The Reign of Terror in France cast a long shadow on the history of revolutionary violence. Discuss the events of this period and Robespierre’s justification of terrorism.

The French Revolution maintains a talismanic hold on European historiography. It is considered by many as a foundational moment in the development of the modern nation-state. Succeeding revolutionary or insurgent movements emulated the methods and aims of the Revolution. However, in the midst of political and philosophical experimentation there took place bloody events, which collectively are called the Terror. This label refers to the violence that took place during the initial years of the French Revolution. The most significant of these events, for the purposes of this essay, was the state-sponsored top-down Terror overseen primarily by Maximilien Robespierre from September 1793 until July 1794.


This essay will divide into three sections. The first will seek to explore the contingent and ideological factors leading up to the Reign of Terror; highlighting the particular acts of legislation preceding and during the Great Terror and the events contributing to an atmosphere of fear and paranoia. The second will focus on two speeches delivered by Robespierre, justifying the Reign of Terror. Finally, this essay will seek to answer the fundamental question; how does the Terror constitute terrorism?





Revolutionary Violence: factors and fears.


As David Andress asserts, ‘violence was endemic throughout this period.’ A blanket generalisation of the Terror may lead to historians forgetting the extent to which violence proceeded and succeeded Robespierre’s and the CPS’ tenure. The anti-aristocracy and anti-royalist sentiment existed from the outset of the Revolution; the clergy, aristocracy and Louis XVI were perceived as emblematic of the third estates’ grievances. However, violence was not strictly limited to the symbols of the ancien regime, as Andress points out. There were lynchings in 1789, the massacre of army mutineers at Nancy the following year and Avignon saw bloody clashes occur between revolutionaries and a mix of Catholics and traditionalists in 1791. Amongst the more famous events preceding the Reign of Terror was La Grande Peur in July 1789. Thiswas an instance of bottom-up terror in which peasants ran riot across the countryside, something which, as Arno Mayer states, furnished a template for Robespierre’s Terror. The notion that violence breeds violence is a potent one and it is difficult to pinpoint if contingency or ideology bore more influence in these instances. Mayer highlights the difficulty in this historiographical debate, which at its crux questions if people were driven by practical concerns such as bread shortages, or if the engine for revolution was, ostensibly, enlightenment ideas. Whilst neither position is ironbound, applying each to the revolutionary violence focalises each argument around whether it occurred out of extreme necessity or if it was the obvious tool for consolidating the ideals of the revolution. Moreover where ideology is more noticeable the participants of violence should be viewed through a context-specific lens. In other words, the peasant violence towards the aristocracy in 1789 should not be compared with the counterrevolutionary aristocrats of the White Terror who were able to find vengeance in the aftermath of the Coup of Thermidor. Indeed, in highlighting the violence before and after the Reign of Terror, Mayer correctly asserts that the broader violence was far greater than the political terror associated with the guillotine.


Why then does the Great Terror orchestrated by Robespierre and the CPS dominate historiography of this period? The answer lies in the fears surrounding the Revolution and the need for an expedient consolidation of the Republic’s cause. The September Massacres of 1792 serve as a useful starting point in regarding the tenets of the Great Terror. It bore the characteristics that would escalate during Robespierre’s tenure. Survival of the fragile revolution was paramount and accompanying this sentiment were the twin fears that counterrevolution from inside or invasion from outside would bring the Revolution to an end. Again this highlights the tension between practical and ideological concerns. The Prussian Army’s advance on France’s eastern front, on the basis of the need to protect Louis XVI and his family, exacerbated fears of a fifth column in the form of imprisoned soldiers with supposed royalist sympathies. Though the Paris Commune had ordered the arrest of political suspects linked with the defence of Tuileries in late August 1792, news that the Prussians had advanced past the great fortress of Verdun in early September provided a cover of panic during which the sans-culottes killed over one thousand prisoners on the spot. This was another instance of bottom-up violence, which echoed across cities in France. It illustrates the potency of escalating paranoia leading to greater violence. Furthermore, it demonstrates the existence of an ‘us’ and ‘them’ dichotomy which legitimated justice expressed through revolutionary violence. In other words, the threat of invasion emphasised the danger of counterrevolution from within, thereby justifying the need to eliminate enemies in order to preserve the revolution. Randall Law adds the sensationalist assassination of Marat, a member of extremist Jacobins and then Cordeliers Club, by the Girondist supporter Charlotte Corday, as fostering an atmosphere of conspiracy within France. Marat’s murder serves as a reminder of how intensely political the revolution was. The factions of Jacobins, Girondins, Montagnards, and Corderliers and all the infighting that accompanied them reminds us of the ideological argument defined by Mayer. Within these clubs one can perceive a desire to use revolutionary violence to advance their respective political philosophies albeit under the broader auspices of the Revolution’s fundamental objectives.



