Why did the French Revolution of 1789, dedicated to liberty, equality and fraternity, devolve just four years later into a dictatorship with a policy of terror? Critics of the Revolution have seen the Terror as a result of the French revolutionaries' illiberal political thinking. Some took this view at the time, and influential works by historians such as François Furet and Simon Schama have elaborated it in recent decades. In The Terror, David Andress, a British historian, argues for a revisionist interpretation that sees the Revolution's brutal end less as a product of political thinking and more as an unfortunate but almost inevitable part of a bitter civil war in a country surrounded by hostile forces doing their best to reverse the Revolution. Fierce reactions against the French democratic regime made that regime hypersensitive to internal dissent. In the author's view, not faulty thinking but unfriendly practical circumstances explain the Terror.
Andress offers a meticulous account, covering events in the provinces as well as in Paris. (Fortunately he confines his ill-judged parallels between the first Terrorists and today's counter-terrorists to the concluding paragraphs of his introduction and conclusion.) Even on Andress's own evidence, his circumstantial interpretation seems more persuasive in explaining the terror policy in the wars between revolutionaries and their avowed opponents than in explaining why the revolutionaries took to killing each other. As the subtitle of his book indicates, his argument tends to collapse these two kinds of terror into one. Yet the distinction between them seems important for explaining historical causes and effects.
The author easily shows that the Terror's methods were justified by the Terrorists themselves as wartime necessities. Take, for example, the great massacres of "political" prisoners (many were ordinary criminals) by shady revolutionary groups in Paris in September 1792. These mobs had been given the nod by elected government officials, so this was a precursor of the more official (and slightly more procedurally correct) Terror of 1793-94. The September Massacres occurred because the recently declared war with counter-revolutionary powers was going very badly. Invading armies were approaching Paris. Their commander had threatened the city with "never-to-be-forgotten vengeance" for the revolutionaries' treatment of the French royal family. There was widespread fear that if left alive the prisoners might well be freed by the Revolution's enemies in order to give decisive assistance to the invaders. So there was good reason for the panic that led to the massacres. Later, even when the foreign war went well (from the French revolutionaries' point of view), civil war and economic crises ensured that there were always plenty of reasons for the feeling of revolutionary beleaguerment that supported the Terror's "prompt justice."
Andress tries to inspire in us "a sense of proportion" when thinking about the French mayhem by drawing our attention to the American Revolution's high level of fatalities and loyalist emigration. But this parallel, insofar as it holds, simply underlines the question of why the French revolutionaries, unlike the American ones, fell out among themselves so extensively, and why imprisonment and execution became for a time the normal method for settling differences between revolutionary factions. Something more than "an atmosphere of war emergency" is needed to explain this.
In fact, Andress does mention other features of pre-revolutionary France that suggest a less circumstantial, more "cultural" explanation of the self-destructive side of the Terror. He notes that while there was a large educated reading public, political discourse was disconnected from the realities of political life, and given to utopian fantasizing. For example, even as local magistrates were applying "the harsh and sometimes unjust letter of the law, they might be dreaming of new social and political utopias in their clubs and societies—safely set of course on fictional islands or in the realms of ancient history." The contrast with America (which Andress does not explicitly note) is striking. Political discourse in British America was closely related to a confident political class's daily experience in local governments and colonial legislatures. In 1789 Alexander Hamilton wrote to the Marquis de Lafayette that while "I rejoice in the efforts you are making to establish" liberty, "I dread the reveries of your philosophic politicians...who being mere speculatists may aim at more refinement than suits either with human nature or the composition of your nation." American revolutionaries' political thought was more resourceful because they had more political experience, including the experience of factions with non-lethal policy disagreements.
Although Andress wants to make us understand the Terror without seeing it as something inherent in revolutionary thinking, his careful history also notices that this thinking had many faults. Nor is his revisionist urge so strong that it stops him from appreciating the impact of some of those faults on the Terror. From his own account, a cultural explanation seems especially helpful when the Terror begins to devour some of its own.
