Fall of Robespierre Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The fall of Robespierre ended the Reign of Terror and allowed the army, until then not used against the populace, to become the primary force of the French Revolution.

Summary of Event

The Jacobin Club’s advantage over other Parisian political clubs lay in its network of five hundred affiliated provincial clubs. Robespierre came to dominate this organization through the expulsions of the Feuillants in 1791 and the Girondins in 1793. The Jacobins Jacobins controlled the National Convention through their affiliation with the Commune (the Paris city government and focus of its forty-seven sections). [kw]Fall of Robespierre (July 27-28, 1794) [kw]Robespierre, Fall of (July 27-28, 1794) Reign of Terror (France) French Revolution (1789-1796);Robespierre [g]France;July 27-28, 1794: Fall of Robespierre[3150] [c]Government and politics;July 27-28, 1794: Fall of Robespierre[3150] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;July 27-28, 1794: Fall of Robespierre[3150] Robespierre Billaud-Varenne, Jean-Nicolas Couthon, Georges Barras, Paul-François-Jean Nicolas de Fouché, Joseph Tallien, Jean-Lambert Hébert, Jacques-René Collot d’Herbois, Jean-Marie

In the spring of 1793, defeats of French revolutionary armies in the Netherlands and Rhineland and internal rebellion in the department of the Vendée (monarchist, Catholic, and against military conscription) combined with fear of espionage and hunger in Paris to cause the establishment of the Reign of Terror and the Committee of Public Safety, which dominated the Convention in 1793-1794. Robespierre strengthened his position in Paris and the Committee through his image as “incorruptible,” a protector of the people’s interests. Agencies of the Terror (the Revolutionary Tribunal, Revolutionary Tribunal (France) surveillance committees in Paris sections, and “representatives on mission” acting for the Convention in the provinces) helped France to regain the offensive abroad and control insurrection at home. Popular leaders, such as Jacques-René Hébert of the Commune and Georges Danton of the Cordeliers Club (and the Jacobin Club), worked with Robespierre in the fall of 1793 to eliminate the Girondins (who represented the Right) and the Enrages (who represented the Left). The Convention also established controls on prices of basic commodities.

As part of this deal, the Cordeliers placed Jean Nicolas Billaud-Varenne and Jean-Marie Collot d’Herbois on the Committee of Public Safety. Afterward, these men allowed the execution of their sponsors, the Hébertists on March 21, 1794, and the Dantonists on April 5. Issues in these purges included de-Christianization and atrocities of representatives on mission; at the same time, a struggle for control—or survival—was as important. Danton’s crony, Camille Desmoulins, had challenged Robespierre in print, calling for an end of the Terror and identifying him as its perpetrator. Elimination of these rivals marked the triumph of Robespierre and the Jacobins, but it frightened other Convention members.

The high point of the Terror came in 112 days between the execution of Danton and that of Robespierre. Yet Robespierrists now modified some extremist policies. They called back to Paris notoriously brutal and venal representatives on mission, including Joseph Fouché, Collot, and Jean-Lambert Tallien, and they counteracted Hébertist atheism with the Festival of the Supreme Being, an elaborate public pageant led by Robespierre. On the other hand, Georges Couthon drew up the Law of 22 Prairial (June 10), under which the Revolutionary Tribunal judged crimes against the nation without presentation of defensive evidence and with mandatory death sentences. Executions in Paris tripled—up to 354 each month. (Provincial prisoners had begun to be sent to Paris for trial, which somewhat skews figures.)

The men who overthrew Robespierre acted to get him before he could get them; at the Convention on July 26, “the Incorruptible” had threatened his enemies. Fouché spread the rumor that Robespierre intended to make himself king; after all, when fanatical Catherine Théot had proclaimed Robespierre as the Messiah, he had blocked her prosecution. Robespierre was attacked at the Convention on July 27 by Collot and Billaud, his rivals on the Committee of Public Safety, and by Marc Guillaume Vadier and Tallien of the rival Committee of General Security; the Convention refused to hear his self-defense. Confident in his control of the Jacobin Club, the Commune (after Hébert’s execution), and the National Guard, Robespierre accepted arrest, hesitating to challenge the Convention’s rule of law.

Robespierre is seized by the troops of the National Convention in Paris’s City Hall. He is portrayed as wounded, having shot himself in the jaw earlier that night.

