Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XVI: Of the Government Called the Reign of Terror. - Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (LF ed.)
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CHAPTER XVI: Of the Government Called the Reign of Terror. - Germaine de Staël, Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (LF ed.) 
Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution, newly revised translation of the 1818 English edition, edited, with an introduction and notes by Aurelian Craiutu (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2008).
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Of the Government Called the Reign of Terror.
We know not how to approach the fourteen months which followed the proscription of the Gironde on the 31st of May, 1793. We seem as if we were descending, like Dante, from circle to circle, always lower in hell. To the animosity against the nobles and the priests succeeded a feeling of irritation against the landholders, next against talents, then even against beauty; finally, against whatever was to be found great or generous in human nature. At this epoch, facts become confused, and we are afraid of being unable to enter into such a history without leaving on the imagination indelible traces of blood. We are therefore forced to take a philosophical view of events, on which the eloquence of indignation might be exhausted without satisfying the internal sentiment which they awaken.
Doubtless, in taking away all restraints from the people, they were placed in a condition to commit every crime; but whence comes it that this people was so depraved? The government, which is spoken of as an object of regret, had time to have formed the nation which showed itself so culpable. The priests, whose instruction, example, and riches are fitted, we are told, to do so much good, had presided over the childhood of the generation which now turned against them. The class that rose into action in 1789 was of course accustomed to those privileges of feudal nobility, so particularly agreeable, we are still assured, to the persons by whom their weight must be borne. Whence comes it, then, that so many vices germinated under the ancient institutions? Let it not be pretended that the other nations of our days would have shown themselves similar if a revolution had taken place among them. French influence triggered insurrections in Holland and Switzerland, and nothing resembling Jacobinism manifested itself there. During the forty years of the history of England, which in so many points of view may be assimilated to that of France, there is no period that can be compared to the fourteen months of terror. What must we conclude from this? That for a century past no people had been so miserable as the people of France. If the negroes at St. Domingo committed a much greater number of atrocities,1 it is because they had been still more oppressed.
It by no means follows from these reflections that the crimes deserve less detestation; but after more than twenty years, we should unite to the lively indignation of contemporaries the enlightened scrutiny which ought to serve as a guide for the future. Religious disputes provoked the English Revolution: love of equality, the subterraneous volcano of France,2 likewise inflamed the sect of the Puritans; but the English were then really religious, and religious Protestants—a circumstance which increases at once austerity and moderation. Although England, like France, polluted herself with the murder of Charles I and the despotism of Cromwell, the reign of the Jacobins is a frightful singularity, the burden of which, in history, must be borne exclusively by France. He, however, has not thought much on the subject of civil disorders who does not know that reaction is equal to the action. The fury of revolts supplies the measure of the vices of institutions; and it is not to the government which is wished for, but to that which has long existed, that we must ascribe the moral state of a nation. At present it is said that the French have been corrupted by the Revolution. But whence come the reckless propensities which expanded themselves so violently in the first years of the Revolution, if not from a century of superstition and arbitrary power?
It seemed in 1793 that there was no more room for revolutions in France, when everything was overturned, the throne, the nobility, the clergy, and when the success of the armies gave reason to expect peace with Europe. But it is precisely when the danger is past that popular tyrannies are established: so long as there are obstacles and fears, the worst men observe moderation: when they have triumphed, their restrained passions show themselves without a curb.
The Girondists made several vain efforts, after the death of the King, to put some laws in activity; but they could not obtain a reception for any system of social organization; the instinct of ferocity rejected everything of the sort. Herault de Séchelles proposed a constitution scrupulously democratical;3 the Assembly adopted it, but ordained that it should be suspended till the peace. The Jacobin party wished to exercise despotism, and this government has been mistakenly described as an anarchy. Never has a stronger authority reigned over France; but it was a strange form of power: springing out of popular fanaticism, it struck alarm into the very persons who commanded in its name; for they always feared to be proscribed in their turn by men who would go still further than they in the daring boldness of persecution. Marat alone lived without fear at this time; for his figure was so mean, his sentiments so extravagant, his opinions so sanguinary that he was sure that nobody could plunge deeper than himself in the abyss of crimes. Even Robespierre was unable to reach so infernal a security.
The last men who at this time are still worthy to occupy a place in history are the Girondists. They felt without doubt at the bottom of their hearts a keen remorse for the means which they had employed to overturn the throne; and when these very means were directed against themselves, when they recognized their own weapons in the wounds which they received, they must have reflected without doubt on that rapid justice of revolutions which concentrates in a few instants the events of several ages.
The Girondists contended every day and every hour, with an undaunted eloquence, against discourses sharpened like poignards, which carried death in every phrase. The murderous nets, with which the proscribed were enveloped on all sides, in no respect took away from them that presence of mind which alone can give effect to all the talents of the orator.
