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was with a certain moderation, but never with that
control which a wider man would have dared : a control
that might have saved the Gironde, and that in the
height of the winter might have admitted the " committee
of clemency."

I will attempt to put myself in the shoes of this
man who, when the fatal violence of '93 rose up in
eruption, was permitted, and I think was willing, to take
the helm. He was unworthy of it and perhaps knew
himself unworthy. He yielded to the pressure, but his
pedantry had this virtue attached to it, that it permitted

^ On Marat's death Kobespierre could find no phrase but this : "I am
myself marked out for daggers."

' The statistics of the revolutionary tribunal will show what I mean.
France had been fighting the world since January, yet of death sentences
there were but 9 in April, 9 in May, 28 in June (of which 20 were for one
plot), II in July (including Charlotte Corday and the 7 conspirators of
Orleans), 5 in August, 19 in September. It is an extraordinarily meagre


hiin to be cold and to show his disdain. Roux the wild
priest he broke ; -^ later in August the same spirit, this
time erroneous, led him to refuse Danton's proposal — the
sheer necessity of the time — that the committee (which
he himself swore never to re-enter) should be recognised
as the only government. But while the Terror was thus
distasteful to him, and while he kept up his formula
even to the refusal of a necessary dictatorship for the
committee, he had not the general view that would
have permitted him to organise the awful power of what
had become a despotism, to turn it against the enemies
only of the Revolution and to repress, as by his morals
he desired to repress, the gross licence which boiled up
with every week of the advancing summer.

If one might express a longing with regard to deeds
past and sins inexpiable, the longing would be that two
things might have happened together : that the Revolt,
Lyons, Marseilles, Toulon, Vendee, Brittany, Normandy
might have fallen suddenly (as they would have fallen
before modern armies and before a modern rapidity of
communication), and that the genius of Danton had not
been so mixed with clay nor so mortal : had survived
the stress of the time and been able before the autumn
to follow up the domestic victories and to organise the
full force of the Republic against the invader.

These things were not permitted. The extreme
peril of the Revolution endured too long; August and
September were full of it. The liberty we enjoy was
defended as in a fortress and encircled upon every side.
It was thought about to perish and the thought
maddened.^ You could not go a clear hundred miles

^ Eoux had'said, " Yours is no democracy because you permit riches."
It was partly by Danton's act but still more by Robespierre's that he was
struck off the list of the Cordeliers.

2 Here is an example of the madness. Therasson proposed that the
deliberations of the Committee of Public Safety should be Public I It was
with the greatest difficulty that Robespierre got the proposition rejected.


from Paris without finding its enemy marching forward
and victorious. That situation gave the Herbertists the
reins of opinion, and all the autumn, half the winter
became an orgy. Robespierre had not the power to
resist ; he submitted, and the spirit he hated, the spirit
he might in a greater mood have resisted, branded him.
He loved to be called the government. Before the
spring he was called the Terror.

There was much beside his ambition that conspired, as
it were, against his natural fortune. To be master by the
moral authority of the Jacobins was to hold in one's hands
the hauls of the great web that covered the towns of
France; when such a man entered the Committee of
Public Safety he was thought as a matter of course to be
master of that also. Then what was he ? Did he not
hold the whole power ? Pressed by the worst of licence,
for the moment an unwilling slave of Herbert and his
madmen he was yet — if he was to call himself the
master — bound to go with that flood. More than this.
At the very moment when a general levy was decreed
he was elected, for the first time. President of the Con-
vention.^ It was with him in the chair that the news
of the capitulation of Marseilles was heard, that the
petition of Bordeaux for mercy was accorded, that
Normandy admitted the failure of her revolt. But it
was also during his presidency that worse news came:
that Toulon admitted the English fleet,^ and that the
strength of the resistance of Lyons was endangering the

He yielded. The Herbertists demanded, and re-
demanded the blood of the Girondists;^ he permitted
their trial to proceed. With the entry of the wildest ideas

^ August 23. He was also at the time President of the Jacobins.
3 28th of August.

