Before the Revolution of 1789, France was in decline. Expenses from military endeavors in the Seven Years War and the American Revolution left the crown in deep debt. Severe winters led to poor harvest, which in turn, led to high grain prices, leaving the poor in a desperate situation. People were losing faith in the legitimacy of the monarchy, with its weak king and Austrian queen, and in the Catholic church, whose upper ranks were filled with wealthy nobility. Society in Ancien Regime France was divided into three classes, called the three estates: The church and clergy formed the first estate; those who pray. The nobility formed the seconded estate; those who fought. Everyone else, be it poor peasant or wealthy merchant, formed the third estate; those who worked. To solve the problems plaguing France, the king called for the Estates General, a gathering of the three estates to approve new changes and new taxes. The third estate, emboldened by enlightened ideas, demanded a greater voice, and with the help of liberal nobility and priests, and the storming of Bastille, the French Revolution began. After several insurrections by the people of Paris, the Revolution took a radical turn towards the left. The king and queen were executed, and France was declared a republic in 1792, but by the summer of 1793, new crises threatened the revolution. Anarchy from within and threat of foreign invasion gave cause to take drastic action. The revolutionary government claimed broad powers to save itself, and as one revolutionary noted, “Terror is the order of the day.”[1] The Reign of Terror had come.

The Reign of Terror resonates in the public imagination with the image of an aristocrat being fed to the guillotine as the hungry eyes of the poor French peasants watch with glee. However, this hardly encompasses all the dimensions of the Terror, and even misrepresents the majority of deaths by those judged enemies of the revolution. The years 1793-1794 also saw war, both a civil war within France and invasion by France’s enemies. The need for drastic action to restore order culminated in the centralization of power around the Committee of Public Safety, which sat twelve men hand-picked by the National Convention in Paris. The First French Republic now resembled a dictatorship, and yet this was not due to an offense of republican government, but to protect and establish a constitutional government after the crisis. However ‘just’ its means, the intensity of the Reign of Terror would only rise, even after the threats to France diminished. Foreign invaders were driven out, the uprising in the Vendee region of France, as well as cities in revolt, was squashed by the might of the revolutionary army, but the Terror was notched up.  Dechristianization swept through France carried out by the most radical leftists of the revolutionaries, during which Catholic institutions and icons were replaced with civic republican state religions. The Revolution believed itself to be the beginning of a new age in human history and would even alter time itself in its quest for ‘social rejuvenation.’ Radical beliefs of French republican politicians and citizens contributed to the Terror and provided interpretation of the Reign of Terror as a manifestation of the ideology of the French Revolution. Further aspects of centralization of the power during the Terror can also find their roots in enlightenment philosophy as well as absolutist processes in the later days of the Ancien Regime.


Terror as Necessity v Terror as Ideology

The French Revolution has been an ideological battleground for writers and historians since 1789, and the Reign of Terror is no exception. Conservatives and rightists traditionally see the Reign of Terror as catastrophe and consider the Terror the result of the political inexperience of those who the revolution made into leaders. However, there is little evidence to suggest that this is, in fact, the case as a large portion of early revolutionaries held considerable political experience prior to 1789.[2] Many early contributors to the rightist interpretation, such as British statesman Edmund Burke, developed their opinions as the French Revolution was taking place. Later criticism from the right, was more of a reaction to Marxist interpretation of the French Revolution. Leftists, republicans, socialists, and Marxists defend the Terror as a product of necessity. They point to the many problems plaguing the republican government and see the terror as a response to war, and political division. However, while this argument holds water in its own context, it lacks an explanation as to why the Terror intensified when civil war and foreign invasion did not pose an immediate threat to the revolutionary government. Revisionist historians look at the Revolution as a result of revolutionary ideology and culture. The radicalism of the French Revolution was not driven by social conflict as the Marxists would argue, but from ideological roots that reached further back into the Ancien Regime, and in fact radical beliefs that would rule the Reign of Terror were indeed present during the early lukewarm stages of the revolution[3]. Revisionists’ arguments revolve around two major points; the culture of eighteenth-century France and the influence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.”[4]

Let us explore these last two interpretations more closely; terror as a product of necessity and terror as a product of ideology.  It is to be sure that the Revolution faced many problems leading up to 1793-94.  Mass desertion of upper tier army officers left the military unstructured, and while this did allow the cream of those most talented soldiers, i.e. Napoleon, to rise to the top, the present state before the Reign of Terror was one of chaos and disarray. Britain and Austria, France’s two greatest historical enemies, invaded French soil. King Louis XVI had attempted to flee the country with the royal family and join up with foreign powers to destroy the revolution, thus confirming the greatest fears of French citizens about foreign conspiracy from within. The western region of the Vendee and several cities resentful of Parisian hegemony, were in open revolt. Federalism, which in the context of the French Revolution means de-centralization of power, was heresy to the idea of the revolutionary government, and the sovereignty of the general will of the people it represented.[5] The peasants in the Vendee, opposed the forced conscription into the revolution’s military, new taxes, attacks on Catholicism, and the execution of the king.[6] Food shortages still ravaged the lower-classes as attempts to control the price of grain threw a wrench in the machinery of the French economy. Enemies and counter-revolutionaries were inside and out, and the republic of virtue was in danger of being snuffed out before it could even begin.  The Reign of Terror was the solution to these problems. With vast powers centralized around the Committee of Public safety, grain prices were controlled, as citizens were drafted into the army, the foreigners were driven out, the civil war in the Vendee was squashed, and the federalist cities were placed under siege and surrendered to Paris. During all of which, opponents of the revolution were fed to madam la guilliotine as France was purged of its enemies. The Reign of Terror, arguably, solved many of the problems facing the republican government of 1792.

