Hello, and welcome to Revolutions.
So, last time, the Revolution ate some of her most famous children, gobbling them up at the behest of her friends on the Committee of Public Safety. According to Robespierre, their factional partisanship threatened to lead France off the narrow path to the virtuous promised land he clearly believed it was his destiny to lead France to. Translated into more practical language, the Ultras and the Indulgents had both posed a political threat to the dictatorship of the Committee of Public Safety and thus had to be eliminated.
Today, we will see the Committee complete its consolidation of power, leading directly to the so called Great Terror, which ran the streets of Paris red with blood, and in the process, convinced a lot of people that Robespierre was not going to stop until he had killed everyone that did not meet his exacting revolutionary standards.
On February 5, 1794, that is, two months before Danton and his guys were executed, Robespierre had defined those exacting revolutionary standards. In a speech to the Convention called Report on the Principles of Public Morality, he laid out the philosophical framework that ought to now guide government policy. He started out by saying that up until now, the Revolution had not been guided by any exact theory or precise rules of conduct, which yeah, tell me about it. The time had come, though, to finally lay some out. So he said, what is the goal toward which we are headed? The peaceful enjoyment of liberty and equality, the reign of that eternal justice whose laws have been inscribed not in marble and stone, but in the hearts of all men.
So what he’s talking about here is a democratic republic founded not on mere laws, but rather in something deeper: psychological and emotional. So he is moving the Revolution away from Montesquieu and towards Rousseau. Then he asked them, what is the fundamental principles of popular or democratic government? That is to say, the essential mainspring which sustains it and makes it move? Now, anyone who knew Robespierre, even a little bit, already knew what his answer was going to be. He said, it is virtue! Now, luckily, being the occasionally good disciple of Rousseau that he was, Robespierre believed that virtue was natural to the people and that it was only through the corrupting influence of intriguers and despots that it was corrupted. So he said that naturally, the first rule of your political conduct should be to let all your measures tend to maintain quality and encourage virtue. So the first care of the legislature should be to strengthen the principles on which the government rests. So what Robespierre is saying is that first we need to ensure the people are virtuous, and then we can have our perfect republic. And this is radically different from the assumptions of James Madison and the founders of the American republic, who explicitly built their constitution on the assumption that men were not virtuous animals at all. And maybe that’s why they didn’t have to chop off as many heads.
Robespierre then transitioned into talking about how to found this Republic of Virtue, because he recognized that the tempest of the times meant that virtue alone was not enough. He said:
If the main spring of popular government in peacetime is virtue, amid Revolution it is at once virtue and terror. Virtue without which terror is fatal, terror without which virtue is impotent. Terror is nothing but prompt, severe and inflexible justice. It is therefore an emanation of virtue.
So now we’re getting to the good stuff, where virtue can only be achieved when the wicked are purged from the body politique and the virtuous are scared into being anything but virtuous.
But Robespierre knows what you’re about to ask, and so he asks it for you. He asked, but hasn’t it been said that terror is the spring of despotic government? Does yours then resemble despotism? Yes, Robespierre answered himself, but the government in a Revolution is the despotism of liberty against tyranny. Is force only intended to protect crime? Is not the lightning of heaven made to blast vice exalted?
He refers to the terror as the steel that glistens in the hands of the heroes of liberty. So where we’re at now is the belief that the people are naturally virtuous, that they’ve been corrupted, and what is needed is a vanguard of warriors to clear out everything standing between the people and their natural virtue, which will then manifest itself in a glorious republic of equality and liberty where the nation will secure the comfort of the individual and an individual prides himself on the prosperity and glory of his country.
So Robespierre is describing like a symbiotic organism made up of pure republican virtue that will then, I guess, at some point disappear in a flash of white light up to a higher plane of existence, or, you know, collapse under the weight of a pile of heads and then get taken over by a little Corporal from Corsica, whichever comes first.
Now, Robespierre delivered this great speech, possibly the defining speech of his career, just before he took a month sickly from the public stage. But when he came back in March, it was clearly with the Republic of Virtue in mind that he aimed at immediately purging those dangerous factions which in and of themselves were evil because they divided the people from the government and the people from each other. All of it, of course, was being funded by foreign enemies, which is why it was no problem to kill them all. They were not true citizens. They were strangers, alien enemies outside the protection of even human empathy.
