The Fall of Robespierre: 24 Hours in Revolutionary Paris by Colin Jones

‘Je suis peuple moi-même,” Maximilien Robespierre claimed. In his many roles within the French Revolution he saw himself not simply as the representative of the people, but as their embodiment.

Known as “the Incorruptible”, he perceived no shades of gray. He lived, Colin Jones writes, “in a black-and-white world in which the pure, the morally upright and the patriotic heroically combat all manner of corrupt men and women”. His downfall came when he discovered that le peuple were not as perfect as he had imagined.

Robespierre, a colleague quipped, “would give his own head [for] … the republic, and 100,000 other heads as well”. That’s quite close to what happened. As a leading member of the ruling Committee of Public Safety, he streamlined the process by which the revolution’s enemies were liquidated.

The guillotine became his instrument of purification; it would purge the corrupt and teach others the parameters of virtue. Radicals dreamt of a guillotine on every corner. The Terror was open-ended: it would continue as long as corruption could be uncovered.

Trial to Execution in a Day

Under Robespierre’s direction the Terror became an industry. Over the summer of 1794 dozens went to the guillotine every day. Trial, judgment and execution took less than 24 hours. Those trials had little to do with truth; they were instead a ritualistic assertion of virtue.

On one occasion a woman named Madame Maillé was called to face the court’s judgment after throwing a rotten fish at a jailer. Another woman, Madame Mayet, whose name sounds the same as Maillé when shouted, stepped forward in error and lost her head slightly earlier than intended. The court, eventually realizing its error, sent Maillé to the guillotine a few days later.

Charles-Henri Sanson, the chief executioner, took great pride in his work. It was a family business; his father had “executed for the king and indeed then executed the king”.

On July 27 Sanson had 45 traitors to dispatch, which would take about an hour. They included a hatter, a florist, a farmer, a cabinet maker and the Princesse de Monaco. “The enemies of the people come in many forms,” Jones quips. For dramatic effect Sanson saved the famous for last. Rumours circulated that the executed were fed to prisoners awaiting execution, but that’s probably not true.

For the chief executioner, it was a family business; his father had “executed for the king and indeed then executed the king.”

Robespierre was consumed by his quest for purification. He saw enemies everywhere and trusted only the people, or at least his perfect version of them. He railed against the newspapers, peddlers of “false news”. According to him, lies generated in London were spread by foreign agents.

Meanwhile the theaters, despite strict controls, undermined public confidence in the government through satire and innuendo. Journalists, dramatists and actors all became “enemies of the people”. (Yes, I know, this sounds familiar.)

On July 26, 1794, or 8 Thermidor in the French republican calendar, Robespierre gave a vituperative speech to the National Convention accusing the assembled deputies of conspiring against him and the revolution. No names were mentioned, implying that all were guilty. “He sounded less like a man determined to die for the cause than a man who wanted to kill,” Jones writes. “And … to kill quite profusely.”

The deputies revolted; they could tolerate the Terror as long as it stayed outside their chamber. Their resistance took Robespierre by surprise. As the people’s champion he assumed that he was unassailable.

After two days of chaos across the city he was captured, beaten and dragged to the guillotine. Worried that Robespierre might die before he could be executed, officials summoned a surgeon to render him fit for beheading.

“He sounded less like a man determined to die for the cause than a man who wanted to kill. And … to kill quite profusely.”

Jones, a professor of history at Queen Mary University of London, focuses on 9 Thermidor — the day in between that speech and Robespierre’s execution. The conventional narrative holds that it was a day of plotting; a coup carefully engineered. Jones disagrees.

There was no plot against Robespierre, he insists; the overthrow “was entirely unplanned, arising as it did from the heat of the moment”. Loyalties were confused and the direction of events never clear. Fortunes ebbed and flowed. “The day’s outcome depended on a million micro-decisions made by Parisians across the expanse of the city.” The people, by behaving in a manner Robespierre did not anticipate, eventually brought down the tyrant, but an entirely different result could easily have materialized.

Jones insists that to understand 9 Thermidor it’s necessary to dig down to the level of “infinitely small” details. In his admirable account he meticulously reconstructs the day on an hour-by-hour basis, crisscrossing the city as he does so. The fall of Robespierre isn’t history in real time, it’s the past in slow motion.

The author’s use of the present tense provides visceral immediacy; as the day progresses the pace quickens, perfectly conveying a cacophony of small actions colliding. “We can grasp the flow of the day best,” Jones writes, “by tracking news and information, and also rumour, gossip, emotions, orders and decrees, men and women, horses, guns, pikes and cannon as they travelled within and around the city.” An avalanche of detail overwhelms the reader.

The momentous is juxtaposed with the mundane. While deputies shout at one another ordinary people queue for bread. A deputy who doubles as a midwife leaves the chamber to deliver two babies. In the former Capucines convent the government burns paper money to counter the threat of inflation. A newsagent is attacked for spreading false news. A young woman, newly arrived in the city, gets lost but finds love.

Some of this is relevant; much is not. Historians are supposed to be clarifiers; they sift through evidence and discard the immaterial in trying to distill clear truths. Yet clarity, in truth, is a contrivance. Jones’s unadulterated chaos more closely resembles the bewildering complexity of what actually happened. It’s all terribly confusing, but so is life.

The conventional narrative holds that Robespierre’s downfall was a carefully engineered coup. Jones disagrees.

The day became a contest between the Paris Commune — the city government that backed Robespierre — and the convention, which wanted to be rid of him. Both sides shouted the same slogans. “The people are being oppressed.” “What do you want: freedom or tyranny?”

For the people, choosing sides proved confusing. At one point an official from the commune and another from the convention collided near Sainte-Chapelle, both backed by troops, both certain of their righteousness. “I arrest you in the name of the people,” shouted one. “And I arrest you,” shouted the other.

As the day progressed it became clear that victory would go to the side able to communicate its message to the people. In time the convention proved better at that.

Since 1789 a cult of celebrity had arisen around Robespierre. Fan mail arrived in sacks. Merchants sold cheap busts and crude engravings of him. Women proposed marriage. Dogs were named Maximilien. He was famous and loved for being famous, Jones feels, yet that’s not the same as support for his policies.

Robespierre, perhaps understandably, confused adoration with validation. As long as he did not meet the people, he could retain an illusion of their perfection.

Yet over the course of 9 Thermidor, when first captured, then rescued, then captured again, he was sometimes cheered and sometimes harangued by the ordinary French on the streets. He found both experiences deeply unpleasant. The people, stripped of illusion, seemed dirty and loud and smelly and stupid.

“The revolution lies in the people and not in the renown of individuals,” Robespierre once said. On 9 Thermidor he discovered just how ironically true that was. Over the course of that chaotic day the people were transformed from romantic abstraction to hard reality. They eventually decided that they had had enough of his indiscriminate terror and enough of him.

“The day’s sombre experience,” Jones concludes, convinced Robespierre “that sometimes the worst enemies of the people can be the people themselves”.

Gerard DeGroot is a professor of modern history at the University of St. Andrews and the author of several books, including The Bomb: A Life and The Seventies Unplugged