The Guillotine was referred to as the "Nation's Razor" and was heavily used throughout the reign of terror
France during the years 1789 through to 1794 was a drastically different France from the previous years of its existence, as well as its future years. This period, known as the French Revolution, is categorized as a pivotal period in which the social fabric and political landscape of France is forever changed. From the humble beginnings of Clovis I through to Charlemagne, all the way down to Louis XIV; France has only known monarchy as a means of governance. But all of that drastically changed when France preformed a full 180 degree turn in the way government is exercised. The vast majority of Frenchmen and women elected to have a king no more, but rather a republic which sought to make a new society. The drafting of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789, along with the coup d’etat which rendered France a constitutional monarchy, and the eventual regicide of King Louis XVI in 1793, ultimately made France a republic: a republic where every citizen was equal in both liberty and opportunity (famously expressed through the motto of Equality, Liberty, Fraternity). One such group that prompted all this civic change were the Jacobins, who later on in this research paper, shall be revealed as the driving force behind the French revolution in all manners, for better and for worse.
The Jacobins started off innocently enough as spectators of local and national events in France. Having their origins stemming from the province of Brittany, the Jacobins were a café society (cafés at the time were places of philosophical and political discussions). The club itself was born in fire, at the time of heightened tension amongst the peoples of France. The epicenter of revolutionary action was taking place in Paris at the time; so naturally, the Jacobins branched out and established their main chapter in Paris where they could remain a relevant influence in the National Constituent Assembly (the zeitgeist behind the French Revolution). In due time, their influence spread and reigned supreme among the other clubs and factions of the National Assembly. But as time progressed and the patience of the people was wearing out. The Jacobins began to be more militant and notwithstanding towards opponents of the revolution who exercised the same principles (such as freedom of expression) that they were so valiantly supporting. There were rumors that were circulating around France, mostly pertaining to the termination of the revolution which added fuel to the paranoid fervor of the National Assembly. As quoted by Frederick William of Prussia, he promised to use military action to affirm “the basis of a monarchial government equally suitable to the rights of the Sovereigns and the well-being of the French nation”. Prussia was viewed as an enemy of France, but enemies of the state existed from within France’s boarders as well. The Jacobins made/labelled enemies during their ascension into the public sphere quite often.
A sansculottes member sporting the tricolours as well as wearing the Phrygian Cap (Liberty Cap)
The Jacobins exercised retribution towards royalists and Girondins (a political faction that opposed the Jacobins later during the revolution) alike, anyone who upheld their ideas: often times, the punishment was met with the fall of the blade of the Guillotine. With such a quick conversion from liberalism to radicalism, one has to wonder how this happened. Indeed, why did the Jacobins (at one point, a progressive political party) who utilized enlightenment period ideologies, go from being truly liberal and democratic, to a radical and tyrannical group that instigated violent acts and dictatorial policies? To fully understand the answer to this question, one need only look at the dire circumstances that eighteenth century France brought to its citizens, as well as the nature of its people who lead France under the guise of liberty.
During the early period of the revolution, right down to the reign of terror, France began to experience a growing obsession over the elimination of the Catholic Church, as well as the formation of a general dechristenization movement. In the Old Regime, the Catholic Church, along with its clergymen enjoyed a prolonged period of privilege and prestige throughout the French kingdom, but that would soon change. The clergy and anyone else that had ecclesiastic powers in France were referred to as the First Estate for their superior hierarchical position in French society. Throughout the revolution, the First Estate’s social status was drastically compromised and in turn, it flipped from that of an imposing presence to an endangered one. This had been accomplished through many mediums of dechristianization imaginable such as: ceremonies of sacrilege, destruction of statues, relics and roadside crossed et cetera. The course of such measures can be chronologically viewed as followed:
“In the Revolution, dechristianization took the following forms: aggressive anti-clericalism, prohibition of any Christian practice or worship either in public or private life, closing of the churches, the formation of a revolutionary calendar to replace the Christian one, and the establishment of new religious cults –the Cult of Reason and the Cult of Supreme Being.”
For many months prior to the terror and the execution of the king, the Jacobins, along with many other clubs, maintained close ties to the Catholic Church. Even Robespierre, the leading figure in the French Revolution who became an apostate to the Christian faith saw the value in securing Christianity, believing that the “persecution of Christianity would alienate the peasantry and make it difficult to make alliances with the smaller European countries.” It should be pointed out that from the start the spirit that constituted the Jacobin club held no stock in the theology of Christianity. Gradually as time progressed, aggressions towards Christendom would only escalate, be that in the form of the elimination of clerical influence, or the destruction of its ideology.
