Hilaire Belloc.

Robespierre online

. (page 15 of 32)
Online LibraryHilaire BellocRobespierre → online text (page 15 of 32)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

regime to force him into the bypaths of secret diplo-
macy. He had known the Bastille. Such subservience
to fate had not soured his jolly temper nor dimmed his
courage, but he had lost all conviction and had nothing
left in him but ambition, a good heart, and a great irony.
Out of this imperfection he became at last a traitor, but,
alas ! that such a man should have dragged out an old


age in exile, got daubed with the bribes of Pitt, or have
tried to rest in death out of his own soil between the
hills and in the silence of the Thames.

This man, not without patriotism and accepting the
Revolution as a thing achieved, but bent especially upon
personal success, reinforced the democracy at a charge.
Upon the 19th of March,^ after but four days of hesi-
tation he appeared at the Jacobins.

The last few weeks had produced a symbolism that
invariably accompanies political exaltation and whose
methods savour to less active times of the grotesque
or the insane. Dumouriez, most eager to accept in full
a movement which he had never comprehended, fell
to what must have been to him the most ridiculous of
humiliations and stood up in the tribune with the red
cap upon his head. The gulf that lay between Robes-
pierre's single idea with its permanence and directness
and the mixture of political intrigues that surrounded
the Gironde was very apparent in what followed; for
when Dumouriez had raised his hand as though to swear
a new allegiance to the nation in its extreme necessity,
and had met with the great wave of applause upon which
he had calculated when he planned the stroke, Robes-
pierre, precise and austere, took his place in the tribune.
With the usual play of spectacles, fumbling and manu-
script, in the usual weakness of tone and amid the usual
enwrapping silence he read out his usual complaint.

" He was delighted to see a minister at the Jacobins :
he only hoped that the war — if it had to come — would
be prosecuted as sincerely as they had heard promised.
He was sorry to see that a member who had opposed the
printing of Dumouriez' speech had been hissed. No one
should be hissed in a free assembly. If Dumouriez was
really a friend and protector of the popular movement,
the Jacobins would support him ..." and so forth.

^ And not the i6th, as he says in his " Memoirs."


The wliole was a web of generalities and platitudes, the
underlying text that never appeared on the surface was a
permanent suspicion of all the parliamentarians, Court, new
ministers, salons, Brissots, generals and Feuillants lumped
into one incongruous body in the speaker's mind. But it
was not the speech itself that was the most characteristic
part of his attitude, it was rather a little incident that
marked his entry into the tribune. As he went up the
steps some friend or other clapped the red cap upon his
carefully powdered hair. Robespierre had, for once, a
flash of anger : all it meant was hateful to him, disorder,
delirium, the mania for war, the loss — as he feared — of
his own leadership and of the method and creed which
he worshipped far more than success. He flung the cap
on the ground and left it there, and so opened his speech
with restrained passion.

A month passed between that night and the declara-
tion of war. With every session of the Jacobins and with
every act of the ministry during that time his peculiar
isolation was emphasised. He went on his way preach-
ing his eternal doctrine and in every speech and pamphlet
reasserting one or all of his half-dozen dogmas. Also he
thought that he had lost, but the Revolution was to
show very soon the immense force of that persistence ; the
defeats were to lift him, the disillusion of the Girondins
under the stress of a shameful campaign was to enhance
the reputation of their opponent and to recall his pro-
phecies of evil ; within six months he was to be elected
for the city with a kind of unanimity. But in these last
days of March he could not get his speeches printed,
sometimes they were hardly heard.

On the 26th, in a famous speech upon nothing in
particular, he had preached a personal God, and the
phrase, " Providence, that arranges our destinies far
better for us than we do for ourselves," had brought
the passionate Guadet to his feet. He was full of


those things which found Robespierre intolerable : the
encyclopaedia, common sense and the vivacity of the
most cultured society in France,

'* I have heard the name ' Providence ' continually
throughout this speech ; and it seems to me I heard it
said that Providence kept on saving the Revolution in
spite of itself, I cannot understand a man like Robes-
pierre countenancing superstition at this moment."

