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Reign of Terror

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Nine emigrés are executed by guillotine, 1793
Nine emigrés are executed by guillotine, 1793
Heads of aristocrats, on pikes
Heads of aristocrats, on pikes

The Reign of Terror, or The Terror (French: la Terreur), is the label given by most historians to a period during the French Revolution after the First French Republic was established.

Several historians consider the "reign of terror" to have begun in 1793, placing the starting date at either 5 September,[1] June[2] or March (birth of the Revolutionary Tribunal), while some consider it to have begun in September 1792 (September Massacres), or even July 1789 (when the first lynchings took place),[3] but there is a consensus that it ended with the fall of Maximilien Robespierre in July 1794.[1][2]

Between June 1793 and the end of July 1794, there were 16,594 official death sentences in France, of which 2,639 were in Paris.[2][4]

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  • ✪ Maximilien Robespierre: The Reign of Terror
  • ✪ The Reign of Terror: Part 1 of 2 (French Revolution: Part 7)
  • ✪ The French Revolution: Crash Course World History #29
  • ✪ REIGN OF TERROR: The French Revolution, Part III
  • ✪ Terror Robespierre and the French Revolution


Maximilien Robespierre Maximilien Robespierre promised to usher a fairer, more representative form of government to the French people. What they got was a reign of terror that saw thousands facing the horror of the guillotine. Among Robespierre’s victims were the king and queen of France. When justice finally came it was a swift as the slice of a blade. In this week’s Biographics, we wade into the terror with Maximilien Robespierre. The Early Robespierre Maximilien Robespierre entered the world on May 6th, 1758. He was born in Arras, France though historians have suspected for centuries that his family originated from Ireland. By the time that Max was born, however, they had been French citizens for many generations. The child was conceived out of wedlock but by the time he was born his parents had married. Like his own father before him, Max’s father was a lawyer, but not a very successful one. This left the family with a constant debt hanging over its head. Things didn’t get any easier for the Robespierre’s when Max’s mother died giving birth to a sibling when he was six years old. Looking after four children was too much for Robespierre senior, so his offspring were divided among his relatives. His mother’s death had a profound effect upon young Max. No longer was he the carefree child of old. Now he was sullen and serious. He also applied himself diligently to his schooling as if drowning his grief in his studies. When he was eleven years of age, young Robespierre was awarded a scholarship to the Lycee-Louis-le-Grand in Paris. He would continue studying there for the next twelve years, emerging at age twenty-three with a law degree. As well as law, he also studied literature, rhetoric and the classics. Life at the prestigious school was very structured. Formerly a Jesuit institution, it was now under the control of the University of Paris. The day began and ended with formal prayers and bible study. The school also had an excellent library, which Robespierre made liberal use of. The most well-known incident arising from Robespierre’s time at the school occurred when he was seventeen. His excellent oratory skills led to him being selected to give a speech before King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette. He perfected his wording and practised his delivery only to be snubbed by the royal couple who never even bothered to get out of their carriage. It was a personal violation that he would never forget. During his time at the Lycee, Robespierre was also exposed to enlightenment philosophy, especially the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau was a powerful advocate for a more democratic form of government coupled with social empowerment. However, Robespierre was not able to read Rousseau in the Lycee’s library. His works were considered to be dangerous and so copies of his famous discourse, published twenty years earlier, had to be smuggled in. In his later life, Robespierre would label his later years at the Lycee as a nursery for republicanism. By the time he had reached his early twenties, Robespierre was a vocal advocate for natural rights. He championed the rights of the underprivileged, speaking at every public opportunity. In fact, he was such an enthusiastic champion of basic human rights that he became physically exhausted to the point of collapse. Robespierre proved to be an unstoppable force of nature. This led to him becoming a familiar and well-known figure in and around his home-town of Arras. In the mid-1780’s he joined the Academy of Arras. His first speech before the Academy was part of a competition and shone a spotlight upon the lack of morality in politics. It didn’t win first prize, but he was rewarded with a large cash prize. This whet his appetite and over the next few years he entered a number of essay and poetry competitions. He also joined an elite literary society known as the Rosatia Club. Since graduating from the Lycee, Robespierre had established a modest law practice. From the start he began taking on cases that were controversial. In 1789, he took on the state in a case that directly challenged the notion of lettres-des-cachet, or imprisonment without trial. During the course of the trial he actually wrote to the king and personally requested his assistance in getting rid of this abuse. On the Brink By the 1780’s France was desperately running out of money. They had spent a lot of money in assisting the Americans in the previous decade. This was compounded by a lavish amount of spending on the part of the monarchy. The appointment of a succession of finance ministers to try to turn around the country’s flagging economy had little effect. By the end of the decade there was a growing call for a meeting of the Estates General, representing the clergy, the nobility and the people. Meanwhile, the King unilaterally enacted a series of laws to fill the royal coffers. This included the raising of taxes and the cutting of spending on essential services. The following day the French parliament condemned the king’s actions, labelling the raising of taxes as illegal. The king’s response was to exile the parliament. This led to growing public protests in Paris. In response to this desperate situation, a new finance minister was put in place. This was Etienne-Charles de Loménie de Brienne. He proposed a new five-year plan which was designed to restore French credit as well as presenting a full accounting of the French government’s finances to whoever wanted to see it. He called for the return of the Parisian parliament after their normal autumn break. The parliament reconvened on November 17, 1787 in the rare presence of the king. After an 8-hour debate the parliament failed to authorise Brienne’s five-year plan. However, King Louis XVI went ahead and authorised the loans needed to restore credit anyway. The king left the chamber but the debate continued. It was resolved that the parliament would officially condemn the king’s action. The following day the leading members of the parliament were exiled by the king. In response to this, provincial parliaments across the country began to refuse to register laws as a protest to the apparently despotic actions of the king. On May 3, 1788 the Parliament of Paris issued a declaration on the fundamental laws of the realm. It included the right of parliament to register new laws, the role of the Estates General and the freedom of all subjects from arbitrary arrest. Despite this, the leaders of the parliament were taken into custody the following day. A few days later the king issued a series of judicial reforms which were designed to cement his absolute power. The reforms effectively neutralized the Parliament of Paris. In