This series has seven easy 5 minute installments. This first installment: The Revolution’s Horrors.
By the Reign of Terror, or the “Terror”, is meant that period of the first revolution in France during which the ruling faction caused thousands of people to be sent to the guillotine. It forever shamed the French Revolution. It began in March, 1793, when the Revolutionary Tribunal was established by the National Convention. This tribunal was an extraordinary court empowered to deal with all acts or persons hostile to the Revolution.
In July, 1793, Robespierre became a member of the Committee of Public Safety and, with Saint-Just, was most prominently connected with the Terror. He secured a decree, known as the decree of the 22d Prairial, “to accelerate the movements of the Committee, and open for them a shorter route to the guillotine,” whereby persons marked for death might be executed as soon as recognized. Against this bloody decree it is said that even the “Mountain” — the Red Republican party in the Convention — recoiled. It was nevertheless remorselessly carried out, and “caused torrents of blood to flow.”
The climax of the Terror was reached in 1794, and its end came in July of that year, when Robespierre and his associates were overthrown. It was followed by a reaction against the excesses of the revolutionists, the closing of the radical clubs of the Jacobins and others, and the release of those whom the Revolutionary Tribunal had imprisoned on suspicion. The tribunal itself, together with the Committee of Public Safety, who had executed the fierce will of the Convention, was speedily swept away.
This selection is from Popular History of France From the Earliest Times by François P. G. Guizot published in 1869. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
François P. G. Guizot was the great Prime Minister of the nineteenth century who led France away from absolute monarchy for good.
It is a hideous spectacle to contemplate the enthusiasm of crime, and see men madly intoxicating themselves with their own atrocities. The Revolutionary Tribunal was in operation from March, 1793; the registry of condemnations had reached the number of five hundred seventy-seven. From 22 Prairial to 9 Thermidor (June 10, to July 27, 1794), two thousand two hundred eighty-five unfortunates perished on the scaffold. Fouquier-Tinville * comprehended the thought of Robespierre. For the dock he had substituted benches, upon which he huddled together at one time the crowd of the accused. One day he erected the guillotine in the very hall of the tribunal.
[* Public accuser before the Revolutionary Tribunal. — ED.]
The Committee of Public Safety had a moment of fright. “Thou art wishing then to demoralize punishment!” cried Collot d’Herbois. A hundred sixty accused persons had been brought from the Luxembourg under pretense of a conspiracy in prison. The lower class of prisoners were encouraged to act as spies, thus furnishing pretexts for punishment. The judges sat with pistols ready to hand; the President cast his eyes over the lists for the day and called upon the accused. “Dorival, do you know anything of the conspiracy?” “No!”
“I expected that you would make that reply; but it won’t succeed. Bring another.”
“Champigny, are you not an ex-noble?”
“Guidreville, are you a priest?”
“Yes, but I have taken the oath.”
“You have no right to say any more. Another.”
“Ménil, were you not a domestic of the ex-constitutional Menou?”
“Vély, were you not architect for Madame?”
“Yes, but I was disgraced in 1789.”
“Gondrecourt, is not your father-in-law at the Luxembourg?”
“Durfort, were you not in the bodyguard?”
“Yes, but I was dismissed in 1789.”
So the examination went on. The questions, the answers, the judgment, the condemnation, were all simultaneous. The juries did not leave the hall; they gave their opinions with a word or a look. Sometimes errors were evident in the lists. “I am not accused,” exclaimed a prisoner one day.
“No matter; what is thy name? See, it is written now. Another.”
M. de Loizerolles perished under the name of his father. Jokes were mingled with the sentences. The Maréchale de Mouchy was old, and did not reply to the questions of President Dumas. “The citoyenne is deaf” (sourde), said the registrar; “Put down that she has conspired secretly” (sourdement), replied Dumas.
It became necessary to forbid Fouquier-Tinville to send more than sixty victims a day to the scaffold. “Things go well, and see the heads fall like slates with my file-firing; the next decade we shall do better still; I shall want at least four hundred fifty.” The lists were prepared in the prison itself, by the class of informers known as moutons. The public accuser, like the judges and the jailers, was often ignorant of the names of the human flock crowded in the dungeons. Death recalled them to recollection. In the evening, under the windows of each prison, the list of the victims of the day was shouted out. “These are they who have gained prizes in the lottery of Saint Guillotine.” The unfortunates who crowded to the windows thus learned the tidings of the execution of those they loved. The horrors of the unforeseen and unknown were added to the agonies of death and separation. Under the windows of the Conciergerie the names of the Maréchale de Noailles, the Duchesse d’Ayen and the Vicomtesse de Noailles, who died together on the scaffold, were proclaimed. Among the prisoners was Madame la Fayette, herself awaiting death; happily she did not recognize in the coarse accents of the criers the cherished names of her grandmother, mother, and sister. The peasants of the Vendée  came to die at Paris, like the Carmelites of Compiègne or the magistrates of Toulouse. It was astonishing that there still remained in the dungeons great lords and noble ladies, bearing the most illustrious names in the history of France; on the 8th and 9th Thermidor the poets Roucher and André Chénier; Baron Trenck, famous for his numerous escapes; the Maréchale d’Armentières, the Princesse de Chimay, the Comtesse de Narbonne, the Duc de Clermont-Tonnerre, the Marquis de Crussol, and the Messieurs de Trudaine, counsellors of the Parliament of Paris, perished upon the scaffold.
[1 Decoys; literally, sheep. — ED.]
[2 The royalist War of La Vendée against the Republic was now raging. — ED.]
Insulters always surrounded the scaffold, but their number had decreased; the Committee of Public Safety no longer had recourse to the popular maneuvers of its early days. Terror was now sufficient to insure the silence and submission of the victims. Paris grew weary of the horrors of which it was witness; the odor of blood had driven away the residents from the houses adjacent to the Place de la Révolution; a new guillotine had been erected upon the Place du Trône. Upon the route along which ran the fatal carts shops were closed, and passers-by endeavored to avoid meeting the procession. A few rare loungers of the lowest class alone walked in the gardens of the Tuileries and the Champs-Élysées. All was silent, but pity was growing in the minds of men. The distant sound of the horrors that were general throughout France redoubled the terror of Paris.
The provincial sufferings were not uniform, and the fury of the representative commissioners was unequally distributed. Either by a happy chance, or it might be by an instinctive knowledge of the character of the population, the revolutionary scaffold was never set up in Lower Normandy; the Vendée, on the contrary, expiated its long resistance in its blood, and Carrier filled with terror the city of Nantes, always favorable to revolution. He had tried guillotine and grape-shot, but both were too tardy in their action to suit his zeal. He conceived the idea of crowding the condemned into ships with valves, launched upon the Loire: the beautiful river saw these unfortunates struggling in its waters. Henceforth the executioners tied the prisoners together by one hand and one foot; these “Republican Marriages,” as they were called, insured the speedy death of the victims. The waters of the Loire became infected; its shores were covered with corpses; the fishes themselves could no longer serve as nourishment for human beings; fever decimated the inhabitants of Nantes. The fury of Carrier bordered on madness: he caused the little Vendean infants, collected by Breton charity, to be cast into the water. “It is necessary,” said he, “to slay the wolves’ cubs.”
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