Hello, and welcome to Revolutions.
When we left off last time, the Enragés had just successfully expelled the Girondins from the National Convention, which capped off a very chaotic spring of 1793. Today, we are going to push our way into the very chaotic summer of 1793, because, believe me, the summer is going to bring the Revolution and students of the Revolution no relief. It is a summer that will see the French armies push back on all fronts. The Vendée rebels continue to defy attempts to pacify them, the Federalist cities try to raise an army to march on Paris, and the Jacobin revolutionaries in Paris, attempting to push back against all of it and force the rest of France, and indeed the rest of Europe to recognize that they were now the pure and righteous embodiment of the Revolution and the future. An assertion that was very much not recognized by a young woman from Normandy named Charlotte Corday, who will purchase a kitchen knife from a vendor in the Palais Royale and then go off to show the world who was really the pure and righteous embodiment of the Revolution.
To start today, we must head back out to the front lines of the war, where the generals who attempted to salvage the situation after the defection of General Dumouriez found themselves threatened, not just by the Allied forces arrayed against them, but by a click of zealous revolutionary representatives sent to keep an eye on them all. As we will see, both of these threats would prove equally deadly.
After the scandal of Dumouriez’s treason, the National Convention voted on April 9 to create an additional corps of representatives on mission who would be sent to keep a much closer watch on the senior commanders leading the Revolution’s armies. To ensure that those commanders would not be able to duplicate Dumouriez’s treason, these representatives, like their civil counterparts, were given blanket jurisdiction over all military matters. Those representatives were now the supreme authority in the camp, and involved themselves in every aspect of the war, from arranging logistics to planning strategy to deciding when and where to fight. The arrival of these representatives caused nothing but ulcers for the senior generals, who now had to fight a war under the watchful eye of political commissars who equated prudence and caution with treason and thought defeat in the field to be a capital crime.
The first poor sod thrust into this unenviable position was the man who was tapped to fill Dumouriez’s treasonous boots in the north, the former Marquis de Dampierre, now styled, of course, simply General Dampierre. Dampierre was one of those liberal nobles who had long been sympathetic to the aims of the Revolution. He had started the war as an aide in camp to Rochampeau, and then quickly rose through the ranks, because, what with half the officer corps deserting, there was plenty of opportunity for rapid advancement in the Revolution’s army. Dampierre had stood his ground at the Valmy, led the crucial right wing at Jemappes, and was then promoted to general for the invasion of Holland. After the defeat at Neerwinden and the defection of Dumouriez, it was left to Dampierre to hold the line.
He managed to regroup with about 30,000 at a fortified camp at Famars which is a few miles south of the fotress city of Valenciennes and from there, trying to figure out what to do next. Spoiler alert it’s not really going to be his decision. With the French now almost entirely evacuated from Belgium, the Allied forces prepared for a renewed invasion of France. And now that the British had joined the war and the Prussians had settled things with Russia in Poland, these Allied forces were bigger and stronger and more determined than Brunswick’s army of 1792 had been.
But instead of just barreling towards Paris as Brunswick had done, the Allies this time elected to follow a more methodical approach to invading France, and concentrated their efforts first on capturing the string of French fortresses that dotted the Franco-Belgian frontier. And the first target was the city of Condé and on April 8, the Allies opened up a siege.
Back in the French camp, General Dampierre would have preferred to take the opportunity presented by the Allied focus on Condé to rest and recuperate his men, but then along came the representatives on mission from Paris, and they, of course, had other ideas. They helped Dampierre to understand that anything but an aggressive campaign to relieve Condé would be taken as proof that Dampierre was a traitor. Thus encouraged to fight, Dampierre gathered up his men and said, well, I guess we’re going to go try to relieve Condé now.
After reluctantly marching north, Dampierre made contact with a coalition army mobilized to block any attempt to relieve Condé on May 8. The two sides, both numbering about 40,000 squared off across a long line centering around the town of Raismes. When the fighting began, the French did surprisingly well, given the circumstances and no doubt very aware that his every move was being scrutinized by the representatives on mission, Dampierre led the charge at the middle of the Allied line personally.
