Hilaire Belloc.

Robespierre online

. (page 26 of 32)
Online LibraryHilaire BellocRobespierre → online text (page 26 of 32)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


2 On the 7th of Germinal (the 27th March).

* This warrant of arrest (of the 22nd May) was the most direct cause
of the fall of Robespierre. It is a curious document, very characteristic


Tallien himself, who had spilt so much blood at Bor-
deaux, and had taken suddenly in that unhappy city to
lounging across drawing-rooms, and to posing as the
southern voluptuary ; an actor.

There was a kind of man (there were but six or seven
of them in the Convention) particularly odious to Robes-
pierre, and he was of such a nature that what was odious
to him he believed of necessity to be odious also to God,
to Nature, and to the Republic. This kind of man, who
had taken advantage of the Revolution in order to excel
in licence, who was the very antithesis of Rousseauan
stoicism, who was commonly an atheist, always an evil
liver, seemed in the eyes of Robespierre to be a cancer in
the State. If it be asked why, to achieve his final pur-
pose to destroy these men and to impose upon the nation
the Republic that haunted him he had recourse to
such a venture as the law of the 22 nd of Prairial, the
answer is that men so utterly out of touch with reality as
he was can imagine no strength save the crude absolute
of power. Just as some modern men in politics will
conduct a war under the impression that victory means
something they have seen on a stage, a thing of one
blow, so this insufficient intellect thought that mastery
did not exist unless it were final and one. And this it
thought because it had in no way the genius of mastery.

That he had it in his mind to stop the Terror, to

of his habits ; it is written out in his own hand ; he has signed it first
at the top, then he has scratched out his first signature and signed it
again at the bottom. There are no capital letters, not even to the word
" Kepublic " ; and as nothing from his hand could be written without a re-
casting of style, there is even in these few lines an erasure. Therezia
Cabarrus was a Spaniard, not yet of age. Six years before, on the eve of
the Revolution, she had been married as a girl of fifteen to the Marquis
de Fontenay, who divorced her. Tallien married her in the winter after
Thermidor (26th December, '94), and divorced her in 1802. In 1S05 she
married the Prince de Chimay, and died long after in his castle at Chimay,
still bearing that unlucky title. She had borne seven children to these
three husbands, and four others besides.


appear as a kind of saviour of France, we know, not from
the calculated accounts made long after the reaction
(they are valueless), but from the natural outbursts of

Barrere, just after the death of Robespierre, let
loose a sentence that betrays it all : " He perished
because he would have stopped the great career of the
Revolution." Billaud, a fanatic not to be trusted with
the sword, violent, worthy of death, therefore a man
whose expletives must necessarily be honest, poured out,
as will be seen in a moment, a torrent of invective
against Robespierre in the debates that determined his
fall ; and all this invective turns upon Robespierre's
attempting to stop the Terror. I repeat, it cannot be
absolutely proved but it is the only workable hypothesis,
that the law of the i oth of June was the wild grasping at
the full externals of power by a man who did not under-
stand the nature of power ; and he so grasped at it because
he believed that all France was behind him, and that
he would be able quickly and without debate to end the
welter of persecution and to save society ; there was then
something in this unsoldierly man of the Csesarist, and
every Caesar has felt something in common with him —
none more than Napoleon.

Now, from the law of the 22 nd of Prairial, and from
the direct determination of Robespierre to wipe out the
few remaining men that seemed to obstruct the advent
of a settled and an ideal state, there sprang two things.

The committee found itself finally omnipotent ; that
was the first thing.

The second thing was that the men whom he so openly
aimed at, entered, as their nature was, into a conspiracy.

