The Reign of Terror
Of all the periods of the French Revolution, the Reign of Terror remains the most baffling for many people. The fact that individuals who were so dedicated to the universal Rights of Man would set up a dictatorship in which these rights were subverted continues to puzzle people. Despite the initial contradictions, however, it seems that the Reign of Terror could not be avoided. Revolutionaries' unqualified embrace of their increasingly different ideals as well as the panic that naturally developed as the Revolution shocked the rest of Europe combined to create an environment in which those who challenged one's own Revolutionary ideals were seen as traitors bent on undermining the revolution. A central issue that led to the Terror was the zealous and unrestrained adoption of the ideals they saw as vital to the Revolution. What made this especially difficult was the fact that fervent believers could interpret the vaguely defined goals and needs of the Revolution in vastly different ways; the growing ideological schism caused revolutionaries to see differently-minded revolutionaries as dangerous subversives rather than partners. Intensifying this problem were the external dangers that plagued the revolution, such as threats from neighboring powers and bread riots. The resulting fears made the architects of the Revolution feel they had to act immediately to destroy the demons that prevented the Revolution from achieving its full glory. The differences in ideals, troubling even in a peaceful situation, became dangerous once the Republic was faced with imminent danger and 'unrevolutionary' activity or apathy could potentially destroy the Revolution itself, eliminating everything that revolutionaries had worked so hard to achieve. Because its champions felt that the Revolution needed to be protected at all costs, especially against the counterrevolutionary sentiment that could destroy citizens' virtue and attack the nation from inside, this caused them to turn violently against those with different viewpoints as 'false revolutionaries' and conspirators. To prevent such a disaster, it was necessary to resort to extreme measures to stamp out subversion, suspending the laws and resorting to violence to 'save' the revolutionary virtue that needed to be protected at any cost. Born of the idealism and panic that came with the Revolution itself, the Terror was a natural development of the Revolution.
Revolutionaries' passionate and unchecked belief in the different ideals they identified with helped to propel the Revolution towards the Terror. "Words and ideas inspired unprecedented fervor; words came in torrents, but even more important was their unique, magical quality. From the beginning of the Revolution, words were invested with great passion" (Hunt 20). The participants in the Revolution believed in "an imaginary ideal society in which all was simple, uniform, coherent, equitable, and rational in the full sense of the term. It was this vision of the perfect State that fired [their] imagination" (Tocqueville 146). Inflamed with these principles, they attempted to set impossible ideals into motion without considering the imperfection of the people for whom the laws were created. Exemplifying this unchecked idealism is Robespierre who "was cold, restrained, an intellectual especially influenced by Rousseau's writings . . . [with a] reputation for disinterested devotion to the public good [which] gave him the nickname 'the Incorruptable'"(Popkin 83). In the film Danton, Robespierre is criticized by Danton for the distance he keeps from the people who he allegedly is trying to serve. For Danton, Robespierre knows nothing of the people and what they really want. The ungrounded idealism that was central to revolutionary thought played a major role in the advent of the Terror.
As time passed, the initial unity gave way to division as aristocratic privileges had been eliminated and people clashed over their interpretations of what the Revolution actually stood for. The inherent vagueness of the initial model set by the Enlightenment allowed individuals to have different opinions of what the revolution stood for and how to best fulfill the mandates of the Revolution. Many individuals, claiming to represent the 'General Will', tried to secure the values of the Revolution as they interpreted it. Liberals who saw the task of the Revolution in the elimination of privilege and the establishment of laws soon clashed with radicals, who felt that the Revolution had to be carried further and who were more sympathetic with the poor. These two viewpoints came into conflict in the 1791 debate on clubs. Le Chapelier's insistence that "the time of destruction has passed; no abuses remain to be abolished, no prejudices to combat" (Baker 281) contradicts Robespierre's feeling that the work of the Revolution remains unfinished. Issues over the fate of Louis XVI also created divisions; the contention held by Robespierre, St. Just, and other Montagnards that to try the king "would bring the revolution itself before the court" (Baker 308) conflicted with more conservative revolutionaries such as Vergniaud that the issue must be brought before the people, as "any act emanating from the representatives of the people is an act of tyranny" (Baker 319). Irreconcilable differences in interpretation of the principles of the Revolution caused tensions to develop between its supporters.
