Hello, and welcome to Revolutions.
Last time, we headed off to the warfront to follow the rapid advance and then equally rapid retreat of the French armies, culminating with the betrayal and emigration of General Dumouriez in April 1793. This, as you can imagine, was all a distressing development for the delegates of the National Convention. But the setbacks on the warfront weren’t the only distressing developments the National Convention was dealing with. At this very same moment, armed uprisings began to break out across France against the central revolutionary authorities in Paris, most especially out west in the Vendée. For a few tense months, it looked like the oh so recently declared French Republic was about to collapse under the combined weight of internal revolt and external attack. Drastic measures would have to be taken if the revolution was to be saved.
This week we are going to cover the development of those provincial uprisings and the response from the Convention. I am, however, going to set aside for next week the third big distressing development the Convention confronted: the rise of the Enragés – super radical leaders of the Paris Sans-culottes, who were hell bent on bending the Convention to their will. I’m leaving them off because they will be the driving force behind the insurrection of May 31 – June 2nd, aka the Purge of the Girondins, that will be the focus of next week’s show. A lot was happening in the spring of 1793 and none of it was good.
The first hint that all was not well out in the departments came when the National Convention decreed that Levée of 300,000 at the end of February 1793. This troop Levée was supposed to replenish the French armies, who were shrinking daily from the combined effects of enlistment terms coming due and outright desertion. Mostly what the Levée did, though, was sparked angry protests across France. Remember, while the Convention hoped that the troop quotas would be filled by voluntary enlistment, local municipal authorities were authorized to compel service when necessary, which sort of ran counter to the whole era of liberty that has supposedly dawned. I mean, how is it that I’m supposed to stand here listening to you wax poetic about individual freedom and civil rights while pointing a gun at my head and ordering me to march to the front lines?
So all through February and March 1793, reports came into Paris describing hostility and opposition to the recruitment drive. This resistance was, in most places, overcome eventually. But even so, the hostile response to the Levée of 300,000 put the authorities in Paris unnoticed that the French nation was not yet the unified power it needed to be if it was going to prevail in its war against Europe.
But though resistance to the draft was eventually overcome, in most areas, in one region in particular, resistance was very much not overcome. Instead, it blossomed into a full scale armed revolt that history has dubbed the War in the Vendée. This extraordinarily bitter civil war would be waged through 1796 and would be defined by some of the worst atrocities of the Revolutionary era. Captured rebels in the Vendée wound up supplying just over half the total victims executed during the Reign of Terror. And that was on top of the tens of thousands of civilians massacred by the so-called Infernal columns in early 1794. The War in the Vendée is a dark and brutal fight, and it’s going to be a major theater of action for the next few years. So let’s dig into why things got so ugly.
The Vendée region composes roughly the Four Department south of Loire River in western France. Never a major economic center nor boasting a major port, the Vendée was not on the beaten path from anywhere to anywhere, so the inhabitants of the region were generally isolated from the rest of France. On top of that, its geography was defined by dense hedge rows and thick forests, which led to sparse habitation compared to, say, Brittany, its far more densely populated neighbor to the north. This meant that both the Vendée region as a whole and the individual communities within it were fairly insular. And as is often the case with insular rural communities, the people were happy with their traditional ways. So from the very beginning, the revolution was an unwelcome intruder in the Vendée. But opposition to the revolution in the region wasn’t just because the locals were a bunch of backward neophobes. Mostly, it was because their experience with the allegedly rotten parts of the Ancien Régime had always been fairly positive.
For one thing, the peasants never felt any intense hatred of the local aristocracy. The general poverty of the region meant that the Vendée nobles could never afford to move away to the big city like so many of their aristocratic brethren had done in the years leading up to the Revolution. By remaining on their ancestral estates, they remained a part of the local community with all the rights and responsibilities that went along with it. And they did not neglect the responsibility side of that equation, because basically, it’s much harder to be a jerk to people that you see every day. So there was never a strong us versus them mentality among the peasants or the nobles, both of whom pretty much accepted that they needed each other.
But that general lack of anger at the aristocracy was nothing compared to the practically nonexistent anger at the Catholic Church. And it was over the Church more than anything else that the war in the Vendée was fought. As a consequence of that regional insularity, the local churches and the local priests of the Vendée were always strong pillars of the community, and more so than in other regions, those local priests were not outside appointees. They were native sons who went off to ecclesiastic college and then returned to minister to their friends and relatives and neighbors.
