The French Reign Of Terror

As if the French Revolution were not enough, the French people having endured decades of irresponsible governing and political unrest were plunged into another nightmare of drastic proportion. Indeed, in today’s terms the French terror would be called an act of genocide. The Reign of Terror is synonymous with one man in particular: Maximilien Francois Marie Isidore Robespierre. Robespierre was born in Arras on 5 May 1758, to an advocate father but was brought up by relatives along with three siblings after the tragic death of his mother in 1767.

Robespierre himself qualified as an advocate in 1781 and exhibiting profound oratory prowess he became a successful advocate. His fascination of social theory grew into a form of a hobby with his chief mentor being the French philosopher Jean Jaques Rousseau. Robespierre joined a group that became known as the Jacobin Club, of which he was nominated president. This group of intellectuals were often referred to as “The Incorruptibles” and along with Petion de Villeneuve, the two men became patriotic to the company of France.

At this stage, war with Austria was imminent. In June of 1791 King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette attempted to defect and Robespierre’s former support for the monarchy dwindled. The Duke of Brunswick made full use of this political unrest and together with Prussia and certain non-patriotic French threatened France with annihilation should anyone oppose his entry into France (Age of the Sage, 2008).

The Reign of Terror lasted from September 1793-July 1974 and was largely due to the philosophical belief that the guillotine and execution, although terrible and extreme, was necessary for the building of a pure French nation.

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Rousseau, the philosopher held the belief that no man is inherently evil or born evil, but that society makes them evil. This gives rise however to old argument of whether the chicken or the egg came first. So an estimated 16 000 people between these dates were guillotine in an effort to purge the nation of the trouble makers and rabble of society from January.

The corruption that settled into France after the execution of the monarchs, questioned whether or not the monarchy had been so bad after all, since the battles between Austria and France were not in Frances’ favour, those that appeared to be siding with the enemy were, of course disposed of by the Jacobin Assembly. The Committee of Public safety, of which Robespierre and his colleague Danton were influential, ruled France from January of 1793, but it was only in September that the mass executions began in earnest.

The Assembly passed from Danton to Robespierre and the real collapse of Robespierres reign of terror came to an abrupt and grotesque end when he condemned his two friends Danton and Desmoulins ( The France of Victor Hugo). At this stage the obvious pressure of power and worse still of maintaining power had taken its toll on the diverse Robespierre. By some misfortune, he believed his own fellow comrades to be conspiring against him. This scenario is not unlike that of the German autocrat Adolph Hitler, whose mantra and volatile personality played out in a similar fashion.

The connection is that they both were intent on ‘purging’ their countries and were staunch defenders of their nationality. The simple paranoia that had gripped Robespierre was defined by rumor alone, when it was heard that Danton had been taking bribes from officials and the monarchy, whether or not this was true is met with considerable skepticism. Desmoulin had the misfortune of having sided with Danton on a completely different subject altogether.

The fact that he sided with Danton once must surely mean that he is acting in the same way as Danton and is therefore also not adverse to corruption. The cycle of paranoia is in the end the very rationale that sent Robespierre to his death on 28 July 1794 (Ibid. ). The rationale used by Robespierre was one of intense self-delusion. The only man to decide what was right and what was wrong, he allowed no other arguments to sway his opinion. With the death of his two friends, he had crossed the barrier between seeking what was good and right for the people and what satisfied himself.

In modern terms he could be termed Narcissistic, a disorder associated with many of the modern autocrats including Adolph Hitler and Saddam Hussein. That there was something wrong with the ideology of purging the nation may not have been the chief problem, the problem was his meteoric and shadowed rise to power. At this stage some of the members of the Committee planned the coup of Robespierres power, fearing their own lives to be in danger. He was arrested the day before his execution, the Committee not leaving room for his defense or release (Ibid. ).

But Robespierre did not go to the guillotine alone, nineteen followers were also sentenced, including Louis St Just and Georges Couthon (Age of the Sage, 2008) A moral question inevitably rears its head within the context of the story of Robespierre: at what stage does a good idea become a horribly bad one? At what stage does one the power of a group of people pass to one person, and why? Moral high-ground in this case argues that yes, society should be purged of those who corrupt it, but who is granted the soul power with which to judge these people?

