Empire of Liberty: The Reign of Terror

“One wonders why there are so many women who follow Robespierre to his home, to the Jacobins, to the Cordeliers and to the Convention. It is because the French Revolution is a religion and Robespierre is one of its sects. He is a priest with his flock… Robespierre preaches, Robespierre censures, he is furious, serious, melancholic and exalted with passion. He thunders against the rich and the great. He lives on little and has no physical needs. He has only one mission: to talk. And he talks all the time.”

-Marquis de Condorcet

Excerpt from William Blake’s “The French Revolution”, unpublished work, 1791 [1]

“Hear, O Heavens of France, the voice of the people,

arising from valley and hill,

O’erclouded with power. Hear the voice of vallies,

the voice of meek cities,

Mourning oppressed on village and field, till the village and field

is a waste.

For the husbandman weeps at blights of the fife,

and blasting of trumpets consume

The souls of mild France; the pale mother nourishes her child

to the deadly slaughter.

When the heavens were seal’d with a stone, and the terrible

sun clos’d in an orb, and the moon

Rent from the nations, and each star appointed for

watchers of night,

The millions of spirits immortal were bound in the ruins

of sulphur heaven

To wander inslav’d; black, deprest in dark ignorance,

kept in awe with the whip,

To worship terrors, bred from the blood of revenge and

breath of desire,

In beastial forms; or more terrible men, till the dawn

of our peaceful morning,

Till dawn, till morning, till the breaking of clouds,

and swelling of winds, and the universal voice,

Till man raise his darken’d limbs out of the caves of night,

his eyes and his heart

Expand: where is space? where O Sun is thy dwelling?

where thy tent, O faint slumb’rous Moon?

Then the valleys of France shall cry to the soldier,

‘Throw down thy sword and musket,

And run and embrace the meek peasant.’

Her Nobles shall hear and shall weep, and put off

The red robe of terror, the crown of oppression,

the shoes of contempt, and unbuckle

The girdle of war from the desolate earth;

then the Priest in his thund’rous cloud

Shall weep, bending to earth embracing the valleys,

and putting his hand to the plow

Shall say, ‘No more I curse thee; but now I will bless thee:

No more in deadly black

Excerpt from Konijeti Beevti’s “Years of Revolution: Boston to Bhārata”, Vij Publishing House, 1962 (translation by Earl Henderson).

That January, after the execution of the king, Spain and Portugal joined the First Coalition against the French Republic.

Upon learning of Louis XVI’s execution, the British expelled the French ambassador to London.

On February 1, the French declared war on Britain and the Dutch Republic.

On February 14, the Convention annexed the Principality of Monaco into France.

Facing most of Europe, the Convention ordered mass conscription of nearly 300,000 men on February 24.

France was changing. Indeed, the face of Europe was changing. No one yet knew it for certain. Some suspected it, but the confusion, especially due to the rapidity of events, made the future murky. Already, the remnants of feudalism in Europe were in their twilight. Systems of governance began to change. Philosophies and long-held beliefs were in flux. Now even the face of warfare itself found itself on the precipice of evolution.

As the new campaign season began, Dumouriez ignored the orders of Paris to defend the former Austrian Netherlands and instead chose to invade the Dutch Republic. He had success in Brabant and was about to invade Holland when he was forced to turn back due to reports of Austrian victories to the south. The Austrians had won at Aachen, Liege and Maastricht. Dumouriez and the Austrians would square off that year in Flanders. In March, Dumouriez lost to the Austrians at the Battle of Neerwinden and his Jacobin enemies (who had opposed him ever since his defense of the king) sought blood. Instead of face the guillotine, Dumouriez arrested a number of radical officers, turned them over to the Austrians, and attempted to convince his troops to march on Paris and end the violent turn the revolution had taken. The support was simply not there and Dumouriez, the former hero of the revolution, along with several nobles including the heir to the French throne, fled to the Austrian camp.

On April 6, the Convention established the Committee on Public Safety to act as the executive body of the whole Convention.

Radical turns in Paris had consequences beyond Flanders. Revolts occurred in Lyon, Caen, Marseilles and the Vendée. By June, nearly 60 départments were in open revolt. Spanish armies crossed the Pyrenees. Savoyard forces crossed the Alps. Austrian forces began pushing towards Paris from Flanders. A British blockade began on May 31. A British backed revolt expelled the French from Corsica and installed the longtime Corsican revolutionary Pasquale Paoli who helped to establish the Anglo-Corsican Kingdom. A counter-revolution in Toulon turned the Mediterranean port city over to the British and Spanish in late August. This also turned over much of the French Navy to its enemies.

