Under the Reign of King Louis the XIV, France still maintained a basically feudalistic society in which the monarch ruled with divine and absolute authority. This "ancien regime" had persisted for centuries throughout Europe. A stratified social class structure dominated French culture and politics. The privileged classes, including the clergy and the nobility, were exempt from most of the taxes passed on to the poorest rungs of French society: the farmers, the common laborers, and the peasants. This system obviously benefited the wealthy, upper classes of French society, who were unwilling to sacrifice their economic and political privilege for a more just society. However, the monarchy and the "ancien regime" came under heavy criticism by Enlightenment thinkers, philosophers, and economists. Voltaire attacked the Church and its absolutism, criticizing the Church's political and intellectual dominion. Denis Diderot advocated a new social order, while Montesquieu advocated the adaptation of an English-style constitution. Rousseau's notion of popular sovereignty was perhaps the most influential political philosophies that influenced the beginnings of the French Revolution. Although the Revolution was spurned by these Enlightenment thinkers, the political philosophies they espoused failed to take root, leading to the Reign of Terror.
The economic forces that led to the French Revolution also contributed greatly to the Reign of Terror in the 1790s. The Revolution started as a result of financial mismanagement on the part of the French government, who was contributing to overseas efforts in the New World. Participation in the American Revolution caused national debt, and in an attempt to avoid national bankruptcy, the Assembly of Notables was formed in 1787 to attract donations from the wealthy classes. However, the privileged people were unwilling to offer financial support. King Louis the XVI and his government were forced to quickly adopt a plan of financial reform.
The three class divisions in French society, the clergy, the nobility, and the commoners, held specific grievances toward the state. This generalized discontent and unrest led to the Revolution. The commoners, who were known collectively as the Third Estate, formed their own National Assembly amidst the political and economic turmoil in 1789. Some members of the other two estates, the clergy and the nobles, joined the efforts of the National Assembly, which called for a constitution. Their determination was solidified by the Oath of the Tennis Court, named after the meeting place they adopted after the King originally disbanded them. So influential was the National Assembly that the King relented to legalize the National Assembly, thus recognizing the grievances of the French common people. This small victory led to a mass outbreak of fervent idealism among not only the Third Estate of French culture but also among the clergy and the nobility, who were now willing to make the financial sacrifices they needed to bond ideologically with the common people. The nobility abolished feudalism and linked hands with the commoners in their overthrow of the monarchy. The National Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and in 1791 drafted a constitution that permitted a limited monarchy. The Church was hit hard by this early phase of the Revolution, as the National Assembly passed several measures opposing religious authority. Large numbers of nobles and princes, including the King himself, fled France in fear. The origins of the Reign of Terror can already be witnessed in this phase of the Revolution, in which a mob mentality took control of Paris and France in general. Although the political and social ideologies that underpinned the Revolution were admirable, the Revolution was fragmented and chaotic. Mobs, inspired by their victories, by their idealism, and their radicalism, turned revolutionary ideology on its back.
In the early 1790s, several political clubs and groups formed in Paris to contend in the newly formed Legislative Assembly. Two of the more famous clubs, which would become influential during the Reign of Terror, were the Girondists and the Jacobins, who spread their ideology of "liberty, equality, and fraternity." However, this spirit of liberty, equality, and fraternity would soon fall apart. First, the exiled nobility garnered international support for their cause and wanted to fight for their rights to regain control of France. Many revolutionaries and French Republicans also hoped that war would embolden the revolutionary cause and inspire other nations to their own popular revolutions. In 1792, the country engaged Austria in war, setting off a string of events that would eventually lead toward the Reign of Terror.
Generally, an atmosphere of suspicion and paranoia fueled the Reign of Terror. The King, accused of treasonous actions against the Republic, became a focal point of anger. While it was understandable that the mass revolt against the old regime rested on the high ideals and aspirations of Enlightenment thinkers, the new regime that replaced King Louis XVI was no better. The National Convention scrapped their earlier constitution in favor of a new one in 1792, after the mass storming of the Tuileries. A massacre of thousands of prisoners, called the September Massacres, was an example of mob rule that gave rise to the Reign of Terror. The National Convention held a meeting in 1792, with the goal of completely abolishing the monarchy. As a result, King Louis the XVI was convicted of treason and executed.
