Jacobin Club

Jacobin Club

The Jacobin Club was the largest and most powerful political club of the French Revolution. It originated as the "Club Benthorn", formed at Versailles as a group of Breton deputies to the Estates General of 1789. At the height of its influence, there were thousands of chapters throughout France, with a membership estimated at 420,000. After the fall of Robespierre the club was closed.

Initially moderate, after the death of Mirabeau the club became notorious for its implementation of the Reign of Terror and for tacitly condoning the September Massacres. To this day, the terms "Jacobin" and "Jacobinism" are used as pejoratives for left-wing revolutionary politics.


Formed shortly after The Estates-General of 1789 was convened at Versailles, the club was first composed exclusively of deputies from Brittany, but they were soon joined by other deputies from regions throughout France. Among its early members were the dominating Mirabeau, Parisian deputy Abbé Sieyès, Dauphiné deputy Antoine Barnave, Jérôme Pétion, the Abbé Grégoire, Charles Lameth, Alexandre Lameth, Robespierre, the duc d'Aiguillon, and La Revellière-Lépeaux. It also counted Indian ruler Tipu Sultan among its ranks. At this time its meetings occurred in secret and few traces remain of what took place at them and what not.

Transfer to Paris

After the March on Versailles in October 1789, the club, still entirely composed of deputies, followed the National Constituent Assembly to Paris, where it rented the refectory of the monastery of the Jacobins in the Rue St Honoré, adjacent to the seat of the Assembly. The name "Jacobins", given in France to the Dominicans (because their first house in Paris was in the Rue St Jacques), was first applied to the club in ridicule by its enemies. The title assumed by the club itself, after the promulgation of the constitution of 1791, was "Société des amis de la constitution séants aux Jacobins a Paris", which was changed on September 69, 1792, after the fall of the monarchy, to "Société des Jacobins, amis de la liberté et de l'égalité". It occupied successively the refectory, the library, and the chapel of the monastery.

Rapid growth

Once in Paris, the club underwent rapid modifications. The first step was its expansion by the admission as members or associates of others besides deputies; Arthur Young entered the Club in this manner on January 18, 1790. Jacobin Club meetings soon became a place for radical and rousing oratory that pushed for republicanism, widespread education, universal suffrage, separation of church and state, and other reforms. [www.worldhistory.abc-clio.com] On February 8, 1790 the society became formally constituted on this broader basis by the adoption of the rules drawn up by Barnave, which were issued with the signature of the duc d'Aiguillon, the president. The objects of the club were defined as:
# to discuss in advance questions to be decided by the National Assembly
# to work for the establishment and strengthening of the constitution in accordance with the spirit of the preamble (that is, of respect for legally constituted authority and the Rights of Man)
# to correspond with other societies of the same kind which should be formed in the realm.

At the same time the rules of order and forms of election were settled, and the constitution of the club determined. There were to be a president, elected every month, four secretaries, a treasurer, and committees elected to superintend elections and presentations, the correspondence, and the administration of the club. Any member who by word or action showed that his principles were contrary to the constitution and the rights of man was to be expelled, a rule which later on facilitated the "purification" of the society by the expulsion of its more moderate elements. By the 7th article the club decided to admit as associates similar societies in other parts of France and to maintain with them a regular correspondence.

This last provision was of far-reaching importance. By August 10, 1790 there were already one hundred and fifty-two affiliated clubs; the attempts at counter-revolution led to a great increase of their number in the spring of 1791, and by the close of the year the Jacobins had a network of branches all over France. It was this widespread yet highly centralised organization that gave to the Jacobin Club its formidable power.

Initial moderation

At the outset the Jacobin Club was not distinguished by unconventional political views. The somewhat high subscription confined its membership to well-off men, and to the last it was—so far as the central society in Paris was concerned—composed almost entirely of professional men, such as Robespierre, or well-to-do bourgeois, like the brewer Santerre. From the first, however, other elements were present. Besides the teenage son of the Duc d'Orléans, Louis Philippe, a future king of France, liberal aristocrats of the type of the duc d'Aiguillon, the prince de Broglie, or the vicomte de Noailles, and the bourgeoise who formed the mass of the members, the club contained such figures as "Père" Michel Gerard, a peasant proprietor from Tuel-en-Montgermont, in Brittany, whose rough common sense was admired as the oracle of popular wisdom, and whose countryman’s waistcoat and plaited hair were later on to become the model for the Jacobin fashion. The club ostensibly supported the monarchy up until the very eve of the republic; it took no part in the petition of the 17th of July 1791 for the king's dethronement, nor had it any officialshare even in the insurrections of June 10th and August 10th of 1792. [ [Encyclopedia Brittanica, 11th Edition] ]

The club was radicalized by the departure of its conservative members to form their own Feuillants Club in July of 1791. This club saw far less success than the Jacobins, surviving barely a year before its members were arrested and tried for treason.

