Paris Commune (1789-1795)
The Paris Commune during the French Revolution was the government of Paris from 1789 until 1795. Established in the Hôtel de Ville just after the storming of the Bastille, it consisted of 144 delegates elected by the 60 divisions of the city. The first mayor was Jean Sylvain Bailly, a relatively moderate Feuillant who supported constitutional monarchy. He was succeeded in November 1791 by Pétion de Villeneuve after Bailly's unpopular use of the National Guard to disperse a riotous assembly in the Champ de Mars (July 17, 1791).
By 1792, the Commune was dominated by those Jacobins who were not in the Legislative Assembly due to the Self-Denying Ordinance. The new Commune meant that there was a genuinely revolutionary challenge to the Legislative Assembly, though its practical victories were always limited and temporary. The violence provoked by the Jacobins, who dominated the Commune and their excesses created a backlash that led to their downfall in the Thermidorian Reaction. The leaders of the Commune were executed which led to its disestablishment in 1795.
Legislative origins and early history
When Louis XVI ascended to the throne, he initially sought to establish better relations with a Paris that had felt subordinate to Versailles. In 1774 he restored the Parlement of Paris - a court of nobles that had previously been abolished. Still, its powers were limited, Economic pressures meant that Versailles imposed austerity measures on the military and policing structures of Paris, incentivizing disloyalty to the crown among soldiers and the police. These austerity measures and the perceived frivolity of royal spending created popular anger. Radical pamphleteering and meetings started to become a key part of the Parisian bourgeois intellectual culture. On January 24, 1789, in the midst of a financial crisis, the King summoned the Estates General of 1789. They met on May 5. The intention of the King was to approve taxes, but the Third Estate, comprised on urban workers and rural peasants, was interested in greater representation. Amid this frustration and the wider contemporary social upheavals in France, on June 25, 1789, 12 representatives from three different parts of the city voted in favor of creating a united Parisian municipality. Further reforms proposed by Nicolas de Bonneville aimed to create a Parisian Bourgeois Guard that would later become a National Guard (composed of 48,000 citizens) and a Commune that would have its own assembly which named itself L'Assemblée Générale des Électeurs de la Commune de Paris. Before its formal establishment, there had been much popular discontent on the streets of Paris over who represented the true Commune, and who had the right to rule the Parisian people.
This Commune was established on July 11, 1789 just days before the storming of the Bastille on July 14. On July 20, each district of Paris elected 2 representatives, creating an assembly of 120 representatives who primarily came from the Third Estate. In Spring 1790 the departments of France were reorganized; the Paris Commune was divided up into 48 revolutionary sections of Paris and allowed to discuss the election of a new mayor. Louis XVI himself gave permission on May 21, 1790. Each section was granted its own popular militia, civil committee, and revolutionary committee. These sections acted as intermediaries between local populations (largely sans-culottes) and the legislative Paris Commune. They initially dealt with legal and civil concerns, but the sections became increasingly radicalized, focusing on political issues and struggles.
On February 24, 1792 the Conseil Général de la Commune was installed. It consisted of 24 members, under whom were Etienne Clavière, Pierre-Joseph Cambon, Sergent-Marceau, René Levasseur and the King. Manuel was appointed as procureur of the commune, representing the King. In early March the Paris Department was placed above the Commune in all matters of general order and security. It had the right to suspend the Commune's decisions and to dispose of the army against her in case of emergency.
The distinction between an active and passive citizen was abolished by the Commune on July 25, 1792 as the Commune became increasingly Jacobin in its orientation, and ideas of full citizenship were beginning to take root. The theoretical basis for the establishment of the Commune meant that administrative power could be brought closer to the people in a revolutionary manner, and Paris could achieve localization of revolutionaries to modernize the city and country, along with creating a rational framework or administration that could function efficiently without agents of the state.
