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deed his signature, for it was an act of charity." It was
imbecile, but no one could fail to see the plain man
instructed by lawyers.

When he returned under the rain from the Parlia-
ment, Chaumette, the most bitter journalist of the republi-
cans, the secretary of the new Commune, sat beside him
in the carriage, and the King was still more an ordinary,
unfortunate man.

They spoke a few words upon the bread they were
eating — unhappy communion. The King, fatigued, left


part of tlie loaf aside. Chaumette had a scruple in
throwing it out of the window : " his grandmother had
told him as a child that the waste of bread was a great
sin." Louis, torpid and automatic, his bulging eyes
lapsing into stupor, made some kind of reply; said this
grandmother was evidently a woman of sense. The King
noted mechanically the streets through which the car-
riage passed; made stupid and simple remarks upon
their history and appearance. Chaumette replied to
him as one traveller vulgarly met with another of equal
insignificance might reply to the commonplaces of a
stage-coach. All these silly little human details the
people heard, and Louis became for them what he had
never yet become — an ordinary man, a fool like any one
of us.

For a fortnight the prosecution was abandoned,
while above it raged the increasing quarrel of the
Mountain and the Gironde. When later Louis was
again before his judges the hesitation that must always
take men upon the eve of those legal decisions which
involve the life of a man sharpened this advocate of his
— the pity of the general people. The majority was
so small, in the case of some of them self-contradiction
was so evident, that the deputies of the Convention
seemed themselves to be the accused.

His passion, his last will, his tearing from his family,
these throughout France, and, alas, throughout Europe, be-
came the subject of I know not how many prints, pamph-
lets, ballads. I have before my eyes as I write the best
known of the pictures that swelled the English propa-
ganda: in this, with the most ridiculous nobility of
feature, he is seen breaking away in the awful morning
of his execution from his wife (to whom is lent a very
inconsistent dignity), and from his children, who are
evidently made in that picture the children of all of us.

When a man commits a great crime those who


(driven by the necessities of a common religion or of
politics) undertake his defence, can never resist the
temptation to a gross unreasonableness. They will pre-
sent his sufferings to you continually : they will take for
granted with a smile or with a violent ellipsis of indigna-
tion, that no proofs of his guilt exist. They postulate
innocence, refuse to plead, and harp day after day upon
his punishment. So it was with Louis, but a man
would be over-bitter who in these days of ours, now that
the quarrel against monarchy has been so thoroughly
settled, should grudge him the unreasoning consolation
of loyalty that he received.

To deny that he had been guilty of treason is simply
to deny the right of a nation to safeguard its own
defence, and to deny that the executive is the servant
of the national interest. But there was in the cere-
monial of the old monarchy which has now departed
from Europe something which could easily disturb an
intellect so infirm ; nor will any one who values justice
deny that the man who brought such incalculable mis-
fortunes upon his country had acted on his lights of
honour, had avoided a breach between his own soul and
the judgment of God. The caricaturists did well when
they represented him in every ignominious detail, yet
passing into Paradise.

The day came for his death, and again under clouds
that had covered the sky throughout that month, pur-
sued by the damp, unwholesome chill that for a month
had been the atmosphere of his tragedy, he went out of
life under all the circumstances which can most throw
man back upon himself: there is something naked and
therefore sublime in his departure.

Against this set what had happened to the man who
as a boy eighteen years before had read that speech to
his young King in the premier college of the university.
Illusion surrounded Robespierre throughout that trial;


the illusion that he was in some way a victim, the illu-
sion that the Commune was the nation, and could rightly
press upon the Parliament, the illusion that the people
whose hold over the executive was still a dogma at the
back of his mind, was in this special case forbidden from
judging (for he knew by how vast a majority the nation
was opposed to the death of the King), the illusion that his
consistent opposition to the penalty of death could in the
case of a character like his own find an exception for a
despot — that inconsistency was to lead him to watch the
Terror unmoved, and perhaps to use it as a weapon.
Above all he suffered the illusion that a man can bargain
with his own faith and yet remain all himself.

