Their ill-advised economic policies increased hardship and suffering and created widespread opposition which threatened the survival of the revolution. Under their influence the revolutionary government’s policies became considerably more radical and ill-advised. One such policy was The Law of the Maximum passed in 1793 to control food prices. At first the law applied to only a limited number of grain products but by September of 1793, it expanded to cover all foodstuffs and a long list of other goods. Selling above the stipulated prices attracted fines, imprisonment and even executions. The Jacobins went as far as establishing sans-culottes paramilitary forces to force farmers to surrender grain demanded by the government. It was illogical and irrational from an economic point of view for the government to attempt to fix prices because that only fuelled hoarding, the black market and consequent food shortages.
The violence and repression of their reign alienated many foreigners who had initially sympathised with the revolution and its objectives. When the revolution broke out in 1789, there was so much international sympathy and enthusiasm. In Britain prominent people welcomed it in the belief that France would undergo its own political and social transformation very much like the one Britain had undergone more than a century earlier. That transformation had resulted in the creation of a constitutional monarchy and the extension of political participation to ordinary people. The poet William Wordsworth spoke glowingly of how it was “bliss” to be alive during the outbreak of the revolution. The intervention of the Jacobins and their mob supporters in politics started a chain of events that led France away from the moderate course to that of radical and violent changes. It probably began with the arrest of seventy-three of the leading Girondists and the massacre of prisoners in September 1792. Their violence and radicalism sparked uprisings in places like Vendee, Lyons, Marseille and Bordeaux. That forced the Jacobin government into the harsh, repressive measures of the so-called Reign of Terror. Foreign sympathisers or supporters of the revolution were horrified into withdrawing their support by the high levels of repression and the mass executions as the government sought to crush dissent.
Their relentless persecution of the nobles and clergy ensured that these groups remained permanent enemies of the revolution who would work tirelessly to undermine it. The Jacobins enacted various laws against the nobles and clergy. They enacted the Law of Suspects which criminalised any show of support for these groups and denied suspects the right to legal representation. Their property was confiscated and churches were closed at the height of attempts to de-Christianise France in 1793. Not surprisingly these groups waged a bitter struggle against the government in many places especially Vendee. They
also fled to Austria and Prussia where they raised armies and conspired with those countries to fight France and destroy the revolution. They seriously threatened the revolution so much so that the Jacobins were forced to introduce the so-called Reign of Terror to redress the situation.
Their radical and uncompromisingly anti-monarchy rhetoric did so much to alienate foreign sympathy for the revolution and won permanent enemies who dedicated their energies to destroying the revolution. French soldiers fighting other European states tried spreading revolutionary and antimonarchy propaganda wherever they fought. Their slogans included catch phrases like “liberty, equality and fraternity”. They also spoke of “Peace to the peoples and war against tyrants”. By far the most radical anti-monarchy statement had been contained in the Edict of Fraternity issued in 1791 before the advent of the Jacobins to power. This was an explicit promise of material and moral support for people in European countries who wished to overthrow their rulers and establish revolutionary governments like that of France. Although the edict had been issued by the Legislative Assembly, the Jacobins effectively adopted it when they spoke of fighting the “tyrants” in 1793. That kind of rhetoric certainly scared the monarchical governments of Austria and Prussia ensuring they could only fight rather accept the revolution in France.
Their persistent intolerance of other revolutionary groups prevented unity of purpose and bred divisions that seriously undermined the revolution. By 1791, the revolutionaries were clearly divided and the two main groups were the Jacobins and the Girondists. There were so many facets to the Jacobin-Girondist struggle for supremacy. One of these was ideological as the Jacobins sought to impose centralisation as a way of dominating the whole country. Their attempts were fiercely resisted in the provinces like Vendee. The Jacobins enlisted the support of Paris mob to wrest control of the National Convention and imprison seventy three leading Girondist deputies in 1792. Divisions among the revolutionaries consequently increased and became more violent. The Girondist supporters in the provinces responded to the Jacobin victory in Paris by rebelling against the new government. As the revolutionary in-fighting intensified, counter-revolutionary elements like the nobles and clergy took advantage of the situation and worked out an alliance with the peasants and Girondists. This alliance succeeded for a time in
wresting control of provincial cities like Toulon in 1793. When the alliance started to work with external enemies of the revolution like the British in Toulon, it became clear that the revolution was under serious threat. As civil war raged the Jacobins felt compelled to introduce the Reign of Terror with its repressive measures to deal with the situation.