Robespierre improvised a reply, not without elo-
quence, but on the proposal to print this sermon and
send it round to the affiliated societies, there was such
a hubbub that no decision could be taken.

On the 30th it was still worse. The renewed pro-
posal to print provoked a renewed disturbance, and when
the Bishop of Paris, from the chair, explained the drift of
the speech and its religious value, Santhonax, near the
door found the moment opportune to cry " No Monkish-
ness," and the meeting ended in a huge noise.

He did indeed guide the club still when his opinion
was at one with the general feeling. When the soldiers
of the Revolt at Nancy were liberated from their galleys
and feasted in Paris as a symbol of the triumph of the
Revolution, his protests against a delay in their reception
were successful. His attack on Lafayette (put forth as
was ever his habit, in that impersonal manner, " There is
a general," &c., . . . ) was applauded and accepted. But
as a leader throughout these last weeks of the peace, he
stood more and more alone. He could not claim to con-
trol the club. The tradition that had clothed him and
that had made even a memory of the Constituante
greater than the actual presence of the Legislative
seemed failing in the flood of new names, in the high
success of Vergniaud and his comrades, in the power
of a Girondin ministry about to lead the novel temper
of the people into a popular war.

For Brissot ever at work to knit his schemes had


brought Dumouriez at evening to the Rolands, had made
the old Stoic Minister of the Interior, and had found in
that minister's young wife the soul of the new cabinet.
For close upon a month a purely Girondin ministry had
directed the vigorous policy of the nation, had summoned
Austria to frank terms and had prepared — as it thought
— the appeal to arms. Under such an influence one
force after another melted from Robespierre, leaving
him in his tenacity for peace, in his disdain for glory
almost solitary. What saved him ? A personal
popularity which all this change could not affect, the
habit of thousands of silent, obscure democrats who
knew nothing of the salons and for whom the Gironde
had yet to be tested by success in the campaign, the
fixity of his principles that formed the landmark of
the drifting crowd — all these things attached to him.
They were dormant for the moment in the cry for defence
and armies; they were by no means paralysed, and
Robespierre was wrong (as he ever was in his appreciation
of men) when he now thought himself deserted. He
abandoned the post of public prosecutor to which he had
been elected. His brooding doubt and his bitterness at
a future of loneliness and failure reached their climax
with the advent of war.

On the 19 th of April Dumouriez read in the
Parliament the terms upon which Austria would con-
sent to peace. The Princes of Alsace were to receive
back all their feudal rights ; there were to be serfs
again in France nor was any form of compensation
to be tolerated. To the Pope, Avignon was to be re-
stored ; to the French Crown, every lost function whereby
it could "repress that which might cause anxiety to
neighbouring states." Therefore on the morrow, in the
crowded and silent hall of the Manage, Dumouriez
triumphed and the King of France peering short-sightedly
at his notes, read in a very ordinary voice his declaration


of war against the King of Hungary and Bohemia. The
world was never again the same.

Hitherto I have followed through this chapter the
fortunes and opinions of a man whom Nature had not
intended to be great, and to whom the accident of the
Revolution had as yet given nothing but a steadfast,
brilliant, and fictitious popularity. I have shut out the
general picture by standing within his closed mind, for it
has been my task not to present the immense travail of
that new world, but to consider one only of those whom
it affected, one in whom it did not see itself reflected,
and whom it in no way inspired with its profound energy.

But here, as I have written the word War, the insigni-
ficance of such a theme appals me, and I see that not even
the truth about this one individual can be made plain
unless some glimpse of that portentous background is
admitted to the scene. For to write of Robespierre's
suggestive monotone, and in so writing to stumble upon
that great debate into which there entered, and still enter,
all the powers of the world; which forms our modern
legend, and from which we nations derive our blood and
pride, as families once did theirs from the Carlovingian
memory, is like sitting up in a darkened room throughout
the night upon some exact calculation, and at last to look
up by chance and see through the shutters that it is
dawn. Then one abandons for a moment the ceaseless
labour of mechanical details, and throws open the windows
to the air and the day. Beneath the house a falling lawn
discovers all the country-side, and the eye rests upon life
everywhere growing and awakening : this infinity is framed
rather than bounded by the amplitude of the horizon.

