A History of the French Revolution: the Reign of Terror

The Celebration of Unity during the French Revolution
The French people destroying the emblems of the monarchy during the French Revolution with detail from a painting by Pierre Antoine Demachy. DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI / Getty Images

In July 1793, the revolution was at its lowest ebb. Enemy forces were advancing over French soil, British ships hovered near French ports hoping to link up with rebels, the Vendée had become a region of open rebellion, and Federalist revolts were frequent. Parisians were worried that Charlotte Corday, the assassin of Marat, was only one of the thousands of provincial rebels operating in the capital ready to strike down the leaders of the revolution in droves. Meanwhile, power struggles between sansculottes and their enemies had begun to erupt in many sections of Paris. The whole country was unfolding into a civil war. 

It got worse before it got better. While many of the Federalist revolts were collapsing under both local pressures—food shortages, fear of reprisals, reluctant to march far—and the actions of Convention Deputies sent on mission, on August 27th, 1793 Toulon accepted an offer of protection from a British fleet which had been sailing offshore, declaring themselves in favor of the infant Louis VII and welcoming the British to port.

The Terror Begins

While the Committee of Public Safety wasn't an executive government—on August 1st, 1793, the Convention refused a motion calling for it to become the provisional government; it was the closest France had to anyone being in overall charge, and it moved to meet the challenge with utter ruthlessness. Over the next year, the committee marshaled the nation's resources to tackle its many crises. It also presided over the bloodiest period of the revolution: The Terror.

Marat may have been killed, but many French citizens were still forwarding his ideas, chiefly that only the extreme use of the guillotine against traitors, suspects, and counter-revolutionaries would solve the country's problems. They felt terror was necessary—not figurative terror, not a posture, but actual government rule through terror. 

The Convention deputies increasingly heeded these calls. There were complaints about a 'spirit of moderation' in the Convention and another series of price increases were quickly blamed on 'endormers', or 'dozer' (as in sleeping) deputies. On September 4th, 1793, a demonstration for more wages and bread was quickly turned to the advantage of those calling for terror, and they returned on the 5th to march to the Convention. Chaumette, backed by thousands of sans-culottes, declared that the Convention should tackle the shortages by strict implementation of the laws.

The Convention agreed, and in addition voted to finally organize the revolutionary armies people had agitated for over previous months to march against the hoarders and unpatriotic members of the countryside, although they turned down Chaumette’s request for the armies to be accompanied by guillotines on wheels for even swifter justice. In addition, Danton argued that arms production should be increased until every patriot had a musket and that the Revolutionary Tribunal should be divided to increase efficiency. The sansculottes had once again forced their wishes onto and through the Convention; terror was now in force.


On September 17th, a Law of Suspects was introduced allowing for the arrest of anyone whose conduct suggested they were supporters of tyranny or federalism, a law which could be easily twisted to affect just about everyone in the nation. Terror could be applied to everyone, easily. There were also laws against nobles who had been anything less than zealous in their support for the revolution. A maximum was set for a wide range of food and goods and the Revolutionary Armies formed and set out to search for traitors and crush the revolt. Even speech was affected, with 'citizen' becoming the popular way of referring to others; not using the term was a cause for suspicion.

It's usually forgotten that the laws passed during the Terror went beyond simply tackling the various crises. The Bocquier Law of December 19th, 1793 provided a system of compulsory and free state education for all children aged 6 – 13, albeit with a curriculum stressing patriotism. Homeless children also became a state responsibility, and people born out of wedlock were given full inheritance rights. A universal system of metric weights and measurements was introduced on August 1, 1793, while an attempt to end poverty was made by using ‘suspects’ property to aid the poor.

However, it is the executions for which the Terror is so infamous, and these began with the execution of a faction called the Enrages, who was soon followed by the former queen, Marie Antoinette, on October 17th and many of the Girondins on October 31st. Around 16,000 people (not including deaths in the Vendée, see below) went to the guillotine in the next nine months as the Terror lived up to its name, and around the same again also died as a result, usually in prison.

In Lyons, which surrendered at the end of 1793, the Committee of Public Safety decided to set an example and there were so many to be guillotined that on December 4th-8th, 1793 people were executed en masse by cannon fire. Whole areas of the town were destroyed and 1880 killed. In Toulon, which was recaptured on December 17th thanks to one Captain Bonaparte and his artillery, 800 were shot and nearly 300 guillotined. Marseilles and Bordeaux, which also capitulated, escaped relatively lightly with 'only' hundreds executed.

The Repression of the Vendée

The Committee of Public Safety's counter-offensive took the terror deep into the heart of the Vendée. Government forces also began winning battles, forcing a retreat which killed around 10,000 and 'the whites' began to melt away. However, the final defeat of the Vendée's army at Savenay was not the end, because repression followed which ravaged the area, burnt swathes of land and slaughtered around a quarter of a million rebels. In Nantes, the deputy on mission, Carrier, ordered the 'guilty' to be tied up on barges which were then sunk in the river. These were the 'noyades' and they killed at least 1800 people.

