1792-1799: The Beginning of the First French Republic

Explore texts from the Archives & Special Collections holdings that focus on the abolishment of the monarchy and the execution of King Louis XVI, and the beginning of the First French Republic. This First Republican period is characterized by the fall of the monarchy, the establishment of the National Convention, the infamous Reign of Terror, and the Thermidorian Reaction in 1799. Furthermore, this section also features texts that highlight the impact of the Revolution on French culture and several of the important monuments and arts institutions. 

Trial & Execution of the King, 1792-1793 

After being kept under what was essentially "house arrest," King Louis XVI and his family made an escape attempt from the Tuileries Palace to Varennes in 1791. The King attempted to flee France and raise an army to retake the country from the revolutionaries. This degree of planning reveals Louis’ political determination; unfortunately, it was for this determined plot that he was eventually captured and charged with high treason.

Title page of "A Discourse on the Question Whether the King Shall Be Tried?"  by Jacques-Pierre Brissot de Warville dated 1791 (Call No.  DC137.08 .B7 1791)

This situation became an international point of focus, and some of the debates from the time can be seen in 1791's A Discourse on the Question Whether the King Shall Be Tried? (Call No.  DC137.08 .B7 1791) by Jacques-Pierre Brissot de Warville which was translated into English for an American audience. This text was initially delivered before the Society of the Friends of the Constitution on July 10, 1791 poses the questions: 

  1. Shall the King be tried?
  2. By whom shall he be tried?
  3. In what form shall he be tried?
  4. In what manner shall his place in the interim be supplied?
  5. How shall it be finally be supplied, if he be deposed?

The author presents an answer to each of these questions based on the Constitution, and ultimately says: "It is necessary here, either to adopt the constitution, or the absolute sacredness of the King; either the revolution, or his trial; either the safety of the people, or outrageous revenge; either the glory, or the repproach of France."[1]

Louis XVI was officially arrested on 13 August 1792, and sent to the Temple, an ancient fortress in Paris that was used as a prison. On September 21, the National Constituent Assembly declared France to be a Republic and abolished the Monarchy. Louis was stripped of all of his titles and honours, and from this date was simply known as Citoyen Louis Capet.

After this point, it became uncertain what the revolutionaries planned to do with the former King. Some argued to keep him under arrest, while others demanded his immediate execution. Among those who were calling for immediate execution was Maximilien Robespierre (1758-1794) in his Défenseur de la Constitution (Call No. DC146.R6 A18) published in 1792. In this text, Robespierre argued quite strongly for summary judgement and the death of the King. Robespierre posits that the Constitution could not be used in the King's defence, since Louis had violated its terms with his actions. Furthermore, he also argues that the former King could function only as a threat to liberty and national peace, and that the members of the Assembly had a responsibility for public safety. He did not believe that Louis XVI should even be given a trial, and argued that giving him a trial was a counter-revolutionary idea because it placed the revolution itself in litigation.

Title page of Défenseur de la Constitution by Maximilien Robespierre dated 1792 (Call No. DC146.R6 A18)

Eventually, it was decided that he would undergo a trial in front of the National Convention, a single chamber assembly that replaced the Legislative Assembly in the fall of 1792. The Histoire du Procès de Louis XVI by J. Cordier published in 1793 (Call No. DC137.08 .C67) provides an analysis of the main points of the trial, including the interrogation, the defense, and the final verdict of the National Convention—execution by guillotine. 

Revolution de Paris No.181-No.193 (Call No. DC140 .R55 v.15) provides an account of the King's trial, judgement, and execution that was meant for more popular and immdiate distribution. Pamphlet No. 185 supplies a detailed narrative of what happened in the last few hours of the King's life, from attending Mass, speaking with his confessor, seeing his family one last time to the journey to the scaffold in the middle of the Place de la Révolution (formerly Place Louis XV, which also featured a statue of Louis XVI's father). This account reports that Louis XVI's last words were:"Je meurs innocent, je pardonne à mes ennemis, & je désire que mon sang soit utile aux Français & qu'il appaise la colère de Dieu."[2] Louis XVI was executed on Monday, January 23, 1793. 

