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Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite

From Christopher Hibbert’s history, “The French Revolution”: Throughout the autumn and winter of 1793 the Terror was maintained unabated. The Committee of Public Safety insisted that it was vitally necessary to stamp out the machinations of both royalists and federalists, hoping thereby to persuade the militant sans-culottes that they shared a common cause and the […]

From Christopher Hibbert’s history, “The French Revolution”:

Throughout the autumn and winter of 1793 the Terror was maintained unabated. The Committee of Public Safety insisted that it was vitally necessary to stamp out the machinations of both royalists and federalists, hoping thereby to persuade the militant sans-culottes that they shared a common cause and the Convention that the omnipotence of the Committee was essential at a time of crisis in the Revolution’s course. Nearly 3,000 executions took place in Paris; about 14,000 in the provinces. Countless people lived in constant fear of death and went to bed dreading the sound of a knock on the door in the middle of the night when most arrests took place.

“You have no more grounds for restraint against the enemies of the new order, and liberty must prevail at any price,” cried Saint-Just, who, like Robespierre, “regarded all dissidents as criminals”. “We must rule by iron those who cannot be ruled by justice… You must punish not merely traitors but the indifferent as well.” An even more violent Jacobin, Brichet, advised that the Law of Suspects should be interpreted so that all the well-to-do came within its scope: questions should be asked in every village about the means of the principal farmer; if he were rich he should be guillotined without further ado — he was “bound to be a food-hoarder.” But it was not only the rich, or even mainly the rich, who suffered. The poor were executed with the well-to-do, women with men, the young with the old, some accused of “starving the people”, others of “depraving public morals’, one witness for “not giving his testimony properly’.


The worst excesses were committed in the provinces where — although most representants en mission [representatives of the government] were more concerned with enlisting recruits and collecting supplies than with punishment — in several towns the guillotine was kept constantly at work and those convicted of crimes agains the Revolution were slaughtered wholesale on the instructions of fanatical or savage representatives or of those who were frightened of being considered too weak. At Lyons [the government’s representatives] decided that the guillotine was too slow an instrument for their purpose and had over three hundred of their victims mown down by cannon fire. “What a delicious moment!” reported an approving witness to a friend in Paris. “How you would have enjoyed it! … What a sight! Worthy indeed of Liberty! … Wish bonjour to Robespierre.”

From Feurs, the representative himself reported, “The butchery has been good.” … At Nantes, three thousand captives perished in an epidemic in the grossly overcrowded prisons and a further two thousand were towed out in barges to the middle of the Loire and drowned, some of them stripped naked and bound together as couples. The river became so choked with these barges that ships weighing anchor brought them up filled with the dead. Birds of prey hovered over the waters, gorging themselves with human flesh, and the fish became so contaminated that orders had to be given forbidding them to be caught. On occasion, Carrier appeared to be insane as, raving endlessly about the need to “kill and kill” and to “butcher children without hesitation,” he slashed at the air with his sword.

Jean-Baptiste Carrier, the government’s representative overseeing the Terror in Nantes, took particular care to drown priests and nuns, and called the Loire “the national bathtub.” 


Under the direction of Jean Tallien, the son of the maitre d’hotel of the Marquis of Bercy, a young man of twenty-six who had worked as a lawyer’s clerk and in a printer’s office, even more cruel punishments were inflicted in Bordeaux:

… A woman was charged with the heinous crime of having wept at the execution of her husband. She was consequently condemned to sit several hours under the suspended blade which shed upon her, drop by drop, the blood of the deceased whose corpse was above her on the scaffold before she was released by death from her agony.

“The time was come which was foretold,” as Madame Roland had said, “when the people would ask for bread and be given corpses.”

Was this something imposed on the people by a savage Jacobin regime? No. This from a Hibbert chapter on the September 1792 massacres, which preceded the Terror:

Equally revolting scenes were enacted elsewhere; and, while some stories can be attributed to the propaganda of the Revolution’s enemies, others no less horrifying appear to be well attested. Men were reported by reliable witnesses to have been seen drinking, eating and smoking amidst the carnage, using for tables and chairs the naked bodies of their victims whose clothes had been removed as one of the recognized perquisites of the assassins.

“They were out of breath,” one observer reported, “and they asked for wine to drink: “Wine or death!” The Civil Commissioner of the section gave them vouchers for 24 pintes addressed to a neighbouring wine merchant. These they soon drank, and contemplated with drunken satisfaction the corpses scattered in the court.”

“Do you want to see the heart of an aristocrat?” asked one assassin, opening up a corpse tearing out the heart, squeezing some blood into a glass, drinking part, and offering the rest to those who would drink with him. ‘Drink this, if you want to save your father’s life,’ commanded another, handing a pot of ‘aristocrats’ blood’ to the daughter of a former Governor of the Invalides. She put it to her lips so that her father could be spared. Women were said to have drawn up benches to watch the murders in comfort and to have cheered and clapped as at a cock fight.

Another witness, a lawyer, say “a group of butchers, tired out and no longer able to lift their arms”, drinking brandy with which gunpowder had been mixed “to aggravate their fury”. They were “sitting in a circle round the corpses”. “A woman with a basket full of bread rolls came past. They took them from her and soaked each piece in the blood of their quivering victims.”

