VOL. I. Essay 1: Robespierre
London MACMILLAN AND CO., LIMITED NEW YORK: THE MACMILLAN COMPANY 1904
CONTENTS OF VOL. I.
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
Compared with Robespierre 55
Robespierre compared with Marat and with Sieyes 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 Hebertists 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 Hebertists 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 Theot 113
" Cecile 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. 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 Revolution de Thermidor. Par Ch. D'Hericault. Paris: Didier, 1876.]
M. D'Hericault 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'Hericault'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'Hericault 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 mediaeval 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 serieux! 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 Lomenie 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 restrictions.
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 Vendemiaire, and afterwards to the coup d'etat 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, Provencals. 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 Encyclopaedia. 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 Vendee, 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 heavens.
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 Honore, 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 within.
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 situation.
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 Convention.
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'Hericault 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 Sieyes. 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.