The Terror - Purge of the Girondins

The Terror which spread all over France was an organised reaction to a number of factors including crisis over the war against Austria and Prussia, economic disruption and the fear of civil war due to the rise of radicalism. The Terror was a policy of the newly elected National Convention (which had originally been the National Assembly before the execution of King Louis XVI) to silence and deter other seditious and anti-revolutionary activities or beliefs. “Let us be terrible in order to prevent the people being terrible said Danton, founder of the Revolutionary Committee of Public Safety, which was according to historian Simon Shama essentially responsible for “Turning France under the revolutionaries into a police state”.

The concept of The Terror was formalised on the 10th of March 1793 with Danton creating The Committee for Public Safety, responsible for administering the war effort and trialling suspected anti-revolutionaries, who if found guilty were sentenced to death. To begin the terror focused on the prosecution of non-juring priests, but then began to summon those caught in the federal revolts in The Vendée and The Gironde. This came following rebellion against the revolution and The Jacobins began to spread through major country centres such as Marseilles, Lyon and Bordeaux, at Nantes over 4000 people were tied to barges and drowned on the orders of the local representative-on-mission, Jean-Baptiste Carrier. The Terror then focused on those who were believed to be hoarding food or overcharging for basic supplies, in the ‘Economic Terror’. The third part of the terror was the persecution of The Girondins by their political rivals The Jacobins. The Girondins’ popularity with the people of France had suffered enormously because of how unsuccessful the war was, their failed attempt to have Marat, who they claimed was publishing slander against them, tried and silenced by The Revolutionary Tribunal, and the propaganda created by The Jacobins suggesting they were royalists in favour of sparing their King’s life over re-writing a new constitution. Opinion in Paris had also turned against the Girondins because of the power and influence The Sans-Culottes held, historian William Doyle said; “The Sans-Culottes wanted their enemies silenced at whatever the cost, no compromise seemed possible with these anarchists, blood-drinkers, Septemberists.

After the execution of The Girondin leaders The Montagnards were able to produce a new constitution, The Constitution of 1793. It was the change The Montagnards had been rallying for, it allowed national suffrage, the sovereignty of the people and the right to property ownership, this was by far the most liberal constitution developed by the revolutionaries but the paranoia The Jacobins had created for themselves continued to haunt them through Terror and Robespierre declared the constitution suspended until ‘peace’ was won.

The Revolutionary Government continued on with The Terror and under Robespierre began to turn against their own allies. With the creation of The Law of Frimaire on the 4th of December 1793 the powers of The National Convention and The Committee for Public Safety were officialised and the convention given the powers to create laws with immediate validity. All power was handed to Robespierre and now centralised in Paris. This was designed to restrain the influence of The Sans-Culottes and the anarchy of The Terror, yet it only served to legally entrench it according to Doyle. As Robespierre began to attack his own, in persecuting Danton and his Indulgents, he justified this by saying ‘We must organise the despotism of liberty to crush the despotism of kings.” Yet in so many ways Vergniards prediction: “It is to be feared that The Revolution, like Saturn, will end by devouring its own children” had proved true.

Jack Boschert