V for Violence: The French Revolution

I can’t wait for all the conspirators to be liquidated.

Collot d’Herbois

The French Revolution is undoubtedly an epochal moment in the development of modern democratic principles. The question, therefore, regarding the role of violence in the Revolutionary process, to which modern democracy owes so much, is important. It is only natural to consider how a movement inspired by the Enlightenment can be made sense of when the modern understanding of terrorism is itself rooted within the French Revolution.

However, assessing the role of the violence is, perhaps surprisingly, uncompromisingly simple. The bloodshed, unwaveringly led by Maximilien Robespierre (1758-1794) during the Terror, served to emphatically enforce the general will. This fundamental explanation can be broken down further into three contributory factors. Firstly, the violence arose from a desperate desire to protect the Revolution at any cost. Secondly, it sought to purify the Revolution from the contamination of its enemies. Thirdly, as the Revolution encountered enemies at the gate, in addition to those being mercilessly suppressed within, the violence also served to mobile Revolutionary France’s war effort. Certainly, for the Revolution’s achievements to be sustained, blood had to be spilt.

The historiographical interpretation of the violence within the Revolution is commonly explained as having the overarching ambition of enforcing the general will, as perceived by George Mosse. This is a convincing summary of a Revolution which was longer sustained and more violent than any that came before it. This is not to say that the violence was part of a grand plan, as Stanley Hoffman explained. Considering the lack of experience the Revolutionaries had in governing, Hoffman’s explanation of a slide into violence is a persuasive understanding of the escalation from rhetoric to terror. Historians from the Jacobin or Marxist camps have drawn parallels between the achievements of Robespierre and Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924). Lenin certainly recognised the value of terror from studying the French Revolution.

Robespierre’s writings form a treatise on the use of violence to enforce the general will. Robespierre saw violence as indispensable. His political opponents felt the same. The only divergence was which faction would triumph. The unleashing of the Terror and the September Massacres were not ideas discussed on the tennis court during that lofty day of June 20 1789. As the Revolution evolved, a hatred of foreign invaders, aristocrats, priests and prostitutes, combined with a failing bourgeois Assembly, gave rise to a truly murderous method of Revolution. Violence, explained Simon Schama, was the energising spring from which all the Revolutionaries drank.

The Revolution had to be protected, and a violent obsession with blood, death and sacrifice were essential components in its mentality. There could only be sanguinary consequences of such an obsession. When the Bastille was assailed in an act of mob violence on 14 July 1789, the fuse of violence had been lit. The symbolism of destroying a royal edifice, which had been assaulted in the desire for ammunition, and then annihilating its protectors, was obvious. The gloves of the Revolution were off, as, in fact, were the heads of its opponents. With the fall of the Bastille, further inspiration was given for additional instances of revolt.

Shortly after the signing of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in August 1789, the National Assembly had established committees to report on potential insurrectionary plots. Early optimism for rapid democratisation was foiled by political wrangling and a lack of co-operation by King Louis XVI (1754-1793), leading to a standoff between a new assembly and its intended constitutional monarch. Under pressure, the king’s only hope for exerting control lay with the army. With this in mind, on 10 August 1792, a 20,000 strong insurrectionary force launched an attack on the Tuileries. Resistance was brutally overcome. With the fall of the palace, came the fall of royal authority. The sans-culottes‘ involvement in the Revolution peaked with this show of force. Key as they were to the overthrow of the monarchy, the sans-culotes had also gained political power. The mob was afforded acquiescence for their goals because their inclination for violence served the Revolutionary desire for consolidating the general will.

The government moved to create a climate of fear, allowing them to engender a proclivity for violence from its supporters. Now no longer merely an unremarkable lawyer from northern France, Robespierre was playing a key role in an agitated Paris. Robespierre had switched from being an opponent of capital punishment to boldly declare, “Regretfully I speak this fatal truth – Louis must die because the nation must live.” Robespierre, on the eve of joining the Committee of Public Safety in 1793, wrote a catechism which stated that traitors and conspirators must be punished, and criminals who outraged liberty must be made a terrible example of. To protect the Revolution, Robespierre moved to purify the nation, balefully declaring after the attempted flight of the king:

What scares me, Gentlemen, is precisely which seems to reassure everyone else. Here I need you to hear me out, I say once again, what scares me is what reassures all the others: it is that since this morning, all our enemies speak the same language as us…look about you, share my fear, and consider how all now wear the same mask of patriotism.

