Martin Malia
History's Locomotives

Finally voted in the spring of 1790, the Civil Constitution provided for the rationalization of the church according to the same principles as governed the new polity. The number and boundaries of the diocese were to be the same as for the eighty-three departments, and both priests and bishops were to be elected by the population at large, including non-Catholics, and the clergy accordingly became the salaried civil servants of the state. Although quite unprecedented in church history, these arrangements were not intended as anti-Christian measures. They were rather the product of monumental insensitivity to the religious dispositions of the nation. The archbishop of Paris, for want of any feasible alternative, advised the king to sign. The pope, for fear of a schism, hesitated to take a position, condemning the law only at the end of the year. In the meantime, implementation had begun, and so schism quickly followed with only a minority of the clergy accepting the 'Constitutional Church.'

The second flaw was organically related to the first. For the king, like Charles I in 1640, never accepted his new role, and without a willing king, failure of the constitutional monarchy was only a question of time. Already in July 1789 Louis had written his Bourbon 'cousin of Spain,' protesting that all his future actions must be considered coerced. This silent refusal was deepened when in 1791 he concluded that his signature on the Civil Constitution of the Clergy violated his Christian conscience and his coronation oath. Moreover, after the fall of the Bastille, a growing stream of emigres seeking foreign support offered a potential base for a royal revanche. Suspicions of such treason was confirmed by the royal family's attempt to flee the kingdom in April 1791, stopped only in extremis at Varenne. Although the king was restored to office, the fiction of his 'abduction' was too transparent to survive for long.

Beginning in 1789, therefore, royal and noble resistance fueled belief in an 'aristocratic plot' against the Revolution, a syndrome that would henceforth drive its constant radicalization. This process was accelerated when the clergy, as civil servants, were obliged to take an oath of loyalty to the new regime and the Civil Constitution. So the majority of 'refractory' or 'non-juring' priests was added to the list of aristocratic enemies of the people.

These tensions were heightened by the declaration of war against Austria in April 1792. The war had first been advocated by the Girondists seeking to give the Revolution new dynamism by turning it into a crusade against Old Regime Europe as a whole. War was also desired by the king, who seemed to hope for a defeat that would bring his liberation and the Revolution's collapse. And indeed, when the country was invaded, a demoralized noble officer corps performed poorly. The sense of danger increased when the 'hero of two worlds' and Washington's comrade in arms, General Lafayette, abandoned his command and went over to the Austrians. The Revolution now was clearly menaced by an international-cum-internal Old Regime plot.

Under such circumstances, the untrustworthy king had to go, and so the Jacobins—Gironde and future Mountain together—used the sans-culottes to overthrow him. This was engineered through a new, 'insurrectionary' Paris Commune on August 10, which placed the king under arrest for treason. And, what is less often noted, the new constitutional 'sovereign,' the Legislative Assembly, was also undone. On September 12 that body accordingly provided for its own demise by proclaiming France a Republic. Elections, by universal suffrage, were swiftly held for a Convention to draft a new constitution. All these decisions were accompanied by the Revolution's first, 'spontaneous' Terror, the 'September Massacres'—which were at least allowed to happen by the conspicuous inaction of the provisional government's justice minister, Danton. Under such conditions, only committed republicans dared vote, and the Convention was elected by only 10 percent of the population, far fewer than the proportion that had chosen the Estates General in 1789.

In January 1795, the trial and execution of the king marked the beginning of the split within the Jacobins, between the vacillating Girondists and the intransigent Mountain. The military situation at the front worsened, as England joined Austria and Prussia in the anti-Revolutionary coalition. Even more seriously, internal revolts mushroomed, first in the peasant Vendee and then in the 'federalist,' or Girondist, strongholds of Lyon and Marseilles. In answer, on May 31-June 2, therefore, the Paris Commune and the sans-culottes surrounded the Convention with cannon and purged it of its Girondist deputies. In the summer of 1795, under the watchword la patrie en danger, the levee en masse was decreed to raise an army of a million men.

The result, by September, was the establishment of a revolutionary dictatorship of the twelve-member Committee of Public Safety. The forty-eight Paris sections,' and the capital's 'revolutionary societies,' were in virtually continuous session in white-heat mobilization against the now universal 'counterrevolutionary plot.' The new Revolutionary Tribunal now functioned relentlessly, and representants en mission, with full powers to act, were dispatched to the provinces to recover recalcitrant regions.

