Why The Heads Rolled: A Critique on the Progression from Enlightenment Thought to the Reign of Terror by Hunter Tom

Class: French Revolution

Major: History, Class of 2013

What is liberty without wisdom, and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tuition or restraint. 1

-Edmund Burke

In a letter critiquing the French Revolution, politician Edmund Burke penned this quotation about several flaws he thought prevalent in the revolution.2 The French Revolution’s peculiar progression from political and intellectual idealism to the totalitarian government and use of terrorist tactics to control the French public has set it apart from other revolutionary movements. Burke believed the principles that built the French Revolution’s foundation would inevitably end in chaos.3 His prediction of the Reign of Terror has raised the question that historians still grapple with today: was the Reign of Terror an inevitable outcome of the French Revolution?

Some historians, such as Edmund Burke, Albert Soboul, and Keith Baker, believe in the teleological progression of the French Revolution. These historians attempt to locate and highlight the key flaws in the revolutionary movement itself as the reason for the Terror. Baker’s argument focuses on the philosophical flaws of the Revolution. He argues that the Terror “was not simply a desperate response to external circumstances. On the contrary, those circumstances found their definition within the revolutionary ideology, which created and nourished itself upon them.”4 Baker believes that the Revolution created a self-perpetuating cycle that inevitably climaxed with the Reign of Terror as it drove people to more and more violent responses.

Soboul argues that instead, it began with the Enlightenment or as he calls it, “enlightened despotism.”5 Soboul, like Burke believes, Enlightenment ideas were the problem. He believes that the ideals are contradictory in their nature, being lofty goals yet hardly practical, and could not morally justify the Committee of Public Safety’s actions. Burke differentiates himself as he focuses more on the flaws in the revolutionaries’ goals. He sarcastically asks if he should “facilitate a madman… on his restoration of the enjoyment of light and liberty” seeing that the revolutionaries’ demands were neither reasonable nor wise.6 These historians see that the consequences of these events lie in the French Revolution’s fundamental principles and characteristics.

Other historians, such as Timothy Tackett and Richard Cobb, believe that the Reign of Terror was simply a result of certain conditions during the Revolution. Tackett asserts that the Reign of Terror developed from a perfect set of conditions, both before and during the French Revolution. He bases his argument off of reoccurring themes he sees in revolutionary movements. The reoccurring actions cause dissent that develops into a revolutionary movement. He argues, coupled with existing conditions, a revolution could develop into “violence and terror… driven forward by a dialectical interaction between revolution and counterrevolution.”7 Tackett believes that these principles caused the Terror to develop during the Revolution rather than beginning as a destined outcome of the Revolution. Cobb posits these components are critical in understanding the Revolution itself, as factors impact how the people in the Revolution were influenced and acted before it even took place. He argues that “revolutionary behavior” developed from economic, social, and religious influences in the era before the Revolution, yet these factors guide individuals rather than dictate their actions.8 Cobb believes that the people themselves are the only ones responsible for their reactions to fear. Compared to teleological historians, Tackett and Cobb view the Terror as organically developing from the Revolution rather than being inevitable from the beginning. Historians similar to Cobb and Tackett largely base their arguments on the relationship between Revolutionary ideology and the people’s decisions based on their philosophical perspectives.

The conflict between these two groups of historians raises the question whether the Reign of Terror was an inevitable product of the French Revolution or rather a separate byproduct of it. I argue that the Reign of Terror was a byproduct of the Revolution due to its complexity. The Terror cannot be attributed to one single event, person, or flaw. It was the amalgamation of many different influences. These influences include the different classes attempting to attain different goals, politicians pushing policy for their personal profit, the bourgeoisie and proletariat’s universal paranoia, and the lower classes’ attempt to equalize all of French society monetarily and politically. The Reign of Terror was not the outcome of the Revolution; rather it was the byproduct, as the combination of events, thoughts, and feelings, developing into a violent response against the French monarchy from the new revolutionary state.

Eighteenth century French society’s predisposition and acceptance of the Revolutionary government’s policies stemmed from multiple social conditions and perspectives before and during the Revolution. The build up of stress and problems between the French government and people provided an underlying motivation as those individuals sought to resolve their grievances.  Long-term conditions played a major role in the Revolution as French society abandoned the traditional idea that individuals should serve and protect the government.  Due to paranoia and hysteria, people responded with more radical political movements and political philosophical ideology.

