Modern history

III THERMIDOR

While banks of roses perfumed the air at one end of Paris, puddles of blood contaminated it at the other end. The guillotine had no place in the visual mise en scène of the Supreme Being, so Robespierre banished it from the place de la Révolution to the open space at the end of the rue Saint-Antoine that would become the place de la Bastille. There it continued its busy operation, up and down, for three days, until local residents complained so angrily of the overflow of the blood, the dangerously “mephitic odors” from bodies going off in the June heat, that it was trundled off again, ever eastwards, to the barrière du Trône, now of course called the place du trône renversé.

There its productivity would be pushed by Fouquier-Tinville and the Sansons to industrial levels. Two days after the Festival of the Supreme Being, the Convention passed a decree which remains the founding charter of totalitarian justice. It was enacted in the wake of abortive assassination attempts, one on Collot d’Herbois on May 23 and one on Robespierre on the twenty-fifth. In the latter case a girl named Cécile Renault had been caught trying to gain access to Robespierre armed with two small knives, curious to know “what a tyrant looks like.” She did not try very hard, but no one needed reminding of the example of Charlotte Corday. Introducing the decree of 22 Prairial, Couthon argued that political crimes were far worse than common crimes because, in the former case, “only individuals are wounded,” whereas in the latter “the existence of free society is threatened.” (This sort of argument anticipated Robespierre’s remark on the eighth of Thermidor that atheism was far worse than famine because while “we” could stand hunger no one could stand “crime.”)

In these circumstances, Couthon went on, as the Republic is threatened with conspiracies, “indulgence is an atrocity… clemency is parricide.” Some adjustments would have to be made in both the criteria defining conspirators and the manner with which they were dealt. Henceforth anyone denounced for “slandering patriotism,” “seeking to inspire discouragement,” “spreading false news” or even “depraving morals, corrupting the public conscience and impairing the purity and energy of the revolutionary government” could be brought before the Revolutionary Tribunal. That court could issue only one of two sentences: acquittal or death. To expedite the march of revolutionary justice, no witnesses would be allowed to be called nor could the accused have a defense counsel. Were not the jurymen, after all, good citizens, capable of coming to a fair and unbiased verdict on their own judgment?

Not everyone in the Convention was delighted with this measure. The deputy Rouamps requested a delay in the vote by threatening to blow out his brains in the Convention if his motion was not granted. Robespierre, of course, managed to insinuate that anyone with any objections to the bill could only have something to hide and submitted that “there is no one here who is not capable of deciding about this law as easily as he decided about so many others of greater importance…” He insisted that it be debated point by point and then voted on, a motion which was adopted in an atmosphere of nervous resignation.

The law of Prairial had an immediate effect on the tempo of executions, which in weeks before had already been accelerated. With the closure of provincial revolutionary tribunals, except a southern branch at Orange that dealt brutally with the culprits of Toulon, suspects from the departments were now brought to Paris for trial. The grim results were as follows:

 

Executions

Acquittals

Germinal

155

59

Floréal

354

159

Prairial

509

164

Messidor

796

208

Thermidor 1– 9

342

84

From an average of five executions a day in Germinal, the rate then went to seventeen in Prairial and twenty-six in Messidor.

This intensification of what came to be called the Grande Terreur was all the more emphatic because it took place at a time when French military fortunes were markedly improving. The levée en masse had brought more than three quarters of a million men under arms and the amalgame had survived the most chaotic period of integrating volunteers with troops of the line. Through the prodigious logistic and strategic efforts of Carnot, Prieur de La Côte d’Or and Jeanbon Saint-André, the Comte de Guibert’s rather frightening prophecy of total war was about to be fulfilled. Thirty thousand pounds of gunpowder a day were being manufactured at the Grenelle works alone and much of it was about to explode in the face of the surprised Coalition. On June 25, at Fleurus, General Jourdan, at one point going aloft in a hot-air balloon for a bird’s-eye view of the battle, decisively defeated Coburg’s main Austrian army. Eight thousand enemy dead were left on the field, including some British grenadiers much exulted over by the Jacobin poets. In no time Valenciennes and Condé, taken with such pain by the Allies, were recaptured by the French, who advanced through Belgium to Brussels and Antwerp. Holland seemed open once again.

