It is only the victorious faction that calls itself a government, and precisely in the fact that it is a faction there immediately lies the necessity of its decline.
– Hegel, ‘Absolute Liberty and Terror’, Phenomenology of Spirit
Following the elimination of the Cordelier leaders, the revolutionary government took over the hubs of the Parisian popular movement. Pache was replaced as mayor of Paris by Fleuriot-Lescot, devoted to Robespierre. In the Commune, the citadel of the advanced patriots, another Robespierrist, Payan, was appointed national agent, and worked with the committees to purge the general council. On 15 Prairial, to fill the gaps created by dismissals, the Committee of Public Safety appointed sixteen new members, without bothering to draw them from the sections they were supposed to represent.1
The revolutionary army, which had recruited many sans-culottes both in Paris and in the provinces, was weakened by the elimination of Ronsin. On 7 Germinal (27 March), Barère asked the Convention to vote its disbandment: ‘Is it not an injury to the heroic work of the Republic’s fourteen armies to give a new army the exclusive name of revolutionary army?’2
The war ministry, headed by Vincent with the support of Bouchotte, had been a stronghold of the sans-culottes, as we have seen. The minister was dismissed, and then, on Carnot’s proposal, all other ministries were suppressed on 12 Germinal (1 April): ‘I have come to propose the abolition of the entire executive council, whose existence you have felt on many an occasion to be incompatible with the republican regime.’ The aim was ‘to divide the exercise of particular powers in such a way that by confining the scope of each of its agents within the strictest limits, unity of leadership may be preserved’.3 The ministries were replaced by twelve commissions, each composed of two members and a deputy minister, appointed by the Convention on the proposal of the Committee of Public Safety. These commissions were subordinate to the Committee, and had to account to it every day.4
Saint-Just’s report ‘on the general police’5 (26 Germinal/15 April), showed once again the concern for centralization. Its first article stipulated: ‘Persons detained on suspicion of conspiracy shall be transferred from all points of the Republic to the Revolutionary Tribunal of Paris’; and Article 13: ‘The representatives of the people shall resort to the established authorities and may not delegate powers’, that is, establish tribunals or exceptional revolutionary commissions. And, unprecedentedly, twenty-one representatives on mission were recalled at a stroke on 30 Germinal, a move that would entail heavy consequences.
During this time, the popular societies of Paris – which had been created to circumvent the restrictions imposed on the sections6 – saw their role steadily reduced. Saint-Just had already castigated them in his report of 23 Ventôse, before the arrest of the Cordeliers: ‘Ever since the popular societies became filled with deceitful individuals who loudly demand their elevation to the legislature, the ministry or the general staff; ever since these societies began to contain too many government employees and too few citizens, the people have had no place in them.’7 Under pressure, several societies decided to dissolve themselves. Others were dissolved by the local revolutionary committees – which had become, as we saw, a salaried instrument of the government. Some revolutionary commissioners in the most advanced sections – the Révolutionnaire section, the Marat section that had campaigned for insurrection, the section of Les Arcis – were sacked by the Committee of Public Safety. The Jacobins enjoined their members to resign from the sectional societies, on pain of expulsion.
It was around this time that Saint-Just wrote, in solitude, the famous note: ‘The revolution is frozen; all principles have weakened; all that remains are the red bonnets worn by plotters. The exercise of terror has jaded crime, as strong liquor jades the palate.’8
An end to the Revolution?
Once the popular movement had been controlled and the Moderates brought to heel, the revolutionary government had its hands free to wage external war and apply its political and social ideas. In his great speech of 18 Pluviôse (5 February), ‘on the principles of political morality that should guide the National Convention’, Robespierre recognized the need to define these ideas: ‘We have been guided, in such stormy circumstances, by a love of good and a feeling of the needs of the patrie, rather than by an exact theory and precise rules of conduct, which we had not even the leisure to draw up. It is time to state clearly the goal of the revolution, and the conclusion we want to reach.’9
For Robespierre, republic and democracy were synonymous, and democracy could only be understood as representative. He distanced himself somewhat from the thought of his beloved Rousseau: ‘Democracy is a state in which the sovereign people, guided by laws which are its own work, does for itself all that it can do properly, and through delegates all that it cannot do for itself.’
‘The essence of the republic or of democracy,’ Robespierre continued, ‘is equality.’ But this equality, for him, was bound up with a notion that today strikes us as belonging to a quite different register: virtue. ‘Since the soul of the Republic is virtue, equality …, the first rule of your political conduct should be to relate all your operations to the maintenance of equality and the development of virtue.’ What kind of equality and virtue did Robespierre have in mind?
Equality clearly meant above all equality of rights (‘The French are the first people in the world to have established true democracy, by calling all men to equality and the plenitude of citizens’ rights’). But what about equality of condition? This question is naturally bound up with that of property. In his draft Declaration of Rights, as we noted, Robespierre had proposed a restrictive definition of the right of property, which ‘can prejudice neither the safety, nor the liberty, nor the existence, nor the property of our fellows’ – a formulation that did not find a place in the final Declaration, which was far more ‘liberal’ (‘the right to enjoy and dispose freely of one’s goods, revenues, the fruit of one’s labour and industry’).
By decreeing the confiscation of the goods of suspects to the benefit of the poor, the Ventôse decrees moved towards a certain equalization of conditions. But Saint-Just was not a leveller, and opposed any ‘agrarian law’ (the dividing up of land). ‘I do not mean that the land of the republic should be divided up among its members; these physical means of self-government are suited only to brigands.’ He preferred ‘to determine the maximum and minimum of property, so that there is land for all’.10 To that end, he suggested limiting the effects of inheritance and establishing a public domain with the estates of those who did not have direct heirs: ‘The public domain is established in order to repair the misfortune of members of the social body … It will perhaps be said that the public domain will not suffice for the unfortunate, but they will not exist in so sincere a patrie.’11 What Saint-Just and Robespierre were aiming for was the disappearance of ‘disgraceful’ opulence, the establishment of a public domain ‘to relieve the people of the weight of taxation in times of hardship’, and, more generally, the replacement of material ownership by the right to existence.
As for virtue – which stood directly in the tradition of Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws, where it chiefly meant love of equality – this has to be understood in a very different sense from that of today. It obviously did not mean petty-bourgeois virtue: among the revolutionaries, whose great model was the Roman republic, it meant virtus, that is, strength of mind, courage, public spirit. ‘A republican government has virtue as its principle; otherwise, terror. What do they want who want neither virtue nor terror?’12Saint-Just asked. In Robespierre’s words, ‘the republican body must begin by subjecting within its own ranks all private passions to the general passion of the public good’, that is, to virtue. The opposite of republican virtue was not debauchery but opportunism, selfishness, ‘the abjection of the personal ego’.
In the spring of year II, the leading members of the Committee of Public Safety were determined to put an end to internal strife. ‘In order to found and consolidate among us democracy, to arrive at the peaceful reign of constitutional laws, the war of liberty against tyranny must be ended, with a happy outcome to the storms of revolution’, Robespierre had said on 18 Pluviôse. And Saint-Just, at the end of his report ‘on the general police’ of 26 Germinal (15 April): ‘Form civil institutions, institutions which have not been thought up yet; there is no lasting liberty without these. They sustain love of the patrie and the revolutionary spirit, even when the revolution is over.’13
Billaud-Varenne, early on in his report of 1 Floréal (20 April) ‘on the war and the means to support it’, also mentioned the end of the revolution: ‘If naught but courage or an excess of despair are needed to undertake a revolution, both perseverance and wisdom are needed to conduct it well; greatness of soul and genius are also needed in order to bring it to an end.’ After a long development evoking the great men of antiquity, from Coriolanus to Aemilius Paullus, Lycurgus to Themistocles, he underlined the need to educate the people by means of ‘institutions apt to familiarize every citizen with the simple truths that form the elements of social happiness’. This permanent education ‘is in the dignity of your deliberations; it is in the zeal and enlightened discussions of the popular societies; it is in all the places where the nation gathers; it is in the armies; it is in the example of private virtues that a father gives to his children’. And, to conclude: ‘Citizens, we have promised to honour misfortune, it would be finer by far to make it disappear. Thus beggary will find its extinction in national munificence.’14 Françoise Brunel notes how close the themes and terms used by Billaud-Varenne were to those of Saint-Just at the same time: institutions, doing good, the honour due to the unfortunate, and even the final phrase cited here, which clearly alludes to the Ventôse decrees.15 There was indeed, at this time, political agreement at the top. But all hopes of a democratic, egalitarian and fraternal republic remained suspended until the outcome of the war on the frontiers.
By the time the spring campaign began, the army was no longer the heterogeneous and poorly commanded force it had still been a year before. The unit now was the half-brigade, corresponding to the traditional regiment and made up of two battalions of volunteers and one battalion of the line, all with the same uniform and led by officers of the same rank. This army of year II, commanded, as we have seen, by generals who were very young and had in most cases risen from the ranks – Jourdan, Pichegru, Marceau, Kléber, Macdonald16 – was larger than the armies of the Coalition, in which, moreover, as often in such cases, there was both rivalry among leaders and distrust between nations. This meant that the bulk of the Coalition forces was made up of the Austrian army commanded by Coburg, while the English and Dutch remained inactive in the north, and the Prussians were encamped in the Palatinate.
Despite this, the campaign started badly for the republicans. The Austrians broke through between the Sambre and the Escaut, between the army of the North and that of the Ardennes. At the beginning of Floréal, the besieged small town of Landrecies surrendered after four days of bombardment. The Oise gap, leading to Paris via Compiègne, lay almost open to the Imperial troops. Carnot hurriedly sent Saint-Just and Le Bas to organize an entrenched camp at Guise to block their route. Then he drew a large contingent from the Moselle army (commanded by Jourdan) to reinforce that of the Ardennes (which Pichegru commanded along with that of the North). He ordered a general offensive on two axes, a southern one towards Charleroi and a northern one towards Courtrai. The republicans reached Courtrai and defeated the Imperial forces at Tourcoing. On the Charleroi side there was bitter fighting. Led by Saint-Just, the Ardennes army crossed and recrossed the Sambre on five occasions. Finally, when Jourdan arrived with reinforcements, Charleroi capitulated. Coburg made a final effort to drive the republicans from their positions on the Sambre, but without success. Between Charleroi and Namur, on 8 Messidor (26 June), the republican army won a decisive victory at Fleurus, opening the way to Belgium. Pichegru and Jourdan’s two armies converged on Brussels, which they entered on 20 Messidor. Antwerp and Liège were taken in the first week of Thermidor. And at the same time, on all other fronts, the Rhine, the Alps and the Pyrenees, a series of victories took the war beyond the Republic’s territory.
