From the summer of 1793 to the summer of 1794 France was ruled by a kind of Government which is known as the Reign of Terror. It was established by the Jacobin party under the leadership of Robespierre. France faced a very critical situation at this time. Externally, there was a threat from foreign powers who attacked France to crush the Revolution. Internally, the royalists were trying to overthrow the Republic and restore the monarchy.

At this hour of crisis, the Jacobins got control of the National Convention and decided to crush both internal and external enemies of the Revolution by establishing a dictatorial government. The chief agencies of the Terror were:

  1. A committee of Public Safety in which all executive power of the government was vested
  2. The Revolutionary Tribunal tried persons suspected of disloyalty to the Republic.
  3. By the Law of the Suspect, any person could be arrested and sent for trial and
  4. There was the Revolutionary Square where suspected persons were killed by the stroke of the guillotine. It is estimated that about 5000 persons were beheaded in Paris alone during the Reign of Terror. Among the victims of Terror were Marie Antonette, the Girondist leaders like Madam Roland. Even Jacobin leader Danton fell under the guillotine when he pleaded moderation. Finally, Robespierre, the father of Terror was executed for his extreme radicalism. The Reign of Terror ended with the death of Robespierre.

Critical Account of Reign of Terror

The Girondists, Jacobins of the National Convention were unanimous about the need to abolish the monarchy and so as soon as they met unanimously decreed that “royalty is abolished in France”. They also resolved “to date from September 22, 1792, Year I of the republic”. However, it has been said that the unity of the rival forces in the convention barely survives in the earliest days. Party strife culminated with the divergent views as to the fate of the deposed and imprisoned king. Though all-party agreed that he should not be freed as a private citizen, the Girondists favored leniency and the Jacobin’s execution. Ultimately it was agreed that Louis XVI was to be tried for supporting the nonjuring clergy and for carrying on secret negotiations with emigres and foreign powers.

The National Convention brought King Louis XVI to trial in December 1792 and condemned him to death by a vote of 387 to 384. The king was executed by guillotine on 21st January 1973. Following the king’s execution, the convention adopted an aggressive attitude and challenged the existing order in Europe at large. It proposed to propagate liberty and reforms throughout Europe and it issued the following Declaration, “The French nation declared that it will treat as enemies every people who refused or renounced liberty and equality”.

The Declaration also promises armed assistance to any nation or people who wish to rise against their monarch and uphold the ideas of liberty and equality. In other words, Republican France declared a war of Principles against monarchical Europe.

This declaration coupled with the execution of Louis XVI precipitated royalist reaction at home and abroad. At home, the peasants of La Vendee rose in revolt against the French republic as the murderer of the king. Abroad, a formidable coalition (1st coalition) of revengeful European powers consisting of Spain, Holland, Austria, Prussia, England, and Sardinia was formed to overthrow the French republic.

Thus the first French Republic was threatened with danger both at home and abroad. So in the spring of 1793, in order to overcome these dangers, the National Convention vested the supreme executive authority in France to a special committee known as the Committee of Public Safety. This committee of 9 members included Jacobin leaders like Robespierre, Carnot, and St. Just. It had to tackle the big task of national defense administration and regeneration.

To encounter external danger the committee of Public Safety appointed Carnot as the war minister. With the support of his fellow Jacobins, Carnot came forward as the “organizer of defense” of the French nation.

The military successes of the French army under Carnot cleared the frontiers. The Campaign of 1794-95 dissolved the Europe First Coalition against France. Carnot justly earned the title of “Organiser of Victory”.

In this connection, it should be noted that the biggest achievement of the National Convention was to rouse the spirit of nationalism and to raise a national army for France to fight the invading army. Men, women, and children offered their services to the Convention. The whole nation was in arms. Conscription for the ages of 18 to 25 was ordered and under the able guidance of Carnot, an efficient and well-trained army was raise which inflicted defeat after defeat on the allies. The soldiers were imbued with unbounded patriotism and loyalty and their new song “Marseillaise” later became the National Anthem of France.

To suppress riots and insurrections in the home front, the Committee of Public Safety was assisted by two chief agencies viz:

  1. The Committee of General Security was given police power to maintain order throughout the country and
  2. The Revolutionary Tribunal was charged with trying and condemning any person suspected of disloyalty to the republic.

The convention then enacted “the Law of Suspects” to enable the two agencies to try all those who were suspected of hostility to the republic. In every district too, revolutionary tribunals were organized under the local Jacobins to stamp out counter Revolution.

The internal policy of the Committee of Public Safety is called the “Reign of Terror in France” or simply The “Terror”. It has also been described as “martial law has gone mad”. Under the Reign of terror in France, thousands of royalists were sent to the guillotine to the accompaniment of popular mob frenzy.

It is estimated that about 5000 persons were executed in Paris during the Reign of Terror in France. In the provinces, the local tribunal was responsible for the death of at least 15,000 people.

The Girondist Scandalised opposed the bloodshed. The Parisian Proletariat, instigated by Marat condemned the Girondists of disloyalty to the Revolution. They demanded the expulsion of 29 Girondists from the National Convention. The assassination of Marat by Charlotte Corday a supporter of the Girondist made matters worse for them. Their leaders Brissot and Vergniaud were Guillotine in October 1793.

