And so a third national assembly was elected; the National Convention which would be in existence for three years from September 1792 to October 1795. It was called to draft a new constitution necessitated by the suspension of the King. Its first act was the abolition of the monarchy as an institution,
Before its final adjournment three years later it had drafted two different constitutions, one of which was never put in force, established a republic, organized a provisional government, faced appalling problems and maintained the independence of France against a vast force of other European powers.
In accomplishing these gigantic tasks however, it made a record for cruelty and tyranny that left the republic in deep discredit and made the revolution odious to millions.
On its first day it voted unanimously that “royalty is abolished in France” and moved that all public documents should henceforth bed dated “from the first years of the French Republic.” Thus did the republic make its appearance on the scene.
It was never declared. There was simply nothing else to do once the monarchy was abolished. France had no choice in the matter and merely accepted the imperative.
A committee was appointed to draw up a new constitution but its work would be long delayed by the distraction which broke out immediately between two parties – the Girondists and the Jacobins.
The Girondists were a party whose leaders came from the Gironde region near Bordeaux and had been elected to the Convention. A group of eloquent young men, they were led by a romantic young woman poet, Madame Jeanne Roland. Theirs was a bookish outlook upon the world. Feeding on Plutarch. boundless was their admiration for the ancient Greeks and Romans. They were republicans because the ancients they admired were republicans.
These two factions fundamentally fought for power, each trying to persuade uncommitted members to vote with them, though both parties were fervently Republican. The Girondists wanted areas outside of Paris to have a greater voice while the Jacobins, whose power of the mob rested in Paris saw the city as the beacon of light for the nation.
The Girondists were anxious to observe the legal forms and processes and disliked the frequent appeals to brute force by the Jacobins, who were not so scrupulous, were rude, forceful and indifferent to law if law stood in their way. They believed in the application of force wherever and whenever necessary. And the Girondists hated the three leaders of the Jacobins; Robespierre, Danton and the murderous Marat.
Robespierre and Marat returned the hatred while Danton considered himself above the pettiness. He had a keen sense of the practical and useful. He tried to work with the Girondists, keeping all republicans working together. The idealists however would have nothing to do with him.
The contest between these two parties became shriller and more vehement when the question came before the convention. What shall we do with the King now that the monarchy has been abolished and he is a prisoner of the state?
He was undoubtedly guilty of conspiring with the emigres and the enemies of France; documents in the Tuileries had proved it beyond question. Should the Convention stay its hand? Mercy was not in the hearts of the Jacobins who would not hear even of a trial.
Robespierre demanded the King be executed by mere vote of the convention. Louis however was given a trial – before a packed jury which had already shown its hatred of him. Despite an eloquent defense the convention voted that Louis was guilty almost unanimously.
The Girondists then moved the sentence of death be submitted to the people for a vote before a final action. Robespierre combated this vigorously fearing the people might have sympathy for the King’s trials and tribulations and not go the final distance. The Girondists were voted down 424 to 283. On the sentence of death the vote was 387 to 334.
On Sunday, January 21, 1793 the guillotine was raised in the square fronting the Tuileries and at ten o’clock Louis mounted the fatal steps with courage and composure. He was greater in death than he had been on the throne. He died with the serenity of a profoundly religious man.
The execution of Louis XVI created a formidable increase in the numbers of enemies of France which had been at war with Prussia and Austria. Now England, Russia, Spain, Holland the states of Germany and Italy joined the war against her. While the death of Louis was stated tobe the reason. all looked upon the war as an opportunity to gain territory from a state obviously in the throes of dissolution.
Civil war still raged in the Vendee angainst the republic, the murderer of the King and oppressor of the church. The convention resolved to do whatever was necessary and do or die in the attempt. It voted to raise an army of 300,000 immediately, created a Committee of Public Safety dedicated to national salvation and annilation of the republic’s enemies, whether foreign or domestic.
Meanwhile the convention floundered in the angry bog of party politics.
The Girondists, sticklers tor he law, wished to punish those who had organized the attack on the Tuileries that previous September in which 5,000 were killed driving the now dead King Louis to seek refuge in the assembly hall. They wished to punish the Paris Commune for numerous illegal acts. They accused Marat and were able to send him to trial before the Revolutionary Tribunal but he was acquited, making him more powerful, popular and wilder than ever in his denunciations.
