The French Revolution – The Origins of the Terror


The Death of Marat

This 17th of June marks the 222nd year since, in 1789, the Third Estate declared itself the independent National Assembly of France and invited members of the remaining two Estates and the people to join them; marking the start of revolutionary rule in the French Republic. What followed was one of the most interesting and changeable periods of French and world history, that necessitated several re-drawings of the European map. The importance of the French Revolution on contemporary society and modern politics cannot be understated. Revolutionary politics changed the basis of the states relation to the nation, and saw enlightenment ideas gain popular political currency, sparking the origins of some of the most influential ideologies to shape the modern world.

Fascists, Socialists, Liberals, Nationalists and a whole multitude of other political creeds all trace their origins to the Revolution, and the enlightenment ideals which its actors believed they embodied. Even Feminism’s origins can be linked to the French Revolution with Marry Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1972).[1]

But what has captured the popular imagination most, in horrifying both historians and the general public alike, is the mass killings, and near genocide in some parts (the pacification of the Vendée for instance), of the Terror.  Countless volumes, articles and books have been and continue to be published on this engaging period of history, which has recently become the focus of open revision and spawns debates that have no near conclusive end in sight.  The Reign of Terror lasted from the 5th of September 1793 till the 28th of July 1794 with some estimates putting the number of dead as high as 40,000.  The Jacobins, led by Robespierre, set up the Committee of Public Safety to safeguard the revolution and government which oversaw these executions.  The justification for such revolutionary excess being that only through such harsh discipline could the revolution be saved from the duel spectres of counter-revolution from its own people and the invasion of foreign armies.  In June 1793, just before Robespierre and the dictatorship by the Committee of Public Safety, sixty out of the 80 departments of France where in open revolt of the Parisian government and the armies of German princes’ were invading from the North and East, whilst the British attacked from the West and South.[2] The very real, if abortive, counter-revolutionary plot of July 1789 had a great effect on the Jacobins who became, to some extent, griped by an obsessive fear of conspiracy that soon emerged as major factor in their thinking.  Thereafter, such fears gradually took on a life of their own and were eventually transformed into an all-consuming obsession.[3]

However, though the danger was very real, much of the Terror happened after the worst of the danger had passed [4] and much of the threat of counter-revolution was imagined or exaggerated. Furthermore, The Great Terror in Paris was not directed against counter-revolutionaries, but was the revolution consuming its own as Robespierre and the Jacobins turned on former friends and allies -[5]such as their old rivals the Girondins who had previously been in control of the revolutionary government; they had disagreed with the Jacobins on many key issues, such as the declaration of war. Thus, fear of imaginary conspiracies and perhaps even of imaginary enemies pushed the revolution toward the Terror as well as the threat of real danger.  Different parts of the terror, in different parts of the country, were conducted by a variety of different groups and individuals for a variety of different reasons.

The classic questions of the French Revolution focus on this Terror and how it was related to 1789.  The debate appears to be split three ways. Traditionally, most historians – Burke and Talmon are exceptions – have tried in one way or another to disconnect the Terror from 1789.[6] The liberal left, which admired the principles of 1789 and wanted to protect the purity of principles, distanced themselves from being a causal factor by linking the Terror to the distorting threats of war and counter-revolution; whilst the conservatives were more drawn to the idea of certain people using certain ideas, organised to divert a once moderate Revolution to radical and fanatical excess.[7] However, revisionist historians – led by François Furet – have argued the opposite, linking the Terror directly to the revolution of 1789 as being its logical conclusion. For Furet, both 1789 and the Terror were expressions of a larger political culture, thus several main areas of consideration emerge. Was the Revolution inherently radical/violent?  If not what caused it to descend into the radical excesses of the Terror: the strain of war and counter-revolution; the effect of individuals, groups and ideas diverting the revolution; something else entirely; or a synthesis?

One view, associated with celebrated revisionist historian François Furet and his followers, comes to the conclusion that “the Revolution of 1789 was neither pure nor moderate and that it already contained in its pervading political culture all the ideas that the Terror only institutionalised”.[8] This links the pervading political cultures radicalism to “egalitarian and democratic radicalism”;[9] seeing radicalism as “an aspect of revolutionary ideology… [that] came to constitute a driving force of the revolution”.[10] Evidence for this can be seen in studies of the speeches made between May and October 1789, which point out the striking appearance of early and violent revolutionary passion.[11] Supposing it was this pre-existing mentality of radicalism that filtered events through its screen and determined the revolutionaries’ responses to events, culminating in the Terror.[12]

A criticism of this view by David Bien and others points out the high level of the debates, the extent of some of the divisions, and the capacity for resolving them through voting (from debates found in the Archives Parlementaries).[13] François Furet further rejects this argument saying that “the high level of debates by no means precluded the radicalism of the decisive votes”, and he insists that “as early as 1789 a mental framework was in place that fostered political intolerance”.[14] However, as Timothy Tackett points out, the “revolutionary elite eventually rationalised to themselves the attack on the Bastille [the first use of Violence] as the only means of halting the actions planned against the National Assembly”.  Moreover, most of the deputies including future Jacobins were shocked and outraged by the continuing waves of popular violence in the summer of 1789 and, for some two years thereafter, steadfastly resisted the use of violence against any of the forces identified as counter-revolutionary.[15] Perhaps this supposed violent radicalism was not quite the case and instead of just the pre-existing mentality shaping events, the events in turn shaped this mentality gradually towards radicalism.

Revisionist historians, such as François Furet, have made large headway into disproving traditional interpretations and creating a new understanding of the revolution and the terror.  One in which revolutionary politics can be seen as a never-ending and a mortal struggle over who was to interpret and express the people’s will; a total committal to egalitarian direct democracy which reached its inevitable apex in Jacobinism and the terror.[16] Yet this view has obvious failings – the undeniable presence of external and internal enemies and their effects on parts of the Terror. The supposed permanent radicalism that was meant to exist throughout all the revolutions existence, instead of developing over the course of time, and the supposed inevitability of the Terror, to name but the few discussed here. Instead, it would seem far more likely that although the ideology and political culture of the Terror existed in 1789 they were but part of a larger political culture in which other eventualities where initially possible. Then through the process of revolution and ideals, revolutionaries were stripped away – whilst mounting pressure from the counter-revolution allowed radical ideas and their supporters to flourish.

[1] Andrew Heywood. ‘Political Theory, an Introduction’, (Macmillian, Basingstoke) p. 63

[2] Eric Hobsbawm. ‘The Age of Revolution 1789-1848’, (Abacus, London ) 2009 p.90

[3] Timothy Tackett, ‘Interpreting the Terror’, FHS 16:iv (1990),  p. 575

[4] François Furet, ‘Commentary’, FHS 16:iv (1990),797

[5] David A. Bell, ‘Violence, Terror, and War: A Comment on Arno Mayer’s The Furies’ , FHS 16:iv

(1990), 562

[6] David Bien, ‘Francois Furet, the Terror and 1789′, FHS 16:iv (1990), 777

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid 778

[9] Furet, ‘Commentary’793

[10] Ibid

[11] Ibid 794

[12] Donald Sutherland, ‘An Assessment of the Writings of Francois Furet’, FHS 16:iv (1990), 786

[13] Bien, ‘Franois Furet, the Terror, and 1789’, 781

[14] Furet, ‘Commentary’,794

[15]Tackett ‘Interpreting the Terror’  French Historical Studies 573

[16] Donald Sutherland ‘An Assessment of the Writings of Francois Furet’ 785

  • Anonymous

    Well done William, very well written. xx

  • Anonymous

    Well done William, very well written. I like the cut of your jib, Sir!! xx