The French Revolution: The Reign of Terror, 1793-1794

The trial and execution of Louis XVI had pushed revolutionary France into a new stage. The 168px-louis_xvi_-_executionurban 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.

187px-death_of_marat_by_davidOn 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. 320px-octobre_17932c_supplice_de_9_c3a9migrc3a9sThe 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.

182px-terreur_nantesThis 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 272px-execution_de_robespierre_fullwould 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.

185px-labille-guiard_robespierreThe 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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McPhee, Peter. Robespierre: a Revolutionary Life. Yale University Press, 2012.

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The French Revolution: The Second Revolution of 1792

As 1791 ended, it appeared that the French Revolution had concluded. King Louis XVI, though clearly not dependable in his acceptance of political change, remained in the 320px-jacques_bertaux_-_prise_du_palais_des_tuileries_-_1793Tuileries Palace in Paris, where he could be prevented from orchestrating intrigues against the Revolution. The Legislative Assembly had come under the control of a new political organization, the moderate Feuillants Club, that wished to move the Revolution away from the streets and the crowd and into their own hands as elected representatives. Radical revolutionaries, who preferred a more democratic republic to a constitutional monarchy where King Louis still held power, found themselves confined to the fringes. As we shall see, however, the Revolution was not yet complete. It would be advanced and radicalized by a series of events both abroad and within France.

Many French royalists had fled the Revolution from its outset, moving eastward into the states comprising modern Germany. Most were aristocrats, and used their status to agitate the rulers of the fading Holy Roman Empire and up-and-coming Prussia to intervene in France. Their efforts focused on Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II, brother of Louis XVI’s Queen Marie Antoinette. Leopold, however, was reluctant to do so for numerous reasons. Firstly, the Holy Roman Empire had sharply declined since the Peace of Westphalia had fragmented it into several independent polities in 1648 following a devastating religious conflict. Secondly, if the German states turned their focus to France, Catherine the Great of Russia would have the freedom to invade Poland and the Ottoman Empire, tilting the European balance of power in her favor. Third, the German states benefitted from a weak and disorderly France. The strongest state in Europe had become the most disunited and disorganized. After the revolutionary government imprisoned Louis and Marie Antoinette following their failed flight to Varennes, however, Leopold felt compelled to act. In August 1791, he issued the Pillnitz Declaration along with Frederick William II of Prussia, stating that there would be war with France if – and only if – the major European states formed a coalition for that purpose. This unlikely condition rendered the announcement something of an idle threat.

In France, however, revolutionary leaders seized on the Declaration as evidence of a grand 180px-aduc_045_brissot_28j-p-2c_1754-179329conspiracy to restore Louis to power, to surely be followed by harsh royalist revenge. If war was inevitable, some politicians argued, why not attack first and take the initiative? Jacques Pierre Brissot, the head of the French Legislative Assembly, led the pro-war camp in the French government. A centrist republican, he believed that war would unite the polarized French populace by promoting a rally-round-the-flag mentality. He also thought war would stimulate the moribund French economy, increasing the demand for arms, supplies and other materials needed for conflict. Additionally, he assumed French soldiers would be greeted as liberators in places like Belgium and the Netherlands, which were then under Austrian dominion. At Brissot’s instigation, France declared war on the Holy Roman Empire on April 20, 1792. It soon became apparent, however, that Brissot and his allies had been unfounded in their optimism. French forces suffered defeat after defeat – much to the delight of the royal family and their sympathizers, who had watched with glee as the revolutionaries had seemingly sprinted toward their ruin.

Internally, the French working classes remained discontent. A poor harvest in 1792 led to yet more scarcity of bread. Merchants again hoarded their supplies to drive up prices. This led to the rise of a very loose movement called the Enragés (“The Madmen”), including a priest-turned-politician named Jacques Roux. Proto-socialists, they demanded the implementation of price controls and argued for a more economically equal society. The French urban poor, the sans-culottes, were mostly self-employed, so it made more sense for them to fight for set prices as opposed to higher wages. Before this point, the sans-culottes had entrusted the Revolution to its bourgeois leaders. After 1792, however, they became much more politically involved, patronizing the growing number of political clubs.

