ALTHOUGH many provincial fédérés had taken part in the storming of the Tuileries, the fall of the French monarchy had very largely been the work of the insurrectionary commune of Paris. The very idea of a national Convention to give France a republican constitution also originated in the Paris sections. It was therefore understandable that the sansculottes should regard themselves as the guardians and watchdogs of the new republic, and the arbiters of what it should stand for. And of course they were very well placed to enforce their will. The Convention sat in Paris, it had no forces to defend itself from popular pressure. All available troops in 1792 and 1793 were occupied at the front, and the Paris National Guard was no longer the force that had shot down republican petitioners on the Champ de Mars. Since the end of July it had been open to all citizens and was little more than a sansculotte militia, commanded from 10 August by Santerre, a rich brewer but long a popular activist in the city’s east end. The Legislative Assembly had been forced to recognize its own helplessness in the face of Parisian power during its last weeks. Its only attempt to assert itself, the decree dissolving the commune and ordering new elections on 30 August, was ostentatiously ignored and rapidly rescinded. And the deputies had had to sit powerless while the same sansculottes who claimed to be the nation’s conscience massacred half the capital’s prison population during the following week. The nation’s representatives were clearly in the clutches of a capricious and bloodthirsty mob, and in this respect the Convention was no more secure than its predecessor. ‘Never forget’, the ex-monk Chabot warned his fellow deputies, ‘that you were sent here by the sansculottes.’1 None of them was likely to; but they were deeply divided over whether that committed them to continue to do Paris’s bidding. The role of the capital in national affairs was to be the most hotly debated issue during the first nine months of the Convention’s existence.
Leading the attack on Paris were those who had sought to avert the insurrection of 10 August, and whom Robespierre had tried to have arrested by the commune just as the prison massacres were beginning—men like Brissot, Vergniaud, and the ‘faction of the Gironde’. They had been deputies in the previous assembly, but they were supported by a number of newcomers, too. They were not a party, and never would be, except in the wishful imagination of their opponents; but they all sat for provincial constituencies, and the more prominent among them had grown used to informal co-operation with each other throughout the Legislative. They tended to meet, as they had then, at the house of Roland, still minister of the interior. There his pretty and ambitious wife, though a Parisienne herself, railed constantly against Marat, Danton, Robespierre, and the whole Parisian delegation in the Convention. These men, the Girondins were convinced, had been deeply implicated in the September Massacres, and intended to use their Parisian support to seize national power. Within days of the Convention’s first meeting the challenge was thrown down. The ex-constituent Buzot, soon to become Mme Roland’s lover, proposed the establishment of a ‘departmental guard’ recruited outside Paris, to protect the Convention. ‘Do you suppose’, he asked,2 ‘we are to be enslaved by certain deputies of Paris?’ The Montagnard response was to denounce the idea as ‘Federalism’—an attempt to dissipate the unity of the nation. They proposed, and carried, a declaration that the Republic was one and indivisible. Most deputies were happy to vote for both proposals, reluctant as they were to become involved in the faction fights of extremists whose antagonisms seemed as much personal as principled. But the uncommitted deputies of the ‘Plain’, as they soon became known from their tendency to sit in the middle of the house, between Montagnards on the left of the chair and Girondins on the right, were quickly to find that the antagonism between the two factions coloured every issue. For much of October the object of Girondin attack was Marat, and the shame Paris had brought upon itself by electing one who had constantly advocated massacres. He had also regularly called for a dictator, and to the Girondins it seemed obvious whom he had in mind: Robespierre. On 29 October Louvet openly accused this ‘insolent demagogue’ of aspiring to dictatorship. On 4 December the attack was turned on Philippe-Égalité, when Buzot moved that anybody advocating a restoration of monarchy should suffer the death penalty. The inference was that the Montagnards planned to make this former prince of notorious ambition king once Louis XVI was dead. Everything to do with the king’s fate, in fact, drove the factions even wider apart. The Montagnards suspected their opponents of seeking reconciliation with him before 10 August. They were right, but they had no proof. When Roland announced the discovery of the armoire de fer, they accused him of removing documents from it that implicated his friends, just as those it did contain revealed the earlier treachery of Mirabeau. On 3 January, amid the voting on the king’s trial, they again insisted on debating rumours of secret correspondence between the Bordeaux deputies and the Tuileries the previous July. The aim now was to discredit the Girondin-sponsored idea of an appeal to the people over the death sentence. This in its turn was designed to thwart the obvious determination of Paris and its sections that the king should be executed without delay. Montagnards argued that the appeal would be a call to civil war; Girondins responded that not to allow the departments to pronounce on the king’s fate would in itself provoke such a war. The Girondin idea of clemency was debated in similar terms. And the way a deputy had voted in these two contentious divisions was to mark him politically for ever, both in the subsequent public affairs of revolutionary France and in the analyses of its historians.
All these clashes had taken place at a time of victory in the war, but even foreign policy was not unmarked by them. Dumouriez had always been associated with those now called Girondins, and they revelled in his successes. It was they who proposed offering fraternity and assistance to foreign sympathizers, but Robespierre who warned of the futility of trying to establish liberty in foreign countries by force. Yet when Brissot quite uncharacteristically became the advocate of caution, and argued for reprieving the king so as not to antagonize more foreign powers, the Montagnards scorned his cowardice and were in the van of the movement to declare war on Great Britain, Holland, and Spain. Then, having dispatched the king and challenged most of Europe to a fight to the death, the factions returned to their vendetta. The Montagnards now had a martyr to their cause: on 20 January the former nobleman and judge in the Paris parlement Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau was assassinated by a fellow noble who blamed him for voting for the king’s execution. His remains were placed in the Pantheon, the mausoleum for national heroes established in the former church of Ste Geneviève in 1791, even as men began to talk of removing those of Mirabeau, the first to be placed there after Voltaire. The Jacobin Club also now became a Montagnard monopoly: Brissot had been expelled from this scene of his former triumphs as early as October; and on I March all deputies who had voted for the appeal to the people on the king’s execution were likewise excluded. The Montagnards failed to capture the ministry of the interior when Roland, wearied by their repeated attacks, resigned on 22 January; but they did defeat a renewed proposal for a departmental guard, and they tore to pieces a projected constitution brought forward by Condorcet on 15 February on the grounds that it was a charter for Federalism and executive paralysis.
In all this they felt confident of popular support in Paris; but in fact, now the great drama of the king’s trial and execution was over, the people of the capital were turning their attention to more everyday matters. On 12 February the Convention received a deputation from the sections of Paris calling for comprehensive price controls on basic commodities. The petitioners called their proposal a ‘maximum’. With rare unanimity the deputies rejected the idea. They believed that attempts to interfere with the free exchange of goods did more to distort markets than supply them, and they had in fact renounced all economic controls as recently as December 1792. Even Marat, who believed the only solution to scarcity was to guillotine hoarders and speculators, denounced the petitioners as dangerously misguided. They were reacting, however, to a serious deterioration in the economic situation in the capital.
