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Condorcet was deceived; indeed he only gave the letter
as "an extract communicated to him"; but it did not
need Robespierre's immediate and vigorous denial to
establish the falsity of the letter. It was opposed to aU
he had said or thought during his whole political life.
What is remarkable, then, is not that it was perceived to
be an error on the part of the Courrier, but that Robes-
pierre should have sent so immediately^ an emphatic,
angry denial, to be read by Couthon, his friend, to the
club when it was still turbulent with the conquering
eloquence of Isnard. It meant that he still held abso-
lutely in the close of 1791 to the principles that had
seemed to him all-sufficient in 1789. Michelet has
called his attitude throughout this initial year a traffick-
ing with the priests, a determination to rely upon them
in the future. It was nothing of the kind. It was
simply the necessary consequence of logic in a mind
that had not yet formed any plan of ambition, and that
was as absolute and restricted as a mathematical identity.
To no man (this letter said) could a question be asked of
right upon his opinions, nor a punishment be inflicted for
a true answer, nor should any be constrained to follow this
or that declaration of faith or discipline.

If he had been all but silent upon the religious
quarrel, he was entirely so upon a matter that yet might
have given him much more opportunity for discussion,
and that worked in the new debates parallel with the

* It must have been despatcheii the moment the post reached the
north, and have been a hot answer by return, for there are but five days
between the printing of the sheet and the arrival of his denial.


question of the priests. This matter was the ques-
tion of the emigration. He had spoken already
in the earlier months of the year defending the
right of all to come and go. I cannot but believe that
if he neither wrote one word nor on his return made one
allusion to the great debate on the proscription of the
emigrants it was because he still clung to that absolute
and useless principle of peaceful firmness. On this again
he was directly opposed to the popular feeling, but far
more certainly than in the dilemma of the religious in-
surrection. The emigrants were (for the most part)
frank traitors. There was no hypocrisy or mincing;
they were willing to fight in defence of something
superior to the nation — the feudal class of Europe. When
the man whose fierce name recurs like a chorus through-
out these scenes, Isnard again, come from a dry place,
the harsh deserts of the Rhone, Isnard, " the wind of
Africa," had startled all the Assembly with a truth,
France was solid in applause. For he had said, " I ask
this Assembly and France . . . and you, sir ! " — to a
startled noble that had groaned — " whether any one will
maintain that these men are not plotting against their
country ; " he flamed into menace, talked of " the punish-
ments of the people that resemble the punishments of
God, since they work when the laws are silent." All
that cavalry charge of his raised the Assembly to its
feet. Its echo struck the Jacobins. A decree passed
that the emigrants were to return at the New Year, or
to be liable to confiscation and death. Robespierre, by
speech to his surrounders in the north, and to his Paris
home by letter, remained unapplauding.^

But I would not convey of this man, even in the
preparatory time of mere applause, when he had not yet

^ The answer of Monsieur to this decree is worth recalling: "In the
name of all common sense, book i., section i. , article i., chapter i., para-
graph i., come back to your right minds."


approacTied the responsibility of power, an impression
only of nullity and of the dry bones of thought. The
stamp which he has left upon history is far too
profound for such a judgment to be true. His con-
victions, though they were but individual, pierced and
acted ; when these convictions agreed with some prac-
tical conclusion, he was full of argument, of application,
and of judgment.

This power or talent, which, as I say, appeared when
some matter congenial to him had been matured by
others for his reception, and when his mind (that com-
monly worked in a void) was given something real which
it could grasp, was very rapidly developed, and was perhaps
publicly appreciated for the first time when the Jacobins
began their great debate upon the war.

From this moment Robespierre, who had been
brought out from utter obscurity by the days of
October, who had been given the first honours of
debate in 1790, whom the death of Mirabeau had
left with an exaggerated glory, and whom for six
months the prestige of the Jacobins and the popular
suffrage had still further advanced, passed into the
public mind as a man capable of administration.
He had pursued a policy, and presented a combined
plan — much later, by incessant degrees, he was to
attempt the executive function, and by a fatal error
born of the blind energy of '93, the satisfaction of that
ambition was to be granted him.

