The Bloodiest Terror in Revolution: The Reign of Terror

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At the onset of the French Revolution was a ray of hope as intellectuals were keen to have their ideas of enlightenment put into action. The revolution symbol was the “Declaration of the Rights of Man”, which decreed rights of man including the right to vote, and freedom of speech. Nevertheless, with Jacobins Club gaining control, French revolution took a U-turn, a dark turn, whereby blood and guillotine took over as the new symbol of the French radical revolution headed by Robespierre in what famously came to be referred to as the Reign of Terror. The Terror could have been avoided; it was not an inevitable outcome of the French Revolution, and it was unjustifiable. Terrorizing and victimizing innocent people to pass a message that anyone can be a target, and, therefore, everyone must abide to the decreed dictatorial powers can never be justified. This research will explore how the Reign of Terror was an evitable outcome of the French revolution. The self-inflicted fear that came in the wave of the Terror could have been avoided if the leaders and revolutionaries had the will of people at heart. This research is an exploration of how the Terror came into play, how it escalated further with the mass executions and victimizations, and proves that it was indeed evitable.

The Reign of Terror

The Reign of Terror was a period between June 1793 and July 1794 (Thermidor), when the government was dominated by Jacobins. This period ended in July 1794 when Maxmilien Robespierre was overthrown. Several reasons are attributed to the beginning of the Terror. Some argue out that Terror started in January 1793 when Louis XVI was executed; others say it began in March 1793 following the Revolutionary Tribunal creation, while others say it began in July 1793 with the Committee of Public Safety consolidation. Nonetheless, in the fall of 1793, Terror became the order of the day in revolutionary France as a result of a Paris uprising in 4th to 5th September (Neely 2008, p. 33). This uprising was caused by the escalating food prices as well as news about Toulon city that was on Mediterranean France coast falling to the British.

After the monarchy downfall, French revolutionaries encountered huge divisions among people and popular insurrections. When the revolution began, there were numerous people supporting the monarchy, something that gave rise to treason accusations against that new republic. There was a need to have a new government that was stable and that would put the chaos to an end. Consequently, the “Committee of Public Safety” led by Maxmilien Robespierre came into existence. Robespierre stated that he was after creating a “republic of virtue” whereby the government would actually force everyone to become a virtuous republican through use of a massive re-education program. Consequently, the Reign of Terror began with the aim of eliminating the opposition and coercing people to submission. According to Robespierre, the Terror was undoubtedly essential and inevitable to sustain the Republic through revealing the enemy that was within France. Nevertheless, the Terror evidently proved to distort ideals of the revolution mainly because instead of assisting the nation to obtain greatness and unity, it subjected its own citizens to victimization (Gregory 2014, p. 119).

Robespierre elaborated the main aim of the French Revolution which was to ensure that people peacefully enjoy equality and liberty. Revolutionaries sort to find a fair government which would permit people from all social classes to indeed celebrate and enjoy the same rights and without drawing huge differences with aristocrats. The gap between First Estate and Third Estate was really wide and all the revolutionaries were trying to do was narrow it. Evidently, the Reign of Terror did not at all promote equality or liberty; it instead victimized and terrorized people by subjecting them to execution by cannon and guillotine, and subjected other people to desperate measures. Robespierre wanted to give people what he thought was best for them, and he in the end had the belief that that could be attained by ruling over the people. He actually wanted to control people’s lives and thought that such kind of ruling with his iron fist would grow the country and move it forward. In his speech he incorporated talk about natural virtue with emphasis that what makes a nation corrupt is when its people lose their virtue, character, and liberty. This was so ironical in that it was him who lost his virtues, and the Revolution primary ideas, and thus crossing over to opposition. Robespierre initially believed in people’s equality, believes that were soon turned the other way round. The bottom line remains that The Reign of Terror could be avoided as it was far much worse compared to the previous monarchy, as it terrorized and victimized people and took control of all aspects of people’s lives (Joll 1990, p. 21)