On top of that, the economic relations between the priests and their parishioners was never a source of much tension. The priests of the Vendée enjoyed livings that always kept them fairly comfortable, while the tides imposed were never so oppressive that their parishioners saw them as mere parasites. In short, for the people of the Vendée, the traditional Catholic Church was working just fine as a bedrock of our community. Thank you very much.
So it shouldn’t be too hard to guess what the reaction in the Vendée was to the civil constitution of the clergy when it was promulgated in 1790. They were appalled. Just about every single Vendée priest refused to take the civic oath, and they were roundly applauded by their parishioners for doing so. Whatever the godless philistines in Paris are up to, we want no part of it.
Now, as I mentioned, the National Assembly tended to tolerate the nonjuring clergy. But after the Legislative Assembly took over and the war with Austria began, the central authorities in Paris decided that coddling the refractory priests was no longer an option. So the Assembly voted to shut down illegal services, arrest nonjuring priests, and make sure every parish was staffed with a fully sworn up member of the new civic clergy. When revolutionary authorities came around hunting for nonjuring priests, though, the people of the Vendée did not hesitate to hide their sacred brothers in barns and in fields and provide them with all the food and supplies they needed to survive.
But all of this said, the Vendée was not uniformly opposed to the Revolution, and the major towns were filled with exactly the kind of patriotic bourgeoisie we find in other regions. And while there wasn’t much tension between the peasants and the nobility, there was tension between the peasants and those townspeople, especially as the revolution progressed. For example, the seizure and sale of church lands was, of course, opposed by the pious peasantry of the Vendée. But once it got going, there was some general hope that maybe it would bring some relief to those who had too little land or no land at all. I mean, some justice might spring from the sacrilegious program.
What wound up happening, though, is that the patriotic townspeople bought up all the land because they were the only ones who could come up with the cash at auction time. So all that land was simply transferred from the church, who the peasants loved, to the patriotic townspeople, who they really, really did not. And then the patriotic townspeople started coming along, asking for rent.
But still, in 1793, resistance to the Revolution in the Vendée was mostly passive. Sure, the locals had a tendency to fling dung and garbage at the poor civic clergymen who were assigned to minister to the superstitious peasants, but that was about the worst of it. But then the godless revolutionaries in Paris killed King Louis, who God had appointed to be their father protector, an almost unthinkable crime. And then, about a month after that, the national convention handed down the Levée of 300,000 and that was the end of passive resistance in the Vendée. It’s one thing to sit and put up with a revolution you despise. It is quite another to be ordered to the front lines of war to defend that despised revolution with your life.
Adding to the insult of forced conscription was the fact that all those patriotic townspeople who actually supported the Revolution filled up the ranks of the local National Guard units. And wouldn’t you know it, when the Levée of 300,000 came down, those local guard units were exempted from service on the front lines because they were already considered mobilized at home. So the only people actually benefiting from this stupid revolution are also the only people who don’t have to go off and die for it. And that’s right about when the peasants of the Vendée started picking up sharp objects.
By early March, groups of armed peasants started banding together in large numbers to resist the draft. They were done taking it. It was time to start dishing it out. But since this is the French Revolution, when it came time to dish it out, these pious peasants had as little remorse for their opponents as the most vicious Sans-culottes heretics in Paris. On March 11, an armed peasant mob stormed the town of Machecoul. The town’s little National Guard unit mustered, but they were vastly outnumbered. The peasants overran the town, hunting down any pro revolutionary patriot they could find and killing them on the spot. Then they even set up the same kind of little kangaroo court that had sprouted up during the September massacres to judge prisoners, this time for pro revolutionary crimes rather than counterrevolutionary crimes. The result was the same, though: mass summary executions, upwards of 500 people were killed, and the war in the Vendée was off to a very bloody start.
