The Fall of Robespierre: 24 Hours in Revolutionary Paris 
by Colin Jones.
Oxford, 571 pp., £25, August 2021, 978 0 19 871595 5
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According​ to the French revolutionary calendar, Year I began in September 1792 with the abolition of the Bourbon monarchy and the declaration of a republic. In the National Convention, the new legislative assembly in Paris, the Montagnard faction quickly achieved dominance after two early victories. First, in the winter of 1792-93, it secured the execution of the dethroned Louis XVI. Next, it crushed the largest group in the Convention, the Girondins, whose leaders were ousted in June 1793 when 80,000 armed citizens marched on the Tuileries (the former royal palace housing the Convention) and demanded their arrest. Like Louis XVI, many of the Girondins landed in jail and then on the scaffold. Before long, other enemies of the Montagnards, including internal dissidents, came to the same end.

The Montagnards owed their name to the location of the benches where they sat in the Convention, up near the rafters. And they owed their moral authority to their best-known member, Maximilien de Robespierre, a previously obscure lawyer from the northern town of Arras whose stringent personal integrity and uncompromising civic virtue had earned him the nickname ‘the Incorruptible’. For better or worse, his political fortunes became increasingly indissociable from those of his allies and of France – until his downfall on the date remembered as 9 Thermidor Year II (27 July 1794). Within a few years, the resulting power vacuum was filled by another dictator in the making, Napoléon Bonaparte, described by Germaine de Staël as ‘Robespierre on horseback’.

Robespierre had achieved national prominence in the winter of 1792-93, when he led the Montagnards in making the case for regicide. In 1790, he had coined what would prove the enduring motto of the Revolution – liberté, égalité, fraternité – and now he sealed the king’s fate with a maxim: ‘Louis must die so that the republic might live.’ When the Convention was stormed six months later, he exhorted the people of Paris to take up arms ‘against all corrupt deputies’, calling it a ‘moral insurrection’.

With his diminutive stature (he was five foot three), awkward manner (he avoided eye contact and suffered from nervous tics in his neck, shoulders, eyelids and hands), unimpressive appearance (pointy features, hooded eyes and sallow, pockmarked skin) and cold, priggish disposition (more than one critic likened him to a priest), Robespierre was an unlikely revolutionary hero. Beside the Comte de Mirabeau and Georges Danton, two burly, lusty firebrands, he cut a puny figure (if Mirabeau was ‘the Torch of Provence’, the joke went, Robespierre was ‘the Candle of Arras’). But his fierce populism won him the loyalty of Paris’s municipal authority, the Commune, and its most influential political club, the Jacobins, a militant organisation with close ties to the lower-class sans-culottes. Both these groups had mobilised for the purge of the Girondins – as they had for other Parisian uprisings, known as revolutionary ‘journées’ – and their backing gave Robespierre a formidable advantage. This became a cause of resentment and distrust among his fellow deputies, most of whom, like him, belonged to the educated bourgeoisie. Some began to mutter about his autocratic aims, speculation that would continue to dog him.

In July 1793, Robespierre, aged 35, joined the Committee of Public Safety, a twelve-member administrative arm of the Convention that soon assumed effective control of the government. His position on the committee consolidated his political supremacy, despite the fact that, according to one of his detractors, ‘he never had the slightest idea about government, administration or diplomacy.’ ‘Money frightens Robespierre,’ his friend-turned-foe Danton remarked, and this didn’t help either, given the problems affecting the French economy, from runaway inflation to widespread poverty and famine. His ignorance of military strategy was also unfortunate, since France was fighting wars on two fronts: abroad (against a coalition of European monarchical superpowers) and at home (against Catholic royalist rebels in the provinces). In fact, before the founding of the republic Robespierre had argued forcefully against war. His volte-face formed part of a larger pattern of political flip-flopping that might have fatally damaged the credibility of other political leaders.

Robespierre wasn’t interested in the finer points of ideology or administration, but in the grand, abstract principles of Rousseau’s Social Contract. The ideal polity Rousseau envisioned drew its legitimacy from the general will; as such, it required the rigorous sacrifice of all private interests on the altar of the public good. To citizens shirking this imperative, the Rousseauist state assigned the ‘right to death’; to its legislators, it prescribed unimpeachable morality. These principles animated the frequent addresses Robespierre delivered at the Convention, the Jacobins and other political clubs, in which the force of his eloquence and the loftiness of his vision transfixed his audiences. Anatole France evoked one such appearance in his novel The Gods Will Have Blood (1912):

A young man with … a pockmarked face and an air of cold self-possession slowly mounted the tribune … Speaking in a clear voice, he delivered an eloquent, logical attack on the enemies of the Republic. He dealt forcibly [with them] by means of uncompromising and metaphysical arguments … He spoke at great length, his sentences flowing smoothly and harmoniously. Soaring into the rarer spheres of philosophy, he hurled his thunderbolts at the base conspirators crawling on the ground. [He] raised his [listeners’] thoughts far above gross material happenings [and] simplified everything, revealing the good and the evil in simple, clear terms.

