- Political clubs can be defined as groups formed by like-minded people who meet socially, outside of the legislatures and formal political bodies, to discuss and debate political issues and events.
- Political clubs began informally as social gatherings but evolved over time to the point that they functioned as de facto political parties, coming up with agendas and influencing decisions in the legislature.
- The Breton Club was the first political club. Its members met at Versailles during the Estates General.
- It evolved into the Jacobin Club after moving to Paris in late 1789. Other clubs active during the first years of the revolution included the Society of 1789 (aristocratic and wealthy constitutional monarchists) and the Cordeliers (a populist and democratic group based in working-class Paris).
- The Jacobin Club was a united front in support of a constitutional monarchy until the club split in July 1791. Its constitutional monarchists left to form the Feuillants, while those who remained fell under the influence of republicans like Brissot and Robespierre.
Political clubs played an integral part in the French Revolution from late 1789. The clubs began as social events but were different from the salons, circles and literary associations of the 1780s. Most political clubs were formed informally but with time they were modified and became more organised and formalised. Most clubs came up with their own customs, procedures and membership requirements. All clubs, however, acquired a regular meeting place and members attended there regularly. Some clubs behaved in a similar manner to modern-day political parties. Their members reviewed the day’s developments, debated issues, set agendas, decided policy and formulated strategies for the future. A number of deputies in the national legislature were also members of political clubs. The regular meetings with their clubs often influenced their decision-making when it came to laws. The most famous of all political clubs, the Jacobins, shaped the course of the revolution between 1792 and 1794.
The Breton Club, the French Revolution’s first significant political club, began as an informal gathering of 44 Third Estate deputies at a Versailles café, before and after sessions of the Estates General. Initially, most of these deputies were from Brittany, hence the name of the club. Their meetings involved discussions on provincial issues as well as the proceedings at the Estates General. The Bretons had opened their meetings to deputies from other regions, as well as a few liberal aristocrats by early June. Influential figures like Honoré Mirabeau, Emmanuel Sieyès, Isaac Le Chapelier, Antoine Barnave, Isaac Le Chapelier and Maximilien Robespierre attended Breton Club meetings. Some liberal political reforms supported by the members of the Breton Club were: voting by head, the adoption of a Constitution and the formation of a National Assembly. The Breton Club gathered before each session of the Estates General in order to discuss strategy during the events of June 1789.
Some members left the Breton Club in July, following the formation of the National Assembly, especially members not from Brittany as they felt that their mission was accomplished. The club was again in the hands of deputies from Brittany by the time the Estates General was dissolved. Following the march of Parisians on Versailles in early October 1789, the king and the National Constituent Assembly move to Paris. Breton Club deputies began meeting in the capital in a Dominican monastery on the Rue Saint-Honoré, not far from the Tuileries. They were given the title Société des Amis de la Constitution (‘Society of the Friends of the Constitution’). The popular press referred to them as the Jacobins, however, meaning a local colloquialism for Dominican monks.
The Jacobin Club evolved and expanded over the next few months. Part of this evolution was its adoption of a new set of rules written by Antoine Barnave in February 1790 and a manifesto outlining the club’s purpose. Only deputies in the Assembly were allowed to join the Jacobin Club at first but by the spring of 1790 dozens of individuals outside the legislature were being invited to join. All those who joined had to be ‘active members’ and pay an annual fee of 24 livres, which ensure that Jacobin membership was only accessible to the middle and upper classes. Around 1,500 members had joined by May 1790. In October, the Jacobins opened their meetings to members of the public allowing them to sit in the galleries and listen to speeches and debates. An agenda was set up prior to the club meetings that were held four times a week. The agenda addressed constitutional issues and questions currently before the National Constituent Assembly. Through 1790 and early 1791, the Jacobins remained faithful to the constitution and constitutional monarchy, though a minority held different views.
As the revolution continued, new clubs emerged on the right of the political spectrum. A group of constitutional monarchists, frustrated by growing radicalism, abandoned the Jacobins to form their own group called the Society of 1789, formed in April 1790. The Society of 1789 had around 300 members, including 40 to 50 deputies from the National Constituent Assembly. Membership was exclusive and individual members were either politically powerful or extremely rich. Lafayette, Honoré Mirabeau, Jean-Sylvain Bailly, Emmanuel Sieyès, the Marquis de Condorcet and Isaac Le Chapelier were the most notable members of the Society of 1789. Meetings of the Society were different from social gatherings of the Parisian elite, with fine dining followed by brandy and wine, served on a balcony overlooking the Palais Royal. Soon there was resentment by the two rival factions. The Jacobins considered the Society of 1789 a remnant of the privilege and elitism of the Ancien Régime.
Another group to emerge during this period was the Society of the Friends of the Rights of Man and Citizen (Société des Amis des droits de l’homme et du citoyen ). It started as a group of representatives from the Cordeliers district, an unruly working class area near the left bank of the River Seine. Their meetings started in April 1790 and were quickly dubbed the Society of Cordeliers. The Cordeliers were the most radical of the political clubs during 1790 and 1791. They were even more radical than the Jacobins. It attracted many people as membership was open to all and membership fees were less than the Jacobins (one livre and four sous per annum). The main agendas in the Cordeliers’ meetings were their grievances and criticisms. They focused on protecting individual rights and freedoms. “Liberty, equality, fraternity” was the club’s slogan. Their policies involved the working-class’ interests and were alert to abuses and corruption. The Cordeliers also criticised the concept of ‘active’ and ‘passive’ citizens.
The political clubs of Paris were affected by the flight to Varennes that occurred in June 1791. There was a rift that was opened inside the Jacobin Club between the Republicans and Monarchiens (constitutional monarchists) due to the king’s actions. The Monarchiens abandoned the Jacobins in the summer of 1791 and established a new group called the Feuillants. They aligned themselves with the members of the Society of 1789, which by this time had fallen away. The Feuillants set out to fulfil their objective of creating a Jacobin-style club to attract political moderates, provide an antidote to radicalism and influence decisions made in the National Constituent Assembly. They failed to garner support from the streets of Paris, however. The remaining Jacobins also suffered from low numbers and by November 1791 their membership had halved to just 1,200. Their numbers recovered through 1792 as the club came under the influence of prominent Republicans like Jacques Brissot and Maximilien Robespierre.