response to this outrage, provincial parliaments around the country refused to uphold any of the government’s laws. France was now operating without any formal justice system. France in Revolt The country was approaching widespread public revolt. In an attempt to control the damage, Finance minister Brienne, called for a sitting of the Estates General on May 1, 1789. Meanwhile the French government was completely bankrupt. With no ideas to get the country out of the red, Brienne was forced to resign and former Finance Minister Jacques Necker was put back in office. Necker had the general confidence of the people and managed to recall the parliaments around the country. The Paris parliament announced that the Estates General would meet according to the historic precedent where the representation of the people – the Third Estate – would be numerically less than that of the clergy and the nobility. This was met with widespread public disapproval. Through long negotiations with the king, Necker was able to announce in December, 1788 that the representation of the third estate would be doubled in the Estates General. Meanwhile hundreds of pamphlets had been appearing around Paris with titles such as ‘What is the 3rd Estate?’ Rather than being comprised of peasants, workers or artisans, the Third Estate was made up of lawyers and office holders, the well to do who had enough time to engage in the slow processes involved. The pamphleteers strongly criticized the power of the clergy and the nobility and the lack of representation of the masses. Several leaders arose among the Third Estate, including Maximilien Robespierre. By 1788, Robespierre was positioning himself to play a key role in the coming revolution. He participated in a series of debates regarding the make-up of the Third Estate and the ratio of the three components of the Estates General. He published a pamphlet which addressed local issues in Arras with the view of getting himself elected onto the Third Estate. In the pamphlet he strongly stressed two key ideas; the importance of elected representation and concern for the poor. By now, Robespierre had a clearly defined notion of who the enemy was – the clergy and the nobility. In March, 1789 he was elected as a representative from Arras to the Third Estate. He was chosen to participate in the drafting of a list of grievances. At the same time, he pushed for new initiatives that would give the lower classes access to the political system. Robespierre’s second pamphlet was a foretaste of things to come. It was called ‘the Enemies of the Country Unmasked.’ The Estates General The Estates General met on May 5, 1789 at Versailles. Thirty-year-old Robespierre was one of eight representatives from Arras. In the formal opening of proceedings, he and his fellow Third Estate members refused to bow before the king. That first day, Robespierre began to stand out. He was not an imposing physical figure and his voice was less than inspiring. But he dressed impeccably and had an amazing ability to recall details. He customarily wore a powdered wig and a formal waistcoat. In the first week of the assembly, he formed a breakaway group, known as the Breton Club, which held their own meetings to discuss the abolition of the privileges of the clergy and nobility. On June 7th, Robespierre gave a passionate speech criticizing the excesses of the clergy. It was one of the major motivators for the establishment of the National Assembly three days later. On that date the Third Estate sent messages to the Clergy and Nobility requesting that they agree to common verification by a head count. Receiving no response, they declared themselves the only legitimate representative body renaming themselves the ‘Commons’. The public received this news with great enthusiasm. Eventually the clergy, under much public pressure, joined the National Assembly. On the morning of June 20th, the National Assembly turned up to their meeting place at Versailles to find the gates locked and the entrance manned by guards. They quickly retreated to a nearby tennis court on the grounds of Versailles. The members were enraged at the despotism of the king in shutting out the National Assembly. They unanimously asserted what has become known as the ‘Tennis Court Oath’ – they vowed to remain in session until ‘the constitution of the Realm and public regeneration are established and assured.’ On June 17th, the King opened the Royal Session. His first move was to declare the National Assembly invalid. He then put forward a 35-point plan for reform. His final move was to announce that nothing that the Estates general did was valid without his personal consent. A New National Assembly Once the king had dismissed the assembly, the nobility and clerics filed out. But the members of the National Assembly, comprising the Third Estate and the Clergy, remained where they were. It was declared that they would only leave at the end of bayonets. With the entire country in support of the National Assembly, the king backed down. He ordered the First and Second Estates to join the National Assembly. Still the riots did not end. Louis sent troops to surround the city of Paris. The national assembly now got to work and hammered out a list of demands to put to the king. Robespierre was one of those who presented them, with the first one being that he remove the troops. The king ignored the demand. By the beginning of July, there were 20,000 soldiers around the city. Robespierre responded by making the following public statement . . . No one loves armed missionaries; the first lesson of nature and prudence is to repulse them as necessary. And so it proved to be. On July 11th, the king dismissed finance minister Necker, who was still publicly popular. This led to rage among the people. Two days later rumors spread like wildfire that the French army was about to launch an attack on the people. A mob of citizens reacted to the impending threat by seizing 28,000 rifles from a veteran’s hospital. They now needed gunpowder to use them. They found it at an unused prison in the city called the Bastille. The guards tried to hold of the crowds but then fired into them. Hundreds of people fell down dead. The now out of control mob overpowered and killed the guards and then gained access to the gunpowder. When the King sent soldiers to bring order, they switched loyalties and joined the people. Louis now knew that he could trust no one, not even his protective army. Meanwhile, the National Assembly remained in session. In a desperate attempt to restore order, the king re-appointed Necker. But the finance minister refused to work with the National Assembly and was unable to stem the flow of rebellion. On July 19th the king rode through Paris in a carriage along with key members of the National Assembly, including Robespierre. Rather than crying out ‘Long live the king!’, the people called out ‘Long live liberty! Long live the nation!’ Louis tried to placate the crowds telling them that he had ordered the troops to withdraw. The 150,000-armed citizens who flooded the streets took it as too little too late. Across the country armed mobs were taking to the streets, with many of them seizing control of their city governments. Starving people broke into granaries and the estates of their landlords, helping themselves to food and provisions. While other members of the National Assembly expressed concern at the growing chaos, Robespierre saw insurrection as the natural expression of the people’s will. It was those who opposed revolution who were the real threat. He became fanatical in his resolve to weed out any and all who showed dissent to the apparent will of the people. The People Speak Meanwhile the National Assembly began working on a new constitution. