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Phase Two of the Revolution: Convention and Reign of Terror

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Phase Two of the Revolution: Convention and Reign of Terror

The next phase of the French Revolution was characterized by political extremism. In December 1792, the Convention voted to try Louis XVI for treason. Convicted and condemned to death, the former king was beheaded on January 21, 1793. The execution sent shockwaves throughout Europe.

In the spring of 1793, the Convention established the Committee of Public Safety (CPS), a 12-man committee that would function as the executive branch of the revolutionary government. Representatives of both dominant factions in the Convention, the Girondins and the Montagnards, were included on the committee. In May, however, the more moderate Girondins were purged from the Convention, and the more extreme Montagnards took control of the Convention and the CPS. Closely associated with the Jacobin Club, a Parisian revolutionary society, the Montagnards of the CPS began to use their broad powers to root out so-called enemies of the revolution.

The counterrevolutionary tactics of the CPS soon became known as the Reign of Terror. Under the direction of Maximilien Robespierre, the CPS executed tens of thousands of people by guillotine in the name of the revolution. At least 300,000 suspects were arrested, 17,000 were officially executed, and many died in prison or without trial.

Meanwhile, the Convention continued to pass legislative reforms. In August 1793, the revolutionary government imposed the levée en masse, a conscription of all able-bodied men between the the ages of 18 and 25. Much of the old officer corps was either forced into exile or executed, which allowed new officers from nonaristocratic backgrounds to rise rapidly through the ranks. The French Army grew to 1 million troops. In addition, in October 1793, as part of its goal to be a completely secular government, the Convention abolished the Gregorian calendar, which had Christian associations, and replaced it with what it viewed as a more scientific one. The 12 months were renamed, each month was divided into three so-called decades rather than weeks, and the year 1793 became known as year I.

Finally, in July 1794, in what is known as the Thermidorian reaction (named after the revolutionary month Thermidor), the Convention overthrew Robespierre and put an end to the Reign of Terror. Moderates in the Convention hoped to revive the original principles of the revolution, but a power struggle ensued with the reinstated Girondins and others who wanted revenge for the Terror.

Maximilien Robespierre


Maximilien-François-Marie-Isidore de Robespierre was the key figure in the revolutionary government of France from 1791 to 1794. His goal was to remake France according to the principles of the Enlightenment. The leading proponent of the Reign of Terror, Robespierre was also one of its final victims.

Robespierre was born in Arras, France on May 6, 1758. He was the son of François Robespierre, who practiced law in Arras. Robespierre's mother died when he was young, and his father left his children to be raised by their grandparents. When he was seven, Robespierre was sent to the College of the Oratorians at Arras. He was an outstanding student and won a scholarship to the prestigious college of Louis-le-Grand in Paris. There, he studied law and philosophy and received his degree in law in 1781.

Robespierre then returned to Arras, moved in with his sister Charlotte, and took up the practice of law. He soon developed a reputation as a champion of the poor and persecuted. Not only did he defend them in court, but he also published several essays that drew attention to the arbitrary nature of royal justice. He remained nonetheless a loyal subject of the king during those years, as evinced by the praise he offered Louis XVI in one of his essays. Though Robespierre's activism concerned many conservatives, he was a hero to most of the people in his hometown. By the time he was 30, Robespierre had become a judge and was one of the province's most well-known personalities. His reputation for simplicity, austerity, and integrity later earned him the nickname "the incorruptible."

While Robespierre was making his reputation, the French government was caught in an economic crisis. Years of expensive warfare had drained the royal treasury, and an inefficient tax system prevented the crown from raising sufficient revenues to pay its debts. When several bad harvests exacerbated the economic situation in the late 1780s, crowds in Paris began protesting. Louis XVI recognized that the fiscal crisis could only be resolved by taxing the wealthiest members of society, the nobility, who refused to countenance such a solution as long as the monarchy retained absolute power over the country's affairs. That impasse forced Louis XVI to summon a meeting of the Estates-General. Though dominated by the aristocracy and the clergy, that institution included representatives of all classes in French society. In 1788, elections were held to select the delegates for the momentous convocation.

