Hello, and welcome to Revolutions.
On March 13, 1793, a few days after the first aborted attempt by the Enragé agitators to purge the National Convention of the Girondin delegates, one of those Girondins, stood up to deliver a prophetic verdict on the direction of the Revolution. Now, so far in the show, I have not mentioned Pierre Vergniaud by name, because I think we can all agree that too many names spoils the broth. But he is widely considered to have been one of the greatest orators of the Revolution. He was one of the driving forces behind the push for war with Austria, his speeches helped topple the Feuillants ministry, and he was one of the most eloquent advocates of the appeal to the people during the trial of King Louis. For all of this, he was, of course, one of the 22 specifically named Girondins the Enragé wanted purged from the Convention.
Denouncing the recent run of lawlessness and violence, which was clearly ushering in a new kind of tyranny that was as opposed to true liberty as the old tyranny of the Ancien Régime. He famously warned:
So, citizens, it must be feared that the Revolution, like Saturn, successively devouring its children, will engender finally only despotism with the calamities that accompany it.
And of course, here we are six months later, the Committee of Public Safety is setting itself up as a joint dictatorship, and Vergniaud himself is about to be led to the guillotine. But as much as Vergniaud’s speech is often portrayed as a prophecy of things to come, it’s clear that he was speaking of a process that had been a part of the Revolution from the very beginning. And as we stand here now on the brink of the Reign of Terror, when the Revolution truly begins to gorge herself, it’s worth taking a moment to look back and recognize just how many had already been eaten.
Remember back in Episode 3.5, when the Assembly of Notables resisted controller general Calonne’s reform package and were hailed for standing up to royal tyranny? Yeah, well, those guys have all been now driven into counterrevolutionary exile. Remember in Episode 3.7, when the councilors of the Parlement became the leaders in the fight for French liberty? Well, then in Episode 3.9, they came out against doubling the Third and voting by head. So when the Parlement were unceremoniously abolished in 1790, no one shed a tear.
Remember Jean Joseph Mounier? He was a huge part of getting the Estates General called in Episode 3.8, and then he went out and organized the Monarchian coalition in Episode 3.13 that dominated the early days of the National Convention. And what happened to Mounier? He quit the National Assembly in disgust after the Women’s March on Versailles and then had to sneak off to Switzerland after being branded a reactionary.
Remember the liberal nobles of the Society of 1789? Guys like Lafayette, Jean Sylvain Bailly and Talleyrand who had done so much to get the Revolution off the ground and who held all the key ministerial positions in Episode 3.16 and 3.17 which was right around the first anniversary of the Fall of the Bastille. While all those guys have now been forced into retirement or exile for being way too conservative, Bailly is about to get his head chopped off.
Then along came the Feuillants in Episode 3.20, the constitutional monarchists led by the triumvirate of Duport and Lameth and Barnave, who rose up after the flight to Varennes and who finally completed the Constitution of 1791. Well they were all branded traitors after the insurrection of August 10, Duport and Lameth have fled into exile and Barnave is currently sitting in a jail cell and he too is about to get his head chopped off.
And now here we are approaching the end of the Girondins, on whose behalf the Paris streets had stormed the Royal apartments of the Tuileries Palace in Episode 3.22. Less than a year later, those same streets are now demanding the Girondins be purged from the body politic. So when Vergniaud gave his speech in March 1793, he was not speaking as an oracle divining the future, he was just reporting on the very obvious course of revolutionary history, where it had been and where it was now obviously going.
So when last we left Paris, the insurrection of September 5 had led directly to the final pieces of the Reign of Terror being put into place, most especially the Law of Suspects, which opened the door for basically anyone to denounce anyone else for any reason. Before the Law of Suspects was passed, there were maybe 1,500 people locked up in the various prisons of the capital. By December, that number will have shot up to 4,500. And this was a pattern that would repeat itself across France. And soon enough, somewhere on the order of 500,000 people would find themselves in custody.
