The French Revolution: ‘The King Must Die so that the Country Can Live’

Prise du Palais des Tulleries, by Jacques_Bertaux, 1793 / Wikimedia Commons

By Dr. Robert Schwartz
E. Nevius Rodman Professor of History
Mount Holyoke College

The French Revolution was a defining event in European history. It was also an important time period for Victor Hugo. His committment to France as a Republic stemmed from the Revolution of 1848; a Revolution depended on the people of France, in the tradition of 1789. In his novel Les Miserables, Hugo repeatedly refers to events and people that shaped France between 1789-1799, particulalry in the Saint Denis chapter of the novel.


The Monarchy

This is a painting of Louis XVI by Duplessis, the Franch monarchy’s court painter. This work was probably completed in the mid 1780s, before the French Revolution. Louis is clothed resplendantly, and his pose recalls portraits of his powerful predecessor Louis XIV. Notice that he is looking into the distance; the King is aloof and superior. Louis became king of France when he was twenty years old. History has generally deemed him an incompetent king (Spielvogel, 637). According to Dowd, “He did not understand people, and his lack of judgement led him to rely on untrustworthy counselors. He found it difficult to concentrate on the dull business of government, and when a decision was forced on him, he frequently wavered (12).” Louis was the first French king to give bend to the will of the people, and was actually a constitutional monarch before the monarchy was abolished in 1792. The monarchy was involved in several of the events that shaped the French Revolution.

This portrait of Marie Antoinette is one of many painted by Marie Vigee-Lebrun. This painting was probably completed in the early 1780s. Maire is more accessible in this portrait than she ever was as a queen. She gazes diresctly at the viewer, and holds in her hand a document of some sort. She looks industrious in this picture, which is unusual because she had a reputation ofr being a frivolous and idle woman. She was nicknamed Madame Deficit by the people of France because of her love of extravagance. Soon after her marriage ot Louis she became the leader of fashion in France, and her taste added to France’s already burdened treasury. After she had children, Marie-Antoinette turned to meddling in affairs of state. She persecuted her enemies successfully, and it appeared that she had her husband completely henpecked. She never made a secret of her preference for her country of birth (Austria), and so she was resented by the French people. They often blamed her for Louis’s blunders.

Camille Desmoulins

Camille Desmoulins was an unemployed lawyer and active propagandist when he spoke to the crowd gathered at the Palais Royal on 12 July 1789. After the fall of the Bastille on 14 July 1789, Desmoulins was credited with sparking the Parisian revolt that lead to the fall, and his place in history was assured. Desmoulins was closely affiliated with both Robespierre and Danton. Robespierre and Desmoulins had been at grammer school together in Paris, and had a strong affinity for one another.

Danton and Desmoulins became closely linked when Desmoulins started publishing his paper The Old Cordelier. In the three editions that were published, Desmoulins echoed Danton’s plea to end the Terror, and compared the situation of France to the collapse fo Rome when Ceasar was attempting his dictatorship. The parallels between Robespierre and Ceasar were evident, and Robespierre took serious offence against his old friend. Desmoulins was arrested and killed with Danton.


Portrait of Danton/ Image from Schama

Danton was born in Arcis, a little town south-east of Paris. His father was a prominent lawyer, and Danton was raised as a classical scholar. He was a fairly prominent lawyer before the Revolution of 1789, but became thoroughly famous through the events surrounding 1789 and the Terror. He was one of the driving forces behind the fall of the monarchy on August 10, 1792, and was universally acknowledged as a staunch patriot despite his love of excess. He was also the founder of the Cordeliers club, whci was a forum for the sans-culottes of Paris to discuss political issues.

Danton was a great orator and a fiery and passionate advocate of his causes, no matter what the cost. He was one of the first men to speak out against Robespierre’s reign of Terror. This dissention cost him his life. Danton was feared by Robespierre because of his power physical presence and persuasive speech. Throughout the Revolution, Danton had been associated with corrupt characters and had been known to take bribes. Robespierre used Danton’s affiliations and indescretions against him, and did not allow him or his allies (one of whom was Camille Desmoulins) to speak at their trial. Danton was guillotined on April 5, 1794. His last words were “Show my head to people, it is worth seeing” (Dowd, David L., The French Revolution, American Heritage Publishing Co, Inc. (New York, 1958).p.136). This was a reference to his unique and imposing physical appearance, as well as his popularity with the people of Paris.


