism was very porous. Indeed, in some measure, the sans-culotte movement was a Montagnard construct (albeit one which did develop a degree of autonomy). It proudly placed itself in the van of French people who stayed loyal to the Convention. Their numbers – and especially when added to the million or so men attracted to fight for the infant republic in the army in 1793–4 – constituted a very powerful force. In addition, there may have been as many as 20,000 surveillance committees in existence throughout the country, staffed by perhaps half a million men. Political clubs attracted as many as a million individuals during the Revolution. Attendance was most assiduous in this period: the 3,000 clubs in existence in 1793–4 may have included up to one adult male in ten. This level of popular participation would be regarded with envy by every radical social movement of nineteenth-century Europe.

Impressive though it undoubtedly was, it remained true that the popular movement was still very much a minority movement within France as a whole. A clear majority of the population did not feel much sympathy for either the sans-culottes or the Revolutionary government. Nine communes out of ten did not have a club, and the network was skewed towards town rather than countryside. Even in Paris, the proportion of adult males who attended sectional meetings was rarely above 10 per cent – elsewhere it was probably far less. At the other extreme, patriots were outgunned in areas of royalist rebellion such as the Vendée by open counter-revolutionaries, who were often more demotic and invariably more rural than they: the Vendéan armies were composed, claimed one of their number, of ‘peasants like myself, wearing smocks or rough coats, armed with shotguns, pistols, muskets [and] often with tools – scythes, cudgels, axes, knives and roasting spits’.31 It was such individuals who would bear the brunt of the military repression of the Vendée rising, while the Paris Revolutionary Tribunal would despatch twice as many peasants and workers to the scaffold as nobles and members of the upper bourgeoisie. Around 1 million individuals were imprisoned or brought under surveillance because of their political views in 1793–4 – roughly the same number as fought in the army. The Terror split the country down the middle, and the activists engaged ranged, on both sides of the struggle, from the top to the bottom of the social hierarchy.

The summer of 1793 saw a complex political dance occurring, as the Revolutionary government sought both to utilize the popular movement so as to frighten oppositional forces – yet at the same time to manoeuvre the sans-culottes into a position of subservience to the Montagnard project. In many ways, the Parisian radicals owed their importance less to the raw social forces they embodied than to the strategic advantage they possessed by being located in the seat of government – and, as the journée of 2 June had graphically illustrated – of being able to exert their power directly over the legislature. The raw political threat which they embodied was a useful means of deterring opposition in a country racked by political crisis. Much of France had found thejournées of 31 May and 2 June indefensible. Over forty department administrations formally protested against them, and in around one-third of these, protests passed into active resistance in the so-called Federalist Revolt, which dragged on into the autumn. There was sullen obstructiveness in the Convention itself too: nearly 100 deputies formally protested against the expulsion of their Girondin colleagues, and throughout the summer kept up criticism of the policies of the CPS, the war-cabinet which the Montagnards were turning into the prime instrument of Terror (and on to which Robespierre was voted in July).

Although on 2 June 1793 the Convention had bowed to sans-culotte pressure, the Montagnards took time to embrace the popular movement’s full economic, political and social message. Roux, now ensconced in the Commune, continued to ask for more, and was held to be behind soap riots in Paris in late June. ‘Liberty is but a vain phantom’, he berated the Convention on 25 June, ‘when one class of men can starve another with impunity. Equality is but a vain phantom when the rich exercise the power of life and death over their fellows through monopolies.’32 The assassination of the ailing Marat in his bath by the young Girondin supporter Charlotte Corday, on 13 July, left a niche in the Revolutionary Panthéon for a new ‘friend of the people’, moreover, who would blow the whistle on the corruption of those in power. Contestants for the title were soon lining up and they included Roux’s fellow-enragé, Varlet, and the Pére Duchesne’s Hébert, deputy procurator of the Paris Commune, who shared a radical egalitarianism with his ally, Chaumette.

It took turbulent popular demonstrations in Paris on 5 September, triggered by news of the capitulation of the naval base at Toulon to the British navy, to make the Convention formally declare Terror ‘the order of the day’, and adopt much of theenragéprogramme: a General Maximum on all foodstuffs (enacted on 11 and 29 September); expansion of the Revolutionary Tribunal; the creation of ‘people’s armies’ (armées révolutionnaires) to take Revolution out into the countryside and to engage in political and economic terrorism; a promise to step up the arrest of suspects (to be embodied in the Law of Suspects of 17 September, which vastly extended this category of political outsider); and an agreement to pay sans-culottes forty sous for attending sectional meetings. On 5–6 September, two radicals with known sans-culotte sympathies, Billaud-Varenne and Collot d’Herbois, were placed on the CPS.