He had returned upon the 25th of November to find
a full tide going the way of the democrats ; Petion was
elected mayor, Manuel was clerk, Danton his vicegerent ;
extreme decrees had passed the Assembly by great
majorities or unanimity. The petty fellow that a certain
false kind of history would make him out to be would
have drifted in such a torrent. But how can a man
drift when the centre of his universe is in himself?


Robespierre in tlie midst of this overwhelming tendency
continued to develop his particular thesis.

in Paris he found an insistent cry for war. There
had come to the minds of all the moral certainty that
attack was impending, that the only defensive was to strike.
This instinct had impelled the city, was obtaining the
provinces, on his return. He opposed it. His principal
barrier was Isnard.

This man, who resembled in his meagre and direct
expression, in the light of his eyes and in his dark coun-
tenance and rapid balance of words the principal orators
of America ; who had in his spirit much of Jefferson or
(to pass to the other pole), in his inspiration, a cousin-
ship with Lincoln, was presiding at the Jacobins. A
sword had been laid on the table by the tribune. He had
accepted and embraced the sword. That sword ^ was the
symbol of a crusade. He demanded war, and all France
was ready to follow. The frenzy that can drive an
assembly to the ridiculous had captured all the chapel
when Robespierre came up, collected, into the tribune.
Looking up at the public galleries with the same destruc-
tive calm that had marked all his attitude for the year,
changing his glasses for reading, he turned to his speech
as to a task and declaimed his list of suspicions against
the policy of war.

Like so many of his public appeals, it has the length
and tedium of a little book. For a solid hour it
must have detained the club with its consecutive logic
and with its occasional literary excellence; yet these
wearying pages which a modern can scarcely complete
were thought sublime. The Jacobins, whose majority
continued to support Brissot with his cry for an im-
mediate offensive, yet voted the printing of this speech,
and one might see in the paradox of that vote all the

1 Presented, I believe, by an American.


future success that lay before Eobespierre. They were
devoted to him beyond the necessities of agreement.^

Two forces in him gave him this personal ascendancy
over the club, and, through the club, over the elections of
the next year, and through them at last over the nation.
The first was his one talent ; a talent supremely important
in the Revolution : he could manage a debate. He led
on his audience continually, not always to the immediate
triumph of his thesis, but invariably to a support and
applause of himself; he never passed the limit of what
popularity may dare. He supported the most uncon-
genial proposition by a repetition of the cardinal principles
which were the religious dogmas of the time and the
invariable provokers of applause. Nor did the revolu-
tionaries ever rise from some speech of his without
experiencing the dangerous and useless satisfaction which
proceeds from listening to the public utterance of our
most cherished commonplaces. All through the debates
which culminated in the speech of the 1 8th of December
this suppleness, his continual reticence of phrase, mark
his long fence with the Parliament, the war-party, the
Gironde. He spared persons, he praised a defensive
preparation, he laid emphasis on the disloyalty of the
executive, he connected the whole of his arguments and
made them depend upon the texts of the time. But
he opposed war.

And the second force was tenacity. This quality has
upon the French in their political efforts an irresistible
success, and if it is generally admirable in their eyes it
becomes a kind of heroic virtue when the national
character is intensified by some common danger. The
consistency they seek in themselves, the base of con-
viction which is necessary to their exact deductions,
they will always seek and sometimes imagine in a
leader. Here in Robespierre it was tangible. He

1 The speech is in the journals of the society, Nos. no, in.


seemed to be their creed in person. They heard
him, after the great voice of Vergniaud, the new storm
of Isnard, the rising name of Guadet, still reasoning
coldly and coming to his own conclusions unmoved. In
the face of all Germany arming and of the preaching of
civil war within, he could still repeat the old truths con-
cerning the danger that standing armies are to liberty.
This attitude which we now condemn because it palls on
us the French then thought sublime, because such
commonplaces were the reiteration of their safeguards.
He did not gain majorities for his contention, but he
finally confirmed the public faith in himself.