Marat was the political propagandist most able to rouse popular sentiment between 1789-1793. His paper, The People’s Friend (L’Ami du Peuple), allowed him to build a reputation as a champion of the people. Before the Revolution, Marat was a celebrated scholar abroad. However, he had not been received as a serious philosophe in France and he was bitter about this rejection. The Revolution gave him an opportunity to get revenge on those who had denied him prestige. He opposed whomever was in power on the gounds that they had power, and so would eventually become corrupt. He also persuaded members of the governing body of France to arm the people of Paris during the war that began in 1792. These actions earned him the admiration of all the underdogs in Paris.

He had several unexplainable illnesses, including sores and uncontrollable twitching. To ease his pain he took medicinal baths continuously. He was unapolegetic about his condition and wrote and even received visitors while he bathed. On July 13, 1793, Marat was murdered in his home by Charlotte Corday, a country girl who had been brought up in counter-revolutionary circles and wanted to lash out at one of the Revolution’s prominent figures. Marat’s death elevated him to the status of martyr, and he was laid to rest in a very public spectacle on the 17 of July 1793.


The inside of a Jacobin Club, Anonymous Print, from Decaux.

The most prominent political clubs of the French Revolution were the Jacobin Clubs that sprung up throughout Paris and the provinces in August of 1789. By 1791, there were 900 Jacobin clubs in France associated with the main club in Paris. According to Spielvogel, “Members were usually the elite of their local societies, but they also included artisans and tradesmen” (688).

Jacobin clubs served as debating socitites where politically minded Frenchmen aired their views and discussed current political issues. Many members of Jacobin clubs were also deputies and used the meetings to orgam\nize forces and plan tactics. The most notorious deputy connected with the Jacobin club is Robespierre. Marat was also aligned with the Jacobin club, and this association caused his death. Charlotte Corday, his murderer, targeted Marat because she thought that he represented the worst of the Jacobin movement (Dowd, 115).

The club supported and participated in some of the most shocking events of The Revolution. Members of Jacobin clubs were among the mob invaded the Tuileries on August, 10, 1792. They also supported the execution of Louis XVI. Druing the Terror, local Jacobin clubs turned the provinces into nightmares of fear and destruction as members took it upon themselves to be agents of the Terror, and sent thousands to the guillotine (Dowd, 129). The clubs were also strictly anticlerical, and during the Terror some clubs wages a crusade against the church, imprisoning priests and looting churches (129).

The Jacobin clubs were closed soon after Robespierre was killed in 1794, but not before they became synonomous with revolutionary fervor and fear.

The Sans-Culottes

Anonymous print from Dowd / In this allegorical drawing some typical san-culottes dance around a liberty tree. Onthe right is the captured Bastille, and on the left is the Austrian army. The patriotic ardor of the sans-culottes is clearly expressed here.

Who were those revolutionary Frenchmen, those “sans-culottes” (men without fancy breeches) who stormed the Bastille, who extended their nations’s borders by defeating the best armies of Europe’s monarchs, who survived, and even prospered, amid the cruel excesses of the Terror? They were by no means the frenzied, mindless mob portrayed in most fictional accounts of the Revolution–accounts which have generally tended to favor the gentle aristocrats. Rather, they were clerks and tradesmen, lawyers and goldsmiths, bakers and merchants: a crowd of fighting patriots, not a rabble. – Dowd,The French Revolution, p. 7

The Sans-Culottes were the working men of Paris, who longed for a political voice in the tumultous political scene of the early 1790s. The man who provided them with a place to air their political views was George Jacques Danton. He founded the Cordeliers Club to give the Sans-Culottes a voice in government because they were too poor to qualify as voters. Members paid a few cents a month for the privilege of gathering as a group and hearing the Club’s prominent members speak (Camille Desmoulins and Jean Paul Marat were among them). The sans-culottes circulated petitions that demanded the removal of the King and the declaration of a republic. Although their petitions were initially rejected, their demands were eventually met as the Revolution played out. The sans culottes were a powerful force in Paris throughout the Revolution, but disappeared from the political scene when Robespierre fell from power in 1794.

