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 1792
Event1:Committee of Public Safety
    and Reign of Terror
Date Event1:5 September 1793 to
28 July 1794
Event2:Thermidorian Reaction
Date Event2:24 July 1794
Event3:Coup of 18 Brumaire
Date Event3:9 November 1799
Event End:Crowning of Napoleon
Date End:18 May 1804
P1:Early Modern France
S1:First French Empire
Capital:Paris
National Motto:French: ''[[Liberté, égalité, fraternité, ou la mort!]]''
(Liberty, equality, brotherhood, or death!)
National Anthem:La Marseillaise (unofficial)
Common Languages:French
Currency:French Franc
Leader1:National Convention
(rule by legislature)
Year Leader1:1792–95
Leader2:Directory
Year Leader2:1795–99
Leader3:Consulate, First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte
Year Leader3:1799–1804
Title Leader: 
Legislature:National Convention
French Directory
French Consulate

The French First Republic (fr. Republique Français) 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. 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 Bonaparte’s rise to power.

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 June of 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. With the armies of Prussia approaching the city of Paris, the Manifesto backfired—widespread panic broke out. Citizens stormed the Tuileries Palace, killing 600 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. Nobles, clergymen, and political prisoners lay murdered in their cells—raped, stabbed, and slashed to death. This became known as the September Massacres[2] .

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[3], was subsequently put on trial for crimes of high treason starting in December of 1792. On 16 January 1793 he was found guilty, and on 21 January, he was guillotined[4] .

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.”[5] Most notably, the Committee of Public Safety instated a policy of terror, and the guillotine began to fall on 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[6] . 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[7] .

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 populous, 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” .[8] He was tried and executed on 24 July 1794.

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 government, consisting of an upper chamber called the Council of Elders (with 250 members) and a lower chamber called the Council of 500 (with 500 members). The executive body consisted of five members who made up 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 system fell with the coup of 18 Brumaire in 1799, which began the period known as the French Consulate. 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.

Unconstitutionally, the Republic subdivided into government by:

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. 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.
  4. Doyle, William. The Oxford History of the French Revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989. pp 196.
  5. 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.
  6. Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution. Jack R. Censer and Lynn Hunt, ed. © 2001 American Social History Productions, Inc. http://chnm.gmu.edu/revolution/browse/timeline/
  7. 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.
  8. 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.