The Reign of Terror (5 September 1793 – 28 July 1794), also known simply as The Terror (French: la Terreur), was a period of violence that occurred after the onset of the French Revolution, incited by conflict between rival political factions, the Girondins and the Jacobins, and marked by mass executions of "enemies of the revolution". The death toll ranged in the tens of thousands, with 16,594 executed by guillotine (
2,639 in Paris),
and another 25,000 in
summary executions across . France
The guillotine (called the "National Razor") became the symbol of the revolutionary cause, strengthened by a string of executions: King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, the Girondins, Philippe Égalité (Louis Philippe II, Duke of Orléans), and Madame Roland, and others such as pioneering chemist Antoine Lavoisier, lost their lives under its blade. During 1794, revolutionary
was beset with conspiracies by internal and foreign enemies. Within France , the
revolution was opposed by the French nobility, which had lost its inherited privileges.
The reactionary Roman Catholic Church did everything to discredit the
Revolution, which had turned the clergy into employees of the state and
required they take an oath of loyalty to the nation (through the Civil
Constitution of the Clergy). In addition, the France was engaged in a
series of wars with neighboring powers intent on crushing the revolution to
prevent its spread. First French
The extension of civil war and the advance of foreign armies on national territory produced a political crisis and increased the rivalry between the Girondins and the more radical Jacobins. The latter were eventually grouped in the parliamentary faction called the Mountain, and they had the support of the Parisian population. The French government established the Committee of Public Safety, which took its final form on 6 September
order to suppress internal counter-revolutionary activities and raise
additional French military forces.
Through the Revolutionary Tribunal, the Terror's leaders exercised broad powers and used them to eliminate the internal and external enemies of the Republic. The repression accelerated in June and July
period called la Grande Terreur (the Great Terror), and ended in the coup of 9
Thermidor Year II (27 July 1794), leading to the Thermidorian Reaction, in
which several instigators of the Reign of Terror were executed, including
Saint-Just and Robespierre.
After the resolution of the foreign wars during 1791–93, the violence associated with the Reign of Terror increased significantly: only roughly 4 percent of executions had occurred before November 1793 (Brumaire, Year I), thus signalling to many that the Reign of Terror might have had additional causes. These could have included inherent issues with revolutionary ideology, and/or the need of a weapon for political repression in a time of significant foreign and civil upheaval,leading to many different interpretations by historians.
Many historians have debated the reasons why the French Revolution took such a radical turn during the Reign of Terror of 1793–94. The public was frustrated that the social equality and anti-poverty measures that the Revolution originally promised were not materializing. Jacques Roux's Manifesto of the Enraged in 25 June 1793 describes the extent to which, four years into the Revolution, these goals were largely unattained by the common people. The foundation of the Terror is centered on the April 1793 creation of the Committee of Public Safety and its militant Jacobin delegates. The National Convention believed that the Committee needed to rule with "near dictatorial power" and the Committee was delegated new and expansive political powers to quickly respond to popular demands.
Those in power believed the Committee of Public Safety was an unfortunate, but necessary and temporary reaction to the pressures of foreign and civil war. Historian Albert Mathiez argues that the authority of the Committee of Public Safety was based on the necessities of war, as those in power realized that deviating from the will of the people was a temporary emergency response measure in order to secure the ideals of the Republic. According to Mathiez, they "touched only with trepidation and reluctance the regime established by the Constituent Assembly" so as not to interfere with the early accomplishments of the Revolution.
Similar to Mathiez, Richard Cobb introduced competing circumstances of revolt and re-education within
explanation for the Terror. Counter-revolutionary rebellions taking place in
Lyon, Brittany, Vendée, Nantes, and Marseille were threatening the Revolution
with royalist ideas.[ Cobb writes, "the revolutionaries themselves, living
as if in combat… were easily persuaded that only terror and repressive force
saved them from the blows of their enemies." France
Terror was used in these rebellions both to execute inciters and to provide a very visible example to those who might be considering rebellion. Cobb agrees with Mathiez that the Terror was simply a response to circumstances, a necessary evil and natural defence, rather than a manifestation of violent temperaments or excessive fervour. At the same time, Cobb rejects Mathiez's Marxist interpretation that elites controlled the Reign of Terror to the significant benefit to the bourgeoisie. Instead, Cobb argues that "social struggles" between the classes were seldom the reason for revolutionary actions and sentiments.
