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Hello, and welcome to Revolutions. Episode 3.15, The Birth of the Jacobins.
The women’s march on Versailles fundamentally changed the course of the French Revolution. By dragging the king back to Paris, the political dynamic is about to shift dramatically. For one thing, no one was quite sure whether the king was there of his own free will or whether he was actually some kind of hostage. Was he a citizen king living closer to his people or a divine monarch being held hostage by a blasphemous rabble? Everyone mostly tried to agree it was the former, but more than a few, including probably the king himself, knew that it was the latter. In time, this question of just how much free will the king had left would become a major point of contention, but for now, everyone attempted to entertain the fiction that they were all on the same page.
But aside from the question of the king, the move to Paris also dramatically rearranged political alliances within the National Assembly. The very act of moving to Paris helped polarize the assembly even more than it had been, and led directly to the rise of organized political clubs who would wage the next series of battles over the meaning and direction of the revolution. And of course, that it was all now unfolding under the watchful eye of the radical Parisians? Well, that would be a thing too.
Over the winter of 1789-1790, there were two big issues on the table that helped fuel the new political polarization. What did it mean to be a citizen, and what are we going to do about the Catholic Church? Both questions had huge implications for the future of France, and both questions helped split the delegates and their supporters into warring camps.
Now, the last thing I’ll say before we get going today is that though these two issues were the main points of contention, the National Assembly dealt with a whole host of issues during the months after the move to Paris, and I’ll sort of be plucking them out as needed in the episodes to come. So like, in March 1790, the National Assembly is going to fundamentally reorganize the administrative map of France, and though we will definitely talk about it, we’re not going to talk about it today. So just to set the stage here a bit, remember that the king was hauled off to Paris on October 6th, 1789. But it wasn’t actually until October 9th that the National Assembly voted to follow him to the capital. In the interim, they still had some business to attend to, including finally responding to a plea made by Jacques Necker the week before.
At the end of September, Necker had come down to the Assembly to remind the delegates that the country was still massively in debt and still running unsustainable deficits. Remember? That’s why you were all called in the first place? Some of the debt pressure had come off simply by virtue of the National Assembly’s very existence. Creditors liked the revenue possibilities of a government with a representative body a whole lot more than they liked one built on the failing despotism of the late Bourbon dynasty.
But the estates had been called back in May, and it was now October, and very little had been done on the financial front. So Necker proposed to close the gap with a one-time patriotic contribution that would amount to 25% of a citizen’s annual income. This obviously caused a huge uproar, and charges that Necker was now trying to fleece the people to pay off his banker friends. But with no other clear solution to the problem, the National Assembly voted on October 6th – that is, probably just a few hours after the king and 60,000 of his closest friends had left for Paris – to approve the patriotic contribution. But then they voted no mechanism for assessment or collection, and the patriotic contribution never really went anywhere.
After this stark reminder about the financial health of the kingdom, though, some delegates started discussing an alternative to the patriotic contribution that would rest on the massive amounts of property owned by the Catholic Church. Ever since the night of August the 4th, the status of the French Catholic Church had been up in the air. Tithes had been abolished, they didn’t look like they were coming back, so how were we going to pay the parish priests? And was it really fair for the Church to control so much property independently of the nation – especially as the nation continues to face a financial crisis?
To answer both these questions simultaneously, the Bishop of Outain, my good friend Talleyrand, took to the floor on October 10th, and proposed that some church property should be nationalized, and that clergymen should become salaried employees of the state.
Talleyrand reckoned that two-thirds of what the church owned could easily cover the expenses for all the church functionaries, while the other third could be used to shore up the nation’s finances. Basically, Talleyrand was proposing to make the church a public institution and turn priests into bureaucrats running the Department of Morality. This obviously caused quite an uproar itself, and no less because it came straight from a bishop, although Talleyrand never was much of a bishop. He was just a rational, unsentimental statesman who believed that nationalizing the church would help make France stronger.
But the pushback to this was stiff and immediate, led obviously by the clergy themselves. They had just seen their tithes stripped away without a second thought, and now the National Assembly planned to confiscate all their property to boot? They didn’t care that Talleyrand promised that their state salaries would be more lucrative than the old tithes. This was a matter of religious principle, and also, frankly, civil principle. The abbey CS, himself a clergyman, and strongly radical in most things, stood up and said this absolutely violates the sacredness of property enshrined in the Declaration of the Rights of Man.
So with this fairly massive proposal on the table, the delegates then put a hold on all business to make preparations for the move to Paris. And as I just said, the very fact of this move helped shift the dynamics of the debate.