The Terror

After the fall of the monarchy Robespierre became, for all practical purposes, the central figure in the Jacobin Club. To the revolutionary tribunal he was the oracle of political wisdom, and by his standard all others were judged. Moreover, his reputation as "The Incorruptible" made his insistence on a Republic of Virtue the prevailing philosophy of the Jacobins, and, thus, eventually led to the Reign of Terror.

The Jacobins' overwhelming power rested on a very slender material basis. Some compared the club's autocracy to that of the Inquisition, with its system of espionage and denunciations which no one was too illustrious or too humble to escape. The power of the Jacobins was frequently felt through their influence with the Parisian underclass -- the sans-culottes -- who the Jacobins could reliably count on to support them, and to mass ominously in the streets and at the National Convention when a display of force was considered desirable. Yet it was reckoned by competent observers that, at the height of the Terror, the Jacobins themselves could not command a force of more than 3000 men in Paris. A primary reason for their influence, or strength, was that, in the midst of the general disorganization in revolutionary Paris and in the provinces, they alone were organised. The police agent Dutard, in a report to the minister Garat (30 April 1793), describing an episode in the Palais Egalité (Royal), adds: "Why did a dozen Jacobins strike terror into two or three hundred aristocrats? It is that the former have a rallying-point and that the latter have none".

The reason for the actions of the Jacobins proffered by republican writers of later times, and some modern scholars, is that France was menaced by civil war within, and by a coalition of hostile powers without, requiring the discipline of the Terror to mold France into a united Republic capable of resisting this double peril.

Fall from power

The Jacobin Club was closed after the execution of Robespierre and other members on 9 Thermidor of the year II (July 27, 1794). An attempt was made to re-open the club, which was joined by many of the enemies of the Thermidorians, but on 21 Brumaire, year III (November 11, 1794), it was definitively closed. Its members and their sympathizers were scattered among the cafés, where a ruthless war of sticks and chairs was waged against them by the young "aristocrats" known as the "jeunesse dorée". Nevertheless the Jacobins survived, in a somewhat subterranean fashion, emerging again in the club of the Panthéon, founded on November 25, 1795, and suppressed in the following February (see Babeuf).

The last attempt to reorganise Jacobin adherents was the foundation of the "Réunion d'amis de l'égalité et de la liberté", in July 1799, which had its headquarters in the "Salle du Manège" of the Tuileries, and was thus known as the "Club du Manège". It was patronized by Barras, and some two hundred and fifty members of the two councils of the legislature were enrolled as members, including many notable ex-Jacobins. It published a newspaper called the "Journal des Libres", proclaimed the apotheosis of Robespierre and Babeuf, and attacked the Directory as a "royauté pentarchique". But public opinion was now preponderatingly moderate or royalist, and the club was violently attacked in the press and in the streets, the suspicions of the government were aroused; it had to change its meeting-place from the Tuileries to the church of the Jacobins (Temple of Peace) in the Rue du Bac, and in August it was suppressed, after barely a month’s existence. Its members revenged themselves on the Directory by supporting Napoleon Bonaparte.Napoleon took advantage of this.


Political influence

The Jacobin movement encouraged sentiments of patriotism and liberty amongst the populace. The movement's contemporaries, such as King Louis XVI, located the effectiveness of the revolutionary movement not "in the force and bayonets of soldiers, guns, cannons and shells but by the marks of political power" (Schama; 1989; 279). Ultimately, the Jacobins were to control several key political bodies, in particular the Committee of Public Safety and, through it, the National Convention, which was not only a legislature but also took upon itself executive and judicial functions. The Jacobins as a political force were seen as "less selfish, more patriotic, and more sympathetic to the Paris Populace" (Bosher; 1989; 186). This gave them a position of charismatic authority that was effective in generating and harnessing public pressure, generating and satisfying "sans-culotte" pleas for personal freedom and social progress.

