A watershed event in modern European history, the French Revolution began in 1789 and ended in the late 1790s with the ascent of Napoleon Bonaparte. During this period, French citizens razed and redesigned their country’s political landscape, uprooting centuries-old institutions such as absolute monarchy and the feudal system. Like the American Revolution before it, the French Revolution was influenced by Enlightenment ideals, particularly the concepts of popular sovereignty and inalienable rights. Although it failed to achieve all of its goals and at times degenerated into a chaotic bloodbath, the movement played a critical role in shaping modern nations by showing the world the power inherent in the will of the people.
The Reign of Terror (June 1793 – July 1794) was a period in the French Revolution characterized by brutal repression. The Terror originated with a centralized political regime that suspended most of the democratic achievements of the revolution, and intended to pursue the revolution on social matters. Its stated aim was to destroy internal enemies and conspirators and to chase the external enemies from French territory.
The French Revolution began not only as a revolt against the monarchy, but had a strong anti-clerical streak as well. The revolutionaries were largely atheists, products of the Enlightenment. One of the more ironic developments then was the institute of a new cult of the “goddess of Reason.” It was an attempt by the revolutionaries to “dress up” their atheistic views in the garb of religion in order to achieve the unifying benefits of religion. It was largely met with skepticism.
The Terror as such started on September 5, 1793 and, as the Reign of Terror, lasted until the summer of 1794, taking the lives of anywhere between 18,000 to 40,000 people (estimates vary widely). Thousands would die by means of the guillotine, including many of the greatest lights of the revolution, like Georges Danton. In the single month before it ended, 1,300 executions took place. The deaths can be explained in part by the sense of emergency that gripped the revolutionary leadership as the country teetered on the brink of civil war.
The powerful influence of the French Revolution can be traced in the reactions of those who witnessed the event firsthand and in the strong emotions it has aroused ever since. For some, the French Revolution was a beacon of light that gave a world dominated by aristocratic privilege and monarchical tyranny a hope of freedom. Nineteenth-century revolutionaries and nationalists frequently harkened back to the days of 1789, sometimes even taking up the names, terms, colors, and rituals of the original French Revolution. Twentieth-century revolutionaries looked to 1789 as a kind of template for revolutionary events. If Robespierre could come on the heels of Lafayette and he, in turn, could give way to Napoleon, then might modern revolutions inevitably follow a similar scripted path, toward authoritarianism? Did revolutions always begin with hope and enthusiasm only to turn violently radical and then permit an authoritarian, even dictatorial figure, to seize power? Were revolutions like some sort of political fever, with distinct symptoms? Scholars and political activists continue to argue these questions. Yet no matter what their interpretation, the lessons and impact of the Revolution continue to be at the heart of several different historical and contemporary political debates.