Robespierre, then, at the head of a conquering opinion
in general politics, yet stood alone, or nearly alone, on
the one thing that mattered, combating the war and,
among men who idolised him chiefly for his extremes,
combating enthusiasm. When loyalty to the nation was
synonymous with loyalty to political freedom and when
every force that could excite the best minds — the
avengement of insult, the strength that is impatient of
challenge, the vision of free states throughout Europe, by
which dream the Revolution lived — made straight for
war, he passionless, stood out. It might be imagined that
this isolation was fruitless in history. On the contrary,
it had the highest effect upon the next two years. It
preserved the Jacobins. He created, not indeed a mass
of votes within them, but a nucleus in which resided
their peculiar spirit : a very powerful political body lay
entrenched outside the Parliament, the permanent opposi-
tion of its leader to the principal policy of the Legislative
Assembly gave a strength to all those irregular forces
upon which — when the war and the defeats came — the
salvation of the Revolution was to depend. The
extremists had opposed war. When the war turned ill
they had all the more right to direct it to success.

This opposition and its increasing value is best seen


by following the sequence of events and the political
adventures that, in the following three months, led up to
the war.

The great debate on the war at the Jacobins
closed upon the 25 th of January. It had lasted two
months, and had determined the fate of the Revolution
more certainly than had the intrigues of the Court or the
growing enthusiasm of the Parliament. For the club
had now covered all France with its affiliated societies,
and the vast body thus formed was a strict unity,
organised, centralised, and moving like an army at com-
mand. It possessed the force which the Constitution of
1 79 1 had removed from politics, which the temper of
the Girondins suspected and destroyed authority, dis-
cipline whereby alone things corporate achieve indivi-
duality and can exercise a single will. The Jacobins,
not by voting for war (they presumed to no such decrees),
but by emphasising throughout France the danger in
which France lay, by urging the volunteers, by increasing
the suspicion against the Court, and especially by the open-
ness and publicity of their debates, had created the war.
It was at this moment, with the opening of the new year,
that the violent exaltation of spirit which the battles were
destined to fix in permanence began to appear under the
guidance of the club and to show itself in a mass of sym-
bolism of ritual phrases and of sublime absurdities. The
occasional red cap of the peasantry began to be worn for
liberty in the debates, pikes were forged as though the
spears of the armies of romance still had a use among
guns, the King had become nothing but " the executive
power," and every speech seemed to presuppose an
imaginary and epic world. There had risen a gale of
great adventures.

This period had seen, also, all the decisive steps.
The King's secret letter to his brother-in-law of Austria,
the lover's stroke whereby Madame de Stael had forced


her Narbonne, dainty, graceful and confused, into the
ministry of war, his foolish boastful report that seemed to
take for granted the opening of a campaign, lastly (on the
very day that closed the debate at the Jacobins) the
threat launched against Leopold by the Assembly — all
these had established the platform upon which the agita-
tion for immediate hostilities rose. Throughout so rapid
and constructive a change Kobespierre had remained
immovable, repeating in his last protest the spirit and the
very phrases of his first. Yet throughout the two months
he had been politic in the extreme : watching his
audience, even in the chair yielding to rebuke, and by a
quality that was inherent to a character that never left
his mind, avoiding every personal encounter and- every
reproach of private malice.

Now because men of Kobespierre's temper are so
rare, or perhaps because they so rarely achieve power,
his story in February and March 1792 has misinterpreted
him before history. It makes him seem absorbed in a
personal quarrel, and, despairing of his political am-
bition, wasting himself in an attack against the chief of
his conquerors. Brissot was politically at the head of
the movement for war ; Brissot was the link that bound
the republicans of the salons to the new band of young
orators from the Gironde ; Brissot was to make the
ministry that declared hostilities against Austria. When
therefore it is seen how Robespierre follows him per-
sistently, like an enemy, and when Brissot in turn is
seen watching Robespierre as the chief opponent of his
plans, there is read into this antagonism a common
quarrel of disappointed vanity jealous of success. The
reading is erroneous. It would link up the past of
Robespierre and his future, both evidently those of a
man lost in abstractions, by a very real and living
interest : it leads his biographers into a dozen incon-
sistencies ; and especially distorts the judgment of


Michelet, who has to present in 1792 a little morose
offended figure full of bitterness against the Gironde,
and fixed wholly against their chief as a personal enemy
and yet in 1793 defending them from death, in 1794
so removed from actuality as to fall before a conspiracy
whose persons his political ideal forbade him to attack.
Robespierre's struggle with Brissot, which is the con-
temporary commentary upon the declaration of war and
which interprets as it originates the fatal division of
1793, stands congruous with the character and circum-
stances of both men, and is capable of being presented as
an explanation of their future fortunes.

