The National Convention

Hello, and welcome to Revolutions.

So, last time we dealt with the bloody consequences of the power vacuum that was left after the Insurrection of August 10. The overthrow of the monarchy and the abandonment of the Constitution of 1791 meant that no one was really in charge and so no one was really in control. But this dangerous six week interregnum ended with the convening of the National Convention. 

The National Convention’s stated purpose was to write a new constitution for France. But as events twisted and turned and constitutions were written, suspended and rewritten, the Convention wound up serving as the national legislative body of France from September 1792 until November 1795. The battles waged in the Convention and over the Convention would define the worst days of the French Revolution. And today we will follow the bitter and acrimonious start to their violent and disturbing adventure. 

Elections for the new convention were called by the Legislative Assembly in that nervous session of August 10, 1792. The leadership of the Legislative Assembly may not have been ecstatic about dumping the Constitution of 1791 and starting over from scratch, but with the smoke from the battle in the Tuileries Palace still lingering in the air, they decided it was one of those go-along-to-get-along type of situations. But though Brissot and his Girondin friends no doubt shuddered when they approved elections that were to be held on the basis of universal manhood suffrage, accepting only servants and the unemployed, they did manage to sneak through two bits of procedural minutiae that helped ease the pain. 

First, they stuck with the same two tiered electoral system that had been used in the past: a primary assembly to nominate an elector, who would then move on to a second assembly, where the vote for the actual delegates would take place. This would hopefully lock out the kind of delegate unregulated democracy might produce. 

Second, they managed to resist Robespierre’s call that the Legislative Assembly passed a self denying decree, as the National Assembly had once done. A decree that would bar them all from sitting in the convention. But the leaders of the Legislative Assembly were having none of that. They were not going to be swept aside like those naive Feuillant. If the electoral pool was going to be universal, so too would the candidate pool. 

The first round of elections was held on August 27, which was just about the time Paris was entering terminal freak out mode. But it wasn’t just Paris that was freaking out. There was a lot of freaking out going on. Those commissioners sent out by the Legislative Assembly after August 10 made it clear that this was the dawn of a new era. And in this new era, enemies of the revolution would no longer be coddled. Decrees started coming out of Paris authorizing the arrest of suspects. And then that extraordinary tribunal gave everyone a look at what justice would look like in this new era, when they started cutting off heads with the guillotine, which, while I’m here, I had better correct something right now. 

As a few of you pointed out, Dr. Guillotin did not invent the guillotine. He merely suggested that all execution should be decapitation effected by means of a simple machine. Forerunners of that simple machine had been around for a few hundred years. But the prototype, built in April 1792, is officially credited to a surgeon named Antoine Louis. Dr. Guillotin’s name wound up attached to the thing, though, much to his everlasting shame and horror. Sure don’t like making mistakes like that, but every once in a while, I faceplant. I’m sorry about that. 

So the elections to the National Convention unfolded under an oppressive blanket of fear and suspicion. So it should come as no surprise that in an atmosphere where the wrong political sentiment, even when expressed offhand, might result in the death penalty. 

But turnout for the elections was comically low. You never see turnout figures for the primary assemblies higher than 25%, and I’ve seen them calculated as low as just 5%. Why in the world would you want to accidentally vote for the wrong guy at a time like this? That meant that those who did show up were of a very particular type and agreed on a very specific set of principles. Which is why it’s so ironic that of the three major representative bodies we’ve dealt with so far – the National Assembly, the Legislative Assembly, and now the National Convention – the Convention would turn out to be by far the most rancorous and faction ridden. 

The second round of elections was held on September 2, the same day the September massacres got going in Paris. Now, obviously, that couldn’t affect the vote out in the departments, but it had a huge impact on the Paris elections. I mean, you would have to be insane to show up and do anything but vote left, left and harder left. As a consequence, the Paris delegation would be super crazy radical, even more super crazy radical than all the previous Paris delegations. And those previous delegations had always been way to the left of everyone. 

When the results came back in, the Paris slate read like a who’s who of major revolutionaries: Robespierre, Danton, Desmoulins, d’Églantine, Jean-Paul Marat won a seat. But so too did their increasingly bitter opponent, Jacques Pierre Brissot, who was still way too prominent and influential to be denied.

