Understanding Robespierre, Choosing Terror, and the Road to Thermidor


Two-hundred and twenty-one years after the coup of Thermidor brought about the deaths of Robespierre, Saint-Just, and 106 others, the reasons behind it are still subject to debate. For many commentators the politics, personality, and foibles of Robespierre himself are central to how we interpret these events. I have a strong interest here, for understanding Robespierre has long been an obsession of mine. Back in July 1994, on the two-hundredth anniversary of Robespierre’s death, I spoke at a conference (in Winchester, of all unlikely places), dedicated to the Incorruptible. For some reason (perhaps grounded in English academic culture), few women in the UK at that time were specialists in French revolutionary politics, and I was one of only two women (along with Annie Jourdan) to be deemed sufficiently knowledgeable about Robespierre to be invited to take part. I was thrilled to be at that conference and to meet so many historians of the Revolution, above all Norman Hampson, whose extraordinary book, The Life and Opinions of Maximilien Robespierre had first introduced me to the problems – the foolhardiness perhaps – of trying to understand Robespierre and the internecine world of revolutionary politics in which he moved. The book of that conference was published under the title Robespierre (ed. Colin Haydon and William Doyle, CUP).

In fact my obsession with Robespierre dates from long before that conference. Back in 1983, when I first applied to study for an undergraduate degree, I had the temerity to argue with the admissions tutor interviewing me – about Robespierre. The man landed with the job of interviewing me was Mike Sonenscher. I hadn’t heard of him then, and had no idea that he himself was a specialist on eighteenth-century France. He won’t remember that day – but I do. Poor Mike, he must have been baffled by me, a young woman who walked into his office for a routine admissions interview, and promptly turned the tables by voicing her ideas about Robespierre and revolutionary politics. That interview happened at Middlesex Polytechnic (as it then was known). I was the first person in my family to do a university degree, and I would never have imagined then that I might become good enough to be a professional historian; which is why I have always tried to encourage students who, like me, didn’t come from a world of privilege and never acquired the sense of entitlement it brings. (Of course, it was much easier for me back then than it is for young people now. I got a grant, and emerged from my degree with a first, no money – but also no burden of debt). I had applied to Middlesex simply because they offered a course on the French Revolution and I longed to know more about it. (Mike’s own course, though I didn’t know that either). But even before I went to Middlesex I had already discovered the French Revolution for myself. Finding time to study wasn’t easy then, because I already had a baby son. Taking advantage of the rare moments when he slept in his pushchair, I walked him to my local public library where I browsed through the history section. It was there that I lighted upon the works of historians like Norman Hampson, George Rudé, and Robert Palmer. What a world they revealed to me! The people of the French Revolution and the amazing times through which they lived. It was the Year II that drew me most of all: the year of such idealism, triumphs against the odds, energy and passionate intensity; but also the year of such tragedy and horror.

I’ve come a long way since that first youthful enthusiasm, and discovered many other times, other people, other subjects, other stories in the past that I wanted to pursue. But that desire to better understand Robespierre and all those other revolutionary leaders has never left me. What was the experience of revolutionary politics like for them? What motivated them? What did they really think? What did they act as they did? How did they feel about the lives they were living in those extraordinary times?

My most recent book, Choosing Terror: Virtue, Friendship and Authenticity in the French Revolution (OUP, 2013) has brought me back to many of the same problems I originally confronted so long ago. A central theme is what made idealistic people choose terror. I see that choice as a part of a gradual process, a process that cannot be separated from the vertiginous circumstances; so the book traces the development of revolutionary politics, step by step, through five long years of struggle, war and betrayal. Choosing Terror isn’t confined to Robespierre as an individual; rather it is a study of a shifting group, the successive Jacobin leaders, and how they tried to master the new world of politics by presenting themselves as ‘men of virtue’. As the book moves into the period of the Convention (from Chapter 5 onwards) several reviewers note how I trace the unfolding of a personal ‘tragedy’ for the revolutionary leadership. There are no straightforward heroes or villains in my book; it is about people individually and collectively struggling to find a way through a deteriorating situation, as Paris became the focal point of an increasingly toxic political environment. Some were brave and loyal; many more reacted with appalling ruthlessness – especially towards one another. I don’t take sides: as one reviewer states: ‘One of the key strengths of the book is that Linton is never prescriptive’. Several reviewers acknowledge how I seek to reconstruct the individuality of revolutionary leaders, and point to me ‘humanising the principal actors of the Revolution’. One reviewer picked up on how I portray politics in the Year II as a lived crisis for the protagonists, describing my book as ‘a refreshingly existential interpretation of revolutionary politics’. A running thread through the book is the complicated, often contradictory, relationship between political ideas and individual emotions. By the early summer of 1794 the most intense emotion amongst the Conventionnels was fear. It was the height of what I call the ‘politicians’ terror’. This was a twofold phenomenon: firstly, following the decision to remove deputies’ immunity from arrest, political leaders were themselves subject to the laws on terror; and secondly, the leaders were subject to the emotion of terror. It was hardly surprising that it should be so. By that time the atmosphere in the Convention had become toxic; the revolutionary leaders were stressed, exhausted, suspicious of one another, fearing a blow, and not sure from which direction it would come – they had many enemies after all. Ironically, their most bitter and unforgiving enemies were often the ones standing close behind them. The fear that haunted them help to explain some of their decisions, though it doesn’t make the choices the revolutionary leaders made any less horrifying.

