part of the "Violence and the French Revolution" conference
sponsored by the Center for Historical Studies, on October 27, 2001,
Dominique Godineau of the Université de Haute-Bretagne, Rennes
II, and Howard G. Brown of the State University of New York, Binghampton,
discussed "Insurrections and Repression." Pierre Verdaguer
of the University of Maryland's Department of French and Italian was
the chair of the panel. Following the two presenters, T.J.A. LeGoff
of York University offered commentary on the speakers.
Because Godineau's discussion of her paper, Femmes et violence dans
l'espace politique révolutionnaire, was in French, this write-up
will focus only on Brown's presentation.
Brown's paper, Ending the French Revolution: Violence, Justice, and
Repression from 1975-1802, explores the uses and types of terror
present in the last years of eighteenth-century France.
He characterized the terror as having had three aspects: 1) internal
pacification, namely, crushing the resistance to the revolution; 2)
the political and social transformation of France; and 3) a political
tactic whereby different factions could gain power by disavowing the
terror. The political climate of the time legitimized the use of terror
through its emphasis on constitutionalism and the rule of law over any
claims to popular sovereignty. The military repression was seen as an
"essential dimension of the new regime."
The "echoes" of the terror went through distinct stages. The
"directorial" stage directly followed the collapse of the
authoritarian government in 1797 during a time of near-anarchy. The
coup d'etat was thereby justified as an attempt to regain order in the
country. Following this stage, a series of laws were enacted to maintain
order. The law on émigrés acted to repress the government's
enemies, yet it targeted people who were not the "classic enemies
of the Revolution." A conscription law was enacted and later repealed,
while a Law of Hostages beginning in 1799 took prisoners in order to
"pacify" particular regions. Because local authorities were
in charge of enacting this law, it was not as effective. Local authorities
either sympathized with the rebels or they feared causing conflict in
their communities. For the most part, by the time this law was repealed,
there were no longer any hostages in custody.
Then the period of Consular Terror arrived, when an institutional body
that had been set up to defend the constitution ordered the deportation
of anarchists. This made the regime clearly guilty of terror tactics,
as the government acted against people without making any attempts to
actually link them to any crimes. The State created and directed regional
military commissions that, without any local participation, carried
out "terrifying" violence.
In the name of saving the Republic, according to Brown, a "red
thread of continuity" characterized the new government in the years
following the Revolution - throughout all of the different stages of
violence, the State used terror to achieve stability. Commentator LeGoff
remarked at the "cynical floating of principles to preserve the
regime of the pursuit of life and property."
LeGoff also said
that the rebellious behavior in certain regions of France, particularly
the Southeast, required the state repression. Napoleon Bonaparte
and his military were seen as "welcome solutions" to the problem
of anarchy. While this could be a reasonable assumption, I am bothered
by the assertion that such extreme repression and terror could be necessary
for any reason. From a human rights standpoint, it seems absurd to me
that any kind of blatant disregard for civil liberties, such as the
lack of any evidence in the trials of the military commissions, should
be tolerated solely to end political dissidence. The implications of
this are far-reaching and disturbing. They illustrate the very violence
that the Center for Historical Studies intended to highlight with its
Fall 2001 conference series.