France & Revolution Maximilien Robespierre & the Reign of Terror The Committee of Public Safety



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France & Revolution

Maximilien Robespierre & the Reign of Terror


The Committee of Public Safety (April 1793)

In the weeks after the execution of King Louis XVI, the internal & external conflicts in France continued to grow. As the war with Prussia & Austria went badly, prices rose & the SANS-CULOTTES (poor laborers & radical JACOBINS) rioted; counter-revolutionary activities began in some regions of France. Prussian & Austrian forces pushed into the French countryside, & one noted French general even defected to the opposition. Unable to assemble an army out of the disgruntled & protesting peasants, the GIRONDIN-led (moderate) NATIONAL CONVENTION started to panic. In an effort to restore peace & order, the convention created the COMMITTEE OF PUBLIC SAFETY (a 12 member committee) in April 1793, to maintain order within France & protect the country from external threats.


The Committee of Public Safety formed the DE FACTO (‘in fact’) executive government in France during the Reign of Terror. The Committee of Public Safety assumed its role of protecting the newly established French Republic against external attacks & domestic rebellion. As a wartime measure, the Committee was given broad powers over military, judicial & legislative efforts during the revolution. As the Committee tried to meet the dangers of a coalition of European nations & counter-revolutionary forces within the country, it became more & more powerful within the French Revolution.

The Jacobins’ Coup d'état (June 1793)

The internal & external problems France faced encouraged the Jacobins to seize power through a parliamentary COUP D'ÉTAT (‘sudden & illegal seizure of power from a government’), backed up by force affected by mobilizing public support against the Girondist faction (moderate revolutionaries) in the National Convention, & by utilizing the mob power of the Parisian sans-culottes.


The Committee of Public Safety followed a moderate course after its creation but proved weak & ineffective. After a few fruitless months under the committee, the sans-culottes finally reached their boiling point. They stormed the National Convention & accused the Girondins of representing the aristocracy. Seeing an opportunity, MAXIMILIEN ROBESPIERRE, the leader of the Jacobins, harnessed the fury of the sans-culottes to take control of the convention, banish the Girondins, & install the Jacobins into power throughout the National Convention.
* * Once again, the sans-culottes proved to be a formidable force in effecting change during the Revolution. Already upset about the composition of the National Convention – which remained dominated by middle- & upper-class bourgeoisie & was influenced by big thinkers of the time – they became even angrier upon learning that many of the Girondin leaders expected them to bolster the failing war effort. Abbe Sieyès had originally rallied the Third Estate by reminding them that they numbered many & that their numbers gave them strength. This message clearly stuck with the sans-culottes throughout the Revolution, & they took advantage of their strength at every possible opportunity.
An alliance of Jacobin & sans-culottes became the effective center of the new revolutionary government (the National Convention). Policy became considerably more radical, as THE LAW OF THE MAXIMUM set food prices & led to executions of offenders.
This policy of price control ran together with the rise in power of the Committee of Public Safety & during the Reign of Terror. The Committee first attempted to set the price for only a limited number of grain products but, by September 1793, it expanded the “maximum” to cover all foodstuffs & a long list of other goods. Widespread shortages & famine ensued. The Committee reacted by sending dragoons into the countryside to arrest farmers and seize crops. This temporarily solved the problem in Paris, but the rest of the country suffered. By the spring of 1794, forced collection of food was not sufficient to feed even Paris & the days of the Committee were numbered. When Robespierre was sent to the guillotine in July of that year the crowd jeered, “There goes the dirty maximum.”
Although Robespierre soon resorted to extreme measures, his tenure as chairman of the Committee of Public Safety actually began on a productive note. His inspiring, nationalistic propaganda campaign spoke to the disgruntled citizens on their own level. Though he was a lawyer, Robespierre had a middle-class upbringing & could relate to the sans-culottes. His approach to the economy also proved effective in the short run: by using the Maximum to freeze prices, he provided an opportunity for French citizens to get their economic bearings.

