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The Reign of Terror


In the month of March, 1793, the revolutionary tribunals were organized, together with the committees of General Police and of Public Safety. The émigrés, the aristocrats, and the enemies of the Revolution were all outlawed, and a revolutionary army was especially intrusted with hunting them down.

The law of the suspects spread out a huge net from which no one might hope to escape. Fresh prisons were opened in all directions, and they could scarcely hold the number of unfortunate people stowed away in them. The Convention let loose all over the country deputies chosen among the most ferocious and vicious of the Mountain’s membership. France was handed over defenseless to these representatives of the people, clothed with the most unlimited powers, and disposing, at their own free will, of the liberty and life of any individual whom it pleased them to call a counter-revolutionist.

In every department, in every town, they found docile executors of all their acts of savagery — a score or so of wretches, all or almost all sprung from the dregs of the population, hardly able to write their names, but invested with the title of members of the Revolutionary Committee. For the purpose of having their orders carried out, they called into requisition the help of the inert mass of citizens, which knows only how to sigh and obey, and thus, during a term of eighteen months, the very man who was to be arrested the following day took part in the arrests of the foregoing one. He who was to perish during the next week often escorted to the scaffold, while shouldering a pike, the victims of the current week. Officers, soldiers, generals, officials, rich and poor, all stood alike in fear of these modern proconsuls, and all fled who had the means of flight at their disposal. But it was very hard to escape their vigilance when one belonged to the proscribed class.

In every one of the large prisons were a certain number of scoundrels, apparently detained as prisoners like the others, but who were really there to select and draw up a list of the victims. Several of them had become known as spies, and, incredible as it may seem, their lives were spared by those in the midst of whom they fulfilled their shameful duty. On the contrary, the prisoners treated them gently and paid them court. I had scarcely passed the first wicket, and was following the jailer who was taking me to the room I was to occupy, when I found myself face to face with M. de Montrou, already notorious through his scandalous intrigues, and whose adventures have since created such a stir in society. He came close to me, and without pretending to notice me, whispered into my ear the following salutary bit of advice: "While here, do not speak a word to anybody whom you do not know thoroughly."

On reaching with Mme. Pasquier the lodging destined for our use, and which had been vacated by the two victims of the previous day, we were soon surrounded by our relations, and by a few friends who hastened to offer us all the assistance they could. We were enjoying, as far as one can enjoy anything when in a similar position, these proofs of kindly interest and friendship, when one of my brothers-in-law, who was looking out of the window, exclaimed, "Ah, here is Pépin Dégrouettes about to take his daily walk. We must go and show ourselves. Come along with us." "Why so?" I queried, whereupon I was told that he was the principal one among the rascals whose abominable réle I have described. . . . Every afternoon he would thus take a turn in the yard, and it was for him the occasion of passing in review, so to speak, the flock which he was gradually sending to the slaughter-house. Woe unto him who seemed to hide, or to avoid his look! Such a one was immediately noted, and he could be sure that his turn would come next. Many a gallant man’s death became a settled thing, because he was a few minutes late in coming down into the yard and passing under the fellow’s notice. The surrendering oneself to his discretion was apparently a way of imploring mercy at his hands. We went through the formality, and it constituted a scene which I never can forget. I can still see him, a man four feet, seven inches, or four feet, eight inches high, hump-backed, of twisted form, bandy-legged, and as red-headed as Judas. He was completely surrounded by prisoners, some of whom walked backward in his presence, earnestly soliciting a look from him.

We were told a few days later that, when the last list was made up, he and his assistants had experienced a feeling of pity for my young brother whose name was on it, and that they had stricken it out. His lively, frank, and open demeanor, and the habit of seeing him for so long (he was, in spite of his youth, the oldest resident of the prison), had inspired them with a kindly feeling of which they could not divest themselves. To this must be attributed his not having shared the fate of young Mailly, who was sent to the scaffold for the offense they had committed in common, and which consisted in throwing in the face of the keeper of the prison some rotten herrings, telling him ironically that he might feast on them. . . .

We all considered ourselves doomed victims, and did not think that there remained the slightest chance of salvation, when the morning of the 9th Thermidor dawned. The day passed without the slightest echo of what was happening outside penetrating our prison walls. On the morning of the 10th, a few of us were informed by turnkeys whom we had remunerated for certain personal services, that Robespierre had been brought to the prison during the night, and that those who had him in custody sought to have him incarcerated there, but the jailor refused to receive him. This alone was a sufficient proof that a most important event was taking place, and during the course of the day we succeeded in obtaining newspapers which told us all. . . .

When I left St.-Lazare, I found that the march of events had been rapid, and that their trend was more and more pronounced in favor of order and justice. After having been violently repressed, the more enlightened and the more respectable portion of the population was about to enjoy the right of living openly. How can I describe the joy of the friends and relations come back to life from prisons, or from obscure hidingplaces, who had lost all hope of meeting again, who inquired as to the fate of beloved ones, and about those whom they had lost. Their sweetest consolation was to be able to weep together over those who had fallen under the revolutionary scythe. The first use to which they put their freedom was to make a public display of their grief and of their lamentations. During the Terror, and especially during the last six months of its reign, no one dared to wear mourning for those who had perished on the scaffold. Mingled with so many heart-rending recollections was the joy felt over a deliverance which might more appropriately be styled a resurrection. . . .

None of the terrible laws made during the two past years were abrogated, but this did not trouble people. The greater part of the assassins, both leaders and hirelings, were still in possession of their lives; they mingled unpunished with their victims. Who was there to call them to account for the blood which they had shed? Contempt protected them against hatred, and so, escaping public vengeance, they vanished from sight.

1 Pasquier, vol. i, pp. 95#8211;96, 116–120.


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Chicago: "The Reign of Terror," Memoirs, in Readings in Modern European History, ed. Webster, Hutton (Boston: D.C. Heath, 1926), 235–238. Original Sources, accessed September 29, 2023,

MLA: . "The Reign of Terror." Memoirs,, Vol. i, in Readings in Modern European History, edited by Webster, Hutton, Boston, D.C. Heath, 1926, pp. 235–238. Original Sources. 29 Sep. 2023.

Harvard: , 'The Reign of Terror' in Memoirs,. cited in 1926, Readings in Modern European History, ed. , D.C. Heath, Boston, pp.235–238. Original Sources, retrieved 29 September 2023, from