The Death of the Jacobins

Hello, and welcome to Revolutions.

Last week, the fever finally broke. Robespierre’s uncompromising and murderous pursuit of virtue finally lined up too many of the unvirtuous against him. The incorruptible had succeeded in never being corrupted, but it had cost him his life. But as we discussed last time, it’s not like the men who conspired to overthrow Robespierre had some grand plan for what happened next. Their grand plan hadn’t seen past keeping their heads firmly attached to their necks. There was a general sense that the Terror needed to be ended. But other than that particular goal, the men who led France after the fall of Robespierre, collectively dubbed the Thermidorians, did not have a formal program. The Revolution was back to moving along without an exact theory or precise rules of conduct. 

To begin with, it wasn’t even clear what the immediate impact of liquidating the Robespierre-ists would be. For a few on the Committee of Public Safety, the assumption was that it would have little effect on the actual structure of government. The committee system had already survived a number of purges including the purge of the Indulgents which had consumed one of their own colleagues in Hérault de Séchelles. So didn’t the deaths of Robespierre and Couthon and Saint Just just mean that there were now three more openings on the Committee that needed to be filled? I mean yes, of course we’ll investigate the continued necessity of the Law of 22 Prairial, but other than that, it’s business as usual, yeah? 

But among the delegates of the National Convention, this seemed like a golden opportunity to wind back everything and undo the Committee of Public Safety’s mass consolidation of power. A consolidation process that had been ongoing since the Summer of 1793. All the dire emergencies that had led the Convention to entrust the Committee of Public Safety with all power in the first place were visibly receding. And it now seemed like the greatest danger to France was actually an all powerful anything. So the Convention set about dismantling the dictatorship of the Committee of Public Safety

One of the leading Thermidorians, Jean Lambert Tallien, he was the former representative to Bordeaux who came under suspicion because he fell in love with the wife of an émigré, he got up in the Convention and moved that henceforth one quarter of the Committee’s membership would be rotated out every month, and that when those Committee members rotated out, they would be ineligible for immediate re-election, that alone would keep any one man or clique from hoarding power. Tallien himself was then elected to fill one of the vacancies on the Committee of Public Safety, and from this position, he and his allies started dismantling the Committee from the inside. 

The first step, of course, was ending the Great Terror. On August 1, the Reform Committee recommended repealing the Law of 22 Prairial and the Convention voted overwhelmingly in favor, no doubt with a great deal of relief that they had all lived to see this day. Then to make sure that it stuck, on August 10, the Convention reformed the Revolutionary Tribunal. Those complicit in the Great Terror were forced out and replaced with a cohort of far more reasonable men. These new leaders of the Tribunal were instructed to convict defendants only if counter revolutionary intent could be truly proved. This being nearly impossible unless you were complete doofus about your plotting, the rate of conviction plummeted. In July, there had been 935 executions in Paris. In August, there were just six. And for the rest of 1794, only 40 more people would be guillotined in the capital. The Reign of Terror was over

As the Tribunal ceased to be the draconian murder machine it had been transformed into, the Convention turned to the overcrowded prisons, wondering how many of those prisoners even needed to face the reformed Tribunal at all. With the Law of 22 Prairial repealed, the vague denunciations that had landed most of the prisoners in jail were recognized as not being nearly enough to justify continuing to hold them. So the authorities started walking through the prisons and just kind of opening the doors. 3,500 men and women were released in the month of August alone. And eventually, one of the most famous prisoners released in all this was none other than our old friend Tom Paine, arrested basically because most of his French friends had been Girondins. 

Paine was famously slated to be executed in July 1794 and only survived because Robespierre was killed before he was. Now, Paine would have to sit around until November 1794 before he was finally cleared and let go. But by then, the prisons were nearly empty.

Out in the departments, it took a little while to disseminate, but when it did, it was greeted enthusiastically. Now, for the most part, the Terror had already been transferred up to Paris but a few exceptions had been made particularly out in the west where life was cheap and the Republic’s vengeance boundless. So the last spur of the Terror took place over July and August in the departments, as just over 300 final victims were fed to Madame La Guillotine. But by September, every important department was given a new new representative on mission, one forbidden to stay longer than three months and one who had orders to dismantle the apparatus of the Terror. 

Local Revolutionary Watch Committees were closed down and like in the capital, the prisons were emptied. With the threat of the Terror lifting, all these ex prisoners and their friends and neighbors and relatives got together and started talking very bitterly amongst themselves about what had just happened to all of them. And as we will see in the episodes to come, it will not take long for the persecuted to become the persecutors. 

