Friday, 21 May 2021

Tissot on Robespierre

Here is an analysis of Robespierre's career and the events of Thermidor taken from P.-F. Tissot's history of the Revolution, published in 1835.  Tissot was a committed Revolutionary and an assiduous political observer, who must have known many of the participants personally: as he himself writes, "An inquisitive, attentive and impassioned witness, I did not cease for a moment to study and follow the Revolution."  It is interesting to note how close Tissot's view of Robespierre is to that of modern biographers like Hervé Leuwers and Peter McPhee.

Max Adamo, Fall of Robespierre in the Convention on 27th July 1794 (1870)  Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin.
File:Max Adamo Sturz Robespierres.JPG - Wikimedia Commons

Robespierre's early career

Tissot begins with the question which has recently exercised Jean-Clément Martin among others; how was it that the Fall of Robespierre came to be regarded as such a turning point in the Revolution?  The Thermidoreans themselves deserved no credit, since they wanted only to save their own necks and were content to continue the regime of terror. So was there something about Robespierre himself that linked the fate of the Revolution to his person?

Tissot begins with an examination of Robespierre's Revolutionary career.  Like J.-C.M he depicts  Robespierre as a relative unimportant deputy who succeeded in creating his own political persona and carving out a role for himself. 

   Compared to Cazalès, Maury, Barnave or Mirabeau,  Robespierre was a lawyer without talent, who pleased no-one.  Disappointed, but not put off by his reversals at the tribune, he worked hard, and when he reappeared towards the end of the Constituent Assembly, he  brought about a favourable change.  The deplorable intrigue of the revision provided him with the opportunity to throw spark into vehement attacks against men who appeared to sacrifice the interests of liberty to royal authority. His popularity grew greatly at this time,  and the title of "incorruptible", added to his name, gave him influence over public opinion.  He grew in reputation during  the conflicts in the assembly  and in the debates at the Jacobins,  his home ground where he took on all  comers.  Nor were his rivals - Brissot, Louvet, Vergniaud - mean orators.  Thanks to the simplicity of his manner, his modest way of life, his distance from intrigue...his reputation was almost the only one to remain intact in the minds of revolutionaries.  Ardent patriots did not even reproach his lack of participation in the great journées.  He had his role; he played it well.  He never failed to defend principles;  he always supported the cause of the friends of liberty;  he was vigilant against the common enemy;  he desired the good of the people and inspired popular confidence for the general cause.  Let us be content with these precious qualities which set a man apart; for extraordinary circumstances we have Danton: that, without saying it, was what was thought. The 10 August put Danton in high favour among revolutionaries, yet Robespierre, who had neither conspired nor fought,  eclipsed his rival, whose reputation was tainted on several counts...

In September 1792, Robespierre, who was privy to neither the planning nor the execution of the crimes committed, gained moral advantage over the members of the Commune and Danton.  Even fanatics who approved such acts were happy to join forces against their enemies with a man who had no taint of complicity. When the Convention met, the Girondins, who sought to dominate the assembly, attacked not Danton but Robespierre. [Louvet denounced him] as master of the Jacobins, arbiter of the Commune, director of the people and future dictator of France: "Je t'accuse d'avoir évidemment marché au pouvoir suprême." This harangue put Robespierre on a pedestal, and provided him with a resounding victory which compromised the entire Girondin faction.  He rallied round him all those Revolutionaries who felt themselves attacked by the party of orators  who recognised Vergniaud as their master.  During the king's trial, the relentless and thunderous speech of Robespierre was a work of talent that Condorcet admired and Vergniaud could not equal. Vergniaud, who had intended to save Louis XVI, was seized with fear at the tribune and condemned him to death.  Robespierre demanded the same penalty out of profound conviction.  Which of the two judges merits the greater reproach?  Robespierre was  implacable towards the Girondins, but they had wanted his head, and gravely compromised the destiny of the Republic.  After their fall, Robespierre, who had become even more powerful, fought with rare courage against the faults of his own party;  he endeavoured to suppress excesses and maintain order by the authority of his words, both at the Jacobins and at the tribunal of the Convention.  He gave even greater services as a member of the Committee of Public Safety.