In these moments, Jules Michelet wrote, ‘it was much more than a man that had spoken.’ Robespierre transformed into the people itself: the Revolution’s transcendent collective hero.

In the autumn of 1793, seeking to maintain control of an increasingly restive and fractious country, the Convention declared a state of emergency. Invoking semi- dictatorial war powers, Robespierre and his cronies on the Committee of Public Safety suspended the constitution they had drafted only months earlier. Instead, they made ‘terror the order of the day’. This is the way Robespierre explained it:

The resource of a people’s government [‘gouvernement populaire’] during a revolution is simultaneously virtue and terror; virtue, without which terror is disastrous; terror, without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing other than prompt, severe, inflexible justice; it is thus an emanation of virtue.

In late September, a decree was issued mandating the arrest of counter-revolutionaries. This Law of Suspects was broad enough to apply to almost anyone.

Are suspect, and must be arrested as such: those who, in popular assemblies, interrupt the energy of the people with artificial discourses, tumultuous shouts, even whispers; those more prudent individuals who speak mysteriously about the republic’s misfortunes; those who do not attend public meetings and try to excuse their absence by saying they do not know how to speak.

Those charged had to stand trial before the Revolutionary Tribunal, and convictions often carried the death sentence. An addendum to the law, setting a fixed price called the General Maximum for food staples, dealt equally harshly with price-gougers. Initially formulated as a response to the journée of 5 September – when sans-culottes again invaded the Convention, this time protesting their hunger – the General Maximum worsened the crisis it was intended to solve by raising the prices of common foods and so deepening the famine. It made the lower classes even angrier by disproportionately targeting small shopkeepers and sparing larger, more prosperous businesses.

The policy of terror grew even more oppressive in June 1794, when, without consulting their colleagues on the Committee of Public Safety, Robespierre and his ally Georges Couthon forced the Convention to enact the Law of 22 Prairial. Their unilateral action was of a piece with a document Simon Schama describes as ‘the founding charter of totalitarian justice’. The Law of 22 Prairial reorganised the Revolutionary Tribunal in order to speed up trials, and criminalised nebulous offences like ‘spreading false news’, ‘slandering patriotism’ and ‘impairing the purity … of the revolutionary government’. It enjoined ‘every citizen to seize conspirators and counter-revolutionaries and bring them to the magistrates’ and denied due process to individuals supposedly fleeing justice. In Paris, there was an explosion in the number of daily arrests and executions. The Revolutionary Tribunal and the guillotine worked overtime, and shallow mass graves brimmed with putrefying, headless corpses.

Robespierre underwent another metamorphosis in the public imagination, from populist icon to bloodthirsty villain. A contemporary satirist produced a cartoon with the caption ‘Robespierre, after having guillotined France, its government and its inhabitants, guillotines the executioner.’ As civil unrest intensified, Robespierre’s view of the people also changed for the worse: ‘The people to whom Robespierre had dedicated his life might well take to the streets to clamour for the heads of conspirators,’ Patrice Gueniffey wrote, ‘but never to demand bread.’ Robespierre made his new attitude painfully clear when, after instituting a deistic state religion on 8 June, he pronounced atheism a graver social ill than famine. (His reasoning – in Schama’s wry paraphrase – was that ‘while “we” could stand hunger, no one could stand “crime”.’) On 23 July, he further alienated his base by signing, under pressure from business owners, a Wage Maximum that significantly decreased many workers’ earnings.

Unnerved by death threats and assassination plots, Robespierre acquired a trio of bodyguards armed with clubs. In the end, however, his undoing was not the work of a murderous stranger but of his adversaries inside the government. On 26 July (8 Thermidor), he provoked them with a speech he gave, first in the Convention and then at the Jacobin Club (where he presciently described it as ‘my last will and testament’). Entitled ‘Against New Factions and Corrupt Deputies’, the two-hour-long harangue warned of the ‘imminent dangers’ France supposedly faced from its own leadership: members of the Convention whose ostensible patriotism masked their secret counter-revolutionary aims. But while Robespierre pledged to root out and destroy these ‘privileged conspirators, these inviolable enemies of the republic’, he refused to name them. The result was that a number of his colleagues – especially those with whom he had clashed – were left with the not unreasonable fear that he was targeting them for persecution and death.