Throughout the upheavals of 1792, the value of the assignats had continued to decline. By January 1793 they were down to 51 per cent of their face value, despite the decision to make them legal tender in occupied territories. Coinage, on the other hand, was becoming increasingly rare. Requisitioning and bulk-purchasing for the armies over the autumn had disrupted the supply of many basic commodities, and war against the maritime powers had brought a blockade on seaborne imports. And particularly hard-hit were the products of the West Indies, where deepening chaos was devastating the economy of the French islands and leaving all reliable production in the hands of the British. Such disruptions were reflected in commodity prices. By February sugar had doubled or trebled since 1790, and soap had more than doubled. Other items, like coffee and candles, were also rising steadily. These increases provided the impetus behind calls for a maximum, which were renewed in petitions to the Convention and the Jacobin Club between 22 and 24 February. When they remained unanswered, the city was swept by a wave of attacks on grocery shops and warehouses throughout the twenty-fifth. Mostly the crowds, led as usual by women, behaved traditionally, fixing prices at levels they considered just, selling the stocks they found at those, and handing the proceeds to the hapless shopkeepers. But there was more outright pillage and pilfering than the previous year, and crude and brutal threats were more overt. The summer’s bloodshed had clearly lowered the threshold of acceptable violence. On the twenty-sixth Santerre’s National Guards restored order, but the whole Convention was visibly shaken by the outburst. The Girondins, predictably, blamed the incitements of Marat. The Montagnards suspected a plot organized by Roux, who since the autumn had been calling for hoarders and speculators to be treated the same way as ‘Louis the Last’. They began to call Roux and his associates, such as Jean Varlet, who ranted daily to passers-by from a soap-box just outside the Convention hall, the rabids (enragés). There had probably been no plot on 25 February, but the outbreak certainly seems to have engendered the idea of one. It developed rapidly in the crucible of the new crisis which broke in March.
Determined to build on the autumn’s victories and replace the one-year volunteers who were now leaving the army, the Convention decided that the newly expanded war would require more than volunteers. On 24 February it decreed a new levy of 300,000 men to be raised by volunteering, if possible, but conscription if necessary, with each department allotted a quota. Local authorities would be free, if they saw fit, to find their recruits among eligible young males by the well-tried technique used for raising the pre-revolutionary militia: drawing lots. Such a return to hated practice only abolished four years previously was bound to be unpopular, and in fact only half the 300,000 men were ever raised. But in some parts it was more than unpopular; and in the department of the Vendée the first attempts to conscript in the early days of March met with violent resistance which within weeks had flared up into an open rebellion against the entire course the Revolution had taken. The Vendéan peasants resented their able-bodied young men being taken off to fight distant enemies, with whom they had no quarrel, by authorities with whom their quarrel was limitless. They resented the fact that the conscription decree was implemented by bourgeois from the local towns who were themselves exempt because of the public offices they held. The National Guard, who were merely these bourgeois and their friends in uniform, were deemed mobilized ‘on the spot’, which meant that they did not have to go to the front either, yet were the main force needed to compel others to go. The disturbances began with clashes between peasant youths and National Guards. And who were these uniformed self-styled patriots forcing others to fight their battles? The same people who had ejected non-juring priests in 1791 and forced in intrusive newcomers; the same people who had bought up the best church lands when they had come on the market; townsmen who had done consistently well out of the Revolution at the expense, so it seemed, of surrounding peasant communities and the Church upon which loyalties had focused in the calmer, remoter days when the king had reigned undisputed. These resentments had been simmering and spluttering throughout western France for over a year in innumerable clashes between peasants and local authorities over recruiting drives and measures against non-juring priests. The zeal of both sides intensified after 10 August, and the declaration of a republic made the king a new rallying-point for those opposed to the patriots. Down with the national cockade, shouted malcontents who gathered in thousands in the Vendée late in August 1792; long live the king, up with the nobles. Nobles, in fact, played little part in these outbreaks, and only joined the western rebels in 1793 after the insurgents had made it clear that they were anxious to have noble leaders: but in patriotic eyes they were all aristocrats.
MAP 4. Resistance to the Revolution, 1793–1799
Much of rural Brittany also rose in March 1793, and not only against conscription. Pay no more taxes, urged one Breton agitator, ‘since there’s no more king there are no more laws ... be fucked to the nation’.3 But Brittany was better garrisoned and the garrisons better armed than south of the Loire. Within a month the Breton risings had been suppressed and districts were meeting their quotas under the February decree. Resistance continued, with great determination, but in the form of guerrilla warfare, chouannerie, which was to plague the departments along the Channel coast for the rest of the decade and beyond. In the Vendée, however, peasant hordes stormed the little towns where patriot power was based, and the local authorities collapsed. Military reinforcements were unable to penetrate the labyrinthine bocage countryside. By 13 March recognizable leaders had begun to emerge, including the ex-soldier Stofflet, whose 10,000 men could overwhelm regular troops sent against them by sheer weight of numbers. Soon, too, the rebels were wearing sacred hearts, crosses, and the white cockade of royalism. ‘Long live the king and our good priests’, was their cry. ‘We want our king, our priests and the old regime.’ ‘And they wanted’, noted a terrified republican who observed this, ‘to kill off all the Patriots.’4
Reports of this unprecedented resistance to revolutionary authority began to reach Paris during the second week in March. They coincided with increasingly bad news from Belgium, where the Austrians had counter-attacked on the first and turned the flank of Dumouriez’s advance into Holland. Yet Dumouriez had refused to draw back until explicitly ordered to do so, and some deputies began to sniff treachery. The Girondins had been keen to adopt Dumouriez when he was driving the enemy before him, and the taint he now began to acquire rubbed off on them. By 8 March it was being alleged in the Convention that the armies were in headlong retreat, and panic swept the capital. Danton, who knew the situation in Belgium at first hand, called for volunteers from Paris to march north and save the campaign, which did nothing to restore calm. Everybody remembered how the previous September the departure of volunteers had occasioned the prison massacres. Certain elements in Paris evidently believed that this was the moment to eliminate the city’s enemies in the Convention. Some sections began to demand the establishment of a revolutionary tribunal to try traitors, and the Jacobin Club took up the call. The Convention accepted the proposal on the ninth and decreed in the same session that deputies should be sent out to all departments, as ‘representatives on mission’, to explain and expedite war emergency measures. That night, armed bands toured the print shops where the leading Girondin journals were produced, smashing the presses and destroying copy. They were in disguise, but seem to have been organized by a radical club calling itself the Defenders of the One and Indivisible Republic, whose leading light was himself a journalist, Jacques-René Hébert, producer of the increasingly popular Père Duchesne. The next day these same elements tried to organize a full-scale insurrection which would force the Convention to arrest all suspect generals, ministers, and the leading Girondin deputies. Enragés like Varlet joined in. The tocsin was rung and the city gates closed. But the commune refused to become involved, and Santerre put together 9,000 National Guards to maintain order. The insurgents melted away. Yet a precedent had been set, and all sides recognized it. Popular action might be used to purge the Convention of unpopular elements. The Montagnards as yet shrank from such an assault on the nation’s elected representatives; although the Girondins were quite prepared to believe, and say, that the hated deputies of Paris had been implicated once again in a plot to massacre them. Understandably, but fatally, their worries about the threat from Paris were developing into an all-consuming obsession.
