It’s the Emotions, Stupid

By Robert ZaretskyJanuary 12, 2015

The Coming of the Terror in the French Revolution by Timothy Tackett

RECALL THE CLASSIC Gary Larson cartoon of a family staring at an empty space, illustrating “The Days Before Television”? So, too, might we imagine millions of 18th-century Frenchmen and women gazing at a void, accompanied by the caption: “The Days Before 1789.” Just what did one do in France before the Revolution? Before there was impure blood to water fields and tyrants to make tremble, armed battalions to form and great deeds to inscribe on one’s tomb. To echo the repeated question of La Marseillaise: Quoi? Is there really a history worth recalling before the event that inspired Rouget de Lisle to compose his remarkable (and remarkably bloody and brutal) national anthem?

Of course there is: lots and lots of it. Nevertheless, a particular understanding of history, if not history itself, begins with the French Revolution. In a typical flurry of oracular fireworks, George Steiner declared that revolutionary dates like 1789 were far more than “temporal designations.” Instead, they stand for “great storms of being, for metamorphoses of the historical landscape so violent as to acquire, almost at once, the simplified magnitude of legend.” There was, Steiner pronounced, a “growing more dense” of time. Perhaps, if only because millions of men and women, who until then had largely been acted upon by history, now became actors in a history they believed they were writing.

No less dense is the historiography of this storm of being. Given the event’s vast ideological stakes, seismic historical repercussions, unprecedented nature, and extraordinary figures, how could it be otherwise? Indeed, the Revolution’s history was being written while it was still unfolding. In the case of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, the history was in fact written before the events unfolded. Published in 1790, Burke’s masterpiece warned that to give freedom to a people is easy — far easier, alas, than to have the people form a free government. Few observations better describe the collapse of the Bourbon monarchy, the loss of the king’s head, and the birth of a republic that galvanized the nation against foreign armies, but also orchestrated the Terror, the terrifying war against its own citizens.

The bloody events of 1793–1794 are the subject of Timothy Tackett’s grippingly written and deeply insightful book The Coming of the Terror in the French Revolution. Professor emeritus of history at UC Irvine and author of several influential works, Tackett has devoted his career to the Revolution. Not an easy job: specialists in the Revolution, unlike their colleagues who spend their lives, say, with the medieval Carolingians or Belle Époque Parisians, are a battle-hardened crew. History for many of them is not a mere avocation, but an austere vocation. To grasp the true nature of France’s revolutionary past means that one can grasp what the future must, or should, have in store for France and the world. The events of 1789 to 1815 in essence serve as a road map to the future, leading to either a utopian or dystopian tomorrow. For this reason, not only is it essential to get the history right, but also to combat those who have gotten it wrong.

As Tackett observes, two opposing schools of historians have long fought over the meaning of the Revolution, and in particular the Terror. There are those historians, on the one hand, who justify the Terror as the consequence of contingent events: faced with the massing of hostile armies on its borders and the mounting of counterrevolutionary forces inside the nation, the revolutionaries of 1793 had no choice but to make terror the order of the day. It was a temporary response, unfortunate but unavoidable, to meet the unprecedented demands of the moment. Not surprisingly, the great majority of historians who belong to this school also belong to the political left, from Socialists to Communists. The conservatives (and their neoconservative descendants) who oppose them see the Terror not as an accident, but instead the inevitable climax to the logic of revolution. Shaped by the political writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in particular his notion of the “general will,” and by the Enlightenment’s insistence on the power of reason and imperative of progress, the revolutionaries were allergic to our own age’s ideals of pluralism and moderation.

Tackett acknowledges the insights offered by the two camps, but also underscores their limitations. Rather than joining either of these camps, he instead seeks a third way in order to answer the central question of the Revolution — namely, how did the ideals of 1789, expressed in the trinity of liberty, equality, and fraternity, morph into the horrors of 1793, steeped in blood, violence, and paranoia?