* I have no space to quote them. Let those who wish to follow the fury
read the 24th number ol: the Fdre Duchesne.



into the State at bay and in the delirium of a close
siege, with the proclamation of the republican calendar
and the beginning of the six months' struggle with
Christianity the Terror became real, weighed on all
France, and began the useless marvel of blood that
ended with Thermidor.

It does not concern this book to describe the end of
those great men whose fall was also the first heavy
wound of the Republic.

What is to be said of the man whom legend has
made responsible for their blood and for that of so many
others ? Certainly he did not cause it to flow ; almost
as certainly he could have checked the disaster. But he
was absorbed and contained by the fear of something
general, the fear of the corporate power of Paris, or, as
he called it, the People, from which his reputation pro-
ceeded, and of whose lips he had become the servant.

It was (like all his appreciations of things general
and living) an error. It was not the people that de-
manded the blood of the Girondins : it was a small, in-
tense and violent faction that had the name of the
people always upon its lips, that passed for the people
because it was in the tradition of the popular vengeance
and of the great mob violence of the past years. He
did not oppose. He excused in platitudes, and that is
all that can be said of his position towards the Gironde
in its last hour.

Save this : that at the moment when the Terror was
turning from a political method to a fanaticism he
developed — it is a thing his closer students might think
incredible in the light of his past — yet he did develop a
kind of firmness utterly different from his mere tenacity.
He had always been direct ; for two years, since the be-
ginning of a quarrel with the Gironde, he had been acid ;
but now, whatever it was in him that had produced
directness, and latterly a sympathy of expression, was


lifted to the power of assault, and a personal managing
of things. He desired, with a vague prevision of '94, to
show that he could kill or save.

There are two occasions within ten days of each other
which very well illustrate this change : the great de-
bate of the 25 th September, and his action upon the 3rd

In the first the effect of new victories was weighing
upon the Assembly, and when Briez appeared before it,
excusing the fall of Valenciennes, the Parliament had
acquired a certain hardness of temper which Robespierre
reflected. Briez said plainly, " I did my best ; I saw
death from quite near by, and at least I preserved for
the nation an important garrison." There were many
answers to the pathetic apology, one only was stiffened
into epigram, and that was Robespierre's : " Are you
dead ? " He had been in Valenciennes ; the town had
surrendered ; he came back alive.

A slight illness that had affected Robespierre a week
before, returned after the effort of that debate, and he
did not reappear till the day when there was question
of killing the Gironde, yet on this second occasion also
he showed a certain strength and mastery.

The benches were half empty ; Amar,^ rising to read
his report against the Gironde, spoke to a house of which
he knew well that the majority even among its di-
minished numbers desired to be absent. He asked
them to vote that the doors should be closed, and that no
one should leave the house till a decision had been
taken ; then he read out in sentences that swept like a
scythe the condemnation of the whole party of the
moderates. A movement began (it originated from a
private member) for sending before the revolutionary

^ Amar has so little to do with this book that I fear his extraordinary
personality has been neglected in it. He will reappear in Thermidor,
Let this anecdote suffice. He chose the month before the abolition of all
titles of nobility to purchase one at a considerable expense.


tribunal not only the twenty-two of the Gironde, but the
seventy-three who had in June signed a protest against
their exclusion. That motion was of a kind which, in
the height of the Terror, it was almost impossible to
resist ; from what motive it was that Robespierre alone
resisted it, it would be difficult to say. It may have
been the tortuous sense of justice which never deserted
him ; it may have been a panic lest the Convention should
wholly destroy itself in these passions and leave the
Republic empty; but I would be more inclined to be-
lieve that it was a new determination to bo daring. He
wished to try himself in power, to ride the Assembly, to
set himself as a firm obstacle against " the madmen," to
begin leading for once rather than be led by Paris, and
in general, to have the inner satisfaction that he had
come to a place where he (that had always imposed his
principles) could at last impose also his decisions upon
the details of policy.

