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Reign of Terror

The Reign of Terror (June 1793 - July 1794) was a period in the French Revolution characterized by brutal repression. The Terror (see also state terrorism) originated with a highly centralized political regime that suspended most of the democratic achievements of the Revolution, and intended to pursue the Revolution on social matters. Its stated aim was to destroy internal enemies and conspirators and to oust the external enemies from French territory.

The Terror as such started on September 5, 1793 and, as the Reign of Terror, lasted until the summer of 1794, and killed anywhere between 18,000 to 40,000 people (estimates vary wildly). In the single month before it ended, 1,300 executions took place.

In the summer of 1793 the French Revolution was threatened both by internal enemies and conspirators, and by foreign European monarchies fearing that the Revolution would spread. Almost all European governments in those days were based on royal sovereignty, whether absolute or constitutional, rather than the popular sovereignty asserted by the revolutionary French. Foreign powers wanted to stifle the democratic and republican ideas. Their armies were pressing on the border of France (see French Revolutionary Wars).

The former French nobility, having lost its inherited privileges, had a stake in the failure of the revolution. The Catholic Church was also generally hostile to the Revolution, which (through the Civil Constitution of the Clergy) turned the clergy into employees of the state, requiring them take an oath of loyalty to the nation. About half the clergy, mainly in western France, refused the oath, becoming known as refractory priests or non-jurors. These Catholic priests and the former nobility entered into conspiracies, often invoking foreign military intervention. In the western region known as Vendée an insurrection, led by priests and former nobles and supported by the United Kingdom, was started in the spring of 1793. The extension of civil war and the advance of foreign armies on national territory produced a political crisis, increasing the rivalry between the Girondins and the more radical Jacobins, with the latter having the support of the Parisian population.

On June 2, Paris sections, encouraged by the enragés ("enraged ones") Jacques Roux and Jacques Hébert, besieged 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 managed to convince the Convention to arrest 31 Girondin leaders, including Jacques Pierre Brissot. Following these arrests, the Jacobins gained control of the Committee of Public Safety on June 10, installing the revolutionary dictatorship. On July 13, the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat -- a Jacobin leader and the mastermind of the September 1792 massacres -- by Charlotte Corday, a Girondin, resulted in further increase of Jacobin political influence. George Danton, the leader of the August 1792 uprising against the king, having the image of a man who enjoyed luxuries, was removed from the Committee and on July 27, Maximilien de Robespierre, "the Incorruptible", 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.

Meanwhile, on June 24, the Convention adopted the first republican constitution of France, variously referred to as the French Constitution of 1793 or Constitution of the Year I. It was ratified by public referendum, but never applied, because normal legal processes were suspended before it could take effect.

Facing local revolts and foreign invasions both in East and West of the country, the most urgent government business was the war. On August 17, the Convention voted general conscription, the levée en masse, which mobilized all citizens to serve as soldiers or suppliers in the war effort. On September 5, the Convention, pressured by the people of Paris, institutionalized The Terror: systematic and lethal repression of perceived enemies within the country.

La terreur n'est autre chose que la justice prompte, sévère, inflexible. ("Terror is nothing other than prompt, severe, inflexible justice.") -Robespierre

The result was a policy through which the state used violent repression to crush resistance to the central government. Under control of the effectively dictatorial Committee, the Convention quickly enacted more legislation. On September 9, the Convention established sans-culotte paramilitary forces, the revolutionary armies, to force farmers to surrender grain demanded by the government. On September 17, the Law of Suspects was passed, which authorized the charging of counter-revolutionaries with vaguely defined crimes against liberty. On September 29, Convention extended price-fixing from grain and bread to other essential goods and fixed wages.

The heads begin to fall under the guillotine: the Queen Marie-Antoinette, the Girondins, Philippe Égalité despite his vote for the death of the King, Madame Roland and many others. The Revolutionary Tribunal summarily condemned thousands of suspects to death by the guillotine. Mobs beat some victims to death. Sometimes people died for their political opinions or actions, but often for little reason whatsoever beyond mere suspicion, or because some others had a stake in getting rid of them. Most of the victims received an unceremonious trip to the guillotine in an open wooden cart (the tumbrel). Loaded on these carts, the victims would proceed through throngs of jeering men and women.

Another anti-clerical uprising made possible the installment of the Revolutionary Calendar on 24 October. Against Robespierre's Deism and his concept of Virtue, the atheist movement of Hébert initiated a mascarade religious campaign in order to dechristianize the society. The climax was touched with the celebration of Goddess "Reason" in Notre Dame Cathedral on November 10.

The Reign of Terror was able to save the revolutionary government from military defeat. The Jacobins expanded the size of the army and Carnot replaced many aristocratic officers with younger soldiers who had demonstrated their ability and patriotism. The republican army threw back the Austrians, Prussians, English, and Spanish during the autumn. At the end of 1793, the republican army began to prevail and the provincial revolts were defeated one by one. The Terror became identified with ruthless but centralized revolutionary government. The economical dirigiste program didn't solve the problems. Suspects goods are confiscated by the Decrets of Ventôse (February-March 1794), in order to prepare the redistribution of wealth.

Because dissidence was now classified as counterrevolutionary, extremists such as Hébert and moderate Montagnards such as Danton were guillotined in the spring of 1794. On June 7 Robespierre, who had previously condemned the Cult of Reason, advocated the new state religion and recommended the Convention to acknowledge the existence of God. Next day, the worship of the deistic Supreme Being was inaugurated as an official part of the Revolution. Comparing with Hébert's popular festivals, this austere new religion of Virtue was received with signs of hostility by an amazed Parisian public.

The centralization of repression also brought thousands of victims before the Paris Revolutionary Tribunal, whose work was expedited by the draconian Law of 22 Prairial (June 10, 1794) which led to The Great Terror. As a result of Robespierre's insistence on associating Terror with Virtue, his efforts to make the republic a morally united patriotic community became equated with the endless bloodshed. Finally, after June 26's decisive military victory over the Austrians at the Battle of Fleurus, Robespierre was overthrown by a conspiracy of certain members of the Convention on 9 Thermidor (July 27). After trying in vain to raise Paris, the Robespierrist deputies and most members of the Commune were guillotined the next day, July 28. Thus began the Thermidorian reaction, an era of relaxation after the excesses of the Terror, with the establishment of the Directory form of government.

Treatment in fiction

Treatment in film

  • Andrzej Wajda, Danton (1983)
  • Robert Enrico and Richard T. Heffron, La Révolution française , part 2 (1989)

Last updated: 05-07-2005 05:52:00
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04