Hello, and welcome to Revolutions.
As the Spring of 1795 approached, the French Revolution headed towards yet another major crisis. The winter had been unimaginably brutal. Food and fuel were both in fatally short supply, the domestic economy was about to collapse, and in Paris, the people were frozen and starving and getting mighty restless. The increasingly conservative Thermidorian Convention had given the Muscadin youth a free hand to keep the sans-culottes from effectively organizing themselves. But by March 1795, things had gotten so bad in the poor eastern sections of Paris that they were starting to push back strongly against Thermidorian repression. This would all explode in April and May 1795 with a series of insurrections that will either mark the beginning of a new populist era or be the last hurrah of the sans-culottes as a major political force. Spoiler alert it’s going to be the latter.
The problem for what remained of the Left, the sans-culottes and their ex-Jacobin allies, was that they now lacked both organizational infrastructure to get their forces moving in the same direction and topnotch leaders to, well, lead those forces. The systematic dismantling of the sectional assemblies, the suppression of the popular societies, the subjugation of the Paris Commune’s General Assembly, meant that there just wasn’t any place for the leftists to organize and coordinate and scheme. And even if they did manage to hunker down and plot without getting their heads bashed in by the Muscadin, the leaders of the Left were a pale shadow of the old giants. There was no Danton among them, nor any charismatic Enragé like Jacques Roux or Jean Varlet. The presses were not pumping out the stirring propaganda of a Marat or Hébert or even a Desmoulins. The cream of the populist leadership had all been killed. All that was left were second tier agitators. Passionate? Yes. Angry? You betcha. But none of them were equal to the task at hand. The only thing they really had going for them was that the poor Parisians were starving to death and freezing to death. And desperation is a powerful motivator.
On the other side of this political divide was the Thermidorian Convention which was in the process of turning itself into an even more conservative body. Previous Paris insurrections had always been aided and abetted from the inside by delegates of the national government. For example, inside the Legislative Assembly when the insurrection of August 10 was launched, and then the National Convention during, say, the purge of the Girondins. As we’ll see over the course of today’s episode, there was a concerted effort to deny the streets their inside men.
First, the Convention started to push out the terrorist wing of the Thermidorian Reaction, that is, the guys who had helped overthrow Robespierre because they were too extreme for the incorruptible’s virtuous tastes. But then second, the Convention started to rehabilitate and readmit to its ranks delegates who had been purged at various points over 1793 and 1794 for being too moderate.
This process got started in September 1794 when the Convention made two moves. First, they invited the 75 to retake their seats. Who were the 75? Well, I mentioned them briefly in Episode 3.29. They were the delegates of the Convention who had signed a petition protesting the purge of the Girondins, not because they themselves were Girondin, but because they were offended in principle that the streets of Paris had just coerced the Convention into arresting their own members. For this, they too had been purged from the Convention, though they were simply barred from taking their seats rather than being actually arrested.
And not to get off on a tangent, but lending further credence to the idea that Robespierre didn’t really start to go bonkers until sometime in early 1794, when the core Girondins had been slated for execution in October 1793, more hardcore extremists wanted to round up and send the 75 to the guillotine along with them, but Ropespierre had personally stepped in to save all their lives. I mean, he really was pretty reasonable right up until about February 1794.
Anyway, this recall of the 75 was then matched on the other side of the ledger by an order to investigate the conduct of the Four. Who were the Four? Well, the Four were the most ardently pro-terror members of the old committees in no particular order. That meant, first, the butcher of Lyon, Jean-Marie Collot d’Herbois; second, his sans-culottes colleague, Jacques Nicolas Billaud-Varennes; third, another leading member of the Committee of Public Safety, Bertrand Barère (and if any of you out there are big fans of Barère, I’ve totally neglected him, even though he’s been right in the thick of things since the trial of the King, usually trying to act as a stabilizing moderator between all the various little factions. I’m sorry for neglecting him. He just hasn’t really been that central enough). Then fourth was Marc Guillaume Alexis Vadier, who had been one of the main leaders of the Committee of General Security. Allied with Hébert and the Ultras, Vadier had helped orchestrate the trial and execution of Danton and the old Cordeliers gang, and then been the one running the investigation of that religious nut, Catherine Theot, in an attempt to embarrass Robespierre.
