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.


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.”[1] 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”[2]

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