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the citizen was voted on August 26th. The king didn’t respond to the declaration until October, by which time the riot in the streets were ongoing. He expressed concerns at a number of the articles in the declaration. At the same time, he called the elite Flanders Regiment to Versailles to provide extra protection. On the morning of October 5th, a large group of market women marched on Versailles to demand flour and grain. They were met at the gates by Robespierre, who while showing empathy for their situation, advised caution. He managed to negotiate for a single woman to meet the king. Louis agreed to allow the release of two stores of grains. But, again, it was too little too late. By evening a massive crowd had gathered at Versailles, many of them armed. They lingered through the night. Then, early on the morning of October 6th, a group of them managed to break into the Queen’s bedroom. Marie managed to escape but two of her guards were killed. The royal couple were forced to leave the palace and seek refuge in an unused palace in Paris, the Tuileries. They were followed by a crowd of 60,000. The king and queen spent the next few months as virtual prisoners in the palace at Tuileries. Power rested with the National Assembly, among which Robespierre’s influence was ever more prominent. Over the next year, the Assembly worked towards a constitutional monarchy. In June 1791, the king had had enough. Along with his wife, he disguised himself as a servant and fled in a carriage. He left behind a document which clearly denounced the National Assembly. The carriage only got 160 miles out of Paris when it was stopped and the king and queen taken under guard back to Tuileries. Causing Division The night after the king’s attempt to flee the country, Robespierre gave an impassioned speech in which he stated that the deadliest enemies of the French were not the Austrians, who threatened war, but counter revolutionary forces within France itself. The king should also be counted among those enemies of the nation. His speech broke the assembly in two. On the one side were those who clung to the idea of a constitutional monarchy while those who sided with Robespierre were in favor of republicanism. Robespierre began to call for the public trial of the king. On July 17th, a group of petitioners who supported the call were confronted by National Guardsmen. In the melee that followed fifty of them were killed. The French constitution was completed in September, 1791, effectively putting and end to the work of the assembly. Robespierre returned to Arras, where he was welcomed as a hero of the people. Meanwhile the king had declared war on Austria. Robespierre spoke out against the war, stating that it was not in the interests of the people and he feared that it would galvanize them around the king and thus destroy the revolution. During the spring of 1792, there were vocal calls for the creation of a French Republic. Robespierre, however, had changed his tune and was now in favour of a constitutional monarchy. However, when a large protest outside the Tuileries on the third anniversary of the tennis court oath turned nasty, he found himself in a stand-off with the king’s key enforcer, General Lafayette, who stood ready to put down the marchers forcibly. Protests at the Tuileries continued, culminating in the king and queen being forced to flee and seek protection from the National Assembly. More than a thousand people were killed that night. In its wake, the monarchy was officially dissolved and the royal family were taken into custody as prisoners of the state. Ominous Power Following these events Robespierre was elected to the Insurrection Commune, which was the governing body which now kept order in Paris. He oversaw a period of interrogation of royalists for a raft of suspected crimes against the state. Many of these royalist prisoners were pulled from their prison cells by mobs and massacred. Others were simply handed to vengeful mobs after mock trials. In the first week of September, 1792 around 1,400 people were killed by such mobs. Robespierre insisted that the Commune also investigate counter-revolutionary activities. Soon it had condemned 28 people to death by beheading. In the midst of this carnage, elections were held for a new constitutional assembly. Robespierre was elected as a first deputy. Still, there were those within the Assembly who objected to his violent methods of enforcement. Through force of argument he had them side-lined, winning the day with his conviction that the end justified the means, no matter how violent that means became. The trial of the king began on December 26, 1792. Three weeks later he was found unanimously guilty. Robespierre himself summed up the will of the times . . . “It is with regret that I must pronounce the fatal truth; the king must die so that the country may live!” France executed its king of January 21st, 1793. Robespierre did not attend the occasion. The Reign of Terror On July 20th, 1793, Robespierre was elected to the Committee of Public Safety, which had been established a few months earlier. The Committee began to take action against federalist revolutionists. Mass executions were ordered in Lyons, which was a hotbed of royalist sympathy. Revolts were breaking out all over, leading the Convention to declare terror ‘the order of the day’. On September 17th, they passed laws allowing them to put to death anyone who was implicated as a supporter of tyranny. Caught up in the net of the reign of terror was Marie Antoinette. After a sham trial, she was sent to the guillotine on October 16, 1793. Robespierre now set his sights on his former National Assembly opposers, the Girondists. They were duly tried and found guilty and sent to the guillotine. Controlling the executions was Robespierre who famously declared . . . To punish the oppressors of humanity is clemency; to forgive them is barbarity. Those within the assembly who opposed Robespierre found themselves facing the guillotine themselves. Before long he had absolute power within the Committee. He had become a virtual dictator, literally with the power of life or death within his hands. Along with his immense power, Robespierre grew increasingly paranoid. There was an attempt on his life in May, 1793. The following month he was elected President of the Convention. He immediately enacted changes to allow him to condemn even more people to death. Trials were reduced to mere condemnations and all accused were denied legal representation. He even created a new category of criminal called ‘enemy of the people’. This blanket term could cover anything from serving sour wine to sending a letter to England, yet the punishment was always the same – death by guillotine. Justice of the Blade By this time Robespierre had gone too far. The people were beginning to reject his despotic rule of terror. His political enemies orchestrated a falsified letter which appeared to implicate Robespierre in an attempted coup d'etat. He defended himself against charges of dictatorship in a two-hour speech, in the process warning against a conspiracy that was being hatched against the Republic. But it was to no avail. The next day he was arrested only to be freed shortly thereafter by troops from the Paris Commune. Robespierre and his defenders found themselves holed up at the Hotel de Ville. They were declared outlaws by the Convention, which meant that when caught they could be put to death immediately. When the Convention forces closed in on the hotel, Robespierre and those who were with him all tried to commit suicide. Some of them succeeded but Robespierre’s attempt to blow his brains out only managed to shatter his lower jaw. With blood pouring from his face, Robespierre was laid on a table in the room of the Committee for Public Safety before being transferred to the cell that had housed Marie Antoinette prior to her date with the guillotine. The end came for Robespierre on July 28th, 1794 when he became the final victim of his reign of terror. Seconds before the blade fell, the executioner ripped off the bandage that was keeping his jaw together, causing him to let out an almighty scream. It was soon silenced by the deadly blade, finally ending the carnage that Robespierre’s warped view of justice had wrought.