Out in the departments, meanwhile, about 200 men who had sat in the Legislative Assembly were re-elected from their various districts, including all the prominent Girondins. Also coming back into the fold were about 80 guys who had served in the old National Assembly, the most famous of whom was the Duke d’Orléans, that renegade prince of the blood who was now styling himself, Philippe Égalité. Regrettably, I have probably not given the Duke d’Orléans the attention he deserves. And at some point I’m going to have to pull off and review his role in the revolution at better length, since he was so instrumental in creating the space within which the early revolutionaries flourished. And I’ll probably do that when those revolutionaries cut off his head. 

So of the 749 members of the Convention, almost 300 were experienced legislators and had been central to revolutionary politics for years. The newcomers were, like had happened with the Legislative Assembly, men who had made their name in local revolutionary politics and who were now making the jump to the big stage. Although, one of the most famous newcomers had made his name not in local politics, but in international politics, because our old friend Thomas Paine was elected to represent the city of Calais

Paine had just been chased out of Britain for publishing a defense of the French Revolution called The Rights of Man, and he landed in France just in time to be elected as a sort of honorary delegate by some enthusiastic French admirers. The public debate that had just been waged in London between the radical Paine and the suddenly very conservative Edmund Burke probably deserves a supplemental episode on its own because the French revolution is insanely complicated and it’s very hard to keep up. 

The Convention met as a body for the first time on September 20 in the Tuileries Palace. And then on September 21, 1792 they held their first session in the Ménage, taking over that rectangular hall that had served as the home of both the National Assembly and the Legislative Assembly. From the word go, the National Convention was a very contentious place to be, because two factions walked into the hall basically ready to drive the other into the dust. Robespierre, his fellow Paris radicals, and about 130 Jacobin-aligned delegates planted themselves on the top rows of a set of steep risers on one side of the hall. This earned them the nickname that would become an all but official party name: The Montagnards or The Mountain, and I’m going to call them the Mountain, so I don’t have to mangle Montana every time I want to talk about them. 

Opposed to the Mountain was, of course, the Girondins, now numbering roughly 200 or so delegates who tended to vote together and support each other, though it is an enduring historical debate just how cohesive they really were. 

Between these two factions laid the majority of uncommitted delegates who filled the seats near the ground, earning them the name the Plain or the Swamp, if you wanted to be snarky about it. Their votes were the prize to be won in the endless rounds of accusations and counter accusations between the Mountain and the Girondins. 

Now, the funny thing about these two rival cliques is that in almost every respect, they were composed of the same type of man. They were all well educated, mostly lawyers and professionals – thoroughly of the bourgeois set. Most had grown up obscure in the provinces and had risen to prominence with the Revolution. They all were, or had very recently been prominent Jacobins, and those who had been in the National Assembly or the Legislative Assembly always composed the left side of the left wing. So far, they had really only disagreed about one thing, but I suppose it was a big thing: Brissot and the Girondins were extremely pro-war. Robespierre and his allies were staunchly antiwar. The rest of it comes down to personality. They just didn’t like each other. And then there was, of course, power. They both wanted it and saw the other as their main obstacle to grabbing it and holding it. 

In the beginning, the Girondins clearly had the edge on that power, and in a lot of ways, their position at the beginning of the convention was very similar to that of the Feuillant. At the beginning of the Legislative Assembly, the Girondins controlled almost all the important ministerial posts. Their immediate numbers gave them the largest plurality of votes in the Ménage, and the new delegates arriving in Paris to take their seats initially gravitated into their orbit. For the first few months, the Girondins were able to put their guys in the president’s chair almost at will. 

In a convenient bit of dramatic foreshadowing, though, it appears that when the delegates arrived to take up their seats in the Ménage, no one wanted to sit in the area once occupied by those disgraced Feuillant. Like those seats were cursed or something. But then the realities of space constraints forced those seats to be occupied, by the Girondins. Cue ominous music. 

The big thing that gave the Girondins their immediate gravitational claim on new delegates was the shock over the September Massacres. Most of the provincial delegates were absolutely horrified by the Massacres. Including the body count from August 10, more than 2,000 enemies of the revolution had been killed in the capital by armed mobs in less than six weeks. Aside from the human suffering dimension, most of the delegates in the Convention were lawyers, and they were appalled by the total breakdown of the rule of law. So right away, the delegation from Paris came under fire for their role in the Massacres. It was well understood that Robespierre and his gang were closely tied to the Insurrectionary Commune, that in a very real sense, they were the representatives of the Commune in the Convention, that set them up as villains through these initial sessions. In a very pointed rebuke of the Commune, the first president the Convention elected was Jérôme Pétion, the now ex-mayor of Paris, who had been deposed when the Insurrectionary Commune took power on August 10. 

