In the last 300 years, a relatively short time in human history, the world has seen a shift away from the feudal system, in which a fragmented power structure of nobility and peasants, to a new egalitarian world were all people are theoretically equal. The sovereignty of a government no longer comes from the heavens up high and rarely comes from a single monarch with authoritarian powers. The age of enlightenment, in which ancient ways of thinking where upheaved by notions of democracy, reason, and the general will of the people, took hold in western civilization and continued to spread throughout the world. Even communism and socialism have their origins in enlightenment ideas. These ideas were put into practiced in an Age of Revolutions during which the old power structure, what historians call the Ancien Regime, was overthrown and new democratic governments took their place. Nowhere did this play out in such grandiose fashion than during the French Revolution. The Revolution saw the abolition of the feudal system, titles of nobility, slavery, and the power of the Catholic Church in France. For the first time in Europe, a grand democratic experiment attempted to create a free society. However, the French Revolution also saw much violence as events in Paris seemed to be partially controlled by the masses of French citizens. The Revolution polarized as it turned left, then right, then left again, etc. These dramatic political shifts were exacerbated by violence from the angry citizens of Paris, and by the threat of invasion from Europe’s monarchies who were afraid of revolutionary ideas spreading from France. As the Revolution became more radical, its leaders also became its victims as King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, Georges Danton, Camille Desmoulins, and Robespierre were all executed by French Republic. As tides turned in the Revolution many of its founders ending up fleeing France or were imprisoned and beheaded by the guillotine. The rise of political extremism and of violence coalesced into the Reign of Terror, in which the violence came not from the mob, but rather from the revolutionary government. Terror became the order of the day.


Madam La Guillotine 

The Terror became the best argument against the Revolution by its criticizers in Europe. The French Revolutionary War soon found the rest of the European monarchies raising arms against the French. Civil war brought out in the Vendee region of France as enemies of the Revolution came from the inside and out. The tension of civil war, and invasion only intensified the Terror as its list of casualties piled up. “Up to half a million people were imprisoned for political ‘crimes’, and revolutionary courts sent more than 16,000 of them to the Guillotine. A further 20,000 died in prison before trial, and over 200,000 perished in a brutal civil war in the Vendee in the west of France.”[1] What had begun as an experiment in democracy, liberty, and civil rights became a state under an oppressive regime as power was consolidated by the Committee of Public Safety. Free Speech was taken away and citizens were told that enemies of the Revolution were conspiring within their midst. Even as the Terror eventually ended with the fall of Robespierre and other members of the Committee of Public Safety, civil liberties did not return. France would fall from a democracy to a dictatorship, first under a revolutionary Directory and then to Napoleon Bonaparte as he crowned himself Emperor and carved out an empire of Europe. In the middle of the transition from republic to empire was the Reign of Terror, a period within the revolution that has important implications for modern democracies.

It is common to relate notions such as tyranny, despotism, and oppression with communist dictatorships, monarchies, and autocratic governments. It is rare that we associate forms of political injustice with democracies. In fact, a myth persists that democracies are immune to tyranny. The French revolutionaries believed that enlightenment ideas would safeguard their republic against despotism, but even before Napoleon crowned himself as emperor, betraying the very ideas of the Revolution itself, France had already experienced the Terror under the Committee of Public Safety. Thousands of political enemies of the Revolution were imprisoned, participated in mock trials without representation, and beheaded by the Guillotine. Censorship of newspapers and journalists who criticized the Committee of Public Safety replaced the beliefs of free speech that had invigorated the earlier Revolution. Equality under the law and opposition to an unfair social justice system, so much symbolized by the storming of the Bastille, was abandoned in the days of the Terror. Yet, despite its restriction of freedom the Committee of Public Safety defended the Terror with the very ideas of the Revolution. It was in the name of freedom and democracy that catastrophes were permitted. The most infamous figure of the Terror, Maximilien Robespierre, defended the Committee’s use of violence in the form of the Terror when he said in a statement before the National Assembly, “If the spring of popular government in time of peace is virtue, the springs of popular government in revolution are at once virtue and terror: virtue, without which terror is fatal; terror, without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue; it is not so much a special principle as it is a consequence of the general principle of democracy applied to our country’s most urgent needs.”[2] But the Terror was not merely an instrument of Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety, as he too would meet his end trapped in the mouth of the Guillotine. The Terror was institutionalized state violence, and if modern democracies wish to remain free, then an examination of French Revolution’s descend into tyranny is imperative to freedom’s longevity.


