Background of Chaos
May 5th, 1789
“What is the Third Estate? Everything. What has it been until now in the political order? Nothing. What does it want to be? Something.”
The Third Estate represented 95% of the French population and was made up of lawyers, local officials, tradesmen, or land owners. The Third Estate had born the tax burden without equal representation in the governance of France. Inspired by the American War for Independence and the Enlightenment, the French Third Estate vied for more representation. This fanned the flames of revolution throughout France, and on July 14th, 1789, the Bastille (a political prison) was stormed and bloody chaos ensued.
In rural areas, many commoners began to form militias and arm themselves against a foreign invasion: some attacked the chateaux of the nobility as part of a general agrarian insurrection known as “la Grande Peur”(“the Great Fear”).
The people next turned on the First Estate, made up of the Roman Catholic clergy. Catholicism had played a brutal hand in suppressing popular insurrection and now they reaped what they had sewn. During the Reign of Terror, extreme efforts of secularism ensued, including the imprisonment and massacre of priests and destruction of churches and religious images throughout France. An effort was made to replace the Catholic Church altogether, with civic festivals replacing religious ones. The establishment of the Cult of Reason was the final step of radical secularism.
The National Assembly then began to eat itself. Factions arose and figures that were once seen as crucial to the Revolution became perceived as “not radical enough” and were then executed.
Louis XVI was executed in 1793. This was the final nail in the coffin of this iteration of the French monarchy. This happened during the “Reign of Terror”. According to archival records, at least 16,594 people died under the guillotine or otherwise after accusations of counter-revolutionary activities. As many as 40,000 accused prisoners may have been summarily executed without trial or died awaiting trial.
By the summer of 1793, most French departments in one way or another opposed the central Paris government. Girondins who fled from Paris after 2 June led those revolts. In Brittany’s countryside, the people had taken to a guerrilla warfare known as Chouannerie. But generally, the French opposition against ‘Paris’ had now evolved into a plain struggle for power over the country against the ‘Montagnards’ now dominating Paris.
In June–July 1793, Bordeaux, Marseilles, Brittany, Caen and the rest of Normandy gathered armies to march on Paris and against ‘the revolution’. In July, Lyon guillotined the deposed ‘Montagnard’ head of the city council. Barère, member of the Committee of Public Prosperity, on 1 August incited the Convention to tougher measures against the Vendée, at war with Paris since March: “We’ll have peace only when no Vendée remains … we’ll have to exterminate that rebellious people”. In August, Convention troops besieged Lyon.
In August–September 1793, militants urged the Convention to do more to quell the counter-revolution. A delegation of the Commune (Paris city council) suggested to form revolutionary armies to arrest hoarders and conspirators. Barère, member of the Committee of Public Prosperity—the de facto executive government—ever since April 1793, reacted favorably, saying: let’s “make terror the order of the day!” On September 17th, the “Law of Suspects” was passed, which ordered the arrest of suspected counter-revolutionaries and people who had revealed themselves as “enemies of freedom”. This decree was one of the causes for some 17,000 legal death sentences until the end of July 1794, an average of 370 per week – reason for historians to label those 10½ months ‘the Reign of Terror’.
So now the Revolutionaries were facing their own uprisings. The destruction of the civilized order had regressed into chaos. The Convention was defeated by the Vendean forces and this led to Republic armies in 1794 slaughtering 117,000 Vendéan civilians to obliterate the Vendéan people, according to some historians. Others contest that claim. Some historians consider the total civil war to have lasted until 1796 with a toll of 170,000 or 450,000 lives.
Because of the extremely brutal forms that the Republican repression took in many places, historians such as Reynald Secher have called the event a “genocide”. Historian François Furet concluded that the repression in the Vendee “not only revealed massacre and destruction on an unprecedented scale but also a zeal so violent that it has bestowed as its legacy much of the region’s identity.”
This chaos is what awaits us if the modern day “progressive” movement ever seizes complete power. They are zealots just like the French liberals were.
Maximilien Robespierre, since July 1793 member of the Committee of Public Prosperity, on February 5th, 1794 in a speech in the Convention identified Jacques Hébert and his faction as “internal enemies” working toward the triumph of tyranny. After a dubious trial Hébert and some allies, charged with counter-revolutionary activities, were guillotined in March.
On April 5th, again at the instigation of Robespierre, Danton, a moderate Montagnard, and 13 associated politicians, charged with counter-revolutionary activities, were executed. A week later again 19 politicians. This hushed the Convention deputies: if henceforth they disagreed with Robespierre they hardly dared to speak out.
A law enacted on further streamlined criminal procedures: if the Revolutionary Tribunal saw sufficient proof of someone being an “enemy of the people” a counsel for defense would not be allowed. The frequency of guillotine executions in Paris now rose from on average three a day to an average of 29 a day.
Meanwhile, France’s external wars were going well, with victories over Austrian and British troops in May and June 1794 opening up Belgium for French conquest. But cooperation within the Committee of Public Prosperity, since April 1793 the de facto executive government, started to break down. On June 29, 1794, three colleagues of Robespierre at ‘the Committee’ called him a dictator in his face – Robespierre baffled left the meeting. This encouraged other Convention members to also defy Robespierre. On July 26, a long and vague speech of Robespierre wasn’t met with thunderous applause as usual but with hostility; some deputies yelled that Robespierre should have the courage to say which deputies he deemed necessary to be killed next, what Robespierre refused to do.
In the Convention session of July 27, 1794, Robespierre and his allies hardly managed to say a word as they were constantly interrupted by a row of critics such as Tallien, Billaud-Varenne, Vadier, Barère and acting president Thuriot. Finally, even Robespierre’s own voice failed on him: it faltered at his last attempt to beg permission to speak.
A decree was adopted to arrest Robespierre, Saint-Just and Couthon. On July 28, they and 19 other leading Jacobins were beheaded.
This went on until November 9, 1799, when Napoleon strode onto the scene and overthrew the government, bringing order to chaos.
I think this is enough for this post. I will pick Napoleon up next time. As always, thanks for reading.