The importance of the French revolution cannot be underestimated, with Eric Hobsbawn describing it as a “phenomenon as awful and irreversible as the first nuclear explosion, and all history has been permanently changed by it.”[1] By 1793 the emerging republic was in a dire position which without radical, swift and decisive action the revolution would have ultimately failed. The fractured nation of France was at war with the European powers of Austria, Prussia, Holland, Spain and Great Britain, with civil wars also raging in both the West and the South. After the removal of the Girondins from power the Jacobins, who were a tightly organized and well-disciplined, were convinced that they alone were responsible for saving and ‘managing’ the Revolution from that point onwards. This essay shall explore the actions of the Jacobin revolutionary government and the actions and they took to establish a society after the Terror. Furthermore, this essay shall focus on the positions of key political actors such as Maximillian Robespierre and Saint-Just in order to establish exploring their ideal society and who if anyone would be worthy to live in the Republic they sought to create.

The Jacobin’s and more importantly the French people were influenced unreservedly by Jean Jacques Rousseau’s vision of the ‘state of nature’ which ultimately views society in a negative light. Stating:

“The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said “This is mine,” and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.”[2]

The declaration sought to resolve the ills of the world which would be resolved with the acceptance of the inalienable rights outlined within the document. The ability to compare the acts of the government with the aims of every social institution protected the people from oppression tyranny as:

“the people may always have before their eyes the bases of their liberty and their happiness”.[3] The declaration is clear with its aims, the first two statements are that government exists to guarantee the natural rights of man and “these rights are equality, liberty, security, and property.”[4]

The Jacobins aimed to create a society that reverted back to a natural state as based upon the Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen, which preceded any form of constitution in importance. The necessity of a constitution was challenged by Louis-Antoine Saint-Just stating that “the social state is not the product of a convention”, and continuing by arguing that “the art of establishing … society by a pact or by forced transformations is the selfsame art of destroying society”[5]. For Saint-Just natural right was substantial enough: “Since there can be no society that is not founded on nature, the state [la cite] can accept no other laws besides those of nature”.[6] Thus, any law or constitution not simply echoing the laws of nature would be damaging society. Whilst the Constitution of Year One was being created, the Jacobins successfully set about promoting these natural laws documented in Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1793, of which Saint-Just was one of the key authors. Much like Saint-Just, Maximillian Robespierre proclaimed that, “To arrive at this [Republican] Constitution, we must begin by proclaiming the eternal rights of humanity”.[7] This viewpoint was supported by the Montagnards, who believed that the constitution was unnecessary, with the Declaration of Rights being the only truly important document.  They argued that the constitution could simply be inferred from the laws of nature outlined in the Declaration of Rights. Robespierre stated that “the Declaration of Rights is the constitution of all peoples all other laws being variable by nature, and subordinated to this one”[8]. It is this view point that other Jacobins shared, including the renowned playwright Marie-Joseph de Chénier, who referred to the Declaration of Rights as the “eternal law … [the] Constitution of all peoples.”[9] It is this sentiment towards the Rousseauian document which suggests that the ideal society for the Jacobins existed within the Declaration of Rights. David Andress notes that equality was the central virtue which was pursued by the Jacobins in this in this period; however, the equality excluded women who were not enfranchised to the same degree as men and enacted a completely passive role within the Jacobin meetings.[10] However, perhaps contradictory the use of the words ‘Monsieur’ or ‘Madame’ were replaced with ‘Citizen’, in an attempt to remove the traces of hierarchy within the political discourse.[11]

However, in practise the policies enacted by the committee blatantly disregarded many of these rights. The seventh right established in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen was: “The right of manifesting ideas and opinions, either through the press or in any other manner, the right of peaceful assembly, and the free exercise of worship may not be forbidden.”[12] The actions undertaken by the Committee of Public Safety seemingly infringed on these inalienable rights which supposedly existed absent of time. However, this right can be split in two, into the right of the freedom of opinions, through press or other means, as well as the religious tolerance with citizens to freely exercise their religion and worship. Nigel Aston notes that republican culture and practice in France during the Jacobin ascendancy of 1793-1794 included a concerted effort at de-Christianising the state, and replacing Catholicism with a new civil religion, known as the Cult of the Supreme Being.[13]