The French nearly succeeded in pushing the allies into retreat. But in the fighting, Dampierre himself took a cannonball through the leg and had to be carried off the field. Their commander mortally wounded, the French attack wilted into a retreat back to the camp at Famars. Dampierre died of his wounds the next day. And though there was apparently some attempt in the Convention to posthumously denounce Dampierre as a traitor for the crime, I suppose, of getting killed fighting a battle he did not really want to fight, less ungrateful heads prevailed, and Dampierre was instead interred in the Pantheon as a hero and a martyr, though his remains would be later removed so we can’t go pay our respects when we’re in Paris here in a couple of weeks.
The bulk of the French forces reconvened back at Famars under the temporary command of another poor sod named Francois LaMarche. With the siege of Condé now safe from French relief efforts, the Allies moved on to their next target, the fortress of Valenciennes. And the first move in that operation was to attack the demoralized French soldiers holed up at Famars on May 23. Though the French were badly outnumbered, 27,000 to 53,000, their camp was up on a defensible ridge. And with a little help from some delays and lack of coordination amongst the Allies, the French managed to hold their position despite suffering 3,000 casualties in the fighting.
But as night fell, it was clear to LaMarche that the next day he was likely to be surrounded and forced to surrender. So he abandoned the ridge and headed southwest to regroup. For the crime of withdrawing from a dangerously untenable position in the face of far superior numbers, LaMarche was denounced by the representatives on mission, arrested, and sent to Paris to stand trial before the Revolutionary Tribunal. This sort of thing is about to start happening a lot. And it almost certainly would have been Dampierre’s fate had he not had the good sense to get his leg blown off and then die.
The clearly cursed command of the army of the north was next handed to the former Comte de Custine. Custine had once upon a time been a young colonel in Rochambeau’s expeditionary force that had fought in the American War of Independence and he had earned himself a bunch of medals for his actions at Yorktown. Coming home, he was elected to the Estates General, where he was tightly associated with fellow American veteran and fellow liberal noble Lafayette.
After the National Assembly gave way to the Legislative Assembly, Custine rejoined the army and soon found himself leading the army of the Rhine. And it was under Custine’s command that the French army seized all those German principalities on the west side of the Rhine back when everything was going peachy keen in the fall of 1792.
But the rapid French advance started to be reversed in December when the Prussians retook Frankfurt. Come the spring, the Prussians then redoubled their efforts and Custine was pushed back so fast that he was forced to abandon a French garrison of 20,000 men holed in Mainz which was now a little island in enemy territory.
For the crime of retreating, Custine was ordered back to Paris to answer accusations of engaging in Dumouriez-esque treason. Defending him, though, was none other than Ropesbierre himself, who successfully convinced the Committee of Public Safety that Custine was above reproach. So General Custine was given command of the army of the north on May 29 and would soon enough fall prey to its curse and this time, Robespierre would not be able to get him off the hook.
But we are going to leave the rolling disasters up on the Belgian frontier for the moment, because things were going no better in the west, where the revolutionaries faced both the uprising and the Vendée that showed no signs of slowing down and an invasion across the Pyrenees by the Spanish. Soon to be joined in those threats was the Federalists’ insurrection of Bordeaux and their call for a Federalist army to be raised and marched on Paris.
When last we left the Vendée, the initial spontaneous uprising of angry peasants had been put under the direction of local nobles who were military veterans of the Ancien Régime army. These nobles then set about turning the rebels into a more coherent army, or should I say more coherent armies, because the form the rebel forces now took were basically that of old feudal armies, you know, where the baron enlists the subjects and his dominion into a sort of private army that then goes off to fight under his personal authority. While that’s exactly how the rebel armies in the Vendée will coalesce, peasants would gather and fight under the banner of their own local lord.
