The Reign of Terror

reign of terror
A representation of guillotinings during the Reign of Terror

The Reign of Terror was the most radical and violent phase of the French Revolution, spanning approximately a year from mid-1793 to mid-1794. Born chiefly from a paranoid fear of counter-revolution, the radicals who implemented the Terror did so to protect the progress of the revolution. The laws they passed stripped accused persons of the few legal and civil rights they had, creating an environment where trials were cursory and accusations became virtual death sentences.

Common perceptions

Stories and images of the Reign of Terror dominate our perceptions of the revolution. According to folklore, the Terror was a deadly period where Maximilien Robespierre, the Committee of Public Safety and the Revolutionary Tribunals condemned thousands of people to die under the falling blade of the guillotine.

The realities of the Terror were more complex than this. The Reign of Terror was not driven by one man, one body or one policy. It was a child with many parents, sparked and fuelled by different forces and factors within the walls of Paris, within France generally and even abroad.

Whatever its causes, the Reign of Terror was certainly the most violent period of the French Revolution. Between the summers of 1793 and 1794, more than 50,000 people were killed for suspected counter-revolutionary activity or so-called “crimes against liberty”. One-third of this number died under the falling blade of the guillotine. If one includes the Convention’s brutal retaliation against civilians in the Vendée and other rebellious provinces, the victims of the Terror number closer to 250,000.

When did the Terror begin?

When and why the Reign of Terror began are matters of historical debate. For some historians, the Reign of Terror commenced with the execution of Louis XVI in January 1793. Others date it to the formation of the Revolutionary Tribunal (March 1793), the expulsion of Girondinist deputies from the National Convention (June 1793) or the murder of Jean-Paul Marat (July 1793).

The Reign of Terror had a single legislative beginning: on September 5th 1793, when Montagnard deputies in the National Convention called for the use of terror against counter-revolutionaries. Addressing the Convention, the radical Jacobin and Committee of Public Safety member Bertrand Barère summarised what was needed:

“Terror is the order of the day. This is how to do away instantly with both royalists and moderates and the restless, counter-revolutionary scum. The royalists want blood, well, they shall have the blood of the conspirators, the likes of Brissot and Marie Antoinette. It will be an operation for special Revolutionary Tribunals.”

Pressure from below

reign of terror
The Zenith of French Glory, an English mockery of the Reign of Terror

Fears of counter-revolution sprang from France’s war with Europe, rumours of a foreign invasion and the treachery of émigrés, spies and counter-revolutionaries.

This paranoid hysteria was particularly rife among Parisian radicals: the Jacobins and Cordeliers, the men of the sections and the sans-culottes. Some of them attributed the economic suffering of the working classes to counter-revolutionary subterfuge and conspiracies. Together they urged the Convention to take tougher action against ‘enemies of the revolution’.

From this wellspring of panic and suspicion followed a year of state-sanctioned terror. Anyone accused or even suspected of counter-revolutionary activity could be targeted. Thousands of French citizens were denounced, given hasty trials devoid of fairness and due process, then sent either to prison or the ‘national razor’ (the guillotine).

The Law of Suspects

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The Purifying Pot of the Jacobins, a visual depiction of the Law of Suspects

Those who initiated and perpetuated the Terror saw it as a bitter but necessary medicine, a purge of reactionary elements so that the revolution could survive and remain on course.

Little new policy was needed to initiate a policy of terror. Speeches in the Convention set the tone, while the radicals in the Committee of Public Safety (CPS) gave their approval. The Law of Suspects, passed in September 1793, formed the legislative basis for the Terror by outlining who might be targeted.

The Law of Suspects called for the immediate detention of anyone in one of six categories. Anything from hoarding grain, harbouring suspects, evading the levée en masse (conscription), possessing subversive documents, even speaking critically of the government could lead to a charge. Arrests and trials were conducted by the Revolutionary Tribunals, which were expanded and given new legal authorities.

Prominent victims

The Reign of Terror brought an end to many prominent lives. Among the Terror’s more notable victims were the former queen Marie Antoinette; the Girondon orator Jacques Brissot; former Jacobin leader Antoine Barnave; Paris’ first mayor Jean-Sylvain Bailly; prominent female revolutionaries Madame Roland and Olympe de Gouges; the former mistress of Louis XV, Madame du Barry; Charlotte Corday, the assassin of Jean-Paul Marat; Philippe Égalité, the former Duke of Orleans; the dead king’s defence lawyer Guillaume Malesherbes; Antoine Lavoisier, one of France’s most famous scientists; the radical sans-culotte leader Jacques Hébert; the prominent journalist Camille Desmoulins; and the populist political leader Georges Danton.

Most who perished during the Terror, however, remain faceless and unknown to history. Some were clergymen, nobles, conspirators and defenders of the old regime – but the stark reality is that the majority its victims were members of the Third Estate.

