Hilaire Belloc.

Robespierre online

. (page 6 of 32)
Online LibraryHilaire BellocRobespierre → online text (page 6 of 32)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


This gentle literary tide set at Arras through the
channel of a local academy, formed upon a model
common to many provmcial capitals. This self-con-
stituted society, half an exclusive club, half a solemn
imitation of the famous body in Paris, had been formed
in 1738 — it has passed through the vicissitudes of six
generations. In the last century it naturally took on
every feature of the dignified but failing tradition in
which the class that formed it moved. More than half
noble, decent and solid in matter, a trifle pompous in



DESCENT AND YOUTH 57

ceremony, boasting titles a little antiquated for the time,
an election to it was yet a good mark of a man's position
in his town, and it is worthy of notice that Robespierre
filled his place in it as the successor of a canon of the
cathedral. It was two years after his return to Arras
that this honour, or rather status, was given him. Two
years more and he was secretary to the society under
the quaint style of " chancellor " — it was in this capacity
that he received Carnot, then in garrison with the
Engineers at Arras. He passed from that little office
to the presidency of the body, and had the task of
welcoming into it the daughter of Keralio, whose name,
upon no evidence whatever,^ has been linked with his
in a kind of drama. He had become, though one of
the youngest, yet one of the most industrious and
perhaps of the most prominent members of this somewhat
faded community, when the great doors opened on his
thirtieth year and let in the furnace-light wherein the
very memory of all this disappeared.

His connection with that provincial body was
a small part even of the small life which pre-
ceded his public fame. Nevertheless it is in that
framework that one can best judge a character in
him that proved enduring — I mean his industry,
and secondary success in letters. It was as Member of
the Academy of Arras that he exercised rather than
acquired the persistent habit of writing which bound
itself into all his actions, forbade the growth in him
of rapid decision or of sudden appeal, and perhaps con-
tributed at last not a little to his fall. To nourish this

^ Mademoiselle de Keralio, the daughter of a little known historian,
herself aspired to letters. She wrote a "Life of Elizabeth of England"
and drew up a plan for the universal history of the whole world from
the earliest times to the present day. She later married Robert at the
outset of the Revolution, entered Paris, edited with her husband the
Mercure National, and was one of the principal advocates of Robes-
pierre in the earlier Revolution.



58 ROBESPIERRE

habit lie required nothing so weighty as fame, but at
least a constant public mention, nor was he content
unless his every expression was moulded by a literary
standard. And this is somewhat of a contradiction in
him and somewhat of a stumbling-block to his biographers;
for his prodigious effect upon one generation of men
depended upon an illusion or an appreciation very
remote from the considerations of style. It was partly
as an even orator, partly as a judge of assemblies, but
mainly as one principle incarnate that he was able to
arrest the attachment of men, yet in his own wishes,
without a doubt, the wish to be remembered for a certain
facility and polish of writing stood continually.

It is well neither to exaggerate the mediocrity of his
compositions at this period nor his own ambitions with
regard to them. They exhibit in their style the special
politics which later, whether he were under the most
grievous strain or the opportunities of the widest action,
he was incapable of changing. They procured him
some jBattery. He gained an equal mention, and
divided the first prize, with Lucretelle when the
Academy of Metz offered a prize for the best essay on
that abuse of the criminal law whereby the families of
the condemned were struck with legal infamy. It was
just such a subject, dealing with traditions of whose
origins he had never heard, with anachronisms whose
gradual development seemed to him merely monstrous,
as was best suited to his even and ritual pen, and his
treatment of it was sure to match the simple and definite
sociology of the time. The thirty-odd pages of square,
blue sermon-paper that remain as the proof of his labour
have in them nothing which is not exactly consonant
with his method. They contain the common condemna-
tion of all that hung in a deadweight, undefended, about
the progress of the old regime — the usual praise of, and
appeal to, the young king, whom in France all then



