Saturday, March 27, 2021

The War in the Vendee: the French Revolution's Genocide (Part 1)


A little known civil war (at least in the English speaking world)  was fought during the French Revolution (1793-95) primarily in the Vendée region of western France south of Nantes, south of the Loire valley and north of Bordeaux (four Departments: Vendée, Loire Inferieur, Maine-et- Loire and Deux-Sevres). It can be noted peasant communities spontaneously rose up against the Revolution. The end result was widespread destruction and mass killing of residents of the region. And the wanton death, destruction and violation can best be characterized as genocide or something too close to it. Deaths amounted to countless tens of thousands (one estimate is 250,000).

Genocide is a hot button word. People argue when to employ it. For example surprisingly not entirely everyone agrees that the Armenian genocide of 1915-1918 should be termed as such, even though the over one million Armenians in the Anatolia peninsula were no more to be found and didn’t seem to have migrated anywhere in massive numbers. Ok, it’s just Turkey and Pakistan who don’t agree with the characterization of genocide. For some critics violent resistance to the mass killing seems to exclude the atrocity from the category. Armenians did resist in some part, largely after most of the peoples had died. One can say the same here. The Vendeans resisted from the beginning. But as in other genocides the goal by the French Revolutionary government's stated goal was extermination and destruction of the peoples of the region.  

It can be noted the spontaneous opposition these Vendean communities organized; in contrast, tragically, to the urbanized, atomized, modern European Jew, who didn’t resist whatsoever other than attempt to emigrate, to little effect since no country accepted them, including New Deal USA. It is also seen, in Revolutionary France much the same organization and concerted effort to decimate an entire peoples seen in Turkey, Rwanda, Cambodia and of course the Holocaust in war time Europe. The scale was much smaller at most an estimated 250,000 although some  critics have estimated a far lower figure.

The forces that propelled French Revolution can only be said to have needlessly aggravated conflict externally and internally. By April 1792 France had declared war on Austria, thinking it would prosecute a war the French people could rally around and punish the emigres (French Nobility) that had emigrated, who worked to overthrow the Revolution. The war that was to last in different configurations until 1815 with only a brief respite was a disaster initially. A much needed victory at Valmy 150 miles from Paris in September 1792 preserved the Revolution for the time being.

The Revolution saw fit to try, convict and execute a disloyal King (deposition never seems to occurred to them in favor of a son under regency or Duc d’Orleans, a liberal cousin, who would have accepted a constitutional monarchy, who himself went under the guillotine later). This enraged the rest of Europe. Soon England, the Dutch Republic, Spain, Portugal along with Prussia, who had joined Austria earlier in 1792, were fighting them. France was at war with much of Europe. An unchecked legislative assembly ran the Revolution without restraint of courts, bicameral houses or an executive, who, as we know, had been beheaded. We all know what violence took place in the ensuing Terror. France would become a militarized state to defend itself from foreign and internal enemies for the next two decades, until Napoleon was removed.  

At the same time the Revolution was waging a war of sorts against the Catholic Church. The Church had great wealth. Church property was nationalized October 10, 1789. This was not an entirely unpopular move. The members of the church hierarchy, including most abbots of monasteries, were simply members of the aristocracy and didn’t involve themselves with church affairs, but lived off the extravagant income from Church properties. The peasants were to have paid a tithe of 10% to maintain the Church. The priests were paid little.  The Revolution abolished the tithe on August 4, 1789 in a flurry of legislation that ended most seigneurial obligations.

July 12, 1790 priests were obligated to swear a higher allegiance to the French state than the Pope. In large regions of the country this was extremely unpopular. In January 8, 1792 it was decreed that all ecclesiastics who have not sworn the civil oath were deprived of all benefices and pensions and are to be held under surveillance as suspects. Nonjuring priests were driven from the temple. This did much to raise the hackles of many religious in France especially in the devout Vendee region, which strenuously opposed the removal of their priests. 

 Priests that didn’t swear became nonjurors and practically enemies of the State. In the September 2, 1792 massacre led by the Parisian mob, three bishops and 200 priests were brutally murdered. A period of de-Christianization began. It saw the destruction of the Sacred objects from places of worship and the enactment of a law on 21 October 1793 making all nonjuring priests and all persons who harbored them liable to death on sight. Even a Cult of Reason was celebrated as a state religion in lieu of Catholicism.

By August 1792 opposition to the Revolution in the Vendee was at a fever pitch. It wasn’t safe for a Revolutionary partisan to walk alone.  As a prelude to the civil war to come, a spontaneous full pitched attack by the Vendee residents against the Revolutionary authorities on August 4, 1792 took place, precipitated by an eviction of nuns from a convent. They marched on Bressuire in the Department of Deux-Severes. They were badly led and an hundred peasants died and five hundred were captured. The willingness that led to such loss of life demonstrates astonishing devotion to their religious cause and a defense of community. It’s hard to imagine a modern automatized individual, being so passionate. History saw the Jew obligingly rounded up by the NAZIs by the millions in WWII.

The King would be executed in January, 1793. Again in the Vendee, loyal to the monarchy, the residents were largely aghast at the work of Paris in so brutally dispatching their monarch. France had seen Kings reign for well over a thousand years, who was ballast against the aristocracy.

Another burden on the peasantry the Revolutionary period was inflation. The Revolution could only finance its wars by printing money, fiat currency, the assignats, purportedly backed by Nationalized Church property. The Revolution issued them far in excess of the value of the Nationalized Church property, by the billions of assignats. This led to severe inflation that in effect led to paying the peasant for his produce in depreciated money, a cheat.  It’s not difficult to understand they were hesitant to hand over their hard earned produce for this fiat currency.

Repression of the religious continued. Women on their way to Mass were beaten in the streets. On 3 March 1793, virtually all the churches were ordered closed. Soldiers confiscated sacramental vessels and the people were forbidden to place crosses on graves.

Then to propagate the wars against Europe the Revolution announced their intention of a conscription of 300,000 troops beginning March 1793. This was the match that ignited revolt in the Vendee. The region rose up in revolt in opposition to the Revolutionary troop’s appearance to gather recruits.


At the inception of the revolt a spontaneous uprising illustrates the action that traditional rural communities were capable. At Cholet in the Maine-et-Loire Department, south of the Loire River, some five hundred young men gathered to protest the announced conscription. “Why serve a government which denies us our religion?” was the question. The National Guard commandant and a small contingent of five soldiers arrived, thinking the task of recruitment would be easy.  They were rushed by the crowd and run off with the commandant severely wounded in the leg. Revolutionary reinforcements returned, acted aggressively, killing seven of the protestors. A general revolt across the region broke out. Peasants insisted that Royalist nobility take a leading role in the revolt, names like Bonchamp, d’Elbee, Sapinaud, La Rochejacquelein and Charette stepped forward, most with reluctance knowing the long odds of defeating the Revolutionary forces.

The Vendeans had great enthusiasm and little weaponry, initially. Most weaponry they obtained was from overrunning the Revolutionary Forces which were badly led and often ran away under fire. The Vendeans, skilled as hunters, aimed to kill; the mass troops of the Revolution practiced mass volleys of fire, typical of a disciplined army used as battle tactic until rapid firing weapons of the Mid-19th Century. Thousands of Vendeans spontaneously volunteered and defeated their Revolutionary opponents in set battles. This was not predominately guerilla warfare. There big disadvantage was they were not under strict military discipline. After a victory the Vendeans would wander away to tend their farms and the Vendean army would largely evaporate. After being largely victorious against the Revolution, on June 9, 1793 they capture Saumur on the Loire. The Vendeans had overcome everything the Revolution had sent them and Napoleon later said they could have marked to Paris. But the Vendeans fought fanatically for their region to be left alone and not as much to overturn the Revolution. They had been spectacularly successful up until now. Retribution from the Republic was to come. 

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Robespierre and the French Revolution (Part 3) 

Robespierre suffered retribution for his campaign of violence on 10 Thermidor (July 28), 1794 along with twenty one others, Saint-Just, his sidekick, among them. We can be assured they went to their deaths utterly befuddled as to suddenness of their demise. The Sections of Paris (Parisian mob), so integral to the actors of the Revolution, did little to assist them. Their heads roll into the basket below the guillotine efficiently and speedily. Fouche, Tallien and Barras, those even more dedicated to using Terror against opponents of their revolution, worked behind the scenes to cobble together a coalition to overthrow him. The Convention rose against them.