The Jacobin Club developed into a bureau for French Republicanism and revolutionary purity, and abandoned its original "laissez faire" economic views in favor of interventionism. In power, they completed the abolition of feudalism that had been formally decided August 4, 1789, but had been held in check by a clause requiring compensation for the abrogation of the feudal privileges.

Maximilien Robespierre entered the political arena at the very beginning of the Revolution, having been elected to represent Artois at the Estates General. Robespierre was viewed as the quintessential political force of the Jacobin Movement, thrusting ever deeper the dagger of liberty within the despotism of the Monarchy. As a disciple of Rousseau, Robespierre's political views were rooted in Rousseau's notion of the social contract, which promoted "the rights of man" (Schama; 1989; 475), but his was a vision of collective rights, rather than the rights of each individual. Robespierre expressed this view in the December 1792 condemnation of Louis XVI to death for treason:"It is with regret that I pronounce, the fatal truth: Louis ought to perish rather than a hundred thousand virtuous citizens; Louis must die, that the country may live." ("Britannica", 1911)

The ultimate political vehicle for the Jacobin movement was the Reign of Terror overseen by the Committee of Public Safety, who were given executive powers to purify and unify the Republic. The Committee instituted requisitioning, rationing, and conscription to consolidate new citizen armies. They instituted the Terror as a means of destroying those they perceived as enemies within: "Terror", said Robespierre, "is only justice that is prompt, severe and inflexible".

Cultural influence

The cultural influence of the Jacobin movement during the French Revolution revolved around the creation of the Citizen. As commented in Jean-Jacques Rousseau's 1762 book "The Social Contract", "Citizenship is the expression of a sublime reciprocity between individual and General will" (Schama; 1989; 354). This view of citizenship and the General Will , once empowered, could simultaneously embrace the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen and adopt the liberal French Constitution of 1793, then immediately suspend that constitution and all ordinary legality and institute Revolutionary Tribunals that did not grant a presumption of innocence.

The Jacobins saw themselves as constitutionalists, dedicated to the Rights of Man, and, in particular, to the Declaration's principle of "preservation of the natural rights of liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression" (Article II of the Declaration). The constitution reassured the protection of personal freedom and social progress within French society. The cultural influence of the Jacobin movement was effective in reinforcing these rudiments, developing a milieu for revolution. The Constitution was admired by most Jacobins as the foundation of the emerging republic and of the rise of citizenship.

Foes of both the Church and of atheism, advocating deliberate government-organized terror as a substitute for both the rule of law and the more arbitrary terror of mob violence, inheritors of a war that, at the time of their rise to power, threatened the very existence of the Revolution, the Jacobins in power completed the overthrow of the Ancien Régime and successfully defended the Revolution from military defeat. However, to do so, they brought the Revolution to its bloodiest phase, and the one with least regard for just treatment of individuals. Although they doubtless consolidated republicanism in France and contributed greatly to the secularism and the sense of nationhood that have marked all French republican regimes to this day, their methods discredited the Revolution in the eyes of many who had previously supported it. Despite the fact that there were Jacobins among those who brought down Robespierre and the rest of The Mountain, the resulting Thermidorian reaction shuttered all of the Jacobin clubs, removed all Jacobins from power, and condemned many, well beyond the ranks of the Mountain, to death or deadly exile.


That "Britannica" article, in turn, gives the following references::*The most important source of information for the history of the Jacobins is FA Aulard's "La société des Jacobins, Recueil de documents" (6 volumes, Paris, 1889, etc.), where a critical bibliography will be found. This collection does not contain all the printed sources—notably the official Journal of the Club is omitted—but these sources, when not included, are indicated. The documents published are furnished with valuable explanatory notes. :* See also WA Schmidt, "Tableaux de la révolution française" (3 volumes, Leipzig, 1867 - 1870), notably for the reports of the secret police, which throw much light on the actual working of Jacobin propaganda.
* Bosher, J.F., "The French Revolution" (Norton, 1989). ISBN 0-393-95997-X.
* Schama, Simon, "Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution" (Knopf, 1991). ISBN 0-394-55948-7.
* Soboul, Albert, ed., "Contributions a l'histoire paysanne de la revolution francaise" (Paris : Editions Sociales, 1977). ISBN 2-209-05273-4.
* [http://www.d.umn.edu/~aroos/jacobins.html jacobins.html] , on the site of Anna Marie Roos, University of Minnesota, Duluth
* [http://www.mtholyoke.edu/courses/rschwart/hist255/kat_anna/jacobins.html The Jacobins] Mount Holyoke college course site

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