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National Convention French Revolution

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National Convention French Revolution

The National Convention was a legislative body created to replace the Legislative Assembly. It oversaw the creation of France into a republic and the shift of the French Revolution to its radical phase. Learn about the role of the National Assembly in the French Revolution, what actions it took, and how it launched the revolution to increase radicalism.

National Convention of the French Revolution: Definition

The National Convention during the French Revolution was a legislative body or parliament that ruled France during the most radical stage of the French Revolution.

It replaced the National Constituent Assembly and the Legislative Assembly that came before it. It was the first government to be fully republican, with the monarchy having been abolished. It was a single chamber legislative assembly with 749 representatives.

Legislative Assembly

The Legislative Assembly grew out of the National Constituent Assembly that had been created by the National Assembly after the meeting of the Estates-General in 1789, which started the French Revolution. It was a mostly moderately liberal and reformist body.

The Legislative Assembly adopted a number of liberal reforms. However, King Louis XVI refused to ratify many of them. The king's intransigence created an explosive situation and put the Assembly in a difficult position between trying to please the people calling for change and those that supported the maintenance of the monarchy.

National Convention of the French Revolution: Dates

The National Convention worked as the governing body of France from September 20, 1792, until October 26, 1795, when it was replaced by the Directory.

National Convention of the French Revolution: Summary

The three years the National Convention directed the French Revolution were some of the revolution's most radical, chaotic, and eventful. The National Convention radically expanded political participation, but also led to many instances of violence and the most significant examples of the excesses of the revolution, eventually leading to a conservative reaction.

National Convention French Revolution StudySmarterPainting showing a contentious meeting of the National Convention. Source: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

Creation of the National Convention

The National Convention was created as a successor to the Legislative Assembly after the storming of the Tuileries Palace. This violent attack on the royal family was carried out by dissatisfied urban workers, commonly called sans-culottes due to their use of long pants instead of the knee breeches, or culottes, worn by the wealthy. Since the storming of the Bastille a year earlier, the sans-culottes had become a more important force in pushing the revolution forward and to a more radical path.

After the events at the Tuileries, the Legislative Assembly voted to suspend King Louis XVI. Many of the more conservative and royalist members fled, and the body then began to go about creating a new legislature to succeed it.

Attack on the Tuileries

The royal family had lived as virtual captives in the palace since October 1789. Austria and Prussia had issued a warning that they would intervene to protect the king, if need be, sparking war between them and France in the Spring of 1792. Losses on the battlefield and the king's refusal to ratify the actions of the National Assembly led to outrage among many of the sans-culottes.

They attacked the palace on August 10, 1792, killing members of the Swiss Guard. This attack forced the Assembly to suspend the king and move to create a new legislature that would establish France as a republic. It left open the question of what would happen to the king and his family.

The new legislative body was the National Convention. Importantly, the vote was expanded significantly for the elections. All men who were at least 21, had a job, and not considered a servant could vote. This still denied the vote to women, the unemployed, and servants, However, it ended the distinction between so-called active and passive citizens that had been established by the Declaration of the Rights of Man, when the vote was only extended to male landowners.

Despite this expansion of the vote, turnout for the elections was actually quite low. Only around 1 million votes were cast.

Issues Facing the National Convention and the French Revolution

This period saw France in crisis and there were a number of issues facing the French Revolution when the National Convention took control.

Factionalism

There were three main groups or factions within the elected membership of the National Convention. They were:

  • The Montagnards - these were the more radical democrats, many of them Jacobins. They were a little over a quarter of the membership. Some were actual working-class sans-culottes, who had not been part of the earlier legislatures.
  • The Girondins - these were more moderate republicans that occupied more conservative positions on the issues. They made up a little less than a quarter of the members.
  • The Plains - they represented the middle ground between the Montagnards and Girondins. They were often less ideological, and their greater numbers meant the other groups had to court their support.

While at first, the legislature was successful in working together, the two ideological factions increasingly came into conflict with each other.

