1. The Gods Are Athirst
The Terror was a recurrent mood as well as a specific time. Strictly it should be dated from the Law of Suspects, September 17, 1793, to the execution of Robespierre, July 28, 1794. But there had been the September Terror of 1792; there was to be a “White Terror” in May, 1795; another terror would follow the fall of Napoleon.
The causes of the famous Terror were external danger and internal disorder, leading to public fear and tumult, and begetting martial law. The First Coalition had retaken Mainz (July 23), had invaded Alsace, and had entered Valenciennes, a hundred miles from Paris; Spanish troops had captured Perpignan and Bayonne. French armies were in disarray, French generals were ignoring the orders of their government. On August 29 French royalists surrendered to the British a French fleet, and a precious naval base and arsenal at Toulon. Britannia ruled the waves, and could at leisure appropriate French colonies on three continents. The victorious Allies debated the dismemberment of France, and restored feudal rights as they advanced.53
Internally the Revolution seemed to be breaking apart. The Vendée was aflame with counterrevolutionary ardor; Catholic rebels had defeated the forces of the state at Vihiers (July 18). Aristocrats, at home or as émigrés, were confidently planning restoration. Lyons, Bourges, Nîmes, Marseilles, Bordeaux, Nantes, Brest fell to the revolting Gironde. Class war was rising between rich and poor.
The economy was itself a battlefield. The price controls established on May 4 and September 29 were being defeated by the ingenuity of greed. The urban poor approved the maxima; the peasants and the merchants opposed them, and increasingly refused to grow or distribute the price-limited foods; the city stores, receiving less and less produce from market or field, could satisfy only the foremost few in the queues that daily formed at their doors. Fear of famine ran through Paris and the towns. In Paris, Senlis, Amiens, Rouen the populace came near to overthrowing the government in protest against the shortage of food. On June 25 Jacques Roux led his band of Enragés to the Convention and demanded that all profiteers—among whom he included some deputies—be arrested and made to disgorge their new wealth.
Yours is no democracy, for you permit riches. It is the rich who have reaped, in the last four years, the fruits of the Revolution; it is the merchant aristocracy, more terrible than the nobility, that oppresses us. We see no limit to their extortions, for the price of goods is growing alarmingly. It is time that the death struggle between the profiteers and the workers should come to an end…. Are the possessions of knaves to be more sacred than human life? The necessities of life should be available for distribution by administrative bodies, just as the armed forces are at their disposition. [Nor would it suffice to take a capital levy from the rich, so long as the system is unchanged, for] the capitalist and the merchant will the next day raise an equal sum from the sansculottes … if the monopolies and the power of extortion are not destroyed.54
In slightly less communistic terms Jacques Hébert denounced the bourgeoisie as traitors to the Revolution, and urged the workers to seize power from a negligent or cowardly government. On August 30 a deputy pronounced the magic word: Let Terror be the order of the day.55 On September 5 a crowd from the sections, calling for “war on tyrants, hoarders, and aristocrats,” marched to the headquarters of the Commune in the Hôtel de Ville. The mayor, Jean-Guillaume Pache, and the city procurator, Pierre Chaumette, went with their delegation to the Convention and voiced their demand for a revolutionary army to tour France with a portable guillotine, arrest every Girondin, and compel every peasant to surrender his hoarded produce or be executed on the spot.56
It was in this atmosphere of foreign invasion, and of a revolution within the Revolution, that the Committee of Public Safety built and guided the armies that led France to victory, and the machinery of terror that forged a distraught nation into unity.
On August 23, on bold plans presented by Carnot and Barère, the Convention ordered a levy en masse unparalleled in French history:
From now until such time as its enemies have been driven out of the territory of the Republic, all Frenchmen are permanently requisitioned for the service of the armies. The young shall go and fight, the married men shall forge weapons and transport food, the women shall make tents and clothes and serve in the hospitals, the old men shall have themselves carried into public places to rouse the courage of the warriors and preach hatred of kings and the unity of the nation.
All unmarried men from eighteen to twenty-five years of age were to be drafted into battalions under banners reading: “Le peuple français debout contre les tyrants!” (The French people standing up against the tyrants!).
Soon Paris was transformed into a throbbing arsenal. The gardens of the Tuileries and the Luxembourg were covered with shops producing, among other matériel, some 650 muskets a day. Unemployment vanished. Privately owned weapons, metal, surplus clothing, were requisitioned; thousands of mills were taken over. Capital as well as labor was conscripted; a loan of a billion livres was squeezed from the well-to-do. Contractors were told what to produce; prices were fixed by the government. Overnight, France became a totalitarian state. Copper, iron, saltpeter, potash, soda, sulfur, formerly dependent in part on imports, had now to be found in, taken from, the soil of a France blockaded on every frontier and at every port. Luckily the great chemist Lavoisier (soon to be guillotined) had in 1775 improved the quality, and increased the production, of gunpowder; the French armies had better gunpowder than their enemies. Scientists like Monge, Berthollet, and Fourcroy were called upon to find supplies of needed materials, or to invent substitutes; they were at the head of their fields at the time, and served their country well.
By the end of September France had 500,000 men under arms. Their equipment was still inadequate, their discipline poor, their spirit hesitant; only saints can be enthusiastic about death. Now for the first time propaganda became a state industry, almost a monopoly; Jean-Baptiste Bourchotte, minister of war, paid newspapers to present the nation’s case, and saw to it that copies of these journals were circulated in the army camps, where there was little else to read. Members or representatives of the Committee went to the front to harangue the troops and keep an eye upon the generals. In the first important engagement of the new campaign—at Hondschoote September 6–8, against a force of British and Austrians—it was Debrel, a Committtee commissioner, who turned defeat into victory after General Houchard had proposed retreat. For this and other errors the old soldier was sent to the guillotine on November 14, 1793. Twenty-two other generals, nearly all of the Ancien Régime, were imprisoned for blunders, or apathy, or neglect of the Committee’s instructions. Younger men, brought up in revolution, took their places—men like Hoche, Pichegru, Jourdan, Moreau, who had the viscera to apply Carnot’s policy of persistent attack. At Wattignies, on October 16, when 50,000 French recruits faced 65,000 Austrians, the forty-year-old Carnot shouldered a musket and marched with Jourdan’s men into battle. The victory was not decisive, but it raised the morale of the Revolutionary armies and strengthened the authority of the Committee.
