Hello, and welcome to Revolutions.
So this week we will mark a major milestone in the history of the French Revolution. It is, in fact, such a major milestone that you could make a strong argument that the Thermidorian Reaction marks the end of the French Revolution. It certainly marks the end of the French Revolution as a great and terrible social experiment that sought to reform, rebuild and remake every aspect of France.
That experiment had begun innocuously enough in May 1789, when the Third Estate demanded nothing more than a voice in government. It had then taken on a life of its own and raced forward without, as Robespierre just put it, an exact theory or precise rules of conduct. That careening experiment culminated in the early summer of 1794 with Robespierre trying to kill his way to the Republic of Virtue. It will end today with the rejection of the incorruptibles bloodsoaked idealism on the fateful day of 9 Thermidor, year II.
After the Thermidorian Reaction, which is what historians call it, the Revolution as such will become far less concerned with lofty philosophical visions. It will instead be about picking through the vast array of reforms unleashed over the past five years, permanently cementing that which worked well, tossing aside that which did not. But for the men who governed France after Thermidor, there was really only two main goals: win the war and stay in power. That was really it.
Like the Rump Parliament from the English Revolution, the coming French Directory would sit atop a very narrow base of support, predicated almost entirely on military victory. They would annul election results they didn’t like, put down popular uprisings by force, and always, always keep an eye out for the next potential threat to their power. So the coming second act of the French Revolution will be more cynical, less idealistic, and ultimately be remembered by history as little more than the furnace within which Napoleon Bonaparte was forged. But like so many other glossed over periods of history that seemed to serve as mere preludes to the next big thing, the second half of the 1790s is rich in drama. The next five years we’ll see multiple uprisings from counterrevolutionary royalists, far left proto-communists, and terminally embittered former Jacobins trying to reclaim control of the Revolution that had slipped from their grasp. So the French Revolution is far from over. I mean, we haven’t even gotten to Gracchus Babeuf in the Conspiracy of Equals yet. And how can you tell the whole story of the French Revolution without Gracchus Babeuf?
But before we move on to Act Two, we need to bring the curtain down on Act One. And we left off last time with the stage set for today’s dramatic climax. Robespierre’s ego and paranoia were expanding so rapidly that a group of men who otherwise had very little in common were being united by the shared threat posed by the incorruptible. The first sign that there might actually be a real backlash against Robespierre came just after the passage of the Law of 22 Prairial. Members of both the Committee of Public Safety and the Committee of General Security were not at all happy about the way the law had been introduced. Crafted by Robespierre and Georges Couthon, no one else had been allowed to see it before it was introduced to the Convention.
Annoyed and not a little unnerved about being cut out of the loop on such an important piece of legislation, the Committee of General Security pointedly refused to act when Robespierre then gave them a list of nine men he believed were engaged in a counter revolutionary conspiracy. And perhaps more importantly, this refusal to act was supported by some of Robespierre’s colleagues on the Committee of Public Safety. So just two months after the committees had closed ranks in mutual solidarity to put down the Ultras and the Indulgents, the rift between Robespierre and everyone else was threatening to break them all apart again.
For the rest of June 1794, Robespierre’s enemies laid the groundwork for a move against him. Now, as I said last time, I don’t know whether there really was a conspiracy between all these guys before Robespierre started to suspect that there was, but there certainly was after Robespierre started to suspect that there was.
As a prelude for our far more cynical post-Thermidorian revolution, the link between the conspirators had nothing to do with ideology or class or belief system. It had to do with the fact that they were all personally afraid of what Robespierre might do to them if he was left to his own devices. So the coup of 9 Thermidor was not about, like, overthrowing the tyranny of the Committee of Public Safety and ushering back in the idealistic and democratic Constitution of 1793, it was about a bunch of guys trying to stay alive for one more day.
The most prominent of the conspirators were drawn from the ranks of those recalled representatives on mission, specifically Joseph Fouché, the arch-dechristianizer and accomplice of Collot d’Herbois in Lyon, then also a 24 year old named Jean Lambert Tallien, who had been the representative sent to deal with Bordeaux during the Federalist revolt.
Tallien was suspicious not because his brand of terror had been too harsh, but because it had been too lenient. He had started out ruthlessly executing Girondin allies in Bordeaux, but then he fell in love with the former wife of an émigré nobleman, and she used her influence to get Tallien to practically stop using the guillotine altogether.
Another of the conspirators who deserve special mention at this point is Paul Barras, who had been the representative down in Marseilles and is about to go on to be the main executive force in the French Directory. So we’ll be talking a lot about Barras in the episodes to come.
