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How France became radical(1790-1794)

Updated on June 17, 2015
A painting picturing equality,liberty and sovereignty during French revolution
A painting picturing equality,liberty and sovereignty during French revolution

The French revolution has been remembered as one of the most violent event in the course of European history.The strong desire of the French to overthrow the monarchy led to many violent events starting from the fall of Bastille to the reign of terror. Following the Civil Constitution of clergy, the flight of the king in 1791,marked the course of French radicalization. Counterrevolutionaries emerged to fight back the radical revolutionaries and the attempt of the revolutionaries to undermine them led to the whole lot of terrific incidents. Declaration of war by the giro-dist and higher tax rise due to it intensified the misery of the commons. Along with September massacre the anguish of the sans culottes due to deprivation of basic necessities due to grain hoarding flowed the country with riots.All these factors in total led to the radicalization of the French revolution bathing it with blood.

Clergy men taking oath of secularisation
Clergy men taking oath of secularisation

Civil Constitution of the Clergy

In 1790,the civil national constituent assembly declared the civil constitution of clergy ,leading to the secularization of Roman Catholic church.The priests were made to take an oath of civil constitution.Those who agreed to it became salaried employees of the state through electoral process and the rest who denied were designated as “refractory” and dismissed from their clerical functions.Reduction of bishoprics,overthrow of religious orders and other destructive measures by the Assembly neither took the consultation of Pope Pius vi nor the French clergy.This policy of the constituent assembly faced a stiff opposition from the clergymen,who then became counter-revolutionaries.The angry refractory priests protested and defied the national Assembly by celebrating in mass.The Church was ripped of from power and this embittered the relation between the church and the state.Religion and revolution did not go hand in hand and hence the society got divided into two parts,one who supported the constitutional priest and other the monarchy,like the royal family.The civil constitution altered the course of the revolution by introducing the radical phase.

Counter revolutionaries

Apart from the clergymen, the revolution faced opposition from many others. With the continuing downfall of the monarchy and political framework, the aristocrats left the country and settled in French borders. Termed as émigrés, they sought to forment the counterrevolution. The most important person was the king’s younger brother and his agents and the queen persuaded Louis XVI to flee the country.

Flight of the king

Fear of growing violence of the revolution made the king and his family flee to France in June 1791. The.The king’s intention was to throw his support behind the foreign enemies of the revolution and return to France to revoke concessions that he had made. But their flight was apprehended by the National guard in Varennes and hence the flight prevented.

The king’s attempt to flee further strengthened the support for a republic.The revolutionaries wanted to replace the king by all constitutional means. The attempt of Constituent Assembly to save the constitutional monarchy by declaring false abduction of the king, went it vain as it couldn’t stop the mass anguish against the king, who thought him to be a major counter revolutionary.

The map of Varennes
The map of Varennes

Emergence of political clubs: the role of Jacobins and Girodist

Jacobin club (formerly Breton club), were the most advanced political group in National Constituent Assembly. They drew their ideology from the most radical thoughts on enlightenment, especially Rousseau’s view on equality, popular sovereignty and civic virtue. These ideologies reached it’s peak during 1789-1791,when the ancien regime was facing it’s downfall.The flight of LOUIS XVI in the summer of 1791 and declaration of Pillintz led to renewed demands of republic. Moderate members left Jacobin club and created des Feuillants.

Another political club,The Cordelier club,formed in 1790,was more radical than Jacobin and and accepted working men and women.Some members of it were Danton,Marat,Desmoulins and Hebert.

Jacobin club due to factionalism got divided into two groups, Girondist and Jacobins. The Girondists controlled the convention until 1793 under leaders like Brissot,vergniaud and Ducos and mostly represented commercial bourgeoisie defending freedom of private property. They were determined to oppose the forces of counter revolutionaries.They passed a measure ordering the emigres to return or suffer loss of property and another required refractory clergy to support civil constitution or loose their state pension.Later the sans culottes invaded the Convention and demanded expulsion of Girodists.This led to further radicalization resulting in giving complete power to the Montagnards.

Declaration of war and aftermath

Under Giro-dist leadership,the legislative assembly declared war on Austria. According to Brissot,the outbreak of the war was essentially another means towards hastening the climax of the revolution and forcing the king to capitulate to the Giro-dist. The Giro dist felt that other European monarchies in order to resist the affect of corrosive ideas preached by the French revolution,would try to invade France.They believed rightly that Marie Antoinette was conspiring against the revolution with her Austrian relatives and this portrayed her as a traitor.The king’s flight to Varenness led to fear of counter revolutionary assault.According to Brissot “war was not an option but a necessity” .Briston argued that if France wanted to establish liberty firmly and attack despotism then war was necessary . Verniavd argued that France set an example of how the despots could be toppled but feared counterrevolutionary attack.So it was the interest of France to declare war in order to suppress her enemies. As the war extended,the revolutionaries passed more laws to regulate trade in order to curb the black economy.A special war tax was decreed in order to meet the necessities of the army and this added to the plight of the common people.

