Monday, 25 April 2016

The Great Terror and the fall of Robespierre

Having run out of victims,
Robespierre executes himself

The Republic of Virtue

Danton’s death marked the inauguration of the Republic of Virtue, which was characterised by a concentration of power at the centre. On 7 May (18 floréal) the Rousseauean cult of the Supreme Being was established. Article I of the new constitution stated: 
‘The French people recognizes the existence of the Supreme Being and the immortality of the soul.’ 
Initiating the cult, Robespierre declared in a speech to the Convention:
‘The true priest of the Supreme Being is Nature itself; its temple is the universe; its religion virtue; its festivals the joy of a great people assembled under its eye to tie the sweet knot of universal fraternity and to present before [Nature] the homage of pure and feeling hearts.’ (Quoted Schama, Citizens, 831)
This was an attack on the policy of dechristianisation associated with the former priest, Fouché.

On 20 Prairial  (8 June, Whit Sunday in the old calendar) Paris celebrated the Festival of the Supreme Being in a ceremony stage-managed by the painter, Jacques-Louis David.

'Festival of the Supreme Being', Pierre-Antoine Demachy
Carnavalet Museum, Paris.
via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

The ideology of the Terror: a couple of quotes

 Wikimedia Commons - 
The Terror was about establishing purity, patriotism and virtue. In September 1792 at the time of the first meeting of the Convention, Robespierre wrote:
‘It is not enough to have overturned the throne: our concern is to erect upon his remains holy equality and the imprescriptible Rights of Man. It is not in the empty word itself that a republic consists, but in the character of the citizens. The soul of a republic is vertu – that is love of la patrie, and the high-minded devotion that resolves all private interests into the general interest. The enemies of the republic are those dastardly egoists, those ambitious and corrupt men. You have hunted down kings, but have you hunted out the vices that their deadly domination has engendered among you? Taken together, you are the most generous, the most moral of all peoples…but a people that nurtures within itself a multitude of adroit rogues and political charlatans, skilled at usurpation and the betrayal of trust.’ [quoted Ruth Scurr,  Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution (Vintage, 2007, 219-10]
‘The point was to ensure the triumph of the good, pure, general will of the people – what the people would want in ideal circumstances – and this needed to be intuited on their own behalf until they received sufficient education to understand their own good.’ [Scurr, 211]

Louis Antoine de St Just, February 1794:
‘The republic is built on the ruins of everything anti-republican. There are three sins against the republic: one is to be sorry for State prisoners; another is to be opposed to the rule of virtue; and the third is to be opposed to the Terror.’

The Terror (2)

As with previous posts, I have been  indebted to the following books: 
David Andress, The Terror: Civil War in the French Revolution (Abacus, 2005)
William Doyle, The Oxford History of the French Revolution (Oxford University Press, 1989)
Simon Schama, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (Viking, 1989)
Ruth Scurr, Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution (Vintage, 2007)

'Festival of the Supreme Being' 1794


The policy of dechristianisation that began in the autumn of 1793 arose out of the deism of the Enlightenment – the belief in a rational religion purged of superstition. On a less elevated level it arouse out of a long tradition of loathing the Church. It began not in Paris but in the provinces, instigated by the agents of the Terror in the Year II.

In the Nièvre in central France the representative-on-mission
Joseph Fouché  (1763-1820)
Wikimedia Commons
Joseph Fouché  presided over the policy, turning the area into a scene of religious terror. He ordered all crosses and statues removed from graveyards, and decreed that all cemetery gates must bear only one inscription – ‘Death is an eternal sleep’.

