3. The establishment of a Republic and the Terror, 1791 - 1794

This section discusses why the establishment of a new constitution in 1791 failed to end the Revolution and why France was to be subjected to a period of Terror and bloodshed in the years 1793 to 1794.

There is a marked EE on the impact of the French Revolution on women  here

Guiding questions:

Why could the Revolution not end in 1791?

What was the role of the political clubs?

What was the impact of the Flight to Varennes?

Why did France go to war in 1792?

Why did the Terror take place?

How far was fear of counter-revolution responsible for the terror?

What was the Thermidorean Reaction?

What was the impact of the Revolutionary Wars on events within France?

1. Why could the Revolution not end in 1791?

At this point the Third Estate had achieved many of their aims. So why could the Revolution not stop now?

Key points are the fact that :

  • Louis was unwilling to go along with the changes
  • The death of Mirabeau (who might have been able to convince everyone that a limited monarchy was possible)
  • Some nobles and clergy thought that things had gone too far - others not far enough - this led to the springing up of political clubs which fermented the political debate. This in turn put pressure on the Constituent Assembly and also meant that the position of the King was increasingly questioned.

Task One

ATL: thinking and social skills

In pairs brainstorm following questions:

  • How did the constitution limit the powers of the monarchy?
  • Is Louis likely to approve of the changes? What about Marie Antoinette? Can he use army?
  • What do you think Louis should do? What options are open to him?
  • Are there any other groups of people who might be discontented with the existing situation?

This is a good stage to get familiar with the key personalities of the French Revolution. This can be done in pairs or in groups and a gallery of heroes/villains created in the classroom.

Task Two

ATL: Research skills


Research one of the characters below and produce an A4 sheet on your character to include:

  • Background (which estate – occupation pre revolution)
  • Involvement in revolution – do in bullet points – where/when/how involved in key events?
  • Did they affect the course of the revolution in anyway?
  • Any quotes

Camille Desmoulins






St Just

Charlotte Corday


Lazarre Carnot

Georges Couthon


Lazarre Carnot

2. What was the role of the political clubs?

The political clubs were one reason for the radicalisation of opinion and the growing anti-Republican sentiment.

Task One

Thinking skills

Read the following extract and then answer the questions that follow:

There were no political parties in France. However political clubs were set up soon after the meeting of the Estates General. They became the centre of political activity, providing a place for people to express their views and ideas on the momentous events that were taking place in France. They became the arenas of great political debate enabling large numbers of people to engage directly in politics for the first time in their lives. they were also forums for some of the key leaders of the popular movement: Danton, Marat and Robespierre. The printing presses printed off pamphlets and newspapers reporting the debates and adding further comment to the issues. Economic discontent fed into the political discussions helping to radicalise opinion.

1. According to this extract what was the significance of the political clubs?

2. Why do you think that they helped to radicalise opinion in France?

Task Two

ATL: research and self-management

Research the different clubs that existed and then complete the grid which is attached below to summarise their membership and ideas.

What were the differences between the Cordeliers and the Jacobins

3. What was the impact of the Flight to Varennes?

Task One

ATL: Thinking skills

Watch the video below on the Flight to Varennes and answer the questions below.

  1. Why did Louis and Marie Antoinette decide to flee France
  2. Where did Louis plan to go and how did they attempt to do so?
  3. Why were the royals unsuccessful in their bid to escape?
  4. What was the impact of the Flight to Varennes?

The failed escape from Paris by the Royal Family was a turning point in the fortunes of the King and in the swing of public opinion towards getting rid of the King. A particularly disastrous move on the part of the King was to leave a Declaration to the French People which confirmed his dislike of the revolutionary changes and which highlighted just how out of touch he was with public opinion.

Task Two

ATL: Thinking and communication skills

Read the King's declaration which can be found below, or read on line here

As long as the king could hope to see the order and happiness of the kingdom revived through the methods used by the National Assembly, and through his residence close to this Assembly in the capital, no personal sacrifice has aggrieved him. He would not even put forward the complete lack of freedom, which has made void all the steps he has undertaken since the month of October 1789, as an excuse, if this wish had been fulfilled.

But today, when the only recompense for so many sacrifices is to witness the destruction of the kingdom, to see all authority ignored, personal property violated, people’s safety everywhere in danger, crimes remaining unpunished, and a complete anarchy established above the law, without the appearance of authority that the new Constitution grants him… the king, having solemnly protested against all the decrees issued by him during his captivity, believes it his duty to put a picture of his behaviour…

From the spirit that reigns in the clubs, and the way that they seize control of the new primary assemblies, what can be expected from them is apparent. If they show any sign of some tendency… it is to destroy what is left of royalty and to establish some metaphysical and philosophical government, which can never be achieved in reality.

