Faculty Perspective: Our Jacobin Moment

January 21, 2021
Miller Hall exterior

This piece was originally published by Arc Digital on Thursday, Jan. 21.

By Sean C. Goodlett
Professor, Economics, History and Political Science

Days like January 6 provoke historical comparisons. What, we anxiously wonder, are we seeing? A replay of the burning of the Capitol by the British in 1814? A less-organized Beer Hall Putsch as in interwar Germany? The opening shots of a breathlessly-anticipated Second Civil War? The events from two weeks ago prompt us to find some terrible analogue from the recent past — and we certainly have no shortage of those.

To better understand January 6, though, we need to think of that day as part of an ongoing process, not a singularity. And rather than situating it within an American context, where there are no exact parallels, it’s more instructive to examine periods of instability in democracies like the French First Republic.

The earliest years of that Republic reveal the dynamics of party radicalization and show the dangers of partisan media advancing conspiratorial appeals to the public.

Any number of revolutionary uprisings — or journées— bear a similarity to what we’ve just gone through. On September 5, 1793, for instance, thousands of Parisians, goaded by the journalist Jacques-René Hébert and enraged by sharp rises in grain prices, stormed the Republic’s legislative chambers.

Inside the halls of the Convention, they made demands to turn the revolutionary army against grain hoarders in the countryside and “unpatriotic” enemies throughout the nation.

Ominously, the mob pressed the assembled deputies to “make terror the order of the day.”

The most radicalized deputies responded with enthusiasm, while their more moderate colleagues cowered in fear. In the proceedings that followed, extremist deputies were appointed to the infamous Committee of Public Safety, a quasi-executive body. Maximilien Robespierre had joined in late July. Now, in September, with the addition of men like Jacques Nicolas Billaud-Varenne and Jean Marie Collot d’Herbois, the Committee would become, in the formulation of R. R. Palmer, a dictatorship of “Twelve Who Ruled.”

The principal beneficiaries and, soon enough, the victims of this journée were the Jacobins, self-described “friends of the constitution” and erstwhile moderates.

Jacobinism was not merely an ideology, nor was the Jacobin Club simply a proto-political party. In the short-lived First Republic, Jacobinism was a process, with a logic driven by the necessity of ever-increasing radicalism.

Earlier in the spring of 1793, the mob had been the blunt instrument of Jacobin deputies. After repeated instigations by Jean Paul Marat and others, enraged Parisians had overthrown the defenses of the city. Two days later, on June 2, tens of thousands surrounded the Convention and demanded the expulsion of the Jacobins’ political rivals, the so-called Girondins. The charge, when boiled down, was treason. Twenty-two deputies were arrested.

Once deprived of more moderate or even just temporizing voices, the Convention hurtled toward the extremism of September.

Throughout the First Republic, the process of radicalization was fostered by the 18th-century equivalent of our partisan media ecosystems.

The Jacobins were initially loath to sponsor their own newspaper. Instead, they offered support to journalists like Choderlos de Laclos and allowed non-affiliated papers such as the Courrier extraordinaire to report from within the Club.

But in June, 1793, following the expulsion of the Girondins, the Jacobins created the short-lived Journal de la Montagne, an official mouthpiece that exposed the fractious nature of Jacobinism.

More extreme revolutionary papers, meanwhile, enflamed the populace.

Throughout the spring and early summer of 1793, Marat’s L’Ami du peuple had decried Girondin policies while pressing fantastical conspiracies. In September, Hébert was the leader of an army of sans culottes, because his Père Duchêne spewed bloodthirsty bile. By the fall, Père Duchêne and its imitators were among the most vociferous proponents of violent purges and terrorism.

Journalists like Marat and Hébert spoke to and for “the people,” and they created an atmosphere of fear inside the Convention. In the mix, deputies found themselves preening before a vast public that they could barely control.

It is eerie to see the parallels with today, a time in which any number of elected Republicans stoke the rage of voters, often by advancing baseless conspiracies that then get repeated in partisan media and reposted endlessly in the echo chambers of social media.

In the weeks before January 6, for instance, Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz emerged as the leaders of a dozen U.S. Senators — a latter-day “twelve who would rule” — by spreading the fiction that president-elect Joe Biden’s victory was the product of fraud. This despite the certification of the election results as valid, free, and fair in all 50 states.

