Saturday, July 25, 2009

Part 3… The Personalities: Examination of the French Revolution (In English)

[Note: This is Part 3 of 3 of this posting… Other parts have appeared over the last few days.]
“We wish, in a word, to fulfill the intentions of nature and the destiny of man, realize the promises of philosophy, and acquit providence of a long reign of crime and tyranny. That France, once illustrious among enslaved nations, may, by eclipsing the glory of all free countries that ever existed, become a model to nations, a terror to oppressors, a consolation to the oppressed, an ornament of the universe and that, by sealing the work with our blood, we may at least witness the dawn of the bright day of universal happiness. This is our ambition, - this is the end of our efforts.”
— M. Robespierre, "On the Principles of Political Morality" (1794)

Radical Leaders and the ‘Reign of Terror’

Today’s exploration focuses on the ascendency of the radical and ultra-radical leaders of the French Revolution. These leaders oversaw the suppression of their perceived enemies through to their execution on the guillotine. Most of the leaders of the center-left members of the ‘Girondists’ fell to these radicals during the anarchical ‘Reign of Terror’ that took place between 1792 and 1794. In their attempt to set up a republic required the imposition of extreme violence, and relied more on Rousseau’s concept of government than that of Montesquieu’s concept. ◊

The leaders of these groups include:

The leaders during the ‘Reign of Terror’ (the ‘Montagnards’):

Robespierre (Best Known and Most Influential Figure of the Revolution, Head of the ‘Montagnard’s’)… Robespierre was a dedicated follower of Rousseau’s ideals of the ‘virtuous self,’ one who stands alone with his conscience. He heartedly endorsed Thomas Paine’s ideas incorporated into the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.” He was a deist who opposed the Catholic Church. From the beginning, he opposed Mirabeau because of the latter’s support of a Constitutional Monarchy; this also applied to his fellow members of the ‘Jacobin Club,’ the ‘Girondists,’ who also supported the modified monarchy until the King’s attempt to flee France. He believed that the King should be removed and executed, which was accomplished in January, 1793. ◊

He was a leader in the ‘Jacobin Club’ and was known to sit in the high seats in the meeting chamber of the Constitutional Assembly, called the ‘Mountain,’ with his group of ‘Montagnards.’ While the ‘Girondists’ were in power, he carefully saw to the ouster of the right wing deputies (to the ‘Club of 1789’) and the old leaders of the ‘Jacobin Club’ (to the ‘Club of the Fuillants’). He believed that the internal stability of France was more important than fighting a war with the Austrian coalition’s army; above all, he feared that traitors and counter-revolutionaries were hidden among the people of Paris and sought to eliminate them. ◊

After expelling and executing large numbers of ‘Girondists,’ he served on the ‘Committee of Public Safety’ from which he led the ‘Reign of Terror,’ with all of its excesses. He believed that terror was necessary to maintain the Revolution. He also turned on his formal allies, the ultra-radical “Hébestists’ when they commenced their pursuit of the atheistic worship of Reason and the de-christianization of the Church. With these actions, the group had become dangerous and must be eliminated; they were tried, convicted, and executed on the guillotine. Eventually, the tide also turned against Robespierre and his followers — they were executed on the guillotine in 1794. ◊

Marat (Radical Journalist and Politician)… Marat was uncompromising in his stand against the ‘enemies of the Revolution.’ He was a member of the ‘Cordeliers Club’ before joining the ‘Jacobin Club’. He strived for reform, as mayor of Paris, where he sought aide for the poorest members of society, the ‘sans-culottes.’ He was viewed, along with Robespierre and Danton, as the most powerful men in France in 1793. He was constantly battling the ‘Girondists’ and condoned the violence that was sweeping Paris, such as the 10 August Insurrection during which the royal family were attacked in the Tuileries Palace in Paris. After he retired from active participation for health reasons, he was assassinated in his bath tub by Charlotte Corday, a ‘Girondist’ sympathizer in 1793. ◊