This sketch of a sans-culotte was taken from Decaux. / This man is a sterotypical sans-culotte. He weres pants, and not breeches and a red stocking cap known as a bonnet rouge. His pants are red, white and blue: the colors of the French flag. He carries both a sword and a pike and appears ready to fight for France.


Napoleon at the Bridge of Arcola, Baron Gros, 1796

Napoleon Bonaparte was born in Ajaccio, on the island of Corsica, on Aug. 15, 1769. It was by chance that the future ruler of France was born a French citizen. His family had migrated to Corsica from the Italian mainland in the 16th century. The island had been transferred from the Republic of Genoa to France one year before Napoleon’s birth. His christening name was Italian. It was spelled Napoleone Buonaparte. As a boy he hated the French, whom he considered oppressors of his native land.

Napoleon was stationed in Paris in 1792. The French Revolution had been raging for three bloody years. It reached a climax on Aug. 10, 1792, with the overthrow of the monarchy and the establishment of a French Republic. This was a decisive event in Napoleon’s life, for it gave him his opportunity to get ahead. (See also French Revolution .)

Most of the French officers had remained faithful to the king. Napoleon, however, viewed the Revolution with an open mind. The
new republic was faced with foreign and civil war. It desperately needed able and loyal officers. In the “little Corsican” it found a willing recruit. In 1792 Napoleon was made a captain. In 1793 he was chosen to direct the artillery in the siege of Toulon. This was an important French port whose citizens had rebelled against the republic. Here he first showed his qualities as a soldier and as a leader of men.

During the war against Europe, Napoleon continued to demonstrate his prowess as a general. He had many successes, most notably annexing part of Italy for France Napoleon’s return from Italy to Paris was a triumph. No other general of the Revolution had received such a welcome. He now began to think of political as well as military power.

He persuaded the willing Directory to send him and a large army to Egypt. There he expected to duplicate the exploits of Alexander the Great by winning an eastern empire that would include Egypt, India,and other Middle- and Far-East lands. He was unsuccessful in this veture, and abandoned his troops to go back to France for the militaty coup against the Directory in 1799. For more on the battle in Egypt click here. For more on the coup click here.

Napoleon was one of three consuls in the post-coup government, but was qucickly declared first cousul for life, and had a lot of political power.

In 1804 he had secured a popular vote changing the French government from a consulate to an empire. As “emperor of the French” he assumed the right to hand down the throne to his descendants. He had created an empire.


The Tennis Court Oath

The Tennis Court Oath, 17 June 1789 / Jacques Louis David

Faced with financial crisis, the French Government called a meeting of the Estates General (the French parliamentary body) in May of 1789. The Estates General was made up of members of the First (clergy), Second (nobility), and Third (commoners) Estates and met at Versailles. During the following month, the First and Second Estate clashed with the Third Estate on a variety of issues, including the right to vote by head instead of by order.

On June 17, the Third Estate decided to break from the Estates General and draw up their own constitution. They also dubbed themselves the “National Assembly.” On June 20, 1789 they found themselves locked out of their regular meeting place, and so they gathered in an nearby tennis court and vowed that they would continue to meet until they had established a new constitution for France. This was the first step of the French Revolution, as the Third Estate had no right to act as the National Assembly.

Fall of Bastille

The Fall of the Bastille, 14 July 1789 / Image from Decaux.

Louis XVI was worried by the action of the Third Estate and threatened to dissolve the Estates General after the tumultuous events surrounding the Tennis Court Oath. Rural and urban uprisings throughout France at this time saved the Third Estate from the King’s intervention(Spielvogel, 682). The most famous of these uprisings is the Fall of the Bastille, which occurred on July 14, 1789. The increased mob activity in Paris had resulted in the formation of a permanent committee to keep order. This organized popular force broke into a royal armory and collected arms and then stormed the Bastille, incited by a rousing speech delivered by Camille Desmoulins on July 12, 1789.