For weeks afterwards they raked over the murky details of the abortive journée, while the bad news both from the Vendée and Belgium got worse. On 12 March Dumouriez openly denounced French policy in Belgium, sowing new suspicions. His defeat at Neerwinden a week later intensified them. Treason was not its cause, but it was its result, and only the refusal of his army to co-operate prevented him from marching on Paris to restore the constitution of 1791 with the infant Louis XVII as king. His perfidy was generally recognized a fortnight before his flight across the Austrian lines on 6 April. Nobody came well out of the crisis. Girondins fell under suspicion from their previous association with the traitor; but leading Montagnards like Danton suffered from their last-minute attempts to strike deals which might prevent his defection. Yet it was the Montagnards who produced all the constructive proposals for dealing with the crisis, and most of the votes in the Convention went their way even though many of their sympathizers were now heading off to the departments as representatives on mission. The new measures included the establishment of watch committees (comités de surveillance) throughout the country to scrutinize the activities of foreigners and suspects (21 March); and an attempt to bring the war effort under more decisive legislative control through a new co-ordinating committee. Ever since the fall of the monarchy executive power had nominally been vested in a council of ministers, but each minister was shadowed by a specialist committee of the Convention. On I January a Committee of General Defence was set up to co-ordinate these bodies, but it proved cumbersome and ineffective, and the crisis of March led to a search for something stronger. On the twenty-fifth, accordingly, on the suggestion of a deputy now making a name for himself as a deviser of ingenious compromises, Bertrand Barère, a 25-member Committee of Public Safety was created to take over its role. By the time it began to function on 7 April its membership had been reduced to nine, renewable monthly. Barère was elected, and would prove its longest serving member, but Robespierre declined election because he doubted the Committee’s value. The dominant voice for its first two months would be that of Danton, and for much of that time he preached union and reconciliation in the face of the dangers confronting the nation. His urgings, however, fell on deaf ears.
The Montagnards had hoped, in setting up the Revolutionary Tribunal, to use it against those whom they saw as impeding the war effort by their vendetta against Paris. Girondins, however, saw that this sword was double-edged, and it was from them that a proposal came on 1 April to abolish deputies’ immunity from arrest. Success in this cleared the way for an attack on the most exposed figure in the Montagnard ranks, recognized even by his own side in their cooler moments as a liability—Marat. As president of the Jacobins, on 5 April he had signed a circular appealing to the provinces to defend Paris against a ‘sacrilegious cabal’ in the Convention, attempting thus to steal what the Girondins regarded as their own constituency. Alleging an insult to the Convention, they called on 12 April for Marat to be impeached; and, with normal Montagnard support depleted by the absence of many of their normal allies on mission, the motion passed overwhelmingly. Thirty-three sections of Paris responded to this attack on their hero by calling for the expulsion from the Convention of 22 named deputies including Brissot, all the Bordelais, and Pétion, who had drifted away from his earlier radicalism since the fall of the monarchy. Both the Jacobins and the commune endorsed the demand, but withdrew their approval when Robespierre, reluctant to see the nation’s representatives coerced, condemned it. In any case they had their revenge on 24 April, when Marat was acquitted by the Revolutionary Tribunal and carried shoulder-high from the court back to the Convention by exultant sansculottes.
Among the charges brought against him had been that he had incited the populace to take the law into its own hands against hoarders and speculators in his paper (renamed Journal de la République française since the previous September) on the morning after the February grocery riots. His acquittal now encouraged the sections to renew their pressure on economic questions. Even before his trial they had begun to call again for controls on the price of bread and grain, amid Girondin denunciations of their economic illiteracy. Ominously the Montagnards, who had joined in the defence of free markets in February, were silent. By the end of the month, in fact, they had changed tack completely and were supporting demands for controls, cheered on by the Convention’s public galleries. On 30 April Girondins began to declare that the assembly was no longer safe in Paris and called for its sittings to be transferred to Versailles, predicting economic disaster if price controls were forced upon it. But that was what happened on 1 May. The Convention was mobbed by 8,000 demonstrators from the faubourg Saint-Antoine who declared themselves in a state of insurrection until price controls on bread were introduced, Nothing was conceded that day, but fear of a less-controlled recurrence led to the passing, on the next, of a law (formally promulgated on the third) stipulating a maximum price for grain and bread, and giving local authorities wide powers of search and requisition. Overt Montagnard advocacy of such a measure marked a turning-point, a recognition that Parisian support could not be taken for granted, even against the Girondins. As a police spy reported to the interior minister: ‘The Jacobins know only too well that the people cannot be resisted when one needs them.’5
They may have been alarmed that even in Paris there were signs of resistance to conscription, since it was this that had plunged the provinces into turmoil; and not only in the west. There were reports of riots against the 300,000 levy from places as far apart as Franche Comté, western Languedoc, and Normandy. More alarming still, in the course of the spring some of the major provincial cities began to break away from central authority.
First to waver was Marseilles, all the more shockingly in that the great Mediterranean port had been a watchword for radicalism ever since 1789. The sansculottes remembered with admiration the arrival of the militant Marseillais fédérés in July 1792. But Marseilles’s radicalism was in many ways the response of a vigorous minority of activists to a conservative hinterland and a mercantile community clearly reluctant to commit either its energies or its wealth to the patriotic struggle. This detachment had allowed the militants of the local Jacobin club to seize political control of the city and even, in defiance of the Legislative Assembly, to transfer the seat of departmental administration from Aix in August 1792. From this position they sniped constantly at ‘the rich’, and continued to do so even when the upheavals in the West Indies and deteriorating relations with the maritime powers began to threaten the whole basis of the city’s commerce. Uneasy in the absence of so many of their most stalwart sympathizers as volunteers in the armies, and obsessed by rumours of royalist plots, which experience had shown were often more than figments in the Midi, the Marseilles Jacobins took the news of the establishment of a Revolutionary Tribunal in Paris as a licence to establish one of their own. They also decreed a general disarmament and a forced loan on the rich to fund measures of revolutionary vigilance, and they carried this policy to the surrounding countryside in expeditions sent out to support the often embattled clubs of little towns inland. ‘After the former nobility’, declared representatives of the Marseilles Jacobins, ‘the bourgeoisie is the class which weighs heaviest on the people’,6 but in fact it soon became clear that the people were prepared to rally behind their supposed oppressors in resisting the Jacobin militants. Resistance coalesced in the city’s 32 sections. Once themselves a bastion of Jacobinism, their meetings had been gradually packed over the winter with port workers whose livelihoods were as threatened by economic disruption as those of the great merchants. The two groups now made common cause against the Jacobinism which they saw as the true source of the city’s misfortunes both locally and nationally. The arrival of the Montagnard representatives on mission from the Convention in March, endorsing all that the local Jacobins had done, finally provoked the sections into outright resistance. Forming a central committee (on the Parisian pattern of the previous summer), they resisted further militancy so successfully with the cry that ‘it is time for the anarchy of a few men of blood to stop’7 that on 27 April the deputies on mission fled the city and left their allies in the club to their fate. From the safety of Montélimar they proclaimed that Marseilles was in a state of counterrevolution. In fact it was in a state of faction-torn chaos, and it took three more weeks before members of the club were arrested by the central committee: but from Paris Marseilles seemed to be in revolt, espousing ‘Federalism’ against the one and indivisible Republic.