The acts of dechristianization that occurred in France are beyond numbering, but the few that stood out captivate the nature of such a movement. There were instances of de-baptismal ceremonies where citizens changed their name to appropriate republican names in accordance with “nature”. Another act done by the Jacobins was the conversion and the rebranding of the Notre Dame in Paris itself into the Temple of Reason.  This initiative could be seen as an act of killing two birds with one stone, both eliminating the Christian shadow over Paris and the propagation of their new religion. But perhaps one of the more interesting and innovative indications that the Jacobin club was pursuing a radical form of self-destiny was their invention and implementation of the French Republican Calendar. It was a direct impeachment of the Gregorian calendar (implemented by the Catholic Church during the high middle ages), and was meant to replace it as a new and “rational” way of referencing time, starting off the calendar’s years not from the birth of Christ, but from the birth of the revolution. One of its major proponents was Fabre d’Eglantine. A poet and friend of Danton’s, d’Eglantine was a member of the committee responsible for the creation of the calendar, and has been credited with the naming of the months of the Revolutionary Calendar. As progress turned into vain ambition, the Catholic Church in France also underwent a somewhat purge. “The climax of the negative side of dechristianization came with the forced or voluntary resignation of the parish priest...” These acts of resilience against the Catholic Church done by the Jacobins and the people of France were fueled by frenzy and frustration, but what was about to put out the fire and be erected in its place was perhaps the single most radical dream turned into reality of the revolution.
Robespierre was considered by some as the center-head of the French Revolution
The diaspora of fidelity had been prevalent from the very beginning of the revolution, through to the reign of terror. To counter the anarchical state of spirituality and to fill such an empty hole void of structural s, Robespierre pioneered a Rousseauesque state religion which was “inaugurated with the Festival of the Supreme Being on 8 June” 1794. “The ceremony intended to inaugurate a series of arid and rationalistic quasi-religious civic ceremonies in honour of deism and virtue.” Robespierre made Rousseau as well as Voltaire and Marat a major part of his new religion to the point of literal worship when he called out Helvetius a schemer and a persecutor of “the good J.J. Rousseau, the most deserving of our homage.” The cult of reason was a brave but radical new call to dismantle the influence of Christianity and to discover God through the gained wisdom and enlightenment of man.
The Reasons behind all the dechristianization and propagation of the Cult of Reason can be traced back to not too long ago, when free-thinking philosophical discourse took a hold of Western Europe.
It started off during the period of Enlightenment in France, with key figures such as Voltaire and Rousseau leading people away from Religious dogmas, to a more reason-based idea of theism. When Voltaire was quoted with saying, “I believe, I believe in you. Powerful God, I believe! As for monsieur, the Son and madame, His mother, that’s a different story.” it demonstrates a fundamental abandonment of core Christian dogma, and substitute in its place a deistic entity. It was Voltaire who ultimately proposed the rejection of the ecclesia along with its dogmas. “He opposed payments to, and residual jurisdiction of the papacy; he persistently advocated the full submission of ecclesiastical to civil laws, the abolition of clerical celibacy, secularization of priests’ salaries, and the closing of monasteries.” Rousseau had his influences on the Jacobins as well. Famously stating “if your views do not prevail, it is because you were wrong in the first place”, made Rousseau an instant favourite of Robespierre. That quote alone reaffirmed Robespierre’s “notion that the people should be given not what they actually want but what they would want if properly informed and motivated; what, in the vernacular, ‘is good for them’ – the basis of every dictatorship of the Left.” Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire also had a major impact on Pierre Chaumette, a Jacobin who was an editor of a Parisian journal, as well as an orator. Chaumette was a chief founder of the Cult of Reason, and was “imbued with Voltarianism when he launched a civic religious policy in 1793. Voltaire’s emphasis on virtue, toleration, and love of fellow man was the basis of this policy.” The cult of Reason implemented by Robespierre and others was influenced by Voltaire and Rousseau, assuring that reason alone was the realized revelation of the deist god and that virtue was the moral compass that guided the people. Evidently enough, these philosophies of Voltaire, Rousseau, and the concept of disestablishmentarianism were not only prevalent among the cafés and political clubs of France, but were also adopted by the Jacobins, in particular their leading figures, and would be used on the political stage interchangeably to meet the goals of their advocates.
Speech is a powerful tool to get a point across, and when speech is consistent and zealous enough, it can become a weapon; and the more passionate and fervorous one’s ability to speak is, the more convincing one becomes. As it turns out, the Jacobin club had some of the best orators and speakers in France, all of whom did their part in the contributing to the club’s interests. The most renowned orators were Jean-Paul Marat as well as Maximillian Robespierre. Together, they proved to be an ideological force to be reckoned with, as they rooted their ideologies to preach what they believed in, and at the same time produce compelling pleas for action.
