The Cultural Approach To Reasoning Behind Reign Of Terror Justified

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The Reign of Terror is best explained in a cultural approach because of its radical leader, Maximilium Robespierre. His views as a cultural and political leader consequently gave rise to the Reign of Terror because he abused his authority by passing laws that targeted his political enemies, utilized violence as a method of protecting the virtues of the revolution, and directly contradicted the primary pillars of the liberal revolution and its constitutional government. The integral role that Robespierre played in the inauguration of the Reign of Terror in the late 18th century will forever taint his legacy. Despite his bad reputation, Robespierre was originally seen as a politician, lawyer, and a man of the people. He made a name for himself during the years leading up to the French Revolution by advocating for universal suffrage for men and the right to bear arms. His rather humanitarian doctrines published before the revolution earned him favor from the silent majority and he eventually became a powerful and influential figure in the French National Convention. However, Robespierre had a strong intolerance for his political opposition and his unwavering sense of self-righteousness only fueled his disdain for his enemies. 

The year 1793 marked Robespierre’s meteoric rise to power as the National Convention established the Committee of Public Safety and declared that all decrees made by this government institution took precedence over all others. The unofficial leader of this committee was none other than Maximilien Robespierre himself. The establishment of this committee probably made him the most powerful person in France. With his new power, he influenced the passing of several laws that targeted his enemies, including the Law of Suspects. The Law of Suspects was passed on September 17th, 1793 allowing the swift and legal apprehension of any suspects within the republic who, “…by their conduct, associations, comments, or writings have shown themselves partisans of tyranny or federalism and enemies of liberty.”(Law of Suspects, paragraph 2) The people who were apprehended were put through trials called “Revolutionary Tribunals” where suspects who were found guilty were put to death. The Law of Suspects marks the beginning of the Reign of Terror in France. Robespierre grew very impatient as the revolution wore on and his philosophies began to express very radical views. He wanted nothing more than to build the “ideal republic” and he didn’t care what the cost was. He did not care what sacrifices were made as long as his philosophies maintained their vitality because he believed that his ideas were the best. Anyone who got in his way was just another human sacrifice. For example, his speech on revolutionary government in 1793 encouraged the apprehension and execution of any potential “enemies of liberty”. 

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He believed that revolutionary governments must act outside of the traditional constraints of any constitutional government because of the current state of unrest. In his speech on the revolutionary government he said, “The revolutionary government has to summon extraordinary activity to its aid precisely because it’s at war. It is subjected to less binding and less uniform regulations, because the circumstances in which it finds itself in are tempestuous and shifting.” Later in the address he says, “To good citizens revolutionary government owes the full protection of the state; to the enemies of the people it owes only death.”(Popkin, p.72) Keep in mind, Robespierre was frustrated by the slow pace of the revolution and he believed that the urgent circumstances called for urgent action. As Robespierre’s influence grew, suspicion and terror followed suit. At one point the National Convention mandated that any persons accused of treason weren’t allowed a trial, instead they were executed with no chance to prove their loyalty to the new republic. In Eric Selbin’s Agency and Culture in Revolutions, Selbin explained the role of a leader in a social revolution. He wrote, “Leaders play a unique role in social revolutions, organizing the population, and, perhaps most importantly, articulating the vision…”(Selbin, pg. 30) This best explains why the Reign of Terror is better defined from a cultural approach. Robespierre was the leader during this era and his vision was quite simple: He wanted a swift and violent end to the enemies of the state so the good citizens of the republic could revel in the joys of liberty. Robespierre became a leading figure in France during the liberal revolution with his ideas that focused on helping the common citizen. 

However, as France began to crumble and the state shifted away from a constitutional government, Robespierre’s philosophies took a sharp turn as well. He still had the same long term goal of a unified republic, but his methods for achieving this goal became vastly different. In fact, the Law of Suspects that he supported contradicted one of the primary pillars of the liberal revolution: The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. The Law of Suspects retracted rights that were guaranteed during the liberal revolution. For example, Articles 9 and 10 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen state, “As all persons are held innocent until they shall have been declared guilty, if arrest shall be deemed indispensable, all harshness not essential to the securing of the prisoner’s person shall be severely repressed by law.” (Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, Article 9) “No one shall be disquieted on account of his opinions, including his religious views, provided their manifestation does not disturb the public order established by law.” (Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, Article 10) The Law of Suspects essentially rendered this document useless until a constitutional government was reestablished. 

As a result, 17,000 people were apprehended and executed by guillotine. Violence and suspicion dominated France from 1793-1794. At the end of the Reign of Terror, about 17,000 people were executed by guillotine in just under a year. Robespierre believed that all of these deaths were necessary in order to institute a republic that was free of tyranny. Ironically, Maximilium Robespierre died at the hands of his very own policies. He was accused of trying to establish a dictatorship and was executed on July 24th, 1794. The Reign of Terror defined the French Revolution as one of the bloodiest social revolutions in the history of mankind. It can best be characterized from a cultural perspective because of the role of its leader, Maximilien Robespierre. A lawyer, politician, and philosopher whose views on utilizing terror as a means of upholding the virtues of liberty and eradicating tyranny cost the lives of thousands of people.

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