(The FRENCH REVOLUTION – continued)

home | 18-19th centuries index


previous | next

The Terror Peaks (December 1793 to July 1794)

By the end of 1793, revolts outside Paris were largely crushed, with a lot of bloodshed. In the city of Lyon, 1,800 were sentenced to death. In Marseille and Bordeaux, hundreds were executed. The revolutionaries imprisoned thousands, and many of the imprisoned were to die by early 1795.

By the spring of 1794 France's military was winning victories again. Conscription was changing warfare. With the first citizen's army in 2000 years and a massive army of conscripts, France's army was showing its superiority over smaller professional armies. France's generals were using mass attacks at bayonet point to overwhelm their enemy.

In Paris the terror continued. However much the revolution was supposed to be a product of reason, there was among delegates to the National Convention conflict over what was considered reasonable. One of the prominent members of the National Convention and a member of the convention's Committee of Public Safety was the thirty-six year-old Maximilien de Robespierre, a former lawyer active in the revolution since having been chosen as a delegate for the Third Estate back in early 1789. Robespierre had urged the emancipation of Jews and slaves and the abolition of the death penalty, and in late 1791 and early 1792 he had been opposed to France going to war. He had distrusted the wisdom of the Parisian mobs and had often sided with moderation, but when the mob began exercising more power over government he had swung to their side, deciding that they represented the real engine of revolution.


Georges Danton, the great orator and first President of the Committee of Public Safety. He drew back from the positions of the hardliners and paid for it with his life – another instance of revolutionaries killing their own.

Robespierre was devoted to the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Like Rousseau, he believed in a personal god, in divine providence and the immortality of the soul, and like Rousseau he saw morality and virtue as rising from the faith and hope of religious people. Robespierre described the revolution as grounded in virtue. He found fault with those in the convention whom he identified as atheists and anti-Christians. Robespierre saw anyone who did not believe in a Supreme Being as subversive, and he saw atheism as corrosive, morally offensive and a useless provocation against the sensibilities of common people. His target was a faction led by Jacques René Hébert, who also identified with the will of the Paris mob. Robespierre joined others on the Committee of Public Safety in judging the Hébertists as anarchists guilty of conspiracy and of collusion with foreign powers, and on March 24, 1794, Hébert and nineteen of his faction were guillotined.

Robespierre then came into conflict with another prominent deputy, Georges Jacques Danton. Initially, Danton supported executing suspected enemies of the revolution, but in 1793 he had not wanted a repeat of the massacres of 1792 and he was having second thoughts about continuing the war. His fellow deputies spoke of his opposition to the terror as encouraging those opposed to the revolution. Danton was an outstanding orator with a following among the deputies. The Committee of Public Safety feared that he might be able to rally the convention against their positions. Robespierre disliked Danton, Danton having rejected his talk of virtue, and Robespierre asked how a man "with so little notion of morality ever became a champion of freedom." note26


Robespierre, a believer in divine providence and virtue, he led the terror until he too was executed by his fellow revolutionaries.

On March 29, 1794, Danton and a few of his allies were arrested. A phony trial was conducted, the judge himself fearing accusations against him by the Committee of Public Safety. Danton and his friends were accused of conspiring against the French people, of dealings with the Girondists, of attempting to restore the monarchy, embezzling state funds and other charges. They were guillotined on April 5, 1794.

Robespierre continued with his idea of virtue as devotion to the revolution, exemplified by those volunteering to risk their lives by joining the military. He continued his celebration of the Supreme Being and acknowledgment of the immortality of the soul – to the applause of the Convention. He was soon to say that he recognized only two parties: "virtuous citizens and bad citizens." Fellow deputies called him incorruptible because he was uninterested in money and couldn't be bought. Robespierre appeared to be giving his all to the welfare of the revolution, and whatever he did he justified in the name of serving France.

Robespierre was elected president of the National Convention, but there were deputies not yet guillotined who were asking themselves about the need for limits. A law passed by the National Convention on June 10, 1794 gave Robespierre the power to indict anyone on the flimsiest of charges. No witnesses were to be allowed. Court proceedings were reduced to mere condemnations. From June 12 into July the most intense period of work for the city's executioners began.

On July 26, France's army defeated a coalition force at the Battle of Fluerus in the Austrian Netherlands, but 5,000 were killed on both sides. That same day, in a two-hour speech Robespierre responded to what he thought was the need to defend himself regarding domestic matters. He announced to the Convention that more cleansing was to come without saying whom the targets were to be. He spoke of having "trembled" lest he be "soiled by the impure neighborhood of wicked men." The Convention held its applause. Failing to mention whom the targets were to be, individual delegates feared that it might be them. After the speech they gathered strength as a group by whispering to each other behind Robespierre's back, and the following day when Robespierre rose to speak again to the deputies he was shouted down. He responded with demands that he be allowed to speak. The delegates continued to shout. Robespierre failed to get his words out, and a deputy called out that "The blood of Danton chokes him." He found his voice again and called deputies who supported Danton cowards for not having defended him.

Within one day, Robespierre would join the others who died for the revolution. Legislators act fast when their lives are at stake. The deputies voted overwhelmingly that Robespierre and several of his supporters be arrested. He was charged with crimes against the republic. Robespierre and his supporters escaped and tried to rally Parisians to their support. On the night of the 27th there were marches and counter marches. In an exchange of gunfire, Robespierre received a shot to his jaw, and his jaw was tied shut with a bandage made from a torn sheet. Those with guns who opposed Robespierre triumphed, and on the 28th, without benefit of a trial, it was the turn of Robespierre and 21 of his associates to be beheaded by the guillotine.


Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.