Yet if the CPS was now putting on enragé clothes, it was also beginning to refashion the popular movement in its own image. In Hébert’s Père Duchesne, the typical sans-culotte was represented as a demotically vulgar but endearingly good-hearted and patriotic soul who voiced vitriolic opinions on aristocrats and non-juring priests and who felt comfortable in the presence of fellow artisans, shopkeepers and petty clerks (but not their wives, whose job was to stay at home and bring up junior sans-culottes). The high-flown invocation of ‘the people’ in Montagnard discourse, in contrast, had an altogether more abstract, idealized, even sentimentalized tone. Robespierre and his ilk needed the popular movement to be an expression of sturdy virtue, embodied in politically and economically independent, public-spirited citizens. But they drew the line at hyper-critical enragés and putative post-Marat ‘Friends of the People’, whom they regarded as incipient misleaders of the people.

Idealization of the people thus provided ideological cover for Montagnard moves to bring the popular movement under control. The Montagnard project required the latter’s strategic advantage on the streets of Paris outside the walls of the Convention to be terminated. On the very day – 5 September – that the Montagnards embraced enragé ideology, the government had Roux and Varlet arrested and put in gaol (where the former subsequently died). Among other radicals to feel the Terror’s lash were women who had been involved in politics. In mid-October, queen Marie-Antoinette was guillotined, following a charade of a trial, and this was followed by an attack on women radicals. On 30 October, the Society of Female Revolutionary Republican Citizenesses, whichenragéesClaire Lacombe and Pauline Léon had founded to widen the movement’s political base, was outlawed. This move formed part of a more sweeping political strategy aimed at confining women in Rous-seauesque domesticity away from public life, which they were thought bound to pollute.33

The assault on the notion of women in political life was symptomatic of a more general campaign to forge a unitary (and highly masculine) notion of collective political identity which marked this phase of the Revolution. The Terror breathed a new urgency and cogency into calls for the Revolutionary process to produce a ‘new nation’ and a ‘new man’. The rights-bearing citizen was now the red-capped sans-culotte and his pike, cogent symbol of the nation in arms. The French past was no longer available as a source of legitimate political reference, and Jacobins endlessly invoked the virtue of ancient Greece and Rome, as part of a programme of political regeneration. The eclipse of the church in public life, the war emergency and the removal of the king left gaps which the Convention sought to fill with its own distinctive cultural products. Political censorship may have reduced the range of publication, but government support for newspapers and tame pamphleteers meant that print massively extended the audience for the Revolutionary government’s message. From early in the Revolution, the public festival had provided an ancillary means by which the regime could inculcate a regenerative message.34 The first anniversary of the overthrow of the king saw the first totally secularized such ceremony, the Festival of Unity and Indivisibility on 10 August 1793. The new republican festivals sometimes retained much of the flavour of religious events: the ceremonies around the death of Marat in mid-1793 and the emergence of a cult of Revolutionary martyrs who had died defending the fatherland had clearly spiritual overtones. A more sombre form of political pedagogy was provided by public executions, which in the autumn of 1793 took on the character of classic pieces of educationally inspired political theatre: Marie-Antoinette’s grim entourage of 13 October; the Girondins on the 31st (with Brissot and Vergniaud defiantly intoning the ‘Marseillaise’ on their ascent to the scaffold); ‘Philippe-Éalité’ on 6 November; and, six days later, ex-Mayor Bailly, with the guillotine melodramatically relocated for the occasion to the Champ de Mars, site of the infamous 1791 ‘massacre’.

The regime’s regenerative aims were given added scope by the decision in October to introduce a Revolutionary calendar. A new, post-religious epoch in human history, it was claimed, had been opened up by the declaration of the Republic on 22 September 1792 (making October 1793 Year II already). The deputies thereby renounced reference to the historic past in favour of focusing on the cyclical, natural time of the mythic present in which Revolutionary political culture was immersed.35 The year was divided up into twelve months renamed after the seasons (and with five jours sans-culottides added on for good luck); each month comprised three ‘decades’ of ten days – with the décadi replacing Sundays as a day of rest; and each day was reconsecrated to a natural product or farming tool or technique.