Seen in the language of Jean Meslier, an eighteenth-century priest, his revolutionary language encouraged individuals to rebel against the Old Regime in France. In one work, he criticized the government, calling to “give nothing to these haughty and useless nations, give nothing to these haughty and rich wastrels…give nothing to these proud and haughty nobles, give nothing to these haughty and proud tyrants nor to those who serve them.”9 His primary objection to over-taxation might have been justified, yet this harsh revolutionary language charged the political atmosphere and appealed to French people’s pathos. His work sensationalized the revolutionary movement and allowed for radical political groups to take power through campaign promises of social relief. The lower classes saw the limited supply of food products as specifically the fault of the upper classes, “farmers and greedy merchants.”10 This element was crucial to the French Revolution as the peasant population suffered from malnutrition and starvation, impelling the disgruntled san-culottes to seek violent means of attaining food from the upper classes because only the upper classes were able to afford the rising prices.11 This problem is seen throughout the Revolution of 1789 and into the Reign of Terror as the Committee of Public Safety attempted to set prices to relieve the lower classes and pacify their anger.12 The rising prices of foodstuffs and excessive taxation separated the lower classes from the higher classes and caused the lower classes to seek the quickest means of equalizing their injustices.

When these long term conflicts were coupled with the French struggling economy and weakened government, French citizens sought solutions to reform the failing government. Tired of the reign of Louis the XVI, the middle classes began to voice their opinions on the government using the Enlightenment moral system as the primary foundation for their objections. With more and more governmental blunderings, respectful suggestions to end “the despotism” brought about by “emissaries of administration, persons absolutely unknown to [Louis XVI]” soon turned to embittered language.13 Within an eighteen-year span, this tone had drastically changed into one of an angry mob as the middle and lower classes requests were repeatedly ignored. Furthermore, continued administrative failings led to a harsher language that further polarized the political environment of France. Jacques Roux’s venting openly chastises the upper classes, declaring that; “freedom is nothing but a vain phantom when one class of men can starve another with impunity. Equality is nothing but a vain phantom when the rich, through monopoly, exercise the right of life or death over their like.”14 His work, along with other political commentators at this time, riled up the public and encouraged critiques of the aristocracy, government, and Old Regime politicians, causing them to lose their respect and sovereignty in the public’s eyes. “The tensions and ambiguities…revealed ideological strains within the contemporary conception of the monarchy” strained French culture’s loyalties to the Old Regime.15 Due to the inability for the classes to support and trust one another, the situation prompted the Committee of Public Safety to enforce policies that brought about the Reign of Terror.

Enlightenment speech and philosophy before the Revolution changed dramatically as the leading critics and purveyors of Enlightenment thought changed their purpose from attempting to glorify humanity to emotionally and logically controlling the French people. Traditional Enlightenment writers such as Locke and Descartes focus on attempting to understand the relationship between nature and humanity.16 In Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, he attempts to understand the “state all men are naturally in” and under what conditions they best function. He believes that if government were set up according to this plan, individuals would coexist more peacefully, creating a better society.17 Descartes agrees with Locke’s argument though he focuses more on explaining and attempting to understand humanity’s freedom. To accomplish this, Descartes focuses on the relationship and similarities between humanity and the divine.18 While traditional Enlightenment arguments focused exalting humanity, Enlightenment principles soon changed into political movements as people sought to apply the ideals found in Enlightenment philosophy.

Teleological historians see this movement by the petit bourgeoisie as an attempt to relieve the political and social pressure built up. These historians who consider the philosophical perspective to be flawed and direct eighteenth century French society towards the Terror as their motives and desires, were confrontational with rational thought. Enlightenment thought radically changed as the Committee of Public Safety mutated ideas on equality and universal rights to best fit their agenda. By using Enlightenment thought as philosophical law, they were able to appeal to society and accomplish unprecedented control and power over the new French government.19 The revolutionaries focused on sensationalizing rumors in order to increase their control over the frightened public. Robespierre began this by attempting to appeal to French society, advocating “eternal peace, amnesty, fraternity” and arguing that “virtue, without which terror is fatal; terror, without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue.”20 The terrorists used the Enlightenment to appeal to society and gain their support and approval of their activities. They were able to manipulate the public’s paranoia and gain more power over the population.