Girondins & Jacobins

The preeminent club in 1791 had been the aforementioned Feuillants, who supported constitutional monarchy and reconciliation with the king. Their opposition to the 1792 320px-banquet_des_girondinsdeclaration of war, however, led to them being labeled royalists and they were expelled from the Legislative Assembly. “Feuillant” became synonymous with “monarchist.” Following their downfall, power shifted to the Girondins, republicans so-named for their ties to the Gironde, a region in the southwest of France. They made up a majority in the Jacobin Club, although not all belonged to it. They represented the bourgeoisie and most had initially supported a constitutional monarch until King Louis’ flight shattered their faith in the crown to respect their liberal values. Brissot led them in the Assembly, inducing them to vote for war and to support the policy of spreading the Revolution by force. Before 1792, the Girondins would have been considered moderate left-wing members in the Assembly, but with the expulsion of the Feuillants, they became the leading right-wing faction by default.

The Girondins contended with the more radical Cordelier Club. The Cordeliers featured in the previous entry as the group that had organized demonstrations against the monarchy following the flight to Varennes. The Cordeliers were populist republicans that had argued from the outset of the Revolution that ultimate political authority belonged with the people, and that any body lacking the consent of the governed was illegitimate. In terms of leadership, they followed Georges Danton, a boisterous orator with a taste for extravagance, and Camille Desmoulins, a young political pamphleteer. There was also the Montagne (“Mountain”) minority within the Jacobins. They earned their sobriquet by sitting on the highest benches in the Assembly. The Montagnards opposed the war campaign waged by the Girondins, and their leader, Maximilien Robespierre, pointed out that nobody likes “armed missionaries.” What would most define the Montagnards from their Girondist rivals, however, would be their later support for the trial and execution of King Louis and his wife.

With the war going badly, the Girondist leadership in the Assembly sought to remove the 320px-club-des-jacobinsremaining vestiges of royal power, for fear that Louis’ guards would aid the Austrian and Prussian invaders. Louis, however, moved to stop the dissolution of his bodyguard as well as the mustering of 20,000 volunteers to Paris. Once again mobilizing the people as a political tool, the Girondins organized a demonstration that soon escalated into a crowd entering the royal palace and haranguing Louis to his face. Alarmed by this activity in Paris as well as the poor course of the war, the Marquis de Lafayette came to the capital and condemned the republicans now leading the revolutionary government. He attempted to organize a coup to overthrow the Jacobins, but misread the public mood as well as his own support. Not only did most people support the Jacobins, they also remembered that Lafayette had led the troops that fired on the protesters in the 1791 Champ de Mars massacre. His political career was over, but the French government was so desperate for skilled officers that rather than arrest or exile him, Lafayette received command over the Army of the North. This could, however, be tantamount to a death sentence. At the outbreak of the war, Théobald Dillon, an aristocratic officer like Lafayette, had been killed by his own troops, who suspected Dillon had purposefully lost a recent battle.

Lafayette’s aborted coup attempt and the murder of Dillon show just how radicalized much of the population had become. When the government clamored for citizens to join the army and defend France from her enemies, hundreds of thousands volunteered. A contingent from Marseille arrived in Paris with their own song, “The Marseillaise,” which became the national anthem of France. The lyrics beckon citizens to take up arms against the “horde of slaves, of traitors and conspiratorial kings” coming to “cut the throats” of French women and children. In the past, men had been forced to fight on behalf of monarchs that did not represent them or their interests. The average French soldier of the medieval and early modern periods had no stake in the succession crises and religious 320px-banque_de_france-strasbourg_28329-marseillaiseconflicts that motivated wars. In the wars of the French Revolution, however, soldiers were fighting to defend the rights and freedoms they had won, however imperfect and incomplete. For all its faults, at least the Legislative Assembly was more accountable than the old feudal order.