Desmoulins (Journalist and Politician)… Desmoulins was a journalist who covered and documented the major events during the Revolution from the lockout at Versailles in 1789 through the storming of the Bastille in 1789 and the ‘Reign of Terror’ between 1792 and 1794. He advocated a republican form of government and a member of the ‘Cordeliers Club.’ He was constantly attacking Brissot and the ‘Girondists.’ After opposing some of Robespierre’s programs, both he and Danton were tried, convicted, and executed on the guillotine. ◊

Danton (Leading Figure during the Early Stages of the Revolution and a Moderating Influence among the ‘Jacobins’)… Danton was a major force in the overthrow of the Monarchy and helped to establish the first Republic. He believed that France should be under popular sovereignty (the so-called ‘popular principle’) and pushed for radical action. He was involved in the storming of the Bastille and the transfer of the royal family from the Versailles Palace to the Tuileries Palace in Paris. At the time of the King’s dethronement and the ascendency of the ‘Montagnards’ to power, Danton switched to the ‘Montagnards’ from the ‘Girondists.’ He believed that only a radical Paris could defend France from the Austrian coalition’s army. As a member of the ‘Committee of Public Safety,’ he supported the suppression and eventually effected the execution of the ‘Girondists’. When he ceased to support the excesses the ‘Reign of Terror,’ he was targeted by Robespierre and was executed on the guillotine. ◊

The leaders of the ultra-radical, anti-church movement (the ‘Hébertists’):

Hébert (Editor of Extreme Radical Newspaper)… Hébest published Le Père Duchesne which printed articles that were filled with wit, violence, abusive tirades and foul language. From 1790-1791, he supported a Constitutional Monarchy. However, after the royal family attempted to flee France and was caught at Varennes, he changed his position to support the dissolution of the monarchy. Being a member of the ‘Commune of Paris,’ the city government, he became more radical than even Robespierre. ◊

He went on to impose his atheist beliefs on France and tried to establish the worship of Reason. He sought to de-christianize the Catholic Church in France; he was joined on the crusade by Chaumette, and together they became known as the ‘Hébertists’ and the ‘enragés.’ They supported the poor people of Paris, the ‘sans-culottes,’ and sought to set a low, fixed price for bread. Both of these actions alienated them from Robespierre who was a deist and feared the ‘sans-culottes.’ They were finally judged as too radical and, after the expulsion and execution of the ‘Girondists,’ suffered the same fate in 1794 on the guillotine. ◊

Chaumette (French Politician)… As an associate of Hébest, Chaumette became a spokesman for the poor people of Paris. He became the head of the ‘Commune of Paris’ and was accused of promoting the ‘September Massacres.’ He took a radical position in the Convention by calling for the execution of the King before the rest of the members followed suit; he urged the group to form a Revolutionary Army to defend the Convention from the Paris mobs as well as support Hébest’s move to de-christianize the Catholic Church and replace it with the worship of Reason. These activities and actions were rejected by Robespierre and the Convention. This led to his haring Hébest’s fate on the guillotine. ◊

This completes our overview of the twelve key personalities who led the French Revolution. All but one of these were men; Madame Roland being the sole exception. The other two women mentioned filled specific niches in the progress of the Revolution. ◊

Summary and Conclusions

So, what did these dozen brave patriots accomplish? They freed the French population from the absolute monarchy of the King. Through a series of stages, the French nation survived threats from both within and from outside; the clerics and nobility kept most of the population as feudal serfs. As the Revolution progressed, the Austrian coalition attempted to restore the monarchy to absolute power. Both of these threats were thwarted by the new government. The country even survived the ‘Reign of Terror’ unleashed by Robespierre. ◊

Finally, in 1795, the new constitution was put into effect and the First Republic was born. The Directory replaced the Constitutional Assembly as the ruling body; it had a bicameral legislature (‘Council of Five Hundred’ and the ‘Council of Elders’) and an executive of five Directors. The rule of law was finally put into place and the country settled into a period of relative stability. This lasted until 1799 when chaos emerged again. The rise of Napoleon arose from this chaos. ◊

Next Time: We will examine the Assemblies and Conventions that ended in a Constitutional Republic. Join us for that adventure…

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