Francois Furet, however, argues that circumstances could not have been the sole cause of the Reign of Terror because "the risks for the Revolution were greatest" in the middle of 1793 but at that time "the activity of the Revolutionary Tribunal was relatively minimal."Widespread terror and a consequent rise in executions came after external and internal threats were vastly reduced. Therefore Furet suggests that ideology played the crucial role in the rise of the Reign of Terror because "man's regeneration" became a central theme for the Committee of Public Safety as they were trying to instill ideals of free will and enlightened government in the public. As this ideology became more and more pervasive, violence became a significant method for dealing with counter-revolutionaries and the opposition because, for fear of being labelled a counter-revolutionary themselves, "the moderate men would have to accept, endorse and even glorify the acts of the more violent."
On 2 June 1793,
sections – encouraged by the enragés
Jacques Roux and Jacques Hébert – took over the 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, including Jacques Pierre Brissot. On 13 July the assassination of
Jean-Paul Marat – a Jacobin leader and journalist known for his violent
rhetoric – by Charlotte Corday resulted in a further increase in Jacobin
political influence. Paris
Maximilien Robespierre had others executed via his role on the Revolutionary Tribunal and the Committee of Public Safety
Georges Danton, the leader of the August 1792 uprising against the King, was removed from the Committee. On 27 July Maximilien Robespierre, known in Republican circles as "the Incorruptible" for his ascetic dedication to his ideals, made his entrance, quickly becoming the most influential member of the Committee as it moved to take radical measures against the Revolution's domestic and foreign enemies.
The result of this was policy through which the state used violent repression to crush resistance to the government. Under control of the effectively dictatorial Committee, the Convention quickly enacted more legislation. On 9 September the Convention established sans-culottes 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 charging of counter-revolutionaries with vaguely defined crimes against liberty. On 29 September the Convention extended price-fixing from grain and bread to other essential goods, and also fixed wages. The guillotine became the symbol of a string of executions: Louis XVI had already been guillotined before the start of the terror; Marie-Antoinette, the Girondists, Philippe Égalité, Madame Roland and many others lost their lives under its blade.
The Revolutionary Tribunal summarily condemned thousands of people to death by the guillotine, while mobs beat other victims to death. Sometimes people died for their political opinions or actions, but many for little reason beyond mere suspicion, or because some others had a stake in getting rid of them.
Among people who were condemned by the revolutionary tribunals, about 8 percent were aristocrats, 6 percent clergy, 14 percent middle class, and 72 percent were workers or peasants accused of hoarding, evading the draft, desertion, rebellion. Maximilien Robespierre, "frustrated with the progress of the revolution," saw politics in a rather tyrannical way because "any institution which does not suppose the people good, and the magistrate corruptible, is evil."
Another anti-clerical uprising was made possible by the instalment of the Revolutionary Calendar on 24 October. Hébert's and Chaumette's atheist movement initiated an anti-religious campaign in order to dechristianise society. The program of dechristianisation waged against Catholicism, and eventually against all forms of Christianity, included the deportation or execution of clergy; the closing of churches; the rise of cults and the institution of a civic religion; the large scale destruction of religious monuments; the outlawing of public and private worship and religious education; the forced abjurement of priests of their vows and forced marriages of the clergy; the word "saint" being removed from street names; and the War in the Vendée.
By Marisa Linton | Published in History Today 2006 / http://www.historytoday.com/marisa-linton/fatal-purity
Marisa Linton examines a work on one of the main characters in the French Revolution.
Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution
Chatto and Windus 369 pp £20 ISBN 0701176008
The two leading figures of the French Revolution who remain best known today are at opposite ends of the spectrum, Marie Antoinette and Robespierre. Robespierre’s character is by far the more complex and compelling. Marie-Antoinette found herself at the centre of the Revolution only through the chance that made her an empress’s daughter and a king’s wife. Fate had destined Robespierre for obscurity and a respectable life as a small-town lawyer. However, once the Revolution broke out, he threw himself into it wholeheartedly and forged himself a unique place at its very heart.
