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Response to Review of Choosing Terror: Virtue, Friendship and Authenticity in the French Revolution

David Andress has given such a clear, perceptive and fair-minded account of the originality of my argument in Choosing Terror: Virtue, Friendship and Authenticity in the French Revolution as to leave me little to say to him in response, except to thank him for his generous commentary. I would, however, like to take this opportunity to engage with some further questions raised in his review.

As Andress states, readers will find my book an easier read if they already have some prior knowledge of the Revolution, though he emphasises that this is not a criticism. The politics of the French Revolution – as of any revolution – were of a labyrinthine complexity, and featured an ever-changing cast of characters. I made the decision from the start not to write a narrative of the Terror – there are many fine books that do that – not least Andress’s own.(1) But I wanted, with Choosing Terror, to attempt something different – to focus on the Jacobin leaders whose experiences were at the heart of revolutionary politics and to see them as three-dimensional figures, men who started out for the most part as humanitarian idealists and yet who under the pressure of events came, step by step, to ‘choose terror’.

Andress deals very fully with the first two themes of my book – virtue and friendship. He says less on my third theme, authenticity. Yet as I was writing the book the problem of authenticity emerged as ever more central both to the Jacobins themselves and, consequently, to my book as well.(2) The crux of the difficulty for the Jacobin leaders was not whether they could speak the language of virtue – they soon learned it – but how to establish the authenticity of their identity as ‘men of virtue’. Success in revolutionary politics was all about establishing one’s credibility in the eyes of public opinion. Anyone could say he was a ‘man of virtue’, that is, that his sole reason for engaging in politics was his desire to work for the public good. But did he mean it? Was he secretly ambitious? If he was willing to sell his services might he be in the pay of the court or a foreign power? How could one know? And how could he ever prove his integrity? These questions, and the genuine anxiety that underlay them, played a key role in what I call the ‘politicians’ terror’ of the Year II, whereby successive revolutionary factions were put on trial, amidst accusations that hinged on their true identity. Ironically, the Jacobin leaders became some of the chief victims of the Terror. ‘Terror’ had two meanings: it was both a system of government which legalised the use of violence against opponents, and it was an emotion – that of fear. The Jacobins were subject to terror in both these senses. They themselves were subject to the system of terror (after parliamentary immunity was removed in March 1793), and they were a prey to the emotion of terror; that is, they were afraid – with good reason – and fear affected all their choices, including the choice to use terror on others.

Andress poses the question – was it possible for revolutionary leaders not to choose terror? By the time the Terror reached its height that could only be achieved by bowing out of the game of politics and seeking refuge in obscurity. Many did just that. Over the course of the Year II many members of the Convention effectively retired from active politics and waited for calmer times. For those who remained, especially those who were at the core of revolutionary politics, the choices available to them in the Year II narrowed down to very few. Danton and Desmoulins tried to choose ‘not terror’– with catastrophic results, as they themselves became victims of the politicians’ terror, a grim process which I describe in the chapter ‘The enemy within’.

Andress discusses my emphasis on the fear to which the men who chose terror were themselves subject, inviting me to engage in ‘psychological explanation’ of their state of mind. This is difficult territory. Was Robespierre having what we might call ‘a nervous breakdown’ in the last months of his life, particularly after his part in the deaths of Danton and Desmoulins? I think so; there is considerable evidence to indicate it. But this was not about the mental state of one man. What about other leaders within the inner ranks of the Jacobins – were they all close to the edge? Here again I think the answer is yes. There is much evidence to show that they were exhausted, anxious, stressed, and suffering unbearable tension. It is hardly surprising. How could it be otherwise? Many of these men were to perish in the course of the politicians’ terror, killed by their fellow revolutionaries; men whom they knew, with whom they worked each day, men who were supposedly on the same side, yet from whom they were divided by suspicion, enmity – and fear. This was the reality of the toxic, claustrophobic world of revolutionary politics in 1794. There is much that we cannot know about the psychological state of these men (as ever, we are constrained by problems of limited evidence and how to interpret it), but if we do not take the emotional and psychological dimension into account there is much that we will fail to understand about the processes that drove the revolutionary leaders to act as they did.

Andress makes the point that whilst my book confines itself to a small group of people at the centre of revolutionary politics, there were wider circles of revolutionaries beyond this inner circle whose activities I do not examine in any detail. Yet the political views, practices and emotions of these wider networks may well have mirrored those of the men at the centre, and they certainly influenced the actions of the leaders. The Revolution took place on many levels throughout a whole society; to focus only on one group, however important, is to leave out much of this wider revolutionary context. I absolutely agree with this as a principle, though practically speaking to have included more of the bigger picture of revolutionary politics would have made what is already a long book into a mammoth undertaking. It is, however, a possible focus for the future, either for myself or for other historians. As Andress states, the ‘Paris militants’ (once known as the sans-culottes) remain shadowy figures in my work. Yet their presence is everywhere as invokers of fear amongst the Jacobin leaders. It is time perhaps for a re-evaluation of the political role of the sans-culottes.(3)

As Andress affirms, mine is not likely to be the last word on the subject of the Terror. Of course, and that is how it should be. The French Revolution had an immense, incalculable impact on world history. By the time the dust had settled the political landscape was changed forever. The Revolution’s leaders, whether they fashioned revolutionary politics or were in large measure shaped by events, have rightly attracted the attention of future generations – that posterity to whose judgement the revolutionaries appealed. Each generation will interpret and reinterpret the meaning of the Revolution, according to its own concerns. The revolutionary movements that have shaken much of the Middle East and North Africa in recent years have confronted the world anew with the problems that may arise in the aftermath of revolution: the fragility of democracies born out of revolutions; the urgent need for revolutionary leaders to learn how to manage the new business of politics, often with very little previous experience; the recourse to political violence, both popular and state-sponsored; the dangers of internal conflict and outside intervention; the risk of a military takeover which may bring a return to stability – but at a price. In the light of this, many commentators have returned to the French Revolution – the original model of revolution – with a renewed sense of urgency and a desire to understand. My book is only one of a growing number that are causing us to see the French Revolution and the Terror in a different light. In place of the monolithic explanations of the past we are seeing the development of multiple lines of investigation: ideological, political, personal and emotional. It is possible to see now that the reasons for the Terror were far less coherent, less schematic, less purely ideological, more chaotic, and much more emotional than was once assumed. One thing we can say with certainty is that the causes of the Terror were complex, as complex as the people who created it, as complex as we are ourselves.


1                    David Andress, The Terror: Civil War in the French Revolution (London, 2005).

2                    On how Robespierre himself was confronted with the problem of how to prove his authentic identity, see Marisa Linton, ‘Robespierre et l'authenticité révolutionnaire’, Annales Historiques de la Révolution Française, 371 (janvier-mars 2013), 153–73. An English version of this article is due to be made available online in the near future via the website of the Annales Historiques de la Révolution Française.

3                    Re-evaluations of the relationship between the sans-culottes and the Jacobins have already begun. In addition to the work of Haim Burstin (cited by Andress), there is the study by Sophie Wahnich, now translated into English as In Defence of the Terror: Liberty or Death in the French Revolution (London, 2012).