The parliamentary, mechanisms of the Terror would be dismantled beginning in August 1794. The Convention would repeal the Law of 22 Prairial; end the surveillance committees in the provinces. They weakened the Revolutionary Tribunal. They took away power of the Committee of Public Safety, restricting it to War and Diplomacy. The doors to prison opened with the release of 3500. Incidentally, Tom Paine (English born, American Patriot, elected to the Constituent Assembly) was on schedule for execution 3 days before Robespierre was executed, but the chalk mark indicating for him to be taken to execution was put on the inside of this door not the outside. He was released from prison in November 1794 upon the urging of James Madison.




His political philosophy was based on Rousseau’s belief in natural virtue of the people, whose general will directs the government, not republican institutions that shackled popular will as seen under the U.S. Constitution. It’s as if the French didn’t know their own Montesquieu, albeit a monarchist; with his sagacious system of three separate branches of government so influential in America.

The contrast with the American Constitution could hardly be starker.  An upper chamber (originally elected by state assemblies) granting each state no matter how diminutive, equal representation is separated from the lower popular representative assembly. A Supreme Court, a handful of lifetime appointees, has final voice on the legality of Legislation; few political bodies are less democratic unless members were seated under inherited privilege. A President elected by the Electoral College, selected by popular vote by state. In contrast, insurrection of the people (mob violence) was enshrined in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man (1793) thus granting public upheaval the approval under law. And of course in practice at times during the French Revolution, the Parisian mob intervened directly into the popular assembly’s workings, assailing the chamber itself. The French concentrated power into a single Legislative Assembly, no executive, no independent courts. America treated completely differently. Power that arose from the people was highly dispersed under the American Constitution, that saw so little appeal in Revolutionary France. The Founding Fathers were students of history and not just the Ancient Greeks and Romans. They studied the Venetian Republic among others. They saw the fragility of the Athenian Democracy, centered exclusively on the Assembly of citizens, the purest form direct form of democracy. The Founders were not democrats.

The sagacious economist and social commentator, Thomas Sowell, expresses it far better than I in his Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles; there are constrained visions like the American Revolution, working within the limitations of a individual plagued with foibles and unconstrained ones like the French Revolution that sees no boundaries to the progress of humankind.  One system didn’t last the decade; the other has survived with warts and all for 230 years.


So the primary question becomes, how did the Revolution become a bloody, violent nightmare? Much of the reason, according to this humble pundit, is the pace at which the Revolution was able to make enemies. Many apologists for the Terror argue that with the ingrained aristocracy and ecclesiastical interests, absent in the American Revolution, had to be destroyed, presenting an ever present danger to the Republic. Though in fact there were any number of ci-devant (former) members of the nobility that participated as agents of the Revolution. A counter argument can be made that striking at foreign powers that backed the émigré nobility (thousands of nobles had fled the country in hopes that foreign powers could reinstate the Ancien Regime) and attempting to crush religious sensibilities created powerful countercurrents. These countercurrents could have been avoided. It was the Revolution that initiated the wars against Austria, then eventually with most of Europe. Robespierre even himself cautioned against these foreign adventures.

For that matter, a duplicitous Louis XVI could have been deposed and replaced by someone more open to sharing power, possibly his minor son, or even a relative, an Orleanist (the line originated with Philippe, duke d’Orléans, younger brother of Louis XIV) sympathetic to constitutional monarchy, to act as regent.  The English in 1688 in their Glorious Revolution saw William of Orange become their king and a Declaration of Rights issued. Instead his execution under the guillotine enraged Europe and set the monarchs upon Republican France. In the tumult of the French Revolution the peaceful deposition would have been difficult to achieve, I admit.

will, and in practice this was the Paris mob. The people’s right to protest their government was enshrined in 1793 Constitution. The Montagnards, Robespierre as their spokesman, incorporated the sans-coulottes, economic thinking in contrast to the Girondins , who adhered to classic economic practices of the free market.  The raging inflation produced by unrestrained issuance of assignats, was blamed on shopkeeper greed. A price Maximum was instituted. This did nothing to alleviate shortages nor offer true market prices (goods began to be offered in a Black Market).

At the start of May 1793, the Jacobins in Paris began to side with the sans culottes over food policy. It was a calculated shift, designed to gain public support and finish off the Girondins for good. On May 4, 1793, the National Assembly imposed price controls on grain and specified that it could only be sold in public markets under the watchful eye of state inspectors, who were also given the authority to break into merchants’ private homes and confiscate hoarded grain and flour. Destruction of commodities under government regulation was made a capital offense.

During the Jacobin Republic of 1792–1794, a swarm of regulators spread across France imposing price ceilings and intruding into every corner of people’s lives; they imposed death sentences, confiscated wealth and property, and sent men, women, and children to prison and slave labor. The Revolution was bent on rash, often times violent measures to attain its goals, thereby generating tremendous counter currents, only granting the Revolution excuse for more crackdowns.


There are many instances where the violent Revolution could have been averted; the Assembly of Notables (1787-88) is my choice. Here the aristocracy punted their chance to reform the tax and financial system; instead they left responsibility to the Estates, a catastrophic blunder. Not only for them but all of France. And this hesitancy was a product of a residual hostility by the aristocracy, predicated on the Absolutism of French Monarchy that enfeebled the Nobility in the aftermath of The Fronde (1648-1653). The Fronde was a revolt of the Nobility and the Parlement that was suppressed and muzzled by the young King.  Fatigued, they eventually came to live with Louis XIV at Versailles.

The only ones successful at directing the Revolution stood at the forefront of the upheaval, pandering to the Parisian Mob and that includes both the Girondins (Danton and Desmoulins), who supported representative government and constitutional monarchy.   Plus we must include the Jacobins (Robespierre among many others), who all became republicans, after the flight of the King. There was no one active who can hope to successfully accomplish a gradual reform of the monarchy. It was a full bore charge into democracy (something the American Founders had dread fear of) and economic and political chaos and then eventual tyranny and twenty years of war.


Wars are expensive which is what sent the French Monarchy into the abyss in the first place. The Revolutionary government had the same difficulty in financing its wars; considerable amounts of paper currency, called “assignats”, backed by Church confiscated lands, were issued to pay for it. It was argued land was better than gold or silver as a backing for money. Of course land unlike metals isn’t portable or fungible either. And their unrestrained issuance ignited inflation, which the Parisian mob blamed on the small shopkeeper. The authorities printed these to suit the excessive demands of a war time government.  Soon their value had become a fraction of their original issue, which is most often the path of fiat currency of this type. Few understood it at this time but it was the chief cause of massive inflation of prices in the economy. Cost of basic living staples far outpaced the slow to rise income of the poor, as always happens in an inflationary cycle. Price maximums were instituted which is an imprudent gesture, akin to stopping the tides. In this case the tides were volumes of printed currency introduced into the economy. It can be safely stated, the Revolutionaries management of the economy was incompetent and destructive.   

An additional blunder was the assault on the Church. As did Henry VIII in 16th Century England who took extensive church lands (some say 25% of the country) and closed monasteries three centuries before, so did the French Revolution on November 2, 1789. There was much public support to divest the Church of its massive wealth. In addition the buyers of Church property, as with England’s Landed Gentry, would become immediate enthusiasts of the regime. It was a win-win for the Revolution. It was a compelling and inviting grab. Nonetheless, thousands of the religious were thrown on to their own devises and welfare services like hospitals and schools that the church provided ceased. And the French lost a spiritual resource, admitting that many in the society looked upon these religious organizations as leeches on a working body politic. The society lost a most visible moral anchor as well. But this would not have represented an existential misstep for the Revolution.

But the Revolution went further; they strived to make the Faithful the enemy. They insisted that the Church become a quasi-department of the State. The Revolutionaries invaded the spiritual arena and banned religious vows on February 13, 1790. On July 12, 1790 the Civil Constitution of the Clergy was proclaimed. Knowing that deep opposition to the Revolution resided in the Clergy, the clergy were forced to swear their highest allegiance to the French State, not the Roman Pope, in order to preside over the Holy Sacraments of the Church. They would be paid a salary. Clergy would be elected, whether Protestant or Jews. Vast numbers of the clergy abjured. They would no longer be allowed to lead their congregation. This created great opposition and unrest in many parts of the country.

