Reign of Terror

Reign of Terror

The Reign of Terror (5 September 1793, to 28 July 1794) (the latter is date 10 Thermidor, year II of the French Revolutionary Calendar),[1] 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 an estimated 16,000 to 17,000 executed by guillotine, and another 25,000 by firing squad in summary executions across France. There were a large number of additional victims who were not executed, but killed in a number of massacres across the country, such as the infernal columns organized by Louis Marie Turreau, which resulted in an estimated 20,000 to 50,000 deaths, or the Battle of Le Mans (1793) where the revolutionaries killed an estimated 20,000 non-combattants (on top of 15,000 soldiers killed in the battle itself).[2]

The guillotine (called the "National Razor") became the symbol of the revolutionary cause, strengthened by a string of executions: Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, the Girondins, Philippe Égalité (Louis Philippe II, Duke of Orléans) and Madame Roland, as well as many others, such as pioneering chemist Antoine Lavoisier, lost their lives under its blade.

During 1794, revolutionary France was beset with both real and imagined conspiracies by internal and foreign enemies. Within France, the revolution was opposed by the French nobility, which had lost its inherited privileges. The Roman Catholic Church was generally against 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 fact, many French priests were imprisoned or executed, among them Blessed Hunot and Blessed du Vivier. In addition, the First French Republic was engaged in a series of French Revolutionary Wars with neighboring powers intent on crushing the revolution to prevent its spread.

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 1793, and was ultimately dominated by Maximilien Robespierre, in order to suppress internal counter-revolutionary activities and raise additional French military forces. Through the Revolutionary Tribunal, the Terror's leaders exercised broad dictatorial powers and used them to instigate mass executions and political purges. The repression accelerated in June and July 1794, a period called "la Grande Terreur" (the Great Terror), and ended in the coup of 9 Thermidor Year II (27 July 1794), the so-called "Thermidorian Reaction", in which several leaders of the Reign of Terror were executed, including Saint-Just and Robespierre.


Origins and causes

After the resolution of the foreign wars during 1791-1793, the violence associated with the Reign of Terror increased significantly: only roughly 4% of executions had occurred before November 1793 (Brumaire, Year I), thus signaling to many that the Reign of Terror might have had additional causes.[3] These could have included inherent issues with revolutionary ideology,[4] and/or the need of a weapon for political repression in a time of significant foreign and civil upheaval,[3] 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 1793-1794. The public was frustrated that the social equality and anti-poverty measures that the Revolution originally promised were not coming to fruition. Jacques Roux’s “Manifesto of the Enraged” in June 25th, 1793 describes the extent to which, four years into the Revolution, these goals were largely unattained by the common people.[5] 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.[6]

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.[7] 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.[8]

Similar to Mathiez, Richard Cobb introduces the competing circumstances of revolt and reeducation within France as an explanation for the Terror. Counterrevolutionary rebellions taking place in Lyon, Brittany, Vendée, Nantes and Marseille were threatening the Revolution with royalist ideas.[9] 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.”[10] 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 defense, rather than a manifestation of violent temperaments or excessive fervor. 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.[11]

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.”[12] 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.[13] As this ideology became more and more pervasive, violence became a significant method for dealing with counterrevolutionaries and the opposition because for fear of being labeled a counterrevolutionary themselves, “the moderate men would have to accept, endorse and even glorify the acts of the more violent.”[14]

The Terror

On 2 June 1793, Paris 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 31 Girondist leaders, including Jacques Pierre Brissot. Following these arrests, the Jacobins gained control of the Committee of Public Safety on 10 June, installing the revolutionary dictatorship. On 13 July the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat – a Jacobin leader and journalist known for his bloodthirsty rhetoric – by Charlotte Corday, a Girondist, resulted in a further increase in Jacobin political influence.[15]

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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.[16]

Meanwhile, 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; like other laws, it was indefinitely suspended by the decree of October that the government of France would be "revolutionary until the peace".[17]

On 25 December 1793 Robespierre stated:

The goal of the constitutional government is to conserve the Republic; the aim of the revolutionary government is to found it... The revolutionary government owes to the good citizen all the protection of the nation; it owes nothing to the Enemies of the People but death... These notions would be enough to explain the origin and the nature of laws that we call revolutionary ... If the revolutionary government must be more active in its march and more free in his movements than an ordinary government, is it for that less fair and legitimate? No; it is supported by the most holy of all laws: the Salvation of the People.[citation needed]

On 5 February 1794 Robespierre stated, more succinctly that "Terror is nothing else than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible."[18]

The government in a revolution is the despotism of liberty against tyranny.
— Maximilien Robespierre, 1794[19]

The result 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.[20] 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.[21] 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, and other purported minimal crimes.[22]

Another anti-clerical uprising was made possible by the installment of the Revolutionary Calendar on 24 October. Hébert's and Chaumette's atheist movement initiated a 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.[23] The enactment of a law on 21 October 1793 made all suspected priests and all persons who harbored them liable to death on sight.[23] The climax was reached with the celebration of the goddess "Reason" in Notre Dame Cathedral on 10 November. Because dissent was now regarded as counterrevolutionary, extremist enragés such as Hébert and moderate Montagnard indulgents such as Danton were guillotined in the Spring of 1794.[citation needed] On 7 June Robespierre, who favoured deism over Hébert's atheism and had previously condemned the Cult of Reason, recommended that the Convention acknowledge the existence of God. On the next day, the worship of the deistic Supreme Being was inaugurated as an official aspect of the Revolution. Compared with Hébert's somewhat popular festivals, this austere new religion of Virtue was received with signs of hostility by the Parisian public.[citation needed]

The End of the Reign

The execution of Robespierre.

