Skip to main content

Robespierre: the Meaning of Virtue

ISSUE:  Winter 1996

During the winter of 1788, France was gripped by an economic crisis. The failure of the harvest and consequent hoarding had doubled the price of bread, while wages fell as industry was disrupted. Riots broke out, chateaux were plundered and burned. Bands of brigands roamed as in the medieval Jacquerie, their victims dangling from tall trees.

With famine and disorder came a financial crisis. The heavy cost of aiding the colonists in the American Revolution, the lavish spending of Queen Marie Antoinette and her favorites, the bizarre tax system which exempted the feudal nobility and the church had brought the realm to the verge of bankruptcy.

Successive ministers of finance had come and gone as in a revolving door, their only recourse another ruinous loan. Finally, the Swiss financial expert Jacques Necker proposed to rescue the State by summoning the Estates-General, the nearest thing France had to a legislature but which had not met since 1614. Convened by King Louis XVI, the Estates-General assembled at Versailles in May 1789.

Of the three Estates or Orders, Clergy, Nobility and Commons, the first two had 300 members each, the Commons 600. Voting by Order ensured a 2—1 majority of nobles and clergy. However, the Third Estate, determined on reform and supported by Necker, demanded voting by head. The Commons could count on liberal nobles like the Marquis de Lafayette and other French volunteers in America as well as the underpaid parish priests.

Among the deputies of the Third Estate was a short pale lawyer from Arras, capital of Artois, who impressed his colleagues by his command of the issues. Just past 31, Maximilien Robespierre mingled with the liberal deputies led by the Marquis Honoré de Mirabeau. Idealistic and strongly motivated, Robespierre believed with all his soul in the Rights of Man, a watchword of 18th-century French philosophes. As a magistrate in Arras, he could not bring himself to pronounce a death sentence. He shrank from blood, and the only execution he ever attended was his own.

With his attractive devoted younger sister Charlotte, Robespierre had joined the Rosati Society in Arras, a poetry-reading circle. Here, they met Joseph Fouche, a seminarist, who became a confidant of both Maximilien and Charlotte. Even at this early date, the canny Fouché had perceived Robespierre as a coming man, and he wooed the sister.

The literary pretensions of the Rosati had pleased Maximilien who longed to write like the great dramatic poet Racine, but instead of depicting scenes of wrath and anguish, he was destined to be at the center of them. The merry meetings alleviated the sense of social insecurity which he had known since childhood. Left an orphan when his mother died and his father, a failed alcoholic lawyer, disappeared, Maximilien had been brought up by two maiden aunts. Like the aunts, he became prim, fastidious, abhoring bad language, always watering his wine and keenly sensitive to slights. He had also a devouring passion to excel.

He made his mark in the debate over voting procedure, with Maximilien insisting that the other two Orders join the Commons in the great work of transforming France. The issue squarely confronted monarchy and Commons. The king ruled by divine right, while the Commons, of which more than half were lawyers, wanted a constitutional monarchy.

By no means was there unanimity concerning reform. The young Austrian queen of France, 34 years old, with her coterie of nobles, higher clergy, and royal officials, was vehement against Necker’s democratic program. King Louis, fat, good-natured, and eager to please but irresolute and with the mind of an artisan bricoleur, was dominated by his proud Queen. He was persuaded to lock out the Commons, preparatory to dissolution of the Estates.

The Commons adjourned to the large interior space of the royal tennis court. Fired with a mandate for reform, Robespierre and the others swore a solemn oath never to disband until they had given France a constitution.

Barred from the tennis court as well, the Commons, now the National Assembly, repaired to a church in the town of Versailles. When a royal officer appeared to command the deputies to disperse, it was the moment for the great pockmarked tribune. A notorious hellraiser in his youth who had served time in the Bastille, Mirabeau had become a statesman. To the king’s emissary, he thundered: “Go back and tell those who sent you that we are here by the will of the people and only bayonets shall drive us out!”

When the king caved in and directed the Estates to sit together as one assembly, it seemed the will of the people had prevailed. However, the intransigent Court party exhorted Louis to show himself worthy of his ancestors and crush the agitation. Again reversing course, Louis sent a force of Swiss and German regiments to Paris.