When the delegates had arrived in Versailles back in April and May, they had often settled into group lodgings to cut down on costs, and delegates inevitably lodged with their provincial colleagues. But the last few months of political drama had rendered those old provincial attachments obsolete. So when the delegates began to hunt for lodgings in Paris, they again sought out group accommodations, but this time they tended to go out looking with men who shared their ideological point of view and voting habits. So the radicals got together, and they tended to live together in the city center close to the action, while the conservatives tend to come together to take up lodgings on the outskirts of the city, where they would be less likely to be, you know, lynched.
So obviously, if you’re living and working exclusively with people who agree with you, well, that creates polarization.
Also nudging this polarization along was the structure of their new meeting hall. By early November, the assembly would settle into the menage, that is, the horse training grounds of the Tuileries Palace. This was a big rectangular room, with the delegates sitting in risers built along the two long sides. So naturally, delegates who were friends and allies tended to sit together. And almost immediately, the conservatives took over the right side of the hall, while the radicals took over the left. Which is, no joke, where the right-left political labels that we still use today come from. So that’s pretty cool.
In this new world, the delegates were going to retake up the question of the church. But before they got to that, they wound up embroiled in another debate that would both shape and be shaped by the new political environment. And that was the question of citizenship. Now I already talked about this back when we went through the Declaration of the Rights of Man. But it was just now, right after the move to Paris, that the distinction between active and passive citizens was invented. The radicals were of course opposed to the whole distinction, and wanted a much more open and democratic definition of citizenship.
But the conservatives, and other sensible men in the middle, were like, no, we’re not going to give some foul-mouthed day-worker a say in government. So at the end of October, the fairly restrictive definition of a 25-year-old man who pays the equivalent of three days’ wages in taxes, that is, guys who own some property, would be an active citizen. Everyone else would be merely passive. This set the radical delegates to further despondent soul-searching. But it also set to work agitators who claimed to speak for the now-disenfranchised masses.
In the hyper-radical Paris section, called the courtelier, self-declared spokesmen like Jean-Paul Marat, Camille Demoulas, remember he was the guy who gave the fiery speech on the day the Bastille fell, and then Georges Danton, who we haven’t even gotten to yet, but who was about to become a revolutionary giant. These guys will take the passive citizen slap in the face and start building a political force to oppose the queue-lot-wearing dandies running the National Assembly. And when those guys start getting into the mix, boy, this thing is going to get crazy.
So though the radical assembly delegates had just lost another vote, the Munarussian coalition that had risen up in the summer of 1789 was already starting to splinter in the aftermath of the October days. Not for the least reason that the central pillar of the coalition, Jean-Joseph Meunier, did not make the move to Paris. Deeply put out by the events of October 5th and 6th, Meunier decided he could no longer serve a government that could be so nakedly coerced by mob violence. Before the assembly moved to Paris, he withdrew from the assembly and headed back home to Dauphiné. Meunier had been one of the principal leaders of the Third Estate for well over a year now, and had been way out in front on doubling the third and voting by head. But in his estimation, things were now out of control, and going too far. So he quit the very institution he had done so much to bring about. Shortly, he will come under attack from his former friends in Dauphiné as a reactionary counter-revolutionary, and will be driven into exile, because that’s how it goes in the French Revolution.
So the debate over citizenship, then, was something of a high watermark for the Conservatives. As the next order of business showed their influence clearly on the wane. On November 3rd, the Comte de Mirabeau came forward with a rewording of Talleyrand’s motion to nationalize church lands. Rather than out-and-out nationalization, church property would simply be put at the disposal of the nation, still administered by the clergy, but on the understanding that they were acting as stewards of the nation’s wealth. To the shock and horror of most church delegates, this motion passed, and whatever the fancy wording was, it looked a hell of a lot like the National Assembly had just claimed ownership over the church’s property.
Then about a month later, the National Assembly put its money, or rather the church’s money, where its mouth was, and they voted to sell off 400 million livres in unspecified church property to improve the nation’s financial outlook. On December 19th, the first batch went up for sale, and the proceeds would then be used to back a new kind of bond bearing 5% interest, called the assigneur. The assigneur would be distributed in 200 or 400 livres notes, and be used to pay the kingdom’s creditors, and then the creditors could turn around and use them to acquire national property. The church, obviously, was utterly incensed, and it appears that priests across the kingdom took to the pulpit to denounce this theft of church lands, and basically promised eternal damnation for anyone who even thought about buying a piece for themselves.