Between the September Massacres and the National Convention proclaiming terror as the ‘order of the day,’ one may discern the government implementing policies aimed at dealing with the threat of internal conspiracy. In reaction to open revolt in the Vendée the National Convention began a host of policies that further created an atmosphere of distrust. Surveillance committees, representatives on mission and the Law of Suspects stand out as demonstrations of desperate measures intended to deal with the threat of counterrevolution. Surveillance Committees were granted the power to arrest suspicious individuals and hand out travel and work permits. Representatives on mission ostensibly acted as revolutionary missionaries whose function were to ensure local government conformed to the National Conventions expectations. Food shortages engendered a fear of hoarders which furthered the representatives license to interfere in all strata of economic and political life. It must be stated that these policies have been selected merely as highlights of a France riven by paranoia, revolt, and what might be labelled flexibly inflexible justice. However, perhaps the most significant of legislation during the Reign of Terror was the Law of Suspects. The aforementioned factional nature of politics in France led many to call for a small committee with executive power that would be more efficient in defending the cause of the Revolution and judicious in applying the rule of law. To this end a Revolutionary Tribunal was created by the Convention in October 1793 and it was to put under the authority of a nine-man Committee of Public Safety. The Law of Suspects, issued by the Committee for Public Safety on September 17th 1793, widened the umbrella under which those accused of counterrevolutionary activities could be applied.


Robespierre’s Justification and Revolutionary Propaganda


The generally agreed starting date of the Reign of Terror is given as September 5th 1793 due to the word ‘terror’ being proclaimed as the National Convention’s order of the day. Why the Reign of Terror is afforded greater historical scrutiny over other instances of violence derives from two reasons. First, this was an instance of top-down state-legitimated violence: quasi-religious and quasi-legal in its application. Second, the rhetoric of this period deserves special attention for the manner in which it claimed the label of Terror. Specifically, Robespierre’s justification of the Reign of Terror throws into sharp relief facets that have helped form the definitions by which political scientists and historians apply to terrorists.


Robespierre’s justification comes from two speeches; his ‘On the Principles of Revolutionary Government,’ delivered on the 25th of December 1793 and ‘On the Principles of Political Morality,’ delivered on February 5th 1794,’ The dates are significant in that they came after the Reign of Terror had been instigated. The two speeches help chart the progression of Robespierre’s conviction during this time. In his first speech one can clearly pinpoint a desire to distinguish between ‘Constitutional,’ and ‘Revolutionary’ government, the latter being ‘supported by the holiest of all laws: salvation of the people,’ and justified by ‘the most indisputable of all entitlements: necessity.’ There is a particularly noticeable disavowal of ‘moderantism,’ which he attempts to disassociate from patriotism, calling the latter ‘ardent by nature,’ and aligning the former with stagnation. The object of this speech was to justify the excesses of the Terror and through his rhetoric Robespierre attempted to estrange the notion of a moderate Revolution. 