The Cult of the Supreme Being, sought to replace human passions of Catholicism replacing God and the religious connotations with one composed around the nation but with the same effect of control over the peasantry and also to limit the de-Christianisation.[14] The role of the cult was to act as a metaphysical panopticon, to be a means of control, the threat of continuous surveillance over the citizens works just as well as the surveillance itself.[15] However, support for the cult was scarce and was met with much scepticism and doubt from some of the most prominent Jacobins, D.M.G. Sutherland, notes how “the deputies who were dragooned into participating grumbled and made crude jokes”.[16]

Property rights were also an area of contention, with the Jacobins wading into the debate surrounding the extent private property is sacred and to what extent could the state “intervene in order to remove abuses or even to ensure a more equitable distribution of goods”.[17] Property, for the leadership especially, was a divisive issue for the Jacobins, with Saint-Just proposing the unsuccessful Ventose Decrees which sought to redistribute the land, to place the ownership of the land in the hands of the poor.[18] However Dave Andress states the Jacobins as a whole they saw any attempt to give land to people who had not earned it and “shown their ability to manage it, seemed simply mad, the product of ‘anarchic’ impulses that would result in the destruction… of that property[19].  This adheres to the section sixteen of the Declaration, which states “The right of property is the right appertaining to every citizen to enjoy and dispose at will of his goods, his income, and the product of his labour and skill”[20].

Continuing with the focus on the Declaration of Rights, the right to express ideas and opinions through the press was inhibited by the actions of the ‘revolutionary government’, as anyone expressing counter-revolutionary opinions could face dire consequences for doing so. One of the most damming concession on these ‘rights’ can be found in the example of Desmoulins, a childhood friend of Robespierre who had taken the fateful step of supporting Georges Danton, a political rival of Robespierre, who sought the reduction in the Terror and an end to the wars in Europe.[21] Desmoulins launched a journal in December 1793, Le Vieux Cordelier, up to a point Robespierre had supported his friend and his campaign against the more violent extremism of the sans-culottes. The third issue of the journal, Desmoulins parodied the notorious Law of Suspects and its wide range of people who could be considered ‘counter-revolutionary’. Drawing comparisons to the Roman Empire, he said people could be condemned as counter-revolutionary for being “too rich … or too poor … too melancholy … or too self-indulgent”.[22] Robespierre saw this satire as an attack on the Committee of Public Safety. Robespierre tried to persuade Desmoulins to burn the journal publicly in the Jacobin Club. Desmoulins refused, ironically citing the words of Robespierre’s hero, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, against him: ‘burning is not an answer’.[23] For Desmoulins the expression of opinion, which contradicted the Committee, ultimately opened him up to claims of being counter-revolutionary. Robespierre was of the opinion that to establish the ideal republic, the enemies of the revolution had to be killed. In his speech in February 1794 he states:

“If the basis of popular government in peacetime is virtue, the basis of popular government during a revolution is both virtue and terror; virtue, without which terror is baneful; terror, without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing more than speedy, severe and inflexible justice; it is thus an emanation of virtue; it is less a principle in itself, than a consequence of the general principle of democracy, applied to the most pressing needs of the patrie.”[24]

Thus, through the Committee of Public Safety the Jacobins infringed upon the very inalienable rights which they sought to procure for the French people.

The republic the Jacobins sought after was not representative of the complex systems set up by “godlike lawgivers” of Rome, Athens and Sparta. Nor a republic that Machiavelli describes, for no mention of natural laws appeared in any of his writings. Whilst also unlike the American version, the Jacobin variant sought to govern by natural laws alone.[25] The merging of state laws and natural laws however brought with it severe consequences for people breaking them, which would ultimately lead to them being executed. The Jacobins aligned themselves with the state of nature, so any action against them could justifiably, to them at least, be prosecuted as an action against nature, which ultimately resulted in death.[26] This is the basis of the reign of terror, which sought to remove those who were not in favour of republicanism or to be more accurate the Jacobin form of republicanism, meaning, tyrants, brigands, counter-revolutionaries and any person acting against human nature would face the guillotine.

