This article is part of a series on the Ideology of the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution. The revolutionary government, which aspired to establish a new utopia for mankind, shifted into a ‘democratic’ despotism during the Terror. The ideology that inspired democracy, civil rights, and emancipation in 1789 also gave justification for the totalitarian regime of the Terror in 1793-4. The Terror instead of contradicting revolutionary beliefs, was a manifestation of the ideology of the French Revolution.
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.” 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.
Read More about the Ideology of the Reign of Terror
- Interpretations of the Reign of Terror
- The Committee of Public Safety
- Violence of the Reign of Terror
- The French Revolution was a Religious Revolution
- The Enlightenment and the Cult of Rousseau
- The ‘General Will’ in Rousseau’s Contract Social
- Deism and de-Christianization
- Revolutionary Festivals; Space and Time
- The Cult of Reason and The Cult of the Supreme Being
- Thermidorian Reaction and Disillusionment of the Terror
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.
- William Doyle, The Oxford History of the French Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition, 2002), 251.