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The Reign of Terror in the French Revolution: Definition, Summary & Timeline

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  • 0:07 The Reign of Terror
  • 0:45 The National Convention
  • 2:12 The Creation of the…
  • 2:46 Robespierre's Terror
  • 5:12 End of Terror
  • 6:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the phase of the French Revolution popularly known as the Reign of Terror, a year-long period where thousands of French men and women lost their lives.

The Reign of Terror

Whether it's a Hail Mary at the end of a football game or guessing at the last few answers of a test when time is called, sometimes desperate times call for desperate measures. After the first few years of the French Revolution, France certainly found itself in desperate times. While a constitution had been written and some progressive, Enlightenment-inspired reforms were being implemented, the government was again overthrown in 1792, the king was still imprisoned, and costly wars with Austria and Prussia were going poorly. The desperate measures the French undertook at this juncture resulted in the execution of the king and thousands of others in what has become known as the Reign of Terror.

The National Convention

The Reign of Terror grew out of the events of the summer of 1792. The Legislative Assembly, which had ruled as France's representative assembly since the first elections in France were held in October 1791, was overthrown in August. This happened when the people of Paris were whipped into a frenzy after news of heavy French losses on the eastern front.

The government was replaced by the National Convention, a body of several hundred officials elected to devise a new constitution for France and implement an even more radical, revolutionary agenda than the Legislative Assembly had achieved. For example, in September, the Convention abolished the monarchy, which had continued to exist even though all its powers had been stripped, and declared France a republic.

Widely disparate political philosophies created a tempestuous climate within the Convention itself, as different factions espoused radically different plans for France. Meanwhile, the streets of Paris were a chaotic scene, as in September thousands of prisoners in the capital and the surrounding area were massacred by mobs of panicked citizens.

Further adding to the tumult, the Convention condemned King Louis XVI to death in January 1793 and executed him by guillotine. The other powers of Europe, startled by the implication the execution of a sitting monarch could have for their own thrones, formed an anti-French coalition. Soon after, the Convention declared war on this alliance of Spain, Prussia, Austria, and Holland in February 1793.

The Creation of the Committee of Public Safety

Though many consider the execution of the king, and the subsequent beheading of Marie Antoinette and many political prisoners who had supported the monarchy, as the start of the Reign of Terror, the Terror did not really get into full swing until the creation of the Committee of Public Safety. The Committee was first created in April 1793 and led by one of the men who engineered the coup of 1792, Georges Danton. The Committee was charged with stabilizing France, ending the civil strife within the country, and defending France's borders from impending invasions from foreign powers.

Robespierre's Terror

The Committee initially attempted to do this through peaceful measures, but after its failure to adequately provide for the military, the Committee was recalled and reconstituted in July with a considerably more radical membership. Led by Maximilien Robespierre, a determined leader of the Jacobin movement, Robespierre and his Committee made it their personal mission to eliminate any enemies of the Revolution, though exactly who and what constituted an enemy of the Revolution was never made concretely clear.

To make matters worse, by the end of the summer, the democratic constitution drawn up by the Convention had not been put into effect and warfare within and without France's borders continued unabated. In response, the Committee set up a provisional government wherein the Convention was reduced to merely approving or disapproving of the Committee's suggestions.

With a radical agenda and near dictatorial powers over the French state, Robespierre and the Committee set about eliminating those whom they viewed as subverting the Revolution, beginning first with their rival political faction, the Girondins. After executing the Girondin leaders, Robespierre famously published the Law of Suspects in September 1793. The Law of Suspects essentially made anyone who spoke, wrote, or acted in any way contrary to the ideals of the French Revolution liable to be arrested, imprisoned, and likely executed in the name of safeguarding the Revolution.

Subsequently, Robespierre and the Committee set up Watch Committees all over France to report on suspected opponents of the Revolution, people Robespierre termed 'enemies of liberty.' What resulted was the arrest, trial, and execution of thousands of prisoners all over France, from the fall of 1793 into the summer of 1794. In nine months, approximately 16,000 French men and women, including 2,400 in Paris alone, were beheaded by the guillotine - nicknamed the 'National Razor' in this period - and many others were summarily executed. Historians' best estimates are that 30,000 people lost their lives in the year-long period from Robespierre's installment as the head of the Committee of Public Safety in July 1793 until the Terror's end in July 1794.

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