On September 17 the obedient Convention passed the Law of Suspects, empowering the Committee or its agents to arrest, without warning, any returned émigré, any relative of an émigré, any public official suspended and not reinstated, anyone who had given any sign of opposition to the Revolution or the war. It was a harsh law, which forced all but avowed revolutionists—therefore nearly all Catholics and bourgeois—to live in constant fear of arrest, even of death; the Committee justified it as needed to maintain at least an outward unity in a war for national survival. Some émigrés agreed with the Twelve that fear and terror were legitimate instruments of rule in critical situations. The Comte de Montmorin, former foreign minister under Louis XVI, wrote in 1792: “I believe it necessary to punish the Parisians by terrorism.” The Comte de Flachslander argued that French resistance to the Allies would “continue until the Convention has been massacred.” A secretary to the King of Prussia commented on the émigrés: “Their language is horrible. If we are prepared to abandon their fellow citizens to their vengeance, France would soon be no more than one monstrous cemetery.”57
The Convention faced a choice between terror and mercy in the case of the Queen. Putting aside her early extravagance, her intrusion into affairs of state, her known distaste for the populace of Paris (offenses that hardly deserved decapitation), there was no doubt that she had communicated with émigrés and foreign governments in an effort to halt the Revolution and restore the traditional powers of the French monarchy. In these operations she felt that she was using the human right of self-defense; her accusers considered that she had violated laws passed by the elected delegates of the nation, and had committed treason. Apparently she had revealed to the enemies of France the intimate deliberations of the royal Council, even the campaign plans of the Revolutionary armies.
She had borne four children to Louis XVI: a daughter, Marie-Thérèse, now fifteen; a son who had died in infancy; a second son, who had died in 1789; a third son, Louis-Charles, now eight, whom she considered to be Louis XVII. Helped by her daughter and her sister-in-law Élisabeth, she watched in anxiety and then despair as continued confinement broke the health and spirit of the boy. In March, 1793, she was offered a plan for her escape; she refused it because it required her to leave her children behind.58 When the government learned of the abandoned plot it removed the Dauphin from his mother despite her struggles, and kept him in isolation from his relatives. On August 2, 1793, after a year of imprisonment in the Temple, the Queen, her daughter, and her sister-in-law were removed to a room in the Conciergerie—that part of the Palais de Justice which had formerly been occupied by the superintendent of the building. There the “Widow Capet,” as she was called, was treated more kindly than before, even to having a priest come and say Mass in her cell. Later that month she consented to another attempt to escape; it failed; now she was transferred to another room and put under stricter guard.
On September 2 the Committee met to decide her fate. Some members were in favor of keeping her alive as a pawn to be surrendered to Austria in return for an acceptable peace. Barère and Saint-André called for her execution as a means of uniting the signers of the sentence with a bond of blood. Hébert, from the Commune, told the Twelve, “I have in your name promised the head of Antoinette to the sansculottes, who are clamoring for it, and without whose support you yourselves would cease to exist…. I will go and cut it off myself if I have to wait much longer for it.”59
On October 12 the Queen submitted to a long preliminary examination; and on October 14 and 15 she was tried before the Revolutionary Tribunal, with Fouquier-Tinville as chief prosecutor. She was questioned from 8 A.M. to 4 P.M. and from 5 to 11 P.M. on the first day, and from 9 A.M. to 3 P.M. on the next. She was accused of transferring millions of francs from the French Treasury to her brother Joseph II of Austria, and with inviting alien forces to invade France; and it was suggested, for good measure, that she had tried to “corrupt” her son sexually. Only the last accusation unnerved her; she replied, “Nature refuses to answer such a charge brought against a mother. I appeal to all mothers here.” The audience was moved by the sight of this woman, whose youthful beauty and gaiety had been the talk of Europe, now white-haired at thirty-eight, clad in mourning for her husband, fighting for her life with courage and dignity against men who were apparently resolved to break her spirit with a protracted ordeal merciless to both body and mind. When it was over she was blind with fatigue, and had to be helped to her cell. There she learned that the verdict was death.
Now in solitary confinement, she wrote a letter of farewell to Madame Élisabeth, asking her to transmit to her son and daughter the directions the King had left for them. “My son,” she wrote, “must never forget his father’s last words, which I expressly repeat to him: ‘Never seek to avenge my death.’ “60 The letter was not delivered to Madame Élisabeth; it was intercepted by Fouquier-Tinville, who gave it to Robespierre, among whose secret papers it was found after his death.
On the morning of October 16, 1793, the executioner, Henri Sanson, came to her cell, bound her hands behind her back, and cut off her hair at the neck. She was taken in a cart along a street lined with soldiers, past hostile, taunting crowds, to the Place de la Révolution. At noon Sanson held up her severed head to the multitude.
Having struck its stride, the Revolutionary Tribunal now issued death sentences at the rate of seven per day.61 All available aristocrats were seized, and many were executed. The twenty-one Girondins who had been under guard since June 2 were put on trial on October 24; the eloquence of Vergniaud and Brissot availed them not; all were granted a quick and early death. One of them, Valazé, stabbed himself as he left the court; his dead body was placed among the condemned and carted to the scaffold, where it took its turn under the indifferent blade. “The Revolution,” said Vergniaud, “is like Saturn, it is devouring its own children.”62
Consider the wrath and fear that these events must have brought to Manon Roland, now awaiting her fate in the Conciergerie, which had become a steppingstone to the guillotine. Her imprisonment had had some amenities; friends brought her books and flowers; she collected in her cell a little library centered around Plutarch and Tacitus. As a stronger anodyne she immersed herself in writing her recollections, terming them an Appel à l’impartiale postérité—as if posterity too would not be divided. As she described her youth the remembrance of tempi felici made bitterer her contemplation of present days. So she wrote, on August 28, 1793:
I feel my resolution to pursue these memories deserting me. The miseries of my country torment me; an involuntary gloom penetrates my soul, chilling my imagination. France has become a vast Golgotha of carnage, an arena of horrors, where her children tear and destroy one another…. Never can history paint these dreadful times, or the monsters that fill them with their barbarities…. What Rome or Babylon ever equaled Paris?63
Foreseeing that her turn would come soon, she wrote into her manuscript a word of farewell to her husband and to her lover, who had as yet escaped the snares prepared for them:
O my friends, may propitious fate conduct you to the United States, the sole asylum of freedom.*… And you, my spouse and companion, enfeebled by premature old age, eluding with difficulty the assassins, shall I be permitted to see you again? … How long must I remain a witness to the desolation of my native land, the degradation of my countrymen?64
Not long. On November 8, 1793, before the Revolutionary Tribunal, she was charged with complicity in Roland’s alleged misuse of public funds, and with having sent from her cell letters of encouragement to Barbaroux and Buzot, who were then inciting revolt against the Jacobin control over the Convention. When she spoke in her own defense the carefully selected spectators denounced her as a traitress. She was declared guilty and was guillotined on the same day in the Place de la Révolution. An uncertain tradition tells how, looking at the statue of Liberty that David had set up in the majestic square, she cried out, “O Liberty, what crimes are committed in your name!”65
A procession of revolutionaries followed her. On November 10 came the mayor-astronomer Bailly, who had given the red cockade to the King, and had ordered the National Guard to fire upon the untimely petitioners on the Champ-de-Mars. On November 12 the guillotine caught up with Philippe Égalité; he could not make out why the Montagnards wished to dispatch so faithful an ally; but he had the blood of kings in his veins, and had itched for a throne; who could tell when that itch would frenzy him again? Then, on November 29, Antoine Barnave, who had tried to protect and guide the Queen. Then Generals Custine, Houchard, Biron …
Roland, having thanked the friends who had risked their lives to protect him, set out alone on a walk, November 16, sat down against a tree, and wrote a note of farewell: “Not fear but indignation made me quit my retreat, on learning that my wife had been murdered. I did not wish to remain longer on an earth polluted with crimes.”66 Then he forced his sword into his body. Condorcet, after writing a paean to progress, took poison (March 28, 1794). Barbaroux shot himself, survived, and was guillotined (June 15). Pétion and Buzot, pursued by agents of the government, killed themselves in a field near Bordeaux. Their bodies were found on June 18, half devoured by wolves.
