This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations II: The Making of the Modern World. See digital samples, here.
The Terror now entered its darkest phase. Prisons in Paris began to overflow with thousands of accused persons. Executions increased. In the year from the beginning of the Reign of Terror to the passage of the Law of the 22nd Prairial, Paris had seen 1,256 executions; but in the six weeks following the passage of the law, 1,361 died under the guillotine. A steady stream of victims, men as well as women, patriots as well as traitors, climbed the scaffold. Among them was André Chenier, the poet who had composed the hymn to Robespierre’s god.
Among those who met their deaths during this period were the Carmelite nuns of Compiègne. Since September 1792, when the National Assembly had forced them to leave their monastery and abandon their habits, they had continued to live their religious life in small groups, near to a chapel where they heard Mass. But in June 1794, they were arrested for plotting against the republic and taken to Paris. During their trial before the Revolutionary Tribunal, the prosecuting attorney accused the nuns of being fanatics on account of their “attachment to childish beliefs” and “silly religious practices.” Without an attorney to defend them, the sisters were condemned as “enemies of the people by conspiring against its sovereign will.” They were 16 in number—ten professed nuns, one novice, three lay sisters, and two servants.
On their way to the place of execution on July 17, 1794, the sisters sang the Miserere, Salve Regina, and Te Deum. They recited prayers for the dying. All who witnessed their passage through the city were struck with wonder. All who saw them fell silent. The same silence surrounded the guillotine, where, before ascending the scaffold, the sisters knelt to renew their baptismal vows and religious profession and sang the Veni Creator, a hymn to the Holy Spirit. The first to die was the novice, Sister Constance; the last was the prioress, Mother Thérèse de St. Augustin. Before mounting the scaffold, the oldest among them, the 84-year old Sister of Jesus Crucified, said to her executioners, “I forgive you as heartily as I wish God to forgive me.”
The Martyrs of Compiègne could not know it, but their persecutor, the man who was staining Paris red with the blood of innocents, himself had not long to live. The horror of seeing thousands imprisoned and executed definitely began turning the public against Robespierre. The radicals in the Convention lived in fear of him; no one knew whether he or she too would be the next person condemned. And, now, even members of the Committee of Public Safety plotted against Robespierre. The Committee members knew that, except for Saint-Just and Couthon, each one of them was living under the threat of death. Robespierre would stop at nothing to purify the republic.
On July 25 (7th Thermidor in the revolutionary calendar), Bertrand Barère de Vieuzac, a member of the Committee of Public Safety, presented a report to the Convention. Written in the name of a majority of the Committee members, the report criticized the policies that had brought on the horrors of the past several weeks. This was, of course, nothing more or less than an attack on Robespierre. After the reading of the report, no deputy rose up to defend the Committee or Robespierre; instead, the Convention voted to publish the report and send it to all the communes of France. Thus the Convention, for the first time, declared its opposition to Robespierre.
When news of the report in the Convention reached Robespierre, he was determined to defend himself. The next day, he appeared before the Convention and read a speech in which he defended himself against charges of tyranny. He spoke once again of his ideal republic, founded on liberty and virtue, and of the necessity of the Terror to achieve this dream. But then he attacked his enemies, saying that both the Convention and the Committee had a group of guilty men who were determined to overthrow the ideal republic. The Committee, he said, had to be purged of such men, and he called on the Convention to do it.
Robespierre had mentioned no committee member by name, but everyone knew that one of those he thought needed to be purged was Barère. Another was Carnot, France’s war hero, whom Robespierre despised. After Robespierre finished speaking, Barère rose; but instead of attacking Robespierre, he read off a list of French military victories—victories for which Carnot was responsible. Barère’s speech had a powerful effect, for he had made it clear what Robespierre was threatening. By attacking Carnot, Robespierre was attacking the very man who had preserved the army and thus saved the republic itself. In this way, Barère foiled Robespierre’s attempt to bring the Convention over to his side.
That night, at the Jacobins, Robespierre’s allies urged him to stir up a revolt against the Convention. But Robespierre refused—such an act was against his republican ideals. The Convention represented the people of France, and Robespierre would not oppose it. He would be true to his ideals, even if it meant his destruction.
The following day, July 27 (9th Thermidor), Saint-Just arrived in the Convention hall. He brought with him a report accusing several members of the Committee, including Barère, Carnot, and Billaud-Varennes, of treason. Hearing Saint-Just read out his name, Billaud stood up and cried that the Convention “stands between two butcheries. It will perish if it falters.” Now other voices joined Billaud’s. “Down with tyrants!” several deputies cried out, and soon more took up the call—”Down with tyrants!”
Robespierre was also present. He now stood up and tried to speak. He was shouted down. Again he tried to speak, and turned to the Mountain for support; but the followers of Danton and Hébert who sat there would not let him be heard. He then turned to the Plain, the moderates, but their cries too drowned out his voice. Again he tried to speak, but despair and exhaustion overcame him. Seeing him struggle to regain his voice, a deputy shouted, “Danton chokes you.”
Robespierre’s doom had come upon him. He heard one voice cry out, “Mr. President, shall one man rule the Convention?” Another joined in, “He has ruled it too long.” A third declared, “How hard it is to overthrow a tyrant.” Now a fourth stood up, saying, “No one will deny that Robespierre has played the master; let us vote his arrest.” For one last time, Robespierre rose to speak. But standing on the Mountain, looking down on the assembled deputies below him, he did not defend himself or beg for mercy. He merely said, “Vote for my death.”
That day, 9th Thermidor 1794, the Convention condemned Robespierre to death, along with Saint-Just and Couthon. The next day, the three, with 19 others of Robespierre’s supporters, were loaded into carts and taken to the Place de la Révolution. On the way, a woman in the crowd approached the cart in which Robespierre stood and struck him on the face. She was one of “the people,” those for whom Robespierre had drenched Paris in blood. Even the people, he now saw, had turned against him. His response to the blow was a simple one. He just shrugged his shoulders.
Before it was done with its own purge, the Convention had ordered the death of 70 others besides Robespierre and his companions. These were guillotined the day after Robespierre’s execution. The Reign of Terror thus ended as it had begun—with the slaughter of political enemies.
Music of an Insubordinate Composer
In 1792, a 22-year old Ludwig van Beethoven went to Vienna, where he studied composition under the tutelage of Josef Haydn. In 1794, when Haydn left Vienna for London, Beethoven’s employer, the Elector Archbishop of Köln, expected Beethoven to return to his hometown of Bonn. Beethoven, however, remained in Vienna, where he continued his studies. The elector withdrew Beethoven’s stipend, but he received financial help from three Viennese noblemen. That same year, 1794, the year of Robespierre’s execution, Beethoven composed this String Trio No. 1 in E-Flat Major.