In addition to this is the philosophical question Robespierre himself might have asked: what are the just deserts? Just deserts, contemplated by the ancient philosophers such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle would say that to each person should be given the penalty they deserve for the crime they committed. A person convicted of treason of felony, would be measured not in the same way as one convicted for murder. This would not give Robespierre or his compatriots grounds by which to execute those who have not committed murder, or those who cannot be tried beyond reasonable doubt for what they have allegedly done.

This was Robespierres prime downfall. But Robespierre was not alone in his plight to rid France of the corrupt. He numbered about 19 supporters close to him. Along with Danton and Desmoulins was also the likes of Marat and the upstart St Just and Couthon. St Just and Couthon were bothe guillotined with Robespierre on that fateful July day. Robespierre is quoted as having said in a proposal to the deputation at Aisne, “In the situation in which it now is, gangrened by corruption, and without power to remedy it, the Convention can no longer save the republic; both will perish together.”(Morris, 2007). Jean Paul Marat, a Swiss born doctor, died not long after the start of the Reign of Terror, when he was assassinated by Charlotte Corday in his apartment. Marat had suffered a debilitating skin disease contracted from hiding out in sewers after the execution of the monarchy. Because he opposed the trial and guillotining of his king and queen, he was hated by the ruling party of the parliament at the time, the Girondins and had been on the run since his outspokenness regarding the lack of justice in the parliament.

The Jacobin Club of course welcomed him whole-heartedly as an alliance, but after his tragic stabbing, the leading forces of the Committee began to weaken. With Danton and Robespierre now the main voices for the cause it was not long before the rot would set in (NNDB, 2008). Jean Jacques Danton had also opposed the trial of the king and had also pleaded for the release of his friend Marat, long before the execution of the monarch’s occurred. Although he was allied to Robespierre, he did not consider him to be terribly bright, yet saw him in this manner as a good scapegoat in the face of the new decision to purge France.

To Danton’s demise, Robespierre had his moment of revenge when he ordered Danton’s execution. But Danton died with one phrase that would soon prove to be right, “I leave it all in a frightful welter”, he said; “not a man of them has an idea of government. Robespierre will follow me; he is dragged down by me. Ah, better be a poor fisherman than meddle with the government of men! “(NNDB, 2008). Camille Desmoulins and his wife Lucille were both executed by the maniacal Robespierre along with Danton. He was a writer and as a result had great power to boost or shatter any government or parliament.

More a friend of St Just than Robespierre, he was accepted into the fold of Jacobin Assemblies and continued to write in favour of the purge of France. Also a fan of Jean Jaques Rousseau, Desmoulins used Rousseau’s statement “burning is not answering”, to the indignant Robespierre on the day he ordered the burning of Desmoulins Vieux Cordelier. At this stage both St Just and Robespierre were becoming too fundamentalist about their pursuits, using unnecessary means to order the execution of civilians on a whim rather than because they had grievously damaged the Assembly (NNDB, 2008).

Memoirs written in a dissertation called Memoirs From Beyond The Grave, by Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand recalls the life of a noble man returning to Paris after the revolution. The excerpt it cutting and altogether rather frank in its description of the Paris under Terror. “In 1792, when I returned to Paris, it no longer exhibited the same appearance as in 1789 and 1790. It was no longer the new-born Revolution, but a people intoxicated, rushing on to fulfil its destiny across abysses and by devious ways.

The appearance of the people was no longer curious and eager, but threatening. The king’s flight on June 21, 1791, gave an immense impulse to the Revolution. Having been brought back to Paris on June 25, he was dethroned for the first time, in consequence of the declaration of the National Assembly that all its decrees should have the force of law, without the king’s concurrence or assent. I visited several of the “Clubs. ” The scenes at the Cordeliers, at which I was three or four times present, were ruled and presided over by Danton–a Hun, with the nature of a Goth.

Faithful to my instincts, I had returned from America to offer my sword to Louis XVI. , not to involve myself in party intrigues. I therefore decided to “emigrate. ” Brussels was the headquarters of the most distinguished emigres. There I found my trifling baggage, which had arrived before me. The coxcomb emigres were hateful to me. I was eager to see those like myself, with 600 livres income. My brother remained at Brussels as an aide-de-camp to the Baron de Montboissier.