M. de Condorcet, when he was put out of the protection of the law, wrote a work on the perfectibility of the human mind, which doubtless contains errors, but of which the general system is inspired by the hope of the happiness of men; this hope he nourished under the axe of the executioner at the very moment when his own destiny was ruined without resource. Twenty-two of the republican deputies were brought before the revolutionary tribunal, and their courage did not fail for a single instant.4 When the sentence of death was pronounced upon them, one of them, Valazé, fell from the seat which he occupied; another deputy, also condemned, who was by his side and thought that his colleague was afraid, with some reproaches rudely raised him; he raised him up dead. Valazé had just plunged a poignard into his heart, with a hand so firm that he did not breathe a second after the blow was struck. Such, however, is the inflexibility of the spirit of party that these men, who defended whatever there was of respectability in France, could not flatter themselves with exciting any interest by their efforts. They struggled, they fell, they perished, while public report, the harbinger of future fame, made them no promise of any recompense. Even the constitutional royalists were so lost to common sense as to desire the triumph of the terrorists, that they themselves might thus be avenged upon the republicans. In vain were they aware that they too were proscribed by these terrorists; irritated pride prevailed over everything: in thus giving full scope to their resentments, they forgot the rule of conduct from which we should never deviate in politics: it is always to rally round the party the least bad among your adversaries, even when that party is still remote from your own views.
The scarcity of provisions, the abundance of assignats, and the enthusiasm excited by the war were the three grand springs of which the Committee of Public Safety availed itself, at once to animate and subdue the people. It terrified them, or paid them, or made them march to the frontiers, as best suited its purpose. One of the deputies to the Convention said, “We must continue the war, that the convulsions of liberty may be the stronger.” It is impossible to know whether the twelve members of the Committee of Public Safety had conceived the idea of any government whatsoever.5 The direction of affairs, if we except the conduct of the war, was nothing else than a mixture of grossness and ferocity, in which no plan can be discovered, except that of making one half of the nation butcher the other. For it was so easy to be considered by the Jacobins as forming a part of the proscribed aristocracy that half the inhabitants of France incurred the suspicion, which was sufficient to lead the way to death.
The assassination of the Queen, and of Madame Elizabeth, excited perhaps still more astonishment and horror than the crime which was perpetrated against the person of the King; for no other object could be assigned for these horrible enormities than the very terror which they were fitted to inspire. The condemnation of M. de Malesherbes, of Bailly,6 of Condorcet, of Lavoisier,7 was the decimation of the glory of France; eighty persons were the victims of each day, as if the massacre of St. Bartholomew were to be kept in a constant state of renewal.8 One great difficulty presented itself to this government, if the name of government can be given to it; it was the necessity which existed of employing all the means of civilization to carry on the war, and all the violence of the savage state to excite the passions. The populace, and even the citizens, were not struck by the misfortunes of the higher classes. The inhabitants of Paris walked about the streets, like the Turks during the plague, with this single difference, that obscure persons could easily enough preserve themselves from danger. Within view of the executions, the places of public entertainment were filled as usual; romances were published, entitled A New Sentimental Voyage, Dangerous Friendship, Ursula and Sophia: in short, all the insipidity and all the frivolity of life subsisted by the side of its gloomiest frenzies.
We have not attempted to dissemble what it is not in the power of men to blot out from their remembrance; but that we may breathe more at ease, we hasten to survey, in the following chapter, the virtues which did not cease to do honor to France, even at the most horrible period of her history.
[1. ] Reference to the revolts in Haiti in 1791–92.
[2. ] This idea would play a key role in Tocqueville’s The Old Régime and the Revolution.
[3. ] The Montagnards (the Mountain) presented a new constitution in June 1793, soon after the fall of the Girondins. It was drafted by, among others, Hérault de Séchelles (1759–94). Although approved by referendum, the constitution of 1793 was never applied.
[4. ] On October 29–30, 1793.
[5. ] The Committee of Public Safety was officially established on April 6, 1793, replacing the Committee of General Defense. Robespierre, Carnot, and Saint-Just were among its twelve members. The Committee of Public Safety gave official acknowledgment to the doctrine of reason of state and ruled according to the belief that extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary methods, as illustrated by these famous words of Marat: “It is through violence that liberty must be established, and the time has come to arrange for a temporary despotism of liberty in order to crush the despotism of kings.” (quoted by D. Richet in his entry on the Committee of Public Safety, in A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution, 476) The Reign of Terror was officially declared on September 5, 1793, and lasted until July 28, 1794. Madame de Staël is right to point out that the Committee of Public Safety did not rule alone but in conjunction with other rival state institutions, such as the Committee of General Security, which controlled the police, and the Commune insurectionnelle of Paris, which held military power after the fall of the monarchy on August 10, 1792. For more information, see A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution, 474–78; Doyle, The Oxford History of the French Revolution, 247–72; and Palmer, Twelve Who Ruled.
[6. ] Jean Sylvain Bailly (1736–93), a French astronomer who was elected a deputy to the Estates General, led the proceedings during the Tennis Court Oath and became mayor of Paris in July 1789. He became unpopular after he ordered the National Guard to disperse the crowd during the riotous assembly in the Champ de Mars (July 17, 1791).
[7. ] Antoine Laurent Lavoisier (1743–94), considered the founder of modern chemistry, was arrested for his position in the Ferme générale (a tax farming company) prior to 1789. He was guillotined on May 8, 1794.
[8. ] The Terror claimed approximately forty thousand victims (the estimates vary between sixteen and forty thousand) as a result of voluntary denunciations and quick trials characterized by hasty deliberations. According to Furet, the number of arrests from March 1793 to July 1794 was arguably close to a half million. The number of death sentences rose sharply after October 1793. For a good overview, see Furet’s entry in A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution, 137–51. A classic account can be found in Greer, The Incidence of the Terror During the French Revolution. For a more recent account, see Andress, The Terror.