Reign of Terror

views updated May 29 2018


government by terror
law of suspects
show trials

The term Reign of Terror is an interesting and somewhat misleading label. It might suggest, in one view, that revolutionary terror was so pervasive in France during this period as to have been virtually inescapable, yet in many areas of the country there were few, if any, executions in 1793 and 1794. Alternatively, the label might be taken to refer to the dictatorial power of the Committee of Public Safety, the group of twelve deputies who assumed executive authority during the Terror, or to Maximilien Robespierre, who was accused by his opponents of aspiring to dictatorial power. Yet, the Terror, for all of its ferocity and its many victims, was a legal policy, and those condemned to die on the guillotine or by other means were, in the majority, charged with specific crimes and convicted by official tribunals. Those who instituted the Terror did so, at least in part, with the goal of curbing popular violence.

Terror became the "order of the day" in Revolutionary France in the fall of 1793, following an uprising in Paris on 4 and 5 September that occurred in response to escalating food prices and news that the city of Toulon, on the Mediterranean coast of France, had fallen to the British. Some would mark the Terror as beginning, however, with the execution of King Louis XVI in January 1793, or with the creation of the Revolutionary Tribunal in March 1793, or with the consolidation of the power of the Committee of Public Safety in July 1793. The end of the Reign of Terror is easier to designate—it came with the fall of Robespierre on 9 Thermidor Year II (27 July 1794).

government by terror

Government by terror was imposed in response to two perceived dangers: public panic and popular violence provoked by food shortages and rising prices; and the threat posed by traitors at a time when both war and civil war confronted the nation. As early as May 1793 the National Convention imposed price controls on grain and bread in an effort to ensure an adequate food supply. In September 1793 price controls were extended to other staple consumer goods, and the armées révolutionnaires were created to enforce these price controls and coerce peasants to deliver grain to the markets. Some of these revolutionary armies patrolled the provinces with ambulatory guillotines, prepared to administer revolutionary justice on the spot to those who hoarded grain or manipulated market prices. Parisians had seen their city dangerously under-supplied in the summer of 1793, but other large cities, too, felt vulnerable to grain shortages and the popular unrest that generally accompanied them.

The Terror was most severe in areas of civil war and counterrevolution, and in some of the frontier departments. In approximately one-third of the eighty-three departments the Terror claimed fewer than ten victims. Seventy percent of the death sentences were handed down in just five departments. In some areas the Terror was particularly harsh. In Nantes, near the center of the Vendée rebellion and also a city sympathetic to the federalist revolt, Jean-Baptiste Carrier and local militants ordered the drowning of three thousand suspected counterrevolutionaries. In Lyon, a city with a reputation for royalist sympathies and also a federalist center, nearly two thousand were executed, some by guillotine and others shot down by cannon. Toulon, Marseille, and Bordeaux—cities that resisted the National Convention in the summer of 1793—all suffered three hundred or more executions during the Terror.

law of suspects

The Law of Suspects, passed in September 1793, empowered local committees of surveillance to draw up lists of suspects and order their arrest. Those subject to arrests included anyone suspected of being an enemy of liberty, an advocate of tyranny, or a supporter of federalism; those who had emigrated illegally since the beginning of the Revolution; and ex-aristocrats who had not shown support for the Revolution. Some seventy thousand people were arrested under this law, roughly 0.5 percent of the population. The best estimates of historians suggest that forty thousand were executed during the Terror, but if one includes those who died in the repression of the Vendée the death toll mounts considerably higher.

The most salient images of the Reign of Terror, however, come from Paris, where the most dramatic "show trials" of the Revolution took place. The Revolutionary Tribunal in Paris was created in March 1793 on the proposal, ironically, of Carrier, who would later be sentenced to death by the tribunal he had helped bring into being. In April 1793 Antoine-Quentin Fouquier-Tinville was named public prosecutor attached to the Revolutionary Tribunal, a post he would occupy until 9 Thermidor. In September 1793, when Terror became the order of the day, the Revolutionary Tribunal was expanded so that four courts might operate concurrently. The procedures of the Revolutionary Tribunal also grew increasingly streamlined over time. During the trial of the Girondins, in October 1793, the National Convention decreed that juries might restrict trials to three days if they were convinced of the guilt of the accused. The Law of 22 Prairial (10 June 1794), passed following an alleged assassination attempt against Robespierre, eliminated defense counsel and cross-examination, decreed that moral evidence as well as material evidence might justify a conviction, and restricted juries to two possible verdicts: acquittal or death. This law ushered in the most active period of the Revolutionary Tribunal's existence, even though the threat from war abroad and from rebellion within France had substantially abated by this time.