Although the Bastille only had seven prisoners in it when it was liberated by the Parisian mob, the fall of the prison became a symbol of triumph over despotism. It also signified the end of the authority of Louis XVI, because he was no longer able to control the political tides of France.

The October Days

Pastel Drawing of Women on their way to Versailles / Image from Decaux

For the duration of the Revolution, bread was in short supply much to the chagrin of French women. The harvest of 1789 had been poor, and France was in debt. On October 5, 1789 crowds of Parisian women met at City Hall to demand bread and when they were refused marched the 12 miles to Versailles to confront the royal family. After relating their need to Louis, he promised the women that he would send grain to Paris.

This was not enough for the crowd however, and they insisted that the King and his family return with them to Paris. On October 6, the royal family returned to the city that was the heart of the revolution escorted by women carry pikes, some of which held the heads of the King’s guards. This was extremely significant because the king displayed that he was subject to the pressure of the people.

The Flight to Varennes

The Royal Family Returns to Paris after attempting to flee, 1791 / Image from Decaux

As the politics of France evolved in 1790 and 1791, Louis remained somewhat active in the political scene in Paris. He had agreed to many measures of the Assembly which he did not agree with, most notably the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. Louis, who was fiercely loyal to the Catholic Church, resented signing this measure which deprived the clergy of their power and property in France.

He recognized that he and his family would not be safe in France for much longer, and decided to join the other nobles who had emigrated during the first year of the Revolution. In June of 1791, the royal family left Paris in a coach headed towards Belgium. Before leaving Paris, Louis had written a letter to his enemies in the Assembly detailing his complaints about the new constitution and calling for a counterrevolution in Paris.

The King and his family were apprehended in Varennes by the National Guard. They had been alerted to the family’s whereabouts when a commoner recognized the King from his picture on an assignat (the French unit of currency at that time). The royal family returned to Paris on June 25th as prisoners of the people they had once controlled.

Declaration of War

French forces are victorious at Valmy / Image in Decaux.

By 1792, European Monarchs were eyeing France with suspicion. They had seen the overthrow of Louis XVI, by the French people, and worried that revolutionary fervor would spread to their countries. However, the monarchs were too suspecting of each other to unite against France.

While elsewhere in Europe caution was being displayed, in France the public opinion was for war. Reactionaries and the monarchy wanted war because they thought that the new government would be easily defeated by foreign powers. This would pave the way for a return to the old regime, with Louis at the head of government. Revolutionaries wanted war because they thought war would unify the country, and had a genuine desire to spread the ideas of the Revolution to all of Europe.

On April 20, 1792, the Legislative Assembly (France’s governing body, formed in 1791) declared war on Austria. Although the French fared poorly at first, the armies became more successful as the war progressed.

This painting commemorates The Battle of Valmy, which was a turning point for French forces. It took place in September of 1792, and was one of the Republic’s first victories.

The Fall of the Monarchy

The Fall of the Monarchy, 10 August 1792

As the radical Jacobin club gained more power in Paris, the idea of overthrowing the monarchy became more feasible. Lead by republicans such as Danton, Desmoulins, and Robespierre, the Paris commune became increasingly influential in the movement for democracy in France.

On the morning of August 10, 1792, the National Guard and a mob of Parisians invaded the residence of the royal family (Tuileries in Paris). Although the royal family had already fled the palace for the relative safety of the Assembly’s meeting place, the Swiss guards that were stationed at the palace opened fire on the crowd. They were quickly overpowered, and most of the Swiss soldiers were hacked to death by bystanders-it was the bloodiest day of the Revolution so far.

The King and his family remained unscathed, but he no longer had any authority. The crowd swept through Paris destroying all images of and references to the monarchy, and the Assembly suspended the monarchy’s powers.