Certainly news of the downfall of the Marseilles Jacobins promoted unrest against their satellites elsewhere in the Midi. Resistance to the militants who had dominated local affairs since the previous summer began to revive in Aix, Arles, and Avignon. In Nîmes a long-standing rivalry between two clubs led the less extreme one to appeal for support to the city’s sections against a rival increasingly committed to the radicalism of the Paris mother society, and on 20 May the 12 sections of Nîmes declared themselves to be in permanent session. All over the south, in fact, the extremism with which Jacobin club members responded to the renewed national crisis of the spring provoked a backlash of protest even among many who had accepted the declaration of the republic and the execution of the king. And nowhere was this process more spectacular, and more menacing for the future of the young republic, than in the nation’s second city, Lyons.
The silk industry which was the basis of Lyons’s economy had been in crisis when the Revolution broke out, but events after 1789 only worsened its problems. Silk was a luxury product, but those who had normally bought silk goods before the Revolution quickly learned that ostentation could be dangerous in the new times, and demand slumped. War brought a shrinkage in foreign markets, too, and disruptions in the supply of raw materials from Savoy. Nor did the austere republicans who took control in Paris in 1792 have much sympathy for distress in the luxury trades. Montagnard attacks on Roland, who had lived in Lyons and been a vocal defender of its interests between 1784 and 1791, also did little to endear the militants of Paris to most Lyonnais. And yet, as in Marseilles, the reluctance of the city’s notables to involve themselves in the turbulent new world of electoral politics meant that in November 1792 Jacobin activists, led by the unbalanced former manufacturer Joseph Chalier, were able to take over local government, especially after previous elected officials had been discredited by a week of food riots and popular price-fixing during September. But in fact Chalier and his friends had nothing to offer beyond parroting the resolutions and policies of the Paris Jacobin Club, and their attempts to ensure plentiful supplies of cheap bread were vitiated by lack of money, disruption of supply networks far from the city, and competing claims for provisioning the armies manning the south-eastern frontiers. The maximum decreed in Paris on 3 May simply could not be implemented under Lyonnais conditions, bread in Lyons cost almost a third more than in Paris, and the whole month was marked by acute anxieties over essential supplies. They culminated on the twenty-fourth in the ransacking of a warehouse full of provisions destined for the armies; crowds of women sold them off at what they deemed fair prices. The response of the Convention’s representatives on mission was to order troops from the Alpine front to march on Lyons, but news of this brought on a confrontation between the city’s sections and the municipality. The sections knew that the troops would place in the hands of the local Jacobins a coercive power they had hitherto lacked. They feared a massacre if that happened, and in the circumstances they demanded that the National Guard, which the sections controlled, be mobilized. On the twenty-eighth the departmental authorities overrode municipal objections and called them to arms, and the next day this force stormed the town hall and overthrew the Jacobin commune. Lyons, too, was now in open revolt against the Convention.
And meanwhile the rural uprising in the west was growing ever more serious, The Convention’s decree of 19 March, that all rebels captured with arms in their hands should be put to death, did nothing to deter the rebels, who captured town after town in the uplands of the Vendée and with every success expanded their numbers. As many as 45,000 men seem to have joined the Catholic and royal armies (as they were now openly calling themselves) in the course of the spring. Against them the Republic was scarcely able at this stage to field more that 15,000 or 16,000, and even the minority of seasoned troops among them had no experience of the type of war they were now compelled to fight. The Vendéan armies materialized suddenly and supplied themselves from their own country. They melted away just as rapidly when checked, whereas the only safety for the ‘blues’ (as the republican troops soon became known) lay in keeping together in large units. They were quite unable to garrison potential strong points adequately before the rebels stormed them, and down into June rebel-controlled territory continued to expand, On 5 May they took Thouars; on the twenty-fifth, Fontenay, threatening to break out to the sea, where they could get access to British support. On 7 June they took Doué, pushing north towards the Loire; and on the ninth they reached it when they occupied Saumur, driving out Santerre, commander of the Paris National Guard, who had reached the Vendée with a battalion of patriotic volunteers only three weeks beforehand.
By May 1793, therefore, the new crisis for the Republic that had erupted in March had grown spectacularly worse. As the armies fell back along every frontier, a new, internal war zone established itself in what would soon be called the ‘military Vendée’; and the Convention even began to lose control of major provincial cities. The response of politicians in Paris was destined to make these problems even worse before they got better.
Immediately after the voting of the maximum there were unexpected signs of support for the Girondins in Paris. On 1 May the commune had decreed that a special extra levy of conscripts to fight in the Vendée would be made by popular societies designating recruits. It terrified better-off elements, who already considered their property threatened by a special war tax on the rich, decreed on 9 March but not yet implemented, not to mention the price controls involved in the maximum. Encouraged by Pétion from the Convention, young Muscadins (as well-pomaded rejectors of the shaggy sansculotte political style were coming to be known) seized control of several sectional assemblies and denounced the ‘popular despotism’ of the commune. They also paraded in the Champs-Elysées, calling for Marat to be guillotined. Steps taken against them were noisily denounced by the Girondin speakers in the Convention. With ever more Montagnards or deputies who normally voted their way now absent on mission, the Mountain’s usual ability to defeat Girondin eloquence with solid votes seemed threatened. These were the circumstances which finally swung them round to the idea of purging the Convention.
It went back at least to the failed journée of 10 March; and delegates from 27 sections had begun meetings to co-ordinate action to ‘save the country and liberty’ at the former archbishop’s palace (évêché) on 29 March. A list of the most obvious candidates for purging had been endorsed by 33 sections on 15 April. It was not, however, until a month later that positive plans began to be laid, and the Girondins knew all about them within hours. On 16 May they denounced them in the Convention. Two days later, amid calls for a ‘shadow Convention’ to convene at Bourges to assume power if that in Paris were deprived of its freedom, it was agreed to establish a Commission of Twelve to investigate insurrectionary activity in Paris. The idea came from Barère, no Girondin, but the members elected in a thin house on 20 May included several of them, and not a single Montagnard. Within four days it had the evidence it was looking for, after questioning Pache, the mayor, and scrutinizing sectional registers. Recommending a strengthening of the National Guard around the Convention, and the closure of all sectional meetings by ten in the evening, it ordered the arrest of those it had identified as the main plotters of insurrection. They included Varlet and, following a ferocious issue ofPère Duchesne in which he urged the sansculottes to annihilate the Girondin ‘traitors who conspired against the Republic’, Hébert. When the commune sent a deputation to object, Isnard, one of the more intemperate Girondins, who was currently president of the Convention, brushed it aside. ‘If,’ he declared,8 ‘by these constantly recurring insurrections it were to happen that the Nation’s representatives should suffer harm, I tell you, in the name of all France, that Paris would be annihilated.’ Brushing aside Marat too, who protested that he was dishonouring the assembly, he went on: ‘Soon they would search along the banks of the Seine to see if Paris had ever existed.’