A velvet glove encased the Terror’s punitive fist. The post-Girondin Convention introduced a raft of populist measures buttressing its commitment to maintain popular living standards and radical welfare reform. The cours forcé of the assignat stimulated the recovery of the paper currency: it was down to a fifth of its face value over the 1793 summer crisis, but had risen to a (still unsatisfactory) 48 per cent by Christmas. The peasant producer was the targeted beneficiary of certain measures. Over the summer of 1793, legislation was introduced to sell nationalized émigré land in small plots and with procedures which favoured poor peasants, and a law of 10 June decreed the equitable distribution of common lands. On 17 July, the Convention voted the complete abolition of feudal dues without indemnity – the public bonfires of feudal titles provided a nice populist touch. A start was made too on replacing the nation’s crumbling stock of hospitals and poor-houses. The so-called ‘Laws of Ventôse’ in March 1794 sought to distribute the property of suspects among the poor. These were complemented by ambitious pensions schemes, including the institution of the ‘Great Register of National Beneficence’ on 11 May (22 Floréal II). On a related tack, the Bouquier law of 19 December 1793 (29 Frimaire II) established the principle of compulsory and free primary education. The promise of an embryonic welfare state was an important ideological plank in the Montagnard project of rallying the people – even though little enduring was achieved in either education or poor relief.

Moves to tame unruly popular radicalism in Paris through a mixture of political concession, radical welfare reforms, outright repression and ideological bombardment allowed the government to focus on the task of winning its wars, both foreign and civil. The institutions of Terror created in the spring were cranked into action by a war government now headed by a rejuvenated–and Robespierrized–CPS. The ‘Incorruptible’ had entered the Committee in July, followed by Saint-Just. They drew to their faction established members such as Couthon and Barère, as the ‘Great Committee’ began to form – the twelve Conventionnels who in essence ruled France for the next year, pulled it through its military disasters, and subjected it to a reign of political terror. Alongside them from September were Billaud-Varenne and Collot d’Herbois, who represented sans-culotte influence, while at the other extreme, there were the technicians of Terror, political moderates for the most part like Robert Lindet, whom Robespierre dubbed the ‘Fénelon of the Revolution’ and whose national food commission, set up in October, policed the Maximum; Prieur de la Côte d’Or, in charge of armaments and war supply; Prieur’s fellow military engineer, Carnot, the military supremo later dubbed ‘the organizer of victory’; and the Protestant pastor Jean Bon Saint-André, de facto Navy Minister for the duration of the Terror.

The CPS still had its critics – on both Left and Right – but worked insistently to extend its mission. The Convention had rushed through a new democratic constitution between 11 and 24 June, partly as a means of proving to pro-Girondin departments its commitment to the principles of 1789. The 1793 Constitution had an important totemic role in dismantling Federalism: it purported to demonstrate a Montagnard preference for democracy over authoritarianism, and gave its 1789 forebear a more egalitarian and welfare-oriented spin. But it was never implemented, on the grounds of the war emergency. Robespierre fought off moves to institute elections and on 10 October, at Saint-Just’s prompting, the Convention decreed that the government should be ‘revolutionary’ (as opposed to constitutional) until peace was made. The Terror would be conducted in conditions of constitutional exceptionalism, with the CPS at the helm.

The armed forces were given the most careful attention. The levée en masse of 23 August 1793 extended the 300,000 levy of February, obliging every adult male to contribute to the war effort: single men between eighteen and twenty-five years old could be called to the colours and all other citizens were to expect to contribute to the war effort in some way through their labour and resources. The size of the army grew to 800,000 men, with over a million formally under military orders. A direction of civil labour unparalleled until the twentieth century was introduced, ranging through the collection of saltpetre in caves to make gunpowder to the production of arms and uniforms and the commandeering of food and livestock for military purposes. The Republic requisitioned science too: savants such as the chemists Hassenfratz and Chaptal and the mathematician Monge placed their expertise at the disposal of the government. At times, government requisitioning shaded into outright military looting – especially in occupied territories where, under the law of 15 December 1792, military administration was empowered to extract the army’s means of subsistence from the local inhabitants.