To counter these invasions and rebellions, France became an armed camp. The Convention called numerous levées en masse and by the end of the year over a million French soldiers countered the smaller, mercenary armies of the Coalition powers. Any person not fighting worked to support the military. Out of desperation, France had inadvertently created total war. Despite the odds the sheer numbers and the harsh tactics worked. The Convention put revolts down and checked invading armies. The French even recaptured Toulon on December 19. It was in this battle that a young Napoleon Bonaparte first came on the map. His actions in retaking the port would land him command of French artillery in the Armée d’Italie.

While this was occurring, the events in Paris became more and more radical. The execution of the king removed the scapegoat that had brought the Jacobins to power but instead of backing down they utilized crisis after crisis to further radicalize the revolution. Dumouriez’ betrayal, internal revolts, external invasions, skyrocketing food prices and political bickering all helped to create a sense of anarchy. At the center of everything were Robespierre and Marat. They rallied their radical supporters against the opposing and moderate Girondins, blaming them for the failures that spring 1793. Political stalemate ensued until June 2 when 80,000 Jacobins surrounded and stormed the Convention. With the arrest of 29 leading Girondins, that political party ceased to be a factor.

Any remnant of the original conservative phase of the revolution had ended.

The radicals that controlled the Convention immediately went to work. The Convention redistributed land that had previously belonged to those nobles who had fled amongst the peasants. They hurriedly drew up a new constitution. The 1793 Constitution replaced the 1791 version. This version of the constitution was far more radical compared to its predecessor. It granted universal male suffrage and described far-reaching rights such as “the right to public assistance” and “the right to general instruction”. This was the peak power of the Committee of Public Safety, Robespierre, Marat, the guillotine and the overall Reign of Terror. Between 1793 and 1794 anywhere between 15,000 and 40,000 people met their ends before the guillotine with little due process.

On July 13, at the peak of his power, a young woman from Caen, Charlotte Corday, murdered Marat in his bathtub. We know Corday to be the murderer but what remains a mystery is the motivation. Long-standing rumor holds that rebels from Normandy paid her to ensure his assassination. Some blame Corday’s own Girondinist radicalization. Some blame German nobles as the financiers of the crime. Some even blame Robespierre himself as the death of Marat did consolidate Robespierre’s own stranglehold on power. Robespierre, however, deemed the Girondins responsible. Because a rebellious region and a Girondin assassin were supposedly behind the crime, the Jacobin resolve further stiffened. Around this time, Robespierre became the most influential man in France.

The death of Jean Paul Marat

This bloody phase of the revolution is well remembered for its cruelty but it must also be remembered for its effectiveness. The revolutionary government cracked down hard on revolting départments. Mass conscription and internal reorganization led to military reforms that swept away the old aristocratic martial forces and replaced them with the first modern military force. The Convention began to raise revolutionary armies and ideological paramilitary forces. The September 17 Law of Suspects ordered the arrest of suspected counter-revolutionaries. Citizens could be accused and drug before revolutionary tribunals on the flimsiest of charges. Once someone was before a tribunal the likelihood of acquittal was minimal simply because the members of the tribunal were themselves terrified of being seen as soft on potential enemies of the state.

In mid-October of 1793, the Convention executed the former Queen, Marie Antoinette, on accusations of treason and incest. They followed this by ordering the full removal of the Gregorian calendar and the conversion of the Notre Dame into a “temple of reason”. Both were schemes by more radical atheist elements to “dechristianize” France and continue to erode the power (what was left of it anyways) of the Catholic Church.

Meanwhile the French military was experiencing its own upheavals while fighting rebellions and attempting to hold various border fronts. The French military lacked effective cavalry because so many able horsemen had been nobles who had fled in the preceding years. The logistics of maintaining a massive army demanded the production of all of France and even then, the armies were encouraged to forage in enemy lands to promote mobility. A lack of experience amongst the officer corps became a major area of concern. To counter this, common soldiers found promotion based on merit rather than birth or wealth and the military began rebuilding experience from the ground up.

