Tag Archives: Robespierre

The first phase of the French Revolution, 1789 – 91

This revision podcast is designed for students studying the French Revolution.  Beginning with the storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789, this episode explores the first phase of the revolution up to the summer of 1791.  Beginning with the August Decrees and the Declaration of the Rights of Man, it goes on to explore the challenges faced by the Constituent Assembly.  The terms of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy are explained before going on to present an overview of the terms of the Constitution published in September.  The podcast then explores the challenges to the revolution including the emigrées, divisions between the Jacobins and the Girondins, and the role of foreign powers.  The episode concludes with an overview of the Flight to Varennes and the demonstration at the Champs de Mars.

          

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French Revolution Political Spectrum

The political spectrum during the French Revolution

A great diagram to illustrate the political spectrum during the French Revolution. Original source unknown.

Click to download as a PDF

The execution of Louis XVI

The French Revolution: Radicalisation of the Revolution, 1791-93

This revision podcast follows events from the first meeting of the Legislative Assembly in October 1791 to the execution of the King in January 1793.  Growing tension between the revolutionaries and the King are explained through Louis’s decision to continue vetoing laws, the issuing of the Brunswick manifesto, and the King’s imprisonment in the Temple.  As well as struggling to fight a war against Austria and Prussia, the revolutionary government was faced with internal struggles.  The divisions between the deputies in the newly-elected National Convention are discussed against the backdrop of the September Massacres of 1792.  The episode ends with an overview of the trial of Louis and his eventual execution by guillotine on January 21st 1793.

          

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Marat murdered in his bath

The assassination of Jean-Paul Marat – background and consequences

On the 13th July 1793, the radical French journalist Jean-Paul Marat was stabbed to death in his bathtub by Charlotte Corday.

Marat, the second of nine children, had left home at sixteen in search of opportunities to pursue his interest in medicine. Having decided to move to northern England in 1770, he settled in Newcastle upon Tyne where he gained a reputation as a highly effective doctor, but also developed an increasing suspicion of the established political order.

Marat moved back to France six years later where his medical skills earned him the patronage of various members of the aristocracy. He used the wealth he earned from this position to establish a scientific laboratory where he engaged in research regarding fire, heat, electricity and light. Although he was visited by the American polymath Benjamin Franklin, the French Academy of Sciences was sceptical of his conclusions, and relations between Marat and the powerful Academy quickly broke down.

Despite Marat’s wealth and privilege, he maintained his passion for social justice throughout the years preceding the French Revolution. As Louis XVI struggled to secure his rule in the late 1780s, Marat put his scientific and medical career on hold, and instead dedicated his time to writing arguments in favour of political, economic and social reform. In the wake of the Storming of the Bastille on the 14th July 1789, he established his own radical newspaper which soon adopted the name L’Ami du peuple (“The People’s friend”).

Marat’s writings were vicious in their attacks on all those he perceived as being enemies of the people, by whom he meant the lower classes of the Third Estate. His newspaper often called for violence against the upper class and members of the government, even resulting in him fleeing to London for a few months in early 1790. On his return to Paris he continued his fierce criticism of the government, and even began to target less radical revolutionaries with his call for their execution as enemies of the people. He continued to have to go into hiding on occasion, and began to utilise Paris’ extensive sewer network, where it is believed he developed the debilitating skin condition that later saw him confined to a medicinal bath for hours on end.

Despite his reputation as a radical agitator, Marat was elected to the National Convention in September 1792 where he was a passionate supporter of the decision to declare France a Republic. He soon turned his anger on the members of the Girondin component of the National Convention who opposed the execution of the King. Within six months these moderates had been ousted from the government, and Marat turned to working from home due to his worsening skin condition.

On the 13th July 1793 Marat granted an audience to a young woman from Normandy while he soaked in his medicinal bath. The 24-year old Charlotte Corday claimed to have information about Girondin deputies who had escaped Paris, and presented Marat with a list of names of supposed traitors. Corday, however, was actually a Girondin sympathiser. After Marat told her that he would arrange for the execution of the Norman Girondins, she pulled out a five-inch kitchen knife and stabbed him once in the chest, severing a major artery and causing him to die almost immediately of massive blood loss.

Corday was placed on trial and was guillotined in Paris just four days after killing Marat. She claimed in her trial to be a supporter of Republicanism, but described Marat as a ‘monster’. She explained that she had ‘killed one man to save 100,000’, but the assassination contributed to the growing fear of counter-revolution that fuelled the subsequent Terror – in which thousands of moderate and conservative Frenchmen and women were guillotined on charges of treason.

In the immediate aftermath of the murder, Marat was virtually deified by the revolutionaries. At his funeral, the Marquis de Sade – the infamous sexual predator who had joined with the most radical elements of the National Convention after being freed from prison – gave the eulogy. Marat’s bathtub, and the knife that he was killed with, were later bought by the Musée Grévin in Paris and are now on display as part of a waxwork scene depicting the assassination.

Interestingly, Madame Tussaud’s waxwork museum had also offered to buy the bathtub – but their letter got lost in the post and arrived after a sale had already been agreed. Madame Tussaud’s in London does, however, own the guillotine blade that beheaded the former queen Marie Antoinette on October 16th 1793. The founder of the museum, Marie Tussaud, was a famed wax sculptor before the revolution, and had even had her hair cut in preparation for execution during the Terror due to her connections to the aristocracy. However, it was decided that her talents could better serve the Revolution, and so she was spared in order to create death masks of the guillotine’s many famous victims.

