Hilaire Belloc.

Robespierre online

. (page 1 of 32)
Online LibraryHilaire BellocRobespierre → online text (page 1 of 32)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook







•n^ra,^„y ,









mew l?ork








Very often I have sat alone at evening before a fire of
logs in a room near tlie Rue St. Honor^, and tried to
call up for myself the great men who from that air
challenged necessity, and, within the screen of their
armies, created the modern world.

There surrounded me upon such occasions the furniture
of their epoch. My eyes rested upon details that were
not only in the tradition of the Revolution, but were often
used and admired when the Convention was sitting ; and
all about me, in the severe taste of the French bourgeoisie
and in the paucity of ornament that accompanies a certain
austere carelessness for fortune, was the atmosphere of
those lives to which my thoughts continually turned. The
medium in which I attempted to evoke their shadows was
their own and was in a fashion my inheritance. About
me and in my ears was the clear and sounding life of Paris,
nor was my imagination disturbed by any recent memories
of privilege, by the sophistries of the modern rich, or by
the jargon of the evanescent and false philosophies by
whose aid the academies attempt to escape from the
traditions of Europe. I was so situated that the justice
and endurance of the Republic were as evident as material
things, and I knew without any doubt that the stoical
temper was, in the fine phrase of a contemporary, the
permanent religion of humanity.

My solitude was not unvisited. It was possible in
Buch a place and with such memories to move in a great
company, to hear in the streets the rumble of the guns,
and to see the high palaces of the city full of the people


conquering. I well imagined Condorcet, that had the
strength to write, in the extremes of his poverty and
hiding, so noble a defence of his creed ; I could raise up
the beauty of St. Just, the indefatigable concentration of
Carnot, stretched out on the floor of the committee,
poring with candles over the large maps of the defence.
There, also, distinct and living beyond the rest, I could
summon the great figure of Danton, and his good-fellow-
ship, and his soul that always recalled the Marne and
that, when it was close to death, could not help remem-
bering the pleasant country beside Aube. I had some
communion with the Girondins ; the gravity of Vergniaud,
the fire of Barbaroux, the sombre anger of Isnard. Across
these scenes I could follow Marat, that was never him-
self, and that carried a mad torch without sequel, but
just avoiding catastrophe. There also were the armies,
the volunteers thrown out in streams from the gates, the
return of '95. Or from the trenches the heavy buildings
of Charleroi would stand against a June dawn, with the
high, bare land of Fleurus over them, and La Diane, the
bugle- call, waking the young men out of the trenches to
the battle.

Yet these still moved like clouds, unstable, and I
found at last this insufficiency attaching to such
reveries, that their images would remain insecure, and
that the mind arose from them unsatisfied, since they
lacked stuff and avoided any certain gaze. Had such a
dreaming reposed upon mere fancies, it would have been
proper food for poetry or for fiction, but the deeds and
the men whose story proved so great that it could thus
rise from the dead were true. The lives had been lived
and the things done. Then it was not possible to rest
content in the shadows ; it became necessary to fill out
the whole truth, and since one was already certain of
the idea in which all these things were contained, it
became a business to explore their reality.


For this there was no refuge but history, and hence
it became at first a labour, but at last a delight, to build
them up from innumerable details, and to make of what
had been fugitive, if grandiose, imaginaries, certain and
well-guarded possessions.

In this task a great deal is for the moment
sacrificed; the high pleasure of mingling with a
greater past will not, any more than music will, permit
without injury to itself the contact of industry. The
dissonance of varying judgments, the domestic incidents
of heroes, the comic and the grotesque which our
little minds reject for the sake of the unities but which
Nature never leaves unmixed with her epics — all these
disturb and harden. Records divorced from critical
appreciation, or falsified all out of tune with each other,
mere praise, mere blame, mere numbers bewilder the
mind. It is as though our parts were not intended to
grasp the numberless impressions upon whose integration
historical truth reposes.

Nevertheless, the sacrifice repays. It is like the
growing of slow timber upon a sheltered hill ; you seem
to have established an enduring thing. There stand
out at last a vigour and a plenitude that are to the
unsubstantial origins of such a search what touch, sight,
and hearing are to memory. Then, when reality is
reached, it is easy to be sure ; and when so much doubt
and contradiction are resolved into a united history, the
continual admission, for the sake of exactitude, of what is
petty, sordid or fatiguing does but make more human,
and therefore more certainly true, what had before been
lyrics or idols.

Now, there are attached to this method of approaching
history two features which require an apology. In the
attempt to fix exactly an historic figure, it is necessary
first to make the physical environment reappear. In the
great phrase of Michelet such history must be " a resur-


rection," and there is no resurrection without the resurrec-
tion of the flesh. In the second place, it is necessary to
admit laborious and dusty discussion, not only of disputed
events, but of the inner workings of a mind. It is the
attempt to achieve either of these ends that gives such
history as that which I have attempted its burden of
endeavour. It is the attempt to unite the two which
lends also to such a book a necessary, but inartistic
incongruity. I could not illustrate that burden and that
incongruity better than by referring to the very subject
of the pages that follow.

