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Title: Critical Miscellanies (Vol. 1 of 3) - Essay 1: Robespierre
Author: Morley, John, 1838-1923
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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VOL. I. Essay 1: Robespierre






Introduction                                                        1

Different views of Robespierre                                      4

His youthful history                                                5

An advocate at Arras                                                7

Acquaintance with Carnot                                           10

The summoning of the States-General                                11

Prophecies of revolution                                           12

Reforming Ministers tried and dismissed                            13

Financial state of France                                          14

Impotence of the Monarchy                                          17

The Constituent Assembly                                           19

Robespierre interprets the revolutionary movement rightly          21

The Sixth of October 1789                                          23

Alteration in Robespierre's position                               25

Character of Louis XVI.                                            28

And of Marie Antoinette                                            29

The Constitution and Robespierre's mark upon it                    34

Instability of the new arrangements                                37

Importance of Jacobin ascendancy                                   41

The Legislative Assembly                                           42

Robespierre's power at the Jacobin Club                            44

His oratory                                                        45

The true secret of his popularity                                  48

Aggravation of the crisis in the spring of 1792                    50

The Tenth of August 1792                                           52

Danton                                                             53

Compared with Robespierre                                          55

Robespierre compared with Marat and with Sieyès                    57

Character of the Terror                                            58


Fall of the Girondins indispensable                                60

France in desperate peril                                          61

The Committee of Public Safety                                     65

At the Tuileries                                                   67

The contending factions                                            70

Reproduced an older conflict of theories                           72

Robespierre's attitude                                             73

The Hébertists                                                     77

Chaumette and his fundamental error                                80

Robespierre and the atheists                                       82

His bitterness towards Anacharsis Clootz                           86

New turn of events (March 1794)                                    90

First breach in the Jacobin ranks: the Hébertists                  90

Robespierre's abandonment of Danton                                91

Second breach: the Dantonians (April 1794)                         95

Another reminiscence of this date                                  97

Robespierre's relations to the Committees changed                  98

The Feast of the Supreme Being                                    101

Its false philosophy                                              103

And political inanity                                             104

The Law of Prairial                                               106

Robespierre's motive in devising it                               107

It produces the Great Terror                                      109

Robespierre's chagrin at its miscarriage                          112

His responsibility not to be denied                               112

  (1) Affair of Catherine Théot                                   113

        "       Cécile Renault                                    114

  (2) Robespierre stimulated popular commissions                  115

The drama of Thermidor: the combatants                            117

Its conditions                                                    118

The Eighth Thermidor                                              119

Inefficiency of Robespierre's speech                              121

The Ninth Thermidor                                               123

Famous scene in the Convention                                    125

Robespierre a prisoner                                            127

Struggle between the Convention and the Commune                   129

Death of Robespierre                                              131

Ultimate issue of the struggle between the Committees
and the Convention                                                132



A French writer has recently published a careful and interesting volume
on the famous events which ended in the overthrow of Robespierre and the
close of the Reign of Terror.[1] These events are known in the historic
calendar as the Revolution of Thermidor in the Year II. After the fall
of the monarchy, the Convention decided that the year should begin with
the autumnal equinox, and that the enumeration should date from the
birth of the Republic. The Year I. opens on September 22, 1792; the Year
II. opens on the same day of 1793. The month of Thermidor begins on July
19. The memorable Ninth Thermidor therefore corresponds to July 27,
1794. This has commonly been taken as the date of the commencement of a
counter-revolution, and in one sense it was so. Comte, however, and
others have preferred to fix the reaction at the execution of Danton
(April 5, 1794), or Robespierre's official proclamation of Deism in the
Festival of the Supreme Being (May 7, 1794).

[Footnote 1: _La Révolution de Thermidor_. Par Ch. D'Héricault. Paris:
Didier, 1876.]

M. D'Héricault does not belong to the school of writers who treat the
course of history as a great high road, following a firmly traced line,
and set with plain and ineffaceable landmarks. The French Revolution has
nearly always been handled in this way, alike by those who think it
fruitful in blessings, and by their adversaries, who pronounce it a
curse inflicted by the wrath of Heaven. Historians have looked at the
Revolution as a plain landsman looks at the sea. To the landsman the
ocean seems one huge immeasurable flood, obeying a simple law of ebb and
flow, and offering to the navigator a single uniform force. Yet in truth
we know that the oceanic movement is the product of many forces; the
seeming uniformity covers the energy of a hundred currents and
counter-currents; the sea-floor is not even nor the same, but is subject
to untold conditions of elevation and subsidence; the sea is not one
mass, but many masses moving along definite lines of their own. It is
the same with the great tides of history. Wise men shrink from summing
them up in single propositions. That the French Revolution led to an
immense augmentation of happiness, both for the French and for mankind,
can only be denied by the Pope. That it secured its beneficent results
untempered by any mixture of evil, can only be maintained by men as mad
as Doctor Pangloss. The Greek poetess Corinna said to the youthful
Pindar, when he had interwoven all the gods and goddesses in the Theban
mythology into a single hymn, that we should sow with the hand and not
with the sack. Corinna's monition to the singer is proper to the
interpreter of historical truth: he should cull with the hand, and not
sweep in with the scythe. It is doubtless mere pedantry to abstain from
the widest conception of the sum of a great movement. A clear, definite,
and stable idea of the meaning in the history of human progress of such
vast groups of events as the Reformation or the Revolution, is
indispensable for any one to whom history is a serious study of society.
It is just as important, however, not to forget that they were really
groups of events, and not in either case a single uniform movement. The
World-Epos is after all only a file of the morning paper in a state of
glorification. A sensible man learns, in everyday life, to abstain from
praising and blaming character by wholesale; he becomes content to say
of this trait that it is good, and of that act that it was bad. So in
history, we become unwilling to join or to admire those who insist upon
transferring their sentiment upon the whole to their judgment upon each
part. We seek to be allowed to retain a decided opinion as to the final
value to mankind of a long series of transactions, and yet not to commit
ourselves to set the same estimate on each transaction in particular,
still less on each person associated with it. Why shall we not prize the
general results of the Reformation, without being obliged to defend John
of Leyden and the Munster Anabaptists?

M. D'Héricault's volume naturally suggests such reflections as these. Of
all the men of the Revolution, Robespierre has suffered most from the
audacious idolatry of some writers, and the splenetic impatience of
others. M. Louis Blanc and M. Ernest Hamel talk of him as an angel or a
prophet, and the Ninth Thermidor is a red day indeed in their
martyrology. Michelet and M. D'Héricault treat him as a mixture of
Cagliostro and Caligula, both a charlatan and a miscreant. We are
reminded of the commencement of an address of the French Senate to the
first Bonaparte: 'Sire,' they began, 'the desire for perfection is one
of the worst maladies that can afflict the human mind.' This bold
aphorism touches one of the roots of the judgments we pass both upon men
and events. It is because people so irrationally think fit to insist
upon perfection, that Robespierre's admirers would fain deny that he
ever had a fault, and the tacit adoption of the same impracticable
standard makes it easier for Robespierre's wholesale detractors to deny
that he had a single virtue or performed a single service. The point of
view is essentially unfit for history. The real subject of history is
the improvement of social arrangements, and no conspicuous actor in
public affairs since the world began saw the true direction of
improvement with an absolutely unerring eye from the beginning of his
career to the end. It is folly for the historian, as it is for the
statesman, to strain after the imaginative unity of the dramatic
creator. Social progress is an affair of many small pieces and slow
accretions, and the interest of historic study lies in tracing, amid the
immense turmoil of events and through the confusion of voices, the
devious course of the sacred torch, as it shifts from bearer to bearer.
And it is not the bearers who are most interesting, but the torch.

       *       *       *       *       *

In the old Flemish town of Arras, known in the diplomatic history of the
fifteenth century by a couple of important treaties, and famous in the
industrial history of the Middle Ages for its pre-eminence in the
manufacture of the most splendid kind of tapestry hangings, Maximilian
Robespierre was born in May 1758. He was therefore no more than five and
thirty years old when he came to his ghastly end in 1794. His father was
a lawyer, and, though the surname of the family had the prefix of
nobility, they belonged to the middle class. When this decorative prefix
became dangerous, Maximilian Derobespierre dropped it. His great rival,
Danton, was less prudent or less fortunate, and one of the charges made
against him was that he had styled himself Monsieur D'Anton.

Robespierre's youth was embittered by sharp misfortune. His mother died
when he was only seven years old, and his father had so little courage
under the blow that he threw up his practice, deserted his children, and
died in purposeless wanderings through Germany. The burden that the weak
and selfish throw down, must be taken up by the brave. Friendly
kinsfolk charged themselves with the maintenance of the four orphans.
Maximilian was sent to the school of the town, whence he proceeded with
a sizarship to the college of Louis-le-Grand in Paris. He was an apt and
studious pupil, but austere, and disposed to that sombre cast of spirits
which is common enough where a lad of some sensibility and much
self-esteem finds himself stamped with a badge of social inferiority.
Robespierre's worshippers love to dwell on his fondness for birds: with
the universal passion of mankind for legends of the saints, they tell
how the untimely death of a favourite pigeon afflicted him with anguish
so poignant, that, even sixty long years after, it made his sister's
heart ache to look back upon the pain of that tragic moment. Always a
sentimentalist, Robespierre was from boyhood a devout enthusiast for the
great high priest of the sentimental tribe. Rousseau was then passing
the last squalid days of his life among the meadows and woods at
Ermenonville. Robespierre, who could not have been more than twenty at
the time, for Rousseau died in the summer of 1778, is said to have gone
on a reverential pilgrimage in search of an oracle from the lonely sage,
as Boswell and as Gibbon and a hundred others had gone before him.
Rousseau was wont to use his real adorers as ill as he used his
imaginary enemies. Robespierre may well have shared the discouragement
of the enthusiastic father who informed Rousseau that he was about to
bring up his son on the principles of _Emilius_. 'Then so much the
worse,' cried the perverse philosopher, 'both for you and your son.' If
he had been endowed with second sight, he would have thought at least as
rude a presage due to this last and most ill-starred of a whole
generation of neophytes.

In 1781 Robespierre returned to Arras, and amid the welcome of his
relatives and the good hopes of friends began the practice of an
advocate. For eight years he led an active and seemly life. He was not
wholly pure from that indiscretion of the young appetite, about which
the world is mute, but whose better ordering and governance would give a
diviner brightness to the earth. Still, if he did not escape the ordeal
of youth, Robespierre was frugal, laborious, and persevering. His
domestic amiability made him the delight of his sister, and his zealous
self-sacrifice for the education and advancement in life of his younger
brother was afterwards repaid by Augustin Robespierre's devotion through
all the fierce and horrible hours of Thermidor. Though cold in
temperament, extremely reserved in manners, and fond of industrious
seclusion, Robespierre did not disdain the social diversions of the
town. He was a member of a reunion of Rosati, who sang madrigals and
admired one another's bad verses. Those who love the ironical surprises
of fate, may picture the young man who was doomed to play so terrible a
part in terrible affairs, going through the harmless follies of a
ceremonial reception by the Rosati, taking three deep breaths over a
rose, solemnly fastening the emblem to his coat, emptying a glass of
rose-red wine at a draught to the good health of the company, and
finally reciting couplets that Voltaire would have found almost as
detestable as the Law of Prairial or the Festival of the Supreme Being.
More laudable efforts of ambition were prize essays, in which
Robespierre has the merit of taking the right side in important
questions. He protested against the inhumanity of laws that inflicted
civil infamy upon the innocent family of a convicted criminal. And he
protested against the still more horrid cruelty which reduced
unfortunate children born out of wedlock to something like the status of
the mediæval serf. Robespierre's compositions at this time do not rise
above the ordinary level of declaiming mediocrity, but they promised a
manhood of benignity and enlightenment. To compose prize essays on
political reforms was better than to ignore or to oppose political
reform. But the course of events afterwards owed their least desirable
bias to the fact that such compositions were the nearest approach to
political training that so many of the revolutionary leaders underwent.
One is inclined to apply to practical politics Arthur Young's sensible
remark about the endeavour of the French to improve the quality of their
wool: 'A cultivator at the head of a sheep-farm of 3000 or 4000 acres,
would in a few years do more for their wools than all the academicians
and philosophers will effect in ten centuries.'

In his profession he distinguished himself in one or two causes of local
celebrity. An innovating citizen had been ordered by the authorities to
remove a lightning-conductor from his house within three days, as being
a mischievous practical paradox, as well as a danger and an annoyance to
his neighbours. Robespierre pleaded the innovator's case on appeal, and
won it. He defended a poor woman who had been wrongfully accused by a
monk belonging to the powerful corporation of a great neighbouring
abbey. The young advocate did not even shrink from manfully arguing a
case against the august Bishop of Arras himself. His independence did
him no harm. The Bishop afterwards appointed him to the post of judge or
legal assessor in the episcopal court. This tribunal was a remnant of
what had once been the sovereign authority and jurisdiction of the
Bishops of Arras. That a court with the power of life and death should
thus exist by the side of a proper corporation of civil magistrates, is
an illustration of the inextricable labyrinth of the French law and its
administration on the eve of the Revolution. Robespierre did not hold
his office long. Every one has heard the striking story, how the young
judge, whose name was within half a dozen years to take a place in the
popular mind of France and of Europe with the bloodiest monsters of myth
or history, resigned his post in a fit of remorse after condemning a
murderer to be executed. 'He is a criminal, no doubt,' Robespierre kept
groaning in reply to the consolations of his sister, for women are more
positive creatures than men: 'a criminal, no doubt; but to put a man to
death!' Many a man thus begins the great voyage with queasy
sensibilities, and ends it a cannibal.

Among Robespierre's associates in the festive mummeries of the Rosati
was a young officer of Engineers, who was destined to be his colleague
in the dread Committee of Public Safety, and to leave an important name
in French history. In the garrison of Arras, Carnot was quartered,--that
iron head, whose genius for the administrative organisation of war
achieved even greater things for the new republic than the genius of
Louvois had achieved for the old monarchy. Carnot surpassed not only
Louvois, but perhaps all other names save one in modern military
history, by uniting to the most powerful gifts for organisation, both
the strategic talent that planned the momentous campaign of 1794, and
the splendid personal energy and skill that prolonged the defence of
Antwerp against the allied army in 1814 Partisans dream of the
unrivalled future of peace, glory, and freedom that would have fallen to
the lot of France, if only the gods had brought about a hearty union
between the military genius of Carnot and the political genius of
Robespierre. So, no doubt, after the restoration of Charles II. in
England, there were good men who thought that all would have gone very
differently, if only the genius of the great creator of the Ironsides
had taken counsel with the genius of Venner, the Fifth-Monarchy Man, and
Feak, the Anabaptist prophet.

The time was now come when such men as Robespierre were to be tried with
fire, when they were to drink the cup of fury and the dregs of the cup
of trembling. Sybils and prophets have already spoken their inexorable
decree, as Goethe has said, on the day that first gives the man to the
world; no time and no might can break the stamped mould of his
character; only as life wears on, do all its aforeshapen lines come into
light. He is launched into a sea of external conditions, that are as
independent of his own will as the temperament with which he confronts
them. It is action that tries, and variation of circumstance. The leaden
chains of use bind many an ugly unsuspected prisoner in the soul; and
when the habit of their lives has been sundered, the most immaculate are
capable of antics beyond prevision. A great crisis of the world was
prepared for Robespierre and those others, his allies or his destroyers,
who with him came like the lightning and went like the wind.

At the end of 1788 the King of France found himself forced to summon the
States-General. It was their first assembly since 1614. On the memorable
Fourth of May, 1789, Robespierre appeared at Versailles as one of the
representatives of the third estate of his native province of Artois.
The excitement and enthusiasm of the elections to this renowned
assembly, the immense demands and boundless expectations that they
disclosed, would have warned a cool observer of events, if in that
heated air a cool observer could have been found, that the hour had
struck for the fulfilment of those grim apprehensions of revolution that
had risen in the minds of many shrewd men, good and bad, in the course
of the previous half century. No great event in history ever comes
wholly unforeseen. The antecedent causes are so wide-reaching, many, and
continuous, that their direction is always sure to strike the eye of one
or more observers in all its significance. Lewis the Fifteenth, whose
invincible weariness and heavy disgust veiled a penetrating discernment,
measured accurately the scope of the conflict between the crown and the
parlements: but, said he, things as they are will last my time. Under
the roof of his own palace at Versailles, in the apartment of Madame de
Pompadour's famous physician, one of Quesnai's economic disciples had
cried out, 'The realm is in a sore way; it will never be cured without a
great internal commotion; but woe to those who have to do with it; into
such work the French go with no slack hand.' Rousseau, in a passage in
the Confessions, not only divines a speedy convulsion, but with striking
practical sagacity enumerates the political and social causes that were
unavoidably drawing France to the edge of the abyss. Lord Chesterfield,
so different a man from Rousseau, declared as early as 1752, that he saw
in France every symptom that history had taught him to regard as the
forerunner of deep change; before the end of the century, so his
prediction ran, both the trade of king and the trade of priest in France
would be shorn of half their glory. D'Argenson in the same year declared
a revolution inevitable, and with a curious precision of anticipation
assured himself that if once the necessity arose of convoking the
States-General, they would not assemble in vain: _qu'on y prenne, garde!
ils seraient fort sérieux!_ Oliver Goldsmith, idly wandering through
France, towards 1755, discerned in the mutinous attitude of the judicial
corporations, that the genius of freedom was entering the kingdom in
disguise, and that a succession of three weak monarchs would end in the
emancipation of the people of France. The most touching of all these
presentiments is to be found in a private letter of the great Empress,
the mother of Marie Antoinette herself. Maria Theresa describes the
ruined state of the French monarchy, and only prays that if it be doomed
to ruin still more utter, at least the blame may not fall upon her
daughter. The Empress had not learnt that when the giants of social
force are advancing from the sombre shadow of the past, with the thunder
and the hurricane in their hands, our poor prayers are of no more avail
than the unbodied visions of a dream.

The old popular assembly of the realm was not resorted to before every
means of dispensing with so drastic a remedy had been tried. Historians
sometimes write as if Turgot were the only able and reforming minister
of the century. God forbid that we should put any other minister on a
level with that high and beneficent figure. But Turgot was not the first
statesman, both able and patriotic, who had been disgraced for want of
compliance with the conditions of success at court; he was only the last
of a series. Chauvelin, a man of vigour and capacity, was dismissed
with ignominy in 1736. Machault, a reformer, at once courageous and
wise, shared the same fate twenty years later; and in his case
revolution was as cruel and as heedless as reaction, for, at the age of
ninety-one, the old man was dragged, blind and deaf, before the
revolutionary tribunal and thence despatched to the guillotine. Between
Chauvelin and Machault, the elder D'Argenson, who was greater than
either of them, had been raised to power, and then speedily hurled down
from it (1747), for no better reason than that his manners were uncouth,
and that he would not waste his time in frivolities that were as the
breath of life in the great gallery at Versailles and on the
smooth-shaven lawns of Fontainebleau.