There was also, as ever, the great fear that ordinary people would receive the worst punishment if the monarchy returned to absolute power. This dread grew colossally with the release of a manifesto by the Duke of Brunswick in July 1792. Charles William Ferdinand, the Duke of Brunswick, led the Austro-Prussian army marching on Paris, and released the document in the hopes of hastening surrender. A member of a cadet branch of the House of Bourbon had actually written it, and a copy of it approved clandestinely by Louis and Marie Antoinette. The Brunswick Manifesto stated that the Austro-Prussian forces would restore Louis and his queen to their previous positions. If any harm befell the royal family, the Manifesto promised, Paris would be burned and rebels subjected “to the death they have deserved.” Rather than intimidating the French people into submission, it resolved most of them to take even more extreme action to prevent the failure of the Revolution, which now hung on the precipice. Sensing that a second revolution was possible, the Cordeliers and the Jacobin Montagnards began to strategize.

The Second Revolution

On August 10, 1792, around 20,000 members of the National Guard marched on the 320px-tuileries_henri_motteTuileries Palace. Twenty-eight of the 48 districts of Paris had pledged themselves to this new resurrection. Most of the National Guardsmen protecting the palace defected to the attackers. Instead of staying to fight, Louis and the rest of his family took shelter with the National Assembly. Royalist defenders, however, remained adamant in safeguarding their positions. The Swiss Guard refused to surrender despite overwhelming odds. The rebels won in the end, taking around 300 casualties while the royalist forces lost about 600 men. As with the storming of the Bastille, the insurrectionists placed heads on pikes and paraded them through the streets of Paris. Among the slain was the possibility of compromise. Louis, in typical fashion, had saved his own skin when his life was in the balance, but he had exhausted what little good faith had remained between him and the people. The Girondists, who had wavered once their gamble with the war went poorly, could not block a challenge from below. From this point, the Revolution would still be steered by the bourgeoisie, but by marginal figures like Danton and Robespierre. Their base was the sans-culottes. These city-dwelling artisans were mainly interested in universal suffrage and a rough vision of utopian socialism. Their top priority in the 1792 was saving the revolution.

The September Massacres

In early September bands of sans-culottes cut through Paris prisons killing jailed nobles and their sympathizers. The September Massacres remain one of the most divisive events of the Revolution. On one hand, the Austro-Prussian troops had captured the city of Verdun in Lorraine and were less than 200 miles from Paris. Those lords and ladies locked away in their cells could, potentially, become a fifth column for the invaders. Moreover, most prisoners received some form of tribunal before their executions. Of course, these tribunals hardly concerned themselves with fair representation and due process, but sometimes individuals were spared if they had no obvious royalist connections. How much of a threat the victims of the Massacres would have been had Paris been taken will forever be unknown. It is difficult to fathom how much of a difference the Princess of Lamballe, 320px-massacre_c3a0_la_salpc3aatric3a8reMarie Antoinette’s close friend, would have had if she had not been decapitated and her head strutted around Marie Antoinette’s window. Perhaps the modern analogue to the Massacres would be the occasional riots that transpire in the West among disadvantaged and dispossessed communities. Such riots tend to be limited to the stealing of property, not lives, and tend to do great economic damage to looters’ own neighborhoods. They are best regarded as actions signifying desperation and despair. The Massacres must be seen as similar light, as actions stemming more from emotion than logic. The average man or woman in the street probably did not believe Paris would be left standing in a few weeks and, already starving and resentful, had very little to lose.        They could secure the Revolution and, by extension, their lives, but only if they mercifully rooted out anyone possibly aiding the royalist cause. For this reason, most of the people killed during the coming Reign of Terror were not nobles, as in the September Massacres, but the moderate revolutionaries who had pursued some reconciliation with the royal court in the moderate stage of the Revolution.

After the second revolution of August 10, the Legislative Assembly suspended the monarchy and called for new elections to select a National Convention to draft a new constitution. Once more, the relatively moderate Girondins led the legislative body, although it did not have an overwhelming majority. It would be more apt to say that most delegates to the Convention fell somewhere between the Girondins and the left-wing factions, switching their votes along with their interests. Soon after the Convention’s first meeting on September 20, the French army secured a decisive victory over the Prussians at Valmy, the start of a dramatic reversal in the course of the war. As the Prussians absconded back across the Rhine, the Convention felt heartened enough to dissolve the monarchy and declare the First French Republic. The Girondins next found themselves with a dilemma as what to do about the now dethroned Louis and his wife. The events of August 10 had been predicated on bringing the king to justice for collaborating with France’s enemies; to not put him on trial would be an injustice itself. It also followed that if Louis was guilty of treason then he had to die. Further damage was done to Louis in the court of public opinion when a locksmith discovered a hidden cache of over 700 documents in one of the king’s armoires. These exposed his correspondence with various promoters of counterrevolution, as well as with Mirabeau, the bourgeois leader of the early Revolution who had taken Austrian bribes. Whatever shred of trust remained in the public mind in regards to the king had to have been left in tatters. It also disgraced the Girondins who still argued for pardoning the king and, at the very least, using him as a hostage in future peace treaty negotiations. Now there would have to be a formal punishment for Louis for his crimes.

