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The Reign Of Terror During French Revolution: Background And Effects

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‘The King must die so that the Country can Live’ (Robespierre), was exactly what the people of France wanted when they discovered their King had abandoned them. This time in Europe was known famously as the Reign of Terror, which took place from September 5th, 1793, to July 27th, 1794. This was a bloody and gruesome time during the French Revolution. The civil war was spreading and quickly surrounding France, the government took dire and cruel measures upon the enemies, by executing as many as possible who were against the Revolution.(Editors of Britannica 2018) There was one man behind all of this, his name, Maximilien Robespierre, also known as ‘The Incorruptible’. He was responsible for the execution of the royal family and stood proudly behind the hundreds of thousands of executions that took place.(History Editors 2010) It would take years to finally figure out the real problem with Europe, and it was Robespierre himself, As the Reign of Terror died off after the execution of Robespierre, France and Paris were left in ruins, with many families and communities devastated.(Jones 2015)

The Revolution was off to an extraordinary start, but lacked an intelligent leader to drive the Revolution even further. His name was Maximilien François Marie Isidore de Robespierre. Born into a well educated family, he followed in his father’s footsteps as a lawyer, and at the age of 30 was elected to the Estates General of the French Legislature in May of 1789.(BBC 2014)’ Help others, achieve their dreams, and you will achieve yours’ (Les Brown). Robespierre was well known for his strong opposing views of the death penalty and slavery, and slowly gained his famous nickname ‘the incorruptible’ as he had a strong reputation of defending and representing the lower class. Being a radical thinker and a prominent leader of the Jacobin Club, he was soon able to dominate the Committee of Public Safety in 1793, and was the driving force which lead the Revolution to its peak.(Fife 2004) Within the next several months, Robespierre and the Revolutionary Government instituted the Reign of Terror which began in September. It seemed like Robespierre was power hungry and he encouraged many more executions to take place even when the Government was no longer threatened. By the summer of 1794 they soon realized that Robespierre was out of control.(Biography Editors 2014) On July 27 1794 the National Convention organized a Coup D’état against him which would soon put an end to his evil reign. After realizing that he needed to be stopped, the Thermidorian Reaction was instituted which took out Government policies which were introduced by Robespierre. At this point there was only one option for Robespierre and that was to flee, which was exactly what he did. Not long after he left, the Conventions National Guard attacked the Hotel where he was staying and found him there unconscious as a result of a suicide attempt. His attempt was a complete failure and he spent his final hours with a broken jaw before his execution.(Jones 2015)

‘Pity is Treason’ (Robespierre). The intensity of the revolution was coming full circle as the King and Queen decided that something had to be done. Under the cover of darkness King Louis XVI, his wife Marie Antoinette, and their children devised a plan to flee to Varennes near the border with the help of Count Axel Von Ferson.(J.Liewellyn and S.Thompson 2018) The plan was simple. The family would arrive to checkpoints within certain time slots to meet soldiers for protection. They would switch out horses along the way to avoid stopping to let the horses rest and to avoid being caught. They planned to travel by coach to Montmedy where it was heavily guarded by royalist soldiers, but their journey was cut short when the King was recognized by a local postmaster. The Royal family was immediately detained and escorted back to Paris, but before they reached Paris word had reached the city and the trust of their beloved King was forever lost. At this point the King was under immense pressure and stress.(Halsall 1997) He had just committed a serious crime, which to the average citizen would be punishable by death, luckily the royal family was protected by the constitution, or so they thought.(Jones 1988) Robespierre did not think that the King should be let off this easily, and with his trial approaching King Louis knew the end was near. On December 11 1792, the king was placed on trial for treason and other crimes under the State, he was found guilty, and would soon feel the wrath of the National Razor. (Editors of Britannica 2018)