Yet, an interpretation of the Reign of Terror as necessity does not fully explain the event, for when the dangers to the republic became less severe, the dangers from the republic only intensified. The ideology and radical beliefs of the revolutionaries supported the Terror, and its necessity for the survival of the Revolution. At this phase of the French Revolution, the ideology of a small portion of the population of France, members of the National Convention, Committee of Public Safety, radical partisan Jacobins, and revolutionary representatives on mission, was imposed on the rest of France, and so, despite that their beliefs are not representative the of all of the French during the revolution, all of France was nevertheless greatly affected by the beliefs of the members of the revolutionary government. Revolutionaries believed that they were creating a utopia, a perfect society that would begin a new age in human civilization, a ‘Republic of Virtue.’ The revolutionaries believed in the legitimacy of the ideas of the revolution to such a great extent, that the only explanation of any problems facing France was due to conspiracy from within. The conclusion reached was that there were two peoples of France: the first consisted of virtuous citizens who were pure and friends of liberty, and enemies of tyrants. The second, counter-revolutionaries and intriguers who, according to Robespierre, “place themselves between the people and their representatives in order to fool the one and slander the other.”[7]  To create a nation full of virtuous citizens, France had to be ‘cleansed’ of enemies of the revolution, who in the eyes of Committee of Public Safety, were not considered citizens themselves. Even so, the line between enemies of the Revolution and political opponents of the Committee of public safety blurred and ceased to exist. As the concept of the citizen became narrower and more defined, less people were able to embody ‘virtue’ in the eyes of the Committee of Public Safety.


Centralization of Power and the Committee of Public Safety

While the Revolution is associated with centralization of power, first through the committee of public and then to Napoleon as Emperor, centralization was not a trend set by the revolution or the Terror. Centralization is a process of strengthening an executive power which holds sovereignty over the rest of the state, in a power structure like longitude lines on a globe all ending at the same polar point.  Centralization was apparent during the era of absolutist kings, Louis XIV being the most obvious example. Absolutism is founded on secure philosophical reasoning, and the structure of an all power sovereign, be it a king, emperor, or ‘the people’, influenced the philosophy of Rousseau whose influence on the Revolution is surpassed by none. Writing before Rousseau, Thomas Hobbes argued that the power of a sovereign is needed for an orderly society, saying “there must be some coercive Power, to compel men equally to the performance of their Covenants, by the terror of some punishment.”[8] Looking back on the revolution, statesman and early historian Alexis de Tocqueville insists that centralization in France’s government was the only permanent change from the revolution that was not torn down during the restoration of the Bourbon Monarchy.[9] By 1793, the National Convention in France had already initiated a process of greater centralization. The Convention created revolutionary tribunals to judge enemies of the state, initiated a supreme police force known as the Committee of General Security, sent ‘representatives on mission’ with unlimited powers to solve problems in the provinces in the name of the Convention, and most significantly, in April 1793, the National Convention created the Committee of Public Safety, which would amass tremendous power over the revolutionary government.

The 12 men who served on the Committee of Public Safety during the Reign of Terror would never have had the chance to ascend to such heights of power and influence if the revolution had not occurred. They shared a lot in common, they were all relatively young, all were from middle class families, most had a background in law, all served as delegates to the Convention, and all were intellectuals.[10] The delegates of the Convention had picked men to serve in an ‘executive committee’ who were similar in their political beliefs and social background. The proclaimed beliefs and aspirations of the men of the Committee of Public Safety can, in this way, give us a representation of the beliefs and aspirations of the whole revolutionary government. Indeed, these men were trying to reforge the world in their own republican image. Committee member Billaud Veranne said, “To put it bluntly we must re-create the people that we wish to make free, for we need to destroy old prejudices, change outdated customs, restore jaded feelings, restrain excessive wants and annihilate deep rooted vices.”[11] Maximillian Robespierre shared similar sentiments stating, “to draft our political institutions we should need the morality that the institution themselves must eventually produce.”[12] And so did the youngest member of the Committee, Louis-Antoine Saint-Just who said, “A revolution has taken place within the government but it has not yet penetrated civil society.”[13] During the Reign of Terror, there was a shared sentiment among those in power to remake the moral fabric of French society, but none of the other Committee members espoused republican idealism so much as Robespierre.

