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Book Review: The Coming of the Terror in the French Revolution

“It is not by speeches and majority resolutions that the great questions of the time are decided... but by iron and blood.” So spoke Bismarck after the failures of the revolutionary year of 1848, a year whose actors very consciously sought to either repeat or avoid the years of 1793-94. But in this book author Timothy Tackett persuasively argues the opposite – that it was the emotional currents and fluctuations of the French Revolution that ultimately, but not inevitably, led to its bloodiest and best-remembered period.

I came across this book in the library and was immediately engrossed when I realized what it was. For a long time I wondered why there were not more “emotional” histories: monographs that cover an event or time period through the emotional reactions it inspired in the people who lived through them. The French Revolution is in many respects an ideal subject for such a treatment, given that it was a simultaneously transformative and utterly unexpected; but that it also came, not entirely uncoincidentally, at a time of great expansion in literacy and literary expression. The vast number of diaries, letters, pamphlets, newspapers, treatises, etc. that the Revolution produced no doubt made it vastly easier to approach with this framing. The book suggest this itself in its structure; despite it being the central event, it falls to one of the shortest chapters to cover the bulk of the Reign of Terror and the “Great Terror”, as all the previously prolific writers of Paris simultaneously mute themselves in an attempt to avoid Madame Guillotine.

Tackett assumes the reader knows most of the details of the standard narrative; little attempt is made to sketch out the larger situation at any given time and much of the material is structured thematically rather than strictly linearly. It helps to know the differences between the National Assembly and Legislative Assembly and National Convention (for this review’s purposes I will instead refer in general to “the legislature”). The pre-revolutionary political situation is covered in a scant six pages in favour of devoting attention instead to the worldview and circumstances of those who would become the revolutionary élites that the book primarily draws from. They were largely bourgeois, middle-class types: lawyers especially, but also shopkeepers, merchants, artisans. They were religious, but not exceptionally devout. They had no great criticisms of the nobility; they had little inkling or expectation that the current social structure would ever changed, and seemed content to relying on the existing system of noble patronage. They were men of reason, and unlike the peasantry took pride that they were not prone to being swayed by rumour and conspiracy. And most notable of all, Tackett stresses that among those Third Estate members who had written political pamphlets prior to the Revolution, only one – no points for guessing who! - gave indications of paranoia. So what could explain how these devotees of liberal enlightenment found themselves waist-deep in blood five years later?

When the Revolution came, it did so suddenly and by surprise. When Louis XVI called the Estates in order to address the state of France’s finances, the future revolutionaries of the Third Estate only had modest ambitions: lifting of total press censorship, freedom of assembly, greater influence in government for commoners, some kind of permanent representative legislature. The Estates-General convened on May 4, 1789, and after a sudden and intense period of political and class awakening, within six weeks the Third Estate deputies had broken off from the rest and formed a hostile and sovereign legislature, which immediately declared the entire existing tax system as illegal. The famous Tennis Court Oath where they swore to write a constitution followed a few days later, and a week after that the clergy and noble deputies grudgingly joined. Paranoia suddenly grew when foreign mercenaries began massing in Versailles – could Louis merely be feigning acceptance, while preparing to crush them? - but after the storming of the Bastille the King appeared to back down, coming before the legislature to give his blessing to their self-appointed powers. The patriot elites decided that the violence, while unfortunate, had regrettably been necessary. This basic cycle – enthusiasm about reforms, followed by sudden anxiety that they might be reversed, menaced by vast conspiracies that justify further violence – becomes the vicious circle of Tackett’s emotional narrative. One small-town barrister wrote of how keenly he felt the “striking contrast between good and evil, anguish and hope, joy and sadness, which so rapidly follow upon one another.” This turbulent emotional cascade is the throughline of the book.