Close on forty, short, lean, stooping a little in his
rapid gait, intelligent, over-active, Brissot had travelled,
heard, seen, read widely and become divided during this
great movement that was so well suited to his varied
if restricted powers, between the absorbing interest of
political intrigue and the defence of those principles to
which he was sincerely attached. All that ennobles
youth, the resistance to circumstance, the persistent
following of a high ideal, the refusal to abandon personal
restraint and dignity in the stress of poverty, had been
absent from his past. Born somewhere of some one in
the dull Beauce, coming to Paris a famished boy-lawyer,
he had parried off starvation with a supple, too facile and
somewhat unscrupulous pen, a bohemian sojourn in Eng-
land, an abolitionist tour in the United States, a few
weeks in the Bastille, had crammed him with every
passing volatile or ignoble experience. He became one
of those many to whom Orleans offered a disdainful pro-
tection, had been married to one of the dependents of
the Palais Royal and had entered the Revolution by its
least reputable door. For all this slime of doubtful
adventures and self-betraying journalism, he was well
fitted for the Reform. He was devoted to and inspired by
the omnipresent genius of Rousseau ; he could boast the


compliments of Voltaire ; lie had a sound judgment of
men and of history ; he possessed to a very high degree
that talent in the arrangement and mixing of characters,
which is the menial and servile necessity of all effective
parliamentary action. Ardently patriotic, a clear thinker
and a framer of consistent policies, he erred in his
appetite for intrigue. He had sold his reputation in
youth for food, he never sold his principles for wealth.
Now, when so much depended upon him, when he could
overthrow and form a ministry and was even supposed
to hold the patronage of the minor offices, his shiny
black coat and little meagre apartment confessed a
poverty above which he took no kind of pains to rise;
for he was childless and satisfied with power alone.
This man, whose description already accounts for half the
antagonism which existed between him and the clear,
vague Puritanism of Robespierre, widened the gulf be-
tween his party and the extremists of the Mountain
by in part supporting the superiority, and wholly direct-
ing the power, of a social class in Paris which, as we shall
see, established the dates and details of the war policy
though it could not claim to have produced it.

"^ All this upper-class Republicanism, later called the
Gironde, was by nature opposed to that for which
Robespierre stood in the Revolution and which just
before his fall he imagined to have erected into the
religion of an ideal state. It is true that he was vain
and that the dream in which his mind held itself con-
stantly remote from reality was full of his own image,
prophet and seer of the new world. But it is not true
that merely his offended vanity and the sight of others
achieving power oppressed him. It was the idea, the
colour of the gradual Girondin success that moved him to
a ceaseless and vigilant opposition. Men of this kind,
fanatical in conviction, unobservant of details, never fail
to group in a common condemnation whatever different


things may be opposed to their ideal. They miss com-
plexity ; and therefore Robespierre seeing so many forces
at work, all apparently inimical to each other, yet all
sinning against his fixed religion, took to imagining plots,
conspiracies and secret alliances that had no existence.
He was right indeed in his intuitive conviction that the
Court was actively allied with Austria and sooner or later
would force on the invasion by which it hoped to be
saved. But he was utterly wrong in the imagination that
Narbonne was but a masque for Lafayette and that all
the varied mass of reaction lay beneath the leadership of
the Gironde. I repeat, the quarrel was not personal upon
Robespierre's side ; it was an attack on the whole social
complexion of the Gironde. Desmoulins indeed, who was
then Robespierre's man, rounded upon Brissot with a
pamphlet whose awful wit ate like an acid for a year into
the dominant party, undermined them and led them
at last to the scaffold ; but the voice was Desmoulins'
own. Robespierre in each of his frequent speeches was
as innocent of personal attack as he was incapable of
personal appreciation.