Camille Desmoulins, a young friend and schoolfellow of Robespierre, leaped upon a table in the gardens of the Palais-Royal and incited a mob to storm the royal fortress of the Bastille. The mighty drama of the French Revolution had begun.

Artisans and small shopkeepers from the St.-Antoine Quarter, with city militia, broke into the Invalides, the Paris arsenal, and seized guns, powder, and cannon. The huge fortress of the Bastille, the very symbol of royal despotism, was the natural target on July 14. In a bloody assault, with more than 200 casualties, the Bastille was taken and the governor’s head paraded on a pike. Seven prisoners were liberated, three of them quite mad.

When the grand master of the wardrobe awoke the king to inform him of the capture of the Bastille, Louis didn’t get it. “It’s a revolt,” he said.

“No, sire, it’s a revolution,” the grand master replied.

The Court party did understand, and many ran for cover abroad. Louis, who did not lack courage, recalled Necker, whose dismissal had helped ignite the turmoil, and decided to visit his “good people” of Paris. Robespierre was one of numerous deputies who accompanied the king.

At the Hotel de Ville or Town Hall, the royal peacemaker pinned on the red, white and blue cockade, symbol of the new order, the colours of Paris with the white of the monarchy. Still not getting it, he declared: “I am very satisfied. You can always count on my love.”

Robespierre visited “this hateful monument of tyranny,” as he described the fallen Bastille, whose stones were already being carted away for other construction work. Robespierre approved; he had no wish to preserve the awesome medieval donjon. He thought in sharp images of black and white, the dark despotic past and the shining time to come.

In the Assembly debates, he had an original style which reflected his categorical conviction of truth and error. He poured forth a stream of oratory in his didactic precise lawyer’s voice. At intervals, he would look up from his prepared text, his green eyes peering through green-tinted spectacles at his auditors. He would deal with problems as he felt Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the embittered misfit, would have done. Rousseau had produced the Bible of the Revolution, The Social Contract, which began: “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.”

Impressed by Robespierre’s zeal, Mirabeau remarked: “This young man will go far. He believes what he says.” Relations cooled over whether the constitution should give the king a veto of legislation. Robespierre was decidedly against it, but Mirabeau was maneuvering to act as a secret conduit between the monarchy and the Assembly; he won the veto for the king.

Robespierre was in his element when in August the Assembly whooped through the Declaration of the Rights of Man, inspired diversely by Rousseau, philosophes like Voltaire and Diderot, and the American Declaration of Independence. In an all-night session, the nobles, led by the due de Noailles, the beau-père of Lafayette, surrendered their feudal rights.

In England, liberal reformers such as Charles James Fox and Richard Sheridan hailed these strides toward a consitutional monarchy as in Britain. The youthful English poet, William Wordsworth, then in Paris, hymned his praise: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young were very heaven!”

But it was a dawn of delusion.

The king’s cousin, Philippe due d’Orléans, was busy spreading tales of orgies at the Court and troops assembling to massacre the starving people. Known as “Philippe Egalité,” he posed as a lover of the Rights of Man; in reality, this depraved prince aimed to eliminate Louis XVI and to seize the throne. In this desperate game, he was abetted by Choderlos de Laclos, a disreputable nobleman whose popular novel, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, depicting vicious aristocrats preying on the innocent, fueled the duke’s propaganda. Two centuries later, the work would be revived to great acclaim in a Hollywood film.

Another hired gun, Jeanne de Valois, claiming descent from the Valois royal line, further poisoned the atmosphere by scurrilous brochures against the queen, her “uterine furies” and insatiable sexual demands. Marie Antoinette had made herself an easy mark by her prodigal previous life and her autocratic influence. The king refused to sanction the Declaration and the abolition of feudal rights, while he recalled the Flanders Regiment to protect the royal family, including the Dauphin, six years old. At a lavish state dinner, the officers swore undying devotion to the monarchy and then trampled underfoot the tricolour cockade.

This attempt to reimpose the royal authority played into Egalite’s hands. With his novelist abettor, he devised a brilliant stroke: the March of the Women on Versailles. The king’s soldiers would not fire on poor hungry women. On the morning of October 5th, a mob of noisome women assembled at the duke’s Palais-Royal. With drums beating and pikes held aloft, they marched out, led by the bailiff Maillard who had headed the assault on the Bastille.