When, in the last days of November, Cambon had
proposed the suppression of the salaries of the Church —
on the same occasion that Danton, just off for the armies,
made his short and famous defence of popular religion —
Robespierre insisted that the way out of their difficulties,
financial and all, was the immediate arraignment of the

Five days later, on the 3rd of December, he de-
livered in the Convention his principal speech upon the
culpability of Louis.

Already he had passed down so many steps in his
lapse from the character of his part. He had already
found his ambitions. He had defended the Commune
against the Legislative in August like a partizan; he
had turned quite suddenly to a ritual use of the word
" Republic " ; he, the opponent of the war, had illogically
flattered the lyrical enthusiasm that prepared Valmy — •
an enthusiasm he did not comprehend, and which yet he
consented to serve. So now in an even and unaccented
speech there appeared incongruously his determination to

* The speech also contains a further example of his regular support of
the priests. I omit it because it would only interrupt the purely political
action with which I am here concerned.


be the Lector of tlie new republican world, in wliicb he
so bitterly envied the Girondins their place of rheto-
ricians, and of which he was jealously to watch for a
short time Danton, as the powerful executive. Thus he
speaks of the necessity " of disregarding the kings, and of
considering only the establishment of liberty and of a
republic." For the first time in his life he permitted
to pass his lips the demand for the death of a

It is by no accident that for three years of increasing
violence he almost alone of the revolutionaries had never
threatened death even in the vaguest terms; had not
spoken of the sword of the law, nor cried with Isnard
that the axe of the Revolution awaited traitors. It was
consistent with his whole mind, with the whole develop-
ment of his youth, to find such things repugnant ; it was
consistent also with that hesitation he always had in
leaving principles to speak of men. His demand for
death, therefore, though upon this first occasion it was
exceptional, though it was with regard to what he sin-
cerely did believe to be the greatest of political crimes,
and an occasion never to be repeated, yet certainly had
something in it of deflection from the very narrow path
and strait which he had followed since first he read his
Rousseau alone in the fields by the Scarpe; and into
that deflection the ambitions of his new leadership
undoubtedly entered as a cause.

A day or two later he descended to permitting at
the Jacobins the destruction of the bust of Mirabeau;
Duplay proposed it — (he can hardly have done so of his
own initiative) ; Robespierre in a kind of false enthusiasm
supported a proposition of which he was not improbably
the author. But even here when he was doing what a
crowd willed, his lack of proportion and his abstraction
appeared, for in denouncing Mirabeau he must also
denounce Helvetius, whose bust stood somewhere in the



hall, and wliom lie remembered Rousseau to liave

The Gironde noted and laughed. They dragged
back into the light the forgotten day when Robespierre
had proposed the Pantheon for Mirabeau's funeral, and
Robespierre, in the meshes of his new self-contradiction,
was at the pains to publish a laborious and hardly
successful apology.

The attitude upon which I am now insisting con-
tinued throughout the trial of the King. He seemed on
one occasion to argue like any Herbert in favour of an
immediate and arbitrary execution, and became for a
moment the target of a violent and physical opposition
in the Parliament. The hold that he was getting upon
that mob of Paris for which the Girondins had conceived
a terror and an abomination, pointed him out already as
a possible master, and when Guadet, accusing him of a
kind of despotism, forced Robespierre to a protest, that
protest was met by repeated threats of arrest from all
sides of the hall, but the extreme Left : a curious re-
hearsal of a scene that was in eighteen months to destroy
him. He was driven from the tribune, came up into it
again, received some support from the Mountain to which
such scenes were lending cohesion and discipline, re-
affirmed his demand for the King's immediate trial, and
ended his unsuccessful speech in a silence, which perhaps
his own calm had in a fashion imposed upon his

When Louis appeared at the bar Robespierre defended
the action of the Commune in the rigour of the imprison-
ment it had imposed upon the King. On the 23rd of
December, three days before the date of the King's second
appearance and final trial, Robespierre again spoke, this
time at the Jacobins, saying that those who might upon

