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Jacobin Club

Jacobin Club, the most famous of the political clubs of the French Revolution, had its origin in the Club Breton, which formed at Versailles shortly after the opening of the States General in 1789.

It was at first composed exclusively of deputies from Brittany, but was soon joined by others from various parts of France, and counted among its early members Mirabeau, Sieyès, Barnave, Pétion, the Abbé Grégoire, Charles Lameth, Alexandre Lameth, Robespierre, the duc d'Aiguillon, and La Revellière-Lépeaux. It also had an 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.

After the émeute of October 5 and 6, 1789 the club, still entirely composed of deputies, followed the National Assembly to Paris, where it rented the refectory of the monastery of the Jacobins in the Rue St Honar 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 21, 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.

Once transferred to 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. 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:

  1. to discuss in advance questions to be decided by the National Assembly
  2. to work for the establishment and strengthening of the constitution in accordance with the spirit of the preamble (i.e. of respect for legally constituted authority and the rights of man)
  3. 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.

At the outset the Jacobin Club was not distinguished by extreme political views. The somewhat high subscription confined its membership to men of substance, 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 Santerre. From the first, however, other elements were present. Besides Louis Philippe, duc de Chartres (afterwards king of the French), liberal aristocrats of the type of the due d'Aiguillon, the prince de Broglie, or the vicomte de Noailles, and the bourgeois 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 provincial branches were from the first far more democratic, though in these too the leadership was usually in the hands of members of the educated or propertied classes. Up to the very eve of the republic, the club ostensibly supported the monarchy; it took no part in the petition of July 17, 1790 for the dethronement of King Louis XVI; nor had it any official share even in the insurrections of 20 June and August 10, 1792; it only formally recognized the republic on September 21, 1792. But the character and extent of the club’s influence cannot be gauged by its official acts alone, and long before it emerged as the principal focus of the Reign of Terror; its character had been profoundly changed by the secession of its more moderate elements, some to found the Club of 1789, some in 1791 -- among them Barnave, the Lameths, Duport and Bailly -- to found the club of the Feuillants scoffed at by their former friends as the club monarchique.

The main cause of this change was the admission of the public to the sittings of the club, which began on October 14, 1791. The result is described in a report of the Department of Paris on "the state of the empire", presented on 12 June 1792, at the request of Roland, the minister of the interior, and signed by the duc de La Rochefoucauld, which ascribes to the Jacobins all the woes of the state. "There exists", it runs,

in the midst of the capital committed to our care a public pulpit of defamation, where citizens of every age and both sexes are admitted day by day to listen to a criminal propaganda. . . . This establishment, situated in the former house of the Jacobins, calls itself a society; but it has less the aspect of a private society than that of a public spectacle: vast tribunes are thrown open for the audience; all the sittings are advertised to the public for fixed days and hours, and the speeches made are printed in a special journal and lavishly distributed.

In this society -- the report continues -- murder is counselled or applauded, all authorities are calumniated and all the organs of the law bespattered with abuse; as to its power, it exercises "by its influence, its affiliations and its correspondence a veritable ministerial authority, without title and without responsibility, while leaving to the legal and responsible authorities only the shadow of power" (Schmidt, Tableaux i. 78, etc.).

The constituency to which the club was henceforth responsible, and from which it derived its power, was in fact the peuple bête of Paris; the sans-culottes -- decayed lackeys, cosmopolitan ne’er-do-wells, and starving workpeople -- who crowded its tribunes. To this audience, and not primarily to the members of the club, the speeches of the orators were addressed and by its verdict they were judged. In the earlier stages of the Revolution the mob had been satisfied with the fine platitudes of the philosophes and the vague promise of a political millennium; but as the chaos in the body politic grew, and with it the appalling material misery, it began to clamour for the blood of the "traitors" in office by whose corrupt machinations the millennium was delayed, and only those orators were listened to who pandered to its suspicions. Hence the elimination of the moderate elements from the club; hence the ascendancy of Marat, and finally of Robespierre, the secret of whose power was that they really shared the suspicions of the populace, to which they gave a voice and which they did not shrink from translating into action.

After the fall of the monarchy Robespierre was in effect the Jacobin Club; for to the tribunes he was the oracle of political wisdom, and by his standard all others were judged. With his fall the Jacobins too came to an end.

Not the least singular thing about the Jacobins is the very slender material basis on which their overwhelming power rested. France groaned under their tyranny, which was compared to that of the Inquisition, with its system of espionage and denunciations which no one was too illustrious or too humble to escape. Yet it was reckoned by competent observers that, at the height of the Terror, the Jacobins could not command a force of more than 3000 men in Paris. But the secret of their strength was that, in the midst of the general disorganisation, they alone were organised. The police agent Dutard, in a report to the minister Garat (April 30, 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". When the jeunesse dorée did at last organise themselves, they had little difficulty in flogging the Jacobins out of the cafés into comparative silence.

Long before this the Girondin government had been urged to meet organisation by organisation, force by force; and it is clear from the daily reports of the police agents that even a moderate display of energy would have saved the National Convention from the humiliation of being dominated by a club, and the French Revolution from the blot of the Terror. But though the Girondins were fully conscious of the evil, they were too timid, or too convinced of the ultimate triumph of their own persuasive eloquence, to act. In the session of April 30, 1793 a proposal was made to move the Convention to Versailles out of reach of the Jacobins, and Buzot declared that it was "impossible to remain in Paris" so long as "this abominable haunt" should exist; but the motion was not carried, and the Girondins remained to become the victims of the Jacobins.

Meanwhile other political clubs could only survive so long as they were content to be the shadows of the powerful organisation of the Rue St Honoré. The Feuillants had been suppressed on August 18, 1792. The turn of the Cordeliers came so soon as its leaders showed signs of revolting against Jacobin supremacy, and no more startling proof of this ascendancy could be found than the ease with which Hébert and his fellows were condemned and the readiness with which the Cordeliers, after a feeble attempt at protest, acquiesced in the verdict.

It is idle to speculate on what might have happened had this ascendancy been overthrown by the action of a strong government. No strong government existed, nor, in the actual conditions of the country, could exist on the lines laid down by the constitution. France was menaced by civil war within, and by a coalition of hostile powers without; the discipline of the Terror was perhaps necessary if she was to be welded into a united force capable of resisting this double peril; and the revolutionary leaders saw in the Jacobin organization the only instrument by which this discipline could be made effective. This is the apology usually put forward for the Jacobins by republican writers of later times; they were, it is said (and of some of them it is certainly true), no mere doctrinaires and visionary sectaries, but practical and far-seeing politicians, who realized that desperate ills need desperate remedies, and, by having the courage of their convictions, saved the gains of the Revolution for France.

The Jacobin Club was closed after the fall of Robespierre on 9 Thermidor of the year III, and some of its members were executed. 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.

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.

See also: Jacobinism

Original text from 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica. Please update as needed.