Upon delivering the indictment of the Indulgents to the Convention, Robespierre’s young ally and collaborator, Saint Just promised that this would be the end of the political killings, that with this last of the factions liquidated, the process of virtuous regeneration could begin unimpeded. Now, it’s hard to tell if he was lying through his teeth or just magnificently self diluted, but whichever it was, Robespierre and Saint Just were not going to keep that promise at all.
To ensure that the virtuous regeneration continued unimpeded, the Committee of Public Safety purged the General Assembly of the Paris Commune so that there would be one less cesspool for factionalism to spread out from. Anyone deemed insufficiently loyal to the Committee was barred from taking their seats. The more prominent men of the Commune were, of course, arrested and executed, and in their places, new, more reliable delegates were appointed, a task handled personally by Robespierre, which will become important next week when we follow the climactic drama of the Thermidorian Reaction.
Following up on the purge of the Commune, Robespierre then led the Committee of Public Safety to attack another possible hotbed of factionalism. This time, the target was the Committee of General Security. Now, it’s easy to get these two Committees confused, so just to remind you of the difference, the Committee of General Security predated the Committee of Public Safety. It had been the first stab at creating an Executive Council to run the country. But for a variety of reasons, it didn’t work the way it was supposed to and was supplanted by the Committee of Public Safety in March 1793.
But in the power transfer, the Committee of General Security retained jurisdiction over domestic policing and the pursuit of counterrevolutionaries. It was kind of a national police force. Now, during the consolidating moves that eventually culminated with the Law of 14 Frimaire, the Committee of General Security had been made subordinate to the Committee of Public Safety. But despite its nominal subservience, it continued to operate as its own independent thing. And given its mandate, it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that the leaders of the Committee of General Security tended to skew Ultra. And a few of its leading members had been very anti Christian and pro terror, and thus they were now suspect in the eyes of Robespierre.
So those leaders of the Committee of General Security did not miss the blatant shot across their bow fired by Robespierre on April 16. Saint Just came down to the Convention to introduce a new law creating a Bureau of General Policing within the Committee of Public Safety. This new bureau would have jurisdiction over, that’s right, domestic policing and the pursuit of counterrevolutionary suspects. Assigned to the Bureau were Robespierre, Saint Just, and George Couthon, who now formed a pretty tight little clique within the Committee. Obviously, the intent of this new Bureau was to make the Committee of General Security redundant and knowing Robespierre, probably as a prelude to purging and executing the suspect leaders of that Committee.
All that said, it should not really come as a surprise to you that some of the prime movers of the Thermidorian Reaction were those threatened leaders on the Committee of General Security. So in a way, Robespierre’s paranoia was now becoming self fulfilling. By seeing enemies around every corner, he was making enemies around every corner. The incorruptible was starting to denounce everyone in sight. In a Committee of Public Safety meeting, he made veiled threats at Lazare Carnot, the organizer of victory who was pretty apolitical at this point. Secure in his position, Carnot scoffed at Robespierre and basically said, bring it on, little man.
But feeling less secure were the two radicals on the committee, Collot d’Herbois and Billaud-Varennes. With the sans-culottes now effectively broken as a political force, these two sans-culottes members of the committee recognized that it might not be long before they were identified as expendable and executed.
But Robespierre’s real bogeyman these days was a conspiracy that was allegedly being hatched between old allies of Danton and returning representatives on mission who had been recalled following the Law of 14 Frimaire. Specifically, Robespierre was worried about Joseph Fouché, the guy who had gotten dechristianization started.
Now I’m frankly shocked Fouché hasn’t been arrested and executed already. He was back in Paris by early April and would have made a juicy target. But for whatever reason, he was never picked up. Now, I don’t know whether there was a conspiracy between the old Danton allies and the representatives on mission before Robespierre dreamed it up. But as soon as they all got word that the virtuous little devil suspected them, well, they had better get going with a conspiracy to overthrow him or it would be all of their heads.
