1. The Legislative Assembly (1791-1792):
Elections were held under the constitution framed by the National Assembly in 1791 and the Legislative Assembly met on 1 October, 1791.
The Assembly consisted of 745 members, but unfortunately all of them where new to their job.
Foolishly, the National Assembly had passed a self-denying law by which its members were debarred from being elected to the Legislative Assembly under the new constitution.
This was most unfortunate and the country was to suffer on that account. Most of the members of the Legislative Assembly held extreme views and that could give an indication of the trouble ahead.
Clubs in France:
At that time, certain political clubs came into existence and the most important of them were the Jacobin Club and the Cordelier Club. As regards the Jacobin Club, it was moderate at the outset but it grew more and more radical with the passage of time. This happened particularly after Mirabeau and Lafayette left the Club. The result was that Robespierre, a radical democrat, came to the front. Under his leadership, the radical opinion in the country was mobilised and a large number of branches were established all over the country.
After some time, the Jacobin Club became a rival of the Legislative Assembly itself The Cordelier Club was led by Danton and was radical from the very beginning. Its members were recruited from the lower strata of society and republicanism was strong from the very beginning. These clubs exercised a tremendous influence on the public in the country.
Political Groups in the Assembly:
A reference may also be made to the political groups in the Legislative Assembly. The Constitutionalists were the supporters of the Constitution of 1791 and consequently stood for a constitutional form of government in the country. They were prepared to accept the king with his limited powers. The Republicans were divided into two main groups, the Girondists and the Jacobins.
The Jacobins were also known as the Mountain on account of their raised seats in the Assembly premises. The Girondists were moderates but they stood for establishing a republican form of government. They were not practical in their approach. Their outlook was more academic than practical. They were very particular about legal forms and processes and were opposed to brute force.
According to Prof Hazen, “The Girondists have enjoyed a poetic immortality ever since imaginative histories of the Revolution issued from the pensive pen of the poet Lamartine, who portrayed them as pure and high-minded patriots caught in the swirl of a wicked world. The description was inaccurate. They were not disinterested martyrs in the cause of good government. They were a group of politicians whose discretion was not as conspicuous as their ambition. They paid for that vaulting emotion the price which it frequently exacts. They knew how to make their tragic exit from life bravely and heroically. They did not know, what is more difficult, how to make their lives wise and profitable to the world. They were a group of eloquent young men, led by a romantic young woman. For the real head of this group that had its hour upon the stage and then was heard no more in the deafening clamour of the later Revolution was Madame Roland, their bright particular star. Theirs was a bookish outlook upon the world. They fed upon Plutarch, and boundless was their admiration for the ancient Greeks and Romans. They were republicans because those glorious figures of the earlier time had been republicans; also because they imagined that, in a republic, they would themselves find a better chance to shine and to irradiate the world. Dazzled by these prototypes they burned with the spirit of emulation.”
The Jacobins were Republicans of the extreme type. They were prepared to adopt all kinds of means for the establishment and safety of a republican form of government in the country. It is true that the Girondists had a majority in the Legislative Assembly at the beginning, but the influence of the Jacobins was growing every day on account of the backing of the Jacobin Club.
Laws vetoed by King:
The Legislative Assembly passed two laws. By the first law all priests were required to act according to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. It was provided that those clergymen, who did not accept the Civil Constitution by a particular date, were to be deprived of their pensions and were also to be considered as suspects. They were liable to be removed from their districts in case of any trouble.
The second law dealt with those Frenchmen who had left their country and were persuading foreign powers to intervene on their behalf to crush the French Revolution. They were called the Emigres. The law required them to return to France by a fixed date.
In the event of their failure to do so, their properties were to be confiscated and they were liable to be punished with death. Louis XVI did not approve of these laws and consequently vetoed both of them. The law against the non-juring clergymen pricked his own conscience and the king himself seemed to be in sympathy with the Emigres.
The people of Paris were not prepared to accept such an attitude on the part of the king and consequently they attacked the residence of the king on 20 June 1792. They found the king in one room and the queen and young Dauphin in another. For hours, the king was jostled, insulted and stared at. When the mob left, one of them observed “We will come back again, and we will get what we want.” This was a dangerous precedent.