show trials

The show trials of the Year II (September 1793–September 1794) claimed victims on both the left and the right of the revolutionary political spectrum. The first of these was in October 1793, when the Girondin deputies, led by the great orator Pierre-Victurnien Vergniaud, were tried and executed. Later that month Marie-Antoinette ascended the scaffold. In March 1794 Jacques-René Hébert and a number of his supporters on the extreme left were tried before the Revolutionary Tribunal, found guilty, and executed. Barely a week later Georges Danton and the Indulgents, accused of advocating leniency toward the enemies of the Revolution, suffered the same fate. As he rode to the guillotine Danton gestured toward the residence of Robespierre, promising his former ally that one day he would follow him along that same route. As suggested above, political threats to the Jacobin republic abated in the late spring of 1794, but the Terror had developed a momentum of its own—nearly 60 percent of those sentenced to death by the Revolutionary Tribunal in Paris were executed in June and July 1794. This escalation of revolutionary justice led to the fall of Robespierre on 9 Thermidor Year II (27 July 1794) and his execution the next day. Among the final victims of the Revolutionary Tribunal was Fouquier-Tinville himself.

Historians have long debated the meaning of the Reign of Terror. Some see it as an inevitable outcome of the ideology of the Jacobin clubs or the thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, while others interpret the Terror as an unfortunate, but understandable, response to the circumstances of war and counterrevolution. Supporters of the Revolution tend to downplay the scope of the Terror, whereas its opponents tend to exaggerate its scope. Some view the French Terror as the precursor of the much bloodier revolutionary terrors of the twentieth century. For virtually all who study the French Revolution, however, the ideals of 1789 are tarnished by the violence of the Reign of Terror.

See alsoDanton, Georges-Jacques; Federalist Revolt; French Revolution; Girondins; Jacobins; Louis XVI; Marie-Antoinette; Republicanism; Robespierre, Maximilien.


Arasse, Daniel. The Guillotine and the Terror. Translated by Christopher Miller. London, 1989. Translation of La guillotine et l'imaginaire de la Terreur.

Baker, Keith Michael, ed. The Terror. Vol. 4 of The French Revolution and the Creation of Modern Political Culture. Oxford, U.K., 1994.

Gough, Hugh. The Terror in the French Revolution. New York, 1998.

Greer, Donald. The Incidence of the Terror during the French Revolution: A Statistical Interpretation. Cambridge, Mass., 1935.

Gross, Jean-Pierre. Fair Shares for All: Jacobin Egalitarianism in Practice. Cambridge, U.K., 1997.

Lucas, Colin. The Structure of the Terror: The Example of Javogues and the Loire. London, 1973.

Paul R. Hanson

Reign of Terror

views updated May 23 2018

Reign of Terror (June 1793–July 1794) Phase of the French Revolution. It began with the overthrow of the Girondins and the ascendancy of the Jacobins under Robespierre. Against a background of foreign invasion and civil war, opponents were ruthlessly persecuted and c.1400 executed by the guillotine. On July 27, 1794, the Terror ended with a coup in the National Convention, when Robespierre and leading Jacobins were arrested and executed.

Reign of Terror

views updated Jun 27 2018

Reign of Terror ★★ The Black Book 1949

British-made adventure set during the French Revolution, with everyone after the black book that holds the names of those arch-fiend Robespierre plans to guillotine in his ruthless bid for power. Well-mounted, but historical personages and events are reduced to cartoon form. 89m/B VHS, DVD . Robert Cummings, Arlene Dahl, Richard Hart, Arnold Moss, Richard Basehart; D: Anthony Mann; W: Philip Yordan; C: John Alton.

reign of terror

views updated May 18 2018

reign of ter·ror • n. a period of remorseless repression or bloodshed, in particular (Reign of Terror) , the period of the Terror during the French Revolution.

About this article

Reign of Terror

All Sources -
Updated Aug 18 2018 About content Print Topic