France in Turmoil
In July 1793 the revolution was at its lowest ebb. Enemy forces were advancing over French soil, British ships hovered near French ports hoping to link up with rebels, the Vendée was a large region of open rebellion and there were many Federalist revolts. Parisians were worried that Charlotte Corday, assassin of Marat, was only one of thousands of provincial rebels operating in the capital. Meanwhile power struggles had begun in many Paris sections between sansculottes and their enemies.
It got worse before it got better. While many of the Federalist revolts were collapsing under both local pressures - food shortages, fear of reprisals, reluctant to march far – and the actions of Convention Deputies sent on mission, on August 27th 1793 Toulon accepted an offer of protection from a British fleet which had been sailing off shore, declaring themselves in favour of the infant Louis VII and welcoming the British to port.
The Terror Begins
While the Committee of Public Safety wasn't an executive government – on August 1st 1793 the Convention refused a motion calling for it to become the provisional government – it was the closest France had and, over the next year, it marshalled the nation's resources to meet and defeat the many crises. It also presided over the bloodiest period of the revolution: The Terror.
Marat may have been killed, but people were still forwarding his ideas, chiefly that only the extreme use of the guillotine against traitors, suspects and counter revolutionaries would solve the country's problems; they felt terror was needed. The Convention deputies were increasingly heeding these calls. There were complaints about a 'spirit of moderation' in the Convention and another series of price increases were quickly blamed on 'endormers', or 'dozer' (as in sleeping) deputies.
On September 4th 1793 a demonstration for more wages and bread was quickly turned to the advantage of those calling for terror, and they returned on the 5th to march to the Convention. Chaumette, backed by thousands of sansculottes, declared that the Convention should tackle the shortages by a strict implementation of the laws.
The Convention agreed, and in addition voted to finally organise the revolutionary armies people had agitated for over previous months to march against the hoarders and unpatriotic members of the countryside, although they turned down Chaumette’s request for the armies to be accompanied by guillotines on wheel for even swifter justice. In addition Danton argued that arms production should be increased until every patriot had a musket, and that the Revolutionary Tribunal should be divided so as to make it quicker. The sansculottes had once again forced their wishes onto and through the Convention; terror was now in force.
Over the following weeks radical action was taken. On September 17th a Law of Suspects was introduced allowing for the arrest of anyone whose conduct suggested they were supporters of tyranny or federalism, a law which could be easily twisted to affect just about everyone in the nation. There were also laws against nobles who had been anything less than zealous in their support for the revolution. A maximum was set for a wide range of food and goods and the Revolutionary Armies formed and set out to search for traitors and crush revolt. Even speech was affected, with 'citizen' becoming the popular way of referring to others; not using citizen was a cause for suspicion.
Indeed, the laws passed during the Terror went beyond simply tackling the various crises. The Bocquier Law of December 19th 1793 provided a system of compulsory and free state education for all children aged 6 – 13, albeit with a curriculum stressing patriotism. Homeless children also became a state responsibility, and people born out of wedlock were given full inheritance rights. A universal system of metric weights and measurements was introduced on August 1 1793, while an attempt to end poverty was made by using ‘suspects’ property to aid the poor.
However, it is the executions for which the Terror is so infamous, and these began with the execution of a faction called the Enrages, who were soon followed by the former queen, Marie Antoinette, on October 17th and many of the Girondins on October 31st. Around 16,000 people (not including deaths in the Vendée, see below) went to the guillotine in the next nine months as the Terror lived up to its name, and around the same again also died as a result, usually in prison.
In Lyons, which surrendered at the end of 1793, the Committee of Public Safety decided to set an example and there were so many to be guillotined that on December 4th-8th 1793 people were executed en masse by cannon fire. Whole areas of the town were destroyed and 1880 killed. In Toulon, which was recaptured on December 17th thanks to one Captain Bonaparte and his artillery, 800 were shot and nearly 300 guillotined. Marseilles and Bordeaux, which also capitulated, escaped relatively lightly with only hundreds executed.
The Repression of the Vendée
The Committee of Public Safety's counter-offensive took the terror deep into the heart of the Vendée. Government forces also began winning battles, forcing a retreat which killed around 10,000 and 'the whites' began to melt away. However, the final defeat of the Vendée's army at Savenay was not the end, because a repression followed which ravaged the area, burnt swathes of land and slaughtered around a quarter of a million rebels. In Nantes the deputy on mission, Carrier, ordered the 'guilty' to be tied up on barges which were then sunk in the river. These were the noyades and they killed at least 1800 people.