They came back again. At midnight or 9 August 1792, the tocsin sounded in the capital and the regular government of Paris was superseded by a violent body with Danton as the leader. The National Guards around the palace were removed or melted away. Their commander was murdered.
The threat became so serious that at about eight in the morning, the royal family left the palace and with great difficulty took refuge in the building of the Assembly. As he entered Louis XVI observed. “I have come to prevent a great crime.” There was a bloody battle between Swiss guards of the palace and the mob. About 600 of them were killed and the palace was captured and looted by the mob. The royal family remained in the building of the Assembly for three days and after that they were imprisoned in one of the gloomy prison-like towers of the temple where they remained till their death.
The object of the rising was achieved. The king was suspended. A provisional government was set up with Danton as Minister of Justice. However, the real power was in the hands of the new Commune of Paris and the Jacobin Club.
Factors leading to War:
France was drifting towards war and that was due to many causes. The revolutionaries of France were not contented with the spread of their ideas only in their own country. They seemed to be determined to propagate their ideas in other countries of Europe. Naturally, the rulers of other States were opposed to these activities of the Frenchmen and bitterness was being created.
The Emigres were carrying on propaganda against France in other countries of Europe and there was every possibility of their attack on France with foreign help. France had abolished all the feudal dues and tithes. That applied to Alsace and other border provinces which once belonged to die German Empire. The Peace of Westphalia of 1648 had guaranteed certain rights and privileges to the German princes and they seem to have been hit by the action of the French Government.
It is true that the French Government offered to compensate the German princes for the loss of their rights, but the princes rejected the offer and appealed to the German Diet. France also annexed Avignon which had been under the Pope from 14th century. This was considered to be a breach of international law.
The French were particularly against Austria because she had not dispersed the French Emigres from the German soil. Austria was suspected of helping them. On 27th August 1791, both Austria and Prussia issued the Declaration of Pillnitz.
It was declared that the cause of the French Government was the cause of the kings of Europe and both Austria and Prussia were prepared to intervene in France if the rulers of other countries joined hands with them.
The threat of foreign intervention was resented by the people of France and that strengthened the hands of Girondists who were in favour of declaring war and thereby getting an opportunity to end the monarchy in France. The French Government gave an ultimatum to Austria and war was declared in April 1792.
Although the Girondists were clamouring for war and started it, they could not prosecute it successfully. These people were impractical politicians and no wonder the French were defeated on all fronts. Their attack on Belgium failed. They were defeated by the combined armies of Austria and Prussia.
The Frenchmen attributed their defeats not to their own lack of preparation but to the activities of the king. It was stated that the military secrets of France were passed on to the enemies by the royal family and consequently, the French were defeated. The French king was dubbed as the cause of the French defeats.
When the king was being condemned from all quarters, the Duke of Brunswick, who was the Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Forces, issued in July 1792 a manifesto to the French people in which he declared his intention to restore in France the Bourbons to their legitimate position in the State.
The French reply to the manifesto was a revolt in Paris in August 1792. The outcome of the revolt was the establishment of the dictatorship of Danton. On 10 August, 1792, the king was suspended and elections were ordered for a National Convention to prepare a new constitution for the country.
The policy of Danton can be summed up in his own words thus: “In my opinion, the way to stop the enemy is to terrify the royalists. Audacity, more audacity and always greater audacity.” The result of his policy was the wholesale massacre of the royalists in Paris. Men, women and children, nobles and the magistrates, priests and bishops and others suspected of having sympathy with the royalist cause were murdered in cold blood. As the Allies were advancing into France, fear deepened into panic.
Supreme control passed into the hands of Danton and his colleagues. On 20 September 1792, the Allies were defeated in the Battle of Valmy and their advance was checked. France was saved from the immediate danger. The victory gave self-confidence to the French troops and after that they won victory after victory. It was under these circumstances that the National Convention met on 21 September 1792.