However, it could be seen that, following the teachings of the classical authors, the actions of the Committee of Public Safety were a temporary measure whilst waiting for the opportune moment to establish liberty. The Committee of Public Safety was made up of key Jacobin political actors such as Maximilien Robespierre, St Just and Marie-Jean Hérault de Séchelles, as well as a scattering of technocrats such as Lazare Carnot, the organiser of victory. Eddlestein asserts that if the architects of the future French Republic were genuinely seeking to bring about a just form of government, their morally deplorable actions must be viewed as more than a ploy to stay in power.[27] The use of Terror to protect their power can be clearly seen through their actions at removing political enemies such as Danton, who was perhaps the victim with the highest profile, who rivalled the position of Robespierre in popularity.[28] Eddlestein instead provides an alternative motivation for the tight grasp of power the committee enjoyed. Arguing that using classical texts and the enlightenment teachings of Jean Jacques Rousseau, great importance was levied upon the timing of the forming of republics. In Titus Livius Patavinus’s History of Rome, he recounts how the Republic of Rome was formed and how it was necessary to withhold liberty from the people. To allow a sense of patriotism and a genuine love of the nation to be created, also how premature ‘liberty’ would have been disastrous.  Waiting for the perfect moment to establish a democratic republic was seen as fundamental for its success, creating institutions which would ensure its success was vital. Rousseau also speaks of the importance of timing when it came to grasping freedom, he states that “we may acquire liberty, but it is never recovered if it is once lost.”[29].

It could also be argued that the Jacobins saw it as the role of the revolutionary government to suspend the civil rights of counter-revolutionaries, who in their eyes had already forfeited these rights by acting against the laws of nature, to achieve their vision of society.  Government, for Robespierre, can divided into two categories, constitutional and revolutionary. As stated in Robespierre’s speech to the Convention on Christmas day 1793, “The aim of constitutional government is to maintain the Republic; that of revolutionary government is to establish it.”[30] For Robespierre and the Jacobin contingent of the Committee of Public Safety, the Terror had a deeper moral purpose beyond winning the civil war, it sought to establish a ‘republic of virtue’.[31] By this he meant a society in which people sought the happiness of their fellow humans rather than their own material benefit. France was to be regenerated on moral lines. In a speech in February Robespierre asked:

“What is the goal toward which we are heading? The peaceful enjoyment of liberty and equality; the reign of that eternal justice whose laws are written, not on marble or stone, but in the hearts of all men, even in that of the slave who forgets them and of the tyrant who denies them.”[32]

The Republic of virtue was to be established and maintained through institutions, which sought to promote patriotism and the love of the nation, “virtue … is nothing other than the love of the nation and its laws.”[33] When the Jacobins and Saint-Just speak of institutions, they are referring to values and customs; devices which will establish, maintain, reinforce, and promote the virtue of the people. Saint-Just emphasises the importance of establishing social institutions, which would create the genuine love of the nation which was essential for a democratic republic to work.[34] Saint-Just’s vision for the institutions of France divides into two expressly civic organizations: institutions of education and institutions of friendship. Friendship requires some unity of thought and sensibility, and the organisation of the political realm should be centralised to be in accordance with the need for unity. Saint-Just’s desired to spread out the elements of force and control so as to allow the natural social state to form, or reform.