Maximillian Robespierre, known throughout the revolution as the Incorruptible Robespierre, justified the Reign of Terror and spelled out key beliefs of the revolutionaries. Whether addressing the National Convention, members of the Jacobin Club, or during revolutionary festivals in Paris, Robespierre was famous for his oratory skills and his sincerity for the ideas of the revolution. Even though they come from a single individual, we know that the ideas and reasoning he expressed were very popular among the crowd, and thus, can be used as a way to evaluate the beliefs of prominent revolutionaries during the Terror. Robespierre acknowledged that terror was as the tool of tyrannical governments, and there was no misunderstanding among revolutionaries about what horror the Terror unleashed and including the massacre of priests and peasant rebels from the Vendee, and slaughters unleashed upon federalist cities. The idea that the instituted violence of the Reign of Terror would undermine the revolution was a fear among republicans. This was not ignored by Robespierre, “In deceitful hands all the remedies for our ills turn into poisons.”[14] Yet, Robespierre believed in the moral integrity of the Republic of Virtue that was destined to come, would safeguard the revolution from despotism. Terror was only an emanation of virtue, and virtue without terror was powerless. If the revolution was to survive, then the Reign of Terror had to continue.[15]  Virtuous citizens were loyal to the sovereignty of the general will of the people, and the Committee of Public Safety were the representatives of the general will who wielded the Terror like a hero wields a sword vanquishing the enemies of the people. And so, it came to pass, that the enemies of the Committee of Public Safety became the enemies of the Revolution.


Violence of the Terror

In about a year throughout the course of the Reign of Terror, official public execution by guillotine numbered over 16,000, but while the guillotine is the iconic symbol of the Terror, it was hardly the deadliest. 40,000 more were executed without trial, 200,000 more from the civil war in the Vendee region of France, totaling at a minimum of 260,000 deaths, all of which were justified by the radical idealism of Parisian revolutionaries.[16] The treatment of counter-revolutionaries in the Vendee was the most shocking, and as the war in the Vendee came to a close, no mercy was given for those associated. One army officer reported after pursuing retreating insurgents, “The road to Laval is strewn with corpses’, reported one of his men, ‘Women, priests, monks, children, all have been put to death. I have spared nobody.”[17] After the Vendee’s defeat, groups of soldiers called ‘infernal columns’ were sent to ravage the countryside and to kill any locals on site. The men carrying this atrocity out were ordered, “to deliver to flames everything that can be burnt and to bayonet any locals whom you meet on your way … there might be a few patriots in this country; never mind, we must sacrifice them all.”[18] The men, women, and children targeted by these official massacres would have been seen as fellow church-goers and subjects of the king only a few years prior to the Reign of Terror. Now they were viewed as something outside of the nation, as enemies of the state who deserved no quarter, and no place within the nation of France. The ideological rift between the peasants of the Vendee and the Revolutionaries coalescing in Paris divided each side on moral grounds. Rebels in the Vendee believed that they were protectors of the Church and of the monarchy and would not submit to the evil atheistic revolutionaries who hunted down their priests and killed their king. The opposition to key revolutionary dogmas, made the rebels in the Vendee enemies of the ‘real’ French people in the eyes of the revolutionaries. It was throughout the Reign of Terror that these enemies of France were to be purged from the citizen body.


The French Revolution was a Religious Revolution

To fully understand the ideology of the terror, we first have to accept the concept that the revolution, although looked on as a political revolution, was a religious revolution. This argument was first made by French writer and statesman Alexis de Tocqueville, who continues to be a significant source for students of the revolution even though he lived during the mid-1800s. Tocqueville argued that the revolution was a culmination from historical trends and transformations from the Ancien Regime that came before it. The era of the enlightenment and absolutist monarchies are the ideological soil from which the revolution sprouted. The reforms and changes that resulted from the revolution were inevitable.  The French Revolution was not limited to any one nationality or culture, as it found equal amounts of enemies and friends from a myriad of different nationalities, languages, and cultures. The universal ideas that drove the revolution resonated deep into those that believed them, it created “an intellectual country that was common to all, and in which every human creature could obtain rights of citizenship.”[19] This new set of principles that revolutionaries held close to their hearts created a sort of quasi-religion of a drastically different nature than Christianity, and was not limited to France or the French Revolution. The conflict between revolutionary factions and governments that emerged in the late 1700s and early 1800s further suggests that enlightenment ideology surpassed the political sphere and into the spiritual. The French Revolution, at whatever degree of its radicalism, always consisted of the ideas and beliefs of a quasi-religion that, like Christianity and Islam, could “cover the earth with its soldiers, its apostles, and its martyrs”[20]


The Enlightenment and the Cult of Rousseau

The enlightenment in Europe was a self-conscious intellectual movement which broke from its earlier predecessor, the Renaissance, in that Enlightenment thinkers believed that knowledge would allow society to break free of its past.[21] In France, enlightenment thinkers, or Philosophes, found an audience among the literate public and topics of conversation about the role of government and the merits of democracy were now commonplace in French Salons, bookseller shops, literary societies, and coffee houses. This repartee of ideas between the Philosophes and their French audience created a ‘public sphere’, in which the ideas of the enlightenment integrated into long standing institutions of Ancien Regime society, including churches, courts, and universities.[22] Many ideas of the Enlightenment were influential in the ideology of the French Revolution, which valued liberal ideas in early stages of 1789-1792. Figures like Voltaire, Diderot, John Locke, and Montesquieu where held in high regard by revolutionaries, however, no philosophe is as connected to the French Revolution, and consequently the Reign of Terror, then Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau held a cult-like following in the decades leading up to 1789, but his image as a literary genius would evolve into a Christ-like figure in both the sense of his spirituality, and his rationale for government.

