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was never afraid of the spectre, as the incompetent revolutionist
is. On the contrary, he understood its whole internal history ;
he knew what had raised it, what passion and what weakness
gave it substance, and he knew that by-and-by reason would
banish it and restore men to a right mind. The scientific
spirit implanted in such a character as Condorcet's, and made
robust by social meditation, builds up an impregnable fortitude

(1) CEuvres, iii. 533. As this was written in 1777, Condorcet was perhaps
thinking of Turgot and Necker. Of the latter, his daughter tells us repeatedly,
without any consciousness that she is recording a most ignominious trait, that
public approbation was the very breath of his nostrils, the thing for which he
lived, the thing without which he was wretched. — See vol. i. oi Be Sta'el's


in the face of incessant rebuffs and discouragements. Let us
then picture Condorcet as surveying the terrific welter from the
summer of '89 to the summer of '93, from the taking of th?
Bastille to the fall of the Girondins, with something of the
firmness and self-possession of a Roman Cato.

After the flight of the king in June, and his return in what
was virtually captivity to Paris, Condorcet was one of the party,
very small in numbers and entirely discountenanced by public
opinion, then passing through the monarchical and constitutional
stage, who boldly gave up the idea of a monarchy and pro-
claimed the idea of a republic. In July (1791) he published a
piece strongly arguing for a negative answer to the question
whether a king is necessary for the preservation of liberty.^ In
one sense, this composition is favourable to Condorcet's fore-
sight ; it was only a very few who with him saw that the
destruction of the monarchy was inevitable after the royal
flight. This want of preparation in the public mind for every
great change as it came, is one of the most extraordinary
circumstances of the Revolution, and it explains the violent,
confused, and inadequate manner in which nearly every one of
these changes was made. It was proposed at that time to
appoint Condorcet to be governor to the young dauphin. But
Condorcet in this piece took such pains to make his sentiments
upon royalty known, that in the constitutional frame of mind
in which the Assembly then was, the idea had to be abandoned.
It was hardly likely that a man should be chosen for such an
office who had just declared the public will to be 'that the
uselessness of a king, the needfulness of seeking means of
replacing a power founded on illusions, should be one of the

(1) xii. 227. It was followed by a letter, nominally by a young mechanic,
offering to construct an automaton sovereign, like Kempel's chess-player, who
would answer all constitutional purposes perfectly. — lb. 239 — 41.


first truths ofifered to liis reason ; tlie obligation of concurring
in this himself, one of the first of his moral duties; and the
desire not to be freed from the yoke of law by an insulting
inviolability, the first sentiment of his heart. People are well
aware that at this moment the object is much less to mould a
king, than to teach him not to wish to be one.'^ As all France
was then bent on the new constitution, king and all, Condorcet's
republican assurance was hardly warranted, and was by no
means well received.


When the Constitution was accepted and the Legislative
Assembly came to be chosen, Condorcet proved to have made
so good an impression as a municipal officer, that the Parisians
returned him for one of their deputies. The Declaration of
Pilnitz in August (1791), had mitigated the loyalty which had
even withstood the trial of the king's flight, and when the
Legislative Assembly met, it was found to contain an unmis-
takable element of republicanism of marked strength. Con-
dorcet was chosen one of the secretaries, and he composed most
of those multitudinous addresses in which this most unfortunate
and least honoured of all parliamentary chambers tried to prove
to the French people that it was actually in existence and at
work. Condorcet was officially to the Legislative, what Barere
afterwards was to the Convention. But his addresses are turgid,
labouring, not effective for their purpose. They have neither
the hard force of Napoleon's proclamations, nor the flowerj^
eloquence of the Anacreon of the guillotine. To compose such
pieces well under such circumstances as those of the Assembly,
a man must have much imagination and a slightly elastic con-
science. Condorcet had neither one nor the other, but only

(1) xii. 236.



reason — a hard anvil, out of whicii lie laboriously struck isolated
flashes and sounds.