“This notorious law [22 Prairial] created a murder machine… A good proportion of the accused were to be sent up by the six special commissions which were to process the dossiers of suspects. They were now to funnel unfortunate individuals, accused of the vaguest of crimes and convicted simply by administrative fiat, to a tribunal that could only acquit or punish with death… It is a commentary on the pervasive atmosphere of black suspicion that this law was seen as a solution.”
Donald M. Sutherland, historian

The role of Couthon

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Georges Couthon, author of the Law of 22 Prairial

Once started, the Reign of Terror developed its own momentum and became almost impossible to stop. Terror became the revolution, so opposing or criticising the Terror became itself a counter-revolutionary act. To speak negatively of the Terror was to volunteer oneself as a suspect.

As a consequence, the Reign of Terror could only escalate or collapse, and so it escalated. The man most responsible for this was not Robespierre but one of his allies, Georges Couthon.

A Clermont lawyer who once dedicated himself to representing the poor, Couthon was elected to the Legislative Assembly and the National Convention, where at first he sat with the Plain before gravitating to the Montagnards. He also served briefly as a military leader, overseeing the suppression of counter-revolutionary groups in Lyons before being struck down with an unknown form of paralysis.

Couthon was softly spoken, reserved to the point of timidity and seldom out of his wheelchair – however, these qualities concealed a revolutionary heart that was no less ruthless than that of Robespierre. Couthon was a man who would do anything to protect the revolution, whatever the eventual cost.

The Law of 22 Prairial

Frustrated by the inadequate pace of justice and Paris’ overflowing prisons, Couthon acted. In early June 1794, he introduced the Law of 22 Prairial, later dubbed the ‘Law of the Great Terror’, onto the floor of the National Convention. It was passed on June 10th with the backing of Robespierre and the CPS.

The Prairial law removed the National Convention’s oversight over the Revolutionary Tribunals, expanding the power of the Tribunals and allowing them to act swiftly, autonomously and without review or appeal. Ordinary citizens could denounce suspects directly to the Tribunals rather than reporting them to the police, the CPS or the Convention’s other committees.

The Law of 22 Prairial also changed the procedures of the Tribunals so that accused persons were left almost defenceless. Prior questioning or deposition of suspects was deemed “superfluous”, so accused persons were sent straight to trial. The cross-examination of witnesses was banned and only the prosecution was permitted to tender evidence.

In some cases, juries could suspend a trial and hand down a verdict, even before all the evidence had been heard.

Plots and conspiracies

Significantly, the Law of 22 Prairial required Revolutionary Tribunals to either acquit suspects or sentence them to death. Fines, imprisonment, discharge, parole and commutation were no longer available as sentencing options. Accused persons either walked free or were carted to the guillotine. This naturally produced a marked escalation in the number of executions.

The Law of 22 Prairial came at a time when France’s revolutionary army was beginning to assert itself on the battlefield and the foreign threat was dissipating rather than increasing. However, May 1794 was also marked by several conspiracies and assassination attempts, most notably against Robespierre.

On May 20th, a former lottery worker named Henri Ladmirat set out to murder Robespierre but, unable to find him, fired pistol shots at another politician, Collot d’Herbois. According to one contemporary, Robespierre became obsessed with assassination plots and was “frightened that his own shadow would assassinate him”.

The ‘Great Terror’

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The Radical’s Arms, another British satire showing the Terror and sans-culottes

Whatever their causes, the changes of 22 Prairial accelerated the wheels of the Terror. The seven weeks between June 10th and the fall of Robespierre on July 27th became known as the Great Terror. During this period, almost 1,400 people were executed in Paris – around 200 more than in the previous 12 months.

Executions had previously averaged around three a day; after 22 Prairial this increased tenfold. Suspects were tried, sentenced and executed in groups, often dozens at a time. Guillotinings were so frequent that the flagstones at the Place de la Révolution became clogged with blood and the whole square began to smell rancid.

The government responded by moving most executions to the site of the former Bastille, however, the sans-culottes there complained that this was disrupting business. As a compromise, the guillotine was moved even further east. Crowds at executions began to dwindle, though it is unclear whether Parisians had become opposed to the Terror or just indifferent or bored with its guillotinings.

french revolution terror

1. The Reign of Terror was the most violent phase of the French Revolution, a year-long period between the summers of 1793 and 1794. During this time around 50,000 French citizens were executed.

2. Historians are divided about the onset and causes of the Terror, however, the revolutionary war, fears of foreign invasion, rumours about counter-revolutionary activity, assassination plots and zealots in the government were all contributing factors.

3. The Reign of Terror was formally initiated in September 1793, when radical Montagnards rose and asserted that a period of terror and repression was needed to protect the revolution.

4. During the Terror, justice was distributed by the Revolutionary Tribunals, which were expanded and given new powers. This was particularly true after the Law of 22 Prairial, authored by Georges Couthon.

5. The seven-week period between June 10th and the fall of Robespierre on July 27th became known as the Great Terror. During this period the Revolutionary Tribunals abandoned many of their procedures and the daily rate of executions increased tenfold.

Citation information
Title: ‘The Reign of Terror’
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
Date published: September 11, 2019
Date updated: November 6, 2023
Date accessed: July 14, 2024
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