The federalist revolt occurred in the summer of 1793, at a pivotal moment in the French Revolution. The name itself suggests a decentralizing movement, a reaction to the strong central government emerging at that time under Jacobin leadership in Paris. But while the revolt was based in provincial cities, the rebels did not seek a federated republic. Rather the federalists protested against what they took to be a violation of the unity and integrity of the national assembly.
The national assembly at that moment in the course of the Revolution was known as the National Convention, elected in the fall of 1792 after Louis XVI had been toppled from power by a Parisian uprising. Almost from its first meeting, the National Convention was hopelessly divided between two rival factions: the moderate Girondin deputies and the radical Montagnards. The first point of contention was the September Massacres, which claimed the lives of more than one thousand alleged counterrevolutionaries in the prisons of Paris. The Girondin leadership soon denounced the killings as the inevitable consequence of public anarchy, and accused leading Montagnards of having incited the violence. The Montagnards, many of them the champions of the Paris crowd, defended the massacres as a regrettable, but necessary, instance of popular justice. This polarity carried over into the trial of Louis XVI, the stalemate over the constitution of 1793, the trial of Jean-Paul Marat, and the ongoing debate about the legitimacy of popular politics and the influence of the Paris crowd on national politics. This bitter division within the National Convention, decried both by Parisians and by many citizens of the provinces, came to an end following the uprising of 31 May to 2 June 1793, when Parisian militants forced the proscription of twenty-nine Girondin deputies. Nearly fifty departmental administrations protested that action by letter, and some thirteen departments engaged in prolonged resistance to the Montagnard Convention in what has come to be known as the federalist revolt.
The revolt centered around four provincial cities—Bordeaux, Caen, Lyon, and Marseille—and in each instance it was departmental administrators who took the leading role. Typically the rebels constituted a new popular assembly to lead the resistance, in order to claim the mandate of the people for their actions, and probably to deflect charges of treason from official administrative councils. In addition to sending delegations or letters of protest to Paris, they declared themselves in a state of resistance to oppression, withdrew their recognition of the National Convention and all legislation issued since 31 May, and called on their constituents to take up arms and march to the capital to restore the proscribed deputies to office. In Caen and Marseille the rebels arrested representatives on mission (national deputies) in the early stages of the revolt, taking them as hostages, in a sense, against the safety of the proscribed Girondins.
Seven Breton and Norman departments sent delegates to the Central Committee of Resistance to Oppression, meeting in Caen. That assembly issued a manifesto, the closest thing that exists to a federalist program. In mid-July a small force left Caen for Paris, but there was little popular support for the revolt in Normandy or elsewhere and the call for a march on Paris failed to mount a serious threat to the capital. The Norman force dispersed after a single, farcical battle near Vernon, and none of the other rebel forces even left the limits of their own departments. Coupled with the peasant rebellions in the Vendée, however, the federalist revolt confronted the young French Republic with the very real danger of civil war, and the Montagnards responded forcefully to that threat. First they presented a defense of the 31 May uprising and the proscription of the Girondin deputies, which they circulated to the provinces via special envoys. Then they moved quickly to complete a new constitution, adopted in the Convention and presented to the nation in late June. In July the Montagnards prepared an indictment of the proscribed deputies, though they would not be brought to trial until October. Finally, the Committee of Public Safety sent armed forces to suppress the rebellion in those areas that continued to resist.
The federalist revolt collapsed quickly in Caen, and Robert Lindet oversaw a remarkably mild repression in the late summer months, dismissing rebel officials from office, placing many under arrest, but ordering no executions. In Bordeaux and Marseille, where resistance to Paris endured until the final days of summer, the revolt came to an end without violent resistance, but the repression that followed sent roughly three hundred rebels to the guillotine in each city. In Lyon, however, the federalist rebels executed the leading Jacobin in the city, Joseph Chalier, and the city capitulated only after a two-month siege. In October the National Convention decreed that "Lyon is no more," renamed it "Ville-Affranchie" (Freed City), and sent the representatives on mission, Georges Couthon, Jean-Marie Collet d'Herbois, and Joseph Fouché, to oversee the repression. They ordered the execution of more than nineteen hundred rebels, making Lyon one of the bloodiest sites of the Terror.
Although the federalist revolt was nominally a reaction to the proscription of the Girondin deputies, the causes of the revolt ran much deeper. Political elites in the provinces had grown wary of the militant activism of the Parisian sans-culottes, and often felt threatened by the mobilization of popular politics in their own towns. They resented what they considered the excessive influence of Paris on national politics and the interference of representatives on mission in local affairs. In the federalist revolt, then, national and local politics came together, as the French revolutionaries struggled to define sovereignty and how it should be exercised.
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Paul R. Hanson