The Reign of Terror

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Explain why the French Revolution which seemingly began as a movement for equality and liberty developed into the Reign of Terror.

The Reign of Terror was a period in the French revolution characterised by brutal repression and executions which took place from 1793 to 1794. It was a time of bloodshed and murder, aimed to destroy counter revolutionaries and conspirators, and attack foreign enemies, which resulted in the deaths of around 20,000 to 40,000 people, and was viewed by Robespierre as an inevitable period to stabilise France.

The Reign of Terror was caused by the evolution of the French Revolution. The foreign attacks and counter revolutions further enhanced the French's protection of liberty and equality, caused great conspiracy and suspicion within the nation and the development of radical and extreme political groups of Frenchmen. The incapability, powerlessness and failure of the new government led to the growth of extreme Frenchmen who wanted their needs to be satisfied. These events occurred in the short three years, but completely changed the nature of the French Revolution, eventually leading to the Reign of Terror.

One of the causes was foreign war. The French Republic was proclaimed on 22nd September 1792, embracing new political ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity as outlined in the Declaration of the Rights of Man on 5th October, 1789. In order to firmly establish the new French Republic, the French Government declared war against Austria to prevent royalist uprisings. But this led to an increase of enemies of neighbouring countries who were still ruled by the monarchy and saw the Republic as a threat to their stability and privileges, such as Prussia, Sardinia, England and Holland. The fear of a revolution in their own countries was exemplified by the execution of King Louis XVI on 21st January 1792, who was a figurehead of the Ancien Regime, and as Saint-Just described, "a menace to the Republic". Therefore, Robespierre said, "The king must die so that the country can live." so that it could give way to the new ideas of the Republic. The constant fear of conspirators and foreign attacks forced the French Government to take violent and extreme measures to protect their values.

Counter revolutionaries was another reason. There were major revolts in Vendee, Lyon, Marseilles, Brittany, Normandy, Toulouse and some southern cities of France, where there were heavy densities of émigrés, recalcitrant priests, and opponents of the extreme policies proposed by the Jacobin Government. They resisted the anti-clerical policies, the selling of church land, the Civil Constitution of Clergy introduced on 12th July 1790, the Oath Law on 27th November 1790, and were hostile to conscription. Revolutions broke out as a result of refusing to support the Republic. The instability brought about by these revolutions led to the Government's suppressive measures by establishing the Revolutionary Tribunal, instituting the representatives-on-mission and setting up the Committee of Public Safety (CPS) to monitor suspected counter revolutionaries, supervise trials and carry out executions. The Law of Suspects was proposed which stated that all rebels with arms in their hands should be put to death. Therefore, in Vendee and Lyon, thousands were drowned in rivers, and at least 17,000 were guillotined without a trial. These brutal killings showed the heavy suspicion that existed in France during the Terror, and the consequences of opposing the Republic.

Another significant factor was the ineffectiveness and incapability of the new Government that failed to recognise and address the problems of the Third Estate which instigated the Revolution. The problems arose from bad weather conditions were famine, starvation and inflation of food prices. The tensions and discontent mounted and gave way to more social upheavals as the Government continued to demand high amount of taxes and when the...
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