Turn on the television during election season, and the role that fear plays in contemporary political life couldn’t be more obvious: the ominous music, the clips of shadowy masked figures, the deep-voiced narrator making alarming claims about our vulnerability to any number of deadly menaces. Sometimes political ads seem to boil down to a simple message: be very afraid. Surely, we may be tempted to say, harrumphing at the screen, people used to be made of stronger stuff.
History reveals otherwise. American revolutionaries stoked fears of sinister British conspiracies with warnings that make modern political consultants sound tame. American slaveholders summoned up nightmares of slave rebellion to justify horrific oppression. And it has been more than 200 years since the French Revolution first gave the word terror a prominent place in the West’s political vocabulary.
Two new books highlight the power of fear in driving political change during the first age of democratic revolutions, and they do so in complementary ways. In The Coming of the Terror in the French Revolution, Timothy Tackett examines how “a culture of fear and mistrust” helped bring about a frenzied spiral of repression in 1793–94, during which the radical First Republic executed tens of thousands of its own citizens—many of them also fervent revolutionaries—after cursory trials. The perpetrators of the Reign of Terror, in short, had terrors of their own. Adam Zamoyski, in Phantom Terror, argues that the fears the revolution generated among its opponents led to the stifling of liberal reform in Europe for nearly half a century, while spurring the creation of repressive police apparatuses.