These 10 Brutal Events and People Will Make You See the French Revolution in a New Light
These 10 Brutal Events and People Will Make You See the French Revolution in a New Light

These 10 Brutal Events and People Will Make You See the French Revolution in a New Light

Larry Holzwarth - March 3, 2018

These 10 Brutal Events and People Will Make You See the French Revolution in a New Light
The executions of the Reign of Terror were made possible by laws which required the accused to prove their innocence. Wikimedia

The Law of Suspects

On September 17, 1793 the National Convention in Paris passed a decree called the Law of Suspects. The law authorized the immediate arrest of anyone suspected by anyone of being an enemy of the revolution. It was under this law that a citizen could denounce another citizen, leading to their arrest and trial before an often hostile tribunal, driven by a bloodthirsty mob. Appearance before a tribunal was not an automatic death sentence however, except for those nobles who fled from France, priests who had not complied with Civil Authority, and emigres.

The Law of Suspects made several references to suspect persons, listing acts of suspect persons in a manner of degree up to a sixth degree suspect. It provided no definition of penalties for those defined as suspect people; that was left to other decrees and the actions of the tribunals. The Law of Suspects led to old enemies being denounced and brought before the tribunals on a whim. There was no penalty for denouncing someone as a suspect person later found innocent, it was up to the charged to prove their innocence, if they could, rather than the burden of proof being borne by the state.

It must be remembered that at the time of the Reign of Terror France was at war with most of Europe, the Bourbon heir to the throne was in exile with the support of the other European Royal Houses, and there was civil war in France. The Terror and the laws which allowed it to happen were a reaction to the conditions of the day. The Committee of Public Safety (which essentially ran the Terror) had become the executive branch of the French Government for all intents and purposes. Following the overthrow of the more moderate Girondin faction Robespierre and his supporters had control of the Committee.

Because of the war decrees were passed which forced farmers to surrender their crops to the government upon demand. National conscription was passed to provide for the common defense. Draconian enforcement of these laws and an inclination among some of the people to ignore them led to many denunciations. So did the hoarding of some materials and supplies. Hoarding was considered an act of treason against the Revolutionary government and by extension, an act supporting the enemies of the Revolution.

The many laws and decrees put into effect following the Law of Suspects removed many of the liberties for which the French had rebelled in the first place, and perceived threats to the Revolutionary government dominated by Robespierre were dealt with harshly and quickly. Both those who wanted an increase in the Terror to support the war (Hebertists) and those urging moderation (Dantonists) were removed from power, identified as suspect persons, tried, and executed on the guillotine. The Terror and the laws enacted under it remained in force until French military victories rendered them unnecessary in 1794.

These 10 Brutal Events and People Will Make You See the French Revolution in a New Light
Not yet known as Napoleon General Bonaparte of the French Revolutionary Army directs his troops against the Austrians at the Battle of Lodi. Wikimedia

The War of the First Coalition

Between 1792 and 1797 a series of wars were fought between France and the European powers which under the guise of re-establishing the Bourbon Monarchy actually sought to acquire French territory. The War of the First Coalition was a major contributor to the economic chaos and internal strife in Revolutionary France and was itself one of a series of Coalitions formed by the Europeans against the French which would go on for more than twenty years. The War of the First Coalition saw the rise of a young Corsican general in the French service named Napoleon Bonaparte.

Germany was then not a unified Nation and a military leader from Brunswick-Wolfenbuttal, Charles Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick, took an Army of mostly Prussian troops into France in 1792. Austria and the Holy Roman Empire also declared war on France, as did England and what was then known as the Dutch Republic. The War of the First Coalition led the radicals in France to support the execution of the French King, and the Reign of Terror which followed was a major factor in the execution of his widow, Marie Antoinette. Many of the excesses of the French Revolution would likely not have occurred had it not been for the war with the rest of Europe.

Much of the senior military and naval officers from pre-revolutionary France had been descended from the nobility and had fled the country or fallen victim to the Terror and the events which preceded it, leaving France with a depleted leadership. Many young soldiers emerged during the War of the First Coalition as capable and spirited leaders. The enforced conscription in France and the laws which supported the war at the cost of the French civilian population allowed the Revolutionary armies to rapidly expand and defeat their enemies.

France sent Edmond-Charles Genet to the United States in an attempt to enlist the support of the young nation in the war. Genet argued that the Treaty of Alliance with the United States remained in effect, and in his position he found some support from the Americans. The rising Federalist faction in the United States disagreed, arguing that the Treaty had been made with a monarch and government which no longer existed and was thus void. The United States remained neutral throughout the war.

