The Reign of Terror was a period during the French Revolution that was dominated by violence. The period lasted between September 5, 1793, and July 28, 1794. The reign was the result of conflict between two rival political bodies; the Girondins and the Jacobins. The Girondins were the moderate republicans whereas the Jacobins were the radical republicans. The death toll during this period was very high and was marked by the execution of enemies of the revolution.
The Foundation of the Terror
The foundation of the Terror was the creation of the Committee of Public Safety in April 1973. The Committee of Public Safety was given dictatorial powers in terms of working to respond to public demands quickly. The Committee assumed the role of protecting the people from foreign attacks as well as internal rebellion. Eventually, during wartime, the Committee was given supervision powers over military, judiciary, and legislative aspects and so the Committee became all-powerful.
In July 1973, when Girondins were defeated, prominent and powerful leaders of the Jacobins were made members of the Committee of Public Safety. These members were Robespierre and Saint-Just. In December 1973, the Committee was given executive powers as well and Robespierre assumed the role of a dictator.
It was under the Jacobin rule of the Committee that terror became an official government policy. The Jacobins aimed to use terror to achieve higher political goals.
People who were Condemned
The death toll in the Reign of Terror is said to run in tens of thousands. A clear record does exist for the number of deaths, but there were many more people who were murdered without a formal death sentence. Thousands of people were condemned to death by guillotine and several people were killed to death by mobs. There were different reasons for the death of thousands of people. Sometimes, people died because of their political opinions, while at times, they died because of mere suspicion. The people who were condemned by the revolutionary tribunals were:
- 8% aristocrats
- 6% clergy
- 14% middle class
- 72% workers
The workers were mostly killed because they were accused of hoarding, desertion, rebellion, or evading the draft of the law.
The Law of Suspects
The Law of Suspects was also passed as a measure to execute the enemies of the revolution. According to the law, people who by their conduct, writings or words supported tyranny and federalism were suspected of treason and put in prison. This increased the number of prisoners and led to the mass overflow of prisoners.
The Fall of Robespierre
In October 1973, a new law was framed that made suspected priests and their supporters liable to summary execution. Through this law, Robespierre wanted to associate terror with virtue. However, this was equated with the endless bloodshed. In July 1974, Robespierre was overthrown after a military victory over Austria. The fall of Robespierre led to the end of the Committee of Public Safety. The powers of the Committee were also reduced and the period of terror came to an end.