The guillotine is, of course, synonymous with the worst violence of the French Revolution, but the machine was actually created to represent equality. In France prior to 1789, beheading as a form of execution had been reserved for the nobility.  Commoners were usually subjected to longer and more painful deaths through hanging, or worse. To end the privilege of the nobility, and to bring about equality in death as well as life, the new revolutionary National Assembly therefore made decapitation the only legal form of execution.

It was recognised that manual beheading was, however, still a gruesome way to carry out the death sentence.  Mary Queen of Scots, who I mentioned earlier as someone who visited the town of Buxton where we are recording this episode of HistoryPod, was only beheaded after three blows of the executioner’s axe. The Yorkshire town of Halifax had tried to improve the precision of beheadings with the creation of the Halifax Gibbet – a guillotine-like machine in which an axe head was fitted to the base of a heavy wooden block that ran in grooves between two tall uprights – a whole two centuries before the French invention. However, this device didn’t make it out of Yorkshire. In the face of continued manual beheadings therefore, on 10th October 1789 French physician Joseph Guillotin argued that the new government of France should ensure that every execution was both swift and mechanical. The National Assembly agreed, acknowledging that capital punishment should simply end life, not purposefully cause pain as well.

Another physician, Antoine Louis, was appointed to lead a committee to develop a quick and efficient decapitation machine.  Although Guillotin was a member of this committee, it is actually therefore Antoine Louis who should be credited with the device’s invention, even though it carries Guillotin’s name.

The first execution using the device was conducted on 25th April 1792.  Nicolas Jacques Pelletier, a French highwayman found guilty of killing a man during one of his robberies, had the dubious honour of being the guillotine’s first victim. Contemporary accounts reveal that the execution went smoothly – much to the disappointment of the crowd who expected better ‘entertainment’.  Excited to see the new machine in action, they were disappointed at its speed and efficiency…although this was, of course, the whole point.

Bertrand Barere

“Let’s make terror the order of the day!” – Bertrand Barère and the Reign of Terror

The Reign of Terror arguably began on the 5th September 1793 when Bertrand Barère, a member of the Committee of Public Safety, made a speech in favour of it that ended with the exclamation, “Let’s make terror the order of the day!”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rydBM_6MvBQ

Although there is debate amongst historians regarding the exact date that the Reign of Terror began, Barère made his speech at a time that Paris Commune was agitating for a more proactive approach against enemies of the revolution. Less than two weeks later the National Convention passed the Law of Suspects. This led to the arrest of both declared and suspected opponents of the government. This was one of the key causes of the more than 16,000 executions that took place during the Terror.

The following February Robespierre himself justified the government’s policy as ‘nothing more than speedy, severe and inflexible justice’. While some historians disagree with Robespierre’s argument that the Terror was necessary to combat counter-revolutionary elements in French society, there can be little doubt that France’s fortunes improved during its time.

However, the Terror had also begun to face opposition. By the end of 1793 two factions – one calling for an escalation, the other for moderation – had emerged. Although the leaders of both groups were executed, Robespierre’s dominance of the Committee of Public Safety was now seen as a threat to the National Convention itself.

In the session on 27 July 1794, members of the Convention turned against Robespierre and his allies. Shouts of “Down with the tyrant! Arrest him!” were heard in the chamber. Robespierre and 21 followers were arrested, and later executed, in what became known as the Thermidorian Reaction.

The French Revolution: The Reign of Terror

This podcast episode explores the situation in France following the execution of Louis XVI in 1793, and seeks to explain why the Convention introduced the Terror.  It considers both the external and internal pressures facing France at the time, and goes on to explore how and why the Convention chose to respond in such an extreme way to the situation.  The role of Maximilien Robespierre is considered, along with an exploration of the reasons for his downfall.

          

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The Reign of Terror and Counter-revolution

Cult of the Supreme Being

The Cult of the Supreme Being

This short podcast presents an overview of the Cult of the Supreme Being, established by Robespierre on 7th May 1794 as the new national religion of France.

Establishment of the Directory

Establishment of the French Directory

On the 2nd November 1795, the Directory was established in France. Created as a result of the Thermidorean Reaction that ended the dominance of the Committee of Public Safety, the Directory survived for four years before it was overthrown by Napoleon in the coup of the 18th Brumaire.

The Thermidorean Reaction that began on the 27th July 1794 had seen the National Convention turn against the Jacobin leaders of the French Revolution, leading to the arrest and execution of Robespierre and 21 others. This was followed by a purge of other radicals in what became known as the White Terror.

Having alienated itself from the radical left-wing, the National Convention also faced threats from the right that culminated in the Royalist attack on the 13th Vendémiaire which was put down by Napoleon Bonaparte with a whiff of grapeshot.

Prior to the Royalist uprising, the National Convention had ratified a new constitution known as the Constitution of the Year III. This established a bicameral legislature and a five-man Directory that wielded executive power. However, the Directory was unsuccessful at dealing with the domestic problems facing France and even the military victories against foreign enemies were not enough to secure much support. In response the Directory used the Army to repress its opponents, which served to fuel the opposition even further and give the Army increasing power within France.

By 1799 even the government realised that it could not continue for much longer. On the 9th November Napoleon began a coup that replaced the Directory with the Consulate and effectively brought the French Revolution to an end, ten years after it began.

The French Revolution: The Directory

This A Level and IB History revision podcast charts the rise and fall of the Directory from 1794 to 1799.  Beginning with the execution of Robespierre, the Thermidorean Reaction and the onset of the White Terror, it goes on to explore the terms of the Constitution of Year III.  The challenges to the Directory are described, and the government’s various failures and successes are explained.   The episode finishes with Napoleon and the Coup of Brumaire.

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