The Radicalization of the French Revolution

By T. 

In 1789, when the Estates-General was called by Louis XVI, only a small fraction of the delegates selected were members of the Jacobin club. However, by 1793 the most radical Jacobins had established a virtual republican dictatorship. How did this political minority experience such a meteoric rise? How did Revolutionary France transform from a constitutional monarchy into a republican dictatorship? The downfall of the revolutionary republic cannot be explained by any one factor. The execution of Louis XVI, war, political factionalism, and revolutionary fervor can all be attributed to the political gains of the Jacobin club. It is telling that within the National Assembly the extreme wing of the Jacobins would become known as the Montagnard, or the Mountain.

The Girondins, Paul DelaRoche (1843). The Girondins were the dominant political faction within the Jacobin club until 1793, when their relative moderation and support for foreign wars led to their increasing unpopularity.

The Flight to Varennes and the Creation of the First French Republic

The end of the constitutional monarchy was critical to the rise of the Jacobins; the monarchy fell largely due to the Varennes flight. On the 20-21st of June 1791 King Louis XVI and his family attempted to flee France to the Austrian Netherlands. With the King’s flight and eventual arrest, debate ensued on whether or not France should remain a constitutional monarchy.

When public papers began printing the king’s declaration explaining his flight (where he denounced many revolutionary decrees) hundreds of political clubs began to be created across France; over 400 houses were affiliated with the Jacobin club. By mid July of that year popular opinion was decisively against the monarch, with only 1 in 6 provinces showing any sympathy towards the King. This is in stark contrast to the previous public opinion immediately after the king’s capture: citizens had been more inclined to believe that the King was ill-advised or kidnapped.

In the late summer of 1792, one year after the flight to Varennes, France was declared a republic and Louis was officially arrested and stripped of all his titles.

Map of the King’s Flight. From Maps ETC. Before the Flight, the large majority of French citizens believed in the monarchy; this was true even among those who supported the Revolution. After Louis tried to flee France, the people came to believe that their king no longer cared for them. 

Louis XVI was stripped of his regal nomen and became known as Louis Capet; whether or not he should be put on trial was yet to be determined.

The Jacobins within the National Convention were divided into three factions. The Mountain formed the radical left and was made of Jacobins and Cordeliers; these were the more radical deputies. Also at the convention was the more moderate (but still radical) Girondins. Everyone else was in the Plain (La Plaine). In the Plain were deputies unaffiliated with either the Mountain or the Girondins. In the month after the King’s capture the Convention was polled on their opinions on the former Kings status. According to author Reilly Benjamin, 133 of the 749 members of the Conventions published trial opinions with, 51% of those opinions using radical arguments.

In the Convention, the Girondins dominated after the fall of the monarchy. The Girondins were led by  Jacques-Pierre Brissot, a journalist and writer from Chartres. The American revolutionary Thomas Paine was an influential member. The Girondins took inspiration from American federalism and had among its ranks land-owners, business owners and sympathetic members of the petty nobility. This constituency was reflected in the group’s general moderation compared to other members of the Jacobin Club. Like the Mountain the Girondins supported the abolition of slavery, but differed sharply in the thoughts on foreign wars. Brissot encouraged an aggressive foreign policy meant on spreading French Revolutionary values abroad in Europe; Robespierre and the Mountain disagreed vehemently.

When the King went to trial both the Girondins and the Montagnard took the stage to make their argument. The Girondins wanted to make an “appeal to the people” using this as a sort of a rallying cry to popular sovereignty. The Montagnards accused the Girondins of being traitors and that this so-called appeal would drag the trial out for months and possibly save the guilty king’s life. They also argued that since a large portion of people in the countryside were illiterate, they wouldn’t be well informed enough to make a responsible decision on the trial.

The King’s flight is the decisive point when the French revolution became radicalized. There was no repairing the damage done to his reputation. He was no longer a father figure to French citizens; he had become a traitor to the French nation.

“No-one can reign innocently.”- Saint-Just

Jacobins like Saint-Just and Robespierre were lobbying for the execution of Louis XVI. As the King was not previously subject the rule of law, in their view, he could not be counted as a citizen deserving of a fair trial. Therefore, they reasoned, Louis must be executed. Although the Jacobins were a minority in the Convention, their extreme views were disproportionately influential.


The end of the monarchy encouraged the development of factionalism in the Convention. Political alliances such as the one between the Cordeliers and the Jacobin club were significant to the balance of power within the Convention. We also see reactionary politics between the Jacobins and their rivals the Girondins. The Girondins supported war against Austria and Prussia, but also discouraged popular violence within France. They were also against the execution of the King. As many as 200 deputies were affiliated to the Girondins club.