The cult of the Supreme Being; the Catherine Théot affair
Victories on the frontiers, a clearer domestic situation: in this spring of year II, one might have thought that ‘the peaceful reign of constitutional laws’ and ‘the peaceful enjoyment of liberty and equality’ were coming within reach. Instead of which, two initiatives were taken that would poison the political atmosphere, sharpen antagonisms and pave the way for the Thermidor drama: the institutionalization of the cult of the Supreme Being, and the reform of the Revolutionary Tribunal by the law of 22 Prairial.
On 18 Floréal (7 May), Robespierre delivered a long presentation to the Convention ‘on the relation of religious and moral ideas to republican principles, and on national festivals’.17 After exalting ‘all the movements of the glorious revolution’, he put forward the idea that ‘the only foundation of civil society is morality’. This morality had been travestied by those who preached atheism: ‘The same rascals that appealed to the sovereignty of the people so as to slay the National Convention, invoked hatred of superstition to bring us civil war and atheism.’ Robespierre then sought to show that by breaking ‘the sacred bond that unites men to the author of their being’, the bases of morality are undermined: ‘One must only ever attack an established religion with caution and a certain delicacy, for fear that a sudden and violent change may appear as an assault upon morality, and a dispensation from honesty itself.’
Robespierre then turned to defining the cult of the Supreme Being, distinguishing this from ‘fanaticism’:
Recalling men to the pure cult of the Supreme Being means dealing a mortal blow to fanaticism. All fictions disappear before Truth, and all madness falls away before Reason. Without constraint or persecution, all sects must fuse of themselves into the universal religion of Nature … The true priest of the Supreme Being is Nature: his temple is the universe, his cult is virtue, his feast days, the joy of a great people gathered before his eyes to strengthen the gentle ties of universal brotherhood.
At the end of this report, the two first articles of the decree laid down: ‘The French people recognizes the existence of the Supreme Being and the immortality of the soul’, and ‘recognizes that worship worthy of the Supreme Being consists in the practice of man’s duties’.18 Article 7 was a long list of festivals to celebrate each décade, honouring the Human Race, Truth, Justice, Modesty, Heroism, Maternal Tenderness, Posterity and Happiness.
Couthon proposed to have the report not only printed (in 200,000 copies) and sent to the armies, all public bodies and all popular societies, but also reproduced on posters to be put up in the streets,19 ‘translated into every language and distributed throughout the universe’. That same evening at the Jacobins, Lequinio, an avowed atheist as we recall, praised Robespierre’s report to the skies: ‘One of the finest reports that has ever been delivered at the rostrum of the Convention was presented in today’s session by Robespierre. Each sentence he spoke was applauded; we would have wished to applaud him each time he impressed on our souls lofty sentiments worthy of liberty.’20 He asked for the text to be read out to the Society, which received it with rapture.
However, the move to impose the cult of the Supreme Being led to a convergence of attacks against Robespierre as a ‘new pontiff’. Yet there was nothing very new about all this in Floréal year II: the June 1793 Declaration of the Rights of Man had been placed under the auspices of the Supreme Being, and even the actual cult, as defined in Robespierre’s report, differed very little from the cult of Reason promoted by the dechristianizers since autumn 1793.21 It goes without saying that the cult of the Supreme Being was not invented by Robespierre; this sort of pantheism was in the air throughout the revolutionary period. Saint-Just likewise wrote around the same time: ‘The French people recognize the Supreme Being and the immortality of the soul … The immortal souls of those who died for the patrie, of those who were good citizens, who cherished their mother and father and never deserted them, lie in the breast of the Eternal.’22
Despite all this, Robespierre saw fit to deliver this report in a very personal fashion, which left him more exposed. Why did someone like him, who never left anything to chance, choose to do so? We can dismiss the idea of a ‘pontificate’, which corresponds neither to his character nor to this particular speech. The reason was rather a political one. Robespierre was aware of the risk of glaciation that threatened the revolution, expressing this in his speech of 18 Pluviôse: ‘The greatest reef that we have to avoid, perhaps, is not the fervour of zeal, but rather the lassitude of the good, and the fear of our own courage’ (my emphasis). It may be that he saw the theatrical launch of the cult of the Supreme Being as a grand design capable of concentrating revolutionary energies and galvanizing them once more.
The highpoint of this launch was the Festival of the Supreme Being on 20 Prairial (8 June). Organized by Jean-Louis David, who was a member of the Committee of General Security, this immense celebration took place in radiant sunshine. It began at the Tuileries, where representatives from the forty-eight sections were gathered, the men holding oak branches and the women flowers. At midday, the Convention appeared in a body, headed by Robespierre who had been elected to its presidency four days earlier. He delivered a first speech, then set fire to an effigy depicting Atheism that had been erected in the Grand Basin of the Tuileries gardens. A statue of Wisdom emerged from its ashes, and Robespierre, in a second speech, proclaimed: ‘It has returned to nothing, that monster which the spirit of the kings spewed over France. Let all the crimes and misfortunes of the world vanish with it!’23 A great procession then moved towards the Champ-de-Mars, where a tall symbolic Mountain had been erected. The Convention, preceded by Robespierre, climbed to the summit, where a liberty tree had been planted. The crowd chorused the refrain of an anthem composed by Gossec to words by Chénier: ‘Before laying down our swords triumphant/Let us swear to annihilate crime and tyrants.’ The celebration ended with a tremendous artillery barrage, and ‘all the citizens, men and women’ — according to the official account – ‘mingling their sentiments in fraternal embrace, ended the festival by raising to heaven the cry of humanity and civic spirit: Vive la République!’
It has often been noted that even while the festival was under way, some members of the Convention voiced their irritation aloud, commenting that Robespierre walked too far in front of the other deputies and seemed transported, in a kind of ecstasy. But unless I am mistaken, there is no reliable contemporary source to confirm that Lecointre or Bourdon de l’Oise sniped at Robespierre loudly enough to be heard by him. Testimonies alleging this come from people trying to whitewash themselves after Thermidor, or to show off the courage they had displayed towards Robespierre.
What does seem well established, however, is that the ‘Supreme Being’ operation was poorly received by a good part of the Committee of General Security, in which there were numerous atheists and anti-clericals – Vadier, Amar, and Lavicomterie, the author of a book entitled Les Crimes des papes depuis saint Pierre jusqu’à Pie-VI, or Rühl, who had shattered the holy ampulla outside Reims cathedral. They feared that Robespierre, for all his sallies against priests, might engineer a resurgence of ‘fanaticism’ under cover of a general reconciliation.
The conflict broke out on 27 Prairial (15 June), when Vadier presented a report to the Convention, in the name of the two Committees, ‘on the discovery of a new conspiracy that … had established a primary school of fanaticism in the rue Contrescarpe, in the Observatoire section’.24 Vadier, one of the few leading characters in this phase of the Revolution to be more than fifty years old (he was born in 1736), remembered the days of Voltaire and Diderot. He delivered a kind of parody, making fun of religion and conspiracy-mongering at once, based on the rumpus around Catherine Théot, a poor old woman with messianic delusions:
[Rue Contrescarpe] is the home of a sixty-nine-year-old maid named Catherine Théos [sic], who dares to call her religion Christian and herself the Mother of God. Her den attracts a swarm of bigots and fools who crowd around this ridiculous shrine. Here are hypnotists, illuminati, truculent and vaporous wretches with a cold heart for the patrie but a hot head, ready to upset or to betray it.
Vadier described in detail the mystery rituals around this woman, the kisses in a circle on her venerable face, ‘two on the forehead, two on the temple, two on the cheeks, but the seventh, which completes the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, is respectfully applied to her chin, on which her disciples suck with a sensuous delight’. The assembly roared with laughter, which was bound to annoy Robespierre, its recently appointed president. ‘The police,’ writes Mathiez, ‘who had Catherine’s meetings under surveillance, made her say that Robespierre was the regenerating Messiah whose advent she announced’.25 To put an end to the whole business, Robespierre obtained a reprieve from his colleagues on the Committee of Public Safety, in the course of a session marked by violent clashes – particularly with Billaud-Varenne, who refused to go against the Convention’s decree calling for prosecution of this ‘Mother of God’. Thus the religious question wormed its way even into the Committee of Public Safety.
EXCURSUS: ROBESPIERRE AGAINST THE WORLD?
The cult of the Supreme Being has done much to alienate a large part of the revolutionary far left from Robespierre. For Blanqui, Robespierre was ‘a perpetual and monotonous declaimer, ceaselessly intoning the words justice, virtue, reason, morality, mingled with sighs over Brutus, Cicero, Catiline, Caesar, etc.’ Blanqui believed that ‘the people no longer existed on 9 Thermidor, so demoralized and numbed were they by Robespierre’s projects of reactionary dictatorship and religious reconstitution’.26 For Daniel Guérin, Robespierre, ‘a little provincial lawyer with no cases, was deeply embittered on the eve of the 1789 Revolution. And he saw the Revolution as an unhoped-for opportunity to take his revenge … He corresponded very well to the definition that Marx gave of the petty bourgeois.’27 Similar verdicts are offered by those for whom the movement of the Enragés represents the high point of the Revolution, and who cannot forgive Robespierre for having managed their fall.
Let us briefly recap. Under the Constituent Assembly, as we have seen, Robespierre took up positions that were remarkably coherent and courageous – positions in which he was always in a minority and sometimes completely alone: against the property restriction on suffrage (his extraordinary speech on the silver marc), for the civil rights of actors and Jews, against martial law, against slavery in the colonies, against the death penalty, for the right of petition and the freedom of the press. In what country, and in what assembly, has anyone rowed so consistently against the current, and with such strength of conviction? In the first sessions of the Constituent Assembly, he was mocked for his reedy voice and his shyness, but by the end his stature was such that he was able to get the Assembly to make a sacrifice unique in history, by ruling that its members would not be eligible for the next legislature.
Under the Legislative Assembly, it was still alone that Robespierre waged his struggle against the war: even Marat, the far-seeing Marat, did not support him at first. And on 2 January 1792, in a great premonitory speech, Robespierre rehearsed one by one the disasters that the war would bring in its wake, through to military dictatorship.
Some will say that Robespierre forgot all these fine principles once he became the most influential figure on the Committee of Public Safety; that the apostle of liberty got rid of everyone who did not think the same as him, and that the opponent of the death penalty chopped off thousands of heads. These are old charges, raised immediately after Thermidor, when it was necessary to legitimize the elimination of a man who personified the Revolution.
‘A blood-drenched tyrant’, we often read. The two terms merit examination. As far as ‘tyrant’ goes, Robespierre was never a dictator. All the major decisions of the Committee of Public Safety were taken collectively. Even those in which Robespierre’s personal role is most conspicuous bear the signatures of those members of the Committee who were present.28 When Robespierre found himself in a minority on the Committee, he withdrew his proposal (for example with the justice committee that he proposed against Camille Desmoulins’s clemency committee). One could say that within the Committee Robespierre exercised a moral leadership, but can he be reproached for what was simply his elevated perspective?
