French First Republic Explained

Native Name:République française
Conventional Long Name:French Republic
Common Name:France, Republic 1
Continent:Europe
Region:Western Europe
Country:France
Government Type:Republic
Year Start:1792
Year End:1804
Event Pre:Storming of the Bastille and French Revolution
Date Pre:14 July 1789
Event Start:Overthrow of Louis XVI
Date Start:21 September
Event1:Committee of Public Safety and Reign of Terror
Date Event1:5 September 1793 to
28 July 1794 Abolishment of slavery 4 february 1794.
Event2:Thermidorean Reaction
Date Event2:24 July 1794
Event3:Coup of 18 Brumaire
Date Event3:9 November 1799
Event End:Napoleon Bonaparte is proclaimed emperor by the Senate
Date End:18 May
P1:Kingdom of France (1791–1792)
S1:First French Empire
Flag:Flag of France
Symbol:Coat of arms of France
Image Map Caption:French First Republic (c.1800)
Capital:Paris
National Motto:Liberté, égalité, fraternité, ou la mort!
Liberty, equality, brotherhood, or death!
National Anthem:La Marseillaise
Common Languages:French
Currency:French Franc
Leader1:National Convention
with Maximilien Robespierre leading the Convention
Year Leader1:1792–1795
Leader2:Directory
with Paul Barras leading the Directory
Year Leader2:1795–1799
Leader3:Consulate
with Napoleon Bonaparte as First Consul
Year Leader3:1799–1804
Title Leader:Assembly
Legislature:National Convention
French Directory
French Consulate

The French First Republic (French: République française) was founded on 22 September 1792, by the newly established National Convention. The First Republic lasted until the declaration of the First French Empire in 1804 under Napoleon I. This period is characterized by the fall of the monarchy, the establishment of the National Convention and the infamous Reign of Terror, the founding of the Directory and the Thermidorian Reaction, and finally, the creation of the Consulate and Napoleon’s rise to power.

End of the monarchy in France

Under the Legislative Assembly, which was in power before the proclamation of the First Republic, France was engaged in war with Prussia and Austria. In July 1792, the Duke of Brunswick, commanding general of the Austro–Prussian Army, issued his Brunswick Manifesto, in which he threatened the destruction of Paris should any harm come to King Louis XVI. The foreign threat exacerbated France's political turmoil amid the French Revolution and deepened the passion and sense of urgency among the various factions. In the violence of 10 August 1792, citizens stormed the Tuileries Palace, killing six hundred of the King’s Swiss guards and insisting on the removal of the king.[1] A renewed fear of anti-revolutionary action prompted further violence, and in the first week of September 1792, mobs of Parisians broke into the city’s prisons, killing over half of the prisoners. This included nobles, clergymen, and political prisoners, but also numerous common criminals, such as prostitutes and petty thieves, many murdered in their cells—raped, stabbed, and slashed to death. This became known as the September Massacres.[2]

The National Convention

As a result of the spike in public violence and the political instability of the constitutional monarchy, a party of six members of France’s Legislative Assembly was assigned the task of overseeing elections. The resulting Convention was founded with the dual purpose of abolishing the monarchy and drafting a new constitution. The Convention’s first act was to establish the French First Republic and officially strip the king of all political powers. The King, by then a private citizen bearing his family name of Capet, was subsequently put on trial for crimes of high treason starting in December 1792. On 16 January 1793 he was found guilty, and on 21 January, he was guillotined.[3]

Throughout the winter of 1792 and spring of 1793, Paris was plagued by food riots and mass hunger. The new Convention did little to remedy the problem until late spring of 1793, occupied instead with matters of war. Finally, on 6 April 1793, the Convention created the Committee of Public Safety, headed by Maximilien Robespierre, and was given a monumental task: “To deal with the radical movements of the Enragés, food shortages and riots, the revolt in the Vendée and in Brittany, recent defeats of its armies, and the desertion of its commanding general.”[4] Most notably, the Committee of Public Safety instated a policy of terror, and the guillotine began to fall on perceived enemies of the republic at an ever-increasing rate, beginning the period known today as the Reign of Terror.

Despite growing discontent with the National Convention as a ruling body, in June the Convention drafted the Constitution of 1793, which was ratified by popular vote in early August. However, the Committee of Public Safety was seen as an “emergency” government, and the rights guaranteed by the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen and the new constitution were suspended under its control. The Committee carried out thousands of executions against supposed enemies of the young Republic, to the point that the guillotine came to be known as “the national razor”—because it seemed to be falling on everybody’s neck.[5] The Committee’s laws and policies took the revolution to unprecedented heights—they introduced the revolutionary calendar in 1793, closed churches in and around Paris as a part of a movement of dechristianization, tried and executed Marie Antoinette, and instituted the Law of Suspects, among others. Under Robespierre’s leadership, members of various revolutionary factions and groups were executed including the Hébertists and the Dantonists, many of whom had been Robespierre’s personal friends.[4]

The war efforts were improving for France by 1794, due in part to the military excellence of Napoleon Bonaparte. Many in the National Convention were calling for a return to normalization, but Robespierre disagreed. Between the mass executions, the wild fear of the populace, and the institution of the Festival of Reason, by the middle of 1794 there was “a great deal of enthusiasm for ending the terror, [but] no one could figure out how to do it…The only thing that would end the terror, and apparently the only thing they could all agree upon, was the fall of Robespierre”.[6] He was arrested on 27 July and executed on 28 July 1794 without trial.

The Directory

After the fall of Robespierre, the Jacobin club was closed and the surviving Girondins were reinstated. In August, the National Convention adopted the Constitution of 1795. They reestablished freedom of worship, began releasing large numbers of prisoners, and most importantly, initiated elections for a new legislative body. On 3 November 1795, the Directory was established. Under this system, France was led by a bicameral Parliament, consisting of an upper chamber called the Council of Elders (with 250 members) and a lower chamber called the Council of Five-Hundreds (with, accordingly, 500 members) and a collective Executive government of five members called the Directory (from which the historical period gets its name). Due to internal instability and French military disasters in 1798 and 1799, the Directory only lasted for four years.

The Consulate

The period known as the French Consulate began with the coup of 18 Brumaire in 1799. Members of the Directory itself planned the coup, indicating clearly the failing power of the Directory. Napoleon Bonaparte was a co-conspirator in the coup, and became head of the government as the First Consul. He would later proclaim himself emperor, effectively putting an end to the French First Republic and launching the age of the French First Empire.

Notes and References

  1. Censer, Jack R. and Hunt, Lynn. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution. University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004.
  2. Doyle, William. The Oxford History of The French Revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989. pp 191–192.
  3. Doyle, William. The Oxford History of the French Revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989. pp 196.
  4. The French Revolution [videorecording] : liberté, egalité, fraternité, a hitler Jr. is born in blood / produced & directed by Doug Shultz ; written by Doug Shultz, Hilary Sio, Thomas Emil. [New York, N.Y.] : History Channel : Distributed in the U.S. by New Video, c2005.
  5. Jack R. Censer and Lynn Hunt, ed., 2001. Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution(American Social History Productions, Inc.); Timeline
  6. Interview with Historian David Jordan. The French Revolution [videorecording] : liberté, egalité, fraternité, a new republic is born in blood / produced & directed by Doug Shultz ; written by Doug Shultz, Hilary Sio, Thomas Emil. [New York, N.Y.] : History Channel : Distributed in the U.S. by New Video, c2005.