“Citizens, did you want a revolution without a revolution?” – Maximilien Robespierre
As one of the most chaotic revolutions in history, the French Revolution holds a unique legacy, especially in the West. The early years of the Revolution were fueled by Enlightenment ideals, seeking the social overthrow of the caste system that gave the royalty and aristocracy decisive advantages over the lower classes. But history remembers the French Revolution in a very different way, as the same leaders who sought a more democratic system while out of power devolved into establishing an incredibly repressive tyranny of their own. Robespierre, the instrumental figure of the Reign of Terror, would himself become a victim of it in July 1794. By then it is estimated that at least 16,000 people were guillotined and possibly 25,000 more were summarily executed across France.
5. Storming of the Bastille
On the morning of July 14th, 1789, a group comprising craftsmen and merchant men decided to go to the Invalides to steal some weapons. The mob stole 28,000 riffles there, however no powder was to be found. They knew that a pile of powder was stocked in the Bastille, a prison that was a symbol of the King’s absolute power. So they decided to attack it.
The Bastille was only guarded by a few soldiers. The crowd was not big enough to impress the guards. The Marquis de Launay, fearing the growing anger among the mob, decided to meet with some of their representatives inside the prison. He also hoped to buy time, as he was expecting a rescue team to arrive shortly and to help him secure the stronghold.
But the negotiations ended when a group of revolutionaries entered the Bastille. The guards were ordered to fire, killing hundreds of people. The path of the revolt completely changed when the rescue team showed up and decided not to fight against but side with the mob. With their canons and their professional soldier skills, they brought victory to the people of France against Louis XVI’s guards in a matter of hours.
At 4 pm, the Marquis de Launay surrendered and allowed the mob to enter the Bastille. The guards were violently killed and the Marquis de Launay was beheaded, with his head then put on a stake and carried all through the city as a sign of victory.
On that day, July 14th, 1789 the King wrote “Nothing” in his diary entry for the day. That was the result of his day’s hunting. When the Duc de Liancourt informed the King of what happened at the Bastille, the King asked his adviser “is this a revolt?” and he was answered, “No Majesty, this is a revolution.”
4. March to Versailles
In Paris, the high bread prices and shortages of bread led several Parisian women to organize a protest. On October 5, 1789 they gathered at one of the busy market places in Paris and were soon joined by about 10,000 other people. The mob then decided to march on the royal palace of Versailles and demand bread from the King himself. They were armed with kitchen tools and started the 12 mile journey to the palace.
But the majority of the rioters remained. The atmosphere was becoming more and more toxic and rumors began circulating that the Queen would use her influence to make the King change his decision and take action against them.. At six in the evening, the King appeared and proclaimed that he would accept the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the August degrees. Most of the royal guards were by now tired and placed at the far end of Versailles. Only 61 guards remained scattered throughout the royal palace. Lafayette arrived, hurried to the King and his troops joined the Parisians already located in front of the palace.
The King was convinced that his appearance would stabilize the tension among the crowds still occupying the main court. As he stepped out on the balcony to cries of “Vive le Roi!” from the crowd, the King proclaimed his intention to travel back to Paris. After he went back inside, the mob then began demanding to see “the Queen on the balcony!”. Marie Antoinette received a less enthusiastic welcome. The hostile crowd was armed and pointed their weapons at her but then became deeply impressed with her dignified appearance as she stood alone on the balcony with her arms serenely crossed over her chest. The atmosphere soon calmed down and Lafayette used the moment to kneel before the Queen and kiss her hand. The rioters then began shouting “Vive la Reine!”.
3. Flight to Varennes
2. Execution of Louis XVI
The execution of Louis XVI, by guillotine, took place on January 21, 1793 at the Place de la Révolution in Paris. After an assault on the Tuileries on August 10, 1792, Louis was arrested and imprisoned in the Temple prison with his family. He was tried for high treason and convicted in an almost unanimous vote (while no one voted ‘not guilty,’ several deputies abstained), and condemned to death by a narrow majority. His execution made him the first victim of the Reign of Terror. His wife Marie Antoinette was guillotined on October 16, 1793.
Louis’ hostility towards the National Assembly had aroused discontent with his rule. Public opinion began to turn against him after he was returned under guard to Paris from trying to escape to Varennes.
Arriving at the foot of the guillotine, Louis XVI looked for a moment at the instruments of his execution and asked the executioner why the drums had stopped beating. He came forward to speak, but there were shouts for the executioners to get on with their work. As he was strapped down, he said “My people, I die innocent!” Then, turning towards his executioners, Louis XVI declared “Gentlemen, I am innocent of everything of which I am accused. I hope that my blood may cement the good fortune of the French.” The blade fell at 10:22 am. One of the assistants of the executioner showed the head of Louis XVI to the people, and a huge cry of “Vive la Nation! Vive la République!” arose and an artillery salute rang out which reached the ears of the imprisoned royal family.
1. Reign of Terror
After the death of Louis XVI in 1793, the Reign of Terror began. The first victim was Marie Antoinette. She had been imprisoned with her children after she was separated from Louis. They took her son Louis Charles from her (often called the lost dauphin, or Louis XVII). He disappeared under suspicious circumstances. The new instrument of justice was the guillotine. Public executions were considered educational. Women were encouraged to sit and knit during trials and executions. The Revolutionary Tribunal ordered the execution of 2,400 people in Paris by July 1794. Ultimately, more than 30,000 people were killed.
The Terror was intended to fight the enemies of the revolution. Most of the people rounded up were not aristocrats, but ordinary people. A man could simply go to the guillotine for saying something critical of the revolutionary government. If an informer happened to overhear, that was all the that was needed to convict. Committees around France were encouraged to arrest “suspected persons, those who, either by their conduct or their relationships, by their remarks or by their writing, are shown to be partisans of tyranny and federalism and enemies of liberty” (Law of Suspects, 1793). Civil liberties were suspended. The promises of the Declaration of the Rights of Man were cast aside. In the words of Maximilien Robespierre, “Softness to traitors will destroy us all.”
Robespierre was the mastermind of all of the Terror. He was the leader of the Committee of Public Safety, the executive committee of the National Convention, and the most powerful man in France. He explained how terror would lead to the Republic of Virtue in a speech to the National Convention. The old maxim “the end justifies the means” describes Robespierre’s policy.
Even Robespierre’s own followers started to believe the Terror must be stopped. When Robespierre called for a new purge in 1794, he seemed to threaten the other members of the Committee of Public Safety. The Jacobins had had enough. Statesman Pierre Cambon rose in the Convention and said “It is time to tell the whole truth. One man alone is paralyzing the will of the Convention. And that man is Robespierre.” Others quickly rallied to support him. Robespierre was arrested and sent to the guillotine the next day, the last victim of the Reign of Terror.