Nothing would be easier than to make a drama of
the life of Robespierre, were one content to neglect the
exactitude of historical record. On the other hand,
nothing would be easier — seeing the enormous amount
of material that has been accumulated with regard to
him, the mass of his written work, and the great host of
witnesses that have left their impression of him for
posterity — than to write down a voluminous chronicle in
which the self-contradictions should be stated, but not
explained, and in which all the sequence of the great
story and all its poignancy should be neglected. I say
either of these, the drama or the chronicle, would follow a
straight road. But when it comes to the combination of
both, there is imposed a task in which perfection is
impossible, and whose fulfilment I know will certainly not
be found in this book. Yet such a combination is the
first duty of history.

Let me take an instance, one out of a hundred, of
what I mean. In the last seven weeks of the Terror,
when that system had, as it were, passed into frenzy,
Robespierre was regarded universally as its author and
kins:. There must be some foundation for a tradition
which all contemporaries, domestic and foreign, unques-
tioningly accepted. Nothing could be easier and nothing
would more satisfy the sense of the dramatic in history



than to present him as the guilty conceiver of an enor-
mous crime, and to make Thermidor the retribution.
Turn to the documents of these seven weeks and you
■will discover that he would not sign the lists of the con-
demned, that he protested against nearly all the more
famous of the prosecutions, and that the body directly
responsible for them, the Committee of PubHc Safety,
regarded him as a danger; more, you will find that
the spokesman of that body says that Robespierre
perished "because he attempted to put a curb on the
Revolution"; and you will find that those who chiefly
overthrew him were men determined to push the Terror
to a further extreme. What is to be made of such a con-
tradiction ? In fiction such a crux can never arise ; in
history, and especially in the history of this man, such
paradoxes are the ordinary material of the story, and
one may not so correct and omit as to lend the whole
an artificial simplicity. It is even necessary, in present-
ing one single figure, not only to admit every record,
however contradictory, but to analyse, to discuss, and at
the risk of great tedium, to bolt out the best reading of
that hidden spring of the mind.

So much for what is wearisome in the life of Robes-
pierre. It is the more wearisome because he had but
one theme, because he could speak of nothing but of that
theme and of himself, the voice of it, and because the in-
tricate problem of his rise stands contrasted with the
plain and terrible scenes whose interest for us to-day is
still that of an armed combat to men watching from the

And if the necessity of discussion threatens tedium,
the attempt to recover physical details may introduce
another danger : it may make the history seem doubtful.
It will be discovered by my reader that continually
throughout the following pages I have introduced that
kind of description which is expected rather in the evidence



of an eye-witness or in the creations of fiction. I know
that such an attempt at vivid presentation carries with
it a certain suspicion when it is applied to history ; I can
only assure my readers that the details I have admitted
can be proved true from the witness of contemporaries
or from the inference which their descriptions and the
public records of the time permit one to draw. I have
but rarely illustrated the sources from which they are
derived, because if this method were made to depend
upon foot-notes there would be no reading of the book.

A single instance of the way in which a scene may
be built up must suffice to excuse their absence ; take
the impression, in the ninth chapter, of the Committee
of Public Safety on the night between the 8 th and
9th Thermidor, and of the dawn coming into the
room. There are a few accounts of it remaining in
somewhat contradictory memoirs, but there is no exact
contemporary description of that scene. How am I
certain that my own description is true ? Because there
remains at the observatory in Paris a record of the sultry,
overcast weather of that morning, and of the increasing
heat and distant thunder of the day; because Mercier
has given us the details and the situation of the room ;
because many men still living have been able to describe
to me the aspect of the two great halls in the Pavilion
de Flore ; because one may check upon the map the
road that Collot and Billaud must have followed from
the Jacobins do the great staircase of the Tuilleries;
because we have a record of the exact time when St. Just
rose to leave, and one can estimate how far the daylight
was advanced. I could quote fifty places in that one
page which would each demand a footnote to show from
whence were drawn the threads of which the whole is
woven. But I know that the method requires an apology
and I have therefore presented it in these few lines.

Finally, I owe it to my readers to disclaim research.