Perhaps, after uU, nobody else could have done better. The
situation of the Assembly, between a hostile court and a sus-
picious and distrustful nation, and unable by its very nature to
break the bonds, was from the beginning desperate. In De-
cember, 1791, the Legislative, through its secretary, informs
France of the frankness and loyalty of the king's measures in
the face of the menaces of foreign war.^ "Within eight months,
when the king's person was in captivity and his power sus-
pended, the same secretary has to avow that from the very
beginning the king had treated the Assembly with dissimula-
tion, and had been in virtual league with the national enemies.
The documents issued by the Assembly after the violent events
of the Tenth of August are not edifying, and imply in Con-
dorcet, who composed them, a certain want of eye for revolu-
tionary methods. They mark the beginning of that short but
most momentous jDeriod in the history of the Revolution, when
formulas, as Mr. Carlyle says, had to be stretched out until
they cracked — a jjrocess truly called, ' especially in times of
swift change, one of the sorrowfullest tasks poor humanity has.'
You might read the Exposition of the Motives from which the
IS ational Assembly have proclaimed the Convention, and suspended
the Executive Power of the JTm^,^ without dreaming that it is
an account of a revolution which arose out of distrust or con-
tempt for the Assembly, which had driven the king away
from his palace and from power, and which had finally anni-
hilated the chamber itself, that was thus exposing its motives
for doing what the violence of Paris had really done in defiance
of it. The power, in fact, was all outside the chamber, in

(1) Bedarafion de l' Assemblee Naiiotiale, 29 Dec, 1791. (Euvres, xii. 25.

(2) August 13, 1792. (Euvres, x. 547.


Danton and the Commune. Under sucli circumstances, it is of
no interest to men to learn that ' in the midst of these disasters
the National Assembly, afflicted but calm, took its oath to
maintain equality and liberty, or to die at its post ; took the
oath to save France, and looked about for means.' ^ Still more
impotent and hollow, because still more pompous, is the
address of six days later.^ A few days after this, occurred
the massacres of prisoners in September — scenes very nearly, if
not quite, as bloody and monstrous as those which attended the
suppression of the rebellion in Ireland six years afterwards by
English troops. The Assembly, the day but one before its
final session, issued an address denouncing these infamous
crimes ; ^ and on the whole, the fact that this and the other
addresses appealing to law should have been issued, and that
the chamber should have continued to sit and transact busi-
ness, shows to a certain extent that in France at any rate, if
not in Paris, the characteristic national respect for authority'
had not been so entirely blotted out as we are commonly led to

The Parisians assuredly, or the unbreeched portion of them
then dominant, were no lovers of such order as the Assembly
could provide ; and when the Convention was chosen, the
electors of Paris rejected Condorcet. He was elected, however
(Sept. 6), for the department of the Aisne, having among his
colleagues in the deputation Tom Paine, and — a much more
important personage — the youthful Saint- Just, who was so
soon to stupefy the Convention by exclaiming, with mellow
voice and face set immovable as bronze, ' An individual has no
right to be either virtuous or celebrated in your eyes. A free
people and a national assembly are not made to admire any-

(1) CEuvres, x. 560. (2) 19 Aug. (Euvres, x. 565.

(3) 19 Sept., X. 581.

V 9.


body.' The electors of tlie department of the Aisne had
unconsciously sent two typical revolutionists : the man of intel-
lectual ideas, and the man of passion heated as in the pit. In
their persons the Encyclopaedia and the guillotine met. Con-
dorcet, who had been extreme in the Legislative, but found
himself a moderate in the Convention, gave wise counsel as to
the true policy towards the new members : ' Better try to
moderate them than quarrel.' But the quarrel between water
and fire is irreconcilable.

On the first great question that the Convention had to
decide, the fate of the king, Condorcet voted on the two
main issues very much as a wise man would have voted, know-
ing the event as we know it. He voted that the king was
guilty of conspiring against liberty, and he voted for the
punishment of exile in preference to that of death. On the
intermediate question, whether the decision of the Convention
should be final, or should be submitted to the people for rati-
fication, he voted as a wise man should not have done, in
favour of an appeal to the people, which must inevitably have
led to violent and bloody local struggles, and laid France open
to the enemy. It is a striking circumstance that, though Con-
dorcet thus voted that the king was guilty, he had previously
laid before the Convention a most careful argimient to show
that they were neither morally nor legally competent to try the
king at all. How, he asked, can you act at the same time as
legislators constituting the crime, as accusers, and as judges,
without violating every principle of jurisprudence ? His pro-
posal was that Louis xvi. should be tried by a tribunal whose
jury and judges should be named by the electoral body of the
departments.^ With true respect for Condorcet's honourable
anxiety that the conditions of justice should be rigorously