Not only had wise counsellors been tried; consultative assemblies had
been tried also. Necker had been dismissed in 1781, after publishing the
memorable Report which first initiated the nation in the elements of
financial knowledge. The disorder waxed greater, and the monarchy drew
nearer to bankruptcy each year. The only modern parallel to the state of
things in France under Lewis the Sixteenth is to be sought in the state
of things in Egypt or in Turkey. Lewis the Fourteenth had left a debt of
between two and three thousand millions of livres, but this had been
wiped out by the heroic operations of Law; operations, by the way, which
have never yet been scientifically criticised. But the debt soon grew
again, by foolish wars, by the prodigality of the court, and by the
rapacity of the nobles. It amounted in 1789 to something like two
hundred and forty millions sterling; and it is interesting to notice
that this was exactly the sum of the public debt of Great Britain at the
same time. The year's excess of expenditure over receipts in 1774 was
about fifty millions of livres: in 1787 it was one hundred and forty
millions, or according to a different computation even two hundred
millions. The material case was not at all desperate, if only the court
had been less infatuated, and the spirit of the privileged orders had
been less blind and less vile. The fatality of the situation lay in the
characters of a handful of men and women. For France was abundant in
resources, and even at this moment was far from unprosperous, in spite
of the incredible trammels of law and custom. An able financier, with
the support of a popular chamber and the assent of the sovereign, could
have had no difficulty in restoring the public credit. But the
conditions, simple as they might seem to a patriot or to posterity, were
unattainable so long as power remained with a caste that were anything
we please except patriots. An Assembly of Notables was brought together,
but it was only the empty phantasm of national representation. Yet the
situation was so serious that even this body, of arbitrary origin as it
was, still was willing to accept vital reforms. The privileged order,
who were then as their descendants are now, the worst conservative party
in Europe, immediately persuaded the magisterial corporation to resist
the Notables. The judicial corporation or Parlement of Paris had been
suppressed under Lewis the Fifteenth, and unfortunately revived again at
the accession of his grandson. By the inconvenient constitution of the
French government, the assent of that body was indispensable to fiscal
legislation, on the ground that such legislation was part of the general
police of the realm. The king's minister, now Loménie de Brienne,
devised a new judicial constitution. But the churchmen, the nobles, and
the lawyers all united in protestations against such a blow. The common
people are not always the best judges of a remedy for the evils under
which they are the greatest sufferers, and they broke out in disorder
both in Paris and the provinces. They discerned an attack upon their
local independence. Nobody would accept office in the new courts, and
the administration of justice was at a standstill. A loan was thrown
upon the market, but the public could not be persuaded to take it up. It
was impossible to collect the taxes. The interest on the national debt
was unpaid, and the fundholder was dismayed and exasperated by an
announcement that only two-fifths would be discharged in cash. A very
large part of the national debt was held in the form of annuities for
lives, and men who had invested their savings on the credit of the
government, saw themselves left without a provision. The total number of
fundholders cannot be ascertained with any precision, but it must have
been very considerable, especially in Paris and the other great cities.
Add to these all the civil litigants in the kingdom, who had portions of
their property virtually sequestrated by the suspension of the courts
into which the property had been taken. The resentment of this immense
body of defrauded public creditors and injured private suitors explains
the alienation of the middle class from the monarchy. In the convulsions
of our own time, the moneyed interests have been on one side, and the
population without money on the other. But in the first and greatest
convulsion, those who had nothing to lose found their animosities shared
by those who had had something to lose, and had lost it.

Deliberative assemblies, then, had been tried, and ministers had been
tried; both had failed, and there was no other device left, except one
which was destructive to absolute monarchy. Lewis the Sixteenth was in
1789 in much the same case as that of the King of England in 1640.
Charles had done his best to raise money without any parliament for
twelve years: he had lost patience with the Short Parliament; finally,
he was driven without choice or alternative to face as he best could the
stout resolution and the wise patriotism of the Long Parliament. Men
sometimes wonder how it was that Lewis, when he came to find the
National Assembly unmanageable, and discovering how rapidly he was
drifting towards the thunders of the revolutionary cataract, did not
break up a Chamber over which neither the court, nor even a minister so
popular as Necker, had the least control. It is a question whether the
sword would not have broken in his hand. Even supposing, however, that
the army would have consented to a violent movement against the
Assembly, the King would still have been left in the same desperate
straits from which he had looked to the States-General to extricate him.
He might perhaps have dispersed the Assembly; he could not disperse debt
and deficit. Those monsters would have haunted him as implacably as
ever. There was no new formula of exorcism, nor any untried enchantment.
The success of violent designs against the National Assembly, had
success been possible, could, after all, have been followed by no other
consummation than the relapse of France into the raging anarchy of
Poland, or the sullen decrepitude of Turkey.

This will seem to some persons no better than fatalism. But, in truth,
there are two popular ways of reading the history of events between 1789
and 1794, and each of them seems to us as bad as the other. According to
one, whatever happened in the Revolution was good and admirable, because
it happened. According to the other, something good and admirable was
always attainable, and, if only bad men had not interposed, always ready
to happen. Of course, the only sensible view is that many of the
revolutionary solutions were detestable, but no other solution was
within reach. This is undoubtedly the best of possible worlds; if the
best is not so good as we could wish, that is the fault of the
possibilities. Such a doctrine is neither fatalism nor optimism, but an
honest recognition of long chains of cause and effect in human affairs.

The great gathering of chosen men was first called States-General; then
it called itself National Assembly; it is commonly known in history as
the Constituent Assembly. The name is of ironical association, for the
constitution which it framed after much travail endured for no more than
a few months. Its deliberations lasted from May 1789 until September
1791. Among its members were three principal groups. There was, first, a
band of blind adherents of the old system of government with all or most
of its abuses. Second, there was a Centre of timid and one-eyed men, who
were for transforming the old absolutist system into something that
should resemble the constitution of our own country. Finally, there was
a Left, with some differences of shade, but all agreeing in the
necessity of a thorough remodelling of every institution and most of the
usages of the country. 'Silence, you thirty votes!' cried Mirabeau one
day, when he was interrupted by the dissents of the Mountain. This was
the original measure of the party that in the twinkling of an eye was to
wield the destinies of France. In our own time we have wondered at the
rapidity with which a Chamber that was one day on the point of bringing
back the grandnephew of Lewis the Sixteenth, found itself a little later
voting that Republic which has since been ratified by the nation, and
has at this moment the ardent good wishes of every enlightened
politician in Europe. In the same way it is startling to think that
within three years of the beheading of Lewis the Sixteenth, there was
probably not one serious republican in the representative assembly of
France. Yet it is always so. We might make just the same remark of the
House of Commons at Westminster in 1640, and of the Assembly of
Massachusetts or of New York as late as 1770. The final flash of a long
unconscious train of thought or intent is ever a surprise and a shock.
It is a mistake to set these swift changes down to political levity;
they were due rather to quickness of political intuition. It was the
King's attempt at flight in the summer of 1791 that first created a
republican party. It was that unhappy exploit, and no theoretical
preferences, that awoke France to the necessity of choosing between the
sacrifice of monarchy and the restoration of territorial aristocracy.

Political intuition was never one of Robespierre's conspicuous gifts.
But he had a doctrine that for a certain time served the same purpose.
Rousseau had kindled in him a fervid democratic enthusiasm, and had
penetrated his mind with the principle of the Sovereignty of the People.
This famous dogma contained implicitly within it the more indisputable
truth that a society ought to be regulated with a view to the happiness
of the people. Such a principle made it easier for Robespierre to
interpret rightly the first phases of the revolutionary movement. It
helped him to discern that the concentrated physical force of the
populace was the only sure protection against a civil war. And if a
civil war had broken out in 1789, instead of 1793, all the advantages of
authority would have been against the popular party. The first
insurrection of Paris is associated with the harangue of Camille
Desmoulins at the Palais Royal, with the fall of the Bastille, with the
murder of the governor, and a hundred other scenes of melodramatic
horror and the blood-red picturesque. The insurrection of the Fourteenth
of July 1789 taught Robespierre a lesson of practical politics, which
exactly fitted in with his previous theories. In his resentment against
the oppressive disorder of monarchy and feudalism, he had accepted the
counter principle that the people can do no wrong, and nobody of sense
now doubts that in their first great act the people of Paris did what
was right. Six days after the fall of the Bastille, the Centre were for
issuing a proclamation denouncing popular violence and ordering rigorous
vigilance. Robespierre was then so little known in the Assembly that
even his name was usually misspelt in the journals. From his obscure
bench on the Mountain he cried out with bitter vehemence against the
proposed proclamation:--'Revolt! But this revolt is liberty. The battle
is not at its end. Tomorrow, it may be, the shameful designs against us
will be renewed; and who will there then be to repulse them, if
beforehand we declare the very men to be rebels, who have rushed to
arms for our protection and safety?' This was the cardinal truth of the
situation. Everybody knows Mirabeau's saying about Robespierre:--'That
man will go far: he believes every word that he says!' This is much, but
it is only half. It is not only that the man of power believes what he
says; what he believes must fit in with the facts and with the demands
of the time. Now Robespierre's firmness of conviction happened at this
stage to be rightly matched by his clearness of sight.

It is true that a passionate mob, its unearthly admixture of laughter
with fury, of vacancy with deadly concentration, is as terrible as some
uncouth antediluvian, or the unfamiliar monsters of the sea, or one of
the giant plants that make men shudder with mysterious fear. The history
of our own country in the eighteenth century tells of the riots against
meeting-houses in Doctor Sacheverell's time, and the riots against
papists and their abettors in Lord George Gordon's time, and
Church-and-King riots in Doctor Priestley's time. It would be too
daring, therefore, to maintain that the rabble of the poor have any more
unerring political judgment than the rabble of the opulent. But, in
France in 1789, Robespierre was justified in saying that revolt meant
liberty. If there had been no revolt in July, the court party would have
had time to mature their infatuated designs of violence against the
Assembly. In October these designs had come to life again. The royalists
at Versailles had exultant banquets, at which, in the presence of the
Queen, they drank confusion to all patriots, and trampled the new emblem
of freedom passionately underfoot. The news of this odious folly soon
travelled to Paris. Its significance was speedily understood by a
populace whose wits were sharpened by famine. Thousands of fire-eyed
women and men tramped intrepidly out towards Versailles. If they had
done less, the Assembly would have been dispersed or arbitrarily
decimated, even though such a measure would certainly have left the
government in desperation.

At that dreadful moment of the Sixth of October, amid the slaughter of
guards and the frantic yells of hatred against the Queen, it is no
wonder that some were found to urge the King to flee to Metz. If he had
accepted the advice, the course of the Revolution would have been
different; but its march would have been just as irresistible, for
revolution lay in the force of a hundred combined circumstances. Lewis,
however, rejected these counsels, and suffered the mob to carry him in
bewildering procession to his capital and his prison. That great man who
was watching French affairs with such consuming eagerness from distant
Beaconsfield in our English Buckinghamshire, instantly divined that this
procession from Versailles to the Tuileries marked the fall of the
monarchy. 'A revolution in sentiment, manners, and moral opinions, the
most important of all revolutions in a word,' was in Burke's judgment to
be dated from the Sixth of October 1789.

The events of that day did, indeed, give its definite cast to the
situation. The moral authority of the sovereign came to an end, along
with the ancient and reverend mystery of the inviolability of his
person. The Count d'Artois, the King's second brother, one of the most
worthless of human beings, as incurably addicted to sinister and
suicidal counsels in 1789 as he was when he overthrew his own throne
forty years later, had run away from peril and from duty after the
insurrection of July. After the insurrection of October, a troop of the
nobles of the court followed him. The personal cowardice of the
Emigrants was only matched by their political blindness. Many of the
most unwise measures in the Assembly were only passed by small
majorities, and the majorities would have been transformed into
minorities, if in the early days of the Revolution these unworthy men
had only stood firm at their posts. Selfish oligarchies have scarcely
ever been wanting in courage. The emigrant noblesse of France are almost
the only instance of a great privileged and territorial caste that had
as little bravery as they had patriotism. The explanation is that they
had been an oligarchy, not of power or duty, but of self-indulgence.
They were crushed by Richelieu to secure the unity of the monarchy. They
now effaced themselves at the Revolution, and this secured that far
greater object, the unity of the nation.

The disappearance of so many of the nobles from France was not the only
abdication on the part of the conservative powers. Cowed and terrified
by the events of October, no less than three hundred members of the
Assembly sought to resign. The average attendance even at the most
important sittings was often incredibly small. Thus the Chamber came to
have little more moral authority in face of the people of Paris than had
the King himself. The people of Paris had themselves become in a day the
masters of France.

This immense change led gradually to a decisive alteration in the
position of Robespierre. He found the situation of affairs at last
falling into perfect harmony with his doctrine. Rousseau had taught him
that the people ought to be sovereign, and now the people were being
recognised as sovereign _de facto_ no less than _de jure_. Any
limitations on the new divine right united the horror of blasphemy to
the secular wickedness of political treason. After the Assembly had come
to Paris, a famishing mob in a moment of mad fury murdered an
unfortunate baker, who was suspected of keeping back bread. These
paroxysms led to the enactment of a new martial law. Robespierre spoke
vehemently against it; such a law implied a wrongful distrust of the
people. Then discussions followed as to the property qualification of an
elector. Citizens were classed as active and passive. Only those were to
have votes who paid direct taxes to the amount of three days' wages in
the year. Robespierre flung himself upon this too famous distinction
with bitter tenacity. If all men are equal, he cried, then all men
ought to have votes: if he who only pays the amount of one day's work,
has fewer rights than another who pays the amount of three days, why
should not the man who pays ten days have more rights than the other who
only pays the earnings of three days? This kind of reasoning had little
weight with the Chamber, but it made the reasoner very popular with the
throng in the galleries. Even within the Assembly, influence gradually
came to the man who had a parcel of immutable axioms and postulates, and
who was ready with a deduction and a phrase for each case as it arose.
He began to stand out like a needle of sharp rock, amid the flitting
shadows of uncertain purpose and the vapoury drift of wandering aims.

Robespierre had no social conception, and he had nothing which can be
described as a policy. He was the prophet of a sect, and had at this
period none of the aims of the chief of a political party. What he had
was democratic doctrine, and an intrepid logic. And Robespierre's
intrepid logic was the nearest approach to calm force and coherent
character that the first three years of the Revolution brought into
prominence. When the Assembly met, Necker was the popular idol. Almost
within a few weeks, this well-meaning, but very incompetent divinity had
slipped from his throne, and Lafayette had taken his place. Mirabeau
came next. The ardent and animated genius of his eloquence fitted him
above all men to ride the whirlwind and direct the storm. And on the
memorable Twenty-third of June '89, he had shown the genuine audacity
and resource of a revolutionary statesman, when he stirred the Chamber
to defy the King's demand, and hailed the royal usher with the
resounding words:--'You, sir, have neither place nor right of speech. Go
tell those who sent you that we are here by the will of the people, and
only bayonets shall drive us hence!' But Mirabeau bore a tainted
character, and was always distrusted. 'Ah, how the immorality of my
youth,' he used to say, in words that sum up the tragedy of many a
puissant life, 'how the immorality of my youth hinders the public good!'
The event proved that the popular suspicion was just: the patriot is now
no longer merely suspected, but known, to have sullied his hands with
the money of the court. He did not sell himself, it has been said; he
allowed himself to be paid. The distinction was too subtle for men doing
battle for their lives and for freedom, and Mirabeau's popularity waned
towards the middle of 1790. The next favourite was Barnave, the generous
and high-minded spokesman of those sanguine spirits who to the very end
hoped against hope to save both the throne and its occupant. By the
spring of 1791 Barnave followed his predecessors into disfavour. The
Assembly was engaged on the burning question of the government of the
colonies. Were the negro slaves to be admitted to citizenship, or was a
legislature of planters to be entrusted with the task of social
reformation? Our own generation has seen in the republic of the West
what strife this political difficulty is capable of raising. Barnave
pronounced against the negroes. Robespierre, on the contrary, declaimed
against any limitation of the right of the negro, as a compromise with
the avarice, pride, and cruelty of a governing race, and a guilty
trafficking with the rights of man. Barnave from that day saw that his
laurel crown had gone to Robespierre.

If the people 'called him noble that was now their hate, him vile that
was their garland,' they did not transfer their affections without sound
reason. Barnave's sensibility was too easily touched. There are many
politicians in every epoch whose principles grow slack and flaccid at
the approach of the golden sun of royalty. Barnave was one of those who
was sent to bring back the fugitive King and Queen from Varennes, and
the journey by their side in the coach unstrung his spirit. He became
one of the court's clandestine advisers. Men of this weak susceptibility
of imagination are not fit for times of revolution. To be on the side of
the court was to betray the cause of the nation. We cannot take too much
pains to realise that the voluntary conversion of Lewis the Sixteenth to
a popular constitution and the abolition of feudalism, was practically
as impossible as the conversion of Pope Pius the Ninth to the doctrine
of a free church in a free state. Those who believe in the miracle of
free will may think of this as they please. Sensible people who accept
the scientific account of human character, know that the sudden
transformation of a man or a woman brought up to middle age as the heir
to centuries of absolutist tradition, into adherents of a government
that agreed with the doctrines of Locke and Milton, was only possible on
condition of supernatural interference. The King's good nature was no
substitute for political capacity or insight. An instructive measure of
the degree in which he possessed these two qualities may be found in
that deplorable diary of his, where on such days as the Fourteenth of
July, when the Bastille fell, and the Sixth of October, when he was
carried in triumph from Versailles to the Tuileries, he made the simple
entry, '_Rien_.' And he had no firmness. It was as difficult to keep the
King to a purpose, La Marck said to Mirabeau, as to keep together a
number of well-oiled ivory balls. Lewis, moreover, was guided by a more
energetic and less compliant character than his own.

Marie Antoinette's high mien in adversity, and the contrast between the
dazzling splendour of her first years and the scenes of outrage and
bloody death that made the climax of her fate, could not but strike the
imaginations of men. Such contrasts are the very stuff of which Tragedy,
the gorgeous muse with scepter'd pall, loves to weave her most imposing
raiment. But history must be just; and the character of the Queen had
far more concern in the disaster of the first five years of the
Revolution than had the character of Robespierre. Every new document
that comes to light heaps up proof that if blind and obstinate choice
of personal gratification before the common weal be enough to constitute
a state criminal, then the Queen of France was one of the worst state
criminals that ever afflicted a nation. The popular hatred of Marie
Antoinette sprang from a sound instinct. We shall never know how much or
how little truth there was in those frightful charges against her, that
may still be read in a thousand pamphlets. These imputed depravities far
surpass anything that John Knox ever said against Mary Stuart, or that
Juvenal has recorded against Messalina; and, perhaps, for the only
parallel we must look to the hideous stories of the Byzantine secretary
against Theodora, the too famous empress of Justinian and the persecutor
of Belisarius. We have to remember that all the revolutionary portraits
are distorted by furious passion, and that Marie Antoinette may no more
deserve to be compared to Mary Stuart than Robespierre deserves to be
compared to Ezzelino or to Alva. The aristocrats were the libellers, if
libels they were. It is at least certain that, from the unlucky hour
when the Austrian archduchess crossed the French frontier, a childish
bride of fourteen, down to the hour when the Queen of France made the
attempt to recross it in resentful flight one and twenty years
afterwards, Marie Antoinette was ignorant, unteachable, blind to events
and deaf to good counsels, a bitter grief to her heroic mother, the evil
genius of her husband, the despair of her truest advisers, and an
exceedingly bad friend to the people of France. When Burke had that
immortal vision of her at Versailles--'just above the horizon,
decorating and cheering the elevated sphere she just began to move in,
glittering like the morning star, full of life and splendour and
joy'--we know from the correspondence between Maria Theresa and her
minister at Versailles, that what Burke really saw was no divinity, but
a flighty and troublesome schoolgirl, an accomplice in all the ignoble
intrigues, and a sharer of all the small busy passions, that convulse
the insects of a court. The levity that came with her Lorraine blood,
broke out in incredible dissipations; in indiscreet visits to the masked
balls at the opera, in midnight parades and mystifications on the
terrace at Versailles, in insensate gambling. 'The court of France is
turned into a gaming-hell,' said the Emperor Joseph, the Queen's own
brother: 'if they do not amend, the revolution will be cruel.' These
vices or follies were less mischievous than her intervention in affairs
of state. Here her levity was as marked as in the paltry affairs of the
boudoir and the ante-chamber, and here to levity she added both
dissimulation and vindictiveness. It was the Queen's influence that
procured the dismissal of the two virtuous ministers by whose aid the
King was striving to arrest the decay of the government of his kingdom.
Malesherbes was distasteful to her for no better reason than that she
wanted his post for some favourite's favourite. Against Turgot she
conspired with tenacious animosity, because he had suppressed a
sinecure which she designed for a court parasite, and because he would
not support her caprice on behalf of a worthless creature of her
faction. These two admirable men were disgraced on the same day. The
Queen wrote to her mother that she had not meddled in the affair. This
was a falsehood, for she had even sought to have Turgot thrown into the
Bastille. 'I am as one dashed to the ground,' cried the great Voltaire,
now nearing his end. 'Never can we console ourselves for having seen the
golden age dawn and vanish. My eyes see only death in front of me, now
that Turgot is gone. The rest of my days must be all bitterness.' What
hope could there be that the personage who had thus put out the light of
hope for France in 1776, would welcome that greater flame which was
kindled in the land in 1789?

