The trial and execution of Louis XVI had pushed revolutionary France into a new stage. The urban poor and their leaders had rejected compromise with the old regime; the next step was to tear it down. In the National Convention, the radical republicans like the Robespierre-led Jacobins created bodies meant to turn the unleashing of social tensions into state-directed operations. In March 1793, the Convention established a Committee of Public Safety with a remit for guiding the persecution of political offenders. This occurred just as regular people (especially those in Paris) were becoming more militant. They were anxious about French defeats against Austria and Prussia as well as royalist rebellion elsewhere in the country. The Jacobins were at least taking concrete steps to save the Revolution, whereas the more moderate Girondins, although technically in the majority, had grown out of touch with the public sentiment. Given the stakes, there soon arose a broad coalition of forces eager to remove the Girondins from power and even punish them, as many had voted to spare King Louis from the death penalty for treason – an opening to a charge of clandestine loyalties to the unpopular monarchy.
The Fall of the Girondins
The press spread the charges that the Girondins were traitors. In response, the Girondins sought to use the Revolutionary Tribunal to silence the voices of radical journalists like Jean-Paul Marat and Jacques Hébert. Marat, who was arrested in April 1793, used his trial as a platform to express his views at greater elaboration, and due to his popularity, he was acquitted. From the grassroots, petitions poured in demanding a change in government. When asked to release the radical journalists, one Girondist leader threatened to burn down Paris – echoing a similar threat issued by the commander of the Austro-Prussian army marching on the capital. On May 31, a committee formed and, with the assistance of the National Guard, rose up in revolt and arrested many leading Girondists, including their most prominent name, Jacques Pierre Brissot. Robespierre and his ally Georges Danton had made their bid for power and won it, though less by their own agency than the alignment of their goals with the collective feeling. All their political opponents now removed, the most radical revolutionaries now held sole control over the government.
Danton, as the most charismatic and senior of the radical deputies, faced an excellent opportunity to take state power for himself. Instead, he shaped the Committee for Public Safety from its inception into a powerful body centered on him (to the point where it was known as the “Danton committee”) but recused himself from it shortly thereafter. He believed in the centralization of power that the Committee represented, but did not feel the need to be at its helm.
On July 13, the Girdonists struck back. Charlotte Corday, a Girondist ally, assassinated Marat while he was working in his bathtub, as he often did to his poor dermatological condition. He became the ultimate martyr of the Revolution, at least since its radical turn, and when the revolutionary leaders sought to stamp out Catholicism in society, they often replaced crucifixes and statues of saints with busts of Marat. The famous painter (and friend of Robespierre) Jacques-Louis David left the most iconic image of Marat: a noticeably unblemished figure reclined in his tub, letter still in his hand, as if gone off to eternal sleep while in the midst of working for the Revolution. If the incident martyred Marat, it effectively confirmed all suspicions about the Girondists and thus, to militants, signaled the need for extreme measures in dealing with the Revolution’s foes.
Firstly, the Committee came up with its own constitution for the Republic, which granted universal male suffrage and even granted the vote to foreigners in good standing. It proclaimed popular sovereignty and declared that every Frenchman should be trained as a soldier to defend the nation. In effect, however, the rights conferred by the constitution had to be suspended until France was once more at peace. As long as the Revolution occupied precarious ground, final authority rested in the hands of the Committee. More immediately, the Convention repealed the old policy of requiring the peasantry to pay compensation to the nobility and clergy for the abolition of feudalism. The working classes were set free, but now working men had a right to political participation, and they were no longer still in financial bondage to the classes that had ruled over them in the past.
In July 1793, the leader of the militant Jacobins, Robespierre, was voted onto the Committee for Public Safety. He came to that body just as leaders of the wage-earning sans-culottes were once again demanding economic policies to keep down the price of bread. By September, the government had imposed a price “maximum” and was actively waging war against bondholders and grain hoarders. The Committee decreed the “Law of Suspects,” which permitted the arrest of anyone accused of “bad citizenship,” but was aimed at aristocrats, hoarders and agents of counterrevolution. Marie Antoinette would die in October, followed by around 20 Girondists, including Brissot. In total, approximately 40,000 people would die in the 15-month period commonly known as the Reign of Terror.