These changes did force innovative growth. For instance, the lack of cavalry meant the French had to rethink their tactics. For centuries, foot soldiers fought battles in such a way that they attempted to lure enemy forces into traps and tight positions so that a sweeping cavalry charge could win the day. Without cavalry, the French needed a new way to win and a new way to defend from cavalry charges. The answer lie in the weapons of the age. By this point, rifle technology had made the weapons sufficiently accurate that one or two volleys could scatter a massed charge of horses. In addition, France had some of the best cannons in the world. As an added bonus, the nobility had steered themselves away from the artillery corps voluntarily in the decades before the revolution. The nobles viewed cannons as noisy, dirty and lacking in honor. Honor aside, the weapons were effective and the king encouraged growing those forces. To command their artillery corps, Louis XIV, XV, and XVI had previously allowed some merit-based promotion for these common soldiers. While the cavalry and the traditional officer corps floundered in the aftermath of the revolution, the artillery corps flourished and it proved its great value repeatedly. Accurate rifles, professional artillery and massed formations of soldiers combined to change warfare. The baroque tactics of the Sun King rapidly gave way to the rapid formation marches and artillery dominance of Napoleon [2].

These military reforms countered the First Coalition with unexpected success. In defense of the coalition members, they were not trying very hard. The coalition was unorganized, lacking in passion and penny-pinching ministers in Vienna, Madrid and Berlin questioned the cost-benefits. The sense of urgency to save the king stumbled after Valmy and evaporated altogether after the execution of Louis XVI. If the allies fought with the zeal of the Third or Fourth Coalition, Paris probably would have fallen by the end of 1793 at the latest.

And if the reforms countered professional armies they were even more effective against rebellious départments. Lyon, the Vendée, Brittany, Boudreaux, Normandy and Nantes all saw tremendous bloodshed that bordered on genocide as the revolutionary government seized control from rebels and cracked down with a vengeance. Summary executions of masses of alleged rebels occurred through firing squads, the guillotine, hangings, and even drowning. By February 1794, the city of Nantes lay quiet after Convention forces forcibly drowned nearly 4,000 citizens in the Loire River. Robespierre sent not a few opposition politicians to the guillotine under the suspicious circumstances of the time.

As 1793 turned into 1794 and the months pushed on, the revolution devolved into the outright strange. In early June, the Convention ended Catholicism’s place as the state religion. Instead, they replaced the church with the vague belief in “the Supreme Being”. The deist Cult of the Supreme Being combined elements of Christianity with those of the revolution. It was a brainchild of Robespierre to counter his perceived excesses of the opposing atheistic Cult of Reason. That Cult came about shortly after the Catholic Church’s rapid fall from grace as France’s state religion. It glorified mankind and enlightenment principals while substituting a divine being with vague concepts like truth and liberty. These concepts were even glorified as living people when the November 1793 Festival of Reason was held across France and many local women dressed as “the goddess of reason” and then celebrated. The “worship” of reason ranged from relatively calm celebrations of enlightenment principals to more secretive, debauched, parties and orgies. Pushback against the elements spurred Robespierre on and even inspired his own counter celebration. The massive Festival of the Supreme Being occurred on June 8 and was to mark the official start of the Cult. Borrowing from Christian tradition, every tenth day would be the new day of rest in France. Radical Parisians celebrated while roving revolutionary armies slaughtered citizens in the départments who were also learning their workweek just increased by three days.

In the meantime, the spring 1794 campaign season saw further French success. The French pushed the Spanish out of their territory and invaded Catalonia. The French repulsed Austrian invasions in Flanders that spring only to invade northward in the summer. Austrian, British, German and Dutch forces were all defeated and France reannexed the Austrian Netherlands, the Rhineland and much of the southern Dutch Republic.

Where the Coalition did find success however was overseas. The British joined the foray for two principal reasons despite their own disheveled financial situation following the American Revolutionary War. Firstly, Britain felt obligated due to its longstanding position of preventing a French takeover of the lowlands. Britain had opposed French ambitions in the Spanish and then Austrian Netherlands for over a century at this point and they had a complicated but protective relationship with the Dutch Republic through the ruling House of Orange [3]. Secondly, Britain saw war with France as an opportunity to conquer and annex valuable sugar islands in the Caribbean. British finances were in shambles after the American Revolution because of the high cost of the war and the loss of its lucrative New World trading system that revolved around sugar profits. Since the Treaty of Paris, London had eyed Spanish, Dutch, French and Danish possessions greedily and had quietly made it known that any American states who wanted to return to the empire would be welcomed back with open arms. The hoped for early collapse of the United States never occurred but the French Revolution gave Britain the casus belli it needed. On June 1, a Royal Navy armada departed Bermuda for the Windward Islands in a bold operation during hurricane season. The maneuver caught the derelict French garrisons completely off guard. Guadeloupe fell on June 20, as did St. Lucia on July 11. The French narrowly beat back a British attempt at Martinique on August 2. The renewed British presence in the Caribbean greatly alarmed the United States and was a key factor in influencing Federalist Party leanings amongst the typically conservative plantation owners of the Caribbean. In India, the British East India Company quickly occupied the handful of French ports with little bloodshed.

