Causes of the Reign of Terror

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The reign of terror was a period of violence in which occurred from 1793- 1794 after the strong onset of the French Revolution. It was a time of fierceness and anger, resulting in the deaths of thousands of people living in France at that period of time. The terror followed the trial and execution of King Louis XVI in 1793 and was incited by the conflict between the Girondins and Jacobins. Soon after, King Louis’ wife, Marie Antoinette, was executed in the guillotine- the new form of constitutionalist justice. Many of the people who were executed during this period of time were not aristocrats, but ordinary people who may have only stated a critical thought or judgment going against the revolutionary government. Many believe that once Robespierre became leader of the Committee of Public Safety, he overpowered France and dominated the public, leading to the terror. Some believe that the terror occurred to stop counter-revolutionaries, such as the War in Vendée, and happened because of the factions between the Jacobins and Girondins.

The Reign of Terror was the governments reaction’s to counter-revolutionary threats occurring particularly in the Vendée region of France in 1793. Here the public armed themselves in order to attempt to overthrow the Republic and restore the monarchy to the way it was. The counter-revolutionaries in this region were strongly against Robespierre and upset he had launched a movement to de-Christianize the nation and persecute the Church- massacring priests, destructing churches and destroying religious images. During this time all of the people of Vendée loyally stood by the Church and the Catholic monarchy of France and could clearly be distinguished wearing Rosaries around their necks at all times and the symbol of the Sacred Heart of Jesus sewn onto their hats. The people of Vendée fought hard against the French revolutionary government, many calling the War in Vendée the first modern ‘genocide.’ A French general of the time, Francois Joseph Westermann, stated “We are shooting them non-stop... Mercy is not a revolutionary sentiment," exaggerating the intensity of the situation in Vendée and the success of the revolutionary government against the West region, supposedly leading to the ‘Reign of Terror’ in France.

A number of people living in France, including nobles, priests and the bourgeoisie fled the country during the French Revolution, abandoning the struggle the country was going through. Emigrating, they formed armed groups and moved to neighboring countries, acquiring the name of émigrés. In 1791, legislation against the émigrés was passed by the King stating that anyone caught emigrating would be punished with a death sentence, namely the guillotine. Due to the politics of the time period, France was inevitably drawn to War with Austria and its allies, including Prussia, declaring War against them on 20 April 1792. Robespierre opposed the occurrence of War due to the fact that it would strengthen the monarchy and the military as well as attract the anger of ordinary people in Austria and its neighbouring countries. The Jacobins increased the size of the army, determined to have more soldiers who demonstrated their patriotism and trained ability effectively. The Republican Army of France dominated the battles and were able to overcome the Austrians, Prussians, British and Spanish- the countries against the revolutionary government, and the strong violence was a large part in why the Reign of Terror began.

Factional disputes in the Convention caused for the replacement of the Girondins with the Jacobins as they desired for a centralized government in France. This dispute could have been one of the main causes of the Reign of Terror breaking out. They wanted to keep Paris as the national capital city and to have the temporary government of the time to take control of the economy as a whole. The Jacobins were able to utilize their power of the sans-culottes and gained much of the...
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