The insurrection on 10 August 1792
In the early days of the Commune, Feuillants and then Girondins bourgeois Republican forces were the dominant political force, but as the Jacobins became ascendent among the Parisian political class, they were increasingly militant in their desire to establish control of the Commune. The Paris Commune became insurrectionary in the summer of 1792, essentially refusing to take orders from the Constitutional Cabinet of Louis XVI. On the night of August 9, 1792 (spurred by the Brunswick Manifesto on July 25 which threatened the revolutionaries with death) a new revolutionary Commune, led by Georges Danton, Camille Desmoulins and Jacques Hébert took possession of the Hôtel de Ville, the center of Commune activity. Antoine Galiot Mandat de Grancey, the commander of the Paris National Guard and in charge of defending the Tuileries where the royal family resided, was assassinated and replaced by Antoine Joseph Santerre. The next day insurgents attacked the Tuileries, overthrowing the monarchy. The Legislative Assembly was dissolved, to be replaced by a new National Convention. During the ensuing constitutional crisis, the collapsing Legislative Assembly of France was heavily dependent on the Commune for the effective power that allowed it to continue to function as a legislature. The insurrectionary Commune had elected Sulpice Huguenin during the night as its first President.
On August 10 and the following days, all 48 districts of Paris decided to elect representatives with unlimited powers (28 districts jointly made this decision on the eve of the assault on the Tuileries, while the remaining 20 joined them over the days that followed). The 11th district, covering an area which included Place Vendôme, elected Maximilien Robespierre as its representative. At this time, 52 representatives formed the Departmental Council of the Commune. On August 16, Robespierre presented a petition to the Legislative Assembly from the Paris Commune to demand the establishment of a provisional Revolutionary Tribunal that had to deal with the "traitors" and "enemies of the people." On August 21, it succeeded in dissolving the separate départment of Paris; the Commune took its place, combining local and regional power under one body. The all-powerful Commune demanded custody of the royal family, imprisoning them in the Temple fortress. A list of "opponents of the Revolution" was drawn up, the gates to the city were sealed, and on August 28 the citizens were subjected to domiciliary visits, ostensibly in a search for muskets. A sharp conflict developed between the Legislative Assembly and the Commune and its sections.On August 30 the interim minister of Interior Roland and Guadet tried to suppress the influence of the Commune because the sections had exhausted the searches. The Assembly, tired of the pressures, declared the Commune illegal and suggested the organization of Communal elections. On Sunday morning September 2 the members of the Commune, gathering in the town hall to proceed the election of deputies to the National Convention, decided to maintain their seats and have Girondin leaders Roland and Jacques Pierre Brissot arrested.
The September Massacres of 1792
What ensued from this ongoing struggle between the National Convention and the Commune was one of the darkest chapters of the Commune and the revolution. The exact origins of the September Massacres continue to be a source of historical debate around the internal politics of the Paris Commune. A culture of suspicion and fear had emerged amid the ongoing wars with Austria and Prussia as well as the internal rivalries among the revolutionaries. The Jacobins had propagated a culture of conspiracy and revenge which singled out a potentially disloyal prison population, fearing that political prisoners and the many Swiss Guards imprisoned in Parisian jails after the August 10 insurrection would side with either an advancing foreign or counter-revolutionary army. The culture of revolutionary terror also prompted an opportunistic desire for personal vengeance against rivals. Some historians argue that all of this coupled with the instability of the state and location of power, and the precarity of ordinary Parisian life fueled a culture of extreme fear and paranoia that would eventually fuel the mass violence which was rationalized as a pre-emptive act. Others argue that it was planned and managed by Danton and the leaders of the Commune, "whose animating spirit was Marat."  They blame the "sanguinary outbursts in the press" promoted by Marat. The massacres marked a watershed in a troubled history between the people and the political elite in a new combination of forces unleashed by revolution, counter-revolution, and the support of both among conflicting popular and elite forces.