Since the military crisis had receded so dramatically, it was hard especially for the two engineers on the Committee of Public Safety, Carnot and Prieur de La Côte d’Or, to see what Robespierre was going on about when he referred to the ubiquitous monster conspiracy. Cécile Renault, surely, did not present a threat sufficient to warrant passage of the Law of Prairial, and they worried particularly about the complete surrender of immunity for members of the Convention. In his bluff way Carnot hated the self-righteous posturing of the cult of the Supreme Being and told Robespierre so in no uncertain terms.

There were other rifts opening in the Jacobin elite. In April Robespierre and Saint-Just had created a special police bureau de surveillance that reported directly to the Committee of Public Safety and so infringed on the jurisdiction of its sister-committee of general security. The most powerful men in that institution were Vadier and Amar, who, as enthusiastic Terrorists and dechristianizers, felt themselves the main targets of Robespierre’s pieties. They had allies, moreover, on the Committee of Public Safety itself – men whose growing opposition to the Dictatorship of Virtue was not fed by the milk of human charity but by an acute sense of self-preservation. Collot d’Herbois and Billaud-Varennes, after all, had always been somewhat apart on the Committee – promoted essentially as a sop to the sectional insurrection of September 5, 1793 – a threat which had now largely evaporated. Collot had had to defend his conduct as a représentant-en-mission at Lyon, and recently there had been other colleagues who felt themselves unfairly put on the defensive for enforcing policies that had been Jacobin orthodoxy but a few months before. Javogues, for example, was put through a particularly difficult scrutin épuratoire at the Jacobins, and on July 11 (23 Messidor) Robes-pierre made a violent attack on Fouché, whom he wanted expelled from the club. (Very sensibly Fouché declined to answer Robespierre’s command that he appear at the club to defend his action and lay low for a while, avoiding his house and carrying pistols.)

This was, in fact, one of Robespierre’s increasingly rare appearances at the Jacobins. He was even more seldom seen in the Convention and completely absent from the Committee of Public Safety. He had evidently decided, after a bitter and bizarre joint meeting with the Committee of General Security at the end of June, that he had had enough of the institution as presently constituted. Vadier had discovered a wonderfully eccentric old lady named Catherine Théot, living in the rue Contrescarpe, who claimed to be the mother of an impending new Messiah and proclaimed Robespierre to be the herald of the Last Days, the prophet of the New Dawn. When the police arrived at her lodging, they also found Dom Gerle, the Carthusian monk who had been a deputy in the Constituent. Embarrassingly for David, who currently sat on the Committee of General Security, Gerle featured very prominently in the sacred triangle of patriotic clerics in the Tennis Court Oath. (Of the other two, Rabaut Saint-Etienne had been guillotined and Grégoire was still very much alive and well.) Vadier seized the case as a precious opportunity to ridicule Robespierre’s messianic pretensions, and his adversary saw that the unmasking of the “conspiracy” was a pretext for a Voltairean attack on the Supreme Being. After a furious and venomous argument, he succeeded in quashing the proceedings, but not before the solidarity of the committees had been irreparably damaged.

Gradually, over the last weeks of July, the pieces of an anti-Robespierre coalition began to fall into place. Those who, like Fouché, had been publicly threatened as “criminals,” and those like Collot and Billaud who felt their turn was not long in coming, began to be apprehensive of a new insurrection. The partial dismantling of economic controls, coupled with the liquidation of the armées révolutionnaires, had resulted in a new erosion of the assignat, which had sunk once again, to about 36 percent of its face value. Food shortages and rising bread prices had generated both serious unrest among artisans and wage earners and a wave of strikes in late June and July. Should this discontent be skillfully mobilized, a very dangerous situation could quickly arise. As the author of the Ventôse decrees, Saint-Just had a reputation as a champion of social equality. Were he to ally with Hanriot, still the commander of the National Guard, and bring out the troops from the militant sections, then the committees and the Convention could be put under siege until they were forced to purge themselves as they had the previous June. But this time it would be Jacobins who would be the victims.