The emergence of the cult of Rousseau held two distinctive phases; the first, prior to the revolution, a dedicated literary following based around Rousseau’s earlier works Emile and La Nouvelle Heloise.[23] The second, a political cult based around Contract Social that was more a product of the French Revolution than it was of Rousseau. The father of the Romantic movement, Rousseau was attractive because of his appeal to emotions over reason, arguing that “Our natural feelings lead us to serve the common interest, while our reason urges selfishness. We have therefore only to follow feeling rather than reason in order to be virtuous.” [24] The early cult of Rousseau is significant as it shows the first emergence of the quasi-religious fanaticism that will become dominant during the Reign of Terror. It is no coincidence that many characters of the revolution can be counted as members of the literary cult of Rousseau. Prominent women Madame de Stael and Madame Roland wrote of their devotion to Rousseau prior to 1790. Other notable revolutionary figures such as Mirabeau, Sylvain Marechal, Babeuf, Charlotte Corday, the poet Roucher, and Committee of Public Safety member Bertrand Barere, were all followers of Rousseau before the revolution.[25] These “disciples” of the literary Rousseau exhibited an intense loyalty to the philosopher, and a stern hatred of his enemies and critics. [26] One follower wrote to Rousseau “I have your portrait-and I have placed it above the table which serves me as secretary, exactly as a believer places above her oratory the image of the saint for whom she has the most fervent devotion.”[27] However, the popularity of the cult of Rousseau in the 1780s says more about the cultural environment of France during this time than it does about the qualities of the philosopher himself. Rousseau’s ideas provided a pathway for Romantic expression. However, as the events of the Revolution unfolded, the cult of Rousseau would become part of the very fabric of the revolution.[28]

The political cult of Rousseau focuses on his work from The Social Contract from which arguments provided a channel of expression for revolutionary ideology.[29] As one historian notes, “Instead of Rousseau making the Revolution, it would seem that the Revolution made Rousseau, or at least his reputation as a political philosopher”[30] Rousseau’s popularity during the Revolution can be described as an impersonal mass phenomenon. Throughout revolutionary festivals and ceremonies, thousands of French paraded and sang hymns in the philosopher’s honor, but many only had a vague idea of who he was.[31] During the Terror, a hymn was sung during the ceremony concerning the worship of reason praising the philosopher, “Convenez en, mes bons amis: Rousseau vaut mieux que saint Pierre.”[32] Yet, the memory of Rousseau resonated throughout the revolution. A bust of Rousseau was given a place of honor in the National Assembly, a statue of the philosopher was erected, and a movement to transfer his remains to Paris was taken in earnest. [33] Ironically, few people participating in celebrations and religious ceremonies were familiar with the texts of the literary cult of Rousseau, and even fewer were familiar with his political works. However, this was not true of members of the revolutionary government who used the Contract Social as a framework for their political machinations. Many Republicans were inspired by the Contract Social, including Jean Paul Marat, Herault de Sechelles, and Camille Desmoulins, but perhaps the most devout follower of Rousseau was Maximillian Robespierre.[34] Robespierre believed that he was fulfilling the work of Rousseau saying of the philosopher, “Ah! if he had witnessed this revolution of which he was the precursor . . . who can doubt that his generous soul would have embraced with rapture the cause of justice and equality?”[35]


The ‘General Will’ in Rousseau’s Contract Social

While Rousseau’s Contract Social inspired democracy and the founding of the first French Republic in 1792, it also gave credence to the totalitarian regime of the Committee of Public Safety during the Reign of Terror. Prominent philosopher Bertrand Russell argued that the Contract Social only “paid lip-service to democracy” while justifying authoritarianism.[36] Russell suggests the totalitarian state of the Terror was played out again under dictatorships in Communist Russia and Nazi Germany[37] saying, “Hitler is an outcome of Rousseau.”[38] Robert Palmer, also writing during the Second World War, links Rousseau’s idea of the sovereignty of the General Will to the totalitarianism of Adolph Hitler.[39] But, what is the General Will, and how does it justify totalitarianism? The General Will is the will of the sovereign of a state that represents all citizens of the state, or the general will of the people that results from the culmination of all common needs and political aspirations of the people, which ensure the equality of the people. Because the General Will represents the people, it is always right and is thus, sovereign. Rousseau argues “As nature gives each man absolute power over all his members, the social compact gives the body politic absolute power over all its members also; and it is this power which , under the direction of the general will , bears , as I have said , the name of Sovereignty”[40] By giving up their liberties to the state in order to be represented by the General Will under the social contract, citizens are subject to the authority of the state. Even when the authority of the state says to the citizen, “It is expedient for the State that you should die,”  the citizen ought to die , “because it is only on that condition that he has been living in security up to the present , and because his life is no longer a mere bounty of nature , but a gift made conditionally by the State”[41] Revolutionaries in power during the Reign of Terror, saw Rousseau’s arguments as a justification for the legitimacy of their authority. They believed that what they were doing was morally right, because they represented the sovereignty of the General Will, even as the number of people who they believed attributed to the General Will dwindled lower as the Reign of Terror went on.

