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French revolution and aftermath, 1789-1815: Part V

French revolution and aftermath, 1789-1815: Part V

The National Convention (Sept. 21, 1792 to Oct. 25 1795)

  • The National Convention met on Sept. 21. 1792 on the dissolution of the Legislative Assembly. It was summoned to draft a new constitution, necessitated by the suspension of Louis XVI.
  • Its first act was to abolish monarchy and to declare France a Republic.
  • It passed a decree of perpetual banishment against the emigres and adopted a revolutionary calender to be dated from the birth of the republic.
  • A committee was appointed to draw up a new constitution.
  • But the primary work of the Convention to frame a constitution, was long postponed, because it was distracted by a frenzied quarrel that broke out between the Girondists and the the Jacobins. Both the parties were republicans.
    • The Girondists wished to form an orderly government and to put an end to the period of bloody excesses.
      • They wanted to rescue the government from the hands of the Paris Commune and the mob.
      • They wanted to bring the Commune to justice and to restore the supremacy of the Convention.
    • The Jacobins were men of a more fierce and practice mood.
      • Their sole aim was to save France and they were ready to adopt any means to further that end.
      • They wanted to make the Paris Commune supreme over the other departments and to adopt all sorts of violent means to promote the cause of the Revolution.
      • Their strength lay in their excellent organisation and in their alliance with the Commune.
    • Between the two parties was the Plain, containing a large number of undecided members.
    • The Girondiets were at first supremo in the Convention but it soon passed under the conntrol of the Jacobins.

Execution of Louie XVI

  • The Convention having unanimously voted that royalty is abolished in France, the question arose as to what should be done with Louis XVI. The Jacobins led by Robespierre wanted to execute the king even without a trial. The Girondists were anxious to submit the king’s case to the decision of the whole people. Thus the question of the king’s trial widened the breach between the Jacobins and the Girondists.
  • But the Jacobins carried the Convention with them. A mock trial was held and Louis XVI was declared guilty of high treason to the State and of conspiracy against the liberty of the Nation. He was sentenced to death and executed by the guillotine on January 21. 1793.
  • It has been remarked that the execution of Louis VI was “both a crime and a blunder”.
    • He was unselfish and the best-intentioned of French kings.
      • He was sincerely desirous of working for his country’s good. Hence to execute him as a traitor without a fair trial was really a crime, an act of cruelty and injustice.
    • It was also a blunder.
      • It defeated the very object which it was meant to secure.
      • It did not further the cause of the Revolution.
        • On the contrary, it involved the Revolution in increasing dangers both at home and abroad.
        • In France many of the provinces rose in revolt against the Republic as the murderer of the king; while at abroad the “danger to the monarchical principles roused whole Europe against the aggressive Republic.
        • Hence followed the reign of terror which instead of consolidating the Republic brought about its downfall. In other words, the fall of monarchy led to anarchy from which France could only be rescued by a military despotism.

First Coalition against France (Consequences of the Execution of Louis XVI)