To the committee, of which Robespierre erroneously
imagined himself to be the master, which he thought to
be, like the Convention, awed by the memory of his awful
popularity, the law of the 22nd of Prairial was what a


gift of money is to a man abeady wealthy and avaricious
and deep in speculations. Carnot (insisting upon tho
feeding of the armies and believing that the Terror alone
could do it) ; Barrere (determined to keep in existence the
organ of government with which he alone was acquainted,
and of which he was the mouthpiece) ; Prieur (considering
the breakdown of his foreign policy which would follow
too close an examination of the committee by the Conven-
tion) — they and all the rest of the committee saw in the
Terror a means of government which appeared to be fail-
ing them as the victories increased. They seized upon
the law of Prairial as an opportune completion of their
power ; they used it as Robespierre never wished it to be
used, and when he asked them immediately after the
passing of the decree for the heads of the last few men
that remained (as he believed) the enemies of his system,
he was bluntly refused. The Committee was weary of
his affectation of control ; it was determined to use for
its own purposes the law which he had made; to cen-
tralise the action of the government and especially its
power of sudden stroke and punishment in Paris. In
seven weeks it had put to death nearly 1400 men.

From this sprang the obscure quarrel upon which,
in the face of all the contradictions and secrecy which
throw a veil over the debates of the Ten, historians can
never be secure judges. Only one thing is certain that
he attended the meetings of the Committee with reluct-
ance, that he argued against their most fundamental deci-
sions, that he threatened them with an obstinacy that can
only have been based upon a false judgment of his power
of control, and that, in fine, he grew increasingly irksome
to the handful of men who were still governing France.

The lower committee, which controlled the police of
the city, was already uniformly hostile to him. Vadier
got up in the most ridiculous fashion the case of the old
mystic Catherine Theot ; he presented his report to the


Convention in such a fashion that he appeared to be
defending Robespierre, while in every phrase the old
buffoon knew that he was wounding him and bleeding
him ; in every phrase he ridiculed religion, and Robes-
pierre in the chair sat silent and disgusted. This was
less than a week after the passing of the law.

Robespierre's answer to that insult was a kind of revolt
against the committees. He came indeed regularly enough,
he signed before the middle of Messidor six important docu-
ments with his colleagues ; on the 1 6th of that month he
wrote out a letter to the representatives on mission in the
name of the Committee; on the 28th he even took the
initiative in recalling Dubois Crance from Rennes, and on
the same. day he was glad enough to sign an order for the
release of thirty-three prisoners whom Rousselin had ar-
rested in Troyes. It cannot be said that he absented him-
self in body from the committee. It has been proved that
between the law of the 22nd Prairial to the day of his
fall in Thermidor, he was actually absent from the com-
mittee but six times, just once a week ; but though he
was not physically absent he was morally separated from
the majority of his colleagues. He only came to inter-
fere with their principal work. Of all the lists of the
hundreds that were sent in that terrible summer to the
revolutionary tribunal, he signed after the beginning of
Messidor but one, and that the least important, and when
he came to defend himself in his long final speech to the
Convention on the day before his fall, he said in so many
words : —

" I will not make public the debates of the Com-
mittee ; I will confine myself to saying that for the last
six weeks the force of calumny has made it impossible
for me to arrest the torrent of evil deeds. ... I far
prefer my character of a representative of the people
to that of a member of the Committee of Public


In the same speech he said (and he was perfectly
sincere in it) : —

" I was but for a few days at the head of the
poHce because one of my colleagues was absent; I was
concerned with the arrest of perhaps some thirty men,
and yet that little time has given an excuse for telling
every man that if he is imprisoned it is I who am to

The suspicion with which he was haunted was not
wholly just. There was indeed a definite conspiracy
already formed against him, but that conspiracy was
extraneous to the Committee. It was Fouche and Tallien
and their friends, the lost men of the Convention, men
utterly inferior to the Government, that were weaving the
conspiracy. The Committee, exasperated at his pride,
his silence, his opposition, his refusal to accept their
policy, were yet not actively dragging him down ; it was
because his name had become identified with that of the
Revolution, because he had yielded to the great tempta-
tion of the winter, that now this nemesis had come. He
could not escape from the accusation that he was him-
self the Republic, himself the Government, and himself
the Terror. He had chosen to pass for the Revolution
incarnate ; now that, with the victories certain and the
nation safe, the Terror was becoming odious, he was com-
pelled still to pass, in spite of himself, for the incarnate
Terror, and in all the cabinets of Europe, in all the
prisons throughout France, Robespierre was the name of
that intolerable anachronism.'^

Caught in this trap, which his own jdelding to
ambition had laid, Robespierre advanced to meet his fate
by falling into every error that could ruin him.

