Revisiting the Testimony of 9 Thermidor (27 July 1794)
We are delighted to feature this guest blog from Professor Colin Jones FBA CBE.
Colin has published widely on the French Revolution and the history of medicine. His latest book, The Fall of Robespierre: 24 Hours in Revolutionary Paris, published by Oxford University Press, will appear on 12 August.
Readers of the blog can find out more about the book (and get a 30% discount!) by following this link
I expect nothing from the Montagne; they want to do away with me as a tyrant. But the bulk of the Convention will hear me.
Maximilien Robespierre’s comment to his landlord as he went to bed around midnight on 26-7 July 1794 signalled the importance of what he anticipated happening in the national assembly (the Convention) the next day. His message next morning as he set off for the assembly was much the same: ‘Don’t be alarmed: the majority of the Convention is pure. I have nothing to fear’.
Robespierre proved to be right: on 27 July 1794 – 9 Thermidor Year II in the Revolutionary calendar – it was indeed his former left-wing Montagnard colleagues who led the attack on him that would lead to his arrest – and ultimately to his death by guillotine the following day. But he was wrong as well: for the moderates would let it happen.
Historians have long puzzled what exactly Robespierre was planning at this pivotal point in the Revolution. Was he wanting to intensify the Terror? To modify it, mollify it, even to end it (presumably by appealing to moderates)? To install a utopian Republic of Virtue? Had he completely lost the plot and was he merely angling towards suicide or even trying to provoke his own assassination? The conundrum is all the more puzzling in that this most compelling of Revolutionary orators, was silenced by his opponents in the assembly session and denied the right to declare his views in the Convention.
Increasingly incandescent with rage as accusations of tyranny rained down on him, he managed through the hurly-burly to direct a comment to the moderate part of the hall: ‘It is to you, men of purity, men of virtue, not to the brigands, that I address my words’. The moderates simply sat on their hands before one of their number rose to add his pennyworth:
Villain! The virtue that you invoke commands humanity to condemn you to the scaffold!
Bridling under the attacks, Robespierre was reduced to uttering meaningless threats, insulting his colleagues as so many ‘assassins’
Robespierre was eventually led out of the assembly, cowed and defeated-looking, to be packed off to prison. His attackers thought the day was done and dusted. But of course it wasn’t. Although almost entirely neglected or ignored by historians and biographers, there would be a number of occasions in the remainder of 9 Thermidor when Robespierre was allowed to speak. In my forthcoming book, The Fall of Robespierre: 24 Hours in Revolutionary Paris, I recount for the first time to an anglophone readership, I believe, Robespierre’s last words.
Late in the afternoon, Robespierre was refused entry to the prison to which he had been consigned and was taken off to the offices of the municipal police in the mayor’s offices on the Ile de la Cité. When he arrived there he was in a state of evident distress, but the police bureaucracy offered him support, and summoned a local National Guard commander, Van Heck, to protect him. Van Heck was a classic sans-culotte, with a proud record of radical militancy. But when he was brought in to be introduced to Robespierre he declined his help. He was appointed to serve institutions not individuals, he said – and anyway he knew that Robespierre had been placed under arrest. Robespierre exclaimed:
Great God! Into whose hands were you going to place me? The man is nothing but an aristocrat and a counter-revolutionary!
Robespierre’s reponse was more revealing about himself than about his putative protector: he was seeing aristocrats and revolutionaries even among the most committed of the sans-culotterie.
Later that evening, the municipal authorities spirited him away to the city hall – the Hôtel de Ville – where they had assembled a large force of armed supporters. He was greeted with much acclaim but appears to have demurred from making a rousing speech to the enthusiastic crowds. The only comment we have from at this moment came when someone in the municipal hall offered him opposition. ‘Knock him down! Knock him down!’ was Robespierre’s reponse.
He soon left the city council chamber to hole up in a committee room where an ad hoc group was planning insurrection against the Convention. It would not have taken him long to realise that things were going badly. Earlier in the evening the Hôtel de Ville and the square in front had thronged with armed pro-Robespierre enthusiasts. Now numbers were dwindling fast. Speaking to one of the police officials, he commanded
Brave gendarme, do continue to be loyal to us. Go outside and do what you can to embitter the people against the plotters.
Robespierre was clear that his was the popular cause.
He would invoke the people once more before the night was out. It was suggested that the organising committee write to the armies to get their support against the Convention, which Robespierre knew had assembled its own force of National Guardsmen who were marching on the city hall. In whose name should the call be made?, he was asked:
My view is that we should write in the name of the people.
There was something touching about Robespierre’s last words invoking the people. He had dedicated his life to the principle of popular sovereignty and the popular cause. But the words were also harshly ironic. For the people of Paris whom he wanted to rise against his enemies were actually already rising not in his defence but in support of the very ‘plotters’ who secured his downfall.
If this left him metaphorically speechless, shortly after midnight he was rendered literally so by a shot to the jaw received in the struggle over his arrest. Ailing and agonising, he would reach out and gesticulate for pen and paper. They were refused him. Robespierre had spoken his last words – and left historians with a conundrum.