IT was only natural, as the architects and original advocates of terror were themselves destroyed by it, or reduced to silence or impotence, that people should begin to wonder what terror was for, and where the Revolution was going. ‘I don’t know’, a police spy heard someone say late in March 1794,1 ‘what it’s all coming to; people have railed against the revolutionary committees, and now we have come to think them suspect; they have railed against the revolutionary army, and now it’s been dissolved; there seems to be something against everything that carries the name revolutionary.’ But there was one powerful and eloquent voice who certainly did not agree: Robespierre. Throughout the autumn and early winter he too had agonized about the direction and meaning of the Revolution, as his flirtation with the Indulgents and their policies showed. But by February his vision was beginning to clear, and on the fifth of that month he came to the Convention to deliver a profession of revolutionary faith. ‘What’, he asked,2 ‘is the end towards which we are striving? The peaceful enjoyment of liberty and equality; the reign of that eternal justice whose laws are engraved, not on marble and on stone, but in the heart of all men … What sort of government can realise these prodigies? Only democratic or republican government: these two words are synonyms.’ But democracy was not, said Robespierre (implicitly rejecting the claims of the sansculottes to interfere in government) the sovereign people in constant action.
Democracy is a state where the sovereign people, guided by laws which are its own work, does by itself all that it can do well, and by delegates all that it cannot do for itself. So it is in the principles of democratic government that you must look for the rules of your political conduct … What then is the fundamental principle of democratic or popular government, that is to say the essential underpinning which sustains it and makes it work? It is virtue … which is nothing other than the love of the land of your birth and its laws … this sublime sentiment supposes a preference for the public interests above all particular interests … The first rule of your political conduct must be to relate all you do to maintaining equality and developing virtue … In the system of the French Revolution, what is immoral is impolitic, and what corrupts is counter-revolutionary. Weakness, vices and prejudices are the high-road to monarchy.
Coming from anyone else, these ideas would be one more example of the vapid rhetoric which the French Revolution produced so readily. Robespierre, however, was a figure of authority and power, and he took his own ideas extremely seriously. Throughout the spring and early summer of 1794 he became increasingly obsessed with cleansing the Republic of the corrupt and all who fell short of his exacting standard of virtue.
The first casualty of his obsession was Fabre d’Eglantine, whom he denounced in bitter terms at the Jacobins on 8 January. But in Robespierre’s eyes Fabre’s greed, duplicity, and corruption threw suspicion on his known associates, including leading Indulgents like Desmoulins; and loud-mouthed trimmers like Danton, whose persistent defence of Fabre suggested that he put his friends before patriotic principles. Shortly after outlining his ideal republic of virtue, Robespierre was taken ill and did not reappear in public for almost a month. During this time Hébertist machinations dominated the political agenda; and Amar, the member of the Committee of General Security deputed to report on the Indies Company scandal so that the accused could be brought to trial, proved curiously dilatory in reporting his conclusions. It is possible that he was even involved himself. Under mounting pressure from his colleagues, eventually he did report on 16 March, indicting Fabre, Chabot, and a number of others. In the Convention he was openly denounced by Robespierre and Billaud-Varenne for over-concentrating on financial details to the exclusion of the alleged plot’s political ramifications. Widening his scope somewhat, Amar reported again on 19 March, and this time Fabre and his associates were sent for trial. As soon as the Hébertists were dispatched, the timing and preparation of this trial became the central preoccupation of the governing committees.
It appears that both were split. Some, like Billaud-Varenne, seem to have thought that the Indulgents, having goaded the Hébertists into destroying themselves, now deserved to perish in their turn, whether involved in the Indies Company scandal or not. Vadier, of the Committee of General Security, was of the same opinion. The case offered a convenient pretext, since Fabre before his arrest had been a leading opponent of continuing terror. This would eliminate people like Desmoulins, and Danton, too, although he had played little role in the Indulgents’ campaign. His notorious opportunism made him too dangerous to leave at liberty while his friends stood trial. Other members thought widening a trial for corruption into a political showpiece was far too dangerous. The balance was held by Robespierre, and the thought of trying Danton put even his increasingly rigid political principles to the test. The first proposal to arrest Danton and the Indulgents appears to have come while the Hébertists were on trial, but Robespierre wavered for another week. It was not until 30 March, after two mysterious meetings with Danton, that Robespierre seems to have decided to abandon him. But when he did, he did so totally. No sooner was the arrest warrant issued that day than he began to assemble materials for Danton’s indictment. His notes form the basis of Saint-Just’s speech of the thirty-first in the Convention when, in the name of both committees, he announced the arrests of ‘the last partisans of royalism, who, for five years, have served factions, and have only followed liberty as a tiger follows its prey’.3 He called for them to be put on trial. The motion, perhaps because Saint-Just emphasized that this was likely to be a final cleansing of the body politic, passed virtually unopposed.
The vagueness of Saint-Just’s denunciation was echoed in the charges made between 2 and 5 April when the East Indies conspirators, Desmoulins, Danton, and others—sixteen in all, including nine deputies—came on trial. Danton himself was not even accused of corruption, which would have been very easy. The charges against him were all generalities based on his political record since 1789. Through sheer eloquence, he was soon dominating the courtroom, to Fouquier-Tinville’s alarm. Only when the Convention, acting on a deliberately misleading report that the prisoners were in revolt against the Revolutionary Tribunal, decreed that the trial should continue in their absence, could a verdict of guilty be secured. Their ‘revolt’ had merely been a noisy demand that witnesses be called—but now they were deemed superfluous. On 5 April Danton, Desmoulins, Fabre, Chabot, and the others went to the guillotine.
Few episodes in the Revolution are harder to interpret than the fall of Danton and Desmoulins, for reliable evidence about the motivation of those involved is almost completely lacking. At least Hébert and his associates had been openly calling for an insurrection. Desmoulins had merely been advocating (and by now he had stopped) a less bloody regime; and Danton had not been calling with any vehemence or consistency for anything. It seems that they were struck down more for what they might do than for what they had done. Their execution, in fact, marked the beginning of a new phase in the Terror, when people would die for their potential as much as for specific crimes, and sometimes merely for their failure to match some ideal moral standard. ‘The word virtue made Danton laugh,’ Robespierre grimly noted.4 ‘How could a man, to whom all idea of morality was foreign, be the defender of liberty?’ Danton’s death marked the inauguration of a Republic of Virtue.
