The fall of Robespierre

arrest of robespierre
Robespierre’s arrest and shooting in the Hôtel de Ville, July 1794

In July 1794, the month of Thermidor in Year II in the revolutionary calendar, Maximilien Robespierre‘s grip on the revolution came to an abrupt and violent end. As befitted his time in power, Robespierre was brought undone by a conspiracy among his fellow politicians. In June and July, a clique of deputies in the National Convention mobilised against the lawyer from Arras. Their alliance was neither ideological or factional; they shared no vision for the nation except to purge it of Robespierre. Some of the conspirators did not wish to end the Terror, only to remove it from Robespierre’s hands. To justify their actions, they painted Robespierre as an egomaniac, a fanatic and a “sanguinocrat” (ruler by violence). After a brief power struggle in the Convention, then on the streets of Paris, Robespierre and his followers were cornered in the Hôtel de Ville, arrested and sent to the guillotine. According to historian Gregory Dart, the conspirators portrayed the toppling of Robespierre “as a classic tragedy, out of which would emerge a fairer form of things”. What actually followed was the Thermidorian reaction, a brutal retaliation against Jacobinism and a return to moderate political ideas.

The Thermidor uprising was driven chiefly by a growing fear of Robespierre. The “Incorruptible One” had always divided opinion and drawn contradictory reactions, both among his fellow deputies and in the general public. Robespierre’s comrades in the National Convention were often in awe of his legal and political knowledge, his implacable logic, his determination, his adherence to revolutionary values and his moral virtue – but he was also difficult to like. Robespierre was an admirable figure but hardly a charismatic or engaging one. He derived his social pleasures from revolutionary politics rather than society itself. He had never married or taken a lover, despite numerous proposals. In the company of other men, he was cold, aloof, guarded and humourless. As a consequence, Robespierre had a much smaller inner circle than leaders like Jacques Brissot or Georges Danton. His closest allies were Louis Saint-Just, Georges Couthon and Philippe-Francois Le Bas, men who shared Robespierre’s political views and at least some of his coldness. Robespierre’s loyal brother Augustin also sat alongside him in the National Convention.

downfall of robespierre
An artist’s depiction of the fake mountain, with Robespierre on its peak

Robespierre’s fall from power was quick and precipitous. It was also largely his own doing. On June 4th 1794 (16 Prairial) he was elected president of the National Convention almost unanimously, winning 216 of the 220 votes. This support would evaporate quickly in the week that followed. On June 8th, Robespierre led the Festival of the Supreme Being in Paris. Wearing a deep blue coat and pantaloons heavily adorned with gold thread, Robespierre scaled a giant artificial mountain constructed in the Tuileries garden, before delivering a speech that was long-winded and, in parts, self-indulgent. Many onlookers muttered privately about Robespierre’s grandstanding, placing himself at the head of the parade. Once known for his incorruptibility and dedication to the revolution, Robespierre now looked like a man fixated on himself. “Look at the bugger”, noted one deputy, “it’s not enough for him to be in charge; he has to be God”.

robespierre terror
The Law of 22 Prairial unleashed what became known as the ‘Great Terror’

The tipping point came with the passing of the Law of 22 Prairial. Also known as the ‘Law of the Great Terror’, it was passed by the National Convention on June 10th 1794. It was devised privately by Robespierre and the wheelchair-bound Couthon, who presented it to the Convention without any endorsement from the Committee of Public Safety (CPS). The 22 Prairial ordinance was a remarkable plunge into totalitarianism and arbitrary justice, even by Robespierre’s standards. It gave any French citizen the power to arrest and indict a suspect before the Revolutionary Tribunal. It stripped suspects of the right to a defence counsel, or to call witnesses on their behalf. Even more extreme, 22 Prairial obliged the Revolutionary Tribunal to either acquit the suspect or sentence them to death. The revolution was no longer at risk from foreign invasion or internal counter-revolution, yet Robespierre and Couthon had acted to unshackle the tribunals and further intensify the Terror. The Law of 22 Prairial had an immediate impact, the number of guillotinings more than tripling.