The people of Arras chose Robespierre as one of their delegates. He went to Paris as a representative of the Third Estate, or common people. Though he was only 30 years old, he immediately distinguished himself as an ardent supporter of the rights of his constituents. Shortly after the first meeting of the Estates-General, the delegates from the Third Estate declared themselves to be the French National Assembly and claimed the right to speak on behalf of the nation. That direct challenge to the authority of the monarch was the beginning of the French Revolution. Robespierre supported the Assembly's declaration and soon established himself as an important leader in the new body. He also became the leader of the Jacobin Club, a radical organization dedicated to the creation of a constitution that would enshrine the natural rights of the French people. In the National Assembly, Robespierre played an important part in the drafting of the Déclaration des droits de l'homme et du citoyen (Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen), the preamble to the French constitution of 1791.

The declaration reflected the political philosophy that Robespierre claimed guided him through his years in power. He was a disciple of the Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who had argued that sovereign power in a community ought to follow the general will of the people rather than the whims of a monarch. Like Rousseau, Robespierre was also a deist, or one who believed in a remote Supreme Being rather than in the Christian God. He consequently attacked the privileges and practices of the Catholic Church.

Robespierre's vehement attacks on the king and his government earned him many enemies in the Assembly, which in the beginning favored a constitutional monarchy. For a period during 1791, Robespierre was forced to go into hiding. Events soon took a radical turn, however, which eventually would allow Robespierre to take control of the revolution. In June 1791, the king and his family were caught attempting to flee the country. The following month, government troops fired on Paris crowds who were demanding the removal of the king, in what came to be known as the Champ de Mars massacre. Then, in April 1792, France went to war with Austria and Prussia. With the monarchy discredited and France facing invasion, Robespierre and his followers began demanding radical solutions to the nation's problems.

During the summer of 1792, Robespierre's faction achieved what had become their major goal, the abolition of the monarchy and the creation of a republic. Robespierre then pressed for Louis XVI's execution. Robespierre's impassioned speech at the king's trial, held before the French National Convention (the republican successor to the National Assembly), convinced many of the delegates to condemn their former monarch to death. With the king out of the way, Robespierre turned on his enemies in the Convention. The main target of his attacks were the Girondists, moderate revolutionaries who had opposed many of the radical steps of Robespierre and the Jacobins. In late May and early June 1793, Robespierre engineered a purge of his rivals, many of whom were executed by guillotine.

The demise of the Girondists did not solve the problems of the revolution. The war abroad had ignited a bitter civil war within the French countryside. The Austrians and their allies the Prussians threatened to invade Paris and end the revolution. In this increasingly tense environment, Robespierre called for the creation of a dictatorship. In July 1793, he became the leader of the Committee of Public Safety, an elite group within the Convention established to deal with the crisis. Under his leadership, the Committee adopted mass conscription, fixed prices, and intensified the use of terror against its opponents. Soon the Committee was executing enemies on the left, including the Hébertists, who called for more radical measures, and on the right, including the followers of Georges Danton, who opposed the Reign of Terror.

Eventually, the stress of leading the revolutionary government took its toll on Robespierre's health, and by the spring of 1794 he was frequently absent from legislative sessions because of illness. Robespierre had made many enemies during his days in power, and they began attacking him in the press and in the Convention. Some blamed him for the excesses of the Terror, while others condemned him for being too moderate. The greatest problem was that he and his supporters had failed to solve the economic and social problems that continued to plague the nation. When the Convention called for his arrest, he did not resist but instead attempted suicide, which shocked and bewildered many of his followers. Finally, on July 28, 1794, Robespierre followed the thousands who had gone before him, at the orders of his government, to the guillotine. Over 100 of his partisans soon met the same fate. After their deaths, the Terror at last subsided, and a more moderate government soon came to power.

The guillotine was first introduced as a humane, efficient, and above all modern form of execution in April 1792; during the radical phase of the Republic, it would become the symbol of the Terror. This engraving suggests the guillotine is providing "good support for liberty."

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