1 He spared Priestley, of whom he knew, I presume, neither good nor
ill, and whose bust, crowned with faded laurels, stood third.


that occasion appear to promote delay should be treated
as suspects, that those even should be treated as suspects
who did not actively vote for immediate condemnation.
He was even at the pains of ridiculing the defence made
by Desfeze, and on the 27th, in a speech of excessive
length, he hammered round his main point, that had the
King been an ordinary criminal with such proof of
treason against him, any court would have settled the
matter in twenty-four hours. He treated with an angry
contempt the proposition that the judgment of Louis
should be referred to a popular vote, and his bitterness
was greater because he knew that he was plunging deeper
and deeper into contradictions of himself. There was a
note of threatening never heard before from his lips, and
only to reappear long after when he had become some-
thing of a master. " Citizens, it is to be decided whether
you are rebels or the benefactors of humanity." When
it was cast up against him that this demand for an
immediate and summary vengeance was that of but a
small minority in the nation, he threw away all his past
for an hour and defended such minorities; spoke like
any don of " the virtue which is always to be discovered
in minorities."

The road he had taken drove him into mere sophistry ;
of all methods the most naturally odious to a consistent

That attitude of Paris and of Robespierre was
answered in the most famous of Vergniaud's speeches.
It has been turned into a defence of the King. It was
not that. It was the hesitation of a man who can see
many things at once, and who fears immediate decisions.
He knew Europe. He saw the approach of madness
over the nation, the great ring of wars. He heard the
cries in the street against the King, the pressure of
the crowd, and with the presentiment that haunted all
the Gironde he felt the shadow of death sweep over the


hall as the mob rolled past outside. He had haunting
him as he spoke that terrible illiterate Commune of
'93, the great menace to all the older time — and the
Girondins for all their democracy were the spirit and
culture of the older time. That Commune was sitting
and watching a mile away. At Vergniaud and all of
his, all the balancing Gironde, the scornful suspicions
of the Left were thrown in one phrase, " Remember the
sense of justice that is still somewhere in you, like a
lamp left in a tomb." ^ To the Left these great men
seemed cowards because they halted a little before
Europe arming and the plunge into '93.

It was the afternoon of the i 5 th of January. The
meagre light of winter had already faded, the three great
groups of candles hung lit over the immense hall. The
last of the discussion limped on past the dinner-hour,
and after they had dined, the women of the Palais Royal,
the coterie of figalite, trooped in to tarnish what was
most convinced and ascetic in the Republic with their
venal and corrupt applause. The rich of the faction of
Orleans sat there together determined on death. For
one of them, Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau, death waited
also. He was stabbed for his vote in a caf^ of the Palais
Royal, and on his mask that was modelled after death
there still lies the smile of his birth and riches.

A roll-call of names began and a vote from each was

Robespierre came among the first by the accident of
bis election, the senior member for Paris. He had not
so far caught, nor did he ever so far catch, the vigour of
the great renewal as to achieve terseness; so when
Vergniaud, presiding, called out " Robespierre," and when
there was demanded of him (as of every member present
in turn) an exact expression of his reasons for his vote,
he lapsed into the literary verbosity which had suited

1 The phrase is St. Just's.


tlie discussions of the year before, but ■vvhicli were so
grotesquely out of place upon this terrible occasion when
they could only recall his older and more consistent self.
Of what kind must that man have been to have persisted
even under the spell of tragedy in such long phrases as
these ? The importance of the occasion compels me to
transcribe them. They are commonly neglected and
very well worthy of remembrance. There is no space to
give them in full.