The years of 1789-93 provided an incredible series of events to feed both anguish and hope. I cannot and will not attempt to write at any length about the course of the Revolution and its consequences because it is beyond the scope of this post (and the book it is trying to review). There’s a reason historians tend to use 1789 as the starting point of modernity. All of a sudden the philosophies which dominate the modern consciousness emerged all at once; from the void stepped out nationalism, feminism, socialism, conservatism, atheism. Even single days could seemingly change everything: on August 4, 1789 a staged speech of a liberal noble renouncing his seigneurial dues resulted in an “electric whirlwind” of changes as other deputies got caught up in the emotions of the moment. By the end of the night not just seigneurial dues but also noble courts, exclusive noble hunting rights, a variety of excise and consumption taxes that were noble-exempt, sale of offices, the entire patronage-appointed royal administration, Church tithes, and a series of other noble and clergy privileges had been eliminated: feudalism felled in a single day. The rapid and unprecedented shifts generated a wave of euphoria among the French commons. An institution that had ruled largely unchallenged and unchanged for over 1,000 years suddenly seemed mutable. Tackett frequently refers to the “spirit of ‘89”: this emergent idealism and utopianism that anything and everything could be changed, that one could create a new future for mankind. He quotes numerous onlookers who were simply stunned by events: familiar themes in the responses were that entire centuries had been condensed into a span of days. Many declared that only divine intervention could have led such a breathtaking transformation; churches across the country held special ceremonies so that people could give thanks to Heaven. Spontaneous instances of collective oath-taking broke out across the nation, swearing allegiance to the decrees of the legislature.

But there were threats to the gains that had been made. The virtually-overnight abolition of all the nation’s institutions did not come without a major breakdown of order. With the traditional power structures dismantled, regions were forced to create ad-hoc replacements of their own, with varying legitimacy. At the same time an enormous surge of new media entered the market now free from censorship, praising ideals of freedom, equality, and abolition of hierarchies. Army units mutinied, police and judges fled their posts, urban workers striked while peasants refused to pay all taxes. Dissident nobles had begun leaving in July and August 1789, fleeing from the potential of violence or seeking the aid of those who might restore their privileges. When the Church was subordinated to the national government in 1790, about half of the nation’s 50,000 priests refused to swear allegiance to the legislature instead of Rome, and many patriots feared what betrayals might fester in the regions these refractory priests held sway. Mass psychosis gave these mainly rural, humble priests extraordinary resources and influence, but some grand conspiracies were true. The King indeed was merely feigning cooperation with the legislature, and in June 1791 made a failed attempt to flee the country, leaving behind proof that he was conspiring with escaped nobles and foreign kings to crush the Revolution. The threat of war from reactionary foreign powers fuelled endless anxiety.

It was this simultaneously chaotic, hopeful and paranoid society that tumbled confidently into a near-uninterrupted stretch of wars that would last a further 23 years. Initially during the Revolution there was an international sense of fraternity: in May 1790 the legislature and agreed that never again would France declare war on a brother nation. 18 months later, a sense of bellicose nationalism was aggressively pushing a war on the entire world, a “universal crusade for liberty.” Confidence was extremely high: “if we firmly desire it, we can liberate Europe in six months and purge the earth of all tyrants” one patriot predicted. The initial failures of the war and the sudden (suspicious?) surrender of key French forts fuelled a rise of extremism and violence across the nation which ended in the toppling of the King and the declaration of the Republic. Just as this occurred, a wave of French victories followed which simultaneously ended the internal violence and convinced the radicals of what they had always suspected: France’s failures were solely due to internal treachery. After the execution of Louis XVI, the now-invincible Republic declared war on Spain and the UK as well. “One more enemy for France will bring one more triumph for liberty,” declared one patriot. It was under this pressure of a four-front war that Paris demanded conscripts from the provinces, sparking a massive and long-feared counter-revolution in the West of the country. As war without and within threatened to consume the nation, the heat turned up on the government: could they secretly be traitors too? A mob stormed the legislature in June 1793 and forced the legislature to order their arrests. This launched a fresh wave of federalist revolts as many cities turned their back on the legislature. Seeing no alternative, the new Revolutionary government – now led by the infamous Committee of Public Safety - announced the levée en masse in August. The entire nation would be mobilized: young men would fight (1.5 million called up in the first round of conscription alone), women and others would support the war effort. The obvious question loomed: if all France’s fighting men were at the frontiers, who would defend the women and children against the vast number of internal traitors? There was only one solution.