Because the General Will is always right, there could be no dissent against it, as Rousseau said, “Whoever refuses to obey the General Will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body. This means nothing less than that he will be forced to be free.”[42] The revolutionaries, using the logic of the Contract Social, believed that any malefactor opposing the revolution, in mild or aggressive terms, revoked the right of citizenship as they are no longer a member of the state.[43] Thus, whichever faction of the revolution that was currently in power had a legitimate argument to purge their political opponents, believing their power was that of the sovereign and of the General Will. And indeed, there was a fear shared among revolutions of betrayal from within. As Robespierre said to the applause of the National Convention, “He who seeks to debase, to divide, to paralyze the Convention is an enemy of the fatherland, whether he sits in this hall or is a foreigner.”[44] The Convention was complicit in the purges of the Committee, even as its members where subject to these purges. Even if someone was innocent of any counter-revolutionary activity, merely being a friend or family member of anyone who was convicted often resulted in guilt by association. The Committee of Public Safety pursued punishment without hesitation, for as Saint-Just said, “ you have no longer any reason for restraint against enemies of the new order…You must punish not only traitors but the apathetic as well; you must punish whoever is passive in the Republic…We must rule by iron those who cannot be ruled by justice.”[45]


Deism and de-Christianization

The new synthesis of ideas spurred by the Enlightenment would eventually challenge the presence of the Catholic Church, an institution whose practices, roots, and beliefs go back to antiquity. However, this was not always the case, as enlightenment thinkers were neither opposed to Catholicism nor supported it, and vice versa. In fact, many priests and lay members of the church were well versed in enlightenment literature. Friction between the Church and the philosophes arose with the advent of deism, which rejected dogmas of traditional Catholicism, including the divinity of Christ and the doctrine of original sin, and instead found faith in a creator who did not interfere in human affairs, and whose domain was exclusively in the natural world.[46] Rousseau’s ideas of a natural religion contributed to the spirituality of his followers who did not see his teachings as anti-religious, but rather, as something of the soul from which religion came.[47] When France became a republic in 1792, the political cult of Rousseau found reason to dismantle the institutions of Christianity, believing that the terms ‘Christian’ and ‘republic’ were mutually exclusive. Rousseau says in the Contract Social, “Christianity preaches only servitude and dependence. Its spirit is so favourable to tyranny that it always profits by such a régime. Genuine Christians are made to be slaves, and they know it and don’t much mind: this short life counts for too little in their eyes.”[48] Rousseau put forth the idea of a civic religion, which among other principles, would enshrined in citizens, “the sanctity of the social contract and the laws”, and “The punishment of the wicked.”[49] Radical republican extremists took the philosophe’s words to heart, and during the Reign of Terror, fervently pursued the cause of de-Christianization.

The most radical Jacobins believed that the tenets of Christianity were incompatible with those of the revolution, and ardent Christians felt the same. Perhaps some of the most gruesome atrocities committed in the name of the republic were on the Christians in the Vendee, and the counter-revolutionary priests they protected. Atrocities such as the noyades at Nantes, saw boatloads of rebels, priests, women and children sunk and drown in the Loire river. [50] It was in letters to the Committee of Public Safety in which Jean-Baptiste Carrier, the Terrorist of Nantes, would refer to the drownings as ‘miracles in the Loire’, and to which Carrier’s ally in the Committee, Herault de Sechelles responded, “We can be humane when we are assured of being victorious.”[51] Even Robespierre, who disagreed with the de-Christianization movement, was silently complacent with massacres such as these which were ignored for the time, being for the reason of political expedience. Because de-Christianization was one of the main causes for the civil war in the Vendee, it became tied to the ideology of the Terror that demanded a purge to rejuvenate the republic. Whether by outright brutality, or by softer methods, the revolutionaries during the Terror believed that the power and influence of Christianity was fading, and that a civic religion with patriotism as the new faith was destined to take its place.[52] In his assessment on the lasting effects of de-Christianization Nigel Aston said, “Routine, regular public worship stopped. Dechristianization shattered the habits of open observance, and half a generation of young people missed out on formal religious teaching. The damage to a collective Catholic culture was soon there for all to see.”[53]


Revolutionary Festivals; Space and Time

French revolutionary fetes and festivals were both an attempt to solidify the values and imagery of the revolution in the public’s consciousness, and an expression of revolutionary values from the people as well. Festivals were celebrations of the Republic, both to commemorate its significance and to promulgate its ideas. Songs were written for the occasion that embraced non-Christian values and creeds of the republic.[54] It was at first that revolutionary festivals used the sacrality of the Church for legitimization, but eventually festivals were taken over by the character of the revolution, and the attempt to merge republicanism with Catholicism only further divided the faithful of each side. This worsening division would contribute to the fanatical de-Christianization of the Terror.[55] The early fetes were the most spontaneous, as citizens would build great bonfires and burn scrolls and old texts containing feudal records[56], mock battles were performed for entertainment, and symbols and effigies of republican principles and heroes decorated the celebration. Even Ben Franklin’s image was used alongside Rousseau, Voltaire, and ancient Roman figures. Festivals emphasized both space and time in their manifestations, often preferring wide open fields to city streets and churches, and height too was denied as so that “One’s line of vision may move at will without ever being broken by natural or man-made obstacles.”[57]  Even traveling to participate in festivals was a type of pilgrimage to the rural revolutionaries who completed their national education by traversing the space of France.[58]The wide space symbolized the abolition of political and social differences as it was here, on level and equal ground, that the French celebrated the sovereignty of the people, one and indivisible.[59]