A month later, the Committee of Public Safety made another consolidation move when they decided that the various local revolutionary tribunals that had sprouted up over the past year could no longer be trusted to implement revolutionary justice. Some were going cuckoo bananas one way and just indiscriminately slaughtering people. Others were barely doing anything. So on May 8, 1794, the various Provincial Tribunals were closed. All suspects were now to be carted into Paris to have their fate determined. But of course, this decision inevitably led to, you guessed it, massive overcrowding in the Paris prisons. So, almost overnight, the pressures of overcrowding needed to be addressed. And addressed it soon would be.
But before we get into the Law of 22 Prairial and the beginning of the Great Terror, we need to swing back through the mind of Robespierre and deal with his fancy new religion. Now, unlike the Ultras who saw religion as an enemy of France, Robespierre saw religion as one of the great vehicles for the promotion of virtue. With the Commune now practically under Robespierre’s personal control, it goes without saying that dechristianization immediately ground to a halt. But Robespierre did not intend to follow this up with a rechristianization of France. He wanted to follow it up instead by introducing a new cult that would bridge the divide between the old superstitions of Christianity and the new rationalism of the Enlightenment.
So probably since the Cult of Reason had first burst onto the scene a few months earlier, Robespierre had been spending his free time cooking up a civic religion of his own, one that he hoped would supplant the sacrilegious atheism of Jacques Hébert and his boys, and he called it the Cult of the Supreme Being. On May the 7th, George Couthon came down to the Convention and announced that in one month’s time, there would be a great Festival of the Supreme Being. Municipalities across the country were ordered to prepare for local celebrations to coincide with the Paris launch of the new cult.
With almost no notice, all those municipalities scrambled to put something together. And in one of history’s little ironies, the local leaders just went and dusted off all the old props they had used for the atheistic Festival of Reason that they had been instructed to celebrate back in October. But let’s just not tell Robespierre, okay?
In Paris, meanwhile, there would obviously be no such recycling of materials, and Robespierre handed planning of the Festival over to Jacques Louis David, who by now was the all purpose art director of the French Revolution. Having stage managed both the funeral of Marat and the Festival of the Unity and Indivisibility of the Republic, David was getting pretty good at throwing the Revolution’s theme nights. And for the Festival of the Supreme Being, he attempted to outdo his own high standards.
He had construction crews working round the clock building something out in the middle of the Champ de Mars and then devised an elaborate processional to celebrate both the Cult of the Supreme Being and the man who was bringing it to France, Maximilien Robespierre.
On June 4, Robespierre was, conveniently enough, elected President of the Convention so that he could lead the official processional and give the major speeches merely because he was President of the Convention, not because he was a would-be tyrant with a messiah complex. Not that at all.
On June 8, a glorious day by the by, Robespierre stood next to one of David’s most ingenious works of public art, a giant effigy of atheism. Now, everyone must have been wondering what Robespierre was delivering a speech dedicated to the Supreme Being next to a huge statue of atheism. But upon completing the speech, it all became clear. At the climax of the speech, the effigy was lit on fire, and as it burned, a second statue hidden inside the first started to emerge. Ooh, What’s that? What could it be? When the fire and smoke cleared, a great statue of wisdom was left standing in place of destroyed atheism. Everyone was suitably impressed.
When the statue within the statue trick was played out, the procession moved on to the Champ de Mars. There, everyone beheld what David’s construction crews had been building. It was a huge replica of a mountain built from cardboard and plaster. On top was a liberty tree, and just next to it was a 50 foot high column anchoring the mountain, atop which was a statue of Hercules, one of David’s favorite symbols for this phase of the Revolution. And this time, Hercules held liberty in his hands, protecting her from danger.
When everyone was gathered around, I kid you not, Robespierre descended from the mountain to deliver another stirring lecture on the glories of virtue and the republic. To borrow a phrase from Simon Shama, Robespierre was presenting himself as nothing less than Jacobin Moses.
To the growing list of men who now consider Robespierre the most dangerous man in France, watching all of this unfold cannot have done anything but give them ulcers because clearly Robespierre was moving into the direction of crazy Roman emperor land.