Maximilien Robespierre

To understand the Reign of Terror an it’s impact on the French Revolution several questions must be researched and answered.  Was the “Reign of Terror” effective in maintaining the interests of the revolution? In the height of the terror, some 16,000 people were beheaded by the state in the span of a couple months for being counterrevolutionaries. Did this time of increased tension and paranoia have the desired effect of purging enemies of the revolution, or was it all a reaction to an imaginary presence? The Terror is viewed as the downfall of the Revolution but as the French Revolutionary government faced war from within and from the rest of Europe, the Terror may have prevented the fragile government from collapse. Another question to consider is why did the revolution’s democratic origins descend into despotism? The Revolution overthrew an ancient line of kings and put a democracy in its place. Why did this all go wrong? Why did the revolution end with Napoleon crowning himself as emperor? Although far from a utopia the enlightenment ideas the revolution was based on are praised by western civilization today. Popular Sovereignty, the abolition of slavery, and equality under the law defined the early stages of the French Revolution. Did these ideas stick or did the progress of the Republic wither away during the Terror? We must also bring into consideration what extent was the revolution influenced by the Parisian mob? Riots and mob violence shaped many important events during the revolution but how can we measure the power and influence a million hungry citizens of Paris had over the decisions of the leaders of the Revolution? How did revolutionary leaders exploit the crowds of Paris or how were they pressured into going along with the demands of the mob? Leading to into the Terror violence in the French Revolution went from being a tool of the masses to an instrument of the government. Violence and terror were institutionalized and steered the revolution into dark corridors away from the brightness of the enlightenment.

The French Revolution and the Terror have long been polarizing topics as everyone from historians, to rightists, leftists, economists, socialists, capitalists, communists, and sociologists have differing opinions on the Revolution and the Terror. Historian Hugh Gough Says, “Right-wing hostility to the revolution goes back to the 1790s, because the events of 1789-94 destroyed feudal society, abolished the monarchy, and undermined the traditional power of the French Catholic Church.”[3] Edmund Burke, renowned Irish Statesman and political theorist, wrote against the revolution in the early 1790s in a work titled Reflections on the Revolution in France. Modern historians have evaluated the opposition the revolution faced by right leaning intellections as Darrin M. McMahon’s argues in Enemies of the Enlightenment. The Terror has been defended by leftist as a product of extreme circumstances and that the Revolution should not be tainted by its legacy. Gough says, “If various traditions on the left favored the revolution for different reasons, all were united in explaining the violence of terror as the result of circumstance rather than ideology.”[4] This polarizing effect that the revolution has on writer bias is addressed in Francois Furet’s Interpreting the French Revolution in which he argues for a way to conceptualize the Revolution without succumbing to a leftist or rightist view. Furet as well believed Alexis de Tocqueville’s book The Ancien Regime and the French Revolution as a valuable resource for understanding the French Revolution. Tocqueville is a uniquely credible source as he grew up during Napoleonic Era and lived to see the direct consequences of the Revolution. His world view sympathizes with the ideological origins of the Revolution while still recognizing its dangers. Furet said, “If Tocqueville is a unique case in the historiography of the Revolution, it is because his book forces the reader to take apart the French Revolution and try to conceptualize it.”[5]

The French Revolution early on had promoted free speech and multitudes of newspapers and pamphlets were made accessible to the public and speeches to the National Assembly were also recorded to be read by those who were not present. Many of these documents highlight the early ideas of the Revolution. Emanuel Joseph Sieyes’ What is the Third Estate agitated the masses of Paris as the Estates General convened. Sieyes argues that the Third Estate who had the least power in the French government as in fact crucial to the workings of the nation. The outrage after this pamphlet was published caused many to advocate that the Estates General vote by head rather than by class. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was inspired by the United States’ Bill of Rights and stated freedom for all citizens of the French nation. The document only provoked more questions about how to define citizenship and made other non-citizens strive for equal status under the law. Society of the Friends of the Blacks’ Address to the National Assembly in Favor of the Abolition of the Slave Trade argues for equal rights for free blacks and the abolition of slavery. This call for racial equality eventually led to France to be the first European imperial power to abolish slavery. Marquise de Condorcet’s On Giving Women the Right of Citizenship Shows that the question of citizenship was not asked only by men but women also during the French Revolution. For as many social and political clubs opened up for men, a good number opened for women as well. The Marquise de Condorcet was one of the few men who pushed for equal citizenship and advocated for women’s education. As many primary documents of the French Revolution argued for enlightenment ideas, other argued for the preservation of these ideas through the use of the Terror such as Robespierre’s Justification of the Use of Terror.

The Terror in the French Revolution overshadows the ideology that it was meant to defend. These ideas of freedom, equality, and liberty are what forms the free world and are among the greatest achievements of western civilization. However, the fragility of freedom is not realized in our current times. In the United States, France, and the rest of the free world it has been over seventy years since the Axis powers of World War II threatened freedom and democracy, and now that the Cold War is over, we are without reminders that the ideas we hold dear are not guaranteed to us. It is the height of folly to assume that any free democracy could not slip into the darkness of despotism or that our governments are immune to institutionalized state violence similar to the Terror. Perhaps the words of Madame Jeanne-Marie Roland best reflect the Reign of Terror, for as she was led to the guillotine she cried, “O liberty! O liberty! What crimes are committed in thy name!” [6]


[1] Hugh Gough, The Terror in the French Revolution, 2nd Ed, (Palgrave Macmillion, (1998) 2014), 2.

[2] Maximilien Robespierre, Justification of the Use of Terror, 1794.

[3] Hugh Gough, The Terror in the French Revolution, 2nd Ed, (Palgrave Macmillion, (1998) 2014), 3.

[4] Ibid, 5.

[5] Francois Furet, Interpreting the French Revolution (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1978), 17.

[6] R.R. Palmer, Twelve Who Ruled: A Year of Terror in the French Revolution (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), 121.