Resistance to the French Revolution, 1793-9 Part II

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’ 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’ that on 2 7 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 counter-revolution. 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 Nïmes 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 Nimes 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 rebelcontrolled 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-Élysées, 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 of Père 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, ‘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 sidestepped 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 impeach ment 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 enragds 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’. 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, ‘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 1,000 as the Gironde’s contribution.


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