The French Revolution and the Formation of the National Convention


By Lynne Ann HartnettVillanova University

After the storming of the Bastille, with a stroke of the pen, the National Assembly in France abolished the nation’s traditional system of feudalism. The National Assembly now constituted a new center of national authority. And on August 27, 1789, the National Assembly articulated its Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.

Painting of Louis XVI while imprisoned at the Tour du Temple
Louis XVI kept giving reasons to the revolutionaries to distrust him such as his failed attempt to exit the country. (Image: Jean-François Garneray/Public domain)

Individual Rights

The declaration made clear that men were born and remained free and equal in rights. In looking to establish a new relationship between the government and the governed, National Assembly delegates stressed that the aim of all political associations was to preserve rights to liberty, property, and security and to resist oppression. Moreover, sovereignty was to reside in the nation as constituted by its citizens.

Still, France remained a monarchy in form, if not substance. In order for the Declaration of Rights to have the full weight of law, it had to be ratified by the king. And he hesitated. A few weeks later, Parisian commoners resolved to exert their sovereignty once more. 

Incensed by continuing shortages of bread—and the king’s unwillingness to endorse the August decrees—some 7,000 Parisian women (armed with swords, muskets, broomsticks, and pitchforks) marched on Versailles in October.

Painting of Louis XVI and his family in Paris’ Tuileries Palace
To keep an eye on them, Louis XVI and his family were relocated to the Tuileries Palace. (Image: Hubert Robert/Public domain)

Reinforced by several thousand male members of the self-appointed national guard, the women compelled Louis XVI to sign the decrees ending feudalism and guaranteeing rights to man and citizen. 

In addition, the king and his family were forced to leave the royal residence and relocate to Paris’ Tuileries Palace, where it was thought the common people could better keep an eye on them.

The National Assembly’s Constitution

In September 1791, the assembly unveiled a formal constitution. Absolute monarchy gave way to a constitutional monarchy. The monarch would rule in accordance with the law, and the law would be articulated by a body to be called the legislative assembly, elected by the citizens.

Still, fundamental inequalities remained. You had to be a male property owner to be considered an active citizen with full political rights. The rest of the population—including women, servants, and the poor—enjoyed certain civil rights but could not actively participate in the functions of government, including voting. 

This situation rankled many, especially a growing group of radical working-class men and women known as the sans-culottes—literally, “those without breeches”, since they wore long pants rather than the breeches and silk-stockings of the well-to-do.

This article comes directly from content in the video series The Great Revolutions of Modern HistoryWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Fuel to the Flame

Louis XVI added to their distrust in June 1791. With émigré aristocrats organizing counterrevolutionary forces on France’s borders, the king and his family tried to join them. He never made it out of the country. Recognized in a small town close to the border, he was stripped of a disguise he’d adopted and returned to Paris in disgrace.

Portrait of Jean-Paul Marat
Jean-Paul Marat warned of the dangers of listening to the government’s calls for peace and order. (Image: Joseph Boze/Public domain)

Soon, the radicalization of the masses was also pushed along by foreign wars. Expecting an attack from the monarchies of Austria and Prussia, which were determined to halt the revolution, France launched a preemptive strike in April 1792, in a bid for self-preservation. Radical political figures and writers inflamed the situation. 

Journalists like Jean-Paul Marat warned the public that the government of France plotted against the well-being of the people. Marat argued that the revolution’s enemies preached “peace, confidence, and respect for the laws, in order to prevent the explosion” of the people’s justified anger.

Fall of the Monarchy

Marat’s predicted explosion came during the dog days of summer. News of strategic losses fueled anxieties about a foreign invasion and the fall of Paris itself. The rage of sans-culottes who engaged in a daily struggle against inflation and food shortages and suspected their king and his Austrian wife of treachery erupted on August 10, 1792.

Militant sans-culottes stormed the Tuileries Palace on August 10, 1792. Royal and Swiss guards opened fire to stave off the rebels. But this made the sans-culottes still more determined. The royal guards were overwhelmed and slaughtered. The monarchy was overthrown. 

The legislative assembly tried to tone down the violence. But inflammatory figures such as Marat and the lawyer turned member of the legislative assembly, Maximilien Robespierre, denounced the calls for calm as counterrevolutionary.

The September Massacres

The tension that prevailed in Paris that summer led the new government to arrest thousands of aristocrats, former royal officials and members of the clergy who it sensed could be party to a counterrevolution. 

As rumors swirled about imprisoned royalists and aristocrats conspiring with invading foreign armies, angry mobs stormed Parisian prisons and murdered some 1,200 prisoners—aristocrats, clergy, and common criminals—in cold blood, in what became known as the September Massacres.

France: A Republic

Radical organizers and members of an outspoken political club known as the Jacobins, who included Marat, Robespierre, and Georges Danton, defended the violence. Marat said that if a “mistaken humanity cripples” the arms of revolution and holds back its blows, it will “cost the lives of millions of [our] brothers.”

The discredited legislative assembly now gave way to a new more democratic body called the National Convention. And with the monarchy overthrown, the National Convention declared France a republic. Within it, the radical Jacobin contingent drove the next phase of the revolution, calling for patriotism, sacrifice, and decisive action. Led by Robespierre and Danton, they believed that the French Republic was the vanguard of a crusade for universal liberty.

Common Questions about the French Revolution and the Formation of the National Convention

Q: What was the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen?

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen made it clear that men were born and remained free and equal in rights. The National Assembly made it clear that the aim of all political associations was to preserve rights to liberty, property, and security and to resist oppression.

Q: Why did France declare war on Austria and Prussia in April 1792?

The monarchies of Austria and Prussia were determined to halt the French Revolution and its consequences. To counter this, France launched its pre-emptive strike in order to preserve itself.

Q: What democratic body replaced the National Assembly?

The National Assembly was replaced with a more democratic body called the National Convention after the National Assembly was discredited. The National Convention declared France to be a republic.

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