But as I just mentioned, resistance to the Levée of 300,000 was not unique to the Vendée and was actually fairly widespread across France. For example, just north in Brittany, similar armed mobs began to form to resist the draft. But there was a huge difference. Brittany was both densely populated and strategically located on the coast facing Great Britain. That meant it was well garrisoned by large companies of National Guard and regular soldiers. These troops quickly moved in to clamp down on resistance before it got out of hand. But down in the Vendée, the isolated, insular Vendée, there had never been any reason to maintain that kind of military presence. So once the peasants got to rampaging, there was no one to stop them and the thing snowballed in no time.
The National Convention started getting reports of all these anti draft disturbances in the Vendée and everywhere else through the first weeks of March. This was right at the moment when they were also getting reports that the Austrians had launched their reinvasion of Belgium and were cutting their way through the French armies out on the frontier.
Par for the course, the assumption among the Convention delegates was that some sort of sinister Royalist conspiracy must be at work. What else could adequately explain the simultaneous threats to the nation? If the new republic was going to avoid collapse, it was going to have to root out these conspirators and then work hard to forge a truly unified nation that would not be susceptible to the kind of internal discord that was currently being exploited by the alleged Royalist conspirators. Selfish parochialism must give way to selfless nationalism, by force if necessary. So on March 9, the Convention started creating institutions that they hoped would help them survive the crisis. And these institutions would soon become the means through which the coming Reign of Terror would be implemented.
First, they established a new revolutionary tribunal to quickly try and convict identified traitors to the nation. And this tribunal would, of course, become the legal facade of the Terror. Then, on that same day, the Convention voted to dispatch 80 of its members out to the departments to ensure that the political, military and economic might of the nation was all being properly mobilized and pulling in the same direction. These delegates, soon dubbed the Representatives on Mission, were supposed to go out and make sure that local communities were coordinating properly with national policy. And right now, that meant explaining the nature of the military emergency facing France, raising the necessary troops to fill the army back up and then rooting out suspected counterrevolutionaries.
But to carry on their work, the Representatives on Mission were granted nearly unlimited power, able to overrule any other political or military authority for any reason, and dispense whatever justice they saw fit, when they saw fit. Needless to say, the more zealous representatives would wind up becoming some of the most notorious figures of the whole revolutionary period, as they ruthlessly implemented the Reign of Terror in their assigned departments.
Just over a week later, the news of the defeat at Neerwinden arrived, along with reports about General Dumouriez’s suspicious behavior. In response, the Convention created two more pillars of the coming terror. First, on March 21, they ordered that Committees of Surveillance be established in every municipality to make it easy for counter revolutionary activity to be identified and denounced. Then came the biggie, aware that running a full scale war abroad and a counter-counterrevolutionary campaign at home required more responsive executive action that could be provided by the huge and unwieldy Convention Assembly. So the Convention voted on March 25 to create the Committee of Public Safety. Initially, 25 men were supposed to sit on the new Committee, but that was soon whittled down to just nine, and then eventually settled at twelve. Members were to be elected monthly, but they could be reelected at will.
Now, technically, the Convention had tried something like this once before when they created the Committee of General Defense back on January 1. But that Committee had never been very powerful or effective. The Committee of Public Safety was designed to correct for the weaknesses of the Committee of General Defense, and it was granted broad jurisdiction over practically everything. And as the dangers facing revolutionary France grew, so too did the power of the Committee.
Now, ironically, Robespierre, who would go on to be so deeply and malevolently linked to the Committee of Public Safety, initially opposed its creation, believing it to be a gambit by the Girondins to consolidate power in their own hands. But on that score, he was wrong. And after the Committee was created, it was dominated not by the Girondins, but by the most prominent of the delegates elected to its ranks: Danton. Indeed, for the first few months of the Committee’s life, it was casually known as the Danton Committee. It would not be until after the purge of the Girondins that Robespierre would take his place and help transform the Committee of Public Safety into the Jacobin instrument of terror that we know and love today.
While the Convention was creating these new instruments of revolutionary order, the situation in the Vendée was going from bad to worse. By the middle of March, bands of peasants were starting to link up, and soon irregular armies numbering in the tens of thousands were starting to take shape under an improvised rebel leadership. Wearing sacred hearts and royal white cockades, they were now calling themselves the Royal and Catholic Army, with the battle cry of “Give us back our priests and our king.”
