Excerpt from "On the Moral and Political
Principles of Domestic Policy"
Speech delivered on February 5, 1794
"Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is therefore an emanation [something which emerges from a central source] of virtue; it is not so much a special principle as it is a consequence of the general principle of democracy applied to our country's most urgent needs."
Maximilien Robespierre (1758–1794) became the leader of the Committee of Public Safety, which governed France for about a year during the most radical phase of the French Revolution. It was the period known to history as "The Terror," and it gave rise to the term "terrorism" to describe political violence.
The French Revolution had begun with a dramatic act: storming a government prison, the Bastille, in Paris and seizing arms on July 14, 1789. The king of France, who usually governed without representatives of the people, had summoned an ancient form of parliament (representatives of the citizens) in order to raise funds for fighting against England (including extending military aid to the newly formed United States). Because no French parliament had met for many years, disputes arose about how to organize one. Representatives of the clergy and the nobility wanted to have their own separate meetings; representatives of the middle and working classes wanted one big gathering (where they would outnumber the representatives of the church and nobility).
Disputes over organizing a new French government continued. The king, Louis XVI, was deposed (removed) and eventually executed. Armies from neighboring countries (some of whose monarchs were related to the deposed French king) invaded France to restore order and protect the privileges of the monarchy.
In Paris, the parliament, then called the National Convention, appointed a twelve-member Committee of Public Safety in mid-1793 to oversee the country in the midst of what was turning into chaos. Robespierre became its leader. The committee adopted harsh measures to maintain order and to protect the National Convention from factions (groups) intent on restoring the old monarchy.
For about a year, from mid-1793 through mid-1794, the Committee ordered hundreds of people to be executed for activities it said threatened the safety of the revolution. Robespierre was one of the most articulate spokesmen for the Committee of Public Safety in justifying these harsh measures, known ever since as the Reign of Terror.
On February 5, 1794, in the middle of the Reign of Terror, Robespierre gave a speech discussing the executions and other measures adopted by the Committee of Public Safety. Excerpts from Robespierre's speech are below.
Things to remember while reading the excerpt from "On the Moral and Political Principles of Domestic Policy":
- When Robespierre delivered this speech, the Committee of Public Safety had ordered about 238 men and 31 women to be executed. Just under two hundred others had been tried and found not guilty; there were also more than five thousand other people waiting in prison to stand trial.
- For Robespierre, "virtue" was the fundamental principle of a democratic society. When he was speaking, democracy, or representative government, was new to France. Robespierre, himself a lawyer, believed that ordinary people had to truly believe in the principles of democratic government, rather than simply follow the laws. In this way, politics was elevated in Robespierre's view into a form of religion. And just as execution had long been used by European religious leaders to punish nonbelievers, so it seemed to Robespierre an appropriate penalty for political nonbelievers.
Excerpt from "On the Moral and Political Principles of Domestic Policy"
But, to found and consolidate democracy, to achieve the peaceable reign of the constitutional laws, we must end the war of liberty against tyranny and pass safely across the storms of the revolution: such is the aim of the revolutionary system that you have enacted. Your conduct, then, ought also to be regulated by the stormy circumstances in which the republic is placed; and the plan of your administration must result from the spirit of the revolutionary government combined with the general principles of democracy.
Now, what is the fundamental principle of the democratic or popular government—that is, the essential spring which makes it move? It is virtue; I am speaking of the public virtue which effected so many prodigies in Greece and Rome and which ought to produce much more surprising ones in republican France; of that virtue which is nothing other than the love of country and of its laws.
But as the essence of the republic or of democracy is equality, it follows that the love of country necessarily includes the love of equality.
It is also true that this sublime sentiment assumes a preference for the public interest over every particular interest; hence the love of country presupposes or produces all the virtues: for what are they other than that spiritual strength which renders one capable of those sacrifices? And how could the slave of avarice or ambition, for example, sacrifice his idol to his country?
Not only is virtue the soul of democracy; it can exist only in that government. …
Republican virtue can be considered in relation to the people and in relation to the government; it is necessary in both. When only the government lacks virtue, there remains a resource in the people's virtue; but when the people itself is corrupted, liberty is already lost.
Fortunately virtue is natural to the people, notwithstanding aristocratic prejudices. A nation is truly corrupted when, having by degrees lost its character and its liberty, it passes from democracy to aristocracy or to monarchy; that is the decrepitude and death of the body politic….
But when, by prodigious efforts of courage and reason, a people breaks the chains of despotism to make them into trophies of liberty; when by the force of its moral temperament it comes, as it were, out of the arms of the death, to recapture all the vigor of youth; when by turns it is sensitive and proud, intrepid and docile, and can be stopped neither by impregnable ramparts nor by the innumerable armies of the tyrants armed against it, but stops of itself upon confronting the law's image; then if it does not climb rapidly to the summit of its destinies, this can only be the fault of those who govern it….