We did not arrive at January 6 overnight. A groundswell of radicalism has been building for years. Right-wing assaults on state legislatures and federal lands, as well as plots to kidnap and assassinate government officials, all preceded the assault on D.C. Armed right-wing paramilitary and militia groups now regularly parade through the streets of America’s cities.

Sensing the direction of their party and much of the base of voters, Republicans officials at all levels have embraced radicalism.

On January 6, Hawley was photographed raising his fist in solidarity with the enragés who would soon breach the Capitol defenses. Shortly thereafter, a newly-elected Republican state legislator from West Virginia, Derrick Evans, allegedly joined hundreds of rioters charging the building.

Meanwhile, Republican state legislators from Missouri, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee were in the crowd on The Ellipse that day, participating in an event that hinged upon a conspiracy theory and that was nevertheless sponsored by elements of the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA).

Just as on the journée of September 5, 1793, most of those who gathered on The Ellipse on January 6 had come ill-prepared for violence. If they carried anything, it was a cell phone to record their revolutionary cosplay.

However, enough of them brought weapons to make the day dangerous.

Among those eventually arrested in and around the Capitol building were individuals carrying firearms, high-capacity magazines, Molotov cocktails, and zip-tie cuffs — presumably to hold members of Congress hostage. Improvised explosive devices were placed at both the Republican and Democratic National Committee headquarters.

While some might mock the assault on the Capitol building as a Beer Belly Putsch, many rioters were deadly serious in their intentions. Large groups of them chanted, “Hang Mike Pence.” Others hunted the Speaker of the House. In the ensuing violence, the invaders injured scores of police officers, one of whom eventually died from his wounds. An Air Force veteran who embraced election conspiracies also died after being shot while attempting to breach the Speaker’s Lobby, and another woman was trampled to death on the steps of the Capitol by her co-insurrectionists. Two others lost their lives that day in medical emergencies. Senators and representatives fled in terror.

And yet, far from being deterred by a violent insurrection in their midst and deaths on their doorstep, radicalized members of the GOP returned to the halls of Congress later that evening to advance the untruth that the presidential election had been tainted by fraud.

In the end, despite the danger that their own rhetoric had placed them in, eight of the original 12 Republican senators and more than 130 representatives — over half the caucus — objected to the ceremonial certification of states’ electors, many while reading conspiratorial nonsense into the congressional record.

Perhaps nothing could capture the unfolding radicalization of the Republican Party more succinctly than the fact that, on January 6, members of the House GOP caucus trembled before their more extreme colleagues and the mob.

In an op-ed in the Detroit News, newly-minted Republican Representative Peter Meijer recounted how a “colleague feared for family members and the danger the vote would put them in.” In the end, “profoundly shaken,” the unnamed colleague abandoned a constitutional obligation and voted to cast doubt on the presidential election.

Beginning in the summer of 1793, revolutionary radicals would themselves become the revolution’s victims. In July, a Girondin sympathizer, Charlotte Corday, assassinated Marat. By March, 1794, the Jacobins had placed Hébert under arrest, and soon after he and a band of his followers were executed. Many more would fall under the blade before the founding members of the Jacobin Club, men like Robespierre, went to the guillotine. In between, thousands would die.

There are no cut-and-dried lessons to be learned from September 5, 1793, as the progress of Jacobinism was bound up in a months-long, complex struggle for power and the interplay of cynical deputies, Parisian mobs, and partisan newspapers. History, in short, is no simple guidebook.

And yet the historical record reveals a range of human motivations and actions, and in analogous moments it can reveal what kind political animal humans have been and can be.

For the moment, the radicals within the GOP are content with provoking their voting base with untruths and conspiracies that are then monetized by partisan media. The mobs that have assembled in state capitals and D.C. have largely failed to accomplish their goals, and, of course, nothing like the Terror is on the horizon.

Nevertheless, if the French First Republic shows us anything, we ignore the radicalization of a political party at our peril, because the dynamics of this process point to a worrisome future. As the opportunistic Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand is reputed to have said, “Treason is merely a question of dates.”

Given the trajectory of events, today’s extremists need only stand still to become tomorrow’s patriots.

Sean C. Goodlett is a professor of early modern European history at Fitchburg State University. Research interests include pre-revolutionary and revolutionary France.