The Purge of the Girondins

Hello, and welcome to Revolutions.

As we’ve seen over the last two episodes, the Spring of 1793 brought no good news for the revolutionaries running the young French Republic in Paris. Its armies were getting beat out on the frontiers, its provinces were starting to rise up in armed revolt. And as if that was not enough, there was also major trouble right in their own backyard. Paris was not spared the economic troubles that had helped send Marseille and Lyon into insurrection. And so, while the National Convention attempted to grapple with some pretty major national emergencies, they had to do so with angry sans-culottes standing over their shoulders. And those sans-culottes were now moving beyond serving as mere shock troops for the more respectable revolutionaries like Danton and Robespierre, they were starting to develop an independent political program that put them at odds not just with moderate Girondins, but also with the more radical delegates of the Mountain, who had been their allies and their leaders all through the upheavals of 1792. 

The trouble in Paris began shortly after the King was executed. As we discussed last week, most of the major urban centers of France were dealing with major economic disruptions, and Paris was no exception. Basic commodities like bread, coffee, and sugar were disappearing from the market. Prices started going through the roof. And so public protests started up in earnest in February 1793. But it wasn’t just the simple mechanism of supply and demand that was affecting prices. 

There was also a matter of the collapsing value of the assignat, the revolution’s paper currency. As you might recall, the assignat had begun circulating at the end of 1789, backed by the extensive property of the Catholic Church, property that was in the process of being nationalized. The vast extent of these lands, the expectation that they would fetch a good price at auction, and the promise of further fiscal reforms, led the assignat to be treated by France’s creditors as an acceptable form of payment. And so the National Assembly had been able to temporarily solve the debt crisis that had broken the back of the Ancien Régime. But as the months and then years passed, the value of the assignat steadily eroded

The problem with the currency was that the Church lands were becoming a less viable source of revenue. There was so much of it out there on the market that real estate values naturally declined. And then, as the expected fiscal reform started to materialize, the tax revenues they generated fell well short of expectations. So by the time the Legislative Assembly took over in October 1791, the assignat was trading at 80% face value. And then, over the winter, it plunged down to 60% face value. This destabilization of the revolution’s money was troubling enough that Brissot and the Girondins made the case for war against Austria, in part about strengthening the assignat. A quick and decisive victory would elevate France’s international credibility, all but forcing the other European powers to accept the assignat as a valid form of payment, which would help stabilize its value

The currency did stabilize a bit as a result of the war, and then really got a shot in the arm when the French armies went on the offensive and started acquiring new territory in the fall of 1792 and it had risen back to about 70% of face value by the end of the year. But unfortunately, these gains were undercut, because the National Convention was indulging in a pretty counterproductive solution to the problem. If it now took three assignat to pay for something that used to cost two assignat, then the answer was simple: you just print more assignat. 

But as we all know, and the delegates of the National Convention clearly did not, money itself follows a supply and demand curve, and continuously printing more and more assignat triggered utterly predictable inflation. By February 1793, an assignat was being accepted at about 50% face value in your average Parisian bakery or grocery shop. Wages, on the other hand, were still being paid out at the nominal face value. This deadly combination of rising prices and falling wages was not going over well in the poorer sections of Paris at all

With the cost of basic necessity suddenly spiraling out of reach, the Paris section sent a deputation to the National Convention on February 12, demanding maximum prices be legally decreed. But even with the bitterly divisive fight over the King having just barely wrapped up, the Convention delegates were unified in their opposition to the proposed maximums. Both the Mountain and the Girondins basically supported the continuation of market prices for commodities because they had more than just the final consumer to worry about. The entire supply chain was feeling the effects of reduced supply and increased inflation and that was why the final price to the consumer was so high in the first place. To guarantee maximum prices in Paris, the Convention would have to basically subsidize every supplier, wholesaler, and transporter as the goods traveled to market. Some subsidizing of grain was already in effect, but it was costing the National Convention a lot of money, and expanding the program would be a fiscal disaster. 

But the lower classes in Paris didn’t care about that. They were cold, they were starving, and they wanted to be able to afford food again. So, rebuked by the Convention, the poor Parisians took matters into their own hands. On February 25, a mob of fed up wives and mothers stormed grocery stores across the city, selling off the inventory to each other at what they considered to be fair prices. 

Then they dutifully handed the proceeds of these forced sales over to the beleaguered shopkeepers, who were, of course, now ruined because they had paid double what they had just been handed to get the stuff there in the first place. The National Guard fanned out in force and successfully quieted the streets. But the poor sections were just getting warmed up, and they were now egged on by a much harder core group of leaders. The original cohort of radicals in the Cordeliers district, specifically the group surrounding Danton, had now graduated off to running the National Convention. And while they were busy running the nation, the leadership of the Cordeliers Club passed into the hands of even more radical agitators. 