Barère was especially anxious for this not to happen. Dogmatically aligned with neither Robespierre’s group nor their opponents, he correctly foresaw that once the unity of the revolutionary government was broken it would be the prelude to its end. On the twenty-second of July (4 Thermidor) he attempted to patch together a compromise which would preserve the solidarity of the governing committees and, more important, announce that cohesion to the Convention. The plan was to court Saint-Just and Robespierre with an enforcement of the Ventôse decrees in return for abandoning any plans for a purge. Initially the scheme seemed to work, since both Saint-Just and Couthon gave it guarded approval. But it fell apart the following day when Robespierre made his first appearance in three weeks at another joint meeting of the committees. He set much less store than Saint-Just did by the kind of social engineering implied in the Ventôse decrees and his young friend’s Institutions Républicaines. As usual, virtue and terror were uppermost in his mind, and so far from going along with the compromise, he made perfectly plain his unrelenting pursuit of villains in both committees.

Robespierre appeared to be isolated since Barère persuaded Saint-Just, despite Robespierre’s intractability, to deliver a report to the Convention advertising the government’s unity and saying little or nothing about the Supreme Being. Saint-Just also – perhaps fatally for him – signed an order dispatching artillery units out of Paris to the Army of the North. But although Robespierre’s own allies seemed to be dividing, he prepared one of his great Manichaean appeals distinguishing between the forces of light and darkness. In the last resort, he believed it was inconceivable that Saint-Just would desert the man he had written to so adoringly in 1789.

Just such an oration, two hours long, was brought to the Convention on July 26 (8 Thermidor). Robespierre started innocuously enough by declaring that “the French Revolution is the first that will have been founded on the rights of humanity and the principles of justice. Other revolutions required only ambition; ours requires virtue.” But he then went on, at first opaquely and then transparently, to warn the assembly that a conspiracy was brewing that threatened the Republic with ruin. Defending himself against charges of dictatorship and tyranny, he gradually let the deputies piece together a picture of those he had in mind by alluding to “monsters” who had “plunged patriots into dungeons and carried terror into all ranks and conditions.” They were the true oppressors and tyrants. Resting on the basic doctrines of revolutionary sensibilité, he declared, “I know only two parties, that of good citizens and that of bad citizens. I believe patriotism not to be a matter of party but of the heart.” By the end of the speech, though no names had been named except, oddly enough, Cambon, the head of the Finance Committee, allusions to the inheritors of Chabot, Chaumette and Fabre made it obvious to everyone just who the authors of the “volcanic” conspiracy were.

The speech appeared to be warmly received, but to Robespierre’s evident amazement there then ensued a fierce debate over whether or not it should be printed, as was the custom of the house whenever a major oration had been made. As the argument became more heated, Vadier attacked Robespierre for ridiculing the importance of the Théot “conspiracy” and Cambon defended himself, only to hear his enemy describe his remarks as “as unintelligible as they are extraordinary.” Pressed by another deputy to name those he accused, Robespierre refused to do so, whereupon Amar attacked him for indicting members of the Committee en bloc without letting them have a hearing. Seeing the session disintegrate into bitter hostilities, Barère attempted to wind up the debate, which he said “can only benefit Pitt and the Duke of York.” (If he had ever read the proceedings of the Convention, the Duke would have been astonished to discover what a major part he played in its debates.)

That evening Robespierre delivered the same speech at the Jacobins, where he received a tremendous ovation. Collot d’Herbois, who was then in the president’s chair, and Billaud-Varennes both tried to defend themselves and turn the attack, but found themselves isolated and drowned out with cries for their expulsion and, more ominously, “à la guillotine.” They were, however, far from finished. During the course of his speech Robespierre had included his usual rhetorical tactic of offering his personal sacrifice for the good of the patrie. This time they would take him up on the offer.

