Anarchy within, invasion from without. A country cracking from outside pressure, disintegrating from internal strain. Revolution is at its height. War. Inflation. Hunger. Fear. Hate. Sabotage. Fanaticism. Hopes. Boundless idealism . . . and the dread that all the gains of the Revolution would be lost. And the faith that if they won, they would bring Liberty, Equality, Fraternity to the world.

—R. R. Palmer, Twelve Who Ruled

One fault line that has divided inquiries into the Terror has been its connections to the democracy introduced in 1789. For some, the Terror had to occur, either to sweep away the remnants of the Old Regime or, from a more critical perspective, because the revolutionaries had inadvertently introduced authoritarianism with their seeming democratic principles. Others have seen the revolution simply swept off course, the Terror as result of unforeseen circumstances. But regardless of which position one occupies, one must look to the frantic policies of the period: its ongoing foreign and civil war, multilayered internal political strife, constitutional paralysis, economic hardships, religious conflict, and the innovative nature of revolutionary language. For those who see the Terror as unconnected to 1789, these events are the very things that cause the problems. For the others, these events manifest the solution of 1789. This chapter, then, focuses on this political tornado as an essential part of any explanation.

The War Begins

Back in 1789, the National Assembly had declared its intentions toward all peoples to be peaceful and had renounced war as an evil wrought by kings. Nevertheless, bellicose sentiments flowed into governmental debates and the press. Eighteenth-century governments looked upon war as a normal part of power politics, so foreign governments did not hesitate to threaten war with the new, revolutionary government of France. Yet foreign monarchs, while fearing the spread of revolution, were not unhappy with the turmoil afflicting their French rival. Beset by their own problems, the monarchs of Europe were less inclined than some revolutionaries feared to make good on their threats.

Creating further anxiety among the revolutionaries were a group of French nobles who had fled France and set up a capital in exile just over the Rhine River in ecclesiastical territory at Coblenz. In this fearful atmosphere, revolutionary activists, notably Jacques-Pierre Brissot and the other Girondins, found that militaristic rhetoric drew ready popular support, and this group's promises of aggressive confrontation with foreign powers helped them dominate the Legislative Assembly. Once in control, the Girondins rapidly led France into war in the spring of 1792, but this strategy backfired when French forces performed badly for most of that year and as a consequence France was invaded by Prussian and Austrian troops.

These defeats panicked Parisians, contributing to the radicalization that culminated in the overthrow of the constitutional monarchy in August 1792. News of the first great French victory at Valmy on 20 September allowed the newly seated deputies of the Convention to declare France a republic. The Girondins used the ongoing war to generate a great outpouring of support for the new republic. However, subsequent military setbacks in late 1792 and 1793 served to heighten factionalism in the Convention, where the radical group of Jacobin deputies known as "the Mountain" and the Girondins blamed each other, each claiming that only they could be trusted to save the now-endangered republic.

In Paris, news of this civil war hardened sans-culotte suspicions that the fervor of the defenders of republican liberty had subsided, so they turned for help to radical activists who were willing to mobilize to preserve it.

Beginning in 1792, the Mountain had begun to ally with sans-culottes in the sectional assemblies, and together they overthrew the monarchy and the Girondin-led Legislative Assembly. Sans-culotte fears of the plots of invisible, domestic enemies of the Revolution were further aroused by heated rhetoric during the trial of Louis in January 1793, at which the Mountain depicted the Girondins as moderate defenders of the monarchy and thus de facto protectors of "tyranny." The alliance between artisanal activists in the sections and the Mountain's deputies in the Convention was forged around the idea of mutual commitment to dramatic action in defense of the Republic from its enemies, including the Girondin deputies who had been purged by 2 June 1793. The Mountain then assumed control of the National Convention.

This process coincided with the outbreak of another form of civil war, inextricably tied to revolutionary politics, in the western region of the Vendée, where peasants, former nobles, and refractory priests coalesced into a guerrilla army that waged a war against the republican government. To explain why this region in particular resisted the authority of Paris—to the point of openly seeking alliance with Britain to restore the monarchy—one must consider the specific conditions that distinguished the west from the rest of France. It was geographically isolated, more rural, and culturally and religiously distinct (with its own language and many regional saints and holidays) and had a heavier density of nobles and clergy. These factors crystallized in the spring of 1793, when Paris called for 300,000 "volunteers" for the republican army. In response, peasants in the Vendée rejected the Republic's levy, and local ex-nobles drew on this protest to mobilize a ragtag army and seize control of the region. Not surprisingly, such regional resistance furthered the belief among Parisian radical republicans that the Revolution's greatest enemies were French "counterrevolutionaries," who fomented rebellion out of self-interest or an inability to set aside traditional beliefs and adapt to the new order. To defeat this rebellion, the Revolution would have to destroy not only its enemies, but also the reasons for such treachery.

 

CHAPTER MAPS

THREATS AGAINST FRANCE

FRENCH WARRIORS

GIRONDE BELLOCOSITY

MOBILIZATION

THE WAR ON THE GROUND

A POPULAR WAR

ATTACK ON MONARCHY

GIRONDE UNSEATED

COUNTERREVOLUTION EMERGES

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