Maximilien Robespierre

Following the execution of Louis XVI on 21 January 1793, a crisis emerged amidst military defeat, widespread rebellion, economic turmoil, and unhappiness among the sans-culotte. Robespierre was concerned about traitors in disguise, who he suspected were the true leaders of the opposition. Indeed, just a year on from the beginning of the Revolution, Robespierre’s paranoia had been noted within the Parisian press and by fellow deputies. What better way to purify than by violence, that cure-all remedy.

Robespierre’s view of purification did not arise from God. The basis for his quasi-religious doctrine arose from the philosophes, as noted by Francois Furet. To be sure, Montesquieu’s (1689-1755) writings on vertu deeply influenced Robespierre, who argued that terror wielded by the virtuous was the refuge of the poor. Robespierre’s desire was to purify the Revolution by removing its pollutants, although as the terror escalated, what constituted impure became more difficult to pinpoint. Ultimately, Robespierre understood that he owed his political power to the violence of the people. He needed their hands and sharp instruments to operate on France’s gangrenous limbs.

Another influential philosophe, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), wrote of his wish to see reform, though not revolution. Such philosophes believed that superior principles could be discovered in an era of progress; a world view with significant democratic implications. The impetus of the work of Rousseau promulgated an understanding that, if it were not for the traitors and criminals, division and conflict, themselves unnatural, would be avoided. With this understanding, there could be violent Revolution and yet no problem of a contradiction with Rousseau’s wish for peaceful reform.


The tennis court oath of 20 June 1789. Such glorious, inspirational beginnings, but much bloodshed was to follow.

The violence, meted out dispassionately as it was, certainly focused on its enemies. As far as Robespierre was concerned, a friend could quickly become an impurity to be eliminated. Antoine-Claire Thibaudeau (1765-1855), Robespierre’s fellow Montagnard, noted the death penalty of Robespierre’s former allies, Camille Desmoulins (1760-1794) and Georges Danton (1759-1794), was handed down simply “for having spoken of moderation”. Thomas Paine (1737-1809), who had argued that the king should be exiled and not executed, was only spared the guillotine by a misplaced mark of chalk. To be sure, the greatest number of executions occurred in areas that were either home to federalism or blighted by civil war. Moreover, in departments which were not battlegrounds, there were no executions at all. To address the point still further, in several other districts, executions ran into less than double figures. In a time of war and Revolution, many innocent people were also slaughtered, but the violence rained down principally on the enemies of the Revolution.

To be sure, a potent Counter-Revolution was formed by forces from within and without France, who had their reasons to attempt to scupper the movement. Whilst the demise of Louis XVI pleased many within the Revolution, it led to the creation of many a foe, both in France and further afield. For those who were already against the Revolution, it strengthened their resolve. But resistance was not only futile, worse still, it gave the Revolutionaries greater impetus to enforce bloodier despotism. Mosse succinctly described the Committee’s mode of rule as “the despotism of liberty against tyranny” to target its enemies. For the most part, these enemies were real, though sometimes they were imagined. High spirits could occasionally mean there was little time for such distinctions. Through violence and the fear of violence, compliance was forced on an uneasy public, who were manipulated into being part of the Committee’s inclusive democracy.

Two rather mediocre attempts to assassinate Robespierre in late May 1794 led to the Committee responding with a streamlined Revolutionary tribunal. This updated dispensing of justice did not allow for a defending counsel, and a decision could be rendered on the grounds of the defendant’s moral disposition, guided by the jury’s conscience. If the accused were convicted, there could be no other punishment than death. When it came to purification, there was simply no time to waste. Writing to Robespierre back in November 1793, Collot d’Herbois (1749-1796), administering the Terror in Lyon, reported enthusiastically, “I can’t wait for all the conspirators to be liquidated.”

In the spring of 1792, to arrest a distracted internal scene of unrest and disunity, France had declared war. This brazen declaration sharpened many minds towards the Revolutionary cause. You are either with us, or against us. Threatened from within and menaced from abroad, violence was a prerequisite. The existential concern was not simply the threat of a foreign incursion causing a lack of prestige or a cessation of territory. The war had to be won to consolidate the political and social victories thus far gained. The role of this violence was to keep France on a nimble, patriotic, uncompromising war-footing. The French, for the most part, were suitably inflamed for the task at hand, and embraced war in the spirit of ‘conquer or die’. There was a pronounced increase in violence following the foreign invasion, with patriots afraid to leave Paris to fight for fear of a Counter-Revolution in the capital.

