1-6: The Reign of Terror

Assignment 6: The Reign of Terror

The Reign of Terror!  

Assignment: Examine the Primary Sources and then complete the questions below.

  1. What were the main goals of the Jacobin’s? The Girondin’s?
  2. What social classes or social groups were impacted by Jacobin policies?
  3. Which group was targeted more for executions than all the others others?
  4. How does Robespierre justify the power of the State? 
  5. Who does Robespierre consider “enemies of the state” and what does he believe should be done with these traitors?
  6. What does “the ends justify the means” indicate?
  7. Did the Republic achieve its goals. State yes or no and explain how.


Answer each of the questions below in a one paragraph response. Paragraphs are 6-8 sentences and should contain evidence and logical thought.

  • Robespierre…“bloodthirsty charlatan” or “defender of the Republic?”
  •  Is a government ever justified in using violence against those it identifies as a hostile threat to the State?  Who gets to decide?



 Anonymous print, “It is dreadful but necessary” (“Cest affreux mais nécessaire”), from the Journal d’Autre Monde, 1794.


Anarchy within, invasion from without. A country cracking from outside pressure, disintegrating from internal strain. Revolution is at its height. War. Inflation. Hunger. Fear. Hate. Sabotage. Fanaticism. Hopes. Boundless idealism . . . and the dread that all the gains of the Revolution would be lost. And the faith that if they won, they would bring Liberty, Equality, Fraternity to the world.
—R. R. Palmer, Twelve Who Ruled


Following the execution of King Louis XVI, the National Convention argued about how the country should be run and how the war should be fought.  Two groups emerged:


  • “We must suspend free speech and liberty so we can win the war. Otherwise, there will be nothing left to defend.”


  • “We must preserve the ideals of free speech and liberty at all costs. Otherwise, the French Revolution is not worth fighting for.”


The Terror was designed to fight the enemies of the revolution, to prevent the success of counter-revolutions within France, especially in the city of Lyon and in the West of France, in a region called the Vendée. In certain regions, men and women armed themselves to overthrow the republic and restore the monarchy. Some counter-revolutionaries were peasants, others sharecroppers, still others, textile workers. Counter-revolutionaries in the Vendée seemed particularly upset that Robespierre had launched a movement of de-Christianization and had seemingly gone on a witch hunt against priests.




Most of the people rounded up were not aristocrats, but ordinary people. A man (and possibly his family) might go to the guillotine for criticizing the revolutionary government. If an informer happened to overhear, that was all the tribunal needed. Watch Committees around the nation were encouraged to arrest “suspected persons,…those who, either by their conduct or their relationships, by their remarks or by their writing, are shown to be partisans of tyranny and federalism and enemies of liberty” (Law of Suspects, 1793). Civil liberties were suspended. The Convention ordered that “if material or moral proof exists, independently of the evidence of witnesses, the latter will not be heard, unless this formality should appear necessary, either to discover accomplices or for other important reasons concerning the public interest.” The promises of the Declaration of the Rights of Man were forgotten. Terror was the order of the day. In the words of Maximilien Robespierre, “Softness to traitors will destroy us all.”




In Robespierre’s own words…

 “If the spring of popular government in time of peace is virtue, the springs of popular government in revolution are at once virtue and terror: virtue, without which terror is fatal; terror, without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible…It has been said that terror is the principle of despotic government. Does your government therefore resemble despotism? Yes, as the sword that gleams in the hands of the heroes of liberty resembles that with which the henchmen of tyranny are armed.”

                            Speech on the Justification of the Use of Terror

 “The people want what is good, but they do not always see it.”

 On the eve of Robespierre’s ascension to power, he had drafted a personal revolutionary catechism:

 What is our aim?

    It is the use of the constitution for the benefit of the people.

 Who is likely to oppose us?

    The rich and the corrupt.

 What methods will they employ?

    Slander and hypocrisy.

 What factors will encourage the use of such means?

    The ignorance of the sans-culottes.  (The people must therefore be instructed).

 What are the obstacles to their enlightenment?

    The paid journalists who mislead the people everyday by shameless distortions.

 What conclusion follows?

    That we ought to proscribe these writers as the most dangerous enemies of the country and to circulate an abundance of good literature.

 What other obstacles are there to the achievement of freedom?

    The war at home and abroad.

 By what means can the foreign war be ended?

    By placing republican generals at the head of our armies and by punishing those who have betrayed us.

 How can we end the civil war?

     By punishing traitors and conspirators…by sending patriot troops under patriot leaders to cut down the aristocrats of Lyon, Marseille, Toulon, the Vendee, the Jura, and all other districts where the banner of royalism and rebellion has been raised; and by making a terrible example of all the criminals who have outraged liberty and spilled the blood of patriots.


The Lessons of the Reign of Terror

Within a two year period, a relatively small handful of revolutionary leaders commandeered the Revolution. They did so by eliminating opposition groups, often using mob violence while appealing to the ideal that the Revolution demanded the sacrifice of individualism for the good of society. Once the mob had served its purpose, its leaders too were executed; victims of their own terror. In many ways, the Reign of Terror is a case study in obtaining and maintaining absolute power.