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The Reign of Terror

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The Reign of Terror

Marie Antoinette execution on October 16th 1793.

On April 6th, 1793 the Convention created the "Comite de Salut Public". This new government, led by Robespierre, took urgent measures to stop the Vendeen insurrection and the French military defeats in Belgium. A few weeks later, the Girondists, were held responsible for the military crisis. 22 representatives of the Girondins were guillotined. The original revolutionary system was breaking apart.

In September 1793, the "Reign of Terror" spread all over the country. This was a cruel period when France was killing its people by hundreds in a frightening movement of rage and decadence. People were arrested and executed without trial if they were accused of being enemies of the revolution. It is estimated that about 40,000 people died during this 15 month period.

Marie Antoinette, wife of Louis XVI was executed by a Guillotine in October 1793. She died because she represented the King's heritage and was the perfect illustration of the fear that reigned at this time.

The all new constitution was suspended. Some say Robespierre became a despot, who thought anything was justified when it came to the revolution's rights. He changed his views on the death penalty, saying it was justified against enemies of the Republic. He reinstalled censorship, especially in the press and acted for a secular state. To this effect, he changed the calendar and in November 24th, 1793 he set the Revolutionary calendar as the new benchmark.

In February 15th, 1794 the French Flag was created, with 3 colors, the Blue, the White and the Red, disposed vertically. The blue was the color of for the Parisian bourgeoisie, the White was the color of the chiefs of army and the Red was the symbol of the blood poured during the wars.

Quickly, Danton himself became the victim of the Terror. He was considered too moderate and then, arrested and executed on April 5th, 1794.

One of the darkest periods in French history soon ensued. The Great Terror began in June 1794. Robespierre tyrannised the Comity of Public Safety and the Convention. He was strongly supported by the Montagnards and the Sans-Culottes.

Robespierre was in a mission against the counter revolutionaries and against the Church. Thousands of people who were suspected to be anti-revolutionists were executed savagely. A campaign of dechristianization took place all over the country.

On May 8th, 1794 the Assembly introduced the "Culte de l'Être Supreme" (The cult of Supreme Being), as form of deism. On June 8th, 1794 Robespierre, the President of the Convention, participated in the "Fête de l'Etre Supreme" (Supreme Being celebration) in Paris. However, these celebrations were mocked by the Parisians and Robespierre lost his credibility.

Robespierre execution

The arrest of Robespierre

In July 1794, Robespierre was finally accused of dictatorship and tyranny and evicted from the Convention. The members voted for his simultaneous eviction and execution, without allowing him to defend himself. The following day, Robespierre was beheaded to an ovation by the people of Paris. His death was the symbol of the Reign of Terror's end and the end of the democratic movement at the same time.

After the death of Louis XVI in 1793, the Reign of Terror began. The first victim was Marie Antoinette. She had been imprisoned with her children after she was separated from Louis. First they took her son Louis Charles from her (often called the lost dauphin, or Louis XVII). He disappeared under suspicious circumstances. Then she led off a parade of prominent and not-so-prominent citizens to their deaths.  The guillotine, the new instrument of egalitarian justice, was put to work. Public executions were considered educational. Women were encouraged to sit and knit during trials and executions. The Revolutionary Tribunal  ordered the execution of 2,400 people in Paris by July 1794. Across France 30,000 people lost their lives.

The Terror was designed to fight the enemies of the revolution, to prevent counter-revolution from gaining ground. Most of the people rounded up were not aristocrats, but ordinary people. A man (and his family) might go to the guillotine  for saying something critical of the revolutionary government. If an informer happened to overhear, that was all the tribunal needed. Watch Committees around the nation were encouraged to arrest "suspected persons, ... those who, either by their conduct or their relationships, by their remarks or by their writing, are shown to be partisans of tyranny and federalism and enemies of liberty" (Law of Suspects, 1793). Civil liberties were suspended. The Convention ordered that "if material or moral proof exists, independently of the evidence of witnesses, the latter will not be heard, unless this formality should appear necessary, either to discover accomplices or for other important reasons concerning the public interest." The promises of the Declaration of the Rights of Man were forgotten. Terror was the order of the day. In the words of Maximilien Robespierre, "Softness to traitors will destroy us all."