On the one hand, this was great because the direct client patron relationship ensured the kind of loyal discipline an army needs to survive. But on the other hand, it hampered the ultimate power of the rebels, because those lords often had opposing notions about what to do next, and so they were never able to combine their full strength and pursue a single unified strategy. But in May 1793, the initial strength, rather than the ultimate weakness of the rebels, was on display.
The rebels went back on the offensive against the beleaguered republican forces, who lacked the training, the discipline, and the morale to hold them back. And on May 5, 20,000 rebels overwhelmed the 5,000 blues defending the city of Tour. The capture of Tour was a huge boon to the rebel fortunes because the city held a major cache of heavy guns and powder. With these guns in hands, the Vendée rebels really started to resemble a fully functioning army. Their great strength was obviously the huge and passionate peasant infantry, but they also now boasted an irregular cavalry composed of local horsemen and now obviously, batteries of artillery.
All of this was put to good use a month later when a 30,000 man army marched on the city of Saumur and seized it from the 12,000 Republicans trying to hold it. After the capture of Saumur, the entire Vendée region was basically in rebel hands. But then they made a fateful mistake.
Instead of coordinating a push to break out of the Vendée in, for example, head north to link up with the British, who were eager to keep them supplied, the rebels got bogged down laying seige to the city of Nantes. And this time, the republican defenders managed to hold out, forcing the rebels to break off on June 29. It was the first important victory for the blues since the uprising began, and it cost the rebels a lot of time and a lot of momentum they really didn’t have to spare.
As the uprising in the Vendée was expanding, the Convention then got word that down in the southwest, the Spanish were opening up a whole new front in the war. In April 1793, the Spanish marched two modest armies up across the border into French territory, one across the eastern Pyrenees and one up through the western Pyrenees. After taking a string of towns and pushing the very modest French garrisons backward, the Spanish drove the French out of their fortified camp on Mas Dou on May 19, which paved the way for the siege of Bellegarde, which began on May 23. And when the Spanish successfully captured Bellegarde a month later, it gave them unrestricted access to one of the major roads through the Pyrenees.
Now, though, the fighting down on the Spanish front was at a much smaller scale than the main centers of action in the Vendée and then up in the northeast, it still forced the revolutionaries in Paris to accept that they were now fighting a war, literally on all fronts and were currently losing.
Back in Paris, this is, of course, the moment when the Enragés go crazy and rise up in armed insurrection. So the delegates in the National Convention were now under siege from every single direction, from the poorest quarters of Paris to the richest quarters of Europe, from Royalists and Catholics and Federalists, radicals, conservatives, moderates. In June 1793, the central revolutionary government in Paris had now been winnowed down to a handful of zealous Jacobins, who everyone was gunning for but who for some crazy reason decided that they were not going to give an inch and that instead they were going to fight this thing to the death. And their life and death struggle against everyone everywhere which soon enough gave birth to the Reign of Terror. The Jacobins final bloody answer to every question.
After the insurrection of May 31 – June 2 the first order of business for the Jacobins was neutralizing the rabble rousing Enragés, who had just handed them control of the Convention. Robespierre and the other delegates of the Mountain may have been the beneficiaries of the purge of the Girondins but they had exactly zero love for the Enragé, for the Mountain thought little better than rabid anarchists. So on the same day that the Girondins were purged, that is June 2, 1793 the Convention voted to spend every day working on a new constitution for France, one that would be full of red meat for the sans-culottes and hopefully undercut the position of the Enragés agitators.
Now, since the inception of the Convention back in September 1792 a constitutional committee had been slowly working up a draft. But that committee had been stuffed full of Girondins and its final draft was delivered just a few weeks after the Girondins had all been painted as Royalists appeasers for backing the appeal to the people. And so the tainted committee’s draft was dead on arrival.
Over the next few months other drafts floated around but with so much else going on, cobbling together the various proposals wasn’t really a priority. After the Enragés insurrection though the Mountain made that constitution its top priority. A five man committee was appointed to come up with a new draft as quickly as possible and further signaling the importance of their work, these five guys were appointed to the Committee of Public Safety, which is how young Louis Antoine de Saint-Just gets on to the committee that will help make him so infamous.
