The Reign of Terror was a difficult period during the French Revolution where thousands of perceived state enemies were executed. It began in September 1793 to 1794 and was decreed by the Committee of Public Safety which was set up b the Jacobins after the execution of King Louis XVI in January 1793 (Williamson 60). The leader of this committee was Maximilien Robespierre, and it was committed to eliminating elements who were opposed to the French revolution, and to guard against foreign invasion (Comay 376). Robespierre was blindly passionate about the innate goodness of man, which was he believed was corrupted by environmental factors. He therefore dedicated himself to ridding the society of people who were in his view, corrupt. This passion was his undoing, because he continued the Reign of Terror when it was not necessary, after the French had attained success against their enemies. The Terror was reputed to have killed approximately 17,000-40,000 people, and it ended when Robespierre was guillotined by his own colleagues, the Jacobins, who were alarmed and threatened by his continuing unnecessary crusade that had extended into the death of innocent ordinary citizens (Mt. Holyoke 1).
The leadership of Robespierre established his vision of liberty and equality in a manner that was extreme. He believed so passionately in these abstract concepts that he sacrificed greatly to realize them for Frenchmen and himself. Before the patronage of Robespierre in France, the European fraternity had regarded the notion of equality as radical; but he established them through the guillotine, the press, and the podium (Marquette 1). Though Robespierre shared his vision with a majority of the French people, the means he employed to achieve his objectives were far too appalling and did not justify his pure motives.
This era also brought about the etymological derivation of the word ‘terror’ (Williamson 55). During that period, terror was a word that held a positive connotation. France felt threatened by foreign emigrants whom they suspected of harboring plans of invasion. The possibility of treason was an ever present danger, and terror was presented as the solution to intimidate state enemies into submission; terror was therefore used as a political weapon. The meaning of the word has evolved since and has acquired a negative connotation as opposed to the original positive one.
During the Reign of Terror, the word terror was a system used by the government as an instrument of governance wielded against state enemies. The term terror is now used to refer to acts of violence committed against a state. In addition, when the term terror was coined by the Jacobins, it was associated with honorable ideals like liberty, justice, and morality (Brown 505). Robespierre tied in terror with the noble objectives of the Revolution. Interestingly, this idealism continues on to date, even though the meaning of the term has evolved. Many terrorist organizations justify their actions through the radical extension of an ideal they believe in, and their self-perception is often different from those of external observers.
In conclusion, the Reign of Terror was an important period of French history that presented a great lesson to leadership. Thousands lost their lives, and it was an example of a noble crusade gone wrong. It was also the genesis of the use of the word ‘terror’ which is a reality on the globe today. While it was originally a tool used by the government for overall good, it has now evolved into a term that used to describe a tool against the state. The Reign of Terror enables one to understand the radical and negative nature that surrounds the word ‘terror’, and the almost fanatic idealism and passion with which terrorist acts are committed.
Brown, Howard G. “Robespierre’s Tail: The Possibilities of Justice after The Terror.” Canadian Journal of History 45.3 (2010): 503-535. Academic Search Premier. Web. 29 Nov. 2011.
Comay, Rebecca. “Dead Right: Hegel And The Terror.” South Atlantic Quarterly 103.2/3 (2004): 375-395. Academic Search Premier. Web. 29 Nov. 2011.
Mount Holyoke College. The Reign of Terror. Web. 29th November, 2011. http://www.mtholyoke.edu/courses/rschwart/hist255/kat_anna/terror.html
Marquette University. The Ends and Means of Maxmilien Robespierre. Web. 29 November 2011. http://academic.mu.edu/meissnerd/robespierre.htm
Williamson, Myra. Terrorism, War, and International Law: The Legality of the Use of Force. Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Ltd, 2009. Print.