The Fall of Robespierre: 24 Hours in Revolutionary Paris by Colin Jones - review by John Adamson

John Adamson

Night of the Guillotine

The Fall of Robespierre: 24 Hours in Revolutionary Paris


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So momentous an event was the French Revolution, so labyrinthine its evolution and so far-reaching its consequences for the whole of Europe that it seems the purest folly to imagine that anything useful can be said about the subject in a book devoted to a single day. Yet, however improbably, that is exactly what this book sets out to do.

Still more eccentric is the book’s organisation. Traditional chapters are abandoned entirely. Instead we get five lengthy ‘parts’, each subdivided into a series of ever-faster-paced scenes, the shortest only a few paragraphs long. Each is headed merely by a simple indication of time and place: ‘10:45 am: Robespierre’s lodgings, 366 Rue Saint-Honoré’; ‘11:00 am: Tuileries palace and gardens’; ‘11:30 am: Vestibule to the Convention hall and environs’, and so on. One can almost hear the ticking of all those Parisian ormolu clocks.

Two things prevent all this from collapsing under the weight of its own wayward ambition. Colin Jones, one of the finest living scholars of early modern France, is no ordinary historian. And the day in question, 27 July 1794, was no ordinary day.

For 27 July 1794, ‘9 Thermidor Year II’ in the new republican calendar, has long been recognised as a ‘pivotal moment’ in the French Revolution. Until that point, the course of the revolution had been marked by increasing radicalism: France had gone from constitutional monarchy after the fall of the Bastille in 1789, to kingless republic in 1792, to wartime police state from 1793. After the events of 9 Thermidor, the trend was towards increasing conservatism. The democratic and reformist energies of the early revolution were mostly dissipated. Within a decade, France was again a monarchy, with a Corsican-born emperor in place of a Bourbon king.

This sudden bouleversement has conventionally been explained as a reaction to the guillotine-fixated excesses of the Revolutionary Government of Year II (1793–4) and the austere, donnish 35-year-old bachelor lawyer from Arras, Maximilien Robespierre, who was its malign presiding genius. With real power transferred after September 1793 from France’s revolutionary parliament, the National Convention, to a twelve-man Committee of Public Safety dominated by Robespierre, the regime had resorted to ‘terror’ as its principal means of deterring royal insurrection and purging ‘counter-revolutionary’ elements within its own ranks. After the new Law of 22 Prairial (10 June 1794), the rate of executions soared, with more ‘enemies of the state’ sent to the guillotine in Paris in June and July 1794 than in the whole period since the fall of the Bastille. When, on 26 July 1794, Robespierre addressed the Convention, urging the need for yet further purges, extending even to the Convention’s own members, his enemies in the government were provoked to act. They needed to neutralise Robespierre before he did the same to them.

The events of the following twenty-four hours provide the subject of Jones’s minutely detailed and unfailingly gripping new book. Robespierre’s fall was swift. On 9 Thermidor he was denounced in the Convention as a ‘tyrant’ and placed under arrest. There was unexpected resistance from Robespierre’s Jacobin allies in the city government, the Paris Commune, and its forces briefly secured their hero’s release. But the opposition was short-lived. By the middle of the night of 27–28 July, the city government’s headquarters had been overrun and Robespierre recaptured. Before sunset the following day, Robespierre and his principal supporters had been decapitated on what is now the Place de la Concorde.

In most accounts, that day of action is represented as a ‘kind of parliamentary coup d’état’. The speed of the regime’s fall and the Parisian citizenry’s apparent ‘indifference’ to its fate attested to its political and moral bankruptcy. With hindsight, the regime’s use of terror during the period of emergency rule was ‘essentialized’ as its defining characteristic. It became ‘the Terror’ with a capital T, with Robespierre singled out as its moving spirit: a ‘bestial, demonic specimen’, a buveur de sang (‘blood-drinker’).

But the French Revolution, as the playwright Louis-Sébastien Mercier observed, was ‘all about optics’. Jones’s superbly researched and strikingly original book produces an optic of a radically different kind. ‘Only by getting “up close” and drilling down into the “infinitely small” details of the revolutionary process’, its author insists, can the day’s course and outcome be understood. And for once this counsel of perfection can be put into practice. Interrogatories demanded by Paris’s military commander in the days immediately after the coup from officials in each of the city’s forty-eight administrative sections produced ‘micro-accounts’ from vantage points all over the city, many of them broken down into ‘quarter-hourly chunks’. Almost two hundred survive, along with voluminous newspaper sources and memoirs. There is probably not ‘another day in the whole of the eighteenth century’, Jones notes, for which ‘sources are so copious and dense’. And from this vast array of little-used archival material, a new and very different narrative emerges.

