The Reign of Terror is well known as a dark period during the French Revolution where executions occurred across all social classes. Lasting from 1793-1794 the Reign of Terror swept through France as revolutionaries attempted to consolidate their power and eliminate any threats to the Revolution.
French revolutionaries executed King Louis XVI in January 1793 as a lead up to the events. This occurred after he refused to relinquish his royal power to the revolutionaries. In his place, the Committee of Public Safety emerged as the executive branch to protect France and the revolution from foreign and domestic enemies.
Maximilian Robespierre was one of the primary leaders and influencers of the revolution. Robespierre would eventually assume control of the Committee of Public Safety and with it near dictatorial powers.
By September 1793, the Committee declared that “terror is the order of the day.” This is where the Reign of Terror received its name. With its near total control, the committee allowed the country to devolve into a state of paranoia.
Any man, women, or child could be accused of treason at any time for not supporting the revolution. The French government quickly arrested and jailed the accused, eager to quell all popular dissent.
Depending on the severity of the crime, the judicial system either gave these people a quick trial and execution, left them to rot in jail, or finally released them. Towards the end of the Terror, many accused did not even have access to nor representation from a lawyer.
Reign of Terror Executions by Social Class
The total number of executions in the French Revolution number anywhere from 14,000-17,000. The Revolution spared no social class as even the nobility were not spared by the Committee of Public Safety. The breakdown of executions by social class in the French Revolution is as follows:1
- Working Class ~4,400 executions (32%)
- Peasants ~4,000 executions (29%)
- Middle class ~3,500 exections (25%)
- Nobility ~1,200 executions (8%)
- Clergy ~900 executions (6%)
Rooting out and killing those who were against the revolution was the main goal. Robespierre also used the Terror to execute political enemies – even those in favor of the revolution. The former Queen, Marie Antoinette, was one of the first to be executed under the Reign of Terror.
Only through the removal and subsequent execution of Robespierre in July 1794 did the Reign of Terror come to an end. Along with the 14,000-17,000 executions, the government arrested another ~300,000 citizens throughout the terror. An additional ~10,000 more people died in prison or without trial.2
The Reign of Terror also had massive ramifications from a foreign relations standpoint. While the United States initially cheered on the French Revolution, many looked upon in horror at the bloodshed during the terror. As France went on to declare war against several other European powers, Washington issued the important Proclamation of Neutrality and declined to aid their longtime ally.
2) Higonnet, Patrice. “Robespierre’s Rules for Radicals: How to Save Your Revolution Without Losing Your Head.” Foreign Affairs, vol. 91, no. 4, 2012, pp. 140–45. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23218048.