The sans-culottes were a class of Parisians within the 3rd estate. They were not part of the bourgeoisie even though they were better off than peasants. These street-people became some of the most vociferous protesters of the regime. Because of their willingness to engage in violence (like in the September massacres) they held to ability to sway opinion within the national assembly. In the early part of the revolution the Girondins were popular with the sans-culottes. But after the flight of the king the Girondists quickly lost their support.

The Paris Commune, formed at the inception of the Revolution in 1789,was a government separate from the National Assembly, and remained separate from its successor, the Convention .The Commune was dominated by the Jacobin club. Of the 24 deputies from Paris in the National convention, 21 were with the Mountain faction. As the trial took place in Paris, the Girondins believed that the radical views of the commune influenced by the opinion of Paris rather than the opinion of the nation.

After the King’s Execution

After the King’s execution in 1793, the War of the First Coalition raged in the east, inflaming political tensions in Paris. Austria, Prussia, Britain, Spain, Portugal, Sardinia, the Netherlands, Naples, and other Italian states united against revolutionary France. The Girondins were a pro-war faction, who believed war against foreign enemies would unite the revolution. They promised spreading the revolution would unite all peoples from their aristocratic oppressors. The Jacobins were staunchly against these foreign wars, as they believed it could be used as a launching-pad for military dictatorship. France suffered setbacks in 1792 with defeats and soldiers deserting the army. This greatly damaged the Girondin’s hawkish cause.

After the execution of Louis XVI the Girondins were denounced as pro-royalist and federalist from radicals in the convention. Pressure from Paris and the National Guard forced the National Convention to expel the Girondins. This left the Montagnard as the sole faction within the National Convention. Within the first half of 1793 the Committee of General Security, Revolutionary Tribunal, and Committee of Public safety were put in place. These institutions implemented widespread terror against French citizens who were deemed anti-revolutionaries.

The Jacobins were successful because they fed off the passions of the people in the Paris Commune. They did not condemn the horrors of the 1792 September massacres, but had encouraged them. The Jacobins moved quickly to implement violence while the Girondins were dragging their feet on these decisions.  The mass conscriptions used for fighting the foreign conflicts did not help the Girondist popularity.

“The new government was called revolutionary because it was not ‘constituted’ in the manner demanded by contemporary ideas of law.” –R.R. Palmer, The Twelve Who Ruled

France from an outsider’s point of view had fallen into complete anarchy. French citizens were angry, particularly in rural areas, as the chaos that was the revolution was asking everything from them but giving little. The stability that came with the monarchy was gone and priests were being killed and taxes were being raised.

The Triumph and Collapse of the Mountain

On July 13th 1793, the radical writer Jean-Paul Marat was assassinated by Charlotte Corday. Marat became a martyr killed by the royalist Corday. His death increased the political influence of the Jacobins. The painting The Death of Marat by Jacques Louis David is an example of his martyred image. It is similar to the Pieta of Michelangelo which depicts a dead Christ in his mother’s arms.   

By mid-to-late 1793 the Jacobins dominated the National Convention. Victories against the enemies of France emboldened Robespierre, President of France, who further implemented terror as a national policy. In September of 1793 the Law of Suspects was passed which allowed the creation of the Revolutionary Tribunal and the Judgement of former civil servants and former nobles. By passing this law, the revolutionary government was allowed to bring those who were suspected of treason. Many were executed as suspected loyalists or counter-revolutionaries.

Robespierre was known as “The incorruptible” and anyone who was seen as corrupt or unpatriotic could be sent to the guillotine. France had been turned turn into a Salem State where people made false accusations based on no evidence. Secret police listened for counter revolutionary activity in the streets, pubs, and villages of France.

The Trial and Execution of Danton would be the ultimate undoing of the Jacobins. Danton was accused of corruption. Danton, his Girondist compatriots and the many Cordeliers were sent to the guillotine for execution. These execution were widely un-popular and they led to Robespierre being accused of tyranny. Danton’s execution was an important event leading to the Thermidor Reaction, the coup against Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety.

While the Jacobins did not set out to create a dictatorship, their ideals of universal male suffrage and popular education were overshadowed by the Terror and anti-democratic policies of their most radical members. Their violent vision for radical politics have forever stained the legacy of the French Revolution.

Closure of the Jacobin Club, July 1794.


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