Whether he was stressing the importance of the revolution or denunciation of counter-revolutionaries, or even his eventual proscription of the crown (entire or partial); Jean-Paul Marat has always been steadfast in telling the people what was the best course of action for Revolutionary France. Because of his influential position in the Convention and in the National Assembly, Marat indeed proved to be of the most outspoken members of the Jacobins club.
Jean-Paul Marat had a rare skin condition and had to frequently take medicinal bathes. Unfortunately the bathtub ended up being his grave when he was assassinated writing for the L'ami du Peuple while taking a bath
Having first been an avid monarchist who admired virtuous kings such as Frederick of Prussia, Marat had rejected republicanism in his early years: however, that would change later on, as his bias began to take a liberal turn later on. Marat had a high degree of conviction in what he preached as well as in what he wrote. In his newspaper, L’ami du Peuple, he used strong language that had a cyclical theme of teetering radicalism. Having been torn between sticking with his natural disposition toward monarchy and to electing a limited constitutional monarchy; Marat displayed a tendency of being a line-walker of sorts. Due to his abandonment of faith in the French monarchy after the royal family attempted to vacate the country to Austria while being held captive, Marat finally had an imposing change of heart to the fate of the monarchy, stating that, “The king of France is of less importance than a fifth wheel to a cart.” And while he got what he would later professed to have wanted all along (regicide), Marat insisted that this was not enough. In 1790, Jean-Paul made a sharp turn when he proposed that France be governed by a Dictator, and would continue to lobby for a dictatorship even up until his death. “In justice to Marat it must be said that he desired not a Caesar, but a Cincinnatus—a brief and limited dictator.” Given the climate of Western Europe at the time, it was easy to see why Marat urged for a dictatorship, as is already a known fact, in times of crises, strong leadership often yielded stability. At the time, Marat thought that France needed stability in order to survive as a nation and preserve what it had accomplished thus far.
“He continued his championing of the dictatorship, and when war with Austria became imminent, standing almost alone in opposition to the declaration of hostilities, he reiterated his belief in the ‘necessity of choosing once and for all a supreme dictator’, and in the efficacy of popular insurrection under a ‘prudent, staunch, upright and incorruptible chief’. Marat was able to see no safety for France except in the dictatorship.”
In order to repel the growing threat of foreign coalition forces from the east, Marat practically begged for the National Assembly to establish a dictatorship: he even went so far as to propose himself to be the head of such a regime. Nevertheless, the potentiality for tyranny and absolute power (ironically), would have rendered the basic spirit of both the earlier French Revolution as well as the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen obsolete.
The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen was arguably the best thing to come out of the French Revolution
The story of Marat was a tragedy on many levels. A prime example that methods can turn to madness, the life of Marat exhibits the devouring nature of the French Revolution. But even more important than the previous point is that fact that the French Revolution showcased just how people will always be proactive due to the influencing words of one man.
Maximillian Robespierre, credited as being the center-head of the French Revolution, was renowned for his oratory and his ability to sway opinion. Robespierre undoubtedly held fervorous ideologies throughout his duration as a member of the Jacobins club. The fanatic spirit of the Revolution was finally realized in 1792 when Robespierre gave a speech to the Convention on December 3rd on his views on the fate of Louix XVI as well as the death penalty.
“Robespierre then insisted that Louis had no rights under the constitution he had violated and that when the safety of the state was at stake the legal safeguards possibly appropriate in cases between citizens could be waived. ‘Louis must die that the country may live.’ He must be cast out of the heavenly city and stoned. Robespierre hoped he would be the last; he was the first of many. The doctrine which Robespierre enunciated in the king’s trial was a milestone on the road to the charter of the Terror…”
Such zeal and such disgust towards people who opposed the revolution is what drove much of what Robespierre thought to be the course of liberty into a maelstrom that proved to be an efficient way for disarray and mayhem. A good example of engaging dialogue on Robespierre’s part can be seen in the following quote as a direct call for action.
“We want to substitute in our land immorality for egotism, probability for honor, principles for customs, ethics for propriety, the rule of reason for the tyranny of fashion…love of glory for love of money, good men for good society…That is, all the virtues and all the miracles of the republic for all the vices and all the absurdities of the monarchy…In the system of the French Revolution what is immoral is impolitic, what is corruptive is counter-revolutionary.”
Ever renown as a solid speech giver, Robespierre ensures that what he puts into his speeches begin to be instilled into the people until the message rings in their ears. The wording of the speech alone sets a standard and in doing so inspired the people of France to take on the tasks of the revolution.
