A Disorderly Revolution

Maximilien Robespierre soon became the leader of the Jacobins.  Under his guidance, Girondins and other suspected anti-revolutionaries were horrifically purged.  Rights of the accused were further limited under Robespierre’s reign, ironically denying people the rights that the Revolution granted them by the Declaration of the Rights of Man.  Wild rumors were all that were necessary for the deaths of 11,000-18,000 people and the imprisonment of another 300,000.  It is because of this unjustified use of terror that the French Revolution cannot be considered orderly.  Robespierre believed that terror was the tool that virtue used to impose itself on people.  This seems almost comical as we contemplate Robespierre’s tactics, which were explicitly contrary to the ideas of the Revolution.

Many people will counter that the Terror was the definition of orderly, comparing it to the purges of Stalin and Hitler.  While Robespierre undoubtedly killed many innocents, he very rationally rooted out his enemies and kept power at a volatile time in a volatile place for an unusually long amount of time, however short that time might have been.

This, however, is a misunderstanding of the Terror and of other dictatorial regimes.  Robespierre did not control the Terror.  He oversaw it and at times gave it a nudge in the desired direction.  The Terror was controlled by the Committee of Public Safety, which persecuted whomever they wished. When they heard a rumor or formed a conspiracy theory, they began beheading people. The Terror was never uniformly enforced throughout France.  Its methods varied from place to place and from person to person.  In this way, the enforcers of the Terror more closely resembled a loose confederation of mobs, scurrying about France doing as they pleased. The Terror cannot be considered orderly, as it was reactionary by nature.  If one is reacting to other people, one cannot implement one’s own plans.  The Terror merely added chaos and despotic rule to a country trying to liberate itself from those very things.

Here lies the ultimate irony of the French Revolution.  The revolutionary government became even more cruel and repressive than the government it overthrew for possessing those two traits.  Viewed in this light, we can see that the Revolution was not immediately successful. It took many years and many leaders for the government of France to resemble a democratic nation-state, which was ultimately what the early revolutionaries wanted.  The French Revolution was intended to create a government with popular sovereignty.  The righteous ideas that began the French Revolution were viewed as an end.  The revolutionaries believed that any means could be used to achieve those ends, even if they violated the end itself.  The French Revolution is a paradox that can be described in innumerable words.  However, “orderly” is not among them.

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