It was characterized by continued concentration of power at the centre. On 1 April the council of ministers was at last abolished. Departments of state were all put into commission, each one supervised by a member of the governing committees. Two weeks later (16 April) it was decreed that all conspiracy cases should henceforth be tried only by the Revolutionary Tribunal in Paris, and over the ensuing weeks most of the various special courts which had enforced the Terror in the provinces were closed down. The effect was to cram the prisons of the capital with suspects, and to cope with them the procedure of the tribunal was simplified and speeded up. By the Law of 22 Prairial (10 June) the number of judges and jurors was increased, witnesses were virtually dispensed with, and accused persons were deprived of defending counsel. The purpose of the tribunal was redefined as the punishment of enemies of the people, and the only penalty it was allowed to impose was death. But enemies of the people were so widely defined that, as with the Law of Suspects, almost anybody was vulnerable to the charge. The effect on the character of the Terror was immediate. Executions, which had declined sharply between January and March, and risen again in April with a new burst of repression in the Vendée, fell back somewhat in May; but from early June began to climb markedly once more. Most of the victims of the renewed rise perished in Paris. Of the 2,639 people guillotined in the place de la Révolution between March 1793 and August 1794, over half, 1,515, died during June and July 1794. A far higher proportion of them, too, were from the upper ranks of society than in the Terror as a whole: 38 per cent of its noble victims and 26 per cent of its clerical ones were dispatched during this short phase, and almost half of those from the richer bourgeoisie. Never was the Terror closer to being an instrument of social discrimination rather than one punishing specific counter-revolutionary acts than in these months; and although most of those who died were doubtless as guilty as many another of subversive or traitorous activity, the abrupt change in the Terror’s pattern suggests that some at least of those it now struck down died as much for what they were (or had been before 1789) as for what they had done.
The dead Hébertists might have approved of such a policy: but little else the governing committees did once they were gone would have pleased them. After the fall of Chaumette, for example, the Paris commune was placed under the direct authority of the Committee of Public Safety, and its membership remodelled to produce a majority that could be relied upon to take its orders from above rather than below. At once it turned its attention to the maximum-but to the aspect which the Hébertists had deliberately neglected: wage control. It took some months to gather the material and draw up the tables they had always refused to contemplate, but wage-earners meanwhile were given plenty of warning of what was coming. In April the Le Chapelier Law was invoked to punish the ringleaders of tobacco workers who had petitioned for a wage rise. Other groups were threatened with conscription as war-workers, subject to military discipline, if they pressed such demands; but the very occurrence of these incidents showed that inflationary pressures were far from contained. Yet the new rates, when they were finally published on 23 July, imposed substantial cuts in the earnings of most workers. During the early 1790s many had seen their wages double or treble as the value of the assignat plummeted, and the 50 per cent above 1790 levels permitted under the maximum fell far short of what they were now making. Nor did they have any effective vehicles of protest by then. The sections had been absorbed into the governmental machine, and throughout April and May the commune had harried the popular societies into oblivion. By the beginning of June most had announced their own dissolution.
Even dechristianization was now being reversed. There seems to have been general agreement in the governing committees that it had been a disaster, and on 7 April Couthon announced that new proposals would shortly be brought forward for channelling the spiritual leanings of the nation in more patriotic directions. The result was the cult of the Supreme Being, launched by a speech from Robespierre to the Convention on 7 May. Designed as the first of a series of republican festivals to be held on each official rest-day (décadi), it would proclaim that the French people recognized the existence of a Supreme Being and the immortality of the soul. These principles, declared Robespierre to applause, were a continual reminder of justice, and were therefore social and republican. While denouncing priestcraft, he recurred to his heartfelt theme that the purpose of the Republic was to promote virtue, he deplored the excesses (though not in so many words) of dechristianization, and sang the praises of Rousseau, himself the architect of a civic religion. On 20 Prairial (8 June), he moved, the nation should celebrate the Supreme Being. Thus every locality was given a month to make its preparations. The fact that 8 June was also Whit Sunday may or may not have been a coincidence; if not, it could have been conceived either as a challenge or as an olive branch to Christianity. In the event little direction was given to the localities on how to organize the festival. Some adapted the props of all-too-recent festivals of reason, merely painting out old slogans with new ones. Others used the opportunity to allow mass to be said publicly for the first time in months. But in Paris the organization of the occasion was entrusted to the experienced hands of the painter David, himself a member of the Committee of General Security. He built an artificial mountain in the Champ de Mars, surmounted by a tree of liberty, and thither a mass procession made its way from the Tuileries. At its head marched the members of the Convention, led by their president, who happened that week to be Robespierre. He used the opportunity to deliver two more eulogies of virtue and republican religion, pointedly ignoring, though not failing to notice, the smirks of some of his fellow deputies at the posturings of this pseudo-Pope. Others found it no laughing matter. ‘Look at the bugger,’ muttered Thuriot, an old associate of Danton.5 ‘It’s not enough for him to be master, he has to be God.’
It was a feeling that increasing numbers of deputies, and members of the governing committees too, were coming to share. Ever since the autumn of 1792 Robespierre had been subject to periodic charges of aspiring to personal dictatorship, but now it seemed more credible than ever. He seemed to be speaking for the Committee of Public Safety more and more, and was certainly better known in the country at large than any of his colleagues. At Orléans, as well as in Paris, the Festival of the Supreme Being took place to cries of Vive Robespierre. Two weeks beforehand he had been pursued by two would-be assassins. One of them eventually attacked Collot d’Herbois, but the other got as far as the door of the man she called a tyrant. Both were executed, along with 52 others suspected of involvement in the machinations of Batz, dressed in red, the colour of parricide. The law under which they died was that of 22 Prairial, whose provisions Robespierre largely drafted and, with Couthon, sprang upon an unsuspecting Committee of Public Safety with no prior consultation. Yet the fact that they chose to do it in this way reflected uncertainty about this support. Ever since April, indeed, the Committee had been the scene of increasingly heated quarrels setting Robespierre, Saint-Just, and to a lesser extent Couthon against the rest. At one point they threatened Carnot, who riposted that they were ‘ridiculous dictators’. Yet when on 16 April a special ‘Bureau of General Police’ was established within the Committee to supervise the conduct of public officials, the three were appointed to it—perhaps in the hope of sidelining them. They threw themselves into their new task with characteristic zeal, however, and this served to alarm the Committee of General Security, which regarded the Bureau as trespassing on its own territory, already seriously infringed since the show trials of the spring. All this multiplied Robespierre’s enemies, and the Law of 22 Prairial added even more. Many deputies in the Convention, not to mention members of the two committees, were alarmed by its sweeping terms. They were not reassured when in the debate on the law, Robespierre denounced those who sought to sow division. Remembering how the Dantonists had been arrested without a prior decree from the Convention, they were particularly frightened by a clause overriding all conflicting legislation: they were afraid it might destroy their normal immunity from arrest. Accordingly, on 23 Prairial, a number of those who had scoffed at Robespierre’s prominence at the Festival of the Supreme Being moved a specific guarantee of deputies’ immunity under the new law. It was carried. From that moment onwards, the anti-Robespierre forces began to coalesce.
