The Whiff of Grapeshot

Hello, and welcome to Revolutions.

Last time the Thermidorian Convention beat the pulp out of the left wing of the French Revolution. The attempted insurrections of 12 Germinal and 1 Prairial effectively ended the sans-culottes as an independent political force. Out in the departments, the White Terror was suppressing all the old Jacobin municipal leaders. So in the summer of 1795, the political left had pretty much hit rock bottom. 

A perfectly natural consequence of this bottoming out was that the long, nascent political right was starting to believe that their time had finally come. And we’re not talking about moderate revolutionaries here. We’re talking about real, honest to God monarchists. Those guys took one look at the space that was being opened up by the suppression of the left and said, well, boys, it looks like this might be our chance to finally step out of the shadows

But the Thermidorians had zero interest in letting these Royalists come out of the shadows. So just as last week’s episode was about beating the crap out of the Left, today’s episode will be about beating the crap out of the Right. There’s no better place to start this beat down than out west with the disastrous Quiberon Bay expedition. Now, we left the west two episodes back, with Lazare Hoche coming into the region to try to mix a few carrots in with a stick to bring the insurrection to a final conclusion. And from the time he arrived in August 1794 through the spring of 1795, Hoche was pretty uniformly successful. After all, he did come bearing a lot of carrots, freedom of worship and exemption from the draft being the two biggest. 

With their two biggest complaints resolved, enthusiasm for the insurrection waned amongst the people of the west. Hoche then signed a treaty with one of the main rebel leaders in the Vendée in February 1795 and then another treaty in April with a few of the main Chouan leaders, that is, the new rebels who were rising up in Brittany. But just as Hoche seemed to be putting the finishing touches on the peace, a couple of things happened. First, the Convention turned its guns on the Left and the White Terror got going out in the departments. This, as I said, gave heart to conservative Royalists like the western rebels. 

Second, the final defeat of the British up in the Netherlands led the Ministry of Prime Minister William Pitt to consider other ways to strategically deploy British resources to continue fighting the French. The rebels in the west and the British had been in contact for a while, but with the British focusing mostly on trying to win the war in the north and the rebels always a bit disorganized, the two had never truly joined forces. The failed march on Granville was the closest they had managed to come on that front. 

But over 1794 and 1795, one of the main Chouan leaders, a guy named Joseph de Puisaye, had been steadily working his contacts in London, painting for them a picture of a vast popular uprising underway that needed only guns and supplies to break the entire region away from Parisian control. As we are about to see, though, Puisaye was perhaps overstating things just a bit. 

But with their spies in Paris telling them that the Right was indeed ascendant, the British decided to throw their lot in with Puisaye. They started massing supplies to arm and equip 70,000 men in the Channel Islands. Puisaye, meanwhile, traveled around southern England, drumming up support from amongst the various French emigrate communities. A lot of those emigrants were old sword nobles, army officers who had been itching to do something, anything, for years now, and Puisaye signed up 3,000 of them to serve. And this was pretty good, except that Puisaye had been shooting for 15,000. Oh well, no matter. When the expedition lands, we are sure to be joined by a population eager to be led back into the fight to liberate France from the Revolution once and for all, and put ten year old Louis XVII, still a prisoner in Paris, on the throne. 

But just as the expedition was taking its final form, things took a minor twist when word emerged from Paris that ten year old Louis XVII was dead. The nature of the boy’s captivity and his ultimate fate are still a matter of historical debate. The main problem being that after the Restoration, almost all the records of his time in captivity were destroyed. But the basic story became that after being taken away from his mother back in 1793, the boy was handed off to an illiterate cobbler. And then when that cobbler went away, the boy was locked up in solitary confinement, beaten according to the sadistic whims of his guards, and then finally died of tuberculosis after basically being neglected to death. 

Now, there is reason to believe that a lot of this story is exaggerated for effect, but it seems like the basics are true, and that the boy, whose health had always been fragile, was badly mistreated until he finally just died. Living now in Genoa, the emigrate Comte de Provence, eldest of Louis XVI’s remaining brothers, immediately declared himself King Louis XVIII. He also issued a set of declared aims, which was basically, we’re going to roll everything back to May 1789

Now, no one in Europe recognized the claim of the alleged Louis XVIII, which does give you some idea about just how little the other European powers cared about restoring the old Bourbon Ancien Régime. 

