This Week in History

Robespierre’s Supreme Hour:

June 8, 1794

The following comes from our book, Light to the Nations II: The Making of the Modern World. It continues a story we began last August, which you may read here. For ordering information on this text and our other books, please click here.

Maximilien de Robespierre

While Paris ran with the blood of patriots, French arms continued to achieve victories against the republic’s enemies. By the spring of 1794, the revolutionary army numbered 720,000 men, and the French navy had built ships of the line. The combined armies and navies of Great Britain, Austria, Prussia, Spain, and Piedmont-Sardinia were, of course, quite strong; but the allies were divided among themselves. They were not working together. Their efforts had become merely a selfish war of conquest.

In England, Prime Minister Pitt had decided to throw all his energy into the war against France. His efforts paid off when, on June 1, the British navy won a smashing victory over the French and thus gained control of the seas. But on land, the allied forces were everywhere driven back. In April, the French had seized important Alpine passes leading into Italy. By June the French had forced the Austrians to leave Holland. By July, the allies had abandoned all their conquests in France, and the French revolutionary army began its invasion of Holland.

Lazare Carnot

Such victories were due to the energy and genius of Lazare Carnot, not to Robespierre. Yet, in the months leading up to the execution of the Dantonists, Robespierre had become tremendously popular. He was so popular that, though his only allies on the Committee were Saint-Just and Couthon (three men out of 12), the Committee would do whatever he wished. Robespierre had thus become the dictator of France, and he was feared by the Committee, the Convention, and his own party, the Jacobins.

Yet, though Robespierre did not realize it, his power was waning. Crowds cheered him whenever he went out in public; but, it seems, even the people of Paris were turning against him. In part this might have been because the Terror was growing worse and claiming some prominent victims—including a man who has been called the father of modern chemistry, Antoine Lavoisier. After being convicted by the Committee of treason for defending some foreign scientists against the Terror, Lavoisier was executed on May 8, 1794. Another victim was Madame Elizabeth (Louis XVI’s sister), who before the revolution had cared for the sick and suffering in her own home. She was guillotined on May 10, 1794.

Confident that the people were behind him, Robespierre sought to establish his power more firmly over all of France. He and Saint-Just pressured the Convention to place all of France’s revolutionary tribunals under the Committee of Public Safety. Next, Robespierre, with the Convention’s approval, seized control of the Paris commune by replacing the popularly elected mayor of Paris with a member of the Committee of Public Safety.

The stage was now set for the fulfillment of one of Robespierre’s most cherished dreams—the establishment of a new civic religion for France. On May 7, Robespierre asked the Convention to approve a Festival of the Supreme Being, to proclaim the French nation’s belief in the God of Nature and the immortality of the soul. This was, of course, a purely Deist form of worship; so it was not surprising that the Convention, dominated by Deists, approved it.

The Festival of the Supreme Being

The Festival of the Supreme Being on June 8, 1794, drew large crowds. Convention deputies arrived, wearing blue coats; Robespierre himself appeared in a sky-blue jacket and carried a sheaf of wheat ears, flowers, and fruit. Upon forming a procession in the garden of the Tuileries palace, the worshipers began moving through the streets of Paris. When they reached the Champ de Mars, a chorus of 2,500 voices began singing a hymn written by the revolutionary poet, André Chenier. Flowers were strewn, and young men drew their swords, pledging to defend the republic. That day, the guillotine was shrouded, and Robespierre called on the people to rejoice! But the festival was not the beginning of peace for France, for Robespierre was preparing a grim sacrifice to his god. “Rejoice today,” he commanded the worshipers, but then he added these ominous words: “Tomorrow we will renew our combat with vice and tyranny.”

This was the supreme moment of Robespierre’s life, but it spelled the beginning of his downfall. Watching Robespierre leading the procession, some deputies of the Mountain murmured against him. They said, “He is not satisfied with being master, he must be God.” Others compared him to Brutus, who had assassinated Julius Caesar.

So it was that when Robespierre presented a new law to the Convention two days after the festival, even the Mountain opposed him. The law, presented on the 22nd Prairial in the French revolutionary calendar, would vastly expand the power of the Revolutionary Tribunal and allow it to condemn people accused of treason without any evidence that they were guilty. Several members of the Convention protested the law, but Robespierre finally carried the day. The Law of the 22nd Prairial passed the Convention, and Robespierre prepared for the final purge of his enemies and the establishment of his ideal republic.

 

Meanwhile, in London…

In 1794, the Austrian composer, Franz Josef Haydn, was on tour, entertaining audiences with, among other works, this Symphony 100, called “Military” for the trumpet fanfares in its second movement. This performance of the “Military Symphony” is by the Royal Concertbouw Orchestra, under the direction of Mariss Jansons.

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