The Court was alerted by Comte Axel de Fersen, gallant Swedish nobleman in love with Marie Antoinette and who had galloped from Paris. The Royal Council was divided: some advised immediate flight; others exhorted Louis to lead out the Flanders Regiment and scatter the mob. The king dithered. Finally, he decided to sit tight, the worst course.

In a pouring rain, plundering wine-shops en route, the women arrived, drenched and furious. Thirsting for the queen’s blood, they broke into the palace, rushed up the marble staircase leading to the queen’s apartments. Heroic bodyguards defended the doors so that Marie Antoinette might escape. Order was eventually restored by Lafayette, commander of the National Guard.

The next day, Lafayette and his men escorted the royal family to Paris, followed by the mob of women, bearing on pikes the heads of the bodyguards who had died for the queen. As they came, the women chanted, “Now we’ll have bread. We’ve got the baker, the baker’s wife and the baker’s boy!”

So ended, not with a bang but a whimper, 1000 years of divine-right monarchy in France. The royal family was lodged in the old decaying palace of the Tuileries, where the king was a prisoner, in effect, of his “good people” of Paris. The National Assembly also moved, taking over the Manege or riding-school next to the Tuileries.

The large gallery of the Manége provided a considerable audience for Robespierre’s speeches. In his passion for transforming humanity, he proposed one sweeping reform after another. He was eloquent against capital punishment—”those scenes of death that society ordains with so much display are no more than cowardly murders!” He advocated civil rights for Protestants, Jews, and actors. He pleaded for universal manhood suffrage, but the Assembly restricted the vote to taxpayers, while no one, except Condorcet, ever imagined giving women the vote.

He was appalled by slavery in the French Antilles, admonishing his colleagues, “You care so little for the Rights of Man, which you urge ceaselessly, that you sanctify slavery constitutionally.” However, the Caribbean colonists’ powerful sugar lobby balked abolition until 1794.

These heated battles for human betterment preyed on Robespierre’s nerves and he would take to his bed, worn out. He was constipated, suffered from asthma, and couldn’t sleep. He could seldom relax with friends. When Camille Desmoulins invited him to a fête, he replied: “Your champagne is poison to freedom!”

But it was with his old schoolfellow from the elite College of Louis-le-Grand that he would pass his most pleasant hours. When Camille married, Robespierre was best man and he was godfather to the baby Horace. He would sit by the fire, dandling Horace on his knee, while chatting with pretty Lucille, Camille’s wife.

Robespierre’s austerity attracted women. He acquired a fan club, the ladies writing to praise him for his ideals; an Englishwoman even sent him a check for his work. Though often hard-up, Robespierre returned it. Camille was inspired to dub his mentor “the Incorruptible.”

Though Camille favored a republic, Robespierre still believed that the king could be a constitutional monarch, but Louis XVI had become irrelevant to the Revolution. The monarchists in the Assembly knew this and withdrew. Their place was taken by the Girondists from Bordeaux and the Gironde. Under their philosopher-statesman Condorcet, they upheld the early ideals of the Revolution, civil rights, freedom of speech and press. On the Left were the Jacobins, rabble-rousers, orating against tyranny and exhorting the people to eradicate by force all vestiges of the Ancien Regime. The Paris Jacobin Club, so-named from its headquarters in the rue Jacob, had 3000 members and branches throughout France. Robespierre soon rose to prominence in the Jacobins as the one man clear-sighted enough to direct this violent agitation in constructive ways.

In April 1791, a principal obstacle to Robespierre’s ascent was removed by Mirabeau’s death. It was said that he passed his last night in bed with two tarts from the Opera. His policy of acting as a buffer between monarchy and Assembly had failed because the queen detested him. However, no one except Robespierre suspected what he had really been up to.

In June, the royal family fled Paris for the safety of Metz. where the noble emigres had gathered. The escape, however, was badly bungled and fell hours behind Fersen’s carefully organized schedule. The great gilded coach was caught at Varennes, just short of freedom, and the hapless occupants escorted ignominiously back to Paris and the Tuileries.

