First White Terror

Massacre of Republican prisoners in Lyon in 1795

The first White Terror was a period of political violence during the French Revolution following the death of Robespierre and the end of the Reign of Terror. It was started by a group in the south of France calling themselves The Companions of Jehu. They planned a double uprising to coincide with invasions by Great Britain in the west and Austria in the east. The movement was crushed by Lazare Hoche at Quiberon, 21 July 1795.

The battle of Quiberon
Un épisode de l'affaire de Quiberon (An Episode of the Quiberon affair, painting by Paul-Émile Boutigny, nineteenth century.

The White Terror took place in 1795, during the period known as the Thermidorian Reaction, in the aftermath of the Reign of Terror. It was organized by reactionary "Chouan" royalist forces, and was targeted at the radical Jacobins and anyone suspected of supporting them. Throughout France, both real and suspected Jacobins were attacked and often murdered. These "bands of Jesus" dragged suspected terrorists from prisons and murdered them much as alleged royalists had been murdered during the September Massacres of 1792. Just as during the Reign of Terror, trials were held with little regard for due process. In Paris, the Muscadins, gangs of youths, roamed the streets attacking Jacobins and sans-culottes.


Throughout the majority of 18th century France, the common themes of revolts and resistance to the government were ideas related to taxation. Prior to the White Terror, wealthy merchants, lawyers and former nobles were attempting to establish a constitution to have stability in the government. However from 1793 to 1794, as the social tide of governments started to change, support for a constitution started to wane. In a response the very upper class members that had tried to establish a constitutional government started to be targeted by the general population and executed. A major factor that had allowed this type of uprising to occur were the ideas set forward by the French Revolution, most significantly the idea of direct democracy. After the White Terror had occurred many people were arrested on the suspicion that they were hoarding sympathy for the monarchy. With the massive amount of property lost by the lower classes, a significant portion of it was not redistributed. Since the raids on tax offices, markets and properties were so significant during the French Revolutions, some believe that these consequences of the Revolution are what allowed for the White Terror to occur. [1]


In 1795, shortly after Maximilien Robespierre was overthrown, there was a significant amount of change amongst the Jacobin population and the public’s attitude towards them. Robespierre, after the Reign of Terror, became known as a “monster’ and a “tyrant” as the Reign of Terror had mainly only brought destruction to the general French people . The White Terror refers to the months in the spring and summer of 1795 where there were episodes of violence against those who participated in the Reign of Terror. Although it is debated whether or not the White Terror was the result of royalist action, the primary motive behind the reaction was to have a collective vengeance on the revolutionaries.[2]Because the White Terror was mainly a consequence of the Reign of Terror, it is commonplace to refer to it as the “Reaction.” The main saying throughout the White Terror was to have the “blood that cries out for vengeance”. Though condemning the practices of arbitrary arrests, false denunciations and summary justice during the Reign of Terror, the public tended to turn a blind eye when it violated these policies against former terrorists and their families throughout the White Terror.[2]

The upper class

Despite the developments in the French Revolution such as the overthrowing of King Louis, politics were still in the hands of wealthy landlords, jurists and merchants. However in 1792 and 1793, these upper class members faced criticism by the general public, as the lower classes were worried about rising product prices and the threat that overseas governments posed to the French Revolution’s efforts. A major concern was the spike of grain prices in the second half of the eighteenth century, with a three-time spike in the summer of 1793. Traditional Government in Nimes had constantly ignored the lower classes petitions for higher wages and more affordable goods . These two major issues contributed to an overall hostile environment towards the upper class. Jurists, Merchants, Manufacturers and shopkeepers also made their way into government in 1790 in the municipal council of Toulouse in 1790. Eventually, when tensions started to peak, these officers were weaned out of office as in 1792 as the developments in the French Revolution persuaded people to be in favor of a more direct democracy as well as the long fostered hostility towards the upper class, [3] thus leading the upper class to be targets of the White Revolution.

The Jacobin population

One fragment of the population that was affected significantly by the White Terror and heavily scrutinized were the local Jacobin clubs. These clubs were spread throughout France. Often the more politicized the area was, the more densely populated it would be with Jacobin clubs with a strong majority of them heavily identifying themselves with the Reign of Terror and the French Revolution. As the public's opinion of Robespierre started to dwindle, the Jacobins started to pay the price of Robespierre's actions. Anti-Jacobin pamphlets started to become ubiquitous throughout post Reign of Terror France. Jacobins were started to be referenced as naturally violent, profiteering, cruel and as "ferocious enemies of the human race." During the White Terror hundreds of Jacobins were sent to prison as they had aroused suspicion from the state from their general involvement with Robespierre. As well, an overwhelming amount of Jacobin monuments and symbols were defaced, streets that had Jacobin names were changed and the busts of Le Pelletier and Marat were openly smashed in public ceremonies. Within the weeks following Robespierre's death, members of revolutionary administrations and tribunals were granted the power to arrest any individual that were thought to be terrorists, leading to an overwhelming amount of Jacobins to be wrongfully arrested. Although the French people considered this a reaction to the actions of the Reign of Terror and the faulty trials that had taken place, the trials held and treatment of Jacobins throughout the White Terror was very similar in nature. In Lyons, there was a lot of inner turmoil. Jacobins were calling out for governments to establish an emergency regime to deal with the constant uprisings. In an attempt to establish social order Joseph Chalier came to symbolize the hatred towards the Jacobin population. In 1792 when the Jacobins managed to establish control of the local government in Lyons, an attempt was made to have a civil uprising against the upper classes. However as Joseph Chalier started became more and more passionate, he claimed he was “prepared to exterminate all that goes by the name of aristocrat…, moderate, royalist.”[1] After the Jacobins had lost control of Lyons, Joseph Chalier was swiftly arrested and eventually executed on July 16th.

Effects in towns

The White Terror was spread throughout the country with some regions claiming not to have been disgraced by the Reign of Terror whereas some regions believed that there had to be significant retribution made. Individuals that were accused as terrorists were then put on trial and executed. Overall how severe the reactions were the Reign of Terror were all dependent on how each region was involved in the Revolution and on that region's specific history. Lists of those persecuted and existing judicial and police records indicate that a strong majority of accusations did not depend on actions from the Reign of Terror at all but rather on personal or regional grudges. [2]

See also


  1. 1 2 Baron Thugut and Austria's Response to the French Revolution“FRUSTRATIONS, 1795”. 1987. FRUSTRATIONS, 1795. In Baron Thugut and Austria's Response to the French Revolution, 170–200. Princeton University Press.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 McPhee, P. (2012) The White Terror, in A Companion to the French Revolution, Blackwell Publishing Ltd, Oxford. doi: 10.1002/9781118316399.ch22
  3. “Radicalism, Terror, and Repression, 1792–1799”. “Radicalism, Terror, and Repression, 1792–1799”. State and Society in Eighteenth-century France: A Study of Political Power and Social Revolution in Languedoc. Catholic University of America Press, 2008. 217–252. We
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