The Reign of Terror


History is said to be written by the winners, but is it possible to
rewrite history? In a way, the French, like many who have preceded them, and
many who will proceed them have done the impossible, rewriting history. From
trivial folklore, such as George Washington chopping down a cherry tree, to the
incredibly wrong, the African slave trade; people's views of history can be
shaped and molded. The French have done a superb job of instilling all of us
with the concept that their Revolution was a fight for liberty, justice and the
good of all Frenchmen everywhere. Their glorification of the Bastille with it's
depictions in painting and sculpture and how the Revolution was the beginning of
a new age pales to some of the events during this period. In fact, the storming
of the Bastille was merely a hole in the dike, and more would follow. The
National Guard, the Paris Commune, the September Massacre, are all words that
the French would prefer us not to hear. These events were a subtle d?nouementto
an climax that was filled with both blood and pain. The Reign of Terror, or the
Great Terror, was a massive culmination to the horror of the French Revolution,
the gutters flowing with blood as the people of Paris watched with an
entertained eye. No matter what the French may claim, if one chooses to open
his eyes and read about this tragedy, they are most certainly welcome.
The revolution begins quietly in the fiscal crisis of Louis XVI's reign.
The government was running deeply into bankruptcy, and at the urging of his
financial advisors, he called the Estates General. The governing body had not
been called for almost two centuries, and now it's workings seemed outdated. A
small number of people said that the Third Estate, that which was drawn from the
towns, should have power to equal the other Estates. Clubs of the bourgeoisie,
the middle class, were formed, proclaiming, "Salus populi lex est." It was a
simple cry meaning "the welfare of the people is law." To these people, the
Estates General was like a pair of shoes that no longer fit. Reformed seemed
iminent, the phrase, "The Third Estate is not an order, it is the nation itself"
began to circulate.1
With much fanfare and circumstance, the three estates were called
together. However, on trying to meet, the Third Estate found the doors to their
meeting place locked. Moving to the tennis court, with much deliberation, an
oath was sworn between the delegates and some clergy, proclaiming themselves as
the National Assembly. They swore to remain indivisible until a constitution
had been formed. As they met at the church of St. Louis, the King was delayed
in his attempt to end this display of independence. Finally, he informed them,
that he would not allow any reforms to be made, unless he approved of them.
Unfortunately, their will would not be easily undone, and in a vote to four
hundred ninety three to ninety four, the National Assembly declared that serious
action would be taken against the King. With such an resounding opposition, on
June 27th, 1789, Louis XVI gave into their demands.
Educated in Paris, a young man of twenty six years, would be one of the
first to set off the spark of revolution. Jumping on top of a table at the
Palais Royale, a social gathering place in Paris, he spoke out against the
enemies of the people in a well scripted oration. The crowd quickly fawned over
their new found hero, marching through the streets of Paris, even interrupting a
performance at the Paris opera. Military forces were required to remedy the
situation, yet Paris only had six thousand troops with which to defend itself
against the rampaging mob. At the Place Vendome, the cavalry attempted to
control the riot, only to find their horses surrounded and unmovable through the
dense crowd.
The officers of the Swiss and Turkish armies attacked the rioters
outright, but the garde-nationale was called in to stop this massacre. This
chaos caused the Hotel de Ville to demand each tocsin, or summoning bell, cannon,
drum, and church bell be used to summon the people of Paris. Drawing from the
electoral populace of each section, four thousand and eight hundred men were
given the task of protecting Paris, now named the Paris commune. They wore the
colors of red and blue, symbolizing the colors of Paris. Armed with cannons and
muskets, they had little powder with which to defend Paris.
The Bastille was a prison, built of stone, it had eight round towers,
with it's highest tower being seventy-three feet. It was built as a defensive
fort against the British, and was