Even the leaders of opinion most opposed to the Revolution - de Maistre, Chateaubriand, all the heads of Europe, Napoleon himself... - agree that Revolutionary government saved France from being carved up by foreign enemies or pulled apart by internal dissension... We all felt this at the time.  As a vast democracy, without cohesion, without harmony, without unity, France was likely to perish through the multiplicity of disorganised efforts to save her. The Committee of Public Safety, resting on Revolutionary government, seized the helm with a strong hand...That is how we came to triumph over the powers of Europe which were ranged against us.

Revolutionary government, of which terror was the principal instrument, produced a phenomenon which was extraordinary, though it has been little remarked upon.  Far from freezing the spirit of the people,  it exalted it; instead of discouraging zeal it inflamed it....Without the Jacobin Club and its network of societies, without the Commune of Paris, the Convention would perhaps have never brought about the triumph of the Revolution.... It was from the bosom of of the Jacobins that an electric spark spread out to ignite all of France... The Jacobins and the societies are normally regarded as agents of reversal and instruments of disorder...but they were the most useful and necessary institutions of the epoch... Who really gave the Jacobins to the government?  Who was the orator who ceaselessly rallied them, anticipating or suppressing their wanderings and divisions?  It was above all Robespierre;  Robespierre was the supreme moderator of the Jacobins;  through them he regulated all the other societies and exercised over the whole French people an ascendency that Danton had lost, or perhaps had never obtained to the same degree.

Robespierre - the conciliatory politician

The moderate, the conciliator - this too tends to be the modern view of Robespierre's conduct, certainly in the earlier part of his career. 

......Robespierre was a Revolutionary and not a obscurantist or a traitor who wanted only to create trouble.  In all his speeches from the opening of the Convention he promoted ideas of order, principles of moderation; he strove to attain a government that would bring together all the elements of the social body.  No-one else showed such consistency, such boldness in restraining his own party and in braving opinion in order to combat propositions dangerous to the common cause; whilst seeking to retain the favour of the people, he resisted them face to face and told them hard and useful truths. As if it were possible to do such things and be a mediocrity without  talent or vision!  I smile at those who - contrary to the opinion of clever Cambacérès or the considered judgment of Napoleon on Saint-Helena -  wish to reduce Maximilien to someone of vulgar capacities.

Maxime Faivre, Robespierre with his friend the carpenter Duplay, painting of c.1900 Musée de Vizille.
Robespierre chez son ami le menuisier Duplay Portail des collections Département de l'Isère (

Robespierre - the normal man

Nature made Robespierre neither spiteful nor cruel. No trait of his childhood, no memory of his youth reveals any odious inclinations. He loved tenderly the brother who wanted to die with him;  his sister, who is still living, defends his memory with a heartfelt zeal and the voice of conviction. The letters of Camille Desmoulins's wife, testify that Robespierre took pleasure in the happiness of their union and liked to play with their child.  Madame Roland, for whom he held no attraction, still received him with pleasure; she recognised the sincerity of his patriotism and his integrity.  Apparently she judged him susceptible to persuasion, for it was to him alone that she appealed from the depths of her prison.  The modest family, with whom he took refuge, said at the time, and still do, that once he was free of politics, which made him angry and depressed, he was easy to talk to and would give way readily to gaiety.  He had conceived a virtuous love for his host's daughter, whose gentle manners and elevated spirit no-one has ever denied.  The arts touched Robespierre;  he admired David and applauded the talent of Talma. He was a just, though severe, judge of the theatre.  He took his admiration for Rousseau to the point of enthusiasm and never ceased to study the great writer. He despised Machiavelli as a corrupter of public morality. When a man appeared to him to be an honest and sincere patriot, he gave him employment and defended him against all attacks.