2. The National Convention (1792-95):
According to Prof Hayes, “Perhaps no legislative body in history has been called upon to solve such knotty problems as those which confronted the National Convention at the beginning of its session.” Something had to be done with the deposed king.
The country had to be saved from foreign invasion. Internal insurrection had to be suppressed. A government had to be established. Social reforms had to be completed and consolidated. A new constitution had to be framed for the country. It goes to the credit of the National Convention that it accomplished all these tasks successfully.
The deposed king was put up for trial and was found unanimously guilty of treason. By a small majority, his immediate death was voted upon. While the Girondists pleaded for leniency, the Jacobins demanded his immediate execution. Ultimately, the king was guillotined on Sunday, January 21, 1793. His last words were “Gentlemen, I am innocent of that of which I am accused. May my blood assure the happiness of the French?”
Louis XVI was the victim of his errors and his weaknesses and those of his royal predecessors. His tragic death placed a halo around him. His long martyrdom in prison which he bore with patience and resignation, his kindliness and manly courage and his composure in the face of death, served to palliate a personal mediocrity.
3. Foreign Policy:
The work of the National Convention may be discussed under two heads: foreign policy and internal policy. As regards foreign policy, a very difficult situation had to be handled. In December 1792, the National Convention issued the following decree “The French nation declares that it will treat as enemies every people who, refusing liberty and equality or renouncing them, may wish to maintain, recall, or treat with a prince, and the privileged classes…” In January 1793, Louis XVI was executed on the ground that he had bribed the members of the National or Constituent Assembly and also written letters to his fellow-monarchs urging them to come to his assistance.
Both on account of the French declaration of war against all the monarchs of Europe and the execution of Louis XVI, Austria, Prussia, Great Britain, Holland, Spain and Sardinia joined hands to crush the revolution in France. It was not an easy task for the French revolutionaries to meet the danger from outside. The Convention met the situation with a firm hand. Under the leadership and supervision of Carnot, a spirit of militarism was infused among Frenchmen.
On January 31, 1793, Danton declared: “The limits of the republic are set by nature herself and those limits we will attain to the four comers of the horizon, to the Rhine, the Alps, the Pyrenees and the Ocean. These must be boundaries of our republic, and no power on earth shall prevent our reaching them.” In February 1793, a compulsory levy of half a million men was ordered. It was enacted in August 1793 that every Frenchman between the ages of 18 and 25 was to render military service.
Carnot drafted men, silenced complaints, got extra volunteers, drilled the troops and hurried them to the frontiers of France to check the invasion. He prepared plans of campaigns, appointed trusted officers and infused in them a new spirit of fighting for the cause of the French Revolution. By the end of 1793, he had 770,000 men under arms and most of them were fanatically attached to the cause of the Revolution. Bourgeois citizens, artisans and peasants backed the action of the Government. They sang the Marseillaise and waved the banner of liberty, equality and fraternity.
The militarism of France was based on the principle of “the nation in arms”. Soon the country was not only cleared of foreign troops, but the war was pressed on into the Netherlands, along the Rhine, in Savoy and across the Pyrenees.
The French armies were so much successful that Carnot, who had formerly been given the title of “Organizer of Defence”, came to be called by the name of “Organizer of Victory”. It is impossible to do justice to the amazing campaigns of 1794 and 1795.
All that need be said is that when the National Convention ended in 1795, the First Coalition against France had been completely smashed. Spain had to humble herself by entering into an alliance with Republican France. By the Treaty of Basle of 1795, the King of Prussia gave France a free hand on the left bank of the Rhine.
William V of Holland was deposed and his territory was transformed into the Republic of Batavia which entered into an alliance with France. French troops got possession of the Austrian Netherlands and the territories of the Rhine. Only Great Britain, Austria and Sardinia remained in arms against the French Republic.
4. Home Policy:
As regards the home policy of the National Convention, the latter had to face a very difficult situation. A militant spirit had been created among the people and consequently there were riots at many places, e.g., Lyons, Marseilles and Bordeaux. The peasants in La Vendee revolted with a view to restoring monarchy and re-establishing the Catholic Church. However, all these revolts were crushed with a heavy hand and no dissent was tolerated.