Hysteria and paranoia became the climate of France during the revolution, and the obsession of the Jacobins made things worse. The Terror was a combination of vital elements such as special tribunals, revolutionary committees, special taxes, maximum and wide-ranging powers granted to representatives the ability to propagate their missions. Being largely an ongoing conflict between the Girondins (offset group of the revolution) and the Jacobins, and as a result, violence and executions came naturally as a byproduct. The Reign of Terror can be seen as a direct instilment of frustration. Seeing as how the promises and the unwavering ideals of the earlier part of the revolution were not being delivered, many people were killed as a result of this restlessness. This was due to the Law of Suspects passed on September 17, 1794, the definition of being an enemy of the state was made it so vague and open-ended that it became part of the reason why many injustices and catastrophes occurred during the terror, all while reveling the level of pretentiousness of the French Republic (lead under the commission of the Committee for Public safety).  Of course it was not just terrorism that ruled the Reign of Terror, it was war also. The war that sprung out in the French region of Vandee proved to be a big obstacle towards the Jacobin tenants of the Republican army. The war was essentially a battle between Royalists and Revolutionaries. It experienced a great loss of life during the Terror, being labeled by some as a genocide; the war in the Vandee was eventually won by the Republican army, but at a great cost of over 300,000 casualties.
In the end it was frustration, infidelity, paranoia and conviction that reigned supreme throughout the French revolution; and it was the combination of these factors that, for the most part, outlined the true radical nature of the Jacobins.
Frustration, in many cases, can be the most damaging catalyst in any major event. The Jacobins along with the convinced general public of France harbored many reasons and emotions that took a toll on how they perceived and acted towards their previous oppressors/superiors; but none were as outlined and menacing as frustration. When reason and sensibility failed to be the people’s champion, the use of force and chaos prevailed under the pretense of sensibility, in the achievement of goals and of the propagation of ideas. For instance, when a society is dwindling both economically and proportionately to the point where a simple commodity such as bread becomes a rarity, it made it only a matter of time before opportunists like the Jacobins took control of the situation and begin the spread of rioting and attrition.
Infidelity in the form of apostasy and denunciation can yield unprecedented consequences. For example, in the brief but damaging period of dechristianization in France was marked with many acts of rebuke and suppression of the Catholic Church and all of its property adherents.
A painting showing the description of the Festival of the Supreme Being in 1794, just months before the death of Robespierre
The outright rejection of Christian doctrines and dogma by philosophers such as Rousseau and Voltaire opened up an avenue for degradation and reformation of the Church and its status; an avenue on which surely many Jacobins walked. From the forced resignation of the pastor priest of Paris to the Festival of the Supreme Being, infidelity to the Christian church was the air supply of Revolutionary France.
Paranoia can be observed through the installation of the reign of terror, which held the full-fledged support of the Jacobins. In France, people rallied in defiance to tyranny from the monarchy and the nobility, but that soon became the essence of the same if not more oppressive regime. In certain cases throughout the reign of terror, spies on behalf of the Jacobins were sent out to scout the public’s opinion. Sometimes in breadlines, if they overheard someone not sound too optimistic about the revolution or harbored hostilities towards it, they were labeled the enemy of the revolution and potentially silenced by the National Razor (Guillotine). Paranoia can also be observed in the form of pre-emptive attacks and acts of war on neighboring countries on the eastern frontiers executed by the General Assembly: in the spirit of foresight. France during the revolution was ultimately a society living constantly on the edge.
The conviction of the figureheads of the French Revolution acted as a fabric that blanketed all of France under its influence. As an example of conviction, one need only look to the “Incorruptible” Robespierre. Swiftly affirming his support for the death-penalty and making an example of King Louis XVI, a violator of the constitution (in Robespierre’s view): Robespierre, with the addition of his conviction, stated “Louis must die that the country may live”. Jean-Paul Marat also held a firm sense of conviction and fervor that levied his ideologies into many parts of the revolution. His obsession over the fanatic spirit of the revolution and how those who wish to stop it should be persecuted, demonstrated in full view the gravity of the revolution. In essence, it was conviction that won the day for the Jacobins and it was conviction that made their goals a reality, not necessarily reason alone.
As Charles Dickens put it, the French Revolution was the best of times, and it was the worst of times. That being said, it is fair to note that not all the acts carried out by the Jacobins were negative. The story of how Robespierre’s final moments in the jail cell attests to this notion. A legend says that in his jail cell, awaiting execution, Robespierre questioned the necessity of the revolution and the reign of terror, referencing to its madness; trying to figure out what it had accomplished. Responding to Robespierre’s conundrum, the fellow inmate pointed to a painting of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, answering that at the very least, they had done that. To this day, the Declaration of the Rights of Man is in use by the people of France; a constant reminder of the strife that the country went through (by the influence of the Jacobins and others) to achieve it.
