Between 1793 and 1794, thousands of French citizens were imprisoned and hundreds sent to the guillotine by a powerful dictatorship that claimed to be acting in the public interest. Only a few years earlier, revolutionaries had proclaimed a new era of tolerance, equal justice, and human rights. How and why did the French Revolution's lofty ideals of liberty, equality, and fBetween 1793 and 1794, thousands of French citizens were imprisoned and hundreds sent to the guillotine by a powerful dictatorship that claimed to be acting in the public interest. Only a few years earlier, revolutionaries had proclaimed a new era of tolerance, equal justice, and human rights. How and why did the French Revolution's lofty ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity descend into violence and terror?The Coming of the Terror in the French Revolution offers a new interpretation of this turning point in world history. Timothy Tackett traces the inexorable emergence of a culture of violence among the Revolution's political elite amid the turbulence of popular uprisings, pervasive subversion, and foreign invasion. Violence was neither a preplanned strategy nor an ideological imperative but rather the consequence of multiple factors of the Revolutionary process itself, including an initial breakdown in authority, the impact of the popular classes, and a cycle of rumors, denunciations, and panic fed by fear--fear of counterrevolutionary conspiracies, fear of anarchy, fear of oneself becoming the target of vengeance. To comprehend the coming of the Terror, we must understand the contagion of fear that left the revolutionaries themselves terrorized.Tackett recreates the sights, sounds, and emotions of the Revolution through the observations of nearly a hundred men and women who experienced and recorded it firsthand. Penetrating the mentality of Revolutionary elites on the eve of the Terror, he reveals how suspicion and mistrust escalated and helped propel their actions, ultimately consuming them and the Revolution itself....
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The Coming of the Terror in the French Revolution Reviews
another book about the French revolution, this time focused on the political processes that led to the Terror of 1793-94 and the famous show trials (King, Girondins, Hebertists, Dantonists etc) and mass executions that culminated with the fall of Robespierre and the final showdown of strength between the Paris Commune and the government as it was (the Commune which was the ultimate support of Robespierre tried to save him, but this time the Convention managed to defeat it and in the process and much less well known than the deaths of Robespierre and his few close associates - executed close to 100 - about 2/3 - of its members, executions that ultimately allowed the Thermidor regime to consolidate its grip on power and swiftly get rid of all others associated with the Terror who didn't change sides fast enough - as a note, after this the main threat to the Thermidor and Directorate government that succeeded it will be the Royalist quarters of Paris and Napoleon's rise to fame will be in crushing those with artillery for the regime)well written and quite compelling, showing again how when order breaks down even with the best of motives, rumors and the least setback (of which there will be inevitable some) will lead to the extremists with the loudest voices and simplest explanations "we are great but we were betrayed" swiftly rising and eventually even if not directly taking power (as here Robespierre faults and all was still a legalist and believer in the Convention - "his" Convention maybe but still - and channeled the Commune, while executing their most extreme representatives like Hebert, while Marat was killed before he could take full power), they would still force the government to do their bloody bidding until stopped by forcerecommended
Tackett, Timothy. The Coming of the Terror in the French Revolution, The Belknap Press, Harvard University, Cambridge MA and London, 2015 (463pp.$35)The scramble by historians and to unscramble the “meaning” of terror in the French revolution commenced as soon as heads began to roll. The French middle class, its bourgeois sympathizers, certain ideologically converted aristocrats, and many lawyers, clerks and administrators who created a National Assembly in 1789, witnessed the utter transformation of the French state towards, in the name of popular sovereignty, a polity dedicated to “equality” and human rights, including free speech, a free press, religious tolerance, careers determined by talent rather than blood, and equal justice under written laws. Four years later, by mid-1793, a dictatorial government of “committees” had emerged from the chaos of civil war, foreign invasion, internal dissension, and furious rumor that relied on spies, surveillance and summary execution. Revolutionary tribunals sent the King and Queen to their deaths; they were followed in short order by many revolutionists themselves, as well as numerous deputies to the National Convention, men and women who claimed to be fervent supporters of the Revolution.At the height of the Terror, at least 300,000 suspects were awaiting trial or being held under guard. Contemporary estimates of executions are