Having lost the vote on citizenship, but then winning the vote on church property, the radicals sensed an opportunity to reclaim the initiative, and so they spent the winter of 1789-1790 getting ready for battle. After moving to Paris, the old members of the Breton Club gathered together to form a new club, a club that would be far more organized, disciplined, and centralized than the freewheeling Breton Club meetings had been. Something that would allow them to combat the organized voting that was already in force over on the right side of the hall.
So in late November, or early December, these guys leased space from the Dominican convent of Saint-Jacques. Officially, their new club was called the Society of Friends of the Constitution, but everyone else just started calling them the Jacobins, and by January 1790, the unofficial title was adopted in practice by the members themselves.
Though the Jacobins would go through a couple of intense periods of radicalization, initially they invited in everyone who could support three basic principles. One, you must be dedicated to upholding constitutional government. Two, you must support political equality for all, that is, be opposed to the active-passive citizen dichotomy. And third, you must be ready to combat counter-revolutionary plots. As long as you were down with that, then come on in.
When new members joined, what they found was a national assembly in miniature. Meetings were generally held three times a week, mostly to rehash assembly business, respond to past events, and then draw up future plans. Rules for speaking and debate followed those of the national assembly, and everything was open to the public. The debates at the Jacobin Club soon became a staple form of public entertainment. But to keep everything on track, the Jacobins also had a central steering committee, modeled quite explicitly on the committee Mounier had developed. This committee would guide policy decisions, and then hand out marching orders after all the debating was done.
Then the Jacobins developed one further institutional branch that helped their rapid ascendancy to shadow revolutionary government. They established a committee of correspondents to open the lines of communication to like-minded men out in the provinces. By actively pursuing political organization outside the capital, the Jacobins would soon be able to make a convincing claim to be more representative of the nation than the national government itself. At its height, there were 7,000 Jacobin Clubs across France, boasting almost 500,000 active members. No other political faction could even come close to putting together that strong of a party. Because the Jacobins are about to start driving events, it should come as no surprise that most of the major revolutionary figures will count themselves as members of the Jacobins at some point or another.
We’ll get to them all in turn, but there’s one guy that we should peel off and talk about right now. I was thinking that I would wait to introduce him, but since he and the Jacobins are so inextricably linked, we might as well just cover it now. And I’m talking, of course, about Maximilien Robespierre. Maximilien Robespierre was born in 1758 in Arras, a city in North France, near the border with the Austrian Netherlands, that is, Belgium. Both his grandfather and father had been lawyers in Arras, but after Robespierre’s mother died, his father went out on some kind of world tour and only rarely came home, so Robespierre himself was raised mostly by his grandparents.
He was a bright kid, and after catching the attention of the bishop of Arras, he received a scholarship to attend the Lycee Louis-Lagrand, where, as I already noted, he was a classmate of Camille de Moulin. But the two did not really travel in the same social circle. And in truth, it seemed like Robespierre didn’t really travel in any social circle at all. He earned a reputation as a hyper-serious student with a passion for classical Roman virtue and Enlightenment philosophy.
He graduated the Lycee in 1781 and returned to Arras to take up a career as a provincial lawyer. Over the next few years, he made a local name for himself, often representing poor plaintiffs just because of the principles at stake. He also earned himself an election to the local academy, one of those prestigious intellectual clubs that dotted the landscape of Enlightenment-era France. So still only in his late 20s, Robespierre was now well established, he had written a few prize-winning essays, and was basically on his way to becoming a pillar of the local community. Nothing more, but certainly nothing less.
But when the pre-revolution came, and the convening of the Estates General seemed more and more inevitable, Robespierre wanted in. Like everyone else, he wrote an essay calling for new electoral procedures, the doubling of the Third’s representatives, and then voting by head. When the Estates General did get called, he stood for election and barely squeaked his way in, more prominent and more conservative men grabbing up most of the vote. But once he arrived in Versailles, Robespierre immediately found himself becoming a leader of the radicals and a frequent speaker.
Carrying around in his head a mix of Rousseau and Montesquieu and classical philosophy, Robespierre stressed the goodness of the average Frenchman, and called for an end to any institution that tended to threaten that fundamental virtue. He was opposed to the division between active and passive citizens, believing that the more representative the government, the better it must be.
All of this meant that Robespierre had been one of those delegates put out by the conservative tilt of the National Assembly. So after they all moved to Paris, Robespierre was right in the middle of the reorganization of the left. He helped found the Jacobin Club, and then sat on the Executive Steering Committee, along with the Triumvirate of Dupour, Barnabé, and Lemaître, and the great orator Mirabeau. The others would soon become alienated from the very club they had just founded, but Robespierre? Robespierre’s power and influence are only going to grow. So welcome to the stage, Maximilien Robespierre.
