Jean-Lambert Tallien was born in Paris on 23 January 1767 to an Italian maître d’hôtel working for the Marquis de Bercy. The Marquis noticed Tallien’s abilities, educated him, and placed him as a law clerk. He soon left the position, began working at a printer’s office, and by 1791 was overseeing the Count of Provence’s printing department.
Tallien became more well-known to revolutionaries after the King was arrested. It was then that Tallien placarded large posters on Paris walls twice a week under the title of Ami des Citoyens, journal fraternal. He also organized the Fête de la Liberté on 15 April 1792 to celebrate the release of soldiers of Chateau-Vieux.
Tall and imposing in appearance, Tallien was only 24 years old when he was elected to the National Convention in 1792. He soon took a seat on the high benches with the radical members of the Montagnards and was in the thick of everything. He promoted the insurrection on 10 August, supported the September Massacres of 1792, spearhead opposition to the King, voted for the King’s death, and helped to overthrow the Girondins.
In September 1793, after the Committee of Public Safety and the Committee of General Security were established, he and a colleague, Claude-Alexandre Ysabeau, were sent to squash resistance and establish Terror in the province of Bordeaux. They arrived in Bordeaux in October. Tallien was the more conspicuous of the two, and, with his sweeping power, he was willing to forcefully put down the resistance and subjugate Bordeaux. One nineteenth-century historian from the University of California, Berkeley wrote of him:
“He made an immense bluster over his ferocity; he took a lodging from which he could see the guillotine work, and was always talking in his speeches at the club at Bordeaux of the terror, and of the necessity to feed ‘la sainte guillotine.’”
While in Bordeaux, Tallien met a graceful woman named Theresa Cabarrus. She was a Spanish-born French noblewoman, daughter of François Cabarrus, an ethnic Basque French-born Spanish financier, and María Antonia Galabert. She was also the former wife an émigré named Marquis de Fontenay who had fled at the outbreak of the Revolution in 1790. Theresa divorced the Marquis in 1791 and then began using her maiden name Cabarrus.
In Bordeaux, Theresa’s stunning beauty captured Tallien’s attention, and although exactly how their relationship began may be in question, there is no question that they did have a relationship. Moreover, after their relationship began Tallien notably softened his stance in Bordeaux. This was demonstrated by an obvious decline in the number of people executed, which some people attribute to Theresa’s influence and kindness. In fact, many people were supposedly saved because of her, resulting in her acquiring the nickname ‘Our Lady of Thermidor’ (‘Notre-Dame de Thermidor’) or ‘Our Lady of Salvation’ (‘Notre-Dame des Bonsecours’).
Because of Tallien’s relationship with Theresa, Maximilien Robespierre heard rumors and noticed. He had the enigmatic Tallien recalled so that he could explain his actions. Tallien left Bordeaux for Paris in February, while Theresa temporarily stayed behind in Bordeaux. She then left Bordeaux during the first week of May for Orléans and then traveled to Paris. It was a risky move for her to go to Paris. This was because the Convention had earlier decreed that nobles and foreign-born persons of countries fighting against France must leave Paris. So, when she was spotted in Paris a warrant was issued, and she was arrested on the night of 30-31 May in Versailles.
Theresa was first imprisoned at La Force and then later at Carmes. She knew the ultimate result of her imprisonment would be execution, and so on 25 July (7 Thermidor), she sent Tallien a dagger and a taunting and accusatory letter about his inability to save her. She wrote, “To-morrow I go to the tribunal; I am dying of despair that I ever belonged to such a coward as you!”
As Theresa sat in prison, she was being promised her freedom if she would testify against Tallien. He and about a dozen Montagnards were in the meantime busy plotting against Robespierre. They were now fearful that he would have them guillotined, the same way he had guillotined others. Thus, before Robespierre could strike, Tallien and his friends struck. On 26 July (8 Thermidor), Robespierre gave a two-hour speech to the Convention. During his speech, he declared that conspirators existed within the very bosom of the Convention and that they must be purged to protect the republic.
Shouts then rose from the floor asking to know the names of these conspirators. Robespierre refused to name them, which was a major miscalculation on his part. It created intense fear among members of the Convention. The deputies conspiring against him were particularly fearful. Thus, they decided to act quickly and that same night they banded together and developed a plan to permanently remove Robespierre from power.
The next morning as Louis Antoine Léon de Saint-Just began to speak, Tallien interrupted him. A stunned Saint-Just stood silent as Tallien then accused Robespierre of abusing his power, being a tyrant, and creating a dictatorship of terror. Cries of support for Tallien issued forth from the floor. Robespierre tried to speak, but Tallien’s accusations reached fear pitch when he dramatically withdrew the dagger Theresa had given him and declared that he would kill Robespierre if the Convention refused to act.
Robespierre turned for support to the Montagnards. He got none and was further repulsed by deputies in the Convention. Saint-Just was then shoved from the lectern and someone demanded Robespierre and his supporters be indicted. At first faint applause was heard but it gathered momentum until applause resounded throughout the Convention. Ultimately, Robespierre, Saint-Just, and those supporting them were guillotined on 28 July 1794.
A few weeks later, on 9 September 1794 (23 Fructidor 1794), a failed assassination attempt was made against Tallien:
“Tallien, being in the Rue Quatre Fils, and on the point of entering his own house, was attacked by a man in a furred riding coat, and a round hat … [he] struck him with his fist on the breast, and then fired a pistol at him: the ball penetrated his shoulder and he fell. Several persons came up, and the assassin made his escape.”
The assassination attempt got Tallien noticed by the public. It also allowed him and his allies to attack the Jacobin clubs. They claimed that a Jacobin-terrorist plot was in the works, and they drove the Jacobin clubs out of existence. It was around this same time, on 26 December 1794, that Tallien married Theresa, who was pregnant with their daughter.
Tallien remained politically important until after the beginning of the French Directory. He became a member of the Council of the Five Hundred and Napoleon Bonaparte took him on a military expedition to Egypt in June of 1798. While there, Tallien edited the official journal, the Décade Égyptienne. When he was then sent back to France, he was captured by the British, and when he landed in London, he was well received by the Whigs and the prominent Whig statesman Charles James Fox.
By 1802, Tallien returned to France, and as he and Theresa had grown apart, they mutually agreed to divorce. He was then appointed consul at Alicante, a city and port in Spain on the Costa Blanca. He remained in that position until he caught yellow fever, lost his eyesight, and had to resign. He returned to Paris in 1815, and, five years later, on 16 November 1820, 54-year-old Tallien died in obscure poverty from leprosy.
-  Henry Morse Stephens, A History of the French Revolution v. 2 (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1891), p. 382.
-  Henri Martin, A Popular History of France from the First Revolution to the Present Time v. 1 (Boston: C. F. Jewett Publishing Company, 1877), p. 598.
-  The Lady’s Magazine: Or, Entertaining Companion for the Fair Sex XXV (London: G.G. and J. Robinson, 1794), p. 507.