The execution of the King fueled royalist sentiments, which were supported by international support against the new Republic. France was still fighting Revolutionary wars abroad. The Republic became severely divided politically, as the Girondists and the Mountain party fought to gain power. The Girondists were basically centrists, while the Mountains were a far left leaning group who were affiliated with the Jacobins. The Mountains succeeded and summarily arrested and killed any persons who disagreed with their policies. The rise to power by the Jacobins in Paris marked the beginning of the Reign of Terror.
Leaving aside the democratic ideals to which the original revolution ascribed, and which were summarized by the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the Jacobins instituted a militaristic dictatorship in Paris. Their aims were to destroy their opposition both at home and abroad. Abandoning their philosophical ideals, the Jacobins overtook all social and political institutions in the name of restoring order to their country. The Committee of Public Safety, the Committee of General Security, and the Revolutionary Tribunal were examples of the Jacobin organizations that were formed when they first rose to power. Still holding to the illusion that true democracy was possible, the Jacobin government believed that the Reign of Terror was necessary to first induce a sense of calm and order in France. Moreover, international opposition and war made the Reign of Terror seem like a wartime necessity. The terror tactics used were employed in the name of self-preservation. The Jacobins filled the jails to capacity and ordered thousands of executions in order to assure the elimination of opposition forces. The leadership of Georges Danton and Maximilien Robespierre solidified the forces that enabled the government to practice its tyranny. Robespierre soon became the dominant force in the Reign of Terror and in 1794, Danton was executed because of his views espousing the abolition of the emergency measures that Robespierre was clinging to. Moreover, Robespierre ordered the execution of Jacques Hebert, whose glorification and deification of Reason became a popular movement. To counteract Hebert's influence, Robespierre instituted the Cult of the Supreme Being, a perfect example of the fanaticism gripping the time. Interestingly, the government under Robespierre still proclaimed the economic equality of all citizens. Robespierre still believed that a just society in France was possible, but that the Reign of Terror was necessary in order to squelch any opposition. The government abolished slavery and enforced economic equality among the people by imposing wage and price caps and introducing an artificially inflated paper currency called the assignats.
Robespierre was clearly out of control and the National Convention finally arrested and executed him in 1794. The National Convention then drafted a new constitution and established the Directory. The Directory was designed to be a centrist political body that balanced the needs of the leftist Jacobins and the right-wing royalists. Their initial economic reforms were beneficial in restoring the country after its being ravished by the revolution, but the Directory was wrought with internal and external political strife. Furthermore, international hatred for the Directory grew intense, which forced France to place Napoleon Bonaparte in power.
Therefore, the Reign of Terror left a scar on French politics that would lead to the Napoleonic years. The original revolutionary ideals of reason, liberty, equality, and fraternity were now covered in blood. Basically, the Reign of Terror is an example of failed implementation of lofty democratic ideals. The Enlightenment idealism that sparked off the French Revolution was completely transformed into fear and paranoia. The Reign of Terror has some elements of a massive revenge campaign against the oppressive regime of the monarchy. However, the popular revolt that led to the righteous overthrow of the monarchy and feudalism had no clear focus. The ideals of democracy and equality were thwarted by the chaos and fear that gripped the nation once the monarchy was overthrown. The Reign of Terror was in part a response to post-revolutionary chaos, and was a concerted effort to restore social, political, and economic order. However, the Jacobins resorted to means as cruel, if not crueler, than those used by the monarchs they hated. Far from promoting liberty and justice, the Jacobins executed people without regard to their class and without permitting any victim to defend themselves. Instead of implementing a democracy, based on the true and original Jacobin ideals of "liberty, equality, and fraternity," the Jacobins stripped French citizens from each of these rights. The Reign of Terror was a panic campaign, an example of what happens when a small group of men take control over a nation in a time of crisis. Ironically, Robespierre spoke out against tyranny and oppression and ascribed to Rousseau's political philosophy. Robespierre held fast to the abstract vision of democracy, popular and self-rule, and political virtue. However, he resorted to means that were antithetical to his original vision of the Revolution.