He was well aware of what was happening, although he was at a loss to understand it. ‘Why come to me?’, he asked one of the petitioners who were always at his door these days.6 ‘Why not apply to the Comité? Every one applies to me, as if I had omnipotent power.’ He concluded, like the good disciple of Rousseau he was, that the purity and rectitude of his intentions were being deliberately vilified and obstructed by a corrupt faction of unpatriotic intriguers. Among them were deputies recalled from provincial missions on account of their excesses—men like Fouché and Tallien—and Dantonists like Thuriot and the ex-butcher Legendre. But when the Committee of Public Safety refused, on 12 June, to be browbeaten into giving him the ‘nine heads’ he believed to be at the heart of the conspiracy against him, he ceased to attend their meetings, confining his public appearances increasingly to the one forum where he knew he could always command support, the Jacobin Club. But the Jacobins were not the power they had been. To take a stand there and not in the Convention was to provoke suspicions of insurrectionary intentions. Suspicion, in fact, suffused the whole of public life during these terrible weeks when there were executions by twenties and thirties almost daily. As many as sixty deputies, it was said, were afraid to sleep in their own beds at night. And yet it was becoming increasingly clear that terror was no longer necessary in order to win the war. The British had failed on 1 June to prevent a major grain convey from arriving from America, and the sinking of the ship of the line Vengeur was turned, in the report made on it to the Convention by Barère, into an epic of republican heroism and defiance. Even more important, on 26 June came the great victory of Fleurus, which opened the way for a renewed invasion of Belgium and removed the last threat from the Austrians. After that everybody was longing to breathe more easily; yet with the governing committees torn apart by mutual suspicions, and dark hints and threats being thrown out by all sides, nobody knew how to end the slaughter, except by annihilating their opponents before they were themselves destroyed.
In mid-July one last attempt was made to restore unity, if not exactly harmony. Barère, always the trimmer, arranged a joint meeting of the governing committees on the twenty-second at which it was agreed to speed up the implementation of the Laws of Ventôse. The Convention and the Jacobin Club were assured afterwards that, notwithstanding previous appearances to the contrary, France still had a united government. But at another joint meeting the next day, Robespierre reappeared for the first time in almost a month and made bitter personal attacks on Billaud, Collot, Amar, and Vadier. He did endorse the new joint policies, but after his earlier outburst any truce could scarcely be expected to last. Deputies outside the committees were, however, terrified that the newly trumpeted unity might be real, and lead to a purge of those on Robespierre’s proscription list. Fouché and Tallien now launched themselves into feverish lobbying among the uncommitted deputies of what had once been known, in contradistinction to the Mountain, as the Plain, but whose inertia as the rhythm of the Terror increased again had won them the less flattering description of the ‘Marsh’. But Robespierre, too, thought he could swing the Convention, and on 26 July he reappeared there to deliver a long, rambling speech, naming few names but full of threats against seemingly everybody. After extolling his own probity and love of virtue in now characteristic fashion, he declared that there existed a ‘conspiracy against public liberty’ involving unspecified numbers of deputies, the Committee of General Security, and even some members of the Committee of Public Safety. These ‘traitors’ must be punished, their ‘factions’ crushed. Both committees must he purged, for ‘defenders of liberty will always be proscribed so long as power lies with a horde of knaves’.
It was a declaration of war; and, realizing now that their lives might depend on a rapid counter-attack, Robespierre’s enemies took up the challenge. First there was a noisy debate over whether his speech should be printed, and if so in what quantity. Accusations of dictatorship were now renewed by those whom he had attacked, amid clear signs of sympathy from the deputies as a whole. That night Robespierre read his speech again to the Jacobins, who tumultuously refused to allow Billaud and Collot to reply to it. On Couthon’s motion they voted to expel all deputies who had been against printing the speech, and there was vague talk of a new purge of the Convention. Billaud and Collot, both shaking with fury, went straight to the committees, and they seem to have spent most of the night preparing for the inevitable confrontation next morning. Among deputies outside the committees, Tallien was doing the same, aware that Collot, currently president of the Convention, could choose who spoke and when. The strength of feeling became clear on the morning of 27 July—9 Thermidor—when Saint-Just, who had been little involved in the growing factionalism of the preceding weeks, unexpectedly came out for Robespierre. Billaud denounced him in the name of the Committee of Public Safety, and Tallien from the floor. They were cheered; but when Robespierre demanded the right to speak, he was drowned out by cries of Down with the tyrant! Collot consistently refused him the floor, while attack after attack whipped the deputies into a frenzy. Eventually his arrest was proposed. His brother Augustin demanded to be arrested with him, and the Convention obliged. Others proposed the arrest of Couthon, who had also stood by him, and Saint-Just. All were decreed. So was that of Hanriot, commander of the Paris National Guard.
It was a parliamentary rout. Robespierre, shut away in his rue Saint-Honoré lodgings for most of the preceding month, had fatally overestimated his support among the deputies, while in his speech of 27 July he had attacked so many of them directly or indirectly that none could feel entirely safe. But repudiation by the Convention was not quite the end of Robespierre. The evening of the twenty-sixth had shown that he still commanded support from the Jacobin Club and its public galleries; and the commune, remodelled after the fall of the Hébertists, was largely packed by his nominees. There was still, therefore, a chance that Paris, where his popular reputation had been consistently high since the spring of 1791, would rally to him. And initially the commune did not fail him. On the afternoon of the twenty-eighth it ordered all gaolers in the capital to refuse to accept the prisoners, and Hanriot was allowed to escape. While he tried to marshal his National Guards for an insurrection, the arrested deputies were taken into the commune’s protection at the Hôtel de Ville. But only 17 out of 48 sectional National Guard companies responded to Hanriot’s call and assembled on the place de Grève. Some of the others wavered, but when the Convention took decisive action they quickly fell into line. On the proposal of Barère, the prisoners, presumed to have escaped, were outlawed. Under a provision ironically first moved by Saint-Just, that meant they could be executed without trial. And forces loyal to the Convention were given a commander in Barras, who had distinguished himself at the siege of Toulon. Faced by such determination, and its inability to arouse most of the sections from hostility or indifference, the commune hesitated. Over the evening, its assembled forces drifted away home. So that when Barras and his troops arrived at the Hôtel de Ville at two in the morning on 29 July, it was undefended. Robespierre had tried to shoot himself, but had only broken his jaw; but it was in this maimed state that he went to the guillotine the next afternoon.