Two days after the Festival of the Supreme Being, everyone’s ulcers got a little more acute when Saint Just came down to the Convention to deliver the latest new decree from the Committee of Public Safety. And in case you’re wondering, it’s right around this period that young Saint Just gets dubbed the Angel of Death, since he was the one who was always coming down to deliver the news to the Convention that this batch of former stalwart revolutionaries were now deemed enemies of the state. Or, for example, right now, when he came down and announced the beginning of the Great Terror. Of course, he didn’t call it the Great Terror. That’s just a label we’ve slapped on it after the fact.
What San Just brought down to the Convention was the now infamous Law of 22 Prairial, that is June 2, 1794. The law took the already streamlined revolutionary tribunal process and made it even more streamlined, if you can believe that. We’ve already seen show trials like Marie Antoinette that barred the defendant from having counsel, but technically speaking, counsel was still allowed. Well, not anymore. And all Danton’s bluster about his right to call witnesses, he was right about that. Witnesses were supposed to be a part of the process, but not anymore. The Law of 22 Prairial made it virtually impossible for a defendant to, well, defend themselves.
Also introduced were a fun new array of potential crimes, like slandering patriotism, spreading false news and my personal favorite: seeking to inspire disagreement. Citizens were not only empowered to apprehend or denounce men and women guilty of these anti-patriotic crimes, but they were required to do so. Failure to come forward was proof of your own complicity, which, as you can imagine, led to an atmosphere of paranoia, mutual distrust and hair-trigger accusations. Oh, also, there would be no more middle ground. The re-reformed Tribunal now had two possible verdicts: acquittal or death.
With the prisons of Paris already overstuffed, indeed that was one of the driving forces behind the law, the newly, newly reformed tribunal got to work clearing out the damned. Executions in the capital had been waning in the first few months of 1794, but in June, they skyrocketed back up again. Now, as I’ve mentioned previously, there are about 2,600 official victims of the Terror executed in Paris. Of those, nearly two thirds would be killed right now in June and July 1794. And that’s why it’s called the Great Terror.
But in the grand scheme of things, remember, the total number of people killed in the Terror was about 16,000. About 1,500 thus represents less than 10% of the total victims. So, yes, the pace quickened dramatically after 22 Prairial and had Thermidor not come along and shut it down, it might have just kept accelerating. But personally, when I think of the worst of the Terror, I think Lyon and Nantes and the bloodbath that immediately followed the fall of Toulon. So the label the Great Terror, I think, betrays a little bit of a Paris-centric worldview, because this was when the Terror was the worst in Paris.
But the Great Terror in Paris does have one kind of cool thing going for it. Cool in an extremely morbid way. The Great Terror of June and July 1794 is when the Terror most resembled the standard portrayal of the Reign of Terror. That is that it was a bunch of zealous Jacobin revolutionaries cutting off the heads of every damned aristocrat they could get their hands on. Now in the main, aristocrats made up a very small percentage of the total victims of the Terror. Most of them emigrated a long time ago, so it was mostly peasants from the Vendée getting beheaded, not dukes from Versailles.
But during the Great Terror, whole noble families were targeted as a group and executed with their only crime really being that they were noble. During the Great Terror, aristocrats made up close to 30% of the victims and if you threw in the extra clergymen, you’re now talking about 50% of the victims. So when the people portray the Terror as a process of exterminating the nobility, kindly remind them that, yes, this may have been true, but it was really only in the early summer of 1794.
There’s one other super interesting thing about the Great Terror, and this super interesting thing is what I think ultimately undoes Robespierre and gets him overthrown. As we’ve seen, the bloodiness of the Revolution tracks pretty well with the fortunes of the French Army. Things going good out on the frontiers, no massacres, things start going bad? Well, it was the invasion of France that triggered the insurrection of August 10 and the massacre of the Swiss Guards. And then it was the imminent arrival of that Allied army into Paris that triggered the September Massacres.