The first real battle of the war was fought down near the Lay River on March 19, when 2,000 republican soldiers moving north were attacked by a few thousand peasants. The two sides spent 6 hours fighting to a draw, until an influx of rebel reinforcements arrived to force the regular soldiers into retreat. Meanwhile, further north, there was almost no reason for full battles. On March 22, for example, 300 patriot soldiers found themselves facing nearly 20,000 armed peasants. The soldiers just ran, which I can promise you, is exactly what I would have done.
Despite these initial successes, though, the original rebel leaders, who were mostly just prominent members of the local community, recognized that they needed real military leaders to take over if they were going to wage a real war. So they approached various local lords, many of whom had been soldiers in the Ancien Régime days, and asked them to take the reins. A few of these lords agreed, and so a real war it would be.
To deal with the explosion of violence in the Vendée, the Convention hastily mustered as many troops as they could find to pour into the region, and their immediate efforts were pretty impressive. Nearly 50,000 troops were mobilized to go put down the uprising by the end of March. Because of their uniforms, these troops were dubbed the Blues, a name that would stick to the republican forces for the duration of the war in the Vendée.
But as impressive as an influx of 50,000 troops sound, the vast majority of the Blues were brand new recruits who had no idea how to fight a regular war, let alone fight the kind of insanely difficult, irregular war that they just got dumped into. As we’ll see, the war in the Vendée is about to become the textbook example of a war of occupation. The 50,000 republican soldiers had to be broken up and spread across the countryside to regain control of the region. These detachments usually wound up being too small to do anything but huddled together in unfamiliar territory, surrounded by a hostile population, and just be scared to death that at any moment, some huge peasant mob might descend and kill them all.
Meanwhile, the rebels knew every tree and brook and ditch by heart and could congregate, attack and then disperse before the beleaguered Blues could do anything about it. Morale in the republican ranks was basically nonexistent. And into April and then May, the rebels continued to advance, and they started looking poised to break out of the Vendée and wage a more general campaign against revolutionary Paris.
But the next stage of the war in the Vendée, must wait for another episode, because, as I said, the uprising in the west was not the only anti-Paris uprising that the National Convention was facing in the spring of 1793. At this same moment, the seeds of the so-called Federalist Revolt were being planted in the east.
Now, the Federalist Revolt is really just a catch-all label for a bunch of local uprisings that just so happened to share a common enemy: those damned Jacobin radicals in Paris. Because just as those damned Jacobin radicals in Paris were concluding that the only way forward was to centralize all political, military, and economic power, local leaders out in the departments were coming to the opposite conclusion. The only way forward was to decentralize all political, military, and economic power, to take power away from Paris, invest it in the regional capitals. Two of those regional capitals deserve special attention at this point, Marseille and Lyon.
When last we checked in with Marseille, we were talking about a city that was as pro revolution as any city in France. They were basically operating an independent campaign against counterrevolutionaries down in the southeast. Their men had stood on the front lines during the insurrection of August 10. The great revolutionary anthem was called La Marseillaise. So, why are they about to revolt against Paris? What has changed?
Well, for one thing, as it turns out, the patriotic leaders of Marseille were simply a super active minority of hardcore Jacobins who did not necessarily represent the views of the general public. Aristocrats and conservatives have been chased out of public life, and the prominent merchant traders of the great port city had declined to take an active role in government, electing instead to keep their heads down and focused on their businesses. That left a vacuum for the local Jacobin-aligned patriots to step in and run the city as they saw fit.
Initially, they were backed by the working classes, who were eager to embrace the great improvements promised by the revolution. But this power dynamic was disrupted by a breakdown of the maritime trade that didn’t just form the basis of the city’s economy. I mean, it was the city’s economy. This all started up first when major disturbances erupted in the colonies that affected both the import and export of goods across the Atlantic. Then, when war came, the sea trade was restricted still further. This economic slowdown got the merchants thinking maybe they couldn’t sit on the political sidelines anymore and got the workers thinking that all their previous support for the Jacobins had gotten them was less work and lower wages.
So, over the winter of 1792/1793, the various sectional assemblies, Marseille, having the same municipal set up as Paris, started to be filled by poor workers and rich merchants, both angry about the economic situation and now aligned with each other against the Jacobins. When the National Convention declared war on Britain in February 1793, things were then clearly set to go from bad to worse, because the first thing the British did was start up a permanent blockade of the Mediterranean. And since they had the best navy in Europe, that spelled big trouble, possibly fatal trouble for Marseille.
