Story of Modern France - Helene Guerber

Death of Robespierre

You have seen how, since the Republic had been declared, even worship had undergone sundry changes. Still, the Goddess of Reason did not long maintain her fantastic sway, and when Hebert, the author of this cult, ceased to be popular, he, too, was guillotined, after being jeered at by the people for the cowardice he displayed. Robespierre, who was now the controlling spirit of the Revolution, carried through a decree that the people should henceforth worship the Supreme Being."

On June 8, therefore, the Parisians assembled on the Field of Mars, to see Robespierre in a sky-blue coat, bearing flowers, fruit, and grain in his hand, officiate as high priest, after announcing, "To-day let us enjoy ourselves, to-morrow begin afresh to fight the enemies of the Republic." His main weapon for fighting French foes was the guillotine, which, for the first time in many months, stood idle for a whole day, shrouded in festive purple hangings! But it was by means of the "Holy Guillotine"—as it was sacrilegiously called—that the Republic now coined money, the property of all victims being confiscated for the benefit of the state. The "Supreme Being" ceremonies, arranged by the painter David, proved very stagy, for they concluded with the public burning of two straw figures, "Atheism" and "Egotism," out of which, at a signal from Robespierre, arose "Wisdom," badly blackened by the smoke!

Robespierre, "more despotic than any Bourbon," proved the most bloodthirsty of all the Revolutionary leaders, for he made such changes in the Revolutionary Tribunal that nearly every prisoner tried was quickly condemned to death. Still, many stories are told of brave and touching deeds, of heroic self-sacrifice, and of narrow escapes, which you will read in more detailed books. One aged couple so touched even a Revolutionary judge, that he tried hard to save them from the knife by distorting facts. But the old gentleman, too honorable to tell a lie or to permit one to be told in his behalf, frustrated this charitable impulse by proclaiming: "I thank you for the efforts you have made to save us, but we could never redeem our lives by a falsehood. My wife and I prefer to die. We have grown old together without having ever told a falsehood, and we will not lie now, not even to save a remnant of life. Do your duty as we are doing ours. We will not blame you, but the law only, for our death."

Many of the men showed the white feather at the last moment, but among all the delicate, aristocratic women who were executed, not one failed to maintain her womanly dignity to the very end. In fact, the only woman who made a great fuss—crying, screaming, and falling at the feet of judges and executioners—was Madame du Barry, the last favorite of Louis XV. She had been one of the first to escape from France, but had returned in disguise to recover jewels and plate which she had buried in her garden. In her hasty flight from France, it seems that this lady had cruelly deserted a colored dwarf slave, of whom she had made such a pet that he figures in most of the paintings representing this wicked yet beautiful woman. The dwarf so deeply resented this treatment that, on recognizing his former mistress in her disguise, he went and denounced her to the Revolutionary Tribunal, revenging himself by thus compassing her death.

The government by the Convention and the Committee of Public Safety had one good result: the French armies were made strong enough to drive back the allied invaders, and even to carry the war beyond the borders of France. But about one month after winning the battle of Fleurus (1794), the Convention, feeling it could no longer stand Robespierre's tyranny, had him arrested with his brother and principal helpers. In the Convention Robespierre argued and defended himself, until he fairly choked, when a man in the background cried out tauntingly, "It is the blood of Danton which chokes you!" This tragic reminder of the way in which Robespierre had abandoned a former ally, decided his fate. Robespierre and his companions, who had condemned so many to die, showed far less courage than many of their victims, and several tried to commit suicide in various ways; indeed, Robespierre's lower jaw being fractured by a pistol shot, he had to appear before his judges on a stretcher.

[Illustration] from The Story of Modern France by Helene Guerber


After a very brief trial, Robespierre and his adherents were condemned to the guillotine, where Robespierre died shrieking, owing to the pain in his broken jaw when the bandage was removed (July, 1794). When he was executed, the spectators clapped loudly, for they were glad to be rid of him. There were always many people present at executions; indeed, throughout the Revolution, executions served as an entertainment, attracting large audiences, the front seats being always claimed by the lowest class of women, known as "the Knitters" (les tricoteuses)  because they knitted industriously while eagerly watching all that was going on. Over Robespierre's grave was found one day the following inscription, expressing a great deal of truth:—

"Lament not, that I lie in my last bed,

For, were I living, friend, you would be dead."

The death of Robespierre marks the end of the Reign of Terror in Paris, during which nearly 3000 persons had been guillotined. Still, the massacres could not immediately be stopped, so in the course of the next two days the guillotine worked as hard as ever. But, after that, prisons were opened, 20,000 captives set free, fewer arrests made, and soon no sentences of death were issued save in case of real criminals,—such, for instance, as Carrier, of "drowning" fame; Simon, the tutor of the poor little Dauphin; and the cruel judge of the Revolutionary Tribunal (Fouquier-Tinville).

Among the persons who would have died within the next few days, had Robespierre lived, was Josephine, who was to be the first Empress of France.

[Illustration] from The Story of Modern France by Helene Guerber


The clubs where Marat, Danton, Robespierre, and others had excited each other to such frightful deeds of violence, were ordered closed, and "the Gilded Youth," a political party in favor of greater moderation, now began to make its presence felt. Still, the Red  Reign of Terror, so fortunately ended, was offset by a White  Reign of Terror in the southeast, where Royalists took their revenge by murdering many Revolutionists, these massacres continuing more than six months before they could be effectually checked.