set at just under 17,000, but those figures do not include other deaths from torture or miserable conditions in many prisons. A figure of 40,000 deaths seems likely. All classes were touched by death; a fourth were peasants, a third were artisans or workers; clergymen and nobles were killed, as were members of surveillance committees. The henchmen of radical militias also died protesting their allegiance to the terror. On June 10, 1794, the mystical ideologue Robespierre (head of the Revolutionary Tribunal) formulated the Prarial Law, streamlining “trial” procedures, intending as he said at the time, “not to make a few examples, but to exterminate the implacable satellites of tyranny.” And so, a revolution undertaken in the name of liberty and equality, transmogrified into a tyranny against tyranny.Timothy Tackett, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of California, Irvine, is a scholar of uncommon talent, common sense, and narrative skill. His new book, “The Coming of the Terror in the French Revolution” does, in many profound ways, unscramble the “meaning” of the terror in the revolution by de-coupling ersatz philosophical explanations offered up during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (usually focused on Rousseau’s theory of “general will” or the philosophy of the Enlightenment and utopian endeavors) explained as a disjunction between “circumstances” and “ideals”, in favor of a precise exploration of the origins of a culture of political violence connected to historical process. This means for readers that Tackett examines carefully the actual behavior (through letters, correspondence, diaries, newspaper accounts and first-hand reports) of political elites in order to understand their psychological and mental states. In short, Tackett accounts for everyday emotions like anger, fear, shame, humiliation and the desire for revenge and the rapid and often concomitant alternation between emotions like joy and anguish, empathy and hatred. Unlike other historians, he also uses modern neuroscience, psychology and historiographical tools.One of Tackett’s strategies is to avoid reference to standard accounts by correspondents like Talleyrand or Lafayette, or to other famous memoirs written as much as thirty years after the events in question. Instead, Tackett dispenses with “historical accounts” (disposing, as he says of, “undifferentiated sentiment”), preferring to expend attention on the specific emotions of specific people involved in the enthusiasm, fervor, and finally the fear of the time. His conclusion is that fear was one of the central elements in the origins of Revolutionary violence—fear of invasion (by Prussians and Austrians), fear of chaos and anarchy, fear of revenge. Tackett’s list of witnesses is culled mainly from the letters of a group of sophisticated observers, mostly located in Paris, but who represent a variety of social milieus including men and women, commoners and nobles, wives of officials, and soldiers headed to the “front”. For example, Adrien-Joseph Colson, the principal estate agent for a noble family living in the city wrote two or three letters each week to a friend and business associate in the province of Berry in central France. Rosalie-Julienne, wife of a future member of the National Convention pursued an intense and intelligent correspondence with her husband’s family in the southeastern province of Dauphine. Other letter-writers include retired landowners, theater impresarios, a playwright and novelist, and some minor political functionaries. They were, in both a literal and figurative sense, “looking down” from their apartment windows.An utter pleasure to read—easy to understand and vivid in its depictions of the sequence of psychological events, Tackett’s book not only paints portraits of the major political leaders of the Revolution (men like Le Peltier, Marat, Chaillon and Robespierre), but also brings to life many of the hitherto unknown women who participated and whose histories are not much recorded. Beautifully supported by copious notes (many of which are brilliant, minor essays), a grand bibliography, and a significant number of illustrations, “The Coming of the Terror in the French Revolution” will pave the way for its readers to new understanding.To succeed, as Tackett does, in delivering us into the arms of claustrophobic fear means inculcating readers into the psychological terrors of terror itself. For members of the Convention and all Parisian citizens, the night of July 27-28 was tense and uncertain. The city gates were closed and bells began to ring. Armed men roamed the streets, gendarmes carried torches, and local militias declared emergencies in their bailiwicks. The next afternoon, the Robespierre brothers, Saint-Just and Couthon, were taken before the Revolutionary Tribunal and condemned to death, along with Hanriot, the mayor of Paris and sixteen other supporters of the Commune. They were carted along the “passage of infamy” (through the streets) and delivered to the scaffold. Robespierre, with a broken jaw, showed great courage in his final moments. Despite his democratic vision, he had never overcome his debilitating suspicions and his self-absorption. As Tackett explains, “his mental anguish and physical agony”, was ended by the blade.