He became synonymous with all that was best about the Revolution: he was a tireless defender of liberty, equality and the rights of the poor and dispossessed. But he is also indelibly associated with the most hideous aspect of the Revolution: the use of Terror. His enigmatic personality still commands our attention: to understand Robespierre is to begin to understand the Revolution.
In 1789 Robespierre was a shy, unknown deputy in the Estates General, notable mostly for the awkwardness of his public speaking. He learned quickly: Mirabeau saw immediately what made Robespierre special: ‘That man will go far. He believes what he says.’ Robespierre was a politician by conviction and his ascetic personal life reflected this. Even at the height of his power he lived as a lodger in the house of a master carpenter. Politically astute, stubborn, infuriatingly convinced of his own rectitude, he was that most remarkable of mortals – an incorruptible politician.
No French revolutionary has attracted more biographies than Robespierre. Most have been either passionately for or passionately against him. He has that effect on people. His earnest sincerity commands respect; his conviction appals us. Indeed, it is the very integrity of his principles that makes his adoption of violent tactics so horrifying: a fact recognized by his two greatest English biographers, J.M. Thompson and Norman Hampson.
And now we have the latest biography of Robespierre, the first book by a relatively unknown author. The publisher makes great claims for it, stating that it is: ‘The highly-anticipated debut of a major new historian’, and asserting that the book ‘sheds a dazzling new light’ on the puzzle that is Robespierre. Well, does it? Far from it. This book is not likely to be of interest to anyone with specialist knowledge of the Revolution. There is no new material, no original interpretation, no use made of the burgeoning new studies of political culture and language in this period that could throw fresh light upon the subject. But that should not trouble the general reader. The story of Robespierre is itself an extraordinary one. And Scurr does a very competent job, giving her account in a clear and evocative style. At times, particularly as the narrative reaches its climax, her language approaches the almost poetic quality this tale can inspire in even the most prosaic historians. Political biographies, however, straddle an awkward position between addressing the role of the individual, and the events that shaped the time. The most notable shortcoming of this book is the downplaying of the politics of the Revolution itself. Thompson said it was misleading to think of the Revolution as having leaders at all, for they were ‘swept off their feet, and carried along by a movement which they were powerless to control.’ This does not always come across in Scurr’s account. She attributes much of the hostility between the two revolutionary groups, the Jacobins and the Girondins, to the personal enmity of their respective leaders, Robespierre and Brissot. She states: ‘Robespierre had made an implicit pact with street violence in order to destroy his Girondin enemies in the Convention.’ This is misleading: personal rancour there was in plenty, but that was not why the Girondins were overthrown. The overwhelming reasons were the war and war policy, the fate of the King, and the question of how far the Parisian lower classes, the sans-culottes, the practitioners of street violence, should control the Revolution. Eventually, the sans-culottes took matters into their own hands to put the Jacobins in power. Robespierre and the Jacobins chose to ride the tiger of direct popular democracy in allying themselves with the sans-culottes. But to ride a tiger is a dangerous business and the Jacobin leaders wielded the Terror partly to stop the sans-culottes doing it on their own account. ‘Let us be terrible,’ said Danton, ‘to save the people from being so.’ Was Robespierre the hero or the villain of the tragedy that was the Revolution? This book is a good place to begin the search for an answer.
Marisa Linton is the author of The Politics of Virtue in Enlightenment France (Palgrave, 2001).
VIOLENCE MADE IT HAPPEN
Date: March 19, 1989, Sunday, Late City Final Edition Section 7; Page 1, Column 3; Book Review Desk
Byline: By EUGEN WEBER; Eugen Weber, a professor of history at the
of California at , is the author of ''Peasants Into
Frenchmen.''/ Los Angeles
Lead: LEAD: CITIZENS A Chronicle of the French Revolution. By Simon Schama. Illustrated. 948 pp.
: Alfred A. Knopf. $29.95. New York
CITIZENS A Chronicle of the French Revolution. By Simon Schama. Illustrated. 948 pp.