The first order of business, however, did manage to bring everyone together. On September 21, the Convention voted unanimously to abolish the monarchy and declare France a republic. A new kingless constitution would now be drafted. This was just about the last thing the Convention agreed on, because once it was settled that the monarchy was abolished, the next question became, okay, well, what do we do with Louis? And that’s when unanimity collapsed. Some wanted him put on trial, others said he had already been put on trial and found guilty back on August 10. Others said a king could never be put on trial. Some people wanted him dead, other people wanted him in prison. Others maybe secretly wanted him back on the throne. All of this would be the primary focus of the first few months of the Convention. And today I’m going to talk about none of it. Instead, I’m going to reserve it all for next week so I can tell in one coherent story the trial and execution of Louis the Last. Today we’re just going to have a little fun watching the Girondins and the Mountain go at it to the nail. 

The Girondins moved quickly to try to destroy the Mountain before they even got settled. In that first week, they accused Robespierre of orchestrating the September Massacres so he could kill all his enemies and set himself up as a dictator. Their main tactic was to link Robespierre to Marat, because everyone knew Marat had been the main instigator of the Massacres and had been repeatedly calling for a revolutionary dictatorship: to purge France of the impure

The Girondins then pivoted from this personal attack on Robespierre into a general assault on the Paris Commune, which they argued posed a potential threat to the Convention. Anytime something didn’t go the Commune’s way, they could simply unleash the armed hordes of sans-culottes. To counter this, they proposed calling in National Guard units from the provinces to come act as defenders of the Convention. But this initial attack petered out when Marat stood up and declared that he had been alone in his call for a revolutionary dictatorship. Robespierre had nothing to do with it. And then, of course, there was the somewhat perplexed reaction to all this from the unaligned delegates of the Plain, who thought attacking Robespierre and the Commune a curious business to fixate on, given everything else that had to be done. 

But the Girondins were not deterred, and Robespierre was not their only enemy, and they soon set their sights on Danton, that great ogre that Madame Roland was absolutely convinced was really behind the massacres, the man who really wanted to set himself up as a dictator. 

Danton’s position within the Convention was a bit odd. He sat with the Mountain, but he very much wanted to remain independent, and he worked behind the scenes to mend the rift between the two factions. They had so much in common. It seemed crazy to derail the Convention for the sake of indulging personal grudges. To counter the notion that he himself was aiming at dictatorship, Danton announced in his maiden speech to the House that he would resign from his post as Minister of Justice. I promise he kept, two weeks later, once he was sure that the victory at Valmy had actually turned the allied army around. 

But that was not enough for Madame Roland. And in mid-October, the Girondins started going after Danton hard for his sloppy bookkeeping as Minister of Justice. He had spent a lot of money, and no one knew where it had gone, though it was clear at least a chunk of it had gone to arm the Paris sections, which didn’t exactly seem like Justice Ministry business

But while the vast majority of the money was publicly unaccounted for, Danton plausibly made his case that, given the circumstances, he had spent the money as he thought best to defend Paris, that he had shown his receipts to his colleagues on the Provisional Executive Council, and they had approved his work, which his fellow ministers then affirmed that he had. Though, as I said, in the days after August 10, Danton dominated that ministry. So who knows what actually went on or what his fellow ministers actually approved? 

All of these attacks culminated at the end of October and the beginning of November, when the Girondins attempted to expel the entire Paris delegation as a threat to the Convention. On October 25, they sent out one of their guys, a minor character whose name I won’t bother you with, to reopen the case against Robespierre. The model of the speech was Cicero’s Cataline Orations, and he again accused Robespierre of trying to set himself up as a dictator. 

But when Robespierre came back a week later with his defense, he absolutely won over the Plain. He dismissed the entire thrust of the Girondins attack as both stupid and petty. He laughed at the thought of anyone thinking him, of all people, anything but an instrument of virtue. He then laid out what would soon become the official revolutionary position on the September Massacres, that they were inextricably linked to the insurrection of August 10. They were driven by the same historical force, that to deny one was to deny the other. And since no one wanted to turn back the clock on August 10, everyone had to accept the massacres as the unfortunate result of the same virtuous impulses. It had all been illegal. Of course it had been illegal, but it was the will of the people, and that was what mattered. “Do you want a revolution?”, he asked. “Without a revolution?” 

But all this bickering was really just a sideshow to the main event, because over the first month of the Convention’s life, committees were being formed and then started reporting back about how best to deal with the King. Next week we will be back at full strength with a full-length episode to delve into the trial and execution of Louis XVI, whose fate would soon enough be shared by those who currently judged him.

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