terror cover

Tackett, Timothy. The Coming of the Terror in the French Revolution, The Belknap Press, Harvard University, Cambridge MA and London, 2015 (463pp.$35)

The scramble by historians and to unscramble the “meaning” of terror in the French revolution commenced as soon as heads began to roll. The French middle class, its bourgeois sympathizers, certain ideologically converted aristocrats, and many lawyers, clerks and administrators who created a National Assembly in 1789, witnessed the utter transformation of the French state towards, in the name of popular sovereignty, a polity dedicated to “equality” and human rights, including free speech, a free press, religious tolerance, careers determined by talent rather than blood, and equal justice under written laws. Four years later, by mid-1793, a dictatorial government of “committees” had emerged from the chaos of civil war, foreign invasion, internal dissension, and furious rumor that relied on spies, surveillance and summary execution. Revolutionary tribunals sent the King and Queen to their deaths; they were followed in short order by many revolutionists themselves, as well as numerous deputies to the National Convention, men and women who claimed to be fervent supporters of the Revolution.

At the height of the Terror, at least 300,000 suspects were awaiting trial or being held under guard. Contemporary estimates of executions are set at just under 17,000, but those figures do not include other deaths from torture or miserable conditions in many prisons. A figure of 40,000 deaths seems likely. All classes were touched by death; a fourth were peasants, a third were artisans or workers; clergymen and nobles were killed, as were members of surveillance committees. The henchmen of radical militias also died protesting their allegiance to the terror. On June 10, 1794, the mystical ideologue Robespierre (head of the Revolutionary Tribunal) formulated the Prarial Law, streamlining “trial” procedures, intending as he said at the time, “not to make a few examples, but to exterminate the implacable satellites of tyranny.” And so, a revolution undertaken in the name of liberty and equality, transmogrified into a tyranny against tyranny.

Timothy Tackett, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of California, Irvine, is a scholar of uncommon talent, common sense, and narrative skill. His new book, “The Coming of the Terror in the French Revolution” does, in many profound ways, unscramble the “meaning” of the terror in the revolution by de-coupling ersatz philosophical explanations offered up during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (usually focused on Rousseau’s theory of “general will” or the philosophy of the Enlightenment and utopian endeavors) explained as a disjunction between “circumstances” and “ideals”, in favor of a precise exploration of the origins of a culture of political violence connected to historical process. This means for readers that Tackett examines carefully the actual behavior (through letters, correspondence, diaries, newspaper accounts and first-hand reports) of political elites in order to understand their psychological and mental states. In short, Tackett accounts for everyday emotions like anger, fear, shame, humiliation and the desire for revenge and the rapid and often concomitant alternation between emotions like joy and anguish, empathy and hatred. Unlike other historians, he also uses modern neuroscience, psychology and historiographical tools.

One of Tackett’s strategies is to avoid reference to standard accounts by correspondents like Talleyrand or Lafayette, or to other famous memoirs written as much as thirty years after the events in question. Instead, Tackett dispenses with “historical accounts” (disposing, as he says of, “undifferentiated sentiment”), preferring to expend attention on the specific emotions of specific people involved in the enthusiasm, fervor, and finally the fear of the time. His conclusion is that fear was one of the central elements in the origins of Revolutionary violence—fear of invasion (by Prussians and Austrians), fear of chaos and anarchy, fear of revenge. Tackett’s list of witnesses is culled mainly from the letters of a group of sophisticated observers, mostly located in Paris, but who represent a variety of social milieus including men and women, commoners and nobles, wives of officials, and soldiers headed to the “front”. For example, Adrien-Joseph Colson, the principal estate agent for a noble family living in the city wrote two or three letters each week to a friend and business associate in the province of Berry in central France. Rosalie-Julienne, wife of a future member of the National Convention pursued an intense and intelligent correspondence with her husband’s family in the southeastern province of Dauphine. Other letter-writers include retired landowners, theater impresarios, a playwright and novelist, and some minor political functionaries. They were, in both a literal and figurative sense, “looking down” from their apartment windows.

An utter pleasure to read—easy to understand and vivid in its depictions of the sequence of psychological events, Tackett’s book not only paints portraits of the major political leaders of the Revolution (men like Le Peltier, Marat, Chaillon and Robespierre), but also brings to life many of the hitherto unknown women who participated and whose histories are not much recorded. Beautifully supported by copious notes (many of which are brilliant, minor essays), a grand bibliography, and a significant number of illustrations, “The Coming of the Terror in the French Revolution” will pave the way for its readers to new understanding.

To succeed, as Tackett does, in delivering us into the arms of claustrophobic fear means inculcating readers into the psychological terrors of terror itself. For members of the Convention and all Parisian citizens, the night of July 27-28 was tense and uncertain. The city gates were closed and bells began to ring. Armed men roamed the streets, gendarmes carried torches, and local militias declared emergencies in their bailiwicks. The next afternoon, the Robespierre brothers, Saint-Just and Couthon, were taken before the Revolutionary Tribunal and condemned to death, along with Hanriot, the mayor of Paris and sixteen other supporters of the Commune. They were carted along the “passage of infamy” (through the streets) and delivered to the scaffold. Robespierre, with a broken jaw, showed great courage in his final moments. Despite his democratic vision, he had never overcome his debilitating suspicions and his self-absorption. As Tackett explains, “his mental anguish and physical agony”, was ended by the blade.