(1) In 1793, the National Convention entrusted the supreme executive authority of France to the Committee of Public Safety. This Committee included important personalities like Robespierre, Carnot and St. Just. From 1793 to 1794, there was a virtual Reign of Terror in France. The chief agencies of the Committee of Public Safety were the Committee of General Security and the Revolutionary Tribunal.
By the Law of Suspects, any person who was of noble birth or who had held office before the Revolution or had any relation with an emigre, or who could not produce assigned certificate of citizenship, was liable to be hanged. During this period the guillotine played a very important part. It is estimated that about 5,000 persons were executed in Paris alone during the Reign of Terror.
Among those executed were Marie Antoinette and Madame Rolland although the terror started in Paris, it also spread to the countryside. Local tribunals were established everywhere to search out and condemn suspected persons. Hundreds of persons were put to death at Lyons. At Nantes, Carrier took the victims into the Loire and drowned them. It is estimated that about 15,000 persons perished in the provinces. The militant spirit took a toll of not only innocent persons, but even the perpetrators of the crimes were not spared. The Reign of Terror ended with the death of Danton, St. Just and Robespierre.
(2) One of the greatest achievements of the National Convention was that it preached the gospel of nationalism to the people. With a view to creating a truly nationalist army, a decree was issued in 1794 by which compulsory military service was prescribed for all able-bodied Frenchmen, The decree stated: “The young men shall go to the battle; the married men shall forge arms and transport provisions; the women shall make tents and clothing, and shall serve in the hospitals, the children shall turn linen into lint: the aged shall betake themselves to the public places in order to rouse the courage of the warriors and preach hatred of the Government and the unity of the Republic.” This was the real beginning of militarism on a large scale in Europe.
(3) The National Convention also provided that French was to be the only language for purposes of national instruction throughout the country.
(4) The work of codification of the national laws of the country was also taken in hand and much progress was made in that direction. It was provided that there was to be no imprisonment for debt. There was to be no slavery in French colonies. Women were to have their right to property. The law of primogeniture by which the eldest son got everything and the others nothing, was ended. All children were to have equal shares of the property. A new and uniform system of weights and measures, called the Metric System, was established.
(5) Certain experiments were made in the field of religion also. The National Convention showed hostility towards the traditional form of Christianity. Clergymen were considered to be suspected persons. Attempts were made to de-Christianise France. Churches were transformed into temples of reasons. Several Catholic bishops and priests gave up Christianity. Under the auspices of the Paris Commune, the atheistic “religion of reason” was inaugurated in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in November 1793.
The deistic cult of the Supreme Being was also introduced. However, after the fall of Robespierre in July 1794, the National Convention took up the attitude that religion was a private affair and it was not the business of the State either to establish or to maintain an official religion. The result was that religious toleration was given to all and many church buildings were restored for Christian worship in 1795.
(6) The National Convention also made changes in the calendar. The year was divided in 12 months and each month was to consist of three weeks of 10 days each. Every tenth day was declared a holiday. The five or six days left over at the end of the year, were to be observed as National Holidays. The names of the months’ were changed and the year was to start from 22 September, 1792.
(7) The National Convention also made some experiments in the socialist field. The property of the emigres was confiscated. Persons of wealth, clergymen and nobles were all treated as suspects. Large landed estates were broken up and offered for sale in small parcels on easy terms so that the ordinary people may be able to own land. Thus a large number of peasant-proprietors were created. No compensation was to be given to those who were deprived of their lands.
The view of Marat was that “the rich have so long sucked out the marrow of the people that they are now visited with a crushing retribution.” Attempts were made to collect money by means of forced loans with a view to keeping down the cost of living.
“The laws of the maximum” were passed which fixed the prices of grains and other necessaries of life and rates of wages. It was also provided that everybody was to be addressed as “citizen”. There was to be no gradation in society.
(8) After the fall of Robespierre in July 1794, the laws against the suspects and the laws of the maximum were repealed. The Revolutionary Tribunal was suppressed. By 1795, France was definitely committed to republican form of Government. The constitution which had been drawn up by the Girondists in 1791 was set aside and a new one was prepared in 1795.