And those numbers should tell you something, though, right away. Something that’s worth keeping in mind when we get into the chilling efficiency of the guillotine. The Reign of Terror only has about 16,000 official victims, and those killed in Paris numbered only about 2,600. So as much as being arrested by the revolutionary authorities might feel like an immediate death sentence, most people who were arrested were either acquitted and we’ll get to that in a second, or they languished in custody long enough to survive until the Thermidorian Reaction. Now, those numbers don’t count the tens of thousands killed by things like the infernal columns or random street murders, which still went on pretty regularly. But still, compared to the horrific 20th century political slaughters like Stalinist Russia, Nazi Germany and the Cambodian killing fields that consumed millions of people, the Reign of Terror turns out looking positively humane.
But despite the relatively, relatively low conversion of arrest to executions, things were definitely getting more vigorous and more streamlined once terror became the order of the day. Prior to the insurrection of September 5th, the Revolutionary Tribunal in Paris actually operated with a degree of objectivity. For most of 1793, those trials were not, for the most part, show trials. You could get a lawyer to help you out, and you could even offer a defense, and if the defense was plausible, you would be acquitted. Everyone involved in the process took a certain amount of pride in making sure that they only killed the real enemies of France.
Now, of course, since we’ve been talking a lot about the routine executions of all those revolutionary generals, you may have thought that the terror has really already revved up to peak irrational blood lust. But between March and September 1793, only 66 people were actually guillotined. The generals were just in a special class all their own.
To maintain the legitimacy of the central revolutionary government, it was essential that the failure of the French armies in the field be pinned squarely on treasonous or deliberately negligent officers. It was politically impossible to say, oh, well, our troops just aren’t really that good, because everyone was irreversibly committed to the propaganda that the sans-culottes citizen soldier was just made of superior moral and military fiber. And you didn’t want to say, oh, the guy we put in charge was incompetent, because someone then might ask, well, if he’s so incompetent, then why did you put him in charge?
So better than to say that the general intentionally deceived us and committed treason and conspired with the enemy, and now we’re killing him for betraying the nation. So, yes, if you were a failed general, the tribunal was absolutely going to smear your good name and then chop your head off. But aside from those guys, you actually did have a decent shot at surviving if you were denounced.
Now, of course, that very willingness to at least appear impartial was not going to fly in some quarters, specifically those quarters that read the newspaper of Jacques Hébert. After Hébert became the voice of the people he used that voice to hammer on those who were willing to indulge in moderation. And in fact, both those words were soon turned into political epithets. And not too long after that, it would be a crime all on its own to be an indulgent or a moderate.
In his war on moderation, there were two big questions that Hébert demanded answers to all through the summer of 1793: why does Queen Marie Antoinette still live when we know that she conspired with the Austrians to destroy us? And why did the Girondins yet live when we know that they were the architects of the Federalist uprising?
The pounding rhetoric of Hébert was, in fact, one of the reasons Danton and his guys were bounced from the Committee of Public Safety, since Danton advocated hateful moderation, and specifically keeping the Queen alive to use as a bargaining chip with the Allies.
Now, as you’ll recall, immediately after being tossed out of the Convention, the prescribed Girondins had been placed under a loose house arrest, as if the authorities were a little sheepish about what they were doing. But then individual Girondins started trying to slip out of Paris and the grip had to tighten up a little bit. But though Pétion and a few other guys did manage to escape up to Normandy, the others who tried to make good their escape, including Jacques Pierre Brissot, were tracked down and re-apprehended.
After the insurrection of September 5th, the authorities prepared to prosecute them all as a group. And in anticipation of their trial, they were moved to the Conciergerie, the prison known around town as the Antechamber of Death. On October 3, the Committee of General Security started presenting their formal indictments of the Girondins and soon brought them all before the Revolutionary Tribunal.
But though the trial of the Girondins was meant to be a preordained public demonstration of their collective guilt, the rules and procedures of the tribunal were still set up to function as an actual trial. And the Girondins were nothing if not razorsharp lawyers and excellent public speakers so they were able to deftly parry every prosecutorial thrust. In a big way, it was the eloquence and persuasiveness of the Girondins that induced the Committee of Public Safety to step in and say, no more of this objective rule of law baloney, we know who is guilty. From here on out we’re going to bring the accused forward, announce the verdict, next case. And it would not be until after Thermidor that the accused would once again really have an opportunity to defend themselves.