On September 2, Danton gave a speech in the Legislative Assembly specifically singling out internal enemies, calling on volunteers to take arms against them and assemble together in Paris immediately. He insisted "any one refusing to give personal service or to furnish arms shall be punished with death," claiming that the salvation of France rested upon ordinary citizens taking up arms against potential traitors. Jean-Paul Marat, heading the surveillance committee of the Commune, was even more incendiary, admonishing the "good citizens to go to the Abbaye, to seize priests, and especially the officers of the Swiss guards and their accomplices and run a sword through them."
The massacres began on September 2, as a mob entered the prisons and slaughtered many of prisoners. Between September 2 and 6, an estimated 1,100 - 1,600 people were killed by around 235 forces loyal to the Commune who had been responsible for guarding the prisons of Paris. It is estimated that half of the prison population of Paris was massacred by the evening of September 6. However, for all the rhetoric of dangerous political prisoners posing a threat to Paris, the vast majority who were murdered were not political prisoners (72%). The victims included some children as well.
Jean-Lambert Tallien, the secretary of the Commune, called for an expansion of the mass action beyond Paris as a patriotic duty. A huge wave of violence followed, often organized through revolutionary sections. Marat immediately started the mass dissemination of a notice imploring all patriots around the country to eliminate counter-revolutionaries themselves as soon as possible.
The Insurrection of May 31 - June 2, 1793
In the period after the September Massacres, the Commune was engaged in an ongoing struggle for power and authority with the National Convention, led by the Girondins. Both engaged in a series of denunciations and counter-denunciations. As the Jacobins became increasingly radicalized, their dominance of the Commune put them in conflict with the Girondins, who dominated the Legislative Assembly. When the National Convention effectively replaced the Assembly in September 1792, the Girondins remained more powerful than the radical left Montagnards, which was composed mainly of the delegates from Paris and the Commune. The Convention's power and control over most of France remained in their hands. But by 1793, the legitimacy and reputation of the Girondins was undermined by the wars with Austria and Prussia and the insurrectionary War in the Vendée. The massacres of tens of thousands of people in the royalist Vendée uprising exposed just how deep the divides between urban and rural France were, how little practical control the Girondins had over a unified French republic. France was effectively moving into the Civil War, and republicans were increasingly switching loyalty to the Montagnards.
The Commune called for the reinstatement of the Revolutionary Tribunal to try political opponents. On March 10, 1793, the tribunal was restored. Jean-Paul Marat sent a letter to the provincial societies encouraging them to demand the recall of the appellants, which resulted in the Girondin-led Convention demanding he be put before a Revolutionary Tribunal. Outraged, most of the Parisian sections sent a petition threatening the Girondins with an effective insurrection.
On April 18 the Commune announced an insurrection against the Convention after the arrest of Marat. In response the Girondins launched a political assault on the Paris Commune as an institution. On May 24 the Girondins had the radical deputy Jacques Hébert arrested for an inflammatory article he had published in his paper, along with two other Jacobin Communards. The following day the Commune demanded that he be released. The arrests triggered the declaration of an open Jacobin uprising, with Robespierre calling upon the people to join in the revolt.
The president of the Convention Maximin Isnard, who had enough of the tyranny of the Commune, threatened the total destruction of Paris. "If the Commune does not unite closely with the people, it violates its most sacred duty," Robespierre said. In response that afternoon the Commune demanded the creation of a Revolutionary army of sans culottes in every town of France, including 20,000 men to defend Paris, and the sections formed an insurrectionary committee.
On May 31 an uprising attempt began unsuccessfully, as the smaller than expected forces who gathered were unable to take over the Convention. Jean-Francois Varlet accused Hébert and Dobson of weakness at the evening meeting of the Commune for the poorly-planned attempt at ousting the Girondins. The Commune gathered all day on June 1 with the understanding that a Sunday uprising would allow for a much better attendance of sans-culottes. On Saturday, June 1 the Commune gathered almost all day. Unsatisfied with the result the Commune demanded and prepared a "Supplement" to the revolution for the next day. Hanriot was ordered to march his National Guard from the town hall to the National Palace. "The armed force," Hanriot said, "will retire only when the Convention has delivered to the people the deputies denounced by the Commune." The insurrection was organized by the Paris Commune and supported by Montagnards.