Barère and Robespierre glorify "terror"

There was a sense of emergency among leading politicians in France in the summer of 1793 between the widespread civil war and counter-revolution. Bertrand Barère exclaimed on 5 September 1793 in the Convention: "Let's make terror the order of the day!"[5][6] They were determined to avoid street violence such as the September Massacres of 1792 by taking violence into their own hands as an instrument of government.[4]

Robespierre in February 1794 in a speech explained the necessity of terror:

If the basis of popular government in peacetime is virtue, the basis of popular government during a revolution is both virtue and terror; virtue, without which terror is baneful; terror, without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing more than speedy, severe and inflexible justice; it is thus an emanation of virtue; it is less a principle in itself, than a consequence of the general principle of democracy, applied to the most pressing needs of the patrie [homeland, fatherland].[7][4]

Some historians argue that such terror was a necessary reaction to the circumstances.[8] Others suggest there were additional causes, including ideological[9] and emotional.[10]

Influences on the Terror

Enlightenment Thought

Enlightenment thought emphasized the importance of rational thinking and began challenging legal and moral foundations of society, providing the leaders of the Terror with new ideas about the role and structure of government.[11] Rousseau's Social Contract argued that each person was born with rights, and they would come together to form a government that would then protect those rights. Under the social contract, the government was required to act for the general will, which represented the interests of everyone rather than a few factions.[12] Drawing from the idea of a general will, Robespierre felt that the French Revolution could result in a Republic built for the general will but only once those who fought this ideal were expelled.[13] [14] Those who resisted the government were deemed "tyrants" fighting against the virtue and honor of the general will. The leaders felt their ideal version of government was threatened from the inside and outside of France, and terror was the only way to preserve the dignity of the Republic created from French Revolution.[15]