His brother, Couthon, Saint-Just, and eighty other ‘Robespierrists’ from the commune followed him over the next 24 hours. ‘About sixty persons’, noted the Irish political exile Hamilton Rowan,7 who watched the spectacle, ‘were guillotined in less than one hour and a half, in the Place de la Revolution; and though I was standing above a hundred paces from the place of execution, the blood of the victims streamed beneath my feet. What surprised me was, as each head fell into the basket, the cry of the people was no other than a repetition of “A bas le Maximum!”’ The new tariff for wages published earlier that week was certainly not the only reason why the sections did not respond to the commune’s insurrectionary call. The crisis had arisen too suddenly, and there had been no prior planning. And, told by the Convention that Robespierre had been aiming at tyranny and dictatorship, a populace that had meekly accepted what it had been told about the machinations of the Hébertists and Dantonists was unlikely to stir to save yet another idol shown to have feet of clay. Even so, the imposition of the wage maximum by the Robespierrist commune only a few days before the crisis broke alienated ordinary Parisians at a crucial moment, and their notorious taste for scapegoats was satisfied by the destruction of Robespierre and his municipal henchmen. As to Robespierre himself, he never was a dictator, and there is no reliable evidence to suggest that it was his aim. But he was suspicious by nature, and over the spring the stresses of government drove him to the verge of paranoia. Surrounded by rumours of plots, not to mention assassination attempts, yet completely sure of his own rectitude, he took contradiction for bad faith and independence for opportunism. In the end he seems to have concluded that hardly anybody in public life could be relied on, and by saying so openly he ensured that they could not. And by implying that those of whom he disapproved or with whom he disagreed deserved execution, he forced them into destroying him before he destroyed them. Men called him a dictator because they feared moral inflexibility in one who had power. After they had destroyed him they used the charge to justify what they had done. It also enabled them to blame him for acts they themselves had helped to commit, but which became increasingly a subject for shame, recrimination, and revenge during the months of retreat from terror and ruthless government which now began.
The ninth of Thermidor marked not so much the overthrow of one man or group of men as the rejection of a form of government. Those who thought otherwise were swiftly disillusioned. When Barère, who tried on 29 July to dismiss the whole episode as ‘a disturbance which leaves the government unaffected’, proposed nominees to replace the three executed members of the Committee of Public Safety, his motion was defeated. Instead the Convention accepted Tallien’s proposal that a quarter of the Committee should retire every month, and not be eligible for immediate reelection. It did for the moment reject a motion to abolish the Revolutionary Tribunal, but that anybody should so much as dare to propose it showed how totally the atmosphere had changed. Soon all the Convention’s committees were subjected to the same renewal rule, and among the first new members of that of Public Safety was Tallien himself. Former friends of Danton joined him there, and on the Committee of General Security. On 1 August the remodelled committees carried the repeal of the Law of 22 Prairial, and on the tenth they purged the membership of the Revolutionary Tribunal, arresting Fouquier-Tinville. As a result the Terror collapsed. Only 6 people were guillotined in Paris in August, and only 40 more over the rest of the year. Counter-revolutionary intent now had to be proved to secure a conviction. The difficulties of that rendered superfluous much of the work and powers of the watch committees, which on 24 August were reduced from 48 to 12 in Paris, and one per district elsewhere. In all this the initiative increasingly came from the Convention floor, and on 11 August the Committee of Public Safety was deprived, against its own advice tendered by Barère, of its overall superintending role in government. All its duties except war and foreign relations were redistributed to other committees. Thus, within a month of Robespierre’s fall, the central institutions of Terror and Revolutionary Government had been dismantled by a Convention increasingly certain that they were no longer necessary.
There was an outburst of relief throughout the country. The second anniversary of the revolution of 10 August was celebrated with now uncharacteristic abandon. But the most spectacular evidence of changed times, apart from the drop in executions, was the release of suspects from prison. From the start it was generally expected, and excited crowds gathered daily outside prison gates and the doors of the Committee of General Security. In Paris it began early in August, and by the end of the month 3,500 prisoners had been set free. They emerged from custody bitter and resentful against those who had put them there—for the most part fellow citizens on the watch committees, now stigmatized as terrorists. They wanted revenge. When on 31 August a gunpowder factory at Grenelle, in the south-western suburbs, blew up with around 400 casualties, nervous terrorists saw it as the first act of vengeance. It seems in fact to have been an accident. What was not accidental was the emergence around the same time of squads of anti-sansculotte vigilantes, the so-called ‘Gilded Youth’. Some were released prisoners themselves; some were draft-dodgers; many were clerks and petty bureaucrats, and all were looking for trouble. Affecting expensive clothes and hairstyles of a sort few would have dared to wear only a few weeks earlier, they came to number two or three thousand. They made it their business to harass known terrorists, disrupt their meetings, and break up public occasions of which they did not approve. One of the leading plotters against Robespierre, the ex-representative on mission at Toulon, Fréron, gave them open encouragement in his newspaper, L’Orateur du peuple, which began to appear early in September, and soon was co-ordinating the marauding of this private street army. But his was far from the only voice now denouncing the excesses of the Terror and those who had perpetrated them. A whole range of right-wing papers mushroomed in Paris throughout August and September, leading to calls in the Convention and the Jacobin Club for a curb on their incitements. The ‘Thermidorians’, as Tallien, Fréron, and the others who had triumphed in that revolutionary month were now coming to be known, responded with a loud defence of press freedom. Those wishing to limit it were, they said (in the title of a pamphlet published late in August), Robespierre’s Tail, blood-drinkers who wanted a return of government by terror. On 29 August an open attack was launched in the Convention on leading terrorists in the committees who had only turned against Robespierre at the last moment: the impeachment of Barère, Biliaud, Collot, Vadier, Amar, and David was proposed. Once again this was going too far, too fast, for the Convention. It refused to indict them and, to demonstrate its continuing commitment to radicalism, it ordered the remains of Mirabeau to be removed from the Pantheon, and those of Marat to replace them. Rousseau’s body was also ordered to be exhumed and deposited there. Encouraged by these signs, the Jacobin Club took the offensive. On 4 September it expelled Tallien and Freron. A few days later Tallien was attacked in the street.