^ When Madame Duplay was thrust into the prison on the 9th of Ther-
midor (a prison from which she never came out alive), one of the prisoners
asked who she was, and another answered, " She was the Queen, but now
she is dethroned." On this string even the jailers harped as the rest of
her household came iu under arrest.


I have described in an earlier portion of this book
how by nature he avoided the mention of personal
names. How, in the great quarrel with the Girondins
upon the question of war, for once that he said the
word " Brissot " or " Koland " his opponents spoke his
own name ten times.

On his lips there were always such phrases as, "a
certain faction," " men of such and such a kind," and
so forth; it was mania for generalities upon which he
could pursue his mania for deduction.

I have described also how, when he merged into the
new violence of Paris after the loth of August, he for a
moment became more direct and how there was apparent
in him a permanent bitterness and a kind of venom which
pricked his opponents to fury. He was then upon a
rising tide; the people demanded government; he was
one of the conquerors of the Gironde.

Now that he was losing, this feature reappeared. In
the beginning of the great quarrel in which he fell he
had attempted to make a general description which his
audience were intended to apply to Bourdon. Bourdon
rose up in a fury, crying, " It has been pointed out pretty
clearly in this speech that I am a scoundrel." Robes-
pierre, losing control, had answered from the tribune :
" In the name of the country, let these interruptions
cease. It is an awful peril for any man to name himself.
If he is determined to recognise himself in the portrait I
have drawn, in the portrait which my duty has compelled
me to draw, it is not in my power to prevent him." From
several quarters of the hall there had arisen the cry of
" Names ! " Robespierre had only answered, " I will
name them when I must." ^

That was in Prairial. In Messidor, as his danger
drew nearer, he broke out into direct invective. He

^ In the debate on the law of Prairial see Moniteur of the 26th
Frairial, the year II.


attacked Fouclie on the 1 1 th of July, and when Fouch^
replied on the 14th, the day of the great anniversary,
Robespierre met him with further direct accusations.

" What is this fear which troubles him ? Is it perhaps
the eyes of the people ? Is it perhaps that his wretched
face proves him too clearly the author of a crime ? "
And he ended with the straight words : " These men have
put patriots in prison because they dared to break silence.
That is the crime of which I accuse Fouch^."

But though he had only six or seven in mind, he
that had passed by his own fault for the Master of the
Terror seemed to be accusing every one. He made the
Convention tremble and the Jacobins. And who shall
say that he took no pleasure in such a simulacrum of
power ? Yet even that had left him. The great victories
in the north-east had thrown the populace into an ardent
need for repose. It was like the craving for sleep that falls
upon men who have overstrained their powers in a bout
of feverish games. And the centre of all authority, the
only immediate possessors of material power, the Com-
mittee, were against him. The seven workers were
leaving him ostracised, and were drawing a sharp line
between themselves and his two friends, Couthon and
St. Just.

To these difficulties he added yet another. It will
be remarked that men in their difficulties, and especially
before their death, often return to the influences of their
childhood. In such crises the stirp of the man re-
appears. So Robespierre, that had always preached
himself, seen himself, and, if the phrase be not unjust,
unconsciously worshipped himself, now in these last days
returned to the self-pity of that mournful and isolated
time of his orphanage. He found all power leaving him,
and thought himself a victim. Perhaps he still believed
that the people of Paris in some vague way would
support him. He was wrong. There was but one thing


ready to support Mm, the Commune of Paris, and that
Commune did not represent the people at all. He had
himself thrust in upon it his own supporters.

