On this date in 1794, the curtain — and the blade — fell on the Terror.
Maximilien Robespierre, who had breakfasted the previous day as master of France, was guillotined this evening with his chief lieutenants and partisans.
His fall came as sudden and inevitable as his rise had been unpredictable.
Five years before, Robespierre was an unprosperous Arras attorney of fashionably liberal philosophies, and you wouldn’t have given a sou for the prospects of his being remembered five minutes after he died. Yet it would come that his inseparable lieutenant Saint-Just would remark with understatement, “The words we have spoken will never be forgotten on earth.”
The historic convocation of the Estates-General thrust him onto the political stage where he would make the dread name that follows him, starting off in the Revolution’s inception as a far-left deputy. He took a notable early stand against the death penalty, with several arguments that are quite familiar by our day:
The first obligation of a legislator is to form and preserve public morals, the source of all freedom, source of all social happiness. When in running to a particular goal he turns away from this general and essential goal he commits the most vulgar and dire of errors. The king must thus present to the people the purest model of justice and reason. If in place of this powerful, calm and moderate severity that should characterize it they place anger and vengeance; if they spill human blood that they could spare and that they have no right to spread; if they spread out before the people cruel scenes and cadavers wounded by torture, it then alters in the hearts of citizens the ideas of the just and the unjust; they plant the seed in the midst of society of ferocious prejudices that will produce others in their turn. Man is no longer for man so sacred an object: we have a less grand idea of his dignity when public authority puts his life at risk. The idea of murder inspires less fear when the law itself gives the example and the spectacle. The horror of crime is diminished when it is punished by another crime. Do not confuse the effectiveness of a penalty with the excess of severity: the one is absolutely opposed to the other. Everything seconds moderate laws; everything conspires against cruel laws.
For Robespierre, it was an abomination for the nation to deal out death within its community, but his Rousseauan elevation of the collective and abstract People made extirpating existential threats to the community itself an altogether different matter.
The future tyrant’s anti-death penalty case for executing the deposed Louis XVI, flowing directly from those principles, makes interesting reading and is excerpted at length (all emphases added) here for its topicality:
When a nation has been forced to resort to the right of insurrection it returns to a state of nature as regards its tyrant. How can the latter invoke the social compact? He has annihilated it. The nation can preserve it still, if it thinks fit, in whatever concerns the interrelations of its citizens: but the effect of tyranny and insurrection is to break it entirely as regards the tyrant; it is to throw them into mutual war; the tribunals, the judiciary procedures, are made for the members of the city. … The right to punish the tyrant and that to dethrone him are the same thing. The one does not admit of different forms from the other. The tyrant’s trial is insurrection; his judgment is the fall of his power; his penalty, whatever the liberty of the people demands.
Peoples do not judge like judiciary courts. They pass no sentences; they hurl the thunderbolt. They do not condemn kings: they thrust them back into oblivion; and this justice is not inferior to that of courts. If they arm themselves against their oppressors for their own safety, why should they be bound to adopt a mode of punishing them which would be a new danger to themselves?
As for me, I abhor the penalty of death so lavish in your laws, and I have neither love nor hatred for Louis. Crimes only I hate. I have asked the Assembly, which you still call Constituent, for the abolition of the death penalty, and it is not my fault if the first principles of reason seem to it moral and political heresies. But if you never bethought yourselves to invoke them in favor of so many unfortunates whose offenses are less their own than those of the government, by what fatality do you remember them only to plead the cause of the greatest of all criminals? You ask an exception to the death penalty for him alone against whom it can be legitimate! Yes, the penalty of death generally is a crime, and for that reason alone, according to the indestructible principles of nature, it can be justified only in cases when it is necessary for the safety of individuals or the social body. Public safety never demands it against ordinary offenses, because society can always guard against them by other means and make the offender powerless to harm it. But a dethroned king in the bosom of a revolution which is anything but cemented by laws, a king whose name suffices to draw the scourge of war on the agitated nation, neither prison nor exile can render his existence immaterial to the public welfare: and this cruel exception to ordinary laws which justice approves can be imputed only to the nature of his crimes.
It is with regret that I utter this fatal truth. But Louis must die, because the country must live.
“Pity is treason.”
Months later, as head of the Committee of Public Safety — the Orwellian name harkens to the body’s power to judge who lay inside the community and who, lying outside, made war upon it — he would find an inexhaustible fifth column of kindred threats to the Revolution.
But Revolutionary France really was in a war for its survival, against external and internal foes alike. The monarchist for whom crime multiplied upon crime every day after the Tennis Court Oath has the easiest time of this period, for every step brings a new monstrosity. And it is well enough to call Robespierre illiberal, to shudder at his prim and icy persona.