It was an empty threat: but its echoes of Brunswick’s crude menaces the previous August outraged Parisians. For some weeks the Girondins had been hinting at departmental vengeance for any attack Paris might make on the Convention, and immediately before Isnard’s outburst a deputation from Marseilles had been heard, denouncing the Montagnards. Ominous rumblings from other provincial cities, such as the Girondins’ own Bordeaux, not to mention Lyons, were also now coming in. The Girondins had done nothing practical to organize such protests, but along with the struggles still going on in certain of the Parisian sections themselves, they convinced the insurrectionaries that their time was limited. Even Robespierre, who saw well enough the dangers of coercing the Nation’s representatives, now recognized that the deadlock in the Convention must be broken by outside force. At the Jacobins on 26 May, he ‘invited the people’ to rise up against the Convention’s ‘corrupt deputies’ and declared himself in insurrection against them. The first step was to get rid of the Commission of Twelve; and late that same night, after a tumultuous session in which members of rival sections had spilled into the Convention hall and fought each other, the few deputies who had not gone home exhausted voted to dissolve the Commission. Those it had arrested were automatically released. Two days later, it was reinstated, but promptly resigned when it was unable to get a hearing for its president. The deputies were still debating whether or not it existed, and what it should do next if it did, when they were finally overtaken by the long-dreaded insurrection.
It began in the small hours of 31 May when Varlet, in the name of the insurrectionary committee sitting at the archbishop’s palace, ordered the ringing of the tocsin. Soon after dawn the insurrectionaries formally deposed the commune and reinstated it under their own orders, The gates were closed, a round-up of suspects ordered, and Hanriot, a former clerk who had been made commander of the National Guard (in the absence of Santerre) the night before, was confirmed in office. But, on this working day, the sansculottes were slow to respond to the call to arms, and it soon became clear that, however much prior collusion there had been between the insurrectionary committee and the commune, there were divisions within both about how to proceed. Varlet wanted to dissolve the whole Convention. Others sought the arrest of the 22 deputies named on 15 April. Still others, including the commune’s procurator Chaumette, urged caution; and seemed simply to want to force the abandonment of the Commission of Twelve, and to scare the Girondins into more moderate conduct. But the threatened deputies’ reaction to the crowds who gathered all day around the Convention soon showed there was no prospect of that, at least. They demanded an inquiry into the insurrection, and they had no trouble in getting a petition for their own arrest side-stepped by referring it to the Committee of Public Safety. Clearly sensing the disarray of their antagonists, they refused to be intimidated, and kept on uttering threats of departmental vengeance. By the time Robespierre moved the impeachment of those named in the petition, the crowds were melting away, and the crisis seemed to have passed. All the insurrectionaries achieved was the final abandonment of the Commission of Twelve.
Frustration, however, only increased the determination of the insurrectionary committee to oust its enemies from the Convention once and for all. It was aided by the arrival of news on 1 June of the overthrow of the Jacobin commune in Lyons, a new uprising in the Lozère, and further defeats in the Vendée. The departmental revenge so long evoked by the Girondins seemed to be beginning. There was no time to waste, the Montagnards concluded, if civil war was to be avoided: those seeking to foment it must be removed from the national representation. It was therefore agreed to renew the pressure on the Convention on the second, a Sunday, when the sansculottes would not be at work. That morning a deputation from the commune presented a new petition for the arrest of 30 deputies. When it, in turn, was referred to the Committee of Public Safety, the cry went up for a report on the previous petition. This time the petitioners were taking no chances. The previous evening Hanriot had posted his men in key positions all around the Convention. Estimates of the number of National Guardsmen on duty vary between 75,000 and 100,000, and they were reinforced by thousands more onlookers. No deputy stood a chance of leaving the chamber, and when one group tried, they were turned back by Hanriot and Guardsmen with drawn sabres. Barère, in the name of the Committee, refused to recommend the arrest of the named deputies; but by now it was clear that the surrounding forces would not go until the Convention surrendered. They no longer had any choice. Before the day ended, therefore, they had decreed the arrest of 29 deputies—all but two of the 15 April list, and most of the Commission of Twelve. Two ministers were arrested under the same decree; and in the meantime Roland and his wife had also been picked up on the authority of the commune. Most deputies present abstained from the vote, visibly unwilling to violate the national representation under duress. The Montagnards, as always, were more realistic. Knowing they had no choice, they voted for the arrests in the hope of saving the Convention from an even worse fate. They also saw that it would leave their own domination of the Convention undisputed.
The expulsion of the Girondins was neither the destruction of a party nor the overthrow of a government. Onlookers then and since, certainly, have often seen it in these ways as they groped to make sense of complex events and issues through a fog of rhetoric and recrimination. But the very idea of political parties was abhorrent to a generation whom Rousseau had taught to seek the general will which is always for the best and never wrong. Even in Pitt’s England, with its long parliamentary tradition, Fox was finding it difficult to convince most fellow MPs that party was in any way respectable or distinguishable from selfish and power-hungry faction. Girondins and Montagnards called each other factions, but as terms of abuse. Both vehemently denied the charge. There were certainly overlapping circles and groups of friends among those called Girondins-around Brissot, around Roland, around the deputies from Bordeaux—but they never concerted their action in any sustained way, and they often voted divergently. Only when 22 of them were named as candidates for purging did they begin to respond to events with something like co-ordination. What made a Girondin was revolutionary intransigence: an attitude of mind that was not prepared to compromise the principles of 1789, whatever happened. This was the spirit that offered defiance to the whole of Europe as the war spread, and resisted the call for price controls which all men of education believed to be economically disastrous. This was the spirit, too, which insisted that all France must be consulted on an issue as momentous as the death of the former king. Above all, this was the spirit that resisted the dictatorship of a capital apparently in the grip of men who had organized or at least connived at the September Massacres. The representatives of the sovereign Nation must not be subjected to the fickle and murderous whims of the sansculottes and the bloodthirsty and irresponsible demagogues, like Marat or Hébert, who pandered to them.
All these were attitudes widely shared in the Convention. In calmer times very few of the deputies would have repudiated any of them. But the times were not calm, and there were certain realities which the Girondins refused to face. Without Paris, the Republic would not have been established and the Convention itself would not have existed. And however abhorrent the forces in control of the capital, it was only sensible for an assembly sitting there (and where else could it credibly sit?) to try to work with them. This was the Montagnard position. To Girondin intransigence they opposed prudence and practicality. And although the kernel of the Montagnards was the 24 deputies representing Paris itself, who acted more like a party than the Girondins ever did, it is striking how often they were able to carry a majority in the Convention on major questions like the fate of the king, the emergency measures of March, the establishment of the maximum, and even the toning-down of the previously open-ended offer of fraternity and help to foreign peoples seeking their liberty. Girondin successes only came when many deputies were absent, and were not hard to reverse later. Their oratory outshone that of the Montagnards, but they were clearly far from dominating or controlling the Convention.
They were not therefore a government. France had no government in a normally recognized sense between August 1792 and June 1793. Executive action emerged from the interplay between the council of ministers and a number of committees of the Convention, and none of these bodies was clearly dominated by Girondins or Montagnards. Yet there was also a real extension of governmental power, or at least pretensions, over the same period; and especially from March 1793. It was shown by the decree on conscription, the establishment of the Revolutionary Tribunal, the law of the maximum, and the creation of an embryonic war cabinet in the form of the Committee of Public Safety. Above all it was shown by the institution of the representatives on mission, who from being occasional special emissaries to troubled areas in the autumn of 1792, had by the following spring become a permanent presence in each of 41 pairs of departments, omnicompetent agents of the central power charged by their fellow deputies with the implementation of laws to deal with the wartime emergency. Sometimes as many as 130 deputies at a time might be absent from the Convention in this capacity. These men were the real governors of France during these months, in the sense that they were invested with the full authority of the national Convention to use as they saw fit. And in the sense, too, that when in Paris they tended to vote the same way as the Montagnards, a tendency which their provincial experience only reinforced, the Republic had something like a Montagnard government by the early spring of 1793. Only the absence of these same deputies on mission enabled the Girondins in the Convention to look as strong as they did. The removal of their leading spokesmen did not hand control of the Convention to the Montagnards: it merely made clear and explicit where control had already lain since the king’s trial.
