This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations II: The Making of the Modern World.
It was fortunate for the revolutionary government that, after capturing Condé, Mainz, and Valenciennes, the allies did not move against Paris. This gave Carnot time to build up and organize the French revolutionary forces. In late August came more good news—Marseilles was again in revolutionary hands. But then came bad news. Sir Samuel Hood, the British admiral commanding a fleet in the Mediterranean, offered assistance to the royalists in Toulon if they allowed him to anchor his ships in their harbor. The royalist leaders accepted Hood’s offer, and Toulon raised the royal banner, proclaiming Louis XVII (the son of Louis XVI) king. The loss of Toulon was a blow to the revolutionary government, for besides being an important port, the city held the French flotilla for the Mediterranean as well as important military supplies.
Reports of the loss of Toulon shocked the people of Paris. On September 16, led by Hébert and Pierre Gaspard Chaumette, crowds of the poor swarmed into the streets of Paris. The next day Chaumette, along with Paris commune leaders and a great crowd, appeared before the Convention demanding the formation of a revolutionary army to find and destroy all royalists and counterrevolutionaries in France. A deputation of Jacobins then came forward, calling on the Convention to indict the imprisoned Girondin leaders for treason. “Lawgivers, let the reign of terror be the order of the day,” they cried. The Convention gave into Chaumette’s demands. That day, September 17, it passed the Law of Suspects, which gave the Committee of Public Safety the authority to arrest anyone suspected of being a counterrevolutionary. Under this act, no evidence was needed to prove a person’s guilt; a simple accusation would be enough to imprison someone. Armed with such powers, the Committee of Public Safety now set out to save the revolution. “The royalists are conspiring, they want blood,” declared one member. “Well, they shall have [the blood] of the conspirators, of the Brissots and Marie Antoinettes!”
The Brissots were the Girondins, 40 of whom the Committee indicted on October 3. The same day, the Committee indicted Louis XVI’s wife, Marie Antoinette. Since her husband’s death, Marie Antoinette had lost the old foolish frivolity that had characterized her before the revolution. She had suffered much. In July, she was separated from her son, the boy Louis XVII; the Committee of Public Safety said she treated him like a king and was making a tyrant of him. The same month, she was parted from her husband’s sister, the saintly Madame Elizabeth. Alone but for God, in the Tower of the Temple she awaited her fate.
When she appeared before the Revolutionary Tribunal on October 14, she was accused of having had contact with the foreign enemies of France. With royal dignity she denied the charges made against her. Hébert then stood up and said that she had corrupted the morals of her son, Louis XVII, at which she cried out, “I appeal to every mother here!” The injustice of the accusation won Marie Antoinette much sympathy from the crowds watching the trial; but sympathy could not save her. Having declared her guilty of treason against France, the Revolutionary Tribunal condemned her to death. Before her execution, in a letter to Madame Elizabeth, Marie Antoinette said she forgave her enemies.
A week after Marie Antoinette’s death came the trial of the 40 Girondins. Forbidden to defend themselves before the Revolutionary Tribunal, the accused stood no chance of being acquitted. Hébert and Chaumette, many of the Jacobins, and Robespierre demanded their death. When the expected sentence came—guilty of treason against the revolution—the Girondins cried out, “We are innocent! People, they are deceiving you!” But no one rose up to save them. On October 31, they were taken to the Place de la Révolution where, by their own sentence, King Louis XVI had died only nine months before. One by one they mounted the scaffold, singing the Marseillaise and crying, “Long live the Republic!” And one by one they met their death under the falling blade of the guillotine.
Marie Antoinette and the Girondins were not the only victims of the Reign of Terror. Accusers were everywhere, and the prisons filled with thousands of suspected enemies of the revolution. Over the next several months, more than 1,200 people would be executed in Paris alone, often for no other reason than envy and revenge. Men such as Robespierre and Saint-Just thought the executions were necessary to rid the revolution of its enemies—that is, of those who disagreed with Robespierre and Saint-Just. But other revolutionaries, such as Danton, thought the executions were a disgrace. Unwilling to witness the trial of the Girondins, Danton had left Paris for his mother’s home at Arcis in Champagne. When a messenger arrived there to announce to him the “good news” of the death of the Girondins, Danton silenced him. “Say nothing,” he told the messenger. “Do you call that good news? It is a terrible misfortune. . . . It menaces us all.”
Variations on a Revolutionary Theme
Jean-Jacques Beauvarlet-Charpentier (1734-1794) was a French organist and composer. In 1793, the year of Marie Antoinette's execution, he published this musical celebration of the Revolution: Marche de Marsellois avec Variations ("The Marseillaise March with variations").