The Dramatic Fall of Robespierre

Robespierre had been absent from public life for more than one month when he appeared again at the Convention on the 8 Thermidor*. Upon his return, Robespierre attacked those who he thought had discredited the revolution. He railed against 'certain individuals', but did not mention any names. This was a monumental mistake, since many of his listeners were alarmed, whether they were targeted by Robespierre or not. As Robespierre became more paranoid, his opponents gathered enough courage to oppose him openly.


Maximilien de Robespierre

On the 9 Thermidor*, Robespierre asked to address the Convention once more, but was refused a hearing. Robespierre and many of his followers were then put under house arrest. The most ardently patriotic Parisians immediately rallied to Robespierre's support. But they quickly lost their impetus. They were not prepared for a head-on confrontation with the much feared Convention. While under house arrest, Robespierre tried to commit suicide, but only managed to blow away his lower jaw.

In the chaos that engulfed Paris, Saint-Just was sabred, Robespierre the Younger also tried to commit suicide by jumping from a window but only succeeded in breaking his legs. Robespierre the Elder was to be sent to the guillotine, the same guillotine under which he himself sent many to their deaths.

Chaos in the Assembly

Below is a letter from Nicolas Ruault descriding in detail the demise of Robespierre. Ruault to his brother:

Paris, 12 Thermidor, Year II (31 July 1794)

Thank God! My dear friend! The decemviral; tyranny was brought down three days ago. The rumour has undoubtedly reached you, since it was great and terrible.  It must be resounding throughout France at the moment. On the 10th, Robespierre went to join Danton by the same route that he made his colleagues take to descend to the dead. Even the most ardent revolutionaries have found on this occasion the use of the admirable law of retaliation to be just: who lives by the sword... dies by the sword...

Since the death of Danton, discord had reigned in the Committee of Public Safety; Billaud-Varenne, Collot, D'Herbois and Barere were on one side, on the other were Robespierre, Couthon, Le Bas and Saint-Just. Robespierre did an about face on the 8th of Thermidor, giving a long speech to the Convention. In this speech, he was personally apologetic, while focusing blame on a few members of the Committees of Public Safety and General Security, and bitterly attacking a number of other members of the Convention.

The eleven members of the Convention attacked in this speech, spied on by Robespierre's agents and threatened with guillotine, gathered on the evening of the 8th in the Tuileries gardens and resolved to attack Robespierre during the session the following day, and overthrow him. They did not fail, Tallien, who was the most threatened, formed the idea of killing Robespierre in the Assembly itself. They would kill him at the Tribune, if he came victorious from the debate before the Convention. Tallien left his house in the morning greatly agitated, refusing the hot chocolate his mother normally prepared for him. As she took him by the arm to force him to take his breakfast before leaving, she noticed a dagger hidden in his clothes. She was sick with fright. 'Mother', he told her, 'either today is my last day or it is the last day of another. Let me go.' He went to the Convention and was the first to attack Robespierre in the debate. He was seconded by Billaud-Varenne, Bourdon, Vadier, Freron, Louchet and a host of other members who all cried out "Down with the tyrant!" and demanded his arrest, as well as that of Saint-Just, Couthon, Lebas and Robespierre's brother. The decree was pronounced by Collot D'Herbois,president, amid loud applause after a unanimous vote.

Robespierre was driven to the Luxembourg in a carriage. Arriving at the door, the ultra-patriotic concierge refused to receive him in the prison, saying that there were no room. Robespierre demanded to be taken to the Hotel de Ville, and was taken there with those guarding him. When the people of Paris saw their hero among them, they took up arms against the Convention. Harriot immediately marched with his troops against the Assembly and besieged the Committee itself; but was stopped, captured, and taken bound before the Committee itself. He managed to escape and quickly ran to the Commune. The Convention outlawed the rebels. This decree terrified the Convention's supporters. Some of the deputies ran on foot or on horseback to the Hotel de Ville. There, they harangued the rioters and the National Guard, and managed to disperse them. The chaos then reached its peak as Robespierre's supporters went on a rampage. A pistol shot was fired at Robespierre's head [he attempted suicide]. Saint-Just was wounded, Coffinhal threw Harriot in a cesspool, and Robespierre's brother jumped from a window. Lebas killed himself. The other condemned prisoners did not move. They appeared overcome with shame and pain. Almost all of them were covered in blood and mud; one of Hanriot's eyes was hanging out of his head. They could have been mistaken for a group of bandits arrested in a forest after a violent combat. At seven in the evening they were all dead. An immense crowd of men and women had come from all parts of the city to the Place Louis XV to see them decapitated.

Such was the end of Maximilien de Robespierre.

* Thermidor was a month in the Republican calendar. After the Republicans devised the metric system, they also created a new calendar. It was organized on a base ten system like the metric system. After the revolution, the French abandoned the Republican calendar and returned the traditional calendar.


[1] Philip G. Dwyer and Peter McPhee, The French Revolution and Napoleon (Taylor & Francis Group), pp 110-113.