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corruptible," in which plutocratic societies and their
historians can now find nothing but the comic, had in it
at that time something of the sublime. In the quiet
times of decadence, in the times of the merchants and
the years that prepare defeats and shame, it is something
to remain unmoved by the opportunities of wealth : in
the times of crisis and of revolution it touches upon
the heroic to maintain with a ceaseless activity, how-
ever monotonous, the road to an exact and certain
goal.

I have spoken of the first breach which was made
in that wall of his; his alliance with Paris. A year
before, in the autumn of '92, he had accepted Paris, and
in accepting the spokesmanship of that city he had fallen
from his first position, he had ceased to be the single
exponent of the creed. But that initial corruption which

s



274 ROBESPIERRE

he suffered just after the fall of the monarchy was not
final, nor was it irretrievable ; it was a first but not a
complete abandonment of '89. I have said that it was
in part the product of ambition, but it was not yet wholly
that, and Robespierre bitterly defending himself against
the Gironde could always plead honestly that he remem-
bered the Gironde reactionary, based upon a limited
suffrage, mixed up through Brissot with intrigue, perhaps
(he was sincere in thinking it) with the Court, certainly
with the shifty politics of Dumouriez. He could plead
before the tribunal of his own conscience that France
until the death of the King was in two camps, and that
a man did service only by joining a party discipline. He
could plead that he was senior member for Paris, and
that Paris alone had the light, that the provinces were
largely led by reaction and did not know the peril in
which the future of the Revolution stood.

When the King's head had fallen, and when the execu-
tive broke down in the hands of visionaries he could
still hold himself in the main consistent, and if he
demanded the dismissal of the moderates he could say,
" In theory I still hold for the pure Republic. When peace
is restored I will maintain the sanctity of the national
representation — but the times are not normal; unless
something is done we shall have the enemy in the
capital with the summer." This kind of defence had
now broken down.

A crime is the matter of a moment, but the self-
deception that often leads up to crime is a process.
That process I have shown him suffering in the summer
of '93. He had been, as it were, compelled to accept
the great opportunity of the 2nd of June, he had been
called to power. He had not been unwilling. The two
friends, St. Just and Couthon, had held open for him
the doors of the Committee and had mounted guard
for him in the Hall of the Two Pillars. By a kind of



TEMPTATION OF ROBESPIERRE 275

gravitation lie had passed the door and had entered the
Committee at the close of July.

He had obtained an increasing jurisdiction at the ex-
pense of an increasing trouble of the mind. He knew that
he was becoming something mixed, somewhat larger, but
much lower than, the little Kobespierre that had been
an anchor to the Revolution for four years. Men odious
to him, the Herbertists, the men of dirt and of mere
passion, had pressed upon France all August, and he
had submitted — in order that there should be no rift
in the unanimity that supported him. The blood and
the clamour for blood that in the drowsy heats had
sickened and broken down the great nature of Danton^
had been endured by this less generous and drier
mind.

But he had been troubled. He had saved the
seventy-three. He had not rejoiced but had rather
drawn back into himself at the death of Vergniaud and
his companions. Still he did not move for fear that,
moving, he should lose his place. He gave up all
initiative, save those spasmodic movements of which the
most famous is the 3rd of October, because initiative and
originality endanger a spokesman. There is no doubt
that ambition began to possess him altogether, and that
he had subjected and harnessed to his ambition all the
strict logic that was his only principle of vitality. Even
the great news of Wattignies that had been for the
nation a song of deliverance, turned in him to a political
opportunity, a lucky chance permitting him to affirm
himself and to escape the risk of " moderatism " that he
had run in the month before.

He hardened. But the soul of a man, however
adust, has still something of the organic, and when the
organic turns rigid it is dying ; it grows brittle and can
be broken to pieces.

This is why I have called his entry into the winter



276 ROBESPIERRE

and his policy during those five months to the spring —
Brumaire, Frimaire, Nivose, Pluviose, Ventose and on
into Germinal — his temptation. There was still con-
stantly open to him the road to return. He would by
an alliance with Danton have been able at one moment
to stop the Terror and to let France slip back into the
normal. Paris was certainly ready, the provinces would
have followed. But he saw his nominal supremacy
endangered, he felt near him like guards the Committee,
able to expose him at any moment and to show that
they were the true master. He feared for his reputation
of authority, and he did not dare. By yielding to that
direct temptation, by choosing something against his per-
manent self, he was led on to '94, and, in spite of his
recent protests in the Committee he became the outer
title of the Committee's policy. He was led on to the
sacrifice of Danton, of Desmoulins his friend, of poor
Lucille, the wife of Desmoulins ; Lucille, whose letter he
was compelled to treat as a proof of conspiracy, the
hostess of so many evenings.