Finally, a campaign to de-Christianize the society was launched. The anti-Christian program spawned violent opposition in many parts of the country, including an outright civil war in the Vendee. Churches were desecrated as was Notre Dame, where the Cult of Reason was celebrated (Fête de la Raison), featuring a seductively attired female Liberty at the Altar. Fouche, one of the conspirators toppling Robespierre, previously led a fanatical de-Christianizing campaign in jurisdictions, where he held sway as representative-on-mission. He ordered all crosses and statues removed from graveyards, and he gave the cult one of its elemental tenets and he decreed that all cemetery gates must bear only one inscription—"Death is an eternal sleep”. Hundreds of thousands of French citizens were killed suppressing it, if one includes the slaughter in the Vendee. *

I forget to mention the Federalist revolt. May 31 to June 2, 1793 upon intimidation and threats of the Parisian mob the National Convention expelled Girondins.  Opposition arose in response to expulsion of the Girondins from the National Convention. The revolts appeared in Lyon, Bordeaux, Nantes, Rouen and others locations (France was re-organized into 83 departments then districts, cantons and communes in 1790). These too were excuses for Robespierre and the Jacobins to pursue a policy of Terror. The revolts had temporary success but soon representatives on mission sent from the National Convention re-gained control and brutally crushed these revolts. On instance of the crackdown of the Federalist an astounding 1600 homes, largely of the commercial elites, were destroyed. 1604 were shot or guillotined in the suppression were executed. Joseph Fouche (infamous in several ways but eventually he found himself useful to Napoleon, as police chief) would arrive in November and commit more atrocities.

The opposition to these became all the more forceful granting excuse for even more continue Terror.


The Robespierre, the principal spokesman of the Terror, was one among many who rode upon the wave of popular Revolutionary upheaval. He cheered the destruction of foreign and monarchial opposition to the Revolution and directed violence against his political opponents (the Girondins, Herbert, Danton and Desmoulins). He like many others was destroyed by this Revolutionary mechanism he’d helped to create, once all began to fear they’d fall under the executioner’s blade.


A final observation, I notice parallels between Robespierre and the Russian Revolutionary Trotsky (Bronstein). Both were intellectually inclined, both were journalists, Robespierre published Le Défenseur de la Constitution beginning May 1792, a Republican journal. Trotsky wrote a biography of Stalin and an extensive History of Russian Revolution. Neither was from the class of common working folk they claimed to represent. Robespierre’s father as an attorney, worked in close association with provincial court elites, as did Maximilien. Trotsky was a son of a wealthy Jewish farmer and was sent to the large city, Odessa, to obtain an advanced education. Unlike Dickens they never were made to suffer the indignities of hellish factory work. Both were the leading lights of their Party. Their key downfall was that, being self-assured in the superiority of their abilities and ideals, neither one worked to construct a political coalition and were outmaneuvered by those that had the political ingenuity to cobble confederates together. Trotsky was readily outmaneuvered by one, Stalin. Robespierre was outflanked by Fouche, Billaud, Tallien, Collot d'Herbois, and others, many of whom were more bloodthirsty than Robespierre himself.  Both men readily relied on violence to achieve their ends. They lived frugally and had no truck with luxury. They both isolated themselves for periods of time, which in Trotsky’s case allowed Stalin to work his machinations. Neither, actually maintained a constituency of support in the polity or led a faction of the party, whether Jacobin or Communist. They were easily outmaneuvered by what were supposed to be their political allies.

*Freedom for Economic Education


Robespierre typified a variety of the French Revolution that granted upmost confidence in the people’s 

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Robespierre and the French Revolution (Part 2)

 The first part of this humble monograph concluded with France fighting the preponderance of Europe in March 1793. Internal opposition to the war arose as well.

A revolt in the Vendee region against the Revolution, ignited by massive war time conscription, broke out and Federalist revolts (Girondins inspired) in Bordeaux, Lyon and elsewhere rose up in opposition to the Parisian centrist control of the Revolution. At the same time as the Vendee the Revolutionary Tribunal and the Committee for Public Safety, and “deputies-on-mission”, the initial steps toward the Terror were established in March and April under Danton’s Girondins Leadership. Opposition to the Revolution was bloodily and brutally suppressed; hundreds of thousands of royalists in the region would die in the conquest. One of the most odious incidents, four thousands of royalist sympathizers and others suspected of not supporting the Revolution were killed in Nantes in the Loire River in a series of mass drownings led by a one, Jean-Baptiste Carrier, a deputy-on-mission. This revolt would be crushed but it would take years to be completely extinguished.


In response to the Brunswick Manifesto on May 25, 1793 Robespierre at the Jacobin Club called the people to revolt. The powerful Parisian sections (48) had their own militia. Robespierre crystalized the violent demands of the Parisian mob (divided into 48 sections as they are called). Paris and the country were suffering shortages, largely brought on by the ravaging inflation, precipitated by the demands of war. It no longer profited the peasantry to sell their goods; basic commodities were scarce. The Parisian mob demanded solutions.



Robespierre buttressed mob violence in his speech, “On Subsistence of Goods”. He would counter Girondins advocacy of the free market. Among other ideas he would posit that, “The first social law is thus that which guarantees to all society’s members the means of existence; all others are subordinated to it. Property was only instituted or guaranteed to cement it. It is in order to live that we have property in the first case.” And further, “No man has the right to build up mountains of wheat, beside his fellow man dying of hunger.” He took the moral position that free markets, in the guise of hoarders and monopolists, couldn’t be allowed to fully seek optimum prices that would lead to starvation of the populace. This is a powerful argument but nonetheless when this inflation is largely a function of the Revolutionary government printing unlimited Assignats, then Robespierre’s solution is to demonize retailers and businesses caught in the vise of higher prices demanded of them to purchase their inventory and the rabid populace incensed with the higher prices for goods for sale.  He’s advocating an irrational, demented policy.

Shortly thereafter, a most dramatic moment occurred on May 30-31 and June 2; the Parisian mob in the thousands would invade the National Assembly’s legislative chambers to intimidate the Convention into expelling Girondinist delegates. They would be detained by the Commandant Hanriot, leader of the Parisian Sections militia. This would end the Girondins as a party in the Convention. Robespierre would continue to utilize this mob to spur the government into a policy of unhinged terror.

The surrender of the naval port by the Royalist sympathizers at Toulon to the British Navy would add to the general paranoia. Shortly thereafter on September 5, 1793, Robespierre as President of the National Convention oversees a vote on ‘terror as the order of the day’.

Some months prior to this, Robespierre, in his eyes the only one able to truly direct the Revolution, makes his first strike against the Left, denouncing former priest, enrage, Jacques Roux, proto-Marxist and champion of the sans culotte and working class earlier in June. Roux would be imprisoned and later commit suicide. Robespierre would strike again at the Left in the future. Only he would know the true course of the Revolution, according to his own estimation, and no one else. This eliminated opposition of the Left.

The Paris mob, organized into the 48 Sections, was crucial, having again intervened in the legislative process by invading the Convention’s meeting hall, the salle de machines that seated up to 8,000 spectators within the Tuileries palace on September 5, 1793. This assault would frighten once again the Convention to take a draconian measure.

On September 17, 1793 the Law of Suspects granted the Committee of Public Safety broad arrest powers of which Robespierre is in the complete agreement. Citizens were required to possess certificates of civism, attests to condition of being a citizen in good standing. Under the Law of Suspects additional powers were granted the Committee of Public Safety. It would now oversee armies, supervise the economy, and mobilize manpower and supplies. Later, it was granted it even more power, including the ability to suspend local elections and appoint national agents to influence provincial politics. This law directed every commune in France to set up surveillance committees and arrest suspects— people simply related to émigrés or nobles or given support by emigres.

In another move to ensure control of the Parisian sections, Robespierre supports limiting meetings to two per week of which they’d be paid in a sop. Robespierre would know the revolution better than anyone; he would even say at one point,I am not the courtier, nor the moderator, nor the tribune nor the defender of the people, I am the people myself”.

In June 1793 former allies then rivals would become enemies of the Revolution, and find themselves arrested. The Girondins, who advocated for a constitutional monarch, a limited suffrage, for war with foreign powers, for a decentralized Revolution, (under “Federalism”), who under Danton had utilized violence in September 1792, and who themselves began to question the influence of the Parisian mob, become objects of the Terror. They would go under the guillotine in October 1793.

Robespierre, along with Desmoulins and Danton, found enemies on the Left in the group called the Hebertists, led by Jacques Hebert, a journalist. They advocated the de-Christianization campaign and state intervention into economic matters as in governmental purchase of wine and grain to insure adequate supply for the poor. Robespierre vigorously opposed de-Christianization, fearing it would set the populace against the Revolution. Part of the de-Christianization campaign was promotion of the Cult of Reason. An official nationwide Fête de la Raison was supervised by Hébert. Churches across France were transformed into modern Temples of Reason. Even the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris held a ceremony where the altar was replaced by an altar to Liberty with the inscription "To Philosophy" carved in stone over the cathedral's doors.