By 1797 the French armies had emerged victorious on nearly all fronts, although the British held an advantage at sea. Rather than invading armies carving off parts of France or French held territory it was the rest of Europe which found itself ceding territory to the French Republic, soon to become the French Empire. The civil war in France which had been largely isolated to the Vendee in Western France had been crushed in 1796. France was the closest it had been to being at peace since 1789, when the revolution began, though it remained at war with England.

These 10 Brutal Events and People Will Make You See the French Revolution in a New Light
Lafayette around 1830. Napoleon restored some of the estates he lost during the Revolution, but Lafayette would have nothing to do with his empire. Wikimedia


The Marquis de Lafayette was heavily involved in three Revolutions in his lifetime, the American Revolution in which he risked losing his lands and fortune in France, the French Revolution, in which he did lose them for a time, and the July Revolution of 1830. He was one of the writers of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, with the assistance of Thomas Jefferson, who was in Paris when the French Revolution began. Following the fall of the Bastille Lafayette was placed in command of the National Guard in Paris. The National Guard was essentially a police force and militia, also serving as a reserve for the army.

Lafayette was as much a hero in France as he was in America when the French Revolution began. This was largely because he had so clearly served in support of the common man in the American Revolution. But he was also a nobleman and member of the aristocracy. This caused him to be viewed with suspicion by both sides throughout the turmoil of the Revolution. As head of the National Guard he was responsible for the protection of the King and his family after the monarchy was abolished, which as time and events piled up became more and more an incarceration. When the King and his family attempted to flee to Varennes (Lafayette had ordered the Guard not to hinder them) he was condemned by the revolutionaries as a traitor to the people. Lafayette’s role in the near escape of the Royal Family led to his condemnation by many as well.

After serving with the French Army in command of an Army opposing the Austrians Lafayette returned to Paris where he argued against the growing excesses of the Revolutionary government. He was condemned as a traitor by Robespierre and an order for Lafayette’s arrest was issued. He fled to the Austrian Netherlands (Belgium today) and attempted to gain passage to America. Instead he was imprisoned by the Austrians. The monarchies of the coalition considered Lafayette a dangerous revolutionary and held him for trial. Lafayette used his American citizenship to contact Jefferson and arrange for sufficient funds to allow him to survive.

Jefferson managed to get him some money and Lafayette attempted to escape, failed, and was imprisoned in solitary confinement in Vienna. His wife and two daughters were imprisoned in France. Once again American diplomats intervened, acquiring American passports for his wife Adrienne and their daughters, as well as permission for them to join Lafayette in Vienna. American influence helped, but it was General Bonaparte who negotiated freedom for Lafayette after five years of imprisonment as part of the Treaty of Campo Formio.

The French government demanded a loyalty oath from Lafayette, to the government not to France, and he refused. They confiscated and sold his remaining estates. Lafayette was thus impoverished and stateless, and the French refused to allow him to leave for the United States. When Bonaparte achieved complete control of the government he returned some of Lafayette’s former estates, though Lafayette wanted nothing to do with the government created by Bonaparte. The American Revolution covered Lafayette with glory, the French cost him all he had originally risked to participate in the former.

These 10 Brutal Events and People Will Make You See the French Revolution in a New Light
Cardboard depictions of sans-culotte and some of the arms they carried. They were often little more than a barely organized mob. Wikimedia

The Sans Culottes

In paintings depicting scenes of the French Revolution and in films, when the mobs are shown, they are for the most part those of the Revolution who were called the sans-culottes. Sans-culottes means without breeches and designates them as members of the lower class, the pants to which the name refers were the knee breeches and stockings worn by the members of the upper class and the nobility. The sans-culottes made up the bulk of the mob which stormed the Bastille and other sites throughout the Revolution, and could be called the Revolutionary Army.

From around the time of the overthrow of the King to the end of the Reign of Terror the sans-culottes were used by the leaders of the various factions which emerged throughout the Revolution to enforce their views. The sans-culottes had some of the formal structure associated with a military command, and enforced discipline when necessary among their ranks. They were also susceptible to bribery and blackmail, often attacked other units supportive of opposing views, and were most prevalent in Paris and other large cities.

When the prisoners held in the jails of Paris were released during the September Massacre, it was into the hands of the sans-culottes to be executed. Many of those found to be not guilty of crimes against the state were executed by the sans-culottes anyway, a not uncommon occurrence in other mob actions. Following the flight of the King to Varennes and Lafayette’s order to the National Guard not to arrest him, the sans-culottes grew to view the Guard with considerable suspicion, and further tensions took hold among the Revolutionary hierarchy.

