The French Revolution is one of most significant events of World History and the period of time infamously known as the Reign of Terror has shaped our interpretation of that great event. Often when we think of the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution we picture wealthy aristocrats at the mercy of the guillotine, while the poor and hungry masses cheer in glee waiting for the beheading of the upper classes, but the true nature of the Reign of Terror is much more complicated, and much more weird and interesting.

The image of the Revolution as a conflict between the rich and poor is a product of the Marxist interpretation of the Revolution, but revisionists over the last 70 years have shifted the story of the revolution away from the Marxist belief that the Revolution was the beginning of a process of world change, to that the Revolution was there result of reforms and trends seen during the absolutist monarchy of the Ancien Regime.


Supreme Being

During the Terror, power had consolidated around the Committee of Public Safety specifically, and the National Assembly generally during the most radical phase of the Revolution, when those in power still believed that they were creating a new world order, a utopia consisting of freedom, liberty and equality. This is all despite of the fact that France was now under the control of an authoritarian government bent on destroying the old world to build a new one.

Monarchy, Christianity, and the feudal system were the bane of the most radical revolutionaries and atrocities resulting in the deaths of thousands were justified by the beliefs of the Revolutionaries. The insides of churches were dismantled and statues of Catholic Saints and Christ were replaced with busts of revolutionary leaders. Priests were required to disavow their allegiance to the Catholic Church, and instead, swear loyalty to the people of France. Children were now being raised on Republican values that called for a Spartan like obedience to authority. Only very small portion of the French population shared these same radical values as the men in the National Assembly and the Committee of Public Safety, and yet the radicals held all the power.

Those in power attempted to force their fixed ideology, or religion, on to the rest of France. The resulting dogmas of Republicanism and the Deist Cults of Reason/Cult of the Supreme being consisted of deeply held beliefs by those in control of France and thus are deeply influential to the History of the French Revolution. An examination of Republican ideology, as well as the deist cults meant replace Christianity, is warranted.

Literature on the Cults of the Revolution is scarce, while the enlightenment origins behind the ideology of the Revolution have been written about extensively. Modern revisionism of the French Revolution has only limited focus on the extreme ideology during the Reign of Terror. These religious/ideological beliefs influenced historical figures such as Robespierre, Jean Paul Marat, and groups of radical revolutionaries, and were used justify the atrocities committed during the Reign of Terror.


The Republican Catechism


Republican Catechism

Published year two of the French Revolutionary Calendar, or 1794 for you royalists, the Republican Catechism was a little handbook written to teach children about republican values. The booklet contains posed questions and answers about the nature of government, world history, Religion, and republican virtues. The booklet contains republican maxims on how to morally live life, and a list of republican hymns as well. The Republican Catechism renounces old institutions and submits revolutionary doctrine in its place, for example the book poses ask the question “Are priests needed?” and follows with the answer,

“They are not even useful. In general, they did much more harm than good; and anyone who can worship God as he sees fit, it would be ridiculous to demand of him that he entrust to another the care of doing this that he himself can perform.” [1]

A Republican Oath is also given to learn,

”We promise in Republicans that we will exterminate all the tyrants, all the despots united against our holy identity; that we will walk the formidable level of equality, to bring down all that will rise above the solemn expression of the general will;”[2]

The Republican Catechism is filled with insights into revolutionary beliefs and dogmas and is a valuable source for understanding the state religions established by Revolutionary government. Due it the dating of it publication, the Republican Catechism was written during the height of the Reign of Terror, and can be look at as a product of conversion as radicals attempted to shape the hearts and minds of the French in their own image.


Tocqueville: The Old Regime and the French revolution


Alexis_de_tocqueville

The Old Regime and the French Revolution by Alexis de Tocqueville was published in the 1855 and although it has aged it is an essential read for any scholar of the Revolution. Tocqueville’s work was different from the emerging Marxist School at the time, as instead of placing the Revolution as a cause of world change, he instead argued that the Revolution was a product of the Old Regime that came before it, specifically the centralization of bureaucratic power. Tocqueville also argued that to understand the French Revolution, we must not think of it as a political revolution, but as a religious revolution. Speaking of the Revolution in this context he says,

It united and divided men, in spite of law, traditions, characters, language; converted enemies into fellow-countrymen, and brothers into foes; or, rather, to speak more precisely, it created, far above particular nationalities, an intellectual country that was common to all, and in which every human creature could obtain rights of citizenship.[3]

The rise of Tocqueville’s significance as a voice of authority in regard to the Revolution is due to the work of a more modern French historian François Furet, whose book Interpreting the French Revolution praises Tocqueville, among others, for seeing past the bias of current times to look at the revolution as more of an historical event, and less of an ideological home to place your opinion about Marist theory on. Isn’t historiography just fascinating?!


Sources Cited


[1] Republican Catechism. 1794.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Tocqueville, Alexis de. The Ancien Regime and the French Revolution. New York: Anchor, 1955.