The guillotine remains the symbol of the Terror, and is usually associated with the French Revolution. Bloody purges, terrified citizens, dictatorship and the suppression of freedom granted through the Declaration of the rights of man and of the citizen in 1789 - all these were part of the Terror.
Based on the law granting universal suffrage, all men over 21 years of age could participate in the elections for the Convention. However, the results were distorted due to the high level of pressure, which led to fear and intimidation.
Up until this point, the history of the Convention was one of conflict between the Girondists and the Jacobins. Neither of the two groups was a political party, with a settled platform or an agreed set of principles. Parties were not viewed in a good light, since people thought they followed the selfish interests of their members rather than the general good.
The French army was in a deplorable situation because La Fayette had fled to Austria. It was at this moment that panic and fear laid hold of France.
After the volunteers left for the front, concern was raised concerning the prisons filled with priests and nobles. The latter were suspected of being counter-revolutionaries. Rumors spread that the priests and nobles were going to escape, murder the undefended population and surrender the city to the Prussians. Marat, who influenced the Commune, requested the murder of all suspected counter-revolutionaries.
The Jacobins insisted the king be brought to trial, in order to strengthen the republic. They depended more and more on the sans-culottes. The Jacobins wanted the king to be judged and executed, since they held him responsible for the bloodshed at Tuileries.
The Convention passed a decree through which France declared its natural borders to be the Rhine, the Alps and the Pyrenees. They also decreed the assistance and fraternity of all people who wished to gain their liberty. The Great Powers were alarmed by the territorial conquests, especially by the annexation of Nice and Savoya.
A great revolt was produced in four departments south of the Loire or the Vendee. The peasants there paid higher land taxes and did not agree with the revolutionary government. The imposition of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy and the sale of church lands were unpopular measures.
Danton and the Mountain asked the Girondists to stop attacking the sans-culottes, treating them as buveurs de sang (bloodsuckers). However, their efforts were in vain. Robespierre went over to the sans-culottes, calling the people to revolt against the corrupt Girondist deputies.
At the formation of the new Committee for Public Safety, all 12 members were deputies from the Mountain or the plain. The members were middle-class, except for the noble Herault de Sechelles. There was no president and all were equally responsible for the actions of the Committee. This Committee would later become the first strong government.
The Committee for Public Safety had important problems, one of the most serious being the revolt in the provinces. Many departments expressed their dissatisfaction with the influence of Paris and the Commune on the Convention. For this reason, anti-Jacobin movements broke out in Bordeaux, Lyon and Marseilles.
The sans-culottes detested the aristocracy and all owners of great wealth, and had an unshakeable commitment to equality. They did not say sir, but citizen, and used the familiar you instead of the polite your honor. The red bonnets of the sans-culottes were reminiscent of freed slaves and symbolized the equality of all citizens. To them, the sovereignty of the people could not be delegated to representatives. Thus, the people had the right to monitor and change any elected representative, and if betrayed, they had the right to insurrection.
After a levée en masse (mass conscription), recruitments were made by the Committee of Public Safety. The first category of recruits was made up of unmarried men aged between 18 and 25, and contained one million people. These men must be fed, armed and trained. State factories were adapted to produce weapons and ammunition. Church bells and sacred vessels were taken as prime material and melted to make cannons and coins. The government took over foreign trade and navigation.
The convention bowed to public pressure from Roux and the sans-culottes, passing the law punishing food stockpiling with death. Traders refused to transport large quantities of food in fear of being accused of stockpiling. Thus, the food shortages got worse.
The Terror had three faces. The first was official Terror, exercised by the Committees for Public Safety and General Safety. Its headquarters were in Paris, and its victims were brought before the Revolutionary Tribunal. The second was the Terror in the regions of the federal revolts. There was a third Terror in the other areas of France, controlled by the surveillance committees, the committees of the representatives on mission and of the revolutionary armies.
The federal revolt had been repressed in the whole country by the end of 1793 by the regular army. Marseilles, Lyon and Toulon were occupied, and the rebels in the Vendee were defeated.
A process of dechristianisation took place, which was actually an attack on the Church. This attack took different forms. Churches were closed, bells and silverware were confiscated, crosses were destroyed. Priests were forced to marry. There were very few recalcitrant priests left, so dechristianisation became an attack on the constitutional church.
It seemed that the Government had resolved the problems threatening the existence of the republic. The federalist revolts had been repressed, towns had supplies of food and the value of the assignat was rising. The French army rousted Spanish troops from Roussillon and piedmont troops from Savoya. The English were defeated at Hondschoote, and the Austrians at Wattignies.
The main danger for Robespierre came from Hébert and his followers. Hébert’s newspaper, La Père Duchesne, militated for violence, and was popular among the sans-culottes. Hébert supported the Jacobins against the Girondists and wanted a position in government after the power takeover.
An opposition group to Robespierre was formed around Danton, who wanted to re-establish the independence of local governance, ending centralisation. Danton wanted to calm the dissensions of the revolutionary movement and stop the Terror. He understood that for all this to be possible, the war must be stopped, since it was the war that had caused the Terror.
The government wanted to obtain full powers of repression, so it dissolved all the revolutionary tribunals in the provinces. All enemies of the republic were brought to Paris and judged by the Revolutionary Tribunal. Although the factions of Danton and Hébert had been done away with, their followers continued to be a threat. For this reason, the Terror had to continue until these people were also eliminated.
The Commune, in which Robespierre’s followers were dominant, decided to put a ceiling on salaries. Salaries fell by up to 50% and dissatisfaction grew amongst the sans-culottes, who were salaried workers. The population was fed up with the Great Terror. It was no longer necessary on the foreign front, since France had taken the offensive, regaining Belgium and crossing the Rhine, Alps and Pyrenees. The two committees began to enter into conflict.