Wednesday, July 28, 2010

27-28 July 1794 (9-10 Thermidor, Year 2) Fall of Robespierre and His Allies (I)

Portrait of Maximilien de Robespierre, oil on ...Image via Wikipedia
On the night of 9 Thermidor, Year 2 of the French Revolution (27 July, old style), Maximilien Robespierre, who had only recently been elected President of the National Convention (legislature) by an unprecedented majority, was shouted down and, together with his key allies, placed under arrest.  Ironically, it was exactly a year after he had joined the Committee of Public Safety, which, along with the Committee of General Security, exercised de facto authority over the course of the Revolution and war.  At dawn on the morning of the 10th, he went to the guillotine.
I've posted documents and observations on the event for the past two years (1, 2), so I won't repeat everything I said there.  Suffice it to say that the reputation of Robespierre as either power-hungry or murderous is unfounded.  To be sure, he was a man with flaws, personal and political, but his enemies blackened his reputation. Those who overthrew him were in many cases venal whereas his reputation as "The Incorruptible" was deserved.  And whereas he defined "terror" simply as severe and inflexible revolutionary justice, many of them were bloody-minded men with far more blood on their hands.  His career was a tragic one because it embodied the contradictions and tragedies of the Revolution itself.

This year, I decided to post (serially) a detailed contemporary account that connects the continents.  It fills an "extraordinary" (as in the proverbial news seller's cry, "extra, extra, read all about it!") issue of our own Massachusetts Spy,of Worcester, which the American Antiquarian Society aptly characterizes as "one of the most important and long-lived of American newspapers."  The AAS should know: The founder of that elite organization was none other than Isaiah Thomas, patriot and printer-publisher of the paper. The paper began to appear in Boston in 1770 but on 16 April 1775, as conditions grew more dangerous, he took his equipment westward to the safety of Worcester, which in any case needed a patriot press in both senses of the word.

In fact, it is still possible to see the press on which this issue of the newspaper may have been printed.  Thomas always retained a special fondness for his "Old  'No. 1'," as he called the instrument on which he had learned his trade, and later produced the Spy. He willed it to the AAS, where it is on permanent display.[1]

Typical issues of the paper were 2 quarto sheets (four pages).  This one, though of the same size (approximately 9 x 11 inches, untrimmed), consists of a single leaf.  Presumably it was of some importance to the owner, for it survived, but not without some rough use.  Not only is it browned, soiled and ragged.  Someone—perhaps the person who wrote his name on it in what appears a youthful hand, did mathematical calculations in the margins.

As for the content:  newspapers did not have professional correspondents in that day, so they relied on private contacts or simply reprinted or adapted material from other publications.  Such is the case here, for we are told, "The preceding account was translated from a paper printed near Hamburgh."  There is some ambiguity here.  Normally, I would have bet that the source was the Hamburgischer Unpartheyischer Correspondent, the most thorough and widely circulated newspaper of the day—but since the description says near rather than in Hamburg, one thinks of Altona, a center of publishing.  And if we take "paper" in the loose sense, it might refer to a journal rather than a newspaper. I haven't had time to pursue the matter further. At the least, one sees how long it took news to travel across the Atlantic, for the report is dated July 30, but the newspaper is from the middle of October.  Clearly, the tone of the article is generally hostile, which is not surprising.  Many educated Germans had greeted the revolution as a sort of triumph of philosophy, and so, radicalization and revolutionary violence proved disillusioning.

First installment:

Massachusetts Spy, Extraordinary.

European Affairs.
Decapitation of Roberspierre, & c.
PARIS, July 30.

The day before yesterday were led to the place of execution, and executed, the following persons, viz. Maximilien Roberspierre, aged 35. He had defended himself in a fracas, which had happened in the Commune, with a knife, which took off one half of his face, after which he was carried to the Convention, and was refused to be admitted ; he was then sent to the prison of the Conciergerie, where he was detained until his execution—his head was shown to the people.

  The brother of Roberspierre, who had broken both his legs, as he attempted to escape.
  Couthon, aged 38.
  Saint Just, aged 33.
  General Henriot, aged 33.
  General Lavalette.
  Dumas, President of the Revolutionary Tribune. His head was shown to the people.
  Fleuriot, the Mayor of Paris.
  Fayen, a National Agent ; and twelve Members of the Commune of Paris.

Yesterday, the 29th, 70 conspirators were also executed. The Revolutionary Tribunal, composed for the most part of creatures of Roberspierre, and who pronounced at the least signal he gave, sentence of death upon any one who was pointed at, has been replaced by other Judges. From the 25th to the 27th, 135 people had been sent to the guillotine, by those Judges, who are now deposed. Among them were found, Baron Trenk, the Princess Chiday, de Grunaldy, Princess Monaco, the Countess Marbonne, Countess Perigord, Countess Dossin, the Countess St. Simon, Marquis Dussin, Marquis Montalembert, Duc de Clermont Tonnerre, Count de Thiare, the Bishop of Agda, the learned Chenier, the celebrated Bishop of Montmorency, and the wife of the Marshal d’Armentere.

The very remarkable circumstances which led to the downfall of Roberspierre, who had arrived at the supreme power by the most cruel and bloody means, deserve to be immediately detailed. It is observable, however, that the principal cause of that extraordinary event, is yet buried under the veil of darkness.

Note: I may try to add some annotations, time permitting.

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[1] American Antiquarian Society, Old "No. 1": The Story of Isaiah Thomas & His Printing Press (Worcester: American Antiquarian Society, 1989)

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