: Alfred A. Knopf. $29.95. New York
Recumbent readers beware. Those who like to do their poring lying down will scarcely rush to take up this book. It is monumental. Once hefted, however, and well balanced on lap, knee or chest, ''Citizens'' will prove hard to put down. Provocative and stylish, Simon Schama's account of the first few years of the great Revolution in France, and of the decades that led up to it, is thoughtful, informed and profoundly revisionist. Mr. Schama, who teaches history at
, has committed other large and
readable tomes. But nowhere more than here does he challenge enduring
prejudices with prejudices of his own. His arguments, though, are embedded in
narrative. Above all, he tells a story, and he tells it well. Harvard University
The French Revolution, according to Mr. Schama, was no bourgeois thrust against stodgy despotism or anachronistic aristocracy. The old regime was not old, nor did it act anachronistic, fusty or decrepit. Neither stagnant nor reactionary, the French nobility, at least its most audible and visible members, were more open to new blood, ideas and ventures than they had ever been. Two-thirds of noble families had become ennobled during the 17th and 18th centuries: a nobleman was no more than a successful bourgeois; and capitalist enterprise among nobles was as vigorous as among their bourgeois counterparts. Far from offering an obstacle to progress, the greatest modernizers in metallurgy, mines, shipbuilding or street lighting were nobly born. Far from rejecting the social and intellectual lessons of the Enlightenment, nobles echoed them: not least the gentleman Mr. Schama says was known in
as Marcus D. Lafayette. In their sympathy for new ideas, the Marquis de
Lafayette and his equally noble friends were no exception; and the reign of
Louis XVI, Mr. Schama insists, was troubled more by addiction to change than by
resistance to it. Indeed, he argues, revolutionary violence was fired more by
hostility to modernization, attempted or proposed, than by the will to speed it
Like the elite, government was less interested in tradition than in novelty and greater efficiency. The bureaucratic personnel of the 1780's would be recalled to office by Napoleon in the late 1790's, to mend the mess the Revolution left behind. Queen Marie Antoinette was lampooned as Madame Deficit, but expenditure on all Court items, 6 or 7 percent of the total budget, was about half what the British spent on their monarchy.
There were serious problems, similar to those faced by other contemporary regimes: venality of office (51,000 public offices held as private property) facilitated cash flow but blocked reform; tax exemptions at the top encouraged tax evasion at the bottom. But the root of the fiscal problems was the cost of armaments, coupled with resistance to new taxes. By 1788, debt service accounted for almost half of current revenues. But in 18th-century perspective, even this huge debt was neither exceptional nor unmanageable. And those who sought to manage it on the King's behalf were more than empty heads presiding over empty purses. Nevertheless, aggressive, reforming managers in high office did not manage to reform; and the money crisis turned into the political crisis that led the monarchy to its end.
In my view, Mr. Schama underestimates structural problems that no 18th-century regime effectively coped with. But he is right to shift blame for failure from structural dysfunctions to ''circumstances and policies'' - that is, to men and, above all, to a well-meaning but indecisive King, who was addicted to changing ministers in midstream. In Louis XVI, royal irresolution produced political incoherence. With no two ministers following the same strategy, fiscal policies especially were inconsistent and ineffective. Meanwhile, it became clear that true fiscal reforms could be achieved only with the support of representative bodies. But the re-creation of an assembly representative enough to save
bankruptcy aggravated the crisis such an assembly was supposed to solve. Public
debate swelled to unexpected heights. Didactic or preachy, it often affected
the muscular patriotism learned from the classics and reinforced by recent
American example. Patriotic freedom would surely produce money, where reforming
absolutism had not. And, just as had happened 20 years before in France 's
American colonies, argument drifted from particulars to generalities, from
particular privileges, policies and liberties to more general liberty. Britain
This is where circumstances altered cases. For two years before the Estates General assembled at
in May 1789, harvests had been
rotten, food supplies were short and opportunities to earn a living wage in an