This pamphlet also includes two illustrations of the King's execution. The first (seen below) depicts Louis XVI being led towards the guillotine; while the second image gruesomely depicts the executioner displaying the former king's severed head to the crowd. Both images also include the plinth where the statue of Louis XV used to stand, which further emphasizes the abolishment of the monarchy. 

Engraving of "The Execution of Louis XVI" from Revolution de Paris (No. 185) (Call No. DC140 .R55 v.15)

Also included in the collection are Louis XVI's personal correspondence. These letters outline the French Revolution from his point of view and his attempts to curb and undermine the revolutionaries attempts at overthrowing the monarchy. Archives & Special Collections also possesses a copy of his last Testament in Revolution: a selection of pamphlets and documents (Call No. DC 141. R4 v.1).

The Reign of Terror, 1793-1794

The Reign of Terror was a period of violence that occurred after the execution of the King. It was incited by conflict between rival political factions, the Girondins and the Jacobins, and marked by mass executions of "enemies of the revolution". This period saw a staggering death toll that ranged in the tens of thousands, with 16,594 executed by guillotine (2,639 in Paris), and another 25,000 in summary executions across France. The Reign of Terror also saw the rise of Maximilien Robespierre within the National Convention, and he also became the leader of the Committee for Public Safety. The Committee for Public Safety was the de facto government during this period, and assumed the role of protecting the newly established republic against foreign attacks and internal rebellion. For example, Robespierre wrote a text for the National Convention on the topic of the Committee for Public Safety: Rapport Sur Les Principes de morale politique qui doivent guider la Convention Nationale dans l'administration intérieure de la République fait au nom du Comité de Salut Public, le 18 pluviose, 1'an 2e de la Republique (Call No. DC177.R45). This text outlines Robespierre's policies that would come to inform the Terror, and also includes one of his more infamous quotes which characterizes the Terror: "Punir les oppresseurs de l'humanité, c'est clémence; leur pardonner, c'est barbarie."[3]

Title page of the "Rapport Sur Les Principes de morale politique qui doivent guider la Convention Nationale dans l'administration intérieure de la République fait au nom du Comité de Salut Public, le 18 pluviose, 1'an 2e de la Republique" by Maximilien Robespierre (Call No. DC177.R45).

Influenced by Jacobin politics, the Committee of Public Safety took over the French police and offiicially sanctioned terror as a legal policy in a proclamation that read: "It is time that equality bore its scythe above all heads. It is time to horrify all the conspirators. So legislators, place Terror on the order of the day! Let us be in revolution, because everywhere counter-revolution is being woven by our enemies. The blade of the law should hover over all the guilty."[4] During this time, the Revolutionary Tribunal—a special judicial body made especially for the trial of political offenders during the French Revolution—ordered the execution of 2,400 people in Paris by July 1794. Across France 30,000 people lost their lives. The guillotine, the new instrument of egalitarian justice, was seemingly always at work. Civil liberties were suspended, and the promises of the Declaration of 1789 were forgotten. Public executions were considered educational, and women were even encouraged to sit and knit during trials and executions. 

Constitution of 1793

The Constitution of 1793 was the first constitution of the Republican period. Drafted by the Committee of Public Safety which was enlarged with the purpose of producing it, the text was presented to the National Convention on June 10, 1793 and was subsequently accepted on June 23, 1793. The constitution was then ratified by a popular referendum. Though the Constitution was overwhelmingly popular, the convention set it aside indefinitely on October 10, 1793 and declared a "Revolutionary Government" until a future peace. 

This Constitution was inspired by the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789, to which it added several rights, including: the superiority of popular sovreignty over national sovreignty; social rights (e.g. the right of association, right to work and public assistance, right to public education); the right of rebellion; and the abolition of slavery. The development of this new Constitution is outlined in Revolutions de Paris pamphlets No.189-No.193  (Call No. DC140 .R55 v.15) beginning in early 1793. 