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Gliozzo, Charles. “The Philosophes and Religion: Intellectual Origins of the Dechristianization Movement in the French Revolution” Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture 40, No. 3 (1971): 273-283.
Gottschalk, Louis. “The Radicalism of Jean-Paul Marat” The Sewanee Review 29, No. 2 (1921): 155-170.
Hardman, J. (1999). Robespierre: Profiles in Power. Harlow, England: Pearson Education Limited.
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Hoffmann, Stanley. “A Note on the French Revolution and the Language of Violence” Daedalus 116, No. 2 (1987): 149-156
Jordan, David. “The Jacobins and Their Victims” The Eighteenth Century 24, No. 3 (1983): 268- 275.
Kennedy, L.M. (1988). The Jacobin Clubs in the French Revolution: The Middle years. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Pomeau, Rene. (1956). La religion de Voltaire. Paris: Librarie Nizet, pp.410-411
Secher, R. (2003). A French Genocide: The Vendée. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.
Sutherland, D.M.G. (1986). France 1789-1815: Revoluion and Counterrevolution. New York: Oxford University Press.
 D.M.G., Sutherland. (1986). France 1789-1815: Revolution and Counterrevolution. New York: Oxford University Press. 77.
 D.M.G., Sutherland. (1986). France 1789-1815: Revolution and Counterrevolution. New York: Oxford University Press. 135.
 Patrice, Higonnet. (1998). Goodness Beyond Virtue: Jacobins During the French Revolution. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. 252.
 Gliozzo, Charles. “The Philosophes and Religion: Intellectual Origins of the Dechristianization Movement in the French Revolution” Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture 40, No. 3 (1971): 276.
 Patrice, Higonnet. (1998). Goodness Beyond Virtue: Jacobins During the French Revolution. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. 117.
 John, Hardman. (1999). Robespierre: Profiles in Power. Harlow, England: Pearson Education Limited. 95.
 D.M.G., Sutherland. (1986). France 1789-1815: Revolution and Counterrevolution. New York: Oxford University Press. 208.
 Ibid, 213.
 D.M.G., Sutherland. (1986). France 1789-1815: Revolution and Counterrevolution. New York: Oxford University Press. 209.
 John, Hardman. (1999). Robespierre: Profiles in Power. Harlow, England: Pearson Education Limited. 122.
 D.M.G., Sutherland. (1986). France 1789-1815: Revolution and Counterrevolution. New York: Oxford University Press. 231.
 Charles, Gliozzo. “The Philosophes and Religion: Intellectual Origins of the Dechristianization Movement in the French Revolution” Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture 40, No. 3 (1971): 277.
 Rene, Pomeau. (1956). La religion de Voltaire. Paris: Librarie Nizet, 410-411.
 Charles, Gliozzo. “The Philosophes and Religion: Intellectual Origins of the Dechristianization Movement in the French Revolution” Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture 40, No. 3 (1971): 274.
 John, Hardman. (1999). Robespierre: Profiles in Power. Harlow, England: Pearson Education Limited. 214.
 Charles, Gliozzo. “The Philosophes and Religion: Intellectual Origins of the Dechristianization Movement in the French Revolution” Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture 40, No. 3 (1971): 276.
 Louis Gottschalk. “The Radicalism of Jean-Paul Marat” The Sewanee Review 29, No. 2 (1921): 157-159.
 Louis Gottschalk. “The Radicalism of Jean-Paul Marat” The Sewanee Review 29, No. 2 (1921): 162.
 Ibid, 167.
 Ibid, 164.
 Louis Gottschalk. “The Radicalism of Jean-Paul Marat” The Sewanee Review 29, No. 2 (1921): 166.
 John, Hardman. (1999). Robespierre: Profiles in Power. Harlow, England: Pearson Education Limited. 74.
 Stanley, Hoffmann. “A Note on the French Revolution and the Language of Violence” Daedalus 116, No. 2 (1987): 150.
 D.M.G., Sutherland. (1986). France 1789-1815: Revoluion and Counterrevolution. New York: Oxford University Press. 174.
 Patrice, Higonnet. (1998). Goodness Beyond Virtue: Jacobins During the French Revolution. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. 51.
 Raynald, Secher.(2003). A French Genocide: The Vendée. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press. Appendix.
 John, Hardman. (1999). Robespierre: Profiles in Power. Harlow, England: Pearson Education Limited. 74.