The dechristianisation of the provinces was accompanied by widespread vandalism. In Rheims the phial holding the sacred oil of Clovis used to anoint the kings of France was smashed. Images were destroyed, churches were trashed, bells were torn down, and church plate was recast into guns and cannons.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

The Terror (1)

Nine emigrants go the the guillotine
(October 1793) public domain
For this post, I have been especially indebted to the following books: 
David Andress, The Terror: Civil War in the French Revolution (Abacus, 2005)
William Doyle, The Oxford History of the French Revolution (Oxford University Press, 1989)
Antonia Fraser, Marie Antoinette: The Journey (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2001)
Simon Schama, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (Viking, 1989)
Ruth Scurr, Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution (Vintage, 2007)

‘Nobody had dreamed of establishing a system of terror. It established itself by force of circumstances.’  Quoted Doyle, Oxford History of the French Revolution, p. 266. 

Nevertheless, the Terror was the policy of the Jacobin government from the autumn of 1793 until its abandonment in August 1794. It is associated above all with Maximilian Robespierre and with two institutions, the Revolutionary Tribunal and the Committee of Public Safety.  On 6 September two hardliners were elected to the Committee:  Billaud-Varenne and Collot d’Herbois.

What was the Terror? 

It was the period beginning on 5 September 1793 and ending with the death of Robespierre in July 1794. Famous victims included Marie Antoinette, the Girondins and eventually the Dantonist faction, but the bulk of the victims were ordinary people. 

In the course of the Terror, around 16,000 people were formally condemned to death, most of them in the provinces. An unknown number died in custody or were lynched without trial. Nearly 2,000 were executed in Lyon after the city fell to the revolutionaries. Over 3,500 were guillotined when the revolt in the Vendée was finally suppressed after terrible loss of life on the battlefield and the murder of an estimated 10,000 rebels and civilians in retreat. The most horrific event of the provincial Terror occurred in Nantes, the scene of the noyades.   At a rough estimate 30,000 died (though it should be noted that more people died in Ireland in 1798 and in Poland in 1794). In Paris, the scene of these executions was the Place de la Révolution. 

The Terror was accompanied by a policy of de-christianization – churches were closed and the calendar redrawn.

It was triggered by war, resistance within France to the Revolution, the increasingly violent actions of the sans-culottes in the face of economic hardship. It also developed its own momentum.

The ideology of the Terror

The Terror was  inspired by the quest for 'virtue' and the hunt for 'the enemy within'.
‘The point was to ensure the triumph of the good, pure, general will of the people – what the people would want in ideal circumstances – and this needed to be intuited on their own behalf until they received sufficient education to understand their own good.' Ruth Scurr, Fatal Purity, p. 211.

Monday, 11 April 2016

The coming of the Terror, June-September 1793

Jacques-Louis David,  'La Mort de Marat' -
 Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The Federalist Revolt

The purge of the Girondins (see earlier post) left the leadership of the Convention in a very difficult position, with many deputies profoundly uneasy about the way elected members had been ejected. Brissot was recaptured in Chartres and brought back to Paris under arrest, but other Girondins were at large, the bulk of them in Normandy, where they were campaigning to raise an army against Paris. At the same time the Convention was facing a series of provincial revolts.  All were inspired by conscription and the actions of the representatives-on-mission, but local factors also came into play.  In the south-east both Lyon and Marseille were suffering economically.  Lyon’s silk industry was collapsing while Marseille was blockaded by the Royal Navy.  Bordeaux was suffering from the loss of the Caribbean trade. Throughout May the Jacobins were purged from Marseille and on 29 May the Jacobin municipal government of Lyon was overthrown. This was particularly serious for the Convention as Lyon was a major centre for arms manufacture and a supply centre for armies in the Alps. 

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Books on Marie Antoinette

If you'd like to read more about Marie Antoinette, this blog post gives an account of the major books on her written in English.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

'Olympe au Panthéon'

Not many women have been thought worthy to be buried or memorialised in the Panthéon, the place where France honours its distinguished dead. Some French feminists are trying to put this right, by having a memorial set up there to Olympe de Gouges, the author of The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Citizeness, who was guillotined in 1793. This picture is taken from Amanda Foreman's ground-breaking TV series, 'The Ascent of Woman'.

La Force prison

There's an interesting post here on the prison of La Force, which housed many famous prisoners during the Revolution. (The post takes a little while to download.)