[1794] - Robespierre executed; end of the Terror

Robespierre’s demise came in the summer of 1794 following an attempt on his life by a young woman named Cécile Renault. This coincided with the decision by the Committee of Public Safety to introduce the decree of 22 Prairial, which empowered it to double the number of executions in order to defend the revolution. As the Reign of Terror became increasingly brutal, Robespierre was forced to defend himself in the National Convention against accusations of dictatorship and tyranny. He responded by emphasizing the extent of the conspiracy against the republic, suggesting the complicity of members of the Convention. As a result, the Convention ordered the arrest not only of Robespierre, but also of his brother, Saint-Just, Georges Couthon, François Hanriot, and Philippe-François-Joseph Le Bas. This led to a military stand-off between troops loyal to the Convention and those loyal to Robespierre and the Paris Commune (which had gathered at the Hôtel de Ville). On 27 July the Convention ordered the execution of Robespierre and his fellow Jacobin leaders. As the night wore on the troops of the Commune began to flee as they heard rumours of the arrival of the forces of the Convention led by the Vicomte de Barras. When Barras arrived in the early morning of 28 July, Robespierre threw himself out of a window to avoid capture, and then tried to shoot himself. He failed, however, to kill himself and was taken to a room in the Committee of Public Safety to await execution. The next day he was guillotined without trial at the Place de la Révolution.

In Book X of The Prelude (1805) Wordsworth recalls the overwhelming sense of joy he felt at hearing the news of Robespierre’s death:

O Friend! few happier moments have been mine
Through my whole life than that when first I heard
That this foul Tribe of Moloch was o’erthrown,
And their chief regent levelled with the dust.
The day was one which haply may deserve
A separate chronicle. Having gone abroad
From a small Village where I tarried then,
To the same far-secluded privacy
I was returning. Over the smooth sands
Of Leven’s ample Æstuary lay
My journey, and beneath a genial sun,
With distant prospect among gleams of sky
And clouds, and intermingled mountain tops,
In one inseparable glory clad –
Creatures of one ethereal substance, met
In Consistory, like a diadem
Or crown of burning seraphs, as they sit
In the Empyrean. Underneath this show
Lay, as I knew, the nest of pastoral vales
Among whose happy fields I had grown up
From childhood. On the fulgent spectacle,
Which neither changed, nor stirred, nor passed away,
I gazed, and with a fancy more alive
On this account – that I had chanced to find
That morning, ranging through the churchyard graves
Of Cartmell’s rural Town, the place in which
An honored Teacher of my youth was laid.
While we were Schoolboys he had died among us,
And was born hither, as I knew, to rest
With his own Family. A plain stone, inscribed
With name, date, office, pointed out the spot,
To which a slip of verses was subjoined –
By his desire, as afterwards I learned –
A fragment from the Elegyof Gray.
A week, or little less, before his death
He had said to me, ‘My head will soon lie low’;
And when I saw the turf that covered him,
After the lapse of full eight years, those words,
With sound of voice, and countenance of the Man,
Came back upon me, so that some few tears
Fell from me in my own despite. And now,
Thus travelling smoothly o’er the level Sands,
I thought with pleasure of the Verses graven
Upon his Tombstone, saying to myself,
‘He loved the Poets, and if now alive
Would have loved me, as one not destitute
Of promise, nor belying the kind hope
Which he had formed when I at his command
Began to spin, at first, my toilsome Songs.
Without me and within, as I advanced,
All that I saw, or felt, or communed with,
Was gentleness and peace. Upon a small
And rocky Island near, a fragment stood
(Itself like a sea rock) of what had been
A Romish Chapel, where in ancient times
Masses were said at the hour which suited those
Who crossed the Sands with ebb of morning tide.
Not far from this still Ruin all the Plain
Was spotted with a variegated crowd
Of Coaches, Wains, and Travellers, horse and foot,
Wading, beneath the conduct of their Guide,
In loose procession through the shallow Stream
Of inland water; the great Sea meanwhile
Was at safe distance, far retired. I paused,
Unwilling to proceed, the scene appeared
So gay and cheerful; when a Traveller
Chancing to pass, I carelessly inquired
If any news were stirring, he replied
In the familiar language of the day
That, Robespierre was dead. Nor was a doubt,
On further question, left within my mind
But that the tidings were substantial truth –
That he and his supporters all were fallen.
(Gill, The Oxford Authors: William Wordsworth (1984), pp. 545–6, ll. 466–538)

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