The Terror, voted as ‘the order of the day’ by the National Convention on the 5th September 1793 and lasting until July 1794, was the most notorious and radical period of the French Revolution. It is remembered particularly for its institutionalised and socially indiscriminate bloodshed – approximately 200,000 suspects were tried by the Revolutionary Tribunals and 20,000 sentenced to death (exact numbers are highly disputed), with an estimated 2217 in Paris between February and July 1794 alone. Terror was justified as a means of bringing the Revolution, ongoing and unstable since 1789, to closure, and to remove the danger of the Republic’s ‘enemies’ by using force to ensure absolute compliance with laws. It was described by Robespierre, the leading political figure of the day, as nothing more than ‘prompt, severe, inflexible justice’, though some of the supposed crimes would seem ludicrous today. Despite the arguments of some historians, the events of this time period and the ideologies it rested on had not been inevitable since 1789. A genuine effort had been made to institute a constitutional monarchy and, as evident from his many speeches, even Robespierre had been staunchly opposed to the use of capital punishment up until 1791 – he had in fact been one of the most democratic politicians generally in the early Revolution.
The radicalisation of Robespierre’s thought and the Revolution more broadly were largely influenced largely by fear, even paranoia. The fear stemmed partly from the war, which had been being fought against Austria, Prussia, and Great Britain since the spring of 1792: the losses of the French fortresses of Conde and Valenciennes, and the surrender of Mainz had a particularly negative effect. It came from the threat of counterrevolution even more – the peasant insurgencies in the Vendee went from victory to victory in 1793, undoubtedly influencing the later brutal repression of seemingly ordinary citizens. The growing tensions between the two main political factions in France – the Montagnards (more radical) and Girondins (more moderate) – had also reached breaking point – the moderate sections were purged in June and the more Montagnard Marat was assassinated in July. This latter event was a huge blow, serving to both intensify and seemingly justify the increasing fear of conspiracy. Fear was also based on ideas. Liberty had become an inexplicably important principle in the Revolution – by the time of the Terror this supposedly abstract idea had already helped to justify the trial and execution of the King. It was particularly central in Robespierre’s political thought and he was prepared, in his position of power, to do anything he considered necessary for its protection and advance.
Robespierre was eventually overcome with paranoia to the point, it has been argued, of mental instability. Fellow members of the Convention and Committee of Public Safety (the de facto executive government) turned against him – perhaps they considered him as having gone too far, perhaps it was for their own gain. Robespierre, though by no means solely responsible for the nature of the period (though popular historical memory would have us believe otherwise), was overthrown on 27th July (9th Thermidor according to the Revolutionary calendar) and himself guillotined the following day. The Thermidorian and Directory regimes followed his downfall and brought the end of the Terror, though not the instability of Revolution.
Guest writer Phd Student known as Catherine Hulse at Queen merry University