I turn, then, from the consideration of the enigma
whose solution is the matter of this book, to recall the
magnitude and complexity of the new forces that created
the Republic.



From tlie death of Mirabeau, through the flight of
the King on to the massacre of the Champ de Mars
and the Declaration of Pilnitz, the ancient forms of
French life, though upon the eve of extinction, were
yet maintained ; by which I do not mean that the titles
of the noblesse, or even the " de," were heard, nor that
lethargy still possessed the mass of the nation, but that
the indifference of the upper classes to religion, com-
bined with a concern for its establishment, the ineradicable
habit of monarchy (where monarchy had been real), the
sullen hesitation of the peasants, and the natural division
between foreign and domestic affairs were the limits that
bounded the mind of France.

There was, however, latent, and as yet but potential,
beneath the ruined shell of society a spirit which in art,
arms, and politics drew from the very centres of life. It
was a thing not meant for daylight; it was the energy
which all sane institutions work to control, and to which
tradition gives laws and limitations ; for it is as destructive
as the elemental fire, and no one can look on it and live.
This primal spirit breaks down all the varied incon-
sequence of matter, it attempts to create from the begin-
ning like a god, and, like a god wrestling with matter, it
accomplishes imperfectly and with infinite pains and
terrors its task of forcing a mind into the dead chaos of
things. This spirit, which no one has yet named, though
its spark lies at the base of all existence, sometimes pierces
dangerously through for a moment to purge the world. It
was so with Islam, and it was so with the revolutionary
wars. The accident that lifted from it its immemorial
blindness was the friction of '92. For there is set to the
mind of man a boundary of endurance which may be com-
pared to that degree of heat at which the atoms of a sub-
stance change their relation to each other, and produce
new forms through violence. If that boundary be passed,
the common stuff of the mind takes on a form in which


exist all heroisms, and the lyric and madness also. The
threat to internal liberty, the dread of a vast disappoint-
ment, the incubation of the quarrel between the citizen
and the religion of the citizen, the buying of the Church
lands, the maturity of reaction — all these irritants received
an intolerable accession from the menace of foreign inter-
ference, and from the discovery in the dull mass of the
new Parliament of that Force of the Word which was
called the Gironde. By patriotism and by anger the
whole nation received as a mission what had been
but a civic concern. Men began to take the things
of waking as we do those of dreams; there was in all
they did a colour of vision ; its extravagance, its
mixture of incongruous things, its awful spell, driving
the mind; its power to achieve. From this proceed
the large cadences of Yergniaud, the frenzy or pro-
phecy of Isnard, the folly of red caps and pikes — but
there is one example that sums up all : Eouget de Lisle,
a mile from the Rhine, in the last hours of peace coming
into that crowded dinner and singing with the daughters
of Dietrich his new song; for the Marseillaise with its
platitudes and its immortal phrases set to such a kind of
tune is the whole of '92.

What followed all the world knows. How every
question was asked and answered in two years, and how
the force for such a work proceeded from the open furnace
of the Terror. I must return to the story. The purpose
of the digression with which I have delayed it is to show
that Robespierre — since it is upon that slight and con-
stant figure that I must remain — stands out hencefor-
ward a black outline against a conflagration. Not he, but
some fantastic shadow of him, is cast outward from the
flame and broadens ; as the fire first exaggerated, so the
fury of its highest glow transfigured, and at last its fall
consumed him.

The first months of the war are an embroglio whose



complex elements must be separately seized if one is to
understand the various angers tliat united to discover a
simple and violent solution in ttie insurrection of the
loth of August. In these eddies Robespierre appears
now from one aspect, now from another — not because
their movement caught him but, on the contrary,
because he stood fixed and apart, now seeming a butt,
now remembered as a true prophet, now half a leader,
and at last overwhelmed and hidden by the rush of
action. The physical battle over, he reappeared with all
his popularity intact.