Thus the citizens of the new Republic were reconstructed to fit a national mould; to have the same sense of devotion to the patrie, the same ideological beliefs and to culturally align themselves as French. The attacks on elements of people’s identity went beyond the de-Christianisation; it also included cultural aspects such as language. In a report submitted to National Convention entitled Report on the Need and Means to Destory the Patois Universalising and use of the French Language, written by Henri Grégoire sought to do away with all other dialects which existed within France, on the basis that the spread of Revolutionary spirit was being stifled by a language barrier. Grégoire argued that the “ignorance of the language [will] jeopardize social happiness or destroy equality”, and it created barriers between the citizens, but with a single unified language, “citizens can compose without obstacle communicate their thoughts… [in] one and indivisible, single use and invariable language of freedom.”[35] Grégoire argues that those who speak proper standardised French did not exceed three million, with many less who can write it correctly. Instead there were many regions favoured their dialects, of which there were nearly thirty such as Breton, Provence, Catalan and Basque, as well as others.[36] The laws established by the Committee of Public Safety such as the proposal of ‘8 Pluvoise an II’, which established that the French language should be taught in every community where French is not the primary language.[37] As well as the law of ‘30Vendémiare an II’ which established that all speaking, reading and writing in a state schools should be done in French.[38] People who spoke non-standard French were in many cases viewed by the Jacobins as to be acting against revolutionary spirit and were dubbed as counter-revolutionary, ultimately leading to many facing the guillotine.

To conclude, the form of society which the Jacobins sought to establish was quite simply a democratically elected republic established on the principles of equality, liberty and freedom. They sought to exist with the Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen acting as their constitution. The actions of the committee through the use of terror, ultimately ignored all they were fighting to establish, however, extreme times called for extreme measures against the internal enemies with their actions largely representing the general will of the people. Ultimately the people in this society the Jacobins aimed to create would have the right to vote for whom they want even though it the convention was purged of varying ideologies, discuss freely their political ideologies as long as it is in line with Jacobinism and in standardised French and pray to any religion as long as it’s the civil deity established by Robespierre. What the Jacobins aimed to create and what they were creating vary greatly for they inadvertently established an early form of a police state with its institutions to condition the citizens of France into believing the illusion of freedom which was being cultivated.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

Primary Sources

Henri Grégoire, Report on the Need and the Means to Destroy the Patois Universalising and use of the French Language, 4 June 1794

Jean Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, (Holland: Marc-Michel Rey, 1755), p. 75

Maximillian Robespierre, Speech to the National Convention, 5 February 1794

Maximillian Robespierre, Speech to the Committee of Public Safety, 25 December 1793

Maximillian Robespierre, Speech to the National Convention, 10 May 1973

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, Agreed on Sunday 23 June 1793

 

Secondary Reading

Andress, Dave, French Society in Revolution 1789-1799, (Manchester: Manchester university Press, 1999).

Andress, Dave, The Terror: Civil War in the French Revolution, ( St. Ives :Little Brown Publishing. 2005) p 302

Aston, Nigel, Religion and Revolution in France, 1780-1804 (Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2000).

Ballard, Richard, A New Dictionary of the French Revolution, ( London, I.B. Tauris, 2011).

Bell, D. A., ‘Lingua Populi, Lingua Dei: Language, religion, and the origins of French Revolutionary nationalism’, American History Review, 1995, pp. 1403-1437

Edelstein, Dan, The Terror of Natural Right: Republicanism, the Cult of Nature, and the French Revolution, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).

Hanson, Paul, Historical Dictionary of the French Revolution, (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2004).

Hancock Ralph C., L. Gary Lambert, The Legacy of the French Revolution, (Washington D.C., Rowman&Littlefield, 1996).

Higonnet, Patrice L. R., Goodness Beyond Virtue: Jacobins During the French Revolution, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998).

Hobsbawn, Eric, Age of Revolution : 1789-1848, (London: Hachette Publishers UK, 2010).

Linton, Marisa, Choosing Terror: Virtue, Friendship, and Authenticity in the French Revolution, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

Linton, Marisa, ‘Robespierre and the Terror’, History Today, 56, 2006,

Miller, Stephen, State and Society in Eighteenth-Century France: A Study of Political Power and Social Revolution in Languedoc, (Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2008).

Rudé, George, Robespierre, (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1967).

Schiffman, Harold, ‘Language Policy and Linguistic Culture’, in Thomas Ricento (ed)., An introduction to language policy: Theory and Method, (Grantham: John Wiley and Son, 2009).

Schwab, Gail M., John R. Jeanneney, The French Revolution of 1789 and Its Impact, (Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1995).

Sutherland, D. M. G., France 1789-1815: Revolution and Counterrevolution, (London: Fontana Press, 1985).