Tackett rejects several of the traditional theories for how the Terror came to be. He takes a dim view to ideological explanations: the Revolutionary elites held nothing that could be coherently described as an ideology, let alone one that would inevitably end in Terror. Describing them as “liberal” functions only as a crude short-hand; they did not see themselves as such and some of what are now fundamental tenets of liberalism, like freedom of religion, was something the Revolution only stumbled into accidentally. The participants themselves in their writings and actions more typically drew from Classical writers than from recent Enlightenment philosophers. The Revolution itself was an accident of history and going into it those who would lead it had no inkling that they would oversee or even desire anything more than the limited aims they had when the Estates-General convened. Marxist theories on class struggle are similarly rejected: the most significant period of reforms, 1789-90, featured a legislature that was majority-composed of former members of the nobility and clergy. View of social class was much more analogous to that of immutable race, and many quoted in the book use that terminology exactly; that so many of the liberal nobles who willingly shed their own privileges ended up being executed reinforces this. Nor does he accept explanations that the Terror was the unique product of the external pressures facing France in 1793-94: the Revolutionaries were always much more concerned with internal threats than external even at the darkest stages of the War of the First Coalition, and the bloodiest stage of it was the last seven weeks after the worst phases of both internal and external threats were past. More remarkably, much of France had been largely untouched by the Terror: while some 35-40,000 were killed in the process of the Revolutionary tribunals, six departments saw zero deaths and over a third had fewer than ten. Meanwhile, the west bathed in blood: some 250-300 thousand died in the taming of the counterrevolution in the Vendée.

Tackett devotes much effort to cataloguing the development the paranoid conspiracy mindset that would dominate the Terror. He sees forerunners of this mentality in the wild rumours people would concoct in the early days of the Revolution; at the time they focused principally on murderers and robbers. Several times all of Paris was illuminated overnight in order to forestall some vague mass plot; this defensive measure would be returned to constantly during times of future anxiety. As the menace of counter-revolution grew, nobles and refractory priests took the place of common criminals. After the King’s failed flight, all manner of conspiracies were vindicated. Patriots prided themselves in their eagerness to sniff out betrayal. Various social clubs took blood oaths to defend the lives of accusers, or adopted the All-Seeing Eye as a badge of their vigilance. Prominent writers declared a “declaration of rights of the accuser.” One then-hero, future-traitor Mirabeau wrote “an act of denunciation… must be considered as the most important of our new virtues, as the protector of our nascent liberty.”

The humiliation and fear of trusted individuals being revealed as traitors was a reoccurring theme: not just become some were indeed schemers, but also the increasing radicalization of the Revolution meant to stay firm in your principles eventually shifted you from being a revolutionary to a reactionary. The metaphor of a traitor with a mask being more dangerous than an armed enemy was a frequently espoused sentiment. In the various organs that were set up to process these accusations of treachery, they turned increasingly inward until they were mainly aimed at other revolutionaries.

This conspiratorial mindset aided greatly in the factionalization of France. Tackett makes the argument that such splits – first between the Jacobins and the Feuillants, then the Jacobins and the Girondins, and then within the Montagnards – were largely not rooted in ideology, but rather breakdowns of personal relationships. On the major issues the legislature voted with near unanimity; there was no great partisan split in the actual operation of the country. There was even a charming – if ominous – act of solidarity when all the deputies swore together to die rather than let foreign enemies alter the constitution they had written. Rather, at the beginning of each of these schisms seems to have been some kind of personality conflict, that only later manifested itself into an ideological shift. “There exists only two parties in France,” Robespierre declared in October 1792, “the party of good citizens and the party of evil citizens.” One woman who is frequently quoted through the book and had been brimming with a sense of fraternity in ‘89, later wondered of her former friends, “how could such good individuals have become so vile?” The most outspoken individuals who would take charge of each faction were incredibly cavalier with accusing their counterparts of vast treasons. During the trial of Louis for example, leading Jacobins claimed that their opponents were secret monarchists working on behalf of the King; the Girondins likewise claimed that the Jacobins were being funded by the British to kill the king so they could declare themselves dictators. They never bothered to support any of their claims with proof – after all, why would their enemies be so lax as to let proof of their misdeeds remain behind?

