Monday, 25 April 2016

The Great Terror and the fall of Robespierre

Having run out of victims,
Robespierre executes himself

The Republic of Virtue

Danton’s death marked the inauguration of the Republic of Virtue, which was characterised by a concentration of power at the centre. On 7 May (18 floréal) the Rousseauean cult of the Supreme Being was established. Article I of the new constitution stated: 
‘The French people recognizes the existence of the Supreme Being and the immortality of the soul.’ 
Initiating the cult, Robespierre declared in a speech to the Convention:
‘The true priest of the Supreme Being is Nature itself; its temple is the universe; its religion virtue; its festivals the joy of a great people assembled under its eye to tie the sweet knot of universal fraternity and to present before [Nature] the homage of pure and feeling hearts.’ (Quoted Schama, Citizens, 831)
This was an attack on the policy of dechristianisation associated with the former priest, Fouché.

On 20 Prairial  (8 June, Whit Sunday in the old calendar) Paris celebrated the Festival of the Supreme Being in a ceremony stage-managed by the painter, Jacques-Louis David.

'Festival of the Supreme Being', Pierre-Antoine Demachy
Carnavalet Museum, Paris.
via Wikimedia Commons

The Law of 22 Prairial (10 June 1794) 

This law was designed to speed up and expand the work of the Revolutionary Tribunal, and it marks the beginning of the Great Terror.  The result of the law was to increase the number of executions. Between March and August 1794 2,639 people were guillotined, over half dying between June and July. The public prosecutor, Fouquier-Tinville was often summoned in the night to receive his orders of the day. He claimed he was followed everywhere by ghosts. 

On 29 Prairial (17 June) sixty-one people were executed in the Place du Trône Renversé, the new site of the guillotine. (See this French site for a list of the various sites of the guillotine during the Revolution.) Those who died included the father, brother and aunt of a girl, Cécile Renault, who had tried to assassinate Robespierre. They went to their deaths clothed in the red shirts of parricides. An underage maidservant, whose previous employer had been the mistress of an Hébertist, was also guillotined, to the uncharacteristic outrage of the crowd.  

The best known-victims of that terrible day were the sixteen Carmelite nuns, known as the 'martyrs of Compiègne' and most famously commemorated in Poulenc's opera, Dialogue des Carmelites. You can see a representation of their deaths on this YouTube site

The Thermidor coup

Robespierre was brought down by his enemies outside the Committees of Public Safety and General Security. The Law of 22 Prairial meant that no-one was safe.  Many deputies in the Convention were frightened that they too would be brought before the Revolutionary Tribunal, especially those who had been recalled from their bloodthirsty provincial missions, notably Fouché and Jean Lambert Tallien (who had terrorized the Vendée and Bordeaux).

Ever more isolated, Robespierre increasingly withdrew from the Convention and devoted his time to the Police Bureau where he spent hours analysing the reports of informers. On the morning of 8 Thermidor (26 July) Robespierre spoke for two hours to the Convention and threatened to name the conspirators against the Revolution. Everyone knew he meant Fouché, Tallien and their associates. This forced them into the open: it was them or Robespierre. The stakes couldn't be higher.

On the following day (9 Thermidor, 27 July), Robespierre's associate Antoine de Saint-Just was shouted down in the Convention, Robespierre himself was greeted with shouts of ‘Down with the Tyrant’,  and he, his brother Augustin, Saint-Just,  Couthon, and Saint-Just’s friend, Philippe LeBas, were arrested. But some of the Parisian sections were growing restive and no prison would detain them. By 1am on 10 Thermidor all five were in the Hotel de Ville waiting for the insurrection to begin, when soldiers from the Convention burst in. Robespierre shattered his jaw in a botched suicide attempt. 

A nineteenth-century representation of the death
of Robespierre, giving another explanation for
his shattered jaw.
Wikimedia Commons

Robespierre and four others were guillotined the same day under the provisions of the Law of 22 Prairial. The guillotine was returned to the Place de la Revolution especially for the occasion. Over a hundred of his supporters were executed on the following days. 

'Execution of Robespierre and Saint-Just' by Unknown
Bibliothèque nationale de France.
Wikimedia Commons

On 1 August the Law of 22 Prairial was repealed. In the following days there was a mass release of prisoners. One of these was Josephine de Beauharnais, the widow of a guillotined aristocrat. 

In November 1795 a new government, the Directory, was set up. By this time France was becoming internally peaceful though the war was stepped up.

For the subsequent rise of Napoleon see my blog post here

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