Reign of Terror
The Reign of Terror or The Terror (French: la Terreur) is the label given by some historians to a period during the French Revolution.
Several historians consider the "reign of terror" to have begun in 1793, placing the starting date at either 5 September, June  or March (birth of the Revolutionary Tribunal), while some consider it to have begun in September 1792 (September Massacres), or even July 1789 (when the first decapitations took place), but there is a general consensus that it ended with the fall of Robespierre in July 1794.
Between June 1793 and the end of July 1794, there were 16,594 official death sentences in France, of which 2,639 were in Paris. However, the total number of deaths in France was much higher, owing to death in imprisonment, suicide and casualties in foreign and civil war.
Robespierre's apology for "terror"
Surely there was a sense of emergency among leading politicians in France in the summer of 1793 with widespread civil war and counter-revolution, making for instance mr. Barère exclaim on 5 September 1793 in the Convention: let's "make terror the order of the day!" They were also determined to avoid street violence such as the September Massacres of 1792 by taking violence into their own hands as an instrument of government.
This doctrine was famously put into words by Robespierre in February 1794:
If the basis of popular government in peacetime is virtue, the basis of popular government during a revolution is both virtue and terror; virtue, without which terror is baneful; terror, without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing more than speedy, severe and inflexible justice; it is thus an emanation of virtue; it is less a principle in itself, than a consequence of the general principle of democracy, applied to the most pressing needs of the patrie.
Major events during 'the terror'
On 10 March 1793 the National Convention created the Revolutionary Tribunal. Among those charged by the tribunal, about a half were acquitted (though the number dropped to about a quarter after the enactment of the Law of 22 Prairial). Among people who were condemned, about 8% were aristocrats, 6% clergy, 14% middle class, and 72% were workers or peasants. In March rebellion broke out in Vendée in response to mass conscription, which developed into a civil war that lasted until after the Terror.
On 6 April the Committee of Public Safety was created, which gradually became the de facto war-time government.
On 2 June, the Parisian sans-culottes surrounded the National Convention, calling for administrative and political purges, a low fixed price for bread, and a limitation of the electoral franchise to sans-culottes alone. With the backing of the national guard, they persuaded the convention to arrest 29 Girondist leaders. In reaction to the conscription of the Girondin deputies, some thirteen departments started the Federalist revolt against the National Convention in Paris, which was ultimately crushed. On 24 June, the convention adopted the first republican constitution of France, the French Constitution of 1793. It was ratified by public referendum, but never put into force.
On 13 July the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat – a Jacobin leader and journalist – resulted in a further increase in Jacobin political influence. Georges Danton, the leader of the August 1792 uprising against the king, was removed from the committee. On 27 July, Robespierre made his entrance.
On 23 August, the National Convention decreed the Leveé en masse, "The young men shall fight; the married man shall forge arms and transport provisions; the women shall make tents and clothes and shall serve in the hospitals; the children shall turn all lint into linen; the old men shall betake themselves to the public square in order to arouse the courage of the warriors and preach hatred of kings and the unity of the Republic."
On 9 September, the convention established paramilitary forces, the "revolutionary armies", to force farmers to surrender grain demanded by the government. On 17 September, the Law of Suspects was passed, which authorized the imprisonment of vaguely defined "suspects". This created a mass overflow in the prison systems. On 29 September, the convention extended price fixing from grain and bread to other essential goods, and also fixed wages.
On 10 October, the Convention decreed that "the provisional government shall be revolutionary until peace." On 24 October, the French Republican Calendar was enacted. The trial of the Girondins started on the same day and they were executed on 31 October.
Anti-clerical sentiments increased during 1793 and a campaign of dechristianization occurred. On 10 November (20 Brumaire Year II of the French Republican Calender), the Hébertists organized a Festival of Reason.
On 14 Frimaire (5 December 1793) was passed the Law of Frimaire, which gave the central government more control over the actions of the representatives on mission.
On 16 Pluviôse (4 February 1794), the National Convention decreed that slavery be abolished in all of France and French colonies.
By the end of 1793, two major factions had emerged, both threatening the Revolutionary Government: the Hébertists, who called for an intensification of the Terror and threatened insurrection, and the Dantonists, led by Georges Danton, who demanded moderation and clemency. The Committee of Public Safety took actions against both. The major Hébertists were tried before the Revolutionary Tribunal and executed on 24 March. The Dantonists were arrested on 30 March, tried on 3 to 5 April and executed on 5 April.
On 20 Prairial (8 June) was celebrated across the country the Festival of the Supreme Being, which was part of the Cult of the Supreme Being, a deist national religion. On 22 Prairial (10 June), the National Convention passed a law proposed by Georges Couthon, known as the Law of 22 Prairial, which simplified the judicial process and greatly accelerated the work of the Revolutionary Tribunal. Since the enactment of the law, the number of executions greatly increased, and the period from this time to the Thermidorian Reaction became known as "The Grand Terror".
On 8 Messidor (26 June), the French army won the Battle of Fleurus, which marked a turning point in France's military campaign and undermined the necessity of war-time measures and the legitimacy of the Revolutionary Government.
The fall of Robespierre was brought about by a combination of those who wanted more power for the Committee of Public Safety (and a more radical policy than he was willing to allow) and the moderates who completely opposed the revolutionary government. They had, between them, made the Law of 22 Prairial one of the charges against him, so that, after his fall, to advocate terror would be seen as adopting the policy of a convicted enemy of the republic, putting the advocate's own head at risk. During his arrest, Robespierre may have tried to commit suicide before his execution by shooting himself, although the bullet only shattered his jaw. Alternatively, he may have been shot by the gendarme Merda. Indeed, so great was the confusion during the storming of the municipal Hall of Paris, where Robespierre and his friends had found refuge, that it is impossible to decide between these two scenarios. He was guillotined the next day.
The reign of the standing Committee of Public Safety was ended. New members were appointed the day after Robespierre's execution, and term limits were imposed (a quarter of the committee retired every three months); its powers were reduced piece by piece.
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- Rudé, George (1976). Robespierre: Portrait of a Revolutionary Democrat. New York: Viking Press. ISBN 0-670-60128-4. A Marxist political portrait of Robespierre, examining his changing image among historians and the different aspects of Robespierre as an 'ideologue', as a political democrat, as a social democrat, as a practitioner of revolution, as a politician and as a popular leader/leader of revolution, it also touches on his legacy for the future revolutionary leaders Vladimir Lenin and Mao Zedong.
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