The term “stochastic terrorism” has predictably become abused in online discourse. I’m not sure whether Tackett knew of the term while writing this or deliberately neglected to use it, but it is the one that feels most apt at many points. The term “terrorism” of course comes from this Terror, though the revolutionaries used in unambiguously in a positive sense: “make terror the order of the day!” was a common refrain in fall 1793. But a strong impression I got from reading this book was how reluctant the shifts towards mass violence were. While the revolutionaries were very eager to use vicious invective and happy to level the most extreme accusations of treachery at their political enemies, it was rarely the elites themselves that began the violence. It was the mob that stormed the Bastille, assaulted the Tuileries, massacred prisoners, invaded the legislature. After each of these incidents the elites seemed somewhere between embarrassed and furious. For example, after months of accusations of treason at their Girondin counterparts, when the mob stormed the legislature and forced the Montagnard deputies at gunpoint to arrest these traitors in June 1792, they were still given very lenient treatment (and most ended up escaping their very lax house arrests). While the violence was typically justified afterwards, the elites seemed genuinely disturbed that people would take their words to their logical conclusions. The polemicists were of course to some degree aware of the potential of arousing the fury of the mob, and this was one of the reasons Robespierre targeted them with a purge in spring 1794.

It was certainly amusing to see how much of contemporary discourse on misinformation, press freedom, and conspiracy theories could be fitted (albeit somewhat awkwardly) onto the situation in 1792-93. With the sudden transition from the rigidly-controlled media environment of the Ancien Régime to the total free-for-all of the Revolution, there was a complete lack of social mores, acceptable standards of conduct, and a fundamental aversion to honesty in the wave of newspapers and pamphlets that flooded France. It’s not hard to draw parallels to the present, nor is it difficult to find examples of public denunciations for lack of civisme. So maybe that element hasn’t changed, but this feels like a raw deal: I’ve felt the anxiety and paranoia, but not the euphoria. I’ve never been able to escape cynicism, I’ve never felt that utopian spirit of ‘89. But now at least I can partially convince myself that it’s for the best.

If you've never read a standard history of the French Revolution, I would highly recommend you do. I don't think there's another historical event more instrumental in shaping the present - at least not one so constrained, geographically and in duration. Beyond its importance, it is so rich in drama and twists that it makes for endlessly fascinating reading - even larger histories have to give short shrift to some of the most flamboyant and influential characters. The "emotional" approach to the Revolution that Tackett takes in this book makes for a compelling and persuasive narrative for how the Terror came to be. I would definitely be interested in seeing other events tackled in a similar manner.

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Excellent writeup and I agree that the French Revolution is extremely important and not taught nearly enough. The more I read about it I find it more and more tragic and pointless. Louis XVI hardly seems to me to have been any more tyrannical or incompetent than the government that came after him until 1799. It's one thing to have your government overthrown by a Caesar or a Napoleon. They were probably still worse for the common man but at least they were geniuses who had some ability to carry out their plans. The National Assembly flailed around and failed to solve any of the major problems confronting France before the revolution. They got a one time bailout by pillaging the church but their assignats were practically worthless a few years later. My understanding is that France really never really recovered financially until Napoleon's victories in Italy and Austria.

One thing I'm still wondering though is how did the atrocities go from mob violence or stochastic terrorism to official state policy in the form of the Terror or the infernal columns?

The triple crises of 1793 seemed to be the tipping point - the simultaneous worsening of the wars against external enemies, the counter-revolutionary insurrection in the Vendée, and the federalist revolts in the provinces. These all put great pressure on the Revolution and at the same time confirmed all the deepest paranoias of the revolutionary élite: there was a grand conspiracy of royalists, priests, and double-faced revolutionaries. Up until that point all the invective thrown around between various political factions had more or less come to nothing: the great surge of denunciations in 1791 and 1792 and resulted in effectively almost no arrests or serious consequences for those accused except a general sense of fear and intimidation. When the Girondins and Jacobins would casually accuse each other of treason this did not manifest in any attempt to hold them to account; even during the September Massacres when various elements of the Paris Commune issued warrants of arrest for Girondin leaders they were not carried out. It was ultimately the mob that stormed the legislature on June 2 1793 and forced the first factional arrests, and even then the detained Girondin leaders were treated very well by their captors (who supposedly considered them arch-traitors). It was only after the further worsening of the various crises as well as assassinations of several prominent Montagnards (particularly Jean-Paul Marat's killing by a Girondin woman, the circumstances of which again suggested a vast conspiracy) that really kicked off the state-led internal violence. August and September 1793 were the key periods of escalation there as the State mobilized the entire population for the war effort, a phase of Total War directed both internally and externally.