agriculture-driven economy had shrunk. With 40 percent of the kingdom's
population dependent on charity, hunger bred anger, crowds turned into mobs. It
was to defend liberty and its patriotic proponents embattled at Versailles that Parisian
crowds rioted in July 1789; but also, and more so, they rioted for bread and
against taxes. Versailles
On July 12, the wall surrounding
was breached and
its customs posts sacked and burnt. On July 14, the Bastille fell and its seven
prisoners were released: four forgers, two lunatics and one aristocratic
delinquent, imprisoned at his family's request. The Bastille's governor was slaughtered;
his head, hacked off with a pocketknife, was stuck on a pike and carried
through streets filled with cheering crowds. That day and later, other heads
were flourished in the breeze. Two, belonging to noble ''vampires'' who were
blamed for the famine, had hay stuck in their mouths. Virtue militant carried a
pike, and used it. Hungry, irrational, suspicious crowds easily turned from
anger to murder. Real grievances were fed into a great furnace stoked by the
newly emancipated press - which was less ideological than viciously vulgar,
less philosophical than pornographic - and by the creative truculence of
street-corner orators. Paris
Here lay the source of that relation between blood and freedom, or blood and bread, that was established not by the Terror of 1793, but by the patriotic stirrings of 1789. As Mr. Schama says, the Terror was merely 1789 with a higher body count. There would have been no Revolution, no source of revolutionary energy, without violence. It was violence, Mr. Schama says, that ''made the Revolution revolutionary.'' He might have added: violence expanded from its normal place among ordinary people to those social groups hitherto protected from its more discomforting aspects.
Nor, Mr. Schama reminds us, would revolutionary transformations have taken place without the intervention of those whom they most affected. The mass abandonment of feudal privileges on Aug. 4, 1789, was accomplished by dukes and bishops.
Despite sporadic violence, the early Revolution was a bit like the hot-air balloons that trailed tricolor ribbons over the Champs-Elysees to celebrate a new Constitution. But to get that Constitution, crowds had been brought into the streets. It would be hard to drive them off when constitutional government provided less bread than absolutism had done, when patriotism delivered no provender. There is no more reason to associate food and freedom than there is to believe liberty compatible with equality. But, in Mr. Schama's words, asking for the impossible is one good definition of a revolution.
A lot of impossible things were asked for in the name of reason or patriotism, liberty or equality. In 1790 the clergy were declared civil servants and asked to swear a loyalty oath to the state that paid them. Most declined. Church property, nationalized and sold to pay state debts, did not solve the economic crisis. But by creating a cleavage between those who followed the state and those who followed the Pope, the Civil Constitution of the Clergy insured that differences over fundamental social and political reforms would spiral into a civil war that was also, as Mr. Schama calls it, a holy war.
Then, in 1792, patriotism culminated in foreign wars; and the pressures of conflict, internal and external, pushed terrorism to new lengths. Because they were reminiscent of aristocratic ways, elegance, manners, wit were denounced as treason. The King was deposed, and a new calendar opened with ''Year One of French Liberty.'' In revolutionary newspeak, liberty, of course, meant its opposite: a police state, in which spying, denunciation, indictment, humiliation and death threatened all. The sententious religion of universal brotherhood gave way to the polemics of paranoia: Rousseau with a hoarse voice, as Mr. Schama puts it. Personal scores became political causes. Nuts came out of the woodwork. Marat was one, but a nuttier enthusiast, the Marquis de Bry, gauging the mood of the hour, offered to found an organization of tyrannicides - 1,200 freedom fighters dedicated to the murder of kings, generals and assorted foes of freedom.
Thus was the joy of living replaced by the joy of seeing others die. Mr. Schama is at his most powerful when denouncing the central truth of the Revolution: its dependence on organized (and disorganized) killing to attain political ends. However virtuous were the principles of the revolutionaries, he reminds us that their power depended on intimidation: the spectacle of death. Violence was no aberration, no unexpected skid off the highway of revolution: it was the Revolution - its motor and, for a while, its end.