Robespierre was the mastermind of the Reign of Terror. He was the leader of the Committee of Public Safety, the executive committee of the National Convention, and the most powerful man in France. He explained how terror would lead to the Republic of Virtue in a speech to the National Convention: 

If the spring of popular government in time of peace is virtue, the springs of popular government in revolution are at once virtue and terror: virtue, without which terror is fatal; terror, without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible...It has been said that terror is the principle of despotic government. Does your government therefore resemble despotism? Yes, as the sword that gleams in the hands of the heroes of liberty resembles that with which the henchmen of tyranny are armed. Maximilien Robespierre Speech on the Justification of the Use of Terror

The old maxim "the end justifies the means" describes Robespierre's policy well.

Even the radical Jacobins, the supporters of Robespierre, come to feel that the Terror must be stopped. Danton rose in the Convention calling for an end to the Terror. He was its next victim. Fearful of Danton's reputation for eloquence, the Convention passed a decree stating that any accused person who insulted the court should be prohibited from speaking in his own defense. Danton was not allowed to speak in his own defense. Nevertheless after the trial Danton asserted that "the people will tear my enemies to pieces within 3 months." As he was led to the guillotine he remarked "Above all, don't forget to show my head to the people - it's well worth having a look at." Modesty was never one of his virtues.

When Robespierre called for a new purge in 1794, he seemed to threaten the other members of the Committee of Public Safety. The Jacobins had had enough. Cambon rose in the Convention and said "It is time to tell the whole truth. One man alone is paralyzing the will of the Convention. And that man is Robespierre." Others quickly rallied to his support. Robespierre was arrested and sent to the guillotine the next day, the last victim of the Reign of Terror. 

Maximilien Robespierre biography
Reign of Terror - French revolution

  Maximilien Robespierre (Maximilien François Marie Isidore de Robespierre) was born on May 6th, 1758, in Arras where his father was based as an advocate. Robespierre and his three younger siblings were brought up by diverse relatives after their father dramatically lost his way in life after the death of his wife in childbirth in 1767. Robespierre was educated for a short time at a College in Arras and then in Paris initially at the very prestigious College of Louis-le-Grand and later at the College of Law.

  Robespierre qualified as an advocate in 1781 and sought to establish a legal practice at his home town of Arras. He became known both as a successful advocate and as a participant in local literary and philosophic circles. He was elected as a "Third Estate" (i.e. a Commoner rather than an Aristocratic or Clerical) deputy of Artois to the Estates-General that convened at the Palace of Versailles, on May 5th 1789, on the eve of the French Revolution, and subsequently served in the National Constituent Assembly, where his earnest and skillful oratory soon commanded attention.

  As he had grown into manhood Robespierre had become a fanatical devotee of the social theories of the French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau. He and some thirty other like-minded deputies became associated in a "Society of the Friends of the Constitution" later known as the Jacobin Club. In April 1790 he was elected president of the Jacobin Club and became increasingly popular as an enemy of the monarchy and as an advocate of democratic reforms. When the Constituent Assembly was dissolved on September 30th 1791 Robespierre and another prominent Jacobin Petion de Villeneuve were the only outgoing deputies recognised as "incorruptible patriots" by the more radically inclined amongst the people of Paris. Robespierre "The Incorruptible" subsequently opposed the more moderate Girondists, the dominant faction in the newly formed Legislative Assembly, particularly over their support for war with Austria.

  In June 1791 King Louis XVI and Queen Marie-Antoinette attempted to flee from France in order to seek refuge with powers opposed to the revolution - they were however recognised and detained at Varennes. Robespierre had hitherto been content with the sort of constitutional monarchy that had been in operation in France. The King's attempted defection altered the way he was perceived by Robespierre and others.

  In late August 1792 France was threatened with invasion by a mixed Austrian, Prussian, and French émigré force. The leader of this force, the Duke of Brunswick, issued the so-called " Brunswick Manifesto " which threatened all Frenchmen with dire punishment if they defended themselves against the advance of Brunswick's forces and threatened to lay waste to Paris if the French royal family were harmed. Given that King Louis XVI was suspect since his abortive " flight to Varennes " there was a move led by Danton and others for the overthrow of the French monarchy. The palace of Versailles was stormed and the royal family were arrested after seeking refuge with the assembly.

  On September 21st a recently elected new assembly that called itself the Convention declared that the French monarchy was abolished and France was a Republic. On September 25th the Convention proclaimed that the "French Republic is one and indivisible".