The Trial & Execution of Louis XVI

The trial started in December 1792. It was during this time that Robespierre earned his place as a voice of the extremist tendency of the revolution. Possessing a serious streak and a sour disposition, he was known as being so imbued with revolutionary virtue as to be incorruptible. In contrast to Danton, gluttonous and gregarious, Robespierre was introverted and somber. He opposed slavery and the death penalty. He had the calculating mind of a lawyer, but in this sense was not unlike the Founding Fathers of the United States, who had stated the reasons for their separation from Great Britain in a legal format. Yet, the U.S., as a colony, could detach itself from the British Empire, its institutions and traditions. The French Republic had to resolve the question of a monarch in their midst, one who made it plain it would never accept a constitution, much less true democracy. As long as Louis lived, there would be a figure for royalists to rally around and restore. There would be civil war whether he was deposed or not, given his support for counterrevolution, so how could the Revolution be safe with Louis alive? “Louis must die so that the nation may live,” Robespierre argued. In middle of January, the National Convention deputies found Louis guilty. Not one voted for his innocence. There was some attempt at a reprieve, but this was voted down, 380 to 310. The Girondins had split.

The majority of the bourgeois deputies did not want to commit regicide. Even the most 320px-hinrichtung_ludwig_des_xviideologically committed republicans feared the reckoning that would follow, not just by the Austro-Prussian invaders, but by those among the French population who had tolerated the Revolution as long the monarchy was in some way preserved. The monarchy, though, had not just protested reform but acted to undo it. There could be no compromise with Louis, and the sans-culottes would ensure that the Convention lived up to its egalitarian rhetoric. If the Convention deputies knew Louis to be guilty, of which there could be no question, how could they not eliminate an enemy of the state without looking like hypocrites, willing to treat Louis as above the law just because of his bloodline? On January 21, 1793, Louis was beheaded before the people as a criminal. Marie Antoinette would go to the scaffold later in the year. They had not worked toward counterrevolution alone, though. They still accomplices among the elite, as evidenced by his uncovered letters of correspondence. The Convention would continue to make inquiry into conspiracies against the Revolution paramount.

In March, the Convention founded a Revolutionary Tribunal strictly for trying cases related to political offenses. Around the same time, the Revolution suffered major setbacks. Charles François Dumouriez, one of the two victorious revolutionary generals and Valmy, had aligned himself with the Girondists and opposed the execution of Louis. After failing to persuade his troops to attack Paris and overthrow the Jacobins, he defected to the Austro-Prussian army in April 1793. At the same, a royalist revolt broke out in central western France, led by an improvised Royal and Catholic Army. This “war in the Vendée” had been a long time coming. Unlike in other parts of the country, nobles in the Vendée tended to work alongside their peasants, and thus the class stratification between the aristocracy and commoners was less pronounced. There was also popular displeasure with the subordination of the Catholic Church to the state. The issue that sparked open rebellion, however, had been an effort to impose widespread conscription. Peasants resisted being drafted to fight for a government they did not support. There was a perception, with some basis, that Paris held an inordinate amount of influence over the Revolution, at the expense of provinces like the Vendée and the Gironde. This division only sharpened the already polarized Convention along factional lines.

In the next entry, we will see how these events emphasized the need for the Revolution to defend itself against its enemies. There is some justification for the classical Marxist interpretation that the Reign of Terror was vindicated as self-defense. Yet, it is also true that the Terror was not a sustainable enterprise with the exceedingly high standards Robespierre set for himself and his fellow revolutionaries. He could not kill his enemies fast enough because they multiplied with every execution. The Reign of Terror only lasted a year, but its legacy remains one of the most divisive topics in history.


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