The Jacobins, also known as the Jacobin Club or the Society of the Friends of the Constitution, were the most radical group of the French Revolution and the most powerful political club in the revolutionary period. The Jacobins became a primary force behind the Reign of Terror and were associated with the more extreme elements of the revolution. At their height, they exerted extraordinary influence over revolutionary France until their fall in July 1794. The term “Jacobin” also described radicals in other European countries during the French Revolution as well as radical French republicans during the 19th century.
Originally known as the Breton Club, the organization started as a group of delegates from Brittany meeting with others at the States General in Versailles in 1789. When the States General became the French National Assembly and moved to Paris, the Breton Club moved to Paris as well and renamed itself the Society of the Friends of the Constitution. The group met in a former Dominican convent on the Rue St. Jacques, only a short distance from where the Assembly met. Soon the members of the Society of the Friends of the Constitution were also commonly called Jacobins. Along with the move to Paris came an important shift in political outlook. While the Breton Club tended to be conservative politically, the Jacobins took on a more radical approach to the revolution. Indeed, many of the conservative members left or were expelled.
The Jacobins soon established a network of associated political clubs throughout France but drew most of their political strength from the working class of Paris. After King Louis XVI was overthrown in August 1792, the Jacobins played a prominent role in guiding the revolution. Led by Maximilien Robespierre, the Jacobins stood for republicanism, universal suffrage, separation of church and state, popular state-sponsored education, and other major economic and social reforms. The Jacobins were also a significant force behind the execution of the king in January 1793 and that summer's purge of the National Convention that removed the moderate republican representatives, known as the Girondins.
The Jacobins became a key part of the revolutionary apparatus under the Reign of Terror and supported Robespierre in his position on the Committee of Public Safety. Jacobins watched over members of society who were under suspicion and adopted administrative roles in matters of the army and public governance.
When Robespierre threatened a further purge of the National Convention in July 1794 and all deputies could feel themselves threatened, they turned on him and the other Jacobin leaders. The Jacobin leaders were guillotined, and in November 1794 the Jacobin Club was officially outlawed. In later periods of French history, Jacobins became the so-called spiritual descendants of Robespierre: republicans who opposed royalists and imperialists by revolutionary means if necessary.
In the United States, members of the Federalist Party, who disliked France and preferred to pursue good relations with Great Britain, used Jacobin excesses and even the term “Jacobin” to assail their Democratic-Republican opponents. Most Democratic-Republicans believed that the French people were seeking the same goals that the American revolutionaries had fought for only a few years earlier and wished to maintain good relations with France. Thus, some Democratic-Republican politicians were inclined to excuse Jacobin terror on the grounds that such methods were necessary to purge France of monarchical and aristocratic influence in order to establish a republic.
France; French Revolutionary Wars
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