Modern History Sourcebook:
Justification of the Use of Terror
Maximilien Robespierre (1758 1794) was the leader of
the twelveman Committee of Public Safety elected
by the National Convention, and which effectively governed France
at the height of the radical phase of the revolution. He had once
been a fairly straightforward liberal thinker - reputedly he slept
with a copy of Rousseau's Social Contract at his side.
But his own purity of belief led him to impatience with others.
The committee was among the most creative executive bodies
ever seen - and rapidly put into effect policies which stabilized
the French economy and began the formation of the very successful
French army. It also directed it energies against counter-revolutionary
uprisings, especially in the south and west of France. In doing
so it unleashed the reign of terror. Here Robespierre,
in his speech of February 5,1794, from which excerpts are given
here, discussed this issue. The figures behind this speech indicate
that in the five months from September, 1793, to February 5, 1794,
the revolutionary tribunal in Paris convicted and executed 238
men and 31 women and acquitted 190 persons, and that on February
5 there were 5,434 individuals in the prisons in Paris awaiting
Robespierre was frustrated with the progress of the revolution.
After issuing threats to the National Convention, he himself was
arrested in July 1794. He tried to shoot himslef but missed, and
spent his last few hours with his jaw hanging off. He was guillotined,
as a victim of the terror, on July 28, 1794.
But, to found and consolidate democracy, to achieve the peaceable
reign of the constitutional laws, we must end the war of liberty
against tyranny and pass safely across the storms of the revolution:
such is the aim of the revolutionary system that you have enacted.
Your conduct, then, ought also to be regulated by the stormy circumstances
in which the republic is placed; and the plan of your administration
must result from the spirit of the revolutionary government combined
with the general principles of democracy.
Now, what is the fundamental principle of the democratic or popular
government-that is, the essential spring which makes it move?
It is virtue; I am speaking of the public virtue which effected
so many prodigies in Greece and Rome and which ought to produce
much more surprising ones in republican France; of that virtue
which is nothing other than the love of country and of its laws.
But as the essence of the republic or of democracy is equality,
it follows that the love of country necessarily includes the love
It is also true that this sublime sentiment assumes a preference
for the public interest over every particular interest; hence
the love of country presupposes or produces all the virtues: for
what are they other than that spiritual strength which renders
one capable of those sacrifices? And how could the slave of avarice
or ambition, for example, sacrifice his idol to his country?
Not only is virtue the soul of democracy; it can exist only in
that government ....
. . .
Republican virtue can be considered in relation to the people
and in relation to the government; it is necessary in both. When
only the govemment lacks virtue, there remains a resource in the
people's virtue; but when the people itself is corrupted, liberty
is already lost.
Fortunately virtue is natural to the people, notwithstanding aristocratic
prejudices. A nation is truly corrupted when, having by degrees
lost its character and its liberty, it passes from democracy to
aristocracy or to monarchy; that is the decrepitude and death
of the body politic....
But when, by prodigious efforts of courage and reason, a people
breaks the chains of despotism to make them into trophies of liberty;
when by the force of its moral temperament it comes, as it were,
out of the arms of the death, to recapture all the vigor of youth;
when by tums it is sensitive and proud, intrepid and docile, and
can be stopped neither by impregnable ramparts nor by the innumerable
ammies of the tyrants armed against it, but stops of itself upon
confronting the law's image; then if it does not climb rapidly
to the summit of its destinies, this can only be the fault of
those who govern it.
. . .
From all this let us deduce a great truth: the characteristic
of popular government is confidence in the people and severity
The whole development of our theory would end here if you had
only to pilot the vessel of the Republic through calm waters;
but the tempest roars, and the revolution imposes on you another
This great purity of the French revolution's basis, the very sublimity
of its objective, is precisely what causes both our strength and
our weakness. Our strength, because it gives to us truth's ascendancy
over imposture, and the rights of the public interest over private
interests; our weakness, because it rallies all vicious men against
us, all those who in their hearts contemplated despoiling the
people and all those who intend to let it be despoiled with impunity,
both those who have rejected freedom as a personal calamity and
those who have embraced the revolution as a career and the Republic
as prey. Hence the defection of so many ambitious or greedy men
who since the point of departure have abandoned us along the way
because they did not begin the journey with the same destination
in view. The two opposing spirits that have been represented in
a struggle to rule nature might be said to be fighting in this
great period of human history to fix irrevocably the world's destinies,
and France is the scene of this fearful combat. Without, all the
tyrants encircle you; within, all tyranny's friends conspire;
they will conspire until hope is wrested from crime. We must smother
the internal and external enemies of the Republic or perish with
it; now in this situation, the first maxim of your policy ought
to be to lead the people by reason and the people's enemies by
If the spring of popular government in time of peace is virtue,
the springs of popular government in revolution are at once virtue
and terror: 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; it is not so much a special principle as it is a consequence
of the general principle of democracy applied to our country's
most urgent needs.
It has been said that terror is the principle of despotic government.
Does your government therefore resemble despotism? Yes, as the
sword that gleams in the hands of the heroes of liberty resembles
that with which the henchmen of tyranny are armed. Let the despot
govern by terror his brutalized subjects; he is right, as a despot.
Subdue by terror the enemies of liberty, and you will be right,
as founders of the Republic. The government of the revolution
is liberty's despotism against tyranny. Is force made only to
protect crime? And is the thunderbolt not destined to strike the
heads of the proud?
. . .
. . . Indulgence for the royalists, cry certain men, mercy for
the villains! No! mercy for the innocent, mercy for the weak,
mercy for the unfortunate, mercy for humanity.
Society owes protection only to peaceable citizens; the only citizens
in the Republic are the republicans. For it, the royalists, the
conspirators are only strangers or, rather, enemies. This terrible
war waged by liberty against tyranny- is it not indivisible? Are
the enemies within not the allies of the enemies without? The
assassins who tear our country apart, the intriguers who buy the
consciences that hold the people's mandate; the traitors who sell
them; the mercenary pamphleteers hired to dishonor the people's
cause, to kill public virtue, to stir up the fire of civil discord,
and to prepare political counterrevolution by moral counterrevolution-are
all those men less guilty or less dangerous than the tyrants whom
Source: Robespierre: On the Moral and Political Principles of
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(c)Paul Halsall Aug 1997