Little Bits of History

Reign of Terror

Posted in History by patriciahysell on July 27, 2013
Maximilien Robespierre

Maximilien Robespierre

July 27, 1794: Maximilien Robespierre is arrested. The French Revolution (1789-1799) took France from an absolute monarchy to a form of government based on citizen rights. The Revolution led to the Reign of Terror and later brought about changes throughout Europe. France went from monarchy, to republic, to a return to a constitutional monarchy, and two empires. Finally she emerged as modern day France – a republic headed by a President who appoints a Prime Minister. There is also a bicameral National Assembly.

On September 5, 1793 the period known as the Reign of Terror began. Fifteen months after the Revolution started, disagreements over leadership arose. Both the Girondins and the Jacobins wished to control France. Girondins were a political faction with shared ideals rather than a true political party. Jacobins were also united by principles, only more “left wing” since they sat on the left side of the Parliament Hall. They slowly amassed power and the initial support of the citizens of France.

Robespierre was born in 1758 to a dysfunctional family. He was a gifted student and studied law. He was granted a judgeship in 1782 when he was just 23 years old. He renounced his role as judge after refusing to pronounce the death penalty. He returned to the practice of law representing the poor. He believed in representative government and was sent to Paris. There he joined the Jacobin Club. He vehemently opposed the Austrian War. King Louis XVI was executed and Robespierre rose in power in the National Convention.

With the king’s death, the country was thrown into chaos. Robespierre attempted to root out the enemy within Paris. There is no accurate count of the number of enemies Robespierre found. Guillotine executions were in the thousands with numbers from 17,000 to 40,000 cited. Even within the Jacobins, there were disagreements and as power shifted once again, Robespierre was arrested. During the struggle to detain him, he was shot in the jaw (it may have been a suicide attempt). He did not have long to suffer. He, himself, was under the guillotine blade the following day. He was 36.

“To punish the oppressors of humanity is clemency; to forgive them is cruelty.”

“This is no trial; Louis is not a prisoner at the bar; you are not judges; you are – you cannot but be – statesmen, and the representatives of the nation. You have not to pass sentence for or against a single man, but you have to take a resolution on a question of the public safety, and to decide a question of national foresight. It is with regret that I pronounce, the fatal truth: Louis ought to perish rather than a hundred thousand virtuous citizens; Louis must die, so that the country may live.”

“Terror is only justice: prompt, severe and inflexible; it is then an emanation of virtue; it is less a distinct principle than a natural consequence of the general principle of democracy, applied to the most pressing wants of the country.”

“Crime butchers innocence to secure a throne, and innocence struggles with all its might against the attempts of crime.” – all from Maximilien Robespierre

This article first appeared at in 2009. Editor’s update: On October 10, 1789 Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin offered the following six articles for consideration at the National Assembly. 1. All offenses of the same kind would receive the same punishment regardless of the rank or status of the offender. 2. All death penalty sentences would be carried out by decapitation. 3. The guilty party’s family should not be discriminated against or tainted by guilt. 4. Only judges could publicly reprimand. 5. The condemned person’s property should not be confiscated. 6. The body of the condemned should be given to the family (upon request) to be buried and no reference to the nature of death should be registered. The guillotine was not the doctor’s invention, rather it was created by a committee headed by Antoine Louis. Death was supposed to be quick and relatively painless. Guillotin was embarrassed by his name being associated with the device and tried to get the device called something else.

Also on this day: What’s up Doc? – In 1940, Bugs Bunny made it to the silver screen.
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes – In 1586, Sir Walter Raleigh brings tobacco to England.
Olympic Bomb – In 1996, a bomb goes off at the Atlanta Summer Olympics.

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