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HISTORY PAPER (9155/1) with Joy Dandadzi*
Question:”The French Revolutionary terror was a necessary evil.”Discuss (25 marks)
Question Interpretation: Does the French Revolutionary Terror save any meaningful purpose given the situation at hand? The Question calls for a thorough assessment of the pros and cons of the reign of terror, starting with the positives.
The reign of terror (6 September 1793-28 July 1794) also known as The Terror (French: LA Terreur), was a period of violence that occurred after the onset of the French Revolution and was marked by mass executions of “enemies of the revolution” (Wikipedia,2016). Prominent figures among the victims of the guillotine were Madame Rolland, Herbert, Robespierre and Danton. The Reign of Terror was largely a product of the revolutionary ideology and need for a weapon of political repression in a time of significant foreign and civil upheaval (Marisa, 2010).
The Reign of Terror (6 September 1793– 28 July 1794) was a period of violence that occurred after the onset of the French Revolution marked by mass executions of “enemies of the revolution” (Wikipedia, 2016). Terror could be classified into economic, religious and socio-political terror. The reign of Terror was a necessary evil in the sense that it warded off the internal Revolutionary enemies such as the clergy, nobility and Royalists who were offended by the revolutionary developments as the Civil Constitution of the Clergy and Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. The revolution was under threat and the majority of French Citizens feared that the revolution would be reversed and in order to deal with that fear, terrorizing all the enemies of the revolution became a necessity. More so, the revolutionary government with so many problems to solve, restoration of order at home was essential if they were to diffuse external threat. The Committee of Public Safety’s Leveé en Masse helped France to stand against all European states which threatened the revolution and the Law of the Maximum helped in pacifying the economic challenges and food shortages. However the revolution terror somehow wrecked the order and Revolutionary principles meant for the promotion of humanity as with the case of the “law of 22nd Prairal” which advocated for the worship of the goddess Reason and led to the execution of many people, the majority of whom innocent and could have led the revolution.
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The reign of terror was a necessary invention especially during 1794, when revolutionary France was beset with conspiracies by internal and foreign enemies (Ellis and Esler, 2000). Within France, the revolution was opposed by various elements including the French nobility which had lost its inherited privileges and the Roman Catholic Church criticised the National Assembly which had turned the clergy into employees of the state and required they take an oath of loyalty to the nation through the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. These developments were worth preserving from the perspective of the majority of Frenchman however the conservative elements (Royalists and Clericals) sought to reverse all such revolutionary developments to the Old system. Throughout the years 1793, France experienced vast counter-revolutionary insurgencies which thereatened the existence of the revolution (ibid). One good case of such insurgency is that at Tolon which was suppressed by the young artillery officer ” Napoleon Bonaparte”. The impact of the revolutionary terror was immediate as the enemies of the revolution were silenced, bringing about popular support for the revolution . This was vital given that the revolutionary government had a lot to focus on.
In addition,the revolution terror was necessary given that the French First Republic was engaged in a series of wars with neighboring powers, and parts of France were engaging in civil disputes. Following the Pilnitz Declaration by Austria and Prussia and the Brunswick Manifesto by the Prussian Duke of Brunswick; the extension of civil war and the advances of foreign armies on national territory produced a political crisis and increased the already present rivalry between the Girondins and the more radical Jacobins (KhanAcademy, 2016). The French government established the Committee of Public Safety, which took its final form in September 1793 in order to suppress internal counter-revolutionary activities and raise additional French military forces. Those in power believed the Committee of Public Safety was an unfortunate but necessary and temporary reaction to the pressures of foreign and civil war (Owen,2006). With the leveé en Masses led by Carnot, the French citizenry lost its liberty as was enshrined in the revolutionary principles however this was a critical and defining strategic move by the revolutionary government (National Convention) which went all the way to restore parity on the crisis situation. According to Richards(1985) The French managed mass conscription to ward off foreign threats under Carnot,”the organizer of victory”. Given the formidability of the forces that France had to fightin order to defend the revolution, “the Leveé en masse” is justifiable since it was the only way to raise a citizen army to diligently defend their territorial integrity, thus it can be labeled a ‘necessary evil’.