Festivals began to assume a more religious character as the French took oaths swearing their fealty to the republic using such language as” We promise in Republicans that we will exterminate all the tyrants, all the despots united against our holy identity…”[60] These oaths were taken in a serious manner and codified the French’s participation in the Republic which had assumed power and executed their king. It was important that any oaths or cheers were completed at the same time by everyone in attendance, and in fact sometimes throughout all of France as “official directions concerning the Federation prescribe the administering of the Federative oath ‘together and at the same moment’ to all the inhabitants in all the parts of the Empire; otherwise the sacredness of the oath seems to crumble”[61] The prominent voice on Festivals of the French Revolution, Mona Ozouf, ties this oath-taking to the Terror, arguing that republican oaths that compelled citizens to swear hatred for royalty and fidelity to the republic was in part because of the fear of counter-revolutionaries. She says that the purpose of the oath, and of the festival in general, is to affirm an invincible Revolution.[62] Many manifestations of the terror worked its way into fetes and festivals. Both the Terror and the festivals sought to forge an indivisible body of virtuous citizens, both compelled fealty to the republic, and scorn to its enemies. Let us not forget that La Marseillaise, now the national anthem of France, was a hymn to the republic during the revolution; “The day of glory has come. Against us from the tyranny the bloody banner is raised. Can you hear in the countryside, Blared the wild soldiers? They come up in your arms. Slay your son, your companions. To arms, citizens! Train your battalions: walk, walk, let unclean blood water our furrows”[63]

Supreme Being

The Cult of Reason and the Cult of the Supreme Being

The Cult of Reason was born from the revolutionary festivals, and the de-sanctification of cathedrals and churches into ‘temples of reason.’ The ceremonies and rituals that played out shared similar practices and symbolism pertain to the revolution but varied in meaning. There was a belief among staunch revolutionaries that during the summer of 1793, a natural civic religion would emerge spontaneously, one that would replace Christianity with republicanism.[64] It is difficult to tell how far the dogmas of republicanism permeated into the hearts and minds of the people as well-meaning devotees of the Cult of Reason met a lot of resistance from Christians, especially in more rural areas of France. While some surely did believed in the revolution, at the same time, many citizens did not feel a need to replace the church with a civic religion. Much of the participation during Festivals of Reason was due to public pressure and fear of reprisal for opposition to revolution.[65] Principles such as virtue and patriotism could do little to console the miseries of death, sickness, and starvation which were daily reality for the poor peasants of France.[66] Yet the problem with the Cult of Reason was that it was not established by the revolutionary government, and was merely a reaction to the surge in radical idealism. The Cult of Reason could not decide if it would embody the spiritualism of Rousseau, or the atheism of Voltaire. Rousseau a devout deist who saw God everywhere in the natural world, and Voltaire an atheist who believed that religion only existed to pray upon the superstitious. De-Christianization, therefore, created a fracture among the revolutionaries and in the spontaneous celebrations of the Cult of Reason. Rousseau’s civic religion took over in the end in what was the Cult of the Supreme Being. This new civic religion was an attempt by the revolutionary government to distance itself from atheism while donning the revolution in the spirituality of Rousseau.

The Cult of the Supreme Being was not only a response to the rampant atheism and attack of religious freedom, but also an extension of Robespierre’s own beliefs, and that which he shared directly with many revolutionaries who were followers of Rousseau.[67] The opposition to radical dechristianization was put on show during the Festival of the Supreme Being, which was lead in ceremony by Robespierre. During the ceremony, Robespierre linked the destiny of the Republic as the spiritual culmination of the Supreme Being, saying “Is it not he who, from the beginning of time, decreed the republic and placed on the order of the day, for all centuries and all peoples, liberty, good faith, and justice?”[68] Upon completing his first speech, Robespierre set fire to a large effigy of Atheism, which no doubt had cause some confusion among the crowd as a backdrop for a religious festival. As the fire destroyed the figure of atheism, an effigy of wisdom emerged from the ashes. After which Robespierre said a prayer, “Our blood flows for the cause of Humanity; Hear our prayer, consider our sacrifices; Accept the worship that we offer Thee!”[69] Despite its brief flare, the prominence of the Cult of the Supreme Being fell with Robespierre and his followers after Thermidor[70], and the major population did not continue it practices. Yet, the cult remains significant to the Reign of Terror, further giving evidence of a thriving ideological radicalism among the most powerful revolutionaries.


