Sample History Essays on Nationalism and religion shaped the French Terror

The French Terror, also known as the Reign of Terror, remains to be a turning point in French history. It was a defining period for the people because it took place during the French Revolution. Dissatisfaction with the royal leadership, amidst countless economic hardships during the Agrarian period, led to the creation of two major influence groups, the Jacobins and the Girondins, that later led the revolution. Apparently, these two groups believed that the king had excess power because he controlled everything within the French territory. Such power burdened the people economically because they paid for the kingdom’s expenses. Therefore, during the French Revolution, the proponents of the terror argued that they were working towards creating nationalism for the French people and a governing system that would economically empower instead of creating a few nobles in the society. The terrorists were working towards the common good for all citizens. On the same note, the French Revolution started during the enlightenment period, a time when scholars arose with the reasoning that challenged the traditional religious thoughts and ways of life. The terrorists sought to eradicate Christianity at all costs by scrapping all national religious festivals that seemed to unite the French population. The quest for nationalism and religious change that the French Revolution leaders sought to effect gave way to the implementation of laws and other events that stared the Reign of Terror.

The quest for national leadership elected by the people turned the French Revolution into a terrorist entity. To the revolutionists, King Louis XVI assumed excessive power bestowed on him by the traditional governing system. He had the authority to decide how people paid taxes and operated within society. After the defeat of the French soldiers loyal to the throne, the king was condemned to death. On January 21, 1793, the revolutionists found the king guilty of crimes against the state and treason, which led to his execution through a guillotine.[1] His wife, known as Marie-Antoinette, died the same way a few months. Additionally, the National Convention leaders, such as Robespierre, challenged the political morality of the existing system. According to them, most of the economic and political problems had come from the authoritarian system in place. The revolutionists sought new ideas on how to run the government and make people participate in the issues that affected them.[2] This quest for nationalism led to the killing of the royal family, propagating violence and terror.

Nationalism created a false perception of a community spirit towards the running of public affairs. Unlike during the monarchy, when the king owned everything and was the main decision-maker, the French Revolution promised the people their involvement in critical decision making and inclusion when it came to the division of the kingdom’s resources. Therefore, many of the people supported the endeavors of the revolutionists. Indeed, on the surface, it seemed as though the revolutionists delivered their promises. For example, the French Revolution delivered the power to the people by allowing the people to have representatives at the National Convention. However, it did not take long before National Convention leaders went back on their promises because they took the monopoly of power and bent the people to their will. Eventually, it was realized that the revolution had presented false hope of public ownership and the community spirit. Violence increased when the leaders passed laws that sought to neutralize opponents of the revolution.

The quest for nationalism led the revolution leaders to embrace new Enlightenment ideologies that encouraged terror against persons and groups that preferred the old ideologies. For example, revolutionists embraced Rousseau’s Social Contract that advanced the ideology that rights were not limited to a few individuals with certain privileges. According to the social concept, everyone is born with inherent rights, and the people have the freedom to come together to form a system of government that can protect these rights.[3] Robespierre and his fellow revolutionists desired to form a government that could represent the general will of the public. They wanted to do away with the royal monarchy that only served the interests of certain factions in the state.[4] The problem arose during implementation because the leaders had to clear all obstacles against the Enlightenment, and the people objected to such moves.

The French Revolution leaders saw the opposition to the general will ideology as the disapproval of nationalism, thus laws that approved terror leading to the escalation of violence. The revolution leaders believed that the government of the people by the people could only come if the dissenting voices of the general will were eliminated.[5] Robespierre believed that they had to create nationalism by protecting the revolution and its ideals from the threats within and without the French territory. Revolutionists killed many people in the quest to create a government that could work for the general will of the people. The clergy, one of the major proponents of the monarchy, were victimized to neutralize their influence at the time.

Nationalism triggered the quest for a democratic government that followed the law; however, the revolutionists made biased laws that led to the Reign of Terror. The revolutionists believed that the French population had not embraced the rule of law and the virtues associated with the democratic government. Additionally, according to Robespierre, certain people did not possess the ability to acquire democratic government virtues. To this end, he embarked on a process of getting rid of such people from the French territories. Terror was unleashed on the perceived enemies of revolution at the time.