On January 20th, the National Convention made their final decision. It was quite rare for the King to be found guilty and to be placed on trial, but this time the Constitution would not protect a selfish king worthy of abandoning his people.(Martin 2012) That evening Louis said his final goodbyes to his family before waking early the next morning to a gloomy and miserable day. A guard of around 1,200 horsemen and soldiers arrived to escort the King to the Place de La Nation where his and all executions would take place. The two hour wagon ride seemed to last an eternity as the procession passed thousands of citizens who lined the streets with pikes and some with guns. It was a silent ride as the carriage slowly stopped in the shadow of the guillotine.(Eye Witness to History Editors 1993) Before exiting the carriage he spoke to the guard, ‘ We are arrived, if I mistake not’ (Louis XVI), as he looked nervously at the contraption looming over him. He stood atop the scaffold looking down to his people when he said, ‘I die innocent of all the crimes laid to my charge; I pardon those who have occasioned my death; and I pray to God that the blood you are going to shed may never be visited on France’ (Louis XVI). After his death the people of Paris anxiously awaited the execution of Marie Antoinette. She was the richest of the rich, and was looked up to with great dignity and respect. ‘Let them eat cake’. (Marie Antoinette), Only the best of the best could afford what they got to enjoy and many people were happy to find that even the best would soon face the worst. In August of 1793, Marie was moved from the Temple Prison to solitary confinement where she would spend much of her time thinking about all the trouble she put her people through. On October 3rd, she was referred to the revolutionary tribunal and hoped that her life would be spared. Before she knew it, she was stripped of her pearl white hair and thrown in a wooden cage. She spent the long wagon ride to the guillotine wondering why she did not get luxury treatment her husband had received.(Jones 1988) The tall scaffold caught her attention as the wagon stopped in the same place as her husband’s had only eight months prior. As Marie exited the wagon the crowds looked at each other with wide eyes and shock, the once beautiful and magnificent queen had now became very pale with white hair, and very skinny.(Editors of Britannica 2018) With the King and Queen finally gone, the blade took one more life and the problems of Paris would only be temporarily solved.

Many people were quite happy that the King and Queen who attempted to abandoned them finally got what they deserved but many did not know the true reason behind it.(Halsall 1997) Or more importantly who was behind it all. Maximilien Robespierre was the man behind the greatest and most well known be-headings in all of Europe. Just because the people were happy that the King and Queen were gone, there was still one more person who they had a great amount of hatred for, and that was Robespierre himself.’A true revolutionary should be ready to perish in the process’ (Robespierre). With the death of the royals now over, the people now focused their attention to Robespierre.(Linton 2006) There was no longer a monarchy since Louis XVI’s oldest son had died from mal-nutrition and the people were completely lost.(Leonard 2018) Another aspect that fueled the reign of Robespierre that the people did not like was his idea that terror is better, ‘Terror is nothing more than justice, prompt, secure, and inflexible’ (Robespierre). Many people at this time did not have the opportunity to voice their opinion, as many people did not like the idea of the death penalty and most of the population feared for their lives. Many people did not agree with Robespierre as he did not like the idea of the death penalty but encouraged it for the execution of the King and Queen.(J.Liewellyn, S.Thompson 2018)

As the biggest supporter of the Reign of Terror, Robespierre was responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths during this time.(Editors of Britannica 2018) Europe held a vast population so it was quite difficult to determine which individuals were against the revolution or were speaking ideas that Robespierre did not like.(Issawi 1989) In order to control this he came up with a new plan. He would have under cover spies placed throughout Europe, and they would be placed in common places of discussion, such as markets or bread lines. For example, if an individual was complaining about the price of bread, they would be taken and thrown into jail, and if someone was not complaining about the price of bread they may also be imprisoned.(Leonard 2018) At this time nobody was safe and people had to be extremely careful of the words that came out of their mouths. Many individuals were imprisoned and then executed simply because they were married to someone who had been killed, or was part of the counter revolution, or even someone who was friends of them.(Issawi 1989) Thousands upon thousands of people were killed during this period of time because they were simply associated with those who went against the revolution.(Halsall 1997) ‘Omelets are not made without breaking eggs’ (Robespierre), What he means by this is that they cannot take chances with people if they are suspected to be a counter revolutionary. The French Revolution and the Terror it fueled was too delicate and precious to be tampered with. Anyone would be punished for even the simplest of thoughts. During this period around 300,000 suspects were arrested, 30,000 people were officially executed, and around 10,000 died while in prison awaiting trial.(Editors of Britannica 2018)