Robespierre's ideology was not strictly derived from Rousseau. The writings of another Enlightenment thinker of the time, Baron de Montesquieu, greatly influenced Robespierre. One of Montesquieu’s writings, The Spirit of the Laws, defines a core principle of a democratic government: virtue. He describes it as "the love of laws and of our country."[16] In Robespierre’s speech to the National Convention on 5 February 1794, On Political Morality, he talks about virtue being the "fundamental principle of popular or democratic government."[17] This was, in fact, the same virtue defined by Montesquieu almost 50 years earlier. Robespierre believed that the virtue needed for any democratic government was extremely lacking in the French people. As a result, he decided to weed out those he believed could never possess this virtue. The result was a continual push towards Terror. The Convention used this as justification for the course of action to "crush the enemies of the revolution, ... let the laws be executed, … and let liberty be saved."[18]

These members of the Enlightenment movement greatly influenced revolutionary leaders; however, cautions from other Enlightenment thinkers were blatantly ignored. Voltaire’s warnings were often overlooked, though some of his ideas were used for justification of the Revolution and the start of the Terror. He protested against Catholic Dogmas and the ways of Christianity stating, "of all religions, the Christian should of course inspire the most toleration, but till now the Christians have been the most intolerant of all men."[19] These criticisms were often used by Robespierre and other leaders as justification for their anti-religious reforms. Voltaire also laid down some warnings. In his Philosophical Dictionary, he states, "we are all steeped in weakness and error; let us forgive each other our follies; that is the first law of nature" and "every individual who persecutes a man, his brother, because he is not of his opinion, is a monster."[20] The importance of forgiveness and understanding the failings of the human condition were obviously lost on Robespierre and other leaders as they pursued Terror.

Threats of Foreign Invasion

After the beginning of the French Revolution, also known as the revolution de France , the surrounding monarchies did not show great hostility towards the rebellion.[21] Though mostly ignored, Louis XVI was later able to find support in Leopold II of Austria (Marie Antionette’s brother) and Frederick William II of Prussia. On 27 August 1791, these foreign leaders made the Pillnitz Declaration saying they would restore the French monarch if other European rulers joined. In response to what they viewed to be the meddling of foreign powers, France declared war on 20 April 1792.[22] However, at this point, the war was only Prussia and Austria against France. France began this war with a large series of defeats which set a precedent of fear of invasion in the people that would last throughout the war. Massive reforms of military institutions, while very effective in the long run, presented the initial problems of inexperienced forces and leaders of questionable political loyalty.[23] In the time it took for officers of merit to use their new freedoms to climb the chain of command, France suffered. Many of the early battles were definitive losses for the French.[24] There was the constant threat of the Austro-Prussian forces which were advancing easily toward the capital, threatening to destroy Paris if the monarch was harmed.[25] This series of defeats, coupled with militant uprisings and protests within the borders of France pushed the government to resort to drastic measures to ensure the loyalty of every citizen to not only France but more importantly to the Revolution.

While this series of losses was eventually broken, the reality of what might have happened if they persisted hung over France. The tide would not turn from them until September of 1792 when the French won a critical victory at Valmy preventing the Austro-Prussian invasion.[26] While the French military had stabilized and was producing victories by the time the Reign of Terror officially began, the pressure to succeed in this international struggle acted as justification for the government to pursue its tyrannical actions. It was not until after the execution of Louis XVI and the annexation of the Rhineland that the other monarchies began to feel threatened enough to form the First Coalition.[27] The Coalition, consisting of Russia, Austria, Prussia, Spain, Holland, and Sardinia, began attacking France from all directions besieging and capturing ports and retaking ground lost to France.[28] With so many similarities to the first days of the Revolutionary Wars, the French government with threats on all sides, unification of the country became a top priority.[29] As the war continued and the Reign of Terror began, leaders saw a correlation between using terror and achieving victory. Well phrased by Albert Soboul, "terror, at first an improvised response to defeat, once organized became an instrument of victory."[30] The threat of defeat and foreign invasion may have helped spur the origins of the terror, but the timely success of the Terror with French victories added justification to its growth and continuation.

Popular Pressure

During the Reign of Terror, the sans-culottes and the Hébertists put pressure on the National Convention delegates and contributed to the overall instability of France. The National Convention was bitterly split between the Montagnards and the Girondins. The Girondins were more conservative leaders of the National Convention, while the Montagnards supported radical violence and pressures of the lower classes.[31] Once the Montagnards gained control of the National Convention, they began demanding radical measures. Moreover, the sans-culottes, the scrappy, urban workers of France, agitated leaders to inflict punishments on those who opposed the interests of the poor. The sans-culottes’ violent demonstrations pushing their demands, created constant pressure for the Montagnards to enact reform.[32] The sans-culottes fed the frenzy of instability and chaos by utilizing popular pressure during the Revolution. For example, the sans-culottes sent letters and petitions to the Committee of Public Safety urging them to protect their interests and rights with measures such as taxation of foodstuffs that favored workers over the rich. They advocated for arrests of those deemed to oppose reforms against those with privilege, and the more militant members would advocate pillage in order to achieve the desired equality.[33] The resulting instability caused problems that made forming the new Republic and achieving full political support even more critical.

