The French Revolution Offers a Critical Lesson as the U.S. Returns to NormalRoundup
tags: French Revolution
Christine Adams is professor of history at St. Mary's College of Maryland and author of a book on The Creation of the Official French Royal Mistress, with Tracy Adams.
As vaccination rates rise and coronavirus infections continue to decline, Americans are beginning to wonder what “normal” could look and feel like in the months ahead. Yet, along with recovery from the pandemic, Americans also face the challenge of healing deep social and political divisions exacerbated by the divisive Trump presidency and Jan. 6 insurrection.
How can the country begin to overcome such trauma? France’s efforts to recover after the Reign of Terror in 1793-1794 are instructive and suggest that efforts to weaponize the strain and suffering of the past year could offer short-term political gains but result in damaging long-term consequences.
The French Revolution of 1789 led many to hope that the country was on the path to a more democratic and egalitarian future. However, the rapid political and social changes threatened powerful individuals and institutions, especially the monarchy, the aristocracy and the church. The revolutionary government soon faced a powerful backlash in the form of a civil war, as well as war with other European countries.
So, in 1793, France’s legislative body, the National Convention, established the Committee of Public Safety to defend the country against foreign and domestic enemies. This rotating group of legislators was determined to crush the counterrevolutionary resistance and to wage war abroad: to facilitate this, the National Convention voted in September of that year to make Terror “the order of the day.”
Their efforts led to the execution by guillotine of about 17,000 people throughout France and many more in civil war and extralegal killings. While radical revolutionaries initially supported the Terror, by the spring and summer of 1794, even some earlier supporters turned against it as increasing numbers of innocent people were imprisoned and executed for purported counterrevolutionary sentiments.
The putative end of the Reign of Terror came on July 28, 1794, when Maximilien Robespierre, the most prominent member of the Committee of Public Safety, and his closest colleagues were executed. Robespierre’s fellow revolutionaries and previous collaborators turned on him amid indications that he was planning to attack them as traitors. Fearful for their own lives, some members of the legislature, labeled “Thermidorians,” put aside their own differences to take Robespierre down.
Robespierre’s death led to rejoicing among many, especially those filling the crowded prisons of Paris. But the machinery of the Terror did not immediately grind to a halt. The pace of executions slowed, but did not stop, although now former supporters of the regime were more likely to be the victims of the guillotine. Some people were released from prison almost immediately, including Thérésia Cabarrus, the beautiful young lover of Thermidorian Jean-Lambert Tallien, whose imminent execution had inspired her future husband to take a prominent role in the conspiracy against Robespierre and his colleagues. But it took months to release all of the political prisoners and longer still for the French to realize the political culture had definitively changed.
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