In the midst of this drawback from the Terror, Paris exuberantly celebrated the second anniversary of the insurrection of August 10. This was in marked contrast to another anniversary that had just come and gone virtually uncelebrated in the Capital the month before, because July 14, 1794 was the fifth anniversary of the Fall of the Bastille. But under the shadow of the Great Terror, the day was far too associated with disgraced former revolutionaries like Lafayette, to say nothing of the overthrown King, for anyone to want to acknowledge July 14 as anything special. A few fraternal banquets had been held, but those who partook did so at their own peril as the Revolutionary Watch Committees took sinister note of anyone who participated. 

So though there was little in the way of official pageantry to celebrate August 10, the people of Paris spontaneously came out to throw a city wide party. The private sword of Damocles that had been hanging over each of their heads had finally been cut down. The Reign of Terror was over. Let’s have a drink!

With the Terror being dismantled, the Convention then voted to reorganize its committees on August 24. The Committee of Public Safety was stripped of its omnipotence over the entire governmental apparatus, but it was not abolished completely. It retained its jurisdiction over war and foreign affairs, the two things everyone agreed it had been doing really super well. The rest of the Committee’s powers were distributed to 16 newly formed committees that would each have jurisdiction over this or that aspect of public policy. 

The Committee of General Security was also kept around as a National Police Bureau, but its powers were circumscribed and its membership rotated just like that of the Committee of Public Safety. The General Administration of Law and Justice was then vested in the Legislative Committee, a Committee that had been around as long as the other two but had obviously atrophied into nothing since the Summer of 1793. It was now vested with greater power and rose up to take its place alongside Public Safety and General Security as one of the main committees of the Thermidorian Convention. But none of those committees were anywhere close to all powerful. 

But there was a limit to how far the Convention was willing to go in all this. The political situation in Paris was deeply muddled and the delegates quite rightly feared that if they went too far, they might spark another populist insurrection. So when somebody moved on August 29 that some of the more radical members of the old committees be indicted for their previous role in the terror, the Convention declined. And then, in an utterly cynical bid to convince the Paris streets that the Thermidorian Convention still carried on the legacy of the Revolution, they decided to finally disinter the utterly disgraced Mirabeau from the Pantheon. 

To replace him, they ordered the remains of Jean Paul Marat dug up so that the friend of the people could be given pride of place in the Pantheon. So, yeah, you would have thought that it was in the immediate aftermath of Marat’s assassination that he would have replaced Mirabeau in the Pantheon. I mean, that was, after all, when revolutionary populism was in full swing and when the Committee of Public Safety and the Convention were really trying to co opt the sans-culottes. But no, it is here, in the midst of the Thermidorian Reaction, that Marat was moved. And this is also by the by when Rousseau was dug up and moved into the Pantheon, both nakedly cynical bids to cover up the fact that the Convention was very much swinging to the right

But it’s not like the left wing populist and Jacobins couldn’t see where this was all heading, because by the beginning of September, something resembling a genuine political right wing was emerging in Paris. A right wing that was not immediately crushed. After 9 Thermidor, new newspapers began to enter the publishing market and they advocated some pretty startlingly antirevolutionary principles. And we’re not talking about Desmoulins’ not extreme enough leftism. I’m talking about open attacks on the sans-culottes rabble and their treacherous Jacobin masters. 

When the Jacobin Club protested to the Convention and demanded the new papers be suppressed, Tallien stood up and quoted the Declaration of the Rights of Man: “The free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man. Every citizen may accordingly speak, write and print with freedom”. The Convention not only refused to act, but the men calling for censorship were denounced as terrorists who wanted to go back to the days of indiscriminate bloodshed. 

Then, into this newly conservative political atmosphere, a new brand of street fighter emerged with the secret, and at times not so secret, encouragement of the leading Thermidorians. These were the Muscadins, and I’m going to use the conventional English pronunciation for that. This means literally the ones who wore musk perfume. They were also called the Gilded Youth, and as I personally like to call them, the Fighting Dandies. They were quite literally the opposite of the sans-culottes. The Muscadins, dressed in fancy clothes, fancy clothes that all on their own would have made these young men targets for the Revolutionary Tribunal just a few months earlier. And indeed, many of them had been targeted by the Revolutionary Tribunal, and a huge core of their membership came from prisoners released after Thermidor. They were angry, bitter, and looking for revenge against the loathsome underclasses. 

So these angry, fancy young men would roam the streets of Paris targeting anyone associated with the Terror and deliver unto them beatings with staffs and canes that the Muscadins laughingly referred to as their constitutions. By mid September, there were somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 Muscadins hooligans cracking skulls around Paris. Now, when these kids spontaneously appeared on the scene, their good work was openly applauded by a Convention delegate, journalist, and former representative on mission named Louis Marie Fréron. 