2. The Terror in the Provinces
There were other Girondins, still wearing heads. In some towns, like Bordeaux and Lyons, they had gained the upper hand; they had to be wiped out, the Jacobins felt, if their moves toward provincial autonomy were to be overcome and France made one and Jacobin. For this and other purposes the Committee of Public Safety sent out over France its “representatives on mission,” and gave them, subject to itself, almost absolute authority in their allotted terrain. They might depose elected officials, appoint others, arrest suspects, draft men for the Army, levy taxes, enforce price controls, exact loans, requisition produce, clothing, or materials, and set up or confirm local committees of public safety to serve as agencies of the Great Committee in Paris. The representatives accomplished miracles of revolutionary and military organization, often amid a hostile or apathetic environment. They put down opposition without mercy, sometimes with enthusiastic excess.
The most successful of them was Saint-Just. On October 17, 1793, he and Joseph Lebas (who gladly let him take the lead) were dispatched to save Alsace from an Austrian invasion that was making rapid conquests in a territory congenitally German by language, literature, and ways. The French Army of the Rhine had been thrown back upon Strasbourg, and was in a mood of defeatism and mutiny. Saint-Just learned that the troops had been tyrannically treated, badly led, and perhaps betrayed, by officers inadequately enamored of the Revolution; he had seven of them executed before the assembled force. He listened to grievances, and remedied them with characteristic decisiveness. He requisitioned from the prosperous classes all surplus shoes, coats, overcoats, and hats, and from the 193 richest citizens he extracted nine million livres. Incompetent or apathetic officials were dismissed; convicted grafters were shot. When the French army met the Austrians again the invaders were driven out of Alsace, and the province was restored to French control. Saint-Just returned to Paris, eager for other tasks, and almost forgetting that he was engaged to the sister of Lebas.
Joseph Le Bon did not live up to his name as Committee representative. Warned by his employers to beware of “false and mistaken humanity,” the blue-eyed ex-curé thought to please them by “shortening” 150 Cambrai notables in six weeks, and 392 in Arras; his secretary reported that Le Bon killed “in a sort of fever” and, on reaching home, mimicked the facial contortions of the dying to amuse his wife.67 He himself was cut short in 1795.
In July, 1793, Jean-Baptiste Carrier was commissioned to suppress the Catholic revolt in the Vendée, and to make Nantes secure against further rebellion. Hérault de Séchelles, of the Committee, explained to him, “We can become humane when we are certain of victory.”68 Carrier was inspired. In a moment of ecological enthusiasm he declared that France could not feed its rapidly growing population, and that it would be desirable to cure the excess by cutting down all nobles, priests, merchants, and magistrates. At Nantes he objected to trial as a waste of time; all these suspects (he commanded the judge) “must be eliminated in a couple of hours, or I will have you and your colleagues shot.”69 Since the prisons at Nantes were crowded almost to asphyxiation by those arrested and condemned, and there was a shortage of food, he ordered his aides to fill barges, rafts, and other craft with fifteen hundred men, women and children—giving priority to priests—and to have these vessels scuttled in the Loire. By this and other means he disposed of four thousand undesirables in four months.70 He justified himself by what seemed to him the laws of war; the Vendéans were in revolt, and every one of them would remain an enemy of the Revolution till death. “We will make France a graveyard,” he vowed, “rather than not regenerate it in our own way.”71 The Committee had to restrain his fervor by threatening to arrest him. He was not frightened; in any case, he said, “we shall all be guillotined, one after another.” In November, 1794, he was summoned before the Revolutionary Tribunal, and on December 16 he illustrated his prophecy.
Stanislas Fréron (son of Voltaire’s favorite enemy) and other agents of the Committee rouged the Rhone and the Var with the blood of the unconverted: 120 at Marseilles, 282 at Toulon, 332 at Orange.72 By contrast Georges Couthon was the quality of mercy on his mission to gather recruits for the Army in the department of Puy-de-Dôme. At Clermont-Ferrand he reorganized the industries into concentration on the production of matériel for the new regiments. When the citizens saw that he wielded his authority with justice and humanity they became so fond of him that they took turns in carrying him in his chair. During his mission not one person was executed by “revolutionary justice.”73
Joseph Fouché, once a professor of Latin and physics, was now thirty-four years old, not yet Balzac’s “ablest man I’ve ever met.”74 He seemed made for intrigue: lean, angular, tight-lipped, sharp of eye and nose, sober, secret, silent, tough; he was to rival Talleyrand in rapid transformations and devious survivals. To outward observances he was a dutiful family man, as modest in his habits as he was bold in his ideas. In 1792 he was elected to the Convention from Nantes. At first he sat and voted with the Gironde; then, foreseeing its fall and the supremacy of Paris, he moved up to the Mountain and issued a pamphlet calling upon the Revolution to pass from its bourgeois to a proletarian phase. To advance the war, he argued, the government should “take everything beyond what a citizen needs; for superfluity is an obvious and gratuitous violation of the rights of the people.” All gold and silver should be confiscated until the war ended. “We shall be harsh in the fullness of the authority delegated to us. The time for half-measures … is over…. Help us to strike hard blows.”75 As representative on mission in the department of Loire Inférieure, and especially in Nevers and Moulins, Fouché opened war on private property. By requisitioning money, precious metal, weapons, clothing, and food, he was able to equip the ten thousand recruits whom he had enlisted. He ransacked the churches of their gold and silver monstrances, vessels, candelabra, and sent these to the Convention. The Committee found it unprofitable to check his ardor, and judged him just the man to help Collot d’Herbois in restoring Lyons to the revolutionary faith.
Lyons was almost the capital of French capitalism. Among its 130,000 souls were financiers with connections all over France, merchants having outlets all over Europe, captains of industry controlling a hundred factories, and a large body of proletaires who heard with envy how their own class in Paris had almost captured the government. At the beginning of 1793, under the leadership of the ex-priest Marie-Joseph Chalier, they achieved a similar victory. But religion proved stronger than class. At least half the workers were still Catholic, and resented the anti-Christian turn of Jacobin policy; when the bourgeoisie mobilized its diverse forces against the proletarian dictatorship, the workers divided, and a coalition of businessmen, royalists, and Girondins expelled the radical government and put to death Chalier and two hundred of his followers (July 16, 1793). Thousands of workingmen left the city, settled in the environs, and waited for the next turn of the Revolutionary screw.