I set out alone for Coblentz, went up the Rhine to that city, but the royal army was not there. Passing on, I fell in with the Prussian army between Coblentz and Treves. My white uniform caught the king’s eye. He sent for me; he and the Duke of Brunswick took off their hats, and in my person saluted the old French army”(De Chateaubriand, 1802). In his memoirs, the division in France was obvious, and was not to die even in the writings observed by the writer Alexandre Dumas, whose book The Three Musketeers, bravely holds to the army of the king.

The state of France was not only thwarted by impending attacks of Austrian and Prussian power but also threatened by the Terror from within its country, which had originally formed in order to prevent the breaking up of the unity France had tried to maintain. Bertrand Barere de Vieuzac remembers the succession of the Robespierre Triumverate and the request to disband the law of violence as a means to control and prevent further deterioration of the already fragile climate.

De Vieuzac had been a member of the Committee and Constituent Assembly: “As for the Committee of Public Safety, they stated that they had played no role in the matter, and disowned the law completely. Everyone agreed that it would be revoked the next day. After this decision, Robespierre and Saint-Just stated that they would put the matter before the public. They stated that it was perfectly clear that a party had been created to ensure immunity for the enemies of the people and that in this way, Liberty’s most ardent friends would be lost.

But, they said, they would know how to protect the good citizens against the combined maneuvering of the two governmental committees. They departed, threatening members of the committee, including Carnot, among others, whom Saint-Just called an aristocrat and threatened to denounce to the Assembly. It was like a declaration of war between the two committees and the triumvirate. ”(De Vieuzac, 1842: 205-206). Another memoir that relates the opposite side of the field are from the Nationalist movement, those opposing Robespierre.

Marthurin de Lescure recalls how he stood up against the Triumverate and by some miracle was not executed for his beliefs. His prime argument was that a man cannot be persecuted on the grounds of hi opinion. He remembers the idea of persecution of civilians and parliamentarians simply because their opinion differed from that of Danton and Robespierre: “Bentabolle’s proposition requesting a report on my motion was rightfully argued against, since the freedom of opinion is the right of a representative of the people, and that without this freedom, the entire State would be oppressed.

Also, far from wanting either a report or a decree on this matter, I proposed that only those who were against this sacred right receive a punishment. In addition, Bentabolle’s language made it clear how the Montagnards judged the silence of their colleagues on their right. They called them the “weak beings,” a name which, if they were right, was a serious charge against us, since we were sent by the Nation to uphold its interests. To neglect those interests, or sacrifice them through weakness, would have been a real failure to do our duty.

But we only had the appearance of weakness, because, not being able to fight the follies of the Mountain under pain of death, our inertia was but a great strength. We preferred the dangers, the disrespect, the humiliations with which we were bombarded, than giving in to being accomplices of the Mountain for our own safety. Nothing was easier for us than to line up in the reassuring ranks of our dominators. But the price to pay for this peace was worse than death.  There was, in the space that separated the Right from the Mountain, a spot in the hall that was called “the stomach.

” Those that sat there were not of the Right, they did not share in our humiliations, but neither did they have the courage to disprove the evil done by the left side by sitting so close. They had nonetheless the silly pride to call themselves wiser that those on their right, even though they were less courageous, and alone deserved the name “weak beings. ””(de Lescure, 1881: 410-413). I the end, Robespierre had his day, and it was an entirely necessary part of the French history from the point of view that it draws attention to the dangers of radicalism.

It draws the realization that power is both fixating and damaging. Robespierre has unfortunately been reincarnated in the form of Adolph Hitler, Josef Stalin and Saddam Hussein and in time has become the most hated and strangely respected man in French history. The French Terror lasted a maximum of 15 months but killed more than 16 000 people in a vain attempt to rid society of corruption. It is not unlike the ideas of the ancient philosophers, but it has to be remembered that what works in theory may not work in reality.


  1. Bertrand Barere de Vieuzac, Memoires de B. Barere, membre de la constituante, de la Convention, du Comite de Salut public, et de la Chambre des representants, vol. 2 (Paris: J. Labitte, 1842), 205–6.
  2. Translated by Exploring the French Revolution project staff from original documents in French found in John Hardman, French Revolution Documents 1792–95, vol. 2 (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1973), 250.
  3. “Camille Desmoulins”, “Georges Jacques Danton” and “Jean Paul Marat”. 2008. NNDB. Accessed: 11 February 2008. (http://www. nndb. com/people/480/000097189/)(http://www. nndb. com/people/658/000092382/) (http://www. nndb. com/people/630/000092354/)

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