The armed forces assembled by the CPS over the summer and autumn of 1793 proved devastatingly effective. The policy of ‘amalgamation’ adopted from early 1793 entailed the merger of volunteer and conscript troops with regular army units. The new army still lacked the training and expertise of its royal forebear, but compensated for this by enthusiasm for the cause of national defence. What General Hoche called ‘fire, steel and patriotism’ did the trick. French armies mixed the old linear formations with the kind of fighting in deep columns for which they became famous, throwing themselves with paralysing speed into hand-to-hand encounters with the enemy. Their strategy was not always crowned with success and the process was – of course – far from smooth. But the Revolutionary armies did often out-manoeuvre their opponents, and their role was vital in allowing the infant Republic to survive the summer crisis of 1793.

The most critical front was in the north, where fortunes oscillated dangerously: in mid-1793, British and Dutch forces were installed on French territory on the Belgian border, and although French successes at Hondschoote and Wattignies in the autumn gave some relief, matters were still evenly poised. In the east, the French surrender of Mainz in July caused the army to fall back well within France. But successive offensive waves orchestrated by Hoche from November cleared Alsace and allowed modest advances in the spring of 1794. By that time, French territory had been cleared of foreign invaders. The Spanish had also been pushed back across the Pyrenees, and preparations were being made to invade Savoy and Italy.

The only unadulterated failures were outside France. At sea, the English fleet instituted a blockade of French ports (and accepted the surrender of the French Mediterranean fleet at Toulon in August). The Royal Navy’s naval superiority, though tested on a number of occasions over the decade, was not to be found wanting. It meant that to all intents and purposes France was cut off from its wealth-generating Caribbean colonies. The French islands had been racked by slave revolt from 1791. The English seized them in 1793, and though slave leaders Toussaint l’Ouverture and Victor-Hugues drove them out of Saint-Domingue and Guadeloupe respectively, this made no difference to the French: they had precious little contact with either island (and in 1801, Toussaint declared Saint-Domingue’s independence as Haiti). France was losing its claims to be a global commercial power – but this paled into relative insignificance against vital continental successes.

The frightening volume of internal dissension within France during the summer of 1793 was also brought to an end. The Vendéan rebels had won a string of victories against raw recruits over the summer of 1793, and resistance spread into Normandy, where peasant royalists known as Chouans sprang to arms. Both movements, however, soon reached the limits of their military ambitions. An important victory by reinforced republican troops at Cholet on 17–18 October provided much-needed relief, forcing Vendéans and Chouans to move towards Granville in Normandy to effect a junction with the British fleet – which never happened. The Vendéans went on to be heavily defeated first in Le Mans and then at Savenay (23 December). The early months of 1794 would be spent with republican armies engaged in the region’s ‘pacification’ – too sedate a word, in fact, for the vicious repression used. On 1 August 1793, the Convention had permitted its commanders there to introduce free-fire zones in troubled areas. ‘My purpose’, anti-Vendéan commander, Turreau, told the War Ministry in January 1794, ‘is to burn everything.’36

By Christmas 1793, the Federalist revolt sparked by the purge of the Girondins had also been definitively crushed. Over the course of the summer, the Montagnards constructed an image of the Girondins as doctrinaire, decentralizing federalists which was far from the mark. Most Girondins were as in favour of the unitary indivisibility of the Republic as the Montagnards. It was essentially the threat from the Parisian popular movement which had caused them to appeal for assistance to the departments. This allowed them to be tarred with the Federalist brush. Even before 31 May, for example, Girondin support for an anti-Jacobin faction in Lyon had led to an anti-Parisian municipal coup in the city, and this kind of intra-city dispute was replicated in Marseille, Bordeaux and elsewhere. After 2 June, the anti-Parisian note became more desperately stentorian among those deputies who escaped arrest. In Normandy, proscribed Girondins Buzot, Barbaroux and Pétion attempted to raise an army against the Convention, but this dissolved in panic without a shot being fired at the ‘battle’ of Pacy-sur-Eure in July. The political outlaws fled to Bordeaux, where a more substantial resistance was forming.

