Reader Kevin, who I’m beginning to suspect is writing a term paper on the French Revolution, writes again to ask what led to the Reign of Terror. It’s another great question to which again there may be no easy answer. But I’m always up for flappin’ my fingers on the subject of history…I’ll give it a try. Jump in, proper historians, since I’m bound to slip up at some point here.
It’s popularly thought, at least here in the States, that the Terror happened in the immediate aftermath of the French Revolution of 1789. The peasants stormed the Bastille one day and started chopping off heads the next. In point of fact it did not happen that way. It took another four years from the time of the initial uprisings in Paris to the ascension of Maximilien Robespierre, the Jacobins and the guillotine. The intervening years were rather moderate. Various forms of representative democracy were tried, including a British-style constitutional monarchy which failed, leading to the execution of King Louis XVI in early 1793.
So then what kicked off the Terror? Some historians theorize that it arose from popular frustration, when the promised reforms of the French Revolution didn’t materialize in the first few years, sentiment boiled over and the head-chopping began. It may also be the case that after other alternative forms of government had failed, the radical approach of Robespierre was the only thing that hadn’t been tried. Whatever the case, once the Jacobins seized power and centralized it under their Committee of Public Safety, a de-facto dictatorship was created and the regime began to systematically kill off its opponents.
These opponents included of course the aristocracy and the clergy, who we beheaded by the thousands, as well as the opposing moderates who still remained in the government, the so-called Girondists. Yet to me the truly striking feature of the Reign of Terror wasn’t the number of aristocrats, priests and politicians who were executed, but the number of peasant and middle-class folks who were also put to the blade, people who — for offenses large and small — were labeled “enemies of the revolution” and sentenced to death. These ordinary French men and women accounted for some 75% of the 40,000 deaths the occurred during the Terror.
Was that “justice”? In the view of Robespierre, and most of the rest of the Jacobins, it was. “Terror is nothing else than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible,” he said.
But why did the Jacobins start killing ordinary citizens? All you can really say is that once a bloodbath like the Terror starts, it’s awfully hard to stop. To me the ultimate symbol of the depravity of the Terror is a fellow by the name of Jean Paul Marat. Marat was a twisted pseudo-journalist who, because of a skin condition, sat in a bathtub all day writing out long lists of names: people who would eventually be targeted for arrest and execution. Most of them Marat never knew — he’d only heard of them — but that didn’t stop him from writing and writing his lists, which eventually became orders, which turned into tribunals, then trips to the block.
Fortunately for France a young woman by the name of Charlotte Corday took the Marat matter into her own hands. A revolutionary but of a milder sort, Corday like a great many of her countrymen wanted a more egalitarian future but had had enough of the Jacobins and their constant bloodlettings. So she called on Marat one day, ostensibly to supply him with information on a brewing rebellion, and stabbed him in his tub. You’ve probably seen this famous painting of the incident. Similar fates befell many of Marat’s ilk including Robespierre himself, once the French people began to rise up against the constant killing and other ideological flights of fancy. Robespierre was shot in the jaw before being guillotined in 1794.
That was the end of the Terror though not of the Revolution which officially continued to 1799, the year when Napoleon Bonaparte ultimately staged a coup and…well that’s whole ‘nother story, non?