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Jacobins

In the best of times and the worst of times, the French Revolution offered great opportunity within a state of political and social chaos. As we know, military general Napoleon Bonaparte would be the one to best capitalize on the power vacuum created by the French Revolution, but he was not the first to take dictatorial charge of France in lieu of King Louis XVI. Years before, the idealistic Jacobins political club navigated French Revolutionary politics on its path to domination, ruling over France during the infamous and horrific Reign of Terror.

Jacobins Definition

The Jacobins were a late 18th-century political group organized during the French Revolution. The Jacobins organization, originally known as the Society of the Friends of the Constitution, operated under a radical left-wing republican ideology. What does "radical left-wing republican" mean? Let's break it down.

  • Radical: as in extremist. Among all the political organizations formed around the French Revolution, the Jacobins desired massive socio-political upheaval through any means necessary (depending on the leadership at the time).
  • Left-wing: a political stance typically in support of socio-political change within an established hierarchical system. In this case, the Jacobins were against the established monarchy.
  • Republican: a somewhat broad term referring to a republican government, a sovereign state ruled by an elected minority that represents the citizen majority.

That Jacobins don't seem so bad, right? After all, they were combatting King Louis XVI and his Ancien Regime, the traditional yet insufficient French political system that led the nation into famine and economic collapse. Well, the Jacobins became known as "radical" for a reason; under the foundational leadership of Maximilian Robespierre, the Jacobins became a violent and feared political group during the French Revolution (more on that later).

Jacobins Seal Study SmarterFig. 1- The Jacobins seal.

Two groups comprised the ranks of the Jacobins: the Girondins and the Montagnards.

  • The Girondins were popular in the early years of the French Revolution until 1793, advocating for a firm yet moderate movement against the royalists of King Louis XVI.
  • On the other hand, the Montagnards ("The Mountain") were more radical and more extremist. The Mountain presided over the monstrous Reign of Terror from 1793 to 1794.

What's in a name: As previously stated, the Jacobins were originally known as the "Society of the Friends of the Constitution." The name "Jacobin" was actually a derogatory term initially used by their enemies, for the Jacobin members would secretly meet in a monastery on the street known as Rue Saint-Jacques (Jacques = Jacob).

Jacobins History

The Jacobins club was formed during the 1789 Estates General meeting by French deputies from Brittany, but other members soon joined. Their secretive roots blossomed after the Women's March on Versailles. The group soon began accepting open admissions (except for women), swelling to hundreds of thousands of members across France. The Jacobins were not the only political club in Revolutionary France, but they were by far the most popular. Many leading members of the Jacobins were considered bourgeoisie.

Bourgeoisie:

The rising class in politics of the French Revolution; typically describes upper-middle-class citizens.

Jacobin Club Members

Prominent members among the Jacobins include Antoine Barnave, Mirabeau, Louis-Marie La Révellière-Lépeaux, Jacques Pierre Brissot, Georges Jacques Danton, and the founder Maximilian Robespierre. The leading members of the Jacobin club were beset against each other along the Girondin and Montagnard political lines. While both groups advocated for a French constitution as well as the preservation of the monarchy up until 1792, they bickered over issues such as engagements in wars with Austria and Prussia.

Jacobins Meeting Study SmarterFig. 2- Jacobin club meeting in 1792.

Tensions persisted between the Girondins and Montagnards until 1793 when the two parties practically went to war. The Montagnards, supported by the masses of Paris, gained the upper hand that same year, heralding the true reign of the Jacobins during the French Revolution.

Jacobins French Revolution

The Jacobins had always extended significant influence within the French National Assembly, but 1793 would reshape the shape of French politics forever. On September 17th, 1793, the Law of Suspects was passed by a largely Montagnard-influenced National Assembly. The law sanctioned the arrest of all enemies of the French Revolution, from nobles to officers to those merely suspected of treason against the assembly.

Guilty until proven innocent, thousands were arrested under the Jacobin rule. Progressive Enlightenment ideals had been ironically twisted into corruption, especially under the leadership of Jacobin President Robespierre.

Did you know?

During the reign of the Jacobins in France, Maximilian Robespierre was given the nickname "incorruptible" for his unwavering stance in politics.

In light of the rising Reign of Terror, the Jacobins' original mission is not to be forgotten. Just a year before the passing of the Law of Suspects, the Jacobins had advocated cooperation with other political clubs in upholding the valued tenets of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, including education, egalitarianism, separation of church and state, and constitutionalism, all alongside the rule of a king. Jacobin dreams of achieving that mission ended with the execution of King Louis XVI on January 21st, 1793.