(1) Opinion sur lejugement dc Louis XVI. Nov. 1792. xii. 267 — 303.


observed — for, as lie well said, * there is no liberty in a country
where positive law is not the single rule of judicial proceed-
ings ' — it is difficult to see why the Convention, coming as it
did fresh from the electoral bodies, who must have had the
question what was to be done with the imprisoned king fore-
most in their minds, why the members of the Convention
should not form as legitimate a tribunal as any body whose
composition and authority they had themselves defined and
created, and which would be chosen by the same persons who
less than a month before had invested them with their own
offices. Reading this most scrupulous and juristic composition,
we might believe the writer to have forgotten that France lay,
mad and frenzied, outside the hall where he stood, and that
in political action the question what is possible is at least as
important as what is compatible with the maxims of scientific
jurisprudence. It was to Condorcet's honour as a jurisconsult
that he should have had so many scruples ; it is to his credit
as a politician that he laid them aside and tried the king
after all.

It is highly characteristic of Condorcet's tenacity of his own
view of the Revolution and of its methods, that on the Saturday
(January 19, 1793) when the king's fate was decided against
Condorcet's conviction and against his vote — the execution
taking place on the Monday morning — he should have appealed
to the Convention, at all events to do their best to neutralise
the efiect of their verdict upon Europe, by instantly initiating a
series of humane reforms in the law which he named, including
the abolition of the punishment of death. * The English minis-
ters,' he cried, ' are now seeking to excite that nation against
us. Do you suppose that they will venture to continue their
calumnious declamations, when you can say to them : We have
abolished the penalty of death, while you still preserve it for the


theft of a few shillings ? You hand over debtors to the greed or
spite of their creditors ; our laws, wiser and more humane, know
how to respect poverty and misfortune. Judge between us and
you, and see to which of the two peoples the reproach of inhu-
manity may be addressed with most justice.'^ This was the
eve of the Terror. Well may Comte distinguish Condorcet as
' the one philosopher who pursued in the midst of the tempest
his regenerating meditations.' ^

But let us banish the notion that the history of the Con-
vention is only the history of the guillotine. No chamber,
in the whole annals of governing assemblies, ever displayed
so much alertness, energy, and capacity, in the face of dif-
ficulties that might well have crushed them. Besides their
efforts, justly held incomparable, to hurl back the enemy
from their frontiers, they at once in the spirit of Condorcet' s
speech, made at so strange a season, set vigorously about the
not less noble task of legal reforms and political reorganisation.
The unrivalled ingenuity and fertility of the French character
in all the arts of compact and geometric construction never
showed itself so supreme. The civil code was drawn up in a
month.^ Constitutions abounded. Cynical historians laugh at
the eagerness of the nation, during the months that followed
the deposition of the king, to have a constitution ; and, so far
as they believed or hoped that a constitution would remedy all
ills, their faith was assuredly not according to knowledge. It
shows, however, the fundamental and seemingly ineradicable
respect for authority which their history has engendered in the
French, that even in this, their most chaotic hour, they craved
for order and its symbols.

(1) 19 Jan., 1793. (Euvres, xii. 311.

(2) Politique Fos., iii. 596.

(3) See M. Edgar Quinet's remarks on this achievement. — La Revolution, ii. 110.


Condorcet, along with Tom Paine, Sieyeg, and others, was a
member of the first committee for framing a constitution. They
laboured assiduously from September to February, 1793, when
the project was laid upon the table, prefaced by an elaborate
dissertation of Condorcet's composition.^ The time was inauspi-
cious. The animosities between the Girondins and the Moun-
tain were becoming every day more furious and deadly. In
the midst of this appalling storm of rage and hate and terror,
Condorcet — at one moment wounding the Grirondins by re-
proaches against their egotism and personalities, at another
exasperating the Mountain by declaring of Robespierre that he
had neither an idea in his head nor a feeling in his heart — still
pertinaciously kept crying out for the acceptance of his con-
stitution. It was of no avail. The revolution of the Second
of June came, and swept the Girondins out of the Chamber.
Condorcet was not among them, but his political days were
numbered. ' What did you do all that time ? ' somebody once
asked of a member of the Convention, during the period which
was now beginning and which lasted until Thermidor of 1794.
* I lived,' was the reply. Condorcet was of another temper.
He cared as little for his life as Danton or Saint- Just cared for
theirs. Instead of cowering down among the men of the Plain
or the frogs of the Marsh, he withstood the Mountain to the