After a full day of Communard planning, in the evening 40,000 troops surrounded the Convention, trapping the Girondins inside. The Girondins spent much of June 2 fiercely denouncing the Jacobins and the Paris Commune itself through speeches, arguing for its suppression, but as the Vendée fell to rebels, inspiring revolutionary outrage, Francois Hanriot ordered the National Guard to march on the Convention and join those Communard forces to oust the Girondins who had lost the faith of republicans. The Convention, now surrounded by the National Guard, demanded that the ousting of the Girondins be blamed for France's disintegration. Girondin deputies attempting to leave were arrested as the Convention was stormed, and the President of the Convention came out to plead with Hanriot to remove the troops, but he refused. Under pressure the Convention ended up voting for the arrest of those 22 leading Girondins, effectively destroying them as a political force. Marat and Couthon hailed Hanriot as a hero of the revolution, and he became seen as a hero of the Commune itself. This insurrection sparked by the Jacobins led to a new Montagnard governing force, the defeat of their Girondin enemies, and a completely new revolutionary government for France.
The Execution of the Girondins
The internal politics of the Commune and its political culture led to the Insurrection of 31 May - 2 June 1793 and the fall of the Girondins. It ended the political careers of the Girondins. All that was left was their arrest and execution. A list drawn up by the Commandant-General of the Parisian National Guard François Hanriot (with help from Marat) and endorsed by a decree of the intimidated Convention included 22 Girondin deputies and 10 of the 12 members of the Commission of Twelve, who were ordered to be detained at their lodgings "under the safeguard of the people." On June 13, 1793 the Convention ordered the imprisonment of the detained deputies, filling their places in the Assembly by their suppléants and initiating vigorous measures against the movement in the provinces.
Marat was assassinated on July 13, 1793 by Charlotte Corday (a Girondin sympathizer), who blamed him for the violence. Marat's assassination triggered an even further wave of radicalization among Jacobins, as a cult of martyrdom emerged around Marat. Corday believed Marat's assassination would rid the Girondins of their greatest nemesis, but it only served to increase the unpopularity of the Girondins and seal their fate.
The trial of the 22 began before the Revolutionary Tribunal on October 24, 1793. The tribunal presided over the arrest, trial, and execution of the Girondins. The verdict was a foregone conclusion. On October 31, they were all guillotined.
The Defeat of the Hébertists and Danton
The defeat and execution of the Girondins did not end the ongoing cycle of retribution. With the more conservative Girondins gone, Robespierre turned his attention to the radical Hébertists. In the winter of 1793–1794, a majority of the Convention's Committee of Public Safety decided that the Hébertist party must perish or its opposition within the committee would overshadow the other factions due to its influence in the Commune. The Law of 14 Frimaire (December 4, 1793) had consolidated power in the hands of the Committee of Public Safety with Robespierre, who had replaced Danton as the dominant force within the Commune, at the helm. Robespierre despised the Hébertists for their "atheism" and bloodthirstiness.
From February 13 to March 13, 1794, Robespierre withdrew from active business on the committee due to illness. During that time, he decided that the end of the Terror would mean the loss of political power he hoped to use to create the Republic of Virtue. He broke with Danton and joined in attacks on Danton and the Hébertists. Robespierre charged his opponents with complicity with foreign powers. The charges against Danton—reaching from accusations of corruption to alleged spying for Pitt and plotting to restore monarchy—were "even by the standards of the Revolutionary Tribunal, an incredibly feeble document."
On March 15, Robespierre reappeared in the convention; on March 19, Hébert and nineteen of his followers were arrested and on March 24 they were guillotined. Danton would be next. On March 30, Danton, Camille Desmoulins and their friends were arrested, tried on April 2 and guillotined on April 5.
