The execution of the king stunned the rulers of Europe. They were stunned as well by the French military victories in Belgium and along the Rhine River. Furthermore, the French government was offering to come to the aid of any people willing to fight for their liberty. The revolution threatened to spill over into other countries, becoming a crusade of peoples against kings and nobility. If successful, it could destroy every kingdom in Europe. England and most of the European powers, therefore, joined together in 1793 to crash the revolution and to place another king on the throne of France.
The French attempted to raise a large army to defend the country, but rebellion broke out in a region called the Vendée to the west of Paris. The Catholic peasants of the Vendée turned against the government because it had closed monasteries, taken control of the Church, sold much of the Church property and put to death, imprisoned, or otherwise mistreated many of its priests. The civil war in the Vendée and a number of military defeats at the borders of the country were enough to frighten the French people. There was a serious food shortage again. Unemployment was rising. Prices were going up. Food riots broke out in many large cities, including Paris.
The government was too weak to cope with such emergencies. To provide stronger leadership, a committee of Public Safety was set up to guide the ministers and to serve as the head of the government. Danton was the first Jacobin leader to dominate this committee.
The political group then in power, the Girondins, was blamed for all the ills of the nation. Radical Jacobins demanded the arrest of Girondin leaders. The demand was made again and again without results. The radicals finally stirred up a revolt among the people, surrounded the Convention Hall with troops and forced the arrest of twenty-nine Girondin leaders. In this way the Jacobins gained control of the Convention.
Many Girondins fled to the provinces, where they organized rebel armies and prepared to march on Paris. These armies won the support of the royalists, the people who wanted a king to be ruler. In addition, the “Royal Catholic Army” of the Vendée had been growing rapidly. By the end of June, most of the provinces and cities of the country were in rebellion against Paris and the Convention.
The Jacobins were desperate. They tried to unite the country by writing a new constitution which favoured both peasants and the provinces. The constitution was approved by the people, but was not to be put into effect until after the war was over. The hard-pressed French suffered still another crop failure. British warships added to their problems by blockading their ports. On September 4 came the alarming news that traitors in the French port of Toulon had surrendered the city to the British.
By this time Maximilian Robespierre, a Jacobin leader, had become an influential member of the Committee of Public Safety, and was therefore one of the most powerful men in the country. A lawyer from the small town of Arras, Robespierre had been active in the revolution since his town first elected him to the Estates General. He was a small, rather trim person with a weak voice that was difficult to hear in the large auditorium of the Convention. For that reason his speeches were far more effective at the Jacobin Club. He was a champion of the common man and was probably one of the first to use the phrase “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” which became the great slogan of the revolution.
The Committee of Public Safety set up special courts to deal swiftly with traitors and on September 17, the Convention ordered the arrest of all suspects. All enemies of liberty were to be considered suspects. Robespierre felt that all those who were not for the revolution were against it and deserved death. He meant to safeguard the revolution with the blood of its enemies and this period came to be known as the “Terror.”
One of the first important victims of the Terror was the queen, Marie-Antoinette. The charges against her were weak and not very clear, but no one dared raise a voice in her defense at the trial and she was sentenced to die. She was taken in a crude one-horse cart with a dangling tailgate to the guillotine that stood before the palace that had once been her home. Her hair had turned white and she was thin after many months in a dungeon. Many people felt sorry for her, but a chorus of catcalls and hoots came from the women of the market place as she passed. When the cart came to a halt, she stepped down without help and climbed the steps of the guillotine. She had nothing to say. Death for her seemed a welcome release from her life in a dungeon.
After the queen had been put to death, the leading Girondins were next on the executioners’ list, followed by nobles, military officers and many others. Over 2,600 suspects were tried and executed in Paris alone and many thousands more were put to death in the provinces. Civil war raged bitterly for a time. Most rebel armies, untrained and poorly led, melted away as the rebels became discouraged and went home.
On the war front, the invading enemy armies had no over-all plan of attack. They refused to fight under one command. The French, led by officers who were young and daring, made the most of the enemy’s mistakes and were soon able to hold the invaders in check. The turning point came when the French recaptured Toulon from the British, with the help of a brilliant young captain of artillery named Napoleon Bonaparte.
After Toulon fell, it was destroyed and hundreds of its citizens were executed as rebels. Marseilles and other rebel cities suffered the same fate. The bloodbath continued without letup, reaching the point where judges were afraid to show mercy. Those who did ran the risk of being arrested as suspects themselves. The extreme radicals carried on a campaign against religion and closed all the churches in Paris. Even Robespierre thought the extremists had gone too far.
The most radical voice in the land had been silenced by a polite girl from Caen named Charlotte Corday. She believed all the evils of France could be blamed upon Marat and his radical newspaper. She called at Marat’s house one evening, gained entrance by saying she had some news to give him and stabbed him in the chest as he sat in his boot-shaped bathtub.
At her trial, Charlotte Corday said, “I killed one man to save a thousand.”
