Impact of Terror on the French Revolution

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How far do you agree that Terror was necessary to save the Revolution?

 

In the space of around a century, beginning in 1789 and ending the in the late 1790s, the political landscape within France changed dramatically. Multiple issues encapsulated France, including economic unrest,  which boiled over leading to a revolution, destroying age old institutions that had controlled France for centuries. The monarchy and the feudal system came crashing down, allowing capitalism to start a new reign over the country. It is without question that the radical nature of the revolution pushed the boundaries of what was possible in the Western World and Europe. The Revolutionary government did not have everything their own way during this seizure of power. There was a counter-revolution breaking out from the Vendee and hostile armies surrounded France on all sides. This led to the introduction of the Reign of Terror by the National Convention, which lasted from September 1793 to July 1794, when the overthrow of Robespierre led to a winding down of the violence. It was a period of violence marked by mass executions of enemies of the revolution. It could be said that the Reign of Terror was a necessary evil to keep the Revolutionary government alive and kicking. The terror took a variety of forms during the revolution but it is widely agreed on by historians that the Reign of Terror generally refers to the period when the Jacobins had a majority within the government and Robespierre was the face of it. As the Jacobins gained control of the Committee of Public Safety, which in turn controlled the legislature (the Convention), the disputes among their factions sharpened. After an interregnum of shared power, Robespierre became dictator, and the Terror started in earnest. It took the form of the arrest, show trial, and execution of thousands of people, including the leaders of the Girondins and the opposing Jacobin factions. Robespierre played a major role in the Reign of Terror, as one historian, Albert Soboul, stated, Robespierre was a ‘defender of democracy’ and not simply ‘content to defend the Revolution against the privileged classes’[1], suggesting how Robespierre wanted to fight back against anyone who challenged the revolutionaries, which is exactly what can be seen through his actions during the Reign of Terror in his role in the Committee of Public Safety. Nonetheless, the extremities of the terror were clear for all to see in France with over sixteen thousand official death sentences. However was this sheer amount of terror necessary to save the revolution in France? Could the National Convention and Committee of Public safety dealt with the counter revolutionaries in other ways? It could be argued that terror is necessary for all revolutions and governments to work, as it has been evident in both the Russian Revolution and through the Nazis in Germany since. Nevertheless since the Furies of the French Revolution terror has become an even more disconcerting and controversial issue, ‘even more complex and perplexing than that of violence’[2].

Terror was always an underlying issue in France from the beginning of the revolution in 1789, as it started with ‘spontaneous and wild terror from below’[3]  with the explosion of the popular violence that spread throughout Paris from 1789. This led into the prison massacres of September 1792. However none of this would compare to the scale to the ‘terror from above’ that was about to unfold in France. As it was put by Arno J.Mayer, these terrors from below were the ‘embryo and precipitant of a would-be-legitimate and quasi legal terror from above, which was formally adopted and proclaimed in September 1793[4]. However what events led to this Reign of Terror? As Marisa Linton highlighted in her paper ‘The Terror in the French Revolution’, ‘There were three principal reasons for the Jacobin Terror.’[5] These were the strength of the counter revolution, ‘the lack of a parliamentary tradition within France to give revolutionaries experience in the management of political parties and majority voting, and to accustom them to accept the legitimacy of opposing political views’[6]. With the ‘third, and most overwhelming reason, was the war with foreign powers that began in April 1792. The exigencies of war, coupled with fears of invasion and conquest by an alliance of counter-revolutionary French nobles and key powers including Austria, Prussia, Britain and Spain, led to demands for a war economy, the recruitment of troops, and requisitioning of supplies’[7]. The people of France had started to doubt the revolutionaries. But did all these reasons amount to Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety needing terror to grab back control and keep the revolution alive?

