The Reign of Terror was the period of the French Revolution in which a huge number of people were executed by guillotine, from September 5, 1793, to July 27, 1794. Approximately 25,000 people were arrested and beheaded accused of treason and other charges. The Reign of Terror was led by Maximilien Robespierre, who was in charge of the Committee of Public Safety, and Louis Antoine de Saint-Just. The rationale behind the massive executions of French citizens was to protect the Revolution from traitorous reactionaries and royalists who plotted together with foreign forces against the new Republic. During this period, revolutionary France was beset with both real and imagined conspiracies by internal and foreign enemies. The guillotine became the symbol of a string of executions: Louis XVI had already been guillotined before the start of the terror; Marie-Antoinette, the Girondists, Philippe Égalité, Madame Roland and many others lost their lives under its blade. The Revolutionary Tribunal summarily condemned thousands of people to death by the guillotine, while mobs beat other victims to death. Sometimes people died for their political opinions or actions, but many for little reason beyond mere suspicion.
Chronological Summary of the Reign of Terror
On April 5, 1793, the National Convention created the Committee of Public Safety which would hold de facto executive power in France. On June 10, 1793, after the Girondins had been arrested, the Jacobins gained control of the Committee of Public Safety, establishing a revolutionary dictatorship. On July 27, 1793, the Jacobin Maximilien Robespierre, who was known as "the Incorruptible" for his ascetic dedication to his ideals, became member of the Committee as it moved to take radical measures against the Revolution’s domestic and foreign enemies.
On September 17, 1793, the Committee of Public Safety passed the Law of Suspects, which authorized the charging of counter-revolutionaries with vaguely defined crimes against liberty. On September 29, 1793, their members passed the Law of Maximum, which set price limits, detering price gouging, and allowing for the continued flow of food supply to the people of France. Initially aimed at the ultra-revolutionary Hébertist faction, journalist Camille Desmoulins began publishing Le Vieux Cordelier on December, 1793. Desmoulins quickly turned his pen against the Committee of Public Safety and the Committee of General Security, comparing their reign to that of the Roman tyrants.
On 30 March, 1794, Danton, Desmoulins and others of the indulgent party were suddenly arrested. Danton was at once condemned, and led, in company with fourteen others, including Camille Desmoulins, to the guillotine. The fanatic Jacques Hébert, who had introduced the worship of a goddess of Reason, was also arrested and executed in March, 1794, along with other so-called ultrarevolutionaries. To counter Hébertist influence, Robespierre proclaimed (June, 1794) the cult of the Supreme Being. France’s military successes lessened the need for strong domestic measures, but Robespierre called for new purges. Fearing that the Terror would be turned against them, members of the Convention arrested Robespierre and Saint-Just on July 27, 1794, and had him guillotined the following day; a majority of Commune members were also executed.
Reign of Terror (Video)