Hawthorne is referring to the Reign of Terror that occurred at the height of the French Revolution (1789-99). Against a background of growing resentment among the lower and newly-formed middle classes at being made to bear the brunt of harsh taxation without proper political representation, a violent backlash against the ruling elite erupted. In 1789, they stormed the Bastille and declared they would not rest until a new constitution was formed. However, this solidarity could not last: the middle class Girdonists felt the Revolution was spiraling out of control, which the more radical Jacobins interpreted as sympathy with the oppressor. In an atmosphere of increasing paranoia, the latter embarked upon the campaign of purgation that aimed to rid France of anyone they suspected of being anti-Revolutionary. From September 1793-4, as many as 25,000 people were executed. 16,594 of these met their deaths at the guillotine, with Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI being the most famous casualties. As a result, the ‘National Razor’ became a potent symbol of the revolutionary cause.