After Valmy and the push into Belgium, things were pretty cool. But then Dumouriez defected and things started turning against France and suddenly everything went to hell again. It was the great crisis of the Summer of 1793; Federalist revolt, Vendée uprising setbacks in Belgium that led to the Reign of Terror in the first place. So you would think that if the Terror is going to get ratcheted up again, that there must have been something gnarly going out on the frontier, some great defeat, some danger about to pounce. But instead, no, nothing. Things are actually going great for France. That’s what makes the Great Terror unique. It was emphatically, not driven by some military crisis. And Robespierre’s enemies are going to be quick to point this out.
So I want to end today by circling around to check in on all our various warfronts, to make sure that everything is in fact cool, so that next week we’ll be able to come back to Paris and say to Robespierre, dude, there is no emergency so lighten up, Francis.
We’ll start this time out in the west with the Vendée uprising. After the failed run to Granville marked the end of the Catholic and Royal Army, the Republicans settled into brutally reassert control of the region and punish the rebels. We’ve already talked about the horrors unleashed by Jean Baptiste Carrier and his Republican Baptisms, but what he was up to now in Nantes was only a drop in the bucket compared to the bloody flood that washed across the Vendée beginning in January 1794. And I speak now of the Infernal Columns.
The Infernal Columns had first been cooked up back in August 1793, when the fires of insurrection were still raging out of control. But it had taken six months to get it all organized and decide that they were really going to go through with it. Twelve army columns, numbering about 65,000 men, under the command of an otherwise innocuous general named Louis Marie Turreau were to march into the Vendée with a single mission to exterminate the civilian population.
Now this may seem harsh, but there was a simple, if brutal, calculus at work. As many leaders throughout history who have faced a guerrilla insurgency will tell you, differentiating enemy fighters from innocent civilians is nearly impossible. They all look the same. Plus, in the minds of the Convention, there were no innocent civilians in the Vendée. There were men who fought and then the families who kept those fighters fed, supplied and hidden. They were all collectively guilty and with the war still raging, this drastic policy that bordered on genocide seemed justifiable. With the benefit of hindsight, though, the Column is getting moving in January 1794 after the Catholic and Royal Army has been beaten, beaten again and beaten some more. Well, now it just looks like murderous, destructive revenge. And that is not a good look for anyone.
The Columns got rolling on January 21, 1794, and they carried out their orders. They killed men and women and children, they destroyed homes, they burned villages, they destroyed everything in their path. Then they moved on and repeated the process. So just as Robespierre was droning on about the virtue of virtue, the Infernal Columns were cutting a truly terrifying swath through the Vendée. And the numbers are staggering. Somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 people were killed between January and May 1794. None of those deaths are counted in the official Reign of Terror victims list because they were not processed by any sort of Tribunal. They were just killed with guns, knives, clubs, torches, and presumably a few with bare hands.
This ugly slaughter even turned the stomachs of the men carrying it out. And it is without a doubt one of the most unjustifiably horrible things that happened in a decade full of unjustifiably horrible things. After Thermidor, the commander of the infernal columns, General Turreau, would be arrested. But eventually a military tribunal would acquit him of any wrongdoing because he was, after all, just following orders; a defense that no longer flies these days.
But whatever moral judgment we can pass on the Republic’s policy in the Vendée, one thing is certain: in June of 1794, the region posed no immediate threat to the Republic. It was simply too busy being exterminated.
Okay, so what about the other great internal threat that had faced the Republican, 1793? The Federalist uprising. Oh, that’s right, Toulon was the last holdout and it had been retaken by the Republic back in December. By June 1794, Federalism had been rotting in an open grave for six months. Federalism just isn’t a thing anymore, so obviously no major emergency on that front.
Okay, so having established that there were no major internal emergencies in the summer of 1794, what about along the frontiers? Well, you go around and it’s pretty much the same story. The Spanish had penetrated across the Pyrenees in 1793, but a reinforced French line had pushed them back in the spring of 1794, and then those guys would just keep rolling. By the end of the year, the French would be occupying Spanish territory rather than the other way around. And then over along the Alps, the French made an abortive push into the Piedmont. And yes, it was pushed back, but it’s not like anybody was threatening to spill over onto French soil.
Now, up along the Rhine, a front we haven’t actually talked about that much, things were a little bit stickier. But again, in the end, the first half of 1794 was defined by a couple of French thrusts being turned back by the Allies, not major French defeats. I will, however, mention that the situation on the Rhine might have actually been a major weak point for the French had it not been for the furious and nearly superhuman energy of Saint Just.
