French History @ IHR: Colin Jones on Robespierre

Date & Place: Monday 19 October, in the Athlone Room, Senate House. Joint session between European History 1500-1800 with Modern French Seminar.

Speakers: Colin Jones (QMUL)

Paper Title: `What did Robespierre really want? Thoughts on 9 Thermidor’

Chair: Julian Swann (Birkbeck)

Standing Room Only!
Standing Room Only!

‘What did Robespierre really want?’ In this question we are faced with the quandary of how exactly to reconstruct historical intent. Professor Colin Jones spoke of how the “genealogy of a day” undertaken in his current book project, offered a novel way to investigate the concept. Using dramatic techniques, he offered a compelling narrative which answered the question of intent while offering a valuable nuance. At the heart of this study is a single day of action with a tragic note, and this truncated timeframe offers a new way to frame the story of Maximilien Robespierre. Yet, Jones also offered a reflection on the Revolution that salvaged the people from the shadow of its warring leaders.

The precipitous fall of Robespierre has long fascinated commentators. His style of communication, and the manner of his death both seemed to suggest that something major was about to happen: some great change in the course of the Revolution, or some new bloodletting planned in its service. What, historians have asked, did Robespierre really want? Jones offered three common threads, three courses of actions that Robespierre may have sought to follow:

  1. To intensify the Terror;
  2. To moderate or abandon the Terror;
  3. To indulge some suicidal thoughts.

The 8-9th of Thermidor was a pivotal moment, though ascertaining exactly what it defined was a difficult task. Each possibility changes the tenor of Robespierre’s final day, and alters the ways in which we read his actions, those of his supporters and, indeed, his opponents. Without promoting a counter-factual, the question of intent allows the contingency of the moment to be explored.

Jones explored some of the dominant readings of Robespierre’s character. He has been broadly depicted as monstrous following the “monument of vituperation” erected in the Thermidorean reaction. The bodyguards that escorted him home on the night of the 8th loomed like a Praetorian guard for those that would accuse him of tyranny. Either that, or he has diagnosed as suffering from an illness (either mental or physical) in the days running up to his execution. His last speech on 8th Thermidor, it is argued, was rambling and showed some deterioration of thought. Both readings erode Robespierre’s agency in the final days of his life.

The drama that followed, with Robespierre’s denunciation and arrest, followed by his incarceration and execution, was steeped in the bloody political theatre of the Revolution. As the struggle between the Convention and the Commune reached its height, a state of emergency saw the “Incorruptible” labelled an outlaw, and the need for a trial removed. Conspiracies about how Robespierre ended up shot were ultimately superseded by events, as he lay on a table awaiting the guillotine.

Yet, Jones depicted Robespierre as neither a monster, nor an invalid, but rather a man playing an active role, casting himself as the virtuous patriot made victim by the iniquity of others. The 8 -9th Thermidor, then, was a crisis he sought to solve using methods and tactics he had used before. Theories about Robespierre’s illness were unconvincing for Jones, who saw strong attendance at the Jacobin club as a sign that his health remained strong. That his previous illness had provoked such public interest (and numerous rumours), seemed to indicate that the lack of interest at this stage meant his health was not worthy of comment. Rather, his rambling final speech was replete with rhetorical techniques he had used before: playing to the gallery, studied imprecision, strategic silences, and the evocation of his own death. This, Jones contended, was Robespierre actively managing a crisis. The long list of purges he called for was a prelude to the intervention of the people, cultivating a movement that would serve the Revolution.

Again, we are left with the question of intent. Jones dismissed claims that Robespierre held some deep-seated desire to end it all. Instead, we see an active player who had outlined a strong political programme. Likewise, it was unlikely he sought to moderate the Terror in the immediate future, given the swathe of purges he had called for in his last speech. Rather, given Robespierre’s hardening Manichean world view, it seemed that he was seeking support to intensify the Terror in service of an ideal that he took for granted. The biggest change was not in him, through some physical or mental transformation, but in those he targeted as the victims of popular violence. He had under-estimated his enemies, and over-estimated his own power base. His opponents moved quickly, denying him the time and space to take action.

This ‘day of action’, then, culminated in Robespierre’s capture and his execution. We can presume, in this, he did not get what he wanted. Yet Jones saw the investigation of this fact as a crucial point. Even as the tragic arc of Robespierre’s narrative declines, another narrative arc rose, previously obscured by the prominence of the Revolutionary figurehead. This, Jones felt, was the promise of limiting the scope of enquiry to one day. Looking through the eyes of actors on the day allowed the reconstruction of a nuanced narrative that cut across accepted readings of the events. That previously obscured, and now ascendant force was the political engagement of the public, with the Thermidorean reaction a watershed for their involvement.

But for Jones, this is a new history of political engagement. The great left-wing historiographical tradition, emblematised by Albert Soboul, looked to the Parisian crowd and the sans-culottes for a history of political engagement that was characterised by popular enthusiasm and direct democracy. Jones instead seemed to suggest that the story of the night of 8-9 Thermidor was that of the people choosing not to overthrow ‘bourgeois’ representative democracy, and instead to work towards its rehabilitation. The story then becomes that not of the great man himself, but rather of the thousands of supporters of the Paris Commune who at first gathered to support Robespierre but then, sometime towards 2am, drifted away into the Parisian night.



This being a hotly anticipated seminar, it garnered a bit of discussion beforehand on Twitter. It felt remiss to omit this particular exchange…

Asking himself ‘What did Robespierre really want?’ one of our organizers Rob Priest observed: ‘I’m hoping it’s “a zig-a-zig-ah”’. This sparked some great lines from Laura O’Brien, whose retort must surely be the spark for a wildly successful Spice Girls/French Revolution musical:

“If you wanna be Jacobin,

You gotta get with my friends,

Virtue is forever,

Fraternité never ends (til Thermidor)”

Cannily, Laura has decided to hold onto all rights to the stage adaptation.


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