The prosecution went after the Girondins from a couple of different angles, and all those angles stalled out as the defendants started refuting the holy living hell out of all the charges. The biggest quagmire the prosecutors ran into was proving that the Girondins were in fact an organized faction. Now, these were the days when party and faction were still considered subversive and anti democratic. And as I mentioned when I first started talking about the Girondinsn and the Mountain, those are convenient labels that help us group people together, but once you start actually trying to prove that they are a close knit party working towards a shared goal, it all kind of starts to fall apart as the prosecutors soon discovered.
One by one, the Girondins stood up and argued, look, I might be friends with these guys, but I did this when they all did that, and they all did that. Well, I did this. And sure, we get together for drinks, but for crying out loud, I voted against the appeal to the people. And then the next guy would get up and make his own version of the same case. With the attempt to prove this group of individuals were actually a single minded party going nowhere, the prosecution moved on to its two big accusations. One of which was preposterous, the other was at least plausible.
The preposterous claim was that the Girondins had been closet Royalists all along and that they had spent all that time pushing for war against Austria because they wanted France to lose. Now, this was, of course, utterly insane. Yes, the little round of secret negotiations with the King just before the insurrection of August 10 didn’t look good. But accusing them of being crypto Royalists? That is nuts. Most of them were early and honest Republicans. And the idea that the war with Austria was about intentionally getting France into a war it couldn’t win? Brissot wanted that war because he was willfully blind to the weakness of the French army, not because he wanted to exploit that weakness on behalf of the King.
But the charge that was far more believable was that the Girondins had orchestrated the Federalist insurrection and had intentionally tried to divide the Republic from itself. Rather than getting bogged down in the other accusations, I think that this is really where the prosecutor should have focused all their attention. The Girondins were on the record asking for armed troops from the provinces to come occupy Paris. They had made threats about literally wiping the capital off the map. The few of them who had successfully escaped after the purge had put themselves at the head of armed Federalists and declared against the Convention. You focus on that one line, and I think this trial wraps up in a much neater package. But by introducing the other patently absurd charges, the prosecutors gave the Girondins the opportunity to make incredulous and thoroughly persuasive rebuttals. By the middle of October, the trial was dragging on, and nailing down an irrefutable conviction was looking dicey.
Just as the trial of the Girondins was getting going, the Committee of Public Safety made another move in the direction of just wholesale abandoning the rule of law. On October 10, a motion was passed through the Convention permanently suspending the Constitution of 1793. The government of France would now be “revolutionary” until the peace. And by revolutionary, they meant the opposite of constitutional government.
Basically, the nation was now officially being run by an emergency government until the war was won and France was safe.
The Committee of Public Safety was then further led to believe that their emergency powers could not be abandoned when Fabre d’Églantine approached Robespierre and Saint Just and requested an audience with them and representatives of the Committee of General Security. Now, d’Églantine, you might remember, was one of the old Cordeliers Club guys and an intimate of Danton and Desmoulins. While I hinted once upon a time that Danton would come to regret letting d’Églantine rise to power with him, and it’s right about now that the regret is going to start sinking in. Well, not quite yet. d’Églantine is still playing his hand pretty well.
On October 12, he met with Robespierre and Saint Just and the Committee of General Security and proceeded to lay out the details of what has since been dubbed the Foreign Plot, an intertwined conspiracy of treasonous Frenchmen and foreign agents in Paris working to undermine the Revolution, mostly with money provided by the British. As we’ve seen, the revolutionaries were always susceptible to a good conspiracy theory, and paranoia had become something of a default position. When d’Églantine laid all this out, Robespierre appears to have swallowed the whole thing, hook, line and sinker, especially the part about an agent of the Foreign Plot working inside the Committee of Public Safety itself.