Each of the four had played a central role in the Thermidorian conspiracy to overthrow Robespierre but they were also all hardcore left wing terrorists, so it was time for them to go. Over the first few months of 1795, the fate of the Four hung in the air as the investigation into their conduct ran its course. Vadier did not wait around for a verdict and he just went into hiding. But the other three remained defiantly visible. But they might have regretted that visible defiance on March 2, when the Commission came back and recommended they all be arrested and formal legal proceedings be opened against them. So off to jail went the Four. Well, really, the three since Vadier had gone to ground.
The Convention followed up this little purge of its left wing terrorists by readmitting even more delegates who had been purged, outlawed or exiled over the years. Specifically, now we’re talking about the guys who had participated in, or at least been accused of participating in the Federalist revolt of 1793. The political narrative was now being rewritten and the Federalist delegates were being cast as principled defenders of the constitution who had stood against the radical despots who had seized control of Paris with the help of the bloodthirsty sans-culotte rabble.
Now, speaking of the sans-culottes rabble, the purge of their friends and rehabilitation of their enemies was not missed by them at all. Added to the dire economic straits they were enduring, the poor eastern sections of Paris started getting pretty riled up. They might not be organized and they might not have leaders, but they were getting pretty mad. Now, the one thing that had really been keeping them from blowing their tops was a free bread ration that had been set up back during the height of the dictatorship of the Committee of Public Safety. But by March 1795, the available supply of flour was dwindling down to nothing, and the ration was cut and cut again.
Then the fickle mob also started questioning whether or not they had been tricked into turning their backs on the Terror and the general maximum. None of them had advanced degrees in macroeconomics to really understand what was happening around them so they were left to draw conclusions from simple equations, like when the Terror and the maximum were in effect we had food to eat. Now that they have been abolished, we are starving.
On March 17, the women of Paris were by now super fed up by the lack of food and attempted a disorganized march on the Convention to petition the national government to do something to alleviate their suffering. But these women were met out in front of the Convention hall by a phalanx of Muscadin. The Muscadin leader, Freron, had organized the Fighting Dandies to the point where they could now act as a sort of standing guard for the Convention against uninvited guests. So the Muscadin greeted these uninvited women with insults and jeers and threats of violence.
But the women were ultimately allowed to present their petition, though, of course, nothing really came of it. I mean, sure, the Convention passed a decree ordering an increased commitment to the delivery of food to the capital, but there was little they could actually do to solve the problem. There just wasn’t enough flour, because guess what happened when France started to thaw out from its horrible winter? That’s right. All those once frozen rivers flooded, so all the mills were still inoperable.
So then the Convention passed a more practical response to the women’s petition by passing a law on March 21 making it illegal to march on the Convention with the intention of issuing seditious threats. So hopefully that will take care of any more of that. But, boy, it sure did not.
With the food and fuel situation not improving and in fact getting worse, the eastern section of Paris were convulsed by bread riots over March 27 and March 28. The few remaining radical leaders tried to direct this energy towards a march on the Convention, but they just couldn’t get it going. A few more days of organizing, though, and they actually started to get a bit of momentum. The rallying cry that everyone seemed ready to embrace was Bread and the Constitution of 1793. Now, the bread part is obviously the main driver here, but there was still a lingering memory of the popular Constitution of 1793 as the promise of some kind of democratic utopia for France. And if nothing else, implementing the Constitution of 1793 meant electing a new legislature, which meant tossing out the increasingly reactionary bums running the Thermidorian Convention. So everybody’s cool with uniting behind bread in the Constitution of 1793? Cool. All right, let’s go have a march.