In September also, a Maximum, or price controls, was voted as a concession by the economic liberals of the Mountain to their sans-culottes allies. Indeed, the economic policies of the Revolution had largely been a failure: Confiscated Church property had been used to issue paper assignats with which to pay off the national debt, while the property itself was auctioned off too rapidly by a desperate government, therefore going at prices below its real worth. The economy was also disrupted by peasant resistance to redeeming feudal dues, and so in 1703 these were abolished without compensation. At the same time, the expedient of using the assignats as currency generated an accelerating inflation. Times were clearly harder than at the end of the Old Regime.

In these straitened circumstances, Danton and the less militant Jacobins began to fade from power. Concurrently, the thirty-two-year-old Robespierre and his two lieutenants, the twenty-seven-year-old Saint-Just and Couthon became the dominant figures of the Committee of Public Safety. Yet on their left, the Revolution, under pressure from the Commune and its leader Hebert, together with other Enrages, moved beyond the Civil Constitution to active dechristianization. By the end of the year, the political leadership of Robespierre, in galvanizing the Convention and the organizational talents of Lazare Carnot in building and equipping the new mass army, had ended the perilous circumstances of the Republic's heroic year. By December the Coalition had been repulsed on all fronts and the internal revolts put down. Nevertheless, the Terror continued, indeed intensified, through the first six months of 1794. This brings us to the great mystery of the Revolution: why this final surge of delirium?

As an introduction to this crescendo, in a crisis of penury and under sans-culottes pressure, in March the Convention decreed the 'nationalization' and redistribution of emigre property. Although later hailed by radical historians as an anticipation of socialism, these 'decrees of Ventose' were in fact of a piece with the Maximum of September 1793, that is, an emergency wartime measure. Even so, this was the peak of the lower classes' pressure for state regulation of the economy. And indeed, throughout the Revolution, but especially during the Terror, the possessing classes lived in constant fear of a loi agraire, or the imitation of the land redistribution of the Gracchi's lex agraria of 133 B.C.—though such a measure was at no time contemplated, let alone attempted.

As if to drive this point home, in March also the spokesmen for popular radicalism, Hebert and the ultras of the Commune were guillotined for treason. As a counterweight to this, in April Danton and the 'Indulgents,' under suspicion of seeking a deal for peace with the Coalition, followed them to the scaffold. The Revolution, after eliminating Lafayette, Barnave, and the Girondins, was now devouring its last generation of children. From April to July the Revolutionary government and the Terror were the near dictatorship of Robespierre and his two close colleagues (he still had to have a majority in the Convention). Terror had become a kind of cultic purgation of society in the name of republican purity, virtue, and unity. Some twenty thousand were executed in the Terror, nearly fourteen hundred in the last two months of June-July 1794.

Clearly, 'circumstances' cannot account for these extraordinary events. Only the 'plot thesis' will do, and this on the condition that the activist minority is understood not as any social, economic, or other interest group, but as a community of ideological intoxication. Once again, the framework for this final escalation of revolutionary fever had been put in place in the foundational first year. For the recurrent bouts of panic generated as each forward step of the Revolution constantly generated new conspiratorial enemies—from emigre aristocrats to refractory priests—had produced increasingly stringent laws defining enemies and 'suspects.'

So what was the Jacobins' ideology? Their ideal was a society of small, individual property holders: no one should have too much wealth, for riches inevitably breed corruption. Moreover, this society was dedicated to a cult of civic virtue, that is, it was to live in a state of permanent mobilization against aristocracy, privilege, and the revanche of the corrupt past. After all, most of the recently emancipated citizens were products of that corruption.

They are thus similar to what the Calvinists had earlier called the reprobate. Virtue therefore meant the inner emancipation of the population from past corruption through constant civic activism. The emancipated, the true citizens, moreover, are a minority. They are, as it were, the elect of the modern age, the only true republicans. The elects' purging of the reprobate, consequently, is not an offense against liberty; it is the only guarantee that liberty will survive and triumph. There is no great text or body of explicit theory underlying this worldview, of the sort that Marxism and Leninism later gave to revolutionary socialism. The nearest thing to such a body of theory is the works of Rousseau, which offer more a set of egalitarian attitudes than an explicit ideology.

This was made explicit by Robespierre's last official act, the celebration of the Feast of the Supreme Being in June 1794. Before thousands of spectators an effigy of Atheism was burned in the Tuileries Gardens; the Incorruptible himself officiated, like some latter-day Savoyard Vicar, at this Mass of republican virtue.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.