  Robespierre spoke at King Louis XVI's trial as follows:-

  "You have not to pass sentence for or against a single man, but you have to take a resolution on a question of the public safety, and to decide a question of national foresight. It is with regret that I pronounce a fatal truth: Louis ought to perish rather than a hundred thousand virtuous citizens; Louis must die that the country may live."

  Citizen Louis Capet (formerly known as King Louis XVI) was subsequently sent to the guillotine on 21st January 1793.

  Girondin led France had little success in conflicts with foreign adversaries. There was an open "royalist" revolt against the central authority in the Vendée and there were demands for greater 'federalist' autonomy expressed by interests in southern regions of France.

  Over the last days of May and first days of June 1793, Robespierre, supported by the Commune of Paris, forced the expulsion of the Girondists from the National Convention. On July 27th he was elected a member of the chief executive body, the Committee of Public Safety. Although Robespierre was from one point of view only one of twelve members of the committee he was the only one who, through the full support he enjoyed from the Jacobin Clubs and the Commune of Paris, represented a close link to the more radical supporters of the Revolution.

  France was in turmoil, and with the aim of restoring order and reducing the danger of invasion from abroad, Robespierre, backed by the committee, proceeded to ruthlessly eliminate all whom he considered to be enemies of the Revolution, both extremists and moderates. This policy led to the so-called Reign of Terror and to the execution of the revolutionary leaders Jacques René Hébert (March 24th 1794) and Georges Jacques Danton (April 6th 1794). Both Hébert and Danton were politicians whose preferred policies were inconsistent with the pure Rousseauism that was Robespierre's guiding principle. The Hébertists had been suspected of preparing for a coup d'état and this may have contributed to the harshness with which they were treated. Danton was one of several prominent persons who were suspected of financial corruption thus polluting the virtue of the Revolution. Whilst the aims of the Terror were perhaps laudable from Robespierre's revolutionary perspective the means adopted towards those ends were terrible indeed.

  On May 7th, at Robespierre's insistence, the National Convention proclaimed as an official religion the Cult of the Supreme Being, which was based on Rousseau's theory of Deism. This decree antagonized both Roman Catholics and atheists, but Robespierre still had the powerful backing of the Commune of Paris. A Grand Fête in honour of the Supreme Being was celebrated on 8th June 1794 where Robespierre, who had been elected as the President of the Convention four days previously, played a major role.

  Whatever appearance of justice the revolutionary tribunals that had been set up to investigate people's political loyalties may have had prior to these times a law of June 10th 1794 established a situation where witnesses could no longer be called for the defence and where such tribunals effectively became committees of condemnation. Between June 12th and July 28th almost 1300 people were sent to the Guillotine (an average of 28 beheadings a day).

  This intensification of the Reign of Terror, caused many influential members of the Convention and of the Jacobin Club to fear for their own safety. In recent months French military fortunes had been transformed largely as a result of a mass levy of all unmarried men between the ages of 18 and 25 that had been authorised by the Convention on 23rd August 1793. A series of significant French military victories that were reported from diverse battlefields made the extreme security measures that had been followed seem less imperative, and a conspiracy was formed for the overthrow of Robespierre.

  On July 27th 1794 Robespierre was accused of tyranny, barred from speaking at the National Convention, and was placed under arrest as were several key supporters. Although these captives were promptly rescued by soldiers loyal to the Commune of Paris and brought to the Hotêl de Ville the Convention ordered the National Guard to move to recapture Robespierre who subsequently received a gunshot wound to the lower jaw during his recapture.

  On July 28th Robespierre together with his closest associates Louis Saint-Just and Georges Couthon and nineteen other supporters died on the guillotine.

  Eighty more followers of Robespierre were executed the next day.

  Thus perished a man who had been a successful, popular, and cultured provincial lawyer but who gained power in turbulent times and was able to pursue certain unproven social theories with a singleness of mind that could tolerate grievious human suffering if it was perceived as 'necessary' to the realisation and defence of a theoretically ideal society.

  With the demise of Robespierre the truly Revolutionary phase of the Revolution in France more or less came to an end. Power shifted away from the radicals and towards the conservatives. The Jacobin Clubs were closed down in November and freedom of worship was restored in February 1795.

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