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The Reign of Terror Controversy

The ideals of the French Revolution were liberty, equality and fraternity. The target of revolutionary activists was democracy, but when they gained the power, their methods became rather authoritarian. Finding out whether the Reign of Terror was inevitable, requires deep understanding of what provoked Robespierre and other Jacobins to switch to such harsh measures against their political opponents. Thus, on the one hand, terror was supposed to strengthen the authority of the revolutionary government and unite the society against external and domestic enemies, and on the other hand, with the help of terror and mass executions, Jacobins simply eliminated their political opponents and attempted to prevent any possible protests. Without any doubts, this could be avoided if revolutionary forces were not so disunited and struggled for welfare of the country instead of power. The Reign of Terror can be hardly justified with necessity to oppose external threats and economic crisis because revolutionary government did not do anything for the population, except for populist declarations and demonstrative executions. France’s turning to totalitarianism and terror was inevitable since the former allies started to compete for power in the state with the help of undemocratic measures.
French revolutionary activists were greatly encouraged by the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, especially his vision of law and the concept of general will. This concept quite corresponded to the general tendencies of equal responsibility to law, right to vote, etc. It was used in the Declaration of Man and the Citizen and influenced democratic reforms in France. However, as well as any other political doctrine, Rousseau’s philosophy was misinterpreted by Robespierre and other Jacobins. According to Gough, they called themselves representatives of “the general will of the French people and denounced opposition to their work as counter-revolutionary conspiracy”. At the same time, in his Social Contract, Rousseau admitted that the general will cannot be unanimous, but it must be supported by the majority of citizens. He claims that “the general will is found by counting votes”. He did not claim to punish or execute those who do not agree with the general will or something that government tries to present as the general will. Rousseau did not reject the plurality in the society as Robespierre did. Jean-Jacques Rousseau stated that “the general will is the sum of differences”. Furthermore, he considered plurality a positive aspect in the society. He suggested that when there is only one option to vote, it is no longer a sum of small differences, but a single difference; in this case there is no longer a general will. Jacobins completely neglected this definition of the general will, even though they pretended to be great supporters of this principle.
Jacobins distorted the teaching of Rousseau, making it beneficial for themselves. Robespierre developed a quite corrupted vision of liberty and democracy, which he illustrated in his speech “On Political Morality” to the Convention. He claimed that “terror is nothing but prompt, severe, inflexible justice; it is therefore an emanation of virtue”. Robespierre considered that virtue cannot be separated from terror and vice versa. Nevertheless, it is difficult to imagine that thousands of executed considered guillotine an expression of state’s virtue. He does not deny that terror makes government despotic, but he defines it as “the sword which glitters in the hands of liberty’s heroes resembles the one with which tyranny’s lackeys are armed”. Jacobins simply changed the definition by calling despotism a tyranny of liberty. In reality, the Reign of Terror was a pure despotism both against so-called enemies of the revolution and innocent people. Such policy would inevitably lead to the establishment of totalitarian regime, which would simply be called democratic and revolutionary without having any of these features.


In many ways, the Reign of Terror became inescapable because of tensions between Jacobins and Girondins and other minor political groups. Most of all, the problem was in Jacobinism itself. Taking into account the huge influence of Jacobins and their radicalism, there was no way to avoid the rise of terror. Fundamentalism in politics always leads to radical and harsh measures in political struggle. The claims of Jacobins to prevent counterrevolution were a mere justification for eliminating their political opponents. Though it can be justified in case of Louis XVI and other nobility, it is difficult to explain the executions of Georges Danton who was one of the founding fathers and leaders of Girondins and Hebertists.
Political struggle was the main reason that caused the initiation of the Reign of Terror. When the revolution seemed to be over and all internal enemies were beaten, the former allies began to fight with each other for power. It was important to find an internal public enemy and make up a formal crime to punish these enemies. Girondins became perfect candidates for this role. Moderate views were not popular in the Convention and it became the reason for Girondins’ fall. It is difficult to agree that it was quite necessary to execute Girondins for the stability in the country. Generally, many victims of the terror are difficult to justify.
Jacobins used terror as a measure that would let them stay in power as long as possible. However, even in this case it is difficult to justify because the reign of Jacobins lasted for only one year after the Reign of Terror was waged. Consequently, the fall of Robespierre was as inevitable as the Reign of Terror. His growing power was not desired by any of the political parties in Paris. Indeed, the power of Robespierre became too great in such a political environment. Sooner or later, his growing influence would lead to despotism and autocracy.
The Reign of Terror was also supposed to unite French people against foreign enemies in the War of the First Coalition. Undoubtedly, the population of France was not motivated enough during the economic crisis, but drafting citizens with the help of fear does not seem an effective morale booster. Furthermore, the demonstrative execution of Louis XVI only increased hostility towards France in the international community. Hence, the role of terror in this case cannot be denied. Nevertheless, it does not make it inevitable and the only one possible measure in this situation. The revolutionary government could find other ways to mobilize the society such as effective propaganda and drafting. The destruction of the infrastructure made it difficult to draft citizens to army as usual. Additionally, the War of the First Coalition was caused by the Revolution and the Reign of Terror only fueled it.
Undoubtedly, the Reign of Terror may be called a necessary measure in the situation that France faced with economic crisis, low motivation of the society and war against the coalition. Indeed, the Terror can be called a successful measure in this case. Nevertheless, it was also the easiest measure and not the most popular one. The government, which runs the country with help of such measures cannot be popular, and thus cannot be democratic.
Ruling people with the help of terror makes government unsound and weak, especially if this government pretends to be democratic and loyal to all citizens. The weakness of revolutionary France was proved and tested, when Napoleon easily destroyed the republic and initiated the monarchy. The quick fall of Robespierre and relatively support of Jacobins after his execution, illustrate the popularity of the Reign of Terror policy. Without any doubts, the Reign of Terror brought a lot of benefits to France in the revolutionary period. However, one may assume that the government could choose other less harsh methods. The Reign of Terror was caused not by the difficult political, military and social situation for France, but with the desire of Jacobins to seize power and stay there as long as possible. The distorted understanding of Rousseau’s philosophy made turning to despotism inevitable. The Reign of Terror was not a tyranny of liberty, it was a pure tyranny of Robespierre and Jacobins against their political opponents.

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