Violence and the French Revolution:
Insurrections and Repression
October 27, 2001

Sara Vins

As 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 A conscription law was enacted and later repealed, while a Law of Hostages beginning in 1799 took prisoners in order to "pacify" particular regions.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 For the most part, by the time this law was repealed, there were no longer any hostages in custody.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.