More than any principled opposition, it was this fear that drove a motley crew of deputies – including Bertrand Barère, Paul Barras, Jacques-Nicolas Billaud-Varenne, Jean-Marie Collot d’Herbois, Lazare Carnot and Jean-Lambert Tallien – to topple him. They did so by means of a hasty coup on 9 Thermidor, the day after his speech. The key events are well known. Robespierre’s foes shouted him down on the Convention floor and had him arrested with his closest allies, though when he arrived at the Luxembourg prison, he was rescued by a detachment of loyalists from the Commune who carried him off to their headquarters. At this point, both the Commune and the Convention began to mobilise for an armed confrontation and Parisians braced themselves for another insurrectionary journée. Late that evening the Convention issued a decree declaring him an outlaw, necessitating – per his own Law of 22 Prairial – his prompt ‘deliver[y] to the magistrates’, and ultimately causing his supporters to back down. During the night, Robespierre sustained a gunshot wound to the jaw: the result of a botched assassination or a suicide attempt. The next day, 10 Thermidor, he was led to the guillotine, where he uttered not a lofty final address, but a bloodcurdling scream as the executioner ripped the bandage from his jaw.

InThe Fall of Robespierre: 24 Hours in Revolutionary Paris, Colin Jones, a professor of history at Queen Mary, offers a suspenseful and original account of this episode. The book is suspenseful because, even though we know the way things end, it relates the build-up to Robespierre’s execution in breathless detail. Mining abundant archival material (from the reports of government functionaries, soldiers and spies to the diaries and letters of private citizens of all political beliefs), Jones shows how turbulence, confusion and contingency shaped each moment of that day. ‘The outcome of the journée,’ he writes,

depended on decisions made in the course of these 24 hours by hosts of individuals caught up at all levels of the drama and at key moments in the flux of the day … From the most elevated through to the most humble city-dweller … Parisians sought to read the runes and to comprehend the minutiae of the day so as to determine their best course of action. To mobilise or not to mobilise? To rally to Robespierre and the Commune or to support the National Convention? The day’s outcome depended on a million micro-decisions made by Parisians across the expanse of the city.

This passage also points to the originality of Jones’s approach, which combines its proto-Aristotelian ‘unity of time’ (restricting the action to a 24-hour period) with a sprawling cast drawn from seemingly every walk of life and corner of the city. By bringing into focus the ‘micro-narratives’ of two hundred men and women, Jones demonstrates that the Thermidorian ‘outcome was determined not just by politicians’ machinations, but also as a result of a huge process of collective action by the people of Paris’.

The Fall of Robespierre does not ignore the role played by his opponents within the political elite, however. Tallien, for instance, appears in an early tableau, rushing through the streets of Paris before dawn on 9 Thermidor, calling on other political players in their homes to argue for a putsch, and, he hopes, ‘making allies that will astonish the sleeping Robespierre’. But Jones weaves this high-stakes politicking into a broader and deeper narrative that foregrounds the experiences of ordinary Parisians. In one characteristic vignette, a war-manufactory worker called Pierre Burguburu brings the (unidentified) woman he has just married to the Jacobin Club for their honeymoon, only to learn of Robespierre’s arrest. Dismayed by the ‘flaccidity’ of the club’s response, Burguburu rushes back home – presumably with his bride in tow – to Gardes-Françaises, a small, middle-class district just north of the Louvre. There he tries without documented success to spur his neighbours to action.

Also present at the Jacobin Club is Jean-Baptiste Didier, ‘a journeyman locksmith from Choisy’ and a former member of Robespierre’s bodyguard. Presumably trusting to his record of loyalty, the club sends Didier to the Commune as part of a delegation charged with finding out its plan of attack. But when he leaves the club, Didier decides it is ‘in his interests to opt out altogether and go straight home, leaving his hero to his fate’. The reader understands Didier’s decision better for having encountered another of Robespierre’s bodyguards, the goldsmith Pierre-François Girard, who ‘freely admits’ that the Incorruptible treated him and his comrades ‘arrogantly, as if they were not there. The only occasion on which Robespierre had addressed a word to him was to ask him the time.’

Other micro-narratives feature men and women who play no part at all in the political events, but whose ancillary dramas enrich our understanding of their human context. These supporting actors include a provincial girl new to Paris whom a stranger ‘comforts’, or rapes, in her bed while the National Guard passes under the window; a ‘hyper-enthusiastic’ Communard who had made a fortune before 1789 by supplying wallpaper to the Royal Household; a noblewoman who uses a broken windowpane to cut off her own hair rather than allow the executioner to sully ‘these sad remains of myself’; a labourer whom a spy overhears complaining ‘we are dying of hunger while they mock us with pretty speeches’; and a prison guard who calls his favourite mastiff Robespierre. By incorporating these figures, Jones restores specificity to the abstraction – le peuple – that Robespierre, and so many of his colleagues, worshipped. ‘Although the Convention sounds with endless invocations of the people,’ Jones observes, ‘the deputies know very little about the lives of the majority of Parisians close up.’ When Robespierre stepped up to the guillotine, he was finally sharing in a common experience.

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