" I have no taste for long speeches upon selt-evident
matters. They are of a sinister augury for the fortunes
of liberty. I have ever made it a special point to leave
aside the distinctions of logomachy, which only appear
when there is a desire to evade the logical consequences
of some recognised principle. I have never learned the
art of dividing my political existence in such fashion as
to find in myself two separate functions, that of the
judge and that of the statesman. I am incapable of so
outraging reason and justice as to regard the life of a
despot as being of greater weight than that of common
citizens, and of putting my intellect to the rack in order
to save the greatest of criminals from a fate which the
law pronounces against crimes far less grave, and which
the law has already inflicted upon his accomplices. I
will remain inflexible against oppressors, because I re-
main compassionate for the oppressed. I know nothing
of that humanity which is for ever sacrifi.cing whole
peoples and protecting tyrants. The sentiment which
drove me to beg from the Constituent Assembly the
abolition of capital punishment, is the very same which
to-day drives me to ask for its special application to the
arbitrary ruler of my country, and to monarchy itself in
his person. I have no occasion to prophesy or to conjure
up future and unknown despots, and I will use no such
vision to excuse me from striking this man whom I have


declared convicted as lias, uniformly, this Assembly. I
vote for death." ^

This is, not in full but in its gist, the long declaration
with which Robespierre confirmed his adhesion to the
new political force, to the Commune which now wrapped
him up, and in whose fortress he stood. It would not be
just to him to read into it mere pedantry, as one can read
mere pedantry into so many of his discourses; still less
would it be just to cast ridicule in such a moment upon
the too violent personal note which leads in every
sentence, almost, with the word " I." It was not written ;
it was spoken. Rhetoric and the sting of a hundred
insults ; his violent and embittered quarrel with political
opponents whom he certainly believed to be moderates,
compromisers, and the enemies of liberty, gave him suffi-
cient passion to make this outburst (in the ears of the
Assembly) a piece of pure rhetoric ; and it is specially to be
noted that the very same quality which lent him his
tenacity to principle gave him, when once he had departed
from his own path, an obstinacy to continue in that false
direction. He sat down flushed and angry, having thrown
down a gauntlet at the Gironde. So one after another
the Mountain voted — for the deputies of Paris came in a
group — Danton especially rang over the hall in three
lines : " I am not a politician ; I vote for death."

The long night went on like an interminable litany.
Men passed in and out of the hall to sleep, to eat, and to
return. The dawn broke uneasily, a winter transition into
a winter daylight. The short day passed and still one
after another the coloured coats moved up from their
benches to the tribune, turned round, and addressed their
audience : cried in a loud voice : " Death absolute," " Death,
but respite," " Banishment," " Imprisonment," each in his
kind. One after another they signed the minute of their
declaration, and went down the steps again to give way

* The whole may be found in the Moniteur of January 21, 1793.


to the next. The second evening came and they were
still voting. Three hours passed in which the votes were
unsealed, inscribed, and counted with the most exact
care, then within an hour of midnight, before men
exhausted and almost entered into a world of sleep,
haunted with the terrors and the presentiments of sleep,
Vergniaud, his own eyes drooping with the same fatigue,
read out in his grave and peaceful voice : " It is with a
profound sadness that I declare the majority of the
Assembly to be for death."

Very few days remained. The appeal of Louis' counsel
was rejected. Poor old Malesherbes ^ — short, vulgar, a
hero — pleaded vainly ; touching all, but achieving nothing.
The appeal to the people, the last hope of the Gironde,
was rejected. In the war and the public danger
it appeared too much like an abdication of power, A
letter from the King of Spain promising I know not
what support, or threatening I know not what punish-
ment, was rejected.

On the 2 1 st Robespierre sat after the morning meal
in the household of the Duplays. The youngest of the
daughters asked him what was toward that the streets
should be so full of people. He answered that there
was that doing which she would do ill to see, and bade
some servant go and shut the great outer door of the
archway that gave upon the street.^ Louis XVI. went
by past the house with his gaolers and his priest in the
lane of a vast and silent crowd. Before the midday
meal the procession returned along that same Rue St.
i^ Honor^ from the great square beyond. The line of the

^ Every one should read of the death of this man of the old regime. A
year later he waited calmly in his garden for his arrest, and on approach-
ing the scaffold betrayed all the emotions of relief from the tedium of

'^ This story was told by Lebas, who had it from his aunt.


Capetians was broken and the last of tlie true kings was
sunk in the quicklime of the Madeleine.