Just as the Convention was abandoning itself to one
of those unhappy floods in which lassitude mixed with
partisanship could drive them into the worst of their
excesses and abandonments, just as a fatal division would
have been taken, Robespierre spoke.

The deputies were already streaming to the bar
to vote that the division should be taken on the roll-
call of the names, and that the friends of the Gironde,
if any remained, should be marked in such a manner.

He rose and refused to support Billaud Varenne in
his motion for that roll-call ; a motion that underlined
the Terror, and that would have left each man to stand
for ever before history as the judge or the accomplice
of the Gironde. He said : —

" I do not see the necessity of regarding the national
Convention as divided into two classes — that which is the
friend of the people, and that which is made up of
conspirators and traitors. We have no right to decide


suddenly that we have to deal with any other con-
spirators than those that are named in the report. Let
us take the original decree upon its merits, and vote
purely and simply upon that."

And he made a second and much more important
interruption in the debate. It was proposed to include
with the Gironde in the same decree of accusation the
seventy- three who had protested against the 2nd of June.
He opposed. " I speak in the face of the people, and
speak frankly. I will be judged only by my conscience.
You must, even at this hour, distinguish between opinions
and acts." The Herbertists and the Left began to mur-
mur. He continued : " Citizens, be sure of this. You
have no ultimate defenders save those who dare to
speak in the moments when something seems to im-
pose silence."

He went on, speaking of "the faction," trailing out
a peroration, but he had saved the Right from a general

In this moment which, though the violent men
that drove the storm could not know it, was the doom
of their effort, a spirit that was not wholly human
disturbed the nights with tragedy; the Terror boiled,
and men approached the limits where despair and vision
meet. It was the last clutch of the great wrestling,
the moment of tottering before the throw. The mind of
Paris lost hold of the ground ; Dalua, the oldest of the
gods, the spirit of Celtic madness, took a part in this
strain of the western fortunes, vengeance and darkness
entered in with him also. Twisted into the same
whirlwind, all the heroisms and the first victories

The empty head of Orleans fell ; but that same day
Dubois Crance broke into Lyons at the tail of an artillery


duel, and spared the place like a soldier : ^ a whole army
was set free for the frontiers.

A week later a kind of Sabbat led the Queen, very
haggard and proud, to the guillotine ;2 but Cholet was pre-
paring — Cholet, the great fight in which the Republic
fought and fought, not noticing the hours, till at last it
broke the Vendeans.

In the hour that the Queen died Wattignies was won.
All the day before, the centre had charged uselessly
against the Austrian cannon, the right had been broken
by the Hungarian cavalry and had lost its guns. The day
seemed so lost to the Republic that Coburg did not call
upon the Duke of York and the English for reinforce-
ment ; but on the morrow, the 1 6th of October, a mist
that a lyric has called the " Destiny of France " came
down upon the plain, Carnot, tall and hard, dragged
off the young recruits to the right, appeared on the
plateau and, when the fog lifted at midday, took the
last earthworks at the bayonet, himself leading, losing
half his men, and opening the blockade of the frontier.
Then he put off the uniform in which he had raised
the blood of the boys behind him, and posted home
sombrely to Paris in his long grey civilian coat, to tell
the Convention coldly that the new order was saved, but
to make no mention of his charge. All the week was
breathless. Naples to her ruin declared war, the last of
the coalition. The non-juring priests were outlawed.

It was in the agony and bewilderment of such success
following upon such a crisis (Paris had lain awake to
hear the issue of the struggle) that the Gironde went to

^ He found his own cousin there, commanding the rebels, and per-
mitted a number of evasions. Kead in this connection the vivid memoirs
of Mile. d'Ercherolles, which have recently been very well translated into
English, there you will hear of how this mousquetaire shaved in a great
silver bowl, chosen out of the loot, and laughed, and granted largess.

^ By far the best impression of her is David's thumb-nail sketch, taken
as she went by in the cart.


the guillotine; and opened the way downwards for all
the revolutionaries. They at the approach of death
were possessed with a spirit of feasting and a call from
the sunlight came up northward to them and glorified
their end.