Lazare Carnot and the Military (August 1793)

In August 1793, military strategist Lazare Carnot was appointed head of the French war effort & immediately set about instituting CONSCRIPTION throughout France (REVOLUTIONARY ARMY – France’s citizen army). Propaganda & discipline helped tighten & re-energize the nation, particularly in rural areas. Carnot’s effort succeeded, & the newly refreshed army managed to push back the invading Austrian & Prussian forces and re-establish France’s traditional boundaries.


* * Revolutionary fervor, along with calls to save the new regime, resulted in a large influx of enthusiastic yet untrained & undisciplined volunteers. One reason for the success of the French Revolutionary Army is the merger organized by the military strategist Carnot, who would later become Napoleon's Minister of War, who assembled in the same regiment, but in different battalions, young volunteers full of enthusiasm at the thought of dying for liberty & old veterans from the former royal army.
* * The transformation of the Army was best seen in the officer corps. Before the revolution 90% had been aristocrats, compared to only 3% in 1794. Revolutionary fervor was high, & was closely monitored by the Committee of Public Safety, which assigned Representatives on Mission to keep watch on each general. Indeed some generals deserted, others were removed or executed. The government demanded that soldiers be loyal to the government in Paris, not to their generals.

The Reign of Terror (July 1793 – July 1794)

In the autumn of 1793, Robespierre & the Jacobins focused on addressing economic and political threats within France. What began as a proactive approach to reclaiming the nation quickly turned bloody as the government instituted its infamous campaign against internal opposition known as the Reign of Terror.


The Reign of Terror, was incited by conflict between rival political factions in the National Convention, the Girondins & the Jacobins, & marked by mass executions of “enemies of the revolution” & the National Convention. The death toll ranged in the tens of thousands, with 16,594 executed by guillotine & another 25,000 across France.
Beginning in September, Robespierre, under the support of the Committee of Public Safety, began pointing an accusing finger at anyone whose beliefs seemed to be counter-revolutionary – citizens who had committed no crime but merely had social or political agendas that varied too much from Robespierre’s. The committee targeted even those who shared many Jacobin views but were perceived as just slightly too radical or conservative. A rash of executions ensued in Paris & soon spread to smaller towns & rural areas.
* * During the nine-month period that followed, anywhere from 15,000 to 17,000 French citizens were beheaded at the guillotine; approximately 25,000 all-together. The GUILLOTINE (aka the “National Razor”) became the symbol of the revolutionary cause, strengthened by a string of executions: King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, & prominent Girondins, among others, lost their lives under its blade.
Even longtime associates of Robespierre such as Georges Danton, who had helped orchestrate the Jacobin rise to power, fell victim to the paranoia. When Danton wavered in his conviction, questioned Robespierre’s increasingly rash actions, & tried to arrange a truce between France & the warring countries, he himself lost his life to the guillotine, in April 1794.

Public Backlash & the End of the Terror (July 1794)

Robespierre’s bloody attempt to protect the sanctity of the Revolution had exactly the opposite result. Rather than galvanize his supporters & the revolutionary nation, the Reign of Terror instead prompted a weakening on every front. Indeed, the Terror accomplished almost nothing productive, as Robespierre quickly burned his bridges & killed many former allies. As the mortuaries started to fill up, the commoners shifted their focus from equality to peace.


* * By the time the French army had almost completely staved off foreign invaders, Robespierre no longer had a justification for his extreme actions in the name of public “safety.” The final straw was his proposal of a “REPUBLIC OF VIRTUE,” which would entail a move away from the morals of Christianity & into a new set of values.
On July 27, 1794, a group of Jacobin allies arrested Robespierre. Receiving the same treatment that he had mandated for his enemies, he lost his head at the guillotine the following day. Undoubtedly, a collective sigh of relief echoed throughout the country.


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