The introduction of the Reign of Terror from 1793 to 1794 removed any illusions that there could be any liberty to express anti-Jacobin sentiments. Radical Jacobins like Maximillien Robespierre made it clear that there was no question of equality and fraternising with counter-revolutionaries and anybody else who did not share their Jacobin views. He spoke of terror as necessary to frighten dissidents. The high levels of intolerance were contrary to the revolutionary ideals. Even fellow revolutionaries were not spared imprisonment and execution if their views contradicted those in power at the time. Mere
jealousy or competition for power also produced serious violations of liberty and equality. A special court called the Revolutionary Tribunal was established to try counter-revolutionary suspects. The Law of Suspects was passed to criminalise support for royalists and insufficient enthusiasm for the revolution. It was not clear what constituted insufficient enthusiasm for the revolution and it was up to the Revolutionary Tribunal to decide. Given the clearly Jacobin sympathies of that court, the Law of Suspects was inevitably used to punish anti-Jacobins. The Law of Maximum which was passed in 1794 to criminalise the selling of goods above the prices prescribed by government violated the revolutionary principles of freedom of commerce. When the Law of Twenty-Second Prarial was passed in 1794 even members of the National Convention lost their immunity and could now be hurled before the Revolutionary Tribunal on accusations of counter-revolutionary behaviour. There were spirited attempts to de-Christianise France between 1793 and 1794. This followed the overwhelming rejection of the Civil Constitution by the clergy in 1790. Churches were closed in many parts of the country and priests were persecuted. There were attempts to introduce the “Worship of Reason” and even a “Cult of the Supreme Being” to replace Christianity. That way the liberty of religion was lost in revolutionary France. Other policies like the requisitioning of grain and other goods essential to the war effort also violated the freedom of commerce. The introduction of mass conscription to provide recruits for the
revolutionary armies who had the urgent task of defending France from imminent invasion also demonstrated the loss of freedom of choice. The government allowed imprisonment, executions, torture and fines as punishment for those found guilty of reaction thus demonstrated loss of various civil rights in France.
They certainly assisted the revolution by deposing the counter-revolutionary king and establishing a republic in France in 1792. Although the revolutionaries had allowed Louis XVI to stay on as king after the outbreak of the revolution, he continued to behave in ways that suggested that he was a reactionary who was committed to reversing the gains of the revolution. The more moderate national assembly and legislative assembly had failed to take any action against him when he used his veto against laws to abolish the privileges of the first two estates. He also used his veto against the Declaration of Rights and the Civil Constitution of the Clergy in 1790. In all this Louis XVI displayed a strong determination to protect the interests of the minority nobles and clergy even if it meant undermining those of the Third Estate which had been generous enough to let him remain as king and allow him a suspensive veto over all legislation. The alleged discovery of documents linking him to foreign governments in seeking to destroy the revolution prompted the Jacobins to dethrone him, abolish the monarchy and establish a Republic in 1792. They had him executed in January 1793. Those were bold and decisive steps which saved the revolution.
They assisted the revolution by creating an army that crushed the local and foreign enemies and laid the foundations for the future success of the Directory. Carnot was appointed to the task of re-organising the army so that it could meet the threat of local and foreign counter-revolutionaries. He decided on mass conscription in order to provide recruits. Able-bodied men were trained and armed to fight. The rest of the population had to contribute to the war effort by cooking, providing material assistance and even carrying the baggage of the soldiers. Grain and other important goods were requisitioned to feed the revolutionary armies and fuel the war effort. Fines, imprisonment and even death awaited those who refused to co-operate. Carnot and the Jacobins managed to create an army that successfully crushed the local rebels and drove out the Austrian, British and Prussian invaders. The same army was later used to great effect by the Directory in launching its offensive campaigns which led to the territorial expansion of France during the period 1795 to 1799.
The Jacobins also made an immense contribution to the revolution through various key measures adopted during the Reign of terror. One such measure was the establishment of the Revolutionary Tribunal to try all cases of suspected counter-revolutionary activities and there was no appealing its verdict. There was also the Conscription of citizens into the revolutionary armies. The Law of Suspects was passed in September 1793 to provide for the arrest of those accused of counter- revolutionary activities. Supporting the monarchy, nobles and the clergy were all considered as counter revolutionary
offences. The Law of the Maximum was passed early in 1794 to stop soaring prices of grain and other essential goods. A maximum selling price for all essential goods was fixed and selling above that stipulated price was a capital offence punishable even by death. The Law of Twenty-Second Prarial was passed in June 1794 to effectively crush all counter-revolutionary opposition. It permitted any kind of testimony against a suspect, denied a suspect legal representation and even sought to give the Committee of Public Safety the right to send any member of the National Convention to the Revolutionary Tribunal. Government officials called Deputies-on-Mission carried the terror into the provinces and enforced obedience to the revolutionary government. The Jacobins also introduced various forms of punishment which assisted in saving the revolution. These included the death sentence. Four per cent of all those arrested were ultimately executed; some by drowning, others by shooting and most by the guillotine. As many as three thousand were executed in Paris alone, about seventeen thousand from the rest of France. The civil war in Vendee, disease and malnutrition in the prisons claimed another forty thousand victims.
Imprisonment was another form of punishment. The Revolutionary Tribunal imprisoned as many as 500 000 suspected counter- revolutionaries. Overcrowding, hunger and death occurred in the prisons. Torture and exile were also employed. Many of the nobles and clergy were banished into exile and even stripped of their citizenship. Fines were also prescribed for various offences including hoarding, escaping conscription and refusing to accept payment in assignats (a currency whose value was pegged on the land that was seized from the church and nobles) Ultimately the terror helped to save the Revolution even though this was achieved through the use of extreme measures to suppress internal dissent and foreign opposition.
Although the Jacobins threatened the revolution through some of their repressive measures, it can be concluded that they actually did more to assist the revolution. They achieved this through various measures of which the Reign of Terror stands out most prominently. The terror enabled the revolutionary government to successfully prosecute the war against the coalition of European governments. The measures that enabled the revolutionary government’s success included conscription, requisitioning and the Law of Suspects.