Why then purge them at all? No single motive united all those involved in the journées of 31 May and 2 June. The sansculottes wanted their enemies silenced at whatever cost. No compromise seemed possible with men who denounced patriotic Parisians as anarchists, blood-drinkers, septembriseurs, and repeatedly invited the provinces to march on the capital and destroy it. The Montagnard fear was that Paris would pursue the quarrel at the expense of the Convention itself. Varlet, Roux, and the enragés had no trust in any representative form of government, and repeatedly said so. Accordingly, until the very last minute leading Montagnards such as Danton pleaded with the Girondins to stop attacking Paris and provoking the power in whose shadow they all sat. Besides, there was a war to fight, and it was not going well. It was no moment to be inciting civil war with inflammatory threats of departmental vengeance. If the Girondins had resigned themselves to the abolition of the Commission of Twelve, many clearly believed, and most probably hoped, that the insurrectionary impetus would have died. But Girondin intransigence was complete. Their quarrel with Paris was paralysing the entire course of public affairs, if not endangering the very existence of the Convention. Faced with such dangers, the practical, experienced men who made up its majority agreed, with anguished reluctance, to sacrifice a handful of their colleagues. Whether that would create as many problems as it solved was another matter.
Nowhere was the news of the purge of the Girondins likely to have more effect than in Bordeaux. Reeling from the impact of upheavals in the Caribbean and British blockade, what only a few years beforehand had been the second busiest port in Europe had no cause to welcome the course the Revolution had taken. Yet in 1791 the department of the Gironde had sent eloquent radicals like Vergniaud, Gensonné, and Guadet to the National Assembly, and it had returned them a year later to the Convention. Bordeaux was not without Montagnard sympathizers, congregating in the National Club, which had close links with the Paris Jacobins. But the city’s political life was dominated by the rival Friends of Liberty, where the Girondin deputies took their first steps in politics, and whose rules dedicated it to ‘the maintenance and strengthening of the Constitution, and of liberty, and discussion of all questions relating to public welfare and general tranquility’.9 Members of this club dominated most of Bordeaux’s 28 sections, and throughout the winter of 1792-3 they took their cues from their deputies in Paris. In March they even succeeded in having the National Club closed, and as early as January they were talking about sending a departmental force to Paris to protect the Convention from violation. On 5 May, after being compelled to swallow the maximum, Vergniaud decided that the time had come for more positive action. ‘Men of the Gironde’, he wrote,10 ‘rise up! The Convention has only been weak because it has been abandoned. Support it against all the furies threatening it … there is not a moment to lose. If you develop great energy, you will impose peace on men who are provoking civil war. Your generous example will be followed, and virtue will triumph at last.’ The Bordeaux sections responded with blood-curdling threats against the Convention; but they took no action, unlike Marseilles or Lyons, until news arrived of the purge of 2 June, which involved five of the Gironde’s deputies. Even then it took reports and urgings to collective action from elsewhere to push them beyond mere verbal protest. But on 7 June a ‘Popular Commission of Public Safety’ was set up, declaring the city in insurrection against a faction-dominated Convention until the purged deputies were restored. Bombarding its own citizens with anti-Montagnard propaganda, it also sent out representatives to other cities it deemed ripe for resistance, including those known already to have rejected Parisian dominance. Their message was twofold. They urged that the departments should unite to elect the shadow Convention at Bourges which Girondin deputies had been proposing before they were silenced; and more important, they pressed all areas which rejected the purged Convention’s authority to raise volunteers to march on Paris and restore constitutional government. They spoke optimistically of 80,000 men, hinted at support from the army, and on 14 June announced the formation of a departmental force of 1,200 as the Gironde’s contribution.
Marseilles and Lyons, already in revolt, were much encouraged by this response to an event that anti-Jacobins in both cities had long been predicting. They were already co-operating between themselves: one of the first steps of the Lyons insurrectionaries had been to send fraternal delegates down the Rhône to co-ordinate with the Marseillais, and they arrived just as the news from Paris broke. In Marseilles a popular tribunal was re-established in defiance of a decree from the Convention on 15 May suppressing a previous version: it was used to persecute Montagnard sympathizers throughout the Bouches du Rhone department. On 12 June Marseilles formally declared itself ‘in a legal state of resistance against oppression’ and announced the formation of a ‘departmental army’ which would march on Paris under the slogan One and Indivisible Republic; respect for persons and properties. By early July it was advancing on Avignon, which it occupied. Meanwhile at the other end of the Rhone Lyons had followed Bordeaux in establishing a Popular Commission (24 June), which ordered the raising of a departmental force intended to number 10,000. Eventually, it did reach about 4,000. When, in mid-July, the Convention proclaimed Lyons a city in rebellion and advised all loyal citizens to leave, the new authorities responded by executing Chalier, whom it took four falls of a blunt guillotine blade to despatch.
Other southern cities were now drawn in. On 11 June in Montpellier the departmental council of the Hérault ordered the raising of a force to march on Paris. In Toulouse and Grenoble, both near to frontiers where the enemy was on the offensive, the authorities agonized before eventually drawing back from endorsing the Bourges Convention or the idea of departmental armies. But at Toulon, which had at first taken the news of 2 June calmly, mid-July witnessed the beginning of what was to be perhaps the most dangerous and certainly the longest-lasting attempt to repudiate the authority of the Convention. Like Marseilles, Toulon had been ruled by pro-Montagnard Jacobins since the summer of 1792, although it had taken a massacre of local officials in July to open their way to power. Their position owed nothing to the city’s sections, which during the autumn ceased to meet. But seeing how the sections of nearby Marseilles over the following spring spearheaded the overthrow of Jacobinism there, anti-Jacobins in Toulon began campaigning for the sections to be reopened. Disillusion with the Convention was now widespread among the workers of the naval dockyard as the war with Great Britain and Spain increased their workload and swamped them with migrant workers, while at the same time their wages began to be paid in depreciating assignats. Like the dockers of Marseilles, they proved ready recruits in the struggle of the local notables against Jacobin levelling. The Jacobins tried to block the campaign for reopening the sections with armed demonstrations intended to remind their opponents of the previous summer’s bloodshed. But all they achieved was their own overthrow. On 13 July the sections began to meet again of their own accord, and on the fourteenth a general committee was elected to co-ordinate their activity. Three days later this committee dissolved the town council, after closing the Jacobin club and arresting its leaders. A popular tribunal was set up as at Marseilles, and over the summer it handed down 30 death sentences, mostly against known Jacobin supporters and activists. On 15 July it even arrested and imprisoned two representatives on mission. In contrast with the other southern cities in revolt, Toulon saw a revival of religious activity under municipal auspices. Yet the social orientation of the rebel authorities was much the same as elsewhere. ‘We want to enjoy our goods, our property, the fruits of our toil and industry in peace’, declared the revived sections in August,11 ‘yet we see them incessantly exposed to threats from those who have nothing themselves.’
