1791-1792: Old Enemies and a New Republic

This tile covers the latter period of constitutional monarchy in France, as it became increasingly clear that Louis XVI’s position was untenable.

The National Convention

The flight of the king to Varennes

In late 1791, the king and his family attempted to flee the country but were caught in Varennes in Eastern France.


The family was attempting to travel to the Austrian Netherlands in order to escape the growing political unrest in France. However, they were stopped in Varennes after being recognized, and brought back to Paris, where they were placed under virtual house arrest. The episode was a major embarrassment for the monarchy and helped to further undermine its legitimacy.

Deep distrust ensued and, from that point, the nominal head of state was in fact a prisoner, under guard from the Parisian population which patrolled under his windows.

France’s first constitution comes into being

The National Assembly’s efforts to create a new republic culminated in the adoption of France’s first constitution on September 3rd, 1791. This document declared that all citizens were equal before the law and had rights such as freedom of speech, press, assembly; religious toleration; and universal male suffrage. It also established a constitutional monarchy with Louis XVI as its head but limited his powers significantly.

This was followed by the creation of two legislative bodies: an upper house called the Legislative Assembly and a lower house known as the National Convention. The latter was elected by universal male suffrage and held supreme power over all other branches of government. Its members included prominent revolutionaries such as Maximilien Robespierre who sought to implement radical reforms in order to bring about social justice for all French citizens regardless of class or gender.

War outside

The French Revolution had a profound impact on the international stage, as other countries sought to take advantage of France’s weakened state. In April 1792, Austria and Prussia declared war on France in an attempt to restore the monarchy. This sparked a series of wars that would last for over two decades and involve many European powers.

In response, the National Convention created a new army led by General Lazare Carnot which was able to repel foreign invaders from French soil. The revolutionaries also formed alliances with other nations such as Spain and Holland who were sympathetic to their cause. These efforts ultimately resulted in victory at Valmy in September 1792 where the revolutionary forces defeated an Austrian-Prussian coalition army despite being outnumbered three-to-one.

This victory marked a turning point for the revolution as it demonstrated that France could defend itself against its enemies both domestically and abroad. It also provided much needed morale boost for those fighting for liberty, equality, and fraternity – ideals which would eventually be enshrined in the Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen later that year.

War within: the Counter-Revolution

The civil constitution of the clergy led to a deep-seated fracture in the country. In the western regions, which were most attached to Roman Catholic traditions, rebellion grew to a point where the regime was endangered.

The powers that be in Paris were fearful that Britain would support these rebels, or that famous émigrés such as the king’s brother Comte d’Artois (the future king Charles X) would sail there to become their military leaders.

The alliance formed in the western regions of France was made up of peasants and noblemen. The revolution wasn’t solely played along social lines, but along cultural ones too.

The fall of the monarchy

The war outside (with Austria) and the war within (the Counter-Revolution) caused an escalating political deterioration in Paris.


On August 10th, 1792, the National Convention abolished the monarchy and declared France a republic.

The king and his family (his wife, his 6-year-old son – the heir to the throne – and his daughter) were jailed in various prisons, ending up in la Tour du Temple.

A new sovereign: the National Convention

The National Convention was the first governing body of the French Republic, established in September 1792. It was composed of 745 delegates from all over France who had been elected by universal male suffrage.

The Convention was not only a legislative body, but in the absence of the king, the effective head of state, accumulating all powers in its midst.

In 1793, the National Convention voted on a new constitution, with a radical plan for wealth redistribution at its core. However, this consitution was never implemented.

The National Convention also took steps to strengthen the nation’s military capabilities by creating a new army, which was vital for their victory over the Austrians at Valmy.

Girondins and Montagnards

The National Convention was divided into two main political factions: the Girondins and the Montagnards. The Girondins were a moderate faction who sought to maintain some of the traditional structures of French society, while also introducing progressive reforms such as universal male suffrage. In contrast, the Montagnards were more radical in their approach and wanted to completely overhaul France’s social and political systems.

These two factions clashed over how best to move forward with revolutionary reforms – leading to heated debates within the National Convention that often resulted in deadlock. This tension eventually led to a split between them in June 1793 when members of both sides voted against each other on key issues such as whether or not Louis XVI should be executed.

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