The following morning, July 27 (9 Thermidor), Saint-Just, as agreed, began a speech which was to have been on the political situation facing the government. But in the time that had passed since Barère suggested he do that, the political climate had abruptly changed, and seeing him working through the night on the speech in the offices of the Committee, Billaud and Carnot knew that, far from an anodyne statement on unity, they could expect a tirade of dangerous denunciation. Saint-Just had hardly reached his first obligatory reference to the Tarpeian rocks when he was, by previous agreement, interrupted by Tallien condemning Robespierre for having departed from the collective leadership to make a speech “in his own name.” Billaud-Varennes followed with a more pointed denunciation of a threat by Robespierre against members of the committees and the Convention. Astonishingly, instead of Saint-Just launching one of the counter-attacks for which he was much feared, his eloquence seemed to dissolve. He sat wanly in his seat while the accusations mounted. Seeing his defense falling apart, Robespierre attempted to secure the tribune for himself but was shouted down. The moment of complete collapse was perhaps not when his arrest was called for by an obscure deputy but when Vadier held up the standard devices of his rhetoric to ridicule. “To hear Robespierre, he is the only defender of liberty; he is giving it up for lost; he is a man of rare modesty and he has a perpetual refrain ‘I am oppressed; they won’t give me the floor’ and he is the only one with anything useful to say, for his will is always done. He says ‘so and so conspires against me, I who am the best friend of the Republic.’ That is news.” The one weapon against which Robespierre was helpless then struck him down: laughter. When words failed him, a deputy shouted, “The blood of Danton chokes him!”

The day was not yet won, however. Prudently, the Thermidorians had decided to arrest not just Robespierre, Couthon, Saint-Just and Le Bas but Hanriot, the commandant of the Guard, as well. But once the Commune heard of the proceedings, it refused to open any of its prisons to take the men and began, rather tardily, to mobilize the machinery of popular insurrection. The difficulty with this was that the Terror had damaged that machinery by executing its major operatives and filling the sections with spies and trusties, and it no longer really worked. Of the forty-eight sections, only twenty-four actually asked the Commune for instructions and only thirteen sent troops as the tocsin rang. They were enough, however, to liberate the five men and for General Coffinhal to march a substantial number against the Convention itself. For a while, some of the deputies believed themselves to be lost and prepared to be fired on. But the unity of the anti-Robespierristes held, almost certainly because, for the first time, they knew they could mobilize a counter-force from the central and western sections against the Commune. They appointed Barras commander of their own force and declared Robespierre and his associates hors la loi – outlaw. This meant that they could be taken on mere verification of identity and summarily executed within twenty-four hours.

It proved to be the turning point of the day. Disturbed by having to confront a united Convention and clearly intimidated by the frightening outlawry, the troops at the Convention became restive. No orders came from the Commune, so Hanriot decided to withdraw what was left of his force to a station in front of the Hôtel de Ville. When that force in turn melted away at two in the morning, the troops under Barras’ orders took their place and advanced to seize the proscribed deputies, who had taken shelter inside the building. As they did so, a body fell from a window at the feet of the officers. It was Augustin Robespierre, Maxi-milien’s younger brother. Inside, they found the crippled Couthon lying helplessly on the staircase, having fallen down the steps. Inside the hall of the General Council, Le Bas had shot himself and Robespierre’s face and body were covered in blood, his jaw shattered, presumably from a botched attempt at suicide. Saint-Just rose, standing quietly and almost nonchalantly to greet his captors.

The next morning Parisians awoke to discover that the guillotine had been moved back to the place de la Révolution. After summary identification by the Tribunal, seventeen of the Robespierristes were guillotined. Eighty-three members of the Commune and themairie followed in the next two days, making it clear that the victorious party for the moment concurred with Couthon’s claim that “clemency is parricide.” The end of the architects of the Grande Terreur was particularly gruesome, like some mad exorcism of horror. The cripple Couthon was strapped to the plank in appalling pain, his bent limbs smashed from the fall. Saint-Just went to his death every bit the Roman stoic, in which role he had evidently cast himself. Robespierre had spent the night helpless on the table of the Committee of Public Safety, where he had presided in icy discipline so many times. The fastidious prophet of Virtue was thrust onto the plank by Sanson, blood smeared over his coat and blotching his nankeen breeches. To give the blade of the guillotine an unobstructed fall, the executioner tore away the paper bandage that had been holding his jaw together. Animal screams of pain escaped, silenced only by the falling blade.