The Committee of Public Safety sent an army to overthrow the victorious capitalists. Couthon, legless, came from Clermont to lead it; on October 9 it forced its way in, and reestablished Jacobin rule. Couthon thought a policy of mercy advisable in a city whose population so largely depended upon continued operation of the factories and the shops, but the Paris Committee thought otherwise. On October 12 it put through the Convention, and sent to Couthon, a directive composed by Robespierre in a fury of revenge for Chalier and the two hundred executed radicals. It read in part: “The city of Lyons shall be destroyed. Every habitation of the rich shall be demolished…. The name of Lyons shall be effaced from the list of the Republic’s cities. The collection of houses left standing shall henceforth bear the name of Ville Affranchisée [the Liberated City]. On the ruins of Lyons shall be raised a column attesting to posterity the crimes and the punishment of the royalists.”76
Couthon did not relish the operation here assigned him. He condemned one of the more expensive dwellings to demolition, and then was borne off to more congenial labors at Clermont-Ferrand. He was replaced at Lyons (November 4) by Collot d’Herbois, who was soon joined by Fouché. They began with a mock-religious ceremony in commemoration of Chalier as the “savior-god who had died for the people”; leading the procession was a donkey garbed as a bishop bearing a miter on his head and dragging a crucifix and a Bible on his tail; in a public square the martyr was honored by eulogies, and a bonfire was made of the Bible, a missal, sacramental wafers, and wooden images of sundry saints.77 For the revolutionary purification of Lyons Collot and Fouché created a “Temporary Commission” of twenty members, and a tribunal of seven to try suspects. The commission issued a declaration of principles which has been called “the first communist manifesto” of modern times.78 It proposed to ally the Revolution with the “immense class of the poor”; it denounced nobility and bourgeoisie, and told the workers: “You have been oppressed; you must crush your oppressors!” All products of French soil belonged to France; all private wealth must be put at the service of the Republic; and as a first step toward social justice a tax of thirty thousand livres must be taken from anyone having an income of ten thousand per year. Large sums were raised by jailing nobles, priests, and others, and confiscating their property.
This declaration was not well received by the people of Lyons, a considerable minority of whom had risen into the middle class. On November 10 a petition signed by ten thousand women recommended mercy for the thousands of men and women who had been crowded into the jails. The commissioners replied sternly, “Shut yourselves up in the privacy of your household tasks…. Let us see no more of the tears that dishonor you.”79 On December 4, perhaps to make matters clear, sixty prisoners, condemned by the new tribunal, were marched out to an open space across the Rhone, were stationed between two trenches, and were buried by successive mitraillades—showers of slugs or grapeshot from a row of cannon. On the next day, at the same spot, 209 prisoners, tied together, were mowed down by a similar mitraillade; and on December 7 two hundred more. Thereafter the slaughter proceeded more leisurely by guillotine, yet so rapidly that the stench of the dead began to poison the city air. By March, 1794, the executions in Lyons had reached 1,667—two thirds of them of the middle or upper class.80 Hundreds of expensive homes were laboriously destroyed.81
On December 20, 1793, a deputation of citizens from Lyons appeared before the Convention to ask for an end to the vengeance; but Collot had beaten them to Paris, and successfully defended his policy. Fouché, left in charge of Lyons, continued the Terror. Learning that Toulon had been recaptured, he wrote to Collot: “We have only one way of celebrating victory. This evening we send 213 rebels under the fire of the lightning bolt.”82 On April 3, 1794, Fouché was recalled to give an account of himself before the Convention. He escaped punishment, but never forgave Robespierre for accusing him of barbarity; someday he would take his revenge.
The Committee of Public Safety slowly recognized that the provincial Terror had been carried to a costly excess. In this matter Robespierre was a moderating influence; he took the lead in recalling Carrier, Fréron, Tallien, and requiring an accounting of their operations. The provincial Terror ended in May, 1794, while it was being intensified in Paris. By the time Robespierre himself had become its victim (July 27–28, 1794) it had taken 2,700 lives in Paris, 18,000 in France;83 other guessers raise the total to 40,000.84Those jailed as suspects amounted to some 300,000. As the property of the executed reverted to the state, it was a profitable Terror.
3. The War Against Religion
Now the deepest division was between those who treasured religious faith as their final support in a world otherwise unintelligible, meaningless, and tragic and those who had come to think of religion as a managed and costly superstition blocking the road to reason and liberty. This division was deepest in the Vendée—coastal France between the Loire and La Rochelle—where the dour weather, the rocky, arid soil, the repetitious trajectory of births and deaths, left the population almost immune to the wit of Voltaire and the winds of the Enlightenment. Townsmen and peasants accepted the Revolution; but when the Constituent Assembly promulgated the Civil Constitution of the Clergy—confiscating the property of the Church, making all priests the employees of the state, and requiring them to swear fidelity to the regime that had shorn them—the peasants supported their priests in refusing assent. The call to their youth to volunteer, or be conscripted, for the Army set fire to the revolt; why should these boys gives their lives to protect an infidel government rather than their priests and altars and household gods?
So, on March 4, 1793, rioting broke out in the Vendée; nine days later it had spread throughout the region; by May 1 there were thirty thousand rebels under arms. Several royalist nobles joined the rural leaders in turning these recruits into disciplined troops; before the Convention realized their strength they had taken Thouars, Fontenay, Saumur, Angers. In August the Committee of Public Safety sent into the Vendée an army under General Kléber, with instructions to destroy the peasant forces and devastate all regions supporting them. Kléber defeated the Catholic army at Cholet on October 17, and crushed it at Savenay on December 23. Military commissions from Paris were set up in Angers, Nantes, Rennes, and Tours, with orders to put to death any Vendéan bearing arms; at or near Angers 463 men were shot in twenty days. Before the Vendéans were subdued by Marshal Hoche (July, 1796), half a million lives had been lost in this new religious war.
