The Reign Of Terror Essay

This essay has a total of 4382 words and 17 pages.

The Reign Of Terror

The Reign of Terror


History is said to be written by the winners, but is it possible to
rewrite history? In a way, the French, like many who have preceded them, and
many who will proceed them have done the impossible, rewriting history. From
trivial folklore, such as George Washington chopping down a cherry tree, to the
incredibly wrong, the African slave trade; people's views of history can be
shaped and molded. The French have done a superb job of instilling all of us
with the concept that their Revolution was a fight for liberty, justice and the
good of all Frenchmen everywhere. Their glorification of the Bastille with it's
depictions in painting and sculpture and how the Revolution was the beginning of
a new age pales to some of the events during this period. In fact, the storming
of the Bastille was merely a hole in the dike, and more would follow. The
National Guard, the Paris Commune, the September Massacre, are all words that
the French would prefer us not to hear. These events were a subtle denouementto
an climax that was filled with both blood and pain. The Reign of Terror, or the
Great Terror, was a massive culmination to the horror of the French Revolution,
the gutters flowing with blood as the people of Paris watched with an
entertained eye. No matter what the French may claim, if one chooses to open
his eyes and read about this tragedy, they are most certainly welcome.
The revolution begins quietly in the fiscal crisis of Louis XVI's reign.
The government was running deeply into bankruptcy, and at the urging of his
financial advisors, he called the Estates General. The governing body had not
been called for almost two centuries, and now it's workings seemed outdated. A
small number of people said that the Third Estate, that which was drawn from the
towns, should have power to equal the other Estates. Clubs of the bourgeoisie,
the middle class, were formed, proclaiming, "Salus populi lex est." It was a
simple cry meaning "the welfare of the people is law." To these people, the
Estates General was like a pair of shoes that no longer fit. Reformed seemed
iminent, the phrase, "The Third Estate is not an order, it is the nation itself"
began to circulate.1
With much fanfare and circumstance, the three estates were called
together. However, on trying to meet, the Third Estate found the doors to their
meeting place locked. Moving to the tennis court, with much deliberation, an
oath was sworn between the delegates and some clergy, proclaiming themselves as
the National Assembly. They swore to remain indivisible until a constitution
had been formed. As they met at the church of St. Louis, the King was delayed
in his attempt to end this display of independence. Finally, he informed them,
that he would not allow any reforms to be made, unless he approved of them.
Unfortunately, their will would not be easily undone, and in a vote to four
hundred ninety three to ninety four, the National Assembly declared that serious
action would be taken against the King. With such an resounding opposition, on
June 27th, 1789, Louis XVI gave into their demands.
Educated in Paris, a young man of twenty six years, would be one of the
first to set off the spark of revolution. Jumping on top of a table at the
Palais Royale, a social gathering place in Paris, he spoke out against the
enemies of the people in a well scripted oration. The crowd quickly fawned over
their new found hero, marching through the streets of Paris, even interrupting a
performance at the Paris opera. Military forces were required to remedy the
situation, yet Paris only had six thousand troops with which to defend itself
against the rampaging mob. At the Place Vendome, the cavalry attempted to
control the riot, only to find their horses surrounded and unmovable through the
dense crowd.
The officers of the Swiss and Turkish armies attacked the rioters
outright, but the garde-nationale was called in to stop this massacre. This
chaos caused the Hotel de Ville to demand each tocsin, or summoning bell, cannon,
drum, and church bell be used to summon the people of Paris. Drawing from the
electoral populace of each section, four thousand and eight hundred men were
given the task of protecting Paris, now named the Paris commune. They wore the
colors of red and blue, symbolizing the colors of Paris. Armed with cannons and
muskets, they had little powder with which to defend Paris.
The Bastille was a prison, built of stone, it had eight round towers,
with it's highest tower being seventy-three feet. It was built as a defensive
fort against the British, and was not converted into a prison until under the
rule of Charles VI. To the authors, sculptors and painters who glorified the
taking of the Bastille, it was a dark and secret castle, where prisoners never
returned from. Each prisoner hung from shackles until their dried bones were
pushed into a corner, but the Bastille was nothing like that in reality. It was
a prison for nobility, clergy, the occasional scandalous author, and juvenile
delinquents whose parents had asked for them to be kept there. Most prisoners
had more money spent on them, then it took for an average Parisian to subsist.
The living quarters were octagonal rooms, sixteen feet in diameter. Pets were
allowed to deal with the vermin, and prisoners were allowed furnishings, clothes,
and other personal belongings. Even one of the most infamous criminals, the
demented Marquis de Sade, made his home their, receiving his wife and other
visitors on a regular basis.
With only a few prisoners, the Bastille was an ideal place to store
large amounts of ammunition. Bernard-Rene de Launay was in control of a force
of just over a hundred men that were given the task of defending more then
thirty-thousand pounds of powder. In the event of a siege, the Bastille would
not be able to hold out long, only containing a two day food supply, and no
internal water. The morning of July 14th, a large crowd of over eight hundred
people set before the Bastille, calling for it's surrender. Delegates were sent
in to speak with de Launay, yet he refused to capitulate until orders from the
Hotel de Ville were presented to him.
As the orders were being fetched, the crowd grew less patient, until
finally a carriage-maker cut the lines of the drawbridge, allowing them access