Now though the left was really starting to get their act together, they were not the only ones reorganizing after the National Assembly moved to Paris. On the conservative right, a similar process was underway, though not on the scale or with the success of the Jacobins.
The first thing to note is that as a result of this reorganization, the right will become even more conservative than it had been before. If you’ll recall, when Meunier had organized the Munartian coalition, the moderate conservatives were the drivers, and the arch-conservative aristocrats were basically the junior partners, supporting Meunier on a lesser-of-two-evils basis. But after the jump to Paris and the resignation of Meunier, these roles reversed. Meunier’s old allies tried to organize a new coalition of sensible, moderate men called the Impartials, but they had trouble recruiting. Their basic position was that the revolution as such was now over. The country needed a strong king and a strong Catholic Church to consolidate what had just happened. This earned them obviously no love from the left, but it also got them very little love from the far right, who wanted to undo, not consolidate, everything that had just happened.
The only place the Impartials could look to for allies were the group of liberal nobles surrounding Lafayette, but Lafayette and his crew were enlightened on the matter of religion and could not support the kind of super-pro Catholicism espoused by the Impartials. So though the Impartials went through the motions of setting up an independent political club and publishing newspapers, they never had more than about 70 members, and of those, only about 20 were really into it. The vacuum left by the receding power of the center-right was thus filled by a far more conservative group, who was shadowy then, and remains shadowy now.
Dubbed the Augustinians, because they initially held their meetings in a convent of the Grands Augustin, this far-right group had a core of about 200 members, the old disaffected nobles who never wanted to break up the three estates in the first place, joined now by clergymen shocked by the anti-clerical turns the National Assembly had been taking of late. Unfortunately for future historians, the Augustinians weren’t interested in printing manifestos or publishing minutes of their meetings, preferring instead the kind of secrecy that only bred paranoid fears about counter-revolutionary plots, or frankly, not-so-paranoid fears about counter-revolutionary plots.
But we do have references to a small group of commissioners who steered the club’s business and plotted parliamentary strategy. We also know that the club meeting house in central Paris was soon the object of scorn for local Parisians in the neighborhood who didn’t like these aristocrats plotting the downfall of the revolution in their own backyard. So though the Augustinians retained their name, they were forced to move, and then move a few more times, before simply using members’ own homes for their meetings.
One of the reasons I say that some fears about counter-revolutionary plots were not paranoid was that just before Christmas, the Marquis de Fravra, a retired army colonel, was accused of some fantastic treachery. The Paris press uncovered a plot allegedly masterminded by the Comp de Provence to rescue the royal family and rush them out of the country to safety. Lafayette, Bailly, and Jacques Necker were all allegedly slated for assassination, and then Paris would be surrounded by troops loyal to the Comp de Provence.
The Marquis de Fravra was accused of being the point man for this insidious operation, and so the Marquis de Favra was arrested on December 24, 1789, whereupon the Comp de Provence came down to the Paris Commune to assure them that he knew nothing about nothing. Favra was then put on a lengthy trial lasting almost two months where scanty evidence and refusal of witnesses to testify led to major doubts about his guilt. But in late January, an attempt to spring him from jail was foiled by Lafayette, and doubts about Fravra’s guilt disappeared.
On February 18, he was sentenced to hang, and the next day he went to the gallows, which the Parisians simply loved because no special privileges about the mode or place of execution was extended to the condemned Marquis. He would hang in public like a commoner. And so, on February 19, that’s exactly what happened. Fears about these kinds of plots, many of which were real, but many more of which were figments of the imagination, are about to play a major part in turning the revolutionaries down the bloody road to the Reign of Terror.
Just as the trial of Fravra was reaching its conclusion, the National Assembly continued on with its business. On February the 4th, they welcomed into the hall their citizen King Louis, who came dressed in plain black clothes. He promised to uphold the Constitution, and was greeted by rapturous applause. Then the delegates took another bold step against the Catholic Church. Led by the Jacobin delegates, now ready to start flexing their political muscle, the Assembly voted on February the 13th to simply stop recognizing monastic vows. So every monk and nun in France was no longer under any obligation to remain at their posts.
The hope was that this vote would both free those who would become virtual prisoners of the convents, and then also it would clear out the freeloaders who were happy to remain lazy parasites freed off the nation. It went without saying that the property of the religious orders would become a major part of that 400 million livre the National Assembly had already laid claim to, and this was a factor in helping moderates justify their vote to suppress their religious orders. Real church land wouldn’t be auctioned off, just those of the parasitic monasteries.