These tensions were elevated as external threats against the Revolution surfaced and the sense that immediate action must be taken grew, creating an atmosphere in which conspiracy was pervasive and needed to be eliminated by any means possible. Developments such as the Brunswick Manifesto and the nationwide bread riots created a tense atmosphere in which the Revolution itself was under siege and immediate action needed to be taken to retain the successes of the revolution. The dangers that threatened France created a feeling of impending doom as well as a sense that "the moment to act has come, [and] the time for deliberation has passed" (Baker 347). In his message to the Unity Section, Lacroix expresses the feeling that action needed to be taken; "It should not be at the moment one begins to perceive the depth of the precipice that one starts to consider what one should have done. Prudence and the general interest compel us to take quickly the measures that will prevent us from going over the edge" (Baker 333). The atmosphere of imminent danger led Revolutionaries to seek action to protect the Revolution.
The need to protect the Revolution from the dangers that threatened it helped to create an atmosphere in which paranoia and fears of conspiracy led Revolutionaries to seek extreme measures to destroy the counterrevolutionary menace that threatened to extinguish the flame of Revolution. Conspiracy was seen as the origin of internal discord; "if the mythic present of the regenerated national community was the Garden of Eden of the revolutionaries, then conspiracy was its Evil Spirit" (Hunt 38). The Montagnards, driven by their ideals of virtue and convinced of the righteousness of their actions, saw the riots and apathy that existed were seen as the result of a counterrevolutionary conspiracy that destroyed the virtue of the common people rather than the people's or the Revolution's own shortcomings. When confronting riots, "the deputies, who saw the Revolution as a movement on behalf of the people, could not understand why ordinary men and women would blame the revolution for economic problems. They found it easier to claim that members of the former privileged orders had incited these disturbances" (Popkin 63). For Robespierre, "intrigue still mingles the baseness of [the people's] criminal plots, baseness directed by the tyrants and quickly incorporated into their ridiculous manifestos, in order to keep the ignorant peoples in the mire of shame and chains of servitude" (Baker 380).
The sense of conspiracy overtook the government and expanded to include not only genuine counterrevolutionaries but also those who were indifferent and those who supported the Revolution but whose views clashed with those at the head of the government, bringing the ideological tensions that already existed to the forefront. In the sharp dichotomy created by this atmosphere, any difference in opinion was construed as a complete betrayal of the Revolution as the Montagnards constructed it. St. Just condemned "not only the traitors, but even those who are indifferent; you have to punish whoever is passive in the republic, and who does nothing for it. For, since the French people has manifested its will, all that is opposed to it is outside the sovereign; all that is outside the sovereign is the enemy" (Baker 355), and Robespierre criticized the subversion of those who "don the mask of patriotism in order to disfigure, by insolent parodies, the sublime drama of the revolution, in order to compromise the cause of liberty by a hypocritical moderation or by a studied extravagance" (Baker 379). Anyone, even a devoted revolutionary, could potentially be undermining the cause of the Revolution.
The idealism that drove the supporters of the Revolution dictated that these problems could only be alleviated through extreme measures. As the principles for which the Revolutionaries fought were inviolable, it was necessary that they could not be compromised. To get rid of conspirators and bring the promise of the Revolution to fruition, terror was a necessity that could not be shied away from. "'Make terror the order of the day'. This is the way to make the royalists, the moderates, and the counterrevolutionary rabble that perturbs you disappear in an instant" (Baker 351). This ideological drive motivated Robespierre's actions, as he saw a moral imperative in the actions of the Reign of Terror. "We want, in a word, to fulfill nature's desires, accomplish the destiny of humanity, keep the promises of philosophy, absolve providence from the long reign of crime and tyranny . . . let us, in sealing our work with our blood, see at least the early dawn of universal bliss - that is our ambition, that is our goal" (Baker 370). Only through blood could the revolutionaries realize the promises of the Revolution which they passionately believed in.
The Terror was written into the Revolution from the beginning, as fervent belief in revolutionary principles, coupled with the panic and paranoia that came about because of the foreign reaction to the Revolution, caused those in charge to take extreme measures to further the endangered Revolution. The situation not only permitted violence, it condoned it as necessary to the victory of the Revolution. As only terror and violence could preserve the Revolution, the architects of the Terror felt it necessary to resort to these methods to pursue the ultimate goods that were within their reach. In pursuit of an ideal that could not be compromised without being undermined, they needed to preserve it through the only effective means: violence.
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