The Reign of Terror:
Social Unrest Turns Ugly
The end of the old order
The old French monarchy had been decadent and out-of-touch with the realities of later-18th-century France for some time. The government ran huge
budget deficits and found itself entangled in long, expensive wars overseas to maintain an overstretched empire. The the upper classes lived lives of
open luxury and depravity, while the common man grew poorer, hit by famines and high taxes to support the idle, unimaginably wealthy elite. In 1789,
the people revolted and the next few years saw uneasy struggle between a monarchy unable to compromise and various left-leaning councils that
supposedly represented the will of the people.
In 1792 a Republic was declared, and the French King Louis XVI was executed in 1793. In an effort ostensibly to prevent chaos, Maximilien Robespierre
and the radical Jacobin group assumed control over the Committee of Public Safety, setting the stage for the reign of terror to run 1793 until
Above: (Satirical cartoon): Robespierre executes the last executioner, the final man alive besides himself in France, after the Terror has turned
the country into a forest of silent guillotines.
As with all complex historical phenomena, the causes of the terror were multiple.
People were afraid and gave into fear after the end of the old government. The “Committee on Public Safety” was initially just supposed to keep
people safe. But it began to terrorize the population. The new politicians jumped to denounce their rivals as secret enemies of the revolution, so
they’d be executed and clear the way. Suddenly everyone was denouncing everyone else before they got denounced themselves. Neighbors denounced each
other over laundry-line disputes, or because somebody made a joke, or used an old word for things instead of the new, “politically correct”
terminology. It was safer to seem like a real rebel yourself and denounce other people than wait to be denounced yourself, so everybody jumped to
point fingers. The denuncees were given a quick trial, had their heads shaved, and then met the guillotine and lost their skulls.
I guess people felt nervous about public safety. Never know when a friend or neighbor could turn out to secretly be a terrorist or
counterrevolutionary deserving of beheading.
Above: A Sans-Coulette family feasts on human bodyparts after a long day of slaughter (satirical cartoon)
Above: A romantic image of a Sans-Coulette.
(“without stockings”) was the name given to the most ultra-radical, ultra-revolutionary faction. Their ranks were filled
with some of Paris’s poorest and most miserable: Illiterate, barefoot beggars and gutter-dwellers, pimps and prostitutes, freed convicts from
prisons that had simply had the doors opened wide one day, mercenaries from Southern France. They would clog into legal buildings and create chaotic
scenes by whooping, cheering, making noise, or drowning out the opposition in debate with screeching and nonsense. Think of them as a pack of
anonymous trolls, perhaps. Many politicians throught they could lead the Sans-Coulettes, but these politicos usually ended up getting their heads cut
off. The Sans-Coulettes howled for blood, prowled the streets creating violence, and generally represented the most violent, insurrectionary elements
of society. If you stood up and criticized their nihilistic line, however, you would be condemned as a “counter-revolutionary” and promptly
In politics, for a long time the most extreme radicals were the so-called “Hébertist faction.” .Historian Simon Schama describes their ideology
as follows: "an anarchic notion of popular government, always armed to impose the will of the people on its mandatories [and took the form of
support for] unrelenting surveillance, denunciation, indictment, humiliation, and death.”
Above: The character Pere Duchense
Inflammitory messages were spread by new types of cheaply produced broadsides and other media. Mascots like the cartoon character Pere Duchanse
(above) spweed crude and violent material, often naming names that quickly became targeted for instant death. A typical article title was “F*** the
Pope,” and it called for the elimination of all religion, enforced atheism, and voting rights that would be limited to the Sans-Coulettes. It called
for execution of “toads” using euphemisms like, "to sneeze in the bag", "to ask the time from the fanlight", "to try on Capet's neckte."
Above: Robspierre (top) and his dramatic arrest in public (below), which ended the chaos
On 5 February 1794 Robespierre stated: "Terror is nothing else than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible.” He claimed “The government in a
revolution is the despotism of liberty against tyranny.” Robespierre thought he was the mastermind of the terror, using the hysterical climate to
denounce anyone who gave him even the slightest degree of negativity. However, eventurally the madness engulfed him, too, and his own execution in
July 1794 marked the end of the terror. As the paranoia wound down, the people of France cautiously began to live life as normal again without the
need for hysterical renunciation of foes, and slowly the new republic came to seem saner and safer.
edit on 5/25/2012 by silent thunder because: (no reason given)