The last hope was rescue from abroad. Marie Antoinette’s desperate pleas to her brother Leopold, emperor of Austria, were answered in August by an Austrian army. Verdun fell and the thunder of Austrian guns awoke primitive passions in Paris. The rage increased when the invaders’ commander swore to ravage the city if harm came to the royal family.

Revolutionary Paris was further inflamed by the rantings of Jean-Paul Marat, a mad Swiss doctor, who shrieked for blood and 200,000 heads in his paper, L’Ami du Peuple. The so-called enragés of the Paris Commune, the city government elected by the 48 sections in which this city of 650,000 was divided, resolved to act. Applying Marat’s program, the Commune jailed thousands of clergy, those not wearing the tricolour cockade or who had been denounced as traitors to the Revolution.

The Commune then summoned a pack of savages from Marseille, who had marched to Paris roaring the Song of the Army of the Rhine, the army defending France. Perversely, the inspiring song, composed by Rouget de Lisle, became identified with the Marseille cut-throats and was called La Marseillaise, afterward the French national hymn.

The horde of Communards and égorgeurs marched on the Tuileries, defended only by the “Immortal Swiss Guard” of 800 men. The vacillating king was persuaded by deputies to abandon the palace and, with the royal family, to seek shelter at the National Assembly. The Swiss fired on the mob, but in a final renunciation of royalty, Louis ordered his brave defenders to cease fire. Overwhelmed, they were cut to pieces by the Marseille thugs.

Robespierre, a power in the Jacobins, was equally dominant in the Commune. After organizing the assault, he stood aside; naked swords and poignards made him blanch. He preferred to preach Virtue to the French as Rousseau had done. Virtue meant devotion to family, to work, to the ideals of the Revolution. It also meant getting rid of the enemies of Virtue.

Although he was never around when blood flowed, his sermons would inspire a bloody dênouement. When he orated, “The people are enslaved as soon as they relax . . .they are conquered as soon as they forgive those enemies whom they have not crushed,” the mob took to the streets with murder on its mind.

News of the Austrians on the road to Paris fired the enragés to a horrible climax: to slaughter the “traitors” in the prisons. In the September Massacres, they butchered 1500 priests and other folk of all degree. Only 30 victims had nobility, including the queen’s inseparable friend, the Princess de Lamballe, literally torn to pieces at La Force and her heart cooked and eaten.

Well away from the horror, Robespierre was presiding over the Commune at the Hotel de Ville; he seemed oblivious to the massacres. The minister of justice in the Girondin government, Georges Danton, was equally indifferent. When appealed to, he shrugged and replied: “I don’t give a damn for the prisoners. Let them look out for themselves!”

Not every ardent patriot felt the same way. Manon Roland, a Roman soul fancying herself in classical times and the Egeria of the Girondins, was utterly revolted. “Paris is accursed!” she cried.”I no longer hope that liberty may be established among cowards, cold spectators of crimes that fifty brave men could have prevented.”

Danton, however, became the man of the hour against foreign invasion. In the newly-elected National Convention, he thundered: “The tocsin is sounding the charge against the enemies of La Patrie! To overcome them, messieurs, we need audacity, more audacity, always audacity and France is saved!”

Le Chant du Depart, the most rousing national hymn ever composed, now rang out as volunteers rushed to the colors. On September 20, General Dumouriez and his ragtag Army of the Rhine sent the Austrians flying at Valmy, and Danton was hailed as a hero for his inspired call to arms.

Out of the blood and fury of the times emerged the singular triumvirate: Robespierre, Danton, and Marat. Their names have echoed across the centuries as the Unholy Three of the French Revolution. They were by no means one in character or policy. Danton drank, swore, told dirty jokes, and was light-fingered with government money, all of which alienated the rigorous Robespierre. The unwashed Marat in his filthy attire, wallowing in gore, disgusted Robespierre; they could scarcely communicate.

But the three were united on the king’s condemnation. After the assault on the Tuileries, a secret cupboard had been discovered with papers revealing the king’s contacts with royalists in France as well as abroad, eager to restore the Ancien Regime. Louis Capet, as he was now called, was put on trial and convicted of conspiring to betray the Revolution.

In the debate to fix the penalty, Robespierre and Marat insisted on a roll call vote; each deputy would declare his vote at the rostrum. The Girondins wished to vote against death but dared not publicly. Even so, the former monarch was condemned to death by one vote; 361 voted “La Morte” while 360 voted for exile, including Tom Paine, firebrand of the American Revolution, now a naturalized French citizen and deputy in the Convention.