On April 1, 1795, 12 Germinal, year III on the Republican calendar, about 10,000 Parisians surged out of the eastern sections. This mob easily overwhelmed the Muscadin outside the Convention, and in no time they had pushed their way into the hall and disrupted the session with chants of Bread and the Constitution of 1793. But unfortunately, they did not have a charismatic spokesman, they had not coordinated with potential collaborators inside the Convention, and frankly, they didn’t really have any concrete demands to make.
So this energetic show of force soon dissipated into an aimless milling about. After about four hours, the whole exercise had clearly run out of steam. Reports came in that outside National Guard companies drawn from the western sections were mustering backed up by reinforced Muscadin youth. Then a few of the old Mountain delegates, who could easily see where this was all headed, came down and convinced the mob to go home peacefully. Once the rabble had been cleared out, the Convention wasted no time before striking back.
On April 2, they abruptly wound up the trial of the Four by declaring them all guilty and ordering their immediate deportation to French Guiana. But in the end, only Collot d’Herbois and Billaud-Varennes would actually be exiled. Vadier was still in hiding, and while Barère was transferred to a prison on the Atlantic coast, he managed to escape with the help of a friend and went into hiding, not publicly surfacing again until after the rise of Napoleon.
Now, though deportation to Guiana was commonly referred to as the dry guillotine because it was considered a death sentence, Billaud-Varennes managed to live through the ordeal, eventually emigrating to New York in 1816, before finally settling in Haiti, where he died in 1819. His friend and colleague Collot d’Herbois however, was not so fortunate. The Butcher of Lyon died of yellow fever in 1796.
After dispensing with the Four, the Convention then turned its attention to the inflammatory Constitution of 1793, which was now clearly a left wing rallying point. Now, it was true that it was getting a bit embarrassing that France was not yet operating under a constitutional government. I mean, the National Convention had been convened in September 1792 to do one thing: write a constitution for France. And here they all were, more than two and a half years later, still just kind of winging it.
The non implementation of the constitution was also hard to justify since the reason it had been set aside was “emergency, emergency”. But now one of the underlying rationales of the Thermidorian Convention was that the emergency was over. So, okay, maybe we should ditch revolutionary government and try to establish constitutional government, as was our original core mandate. But all that said, no one now thought it was a good idea to just implement the Constitution of 1793 as it stood, written as it was, by a bunch of prescribed and executed terrorists. So let’s maybe form a committee to pick through it and recommend some amendments. But that committee quickly came to the conclusion that amendments and revisions were not going to be enough. So on April 18, a Committee of Eleven was formed to compose a new new constitution for France. We’ll talk about that new new constitution next week.
To further ensure that the Convention was not bothered by mobs who might oppose the abandonment of the Constitution of 1793. They also went ahead and decreed a little martial law in the capital. Fresh off his victories in the Netherlands, General Pichegru just so happened to be in Paris while all of this was going on. And the Convention said “General, would you please help us restore order and peace?” Pichegru said “Why, yes, I’d love to”. And it is true that he went about this job with relish, as we will see in the episodes to come.
Despite the fact that Pichegru was the son of a peasant who had only risen as high as he had thanks to the Revolution in general and Saint Just in particular who promoted him, Pichegru had a strong conservative bent. He was, in point of fact, a closeted Royalist who was far less committed to the Revolution than you might think for a guy who has just accepted the honorific title, Savior of the Fatherland. But we’ll get to all that down the road. For today, we need only focus on the fact that Pichegru was only too happy to go lay down the law on the rabble.
On April 10, the Convention passed the Police Law, which served as the legal framework for Pichegru’s crackdown. It basically said that anyone who could be implicated in any part of the Reign of Terror could be disarmed, detained or harassed at will. Pichegru then organized squads of National Guard, regular army units, and unofficially the Muscadin to go raid through the eastern sections, inducing its residents to identify who amongst them had been prominent in the days of the Terror. And somewhere around 1,600 men and women were identified and arrested.
The result of the raids was to further neutralize the sans-culottes as an organized or even organisable force. But Pichegru’s martial law would not break them completely. It would take one more cycle of insurrection and retaliation to really finish the job.