But before he became the Angel of Death, which he’s about to become, Saint-Just was simply a charismatic young man who fancied himself a literary genius. And so he took the lead composing the first draft. The articles he cranked out dispensed with all the carefully arranged niceties of the Constitution of 1791. There would be no more separation of powers or checks and balances, republican France would be governed by a single unicameral legislative body that would then elect a 24 man executive committee to handle the administration and execution of the laws.
Now, I’ve also seen it regularly reported that Saint-Just’s draft swept aside the usual two tiered electoral apparatus and instead went with a simple one man, one vote direct election of delegates. But the final draft clearly lays out a system of primary assemblies feeding into electoral assemblies so obviously something happened on the way to the printer. Not that it mattered as we’ll see, once the thing gets ratified.
The final draft presented to the whole convention on June 10 was also prefaced by a revised and expanded Declaration of the Rights of Man. Where the original version was composed of 17 articles this new version had 35 articles, and included now was the statement that public relief was a sacred debt, and unfortunate citizens must be provided for. It also said that education is needed by all and ought to be available to every citizen, and that if any government should ever break the public trust enshrined in the Declaration of Rights, that an insurrection against that government was, quote, “the most sacred of rights”.
With a little luck, the sans-culottes in the street would read this retroactive sanction of their actions and feel a little less inclined to exercise that most sacred of rights against the now Mountain-led National Convention. And indeed, after the new Convention [sic] was approved by the Convention on June 24 and sent out to the provincial primary assemblies for ratification, the Enragés priest, Jacques Roux, led a deputation into the house demanding cheaper bread and a variety of other radical economic reforms. And he accused the Revolution of being worse for the poor than the Ancien Régime had ever been. When the delegates scoffed him out of the room, though, he was unable, for the moment, to muster enough outrage in the streets to do anything about it. Not that the sans-culottes weren’t still ticked off about a whole bunch of different things, they were, and a series of riots targeting soap retailers of the next few days would attest to that. It was just that they appeared willing, for the moment, to give the purged convention the benefit of the doubt.
And luckily for the delegates in the Convention, Paris was about to be rocked by an incident that not only distracted the sans-culottes, but also gave the Jacobins a bonafide martyr to further cement their hold on the course of the Revolution. I speak now of the assassination of Jean Paul Marat. As you recall, after the Girondins were put under loose house arrest, a few of them got up and walked out the door one day, including ex mayor of Paris and former darling of the people, Jerome Pétion. This little group surfaced a few days later in Caen up in Normandy where they started making all kinds of noise about leading the rest of France in revolt against the usurpers in Paris.
To this end, they started recruiting young men to join a Norman brigade of the hoped for Federalist army to join with the brigades, no doubt being raised in Bordeaux and Lyon and Marseilles. But the recruitment turned out to be tougher than they thought, a problem that was eventually run into by all the other Federalist leaders. Because when one of the main drivers of local opposition to Paris is the fact that they’re trying to institute a draft, well, good luck trying to get anyone to join an army. So when the Girondins in Normandy staged a rally on July 7, they were only able to muster about 2,500 to march around on parade.
But though this showing did not impress many, it did impress 24 year old Charlotte Corday, who was at that moment about as rabidly anti Jacobin as any woman in France this side of Marie Antoinette. Charlotte Corday came from a family of minor Norman gentry and seems to have spent her childhood inhaling Rousseau and Roman history emerging as a fierce republican idealist who was furious that the Revolution had been hijacked by the bloodthirsty tyrants of the Jacobin Club, who were perverting the Revolution.
The purge of the noble and moderate Girondins was just further proof that the Revolution had been hijacked by a gang of dangerous pirates and she nodded approvingly at every new anti-Jacobin track that emerged from the little Girondin headquarters that had set up shop right next door to her house in Caen. Above all, she hated the murderous little troll Jean Paul Marat, and no doubt nodded very approvingly when she read a circular that was going around that read let Marat’s head fall and the Republic is saved. Purge France of this man of blood. His head must fall to save 200,000 others. This is, of course, a quote that I’m happy to highlight since we all remember when King Charles was denounced with that same reference to the biblical man of blood, the man who must be killed for the realm to be redeemed.