Aware that things were starting to get out of control, the local Jacobin leadership followed the lead of Paris and established their own little revolutionary tribunal to arrest suspects. They also authorized the National Guard to march around hunting for any weapons that might be used to help the war effort. And by that, we mean not get used against us. And then they also demanded a series of forced loans from the merchants. And none of this was much appreciated by anyone.
Then to make matters worse, the representatives on mission assigned by the convention to Marseille arrived, took a look around, and endorsed the entire repressive program the Marseille Jacobins had been implementing. This sent the rest of the city into an uproar. The sectional assemblies, now packed with opponents of the Jacobins, started talking amongst themselves, and they decided that they were going to have to take matters into their own hands.
But though they despise the arrogant Paris radicals, there was no reason to ignore the super effective way that they had seized power on August 10. Clearly copying Danton’s playbook, the Marseilles sections formed their own insurrectionary commune, rose up an armed revolt in mid April and drove the representatives on mission out of the city. Marseille was suddenly in counterrevolutionary revolt.
Further to the north, Marseille was about to be joined in counterrevolutionary revolt by the great manufacturing city of Lyon. The cases of Lyon and Marseille are one of those same but different things. Both had economies that hinged on a single major economic engine that was now sputtering badly. But where Marseille’s economy was driven by overseas trade, Lyon’s was driven by the manufacture of silk. It was the main industry of the city, and it was probably the single biggest manufacturing and industry in all of France. And it was not doing well at all. The silk trade had already been taking hits prior to the outbreak of the revolution. It’s one of the reasons so many in the city were so ready to support the convening of the Estates-General. But since the revolution, things had only gotten worse.
Silk is obviously a luxury good. So what happens to demand when the mere display of luxury goods, like silk finery, is suddenly enough to get you denounced as a counterrevolutionary pig? That’s right. Demand plummets. Well, okay, say the good silk manufacturers of Lyon, that’s not good. But maybe we can hang on as long as access to our extensive foreign markets aren’t cut off, too. What’s that? You’ve just declared war on the whole of Europe, and we’re cut off from our foreign markets, too? Well, that’s just great. What are we going to do now?
Adding to the misery of Lyon’s population was the fact that even the limited resources they had available couldn’t buy up the food and provisions they needed to survive. And that was because the army stationed along the front lines east of the city were gobbling up all the food.
Bread riots broke out in September 1792, after prices skyrocketed in the wake of the Allied invasion. And this led directly to a group of hardline Jacobins riding a wave of anger into power, promising cheap and plentiful bread as soon as they were elected. But once in office, these guys realized that there was no more bread to be had. And even if there was, they didn’t really have any money to pay for it. After a rotten winter, the citizens of Lyon had become pretty well disenchanted with both the leadership of the Jacobins in Lyon and in Paris, who both seemed to be doing everything in their power to drive Lyon into the ground.
In late May, another riot broke out and a food warehouse was ransacked. The local representatives on mission ordered a detachment of regular soldiers in from the front lines to quell the disturbances. But this led to the not unjustified fears that the representatives and their Jacobin allies in the Lyon municipal government were preparing to massacre anyone who opposed them.
So the departmental authorities, that is, the leaders above Lyon’s Jacobin controlled municipal government, met on May 28 and decided to call in the National Guard units that they controlled to do two things. First, restore order in Lyon, and second, toss out the Jacobin government. After literally marching up and evicting the Jacobins from City Hall, a new government of Lyon was convened, one in explicit opposition to Paris.
So, by the end of May 1793, two of the biggest cities in France, Marseille and Lyon, were in open revolt against the tyranny of Paris. And that was before they found out about the latest Sans-culottes insurrection in the Capitol: an insurrection that is usually identified as the cause of the Federalist revolt. And next week, we will head back to Paris to talk about that insurrection.
The economic situation in Paris was as bad as it was in Marseille and Lyon, and popular disturbances were now breaking out on a regular basis. But with the National Convention meeting right in their backyard, the angry Parisians will focus not on trying to break away from the national authorities, but in overawing them and purging the ranks of the Convention of all those who oppose them.
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