Robespierre had always been concerned about the Committee being infiltrated, and so it might have even come as something of a relief that he finally had a real suspect, and a plausible suspect at that. Marie-Jean Hérault de Séchelles. Hérault was already a suspicious character, and it’s somewhat surprising that he was even still on the Committee of Public Safety, being, as he was, of noble blood.
Born in 1759, Hérault managed to secure an appointment as a King’s advocate at the age of 20, that being the same job Danton would hold down before the Revolution. But like many of his noble brethren, Hérault was a man of the liberal Enlightenment, and he was well prepared to join the Revolution once it got going. He was not elected to the States General, but he was appointed a judge in Paris when the legal reform started kicking in. Then he was sent on the first of many missions to Alsace to keep the border territories from resisting the Revolution, or worse yet, trying to break away completely.
He was elected into the Legislative Assembly in 1791 and sat on the far left, and was by now a close working associate of Georges Danton. Appointed to the Diplomatic Committee, he continued to mostly serve the government on missions to the frontier departments, all of which, in retrospect, would make him look like the perfect candidate for an alleged foreign plot, which is probably why d’Églantine pointed at him. But still, his revolutionary credentials were pretty impeccable. He helped organize the insurrection of August 10, and though he was absent from Paris for the trial of the King, he made no secret that he supported death with no appeal.
With his strong background in law, he was appointed by the Convention to serve on the Constitutional Committee alongside Saint Just, which is how Hérault winds up on the Committee of Public Safety. Once there, he became something like de facto foreign minister, handling almost all the Committee’s diplomatic business.
Now, other than his frequent dealings with foreigners, which is pretty unavoidable if you’re the de facto foreign minister, it was easy for Robespierre to suspect Hérault, because unlike the more deadly serious revolutionaries like Robespierre, you kind of get the feeling that Hérault thought this was all a great game. He was a cultivated and well dressed dandy, he was a noble, he was quick witted and quick to make a little sarcastic joke even at his own expense. He cast a cynical eye on the world and found it full of ironies and opportunities for pleasure. So, needless to say, he was not an austere true believer. So when d’Églantine said Hérault was now selling secrets to the Austrians, and his advocacy for even more aggressive war was a two faced attempt to lead France into some kind of trap, Robespierre was absolutely ready to believe it. But Hérault had too many friends to make any move on him just yet. So for the moment, Robespierre elected to bide his time.
In addition to giving Robespierre an inner circle member of the Committee of Public Safety to keep an eye on, what d’Églantine’s Foreign Plot did was really start to help Robespierre narrow the definition of politically acceptable behavior. Those too far to the left or too far to the right were obviously just working with enemies of France to destroy or discredit the Revolution.
Robespierre began formulating a guiding rubric that classified some men as being cis revolutionaries who felt unacceptably short of perfection, most prominent among those being the Girondins. And then he classified other men as ultra revolutionaries, men like Jacques Hébert, who went unacceptably too far beyond perfection. The ultras were likely in the pay of foreign enemies, and the tactics they adopted and the programs they advocated were clearly meant to do nothing but bring the Revolution into disrepute and fatally weaken its legitimacy.
So what is the thing in the middle that you were either falling short of or going too far beyond? Basically, Robespierre himself. He considered himself the standard by which everyone else would be measured. And that is why it’s about to get very bad for everyone else.
But before we move on, you do have to know that the Foreign Plot was completely made up, a fiction conjured out of thin air by d’Églantine. Why? Well, as we’ll discuss when I come back from my break, d’Églantine is just corrupt as all get out and he had been using the levers of the revolutionary government to extort money from everyone he thought he could strong arm into paying. Realizing that his shenanigans were about to come out into the open, he concocted an elaborate story that implicated all his enemies.
By beating them to the denunciation punch, he was able to insulate himself from their very real accusations against him, because it would just look like they were attacking him to save themselves. And this would work for a while, too, but not forever. And also, just so you know, before he goes down, d’Églantine will make one other major contribution to the Revolution, which we’ll be talking about next week in the first of a series of supplementals I’ve cooked up to keep you busy while I’m off on the tours.