Revolutions de Paris pamphlets No. 191 dated 1793  (Call No. DC140 .R55 v.15)

Execution of the Queen, 1793

After the excution of Louis XVI, the National Convention turned its attention to the fate of the former Queen, Marie-Antoinette. While some called for her exile, the Committee of Public Safety called for a public trial. She was tried by the Revolutionary Tribunal on October 14, 1783. Unlike the king, who had been given ample time to prepare a defence, the queen was given less than one day. On October 16, 1793, Marie Antoinette was beheaded at the Place de la Révolution. She is considered one of the first victims of the Reign of Terror. 

Below is the Bulletin du Tribunal Criminel Revolutionnaire (Call No. DC175.B8) advertising her criminal trial by the Revolutionary Tribunal. Archives & Special Collections has hundreds of these bulletins in its holdings. Accounts of her trial and execution can also be found in the revolutionary pamphlets in the collection.

Bulletin du Tribunal Criminel Revolutionnaire (Call No. DC175.B8) advertising Queen Marie Antoinette's criminal trial by the Revolutionary Tribunal on October 14, 1783

The collection also features first hand accounts of those imprisoned during the Reign of Terror, including the Mémoires d'un détenu pour servir a l'histoire de la tyrannie de Robespierre by Honoré Riouffe in 1795 (Call No. DC183.8.R5). This text provides a detailed account of the horrors of a victim of the Terror and observations on the treatment of others during this bloody time. 

Mémoires d'un détenu pour servir a l'histoire de la tyrannie de Robespierre by Honoré Riouffe in 1795 (Call No. DC183.8.R5).

Robespierre's Fall & the Thermidorian Reaction, 1794-1795 

Robespierre, the mastermind behind the Terror, was known by his supporters as "The Incorruptible", while his opponents called him "dictateur sanguinaire", French for "bloodthirsty dictator." One account, State of France in May 1974 by Le Comte de Montgaillard and translated into English by Joshua Lucock Wilkinson (Call No. DC183.5.M613 1794), gives us a sense of what Robespierre's critics thought of him: 

Born with only ordinary genius, destitute of those great talents, which create, continue, and decide a Revolution, Robespierre is much inferior to the dangerous and elevated situation at which he aims; but he reigns by the terror, which he inspires, and by the corruption of the enemies, he contends with...Robespierre aims at sovreignty; but he dare not assume the name, though every day his voice is more dreaded... The authorities, much stronger than his power (and this distinction is in his favour) are so confident of him, that it will require the greatest efforts to destroy it.[5] 

Eventually, Robespierre's extreme policies came to alienate his own supporters among the Jacobins. When Robespierre called for a new purge in 1794, he seemed to threaten the other members of the Committee of Public Safety, and they came to realize how much of a dictatorship the French government had become. The National Convention quickly rallied to depose Robespierre. The text Rapport fait au nom de la commission chargé de l'examen des papiers trouvés chez Robespierre et ses complices by E.B. Courtois, Deputee of the department of Aube from 1795 (Call No. DC175.C86) provides a compilation of incriminating documents written by Robespierre's with critical commentary. Robespierre was arrested in July 1794 and sent to the guillotine the next day, the last victim of the Reign of Terror. This is known as the Thermidorian Reaction, as Robespierre's fall from power occurred during the Revolutionary month of Thermidor. The Committee for Public Safety's influence diminished, and it was disestablished in 1795. 

Title page of the Rapport fait au nom de la commission chargé de l'examen des papiers trouvés chez Robespierre et ses complices by E.B. Courtois, Deputee of the department of Aube dated 1795 (Call No. DC175.C86)

The Impact of the French Revolution on France's Art Museums

The Transformation of the Louvre: From Royal to Public

The French Revolution had a deep and lasting impact on the French nation, but it also affected the art and monuments in French museums. With the Revolution, the museum now known as the Louvre entered a phase of intensive transformation. Previously, the Louvre was dedicated to the royal art collections; however during the revolutionary period, the art museum underwent a series of great changes that resulted in the creation of the first public art institutions in the world.