On July 9, Charlotte Corday boarded a stagecoach for Paris. She had decided it was time to redeem the Revolution by purging France of the man of blood. She arrived in the capital on July 12, took up lodgings and set to work. Now, her initial plan was to apparently kill Marat right on the floor of the Convention in a dramatic act of patriotism but she soon discovered that Marat had recently been forced to quit attending sessions. He was suffering from some kind of painful skin disease that could now only be soothed by soaking in a cool bath and stricken by a particularly bad flare up, he now rarely left his room and worked full time at a makeshift desk sitting in a bathtub.
But despite being robbed of her intended stage, Corday pressed on with her plan. She purchased a kitchen knife from a vendor at the Palais Royale and the next day, July 13, 1793, she headed down to the Cordeliers district to talk her way into an audience with a man of blood. Her first attempt to gain an audience failed, but the second time, she shouted loudly enough for Marat to hear that she had information about the Girondins who had fled up to Normandy. His interest peaked and Marat called down to let this noisy young woman come up. Corday was then escorted into Marat’s room and, under the suspicious eye of one of his housekeepers, proceeded to feed Marat exactly what he wanted to hear. After about 15 minutes, the two were finally left alone and that’s when Corday got up, pulled out the knife and plunged it into Marat’s chest. The screaming brought the whole neighborhood running and they were horrified by what they saw. The great friend of the people dying rapidly in a bath filled with his own blood, and the murderer right there, not even really trying to get away.
Corday was taken into custody and interrogated by the authorities, who pressed and pressed and pressed for the names of the men who had put her up to it. But she swore up and down that no one had put her up to it, that it was all her idea and that it had been an act of patriotic duty. Marat was the man of blood. He had to die to save thousands of innocent lives and avert civil war. Very put out that they did not have a huge conspiracy to crack down on the Paris authorities then tossed Corday into the Conciergerie. She was guillotined before a huge crowd on July 17, believing her own death to be a noble sacrifice and that she had struck the first critical blow in the war against Jacobin tyranny.
But sadly for Corday, her actions did not help bring about the end of Jacobin tyranny. And in many ways, she helped bolster their cause. Marat overnight became a revolutionary martyr. His funeral was carefully orchestrated to exalt him as a popular hero, and eventually something of a cult grew up around him. When dechristianization really starts getting going, busts of Marat would often replace crucifixes in co-opted churches. Now, interestingly enough, though, Marat’s remains were not immediately transferred into the Pantheon, as we all might imagine they would have been. It was not until after the Thermidorian reaction, that is, after the fall of Robespierre, that morale was dug up and put into the Pantheon. And that seemed to be simply a PR stunt to try to link the Thermidorians to the beloved revolutionary martyr. But wherever his body lay, the Jacobins deployed the memory of Marat to boost their own image and attack their opponents. So, in a big way, Corday’s assassination of Marat only strengthened the position of the men she hoped to destroy.
Doubly sadly for Corday, the Girondins, on whose behalf she had died, were not about to come storming down to retake Paris and across France their struggle to raise willing recruits to form a Federalist army went nowhere. A few thousand joined up in Bordeaux, but those guys didn’t want to leave Bordeaux. A few thousand joined up in Marseille, but those guys didn’t want to leave Marseille. The federalist leaders never got anywhere near the pipe dream of 80,000 men they hoped to raise. The Federalist revolt, such as it was, would remain a series of independent uprisings and could thus be dealt with, each in their own turn.