Joining the ex representatives in the scheming were three other groups aligning against Robespierre. First were the men who had once been associated with the purged Ultras. Specifically, that meant the Committee of General Security practically as a whole institution, and then the two sans-culottes members of the Committee of Public Safety, Collot d’Herbois and Billaud-Varenne. Second, there was anyone who had ever been on friendly terms with Danton, none of whose names you need to know right now, so let’s not worry about them.
And then third, the war technocrates like Lazare Carnot, who were getting sick of the aggressive, busy bodying of Robespierre. And then especially Saint Just who was starting to fancy himself a military genius who could easily take over the War Department if Carnot had to be discarded. The conspiracy against Robespierre took its first baby steps out into the light when the Committee of General Security was alerted to the recent rantings of an infamous religious nut named Catherine Théot.
Théot had a history of religious cucury dating back to the Ancien Régime. But of late she had been telling her followers that Robespierre was one of the two prophesied messiahs and that he was the herald of the last days. Robespierre’s enemies on the Committee of General Security gleefully launched an investigation of Théot, allegedly looking for evidence that she was a paid foreign agent. But mostly it was an excuse to publicly ridicule Robespierre for his messianic pretensions.
But then Robespierre kind of played into their hands when he intervened with the prosecutor of the revolutionary tribunal and told him in no uncertain terms that the potentially embarrassing trial of Catherine Théot was not going to be moving forward. By the sheer weight of his personal influence, Robespierre got the trial canceled, but at the cost of now appearing more than ever to be aiming at dictatorship.
As the conspiracy grew, tensions both inside the Committee of Public Safety and then between the Committee of Public Safety and the Committee of General Security got worse. Collot d’Herbois and Billaud-Varennes had both clearly become convinced that Robespierre had it in for them. And at a Committee meeting on June 26, both denounced Robespierre as a tyrant, leading Robespierre to such a shaking rage that he boycotted all future meetings of the Committee. After this, he rarely leaves his apartment. He stopped attending committee meetings. He stops attending sessions at the Convention. His only infrequent public appearances came at his beloved Jacobin club, where he could always expect a warm reception.
Now, often this withdrawal is portrayed as Robespierre succumbing to hubris and peak. But I’ve also seen it suggested that he actually suffered a nervous breakdown at this point. And I for one am certainly ready to believe that some part of Robespierre’s brain cracked in early 1794 from nervous exhaustion. I mean, look, he was sick and unavailable for all of February. He disappeared from view for a few weeks just after the trial of Danton, and now here he is again, withdrawing from the public stage at a critical moment in his life and career.
Robespierre had always been a prescient voice of reason and a superb political tactician, but that rationality and clarity of thought are clearly deserting him here by the end. And I think it’s perfectly plausible that Robespierre was not just being an overly sensitive egomaniac here, that he really was starting to crack up mentally.
Now, one thing that helped add to Robespierre’s stress level and his reclusive paranoia was a couple of alleged assassination attempts. Back on May 22, a disgruntled state employee whose department had been shuttered by the revolution’s administrative reforms staked out a spot on a street near the Tuileries Palace carrying two pistols. When Robespierre’s colleague Collot d’Herbois came walking by, the would-be assassin jumped out and fired his two pistols at point blank range. But both misfired, and the guy was quickly apprehended.
But the rumor went around that the guy had actually wanted to kill Robespierre and had just accidentally targeted the wrong man. Then the very next day, a 16 year old girl named Cecile Renault came banging on Robespierre’s door and made such a fuss about getting in that she was detained and searched. I mean, memories of Charlotte Corday were still fresh in everyone’s mind and out came two small daggers. When questioned, the girl was apparently a bit incoherent and babbled a bunch of nonsense, saying at one point that she only wanted to see what a tyrant looked like. And it’s entirely possible that the girl was mentally disturbed. But whether she was really an assassin or not, both the incidents had to put Robespierre’s own mental health already a bit shaky on even shakier ground, and he really does turn into a recluse for his last two months on Earth.
Meanwhile, out in the world, the cracks in the dictatorship of the Committee of Public Safety continued to widen. One of the major problems was that the legitimacy of the committee system itself was being called into question. Or rather, it seemed like the Emergency Committee had served its intended purpose, and it may be time to say, thanks a lot, let’s move on.