In mid-June Robespierre became ill, possibly due to fatigue or stress, and withdrew from public life for a month. Between June 18th and July 26th he scarcely attended the Convention, giving no speeches, while his attendance in the Committee of Public Safety was recorded no more than three times. Robespierre’s absence emboldened those who had previously feared him. While many in the Convention stayed silent for fear of their lives, some openly criticised Robespierre in the chamber, ridiculing his outrageous behaviour at the Festival of the Supreme Being and criticising his unnecessary escalation of the Terror. At one point he was called a “murderer” by men sympathetic to Danton and Camille Desmoulins, who Robespierre had sent to the guillotine three months before. Behind the scenes, many deputies of the Convention engaged in a whispering campaign against Robespierre, pushing for his removal before he returned and removed them. This soon developed into a more organised and coherent plan.

“Robespierre overestimated his authority in the Convention, reigning thanks to the silence of his colleagues, to the artificial unanimity imposed on June 2nd, confirmed by Danton’s death… he became, in turn, the hostage of the very same indulgent silence… All it took was for the conventionnels to regard their voice and Robespierre, deprived of the support of those who had carried him in triumph three years earlier, suddenly appeared terribly vulnerable and defenceless. His error was to have believed that time was on his side… He had allowed his enemies time to regroup.”
Patrice Gueniffey, historian

Removing Robespierre was not as simple as whipping up support in the Convention, however. Robespierre still retained enormous popularity in the Jacobin clubs. He still led the city authorities of Paris. Francois Hanriot, commander of the National Guard in Paris, was one of his most loyal followers. It would require a consensus in the Convention to remove him. This critical moment came after Robespierre’s return to public life in late July. On July 26th (8 Thermidor), Robespierre delivered a long and rambling speech to the Convention where he denied accusations of dictatorial conduct and self-glorification. He then went on the offensive, accusing certain members of the Convention of treason. When others demanded that Robespierre name these alleged traitors, he refused to do so. The scene was repeated the following day when Saint-Just attempted to defend Robespierre but was shouted down. Robespierre again tried to address the chamber but the Montagnards, once his strongest allies, silenced him with cat-calls and heckling. A motion was raised for the arrest of Robespierre, Saint-Just, Couthon and Hanriot and it passed with a healthy majority.

robespierre fall
A reconstruction of Robespierre’s face, based on his 1794 death mask

News of these arrests caused a sensation in Paris. Robespierre and his supporters were sent to different prisons around the city. Overnight, all were released and transported to the Hôtel de Ville by troops of the Paris Commune, who remained loyal to Robespierre and Hanriot. For a short time it seemed there might be a battle for control between the National Convention and the Commune. Within the Hôtel de Ville, Robespierre hoped to rally enough military support to secure his release and regain control of the government. The Commune, however, had been weakened by the Terror, and these events unfolded too quickly for its troops to organise in strength. Communications and troop mobilisation were also hampered by a heavy storm on the evening of 9 Thermidor. At 2.00 am, soldiers loyal to the Convention stormed the Hôtel de Ville. Robespierre was shot in the jaw as they entered; it is not clear whether this was done intentionally, accidentally or by Robespierre’s own hand. His face bandaged and unable to speak, Robespierre was carried off to meet his fate. On the evening of July 28th (10 Thermidor), the 36-year-old Robespierre was guillotined before a cheering crowd, along with 21 of his entourage.

fall of robespierre

1. The fall of Robespierre unfolded quickly in June-July 1794, following his election as the president of the National Convention on June 4th (16 Prairial).

2. Robespierre’s appearance and self-indulgent behaviour at the head of the Festival of the Supreme Being invited ridicule and criticism from his opponents.

3. The Law of 22 Prairial, devised by Robespierre and Couthon, escalated the Terror despite the threat of invasion and counter-revolution decreasing.

4. A month-long absence from the National Convention allowed Robespierre’s opponents to conspire and plan a course of action to remove him.

5. When Robespierre returned in late July he attempted to defend himself, however, the numbers in the Convention were now against him. Robespierre and his supporters were arrested, tried and guillotined on July 28th (10 Thermidor).

french revolution sources fall of robespierre

Decree establishing the Cult of the Supreme Being (1794)
Robespierre pays homage to the Supreme Being (1794)
Witnesses to the Festival of the Supreme Being (1794)
The Law of 22 Prairial (1794)
An account of the arrest of Robespierre (1794)

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J. Llewellyn and S. Thompson, “Fall of Robespierre”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date],