Among the most prominent of these new agitators was Jacques Roux, a Catholic priest who had settled in one of the poorest Paris sections after the Revolution got going and quickly became a tireless advocate for the poor. As a political force, he really started to come into his own back in the spring of 1792, when he was always out on the front lines demonstrating against the King. Always ready with the most extreme answer to any problem, Roux’s reaction to the rising prices in Paris was to demand the death penalty for anyone caught hoarding goods. Also among the new breed of street leaders was Jean Francois Varlet, who had set up a box just outside the convention to harangue anyone who happened to be passing by about the need for radical economic and social reform. 

Then there was Theophile Leclerc, who had served in the army and fought at the Battle of Jemappes and was now back in Paris promoting a brand of hardline radical populism that called for mass purgings of the government and the army and anyone suspected of not being 100% committed to the revolution. He was joined in this endeavor by Claire Lacombe, a former actress who had herself fought on the front lines on August 10 and taken a bullet through the arm for her troubles. Along with Pauline Léon, Lacombe would form the Society of a Revolutionary Republican Women in March 1793, possibly because they had gotten it into their pretty little heads that all this talk of liberty and equality actually applied to women too

Collectively, this new breed of agitators were dubbed the Enragés, variously translated as the Mad Men, the Enraged Ones, the Angry Ones, obviously a derogatory name given to them by more respectable revolutionaries. Though they were as haphazardly organized as any of the alleged parties during the revolutionary era and were often at odds with each other, the Enragés did share a brand of aggressive egalitarianism that usually gets them described as either proto-socialists or proto-anarchists. They did not believe private property was a core component of political liberty. They believed it was an instrument of political oppression, and they wanted to see it abolished

As for the Enlightened Rights of Man, well, missing from its tenets, was the simple right to exist. They believed that the government should be empowered to take from those who had and give to those who had not and to guarantee that right of existence. They also tended to share a belief that the Revolution could only succeed if all the traitors and foot draggers and secret Royalists were exposed and purged.

The Enragés were coming out so far to the left that on their list of counterrevolutionary suspects included the now thoroughly leftwing Jacobin Club. It remained to be seen whether the Jacobins would be able to demonstrate enough revolutionary purity to save themselves from the coming storm engineered by the Enragés. 

For the moment, though, the rage of the Enragés was focused almost exclusively on the faction that had demonstrated nothing but revolutionary impurity of late: the Girondins. And it’s not like the Girondins weren’t asking for it. Ever since the National Convention had gathered, the Girondin delegates had set themselves up as enemies of Paris. They claimed the Parisians posed a threat to the Convention. They had called on the Provincials to come protect them from the Parisians. They had attempted to move with the Convention out of Paris altogether. And if that wasn’t bad enough, these guys had just tried to use every trick in the book to get that damn traitor Louis Capet off the hook!

When news started hitting Paris in February and then March 1793 about nationwide resistance to the draft and a full on uprising in the Vendée, it all seemed to add up to the provincials finally taking up the Girondin call to revolt against Paris. Clearly, if the Revolution was going to succeed, the Girondins were going to have to go. So on the night of March 9, the same night that the Convention had created the Revolutionary Tribunal, and the representatives on mission, mobs of sans-culottes marched around breaking Girondin newspaper presses. And then, on the morning of March the 10th, a few thousand gathered outside the convention to demand that 22 specifically named Girondin deputies be expelled from the convention, including Jacques Pierre Brissot and former mayor of Paris, Jerome Pétion. But the time was not yet ripe for purging, and when 9,000 National Guard arrived on the scene, the mob melted away. 

Inside the Convention, the shaken Girondins went on the offensive to defend themselves. They quickly returned to the theme that they had opened the Convention with, that Robespierre and the Mountain were conspiring to have us killed by a mob. This latest attempt on our lives is just that, the latest attempt. But this characterization of events was swiftly rebutted by Robespierre himself, who took to the floor to openly denounce the demonstrators for illegally attempting to interfere in the sovereignty of the Convention. And Robespierre was not being disingenuous, he had had nothing to do with the mob showing up and was uncomfortable with the idea of these armed crowds dictating terms to the Convention. It was one thing for noble patriots to rise up and overthrow a treasonous King, it was quite another to threaten the duly elected representatives of the nation. Robespierre was not yet ready to let his principles give way to the political threat posed by the Enragés. 