National Convention French Revolution factions StudySmarterGraphic showing the composition of the National Convention with the red representing the Montagnards, gray the Plains, and blue the Girondins. Source: Pixeltoo, CC-Zero, Wikimedia Commons

Deciding the Fate of the King

The Legislative Assembly had voted to formally suspend King Louis XVI, and the National Convention was set up without the monarchy. However, the new body had to decide what to do about the king himself.

In January 1793, they voted to execute him.

The vote revealed the divisions between the Montagnards and Girondins. The Girondins believed the decision to execute the king should be voted on by referendum, letting the French people decide. However, they lost this vote on sending the decision to the people, and the more radical Montagnards and many sans-culottes in Paris accused them of being royal sympathizers.

National Convention French Revolution Execution of Louis XVI StudySmarterPainting of the execution of King Louis XVI. Source: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

The Revolutionary War

France had preemptively declared war on Austria and Prussia in 1792. By 1793, Spain and Portugal had joined the war against France, and Britain and the Dutch also joined after the execution of Louis XVI.

In the opening months of 1793, the war was going badly for France, and in addition to the foreign invaders, it was also facing royalist revolts in several regions, the most notable being the rebellion in the Vendée region.

In April 1793, the Convention created the Committee of Public Safety to preside over the defense of the revolutionary government.

Instability

War and instability had left the economy in horrible shape. Bread and other food prices remained high. This meant that the discontent of the common people, especially the urban working-class sans-culottes in Paris, remained high and they remained in a constant state of near insurrection.

Expulsion of the Girondins

From early on, the partisan conflict between the Montagnards and Girondins had dominated proceedings in the National Convention. Early on, the Plains had largely supported the Girondins, who were more moderate, more practical, and more effective in proposing and gaining support for legislation.

However, in the spring of 1793, they made a series of blunders. Attempting to address the instability caused by the radicals of the Paris Commune, they launched a series of repressive measures against them. With the war going poorly and the economy in crisis, these actions inspired outrage among the sans-culottes. The Girondins were increasingly accused of being royalists and enemies of the revolution.

The Montagnards moved themselves closer to the sans-culottes and Jacobins, hoping to take control of the Convention. By the summer of 1793, they had succeeded. On June 2, 1793, armed sans-culottes surrounded the Convention and demanded the arrest of 29 leading Girondins. The members had no choice but to hand them over, and the Montagnards now became the dominant political force in the Convention.

National Convention French Revolution Expulsion of the Girondins StudySmarterPainting depicting the expulsion of the Girondins. Source: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

The National Convention Oversees the Reign of Terror

Under pressure from the sans-culottes, war, and rebellion, the Convention ultimately opted for a radical and violent path. The Committee of Public Safety, headed by Maximilien Robespierre, assumed what amounted to dictatorial powers.

In the hysteria and whipped up anger that war and high prices had created, the Revolutionary Tribunal began targeting supposed enemies of the revolution in what became known as the Reign of Terror. The queen Marie Antoinette and many leading Girondins were among the first to be executed, but the violence quickly devolved into personal score settling. Thousands of people were executed between September 1793 and July 1794.

Committee of Public Safety

The National Convention effectively governed through committees. The Committee of Public Safety was created to help fight the enemies of the revolution, both foreign and domestic. With France facing foreign invasion and internal rebellion, they were given increased emergency powers and effectively ruled France as a pseudo-dictatorship.

Maximilien Robespierre emerged as the main power broker and leader of the committee and eventually adopted a policy of terror against supposed enemies of the revolution, sparking the Reign of Terror when many were accused and tried for treason by the Revolutionary Tribunal.

National Convention and the French Revolution: Accomplishments

While the National Convention is often closely associated with the Reign of Terror and the violence bordering on mob rule it unleashed, it did have some noteworthy accomplishments.

The National Convention's expansion of the vote to all free men over 21 was significant. Likewise, it passed a new Constitution in 1793, although it was never fully implemented due to the war. The National Convention also established a system of public education.

Regarding the war, the government did succeed in rallying the French people to fight its enemies. The base of the army was drastically expanded, and a young general named Napoleon Bonaparte emerged as an important military leader, leading to victories on the battlefield.