The Nature of the Terror

Carrier's actions were typical of autumn 1793 when deputies on mission took the initiative in spreading the Terror using revolutionary armies, which may have grown to 40,000 strong. These were normally recruited from the local area they were to operate in and were usually comprised of artisans from the cities. Their local knowledge was essential in seeking out hoarders and traitors, usually from the countryside.

Around half a million people may have been imprisoned across France, and 10,000 may have died in prison without trial. Many lynchings also occurred. However, this early phase of the terror was not, as legend recalls, aimed at nobles, who made up only 9% of the victims; clergy were 7%. Most executions occurred in Federalist areas after the army had regained control and some loyal areas escaped largely unscathed. It was normal, everyday people, killing masses of other normal, everyday people. It was a civil war, not class.


During the Terror, deputies on mission began attacking the symbols of Catholicism: smashing images, vandalizing buildings, and burning vestments. On October 7th, in Rheims, the sacred oil of Clovis which was used to anoint French kings was smashed. When a revolutionary calendar was introduced, making a break with the Christian calendar by starting on September 22nd, 1792 (this new calendar had twelve-thirty day months with three ten-day weeks) the deputies increased their dechristianization, especially in regions where rebellion had been put down. The Paris Commune made dechristianization an official policy and attacks began in Paris on religious symbols: Saint was even removed from street names.

The Committee of Public Safety grew concerned about the counter-productive effects, especially Robespierre who believed that faith was vital to order. He spoke out and even got the Convention to restate their commitment to religious freedom, but it was too late. Dechristianization flourished across the nation, churches closed and 20,000 priests were pressured into renouncing their position.

The Law of 14 Frimaire

On December 4th, 1793, a law was passed, taking as its name the date in the Revolutionary Calendar: 14 Frimaire. This law was designed to give the Committee of Public Safety even more control over the whole of France by providing a structured 'chain of authority' under the revolutionary government and to keep everything highly centralized. The Committee was now the supreme executive and nobody further down the chain was supposed to alter the decrees in any way, including the deputies on a mission who became increasingly sidelined as local district and commune bodies took over the job of applying the law. All unofficial bodies were shut down, including provincial revolutionary armies. Even the departmental organization was bypassed for everything bar tax and public works.

In effect, the law of 14 Frimaire aimed to institute a uniform administration with no resistance, the opposite of that to the constitution of 1791. It marked the end of the first phase of the terror, a 'chaotic' regime, and an end to the campaigning of the revolutionary armies who first came under central control and were then closed on March 27th, 1794. Meanwhile, factional infighting in Paris saw more groups go to the guillotine and sansculotte power began to wane, partly as a result of exhaustion, partly because of the success of their measures (there was little left to agitate for) and partly as a purging of the Paris Commune took hold.

The Republic of Virtue

By the spring and summer of 1794, Robespierre, who had argued against dechristianization, had tried to save Marie Antoinette from the guillotine and who had vacillated over the future began to form a vision of how the republic should be run. He wanted a 'cleansing' of the country and committee and he outlined his idea for a republic of virtue while denouncing those he deemed non-virtuous, many of whom, including Danton, went to the Guillotine. So began a new phase in the Terror, where people could be executed for what they might do, not had done, or simply because they failed to meet Robespierre's new moral standard, his utopia of murder.

The Republic of Virtue concentrated power at the Centre, around Robespierre. This included closing all provincial courts for conspiracy and counter-revolutionary charges, which were to be held at the Revolutionary Tribunal in Paris instead. Parisian jails soon filled with suspects and the process was speeded up to cope, partly by scrapping witnesses and defense. Furthermore, the only punishment it could give out was death. As with the Law of Suspects, almost anyone could be found guilty for anything under these new criteria.

Executions, which had tailed off, now rose sharply again. 1,515 people were executed in Paris in June and July 1794, 38% of which were nobles, 28% clergy and 50% bourgeoisie. The Terror was now almost class-based rather than against counter-revolutionaries. In addition, the Paris Commune was altered to become docile to the Committee of Public Safety and proscribed wage levels were introduced. These were unpopular, but the Paris sections were now too centralized to oppose it.

Dechristianization was reversed as Robespierre, still convinced that faith was important, introduced the Cult of the Supreme Being on May 7th, 1794. This was a series of Republican themed celebrations to be held on the rest days of the new calendar, a new civic religion.

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Wilde, Robert. "A History of the French Revolution: the Reign of Terror." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/french-revolution-the-terror-1793-94-1221883. Wilde, Robert. (2023, April 5). A History of the French Revolution: the Reign of Terror. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/french-revolution-the-terror-1793-94-1221883 Wilde, Robert. "A History of the French Revolution: the Reign of Terror." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/french-revolution-the-terror-1793-94-1221883 (accessed May 28, 2023).