Thermidorian Reaction and Disillusionment of the Reign of Terror

Although the fall of Robespierre and his sympathizers mark the end to the Reign of Terror in many histories of the revolution, this should not lead to the conclusion that the Terror was dependent upon Robespierre for its continuation. While revolutionaries denounced Robespierre as a tyrant and a dictator, the citizens of the National Convention were more concerned with the dictatorship of the Committee of Public Safety. The Committee’s decline in power began with the Thermidorian Reaction, where the ‘incorruptible’ Robespierre met his gruesome end, and as the power of the Committee waned, so did the fervent idealism of the Reign of Terror. Prior to the end of the Reign of Terror, there we two opposing factions in the National Convention, one a moderate faction in favor of scaling down the scope of the Terror, and the other an extremist faction in favor of increasing the intensity of the Terror. R.R. Palmer makes the argument that because extremists in the convention had allied with moderates against the tyranny of the Robespierrists, they could not advocate for polices and ideas associated with Robespierre. “To preach Terrorism after Thermidor was to expose oneself as to the suspicions of Robespierrism, suspicions which above all others had to be avoided.”[71] Robespierre had done more in death to bring the Terror to an end, than he had done in life to promote its reign over the revolution. By becoming a vilified figure associated with tyranny and the Terror, the perception of the enemies of the revolution adapted to mirror Robespierre’s infamy, and in this way, the logic of the Reign of Terror work against itself, leading it its end as revolutionaries stood clear of its extremist idealism.



In summary, the Reign of Terror was in part a reaction to the dire position the revolutionary government found itself in after 1792. However, this necessity allowed for the growth of the radical ideology of the Terror, which can trace its roots back to the era of the Enlightenment and the era of absolutism. Power was centralized around the twelve men selected to serve on the Committee of Public Safety. The National Convention and the Committee of Public Safety used the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau as a formula for governance, with special emphasis on the Contract Social and Rousseau’s ideas of the sovereignty of the General Will. These same ideas also gave the Committee of Public Safety legitimate reasons for political purges of counter-revolutionaries, and opponents of the Committee. Rousseau’s influence on the revolution was both political and spiritual as deist cults emerged as the process of de-Christianization began. The Cult of Reason was the collective of Revolutionary festivals and fetes, which are public manifestations of revolutionary ideology, and the Cult of the Supreme Being was an attempt at a civic religion based on the philosophy of Rousseau. These trends confirm the argument from Alexis de Tocqueville that the French Revolution was indeed a religious revolution. The quasi-religion of the revolution was at its strongest during the Reign of Terror, as revolutionaries attempted to forge a utopia from the old world by rejuvenating the moral character of the citizens of France. This republic of virtue never came to into being, but the belief that it was possible, and even inevitable, drove the actions of the Revolutionaries into power, and especially those serving on the Committee of Public Safety. The revolution would come to reject this radical idealism after the Thermidorian Reaction and the fall of Robespierre, who lived on as a figure of tyranny tied to the Terror. Taking these facets altogether, we come to see the Reign of Terror as a manifestation of ideology, and not mere necessity.

A myth permeates in the common perception of the history of the French Revolution that demagogues and tyrants, using principle as a sugar-coating for their own lust for power, used public executions and centralization during the Reign of Terror for their own selfish reasons. However, this is a shallow understanding of the ideology and public expressions of the French Revolution. The Terror was supported by beliefs in the sovereignty of the people, and of the need to purge France of its enemies. Fear was both a tool of the Terror, and the cause of it. Revolutionaries staked their futures in the republic, which appeared destined to fall from enemies at home and abroad, economic troubles, and disunity, and afterwards appeared destined to create a new enlightened world order. The revolutionaries, so sure of the truth of their enlightened beliefs, used the Terror to put these ideas into practice, albeit in the most extreme ways. Even after the dangers facing the republic became less severe, the ideology and culture of the revolution allowed for the Terror to become more extreme, more radical. Evidence of the ideology of the Terror, manifested in public festivals, civic religions, and most importantly the centralization of power by the Committee of Public Safety. The Reign of Terror was hardly contrary to the ideology of the Revolution, it was a product of it. Revolutionaries believed in the moral integrity of democratic government. The tyranny of the Terror was a republican tyranny, which may lead to some disturbing questions about the very ideas and principles that modern democracies are based upon. However, it is imperative that we understand the Reign of Terror as a product of ideology primarily because it does contradict with our modern worldviews of the inherit goodness of democracy, which hopefully, gives us cause to think critically of government and morality.

Secondary Sources

Aston, Nigel. Religion and Revolution in France. London: Macmillan Press, 2000.

Aulard, A. Le Culte de la Raison et le Culte de L’etre Supreme. Paris, 1892.

Doyle, William. The Oxford History of the French Revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition, 2002.

Gough, Hugh. The Terror in the French Revolution, 2nd Ed. Palgrave: Macmillion, 2014.

Lyttle, Charles. “Deistic Piety in the Cults of the French Revolution.” Church History 6, no. 1 (1933): 22-40. /stable/3691955.

McNeil, Gordon H. “The Cult of Rousseau and the French Revolution.” Journal of the History of Ideas 6, no. 2 (1945): 197-212.

Ozouf, Mona. “Space and Time in the Festivals of the French Revolution.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 17, no. 3 (1975): 372-384.