(1) (Euvres, xii. 333, and 417. M. Louis Blanc has contrasted the principles
laid down as the basis of this project with Robespierre's rival Declaration of the
Rights of Man, printing the two side by side in parallel columns. ' Les voila
done face a face, apres leur commune victoire sur le principe d'autorite, ces deux
principes d'individualisme et de fraternite, entre lesquels, aujourd'hui mcme, le
monde balance, invinciblement emu ! D'un cote la philosophie du rationalisme
pur, qui divise ; d'un autre cote la philosophie du sentiment, qui rapproche et
reunit. Ici Voltaire et Condorcet, la J. J. Rousseau et Robespierre.' The
whole criticism is well worth tiuning to. Mist, de la Mevol. Fran., bk. ix. c. 6.


Herault de Sechelles, at the head of another committee,
brought in a new constitution which was finally adopted and
decreed (June 24, 1793). Of this, Sieyes said privately, that
it was ' a bad table of contents.' Condorcet denounced it
pubKcly, and with a courage hardly excelled he declared in so
many words that the arrest of the Girondins had destroyed the
integrity of the national representation. The project itself he
handled with a severity that inflicted the keenest smarts on the
self-love of its designers. A few days later, the Capucin Chabot,
one of those weak and excitable natures that in ordinary
times divert men by the intensity, multiplicity, and brevity of
their enthusiasms, but to whom the fiercer air of such an event
as the Revolution is a veritable poison, rose and, in the name
of the Committee of General Security, called the attention of
the Chamber to what he styled a sequel of the conspiracy of
the Girondist Brissot. This was no more nor less than Con-
dorcet's document criticising the new constitution. 'This
man,' said Chabot, ' has sought to raise the department of the
Aisne against you, imagining that, because he has happened to
sit by the side of some savans of the Academy, it is his duty to
give laws to the French Republic.'^ So a decree was passed
putting Condorcet under arrest. His name was included in the
list of those who were tried before the Revolutionary Tribunal
on the third of October for conspiring against the unity and
indivisibility of the Republic ; he was condemned in his absence,
and declared to be hors la hi.


This, then, was the calamitous close of his aspirations from
boyhood upwards to be permitted to partake in doing something
for the common weal. He had still the work to perform by

(1) Extrnit du Moniteur. (Eurres, xii. 677.


which posterity will best remember his name, though only a
few months intervened between his flight and his most cruel
end. When the decree against him was enacted, he fled.
Friends found a refuge for him in the house of a Madame
Yernet, a widow in moderate circumstances, who let lodgings
to students, and one of those noble and beneficent characters
that show us how high humanity can reach. ' Is he an honest
and virtuous man ? ' she asked ; ' in that case let him come,
and lose not a moment. Even while we talk he may be seized.'
The same night Condorcet intrusted his life to her keeping,
and for nine months remained in hiding under her roof. When
he heard of the execution of the Girondins condemned on the
same day with himself, he perceived the risk to which he was
subjecting his protector, and made up his mind to flee. * I am
out of the law,' he said, ' and if I am discovered you will be
dragged to the same death.' ' The Convention,' Madame
Yernet answered, with something of the heroism of more
notable women of that time, ' may put you out of the law ; it
has not the power to put you out of humanity. You stay.'
This was no speech of the theatre. The whole household kept
the most vigorous watch over the prisoner thus generously
detained, and for many months Madame Yernet's humane firm-
ness was successful in preventing his escape. This time, his
soul grievously burdened by anxiety as to the fate of his wife
and child, by a restless eagerness not to compromise his bene-
factress, a bloody death staring him every moment in the
face, Condorcet spent in the composition, without the aid of
a single book, of his memorable work on the progress of
the human mind. Among the many wonders of an epoch of
portents, this feat of intellectual abstraction is not the least

