Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution

BOOK: Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution
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To John

Death is the beginning of immortality

Robespierre’s last speech, 26 July 1794

Chronology

1758

Maximilien Marie Isidore de Robespierre, born in Arras, May 6

1763

End of the Seven Years War 1764 Death of Robespierre’s mother, July 14

1769

Robespierre goes to boarding school in Paris at the Collège Louis-le-Grand

1772

Disappearance of Robespierre’s father

1774

Death of Louis XV and accession of his grandson as Louis XVI

1775

Coronation of Louis XVI in the cathedral at Reims, June 11

1778

France supports the American war of independence

1781

Robespierre returns to Arras to practice law

1788

The Lamoignon Edicts fail, May
Louis XVI agrees to the convocation of the Estates General, August

1789

Robespierre campaigns for election and is chosen as a representative of the third estate, April
The Estates General meet in Versailles, May
The third estate claims the right to represent the nation and renames itself the National Assembly, June 17
Tennis Court Oath, June 20
Storming of the Bastille, July 14
Abolition of feudal rights and privileges, August 4
Louis XVI and the National Assembly move from Versailles to Paris, October
Robespierre rents rooms in the rue Saintonge
The Jacobin Club established in Paris

1790

Proliferation of a network of political clubs throughout France affiliated to the Parisian Jacobin Club
Threat of war over Nootka Sound
Civil Constitution of the Clergy, July
Festival of Federation on the first anniversary of the Bastille’s fall, July 14

1791

Death of Mirabeau, April 2
Pope Pius VI condemns the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, April 13
Royal family’s flight to Varennes, June 20
Massacre on the Champ de Mars, July 17
Robespierre moves to new lodgings in the rue Saint-Honoré
The Jacobin Club splits and moderate members leave to establish the Feuillants Club
Louis XVI accepts the new constitution, September
National Assembly closes and Robespierre revisits Arras
Pétion becomes mayor of Paris, November 14
Robespierre returns to Paris and opposes war-mongering at the Jacobin Club, November 28

1792

Fall of Louis XVI’s Feuillant ministry and appointment of friends and associates of pro-war leader Brissot
Death of Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II, March 1
Festival in honor of the Châteauvieux soldiers, April 15
France declares war on Francis II (Leopold II’s son and successor as Holy Roman Emperor), April 20
The guillotine is used for the first time, April 25
Prussia joins Austria in the war against France, June 13
The Duke of Brunswick issues a manifesto threatening Paris if Louis XVI is harmed, July 25
Paris’s 48 Sections declared in permanent session, July 27
Fall of the monarchy, August 10
Robespierre elected to municipal Commune governing Paris, August 12
General Lafayette flees France
Longwy falls to Prussia, August 20
Establishment of the first Revolutionary Tribunal
Verdun falls to Prussia, September 2
Prison massacres, September 2–6
Robespierre elected to new National Convention, September 5
French victory over Prussia at Battle of Valmy, September 20
National Convention meets in Paris, September 21
Declaration of the Republic, September 22
French victory at Battle of Jemappes, November 6
Trial of Louis XVI, beginning with his indictment, December 11
Dissolution of the first Revolutionary Tribunal

1793

Execution of Louis XVI, January 21
France declares war on England and the Dutch Republic, February
Enragés
food riots
France declares war on Spain, March 7
Revolt in the Vendée
Failed insurrection in Paris, March 9–10
Establishment of the second and infamous Revolutionary Tribunal, March 10
Defection of General Dumouriez after Battle of Neerwinden, March 18
Establishment of the Committee of Public Safety, April 6
Revolt in Lyon, May
Insurrection in Paris, May 31
Expulsion of Girondin deputies from the National Convention, June 2
Jacobin Republican constitution accepted by referendum and adopted, June 24
Danton voted off Committee of Public Safety, July 10
Marat assassinated, July 13
Robespierre voted into the Committee of Public Safety, July 27
Siege of Lyon begins, August 8
Smashing of royal tombs at Saint-Denis, August 10
Toulon surrenders to the English, August 29
Terror becomes the order of the day, September 5
Law of Suspects, September 17
Law of General Maximum, September 29
Adoption of the Republican calendar (backdated to 22 September 1792), October 5

Year I

Fall of Lyon, Vendémiaire 18 (October 9)
Execution of Marie Antoinette, Vendémiaire 25 (October 16)
Execution of the Girondin deputies, Brumaire 10 (October 31)
Festival of Reason in Notre-Dame, Paris, Brumaire 20 (November 10)
Commune decrees closure of Parisian churches, Frimaire 3 (November 23)
Constitution of Revolutionary Government, Frimaire 14 (December 4)
First issue of Desmoulins’s
Le vieux Cordelier
, Frimaire 15 (December 5)
French recapture Toulon, Frimaire 29 (December 19)
Rebels in the Vendée crushed, Nivôse 2 (December 22)

