The winter of 1793 France was failing apart economically, a bad harvest had led to food shortages, and the people were rioting in the streets. The peasants filled with anger had taken the Bastille a prison an armory and stolen the guns inside, now they were demanding a new government. All the while the nobility sat in their estates safe and willfully unaware of the chaos. That would soon change when January 21st king Louie the 16th was beheaded along with his wife Maria Antoinette in front of a crowed in Paris. The systematic slaughter that would come next wouldn’t be seen again in Europe again till the horrors of the holocaust.
The people of France had called for national assemblies in the past each time pressing for some sort of constitutional monarchy like their neighbors in Britain. This time that wouldn’t be case. The Jacobins an extremely pro republican group led by the megalomaniacal leader Robespierre had stolen the show. Robespierre thought of himself as a great enlightenment thinker and the only one truly capable to lead France into the new educated era but his method would prove to be as bloody as the tyrants he claimed to have surpass. In April 6th the Jacobins lead assembly and formed the ironically named committee of public safety to act as the government during the revolution and that September 17th they would pass The Law of Suspects which gave the Committee the power to arrest and try any one suspected to be loyal to the now dead king or any enemy of the revolution including members of the Catholic Church.
Over the course of 9 months 200,000 people were arrested. The fate of these people was pretty grim. The Committee had given the juries only 2 choice they could let the prisoner go or they could put them to the guillotine. 16,594 would be put to death at a rate of about 60 a day. Many whose only crime was being a priest or having a family member who was noble. Robespierre was quoted as saying “Terror is only justice: prompt, severe and inflexible; it is then an emanation of virtue; it is less a distinct principle than a natural consequence of the general principle of democracy, applied to the most pressing wants of the country.” So yah this guy was on ego trip that would make any TV villain proud.
Unfortunately the food shortages and economic woes that had led to Louie’s death were not going anywhere and neither was the people’s anger. They had tried to price fix the cost of food but that only made matters worse. The constant killings had started with the nobles that many felt were the cause of their poverty but now were running into the absurd and many feared they would be next. The national assembly met this time not oust a king but a dictator. The political parties of France might have had different views but the one thing they all agreed on was Robespierre and his Jacobin supporters had to go. So after much plotting behind closed and doors they all voted and arrested Robespierre and 82 of his closest friends. That July 27th 1794 they would all meet the fate they sent so many to.
The reign of terror started as a call for democracy but like so many revolutions before and after it lead only to bloodshed and poverty. It’s in chaos and panic of these moments that those who are willing to cross the line can gain power. The French knew didn’t want a despot but out of their lack of a clear idea of what they did want once they got control led to just that. In 1799 France would crown a new ruler Neapolitan Bonaparte who would lead them to many victories and finally bring France out of poverty but just like Louie the 16th and Robespierre history would yet again be at best conflicted on his record . It wouldn’t be till 1870 that France would finally have its stable democracy.