In September of 1792, a new governing body was elected. The National Convention was the body that declared the abolition of the monarchy and established France as a republic on September 21, 1792. This was one day after the French victory at Valmy.

Trial of Louis XVI

The execution of Louis XVI, 21 January 1793 / Image from Decaux.

Reign of Terror

Anonymous print, “It is dreadful but necessary” (“Cest affreux mais nécessaire”) / From the Journal d’Autre Monde, 1794.

This image shows the guillotine surrounded by the heads it has been responsible for removing. Although the print is sinister, its caption states that the Terror is dreadful, but necessary. This was a commonly held belief in 1793-1794 when the guillotine was a means of purging France of those who were deemed a threat to national security.

Reign of Terror lasted from September 1793 until the fall of Robespierre in 1794. Its purpose was to purge France of enemies of the Revolution and protect the country from foreign invaders. From January 1793-July 1794, France was governed by the Committee of Public Safety, in which Danton and Robespierre were influential members. In the course of nine months, 16, 000 people were guillotined, but executions of those labeled “internal enemies” of France took place throughout the country.

During this time there was a shift in power within the committee from Danton to Robespierre. Danton had a strong physical presence and was an incredible public speaker, while Robespierre was less passionate. However, Robespierre was a hard worker who was very ambitious. He blindly believed in the work of Rousseau, who argued that men are all born good at heart and are corrupted by society. It was these beliefs that caused him to continue the Terror even when it was no longer necessary (Spielvogel,696).

In 1794, the armies of France were very successful against their enemies, which meant that the Terror was no longer necessary. But Robespierre continued the Terror because he wanted to purge France of everyone who was corrupt. The killing ended when Robespierre was executed on July 28, 1794.

Fall of Robespierre

Robespierre is arrested, 27 July 1794

The Fall of Robespierre began on March 30, 1794 when he sent his fellow citizens and friends Danton and Desmoulins to the guillotine. Danton was a staunch patriot, but also had qualities that Robespierre detested. Danton lived beyond his means consistently, and it was rumored that he had accepted bribes from aristocrats and the king. Robespierre’s “Republic of Virtue” had no place for characters like Danton. Desmoulins was also condemned because he eloquently sided with Danton in his journal “The Old Cordelier,” a journal which Robespierre labeled “counter-revolutionary.” Robespierre used his power as a member of the Committee of Public Safety to have the two unfairly tried and guillotined.

After this event, members of the Convention and the Committee eyed Robespierre with suspicion. He had ordered the death of two of his close friends despite the fact that they had been popular among the people of Paris. Robespierre was the sole person who decided between wrong and right. The Convention saw Robespierre as a tyrant and his Republic of Virtue as authoritarian. A faction of the Convention banded together to destroy Robespierre before he destroyed the remaining members of the French government.

On July 28, 1794, Robespierre and his followers were guillotined. The period known as the Terror came to an end.

At War

The Battle of Pyramids, 21 July 1798

The war that France began in 1792 would continue until 1815 and cost Europe millions of lives. From 1792 until 1799, France had almost continuos military success. After the Fall of Robespierre, a new governing body called the Directory replaced the Convention. This institution was corrupt and lacked real leadership, but despite the divisions at home, France was conquering countries throughout Europe and Northern Africa.

The most successful of these generals was Napoleon Bonaparte. He was victorious against the Austrians, Prussians, and Italians. He also led French troops across the Mediterranean Sea into Egypt, although this mission was not as sucessful as his European campaigns. His most successful battle was Austerlitz, where his skilll as a tactician allowed him to defeat Russian and Austrian troops simultaneously. The day of the battle, December 2, 1805 became known as the “sun of Austerlitz” because the day was cloudless, but also because the victory was synonymous with the paek of Napoleon’s fortunes. His many victories made him a popular figure in France and paved the way for his eventual dictatorship, which ended the Revolution begun in 1789.


Napoleon I crowns his wife the Empress of France, 1802 / Painting by Jacques Louis David to commemorate the event, 1804

By the late 1790s the Directory, France’s governing body, relied almost entirely on the military to maintain its power. This reliance led to the coup d’état that occurred in 1799.