Most areas which had protested against the journées of 31 May–2 June were brought into line as a result of government propaganda highlighting the new 1793 constitution. The areas which held out focused around a number of big cities in the south. Fortunately for the Montagnards, these areas were widely dispersed and never effected a junction of their forces. Avignon, then Marseille, fell to republican troops in late July and August, with Bordeaux following in September (leading to the collective suicide of the refugee Girondins). Following the recapture of Lyon in early October, Toulon was the only federalist locality still in arms. It eventually fell to republican action on 19 December which involved artillery bombardment in which a Jacobin lieutenant, the Corsican Napoleone Buonaparte, played a critical role.

Arguably as important as the role of republican generals in pulling France through the crisis of summer and autumn 1793 were the many deputies on mission sent out in waves to ensure that crucial Revolutionary war legislation was implemented. Whether purging hostile or tepid administrations, mobilizing armed defence, recruiting troops, securing food supplies, sending political suspects before revolutionary tribunals or acting as sources of government propaganda, the deputies were crucial liaison agents of Revolutionary government, articulating the objectives of the CPS with the popular energies of the provinces. They included many of the most overtly enthusiastic patriots among the Convention’s rank and file – and quite a few from the radical fringe too. In July, the Convention had decreed that the edicts of its emissaries would be regarded as provisional laws, invested with all the sanctity of Revolutionary legislation, but such was the disarray of local administration anyway that the deputies effectively had carte blanchefor the deployment of Terror on provincial populations both recalcitrant and compliant. They bolstered their efforts by drawing on local surveillance committees and clubs; appointed local commissaries with plenipotentiary powers; and formed ‘people’s armies’ like those advocated by the Parisian enragés on 5 September. These armées révolutionnaires toured the countryside enforcing the Maximum, requisitioning supplies, executing Revolutionary laws and engaging in attacks on priests and other political suspects.

Deputies on mission were often chillingly repressive, notably in civil war zones. At Nantes, for example, Carrier complemented the reckless slaughters being carried out in the interior of the Vendée by General Turreau’s ‘infernal columns’ with a hyperactive Revolutionary Tribunal. Alongside this, there were the infamous noyades: perhaps 2,000 alleged counter-revolutionaries strapped into barges were towed into the river Loire where the barges were scuppered, leaving the victims to drown. CPS stalwart Couthon was relatively mild in the punishment of Lyon (renamed ‘Ville-Affranchie’ [‘Freed Town’]) in October, but when Collot d’Herbois and Fouché replaced him, a veritable frenzy of repression occurred, with opponents being gunned down into open graves in the so-calledmitraillades. At Marseille (now ‘Ville Sans Nom’ [‘No Name Town’]), Barras and Fréron also distinguished themselves by their draconian measures. Altogether, the areas of armed Federalism in the south and the Vendée in the west accounted for around three-quarters of direct victims of Revolutionary justice under the Terror.37

In all civil war zones, anti-clerical policies figured high on the agenda of the deputies on mission. Certain of their tasks – such as the melting-down of church bells for cannon and the requisitioning of gold and silver ecclesiastical ornaments for the war effort, and the enforcement of the Convention’s laws regarding the deportation of non-jurors – inevitably brought them into conflict with religious personnel. There was scope, however, for more doctrinaire assaults on traditional religion, from which even the Constitutional clergy was not immune. Fouché, before 1789 a teacher attached to the Oratorian order, engaged in an extraordinary campaign of ‘dechristianization’ in his tour of duty in the department of the Nièvre in September: he forbade public worship, closed all churches, removed all vestiges of religious iconography, forbade the wearing of religious costume and even secularized the cemeteries, which had all religious insignia removed and the slogan ‘Death is an Eternal Sleep’ emblazoned on their gates. Fouché also encouraged priests to abdicate their functions and either to marry or else to adopt a child or an old person as a gage of social utility. These practices spread quite widely thereafter: some 20,000 priests (roughly one-third of all curés) abdicated in the course of the Terror, around 6,000 of them marrying to boot. The objects and rituals of divine right monarchy were the target of particular ire: in Reims, Rühl took special pains ceremoniously to break the phial containing Clovis’s sacred oil with which the kings of France were anointed; the statues of kings of Judah on the front of Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris were removed, carefully beheaded, and destroyed; and the tombs of generations of French monarchs at Saint-Denis were desecrated. Not all of France was subjected to this kind of dechristianizing auto-da-fé, whose highspots were the Paris basin, the Île-de-France, and the Rhône valley. But few areas were to escape its influence – or the divergent waves of revulsion and enthusiasm which it stimulated.