The repression brought thousands of suspects before the Paris Revolutionary Tribunal, whose work was expedited by the Law of 22 Prairial (10 June 1794). 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 26 June's decisive military victory over Austria at the Battle of Fleurus, Robespierre was overthrown by a conspiracy of certain members of the Convention on 9 Thermidor (27 July).

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, with the moderates who opposed the Revolutionary Government altogether. They had, between them, made the Law of 22 Prairial one of the charges against him, and after his fall, advocating Terror would mean adopting the policy of a convicted enemy of the Republic, endangering the advocate's own head. Before his execution, Robespierre tried unsuccessfully to commit suicide by shooting himself, but the bullet merely shattered his jaw, and Robespierre was guillotined the next day.[24]

The reign of the standing Committee of Public Safety was ended. New members were appointed the day after Robespierre's execution, and term limits were imposed (a quarter of the committee retired every three months); its powers were reduced piece by piece.

This was not an entirely or immediately conservative period; no government of the Republic envisaged a Restoration, and Marat was reburied in the Pantheon in September.[citation needed]

See also


  1. ^ Terror, Reign of; Encyclopædia Britannica
  2. ^ Donald Greer, The Incidence of the Terror during the French Revolution : A Statistical Interpretation, Cambridge (États-Unis), Harvard University Press, 1935, cited by J. Tulard, J.-F. Fayard, A. Fierro, Histoire et dictionnaire de la Révolution française, 1789-1799, 1987, p. 1114 and in A. Soboul, Dictionnaire historique , 2005, p. 1023. F. Furet, M. Ozouf, Dictionnaire critique de la Révolution française, p.162. The number of people imprisoned was in the hundreds of thousands, estimated at 300,000 in Collectif, Oublier nos crimes, 1994, p.94
  3. ^ a b Greer, Donald. Incidence of the Terror During the French Revolution: A Statistical Interpretation. 1935. Peter Smith Pub Inc. ISBN 9780844612119
  4. ^ Edelstein, Dan. The Terror of Natural Right. 2009. New York: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 9780226184388.
  5. ^ "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution". 
  6. ^ Connelly, Owen (2006). The Wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon, 1792-1815. New York: Routledge Publishing. pp. 39. 
  7. ^ Mathiez, Albert. “A Realistic Necessity,” in The French Revolution: Conflicting Interpretations. Selected and Edited by Frank Kafker, James M. Lauz, and Darline Gay Levy. Malabar, Florida: Krieger Publishing Company, 2002. Pg 189.
  8. ^ Mathiez, Albert. “A Realistic Necessity,” Pg 192.
  9. ^ Palmer, R. R. Twelve Who Ruled: The Year of the Terror in the French Revolution. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989.
  10. ^ Cobb, Richard. “A Mentality Shaped by Circumstance,” in The French Revolution: Conflicting Interpretations. Selected and Edited by Frank Kafker, James M. Lauz, and Darline Gay Levy. Malabar, Florida: Krieger Publishing Company, 2002. Pg 200.
  11. ^ Cobb, Richard. “A Mentality Shaped by Circumstance,” Pg 204.
  12. ^ Furet, Francois. “A Deep-rooted Ideology as Well as Circumstance,” in The French Revolution: Conflicting Interpretations. Selected and Edited by Frank Kafker, James M. Lauz, and Darline Gay Levy. Malabar, Florida: Krieger Publishing Company, 2002. Pg 222.
  13. ^ Furet, Francois. “A Deep-rooted Ideology as Well as Circumstance,” Pg 224.
  14. ^ Palmer, R. R. Twelve Who Ruled: The Year of the Terror in the French Revolution. Pg 172.
  15. ^ Faria, Miguel (15 July 2004). "Bastille Day and the French Revolution, Part I:The Ancien Régime and the Storming of the Bastille". Hacienda Publishing. Retrieved 24 October 2007. 
  16. ^ Faria, Miguel (21 July 2004). "Bastille Day and the French Revolution, Part II: Maximilien Robespierre --- The Incorruptible". Hacienda Publishing. Retrieved 24 October 2007. 
  17. ^ Faria, Miguel (21 July 2004). "Bastille Day and the French Revolution, Part II: Maximilien Robespierre --- The Incorruptible". Hacienda Publishing. Retrieved 24 October 2007. 
  18. ^ <Pageant of Europe| editor= Raymond P. Stearns| date= 1947>
  19. ^ Modern History SourceBook, by Paul Halsall, 1997, Web Link
  20. ^ Faria, Miguel (21 November 2004). "Rewriting the French Revolution, Part II". Hacienda Publishing. Retrieved 24 October 2007. 
  21. ^ Faria, Miguel (21 July 2004). "Bastille Day and the French Revolution, Part II: Maximilien Robespierre --- The Incorruptible". Hacienda Publishing. Retrieved 24 October 2007. 
  22. ^ "French Revolution". The History Channel. Retrieved 24 October 2007. 
  23. ^ a b Latreille, A.. "French Revolution". New Catholic Encyclopedia. 5 (Second Ed. 2003 ed.). Thomson-Gale. pp. 972–973. ISBN 0-7876-4004-2. 
  24. ^ 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

