Reasons radicalization of French Revolution By the end of September 1791, the National Assembly announced that its work was done. In many ways, the Constitution of 1791 seemed to fulfil the promises of reform which had been first uttered by the men of 1789. All Frenchmen could now be proud that the following rights had been secured: equality before the law, careers open to talent, a written constitution, and parliamentary government. Hence, there was a sizeable faction within the National Assembly who were satisfied and claimed the Revolution to be at an end as its primary aims had been achieved.
However, by 1792 the revolution moved in a more radical and violent direction. Why the revolution became radical is often debated, and there are essentially two main reasons as to why it did so. First, a counter-revolution, loyal to Church and King, was led by the noble and the clergy and supported by staunch Catholic peasants. This threatened the changes of the revolutionaries; therefore they turned to drastic measures. Second, the economic, social, and political discontent of the urban working classes also propelled the Revolution in the direction of radicalism.
These were the small shop-keepers, artisans and wage earners, referred to as ‘sans-culottes’. Popular discontent and Jacobin agitation was evident in August as the city council was overthrown and the Commune of Paris was established. Despite the revolutionaries drafting a constitution, they now had no monarch as the royal family was under house arrest. By September the capital was in a state of chaos as more than 1,200 people were killed. This took place in order to maintain revolution and keep it moving forward.
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Although the constitution was already enshrined and the citizens had their freedom and liberties, there was still plenty of public dissent and disapproval as to whether or not these laws would help create a new government and prevent the country from breaking apart. The people had come this far and were not prepared to watch their efforts lead to failure or the restoration of an absolute monarchy. As a result of this radical forces were able to get citizens on side by claiming the constitution of 1791 did not meet the demands of all the people.
Radicals led the Commune, discarded the old constitution and called for a National Convention to revise a new one. In January 1793, Louis XVI was executed and the Jacobins condemned their actions by claiming that the monarchy had to be abolished in order to eliminate as many of the royalist and monarchists that remained. France was declared a republic and it could be suggested that his death signified the emergence of nationalism as people remained loyal to the radicals. In addition to this, it highlighted the point where radicalism would dominate the revolution.
The revolution faced strain as it coped with the weight of foreign war and civil war which caused the revolutionary leadership to grow more radical. Moderate reformers – the Girondins, had previously dominated the National Convention, but this was to change. Division within the convention began to emerge within the Convention as the Jacobins and Girondins desired different aims. Factional disputes resulted in the replacement of the Girondins with the Jacobins – the far more radical of the two.
The Jacobins claimed it was their duty to save the revolution and their strengths helped gain them the support of the sans-culottes. It was the premise of the Jacobins that they should eradicate the “enemies” and secure the destiny of the revolution through the destruction of counter-revolutionary forces. The Jacobins managed to grip firm control of the Convention and the French Nation. Essentially, they were now the government. However, with the strain of civil war, economic distress and threats of foreign invasion, they realised strong leadership was required in order to save the revolution.
The CPS assumed tight leadership in April 1793, and it has been argued that the reign of terror followed from this. The Committee ordered arrests and trials of counter-revolutionaries and imposed government authority. However, there was no turning back from the radical phase that the people had voluntarily entered. By summer, the reign of terror had spread over France, spearheaded by the infallibility of Robespierre, began persecuting even the innocent. It can be seen it was far too radical as even the moderate Girondins were accused of counter-revolutionary actions and expelled from the Convention.
What was once a legislative, two-sided body had now become an authoritarian oligarchy led by radicals. It has been argued that this was a step backwards in the revolution as it imitated an absolute monarchy, without the safeguards of constitution. Around 17,000 people died as a result of the terror, and this was to be a stage in the revolution that could not be undone. In the summer of 1794 there seemed to be less need for terror and the republic seemed a reality. With the 9th Thermidor, the machinery of the Jacobin republic was dismantled.
Leadership passed to the property owning bourgeoisie. The government then changed hands to the five-man directory and radicalism had been effectively thwarted. However, France was still at war with the rest of Europe and leadership began to pass into the hands of generals, which ultimately saw the emergence of Napoleon Bonaparte. France was not prepared for such social and political upheaval, and the resulting shift towards a republic would change the country forever.
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