When people write hymns of pity for the Queen, we always recall the poor
woman whom Arthur Young met, as he was walking up a hill to ease his
horse near Mars-le-Tour. Though the unfortunate creature was only
twenty-eight, she might have been taken for sixty or seventy, her figure
was so bent, her face so furrowed and hardened by toil. Her husband, she
said, had a morsel of land, one cow, and a poor little horse, yet he had
to pay forty-two pounds of wheat and three chickens to one Seigneur, and
one hundred and sixty pounds of oats, one chicken, and one franc to
another, besides very heavy tailles and other taxes; and they had seven
children. She had heard that 'something was to be done by some great
folks for such poor ones, but she did not know who nor how, but God send
us better, for the tailles and the dues grind us to the earth.' It was
such hapless drudges as this who replenished the Queen's gaming tables
at Versailles. Thousands of them dragged on the burden of their harassed
and desperate days, less like men and women than beasts of the field
wrung and tortured and mercilessly overladen, in order that the Queen
might gratify her childish passion for diamonds, or lavish money and
estates on worthless female Polignacs and Lamballes, or kill time at a
cost of five hundred louis a night at lansquenet and the faro bank. The
Queen, it is true, was in all this no worse than other dissipated women
then and since. She did not realise that it was the system to which she
had stubbornly committed herself, that drove the people of the fields to
cut their crops green to be baked in the oven, because their hunger
could not wait; or made them cower whole days in their beds, because
misery seemed to gnaw them there with a duller fang. That she was
unconscious of its effect, makes no difference in the real drift of her
policy; makes no difference in the judgment that we ought to pass upon
it, nor in the gratitude that is owed to the stern men who rose up to
consume her and her court with righteous flame. The Queen and the
courtiers, and the hard-faring woman of Mars-le-Tour, and that whole
generation, have long been dust and shadow; they have vanished from the
earth, as if they were no more than the fire-flies that the peasant of
the Italian poet saw dancing in the vineyard, as he took his evening
rest on the hillside. They have all fled back into the impenetrable
shade whence they came; our minds are free; and if social equity is not
a chimera, Marie Antoinette was the protagonist of the most barbarous
and execrable of causes.

       *       *       *       *       *

Let us return to the shaping of the Constitution, not forgetting that
its stability was to depend upon the Queen. Robespierre left some
characteristic marks on the final arrangements. He imposed upon the
Assembly a motion prohibiting any member of it from accepting office
under the Crown for a period of four years after the dissolution.
Robespierre from this time forth constantly illustrated a very singular
truth; namely, that the most ostentatious faith in humanity in general
seems always to beget the sharpest distrust of all human beings in
particular. He proceeded further in the same direction. It was
Robespierre who persuaded the Chamber to pass a self-denying ordinance.
All its members were declared ineligible for a seat in the legislature
that was to replace them. The members of the Right on this occasion went
with their bitter foes of the Extreme Left, and to both parties have
been imputed sinister and Machiavellian motives. The Right, aware that
their own return to the new Assembly was impossible, were delighted to
reduce the men with whom they had been carrying on incensed battle for
two long years, to their own obscurity and impotence. Robespierre, on
the other hand, is accused of a jealous desire to exclude Barnave from
power. He is accused also of a deliberate intention to weaken the new
legislature, in order to secure the preponderance of the Parisian clubs.
There is no evidence that these malignant feelings were in Robespierre's
mind. The reasons he gave were exactly of the kind that we should have
expected to weigh with a man of his stamp. There is even a certain truth
in them, that is not inconsistent with the experience of a parliamentary
country like our own. To talk, he said, of the transmission of light and
experience from one assembly to another, was to distrust the public
spirit. The influence of opinion and the general good grows less, as the
influence of parliamentary orators grows greater. He had no taste, he
proceeded with one of his chilly sneers, for that new science which was
styled the tactics of great assemblies; it was too like intrigue.
Nothing but truth and reason ought to reign in a legislature. He did not
like the idea of clever men becoming dominant by skilful tactics, and
then perpetuating their empire from one assembly to another. He wound up
his discourse with some theatrical talk about disinterestedness. When he
sat down, he was greeted with enthusiastic acclamations, such as a few
months before used to greet the stormful Mirabeau, now wrapped in
eternal sleep amid the stillness of the new Pantheon. The folly of
Robespierre's inferences is obvious enough. If only truth and reason
ought to weigh in a legislature, then it is all the more important not
to exclude any body of men through whom truth and reason may possibly
enter. Robespierre had striven hard to remove all restrictions from
admission to the electoral franchise. He did not see that to limit the
choice of candidates was in itself the most grievous of all

The common view has been that the Constitution of 1791 perished because
its creators were thus disabled from defending the work of their hands.
This view led to a grave mistake four years later, after Robespierre had
gone to his grave. The Convention, framing the Constitution of the Year
III., decided that two-thirds of the existing assembly should keep their
places, and that only one-third should be popularly elected. This led to
the revolt of the Thirteenth Vendémiaire, and afterwards to the coup
d'état of the Eighteenth Fructidor. In that sense, no doubt,
Robespierre's proposal was the indirect root of much mischief. But it is
childish to believe that if a hundred of the most prominent members of
the Constituent had found seats in the new assembly, they would have
saved the Constitution. Their experience, the loss of which it is the
fashion to deplore, could have had no application to the strange
combinations of untoward circumstance that were now rising up with such
deadly rapidity in every quarter of the horizon, like vast sombre banks
of impenetrable cloud. Prudence in new cases, as has been somewhere
said, can do nothing on grounds of retrospect. The work of the
Constituent was doomed by the very nature of things. Their assumption
that the Revolution was made, while all France was still torn by fierce
and unappeasable disputes as to seignorial rights, was one of the most
striking pieces of self-deception in history. It is told how in the
eleventh century, when the fervent hosts of the Crusaders tramped across
Europe on their way to deliver the Holy City from the hands of the
unbelievers, the wearied children, as they espied each new town that lay
in their interminable march, cried out with joyful expectation, 'Is not
this, then, Jerusalem?' So France had set out on a portentous journey,
little knowing how far off was the end; lightly taking each poor
halting-place for the deeply longed-for goal; and waxing more fiercely
disappointed, as each new height that they gained only disclosed yet
farther and more unattainable horizons. 'Alas,' said Burke, 'they little
know how many a weary step is to be taken, before they can form
themselves into a mass which has a true political personality.'

An immense revolution had been effected, but by what force were its
fruits to be guarded? Each step in the revolution had raised a host of
irreconcilable enemies. The rights of property, the old and jealous
associations of local independence, the traditions of personal dignity,
the relations of the civil to the spiritual power--these were the
momentous matters about which the lawmakers of the Constituent had
exercised themselves. The parties of the Chamber had for these two
years past been laying mine and countermine among the very deepest
foundations of society. One by one each great corporation of the old
order had been alienated from the new order. It was inevitable that it
should be so. Let us look at one or two examples of this. The monarchy
had imposed administrative centralisation upon France without securing
national unity. Thus the great provinces that had been slowly added one
after the other to the monarchy, while becoming members of the same
kingdom, still retained different institutions and isolated usages. The
time was now come when France should be France, and its inhabitants
Frenchmen, and no longer Bretons, Normans, Gascons, Provençals. The
Assembly by a single decree (1790) redivided the country into
eighty-three departments. It wiped out at a stroke the separate
administrations, the separate parlements, the peculiar privileges, and
even the historic names of the old provinces. We need not dwell on the
significance of this change here, but will only remark in passing that
the stubborn disputes from the time of the Regency downwards between the
Crown and the provincial parlements turned, under other names and in
other forms, upon this very issue of the unification of the law. The
Crown was with the progressive party, but it lacked the strength and
courage to set aside retrograde local sentiment as the Constituent
Assembly was able to set it aside.

Then this prodigious change in the distribution of government was
accompanied by no less prodigious a change in the source of power.
Popular election replaced the old system of territorial privilege and
aristocratic prerogative. The effect of this vital innovation, followed
as it was a few months later by a decree abolishing titles and armorial
bearings, was to complete the estrangement of the old privileged classes
from the revolutionary movement. All that they had meant to concede was
the payment of an equal land tax. What was life worth to the noble, if
common people were to be allowed to wear arms and to command a company
of foot or a troop of horse; if he was no longer to have thousands of
acres left waste for the chase; if he was compelled to sue for a vote
where he had only yesterday reigned as manorial lord; if, in short, he
was at a stroke to lose all those delights of insolence and vanity which
had made, not the decoration, but the very substance, of his days?

Nor were the nobles of the sword and the red-heeled slipper the only
outraged class. The magistracy of the provincial parliaments were
inflamed with resentment against changes that stripped them of the power
of exciting against the new government the same factious and
impracticable spirit with which they had on so many occasions
embarrassed the old. The clergy were thrown even still more violently
into opposition. The Assembly, sorely pressed for resources, declared
the property held by ecclesiastics, amounting to a revenue of not less
than eight million pounds sterling a year, or double that amount in
modern values, to be the property of the nation. Talleyrand carried a
measure decreeing the sale of the ecclesiastical domain. The clergy were
as intensely irritated as laymen would have been by a similar assertion
of sovereign right. And their irritation was made still more dangerous
by the next set of measures against them.

The Assembly withdrew all recognition of Catholicism as the religion of
the State; monastic vows were abolished, and orders and congregations
suppressed; the ecclesiastical divisions were made to coincide with the
civil divisions, a bishop being allotted to each department. What was a
more important revolution than all, bishops and incumbents were
henceforth to be appointed by popular election. The Assembly, who had
always the institutions of our own country before them, meant to
introduce into France the system of the Church of England, which was
even then an anachronism in the land of its birth; much worse was such a
system an anachronism, after belief had been sapped by a Voltaire and an
Encyclopædia. The clergy both showed and excited a mutinous spirit. The
Assembly, by way of retort, decreed that all ecclesiastics should take
the oath of allegiance to the civil constitution of the clergy, on pain
of forfeiture of their benefices. Five-sixths of the clergy refused, and
the result was an outbreak of religious fury in the great towns of the
south and elsewhere, which recalled the violence of the sixteenth
century and the Reformation.

Thus when the Constituent Assembly ceased from its labours, the popular
party had to face the mocking and defiant privileged classes; the
magistracy, whose craft and calling were gone; and the clergy and as
many of the flocks as shared the holy vindictiveness of their pastors.
Immense material improvements had been made, but who was to guard them
against all these powerful and exasperated bands? No chamber could
execute so portentous an office, least of all a chamber that was bound
to work in accord with a King, who at the very moment when he was
swearing fidelity to the new order of things, was sending entreaties to
the King of Prussia and to the Emperor, his brother-in-law, to overthrow
the new order and bring back the old. If the Revolution had achieved
priceless gains for France, they could only be preserved on condition
that public action was directed by those who valued these gains for
themselves and for their children above all things else--above the
monarchy, above the constitution, above peace, above their own sorry
lives. There was only one party who showed this passionate devotion,
this fanatical resolution not to suffer the work that had been done to
be undone, and never to allow France to sink back from exalted national
life into the lethargy of national death. That party was the Jacobins,
and, above all, the austere and rigorous Jacobins of Paris. On their
ascendancy depended the triumph of the Revolution, and on the triumph of
the Revolution depended the salvation of France. Their ascendancy meant
a Jacobin dictatorship, and against this, as against dictatorship in all
its forms, many things have been said, and truly said. But the one most
important thing that can be said about Jacobin dictatorship is that, in
spite of all the dolorous mishaps and hateful misdeeds that marked its
course, it was still the only instrument capable of concentrating and
utilising the dispersed social energy of the French people. The crisis
was not a crisis of logic but of force, and the Jacobins alone
understood, as the old Covenanters had understood, that problems of
force are not solved by phrases, but by mastery and the sword.

The great popular club of Paris was the centre of all those who looked
at events in this spirit. The Legislative Assembly, the successor of the
Constituent, met in the month of October 1791. Like its predecessor, the
Legislative contained a host of excellent and patriotic men, and they at
once applied themselves to the all-important task, which the Constituent
had left so deplorably incomplete, of finally breaking down the old
feudal rights. The most important group in the new chamber were the
deputies from the Gironde. Events soon revealed violent dissents between
the Girondins and the Jacobins, but, for some months after the meeting
of the Legislative, Girondins and Jacobins represented together in
unbroken unity the great popular party. From this time until the fall of
the monarchy, the whole of this popular party in all its branches found
their rallying-place, not in the Assembly, but in the Jacobin Club; and
the ascendancy of the Jacobin Club embodied the dictatorship of Paris.
It was only from Paris that the whole circle of events could be
commanded. When the peasants had got what they wanted, that is to say
the emancipation of the land, they were ready to think that the
Revolution was in safety and at an end. They were in no position to see
the enmity of the exiles, the dangerous selfishness of Austria and
Prussia, the disloyal machinations of the court, the reactionary
sentiment of La Vendée, the absolute unworkableness of the new
constitution. Arthur Young, in the height of the agitations of the
Constituent Assembly, found himself at Moulins, the capital of the
Bourbonnais, and on the great post-road to Italy. He went to the best
coffee-house in the town, and found as many as twenty tables spread for
company, but as for a newspaper, he says he might as well have asked for
an elephant. In the capital of a great province, the seat of an
intendant, at a moment like that, with a National Assembly voting a
revolution, and not a newspaper to tell the people whether Fayette,
Mirabeau, or Lewis XVI. were on the throne! Could such a people as this,
he cries, ever have made a revolution or become free? 'Never in a
thousand centuries: the enlightened mob of Paris have done the whole.'
And that was the plain truth. What was involved in such a truth, we
shall see presently.

Robespierre had now risen to be one of the foremost men in France. To
borrow the figure of an older chief of French faction, from trifling
among the violins in the orchestra, he had ascended to the stage itself,
and had a right to perform leading parts. Disqualified for sitting in
the Assembly, he wielded greater power than ever in the Club. The
Constituent had been full of his enemies. 'Alone with my own soul,' he
once cried to the Jacobins, 'how could I have borne struggles that were
beyond any human strength, if I had not raised my spirit to God?' This
isolation marked him with a kind of theocratic distinction. These
communings with the unseen powers gave a certain indefinable prerogative
to a man, even among the children of the century of Voltaire. Condorcet,
the youngest of the intimates and disciples of Voltaire, of D'Alembert,
of Turgot, was the first to sound bitter warning that Robespierre was at
heart a priest. The suggestion was more than a gibe. Robespierre had the
typic sacerdotal temperament, its sense of personal importance, its thin
unction, its private leanings to the stake and the cord; and he had one
of those deplorable natures that seem as if they had never in their
lives known the careless joys of a springtime. By and by, from mere
priest he developed into the deadlier carnivore, the Inquisitor.

The absence of advantages of bodily presence has never been fatal to the
pretensions of the pontiff. Robespierre was only a couple of inches
above five feet in height, but the Grand Monarch himself was hardly
more. His eyes were small and weak, and he usually wore spectacles; his
face was pitted by the marks of small-pox; his complexion was dull and
sometimes livid; the tones of his voice were dry and shrill; and he
spoke with the vulgar accent of his province. Such is the accepted
tradition, and there is no reason to dissent from it. It is fair,
however, to remember that Robespierre's enemies had command of his
historic reputation at its source, and this is always a great advantage
for faction, if not for truth. So Robespierre's voice and person may
have been maligned, just as Aristophanes may have been a calumniator
when he accused Cleon of having an intolerably loud voice and smelling
of the tanyard. What is certain is that Robespierre was a master of
effective oratory adapted for a violent popular audience, to impress, to
persuade, and to command. The Convention would have yawned, if it had
not trembled under him, but the Jacobin Club never found him tedious.
Robespierre's style had no richness either of feeling or of phrase; no
fervid originality, no happy violences. If we turn from a page of
Rousseau to a page of Robespierre, we feel that the disciple has none of
the thrilling sonorousness of the master; the glow and the ardour have
become metallic; the long-drawn plangency is parodied by shrill notes of
splenetic complaint. The rhythm has no broad wings; the phrases have no
quality of radiance; the oratorical glimpses never lift the spirit into
new worlds. We are never conscious of those great pulses of strong
emotion that shake and vibrate through the nobly-measured periods of
Cicero or Bossuet or Burke. Robespierre could not rival the vivid and
highly-coloured declamation of Vergniaud; his speeches were never heated
with the ardent passion that poured like a torrent of fire through some
of the orations of Isnard; nor, above all, had he any mastery of that
dialect of the Titans, by which Danton convulsed an audience with fear,
with amazement, or with the spirit of defiant endeavour. The absence of
these intenser qualities did not make Robespierre's speeches less
effective for their own purpose. On the contrary, when the air has
become torrid, and passionate utterance is cheap, then severity in form
is very likely to pass for good sense in substance. That Robespierre had
decent fluency, copiousness, and finish, need hardly be said. The French
have an artistic sense; they have never accepted our own whimsical
doctrine, that a man's politics must be sagacious, if his speaking is
only clumsy enough. Robespierre more than once showed himself ready with
a forcible reply on critical occasions: this only makes him an
illustration the more of the good oratorical rule, that he is most
likely to come well out of the emergency of an improvisation, who is
usually most careful to prepare. Robespierre was as solicitous about the
correctness of his speech, as he was about the neatness of his clothes;
he no more grudged the pains given to the polishing of his discourses
than he grudged the time given every day to the powdering of his hair.

Nothing was more remarkable than his dexterity in presenting his case.
James Mill used to point out to his son among other skilful arts of
Demosthenes, these two: first, that he said everything important to his
purpose at the exact moment when he had brought the minds of his hearers
into the state most fitted to receive it; second, that he insinuated
gradually and indirectly into their minds ideas which would have roused
opposition if they had been expressed more directly. Mr. Mill once
called the attention of the present writer to exactly the same kind of
rhetorical skill in the speeches of Robespierre. The reader may do well
to turn, for excellent specimens of this, to the speech of January 11,
1792, against the war, or that of May 1794 against atheism. The logic is
stringent, but the premises are arbitrary. Robespierre is as one who
should iterate indisputable propositions of abstract geometry and
mechanics, while men are craving an architect who shall bridge the gulf
of waters. Exuberance of high words no longer conceals the sterility of
his ideas and the shallowness of his method. We should say of his
speeches, as of so much of the speaking and writing of the time, that it
is transparent and smooth, but there is none of that quality which the
critics of painting call Texture.

His listeners, however, in the old refectory of the Convent of the
Jacobins took little heed of these things; the matter was too absorbing,
the issue too vital. A hundred years before, the hunted Covenanters of
the Western Lowlands, with Claverhouse's dragoons a few miles off,
exulted in the endless exhortations and expositions of their hill
preachers: they relished nothing so keenly as three hours of
Mucklewrath, followed by three hours more of Peter Poundtext. We now
find the jargon of the Mucklewraths and the Poundtexts of the Solemn
League and Covenant, dead as it is, still not devoid of the picturesque
and the impressive. If we cannot say the same of the great preacher of
the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the reason is partly that time has
not yet softened the tones, and partly that there is no one in all the
world with whom it is so difficult to sympathise, as with the narrower
fanatics of our own particular faith.