But the crackdown in Paris turned out to be a minor blip on the historical radar compared to what the Police Law of April 10 triggered out in the departments. Informed that the terrorist leaders and all the various municipalities were now fair game, their disgruntled former victims could get going with what we call the White Terror, when the persecuted became the persecutors.
Now it is called the White Terror because white is the color of the house of Bourbon and the general sense was that this was an expression of pent up Royalism finally revenging itself upon the Revolution. But though royalism was a defining feature of the White Terror in a few instances, for the most part what we’re really talking about is all those men and women who had been harassed, jailed, had their property confiscated, seeing their friends and their relatives executed, not because they were counterrevolutionary Royalists, but simply because they were insufficiently extreme in their devotion to the Revolution. So this was not about trying to restore the monarchy. This was about revenge.
The first incident of the White Terror actually occurred back in February 1795, when a group of former terrorist officials in Nimes who had been arrested were just butchered by their guards. But the law of April 10 is really what got things going on a mass scale. The Thermidorian representatives on mission were now in charge of nominating men to fill the local municipal governments. And so it was a staunchly anti terrorist cohort that came to power just as the law of April 10 was being disseminated. With the legal cover they needed, these new municipal authorities went out hunting for damned bloodthirsty Jacobins who had caused so much pain and so much suffering. Once the terrorists had been locked up in the local jails, well, that’s when the revenge started to kick in.
On May 4, an attack on a prison in Lyon resulted in somewhere between 100 and 200 ex terrorists getting butchered. Then about a week later, a similar prisoner slaughter in the city of Aix killed about 60 prisoners. On May 24, 24 prisoners were killed in Tarascon. And then on June 5, another 100 plus were killed in Marseilles. And this last attack was personally orchestrated by the representative on mission.
But the prison massacres were really just one part of the White Terror, the more consolidated official White Terror. Unofficially, armed bands went roaming around, picking off targets one by one, exacting a sort of vigilante justice on the hated terrorists. Eschewing official legal channels, lynch mobs and armed gangs of various sizes crisscrossed the countryside. These bands started to sprout up all across France, but they were mostly concentrated in the southeast, particularly in the Rhone Valley, where the terror had been particularly brutal. Targeted former terrorists were ambushed on lonely roads between here and there and just summarily executed. Then a mob might come together, spontaneously, descend on a house and just lynch all the inhabitants inside.
Over the summer of 1795, about 100,000 people would be locked up and about 2,000 killed. So the White Terror was not on the scale of the Terror, but it was still pretty brutal. Now, of course, it’s all pretty easy to understand and even justify these revenge murders. I mean, think about the guys who are now being killed. A year ago they were staffing the watch committees and the revolutionary tribunals that had locked up close to 500,000 people across France on incredibly vague charges and then killed as many as they felt like. These are not nice people we’re talking about here. But still, it’s important to keep in mind that for a lot of people, the principled objection to the Reign of Terror turned out to be a principled objection to being on the wrong side of the Reign of Terror.
Now, just as the National Convention was getting going with all these retaliatory crackdowns, their own political legitimacy was given a huge boost. The fortunes of war are always a crucial factor in the survival of a domestic government. And in the spring of 1795, the fortunes of war had turned unambiguously in France’s favor. In fact, the spring of 1795 proved to be a pretty decisive turning point in the war, as the pan-European anti French coalition finally disintegrated.
As we discussed last week, the Prussians have had one foot out the door for a long time now, and after requesting peace talks through back channels back in October, France and Prussia each dispatched negotiators to work out a deal. On April 5, 1795, both sides signed the Treaty of Basel and Prussia officially pulled out of the war. The formal clauses of the treaty are not nearly as interesting as the main secret clause of the treaty; that Prussia would not challenge French sovereignty on the west bank of the Rhine if France pulled back from the territories it had occupied on the right bank of the Rhine, and the French were currently occupying some land on the far side of the river.