  • Andress, David (2006). The Terror: The Merciless War for Freedom in Revolutionary France. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN 0-374-27341-3. 
  • Beik, William (August 2005). "The Absolutism of Louis XIV as Social Collaboration: Review Article". Past and Present (188): 195–224. 
  • Kerr, Wilfred Brenton (1985). Reign of Terror, 1793–1794. London: Porcupine Press. ISBN 0-87991-631-1. 
  • Moore, Lucy (2006). Liberty: The Lives and Times of Six Women in Revolutionary France. London: HarperCollins. ISBN 0007206011. 
  • Steel, Mark (2003). Vive La Revolution. London: Scribner. ISBN 0743208064. 
  • Palmer, R. R. (2005). Twelve Who Ruled: The Year of the Terror in the French Revolution. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-12187-7. 
  • Jordan, David P. (1985). The Revolutionary Career of Maximilien Robespierre. New York: Free Press. pp. 150–164. ISBN 0-02-916530-X. 
  • Schama, Simon (1989). Citizens – A Chronicle of the French Revolution. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. pp. 678–847. ISBN 0-394-55948-7. 
  • Scott, Otto (1974). Robespierre, The Fool as Revolutionary – Inside the French Revolution. Windsor, New York: The Reformer Library. ISBN 9-781887-690058. 
  • Loomis, Stanley (1964). Paris in the Terror. New York: Dorset Press. ISBN 0-88029-401-9. 
  • Hibbert, Christopher (1981). The Days of the French Revolution. New York: Quill-William Morrow. ISBN 9-780688-169787. 
  • Censer, Jack, and Lynn Hunt (2001). Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press. 
  • Hunt, Lynn (1984). Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution. Berkeley: University of California Press. 
  • Kafker, Frank, James M. Lauz, and Darline Gay Levy (2002). The French Revolution: Conflicting Interpretations. Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing Company. 
  • Popkin, Jeremy D. (2002). A Short History of the French Revolution. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. 

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  • Reign of Terror — Terror Ter ror, n. [L. terror, akin to terrere to frighten, for tersere; akin to Gr. ? to flee away, dread, Skr. tras to tremble, to be afraid, Russ. triasti to shake: cf. F. terreur. Cf. {Deter}.] 1. Extreme fear; fear that agitates body and… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • reign of terror — index lynch law, oppression Burton s Legal Thesaurus. William C. Burton. 2006 …   Law dictionary

  • reign of terror — noun count a period during which a government uses violence to control its people …   Usage of the words and phrases in modern English

  • Reign of Terror — n. the period of the French Revolution from 1793 to 1794, during which many persons were executed as counterrevolutionaries: often used figuratively …   English World dictionary

  • Reign of Terror — noun the historic period (1793 94) during the French Revolution when thousands were executed the Reign of the Bourbons ended and the Reign of Terror began • Instance Hypernyms: ↑historic period, ↑age * * * noun, pl reigns of terror [count] : a… …   Useful english dictionary

  • reign of terror — noun any period of brutal suppression thought to resemble the Reign of Terror in France • Topics: ↑terrorism, ↑act of terrorism, ↑terrorist act • Hypernyms: ↑reign * * * noun, pl reigns of terror [count] : a period during which a person or group… …   Useful english dictionary

  • reign of terror — UK / US noun [countable] Word forms reign of terror : singular reign of terror plural reigns of terror a period during which a government uses violence to control its people …   English dictionary

  • reign of terror — Etymology: Reign of Terror, a period of the French Revolution that was conspicuous for mass executions of political suspects Date: 1798 a state or a period of time marked by violence often committed by those in power that produces widespread… …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • reign of terror — noun a period of remorseless repression or bloodshed, in particular (Reign of Terror) the period of the Terror during the French Revolution …   English new terms dictionary

  • Reign of Terror (disambiguation) — Reign of Terror is the name given to a historical period during the early part of the French Revolution.It may also refer to: * The Reign of Terror (Doctor Who), a Doctor Who serial * Reign of Terror (Demo), by the American band Death * Reign of… …   Wikipedia

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