  • War of principles:
    • Intoxicated by their recent success, the republicans in France adopted an aggressive attitude and challenged the existing order in Europe at large. They issued propagandist decrees calling upon all people to rise in revolt against their rulers and even offered them armed assistance.
    • Such an attitude was a serious menace to the safety and stability of other governments. Hence Republican France proclaimed a war of principles against monarchical Europe.
      • Liberty and equality must be established all over Europe and absolutism must be pulled down.
      • The Convention declared that the French Republic would treat as enemies all peoples who would refuse or renounce liberty and equality and would preserve their princes and privileged castes.
  • Why France desired War:
    • It should be noted that the war proclaimed by France was not merely a war of principles between a republic and a monarchy. It was, to a large extent, a question effecting material interests.
    • The contact which began after a war of propaganda was continued as a war of conquest. To France war was necessity; the Republic would not thrive without it.
    • The Revolution had dislocated trade and industry in France and so many men had to give up their peaceful pursuits.
    • In these circumstances it would be hazardous to recall an army, flushed with victory and impatient to gather fresh laurels, and to disband it, leaving the soldiers without resource or employment.
    • Hence the French drifted into a policy of war which promised further conquests abroad and temporary respite from internal strife.
    • They sought to extend the boundaries of their countries to its natural frontiers-the Alps, the Pyrenees and the Rhine.
    • They put forward the doctrine of natural frontiers in invading Belgium and the doctrine ‘natural rights’ in opening up the Scheldt. But under the cover of these doctrines they sought to attain the traditional objects of French policy.
  • Interests of England and Holland threatened:
    • The aggressive attitude of France, coupled with the storm of indignation which swept over Europe at the execution of Louis XVI banded all Europe against France.
    • War already existed with Austria and Prussia, and the French had conquered the Austrian Netherlands i.e. Belgium. But the French occupation of Belgium was a menace both to England and Holland.
    • Besides, the French had thrown out special challenge to England by declaring the navigation of the Schedt open to all nations. England had guaranteed the closing of the Scheldt in the interest of Holland and so she was compelled to take serious notice of the action of the French Republic.
    • The execution of Louis had roused the war temper of the English people and French ambassador in London was ordered to leave England.
    • Thereupon the Convention declared war against England and Holland.
  • Divergent interests of the allies:
    • The European powers in their turn banded themselves together and formed the First Coalition against France. Its members were England, Holland, Austria, Prussia, Sardinia and Spain.
    • In so far as the war was a war of ideas, the interests of the allies were the same i.e. to safeguard the principles of monarchy in Europe. But the material interests of the allies were different.
      • Austria was anxious to expel the French from Belgium
      • Sardinia to save Savoy from the hands of the French and
      • England to prevent France from re-establishing Antwerp as the rival port of London.
    • England saw her commercial prosperity threatened by the opening of the Scheldt and her security endangered by the French occupation of Belgium. That Was Why she joined the war.
  • War led to the French defeat and they were forced to evacuate Belgium.
  • Immediate consequence of the execution of the king:
    • Immediate consequence of the execution of Louis XVI was a formidable increase in the number of the enemies of France. She had to face a coalition of European powers.
    • At home the peasants of the south rose in revolt against the Republic as the murderer of the king and destroyer of the Church. It was this overwhelming danger both at home and abroad that led to the reign of terror.
  • At this national crisis the first Committee of Public Safety was formed, consisting of nine members with dictatorial powers to take necessary steps to destroy the enemies of the Republic, both foreign and domestic.
    • The object of this step was to provide a strong government so as to concentrate the full force of the nation upon the problem of national salvation.
  • The reverses which France had suffered accentuated the bitterness of feeling between the Girondists and the Jacobins accused each other of being traitors to the cause of the Revolution.
    • The Girondists wanted to restrict the supremacy of the Paris Commune. They resented the dictatorship of Paris and contended that Paris being one among eighty-three departments, should be reduced to her one eighty-third share of influence.
    • But the Jacobins realizing that debates and discussions were productive of no good when the country was in imminent danger, resolved upon a decisive stroke. Hence they organised an insurrection against the Girondists and the infuriated mob of Paris invaded the Convention and compelled it to arrest thirty-one Giroedist leaders.
  • The Girondists fell because:
    • They were far less organised then the Jacobins and because they strove after revolutionary aims while rejecting any resort to mob Violence.
    • They were unpractical idealists and could not put forward any effective and vigorous programme.
  • The fall of Girondists left Jacobins supreme and there was no party left to check the bloody measures which inaugurated a reign of terror in France under the dominance of the dreaded three- Robespierre, Danton and Marat.

REIGN OF TERROR (June 2, 1792-1794)