The proof that Robespierre was not a dictator is his end (to anticipate slightly). Isolated and at bay, he let himself be brought down – it could even be said that he went to the slaughter. A dictator, a Bonaparte, would have behaved rather differently.
As for ‘blood-drenched’, there are many instances when Robespierre intervened to save lives. He was opposed, as we saw, to the prosecution of the sixty-three Convention members who had protested against 31 May (‘The National Convention must not seek to multiply the guilty’). His tenacity on this point, and others, led to his being accused of modérantisme on many occasions.
It remains true that he contributed greatly to sending the Cordeliers group and the Dantonists to the guillotine. But many indirect signs suggest that he found it deeply painful to stand at the centre of that death-dealing vortex – a pain that led to his illness, fatigue and absences. (After he defended Boulanger at the Jacobins, the account of proceedings indicates that ‘Robespierre was obliged to stop speaking, his physical resources did not permit him to continue.’)29 How could it have been otherwise in the case of Danton, to whom he had sent such affectionate letters at the time of the death of his first wife, or of Camille, his fellow pupil at Louis-le-Grand and whose marriage he had attended as a witness?
Neither a dictator nor a cruel man, Robespierre did however play a major role in bringing the popular movement to heel in the winter and spring of year II. He worked to dissolve the Enragés group, he put a decisive brake on dechristianization and, along with other members of the Committee of Public Safety, sent the Cordeliers group to the guillotine. By these actions, he contributed to ‘freezing’ the Revolution. If there were a court of History, that would be the main charge against him.
Robespierre was certainly not the infallible leader described by Mathiez, but he was still an impressive and tragic figure. Revolutionary posterity, as we have seen, has not always understood him. Yet in no. 40 of his Tribun du peuple, Babeuf wrote: ‘It is not for me to proudly compete with the claim of Maximilien Robespierre to having initiated, during the Revolution, the project of real Equality, which he showed a hundred times was the goal of all his desires. Such is the fair due I believe is owed to that tyrant, whose remains and effects the State has just sold for a sum of 300 livres.’30
The Prairial law
The Festival of the Supreme Being was held on 20 Prairial; the Prairial law that reorganized the Revolutionary Tribunal dates from the 22nd (10 June). If these two events are described here separately, this is only in the interest of a clear account, as they were almost simultaneous in the accelerated pace of the spring of year II.
The Prairial law and what is generally accepted as its consequence, the ‘great Terror’, are at once very well known and very hard to comprehend. What is certain is that on 22 Prairial, Couthon presented a report to the Convention in which he began by listing the operational defects of the existing system of repression: ‘Counter-revolutionary perfidy has hidden beneath a veil of hypocritical delicacy its plan to ensure the impunity of conspirators; it has been murdering the people with false humanity, and betraying thepatrieby its scruples.’ He went on to explain the principles of the reorganization of the Revolutionary Tribunal: ‘The delay in punishing the enemies of the patrie must be no more than the time needed to recognize them; it is less a matter of punishing than of annihilating them … Indulgence towards them is an atrocity, clemency is parricide.’31
The lengthy final decree spelled out the composition of the new tribunal, divided into four sections, with twelve judges and fifty jurors. It was ‘established to punish the enemies of the people’, ten varieties of whom were listed. Some of these were clear enough (those who ‘called for the restoration of the monarchy, or sought to debase or dissolve the Convention’); others sound more abusive to our ears (‘those who have sought to mislead public opinion and prevent the instruction of the people, to deprave manners and corrupt public consciousness …’). The evidence required was ‘documents of any kind, whether material, moral, or written … The rule for verdicts is the conscience of the jurors, enlightened by love of the patrie.’ There would be no defenders or witnesses, ‘unless this formality should appear necessary’. If the accused was not acquitted, the only penalty was death.
This bill triggered a stormy debate. Ruamps, a deputy for the Charente and a convinced Montagnard, exclaimed: ‘This decree is important, I demand its printing and a postponement. If it were adopted without postponement, I would blow my brains out.’ Thepostponement was supported by several votes, and Robespierre was obliged to leave the president’s chair for the rostrum: ‘Two strongly pronounced opinions are held in the Republic, citizens; one aspires to punish severely and inescapably the crimes committed against liberty … The other is the cowardly and criminal opinion of the aristocracy, which, since the start of the Revolution, had not ceased to demand, whether directly or indirectly, an amnesty for the conspirators and the enemies of the patrie.’ The decree was adopted.
The following day, however, Bourdon de l’Oise, a leading figure of the ‘right opposition’, expressed his disquiet concerning Article 10, according to which ‘No individual may be brought to the Revolutionary Tribunal except by the National Convention, the Committee of Public Safety, the Committee of General Security, the representatives of the people serving as commissioners of the Convention, and the public prosecutor.’ He proposed decreeing that the Convention ‘did not intend to infringe the laws that prevent any representative of the people from being brought before the Revolutionary Tribunal without a warrant against him having first being issued by the Convention’.32 On 24 Prairial, first Delacroix and then Mallarmé criticized, quite sensibly, the vagueness of certain formulations: ‘It is necessary in a republican government,’ said Mallarmé, ‘that [the laws] can be understood even by children. I ask the Committee of Public Safety to tell us what it understands by the words conspirators, defenders, and patriotic jurors.’ A testy exchange between Bourdon and Robespierre ensued. Bourdon: ‘The Committee of Public Safety has reproached me for my speech yesterday, and in giving me this reprimand told me I talked like Pitt and Coburg. If I were to take the same liberty in replying to them, where would we then be?’ Robespierre denounced ‘the hypocrites who seek to draw off a section of the Montagne and make themselves leaders of the party’. When Bourdon defended himself in personal terms, he attracted a thundering reply: ‘I did not name Bourdon. Woe to him who names himself!’ In the end, the decree was adopted with minor amendments.
The great unknown, which divides historians, is the reason that impelled Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety to take the initiative of such a dreadful law, at a time when the horizon was actually growing brighter.33 The explanation most often advanced – by Mathiez and Lefebvre in particular34 – takes as its starting point an attempted assassination: on 1 Prairial (20 May), a certain Admirat, armed with two pistols, had lain fruitlessly in wait for Robespierre. Finally deciding to return home, he ran into Collot d’Herbois, shot at him and missed. Three days later, a girl by the name of Cécile Renault called at the Duplays’ house and insisted on seeing Robespierre. Two small knives were found on her. Before the Committee of General Security, she declared: ‘I desire a king, because I would rather one than fifty thousand, and I only went to see Robespierre in order to see how a tyrant was made.’
For Georges Lefebvre, ‘emotional reaction … makes it possible to explain the chain of events. The [assassination] attempts at the beginning of Prairial fuelled a fresh flare-up of punitive excitation among supporters of the revolutionary government.’ In Robespierre’s eyes and those of the government, ‘the attacks seemed to herald a general offensive against the Committees, in which what still remained of the suppressed “factions” joined forces with the counter-revolution: the “foreign plot” was reborn.’35
But Admirat and Cécile Renault were only poor wretches, pitiful déclassés. The government could not seriously see them as agents of an international conspiracy, the armed hirelings of Pitt, that ‘enemy of the human race’. Besides, when one Rousselin proposed at the Jacobins club to provide the members of the Committee of Public Safety with personal bodyguards (which would have been effective against further attacks), Robespierre strongly opposed any such measure, ‘which tends to cast disfavour on them [the members of the Committee], to attract envy and slander by showering honours on them, isolating them in order to make them lose esteem and to turn against them everything that hatred can invent’.36
The difficulty in understanding the Prairial law results above all from the manner in which it is presented: a connection is implicitly accepted between the intentions of those who proposed it and the consequences it is supposed to have brought in its train, that is, an accelerated repression. As if, by proposing the reorganization of the Revolutionary Tribunal, Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety had programmed the ‘great Terror’. But in fact there are many reasons to treat the law as one thing and its consequences as another, if not separate then at least distinct.
The Prairial law reinforced the centralization of power, which had steadily increased since the great law of 14 Frimaire. The essential point is that it must be situated in a logical continuity with the Ventôse decrees and Saint-Just’s report on the general police of 26 Germinal (15 April), in which, as we saw, the Paris Revolutionary Tribunal was charged with judging suspects from all over the country, with the result that the provincial revolutionary tribunals were suppressed. In the interim, the Committee of Public Safety had made one exception to this decree: on 10 Floréal (10 May), to avoid transferring to Paris the enormous number of suspects from the Midi, a decree established a ‘popular commission’ in Orange, whose operation prefigured the Prairial law37 – which decidedly did not come about as an emergency law voted under the sway of emotion.
Certain aspects of the law itself did not necessarily imply an accentuation of the Terror. It did lay down that the Tribunal had no other choice than acquittal or death, but the suspects whom it was to judge had to be screened in advance by six commissions, with the power to have the prosecution dropped if the charges seemed insufficiently well-founded.38 As for the two aspects of the law that strike us today as particularly unacceptable, the absence of a defence lawyer and the suppression of witnesses, this was no great change from the earlier situation, when defenders were scarcely listened to and witnesses were almost always for the prosecution.
It remains the case that, in the weeks following the passage of this law, executions were stepped up in a properly terrifying way: from 23 Prairial to 8 Thermidor, the Revolutionary Tribunal pronounced 1,284 death sentences and acquitted only 278 of the accused, whereas in the forty-five previous days it had pronounced 577 condemnations against 182 acquittals. (To interpret these figures correctly, however, it should be taken into account that the Paris Revolutionary Tribunal was now the only one of its kind; we should subtract from the number of Paris condemnations, therefore, those that would have been pronounced during the same period by the provincial tribunals – something that is clearly impossible.)
On 29 Prairial (17 June), a heterogeneous group of fifty-four prisoners, including Admirat and Cécile Renault, mounted the scaffold. They were dressed in the red smock of the parricide, a theatrical gesture that, in Thermidor propaganda, referred obliquely to Robespierre, the ‘father of the patrie’. Following this, allegations of prison plots, escape attempts and the misdeeds of the elusive baron de Batz were the excuse to send vast numbers to the guillotine: seventy-three Bicêtre inmates were executed on 28 Prairial and 8 Messidor, 146 prisoners from the Luxembourg between 19 and 22 Messidor (10 July), forty-six from the Carmes on 5 Thermidor, and seventy-six from Saint-Lazare over the three following days.39 The guillotine had been moved from the place de la Révolution (now Concorde) to the barrière du Trône Renversé (now place de la Nation). The almost daily passage of tumbrils through the faubourg Antoine aroused pity and despair. ‘There were murmurs on all side’, wrote a traveller from Lyon, ‘and above all in the faubourgSaint-Antoine, which was not pleased to see fifty heads fall each day from the class of unfortunate sans-culottes.’40
How can this hecatomb be explained? For Georges Lefebvre, a ‘punitive excitation’, like that of September 1792, ‘turned against the prisons; this time it did not lead to a massacre: the Committees would not have allowed it, and official repression pre-empted it’41 – an update of Danton’s formula: ‘Let us be terrible, to prevent the people from being so.’ For Mathiez, as for Jean-Clément Martin, the great Terror was due to the sabotaging of the law of 22 Prairial, organized by the Committee of General Security to discredit Robespierre once and for all. ‘This “scaffold nausea” rebounded on Robespierre at that moment – and for the rest of history.’42 To both these explanations, which certainly contain a part of truth, we might also add the momentum of a judicial machine that got wildly carried away, egged on by a pair of activists, the public prosecutor Fouquier-Tinville and Dumas, the president of the Revolutionary Tribunal.