On 9 September, the Convention established sans-culottes paramilitary forces, the “revolutionary armies” to force farmers to surrender grains and on the 29th the ‘Law of Maximum’ extended prices fixing from grain and bread to other essential goods, and also fixed wages (Ellis and Esler, 2000). The Revolutionary efforts to purge the pre-revolutionary problems of hunger and starvation by seizing the church property through the Civil Constitution of the Clergy and creation of assignotes had all failed to resuscitate the economy. The effects of the 1787 droughts were still troubling France and events as the March of women (1789) were prompted by hunger and starvation. France had declared war on Austria and Prussia in order to plunder as contingency to deal with the same problems (KhanAcademy, 2016). The law of Maximum enabled the grains held by farmers to reach the market at controlled prices much to the detriment of farmers but also to the greater good of the revolution. The law of Maximum undoubtedly pacified the situation for the French populace and aided the revolution given that the public was frustrated that the social equality and anti-poverty measures that the revolution originally promised were not materializing. In light of the preceding facts, it is worthy to note the Dictum in question that ‘the revolution terror was a necessary evil’ is valid and plausible.
The enactment of the Law of Suspects stepped up political terror to a much higher level of cruelty as anyone who ‘by their conduct, relations, words or writings show themselves to be supporters of tyranny, feudalism and enemies of freedom’ was targeted and suspected of treason (Wikipedia,2016). This created a mass overflow in the prison systems. As a result, the prison population of Paris increased causing an overpopulation problem and execution rates to rise enormously. Such terrorism became a tool for the realization of a much higher political goal. Through the Revolutionary Tribunal, the Terror’s leaders exercised broad powers and used them to eliminate the internal and external enemies of the republic.The reign of terror guaranteed results for the revolutionaries cause and maintained the revolutionary momentum at a time it was needed the most. According to Owen (2006) without the National Convention coming up with structures as the Committee of Public Safety and Revolutionary Tribunal, it could have been difficult for them to have dealt efficiently with their external enemies at the battle front and insurgenciesat at home. In light of the above,the revolutionary terror saved the revolution in many aspects as it enforced cooperation and togetherness among the French citizenry which was vital if they were to survive the war against European monarchies. However, the fact that the number of people guillotined after November 1793 raise concerns as most scholars argue that the external threat was neutralized by then, thus terror could have served a different purpose unjustifiable alltogether. The revolutionary terror was not all good as it was detrimental towards the revolution itself as 16 594 people lost their lives among which were notables as Roland, Hebert, Danton and Robespierre who were executed for more personal or unjust cause (Marisa,2006). These executions were based either on being suspected of the anti-revolutionary cause in contravention of the ‘law of suspects’ or victims of summary executions.
According to History.com (2007) the revolutionary terror undoubtedly got rid of the most prominent revolutionary leaders who could have saved the revolution in many circumstances. The period 1795-99 saw the Directory occupied by less gifted Directors as the majority of the early revolutionary leaders had fallen victims of the guillotine machine. The above circumstances express why the majority of historians still challenge the validity of the reign of terror in France.
The law of 22nd Prairial enacted on the 10th of June 1794 also wrecked havoc in France as the abandonment of Catholicism for the worship of the goddess Reason led to mass massacre of Catholic nuns and other notable clericals as priests and bishops. The whole program of de-Christianization waged against Catholicism included the deportation or execution of clergymen; the closing of churches; large-scale destruction of religious monuments and the removal of the word “saint” in street names. According to Wikipedia (2016) the majority of Frenchman were Catholic though they resented the church influence on the government system, thus the religious terror created by Robespierre and other revolutionaries created religious strife in France. More so the French public felt more and more threatened by such enactment which eroded the moral fabric of the state. In that regard, religious terror can be perceived as an unnecessary evil.
Ellis E & Ester G (2000). “WorldHistory”. PrenticeHall, NewYork
Dennis Richards (1987) An Illustrated History of Modern Europe 1789- 1984. (add publisher)
Marisa, L. (2010) “The Terror in the French Revolution” (PDF) Kingston University. Retrieved 2nd December 2011.
KhanAcademy (2016) The French Revolution: The Causes, Course and Rise of Napoleon Bonaparte.
History.com (2007) “French Revolution”. History.com. The History Channel. Retrieved 24 October 2014.
Marisa, L (2006) “Robespierre and the Terror theTerror:Marisa L reviews the life and career of one of the most verified men in history,(Maximilien Robespierre)”.
History Today: Biography, 8 (56)
Owen C (2006). The Wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon, 1792-1815. NewYork: Rutledge Publishing
Wikipedia (2016) https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reign_of_Terror (Retrieved4thofOctober,2016)