The purpose of the coup was not to topple the existing revolutionary regime, Jones contends, nor to end the use of terror, but rather to strengthen the regime by the removal of one dangerously over-powerful and increasingly erratic member. In reality, argues Jones, there was little or no ideological difference between Robespierre and the instigators of the coup against him. Most were fellow members of the central executive and as complicit in the use of terror as Robespierre himself.

Personality clashes, in particular resentment of Robespierre’s chilly and imperious style, proved more influential than questions of revolutionary principle. Far from being parties to a carefully worked-out conspiracy, his accusers in the Convention had no concerted plan of action and were blindsided when Robespierre’s arrest was challenged by his supporters within the Paris Commune. They ‘were improvising throughout the day’, and Robespierre’s allies were equally unprepared.

* * *

It is in the vivid detailing of these improvisations – chaotic, heroic, sometimes farcical – and the response to them by the Parisian citizenry that Jones’s book comes into its own. ‘The tendency among many historians’, he writes, ‘to see the night as one in which Parisians revealed political indifference is quite wrong.’ The outcome ‘depended on a million micro-decisions made by Parisians across the expanse of the city’.

Jones reveals how close those Parisians came to conferring victory on Robespierre and his partisans. By nightfall on 27 July, they had not only rescued their hero from his Convention-appointed jailers but also deployed a force over two thousand-strong to the streets near the Tuileries palace, where the Convention, still in session in the palace’s former theatre, was at their mercy. But again there was no clear plan. Lacking any orders as to what to do next, the force’s hapless commander decided to withdraw his troops and return to the Maison Commune (just two kilometres to the east) for further instructions. The Robespierrists’ strategic advantage was never recovered.

These fatal difficulties in communication affected the day’s outcome at least as much as attitudes towards the Robespierrian regime. ‘Torpidity in the traffic of information seems to have been critical,’ writes Jones. Amid the confusion over the legality of orders, which side was prevailing and what the crisis was really about, control of print was vital. When it came to issuing orders, the Convention had a sophisticated printing establishment just two hundred metres away in the Place Vendôme; in contrast, ‘word of mouth and manuscript transmission’ were ‘pretty much all the Commune [could] manage’. Changes of side were frequent, as in the case of the artillery officer Cosme Pionnier, who at 8pm had his Robespierrist guns primed to bombard the Convention but by the end of the night had them aimed at the Maison Commune. So numerous were these ‘changes of heart’ that they undermine any explanation of 9 Thermidor simply in terms of ideology or popular hostility towards ‘the Terror’.

Jones handles this vast cast and the multiple locations with formidable directorial skill. Emancipated from the traditional chapter structure, he builds the narrative (and the tension) by cutting from scene to scene, observing his actors and bringing details into focus like a master of cinéma vérité. Even his use of the narrative present tense (usually the hammiest of literary devices) actually works.

If all this evokes the world of cinema, it is even more striking how clearly Jones’s drama manifests the formal characteristics of a tragédie, as prescribed by Corneille and Racine. It strictly observes the ‘three classical unities’: of action (a single great event), time (twenty-four hours) and place (Paris). Even its five-part structure corresponds to the five-act format insisted upon by the tragedians of the grand siècle.

Although this model is never overtly acknowledged, Jones is far too thoroughly steeped in French ancien-régime literature for this classicism of form and exposition to be entirely coincidental. Indeed, the book’s tragic dimension is essential to its revisionist purpose. Post-Thermidorian polemic dehumanised Robespierre as an animalistic ogre. As the tragic protagonist of Jones’s drama, Robespierre is not exonerated from the revolutionary regime’s excesses. But he is restored to his humanity and endowed with a kind of flawed greatness – a man of nobility and goodness who, in pursuit of a fine ideal, is induced to do what is monstrous and wrong.

This is not an airbrushed Robespierre. But in Jones’s account, Robespierre is, controversially, a figure of real pathos: a man whose earlier championing of Enlightenment principles, universal male suffrage, religious toleration, rights for women, emancipation for slaves and even (ironically) the abolition of the death penalty offered an ‘inspiring vision of a new, regenerated world of political virtue’. Robespierre was the man who expressed the ideals of the early French Revolution ‘most luminously’ and ‘in a way that can speak to us still’.

Those are fighting words, and it is not the least of this book’s virtues that they are destined to provoke much skirmishing on the historical barricades – not only about Robespierre, but also about the relative virtues and evils of the Revolutionary Government of Year II and whether there was a better future for France which those twenty-four hours of 9 Thermidor tragically foreclosed.

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