Tension over wages
As well as this ‘nausea’, there were problems with provisions and wages, particularly sensitive subjects in Paris, where the popular movement, no matter how supervised, had not completely lost its vitality.
There was no absolute shortage like the previous year, even if soap and meat were scarce. But the measures taken by the government to make the maximum more flexible led to a rise in prices.43 Pourvoyeur, whom we quoted before, noted that ‘the people are murmuring: “Ah! Things can’t go on like this! It’s just us poor devils who suffer from all this; as for the rich, what do they care if everything is so dear, they lack for nothing!” ’44
The effects of the price rise were aggravated by the question of wages. During the winter, the maximum wage (which, we recall, was set at the level of 1790 increased by half) had been very widely breached under popular pressure. The observer Grivel noted in a report of 28 Nivôse that ‘objects of basic necessity for [workers] have only slightly increased in price, whereas their wages have tripled or quadrupled. A worker or clerk who used to earn only four or five livres a day now earns twenty or twenty-four livres and sometimes more.’45 At the beginning of Floréal (end of April), the Commune tried to bring wages back to the legal maximum. The municipality sent in the police against the workers who were causing trouble or even going on strike. After the tobacco grinders, the ‘united’ workers’ leaders at the Paris ports were arrested on the orders of the Commune (9 Floréal/28 April), which equated their organization with a reconstitution of the banned corporations. On 19 Prairial (7 June), the Committee of Public Safety had the workers’ leaders in the war factories imprisoned; these were subject to a quasi-military regime, and particularly disgruntled as their wages had been held by decree to the legal minimum. On a report from Barère (22 Prairial), the Convention directed the public prosecutor to pursue ‘counter-revolutionaries engaged in criminal manoeuvres in the workshops manufacturing assignats, arms, gunpowder and saltpetre’.46 Finally, on 5 Thermidor, the municipality set a maximum wage to apply throughout the commune of Paris, a measure that infuriated the salaried population as it meant a reduction that was in many cases substantial. This wage cap would have a major influence on the behaviour of the sections on the night of 9 Thermidor.
Dissension between the two Committees and within the Committee of Public Safety
It was against this backdrop that the final struggle was played out that would culminate in the drama of 9 Thermidor. Many points remain obscure because, as Françoise Brunel emphasizes, the sources are hardly reliable.47 We do have the newspapers, the reports of the Convention’s sessions – written up after the event – and those of the Jacobins, but not those of meetings of the governing Committees, which did not keep formal records. And no more than doubtful fragments remain of discussions and confrontations in private rooms or in the corridors of the Convention. What has come down to us is chiefly from post-Thermidor, and thus biased, sources: denunciations of the most visible members of the former Committee of Public Safety – Barère, Billaud-Varenne, Collot d’Herbois; their efforts to save their skins by showing how they resisted the ‘tyrant’; the bragging of those who, like Lecointre, played up their valiance vis-à-vis Robespierre; and finally, memoirs written long after the events.48 In these documents the cowardice of some, the dignity of certain others, fear and the desire for revenge all transpire; but as to what actually happened, interpretation has to be cautious.
On the Convention after the fall of the ‘factions’, Levasseur wrote:
Weakened by its dissensions, the Montagne no longer enjoyed a strong majority within the Convention, and this majority was itself fractured into a large number of shades of opinion, each of which had victims to mourn. The revolutionary government wasthus no longer supported by anything but the divisions of its enemies; it was strong only on account of the irrevocable hatreds that separated the friends of Danton from the former supporters of Hébert, and the Montagne from the debris of the Gironde.49
Among the enemies of the revolutionary government, a first group was comprised of former Dantonists, who had been heard to protest against the Prairial law and defend what today would be called the ‘parliamentary immunity’ of the Convention deputies. The most vocal among them were Bourdon de l’Oise, Lecointre, Thuriot and Legendre. These future ‘right-wing Thermidorians’ demanded the reform of the Revolutionary Tribunal and an end to the Terror.
The representatives on mission, recalled en masse, did not form a group in the strict sense; what united them was fear. Robespierre had criticized some of them for their brutality in the repression of ‘federalism’, others for their complacency towards atheism, and others again for a lifestyle of corrupt and debauched proconsuls – certain individuals combined several of these grounds for reproach. For Mathiez, ‘little by little a subterranean opposition formed, with fear as its motive and mortar … Fréron, Barras, Tallien and Fouché, who would become [Robespierre’s] most redoubtable adversaries, visited him and wrote him imploring letters. He could, by reassuring them, have had them at his feet. But he spurned them with contempt. What is more, he made no secret of the fact that he intended to have them punished.’50
But these two oppositions would have been powerless if the Committees had remained homogeneous and united among themselves. Instead, as Sénart wrote,
These two committees were both opposed to each other, and internally divided … In the Committee of Public Safety, Robespierre, Couthon and Saint-Just formed one group, Barère, Billaud and Collot d’Herbois another, and Carnot, Prieur and Lindet a third group again. In the Committee of General Security, Vadier, Amar, Jagot and Louis (of the Bas-Rhin) formed one group, David and Le Bas another, Moïse Bayle, Lavicomterie, Élie Lacoste and Dubarran a third. Each group had a name: Robespierre’s set was known as ‘the people in charge’, Vadier’s as ‘the energetic ones’, Billaud’s as ‘the revolutionaries’, Lindet’s as ‘the examiners’, David’s as ‘the listeners’ and that of Moïse Bayle as ‘the counterweights’. These somewhat peculiar monikers were common currency.51
Even though the antagonisms cut across one another, the key point is the increasing hostility of the Committee of General Security towards the Committee of Public Safety, to which it was legally subordinate.52 The anti-clericals and atheists, who were in a strong position in General Security, were dismayed by the officializing of the cult of the Supreme Being, and it was from their ranks, as we saw, that the Catherine Théot affair emerged, a device mounted against Robespierre.53 A further important grievance was that the Committee of General Security had not been involved with drafting the law of 22 Prairial – its members, moreover, kept a significant silence during the rowdy sessions of 23 and 24 Prairial.
Robespierre and his supporters, for their part, criticized the way in which the Committee of General Security exercised its police functions, not hesitating to use agents of doubtful republican loyalty to infiltrate counter-revolutionary milieus. For Robespierre, ‘any informer who acts only from a motive of self-interest, in hopes of a reward, is a false republican.’54 In his speech of 8 Thermidor, he would say: ‘I tremble when I think that enemies of the Republic, and former professors of monarchy, and ex-nobles, émigrés perhaps, have suddenly turned into revolutionaries and made themselves into agents of the Committee of General Security to take revenge on the friends of the patrie for the birth and success of the Republic.’55
It was perhaps this mistrust that lay at the root of another contentious issue between the Committees: the creation on 27 Germinal, following Saint-Just’s report on the police, of a Bureau of Administrative Surveillance and General Policing, responsible to the Committee of Public Safety. True, its role was simply to ‘inspect the authorities and public agents charged with cooperating with the administration’ (Article 5 of the decree), but the Committee of General Security could only interpret it as an encroachment on its terrain, a dispossession.
Even within the Committee of Public Safety there was discord. Violent quarrels over military tactics broke out between Saint-Just and Carnot. After the battle of Fleurus, from which he had just returned, Saint-Just criticized Carnot for having ordered, without consulting him, 18,000 men to be detached from the army of Sambre-et-Meuse for an expedition to the Atlantic coast. According to him, had the order been carried out Jourdan could never have won his great victory at Fleurus.56
Stranger than this, and more serious for the course of events, was the growing friction between Billaud-Varenne and Robespierre. Strange, as their positions were fundamentally close. On the origin of this quarrel we have, unless I am mistaken, no really trustworthy source. Billaud-Varenne had never forgiven Robespierre for his hesitation in sending Danton before the Revolutionary Tribunal. It would have been hard for him to swallow his exclusion from drafting the law of 22 Prairial.57 He reputedly criticized Robespierre for violating the Convention decree that accused Catherine Théot. All this is quite probable, but what emerges most clearly from the accounts of their altercations and from Billaud’s defence after Thermidor, I believe, is the personal dislike between the two characters – both of them dour, plain-spoken, abrupt and haughty. And Billaud, as we saw, would play a key role in the drama of Thermidor, enabling Martyn Lyons to see this as actually a revolution from the left – a paradoxical view, but not altogether unreasonable.58
Rumours and ‘plot’
From late Prairial to the beginning of Messidor (throughout June, that is), successive episodes betrayed a hardening of antagonisms. The Théot affair was followed by that of the Indivisibilité section, in the context of the quelling of the Paris sections by the purged municipality. The commissioners of this section were denounced by the president of the general assembly for preaching atheism and announcing the imminent restoration of the section societies. In the margin of the report from the police bureau to the Committee of Public Safety, Robespierre noted on 6 Messidor: ‘Arrest all those named in this article.’ The twelve commissioners were arrested on 9 Messidor, and the warrant for the order of their arrest was signed by Robespierre alone. This affair led to serious altercations between the governing Committees, until eventually, on 21 Messidor (9 July), a joint decree by the two Committees freed the Indivisibilité commissioners. The same day, to complete its revenge, the Committee of General Security had that section’s president arrested for slanderous denunciation.59
The affair of the Paris gunners would further envenom the political atmosphere. These had always been ardent sans-culottes, devoted to Hanriot, the commander-in-chief of the National Guard and a loyal supporter of Robespierre. When Carnot ordered six companies of these gunners to be sent to the army of the North, it was perceived as a bid to strip Paris of its most determined and effective popular militants.