We have still to mark the trait that above everything else gave to
Robespierre the trust and confidence of Paris. As men listened to him,
they had full faith in the integrity of the speaker. And Robespierre in
one way deserved this confidence. He was eminently the possessor of a
conscience. When the strain of circumstance in the last few months of
his life pressed him towards wrong, at least before doing wrong he was
forced to lie to his own conscience. This is a kind of honesty, as the
world goes. In the Salon of 1791 an artist exhibited Robespierre's
portrait, simply inscribing it, _The Incorruptible_. Throngs passed
before it every day, and ratified the honourable designation by eager
murmurs of approval. The democratic journals were loud in panegyric on
the unsleeping sentinel of liberty. They loved to speak of him as the
modern Fabricius, and delighted to recall the words of Pyrrhus, that it
is easier to turn the sun from its course, than to turn Fabricius from
the path of honour. Patriotic parents eagerly besought him to be sponsor
for their children. Ladies of wealth, including at least one
countrywoman of our own, vainly entreated him to accept their purses,
for women are quick to recognise the temperament of the priest, and
recognising they adore. A rich widow of Nantes besought him with
pertinacious tenderness to accept not only her purse but her hand.
Mirabeau's sister hailed him as an eagle floating through the blue

Robespierre's life was frugal and simple, as must always be seemly in
the spokesman of the dumb multitude whose lives are very hard. He had a
single room in the house of Duplay, at the extreme west end of the long
Rue Saint Honoré, half a mile from the Jacobin Club, and less than that
from the Riding School of the Tuileries, where the Constituent and
Legislative Assemblies held session. His room, which served him for
bed-chamber as well as for the uses of the day, was scantily furnished,
and he shared the homely fare of his host. Duplay was a carpenter, a
sworn follower of Robespierre, and the whole family cherished their
guest as if he had been a son and a brother. Between him and the eldest
daughter of the house there grew up a more tender sentiment, and
Robespierre looked forward to the joys of the hearth, so soon as his
country should be delivered from the oppressors without and the traitors

Eagerly as Robespierre delighted in his popularity, he intended it to
be a force and not a decoration. An occasion of testing his influence
arose in the winter of 1791. The situation had become more and more
difficult. The court was more disloyal and more perverse, as its hopes
that the nightmare would come to an end became fainter. In the summer of
1791, the German Emperor, the King of Prussia, and minor champions of
retrograde causes issued the famous Declaration of Pilnitz. The menace
of intervention was the one element needed to make the position of the
monarchy desperate. It roused France to fever heat. For along with the
foreign kings were the French princes of the blood and the French
nobles. In the spring of 1792, the Assembly forced the King to declare
war against Austria. Robespierre, in spite of the strong tide of warlike
feeling, led the Jacobin opposition to the war. This is one of the most
sagacious acts of his career, for the hazards of the conflict were
terrible. If the foreigners and the emigrant nobles were victorious, all
that the Revolution had won would be instantly and irretrievably lost.
If, on the other hand, the French armies were victorious, one of two
disasters might follow. Either the troops might become a weapon in the
hands of the court and the reactionary party, for the suppression of all
the progressive parties alike; or else their general might make himself
supreme. Robespierre divined, what the Girondins did not, that Narbonne
and the court, in accepting the cry for war, were secretly designing,
first, to crush the faction of emigrant nobles, then to make the King
popular at home, and thus finally to construct a strong royalist army.
The Constitutional party in the Legislative Assembly had the same ideas
as Narbonne. The Girondins sought war; first, from a genuine, if not a
profoundly wise, enthusiasm for liberty, which they would fain have
spread all over the world; and next, because they thought that war would
increase their popularity, and give them decisive control of the

The first effect of the war declared in April 1792 was to shake down the
throne. Operations had no sooner begun than the King became an object of
bitter and amply warranted suspicion. Neither the leaders nor the people
had forgotten his flight a year before to place himself at the head of
the foreign invaders, nor the letter that he had left behind him for the
National Assembly, protesting against all that had been done. They were
again reminded of what short shrift they might expect if the King's
friends should come back. The Duke of Brunswick at the head of the
foreign army set out on his march, and issued his famous proclamation to
the inhabitants of France. He demanded immediate and unconditional
submission; he threatened with fire and sword every town, village, or
hamlet, that should dare to defend itself; and finally, he swore that if
the smallest violence or insult were done to the King or his family, the
city of Paris should be handed over to military execution and absolute
destruction. This insensate document bears marks in every line of the
implacable hate and burning thirst for revenge that consumed the
aristocratic refugees. Only civil war can awaken such rage as
Brunswick's manifesto betrayed. It was drawn up by the French nobles at
Coblenz. He merely signed it. The reply to it was the memorable
insurrection of the Tenth of August 1792. The King was thrown into
prison, and the Legislative Assembly made way for the National

Robespierre's part in the great rising of August was only secondary.
Only a few weeks before he had started a journal and written articles in
a constitutional sense. M. d'Héricault believes a story that
Robespierre's aim in this had been to have himself accepted as tutor for
the young Dauphin. It is impossible to prove a negative, but we find
great difficulty in believing that such a post could ever have been an
object of Robespierre's ambition. Now and always he showed a rather
singular preference for the substance of power over its glitter. He was
vain and an egoist, but in spite of this, and in spite of his passion
for empty phrases, he was not without a sense of reality.

The insurrection of the 10th of August, however, was the idea, not of
Robespierre, but of a more commanding personage, who now became one of
the foremost of the Jacobin chiefs. De Maistre, that ardent champion of
reaction, found a striking argument for the presence of the divine hand
in the Revolution, in the intense mediocrity of the revolutionary
leaders. How could such men, he asked, have achieved such results, if
they had not been instruments of the directing will of heaven? Danton at
any rate is above this caustic criticism. Danton was of the Herculean
type of a Luther, though without Luther's deep vision of spiritual
things; or a Chatham, though without Chatham's august majesty of life;
or a Cromwell, though without Cromwell's calm steadfastness of patriotic
purpose. His visage and port seemed to declare his character: dark
overhanging brows; eyes that had the gleam of lightning; a savage mouth;
an immense head; the voice of a Stentor. Madame Roland pictured him as a
fiercer Sardanapalus. Artists called him Jove the Thunderer. His enemies
saw in him the Satan of the Paradise Lost. He was no moral regenerator;
the difference between him and Robespierre is typified in Danton's
version of an old saying, that he who hates vices hates men. He was not
free from that careless life-contemning desperation, which sometimes
belongs to forcible natures. Danton cannot be called noble, because
nobility implies a purity, an elevation, and a kind of seriousness which
were not his. He was too heedless of his good name, and too blind to the
truth that though right and wrong may be near neighbours, yet the line
that separates them is of an awful sacredness. If Robespierre passed for
a hypocrite by reason of his scruple, Danton seemed a desperado by his
airs of 'immoral thoughtlessness.' But the world forgives much to a
royal size, and Danton was one of the men who strike deep notes. He had
that largeness of motive, fulness of nature, and capaciousness of mind,
which will always redeem a multitude of infirmities.

Though the author of some of the most tremendous and far-sounding
phrases of an epoch that was only too rich in them, yet phrases had no
empire over him; he was their master, not their dupe. Of all the men who
succeeded Mirabeau as directors of the unchained forces, we feel that
Danton alone was in his true element. Action, which poisoned the blood
of such men as Robespierre, and drove such men as Vergniaud out of their
senses with exaltation, was to Danton his native sphere. When France was
for a moment discouraged, it was he who nerved her to new effort by the
electrifying cry, '_We must dare, and again dare, and without end
dare!_' If his rivals or his friends seemed too intent on trifles, too
apt to confound side issues with the central aim of the battle, Danton
was ever ready to urge them to take a juster measure:--'_When the
edifice is all ablaze, I take little heed of the knaves who are
pilfering the household goods; I rush to put out the flames._' When base
egoism was compromising a cause more priceless than the personality of
any man, it was Danton who made them ashamed by the soul-inspiring
exclamation, '_Let my name be blotted out and my memory perish, if only
France may be free._' The Girondins denounced the popular clubs of Paris
as hives of lawlessness and outrage. Danton warned them that it were
wiser to go to these seething societies and to guide them, than to waste
breath in futile denunciation. 'A nation in revolution,' he cried to
them, in a superb figure, 'is like the bronze boiling and foaming and
purifying itself in the cauldron. Not yet is the statue of Liberty cast.
Fiercely boils the metal; have an eye on the furnace, or the flame will
surely scorch you.' If there was murderous work below the hatches, that
was all the more reason why the steersman should keep his hand strong
and ready on the wheel, with an eye quick for each new drift in the
hurricane, and each new set in the raging currents. This is ever the
figure under which one conceives Danton--a Titanic shape doing battle
with the fury of the seas, yielding while flood upon flood sweeps wildly
over him, and then with unshaken foothold and undaunted front once more
surveying the waste of waters, and striving with dexterous energy to
force the straining vessel over the waters of the bar.

La Fayette had called the huge giant of popular force from its squalid
lurking-places, and now he trembled before its presence, and fled from
it shrieking, with averted hands. Marat thrust swords into the giant's
half-unwilling grasp, and plied him with bloody incitement to slay hip
and thigh, and so filled the land with a horror that has not faded from
out of men's minds to this day. Danton instantly discerned that the
problem was to preserve revolutionary energy, and still to persuade the
insurgent forces to retire once more within their boundaries.
Robespierre discerned this too, but he was paralysed and bewildered by
his own principles, as the convinced doctrinaire is so apt to be amid
the perplexities of practice. The teaching of Rousseau was ever pouring
like thin smoke among his ideas, and clouding his view of actual
conditions. The Tenth of August produced a considerable change in
Robespierre's point of view. It awoke him to the precipitous steepness
of the slope down which the revolutionary car was rushing headlong. His
faith in the infallibility of the people suffered no shock, but he was
in a moment alive to the need of walking warily, and his whole march
from now until the end, twenty-three months later, became timorous,
cunning, and oblique. His intelligence seemed to move in subterranean
tunnels, with the gleam of an equivocal premiss at one end, and the mist
of a vague conclusion at the other.

The enthusiastic pedant, with his narrow understanding, his thin purism,
and his idyllic sentimentalism, found that the summoning archangel of
his paradise proved to be a ruffian with a pike. The shock must have
been tremendous. Robespierre did not quail nor retreat; he only revised
his notion of the situation. A curious interview once took place between
him and Marat. Robespierre began by assuring the Friend of the People
that he quite understood the atrocious demands for blood with which the
columns of Marat's newspaper were filled, to be merely useful
exaggerations of his real designs. Marat repelled the disparaging
imputation of clemency and common sense, and talked in his familiar vein
of poniarding brigands, burning despots alive in their palaces, and
impaling the traitors of the Assembly on their own benches.
'Robespierre,' says Marat, 'listened to me with affright; he turned pale
and said nothing. The interview confirmed the opinion I had always had
of him, that he united the integrity of a thoroughly honest man and the
zeal of a good patriot, with the enlightenment of a wise senator, but
that he was without either the views or the audacity of a real
statesman.' The picture is instructive, for it shows us Robespierre's
invariable habit of leaving violence and iniquity unrebuked; of
conciliating the practitioners of violence and iniquity; and of
contenting himself with an inward hope of turning the world into a right
course by fine words. He had no audacity in Marat's sense, but he was no
coward. He knew, as all these men knew, that almost from hour to hour he
carried his life in his hand, yet he declined to seek shelter in the
obscurity which saved such men as Sieyès. But if he had courage, he had
not the initiative of a man of action. He invented none of the ideas or
methods of the Revolution, not even the Reign of Terror, but he was very
dexterous in accepting or appropriating what more audacious spirits than
himself had devised and enforced. The pedant, cursed with the ambition
to be a ruler of men, is a curious study. He would be glad not to go too
far, and yet his chief dread is lest he be left behind. His
consciousness of pure aims allows him to become an accomplice in the
worst crimes. Suspecting himself at bottom to be a theorist, he hastens
to clear his character as man of practice by conniving at an enormity.
Thus, in September 1792, a band of miscreants committed the grievous
massacres in the prisons of Paris. Robespierre, though the best evidence
goes to show that he not only did not abet the prison murders, but in
his heart deplored them, yet after the event did not scruple to justify
what had been done. This was the beginning of a long course of
compliance with sanguinary misdeeds, for which Robespierre has been as
hotly execrated as if he prompted them. We do not, for the moment,
measure the relative degrees of guilt that attached to mere compliance
on the one hand, and cruel origination on the other. But his position in
the Revolution is not rightly understood, unless we recognise him as
being in almost every case an accessory after the fact.

Between the fall of Lewis in 1792 and the fall of Robespierre in 1794,
France was the scene of two main series of events. One set comprises the
repulse of the invaders, the suppression of an extensive civil war, and
the attempted reconstruction of a social framework. The other comprises
the rapid phases of an internecine struggle of violent and short-lived
factions. By an unhappy fatality, due partly to anti-democratic
prejudice, and partly to men's unfailing passion for melodrama, the
Reign of Terror has been popularly taken for the central and most
important part of the revolutionary epic. This is nearly as absurd as it
would be to make Gustave Flourens' manifestation of the Fifth of
October, or the rising of the Thirty-first of October, the most
prominent features in a history of the war of French defence in our own
day. In truth, the Terror was a mere episode; and just as the rising of
October 1870 was due to Marshal Bazaine's capitulation at Metz, it is
easy to see that, with one exception, every violent movement in Paris,
from 1792 to 1794, was due to menace or disaster on the frontier. Every
one of the famous days of Paris was an answer to some enemy without. The
storm of the Tuileries on the Tenth of August, as we have already said,
was the response to Brunswick's proclamation. The bloody days of
September were the reaction of panic at the capture of Longwy and Verdun
by the Prussians. The surrender of Cambrai provoked the execution of
Marie Antoinette. The defeat of Aix-la-Chapelle produced the abortive
insurrection of the Tenth of March; and the treason of Dumouriez, the
reverses of Custine, and the rebellion in La Vendée, produced the
effectual insurrection of the Thirty-first of May 1793. The last of
these two risings of Paris, headed by the Commune, against the
Convention which was until then controlled by the Girondins, at length
gave the government of France and the defence of the Revolution
definitely over to the Jacobins. Their patriotic dictatorship lasted
unbroken for a short period of ten months, and then the great party
broke up into factions. The splendid triumphs of the dictatorship have
been, in England at any rate, too usually forgotten, and only the crimes
of the factions remembered. Robespierre's history unfortunately belongs
to the less important battle.


The Girondins were driven out of the Convention by the insurgent
Parisians at the beginning of June 1793. The movement may be roughly
compared to that of the Independents in our own Rebellion, when the army
compelled the withdrawal of eleven of the Presbyterian leaders from the
parliament; or, it may recall Pride's memorable Purge of the same famous
assembly. Both cases illustrate the common truth that large deliberative
bodies, be they never so excellent for purposes of legislation, and even
for a general control of the executive government in ordinary times, are
found to be essentially unfit for directing a military crisis. If there
are any historic examples that at first seem to contradict such a
proposition, it will be found that the bodies in question were close
aristocracies, like the Great Council of Venice, or the Senate of Rome
in the strong days of the Commonwealth; they were never the creatures of
popular election, with varying aims and a diversified political spirit.
Modern publicists have substituted the divine right of assemblies for
the old divine right of monarchies. Those who condone the violence done
to the King on the Tenth of August, and even acquiesce in his execution
five months afterwards, are relentless against the violence done to the
Convention on the Thirty-first of May. We confess ourselves unable to
follow this transfer of the superstition of sacrosanctity from a king to
a chamber. No doubt, the sooner a nation acquires a settled government,
the better for it, provided the government be efficient. But if it be
not efficient, the mischief of actively suppressing it may well be fully
outweighed by the mischief of retaining it. We have no wish to smooth
over the perversities of a revolutionary time; they cost a nation very
dear; but if all the elements of the state are in furious convulsion and
uncontrollable effervescence, then it is childish to measure the march
of events by the standard of happier days of social peace and political
order. The prospect before France at the violent close of Girondin
supremacy was as formidable as any nation has ever yet had to confront
in the history of the world. Rome was not more critically placed when
the defeat of Varro on the plain of Cannæ had broken up her alliances
and ruined her army. The brave patriots of the Netherlands had no
gloomier outlook at that dolorous moment when the Prince of Orange had
left them, and Alva had been appointed to bring them back by rapine,
conflagration, and murder, under the loathed yoke of the Spanish tyrant.

Let us realise the conditions that Robespierre and Danton and the other
Jacobin leaders had now to face. In the north-west one division of the
fugitive Girondins was forming an army at Caen; in the south-west
another division was doing the same at Bordeaux. Marseilles and Lyons
were rallying all the disaffected and reactionary elements in the
south-east. La Vendée had flamed out in wild rebellion for Church and
King. The strong places on the north frontier, and the strong places on
the east, were in the hands of the foreign enemy. The fate of the
Revolution lay in the issue of a struggle between Paris, with less than
a score of departments on her side, and all the rest of France and the
whole European coalition marshalled against her. And even this was not
the worst. In Paris itself a very considerable proportion of its
half-million of inhabitants were disaffected to the revolutionary cause.
Reactionary historians dwell on the fact that such risings as that of
the Tenth of August were devised by no more than half of the sections
into which Paris was divided. It was common, they say, for half a dozen
individuals to take upon themselves to represent the fourteen or fifteen
hundred other members of a section. But what better proof can we have
that if France was to be delivered from restored feudalism and foreign
spoliation, the momentous task must be performed by those who had sense
to discern the awful peril, and energy to encounter it?

The Girondins had made their incapacity plain. The execution of the King
had filled them with alarm, and with hatred against the ruder and more
robust party who had forced that startling act of vengeance upon them.
Puny social disgusts prevented them from co-operating with Danton or
with Robespierre. Prussia and Austria were not more redoubtable or more
hateful to them than was Paris, and they wasted, in futile
recriminations about the September massacres or the alleged peculations
of municipal officers, the time and the energy that should have been
devoted without let or interruption to the settlement of the
administration and the repulse of the foe. It is impossible to think of
such fine characters as Vergniaud or Madame Roland without admiration,
or of their untimely fate without pity. But the deliverance of a people
beset by strong and implacable enemies could not wait on mere good
manners and fastidious sentiments, when these comely things were in
company with the most stupendous want of foresight ever shown by a
political party. How can we measure the folly of men who so missed the
conditions of the problem as to cry out in the Convention itself, almost
within earshot of the Jacobin Club, that if any insult were offered to
the national representation, the departments would rise, 'Paris would be
annihilated; and men would come to search on the banks of the Seine
whether such a city had ever existed!' It was to no purpose that Danton
urgently rebuked the senseless animosity with which the Right poured
incessant malediction on the Left, and the wild shrieking hate with
which the Left retaliated on the Right. The battle was to the death, and
it was the Girondins who first menaced their political foes with
vengeance and the guillotine. As it happened, the treason of Dumouriez
and their own ineptitude destroyed them before revenge was within reach.
Such a consummation was fortunate for their country. It was the
Girondins whose want of union and energy had by the middle of 1793
brought France to distraction and imminent ruin. It was a short year of
Jacobin government that by the summer of 1794 had welded the nation
together again, and finally conquered the invasion. The city of the
Seine had once more shown itself what it had been for nine centuries,
ever since the days of Odo, Count of Paris and first King of the French,
not merely a capital, but France itself, 'its living heart and surest

The immediate instrument of so rapid and extraordinary an achievement
was the Committee of Public Safety. The French have never shown their
quick genius for organisation with more triumphant vigour. While the
Girondins were still powerful, nine members of the Convention had been
constituted an executive committee, April 6, 1793. They were in fact a
kind of permanent cabinet, with practical irresponsibility. In the
summer of 1793 the number was increased from nine to twelve, and these
twelve were the centre of the revolutionary government. They fell into
three groups. First, there were the scientific or practical
administrators, of whom the most eminent was Carnot. Next came the
directors of internal policy, the pure revolutionists, headed by Billaud
de Varennes. Finally, there was a trio whose business it was to
translate action into the phrases of revolutionary policy. This famous
group was Robespierre, Couthon, and Saint Just.