As nearly as such strict minds can, he approached
hypocrisy ; and since things good and evil carry in
themselves salvation and damnation, this great refusal
fell back upon him to his hurt. He that had been the
symbol of the Revolution found himself the symbol of
a rigour that grew from pitilessness to fury ; it did
him no service to attack it silently from within ; out-
wardly he was still the later, useless Terror, and as
the later, useless Terror he fell ; finding that whoever
permits is an author ; that God demands confession open
and full recantations.

This is the tragedy which I have to follow to the
close of this book. It is not only a private tragedy ;
it is the catastrophe of the Revolution, because the man
who suffered it was not only a man, but also such
a symbol of equality that, for all his paucity of in-



TEMPTATION OF ROBESPIERRE 277

vention and action, no republican can utterly deny him
the title of great. V^v^.~ C» a •• ■:, 1. V-v,.>Vvv-vvi:t..* -o.^

When the Girondins suffered, the shock of the axe
trembled through France ; it was felt at Arcis and
aroused Danton. Danton returned. But there is
something in these puissant natures which lends itself
not only to the creative activities, but also to the after
effects, of fever. Men who have ridden in a regiment
know what it is after nights of bivouac by low rivers in
the autumn meadows to find the reins trembling in their
hands when they mount before morning, to lose grip
with their knees and to fear disasters. They take an
obstacle uneasily, and they blunder in their orders.
Some such accident of nerve had fallen upon the Cham-
penois. He came back, still a giant, still forcing a loud
note, but within uncertain, losing opportunities and
coming too late and too gradually into the advance. He
was determined to stop the Terror, but the action of his
determination grew and formed itself slowly — had his
nature permitted it he might have sounded a charge that
would have dragged Robespierre in with the mel^e of the
moderates, have persuaded him (who saw nothing largely)
that general power was on this new side.

In capturing Robespierre Danton would have caught
in with him the whole movement and force of which
Robespierre was the accredited chief. The Jacobins
would have been divided, the Committee would have
split, its majority would have appealed to the Conven-
tion. The Commune certainly would have risen or
attempted to rise in defence of the guillotine, but Danton
and his policy would have won. For certainly the
majority of the committee would not have dared to call
up a battalion, and certainly Paris, the sections, the guns,
would not have followed the Commune or Herbert.-^ The

^ This statement needs no such proof as could be drawn from research.
The enormous sale of the Vieux Cordelier when that pamphlet was issued



278 ROBESPIERRE

moral authority of the Convention, mutilated and silent
as it was, yet was the one thing which stood. To the
Convention everything was referred, and by it alone,
legally, would anything be ratified. It would have been
galvanised into life by such a return of the national
vigour as Danton — the Danton of '92 — might at once
have inspired and expressed.

Had Danton struck at once on his return, this tide
would, I say, have set so strongly as to drag Robespierre
in with it, the Terror would have ceased before January.
As it was, Danton waited a month, and Robespierre had
time to hesitate and to fall into his false role.

The execution of the Girondins fell on the 3 i st of
October ; Madame Roland had been guillotined on the
8th of November; on the loth her husband had stabbed
himself by the roadside in Normandy. Danton did not
come back till the i8th of November; his first speech
in the Convention^ was not heard till the 2 6th,^ and it
did not deal with the Terror.

Desmoulins, whom Danton had sent out to do the
work, but who was also half the inspiration of it, did
not put his pen to the famous pamphlets that shook the
system of the Terror till the 3rd of December, and this,
the first number of the Vieux Cordelier, did not appear
till the 5 th. By that time for six weeks the Committee
had been preparing, had pressed round Robespierre who
sat in its midst : had made him feel that the full powers
of the Dictatorship were still necessary to them. But
the Committee were not yet enemies of his. The
Committee did not plot or plan such a pressure ; it was
an inevitable result of the nature of their organisation.