The reason for the end of monarchy in France was because people wanted power limitation for the king, the then government. People were opposed to one person ruling their lives, enforcing and promoting laws beneficial to him and a selected few. Top in the new government’s constitution was the declaration of citizen’s rights. The constitution was a vital Revolution document which stated that the collective and individual rights of each social estate were universal. Laws were only meant to forbid actions that could hurt the society meaning that laws were to be created only for the people’s good and not for selfish reasons (Neely 2008, p. 79). However, the Terror enforced and promoted laws against equality and liberty ideals. Such rights like freedom of speech, freedom of religion were buried deep down when ending with opposition. The Reign of Terror gave birth to laws that were opposed to Christianity, closing churches, and surprisingly making men of the clergy to instead of vow to the church vow to be loyal to the constitution. Those were primitive laws that should have never been meant to see the light of day as they failed to put a stop to such actions that were hurtful to the society. All this barbarism was self-inflicted and could have been avoided. The Reign of Terror distorted the desire of people to put power limitations to the government as it gave rise to laws permitting only a small society section to have control on the lives of people, and make the people in the higher ranks in the society richer as they benefitted when others were suffering (Herrmann et al, 2010, p. 95).

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The revolutionaries created violence during the Terror that was unnecessary as it further escalated violence causing more suffering to people. Violence and power are two totally different things and should never be mistaken for each other because the reason for violence is when power is endangered. Violence could actually see the downfall of a certain government or regime. This was precisely what happened to Robespierre as he in the end had no power at all to govern and control the lives of people. He had the notion that without virtue terror was fatal, and without terror virtue was impotent. The end result was that terror caused more violence and more division in society (Tackett 2017, p. 130). Robespierre claimed that terror was inflexible justice when his Terror was imposed as a result of frustrations against the rich, upper class division, and his want to rule people’s lives. Evidently, justice was actually not the best Terror definition as fairness was absence in the revolutionaries’ minds who executed commoners. The Terror paved way to the thriving of violence, fear, and violence in France causing more divisions in the social classes.

Government by Terror

Government by terror was obligated by the perception of two dangers. First, popular violence and public panic that were caused by escalating food prices and food shortages; and the danger that traitors posed at a period when both civil war and war confronted the nation. At the onset of May 1793, price control was imposed by the National Convention on bread and grain, in a move to ascertain adequate supply of food. Price controls were extended to the other consumer goods in September 1793 (Herrmann et al, 2010, p. 36). The armees revolutionnaires were then formed with the aim of enforcing the new price controls and coercing peasants to provide grains to markets. Additionally some of the revolutionary armies conducted patrols in the provinces using ambulatory guillotines, ready to administer what was termed as revolutionary justice to anyone who manipulated market prices or hoarded grain, right there on the spot. Large cities were hit by grain shortages and felt vulnerable to the popular unrest which accompanied them. Parisians had witnessed the dangerous under-supply in their city in 1793’s summer. Second, terror meant the civil liberties suspension and repression of the perceived revolution enemies. The most severe impacts of Terror were felt in civil war areas and counterrevolution as well as several frontier departments. Of the eighty three departments, Terror claimed less than 10 victims in about one-third of the total departments. Of the total death sentences, seventy percent were in just five departments. The terror was even harsher in some areas. Close to the Vendee rebellion center, in Nantes, a city that sympathized with the federalist revolt, local militants and Jean-Baptiste Carrier ordered that three thousand suspected counterrevolutionaries be drowned. In Lyon, a federalist center and a city known for royalist sympathies saw close to two thousand people executed, some were shot dead by use of cannon while others were guillotined. In the summer of 1793, other cities that resisted National Convention like Marseille, Bordeaux, and Toulon cities also suffered more than three hundred executions during the Reign of Terror.