Religious Upheaval

The Reign of Terror was characterized by a dramatic rejection of long-held religious authority, its hierarchical structure, and the corrupt and intolerant influence of the aristocracy and clergy. Religious elements that long stood as symbols of stability for the French people, were replaced by reason and scientific thought.[34][35] The radical revolutionaries and their supporters desired a cultural revolution that would rid the French state of all Christian influence.[36] This process began with the fall of the monarchy, an event that effectively defrocked the State of its sanctification by the clergy via the doctrine of Divine Right and ushered in an era of reason.[37]

Many long-held rights and powers were stripped from the Church and given to the State. In 1789, church lands were expropriated and priests killed and forced to leave France.[38] A Festival of Reason was held in the Notre Dame Cathedral, which was renamed "The Temple of Reason", and the old traditional calendar was replaced with a new revolutionary one.[39] The leaders of the Terror tried to address the call for these radical, revolutionary aspirations, while at the same time trying to maintain tight control on the de-Christianization movement that was threatening to the clear majority of the still devoted Catholic population of France. The tension sparked by these conflicting objectives laid a foundation for the "justified" use of terror to achieve revolutionary ideals and rid France of the religiosity that revolutionaries believed was standing in the way.

Major events during the Terror

On 10 March 1793 the National Convention created the Revolutionary Tribunal. Among those charged by the tribunal, about a half were acquitted (though the number dropped to about a quarter after the enactment of the Law of 22 Prairial). In March rebellion broke out in the Vendée in response to mass conscription, which developed into a civil war that lasted until after the Terror.

On 6 April the Committee of Public Safety was created, which gradually became the de facto war-time government.[40] The Committee oversaw the Reign of Terror. "Some 17,000 people were killed in the Reign of Terror, and as many as 10,000 more died in prison or without trial. What caused the French Revolutionary government to turn against its own people? During the Reign of Terror, at least 300,000 suspects were arrested; 17,000 were officially executed, and perhaps 10,000 died in prison or without trial."[citation needed]

On 2 June, the Parisian sans-culottes surrounded the National Convention, calling for administrative and political purges, a low fixed price for bread, and a limitation of the electoral franchise to sans-culottes alone. With the backing of the national guard, they persuaded the convention to arrest 29 Girondist leaders.[41] In reaction to the imprisonment of the Girondin deputies, some thirteen departments started the Federalist revolts against the National Convention in Paris, which were ultimately crushed.

On 24 June, the convention adopted the first republican constitution of France, the French Constitution of 1793. It was ratified by public referendum, but never put into force.

On 13 July the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat – a Jacobin leader and journalist – resulted in a further increase in Jacobin political influence. Georges Danton, the leader of the August 1792 uprising against the king, was removed from the committee. On 27 July 1793, Robespierre became part of the Committee of Public Safety.[42]

On 23 August, the National Convention decreed the levée en masse, "The young men shall fight; the married man shall forge arms and transport provisions; the women shall make tents and clothes and shall serve in the hospitals; the children shall turn all lint into linen; the old men shall betake themselves to the public square in order to arouse the courage of the warriors and preach hatred of kings and the unity of the Republic."

The execution of the Girondins
The execution of the Girondins

On 9 September, the convention established paramilitary forces, the "revolutionary armies", to force farmers to surrender grain demanded by the government. On 17 September, the Law of Suspects was passed, which authorized the imprisonment of vaguely defined "suspects". This created a mass overflow in the prison systems. On 29 September, the convention extended price fixing from grain and bread to other essential goods, and also fixed wages.

On 10 October, the Convention decreed that "the provisional government shall be revolutionary until peace." On 24 October, the French Republican Calendar was enacted. The trial of the Girondins started on the same day and they were executed on 31 October.

Anti-clerical sentiments increased during 1793 and a campaign of dechristianization occurred. On 10 November (20 Brumaire Year II of the French Republican Calendar), the Hébertists organized a Festival of Reason.

The execution of Olympe de Gouges, feminist writer close to the Girondins
The execution of Olympe de Gouges, feminist writer close to the Girondins

On 14 Frimaire (5 December 1793) was passed the Law of Frimaire, which gave the central government more control over the actions of the representatives on mission.

On 16 Pluviôse (4 February 1794), the National Convention decreed that slavery be abolished in all of France and French colonies.

On 8 and 13 Ventôse (26 February and 3 March), Saint-Just proposed decrees to confiscate the property of exiles and opponents of the revolution, known as the Ventôse Decrees.

By the end of 1793, two major factions had emerged, both threatening the Revolutionary Government: the Hébertists, who called for an intensification of the Terror and threatened insurrection, and the Dantonists, led by Georges Danton, who demanded moderation and clemency. The Committee of Public Safety took actions against both. The major Hébertists were tried before the Revolutionary Tribunal and executed on 24 March. The Dantonists were arrested on 30 March, tried on 3 to 5 April and executed on 5 April.