Not all the anti-Montagnard revolts occurred south of the Loire. The remote department of the Jura, for instance, on the Swiss frontier, was one of those which set up a departmental army. Neighbouring departments followed suit, although their projected march on distant Paris never began. Far more serious, because far closer to the capital and to the royalist rebels of the Vendée, were outbreaks of defiance in Brittany and Normandy. As late as 25 May the general council of the department of Île-et-Vilaine, meeting in Rennes, declared that it wanted republican unity, ‘neither Robespierre nor Guadet, Danton or Gensonné, neither Mountain nor Valley, or any of those lines of demarcation which degrade the dignity of the people’s Representatives’.12 But one of those purged from the Convention a week earlier was their own deputy Lanjuinais, and within a week they had committed themselves to the formation of a departmental army to march on Paris and liberate him and his colleagues. Other Breton departments rallied in support. From Finistère, Quimper called for the suppression of the Revolutionary Tribunal, co-ordinated action, and the convocation of the Bourges shadow Convention. And all sought from the start to link up with protesters in the Norman department of Calvados, where Caen had denounced the Convention on 31 May, on hearing of the first dissolution of the Commission of Twelve. On 9 June Caen declared itself in a state of insurrection and resistance to oppression and arrested two deputies on mission who were in the department supervising coastal defences. The leaders also approached the local military commander, Wimpffen, with requests for help. Unknown to them, Wimpffen was a royalist and possibly in English pay; he proved very responsive. When, on 30 June, Caen became the headquarters of a ‘Central Assembly of Resistance to Oppression’ claiming to represent six Breton departments as well as Calvados, Wimpffen accepted command of its armed forces, whose notional numbers now exceeded 3,000. By then the rebels were also encouraged by the arrival, in the days following 9 June, of a number of the proscribed Girondin deputies themselves, who had escaped from the lax house arrest under which they had been placed on 2 June. They included Buzot, Louvet, and Pétion, and at first they were lionized by the richest inhabitants of Caen. But, noted Pétion, it did not last. When their hosts discovered that the Girondins had not been turned royalist by their treatment, their attitude rapidly cooled, ‘They detested the Mountain most cordially,’ he recalled,13‘but they liked republicans no better.’
Thus surfaced one of the many divisions that were to bedevil and ultimately doom what Parisians called the ‘Federalist revolt’. But these weaknesses were not visible at the start, and certainly not from the viewpoint of the capital. From there, it looked to many in June 1793 as if much of France was in revolt against the Convention, and there was wild talk (too often repeated uncritically by historians) of 60 or 70 out of the 83 departments repudiating central authority. Centres of revolt, of course, had every interest in making similar claims. More sober observers, even at the time, refused to be panicked. On 31 July the administrator of nationalized property, whose office was naturally sensitive to the slightest tremor of anti-revolutionary activity, noted serious resistance in only eight departments. Nevertheless, the country’s second, third, and fourth cities lay in these recalcitrant districts, so the ‘Federalist’ challenge could scarcely be brushed aside. What was easier was to misunderstand it.
It was not an attempt, however it might look, to break up the one and indivisible Republic. In the eyes of the rebels, wherever they arose, it was Paris which was sowing division in the Republic by dictating to and then tampering with the deputies elected by the rest of the nation. The Revolution of 1789 had been against centralization, that tool of Bourbon despotism. The failure of the constitution of 1791 to guarantee the disappearance of despotism had produced the Convention, but its purpose was supposedly to strengthen rather than abandon the principles of 1789; and not least local autonomy. Yet instead new intendants, the representatives on mission, had been sent out to the provinces with limitless powers; and although they came on behalf of the sovereign Nation incarnated in the Convention, that body itself was now hostage to the ‘anarchists’ and ‘blood-drinkers’ of the Paris sections. Nor were the leaders of ‘Federalism’ royalists, although royalists were happy to lend them support if it would foment division in republican ranks. As the commanding general in the south-west reported of the Bordelais on 5 June: ‘They appeared to me determined not to involve themselves in Parisian affairs, but more determined still to retain their liberty, their property, their opulence … They don’t want a king; they want a republic, but a rich and tranquil republic.’14 That, however, could scarcely mean a republic at war; and what the ‘Federalists’ appear to have resented if anything even more than the grip of the sansculottes on elected deputies was the range of emergency measures any government would have felt obliged to take to cope with the downturn in French fortunes that spring. Conscription, enhanced police powers, market controls, and forced loans, actual or threatened, were now coming on top of years of upheaval tolerated only because of the promise of calmer times to come. For ports there was the added blow of enemy activity. Whatever their losses, men of property doubtless rode out these tribulations better than those with little or none; but the disappearance over the summer of 1792 of the distinction between active and other citizens seemed to place the power to exercise authority enhanced by the emergency in the hands of those with least to lose. Embattled Jacobins in Marseilles, Lyons, and Toulon were reckless in their reliance on threats against property to retain power seized in the aftermath of the fall of the monarchy. Inevitably they expected support from the Montagnards, and inevitably they got it. But just as inevitably those who turned against one turned against the other. Nor was it just the rich, although they certainly gave the lead. ‘Federalism’ could never have got the grip it did (however transitory it proved) without support from many ordinary people who feared and resented what Jacobinism meant for them in the form of instability, inflation, and shortages—similar preoccupations, ironically enough, to those of the sansculottes in Paris. And they no more wished to be conscripted to fight distant enemies than the peasants of the Vendée or Brittany, This attitude proved (more irony!) fatal for the very resistance they supported. For the most striking failure of ‘Federalism’ was the dismal record of its departmental armies. If Marseilles was able to make up a force which at its largest seems to have reached 3,500 men, Bordeaux only put together a third of its 1,200 target. When the first Breton volunteers arrived in Caen they paraded through the town expecting to be joined by swarms of Norman recruits. Only seventeen came forward, and the Finistère battalions almost went home there and then. Nor did those who did volunteer show much willingness to march far from home. The Marseillais never got beyond Avignon. The Bordelais marched south rather than towards Paris, and ended up encamped in vineyards a mere 20 miles up the Garonne. A combined Breton and Norman force did better: leaving Caen on 8 July, about 2,000 men passed Evreux on the twelfth making for the Seine. But the next day they turned tail and ran at the first shots from forces sent against them by the Convention at Brécourt. They did not stop running until they were back in the Calvados.
Reluctance to leave their home territory was also to bedevil the Catholic and royal armies of the Vendée; but in June 1793 this weakness had not yet emerged as they continued to drive republican troops before them. On 10 June a hitherto unknown leader, a petty nobleman of some military experience called Charette, retook Machecoul from ‘blues’ who had captured it in April. On the nineteenth, the rebels crossed the Loire and entered Angers, which the republicans had evacuated. On the twenty-ninth they appeared before the greatest prize of all, the Atlantic port of Nantes. Throughout the spring Nantes had been one of the foremost centres of support for the Girondins against Parisian and Montagnard extremism, but as the forces of counter-revolution approached, the city authorities recognized that it was no moment to renounce the Convention. Appeals from other Breton cities to provide a contingent for the departmental army assembling at Caen were rebuffed, So was a call to surrender from the Vendéan army. The attack, when it came, was ill co-ordinated, and the city resisted with more determination than its besiegers had ever expected. After two days of assault, the attackers withdrew. Nantes, however grudgingly, had held firm for the Jacobin Republic against its enemies of both types. The worst moment in the Montagnards’struggle to keep control of France had passed.