The work that remains to be done with regard to Eobes-
pierre does not lie in the discovery of new documents ;
there are too many already, and those that would have
told us most were burnt by Courtois. I say that it
is impossible to add seriously to the collection of facts
which M. Hamel made in the course of something
like a lifetime more than thirty years ago. It is a
record containing nothing but facts, each one sub-
stantiated and every document quoted, and it is nearer
2000 than looo pages long. The work which re-
mains to be done upon Robespierre is the explanation
of him. There are the facts in a vast accumulation.
They contradict each other ; they present a problem
not only of the greatest intellectual interest, but of some
considerable moment to those who would comprehend
the nature and the origin of our modern politics. To
arrive at the sharp truth with regard to this man, who,
at the Renaissance of European democracy, was made for
a few months a kind of god, is to understand perhaps the
problem which the immediate future presents to us, and
even if it does not do this, the solution may help us to
understand the Revolution in which our modern theory

To explain that man imperfectly is all I have at-
tempted. It has been so difficult that (with the ex-
ception of a slight essay upon the town of Paris) it
has provided the occupation of two years. Now that
the work is over I could almost wish that instead of
wandering in such a desert it had been my task to
foUow St. Just and the wars, and to revive the memories
of forgotten valour.


PBEFACE .......









X. "thermidor" . • . . •













I. ON the authenticity of the " MEMOIRS OF CHARLOTTE

ROBESPIERRE" ....••• 368


III. Robespierre's supposed attempt at suicide • •377




In presenting the story of Robespierre this must be
attempted at the outset as a key to the whole: the
picture of himself. A man of insufficient capacity, bent
into the narrowest gauge, tenacious of all that statesmen
least comprehend, and wholly ignorant even of the
elements of their science, became for a brief time the
personification of a vast national movement of which
he was but barely in sympathy with one single aspect,
and that the least inspiring and the least fruitful. How
did such a position come to him, and why did it remain
even for those few months ? This same man, singularly
ill-fitted to his country, to its traditions and its native
humour, to its colour, religion, and every essential, fell
suddenly from power by no general rising of opinion,
by no discovery of discord between himself and those
who had worshipped him. He fell by a kind of mighty
triviality; a small chance of intrigue and conspiracy
that yet carried in itself much of the fate of our civili-
sation. How is such a fall to be explained ?

The secret of his eminence and of his extinction
lies in himself The men, the circumstances that sur-
rounded him are well known. The environment of his



personality has been fully studied. Every attempt to
solve the problem of his career from these data has
failed; every such attempt has but resulted in the de-
lineation of a caricature, or in the evocation of mere phan-
tasy. The causes of that supreme elevation and that
immediate fall do not lie, as they do with the vast
majority of such historical accidents, in the pressure
of surrounding things ; they must be sought from within.
The problem cannot be approached from the standpoint
of that fierce and open youth which was recasting
Europe ; the youth from which his concealed activities
so strangely differed, and which will always be as clear
and plain as the good daylight. You can solve it only
by standing where his own soul stood, looking out with
his own pale eyes to see the bodiless world stretched
on one unsupported truth, and feeling in yourself, as
you read, that proximity of fixed conviction to organic
weakness, which he knew to be his compound, and which
determined the whole of his life.

The unravelling of his motives, the establishment
of his relation to the great movement with which he
is sometimes erroneously identified, the exact fixing of
his proportions and capacities are not idle speculations.
So to present the real man has this double purpose,
each part of which is full of value : it helps to explain
the growth and character of symbolic figures in general;
it presents from a special standpoint the various web
of the Revolution in particular. A life of Robespierre
should show of what stuff are made those single-
thoughted, narrow exponents of a wide enthusiasm
round whom the legends gather, and who tend to stand
in history as embodied principles, losing their real selves
in the effect of time — and in a life of Robespierre there
should also be apparent that comedy wherein lies the
artistic interest of the great story of France and


The first of these objects, the use of this life as the
type of so many others, must be left for my book itself
to develop ; the second, the dramatic value of his career,
needs a longer apology.

The combination of unexpected accidents, the failure
of set plans, the perverse results of fate, the incon-
gruous roles thrust suddenly upon ill-chosen men, the
pressure of unseen forces to which society suddenly
responds, the entry of heroes, and the birth of songs,
all these make up in history a tapestry of connected
scenes to which finality alone is lacking, nor is there
absent any dramatic element that should satisfy the
mind saving only purpose. Now the best medium
through which that ceaseless flow of action may be
viewed is the life of a devotee.

The noble, sane, and generous leaders of mankind
lend a false unity to their world and make us partisans
as we read. The picture of a general period does but
reflect in one phase or another the general life of man-
kind, and, as from a superior height, reduces to a normal
level the accidents of personality. But the mind of the
enthusiast, especially if he be dried up by the heat of
his conviction, affords every needed contrast, and one
appreciates from a low level and in a slanting light
the high relief of history. For thence you may watch
the insufficiency of a man to his part, the rude horseplay
of environment, the expected that fails to arrive — all
the embroglio. You see the lining of the shield and
know what kind of thing is at the core of that which
various trappings turn into a high priest or a king. You
perceive not only the mechanism of the idol itself, but
also that thirst for the ideal which creates idolatry, and
by a long acquaintance with the inner life of one that
shall succeed and fail in a moment of intense public
activity, there is half-resolved at last that prime contra-
diction of political society, whereby enthusiasm, breeding


as it does tte most violent ill-judgment, the worst deeds
and tlie widest deviation from truth and from reality,
is yet seen to be commingled with that permanent
appreciation of justice which is at once the divinest
and the most perilous attribute of the soul.

