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Revolution to Empire

A New Society

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen

After the fall of the Bastille in July 1789, the National Assembly (changed to the National Constituent Assembly) sought to regain order and instituted a number of reforms. Feudal rights were abolished, a new tax system was drawn up, free trade measures were put into place and a uniform system of weights and measures was instituted. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was drafted as a precursor to the writing of a new constitution for France. The nobility as a class was abolished, clergy were made to swear allegiance to the nation rather than the Pope, and all church property was nationalised. The King formally lost his provisional power of veto, transferring sovereignty from the King to the nation.

Despite the remodelling of France, tensions and conflicts remained within and outside of France. Louis XVI submitted to these new changes but privately orchestrated resistance and was confined to the Tuileries Palace. After an attempt to flee in June 1791, he was formally arrested. Resentment towards the King mounted with this final act of betrayal, and debate over what to do about him and the system of monarchy ravaged the country.

Death of the Monarchy

Patriots of the Revolution were divided between the moderates and radicals, the latter represented forcefully by the sans-culottes (breeches, a fashion worn mostly by the aristocrats, literally: without knee-breeches), the militant lower classes. Political figures previously on the fringe of the Revolution took centre stage, led by idealistic political leaders such as Jean-Paul Marat and Maximilien Robespierre. Violence became the weapon of the Revolution, purging old values and ideas and clearing the path to the formation of a new Republic in September 1792.  In the light of repeated attempts at Royalist subversion and counter-revolution (such as Louis XVI's attempted flight to Varennes), Robespierre and the radicals within the Legislative Assembly came to believe that the success of a new France demanded the death of the King and the monarchy. Louis XVI was placed on trial in December 1792 and executed in January 1793.

The National Convention

The National Convention was the assembly that held executive power during the years of the First French Republic (20 September 1792 to 26 October 1795). Prominent members of the original Convention included Maximilien Robespierre, Jean-Paul Marat and Georges Danton.

The Convention was divided by the factions of the Jacobins (radical left-wing Revolutionaries led by Maximilien Robespierre) and the Girondins (more conservative theorists who favoured discussion over radical action). France declared war with neighbouring countries that wanted to crush the Revolution to prevent its spread.

The Terror

The new government established the Committee of Public Safety, which used its powers to violently suppress any anti-revolutionary activity with mass executions and political purges. Under the Law of Suspects promulgated in September 1793 somewhere between 300,000 and 500,000 people were arrested and 17,000 were executed during the period that became known as the Reign of Terror (5 September 1793 to 28 July 1794). A further law was passed in June 1794 that suspended a suspect's right to public trial or legal defense, allowing for wholesale liquidation of citizens (suspects) deemed politically undesirable. This led to a backlash dubbed the Thermidorian Reaction in which major instigators of the Reign of Terror, including Robespierre, were executed.

Jacques-Louis DAVID (studio of)
The death of Marat (La Mort de Marat) 1793
oil on canvas
92.0 x 73.0 cm
Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon
Bequest of Jules Maciet, 1911 (inv. 2306)
On loan to the Musée de la Révolution française, Vizille (inv. MRF D 2006-3)
Photo: Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon
Above: Jean-Paul Marat (1743–1793) began his career as a physician and healer, yet at the height of his career as a journalist, politician and one of the most radical exponents of the Revolution Read more
Above: Jean-Paul Marat (1743–1793) began his career as a physician and healer, yet at the height of his career as a journalist, politician and one of the most radical exponents of the Revolution.  As one of the most radical exponents of the Revolution, he encouraged the September prison massacres and led the attack on the moderate Girondist faction.

As the founder and writer of a number of newspapers, he wrote persuasively and passionately on the rights of the Third Estate. He was not only the champion of the people, but spoke patriotically of the Fatherland and Liberty. Marat believed vehemently in the cause of the Republic, fighting for freedom and equality. The violence and passion of his views created fear among the more conservative Revolutionaries, and ultimately led to his death at the hands of Charlotte Corday. Corday, sympathetic to the Girondins, a moderate faction of the National Convention, was horrified by the excessive violence and death that Marat advocated. Gaining an audience with Marat, Corday murdered him in his bathtub, thus transforming him into the greatest martyr of the Revolution. 

David was approached by the Convention to arrange Marat’s funeral and to paint his portrait. This idealised portrait shows Marat as a Christ-like figure, killed while serving the people. Close
  • Jean-Jacques HAUER
    French (1751-1829)
    Louis XVI farewelling his family, 20 January 1793 (Les adieus de Louis XVI à sa famille, 20 janvier 1793) 1794
    oil on canvas
    53.0 x 46.0 cm
    Musée Carnavalet - Histoire de Paris, France
    Gift of Madame Bedeaux Charles, 1961 (inv. P. 1988)
    © Musée Carnavalet / Roger-Viollet
  • Joseph COTEAU (enameller)
    French 1740-1801
    Skeleton clock (Pendule squelette) c.1793-95
    gilt and enamelled bronze (chased), marble
    43.0 x 26.0 x 14.0 cm
    Fondation Napoléon, Paris
    Donation Lapeyre (inv. 809)
    © Fondation Napoléon – Patrice Maurin Berthier

Above: The Skeleton clock features the new Revolutionary calendar instituted on 2 January 1792. Time was divided into decimal increments and months divided into three ten-day weeks.

Joseph Coteau was known as a leading enamellist and creator of the finest French clocks - intricate enamel work and detail were a characteristic feature of his work. The round white  enamel faces of this Skeleton clock show the hours and minutes, and numerals one to thirty show the days of the month. The centre reveals the sophisticated inner bronze mechanism.

Think, Investigate, Create

VCE History – Revolutions

The Skeleton clock features the new calendar instituted on 2 January 1792 establishing the Era of Liberty. Time was divided into decimal increments replacing the 24-hour day, and months were divided into three ten-day weeks.  Discuss why it was important for the National Convention to adopt a new calendar. How did this calendar reflect the values of the new Republic? Why was it abolished after twelve years? Investigate other changes instituted by the National Convention to represent the new Republic.

The death of Marat 1793 is perhaps one of Jacques-Louis David’s most famous images of the French Revolution. David visited his friend Marat the day before he was killed. Observe the painting closely. Do you believe that David’s friendship with Marat is evident in the way he has rendered him in this painting?  What other factors may have influenced the way Marat was depicted? Explain using evidence from the painting and research you have undertaken about the painting and the artist.

After Marat’s death, traditional religious iconography was often replaced by images of Marat. Describe and analyse the religious content and mood of this painting.  

Educator's Guide