This article is part of a series on the Ideology of the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution. The revolutionary government, which aspired to establish a new utopia for mankind, shifted into a ‘democratic’ despotism during the Terror. The ideology that inspired democracy, civil rights, and emancipation in 1789 also gave justification for the totalitarian regime of the Terror in 1793-4. The Terror instead of contradicting revolutionary beliefs, was a manifestation of the ideology of the French Revolution.

French revolutionary fetes and festivals were both an attempt to solidify the values and imagery of the revolution in the public’s consciousness, and an expression of revolutionary values from the people as well. Festivals were celebrations of the Republic, both to commemorate its significance and to promulgate its ideas. Songs were written for the occasion that embraced non-Christian values and creeds of the republic.[1] It was at first that revolutionary festivals used the sacrality of the Church for legitimization, but eventually festivals were taken over by the character of the revolution, and the attempt to merge republicanism with Catholicism only further divided the faithful of each side. This worsening division would contribute to the fanatical de-Christianization of the Terror.[2] The early fetes were the most spontaneous, as citizens would build great bonfires and burn scrolls and old texts containing feudal records[3], mock battles were performed for entertainment, and symbols and effigies of republican principles and heroes decorated the celebration. Even Ben Franklin’s image was used alongside Rousseau, Voltaire, and ancient Roman figures. Festivals emphasized both space and time in their manifestations, often preferring wide open fields to city streets and churches, and height too was denied as so that “One’s line of vision may move at will without ever being broken by natural or man-made obstacles.”[4]  Even traveling to participate in festivals was a type of pilgrimage to the rural revolutionaries who completed their national education by traversing the space of France.[5]The wide space symbolized the abolition of political and social differences as it was here, on level and equal ground, that the French celebrated the sovereignty of the people, one and indivisible.[6]

Festivals began to assume a more religious character as the French took oaths swearing their fealty to the republic using such language as” We promise in Republicans that we will exterminate all the tyrants, all the despots united against our holy identity…”[7] These oaths were taken in a serious manner and codified the French’s participation in the Republic which had assumed power and executed their king. It was important that any oaths or cheers were completed at the same time by everyone in attendance, and in fact sometimes throughout all of France as “official directions concerning the Federation prescribe the administering of the Federative oath ‘together and at the same moment’ to all the inhabitants in all the parts of the Empire; otherwise the sacredness of the oath seems to crumble”[8] The prominent voice on Festivals of the French Revolution, Mona Ozouf, ties this oath-taking to the Terror, arguing that republican oaths that compelled citizens to swear hatred for royalty and fidelity to the republic was in part because of the fear of counter-revolutionaries. She says that the purpose of the oath, and of the festival in general, is to affirm an invincible Revolution.[9] Many manifestations of the terror worked its way into fetes and festivals. Both the Terror and the festivals sought to forge an indivisible body of virtuous citizens, both compelled fealty to the republic, and scorn to its enemies. Let us not forget that La Marseillaise, now the national anthem of France, was a hymn to the republic during the revolution; “The day of glory has come. Against us from the tyranny the bloody banner is raised. Can you hear in the countryside, Blared the wild soldiers? They come up in your arms. Slay your son, your companions. To arms, citizens! Train your battalions: walk, walk, let unclean blood water our furrows”[10]

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  • [1] Ibid, 263.
  • [2] Ibid, 262.
  • [3] Mona Ozouf, “Space and Time in the Festivals of the French Revolution.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 17, no. 3 (1975): 382.
  • [4] Ibid, 378.
  • [5]Ibid, 380.
  • [6] Ibid, 377-378.
  • [7]Republican Catechism, Paris, 1794.
  • [8] Ozouf, Festivals in French Revolution, 379.
  • [9] Ibid, 383.
  • [10] La Marseillaise, 1792.