Now, as the myth of the Foreign Plot began to seep its way into the political firmament, and as the Revolutionary Tribunal continued to struggle with the Girondins, there was another matter everyone could turn their attention to, who would give them a nice outlet for their fear without anyone getting up in arms about totally ditching the rule of law: it was time to bring Queen Marie Antoinette, now dubbed the Widow Capet, to justice.
Since the execution of Louis back in January, the Queen and the rest of the Royal Family had remained in the temple. Though they were not treated terribly just yet, there was nothing comfortable or comforting about their captivity, and they were closely monitored day and night. But if the Queen was hoping to make it through all of this in one piece, she did very little to earn the sympathy of her captors, as she pointedly treated her eight year old son as if he was now King Louis XVII, doing stuff like insisting that the boy be served first at meals and teaching him his place in the great Royal hierarchy.
But at this point, I think the Queen could probably see this all coming to an end in two possible ways: either the Revolution would ultimately collapse from the dual pressure of civil war at home and invasion from abroad, in which case keeping the Royal candle burning was essential to maintaining the continuity of an eventually restored monarchy. And if the Revolution didn’t collapse, they were probably all going to be killed anyway, so there’s no sense in doing anything but going out an unrepentant martyr.
But this posture did her son no favors. And so, on the night of July 3, Louis XVII was removed from his mother’s care and handed over to a semi literate cobbler who was ordered to raise the boy as a proper Republican. About a week after her son was taken, Danton got the boot from the Committee of Public Safety, and the conditions of the Queen’s captivity got considerably worse. On August 1, she was rousted it in the middle of the night and moved down to the Conciergerie. She was watched over day and night in a tiny little cell and given exactly zero privacy. Over the next few months, her health began to understandably deteriorate. Meanwhile, out of the streets, Jacques Hébert continued to beat the drum to have her killed, calling her the Austrian She Wolf, and the arch tigress, who has been at the heart of every terrible thing that has befallen France when she first showed up as an awkward teenage girl back in 1770. In many ways, Hébert turned her into this sort of woman of blood, though I don’t believe it was ever specifically formulated in that way and she needed to die for France to be purified. Once the insurrection of September 5 came and went, the only question was how long until the Queen was executed.
They finally called her to the Revolutionary Tribunal on October 14, and, as I hinted, she wasn’t even given the appearance of a real trial. She wasn’t even afforded the superficial trappings that the Convention had granted her husband like, say, a lawyer. And what’s kind of funny is that a lot of the stuff they accused her of was stuff that they had already convicted her husband of. Remember that business when the Swiss Guard showed up at Versailles in 1789 and in the ensuing welcome party, they trampled the cockade? Well, having already pinned this affront on the King, the story was now that the Queen was the one who was really behind it. And that veto of the anticlerical law? Well, Louis was now presented as a dupe, being controlled by his evil wife, who was really behind it.
They also accused her of plotting to kill the Duke d’Orléans, which is a bit rich, since d’Orléan himself is already imprisoned and will be convicted by the Revolutionary Tribunal and executed three weeks down the road, and FYI the Duke d’Orléans is the focus of one of those little supplementals I’ve recorded.
Now, most of the charges against her were just run of the mill character assassination stuff to prove that the Queen needed to die, not necessarily for what she had done, but because of who she was. But before you start feeling too sorry for her, as with her husband the charges against her were sometimes way off base, but other times pretty right on the money. She had absolutely helped organize the flight to Varennes with the intention of escaping France and linking up with the Austrian army. The tribunal had in hand all of her correspondence with the Austrian court, which unequivocally proved that she was not just inviting a foreign army to invade France, but had been positively begging them to do it. And that’s treason.
But the prosecutors wouldn’t just let that obvious charge stand on its own, and so they stooped very low and brought her son out to testify against her. At the pressing of Hébert, the boy had been coached, I’m sure quite violently, to testify that his mother had sexually abused him. Now, the Queen knew she was doomed and that it was important to maintain stoic calm in the face of all this abuse. But this was beyond the pale, and she angrily admonished her accusers for asking her to respond to such a crime against nature. And apparently, the women in the audience, good revolutionaries all, who wanted to see the Austrian She Wolf dead, started making angry noises in the gallery that the prosecution had jumped way over the line.
