By John Rieping | Published 1 Oct 2014 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved |
The hot and sunny summer of 1793 had been good for the harvest in France, a country troubled by foreign and civil war, but tough for the millers, who lacked water to power their trade.
Hunger and fear met in the metropolis of Paris when news came of the surrender of the port city of Toulon to the British. Many were frustrated. More than four years of liberal revolution had not conquered poverty or inequality as promised. Parisians protested, occupying the hall of the French National Convention on Sept. 5 and petitioning for emergency measures.
The legislators responded and a “Reign of Terror” began that day to “protect” the nation and bring “salvation” to the people. When the campaign against accused traitors ended on July 28, the Revolutionary Tribunal had formally executed about 16,594 people in France and another 25,000 without even a fair trial, according to Dr. Marisa Linton of Kingston University and Donald Greer of Cambridge. Others died in custody or were lynched.
Criticizing the government once, if overheard by an informer, could send a man and his family to the then state-of-the-art guillotine for beheading. The accused were not allowed to say a word in self-defense. Most who died were common people, not aristocrats or the wealthy. Some were fellow revolutionaries.
“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,” said French revolutionary leader Maximilien Robespierre in a speech February 5, 1794, justifying the government’s tactics. “Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible...
“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.”
France would be liberated, equal and fraternal — whatever the cost.
Particularly targeted was an institution considered an enemy to enlightenment and progress — the Catholic Church. On July 12, 1790, the Civil Constitution of the Clergy closed the last legal loopholes for church property and monastic orders, legislating them out of existence. It also reduced the number of bishops from 135 to 83 and required clergy to swear an oath of loyalty to the government.
Only five bishops and half of the clergy agreed.
Violence grew against those who went to Mass and nuns who would not abandon their consecrated life. Reaction was not always peaceful. Some believers didn't turn the other cheek. The campaign escalated.
Priests who would not swear loyalty were banned from preaching in February 1791, and all such priests were considered suspect and arrested after a Nov. 29th decree. Countless priests died of harsh conditions in chains on prison ships in French harbors.
In 1793, the government replaced the days and months of the Gregorian Calendar, such as Sunday, with a new calendar featuring a 10-day week with a day of rest and festivity at its end.
By the time of the Reign of Terror, the government would establish an atheistic and human-centered Cult of Reason and a deistic Cult of the Supreme Being in attempts to de-Christianize the nation. For a nationwide Festival of Reason, churches across France were transformed into Temples of Reason.
Far worse happened at the docks of Nantes.
From Nov. 1793 to Feb. 1794, around 4,000 or more Catholic priests, nuns, and families — including women and children — were drowned in the Loire. Or as Jean-Baptiste Carrier, member of the Revolutionary Committee of Nantes, called it: “vertical deportation.” More than 2,000 were also executed by firing squad at a nearby quarry.
Ten months after it started, the government would end its bloody Reign of Terror. Five years later, it would fall to the dictatorship of military genius Napoleon Bonaparte, who dreamt of empire. With his defeats, the revolution at last lost its final champion.
Yet, despite it all, Christianity remained.
“During a frustrating argument with a Roman Catholic cardinal, Napoleon Bonaparte supposedly burst out: 'Your eminence, are you not aware that I have the power to destroy the Catholic Church?' The cardinal, the anecdote goes, responded ruefully: 'Your majesty, we, the Catholic clergy, have done our best to destroy the church for the last 1,800 years. We have not succeeded, and neither will you.' ” (Ross Douthat, New York Times, March 28, 2010)