The revolutionists selectively used the Enlightenment ideologies in a manner that caused terror on the people and against the advice of the scholars themselves. It was unfortunate that the revolutionists did not embrace the whole ideology presented by the Enlightenment authors. According to Timothy Tackett, Voltaire warned the French revolution leaders against adopting extreme measures that would lead to violating people’s rights in the quest for achieving nationalism[6] In his quest for nationalism, Robespierre used Voltaire’s earlier sentiments against the religious order of the time. He had written that the Christians, especially the Roman Catholics, were intolerant, against the expectation of religious tolerance for all people. These sentiments formed the basis for the terror against the religious authorities and members within the French territories against the advice of some of the Enlightenment scholars.

The desire to ensure that religion did not influence state affairs and public governance enhanced the Reign of Terror. During the monarchy, religion played a major role in shaping the structure of society. According to the revolutionists, the clergy was one of the pillars that influenced the running of public affairs by the king. Additionally, the French population was highly religious and could not adopt changes that diverted them from their religious beliefs. The church also supported the hierarchical structure of governing the people, something the revolutionists sought to change. The revolutionists blamed the existing system of dictatorship that the church supported for the economic hardships that the citizens faced at the time. Therefore, the revolutionists believed that removing such a system would bring change to public management affairs.

The radical revolutionists believed that reason and scientific thoughts were the best pillars for creating a stable system of governance; therefore, they leaned towards a secular system that advanced violence. The use of reason and scientific thoughts were new and foreign to the French people, who were mostly religious. On the same note, religion was an important pillar of this society, contributing towards its cohesion and unity. However, the monarchy relied on the clergy for divine cleansing of their leadership mistakes. The revolutionists saw religion as a major contributor to the oppression of the people, and oppression believers was a way of establishing a new system. The crackdown on the clergy was a systematic plan by the revolutionists to get rid of religious influence within the society. Unfortunately, it led to more violence for the French people.

Nationalism demanded a cultural change from the powerful influence of the Christian religion. Revolution faced numerous challenges because of the majority that believed in Christian values. The determination to achieve a cultural change led the revolutionists to transfer the rights and powers of the church to the state. In the process, the clergy were arrested and even killed. Many of them were also forced to flee from France to the neighboring countries, especially in 1789.[7] Indeed, revolutionists declared war on the Christian religion in an attempt to force a cultural shift on the people.

Revolutionists forced changes on the religious calendars to eradicate the religious calendar that also influenced national activities. The monarchy appreciated religion to the extent that it allowed for national Christian celebrations, and the religion’s ideals were entrenched into society.[8] However, the revolutionists opposed Christianity and its culture because they thought that the practice lacked reason. One of the major changes that the revolutionists made to fight Christianity was to change the name of Notre Dame Cathedral, which was one of the religious centers for the public, to “The Temple of Reason.” Moreover, in 1789, the French Revolution leaders hosted the Festival of Reason in the same venue to advance their enlightenment ideology to the public. De-Christianization by the radicals led to violence against the population that still believed in Roman Catholic faith and traditions, thus resisted the new ideas.

Maximilien Robespierre, the Jacobin leader, advanced the forceful separation of church and the state, disregarding the highly religious French population and their contribution to the growth and stability. To the French society, the church was part of their daily lives, going by the influence it had on their lives. The church kept most of the records, including birth, marriage, and death certificates. During the revolution, the leaders decided to separate religion from governance. Unfortunately, they had to use threats, executions, and expatriation to achieve the mentioned objective. In the end, terror was unleashed on many people causing more harm than the common good the revolution sought to achieve. Indeed, the French Revolution had no regard for the church and the clergy and had to use force to achieve the de-churching process.

Through nationalism, the French Revolution aimed at instilling patriotism among the population; however, to enhance the process, the leaders used terror to force people to submit. As noted earlier, the Enlightenment writers influenced the revolution by the fact that all people were born free. The revolution was meant to allow the public to have a say on the governance through their representatives. According to them, nationalism was a factor of having common support and patriotism towards the state. Ironically, the leaders justified terror by asserting that the only way to avoid violating other people’s rights was to control it. Therefore, according to the revolutionists, violence necessary to align people towards a common good for the nation.

Part B

Defining terrorism is difficult because of the varied reasons different societies have on the subject. An absolute definition may only apply for a specific circumstance or region. To most people, terrorism is necessary because it helps fight for equal opportunities within the society. According to the terrorists, taking up arms and fighting the existing authorities is the only option to pass their message. In modern times, terrorist groups have emerged, and they continue to reign terror on the people to send their message to the authorities. However, terrorist acts lead to more destruction than gains. For example, the terrorist organizations, like the Al Qaida, Taliban, and Al-Shabaab, have killed many innocent people on a global scale in their quest to make legitimate authorities hear their concerns. Just like during the French Reign of Terror, modern terrorism anchors on the desire to achieve a radical change of either a political or an economic situation.