Okay, so getting back to the failed expedition, though, the British didn’t really care about restoring the Ancien Régime, they did want to cripple the current government of France. So at the end of June 1795, they launched the ill fated Quiberon Bay expedition. That’s the other adjective you see for it a lot: ill fated and disastrous. That pretty much sums it up. The landing site for the expedition was obviously Quiberon Bay on the southern side of Brittany, and more specifically, the narrow Quiberon Peninsula that juts south from the mainland. Now, it was a bit troubling to the British that the so called mass uprising couldn’t capture a proper port, but Puisaye assured his handlers that that was only because they didn’t have the equipment. Once we land the guns, everything will be cool, I swear. And for like two seconds, it seemed like he might be right. 

When the émigré force landed on June 27, somewhere on the order of 10,000 Chouan did indeed rally to their cause. The small local Republican garrison was overwhelmed, and a beachhead was established at the base of the peninsula. But they were never going to make it off that beachhead. The combined force showed no cohesion, no chain of command, and no clear idea of what it was going to do next. The core of the émigré expeditionaries even refused to take orders directly from Puisaye, who they considered an impure Royalist because he had stayed in France instead of emigrating. So they elected instead to take orders from one of their own senior émigré officers. 

Meanwhile, the Chouan were truly disorganized peasants who weren’t really taking orders from anyone. And so, as they all sat around on the peninsula trying to get it together, Lazare Hoche was told of the landing. He gathered up a well disciplined Republican force of about 13,000 men and marched straight away to Quiberon Bay to put a stop to the invasion.

Hoche and his army arrived on July 3 and found the Royalists still just kind of hanging out, not taking any chances, Hoche advanced slowly and methodically. He took the base of the peninsula over July 7 and 8th, and then over the course of the next two weeks, the two sides battled back and forth, but the Republicans continued to push down the peninsula. 

Hoche launched a final decisive attack on July 20. About 2,500 Royalist forces managed to escape by rowboat back to the British ships, including Puisaye, but the rest were beaten and trapped. That night, the two sides worked out terms of surrender, with Hoche apparently promising to spare all their lives, which if he did make that promise, he had no intention of keeping it. After taking close to 6,500 prisoners, Hoche set up a military tribunal to identify émigré under arms and have them shot. This according to a law passed in the early days of the war in 1792. The Republic had no patience for nobles under arms fighting against the fatherland. Of the thousand or so émigrés captured, 640 were summarily shot. Along with over 100 Chouan charged with various brands of treason, Hoche executed about 750 men in the days after the pacification of Quiberon. 

So the now failed Quiberon Bay expedition was supposed to be the start of a general uprising in the west and further south in the Vendée, the rebel leader who had just come to terms with Hoche back in February, broke the treaty and returned to arms. He had only made the deal with the Republicans because at that point he was isolated and the momentum was running away from his cause. So he was perfectly happy to be getting back to work in July except then the news came down that Quiberon Bay was ill fated and disastrous and he was back to being isolated and fighting all on his own again. He concentrated his forces along the coast to hopefully secure lines to the British, but the momentum was already fast running away from his cause again. 

At that same moment, the French were signing the treaty with Spain that we talked about last week, which freed up loads of guys who had been stationed along the Pyrenees to march north into the Vendée just as Hoche was starting to march south, so the remaining Vendée rebels were trapped against the coast and that is where we are going to leave them for this week. 

Now, though the renewed fighting in the west was fairly easily contained, it did put the Thermidorian Convention on notice. Coupled with the continuation of the White Terror and cheered on by a right wing press that was getting more strident and self-confident, it was clear that the greatest threat to the Convention now lay to the Right, not the Left. So as the Committee of Eleven worked up the draft for the new Constitution, they had in the back of their minds that the most important thing right now was to ensure stability and make sure that when the transition to the new government happened, that it would not be captured by a bunch of conservatives who would undo the whole revolutionary project. Because though the Thermidorians aren’t ideologues in any way, they did have things they valued. And remember, anyone who had been elected into the Convention back in 1792 pretty much had to be a committed republican. None of them wanted the monarchy to return

Beyond that, though, what they’re really doing here is making the first stab at separating the bad revolution of August 10, 1792, which led to massacres in the Reign of Terror from the good Revolution of July 1789, which had led to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and enlightened social and economic reforms. Now, whether you can actually do this is one of the longest running debates in the historiography of the French Revolution. That is, whether the Reign of Terror was an integral and inevitable continuation of the events of 1789, or whether it was a bloody detour that can be safely quarantined. 