People of France – is that what you intended when you sent your representatives to the National Assembly? Did you wish for the anarchy and despotism of the clubs to replace the monarchical government, under which the nation prospered for 1,400 years? Did you wish to see your king showered with insults, and deprived of his liberty, while his only goal was to establish yours? ….

People of France, and especially you Parisians… be wary of the suggestions and lies of your false friends. Come back to your king; he will always be your father, your best friend. What pleasure he will have… to see himself once again in your midst, when a constitution that he has freely accepted ensures that our holy religion will be respected, that government will be established on a stable footing and will be useful through its actions, that each man’s goods and position will no longer be disturbed, that laws will no longer be infringed with impunity, and that liberty will be placed on a firm and unshakeable base.”

Discuss in pairs the following questions;

  1. What view does the King have about the changes that have taken place so far in France?
  2. What evidence is there that he is out of touch with the views of the people of France?
  3. How do you think this Declaration would affect the attitudes of the people of France towards the monarchy once the King had been caught and brought back to Paris?
  4. How would this affect the new Constitution that had been created?

    Task Three

    ATL: Research and thinking skills

    1. What was the response of each of the following to the Flight to Varennes?:

    • The Legislative Assembly
    • The Jacobins
    • The Cordeliers

    2. What was the significance of the Champs de Mars massacre?

      Task Four

      ATL: Thinking skills

      What, according to the historian Francois Furet, was the impact of the Flight to Varennes?

      Louis XIV started to die on 21 June 1791. He was not yet a hostage, but he was already little more than a stake in the game. For his flight tore away the veil of that false constitutional monarchy and once more confronted the patriot party with the whole problem of the revolution's future.

      Following the Flight to Varennes, radicals were unhappy that the King was not dethroned or put on trial and the Cordeliers persuaded the Jacobins to join them in signing a petition for the King's deposition. This had the effect of splitting the Jacobins. Those who did not want the King deposed left the Jacobins and set up a new club, the Feuillants. As a moderate group, the Feuillants had control of the Assembly while Robespierre was left as leader of a small group of radicals.

      The first blood of the revolution was spilt in what became known as The Champ de Mars Massacre. When thousands of Parisians flocked to the Champs de Mars in order to sign the Republican petition, Lafayette and the National Guard were sent to keep order; however they ended up firing on the unarmed crowd, killing 50 people.

      Task Four

      ATL: Thinking skills

      Read the account of the Champs de Mars massacre which can be found here.

      How does this account of the massacre portray the events that unfolded?

      With reference to origin, purpose and content, what is the value of this source to the historian studying the growth of tensions in Paris at this time?

      The events at Champs de Mars sent the radicals such as Danton and Marat into hiding and allowed the moderates to have the upper hand. The Feuillants were determined to make an agreement with the King and 13 September 1791, Louis accepted the Constitution. This marked the end of the Constituent Assembly itself which ended on 30 September. However this was not before the deputies had signed the 'self-denying ordnance' which prevented them from taking seats in the next Legislative Assembly.

      Task Five

      ATL: Thinking skills

      Read the following extract from the historian Alfred Cobban on the Self-Denying Ordnance.

      1. What do you think Robespierre's aims were in proposing this Ordnance? Why was it supported by those on the right who supported the monarchy?
      2. What does Cobban hint was the flaw in passing such a measure?

      The motives of Robespierre, who proposed this decree and thus at a single stroke eliminated all the moderates who at last were showing signs of realizing the need for government in France, are obvious; but he could not have secured its acceptance without the support of the right, whose hatred for the constitutionalists led them to deal this last blow to their enemies even if it was to prove fatal to themselves and to the king....By it, all those who had learnt painfully something of the conditions of parliamentary government were to be eliminated temporarily from the scene. New men in a new Assembly, were to take over the task of consolidating the gains of the Revolution and restoring a stable government to France.

      Cobban, A History of Modern France, Vol 1, pg 184

      The new deputies who made up the new Legislative Assembly were less conciliatory regarding the position of the King. There was a growing feeling of suspicion regarding the King's commitment to the revolution and the actions of the non-juring clergy and the émigrés, whose numbers had increased since the Flight to Varennes. There were three key groups in the new assembly: the Left, most of whom were members of the Jacobin Club but which also consisted of deputies from the Gironde known as the Girondins; the Right consisting of members of the Feuillants and Constitutional Monarchists who considered the Revolution to be over; the Centre were the largest group and who favoured neither the left nor the right.

      4. Why did France go to war in 1792?

      In order to wage a war successfully, a country needs money, a strong army, a united country and strong government. The reality for France was that it had inflation, deserting army leaders and was split politically between monarchists and republicans.

      Even Louis said 'the physical condition and morale of France is such that it will be unable to sustain even half a campaign'.

      Why then did France end up at war?