As of 15 Messidor (3 July), Robespierre ceased attending the Committee of Public Safety, which went down badly with most of his colleagues. He did not reappear until 5 Thermidor, after twenty days of absence. In his speech of 8 Thermidor he explained the reasons for this retreat: ‘I shall confine myself to saying that for more than six weeks, the nature and force of calumny, the impossibility of doing good and stopping harm, forced me to absolutely desist from my functions as a member of the Committee of Public Safety, and I swear that in this I consulted only my reason and my patrie.’60
It was at the Jacobins that he chose to express himself from then on, with his offensive vigour intact. Already on 13 Messidor, he almost openly attacked his hostile colleagues: ‘In London I am denounced to the French army as a dictator; the same slanders have been repeated in Paris: you would tremble if I told you where … In Paris it is said that it was I who organized the Revolutionary Tribunal, that this tribunal was organized to murder patriots and members of the Convention; I am depicted as a tyrant and an oppressor of the national representation.’61
Ten days later, the session of the Jacobins was devoted to a homage to the Lyon friends of Chalier. Robespierre laid into Dubois-Crancé: ‘They [the conspirators] left by the gate where the army corps commanded by Dubois-Crancé was stationed, but it remained immobile.’ Dubois-Crancé was expelled from the Jacobins on a motion from Couthon, and Fouché, likewise challenged, was summoned to ‘vindicate himself before the Society of the reproaches addressed to him’.62 On 26 Messidor, when Fouché had failed to respond to this summons, Robespierre spoke: ‘I begin by declaring that Fouché as an individual is of no interest to me. I did once associate with him, because I believed him a patriot; when I denounced him here, it was less on account of his past crimes than because he is committing others out of sight, and because I regard him as the leader of the conspiracy that we have to foil.’63 With that, Fouché too was expelled from the Jacobins.
During these highly tense weeks, public life in Paris is described in many contemporary (and Thermidorian) accounts as a time of generalized fear and suspicion. There were said to be lists of proscriptions drawn up by Robespierre, including both the most compromised representatives on mission and the most visible ex-Dantonists.64
No deputy dared to go out unarmed. All carried a pair of pistols, or, more discreetly, a dagger like Tallien, or, if they had not entirely lost the habits of a grand seigneur, a sword-stick like Amar. Robespierre never left his house unless accompanied by a bodyguard, usually composed of the jury of the Revolutionary Tribunal … Robespierre’s spy followed Thuriot and Bourdon of the Oise during Messidor, and Tallien, too, was followed. According to one of his acquaintance, Fouché slept at a different address every night to escape arrest. Vadier, President of the Comité de Sûreté Générale, put his own spy Taschereau on Robespierre, but Taschereau betrayed him, preferring to report to Robespierre on Vadier’s movements.65
Since primary sources for this period are rare, or have still been little studied, one may well wonder, with Françoise Brunel,66 whether this background noise was not strongly amplified after Thermidor, with a twofold intent: to stress the dangers incurred by the Thermidorians and the courage they had displayed, and to legitimize the fall of the ‘tyrant’, as the only possible way out of such an intolerable situation.
This period also invites a further question: was there really a plot to get rid of Robespierre, or is this again a post-Thermidorian story? For Mathiez, there was no doubt that Thermidor was prepared by an understanding between those whom he calls ‘the leading Montagnards’, led by Tallien and Fouché, and the floating mass of the Convention, the Marais or marsh. Gérard Walter is so sure of it that he entitled his book La Conjuration du Neuf Thermidor.67 Martyn Lyons believes that there were enough common interests among Robespierre’s opponents to explain their union against him – and many other examples could also be cited in support of the plot theory.
This theory rests largely on the memoirs of Fouché and Barras, which are a tissue of fabrications – especially when covering this particular period – as well as on the boastings of Lecointre and Tallien. To anticipate a little, it is certainly possible that, on the evening of 8 Thermidor, the most implicated of the proconsuls agreed together on the line they would take the next day; but does this really add up to a plot? The hypothesis of a broad conspiracy involving the proconsuls, members of the Committees and deputies of the Plaine, has the support of prestigious historians,68 but it rests on sources that are after the event and of debatable reliability. Hostilities were opened by Tallien during the session of 9 Thermidor, and immediately taken up by Billaud-Varenne. Yet in the preceding weeks Billaud had expressed publicly and in a threatening way his utter contempt for the dubious character that was Tallien; a prior understanding between these two men is more than unlikely.69
The attempt at reconciliation
Over and above these reservations as to the truth of rumours and the existence of a plot, several witnesses do report a situation too tense to last. The noisy rifts within the revolutionary government spread into the provinces, arousing an alarm that became general. Barère, an expert in reconciliation, now sought to bring the Committees and Robespierre together. It was probably at his instigation that the two Committees met in plenary session on 4 Thermidor, still in the absence of Robespierre.70 Their decree, drafted by Barère, was a notable surety extended to Robespierre and Saint-Just, since it involved finally applying the laws of Ventôse: four popular commissions were to be established, charged with screening suspects in the departments, as should have been in operation for a long time already.71 Besides this, it was decided to establish four peripatetic sections of the Paris Revolutionary Tribunal to judge those detainees in the departments whom the popular commissions had designated after their checks.
Robespierre agreed to participate in the session envisaged for the next day. The assembled deputies started off by staring silently at one another. ‘The next day,’ wrote Saint-Just in the speech he was unable to deliver on 9 Thermidor, ‘we met together again. Everyone kept a deep silence, both sides were present. I rose and said: “You seem to be upset: everyone here should explain themselves openly, and I shall begin, if you will permit.” ’72 In a scathing passage of this account of the proceedings, Saint-Just denounced the hypocrisy of Billaud-Varenne: ‘[He] said to Robespierre: “We are your friends, we have always marched together.” This disguise made my heart shiver. The day before he had called Robespierre a Pisistratus, and outlined an act of accusation against him.’
Accordingly, though there was far from total reconciliation, and it is quite possible that Robespierre ‘set himself up as denouncer and reproached [the Committee members] for being the first bulwark of the counter-revolutionaries’,73 it remains the case that concessions were made on both sides: on the one hand, the previous day’s decree was revised in a way that made it more efficient;74 on the other, Saint-Just agreed to sign the decree sending a large contingent of Paris gunners to the army of the North. It was decided that Saint-Just should give a report to the Convention in the name of the two Committees, to show that they were no longer at loggerheads.
A parenthesis. We might discern at this point a gap between Robespierre and Saint-Just, the former not believing in reconciliation and the latter doing his best for it, as proved by the genuinely ‘ecumenical’ decree proposed at the end of his undelivered speech of 9 Thermidor75 – in this sense, moreover, it is possible to agree with Dionys Mascolo when he writes: ‘If [Saint-Just] had been allowed to deliver his speech of 9 Thermidor, the [counter-revolution] would probably not have taken place.’76 In this speech, Saint-Just showed that he understood his friend (‘His distancing and the bitterness of his soul may excuse him somewhat: he does not know the story of his persecution, he only knows his own misfortune’). But he sought to avoid the imminent disaster. Instead of demanding the punishment of those whom he had just denounced at length (Billaud-Varenne and Collot d’Herbois), he ended on a gentler note: ‘I make no conclusion against those whom I have named; I desire them to justify themselves, and for us to become wiser.’
There was widespread relief at the news of the understanding re-established within the Committees. Barère hailed this at the Convention on 5 Thermidor (22 July), as did Couthon at the Jacobins the day after. Voulland, an important member of the Committee of General Security, wrote to his fellow-citizens in Uzès: ‘It seemed that the horizon surrounding the two Committees was a little befogged; this fog, which the malevolent tried to point to and make consistent, was seen only by them; the storm … was spirited away and dissolved even before it had formed.’77
8 Thermidor, Robespierre defeated by the Convention
In the republican calendar, each ten-day décade had a particular name: the first décade of Thermidor was dedicated to Misfortune. This misfortune began to take shape in the Convention on 8 Thermidor, when Robespierre, in a very long speech, declared that for him it was not a time for reconciliation. ‘I need to unburden my heart’, he began, before defending himself vigorously against his ‘slanderers’ on the question of ‘these plans for dictatorship and attacks on the national representation, imputed first of all to the Committee of Public Safety in general. By what fatality has this grand accusation been suddenly shifted onto the head of just one of its members? It is a strange project for a man to get the National Convention to murder itself by its own hands, so as to clear his path to absolute power! Let others perceive the ridiculous side of these charges, for my part I see only their atrocity.’78 He cast onto his opponents the responsibility for the blood that had been shed: ‘Is it we who threw patriots into dungeons, and carried terror to all conditions of men? It is the monsters who have accused us.’ He repeatedly returned to the accusation of tyranny: ‘They call me a tyrant … If I were one, they would grovel at my feet, I would stuff them with gold and guarantee them the right to commit any and every crime, and they would be grateful.’79
This part of the speech was infused by anger, with words of pain at times whose sincerity went far beyond the customary rhetoric of the day. ‘Who am I, who stand here accused? A slave of liberty, a living martyr of the Republic, as much the victim of crime as its enemy. All rogues offend me; … my zeal is labelled a crime. Take my consciousness away, I am the most unhappy of men’ (my emphasis).
Robespierre then moved on to accusation. ‘It is at this point that I have to let out the truth, and reveal the genuine wounds of the Republic.’ He turned first of all to the Committee of General Security, to ‘the excessive perversity of the subaltern agents of a respectable authority established in your midst … I cannot respect rogues; less still do I adopt the royal maxim that it is useful to employ them.’ Then he attacked those in charge of finance: ‘Who are the supreme administrators of our finances? Brissotins, Feuillants, aristocrats and known rogues; people like Cambon, Mallarmé, Ramel …’ Without mentioning them by name, he attacked Vadier, for his role in the Catherine Théot affair; Billaud-Varenne (‘Why do those who used to say to you, “I declare that we are walking on volcanoes” [a phrase often used by Billaud], believe that today we are walking only on roses?’); Barère (‘You have been told much about our victories …, they would appear greater if recounted with less pomp’), and Carnot (‘Division has been sown among the generals; the military aristocracy is protected; the military administration shrouds itself in a suspect authority; your decrees have been violated in order to shake off the yoke of a necessary surveillance’).
Robespierre’s conclusion, delivered with an icy violence, deserves to be quoted in full:80
So let us say that there exists a conspiracy against public liberty; that it owes its strength to a criminal coalition that intrigues inside the Convention itself; that this coalition has accomplices in the Committee of General Security and in the offices of that Committee, where they predominate; that the enemies of the Republic set that committee up against the Committee of Public Safety, thus constituting two governments; that some members of the Committee of Public Safety are in this plot; that the coalition thus formed seeks to ruin patriots and the homeland [patrie]. What is the remedy to this ill? Punish the traitors, replace the staff of the Committee of General Security, purge the committee itself, constitute government unity under the supreme authority of the National Convention, which is the centre and the judge, and in this way crush all the factions with the weight of the national authority, to raise on their ruins the power of justice and liberty; such are the principles. If it is impossible to pronounce them without appearing ambitious, I would conclude that principles are proscribed and that tyranny reigns among us, but not that I should silence them; for what can they hold against a man who is right and who knows how to die for his country?
I was born to fight crime, not to control it. The time has not arrived for men of substance to be able to serve the homeland with impunity; defenders of liberty will just be outlaws, for as long as the horde of scoundrels predominates.
