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.

While the French Revolution is associated with centralization of power, first through the committee of public safety and then to Napoleon as Emperor, centralization was not a trend set by the revolution or the Terror. Centralization is a process of strengthening an executive power which holds sovereignty over the rest of the state, in a power structure like longitude lines on a globe all ending at the same polar point.  Centralization was apparent during the era of absolutist kings, Louis XIV being the most obvious example. Absolutism is founded on secure philosophical reasoning, and the structure of an all power sovereign, be it a king, emperor, or ‘the people’, influenced the philosophy of Rousseau whose influence on the Revolution is surpassed by none. Writing before Rousseau, Thomas Hobbes argued that the power of a sovereign is needed for an orderly society, saying “there must be some coercive Power, to compel men equally to the performance of their Covenants, by the terror of some punishment.”[1] Looking back on the revolution, statesman and early historian Alexis de Tocqueville insists that centralization in France’s government was the only permanent change from the revolution that was not torn down during the restoration of the Bourbon Monarchy.[2] By 1793, the National Convention in France had already initiated a process of greater centralization. The Convention created revolutionary tribunals to judge enemies of the state, initiated a supreme police force known as the Committee of General Security, sent ‘representatives on mission’ with unlimited powers to solve problems in the provinces in the name of the Convention, and most significantly, in April 1793, the National Convention created the Committee of Public Safety, which would amass tremendous power over the revolutionary government.

The 12 men who served on the Committee of Public Safety during the Reign of Terror would never have had the chance to ascend to such heights of power and influence if the revolution had not occurred. They shared a lot in common, they were all relatively young, all were from middle class families, most had a background in law, all served as delegates to the Convention, and all were intellectuals.[3] The delegates of the Convention had picked men to serve in an ‘executive committee’ who were similar in their political beliefs and social background. The proclaimed beliefs and aspirations of the men of the Committee of Public Safety can, in this way, give us a representation of the beliefs and aspirations of the whole revolutionary government. Indeed, these men were trying to reforge the world in their own republican image. Committee member Billaud Veranne said, “To put it bluntly we must re-create the people that we wish to make free, for we need to destroy old prejudices, change outdated customs, restore jaded feelings, restrain excessive wants and annihilate deep rooted vices.”[4] Maximillian Robespierre shared similar sentiments stating, “to draft our political institutions we should need the morality that the institution themselves must eventually produce.”[5] And so did the youngest member of the Committee, Louis-Antoine Saint-Just who said, “A revolution has taken place within the government but it has not yet penetrated civil society.”[6] During the Reign of Terror, there was a shared sentiment among those in power to remake the moral fabric of French society, but none of the other Committee members espoused republican idealism so much as Robespierre.

What was the committee of Public Safety and what functions did it serve in the French Revolutionary government? What were the beliefs of the men who served on the committee?

The “Incorruptible” Robespierre

Maximillian Robespierre, known throughout the revolution as the Incorruptible Robespierre, justified the Reign of Terror and spelled out key beliefs of the revolutionaries. Whether addressing the National Convention, members of the Jacobin Club, or during revolutionary festivals in Paris, Robespierre was famous for his oratory skills and his sincerity for the ideas of the revolution. Even though they come from a single individual, we know that the ideas and reasoning he expressed were very popular among the crowd, and thus, can be used as a way to evaluate the beliefs of prominent revolutionaries during the Terror. Robespierre acknowledged that terror was as the tool of tyrannical governments, and there was no misunderstanding among revolutionaries about what horror the Terror unleashed and including the massacre of priests and peasant rebels from the Vendee, and slaughters unleashed upon federalist cities. The idea that the instituted violence of the Reign of Terror would undermine the revolution was a fear among republicans. This was not ignored by Robespierre, “In deceitful hands all the remedies for our ills turn into poisons.”[7] Yet, Robespierre believed in the moral integrity of the Republic of Virtue that was destined to come, would safeguard the revolution from despotism. Terror was only an emanation of virtue, and virtue without terror was powerless. If the revolution was to survive, then the Reign of Terror had to continue.[8]  Virtuous citizens were loyal to the sovereignty of the general will of the people, and the Committee of Public Safety were the representatives of the general will who wielded the Terror like a hero wields a sword vanquishing the enemies of the people. And so, it came to pass, that the enemies of the Committee of Public Safety became the enemies of the Revolution.

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Sources Cited

  • [1]. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Kindle Edition), 64.
  • [2] Alexis de Tocqueville, The Ancien Regime and the French Revolution. (Kindle Edition, 1856), 822-825.
  • [3] Palmer, Twelve Who Ruled, 16-18.
  • [4] Billaud Varenne quoted in Hugh Gough, The Terror in the French Revolution, 2nd Ed (Palgrave: Macmillion, 2014), 59.
  • [5] Robespierre quoted in Hugh Gough, The Terror in the French Revolution, 58.
  • [6] Saint-Just quoted in Hugh Gough, The Terror in the French Revolution, 58.
  • [7] Robespierre, Speech on Public Morality, February 5, 1794.