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.
The French Revolution has been an ideological battleground for writers and historians since 1789, and the Reign of Terror is no exception. Conservatives and rightists traditionally see the Reign of Terror as catastrophe and consider the Terror the result of the political inexperience of those who the revolution made into leaders. However, there is little evidence to suggest that this is, in fact, the case as a large portion of early revolutionaries held considerable political experience prior to 1789. Many early contributors to the rightist interpretation, such as British statesman Edmund Burke, developed their opinions as the French Revolution was taking place. Later criticism from the right, was more of a reaction to Marxist interpretation of the French Revolution. Leftists, republicans, socialists, and Marxists defend the Terror as a product of necessity. They point to the many problems plaguing the republican government and see the terror as a response to war, and political division. However, while this argument holds water in its own context, it lacks an explanation as to why the Terror intensified when civil war and foreign invasion did not pose an immediate threat to the revolutionary government. Revisionist historians look at the Revolution as a result of revolutionary ideology and culture. The radicalism of the French Revolution was not driven by social conflict as the Marxists would argue, but from ideological roots that reached further back into the Ancien Regime, and in fact radical beliefs that would rule the Reign of Terror were indeed present during the early lukewarm stages of the revolution. Revisionists’ arguments revolve around two major points; the culture of eighteenth-century France and the influence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
Let us explore these last two interpretations more closely; terror as a product of necessity and terror as a product of ideology. It is to be sure that the Revolution faced many problems leading up to 1793-94. Mass desertion of upper tier army officers left the military unstructured, and while this did allow the cream of those most talented soldiers, i.e. Napoleon, to rise to the top, the present state before the Reign of Terror was one of chaos and disarray. Britain and Austria, France’s two greatest historical enemies, invaded French soil. King Louis XVI had attempted to flee the country with the royal family and join up with foreign powers to destroy the revolution, thus confirming the greatest fears of French citizens about foreign conspiracy from within. The western region of the Vendee and several cities resentful of Parisian hegemony, were in open revolt. Federalism, which in the context of the French Revolution means de-centralization of power, was heresy to the idea of the revolutionary government, and the sovereignty of the general will of the people it represented. The peasants in the Vendee, opposed the forced conscription into the revolution’s military, new taxes, attacks on Catholicism, and the execution of the king. Food shortages still ravaged the lower-classes as attempts to control the price of grain threw a wrench in the machinery of the French economy. Enemies and counter-revolutionaries were inside and out, and the republic of virtue was in danger of being snuffed out before it could even begin. The Reign of Terror was the solution to these problems. With vast powers centralized around the Committee of Public safety, grain prices were controlled, as citizens were drafted into the army, the foreigners were driven out, the civil war in the Vendee was squashed, and the federalist cities were placed under siege and surrendered to Paris. During all of which, opponents of the revolution were fed to madam la guilliotine as France was purged of its enemies. The Reign of Terror, arguably, solved many of the problems facing the republican government of 1792.
Yet, an interpretation of the Reign of Terror as necessity does not fully explain the event, for when the dangers to the republic became less severe, the dangers from the republic only intensified. The ideology and radical beliefs of the revolutionaries supported the Terror, and its necessity for the survival of the Revolution. At this phase of the French Revolution, the ideology of a small portion of the population of France, members of the National Convention, Committee of Public Safety, radical partisan Jacobins, and revolutionary representatives on mission, was imposed on the rest of France, and so, despite that their beliefs are not representative the of all of the French during the revolution, all of France was nevertheless greatly affected by the beliefs of the members of the revolutionary government. Revolutionaries believed that they were creating a utopia, a perfect society that would begin a new age in human civilization, a ‘Republic of Virtue.’ The revolutionaries believed in the legitimacy of the ideas of the revolution to such a great extent, that the only explanation of any problems facing France was due to conspiracy from within. The conclusion reached was that there were two peoples of France: the first consisted of virtuous citizens who were pure and friends of liberty, and enemies of tyrants. The second, counter-revolutionaries and intriguers who, according to Robespierre, “place themselves between the people and their representatives in order to fool the one and slander the other.” To create a nation full of virtuous citizens, France had to be ‘cleansed’ of enemies of the revolution, who in the eyes of Committee of Public Safety, were not considered citizens themselves. Even so, the line between enemies of the Revolution and political opponents of the Committee of public safety blurred and ceased to exist. As the concept of the citizen became narrower and more defined, less people were able to embody ‘virtue’ in the eyes of the Committee of Public Safety
Read More about the Ideology of the Reign of Terror
- Interpretations of the Reign of Terror
- The Committee of Public Safety
- Violence of the Reign of Terror
- The French Revolution was a Religious Revolution
- The Enlightenment and the Cult of Rousseau
- The ‘General Will’ in Rousseau’s Contract Social
- Deism and de-Christianization
- Revolutionary Festivals; Space and Time
- The Cult of Reason and The Cult of the Supreme Being
- Thermidorian Reaction and Disillusionment of the Terror
-  Hugh Gough, The Terror in the French Revolution. 2nd Ed (Palgrave Macmillion,1998), 19.
-  Ibid, 7.
-  Ibid.
-  R.R. Palmer, Twelve Who Ruled: A Year of Terror in the French Revolution (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1941). 23.
-  Ibid.
-  Robespierre, Speech on Enemies of the Nation. May 26, 1794.