In the National Assembly Mirabeau had argued that a few must perish so that the mass of people might be saved. It turned out that more than a few would perish. Politicians who graduated from rhetoric to government found that rhetoric made government impossible. If patriotism was to triumph, politics had to end; liberty had to be suppressed in the name of
democracy had to be sacrificed so that Democracy should live. Speaking from the
ruthless precinct of the Committee of Public Safety, Saint-Just, who is one of
Mr. Schama's favorite antiheroes, insisted that the Republic stood for the
extermination of everything that opposed it. And absence of enthusiastic
support was opposition enough. Liberty
With the likes of Saint-Just and Robespierre (a state scholarship boy, typical of old regime meritocracy), doublespeak was in the saddle. Murderously weepy, sadistically moralistic, fanatically denouncing as fanatics those who did not share their fanaticism, men like Robespierre stood for the will of the people as long as the people's will matched their own visions. Ever offering to die for their beliefs, they got the sour satisfaction of undergoing the martyrdom they professed to seek: murderers murdering murderers before being murdered in their turn, until the last days of July 1794 brought an end to the Terror, though not to continuing terrorism.
This is where Mr. Schama's chronicle of the Revolution ends, before successive regimes - Directory, Consulate, Empire - tried to pick up its pieces. But not before its author presents the bill for access to French citizenship: a quarter-century of warfare, with its fallout of militarism, nationalism and xenophobia; the disaster of the Vendee, where civil war wiped out one-third of the population; the ruin of port cities and textile towns that had been the growth areas of 18th-century France; the losses to French trade, which, by 1815, was only about 60 percent of what it had been in 1789. One could add that, by enforcing and thus discrediting paper money, the Revolution set back its popular acceptance by a century and accentuated national problems of credit and cash flow.
Mr. Schama reacts against intellectual cowardice, against self-delusion, against ascribing greatness to great horrors and painting brutish acts in brilliant colors. Above all, he reacts against violence, against the way violence as means was allowed to become violence as end, against the way politicians, historians and simple-minded nincompoops rationalize violence as pathological, or sanitizing, or necessary, or whatever.
Because they are forcefully expressed and buttressed by illuminating anecdotes, the selectiveness of his views is not immediately evident. One can be so swept along by Mr. Schama's brio that his biases seem irrelevant. They are not, because they are as exaggerated as current exaggerations in the opposite direction, and because they conceal aspects of events that receive no notice. For the positive side of the Revolution, readers will have to turn elsewhere. Mr. Schama has given us a grand argument for the prosecution. Lively descriptions of major events, colorful cameos of leading characters (and obscure ones too) bring them to life here as no other general work has done. Baroque eloquence and rococo sparkle make the book long but never long-winded. All in all, it is an intelligent book for intelligent readers that is also a delight to read. THE SEAT OF THE BEAST DESPOTISM
The first number of the Revolutions de Paris, published on the seventeenth of July, was devoted to a lengthy - and rather muddled - account of the insurrection. . . . ''The cells were thrown open to set free innocent victims and venerable old men who were amazed to behold the light of day.'' The reality was less dramatic. Of the seven prisoners, four were forgers who had been tried by regular process of law. The Comte de Solanges, like de Sade, had been incarcerated at the request of his family for libertinism. . . . The remaining two prisoners were lunatics. . . . One of them, however, ''Major Whyte'' (described in French sources as English and in English sources as Irish), was perfect for revolutionary propaganda, bearing as he did a waist-length beard. With his carpet of silvery whiskers and shrunken, bony form he seemed . . . the incarnation of suffering and endurance. So Whyte was called the major de l'immensite and was borne around in triumph through the streets of
amiably if weakly waving his hands in salutation, for in his bewildered
condition he still assumed he was Julius Caesar. Paris
Such was the symbolic power of the Bastille to gather to itself all the miseries for which ''despotism'' was now held accountable, that reality was enhanced by Gothic fantasies. . . . Ancient pieces of armor were declared to be fiendish ''iron corsets'' applied to constrict the victim and a toothed machine that was part of a printing press was said to be a wheel of torture. Countless prints . . . supplied suitably horrible imagery, featuring standing skeletons, instruments of torture and men in iron masks. . . . The Bastille, then, was much more important in its ''afterlife'' than it ever had been as a working institution. . . . Transfigured from a nearly empty, thinly manned anachronism into the seat of the Beast Despotism, it incorporated all those rejoicing at its capture as members of the new community of the Nation. From ''Citizens.''