Failing to bust Robespierre, the Girondins then turned on Danton. It was an odd time to go after Danton, since he too had nothing to do with the aborted insurrection of March 10. As I mentioned, Danton had spent the winter bouncing back and forth between Paris and Belgium, trying to consolidate the Revolution’s advance on the frontier. Not only did this disconnect him from the Paris streets, but it’s also clear that after the run of events from the insurrection of August 10 through the September Massacres, that Danton was deliberately stepping back from the radical fringe. He was now positioning himself as an intermediary between all the rival revolutionary factions. What he wanted now was revolutionary unity and mutual understanding

Now, that didn’t mean he was going soft. And when he voted for the establishment of the Revolutionary Tribunal, he famously said that it was important for the government to be terrible so that the people wouldn’t have to be. But he was talking about dealing with Royalist rebels and defiant priests, not committed revolutionaries who just happen to disagree with you on some particular issue. But while up in Belgium, Danton’s desire for unity was possibly blinding him to the signals emanating from General Dumouriez that he was about to turn traitor. Danton had been trying to coax the unhappy general back into the fold, while simultaneously sending letters back to his Convention colleagues explaining why Dumouriez was still cool. When Dumouriez did defect, it then looked like Danton had been covering for a traitor the whole time. 

In an attempt to capitalize on this and probably deflect attention from their very own close ties to Dumouriez, the Girondins tried to impeach Danton for high treason and sent him off to be judged by the Revolutionary Tribunal. The court charge was failing to arrest Dumouriez even after it was clear that Dumouriez needed to be arrested but they also threw in some stuff about Danton personally enriching himself while in Belgium and possibly trying to make himself a French version of Oliver Cromwell. These charges were met by incredulous and thundering defense from Danton on April 1 that quite easily carried the day. Not only did the Convention not vote to impeach him, they appointed Danton to the newly created Committee of Public Safety, a committee that included no Girondin delegates, because that’s the way the winds are now blowing. 

In defiance of these winds, the Girondins then decided to go after some lower hanging fruit, and they turned their guns on a man who was disliked by just about everyone in the Convention, including Robespierre and Danton – Jean Paul Marat. Now serving as President of the Jacobin Club on top of everything else, Marat had signed a circular letter inviting the departments to recall or dismiss any deputy who had voted for the appeal to the people at the very end of the King’s trial. The Girondin seized on it as a pretext to impeach Marat and send him to the Revolutionary Tribunal. 

Now, the vote to impeach Marat succeeded where the vote to impeach Danton failed, because, first, as I just said, Marat was not very popular within the Convention, whatever his standing was out on the street. And second, those who might have supported him, that is the hard core of the Mountain, well, they had all been volunteering to serve as representatives on mission and were now away from the Convention. 

But the impeachment of Marat turned out to be a huge mistake for the Girondins. After a very public trial that saw daily massing of Enragés sans-culottes parading in support of their hero and calling for the expulsion of the Girondins, Marat was completely acquitted on April 24. The sans-culottes literally carried him away on their shoulders in triumph. 

This little referendum on who truly represented the Revolution could not have been more decisive. Bloodthirsty advocate of wholesale slaughter? Yes. Moderate Republicans? No.

It did not take long for the delegates of the Mountain to determine that they were either going to have to align themselves with the sans-culottes or risk getting tossed out with the Girondins. So on May 4, they successfully steered through the Convention the Maximum on Grains, also known as the First Maximum, because there will be others. This established a ceiling on grain prices that would be enforced by all departmental authorities. The Girondins, unwilling to yield, vigorously opposed the measure, which was no doubt much appreciated by the Mountain. You see angry Parisians street mobs? Those are the guys you want. We’re on your side

Aware that some kind of a reckoning was on the way, the Girondins hunkered down to make a fight of it. On May 10, they managed to convince the Convention to establish what would quickly be dubbed the Commission of Twelve, a committee who would investigate threats to the Convention posed by the radical sections of Paris. The membership of the Commission was packed with Girondins. They believed that there was a conspiracy afoot inside the radical sections, not just to purge the Girondins, but to dissolve the Convention itself. They aim to root out this conspiracy and destroy it. 

On May 24, the Commission of Twelve made its first move, ordering the arrest of Jean Francois Varlet and a radical journalist named Jacques-René Hébert, who was not generally lumped in with the Enragés, but who had spilled a lot of ink lately denouncing the Girondins in terms that would make Marat himself blush. The arrest of these two provoked immediate protests from the Paris sections, who were then further provoked when a Girondin orator took to the floor of the Convention the next day and said that if the sections weren’t careful, that the rest of France would rise up and literally annihilate Paris and that later, men would search the banks of the Seine in vain for signs of the city. These were fighting words, and the Enragés were absolutely spoiling for that fight. 

