The Reign of Terror of the French Revolution ran September 5, 1793 to July 28, 1794. It was a period of violence and was incited between two rival political factions. The Girondins, a group who campaigned to end the monarchy but resisted the spiraling momentum of the revolution, and the Jacobins, who were popular with the working class, grew to be a very powerful group within government. The mass executions of “enemies of the revolution” would be done by the guillotine throughout France. The most famous victims was Queen Marie Antoinette (October 16, 1793). Her husband, King Louis XVI was executed earlier in the year on January 21, 1793.
There is some debate about the origins and cause of the radical turn during Reign of Terror. One theory is that the public was growing increasingly frustrated that the social equality and anti-poverty measures that were promised by the revolution had not yet materialized. Four years into the revolution and goals were largely unattained. A second theory is the two groups, Girondins and Jacobins, were growing apart in ideology and the idea arose to execute inciters against the revolution and provide examples for those who were considering rebellion. The idea was that terror was a response to the circumstances and was a necessary evil and natural defense. Lastly, the change in ideology played a large role. The idea was to instill free will and an enlighten government. But as ideology became more and more pervasive, violence became a significant method to deal with counter-revolutionists and any other opposition.
The mastermind behind the Reign of Terror would be Maximillien Robespierre. He would be called “The Incorruptible” because he’s ascetic dedication to his ideals. Robespierre made his entrance on the Committee of Public Safety, the de facto executive government created by the National Convention, on July 27, 1793. He would quickly become the most influential member of the Committee as it moved to more and more radical measures. Robespierre would claim in order to defend the revolution from those who destroy it, the shedding of blood was justified; therefore the ends justified the means. He would fall as quickly as he rose as public support for the executions began to turn after the execution of the Carmelite Nuns of Compiegne on July 17, 1794 when the nuns refused to give up their monastic vows. Robespierre begin to speak against the Reign that he started. He would be the Reign’s last victim as he was executed on July 28, 1794.
Everyone is familiar was the guillotine, the symbol of the Reign of Terror. Although beheading machines, like the guillotine, had been in use for centuries, the guillotine was designed by Antoine Louis and German engineer Tobias Schmidt after an October 10, 1789 proposal from French physician Joseph-Ignace Guillotin to reform capital punishment. The apparatus was a tall, upright frame with a weighted and angled blade which was raised to the top and suspended until the moment of release. The machine would be influenced by the Italian Mannaia (or Mannaja), the Scottish Maiden and the Halifax Gibbet. The guillotine would be called the National Razor and become the symbol of the cause. Approximately 16,594 people would be executed (2,629 in Paris).
The Reign of Terror quickly got out of hand as it executed anyone was suspected of an enemy to the revolution. People who were condemned by tribunals: 8% were aristocrats, 6% were clergy, 14% were working class and 72% were workers or peasants accused of hoarding, evading the draft, desertion or rebellion against the revolution. After Robespierre’s execution, the terror was officially ended as a new Committee of Public Safety was elected and its powers were reduced piece by piece.
The Reign of Terror is an example of extreme measures to handle those who may be in opposition or even rebel. It is ironic that the revolutionaries fought against the status quo would turn and terrorize those who fought against the new status quo. As historian Lord Acton said, "Power tends to corrupt and absolutely power corrupts absolutely." The power that the Committee of Safety had corrupted their ability to govern as they were elected to do. The Reign of Terror is a lesson in power of government.