These three reasons as stated above do highlight and suggest why terror was necessary in saving the French revolution. The National Convention had many enemies both abroad and at home that were challenging the status of the revolution. Least of all were the civil wars that were breaking out in the country, commonly referred to as the ‘wars in the west’ or the ‘Vendee Revolution’[8]. But was terror indeed needed to save the revolution from these counter revolutionaries? Jean-Clement Martin looks into the Vendee and the counter revolutionaries in his work ‘The Vendee, Chouannerie, and The State, 1791-99’. Martin states that ‘The Vendee, as it was to become generally known after 1793, was at first linked to the most important decisions taken by the central state. The Committee of Public Safety owed its very existence to it’[9]. This suggests how The Committee of Public Safety, a major contributor to the Reign of Terror, would not have existed without the counter revolutionaries. Nonetheless Martin goes on to describe the many battles that took place between the Vendee and the revolutionaries as the country spiralled into a civil war. It was said by Martin however that the Vendeans actually retreated at battles including at Nantes and Lucon in 1793[10]. This portrays how if the Committee of Public Safety had not become involved with their own ‘operations’ the war may as been able to play out by itself and the use of terror, on whatever scale, may have been unnecessary. However Martin provides a rather interesting insight into the Convention and Committee of Public Safety’s actions toward the Vendee suggesting that it ‘served as a yardstick by which other uprisings were judged’[11]. Martin provides the example of how the Vendee were used as a scapegoat to describe the disturbances in the Massif Central. Moreover ‘The Vendee was a scarecrow used to justify and impose any measures, however exceptional’[12]. This is seemingly referring to the terror used by Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety that was utilised to defeat the counter revolutionaries. Martin goes on to highlight how there was a ‘terrorist rhetoric that arose around the Vendee’, compounding how the use of terror by the revolutionaries was utilised in great effect. However it was not actually this use of terror that ended the counter revolutionaries charge. A change in the Convention’s policies allowed Charette, the Vendean leader, to negotiate a declaration of peace in February 1795, interestingly enough after the end of the Reign of Terror. Overall this brings to question whether the terror was necessary in order to save the revolution in this circumstance. Is terror not needed in every successful revolution and creation of a new government to coerce the people, and without this use of widespread terror toward the counter revolutionaries, they could have grown stronger and defeated the revolution

One major question that could be raised by historians is that was the excessive use of terror necessary in order to save the revolution from threats from abroad and at home, or was the use of terror utilized predominantly by Robespierre to keep him feeling safe and out of danger from his own political enemies within the revolutionary government. Therefore was the use of terror actually necessary to save the revolution or just Robespierre’s own political gains? It was certainly true that fear had been internalised within the politicians and as Marisa Linton highlighted it is a characteristic of terror that people really venture out to say what they really think[13]. After the Jacobin factions had been destroyed in the Spring, each Jacobin was afraid of one another. These politicians had greatly benefitted from the use of terror to reach the positions they were in but now they were afraid the terror would be switched onto them. There was an uncertainty about whether the French would lose the wars abroad, whether the counter revolution would win and what would happen if the popular violence turned onto them. That is why when the day came ‘the image of Robespierre as the sole initiator of Jacobin ideology and the Terror was encouraged by the group of Jacobins that joined forces to overthrow him’[14]. This suggests how no Jacobin felt safe and comfortable with the excessive terror being put on France and could portray how these politicians that were leading the revolution with Robespierre did not feel that this use of terror was necessary to save the revolution. This is something that Linton addresses in her work stating that ‘There is evidence that some of the Jacobins were looking for a way out of terror in the Spring of 1794’[15]. Overall I believe that this does highlight how many of the politicians around Robespierre did not feel that this terror was necessary. However, Robespierre clung to his ‘ideology of political virtue’[16].

One man that would have a steadfast belief that the terror was certainly necessary to save the revolution was Robespierre himself. He had created an ideology of terror within the Jacobin party, that he felt was crucial toward the revolutionary push. Indeed, in his speech to the convention, given on the 5th of February 1794, Robespierre gave his reasons for the justification of the terror. By this point the threat from abroad had been largely dealt with and the threat from the Vendee had also been pacified. So why did the Reign of Terror continue throughout 1794? It had already been utilised to ‘save the revolution’, hence why was it necessary for the terror to continue? During this speech Robespierre highlights that terror ‘is nothing more than justice, prompt, severe and inflexible’[17]. This clearly highlights his viewpoint on the terror and certainly suggests his clear ideology. However it has been noted that by 1794 Robespierre was emotionally and mentally shattered suggesting that he felt the use of terror was the only single way he was able to keep power. Overall Robespierre’s view on the use of terror was extremely clear, it was necessary to save the revolution and lead France to liberty.

To conclude I believe that terror had to be a necessary excess of the revolution and that could not be avoided. Afterall it has been evident in many of the revolutions that have happened since the French revolution. Nevertheless i do not totally agree that terror was necessary to save the revolution. The wars abroad and at home were not able to fully play out before the insurrection of the Committee of Safety. Nonetheless, the question remains if one can argue that the terror was no more lethal than other government policies resulting in mass death in and around the late eighteenth century, then why has it “been viewed as exceptional? Afterall Lefebvre suggested that the terror was the exercise of a ‘punitive will’ against a class enemy, he also justified it as necessitated by crisis of 1793 and the need for the assertion of executive power in an increasingly chaotic state of affairs.Overall I do believe that terror was a necessary evil in the French Revolution, however the excessive nature in which it was used was not needed and it was not the sole reason that ‘saved the revolution’.