March 2, 1794 Jacque-Baptiste Carrier, a Herbertist, was recalled from his slaughter of anti-revolutionary opposition in the Vendee in Nantes. He and Herbert called to remove Robespierre and the rest of the Montagard from the Convention. They had hoped to intimidate the Convention, as it was done earlier to remove the Girondins, by summoning the Sections, the Paris mob on March 4, 1794. The Paris Commune was not enticed and failed to provide military support. They were arrested on March 13, were tried by the Revolutionary Tribunal and Hebert went to the guillotine on March 24. Carrier dodged this round of Revolutionary retribution only to be harvested in December.

During this moment, Robespierre would go on to defend his brand of Revolutionary violence under the Terror, which had a mere pretense of law:

If virtue be the spring of a popular government in times of peace, the spring of that government during a revolution is virtue combined with terror: virtue, without which terror is destructive; terror, without which virtue is impotent. Terror is only justice prompt, severe and inflexible; it is then an emanation of virtue; it is less a distinct principle than a natural consequence of the general principle of democracy, applied to the most pressing wants of the country ... The government in a revolution is the despotism of liberty against tyranny."

Two former political allies and associates of Robespierre would find themselves subject to the fierceness of the Terror. Georges Danton leader of the former Girondins, the remainder of whom were now termed Indulgents, and a boyhood friend, former classmate at the College Louis-le-Grand, Camille Desmoulins encountered the displeasure of the Montagnards. Danton and Desmoulins were contributing to a newspaper, Le Vieux Cordelier critical of the Terror, calling for the end of the de-Christianization campaign, negotiations to conclude the foreign wars, conclusion of the terror and personal attacks on Robespierre. This alienated the members of the Committee of Public Safety. Robespierre deemed them to be misguided and during the Terror that could only me one thing. They would be guillotined on April 5, 1794.

Thus Robespierre had dispatched opposition on the Left and the Right; under the axiom I am myself, the people. He embodied the Revolution. The fanatic will abandon principles to achieve the objective; all measures no matter how extreme are salutary when directed against the enemies of the Revolution! They ignore that their own draconian measures and bungling policies created much of the opposition in the first place.

On May 7 Robespierre made his speech on the Cult of the Supreme Being. He thought a full scale campaign by the atheists to suppress Christianity would cause too much opposition, be counterproductive and possibly de-rail the Revolution. In addition he espouses the thoughts of Rousseau, his intellectual founder, by saying, “Nature tells us that Man is born for freedom, and the experience of the centuries shows us Man enslaved. His rights are inscribed in his heart, and his humiliation in history…”. (Note the stark contrast to the American Constitution where inalienable rights are from God and does not rely on the putative justice of the public or the forbearance of the State.)

 In this speech Robespierre offers his State sponsored religious alternative. State backed festivals, directed towards the Divine Being, could inspire the citizenry to patriotic virtue and devotion to the Revolution. Belief in a Divine Being and a higher moral code, he said, were "constant reminders of justice" and thus essential to a republican society. These public festivals were conceived to replace the antiquated, outdated Catholic religious rituals.

The promotion of a Civic Deity culminated at the Festival of Supreme Being on June 8, 1794. It is said nearly all of Paris turned out, some half a million Parisians. It was a colossal event. Nonetheless, there appears to have been some undercurrent of discontent, gauging by audible sneers and innuendo. A former member of the Committee of Public Safety, an ally of Danton, was heard to mutter: “Look at the bugger. It is not enough for him to be master. He has to be God.”

Robespierre here did the upmost to create a stupefying celebration. He employed the famous artist Jacques-Louis David to construct a colossal plaster of paris mountain some five stories high with a Liberty on top, a 2400 member chorus, a pageant to the Champ de Mars, all geared to impress the multitude. Despite the monumental effort cracks began to appear in Robespierre’s image; he had overdone things, reached too far in his effort to produce a religious cult of the Revolution.

Two days after the Festival the Convention passed the Law of 22 Prairial, written by Robespierre, that reduced the trial of anti-revolutionary suspects to a mere formality. It seems too many brought before Revolutionary Tribunal were being acquitted. Jails in Paris were filled to the brim. Under this law no defense attorney would be in attendance, nor evidence need be presented. Juries were to come to judgement entirely on the basis of the accusation and the accused's own defense. Among the charges 'slandering patriotism', 'seeking to inspire discouragement', 'spreading false news' and 'depraving morals, corrupting the public conscience and impairing the purity and energy of the revolutionary government'.

On June 26, 1794 a watershed battle was fought and won by the French Revolutionary army at Fleurus over the First Coalition (Britain, Hanover, Dutch Republic and Austria) that halted the immediate threat to the French Republic. France could take a breath from its enemies or could it? According to Robespierre danger continued to lurk in hidden internal enemies. The Terror would need to be continued.

There was beginning to be dissension in the Committee of Public Safety; there were those on the Committee fearful of Robespierre. Those connected to the Hebertists (largely struck down by the guillotine) were anxious because of the associations and those associated with Joseph Fouche (member of the Jacobin Club), who led a brutal repression in Lyon of those deemed to be enemies of the Revolution, as well had reason to wonder if they would be next. Agents of the Committee like Fouche and Carrier who were overzealous in their repressions were right to be uneasy. Robespierre, despite his advocacy of continued Terror, looked askance at these butchers, who gave the Revolution a bad name. Incidentally, Carrier and Fouche had shared wine and poetry six years earlier with Robespierre, who you have noted saw his classmate, Desmoulins go under the blade. When Fouche mocked Robespierre’s Festival of the Supreme Being, Robespierre exchanged an angry message with him and then Robespierre attempted to throw him out of the Club June 14. Fouche, in hiding, actively worked to gather support against him.

On June 28 a stormy argument took place within the joint meeting of the Committee of Public Safety and General Security (police).  Carnot, an associate on the Committee of Public Safety, delegated to  military matters, accused Robespierre and his co-delegate, Saint Just, (adept on military matters) of being ridiculous dictators. Robespierre stormed out and didn’t attend the Committee for a month. He did attend the Jacobin Club sporadically and made a speech on July 9, outlining the threats to the Revolutionary Government, responding to calls to relax vigilance. The vigilance (Terror) couldn’t cease until “execution of the laws of nature, which require that every man be just, and in virtue, the fundamental basis of society”. Man would need to become more virtuous before this Terror would end, it seems.

Under the new Law of 22 Prairial convictions increased. 726 were guillotined between June 19 and July 18, nearly doubling the number. That is only one out of five were ruled innocent as opposed to prior when about half.

During the month of July absent the Convention, Robespierre ordered the release of 320 suspects in the department of Aube, the recall of nine other deputies-on-mission (carrying out the dictates of the Committee of Public Safety in the departments), and expulsion of Fouche from the Jacobin. As already stated these raised the suspicions of the many nervous there would be a purge of those who had been excessive in their repression of anti-revolutionary elements. Robespierre had continued to meet with those on board of the Revolutionary Tribunal (court of those put on trial for revolutionary offenses) and continued to order some arrests. The divisions on the Committee were becoming more heated. Several attacking Robespierre and Saint Just for their utopianism.

On 23 July the Commune published a new wage maximum, limiting the wages of employees (in some cases by half) and provoking a sharp protest in the sections. Almost all the workers in Paris were on strike. This could not have endeared the sans-culottes to the Commune. This would have import shortly.

On July 26, after nearly a month’s absence, he addressed the Convention in a largely vague two hour speech. He reaffirmed his belief in virtue.

Virtue is a natural passion no doubt… this profound horror of tyranny, this sympathetic zeal for the oppressed , this sacred love of the patrie, this most sublime and most holy love of humanity….you can feel it at this very moment burning in your souls; I feel it in mine…

The crisis was not over, he would declaim. He repeated that there was a criminal conspiracy a foot that reached into the Convention and even into the Committees. He distanced himself from the innocents that had fallen under the guillotine, claiming instead his enemies had wanted to place the blame on him.

This speech put everyone on edge. He hadn’t named names. All were suspect. Robespierre delivered the same speech at the Jacobin Club that evening.

The next day on July 27 (9 Thermidor) there was upheaval in the Convention when first Saint Just attempted to speak then Robespierre stepped to the podium. Shouts were heard “down with the tyrant!” He was silenced with cries of “Down with him! Down with him!” He was not allowed to speak. Others shouted, “It’s Danton’s blood that is choking him”, as he struggled in shock to speak. The Convention arrested Robespierre, his brother Augustin, Saint Just and two other delegates of the Committee of the Public Safety, among other arrestees. They were eventually sent to various prisons, but no one wanted to risk taking them. They found their way to the Hotel de Ville. And here Hanriot (leader of the militia of the sections), Paris’ mayor and others summoned a special meeting of the Commune then called the National Guard and closed the city gates. A call went out to the forty eight sections to mobilize. Only thirteen Sections responded but those couldn’t be persuaded to march on the Convention. Execution of the Hebertists and the faction represented by Danton and Desmoulins (Robespierre’s boyhood friend) severed connection between the sans-culottes and the Convention.