More than this, he had seen St. Just, his right
hand, plunge fully into the policy of coercion — St.

with the object of stopping the Terror and the difficulty which the great
Committee (in a country tiained to centralised government) found in
suppressing the movement are alone ample evidence.
^ Moniteur, 8th Frimaire.



TEMPTATION OF ROBESPIERRE 279

Just, become by an accident partly a worker, knowing
the armies, a drafter of reports, would not have followed
the return to clemency; Robespierre would have been
alone with Couthon.

Nevertheless, in spite of all these reasons for hesita-
tion, his continued balance between the policy of pity
and that of the Committee's despotism, his ultimate
decision, and his abandonment of the Dantonists, afford
an abundant material for the study of the man.

Danton returned at the moment when Robespierre
was supporting the only part of the moderate programme
in which he felt that his leadership would retain com-
plete security, and that part, moreover, of which he had
become, by his consistent action through four years, a
kind of protector : he was defending the Church.

Brumaire — all early November — had been a riot of
Herbertism. It was suited to the breakdown of all
reality that the Commune should imagine that the roots
of Catholicism had withered. Chaumette, Clootz, Mor-
moro the printer, from his cave in the Rue de la Harpe,
passed up and down the city like raving missionaries
" unpriesting." They pruned the old tree. It was at
this moment that the nullity of the schismatic church
appeared, and that, with a sincerity which perhaps saved
their souls, such priests as had clung for livelihood or by
routine to a faith they had never held, came in con-
fessing an emptiness of the mind. Gobel was easily
persuaded. He resigned his bishopric, and came into the
Convention, with half his clergy and all the Commune
at his back, to renounce his orders. The movement,
passing very rapidly, and falling in three months into
nothingness, ran throughout the new dioceses.

Of all the instances take these two. Parens, the
vicar of Boississe le Bertrand, near Melun, wrote to the
Convention on November 7 (17th Brumaire) a letter:
" Here are my papers. I am, or have been, a priest —



^80 ROBESPIERRE

that is to say, a charlatan." Also, lie asked for a small
pension. " Because," said the Rabelaisian, " a man who
can only chant oremus has no way of earning his liveli-
hood" {Moniteur, 17th Brumaire). Again, the yet more
thorough ecclesiastic who suddenly appeared before a
session of the Commune, abjured and begged that " in
the roll of citizens they would change his name from
that of Erasmus, which it had hitherto been, to that of
Apostate."

The sacred vessels were brought before the Parlia-
ment in mascarades, there was pillage in more than one
church, the saturnalia reappeared. The vestments, I
believe, of Dubois found a fitting place upon the back
of an ass, and his mitre was put on the beast's head — a
last expiation of the regency. On the 20th Brumaire^
was held in Notre Dame the feast that may or may not
have been called that of the Goddess of Reason. The
Commune, with very partial success, ordered the church
doors throughout the city to be closed. Ten days later,
on the 1st of Frimaire, Herbert, in the Jacobins, de-
manded the last extremities — the execution of the
seventy-three, the sacrifice of Madame Elizabeth. " The
extermination of the Capets." It was plain that the
wave which had risen up against all religion was drag-
ging anarchy in its wake.

This crisis affords the first landmark in the rapid pro-
gress of Robespierre towards the reputation of supreme
power. He caught Herbertism just at the top flight of
its extravagance, and stood out as the Arrester, the
moderator of the Revolution. That the great Committee
was the true author of Herbert's fall there can be no
doubt. They had determined on the Terror as a prac-
tical instrument, a military necessity, they would not let
it turn into a weapon for the extremists, nor let its
authority slip from their hands into that of Herbert and
^ loth November.



TEMPTATION OF ROBESPIERRE 281

his friends. Yet, though the committee determined the
breaking of Herbert, the opportunity was singularly fitted
to make Robespierre appear as though he was acting
alone. The whole matter was bound up with religion,
and religion had been Robespierre's department, as it
were, for two years. Herbertism was inspired by a
hatred of Christianity; Robespierre, by that faint in-
heritance of it which had produced the Vicaire Savoyard.
For more than a year he had been the only hope of
that great body of citizens who hesitated, troubled, be-
tween their new republicanism and their memories of
the Church. Up to the close of his life he was destined
to express, and to depend upon, his benevolent neutrality
towards Catholicism.

