The French Revolution (2)
In line with humanitarian Enlightenment thought, the French revolutionaries wished to reform the system of punishment. In 1791 by a narrow majority, the Legislative Assembly voted to retain the death penalty but to replace the penalty of breaking on the wheel wit a new humane method of execution, the guillotine. Named after Dr Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, a professor of anatomy and a member of the Constituent Assembly, it operated on the Newtonian law of gravity and, it was argued, would avoid the botched decapitations of the past.
The French Revolution was full of symbols and one of the most powerful was that of the common man, the artisan or sans-culotte. He wore trousers instead of knee-breeches, wooden clogs rather than buckled shoes, a short jacket known as the carmagnole, his natural hair and the tricolour cockade on the red cap of liberty. The sans-culotte was the militant defender of the Revolution, championed as such by the radical journalist, Jean-Paul Marat.
A nation under arms
By the spring of 1793 France was at war with Austria, Prussia, Britain and Spain. But it also faced civil war as rebels in the Vendée proclaimed ‘Louis XVII’ and formed the ‘Royal Catholic Army’. The revolt spread to other parts of France.
In April, the Committee of Public Safety was established, drawn from members of the Convention.
The decree of the Lévée en Masse of 23 August conscripted the whole nation into the war effort.
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, where counter-revolutionaries were drowned in the Loire. 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 creation of the Terror
By the summer of 1793 the revolutionaries in the Convention were divided into two factions: the more moderate Girondins led by Jacques-Pierre Brissot, and the radical Jacobins led by Maximilien Robespierre and Georges Danton. The assassination of Marat by Charlotte Corday on 13 July created a martyr for the Revolution. It was a disaster for the moderate Girondins, who were accused of complicity in the murder.
On 5 September a decree of the Convention declared that ‘Terror is the order of the day’. Suspects were arrested and revolutionary committees purged.
In October the Girondin leaders and Marie-Antoinette were guillotined.
On 24 October (6 brumaire) the revolutionary calendar was introduced. On 23 November (3 frimaire) the Paris churches were closed. On 4 December (14 frimaire) all power was centralized in the Committee of Public Safety.
In the spring of 1794 the Jacobins fractured. The ‘Indulgents’ led by Danton wished to rein in the Terror but they were opposed by Robespierre. On 5 April (16 germinal) the Dantonists were executed.
On 7 May (18 floreal) a new religion, the Cult of the Supreme Being, was initiated by Robespierre (left). This represented a triumph of the deistic philosophy of the Enlightenment The first festival of the Supreme Being was held in Paris on 8 June (20 prairial) with Robespierre as master of ceremonies.
The Law of Prairial (10 June) instituted the Great Terror. But on 27 July (9 thermidor) Robespierre and his associates were arrested and guillotined the following day. The Thermidor coup marks the end of the Terror, though the war continued and France endured a period of uncertain government.
The ideology of the Terror
The Terror was about establishing purity, patriotism and virtue. In September 1792 at the time of the first meeting of the Convention, Robespierre wrote:
‘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.’ [quoted Ruth Scurr, Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution (Vintage, 2007, 219-10]
‘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.’ [Scurr, 211]
Louis Antoine de 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.’