Besides the Committee of Public Safety there was another chief
governmental committee, that of General Security. Its functions were
mainly connected with the police, the arrests, and the prisons, but in
all serious affairs the two Committees deliberated in common. There were
also fourteen other groups of various size, taken from the Convention;
they applied themselves with admirable zeal, and usually not with more
zeal than skill, to schemes of public instruction, of finance, of
legislation, of the administration of justice, and a host of other civil
reforms, of all of which Napoleon Bonaparte was by and by to reap the
credit. These bodies completed the civil revolution, which the
Constituent and the Legislative Assemblies had left so mischievously
incomplete that, as soon as ever the Convention had assembled, it was
besieged by a host of petitioners praying them to explain and to pursue
the abolition of the old feudal rights. Everything had still been left
uncertain in men's minds, even upon that greatest of all the
revolutionary questions. The feudal division of the committee of general
legislation had in this eleventh hour to decide innumerable issues, from
those of the widest practical importance, down to the prayer of a remote
commune to be relieved from the charge of maintaining a certain mortuary
lamp which had been a matter of seignorial obligation. The work done by
the radical jurisconsults was never undone. It was the great and
durable reward of the struggle. And we have to remember that these
industrious and efficient bodies, as well as all other public bodies and
functionaries whatever, were placed by the definite revolutionary
constitution of 1793 under the direct orders of the Committee of Public

       *       *       *       *       *

It is hardly possible even now for any one who exults in the memory of
the great deliverance of a brilliant and sociable people, to stand
unmoved before the walls of that palace which Philibert Delorme reared
for Catherine de' Medici, and which was thrown into ruin by the madness
of a band of desperate men in our own days. Lewis had walked forth from
the Tuileries on the fatal morning of the Tenth of August, holding his
children by the hand, and lightly noticing, as he traversed the gardens,
how early that year the leaves were falling. Lewis had by this time
followed the fallen leaves into nothingness. The palace of the kings was
now styled the Palace of the Nation, and the new republic carried on its
work surrounded by the outward associations of the old monarchy. The
Convention after the spring of 1793 held its sittings in what had
formerly been the palace theatre. Fierce men from the Faubourgs of St.
Antoine and St. Marceau, and fiercer women from the markets, shouted
savage applause or menace from galleries, where not so long ago the
Italian buffoons had amused the perpetual leisure of the finest ladies
and proudest grandees of France. The Committee of General Security
occupied the Pavillon de Marsan, looking over a dingy space that the
conqueror at Rivoli afterwards made the most dazzling street in Europe.
The Committee of Public Safety sat in the Pavillon de Flore, at the
opposite end of the Tuileries on the river bank. The approaches were
protected by guns and by a bodyguard, while inside there flitted to and
fro a cloud of familiars, who have been compared by the enemies of the
great Committee to the mutes of the court of the Grand Turk. Any one who
had business with this awful body had to grope his way along gloomy
corridors, that were dimly lighted by a single lamp at either end. The
room in which the Committee sat round a table of green cloth was
incongruously gay with the clocks, the bronzes, the mirrors, the
tapestries, of the ruined court. The members met at eight in the morning
and worked until one; from one to four they attended the sitting of the
Convention. In the evening they met again, and usually sat until night
was far advanced. It was no wonder if their hue became cadaverous, their
eyes hollow and bloodshot, their brows stern, their glance preoccupied
and sinister. Between ten and eleven every evening a sombre piece of
business was transacted, which has half effaced in the memory of
posterity all the heroic industry of the rest of the twenty-four hours.
It was then that Fouquier-Tinville, the public prosecutor, brought an
account of his day's labour; how the revolutionary tribunal was working,
how many had been convicted and how many acquitted, how large or how
small had been the batch of the guillotine since the previous night.
Across the breadth of the gardens, beyond their trees and fountains,
stood the Monster itself, with its cruel symmetry, its colour as of the
blood of the dead, its unheeding knife, neutral as the Fates.

Robespierre has been held responsible for all the violences of the
revolutionary government, and his position on the Committee appeared to
be exceedingly strong. It was, however, for a long time much less strong
in reality than it seemed: all depended upon successfully playing off
one force against another, and at the same time maintaining himself at
the centre of the see-saw. Robespierre was the literary and rhetorical
member of the band; he was the author of the strident manifestoes in
which Europe listened with exasperation to the audacious hopes and
unfaltering purpose of the new France. This had the effect of investing
him in the eyes of foreign nations with supreme and undisputed authority
over the government. The truth is, that Robespierre was both disliked
and despised by his colleagues. They thought of him as a mere maker of
useful phrases; he in turn secretly looked down upon them, as the man
who has a doctrine and a system in his head always looks down upon the
man who lives from hand to mouth. If the Committee had been in the place
of a government which has no opposition to fear, Robespierre would have
been one of its least powerful members. But although the government was
strong, there were at least three potent elements of opposition even
within the ranks of the dominant revolutionary party itself.

Three bodies in Paris were, each of them, the centre of an influence
that might at any moment become the triumphant rival of the Committee of
Public Safety. These bodies were, first, the Convention; second, the
Commune of Paris; and thirdly, the Jacobin Club. The jealousy thus
existing outside the Committee would have made any failure instantly
destructive. At one moment, at the end of 1793, it was only the
surrender of Toulon that saved the Committee from a hostile motion in
the Convention, and such a motion would have sent half of them to the
guillotine. They were reviled by the extreme party who ruled at the Town
Hall for not carrying the policy of extermination far enough. They were
reproached by Danton and his powerful section for carrying that policy
too far. They were discredited by the small band of intriguers, like
Bazire, who identified government with peculation. Finally, they were
haunted by the shadow of a fear, which events were by and by to prove
only too substantial, lest one of their military agents on the frontier
should make himself their master. The key to the struggle of the
factions between the winter of 1793 and the revolution of the summer of
1794 is the vigorous resolve of the governing Committees not to part
with power. The drama is one of the most exciting in the history of
faction; it abounds in rapid turns and unexpected shifts, upon which the
student may spend many a day and many a night, and after all he is
forced to leave off in despair of threading an accurate way through the
labyrinth of passion and intrigue. The broad traits of the situation,
however, are tolerably simple. The difficulty was to find a principle of
government which the people could be induced to accept. 'The rights of
men and the new principles of liberty and equality,' Burke said, 'were
very unhandy instruments for those who wished to establish a system of
tranquillity and order. The factions,' he added with fierce sarcasm,
'were to accomplish the purposes of order, morality, and submission to
the laws, from the principles of atheism, profligacy, and sedition. They
endeavoured to establish distinctions, by the belief of which they hoped
to keep the spirit of murder safely bottled up and sealed for their own
purposes, without endangering themselves by the fumes of the poison
which they prepared for their enemies.' This is a ferocious and
passionate version, but it is substantially not an unreal account of the

Upon one point all parties agreed, and that was the necessity of
founding the government upon force, and force naturally meant Terror.
Their plea was that of Dido to Ilioneus and the stormbeaten sons of
Dardanus, when they complained that her people had drawn the sword upon
them, and barbarously denied the hospitality of the sandy shore:--

   Res dura et regni novitas me talia cogunt Moliri.

And that pithy chapter in Machiavelli's _Prince_ which treats of cruelty
and clemency, and whether it be better to be loved or feared,
anticipates the defence of the Terrorists, in the maxim that for a new
prince it is impossible to avoid the name of cruel, because all new
states abound in many perils. The difference arose on the question when
Terror should be considered to have done as much of its work as it could
be expected to do. This difference again was connected with difference
of conception as to the type of the society which was ultimately to
emerge from the existing chaos. Billaud-Varennes, the guiding spirit of
the Committees, was without any conception of this kind. He was a man of
force pure and simple. Danton was equally untouched by dreams of social
transformation; his philosophy, so far as he had a definite philosophy,
was, in spite of one or two inconsistent utterances, materialistic: and
materialism, when it takes root in a sane, perspicacious, and indulgent
character, as in the case of Danton, and, to take a better-known
example, in the case of Jefferson, usually leads to a sound and positive
theory of politics; chimeras have no place in it, though a rational
social hope has the first place of all. Neither Danton nor Billaud
expected a millennium; their only aim was to shape France into a
coherent political personality, and the war between them turned upon the
policy of prolonging the Terror after the frontiers had been saved and
the risings in the provinces put down. There were, however, two parties
who took the literature of the century in earnest; they thought that the
hour had struck for translating, one of them, the sentimentalism of
Rousseau, the other of them, the rationality of Voltaire and Diderot,
into terms of politics that should form the basis of a new social life.
The strife between the faction of Robespierre and the faction of
Chaumette was the reproduction, under the shadow of the guillotine, of
the great literary strife of a quarter of a century before between Jean
Jacques and the writers whom he contemptuously styled Holbachians. The
battle of the books had become a battle between bands of infuriated men.
The struggle between Hébert and Chaumette and the Common Council of
Paris on the one part, and the Committee and Robespierre on the other,
was the concrete form of the deepest controversy that lies before modern
society. Can the social union subsist without a belief in God? Chaumette
answered Yes, and Robespierre cried No. Robespierre followed Rousseau in
thinking that any one who should refuse to recognise the existence of a
God, should be exiled as a monster devoid of the faculties of virtue and
sociability. Chaumette followed Diderot, and Diderot told Samuel Romilly
in 1783 that belief in God, as well as submission to kings, would be at
an end all over the world in a very few years. The Hébertists might have
taken for their motto Diderot's shocking couplet, if they could have
known it, about using

   Les entrailles du prêtre
   Au défaut d'un cordon pour étrangler les rois.

The theists and the atheists, Chaumette and Robespierre, each of them
accepted the doctrine that it was in the power of the armed legislator
to impose any belief and any rites he pleased upon the country at his
feet. The theism or the atheism of the new France depended, as they
thought, on the issue of the war for authority between the Hébertists in
the Common Council of Paris, and the Committee of Public Safety. That
was the religious side of the attitude of the government to the
opposition, and it is the side that possesses most historic interest.
Billaud cared very little for religion in any way; his quarrel with the
Commune and with Hébert was political. What Robespierre's drift appears
to have been, was to use the political animosity of the Committee as a
means of striking foes, against whom his own animosity was not only
political but religious also.

It would doubtless show a very dull apprehension of the violence and
confusion of the time, to suppose that even Robespierre, with all his
love for concise theories, was accustomed to state his aim to himself
with the definite neatness in which it appears when reduced to literary
statement. Pedant as he was, he was yet enough of a politician to see
the practical urgency of restoring material order, whatever spiritual
belief or disbelief might accompany it. The prospect of a rallying point
for material order was incessantly changing; and Robespierre turned to
different quarters in search of it almost from week to week. He was only
able to exert a certain limited authority over his colleagues in the
government, by virtue of his influence over the various sections of
possible opposition, and this was a moral, and not an official,
influence. It was acquired not by marked practical gifts, for in truth
Robespierre did not possess them, but by his good character, by his
rhetoric, and by the skill with which he kept himself prominently before
the public eye. The effective seat of his power, notwithstanding many
limits and incessant variations, was the Jacobin Club. There a speech
from him threw his listeners into ecstasies, that have been
disrespectfully compared to the paroxysms of Jansenist convulsionaries,
or the hysterics of Methodist negroes on a cotton plantation. We
naturally think of those grave men who a few years before had founded
the republic in America. Jefferson served with Washington in the
Virginian legislature and with Franklin in Congress, and he afterwards
said that he never heard either of them speak ten minutes at a time;
while John Adams declared that he never heard Jefferson utter three
sentences together. Of Robespierre it is stated on good authority that
for eighteen months there was not a single evening on which he did not
make to the assembled Jacobins at least one speech, and that never a
short one.

Strange as it may seem, Robespierre's credit with this grim assembly was
due to his truly Philistine respectability and to his literary faculty.
He figured as the philosopher and bookman of the party: the most
iconoclastic politicians are usually willing to respect the scholar,
provided they are sure of his being on their side. Robespierre had from
the first discountenanced the fantastic caprices of some too excitable
allies. He distrusted the noisy patriots of the middle class, who
curried favour with the crowd by clothing themselves in coarse garments,
clutching a pike, and donning the famous cap of red woollen, which had
been the emblem of the emancipation of a slave in ancient Rome. One
night at the Jacobin Club, Robespierre mounted the tribune, dressed with
his usual elaborate neatness, and still wearing powder in his hair. An
onlooker unceremoniously planted on the orator's head the red cap
demanded by revolutionary etiquette. Robespierre threw the sacred symbol
on the ground with a severe air, and then proceeded with a discourse of
much austerity. Not that he was averse to a certain seemly decoration,
or to the embodiment of revolutionary sentiment by means of a symbolism
that strikes our cooler imagination as rather puerile. He was as ready
as others to use the arts of the theatre for the liturgy of patriots.
One of the most touching of all the minor dramatic incidents of the
Revolution was the death of Barra. This was a child of thirteen who
enrolled himself as a drummer, and marched with the Blues to suppress
the rebel Whites in La Vendée. One day he advanced too close to the
enemy's post, intrepidly beating the charge. He was surrounded, but the
peasant soldiers were loth to strike, 'Cry _Long live the King!_' they
shouted, 'or else death!' 'Long live the Republic!' was the poor little
hero's answer, as a ball pierced his heart. Robespierre described the
incident to the Convention, and amid prodigious enthusiasm demanded that
the body of the young martyr of liberty should be transported to the
Pantheon with special pomp, and that David, the artist of the
Revolution, should be charged with the duty of devising and embellishing
the festival. As it happened, the arrangements were made for the
ceremony to take place on the Tenth of Thermidor--a day on which
Robespierre and all Paris were concerned about a celebration of bloodier
import. Thermidor, however, was still far off; and the red sun of
Jacobin enthusiasm seemed as if it would shine unclouded for ever.

Even at the Jacobins, however, popular as he was, Robespierre felt every
instant the necessity of walking cautiously. He was as far removed as
possible from that position of Dictator which some historians with a
wearisome iteration persist in ascribing to him, even at the moment when
they are enumerating the defeats which the party of Hébert was able to
inflict upon him in the very bosom of the Mother Club itself. They make
him the sanguinary dictator in one sentence, and the humiliated
intriguer in the next. The latter is much the more correct account of
the two, if we choose to call a man an intriguer who was honestly
anxious to suppress what he considered a wicked faction, and yet had
need of some dexterity to keep his own head upon his shoulders.

       *       *       *       *       *

In the winter of 1793 the Municipal party, guided by Hébert and
Chaumette, made their memorable attempt to extirpate Christianity in
France. The doctrine of D'Holbach's supper-table had for a short space
the arm of flesh and the sword of the temporal power on its side. It was
the first appearance of dogmatic atheism in Europe as a political force.
This makes it one of the most remarkable moments in the Revolution, just
as it makes the Revolution itself the most remarkable moment in modern
history. The first political demonstration of atheism was attended by
some of the excesses, the folly, the extravagances that stained the
growth of Christianity. On the whole it is a very mild story compared
with the atrocities of the Jewish records or the crimes of Catholicism.
The worst charge against the party of Chaumette is that they were
intolerant, and the charge is deplorably true; but this charge cannot
lie in the mouth of persecuting churches.

Historical recriminations, however, are not very edifying. It is
perfectly fair when Catholics talk of the atheist Terror, to rejoin that
the retainers of Anjou and Montpensier slew more men and women on the
first day of the Saint Bartholomew than perished in Paris through the
Years I. and II. But the retort does us no good beyond the region of
dialectic; it rather brings us down to the level of the poor sectaries
whom it crushes. Let us raise ourselves into clearer air. The fault of
the atheist is that they knew no better than to borrow the maxims of the
churchmen; and even those who agree with the dogmatic denials of the
atheists--if such there be--ought yet to admit that the mere change from
superstition to reason is a small gain, if the conclusions of reason are
still to be enforced by the instruments of superstition. Our opinions
are less important than the spirit and temper with which they possess
us, and even good opinions are worth very little unless we hold them in
a broad, intelligent, and spacious way. Now some of the opinions of
Chaumette were full of enlightenment and hope. He had a generous and
vivid faith in humanity, and he showed the natural effect of abandoning
belief in another life by his energetic interest in arrangements for
improving the lot of man in this life. But it would be far better to
share the superstitious opinions of a virtuous and benignant priest like
the Bishop in Victor Hugo's _Misérables_, than to hold those good
opinions of Chaumette as he held them, with a rancorous intolerance, a
reckless disregard of the rights and feelings of others, and a shallow
forgetfulness of all that great and precious part of our natures that
lies out of the immediate domain of the logical understanding. One can
understand how an honest man would abhor the darkness and tyranny of the
Church. But then to borrow the same absolutism in the interests of new
light, was inevitably to bring the new light into the same abhorrence
as had befallen the old system of darkness. And this is exactly what
happened. In every family where a mother sought to have her child
baptized, or where sons and daughters sought to have the dying spirit of
the old consoled by the last sacrament, there sprang up a bitter enemy
to the government which had closed the churches and proscribed the

How could a society whose spiritual life had been nourished in the
solemn mysticism of the Middle Ages, suddenly turn to embrace a gaudy
paganism? The common self-respect of humanity was outraged by apostate
priests who, whether under the pressure of fear of Chaumette, or in a
very superfluity of folly and ecstasy of degradation, hastened to
proclaim the charlatanry of their past lives, as they filed before the
Convention, led by the Archbishop of Paris, and accompanied by rude
acolytes bearing piles of the robes and the vessels of silver and gold
with which they had once served their holy offices. 'Our enemies,'
Voltaire had said, 'have always on their side the fat of the land, the
sword, the strong box, and the _canaille_.' For a moment all these
forces were on the other side, and it is deplorable to think that they
were as much abused by their new masters as by the old. The explanation
is that the destructive party had been brought up in the schools of the
ecclesiastical party, and their work was a mere outbreak of mutiny, not
a grave and responsible attempt to lead France to a worthier faith. If,
as Chaumette believed, mankind are the only Providence of men, surely
in that faith more than in any other are we bound to be very solicitous
not to bring the violent hand of power on any of the spiritual
acquisitions of the race, and very patient in dealing with the slowness
of the common people to leave their outworn creeds.

Instead of defying the Church by the theatrical march of the Goddess of
Reason under the great sombre arches of the Cathedral of Our Lady,
Chaumette should have found comfort in a firm calculation of the
conditions. 'You,' he might have said to the priests,--'you have so
debilitated the minds of men and women by your promises and your dreams,
that many a generation must come and go before Europe can throw off the
yoke of your superstition. But we promise you that they shall be
generations of strenuous battle. We give you all the advantages that you
can get from the sincerity and pious worth of the good and simple among
you. We give you all that the bad among you may get by resort to the
poisoned weapons of your profession and its traditions,--its bribes to
mental indolence, its hypocritical affectations in the pulpit, its
tyranny in the closet, its false speciousness in the world, its menace
at the deathbed. With all these you may do your worst, and still
humanity will escape you; still the conscience of the race will rise
away from you; still the growth of brighter ideals and a nobler purpose
will go on, leaving ever further and further behind them your dwarfed
finality and leaden moveless stereotype. We shall pass you by on your
flank; your fieriest darts will only spend themselves on air. We will
not attack you as Voltaire did; we will not exterminate you; we shall
explain you. History will place your dogma in its class, above or below
a hundred competing dogmas, exactly as the naturalist classifies his
species. From being a conviction, it will sink to a curiosity; from
being the guide to millions of human lives, it will dwindle down to a
chapter in a book. As History explains your dogma, so Science will dry
it up; the conception of law will silently make the conception of the
daily miracle of your altars seem impossible; the mental climate will
gradually deprive your symbols of their nourishment, and men will turn
their backs on your system, not because they have confuted it, but
because, like witchcraft or astrology, it has ceased to interest them.
The great ship of your Church, once so stout and fair and well laden
with good destinies, is become a skeleton ship; it is a phantom hulk,
with warped planks and sere canvas, and you who work it are no more than
ghosts of dead men, and at the hour when you seem to have reached the
bay, down your ship will sink like lead or like stone to the deepest

Alas, the speculation of the century had not rightly attuned men's minds
to this firm confidence in the virtue of liberty, sounding like a bell
through all distractions. None of these high things were said. The
temples were closed, the sacred symbols defiled, the priests
maltreated, the worshippers dispersed. The Commune of Paris imitated the
policy of the King of France who revoked the Edict of Nantes, and
democratic atheism parodied the dragonnades of absolutist Catholicism.

       *       *       *       *       *

Robespierre was unutterably outraged by the proceedings of the atheists.
They perplexed him as a politician intent upon order, and they afflicted
him sorely as an ardent disciple of the Savoyard Vicar. Hébert, however,
was so strong that it needed some courage to attack him, nor did
Robespierre dare to withstand him to the face. But he did not flinch
from making an energetic assault upon atheism and the excesses of its
partisans. His admirers usually count his speech of the Twenty-first of
November one of the most admirable of his oratorical successes. The
Sphinx still sits inexorable at our gates, and his words have lost none
of their interest. 'Every philosopher and every individual,' he said,
'may adopt whatever opinion he pleases about atheism. Any one who wishes
to make such an opinion into a crime is an insensate; but the public man
or the legislator who should adopt such a system, would be a hundred
times more insensate still. The National Convention abhors it. The
Convention is not the author of a scheme of metaphysics. It was not to
no purpose that it published the Declaration of the Rights of Man in
presence of the Supreme Being. I shall be told perhaps that I have a
narrow intelligence, that I am a man of prejudice, and a fanatic. I
have already said that I spoke neither as an individual nor as a
philosopher with a system, but as a representative of the people.
_Atheism is aristocratic. The idea of a great being who watches over
oppressed innocence and punishes triumphant crime is essentially the
idea of the people._ This is the sentiment of Europe and the Universe;
it is the sentiment of the French nation. That people is attached
neither to priests, nor to superstition, nor to ceremonies; it is
attached only to worship in itself, or in other words to the idea of an
incomprehensible Power, the terror of wrongdoers, the stay and comfort
of virtue, to which it delights to render words of homage that are all
so many anathemas against injustice and triumphant crime.'