With so much good news coming in on the various warfronts, all domestic and foreign threats seemed to have been neutralized. I mean, my God, the Austrians just evacuated Belgium. And by Robespierre’s own logic, didn’t that mean it was time to move away from a government that would be revolutionary until the peace? Wasn’t it time to abandon the emergency dictatorship and resurrect the long delayed Constitution of 1793?
The other major problem was that the Great Terror was making everyone in Paris equal parts nervous and ashamed about what was going on. The authorities had already had to move the guillotine off the Place de la Revolution to a spot east of the city where the Place Bastille is now, and then move it further east again after residents complained of the blood and the stench. Executions were no longer a glorious public celebration. They had become a grim and mechanical daily routine that just wasn’t much fun anymore. No one was enthusiastic when Cecile Renault and her entire family mother, father, sisters, brothers were let off en masse to be killed for their role in this alleged plot to kill Robespierre. And it was really to no one’s great rejoicing when, on July 17, a herd of old pious Carmelite nuns were let off for the crime of living together communally.
When a child pickpocket was led up to the scaffold, the sympathetic onlooker started shouting, no more children! So what was the point of all this? None of it seemed necessary.
On July 23, the Committee of Public Safety and the Committee of General Security met in a joint session and they tried to patch up their creaky partnership. With Robespierre out of the room, rapprochement barely nearly succeeded. The incorruptible’s two closest allies, Saint Just and Couthon, both seemed amenable to some kind of deal being worked out to keep everyone working in harmony.
But the next day, Robespierre decided to come out of hiding and make it plain that there would be no papering over their differences. The Republic of Virtue could not be founded if the wicked were allowed to live and the virtuous were forced to compromise themselves. He made such a fuss about not being willing to give an inch that the talks broke down. But though things were looking like the committees were about to break apart, Saint Just set to work on a speech he planned to deliver to the Convention in a few days, saying, don’t believe the rumors. We’re all cool. Everything is cool.
But everything was not cool. On July 26, Robespierre once again emerged from seclusion to give a major address to the Convention, one designed to remind everyone that the danger had not passed, that the stakes were still high, and that letting down our guard now would be fatal.
In the speech, Robespierre denounced yet another foreign power backed conspiracy, and in his black and white way, described the conspirators as inhuman monsters, while he himself was an honest and humble servant of the people. But as he painted a picture of the conspiracy working against me, I mean France, there were two things that started to super trouble the members of the Convention who listened.
First, Robespierre was going into pretty good detail about the nature of the plot. Financial shenanigans seemed to be a big part of it, so it was clear that he was not just blowing smoke. He was talking about something concrete. But second, he was not naming any names. Well, he did name one guy, Pierre Joseph Cambon, the state treasurer, who was considered by most people to be a diligent and independent minister. But aside from the rather odd fingering of Cambon, the rest of the conspiracy remained a faceless mob, which meant that anyone might be on Robespierre’s list or be close enough to somebody on the list that they would get caught up in a guilt by association purge. So this special blend of specific vagueness was deeply unsettling to everyone in the hall.
When Robespierre wrapped up his speech, everyone dutifully applauded and then turned to what should have been a pro forma debate about whether to publish and distribute the speech. Publishing and distributing major speeches was routine, and Robespierre’s major addresses were always sent to the printer. But as soon as he was finished, a real debate broke out, engineered by Fouché and Tallien, with help from Collot d’Herbois, who sat in the president’s chair and decided who could speak and who could not.
Robespierre was attacked for his vague fear mongering. Delegates started coming forward and demanding he name names, and if he couldn’t, then maybe he should just zip it. Robespierre was shocked by this upfront to his dignity. An open war might have broken out right then and there, but other Convention leaders looking to avert that open war wrapped up the session before things could get out of hand. But really, things were already out of hand. That night, Robespierre took the same speech to the Jacobin Club, where it was greeted by enthusiastic applause. This was more like it! Then, in a reverse of the morning’s attack on Robespierre, the Jacobins started rising to denounce Collot d’Herbois and Billaud-Varennes, both of whom were present that night.
Couthon moved that the two should be expelled from the Jacobins, and I can’t tell if they were formally kicked out or not, but they were definitely driven out of the hall. And now it was their turn to be furious about this affront to their dignity. The two returned to the meeting room of the Committee of Public Safety to plan their next move. And there they found Saint Just hard at work on a speech he planned to deliver to the Convention the next morning. Now, ironically, this speech was the one that was supposed to reassure everybody that the committees were all working in harmony.