DESCENT AND YOUTH 59

looked forward to as the introducer of a new time ; the
Latin quotations, the peroration and the restrained and
lifeless rhetoric of what has well been called the " good
manners " of prose. The manuscript contains, moreover,
curious signs of a habit that increased with his years,
and that is typical of the conscious mind which directed
his literary effort, for it is full of erasures and second
thoughts. There remains nothing from his pen, hardly
so much as a warrant or a hurried note, in which this
feature does not recur ; it is in keeping with his small,
slow, cramped, and hesitating hand ; ^ nor does the second
(or third) phrase he may substitute ever express a second
or third form of thought, it is ever the hesitation of
style, or even the rewriting of the same thing after an
interval of doubt.^

This success added a little to his local renown. It
tempted him, in 1785, to a second competition, in which
he failed — that of the Academy of Amiens — for an eulogy
on the poet Gresset. The work is insignificant, and con-
tains but one phrase to arrest the reader, the very typical
sentence : " Gresset, you were a great poet, but you were
more — you were a honest man. And as I praise your
work, I shall not be compelled to turn my eyes away
from your life." To any remonstrance that such plati-
tudes verged upon the appalling, Robespierre would have
replied that they dealt with a sublime truth, and he would
have remained untouched; he was to find an audience
for them and to preach them like a religion when exalta-

1 The hand might be of any period. It is clear, not very sloping, but
very small and irregular. He has one remarkable trick that the cynical
might misinterpret : he never puts in a capital letter even after a full
stop, save for the first person.

2 There are several interesting examples of this nervous habit. In the
warrant of the arrest of Theresa Cabarrus he signs his name, scratches it
out, and signs it again. In his last speech he has three or four phrases
(notably the threatening passage vphere he was interrupted) which are
deleted and then rewritten in the same form.



6o ROBESPIERRE

tion tad burnt up the saving balance of humour, and
■when the corrupt class, whose cynicism restrains such
tediums, was destroyed.

Yet the praise of an eighteenth-century minor poet,
of a man whom Greuze might have illustrated, and who,
I think, moves exactly in the furniture of the time,
should have suited Robespierre; for this anomaly is
to be remarked in him, that of his insufficient and dull
exercises in writing, by far the least dull and the least
insufficient are to be found in themes that demand a
little grace,^ and this accident, which is remarkable in
several letters, appears especially in his verse.

There was at Arras, side by side with and far less
stable than the Academy of which I have spoken, a little
trifling society, which seemed, as it were, the Academy
at play. They called themselves " Rosati," met yearly
in the spring beside the melancholy Scarpe outside the
walls, drank wine, wore roses, and delighted each other
with passable or valueless songs. To this society, a
product of the passion for cabals and passwords which
possessed the eighteenth century, all, or nearly all, the
members of the Academy would come; here Carnot,
Marescot, and Fosseux, the elderly clerics of the Chapter
— all the small, straight world of the town — read rhymes
which have been properly forgotten. Among these, those
of Robespierre, possessed of little talent, and often pass-
ing the boundary of the absurd, yet did occasionally
redeem themselves by a touch of grace, or even — what
will seem surprising — a sustained irony. The little
madrigal to Ophelia^ is quoted with its ending
couplet : — ■



^ There is, of course, the example of a letter written to a lady who
wished to paint his portrait. Hamel traces the MSS. of this only as far
as 1862. It was then bought into a private English collection, and is now
in the British Museum.

2 Of whom tradition says that she was English,



DESCENT AND YOUTH 61

" To be the more beloved of all
By doubting if beloved you are."

The "Mouchoir du Predicateur" is what all the
former readers of Voltaire were writing. Neither very-
witty, nor by any means original in style, it is yet on a
level with the many easy little satires of these twenty
years.

In all this mass of continual composition no energy
is to be discovered, still less any bitterness, complaint, or
judgment. His life had entered a quiet phase, his needs
were satisfied ; his local repute, increasing as he went, left
him contented. The grappling conviction that underlay
his method of thought met no obstacle, and was called
to no exercise. If I have insisted thus far upon the
industrious facility with which his ordered leisure turned
to authorship, it is to introduce the permanent literary
form in which he cast himself, which coloured all his
later action, and which helped to make him, when the
elections of the great year fell upon Arras, one of the
few expositors of that forgotten town. Until that oppor-
tunity, however, during the eight years of his residence
and practice, his verse and prose were but a sort of
embroidery upon the serious work which established his
name among his fellow-citizens and gave him the social
basis from which he naturally obtained the ear of his
province, on which he appealed in his election address,
and in consonance with which he was returned a deputy
to the States-General. That work was legal.