The Jacobin dictatorship

  • With the expulsion of the Girondists from the Convention the moderate republican party disappeared from the assembly and the phase of the Revolution, known as the Reign of Terror began.
  • It was the darkest and the most terrible period of the Revolution.
  • There were grave dangers both within and without.
    • Internal dangers:
      • The tyranny and supremacy of the Commune of Paris enraged the various Departments, and Lyons and several other cities took up arms against the Revolutionists. They wanted to destroy the ascendancy of the Commune and contended that Paris should not have more power than the other departments.
      • To this civil war born of politics was added the civil war born of religion.
        • The peasants incited by the non-juring priests rose in revolt as a protest against compulsory military service.
        • They demanded the abolition of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy and proclaimed Louie XVII as king.
        • The movement was thus Catholic as well as royalist.
    • External dangers:
      • The Convention had to meet the coalition of European powers who were threatening France from all directions.
      • Thus danger within was reinforced by hostility without.
  • To tide over this crisis required two things:
    • An energetic defence of the French soil.
    • The repression of those elements in the country which were opposed to the Revolution.
  • A divided France could not meet united Europe. The Jacobine whose sole aim was to defend France and save the Republic, determined to take the most drastic measures to accomplish this object. They determined to rule by terror, i.e., by frightening their enemies into submission.
  • The first act of the Jacobins was to set up a strong government by creating a new Committee of Public Safety, consisting of twelve members with almost unlimited executive power. This committee became practically omnipotent enforcing its decree even upon the Convention itself. Its leader was Robespierre.
  • Activity of the Committee of Public Safety:
    • This Committee was the cornerstone and indeed the very soul of the Terror. It provided France with a strong government which restored unity to the nation by a policy of frightfulness.
    • To meet the internal dangers the Committee organised a machinery of terror which systematically began the work of bloody repression of all anti-revolutionary elements.
    • The parts of this machinery were:
      • The Law of Suspects, which authorised the arrest of any person suspected of being attached to the cause of monarchy or unfavorably disposed towards the cause of the Republic.
      • Revolutionary Tribunal which was an extraordinary criminal court created for the speedy trial of the suspects making farce of justice
      • Square of the Revolution where the head of victims fell under the stroke of the guillotine. Over two thousand persons were executed by the sentence of the Revolutionary Tribunal in Paris.
    • While the suspects were hurled to the guillotine, the Committee of Public Safety vigorously put down internal revolts. These bloody excesses were meant to put down all opposition elements whose existence might hamper military preparations against the external enemies of France.
  • Foreign danger averted:
    • Along with the measures taken to avert internal dangers, the Committee took energetic steps to encounter external enemies.
    • To complete their separation from the royalist party, the extreme section of the Jacobins abolished the old calendar and replaced it by new one which divided the year according to the natural change of seasons. The new era was to begin not from the birth of Christ but from the birth oi the now Republic, Sept. 21, 1792.
  • A split in the camp:
    • The military success of the French army brought about the downfall of the Reign of Terror. Its only excuse was the danger of France.
    • But now that the danger both internal and external was over, the question of bloody repression divided opinions and led to a split in the Jacobins.
      • Its most radical wing, called the Hebertists, owed their influence to their hold on the Commune of Paris.
        • They urged on social changes of the most radical nature but directed their particular animosity against the Roman Catholic faith.
        • They denounced Catholicism an aristocratic, proclaimed the worship of reason and finally decreed the closure of all pieces of worship in Paris.
        • Such ultra-revolutionary measures were likely to alienate the sympathy of sincere believers and so Robespierre denounoed the Hebertists, and the Committee of Public Safety ordered the whole atheistic band to the guillotine.
      • It the Hebertists fell on account of their excesses, the Dantonists fell on account of their moderation.
        • Danton and his followers were supporters of the Terror as long as it was necessary; and now that France was no longer in danger, they wanted to mitigate the rigour of this system and to return to a more humane policy.
        • Robespierre denounced Danton as the representative of the dangerous policy of moderation. He and his friends were all executed.
        • Danton was the ablest of the leaders of the Jacobins. It was mainly owing to his splendid energy, that France was saved from the Prussian invasion in 1792 and got a strong government. He had the gift of a statesman. He tried to smooth over the differences between the Jacobins and the Girondists and to keep all Republicans working together for the welfare of France.
        • To the very end he protested against needless severity in France and the reckless policy which handed and armed whole Europe against her. With his fall France lost a statesman.
    • The fall of Danton left Robespierre supreme on the scene.
      • He was the leader of the Jacobins and had influence enough to control the Convention. the Commune of Paris and the Committee of Public Safety.
      • He overthrew the worship of Reason and at his instance the Convention passed a decree recognising the “existence of the Supreme Being and immortality of the soul”.
      • This high priest of a new religion then took steps to make the Revolutionary Tribunal more murderous in its activity.
        • It was stripped of its last vestiges of legal form. No proof was required to establish a man’s guilt, the question being left to the “enlightened conscience” of the jurors.
        • The Tribunal thus reorganised was responsible for 1,376 executions in the course of 45 days.
      • The circumstances which had called forth Terror had ceased to exist. The terror of living under perpetual fear of death became intolerable. At last an opposition was organised against him and the Convention outlawed Rebespierre and his adherents. They were arrested on the 27th July and Robespierre was executed the next day.
    • Though not the author of the Reign of Terror, Robespierre was undoubtedly the most active promoter of it. But he resorted to Terror not for its own sake but as a means of attaining his fanatical ideals.
      • His great ambition was to set up a reign of Virtue through the medium of democracy and be regarded Terror as the best means of establishing it.
      • He wanted to organise the State so as to realise the vision of happiness and austere virtue. In this and other Utopian schemes he may be regarded as the “anaemic embodiment” of the ideas of Rousseau whose devoted follower he was.
  • The Thermidorian Reaction (July 27, 1794—0ct. 26 1795)
    • The fall of Robespierre was followed by a milder regime. The Reign of Terror gradually came to an end, because the system, with its frightful atrocities, had by this time become thoroughly discredited. Moreover, the public opinion was now strongly against it.
    • The Thermidorian (those who brought about the {all of Robespierre) got the upper hand in the State and they swept away the last traces of terrorism.
    • The Commune of Paris, the citadel of the mob, was dissolved; the Revolutionary Tribunal suspended; the functions of the Committee of Public Safety were restricted and the Jacobin Club was closed.
    • Besides this reaction, the fall of Terror was also due to the success of French arms abroad. The external dangers being averted. there was no necessity for the bloody repression of ‘suspects’ and the opposition elements.

