The Reign of Terror: what was it?
‘Nobody had dreamed of establishing a system of terror. It established itself by force of circumstances.’ Quoted William Doyle, Oxford History of the French Revolution, 266.Nevertheless, the Terror was government policy from the autumn of 1793 until its abandonment in August 1794.
What was the Terror? It was the period of nine months in the course of which around 16,000 people were guillotined. Famous victims included Marie Antoinette, the Girondins and eventually the Dantonist Jacobin faction. The terror ended with the execution of Robespierre in July 1794. 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.
But the bulk of the victims of the Terror were ordinary people and were shot or drowned as well as guillotined. The main scenes of the provincial Terror were Lyons (Doyle, 254), the Vendée and Nantes, the scene of the noyades (256-7). The total number who died in the Terror was around 30,000. More people died in Ireland in 1798 and in Poland in 1794.
The Terror 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.
In September 1793 a spontaneous demonstration by manual workers for higher wages and more bread pressured the Convention into a series of radical emergency measures. On 17 September the Law of Suspects empowered watch committees to arrest anyone who had in any way shown themselves hostile to the Revolution (Doyle, 251). 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 first phase of the Terror was spontaneous, unco-ordinated and difficult to control. 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.
The second phase was a government response to the anarchy of mass deaths and de-christianization. On 4 December 1793 the Revolutionary Government passed the Law of 14 Frimaire, a measure of extreme centralization, which vested all power in the Committee of Public Safety (Doyle, 262-4). 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. The mass of executions marked the end of the sans-culottes as a political force (Doyle, 271).
From early 1794 Robespierre (right), member of the Committee of Public Safety and leading speaker in the Convention became increasingly obsessed with cleansing the Republic of corruption. In April the Dantonists were executed ((Doyle, 274). 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). The Law of 22 Prairial (10 June) marks the height of the Terror. Between March and August 1794 2,639 people were guillotined, over half dying between June and July (Doyle, 275).
Robespierre was brought down by the 9Thermidor coup (27 July), executed under the provisions of the Law of Prairial. Over 100 of his supporters were executed on the following days.
‘By implying that those of whom he disapproved or with whom he disagreed deserved execution, he forced them into destroying him before he destroyed them.’ (Doyle, 281).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. By this time France was becoming internally peaceful though the war was stepped up.
Here is Antonia Fraser's very interesting review of Ruth Scurr's Fatal Purity, a life of Robespierre.