Just as the geographies of Terror and dechristianization were highly patchy, so was the role and function of the deputies on mission. Far more typical and numerically more characteristic than the Carriers, Collots and Fouchés were relatively unknown Conventionnels who utilized their missions to spread the humanitarian as well as the draconian message of Terror. Attacks on hoarders and big producers, for example, were integrated into a quest to seek fair shares for all those contributing to the war effort. Forced loans, the introduction of socially graduated tax rolls and the distribution of manageable lots of church and émigré lands were combined with a wide range of educational and welfare field trials: charity workshops, patriotic schools, pensions schemes, famine-relief measures and the like. For such deputies – the obscure Rouerguat physician Bo, for example, the Protestant attorney Ingrand, the cavalry-officer Roux-Fazillac and others – rallying the people was manifestly more than a narrowly political manoeuvre: it presaged the making of a new and fairer society. This regenerative impulse was often manifested in the cult of Revolutionary renaming. Locations with feudal, aristocratic, royal or religious names were ‘revolutionized’, while enthusiastic individuals also got into the swing of things, changing their own or their children’s names in accordance with the Revolutionary Calendar. Fontenay-le-Comte became Fontenay-le-Peuple, for example, Roiville was transformed into Peuple-ville and Saint-Flour into Mont-Flour. General François-Amédée Doppet became Pervenche (‘Periwinkle’) Doppet, while Pierre-Gaspard Chaumette and François-Noel Babeuf took the names of the radicals of Antiquity, Anaxagoras and Gracchus.

Whatever their mode and intensity of action, the deputies on mission served the Convention well by helping to pull the country through the summer crisis of 1793. By the autumn, however, Robespierre and others were becoming concerned that their energetic commitment to regeneration was causing more problems than it solved. His anxieties crystallized around the issue of religion. Robespierre was a classic Enlightenment deist: a Voltairean belief in the social need for belief in an afterlife to encourage virtue and discourage vice was heavily overlaid with a Rousseauist openness to a creative Nature in which he recognized a Supreme Being. The Enlightenment project had, as we have seen,38 sought to construct a moral social purpose for political action, steering a via mediabetween revealed religion and a sceptical, individualized atheism, and Robespierre remained true to that inspiration. He had little hesitation in assuming that the Supreme Being would need to be subordinated to the supreme republic. He seems not to have doubted that the Revolution itself would become a cult which attracted more support than established Christianity, and which would be more grounded in the moral virtues at the heart of the Revolutionary project. In the interim, he urged an instrumentalist religious policy, striking hard against Catholicism only when and where it seemed to be impeding the progress of Revolutionary Virtue. Thus the CPS maintained legislation against non-jurors just as it did against émigrés, and buttressed this with increased levels of surveillance of both kinds of political suspects over the summer and autumn of 1793: from 26 August onwards, for example, all priests who had not taken the civic oath were liable to deportation.

Robespierre drew the line, however, at overly zealous dechristianizing campaigns by deputies on mission which smacked of atheism. Reports coming back to the CPS over the autumn suggested that the extreme measures being introduced in some areas were alienating the peasantry from the Revolution. Robespierre in fact probably underestimated the extent to which many regions had been prepared for dechristianizing activities by a generation or more of religious indifference. Like most of his colleagues on the CPS, he originated in the north of France, and found it difficult to comprehend the bitter acerbity caused by religious issues of many southern and western regions, some of which were receptive to and even spontaneously engaged in active dechristianization. Dechristianizing deputies on mission were often reacting to local circumstances, rather than whipping up irreligious frenzy as Robespierre claimed. Robespierre’s suspicions about the movement were, however, fanned by the fact that dechristianization had been picked up by what he viewed as an unscrupulous horde of Parisian radicals, led by Chaumette, who had served alongside Fouché in the Nièvre, and whose Revolutionary credentials Robespierre profoundly distrusted. From late October, Chaumette led the Commune and the Cordeliers in a campaign to eradicate the outward signs of religion throughout Paris, to close churches and to prohibit public worship. On 7 November, the campaign staged something of a publicity stunt in which Gobel, Constitutional archbishop of Paris, abdicated his vocation and then married. Chaumette followed this up with the organization of a secular Festival of Reason on 10 November in a newly republicanized Notre-Dame cathedral. These noisy actions were combined with a left-wing attack on the CPS,involving calls for federations of popular societies to be allowed to express the ‘popular will’ and for a new purge of the Convention on the lines of 2 June 1793.

