The Coming of the Terror in the French Revolution 
by Timothy Tackett.
Harvard, 463 pp., £25, February 2015, 978 0 674 73655 9
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Helen Maria Williams​ travelled to France in July 1790 to take part in the Fête de la Fédération that marked the first anniversary of the fall of the Bastille. She described the pageantry at the Champ de Mars as the ‘triumph of humankind; it was man asserting the noblest privilege of his nature; and it required but the common feelings of humanity, to become in that moment a citizen of the world.’ In 1794, in the midst of the Terror, she felt differently:

I have no words to paint the strong feeling of reluctance with which I always returned from our walks in Paris, that den of carnage, that slaughterhouse of man … We were obliged to pass the square of the revolution, where we saw the guillotine erected, the crowd assembled for the bloody tragedy, and the gens d’armes on horseback, followed by victims who were to be sacrificed, entering the square. Such was the daily spectacle which had succeeded the painted shows, the itinerant theatres, the mountebank, the dance, the song, the shifting scenes of harmless gaiety, which used to attack the cheerful crowd as they passed from the Tuileries to the Champs Elysées.

There has been no shortage of debate about the reasons for this descent into violence. Writing after the Second World War, Marxist historians like Georges Lefebvre understood the Terror of 1793-94 as a matter of national survival. By 1792, France faced invasion by the Austrian and Prussian armies; royalist insurgencies in Brittany, Lyon and the Vendée; defection among senior army officers; and massacres in Paris. The Jacobins weren’t terrorists, but part of a ‘revolutionary resistance’ that established a ruthless (but temporary) set of laws – under the Committee of Public Safety – to punish and deter counter-revolution.

The influence of Lefebvre’s argument was partly a result of the cultural and intellectual ascendancy of French communism after the war. It wasn’t until the 1970s that a younger generation of historians started to produce accounts of the Revolution inflected by ideological disenchantment. François Furet’s ur-text of liberal revisionism, Interpreting the French Revolution (1978), saw the Terror as a harbinger of 20th-century tyrannies, and revolutionary violence as a logical outcome of pre-revolutionary political thought. The Terror, he argued, emerged from Jacobin efforts to radicalise the Revolution ‘by making it consistent’ with theories of direct democracy, egalitarianism and the general will.

Recent studies are more interested in the improvised, temporally specific nature of the Terror: it was a series of responses to crisis and was fuelled by emotion as much as by ideology. There was little indication before 1789 that the leading revolutionaries – mainly lawyers, magistrates and property owners – would resort to terror. The French nobility’s fondness for ritualised violence and militarism wasn’t shared by Maximilien Robespierre, or most of the other members of the middle-class elite. Duelling, the aristocratic method of defending one’s honour, was considered barbaric. The future revolutionaries understood that low wages and food shortages might lead the urban poor to revolt, but they still condemned rioting workers in April 1789 as ‘mobs of rogues’. Their aversion to violence didn’t extend to capital punishment. Both Gabriel Bonnot de Mably’s Observations on the Romans (1751) and Rousseau’s Social Contract (1762) offered justifications for the execution of conspirators. The ‘evil-doer who attacks social right,’ Rousseau declared,

becomes a rebel and a traitor to the fatherland by his crimes, by violating its laws he ceases to be a member of it, and even enters into war with it. Then the preservation of the State is incompatible with his own, one of the two has to perish, and when the guilty man is put to death, it is less as a Citizen than as an enemy.

Countless versions of this argument would be quoted ex cathedra during the 1790s.

For Tackett, the unfolding revolution – from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy to republic – transformed the people at its centre and violence came to seem to them ‘almost inevitable and necessary’. Over the spring and summer of 1789, the Estates-General – politically dormant for 175 years – became the National Assembly and proclaimed itself the sovereign voice of the nation. It issued nostrums designed to eliminate the injustices of the Old Regime, including the abolition of seigneurial dues and the abandonment of excise taxes, clerical tithes and the sale of offices. In August, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen was passed. Louis-Marie Prudhomme described the ‘exhilaration of joy’ that gripped the revolutionaries. ‘We congratulated one another. And in our enthusiasm, we christened our deputies “the Fathers of the Country”. It seemed as though a new day was breaking over France.’