The Thermidorians are clearly the first to take a crack at separating the two and say, look, everything was going great and then some crazy buggers got a hold of the thing and ruined it for everybody, but now we are going to set things right. So the Constitution of Year III is in many ways an attempt to get back to the good revolution of 1789. And with the lessons of the failure of the Constitution of 1791 in hand, the Committee of Eleven hoped to forge a constitution that would prevent the Revolution from going off the rails again. 

This constitution was prefaced, as usual, by a Declaration of Rights in 22 specific bullet points. But of course, these would not be the same set of rights that had preceded the ultra democratic Constitution of 1793. Gone was the statement that the aim of society was the common happiness, gone were the rights to public assistance and education and for super sure, the right to insurrection. Included, though, were all the greatest hits from Lafayette’s original 1789 draft: liberty, equality, security, property. Oddly enough, though, freedom of the press and freedom of religion were both conspicuously absent from the list, although further legislation would ensure both. 

But counterbalancing these 22 rights was, for the first time, a list of nine duties. Duties like the obligation of each person to society, consists of defending it, serving it, living in submission to the laws and respecting those who are agents of them. And also, every citizen owes his service to the fatherland and to the maintenance of liberty, equality and property whenever that law summons him to defend them. So mostly the list of nine duties were just different ways of saying obey the law and put a uniform on if we tell you to. But number four did slip into a bit of the old Robespierre-esque belief that virtuous people make for a virtuous republic. So it said, no one is a good citizen unless he has a good son, good father, good brother, good friend, good husband, but mostly, obey the law and put on a uniform when we tell you to. 

Continuing with the drive back to 1789 were the definitions of citizenship and suffrage. Although it was not explicitly stated in the Constitution of Year III, we are going back to the old active, passive citizen distinction. So while everyone has legal and political rights (and duties), a full citizenship and the voting rights that went with it were reserved for taxpaying males over the age of 21. No more of this universal suffrage business. But the franchise was actually even more restrictive than that, because once again, we’re working on a two tiered electoral system. Primary assemblies would select electors to go off to a further assembly where the actual delegates to the national government would be chosen. And to be an elector, you had to clear a further property qualification that trimmed the list of actual voters down to just 30,000 men, which was even more restrictive than the Constitution of 1791 had been. 

So what was this very small club of electors actually voting for? Well, one of the major innovations of the Constitution of Year III was that it ditched the single all powerful legislative house and created a bicameral legislature. The dangers of an all powerful single house with no check on its power and/or whims had now been thoroughly internalized by everyone. And somewhere in Switzerland, I hope that Jean Joseph Mounier is smiling. The lower house was called the Council of 500, which, wouldn’t you know, had 500 members who had to be 25 years of age or older. This house would generate all new legislation. The upper house was called the Council of Ancients and would have 250 members who had to be 40 years of age or older. These guys would then have to approve or reject the legislation coming out of the lower house and hopefully act as a check on any particularly crazy ideas. 

A further check on the power of the legislature was an executive branch independent from it. Now, there was obviously a lingering fear that a single executive would lead to monarchy or dictatorship so the independent executive branch was actually a five man committee, a committee which gives the whole system of government its name, the Directory.

The Directory would be tasked with implementing the laws passed by the Council of 500 and approved by the Council of Ancients. But they would also have control over the military and foreign policy, both of which would pretty much be the exclusive domain of the Directors. They would also be responsible for all internal and external security. They would also appoint ministers to help them execute the laws. But those ministers would not run departments independently, it was more like day to day operations would be delegated to them, but the Directors would run the show. To check the power of the Directory, they were given no veto power over any legislation, and they also had no control over the public treasury or the budget, both of which were denied to them because nobody wanted the Directory to turn into the Committee of Public Safety. 

Now, the last thing I’ll talk about here, since it’s going to play a direct role in the various political crises to come, is the tenure of all these elected officials. Election to the Directory would be for a five year term, but to ensure some continuity, only one director per year would be replaced. Since the first slate of Directors would all be coming into office at the same time the Constitution stipulated that each year one of their names would be drawn from a hat, and then that guy would have to resign and be replaced. Once the Constitution had been in effect for five years, the directors would just start rolling over when their five year terms expired. But until then, who stayed and who went away would be a totally random affair, at least officially random, because, duh, there are going to be shenanigans with this! 