The Louvre's previous incarnation, the Museum Central des Arts, opened its doors on August 10, 1793. The works of art on display were mostly paintings from the collections of the French royal family and aristocrats who had fled abroad. There was a lot of work being done during this time to inventory and preserve these artworks for posterity. 

In December 1793, the National Convention established the Commission Temporaires des Arts under the Committee for Public Instruction in order to take inventory and preserve the nation's artistic holdings. The 1794 pamphlet, Rapport fait au nom des commissaires envoyés dans le département de Seine-et-Oise, à la Commission temporaire des arts byCasimir Varon, a member of the commission and of the Conservatoire du Muséum National (Call No. DC150 .V37 1794), outlines the efforts being undertaken to inventory the art collections of Versailles for the Muséum central des arts de la République (which later became the Louvre)

Title page of the pamphlet "Rapport fait au nom des commissaires envoyés dans le département de Seine-et-Oise, à la Commission temporaire des arts" by Casimir Varon dated 1794 (Call No. DC150 .V37 1794)

Another pamphlet by Varon from the same year, Rapport du conservatoire du Muséum national des arts (Call No. DC150 .V366 1794), criticizes the confusing layout of the artworks in the Muséum, and defines what the Muséum should be: an encyclopeadia of the Fine Arts where the artworks are arranged according to their respective schools and periods; that the official catalogs should provide a complete explanation of the works of art and the artists' lives; and that a specialized library be founded under the aegis of the Muséum. Furthermore, he felt that the Muséum should be a sanctuary where people come to elevate their understanding of Beauty—which was something the Muséum's organization did not allow at the time. Both of these two pamphlets by Varon are important to the creation of the Louvre as the very first public art museum, and can be found in Archives & Special Collections' W. McAllister Johnson Collection of rare books. 

Title page of the Rapport du conservatoire du Muséum national des arts by Casimir Varon dated 1794 (Call No. DC150 .V366 1794),

Also in 1794, a painter from the Académie de Peinture-Sculpture named Guillaume Martin wrote a pamphlet called Avis a la Nation, sur la Situation du Muséum National (Call No.N2030 .M374 1794), a text detailing his concerns and attempts to protect the paintings and treasures of what would become the Louvre. Martin felt that it was his civic duty to write about the situation of the museum's treasures, because he felt that they were about to be lost due to damage, and that some works of art required immediate conservation treatments. This text frames the importance of restoring the artworks to their original glory as a task to restore national honour. The Avis a la Nation also implies that the Muséum needed better administration in order to protect the artworks housed in its collection. 

Title page of the Avis a la Nation, sur la Situation du Muséum National by Guillaume Martin dated 1794 (Call No.N2030 .M374 1794)

[1] Brissot de Warville, J.P. A Discourse Upon the Question, Whether the King Shall Be Tried? Trans. P.J.G de Nancrede. (Boston: 1791), 20-21. 

[2] "Du 19 au 26 Janvier 1793: Mort de Louis XVI, Dernier Roi de France" Revolutions de Paris dediees a la Nation. No. 185. (1793), 202. 

[3] Robespierre, Maximilien. Rapport Sur Les Principes de morale politique qui doivent guider la Convention Nationale dans l'administration intérieure de la République fait au nom du Comité de Salut Public, le 18 pluviose, 1'an 2e de la Republique.(Paris: 1794), 17. 

[4] Andress, David. The Terror: The Merciless War for Freedom in Revolutionary France (New York: 2005), 178–179. 

[5] Le Comte de Montgaillard, State of France in May 1794. Trans. Joshua Lucock Wilkinson (London: 1794), 12-13.