In Paris much of the population had become indifferent to religion. In this regard there had been a frail accord between the Mountain and the Gironde; they had joined in reducing the power of the clergy, and in establishing a pagan calendar. They had encouraged the marriage of priests, even to decreeing deportation for any bishop who had tried to prevent it. Under protection of the Revolution some two thousand priests and five hundred nuns took mates.85
The Committee’s representatives on mission usually made de-Christianization a special element in their procedure. One ordered a priest imprisoned until he married. At Nevers, Fouché issued rigorous rules for the clergy: they must marry, must live simply like the Apostles, must not wear clerical dress, or perform religious ceremonies, outside their churches; Christian funeral services were abolished, and cemeteries must display an inscription telling the public that “death is an eternal sleep.” He prevailed upon an archbishop and thirty priests to throw away their cowls and don the red cap of revolution. In Moulins he rode at the head of a procession in which he smashed all crosses, crucifixes, and religious images en route.86 In Clermont-Ferrand Couthon proclaimed that the religion of Christ had been turned into a financial imposture. By hiring a physician to make tests before the public, he showed that the “blood of Christ” in a miracle-producing phial was merely colored turpentine. He ended the state payment of priests, confiscated the gold and silver vessels of the churches, and announced that churches that could not be transformed into schools might with his approval be torn down to build houses for the poor. He proclaimed a new theology in which Nature would be God, and heaven would be an earthly utopia in which all men would be good.87
The leaders of the campaign against Christianity were Hébert of the Paris City Council and Chaumette of the Paris Commune. Warmed by Chaumette’s oratory and Hébert’s journalism, a crowd of sansculottes invaded the Abbey of St.-Denis on October 16, 1793, emptied the coffins of French royalty there entombed, and melted the metal for use in the war. On November 6 the Convention accorded the communes of France the right to officially renounce the Christian Church. On November 10 men and women from the working-class quarters and the ideological haunts of Paris paraded through the streets in mock religious dress and procession; they entered the hall of the Convention and prevailed upon the deputies to pledge attendance at that evening’s fete in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame—renamed the Temple of Reason. There a new sanctuary had been arranged, in which Mile. Candeille of the Opéra, robed in a tricolor flag and crowned with a red cap, stood as the Goddess of Liberty, attended by persuasive ladies who sang a “Hymn to Liberty” composed for the occasion by Marie-Joseph de Chénier. The worshipers danced and sang in the naves, while in the side chapels, said hostile reporters, profiteers of freedom celebrated the rites of love.88 On November 17 Jean-Baptiste Gobel, bishop of Paris, yielding to popular demand, appeared before the Convention, abjured his office, handed over to the president his episcopal crozier and ring, and donned the red cap of freedom.89 On November 23 the Commune ordered all Christian churches in Paris closed.90
The Convention, on second thought, wondered had it not overplayed its anti-Christian hand. The deputies were nearly all agnostics, pantheists, or atheists, but several of them questioned the wisdom of infuriating sincere Catholics, who were still in the majority, and many of them ready to take up arms against the Revolution. Some, like Robespierre and Carnot, felt that religion was the only force that could prevent repeated social upheavals against inequalities too deeply rooted in nature to be removed by legislation. Robespierre believed that Catholicism was an organized exploitation of superstition,91 but he rejected atheism as an immodest assumption of impossible knowledge. On May 8, 1793, he had condemned the philosophes as hypocrites who scorned the commonalty and angled for pensions from kings. On November 21, at the height of the de-Christianizing festivities, he told the Convention:
Every philosopher and every individual may adopt whatever opinion he pleases about atheism. Anyone who wishes to make such an opinion a crime is absurd, but the public man or the legislator who should adopt such a system would be a hundred times more foolish still….
Atheism is aristocratic. The idea of a great Being who watches over oppressed innocence and punishes triumphant crime is essentially the idea of the people. This is the sentiment of Europe and the world; it is the sentiment of the French people. That notion is attached neither to priests nor to superstition nor to ceremonies; it is attached only to the idea of an incomprehensible Power, the terror of wrongdoers, the stay and comfort of virtue.92
Danton here agreed with Robespierre: “We never intended to annihilate the reign of superstition in order to set up the reign of atheism…. I demand that there be an end of those antireligious masquerades in the Convention.”93
On December 6, 1793, the Convention reaffirmed freedom of worship, and guaranteed the protection of religious ceremonies conducted by loyal priests. Hébert protested that he too rejected atheism, but he joined the forces that aimed to reduce Robespierre’s popularity. Robespierre saw him now as a major enemy, and waited for a chance to destroy him.*
4. The Revolution Eats Its Children
Hébert’s strength lay in the sansculottes, who might be marshaled through the sections and the radical press to invade the Convention and restore the rule of Paris over France. Robespierre’s strength, formerly based in the Parisian populace, now lay in the Committee of Public Safety, which dominated the Convention through superior facilities for information, decision, and action.
In November, 1793, the Committee was at the peak of its repute, partly because of the successful levy en masse, but especially because of military triumphs on several fronts. The new generals—Jourdan, Kellermann, Kléber, Hoche, Pichegru—were sons of the Revolution, untrammeled by old rules and tactics or faded loyalties; they had under their command a million men still inadequately armed and trained but roused to valor by the thought of what might happen to them and their families if the enemy should break through the French lines. They were checked at Kaiserslautern, but they recovered and took Landau and Speyer. They drove the Spaniards back over the Pyrenees. And, with the help of the young Napoleon, they recaptured Toulon.
Since August 26 a motley force of English, Spanish, and Neapolitan troops, protected by an Anglo-Spanish fleet and abetted by local conservatives, had held that port and arsenal, strategically located on the Mediterranean. For three months a revolutionary army had laid siege to it, to no avail. A promontory, Cap l’Aiguillette, divided the harbor and overlooked the arsenal; to gain that point would be to command the situation; but the British had blocked the land approach to the cape with a fort so strongly armed that they called it Little Gibraltar. Bonaparte, aged twenty-four, saw at once that if the hostile squadron could be forced to leave the harbor, the occupying garrison, losing supplies from the sea, would have to abandon the town. By resolute and risky reconnoitering he found, in the jungle, a place from which his artillery could with some safety bombard the bastion. When his cannon had demolished its walls a battalion of French troops stormed the fort, slew its defenders, captured or replaced its guns. These were brought into action upon the enemy fleet; Lord Hood ordered the garrison to abandon the city, and his ships to depart; and on December 19, 1793, the French Army restored Toulon to France. Augustin Robespierre, the local representative of the Committee, wrote to his brother praising the “transcendent merit” of the young artillery captain. A new epic began.
These victories, and those of Kléber in the Vendée, freed the Committee to deal with internal problems. There was an allegedly “foreign plot” to assassinate the revolutionary leaders, but no convincing evidence was found. Corruption was spreading in the production and delivery of army supplies; “in the Army of the South there are thirty thousand pairs of breeches wanting—a most scandalous want.”95 Speculation was helping market manipulation to run up the prices of goods. A governmental maximum had been set for the prices of important products, but producers complained that they could not keep to these prices if wages were not similarly controlled. Inflation was checked for a time, but peasants, manufacturers, and merchants cut down production, and unemployment increased while prices rose. As supplies ran low, housewives had to stand in one line after another for bread, milk, meat, butter, oil, soap, candles, and wood. Queues formed as early as midnight; men and women lay in doorways or on the pavement while waiting for the shop to open and the procession to move. Here and there hungry prostitutes offered their wares along the line.96 In many cases strong-arm groups invaded the stores and marched away with the goods. Municipal services broke down; crime flourished; police were scarce; uncollected refuse strewed and fouled the streets. Like conditions harassed Rouen, Lyons, Marseilles, Bordeaux …
Arguing that the Committee had mismanaged the economy, and that profiteers had seized the ship of state, the sansculottes of Paris, who had been the mainstay of Robespierre, transferred their support to Hébert and Chaumette, and listened avidly to proposals for the nationalization of all property, all wealth, or at least all land. One section leader proposed to cure economic distress by putting all rich people to death.97 By 1794 it was a common complaint, among workingmen, that the bourgeoisie had walked off with the Revolution.