As for the legislature, everyone’s terms would be for three years, with a third of the delegates up for election each year. Okay, so far, so good. But then the Convention dropped what turned out to be a very controversial and unexpected bomb: the Law of Two Thirds. The Law of Two Thirds decreed that two thirds of the delegates elected to the first legislature would have to be drawn from the ranks of the Convention delegates, so only one third of the seats would be subject to a truly open election. This is going to cause a major firestorm, so let’s talk this through a bit. 

Obviously, the announcement that the next election was not going to be free and open was very unpopular. And I’m reminded of nothing so much as the Rump Parliament during the English Revolution, with their irritating and ultimately self defeating pushes for recruiter elections that would ensure that they themselves remained in Parliament forever. But there was some wisdom at work in the Law of Two Thirds. The leaders of the Thermidorian Convention had pinpointed Robespierre’s self denying decree at the close of the National Assembly as one of the key turning points in the Revolution. And frankly, so do I. Clearing out all the National Assembly delegates in one fell swoop, let a new cohort of radical leaders in to grab control of the subsequent Legislative Assembly and none of those guys had a personal stake in actually trying to make the Constitution of 1791 work. So if the Thermidorian Convention just opened up the polls to everyone, I mean, my god, France might wind up back in the hands of a bunch of Royalists. So the law of two thirds was meant to ensure some strong political and politically Republican continuity in the national government. And given the subsequent response of those Royalists, I’m not sure that the Convention was wrong to limit the scope of these first elections. 

The Constitution of Year III was approved by the Convention on August 22, and as had been the case with the previous two constitutions, it was sent out to the primary assemblies for ratification in the first week of September. Of the 5 million primary voters, 4 million did not show up. I mean, my god, I think I’m just going to stay out of this. But of those who did show up, a little over a million said yes, and just 49,000 said no. But on the further question of the Law of Two Thirds, which was apparently also up for ratification, things were a lot closer. Of those who decided to weigh in, 250,000 said okay, and 108,000 said no way. And that was just the raw totals. 19 different departments voted to reject the Law of Two Thirds, and in Paris, 47 of the 48 sections voted against it. Everyone in the capital, the beaten down leftists in the eastern sections and the rising conservatives in the western sections, wanted to see the bums in the Convention tossed out and they were not happy they were not going to get a chance to do it. 

In particular, though, it was the conservatives who were the most inflamed by the Law of Two Thirds. Since Thermidor, their presses had flourished, their Muscadin youth had been encouraged to wander the streets freely, and the White Terror was proceeding out in the departments, virtually unchecked. For the right wing, including all those closeted monarchists, the next step appeared to be sweep the elections for the next legislature and truly grab hold of power. But the Law of Two Thirds was going to prevent that from happening. So the Right was understandably ticked off

Recognizing that these conservatives now pose a major threat to the stable implementation of the Constitution of Year III, the cynical Thermidorians started releasing a lot of the leftist leaders that had all just been locked up after Germinal and Prairial, and we’re now encouraging them to go back to their people and start preparing to fight in case the dread Royalists decided to make a power play. 

As I’ve said, the Thermidorians are interested in staying in power and they are going to make a real sport of encouraging and then repressing and then encouraging again the various partisan wings whenever one side started to get too strong. The other thing they did was start transferring regular army units into Paris, which put everyone on alert that the Convention was getting ready to impose the Constitution of Year III by force. 

The Convention announced the vote totals on September 23, 1795, which was actually the first day of year IV. The Constitution, they said, has been ratified overwhelmingly, and so has the Law of Two Thirds. But to make sure the vote on the Law of Two Thirds was more decisive than it really was, the Convention provocatively threw out a number of results from the Paris sectional assemblies, because those assemblies had reported back unanimous rejection rather than actual vote tallies. 

So this ratification announcement set off a chain reaction in Paris. But as I’ve hopefully now successfully foreshadowed, the looming popular insurrection would not come out of the poor eastern sections, but rather the better off western sections. The guys who had just been defending the Convention during the insurrections of Germinal and Prairial. All the angry meetings and organizing and collecting of arms in the western sections to fight the Law of Two Thirds finally got going in earnest when word came on October 4 that a spontaneous Royalist uprising about 40 miles west of Paris had been suppressed by force of arms. This news led seven of the western sections to declare themselves in insurrection. And that means that it’s time for Napoleon Bonaparte to make his second great appearance on the stage of world history and the one that would keep him there permanently

When last we saw young Bonaparte, now all of 26 years old, he had masterminded the successful final attack that ended the siege of Toulon in December 1793. In recognition of his talent and accomplishment, he was named General of Artillery for the Army of Italy, which was operating along the Alpine frontier. Now, I haven’t talked much about this theater of the war because it’s mostly been a back and forth stalemate while everyone concentrated on the real war up in Belgium. But that said, in the first half of 1794, General Bonaparte did have a chance to show off a little, and he drew up the plans for a nifty little campaign that helped the French win some strategic strongholds in the Alps in the Spring of 1794. 

