4.3: Eliminating the Monarchy and Getting Radical

Many members of the old Second Estate moved to other monarchies in Europe, and urged that foreign armies invade their home country to restore Louis to the throne. By 1793, Britain, Prussia, Spain, Holland, and Austria (all traditional enemies of France) had declared war on the new French government, demanding that Louis be released from jail.

In response to the foreign and civil wars occurring, the left-wing radical views soon emerged victorious. People feared a return to the old Estates system and were paranoid of those who might still be loyal to the king or the old First and Second Estates. Among the most radical was Jean-Paul Marat, a former doctor who had been forced by poverty to live in the sewers of Paris, where he picked up an uncomfortable and chronic skin disease. Marat found in the Revolution a way to lash out for his personal frustrations, and his “newspaper” The Friend of the People was always full of fear, anger, and mean-spirited attacks against those who he saw as “not radical enough.” Marat urged that more and more suspected “traitors to the Revolution” be arrested, put “on trial,” and then beheaded with the new “more humane” execution technology, the guillotine. Among those executed was the king himself in early 1793, for betraying his own countrymen and plotting with “the enemy” to return to his throne. (Marie would soon after meet the same fate.)

Pic Duty 4.1

Marat, as a radical, found himself the enemy of many moderates (“centrists”), including a young woman from the country named Charlotte Corday, who visited him one day in 1793, claiming that she had a list of traitors who should be executed. Finding Marat in his medicinal bath, Corday fatally stabbed him and soon was executed herself. Marat’s death had the reverse effect that Corday hoped for: he became a saint-like figure and martyr; the Revolution merely became even more radical as a result of her action.

Though the Revolution embraced the Enlightenment ideals, those ideals were still confined to mainly men: when a playwright and social critic named Olympe de Gouges proposed that women be included under the “Rights of Man and of the Citizen,” she met the same end as Charlotte Corday. The Revolution had quickly become a bloodbath, and most of the citizens killed by the guillotine were not the “enemy” estates, but members of the Third Estate. If a neighbor overheard you calling the king “His Majesty” or calling someone “Mister” (“Monsieur” instead of the new version, “Citizen”), supposedly this could be enough “evidence” to send you to jail and then the guillotine.


The radicals sought to gain control in a way that the king himself had done just a few years earlier: by crushing all enemies. The Assembly became the “Directory,” a group of dictators led by two representatives of the old Third Estate: Maximilien Robespierre and Georges Danton. Under the Directory, France not only eliminated the Church but also religion altogether: renaming streets named for saints, inventing the metric system as the “democratic” method of measurement, re-organizing the calendar into years dated from “Year One of the Revolution,” and converting months into units of 3 weeks of 10 days each (in effect, not only eliminating Sundays but also any idea of when Sunday would have been.) In the spirit of the Enlightenment, Robespierre declared himself a “priest of Reason” and urged his countrypeople to worship Reason as a goddess.

Robespierre’s and Danton’s Reign of Terror (which witnessed the most speedy trials and deaths by execution yet) eventually consumed itself: Robespierre accused Danton of betraying the Revolution, and Robespierre’s colleagues later accused him of doing the same (on the day that he threatened to expose some of them as “traitors”). Both of these men, like thousands of others, went to the guillotine. By July 1794, five years after Bastille Day began the cycle of violence, the country at last settled down. A moderate “National Convention” took the place of the Directory, and reversed many of the radical changes. However, there was still the problem of foreign wars…


[Guillotine (named for Dr. Guillotan)—an execution method which drops a blade from a height on the back of the victim’s neck, killing the individual quickly and with far lesser pain than other execution methods at the time: nicknamed the “National Razor” during the French Revolution]

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