Jacobins Reign of Terror

Under the Jacobin rule, the Reign of Terror lasted from September 1793 to July 1794. Some historians mark the passing of the Law of Suspects as the beginning of the Reign of Terror, but what happened afterward? In April of 1793, the National Convention established the Committee of Public Safety, a governmental office tasked with defending the newly established French republic against encroaching European powers and domestic threats from within.

Did you know?

Slavery was abolished in France on February 4th, 1794, at the height of Robespierre's power during the Reign of Terror. This monumental step towards the end of slavery, passed (but later revoked under Napoleon) preceded other nations' abolishment of slavery by many decades.

The threats to the government were so great, however, that the National Convention conferred the highest level of power to the Committee of Public Safety in December of 1793. Among the committee members was Robespierre. The Committee of Public Safety effectively acted as the French Government for the next year, plummeting France into chaos as thousands were arrested and sentenced to death.

Jacobins Robespierre Execution Study SmarterFig. 3- Art depicting the execution of Robespierre.

Girondins and opposing Montagnards alike were declared enemies of the Jacobin-influenced Committee of Public Safety. In the summer of 1794, however, members of the committee became wary of Robespierre's violent influence. Robespierre knew his reign was coming to a close; he attempted to commit suicide on July 28th, 1794. The attempt was halted, however, only for Robespierre to be convicted and guillotined later that same day. With the death of Robespierre and the illumination of his Reign of Terror, Jacobin influence rapidly declined within Revolutionary France. To this day, the rise and fall of the Jacobins in France exemplify the dual political idealism and violence of the French Revolution.

Jacobins - Key takeaways

  • The Jacobin political club was founded in 1789 during the Estates General meeting and would gain political influence up until its dominance during Robespierre's Reign of Terror from 1793 to 1794.
  • The Jacobins sought to peacefully and politically implement many Enlightenment ideals into a constitutional republic alongside a traditional monarchy, but their mission quickly turned violent under corrupt leadership.
  • The execution of King Louis XVI, the Law of Suspects, and the rise in power of the Committee of Public Safety all describe the rising power of the Jacobins in French Revolutionary politics.

Frequently Asked Questions about Jacobins

The Jacobins were a radical left-wing republican political group during the French Revolution.

The Jacobins wanted various things throughout the French Revolution. Initially, they desired peaceful political change, establishing a French Republic, but their intentions soon turned more violent and extremist. 

The Jacobins sought to establish a French Republic, and later guillotined King Louis XVI and others they saw as traitors to the Republic of France. 

Yes. Robespierre was the founder and leader of the Jacobins. 

Maximillian Robespierre was the leader of the Jacobin club.

Final Jacobins Quiz

Question

Define Radical in context of the radical left-wing republican Jacobins. 

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Answer

Extremist. Among all the political organizations formed around the French Revolution, the Jacobins desired massive socio-political upheaval through any means necessary (depending on the leadership at the time). 

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Question

Define Left-wing in context of the radical left-wing republican Jacobins. 

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Answer

A political stance typically in support of socio-political change within an established hierarchical system. In this case, the Jacobins were against the established monarchy.

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Question

Define Republican in context of the radical left-wing republican Jacobins. 

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Answer

A somewhat broad term referring to a republican government, a sovereign state ruled by an elected minority that represents the citizen majority. 

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Question

Who was the founder and main leader of the Jacobins? 

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Answer

Maximilian Robespierre 

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Question

The Jacobins were comprised mostly of Girondins and ____. 

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Answer

Montagnards, meaning "The Mountain"

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Question

The Jacobins presided over the period of mass arrests and executions from 1793 to 1794 known as the ______. 

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Answer

Reign of Terror

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Question

Define Bourgeoisie:

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Answer

Rising class in politics of the French Revolution; typically defining upper-middle class citizens. 

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Question

What was the main effect of the Law of Suspects? 

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Answer

The law sanctioned the arrest of all enemies of the French Revolution, from nobles to officers to those merely suspected of treason against the assembly.

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Question

Violent Jacobin influence mainly permeated throughout the _____, established in April of 1793 by the National Convention.

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Answer

Committee of Public Safety

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Question

True or False: Jacobin leader Robespierre was tried and convicted by fellow members of the Committee of Public Safety.

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Answer

True 

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