The Queen’s emotional friend, the Princesse de Lamballe, who had been held in La Petite Force, was one of the most savagely treated victims. She had been stripped and raped; her breasts had been cut off; the rest of her body mutilated; and “exposed to the insults of the populace’. “In this state it remained more than two hours,” one report recorded. “When any blood gushing from its wounds stained the skin, some men, placed there for the purpose, immediately washed it off, to make the spectators take more particular notice of its whiteness. I must not venture to describe the excesses of barbarity and lustful indecency with which this corpse was defiled. I shall only say that a cannon was charged with one of the legs.’ A man was later accused of having cut off her genitals which he impaled upon a pike and of having ripped out her heart which he impaled upon a pike and of having ripped out her heart which he ate “after having roasted it on a cooking-stove in a wine-shop.’ Her head was stuck on another pike and carried away to a nearby cafe where, placed upon a counter, the customers were asked to drink to the Princess’s death. It was then replaced upon the pike and, its blonde hair billowing around the neck, was paraded beneath the Queen’s window at the Temple [prison]. The head of the Comte de Montmorin, the King’s former Foreign Minister, was carried, similarly impaled, to the Assembly.


Another man, who heard the screams of the victims comforted his shocked wife in words quoted by Baron Thiebault: “This is a very terrible business. But they are our deadly enemies, and those who are delivering the country from them are saving your life and the lives of our dear children.”

Here is what life was like for Christians under the Terror — those who weren’t murdered, that is:

From Paris the de-Christianization movement spread all over France. … More and more cathedrals and churches were deprived of their ornaments, vessels and plate; some were converted into Temples of Reason, others closed. Many clergy resigned and a number married. One even had himself ritually divorced from his breviary. The rites and processions in which the clergy had played their parts were parodied by local revolutionaries wearing vestments and mitres, employing croziers as drum-majors’ staffs, and making obeisances to the prettiest girl in teh community who was paraded for the day as Goddess of Reason. In Paris people “danced before the sanctuary, howling the carmagnole,” according to a contemporary witness, Sebastien Mercier. “The men wore no breeches; and the necks and breasts of the women were bare. In their wild whirling they imitated those whirlwinds which, foreshadowing tempests, ravage and destroy all within their path. In the darkness of the sacristy they satisfied those abominable desires that had been aroused in them.”

Overseeing all of this — to the extent that anybody had control — was Maximilien Robespierre, who was a deeply ascetic bachelor and fanatical about “virtue.” The revolutionary Danton, who came to oppose Robespierre’s bloodthirsty rule, lost his temper … and subsequently lost his head:

Once, during a heated discussion, Robespierre had exasperatd Danton by his constant references to “Virtue.” “I’ll tell you what this Virtue you talk about really is,” Danton said to him mockingly. “It’s what I do to my wife every night!” The remark obviously rankled with Robespierre, who recorded it in his notebook and afterwards commented, “Danton derides the word Virtue as though it were a joke. How can a man with so little conception of morality ever be a champion of freedom?”

Danton later went to the guillotine. His last words: “Above all, don’t forget to show my head to the people. It’s well worth having a look at.”

I’ll stop here. I finished the book yesterday, and have a jumble of thoughts. A few of them:

1. There was nothing the savage Bolsheviks did that hadn’t already been done by the French Revolutionaries. They were the template for all the communist revolutions of the 20th century.

2. There is no limit to what barbarities human beings — men and women alike — will give themselves over to in the name of abstract goods, e.g., Robespierre’s “Virtue.”

3. Men who are personally incorrupt can be the worst monsters — again, Robespierre — because they lose their humanity in worship of abstractions. Cruelty and despotism is in our nature. The rule of the mob is not the only bad thing, but it is the worst thing.

4. It is plain why Napoleon was inevitable, because necessary. In the 1790s, France lurched from faction to faction, reeling from anarchy. There was no rule of law, only the rule of the mob, and whichever revolutionary sect commanded force in Paris. It couldn’t go on forever. Someone had to take control. Napoleon must have looked like the best solution on offer. Hibbert quotes the American representative in Paris, Gouverneur Morris, saying, “It appears that France must soon be governed by a single despot … a dictator produced by the Revolution.”

5. It is a needed corrective for me to recognize that these beautiful Paris streets I’ve been walking once ran — literally — with blood. Marat and Danton lived and worked in this quarter. The guillotine was invented on the Cour de Commerce, the quaint covered shopping gallery we admired the other day. It was there that Marat published his newspaper advocating massacre of counterrevolutionaries by the tens of thousands.

6. The tragedy here, obviously, is that as wicked and as unsustainable as the ancien regime was, it was replaced by something far worse. Exactly as in revolutionary Russia.

7. The genius of the American founders! They and the French Revolutionists came from the same Enlightenment philosophical standpoint, more or less, but achieved such very different results. How? Why? Can one of you recommend a good contemporary study comparing the two revolutions?

On, now, to Burke’s “Reflections.” I had not been prepared to understand Burke before. Now, I hope I am.