      Task One

      ATL: Research and self-management skills

      There were many different group in France who saw war as beneficial either for themselves or for France and the revolution.

      Complete the mind map below to show how each of the given factors contributed to war breaking out.

      Why did France go to war in 1792?

      5. Why was a Republic created in 1792?

      Starter: continue watching the video above from 6 minutes to see the impact of the war on events in France.

      The failures of the French army and the panic that it created, helping to foster the obsession with 'the enemy within', all helped to radicalise opinion against the King. The following task  will help you to see the connection between events in war and the events within France.

      Task One

      ATL: Research and self-management skills

      Timeline of events 1792

      Task Two

      ATL: Thinking skills

      One of the events on the timeline above is the Brunswick Manifesto which had a dramatic impact on the attitude of the Parisians. Read through Manifesto here.

      Why do you think this Manifesto would actually be unhelpful to the royal family? How were the Parisians likely to respond to this Manifesto?

      As you will have seen from your timeline above, the actions of the sans-culottes in bringing about the Republic were key. The Journée on 10th August was the final stage in the King's demise and ended in the king being suspended from office and imprisoned.

      Task Three

      ATL: Thinking skills

      In pairs, consider the reasons why the constitutional monarchy had failed.

      Click on the eye for hints.

      (Also see the essay planning page for an essay frame on this question: 6. French Revolution and Napoleon: Essay frames and writing exercises 

      Louis' unwillingness to accept the changes (evidence of this?)

      Louis' use of the veto and untrustworthiness, particularly after the outbreak of war

      The split among the revolutionaries

      The growing radicalism of the sans culottes

      The economic situation which increased tensions (exacerbated by the war)

      The next body to be elected following the end of the Legislative Assembly was The Convention which had to decide the fate of the King. Royalist sympathisers were not allowed to vote and so it is not surprising that those elected for Paris were more radical - consisting of Jacobins and republicans headed by Robespierre. They were supported by Jacobins from the French provinces and they were called the Montagnards (Mountain) because they occupied the high seats on the left of the assembly hall. On the other side of the hall sat the Girondins from the provinces. In the centre were a moderate group known as 'the Plain'.

      Task Four

      ATL: Thinking skills

      Read the following account of the make-up of The Convention and answer the questions which follow.

      Together with the Girondins the Plain represented the greater part of the electorate which was unenthusiastic about or hostile to further radical measures. The Girondins overwhelmingly represented provisional interests and feared the political pressure from groups in Paris; many of the Mountain, including their most eloquent and influential deputy, Robespierre, had been elected by Paris. Robespierre's faction drew great strength from the loyalty of the capital's Jacobin Club and its large number of provincial affiliated bodies. Numerically  they never equaled the Girondins, but a combination of their powers of persuasion and the vociferous support they received from the public gallery sometimes led sufficient members of the Plain to vote with them.

      1. Identify the different groups represented in The Convention and their aims
      2. Why did the Jacobins often win many of the arguments in the Convention despite having fewer deputies?

      Prior to the first meeting of The Convention, the September Massacres had taken place between 2nd and 6th September.

      Task Five

      ATL: Research and Thinking skills

      This is an account of the September Massacres by Simon Scharma from his book 'Citizens': A Chronicle of the French Revolution

      The Abbaye was the site of the first mass killing. A party of twenty-four priests taken there under armed escort from the mairie only just escaped violent assault from the crowd at the rue de Buci. When the reached the prison, however, another crowd (possibly the same group that had attacked them earlier, swollen by reinforcements) demanded summary 'judgment'. A grotesquely perfunctory interrogation was followed by their being pushed down the steps and into the garden, where their killers waited armed with knives, axes, hatchets, sabers and , in the case of a butcher (by trade) called Godin, a carpenter's saw. In an hour and a half, nineteen of the group were hacked to pieces....'

      In pairs, research the events of the September massacres. Find eye-witness accounts or more historians' accounts (the full section in Scharma's Citizens is worth reading)

      1. Write an article for either one of the radical Parisian newspapers or a royalist paper about this event.

      2. Create an infographic to show how the events of 1792 ended in a massacre in September


      What are the key themes/issues that cause tension during 1792?

      Are any of these issues more important than others? Are they linked?

      What are the key vents? How are these events linked?

      Who are the key individuals? How do their actions impact on events?

      Use arrows/colours/lines etc to show the links between the different events

      Task Five

      ATL: Thinking skills

      The Convention brought Louis to trial. Read below the charges which were brought against him (click on the eye). What exactly was Louis accused of?

      Louis, the French nation accuses you. The National Convention decreed, on December 3rd, that you would be judged by it. On December 6th it decreed that you would be brought before its bar. The act stating the crimes that are ascribed to you will be read to you…

      Louis, the French people accuses you of having committed a multitude of crimes in the establishment of your tyranny, and in destroying its freedom. On June 20th 1789 you violated the sovereignty of the people by suspending the assemblies of its representatives, and by driving them out from the place of their meetings with violence. The proof of this is in the report drawn up at the Versailles tennis court, by the members of the Constituent Assembly.

