Reading Matter
Books On the Side
Books In Brief

Colin Jones

The Fall of Robespierre: 24 Hours in Revolutionary Paris

What happened in Paris on 27 July 1794? Paris even then was a big city: a lot of things happened. Some of the things that happened had consequences that posterity treats as "historical." But the relation of these important things was very unclear on the day itself. It was also a day on which, conspicuously, certain things did not happen. It was clear only after midnight, in the early hours of 28 July, and then later at what would become the Place de la Nation, where the guillotine did its work, that Robespierre, arguably the most powerful man in France on the morning of the 27th, had fallen, out of power and out of life. An important consequence, certainly — and a very clear one. But it would take a while for the meaning of Robespierre's death, and that of the other events and non-events of 27 July, to settle, and for "Thermidor" to become shorthand for "the end of the Terror." Which actually it wasn't, not really.

"Thermidor" was the name of a month in the new Revolutionary calendar. Robespierre, the leading member of the Committee for Public Safety, fell on 9 Thermidor Year II and was executed on the 10th. Accompanying him to the scaffold were his youthful adjunct, Saint-Just, and the Mayor of Paris, along with a number of other players who also found themselves on the wrong side when the day came to an end. It might have gone the other way. It might have been Robespierre's fellow Committee members Barère and Collot d'Herbois who perished. It is gripping, in Jones's detailed report, to experience the tremendous uncertainty of the day's outcome. Only by evening, as the theatres fill up for a good night's business, does the immense non-event register.

There was a lesser, but still notable, non-event. Robespierre was to address the National Convention in the afternoon. He was to be preceded on the rostrum by Saint-Just. But neither of these speeches was delivered. Saint-Just was silenced almost immediately and Robespierre was never heard from at all. The silencing of this fountain of speech — we learn that Robespierre did very little but talk — was as momentous as the sudden end of a hurricane be if such a thing ever happened. But the greater non-event, which, however significant, was perhaps not very remarkable at all, was that Paris remained calm. Parisians declined to launch another one of their great revolutionary journées, days of profound upheaval the chain of which began with the demolition of the Bastille in 1789. There had been journées earlier in 1794, on the occasion of the fall of Danton, for one. A new journée certainly seemed to be in the offing on the evening of 8 Thermidor. But it failed to materialize, very probably as a result of the confusion that Jones untangles for us. Although Robespierre was shouted down by members of the Convention — they seemed surprised by their own vehemence (not to mention its success) — no one managed to take his place. The men who rose to his defense did not belong to the Convention, but were Robespierre's creatures in the municipal government (the Commune), just up the river at the Hôtel de Ville. For better or worse, they did not comprise a very gifted bunch. If we can speak at all of an insurrection on 9 Thermidor, the opposing parties could be fairly identified as Paris and the Nation.

The historian's task with respect to Thermidor is a comic reversal of his usual plight, which is the lack of documentation. For there is seemingly no end of Thermidorian paperwork to sort out. Memos were issued all afternoon and evening by the Convention, by various authorities at the Commune, by the officers of the National Guard, by the assemblies and the militias of the 48 sections into which Paris had been subdivided, and even by prisoners in the city jails. Jones deploys individual examples to give us an idea of what their creators wanted to happen and/or thought what was going on. Throughout the day, sectional militias and bands of the National Guard filled up the Place de Grève, summoned by the Commune. In the evening, they began to leak away, having served as a kind of social barometer. For hours, the flow of news was impeded by the lockdown of the Hôtel de Ville. The Commune re-opened it only to be trapped in it. Robespierre was jailed and then rescued, only to be captured in the Council Chamber and jailed again. It was almost funny.

But there was nothing funny about Robespierre. Robespierre embodied the fear  — la grande peur — that gripped France even before the Revolution, and after the fall of his political enemies in 1793 he unleashed it in an explicit program of state violence. For over a year, France was governed by an official Terror. Of all the terrible things that have happened in the history of humanity, the Terror has always seemed to me to be the worst, partly because it occurred in what was then the heart of Western civilization, and partly because it provided a template (with implicit permission) for the later, highly organized persecutions that have repeatedly desolated modern life. If I were re-writing Inferno, I'd put Robespierre in Brutus's place.

So it was an almost pleasant surprise to discover, in Colin Jones's account, that Robespierre was possibly a madman, pathologically gripped by the paranoia that poisoned the atmosphere of Revolutionary France. Robespierre was certainly a very odd duck, and it comes as a shock to discover his utter ineffectuality on 27 July 1794. Although he had planted allies and lieutenants throughout the municipal and military establishments, this did him no good when the members of the Convention decided, with the uncanny coordination of a school of fish, that they had had enough of him.

Jones writes for the most part in the historical present, standard in French histories but rarely adopted by Anglophone scholars. This, together with his extensive reliance on the copious and confused written record, conveys to an exciting degree the fact that nobody in Paris knew what was going on and that many decisive moments were passed through without the awareness of key players. In the end, Parisians listened to the Convention, and stayed home. But there was no foreseeing that this would happen. Even after five years, the course of revolutionary civic uprisings was uncertain. Had a few things happened differently, Robespierre might have survived Thermidor and lived into Fructidor stronger than ever. It's no exaggeration to say that The Fall of Robespierre is a thrilling book.

(16 November 2021)  

The day itself is a Date — an extremely important one in the story of the French Revolution.

Permalink  Portico

Copyright (c) 2021 Pourover Press