This is Robespierre's favourite attitude, the priest posing as
statesman. Like others, he declares the Supreme Power incomprehensible,
and then describes him in terms of familiar comprehension. He first
declares atheism an open choice, and then he brands it with the most
odious epithet in the accepted vocabulary of the hour. Danton followed
practically the same line, though saying much less about it. 'If
Greece,' he said in the Convention, 'had its Olympian games, France too
shall solemnise her sans-culottid days. The people will have high
festivals; they will offer incense to the Supreme Being, to the master
of nature; for we never intended to annihilate the reign of superstition
in order to set up the reign of atheism.... If we have not honoured the
priest of error and fanaticism, neither do we wish to honour the priest
of incredulity: we wish to serve the people. I demand that there shall
be an end of these anti-religious masquerades in the Convention.'

There was an end of the masquerading, but the Hébertists still kept
their ground. Danton, Robespierre, and the Committee were all equally
impotent against them for some months longer. The revolutionary force
had been too strong to be resisted by any government since the Paris
insurgents had carried both King and Assembly in triumph from Versailles
in the October of 1789. It was now too strong for those who had begun to
strive with all their might to build a new government out of the
agencies that had shattered the old to pieces. For some months the
battle which had been opened by Robespierre's remonstrance against
atheistic intolerance, degenerated into a series of masked skirmishes.
The battle-ground of rival principles was overshadowed by the baleful
wings of the genius of demonic Hate. _Vexilla regis prodeunt inferni_;
the banners of the King of the Pit came forth. The scene at the
Cordeliers for a time became as frantic as a Council of the Early Church
settling the true composition of the Holy Trinity. Or it recalls the
fierce and bloody contentions between Demos and Oligarchy in an old
Greek town. We think of the day in the harbour of Corcyra when the
Athenian admiral who had come to deliver the people, sailed out to meet
the Spartan enemy, and on turning round to see if his Corcyrean allies
were following, saw them following indeed, but the crew of every ship
striving in enraged conflict with one another. Collot D'Herbois had come
back in hot haste from Lyons, where, along with Fouché, he had done his
best to carry out the decree of the Convention, that not one stone of
the city should be left on the top of another, and that even its very
name should cease from the lips of men. Carrier was recalled from
Nantes, where his feats of ingenious massacre had rivalled the exploits
of the cruellest and maddest of the Roman Emperors. The presence of
these men of blood gave new courage and resolution to the Hébertists.
Though the alliance was informal, yet as against Danton, Camille
Desmoulins, and the rest of the Indulgents, as well as against
Robespierre, they made common cause.

Camille Desmoulins attacked Hébert in successive numbers of a journal
that is perhaps the one truly literary monument of this stage of the
revolution. Hébert retaliated by impugning the patriotism of Desmoulins
in the Club, and the unfortunate wit, notwithstanding the efforts of
Robespierre on his behalf, was for a while turned out of the sacred
precincts. The power of the extreme faction was shown in relation to
other prominent members of the party whom they loved to stigmatise by
the deadly names of Indulgent and Moderantist. Even Danton himself was
attacked (December 1793), and the integrity of his patriotism brought
into question. Robespierre made an energetic defence of his great rival
in the hierarchy of revolution, and the defence saved Danton from the
mortal ignominy of expulsion from the communion of the orthodox. On the
other hand, Anacharsis Clootz, that guileless ally of the party of
delirium, was less fortunate. Robespierre assailed the cosmopolitan for
being a German baron, for having four thousand pounds a year, and for
striking his sans-culottism some notes higher than the regular pitch.
Even M. Louis Blanc calls this an iniquity, and sets it down as the
worst page in Robespierre's life. Others have described Robespierre as
struck at this time by the dire malady of kings--hatred of the Idea. It
seems, however, a hard saying that devotion to the Idea is to extinguish
common sense. Clootz, notwithstanding his simple and disinterested
character, and his possession of some rays of the modern illumination,
was one of the least sane of all the men who in the exultation of their
silly gladness were suddenly caught up by that great wheel of fire. All
we can say is that Robespierre's bitter demeanour towards Clootz was
ungenerous; but then this is only natural in him. Robespierre often
clothed cool policy in the semblance of clemency, but I cannot hear in
any phrase he ever used, or see in any measure he ever proposed, the
mark of true generosity; of kingliness of spirit, not a trace. He had no
element of ready and cordial propitiation, an element that can never be
wanting in the greatest leaders in time of storm. If he resisted the
atrocious proposals to put Madame Elizabeth to death, he was thinking
not of mercy or justice, but of the mischievous effect that her
execution would have upon the public opinion of Europe, and he was so
unmanly as to speak of her as _la méprisable soeur de Louis XVI_. Such
a phrase is the disclosure of an abject stratum in his soul.

Yet this did not prevent him from seeing and denouncing the bloody
extravagances of the Proconsuls, the representatives of Parisian
authority in the provinces; nor from standing firm against the execution
of the Seventy-Three, who had been bold enough to question the purgation
of the National Convention on the Thirty-first of May. But the return of
Collot d'Herbois made the situation more intricate. Collot was by his
position the ally of Billaud, and to attack him, therefore, was to
attack the most powerful member of the Committee of Public Safety.
Billaud was too formidable. He was always the impersonation of the ruder
genius of the Revolution, and the incarnation of the philosophy of the
Terror, not as a delirium, but as a piece of deliberate policy. His
pale, sober, and concentrated physiognomy seemed a perpetual menace. He
had no gifts of speech, but his silence made people shudder, like the
silence of the thunder when the tempest rages at its height. It was said
by contemporaries that if Vadier was a hyæna, Barère a jackal, and
Robespierre a cat, Billaud was a tiger.

The cat perceived that he was in danger of not having the tiger, jackal,
and hyæna, on his side. Robespierre, in whom spasmodical courage and
timidity ruled by rapid turns, began to suspect that he had been
premature; and a convenient illness, which some suppose to have been
feigned, excused his withdrawal for some weeks from a scene where he
felt that he could no longer see clear. We cannot doubt that both he and
Danton were perfectly assured that the anarchic party must unavoidably
roll headlong into the abyss. But the hour of doom was uncertain. To
make a mistake in the right moment, to hurry the crisis, was instant
death. Robespierre was a more adroit calculator than Danton. We must not
confound his thin and querulous reserve with that stout and deep-browed
patience, which may imply as superb a fortitude, and may demand as much
iron control in a statesman, as the most heroic exploits of political
energy. But his habit of waiting on force, instead of, like the other,
taking the initiative with force, had trained his sight. The mixture of
astuteness with his scruple, of egoistic policy with his stiffness for
doctrine, gave him an advantage over Danton, that made his life worth
exactly three months' more purchase than Danton's. It has been said that
Spinozism or Transcendentalism in poetic production becomes
Machiavellism in reflection: for the same reasons we may always expect
sentimentalism in theory to become under the pressure of action a very
self-protecting guile. Robespierre's mind was not rich nor flexible
enough for true statesmanship, and it is a grave mistake to suppose that
the various cunning tacks in which his career abounds, were any sign of
genuine versatility or resource or political growth and expansion. They
were, in fact, the resort of a man whose nerves were weaker than his
volition. Robespierre was a kind of spinster. Force of head did not
match his spiritual ambition. He was not, we repeat, a coward in any
common sense; in that case he would have remained quiet among the
croaking frogs of the Marsh, and by and by have come to hold a portfolio
under the first Consul. He did not fear death, and he envied with
consuming envy those to whom nature had given the qualities of
initiative. But his nerves always played him false. The consciousness of
having to resolve to take a decided step alone, was the precursor of a
fit of trembling. His heart did not fail, but he could not control the
parched voice, nor the twitching features, not the ghastly palsy of
inner misgiving. In this respect Robespierre recalls a more illustrious
man; we think of Cicero tremblingly calling upon the Senate to decide
for him whether he should order the execution of the Catilinarian
conspirators. It is to be said, however, in his favour that he had the
art, which Cicero lacked, to hide his pusillanimity. Robespierre knew
himself, and did his best to keep his own secret.

His absence during the final crisis of the anarchic party allowed events
to ripen, without committing him to that initiative in dangerous action
which he had dreaded on the Tenth of August, as he dreaded it on every
other decisive day of this burning time. The party of the Commune
became more and more daring in their invectives against the Convention
and the Committees. At length they proclaimed open insurrection. But
Paris was cold, and opinion was divided. In the night of the Thirteenth
of March, Hébert, Chaumette, Clootz, were arrested. The next day
Robespierre recovered sufficiently to appear at the Jacobin Club. He
joined his colleagues of the Committee of Public Safety in striking the
blow. On the Twenty-fourth of March the Ultra-Revolutionist leaders were

The first bloody breach in the Jacobin ranks was speedily followed by
the second. The Right wing of the opposition to the Committee soon
followed the Left down the ways to dusty death, and the execution of the
Anarchists only preceded by a week the arrest of the Moderates. When the
seizure of Danton had once before been discussed in the Committee,
Robespierre resisted the proposal violently. We have already seen how he
defended Danton at the Jacobin Club, when the Club underwent the process
of purification in the winter. What produced this sudden tack? How came
Robespierre to assent in March to a violence which he had angrily
discountenanced in February? There had been no change in the policy or
attitude of Danton himself. The military operations against the domestic
and foreign enemies were no sooner fairly in the way of success, than
Danton began to meditate in serious earnest the consolidation of a
republican system of law and justice. He would fain have stayed the
Terror. 'Let us leave something,' he said, 'to the guillotine of
opinion.' He aided, no doubt, in the formation of the Revolutionary
Tribunal, but this was exactly in harmony with his usual policy of
controlling popular violence without alienating the strength of popular
sympathy. The process of the tribunal was rough and summary, but it was
fairer--until Robespierre's Law of Prairial--than people usually
suppose, and it was the very temple of the goddess of Justice herself
compared with the September massacres. 'Let us prove ourselves
terrible,' Danton said, 'to relieve the people from the necessity of
being so.' His activity had been incessant in urging and superintending
the great levies against the foreigner; he had gone repeatedly on
distant and harassing expeditions, as the representative of the
Convention at the camps on the frontier. In the midst of all this he
found time to press forward measures for the instruction of the young,
and for the due appointment of judges, and his head was full of ideas
for the construction of a permanent executive council. It was this which
made him eager for a cessation of the method of Terror, and it was this
which made the Committee of Public Safety his implacable enemy.

Why, then, did Robespierre, who also passed as a man of order and
humanity, not continue to support Danton after the suppression of the
Hébertists, as he had supported him before? The common and facile answer
is that he was moved by a malignant desire to put a rival out of the
way. On the whole, the evidence seems to support Napoleon's opinion that
Robespierre was incapable of voting for the death of anybody in the
world on grounds of personal enmity. And his acquiescence in the ruin of
Danton is intelligible enough on the grounds of selfish policy. The
Committee hated Danton for the good reason that he had openly attacked
them, and his cry for clemency was an inflammatory and dangerous protest
against their system. Now Robespierre, rightly or wrongly, had made up
his mind that the Committee was the instrument by which, and which only,
he could work out his own vague schemes of power and reconstruction.
And, in any case, how could he resist the Committee? The famous
insurrectionary force of Paris, which Danton had been the first to
organise against a government, had just been chilled by the fall of the
Hébertists. Least of all could this force be relied upon to rise in
defence of the very chief whose every word for many weeks past had been
a protest against the Communal leaders. In separating himself from the
Ultras, Danton had cut off the great reservoir of his peculiar strength.

It may be said that the Convention was the proper centre of resistance
to the designs of the Committee, and that if Danton and Robespierre had
united their forces in the Convention they would have defeated Billaud
and his allies. This seems to us more than doubtful. The Committee had
acquired an immense preponderance over the Convention. They had been
eminently successful in the immense tasks imposed upon them. They had
the prestige not only of being the government--so great a thing in a
country that had just emerged from the condition of a centralised
monarchy; they had also the prestige of being a government that had done
its work triumphantly. We are now in March. In July we shall find that
Robespierre adopted the very policy that we are now discussing, of
playing off the Convention against the Committee. In July that policy
ended in his headlong fall. Why should it have been any more successful
four months earlier?

What we may say is, that Robespierre was bound in all morality to defend
Danton in the Convention at every hazard. Possibly so; but then to run
risks for chivalry's sake was not in Robespierre's nature, and no man
can climb out beyond the limitations of his own character. His narrow
head and thin blood and instable nerve, his calculating humour and his
frigid egoism, disinclined him to all games of chance. His apologists
have sought to put a more respectable colour on his abandonment of
Danton. The precisian, they say, disapproved of Danton's lax and
heedless courses. Danton said to him one day:--'What do I care? Public
opinion is a strumpet, and posterity a piece of nonsense.' How should
the puritanical lawyer endure such cynicism as this? And Danton
delighted in inflicting these coarse shocks. Again, Danton had given
various gross names of contempt to Saint Just. Was Robespierre not to
feel insults offered to the ablest and most devoted of his lieutenants?
What was more important than all, the acclamations with which the
partisans of reaction greeted the fall of the Ultras, made it necessary
to give instant and unmistakable notice to the foes of the Revolution
that the goddess of the scorching eye and fiery hand still grasped the
axe of her vengeance.

These are pleas invented after the fact. All goes to show that
Robespierre was really moved by nothing more than his invariable dread
of being left behind, of finding himself on the weaker side, of not
seeming practical and political enough. And having made up his mind that
the stronger party was bent on the destruction of the Dantonists, he
became fiercer than Billaud himself. It is constantly seen that the
waverer, of nervous atrabiliar constitution, no sooner overcomes the
agony of irresolution, than he flings himself on his object with a
vindictive tenacity that seems to repay him for all the moral
humiliation inflicted on him by his stifled doubts. He redeems the
slowness of his approach by the fury of his spring. 'Robespierre,' says
M. d'Héricault, 'precipitated himself to the front of the opinion that
was yelling against his friends of yesterday. In order to keep his usual
post in the van of the Revolution, in order to secure the advantage to
his own popularity of an execution which the public voice seemed to
demand, he came forward as the author of that execution, though only the
day before he had hesitated about its utility, and though it was, in
truth far less useful to him than it proved to be to his future

Robespierre first alarmed Danton's friends by assuming a certain icy
coldness of manner, and by some menacing phrases about the faction of
the so-called Moderates. Danton had gone, as he often did, to his native
village of Arcis-sur-Aube, to seek repose and a little clearness of
sight in the night that wrapped him about. He was devoid of personal
ambition; he never had any humour for mere factious struggles. His,
again, was the temperament of violent force, and in such types the
reaction is always tremendous. The indomitable activity of the last
twenty months had bred weariness of spirit. The nemesis of a career of
strenuous Will in large natures is apt to be a sudden sense of the irony
of things. In Danton, as with Byron it happened afterwards, the
vehemence of the revolutionary spirit was touched by this desolating
irony. His friends tried to rouse him. It is not clear that he could
have done anything. The balance of force, after the suppression of the
Hébertists, was irretrievably against him, as calculation had already
revealed to Robespierre.

There are various stories of the pair having met at dinner almost on the
eve of Danton's arrest, and parting with sombre disquietude on both
sides. The interview, with its champagne, its interlocutors, its play of
sinister repartee, may possibly have taken place, but the alleged
details are plainly apocryphal. After all, 'Religion ist in der Thiere
Trieb,' says Wallenstein; 'the very savage drinks not with the victim,
into whose breast he means to plunge a sword.' Danton was warned that
Robespierre was plotting his arrest. 'If I thought he had the bare
idea,' said Danton with something of Gargantuan hyperbole, 'I would eat
his bowels out.' Such was the disdain with which the 'giant of the
mighty bone and bold emprise' thought of our meagre-hearted pedant. The
truth is that in the stormy and distracted times of politics, and
perhaps in all times, contempt is a dangerous luxury. A man may be a
very poor creature, and still have a faculty for mischief. And
Robespierre had this faculty in the case of Danton. With singular
baseness, he handed over to Saint Just a collection of notes, to serve
as material for the indictment which Saint Just was to present to the
Convention. They comprised everything that suspicion could interpret
malignantly, from the most conspicuous acts of Danton's public life,
down to the casual freedom of private discourse.

Another infamy was to follow. After the arrest, and on the proceedings
to obtain the assent of the Convention to the trial of Danton and others
of its members, one only of their friends had the courage to rise and
demand that they should be heard at the bar. Robespierre burst out in
cold rage; he asked whether they had undergone so many heroic
sacrifices, counting among them these acts of 'painful severity,' only
to fall under the yoke of a band of domineering intriguers; and he cried
out impatiently that they would brook no claim of privilege, and suffer
no rotten idol. The word was felicitously chosen, for the Convention
dreaded to have its independence suspected, and it dreaded this all the
more because at this time its independence did not really exist. The
vote against Danton was unanimous, and the fact that it was so is the
deepest stain on the fame of this assembly. On the afternoon of the
Sixteenth Germinal (April 5, 1794) Paris in amazement and some
stupefaction saw the once-dreaded Titan of the Mountain fast bound in
the tumbril, and faring towards the sharp-clanging knife. 'I leave it
all in a frightful welter,' Danton is reported to have said. 'Not a man
of them has an idea of government. Robespierre will follow me; he is
dragged down by me. Ah, better be a poor fisherman than meddle with the
governing of men!'

       *       *       *       *       *

Let us pause for a moment over a calmer reminiscence. This was the very
day on which the virtuous and high-minded Condorcet quitted the friendly
roof that for nine months had concealed him from the search of
proscription. The same week he was found dead in his prison. While
Danton was storming with impotent thunder before the tribunal, Condorcet
was writing those closing words of his Sketch of Human Progress, which
are always so full of strength and edification. 'How this picture of the
human race freed from all its fetters,--withdrawn from the empire of
chance, as from that of the enemies of progress, and walking with firm
and assured step in the way of truth, of virtue, and happiness, presents
to the philosopher a sight that consoles him for the errors, the crimes,
the injustice, with which the earth is yet stained, and of which he is
not seldom the victim! It is in the contemplation of this picture that
he receives the reward of his efforts for the progress of reason, for
the defence of liberty. He ventures to link them with the eternal chain
of the destinies of man: it is there he finds the true recompense of
virtue, the pleasure of having done a lasting good; fate can no longer
undo it, by any disastrous compensation that shall restore prejudice and
bondage. This contemplation is for him a refuge, into which the
recollection of his persecutors can never follow him; in which, living
in thought with man reinstated in the rights and the dignity of his
nature, he forgets man tormented and corrupted by greed, by base fear,
by envy: it is here that he truly abides with his fellows, in an elysium
that his reason has known how to create for itself, and that his love
for humanity adorns with all purest delights.'

       *       *       *       *       *

In following the turns of the drama which was to end in the tragedy of
Thermidor, we perceive that after the fall of the anarchists and the
death of Danton, the relations between Robespierre and the Committees
underwent a change. He, who had hitherto been on the side of government,
became in turn an agency of opposition. He did this in the interest of
ultimate stability, but the difference between the new position and the
old is that he now distinctly associated the idea of a stable republic
with the ascendency of his own religious conceptions. How far the
ascendency of his own personality was involved, we have no means of
judging. The vulgar accusation against him is that he now deliberately
aimed at a dictatorship, and began to plot with that end in view. It is
always the most difficult thing in the world to draw a line between mere
arrogant egoism on the one hand, and on the other the identification of
a man's personal elevation with the success of his public cause. The two
ends probably become mixed in his mind, and if the cause be a good one,
it is the height of pharisaical folly to quarrel with him, because he
desires that his authority and renown shall receive some of the lustre
of a far-shining triumph. What we complain of in Napoleon Bonaparte, for
instance, is not that he sought power, but that he sought it in the
interests of a coarse, brutal, and essentially unmeaning personal
ambition. And so of Robespierre. We need not discuss the charge that he
sought to make himself master. The important thing is that his mastery
could have served no great end for France; that it would have been like
himself, poor, barren, and hopelessly mediocre. And this would have been
seen on every side. France had important military tasks to perform
before her independence was assured. Robespierre hated war, and was
jealous of every victory. France was in urgent need of stable
government, of new laws, of ordered institutions. Robespierre never said
a word to indicate that he had a single positive idea in his head on any
of these great departments. And, more than this, he was incapable of
making use of men who were more happily endowed than himself. He had
never mastered that excellent observation of De Retz, that of all the
qualities of a good party chief, none is so indispensable as being able
to suppress on many occasions, and to hide on all, even legitimate
suspicions. He was corroded by suspicion, and this paralyses able
servants. Finally, Robespierre had no imperial quality of soul, but only
that very sorry imitation of it, a lively irritability.