Toward the end of ’93 new challenges to the Committee came from a powerful revolutionary leader and a brilliant journalist. Despite the pretended ferocity of Danton there was in him an amiable streak that winced at the execution of the Queen and the violence of the Terror. On his return from Arcis he judged that the expulsion of invaders from the soil of France and the execution of the most active enemies of the Revolution left little reason for continued terror or war. When Britain offered peace he advised acceptance. Robespierre refused, and intensified the Terror on the ground that the government was still beset by disloyalty, conspiracy, and corruption. Camille Desmoulins, once secretary to Danton, long his admiring friend, and, like him, enjoying a happy marriage, made his journal, Le Vieux Cordelier, the mouthpiece of the “Indulgents,” or pacifiers, and called for an end to the Terror.
Liberty is no nymph of the opera, nor a red cap, nor a dirty shirt and rags. Liberty is happiness, reason, equality, justice, the Declaration of Rights, your sublime Constitution [still hibernating].
Would you have me recognize this liberty, have me fall at her feet, and shed all my blood for her? Then open the prison doors to the 200,000 citizens whom you call suspects…. Do not think that such a measure would be fatal to the public. It would, on the contrary, be the most revolutionary that you could adopt. You would exterminate all your enemies by the guillotine? But was there ever greater madness? Can you destroy one enemy on the scaffold without making two others among his family and friends?
I am of a very different opinion from those who claim that it is necessary to leave the Terror the order of the day. I am confident that liberty will be assured, and Europe conquered, as soon as you have a Committee of Clemency.98
Robespierre, heretofore friendly to Desmoulins, was alarmed by this appeal to open the prisons. Those aristocrats, priests, speculators, and swelling bourgeois—would they not, if released, resume all the more confidently their schemes to exploit or destroy the Republic? He was convinced that the fear of arrest, speedy condemnation, and a ghastly death was the only force that would keep the enemies of the Revolution from plotting its fall. He suspected that Danton’s sudden quality of mercy was a ruse to save from the guillotine some associates lately arrested for malfeasance, and to protect Danton himself from exposure of his relations with these men. Some of them—Fabre d’Églantine and François Chabot—were tried on January 17, 1794, and were found guilty. Robespierre concluded that Danton and Desmoulins were bent on unseating and putting an end to the Committee. He concluded that he would never be safe as long as these old friends of his were alive.
He kept his foes disunited, and played their opposed factions against each other; he encouraged the attacks of Danton and Desmoulins upon Hébert, and welcomed their aid in opposing the war against religion. Hébert countered by supporting the riots of townspeople against the cost and scarcity of food; he condemned both the government and the Indulgents; on March 4, 1794, he denounced Robespierre by name, and on March 11 his followers at the Cordeliers Club openly threatened insurrection. A majority of the Committee agreed with Robespierre that the time had come to act. Hébert, Cloots, and several others were arrested, and were tried on a charge of malfeasance in the distribution of provisions to the people. It was a subtle accusation, for it left the sansculottes doubtful of their new leaders; and before they could decide upon revolt the men were condemned, and were quickly led to the guillotine (March 24). Hébert broke down and wept; Cloots, Teutonically calm as he waited for his turn to die, called to the crowd, “My friends, don’t confuse me with these rascals.”99
Danton must have realized that he had been used as a tool against Hébert, and was now of little value to the Committee. Even so he continued to alienate the Committee by advocating mercy and peace—policies requiring the members to repudiate the Terror that had preserved them and the war that had excused their dictatorship. He urged an end to the killing; “Let us,” he said, “leave something to the guillotine of opinion.” He still planned educational projects and judiciary reforms. And he remained defiant. Someone told him that Robespierre was planning his arrest; “If I thought he had even the idea of it,” he answered, “I would eat his heart out.”100 In the almost “state of nature” to which the Terror had reduced France many men felt that they had to eat or be eaten. His friends urged him to take the initiative and attack the Committee before the Convention. But he was too tired in nerve and will to follow his own historic summons to audacity; he was exhausted by breasting, through four years, the waves of the Revolution, and now he let the undertow carry him away unresisting. “I would rather be guillotined than guillotine others,” he said (it had not always been so); “and, besides, I am sick of the human race.”101
It was apparently Billaud-Varenne who took the initiative in recommending death for Danton. Many members of the Committee agreed with him that to allow the campaign of the Indulgents to go on was to surrender the Revolution to its enemies at home and abroad. Robespierre was for a time reluctant to conclude that the life of Danton should be summarily shortened. He shared with the other members of the Committee the belief that Danton had allowed some moneys of the state to stick to his fingers, but he recognized the services that Danton had rendered to the Revolution, and he feared that a sentence of death for one of its greatest figures would lead to insurrection in the sections and the National Guard.
During this period of Robespierre’s hesitation Danton visited him two or three times, not only to defend his financial record but to convert the somber patriot to the policy of ending the Terror and seeking peace. Robespierre remained unconvinced, and grew more hostile. He helped Saint-Just (whom Danton had often ridiculed) to prepare the case against his greatest rival. On March 30 he joined the Committee of Public Safety and the Committee of General Security in their united resolve to secure from the Revolutionary Tribunal a sentence of death for Danton, Desmoulins, and twelve men lately convicted of embezzlement. A friend of “the Titan” rushed the news to him and urged him to leave Paris and hide himself in the provinces. He refused. The next morning the police arrested him and Desmoulins, who lived on the floor above him. Imprisoned in the Conciergerie, he remarked, “On a day like this I organized the Revolutionary Tribunal…. I ask pardon for it of God and man…. In revolutions authority remains with the greatest scoundrels.”102
On April 1, Louis Legendre, recently a representative on mission, proposed to the deputies that Danton be sent for from prison and allowed to defend himself before the Convention. Robespierre stopped him with an ominous glare. “Danton,” he cried, “is not privileged…. We shall see this day whether the Convention will be able to destroy a pretended idol long since rotted away.”103 Then Saint-Just read the bill of charges that he had prepared. The deputies, each mindful of his own safety, ordered that Danton and Desmoulins be brought immediately to trial.