But Collot and Billaud couldn’t help but believe that Saint Just was working on a mass denunciation, the specific indictment meant to follow up on Robespierre’s vague threat, because delivering those indictments was what the Angel of Death did best, right? So there was really no time to lose. Those who feared the coming wrath of Robespierre had better strike first, because they would not likely be given the chance to strike second. The conspirators stayed up all night plotting.
Everything finally came to a head the next morning, July 27, 1794, aka 9 Thermidor, year II, one of the most famous dates in the whole history of the French Revolution. As Robespierre was on hand at the Convention to hear the speech Saint Just had written, but Saint Just had barely gotten warmed up when Tallien interrupted the speech and launched into a planned denunciation of Robespierre. Famously, at this crucial moment, the always quick witted, sharp tongued and eternally self confident, Saint Just was at a loss for words. He had clearly not expected to be ambushed like this. So instead of cutting down Tallien with some counter denunciation of his own, Saint Just stood silently at the podium and tacitly seated the floor to Robespierre’s enemies.
Watching this unfold to his horror, Robespierre himself leapt up and tried to defend himself but he was barred from taking the podium by Collot d’Herbois. As he stewed angrily, cat calls started raining down. Someone called out, look, the blood of Danton chokes him. And in the one official quote we get from Robespierre that day, his last recorded words in the Convention were “Danton, is it then Danton you regret? Cowards, why did you not defend him?”
Robespierre never got a chance to take the podium and officially fight back. With laughter and abuse now being heaped on top of him from all sides, someone moved that Robespierre be arrested. And then someone else moved that his closest friends ought to be arrested too. So before they could do anything about it, Robespierre, Saint Just, George Couthon, Robespierre’s brother Augustine, the man who had helped promote young Captain Bonaparte, and then a guy named Philippe Francois Joseph Le Bas, who was a tight confidant of Saint Just, were all arrested.
Also slated for arrest was Francois Hanriot, the guy who had been in command of the Paris National Guard since the insurrection of May 31 – June 2, and who was a close friend of Robespierre.
Word of this dramatic turn of events took no time at all to travel down to the General Assembly of the Paris Commune and they sprang into action. Remember, the Commune had just been purged and all the new members had been personally appointed by Robespierre, so the Commune was in his pocket. The tocsin bells rang out to alert the sections that they needed to rise up, and then Hanriot went down personally to the Convention to assess the situation, whereupon he was arrested and held in custody.
The other prisoners had already been taken to the meeting room of the Committee of General Security, where they were going to be held until the Convention could figure out what to do with them. In the meantime, the sections of Paris rallied to the Hotel de Ville, preparing for yet another armed march to cow the national government into submission. Except that’s right, the Commune is not the power it had once been, nor the sections as driven and united a purpose as they had once been. Of the 48 sections, only 13 sent armed companies to the Hotel de Ville. The others well, as we’ll see in a moment, the other sections have basically switched sides.
But enough men did muster to have a go at freeing the prisoners. They marched down to the Convention, but discovered in the ensuing standoff that only Hanriot was actually inside. The Committee of General Security had tried to quickly disperse the other prisoners to different jails across Paris. So to counter this move, the Commune sent out orders to all the city prisons not to open their doors. And the jailers, who were evidently more loyal to the Commune than to the Convention uniformly blocked the doors and intimidated the agents of the Convention into releasing Robespierre and his friends. That’s presumably what happened, because the next thing you know, all the prisoners are free and rendezvousing at the Hotel de Ville. In response to this news, the Convention passed a decree declaring the prisoners were outlaws, a formal designation that meant, legally, all you had to do was positively identify somebody and they could be executed without trial.
Now, at this moment, things really could have gone either way. And back at the Convention, the armed mob outside had proven itself intimidating enough to secure the immediate release of Hanriot. But this was the high point of the day for them. Hanriot could plainly see that he did not have a strong enough force to maintain the siege of the Convention, especially because he had heard that the Convention was in the process of raising a street army of its own, this one drawn from the central and western sections of Paris, the ones who had not heeded the Commune’s tocsin bells. So Hanriot decided to lead his little army back to the Hotel de Ville to prepare for a showdown on their own home turf.
The Convention appointed Paul Barras to lead the men flocking to the Convention’s banner, but it took him the whole rest of the day to gather up and organize the volunteers. Meanwhile, as the Convention’s forces grew, the Commune forces were melting away. But turnout that morning had been lackluster from the get go and those few men who had shown up and marched on the Convention could tell that this was not going to end well for them if they stuck around. So as night descended, they prudently slipped back home one by one. Every time Hanriot looked up, he had fewer men at his disposal.