But then on March the 6th, Jacques Neckerre came down with yet another bleak financial report which forced everyone to start making hard choices. Do we really start auctioning off all church property, or do we back off these sacrilegious plans and find a different way out of the financial hole? On April the 9th, the debate began in earnest when two Assembly subcommittees both published reports calling for a decision on just how much church property was available for the nation to use. The key question now was, were they going to keep futzing around with semantics, or was the church going to be nationalized?
A corollary to this was how to start treating the asignat, which had already been issued and were now being informally treated as a form of currency. Should their status as currency be officially recognized? And if so, then we’d better make sure they’re backed by something substantial. The Jacobin delegates argued then for full nationalization, but for more reasons than just economics. Yes, there was a financial crisis, but even more than that, the first estate needs to be demolished if the nation is going to come together as one. Allowing them to run their own little private empire over there is just not going to work anymore. Others chimed in to say that nationalization might actually be beneficial to the church, because it would presumably shed fatal light on corrupt aristocrats stealing from the church’s coffers. And then others said that this was actually a really good way to secure the future of the revolution because anyone who buys church lands will have a vested interest in the revolution’s success. On the other side, the Augustinian conservatives came back and said this is crazy. Property is sacred, especially church property. Plus, if you just flood the market with the auction property, it isn’t going to be worth nearly what we’re going to be giving up. More than a few hinting that what they would be giving up was their very souls.
Now I think the arch-conservative Augustinians were more often than not simply using the language of piety to splinter the national assembly, which they wanted to see destroyed anyway. But the majority of the clerical delegates and more than a few uncommitted delegates were truly concerned about the fate of the church and all of their souls. One such conflicted delegate then stepped forward with what he hoped was a proposal to bridge the divide. A member of the Jacobin Club, but also a devout Catholic, this guy proposed that the assembly immediately declare the Catholic Church the official state religion.
This sent the debate spinning in a whole new direction, with attacks levied on both sides that had really never been so bitter. The left accused the right of helping hypocrites in the church bankrupt the nation, while the right accused the left of greedy sacrilege. After the Jacobins engineered an adjournment for the day, they reconvened and plotted strategy, and came up with the following plan. The next day they would bring out a motion that so majestic a thing as religious belief could not be legislated by the national assembly, but that clearly the Catholic Church would be favored in the new constitutional order. This appeased just enough uncommitted members to get the motion passed by a slight majority the next day. In response, the conservative delegates started resigning and boycotting the national assembly in protest. On April the 19th, 292 signed a petition against what the national assembly had just done, sending copies across France to stir up resentment. Anti-clericalism played well on the streets of Paris, but not out in the rural provinces, as we will see in a major way once the revolution really gets radicalized a few more episodes down the road.
But with all the conservatives now out of the room, the left simply passed the decree as nationalizing church lands and recognizing the asignat as a form of currency by huge majorities. Then they started opening up letters coming in from the provinces supporting what they had just done. These letters took everyone by surprise, and would egg the delegates onto further attempts to force the church into a subservient position in the new constitutional order. But these letters were likely the work of the Jacobins Correspondence Committee was of course neither here nor there, nor did it give anyone a false impression about what the people of France did and did not want.
So the suppression of the religious orders, coupled with the abolition of tithes, the nationalization of church lands, this can all be taken as a modern spin on the old medieval tug of war between the church and the king, but it was now being recast as a tug of war between the church and the nation. Who ultimately served who? Next week, the nation will make its most audacious play for supremacy in this new modern tug of war, and it will be a play that will backfire mightily.
Just as everyone was getting ready to celebrate the first anniversary of the fall of the Bastille and the unity of the French nation, the National Assembly would unveil the civil constitution of the clergy, which as much as anything helped destroy the unity of the French nation.
- Jean Joseph Mounier
- Charles Dickens
- Thomas de Mahy, Marquis de Favras
- Jacques Necker
- Jean-Paul Marat
- Georges Danton
- Maximilien Robespierre
- Camille Desmoulins
- A Tale of Two Cities: (150th Anniversary Edition) (Signet Classics) by Charles Dickens: https://amzn.to/3vJ4yA5
After the move to Paris, radical delegates from the National Assembly formed a new political club to help push their agenda.
If you enjoyed this podcast, please consider buying Mike Duncan's books:
- Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution: https://amzn.to/3VNqViT
- The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic: https://amzn.to/3h26YpW
- The History of Rome: The Republic: https://amzn.to/3UAvImK
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