Robespierre had been the most consistent of all deputies in expressing fears that a war situation could lead to a military coup by an ambitious general. In the changed circumstances of 1793, the military threat seemed to be coming from what he saw as cynical and atheistic radicals leading a kind of armed revolutionary militia drawn on the Parisian sections and the provincial armées révolutionnaires (and probably secretly funded by William Pitt). He therefore expeditiously sought to bring under control the political extremism associated with dechristianization. In a speech in the Jacobin Club on 21 November he attacked atheism as both aristocratic and immoral, and he followed this up on 6 December, alongside Danton, Joseph Cambon, powerful chair of the Convention’s Finance Committee, and many moderates, by formally reaffirming the principle of freedom of worship. By then, the CPS had also sought to tighten its controls over the more anarchic aspects of the Terror in the Law on Revolutionary Government of 14 Frimaire II (4 December 1793). The Law of 14 Frimaire provided a bureaucratic framework for Terror. The CPS was confirmed as the executive arm of government under the guidance of the Convention, with its subordinate Committee of General Security (CGS) in charge of all police matters. A new regularity of reporting procedures was introduced: a mountain of paperwork, sent to the CPS and CGS on a ten-day rota, would keep the ‘committees of government’ fully apprised of developments in the provinces. The role of the deputies on mission would be taken over by a plethora of government-appointed ‘national agents’ attached to districts and communes (departmental authorities were left out of the loop). Although the surveillance committees were maintained, there were to be no more provincial armées révolutionnaires (only the Parisian force was continued), no plenipotentiary underlings with their roving private armies, and no federative action by popular societies. Forced loans and other extreme social measures were prohibited, and all agents of Revolutionary government were henceforth enjoined to follow instructions to the letter.

The CPS move towards much stricter control over the agents of Revolutionary government was motivated by anxieties about a resurgent Right as well as a radical Left. While Hébert and other putative heirs of Marat and Roux called for a redoubling of the policies of Terror, a group of more moderate deputies invoked a spirit of clemency. Although he had a more terroristic past than most, Danton appears to have become concerned by the ever-increasing centralization and bureaucratization to which the CPS was committed, and insinuated himself among the leaders of this moderate faction. According to some later accounts, his aim was to prick back into life an independent public opinion which the Terror had destroyed. He worked with the journalist Camille Desmoulins to use the latter’s new newspaper venture, Le Vieux Cordelier, as a platform for political moderation. The ‘Old Cordelier’ used recollections of the Cordeliers Club of 1790–91 (in which Danton and Desmoulins had been prominent) against the allegedly extremist ‘new’ Cordeliers represented by Hébert and his followers, and called for greater clemency in government policy.

The CPS spent the winter and spring of 1794 endeavouring to enforce the Law of 14 Frimaire throughout France – and with Robespierre and his confidants becoming increasingly anxious that a plot was being hatched at the heart of the Convention which would bring the Republic down. Greater control was not, however, easy to impose, the fragmentation of authority in the summer crisis of 1793 having been to some degree magnified rather than diminished by the work of the deputies on mission. Many of the latter, moreover, were heartily opposed to the spirit of the Law of 14 Frimaire. Robespierre’s diagnosis of ultra-revolutionary activities causing a backlash might have been correct for many areas, but it seemed perilously out of touch as regards the civil war zones. In post-Federalist Lyon, for example, Collot d’Herbois concluded that his colleague on the CPS had clearly lost his touch or else become part of a royalist plot, while Carrier at Nantes and Tallien at Bordeaux became similarly convinced that their recall was due to a dangerous relaxation in Revolutionary energy in Paris. Javogues, on mission in the Haute-Loire, fulminated against religious freedoms urged by the CPS: ‘All the methods of coercion you employ against the chameleons who claim to be apostles of various sects will be evaded,’ he scoffed. ‘It would be much simpler to shoot them.’39 He actively resisted recall to Paris, and continued his radical policies through to March, which was the high-water mark of dechristianizing activity nationally.

