Have you ever wondered where we get the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ wing in politics? One strong possibility was the arrangement of parties in the newly elected National Convention which met in Paris early in 1793. The building in which the future of Revolutionary France was decided had rows of seats forming an arc around the chair from which the President presided. Those who sat to the left were the Jacobins, a radical party who wanted to overthrow the monarchy, and those that sat to the right, the Girondists who wanted a ‘gentler’ Revolution with the King having a part to play in the future of the country.
A session of the National Convention in 1793
This was the situation when the newly elected member from the Pas de Calais Region attended. His name was Thomas Paine, author of ‘Common Sense’ and ‘Rights of Man. Born in Thetford, England he had made himself unpopular with George III and his Government by supporting the American Revolution. Having lived in America during the wars with Great Britain he had returned to the UK but escaped to France when summoned for trial. On entry to this country he was given an honorary citizenship and election to the Convention as one of only two foreigners. Here he was witness to the most chaotic and bloodthirsty years of the newly emerging French Republic.
Originally treated as a hero through his condemnation of the tyranny of Monarchs he soon became embroiled in French Politics. and it was not a happy experience. The Convention first turned to the future Constitution of France, a country which had turned its back on the Monarchy with its trappings of power ever since the storming of the Bastille in 1789. Paine, with the Girondists,argued that Louis XVI should be punished for his behaviour which included a recent escape attempt ; the Jacobins wanted the death penalty. The Jacobins had the majority vote so Louis was guillotined on the 19th January 1793 – one black mark against Paine.
Meanwhile France declared war on England and began the process of assembling its Grande Armee through conscription. The increasingly radical demands of the Convention led to revolts throughout the country especially in the Vendee against the Government and the Convention responded by sending out soldiers to put down these revolts in a violent and bloody manner. Back in Paris the Jacobins aided by the Paris mobs denounced the Girondists and Jean Paul Marat, President of the Jacobin Club, demanded the purging of the Convention. As these events unfolded Paine became increasingly despondent as to the course of the Revolution and when Marat was found not guilty of the serious charge of inciting the nation to riot and anarchy, he began to despair of his life because he had supported the impeachment as a witness in the trial. Matters came to head in May when the Jacobins organised an insurrection against the Girondins in the Convention. Using troops to surround the building the surviving Girondists were arrested and later executed. To Paine’s horror the Days of Terror and the ‘Committee for Public Safety’ led by Robespierre had arrived!
Paine at this point began a serious effort to escape France but he could not get the necessary authorisations as The Jacobins did not want recent events to jeopardize France’s relationship with the US. Things in France were now going from bad to worse with citizens encouraged to spy on and accuse their neighbours and the Revolutionary Tribunal condemned many to death. Eventually Paine himself was denounced, relieved of his membership of the Convention and on Christmas 1793 arrested and thrown into the Luxembourg Prison.
Execution of Marie Antoinette July 1793
Initially conditions were not too bad as the prisoners were allowed exercise, able to purchase food and even write letters but as Robespierre’s grip on the country tightened using the slogan ‘equality or death’, the prisoners were locked in their cells with increasing numbers added each week. ‘Madame Guillotine’ reigned as Paine listened to the screams of those fetched each night to the Court where with very few exceptions they were condemned and executed the same day. Paine knew that one day in the near future his cell door would be chalked by the guard for this treatment but in a remarkable piece of luck when this actually happened the mark was overlooked! Soon after Robespierre was overthrown, executed and the country returned to some kind of normality with an anti Jacobin Government. Paine eventually left France for America in 1802 having witnessed the rise of Napoleon to power. He stayed in America until his death in 1809, maligned and unpopular partially due to his links with the French Revolution .
Plaque in Paris honouring Thomas Paine.