(R. S. Peale and J. A. Hill)

A confrontation followed. The Commune ordered Paris prisons not to incarcerate Robespierre and his friends who assembled at City Hall. The Commune called on National Guard contingents to defend City Hall and issued orders for the arrest of Convention leaders. The Jacobin Club declared that it would remain in session. Only thirteen sections, however, sent troops to defend Robespierre, and these had dwindled by 2:00 a.m., when Convention troops under Paul-François-Jean Nicolas de Barras arrived. As a result, the Robespierrists were arrested a second time without a struggle. On the afternoon of July 28, Robespierre, his brother Augustin, Couthon, Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, and seventeen associates were condemned by the Revolutionary Tribunal and guillotined. On the following two days, eighty-four additional adherents were executed.

Thermidorians The Thermidorians, victors over Robespierre but themselves terrorists, had not intended to end the Terror; nevertheless, enthusiasm for it had clearly waned. (The conspirators are called “Thermidorians” because Robespierre fell on July 27-28, which was 9-10 Thermidor according to the revolutionary calendar.) After the execution of public prosecutor Antoine Quentin Fouquier-Tinville and other agents of the Terror, few persons volunteered to fill their places. It proved convenient to justify the coup by blaming Robespierre for the Terror. Thus the Revolutionary Tribunal, Committee of Public Safety, and Jacobin Clubs were shut down. On March 8, 1795, surviving Girondins were recalled to the Convention. The Law of 22 Prairial was repealed, and the Thermidorians Collot and Billaud were imprisoned in Cayenne for their Terrorism and political assassination terrorism.

Significance

Lack of popular enthusiasm for Robespierre had stemmed from recently announced wage controls, and on December 24, 1794, the Convention repealed price controls. A bad harvest in 1794 meant terrible prices and food shortages in Paris. In April and May of 1795, hunger riots became insurrection, with people complaining that under Robespierre—and the king—they had had enough to eat. Led by regular army officers, militiamen from conservative neighborhoods pacified Paris, but provincial antirevolutionary atrocities (“White Terror”) now equaled those of the earlier “Red Terror”; Jacobins became prime targets. On October 5, 1795, General Napoleon Bonaparte, at the Convention’s behest, repressed a Rightist insurrection in Paris protesting a new constitution under which two-thirds of the old Convention would continue to serve. Many Thermidorians (Barras, Tallien, and Fouché among them) figured as leaders of the new regime, the Directory, which proved notoriously corrupt.

Robespierre’s fall provides a reliable talisman for discovering a historian’s viewpoint: Positivists, Marxists, monarchists, Dantonists, and Robespierrists all view not only the event but also the entire revolution differently. Historians continue to debate, for example, whether Robespierre’s fall ended the French Revolution. The term “Thermidor” has become generally used in the idiom of revolutions to denote an inevitable, conservative reaction following revolutionary extremism and freedom.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Backzo, Branislaw. Ending the Terror: The French Revolution After Robespierre. Translated by Michel Peteram. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Details intrigues and rumors that brought about Robespierre’s fall and also dicusses Thermidorian corruption.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bienvenu, Richard T., ed. The Ninth of Thermidor: The Fall of Robespierre. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968. Bienvenu tells the story through a series of contemporary documents connected by his judicious commentary.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Doyle, William. The Oxford History of the French Revolution. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. An authoritative and comprehensive account of French history between 1774 and 1802, written by a prominent historian. Includes information on Robespierre and the events of Thermidor.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hardman, John. Robespierre. New York: Longman, 1999. Biography focusing on Robespierre’s political career and the political situation during the French Revolution. Chapter 11 recounts the fall of Robespierre.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hibbert, Christopher. The Days of the French Revolution. New York: Quill/William Morrow, 1999. Each chapter of this book covers the significant events that occurred on a single day or other designated time period during the French Revolution. Chapter 9 recounts the days of Thermidor.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Palmer, Robert R. Twelve Who Ruled: The Year of the Terror in the French Revolution. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1941. The inner workings and infighting of the Committee of Public Safety make clear the pressures and confusion at the top.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rudé, George. The Crowd in the French Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1959. Rudé analyzes in depth the great revolutionary “days.” Chapter 9 of his work treats the events of 9 Thermidor.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schama, Simon. Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989. Of the plethora of reliable one-volume histories of the revolution, this one catches the bicentennial spirit and is highly anecdotal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thompson, J. M. Robespierre. Reprint. New York: Basil Blackwell, 1988. Its detail and objectivity make this biography, first published in 1935, the standard work on Robespierre in English.

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