 

 

Bibliography

 

  • Burney, John.M; The Fear Of The Executive and the Threat of Conspiracy: Billaud-Varennes Terrorist Rhetoric in the French Revolution, 1788–1794, French History, Volume 5, Issue 2, 1 June 1991, Pages 143–163, https://doi-org.stmarys.idm.oclc.org/10.1093/fh/5.2.143
  • Kennedy, Michael L. “The Foundation of the Jacobin Clubs and the Development of the Jacobin Club Network, 1789-1791.” The Journal of Modern History 51, no. 4 (1979): 701-33. http://www.jstor.org.stmarys.idm.oclc.org/stable/1877163
  • Linton, Marisa, ‘The Robespierrists and the Republic of Virtue’ in ‘Choosing Terror; virtue, friendship, and authenticity in the French Revolution’, Oxford University Press, 2015, pp.227-240
  • Linton, Marisa, ‘The Terror in the French Revolution’, Kingston University UK, http://www2.port.ac.uk/special/france1815to2003/chapter1/interviews/filetodownload,20545,en.pdf
  • Mayer, Arno J.. The Furies : Violence and Terror in the French and Russian Revolutions. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002. Accessed January 11, 2019. ProQuest Ebook Central.
  • McPhee, Peter, ed. Companion to the French Revolution. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, 2012. Accessed January 11, 2019. ProQuest Ebook Central.
  • Mitchell, H. “Vendémiaire, a Revaluation.” The Journal of Modern History 30, no. 3 (1958): 191-202. http://www.jstor.org.stmarys.idm.oclc.org/stable/1872834.
  • “Robespierre, “On Political Morality”,” Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, accessed January 11, 2019, http://chnm.gmu.edu/revolution/d/413.
  • Scurr, Ruth. ‘Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution’. Vintage Books, London, 2006
  • Soboul, A. “Robespierre and the Popular Movement of 1793-4.” Past & Present, no. 5 (1954): 54-70. http://www.jstor.org.stmarys.idm.oclc.org/stable/649823.

Word Count- 2230


[1] Soboul, A. “Robespierre and the Popular Movement of 1793-4.” (pp.55)

[2] Mayer, Arno J.. The Furies : Violence and Terror in the French and Russian Revolutions, (pp.93)

[3] Mayer, Arno J.. The Furies : Violence and Terror in the French and Russian Revolutions, (pp.101)

[4] Mayer, Arno J.. The Furies : Violence and Terror in the French and Russian Revolutions, (pp.101)

[5] Linton, Marisa, ‘The Terror in the French Revolution’, (pp.1)

[6] Linton, Marisa, ‘The Terror in the French Revolution’, (pp.1)

[7] Linton, Marisa, ‘The Terror in the French Revolution’, (pp.1)

[8] Jean-Clement Martin in ‘The Vendee, Chouannerie, and the State, 1791-99’, Companion to the French Revolution. (pp.246)

[9] Jean-Clement Martin in ‘The Vendee, Chouannerie, and the State, 1791-99’, Companion to the French Revolution. (pp.252)

[10] Jean-Clement Martin in ‘The Vendee, Chouannerie, and the State, 1791-99’, Companion to the French Revolution. (pp.253)

[11] Jean-Clement Martin in ‘The Vendee, Chouannerie, and the State, 1791-99’, Companion to the French Revolution. (pp.253)

[12] Jean-Clement Martin in ‘The Vendee, Chouannerie, and the State, 1791-99’, Companion to the French Revolution. (pp.253)

[13] Linton, Marisa, ‘The Robespierrists and the Republic of Virtue’ in ‘Choosing Terror; virtue, friendship, and authenticity in the French Revolution’ (pp.227)

[14] Linton, Marisa, ‘The Robespierrists and the Republic of Virtue’ (pp.228)

[15] Linton, Marisa, ‘The Robespierrists and the Republic of Virtue’ (pp.229)

[16] Linton, Marisa, ‘The Robespierrists and the Republic of Virtue’ (pp.229)

[17] Robespierre, “On Political Morality”,” Liberty, Equality, Fraternity

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