As for the Convention it declared the five delegates lawbreakers. It collected armed forces of its own. The Parisian sections (the Paris mob) had melted away in front of the Hotel de Ville by this time. In the midst of signing his frantic petition to his Sections des Piques, Robespierre was interrupted. The document was blood spattered. Robespierre’s section chose to ignore the call to arms. This lack of response would not be a complete surprise, since the Jacobins had been attempting to reduce the influence of the Parisian Sections and their political clubs by eliminating the Herbertists (Left Opposition) and restricting the Sections to meet only 2 times a Revolutionary Ten day week. The Convention in efforts to dilute the fervor of the sections began to pay attendees, insuring participation of less zealous attendees.

The Convention’s forces broke in the Hotel de Ville to arrest the delegates once again at 2:30 AM. An associate LeBas, a former Convention’s Commissioner to the armies, had two pistols and committed suicide. It’s seems plausible that Robespierre used one of them and attempted the same, only shattering his left cheek, teeth and jaw in the process. At 3:30 AM he was taken to a waiting room at the Convention. At 5 AM he was administered bandages to soak up the blood. He was taken to be condemned to death at 11:00 AM, where he could only moan in response to the accusations. Twenty one other prisoners accompanied him at 6:00PM in three carts by a long journey through taunting crowds to the guillotine. At 7:30 PM the executions would begin. He would be 21st to die. Just before his seventeen hours of torture would be ended, his bandages were ripped off; he gave out a hideous scream of agony. The pain would end when his head fell into the basket. His younger brother, Augustin, joined him under the guillotine.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Robespierre and the French Revolution (Part 1)


If the mainspring of popular government in peacetime is virtue, amid revolution it is at the same time both virtue and terror: virtue without which terror is fatal; without which virtue is impotent. Terror is nothing but prompt, severe, inflexible justice; it is therefore an emanation of virtue. Robespierre, February 1794.

Robespierre was the leading proponent of state terror during the French Revolution, who ironically fell under his own apparatus of Terror in July, 1794. A defender of The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen of 1789, he later saw fit to violate these basic rights in his pursuit of what he thought was a struggle for the survival of the Revolution. He thought of himself eventually as the only one able to steer the Revolution between reactionary monarchial forces, foreign and domestic and the extreme populist movements calling for violent social leveling and de-Christianizing programs. And it will be seen that the fundamental basis of the American Republic stands in antagonism to the Robespierre’s faith in populist infallibility.

Specifically, his revolution was anchored on his idea of Virtue, something akin to ancient civic virtue of the Romans and Greeks. “Now what is the fundamental principle of democratic, or popular government -- that is to say, the essential mainspring upon which it depends and makes it function? It is virtue: I mean public virtue... that virtue which is nothing else but love of fatherland and its laws....”, Robespierre would say.

Robespierre (1758-1794) born in Arras, in the northeast of France. He came out of a middle class background. His father was an attorney in the Arras court system, married a brewer’s daughter, when she was six months pregnant. The bride’s parents didn’t attend the wedding. His mother would die of child birth, when he was six and his father would eventually disappear and not be heard from again. He was raised by his paternal grandparents. He was fortunate enough to have gotten a scholarship to attend the prestigious College de Louis-Le-Grand, a Jesuit inspired academy in Paris. He spent twelve years there completing his education as an attorney at twenty three.

He encountered the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who famously wrote, “man is born free but he is everywhere in chains”. The implication is that natural, primordial man is good and pure, but only the constraints of society and institutions have enslaved him. Robespierre would have undying belief in the authority of the people and desire to overthrow established noble and religious institutions. He would call for reform and later destruction the monarchy.

He returned to Arras, France in 1781 to have a moderately successful legal career. Not part of the ruling local elite, Robespierre on several occasions felt compelled to include egalitarian sentiments in his cases. The most renowned was the lightning case. Neighbors of the defended sued to have him cease experiments regarding lightning. He didn’t endear himself to the local Arras elites, who maintained social ties, that Robespierre was not part of.  There was some social disapproval for being conceived out of wedlock, despite his parents being married by the time of this birth. That disapproval and lack of access to the local ruling elite undoubtedly lead significantly to his republican sympathies.

After the American Revolution in which France joined to wage war on Great Britain, the French finances were in shambles. Even before the French Monarchy tipped over into the precipice in 1789, the Parliament of Paris (a French court originally assigned to register laws) clashed with Louis XVI in March 1776, in which the nobility resisted the beginning of certain reforms that would remove their privileges, notably their exemption from taxes. The French Parlements were loci of resistance to centralization of the Monarchy and repository of the privileges of the Nobility. Possessing an antique heritage, the Parlement of Paris had a seven century history, founded in 1260. Ironically, their check on the absolutism of the French Monarchy would become a fatal impediment to its reform, leading to its own demise and the demise of the French Nobility.  

In February 1787 the current Finance Minister Calonne called an Assembly of Notables to gain a consensus on the need for reform and tax assessments on the Nobility and Church. Tragically the Assembly of Notables rejected efforts to assess taxes. The nobles and the Church hierarchy were jealous of their privileges and resisted reforms purposed by the Monarchy. Historically they retained exemption from taxation gained as a compromise made after the Fronde (1648-1653), a revolt of the nobility against royal power. As a result of their defeat in the Fronde, the nobility were essentially rendered powerless and would be consigned to live under the aegis of the Louis XIV in Versailles. An absolute monarch would rule his kingdom through his appointed Intendants for much of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Initially the aristocracy fought the French absolutist monarchy through the vehicle of the Parlements, a judicial panel that registered laws in the various provinces. Some argued for some unspoken fundamental constitution that embodied a higher law than even the dictate of the absolutist monarch. This fundamental law was narrowly interpreted to grant rights of protest to the aristocracy, something far different than the democratic representative rights of the people that would soon be advocated in the upcoming Estates General. The Church leadership and the Nobility essentially kicked the can down the road and called for this Estates General to decide any major reforms. Ironically, the failure to support the Monarchy in preliminary stirrings of unrest would open up the flood gates of change and soon precipitate their destruction. Due to the Assembly failure to act and Court intrigue, the Finance Minister Calonne resigned.

Parlements continued their intransigence to reforms that touched on Noble privileges and new taxation, arguing only the Estates General could authorize new taxes. Riots in Paris, Grenoble as well as wide spread food riots took place in 1788 due to the poor harvest.

Louis XVI was left to call the Estates General for the first time in nearly two centuries, composed of the three medieval orders, the Church, Nobles and the Commoners in the Third Estate in 1789; Robespierre vigorously campaigned to be a delegate and was elected to represent Arras. This meeting of the three estates quickly led to the disintegration of the French political order. The delegates of the Third Estate opposed having the Orders vote separately and wanted the assembly to vote ensemble. On June 17, 1789 the unruly Third Estate declared it represented the nation, standing for 98% of the people.  It was locked out and decided to meet separately in the now famous Tennis Court on June 20, 1789 and swear to continue to meet until they had formulated a constitution.

The country in was in the midst of a failure in the harvest and economic downturn and the peasants were starving. The peasants revolted in Paris; the peasants looking for gunpowder, stormed the Bastille on July 14, 1789. A pitched battle followed where some 100 peasants were killed; thanks to the mutiny of the troops protecting the fortress, the peasants got the upper hand. The Bastille was occupied and the head of the military governor of the Bastille, Launay was paraded around on a pike.

In the countryside, the peasants saw dwindling spring grain supplies due to the poor harvest of 1788. Rumors circulated that the summer’s harvest was being sabotaged by the aristocracy to stage a famine plot to starve them. A widespread revolt, La Grande Peur (The Great Fear) ensued, where documents of the feudal privileges, granting the feudal lords their feudal privileges over the peasants were sought to be destroyed. Many chateaux were attacked and burnt down in the search. Shortly thereafter, August 10, 1789 the representatives of the Third Estate, now the National Assembly dismantled the Feudal system of corvee (forced labor), seigniorial fees owed to the manor, the tithe (10%) to the Church, serfdom, etc. The revolution to overturn the Ancien Regime (the old monarchy) would continue inexorably. All hereditary nobility and titles would be abolished in June of the next year.

