The Reign of Terror

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© Bob Denton 2014

The Reign of Terror, 1793-4

The Girondists had become the leaders of the Jacobin Club, the largest group in the Convention and controlled many of the ministries and the executive council. 

In February 1793 they fired Jean-Nicolas Pache who had proven to be an incompetent minister of war. Their growing unpopularity was perhaps best identified by the fact that Pache was elected as mayor of Paris ten days later.

In the meantime Robespierre had moved to become the dominant force within the Jacobin Club, while Jacques Pierre Brissot, leader of the Girondin, was tangled up in Convention administration. He was also able to draw upon his popularity with his sans-culottes, the Paris Commune, the forty-eight ‘Sections’ (administrative areas) of Paris and with the National Guard.

Mayor Pache with the support of the Commune now directly controlled the section’s militias and he sought to use them against the Girondist Convention. 

In March, with threats both internal and external, the Convention called for a mass mobilization of the people, a levée en masse. Every region had to provide its levy of the 300,000 in total. However, far from settling things down, this caused resentment throughout the provinces.

Robespierre and Danton manipulated the Convention into forming in March 1793 the Revolutionary Tribunal to protect the Republic against foreign attacks and by internal rebellion.

Then in April it created the Comité de salut public (Committee of Public Safety) to replace the Committee of General Defence formed a few months earlier.  The Committee of Public Safety had nine, and later twelve, members who were appointed to supervise the legislative, judicial and military organisations of the Republic; Robespierre was one of the members.

The Committee of General Security was formed to run the internal police force that was established to fight any tendency towards counter-revolution.

Under attack from the Parisian organisations, in May the Girondists formed the Commission extraordinaire des Douze (Extraordinary Commission of Twelve), charged with looking at the affairs of the Paris Commune and the Sections to seek out any counter-revolutionary activities; this hardly helped with their relationship.

The Committee of Public Safety became fearful of the influence of Jacques Hébert and his Hébertist party. Their ideas were expounded in his newspaper Le Père Duchesne, purporting to be the opinions of a fictional working-class man; much appreciated by the sans-culottes.

Hébertists were atheist in their policy and sought nationalization of a host of commodities. The Commission of Twelve arrested Hébert because he had been inciting violence against the Girondins.  The sans-culottes protested and forced his release.

Not satisfied with this, Robespierre manipulated that on 31st May some thirty-three of the Sections of Paris sent a petition to the Assembly to arrest and try the Girondin deputies and the Committee of Twelve members. This was referred to be investigated by the Committee of Public Safety.

On 2nd June several Sections’ representatives backed by the National Guard marched on the Convention. Being a Sunday workers could join the protest and in the end a force of some 80,000 sans-culottes assembled and pointed cannon at the Tuileries. 

On that same day the Convention had received reports of the fall of a major city in Vendée to the counter-revolutionaries and that the Hotel de Ville at Lyons was in royalist/Girondin hands after the loss of eight hundred loyal republicans. 

The president of the Convention promised the protestors a resolution but this did not go smoothly.  A deputation was admitted and they petitioned for the twenty-two Girondins and the Committee of Twelve to be arrested.  The Convention again referred the matter to the Committee of Public Safety.

This was not accepted by the protesters. When deputies tried to leave they found the Convention building was completely encircled with drawn bayonets. They relented and passed a decree to arrest twenty-two Girondins and ten of the Commission of Twelve. The Montagnards and Robespierre were now free and uncontested to be able to pursue their own policies.

The Paris département was jubilant, it believed it had once again saved France. It passed a resolution on the 29th June that soon found its way on to banners and houses it said Unité, Indivisibilité de la République; Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité ou la mort (Unity, Indivisibility of the Republic, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity or death!).

The Girondins were not the only faction to disagree with the Montagnards.  Numbers of the sans-culottes lent their support to other emerging groups like Jacques Roux’s Les Enragés (Enraged Ones) named for his June 1793 Manifesto of the Enraged. His group proposed a radical agenda including price control of grain, a new form of income tax, that the assignat be the sole legal tender and urged a campaign of counterrevolutionary initiatives.

By September 1793 the forty-eight Sections of Paris were back demanding that the Convention make terror ‘the order of the day’. Danton addressed the Convention by suggesting ‘let us be terrible in order to stop the people from being so’; he would later become one of the Terror’s victims.

The ruling Jacobins responded by defining the possible suspects in much broader terms and issuing wider powers of arrest. The Convention’s proclamation said, ‘So legislators, place Terror on the order of the day! Let us be in revolution, because everywhere counter-revolution is being woven by our enemies. The blade of the law should hover over all the guilty.’

The Girondins had been permitted to be held under arrest in their own homes. But two of them and later a further three escaped to the provinces where they would stir up rebellion. In July 1793 Charlotte Corday assassinated Marat in his bath. At her trial she ‘played back’ Robespierre’s words when he called for the execution of King Louis, ‘I killed one man to save 100,000’. She was guillotined a mere four days after the assassination of Marat.