The climactic chapters of the book lead to Thermidor itself. There is an abundance of evidence that the revolutionary leaders – including Robespierre – were subject to severe emotional strain, and that this affected their judgements. I argue that by the early summer of 1794 the strain he was under pushed Robespierre to the edge of a breakdown. In Thermidor he wasn’t acting rationally. If his intention was really to launch a conspiracy against his enemies he made a pretty poor hand of it. This hardly seems contentious to me.

Yet not everyone sees it like that. A recent historian accused me of taking what he calls the ‘poor little Maxie approach’. (Peter McPhee and Tim Tackett are tarred with the same brush so I am in excellent company). As I understand it, this criticism means that I approach Robespierre (as I do other revolutionaries) as a man subject to emotions as well as rational politics; a man who on 8 Thermidor could see no way out and made ill-considered choices that precipitated the conspiracy that destroyed not only him, but many others; and began the chain-reaction that led to the ending of the Jacobin Republic, and to himself being made to ‘take the rap’ for the Terror – an image that persists to this day; a man for whom, as his fellow Montagnards turned on him in order to save their own lives, we might feel some sympathy. So, yes, that is my position and I stand by it. To understand Robespierre and the other revolutionary leaders is not to condone their choice to use terror, or to approve of its consequences. The irony is that the Robespierre of 1789 or even of 1791 would have been horrified by the choices of the Robespierre of 1794. As I said at the start of my book, the answer to why Robespierre and others like him ‘chose terror’ needs to be sought, ‘not in some warp of Robespierre’s personality, but in the politics of the Revolution itself’. So have I succeeded in my aim of getting us closer to an understanding of the revolutionary leaders and showing why, in the circumstances of 1793-4, so many of them chose terror? Choosing Terror is out in paperback now, so you can judge for yourselves.


4 thoughts on “Understanding Robespierre, Choosing Terror, and the Road to Thermidor”

  1. I’ve just started to discover your very precious contributions via Academia.edu. My regret is do not have read your book “Choosing Terror” before publishing my Italian book on the Terror: I’m sure your points of view would illuminated me a lot. Now I’m going to buy it as well as your earlier collective book on Conspiracy in the French Revolution.
    Thanks also for your very inspiring post. I’m not a professional historian: maybe, if I had read your words ten years ago, I might have tried that road. Hoping many young students will read it.

  2. Thank you! And yes, it is great to see young people on this website, and I do hope they will feel encouraged to pursue career goals as professional historians – if that is their wish. But sadly this new generation faces greater financial impediments than the previous one – at least in the UK, and I think elsewhere too. Young scholars who want to study the French Revolution can read in their history books that the revolutionaries set out to abolish privilege, and to enable ‘careers open to talent’ based only on virtue and merit, yet find that in their own lives – in 2015 – the path to a professional career is still hedged around with the daunting barriers of money and insidious privilege. It would be deeply ironic – and bad for scholarship – if only people from wealthy and privileged backgrounds could afford to become historians of the French Revolution.

  3. Dear Marisa, You started university at the same time that I did, only I was a Mediævalist in St Andrews, and – on my Mum’s side of the family at least, also the first of my family to go to university (my Dad had been a mature student, via Ruskin, when I was an infant). I’ve struggled to make a living post-PhD, and have a somewhat hand-to-mouth existence still. So I can identify with a lot of what you say about education, privilege and how much we have lost in the subsequent decades.

    I’ve recently started exploring the Revolution again, which i last really encountered in A Levels (1981-83) cursorily, with the “légende noire” dominant and a teacher with a fixation on Napoléon, for whom it was only the warm-up act. I was rather more intrigued by the young delegate for Artois. However, he then got put to one side for a few decades (the length of his whole lifetime, more or less!)… But I’ve now lighted on McPhee’s and your work, Leuwers, and others, and have had the assumptions which formed the background to my school studies radically dismantled. I don’t see why anyone should have a problem with the idea Robespierre was on the brink of breakdown: the assassination attempt was real, and the last portrait sketch done on the day of his arrest shows him extremely gaunt, hollow-cheeked, and uncharacteristically dishevelled. It is tragic, in the fullest sense of the word.

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