In 1793, the Revolution entered a radical phase. For a year, France experienced one of the bloodiest regimes in its long history as determined leaders sought to extend and preserve the Revolution.
Battle disasters overseas quickly inflamed revolutionaries in Paris. They thought the king was in league with the enemies. On August 10, 1792, a crowd of Parisians stormed the royal palace of the Tuileries and slaughtered the king's guards. The royal family fled to the Legislative Assembly.
A month later, citizens attacked prisons that held nobles and priests accused of political offenses. More than 1,000 prisoners were killed, including many ordinary criminals.
Historians disagree about the people who carried out these “September massacres.” Some call them bloodthirsty mobs. Others describe them as patriots defending France. In fact, most were ordinary citizens fired to fury by real and imagined grievances.
Backed by Paris crowds, radicals then took control of the Assembly. Radicals called for the election of a new legislative body called the National Convention. Suffrage, the right to vote, was to be extended to all male citizens, not just to property owners.
The Convention that met in September 1792 was a more radical body than earlier Assemblies. It voted to abolish the monarchy and establish a republic. Deputies then drew up a new constitution. The Jacobins, who controlled the Convention, set out to erase all traces of the old order. They seized lands of nobles and abolished titles of nobility. All men and women were called “Citizen.” Louis XVI became Citizen Capet, from the dynasty that ruled France during the Middle Ages.
During the early months of the Republic, the Convention also put Louis XVI on trial as a traitor to France. The king was convicted by a single vote and sentenced to death.
On a foggy morning in January 1793, Louis mounted a scaffold in a public square in Paris. He started to speak, “Frenchmen, I die innocent. I pardon the authors of my death. I pray God that the blood about to be spilt will never fall upon the head of France. …” Then a roll of drums drowned out his words. Moments later, the king was beheaded. The executioner lifted the king's head by its hair and held it before the crowd.
In October, Marie Antoinette was also executed. The popular press celebrated her death. The queen, however, showed great dignity as she went to her death. Her son, who might once have become Louis XVII, died of unknown causes in the dungeons of the Revolution.
Marie Antoinette's lavish lifestyle and disregard for the masses contributed to her unpopularity and later execution.
What was the main difference between earlier Assemblies and the National Convention, which met in September 1792?
By early 1793, danger threatened France on all sides. The country was at war with much of Europe, including Britain, the Netherlands, Spain, and Prussia. In the Vendée (vahn DAY) region of France, royalists and priests led peasants in rebellion against the government.
In Paris, the sans-culottes demanded relief from food shortages and inflation. The Convention itself was bitterly divided between Jacobins and a rival group, the Girondins.
To deal with the threats to France, the Convention created the Committee of Public Safety. The 12-member committee had almost absolute power. Preparing France for all-out war, it ordered all citizens to contribute to the war effort.