But this last minute bit of sympathy was not even close to being enough to save Marie Antoinette. On October 16, she was convicted of treason and sentenced to death. She held out a bit of hope that she might be granted something resembling the dignity allowed her husband on the day of his execution, but no such luck. She was forced to give her final confession to a patriotic civic priest, rather than a clergyman recognized by Rome. Then, unlike her husband, who had been taken to the scaffold in a closed carriage, the Queen was loaded onto the back of an open tumbril, just like a common criminal. As she rode, hands bound behind her back, Jacques Louis David dashed off a famous sketch of an unhappy woman who yet kept her back straight and her head held high.
When she was led up onto the scaffold and towards the guillotine, her last words were allegedly, “pardon me, sir, I meant not to do it” when she accidentally stepped on the executioner’s toes. Then they laid her down and zip, thud, the end. Her body was then dumped into the same mass grave they had dumped her husband into.
After the Restoration, what remained of the Royal couple was exhumed. In the King’s case, there was really nothing left, since the revolutionaries had covered his body with a double dose of lye to make sure it would fully disintegrate. But the agents of the Restoration did move what was left to the Basilica Saint Denis, where they remained to this day.
After dispensing with the Queen, the revolutionary tribunal returned to the Girondins, who just kept making a nuisance of themselves by refuting, point by point, every charge levied against them. If this kept up, they might actually wriggle away from the hand of revolutionary justice. So on October 29, the Committee of Public Safety issued a fateful decree. From now on, trials would have a time limit. If, after three days, enough evidence had been submitted to establish guilt then that was it. End of trial. There was no sense in letting the enemies of France spin endless sophistries to explain away their guilt. So, in accordance with this new decree, the trial of the Girondins was cut off on October 30. The jury has heard quite enough, thank you very much.
When the final verdict was read out, guilty on all counts, of course, the Girondins acted each in his own way, some rising to their feet to furiously denounce the entire proceedings. Brissot allegedly just slumped down in his chair. Another guy fell right out of his chair and people in the audience thought that he had fainted or something, until they rolled him over and discovered he had smuggled a knife in and had just committed suicide. But don’t worry, they’ll load his corpse into the guillotine and cut his head off anyway.
After spending a final night together in the Conciergerie, the 22 Girondins were loaded onto the tumbril the next morning. The great orator Vergniaud, who had, of course, prophesied all this, considered ingesting some poison that he had kept at hand, just in case but he decided to go out with his friends instead. In the tumbril, on the way to the scaffold, they all sang La Marseillaise together, where Marie Antoinette had kept her head held high as a martyr for the monarchy, the Girondins kept their heads held high as martyrs for the Revolution. They knew they were patriots. They knew this was unjust and that history would vindicate them. The guillotine, then dispatched them one by one, 22 heads in 36 minutes. When the Revolution devours her children, she devours them quickly.
So we’re going to leave it off there for now. As I’ve mentioned a few times, I am about to embark on the next round of Revolution tours, and I’ll be spending the next three weeks in England and France and then Boston and Philadelphia. We will officially return to our main story on May 17, when we get into the Law of 14 Frimaire and the Committee of Public Safety’s final consolidation of power. In the meantime, I have written and recorded three supplemental episodes to tide you over. The first will be about the new Republican calendar, which is just now, in October 1793, being adopted. And that will help explain to you what 14 Frimaire even means. The second one will be about the Duke d’Orléans, who is still occasionally accused of being the puppet master behind the early days of the Revolution. And then the third, supplemental, will be a highly entertaining side trip across the Atlantic, where we will watch George Washington get driven absolutely nuts by Citizen Genêt, the French Revolution ambassador to the United States. Meanwhile, I will be off on a grand adventure that you really should join me for the next time we do it.
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