Within the second speech, in particular, one may discern tenets that reflect the extent of paranoia and fear from the external and internal threats, ‘Outside, all the tyrant surround you; within, all the friends of tyranny are conspiring…,’ evinces the widespread conviction of the fragility of the nascent Republic. The motif of tyranny harks back to the original grievances of the Revolution and Robespierre’s repeated use of it serves as a rhetorical reminder of the Revolution’s primary driving force. Indeed, Robespierre begins his speech with references to the aims of the Revolution, ‘Peaceful enjoyment of liberty and equality,’ and the guiding sentiments, ‘love of good and a feeling for the homeland.’ However, for Robespierre, the motor or ‘mainspring’ to achieve such altruistic objectives were predicated on virtue, ‘this sublime sentiment assumes the primacy of public interest over all individual interests.’


The availability of source material around Robespierre is limited owing to the result of Thermidorian Reaction. William Doyle and Colin Haydon make the point that the Thermidorians defamed his legacy and executed most of his friends along with him, which therefore makes it difficult to gauge the extent to which Robespierre believed his own rhetoric. Nonetheless, his nickname The Incorruptible attests to the generally held view that he was punctilious to the cause of the Revolution. David Jordan states simply, ‘He somehow was the Revolution incarnate.’ From Robespierre’s speeches one can discern not only a forcefulness in the rhetoric, ‘the mainspring of popular government in revolution is virtue and terror,’ but also a sense of moral conviction; ‘The Greater its [Revolutionary government] power, the more it should be directed by good faith.’ Ostensibly virtue and terror were oppositional forces but Robespierre’s belief was that the Revolution and the need for expediency allowed for a union of these two principles. Moreover, the context of the Revolutionary Tribunal is important here. The need for swifter and more emphatic justice was the initial cause for creating the CPS, and justice was the bridge used by Robespierre, ‘Terror is nothing but…inflexible justice; it is therefore an emanation of virtue.’ Again, Robespierre repeats the threat of foreign invasion making terror essential, ‘Terror is…a consequence of...the homeland’s most pressing needs.’


Norman Hampson locates this speech in arising out of the need to urgently redefine the praxis of the revolution. Indeed one can clearly see a relentlessness in Robespierre’s tone, ‘slowness of the trials is equivalent to impunity.’ The theme of dichotomy, the categorisation of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ stemmed from the atmosphere of paranoia, which Robespierre emphasised in his speech. Those who did not agree with the need for swift justice were then liable to be accused of not supporting the Revolution. Hampson confirms this, stating that by February 1794 Robespierre saw moderates and extremists as all part of the foreign plot to destabilise and destroy the revolution. The theme of paranoia is emphatic throughout, yet Robespierre was keen to legitimate his and the CPS’ power within the mandate of the Assembly’s, ‘we entreat…not allow any individual to usurp…the ascendancy of the Assembly’s…will.’ Robespierre was aware of the need to further legitimise Terror as an organ of the Revolution. In his December speech, he references the need for those serving the Revolution to be starting from a position of moral duty and not self-service. Moreover, mention of the ‘energy’ and ‘enlightenment’ of the people points to the propagandistic aspect of the Terror, which Robespierre instigated. One often finds propaganda as being a fundamental component of revolution. The French Revolution, and indeed the Terror are distinct in the original and far reaching way in which revolutionary propaganda was institutionalised.




The Cult of the Supreme Being, inaugurated in June 1794, may be considered the centrepiece of the revolutionary propaganda. France was known prior to the Revolution as an incredibly Catholic country. The selling of Church lands along with the Civil Constitution of the Clergy had seen the dismantling of the first estate leaving a vacuum. The moral and social utility of religion was not missed by Robespierre. For Robespierre the formation of the Republic’s institution needed to be complemented by a sufficiently morally virtuous nation. Inculcating such values would be achieved through the nationalisation of the concept of God – the Cult of the Supreme Being. This cult was to be implemented through a reworking of national narrative; festivals were to be celebrated, the calendar rewritten, literary works were commissioned all designed to foster a new sense of national identity imbued with virtuous morals. Within Robespierre’s justification one may discern a strongly religious tone. Aside from the main theme of virtue, Robespierre’s assertion that ‘declaring war on divinity is only a diversion in favour of royalty’ indicates a religious aspect to his convictions. Frank Tallet supports this position, citing Robespierre’s moral perspective as linking the traits of divinity and the revolution through the bridge of virtue. The transformation of religious symbols into national symbols was repeated by the communist revolutions in Russia and China in the twentieth century. Indeed the Cult of Supreme Being seems to be the direct antecedent of the Cults of Personalities in those countries. The legacy of the Terror, however, extends much further.