On April 2 they were led before the Tribunal. Perhaps to confuse the issues, they were made part of a batch of men including Fabre d’Églantine, other “conspirators” or embezzlers, and—to the general surprise as well as his own—Hérault de Séchelles, suave member of the Committee, now accused of association with the Hébertists and the foreign plot. Danton defended himself with force and satirical wit, which made such an impression on the jury and spectators104 that Fouquier-Tinville dispatched an appeal to the Committee for a decree that would silence the defense. The Committee obliged by sending to the Convention a charge that the followers of Danton and Desmoulins were, with their knowledge, plotting to rescue them by force; on this basis the Convention declared the two men to be outlaws—which meant that, being “outside the (protection of the) law,” they might now be killed without due process of law. On receiving this decree the jurymen announced that they had received sufficient testimony, and were ready to render a verdict. The prisoners were returned to their cells; the spectators were dismissed. On April 5 the unanimous verdict was announced: death for all the accused. Hearing it, Danton predicted, “Before these months are out the people will tear my enemies to pieces.”105And again: “Vile Robespierre! The scaffold claims you too. You will follow me.”106 From his cell Desmoulins wrote to his wife: “My beloved Lucile! I was born to make verses and to defend the unfortunate…. My darling, care for your little one; live for my Horace; speak to him of me…. My bound hands embrace you.”107
On the afternoon of April 5 the condemned men were carted to the Place de la Révolution. En route Danton prophesied again: “I leave it all in a frightful welter. Not a man of them has an idea of government. Robespierre will follow me; he is dragged down by me. Ah, better be a poor fisherman than meddle with the governing of men.”108 On the scaffold Desmoulins, near the breaking point of his nerves, was third in the line to death, Danton was the last. He too thought of his young wife, and murmured some words for her, then caught himself: “Come, Danton, no weakness.” As he approached the knife he told the executioner, “Show my head to the people; it is worth it.”109 He was thirty-four years old, Desmoulins too; but they had lived many lives since that July day when Camille called upon the Parisians to take the Bastille. Eight days after their death Lucile Desmoulins, along with Hébert’s widow and Chaumette, followed them to the guillotine.
The slate seemed clear; all the groups that had challenged the Committee of Public Safety had been eliminated or suppressed. The Girondins were dead or dispersed; the sansculottes had been divided and silenced; the clubs—excepting the Jacobin—had been closed; the press and the theater were under strict censorship; the Convention, cowed, left all major decisions to the Committee. Under that tutelage, and instructed by its other committees, the Convention passed laws against hoarders and speculators, proclaimed free, universal primary education, abolished slavery in the French colonies, and established a welfare state with social security, unemployment benefits, medical aid for the poor, and relief for the old. These measures were in large part frustrated by war and chaos, but they remained as ideas to inspire succeeding generations.
Robespierre, his hands incarnadined but free, now attended to restoring God to France. The attempt to replace Christianity with rationalism was turning the country against the Revolution. In Paris the Catholics were rebelling against the closing of the churches and the harassment of priests; more and more of the lower and middle classes were going to Sunday Mass. In one of his eloquent addresses (May 7, 1794) Robespierre argued that the time had come to reunite the Revolution with its spiritual progenitor Rousseau (whose remains had been transferred to the Panthéon on April 14); the state should support a pure and simple religion—essentially that of the Savoyard Vicar in Emile—based upon belief in God and an afterlife, and preaching civic and social virtue as the necessary foundation of a republic. The Convention agreed, hoping that this move would appease the pious and mitigate the Terror; and on June 4 it made Robespierre its president.
In this official capacity, on June 8, 1794, he presided over a “Feast of the Supreme Being,” before 100,000 men, women, and children assembled in the Champ-de-Mars. At the head of a long procession of skeptical deputies the Incorruptible walked with flowers and wheat ears in his hand, to the accompaniment of music and choral song. A great car drawn by milk-white oxen carried sheaves of golden corn; behind it came shepherds and shepherdesses representing Nature (in her fairer moods) as one form and voice of God. On one of the basins that adorned the Field of Mars, David, the leading French artist of the age, had carved in wood a statue of Atheism supported by sculptured vices and crowned with Madness; over against these he had raised a figure of Wisdom triumphant over all. Robespierre, embodiment of virtue, applied a torch to Atheism, but an ill wind diverted the blaze to Wisdom. A magnanimous overall inscription announced: “The French people recognizes the Supreme Being, and the immortality of the soul.”110 Similar ceremonies were held throughout France. Robespierre was happy, but Billaud-Varenne told him, “You begin to bore me with your Supreme Being.”
Two days later Robespierre induced the Convention to decree an astonishing reinforcement of the Terror; it was as if he was answering and defying Danton as, with the Feast, he had rebuked Hébert. The Law of 22 Prairial (June 10, 1794) established the death penalty for advocating monarchy or calumniating the republic; for outraging morality; for giving out false news; for stealing public property; for profiteering or embezzling; for impeding the transport of food; for interfering in any way with the prosecution of the war. Furthermore the decree empowered the courts to decide whether the accused should be allowed counsel, what witnesses should be heard, when the taking of evidence should end.111 “As for myself,” said one juryman, “I am always convinced. In a revolution all who appear before this Tribunal ought to be condemned.”112
Some excuses were given for this intensification of the Terror. On May 22 an attempt had been made on the life of Collot d’Herbois; on May 23 a young man was intercepted in an apparent attempt to assassinate Robespierre. Belief in a foreign plot to kill the leaders of the Revolution led the Convention to decree that no quarter should be given to British or Hanoverian prisoners of war. The prisons of Paris held some eight thousand suspects who might revolt and escape; they had to be immobilized by fear.
So began the especially “Great Terror,” lasting from June 10 to July 27, 1794. In not quite seven weeks 1,376 men and women were guillotined—155 more than in the sixty-one weeks between March, 1793, and June 10, 1794.113 Fouquier-Tinville remarked that heads were falling “like slates from a roof.”114 The people no longer went to executions, these had become so common; rather they stayed home, and watched every word they spoke. Social life nearly ceased; the taverns and brothels were almost empty. The Convention itself was reduced to a skeleton; out of its original 750 deputies only 117 now attended, and many of these abstained from voting lest they compromise themselves. Even Committee members lived in fear that they would fall under the axe of the new triumvirate—Robespierre, Couthon, and Saint-Just.
Probably it was the war that led powerful individuals to submit to so irritating a concentration of authority. In April, 1794, the Prince of Saxe-Coburg had led another army into France, and any defeat of the French defenders could lead to a chaos of fear in Paris. The British blockade was trying to keep American provisions from France, and only the defeat of a British fleet by a French convoy (June 1) enabled precious cargoes to reach Brest. Then a French army threw back the invaders near Charleroi (June 25), and a day later Saint-Just led a French force to a decisive victory at Fleurus. Coburg withdrew from France, and on July 27 Jourdan and Pichegru crossed the frontier to establish French authority in Antwerp and Liège.