The Girondist believed that the war would preserve the revolution from domestic enemies and advanced revolutionaries to power. The king also supported the war as he hoped that foreign invasion could lead to the downfall of the revolution and restore the ancient regime. The war radicalized French politics and within months led to the second revolution .

On July 11,the assembly officially proclaimed that the nation was in danger and summoned the citizens to rally against the enemies. On August 1792,a large crowd invaded the Tuileries palace and forced LOUIS XVI and Marry Antoinette to take refuge in legislative assembly.The Assembly immediately proclaimed the monarchy and suspended the royal family’s imprisonment.On June 20 a crowd stormed into the Tuileries palace and threatened the royal family shouting “Tremble,tyrants!Here comes the Sans Culottes”.

Turmoil during the month of September
Turmoil during the month of September

September Massacre

On September 2,1792 the Prussian army captured the eastern fortress town of Verdun,France.The suspect of betrayal by French themselves led to the imprisonment of suspected counter-revolutionaries.After a rumor spread that the prisoners were planning to break out of prisons and attack the army,,the mobs violently attacked the prisoners by dragging them out of their cells and ruthlessly killing them.More than 1,200 people including 235 priests perished at the hands of the crowds. On 20th September Johann Wolfgang,amazed by the victory of such Ordinary people over highly trained professional army writes “From this time and this place a new epoch is beginning”.According to Allan Forrest “The September Massacres were the most grisly single incident in the revolution,an example of lynch law and of a crowd baying for blood”

Later on 21st September 1792,the convention met and declared France a republic without monarchy.

Harvest failure

Agricultural crisis due to poor harvest and unprofitable sales had a detrimental effect on the French people.Agricultural crisis also led to industrial crisis.According to Lefbrve all international trade was suffering anyway because the harvest of 1788 was bad everywhere.Further he argues that calculation shows that prices rose 65% between 1726-1741 and 1785 -1789 ,while wages went up only 22% . General mass never agreed that the scarcity and high prices solely depended on climatic condition.They felt that the Church and manorial lords,who collected dues in kinds had considerable stores of grain and were waiting for selling it at a high price.Grain dealers were also bitterly accused of hoarding of grains and this led to severe grain riots.

Want and high prices led to frequent rioting.The suspected hoarders were attacked,their establishments pillaged or they themselves were put “to the lantern”.On April 28,1789,a terrifying riot,took place. Most of the time the scene of disorder was the market place. The crisis uprooted the population.Begging for bread due to unemployment was no longer a disgrace.The riots ruined the towns and the disorder in the rural areas was much more extreme and worse.Various rumor and fear of the attack from the aristocrats and counterattack,marked it as one of the most important violent event in the history of French Revolution.

grain riots
grain riots
Image of the guillotine
Image of the guillotine

Robespierre tried to justify terror in order to save the essence of revolution.The attempt to completely overthrow religion through de-baptism and de-christianisation led to a lot violence introducing the reign of terror.Churches were destroyed,priests killed and the Christian calendar was replaced with the revolutionary one.The formation of the Society of Revolutionary Republic women,to fight counterrevolutionaries led to extreme radicalization of French polity and society.


As far as the paper concerns,it can be widely viewed that the French revolution was not a single event but amalgamation of various events.The hatred towards the church and led to the civil constitution of clergy in which they were supposed to take an oath of civil constitution and oppositions were termed as refractories and dismissed.This led to rise of counterrevolutionary priests,who went against the revolution and in order to suppress them the revolutionaries had to in turn take violent measures. Mostly the Jacobi ans turned violent after the flight of the king as they suspected him to be a major counter-revolutionary,stepping forward towards a reign of terror. The horrendous September massacre clearly pictures the fact that counterrevolutionary attacks were widely feared.The Girondists declared a war on Austria in order to establish a strong base of the revolution,so that other European countries wouldn’t think the revolution as weak. Taxes rose to meet the war needs and the commons suffered.suffered. Rumors played a very important role towards radicalization,as the grain riots occurred mostly due to the rumor of grain hoarding by the elites,during harvest crisis ,and thus increasing the mass hatred towards the aristocracy.All these factors led to a period of terror leaded by Robespierre,in which the things went too violent.It can be concluded that democracy in France costed the lives and properties of the French.


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    • choosetolive profile image

      Ravi and Swastha 

      3 years ago from London, Canada

      I didn't know of such a huge France history. Looks like there are lots of lessons to be taken from this hub. Thanks for the information. Voted up & useful history information.


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