Stories of the French Revolution - Walter Montgomery

The Fall of Robespierre

Maximilien Robespierre has left behind him a name which is as detestable as any in history, "He was a man," said Condorcet, "without an idea in his head or a feeling in his heart." And yet he rose to be the first man, for a time, in France. He was the son of an advocate at Arras, and a school-fellow with the brilliant Camille Desmoulins. When he became a member of the States-General, he was about thirty years of age; he wore spectacles, and his complexion was of a bilious hue. He soon attracted the notice of Mirabeau, who thought "he would do something, because he believed every word he spoke."

When the Jacobin Club used to meet in its early days, Robespierre was always present; and when there were but thirty members seated on the extreme left in the National Assembly, he was one of them, and not ashamed of his opinions. In 1791 he was elected Public Accuser in the new courts of justice. Brave he never was, for he used to disappear at the times when there was a crisis, such as that of the 9th of August, 1792. When the belfries were sounding at midnight, and all the people were getting ready, and the six hundred Marseillese were leading the way to the Tuileries, Robespierre hid himself, and he did not come out of his den until the king was put under lock and key, and so rendered powerless.

But this want of pluck does not seem to have lessened Robespierre's influence with the Jacobins. That powerful club met in the nave of the Jacobins' Church, which was seated up to the very roof. The tribune, where the speakers stood when speaking, was raised about half-way between the pavement and the roof. The chief speaker in this remarkable assemblage was Robespierre; he was the Jacobins' petted child, and they would listen, hour after hour, to his long-winded orations.

When the September massacres were over, and a thousand and eighty-nine lay dead, and the carters carted the stripped human bodies away at so much per journey to the burying-grounds, Robespierre nearly wept when he heard it said that there was one innocent person among the slain. The Girondins, who saw the dangerous principles of Marat and Robespierre, rose up and denounced them; and both were in some peril, but escaped it.

One day Robespierre was in the tribune and said, "Is there any one here that dare accuse me of aspiring to be a dictator?"

"Yes," replied Louvet, starting up and taking some papers from his pocket; "I accuse thee, Robespierre,—I, Jean Baptiste Louvet."

"Speak, Robespierre!" shouted Danton; "speak in thine own defense."

But the accused, turning pale, did not answer a word. And Louvet went on with his papers, reciting one crime after another,—how he bullied at elections, had a retinue of mob soldiers, wished to be a dictator, had his hands stained with the blood of innocent victims in the September massacres, and so on.

The whole Convention was in an uproar, and never, it is said, did Robespierre stand in such peril; but the Convention, eager for public matters, dismissed the affair as a mere personal quarrel between Robespierre and Louvet.

In the great trial of the king, Robespierre, of course, both spoke and voted for his death. When the French lawyers were endeavoring to prove the trial lawful, Robespierre said, "What is the use of talking about the law? Here might is right."

Danton, as we have seen, had moved that all power should be given to the Committee of Public Safety, though he afterward asked pardon of God and man for thus putting such a fearful weapon into the hands of nine men who were "all brothers Cain."

Robespierre was, of course, one of those nine; and he hoped by means of his own adroitness to remove all his rivals from his path, and to become by and by a sort of French Cromwell. His wishes had become a law by the end of 1793, and he now conceived himself strong enough to pluck down Danton, the only one of whom he was afraid.

About the beginning of April, 1794, the great Danton and several of his supporters were put to death. Among them was the brilliant writer Camille Desmoulins, a bosom friend of Danton. These two died in the prime of life, one being thirty-four, and the other a year older. Camille's widow followed him on the l0th of April, and many others. Terrible now was Robespierre, the leading spirit of the Committee of Public Safety; and many were the heads which now fell into the sack. Among them we may notice that of the once honored Madame Elizabeth, the sister of Louis. Only two members of the royal family now remained,—a boy and a girl. The unfortunate boy was taken away from Marie Antoinette while she was alive, and handed over to the tender mercies of a cordwainer, named Simon, who taught the lad to be as rough as himself.

When Simon became a member of the Municipal Council, the boy hid himself in the Temple Prison and was utterly neglected. He very nearly perished of hunger, and had to wear his shirt for six months without washing or changing it.

Robespierre was anxious to have some sort of religion for the Republic; and as the old faith was destroyed and the worship of Reason set on one side, he invented a religion, with the help of his friends, for poor France. On a bright June day, in 1794, the Tuileries garden was crowded with people in their best clothes, and Robespierre, having made the Convention pass some decrees about a Supreme Being and the immortality of the soul, came forth at their head, dressed in a sky-blue coat, white waistcoat embroidered with silver, and black silk breeches. David, the painter, had prepared some hideous pasteboard figures of Atheism and Anarchy; and when Robespierre had made a speech, the painter handed him a lighted torch, wherewith he set fire to the figures and burned them to ashes. Then there arose by aid of machinery a statue of Wisdom, which got rather scorched by the flame.

It seems that Robespierre was rather laughed at by the shrewd French people for the part he had taken in this silly affair, and he was sulky for some time afterward. There was a statesman named Tallien, who had been suspected, and recalled from Bordeaux. At this man Robespierre had launched threats from the tribune. There were many others, also, who believed that they were soon to be marked out for slaughter. It was said that there were forty, at least, who were to be struck down at a blow, and then Robespierre was to be made a dictator, and be in reality the sovereign of France.

At a dinner-party near Paris, on a very hot day in July, the guests took off their coats, and left them in the drawing-room. One of them, named Carnot, requiring some paper, groped in Robespierre's pocket, and found a list of forty names, his own being among them. Of course he did not go back to the company, but made his way at once into a place of safety.

On the 26th of July Robespierre mounted the tribune, and spoke of the bad state of Republican spirit, and of the need of new vigor to be given to the guillotine. The speech fell flat, and the usually obsequious Convention was mutinous. He felt that the hour was now come when either he must put the Convention down, or it must put him down. He went that same night to the Jacobins, and told them how he had been treated; and they shouted out that their Robespierre should not die, but there should be another insurrection, and the Convention should be cleared of all who did not obey Robespierre.



On the morrow, as Saint Just, one of Robespierre's creatures, was reading a report, Tallien entered and interrupted him. He said, "If this Convention dares not strike the tyrant, I will; and with this will I do it!" At these words he drew out a dagger.

Then ensued a fearful scene. Robespierre tried again and again to speak, but he could not get a hearing for the noise. He turned and appealed to each party, but none would pay the least attention now to his words.

"The blood of Danton chokes him," they said.

He was decreed accused, and his brother also, and Saint Just, and other friends of his; and they were packed off to prison. But they were rescued by some National Guards whom Henriot the commander had corrupted, and things looked very doubtful for some time. The Convention, however, declared them outlaws, and made Barras general of such troops as they could get together.

There was nearly a battle between Henriot's men and those of Barras, and there would have been, had not the Convention's decree been read aloud: "Robespierre and all rebels are declared out of law." Then the soldiers all forsook Henriot, and joined Barras.

The wretched Robespierre and his company were now come to their death, and they knew it. Henriot flung himself out of the window, and lodged in a cesspool, whence he was taken out half dead. Augustine Robespierre followed Henriot; Couthon tried to kill himself; Saint Just called on Lebas to kill him; Robespierre tried to blow out his brains, but failed, breaking his lower jaw instead. They were all tried, and condemned to death, and were guillotined that same afternoon in the Place de la Revolution; and with their execution what was called the Reign of Terror came to an end.