The Origins of the Terror

The monumental task of governing a country in the midst of revolutionary transformation is a difficult one at best. But with a faction-riven 600-member legislature, it proved nearly impossible. Recognizing that fact, the Convention, even before the victory of the Mountain, had delegated power to a twelve-member Committee of Public Safety (CPS) created in the spring of 1793. A "Montagnard" Constitution, drafted that summer, set out a plan for democracy and economic equality that was more far-reaching than any earlier project. However, faced with war, internal unrest, and other problems, the Mountain argued that the government must become "revolutionary" (meaning extraconstitutional) if it was to run effectively and also systematically and swiftly confront its hidden, internal enemies. In early September, pushed by the sans-culottes, the Committee of Public Safety led the Convention into what became known as "The Terror."

The Terror as a form of government meant the organized use of state coercive power to ensure compliance with the demands of the government. Those who did not comply faced a revolutionary tribunal, which tried "suspects" for treason and sentenced those it convicted to the guillotine. These suspects included foreign and domestic enemies. The Terror was also used to enforce wage and price "maximums" that guaranteed affordable provisions as well as more nebulous aims, such as ensuring the "virtue" of all citizens, which allowed the CPS to repress all dissent from its own decrees.

From September 1793 through July 1794, the "revolutionary government" of the Terror overwhelmed its enemies and permeated nearly all aspects of life. Yet its very success was a major part of its undoing. By the end of 1793, even some of the most radical Jacobins, notably Georges Danton, began to argue that the violence had gone too far and had become a source of instability in the Republic. His ally, Camille Desmoulins, published Le Vieux Cordelier [The Old Cordelier], an occasional newspaper that criticized the authoritarian tendencies of the Committee of Public Safety. Others censured the CPS for its centralizing tendencies, which dampened popular participation and were not in accord with the Revolution's announced goal of achieving greater democracy.

The Implementation of the Terror

The chief target of the Terror was the counterrevolution, which referred to a series of distinct movements that sought to resist the revolutionary government's authority within France. In the west, republican forces confronted peasant armies in the Vendée (discussed above) and later another group of peasant insurgents known as the Chouans. In the center and south, government troops laid siege to cities that disputed the Mountain's hypercentralized vision of revolutionary government and distrusted the sans-culottes. These urban revolts, although they varied somewhat from city to city, appeared to Parisians as a single movement, which they labeled "federalism." Its proponents—in cities such as Nantes, Toulouse, Lyons, Bordeaux and Marseilles—acted independently and represented themselves as moderate revolutionaries, but leaders in Paris saw them as nothing less than royalists who had to be eliminated. In the most dramatic cases, the Convention sent its deputies as "representatives on mission" to oversee the liquidation of federalist strongholds. The use of the prestige and energy of legislative deputies to enforce the law, mobilize the nation's resources for war, and quell armed rebellion was a marked feature of the Terror. This tactic allowed the arm of the central government to reach into many nooks and crannies that might have escaped the long arm of revolutionary justice. The representatives on mission usually were sent out with "unlimited powers" to allow them to accomplish the monumental tasks they faced. Such authority was often abused, and the representatives frequently emerged as the most zealous proponents and executors (literally) of the Terror. For example, on the orders of two leading Montagnard deputies, Lyons was bombarded heavily by government troops. When Lyons fell, it was renamed "the freed city." At Nantes, another representative on mission ordered that thousands of rebels be drowned on barges sunk in the Loire River.

The Convention fought the counterrevolution on another front in October 1793 by trying and executing Marie Antoinette, since they believed her a figure around whom monarchists and foreign powers could rally. The fall and winter of 1793 also saw the revolutionary government pursue its foes abroad, as the armies of the Republic, under new leadership, held the line against the invading Prussians, Austrians, Savoyards, Spaniards, and English. By early 1794, the French armies created through the much-reviled draft had succeeded in defeating the invaders and were beginning to occupy territory particularly along the northern and eastern frontiers.

The Rise and Fall of the Factions

With every victory, however, the Committee of Public Safety found itself engaged in another battle for survival in domestic politics. The CPS fought off repeated attacks by both radicals and moderates in the press and in sectional assemblies, but for different reasons. The radicals called themselves "The Enraged" and accused the government of leniency. They demanded a more restrictive price maximum, especially on basic necessities, while self-described "Indulgents" questioned the committee's extremism, fearing that the constant repression of citizens' hard-won liberties in the name of "virtue" would undermine popular support for the Revolution.

VIEWS OF THE TERROR

A RADICAL FOUNDATION

THE TERROR IN ACTION

A SONG VERSION OF "THE MARSEILLAISE"

CPS UNDER ATTACK

THE ULTRAS FORCE THE ISSUE

SUPPRESSION OF FEDERALISM

LYON DESTROYED

ATROCITY

MARIE ANTOINETTE EXECUTED

1 2 3 4 5