The First Republic: From the Reign of Terror to Napoleon

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Turning Points in Modern History

By Vejas Liulevicius, Ph.D., University of Tennessee, Knoxville

The French Revolution started with high hopes for reforming society. But it soon plunged into the Reign of Terror, which consumed both supposed enemies of the people, as well as many revolutionaries themselves. What would be the end of this?

In the painting, huge numbers of prisoners are shown being shot by groups of soldiers in an open field.
The French Revolution soon led to huge massacres, such as the mass shootings at Nantes shown here, as part of the Reign of Terror. (Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

Reactions to the French Revolution

Even before the Reign of Terror, reactions to the French Revolution were mixed. Some praised it as the beginning of a new age of mankind. English poet William Wordsworth described his enthusiasm: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven!” Some American revolutionaries were proud of a movement that they felt was following the American example. Thomas Paine, earlier active in the American Revolution, actually moved to France to be a part of all of these exciting events.

The British parliamentarian Edmund Burke, however, had darker premonitions about what he feared might happen next. These he published in 1790, in a book entitled Reflections on the Revolution in France. He predicted that the revolution would end in cataclysmic disorder and that this anarchy would soon be followed by a dictator.

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The Revolutionaries and the King

On the night of June 20, 1791, the French royal family tried to escape in disguise. This was the head of state trying to escape his own country, but the king was actually recognized, and the family was arrested. The royal family was brought back to Paris in disgrace. A new Constitution of 1791 was enacted, creating a constitutional monarchy, but unrest was accelerating fast.

Revolutionary France now went to war with the other monarchies of Europe in 1792 because of fears that they might try to restore the French monarchy. Fears grew that the foreign armies were winning and would restore the old regime. So, on August 10, 1792, the Paris mob stormed the Tuileries Palace in Paris.

Image showing a grand staircase with soldiers in blue and common people firing up toward soldiers in red coats who are firing down.
The storming of the Tuileries Palace by the Republicans (in blue). The Swiss Royal Bodyguards (in red coats) vainly defended themselves. (Image: Henri-Paul Motte/Public domain)

The royal bodyguards, the famous Swiss Guard, were massacred: beaten to death, their bodies dismembered and spiked onto poles that were carried through the streets, and finally burned in bonfires. Their red uniforms were carried aloft by the crowds as bloody red banners of revolution. The king and queen and their family were kept alive, for now.

Learn more about the complexities of overthrowing a monarchy and constructing a democracy.

The Reign of Terror by Robespierre

In September 1792, France was declared a republic; the monarchy was abolished. This was also the month of the September Massacres, when prisoners who were already held in the overcrowded jails of France, especially priests, were killed, forced to run the gauntlet of men wielding swords, bayonets, knives, and axes. Soon, the violence became systemic, and the Reign of Terror began, lasting 10 months from 1793 to 1794, and costing tens of thousands of lives.

The revolutionaries executed the king, then the queen. A Committee of Public Safety now ruled France. It was dominated by Maximilien Robespierre, known as ‘The Incorruptible’. Under his stern guidance, the Committee advocated what it called revolutionary terror, which it defined as prompt and total justice that would produce a ‘Republic of Virtue’. Radical revolutionaries proudly accepted the label of ‘terrorists’.

Thousands were sent to their deaths on the guillotine, a killing machine that was praised as humane and a kind of embodiment of Enlightenment utility. It was asserted that the condemned only felt a rush of air on the back of the neck, and then nothing. The guillotine was thus imagined to be a merciful tool.

Image shows a guillotine on a platform guarded on all sides by soldiers, in which the queen has just been beheaded.
The execution of Queen Marie Antoinette by guillotine. During the Reign of Terror, the guillotine was seen as a quick and merciful instrument of death. (Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

The End of the Reign of Terror

In areas that resisted the revolutionaries, like the city of Lyons or the Vendée region, the mass murder that followed was ruthless and energetic as these revolts were put down. It was on a scale far bigger than the individual guillotine. Cannons and rifles were used to mow down crowds of prisoners, who then fell into freshly dug mass graves.

Barges full of men, women, and children were sunk in rivers in what the radicals jokingly called revolutionary baptisms. Chemists were even consulted on how it might eventually be possible to produce mass death using poison gas, anticipating later genocidal horrors.

Even revolutionaries came to be suspected. Lafayette escaped the country, going into exile. Thomas Paine was arrested by the state, perhaps because he had humanely pleaded that the king should not be executed but simply sent into exile. At long last, the Reign of Terror burned itself out. The ringleader Robespierre was betrayed by his own associates who had started to be afraid of him, and he was executed in 1794. Very aptly, the revolutionary Saint-Just called revolution “a mother who devours her children”.

Learn more about how revolutionaries sought to reform the church but divided the country.

The End of the First Republic and the Rise of Napoleon

Painting shows Napoleon standing with a crown in his hands ready to crown Josephine as she kneels before him.
As Edmund Burke had predicted, a new dictatorial ruler sat on the throne of France in 1804. Thus began the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte, the self-made emperor in France. (Image: Jacques-Louis David/Public domain)

The republic itself was ended in 1799 when a young general declared his own military dictatorship. That was Napoleon Bonaparte. The Revolution and its wars had allowed Bonaparte to rise as a military and political genius. In 1804, concentrating power in his own hands, Napoleon crowned himself the Emperor of the French.

Napoleon was announcing in this way the power of the individual, or at least of this individual, himself. Napoleon was literally a self-made emperor. He rode the Revolution to power, surfing on the tides of history. Sometimes Napoleon called himself a son of the Revolution; at other times he simply stated, “I am the Revolution.”

To sum up, the revolution which sought to create a new rational order fell, just as Edmund Burke had thought, and a dictatorial ruler installed himself as the new ruler of France.

Common Questions About the Reign of Terror

Q. What happened in the attack on the Tuileries Palace?

On August 10, 1792, the Paris mob stormed the Tuileries Palace in Paris. The king and queen were spared but the royal bodyguards, the famous Swiss Guard, were massacred.

Q. What was the Reign of Terror?

The Reign of Terror was a 10 month period in which a Committee of Public Safety, dominated by Maximilien Robespierre, advocated what it called revolutionary terror, which it defined as prompt and total justice.

Q. How did the Reign of Terror come to an end?

The Reign of Terror came to an end when Robespierre was betrayed by his own associates who had started to be afraid of him. He was executed in 1794.

Q. What was unique about Napoleon coming to power?

The unique thing was that Napoleon crowned himself the Emperor of the French. Napoleon was announcing in this way the power of the individual, or at least of this individual: himself. Napoleon was literally a self-made emperor.

Keep Reading
Who was Napoleon Bonaparte? The Early Years
Napoleon—The Rise to Power and History of Napoleon Bonaparte
Napoleon and the French Revolution