At this time the Committee of Public Safety, set up by the Convention, came to be controlled by a lawyer and Jacobin radical named Maximilien Robespierre. He unleashed what became known as the Reign of Terror, in which some 18,000 people were executed, mostly by the guillotine, for counterrevolutionary activities. Many of those killed were people who had supported the initial revolution but who felt that Robespierre had gone too far.

The Revolution taking its dark turn

Included in those who were executed were many Girondins and also Philippe Égalité, formerly the duke of Orléans, who had even voted for the death of Louis XVI, his first cousin. Georges-Jacques Danton, one of the great revolutionary leaders, was also denounced and executed. A great orator, he had been a longtime opponent of Robespierre. Many people tried to escape to England, Spain, Switzerland, or Germany, accounts captured in novels such as A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens and the Scarlet Pimpernel books of Baroness Orczy. The reign of terror reached its peak on October 24, with the start of the use of the revolutionary calendar, back-dated to September 20 of the previous year. Just over a fortnight later, on November 10, Notre-Dame Cathedral was turned into the Temple of Reason, with Lady Liberty replacing the Virgin Mary on some of the altars. To change the internal dynamics of the cathedral, a stage set from the Opéra was placed in the transept of the cathedral, in the center of which was a model of a mountain with the classical image of philosophy mounted on it.

Temple of the Supreme Being

A young actress, with a white robe and red bonnet and armed with the spear of knowledge, then passed down the aisle with the crowds chanting “Thou, Holy Liberty, come dwell in this temple, be the goddess of the French.” It was not long afterward that over 2,000 other churches in France were also “transformed” into Temples of Reason. In May 1794 an inscription was added to the front of Notre-Dame: “The French people recognize the Supreme Being and the immortality of the soul,” and “Temple of Reason” was then changed to become the “Temple of the Supreme Being.”


Eventually Robespierre went too far. He had been involved in the execution of many moderate Jacobins, and on July 27, 1794, in the Thermidorian Reaction, named after the French revolutionary month in which it happened, Robespierre and his leading aide, Louis- Antoine de Saint-Just, were both arrested and executed. A new government was then introduced. Known as the Directory, it consisted of a small group of five, similar to a political cabinet, who were chosen each year by the Conseil des Anciens (Council of Elders) made up of 250 senators, and the Conseil des Cinq-Cents (Council of the Five Hundred), made up of 500 representatives. It was the first bicameral legislature in French history and did much to calm the tensions that had arisen while Robespierre was in power. The Directory restored a semblance of law and order and also allowed many émigrés to return. They were able to successfully combat military threats from the Austrians and the Prussians and also internal revolts in the Vendée region in coastal west-central France. When the British attacked Toulon in the south of France, an artillery commander, Napoleon Bonaparte, was able to encourage the French soldiers to eject the invaders. Bonaparte then was involved in the invasion of northern Italy and buoyed with his success there, where he defeated the Austrians and their allies, he went on his expedition to Egypt. Although his forces on land managed to defeat the Turks and the Mamluks, the British under Horatio Nelson destroyed his fleet at Aboukir Bay. Soon afterward Napoleon left to return to France, where he became part of a plot to overthrow the Directory that took place on November 9, 1799 (18th Brumaire of the Year VIII), when he staged his coup of 18 Brumaire, seizing power and establishing the consulate, rule by three people, which eventually saw him becoming consul for life and, in 1804, emperor.