On this day on 4 December 1793, during the French Revolution, the Law of 14 Frimaire was passed, consolidating power in the hands of Maximilien Robespierre’s Committee of Public Safety.
By the spring of 1793, the French Republic was beset by war, internal rebellion, and political division. The Revolutionary Wars had commenced in earnest in April 1792, when France declared war against Austria and in effect Prussia, who at the time were allies within the Holy Roman Empire. By January 1793, Spain and Portugal had joined the growing anti-French coalition. Towards the end of the month, Louis XVI – in fact already deposed as king and under house arrest after the abolition of the constitutional monarchy and the proclamation of the French Republic in September – was executed by guillotine. He had been found guilty of high treason, for colluding with foreign powers. In the fallout, France declared war too on Great Britain and the Dutch Republic.
Internally the French Republic, with authority vested in the National Convention, continued to be opposed by what remained of the nobility and the clergy. But its fiercest foes proved the peasants themselves, many of whom were angered by food shortages and rising prices, who remained loyal to the Roman Catholic Church, and who defied the government’s policy of military conscription. Fighting in western France between the Republic and the locals, who utilised guerrilla tactics nominally under the heading of the Catholic and Royal Army, would become known as the War in the Vendée, eventually killing as many as 200,000 between March 1793 and March 1796.
To combat such dissent from without and within, in April 1793 the National Convention created the Committee of Public Safety, initially under the leadership of Georges Jacques Danton. The role of the Committee of Public Safety was to supervise the war effort and branches of the legislature and judiciary, including the Revolutionary Tribunal, a court newly established in Paris for the trial of political offenders.
At the time the National Convention was divided into two groups: the Girondists, liberal Republicans who had spurred the revolution in its earlier years, but now sought to curb what they increasingly perceived as its excesses, and the Montegnards, who held firm to a more radical ideology. Both groups were part of the broader Jacobin movement. Though the Girondists still maintained a majority in the Convention, they soon found themselves outmanoeuvred by the Montagnards who – vociferously supported by the journalist Jean-Paul Marat, the voice of the sans-culottes, the militant lower classes, and led by Maximilien Robespierre – between 31 May and 2 June used the National Guard to oust key members of the opposition. The Girondists ceased to be a political force.
Left to their own devices, the Montegnards declared a French Constitution on 24 June, which was ratified by a referendum employing universal male suffrage, but ultimately never enforced. On 13 July Marat was assassinated by Charlotte Corday, who sympathised with the Girondists. And later that month Robespierre wrested control of the Committee of Public Safety from Danton. France was rushing headlong towards what would later be known as The Terror, a period of bloody political repression. Before the end of July 1794 – and the Thermidorian Reaction which would bring about the demise of Robespierre – 16,594 were recorded as executed by the guillotine, another 25,000 were put to death in summary executions across France, and up to 100,000 were killed in total amid a string of massacres and prison deaths.
Robespierre himself heralded the use of the term ‘terror’. In a speech to the National Convention the following February, using language that drew loosely upon Rousseau, he affirmed:
‘If the basis of popular government in peacetime is virtue, the basis of popular government during a revolution is both virtue and terror; virtue, without which terror is baneful; terror, without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing more than speedy, severe and inflexible justice; it is thus an emanation of virtue; it is less a principle in itself, than a consequence of the general principle of democracy, applied to the most pressing needs of the patrie.’
With Robespierre now in charge, the Committee of Public Safety became the de facto government of France. The Law of Suspects was passed by the Committee on 17 September, ordering the arrest of anyone deemed to be an enemy of the Republic. The Law of the Maximum followed on 29 September, setting price limits on food and other goods. On 10 October a provisional revolutionary government was proclaimed, to last until France was at peace. And on 27 October the Republican Calendar was installed, starting on the autumnal equinox and with twelve months of thirty days each, designed in accordance with the principle of decimalisation and to remove from the calendar all religious and royalist references.
The Law of 14 Frimaire – Frimaire being the month by the revolutionary calendar which began around 20 November – essentially confirmed and strengthened the Committee of Public Safety as the revolutionary government of France. It centralised power at the behest of Robespierre and his closest allies, forcing local administrators throughout the country – renamed as ‘national agents’ – to report directly to them or face the inevitable consequences. All decision making, military action, and political activism not sanctioned by the Committee of Public Safety was strictly forbidden. The Law of 14 Frimaire therefore set the stage for the amplification of The Terror that was to come.