Finally, at 2:00 a.m on July 28, Barras marched his men on the Hotel de Ville. And when they got there, the place was all but undefended and the capture of everyone inside was a foregone conclusion.
Now the scene inside and outside the Hotel de Ville that night is the stuff of tragic depressing nightmares. It’s really like something out of a horror movie. Augustine Robespierre tried to escape out a window, but as he was shimmying along a ledge he lost his footing. The onlookers outside saw him fall three stories to the ground, shattering both his legs. As he lay in agony, the Convention forces pushed their way inside and the first thing they found was Georges Couthon, broken and bloody at the bottom of a staircase. He had somehow gotten tipped out of his wheelchair and he lay in a busted heap on the floor, alive but similarly in agony.
Meanwhile upstairs, Le Bas had managed to smuggle in two pistols. He gave one to Robespierre and then used the other to shoot himself in the head. Robespierre then almost certainly took the other pistol and tried to commit suicide himself but with no experience handling a gun and his nerves no doubt shot, Robespierre botched the attempt. All he managed to do was blow off half his jaw. When the Convention forces burst in, they found him too on the ground, writhing in agony. And then, hours later, somebody finally found Hanriot. Like Augustine Robespierre, Hanriot had tried to escape out a window. But also like Augustine, he had fallen three stories into an open sewer and he lay there for three hours before somebody finally discovered him. He begged to be simply finished off, but instead his broken and filthy body was taken into custody. Only Saint Just managed to survive this with even a shred of dignity. He had been in the room with Robespierre and Le Bas, but he simply stood there stoically as he awaited his arrest and certain death.
The bloody and half conscious Robespierre was taken to the meeting room of the Committee of Public Safety and he was laid out on a table. The consensus seemed to have been that he was not going to survive the night, so they just left him there to suffer. It was not until dawn, when they realized he was probably not going to die, that a doctor came in and had the decency to at least tie up the hanging jog with a handkerchief.
Now, because they were all outlaws, there would be no trial for the condemned. But rather than killing them as quickly as possible, the carts did not come round to collect them until late in the day. In the meantime, the agents of the Convention had been busy rounding up the other hardcore Robespierre-ists. And when the tumbrils finally did come round, it was 22 total men who were loaded up and taken away.
But to their own probable surprise, the prisoners were carted off to the Place de la Revolution. Because for this particular execution, the Committees had decided to move the guillotine back to its original spot. At around seven that night, the execution process started up and it had to have been a pathetic spectacle. Hanriot was still only half conscious and he had to be dragged up to the scaffold. Georges Couthon had been strapped to a plank and was in considerable pain before Madame La Guillotine made it all better. Saint Just was again one of the only ones who managed a dignified exit. But no pithy final words for the Angel of Death, just zip, thud, the end.
Robespierre was saved for last. Though, in what still had to have been an insane amount of pain, he was able to walk up the stairs to the guillotine. But his final moments are just terrible. The executioner decided that the handkerchief holding Robespier’s jaw in place might interfere with the blade, so he unceremoniously ripped it off. Robespierre let out an excruciated scream that was only silenced by the falling blade. So good luck trying to sleep tonight.
The next day, 83 more so-called Robespierre-ists, mostly members of the Paris Commune General Assembly, were arrested and executed, making this particular bloody purge the bloodiest purge of them all. Hopefully, maybe now the final purge to end all purges. Hopefully, maybe?
In retrospect, 9 Thermidor Year II was a watershed. The fall of Robespierre led to a significant redirecting of the course of the Revolution. All the recently accrued powers of the Committee of Public Safety were going to be stripped away. All the ideological excesses of the past year would be drawn back from no more dechristianization, no more civic cults, no more attempts to force people upon pain of death to be what they were not.
When Lazare Hoche finally comes along and puts out the last brush fires in the Vendée in 1796, he will not do it with Republican baptisms and infernal columns. He will do it instead with conciliation and understanding. And of course, more immediately, 9 Thermidor marks the official end of the Reign of Terror. Not that this was the end of political executions, not by long shot, but the days of mass murder as the foundation of public policy are over.
But the men and women of France did not know at the time that this is how it was going to go. They did not know which direction the Revolution was going to take next. They were going to have to figure all of that out for themselves. So next week, we will take our first steps out into the light of the Thermidorian Regime as the men left standing trying to figure out what the hell happens next.
Now, next week is going to be a bit of a shorter show than usual due to some time constraints in my work schedule, but it’ll be a good opportunity to lay the groundwork for Act Two of the French Revolution.
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