This amazing harangue aroused such great emotion that Lecointre, despite being a sworn enemy of Robespierre, was the first to demand its printing. It was on this very question that a highly serious confrontation then began, in which for the first time Robespierre had the worst of it in the Convention. Bourdon de l’Oise opposed the immediate printing of Robespierre’s speech, proposing to refer it to the two Committees for examination. Couthon obtained a vote that, on the contrary, it not only be printed, but also sent to every commune in the Republic. Vadier then spoke up to defend himself over the Théot affair (‘one of the most extensive conspiracies’) and maintained that ‘the operations of the Committee of General Security have always been characterized by the stamp of the justice and severity required to repress the aristocracy.’
Cambon, violently challenged in Robespierre’s speech, began by justifying his financial measures, but his conclusion marked the turning-point of the session: ‘It is time to speak the whole truth: a single man paralysed the will of the National Convention; it is the man who has just delivered the speech, it is Robespierre; so, make your judgement (applause).’
Voices hostile to Robespierre were then heard from all sides. Billaud-Varenne: ‘The more that Robespierre’s speech inculpates the Committee, the more scrupulously must the Convention examine it before deciding to send it to the communes … I prefer my corpse to serve as a throne to an ambitious man than to become, by my silence, the accomplice of his misdeeds. I ask for it to be sent back to the two Committees.’ Panis: ‘I criticize Robespierre for having expelled from the Jacobins whomever he likes. I do not want him to have more influence than anyone else.’
Charlier: ‘When a man boasts of having the courage of virtue, he must have that of truth. Name those whom you accuse. (Applause. Several voices: ‘Yes! Yes! Name them!’) Robespierre refused: ‘I stand by what I have said, and declare that I will take no part in any decision to prevent the dispatch of my speech.’
After interventions opposed to the printing of the speech, as much from the left as from the right (Amar, Thirion and Barère, who sensed the wind changing), the Convention voted to refer the printing to the Committees. Robespierre had lost. The events of the next two days would be only the sequel to this unprecedented disavowal.
We often read that this speech of Robespierre’s was a form of political suicide, and that his refusal to name the deputies whom he accused was a fatal mistake: ‘Robespierre refused to reply, and by this move he lost. All those who had something to reproach themselves for felt threatened.’81 The tone of Robespierre’s speech, however, was not that of a man wilfully courting disaster. And we may doubt that Robespierre, always so swift to sense the currents of the Convention, took a false step by refusing to name the ‘rogues’. As I see it, what he was after, in a kind of double or quits, was what would today be called a vote of confidence, an endorsement of his past conduct and a general consensus on his proposal to reorganize the revolutionary government. If he was unwilling to name names, it was to avoid going into detail. He even said as much: ‘People speak to me of Fouché! I do not intend to deal with this now; I distance myself from all that.’ The elimination of the corrupt was only one step on the path he was mapping out.
That evening at the Jacobins, Robespierre read his speech again, meeting with lively applause.82 ‘It is said that after he read his speech, Robespierre addressed the Jacobins with these words: “The speech that you have just heard is my last testament. I have seen it today: the league of the ill-willed is so strong that I cannot hope to escape it. I succumb without regret; I leave you my memory, it will be dear to you, and you will defend it.” ’ He spoke of drinking hemlock, and David cried out: ‘I will drink it with you.’ At which point Couthon called for a vote, passed by unanimous acclaim, for the immediate expulsion of the deputies who had voted against the printing and dispatch of Robespierre’s speech. ‘Billaud and Collot were at the club; they were driven out amid insults and threats’,83 a humiliation which doubtless influenced their actions the next day.
On his return to the Committee of Public Safety, Collot apparently delivered a violent attack against Saint-Just, but later that night it seems an agreement was reached: Saint-Just would prepare a report on the institutions, which he would read to his colleagues before submitting it to the Convention – but he did not do so, which deepened the distrust of the Committee members when they arrived at the session of the Convention on the morning of 9 Thermidor (27 July).
The sitting opened in the late morning, presided by Collot d’Herbois, who had been elected to the chair on 2 Thermidor – one of the many chance factors that would play a part in the unfolding of these days’ events.84 It began, as usual, with the reading of letters, then Saint-Just came to the rostrum to present the report envisaged the previous day. His speech, which began with the famous words: ‘I am not of any faction, I shall combat them all,’ was very soon interrupted by Tallien, who asked to speak on a point of order, but instead violently assailed both the speaker and Robespierre: ‘Yesterday a member of the government isolated himself from it, delivered a speech in his own name, and today another does the same. Once more there are attacks, aggravation of the ills of thepatrie that are casting it into the abyss. I demand the curtain be completely torn away (very loud applause on three separate occasions).’
Billaud-Varenne interrupted Tallien on a further point of order, with equal virulence. After reporting in his way on the last evening’s session at the Jacobins (‘Yesterday the intention was proclaimed in that Society of killing off the National Convention’), he moved to the offensive: ‘The moment has come to speak the truth … The assembly would be misjudging events and its own position, were it to conceal from itself that it stands between two deaths. It will perish if it is weak.’ ‘No! No!’ shouted the deputies, jumping up and waving their hats. The spectators responded with shouts of ‘Vive la Convention, vive le Comité de salut public!’ Saint-Just remained motionless and mute throughout the session.
Le Bas then asked to speak. The president refused him, and when Le Bas insisted, the assembly had him called to order. In an electric atmosphere, Billaud continued his onslaught, punctuated by murmurs of indignation. He attacked Hanriot (‘the head of the National Guard, accomplice of Hébert, an infamous conspirator’), Dumas (‘the president of the Revolutionary Tribunal, [who] openly proposed at the Jacobins to expel from the Convention all impure men, that is, all those that they want to put to death’), and above all Robespierre. He accused Robespierre of having ‘brought about single-handed the decree of 22 Prairial, that decree which, in the impure hands that he chose, could be deadly to patriots’, of having defended Danton, of having organized ‘spying on the representatives of the people that he wanted dead’. And he concluded: ‘It is iniquitous to speak of justice and virtue when these are flouted, and to become exalted only when stopped or contradicted.’
Robespierre moved eagerly to speak, but the whole hall echoed with shouts of ‘Down with the tyrant!’ He fell silent, and slumped on the bench next to the rostrum. Tallien spoke again, demanding the arrest of Hanriot, and lambasting Robespierre who ‘wanted to attack and isolate us by turns, so that he would remain alone in the end with the villainous and debauched men who serve him. I ask for this session to be declared permanent until the sword of the law has safeguarded the Revolution and we order the arrest of his creatures.’ Billaud instantly proposed and obtained the arrest of Hanriot, his general staff, and Dumas.
Barère then launched into a long report, in which he carefully avoided siding with anyone. The final decree suppressed the post of commander of the National Guard: the head of each legion would command it in turn.
The discussions resumed in the greatest confusion. Vadier, after once again recounting the Théot affair, also turned on the ‘tyrant’: ‘To listen to Robespierre, he is the sole defender of liberty: this drives him to despair, he will abandon everything, he is of rare modesty (laughter) and his constant refrain is: I am oppressed, I am forbidden to speak; and it is only he who speaks usefully, as his will is always done.’
Tallien again: ‘I request the floor in order to bring the discussion back to its real point.’ Robespierre replied: ‘I shall certainly be able to do so.’ He tried again to intervene, but the shouts from the assembly prevented him from making himself heard. Tallien continued his diatribe, but when he asserted that ‘it was while Robespierre was in charge of the general police that they [these acts of oppression] were committed; that the patriots of the revolutionary committee of the Indivisibilité section were arrested’, Robespierre exclaimed: ‘That is a lie! I …’ His voice was drowned out by yells. ‘It is to you, pure men, that I speak, and not to the brigands (violent interruption).’ ‘For the last time, president of assassins, I ask you to let me speak.’ Thuriot, who had replaced Collot in the president’s chair: ‘You will speak in your turn.’ Shouts of ‘No! no!’ from all sides. The din continued, Robespierre exhausted himself in efforts to make himself heard, and his voice faded away.
It was two in the afternoon when the obscure Louchet, a deputy for the Aveyron, proposed the decree to arrest Robespierre, which was passed unanimously. Augustin Robespierre asked to share the fate of his brother, which was similarly passed, and followed by a third decree that placed Saint-Just, Couthon and Le Bas under arrest. Amid uproar, under a barrage of invective, the arrested deputies finally made their exit to the bar of the hall, from where they were conducted to the Committee of General Security.85 In the course of the evening, each was taken to a different place of detention: Robespierre was brought first to the Luxembourg prison, where the guards refused to accept him, then to the police administration building on the quai des Orfèvres, where he remained until late in the night; Augustin Robespierre was locked up in Saint-Lazare, Saint-Just in the former Collège des Écossais which had been converted into a jail, and Couthon in the prison of Port-Libre, established in the former abbey of Port-Royal.86
Defeat of the Commune insurrection
While this drama was playing out in the Tuileries, the Commune’s general council had met in ordinary session at the Maison-Commune (the Hôtel de Ville). Towards two o’clock, spectators arriving from the Convention brought the news of the arrest warrant for Hanriot.87 Fleuriot-Lescot, the mayor, and Payan, the national agent, reacted without delay, sending members of the general council to their sections to sound the general alarm. Hanriot urged the heads of the six legions of the National Guard88 to each send 400 men to the Maison-Commune, and organized a concentration of gunners with their ordnance on the Place de Grève.
The heads of four of the six legions, however, refused to assemble their men. They were summoned to the Convention around three o’clock, where Thuriot, acting as president, forbade them to obey Hanriot – whose position, of course, had just been abolished. The result was that out of forty-eight sections, only sixteen sent detachments to the Maison-Commune.89 But since some of these – the section of the Panthéon-Français and, from around the Halles, the sections of Les Amis-de-la-Patrie, Les Arcis and Réunion – provided more men than requested, it is estimated that by seven in the evening, an armed force of some 3,000 Guards had been mobilized by the Commune on the place de Grève. This force was all the stronger for the presence of most of the gunners’ companies, manned by volunteers with a strong revolutionary consciousness, their cannon arrayed in front of the Maison-Commune.90
In the early evening, the general council asked the section chiefs to come to the Commune and take an oath to save the patrie. A Proclamation au peuple was issued: ‘Citizens, the patrie is more endangered than ever; scoundrels have dictated laws to the Convention that they are oppressing … People, rise up, do not lose the fruits of 10 August and 31 May, let us cast all the traitors into the grave.’91 Two envoys went to the Jacobins to request their support: the Society declared itself in permanent session, and sent a deputation to take an oath ‘to die rather than live under crime’.
The general council appointed the same evening a nine-man executive committee ‘for the salvation of the Republic’92 – but there was little that this committee could do, and the lack of a competent military leader rapidly made itself felt.