As the carriage bearing Louis to the scaffold passed Robespierre’s residence on the rue Saint-Honore, the former monarchist, who could not stomach executions, closed the shutters and said to a young girl of the household, “Something is happening today, child, which you should not see.”

Robespierre had found a second home with the carpenter Maurice Duplay and his family. Ruthless in politics, he was like a benevolent uncle with the Duplay girls, helping them with their studies and taking them on picnics. They called him “bon-ami”; he was always so obliging, such a gentleman, so nicely dressed and with a freshly powdered peruque. Robespierre had discarded his drab lawyer’s black for bright coats and silver buckles.

The declaration of a Republic and the former king’s execution in January 1793 had ignited a royalist uprising in La Vendee. The momentary disarray in Paris gave Robespierre an opportunity to reorganize the government. Power was centralized in the National Convention, its executive arm the 12 members of the Committee of Public Safety, elected by the Convention. The Revolutionary Tribunal was the judicial branch. In practice, Robespierre controlled both Convention and Committee.

Also a monarchist, who had intended to crown the Dauphin, General Dumouriez, a Girondin, defected to the Austrians, enabling Robespierre and Marat to strike at the Girondins as traitors. In June, the National Guard, at Robespierre’s bidding, surrounded the Convention and expelled the Girondin party.

In July, however, the course of the Revolution was altered by a young Girondin from Normandy, Marie-Charlotte Corday. Like Madame Roland, she had a Roman soul: an avenging Brutus to slay a tyrant. Visiting Marat and finding him in his hip bath to sooth his loathsome sores, she buried her knife in his breast. Asked at her trial who had incited her, she replied: I told my plans to no one. I was not killing a man but a wild beast who was devouring the French people.” Calmly, she went to her execution.

Ironically, Marie-Charlotte had greatly aided Robespierre’s ascent. At a stroke, her knife had eliminated a dangerous rival and made possible the final destruction of the Girondins. Pierre Vergniaud, their silver-tongued orator, said of her: “She has killed us, but she has taught us how to die.”


The Terror is forever identified with Robespierre. He warned that for those who would not learn Virtue, the “Razor of the Rupublic” waited. “The Terror,” he declared, “is nothing save justice, prompt, severe, inflexible. It is an emanation of Virtue.”

The terrible fame of the guillotine, its knife rising and falling in the Place de la Revolution, filled former British sympathizers with horror. Daily, tumbrils loaded with “merchandise” rumbled into the Place, while in front-row seats about the scaffold sat the knitting-women, immortalized by Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities.

At Robespierre’s request, Desmoulins pilloried the Girondins in a savage invective. Later, regretting what he had done, he attended their trial. When all 21 were condemned, Camille rushed out, crying, “Wretch that I am, it is I who is killing them!”

The 21 leaders of the Girondins were executed in a single batch on October 31st. Madame Roland also ascended the scaffold, exclaiming in a Roman pose, “O Liberty, what crimes are committed in thy name!” Marie Antoinette as well was finally delivered of her long agony by execution.

With help from Danton, the sole remaining source of opposition, Camille pleaded in his paper, Le Vieux Cordelier, for an end to the Terror and release of the Commune’s prisoners. Robespierre warned him at the Jacobin Club, but the boy, incorrigible, published a scathing piece in which his former mentor might be taken for the tyrant Nero.

It was too much. Robespierre began to see enemies everywhere. Wheezing and feverish, he sought his bed while delegating to his adoring acolyte, Louis-Antoine Saint-Just, the “Angel of Death”, the preparation of the case against the two apostates. Besides consorting with the vile Girondins and the traitor Dumouriez, Danton had mocked Virtue, saying, “Virtue is what I do every night with my wife!” Cautioned against Robespierre, he had scoffed, “I shall take him in my hand and spin him like a top!”

The popular hero still had supporters and at his trial he made such a commotion that Fouquier-Tinville, the Public Prosecutor, was unnerved and a bill had to be rushed through the Convention, cutting off further debate at the Tribunal.

