A poor mans two weeks in Gironde
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The Montagnards defended themselves vigorously against this accusation. Robespierre defended the Commune in similar terms:.
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Could the magistrates have stopped the people? For it was a popular movement, not the partial sedition of a few wretches paid to murder their fellows … I have heard people coolly tell me that the municipality should have proclaimed martial law. Martial law on 2 September! Martial law, as the enemy approaches! Martial law, after 10 August! Martial law for the accomplices of the dethroned tyrant against the people! But the Montagnards did not wish for an extended debate on a subject they found troubling. As it spread across the departments, the news of the September massacres coincided with the elections to the Convention.
The electoral assemblies started meeting on 2 September for the second level of the elections.
In the provinces, the Girondin candidates were the best placed. Paris, on the other hand, voted for the party of the Commune. Not one of the Girondin candidates, criticized for their softness towards the king and their hostility to the Commune, was elected. It is impossible to enumerate precisely how the Convention was divided between Girondins and Montagnards, as neither of these formed a compact bloc that could be represented by a diagram.
The Gironde and the Montagne were groups centred around core leaders, around which there moved fluctuating majorities recruited from the Plaine, the great mass of those whose allegiance was sometimes to one of the opposing tendencies and sometimes to the other. The Convention was the first of the revolutionary assemblies to be elected on universal male suffrage.
But was it representative leaving aside the theoretical aspect of the representation of the people? Looking just at the electoral system, the answer is unhesitatingly negative. The two-level ballot did not encourage participation it seems people did not flood to the primary assemblies. Ultimately it favoured the selection of the new notables who were officials of the Revolution: judges, administrators of departments, districts and communes, procureurs , officers of the National Guard, etc.
Given that the great majority of the French people at this time were peasants or artisans, we have to accept that the Convention was not a representative assembly in terms of composition. In terms of operation, however, the position was quite different. I do not mean the speeches and debates, which remained parliamentary exercises, even if their tone, their intensity and their consequences were of a quite different order than those of today. I mean rather the intervention of the people in the sessions of the Convention.
First of all, there were ordinary people in the galleries who were not shy about making their opinion known. Prepare premises for it that are large enough to hold three thousand citizens in galleries that are quite open and absolutely free from guards, in such a way that the deputies are constantly under the eyes of the people and have no other safeguard but their civic spirit and their virtue.
Of course, this advice was not implemented. But just as important as the direct pressure of the people was the way each session of the Convention began with several hours set aside for the reading of letters and hearing of delegations that were a direct emanation from the people. True, these were often simple revolutionary acts of faith, delegates from far-flung communes bringing their gifts to the Nation, asserting their support for their representatives or congratulating them on this or that measure.
But they could also involve criticisms or proposals, which sometimes had immediate effects. In this respect, the Convention certainly was the first and only French national assembly in which the people were able to make their voice directly heard. Valmy, first of all, as it is impossible to relate everything at the same time.
To the south, the army of the Rhine was led by Biron, then Custine. Dumouriez headed the army of the North, part of which was around Sedan and the rest facing Belgium — which Dumouriez dreamed of conquering — from Maubeuge to Dunkirk. Whoever knows much, doubts much. Brunswick therefore moved to the attack on 12 September, north of the Argonne in the forest of La Croix-aux-Bois.
But the route via La Croix-aux-Bois was left unguarded. Dumouriez risked being cut off, but Brunswick was slow and indecisive, which enabled the French to retreat at night in the rain.
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Dumouriez disobeyed and retreated south towards Sainte-Menehould, which was daring, as it left the road to Paris wide open. The Prussians, however, had forgotten the lightning manoeuvres of the great Frederick: they took up position on the hills facing the French army, in a paradoxical situation in which they were on the Paris side whilst Kellermann, occupying a kind of forward promontory marked by the Valmy windmill, was on the far side. King Friedrich-Wilhelm gave the order to attack. But sixty French guns responded, and for the whole day this army, made up in part by National Guard, withstood a harder test than any battle: immobility under fire.
Brunswick dared not order the assault and had them return to their positions. A torrential rain began to fall, and that evening the two armies bivouacked where they were. Valmy — a victory won by shouting. Strategically it meant very little, as the Prussian army remained intact and the road to Paris open. Symbolically, however, it was a tremendous event, and the Austro-Prussians understood that this army they so despised would not be so easily defeated. They retreated in good order in the rain, unimpeded by Dumouriez, eager as he was to resume his plans against Belgium.
The antagonism between the Gironde and the Montagne was not based on social background. There was rather a geographical difference between them. The great figures of the Montagne, if not all Parisian, were at least Paris deputies, whereas the heroes of the Gironde except for Brissot came from the south. The Protestant pastor Lasource, deputy for the Tarn, was among the Girondins who best expressed the sentiments of the group towards Paris:.
I fear the despotism of Paris, and I do not want those who there command the opinions of men whom they lead astray to dominate the National Convention and all of France … Paris must be reduced to an eighty-third share of influence, the same as the other departments. I shall never consent to its tyrannizing the Republic, as sought by certain intriguers against whom I shall be the first to rise up, because I shall never remain silent before any species of tyrant.
But the conflict was deeper still, with two opposing conceptions of the society to be created. The Girondins saw property as a basic natural right, and believed that the state had no business interfering in the free play of supply and demand. The Montagnards, while also upholding respect for property, defined this in a different way, subordinating it to the right to existence. There were discordant voices even among them. A farming company, controlled by the state, would store the harvest in 30, granaries, and set the price of bread which would be the same for the whole of France.
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The Montagnards, for their part, made it a point of honour to deliberate only in public, at the Jacobins club. Following the verification of mandates, the Convention began its proceedings on 21 September. In its opening session, major decisions were taken in an atmosphere of reconciliation. This fine unanimity would not last.
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As for the courts, I believe it is not enough to re-elect their members, they should be swept away. The courts have been nothing more than pillars of tyranny. The counter-attack was not long in coming. On 24 September, Buzot came to the platform to demand that the Convention be surrounded by a guard recruited in the departments, with a view to ensuring the safety of the deputies.
The memorable session of the next day, 25 September, was long and stormy. Barbaroux, will testify, and it is to combat it that we were sent here. Why then oppose a decree by the Convention that citizens from all the departments should gather for its safety and that of Paris? Their fathers have given them each two pistols, a sword, a musket and an assignat of livres.
They are accompanied by cavalry, armed and equipped at their own cost … Hasten then to pass this decree, confirming the principle that the Convention belongs not only to Paris but to the whole of France. The discussion descended to invective when Marat came to the platform. If anyone is guilty of having thrown ideas of this kind to the public, it is I! I call down on my head the vengeance of the Nation: but before unleashing opprobrium or the sword, listen to me!
I ask the Convention to decree the unity of the Republic. Those from Marseille, as announced by Barbaroux, arrived on 19 October. Marat went to see them in their barracks, showed concern for their arrangements and invited three from each company to dine with him.
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