A new constitution was drawn up, in which the right of suffrage was limited between “Active” and “Passive” citizen. The selection of delegates got progressively restrictive for level toward selection of the members of the National Assembly.  Robespierre opposed this exclusion of “passive” citizens (those who failed to pay the minimum threshold of tax) to vote. He would suggest that the members of the new Legislative Assembly would exclude any member of the National Assembly, including himself. 

There was widespread support to engage in an aggressive war against foreign powers, specifically Austria. The Girondins thought this would unite the country behind their revolutionary cause and eliminate a foreign threat to the Revolution. General Lafayette, whom Marie Antoinette hated, was also in favor, thinking that this war would strengthen the constitutional monarchy. King Louis in fact supported the conflict in hopes France would lose and foreign powers rescue him, retaining him as the absolutist monarch. Robespierre, representing a minority, voiced heated opposition to war, declaring the Revolution was not ready to fight a foreign.

War was declared on Austria in April 1791 and surprisingly Prussia, an erstwhile enemy, joined Austria in June. Early on France encountered military defeats and suddenly enemy forces were only a 150 miles from Paris. Charges of betrayal by monarchist generals were heard. France’s military defeats proved Robespierre correct, granting him additional popularity.

Robespierre consistently took the side of the people, even condoning their mob violence. He saw the people, as the fount of all good governance. When mob violence would break out, he would admonish his critics to save some tears for the countless millions who have suffered the torments of oppression over the centuries. This particular response was generated in response to the honor being bestowed on a M. Simonneau, Mayor of Etampes, killed by the mob in a food riot, April 1792.             

Always a critic of entrenched privilege, he’d criticized of the wealth of the Catholic Bishops, calling into question their authority.  On February 20, 1790, once again maintaining his support of populist protest, he went on record opposing imposition of martial law, as proposed by deputy LeChapelier. The law would dispatch troops and issue martial law in regions with unrest. Bands of armed peasants in regions in the south and parts of Brittany had been attacking chateaux. Robespierre would say if a few chateaux in Brittany had been burned, then it was because their owners were those most hostile to the Revolution.

Robespierre’s support of the Parisian mob, termed the sans-culottes, and defense of the Revolution in numerous speeches at either the Jacobin Club or the Assembly propelled his rise to popularity. Sans-culottes, common people of the lower classes were termed as such, because they lacked the knee-breeches, commonly worn by the nobility. He grants full confidence in them saying, “Again, it may be said, that to love justice and equality the people need no great effort of virtue; it is sufficient that they love themselves.”  It must be said that this is in stark contrast to the constraints embodied in the American Constitution, which would in no way conform to Robespierre’s rosy assessment of the people’s inherent virtue. That said, Robespierre’s close link with the sans-culottes was a basic component of his rise to prominence.

The intellectual font of his sentiments towards the morality of an egalitarian society was greatly influenced by the writings of Jean-Jacque Rousseau, author of the Social Contract, whose thoughts can be summed up by the statement, man is born free and yet everywhere is in chains. The primitive state of humankind was tranquil and harmonious. The civilized state was the reverse, a state of oppression and brutality. The nobility and the Church with their privileges was the enemy of the revolution.

Robespierre’s revolution was to be a rebirth of society.

We seek an order of things in which all the base and cruel passions are enchained, all the beneficent and generous passions are awakened by the laws…We want…to accomplish the destiny of humanity [and] keep the promises of philosophy, absolve providence from the long reign of crime and tyranny.

In contrast the American Founders had no fantasies about renewing human attributes. All efforts were made to protect the society from unrestrained government directed by an unrestrained rule of the majority. Mankind was granted Natural Rights under God, but mankind was fallible and prone to permit misrule. Thus, a republican government of checks and balances was implemented, that’s endured over five centuries.

Robespierre, again in stark contrast to the Founders, places all confidence in the “people” expressing a Rousseau like General Will.

We must know how to profit from the sublime elan of the people who press in around us. I know that when the people present their needs… we must take only the measures they themselves present: for it is the genius of the nation which has dictated them.

Thus, Robespierre and the French arrived at an unrestrained National Assembly, swayed by Parisian mob violence, results of which would be terrible indeed.


Initially Robespierre, as were most, a monarchist, defined within the framework of constitutional restraints. The king greatly eroded his legitimacy by attempting to flee the country in June 1791. He journeyed to Varennes near Verdun, 31 miles from their destination at the royalist fortress Montmedy.  He was recognized and brought back to Paris. Nonetheless, the Girondins didn’t see an alternative for the executive power of the King and continued to support him, excusing the attempted escape, saying it was a kidnapping. Meanwhile, the people had lost faith in him. His monarchy would fall under a popular insurrection fourteen months later. For the time being he would become a weak constitutional monarch, given a suspensive veto delaying legislation for four years and powers to declare war. The constitutional monarchy for what little it was, lasted for the period of October 1791 to August 1792.  



In August of 1792 Robespierre was elected to the Paris Commune (city government). Paris politically was segmented into 48 sections, each had popularly elected representatives. He would represent the Section des Piques (Pikes) in August 1792. The Paris mob had a profound influence over the revolution. Robespierre said that the Commune alone could be understood as the sovereign people expressing the general will.

Incited by recent military defeats (blamed on the King’s generals), a threat by Prussia and Austria, under the Brunswick Manifesto (vengeance if the French King was harmed), and unpopular vetoes by the King incited the Parisian mob. This mob accompanied by a French volunteer militia, the Federes, (a Revolutionary replacement for the National Guard), attacked his palace on August 10, 1792. Some twenty thousand fought his Swiss Guard of 1200. The Swiss Guard was defeated and some 600 were brutally butchered. Some 200-400 French were killed in the fighting. In the aftermath Robespierre offered the suggestion of a pyramid on Place Vendôme to memorialize the Parisian attackers that died 10 August.

On August 29, 1792 the Prussians took Verdun only 150 miles east of Paris; the way was open to Paris. Georges Danton, justice minister, ordered the arrest on the flimsiest pretexts of conspirators within Paris, some thousand suspects were picked up prior to September 2. Rumors circulated that inmates in the prisons of Paris were conspiring with the Prussians and counterrevolutionaries. September 2-6, 1792 the Paris mob ran rampant, emptying the jails and summarily executing 1100-1600 prisoners, including 240 nonjuring priests. Most of those executed were common criminals, oddly enough. A dramatic victory led by General Dumouriez at Valmy, 20th September, 1792, saved France from invasion and relieved a great deal of pressure on the Revolution.   

The Republic was proclaimed on September 21, 1792. Robespierre would be elected to the newly convened National Convention (September 1792 to July 1794). Members of the National Assembly, of which Robespierre was a member, had been excluded from the Legislative Assembly (October 1791-September 1792); Robespierre was thus not a delegate again until this National Convention in September 1792; his notoriety consisted of being a leading member of the Jacobin Club during the interim and publisher of the Le Défenseur de la Constitution. 

After the King’s deposition a debate raged as to the nature of his punishment. Should it be exile or execution, or as some Girondins supposed retain him as a figure head, fearing the populist upheaval of a republic? Many times the Girondins, advocates of Revolution nonetheless, wanted to put brakes on the influence of the sans-culottes. Robespierre argued for summary execution of the King, despite ironically being on the record as opposing capital punishment. The King must die so the country can live, he’d say.

King Louis XVI would be put on trial as traitor. While at trial, his residence at the Tuileries Palace was searched; secret papers were discovered behind a wooden panel in an iron safe, letters attempting to bribe delegates and secret plans for counter revolution. His fate was set; he would be convicted a traitor to his country with no negative votes. A majority of the delegates voted for his execution. He was guillotined January 23, 1793.

The monarchies of Europe were outraged; this propelled England and Holland to declare war on February 1, 1793. Spain a month later on March 7, France was fighting the whole weight of Europe.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Murderous Missouri: Civil War 1861-65

I recently came across some of the Civil War history of Missouri and much to my surprise it’s a whole lot more dramatic than I realized.  A so-called neutral state, I presumed they were largely sitting out things until the conclusion of the war. Simply a backwater with none of exciting massive battles encountered in the main theatre of the War. I was completely wrong. Missouri was a fustercluck of internecine warfare, ambushes, senseless murders and summary executions along with depopulation of several western counties under Order 11. State of Missouri was a theatre of the Civil War, far more remarkable than one generally imagines.