The death of Corday – two stories following her execution are worthy of repeat here. Her decapitated head was raised by a carpenter who had carried out repairs on the guillotine. He slapped her face and onlookers claim that her face took on a look of contempt. Her body was examined to try to establish if she had a lover who was her co-conspirator but she was found to be a virgin and had presumably acted alone.

Jacques Hébert addressed The Committee of Public Safety and called for Queen Marie Antoinette to face trial. The Convention had been exercised by her fate for some time, they had discussed using her as a bargaining chip to various ends. In July they removed Louis Charles, the Dauphin, from her care and housed him with a cobbler as a form of re-education.

Her supporters came up with a number of plans to aid her escape but she refused them all. Notably in August 1793 she had been passed a note hidden within the petals of a carnation, her reply was discovered and the Carnation Plot set off some paranoia that there was a large scale royalist threat.

Eventually, the Revolutionary Tribunal heard her case in October 1793, giving her just a day to prepare her defence. Her accusations owed more to the rumours published in the scandal sheets down the years. She was accused of running orgies, of abusive incest with her son and a host of plots against the State. In just two days she was found guilty of treason.

She had her hair shaved off and was dressed in a simple white dress as she was driven through the streets in a simple open vehicle to the Place de la Révolution (today’s Place de la Concorde). Her body went to an unmarked plot in the Madeleine cemetery. In January 1815 both her and Louis’s body were exhumed and given a Christian burial in the Basilica of Saint-Denis with other French kings.

Meanwhile, Corday’s declared Girondist leanings was the final straw for the Girondins and they were decreed to be traitors. The fact of the First Coalition forces massing to the east and the civil war in the Vendée to the west were cited as clear signs of threat to the republic.

The Girondists finally came to trial on 24th October and were executed on the 31st October. Perhaps the best ‘advert’ for the efficacy of the guillotine was that twenty-two heads were parted from their bodies in just thirty-six minutes. Most of those who had escaped were later caught and executed, several committed suicide. Though by 1795, following the fall of Robespierre and the end of the Reign of Terror, they would be hailed as the ‘martyrs of liberty’.

The Republican Calendar – in its fervour to change anything that was Ancien Regime the Republic decided to change the calendar.

They opted for twelve months each of thirty days and named the months for natural features, though in truth these were Paris-centric phenomena. Their year started after the autumn equinox on 22nd September with the month of Vendémiaire (grape harvest) and to complete autumn they had Brumaire (fog) and Frimaire (frost). Winter had Nivôse (snowy), Pluviôse (rainy), Ventôse (windy). Spring’s three months were Germinal (germination), Floréal (flowery), Prairial (pastoral or pastural). Summer had Messidor (harvest), Thermidor (summer heat) and Fructidor (fruity).

This makes me wonder about the inspiration for one of my favourite poems – ‘Twelve Months’ by George Ellis (English poet 1753 – 1815):

Snowy, Flowy, Blowy,
Showery, Flowery, Bowery,
Hoppy, Croppy, Droppy,
Breezy, Sneezy, Freezy.

The Republican calendar split each month in to three décades and named the days of each as Primidi, Duodi, Tridi, Quartdi, Quintdi, Sextidi, Septidi, Octidi, Nonidi and Décadi – presumably creating a nin-day working week!

The Hébertists came under fresh scrutiny in early 1794.  Hébert and nineteen members of his group were arrested and guillotined on the 24th March.

Danton became the spokesperson for a sub-group of the Montagnards called the ‘Indulgents’. Within the Committee of Public Safety he began to propose a more moderate approach to their official support of terror. He also became voluble on seeking out peace with the other European powers.

He cooperated with Camille Desmoulins, a childhood friend of Robespierre, in the issue of a newspaper Le Vieux Cordelier (the Old Cordelier), which promoted an end to the terror.

They fell out with Robespierre when he parodied the Law of Suspects in an attack on the Committee. Robespierre asked Desmoulins to burn his magazine at the Jacobin Club. Desmoulins used Rousseau’s words ‘burning is not an answer’. Robespierre who saw Rousseau as a personal hero, took this all too personally and withdrew any support for his past friends.

Their unpopular line, and Robespierre’s animus, prompted investigation. There were claims that Danton had made money from his dealings with overseas powers. He had, on behalf of the Committee, negotiated a peace with Sweden which involved a payment of four million livres in compensation, the accusation was levelled that he had retained a portion of this payment.

In March 1794 the Indulgents were arrested and brought before the Revolutionary Tribunal. A National Convention decree forbade them from defending themselves. Fifteen of the group were guillotined on the 5th April including Danton and Desmoulins. Danton’s last words to the public gathering was ‘My only regret is that I am going before that rat Robespierre’.

Three months later Danton’s words proved true. Robespierre in July (Thermidor) spoke at length against his enemies but refused to name them, simply calling for a purge of those not seeking government by virtue. There was a purge, of him and his closest colleagues.

Arrested he became the scapegoat for the Reign Terror and other abuses of power, he and members of his party soon received their invitation to Madame Guillotine.

In total over 2,600 death sentences were issued in Paris and more than 16.500 across the whole of France during the Reign of Terror.

Forward to Madame Guillotine – Back to Internal problems
Back to 1789 and all that!
© Bob Denton 2014