Maximilien Robespierre (1758-94)
‘Nobody had dreamed of establishing a system of terror. It established itself by force of circumstances.’ William Doyle, Oxford History of the French Revolution.Nevertheless, the Terror was the policy of the Jacobin government from the autumn of 1793 until its abandonment in August 1794. It is associated above all with Maximilian Robespierre
What was the Terror?
It was the period beginning on 5 September 1793 and ending with the death of Robespierre in July 1794. Famous victims included Marie Antoinette, the Girondins and eventually the Dantonist faction, but the bulk of the victims were ordinary people. In the course of the Terror, around 16,000 people were formally condemned to death, most of them in the provinces. An unknown number died in custody or were lynched without trial. Nearly 2,000 were executed in Lyon after the city fell to the revolutionaries. Over 3,500 were guillotined when the revolt in the Vendée was finally suppressed after terrible loss of life on the battlefield and the murder of an estimated 10,000 rebels and civilians in retreat. The most horrific event of the provincial Terror occurred in Nantes, the scene of the noyades (drowings) At a rough estimated 30,000 died (though it should be noted that more people died in Ireland in 1798 and in Poland in 1794). In Paris, the scene of these executions was the Place de la Révolution.
The Terror was accompanied by a policy of de-christianization – churches were closed and the calendar redrawn.
It was triggered by war, resistance within France to the Revolution, the increasingly violent actions of the sans-culottes in the face of economic hardship. It also developed its own momentum.
The ideology of the Terror
The Terror was prefigured in an article by Robespierre in September 1792 at the time of the meeting of the Convention:
‘It is not enough to have overturned the throne: our concern is to erect upon his remains holy equality and the imprescriptible Rights of Man. It is not in the empty word itself that a republic consists, but in the character of the citizens. The soul of a republic is vertu – that is love of la patrie, and the high-minded devotion that resolves all private interests into the general interest. The enemies of the republic are those dastardly egoists, those ambitious and corrupt men. You have hunted down kings, but have you hunted out the vices that their deadly domination has engendered among you? Taken together, you are the most generous, the most moral of all peoples…but a people that nurtures within itself a multitude of adroit rogues and political charlatans, skilled at usurpation and the betrayal of trust.’The Terror was therefore inspired by the quest for vertu and the hunt for the enemy within.
Robespierre went on to quote Rousseau and to develop his prescriptions. The austerely virtuous lawgivers should be
‘treading underfoot vanity, envy, ambition and all the weaknesses of petty souls, inexorable towards crime armed with power, indulgent toward error, sympathetic toward misery and tender and respectful toward the people’.
‘The point was to ensure the triumph of the good, pure, general will of the people – what the people would want in ideal circumstances – and this needed to be intuited on their own behalf until they received sufficient education to understand their own good.’ Ruth Scurr, Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution.
St-Just, February 1794: ‘The republic is built on the ruins of everything anti-republican. There are three sins against the republic: one is to be sorry for State prisoners; another is to be opposed to the rule of virtue; and the third is to be opposed to the Terror.’The coming of the Terror
On 10 March 1793 the Convention was persuaded by Georges-Jacques Danton to revive the Revolutionary Tribunal with its extraordinary powers to put people to death. He saw it as a necessary weapon for a country torn by war, civil strife and hunger, and never imagined that this would be the body that would condemn him to death. The Tribunal consisted of twelve jurors and a public prosecutor (Antoine Fouquier-Tinville). There could be no appeal against its judgements.
Following the defeat at Neerwinden and the defection of Dumouriez to the Austrians, Danton, returned from the front, urged the creation of the Committee of Public Safety, a provisional revolutionary government of twelve men briefed to supervise and accelerate the exercise of ministerial power. It was to work alongside the larger Committee of General Security that had been set up in September 1792. Members had to be re-elected every month. None of the members was a Girondin.
The second result of the disaster at Neerwinden was the fall of the Girondins. Brissot and his associates were accused of being in leave with Dumouriez and in the pay of Pitt. On 31 May a crowd of Parisian petitioners arrived at the Convention (recently moved from the Manège to the Tuileries) and took possession of the deputies’ seats. On 2 June the Girondin leaders who had not already fled were provisionally arrested. Their fate was sealed by Charlotte Corday’s assassination of Marat.
On 27 July Robespierre was finally elected to the Committee of Public Safety. It was he and his associates who decreed the levée en masse and decreed mass executions after the fall of Lyons on 6 October.
The Terror arrives
Although the summer of 1793 was good and the harvest plentiful the dry weather meant that the watermills could not word and food became scarce in Paris. At the same time news reached Paris of the surrender of Toulon to the British. On 5 September the mob once more invaded the Convention, pressurizing the Convention into a series of radical emergency measures. It declared terror ‘the order of the day’ and expanded the Revolutionary Tribunal. On 17 September the Law of Suspects empowered watch committees to arrest anyone who had in any way shown themselves hostile to the Revolution. Up to 10,000 people, arrested under the Law of Suspects, may have died in custody in over-crowded prisons; others were murdered or lynched with no official record.
On 29 September a General Maximum Law imposed price controls on a wide range of goods. In October the Committee of Public Safety took on the central direction of the entire state apparatus.
The queen’s trial began on 14 October. On 9 July she had been separated from her son and during the two day trial she was accused of having sexually abused him. She was guillotined on 16 October. David sketched her on her way to execution. The picture speaks for itself.