According to the new constitution, France was to have two chambers a lower house consisting of 500 members and a Council of Ancients consisting of 250 members to examine and enact the laws. The executive authority in the State was entrusted to a Committee of five Directors known as the Directory. The Directors were to be elected by the legislature and they were to appoint the ministers of the State who were to supervise the enforcement of the laws.
(9) The National Convention was most successful in its organisation of higher education. Only two war-time establishments, the Ecole de Mars, which was a revolutionary military academy and the Ecole Normale, a training school, ended with the Revolution. The other scientific schools were permanent. The School of Public Works later on called the Polytechnic School was established in 1794 to train civil and military engineers.
A School of Oriental Languages was set up to keep a close contact with the East. In 1793, the Jardin due roi was reorganised and enlarged into the Museum of Natural History. Its collection was enriched. The most distinguished scientists of France were given subsidies to carry on their researches in its laboratories. Later on, public lectures were given by these savants.
A National Conservatory of Arts and Industries was organised as “a museum and a school for industry.” Three schools of medicine were founded in 1794 and they gave theoretical and practical instruction to students who were chosen on a competitive basis.
In place of the old universities and academies, the National Convention set up a National Institute on 25 October 1795. It was divided into three classes: physical and mathematical sciences, moral and political sciences and literature and fine arts. More than 100 distinguished savants were summoned by the Government to make the National Institute “the representative body of the republic of letters.”
5. Reign of Terror (1793-94):
It seems desirable to write in detail about the Reign of Terror which began officially with the institution of the Revolutionary Tribunal on 9 March 1793, and ended with the guillotining of Robespierre on 29 July, 1794. To some persons, the Reign of Terror seemed to be aimlessly bloody, disgusting and unnecessary. To others, it appeared to be altogether essential.
It is stated that “stern discipline can manufacture collective heroism.” After the mis-government of the Girondists, France was badly in need of stem discipline. There were thousands of Frenchmen who were disloyal and cowardly and the Reign of Terror was considered to be essential for them. In order to save France from internal troubles and the danger from foreign invaders, it was considered necessary to turn France into an armed camp. The need was urgent and consequently the measures had to be both stem and speedy.
The Reign of Terror has been described as martial law gone mad. Popular fear, mingled with fury against the counter revolutionaries, took the form of a military organisation. The exigency of the circumstances demanded that something should be done to make the Frenchmen march to the front to fight the enemies and that was made possible by the Reign of Terror which enabled Danton, Carnot and St. Just to meet the situation. Danton was neither blood-thirsty nor corrupt.
He was driven by a patriotism which aimed at the salvation of France. He devoted his giant body and voice to the service of the country. Carnot was a born administrator, soldier and strategist. He was thorough in everything he did.
It is pointed out that he forged Napoleon’s thunderbolts and without him the terror would have been simply disgusting. He organised 13 armies and provided them with all they wanted and thus led them 10 victory. St. Just made his name terrible to the inefficient and the slack. He possessed a fighting patriotism and he moved to and fro between Paris and the headquarters of the armies with a view to putting vigour into the whole show.
By a decree of 1794 compulsory military service was prescribed for all able-bodied Frenchmen. The Committee of Public Security was given police power in order to maintain law and order throughout the length and breadth of the country. The Revolutionary Tribunal was empowered to condemn any person suspected of disloyalty to the Republic. The Law of Suspects enabled the government to arrest and hangs any person.
It cannot be denied that the Reign of Terror succeeded in its objective. The French armies were victorious in the Netherlands. They passed from defence to victory. In December 1793, they recovered Toulon and crushed La Vendee. They were in control of the Alps and the Pyrenees. The Allies were pushed back.
They were forced to raise the sieges of Dunkirk, Maubeuge, Tourcoing and Fleurus. The discipline was so stem that every commander and soldier was required to do his very best. The commander of Maubeuge was told that his head should answer for the fortress. Although Houchard drove back the besiegers of Dunkirk, he was guillotined because he did not turn the retreat into a rout.