It was by the following steps that Brissot saw
approaching and helped to introduce the war. Within
a fortnight of the close of the debate at the Jacobins, the
alliance between Prussia and Austria was concluded : upon
the 7 th of February. The Court knew it. The alliance
was the work much more of Russia seeking a free hand
in Poland than of Louis or his wife. It meant no imme-
diate hostilities; on the contrary it contained clauses
expressly framed for delay. The brother of Marie An-
toinette was also the son of Marie-Th^rfese, and the tradi-
tion of the Hapsburgs, the play of many strings whereby
that family depend upon the dissensions of Europe as
athletes upon their apparatus, was strong in the mind of
Leopold. He had more interests to watch than the issue
of the debates in Paris, and it was with a sincere desire to


temporise that, while sending a general in case the arch-
bishopric should be attacked, he yet ordered the Elector
of Treves '^ to disband the Smigr^s, But the alliance —
the first definite act since Pilnitz — was signed; and the
Court knew it.

There was drawn up within the Tuileries, under
the eye of the Queen, by the hand of Barnave,^ a
document which could not but precipitate the quarrel.
It origjinated the insolent series of domestic interference
whose climax was to be the manifesto of the Duke of
Brunswick, and whose intolerable pretensions roused the
French to their ultimate successes. It travelled round
by way of Brussels to Vienna, and was received again in
Paris through the Austrian ambassador as though it had
been the spontaneous expression of the Emperor. On
the ist of March it was read to the Assembly; the Par-
liament heard with indignation that Leopold saw fit to
condemn the Jacobins as a " pernicious sect," and the
capital was admitted to the private mind of foreigners
upon its internal economy. While they were yet pre-
serving an indignant silence to hear this Macedonian
playing the steward in Greece, destiny had gone before
intrigue, and Leopold was dead.

In ten days Brissot had opposed to the haste and
bigotry of Leopold's son a new and consolidated power.
For it was upon the loth of March that he attacked,
with the details and references of a prosecution, the
King's foreign minister, Delessart. He was followed by
the chief voice of his party, Vergniaud.

Vergniaud's power ordinarily resided in a vibration
of tone and a grave balance of words, but that day
he recalled Mirabeau, and with the same gesture of

* This ecclesiastic was a young man, genial, a glutton, and enormously
fat. The door of his carriage was made of a special size to fit him.

^ Madame de Stael, iii. 270. She had a better chance of knowing than
any one.


menace tliat the dead man had thrown out in the
Constituante, he branded the moment with a phrase.
Beyond the windows of the Manege the palace was
moving with men — they reached six thousand before
the close of the struggle, and Murat was their type
— a sword. Vergniaud called up mere words whose
strength lay in their appeal to a populace that was half
in arms. ..." Terror and a secret fear have come out
often enough upon us from your doors ! to-day let them
enter in. . , ." The Court yielded. Delessart abandoned
his office; the fatuous Narbonne, whatever he may have
meant to do, was relieved of power. By the Thursday
of the next week the King had sent for a man already
in his middle age, but whose dark hair, touched here and
there with steel, whose vigorous, great eyebrows, rapid
glance, and forward gesture of the arms betrayed Pro-
vence and the cavalry. It was Dumouriez.

The struggle of the lower nobility had forged and
twisted him ; the Revolution released him as it re-
leased so many of his peers to an active career, but
could not free him as it did the younger men from
the tortuous vices of egotism and cabals, the nemesis of
privilege in the State. He might have led his brigade
at thirty-five, his corps at forty. His face still carried
the sword-cuts of a fine defence, unhorsed in the hussars,
when the decline of old France was running through the
seven years' war. He had great knowledge of soldiers,
more of men. The curse that attaches at once to aristo-
cratic and to arbitrary societies combined in the old

Online LibraryHilaire BellocRobespierre → online text (page 14 of 32)