‘A fair trial is one in which the rules of evidence are honored, the accused has competent counsel, and the judge enforces the proper courtroom procedures – a trial in which every assumption can be challenged’. (Harry Browne) It is important that each trial is treated fairly and each individual has access to a lawyer and to give their side of the story. On June 10th, 1794, the Committee obtained the law of 22 prairial, which suspended the suspects rights to a public trial which only left the suspect with two options, acquittal or death. With the new law in place, it sped up the process of conviction, which also denied an individual access to a lawyer, so most of them ended up dead. Immediately after the new law was introduced, the amount of deaths spiked with an extra 1,400 executions in a month.(Barber 2008) Most citizens who ended up in prison were there for one of two reasons, one was because they were counter revolutionaries, or two they were connected to someone who was a counter revolutionary or their ideas were not admired in the community.(Halsall 1997)

‘What a great time to be born! What a great time to be alive! Because this generation gets to essentially completely change the world.’ (Paul Hawken) This was not the case in Europe. The Reign of Terror had reached its peak, the terror in Europe had never been as worse as it was during this month(Issawi 1989). The September Massacre claimed the lives of thousands, around 30,000 people were ‘officially’ executed, around 300,000 people were arrested, and roughly 10,000 died in prisons. It is unofficial of the total death amount during the Reign of Terror but it is said that there may have been many more deaths that were not recorded. The events of the September Massacre begins its story on September 1st. The Fortress of Verdun had fallen and many were executed, including wagons full of prisoners who were killed on the spot. Prisons were raided, and the prisoners were dragged from their cells and beaten to death in very gruesome and disturbing ways. Over the course of five days between, 1100 and 1300 prisoners out of the 2600 total prisoners held in Paris were killed before reaching trial. Miraculously, the Paris Commune did absolutely nothing to stop the mass killings and actually voted to pay the murderers for what they had done.(Martin 2012) ‘The Revolution had been shaped by violence’ (D.G.Wright). During this time in France it was very true that the Revolution was shaped by violence but was actually seen throughout Europe. Between the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, Europe had lost a great amount of its population to war and violence.(Issawi 1989) The Revolution saw many executions that supposedly were to benefit the Country, but that idea only worked to a certain extent. While 90% of Europe was being destroyed and rocked with mass executions, there was still a small percentage of people who were not affected by the terror at all.(Wright 1993) Robespierre plays a major part in the September Massacres but will soon face the consequences.(Editors of Britannica 2018)

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‘Death never takes the wise man by surprise, he is always ready to go’ (Jean de la Fontaine) Maximilien Robespierre was the leader of the Committee of Public Safety, which effectively governed France at the peak of the revolution. Being a leader of this Committee and an active citizen during this time, Robespierre knew the dangers and risks he took as he gave his speeches and spoke his mind.(Halsall 1997) That one day he may pay for what he has said and that is exactly what happened on July 28, 1794.(History Editors 2010) Robespierre had fueled the Revolution and carried it much farther than expected, so after his death it decreased quite a bit. With Robespierre out of the picture, the Revolution was at a standstill. During this time, Robespierre was the only man who truly cared and enforced the fierceness of the terror. When he left, everything declined and the people saw this as an opportunity to reclaim their lives and to bring back society to its natural state. Many would not realize that it would take another five years for Europe to restore to its natural state and completely wash the terror and destruction from Europe. As we look back onto the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror, it is clear that once Robespierre was eliminated, things were fine. Ideas like this will come about in future conflicts with Adolf Hitler in World War Two.(Barber 2008)