When his task was accomplished, Condorcet felt with more


keenness than ever tlie deadly peril in wliicli his presence
placed Madame Vernet. He was aware that to leave her house
was to seek death, but he did not fear. He drew up a paper of
directions to be one day given to his little daughter, when she
should be of years to understand and follow them. They are
written with minute care, and though tender and solicitous,
with perfect composure. His daughter is above all things to
banish from her mind every revengeful sentiment against her
father's enemies ; to distrust her filial sensibility, and to make
this sacrifice for her father's own sake. This done, he marched
down-stairs, and having by an artful stratagem thrown Madame
Vernet ofi" her guard, went out at ten o'clock in the morning
imperfectly disguised into the street. This was the fifth of
April, 1794. By three in the afternoon, exhausted by fatigue
which his strict confinement for nine months made excessive,
he reached the house of a friend in the country, and prayed for
a night's shelter. His presence excited less pity than alarm.
They gave him refreshment, and he borrowed a little pocket
copy of Horace, with which he went forth into the loneliness
of the night. He promised himself shelter amid the stone-
quarries of Clamart. What he suffered during this night, the
whole day of the sixth of April, the night, and again the next
day, there is no one to tell.

The door of the house in the E.ue Servandoni was left on
the latch night and day for a whole week. But Madame
Vernet' s generous hope was in vain ; while she still hoped and
watched, the end had come. On the evening of the seventh,
Condorcet, with one of his legs torn or broken, his garments in
rags, with visage gaunt and hunger- stricken, entered an inn in
the hamlet of Clamart, and called for an omelette. Asked how
many eggs he would have in it, the famishing man answered a
dozen. Carpenters, for such he had given himself to be, do


not have a dozen eggs in their omelettes. Suspicion was
aroused, his hands were not the hands of a workman, and he
had no papers to show, but only the pocket Horace. The
villagers seized him and hastened to drag him, bound hand
and foot, to Bourg-la-Reine, then called for a season Bourg-
I'Egalite. On the road he fainted, and they set him on a
horse offered by a pitying wayfarer. The prison reached, Con-
dorcet, starving, bleeding, way-worn, was flung into his cell.
On the morrow, when the gaolers came to seek him, they found
him stretched upon the ground, dead and stark. So he perished
— of hmiger and weariness, say some ; of poison ever carried
by him in a ring, say others.^ So, to the last revolving supreme
cares, this high spirit was overtaken by annihilation. His
memory is left to us, the fruit of his ideas, and the impression
of his character.

An eminent man, who escaped by one accident from the
hatchets of the Septembriseurs, and by another from the guillo-
tine of the Terror, while in hiding and in momentary ex-
pectation of capture and death, wrote thus in condemnation of
suicide, ' the one crime which leaves no possibility of return
to virtue.' 'Even at this incomprehensible moment' — the
spring of 1793 — ' when morality, enlightenment, energetic love
of country, only render death at the prison-wicket or on the
scaffold more inevitable ; when it might be allowable to choose
among the ways of leaving a life that can no longer be pre-
served, and to rob tigers in human form of the accursed pleasure
of dragging you forth and drinking your blood; yes, on the
fatal tumbril itself, with nothing free but voice, I could still

(1) The Abbe Morellct, in his narrative of the death of Condorcet {Memoires,
c. xxiv.), says that he died of poison, a mixture of stramonium and opium, lie
adds that the surgeon described death as due to apoplexy.


cry, Take care, to a cliild that comes too near the wheel : per-
haps he may owe his life to me, perhaps the country shall one
day owe its salvation to him.' ^

More than one career in those days, famous or ohscure, was
marked by this noble tenacity to lofty public ideas even in the
final moments of existence ; its general acceptance as a binding
duty, exorcising the mournful and insignificant egotisms that
haunt and wearily fret and make waste the remnants of so
many lives, will produce the profoundest of all possible improve-
ments in men's knowledge of the sublime art of the happiness
of their kind. The closing words of Condorcet's last composi-

Online LibraryJohn MorleyCritical miscellanies → online text (page 6 of 29)