Gateway to the Classics: Peeps at History: France by John Finnemore
Peeps at History: France by  John Finnemore

The Reign of Terror and the Rise of Napoleon

After the death of the King, there was less peace in France than ever. The country was ruled by a Convention, and in this assembly one party struggled with another, and the fate of the members of the beaten party was always the same: they were hurried to the guillotine, and their heads fell beneath the great knife. The prisons were crammed with hosts of people, often quite innocent, who were supposed to be enemies of the Republic. These unhappy victims were sent to death in large batches, and the guillotine was kept in constant employment.

The most powerful party in the Convention was that of the Jacobins, wild, fierce, slovenly people, who loved to go dirty and ragged to show that they belonged to, or were in sympathy with, the lowest orders. They were never satisfied with aught save the death of those whom they disliked, and under their great leaders Marat and Robespierre, the Reign of Terror was begun. This was a time when no man's head was safe on his shoulders. It was enough if a Jacobin pointed to him as an enemy of the people. He was seized, sent before a court called the "Revolutionary Tribunal," and thence to the guillotine. This fury for blood raged throughout the land. In many cities the guillotine was set up, yet it did not work quickly enough to destroy those who were seized. Men, women, and children were shot down, were drowned, were torn to pieces by howling mobs.

Marat did not live long to enjoy his dreadful power. A young woman named Charlotte Corday was so stirred by his cruel treatment of some of her friends that she resolved to destroy him. She gained admittance to his room, and, while talking to him, seized the chance to plunge a dagger to the hilt in his heart. She was sentenced to die, and went calmly and bravely to the guillotine. This was in July, 1793, and a few months later Marie Antoinette herself was brought to the scaffold.

France was now in a state of the greatest turmoil and confusion. There was war in the land, for in the western province of La Vendee the people rose and fought with the Republic. There was war along the frontier, for almost every nation in Europe was against the revolutionists. Party fought with party in city and village, and everywhere the winners in the strife slew their enemies and spared not. All the troubles of all the centuries had come to a head at once, and France in 1793 was like a huge, seething cauldron.

The Reign of Terror was ended by the death of the man who had a great share in setting it afoot—Robespierre himself. He had sent numbers to the guillotine, and many who sat with him in the Convention began to suspect they would be his next victims.

A party was formed against him, and suddenly the very accusation that he had made against many others was made against him: he was denounced as an enemy of the Republic. He tried to commit suicide by shooting himself; but failed. He was brought before the Revolutionary Tribunal, sentenced to death, and sent to the guillotine. With the fall of his head, the Reign of Terror was ended. Executions now stopped, and order slowly came back to Paris.

In the government of the country, the Convention was followed by a Directory, a body of five men chosen to rule France. The Directory lasted about four years, and during this time a great soldier was steadily winning the heart of France: this was the famous Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon was a native of Corsica, and when the Revolution broke out he was a young officer in the French army. He became famous when he took the town of Toulon from the English, who had seized it, and soon Napoleon was made a General. He became one of the greatest commanders the world has ever known, and led the French army to victory after victory in Italy

In 1799 the Directory was overturned, and Bonaparte became the chief man in France, under the title of First Consul. At first it was agreed that he should hold this power for ten years, but in 1802 the nation resolved that he should be Consul for life. Napoleon was powerful in France because he was the idol of the army, and because of his great victories, which filled the French people with pride and delight. He overcame almost every nation in Europe but Britain, and in 1804 he prepared a great army to cross the English Channel. But the British fleet watched every movement so closely that he did not dare to embark his troops, and he marched away to overthrow the Emperors of Austria and Russia at the great battle of Austerlitz. This battle is sometimes called the "Battle of the Three Emperors," for by this time Napoleon had become Emperor of the French, and France was thus ruled by an Emperor instead of a King.

Napoleon now seemed to be master of the Continent. He carved the map almost as he pleased, made his brothers kings, and his power in France was as great as that of any of her former rulers. By sea he was not so fortunate as by land, for the British fleet beat his ships time and again; the greatest British victory was won at Trafalgar in 1805, where Nelson fell.


Napoleon's retreat from Russia—the passage of the Beresina.

In 1812, Napoleon's power received a great blow. He invaded Russia with a vast army and seized Moscow. The Russians set the city on fire, and the French were compelled to retreat. It was winter, and the French troops fell fast from hunger and cold. Of the splendid army which had entered Russia, only a wretched remnant recrossed the frontier. Now his enemies gathered against him, and he was beaten at the great battle of Leipzig in 1814. The Austrians, Prussians, and Russians, marched into France, and the allied forces entered Paris. Napoleon was forced to resign his crown, and was sent as an exile to the island of Elba.

The brother of Louis XVI. was now made King under the title of Louis XVIII., and there was peace for a short time. But in 1815 Napoleon escaped from Elba, landed in France, and marched on Paris. He had trusted to the magic of his name, and he did not trust in vain. His old soldiers flocked to rejoin him in their thousands, and the French welcomed him with joy, for they did not like Louis XVIII.

The Allies quickly gathered their forces to assail Napoleon once more, and an English army was sent to Belgium under the Duke of Wellington. Here the French met the English and Germans at the great battle of Waterloo, which ended in the utter overthrow of Napoleon. Now it was resolved to shut him up securely, and he was sent to the little island of St. Helena in the Atlantic. Five years later he died, and was buried there, but some time afterwards his body was taken to France and laid in a splendid tomb in a church in Paris.

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