Fireside evenings in the bosom of the family were all forgotten. When Lucille sobbed at his door, Robespierre closed his shutters. Camille, once devoted friend, went with Danton in the tumbril. As they passed Duplay’s house, Danton, defiant to the last, shouted: “Robespierre, you will follow me!” On the scaffold, he said to the executioner: “Show my head to the crowd. It is well worth the trouble!”

Nor was Lucille overlooked. With trumped-up charges, the Angel of Death sent her to the guillotine as well. In a devastated landscape, Robespierre had achieved total sway. Vergniaud’s prophecy was being fulfilled. At his trial, the Girondin had said: “I fear that the Revolution, like Saturn, may devour each of her children, one by one.”

When a man becomes the sole leader and guide, he feels that God has blessed his mission, that God and he are on the same wave length and that God’s enemies are his too. So Robespierre reserved his special scorn for atheists. At the Convention, he excoriated his former intimate Joseph Fouche, who had jilted poor Charlotte and become a violent atheist.

“Tell us then,” he demanded, “you tell us who ever commissioned you to announce to the People that God doesn’t exist? Only a villain who is contemptible in his own eyes and horrible in the eyes of others feels that Nature cannot make him a better gift than annihilation!”

Robespierre then proposed his decree, the first article of which read: “The French people recognize the existence of a Supreme Being and of the immortality of the soul.”

On 20th Prairial Année II (June 8th, 1794) by the new Revolutionary Calender, Robespierre celebrated the Fete of the Supreme Being. Staged by his sycophant, the artist Louis David, the Fete was Robespierre’s opportunity to address a huge throng from a lofty platform before the Tuileries. Rigged out like a dandy, he wore a blue tailcoat with gold buttons, yellow nankin breeches and white hose. For his small stature (5’3”), he had elevated shoes with silver buckles.

In his sermon, he exulted: “At this moment, God sees a whole people, at grips with oppressors of the human race, suspend its heroic labours to lift its thoughts and desires to the Supreme Being who gave us the mission and the strength to carry it out.”

At the Champs-de-Mars, Robespierre, perched on an artificial mountain, delivered a tirade against atheism. At the end, he warned: “Today, we give ourselves to transports of joy. Tomorrow, we will be fighting crime and vice again.”

Though many had hoped that the Fete signaled an end to the Terror, Robespierre knew better. Two days later, Georges Couthon, a crippled ally, proposed to the Convention the Law of 22nd Prairial by which an accused, dragged before the Revolutionary Tribunal, was denied all means of defense. The new law delighted Fouquier and set the stage for a wholesale purge.

Maximilien Robespierre would address the National Convention on the 8th of Thermidor (July 26th). It was sultry when the deputies assembled at 11 a.m. in the Pavilion de Marsan, their new auditorium in the Tuileries. Of the Convention’s 730 members, the Girondins had sat in the Plain or Marais, the lower seats about the rostrum, while Jacobins occupied the Mountain or the higher seats.

Electricity was in the air as the deputies expected the master of Revolutionary righteousness whose oratory had so often cowed the Convention. Now, they feared for their heads. In six weeks, 1400 persons of all degree had been executed, while 8000 more awaited their turn in the prisons. Skulking from one deputy to another, Fouché had breathed dire warnings.

He knew that Robespierre had marked him for punishment. As commissioner at Lyon, he had derided the clergy and mowed down with cannon hundreds of God-fearing citizens. It was a mortal duel between opposites in character: Robespierre the Incorruptible, scorning the chicanery and lust of his colleauges, absolute in his views; Fouché, the eternal opportunist, a chamelion taking on whatever color would most advantage him.

A hush fell over the Convention as the familiar figure in elegant attire ascended the rostrum. His face a greenish pallor, his eyes behind green-tinted spectacles fixed the Convention. No one stirred as he denounced the lies of perverted minds that had defamed him. “They say that I am a tyrant. Rather, I am a slave, a slave of Liberty, a living martyr to the Republic. I am the victim as well as the enemy of crime.”

Staring straight at the benches of the Mountain where lurked the radical deputies exhorted by Fouché, he sounded a note of impending doom. “I have vowed to leave a redoubtable testament to the oppressors of the Republic. I shall leave them the terrible truth—and death!”

