Jean Jaurès Socialist History of the French Revolution

The 9 Thermidor

Source: Histoire Socialiste de la Révolution Française, Vol VI. Paris, Éditions Sociales, 1968;
Translated: for by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2011/13.

Robespierre will go to Ermenonville to dream in the steps of Rousseau. He will ask the primordial innocence of his visions and thoughts for the strength to follow the bloody road to its end, and on 8 Thermidor he took the fight to the Convention. He complained that the Committee of Public Safety was originally accused of dictatorship and tyranny, and that this accusation had gradually been focused on him alone. He complained that in order to destroy him it was claimed he was planning to lead the Convention to destroy itself, to surrender one by one. He affirmed that these fears were vain, that the “rogues” were few in number and asked if the Republic, which could only survive through virtue, would be sacrificed to this handful of rogues.

Would it be enough for the Convention to surrender a few more heads to him for all difficulties to come to an end? What would his policies be the next day? And would the barely disguised threat contained in the speech against Cambon suffice to make possible new financial and economic policies?

Robespierre didn’t name these few “rogues.” And so the threat, which he had wanted to limit, because it was vague became immense. Every single member of the Convention felt himself to be under the blade. And again, once this “handful of rogues” would be brought down, what assurance did the Convention have that the next day and the day after Robespierre would not ask for new batches of victims?

I don’t know why Buchez and Roux say that the decisive error in Robespierre’s speech was that it was only the preface to the speech Saint-Just wanted to give the next day, in which he announced that the Committee of Public Safety would hand its powers over to the Convention. This was Saint-Just’s final tactical move, partially setting himself apart from Robespierre. Nothing permits us to say that this was what Robespierre thought. In all likelihood he was not ready to dissolve the revolutionary government and enter the Convention disarmed, where so much anger, rancor, and fear were fermenting. And if the vagueness of his speech of 8 Thermidor was a mortal error it was also an inevitable one. Given the road he had taken Robespierre couldn’t say, “This is what the final step will be.” He had condemned himself to forever reserving the possibility of striking again.

Nevertheless, Robespierre’s prestige had not yet been dissipated. His speech was applauded. But Charlier, Cambon, Amar, and Billaud-Varenne (who had been expelled from the Jacobin Club the day before), and Panis opposed its being sent to the departments. Charlier wanted to force Robespierre to name names: “When someone brags of having the courage of virtue he must have the courage of truth. Name those you accuse.”

If Robespierre was to name them, however few they were, given that they represented all tendencies of the Convention, the whole of the Convention would feel itself threatened. But if he didn’t dare name them what solution could he hope for? He remained silent. In a way, Bréard put an end to his shaky dictatorship with a phrase that reestablished the power of the Convention: “This is an important issue that must be judged by the Convention itself.”

And the Convention decided that the speech wouldn’t be sent to the departments. Robespierre had tried to exert his moral force: it hadn’t been enough to tame the revolt of the threatened members of the Convention. He was finished. At the Jacobins that night, after having read the speech he'd given at the Convention, he said: “This is my last will and testament.”

Saint-Just, recalled from the army, during the tragic night of 8-9 Thermidor was solicited by the enemies of Robespierre, by the fraction of the Committee of Public Safety of led by Billaud-Varenne. Saint-Just didn’t want to betray Robespierre, but he sought deal. He recognized that Robespierre was wrong to stay away for so long from the meetings of the Committee of Public Safety. But he accused Billaud-Varenne and Collot d'Herbois of having sought – in the absence of an embittered Robespierre, of Saint-Just delegated to the armies, of Jean Bon Saint-André still on the coast, of the ill Couthon – to take control of the revolutionary government. His plan seems to have been to change the members of the Committee of Public Safety, to expand it in order to do away with its esprit de coterie, and by doing so revive the power of the Convention. But the moment had passed for these kinds of bargains to be struck, which would have reassured no one. Who would dominate the renewed or enlarged Committee of Public Safety? And who would wield the axe?

On the 9 Thermidor Saint-Just was only able to deliver the first lines of his speech. The battle between Robespierre and his enemies had begun. Billaud-Varenne and Tallien led the fight.

As soon as Saint-Just alluded to his controversies with Billaud-Varenne at the beginning of his speech, saying, “The confidence of the two committees honored me, but last night someone struck at my heart...,” Billaud-Varenne violently interrupted him and seized the tribune.

“Know, Citizens,” he shouted, “that yesterday the president of the revolutionary tribunal openly proposed at the Jacobin Club to drive all the impure from the Convention, that is, all those they want to sacrifice. But the people are here, and the patriots will know how to die to defend freedom. ('Yes, yes’ shouted a large number of members)”

Billaud-Varenne continued:

“An abyss has opened beneath our feet: we must not hesitate to either fill it with our corpses or to triumph over the traitors.”

Robespierre mounted the tribune to respond, but the cries of “Down with the tyrant! Down with the tyrant!” drowned out his voice. This was the watchword worked out during the nighttime meetings organized by Fouché. Tallien leapt up alongside Robespierre:

“Until now I imposed silence on myself because I knew man who was close to the tyrant of France, who had informed him that he'd drawn up a proscription list. I didn’t want to cast any recriminations, but I saw yesterday’s meeting of the Jacobins and I trembled for the fatherland. I saw the army of a new Cromwell being formed, and I armed myself with a dagger to pierce his breast if the National Convention lacked the courage to indict him.”

