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French Revolution: Reign of Terror

This guide suggests resources for general use on the topic of the French Revolution

Reign of Terror

The purpose of this guide (always a work in progress) is to provide a time-saving pathway to information on the French Revolution, particularly "The Reign of Terror" period that ran from September 5, 1793 - July 28, 1794.




The political climate and recent events in the U.S. have prompted some comparisons to the beginnings of the French Revolution. References to the French Revolution in the midst of the many crises of 2020 raises many questions and has prompted commentary rooted in the same types of misinformation and propaganda that gave rise to the Reign of Terror--arguably one of the most ghastly and bizarre chain of events in recorded history. Regardless of one's personal political beliefs, is there any merit to making such a comparison? This exchange of opinions has provided an excellent fact-checking opportunity. Here is a link to the statements and comments in the debate sparked by a reference to the French Revolution.  To find the facts of the matter, use this research guide as a point of departure.

The King and Queen of France, 1774–1792

Photograph of monument to Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, King and Queen of France (both executed in 1793) located at the Basilica of St. Denis, Paris. Photograph taken May 30, 2016.

King and Queen of France monument: Photograph taken by Dawn Ady, June 2016

Documents and Writings: Resources

Representation of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789, Painted by Jean-Jacques-Francois Le Barbier.  Includes "Eye of providence" symbol (eye in triangle)  Image Details: Public Domain,

Social Media

The Last Words of Louis XVI

In Historical Epochs of the French Revolution, 1795, published two years after the execution, Henry Goudemetz tells the story of Louis XVI and his last words.

 “The King walked, alone, up the steps of the scaffold. The guillotine - the instrument which would end his life - was positioned nearby. Far from opposing those who came to cut off his hair, and bind his hands, ‘Do with me,’ said he, ‘what you will, it is the last sacrifice.’" He then made a motion with his hand to obtain silence. – ‘I die perfectly innocent of all the pretended crimes laid to my charge - I forgive all those who have had any hand in my misfortunes, and I pray that my blood may be of use in restoring happiness to France...’”

Political Issues and Time Line

The Estates General: three political bodies with the majority of voting power being held by the 3% of the population, which included clergy (first estate) and the nobility (second estate). The third estate, 97% of the population, included peasants, artisans, and the bourgeoisie (middle class, which also owned most of the land in France). Moreover, the nobility and clergy were exempt from taxation! 


  • July 1788: France Bankrupt: Louis XVI calls the Estates General to address taxation
  • June 1789: Third Estates declares itself the National Assembly
  • July 14, 1789: Storming of the Bastille
  • August 4, 1789: Nobles surrender their privileges
  • June 1791: Failed escape of Louis XVI (with Austrian troops waiting to greet them at the border--and initiate a counter-revolutionary plan, disguised in bourgeois clothing, the royal family was caught at Varennes, France).
  • April 20, 1792: France declares war on Austria
  • September 1792: Abolition of the Monarchy, Terror Begins
  • Jan 21, 1793: Execution of Louis XVI (the Queen’s execution followed in October)
  • April 5, 1794: Execution of Georges Danton (and his loyal friends)
  • July 28, 1794: Last execution of the Reign of Terror: Maximilien Robespierre

Recommended Resources

Why the Guillotine?

Contrary to how it may seem, the Guillotine was considered the most humane method of execution in its time. It was developed by a doctor and politician, Joseph-Ignace Guillotin who advocated medical reform and, ironically, opposed the death penalty. Guillotin could not have foreseen, however, that his invention would be used as it was during the Reign of Terror.

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A list of recommended movies are provided below. The titles included in the following list are linked, when possible, to the FSCJ library catalog. Those titles which are not available in the catalog are also highly recommended and may be accessed through forums (such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, YouTube, etc.).

Historical Drama Films

  • Marie Antoinette (1938)

This film classic takes the viewer on a journey through the Reign of Terror, focusing on the perspective of the King and Queen of France: Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.

Starring Norma Shearer and Tyrone Power

Based on the book Marie Antoinette: The Journey, by Antonia Fraser (London, 2001).

Director: Sophia Coppola (starring: Kirsten Dunst)

French Revolutionary, Georges-Jacques Danton's increasing moderation and eventual opposition to the Reign of Terror led to his own death at the guillotine. English subtitles available.

Starring Gerard Depardieu.

The controversial true story of Jeanne De La Motte Valois stars Hilary Swank, as a countess whose name and title were stripped from her by the Royal Family, leaving her penniless; directed by Charles Shyer


Callous monarch or a fragile young woman struggling in her role as the Queen of France during one of the most turbulent moments in human history?