How was it that the advocates of democracy now imposed a dictatorship on France? Let Robespierre explain:
To establish and consolidate democracy, to achieve the peaceful rule of constitutional laws, we must first finish the war of liberty against tyranny . . . We must annihilate the enemies of the republic at home and abroad, or else we shall perish.
If virtue is the mainstay of a democratic government in time of peace, then in time of revolution a democratic government must rely on virtue and terror. . . Terror is nothing but justice, swift, severe, and inflexible; it is an emanation of virtue. . . . It has been said that terror is the mainstay of a despotic government. . . . The government of the revolution is the despotism of liberty against tyranny.’
The Convention duly voted a democratic constitution, drawn up by the Mountain, granting universal manhood suffrage and giving supreme power, unhampered by Girondin checks and balances, to a single legislative chamber. The constitution of 1793 was approved by a large majority, but its operation was deferred, and it never came into force.
The actual government of the Terror centered on a twelve-man Committee of Public Safety, composed of Robespierre and other stalwarts largely from the Mountain. Though nominally responsible to the Convention, the Committee of Public Safety acted as a kind of war cabinet. Never under the dominance of a single member, it really functioned as a committee—”The Twelve Who Ruled.” A second committee, that of General Security, supervised police activities and turned suspected enemies of the republic over to the new Revolutionary Tribunal.
The Mountain scrapped much of the local self- government inaugurated under the constitution of 1791. It also whittled away steadily at the prerogatives assumed by the Paris sections. Local Jacobin clubs purged department and commune administrations of members considered politically unreliable. Special local courts supplemented the grim labors of the Revolutionary Tribunal. To make provincial France toe the line, the Mountain sent out trusted “deputies on mission.”
The “swift, severe, and inflexible justice” described by Robespierre took the lives of nearly twenty thousand French men and women. Although the Terror claimed such social outcasts as criminals and prostitutes, its main purpose was to clear France of suspected traitors, including Marie Antoinette (executed in Paris on October 16, 1793), and to purge the Jacobins of dissidents. It fell with the greatest severity on the clergy, the aristocracy, and the Girondins. Many of its victims came from the Vendee, a strongly Catholic and royalist area in western France that had risen in revolt. Prisoners from the Vendee were among the two thousand victims of drownings at Nantes, where the accused were manacled and set adrift on the River Loire in leaky barges.
The wartime hysteria that helped to account for the excesses of the Terror also inspired a very practical patriotism. The army drafted all bachelors and widowers between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five. Hundreds of open-air forges were installed in Paris to manufacture weapons. By the close of 1793 the forces of the republic had driven foreign troops from French soil.
Credit for this new shift in the tide of battle did not rest solely with the Jacobins. The military successes of the republic reflected in part the improvements made in the army during the dying years of the Old Regime; they resulted still more from the weaknesses of the coalition aligned against France. Yet they could scarcely have been achieved without the new democratic spirit that allowed men of the third estate to become officers.
Total mobilization demanded equality of economic sacrifice. To combat inflation and scarcity, the Terror issued “maximum” legislation, placing ceilings on prices and wages. In theory, wages were held at a maximum 50 percent above the wage rate of 1790, and prices were halted at 33 percent above the price level of 1790. The government rationed meat and bread, forbade the use of the more expensive white flour, and directed all patriots to eat pain d’e’galitel (equality bread), a loaf utilizing almost the whole of the wheat. Finally, early in 1794 the Convention passed the Laws of VentOse, named for the third winter month in the new revolutionary calendar. These laws authorized seizure of the remaining properties of the emigres and other opponents of the republic and recommended their distribution to landless French citizens.
Attempts by the government to enforce wage ceilings enraged Parisian workers. And though the “maximum” on prices temporarily checked the depreciation of the assignats, many price-controlled articles were available only on the black market, which even the government had to patronize. Moreover, the redistribution of property permitted by the Laws of VentOse was never implemented.
The Terror presented its most revolutionary aspect in its drastic social and cultural reforms. The Convention abolished slavery in the colonies (though it was to be reintroduced by Napoleon a decade later). At home, clothing, the arts, amusements, the calendar, religion, all were changed, for the Republic of Virtue could tolerate nothing that smelled of the Old Regime.
Even the traditional forms of address, “Monsieur” and “Madame,” gave way to “Citizen” and “Citizeness.” The Convention also introduced the metric system as more in keeping with the Age of Reason; a special committee, devised new weights and measures based on the decimal system rather than on the haphazard accumulations of custom.
Sometimes the forces of tradition resisted the Terror, which tried to destroy the old religion but never succeeded in legislating a new faith. Many churches were closed and turned into barracks or administrative offices. Some of the Jacobins launched a “de-Christianization” campaign to make Catholics into philosopher and their churches into “Temples of Reason.” Robespierre, however, disliked the cult of Reason; the Republic of Virtue, he believed, should acknowledge an ultimate author of morality. The Convention therefore decreed in May 1794 that “the French people recognize the existence of the Supreme Being and the immortality of the soul.”
The France of Robespierre demanded superhuman devotion to duty and inhuman indifference to hardship and bloodshed. During the first half of 1794 Robespierre pressed the Terror so relentlessly that even the members of the Committees of Public Safety and General Security began to fear that they would be the next victims.
The Law of the 22 Prairial, Year II (that is, June 10, 1794) enormously expanded the definition of “enemies of the people” who were subject to punishment by the Revolutionary Tribunal so as to include the following: “Those who have sought to disparage the National Convention … to have sought to impede the provisioning of Paris … to inspire discouragement … to mislead opinion, to deprave morals,” and “those who, charged with public office, take advantage of it in order to serve the enemies of the Revolution, to harass patriots, or to oppress the people.’
Thus Robespierre began to lose his following both in the Convention and in the two powerful committees. More and more of his former supporters favored moderation and argued that the growing French success in the war called for less, not more, terror. The crucial day was the Ninth of Thermidor (the month of Heat, or July 27, 1794), when shouts of “Down with the tyrant!” and the refusal of the presiding officer to give Robespierre the floor blocked his efforts to address the Convention. The Convention ordered his arrest, and on the next day he went to the guillotine.
Why had Robespierre fallen so quickly? He lost control because of the very situation he had created. An idealist who believed that a political society must guarantee the natural rights of humanity, he also believed that a Supreme Being protects the oppressed and punishes their oppressors. He had concluded that it was temporarily necessary to suspend the institutions in which he believed in order to break the chains imposed by tradition, to return in time to a life based on the principles he espoused.
He sought, therefore, to destroy each faction systematically as it arose against him. But the charges he brought against others who could be considered as idealistic as he, and the summary justice meted out by his followers angered and frightened opposition groups in his own party. They united to fight back, both to protect the principles they felt he had abandoned and to protect their own lives.