With the deal struck and the Rhine now acting as a strong and rational border for France, the Prussians would spend the next decade not getting involved in any further wars against the French. It would not be until 1806 they would finally join up again in what was by then the fourth anti French coalition, because, you know, Napoleon. The withdrawal of Prussia was a huge blow to the allied cause and basically guaranteed that the British would not be getting back the Netherlands anytime soon, which the Prussians had just said in that secret clause is French territory and were cool with that.
Cementing their hegemony over the Netherlands, France and the New Batavian Republic signed the Treaty of the Hague on May 16, 1795. The Dutch pledged their navy in support of the French cause, agreed not to make any claims on the Dutch speaking citizens of what used to be the Austrian Netherlands, but which was about to be annexed into France. They also agreed in another secret clause to allow the French to maintain a 25,000 man occupying garrison. Did I ever talk about how the early revolutionaries hated these kinds of secret clauses and denounced them as the tools of despotic princes used to sell out their own people? I didn’t? Well, no matter. No one clearly cares about that stuff anymore.
And just to round this out, the French also then signed a treaty with the Spanish in mid July. Now, the Spanish front had never been a critical front of the war, but it had required the French to deploy men and resources to cover the Pyrenees. Now, for Spain’s part, the treaty was completely understandable. Their armies were proving no match for the French, so they got out of the war while the getting was good.
So, back in the spring of 1793, France was surrounded by enemies on all sides and stretched almost fatally thin. But by the summer of 1795, those enemies were dropping out of the war one by one and France was able to concentrate all of her now considerable military resources on just the Austrians and the British. The tide had certainly turned.
Now, had the war not been going so well, it is likely that the Convention would have been far more vulnerable to a popular insurrection. But luckily for them, they didn’t have to worry about historical counterfactuals and so when the Insurrection of 1 Prairial came along, they were in a great position to smack it down and hard.
The Insurrection of 1 Prairial, Year III, that is, May 20, 1795, was a sequel to the failed insurrection of 12 Germinal. The martial law crackdowns had hit the eastern sections hard, but the economic situation in the capital remained dire. Though the winter weather had turned and no one was freezing to death anymore, food supplies in Paris continued to be tragically limited. So after General Pichegru returned to the front, some of the sections began to defiantly hold public assemblies again. And the talk at those assemblies was mostly about doing a better job the next time they rose up against those bastards running the Convention. “Bread and the Constitution of 1793” would once again serve as the primary rallying cry. But this time they plan to be better armed, bring more men to the party, and have concrete demands that they would force the Convention to pass.
Once all the planning was done an anonymous circular made the rounds on May 19 called the “People’s Insurrection to obtain bread and recover our rights”. It called on the people of Paris to assemble the next day to, well, obtain bread and recover their rights. The next morning, May 20, 1795, the tocsin bells began to ring just like in the old days and mobs started gathering. Now there is a lot of evidence, though, that most of the men were not necessarily super stoked to be going out as shock troops for yet another insurrection, and that it was actually the women who went around all the workshops yelling at the men to drop their tools and get out there and save their families.
So once everyone had gathered in strength, they marched together on the Convention reaching the hall at about two in the afternoon. An initial wave of insurrectionaries pushed their way into the Convention, but they were beaten back by armed guards. The mob was then stiffly reinforced by companies of National Guard drawn from the eastern sections. These trained and armed National Guardsmen helped the mob push its way back into the Convention. And then things got a little ugly. A Therimdorian deputy tried to stand in their way, but for his trouble, he was shot dead where he stood. The mob then cut off the guy’s head and mounted it on a pike so when they finally all came bursting into the hall, a severed head was the first thing the delegates inside saw.
Once inside, the mob leaders identified the last remaining Mountain delegates and demanded that they introduced the list of insurrectionary demands. And what were those demands? A plan to deliver food to the starving capital, a plan to activate the Constitution of 1793 and hold the requisite elections for a new legislature. Then the release of all those imprisoned in the recent crackdowns and the return of an independent Paris Commune General Assembly.