The Legacy of the Terror


Terrorism today is a word of illocutionary force with derogatory implications. Historians such as Law cite the Reign of Terror as furnishing modern terrorism with its language and purpose. Definitions of terrorism vary greatly today with the most acknowledged being tactical, teleological, agent-centred and object-focused. The Reign of Terror can be defined using any one of these definitions. Nonetheless, Law recognises a crucial difference between French Revolutionary terrorism and succeeding terrorist movements. The use of uncompromising ideology and the rhetoric espoused during the Reign of Terror took place after the revolutionaries had taken power whereas succeeding movements tended to use the ideology and rhetoric as their starting point to gain power. Sophie Wahnich offers a slightly different assessment. Part of the Thermidorian Reaction was a process of discrediting Robespierre and all those who had supported the Reign of Terror. By emphasising the association between terror and Robespierre and their downfall, Wahinich asserts that the Thermidorians synthesised terrorism with the failure of groups outside the political mainstream. This was again in order to detract from the collective responsibility that Robespierre reiterated over the course of his speeches. Although Wahnich uses the blanket categorisation of ‘thermidorian’ without detailing specific or nuanced factions, her argument remains compelling. Part of the implicit connotations the word terrorism holds is indeed an assumption that its actors are outside the mainstream. In 1794 the Reign of Terror was instigated to consolidate the revolution’s survival at a time when it was far removed from the political norms of Europe. The Communist Revolution of 1917 and the red terror that accompanied it similarly occurred at a time when the political mainstream was opposed. These are both instances of top-down, state-sponsored terrorism and therefore the framework for judging them to be outside the mainstream must include an international context. Terrorism from the bottom-up necessarily assumes an anti-establishment starting position.




This essay embarked on a discussion of the Terror and, significantly, Robespierre’s justification of it. It has worked to dispel the association of revolutionary violence purely with the Reign of Terror. Violence existed before and after Robespierre’s tenure although the escalation of violence as a factor for Reign of Terror has not been ignored. Robespierre’s justification contains tropes that help historians identify why the Terror was a form of terrorism. The sentiment of justice and its use to legitimise quasi-legal violence is easily discernable through his rhetoric. The perpetuation of a sense of paranoia through legislation, again, is a key characteristic of terrorism. Providing an answer to all of the Revolution’s ills through a call to virtue and the substantiation of that call through the Cult of the Supreme Being complete this essay’s assertion that not only did the Reign of Terror constitute a form of terrorism but that it laid a blueprint for succeeding terrorist movements.




David Andress, David. ‘The Course of the Terror, 1793-94.’ In A Companion to the French Revolution, edited by Peter McPhee. Oxford: Blackwell, 2013.


Doyle, William and Haydon, Colin. ‘Robespierre: after two hundred years.’ In Robespierre, edited by Colin Haydon and William Doyle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.


Gough, Hugh. The Terror in the French Revolution. London: MacMillan Press, 1998.


Hampson, Norman. ‘Robespierre and the Terror.’ In Robespierre, edited by Colin Haydon and William Doyle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.


Law, Randall. Terrorism: A History. Cambridge: Polity, 2009.



Mayer, J., Arno. The Furies: violence and terror in the French and Russian Revolutions. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.



Robespierre, Maximilien. ‘Chapter 14. On the principles of political morality that should guide the national convention in the domestic administration of the Republic.’ In Maximilien Robespierre 1758-1794, edited by Slavoj Žižek, Jean Ducange. Translated by John Howe. London: Verso, 2007.



Tallet, Frank. ‘Robespierre and Religion.’ In Robespierre, edited by Colin Haydon and William Doyle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.


Wahnich, Sophie. In Defence of the Terror: Liberty or Death in the French Revolution. London: Verso, 2012.



Filed Under: Robespierre Terrorism French Revolution

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