On 20 Prairial (8 June) was celebrated across the country the Festival of the Supreme Being, which was part of the Cult of the Supreme Being, a deist national religion. On 22 Prairial (10 June), the National Convention passed a law proposed by Georges Couthon, known as the Law of 22 Prairial, which simplified the judicial process and greatly accelerated the work of the Revolutionary Tribunal. With the enactment of the law, the number of executions greatly increased, and the period from this time to the Thermidorian Reaction became known as "The Grand Terror".

On 8 Messidor (26 June), the French army won the Battle of Fleurus, which marked a turning point in France's military campaign and undermined the necessity of wartime measures and the legitimacy of the Revolutionary Government.

Thermidorian Reaction

The execution of Maximilien Robespierre
The execution of Maximilien Robespierre

The fall of Robespierre was brought about by a combination of those who wanted more power for the Committee of Public Safety (and a more radical policy than he was willing to allow) and the moderates who completely opposed the revolutionary government. They had, between them, made the Law of 22 Prairial one of the charges against him, so that, after his fall, to advocate terror would be seen as adopting the policy of a convicted enemy of the republic, putting the advocate's own head at risk. Between his arrest and his execution, Robespierre may have tried to commit suicide by shooting himself, although the bullet wound he sustained, whatever its origin, only shattered his jaw. Alternatively, he may have been shot by the gendarme Merda. The great confusion that arose during the storming of the municipal Hall of Paris, where Robespierre and his friends had found refuge, makes it impossible to be sure of the wound's origin. In any case, Robespierre was guillotined the next day.[43]

The reign of the standing Committee of Public Safety was ended. New members were appointed the day after Robespierre's execution, and limits on terms of office were fixed (a quarter of the committee retired every three months). The Committee's powers were gradually eroded.

See also

Works cited

"Battle of Valmy, (20 September 1792)." Weapons and Warfare. 9 April 2018. Accessed 30 October 2018.

Bloy, Marjorie. "The First Coalition 1793-1797." A Web of English History. Accessed 21 October 2018.

Leopold, II, and Frederick William. "The Declaration of Pillnitz (1791)." French Revolution. 27 February 2018. Accessed 26 October 2018.

McLetchie, Scott. "Maximilien Robespierre, Master of the Terror." Maximilien Robespierre, Master of the Terror. Accessed 23 October 2018.

Montesquieu. "Modern History Sourcebook: Montesquieu: The Spirit of the Laws, 1748." Internet History Sourcebooks. Accessed 23 October 2018.

Ozouf, Mona. "War and Terror in French Revolutionary Discourse (1792-1794)." The Journal of Modern History 56, no. 4 (1984): 580-97.

Popkin, Jeremy D. A Short History of the French Revolution. 6th ed. London: Routledge, 2016.

"Robespierre, "On Political Morality"," Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, accessed 19 October 2018,

Rothenberg, Gunther E. "The Origins, Causes, and Extension of the Wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon." The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 18 , no. 4 (1988): 771-93. doi:10.2307/204824.

""Terror Is the Order of the Day"," Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, accessed 26 October 2018,

Voltaire. "Voltaire, Selections from the Philosophical Dictionary." Omeka RSS. Accessed 23 October 2018.