The Convention completes the Constitution

  • The Convention at last took up its long neglected task, the framing of a Constitution for republican France.
  • The executive was entrusted to a Directory consisting of five members.
  • The legislative power was entrusted to two Houses.
  • To avert the possibility of a monarchist legislature the Convention further decreed that two~third of the new Legislature should be chosen from amongst the deputies of the present Convention.
  • This measure was unpopular and the bourgeoisie and the royalists, organised an insurrection against the Convention. Napoleon Bonaparte was then at Paris and he was entrusted with the task of defending the Convention against the Parisian mob. He dispersed the mob, saved the Convention and began his astounding career.
  • On October 26. the Convention declared itself dissolved.

Achievements of the Convention

  • During the three years of its existence the Convention had a long list of achievements to its credit.
  • Some of these were tainted with revolutionary excesses which discredited the cause of the Republic, while others were notable triumphs in the direction of peaceful development.
    • It had put a king to death and had established a Republic.
    • It had stilled party strifes by expelling the Girondist leaders, had organised a strong provisional government and had set up a Reign of Terror to root out all anti-revolutionary elements within France.
    • It developed unexpected‘energy in successfully facing avast hostile coalition of European powers and maintained the integrity and independence of the country at a time when it was threatened with complete dissolution.
    • In accomplishing this gigantic task it had, however, made a record for cruelty and tyranny.
  • Its achievements in the arts of peace were also striking.
    • It gave to the world the metric system which is the most perfect system of weights and measures.
    • It worked at the Civil Code which aimed at founding the whole social life on the principle of equality. Napoleon afterwards carried it to completion and monopolised the renown. It drew up a splendid Scheme of national education but could not carry it out for lack of funds.
    • Among the invaluable creations of the Convention were the Normal School, the Polytechnic School, the Museum of the Louvre, the National Library and the Institute.
    • Lastly, it framed a new constitution for France.

The Directory (1795-1799)

  • According to the new constitution drawn up by the Convention on October 26, 1795, the executive power was entrusted to a board of five directors, called the Directory.
  • The first question that confronted it was the question of continuing the war against the enemies of the Republic. These were England, Austria and Sardinia.
  • England being a seapower, any attack upon her was regarded as out of the question for want of a fleet. So the Directory concentrated its whole attention upon Austria.
  • Carnot, the planned a double attack upon the Austrians, one through Germany and the other through Italy. The task of Italian campaign was confided to General Bonaparte. The Italian campaigns proved a stepping stone to Napoleon’s unparalleled fame and power.

