1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Convention, The National
CONVENTION, THE NATIONAL, in France, the constitutional and legislative assembly which sat from the 20th of September 1792 to the 26th of October 1795 (the 4th of Brumaire of the year IV.). On the 10th of August 1792, when the populace of Paris stormed the Tuileries and demanded the abolition of the monarchy, the Legislative Assembly decreed the provisional suspension of the king and the convocation of a national convention which should draw up a constitution. At the same time it was decided that the deputies to that convention should be elected by all Frenchmen 25 years old, domiciled for a year and living by the product of their labour. The National Convention was therefore the first French assembly elected by universal suffrage, without distinctions of class. The age limit of the electors was further lowered to 21, and that of eligibility was fixed at 25 years.
The first session was held on the 20th of September 1792. The next day royalty was abolished, and on the 22nd it was decided that all documents should be henceforth dated from the year 1. of the French Republic. The Convention was destined to last for three years. The country was at war, and it seemed best to postpone the new constitution until peace should be concluded. At the same time as the Convention prolonged its powers it extended them considerably in order to meet the pressing dangers which menaced the Republic. Though a legislative assembly, it took over the executive power, entrusting it to its own members. This “confusion of powers,” which was contrary to the philosophical theories—those of Montesquieu especially—which had inspired the Revolution at first, was one of the essential characteristics of the Convention. The series of exceptional measures by which that confusion of powers was created constitutes the “Revolutionary government” in the strict sense of the word, a government which was principally in vigour during the period called “the Terror.” It is thus necessary to distinguish, in the work of the Convention, the temporary expedients from measures intended to be permanent.
The Convention held its first session in a hall of the Tuileries, then it sat in the hall of Manège, and finally from the 10th of May 1793 in that of the Spectacles (or Machines), an immense hall in which the deputies were but loosely scattered. This last hall had tribunes for the public, which often influenced the debate by interruptions or applause. The full number of deputies was 749, not counting 33 from the colonies, of whom only a section arrived in Paris. Besides these, however, the departments annexed from 1792 to 1795 were allowed to send deputations. Many of the original deputies died or were exiled during the Convention, but not all their places were filled by suppléants. Some of those proscribed during the Terror returned after the 9th of Thermidor. Finally, many members were sent away either to the departments or to the armies, on missions which lasted sometimes for a considerable length of time. For all these reasons it is difficult to find out the number of deputies present at any given date, for votes by roll-call were rare. In the Terror the number of those voting averaged only 250. The members of the Convention were drawn from all classes of society, but the most numerous were lawyers. Seventy-five members had sat in the Constituent Assembly, 183 in the Legislative.
According to its own ruling, the Convention elected its president every fortnight. He was eligible for re-election after the lapse of a fortnight. Ordinarily the sessions were held in the morning, but evening sessions were also frequent, often extending late into the night. Sometimes in exceptional circumstances the Convention declared itself in permanent session and sat for several days without interruption. For both legislative and administrative purposes the Convention used committees, with powers more or less widely extended and regulated by successive laws. The most famous of these committees are those of Public Safety, of General Security, of Education (Comité de salut public, Comité de sûreté générale, Comité de l’instruction).
The work of the Convention was immense in all branches of public affairs. To appreciate it without prejudice, one should recall that this assembly saved France from a civil war and invasion, that it founded the system of public education (Muséum, École Polytechnique, École Normale Supérieure, École des Langues orientales, Conservatoire), created institutions of capital importance, like that of the Grand Livre de la Dette publique, and definitely established the social and political gains of the Revolution.
Bibliography.—The Convention published a Procès-verbal of its sessions, which, although lacking the value of those published by assemblies to-day, is an official document of capital importance. Copies of it are rare, however, and it has been too much neglected by historians. See F. A. Aulard, Recueil des actes du comité de Salut Public avec la correspondance officielle des représentants en mission, et le registre du conseil exécutif provisoire (Paris, 1889 et seq.); M. J. Guillaume, Procès-verbaux du comité d’Instruction Publique de la Convention Nationale (Paris, 1891–1904, 5 vols. 4to); F. A. Aulard, Histoire politique de la Révolution française (Paris, 1903); Mortimer-Ternaux, Histoire de la Terreur (1862–1881), a work based on and comprising documents, but written with strong royalist bias; Eugène Despois, Le Vandalisme révolutionnaire (1868), for the scientific work of the Convention. A detailed bibliography of the documents relating to the Convention is given in the Répertoire général des sources manuscrites de l’histoire de Paris pendant la Révolution française, vol. viii. &c. (1908), edited by A. Tueléy under the auspices of the municipality of Paris. For a more summary bibliography see M. Tourneux, Bibliog. de l’histoire de Paris pendant la Révolution française, i. 89-95 (Paris, 1890). (R. A.*)