Down in Nantes a young representative on mission ^
intercepted two letters which Fouche had written to his
sister. They spoke plainly of the coming attack, "in
which it was hoped that all would turn for the best."
He sent them back to the Committee of Public Safety.
Perhaps by their enmity, perhaps by this young man's
tardiness, the letter did not come until Robespierre had

It was on the 5 th of Thermidor that he first received
a clear warning. The two committees united to send
him a note summoning him as though he were a power
outside them and inimical to them : it was a kind of
writ. He came to them and replied to their ques-
tions ; but a trial of that kind where a man suspected of
betraying or attacking the body he belongs to is called up
before his colleagues, goes as it were by default ; it is a
verdict, and condemns of itself. He met the supreme
moment of danger in a manner that was a summary of
his whole life ; he fell back upon his pen.

There was lying on the little plain table of his room a
mass of sheets which he had been working, modelling, re-
casting during all these weeks of increasing uncertainty.^
He turned to them and perfected his plea. For two
days he wrote unceasingly. Around him, inspiring him
a little in his defence, was the severity that had
been the furniture of his strict simplicity; the plain
small bed ; ^ the little deal shelf where his few books, his

^ A person of the name of Bo.

2 That is a mere conjecture, but it is Michelet's, and surely sound.
No one can look at those innumerable collections or savour the close
style and great length of the speech without seeing in it a labour of much
more than the last two days.

^ Those who care for detail may be curious to learn that the curtains
of this bed were made out of an old blue dress of Madame Duplay's.


Kousseau, Corneille and Pascal stood togetlier ; the straw-
bottomed chair. He wrote and wrote with the noise of
the carpenters beneath his window, and, in the street be-
yond the archway of the courtyard, the noise of the city
in summer, and, twice, the cries and terror of the tumbrils.
It was the shrine or cell whence he had seen all the
height of the Revolution go by, and in which he had
moulded a hundred speeches that had expressed, but not
determined, its course. It was the room in which he
had sat, certain of his own mind when he told them to
shut the outer door upon the passage of Louis to his
death : in which, disturbed but evilly tenacious he had
heard come into him the death-song of Danton. Now he
himself was here parrying off the end, he thought, with
scratched and repeated phrases.

He left his room but twice in these forty-eight hours.
Once to walk out at sunset for the last time with
Eleanor — his dog beside him. Again in the same
evening to make a vague, troubling speech at the
Jacobins on the persecution that virtue was suffering;
that he was suffering. It roused the club, still his chief
weapon, to present a petition to the Convention ; and that
petition seemed yet another menace to the Parliament.

On the evening of the 7 th his work was done. It is
to be noted that he never doubted of its success ; he was
more confident at the close of his labour than he had
been in all the growing peril of Messidor.

In the last hours of daylight, in the warmth and splen-
dour of a weather that was but just beginning to intro-
duce the oppression of storm, he left his completed phrases
and, taking the boy, Nicholas Duplay,^ that had sometimes
been his secretary, walked up and out to the hill of
Chaillot, There he sauntered, talking gently of common

^ They called him "Nicholas of the wooden leg" because he had lost
a limb at Valmy. He was the nephew of Duplay. He lived on well into
our century and had a son, who became a doctor of some repute and has
preserved this little scene.


things, quietly gay, catching at the midges with his
hand, permitting himself at moments reverie. The next
day he read his speech to the Convention.

There is no need to detail the character or to quote
the many phrases of his defence. Noted on its margin
were names he did pronounce, its character lay in an
opening sentence.

" I shall make it my task to expose the abuses that
are about to ruin the country, and that your honesty
alone can correct. If I speak of the persecution to which
I have been latterly subject, count it no crime in me, the
cause is your cause also. ... I come here to make no
accusations : that province is in the hands of others."

In a famous and dignified passage that has a quality
parallel to but lower than nobility, he asks what kind of
tyranny that can have been in him which made all the
tyrants of Europe find him their chief enemy ; he pro-
phesies clearly and with a separate marked passage the
advent of a military despotism upon his ruin, and, since it
might come to death, he passed upon death, upon his own
death, his final judgment : —

" Believe me, it is not an eternal sleep. I would have
it written upon all graves that they are the entry to im-

It was not upon the Convention, uncertain, reading
into his words the menace he may have intended to
convey, that he depended. He depended in the last
resort upon the great society that had so long been the
mistress of the Kevolution, and over which his name still
stood like a command. That evening he re-read his
appeal in the crowded chapel and before the high passion
of the Jacobins. They heard him with such zeal that he
seemed to them in his lonely tribune the Reform living,
the Reform on the threshold of death. He ended with : —

" This that you have heard is my testament and my



Then lie lifted off the spectacles that spoilt his gaze,
showed his sharply featured face silhouetted bj the
candles before it, and, leaving his manuscript, said to
them all : —

" If I must drink the hemlock, I will drink it."