The events of 9 Thermidor, though, temporarily threw Bonaparte’s position into doubt, because obviously, he was connected to the Jacobins and had been promoted at the behest of Augustine Robespierre, who has by now fallen out of a window and gotten his head chopped off. But after being investigated, the young general was ultimately returned to duty. He took part in a failed attempt to reassert French dominion over Corsica, an attempt that was blocked by the superior British Navy. And then, in the reorganizations that followed the victories in the Netherlands and the withdrawal of Prussia from the war, Bonaparte was reassigned to the Vendée to serve as a General of Infantry. But this being both a war not suited for an ambitious glory seeker like Napoleon and a demotion from artillery to infantry, Bonaparte pleaded ill health and said, cough, cough, I just can’t make it. He wound up being reassigned to the Bureau of Topography in Paris, but his continued unwillingness to take up his post in the west led to his name actually being stricken from the list of active duty Generals in September 1795. 

So this really threatened to derail his military career. But then providence intervened to put young Bonaparte back on the road to destiny. With an insurrection brewing in the western sections, the Convention turned, as they had on 9 Thermidor, to Paul Barras to lead their counter insurrectionary forces, forces which amounted to about 6,000 regular army soldiers. But if you’ll recall, Barras had spent his time as a representative on mission down in the southeast and he had been one of the main political leaders supervising the siege of Toulon and so he knew Napoleon Bonaparte well. So even though Bonaparte was technically an ex general, Barras could think of no one better to actually lead the country insurrectionary forces on the ground. 

On the night of October 4, 1795, a detachment of the regular army moved to the center of the insurrectionary sections and secured promises from the local leaders that they would stand down and disarm. But as soon as the army pulled back, it was all haha just kidding. So on the morning of October 5, 1795 that is 13 Vendémiaire Year IV, something like 25,000 Parisians rolled out of bed, grabbed what weapons they had around and started gathering for a march on the Convention. This time in support not of bread in the Constitution of 1793, but in favor of the restored monarchy. At least that was a good way to portray them in the press after their insurrection had been put down

Unfortunately for the insurrectionaries, they massed south of the Seine and had to cross the river to reach the Convention and their adversary, Napoleon Bonaparte probably knew how to defend strategic bridge crossings before he knew how to walk. He deployed strong artillery garrisons at each of the bridges and so when the mob surged north, they hit a bunch of cannon line choke points. A standoff lasted into the afternoon, but at about 4:30, Bonaparte decided he was done messing around and he ordered the artillery to just start firing. Now, in his famously incomprehensible poetic history of the Revolution, Thomas Carlyle quoted Napoleon as saying he drove off the insurgents with a whiff of grapeshot. And so that’s sort of the legend that’s grown up around this incident. But really there was a pretty good battle that ran steadily for about 6 hours and further skirmishing went on into the morning. 

The insurgents never made it across the river and never really threatened the Convention, but it did take more than a whiff of grapeshot to drive them off. And outnumbered as he was, the real reason Bonaparte probably won was that the insurgents ran out of ammunition before he did. 

The insurrection of 13 Vendémiairie wound up being an important milestone in the history of the French Revolution. For one thing, obviously it paves the way for the inauguration of the Directory. For another, it was in thanks for saving the Convention that Napoleon Bonaparte was given command of the army of Italy, where he is really going to get going on the road to destiny. Finally, this was finally the last major popular insurrection in Paris. The last time that the citizens of the capital would attempt by mass force to impose their will on the national government. The eastern sections had already been disarmed and their political institutions crushed. So now, in their final days before handing power over to the Directory, the Convention would do the same for all the Paris sections. No more local assemblies, no more locally controlled National Guard units, no more guns and no more cannons for anybody. And that meant that the days of insurrection were over. 

Next week we will move into the first days of the Directory, introduce the Directors, well, a few of the important ones anyway, and then get to following the various attempts to undermine and break the new Directory system before it could get settled in. The days of insurrection were over, yes, but that did not mean that the ambitious, the dissatisfied, and the visionary were going to stop lusting after power.

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