The factors of the situation were these. The King
was powerful : it is the neglect of that elementary truth
which vitiates half the French and nearly all the foreign
histories of the period. He had suffered what was for
royalty insult, especially from the Parliament, and since
we know that he was to fall, the inevitable error whereby
historians read their own acquaintance with the future
into the minds of contemporaries makes us exaggerate
his difficulties in the spring of 1792. He could and did
exercise his veto, and that when the public opinion most
resented it. The whole administrative system and the
whole hierarchy of the regular army centred in his hands,
and that centralisation was far from being a fiction in a
country which had grown increasingly familiar with
bureaucracy for six generations. No disposition of
troops could be made, no general orders could be issued
without his acquiescence, nor, commonly, apart from
his initiative, and he possessed under his immediate
orders and with a security in their discipline and de-
votion, the only regular troops and the only men who had
seen service in the capital : in number close upon four
thousand men, whom the royalists of the militia could
readily bring up to a full six.

Dependent upon this power of the King and trust-
ing in its maintenance were these two forces: the


general officers in active command — especially Lafayette :
Dumouriez at the Foreign Office, a man whose energy
and initiative were the only true forces in the whole

Lafayette was a soldier, he knew the rottenness of the
old army and the softness of the new ; he had a detesta-
tion and, at that moment, a legitimate dread of anarchy;
his abstract principles were all for a constitutional mon-
archy, his personal emotions (which are in such men far
more powerful than any theories) had turned to a fine
loyalty and human affection for the royal family ; nor is
it unjust to add that a certain bitterness at the way his
popularity had melted and the Revolution escaped him
coloured, though it did not direct, his attitude in this
crisis. By one of those complications that differentiate
history from constructed fiction, the Queen, who was
the soul of the Court and whom he was chiefly bent
on saving, detested him, and would rather have been saved
by a plaster Narbonne or the living devil of the Jacobins

In Dumouriez two elements met : the dominant factor
was personal ambition — for it to be said that he had
made and led the great war of the Revolution, and been
the master of its success; the secondary factor was a
regard for the society he had known with its salons, its
king and its diplomacy, as the only thing possible in
France. For such a man the spirit '93 was to seem an in-
comprehensible welter, the first rising of it in the insurrec-
tion of '92 a muddling catastrophe. Both these men then
depended in different ways, for their repelling of the in-
vaders, on the power of the King, while the King and his
Court desired nothing so much as the success of the
foreign armies and their rapid arrival before the capital.
So much for the Tuileries.

In opposition to the palace, the Assembly over whom
Brissot's lobbying and the young oratory of the Gironde
had now an absolute mastery desired merely an en-


thusiastic crusade: a cavalry charge. From the ranks
of their supporters, from the salon of Madame Roland
and the coterie of the Patriote Frangais, the ministry had
been drawn. But they could not forget that though it
was the " Girondin ministry " its head and by far its
most powerful man was Dumouriez whom indeed they
supported right on into the Republic, but whom they
knew well to have little in common with that clear
enthusiastic religion of theirs that put for the goal of
its armies the vision of a free world. These Stoics felt
upon their flank a force that hampered and exasperated
them as they bent their energies against the Court ; that
force was the popularity of men outside their society and
their philosophy, the unreason of the populace, the over-
reason of the mob's preachers, the violence of Paris and
especially that instinctive, inarticulate determination to
keep the nation one and disciplined — a determination
odious to their creed of local autonomy. Because this
determination was most evident in the great system
which the thousand societies of Jacobins had thrown over
France and which they directed from the Rue St. Honor^
and because that coldness and over-reason of the popular
critics (with its opposition to the war and its everlasting
suspicion of parliamentary methods) was personified in
Robespierre, therefore they marked out the nucleus
of the Jacobins (of which club they were all members
and whose majority they still affected) as an enemy,
and especially they besieged the person of Robespierre.
Such were the Gu-ondins, and to them a successful war
was a necessity — and a thing taken for granted.