Either from fear or because they were genuinely swept up in the moment, a few of the Mountain delegates stepped forward to introduce these measures to their own undoing as it would ultimately turn out. With the Convention occupied by the insurrectionary sans-culottes, a counterforce started gathering outside the hall, one that was loyal to, or at least controlled by the Convention. Finally, around midnight, this force started to push their way into the hall to evict the insurrectionaries. Amazingly, no shots appear to have been fired as the mob was successfully pushed out. But this was not going to be the end of it.
Overnight, and then, towards dawn, the insurrectionaries regrouped for a second attempt, and this time, their allied National Guard unit rolled out the artillery. By mid afternoon on May 21, 20,000 angry men and women surrounded the Convention with artillery in place. But they were not the only force out there under arms that day. A mix of National Guard drawn from the western sections and Muscadin street fighters and regular army soldiers added up to nearly 40,000 men, double what the insurrectionaries had mustered.
The combined 60,000 people now staring each other down outside the Convention was the single largest mass confrontation in Paris during the whole course of the French Revolution. But while the ensuing standoff was tense, neither side appears to have wanted to make the first move. As had been the case going back to the beginning of the revolution, all those regular army troops were really just sans-culottes in uniform, and they were every bit as hungry as the starving wretches currently on the other side of the lines, so they weren’t eager to start firing. And indeed, a company of gunners actually defected over to the insurrectionaries.
But as for those insurrectionaries, they were shifting their feet nervously as they sized up the defenders of the Convention who outnumbered them two to one and were way better armed. It had to have been clear to most of them they were not going to win if it came down to actual fighting, and continued dedication to the insurrection was liable to get them all killed. So both sides breathed a huge sigh of relief when some Convention delegates came out and said, hey, if you have a petition, we’ll be happy to hear it.
So a group of petitioners were allowed in to say their peace and make their demands, which they did. Bread and the Constitution of 1793. Thank you. When the petitioners emerged, the explosive situation was diffused. The insurrectionary mob dispersed, and the defenders of the Convention stood down. Amazingly, the whole thing had come off with almost no bloodshed to speak of, aside from that guy who had gotten his head jammed on top of a pike.
But of course, the Convention was not just going to let this latest insurrection disappear quietly back into the eastern sections from whence it had come, where it could simply lie dormant. The very next day, they launched a punitive attack on everyone.
The Convention ordered its forces to surround the rebellious sections and were then met with hastily erected barricades. The regular troops and National Guard units waited for instructions, but the Muscadin pushed their way past the barricades and tried to beat the rabble into submission. But not being backed up by the official troops, they had to retreat back across the barricades. But with an overwhelming force now surrounding them, the beleaguered insurrectionary sections raised the white flag and surrendered. The men who had killed the deputy in the Convention hall were named and handed over, as were the gunners who defected. Then the Convention troops marched through the streets in force. Upwards of 3,000 men and women were arrested and every potential weapon was confiscated, and the less well off were immediately banned from National Guard service, turning it back into the active citizen militia that it had started out as.
The Convention then set up a special tribunal to try the leaders of the insurrection and ultimately found 36 guilty and sentenced them to death. Among those convicted were the Mountain deputies who had introduced the demands when the mob had taken over the Convention and who were now quite erroneously being blamed for organizing the whole thing. Six of these delegates were sentenced to death on June 17, including Gilbert Romme, who you may remember as the head science nerd in charge of the committee that created the Republican calendar.
In an obviously planned bit of tragic theater, four of these condemned delegates, including Romme, pulled out knives and killed themselves as they were being led from the courtroom. And they would live on in the popular imagination as the Martyrs of Prairial.
The insurrections of Germinal and Prairial all marked the end of the line for the sans-culottes. The men and women who had once been so central to the course of the Revolution, really dictating its course for years were now truly beaten into submission. Now, this wouldn’t be the end of leftwing populism per se, but the sans-culottes version of the French Revolution is done.
Next week, we will move into a new version of the French Revolution. With the Constitution of 1793 now totally discredited, the Convention would draft the Constitution of Year Three, which will create the Directory, that repressive corrupt but occasionally useful government that would run France until Napoleon decided that he could do a way better job.
Return to The French Revolution >>
Leave a Reply