Despite these foreign successes, the Convention was imploding on itself. On June 29, several other members of the Committee of Public Safety publicly decried Robespierre as a “dictator”. Throughout that July, his former tight grip began to fail. On July 27, the Convention ordered the arrest of Robespierre and about 20 other leading Jacobins. They unceremoniously met their end at the guillotine the next day. The Convention repealed several laws restricting the political activity of Girondins and that party soon came to dominate in Robespierre’s absence. Girondin revenge against the Jacobin excesses promptly began. The government began ignoring the unpopular republican calendar and the church began pushing back. Church attendance skyrocketed and by October 1795 even the moderate Girondins were forced to start reining it back in. The cold winter of 1794-1795 led to bread riots and attempts by poor women to storm the Convention. Having learned their lesson from Versailles and the Jacobins, the Girondins refused to indulge their demands. The Convention banned women from all political assemblies and began executing its own deputies that went out into the crowds to try to win the favor of the mob.

This internal transition from the Reign of Terror towards a more moderate path and the subsequent establishment of the Directorie is a good place to pause and evaluate this infamous phase of the revolution. Historians have argued reasons for the Reign of Terror since its implementation. Gonzalez argued an American interpretation in the 1920’s that the Terror was a “worst case scenario” combining the zeal of the American independence movements with the harsh reaction of nearby conservatives (including the French crown and neighboring monarchies). Gonzalez theorized that the removal of any one of a number of small individual choices could have prevented the Terror altogether. Instead, in his view, the worst of the revolution was due to one side’s reaction and the opposing side’s counter reaction over and over with disastrous results “until a squabble in Versailles turned into a virtual world war”. Nationalist historians view the revolution as the reaction of a recently awakened (due to the enlightenment) French people against a trans-European ruling elite. To historians like Zhou, France was the first in “a wide range of peoples, large and small, choosing to coalesce around their national identities, take control of their own fate, and reject obstacles (including nobility, the church and long standing tradition) in their way of achieving that unification”. Socialist historians tend to interpret the bloodshed as the revolutionaries reacting to protect the revolution itself. To Robespierre and Marat, protecting the revolution meant that the revolution had to increase in its harshness to counter the threats of regional revolts, invading foreigners and even the king and the nobility themselves. A more modern interpretation views the Terror as a result of a complex series of interactions coupled with the foreign threat constantly lingering around the borders [4].

Regardless of the historical interpretation, the execution of Robespierre and the Girondin overthrow of the Jacobin excesses marked the end of the Reign of Terror and the beginning of the Directorie.

———————- Author’s Notes ——————

[1]: This is a real poem from our timeline.

[2]: The Sun King is the nickname for Louis XIV whose long reign is often argued to be the zenith of French power in Europe

[3]: The House of Orange ruled both Britain and the Dutch Republic (where the stadtholder was a type of monarch so don’t let the term “republic” throw you) from 1689 to 1702 when William of Orange became both William III of England, William II of Scotland and William, Prince of Orange all at the same time (isn’t royalty fun!?). William was the Dutch prince brought over the depose the catholic James II in the Glorious Revolution in conjunction with his wife who became Mary II. The royal houses were joined until William’s death when Queen Anne took over the rule of England, Scotland and Ireland while William IV took the reigns in the lowlands. After Anne, the House of Hanover was brought in and they ruled England through the reign of Queen Victoria in a personal union with the Electorate of Hanover until Victoria took over Britain when a cousin took over Hanover because the laws of succession are all very different. Yes, this is confusing, ancient and a major factor in why many countries don’t have royals anymore. All you need to know is because of family and tradition, Britain typically has a vested interest in protecting the area stretching from Belgium to northern Germany.

[4]: Gonzalez and Zhou haven not been introduced yet in this timeline but they represent famous historians that will come later on in this timeline who have their own philosophies and biases for their historical interpretations.

Next Chapter: The Directorie

3 thoughts on “Empire of Liberty: The Reign of Terror

    1. It is something that I’ve been thinking about for a little bit and I think once I have this next batch of updates polished then I might pull the trigger on getting things restarted over there as well.

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