This tangible advantage, which suited his character
to a nicety and explains his successful introduction to
politics, was connected with the importance necessarily
attached in France to local courts. There is in France
no circuit of assize. A man pleads before the small fixed
tribunals of the cantons or before the higher courts of the
towns, and even an appeal need not appear at the capital,
save under the rarest conditions. It is true that one great



62 ROBESPIERRE

division of legal work could only be done in Paris, even
under the old regime. The fact that Paris monopolised
Chancery and what we should call Parliamentary work drew
many young barristers thither ; but the bulk of legal work
in France lies in the provinces, and this system of resident
courts was yet more marked before the Revolution. In
his province no code, but a mass of local custom, decided
most criminal and nearly all civil decisions. These cus-
toms gave a complexity to the system of law which made
it at once necessary and profitable to fix one's practice
permanently in a provincial capital. By this means a
man became a specialist in a matter that required the
greatest industry to master; he was secure against an
overstocking of the market in so hard a business. The
confusion that these ancient customs made was increased
by a mass of conflicting and over-lapping jurisdictions^ that
had their source in the same immemorial conservatism.
It was a handsome living in itself to be able to give ad-
vice to clients as to the boundaries; of these jurisdictions
or the chances of his case escapmg the interference of
a side court as third party. It needs no further descrip-
tion of such abuses to show what opportunities they
afforded to individual application, and how by mere ex-
ample they forced men to react towards simplicity and
reform. His first pleadings, however, did not last beyond
a couple of terms. ^

The friendship of De Conzi^, and the academic suc-
cess which had so well rewarded his first patronage,
led that bishop to ofier Robespierre within a j'^ear of
his being called to the bar one of the minor judicial

^ For instance, in Arras itself there were the Seigniorial Courts, the
Bishop's, the King's and that of the Abbey of St. Wast, all existing side by
side, with ill -defined jurisdictions; and superior to them all, though
possessing no very exact powers, the provincial Council instituted by
Charles V. in 1530.

'^ Michaelmas, 1781, and Hilary, 1782. At the end of the latter term
he was offered the post I speak of.



DESCENT AND YOUTH 63

posts within his gift. He was installed a magistrate
in the ecclesiastical court. Insignificant as the office
was, it carried with it, in the wretched conditions of
the times, the power of life and death. Within a few
months its duties disgusted a character in which the
demand for reform and the faith in Rousseau, if pedantic
and reiterated, were yet profoundly sincere. This dis-
gust, springing in the main from his tenacity of opinion
and a just estimate of the ignominies of the criminal
law, was undoubtedly heightened in the case of Robes-
pierre by ,the foibles that already warped his attitude
towards the world. He was not without nervousness;
his judgments, like his style, erred continually upon
the side of sensibility. The classes also which lay
in misery below his own somewhat perturbed his cul-
ture, as they certainly much more excited his sense
of justice. It may have been as a general conse-
quence of its duties that he resigned his place; it
would seem more probable, as his sister directly testifies,
that he abandoned it under the shock of having to pass
a capital sentence.^ In any case he begged to be
relieved of the office, and lost by that decision neither
the respect of his benefactor nor the prestige he had
begun to enjoy among his neighbours.

He returned to his ordinary practice, and his success
was immediate ; but from the outset he mixed with that
success a characteristic reputation for scruple. He wished
to be singled out for his justice and his defence of the
poor. He introduced into the most particular cases the
most general and inopportune considerations — but he
continually won his case. He won a case for the Carnots,
whom he already knew, recovering a legacy for an old
servant of theirs; but he so dragged in the immutable
principles that the younger Carnot swore at him in court.
He gave the most excellent advice to a man who had

1 "Memoirs of Charlotte Robespierre," first edition, p. 69.