David of the swollen jaw cried out to him loudly
from the throng and darkness of the nave : —

" I will drink it with you."

Frenzy and something lyrical caught the press of the
Jacobins and ran, a flame, along the hall. Billaud-
Varennes, Collot d'Herbois, chiefly enemies; Dubarran,
Duval, lesser men, were listening there also ; they were
recognised. One at least was struck at with a poniard ;
they were pushed through the doors of the chapel out
into the night, and behind them the club, enthusiastic
and possessed with a presentiment, feeling that their
vision and this man of theirs would end together and
that the turn of the battle had come, cried that a 2nd
of June was needed, that Paris should march upon the
Parliament, that one last stroke of the scythe would clear
the field.

As the fugitives fled angrily from the arches of the
courtyard they heard the air full not only of clamour,
but of rising and conquering music. The JacobkiS sang
of the Republic, and with the falling of their chorus their
power passed out into the void and was extinguished.

So the Jacobins ended their song. But three spirits
that night, the three fates of Robespierre, kept watch
till the morning — the Conspiracy, the Commune, the
Committee. The Committee was the foremost. The
Commune thought itself the immediate power. The
Conspiracy was the one thing active and determined,
the one thing that understood how far this mixture of
tyranny, special policy, symbolism, and madness had


overshot tlie mark ; how much France and the Conven-
tion demanded rest.

The Conspiracy. — And none of the three slept.
The Conspirators went from one to another ; they threw
away at last their shreds of theory, their mask of prin-
ciple, for the mere sake of existence. They put before
themselves the simplest of objects: to live and to kill
what would have stopped their living ; for they were
livers all of the worst, plunged up to the neck in sense,
and half ruined in their earliest youth by the excess of
living. Yet they grasped hold of life with the blind
tenacity of panic, because life was all they knew. God
gave it them, and the name of Fouche is enough to show
the material they were permitted to use.

All that night, then, in the defence of their lives, they
worked with every lever and upon every side to upset the
last strong ruins of Robespierre's power. They approached
the isolated politicians of the Mountain and plied them with
what could not be denied, the name of master that was
given to Robespierre ; his latter dissociation from the strict
republicans, and his leaning to the Right. The Moun-
tain gave them some disdainful pledge — it did not seem

They passed, did these men whom all in common
despised, but in whom all in common saw a kind of
necessary vengeance, to the silent relics of what had
been the moderates : to Boissy d'Anglas with his great
name, to Si^yes with his memories — perhaps to Gregoire.
To these they promised (with how little belief in their
word and with what unconscious power of prophecy !)
the close of the Terror. None knew better than the
Conspirators that their own deaths would be the surest
opportunity for the entry of civil law and of amnesties.
But the Conspirators played here upon the surest chord.
So identified was the Terror with extreme theory and
with the person of Robespierre that it seemed as though


to end tlie one was to end the other too ; and the man
was easiest ended. It was slowly, and in the painful
decision of the sleepless morning, that the Right thus
consented to vote against the man who had so long stood
between them and the guillotine.

The Commune. — There was also in Paris that second
force which has run through these pages like a chord.
Paris had once felt her mastery, had organised her
authority, and had, with the proud ^responsibility which
belongs alike to kings and aristocracies, enforced herself
upon the inaction of the nation. The municipal govern-
ment, framed in the moment of most extreme danger,
and depending upon the theory of the city's leadership,
remained ; and the men that composed it still thought
themselves in some legitimate way the masters. If such
and such were arraigned, the Commune were the justice
of France to judge their treason; if the national effort
weakened they were the ordained and elected force to

Online LibraryHilaire BellocRobespierre → online text (page 26 of 32)