The Society of the Friends of the Constitution (French: Société des amis de la Constitution), after 1792 renamed Society of the Jacobins, Friends of Freedom and Equality (French: Société des Jacobins, amis de la liberté et de l'égalité), commonly known as the Jacobin Club (Club des Jacobins) or just collectively Jacobins ([ʒa.kɔ.bɛ̃ ], /ˈdʒæ.kə.bɪnz/), was the most famous and influential political club in the development of the French Revolution. Initially founded by anti-Royalist deputies from Brittany, the Club grew into a nationwide republican movement, with a membership estimated at a half million or more. The Jacobin Club was heterogeneous and included both prominent parliamentary factions of the early 1790s, the radical Mountain and the more moderate Girondists.
In 1792–93, the Girondists (led by Brissot and including Thomas Paine) dominated the Jacobin Club and led the country. Believing that revolutionary France would not be accepted by its neighbours, they called for an aggressive foreign policy and forced war on Austria. The Girondists were the dominant faction when the Jacobins overthrew the monarchy and created the republic. When the Republic failed to deliver the unrealistic gains that had been expected, they lost popularity. The Girondists sought to curb fanatical revolutionary violence, and were therefore accused by the Mountain of being royalist sympathisers. The National Guard eventually switched its support from the Girondists to the Mountain, allowing the Mountain to stage a coup d'etat.
In May 1793, led by Maximilien de Robespierre, the leaders of the Mountain faction succeeded in sidelining the Girondist faction and controlled the government until July 1794. Their time in government was characterized by radically progressive legislation imposed with very high levels of political violence. In June 1793, they approved the Constitution of Year 1 which introduced universal male suffrage for the first time in history. In September 1793, twenty-one prominent Girondists were guillotined, beginning the Reign of Terror. In October, during the Terror, the new constitution was ratified in a referendum which most eligible voters avoided participating in. The Mountain executed tens of thousands of opponents nationwide, ostensibly to suppress the Vendée insurrection and the Federalist insurrections, and to prevent any other insurrections, during the War of the First Coalition.
In 1794, the fall of Robespierre pushed the Mountain out of power. The Jacobin Club was closed and many of its remaining leaders, notably Robespierre, were themselves executed.
Today, Jacobin and Jacobinism are used in a variety of senses. In Britain, where the term "Jacobin" has been linked primarily to the Mountain, it is sometimes used as a pejorative for radical, left-wing revolutionary politics, especially when it exhibits dogmatism and violent repression. In France, "Jacobin" now generally indicates a supporter of a centralized republican state and strong central government powers and/or supporters of extensive government intervention to transform society. It is also used in other related senses, indicating proponents of a state education system which strongly promotes and inculcates civic values, and proponents of a strong nation-state capable of resisting any undesirable foreign interference.
It was so named because of the Dominican convent where they met, which had recently been located in the Rue St. Jacques (Latin: Jacobus), Paris. The club originated as the Club Breton, formed at Versailles from a group of Breton representatives attending the Estates-General of 1789.
When the Estates-General was convened in 1789, at Versailles, the club was initially composed exclusively of deputies from Brittany. However, they were soon joined by deputies from other regions throughout France. Among early members were the dominating comte de 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. At this time, meetings occurred in secret, and few traces remain concerning what took place or where the meetings were convened.
By the March on Versailles in October 1789, the club, still entirely composed of deputies, had reverted to being a provincial caucus for National Constituent Assembly deputies from Brittany. The club would be re-founded in November 1789, after an address from the London Revolution Society congratulating the French on "conquering their liberty" led National Assembly deputies to found their own Société de la Révolution. The group rented for its meetings the refectory of the monastery of the Jacobins in the Rue Saint-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 à Paris, which was changed on 21 September 1792, after the fall of the monarchy, to Société des Jacobins, amis de la liberté et de l'égalité (Society of Jacobins, friends of liberty and equality). It occupied successively the refectory, the library, and the chapel of the monastery.