Who were these oppressors? The deputies strained to hear names as Robespierre’s sweeping accusations pierced the air. Calumny, he charged, had forced him to retire for a time from the Committee of Public Safety, leaving the administration in the hands of his enemies. In particular, the public finance was managed by a notorious swindler, Pierre Cambon.

In his peroration, Robespierre loosed a Parthian bolt. “We must say then that there is a conspiracy against Liberty, a criminal coalition in the very bosom of the Convention . . . What is the remedy? Punish the traitors, purge the Committee of Public Safety; establish the unity of the government under the supreme authority of the National Convention . . .crush all factions and erect on their ruins the power of Justice and Liberty!”

As Robespierre concluded, the appalled silence was broken by a burst of applause. The Incorruptible, it seemed, had won again. But suddenly the wind changed. Cambon sprang to his feet. The only man named, he cried: “It is time to tell the whole truth. One man alone paralyzes the will of the Convention. That man is Robespierre!”

The paralysed Convention roused and a cheer rippled. Billand-Varenne had quarreled with Robespierre; his name must be on the fatal list and he moved: “Let Robespierre’s discourse be referred to the Committee before sending it out!”

Startled by this challenge, Robespierre exclaimed: “What? You would submit my speech to the examination of those whom I accuse?”

“Name those whom you accuse!” someone shouted.

Robespierre shuffled his papers. “I have flattered no one. I fear no one. I have slandered no one,” he replied calmly.

From everywhere in the hall erupted the cry, “Give us the names!”

He peered disdainfully at those deputies who had cowered before him in the past. “I am too busy to discuss the matter,” he said and departed.

He had made the greatest mistake of his life. By naming no one save Cambon, he had made everyone feel menaced. Robespierre’s collective incrimination portended a thorough cleansing by the Revolutionary Tribunal.

As he went home, however, Robespierre was not unduly perturbed by the ruckus in the Convention. After supper enfamille, he went for a stroll in the Champs-Elysees with Eleanor Duplay, who was devoted to Maximilien. Friends thought they might have become engaged, if he were not wedded to the Revolution. About the couple frolicked Robespierre’s dog Brount, “the poor animal was very attached to him.”

Following this brief idyl, he stopped at the Jacobin Club and delivered the same discourse, evoking roars of approval. “It is my mortal testament,” he declared. “I leave you my memory; you will defend it. I shall drink the hemlock!”

“And I shall drink it with you!” vowed David, who had painted the famous scene of Socrates drinking the fatal potion.

At this point, Billand-Varenne and Collot d’Herbois entered the Club, to be greeted by a storm of abuse. Couthon cried: “Conspirators must perish! To the guillotine with them!”

That night, men made desperate by Robespierre’s threats banded together to save themselves. Joseph Fouche had not slept in the same bed for many nights, snatching only brief moments at home to be with his family. For this godless man of blood was “a tender husband and the most loving of fathers.” His little girl was dying, but Fouche dared not remain at her bedside. Now, the 8th Thermidor, he spoke the decisive word: “Tomorrow, we strike!”

Help to quicken the queasy conspirators came from an unlikely source—a noblewoman, Theresa Cabarrus, Marquise de Fontenay. Young and beautiful, she enjoyed life with her many admirers. Daughter of a Spanish banker and married to a French aristocrat, she tried to fend off suspicion by generous contributions to the regime.

When the Terror closed in, Thérésa went to Bordeaux, where Jean-Lambert Tallien was the commissioner. His police picked up There’sa, who lacked proper papers. Brought before Tallien, the Spanish Venus had him swooning before her charms, and she moved in with him.

When the venal Tallien was recalled to Paris, Theresa followed. Arrested, she was taken to La Force, the horrible prison where the Princesse de Lamballe had been torn to pieces. In another vile prison, Thérésa’s good friend, Josephine de Beauharnais, awaited her doom. When Thérésa’s frantic appeals to Tallien brought no response, she sent a bitter note to her lover, “I shall die in despair at having belonged to a coward like you!” With the note, she enclosed a dagger.

Buoyed up by his success at the Jacobins, Robespierre slept soundly. At breakfast, he was “well-combed and powdered, in a spotless dressing-gown, installed before a table laden with fine fruit, fresh butter, pure milk and fragrant coffee.” Before eating, he would always say grace.