The People of Paris could finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. News had reached town that Robespierre was arrested and the people were ecstatic. A few days prior, Robespierre was becoming very upset with the progression of the Revolution and decided it was finally time to make a change. He attempted to make changes to benefit what he wanted and once he was denied, he started to issue threats to the National Convention and was arrested for his actions. Robespierre decided to go into hiding and stayed at the Hôtel de la ville. As the guards were headed up to his room to arrest him, they heard a gunshot and a window break. As the guards burst into the room they found that one man had jumped out of the window, another dead on the floor and Robespierre laying semi conscious on the ground with a broken jaw. On July 28, 1794, Maximilien Robespierre was sent to the guillotine and was claimed a victim of his own terror. After his death, it was said that Robespierre’s testimony was not valid or important and that it would have been easier for him to die at the guillotine than wait several hours with a broken jaw.(Jones 2015) ‘Sleep is good, death is better; but of course, the best thing would to have never been born at all’ (Heinrich Heine) At this time there was another man who rose to power, his name was George Danton. Danton and Robespierre did not quite see eye to eye, as Robespierre believed more in a Republic based on virtue, philosophy, and Justice, while Danton believed in a Republic based on tradition, nobility, and domestic peace. There was only room for one man, and the Revolution was the opportunity to destroy one another. Their differences would eventually split the nation apart and both men would fall victim of what they had created.(Purcell) Most citizens in Paris at this time would strongly agree with this quote that Robespierre caused nothing but trouble and that many were happy at this death. After the execution, the people felt free. Like they have been locked in a cage for years and now they can finally voice their opinions without worrying about who is listening or going to jail.(History Editors 2010) Lastly, the death of Robespierre shows the pain that he caused his people, physically and emotionally.

Joseph Ignace Guillotin had suggested that there should be a more humane and practical way to carry out the death penalty. In 1789, designs were drawn and the guillotine made its first debut. Over the course of several years the guillotine was both feared and loved by many in Paris.(History Editors 2010) Until the death of Robespierre, the guillotine had seen 71 be-headings in one hour, but after his death it was lucky to see 71 be-headings in one week. The amounts of death that were performed over the course of the Reign of Terror dramatically declined which proves that Robespierre was the sole problem of the Revolution.(A.L. 2010) ‘Terror, terror, terror. Life was a reign of terror in the shadow of the guillotine’ (Paulo Coelho)

The Revolution was a time of change, for better or for worse. Many people believe that the Revolution ended with the death of Robespierre, but there were still many executions that took place after his death.(History Editors 2010) With the frigid cold winter soon arriving, and the high price of bread, Robespierre knew that this was the right time to lead his people in a social movement. They would protest against the food shortages and their high prices.(Thompson 2017) With little time left, the great leader Maximilien Robespierre would be remembered for many generations as a man of great intellect, dignity and respect.(Biography Editors 2014)

‘Don’t live in fear of dying’ (Valerie Harper) As the reality of the death of Robespierre set in to the lives of the people, they felt as if a weight had been lifted off of their shoulders. They were finally free, or so they thought.(History Editors 2010) With Robespierre finally gone and the Reign of Terror slowly declining, the amount of executions by guillotine were still high. It took roughly five years for Europe to become normal and the use of the guillotine to become extinct.(Barber 2008) Many people were still executed after his death for sharing their own ideas or being accused of the counter- Revolution. This was still a very dark and gruesome time during the revolution and took time for people to realize that maybe the problem was not all Robespierre’s fault, maybe it was the government.(Wright 1993) This was the first time in history where the use of ‘terror’ became an official Government policy. Their goal was to use violence to achieve a higher goal by serving justice to the Counter-Revolutionaries. During this time the term ‘terrorist’ surfaced and was commonly referred to the French Government, as the members of the Convention voted for the use of terror to be legal only during this time.