The base of Robespierre's schemes of social reconstruction now came
clearly into view; and what a base! An official Supreme Being, and a
regulated Terror. The one was to fill up the spiritual void, and the
other to satisfy all the exigencies of temporal things. It is to the
credit of Robespierre's perspicacity that he should have recognised the
human craving for religion, but this credit is as naught when we
contemplate the jejune thing that passed for religion in his dim and
narrow understanding. Rousseau had brought a new soul into the
eighteenth century by the Savoyard Vicar's Profession of Faith, the most
fervid and exalted expression of emotional deism that religious
literature contains; vague, irrational, incoherent, cloudy; but the
clouds are suffused with glowing gold. When we turn from that to the
political version of it in Robespierre's discourse on the relations of
religious and moral ideas with republican principles, we feel as one who
revisits a landscape that had been made glorious to him by a summer sky
and fresh liquid winds from the gates of the evening sun, only to find
it dead under a gray heaven and harsh blasts from the northeast.
Robespierre's words on the Supreme Being are never a brimming stream of
deep feeling; they are a literary concoction: never the self-forgetting
expansion of the religious soul, but only the composite of the
rhetorician. He thought he had a passion for religion; what he took for
religion was little more than mental decorum. We do not mean that he was
insincere, or that he was without a feeling for high things. But here,
as in all else, his aspiration was far beyond his faculty; he yearned
for great spiritual emotions, as he had yearned for great thoughts and
great achievements, but his spiritual capacity was as scanty and obscure
as his intelligence. And where unkind Nature thus unequally yokes lofty
objects in a man with a short mental reach, she stamps him with the very
definition of mediocrity.

How can we speak with decent patience of a man who seriously thought
that he should conciliate the conservative and theological elements of
the society at his feet, by such an odious opera-piece as the Feast of
the Supreme Being? This was designed as a triumphant ripost to the Feast
of Reason, which Chaumette and his friends had celebrated in the winter.
The energumens of the Goddess of Reason had now been some weeks in
their bloody graves; by this time, if they had given the wrong answer to
the supreme enigma, their eyes would perhaps be opened. Robespierre
persuaded the Convention to decree an official recognition of the
Supreme Being, and to attend a commemorative festival in honour of their
mystic patron. He contrived to be chosen president for the decade in
which the festival would fall. When the day came (20th Prairial, June 8,
1794), he clothed himself with more than even his usual care. As he
looked out from the windows of the Tuileries upon the jubilant crowd in
the gardens, he was intoxicated with enthusiasm. 'O Nature,' he cried,
'how sublime thy power, how full of delight! How tyrants must grow pale
at the idea of such a festival as this!' In pontifical pride he walked
at the head of the procession, with flowers and wheat-ears in his hand,
to the sound of chants and symphonies and choruses of maidens. On the
first of the great basins in the gardens, David, the artist, had devised
an allegorical structure for which an inauspicious doom was prepared.
Atheism, a statue of life size, was throned in the midst of an amiable
group of human Vices, with Madness by her side, and Wisdom menacing them
with lofty wrath. Great are the perils of symbolism. Robespierre applied
a torch to Atheism, but alas, the wind was hostile, or else Atheism and
Madness were damp. They obstinately resisted the torch, and it was
hapless Wisdom who took fire. Her face, all blackened by smoke, grinned
a hideous ghastly grin at her sturdy rivals. The miscarriage of the
allegory was an evil omen, and men probably thought how much better the
churchmen always managed their conjurings and the art of spectacle.
There was a great car drawn by milk-white oxen; in the front were ranged
sheaves of golden grain, while at the back shepherds and shepherdesses
posed with scenic graces. The whole mummery was pagan. It was a bringing
back of Cerealia and Thesmophoria to earth. It stands as the most
disgusting and contemptible anachronism in history.

The famous republican Calendar, with its Prairials and Germinals, its
Ventoses and Pluvioses, was an anachronism of the same kind, though it
was less despicable in its manifestation. Its philosophic base was just
as retrograde and out of season as the fooleries of the Feast of the
Supreme Being. The association of worship and sacredness with the fruits
of the earth, with the forces of nature, with the power and variety of
the elements, could only be sincere so long as men really thought of all
these things as animated each by a special will of its own. Such an
association became mere charlatanry, when knowledge once passed into the
positive stage. How could men go back to adore an outer world, after
they had found out the secret that it is a mere huge group of phenomena,
following fixed courses, and not obeying spontaneous and unaccountable
volitions of their own? And what could be more puerile than the fanciful
connection of the Supreme Being with a pastoral simplicity of life? This
simplicity was gone, irrecoverably gone, with the passage from nomad
times to the complexities of a modern society. To typify, therefore, the
Supreme Being as specially interested in shocks of grain and in
shepherds and shepherdesses was to make him a mere figure in an idyll,
the ornament of a rural mask, a god of the garden, instead of the
sovereign director of the universal forces, and stern master of the
destinies of men. Chaumette's commemoration of the Divinity of Reason
was a sensible performance, compared with Robespierre's farcical
repartee. It was something, as Comte has said, to select for worship
man's most individual attribute. If they could not contemplate society
as a whole, it was at least a gain to pay homage to that faculty in the
human rulers of the world, which had brought the forces of nature--its
pluviosity, nivosity, germinality, and vendemiarity--under the yoke for
the service of men.

If the philosophy of Robespierre's pageant was so retrograde and false,
its politics were still more inane. It is a monument of presumptuous
infatuation that any one should feel so strongly as he did that order
could only be restored on condition of coming to terms with religious
use and prejudice, and then that he should dream that his Supreme
Being--a mere didactic phrase, the deity of a poet's georgic--should
adequately replace that eternal marvel of construction, by means of
which the great churchmen had wrought dogma and liturgy and priest and
holy office into every hour and every mood of men's lives. There is no
binding principle of human association in a creed with this one bald
article. 'In truth,' as I have said elsewhere of such deism as
Robespierre's, 'one can scarcely call it a creed. It is mainly a name
for a particular mood of fine spiritual exaltation; the expression of a
state of indefinite aspiration and supreme feeling for lofty things. Are
you going to convert the new barbarians of our western world with this
fair word of emptiness? Will you sweeten the lives of suffering men, and
take its heaviness from that droning piteous chronicle of wrong and
cruelty and despair, which everlastingly saddens the compassionating ear
like moaning of a midnight sea; will you animate the stout of heart with
new fire, and the firm of hand with fresh joy of battle, by the thought
of a being without intelligible attributes, a mere abstract creation of
metaphysic, whose mercy is not as our mercy, nor his justice as our
justice, nor his fatherhood as the fatherhood of men? It was not by a
cold, a cheerless, a radically depraving conception such as this, that
the church became the refuge of humanity in the dark times of old, but
by the representation, to men sitting in bondage and confusion, of
godlike natures moving among them, under figure of the most eternally
touching of human relations,--a tender mother ever interceding for them,
and an elder brother laying down his life that their burdens might be

       *       *       *       *       *

On the day of the Feast of the Supreme Being, the guillotine was
concealed in the folds of rich hangings. It was the Twentieth of
Prairial. Two days later Couthon proposed to the Convention the
memorable Law of the Twenty-second Prairial. Robespierre was the
draftsman, and the text of it still remains in his own writing. This
monstrous law is simply the complete abrogation of all law. Of all laws
ever passed in the world it is the most nakedly iniquitous. Tyrants have
often substituted their own will for the ordered procedure of a
tribunal, but no tyrant before ever went through the atrocious farce of
deliberately making a tribunal the organised negation of security for
justice. Couthon laid its theoretic base in a fallacy that must always
be full of seduction to shallow persons in authority: 'He who would
subordinate the public safety to the inventions of jurisconsults, to the
formulas of the Court, is either an imbecile or a scoundrel.' As if
public safety could mean anything but the safety of the public. The
author of the Law of Prairial had forgotten the minatory word of the
sage to whom he had gone on a pilgrimage in the days of his youth. 'All
becomes legitimate and even virtuous,' Helvétius had written, 'on behalf
of the public safety.' Rousseau inscribed on the margin, 'The public
safety is nothing, unless individuals enjoy security.' What security was
possible under the Law of Prairial?

After the probity and good judgment of the tribunal, the two cardinal
guarantees in state trials are accurate definition, and proof. The
offence must be capable of precise description, and the proof against
an offender must conform to strict rule. The Law of Prairial violently
infringed all three of these essential conditions of judicial equity.
First, the number of the jury who had power to convict was reduced.
Second, treason was made to consist in such vague and infinitely elastic
kinds of action as inspiring discouragement, misleading opinion,
depraving manners, corrupting patriots, abusing the principles of the
Revolution by perfidious applications. Third, proof was to lie in the
conscience of the jury; there was an end of preliminary inquiry, of
witnesses in defence, and of counsel for the accused. Any kind of
testimony was evidence, whether material or moral, verbal or written, if
it was of a kind 'likely to gain the assent of a man of reasonable

Now what was Robespierre's motive in devising this infernal instrument?
The theory that he loved judicial murder for its own sake, can only be
held by the silliest of royalist or clerical partisans. It is like the
theory of the vulgar kind of Protestantism, that Mary Tudor or Philip of
Spain had a keen delight in shedding blood. Robespierre, like Mary and
like Philip, would have been as well pleased if all the world would have
come round to his mind without the destruction of a single life. The
true inquisitor is a creature of policy, not a man of blood by taste.
What, then, was the policy that inspired the Law of Prairial? To us the
answer seems clear. We know what was the general aim in Robespierre's
mind at this point in the history of the Revolution. His brother
Augustin was then the representative of the Convention with the army of
Italy, and General Bonaparte was on terms of close intimacy with him.
Bonaparte said long afterwards, when he was expiating a life of iniquity
on the rock of Saint Helena, that he saw long letters from Maximilian to
Augustin Robespierre, all blaming the Conventional Commissioners--Tallien,
Fouché, Barras, Collot, and the rest--for the horrors they perpetrated,
and accusing them of ruining the Revolution by their atrocities. Again,
there is abundant testimony that Robespierre did his best to induce the
Committee of Public Safety to bring those odious malefactors to justice.
The text of the Law itself discloses the same object. The vague phrases of
depraving manners and applying revolutionary principles perfidiously, were
exactly calculated to smite the band of violent men whose conduct was to
Robespierre the scandal of the Revolution. And there was a curious clause
in the law as originally presented, which deprived the Convention of the
right of preventing measures against its own members. Robespierre's general
design in short was to effect a further purgation of the Convention. There
is no reason to suppose that he deliberately aimed at any more general
extermination. On the other hand, it is incredible that, as some have
maintained, he should merely have had in view the equalisation of rich and
poor before the tribunals, by withdrawing the aid of counsel and testimony
to civic character from both rich and poor alike.

If Robespierre's design was what we believe it to have been, the result
was a ghastly failure. The Committee of Public Safety would not consent
to apply his law against the men for whom he had specially designed it.
The frightful weapon which he had forged was seized by the Committee of
General Security, and Paris was plunged into the fearful days of the
Great Terror. The number of persons put to death by the Revolutionary
Tribunal before the Law of Prairial had been comparatively moderate.
From the creation of the tribunal in April 1793, down to the execution
of the Hébertists in March 1794, the number of persons condemned to
death was 505. From the death of the Hébertists down to the death of
Robespierre, the number of the condemned was 2158. One half of the
entire number of victims, namely, 1356, were guillotined after the Law
of Prairial. No deadlier instrument was ever invented by the cruelty of
man. Innocent women no less than innocent men, poor no less than rich,
those in whom life was almost spent, no less than those in whom its
pulse was strongest, virtuous no less than vicious, were sent off in
woe-stricken batches all those summer days. A man was informed against;
he was seized in his bed at five in the morning; at seven he was taken
to the Conciergerie; at nine he received information of the charge
against him; at ten he went into the dock; by two in the afternoon he
was condemned; by four his head lay in the executioner's basket.

What stamps the system of the Terror at this date with a wickedness
that cannot be effaced, is that at no moment was the danger from foreign
or domestic foe less serious. We may always forgive something to
well-grounded panic. The proscriptions of an earlier date in Paris were
not excessively sanguinary, if we remember that the city abounded in
royalists and other reactionists, who were really dangerous in fomenting
discouragement and spreading confusion. If there ever is an excuse for
martial law, and it must be rare, the French government were warranted
in resorting to it in 1793. Paris in those days was like a city
beleaguered, and the world does not use very harsh words about the
commandant of a besieged town who puts to death traitors found within
his walls. Opinion in England at this very epoch encouraged the Tory
government to pass a Treason Bill, which introduced as vague a
definition of treasonable offence as even the Law of Prairial itself.
Windham did not shrink from declaring in parliament that he and his
colleagues were determined to exact 'a rigour beyond the law.' And they
were as good as their word. The Jacobins had no monopoly either of cruel
law or cruel breach of law in the eighteenth century. Only thirty years
before, opinion in Pennsylvania had prompted a hideous massacre of
harmless Indians as a deed acceptable to God, and the grandson of
William Penn proclaimed a bounty of fifty dollars for the scalp of a
female Indian, and three times as much for a male. A man would have had
quite as good a chance of justice from the Revolutionary Tribunal, as
at the hands of Braxfield, the Scotch judge, who condemned Muir and
Palmer for sedition in 1793, and who told the government, with a brazen
front worthy of Carrier or Collot d'Herbois themselves, that, if they
would only send him prisoners, he would find law for them.

We have no sympathy with the spirit of paradox that has arisen in these
days, amusing itself by the vindication of bad men. We think that the
author of the Law of Prairial was a bad man. But it is time that there
should be an end of the cant which lifts up its hands at the crimes of
republicans and freethinkers, and shuts its eyes to the crimes of kings
and churches. Once more, we ought to rise into a higher air; we ought to
condemn, wherever we find it, whether on the side of our adversaries or
on our own, all readiness to substitute arbitrary force for the
processes of ordered justice. There are moments when such a readiness
may be leniently judged, but Prairial of 1794 was not one of them either
in France or in England. And what makes the crime of this law more
odious, is its association with the official proclamation of the State
worship of a Supreme Being. The scene of Robespierre's holy festival
becomes as abominable as a catholic Auto-da-fé, where solemn homage was
offered to the God of pity and loving-kindness, while flame glowed round
the limbs of the victims.

       *       *       *       *       *

Robespierre was inflamed with resentment, not because so many people
were guillotined every day, but because the objects of his own enmity
were not among them. He was chagrined at the miscarriage of his scheme;
but the chagrin had its root in his desire for order, and not in his
humanity. A good man--say so imperfectly good a man as Danton--could not
have endured life, after enacting such a law, and seeing the ghastly
work that it was doing. He could hardly have contented himself with
drawing tears from the company in Madame Duplay's little parlour, by his
pathetic recitations from Corneille and Racine, or with listening to
melting notes from the violin of Le Bas. It is commonly said by
Robespierre's defenders that he withdrew from the Committee of Public
Safety, as soon as he found out that he was powerless to arrest the
daily shedding of blood. The older assumption used to be that he left
Paris, and ceased to be cognisant of the Committee's deliberations. The
minutes, however, prove that this was not the case. Robespierre signed
papers nearly every day of Messidor--(June 19 to July 18) the
blood-stained month between Prairial and Thermidor--and was thoroughly
aware of the doings of the Committee. His partisans have now fallen back
on the singular theory of what they style moral absence. He was present
in the flesh, but standing aloof in the spirit. His frowning silence was
a deadlier rebuke to the slayers and oppressors than secession.
Unfortunately for this ingenious explanation of the embarrassing fact of
a merciful man standing silent before merciless doings, there are at
least two facts that show its absurdity.

First, there is the affair of Catherine Théot. Catherine Théot was a
crazy old woman of a type that is commoner in protestant than in
catholic countries. She believed herself to have special gifts in the
interpretation of the holy writings, and a few other people as crazy as
herself chose to accept her pretensions. One revelation vouchsafed to
her was to the effect that Robespierre was a Messiah and the new
redeemer of the human race. The Committee of General Security resolved
to indict this absurd sect. Vadier,--one of the roughest of the men whom
the insurrections of Paris had brought to the front--reported on the
charges to the Convention (27 Prairial, June 15), and he took the
opportunity to make Robespierre look profoundly ridiculous. The
unfortunate Messiah sat on his bench, gnawing his lips with bitter rage,
while, amid the sneers and laughter of the Convention, the officers
brought to the bar the foolish creatures who had called him the Son of
God. His thin pride and prudish self-respect were unutterably affronted,
and he quite understood that the ridicule of the mysticism of Théot was
an indirect pleasantry upon his own Supreme Being. He flew to the
Committee of Public Safety, angrily reproached them for permitting the
prosecution, summoned Fouquier-Tinville, and peremptorily ordered him to
let the matter drop. In vain did the public prosecutor point out that
there was a decree of the Convention ordering him to proceed.
Robespierre was inexorable. The Committee of General Security were
baffled, and the prosecution ended. 'Lutteur impuissant et fatigué,'
says M. Hamel, the most thoroughgoing defender of Robespierre, upon
this, 'il va se retirer, moralement du moins.' Impotent and wearied! But
he had just won a most signal victory for good sense and humanity. Why
was it the only one? If Robespierre was able to save Théot, why could he
not save Cécile Renault?

Cécile Renault was a young seamstress who was found one evening at the
door of Robespierre's lodging, calling out in a state of exaltation that
she would fain see what a tyrant looked like. She was arrested, and upon
her were found two little knives used for the purposes of her trade.
That she should be arrested and imprisoned was natural enough. The times
were charged with deadly fire. People had not forgotten that Marat had
been murdered in his own house. Only a few days before Cécile Renault's
visit to Robespierre, an assassin had fired a pistol at Collot d'Herbois
on the staircase of his apartment. We may make allowance for the
excitement of the hour, and Robespierre had as much right to play the
martyr, as had Lewis the Fifteenth after the incident of Damiens' rusty
pen-knife. But the histrionic exigencies of the chief of a faction ought
not to be pushed too far. And it was a monstrous crime that because
Robespierre found it convenient to pose as sacrificial victim at the
Club, therefore he should have had no scruple in seeing not only the
wretched Cécile, but her father, her aunt, and one of her brothers, all
despatched to the guillotine in the red shirt of parricide, as agents of
Pitt and Coburg, and assassins of the father of the land. This was
exactly two days after he had shown his decisive power in the affair of
the religious illuminists. The only possible conclusion open to a plain
man after weighing and putting aside all the sophisms with which this
affair has been obscured, is that Robespierre interfered in the one case
because its further prosecution would have tended to make him
ridiculous, and he did not interfere in the other, because the more
exaggerated, the more melodramatic, the more murderous it was made, the
more interesting an object would he seem in the eyes of his adorers.

The second fact bearing on Robespierre's humanity is this. He had
encouraged the formation and stimulated the activity of popular
commissions, who should provide victims for the Revolutionary Tribunal.
On the Second of Messidor (June 20) a list containing one hundred and
thirty-eight names was submitted for the ratification of the Committee.
The Committee endorsed the bloody document, and the last signature of
the endorsement is that of him, who had resigned a post in his youth
rather than be a party to putting a man to death. As was observed at the
time, Robespierre in doing this, suppressed his pique against his
colleagues, in order to take part in a measure, that was a sort of
complement to his Law of Prairial.