Understanding the Terror
The Terror must be understood in terms of social forces as well as ideological motivations. The Revolution had to this point witnessed explosions of popular anger, as evidenced by the storming of the Bastille and the royal palace. The sans-culottes had installed the Jacobins in power and were not afraid to thunder their way into the National Convention again. The Terror was as much an expression of their desires as the price controls on bread. The September Massacres of 1792 testifies to this. For decades, the working classes had been subjected to starvation and endless war on behalf of Bourbon claims. Those who profited from this vast inequality now conspired to restore the system that had produced their misery. There was, of course, the looming danger of counterrevolution. Although the execution of Louis XVI had damaged the royalist cause, the nobility could always comb the royal family for an heir. Marie Antoinette had to die too, and this meant there could never be any bargain with France’s German enemies, who had threatened to burn Paris and butcher its population. There was a strong preference for saving the Republic by triaging its most foreboding elements. Of course, given the chaotic situation, how would it be possible to determine a person’s quality of “citizenship,” a new and evolving concept? Not all counterrevolutionaries were arrested with weapons in their hands; to come under suspicion at all entailed death, and if it had not been by the guillotine, than possibly dismembered by a mob.
The Jacobins sought to execute their victims humanely with a legal basis. These were lawyers, after all, who believed in the supremacy of reason and educated justice. Even those who had their reservations about the Terror, like Danton, felt that it was unavoidable that some political prisoners were too dangerous to live. It was only a handful of Jacobins, such as Robespierre, who believed in the (oddly paradoxical) idea of using tyrannical measures to save liberty from tyranny, and that civic duty had to be enforced if it was not genuine. After all, the kings of old had used force to make lords and peasants submit if they would not give their obedience willingly. For example, the royal family had instigated the massacre of French Protestants in the 16th century in order to ensure Catholic supremacy. French colonization in the Americas, while not as ruthless as Spanish or English settlement, still depended on war against Native Americans and the exploitation of slaves. The bourgeois revolution of 1789 had ameliorated the condition of the budding middle class, resolving the contradiction of their political powerlessness with their economic strength. It was not until the 1793 insurrection that the Revolution allowed the working classes to express their grievances. The ongoing scarcity of bread and enormous security crises meant such injustices would be solved ferociously. Emotion was instrumental to the Terror; it was the expression of pent-up resentment for the wrongs of feudalism and anxiety over the future. Previous assemblies had suppressed emotion in politics, or tried to use it to their advantage; the Jacobins were the first politicians to implement official policies representative of the passionate emotions of the people, albeit filtered through state efficiency and bureaucratic planning.
This is not to portray the Terror as a spontaneous outpouring of working class wrath. The sans-culottes supported it, mostly, but the Committee implemented it with its own zeal. Robespierre was the most eloquent defender of the Terror, but he was not its only perpetrator. Jean-Marie Collot d’Herbois, an actor turned politician, had more than 2,000 people killed in the city of Lyons, which had risen in revolt. In the Vendée region, the site of the largest royalist rebellion, the Committee supported the republican representative, Jean-Baptiste Carrier, and the mass execution by drowning of thousands of people. So heinous were their crimes that, even after Robespierre and his allies fell, their peers denounced them for their atrocities. Carrier was executed and Collot d’Herbois died in exile. Robespierre has become synonymous with the Terror because one of its aims was to centralize power in Paris and, for the duration of the war, in the Committee. As the spokesman for the Terror, Robespierre became indelibly associated with it. Yet, it was not just his brainchild; many of his peers also felt that dramatic steps were needed, and if the goal of the Terror was to suppress counterrevolution and win the wars, it succeeded. By 1795, revolutionary armies had pacified the civil war in the Vendée. French victories in Flanders marked a turning point in the fight against Austria and Prussia, driving them out of Belgium and the Netherlands. France even triumphed over a joint Spanish and Portuguese army in the Pyrenees. The Committee of Public Safety, a motley crew of radicals and bureaucrats, had overseen a total reversal of the Revolution’s dwindling fortunes.