It was already the time of the vintage. The vine-
yards by the great river and on the hills that bound it
like low walls were full of men and made a moving
tapestry under the mild pleasure of their autumn. At
this season a secret working runs through all wine, and
something that is more generous than content gives
praises for the summer past and rests from creation with
the silent plenitude of energy. The vine prepares life,
and supports it against the season of darkness and cold.
This link of the summer ended and the mists beginning, a
viaticum for winter, was for these men in Paris a viaticum
before the long time death. These clear souls, chained
in the north, received the influence, and the passing of
the Gironde was ennobled by the dignity and certitude
that accompany enthusiastic calm. It was as though
the rainy gloom of those last days in Paris had been lit
from somewhere by the soft sky of October where it
protects the garden of the Pyrenees.

On the last day of the month they sang their song
together, and Vergniaud that had best loved freedom
died the last, still inspired by grave music. So the
Republic narrowed, but whatever narrows, rages upon
itself, and ends.



What is it in tlie story of this man's soul that turns the
eye inward and forbids the appreciation of realities ? It
is as though in the mere writing of him some subtle
sympathy proceeded from a spirit so long silent and drew
one into its own void and vagueness, where his one
stuff, his firm and isolated conviction, hung rare and

Time and again it has seemed in the nature of this
book to call up the armies, or at least to fill its pages
with the creative noise of Paris ; time and again the
persistent monotone that enspelled the tribune of the
Jacobins has cut off as with a curtain the outer sound of
the Kevolution from my mind. His innumerable chosen
phrases, his reams of blue paper, close- written and erased,
have been fine threads cramping my hand, and I have
lost the description of an experiment so vast and terrible
that a pen recording it should properly turn without
effort to reproduce its majesty. But Robespierre preach-
ing Robespierre, the one political right insisting for ever
on the one political right, has cast over the sublime
accidents of those four years a curious and unnatural
hush, and has dominated all the colours with a screen
of something colourless. So divers cannot hear the waves
for the singing in their ears.

The period of which I am about to treat in this
chapter emphasises more than all that went before it the.
strange contrast between Robespierre's life within and the

outer clamour that frames him. I am about to treat of



tlie crisis and agony of tlie Revolution ; of the five months
that open with the execution of the Queen and close with
that of Danton ; of the passage from the sunlight to the
sunlight, from the last leaves to the spring again, in which
darkness the Revolution ran out beyond itself and in-
sisted upon a path that could only lead to the abyss — ^yet
in that wild drive Robespierre's whole history is con-
cerned with an interior thing, and, writing of it, I am
confined to but one intense episode of morals ; a vivid
sin, remote from which, uncertain and ill-defined, pass
shadows, faint echoes, phantasms of action. The angry
victories at the Bayonet, the strange new months and
days, the great persecution of the Church, the aggrava-
tion of the Terror, the giant's wrestle with rebellion, the
frenzy of the reprisals, the silent despotism of the Com-
mittee — of itself a full subject for a book — all these must
go by almost unheeded that there may be told in a few
pages what passed in an empty space of thought. And
this glaring and teeming passage of our immediate past
must be abandoned for the single crisis of one solitary

Of what nature was that crisis ? It was the tran-
sition of Robespierre from the self-deception and gradual
ambition which had risen in him throughout the past
two years to the definite acceptation of the new position
which he was to hold for so brief a time in '94. He who
had never governed one individual, at last attempted to
govern, or rather to pass as the chief power in, the nation.

Was that determination fully conscious ? Yes ; with
this qualification, that it was intimately mixed up with
that illusion by which all of us read our own person-
alities into our conception of abstract right. He would
have told you that he wished, as a tribune rather than
as a leader, to make a right world, but in practice that
wish became a necessity to rule.