The ill-advised Brunswick Manifesto, which threatened a foreign invasion should Louis XVI be harmed, was an inadvertent incitement of Revolutionary enthusiasm. French patriots did not take kindly to this external meddling in their affairs. It was an ideal rallying call for violent opposition. The Revolutionaries utilised this feeling of resistance to whip up a violent response to enemies at home as well as abroad. Indeed, the French people were not wrong in suspecting that the king was a traitor. Louis XVI had begun to regard the work of the Assembly as merely a stop-gap. Furthermore, it was also widely believed that Marie Antoinette (1755-1793) was betraying military secrets to Austria. The duplicitousness of the royal couple would ultimately lead to their deaths. All were equal under the purifying guillotine.

Supervising the levée, deputies on mission were sent out from Paris to the provinces. The deputies were tasked with overseeing a smooth process of conscription, but also with the responsibility for ensuring that any disloyalty within the army command would be flushed out. The representatives also played a part in unleashing violence on non-conformists. Indeed, to some, Revolutionary ambitions were alien concepts which offered little. Unconvinced peasants in the countryside were resentful of the attack on their way of life. Conscription served to push them over the edge. The government was not ready for the scale of the insurrection, where resistance to conscription transformed apathy into anger. Middling nobles, too, were also opposed to the changes within France, and the issue of toleration of Protestantism was an especially contentious issue. The violence employed by the Revolutionaries was not only about securing support from patriots, but also crushing those who were admonished as traitors.

The Committee of Public Safety were young men leading a Revolution with a perilously difficult task of controlling its direction. Akin to a scared child holding on desperately to the lead of a wild, snarling dog, violence and terror were the easiest solutions. Certainly, this method was effective. But, as with much in life, you can have too much of a good thing. Eventually, Robespierre’s autocracy lost touch with the nation. The regime believed they could simply unleash the Terror on its critics to remain in control. Eventually, the violence ceased to be effective. Its role to enforce the general will was no longer working – it had become Robespierre’s will, not the will of an increasingly cynical, exhausted France.

Looking to establish control, the Convention undertook stringent measures to bolster its power, with the result being the unleashing of extreme violence. Robespierre and his allies had protected the Revolution. They had purified the nation. And they had pushed the nation’s sons into total war to defend France. But on July 28 1794, the Robespierre faction with the Committee were themselves eliminated, thereby removing their enforcement of the general will. Indeed, much like a tatty wicker basket receiving a freshly severed head, the violence had served its bloody purpose.

Bibliography for V for Violence: The French Revolution

V. Erlenbusch, ‘Terrorism and revolutionary violence: the emergence of terrorism in the French Revolution’, Critical Studies On Terrorism, 8, 2015, pp.193-210.

H. Gough, The Terror in the French Revolution, (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 1998).

J. Hardman, The French Revolution Sourcebook, (London: Arnold, 2002).

C. Hitchens, Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man: A Biography, (Tantor Audio, 2007), ch.2.

S. Hoffmann, ‘A Note on the French Revolution and the Language of Violence’, Past & Present, 116, 1987, pp.149-156).

G. Mosse, The French Revolution, iTunes University, University of Wisconsin Madison, 22 May 2012. Note: Originally recorded for the WHA radio series, University of the Air.

P. McPhee, French Revolution, 1789-1799, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

P. Pilbeam, ‘Revolution, Restoration(s) and beyond’, in M. Alexander (ed.), French History Since Napoleon, (London: Arnold, 1999).

R. Scurr, Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution, (London: Vintage, 2007).

D. Sutherland, The Modern Scholar: Liberty and Its Price: Understanding the French Revolution, (Recorded Books, 2009).

D.G. Wright, Revolution & Terror in France 1789-95, Second edition, (London: Longman, 1990).

A. Zamoyski, Phantom Terror: The Threat of Revolution and the Repression of Liberty 1789-1848, Audiobook edition, (Harper Collins, 2014).

Thanks also to E. DeWald for corrections.