64 ROBESPIERRE

been disinlierited under a will that left a large fortune
"under condition of joining tlie reformed church"; the
will was null at law, but Robespierre could not be content
with saying this and giving legal reason, he adds in his
advice to his client (a priest), " Remember that there is
no more formidable enemy to liberty than fanaticism."

A much more famous case, one that went far on appeal
and that, by the nature of the case, brought his name for
a moment before the eighteenth- century philosophers,
was a defence of the wealthy Yissery who had put up a
lightning conductor on his house at St. Omer, and had
thereby so affrighted an old maid, his neighbour, that she
prosecuted him and his conductor as a public danger.
It was ordered to be pulled down. On appeal this was
reversed. On further appeal (when Robespierre is em-
ployed) the final decision was a kind of compromise.
The mind of Robespierre was made for such a case.
Here was philosophy and all the light of the century
called into question ! Here was Franklin to be de-
fended ! The very narrowness of his sincerity and zeal
lent him power, and in a little while, what with his
rising name and the nature of his brief, a certain fame
spread about his subject. After winning his case
in May 1783 (a bare year since he had accepted the
magistracy of which I have spoken, and within a few
months of his resignation) he was permanently estab-
lished in the reputation that led at last to Paris.

Of the years that follow not very much has been
preserved ; their general tenor and the further foundation
of his good position alone is certain. A few letters, one
specially famous, a few decisions, are all the documents
that remain. It was during this period of his early
manhood, as he approached his thirtieth year, that he
added to his legal work the literary industry I have
already described. It is to these years also that belong
the vague traditions upon which a faint legend rather



DESCENT AND YOUTH 65

than a history has grown. There was some talk of a
marriage between himself and his cousin, Anais Des-
horties.-^ The project was not pursued, and certainly
neither here nor at any other time can you connect him
with a romance. Even at the very end, when he felt
that he was leaving the world and walked at sunset in
Thermidor with Eleanor Duplay up the wooded hill of
Passy, the woman with him was not near to him. The
vague attraction of his voice and the false appeal which
his over-sensitiveness produced led to this or that passage
of sentiment, but — almost alone of the men of the
Revolution — he brings in no interest of love.

These years, in every rare detail that survives, em-
phasise the absorption into one social class of which
I have spoken. He never signs without the " de " ; he
addresses Carnot by that title on his reception into the
Academy. His dogmatic Uberalism spares the Churches,
maintains the decencies, and is concealed by all the
habits of the old rank which he has recovered. Ten
men were present when — at the close of this period —
he received the Duke of Guines as a guest of his literary
society. He was careful to allude to " citizens " in
his address, but the ten men who heard him were all
noblesse — of the sword or the gown. In his daily life,
too, he merged with the industrious but protected class
which these accidents indicate. He woke at six, worked
in his study till eight, pleased by the sound of birds.
Then he would spend the ample care that fashion
demanded upon his person. The barber came to shave
and powder him; he drank his glass of milk and went
out across the square to the courts. They rose at two,
and when he had returned to the principal early meal
that is still the custom of the north, he walked abroad
a little ; sometimes for the stiff ritual of his calls, more

^ The daughter of his father's sister. She later married a lawyer of
Arras, and died in 1847.

E



ee ROBESPIERRE

often alone. And these walks, in wliich his solitude
followed that of his literary master, he would enshrine
in amiable but unimportant prose. He arranged his
papers for the evening, supped, worked again in his
study for a while, and slept at ten. And these very
common habits of his time and profession he coloured
only by a meticulous regularity and by a curious self-
absorption. He was by nature absent-minded ; somewhat
from shortness of sight but more from the bent of his
temper; over-thoughtful in the street, even forgetful of
immediate things and details ; a little silent amid the
conversation of his friends.

With all this he did not miss at all the general tide
about him; he was ready, months before the States-
General met, to address an audience as " the possible
makers of a new world " ; his written advice in two
legal cases — one concerning the rights of Bastards, the
other a Lettre de Cachet — are a little more certain, a
little more forward even than the general average of
the assertions and passages which announced the coming
change.