The days and weeks that followed saw two-way traffic in the prisons of Paris. Jacques-Louis David, as he saw Robespierre attacked on the eighth of Thermidor, had insisted on life imitating art (specifically his art) and had borrowed from his Death of Socratesthe line “Robespierre, if you drink the hemlock I shall follow you.” He did nothing of the sort, of course, and lay low for a while until inevitably he was imprisoned in the Luxembourg. He could count himself fortunate that the numerous artists whose arrest warrants he had signed, including Hubert Robert and Joseph Boze, bore so little grudge. In prison he would paint a tormented, bewildered self-portrait and a lyrical therapeutic landscape of the park seen from his cell window.

On October 24, Hervé de Tocqueville emerged from the Madelonettes. He was just twenty-two years old and his hair had turned snow-white. Reunited with Malesherbes’ granddaughter Louise, he found her undone by the destruction of their family. She would never properly recover but fall into fits of dejection and melancholy. Back at Malesherbes, Hervémanaged to find his two little Chateaubriand nephews, Christian and Louis. They were now orphans at the ages of five and three and Hervé took them in as his own; eleven years later they would be joined by an infant cousin, Alexis.

There was at least one survivor of the Terror who remained gratefully behind bars. At the Jardin des Plantes, barely alive, there lay an old lion. He had been moved to Paris when the Revolution had broken up the royal menagerie at Versailles and when his keeper, aptly named Leroy, had died in 1789. During the height of the Revolution he had had to endure being poked at, laughed at, even spat on for having been not just a “creature of royalty” but the “King of Beasts.” Now he was scruffy and lank; his coat had suffered from mange, and open sores and blisters had appeared on the exposed flesh. But he was at least alive and about to enjoy the fruits of Grégoire’s trumpeted rehabilitation of knowledge, including zoology, as, after all, patriotic. In the meantime, he looked at the English spy who wrote about him (and perhaps sympathized with his fallen heraldic royalty) with a yellow, knowing eye.

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1. Antoine Callet, portrait of Louis XVI in coronation robes

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2. Jacques-Louis David, The Oath of the Horatii, 1785

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3. Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, Marie-Antoinette and her Children

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4. Mirabeau

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5. Antoine Vestier, portrait of Latude, 1789

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6. The capture of the Bastille as seen by one of the combatants, the wine-shop keeper Claude Cholat. Typically for a popular print, all events of the day are compressed into one image.

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7. Model of the Bastille made from its masonry

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8. Louis-Philibert Debucourt, Lafayette as Commandant of the National Guard, 1789

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9. Anonymous drawing, “To Versailles! To Versailles!”; the march of the poissardes to the royal palace

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10. Jacques-Louis David, The Tennis Court Oath

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11. (above right) Pierre Vergniaud

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12. (above) Louis XVI drinks to the health of the nation, June 20, 1792

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13. (right) Jacques-Louis David, drawing of Lepeletier

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14. Anatole Devosge (after Jacques-Louis David), Lepeletier Assassinated

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15. “Matter for reflection for the Crowned Jugglers.” The inscription at the bottom is taken from Robespierre’s letter to his constituents and declares that the execution has “imprinted a grand character on the National Convention and makes it worthy of the confidence of the French.”

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16. Joseph Boze, portrait of Marat

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17. Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Marat

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18. A. Clément (after Boizot), La France Républicaine

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19. De Brehen, portrait of Marie-Antoinette (considerably idealized) in mourning dress in the Temple Prison

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20. Naudet, The Festival of the Supreme Being

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21. Anonymous, Robespierre

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22. Anonymous, Robespierre guillotining the executioner

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