      On June 23rd you attempted to dictate laws to the nation. You surrounded its representatives with troops, you presented two royal declarations to them, subversive of all freedom, and you ordered them to disperse. Your declarations and the reports from the Assembly record these violations. What do you have to say in response?

      (The king responds) I was the ruler of the troops at that time but I never intended to spill any blood…

      Following your arrest at Varennes, the exercise of executive power was for some time suspended from your hands, yet still you conspired. On July 17th 1791 the blood of citizens was spilled at the Champ de Mars. A letter from your hand, written in 1790 to Lafayette, proves that a criminal coalition existed between you and Lafayette, with which Mirabeau was complicit… All types of corruption were used. You paid for satires, pamphlets and newspapers destined to pervert public opinion, to discredit assignats and to support the cause of the emigres. The ledgers show the enormous sums that were put to the use of these manoeuvres to kill liberty. What do you have to say in response?

      (The king responds) What happened on July 17th can have nothing to do with me. As for the rest, I have no knowledge of it.”

      Task Six

      ATL: Thinking skills

      Read this account of the execution of Louis XVI which was written by an English priest.

      Ideally, someone in the class should read it aloud to get the full effect.

      As a class then discuss the use of language in this extract,  the purpose of the writer and the value of the extract to a historian studying the French Revolution.

      6. Why did the Terror take place?

      “Terror is only justice: prompt, severe and inflexible. It is then an emanation of virtue.”
      Maximilien Robespierre

      Task One

      ATL: Thinking skills

      Research the lead up to the Terror by completing this timeline.

      Timeline of events leading up to The Terror

      As you will have seen from your timeline, by mid 1793, France was in crisis:

      • The war was going badly
      • There was a revolt in the Vendee
      • Other areas of France also start to rebel
      • There was inflation and so food prices were rising

      This situation is the context for The Terror.

      Task Two

      ATL: Thinking skills

      Watch the excellent video on Robespierre and the Terror which can be found on the video page: 6. French Revolution and Napoleon: Videos and activities.

      Print off the attached PDF. Use the video along with extra research to complete the questions.

      Questions on the Terror

      The following grid is a summary of the different stages of the Terror.

      Grid to show the stages of the Terror

      Task Three

      ATL: Thinking skills

      Another way to look at The Terror is to consider it thematically.

      In pairs, organise the key elements of the Terror under these themes:

      • Economic
      • Political
      • Military

      Robespierre was a key figure behind the Terror and, as you will have seen from the video, is a very interesting character in terms of the 'journey' that he goes on through this revolution; from opposing the death penalty in early discussions to sentencing his old friends, Danton and Desmoulins, to death.

      Task Four

      ATL: Research skills

      Research further the life and career of Robespierre. Complete the attached sheet or create your own fact file on his life and beliefs.

      If you have a subscription of History Today, you could use the following article to help you:

      Robespierre and the Terror | History Today (www.historytoday.com)

      Maximilien Robespierre has always provoked strong feelings. For the English he is the ‘sea-green incorruptible’ portrayed by Carlyle, the repellent figure at the head of the Revolution, who sent thousands of people to their death under the guillotine. The French, for the most part, dislike his memory still more. There is no national monument to him, though many of the revolutionaries have had statues raised to them. Robespierre is still considered beyond the pale; only one rather shabby metro station in a poorer suburb of Paris bears his name.

      This is another interesting article with many good quotes from historians on the nature and the extent of the Terror:

      Why Robespierre Chose Terror (City Journal)

      The lessons of the first totalitarian revolution

       Research task on Robespierre

      Fear of counter-revolution was a key factor in driving the Terror.

      Task Five

      ATL: Research skills

      In pairs or small groups research the following groups seen to be the centre of 'counter-revolution'

      • Émigrés
      • Federalist revolts
      • Veendée revolt

      Answer these questions:

      • Who were they?
      • Why were they against the revolution?
      • What actions did they take?
      • What actions did the governments take?
      • Why did they fail?

      For further understanding of the Vendée revolt, watch part 7 of BBC: Soundbites which can be found on the video page:  6. French Revolution and Napoleon: Videos and activities 

      Task Five

      ATL: Communication skills

      Can it be argued that the Terror was in fact necessary and achieved its aims?

      Divide the class into two sides and set up a formal debate on this question.

      Task Six

      ATL: Thinking and Communication skills

      At this point you should come back to your original character and give a brief presentation to the class on what has happened to you:

      • Did you survive?
      • If you did not survive, why were you executed?
      • If you did survive, what is your attitude towards what has happened? What are your hopes for the future?
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