He was, then, by his established repute, by the known
bent of his politics, by his freedom from all entanglement
and by the expository position he had acquired (in the
district men already expected his pleadings and his
essays), marked out for a place in the new politics. In
the August of 1788 the news reached Arras that the
States-General were to be summoned; he launched at
once his pamphlet or manifesto : " An Appeal to the
Artesian People."

This pamphlet, an octavo of some eighty pages, has
a quality of immediate and practical application which
was rare in the run of his appeals. It contains, of
course, a certain excess of frigid oratory. That was
not his alone : it was the time's. But it has also a
certain detail of analysis; it expresses a number of



DESCENT AND YOUTH 67

definite grievances peculiar to the province, and, what is
more remarkable, it deals exactly with the historical
origins of the peculiar complexity of jurisdiction and
tenure under which Artois laboured. It meets and expects
the practical arguments of opponents. It was bought and
read immediately, and its edition was exhausted.^ It
made more sure what was already sure — his candidature ;
it placed him higher in the order of election than, for
all his solid reputation, his youth might otherwise have
permitted.

The decree fixing the nature of the elections and
the number of the Commons appeared in January
1789. In March he issued, not a pamphlet, but a
direct and personal declaration of his candidature.
Moderate as it is, one can find in it the self-regard and
the self-mirroring of '94 — and it closes with this sen-
tence, five years before its time : " The Supreme Being
will hear my prayers. He knows their sincerity
and their fervour. I can hope that He will fulfil
them."

In Arras the election was complicated to a degree.
I will not weary my readers with its recital. In the
first general meeting he was chosen. In the second
electoral college he was chosen again — the 13 th out of
180 names. On the 26th of April, when the final
choice of eight members of the Commons was made,
he passed with some difficulty, the 5 th upon the list,
and his political career began.

It is not the details of such a confused machinery
that interest history: it is the attitude of Robespierre
during the last week of this trial. He seemed to have
found an atmosphere and to have awakened. He spoke
incessantly, eagerly, and well. He made himself the
mouthpiece of a protest of the Commons against the

1 I know of no original copy. In the form in which it may now be
consulted, it has received many later additions from his pen.



68 ROBESPIERRE

privileged orders ; ^ lie helped to draw up tlie grievances
of the surrounding parishes : he had found his trade.

That exceptional energy spent itself in success, but
though exhausted in so few days it was typical of those
rare occasions in the life before him, when sudden (or
long-nourished but newly apparent) ambitions lifted him
from one step to another in his career.

On the first of May the united deputies of the
province met in the cathedral. On the morrow Robes-
pierre went back into insignificance ; but the coach
was on the Paris road, and he knew that his stage was
to be the world.

^ This is but a conjecture, based upon an allusion to "a persistent and
interrupting lawyer " among the Commons, in a contemporary letter of
the Due de Guines. The Duke was president of the Combined Electoral
College of the Artois.



CHAPTER III

VERSAILLES

Late in tlie afternoon of Monday, the third of May, the
deputies of the three orders began to fill Versailles.
With them life and an influence of crowds was pouring
up the long valley, threatening the majestic Park, the
dead order and magnificence of the three avenues, the
formal trees, the silent regularity of the palace. Spring
introduced this advent of ideas; the new leaves in
Satory, the easy airs, the clear twilight of lengthening
days mixed in with the promise of change; nothing
stood certain, but everything was troubled with expecta-
tion and renewal. This ferment working France and
the city had thrown out an essence — the Parliament. It
was to discover in itself the quality of a vintage, to
remember the oldest things in the soil and to create.

This force of many men turned corporate, this crowd
which was like all France caught in a mirror, mingled
with and passed through the throngs that Paris had sent
up, curious or applauding, to the royal town, and Ver-
sailles added to them all the gardens of her wide roads.
Eddies impeded the flowing of the streets ; the German
of the palace guard, the new political catchwords of the
populace, the last epigram of the cynics surrounded the
more famous as they were set down at their lodgings ;
faces that had already a vague reputation arrested the
crowd. Mounier from the mountains, where the first
protest had been read, half-drowned in the roar of the



Online LibraryHilaire BellocRobespierre → online text (page 6 of 32)