Not that anyone knew the Federalist uprising wasn’t going to turn out to be as dire as predicted, and certainly not the leaders of the Allied coalition. Though the French armies just about everywhere were demoralized and reinforced only by recruits raised by the Levée of 300,000, who were both inexperienced and not a little bit sullen about being drafted, the Allies did not go on the attack. Their firm belief was that the small clique of radicals in Paris were about to be consumed by the combined effort to the Vendée uprising and the Federalist insurrections, and that the entire revolutionary project was about to collapse into a busted pile of rubble broken by internal strife and civil war. All they needed to do was maintain pressure on the periphery, and the center would collapse all by itself.
This allied lack of aggression, though, was not enough to save old General Custine, who took command of the army of the north on May 29. He barely got his feet wet before being stripped of that command and ordered back to Paris. His crime? Not immediately relieving the now hopelessly unrelievable city of Condé, which finally capitulated on July 12. Ordered back to Paris after the fall of Conde, Custine was arrested by the revolutionary authorities just as word was coming in that the garrison he had left behind in Mainz had finally surrendered on July 23, and that then the garrison at Valenciennes had done the same on July 28. Tossed into the Conciergerie, Custine would be convicted of negligence by the Revolutionary Tribunal and eventually guillotined in the Reign of Terror.
As you can imagine, the applications just flooded in to take over the army of the north. But as I just mentioned, instead of capitalizing on their victories and the weakness of the French, the Allies elected to linger on the periphery, and up in Belgium, they simply moved off to take two more fortress cities rather than truly launch an invasion. And they were further held back by Prime Minister William Pitt’s insistence that the Allies lay siege to Dunkirk, which wasn’t a particularly vital stronghold in terms of winning the war, but which was the main spoil of war Pitt had his eyes on. So the huge allied army on the Belgian frontier, now numbering almost 100,000, was divided up and dispatched to their various sieges, totally unaware that France was not about to implode on itself and was in fact about to explode against all of them, and that they had just missed a golden opportunity to end the war right there.
As all of this was unfolding, the so called Constitution of 1793 was circulating through France, that is, the parts of France not currently in armed revolt. And when the vote came back in, the Constitution turned out to be accepted by an overwhelming margin, signaling widespread support not just for the Constitution itself, but also for the Jacobins who had drafted it. The margin of victory was so huge, it was almost unbelievable. The reported numbers were 1,800,000 yes, 11,000 no. Yes, that is correct. 1.8 million to 11,000. It’s almost unbelievable. Like, maybe they were just some numbers that the Jacobins back in Paris had decided sounded like a comfortable enough margin of victory. Which isn’t to say that the Constitution wasn’t popular. It was. And that’s not to say that the kind of men who might show up in the primary assemblies to vote on it weren’t predisposed to favor the Constitution. They were. Just 1.8 million to 11,000? I mean, come on, guys, at least make your ballot stuffing plausible.
In part to celebrate this glorious ratification of the great Constitution of 1793, the Parisians threw a massive party called the Festival of the Unity and Indivisibility of the Republic, which yeah, that doesn’t sound like you’re trying to convince yourself of something that is flying in the face of reality. The Festival was staged on August 10, 1793, the first anniversary of the toppling of the monarchy, and was orchestrated by artist and ardent revolutionary Jacques Louis David.
It involved the Parisians moving on a set path from location to location, starting at the remains of the Bastille and ending at the Champ de Mars. Along the way, David had erected huge theatrical stageworks to celebrate this or that aspect of the Revolution. And in case anyone was wondering what the Parisians thought of those out in the provinces who had risen up against them, one station along the route showed Hercules preparing to kill an evil monster representing Federalism. Not exactly a call for reconciliation or fraternity, nor exactly signaling the unity and indivisibility of the Republic.
And what was the fate of the Constitution of 1793 that they were all, in part, celebrating the ratification of? Well, when a delegate in the National Convention stood up the next day to suggest calling elections for the new legislature, he was practically laughed out of the room. There were far too many emergencies out there to risk inaugurating a new government. The elections would be postponed, and then they would be permanently postponed. The Constitution of 1793 would never be put into effect. And next week, we will introduce the men of the reconstituted Committee of Public Safety, to whom the fate of the revolution would be entrusted. Since the fate of the revolution could clearly not be entrusted to the people of France.
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