Sensational indeed was the period of Terror from the summer of 1793 to that of 1794. This was at a time when the coalitions of the European power were trying to destroy the Revolution. While the army of Carnot fought at the front the Jacobins directed the terror against the internal enemies to systematically bring back law and order. To some persons, the Reign of Terror in France seems to be aimlessly bloody, disgusting, and unnecessary, while to others it may have been altogether essential. After the misgovernment of the Girondists, France was badly in need of discipline.

The Reign of Terror of the Jacobins could only be overthrown by the Jacobins themselves when a split occurred. The conflict came out of the fact that while still some of the Jacobins wanted to pursue the old part of terrorism, some others voted moderation.

The split among the Jacobins made Herbert and Danton as well as the followers victims at the Guillotine. Robespierre himself after enjoying a brief dictatorship was sent to the guillotine in July 1794 by the more conservative members of the National Convention. Robespierre fell in the month of July which is called the month of Thermidor in the Revolutionary Calendar.

Thus the Thermidorian reaction ended the reign of Terror in France. But if France ceased to be a terrorist, she remained a revolutionary.

Notwithstanding its preoccupation with its internal strive and the foreign war, the National Convention carried out a number of reforms of permanent value:

  1. Education was reorganized and French became the language of instruction in all schools.
  2. A new code of laws was drawn up.
  3. Negro slavery was abolished
  4. A new calendar was adopted. It had twelve-month each of 30 days divided into 3 weeks of 10 days each.

In the field of religion, the National Convention was hostile to the Roman Catholic Church. Hence, under the influence of the atheist of the convention, the churches were closed and Christianity was pressed. “The worshipped of Reason” took its place but when Robespierre a deist assumed supreme power the National Convention under his influence overthrew the “Worshipped of Reason” and passes a decree recognizing the existence of the Supreme Being. After Robespierre fall religious toleration was accepted and the churches reopened.

Lastly, the Convention succeeded in drafting a new constitution for France called the Directory. Its salient features are as follow:

  1. France became a republic.
  2. The executive authority was vested in a group of five directors who were to be elected for a period of five years.
  3. 1/3 of the Legislative and 1/5 of the executive were to be renewed every year.
  4. The Convention also passed a decree providing that 2/3 of the members of the new Legislative must be the old members of the convention. They wanted to ensure that there would not be a royalist majority in the new legislature. This law was extremely unpopular and the moderates, as well as the royalist, rose up in arm against this interference with the election. Thus the directory was installed in an atmosphere of extreme unrest and violence.

Who were the Girondists?

The Girondins were a major Revolutionary party of France. They were so-called because some of their prominent members came from the department of Gironde. Intensely patriotic, they came into prominence during the session of the Legislative Assembly. They were against the monarchy and in favor of a Republic. Some of the important members of the Girondist party were Brissot, Condorcet, and Madam Roland.

But the Girondists could not bold power ultimately. They were unpractical idealists. They had no constructive program. By their brilliant oratory, they roused wild enthusiasm in Paris. They got majority seats in the National Convention. But when the revolution was in full swing, the monarchy was abolished, France was declared a Republic, and Louis XVI was executed, they could not keep control of the situation, and power passed into the hands of the more radical Jacobin party. Most of the Girondist leaders were killed during the Reign of Terror.

Who were the Jacobins?

The Jacobins were the most important Revolutionary party of France. They were extreme radicals and better organized than the Girondists. They were so-called because most of them were active members of the Jacobin club of Paris. In the National Convention, they occupied high seats and were therefore known as “Mountainists”. Their prominent leaders were Danton, Carnot, and Robespierre. Their main supporters were the Parisian mob. They were responsible for the violent phase of the Revolution. To save the Revolution and the French Republic, they established the Reign of Terror. The Jacobins succeeded in preserving the Revolution and introduced many radical social and economic reforms but as their rule was based on force and violence, they soon lost popular support. With the death of Robespierre and the end of Reign of Terror, Jacobins‘ disappeared from the political scene.

Who was Robespierre?

By profession a lawyer, Robespierre was a great radical revolutionary leader. He was a man of fixed ideas and knew no compromise. A close disciple of Rousseau, he tried to put into practice his master’s ideas through the revolution. He was a leader of the Jacobin party. In 1793 when the French Republic was threatened both by internal rebellion and foreign aggression, he tried to save the Revolution by organizing what is known as the Reign of Terror. He was the head of the Committee of Public Safety and ruled France for about a year practically as a dictator. But when foreign aggression was checked and peace and internal harmony came back, a reaction set in against his iron rule. The Convention got him arrested, tried him, and got him guillotined. With the fall and death of Robespierre, the Reign of terror also came to an end.


B.A. History
Paper III
History of Modern World
(15th Century to World War II)

France Legislative Assembly 1791-1792

Rise and Decline of Portuguese in India

What are the characteristics of Mercantilism?

The Rise and Fall of Napoleon Bonaparte

What are the outcomes of the French Revolution?

Causes of the French Revolution

Reforms of Napoleon Bonaparte

The Continental System of Napoleon Bonaparte

Features of Indus Valley Civilization