Immediate result of expulsion of Girondins — Importance of period, May 1793 to July 1794 — Famine continues — War against coalition — Difficulties of sans-culottes — Forced loan necessary — Superfluous and necessary incoines — Impossibility of levying loan
If any one doubts the necessity under which the Revolution lay, of expelling the chief men of the “Gironde” from the Convention, he should cast a glance at the legislative work which the Convention set itself to accomplish, as soon as the opposition of the Right was broken.
The taxation of the rich to help towards the enormous expenses of the war; the establishment of a maximum price for all commodities; the restoration to the communes of the lands which the nobility had taken from them since 1669; the definite abolition, without redemption, of the feudal rights; the laws concerning inheritance, intended to spread and equalise wealth; the democratic Constitution of 1793 — all these measures came in rapid succession after the Right had been weakened by the expulsion of the Girondist leaders.
This period, which lasted from May 31, 1793, to July 27, 1794 (9th Thermidor of the Year 11. of the Republic), represents the most important period of the whole Revolution. The great changes in the relations between citizens, the programme which the Assembly had sketched during the night of August 4, 1789, were, after four years of resistance, at last carried out by the purified Convention, under the pressure of the popular revolution. And it was the people — the sans-culottes — who not only forced the Convention to legislate in this way, after they had given it the power of doing so by the insurrection of May 31; but it was also they who put these measures into execution locally, by means of the popular societies to whom the commissioned members of the Convention applied, when they had to create local executive power.
Famine still reigned during this period, and the war, maintained by the Republic against the coalition of the King of Prussia, the Emperor of Austria, the King of Sardinia and the King of Spain, urged on and financed by England, assumed terrible proportions. The requirements of this war were enormous, and one can have no idea of them without noting the minute details that are to be found in the documents of the time, so as to conceive the actual penury and ruin to which France was brought by the invasion. Under these truly tragic circumstances, when all things were lacking-bread, shoes, beasts of burden, iron, lead, saltpetre — when nothing could enter by land through the armies of four hundred thousand men hurled against France by the allied Kings, and nothing by sea, through the blockade maintained by English ships — under these circumstances the sans-culottes were striving to save the Revolution which was on the point of collapsing.
At the same time, all who held by the old state of things, all who had formerly occupied privileged positions and all who hoped either to regain those positions, or else create new ones for themselves as soon as the monarchic régime was re-established — the clergy, the nobility, the middle classes enriched by the Revolution — all conspired against it. Those who remained faithful to it had to struggle between the circle of foreign cannon and bayonets that was closing round them, and the conspirators in their midst who were trying to stab them in the back.
Seeing this, the sans-culottes made haste to act so that when the reaction gained the upper hand, it should find a new and regenerate France: the peasants in possession of the land, the town-worker familiarised with equality and democracy, the aristocracy and the clergy despoiled of their riches which had been their true strength, and these riches already passed into thousands of other hands, divided into shares, changed entirely in appearance, unrecognisable — impossible to reconstruct.
The true history of those thirteen months — June 1793 to July 1794 — has not yet been written. The documents which one day will be used for writing it exist in the provincial , archives, in the reports and letters of the Convention's commissioners, in the minutes of the municipalities and of the popular societies. But they have not yet been collected with the care that has been bestowed upon the documents concerning the legislation of the Revolution, and they ought to be sought for soon as they are rapidly disappearing. This would, no doubt, be the work of a life-time: but without this work the history of the Revolution will remain incomplete.
What the historians have chiefly studied of this period is the War and the Terror. And yet these are not the essentials. The essential factor was the immense work of distributing the landed property, the work of democratising and dechristianising France, which was accomplished during these thirteen months. To relate this immense work with all the struggles to which it gave birth in the different places, in each town and hamlet of France, will be the work of some future historian. All that we can do to-day is to recall some of the chief features of it.
The first really revolutionary measure taken after May 31 was the forced loan from the rich to subvent the expenses of the war. The condition of the Treasury was, as we have seen, deplorable. The war was devouring huge sums of money. The paper-money, issued in too great quantities, had already depreciated. New taxes on the poor could not produce anything. What else was left to do, if not to tax the rich? And the idea of a forced loan, of a milliard levied on the rich — an idea which had already been mooted under the Ministry of Necker at the outset of the Revolution — germinated in the nation.
When we read to-day what contemporaries, both reactionaries and revolutionists, said of the condition of France, it is impossible not to think that every republican, whatever his ideas might be concerning property, must have sided with the idea of a forced loan. There was no other possible way out of the difficulty. When this question was brought forward, on May 20, the tax was proposed by Cambon, a moderate; but the Girondins fell upon the proposers of the loan with unexpected violence, stirring up a shameful scene in the Convention.
This is why all that could be done on May 20 was to accept the idea of a forced loan in principle. As to the manner of carrying it into effect that was to be discussed later on — or perhaps never, if the Girondins succeeded in sending the “Montagnards” to the “Tarpeian Rock.”
On the very night following the expulsion of the principal Girondins, the Commune of Paris resolved that the decree fixing the maximum for the price of commodities should be carried into effect without further delay, that the arming of the citizens should be proceeded with at once; that the forced loan should be levied; and that the revolutionary army should be organised and should comprise all good citizens, but exclude the ci-devants, that is, the ex-nobles, the “aristocrats.”
The Convention lost no time in taking similar action, and on June 22, 1793, it discussed the report of Réal, who proposed the following principles for the forced loan. The necessary income, three thousand livres for a father of a family and fifteen hundred livres for a bachelor, was to be free from taxation. The excessive incomes were to contribute by progression, up to the incomes of ten thousand livres for bachelors, and twenty thousand for fathers of families. If the income were above this figure, it was to be considered as superfluous, and requisitioned in its entirety for the loan. This principle was adopted; only the Convention by its decree of the same day fixed the necessary income at six thousand livres for bachelors and ten thousand for the fathers of families.
They perceived, however, in August, that with these sums the loan would produce less than two hundred millions, and on September 3, the Convention had to fall back on its decree of June 22 It fixed the necessary income at a thousand livres for bachelors and fifteen hundred for married men, plus a thousand livres for each member of their family. The excessive incomes were taxed on an ascending scale which went from ten to fifty per cent. of the income. And as to the incomes above nine thousand livres, they were taxed so as never to leave more than four thousand five hundred livres of income, plus the necessary which we have just mentioned, no matter what the amount of the rich man's revenue was. This, however, was applied not as a permanent tax, but as a forced loan, only made for a time and under extraordinary circumstances.
A striking fact, which proves in a remarkable way the impotence of parliaments, is that although there was certainly never any government that inspired more terror than that of the Convention in the Year II. of the Republic, yet this law concerning the forced loan was never obeyed. The rich people did not pay it. The levying of the loan entailed enormous expense; but how was it to be levied upon rich people who would not pay. By seizure, by sale? For this a complicated political mechanism was required, and there was already so very much of the national property for sale? Materially, the loan was not a success; but as the advanced Montagnards meant it to prepare men's minds for the idea of equalising all wealth, and so to make it another step forward, in this respect they attained their end.
Later on — even after the reaction of Thermidor, the Directory also had recourse to two attempts in the same direction — 1795 and in 1799. The idea of superfiuous and necessary incomes was making its way — and we know that progressive taxation became part of the democratic programme during the century after the Revolution. It was even applied in several countries, but in much more moderate proportions; so mode rate, indeed, that there was nothing left but the name.