From these two circumstances, then, even if there were no other, we are
justified in inferring that Robespierre was struck by no remorse at the
thought that it was his law which had unbound the hands of the horrible
genie of civil murder. His mind was wholly absorbed in the calculations
of a frigid egoism. His intelligence, as we have always to remember, was
very dim. He only aimed at one thing at once, and that was seldom
anything very great or far-reaching. He was a man of peering and
obscured vision in face of practical affairs. In passing the Law of
Prairial, his designs--and they were meritorious and creditable designs
enough in themselves--had been directed against the corrupt chiefs, such
as Tallien and Fouché, and against the fierce and coarse spirits of the
Committee of General Security, such as Vadier and Voulland. Robespierre
was above all things a precisian. He had a sentimental sympathy with the
common people in the abstract, but his spiritual pride, his pedantry,
his formalism, his personal fastidiousness, were all wounded to the very
quick by the kind of men whom the Revolution had thrown to the surface.
Gouverneur Morris, then the American minister, describes most of the
members of the two Committees as the very dregs of humanity, with whom
it is a stain to have any dealings; as degraded men only worthy of the
profoundest contempt. Danton had said: 'Robespierre is the least of a
scoundrel of any of the band.' The Committee of General Security
represented the very elements by which Robespierre was most revolted.
They offended his respectability; their evil manners seemed to tarnish
that good name which his vanity hoped to make as revered all over
Europe, as it already was among his partisans in France. It was
indispensable therefore to cut them off from the revolutionary
government, just as Hébert and as Danton had been cut off. His
colleagues of Public Safety refused to lend themselves to this.
Henceforth, with characteristically narrow tenacity, he looked round for
new combinations, but, so far as I can see, with no broader design than
to enable him to punish these particular objects of his very just

The position of sections and interests which ended in the Revolution of
Thermidor, is one of the most extraordinarily intricate and entangled in
the history of faction. It would take a volume to follow out all the
peripeteias of the drama. Here we can only enumerate in a few sentences
the parties to the contest and the conditions of the game. The reader
will easily discern the difficulty in Robespierre's way of making an
effective combination. First, there were the two Committees. Of these
the one, the General Security, was thoroughly hostile to Robespierre;
its members, as we have said, were wild and hardy spirits, with no
political conception, and with a great contempt for fine phrases and
philosophical principles. They knew Robespierre's hatred for them, and
they heartily returned it. They were the steadfast centre of the
changing schemes which ended in his downfall. The Committee of Public
Safety was divided. Carnot hated Saint Just, and Collot d'Herbois hated
Robespierre, and Billaud had a sombre distrust of Robespierre's
counsels. Shortly speaking, the object of the Billaudists was to retain
their power, and their power was always menaced from two quarters, the
Convention and Paris. If they let Robespierre have his own way against
his enemies, would they not be at his mercy whenever he chose to devise
a popular insurrection against them? Yet if they withstood Robespierre,
they could only do so through the agency of the Convention, and to fall
back upon the Convention would be to give that body an express
invitation to resume the power that had, in the pressure of the crisis a
year before, been delegated to the Committee, and periodically renewed
afterwards. The dilemma of Billaud seemed desperate, and events
afterwards proved that it was so.

If we turn to the Convention, we find the position equally distracting.
They, too, feared another insurrection and a second decimation. If the
Right helped Robespierre to destroy the Fouchés and Vadiers, he would be
stronger than ever; and what security had they against a repetition of
the violence of the Thirty-first of May? If the Dantonists joined in
destroying Robespierre, they would be helping the Right, and what
security had they against a Girondin reaction? On the other hand, the
Centre might fairly hope, just what Billaud feared, that if the
Committee came to the Convention to crush Robespierre, that would end in
a combination strong enough to enable the Convention to crush the

Much depended on military success. The victories of the generals were
the great strength of the Committee. For so long it would be difficult
to turn opinion against a triumphant administration. 'At the first
defeat,' Robespierre had said to Barère, 'I await you.' But the defeat
did not come. The plotting went on with incessant activity; on one hand,
Robespierre, aided by Saint Just and Couthon, strengthening himself at
the Jacobin Club, and through that among the sections; on the other, the
Mountain and the Committee of General Security trying to win over the
Right, more contemptuously christened the Marsh or the Belly, of the
Convention. The Committee of Public Safety was not yet fully decided how
to act.

At the end of the first week of Thermidor, Robespierre could endure the
tension no longer. He had tried to fortify his nerves for the struggle
by riding, but with so little success that he was lifted off his horse
fainting. He endeavoured to steady himself by diligent pistol-practice.
But nothing gave him initiative and the sinews of action. Saint Just
urged him to raise Paris. Some bold men proposed to carry off the
members of the Committee bodily from their midnight deliberations.
Robespierre declined, and fell back on what he took to be his greatest
strength and most unfailing resource; he prepared a speech. On the
Eighth of Thermidor he delivered it to the Convention, amid intense
excitement both within its walls and without. All Paris knew that they
were now on the eve of one more of the famous Days; the revolution of
Thermidor had begun.

The speech of the Eighth Thermidor has seemed to men of all parties
since a masterpiece of tactical ineptitude. If Robespierre had been a
statesman instead of a phrasemonger, he had a clear course. He ought to
have taken the line of argument that Danton would have taken. That is to
say, he ought to have identified himself fully with the interests and
security of the Convention; to have accepted the growing resolution to
close the Terror; to have boldly pressed the abolition of the Committee
of General Security, and the removal from the Committee of Public Safety
of Billaud, Collot, Barère; to have proposed to send about fifty persons
to Cayenne for life; and to have urged a policy of peace with the
foreign powers. This was the substantial wisdom and real interest of the
position. The task was difficult, because his hearers had the best
possible reasons for knowing that the author of the Law of Prairial was
a Terrorist on principle. And in truth we know that Robespierre had no
definite intention of erecting clemency into a rule. He had not mental
strength enough to throw off the profound apprehension, which the
incessant alarms of the last five years had engendered in him; and the
only device, that he could imagine for maintaining the republic against
traitors, was to stimulate the rigour of the Revolutionary Tribunal.

If, however, Robespierre lacked the grasp which might have made him the
representative of a broad and stable policy, it was at least his
interest to persuade the men of the Plain that he entertained no designs
against them. And this is what in his own mind he intended. But to do it
effectively, it was clearly best to tell his hearers, in so many words,
whom he really wished them to strike. That would have relieved the
majority, and banished the suspicion which had been busily fomented by
his enemies, that he had in his pocket a long list of their names, for
proscription. But Robespierre, having for the first time in his life
ventured on aggressive action without the support of a definite party,
faltered. He dared not to designate his enemies face to face and by
name. Instead of that, he talked vaguely of conspirators against the
republic, and calumniators of himself. There was not a single bold,
definite, unmistakable sentence in the speech from first to last. The
men of the Plain were insecure and doubtful; they had no certainty that
among conspirators and calumniators he did not include too many of
themselves. People are not so readily seized by grand phrases, when
their heads are at stake. The sitting was long, and marked by changing
currents and reverses. When they broke up, all was left uncertain.
Robespierre had suffered a check. Billaud felt that he could no longer
hesitate in joining the combination against his colleague. Each party
was aware that the next day must seal the fate of one or other of them.
There is a legend that in the evening Robespierre walked in the Champs
Elysées with his betrothed, accompanied as usual by his faithful dog,
Brount. They admired the purple of the sunset, and talked of the
prospect of a glorious to-morrow. But this is apocryphal. The evening
was passed in no lover's saunterings, but amid the storm and uproar of
the Club. He went to the Jacobins to read over again his speech of the
day. 'It is my testament of death,' he said, amid the passionate
protestations of his devoted followers. He had been talking for the last
three years of his willingness to drink the hemlock, and to offer his
breast to the poniards of tyrants. That was a fashion of the speech of
the time, and in earlier days it had been more than a fashion of speech,
for Brunswick would have given them short shrift. But now, when he
talked of his last testament, Robespierre did not intend it to be so if
he could prevent it. When he went to rest that night, he had a tolerably
calm hope that he should win the next day's battle in the Convention,
when he was aware that Saint Just would attack the Committees openly and
directly. If he would have allowed his band to invade the Pavillon de
Flore, and carry off or slay the Committees who sat up through the
night, the battle would have been won when he awoke. His friends are
justified in saying that his strong respect for legality was the cause
of his ruin.

Men in all ages have had a superstitious fondness for connecting awful
events in their lives with portents and signs among the outer elements.
It was noticed that the heat during the terrible days of Thermidor was
more intense than had been known within the memory of man. The
thermometer never fell below sixty-five degrees in the coolest part of
the night, and in the daytime men and women and beasts of burden fell
down dead in the streets. By five o'clock in the morning of the Ninth
Thermidor, the galleries of the Convention were filled by a boisterous
and excited throng. At ten o'clock the proceedings began as usual with
the reading of correspondence from the departments and from the armies.
Robespierre, who had been escorted from his lodgings by the usual body
of admirers, instead of taking his ordinary seat, remained standing by
the side of the tribune. It is a familiar fact that moments of appalling
suspense are precisely those in which we are most ready involuntarily to
note a trifle; everybody observed that Robespierre wore the coat of
violet-blue silk and the white nankeens in which a few weeks previously
he had done honour to the Supreme Being.

The galleries seemed as enthusiastic as ever. The men of the Plain and
the Marsh had lost the abject mien with which they usually cowered
before Robespierre's glance; they wore a courageous air of judicial
reserve. The leaders of the Mountain wandered restlessly to and fro
among the corridors. At noon Tallien saw that Saint Just had ascended
the tribune. Instantly he rushed down into the chamber, knowing that
the battle had now begun in fierce earnest. Saint Just had not got
through two sentences, before Tallien interrupted him. He began to
insist with energy that there should be an end to the equivocal phrases
with which Paris had been too long alarmed by the Triumvirate. Billaud,
fearing to be outdone in the attack, hastily forced his way to the
tribune, broke into what Tallien was saying, and proceeded dexterously
to discredit Robespierre's allies without at once assailing Robespierre
himself. Le Bas ran in a fury to stop him; Collot d'Herbois, the
president, declared Le Bas out of order; the hall rang with cries of 'To
prison! To the Abbey!' and Le Bas was driven from the tribune. This was
the beginning of the tempest. Robespierre's enemies knew that they were
fighting for their lives, and this inspired them with a strong and
resolute power that is always impressive in popular assemblies. He still
thought himself secure. Billaud pursued his accusations. Robespierre, at
last, unable to control himself, scaled the tribune. There suddenly
burst forth from Tallien and his partisans vehement shouts of 'Down with
the tyrant! down with the tyrant!' The galleries were swept by a wild
frenzy of vague agitation; the president's bell poured loud incessant
clanging into the tumult; the men of the Plain held themselves firm and
silent; in the tribune raged ferocious groups, Tallien menacing
Robespierre with a dagger, Billaud roaring out proposals to arrest this
person and that Robespierre gesticulating, threatening, yelling,
shrieking. His enemies knew that if he were once allowed to get a
hearing, his authority might even yet overawe the waverers. A
penetrative word or a heroic gesture might lose them the day. The
majority of the chamber still hesitated. They called for Barère, in
whose adroit faculty for discovering the winning side they had the
confidence of long experience. Robespierre, recovering some of his calm,
and perceiving now that he had really to deal with a serious revolt,
again asked to be heard before Barère. But the cries for Barère were
louder than ever. Barère spoke, in a sense hostile to Robespierre, but
warily and without naming him.

Then there was a momentary lull. The Plain was uncertain. The battle
might even now turn either way. Robespierre made another attempt to
speak, but Tallien with intrepid fury broke out into a torrent of louder
and more vehement invective. Robespierre's shrill voice was heard in
disjected snatches, amidst the violent tones of Tallien, the yells of
the president calling Robespierre to order, the murderous clanging of
the bell. Then came that supreme hour of the struggle, whose tale has
been so often told, when Robespierre turned from his old allies of the
Mountain, and succeeded in shrieking out an appeal to the probity and
virtue of the Right and the Plain. To his horror, even these despised
men, after a slight movement, remained mute. Then his cheeks blanched,
and the sweat ran down his face. But anger and scornful impatience
swiftly came back and restored him. _President of assassins_, he cried
out to Thuriot, _for the last time I ask to be heard. Thou canst not
speak_, called one, _the blood of Danton chokes thee_. He flung himself
down the steps of the tribune, and rushed towards the benches of the
Right. _Come no further_, cried another, _Vergniaud and Condorcet sat
here_. He regained the tribune, but his speech was gone. He was reduced
to the dregs of an impotent and gasping voiceless gesticulation, like
the strife of one in a nightmare.

The day was lost. The tension of a passionate and violent struggle
prolonged for many hours always at length exasperates onlookers with
something of the brute ferocity of the actors. The physical strain stirs
the tiger in the blood; they conceive a cruel hatred against weakness,
just as the heated throng of a Roman amphitheatre turned up their thumbs
for the instant despatch of the unfortunate swordsman who had been too
ready to lower his arms. The Right, the Plain, even the galleries,
despised the man who had succumbed. If Robespierre had possessed the
physical strength of Mirabeau or Danton, the Ninth Thermidor would have
been another of his victories. He was crushed by the relentless ferocity
and endurance of his antagonists. A decree for his arrest was resolved
upon by acclamation. He cast a glance at the galleries, as marvelling
that they should remain passive in face of an outrage on his person.
They were mute. The ushers advanced with hesitation to do their duty,
and not without trembling carried him away, along with Couthon and
Saint Just. The brother, for whom he had made honourable sacrifices in
days that seemed to be divided from the present by an abyss of
centuries, insisted with fine heroism on sharing his fate, and Augustin
Robespierre and Le Bas were led off to the prisons along with their
leader and idol.

It was now a little after four o'clock. The Convention, with the
self-possession that so often amazes us in its proceedings, went on with
formal business for another hour. At five they broke up. For life, as
the poets tell, is a daily stage-play; men declaim their high heroic
parts, then doff the buskin or the sock, wash away the paint from their
cheeks, and gravely sit down to meat. The Conventionals, as they ate
their dinners, were unconscious, apparently, that the great crisis of
the drama was still to come. The next twelve hours were to witness the
climax. Robespierre had been crushed by the Convention; it remained to
be seen whether the Convention would not now be crushed by the Commune
of Paris.

Robespierre was first conducted to the prisons of the Luxembourg. The
gaoler, on some plea of informality, refused to receive him. The
terrible prisoner was next taken to the Mairie, where he remained among
joyful friends from eight in the evening until eleven. Meanwhile the old
insurrectionary methods of the nights of June and of August in '92, of
May and of June in '93, were again followed. The beating of the _rappel_
and the _générale_ was heard in all the sections; the tocsin sounded its
dreadful note, reminding all who should hear it that insurrection is
the most sacred and the most indispensable of duties. Hanriot, the
commandant of the forces, had been arrested in the evening, but he was
speedily released by the agents of the Commune. The Council issued
manifestoes and decrees from the Common Hall every moment. The barriers
were closed. Cannon were posted opposite the doors of the hall of the
Convention. The quays were thronged. Emissaries sped to and fro between
the Jacobin Club and the Common Hall, and between these two centres and
each of the forty-eight sections. It is one of the inscrutable mysteries
of this delirious night, that Hanriot did not at once use the force at
his command to break up the Convention. There is no obvious reason why
he should not have done so. The members of the Convention had
re-assembled after their dinner, towards seven o'clock. The hall which
had resounded with the shrieks and yells of the furious gladiators of
the factions all day, now lent a lugubrious echo to gloomy reports which
one member after another delivered from the shadow of the tribune.
Towards nine o'clock the members of the two dread Committees came in
panic to seek shelter among their colleagues, 'as dejected in their
peril,' says an eyewitness, 'as they had been cruel and insolent in the
hour of their supremacy.' When they heard that Hanriot had been
released, and that guns were at their door, all gave themselves up for
lost and made ready for death. News came that Robespierre had broken his
arrest and gone to the Common Hall. Robespierre, after urgent and
repeated solicitations, had been at length persuaded about an hour
before midnight to leave the Mairie and join his partisans of the
Commune. This was an act of revolt against the Convention, for the
Mairie was a legal place of detention, and so long as he was there, he
was within the law. The Convention with heroic intrepidity declared both
Hanriot and Robespierre beyond the pale of the law. This prompt measure
was its salvation. Twelve members were instantly named to carry the
decree to all the sections. With the scarf of office round their waists,
and a sabre in hand, they sallied forth. Mounting horses, and escorted
by attendants with flaring torches, they scoured Paris, calling all good
citizens to the succour of the Convention, haranguing crowds at the
street corners with power and authority, and striking the imaginations
of men. At midnight heavy rain began to fall.

The leaders of the Commune meanwhile, in full confidence that victory
was sure, contented themselves with incessant issue of paper decrees, to
each of which the Convention replied by a counter-decree. Those who have
studied the situation most minutely, are of opinion that even so late as
one o'clock in the morning, the Commune might have made a successful
defence, although it had lost the opportunity, which it had certainly
possessed up to ten o'clock, of destroying the Convention. But on this
occasion the genius of insurrection slumbered. And there was a genuine
division of opinion in the eastern quarters of Paris, the result of a
grim distrust of the man who had helped to slay Hébert and Chaumette. At
a word this distrust began to declare itself. The opinion of the
sections became more and more distracted. One armed group cried, _Down
with the Convention!_ Another armed group cried, _The Convention for
ever, and down with the Commune!_ The two great faubourgs were all
astir, and three battalions were ready to march. Emissaries from the
Convention actually succeeded in persuading them--such the dementia of
the night--that Robespierre was a royalist agent, and that the Commune
were about to deliver the little Lewis from his prison in the Temple.
One body of communist partisans after another was detached from its
allegiance. The deluge of rain emptied the Place de Grève, and when
companies came up from the sections in obedience to orders from Hanriot
and the Commune, the silence made them suspect a trap, and they withdrew
towards the great metropolitan church or elsewhere.

Barras, whom the Convention had charged with its military defence,
gathered together some six thousand men. With the right instinct of a
man who had studied the history of Paris since the July of 1789, he
foresaw the advantage of being the first to make the attack. He arranged
his forces into two divisions. One of them marched along the quays to
take the Common Hall in front; the other along the Rue Saint Honoré to
take it in flank. Inside the Common Hall the staircases and corridors
were alive with bustling messengers, and those mysterious busybodies who
are always found lingering without a purpose on the skirts of great
historic scenes. Robespierre and the other chiefs were in a small room,
preparing manifestoes and signing decrees. They were curiously unaware
of the movements of the Convention. An aggressive attack by the party of
authority upon the party of insurrection was unknown in the tradition of
revolt. They had an easy assurance that at daybreak their forces would
be prepared once more to tramp along the familiar road westwards. It was
now half-past two. Robespierre had just signed the first two letters of
his name to a document before him, when he was startled by cries and
uproar in the Place below. In a few instants he lay stretched on the
ground, his jaw shattered by a pistol-shot. His brother had either
fallen or had leaped out of the window. Couthon was hurled over a
staircase, and lay for dead. Saint Just was a prisoner.

Whether Robespierre was shot by an officer of the Conventional force, or
attempted to blow out his own brains, we shall never know, any more than
we shall ever be quite assured how Rousseau, his spiritual master, came
to an end. The wounded man was carried, a ghastly sight, first to the
Committee of Public Safety, and then to the Conciergerie, where he lay
in silent stupefaction through the heat of the summer day. As he was an
outlaw, the only legal preliminary before execution was to identify
him. At five in the afternoon, he was raised into the cart Couthon and
the younger Robespierre lay, confused wrecks of men, at the bottom of
it. Hanriot and Saint Just, bruised, begrimed, and foul, completed the
band. One who walks from the Palace of Justice, over the bridge, along
the Rue Saint Honoré, into the Rue Royale, and so to the Luxor column,
retraces the _via dolorosa_ of the Revolution on the afternoon of the
Tenth of Thermidor.

       *       *       *       *       *

The end of the intricate manoeuvres known as the Revolution of
Thermidor was the recovery of authority by the Convention. The
insurrections, known as the days of the Twelfth Germinal, First
Prairial, and Thirteenth Vendémiaire, all ended in the victory of the
Convention over the revolutionary forces of Paris. The Committees, on
the other hand, had beaten Robespierre, but they had ruined themselves.
Very gradually the movement towards order, which had begun in the mind
of Danton, and had gone on in the cloudy purposes of Robespierre, became
definite. But it was in the interest of very different ideas from those
of either Danton or of Robespierre. A White Terror succeeded the Red
Terror. Not at once, however; it was not until nine months after the
death of Robespierre, that the reaction was strong enough to smite his
colleagues of the two Committees. The surviving Girondins had come back
to their seats in the Convention: the Dantonians had not forgiven the
execution of their chief. These two parties were bent on vengeance. In
April, 1795, a decree was passed banishing Billaud de Varennes, Collot
d'Herbois, and Barère. In the following month the leaders of the
Committee of General Security were thrown into prison. The revolution
had passed into new currents. We cannot see any reasons for thinking
that those currents would have led to any happier results if Robespierre
had won the battle. Tallien, Fouché, Barras, and the rest may have been
thoroughly bad men. But then what qualities had Robespierre for building
up a state? He had neither strength of practical character, nor firm
breadth of political judgment, nor a sound social doctrine. When we
compare him,--I do not say with Frederick of Prussia, with Jefferson,
with Washington,--but with the group of able men who made the closing
year of the Convention honourable and of good service to France, we have
a measure of Robespierre's profound and pitiable incompetence.

*** End of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Critical Miscellanies (Vol. 1 of 3) - Essay 1: Robespierre" ***

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