to the inner courtyard. As shots were fired on both side, the siege became
imminent. For a day, desperate attempts on both sides finally ending in the
surrender of the guards. The guards were then rounded up, decapitated, and
their heads were paraded on pikes like the wax busts of French heroes. De
Launay was stabbed, rolled into a gutter, then shot before his head was taken as
a trophy. By the end of November of 1789, Palloy, a labor leader who had jumped
the gun to begin demolition, the crews of Palloy had nearly finished destruction
of the Bastille.
The church had become split over those who did or did not support the
revolution. The Papacy was on the side of the counter-revolutionaries, and
could not support the King's signing of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy in
1791. The seasons since 1789 had been quiet, violence sporadic and viewed as
behind the new way of life in France. Unfortunately, the King did not
appreciate his stay in the Tuilleries, and in the summer of 1791, an escape
attempt was expected. The palace was surrounded with guards at every gate,
river front, and over six hundred national guardsmen watching every possible
escape route. Among the servants, a few were informants, and leaving the royal
quarters required a pass.
An extremely generous young cavalier, Count von Fersen, was willing to
do anything to assist the King and Queen, and so on the night of June 20, 1791,
they made their escape. They made it out of the palace, disguised, and made it
as far as the town of Varennes in the north east. The ride back to Paris was an
ordeal, followed by a mob and the National Guard.
Riots began occurring in Paris, as the sans cullotes, or the poor of
Paris, sued for their rights. Some sides wished for the king's freedoms, while
the left sought to radicalize the revolution even further. The journalists
Jacque Hebert and Jean-Paul Marat, they wrote the journals, Le pere Duchesne,
and L'Ami du Peuple, respectively. Their attacks on established French
Institutions were biting with much venom in their arguments. Marat suffered
from a strange skin disease that gave him horrible lesions that reeked and
sickened those that were around him. Of the two, he was the more violent
insisting that, "Let the blood of the traitor's flow. That is the only way to
save the country."
In June of 1791, as the King attempted escape from the Tuilleries, the
sans culottes armed themselves. Holding aloft a calf's heart they claimed to be
the heart of an aristocrat, they found Louis, forcing him to wear a liberty cap
and drink with them. As the weeks past, in the early days of August, the
National Assembly declared that Paris would become the Insurrectionary Commune.
They removed the royalists from any positions of power, along with replacing
lawyers with artisans, and on August the 9th, they began their normal
deliberations. A huge crowd of twenty thousand sans cullotes called for the
King and Queen who had taken refuge with the National Assembly. A crowd broke
through the gates, demanding that liberty and equality be maintained. In
response, the National Assembly declared that the King be imprisoned and
replaced by six ministers.
The mood of Paris changed quite suddenly as stores closed and
dignitaries left. Many attempted to escape from the city, fearing what would
come. Paranoia in Paris reached a feverous pitch, as the sans cullotes feared
that royalists, church spies, and counter revolutionaries would endanger the
revolution. This fear extended into the government as vigilance committees were
setup, passports were revoked, and hundreds were imprisoned if they were a
suspected enemy of the revolution. When news of a recent military defeat
reached Parisian ears, it was believed that treachery from inside the ranks had
been the cause. Danton was a man of action and power, a lawyer, he was
described as a "vehement tribune of the people", and "voice of the revolution."
In Paris, with scarred facial features due to accidents upon the farm as a boy,
Danton had become very powerful in the Insurrectionary Commune, becoming the
minister of Justice. His power added to that of the Girondists, a party of
lawyers and atheists, who were now the ruling party.
By the beginning of September, Danton was calling for all able men of
Paris to arm themselves and search every house to find any "enemy of the people".
In his paper, Marat supported the execution of all counter revolutionaries.
Rumors around Paris circulated that the prisons would be raided, and those
inside would be killed. On the afternoon of September 2nd, the violence began
as a mob surrounded a number of coaches filled with priests to be brought to the
prison of L'Abbaye. The leader leapt onto the coach, thrusting and slicing with
his rapier. He shouted to the shocked crowd that watched on, "So, this
frightens you, does it, you cowards? You must get used to the sight of death."
The words were quite prophetic, the even beginning the September Massacres.
Within the next five days over twelve hundred people would be brutally
slaughtered by the mass of armed Parisians. The next to be slaughtered was a
group of one hundred and fifty priests. As they were decapitated, one of the
priest's demanded a fair trial. A mock tribunal was set up, and the priests
were decapitated one by one, their body's thrown into a well. Every prison,
save for the ones that contained the prostitutes and debtors, was broken into as
the semptembriseurs, named for the month, slaughtered those in side. They
stopped only to eat and drink, sometimes on the naked corpses that littered the
ground. Strangely enough, a few lives were spared, by either compassion of
sheer luck, but it was nothing compared to the disgusting brutality with which
many of the murders were committed. One woman, charged with mutilating her
lover, had her breasts cut off as she was nailed to the ground, a bonfire set
under her spread legs. One septembriseur sliced open the chest of a noble,
removing the heart, squeezing it into a glass, and after drinking a sip, and
forced Mme de Sombreuil to drink to save her father. Undoubtedly, one of the
most gruesome acts was that of the Princess de Lamballe. She was raped, her
body mutilated and her breasts sliced off. Her legs were shot of a cannon, and
her genitals were cut off and paraded around Paris on a pike. The man who had
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