All this, the Thermidorians claimed, was the beginning of a return to terror. The Grenelle explosion was Jacobin work! Freron now turned his gangs against the club, and for the first time in France (though not of course abroad) the term ‘Jacobin’ became one of general opprobrium, associated indelibly with terror and the ‘dictator’ who had so long dominated the club’s platform. Sectional assemblies which supported the Jacobin line were mobbed by well-dressed rowdies who roughed up their leaders. And at this point, if any reminder was needed of what terror had been like, a group of alleged Federalists from Nantes came before the Revolutionary Tribunal and were acquitted. During their examination lurid details of the drownings at Nantes under Carrier emerged, enough to indict the members of the Nantes revolutionary committee who had been his collaborators and induce the Convention to establish an investigation of Carrier himself—who, as a deputy, remained immune from arrest unless on the Convention’s explicit decree. Such developments were a godsend to the Thermidorians, who now stepped up their anti-Jacobin pressure. Early in October Tallien founded a paper of his own, L’Ami du citoyen, while in the Convention Legendre once more moved the impeachment of Barère, Billaud, and Collot. Again they were saved, this time by colleagues on the former Committee of Public Safety whom nobody yet wished to attack, including Carnot, who testified that all members had endorsed the reign of terror. But the pressure was working for all that. On 16 October it was decreed that all clubs and societies should publish lists of their members, and all correspondence between them was forbidden. Everybody knew that the measure was intended to destroy the national network of affiliates which gave the Jacobin Club such authority, and lists of members identified whom to attack. When early in November Billaud uttered threats against the club’s enemies from the rostrum where he and Robespierre had so often dictated national policy, a crowd of Muscadins marched from their usual meeting place at the Palais Égalité (formerly Royal) and broke every window of the building with showers of stones. Two day later (12 November) they returned in their hundreds, stormed the hall, and beat up both men and women they found inside. The Convention, which had just decreed Carrier’s arrest, was in no mood to sympathize. Instead of punishing the attackers, it ordered the closure of the Jacobin Club as an incitement to public disorder, and a potential rival to itself. But, in effect, street violence had triumphed. Within days, noted a police spy, it was ‘enough simply to have the look of a Jacobin to be called after, insulted and even beaten up’.8
In the provinces reaction to the fall of Revolutionary Government was slower. Not all special courts disappeared when revolutionary justice was centralized in Paris. Some of the most notorious were set up after that, such as the Popular Commission at Orange, whose rules were the model for the Law of 22 Prairial, and which accounted for 332 victims between June and August. It and several others, notably in the west, continued to function for five or six weeks after 9 Thermidor and continued to hand down death sentences. But soon new representatives on mission were sent out to the departments to supervise the dismantling of the Terror, and with the decree of 24 August reducing the watch committees to one per district, thousands of provincial terrorists were thrust from public office. Soon afterwards those they had imprisoned began to be released. Many of them, or their friends or relatives, now took power in remodelled popular societies and municipal councils, and at once began to imprison their former persecutors. By the first week in September, for instance, the members of the Orange Commission were behind bars. And when it became clear, during the autumn, that the tide in Paris had set against the former terrorists, provincials were quick enough to take the hint. Suddenly, noted a British prisoner aboard the warship Marat at Brest, early in December, the sailors had stopped shouting Vive la Montagne! and Vivent les Jacobins! That was now forbidden, a cabin-boy told him. Now they were to shout The Mountain to the devil! and Down with the Jacobins! But the ultimate symbol of reaction, for both capital and departments, was not so much the closure of the Jacobins as the fate of that supreme provincial terrorist, Carrier. On 23 November he was sent to the Revolutionary Tribunal, protesting to the last that he had only been obeying the Convention’s own orders at Nantes, and that the whole body was guilty ‘down to the president’s bell’. It availed him nothing. He was condemned and, on 16 December, guillotined. His defence was perhaps fair enough, and he was certainly not responsible for all the atrocities attributed to him. But in sacrificing him the Convention set an ominous example. A week before he died the 71 Girondin sympathizers saved by Robespierre from the guillotine in October 1793 (including the hapless Tom Paine) were reinstated as full members of the Convention. The political turnabout was now complete; but the return of the Girondins and the elimination of the most notorious of terrorists were not harbingers of a return to restraint and consensus. So far from reconciliation, 1795 was to be a year of revenge.
None of these developments appear to have been unpopular. Police reports suggest a general approval in Paris for the closure of the Jacobins and the execution of Carrier. The main source of discontent in the capital during the second half of 1794 was economic. On 7 September, as the brief Jacobin revival was beginning, the Convention extended the Law of the Maximum for another year, signalling its intention of keeping the economy under control. But during the crisis of the summer the fall in the value of the assignat had once more accelerated: between August and December it fell from 34 to 20 per cent. Accordingly, although on 9 August the post-Robespierrist commune abandoned the draconian wage controls that had turned Paris against the ‘tyrant’, fixing far more generous rates, there was agitation for higher wages throughout the autumn. Government munitions workshops led the way; but, rather than yield to their demands, in January the Convention simply closed them down. Even more serious was the scarcity of basic commodities, which ensured that when available they sold at prices far higher than those authorized under the maximum. ‘Everything’, noted a police report in October,9 ‘is selling in the markets above the maximum’; adding, more surprisingly, that ‘the people are saying that this law is unenforceable, and that unlimited freedom of trade is the only remedy for its ills’. The deputies of the Convention, of course, had always believed this. They had only accepted the maximum under popular pressure, and their recognition that it had worked in the year since its imposition was never more than grudging. When they began to hear that, even among the populace, support for it was waning, they once more allowed their convictions to guide them. Price controls, they thought, had worsened the very scarcity and hoarding they had been intended to curtail. Only a free market would restore abundance, not to mention reanimating foreign trade, which had languished under a controlled economy. A report on the whole issue was commissioned, and early in December the result was a recommendation that the maximum should be abolished. On 24 December the recommendation was accepted.
That night there was a savage frost. It marked the onset of a winter colder even than 1788; in fact, the worst of the whole century. And the conditions which permitted the Republic’s armies to swarm across the frozen Rhine into Holland brought acute hardship to its citizens remaining at home. Rivers froze and supplies of coal and firewood, already scarce over the autumn, were immobilized. The whole country was affected. In the south olive-trees just recovering after the disaster of 1788 were blighted again, and even the Rhône was full of ice. The harvest of 1794 had been indifferent, and the armies had had first claims on its product. Grain had been bought abroad, as far afield as the Baltic and North Africa, but on arrival it could neither be transported nor milled because of the ice, and the floods which followed when it thawed. Some cities, such as Lyons and Paris itself, supplemented grain supplies with rice, but there was often not enough fuel to cook it. Consequently by the spring bread was being rationed and its price subsidized by local authorities who borrowed heavily to do so. That still gave Parisians a pound of bread per day in the depth of the crisis, February and March 1795; but in the provinces the ration was often much less and not as frequent. Most other prices, meanwhile, rocketed once the maximum was abolished. Meat went up by 300 per cent between December and April in Paris; butter more than doubled. Hungry people froze to death in the streets in January 1795. Others killed themselves before it came to that: suicide rates rose markedly in Paris and other northern cities like Rouen and Le Havre. And to add to all this, the bottom finally fell out of the assignats. With the abolition of price controls, the government itself was forced to pay market prices for the massive supplies it still needed to sustain the war effort. Taxes came in sluggishly as the agencies of government were paralysed by political uncertainties and farmers’ incomes were shorn by harvest shortfalls. Nobody paid them in anything but assignats. The only way to meet the State’s commitments was to print yet more assignats, and in May 1795 the number in circulation was approaching double that of a year beforehand. By then their value had fallen to a mere 8 per cent.
Against this background the anti-Jacobin campaign in Paris continued. Fréron’s Muscadins policed the theatres, wrecking performances they did not like by howling choruses of their new battle song, ‘The People’s Awakening’. They also tried to drown the ‘Marseillaise’ when it was sung, claiming that it was a mere Jacobin anthem. People in red caps were attacked, trees of liberty cut down, terroristic wall slogans painted out. And the first weeks of 1795 saw a sustained campaign against the cult of Marat. The plaster busts of the People’s Friend which had proliferated throughout 1793 and 1794 were systematically sought out and smashed. Various attempts were made to demolish a memorial erected to him outside the Convention hall, while the right-wing press began to call for the removal of his remains from the Pantheon. The remnants of the sansculotte movement bitterly resented these attacks on a figure who was a saint to circles far wider than paid-up Jacobins. In the handful of sections, mostly in the eastern districts of the city, which were still dominated by veterans of the year of terror, popular societies raised noisy protests. Their efforts were encouraged by a new journal, Le Tribun du peuple, published clandestinely by the hitherto obscure extreme democrat and former feudal lawyer Babeuf. At the end of January he called for a new popular insurrection to secure the introduction of the still suspended constitution of 1793, with all its democratic forms. As a rallying cry it proved completely counter-productive. A week later an intensive police search ended in Babeuf’s arrest, and the Convention ordered the closure of the popular societies. On 8 February, barely five months after placing him there, it yielded to the Muscadin campaign and decreed that Marat should be removed from the Pantheon. Nobody, it declared, should lie there until at least ten years after death. On this pretext, the bones of a number of other martyrs of the Year II were also ejected.