Missouri despite only 9% of their population, slavery had a large measure of Southern sympathy. The majority were not prepared to sever their ties to the Union however. The decade prior Missouri was party to the Kansas civil strife centered on the slave question. The Compromise of 1850 did not prohibit slavery in the territories gained in the Mexican War (1846-48) except for the State of California. This meant the territory west of Missouri, Kansas, was open to slavery. Missourians had originally presumed that Kansas would be settled as a slave state. The Kansas-Nebraska Act 1854 upended the Compromise and put the issue of slavery up to popular will. In 1854-55 armed Pro-slavery Missourians crossed over to Kansas to intimidate and vote illegally, led by Missouri’s most prominent politicians. Pro-slavery candidates carried the day and a pro-slavery constitution was enacted.

A mini-civil war ensued. Border men formed squads raiding opposing partisans. Slave-steeling, looting, arson were common. Infamous John Brown led a raid where five pro-slavery partisans were cut down by sabers on May 24, 1856 in southwest Kansas. Later, a band of pro-slavery partisans massacred ten free-soil men on the Marais des Cygnes River, Kansas. Kansas due to a large influx of settlers from the East, actively abolitionist, voted to prohibit slavery in 1858.

Missouri had a Democrat governor and legislator when the Civil War began. Most the residents of Missouri didn’t want to succeed from the Union but wanted to stay neutral. Missouri’s Democrat Governor Jackson hoped to lead Missouri out of the Union. A convention convened in January 1861 but secessionist delegates were outvoted by 80,000 votes. The convention chose to remain in the Union.  When Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to subdue the South, four states in the Upper South chose to succeed in response to Lincoln’s call. Missouri didn’t follow them out of the Union. Yet, Governor Jackson refused to comply with the Lincoln’s request for a contribution of four regiments.

Despite remaining in the Union, great antagonisms existed in the state. A small Minority wanted Missouri to pursue a Unionist policy and support the propagation of war against the South. A segment wanted to fight with South. The majority wanted to be left alone, but five years of hostilities prior to the outbreak of the Civil War had left lasting and profound antipathies. The Union military was highly suspicious of the Missouri populace and acted accordingly with prejudice against Missourians.

Governor Jackson with Confederate sympathies raised a State Guard of 800 volunteers, called together at Camp Jackson, and obtained cannon with the complicity of Confederate President Davis in early May 1861. They were to have ransacked the massive Federal Arsenal at St. Louis some 30 miles away. A certain Captain Nathaniel Lyons, veteran of the Mexican War, was appointed to command of Union forces in St. Louis. Arms in the arsenal are transferred out of reach of the Missourians across the Mississippi to Illinois. Three thousand Union troops are led to surround Camp Jackson’s 800 member State Guard outside St. Louis, who summarily surrendered without a fight. When Union troops marched back through St. Louis they are harassed by St. Louis citizens. These troops fired on the crowd killing 28 and wounding scores. This would not be Captain Lyons only experience in murdering civilians; he was in command at the Clear Lake massacre in 1850 in California were scores of noncombatant Native Americans largely women, children and aged individuals were slaughtered. His contemporary reputation was unsullied by these savage encounters and deemed a hero, who died fighting to preserve the Union.

In response to the St. Louis massacre Governor Jackson led the Missouri assembly to fund a State Guard that would work toward Confederate interests. Nathaniel Lyons, now a Union Brigadier General raced 1700 troops up the Missouri river in June 1861 to Jefferson City the capital, finding it empty of Missouri governmental and military personnel, occupied the capital.  He went further to Boonville to vanquish a small State Guard unit under Colonel Marmaduke.

A state convention was reconvened July 20, 1861 in St. Joseph, recently occupied by Union troops. They abolished the legislature, removed Governor and lieutenant governor and filled them with candidates of their choosing. An oath of allegiance to the Union was instituted for all state and county officials. And it reserved the right to remove any public official suspected of disloyalty: policies imminently favorable to preservation of the Union but contrary to the republican principles under which the country was founded.  No constitutional or legal precedents legitimized their acts. The convention operated essentially outside the law, taking the judicial, legislative and executive functions of government.

General Sterling Price, former governor of Missouri, with hopes to re-conquer Missouri for the Confederacy, led a largely failed military campaign in the summer of 1861. Price’s short term recruited troops melted away by summer’s end. Efforts to recapitulate State Guards, here and there in the state, were easily snuffed out. When a group of a couple thousand might begin to gather in a county to congeal the State Guard, the Union troops would conveniently scatter them. There were some 10,000 Union troops patrolling the rivers and railroads but that was far too few to stop the guerillas. A guerrilla campaign of burning bridges, destroying telegraph lines and railroad tracks ensued.

General Halleck, head of the Department of Missouri, soon to be Army-Chief-of-Staff to Lincoln, in December 1861 issued order Thirty Two that called for summary execution of anyone caught in the act of burning bridges, destroying railroads and telegraph wires. Those suspected of involvement in those acts would be imprisoned and if found guilty would be executed. This draconian policy didn’t extinguish guerilla activity.

Halleck pursued military operations against the Confederates chasing them out of Missouri and defeating them at Pea Ridge, Arkansas in March 1862. General Sterling Price no longer had an army; the remainder of his troops was transferred to Confederate authority. They would fight at Battle of Corinth and serve outside of Missouri for the rest of the war.

Supplied and nourished by a sympathetic population, guerilla activity continued. Many of the active participants were returnees and deserters from the State Guard and the Confederate army. They had been granted freedom by parole and a taking of oath of fidelity to the Constitution.

The biggest factor to stimulate guerilla action in the western border area after 1861 was the Union military itself. Its misconduct against the Missourian civilian population produced great hostility and was a great source of guerilla activity. The Missourian population had Southern sympathies as stated but this was not to be tolerated. General Halleck is quoted as saying, “Those who are not for us will be regarded as against us…”.

General Pope, eventually to be head of the Army of the Potomac, commanded Union troops in north and central Missouri. He made the mistake policing the civilian population uniformly whether pro-Union or pro-Southern. He held whole communities responsible for guerilla depredations. And he demanded they begin guarding the railroad track. Any subsequent damage would be levied against the local community. Pope went further and pulled the Union troops back into camps and left the communities to do their own guard and police work. When communities failed to surrender levies for the continued damages, Pope assigned his volunteer Kansan and Illinoisan army to exact payment, they began to loot, burn and mistreat the Missourians. The most notorious were the Second Kansan and Sixteenth Illinois infantry regiments. “Drunken soldiers ran the trains and stole horses and livestock.”

Pro-Union general agent, J.T.K. Hayward wrote,
When there is added to this the irregularities of the soldiery- such as taking poultry, pigs, milk, butter, preserves, potatoes, horses, and in fact everything they want; entering and searching houses, and stealing in many cases; committing rapes on the negroes and such like things-the effect has been to make a great many Union men inveterate enemies, and if these things continue much longer our cause is ruined.  
Commanding General Freemont doubled down on this regimen. He declared martial law over the entire state August 30, 1861. All property real or personal confiscated and slaves freed of all persons in arms against United States.

Continuing to stifle insurrection in October 1862 Major General McNeil commanding troops near Palmyra, north of Hannibal in near the Mississippi executed ten prisoners without trial suspected of burning bridges and firing on Federal troops. In Rolla in the center of the state Lieutenant Boyd of the Sixth Missouri Militia executed ten suspected guerrillas and burned 23 houses near the same time. Draconian measures of this type were thought called for to squelch the insurgency. It did little to smother the violence.

Three leaders contributed mightily to ignite a full-fledged guerilla war on the border. Jim Lane was a former leading pro-slavery Indiana Democrat, lieutenant governor and congressman. He moved to Kansas in 1855 only to become a fanatical Free Soil candidate. His military strategy was following closely the retreating Sterling Price’s army in 1861. He would prey on the civilian population that was left devoid of the protection of Confederate military. Exercising Freemont’s martial law declaration, his troops went on an extended looting expedition. On September 22, 1861 they had reached Osceola, Missouri, a town of 2,000. When they were done, there was little left of the town, being looted and burnt down.

Another, Charles Jennison, a free-soil fanatic and sometime horse thief, his vigilante committee hanged two Missourians attempting to steal back freed slaves in 1860 before the Civil War had even began. In June 1861 his state guard from Kansas raided Harrisonville, MO in Cass Country. Most the stores were broken into. Large quantities of merchandize were carted off in stolen wagons. Henry Younger, a prosperous businessman and a pro-Union man, lost thousands of dollars of private property. He was the father of Coleman and James Younger, who would fight with the Bushwhackers and later become renowned as train robbers.