Just after the Girondins were executed in October 1793, Saint Just was dispatched to reorganize the army of the Rhine, which was apparently suffering from pretty poor morale and a general breakdown of discipline. Saint Just came sweeping in and whipped them all into shape and forcing some pretty severe disciplinary measures. But unlike most military disciplinaries, Saint Just was actually more sympathetic, if that’s even the right word, to the enlisted troops rather than the officers. Saint Just listened to complaints from put upon privates, and he had no qualms about putting an offending officer against the wall and having him shot.
When the Law of 14 Frimaire passed in December, the army, like everything else, now answered directly to the Committee of Public Safety. As the Committee’s representative, Saint Just dismissed officers he deemed insufficiently energetic and elevated two new generals of very poor lineage who would have languished in obscurity had not the Revolution and Saint Just intervened: Lazare Hoche and Jean-Charles Pichegru. The latter, nothing more than the son of a peasant.
With the army of the Rhine straightened out and under new ownership, the French spent the end of December defeating the Allied army’s raid against them and holding the line ably. By the Spring of 1794, there was another shake up that is way too high school drama to get into, with Pichegru denouncing Hoche and Hoche getting arrested, but not executed. But the bottom line for us right now is there’s no military crisis on the Rhine frontier in June 1794.
So that brings us around finally to the all important Belgian frontier, where, far from a crisis, the French armies are about to achieve permanent ascendancy. With no prominent geographical barriers in the way, the Belgian frontier is where both sides had to concentrate their troops in the Spring of 1794. The French had nearly 200,000 men facing off against about 150,000 allies. The levée en masse, combined with the strategy of the amalgame, meant that not only were the French numerically superior, they were also not going to be slouches in the field.
Also, after his work along the Rhine seemed to pay off so handsomely, Saint Just did the same for the army of the north, bringing strict discipline and a sense of energetic purpose to the French army. That is, when he wasn’t back in Paris handing out death sentences to the enemies of the Committee of Public Safety.
The Allies, for their part, had finally given up on the whole strategy of let’s let France collapse on its own. And so they planned to open 1794 by carving out a road to Paris and then charging hard at the Capitol to kill the revolutionary beast once and for all. They’d laid siege to one of those frontier fortresses everyone was so fond of laying siege to and they spent April successfully fending off the French attempts to relieve their fortress. But then the French opened up a whole new front away from the besieged city and scored a couple of hard fought victories. They then suffered a tough defeat at Tournay at the end of May. But a month later, the French and Allies squared off at Fleurus on June 26.
The French were led by Jean Baptiste Jourdan, who, since his victories back in October, had actually been fired for insubordination and nearly lost his head. But he was recalled after the French defeat at Tournay, and wound up getting the credit for one of the greatest victories of the revolutionary wars. The Battle of Fleurus was actually not really a French victory, so much as it was an Allied admission of defeat. With their whole offensive stalling out and the Battle of Fleurus turning into an indecisive stalemate, the Allies decided to pull back. And then they kept pulling back.
Clearly, a decision had been made among the Allied commanders that a quick plunge to Paris was no longer in the cards, and that with the French continuing to mass men and guns, that their foothold in the Low Countries was undefendable. After Fleurus, the Allies evacuated Belgium, leaving it wide open for French occupation. So, like I say, not only was there no crisis, but the French just won a stunning victory.
Saint Just just so happened to be present for the Battle Fleurus, and he rushed back to Paris to personally deliver the fantastic news. But what he found when he arrived was not a united capital ready to celebrate the great victory, but instead, everyone holding long knives and glowering at everyone else. And far from being yet another major feather in the cap of the Committee of Public Safety’s pretty impressive turnaround of the war effort, the victory at Fleurus and the Allied evacuation of Belgium only bolstered the case of the Committee’s enemy that Robespierre had become a mad tyrant who had no justifiable reason for continuing the terror, except to exterminate all his personal enemies.
Next week, they are going to strike at him before he can get to them, and they will bring Act One of the French Revolution to a final bloody close.
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