“Do you think there is only one Marat?” a lawyer asked her.
“No, but by killing him I have warned the others. His death will frighten the rest of them.” Believing she had done an important thing for her country, she went proudly to her death on the guillotine.
The Terror continued and the Jacobin government under the leadership of Robespierre placed the entire population on a war footing. All citizens were required to “discharge their debt to liberty.” The army was built up. Factory production was controlled by the government. Prices and wages were fixed.
When most of the rebellions in France had been crushed and the invading armies had been driven back, Robespierre turned against other leaders of the revolution. Those who were too radical and those who were not radical enough were tried and executed. This was a personal struggle for leadership. Robespierre and Danton, for example, were very much alike in their ideas about the revolution and the need for the Terror, but there was not room enough for both of them at the top and Robespierre was the more powerful of the two. He had his old friend tried and executed, so that Robespierre and his Jacobin followers were left in control of the government and the Convention.
Robespierre probably thought of himself as a great humanitarian, a man who had the interests of the people at heart. Almost all government officials were suspected at one time or another of taking bribes, but there was something so sincere about Robespierre that no one ever accused him of dishonesty. He did not seem like the kind of man who could be tempted to do wrong. People called him “the Incorruptible,” which suggested that he was a kind of godlike creature who represented the finest qualities of manhood.
Yet this man, whom some historians call a saint and others a devil, was directly responsible for the execution of thousands of people during the Terror. At the same time, he shrank from the sight of blood. He believed the state should not have the power to take human life, but so strong was his faith in the revolution that it seemed perfectly reasonable to slaughter thousands who seemingly stood in its way.
The real goal of the revolution, as Robespierre saw it was the establishment of an ideal republic based on virtue, or goodness. In this perfect republic people would all be good. No one would be rich. No one would be poor. Instead of jealousy, there would be trust. Instead of hatred, there would be love. Instead of cruelty, there would be justice and understanding. To bring this republic into being, Robespierre felt it necessary to kill off the evil ones. The Terror therefore not only helped France defend herself from traitors, but also paved the way for the ideal republic.
A religion would also be necessary, to hold the people together, but the Catholic religion would not do because too many Frenchmen had turned against it. Robespierre prepared the way for a national religion which would recognize a Supreme Being and the life of men’s souls after death. This religion would be tied in with love of country and all the fine ideas of the revolution, such as “liberty and equality.” Important dates of the revolution would become religious holidays. On June 8, 1793 Robespierre introduced his new religion in a solemn ceremony in the Tuileries garden. He set fire to figures representing godlessness, evil, foolishness and when these figures had burned down a wooden figure of Wisdom rose out of the ruins.
For several months Robespierre was practically the dictator of France. Now that the country was no longer in danger of being invaded by foreign armies, people began to think about their needs. They blamed the Jacobin government for the shortage of food, for poor business conditions, for the secret police, for the Terror and for the harsh treatment given the Catholic Church.
To put a stop to complaints, the Convention made it a crime punishable by death for anyone to disagree with the government. The new law caused another wave of executions, known as the “Great Terror,” when “heads fell like slates from the roofs.” From June 10 to July 27, 1794, some 1,300 people were beheaded by the guillotine. A slip of the tongue, or the lies of a personal enemy, could send a man to his death. No one felt safe, not even the members of the Convention. They suddenly turned against Robespierre and had him arrested, but the radical city government of Paris refused to jail the prisoner.
Early in the morning of July 28, as Robespierre and his friends were planning an uprising of the people against the Convention, government troops broke into their conference room at City Hall. There was a shot and Robespierre fell across the table with a broken jaw; whether he tried to kill himself or was shot by a soldier has never been clearly established. He and nineteen of his followers were tried and guillotined later that same day.
The death of Robespierre brought about an uprising against the Jacobins. This was called the “White Terror” to show that it was the opposite of the Terror, which was associated with the color red, the color of blood and of the revolution. Many persons were tried and guillotined and hundreds of Jacobins in the provinces were butchered by mobs. People began to breathe more easily again. Newspapers began to print what they pleased. They blamed Robespierre for the Terror and for all the horrible crimes that had been committed while he was in power.
Members of the Convention who had supported the Terror now tried to convince the public that they, too, had been against it. To win public approval, they attacked many unpopular policies of the Robespierre government. The Committee of Public Safety lost most of its power. The Jacobin Club in Paris was closed. Hundreds of prisoners were released from jail. In February, 1795, religious freedom was restored and the churches were opened again. Historians call this period of backing away from the Terror the “Thermidorian Reaction,” since it came about in the month of Thermidor, the name substituted for July in the calendar of the French Revolution.
The Convention soon set to work drafting another constitution, which favoured the middle class. After it was approved by the people, elections were held and the new constitutional government came into being on October 27, 1795. The fighting spirit of the revolution slowly died out as middle class people with property came into power. They wanted peace and time to enjoy their newly won freedom. The French Revolution had now run its course.