Law of Suspects with the Main Terror Victims

The impacts of the Terror traversed across all social classes. Aristocrats were thought to be the main victims but the fact is that the peasants formed the greatest number of victims. In September 1793, a Law of Suspects was passed that empowered surveillance local committees to come up with suspects lists and arrest them (Gregory 2014, p. 95). Subjected to arrest were: liberty enemy suspects, tyranny advocates, and federalism supporters; ex-aristocrats who resisted the revolution; and illegal emigrants who emigrated since the start of the revolution as they were thought to be counterrevolution agents and spies or the invading army soldiers. This law saw seventy thousand persons, about 0.5 percent of total population arrested. Greer, an American historian estimated that during the terror, about forty thousand persons were executed. With an inclusion of the deaths in Vendee repression the death toll figure mounts significantly higher. Jean Clement Martin stated that about 200,000 republicans and 250,000 insurgents died in the war in which both sides suffered immensely. The total figure of death sentences was 16,594. However, many other people died without getting formal death sentences enforced in a law court. A big number of people died in prisons that were unsanitary and overcrowded while awaiting trial. For most of the people who perished in federalist revolts and civil wars, their deaths were not officially recorded.

Paris had the most striking Reign of Terror images as several revolution “show trials” considered most dramatic took place. In March 1793, there was the formation of Revolutionary Tribunal ironically proposed by Jean-Baptiste Carrier, who was later in 1974 given a death sentence by the same tribunal he assisted in bringing up. Antoine-Quentin Fouquier - Tinville in 1974 became the Revolutionary Tribunal’s public prosecutor, a position he maintained up to 9 Thermidor. The tribunal was expanded to create room for the concurrent running of four courts in September 1793, a period that saw terror become the order of the day. In October 1793 during Girondins trial, there was a decree by National Convention that juries should limit trials to three days that is if they were convinced that the accused was guilty. In June 1794, the “Law of 22 Prairial” was passed as a result of Robespierre supposed assassination attempt. That law eliminated cross-examination and defense counsel, limited juries to only two possible verdicts: death or acquittal, and declared that material and moral evidence might be a justification to a conviction. That law led to the tribunal’s most active period of its existence (Tackett 2017, p. 69).

Show Trials

Victims from both sides of revolutionary political spectrum died as a result of the show trials of the period between September 1793 and September 1794. In October 1793, led by Pierre-Victurnien Vergniaud, the great orator, the Girondin deputies were tried and later executed. Later on that month, Marie-Antoinette was convicted of high treason and then executed by guillotine. Jacques-Rene Hebert and several of his supporters were tried and executed in March 1794. Suffering the same fate a week later were Georges Danton and the Indulgents, blamed for being lenient to revolution enemies. In the spring of 1794, political threats to Jacobin republic had abated, but the Reign of Terror now had its own momentum. About 60 percent of total persons issued with death sentences were executed between June and July 1794. That was a great revolutionary justice escalation that led to Robespierre downfall on 9 Thermidor on the 22nd of July 1794. He was executed the following day. Among the last victims of the Revolutionary Tribunal was the public prosecutor, Fouquier-Tinville himself who was guillotined (Hanson 2004, p. 60).

Why the Terror Ended

People were tired of the Terror. The atmosphere was not conducive at all. That was a traumatic period characterized by fear. It was enough; it was no longer possible to carry on living in such a semi-intoxicated state mixed with fear. Robespierre was executed, the tribunal committee was dismantled, and the Jacobin club shut down marking the end of the Terror as a government instrument. To the people’s dismay, “White Terror” evolved and included murder gangs that attacked former Jacobins, a war that started in 1794 and further escalated in 1795.


In conclusion, the Reign of Terror is viewed by some as the predecessor of the twentieth century far much bloodier revolutionary terrors. The Reign of Terror tarnished the 1789 aims and ideals of the French Revolution. The French Revolution came into existence as people aspired to have freedom and that was a great inspiration to so many other countries. It perpetually altered France political atmosphere by getting rid of an old government form. Nevertheless, the French Revolution was also epitomized by a very darker side known as the Reign of Terror. During this period, the revolutionaries ignored or forgot the ideals of equality and liberty, terrorized and victimized people as they desired. At first violence might actually seem to do good, but the good could only be temporary and could also create temporary evil. There were worse divisions created and lasted for way too many years all thanks to the horrible acts and violence that the revolutionaries committed during the Reign of Terror. There was actually no point in launching opposition to abuses and oppression committed by the higher social class if the answer proposed was more abuses and oppression by the new bosses set to lead the revolution.

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