Loved the book-- LOVED it. A great performance. But at times, it did as if I were reading a description of our own time: "a Manichean language would increasingly be used by patriots to refer to rival factions of other Revolutionaries. Indeed, the inflationary hatred and verbal violence of the first years of the Revolution, born from a culture of fear, rumor [alternate facts?] and denunciation, as well as from a genuine menace of counterrevolution, would anticipate and help foster the psychology of the Terror." (141) Urgh! I don't know the literature well enough to situate Tackett in the current debates surrounding the French Rev, but he is at pains to point out that "circumstances had a powerful impact on the coming of the Terror. Yet circumstances alone would have been insufficient without a prior transformation of the psychology and mentalite of the revolutionaries, a transformation with a tragic inner logic that was integral to the process of the French Rev" (348). Which is slightly different than, say, Georges Lefebvre's idea that class conflict was at such a pitch that all that followed was more or less inevitable. Another aspect I appreciated very much was how the book was structured; in the first half Tackett outlines his 'theoretical' approach to the Terror and the causes that gave rise to it, while the second half is a straightforward narrative in which we see how these theoretical aspects of the issue come into play.
“...utopian dreams and conservative fears...”This is an excellent book. The Terror was a complex phenomenon that cannot be explained with a single cause. Class struggle was part of it, but not all of it. The unique personality and power of Robespierre was part of it, but not all of it. The truth is—as always—far more complicated.
I think this is a fantastic example of how to write about history. Timothy Tackett keeps the book anchored around a specific question - what caused The Terror of 1793 and 1794? - but he's broad enough in his scope to answer other questions he may not even be aware we're asking. For instance, you get a good sense of the dissonance between rural peasants and the urban working class that probably speaks to many countries and time periods. Much of the narrative is built on letters of correspondence between the middle-class Parisian "elites" who would come to dominate the revolution. Through their writing you get a strong sense of the uncertainty, fear, and sometimes ludicrous optimism that colored this tumultuous period. A couple things to note: First, most of the revolutionary leaders didn't start out with very radical positions. But as the Sans-Cullottes become a bigger political force and as factionalization took it's toll, the legislative deputies staked out more and more radical positions. This resulted in a lot of re-written laws and badly destabilized the government. Secondly, I was not aware of the tremendous impact rumors had on the psyche of the French populace. Some of them sound absurd in retrospect, such as the nobles releasing prisoners and paying them to set fire to all of Paris, but I suppose it's easy to judge when not living in such terrifying and uncertain times.Ultimately this is a very insightful look into a very important topic. The French Revolution and The Terror have seen various analogues throughout history from the 16th century witch trials in Europe to the Cultural Revolution in China. And many of the underlying factors, such as castigating and demonizing those on the other side of the political aisle, are still with us.
Danton famously said:"'let us be terrible, in order that the people are not so". This is a brilliant book about the years preceding the Terror in the French Revolution where the author is trying to explain how the psychology of the people was slowly being radicalised and more and more violent. It's unbelievable the struggle that the French nation went through in those years. Virtually whole of Europe was marching again them. France was thorn in bloody civil war and the revolutionaries themselves were very fractioned. In this atmosphere everybody was a suspect and potential traitor. Highly recommended to anyone interested in this topic.
I only wish this book was longer. The text is 349 pages. Tackett's style pulls you into the era. Fear, anxiety, and terror are made sharply felt.
How the magnanimous concepts of "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity," one of the many mottoes of the French Revolution could plunge into deep seeded rivalries, factionalism, paranoia, the collapse of law and order and a pervasive and dark culture of terror in which the revolutionaries would ultimately devour their own is elegantly presented, masterfully researched, and brilliantly written by Timothy Tackett, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of California, Irvine.