Year II

Robespierre ill, Pluviôse 22–Ventôse 22 (February 10–March 12)
Execution of Hébertistes, Germinal 4 (March 24)
Recall of Fouché from Lyon, Germinal 7 (March 27)
Execution of Dantonistes, Germinal 16 (April 5)
Robespierre runs the Police Bureau after Saint-Just leaves on mission to the army, Floréal 9 (April 28)
Cécile Renault attempts to assassinate Robespierre, Prairial 4 (May 27)
Festival of the Supreme Being, Prairial 20 (June 8)
Reorganization of Revolutionary Tribunal, Prairial 22 (June 10)
French victory at Battle of Fleurus, Messidor 8 (June 26)
Fraternal banquets to celebrate the anniversary of the Bastille’s fall, Messidor 26 (July 14)
Robespierre’s last speech to the National Convention, Thermidor 8 (July 26)
Arrest of Robespierre, Thermidor 9 (July 27)
Execution of Robespierristes, Thermidor 10 (July 28)

Preface

MY DEAR CROKER,

I wish you would think seriously of the History of the Reign of Terror. I do not mean a pompous, philosophical history, but a mixture of biography, facts and gossip: a diary of what really took place with the best authenticated likenesses of the actors.

Ever yours,

ROBERT PEEL
1

Soon after he received this letter from his friend Sir Robert Peel, the once and future Tory prime minister, John Wilson Croker packed his bags for a seaside holiday. Although he was a prominent literary and political journalist and was hoping to work as he sat on the beach, Croker packed none of his collection of rare and fascinating books about the French Revolution that are now one of the glories of the British Library. He took with him only the list of those condemned to death during the Reign of Terror.
2
He perused it against the rhythmic sound of waves breaking on the shore.

Twenty-two impoverished women, many of them widows, convicted of forwarding “the designs of the fanatics, aristocrats, priests and other agents of England,” guillotined.

Nine private soldiers convicted of “pricking their own eyes with pins, and becoming by this cowardly artifice unable to bear arms,” guillotined.

Jean Baptiste Henry, aged eighteen, journeyman tailor, convicted of sawing down a tree of liberty, guillotined.

Henrietta Frances de Marbœuf, aged fifty-five, convicted of hoping for the arrival in Paris of the Austrian and Prussian armies and of hoarding provisions for them, guillotined.

James Duchesne, aged sixty, formerly a servant, since a broker; John Sauvage, aged thirty-four, gunsmith; Frances Loizelier, aged forty-seven, milliner; Mélanie Cunosse, aged twenty-one, milliner; Mary Magdalen Virolle, aged twenty-five, hairdresser: all convicted for writing, guillotined.

Geneviève Gouvon, aged seventy-seven, seamstress, convicted of “various conspiracies since the beginning of the Revolution,” guillotined.

Francis Bertrand, aged thirty-seven, convicted of producing “sour wine injurious to the health of citizens,” guillotined.

Mary Angelica Plaisant, another seamstress, guillotined for exclaiming, “A fig for the nation!”

Relaxing into his holiday, Croker continued reading through the long list of dubious charges against the several thousand victims of the Revolutionary Tribunal of Paris, from its institution on 10 March 1793 until the fall of Maximilien Robespierre on 27 July 1794. He compiled some grimly fascinating statistics: in the last five months of Robespierre’s life, when he supposedly secured tyrannous power over France and the Revolution, 2,217 people were guillotined in Paris; but the total condemned to death in the eleven months preceding Robespierre’s Reign of Terror was only 399. On the basis of these statistics, Croker concluded that the executions “grew gradually with the personal influence of Robespierre, and became enormous in proportion as he successively extinguished his rivals.”
3
In awed horror he recalled, “These things happened in our time—thousands are still living who saw them, yet it seems almost incredible that
batches
(
fournées
—such was the familiar phrase)—of
sixty
victims should be condemned in one morning by the same tribunal, and executed the same afternoon on the same scaffold.”

Although Peel pressed his friend to write a popular and accessible book about the French Revolution, Croker never did so. When he got back from his holiday in 1835 he published his seaside musings in an article for the
Quarterly Review
. Here he acknowledged the enormity of the problem Robespierre still poses biographers: “The blood-red mist by which his last years were enveloped magnified his form, but obscured his features. Like the
Genius
of the Arabian tale, he emerged suddenly from a petty space into enormous power and gigantic size, and as suddenly vanished, leaving behind him no trace but terror.”
4

BOOK: Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution
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