This triumphant repulse of the princely incursion may have shared in destroying Robespierre; his multiplying enemies could feel that the country and the Army would survive the shock of an open conflict to the death at the heart of the government. The Committee of General Security was at odds with that of Public Safety over the policing power, and within the latter body Billaud-Varenne, Collot d’Herbois, and Carnot were in rising revolt against Robespierre and Saint-Just. Feeling their hostility, Robespierre avoided Committee meetings between July 1 and 23, hoping that this would cool their resentment of his leadership; but it gave them more opportunity to plan his fall. Moreover, his strategy faltered: on July 23 he made enemies of former supporters by yielding to the plaints of businessmen and signing a decree establishing maximum wages for labor; in effect, because of depreciated currency, the decree lowered some wages to half of what they had been before.115
It was the terrorists returned from the provinces—Fouché, Fréron, Tallien, Carrier—who decided that their lives depended on the elimination of Robespierre. It was he who had recalled them to Paris and had demanded of them an account of their missions. “Come, tell us, Fouché,” he asked, “who deputed you to tell the people that there is no God?”116 At the Jacobin Club he proposed that Fouché submit to interrogation about his operations in Toulon and Lyons, or be struck from membership. Fouché refused to submit to such an examination, and retaliated by circulating a list of men who, he claimed, were among Robespierre’s new candidates for the guillotine. As for Tallien, he needed no such instigation; his charming mistress, Thérésa Cabarrus, had been arrested on May 22, allegedly on Robespierre’s orders; rumor said she had sent Tallien a dagger. Tallien swore to free her at whatever cost.
On July 26 Robespierre made his last speech before the Convention. The deputies were hostile, for many of them had reacted against the hasty execution of Danton, and many more blamed Robespierre for having reduced the Convention to impotence. He tried to answer these charges:
Citizens: … I need to open my heart, and you need to hear the truth…. I have come here to dispel cruel errors. I have come to stifle the horrible oaths of discord with which certain men want to fill this temple of liberty….
What foundation is there for this odious system of terror and slander? To whom must we show ourselves terrible? … Is it tyrants and rascals who fear us, or men of good will and patriots? … Do we strike terror into the National Convention? But what are we without the National Convention?—we who have defended the Convention at the peril of our lives, who have devoted ourselves to its preservation while detestable factions plot its ruin for all men to see? … For whom were the first blows of the conspirators intended? … It is we whom they seek to assassinate, it is we whom they call the scourge of France…. Some time ago they declared war on certain members of the Committee of Public Safety. Finally they seemed to aim at destroying one man…. They call me tyrant…. They were particularly anxious to prove that the Revolutionary Tribunal was a tribunal of blood, created by me alone, and which I dominate absolutely for the purpose of beheading all men of good will….
I dare not name [these accusers] here and now. I cannot bring myself to tear away completely the veil that covers this profound mystery of crimes. But this I affirm positively: that among the authors of this plot are the agents of that system of venality intended by foreigners to destroy the Republic…. The traitors, hidden here under false exteriors, will accuse their accusers, and will multiply all stratagems … to stifle the truth. Such is part of the conspiracy.
I will conclude that … tyranny reigns among us; but not that I must keep silence. How can one reproach a man who has truth on his side, and who knows how to die for his country?117
There were some blunders in this historic speech—surprisingly many for one who had heretofore picked his way with caution amid the pitfalls of politics; power dements even more than it corrupts, lowering the guard of foresight and raising the haste of action. The tone of the speech—the proud presumption not only of innocence but of “a man who has the truth on his side”—could be judicious only in a Socrates already half inclined to death. It was hardly wise to incite and infuriate his enemies by threatening them with exposure—that is, with death. It was unwise to affirm that the Convention was free from fear of the Terror, when it knew that it was not. Worst of all, by refusing to name the men he proposed to indict, he multiplied those deputies who might consider themselves future victims of his wrath. The Convention received his appeal coldly, and defeated a motion to print it. Robespierre repeated the speech that evening at the Jacobin Club, to great applause; and there he added an open attack upon Billaud-Varenne and Collot d’Herbois, who were present. They went from the club to the rooms of the Committee, where they found Saint-Just writing what he too boldly told them was to be their indictment.118
The next morning, July 27 (the 9th of Thermidor), Saint-Just rose to present that indictment to a Convention dark with hostility and tense with fear. Robespierre sat directly before the rostrum. His devoted host, Duplay, had warned him to expect trouble, but Robespierre had confidently reassured the soothsayer, “The Convention is in the main honest; all large masses of men are honest.”119 Unluckily the presiding officer on that day was one of his sworn foes—Collot d’Herbois. When Saint-Just began to read his bill of accusation, Tallien, expecting to be included, sprang to the platform, pushed the young orator aside, and cried out, “I ask that the curtain be torn away!” Joseph Lebas, loyal to Saint-Just, tried to come to his aid, but his words were drowned out by a hundred voices. Robespierre demanded a chance to be heard, but he too was shouted down. Tallien raised aloft the weapon that had been sent him, and declared, “I have armed myself with a dagger, which shall pierce his breast if the Convention has not the courage to decree his accusation.”120
Collot yielded the chair to Thuriot, who had been an ally of Danton. Robespierre approached the podium shouting; Thuriot’s bell outrang most of Robespierre’s words, but some of them surmounted the tumult: “For the last time, President of Assassins, will you give me leave to speak?” The Convention roared its disapproval of this form of address, and one deputy uttered the fatal words: “I demand the arrest of Robespierre.” Augustin Robespierre spoke up like a Roman: “I am as guilty as my brother; I share his virtues; I ask that my arrest be decreed with his.” Lebas begged and received the same privilege. The decree was voted. Police took the two Robespierres, Saint-Just, Lebas, and Couthon, and hurried them to the Luxembourg jail.
Fleuriot-Lescot, then mayor of Paris, ordered the prisoners transferred to the Hôtel de Ville, where he received them as honored guests, and offered them his protection. The heads of the Commune bade Hanriot, head of the National Guard in the capital, to take soldiers and guns to the Tuileries, and hold the Convention captive until it revoked its decree of arrest; but Hanriot was too drunk to carry out his mission. The deputies appointed Paul Barras to raise a force of gendarmes, go to the Hôtel de Ville, and rearrest the prisoners. The mayor again appealed to Hanriot, who, unable to reassemble the Paris National Guard, gathered an impromptu collection of sansculottes instead; but they had now little love for the man who had lowered their wages and killed Hébert and Chaumette, Danton and Desmoulins; besides, rain began to fall, and they melted away to their work or their homes. Barras and his gendarmes easily seized control in the Hôtel de Ville. Seeing them, Robespierre tried suicide, but the shot triggered by his unsteady hand passed through his cheek and only shattered his jaw.121 Lebas, steadier, blew his own brains out. Augustin Robespierre broke a leg in a useless leap from a window. Couthon, with lifeless legs, was thrown downstairs, and lay there helpless till the gendarmes carried him to jail with the two Robespierres and Saint-Just.
The following afternoon (July 28, 1794) four tumbrils conveyed these four, with Fleuriot, Hanriot (still drunk), and sixteen others to the guillotine in what we now admire as (pro tempore) the Place de la Concorde. En route they heard from the onlookers divers cries, among them “Down with the maximum!”122 They found a fashionable audience awaiting them: windows overlooking the square had been rented at fancy prices; ladies came arrayed as for a festival. When Robespierre’s head was held up to the crowd a shout of satisfaction rose. One more death might mean little, but this one, Paris felt, meant that the Terror had come to an end.