Its first idea was an improvisation that backfired. Around five o’clock, Hanriot set out on horseback with an escort of a few gendarmes to rescue the arrested deputies, who at that point were still at the Committee of General Security. When he reached the courtyard of the Hôtel de Brionne, he tried to break down the door of the room in which the Committee was sitting. Old Rühl came out and ordered the gendarmes on duty there to seize Hanriot, explaining that he had been dismissed from his post and was under arrest. The general was tied up, with the help of his own escort.
Around eight o’clock, Coffinhal left the place de Grève bound for the Tuileries, to rescue Hanriot and the arrested deputies. With him went 400 men from the Amis-de-la-Patrie section and several companies of gunners, joined en route by some 1,200 men from the section of Panthéon-Français. The column reached the place du Carrousel and the guns were pointed at the Hôtel de Brionne, whose door had been broken down, but the building was almost empty: the members of the Committee of General Security were in session at the Convention, and the arrested deputies had already been moved. Hanriot, however, was freed, and carried triumphantly into the courtyard.
Now came the turning-point of this journée: instead of taking advantage of its superiority, in both guns and men, to invade the nearby hall where the Convention was sitting, the column, lacking orders or leaders, returned to the Maison-Commune.
The Convention had had a narrow escape. In the evening’s extraordinary session,93 the assembly unanimously passed decrees placing outside the law Hanriot, the mayor Fleuriot-Lescot, and all the members of the Commune who had risen in rebellion, as well as Robespierre and the other deputies, who had meanwhile been liberated by a force sent by the Commune, and thus ‘evaded the arrest warrants against them’. On Voulland’s proposal, Barras was appointed commander-in-chief of the armed force, and seven deputies chosen to be his aides.94
Meanwhile the Commune was trying to get organized. The liberated Augustin Robespierre appeared to great applause, followed by Le Bas. Around ten in the evening, the mayor appointed a delegation to go and convince Robespierre to join the Commune movement: ‘He does not belong to himself, he must belong wholly to the patrie, to the people.’ After a first refusal – Robespierre wanted, like Marat, to be brought before the Revolutionary Tribunal – he agreed to proceed to the Maison-Commune, where he was joined shortly after by Saint-Just and Dumas, and later Couthon.
Throughout these long hours, however, the National Guards and gunners were left on the place de Grève without supplies or instructions. News of the outlawing circulated with devastating effect. At eleven in the evening, the section members began to return home. By one in the morning, the last battalion, that of Finistère (faubourg Saint-Marceau) had left the deserted square.
When Léonard Bourdon broke into the Maison-Commune at the head of a hastily recruited column, boosted by the battalion of his own Gravilliers section, Le Bas shot himself in the head and died, Augustin Robespierre threw himself out of the window and broke his leg, and Couthon, in his wheelchair, hurled himself down the grand staircase and survived. Maximilien Robespierre tried to kill himself but managed only to smash his jaw,95 while Saint-Just let himself be taken without resistance, stoical and silent as he had been since his interrupted speech the previous day.
Such was the end of the Communal insurrection, defeated without putting up a fight. The responsibility clearly lies with those who failed to lead it – Hanriot, and the leaders of the general council. The legalistic scruples of Robespierre also played a part, along with the silence of Saint-Just, once so valiant in the face of gunfire, but this evening seemingly broken.
Yet if only a third of the sections marched with the Commune that day, if the sectionnaires so readily dispersed into the night, this is because the Parisian popular movement, brought to heel by the very men it was supposed to defend that evening, was no longer what it had been on 10 August or 31 May. The proclamation of the maximum wage, just four days previous, was the last straw in dividing it from the Robespierrists in the Commune. Its relative passivity was no more than the decree absolute of a divorce begun during the winter of year II.
The guillotining of the Robespierrists
The following morning, 10 Thermidor, the outlawed prisoners were brought to the Conciergerie. The assembled Convention ruled ‘that the Revolutionary Tribunal shall carry out without delay the decrees passed yesterday against the deputies declared traitors to thepatrie and placed outside the law, against the mayor and national agent of Paris, against Dumas, Hanriot, Lavalette and Boulanger. Their execution will take place today on the place de la Révolution.’96
The hearing at the Revolutionary Tribunal, which opened at one in the afternoon, was confined to verifying the identity of the prisoners, as their outlaw status made any regular trial pointless. The verdict was delivered at four o’clock: twenty-two death sentences.97 The executions took place the same evening: Couthon died first, Robespierre last but one, Fleuriot-Lescot the last. The bodies were thrown into the common grave of Les Errancis, behind Parc Monceau, and sprinkled with quicklime.
The following day, the tribunal pronounced seventy-one further death sentences – chiefly members of the Commune’s general council – and a further twelve the day after. Out of the ninety-five members of the council present at the Maison-Commune on 9 and 10 Thermidor, eighty-seven were guillotined.98 A new Terror had begun.
1On the repression and purge, see Soboul, Les Sans-Culottes parisiens, pp. 823–916. Both Fleuriot-Lescot and Payan would join the Robespierrists in the tumbril the day after 9 Thermidor.
2A. P., vol. 87, p. 486.
3Ibid., p. 694.
4The twelve commissions were: civil administration, police and tribunals; public instruction; agriculture; trade and supplies; public works; public assistance; transport; finance; army; navy and colonies; arms and explosives; foreign relations.
5Saint-Just, Œuvres complètes, p. 742.
6This demobilization in the sections was also the result of the most patriotic elements leaving for the armies.
7Saint-Just, Œuvres complètes, p. 685.
8Ibid., p. 1141.
9Robespierre, Virtue and Terror, p. 109ff. My emphasis. Subsequent quotations are drawn from the same speech.
10Saint-Just, ‘Fragments sur les Institutions républicaines’, Œuvres complètes, pp. 1130–1. This text was not made public during Saint-Just’s lifetime.
11Ibid., pp. 1120–1.
12Ibid., p. 1139.
13Ibid., p. 263. My emphasis.
14A. P., vol. 89, p. 94.
16Hoche, suspected of Hébertisme, was in prison.
17Robespierre, Œuvres complètes, vol. 10, pp. 442–65.
18Chief among these were: ‘to detest bad faith and tyranny, punish tyrants and traitors, succour the unfortunate, respect the weak, defend the oppressed, do to others all the good that one can, and be unjust towards no one’ (Article 3).
19‘Thus in Clermont-Ferrand, on the façade of a lateral door to the nave of the cathedral, [it is still possible to read] “The French People recognize the Supreme Being and the immortality of the soul”,’ in Jean-Christophe Bailly, Le Dépaysement, Paris: Le Seuil, 2011, p. 339.
20Aulard, La Société des Jacobins, vol. 6, p. 114.
21Mathiez, ‘Robespierre et le culte de l’Être suprême’ , in Études sur Robespierre, p. 157. Mathiez also establishes that the list of festivals every ten days (which may raise a smile today) was drawn up in full by Mathieu, deputy for the Oise, on behalf of the Committee of Public Instruction.
22Saint-Just, ‘Fragments …’, p. 1103. It is true that he adds: ‘In no civil commitment are religious considerations permitted, and any act that refers to these is null and void’.
23A detailed description of the festival is given by Mathiez, ‘Robespierre et le culte de l’Être suprême’, pp. 175–80.
24A. P., vol. 91, p. 639ff.
25Mathiez, La Révolution française, vol. 3, p. 206.
26Cited by Maurice Dommanget, Les idées politiques et sociales d’Auguste Blanqui, Paris: Éditions Rivière, 1957, p. 310ff. My thanks to Dominique Le Nuz for pointing out to me this reference. See also Albert Mathiez, ‘Notes inédites de Blanqui sur Robespierre’, in Girondins et Montagnards , Paris; Les Éditions de la Passion, 1988, p. 220ff. It has to be said that, writing these notes in the Doullens prison in 1850, Blanqui only had available to him the Histoire des Girondins by Lamartine – a personal enemy of his into the bargain.
27Guérin, La Lutte de classes, vol. 1, p. 362.
28After Thermidor, some members of the Committee of Public Safety, seeking to defend themselves against the accusation of Robespierrism, maintained that they had not been party to this decision or that (Billaud-Varenne and Barère, for example, claimed that they had had nothing to do with the Prairial laws, whereas they had actually championed these in the Convention).
29Aulard, La Société des Jacobins, vol. 5, p. 686. Boulanger was accused of having backed the idea of insurrection at the Cordeliers. Robespierre replied that ‘the greatest danger would be to confuse patriots with the cause of the conspirators.’
305 Ventôse year IV (24 February 1796). Cited by Mathiez, ‘Babeuf et Robespierre’, in Études sur Robespierre, p. 247. For a while, Babeuf rejoiced in the fall of Robespierre, but he rapidly changed his mind.
31Le Moniteur, vol. 20, p. 694ff.; A. P., vol. 91, p. 483.
32A. P., vol. 91, p. 528.
33It is sometimes claimed that the Prairial laws were promulgated when the Fleurus victory had already transformed the situation on the northern front. This is incorrect: Fleurus dates from 8 Messidor (28 June), and so eight days after 22 Prairial (20 June), when the outcome of the campaign was still uncertain. It was no more certain at the time of the tumbrils of the ‘great Terror’.
34Mathiez, La Révolution française, vol. 3, p. 197ff.; Georges Lefebvre, ‘Sur la loi de prairial an II’ , in Études sur la Révolution française, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1963, pp. 108–37.
35Ibid., pp. 120 and 123.
36Aulard, La Société des Jacobins, vol. 6, p. 153.
37The only penalty was death, the evidence required being ‘any information, of whatsoever kind, that may convince a reasonable man and a friend of liberty’.
38Out of the six commissions, only two were established in Paris, and these only began operation in the first days of Thermidor.
39Brunel, Thermidor, p. 71.
40Cited by Lefebvre, ‘Sur la loi de prairial an II’, p. 130.
41Ibid., p. 126.
42Martin, Violence et Révolution, pp. 229–30. Among recent examples that make Robespierre responsible for the ‘bloodbath’, see one of the most recent biographies, that by Ruth Scurr, Fatal Purity, Robespierre and the French Revolution, New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006: ‘He bears direct responsibility for the Law of 22 Prairial, which was designed to both speed up and expand the Revolutionary Tribunal’s work. In this simple, technical, legal sense, his hands are covered in blood. It does not matter which, or how many, individuals he intervened personally to save at the eleventh hour’ (p. 297).
43On 1 Germinal, the municipality posted a new list of maximums, with higher prices than those set earlier.
44Caron, Paris pendant la Terreur, vol. 3, p. 65.
45Cited by Mathiez, La Vie chère, p. 221.
46Soboul, Les Sans-Culottes parisiens, p. 948.
47Brunel, Thermidor, p. 44.