The Thermidorian reaction and decline of the Commune
It was not until 1792 that the revolutionary government had a formal cabinet in place, with the appointment of the Ministers of the French National Convention and the decision of the Commissioners of the Committee of Public Safety in 1794 to take charge of administrative departments, but the increased and consolidated power of the National Convention by 1794 now meant that they could challenge the insurrectionary and often hostile power of the Paris Commune.
On July 23 the Commune published a new maximum, limiting the wages of employees (in some cases by half) and provoking a sharp protest in the sections. On July 27 the Paris Commune gave orders to close the gates (and to ring the tocsin), and summoned an immediate meeting of the sections to consider the dangers threatening the fatherland. The Paris Commune was working with the Jacobins on yet another insurrection, asking them to send over reinforcements from the galleries, "even the women who are regulars there." At around 10 p.m., the mayor Jean-Baptiste Fleuriot-Lescot appointed a delegation to go and convince Robespierre to join the Commune action. After a whole evening waiting in vain for action by the Commune, the armed sections, without supplies or instructions, began to disperse. This failure would be costly for Robespierre and the Commune.
The struggle between the Commune and the National Convention came to a head a few days later with the ousting of Robespierre on July 27, 1794 (or 9 Thermidor year II in the revolutionary calendar). It marked a counter-revolution against the radical left, Robespierre and the Reign of Terror. When Robespierre was detained, the troops of the Paris Commune under Hanriot who were largely loyal to him organized an attempt to liberate him, which was in turn met by a counter-attack from Convention forces. They barricaded themselves into the Hotel de Ville, and on July 28 the Convention forces succeeded in capturing Robespierre and the supporters who remained with him. They were executed on the same day. Almost half of the Paris Commune (70 members) were executed on July 29, as were many members of Jacobin club who had supported Robespierre. It marked the beginning of the White Terror.With the execution of most of its members, the Commune effectively became a proxy of the National Convention, and subject to its direct rule. In response Francois-Noel Babeuf, and militants associated with him organized through a newly created Electoral Club, unsuccessfully demanding the restoration of the Commune. The government of the republic was then succeeded by the French Directory in November 1795, formally ending the Commune.
The Commune took charge of routine civic functions but is best known for mobilizing the people towards insurrection when it deemed the Revolution to be in danger, as well as for the campaign of its more radical elements to dechristianize the country. This campaign of dechristianization was spearheaded by many prominent figures within the Commune, such as the minister of war Jean-Nicolas Pache who sought to disseminate the profoundly anti-clerical work of Jacques Hébert by purchasing thousands of copies of his books and his radical newspaper Le Père Duchesne for free distribution to the public. The Hébertists among the Communards managed to successfully transform Notre-Dame and numerous other churches into Temples of Reason, further entrenching the Commune's political commitment to the Cult of Reason. As the Commune became increasingly radicalized and Jacobin-dominated it aligned itself with radical left Montagnard ideas and policies. It was headed by Pierre Gaspard Chaumette and Hébert himself from November 1792.
Even after its downfall, its after-effects remained strong in the Parisian imagination, and the memory of the 18th Century Commune provided inspiration for the later Communards of the Paris Commune of 1871. Hippolyte Taine, writing in L'Origine de la France Contemporaine, criticized the similarities between the earlier Commune and the 1871 Paris Commune for restoring institutions such as the Committee of Public Safety of 1793-1794.
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ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Alison, Archibald. History of Europe: From the Commencement of the French Revolution. Sydney, AU: Wentworth Books, 2019 (original 1848). ISBN 978-0469168541
- Bax, Ernest Belford. A Short History of the Paris Commune. Franklin Classics, 2018. ISBN 978-0342783854
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- Bluche, Frédéric. Septembre 1792: logiques d'un massacre. Paris, FR: Robert Laffront, 1986. ISBN 978-2221045237
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