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The Second Act: The Reign of Terror

Meantime the Grand Monarchs of Europe had become alarmed, and were preparing to invade France. This put Paris in a rage, and the mob ruled the city. Patriots arrived from Marseilles, singing the famous song that became the new National Anthem (the Marseillaise). With enemies within and without, the state of France was desperate.

But the fiery zeal of patriotic soldiers defeated the invaders at Valmy (September 20, 1792). The French were intoxicated by their success, and offered help to any nation desiring to revolt against its rulers -- "The Revolution is the war of liberty against its enemies." The day after Valmy, France was declared a Republic (September 21, 1792). The king was "tried" for "conspiring against the Republic," and was guillotined (January 1793). War was declared on Holland and on Britain.

At first Britain had sympathies with the Revolution -- "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive," Wordsworth wrote. But most Englishmen were now shocked by its excesses, and moved by Burke's passionate appeal in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790).

Power now passed to the extremists -- to Robespierre, who wanted an "official Supreme Being and a regulated Terror"; to Marat, the "Apostle of Murder"; and others. A Reign of Terror followed (September 2, 1793, to July 1794); a house-to-house search was made for those who opposed or spoke against the rulers, who were hurried off in tumbrils to the guillotine. And Danton, who had directed the Terror, grew more moderate, and died in a vain attempt "to leave something to the guillotine of opinion." "We date the loss of morality from the 2nd September," said others; "it is to that terrible day and its results that we attribute the misfortunes of France."