From all this let us deduce a great truth: the characteristic of popular government is confidence in the people and severity towards itself.
The whole development of our theory would end here if you had only to pilot the vessel of the Republic through calm waters; but the tempest roars, and the revolution imposes on you another task.
This great purity of the French revolution's basis, the very sublimity of its objective, is precisely what causes both our strength and our weakness. Our strength, because it gives to us truth's ascendancy over imposture, and the rights of the public interest over private interests; our weakness, because it rallies all vicious men against us, all those who in their hearts contemplated despoiling the people and all those who intend to let it be despoiled with impunity, both those who have rejected freedom as a personal calamity and those who have embraced the revolution as a career and the Republic as prey. Hence the defection of so many ambitious or greedy men who since the point of departure have abandoned us along the way because they did not begin the journey with the same destination in view. The two opposing spirits that have been represented in a struggle to rule nature might be said to be fighting in this great period of human history to fix irrevocably the world's destinies, and France is the scene of this fearful combat. Without, all the tyrants encircle you; within, all tyranny's friends conspire; they will conspire until hope is wrested from crime. We must smother the internal and external enemies of the Republic or perish with it; now in this situa tion, the first maxim of your policy ought to be to lead the people by reason and the people's enemies by terror.
If the spring of popular government in time of peace is virtue, the springs of popular government in revolution are at once virtue and terror: virtue, without which terror is fatal; terror, without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue; it is not so much a special principle as it is a consequence of the general principle of democracy applied to our country's most urgent needs.
It has been said that terror is the principle of despotic government. Does your government therefore resemble despotism? Yes, as the sword that gleams in the hands of the heroes of liberty resembles that with which the henchmen of tyranny are armed. Let the despot govern by terror his brutalized subjects; he is right, as a despot. Subdue by terror the enemies of liberty, and you will be right, as founders of the Republic. The government of the revolution is liberty's despotism against tyranny. Is force made only to protect crime? And is the thunderbolt not destined to strike the heads of the proud? …
Indulgence for the royalists, cry certain men, mercy for the villains! No! mercy for the innocent, mercy for the weak, mercy for the unfortunate, mercy for humanity.
Society owes protection only to peaceable citizens; the only citizens in the Republic are the republicans. For it, the royalists, the conspirators are only strangers or, rather, enemies. This terrible war waged by liberty against tyranny—is it not indivisible? Are the enemies within not the allies of the enemies without? The assas sins who tear our country apart, the intriguers who buy the consciences that hold the people's mandate; the traitors who sell them; the mercenary pamphleteers hired to dishonor the people's cause, to kill public virtue, to stir up the fire of civil discord, and to prepare political counterrevolution by moral counterrevolution—are all those men less guilty or less dangerous than the tyrants whom they serve?
What happened next …
Robespierre continued to fight for the purity of the revolution, a belief not shared by everyone. Eventually Robespierre began threatening the National Convention itself, the body that had elected him and his fellow members of the Committee on Public Safety. In July 1794, Robespierre was arrested and sentenced to death. He tried to shoot himself to death, but missed. He was executed at the guillotine (pronounced ghee-uh-teen) on July 28, 1794.
Did you know …
- The exact number of people killed during the Reign of Terror is not known; it is generally estimated to have been between twenty-five thousand and forty thousand.
- In 1794, the Committee of Public Safety declared the Cult of the Supreme Being as the official national religion in place of Christianity. Robespierre, ever concerned with virtue, felt the population needed a formal way to celebrate virtues such as humanity and liberty, which he described as "republican" virtues.
For More Information
Jordan, David P. The Revolutionary Career of Maximilien Robespierre. New York: Free Press, 1985.
Loomis, Stanley. Paris in the Terror: June 1793–July 1794. New York: Lippincott, 1964.
Matrat, Jean. Robespierre: or, The Tyranny of the Majority, translated by Alan Kendall. New York: Scribner's, 1975.
Mayer, Arno J. The Furies: Violence and Terror in the French and Russian Revolutions. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000.
McGowen, Tom. Robespierre and the French Revolution in World History. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 2000.
Parry, Albert. Terrorism: From Robespierre to Arafat. New York: Vanguard Press, 1976.
Robespierre, Maximilien. "On the Moral and Political Principles of Domestic Policy." Available at http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/robespierre-terror.html (accessed October 23, 2002).
Rudé, George F. E. Robespierre: Portrait of a Revolutionary Democrat. London: Collins, 1975.