Lesson 63 – The Reign of Terror

Reading: Robespierre justifies the use of terror (text below the video).



To found and consolidate democracy, to achieve the peaceable reign of the constitutional laws, we must end the war of liberty against tyranny and pass safely across the storms of the revolution. Such is the aim of the revolutionary system that you have enacted. Your conduct, then, ought also to be regulated by the stormy circumstances in which the republic is placed. And the plan of your administration must result from the spirit of the revolutionary government, combined with the general principles of democracy.

What is the fundamental principle of the democratic or popular government…? It is virtue… Republican virtue can be considered in relation to the people and in relation to the government; it is necessary in both. When only the government lacks virtue, there remains a resource in the people’s virtue; but when the people themselves are corrupted, liberty is already lost…

From all this let us deduce a great truth: the characteristic of popular government is confidence in the people and severity towards itself…

If the spring of popular government in time of peace is virtue, the springs of popular government in revolution are at once virtue and terror. Virtue without terror is fatal; terror without virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing other than justice: prompt, severe, inflexible. It is therefore an emanation of virtue… a consequence of the general principle of democracy applied to our country’s most urgent needs.

It has been said that terror is the principle of despotic government. Does your government therefore resemble despotism? Yes, as the sword that gleams in the hands of the heroes of liberty resembles those in the hands of the henchmen of tyranny. Let the despot govern by terror his brutalised subjects; he is right, as a despot. Subdue by terror the enemies of liberty, and you will be right… The government of the revolution is liberty’s despotism against tyranny…

Society owes protection only to peaceable citizens. The only citizens in the Republic are the republicans… the royalists, the conspirators are only strangers or enemies. This terrible war waged by liberty against tyranny, is it not indivisible? Are the enemies within not the allies of the enemies without? The assassins who tear our country apart; the intriguers who buy the consciences that hold the people’s mandate; the traitors who sell them; the mercenary pamphleteers hired to dishonor the people’s cause, to kill public virtue, to stir up the fire of civil discord, and to prepare political counter-revolution by moral counterrevolution … are all those men less guilty or less dangerous than the tyrants whom they serve?