9 Thermidor Year II: the best-documented day in the French Revolution?

La Prise de la Bastille (1789), by Jean-Pierre Houël (1735-1813), Bibliothèque nationale de France. At the centre is the arrest of Bernard René Jourdan, marquis de Launay (1740-1789).

Was 9 Thermidor Year II (27 July 1794) the most copiously documented day of action in the French Revolution? It saw the overthrow of Maximilien Robespierre, most high-profile member of the Committee of Public Safety which had for more than a year ruled through terror – and is one of the pivotal days of action (or journées) around which the Revolution developed. The most influential journée in terms of French national history was 14 July 1789, which saw the storming of the Bastille and which is conventionally viewed as marking the beginning of the Revolution. Another day, 18 Brumaire Year VIII (9 November 1799), witnessed the coup d’état by which Napoleon Bonaparte seized power and effectively ended the Revolution. The overthrow of Louis XVI and the monarchy on 10 August 1792 and the 9 Thermidor journée mark the third and fourth journées which structure the revolution in most historical narratives.

There are numerous accounts all of these individual days, for each was a kind of ‘lightbulb moment’ that stayed in the minds of participants. But in writing my book, The Fall of Robespierre: 24 hours in Revolutionary Paris, I gained a strong impression that the ‘best-documented’ accolade must go to 9 Thermidor. After 18 Brumaire only the heroic Napoleonic narrative was allowed and censorship closed down on discordant stories. There was much to celebrate after 14 July 1789 and 10 August but celebration was not investigation. And what marks 9 Thermidor off from all others is that the day was followed by extraordinarily detailed attempts to recapture exactly what had happened in all parts of the city.

The Execution of Robespierre and his supporters on 28 July 1794, artist unknown (Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Estampes et photographie, Réserve QB-370 (48)-FT 4).

The reason for this was the determination of government to root out and to punish those individuals within the State, in public life and across the city who had supported Robespierre. Actions might relate to events over the previous two years of terror, but the litmus test of what began to be called ‘Robespierrism’ was invariably what individuals actually did on the day of 9 Thermidor. The city government, the Commune, had tried to mobilise Parisians to offer armed resistance to the national assembly in Robespierre’s cause. So the key question was, had an individual shown support for Robespierre and his supporters in the Paris Commune in their attempt to overthrow the government and purge the national assembly? Or did they remain loyal to the national assembly and the rule of law? Those found guilty of ‘Robespierrism’ could face expulsion from public life, imprisonment and even death at the guillotine.

Newspaper reports, political pamphlets and later memoirs invariably contain accounts of the day. Yet this was only the tip of the iceberg. A few days after the event, Paul Barras, the deputy whom the government charged with the security of the city on the night of 9 Thermidor, initiated a punctiliously thorough review of everything that had happened within each of the 48 Parisian sections on 8, 9 and 10 Thermidor.

Exit libertè a la Francois! – or – Buonaparte closing the farce of Egalitè, at St. Cloud near Paris Novr. 10th. 1799, by James Gillray (1756-1815) (public domain).

‘Gather together all details’, he instructed sectional authorities. ‘A fact that seems minor may illuminate a suspicion or lead to the discovery of a useful truth. Inform me of all orders that you gave and all that you received; but above all, be precise on the dates and the hours; you will appreciate their importance.’

(‘Recueille donc tous les détails: un fait minutieux, en apparence, éclaire un soupçon, ou conduit à la découverte d’une vérité utile. Fais-moi part de tous les ordres que tu aurois donnés, de tous ceux que tu aurois reçus; mais surtout précise les heures et les dates: tu en sens toute l’importance.’ Archives nationales W 500, dossier 4. Note the Revolutionary ‘tutoiement’.)

This call engendered nearly two hundred micro-accounts of at least part of the day from vantage points all over the city containing millions of the called-for ‘details’. Many of the individual accounts were broken down for key periods of the day into quarter-hourly chunks.

Apprehension of Robespierre 27 July 1794, engraving by Michael Sloane (active 1796-1802) after a painting by G. P. Barbier (active 1792-1795) (Gallica digital library, public domain).

Besides this capital source, the Convention also set up a special official commission to make a report on the day, which was presented in the assembly exactly a year later. And finally, literally hundreds of individual police dossiers over the next year or so also provide similar micro-accounts of episodes and moments of the day as ordinary citizens were pressed to prove their loyalism.

Most of these extremely rich sources – never before tapped by historians in quite this way – are to be found in the French National Archives, particularly in series relating to policing and judicial affairs. Taken together, they allow us to see the city in close-up during these 24 hours through a mosaic of thousands of narrative micro-fragments, as its inhabitants confronted and grappled with a decision that would affect not only their own futures but also the future of the Revolution.

Studying these accounts, collating them and analysing them at the micro-level not only gives us an extraordinarily vivid picture of a city at a pivotal moment in its history. It also allows us to present a new narrative of the day and a new analysis of what was at stake within it. What emerges – in a way that cuts against conventional narratives – is a profile of a moment at which Parisians took their political futures in their hands and overthrew Robespierre.

Researching and writing the history of these 24 hours, I have often pondered whether there is another day in the whole Revolutionary decade when we can see what was  happening up close at such a moment of drama. Indeed we might even ask: was 9 Thermidor the best-documented day in the whole of the eighteenth century?

– Colin Jones, Professor of History at Queen Mary University of London