The King of France has been executed, a republic declared in its place. King Louis would not be the last casualty to the turmoil of the French revolution, however. What is soon to come would outstrip any of the past events in terms of the amount of terror or death. Quite rightly, this period is now called the Reign of Terror. What happened? Why were tens of thousands of people allowed to perish?
First, let’s have a look at France after the death of King Louis XVI. With the French king overthrown and guillotined, it wasn’t particularly surprising that his neighbors would start feeling a bit concerned with the developments in France; the prospect of having their heads chopped off too didn’t look extremely appealing. This led to a combined effort of multiple monarchies to try to stop the French republican disease in its tracks: an alliance called the First Coalition with Prussia,
Austria, Great Britain, Holland and Spain all lined up against the young French republic. Matters looked grim indeed. On 18 March, 1793, General Doumoriez and his French army was defeated by the Austrians at the village of Neerwinden in Belgium. This allowed the Austrians to advance onto France itself.
To make matters worse, just a month later a counterrevolutionary insurrection was attempted in the Vendée, a coastal region where class differences were less strong and people were more faithful to the Catholic religion. Only seven of the 160 bishops in the region agreed to swear the now mandatory oath of allegiance to the National Assembly, and priests began to be exiled or imprisoned while nearly all churches were closed down. Hardly an effective strategy of controlling a religious region. The final straw came in March when the central government ordered Vendée to conscript its population for troops. The local population took up arms and created the ‘Catholic and Royal Army’ – both of the key things suppressed by the revolution – and the republic was forced to send in troops to crush the revolt. 130,000 people would perish.
The new republican government were now extremely concerned with the situation. If the Republic would have to fight wars both inside and outside their borders, how would they govern? The answer they came to was to assign the government, in particular the newly created Committee of Public Safety, dictatorial and absolute powers to rule in such a time of crisis. The Committee of Public Safety that had been created was usually weak and moderate; a man named
Maximilien Robespierre (“the Incorruptible”), leader of a faction called the Jacobins, took power. Georges Danton, a man who had led the uprising against the king, was deemed too moderate and removed from power.
“The government in a revolution is the despotism of liberty against tyranny”, announced Robespierre, keen to defend France from counterrevolutionary foes. He found an effective but terrifying way to do it.
The goal of the constitutional government is to conserve the Republic; the aim of the revolutionary government is to found it… The revolutionary government owes to the good citizen all the protection of the nation; it owes nothing to the Enemies of the People but death…
Robespierre began a bloody campaign against internal opposition. He had no time for counterrevolutionaries and those who agreed with the new Republic. All were to die. Robespierre began to accuse and condemn people who deemed as enemies of the revolution with committing ‘crimes against liberty’. All suspected people could be killed on sight or brought to be guillotined.
16,954 people would be guillotined and 25,000 more executed through other means.
The most famous victim of the Reign of Terror was Marie Antoinette. The King was dead, but the Queen was not. She didn’t outlast her husband by long. Accused of all sorts of things from incest with her son and permitting orgies in the palace to plotting to kill the Duke of Orleans (most of these accusations were probably untrue), she was executed on October 16. Before dying she had accidentally stepped on the feet of her executioner and her last words were “Pardon me sir, I meant not to do it.” Thus ended the life of a Queen who had lived a life of grandeur.
Georges Danton and other revolutionaries deemed to be showing dissent were also guillotined. The revolution took another weird swing when Robespierre decided to start the worship of the ‘Supreme Being’ and inaugurated it as an official aspect of the French Revolution. So much for doing away with a Catholic god.
Things finally became too crazy for the French in mid-1794. His terror with virtue was simply too much and by that time Robespierre no longer had any excuse to continue with it: the French armies, through mass conscription, were gaining the upper hand over the foreign armies. Crisis was beginning to be solved. On 27 July, the tired French overthrew Robespierre from power. Robespierre tried to commit suicide but the bullet only shattered his jaw- he would ironically be guillotined.
It was the end of the Terror, finally, but the Revolution was not yet over. Check back soon for the next edition to this series.
Vive la France!