The National Convention government also implemented price controls on basic foodstuffs like bread that helped improve living conditions to some degree. It also formally abolished slavery in February 1794 due to the events of the Haitian Revolution, although Napoleon's reinstatement of it in 1801 was a setback and helped lead to Haitian independence.

The National Convention Overthrown

The excesses of the Reign of Terror and radicalism of the National Convention French Revolutionary period eventually inspired a conservative reaction. During the Thermidorian Reaction, Robespierre himself was tried for treason and executed.

The Thermidorian Reaction proceeded in ending the National Convention, purging many of the leading Jacobins and Montagnards in their own "White Terror," and creating a new legislature that ruled with an executive committee known as the French Directory in October 1795. This resulted in the rolling back of some of the more radical measures of this period, ending the rule of the National Convention in the French Revolution.

The National Convention of the French Revolution: Importance

The National Convention's importance is its symbolic representation of the chaos that the French Revolution had unleashed. While it had some lasting accomplishments in protecting the revolution from outside enemies and royalists rebels, its excesses caused its downfall and is what it is most remembered for today.

It did, however, establish that the urban working-class and common people were now an important base of the revolution. While a more moderate government would replace it and the French Revolution would end with the reestablishment of a constitutional monarchy, the National Convention helped ensure that a complete rollback to the days of absolutism and the old order would never occur.

The National Convention - Key takeaways

  • The National Convention was a legislative body that ruled France from September 1792 to October 1795. It replaced the Legislative Assembly and made France a republic.
  • The Convention oversaw the execution of King Louis XVI and the defense of the revolution from foreign invasions and royalist rebels.
  • Factionalism dominated the early days of the National Convention, eventually leading to the takeover by the more radical Jacobin and Montagnard faction, who instituted the Reign of Terror.
  • The Reign of Terror provoked the Thermidorian Reaction and replacement of the National Convention with the Directory, which charted a more moderate course.

Frequently Asked Questions about National Convention French Revolution

The National Convention during the French Revolution was a legislature that ruled France from September 1792 until October 1795.

The National Convention instituted radical measures during the French Revolution. They ruled over the Reign of Terror with the Committee of Public Safety. However, they also ended slavery in the French Empire, expanded the vote, defeated the enemies of the revolution, and created a public education system.

The actions taken by the National Convention included the execution of King Louis XVI, the institution of the Reign of Terror, and defeating France's enemies on the battlefield.

The National Convention achieved France as a firm republic, helped prevent foreign enemies and royalists from overthrowing the revolution, and established public education in France.

The National Convention ended with the creation of a new legislature and the French Directory executive council to rule France in October 1795.

Final National Convention French Revolution Quiz

Question

What government did the National Convention replace?

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Answer

The Legislative Assembly

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Question

What uprising led to the National Convention?

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Answer

The attack on the Tuileries Palace

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Question

Who got to vote for the National Convention?

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Answer

Men 21 and older who had a job and were not servants.

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Question

What was the more radical faction of the National Convention?

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Answer

The Montagnards

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Question

What was the more moderate faction of the National Convention?

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Answer

The Girondins

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What was the middle and less ideological faction of the National Convention?

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Answer

The Plains

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Question

What did the National Convention decide to do with Louis XVI?

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Answer

They decided to execute him.

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Question

Who won the factional conflict in the National Convention?

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Answer

The Montagnards

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Question

What group of urban workers played a key role in pushing the National Convention to a more radical direction?

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Answer

The Sans-culottes

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Question

What committee ruled France as a pseudo-dictatorship during the National Convention?

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Answer

The Committee of Public Safety

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Question

What was the National Convention most remembered for?

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Answer

The Reign of Terror

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Question

Name at least 2 positive achievements of the National Convention.

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Answer

Answers could include the defeat of enemies of the revolution, creation of a public education system, and the abolition of slavery.

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Question

What movement overthrew the National Convention?

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Answer

The Thermidorian Reaction

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Question

What government replaced the National Convention?

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Answer

The Directory

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