But Fréron was not satisfied with mere cheerleading, and in no time, he was actively coordinating Muscadin activities. Now, Fréron himself had once been a radical Jacobin, exactly the kind of guy he was now directing his Gilded Youth to go beat the crap out of. When the Revolution got going, he had set himself up as a leftwing journalist in the old Cordeliers district, and he had collaborated with Camille Desmoulins and John Paul Marat. He had been on the front lines of August 10th insurrection and had been one of the most vocal proponents of and apologist for the September massacres. He had wound up a representative on mission down to Marseilles and Toulon alongside Paul Barras. And so he was, of course, one of those recalled representatives menaced by Robespierre, and thus he had become a Thermidorian conspirator. Sensing a distinct change in the revolutionary wind, Fréron now restyled himself as an opponent of the uncouth rabble. He and the other Thermidorian leaders recognized that the Muscadins represented a potent force that they could use to beat the radicals and the Jacobins down, and the Muscadins were happy to oblige

The general turn toward the right was aided by a group of alleged Federalists from Nantes who were brought before the Revolutionary Tribunal. The charges against them quickly became far beside the point, and they were all acquitted anyway, because these guys brought with them eyewitness accounts of the Republican baptisms and the mass executions organized by Jean Baptiste Carrier. 

Now, it’s unclear who exactly knew what was going on in Nantes when it was going on. Certainly the Committee of Public Safety knew all about it, but I don’t know about the Convention’s level of knowledge as a whole, but for sure it was not public knowledge aside from a few rumors. The revelations about the atrocities in Nantes turned Paris further against the Jacobins, who were now collectively held responsible for all the horrors of the previous year

The Convention quickly launched an investigation into Carrier’s activities and then pivoted into a full frontal assault on the Jacobin Club. The Convention passed a law on October 16 that required all popular societies and clubs to post a list of their membership and then forbade them from corresponding with each other. Now, this obviously exposes the cynicism of the Thermidorians. I mean, just a few weeks earlier, Tallien had been singing hymn of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the freedom of ideas and the press and speech. And I just double checked, but I can’t find any part of the Declaration that says except when a private organization wants to write a letter to another private organization. The goal of this law clearly was to a) give the Muscadins an official enemies list to work from and b) break the nationwide network of Jacobin Clubs. 

These attacks drove all the leftists back into each other’s arms. And in early November, the Jacobins applauded a speech from Billaud-Varennes, the guy they had run out of their meeting hall on the eve of 9 Thermidor. Billaud warned them that the Convention was getting ready to destroy the Jacobin Club. And in this he was exactly right because just down the street, a horde of Muscadins had gathered at the Palais Royale, once the very cradle of the Revolution, had now served as a home base for the Gilded Youth. When they all gathered, the gang marched down to the Jacobin Club and started chucking rocks, so many rocks that they broke every window in the place, shutting down that night session in a hail of projectiles. 

Two days later, the Muscadins went a step further. This time, they pushed their way into the Club and beat up every man and every woman that they could lay their hands on. The response to these attacks from the Convention says it all. They decided that the source of these disturbances was not the Muscadins youth, but rather the Jacobin Club itself, whose very existence was now deemed an incitement to public disorder. And so it was that on November 11, 1794, the Convention ordered the Jacobin Club to close

The roots of the Jacobin Club trace back to the very, very beginning of the Revolution, when it first took shape in Versailles as the Bretton Club organizing the Third Estate delegates who were unwilling to play nice with the nobility. Practically every single major revolutionary leader had at one point or another been a member, even if most of those leaders were later expelled for being reactionary pigs. It’s where Barnave and Duport and Lameth and the Feuillants come from. It’s where Brissot and the Girondins had come from. It’s where the Mountain had made its home base and it had been neck deep accomplices in all the Paris insurrections. It was unquestionably one of the most important institutions of the French Revolution and through it all its guiding light and beating heart. A very small, very calculating heart, but still beating, was Maximilian Robespierre. And the club to which he had dedicated his life was not able to survive his death. 

Now, this is not the end of Jacobinism, and as we will see, many of the former members of the Jacobin Club will continue to consort with each other and will try from time to time to take a shot at returning to power. But they are now officially homeless because the Jacobin Club is dead.

So, as I said last time, this week was going to be a shorter episode. So I’m going to leave it there for now, but we’ll pick it up next time with a sweep across the frontier to trace the further advance of the French armies and the steady retreat of the Allies. It had taken two years, but Jacques Pierre Brissot’s prophecy that old Europe could not possibly withstand the might of the fully mobilized French nation was finally coming true.

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