48Among the post-Thermidor documents most often cited, the majority date from year III and were published by order of the Convention: L. Lecointre, Les Crimes de sept membres des anciens comités de Salut public et de Sûreté générale, ou dénonciation formelle à la Convention nationale contre Billaud-Varenne, Barère, Collot d’Herbois, Vadier, Vouland, Amar et David (BHVP, 950217); Réponse des membres de l’ancien Comité de Salut public dénoncés, aux pièces communiquées par la Commission des vingt et un (BHVP, 955817); C. Duval, Projet de procès-verbal des séances des 9, 10 et 11 thermidor (BHVP, 600446); E. M. Courtois, Rapport sur les événements du 9 thermidor an II (BHVP, 603651); J. Vilate, Causes secrètes de la Révolution du 9 au 10 thermidor, Paris: Langlois, vendémiaire an III.
49Mémoires de R. Levasseur, vol. 3, p. 71. Despite being written thirty-five years after the events, Levasseur’s memoirs offer a valuable testimony. The honest Levasseur seeks neither to allot himself a fine role nor to excuse himself. He was a ‘critical Robespierrist’, a rarity at this time.
50Mathiez, La Révolution française, vol. 3, p. 196. The particular case of Tallien is well known: what mattered for him was to save the life of his mistress, Thérésa Cabarrus, in prison since 3 Prairial on a warrant from the Committee of Public Safety signed by Robespierre.
51G. J. Sénart, Révélations puisées dans les cartons des comités de salut public et de sûreté générale, Paris: Dumesnil, 1824, cited by Buchez and Roux, vol. 33, p. 8. Sénart relates what he heard in the milieu of the members of the Committee of General Security, for which he was an agent.
52See on this point Michel Eude, ‘Le Comité de sûreté générale en 1793–1794’, AHRF, 1985, no. 261, p. 295.
53In ‘The 9 Thermidor: motives and effects’ (in Jones (ed.), The French Revolution in Social and Political Perspective, Martyn Lyons makes the interesting remark that many of Robespierre’s enemies on the Committee of General Security were from the Midi: Moïse Bayle from Marseille, Vadier and Barère from the Pyrenees, Amar from Grenoble, Voulland from Uzès, Jagot from the Ain, Lacoste from Dordogne, and Dubarran from the Gers. ‘The southern origins of the Thermidorians is in striking contrast to the predominantly northern Robespierrists (the Auvergnat Couthon provides the exception). This is of more than academic interest. Robespierre, who had never been south of the Loire, had no experience of the situation in the Midi. He did not know the strength of popular Catholicism in the South-West, or of counter-revolutionary Royalism in Marseille, except at second hand. For the Thermidorians [the members of the Committee of General Security who acted against Robespierre], Robespierre’s policy of religious conciliation was a surrender in the face of the enormous strength of the counter-revolution in the Midi … In their opinion, … Robespierre did not realize that vigorous measures against the clergy were essential to the defence of the Republic in the Ariège, the Gers, and the Gard’ (pp. 408–9).
54Papiers trouvés chez Robespierre, cited by Lyons, ‘The 9 Thermidor’, note 13.
55Robespierre, Œuvres complètes, vol. 10, p. 557.
56Aside from personal antipathies, they were opposed on a basic question: Carnot wanted a war of conquest in Flanders, waged by a professionalized army, whereas for Saint-Just the war should only be defensive.
57‘The day after 22 Prairial, in the morning session [of the Committee of Public Safety], Billaud-Varenne accused Robespierre aloud as soon as he entered the session, reproaching him for having taken to the Convention, alone with Couthon, the abominable decree that terrified patriots. It was, he said, against all principles and the regular course of the Committee to present a draft decree without communicating it to the Committee … “I see clearly that I am alone, and that no one supports me,” said Robespierre, and immediately flew into a rage … He shouted so loud that several citizens gathered on the Tuileries terraces. The window was closed, and the discussion continued as hotly as before’ (Réponse des membres de l’ancien Comité de salut public, note 8).
58‘9 Thermidor, seen so often as the work of reactionaries, was interpreted by the Comité de Sûreté Générale and by its main authors as a revolution of the Left’ (Lyons, ‘The 9 Thermidor’, p. 397).
59Soboul, Les Sans-Culottes parisiens, pp. 973–4. On 9 Thermidor, Billaud-Varenne criticized Robespierre for the arrest of ‘the best revolutionary committee in Paris, that of the Indivisibilité section’.
60Robespierre, Œuvres complètes, vol. 10, p. 565. Robespierre spoke of ‘six weeks’, which was inexact.
61Buchez and Roux, Histoire parlementaire, vol. 33. My emphasis.
62Ibid., pp. 341–2.
63Ibid., p. 345.
64Robespierre alluded to this on 8 Thermidor: ‘Is it true that hateful lists have been presented, naming a number of members of the Convention, which are claimed to be the work of the Committee of Public Safety, and subsequently to be my work?’ In his Mémoires, the Convention deputy Levasseur from the Sarthe wrote: ‘The enemies of this famous man carefully nourished this unfounded belief; they circulated lists of proscribed men, including figures from all parties, and these lists were always presented as the work of Robespierre’ (Mémoires de R. Levasseur, vol. 3, p. 77).
65Lyons, ‘The 9 Thermidor’, p. 399.
66Brunel, Thermidor, p. 81.
67Gérard Walter, La Conjuration du Neuf Thermidor, Paris: Gallimard, 1974.
68Including Mathiez and Soboul (‘The plot was hatched during the night, between the members of the Committees, the Plaine, and the deputies who had long been planning the downfall of Robespierre,’ Soboul, Les Sans-Culottes parisiens, p. 996).
69The only possible ‘collusion’ between the proconsuls and Robespierre’s opponents in the governing Committees was that between Fouché and Collot d’Herbois, bound together by their atrocities during the repression of Lyon.
70For the sessions of the two committees on 4 and 5 Thermidor, the essential text is that of Mathiez, who magisterially unravelled the skein of post-Thermidor documents (‘Les séances des 4 and 5 thermidor an II aux deux comités de salut public et de sûrete générale’, in Albert Mathiez, Girondins et Montagnards , Paris: Les Éditions de la Passion, 1988, pp. 139–70.
71Only the two Paris commissions had been set up, and the first two lists of detainees were only approved by the Committees in the first days of Thermidor.
72Saint-Just, Œuvres complètes, pp. 769–85.
73Réponse des membres de l’ancien comité de salut public, p. 89.
74The new text read as follows: ‘Revolutionary Commissions shall be appointed as appears necessary for the judgement of the detainees sent to the Tribunal’, obviating any need to apply to the Convention to form the four mobile sections (Mathiez, ‘Les séances des 4 et 5 thermidor’, p. 149).
75‘The National Convention decrees that the institutions, which will be constantly amended, shall provide the means to prevent the government, while losing none of its revolutionary energy, from tending towards arbitrariness, favouring ambition, and oppressing or usurping the national representation.’
76Dionys Mascolo, ‘Si la lecture de Saint-Just est possible’ , in À la recherche d’un communisme de pensée, Paris: Éditions Fourbis, 1993, p. 37.
77Mathiez, ‘Trois lettres de Voulland sur la crise de thermidor’, in Girondins et Montagnards, p. 175. This letter is dated 8 Thermidor, but was written before Robespierre’s speech of that date.
78Buchez and Roux, Histoire parlementaire, vol. 33. Françoise Brunel emphasizes that the official account of this dramatic session was belated, and of doubtful reliability: ‘It was not the least original feature of the journées from 2 to 18 Thermidor that they were reconstructed in year IV or even year V by the editors of the Conseils du Directoire, many of whom had an interest in “forgetting” ’ (Françoise Brunel, Thermidor, p. 89).
79Robespierre, Virtue and Terror, pp. 130–1.
80Ibid., pp. 140–1.
81Mathiez, La Révolution française, vol. 3, p. 217.
82Buchez and Roux (Histoire parlementaire, vol. 34, pp. 2–3) make the point that ‘no document of the time that might help towards a history of the Jacobins club on the stormy evenings of 8 and 9 Thermidor has been preserved. No journalist stenographed the debates, and the minutes drawn up by the club’s bureau were confiscated by the Thermidorians and removed from the reach of posterity.’ The account of the session rests on ‘tradition’, on the testimony of Billaud-Varenne, and on the report by Courtois in year III. Thus everything has to be taken with a pinch of salt.
83Ibid., p. 3.
84A. P., vol. 93, p. 550ff.
85The Committee of General Security sat at the Hôtel de Brionne, on the river side of the Tuileries (off the Pavillon de l’Égalité, now Flore, to which it was connected by a wooden corridor).
86The Collège des Écossais still exists, on 65, rue du Cardinal-Lemoine (then Fossés-Saint-Victor); the abbey of Port-Royal is today part of the maternity hospital of that name.
87The official account of the session (Buchez and Roux, Histoire parlementaire, vol. 34, pp. 47–56) is very confused. The Communal insurrection is described in great detail in Soboul, Les Sans-Culottes parisiens, pp. 997–1024.
88The six legions of the National Guard each comprised the National Guards from eight sections.
89Almost all these sections were in eastern Paris, whereas the west, beyond rue d’Enfer and rue de la Harpe on the left bank (more or less the line of the boulevard Saint-Michel), and beyond the rue and faubourg Saint-Denis on the right bank, were loyal to the Convention.
90We should remember that twelve companies had been sent to the front by Carnot, but their guns remained in Paris. Soboul notes that ‘there were volunteers among the citizens competent enough to operate the cannon’ (Les Sans-Culottes parisiens, p. 1003).
91Buchez and Roux, Histoire parlementaire, vol. 34, p. 46.
92These were: Payan, Coffinhal, vice-president of the Revolutionary Tribunal; Louvet, administrator of provisions; Lerebours, commissioner for public assistance; Legrand, from the Cité section; Chatenay, a juror on the Revolutionary Tribunal; Desboisseaux, from the Fraternité section; Arthur, from the Piques sections, and Bernard, from the Montreuil section.
93A. P., vol. 93, pp. 562–95.
94These were Fréron, Féraud, Bourdon de l’Oise, Rovère, Bollet, Delmas and Léonard Bourdon.
95Or else he was shot by a gendarme by the name of Merda, who broke his jaw. Both versions have their champions, and both are plausible, an uncertainty that is indicative of the vagueness surrounding all these events.
96A. P., vol. 93, pp. 596–618.
97Maximilien and Augustin Robespierre, Saint-Just, Couthon, Dumas (who had presided this very tribunal two days before), Payan, Fleuriot-Lescot, Hanriot, Lavalette, Vivier (who chaired the Jacobins session on the night of 9 Thermidor), and twelve members of the Commune’s general council.
98This is the number given by Françoise Brunel (Thermidor, p. 109). Gérard Walter gives the lower but still impressive figure of seventy-five (La Conjuration du Neuf Thermidor, p. 158).