The trial of twenty-one Girondins began on 24 October. Brissot had been captured at Moulins. Roland committed suicide on hearing of the execution of his wife in early November. Their ‘treason’ had been their federalism and their comparative political moderation.
In October the republican calendar was adopted, backdated to 22 September 1792, in spite of Robespierre’s misgivings (Scurr, 263-4).
The Terror changes direction
The first phase of the Terror was spontaneous, unco-ordinated and difficult to control. This is seen, for example, in the Convention’s surrender to the demand for price controls that was, in effect ‘a pact with street violence’ (Scurr, 265). The second phase was a government response to the anarchy of mass deaths and the de-christianization. The de-christianization was marked by some dramatic events. The aged archbishop of Paris renounced his Catholicism at the bar of the Convention. Soon afterwards a Convention decree closed all the churches in Paris – a measure that was widely imitated in France. On 10 November (20 Brumaire) in a ceremony organized by the virulent journalist René Hébert, a printer’s wife was worshipped in Notre Dame as the goddess of reason. This disgusted Robespierre was fiercely antagonistic to atheism, which he saw as ‘aristocratic’. Now that the Girondins had gone he saw the virulent Hébertist faction as the new counter-revolutionaries.
On 4 December 1793 the Revolutionary Government passed the Law of 14 Frimaire (4 December), a measure of extreme centralization, which vested all power in the Committee of Public Safety (Doyle, 262-4, Scurr, 269). The Law of Frimaire, and power struggles within the Committee of Public Safety, allowed the elimination of the advocates of crowd disorder (the Hébertistes) in March 1794 after they mounted a failed coup. The mass of executions marked the end of the sans-culottes as a political force.
From December Camille Desmoulins (seen here with his wife Lucile and his baby son Horace, Robespierre's godson) had edited a journal called Le Vieux Cordelier, an attack on the Hébertists, and a call for a Committee of Clemency to provide justice for those arrested under the Law of Suspects. After a public quarrel in the Jacobin Club in January 1794, Danton came to fear that Robespierre, who had hitherto sacrificed his enemies, might now sacrifice his friends. On 10 January Camille was expelled from the Jacobins. Robespierre was now increasingly obsessed with cleansing the Republic of corruption.
‘If the basis of popular government in peacetime is virtue, its basis in time of revolution is both virtue and terror – virtue without which terror is disastrous and terror, without which virtue has now power.…Terror is merely justice, prompt, severe, and inflexible. It is therefore an emanation of virtue, and results from the application of democracy to the most pressing needs of the country.’ Quoted Scurr, 274-5.In April the Dantonists were arrested and imprisoned in the Luxembourg, where they met Tom Paine. They were brought before the Revolutionary Tribunal and executed.
Danton’s death marked the inauguration of the Republic of Virtue, which was characterized by a concentration of power at the centre. In May the cult of the Supreme Being was established (as a counter to anti-Christian excesses). Article I of the new constitution stated:
‘The French people recognizes the existence of the Supreme Being and the immortality of the soul.’On 20 Prairial (8 June, Whit Sunday in the old calendar) Paris celebrated the Festival of the Supreme Being in a ceremony stage-managed by David.
The Law of 22 Prairial (10 June) marks the height of the Terror. It was designed to speed up and expand the work of the Revolutionary Tribunal. Robespierre believed that the cult of the Supreme Being and the Law of Prairial would bring in the republic of virtue. The result of the law was to increase the number of executions. Between March and August 1794 2,639 people were guillotined, over half dying between June and July. Fouquier-Tinville was often summoned in the night to receive his orders of the day. He claimed he was followed everywhere by ghosts. Among those who died were the whole family of a girl who had tried to assassinate Robespierre and an underage maidservant.
Robespierre was brought down by his enemies outside the Committees of Public Safety and General Security. Many deputies were frightened that they would be brought before the Revolutionary Tribunal, especially those who had been recalled from their provincial missions, notably Joseph Fouché (a militant atheist who had committed atrocities in Nevers and Lyon) and Jean Lambert Tallien (who had terrorized the Vendée and Bordeaux).
Ever more isolated, Robespierre increasingly withdrew from the Convention and devoted his time to the Police Bureau where he spent hours analysing the reports of informers. On the morning of 8 Thermidor (26 July) Robespierre spoke for two hours to the Convention and threatened to name the conspirators against the Revolution. Everyone knew he meant Fouché, Tallien and their associates. Scurr, 311 ff. On the following day (9Thermidor ,27 July), Saint-Just was shouted down in the Convention and Robespierre, his brother Augustin, Saint-Just and three others were arrested. But some of the Parisian sections were growing restive and no prison would detain them. By 1 am on 10 Thermidor all five were in the Hotel de Ville waiting for the insurrection to begin when soldiers from the Convention burst in. Scurr, 321-2. Robespierre shattered his jaw in a botched suicide attempt. They were guillotined the same day under the provisions of the Law of Prairial. Over 100 of his supporters were executed on the following days. He had forced his enemies into the open and he paid the price.
On 1 August the Law of Prairial was repealed. In the following days there was a mass release of prisoners. In November 1795 a new government, the Directory, was set up. (Paine was released.) By this time France was becoming internally peaceful though the war was stepped up.