But more than anything else, Robespierre’s enemies wanted to smash his outside support. Tallien demanded the arrest of Hanriot and that the Convention remain in session round the clock “until the sword of the law has saved the Revolution.” All that was left was the arrest of Robespierre. But it appears that the Convention hesitated before this decisive act. Would it not be striking at the Revolution itself?

Tallien convinced the Convention and led it to act by elevating the glory and the impersonal force of the Revolution over all individuals.

He denounced “this man whom in the Committee of Public Safety, should have been the defender of the oppressed; who should have been at his post but abandoned it for four decades [ten day weeks: translator’s note]. And when did he do this? When the Army of the North was causing his colleagues great concern. He abandoned it in order to slander the Committee, and all of them saved the fatherland. (Loud applause.)

And Tallien, having granted the Committees all the benefits of victory, focused all the responsibility for the Terror on Robespierre.

“It was while Robespierre was charged with general policy that the acts of oppression of individuals were committed.”

“That’s not true,” shouted Robespierre.

He climbed the first steps of the tribune and, no longer able to make himself heard above the tumult, he appealed to the patriots of the Mountain. They no longer recognized him. It was the moment of abandonment. They turned their heads. And as if to oppose a coalition against a coalition Robespierre exclaimed, addressing the entire Convention: It is to you pure men that I address myself, and not to the brigands.”

But can a guillotine maneuvered by one man be charged with knowing which men are pure and which are brigands?

The storm blew stronger. Robespierre, on the verge of sinking, called out to Collot d'Herbois, who was presiding, and was assisting in the shipwreck: “President of the assassins: will you give me the floor?”

But Thuriot the Dantonist had taken Collot’s place in the chair. After the pitiful shade of Hébert it was Danton’s great shade that presided. And it was Danton who said to Robespierre, “You'll have the floor when it’s your turn.”

But would Danton really have said this? Robespierre’s voice cracked and became hoarse. Garnier de l'Aube shouted: “Danton’s blood is suffocating you.”

And in a last attempt to speak, he said: “And so it’s Danton you want to avenge. Cowards! Why didn’t you defend him?”

And I believe I hear in this final cry the hint of a despairing regret. It was the obscure Louchet who spoke the decisive words: “I demand the indictment of Robespierre.” The arrest was decided, not only of Robespierre, but of Saint-Just and Couthon; Robespierre the younger and Lebas asked that along with their great friend that they too be tried.

The Convention, touched but determined to put an end to all this, acceded to their request. All of them went up to the bar and were handed over to bailiffs, who were hesitant about laying hands on men who just a few minutes before represented the government of the triumphant Revolution.

Was it from fear or a secret watchword that the jailers refused to receive these fearsome prisoners? The latter went to the Hôtel de Ville, and on Barère’s motion they were immediately declared outlaws. Would they respond to this decree with force? Supported by the Commune, the Jacobins, and the National Guard, would Robespierre attempt to do violence to the Convention? Several of his friends pressed him to act.

After some hesitation, he refused to do so. It was no longer a May 31 or a June 2 that was being asked of him. The Convention, in decreeing his arrest, in declaring him an outlaw, had committed itself against him. It was the entire Convention that he had to break. But in the name of what principle? By virtue of what right? And what would he do on the morrow? He would be nothing but a dictator lost in the void who would soon be devoured by the armies; a civil sub-Cromwell at the mercy of the first military adventurer wanting to undo the coup d'état. He waited. In the meanwhile Barras and Léonard Bourdon, in the name of the Convention, crisscrossed the streets of Paris, haranguing the citizens, appealing to them against the “tyrant,” against the “seditionists.” And all those worn down by the extreme tension of affairs and who expected pacification from the fall of the great man, all those who after so many bloody wounds were still moved by the prestige of the Convention and the word of the law, rallied to them. They brought several sections with them and invaded the Hôtel de Ville. A gendarme shattered Robespierre’s jaw with a pistol shot; Couthon was seriously wounded by a saber blow; Lebas shot himself in the head. Saint-Just, proud and stoic, remained unshakeable and silent beneath the insults.

The blood-covered Robespierre was transported to the Committee of Public Safety and there, laid out on a table, wiping his cruel wound with his handkerchief, indifferent to the cowardly insults, reflected as he awaited death. Perhaps it appeared to him as a liberator. It delivered him from a problem to which his spirit succumbed and from responsibilities disproportionate with human capability. It also delivered him from the anguish he felt for the punishment of Danton and Camille. Since he was dying for the Revolution, hadn’t he had the right to deliver blows for it?

At noon on 10 Thermidor the outlaws were transferred to the Conciergerie by order of Billaud-Varenne. The itinerary of their final voyage was meant to make them as one with all those they had themselves sent to their deaths. At 4:00 they were taken to the gallows. Women danced behind the tumbrels and insulted Robespierre. He smiled sadly and doubtless forgave them. He had faith in justice and the future. As they passed a child smeared blood on the door of the Duplay house [where Robespierre resided – tr.]. Robespierre turned his head away, but not a tear fell from his eyes. He hadn’t closed his heart to suffering; rather he had tamed it in service to the Revolution and the Fatherland.