The full answer, Tackett argues, cannot be found in traditional political, intellectual, and institutional histories of the era. Instead, we need to plumb the history of emotions and sentiments — in particular, the history of fear — if we wish to understand why events, less than three years after such a hopeful beginning, took so appalling a turn. Earlier historians have looked fear in the face, studying the ways in which anxiety and dread over the ages have served as both historical causes and effects. In particular, the late Jean Delumeau, in his magisterial La peur en Occident, traced the many manifestations of fear in Western Europe. Spawned by millenarian expectations and heretical movements, plague epidemics and food shortages, fear, Delumeau reveals, was a constant presence in medieval and early modern society.

Tackett picks up the history of fear where Delumeau more or less ended his own account. In 1793, one thing the French had to fear was fear itself. But the French had other good reasons for running around Paris and the provinces with their hair on fire. (With the odd exception of Robespierre, most of them had given up the practice of wearing wigs.) They found themselves in a situation without precedent. Scarcely four years earlier, they had launched the most extraordinary experiment in self-government, one for which there was — despite the many invocations of the ancient Roman republic — no blueprint or guide. One that, moreover, they themselves had hardly anticipated in the months leading to the fall of the Bastille in the summer of 1789.

Trawling the correspondence of contemporary Frenchmen and women, Tackett finds no presentiment that their world, based on strict hierarchy, aristocratic privilege, and royal rule, was about to implode. How could it have been otherwise? When the National Assembly, itself an utterly new democratic invention, swept away the nation’s feudal institutions during the momentous night of August 4–5, one of Tackett’s letter writers, a bookseller named Nicolas Ruault, blurted that it was as if he had awoke to find that “woodcutters had brought down an entire forest in a few hours.” This “forest” of rights and duties was considered primeval, as eternal and immovable as the Alps. And yet, it was soon replaced by the Declaration of the Right of Man and Citizen, the great harvest of rights that, far from being the fruit of time and tradition, issued instead from the age’s embrace of unfettered and abstract reason. Ruault was not alone in his conviction that “Now everything will change […] Soon we will all be new men.”

In effect, everything did change, yet remained the same. As the nation’s representatives struggled to transform their enlightened ideals into practical policy, ancient fears and anxieties rumbled and rose to the surface. The collapse of throne and altar, coupled with the rise of popular violence, gave pause to the most ardent revolutionaries. The Great Fear of 1789, sparked by rumors that brigands or royal officials planned to seize harvests, blazed like an epidemic across the countryside, leading peasants to lynch local aristocrats and ransack tax offices. In the cities, workers and soldiers went on strike, while women, scarred by the scarcity of foodstuffs, were radicalized. The trickle of aristocrats fleeing the country soon hemorrhaged, swelling the ranks of foreign armies that would soon mobilize to quash the revolution. As another of Tackett’s witnesses wrote: “I am devoured by anxiety … between hope and fear.”

By mid-1792, fear had bested hope. Louis XVI’s failed effort to flee France, in turn launching the invasion of Prussian and Austrian forces, gave flesh to the rumors of conspiracy coursing through Paris. Denunciation of traitors became a patriotic duty, streets were kept illuminated all night to foil the machinations of counterrevolutionaries, and bells, tocsins, and drums sounded incessantly. The ratcheting of fear reached a breaking point in early September, when news of French military defeats converged with rumors that the inmates in Paris’s prisons — noblemen and clerics arrested for suspected counterrevolutionary activity — were planning a breakout. Breaking into the prisons, crowds transformed their inner courts into abattoirs, butchering the inmates with swords, pikes, and axes. When the frenzy of bloodletting finally ebbed, as many as 1,400 individuals had been murdered. While the massacre was the work of the few, Tackett notes that most Parisians were convinced the action had been necessary. The sentiment expressed by one letter writer, Rosalie Jullien, echoed the thought of many fellow citizens: “The people, terrible in their fury, are avenging the crimes of three years of vile treason. France has been saved.”

Yet the very nature of the conspiratorial worldview embraced by the revolutionaries meant that France could never be truly saved. In their feverish minds, shadowy forces were always fomenting new plots against the revolution; once the guillotine amputated one diseased growth, several new ones would take its place. What better proof did they need than the insurrections against Paris, led by nobles and clerics, sweeping parts of eastern and southern France? That heroes from the early phases of the Revolution, like the Comte de Mirabeau and General Lafayette, were found to have been negotiating with the Prussians gave credibility to the miasma of rumor and phantasms of conspiracy. As Tackett points out, it was this worldview, shared by nearly every political and ideological faction, which gave birth to all the institutions that came to form the Terror.