Now ruling and the power of one man were opposed


to all that had made him : to the sublime theory of
which he had been so jejune, but so sincere, persistent,
and faithful an exponent. Therefore, when he passed the
boundary that lay between his old complaints, suspicions,
and love of praise, and his new plan of supremacy, he
abandoned his very self. That abandonment was to force
him to two great disasters or crimes. First, he hesitated
— till it was too late — to join those who had risen with
Danton to stop the Terror ; secondly, he was compelled,
as a consequence of this political intrigue, to give up
Danton to the political necessities of the Committee.
Essentially a man innocent, or incapable, of intrigue,
this last betrayal should have seemed a crime to him ;
essentially a man of few and clear principles, and abhor-
ring arbitrary power, his temporising with the Terror
(which was in its nature martial law) was a direct nega-
tion of his own theory of political justice. It is the
method and consequence of his double fall that I have
to develop in what follows.

The Girondins were dead.

The scene upon which the Eepublic entered when it
had sealed its mysteries with such a sacrifice was one
whose motive and prime force was the unnecessary con-
tinuance of a state of siege in spite of, and on into the
beginnings of military success : it was the momentum of
the Terror. But the Terror, thus continued, grew pro-
digiously, and it is this charge beyond which lends to
the awful passage of that winter its dissociation from
human experience, its dark experiments, its furious asso-
lutions. Here men broke apart from their closest political
bonds, from the sense of things, and from themselves.
It lay with Robespierre's own decision to follow or to
resist the swirl. Had he joined the moderates, as they
themselves believed he would join them, the Republic
would have endured.


It is a truth not easily appreciated, yet one which
determines all the end of his life, and which I therefore
would set forth fully, that he accepted at this moment,
by I know not what miscalculation of social forces,
the side that could not endure, and abandoned the re-
action toward simplicity and normal law which should
have been the special function of his rule. At the head
of the Convention and the club, passing for the master
of the Committee, the primary weakness in. him appeared
as it had never appeared during all the years of oppo-
sition and criticism. He did not know how men were
governed, nor had he ever understood what are the cor-
rectives to violence ; he accepted all that the real powers
(Carnot, Prieur, the lower committee, certain representa-
tives on mission) might demand, so only he could stUl
think himself an infallible head of the democracy.

I know that he may be taken as yielding only to an
irresistible thing: there is an atmosphere of excess in '93
that seems to overwhelm and excuse the revolutionaries.
How many men chiefly responsible for that time lived
on into the Restoration, silent, respected, even provincial ;
how many protest with justice in their memoirs that even
the worst of the Terror was a thing driven by necessity.

Look over France and you see nothing but a cavalry
charge in which time is eaten up by fury, as a field
passes like a river and is eaten up under the hoofs of
straining horses. The 2nd of June is already very old,
the Monarchy (a year dead, not a year buried) is for-
gotten — or only remembered for chance vengeance — it
is so passed that these executions, the Queen, Bailly,
the Dubarry, each utterly separate from the other, mark
out sporadically (the first diplomatic, the second a popular
revenge, the third a show), the last shots of the Crown's
pursuers. The monarchy is so utterly passed that it
has become an incomprehensible legend. Its true quality
is already so forgotten that republicans accusing one


another drag up the charge of " royahsm " like a mean-
ingless epithet, a conventional abuse. France driving at
the most extreme realisation of the Revolution, cutting
off her past, living and dead together, accepting a new-
calendar of Reason, forgetting in her tempest religion
and the link of history, and even the divisions of time,
seems something upon which we cannot reason : a storm
or a wild music. Seen as a drifting thing on such a tide
you may make of Robespierre in the autumn of '93 a
toy of forces so superior to himself that the analysis of
his motives becomes indifferent. But from within his
own soul things had another aspect.

Look at the centre of that mind and you will perceive
one dominant act : a great refusal ; the self-desertion that
broke its self-reliance, the last compromise between his
ambition and his faith. This abandonment crumbled
the small central pillar upon which, had he but known
it, all his power reposed. It was as a man of debate,
wary, minute — but especially definite and inflexible —
that his rise had been permitted. That epithet of " in-

Online LibraryHilaire BellocRobespierre → online text (page 22 of 32)