The reaction from French culture to the Enlightenment just before and during the Revolution soon changed as their requests and supplications to the government were generally ignored. Frustration was building as neither the lower classes nor their moral perspectives were respected. Since Enlightenment philosophy advocated “free and equal in rights,” society attempted to uphold what they thought was universal law.21 This element was key in allowing the Reign of Terror to develop as society approved of radical policies to ensure that their universal laws were protected. Society attempted to react with any means necessary to discover “the obstacles which yet are between us and our wishes” and to remove those obstacles by any means necessary.22 French society saw that in protecting universal rights, the ends justified the means, which caused Parisian society in general to accept the leadership and control of the Committee of Public Safety.

Rousseauian philosophy also influenced the development of the Reign of Terror by presenting itself as an infallible philosophy. Rousseau’s ideas on the General Will argued, “the people is never corrupted, but it is often deceived.”23 He argues that the General Will does what is good, because people reason and deliberate what is best for the entire population. This allowed the Committee of Public Safety to justify their actions as protecting the French people from usurpers that would destroy the state. Furthermore, Rousseau’s relativistic philosophy allowed for the terrorists to justify their actions and proceed unchecked by society, allowing for a build up of paranoia and unchecked power during the Revolution that resulted in the Reign of Terror.24

Throughout Rousseau’s Social Contract, he argued that the construction of society revolved around individuals and their pursuit of collective survival. A tyrannical government and the subversive relations of selfish individuals threatened what Rousseau believed.25 He believed, “that individual freedom will be assured in a society” compared to the traditional society-centered belief.26 The Committee of Public Safety adopted Rousseau’s philosophy due to the infallible nature it presented itself to be and the strict protection of the individual’s rights. Due to the previous problems between the lower and upper classes, this idea was popular with the lower classes as they called for equal rights. The Committee of Public Safety sought to utilize Enlightenment language on equality to justify their actions and power grab. By doing so, they were added to Parisian paranoia, causing the people to grant the Committee of Public Safety additional power.

The French government adopted the revolutionary paranoia against hidden cells of counterrevolutionaries. Civil unrest led to rumors of questionable people, “disturbing the peace and public tranquility” spurred governmental action to deal with these usurpers of the peace.27 Yet, despite the government attempting to better social conditions, political struggles between the Jacobins, the Parisian political that found support from the upper classes of society, and the Girondins primarily a rural populous group lead to conflicts that focused more on political ideology rather than bettering the nation as a whole.28 Montagnards, a more radical segment of the Jacobins, sought to attain political power over their political foes, the Girondins. Utilizing both the government’s agenda to safeguard its constituents and Enlightenment thought, the Montagnards were able to discredit and arrest several Girondin leaders, thus shattering the Girondin political party. The government’s actions focused on alleviating the people’s fears and eliminating these counterrevolutionary individuals. In a passionate speech in the National Council of 1793, Robespierre demands “Sainted Mountain! Become a volcano whose burning lava destroys forever the hopes of the evil and sear the hearts in which the idea of royalty is still found.”29 With the control of the government in the hands of the Jacobins and Montagnards they sought to ensure their political survival by “elect[ing] to enforce its will through terror.”30 By encouraging the terror in France, the politicians could attain more power and gain the ability to remain in power. The political groups’ manipulation of the historical grudges between the classes while utilizing French cultures’ Enlightenment ideas forced them to extreme radical measures to continue their reign over revolutionary France, leading to the Terror.

Teleological historians see the manipulation of Enlightenment thought not as a mixture of condition and people during the Revolution but as a reaction to the political situation in the 19th century. One, looking back on history, could make the claim that the Terror was inevitable due to some flaw. Yet, due to the Revolution’s complexity, this flaw cannot be attributed to a single event, person, or group. Baker’s argument concerning the flaws in Revolutionary philosophy causing the inevitable Reign of Terror lacks the complexity and the motivations of the individual people. He focuses on Revolutionary ideology instead of attempting to find the relationship between ideology and external influences. He argues that the “world of the lodges already resembles in many of the ideological and structural aspects of its internal politics.”31 Yet, the “innumerable works inspired” both the problems with the state and the peoples reactions to these problems,32 adding layers and many discreet influences to how the Revolution turned into the Reign of Terror. Burke’s logical approach to the Revolution, while showing the flaws in the people’s arguments and desires, limits his argument, similar to Baker, to the actions of the public as individuals through the Enlightenment.