This revolutionary swagger, however, overlaid a much darker side to 1789, a feeling of crisis and social dislocation. At the start of the year, terrible weather blocked the transportation of wheat and froze the water in the wells. Thousands died of sickness and starvation. Adrien-Joseph Colson reported that ‘everywhere we hear the sad symphony of coughing.’ In towns and villages bakeries were raided and brigands roamed the countryside preying on the upper classes and priests suspected of hoarding food. The royalist government set up courts to try those involved in the unrest: there was no possibility of appeal (anticipating the revolutionary tribunals of the Terror). Food shortages in Paris throughout May and June, and rumours of an attack on the National Assembly by mercenaries loyal to the monarchy, increased tensions, which flared into violence on 14 July. Enraged by the king’s dismissal of Jacques Necker, the finance minister instrumental in summoning the Estates-General, and preparing to defend themselves, Parisians descended on the Bastille to seize the gunpowder kept there. The soldiers manning the prison opened fire on the looters, who then overran the fort, killing the guards and the prison governor. Their heads were raised on pikes and marched through the streets. Drawing on contemporary accounts, Tackett vividly describes these events, showing how the excitement of political change was muted by fear of chaos. Colson wrote that France faced a future ‘that could be either extraordinarily fortunate or extraordinarily unfortunate. Not in the last ten centuries has there been such a crisis, a crisis that before the end of the year will either raise the nation to the summit of power and grandeur, or reduce her to utter calamity and destruction.’

It was soon apparent that the new constitutional arrangements couldn’t keep pace with the collapse of the institutions of the old regime. Royal officials in charge of tax collection, policing, justice and military affairs either fled or saw their authority disintegrate. A host of political clubs, defence committees, local tribunals, printing presses and popular societies stepped in. Throughout his book, Tackett shadowboxes with Tocqueville, who argued that the Revolution merely reconstituted the centralisation of the old regime. Tackett’s more convincing argument is that there was an abrupt disjunction from past structures: ‘There can be no doubt that such a state of affairs made it extremely difficult to know who was in charge in a given place in a given moment, and it would thus help promote an atmosphere of uncertainty and mistrust.’

On 21 June 1791 Louis XVI was captured in Varennes, about thirty miles from the monarchist stronghold of Montmédy near the German border. The rumour was that he’d been kidnapped, but it soon became clear that, unwilling to accept constitutional limits on his power, he was on his way to join the Marquis de Bouillé and the Austrian army. This abortive escape attempt only deepened fears of foreign invasion. In the autumn, Jacques-Pierre Brissot and the Girondins began to advocate pre-emptive strikes against German states harbouring French nobles and priests. A new revolutionary nationalism prevailed, symbolised by the tricolore, liberty trees and the song ‘Ça ira’. Before long, deputies began to feel they had a moral duty to spread freedom across national borders. ‘The moment has come,’ Brissot proclaimed, ‘for a crusade of universal liberty.’ War was declared against Austria in April 1792.

Jacobins like Robespierre believed that France faced destruction if, like Sparta, ‘she bore war arms beyond the frontier’. The conflict began badly, and got worse: diplomatic moves to form alliances with other European states failed; the Prussians joined Austria in a joint invasion; a nervous advance into the Austrian lowlands was reversed when French soldiers fled at the sound of gunfire; generals resigned or, in the case of Lafayette, began negotiating with the enemy; and in July a Prussian and Holy Roman army under the Duke of Brunswick began a massive invasion of France, sweeping through the garrison towns of Longwy and Verdun, and opening the way to Paris. The patrie was declared to be in danger: as well as the proximity of the Prussian army, plots to restore the king were uncovered in Brittany and Normandy. As the English chargé d’affaires commented: ‘The people are all armed and the government is extremely feeble.’

The atmosphere in Paris was tense on 2 September 1792. Rumours were spreading that the city’s prisoners – nobility, Swiss Guards and priests – planned to escape and launch a counter-revolution. Most of them had been arrested during the overthrow of the monarchy on 10 August, when a mob invaded the Tuileries and massacred six hundred royal guards, who in turn killed close to four hundred insurgents. Fearful of what the prisoners might do, gangs of sans-culottes entered the jails and killed more than a thousand inmates as their jailers stood by. The violence was popular, spontaneous and vengeful. It was, in Tackett’s description – as well as Lefebvre’s – ‘the first Terror’.

The September Massacres are generally considered to be the point at which popular violence became state-sponsored Terror. Danton appealed for the Convention to ‘be terrible so as to save the people from being so’. (Brecht in ‘To Posterity’ recognised something similar happening in 1938: ‘Alas, we/Who wished to lay the foundations of kindness/Could not ourselves be kind’.) Following Edmund Burke, conservative historians have long argued that the history of the Terror is the history of the Revolution as a whole, but Tackett is careful to make a temporal distinction between violence and Terror. He sees the execution of the king in January 1793 as the start of ‘a “killing Terror”: not just the repression, imprisonment, or banishment of one’s enemies, but their extermination’.

The debate on how best to bring the king to justice divided left from right: Robespierre’s Montagnards wanted a swift trial and execution; the Girondins proposed a referendum to approve the Convention’s decisions. Jean Debry, who eventually voted for execution, recalled how he ‘agonised over the truth of the matter’, while the moderate Louis-Sébastien Mercier had ‘a fever for two days, as I passed through my mind several volumes of reflections. I became completely ill.’ On the morning of 21 January, in front of nearly a hundred thousand people on the place de la Révolution, Louis Capet was beheaded.