The success of the French armies was partly due to the unity of command, their fanaticism for their cause and stem discipline. It was also partly due to the weakness of the Allies. There was no unity of command or plan among them. Every ally was busy in his own way. Austria, Prussia and Russia were busy in planning the partition of Poland and dividing their shares and consequently could not concentrate on the war with France.
It is true that Pitt, the Younger, tried to concentrate his forces in the Netherlands, but he also indulged in side-shows. The Duke of York, who was the British Commander in the Netherlands, was absolutely inefficient and that is clear from the following:
The good old Duke of York.
He had ten thousand men.
He marched them up to the top of the hill.
Then he marched them down again.
There were two alterative which the Allies could follow. They could smash the French armies and the fortresses on the way while advancing to Paris. The other alternative was to attack and conquer all the French fortresses and then proceed to Paris. The second alterative was actually followed by the Allies.
Their belief was that the time spent in reducing one by one the “barrier fortresses” would allow anarchy to develop in Paris and if an immediate advance was made against Paris, all the Frenchmen might combine together to defend their country. What actually happened was that the Allies lost valuable time in capturing the barrier fortresses and France got time to prepare her armies to meet them and defeat them.
It cannot be denied that the military machine which saved France was oiled with blood. Everything in France was controlled from the Centre. The representatives of the Committee of Public safety were put in charge of districts and no sign of slackness was tolerated in any shape or form. The city of Lyons had taken up the cause of the Girondists. It took 4-112 months to subdue it.
When that was done, the National Convention passed the following decree: “The city of Lyons is to be destroyed. Every house which was inhabited by the rich shall be demolished. There will remain only the homes of the poor, of patriots, and buildings especially employed for industries, and those edifices dedicated to humanity and to education.” The very name of the city was to be obliterated. It was in future to be known as the Liberated City (Commune affranchie). More than 3,500 persons were arrested and nearly half of them were executed. The person in charge of the executions remarked thus: “What a sight worthy of Liberty, what a delicious moment!”
The district of Vendee had revolted against the Republic. The people had not approved of the laws against the priests. They had refused to fight in the Republican armies. The Government was perfectly justified in putting down the rebellion but while doing so, it perpetrated atrocities which were not warranted by the circumstances. Carrier, who had been deputed by the National Convention, set up a record for barbarity.
He considered the method of the Revolutionary Tribunal as slow and ordered the prisoners to be shot in squads. He got the prisoners bound down, put in the boats and the latter sunk in the river Loire. Even the Committee of Public Safety was shocked and asked for an explanation.
The reply of Carrier was:
“Is it my fault that the boats did not reach the destination?” The number of dead bodies in the river was so large that water got poisoned. Carrier was removed from his post but no action was taken against him. Prisons were crowded and constantly men and women were brought before the Revolutionary Tribunal. Acquittals were rare and guillotine was the universal penalty. In October 1793, Marie Antoinette was executed. A large number of the Girondists were executed.
On 6 November, Philippe, Duke of Orleans, who had championed the cause of the Revolution voted for the king’s death and given his palace to the agitators, was put to death. On 10 November, Madame Roland was executed. When she mounted the scaffold, she exclaimed: “Liberty! what crimes are committed in thy name!” On 12 November, Bailly, first President of the National Assembly, met his death. Generals like Custine and Biron were guillotined, charged either with treason or slackness in the pursuit of the enemy.
By the spring of 1794, it was felt that there was no justification for continuing the Reign of Terror because the Allies had already been beaten back. There was general desire to end the horror of tribunals, guillotines, drowning and fusillades. Danton expressed this desire in April 1794 and he had to pay with his life. Robespierre was determined to continue his dictatorship. His ambition was to play the part of Rousseau’s dictator.
He wanted to interfere with the private beliefs and morals of the people. He wanted to purge France of all that was hostile to his idea of virtue. He guillotined the leading members of the Commune for their atheistic ideas.
It is pointed out that heads would have continued to fall like slates if an end had not been put to the life of Robespierre. The latter tried to usurp all the powers into his own hands. Fouche worked behind the scenes upon the fear of the National Convention and thereby helped them to have the courage to oppose Robespierre. Robespierre was publicly accused of subverting liberty.