His speech on this occasion, which began the destruc-
tion of one party of his rivals, is often quoted to show
the texture of his mind. It is from beginning to end a
defence, as nearly passionate as his manner permitted,
of the idea of God; the last rhetoric of the Deism of
Rousseau. He exclaimed in one of those clear insights
from which his pedantry did not wholly debar him : —

" Atheism is of its nature oligarchic . . . when the
conception of God comes to be attacked, the attack will
not proceed from the popular instinct, but from the rich
and the privileged."

It was a prophecy of our own time.

The attack on religion, which had been the triumph
of the Commune of '93, marked also the highest point
of its power ; it had aroused in those who had hitherto
remained indifferent a prodigious hostility, it had pre-
pared reaction. And the Committee — that is, the
workers of the Committee, the majority — grew afraid.

The Committee determined to attack Herbert and
the old commune not as extremists, but as undisciplined
men, and as men likely to provoke by their madness a
return to milder things. They feared reaction.

For Carnot, a reaction at this moment meant the



282 ROBESPIERRE

stoppage of the convoys, the lack of munitions, the
failure of recruits ; he needed the Terror. For Couthon
(not in the committee but, as it were, a department of
the government in himself — Finance) it meant the dis-
appearance of the currency, the total collapse of the
depreciated assignats, the bankruptcy of the nation in
the midst of the wars ; he needed the Terror. Jean-Bon
St. Andr^ needed it to man his ships and to provision
and to build them ; St. Just to drive his armies ; Prieur
to enforce his plans. This need for the Terror was not
yet actively expressed, but the committee were watching
for the first cries against severity, and Robespierre, who
hesitated and desired clemency, who in standing an
obstacle to the Herbertian faction and in defending
religion had seemed to prepare the return to pity —
Robespierre sat among his colleagues and knew how little
of a master he was in that room. He felt their eyes
on him and he did not go where he would.

Then came a few hard winter weeks, during which
the Committee organised their plan against Herbert and
the Commune of Paris. Robespierre knew that in
surrounding this insurrectionary they had no thought
of checking the Terror. He admitted their mastery and
was willing to continue the Terror.

The lively art of Desmoulins, the sense of Danton
had not divined this. Both these men, the greater and
the lesser, were determined to arrest the persecution and
to relieve the State. It was time. The opposition to
Herbert which Robespierre had so conspicuously led
encouraged them. They believed themselves to have
some favour with the Committee. They thought
themselves certain of Maximilian. It is to this day a
matter of doubt whether he did not himself inspire the
first of Desmoulins pamphlets.^ It was on the 15th
Frimaire, the 5 th of December, that the first number of

^ He admits having seeu the proof -sheetSj and we may presume that
he actually corrected them.



TEMPTATION OF ROBESPIERRE 283

the Vieux Cordelier appeared ; on the i oth the second,
on the 15 th the more famous third. Desmoulins
hammered into what he believed to be the rifted stuff
of the Terror the phrases of Tacitus Hke wedges. It
was not only the terrible irony of his pen nor the
climax of his genius spurred on to its highest just on
the edge of his doom ; it was also the return of humanity
that lent his efforts so much power.

Desenne's shop became the centre of whatever was
read and debated. The Vieux Cordelier was caught up
from the presses by crowds that filled the streets, it
passed by thousands into all hands ; became a common
cry throughout the capital.

"Women ran through the hall of the Convention
demanding the liberation of their sons, and Camille's
whole programme seemed to have gained the city : a
" Committee of Clemency " was demanded. Everything
prepared the reaction : all that Christmas was a noel of
victories. It was known in one week that the Republic
was saved ; in one week between Christmas Eve and the
New Year Paris heard of the Vendeans crushed at
Savenay, of the forcing of the lines of Wissembourg, of
Landau relieved, of the enemy passing back home over
the Rhine,

Desmoulins in the first four numbers of his pamphlet
had taken for granted that Robespierre would defend the
same cause. On the 7 th of January, however, some-
thing had passed in the Committee. What it was will
never be known, but Robespierre appearing at the
Jacobins disclaimed the cause of pity. All his new power
compelled him to the retractation ; he remembered how
the generals turned to him,i behind the back of the

^ There is to be seen at the archives a curious little pocket-book, in
the first seventeen pages of which Robespierre has made his private notes
on policy. Among these one may find that he had down the names of the
generals, his proposal for their disposition, and his judgment upon their



284 ROBESPIERRE

Committee ; how it was to him that the smallest private
appeals were directed.