Critics of the Terror frame it as a utopian project intended to use terror and intimidation to instill new moral (rather than material) incentives. The Terror, they argue, sought to create a new political culture by murdering anyone who resisted it. They describe the Jacobins as zealots deluded by dangerous philosophical doctrines. They treat the cold rationality of the Enlightenment or the romantic ideals of Rousseau as causal variables for the Terror. This is overstated. There were political conflicts stemming from philosophical debates. Some radical revolutionaries, like the journalist Jacques Hébert, wanted to eliminate Catholicism entirely from French society and replace it with system of organized atheism entitled the “Cult of Reason.” Robespierre, however, felt that people needed to look to a higher power, that their civic duty needed to come from virtue. He organized a “Cult of the Supreme Being” and worked to make it the new official faith. These ideological differences, however, did not propel the different factions involved in the Terror. As we shall see, they happened to coincide with the political interests of each group.
In March 1794, the Jacobins had first turned the Terror against their political enemies. Hébert and his followers had emerged as a left-wing opposition, speaking on behalf of the popular movement, with Hébert positioning himself as the heir to Marat. These Hébertistes were arrested went to the guillotine after a brief trial. Around the same time, Danton fell from power over allegations of corruption and financial misdeeds. This was the most difficult challenge for the Jacobins, as they feared Danton would use his charm to turn opinion in Paris to his side. They prevented his speaking in his own defense and sent him and his allies to death as soon as possible. The crisis of the war had permitted the Jacobins the authority to do all this, but it also left them politically secluded. Politicians outside Robespierre’s inner circle feared for their lives, and the friends of Danton and Hébert desired vengeance. Conspiracies formed against the Committee as the spring of 1794 gave way to summer. Ironically, some of the leading conspirators had participated actively in the Terror. Joseph Fouché, who would become minister of police under Napoleon, had overseen the Lyons executions alongside Collot d’Herbois. Jean-Lambert Tallien had instituted the Terror in Bordeaux.
On July 26, 1793, Robespierre attacked his enemies from the floor of the Convention. He would not name his specific opponents, which helped galvanize other deputies to join the conspiracies against him rather than risk being suspected by him. The next day, called “Thermidor 9” in the new Jacobin calendar, Robespierre and other Committee members were arrested. Several of his compatriots killed themselves; Robespierre took a bullet to the jaw, but it is unclear whether this was self-inflicted. He went to the guillotine the next day. With his death, the Revolution would lessen in its intensity, drifting into indolence and complacency. Revolutionary France would last a few more years under the Directory, when a young military general named Napoleon Bonaparte would accumulate power before finally seizing it in a coup.
Assessing the legacy of the Terror is difficult. It arose from a highly divided political environment and continues to be treated as such. Contemporary critics of the Jacobins described figures like Robespierre, Marat and so on as monstrous, inhuman creatures, and today even “objective” historians adhere to lurid descriptions of their personalities and behavior. What do we discern when comparing the Terror to the historical parallels with which it is most often linked? Most dramatically, the Terror is cited as an inspiration for Hitler’s Holocaust. While there is some overlap in terms of bureaucratic state terror, there is a major difference in motive. The Terror sought to combat an existential crisis with a basis in reality; royalism was not an abstract threat but a very real one, with uprisings and invading armies to prove it. The Holocaust, by contrast, was an ethnic cleansing from Germany and almost all of Europe of Jews, Roma and other groups who posed no danger to Nazi rule outside of Nazi ideology. The Jews were no more a threat to Germany in 1942 than they had been at any other point in history. What about Stalin’s purges in the 1930s? Again, the parallel falters because Stalin was removing potential rivals; his power as head of the Soviet state was essentially consolidated by the mid-1920s, after Lenin’s death. The charges against his fellow Old Bolsheviks had no basis in reality. The purges were meant to prevent a challenge, not as a reaction to one.