Soboul argues that Enlightenment philosophy itself was the flaw of the Terror. Despite dramatically influencing the majority of French citizens and political groups during this time, long-term effects deeply affected people. The different government committees and groups, to further their own political goals, manipulated the pent up frustrations and problems coupled with Enlightenment thought.33 Enlightenment thought was not accepted as it was originally intended but rather was used to gain support from the people and later justify political actions.

The amalgamation of many factors led up to the French Revolution. The disconnectedness between class strata, paranoia, and the weakened French government, coupled with economic and nutritional problems created the perfect conditions for the Reign of Terror. Enlightenment thought changed from a humanitarian ideal to the terror activities seen during the Reign of Terror primarily due to human motivation. Past grievances created an opportunity for different political groups to utilize and control the population.

Enlightenment thought encouraged high standards and aspirations that their expectations and demands from the government overtaxed and overburdened the French government. The political parties inability to compromise on their demands and aspirations caused the division of political parties and the beginning of political xenophobia. This digressed as those in power sought to exploit this fear, leading to the Reign of Terror.

Social reaction to Enlightenment thought was altered to best serve each of the classes. In eighteenth century France, Enlightenment thought’s popularity stemmed from its appeal to French society’s pathos, ethos, and logos. The appeal that the Enlightenment had on the lower classes largely based itself on the value of humanity and the inalienable rights they have. This popular movement, coupled with the preexisting social conditions, caused the individuals to seek a sense of release from their oppressive environment. Enlightenment thought gave them the opportunity through language and ethical reasons. Unable to afford the rising prices on the necessities, they resented the monarchy as failing to represent and protect their interests. Seeing this as an opportunity to seek equal rights, worth, and property, the lower classes advocated support of Enlightenment thought due to it upholding the natural rights of survival and dignity.

Compared to the lower classes, the middle and upper classes attempted to gain political advantages and pursue ideals. Their primary motivation was based on personal goals and disgruntled attitudes they had towards the state. These individuals were enticed and motivated to aggressively respond to the conditions around them. Seen in the manipulation of traditional Enlightenment ideals, the middle and upper classes found the ability to control and motivate the lower classes to support their personal agendas and desire for political progress. Though the intense political struggle between the Jacobins and Girondins caused them to continually seek more power to triumph over their political adversaries.

All these factors and the personal motivations of different individuals led to the escalation of hysteria and paranoia. While some might argue that the Reign of Terror was a product of Enlightenment thought and the French Revolution, the variables, personal aspirations, and influences on eighteenth century French society. The Committee of Public Safety’s use of terrorist tactics to control and manipulate the public in order to politically control France, causing it to be a random revolutionary byproduct and not the climax of the French Revolution of 1789.


 1. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (Mineola, NY:Dover, 2006), 352.

2. Burke, Reflections, 352.

3. Ibid, 25.

4. Jean-Marie Roland, “The Fall of the Monarchy” (1792), in The Old Regime and the French Revolution, ed. Keith M Baker, John W Boyer, and Julius Kirshner (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 286.

5. Albert Soboul, Understanding the French Revolution (New York: International Publishers, 1988), 1, accessed March 28, 2011, http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=53362916.

6. Burke, Reflections, 5.

7. Timothy Tackett, “Interpreting the Terror,” French Historical Studies, 4th ser., 24 (Fall 2001): 3-4, accessed March 20, 2011, http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/fhs/summary/v024/24.4tackett.html.

8. Richard Cobb, “The Era of the French Revolution: Some Comments on Opportunities for Research and Writing,” The Journal of Modern History, 2nd ser., 30 (June 1958): 121, accessed March 29, 2011, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1872757.

9. Jean Meslier, “On the Great Good and Advantages for Men if They All Lived Peaceably, Enjoying in Common the Goods and Conveniences of Life,” 1728, in Jean Meslier Archive (Marxists Internet Archive, 2004), http://www.marxists.org/history/france/revolution/meslier/1728/good.htm.