After the coup d’état, a new form of the Republic was declared in France, and executive power was given to three consuls. Napoleon Bonaparte was declared First Consul, and possessed most of the power in government. Napoleon quickly took advantage of his situation and named himself First Counsul for Life in 1802. In 1804, France again became a monarchy when Napoleon crowned himself the Emperor of France. The French Revolution, which had begun as a reaction against authoritarianism, ended under a regime far more tyrannical than that of Louis XVI.



17 JUNE : The third estate declares that it is now the National Assembly.

14 JULY: The Fall of the Bastille.

17 JULY: The first wave of nobles emigrates.

26 AUGUST: The Assembly adoptes The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.

16 SEPTEMBER: The first edition of Marat’s journal “The Friend of the People” is published.

5-6 OCTOBER: October Days. Parisian women march to Versailles and demand that the royal family return to Paris.

19 OCTOBER: The National Assembly is installed in Paris, and the precursor of the Jacobin Club is formed.


27 APRIL: The Cordeliers club is formed.

21 SEPTEMBER: The Tricolor is declared the national flag.

27 NOVEMBER: The Civil Consitiution of the Clergy goes into effect.


20 JUNE: The royal family attempts to flee France and is apprehended at Varennes.

3 SEPTEMBER: The National Assembly votes on a constitution. Ten days later it is ratified by the King.

1 OCTOBER: The Legislative Assembly is formed.


15 MARCH: The Girondins are in power.

20 APRIL: France declares war on Austria and Prussia.

11 JUNE: The King vetos several of the Legislative Assembly’s key decrees.

10 AUGUST: The people invade the Tuileries palace and take the King and his family hostage.

21 SEPTEMBER: The Legislative Assembly becomes the Convention and the Monarchy is abolished.

22 SEPTEMBER: The Republic of France is declared

11 DECEMBER: The trial of Louis XVI begins.


21 JANUARY: Execuation of Louis XVI.

1 FEBRUARY: France declares war on England and The Netherlands.

10 MARCH: The Criminal Tribunal is created.

6 APRIL: The Committee of Public Safety is created.

2 JUNE: The Fall of the Girondins

13 JULY: The assasination of Marat by Charlotte Corday.

27 JULY: Robespierre sits on the Committee of Public Safety.

23 AUGUST: The Convention decrees a levee en masse which makes military service obligatory for all French men.


10 OCTOBER: The Committee declares that the government of France is “revoluationary” (not constiutional) until the end of the war.

16 OCTOBER: The execution of Marie Antoinette, the wife of Louis XVI.

OCTOBER-DECEMBER: France is victorious in its war against most of Western Europe.


30 MARCH: Danton and Desmoulins are arrested. They are guillotined 6 days later.

4 JUNE: Ropespierre is elected President of the Convention.

JUNE-JULY: The Terror persists and France continues to be victorious in war.

27 JULY: Robespierre and his followers are arrested and guillotined. The Convention and the Commitee of Public Safety are repalced by the Thermidorian Convention.

12 NOVEMBER: The Convention closes all Jacobin clubs in Paris.


1 APRIL: Insurrection by the Sans-Culottes is dispersed by the National Gaurd.

20 MAY: The Sans-Culottes riot for three days.

8 JUNE: The heir to the throne, Louis XVII, dies in prison.

JULY-AUGUST: France has continued military success.

22 AUGUST: France adopts a new constiution.

26 OCTOBER: The Directory becomes the governing body of France.


MARCH-MAY: Napoleon Bonaparte has success in his military campaigns throughout Europe.

15-17 NOVEMBER: Napoleon beats the Austrians in battle.


4 SEPTEMBER: The Royalists win many seats in the Directory in the elections.


11 MAY: The Jacobins are victorious in France’s elections.

MAY-AUGUST: Napoleon has military success in Egypt.

29 DECEMBER: England, Russia, and Italy sign a pact against France.


9 OCTOBER: Napoleon returns to France, leaving his armies in Eygpt.

9-10 NOVEMBER: Napoleon takes over the Directory. This is the end of the Revolution.