Palmer, R.R. Twelve Who Ruled: A Year of Terror in the French Revolution. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1941.

Russell, Bertrand. The History of Western Philosophy. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1966.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. The Ancien Regime and the French Revolution. Kindle Edition, 1856.

Weisner-Hanks, Merry E. Early Modern Europe. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Primary Sources

La Marseillaise, 1792.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan (p. 64).

Republican Catechism, 1794.

Rousseau, Jean Jacques. The Social Contract.

Robespierre, Speech on Public Morality, February 5, 1794.

Robespierre, Speech on Enemies of the Nation. May 26, 1794.

Robespierre, Speech for the Defense of the Committee of Public Safety, 1793.

Robespierre, Speech at Festival of the Supreme Being, 1793.


[1]William Doyle, The Oxford History of the French Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition, 2002), 251.
[2] Hugh Gough, The Terror in the French Revolution. 2nd Ed (Palgrave Macmillion,1998), 19.
[3] Ibid, 7.
[4] Ibid.
[5] R.R. Palmer, Twelve Who Ruled: A Year of Terror in the French Revolution (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1941). 23.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Robespierre, Speech on Enemies of the Nation. May 26, 1794.
[8]. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Kindle Edition), 64.
[9] Alexis de Tocqueville, The Ancien Regime and the French Revolution. (Kindle Edition, 1856), 822-825.
[10] Palmer, Twelve Who Ruled, 16-18.
[11] Billaud Varenne quoted in Hugh Gough, The Terror in the French Revolution, 2nd Ed (Palgrave: Macmillion, 2014), 59.
[12] Robespierre quoted in Hugh Gough, The Terror in the French Revolution, 58.
[13] Saint-Just quoted in Hugh Gough, The Terror in the French Revolution, 58.
[14] Robespierre, Speech on Public Morality, February 5, 1794.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Gough, Terror in the French Revolution, 77.
[17] Doyle, Oxford History of French Revolution, 256-257.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Tocqueville, Old Regime and the Revolution, 491-495.
[20] Ibid, 529-533
[21] Merry E. Weisner-Hanks, Early Modern Europe (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 367.
[22] Ibid, 368.
[23] Gordon H. McNeil, “The Cult of Rousseau and the French Revolution.” Journal of the History of Ideas 6, no. 2 (1945): 197.
[24] Rousseau quoted in Bertrand, Russell The History of Western Philosophy. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1966), 693.
[25] McNeil, Cult of Rousseau, 200.
[26] Ibid, 198.
[27] July 9, 1769, Correspondance Generale de J.-J. Rousseau, ed. by Theophile Dufour (Paris, 1924-34), XIJX, 129. (198) quoted in Gordon H. McNeil, “The Cult of Rousseau and the French Revolution.” Journal of the History of Ideas 6, no. 2 (1945): 197-212.
[28] McNeil, Cult of Rousseau, 211.
[29] McNeil, Cult of Rousseau, 211.
[30] Ibid, 201.
[31] Ibid, 202.
[32] A. Aulard, Le Culte de la Raison et le Culte de L’etre Supreme (Paris, 1892), 120.
[33] McNeil, Cult of Rousseau, 204.
[34] Ibid, 206.
[35] Robespierre quoted in McNeil, Cult of Rousseau, 206.
[36] Bertrand, Russell The History of Western Philosophy. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1966), 694.
[37]Ibid, 701.
[38] Ibid, 685.
[39] Palmer, Twelve Who Ruled, 76.
[40] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract (Neeland Media LLC. Kindle Edition, 2009), 8.
[41] Ibid, 10-11.
[42] Ibid, 1.
[43] Ibid, 11.
[44] Robespierre, Speech for the Defense of the Committee of Public Safety, 1793.
[45] Saint-Just quoted in Hugh Gough, The Terror in the French Revolution, 2nd Ed (Palgrave: Macmillion, 2014), 43.
[46] Gough, Terror and French Revolution, 84.
[47] Nigel Aston, Religion and Revolution in France (London: Macmillan Press, 2000), 96.
[48] Rousseau, Contract Social, 72.
[49] Ibid, 73.
[50]Palmer, Twelve Who Ruled, 221.
[51]Ibid, 220.
[52] Aston, Religion and Revolution, 263.
[53] Ibid, 276.
[54] Ibid, 263.
[55] Ibid, 262.
[56] Mona Ozouf, “Space and Time in the Festivals of the French Revolution.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 17, no. 3 (1975): 382.
[57] Ibid, 378.
[58]Ibid, 380.
[59] Ibid, 377-378.
[60]Republican Catechism, Paris, 1794.
[61] Ozouf, Festivals in French Revolution, 379.
[62] Ibid, 383.
[63] La Marseillaise, 1792.
[64] Aston, Religion and Revolution, 263.
[65] Aston, Religion and Revolution, 263.
[66] Ibid.
[67] Ibid, 271.
[68] Robespierre, Speech at Festival of the Supreme Being, 1793.
[69] Charles Lyttle, “Deistic Piety in the Cults of the French Revolution.” Church History 6, no. 1 (1933): 29. /stable/3691955.
[70] Aston, Religion and Revolution, 275.
[71] Palmer, Twelve Who Ruled, 383.