 Robespierre at the Jacobins on 8 Thermidor, Engraving after Auguste Raffet, 1834 Musée Carnavalet
File:Robespierre à la Société des Jacobins - Auguste Raffet.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

Robespierre -  scapegoat for the Terror

How did such a character end up by bringing down on his head such a storm of abuse, that it will perhaps echo for all posterity? The answer to this question lies in the irresistible power of a revolution which overthrows an empire and excites all the wildest passions of the human heart...When a people becomes angry, its leaders do too, and soon that passion...becomes a contagion.   When the double goal of revolution is the reconquest of liberty and the improved destiny of peoples, the sanctity of the end, as Mirabeau said, seems to justify any means....

Compared to all the other men who have figured in the first rank, from the dawn of insurrection in 1789, Robespierre was one of the least violent.   It was not he, but Mirabeau, who first roused the people to anger....Robespierre did not topple the throne on 10th August; he was absent on 2nd September.  He was not responsible for the insurrection of 31st May.  He cannot be reproached with  cruelties, or scandalous conduct, like Tallien, Fréron, Barras, Collot d'Herbois, Fouché in Nantes, and so many other proconsuls.   His most vehement philippics lacked the delirium and fury with which several of his adversaries  brought dishonour to liberty itself.  His collected speeches, give him this advantage over his adversaries - that they seem by comparison barbarians who talk like the lieutenants of Attila. 

It may be noted, in passing, that the deputy Louis Louchet, who was the first to move the arrest of Robespierre, supported the maintenance of Terror in 1795 and evoked the authority of Marat.  Almost all those who wanted his fall were no more "moderates" than this apologist of the Friend of the People.  

The dictator was overthrown because he favoured moderation; because he wanted to soften the regime of terror and gradually disarm "national vengeance"; because he wanted to curb, even punish, the excesses committed in the departments by odious proconsuls.  The Right preferred Robespierre to his enemies, and wanted to sacrifice them to him.  It was their intimate persuasion that he had decided to revert to a more gentle system, to give probity back its  place of honour. To borrow Danton's phrase, Robespierre was afraid of money; he nourished an impeccable hatred of corruption.

Napoleon said that Robespierre was the scapegoat ("le bouc émissaire") of the Revolution. Guilty men, who had deserted Republican morality, burdened his memory with all their iniquities.   But history... has already given them back responsibility for their works; in particular,  it was during the six weeks of Robespierre's withdrawal from public life that executions multiplied with such frightening rapidity. 

Robespierre's personal failings

Despite his enthusiasm for the Revolution, Tissot was not one of those who thought that  Revolutionary imperatives somehow overrode ordinary standards of decent behaviour.  He judged Robespierre by stern standards of personal virtue, courage and, above all, compassion - and ultimately found him wanting:

In all truth, certain grave accusation will always be laid against Robespierre.  He was as merciless towards Louis XVI as though he were a terrible tyrant, and behaved barbarically towards Marie-Antoinette.  Although others called for the death of the Girondins, he demanded it with particular fury. He deserted in a cowardly fashion Desmoulins, his friend and supporter, whom he had formerly defended with courage.  Out of some sort of puritanical rigour, he sacrificed the head of Danton...he insulted him after his death and did not even allow him to rest in peace.  He had not been party to most of the laws of terror, drawn up with such severity by moderate men... but  he lost the credit for this non-complicity by the law of 22 Prairial, which he defended with a sort of  frenzy....  He seems to have exercised a culpable influence over the Revolutionary Tribunal.  Tradition tells us that he placed his creatures in the Tribunal, that juries took their orders from him and trembled in his presence if they went against his wishes.  I do not want to excuse or justify Robespierre; however, it must be said that many men, who have since been represented as models of humanity, made light of the idea of the scaffold; in the midst of such passions, dangers, and  a war to the death with Europe, the fall of heads had little effect on the multitude.