After that, things pretty much descended into chaos. Believing now that the Girondins were beyond saving, Robespierre took to the floor of the Jacobin Club on May 26 and endorsed the call for Paris to rise up against the corrupt and irredeemable Girondin deputies. The next day, a session of the Convention was invaded by angry Parisians, and the few delegates who did not flee voted to abolish the Commission of Twelve and then release Varlet and Hébert. 

The day after that, though, order was restored, and the besieged Girondins were able to engineer the reinstatement of the Commission of Twelve, though the release of Varlet and Hébert was ratified. Once released, Varlet set to work organizing a new insurrectionary commune that wound up representing 33 of the city’s 48 sections. Meeting at the former palace of an archbishop, this new insurrectionary commune set itself up in opposition not just to the National Convention, but also to the old insurrectionary commune, the one that had stormed to power on August 10, but which was now seen by the Enragés as insufficiently patriotic because things move very fast in the French Revolution. 

On the morning of Friday, May 31, the new insurrectionary commune launched an armed uprising. As luck would have it, the second in command of the Paris National Guard, a guy named François Hanriot, was sympathetic to the insurrection. And with the overall commander of the Paris National Guard having just ridden off to help fight rebels in the Vendée, Hanriot took charge of the National Guard and deployed it in favor of the insurrection. The insurrectionaries marched first on the General Council of the Paris Commune, barged into the Hotel de Ville and declared the Commune deposed and then began issuing its demands. The exclusion of all named Girondins from the National Convention, the abolishing of the Commission of Twelve, the immediate arrest of all counterrevolutionary suspects, a systematic purge of all government agencies, the establishment of a revolutionary army composed of sans-culottes lot who would enforce revolutionary decrees like the maximum on grain, bread prices to be fixed at a reasonable rate, expanded aid to the poor and needy and families of soldiers, and then finally, voting rights only for the sans-culottes. Only after the Commune agreed to go along with all the insurrectionary’s demands were they allowed to continue their sitting. 

The government of Paris thus cowed. The mob then marched down to the Convention and issued the same demands, couching it all as a response to a vast conspiracy that they had uncovered that threatened the nation. To their great credit, the Girondins did not duck out the back door. Instead, they defiantly stood their ground. And their courage was probably bolstered by the fact that the insurrection had in fact been very ill timed. Friday was a work day, so the angry mob that showed up at the convention’s doorstep was intimidating, but not overwhelmingly so. 

As the day progressed and the Convention debated what to do, the strength of the mob diminished as men and women drifted home. At the end of the day, the question of the alleged conspiracy and the proper response to it were referred to the Committee of Public Safety. The Girondins lived to fight another day, but they did not live to fight another two days. 

Obviously, the result of the May 31 uprising was unsatisfactory to the Enragés leaders. So two days later, on Sunday, June 2, this time not a workday, they relaunched the insurrection, and this time, somewhere in the neighborhood of 80,000 people turned out, and almost all of them were armed. At their head were the mobilized companies of the Parisian National Guard under the command of Francois Hanriot. 

Once they arrived at the Convention, a group of petitioners pushed their way in to demand action against the alleged conspiracy that they had uncovered. A brief war of oratory was then waged between the Mountain and the Girondins that actually saw the Girondins get the better of it. And once again, the petition was referred to the Committee of Public Safety. The Convention delegates quickly discovered, though, that they were not going to get out of it that easy. 

When one of their members tried to leave the hall, he came back in a few minutes later and said, guys, they’re not going to let us leave. This sent waves of indignation through the Convention, as even Danton demanded the freedom of the house not be so nakedly abused. When the president of the Convention sent a message to Hanriot to stand down, Hanriot said some very naughty words and then ordered cannons aimed at the doors. 

This prompted about 100 delegates then to leave the hall altogether as a group, hoping to force Hanriot to let them pass. But the National Guard commander refused to stand aside. So instead, the delegates walked a circuit of the building, saw that it was surrounded by an armed mob of Parisians who had blocked all possible exits, and then they headed back inside, where it was time to start capitulating. 

Though most of the delegates abstained in protest, the Convention voted to indict 29 Girondin deputies, plus a few non deputy ministers, and then commit them all to house arrest. The Rolands, husband and wife, probably would have made the list too but Madame Roland had already been arrested by the Parisian authorities on the night of May 31, and her husband had gone into hiding. By a naked show of force, the streets of Paris had just asserted that they were the true masters of revolutionary France

The response to all this out in the departments was immediate, rebellious outrage. Lyon and Marseille were, of course, already in a state of revolt, and they were now joined by other major provincial cities. First up, not surprisingly, was Bordeaux. Bordeaux was the major city of the Gironde, so you can imagine their indignation when they heard the news that lower class yahoos in Paris had just expelled their representatives from the National Convention. 