The Terror, however, was very much a reaction to an imperiled revolution. Revolutionary France was in a state of civil war as well as at war with foreign powers. Perhaps the best comparisons are to be made with the Russian and Spanish civil wars in the 20th century. In all three cases, relatively moderate center-left governments became discredited, losing popular support, leading to more radical and centralized groups coming to power. The French Jacobins, the Russian Bolsheviks and the Spanish Communists backed by Moscow all rode the waves of undammed rage against the cruel, crumbling regimes they were replacing. In each instance ordinary people stabbed, shot and lynched representatives of the old order: priests, aristocrats, landlords, greedy merchants, and so on. In addition, in each instance, innocent people were caught up in the bloodshed. This is to neither absolve nor condemn the Terror or the Russian and Spanish “terrors,” but to understand such violence as not emerging from ideologues and dictatorships but from humanity itself. When ordinary people are starved and repressed for generations, they generally do not make for peaceful, tolerant citizens when freed.
It bears mentioning that there were “white” terrors in all these revolutions as well. The Spanish Nationalists massacred men, women and children at places like Badajoz and elsewhere. Civilians were bombed indiscriminately at Guernica. In Russia, the White soldiers targeted Jewish towns for pogroms, and the Jewish faith of Trotsky was singled out for propaganda purposes. In the next entry, we will discuss the extent of the reactionary terrorism following the Reign of Terror, including gangs of dandy fops roaming the streets of Paris and picking fights with now downfallen Jacobin supporters.
Interestingly, the three aforementioned cases had all very different outcomes. The Bolsheviks won their civil war and set up a lasting state. The left-wing Spanish Republicans lost their civil war, leading to a lasting pseudo-fascist state. The Jacobins, however, won the civil war but still fell from power shortly thereafter. In Spain’s case, the Republican side faced overwhelming odds because it was isolated, dependent on aid from the Soviet Union, and divided by sectarian differences politically. The Jacobins stamped out any challenges from the left and right and were able to hold onto power, and benefited from inheriting one of the best militaries in Europe (Republican Spain, however, had to fight the European superpower of its day, Germany). The lack of trained officers and proper supply hindered France, but in most other respects, its military remained a potent force. The Bolsheviks, in contrast, found themselves fighting the vestiges of the tsarist military in their civil war, but fortunately for them it was one of the worst fighting forces in Europe, having been decimated in World War I and a disastrous war with Japan. The Bolsheviks did not just outstrip the Jacobins in warfare, however; they were better politicians. The Bolsheviks slowly defanged and purged their rivals after seizing power in October 1917. Lenin even managed to thin the Bolshevik ranks themselves toward the end of the conflict with the Whites. Lenin believed in his cause, but he also possessed a keen sense of timing and management, as reflected by his ability to drag his followers, sometimes at their great objection, through the events that ultimately led to their triumph and the establishment of a socialist state that, ironically, Lenin died before he could truly lead.
Robespierre and the Jacobins had no similar political acumen. They were not, as the Bolsheviks, professional revolutionaries. They were, for the most part, bourgeois intellectuals who believed that the righteousness of their mission would be sufficient for them to see out the Revolution. The Committee of Public Safety was made up of lawyers, bureaucrats, journalists and playwrights who had, just years before, been on the outside the political system. They had no guides but their own ideas. They did not even have the advantage, as Lenin did, of having a historical, scientific political program like Marxism. They depended instead on the highly metaphysical musings of philosophers who pontificated about how the world ought to be (according to them) but with no practical understanding of how to get there. They therefore had no grand solution for uniting the bourgeoisie and the working classes other than the guillotine.
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