[1] Eric Hobsbawn, Age of Revolution : 1789-1848, (London: Hachette Publishers UK, 2010), p 98

[2] Jean Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, (Holland: Marc-Michel Rey, 1755), p. 84

[3] The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, Agreed on Sunday 23 June 1793

[4] The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, Agreed on Sunday 23 June 1793

[5] Dan Edelstein, The Terror of Natural Right: Republicanism, the Cult of Nature, and the French Revolution, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), p 2

[6] Dan Edelstein, The Terror of Natural Right, p 3

[7] Dan Eddlestein , The Terror of Natural Right: Republicanism, the Cult of Nature, & the French Revolution, (Chicago: Univeristy of Chicago Press, 2009), p. 190

[8] Maximillian Robespierre, Speech to the National Convention, 10 May 1973

[9]

[10] Dave Andress, French Society in Revolution 1789-1799, (Manchester: Manchester university Press, 1999), p.138

[11] Dave Andress, French Society in Revolution, p 138

[12] The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, Agreed on Sunday 23 June 1793

[13] Nigel Aston, Religion and Revolution in France, 1780-1804 (Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2000), pp 124-134

[14] D. M. G. Sutherland, France 1789-1815: Revolution and Counterrevolution, (London: Fontana Press, 1985), p.231

[15] D. M. G. Sutherland, France 1789-1815 p.231

[16] D. M. G. Sutherland, France 1789-1815, p.231

[17] George Rudé, Robespierre, (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1967), p. 51

[18] Paul Hanson, Historical Dictionary of the French Revolution, (London: Scarecrow Press, 2004),

 

[19] Dave Andress, The Terror: Civil War in the French Revolution, ( St. Ives :Little Brown Publishing. 2005) p 302

[20] The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, Agreed on Sunday 23 June 1793

[21] Richard Ballard, A New Dictionary of the French Revolution, ( London, I.B. Tauris, 2011) p 367

[22] Marisa Linton, ‘Robespierre and the Terror’, History Today, 56, 2006, p

[23] Marisa Linton, ‘Robespierre and the Terror’, History Today, 56, 2006, p

[24] Maximillian Robespierre, Speech to the National Convention, 5 February 1794

[25] Gail M. Schwab, John R. Jeanneney, The French Revolution of 1789 and Its Impact, (Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1995), p 112

[26] Ralph C. Hancock, L. Gary Lambert, The Legacy of the French Revolution, (Washington D.C., Rowman&Littlefield, 1996), p 35

[27] Dan Eddlestein , The Terror of Natural Right: Republicanism, the Cult of Nature, & the French Revolution, (Chicago: Univeristy of Chicago Press, 2009), p 216

[28] Stephen Miller, State and Society in Eighteenth-Century France: A Study of Political Power and Social Revolution in Languedoc, (Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2008), p 218

[29] Jean Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, (Holland: Marc-Michel Rey, 1755), p. 75

[30] Maximillian Robespierre, Speech to the Committee of Public Safety, 25 December 1793

[31] Patrice L. R. Higonnet, Goodness Beyond Virtue: Jacobins During the French Revolution, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), p 260

[32] Maximillian Robespierre, Speech to the National Convention, 5 February 1794

[33] Maximillian Robespierre, Speech to the National Convention, 5 February 1794

[34] Marisa Linton, Choosing Terror: Virtue, Friendship, and Authenticity in the French Revolution, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p 254

[35] Henri Grégoire, Report on the Need and the Means to Destroy the Patois Universalising and use of the French Language, 4 June 1794

[36] Henri Grégoire, Report on the Need and the Means to Destroy the Patois Universalising and use of the French Language, 4 June 1794

[37] Harold Schiffman, ‘Language Policy and Linguistic Culture’, in Thomas Ricento (ed)., An introduction to language policy: Theory and Method, (Grantham: John Wiley and Son, 2009) , p 118

[38] Harold Schiffman, ‘Language Policy and Linguistic Culture’, in Thomas Ricento (ed)., An introduction to language policy: Theory and Method, (Grantham: John Wiley and Son, 2009) , p 108

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