By now, in fact, the tide of reaction was flowing too strongly for the Convention to make any further pretence of standing against it. December and January saw the first relaxation of the laws against emigration, with sailors, manual workers, and artisans being allowed to return to the country subject to certain provisos. On 11 April outlawed Federalists, too, were allowed to return. Meanwhile a commission was established to look into the charges still being persistently levelled at the former members of the governing committees, and on 2 March it reported against them. Barère, Billaud, and Collot were put under house arrest pending trial. Vadier, also indicted, was already in hiding. A week later occurred perhaps the most vivid sign of how far reaction from the Jacobin regime of the Year II had gone. Churches reopened for public worship. During its last, fleeting endorsement of Jacobinism, on 18 September 1794, the Convention had carried the drift of the Revolution since 1790 to a logical conclusion when it finally renounced the constitutional Church. The Republic, it decreed, would no longer pay the costs or wages of any cult—not that it had been paying them in practice for a considerable time already. It meant the end of state recognition for the Supreme Being, a cult too closely identified with Robespierre. But above all it marked the abandonment of the Revolution’s own creation, the constitutional Church. For the first time ever in France, Church and State were now formally separated. To some this decree looked like a return to dechristianization, and here and there in the provinces there were renewed bursts of persecution against refractories. But most read it, correctly, as an attempt to deflect the hostility of those still faithful to the Church from the Republic. The natural corollary came with the decree of 21 February 1795 which proclaimed the freedom of all cults to worship as they liked. The tone of the law was grudging, and it was introduced with much gratuitous denigration of priestcraft and superstition. Religion was defined as a private affair, and local authorities were forbidden to lend it any recognition or support. All outward signs of religious affiliation in the form of priestly dress, ceremonies, or church bells remained strictly forbidden. The faithful would have to buy or rent their own places of worship and pay their own priests or ministers. But they found them readily enough as soon as the decree was passed. ‘Today, Sunday 8 March 1795’, noted a Parisian in his diary,10 ‘they began to say mass publicly everywhere in Paris in rooms, in apartments, in halls and in some monastic chapels. Everybody everywhere went to hear it … There were places where masses were said from six in the morning until midday and where there are many people who took communion … Mass has not been said since Sunday 13 October 1793.’ A week earlier, in devout Brittany, a British prisoner was drawn by the sound of the organ into the devastated and pillaged cathedral of Quimper, where he found ‘rows of people on their knees’, while ‘a fine grey-headed, respectable-looking priest, habited in his pontificals, officiated at the altar.’11 The congregation were mostly ‘poor people from the country, with a few of the higher ranks, many more of whom, I was assured, would have been there, could they have believed themselves secure from reproach’.
Much of the impetus for the new religious policy came from the deputies’ awareness of the need to bring permanent peace to the Vendée, where religious grievances had turned opponents of the Revolution royalist. Although the rebels’ defeat at Savenay in December 1793 had ended the ‘Great War’ of the Vendée, Turreau’s vicious reprisals of the following spring had done nothing to reconcile the remaining population to the republic. Their effect was to embitter the whole region yet more rather than to pacify it. Further north in Brittany, meanwhile, resolute enforcement of conscription had driven many more young men than previously into the arms of the chouans, and organized bands of some size began to appear under the co-ordination of regional leaders. By May there were perhaps 22,000 chouans operating throughout Brittany, although most were not armed; and before the summer was over they had reduced government outside the larger towns to chaos with murder, threats, disruption of communications, and attacks on constitutional priests and buyers of national lands. A new Breton Catholic and royal army was even announced in July 1794; and although this was wishful thinking on the part of its progenitor, the royalist adventurer Puisaye, the Convention was naturally alarmed. Rural insurgency had put much of the west beyond the Republic’s control, and only well-garrisoned ports seemed to be preventing the British from coming to help the rebels. So after Robespierre’s fall a new and more conciliatory policy began to emerge. Turreau had already been recalled before Thermidor, and was arrested in September 1794, though later acquitted of personal responsibility for the atrocities of the spring. Republican troops were ordered to cease provocative operations and withdraw from billets into camps, while peace feelers were sent out to identifiable guerrilla leaders—Stofflet and Charette in the Vendée, Puisaye in Brittany. General Hoche was brought back from the German front to take overall command of troops north of the Loire, and he proclaimed an amnesty and bounty for all rebels who handed in their arms. News of the trial of Carrier reassured the insurgents that the Republic had now renounced terror, and on 1 December the Convention itself decreed an amnesty for all who would surrender within a month. Many did so, and by January 1795 serious negotiations were under way for a general cease-fire. Early in February Charette, whose bands dominated the Vendée lowlands, concluded the pacification of Lajaunye, under which the rebels agreed to stop their operations in return for a guarantee of religious freedom, no reprisals, and exemption of the region from conscription laws. The Republic would return all confiscated private property, grant indemnities for losses, and allow the rebels to keep their arms and maintain law and order in their districts in the Republic’s name. All the Republic did not, and could not, concede to the rebels was the restoration of monarchy in the state within the state that it now recognized. No doubt the ‘blues’ believed that such generous terms were responsible for the previously intransigent Stofflet’s acceptance of similar ones for the Vendée bocage early in May, and their extension to the chouans of Brittany under the treaty of La Mabilais on 20 April. If so, they were seriously mistaken. Charette had signed only because he believed himself dangerously isolated; the other two armistices represented mere playing for time by the rebels, who by then had received secret assurances that Puisaye had persuaded the British to mount a major expedition against the Breton coast. When Charette was alerted, he assured the others that he, too, would co-operate with the expedition.
