The guillotine was first introduced as a humane, efficient, and above all modern form of execution in April 1792; during the radical phase of the Republic, it would become the symbol of the Terror. This engraving suggests the guillotine is providing "good support for liberty." See source

French Revolution 3: The Terror


Late in 1792 the government was reorganized as the National Convention, controlled at first by the moderate group known as the Girondins. The French armies saw success on the battlefield and there was a new hope and energy given to the Revolution. The Republic also established the Committee on Public Safety (Comité de surveillance publique, 9 people, later 12) and the Revolutionary Tribunal to purge the enemies of the state. In this period power was shared by a triumverate of Danton, Marat, and Robespierre.

However, politics came to be dominated by the more extreme and fervent Jacobin party, especially after Girondist general Demouriez defected to Austria. The ruthless, intelligent and paranoid Robespierre is in charge, executing many by guillotine in the so-called Reign of Terror. The execution of Louis XVI as a show of contempt to the monarchy mobilized counter-revolutionary forces both inside and outside of France. These unprecedented and horrific events may ultimately characterize this period, but the Revolutionary government also continued to make beneficial, radical and far-reaching reforms, such as funding public libraries and cultural centers.

Thermidorian Reaction In July 1794 (or Thermidor, under the new calendar), the politics of terrorism collapsed upon itself. After the arrest of 200,000 and the execution of 20,000 people, Robespierre himself began to condemn the excessive use of le terreur and asked for the execution of fellow committee members. Now opposition to Robespierre coalesced. His execution marked the end of the Reign of Terror and the return to "justice" as a guiding principle.

Revolutionary Time

In October 1793, the Jacobin government gave France a time system reflective of the new political realities. The Jacobins retrospectively set the first day of the first year as 22 September 1792, the day the French national government abolished the monarchy. Each year thus began in September, and the calendar endured into the Napoleonic era before it was abandoned. Revolutionary Calendar years were divided into 12 months of 30 days, followed by five or six additional days. The additional days at the end of the year (sans culottides) were Virtue Day, Genius Day, Labor Day, Reason Day, Rewards Day, and Revolution Day (the leap day). Leap years (with a sixth additional day) occurred on years III, VII, and XI. This calendar was in effect until December 31, 1805, proving less durable than the metric reforms.

Vendémiaire, the month of vintage, mid-September through mid- October
Brumaire, the month of fog, mid-October through mid- November
Frimaire, the month of frost, mid-November through mid- December
Nivôse, the month of snow, mid-December through mid-January
Pluviôse, the month of rain, mid-January through mid-February
Ventôse, the month of wind, mid-February through mid-March
Germinal, the month of budding, mid-March through mid-April
Floréal, the month of flowers, mid-April through mid-May
Prairial, the month of meadows, mid-May through mid-June
Messidor, the month of harvest, mid-June through mid-July
Thermidor, the month of heat, mid-July through mid-August
Fructidor, the month of fruit, mid-August through mid- September

Part 4: Insurrection in the Vendée

Websites of Interest

Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. Exploring the French Revolution
American Social Productions, Inc. A rich site full of original documents and interpretative essays. The principal authors are Lynn Hunt and Jack Censer.

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