Dismantling the Terror: Parliamentarianism Reasserted

In condemning Robespierre on 9 Thermidor, the Convention deputies did not necessarily intend to end the Terror as much as prevent Robespierre and his followers from turning it on them. Yet in the weeks and months that followed, it became clear that Thermidor had been a turning point away from "revolutionary government" and toward a revival of procedural, parliamentary politics. In this passage from the memoirs of a Thermidorean Convention deputy named Pierre–Toussaint Durand–Maillane, we see how it once again become politically feasible to express differences of opinion without fear of being brought before a Revolutionary Tribunal. Note the expectation that people are "weak beings" who cannot be, as Robespierre had demanded, constantly virtuous or spontaneously aligned with the "general will."


At that time, counting on the new principles of the National Convention, I thought I would be able to take advantage of the circumstances and go up to the rostrum to deliver a legitimate criticism of the Montagnards for their disgraceful practices towards the "people's appellate" (i.e., in the trial of Louis XVI), and towards the Nation's representatives who they had stifled. They suspected my intentions when they saw me at the rostrum, where no deputy from the Right had appeared in a long time. They did not want to hear me. But times had changed, and I forced them to give me the floor. My speech, which was nothing more that a motion calling for the freedom of opinion, was delivered on 4 Fructidor, Year II [21 August 1794], a little more than three weeks after the fall of Robespierre. I gave them nothing that they could use against me. I made them listen, however, to the truths that reminded several Montagnards how unjust a persecution is that can lead to the gallows simply for having an opinion. This reprimand was taken to heart, since Bentabolle, during this same session, took the floor and said: "Among the opinions offered to the Tribunal, I noticed Durand-Maillane's, for which I request that he give us a report. Every honest man should want that the freedom of opinion never be jeopardized by unproven charges or invective. We should not swear at men whom we look upon as 'weak beings' in order to shackle the opinions that they only want to express for the good of the People. If someone here believes that they should make a serious reproach toward one of his colleagues, let him explain himself and stipulate the facts, not just offer insults. Let the accused be heard, and let us not seek to make people fear from threats. Only the conspirators should be afraid." [Excited applause.] This is what is written in the Journal of Debate on the session of 4 Fructidor, Year II.

Bentabolle's proposition requesting a report on my motion was rightfully argued against, since the freedom of opinion is the right of a representative of the people, and that without this freedom, the entire State would be oppressed. Also, far from wanting either a report or a decree on this matter, I proposed that only those who were against this sacred right receive a punishment. In addition, Bentabolle's language made it clear how the Montagnards judged the silence of their colleagues on their right. They called them the "weak beings," a name which, if they were right, was a serious charge against us, since we were sent by the Nation to uphold its interests. To neglect those interests, or sacrifice them through weakness, would have been a real failure to do our duty. But we only had the appearance of weakness, because, not being able to fight the follies of the Mountain under pain of death, our inertia was but a great strength. We preferred the dangers, the disrespect, the humiliations with which we were bombarded, than giving in to being accomplices of the Mountain for our own safety. Nothing was easier for us than to line up in the reassuring ranks of our dominators. But the price to pay for this peace was worse than death. . . . There was, in the space that separated the Right from the Mountain, a spot in the hall that was called "the stomach." Those that sat there were not of the Right, they did not share in our humiliations, but neither did they have the courage to disprove the evil done by the left side by sitting so close. They had nonetheless the silly pride to call themselves wiser that those on their right, even though they were less courageous, and alone deserved the name "weak beings."

Source: Mathurin de Lescure, ed., Mémoires sur les assemblées parlementaires de la révolution, 2 vols. (Paris: Firmin-Didot et cie, 1881), 2:410–13. Translated by Exploring the French Revolution project staff from original documents in French found in John Hardman, French Revolution Documents 1792–95, vol. 2 (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1973), 263–64.