Who Were the Jacobins? - Definition & History

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  • 0:04 Who Were the Jacobins
  • 1:38 The French Revolution…
  • 3:02 The Jacobins vs. the Girondins
  • 4:33 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

Expert Contributor
Lesley Chapel

Lesley has taught American and World History at the university level for the past seven years. She has a Master's degree in History.

In this lesson, we'll learn about a French political group called the Jacobins. We'll highlight their political viewpoint and examine the role they played in the French Revolution.

Who Were the Jacobins?

The French Revolution was one of the those crazy events in history that, if it weren't so tragic and horrific, would almost be funny. The masses whipped themselves up into a frenzy, a true hysteria that enabled them to justify the beheading of thousands. In the end, some who had endorsed the execution of thousands were themselves executed. The most notable example of this change-of-events involved the Jacobin leader, Maximilien Robespierre, but we'll discuss him in a moment.

So who were the Jacobins? The Jacobins were members of a French republican organization called the Jacobin Club. The term 'republican' has a different meaning here than being a member of the modern American Republican Party; when we say 'republican' we mean that they favored a republican form of government, as opposed to a monarchy. The Jacobins were left-wing revolutionaries who aimed to end the reign of King Louis XVI and establish a French republic in which political authority came from the people. The Jacobins were the most famous and radical political faction involved in the French Revolution.

So, why the name? The group's name came from the location where they began meeting, the Rue Saint-Jacques (or Jacob) in Paris. When the French Revolution first broke out, deputies (or elected officials) from the group began meeting at this site in order to plot a revolution. The Jacobins emerged as the most radical of the many political factions in France. They supported the beheading of King Louis XVI, whereas other groups favored exiling or imprisoning him.

The French Revolution in a Nutshell

The French Revolution took place between 1789 and 1799. The French had fought and lost to the British and the Americans in the French and Indian War and later supported the American Colonies in the Revolutionary War. As a result of these endeavors, France was deeply in debt. In order to refill its treasury, heavy taxes were levied upon the French people, with the lower classes among the most burdened.

An assembly of local officials was called to meet and find ways to avert a crisis. However, this assembly splintered into a revolutionary body called the National Assembly. The National Assembly consolidated its power, dethroned King Louis XVI, and turned France into a republic. Throughout this process, the Jacobins were a guiding political force. At the hands of the Jacobins, King Louis XVI and his young wife Marie Antoinette were beheaded in 1793.

Since we're talking about beheadings, it is worth mentioning the device used to behead people during the French Revolution. It was called a guillotine and was a fairly simple device consisting of a weighted blade that fell, resulting in decapitation. The guillotine was popularized by a French doctor named Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, hence its name. The guillotine was intended to be a swift and humane method of execution, as opposed to hanging or other means.

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Additional Activities

Writing About the Jacobins:

Writing Prompt 1:

Pretend that you are Maximilien Robespierre's therapist in 1793-1794. Make a list of his positive personality traits and his negative ones. Then, write a summary of your most recent session with him in which he divulged his feelings and plans for the Reign of Terror. What were his thoughts on the current condition of France, and what were his hopes for its future direction?

Letter Prompt 1:

Imagine that you just joined the Jacobin Club. You have a friend who is living abroad, and you compose a letter to him or her describing who the Jacobins are and why you decided to join their cause. Be sure to also explain how the Jacobins got their name.

Letter Prompt 2:

Pretend that you are a Girondin, but your best friend is a Jacobin. Write a letter to your friend explaining why you are a Girondin and where you think the Jacobins have gone wrong.

Speech Prompt 1:

Pretend that you are a Jacobin and you've been swept up in the French revolutionary fervor. Write a fiery speech in which you denounce King Louis XVI and explain what you think should be done to him.

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