Indeed, the Reign of Terror remains a testament to the destruction terrorism brings to the people. Under the monarchy, France had expanded its territory to be the most populous country of the time; however, revolutionists thought that the expansion only benefitted the king. The quest for the people-driven transformation led to the takeover of the kingdom and eventual beheading of the king and his wife. Many other people lost their lives after opposing the radical changes by the revolution leaders.

The use of terrorism to address perceived or real injustices by the authorities continue to fail in the present times, just like it failed during the French Revolution when the dissenting voices could no longer withstand the radical changes by the leaders. The killing of terror leader led to the end of the revolution. Ironically, the revolution arose from the desire to empower the people when it came to deciding their course, yet when the revolutionists clinched power, all people suffered, including commoners and peasant farmers in the rural areas. Indeed, it is obvious that terror also leads to excessive power that negates any positive achievements.

Law provisions led to the escalation of terror in France, against the initial intention of protecting the public from exploitation by authorities. It is worth noting that all the atrocities committed by Robespierre during the Reign of Terror were all supported by the laws that the National Convention past. According to the numerous records available, it is obvious that Robespierre influenced the National Convention to pass numerous laws that legitimized terror on the people.[9] As mentioned above, the revolution was necessitated by the quest to give people the right to decide on governance issues. However, conflict arose from the methods of implementing the regulations.[10] Dealing with dissenting voices using inappropriate methods led to acts of terror on people. Therefore, the biased laws passed to push the radical agenda of the revolutionist led to the Reign of Terror.

The quest for nationalism changed into personal ambitions for revolution leaders like Robespierre. He was committed to establishing a new system of governance that empowered the people to be part of the state. He forced people to embrace his ideals without question, and those who dared oppose him were beheaded or imprisoned.[11] At the same time, Robespierre was committed to the total separation of the church and the state. At the same time, the rivalry within the revolution between the radicals and those who still embraced Christian ideals also fueled the terror.[12] Unfortunately, Robespierre committed atrocities in the quest to establish nationalism and state not influenced by religion; however, his death marked the end of the revolution.

Terrorism has existed for a long time in various parts of the world, and the Reign of Terror fits the terrorism description. Defining terror also depends on the circumstances; however, generally, it entails activities that provoke fear on the people to achieve specific political ends. The Reign of Terror was a period when Robespierre used laws to abuse the powers of the government to prosecute and kill people without fair justice. Those terrorists who achieve their quest to control certain territories end up using the same repressive tactics that they claimed to want to eradicate against the people. Many reasons may be forwarded for approving terror, but the outcome has never justified the violence meted on the people. During the French Revolution, the terror affected all the estates of the time. The nobles were never spared despite holding the vast wealth at the time. Robespierre, the leader of the Reign of Terror was equally not spared when he instigated the beheading of fellow leaders of the National Convention for disloyalty since, eventually, he was killed, and that marked the end of the Reign of Terror.




Andress, David. The Terror: The Merciless War for Freedom in Revolutionary France. New

York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2006.


Furet, François. Interpreting the French Revolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,



Leary, Francis. Robespierre: The Meaning of Virtue. Virginia Quarterly Review, Jan 1, 2006.

Vol 72, Issue I.


Lucas, Colin. “Bourgeois and the Origins of the French Revolution,” Past and Present, August



Ozouf, Mona. Festivals and the French Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University press,


Schama, Simon. Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, 1st ed., Toronto: Vintage

Canada, 1990.


Tackett, Timothy. “Interpreting the Terror.” French Historical Studies, Volume 24, Issue 4,



[1] Simon Schama, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, 1st ed., (Toronto: Vintage Canada, 1990), 23.

[2] Ibid., 40.

[3] Colin Lucas, “Bourgeois and the Origins of the French Revolution,” (Past and Present, August 1973, 60) 84-90.

[4]. Ibid., 100.

[5]. David Andress, The Terror: The Merciless War for Freedom in Revolutionary France (New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2006), 57.

[6]. Timothy Tackett, Interpreting the Terror (French Historical Studies, Volume 24, Issue 4, 2001) 569-578.


[7]. François Furet, Interpreting the French Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 65.

[8]. Ibid., 70.

[9]. Francis Leary, Robespierre: The Meaning of Virtue (Virginia Quarterly Review, Jan 1, 2006) Vol 72, Issue I., 23.

[10]. Ibid. 23-25.

[11]. Mona Ozouf, Festivals, and the French Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994), 132.

[12]. Ibid., 133.