Jennison, for his good deeds, was commissioned in September 1861 as a lieutenant colonel and his band of criminals designated the Seventh Kansas Volunteer Cavalry, also known as the Jayhawkers.
The last prominent Unionist (Jayhawker) to consider was Colonel Jim Montgomery of the 3rd Kansas Infantry; he was Second-in-command of U.S. Senator James H. Lane's Kansas brigade. Montgomery was a former Kansas border raider and fanatic abolitionist, considered himself a “hand of the Lord striking down slavery”.  He participated in the sack of Osceola, Missouri on September, 1861 that burned the town down and saw summary execution of nine citizens of the town. He raised an all-Black regiment later in the war. He’s portrayed in the movie Glory.  

Eventually, the Jayhawkers were ordered out of Missouri by military authorities only to be called back in response to disruptions by Bushwhackers to Jackson County, whereupon, they began their depredations on the currently quiescent civilian population of Independence, Missouri. Wagon loads of dry goods, groceries, drugs and “every horse, mule and conveyance they could lay their hands on.” Jayhawkers committed two cold blooded murders of men not fully cooperative during these pillages.

As stated above, in January 1862, General Halleck ordered Lane’s brigade and Jennison’s men out of Missouri. Union General Henry Halleck described these marauding bands as "no better than a band of robbers; they cross the line, rob, steal, plunder, and burn whatever they can lay their hands on”. Jim Lane was elected senator of Kansas in November 1861. He is now a senator and a military officer.
After General Halleck departed for Washington to become General-in-Chief to Abraham Lincoln on July 23, 1862. Foreign troops of Kansas, Illinois, etc. were deemed again to be the source of the depredations. They were sent away. Fourteen thousand local Missouri were raised but that yielded continued reprisals and pillaging.

The infamous William Quantrill and his Raiders activities arose as the inevitable result of these ravages. Born in Ohio, and after a series of not altogether successful careers, one of which was school teaching, farming Kansas prairie, and a trip to Salt Lake City in 1858, he went back to Kansas to teach. He had shown a tendency for larceny. He was initially caught up in Jayhawkers, oddly enough. And finally betrayed his compatriots. He found himself fighting in General Sterling Price’s army from spring of 1861 to the fall 1861 but returned to Jackson County, Missouri in November 1861, tired of standard military life.

Soon he was leading young Jackson County farmers “driven into armed resistance” by Kansans under Lane. Quantrill used hit and run tactics against much larger Union forces and be able to disperse into the countryside that they knew so well and find shelter among the sympathetic populace. He would terrorize western and central Missouri. In fact one of his most notorious raids took place against Lawrence, Kansas, home of the hated Jim Lane August 1863. Some 450 riders spread out across the town with an execution list. Seventeen Union soldiers were pistoled to death. Infamous Senator Lane only escaped by hiding in a corn patch nearby his home.

What transpired was a “diabolical, unpardonable massacre, one which has no parallel in the Civil War.” “Houses and buildings were looted, set on fire, and almost every Kansas man encountered was pistoled down. Some Lawrence men were chased like rabbits and shot down. Many tried to hide and were burned in their houses. In two hours 150 male citizens of Lawrence were killed.”1

Quantrill’s troops spirited away upon the approach of the Union cavalry, unharmed. Union reprisals followed a pace. The infamous Order 11 by General Schofield was issued in the after of the raid. Several Missouri border counties were ordered to be evacuated; the populace was forcibly removed as an antidote against any continued support of the Bushwhackers.

Quantrill would continue his marauding nonetheless until the summer of 1864. Union military pressure built and the Bushwhackers scattered into some ten smaller units. They would continue with their marauding. The Union cavalry’s efforts would be futile. Quantrill would leave the leadership under various circumstances, finding love in a romance instead.

Bloody Bill Anderson, in his early twenties, would come to prominence operating from the summer of 1863 to 1864, attacking Union troops, when it seemed advisable and preying on civilians, mostly those with Union sympathies. Calling him a criminal psychopath, albeit spawned in this chaotic milieu, is not far from the truth.  Much of what they perpetrated can be considered simply lawless activity, pillaging, looting, summary executions of Union troops and civilians. Frank and Jesse James would accompany him on many of the gang’s outrages. He operated with impunity until he was finally ambushed by Missouri State Militia in October 1864. He chose to die in a blaze of glory by charging through the Union lines, only to be shot dead twice in the back of the head.

The success of the Bushwhackers was due to several factors. They rode far better horses in comparison to the Union cavalry’s substandard mounts. They fought with two or more repeating revolving pistols on their possession which could get off many more shots than the Union contingents with the standard Army issue. Sometimes these troops were given muskets, no less. The populace was supportive and supplied them, thus the draconian Order 11 issued to vacate several border counties of Missourian residents, mostly but not all sympathetic to the Bushwhackers. The raiders rode with pilfered blue Union uniforms so in very many cases they could approach Union forces closely before detection.

After the Confederate army was driven from the state in 1862, even then it was virtually impossible to secure all railroads, trains, bridges, river boats and Union supporting citizens from the marauding Bushwhackers. The 10,000 Union troops assigned to protect Missouri Union interests were spread too thin. Pursuit of the Bushwhackers was generally futile and small Union contingents sent out to root out them were often suddenly overwhelmed by the raiders. Larger Union forces would only scatter the Bushwhackers, where they would secrete themselves in the hills.
Confederate General Sterling Price gathered a large contingent of cavalry of some 12,000 that invaded Missouri once again in the fall of 1864. The goal was to embarrass the Lincoln administration before the election of 1864 in hopes the election would turn to General McClellan who would lead the Union out of a war with the South. Here General Price employed the Bushwhackers, despite their ruthless reputation to work in conjunction with his force. They were meant to distract and harass the Union forces, but instead restricted themselves to pillage rather than attacking actual military targets.

Price had some small victories but never reached St. Louis his stated objective and decidedly lost to a Union Army on October 23, 1864 outside of Kansas City. The retreat from there ultimately led to the complete destruction of that Confederate army.

As you might know cavalry in the Civil War was not an effective force against disciplined infantry and their rifled muskets. The old musket wasn’t really effective until 40 yards and before infantry could reload the cavalry would be upon them. Rifled muskets were good at 400 yards and cavalry would be met with some thousand bullets from a small regiment, being able to reload, by the time they ever reached the opposing line. General Price’s army was largely a contingent of cavalry and ineffective against disciplined infantry, thus their unsurprising failure in 1864.
The government in Missouri during the Civil War years was installed chiefly by force of arms, undemocratically; who represented the minority Union interests. The Union military in Jefferson City supported a convention in July 1861 that arbitrarily removed the governor and lieutenant governor and abolished the legislature. Martial law was declared August 31, 1861 and remained for the duration of the Civil War. Union arbitrary, punitive actions against civilians led to resistance by Missouri civilians and to the rise of the armed partisans in the border area already unstable due to hostilities of the five years previously. For the Union prompt action against Governor Jackson and the Legislatures attempt to act on the side of the Confederacy saved Missouri for the Union. Union prejudice against the Missouri citizenry, largely based on animosities generated in the civil war fought in Bleeding Kansas 1854-1860, did much to initiate the rise of guerrilla warfare.

Michael Fellman in his fine book, Inside War, details the animosity the industrial Northern held against the more agrarian South. Despite the fact that Missouri possessed a tiny minority of slave owners (12%) most of whom held four slaves or less, the North considered this was a society where “all yeoman were debased into subhumanity by such an institution”.  Slavery was a taint on all white society. The pejorative term Northerners used to depict them was the Pukes: lazy, unindustrious, sodden with whiskey, disheveled and at best quaint relics of an antiquated agrarian past. They were symbols of a benighted cultural regress.2 The civil war fought in Bloody Kansas (1854-58) saw this attitude born out, with reciprocal response by the Missourians. Union policies in Missouri during the Civil War (1861-65) reflected the same animosities as well toward a society largely Unionist yet holding Southern sympathies.

As an example of the animosity I refer you to a speech made in the US Senate by Senator James Henry Lane from Kansas. "I would like to live long enough to see every white man in South Carolina in hell, and the Negroes inheriting their territory. It would not wound my feelings any day to find the dead bodies of rebel sympathizers pierced with bullet holes in every street and alley of Washington. Yes, I would regret this, for I would not like to witness all this waste of powder and lead. I would rather have them hung, and the ropes saved! Let them dangle until their stinking bodies rot and fall to the ground piece by piece."

I’ve touched on just some of the highlights of the disorders in the Civil War Missouri. This is a truly dramatic period with shocking criminality, violence and brutality. Much more has been written about this period. I’ve borrowed liberally from Richard S. Brownlee’s fine book, The Gray Ghosts of the Confederacy in much I write here. I highly recommend it. 
       Gray Ghosts of the Confederacy, Brownlee, Richard D., page 124.
2.      Inside War, Fellman, Michael, page 11.