He was outlawed and his arrest was ordered. He put up resistance at the Hotel of Ville. He tried to set the Commune against the National Convention. However, all his efforts failed. He was captured and guillotined on 28th July, 1794. With his death, the Reign of Terror ended.
According to Gottschalk and Lach, “Under the Terror the Revolution had assumed somewhat the character of a cult. Patriotism was officially exalted and the government tried to make patriotic celebrations resemble religious rites, the painter David lending his art to enhance their pageantry. The republican, whatever his social standing, wore sans-culottes (the long, loose trouser of the working man), a shirt open at the neck, a red ‘liberty cap,’ and wooden shoes (leather being badly needed by the army).
Women affected the simple, loose, flowing robes of classical times. Wigs, breeches, and buckles became dangerous aristocratic anachronisms. The stately minute of the old days was eschewed in favour of simple and lively folk dances like the ‘camagnole’. Theatre and press were strictly controlled, confined to pro-republican propaganda. Mirabeau, Voltaire, Marat, and Rousseau were made into ‘revolutionary saints’ by being translated to the Pantheon with elaborate pomp.”
Grant and Temperley observe, “The fall of Robespierre might perhaps have been simply one incident among many in the Reign of Terror; it might have led up to the rule of some fiercer and less scrupulous terrorist; but, as a matter of historic fact, from the moment of the fall of Robespierre, the Reign of Terror began rapidly to pass away. The reasons for this are many. The situation was essentially unstable. The rule of the guillotine could not have been made permanent in eighteenth century France, and public opinion in Paris was turning clearly and violently against it; but there are two reasons more important than any other which rendered the disappearance of the Reign of Terror at this moment inevitable.
The first is that the foreign danger was now rapidly disappearing. After the battle of Fleurus, France was herself an aggressive power, and that the assault upon her frontiers, north and east and south, had proved an entire failure.
There was rising up in the country a feeling of military confidence and pride that made the Revolutionary Tribunal and the constant batches of victims for the guillotine seem both criminal and absurd. The Reign of Terror was primarily a military measure, and as the military danger passed away the Reign of Terror passed away with it. And then, though less important, whatever else the fall of Robespierre meant, it meant the victory of the Convention.
There had been a direct conflict between the forces of the Convention and the forces of the Commune, between the body that represented France and the body that represented Paris. It was the convention, it was France that had won. For the first time in the history of the Revolution an attempt to crush by popular force the elected representatives of France had ended in failure and defeat. The Convention felt itself far more confident than before, and it took measures to secure the power that it had won with such difficulty.”
According to David Thomson, “The Reign of Terror became possible because of the overthrow of all familiar established forms of government and the double menace of counter-revolution at home and invasion from abroad. That it went so far and lasted so long was due to other causes; above all, to the power of enrages and sans-culottes, the brossnus and the canaille—in short of proletarian violence and of criminal extremism exploiting the excitement and savagery of the urban mob.
The Terror was directed not just against recalcitrant nobility and clergy or treacherous bourgeoisie, but even more against the mass of ordinary French men and women who were unfortunate enough to fall victim to the twists and turns of party strife.
Many were denounced because the chief anxiety was to save yourself by condemning other. The Terror was not an instrument of class war, and 70 per cent of its victims belonged to the peasantry and labouring classes, mostly in rebellion against the State. The Revolutionary Tribunal of Paris condemned to death 2,639 people; revolutionary courts condemned in all about 17,100. The rest of the Terror’s 40,000 victims mostly died in summary mass executions in places such as Vendere and Lyons where there was open rebellion against the Convention. Atrocious though it was, by the test of atrocities committed by more modem dictatorships, the Terror was mild and relatively discriminating.”
It cannot be denied that to some extent the Reign of Terror was a necessity. Perhaps there was no other way to deal with the traitors and cowards. However, the Reign of Terror involved a lot of unnecessary bloodshed, some of which could have been avoided if Robespierre had listened to the advice of Danton and stopped the carnage.