Bordeaux had been getting hit just as hard as Marseille by maritime trade disruptions, but they had not yet gone into full on revolt. When Paris arrested their guys though, Bordeaux went into full on revolt. On June 7, the city declared itself an insurrection against the National Convention, which, quite literally, no longer represented them. Bordeaux then sent delegations out to other cities, calling on them all to, first, elect a shadow National Convention that would meet anywhere but Paris, and second, raise an armed force at least 80,000 strong to march on the capital and bring the Parisians to heel. 

This call was heeded in the north by the Normandy city of Caen and the Bretton city of Rennes, and then down in the southeast, most faithfully, by the Mediterranean port city of Toulon, which happened to house France’s naval dockyard. And it’s really not good when the city that houses your navy goes into revolt. 

As I said last week, this wave of declarations against Paris has been dubbed the Federalist Revolt. Federalism, in this case, meaning a movement to decentralize power, as opposed to the old American Federalism, which was a movement to centralize power. But though they are now in revolt against radical Paris, in many ways the Federalists were more revolutionary than the Parisians. Because when you look at the program that has been emerging from the capital these last few months, forced conscription, committees of surveillance, arbitrary tribunals, attacks on freedom of the press, price controls, a general police state watched over by representatives on mission with unlimited powers, none of that is what the Revolution was supposed to have been about. Every single part of it was just a recasting of the most despotic elements of the Ancien Régime. So who was really the counter revolutionary here? Both sides, of course, pointed to the other guys. 

Back in Paris, the sans-culottes went back to work, and the Convention delegates tried to manage the fallout from the insurrection. Seventy-five delegates signed an official protest against the purge of the Girondins. There is no reason to believe that most of those signatures did not simply represent principled rejection of the idea that armed mobs could just expel representatives that had been legally elected. But when the terror picks up, every one of those signatures would stand as proof enough of complicity in some far reaching Girondin plot, and they, too, would be arrested for their alleged crimes. 

The prescribed Girondins, meanwhile, sat under a very loose house arrest that was only tightened when a few of them, including Jerome Pétion, got up and walked out the door one day, eventually surfacing up in Normandy. 

The delegates of the Mountain, meanwhile, couldn’t quite bring themselves to bask in the glow of their final victory over the Girondins. No, they did not like those guys but their alliance with the Enragés was something of an embarrassment. Though they were clearly the beneficiaries of the insurrection, that did not mean they really wanted to encourage lawless upheavals like this. And as we’ll see, once the terror gets going, Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety would be as quick to use la guillotine against radical populace in the street as they were to use it against some aristocratic swine. 

For the moment, though, the Mountain tried to co-opt some of Enragés demands and hopefully keep the streets mollified. The Convention voted to enroll that so-called revolutionary army, which was really just organized bands of sans-culottes to enforce things like the maximum on grains that would hopefully keep them occupied. They also voted to spend every working day working on the thing that was supposed to have been the whole reason the Convention had been called in the first place. I mean, does anyone out there even remember why the Convention had been called? That’s right, to draft a new constitution. Well, here we are eight months later, and virtually nothing had been done about that new constitution. 

So next time, the convention will finally produce that new constitution dubbed by history, the Constitution of 1793. That constitution wound up being far more egalitarian and democratic than just about anything that had come before it in world history. It’s a pretty stunning document in terms of the political access it granted and the breadth of the rights it guaranteed. But the funny thing about the Constitution of 1793 was that as idealistic as it was and as popular as it was, it was never actually implemented. The moment it was ratified, it was set aside. The threats facing France were determined to be too dire to abandon the emergency revolutionary government currently in place. Led by the Committee of Public Safety, that revolutionary government was attempting to navigate the multiple crises that threatened to destroy France. And by navigate, I of course, mean cut off as many heads as possible and hope for the best. 

But it will be two weeks before we pick up that story, because when you add up all the episodes from the history of Rome and Revolutions and exclude the supplementals, next week’s episode turns out to be my 250th career podcast episode, which is pretty crazy. That’s a big number for one guy, one computer and a pile of books. So to celebrate, next week will be Question Time, where I will answer questions about Rome, the revolutions we’ve covered so far, my work process, and where I’d like to go if I have a time machine. Hint it’s not Paris in the spring of 1793.

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