Robespierre would have stood much more securely
in history were he merely of that kind who, in the
passionate quest for a final state, or in an immediate
attempt to remedy injustice, come out in the open to
ruin the conventions and to remodel the permanent
framework of society. He would not have afforded the
problem which it is the matter of this book to examine
if he could be set down at once in the run of the re-
formers, nor is a thorough knowledge of his life of value
because it shows the ordinary type of those who lead
or perfect great movements. It is precisely because the
phenomenon of his immense popularity and brief hold
of power is special and peculiar that the study of him
becomes an appreciation of what makes in human history
for the high growths of fierce religions and for the persis-
tent following of symbolic figures. It is as an original
that he takes the stage.

There are men upon whom the pretensions of wealth
and the self-created values of rank work as an irritant
corrosive ; they feel the primary dignity of man to be
insulted by such fables, but they feel the insult especially
as directed against themselves, and in their attempt to
avenge it they lose proportion, calling in all evils angrily
to remedy this one. He was not of these.

There are others in whom the material suffering of
the oppressed raises so generous an indignation that they
are willing to pay the penalties of exaggeration and of a
kind of frenzy, so only they may see righted the gross
wrong that forbids human bread to the poor. He was
not of these.

There are others again who, with the experience of


an enslaved nationality, and of its consequence in the
enslavement of the human will, pursue with ardour for
years, by every means, the independence of their country,
an ideal which, under such conditions, is one with that
of individual freedom. To such, patience and a practical
mind are commonly granted, and they ultimately achieve
success by force of arms. He was not of these.

There are others, far less blessed, in whom the mani-
fest iniquities of living breed a furious hatred of their
kind. Yet in them also there burns something of the
divine, and because it is by evil that their anger is
aroused, they also reveal God. He was not of these.

There are yet others in whom the fine rage for a
normal polity and for equal law, rises at the close of
some corrupt time and turns them creative ; from these
proceed, as by an outburst of organic life, new and
vigorous institutions that preserve the State for genera-
tions from decay. In the company of the Revolution,
which could boast, as it were, an army of such men, he
yet could not count himself of that kind.

He was divorced from all those spirits who, in what-
ever form the reaction towards simplicity may possess
them, are united by a common inspiration, and are
occupied and driven by the afflatus of some genius;
instruments of an outer power. What, then, was his
place among the Revolutionaries whose doctrines waken,
whose tenacity disturbs, but whose efforts, rising from a
memory of original right, can therefore remould man-
kind ? That he is to be reckoned among those who
thus make starting-points in history no one will take it
upon his conscience to deny, and unless we admit the
common error by which he is nothing but a void, an
emptiness defined by a mass of negatives, it is necessary
to see the man himself, and, so far as the distance of
time will permit it, to cause him to appear.


It is wisest, in attempting tlie resurrection of a man,
to follow the natural order of observation and to see him
physically as all could see him in his time, before one
seeks out the remote springs of his action, or approaches
an analysis of his temper.

In height Robespierre was a little below the medium,
but this feature, which would not in itself convey an
impression of insignificance, went with a certain slight-
ness of build that left him unnoticed unless, by the
accident of the tribune, he were withdrawn from the
crowd. His frame was of a delicate mould, his hands
and feet small and well-shaped, his chest neither broad
nor deep. He had not that vitality of action which pro-
ceeds from well-furnished lungs ; neither the voice nor
the gesture, the good-humour, nor the sudden powers
that belong to men whose fires have draught to them.
Indeed his complexion, though clear, was of that pale
cast which we often associate with a kind of morbidity,
and he was throughout his youth and public life affected
with the frequent approach, though never with the con-
tinuance, of ill-health. The recollection of this pallor
and of the delicacy of his skin gave rise (when his living
presence was no longer there to correct the error) to an
impression of sourness and nervous bile which has vitiated
most historical descriptions ; for, as will be seen in much
that follows, his temper was even beyond the common, his
smile, though cold, was frequent, and his patience firm.

He had, in common with the whole of that French pro-
fessional class from which he sprang, a pronounced habit
of order, a regularity of demeanour, and a very remarkable
capacity for prolonged mental work ; but this last so tended
to expend itself upon imaginaries and perpetual deduc-
tions that he lost the sustenance which it afforded in

Online LibraryHilaire BellocRobespierre → online text (page 1 of 32)