Before that crisis broke, however, the Convention had to surmount a spectacular challenge on its own doorstep—the last attempt of the people of Paris to coerce the nation’s deputies in the now legendary manner of 1793. For ordinary Parisians, all that had made the terrible winter of 1795 endurable had been the regular bread ration which the Convention had been determined to maintain. But by the beginning of March its ability to guarantee even this was crumbling. With it crumbled the remarkable popular confidence which the deputies had been able to retain in the depth of the winter’s misery. Queues at bakers’ shops began to lengthen, rations were cut, and on some days some districts had no supplies of bread at all. For the first time since 1792 royalists began to come into the open to argue that the shortages showed that the Republic had failed. But the initial instinct of the women who were the first to experience empty food shops was not to dream of taking the sickly Louis XVII from his lonely confinement in the Temple and setting him on the throne. It was to remember the controlled economy of the Terror. ‘There is talk’, reported a police spy on 16 March,12 ‘of the regime of before 9 Thermidor, when goods were not as dear and money and assignats were worth the same.’ Talk began to be heard at the same time, especially in the city’s east end, of a new uprising. Yet at the same moment the Convention was reintegrating surviving Girondins now out of hiding, such as Lanjuinais, Isnard, and Louvet, who had made their names denouncing the sansculottes. It was also trying the leading survivors of the government of the Terror: the impeachment of Barère, Billaud, Collot, and Vadier opened on 22 March. And when bands of women petitioned the Convention for better bread supplies, they had to push their way through crowds of aggressive, smirking Muscadins who mocked their distress. Yet the deputies were not unconcerned. They voted to requisition two-thirds of available grain from normal supplying areas as a forced loan (24 March) and for bread rations to be delivered to the door to eliminate queueing (28 March). Meanwhile they had also taken steps to defend themselves by decreeing savage punishments for attacks on the Convention. Fréron began to organize his Gilded Youth into an informal legislative guard. He was not a moment too soon. On 27 and 28 March there were attempts to march on the Convention amid several days of bread riots in former radical sections like Gravilliers, Jacques Roux’s old centre of operations. Those involved had now taken up Babeuf’s cry for the constitution of 1793, which, whatever else it meant, would bring the end of the Convention. There was no organization such as had characterized sansculotte action in 1792 or 1793. The institutions necessary for that had been pulverized twelve months previously, and their lack would eventually doom the movement now gathering momentum. But on 1 April (12 Germinal) days of disturbance culminated in about 10,000 people, mostly from eastern Paris, marching on the Convention and swamping the Muscadins who had been assembled to stop them. They poured into the hall calling for bread and the constitution of 1793, milling about, and impeding all debate for about four hours. But they had no clearer programme of demands, they were not co-ordinated, and the deputies from whom they expected support, the handful of Montagnard remnants known now as the ‘Crest’, took the lead in urging them to leave. As National Guardsmen with Muscadin reinforcements began to arrive from western districts towards evening, the crowd melted away empty-handed. The Convention appointed General Pichegru, fresh from victories in the Netherlands, to co-ordinate all forces of law and order in the capital. Then, to emphasize its defiance and no doubt give vent to pent-up tensions, it delivered its verdict on the four impeached terrorists. By acclamation Barère, Billaud, and Collot (and Vadier in his absence) were condemned to deportation. At least they avoided Carrier’s fate; but not, their colleagues thought, for long. The place of their exile was to be Guiana, later to be known as Devil’s Island but in 1795 more familiarly (if inaccurately) called the ‘dry guillotine’.
In the Parisian context the gesture was merely provocative, and over the next few days the city remained very unsettled, with talk of new marches and demonstrations. Pichegru’s response was to disperse large gatherings and order the arrest of anybody with a suspicious record. On 10 April the Convention backed him up by authorizing the disarmament of all those ‘known’ in their sections as activists during the Terror. Throughout Paris that meant 1,600 people were rendered officially defenceless against any sort of reprisals. By this time sixteen ex-Montagnard deputies had been placed under cautionary arrest, too. Those who had conducted and collaborated with revolutionary government in the Year 11, most of whom by now no longer occupied any public office, were in effect identified by these measures as public enemies. Nor was their impact confined to Paris. In the provinces, as the spring weather thawed the paralysis of that icebound winter, the new measures proved the signal for an outburst of counter-terror.
It was called ‘White’, implying that its inspiration was royalist. Some of it undoubtedly was: outside Paris, the disillusionment brought by the Convention’s inability to handle the famine conditions of the first half of 1795 produced a surge of nostalgic sentiment for days when kings had seen to their subjects’ basic needs. In the department of the Gard, around that original centre of counter-revolution Nîmes, ‘Companies of the Sun’ emerged to terrorize former terrorists under the direction of men who had never been anything but royalists and were in touch with agents of the Count d’Artois. The ‘Companies of Jesus’ in the Lyons area were similar. But mostly the White Terror was motivated by little more than vengeance for the cruelties and tragedies inflicted by its victims when they had been in power the year before. It was closer to the anarchic terror of 1793 than to the well-organized machine of the subsequent spring. Nor was the guillotine, that symbol of all the counter-terrorists abhorred in their enemies, a feature. White Terror operated through lynch mobs and murder gangs, abductions and ambushes. Its first manifestations predated the Germinal uprising and the crackdown which followed. The first victims at Nîmes, for example—former officers of the Terror butchered by National Guards supposedly escorting them to prison—died late in February. A former judge of the Popular Commission of Orange was lynched at Avignon around the same time. But the real trigger for widespread counter-terror was the Law of 10 April, under which more zealous local authorities, themselves often nominated by resolutely Thermidorian representatives on mission, not only disarmed suspects but imprisoned them into the bargain. As many as 80,000 or 90,000 people may have spent several weeks or months in custody over the summer of 1795. In most parts of the country they emerged no later than the autumn relatively unscathed. But in the Rhône valley, Provence, and eastern Languedoc, where the Terror had been particularly bloody and traditions of vendetta flourished, the imprisonment of former terrorists proved an invitation to massacre them. Thus on 4 May in blooddrenched Lyons, the prisons were systematically attacked by huge crowds and between 100 and 120 of their inmates hacked to death. A week later 60 prisoners perished similarly in Aix, 24 in Tarascon on 25 May, and on 5 June a further 100 were dispatched in Marseilles, with the open connivance of a representative on mission. At Toulon, whose naval activity soon restored patriotic zeal after its recapture from the British, rumours of reactionary anarchy further west led the arsenal workers to organize a pro-Jacobin march on Marseilles to cries of Vive la Montagne! Thousands set out on 17 May, but a week later they were dispersed by a mixed force of regular troops and National Guards, and in addition to the 40 or 50 killed then another 52 were sent to the guillotine by a special military commission established to try those involved. And these were only the most spectacular incidents. Isolated murders, beatings, and other atrocities becamecommonplace throughout the south-east over the summer, perpetrated mostly by gangs of young men much like the Parisian Gilded Youth in their elaborate and ostentatious clothing, arrays of offensive weapons, and determination to evade conscription. Altogether they accounted for perhaps 2,000 victims throughout the south-east in 1795. Nor did their activities stop after the initial explosion of May. In June, in fact, they were spurred on by news of further upheavals in Paris.
