Thursday, November 10, 2011

July 27, 1794 - Robespierre's Defense Published

At the height of the Reign of Terror, the French Revolution held its climax as forces loyal to the ideals of Maximelien Robespierre overwhelmed the Convention army arranged by men such as Billaud, Barras, and Barère. The loyalist soldiers had been rallied by the overnight and secret publication of Robespierre's speech defending himself from charges of tyranny. Instead, he warned France of a conspiracy to seize power in the Republic, which caused his enemies to leap to action and call for Robespierre's execution, bringing all cards to bear.

It was a harried time in the chaos that seemed to dominate Paris since the storming of the Bastille in 1789. Through the next five years, the National Assembly would attempt to create constitutions, women would march on Paris, property of the Church was publicly seized, the king fled, was captured, and eventually executed, and nearly every king in Europe declared war on the new Republic. Meanwhile, even the forces of revolution began to splinter, forming political clubs such as the Feuillants and the Girondins. Many of them encouraged the wars, hoping for war to be declared against Austria, but lawyer and political leader Robespierre said in 1792, "such a war could only favour the forces of counter-revolution, since it would play into the hands of those who opposed the sovereignty of the people. The risks of Caesarism were clear, for in wartime the powers of the generals would grow at the expense of ordinary soldiers, and the power of the king and court at the expense of the Assembly."

The war began anyway after the death of Leopold II of Austria, but France took major victories in Belgium and the Rhineland, cementing the position of the Republic on the continent. The fledgeling government turned inward to its problems of food shortages, insurrections, and outright treason. The Tribunal was established in 1793, leading to a Committee of Public Safety, and Robespierre was one of the nine elected. Here began a "Reign of Terror" during which Robespierre wrote, "...the spring of that government during a revolution is virtue combined with terror: virtue, without which terror is destructive; terror, without which virtue is impotent. Terror is only justice prompt, severe and inflexible." The report of enemies of the state became a major part of clearing up the factionalism and counter-revolutionaries of the time, and it grew further with the Law of 22 Prairial on June 10, 1794. By it, the Tribunal could condemn an enemy of the state through direct order and without witnesses. Through the next eight weeks, nearly 1300 people would be guillotined.

Robespierre's system of purification nearly ricocheted back at him when he was called before the Convention, accused of treason. That July, Robespierre had recalled several envoys who had been accused of extravagance with their positions to Paris to account for their actions. One of them, Joseph Fouché, evaded arrest and sneaked from house to house of Convention members, explaining that Robespierre would come for them too. With the groundwork set for a coup d'état, the Convention called in Robespierre on suspicion of tyranny, and he delivered a two-hour speech giving already his knowledge of the conspiracy. The guilty members (though unnamed) hurried to act. The next day, Robespierre's ally Saint-Just (whom Robespierre had been before sent to the front to garner support from the army) was shouted down during his defense. Robespierre also attempted to speak, but the chaos and outright mockery closed him off. At the conclusion, the Convention ordered the arrest of Robespierre and many of his allies.

Commune soldiers under General Coffinhal marched in to defend Robespierre, aiming for the Convention itself, who ordered up soldiers of their own. The soldiers of the Commune began to falter, and it was then that copies of Robespierre's speech was delivered to them, printed in secret after the debate in the Convention had attempted to censor them. Instead, the soldiers realized that they must continue to fight for the good of the revolution against conspiracy and were joined by many free Parisians from the mob. The Battle of Paris raged for only a few hours initially, but when the conspirator's army broke in the early morning, the rioting spread to follow them. Barras, who led the Convention soldiers, was killed in the fighting, Jacques Nicolas Billaud-Varenne was captured and executed, and Bertrand Barère (who had already come under suspicion of treason) managed to escape, eventually ending up in England before disappearing into the Caribbean as an adventurer.

After the Battle of Paris, Robespierre succeeded in his plans to end counter-revolutionary movements. By winter, the Law of 22 Prairial came to an end and the Terror expired. Instead, Robespierre continued his place maintaining the Committee of Public Safety and keeping the political elements of pure to his ideal of republic. Meanwhile, the wars with Europe (and even the Quasi-War with the United States until the matter of privateering was settled) continued until the Treaty of Lunéville with Austria in 1801 and the Treaty of Amiens with Britain in 1802. The war was finished by General Moreau as the great Corsican general Napoleon Bonaparte was dispatched to the West Indies as "punishment" for his lateness in returning from Egypt in 1799 due to poor communication, but also to get a potential tyrant away from the young republic as well as to organize the former slaves who had been freed under the Rights of Man.

Robespierre himself would retire from political office in 1815, but he would continue to lead the Jacobin political party and encourage the spread of Republicanism to other countries. After the success of the Society of United Irishmen liberating the Republic of Ireland and later the Republic of Australia, Robespierre was instrumental creating a Republican Bloc of nations such as Batavia and Saint-Domingue that spurred conservatism in the royal houses of Europe. In 1821, Robespierre left to observe General Simón Bolívar in his carving out of republics from the old Spanish Empire in the Americas, which rejected Robespierre's Cult of the Supreme Being. Elsewhere, primarily in Europe and then in French republican dependencies, the deist Le culte de l'Être suprême remains the state religion with its festival on June 8 as the largest holiday of the year. Robespierre himself led the festivities in Paris until his death in 1836.


In reality, Robespierre's speech was never published, though repeated and applauded at the Jacobin Club. According to Napoleon Bonaparte, "Robespierre was overthrown because he wanted to become a moderator and stop the Revolution. Cambaceres told me that the day before his death, he delivered a wonderful speech that was never printed. Billaud and other terrorists, seeing that he was weakening and he would invariably have their heads, conspired against him and stirred up the so-called decent people to overthrow the 'tyrant,' but in reality to take his place and extend the reign of terror."

*Special thanks to Nicolas Gregoire for idea and background

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