Attempts to bring under control sans-culotte radicals in Paris, extremist deputies on mission in the provinces and supporters of greater ‘Indulgence’ (clemency) near to the heart of government were thus creating new lines of division and a dizzyingly complex matrix of resentments and suspicions. The efforts of Robespierre, as principal ideologue in the ranks of the CPS, to master the situation drew antagonisms towards himself, which in turn exacerbated the well-known persecutory side to his character. From late autumn he had become increasingly responsive to gossip and rumour which claimed that the bitterness of factional politics was to be explained by a widely ramified foreign plot, hatched by England’s William Pitt, to cause the overthrow of the Republic by setting republicans against republicans in fratricidal disputes. Informers fed him tales of the allegedly treasonous venality of Chaumette, Hébert and the cosmopolitan grouping associated with them (notably the Prussian ‘Baron’ de Clootz, the Austrians, Proli and the Frey brothers, and the Portuguese Jew, Pereira). Some of the sans-culottes ensconced within the War Ministry, such as Vincent and Ronsin, commander of Paris’s armée révolutionnaire, were also whispered to be involved in the foreign plot and recipients of ‘Pitt’s gold’. The group’s opportunistic adoption of doctrinaire anti-clericalism and their call, from early 1794, for a new purge of the Convention only deepened Robespierre’s worry that, even as the Terror was producing outward political conformity, it was also nurturing the worm of old corruption in the bud of Revolutionary virtue. ‘The Revolution is frozen,’ Robespierre’s ally, Saint-Just, privately remarked. ‘All principles have weakened; nothing is left but red caps worn by intriguers. The use of Terror has desensitized crime, as strong liquors do the palate.’40

A dark struggle to ensure that the Montagnard project of unity of will prevailed over the swirl of faction and corruption thus began to take shape in the winter of 1793–4. Robespierre’s initial move to support some of the ideas of ‘Indulgence’ promoted by the likes of Danton and Desmoulins against dechristianizing factionaries was checked by the return of Collot d’Herbois from Lyon in late December to defend the radicals’ corner. In addition, Robespierre became more suspicious of the motives of Danton, who was as well known for personal corruption as for his doughty patriotic record. Danton’s links to Fabre d’Eglantine in particular were held against him, as over the winter a financial scandal opened up which revealed that Fabre and a number of other deputies had profited personally from corrupt dealings in winding up the old Compagnie des Indes.

In March and April, the CPS acted to lance the festering abscess of factional corruption and to crush its critics on Left and Right who, beneath surface appearances, Robespierre held, were ‘in cahoots like robbers in a wood’.41 Coming in bewilderingly close succession, three show trials, each of them the result of complicated political manoeuvres only partly understood even now, saw the political erasure of a great many of the ‘red caps worn by intriguers’ criticized by Saint-Just. On 13 March (23 Ventôse II), the latter denounced before the Convention a plot, allegedly funded by foreign enemies, ‘to destroy representative government by corruption’.42 Around a score of radicals, including Hébert, Vincent and Ronsin, plus some foreigners like Clootz, were sent before the Revolutionary Tribunal, which duly convicted them. Their blood was scarcely cold on the guillotine when a new trial brought to the scaffold, on 5 April (16 Germinal), a motley crew including arch-Indulgents Danton and Desmoulins, alongside a range of critics of Revolutionary government and swindlers such as Fabre. Finally on 13 April (24 Germinal), in a trial of almost farcically trumped-up proportions, the tail of both groupings were despatched to their deaths: the widows of Hébert and Desmoulins, plus Chaumette, the dechristianized (and now happily married) ex-archbishop, Gobel, and others. The trials were accompanied by measures tightening up policing, reducing freedom of speech, and crushing the independence of the bastions of the popular movement, the Commune and the Cordeliers Club. The Paris armée révolutionnaire was dissolved, sectional societies wound up and Mayor Pache, known for Hébertist sympathies, was removed and replaced by Robespierrist yes-man Fleuriot-Lescot.

The CPS’s efforts to liquidate faction by calculated destruction were designed to impose on the Revolution the glacial logic of unity invoked by Robespierre and Saint-Just. But the policy of Terror risked the political neutering of the Parisian popular movement, key player in Robespierre’s project of rallying the people. It also – as Saint-Just had noted – risked driving opposition further underground, as a result of ever greater protestations of political conformity. On his way to the scaffold on 5 April, Danton had been heard to remark, ‘What annoys me most is that I am dying six weeks before Robespierre.’43 By spring 1794, the glacial logic of unity was in danger of thawing – to the considerable peril of the Montagnards who had initiated it.

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