It was fortunate for them that their opponents were so divided and uncoordinated, because even in Paris itself the weeks after the purge of 2 June were chaotic. Few deputies positively welcomed the purge of national representatives, and a number who had no special links with the proscribed deputies went out of their way to condemn the deed openly in letters to their constituents. Seventy-five signed a secret protest between 6 and 19 June; it would later be used to condemn the signatories in their turn as Girondins. The loose conditions of arrest imposed on the twenty-nine, while the Convention decided what to do next with them, also showed how reluctant their colleagues were to treat them as criminals. Only when a number of them escaped from Paris were those remaining confined more closely. To the radicals who had launched the insurrection on 31 May such laxity smacked of treachery—all the more so as the Montagnards had shown themselves determined from the moment of their triumph on 2 June to dissociate themselves from the allies who had made it possible. From 3 June onwards the Committee of Public Safety began a relentless campaign to whittle away the independence of the central committee of the sections which had organized the insurrection, and on the eighth it was merged into a body firmly under the control of the constituted departmental authorities. At the same time the Montagnards sought through popular gestures to cut the ground from under the feet of those who expected a radical new dawn, such as theenragés. Already on 2 June itself, before proscribing the Girondins, the Convention had voted in principle to establish a ‘Revolutionary Army’. There was nothing military about this idea, which had first surfaced in April, and become a staple of discussion in the sections over succeeding weeks. This sort of army would be a band of patriotic vigilantes, solid sansculottes, who would march into the countryside, or anywhere else their services might be required, to root out and punish traitors, hoarders, moderates, the indifferent, and suspects of all sorts. On the same day the Convention also voted to discuss the constitution every afternoon until a draft was ready. Moving with determined speed, it had produced by 10 June one which was deliberately designed to win popular approval, in both Paris and the country at large. Gone, in this project, were the checks, balances, and elaborate electoral limitations proposed by Condorcet in February and hotly debated since then. The separation of powers and extreme decentralization deemed so essential in 1789 were also largely abandoned. The constitution of 1793 provided for a unicameral legislature elected annually by direct manhood suffrage, and the legislature would choose the executive council. It was prefaced by a declaration of rights twice as long as that of 1789 which guaranteed to all citizens, in addition to the rights proclaimed then, public assistance when in need, state education, and the right to resist oppression by insurrection. On 24 June the project was ratified, and copies were sent out to all the primary assemblies which had elected the Convention for their approval in a sort of referendum. The aim was to secure this approval by the first anniversary of the fall of the monarchy on 10 August. Meanwhile the Convention also moved to appease the peasantry. On 3 June the sale ofémigré property in small, affordable lots was ordered. On the tenth it was decreed that all common lands might be redistributed among inhabitants of the communities where they were situated. On 17 July all remaining feudal rights still notionally in existence until bought out were abolished outright without compensation. All documents relating to them were to be collected and officially burned.
But none of this meant much to the sansculottes who, with their Girondin enemies out of the way, were now preoccupied once more with the supply of foodstuffs and other basic commodities. By the second week in June Paris was full of complaints against butchers and the price of meat. By the third week there were renewed fears for the bread supply as rumours came in from Normandy that the rebels in the Calvados would attempt to blockade the Seine. Roux, Varlet, and the enragés, frustrated in their desire for a more radical purge on 2 June, now sought to capitalize on this continuing unrest. Roux proposed at the Cordeliers that the new constitution should include a mandatory death sentence for usurers and speculators. ‘Liberty’, he declared, ‘does not consist in starving your fellow men.’ On the twenty-fifth he led a deputation from the more radical sections to the Convention, where he denounced the deputies for their inaction on hoarding and speculation and suggested that they, and the Montagnards in particular, were scarcely better in such matters than the despots of old. The outraged deputies threw him out; but attacks by women that very day on soap suppliers, whose stocks they sold at their own prices, showed that he was articulating real grievances. The Montagnards made a determined attempt to break Roux and destroy his influence. They were able to dislodge him from office as editor of the commune’s news sheet, and engineer his expulsion from one of his power bases at the Cordeliers. Marat, the vehement friend of the people, though now debilitated by a skin disease only relieved by constant bathing, was persuaded to denounce the enragés and all they stood for. But such infighting among the victors of 2 June was brought to an abrupt halt in mid-July when ‘Federalism’ struck its first (and, as it turned out, only) blow in Paris. Rumours of tens of thousands of Marseillais, Lyonnais, and Bordelais marching on the capital had been current for weeks. But it was a single, determined emissary from Caen, acting on her own, who visited Girondin revenge on their most ferocious adversary. On the thirteenth, Charlotte Corday stabbed Marat to death in his bath.
Here was a new Montagnard martyr, and a much greater one than Le Peletier, or Chalier, news of whose grisly end came in from Lyons a few days later. For all his ferocity, Marat had only been influential since the previous summer, and thanks to his illness his great days were already over. But loss of his counterweight against the enragés seemed serious, even if the initial impact of his murder was to stun the sansculottes. It seems to have galvanized the Montagnards into more positive action. They made the most of their martyr, of course. On 8 August they even paraded his widow before the Convention to denounce the enragés as agents of Austria and England. But the realization was now dawning, as disaster upon disaster was reported from the war fronts and from rebel departments, that much more ruthless and determined action would be required if the crisis facing the Republic was to be overcome. Problems of government would have to be taken more seriously. Danton, suspected of excessive trimming, had already been voted off the Committee of Public Safety on 10 July. So had his right-hand man Delacroix. Two weeks later (26 July), convinced at last of its value, Robespierre accepted nomination to the Committee, noting to himself that its priorities must be ‘food supplies and popular laws’. A law against hoarding passed that very day, making it a capital offence, seemed just what was needed. The new constitution, too, appeared to have achieved its purpose. The primary assemblies endorsed it by an official 1,801,918 votes against 11,610. In fact the numbers voting for it were probably nearer two millions—a respectable enough turnout at a time of civil war, and an indication that the propitiatory gesture of national consultation had achieved some success. The promulgation ceremony on 10 August, therefore, went ahead as planned, with a huge procession wending its way through Paris to where eighty-three pikes, one brought from each department by a patriot ripe in years, were bound into a huge fasces symbolizing republican unity. The constitution itself was deposited in a cedar box and suspended from the roof of the Convention hall.
Theoretically, the Convention’s work was now done. Like the Constituent Assembly before it, it could dissolve itself and make way for regular, constitutional government. Delacroix proposed just this on the eleventh. That same night, however, Robespierre denounced a proposal which could only bring to power ‘the envoys of Pitt and Coburg’. The current emergency, when the very survival of the Republic was at stake, was not the time to increase political uncertainties. The constitution could not safely be brought into force in time of war. So long as the emergency lasted it would remain suspended, in every sense.