As the revolution was pushed in a more radical direction, the fear of counter-revolution became a form of cathexis. For Robespierre, ‘the progress of liberty [had] multiplied the crimes of tyranny in redoubling its alarms and passions.’ Circumstances alone, Tackett writes, aren’t sufficient to explain the recourse to Terror, which would have been impossible without the ‘prior transformation of the psychology and mentalité of the revolutionaries, a transformation with a tragic inner logic that was integral to the process of the French Revolution – and that is perhaps after all integral to the phenomenon of revolution itself.’

From the beginning, Jacobinism advocated an enlightened libertarianism while striving to create a universal republic. It was at once individualistic and communitarian, and it inherited the hard-nosed intolerances of absolutism. Patrice Higonnet put it best in Goodness beyond Virtue (1998): ‘Jacobinism could not stand still … [it] would either fall back or move forward. It required commitment. It could not pause. Time and time again, Jacobin politics excluded those revolutionaries (Monarchiens in 1789, Feuillants in 1791, Girondins in 1793, Indulgents in 1794) who feared to go further.’ But when Jacobinism encountered class-consciousness (as in Lyon in 1793, when federalists revolted against the authority of the National Convention), dreams of universal reconciliation disintegrated. The adoption of violence had less to do with the ideas of Rousseau, or the demands of civil war and foreign conquest, than with the ‘intolerant instincts whose roots were buried in the depths of [the Jacobins’] unconscious selves’.

The violence levelled at enemies of the Revolution never disturbed Jacobin reveries about the public good, or their progressive agenda. The Declaration of Rights of 1793 proclaimed equality before the law; the right to public employment; a free press; the right to property; the necessity of worker contracts and compensation; tax redistribution; public relief for those unable to work; free universal education; and the right of insurrection. It attempted to create a ‘grand famille’ free of the king’s coercive paternalism.

But between September 1793 and July 1794, fraternity became fratricide as fears of social breakdown and political conspiracy reached new heights – Robespierre’s rapid descent into paranoia and ill-health was just one manifestation. To begin with, the Terror was directed at federalists fighting against the Convention in Normandy, Bordeaux, Marseille and Lyon. The siege of Lyon was especially brutal: patriots tied counter-revolutionaries together and aimed cannon at them. Rebels in the Vendée were massacred in noyades or mass drownings, by firing squads and public beheadings. Once his troops had quashed the rebellion, General Westermann told his superiors in Paris that ‘There is no more Vendée.’

Soon the revolutionary leadership turned against itself. The Montagnards denounced the Girondins for their sympathy to federalism, and then began denouncing one another. Late in 1793 in the Vieux Cordelier Camille Desmoulins, a key architect of the Terror, provided a damning assessment of a republic nearing its downfall. Far from realising the sacred ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity, France was re-enacting the dying moments of the Roman Empire, and was guided by the despot’s maxim that ‘it is better that many innocent people die than a single culprit escape.’ He was executed a few months later, along with his good friend Danton. The introduction of the Prairial Law in June 1794 accelerated the pace at which people were tried for crimes that ‘betrayed the republic’. There were no defence lawyers, no preliminary hearings and no hope of avoiding death if found guilty.

At the height of the Terror, Tackett suggests, at least 300,000 people were under arrest. The death toll is harder to calculate: roughly 17,000 were executed following trial, but add to that those killed without due process or who died in jail (like the Marquis de Condorcet) and a figure of 40,000 is not unlikely. These included peasants (more than a quarter of the total) and workers (about a third), as well as nobles (less than 10 per cent) and priests (more than 5 per cent).

‘Terrorists themselves felt terrorised,’ Tackett says. But their fear was not only a response to a world in turmoil. The theory of ‘negative association’ – the formation of political groups in the face of a common enemy – holds that fear enables individuals to set aside their differences and come together. Both the Jacobins and Girondins had sought to transform fear into collective resolve. The Assembly’s declaration in July 1792 that the patrie was ‘in danger’ deliberately used alarm as a counter-counter-revolutionary strategy. One pamphlet declared that the threat of the Austrian invasion renewed ‘bonds of brotherhood which should unite all free Frenchmen; in these moments of crisis there exists the most perfect union between us.’

One motive Tackett does not dwell on, but which helps explain why the revolutionaries adopted such violent and drastic methods, was their knowledge of how easily republics die. If the Jacobins were influenced by the Enlightenment, it wasn’t so much by theories of liberty, economy and constitutionalism as by the discourse of catastrophe, and the idea that no state can avoid the cycle of decline and fall. ‘If Rome and Sparta perished,’ Rousseau wrote, ‘what state can hope to last for ever?’ The Jacobins hoped to prove, by whatever means, that the French republic could last for ever, but the more they strove to attain that, the quicker they invited self-destruction.

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