Early life of Napoleon

  • He was born at Ajaccio in Corsica in 1769, a short time after the-island had been sold by Genoa to France. He thus became a French citizen and was educated in French military schools.
  • He joined the army at the age of seventeen as an artillery officer. He made his mark in 1795 by-defending the Convention against the royalist insurrections, which was a lucky crisis for him. Next he was appointed to the command of Italy where he laid the foundation of his imperishable military fame. Henceforth the Revolution became, to a great extent, merged in the career of Napoleon.
  • Napoleon’ s Expedition to Egypt
    • On his return to France after the Italian campaigns, Napoleon was received with transports of en_thusiasm. His brilliant victories had lifted him head and shoulders above all rivals and henceforward he was in the forefront of public affairs In France.
    • Austria being humbled, only one power remained at war with France, namely, England. The Directory appointed Napoleon to the command of the army meant for the invasion of England.
    • But a direct invasion of England seemed impossible without a powerful fleet, so Napoleon advised the Directory to fit out an expedition for the conquest of Egypt, the key to the East. This would be an indirect blow to England, undermining her supremacy in the East and destroying her commerce.
    • The Directors agreed to his proposal with a sense of relief as they were afraid of the military predominance of Napoleon and wanted him to be away from France. Napoleon set sail for Egypt in May, 1798.
    • Egyptian expedition of Napoleon was the outcome of his comprehensive Eastern design which aimed at destroying British power in India, as well as taking Europe in the rear by way of Constantinople.
    • The conquest of Egypt would give him an invaluable base Tor operations both against Turkey whose dismemberment he sought, and against India from which he sought to expel the English.
    • Eluding the vigilance of the British fleet, Napoleon managed to reach Egypt conquering Malta on the way. He won the famous Battle of the Pyramids which made him master of the basin of the Nile.
    • But the English admiral Nelson followed him closely and in the Battle of the Nile, completely destroyed the French fleet.
    • This victory entirely out off Bonaparte and his army from communication with France. He then invaded Syria but failed. He then returned to France leaving his army to its fate.

Fall of the Directory

  • The fall of the Directory was brought about as much by the inherent defects of its constitution as by Its blundering foreign policy.
  • The Directors could not agree amongst themselves as well as with the legislature. Besides, there were constant plots and intrigues hatched by the royalists as well as by the extremists in the Legislature.
    • The Directory stood between these two extremes and sought to suppress them both.
    • The result was constant friction, leading to a series of coup d’etat or appeals to force, with the object of keeping the party, which had framed the constitution, in power.
      • The first of these was against the monarchical party. By the aid of troops sent by Napoleon two Directors and a number of royalist deputies were expelled from office.
      • Another was directed against the radical republicans who under Babeuf, the communist, wanted to complete the social revolution.
  • The foreign policy of the Directory was an unprincipled and aggressive as its domestic policy was weak and unpopular.
    • During ‘Napoleon’s absence’ in Egypt, the French had invaded Switzerland, changed her old constitution and had established a new Republic in its place.
    • The Pope was also humiliated and a Republic established at Rome.
    • The government of Holland was reorganised on the French model.
    • Geneva was annexed to France and Piedmont was occupied by French troops.
    • These wanton aggression, coupled with the news that Bonaparte was shut up in Egypt, ambled England to form against France a new coalition of European powers, consisting of England, Austria and Russia.
    • In one brief campaign the Russia undid Napoleon’s work in Italy.
    • The coalition was successful everywhere and the French were driven out of Germany and Italy.
  • The Directory was discredited by these reverses. Besides this, it was losing its hold on the public mind on account of want of harmony among the Directors themselves as well as between the Legislature and the Directory.
  • The government of the Directory was tyrannical without being efficient. It had alienated every class of society.
    • The_capitalists were alarmed by its policy of forced loan.
    • The labourers resented the suppression of Babeuf’s conspiracy.
    • The religious feeling of the provincials was outraged by the persecution of Catholicism.
  • The Directors who lacked popular support could maintain their position only with the help of army. They also became very unpopular because their foreign policy landed France in defeat and disgrace.
  • Steady government at home, and better generalship abroad were demanded by all. Taking advantage of the unpopularity of the Directory, Abbe Sieyes, one of the Directors, sought to overthrow the government and set up a new constitution.
    • He was looking for a suitable agent and it was in the nick of time that Napoleon returned to France from Egypt.
    • Sieyes and Napoleon put their heads together, organised a coup d’etat, dispersed the Legislature by military force and overthrew the Directory, Nov. 9. 1799.
    • A provisional Consulate was appointed to draw up a constitution and to carry on the government.
    • Sieyes, Ducos and Bonaparte were three consuls appointed.
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