Robespierre: Aquatint portrait by Levachez;
vignette of Robespierre lying wounded after his arrest:
engraving by Duplessi-Bertaux, from a series of portraits of
major figures of the Revolution, 1798/99.
This year, as it happens, the Gregorian and Revolutionary calendars are close. Today, 27 July 2008, is 8 Thermidor, Year CCXVI.
On 27 July 1794--the 9th of Thermidor, Year 2, by the new Revolutionary calendar--Maximilien Robespierre and his faction (notably, Georges Couthon and Louis-Antoine Saint-Just) were denounced and arrested. They were guillotined the following day. For their opponents, most of the contemporary world, and much of posterity, it was a victory.
This is one of liberty's finest days: the conspirators' heads have just fallen on the scaffold. (Loud applause.) The Republic triumphs, and the same blow shakes the thrones of the tyrants of the world. This example will convince them, if they could still doubt it, that the French people will be never governed by a master. (Renewed applause.) Let us go and join our fellow citizens, let us go and share the general joy; they day of a tyrant's death is a festival for brotherhood.
from Richard T. Bienvenu, ed., The Ninth of Thermidor: The Fall of Robespierre (NY: Oxford University Press, 1968), 239.In fact, the historical truth is far more complex.
'He was a man without personal ambition, a Republican to his fingertips,' said Barère; 'his misfortune was to have aspired to a dictatorship, which he believed to be the only means to arrest the spread of evil passions. . . . we also knew that he would have sent us to the guillotine as men opposed to his projects; and so we overthrew him. Since then, I have thought much about this man. I have seen that his dominating passion was to establish a Republican government and that those whom he wished to bring to justice were the men whose opposition stood in the way of such a government. Would to heaven there were in the Chamber of Deputies today someone to point to point to those who conspire against our freedom! We were then in the middle of a war, and we did not understand this man. . . . . His was the temperament of many great men, and posterity will not refuse him this title!'. . . .He was a man of purity and integrity, a true Republican. It was his vanity, his irascible sensibility, and his unjust suspicions of his colleagues that were the cause of his downfall . . . . It was a great calamity!'--recollections of Barère, in George Rudé, ed., Robespierre, Great Lives Observed (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall Spectrum Books, 1967), 121-22.
these . . . are relatively minor matters and, in terms of the role he played in history, do little to alter the score. The French Revolution was one of great landmarks in modern history. No other single event did so much to destroy the aristocratic society and absolutist institutions of Old Europe and to lay the groundwork for new societies--both bourgeois and socialist--that, on every continent, have risen from their ashes since. To this transformation Robespierre made a signal contribution: not only as the Revolution's outstanding leader at every stage of its most vigorous and creative years; but also as the first great champion of democracy and the people's rights. And this, essentially, is what establishes his claim to greatness.
George Rudé, Robespierre: Portrait of a Revolutionary Democrat (NY: Viking Press, 1975), 213.