Monday, August 3, 2009

27-28 July 1794/9-10 Thermidor Year 2: Overthrow of Robespierre and the Radical Revolutionaries

On the night of 9 Thermidor of the Year II of the French Republic, a sordid alliance of convenience between conservatives and bloodthirsty ultraradicals arrested Maximilien Robespierre and his allies on the Committee of Public Safety. The next day the plotters had their victims summarily executed.

Introducing his fundamentally dishonest edition of Robespierre's papers, which deliberately falsified the record through selectivity and distortion, Edme-Bonaventure Courtois painted Robespierre as at once weak, vain, and sinister, willing to do anything to achieve his selfish ends:
Jeter dans les fers les talens, l'esprit, la vertu, la science et les richesses; imprimer la terreur à tous, au point que ceux qui n'étaient point incarcérés, n'osassent parler, de peur de l'être: et pour imprimer cette terreur, faire sortir de terre des guillotines, semer par-tout des tribunaux à la Fouquier, à la Dumas; enchaîner la plume des journalistes contraire à ses vues . . .
(Rapport fait au nom de la Commission chargée de l'examen des papiers trouvés chez Robespierre et ses complices . . . {Paris: Conventional Nationale, An 3}, 31)
For his opponents, it was the end of tyranny.

Seen from a more modern and sober perspective, it was the end of the socially most progressive phase of the French Revolution.

Robespierre, whose reputation has suffered for some two centuries from the blind hostility and tendentious distortions of his enemies, was in fact a far more complex and tragic figure than either they or most of us even today realize. Far from being a bloodthirsty monster, the man who had in his early career opposed the death penalty and later argued against attempting to promulgate political principles (we might call it regime change today) by military conquest, wrestled throughout his career with the problem of reconciling political reform and democracy when both concepts were new and untested, under crisis conditions:
It is the function of government to guide the moral and physical energies of the nation toward the purposes for which it was established.

The object of constitutional government is to preserve the Republic; the object of revolutionary government is to establish it.

Revolution is the war waged by liberty against its enemies; a constitution is that which crowns the edifice of freedom once victory has been won and the nation is at peace.

The revolutionary government has to summon extraordinary activity to its aid precisely because it is at war. It is subjected to less binding and less uniform regulations, because the circumstances in which it finds itself are tempestuous and shifting, above all because it is compelled to deploy, swiftly and incessantly, new resources to meet new and pressing dangers.

The principal concern of constitutional government is civil liberty; that of revolutionary government, public liberty. Under a constitutional government little more is required than to protect the individual against abuses by the state, whereas revolutionary government is obliged to defend the state itself against the factions that assail it from every quarter.

—"On Revolutionary Government," 25 December 1793

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