French Counter-Revolution

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The French Counter-Revolution (1789–1815) was composed of various groups both in and outside of France who were opposed to the French Revolution and actively sought to change its course.


From the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789, the remainder of western Europe watched the increasing violence in France with alarm. The governments of Prussia, Austria, Great Britain, Spain, and Russia, as well as the various German and Italian states, all feared that the political ideals of the Revolution might destabilize their own nations and possibly spread rebellion beyond French borders. In addition, thousands of exiled French nobles, having fled the Revolution, successfully lobbied these foreign governments for military intervention. Within France itself, the Revolution quickly became fractionalized as a number of parties with competing ideologies vied for power. Among these were the Royalists, Feuillants, Girondists, Jacobins, Hebertists, Sans-Culottes, the Catholic Church, and many smaller, less organized parties. At different times, some of these factions would join forces to oppose another, more powerful faction, and at other times, would attack each other as conflicting interests emerged.

During the early stages of the Revolution, these conflicts were mostly limited to political debate, rather than armed confrontation. Initially, the revolutionary government was divided between Feuillants, who controlled the ministries, and the Girondists, who dominated the National Assembly. Both factions began as members of the Jacobin Club before breaking off into distinct political groups. Then in March 1792, in retaliation for their opposition to war with Austria, the Feuillant ministers were forced out of office by the Girondins, who were themselves quickly over-powered by an alliance of Jacobins, Hebertists, and Sans-Culottes. All of this internal division, together with foreign opposition, would eventually coalesce into a long and bloody struggle that became known as the Counter-Revolution.


For the sake of convenience, historians generally divide the Counter-Revolution into two distinct parts, the European coalition, and the royalists within France. However, it was never that simple, as there were many separate groups within each category, often with conflicting agendas.

The alliance of European nations against the revolution often changed shape, as old allies parted company, and new ones entered into the fray. In addition, French exiles under the leadership of the Prince de Conde and the Comte d'Artois formed their own army at Coblenz, for the express purpose of invading France and restoring the Bourbon monarchy.

The initial coalition formed with the Declaration of Pillnitz on August 27, 1791, when Prussia and Austria signed a pact to attack France if any harm should befall King Louis XVI and his family. The revolutionary government in Paris, now under the control of the Girondists, responded quickly by declaring war, beginning the first round of what historians would term the French Revolutionary Wars. In 1792, Great Britain joined the coalition, followed by Spain and Russia in 1793, until France was embattled on all sides.

In July 1792, Prussian forces crossed the French border with little opposition, heading straight for Paris, followed by the army of French exiles under the command of the Prince de Conde. This created a state of panic in Paris, where the pro-revolutionaries feared their end was near. Members of the Girondist controlled National Assembly began to quietly, but hastily, abandon their posts and flee into the countryside. On August 10, the Jacobins, with the aide of the Sans-Culottes, made their move and staged a coup d’etat that toppled the Constitutional Monarchy, seizing control of the National Assembly. Louis XVI, who by this time was merely a powerless figurehead, was arrested and imprisoned, along with Marie Antoinette and other members of the royal court. Those Girondists who still remained in Paris quietly acquiesced to the demands of the Jacobins, who now controlled the French government.

Thus began a new, more radical phase of the revolution. With the rise of the Jacobins, order was soon restored in Paris, and the French forces successfully pushed back the Prussian army and, in time, shattered the Prussian-Austrian coalition. The Jacobins then began to eliminate the opposition within France, enacting the Reign of Terror, an official policy by which any and all suspected “traitors” were arrested and summarily executed. On January 21, 1793, King Louis XVI was beheaded. In June, the Girondist leaders and many of their supporters were arrested and sent to the guillotine. On October 16, Marie Antoinette was added to the growing list of victims.

Outside of Paris, citizens who had initially supported the revolution, were alienated not only by the Reign of Terror, but other policies of the Jacobin regime. These included a conscription of all able-bodied Frenchmen, price controls resulting in ruinous inflation, and a systematic attack on Catholicism. When food began to grow scarce in Paris, the Jacobins sent out parties of armed soldiers to confiscate grain from farmers in the countryside, further alienating the general populace. It was a combination of all these grievances that spurred counter-revolutionaries to move from covert opposition to overt action.

By the summer of 1793, the Vendee, Brittany, and parts of Poitou were in open rebellion. They were soon joined by the cities of Lyon, Bordeaux, Marseille, Toulon and Toulouse, where representatives from Paris were attacked and, in some cases killed. And in small towns and villages across France, resistance mounted. In Chaumont, officials affiliated with the Jacobin Club were forced from office. At Soissons and Compiegne they were run out of town by armed mobs. In other places their directives were simply ignored.

It would be a mistake to classify all of these events as royalist. While there were certainly those among the crowd who wished to restore the monarchy; others simply wanted to remove the Jacobin regime, without necessarily ending the revolution.

In any event, the reaction from Paris was swift and brutal. Troops were recalled from the front lines (the war with Prussia and Austria was still in progress), more troops were dispatched from the capital, and by the end of 1793, the counter-revolution within France was effectively, if not completely, suppressed. Although these counter-movements appeared to have broad support among the general populace, their ultimate failure was due in large part to a lack of competent organization, a lack of weaponry, and the fact that the battle-hardened army sent to eliminate them showed little remorse in killing their fellow citizens. In the Vendee, the army proceeded with a scorched-earth policy; rounding up whole villages, shooting or hanging the inhabitants, and burning their farms and houses to the ground. Following protracted sieges at Lyon and Toulon, thousands of rebels, or suspected rebels, were massacred wholesale. Historians disagree on the number of those who perished in the rebellion, with estimates ranging from as low as 25,000 to as high as 120,000.

Regardless of the death toll, after 1793, the counter-revolution within France ceased to operate as an effective force, if indeed, it ever had. In July 1794, the Jacobin regime would fall from power and be replaced by a more moderate revolutionary government, which itself would be replaced by the French Consulate under Napoleon Bonaparte’s dictatorship. The war between France and the European coalition would continue, off and on, for another 16 years, ending with the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, and the return of the Bourbon monarchy.

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Further reading[edit]

  • Sutherland, Donald M.G. France, 1789–1815: Revolution and Counterrevolution (1986) excerpt and text search
  • Tilly, Charles. "State and counterrevolution in France." Social Research (1989) 56#1 pp: 71–97.

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