The Terror and Maximilien de Robespierre are as inseparable in the popular imagination as the Final Solution and Hitler. Yet, as Tackett reveals, Robespierre was as much the consequence as the cause of the Terror. With the arrest, trial, and execution of Louis XVI, now dubbed “Louis Capet,” in early 1793, the newly created Republic had created a precedent. It was because the revolutionaries “had cut off the head of Louis XVI,” one contemporary observed, “that they were emboldened to cut off those of their colleagues.” As the recalcitrant populations of the Vendée and Brittany and Provence intensified their resistance, as the revolutionary armies lost one battle after another, as the radicalized workers and artisans of Paris — the sans-culottes — shouted treason and demanded heads, the elected representatives of the Convention were not long in declaring that “terror is the order of the day.”

The newly formed Committee of Public Safety, terrified by the prospect of the people again wreaking popular justice as they did in 1792, sought to monopolize it. As Georges Danton famously declared, “We must be terrible, so that the people will not have to be.” Galvanized by Robespierre and Saint-Just, the Committee enacted a series of laws that targeted anyone suspected of being an “enemy of liberty” or lacking “public spiritedness” — categories as broad as they were treacherous. At the same time, revolutionary tribunals lurched into action — less law courts than assembly lines supplying the guillotine with a steady flow of “counterrevolutionaries.”

As Ruault wrote, the Revolution “devours its own children; it kills its brothers; it gnaws at its intestines; it has become the cruelest and most horrible of monsters.” The Terror in fact consumed many of the men who, having first supported it, tried to rein it in. Most notably, Danton and his allies were packed off to the guillotine in March 1794 — deaths most Parisians greeted with fearful silence. Just a few months later, in the revolutionary month of Thermidor (July), it was the turn of Robespierre and his accomplices to be destroyed by the infernal machine they had helped to create. With their executions, the Terror retreated, leaving hundreds of thousands of bodies in its wake. To the 17,000 men and women processed and executed by the tribunals, historians add tens of thousands of others who died in prison. In addition, the revolutionary armies sent to suppress the uprising in the Vendée killed between 250,000 to 300,000 people, many of them by firing squad or mass drowning.

Long before these final paroxysms of bloodletting, the nation’s revolutionary armies had reversed their earlier military misfortunes on the frontiers. The Republic had been saved — at least, that is, until a young officer from Corsica by the name of Napoleon Bonaparte buried it. Why, then, did the killings continue? How can we explain why the Terror’s extreme measures either outlasted — or were introduced — after the passing of events that justified their existence? This has been the hammer with which conservative historians have pounded leftwing historians who long argued that the Terror was indeed terrible, but necessary for the Republic’s survival. As Tackett diplomatically observes, the reasons for this syncopated state of affairs “is by no means obvious.” He suspects it has less to do with the context of ideas than that of emotions, in particular fear felt by the Terrorists no less than their victims: fear of assassination, fear of military reversals, and fear of conspiracies. There was, as well, their sheer hatred for those who once ruled them. He quotes an unsettling passage from a letter by Rosalie Jullien, written while heads were dropping into baskets sodden with blood, in which she denounces “the black evil of the aristocrats, the bloody fanaticism of priests, the atrocious pride of the nobles […] All those who oppose the public good are, in my eyes, enemies and monsters.”

To be sure, both ideology and events were crucial ingredients to the appalling stew we call the Terror. But as Tackett reminds us, no less essential was the pot in which all of this stewed — namely, the psychology, the emotional economy of the revolutionaries of 1793. It may well be that, in the end, ce sont les émotions, stupide.


Robert Zaretsky is LARB’s history editor, and the author, most recently, of A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning.

LARB Contributor

Robert Zaretsky teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston. His books include Nîmes at War: Religion, Politics, and Public Opinion in the Gard, 1938–1944 (1994), Cock and Bull Stories: Folco de Baroncelli and the Invention of the Camargue (2004), Albert Camus: Elements of a Life (2010), Boswell’s Enlightenment (2015), A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning (2013), and Catherine and Diderot: The Empress, the Philosopher, and the Fate of the Enlightenment (2019). His newest book is Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague.


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