Robespierre was now resolved to annihilate the Girondists. Danton, noting that France had enough enemies to fight without turning on each other tried to play peacemaker but his efforts only made enemies for himself.
The Paris Commune, committed to the Jacobins, decided to put an end to the squabble via their usual means – force. A veritable army of 80,000 with 60 cannon surrounded the convention hall and demanded the expulsion of the duly elected Girondists.The convention was a prisoner of the Commune. The insurrection was lead from beginning o end by Marat who was a member of the convention.
The government of France was at the mercy of the government of Paris. The members of the convention came out to meet the insurgents and requested the mob disburse. With mock deference, the insurgents bluntly refused. Instead the convention was told to expell the Girondists.
The convention returned to its hall, conquered and degraded and voted the arrest of 29 Girondists. Violence had laid its hand on the sovereignty of the people in the interest of faction. It was a victory for the Jacobins who were now masters of the convention. Robespierre was now a virtual dictator; equivalent to Caesar and his Senate.
Large portions of the nation were in an uproar. Had the Departments no rights which the Paris Commune were bound to respect? The Girondists called the Departments to arms. Some 60 out of 83 heeded the call.
The Conventtion, in order to allay fears quickly drafted a new Constitution in 1793 which guarded so carefully the rights of the Departments and the people that it made dictatorship impossible. It included universal male suffrage, decentralization on a momentous scale and the first appearance of the referendum. It called for an Executive consisting of 24 members! This constitution worked like a charm in dissipating mistrust.
It was overwhelming ratified. It was then immediately suspended. France needed, by general agreement, a strong central government until the European war was won. It would be then that the new constitution would become the law of the land, It never happened. It was put in a box in the center of the convention hall.
A new provisional government was created; one as strong as the constitution’s was weak. It was frankly based on force and introduced the terror to France. It was centered in the Convention and its object was to beat down any and all opposition to the republic. It was more tyrannical, more centralized and more absolute than King Louis could have ever dreamed. It included the Committee of Public Safety and the Committee of General Security and Representatives of the Revolutionary Tribunal who fanned out to every village and hamlet seeking out the enemies of the republic.
Danton created more enemies when he censured the activities of the mob which had resulted in the expulsion of the Girondists, who were still in prison. Meanwhile the Committees installed themselves in the former royal apartments in the Tuileries and began sending what would be thousands to the guillotine for anti-state behavior or activities.
The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was locked away, gathering dust. Trials were travesties of justice. One could be arrested at ten in the morning, tried after lunch and be dead before supper. Guillotines were erected in two Paris squares and each day saw executions. Week and Week went by and head after head would roll into the basket.
And then came the turn of the Girondists. Twenty one of them were guillotined on October 31, 1793. Madame Roland went to the scaffold “fresh, calm and smiling” regretting she had not been born a Spartan or a Roman. Mounting the steps she caught sight of a statue of liberty. “Oh Liberty! How they’ve played with you!” She was 39.
The Girondists were proceeded some days before by Marie Antoinette, daughter of an Empress and wife of a King. She had been subject to an obscene trial accused of indescribable vileness, including incest with her son. She cried out “Nature herself rejects such a charge made against a mother! I appeal to all who are here!” Noting the Queen was gaining sympathy her trial was cut short and she was quickly found guilty. She bore herself well and was brave to the end.
Charlotte Coday, a Norman girl who stabbed Marat to death in his bath to save her country paid the penalty with serenity.
For months men watched the tragic procession up the steps of those who were great and those who had served the cause of revolution.
Bailly, the celebrated astronomer and Mayor of Paris who had served the Estates General. The Du ke of Orleans who had played his part in the early revolution and voted for the death of his cousin, King Louis. Barnave, next to Mirabeau one of the most brilliant thinkers of the Constituent Assembly.
Yet this did not constitue the “Great Terror;” that was still to come. Thus far there was at least a semblance of pretense of punishing the enemies of the republic. But soon these odious methods would be used as a means of destroying political and personal enemies.
Politics would assume the character and risks of war.