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Louis XVI was a weak and indecisive king, because he would vacillate between obeying the new constitution, and following the advice of his councilors, who had ulterior motives. Their motives were to maintain the status of their offices. Thus, this weakness in the king caused the people of France to mistrust the king and still more Marie Antoinette, who was not French but Austrian.

In October 1789, a mob had brought them and the Assembly with them from Versailles to Paris so that they might be more closely watched. Many nobles did not follow the lead of the Third Estate, they had fled France before the Revolution broke out.

These emigres, as they were called, later headed by the kings own brothers, were in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, had appealed to the princes of Europe to stop the Revolution in France and threatened a reign of bloodshed when they returned.

Overthrow of the Monarchy

In June 1791 the suspicions against Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette became certainties for most of the people when the king and queen, with their children, tried to escape. They were captured at Varennes, on the edge of the Argonne, before they reached the French border. They were brought back to Paris.

From that day, the monarchy was doomed. These events helped divide the revolutionists into two parties, the Constitutional Royalists and the Republicans. The new Legislative Assembly, which met as soon as the king had accepted the constitution (September 1791), still wanted to keep the monarchy.

The Republican sentiment, however, increased rapidly as the king's weakness became more apparent. On Aug. 10, 1792, the royal family sought refuge in the hall of the Legislative Assembly when a mob invaded the Tuileries and killed the guards.

On Sept. 21, 1792, a decree was passed that abolished royalty in France and set up a republic. Four months later, the king was sent to the guillotine.

The Clergy Oppose the Revolution

The overthrow of the monarchy was not entirely due to the weakness of the king. The clergy and many devout Roman Catholics had withdrawn their support from the Revolution because of the laws against the church. The situation in France was deteriorating.

The two main reasons that the clergy withdrew their support were:

  1. The Church property was taken by the state. 
    This was a generally approved financial measure.
  2. The Civil Constitution of the Clergy was drawn up. 
    This required all clergy from bishops to parish priests to be elected and all were required to take an oath to support the government. The lower clergy drew back, and only four bishops took the oath. By a blunder, the Assembly had divided the patriots, who had supported all changes up to this point.

Others, especially merchants and tradesmen, were irritated, because the paper money that flooded the country was soon worthless. To top this off, Royalist uprisings were occurring in some provinces. To make matters worse, Austria and Prussia, had finished partitioning Poland, and thus allied themselves against the new order in France, which threatened the old order everywhere in Europe.

England was drawn into the war when the French revolutionary armies occupied the Austrian Netherlands (Belgium). The people sacrificed liberty for a strong government, which was needed to guide the Revolution through this crisis.

A convention was called to draw up a new constitution, and for three years (1792-95) the committee of Public Safety, ruled France while the constitution was set aside. Their power came from the radical Jacobin Club, not from the convention. Thus, the government of France for three years was a dictatorship.

The men in power were Georges-Jacques Danton, Jean-Paul Marat, and Maximilien Robespierre until Marat was assassinated by Charlotte Corday. Through agents, spies, and "deputies on mission" the Committee spread its net over the whole country. It maintained its position by terror. Hence, the period is known as the Reign of Terror.

Royalist uprisings were sternly put down, and thousands were sent to the guillotine. Marie Antoinette, Madame Roland, aristocrats and tradesmen, atheists such as Jacques Rene Hebert, and even Danton (because he urged moderation) were executed, usually with a mock trial or none at all.

Changes and war

Old institutions were changed. The calendar was made over, 1792 becoming the Year I, the first year of the French Republic. Even the names of the months were changed. The Terror accomplished what it set out to do. The Prussian-Austrian invaders had been turned back at Valmy on Sept. 20, 1792.

Then the French armies carried the war across the borders. "All governments are our enemies," cried an orator of the Convention, "all peoples are our friends Belgium, Nice, and Savoy were added to France. Under Lazare Nicolas Carnot, called the "organizer of victory," 14 armies were put in the field. The cry went up for the natural frontiers of France; and the revolutionary regime was going back to the policies of Louis XIV.