In that cold and ill-lit hour was let loose the fury of
the governments of Europe, closed the Neutrality of
England, and sacrificed the sympathy of America. When
the door was unlocked and Robespierre reappeared
among men it was to face problems and a turmoil which
he had in part let loose, he that had so consistently
opposed the armed crusade. Then a fortnight and
France was at war with the whole world.^

^ An exaggeration.


The Girondins were struck and were falling. They
never had been France, but only a superb opposition,
opposing tyranny from the vague sky of the ideal. On
the death of the King, who had stood for the positive
tradition of the nation, they came to a last rally; with
the spring season they fell. Their fall and their sacrifice
are the other names for the establishment and growth
of the Terror. France reseized herself with violence :
out of her instinct for united government and for a head
at Paris came the despotism of Paris over the depart-
ments, of the brain over the body.

I have insisted at such length in my last chapter
upon the sharp five months of the struggle that lay
between the imprisonment and the execution of the
King, because that space had transformed Robespierre.
He had entered it the idol rather than the chief of a
political minority ; he had been the cantator of the
sacred texts, preaching, thinking himself a man op-
pressed by the regular forces of government and batter-
ing from below, in a hopeless opposition, what were then
the sure foundations of the Gironde. The war, which he
detested, had come. , The palace which was the common
enemy he saw half- allied with the drawing-room of
Roland, with what he thought to be nothing but an in-
triguing clique ; — Dumouriez and Brissot were in his eyes
the leaders of this shameful cabal. He was perhaps the
first at the Jacobins, but the club was still a battlefield.
He had feared the 20th of June. In August he had


sliut himself in at home, disappointed and disdainful on
the eve of the assault on the Palace.-^

In a day and a night, not by his work — by work
done in spite of him — his whole position had changed.
He was permitted to pass from opposition to action :
the price to be paid for mingling with the Commune,
and for accepting Paris and violence was his old consis-
tency; he paid it. He consented to become in part the
mouthpiece of that violence, in part only did he remain
the professor and logician of the strict revolutionary
theory. This compromise made him, long before
January, the chief target of the moderates : of the pure
visionaries, the great souls that surrounded Vergniaud.
Having been singled out for their principal attack, he
could not fail to reap the fruits of any victory against
them. When months later the Gironde disappeared, as
it was fated to disappear, it was to the profit especially of
Robespierre who had not grasped the nature of its peril,
who had attacked it only in debate.

The February of 1793 was an empty month of
silence. That silence covered the slow convergence of
the coalition. It was the moment of leisurely preparation
with which the eighteenth century had hitherto intro-
duced its wars^ and corresponding to that leisure dragged
on in Paris the sluggish inefiiciency of the ministry and
their supporters. The thing that was to overthrow them
was indeed gathering in strength and unity : the Com-
mune, re-ele(Cted in December, full of complaint and anger,

1 Barbaroux was a vain, courageous, young and sensitive hero, as full of
exaggeration as any other poet, but there is substantial truth in his
account of his interview with Robespierre in the house of the Duplays,
in his disgust at "the Shrine," and in his mention of Madame
Duplay's protest that an insurrection would result in the death of Robes-

^ For instance : war is declared on England and Holland on February
2. No general action is fought for weeks upon weeks. Spain with-
draws her ambassador, yet there is no state of war till March 8.


an illiterate^ populace, had had, though illiterate, a
Girondin for its mayor, an excellent, respectable and
rather famous doctor, one Chambon.^ He had resigned
the incongruous post and Pache had replaced him : Pache
who had passed from the ministry of war, who felt the
danger and was angered by the lack of control over the
armies. That enduring thorn of the Revolution, famine,
troubled Paris to the disorders of the 25 th : the Jacobins
meddled with "a republican constitution"; in the last
days of the month the questions on the situation of the
army were growing urgent : little groups threatened
order in the streets. But as a whole the note of
February was silence.

What had passed under the feeble hand of Roland,

Online LibraryHilaire BellocRobespierre → online text (page 19 of 32)