For example, he frequently notes Rousseau's unfortunate influence on the revolutionaries, above and beyond the legend that Maximilien Robespierre, the chief Terrorist until he himself was guillotined, slept with a copy of The Social Contract under his pillow. Andress identifies that book as the basis of the revolutionaries' obsession with unity, their intolerance of political disagreements, and their "ever-narrowing definition of political purity and legitimacy." Rousseau's influence is equally visible in the Terrorists' obsession with total citizenship over against the claims of private life, which Andress notices but does not connect with The Social Contract.
Perhaps a sentimentalist culture, another result of Rousseau's influence, is even more important for explaining self-destructive terrorism. In this culture, melodramatic emotional commitment—taken to be a mark of authenticity—was translated into revolutionary political commitment, and revolutionaries came to mistrust "all public figures who did not repeatedly and openly acclaim and demonstrate their popular and radical credentials." In this climate, denunciation of "the wicked, aristocratic, counter-revolutionary elements that still infested the body politic...was the route towards purity." There was naturally a powerful temptation to extend such purifying denunciations to opponents who shared (or were they only pretending to share?) one's revolutionary ends but differed on the means. Or even to employ such denunciations to settle old political scores with murderous conclusiveness. The factions who won these denunciation contests were not necessarily the best scholars of Rousseau, they were just the most savvy and ruthless.
Because Andress includes such cultural matters in his explanation of the Terror, his book is much better than if he had more doggedly pursued his revisionist thesis that dire practical circumstances explain everything. A third explanation—or a way of combining the other two—would be to observe that no prudent statesmen arose among the French revolutionaries. Incompetents and fanatics filled the power vacuum that emerged once it became clear that the king was unwilling to accept constitutional limits on his power. Andress points out that one reason the revolutionary government was such a toxic place to work was that many revolutionary leaders were also venomous journalists, "competing to sell newspapers on the strength of their individual perspectives," and thus providing "additional outlets for unrestrained assertions about the activities of groups and individuals." In 1793, Gouverneur Morris (the astute American minister in Paris, often quoted by Andress) remarked with wonder that in France, a nation of 24 million people, all the convulsion of the Revolution "has brought forth no one, either in civil or military life, whose head would fit the cap that fortune has woven." When Robespierre (as Morris added) is your "most" or "only consistent" leader, you obviously have a statesmanship deficit.
Anyone doubting that Robespierre was a certifiable lunatic should read Fatal Purity, the new biography by another British historian, Ruth Scurr. She suggests that some sort of public shrine should be erected to Robespierre, and like his sister, she solicitously finds explanations for his character in his family experience. Scurr claims he was not simply a Rousseau-inspired intellectual (though, she shows, he was that); he was also a sensitive soul who had been damaged by childhood losses (his mother died when he was six, one of his sisters when he was away at school).
So no one could ask for a more sympathetic biographer, determined to be a "friend" of her subject. Nevertheless, her thorough rummaging through the documents, while not producing any great revelations, vividly confirms that Robespierre was indeed an insane fanatic, never doubting himself, and constitutionally unable to distinguish between his own opinions and the true, uncorrupted will of the people. He was a paranoid loner ill-suited to political office, who nevertheless insisted on pursuing political power. Elected a representative to the Estates General in 1789, he diligently studied the rhetorical techniques used by the most influential speakers. He also quickly grasped the importance of using mob violence to enhance the Revolution's authority, and to put forward himself and his supporters as its guardians. He thought the purpose of politics was to establish a completely selfless morality. To get from here to there, he did not hesitate to justify terror, which "is merely justice, prompt, severe, and inflexible," as an essential part of democratic politics.
Clearly, characters like Robespierre should be kept far away from political power. Unfortunately, as we know not only from the French experience, modern revolutions open up political opportunities for such madmen. Still, a revolution, even one that faces strong domestic or foreign opposition, can also leave room for political leaders with sane principles. The paradox of liberal revolution is that such leadership is likely to be available and effective only if there is already widespread practical political experience and a liberal political culture.