When he departed for the Convention, the family came to the door to see him off. Eleanor lovingly arranged Robespierre’s cravat, while Duplay shook his hand and said: “Do be careful today, Maximilien.”

Collot d’Herbois, a former actor and member of the Committee, presided at the crucial session. Fouché had drummed into the conspirators that Robespierre must not be allowed to speak and quell timorous deputies.

Shortly after proceedings began, Robespierre rose and waved a sheaf of papers. The Convention exploded. Robespierre was speaking as he headed for the rostrum. Collot rang the bell for order, while cries came from all sides. Robespierre was shoved aside and Collot recognized Tallien, who burst out, “At the Jacobin Club, I trembled for my country. I saw the army of a new Cromwell! I have armed myself with a dagger, which shall pierce this man’s breast, if the Convention does not order his arrest!” Brandishing Theresa’s dagger, he roared: “Down with the tyrant!”

As the Convention took up the cry, Robespierre, clinging to the rostrum, tried desperately to make himself heard. A friend of Danton took the chair, ignoring the furious Robespierre and ringing the bell for order. As yet, no one had named the “tyrant,” until an obscure deputy in the depths of the hall shouted: “I demand the arrest of Robespierre!”

In the moment of thunderous silence, Robespierre’s own voice broke in, “For the last time, president of assassins, will you let me speak?”

“The monster has insulted the Convention!” Tallien exclaimed.

“Arrest him! Arrest him!” the deputies clamoured.

Abandoning the rostrum, Robespierre rushed with outstretched arms to the benches of his former Jacobin comrades. He was rebuffed with the cry, “The blood of Danton is choking you!”

Turning to the deputies of the Plain, he implored: “Men of Purity! Men of Virtue! I appeal to you.” He fell into a seat.

“Monster!” one screamed. “You are sitting where Condorcet once sat!”

Robespierre’s spell was gone. For an entire year, he had mesmerized the Convention with his oratory, his skill in manipulating the various factions, the icy terror of his condemnations. Now he was seized and hustled out of the Convention, with Saint-Just and Couthon, whining in his wheelchair. They were taken to the Hotel de Ville.

That night, the Hotel de Ville was invaded by gendarmes loyal to the Convention and one fired his pistol in Robespierre’s face. With a clumsy bandage on the hideous wound, he was dragged to the Committee of Public Safety in the Tuileries, where for hours he lay on a large table, allowing anyone to enter and mock him.

The next day, he went to the guillotine. As the tumbril passed the Duplay’s house, it halted so that a bucket of blood might be fetched from a nearby butcher’s stall. Shrieking insults, the crowd splashed the blood on the door of Robespierre’s residence. As Robespierre struggled up the scaffold, the executioner tore off the bandage, provoking a scream of agony. They laid him half-fainting on the block as the mob cheered.

The man so cursed and derided was the victim of the insoluble conflict between his principles set in concrete and reality. He idealized Mankind but showed no mercy to those who fell short of his exalted concept of Virtue. Ever more ruthless, seeing traitors everywhere, he sent to the guillotine the innocent with the guilty. He condemned men of the Revolution while holding sacred the ideals of the Revolution. He paid not only with his life but in the terrible memory of his regime.

Robespierre’s sudden astonishing overthrow undoubtedly saved numerous lives. Among those spared were Theresa Cabarrus and Josephine de Beauharnais. Josephine learned of Robespierre’s fall from a woman in the street outside the prison window. First, the woman pointed to her own dress or “robe” to make the initial syllable of Robespierre’s name; then, she picked up a stone or “pierre” in French, to make the second syllable. Finally, with her finger she drew an eloquent line across her throat.

Thérésa, whose fierce summons to action had galvanized Tallien, passed from his arms into those of Barras, chief of the Directory, which governed France after Robespierre’s downfall. Josephine did even better, marrying Napoleon Bonaparte, the future Emperor of the French, while she would be crowned Empress. However, the honours of Thermidor belonged to Theresa, who ever after was known as “Our Lady of Thermidor.”

Not everyone kept a bitter memory of the Incorruptible. When, many years later, the dramatist Victorien-Sardou asked Eleanor Duplay about her family’s famous lodger, she sighed and replied: “You would have certainly loved him. He was so kind, so affectionate!”


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading