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he add to them ? The rich, the world over, have one
appetite, which is for the sensation of novelty. He


could give them nothing but phrases of which the very
servants at their tables were tired. Perhaps, now and
again the extravagance of his complete deductions might
startle some one hearer into a momentary interest, but
his conventional precision and all that rigid ill-ease
which marks the self-respecting provincial was so much
weight dragging him down into obscurity. There was
no populace, no middle class, only the awful and repeated
mediocrity of display, of superior mind and of patronage
in the smart, the intellectual and the liberal aristocracy :
three names for one thing. But in Paris, he that never
breathed largely, at least could breathe. In Paris was a
populace of whom he knew little, and who knew nothing
of him, but who made him an idea because he made an
idea of them ; and, above all, in Paris there was that
professional middle class which was fitted with exacti-
tude to his expression, which had awaited hungrily
and which received with gratitude the tenacious re-
petition of truth that was his special function. To
one it was the pleasure of following out strict logic, to
another it was the pleasure of hearing affirmed and de-
fined what he had long held in the vague ; to all it was
the acceptation of a well-comprehended equal whose very
limitations were the virtues their rank admired.

In Versailles it was a little ridiculous to lodge away
down at the sign of the Fox, and to boast that four
farmers sat at table with one. In Paris a man might
lodge on the third floor of the Rue Saintonge, and have
all the world asking him to dinner; it was but an ad-
dress. The general life and the real interests of a capital
released his pride from a daily fret, and left him free
to his theories.

The six months that follow the entry of the Assembly
into Paris form a very natural division in the life of
Robespierre and are, at least, sufficiently marked out in
the general history of the Revolution to be treated as


a whole. The deputies met in the great Hall of the
Archev^che on the 12 th of October 1789; at the close
of March 1790 Robespierre was elected president of the

With that word "Jacobins" the key to his career
is in one's hand ; for just what he lacked, and would
have continued to lack in the Parliament, that he found
and increased in the famous society which seemed later
half-identified with his name, and which gave him a
hold over all France. If he was more mentioned in the
papers, more recognised by the Court, and of some little
more influence in the national debates, it was because he
came to every effort with the armour that the Jacobins
were forging for him; because, also, if he was checked
(as he was for ever being checked), the Jacobins formed
a base for him and a fortress of retreat.
))( What was the nature of this society? How could
it lend such power to a man ? Whence came the great
rapidity of its growth, and why was it suited to him in
especial ? It was the new theory organised like an army ;
it was by its restricted room and numbers suited to an
individual; it expanded later because it was the one
mode in which the resistance of the people to reaction
could mould itself throughout the country. It was not
in the Assembly but in the club that Robespierre opened
his door on fame, and if we are to know Robespierre, it
is more important to comprehend this society than any
other part of all that made up the Revolution, and though
I leave an examination of its activity and character to a
later chapter and to a period when it controlled France,
I must here admit a note upon its origin.

In some way, upon which authorities have differed,

^ It is remarkable that in the "Histoire des Jacobins" this fact is
omitted. Indeed, in the imperfect list of the first presidents of the club,
M. Aulard, having drawn it up from signed documents only, leaves out
the month of April 1790 altogether. The evidence of his presidency is
contained in a third letter to Buissart — that of April i, 1790.


the Breton Club continued under another name when the
Assembly was transferred to Paris. By one testimony ^ it
appears in the Place des Victoires, by another it is directly
transferred to the Rue St. Honord ; the general result is
that the members of the Breton Club, sooner or later —
probably in late November 1789^ — reunited in Paris.
Wherever they may have fixed their first meetings, it is
certain that by December 1789 they had hired the refec-
tory of the old Jacobin convent in the Rue St. Honor^,
at a rent of eight pounds a year.^

The Dominicans of the Rue St. Honor^, like their
more important house in the University and like every
religious establishment in the capital, were in active
decay. Of their exact numbers I have been able to
discover no record, but their chapter-house, their library
was empty ; their walls ruinous. The Head received the
radical club with enthusiasm ; it was upon his proposition
that the monastery was opened to them and at his in-
stance that the low rent was fixed ; the members of the
House joined its sessions. In this broken and mouldering
place, set back in its dark courtyard and, as it were, secret,
the direction of the Revolution grew. From this it never
departed till, in Thermidor, the Revolution itself may be
said to have turned to decline.

In these first months of its life the society, though
already intense, was but little known. The public did
not attend it. No reports were published. Its gatherings
were small. We have hardly a record of it, save from
half-a-dozen royalist attacks, and of the month of April
which Robespierre presided only one quiet clerical debate

^ Thus Montjoie, a singularly unreliable man, will have it that the club
sat at 407 Place des Victoires, independently of the Jacobins for sometime
after the formation of the latter. Revillieu Lepeaux will have it that
there was no true continuity, &c.

2 Mounier says " at the beginning of 1790." That can hardly be just, for
De Lameth, an active member, recollected the admission of non-deputies
in December 1789.

* A. de Lameth, " Histoire de I'Assemblde Oonstituante," i. 442 (note).



has come down to us : the proposal of a cure to rest con-
tent with the advance reform had aheady made. Nor
would even Robespierre's election to its presidency at this
early date be worth mention were it not for the supreme
influence which the club was destined to acquire.

Paris, then, which gave him everything at last, was to
give him, even as early as the spring of 1790, his first
point of vantage in the chair of the Jacobins ; there he
was to be heard by the numerous witnesses who, by
the consistent policy of the club, included whatever in
the professional and trading classes was liberal and

The first months of obscurity were over and the day
was passed when (almost the last of his humiliations in
the court town) his absurd formula for the signing of law,
"Be this law sacred and inviolable for all," had called
forth the wit of a Gascon, and when the repartee " No
Anthems ! " had raised a great laugh all over the Assembly
at Versailles. A month of Paris had destroyed for the
wits the cultivated isolation in which such ridicule was a
weapon. He could now continually propose a phrase or
motion equally didactic; the Assembly would neglect to
condemn it and the public would even applaud.

I have no space to detail his speeches upon the decrees
and laws that passed before the Assembly in that autumn
and winter with the order and rapidity of a train of
thought ; it must suffice to recall the principal occasions
upon which he spoke and the tone of his interference.
When, immediately after the arrival of the Assembly in
Paris, the lynching of a baker at a stone's-throw from the
Arch^v^che provoked the proposition of martial law, he, of
course, denied its necessity under any circumstances what-
soever. When in the next month it was discussed what
classes of citizens might be excluded from full citizenship,
he spoke, of course, for the actor, for the Protestant, and
for the Jew, simply asking whether they were not men.


The Parliament, cautious and intent upon immediate
applications, selected and postponed. The Protestant,
appreciable in the nation, practically represented in the
Assembly, was fused into the new state. For the Actor,
what could be done ? A prejudice, still strong among
Europeans, regarded the continual assumption of emo-
tions always false and often evil, as a ruin to the character.
No law debarred actors from civic privileges, how could a
law restore their public standing? The Parliament masked
the position with a resolution and passed on. As for the
Jews, his arguments were of no avail. The Assembly
adopted that theory by which they are regarded as a
tolerated but alien colony, and gave them all the criminal
and civil privileges but left them under all the political
disabilities which such a definition involves.

On two occasions Robespierre came down from these
absolutes. Once when, like a lawyer, he spoke mildly of
a partial revolt organised by the old provincial Parliament
of Cambr^sis, and once when in the debate on the size of
the new departmental bodies, he exposed in a really
practical application the Rousseauan view of Assemblies.
" If there are to be Assemblies, let them be large. A
small one works too well." For he had here, as every-
where, the weakening of arbitrary authority at heart and
the uplifting of that right to self-government which
resides in the individual ; a right that is easily deflected
by too able a representative body.

These debates, however, saw little of him and made
no great mark. His defence of the Jews is forgotten, his
pleading for the Protestants swallowed up in that of
abler men ; what remains is the persistent attack which
he led against the fixing of any but a universal suffrage.
In this he very nearly appeared a leader, he was always
well up in the front of the attack and even showed a
kind of passion in his determination to oppose. It was
the whole of himself, the root principle of all : — for if a
L.of 0.


criterion of wealth or standing limited tlie civic right
by ever so little, the Man was no longer the basis of
the State, but there remained only property, or land,
or letters, or some accident of the Man. From the first
proposal in early October to the final decree at the
close of January, he wore and broke himself against this
barrier, the foreign theory of the Assembly that the
privilege of representation was limited by the ability
to pay taxes. That he had grown greater in the process
is most apparent by the scene of the night of the final
vote; the storm of the 23rd of January.

He had so far lost hope that he recalled to his use
his legal training and offered wise terms. " Let the
Assembly suspend all action till the taxes were re-
arranged. If a certain minimum of direct taxation were
required to make a man a voter that would disfranchise
nearly all his own people in the Artois. The land was
largely on lease and the basis of taxation was narrow.
He did not ask a final decision, he demanded only a
suspension of the law until it should be made more clear
that only the very indigent were included in the dis-

What was there in this that provoked such scenes in
the Manege ? The Right left their benches, and poured
into the floor of the hall, the noise drowned all speech,
and Robespierre was like a man standing under a steep
wave of assault. Why ? Because his proposal hinted at
the reversal of a decree, and the decrees of the Assembly
were to be laws graven.

This stands first in the political spirit of the time,
that everything the Assembly did was thought to be
done for ever. France, by an organic and spontaneous
fusion which a mind foreign to the French has called
" anarchy," was plastic for a moment ; it was the busi-
ness of that moment to model, while it was yet plastic,
what would so soon become a rigid society. The prin-


ciples, therefore, tliat underlay their eifort the Assembly
feared to depart from, lest by too long discussion and
the permission of too much vagary they should leave no
completed work at the end of their short two years.

Robespierre failed. The next day it was a law that
the electorate should consist of those who paid at least
some little tax ; that the elected must at least have
some little fortune. Of the wisdom of this it is no part
of my business to judge. The wisest, Mirabeau himself,
feared the wayward indigence of the ruined towns and the
dependence of the meaner peasants upon the seignorial
power ; and among the historians, Michelet himself con-
dones the fault. It affected the Revolution profoundly,
for it exasperated the discontent of Paris of which
Maillard was a hidden captain. It prevented the legal-
ity of what was there fated to rise, and made of the
egalitarian conclusions that were in the blood of the
Revolution and that could not but become its open
principles, a philosophy in revolt.

The two months that followed had less of his effort
in them than the character of their debates might have
warranted. They turned so largely upon judicial matters
that he, a competent authority, should have played a
greater part in them. But his reputation was no
-longer for these things, and it was in the character of
Robespierre to note his own reflection in the popular
mind. When a renewed incendiarism destroyed the
country houses, he was still vigorously opposing martial
law, and clinging with a false pedantry to his phrases.
He used in a speech the legal jargon of a lawyer and
spoke of " arson." A deputy of the Right became a little
angry and cried, " Call them brigands." " I will call them
citizens accused of arson." " Oh ! call them brigands
and have done with it." " I will confine myself to the
exact truth and call them citizens accused hut not yet
proved guilty of arson." That interlude shows one all


his thinness in the debates of the late winter. But
this exact and unreal method raised him, for it was
the principal contrast to the old regime and showed,
alive, the new Reason on which men feasted. He did
indeed stand apart in a memorable way in the debate
on the monastic orders, but this, which was the origin
of a whole attitude towards the clergy, I describe later.
It must suffice here to insist upon the theoretic character
of all he said throughout February and March.

Such an attitude was meant for the Jacobins, and
very steadily, without intrigue, he was made prominent
by their temper. So at the end of March they elected
him to the chair. He was not yet the first nor near
the first. Barnave was their orator, Duport their
head, Mirabeau their attendant. But he had been re-
cognised. His special fitness for the management of
debate, his quasi-official quality, had obtained an oppor-
tunity. Neither he nor those who saw him there forgot
its exercise. This little thing, the choosing of the
extremist for a minor honour, was almost the last act
of the united reformers. With April a man of acute
observation would have seen the first appearance of two
resistances that were to split the State ; the real power of
the King, the postulates of the Church. These wedges
had by the summer made wide clefts, within a twelve-
month they had turned the Revolution from prose to
vision; at last they brought forth '93 and there was
nothing but war.

• ••••••

Such was the uneventful process of his entry into the
politics of his country. It was a year since he had left
Arras for the Parliament.



Since I am unravelling in tliis book the track of an
individual and solitary mind, I discover myself to be
perpetually neglecting the medium in which that mind
acted, the medium which it so strangely neglected, and
yet which chose to exalt it utterly beyond its due. I am
neglecting the Revolution.

It is impossible rather than difficult to combine that
mind with those surroundings. The main fact which
has impressed itself upon me, as I have learnt more
and more of what Robespierre might be — the contrast
and dissociation between himself and the time that
deified him — forbids any just weaving of such separate
textures. ; I have shown him a nonentity ; I am about
to show him a laborious aspirant ; I shall show him in
the end a symbol, and at last a victim to his own mis-T
understanding of the illusion that made him a chief. |
Yet that would be no story of himself which did not
pause here and there to consider the prodigious changes
in the landscape through which — blinded by a distant,
unapproachable, and perhaps imaginary goal — he was

The world he had entered in May 1789 was full of
a great, vague, gentlemanly hope, but it was strictly con-
fined to the traditions of its ancestry. It could think
only in terms of its decadence. Its physical metaphors,
its immediate appreciation of things, were drawn from a
dying society. In ten months something — I will attempt

its outline, but none can pretend to its full presentment



— had brouglifc forth new terms, new postulates, even new
physical details in the habitual experience of the mind.
A tide set contrary to the common sequence of change:
men thought, as it were, in the future ; their memories
were warped or transfigured by the expectation of that
which they were making, as, in more ordinary times,
our picture of what we are making is warped or trans-
figured by the colour of our memories. Whence came
that more than natural impulse ? From without ; for
it is not in men to think beyond themselves. From
what outer region did it come ? I will hazard the reply
that the energy and self-development of that high moment
came from the infinite past of which we, each of us, bear,
more tenuous but far less mortal than our troubled selves,
the living ghost. The tribe was awake ; the village ;
the clan marching in the hills. The man that had made
the world was asking himself again those prodigious ques-
tions which once, in his beginnings, he had answered with
immediate simplicity : he had slept and was refreshed,
therefore he attacked their solution with a morning
vigour ; but he had slept and had forgotten and his lair
had grown tangled in his sleep. How was it no one
asked him counsel on the wars ? Who was this he was
obeying ? Where was the common sanction and the sign
of the chief? How was this, that he was tried and con-
demned by some foreign influence, and why did he tremble
before strange judges ? Where were his neighbours that
had the sole right to judge a man ? How came he to
be without land or arms ? Where was God ? He had
slept in complexity, and complexity had stifled his sleep.
But for all the tortuous errors and overgrowths of
time there is a remedy, and that remedy is the blood in
us ; the fields and the rivers. The old thing out of which
we draw (what they used to call the Mother of the Gods) is
simple and resolves all things backward into simplicity
it never dies in the souls of men. Therefore when once


in a thousand years accumulated evil by some quick acci-
dent arouses nature, all the state grows young and is ready
to combat — a new religion leaps out like a sword. Its
unity and simplicity are keen like the edges of a sword.
It cuts off the bonds of men so that they wonder how
bonds were ever laid on them. In these moments it is
easy to rebuild a world : and then time comes in again to
corrupt, and corruption awaits another resurrection.

All this (which is Nature herself in whom we repose)
ran up the central life of the Revolution and drove it.
Its rhetoric would seem meaningless or puerile, its
exaggerations grotesque, had there not been left the
Poets whose function it is to reconcile with our sober
admiration and with the vast self-sufficiency of normal
times those fantastic strainings out to the things beyond
the world. Among these, two of the greatest, Shelley
and Hugo, have caught the union of that effort with
the fruitful seasons, mingling the Revolution and the
winds in the noise of united verses ; making '93 a storm
of rain before harvest.

Now this character of the Revolution, by which it
could create as though from a void, had in a summer
and a winter passed, as it were, through generations of
development. All the new things for whose secure
establishment we should of right demand a long space
of time and the opportunity for a slow forgetfulness,
here stood out fresh, untrammelled by memories. For
it was in the nature of this crisis that the immediate
past fell out of sight altogether. There stood between
'89 and '90 the strange barrier between sleep and waking ;
and the Assembly in Paris in the second spring took up
the thread of immemorial rights, left vaguely unremem-
bered the motives of the last generations, precisely as
a man waking recovers his identity of yesterday and
leaves to an instantaneous dissolution the thin dreams
of the night. Whatever in dreams is awful or confused


or madly inconsequent, and whatever in tliem provokes
their flight back into nothingness, that quality attached,
in the mind of 1790, to the old disorder. It is a
prodigy whose appearance in history is too rare for an
exact comprehension. I know no metaphor to present
it save that which I have used. '

It was in May that these six hundred Commons had
met all dressed in the order of their rank and doubtful
on particulars of pride. What had happened in eleven
months when with April a new spring brought in the open
road for Paris and for Robespierre ? In that past May the _
provinces, jealous, lethargic, wrapped in a ragged heraldry
of centuries,-*^ sent up their anarchic complaints from their
ill-attested census and doubtful boundaries : in this April
France seemed over-clearly mapped into the exact de-
partments, oppressed with statistics, ranged like a model.
In that May a confused and interwoven tapestry of ranks
and privileges, real in the mind of each however unreal in
the eye of government, were the whole texture of society :
in this April their very names had almost passed out of
debate or argument. In that May — a thing to us in this
country and at this time impossible to seize — all the
nerves of power ran up and met under a strict and
corrupt court, or, in the strained tangle of the old regime,
broke somewhere on the road and left the executive
paralysed : in this April there was hardly left one power
that in law could clash with another, nor any part
absolute in the State, but all its functions were co-ordinate
and their mutual reactions defined. The long agony of
the land, the death of feudahsm ; the abrupt decline of
monasticism, its exhaustion and silence; the arbitrary
courts, half living and half dead under the weight of
custom and of the unquestioned, distant crown ; the

1 For instance, Beam refusing deputies; sending them only in
August 1789: insisting that no customs should be changed. By March
1790 it was quietly become " the department of the lower Pyrenees."


hundreds of dark uncomprehended titles, the " Consuls "
of the South; the corporations, the privileges, all had
wreathed up suddenly and gone. The void was filled.
Upon all those new arrangements that seem to us to
bear too sharp a mark of rigidity there was then cast
not the softness but certainly the colour of youth, and
the palace rose to music, and if the light was hard it was
hard with the hardness of morning.

Amid such origins the presence of Robespierre took
on something established and permanent ; the standard
by which he would have remade all the State was
common to the mass of men about him, but he repeated
its formula and applied its test with a regularity and
consistency that were not yet grown wearisome and that
even seemed like safeguards amid so much perplexity.
For with the new society which the opening season of
1790 proclaimed, the first reactions also, the first
resistances and the first menace of confusion ap-

For the moment he gauged with extreme accuracy
every element in his position — or rather his open and
reiterated catechism of reform fitted exactly the con-
victions of his neighbours. Thus he slid, as it were,
from the Provincial to the Parisian. In his quarrel with
Beaumetz^ he insisted upon a fiscal change in the
Artois, upon direct taxation, that burden most odious to

Online LibraryHilaire BellocRobespierre → online text (page 9 of 32)