10. General Council of the Commune of Paris, “Extract from the Register of Deliberations of the General Council of the Commune of Paris, 20th Day of the 1st Month, Year II of the French Republic (11 September 17893)” (1793), in The Old Regime and the French Revolution, ed. Keith M Baker, John W Boyer, and Julius Kirshner (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 338.

11. Brian M. Fagan, The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History 1300-1850 (New York: Basic Books, 2000) 155-156.

12. R. P. Palmer, Twelve Who Ruled, bicentennial ed. (1970; repr. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), 67.

13. Chretien-Guillaume de Lamoignon, “Remonstrance of the Cour des aides” (1775), in The Old Regime and the French Revolution, ed. Keith M Baker, John W Boyer, and Julius Kirshner (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 55.

14. Jacques Roux, “Manifesto of the Enragés,” 1793, in Jacques Roux Archive (Marxist Internet Archive, 2004), accessed February 26, 2011, http://www.marxists.org/history/france/revolution/roux/1793/enrages01.htm.

15. Baker, Inventing the Revolution,110.

16. John Locke, Two Treatises of Government (Hanover College, 2001), accessed April 13, 2011, http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1690locke-sel.html#chapter%20ii:%20of%20the%20state%20of%20nature.

17. Locke.

18. Sophie Berman, “Human Free Will in Anselm and Descartes,” The Saint Anselm Journal (Fall 2004): accessed April 11, 2011, http://www.anselm.edu/Documents/Institute%20for%20Saint%20Anselm%20Studies/Abstracts/

19. Palmer, Twelve Who Ruled, 32-33.

20. Maximilien Robespierre, “Justification of the Use of Terror,” 1792, in Maximilien Robespierre Archive (Marxists Internet Archive, 2004), http://www.marxists.org/history/france/revolution/robespierre/1794/terror.htm.

21. National Assembly, “Declaration on the Rights of Man” (1789), in The Old Regime and the French Revolution, ed. Keith M Baker, John W Boyer, and Julius Kirshner (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 238.

22. Maximilien Robespierre, “On the Principles of Political Morality,” 1792, in Maximilien Robespierre Archive (Marxists Internet Archive, 2004), http://www.marxists.org/history/france/revolution/robespierre/1794/political-morality.htm.

23. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Social Contract, trans. G. D. H. Cole (1762; repr., Austin: Constitution Society), accessed April 10, 2011,http://www.constitution.org/jjr/socon_02.htm.

24. Tackett, “Interpreting the Terror,” 575.

25. Chris Bertram, “Political Philosophy Lecture 4 – Rousseau and the General Will” (Lecture, University of Bristol, University of Bristol, October 27, 2004), University of Bristol, accessed April 12, 2011, http://seis.bris.ac.uk/~plcdib/lecture4.pdf.

26. Bertram, “Political Philosophy.”

27. Register of the Municipal Government of Mamers, “From the Register of the Municipal Government of Mamers” (1789), in The Old Regime and the French Revolution, ed. Keith M Baker, John W Boyer, and Julius Kirshner (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 218.

28. Notes from: Keith Baker, “Purge by Insurrection,” in The Old Regime and the French Revolution, ed. Keith M Baker, John W Boyer, and Julius Kirshner (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 324.

29. National Convention, “Proceeding of the National Convention” (1793), in The Old Regime and the French Revolution, ed. Keith M Baker, John W Boyer, and Julius Kirshner (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 344-345.

30. Robert Wokler, “Contextualizing Hegel’s Phenomenology of the French Revolution and the Terror,” Political Theory, 1st ser., 26 (February 1998): 36, accessed April 13, 2011, http://www.jstor.org/stable/191868.

31. Keith Michael Baker, “Enlightenment and Revolution in France: Old Problems, Renewed Approaches,” The Journal of Modern History 53 (June 1981): 298, accessed April 10, 2011, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1877826

32. Cobb, “Era of the French Revolution,”120.

33. Joseph Zizek, “Plume de fer’: Louis-Marie Prudhomme Writes the French Revolution,” French Historical Studies, 4th ser., 26 (Fall 2003): 633, accessed April 8, 2011, http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/fhs/summary/v026/26.4zizek.html.

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