‘Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite’ (Motto of the French Republic). Many people lived by this motto in France and respected the ideas that everyone should have equal rights and to be able to live their lives they deserve. Many people could no longer respect this motto when the price of food increased and the people were hit hard by a major food shortage. The Sans Culottes who were the common people of the lower class were hit the hardest by this food shortage, as many of these individuals spent more than half of their income on food in order to survive.(Jones 1988) After the coldest winter in nearly 90 years, the price of bread fueled the anger inside those of the lower class and soon began erupting in anger and violence. Many thought with some time things would start to change but really they only got worse. The harvest did not improve, the winters became even worse, and soon enough they were fed up with the Government. The rural areas began a rebellion against the Revolutionary Government asking them to step in and to do something about the food shortages and the high costs. Members of the Sans Culottes believed that farmers and merchants were taking the grain and keeping it for themselves which led to farms and markets being raided and many people executed.(Thompson 2017)

‘Lead me, follow me, or get out of my way’ (General George Patton) Robespierre led his people through the most difficult and dangerous time of the Revolution. He gained their trust to support what he believed in. Robespierre took up his first leadership role when he was elected to the Estates General of French Legislature in 1789.(Editors of Britannica 2018) During this time he led the Jacobins and fueled the revolution with his powerful yet insane ideas.(Fife 2004) In 1793, he was elected to the Committee of Public Safety and led them into the darkest part of the Reign of Terror.(Barber 2008) As Robespierre slowly began to make his way to the top, he established a new religion as to eliminate the traditional day of prayer.(Editors of Britannica 2018) Robespierre did not have a lot to bring to the table, but when he did he used powerful and moving speeches to convince and attract the ears of his audience. The leadership skills and his many qualities can be seen in similar individuals, such as Adolf Hitler and his Government during World War Two. Together Robespierre and Hitler had shared many qualities within their time, such as elaborate and moving speeches, being active in their communities, and finally their ideas and thoughts led to their defeat and death. A great leader should be friendly to his people and do what is best for his society, which is exactly what Robespierre did, as with many politicians they have a good run from the beginning of their time and usually ends badly or gets worse as their career ends.

There is a great debate between historians over Robespierre and if the revolution and Reign of Terror truly ended after his execution. Statistics prove during days following Robespierre’s death that the amount of deaths by guillotine declined dramatically. This ultimately proved that Robespierre was the root of the problem and was held responsible for all the destruction and death that tore apart Europe.(Editors of Britannica 2018) The terror in France was the least of some people’s problems. Instead many were starving and would not make it through the harsh winter rapidly approaching. It was claimed that Robespierre had led the social movement against food shortages and high bread prices but the people did not need him to tell them what they already knew.(Thompson 2017) The Sans Culottes already knew that there was something wrong with the economy and they did not need a man living the luxurious lifestyle to tell them what they needed to do in order to get what they needed. ‘Let them eat cake’ (Marie Antoinette) was what really started the fire which encouraged the lower classes to fight back against the shortage of food. They felt that it was not fair that the Royals could afford the luxuries while many people could not afford to eat and had to give up everything to enjoy one meal.(Jones 1988) Lastly with Robespierre looking down to his people they soon realized that he only did things which was best for him. Eventually the only solution would be his death. His thoughts and ideas only made things worse and was leading the revolution down the wrong path.(Issawi 1989)

‘When a thing is done, it’s done. Don’t look back, look forward to what’s coming next’ (anonymous) A revolution is what they wanted and a revolution is what they got was the unofficial motto which Maximilien Robespierre lived by during his time.(Editors of Britannica 2018) He was responsible for many actions during The Reign of Terror but most famously the trial and death of Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette after being found guilty of treason.(Jones 1988) The guillotine was hard at work with hundreds of innocent fathers, shop owners, peasants and many other people being executed every single day. Robespierre was never praised more as he was the sole reason of the Reign of Terror and eventually became victim of his own terror.(Issawi 1989) In a final analysis it is without a doubt that Maximilien Robespierre had encouraged the Reign of Terror throughout Europe until the incorruptible fell victim of what he had created.(Halsall 1997)


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