Warned by the great demonstration in Germinal, the Convention decreed the supplementation of bread rations in Paris with rice and biscuits when it was deficient: but the still chronic shortage of fuel meant that rice remained uncookable, and meanwhile the bread shortage got worse. There were simply no untapped reserves of grain anywhere in France, and British control of the sea kept supplies from abroad completely uncertain. Thus rations in Paris continued to diminish in April and May, and only the weather improved. ‘All Paris’, noted a diarist on 22 April,13 ‘has been reduced today to a quarter pound of bread each. Never has Paris found itself in such distress’; but by the beginning of May it was down to two ounces. Populist gestures like the execution of Fouquier-Tinville and other personnel of the Revolutionary Tribunal on 7 May failed to divert the starving populace. As news came in of victorious peace signed with Holland, with Prussia, and with Spain all people asked was why the nation which could dictate to Europe was unable to feed its own citizens. Frantic women threw accusations of cowardice at their menfolk for not storming the Convention and insisting on more bread at whatever cost, while royalists continued to fish in these troubled waters by insinuating that only a king could restore abundance. As before the Germinal demonstration, however, it was the remnants of the sansculottes who were most listened to, and this time they began to organize themselves for a journée that would succeed. Sectional assemblies began to meet regularly, as in the old days, some declared themselves to be in permanent session, and by 15 May rumours were rife that a new explosion was imminent. On the nineteenth the signal was given by the publication of an anonymous pamphlet entitledPeople’s Insurrection to Obtain Bread and Recover our Rights, and the next morning the familiar sound of the tocsin was heard in the eastern working districts north and south of the river. In the revolutionary calendar it was 1 Prairial.
Urged on by frenzied women, men left their workshops and began marching on the Convention hall. ‘Everybody’, the same diarist noted,14 ‘was in a massacring mood’, and it was not improved when the first groups to arrive were driven out of the public galleries by attendants with whips. But by early afternoon the Convention was surrounded by armed National Guards from the Saint-Antoine and Saint-Marcel districts, and when the deputy Féraud and a group of colleagues tried to stop them entering the hall, he was shot. The crowd then hacked off his head and burst through the doors carrying it on a pike, to the sound of more shots and cries of Bread and the Constitution of 1793! And once inside, the insurgents demanded more: the release of imprisoned patriots, permanent sessions in the sections, reintegration of an independent Paris commune, compulsory food searches, the arrest of returned émigrés and of deputies who persecuted Jacobins. Vive la Montagne! they cried, and this time their force seemed so overwhelming that the deputies of the ‘Crest’, so far from asking them to leave, publicly took up their demands. But earlier in the day the governing committees had issued a general appeal for troops and armed citizens to come to the Convention’s rescue, and while excited Montagnards were compromising themselves inside the hall loyal forces were massing outside. When motions to remodel or disband the committees began to be put, these forces were called in, and around midnight they at last drove the sansculottes from the hall with some violence, although no further shots were fired. But the crisis was still far from over. Throughout the small hours the insurgents issued appeals for reinforcements to the sansculottes of Saint-Antoine, and the National Guards of the eastern sections responded by bringing out their artillery. By mid-afternoon on 21 May they were drawn up outside the Convention with a crowd of 20,000 in support. Perhaps twice that number confronted them, but they were not all reliable: at one point some of their gunners defected to the other side. Yet nobody was keen to open fire. Although there were plenty of regular troops on the Convention’s side, there were also thousands of ordinary citizens barely distinguishable from those who faced them, and just as hungry. So that when the Convention declared itself willing to receive a petition the insurgents seized the opportunity with obvious relief. It asked once more for bread and the constitution of 1793, and the former at least was solemnly promised. The rebels dispersed.
They had lost the initiative, and they never regained it. The Convention had already shown in the early hours, once the hall had been cleared of intruders, what it really thought of the sansculottes’ demands by burning the record of all the votes taken under popular duress, and decreeing the arrest of the eleven Montagnard deputies who had moved them. Many thought (and some historians still think) that the governing committees deliberately allowed the Crest time to incriminate itself before unleashing their own forces. But once they had done so the Montagnards’ fate was certain. Accused not merely of taking advantage of the attempted insurrection but also (quite unjustifiably) of planning it, they were sent for trial before a special commission on 12 June. One of them killed himself beforehand, and his example gave the others a lead when the inevitable conviction was pronounced on 17 June. Six were condemned to death, but four cheated the guillotine by stabbing themselves as they were led from the court, in what they appear to have planned in advance as an ultimate act of exemplary patriotic defiance. By then, too, they knew about the vengeance visited on those they had sought to lead on 1 Prairial. The very day after the confrontation of 21 May, the Convention gave orders to surround the entire Saint-Antoine district. As regular troops moved slowly up, some sections hesitated to commit their National Guards to a plainly punitive action, especially in concert with jubilant Muscadins now massing outside the barricades thrown up by the district’s inhabitants. A first attempt by the Muscadins to invade the area was repulsed. But as the ring tightened, outside sections came into line behind the Convention’s demand that the murderers of Féraud should be given up, along with all arms. The next morning the three surrounded sections recognized that there could be no successful resistance. They surrendered, and within days Féraud’s assassins had been guillotined. Nor did repression end there. The commission which condemned the Montagnard deputies also executed 36 others, among them the gunners who had gone over to the rebels on 21 May; perhaps 3,000 suspects were arrested by the Convention’s decree; and all the sections obediently disarmed or arrested dubious individuals whom they were invited to identify—almost another 3,000 persons in all. For years afterwards, whenever the political pendulum swung to the right, these same individuals would be rearrested as potentially dangerous characters. But most of them had only been dangerous in the context of an organized popular movement: and that, emasculated in 1794, was finally destroyed for ever by the failure of this last sansculotte insurrection in 1795.
Naturally there was no question now of implementing the constitution of 1793—if indeed there ever had been. Already in February leading deputies had agreed that it would be completely unworkable and needed total revision—and now it was also a standard of rebellion. Yet the Convention remained aware that, like the Constituent before it, its basic reason for existence was to present France with a constitution that would give stable and enduring expression to the Revolution’s ideals. But did that aspiration exclude monarchy? Monarchist sentiment had clearly burgeoned during the economic distress of the spring, and perhaps some more conservative deputies hoped that Louis XVII, brought up by sound constitutionalists, might yet become an acceptable monarch. But on 8 June the 10-year-old orphan died of scrofula, the very disease so many in 1775 had still believed his father’s touch could cure. The Count de Provence, who ever since the execution of Louis XVI had styled himself regent of France, at once proclaimed himself Louis XVIII; and on 25 June, from his exile in Verona, he issued a declaration which completely destroyed any hope of agreement with the men who ruled the kingdom he claimed. In it he announced that once restored he would bring back the three orders in society, the Church, and in fact the whole old regime with the exception of certain unspecified ‘abuses’. There would be no taxation without the consent of the Estates-General, but he made no promises about how often they would meet. Nor did he mention the crucial issue of the national lands. He did offer an amnesty to his erring subjects, but not to regicide deputies. In short he did nothing to reassure anybody whose support would be essential for a successful restoration, and cut the ground even from under constitutional monarchists who hoped for a return to something like the constitution of 1791. He made a Bourbon restoration by agreement impossible. Yet in June 1795 that scarcely seemed to matter. Confident counter-revolutionaries were about to attempt it by force.