Let me retrace the last steps that led Robespierre to
this desertion.

Just upon Christmas he had promised a " Committee
of Justice " which might have been made — and which he
probably intended to make — into a court of revision for
the gradual liberation of the prisoners. Camille had
written the fourth number of the Vieux Cordelier as an
appeal by name to Robespierre.

" My Robespierre, I call you here by your name, for
I remember the moment when Pitt had you alone left
to withstand his coalition, and when but for you the
ship would have perished: the Republic was passing
into chaos. . . . Oh ! my old college friend, remember
that there is something more durable in love than in
this fear, and clemency (Tertullian tells it us) is like
a ladder of falsehoods, but reaches to heaven. You came
very close to that idea when you spoke of a Committee
of Justice . . . but why should the word 'Pity' have
become a crime in the Republic ? "

On that same day, the 2 1 st of December,^ at the
Jacobins Nicholas the public printer had cried out to
Camille, " Camille, you seem very close to the guillotine," ^
and Camille had answered gaily, " Nicholas, you seem

appeals, as though he were himself concerned with the department of
war. Here are his judgments on the generals Dumas, Marceau, Hoche.
And it was his brother who had just found out the genius of Bonaparte
at Toulon.

^ And on the same day (the coincidence is grotesque enough to merit
a record) the Convention after a long and stormy debate decided that the
habit of speaking with the hat on was disrespectful. " It has grown too
common of late," said Robespierre, and when there was cited the example
of the Quakers he replied with some justice, "Quakers are usually ex-
ceptions that prove a rule."

* There is a discussion whether Robespierre put up Nicholas to warn
Camille. There is no proof but a tradition to that efEect. Nicholas was
indeed Robespierre's man, but on the other hand Robespierre would
never have put the thing so bluntly.



TEMPTATION OF ROBESPIERRE 285

very close to making a fortune. It is but a year since
that you made your dinner off a baked apple, and here
you are printer to the State." It was the first pass of
tbe duel that opened between the indulgents and the
extremists, a duel in wbicli, by the spring, each had
perished, leaving the Committee supreme.

On the 7th of January, then, the i8th Nivose, the
growing irritation against Camille broke out openly in
the club. The opportunity coincided with Robespierre's
recantation. It was known that the silent royalist
faction which lay under the city, a minority ready to
strike, had raised its head at the appearance of the Vieicx
Cordelier. Apart from the Herbertist group that
Desmoulins aimed at, apart from the men whom he
called by name and cut and wounded with his style,
the common republicans fell into an ill-ease and were
alarmed. Robespierre had determined to follow the
Committee, but he remembered his friend. He
attempted compromise. Desmoulins was not in the
mood for it ; he could see that Robespierre was tempted
to abandon him, but he thought he had enough hold to
prevent it. Some days before he had offered to burn
his No. 3 — he had offered it in a rhetorical manner.

" You complain of the third Number ? I can under-
stand it : I have given orders that it shall not be
reprinted. I will even burn it publicly, so that you
promise to read my No. 5."

This Robespierre took up at the Jacobins, and seeing
Desmoulins in front of him, looking him straight in the
eyes and with the slight perpetual smile upon his lips,
he excused him ; apologised for him to the club.

" There is no need to expel Camille. We will burn
his pamphlet."

Robespierre, a man incapable of repartee, had laid
open his guard, and Camille could not resist the advan-
tage. He laughed out after his opening stutter.



2 86 ROBESPIERRE

" Burning is not a convincing reply."

It was Rousseau's own answer to tlie public burning of
his "Emile." Robespierre, whose whole life it was to
play the part of Rousseau in power, heard, as it were, his
own self laughing at him in Desmoulins' reply. His
smile left him, and he abandoned the last thread of
the alliance with the indulgents.

The Terror began to surround Desmoulins. The
final withdrawal of Robespierre left him to the warnings



Online LibraryHilaire BellocRobespierre → online text (page 23 of 32)