  1. ^ a b "Reign of Terror". Encyclopædia Britannica (2015). Retrieved 19 April 2017.
  2. ^ a b c Linton, Marisa. "The Terror in the French Revolution" (PDF). Kingston University. Archived from the original (PDF) on 17 January 2012. Retrieved 2 December 2011.
  3. ^ The dates July 1789, September 1792, March 1793 as starting date for the Reign of Terror (French: la Terreur) are given in the French Wikipedia, referring to source: Jean-Clément Martin, La Terreur, part maudite de la Révolution ('The Terror, the cursed part of the Revolution'), coll. Découvertes Gallimard (n° 566), Paris: Gallimard, 2010, p. 14–15.
  4. ^ a b c Linton, Marisa (August 2006). "Robespierre and the terror: Marisa Linton reviews the life and career of one of the most vilified men in history". History Today. 8 (56): 23. Retrieved 28 April 2017.
  5. ^ Noah Shusterman – The French Revolution. Faith, Desire, and Politics. Routledge, London and New York, 2014. Chapter 7 (p. 175–203): The federalist revolt, the Vendée, and the start of the Terror (summer–fall 1793).
  6. ^ (in French) '30 août 1793 – La terreur à l'ordre du jour!' Website Vendéens & Chouans. Retrieved 6 July 2017.
  7. ^ Halsall, Paul (1997). "Maximilien Robespierre: On the Principles of Political Morality, February 1794". Fordham University. Retrieved 5 March 2016.
  8. ^ Mathiez, Albert. La Révolution Française. Librairie Armand Colin. ISBN 978-7-100-07058-4.
  9. ^ Furet, Francois. A Deep-rooted Ideology as Well as Circumstance, p. 224.
  10. ^ Tackett, Timothy (2015-02-23). The Coming of the Terror in the French Revolution. Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press. ISBN 0674736559.
  11. ^ William F. Church, "Introduction", in The Influence of the Enlightenment on the French Revolution, ed. William F. Church (Boston: D.C. Heath and Company, 1964), vii.
  12. ^ Jean-Jacques Rousseau, "Ideal Empires and Republics. Rousseau's Social Contract, More's Utopia, Bacon's New Atlantis, Campanella's City of the Sun with an Introduction by Charles M. Andrews", (Washington: M. Walter Dunne, 1901), 92–94, Online Library of Liberty,
  13. ^ Henri Peyre, "The Influence of Eighteenth Century Ideas on the French Revolution", in The Influence of the Enlightenment on the French Revolution, ed. William F. Church (Boston: D.C. Heath and Company, 1964), 99-101.
  14. ^ Maximilien Robespierre, "Justification of the Use of Terror", 28 July 1794, Modern History Sourcebook, Fordham University, accessed 1 May 2018,
  15. ^ Maximilien Robespierre, "Justification of the Use of Terror", 28 July 1794, Modern History Sourcebook, Fordham University, accessed 1 May 2018,
  16. ^ Montesquieu. "Modern History Sourcebook: Montesquieu: The Spirit of the Laws, 1748." Internet History Sourcebooks.
  17. ^ Robespierre, "On Political Morality", Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.
  18. ^ "Terror Is the Order of the Day", Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, accessed 26 October 2018,
  19. ^ Voltaire. "Voltaire, Selections from the Philosophical Dictionary." Omeka RSS.
  20. ^ Ibid.
  21. ^ Jeremy D. Popkin. A Short History of the French Revolution. 6th ed. London: Routledge, 2016. 54.
  22. ^ Gunther E. Rothenberg "The Origins, Causes, and Extension of the Wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon." The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 18, no. 4 (1988): 771-93. doi:10.2307/204824.
  23. ^ Jeremy D. Popkin. A Short History of the French Revolution, 55.
  24. ^ "Battle of Valmy, (20 September 1792)." Weapons and Warfare. 9 April 2018. Accessed 30 October 2018.
  25. ^ Leopold II, and Frederick William. "The Declaration of Pillnitz (1791)." French Revolution. 27 February 2018. Accessed 26 October 2018.
  26. ^ Jermemy D. Popkin. A Short History of the French Revolution, 59.
  27. ^ Marjorie Bloy. "The First Coalition 1793-1797." A Web of English History.
  28. ^ Ibid.
  29. ^ Jeremy D. Popkin. A Short History of the French Revolution, 64.
  30. ^ Soboul cited in Mona Ozouf. "War and Terror in French Revolutionary Discourse (1792-1794)." The Journal of Modern History 56, no. 4 (1984): 580-97.
  31. ^ Jeremy D. Popkin, A Short History of the French Revolution, (London: Routledge, 2016), 64.
  32. ^ "Terror, Vengeance, and Martyrdom in the French Revolution: THE CASE OF THE SHADES - Oxford Scholarship", 2014, accessed 1 May 2018, 2014.
  33. ^ Albert Soboul, The Sans-culottes; the Popular Movement and Revolutionary Government, 1793–1794, (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1972), 5–17.
  34. ^ Edmond Pressense, John Lacroix, Religion and the reign of terror, or, The church during the French revolution (World constitutions illustrated), (New York : Cincinnati: Carlton & Lanahan ; Hitchcock & Walden, 1869).
  35. ^ Emmet Kennedy. A Cultural History of the French Revolution. (Yale University Press, 1989), 343. ISBN 9780300044263.
  36. ^ Lynn Hunt, Politics, Culture and Class in the French Revolution; chp 3, "The Imagery of Radicalism", 1984, 87–119.
  37. ^ Jeremy D. Popkin, A Short History of the French Revolution, (London: Routledge, 2016), 72–73.
  38. ^ Lynn Hunt, Politics, Culture and Class in the French Revolution; chp 3, "The Imagery of Radicalism", 1984, 87–119.
  39. ^ Jeremy D. Popkin, A Short History of the French Revolution, (London: Routledge, 2016), 72–73.
  40. ^ Mantel, Hilary (6 August 2009). "He Roared". London Review of Books. 3 (15): 3–6. Retrieved 16 January 2010.
  41. ^ Jones, Peter. The French Revolution 1787–1804. Pearson Education, 2003, p. 57.
  42. ^ "Maximilien Robespierre | Biography, Facts, & Execution". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2017-09-19.
  43. ^ Merriman, John (2004). "Thermidor" (2nd ed.). A history of modern Europe: from the Renaissance to the present, p 507. W.W. Norton & Company Ltd. ISBN 0-393-92495-5

Further reading

Primary sources

Secondary sources


  • Kafker, Frank, James M. Lauz, and Darline Gay Levy (2002). The French Revolution: Conflicting Interpretations. Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing Company.
  • Rudé, George (1976). Robespierre: Portrait of a Revolutionary Democrat. New York: Viking Press. ISBN 0-670-60128-4. A Marxist political portrait of Robespierre, examining his changing image among historians and the different aspects of Robespierre as an 'ideologue', as a political democrat, as a social democrat, as a practitioner of revolution, as a politician and as a popular leader/leader of revolution, it also touches on his legacy for the future revolutionary leaders Vladimir Lenin and Mao Zedong.

External links

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