In your view, how and why did the French Revolution become
increasingly violent from 1789 to 1794?
The period from 1789 to 1794, in which the Revolution became increasingly violent, represents a paradox –
a revolution which supposedly stood for ‘liberty, fraternity, equality’, as codified by the Dec or Rights of
Man, came to encompass meaningless bloodshed and the arbitrary abuse of power. With the benefit of
hindsight however, it is possible to show that, in response to setbacks such as foreign invasion, continued
economic depression, a rejection of revolutionary values by the church and factionalism within the National
Assembly, the revolutionary leaders implemented the ‘the Terror’ out of necessity - they believed the
progress they had worked for over many years justified the use of violence to protect it. The FR was not
inherently violent, but rather experienced ‘teething problems’ that were understandable given the result of
sudden, dramatic change that had taken place over previous years.
Early in the Revolution’s history, violence was ritualistic and purposive rather than random and irrational. It
also tended to be of symbolic nature. The invasion of the Bastille for example was planned to target a prison
– a symbol of the Monarch’s absolute power to arbitrarily incarcerate his subjects. Episodes of early
violence were also not pervasive – the British ambassador recorded in his diary that he felt safe about
strolling around Paris in 1789. Sociologist John Markoff also notes this in his analysis of violence against
landlords in the countryside, noting that most violence was targeted against social institutions rather than
individuals. This in many ways reflects the ideological underpinnings of the Revolution (comment on hand-
in hand thesis)
However, in the years following the formation of the National Assembly, a number of developments changed
the nature and role of violence
Firstly, from 1792 onwards, foreign armies began to invade the borders of French territory, necessitating the
issuing of unpopular decrees to conscript young Frenchmen.
Secondly, continued economic depression caused food shortages. Inflation increased to as high as 30%.
In addition to this, factions began to form within the National Assembly – each with its own perspective on
what how the assembly should respond to imminent threats.
Most importantly however, French conservatives felt distain for a number of radical reforms imposed by the
National assembly, which limited the status of the Church. Marriage for example, was transformed from
being a religious act to being a secular act – it became legally a contract between two willing individuals
equal before the law rather than a binding sacrament. Controversially, Priests were made to serve oath of
loyalty to the nation and parish elections implemented – an oath which 90% of them of them refused. This
resentment was a key factor in the formation of the rebel groups such as the Royal and Catholic Army with
the aim of reinstating the monarchy.
Committee of Public Safety:
In April 1793, and in response to the threats, Robespierre and 11 other members of the National Assembly
took the initiative to form the Committee of Public Safety with the aim of centralizing power and using
whatever legal power was necessary in the name of the republic.