To the third party in this triangular struggle a
special attention is required, for it is the heir of the
future of the Revolution and the habitat of my subject.
The town of Paris, eager, querulous, direct, and boiling
with ill-ordered passions; national but full of a local
pride, extreme in democracy, careless of death, deter-


mined to be the gaoler or the executioner of treason, has
through fifteen hundred years slowly realised the French
people. There was not as yet, in the early summer
of 1792, an expressed or conscious Parisian will to be
master of the Parliament or to inform the whole State,
but the city was clearly a magnet to the revolutionary
genius of the provinces and the centre of its expression
in speech and writing. Already its idol had been made
a god of in the Artois, soon its mandatories were to be
the merciful tyrants of Lyons or the butchers of Nantes.
Of this Paris the club of the Cordeliers with Danton for
its leader were already the arms and the lungs ; that hard
minority of the Jacobins that gave the club all its spirit,
was the brain ; and the name continually on the lips of
the street was that of the voice of the Jacobin theory, the
interminable and inflexible monotony, Robespierre. He
stood like a ritual, a perpetual solace of repetition to
those who believed. Thus, while the natural division
would seem to lie between the Court and the two liberal
parties of Girondin and Jacobin, to these last the
Girondins were confounded with the Court, and beyond
the gulf stood Robespierre and his pure faith denouncing

It is not wonderful then that, as the opening of a
campaign is marked by an immediate assault on the
first lines of defence to clear the road, so the Girondins, in
the necessity of preparing public opinion for the struggle,
made a charge upon the position of Robespierre, who
had opposed the war, and would still oppose a crusade.
Within a week after the declaration of hostilities, on
Wednesday, the 25th of April, the attack upon Robes-
pierre was made and failed.

It was able and thorough ; all the voting power
that Brissot could still command mustered in the
club. He himself, for a full two hours, broke down,
so far as argument could, the imaginary denuncia-


tions of his enemy. His common sense, his know-
ledge of books and languages, his travels were his
allies. He assailed Robespierre's mere leadership of
opinion : " What have you done ? What are you in the
Revolution ? " Robespierre's perpetual fear of arms and
of dictators he justly ridiculed, and in a passage that
should be, but is not, famous, he exposed, as was done
but rarely in that time, the absurdity of current historical
parallels. Robespierre had thought Lafayette a Cromwell,
a pink and white Cromwell with a weak nose.

" Those who see a Cromwell in Lafayette," said
Brissot, " know neither their country, nor the time
they live in, nor Cromwell, nor Lafayette. It needs a
certain force of, character to become a Lord Pro-
tector. . . ."

He attacked the whole Robespierrean scheme of sus-
picion, the underground intrigues, the supposed alliance
between the Court and himself, Brissot. He did it with
evidence, documents, and personal asseveration. He
demanded some shadow of proof for these ceaseless
accusations. All right reason was on his side, and yet
history has justified Robespierre's intuition upon the
main point. The Court was betraying, and all those
who maintained its generals were unconsciously (he
thought consciously) leading the nation to disaster.

Throughout Brissot's long speech cries and interrup-
tions had disturbed him. In its first part, Desmoulins
had called out " Scoundrel " very loud and frequently ;
in its second the public galleries interfered. At its
close, Robespierre went straight to the steps of the
tribune. He was not in the list of speakers ; he claimed
a point of order. Guadet, who was down to speak, sup-
planted him, and in a speech far more passionate and
far less reasoned than Brissot's, yet touched a quicker
nerve ; for he spoke of " the love of the people " and
of the danger of idols. He proposed that Robespierre


should withdraw from public life. He was a cause of
dissension in the club and in the city, and his ceaseless
denunciations disturbed the machinery of the democratic

That such a speech should exasperate the public
galleries was natural, it was more significant of the times
that the club itself joined in the tumult. Hats in the
air and cries disturbed Guadet and inflamed him, Robes-
pierre with the Puritan in him at an icy boiling point
begged his friends to be silent.

"All men have a right to a public hearing. More-
over, these cries prevent me catching the accusations
made against me. I shall take all interruptions as the
acts of men who wish me ill." He stood up in his
place to say this, and turned to the galleries.

They gave him his silence, and when Guadet, who
felt that Brissot and he had lost, came down from the

Online LibraryHilaire BellocRobespierre → online text (page 15 of 32)