The Reign of Terror
The trial and execution of Louis XVI. Source: (alphahistory.com)
The Reign of Terror, which lasted from September 1793 to July 1794, was a bloody time in France’s history. Characterized by violence and paranoia, it led to the deaths of thousands of alleged enemies of the French Revolution, many of whom met their end via guillotine.
After the execution of Louis XVI in January 1793, radical revolutionaries known as the Jacobins made it their business to remove the moderate Girondins from power. Eventually, their crosshairs broadened to include anyone they perceived as a threat. One of the first to lose their head was the queen, Marie Antoinette. Having been imprisoned after her husband’s execution, she was tried with treason on October 12, 1793, and executed on October 16. After her death, the Reign of Terror grew even more violent.
The increase in violence was largely due to the rise of Maximilien Robespierre. He became head of the Committee of Public Safety, which was originally created to preserve the reforms of the revolution. In addition to eliminating threats, they were responsible for supplying food to the armies and cities. Under Robespierre’s leadership, they had absolute power to enforce the Law of Suspects, established in September 1793, and could establish special courts to determine guilt. They went up against prominent revolutionaries in the National Convention, examining their loyalties and finding many to be guilty of betraying the revolution. Those who were found guilty faced the guillotine.
In June of 1794, the Committee of Public Safety introduced a law which held that the courts could only return verdicts of acquittal or death. This led to an increase in the number of executions. Robespierre was elected president of the National Convention on June 4, 1794, and declared a new religion, called the Supreme Being, for which a series of celebrations were held, including the Supreme Being Festival in Paris on June 8. This act, as well as his claims to have a list of enemies of the revolution and his threats to release that list, gained him a number of enemies who began to work against him.
Robespierre’s extreme actions eventually led the National Convention to order his arrest. On July 28, 1794, soldiers arrived to arrest Robespierre, who attempted to commit suicide by shooting himself in the head but only managed to shatter his jaw. Later that afternoon, he was beheaded by guillotine without a trial. After his death, the Reign of Terror subsided. It was briefly followed by the White Terror during which many of the former terrorists were executed.
By the end of the Reign of Terror, over forty thousand alleged threats had been put to death. While it began as an initiative to aid the revolution, the excessive display of violence actually hindered the revolution by turning foreign public opinion against it.