According to all those who knew him, Robespierre was driven by fear.  This passion exaggerated his feelings of hatred and instilled in him a certain cruelty. He experienced satisfaction at the fall of his enemies, whose death brought him security. Pity never seemed to move him; he never showed that generosity of spirit which inspires a man to forego vengeance and to offer forgiveness to his enemies. He never uttered one word of concern for the Girondins; no expression of regret for Camille Desmoulins,  nor any gentleness for Danton. Perhaps it was  as punishment for this insensitivity, that at the supreme moment, in the shadow of the scaffold, Maximilien was unable to pronounce any of those sublime words which  served to immortalise a Vergniaud or Danton.

 Pierre-François Tissot,  Histoire complète de la révolution française Vol. 5, (1835), p.331-341
Histoire complète de la révolution française : Pierre-François Tissot  Internet Archive

Valery Jacobi, "9 Thermidor", painting of 1864,  Tretyakov Gallery 

Here is Tissot's depiction of Robespierre's last hours.  It is convincingly and sympathetically observed, though it should be remembered that Tissot himself was not an eyewitness to these events. 

At the news that Maximilien lay dying in the Committee room, several deputies, through intense curiosity, went to see him.  They had laid him out on a table;  several boxes supported his head.  He remained conscious and appeared unmoved.  He was wearing a blue coat, the same one that he had worn at the Festival of the Supreme Being.  His face was covered with linen napkins;  he wiped the blood from his wounds with the cover from a pistol.  A number of people without character, among them some deputies, hurled insults at him. One of them, who ought to have known better, observed loudly, "If he weren't a scoundrel, we would treat his wounds".  He was exposed in this way for several hours to all sorts of injuries, but he showed no emotion. When a surgeon arrived to tend him, he rose by himself, got down from the table and sat in an armchair where he submitted without  complaint to the pain of having his wound dressed.  He had long prepared for death, as his speeches testify;  now the courage with which he endured proved that his words to Couthon  inside the Hôtel de Ville had not been empty ones: "It is for us to suffer our fate, whatever it might be."

Alfred Mouillard, Robespierre and Saint-Just depart for the guillotine (1884), Musée Carnavalet 
File:Alfred Mouillard - Robespierre partant à la guillotine.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

..... Having left the Conciergerie,  the cortege carrying Robespierre and his companions travelled along part of the rue Saint-Denis, the rue de la Féronnerie, and then  the entire length of the rue saint-Honoré to the place of execution.  All the crossroad were adorned with women dressed for a fete, seated on velvet cushions or leaning on balconies with brilliant hangings; they shouted terrible insults as the condemned passed by.  In place of "Long Live the Republic!", there were cries of "A la mort! à la mort! à la guillotine!"  In some places there was clapping of hands... Robespierre was brought to a halt in front of the house where he lived; here women, or rather furies, danced around the tumbril.....

During this final journey, Robespierre's head was swathed in bloody linen, so that you could only just see his pale, ghastly face. The horsemen in the escort pointed him out with the point of their sabres to those eager to see him in that dreadful state.  When he arrived at the scaffold, the executioners pulled off the bandage that supported his lower jaw; the intense pain snatched from him the only cry that he uttered throughout his long ordeal.  This man, whom his enemies constantly represented as timorous, even cowardly, preserved his firmness of spirit to the end, and fell beneath the blade of the guillotine without the slightest sign of fear.  Saint-Just, whom Robespierre had dragged with him into perdition, also died with complete constancy. None of the condemned men showed weakness. At each fall of the blade, the applause bore witness to the fierce joy of spectators, who were all too accustomed to scenes of carnage.  Maximilien Robespierre was thirty-five years old, Saint-Just twenty-six, the younger Robespierre the same age.

 Pierre-François Tissot,  Histoire complète de la Révolution française Vol. 5, (1835), p.323-6.
Histoire complète de la révolution française : Pierre-François Tissot  Internet Archive

1 comment:

  1. Firstly if you have not read "the fall of Robespierre" by Colin Jones then I highly recommend it. Secondly can you visit the room in the Pavillon de Flore where the committee of public safety met?


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