Once in Paris, the club underwent rapid modifications. The first great change was its extension of membership to others besides deputies. All citizens were allowed to enter and even foreigners were welcomed: the English writer Arthur Young joined the club in this manner on 18 January 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. On 8 February 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 club's objectives 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 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen); and
- to correspond with other societies of the same kind which should be formed in the realm.
At the same time the rules of order of election were settled, and the constitution of the club determined. There was 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 10 August 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. At the peak there were at least 7,000 chapters throughout France, with a membership estimated at a half-million or more. It was this widespread yet highly centralised organization that gave to the Jacobin Club its formidable power.
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 bourgeoisie, 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 bourgeoisie 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 17 July 1791 for the king's dethronement, nor had it any official share even in the insurrections of 10 June and 10 August 1792.
The club was radicalized by the departure of its conservative members to form their own Feuillants Club in July 1791. This club saw far less success than the Jacobins, surviving barely a year before its members were arrested and tried for treason.
After the fall of the monarchy Robespierre became a central figure in the Jacobin Club, and his faction in the National Convention, assembled in the autumn of 1792, became known as Jacobins. They were at first a minority group, also called "The Mountain" (French: La Montagne), and its members Montagnards, because they sat together in the higher seats in the Convention's hall; they were dubious about the war with Austria which had begun that spring, but supported more revolutionary measures at home.
The Jacobins assumed more and more power during the spring of 1793, with the support of the Parisian mob, which overawed the Convention, culminating in a coup at the end of May. They were to hold power until the summer of 1794, and they repeatedly purged the Convention of those they held disloyal to the Republic, ending with a widespread program of execution, the Reign of Terror, in their last months. Robespierre, generally the spokesman for the successful faction, had great esteem for his reputation as "the sea-green incorruptible", and set up the slogan of the Republic of Virtue, until the Jacobins' last purge, 9 Thermidor, 27 July 1794. Although some eyewitnesses said Robespierre was shot by a soldier, some historians state he attempted suicide; in any event, his lower jaw was shattered. He was executed the next day on Thermidor 10, 28 July 1794.
The Jacobin club, its leadership having been decimated with Robespierre's execution, was disbanded 12 November 1794. The Jacobins' overwhelming power rested on a very slender material basis. The club's autocracy resembled 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 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 reason for the actions of the Jacobins proffered by republican writers of later times and some modern scholars is quite different: that 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.
An attempt was made to re-open the Jacobin Club, which was joined by many of the enemies of the Thermidorians, but on 21 Brumaire, year III (11 November 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 Panthéon Club, founded on 25 November 1795, and suppressed in the following February (see Babeuf).
The last attempt to reorganize 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 avenged themselves on the Directory by supporting Napoleon Bonaparte.
The Jacobin movement encouraged sentiments of patriotism and liberty amongst the populace. The movement's contemporaries, such as the 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". 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." 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 4 August 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". Robespierre particularly favored the rights of the broader population to eat, for example, over the rights of individual merchants. "I denounce the assassins of the people to you and you respond, 'let them act as they will.' In such a system, all is against society; all favors the grain merchants." Robespierre famously elaborated this conception in his speech on 2 December 1792: "What is the first goal of society? To maintain the imprescribable rights of man. What is the first of these rights? The right to exist."
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 combating those they perceived as enemies within: Robespierre declared, "the first maxim of your policy ought to be to lead the people by reason and the people's enemies by terror.".
The meeting place of the Fraternal Society of Patriots of Both Sexes was an old library room of the convent which hosted the Jacobins, and it was suggested that the Fraternal Society grew out of the regular occupants of a special gallery allotted to women at the Jacobin Club.
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." 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.
The Jacobins were foes of both the Church and of atheism. They set up a new religious cult to replace Catholicism. They advocated 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. Once in power the Jacobins 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. They 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. However, their ruthless and unjudicial methods discredited the Revolution in the eyes of many. 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 exile.1789 – Antoine Barnave
1789 – Isaac René Guy le Chapelier
1789–90 – Jacques-François Menou
1790–91 – Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, comte de Mirabeau
1791–92 – Pierre-Antoine Antonelle
1792–93 – Jean-Paul Marat
1793–94 – Maximilien Robespierre
1794–95 – Vacant
This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "article name needed". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.