The sans-culottes demonstrated their bloodthirsty proclivities many times during the Revolution. Many of the revolutionary troops which fought the Royalist forces at Nantes were sans-culottes, who also provided the garrison force which supported the executions there. Sans-culottes were among the loudest voices denouncing the members of the nobility and aristocracy throughout the Revolution and especially during the Reign of Terror.

They also served sometimes as self-appointed enforcers of the laws and decrees enacted by the revolutionary government, addressing one another as Citizen and watching for violations of any regulations. The reporting of violations frequently led to rewards, which may include additional bread, meat, or wine, and sometimes even gold. They were frequently used as spies by the opposing political factions, and were often brought in to watch debates so that their loud and spirited reactions could be used to intimidate opponents. As one of the most radical groups of the French Revolution the sans-culottes were also one of the most dangerous, especially to those of the middle class and up.

These 10 Brutal Events and People Will Make You See the French Revolution in a New Light
The storming of the Tuileries on August 10, 1792. When the King ordered the Swiss Guards, in red uniforms, to cease resisting they were massacred. WIkimedia

The Storming of the Tuileries

In the summer of 1792 the Legislative Assembly, formed to work towards reforms with the assistance and co-operation of the Monarchy, enacted several decrees which would further weaken the King’s authority. Louis had established cabinets which were largely manned by constitutional monarchists, a conflict with the desires of the majority of the Assembly, and by August the situation was at a crisis. Louis ignored the urging of Lafayette to flee to safety in the Vendee, and when Lafayette himself fled he was arrested. On the night of August 9 mobs began to gather in the streets of Paris, and the National Guard was dispatched to the Tuileries, the King’s palace in Paris.

The Assembly had ordered the disbandment of the King’s Guard as being too aristocratic, but he was still protected by a force of about 900 Swiss Guards mercenaries. The National Guard was ordered to take the palace. They were supported by the sans-culottes of Paris. Louis, reviewing the situation and retaining his lifelong abhorrence of violence, decided to leave the palace and take shelter within the Assembly, which had him wait in another room as they debated the fate of the monarchy, in deference to a law which prohibited debate before the King. As the Assembly argued and Louis and his family waited, the troops of the National Guard stormed the Tuileries.

Despite having no members of the Royal Family present requiring defense, the Swiss Guards stood their ground. The National Guard and the supporting sans-culottes at first stood in a sort of face-off before the Swiss began firing in defense of the palace grounds and buildings. When Louis heard the sounds of firing he sent a note ordering the Swiss to stand down. Upon receipt of the note the Swiss attempted to disengage and withdraw through the palace. In doing so they lost most of their unit cohesiveness and the sans-culottes swarmed over the shrinking groups, slaughtering then whether they resisted or not.

A group of about five dozen Swiss Guards surrendered to the sans-culottes and were disarmed, escorted to the nearby Town Hall, and executed, most with axes or pikes. Their severed heads were then displayed on pikes through the streets. Of the more than nine hundred man force which attempted to surrender in deference to the orders of the King, about three hundred survived the ministrations of the sans-culottes. Of those, roughly two hundred died from their wounds or during the September Massacres the following month as they lay in the Paris prisons. There is little doubt that had it not been for the order to surrender and the obedience of the Swiss they would have held the palace and the slaughter could have been avoided.

In the immediate aftermath Louis retained his title of King of France and the Assembly continued to debate his future personally as it called for the National Convention. When the National Convention formed it abolished the monarchy, although Louis continued to be treated respectfully until the increasing danger from Civil War in the Vendee and foreign invasion forced the consideration of his being an agent of the enemies of the Republic. As a practical matter, the fate of Louis XVI was sealed when he sent a note to his Swiss Guards on August 10, 1792. After that date the sans-culottes, formed from the lowest class of French society, carried greater influence over the future of France than did its King.


Where did we get this stuff? Here are our sources:

“The French Revolution: Its Causes, Its History, and it’s Legacy after 200 Years”, by George Rude, Grove Press, 2005

“The Trial and Execution of Louis XVI”,

“Reign of Terror”, entry, Encyclopedia Brittanica, 2015

“Jean-Paul Marat, the Peoples Friend, A Biographical Sketch”, by Ernest Belfort, Vogt Press, 2005

“Paris in the Terror”, by Stanley Loomis, J.B. Lippincott Co., 1964

“Georges Danton”, entry,

“Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette”, by Marc Leepson,

“Treaty of Campo Formio”, entry,

“1789, The Fact and Fiction of the Sans-Culotte Movement”,

“Louis XVI’s Weakness leads to the Massacre of his Swiss Guards”,, January 30, 2014