The Eighth of Thermidor
By the summer of 1794, Revolutionary Tribunals had tried over 200,000 suspects, of whom approximately 20,000 had been convicted of treasonous behavior and sent to the guillotine. Moreover, the work of the Terror was intensifying, although the worst threats to the Republic of invasion from without and anarchy within had subsided. Fear and mistrust were widespread, even within the Convention, the Committee of Public Safety (CPS) and the Jacobin Club. In the excerpt below from the Jacobin Club meeting of 8 Thermidor Year II (26 July 1794), Collot d’Herbois, a member of the CPS, questions Robespierre’s motives, accusing him of seeking to become a dictator. (Indeed, rumors that Robespierre wanted to become a king were circulating in Paris.) However, Collot’s speech is poorly received, and those in attendance call for the "conspirators" to be sent to the guillotine.
"From the turmoil of this assembly it is easy to perceive that it is not unaware of what happened this morning at the Convention; it is easy to see that factious persons among us fear to be unveiled in the presence of the people."
Javogues cried: "We are neither factious individuals nor conspirators, but we do not want the Jacobins to be dominated by one man."
"For that," continued Robespierre, "I thank you—for revealing yourself in such a pronounced manner and for permitting me to better know my enemies and those of the fatherland."
After this preamble, Robespierre read the speech he had delivered that morning at the Convention. It had a prodigious effect. The truth of the facts it presented were beyond doubt. It was interrupted often and crowned by universal applause, general enthusiasm, and repeated acclamations. The galleries especially expressed their indignation at that portion of the assembly which seemed not to welcome the speech.
In the middle of this expression of favor and indignation on the part of the people, Dumas, president of the Revolutionary Tribunal, climbed to the rostrum. He said that there was no doubt a conspiracy existed, that the government was counterrevolutionary and then, addressing himself to those who at the beginning of the meeting had disputed Robespierre's right to speak, he said: "It is strange that men who for several months now have kept their silence demand today the right to speak, in order no doubt to oppose the exposure of some startling truths which Robespierre has held back. It is easy to recognize in these people the heirs of Hébert and Danton; they will also, I prophesy, inherit the fate of these conspirators."
Collot d'Herbois followed next to the rostrum where he was greeted by jeers and shouts of disfavor and hostility. In vain, he reminded the audience of the services he had rendered the revolution; in vain he recalled the dangers he had run, but the more he talked the more the storm of popular indignation thundered around him.
Billaud-Varenne shuddered: "I no longer recognize Jacobins," he cried, "who insult a representative of the people that reminds them how close he had come to perishing as a result of his patriotism."
The threats, cries, and tumult of the audience prevented him from speaking further. Collot d'Herbois began to speak with great energy; he needed the full force of his lungs to make heard his suspicions about Robespierre's intentions, arguing that the latter should have communicated the denunciations in his speech to the government before delivering it to the people, that such an action would have been called for only if the two committees had resisted correcting their error, and that, finally, Robespierre would have deleted many things from his speech if he had not been absent from the Committee of Public Safety for the last six weeks. He finished by urging that Robespierre's speech be placed before the Society for discussion, close examination, and debate.
This proposal was very badly received. Collot d'Herbois was obliged to descend from the rostrum. In vain Billaud-Varenne energetically demanded the right to speak; in vain he faced the cries of the galleries and the murmuring of the Society. He could only speak with the aid of brusque and menacing gestures. "To the guillotine, to the guillotine!" coming from the crowd.
Couthon was heard asking for the right to speak. "Citizens," he said, "I am convinced of the truth of the facts enunciated by Robespierre." "But," continued Couthon, "I do not believe that it is possible to throw enough light on the subject, for this is the greatest conspiracy that has taken place up to the present." "Without a doubt," said Couthon, "there are some pure men on the Committees, but it is also certain that there are some rotten ones on the same committees. Well then! I too demand a discussion, not of Robespierre's speech, however, but of the conspiracy. We have seen them appear at the rostrum, these conspirators; we will examine them, we will watch their embarrassment, we will listen to their vacillating replies, they will turn pale in the presence of the people, they will be convicted and they will perish."
Expressions of general agreement burst forth throughout the hall. Couthon's motion was put to a vote and adopted. The applause redoubled, hats were waved in the air, everyone in the hall and in the galleries was standing and a single cry resounded from all parts of the hall: "Conspirators to the guillotine!"
From THE NINTH OF THERMIDOR by Richard Bienvenu. Copyright (c) 1970 by Oxford University Press, Inc., 181–83. Used by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.