But if the French Revolution’s liberte, egalite, fraternite is a legacy for celebration — as it is to much of the west, and much of the world — one must grapple with the place of this man and his methods.
Merely because they are the paths not taken, one hardly seems entitled to assume that at that tumultuous moment the rule of a constitutional monarchy heir to all the monstrosity of the ancien regime, the government of the Girondins who had launched the nearly fatal war against Austria, or that of Danton‘s haute bourgeoisie would necessarily have delivered France to a better place, or even a different one.
For a Dickens, Robespierre’s Terror is simply the appalling wrong turn of a high-minded movement. For Trotsky, “the Incorruptible”* is the admirable sword of France’s bourgeois revolution who effects the needful task of annihilating the feudal nobility, who presses fearlessly forward seeing that the only alternative is the slide into Bonaparte. Between the two lie many readings of the man.
Whether an aberration, a visionary, or a necessity, he waded a sea of blood for his frightening twins Virtue and Terror.
The fall of 9 Thermidor preceded Robespierre’s execution by a full — and very eventful — day. Arrested by the Convention, he was promptly liberated by his base in the Paris Commune which came within a whisker of overthrowing the Convention at that very moment. Instead, a frantic few hours of marshaling the armed power of the Revolution’s rival claimants to leadership ensued ending in a fray which saw the Robespierrists overpowered.
Robespierre was shot through the jaw in the process of signing an appeal to arms — some say a botched suicide, but a wound from the invading national guard is more generally believed; at any rate, the bloodied document with his signature begun “R-o-” is one of the age’s most arresting historical artifacts.
Horrifically injured, he lay most of the following day exposed for public derision before he was hauled with his party to the guillotine, re-erected in the Place de la Revolution for this most memorable execution. In Carlyle’s florid (and free) narration:
Robespierre lay in an anteroom of the Convention hall, while his Prison-escort was getting ready; the mangled jaw bound up rudely with bloody linen: a spectacle to men. He lies stretched on a table, a deal box his pillow; the sheath of the pistol is still clenched convulsively in his hand. Men bully him, insult him: his eyes still indicate intelligence; he speaks no word. … -O reader, can thy hard heart hold out against that? His trousers were nankeen; the stockings had fallen down over the ankles. He spake no more word in this world.
Fouquier had but to identify; his Prisoners being already Out of Law.** At four in the afternoon, never before were the streets of Paris seen so crowded. From the Palais de Justice to the Place de la Revolution … it is one dense stirring mass; all windows crammed; the very roofs and ridge-tiles budding forth human Curiosity, in strange gladness. … All eyes are on Robespierre’s Tumbril, where he, his jaw bound in dirty linen, with his half-dead Brother, and half-dead Henriot, lie shattered; their “seventeen hours” of agony about to end. The Gendarmes point their swords at him, to show the people which is he. A woman springs on the Tumbril; clutching the side of it with one hand; waving the other Sibyl-like; and exclaims: “The death of thee gladdens my very heart, m’enivre de joie;” Robespierre opened his eyes; “Scelerat, go down to Hell, with the curses of all wives and mothers!” — At the foot of the scaffold, they stretched him on the ground till his turn came. Lifted aloft, his eyes again opened; caught the bloody axe. Samson wrenched the coat off him; wrenched the dirty linen from his jaw: the jaw fell powerless, there burst from him a cry; — hideous to hear and see. Samson, thou canst not be too quick!
Samson’s work done, there bursts forth shout on shout of applause. Shout, which prolongs itself not only over Paris, but over France, but over Europe, and down to this generation. Deservedly, and also undeservedly. O unhappiest Advocate of Arras, wert thou worse than other Advocates? Stricter man, according to his Formula, to his Credo and his Cant, of probities, benevolences, pleasures-of-virtue, and such like, lived not in that age. A man fitted, in some luckier settled age, to have become one of those incorruptible barren Pattern-Figures, and have had marble-tablets and funeral-sermons. His poor landlord, the Cabinet-maker in the Rue Saint-Honore, loved him; his Brother died for him. May God be merciful to him, and to us!
Part of the Themed Set: Thermidor.
* Even his enemies agreed — sometimes adding it to the bill of particulars against him — that Robespierre lived a life of personal moderation; he lived as a boarder with a working-class family, and disdained to avail the politician’s typical harvest of political graft.
** The Convention had decreed Robespierre’s outlawry when he escaped custody; his immediate execution was, of course, akin to the logic he had once turned against the king.
On this day..