Sunday, July 27, 2008

27-28 July 1794 (9-10 Thermidor II): The Fall of Robespierre and his Faction

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.

In the National Convention, Jean-Lambert Tallien proclaimed:
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.

Robespierre  (who was not head of government and held no official position at the time) was overthrown by an unholy alliance of radicals and reactionaries, which his personal failings and political miscalculations had helped to forge.  Part of Robespierre's mistake lay in his attempt to ratchet up the so-called "Terror"--which he defined simply as severe and inflexible justice, a response to the crisis of foreign invasion and domestic counterrevolution--at a time when military success seemed at last to have rendered it superfluous.  The Terror had saved the Revolution, and the nation was exhausted.

Some of his opponents sought to end the Terror, while others, who had been responsible for its worst excesses, feared that he was about to call them to account.  At bottom, both acted primarily out of self-interest. 
Tallien, for example, was a notorious participant in the Terror, who, as Representative on Mission in Bordeaux enthusiastically urged revolutionaries to "feed the 'holy guillotine.'"  After becoming romantically involved with the aristocratic Thérésa Cabarrús, he opportunistically tacked to the right.  Recalled to Paris to account for his bloody policies, he helped to overthrow Robespierre out of fear for his own safety, and in order to save his recently jailed mistress.

Unlike the self-serving Tallien, Bertrand Barère, another member of the group that overthrew Robespierre, later (1832) thought better of his actions:
'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.
Historian George Rudé, though acknowledging that Robespierre's missteps and "vanity" and "irascible sensitivity" contributed to his downfall, goes on to assert:
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.
The so-called "Terror" was not coincidentally the most progressive period of the Revolution, which achieved many of the objectives that we now take for granted: universal male suffrage, national public education, and the abolition of slavery. When Robespierre died, an essential element of the Revolution died with him.  Tallien declared in 1794, "the French people will be never governed by a master," but only 5 years later, Napoleon Bonaparte seized power in a coup d'état, and 5 years after that, crowned himself Emperor.

The 9th of Thermidor has given rise to the term, "Thermidorian reaction," as a characteristic phase of political retrenchment in Crane Brinton's celebrated typology of revolutionary behavior.


• Robespierre, Discours et histoire
• Robespierre's last address to the National Convention, 8 Thermidor (from the Bibliothèque Nationale)

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