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VOL. I. Essay 1: Robespierre






Introduction 1

Different views of Robespierre 4

His youthful history 5

An advocate at Arras 7

Acquaintance with Carnot 10

The summoning of the States-General 11

Prophecies of revolution 12

Reforming Ministers tried and dismissed 13

Financial state of France 14

Impotence of the Monarchy 17

The Constituent Assembly 19

Robespierre interprets the revolutionary movement rightly 21

The Sixth of October 1789 23

Alteration in Robespierre's position 25

Character of Louis XVI. 28

And of Marie Antoinette 29

The Constitution and Robespierre's mark upon it 34

Instability of the new arrangements 37

Importance of Jacobin ascendancy 41

The Legislative Assembly 42

Robespierre's power at the Jacobin Club 44

His oratory 45

The true secret of his popularity 48

Aggravation of the crisis in the spring of 1792 50

The Tenth of August 1792 52

Danton 53

Compared with Robespierre 55

Robespierre compared with Marat and with Sieyès 57

Character of the Terror 58


Fall of the Girondins indispensable 60

France in desperate peril 61

The Committee of Public Safety 65

At the Tuileries 67

The contending factions 70

Reproduced an older conflict of theories 72

Robespierre's attitude 73

The Hébertists 77

Chaumette and his fundamental error 80

Robespierre and the atheists 82

His bitterness towards Anacharsis Clootz 86

New turn of events (March 1794) 90

First breach in the Jacobin ranks: the Hébertists 90

Robespierre's abandonment of Danton 91

Second breach: the Dantonians (April 1794) 95

Another reminiscence of this date 97

Robespierre's relations to the Committees changed 98

The Feast of the Supreme Being 101

Its false philosophy 103

And political inanity 104

The Law of Prairial 106

Robespierre's motive in devising it 107

It produces the Great Terror 109

Robespierre's chagrin at its miscarriage 112

His responsibility not to be denied 112

(1) Affair of Catherine Théot 113

" Cécile Renault 114

(2) Robespierre stimulated popular commissions 115

The drama of Thermidor: the combatants 117

Its conditions 118

The Eighth Thermidor 119

Inefficiency of Robespierre's speech 121

The Ninth Thermidor 123

Famous scene in the Convention 125

Robespierre a prisoner 127

Struggle between the Convention and the Commune 129

Death of Robespierre 131

Ultimate issue of the struggle between the Committees
and the Convention 132



A French writer has recently published a careful and interesting volume
on the famous events which ended in the overthrow of Robespierre and the
close of the Reign of Terror.[1] These events are known in the historic
calendar as the Revolution of Thermidor in the Year II. After the fall
of the monarchy, the Convention decided that the year should begin with
the autumnal equinox, and that the enumeration should date from the
birth of the Republic. The Year I. opens on September 22, 1792; the Year
II. opens on the same day of 1793. The month of Thermidor begins on July
19. The memorable Ninth Thermidor therefore corresponds to July 27,
1794. This has commonly been taken as the date of the commencement of a
counter-revolution, and in one sense it was so. Comte, however, and
others have preferred to fix the reaction at the execution of Danton
(April 5, 1794), or Robespierre's official proclamation of Deism in the
Festival of the Supreme Being (May 7, 1794).

[Footnote 1: _La Révolution de Thermidor_. Par Ch. D'Héricault. Paris:
Didier, 1876.]

M. D'Héricault does not belong to the school of writers who treat the
course of history as a great high road, following a firmly traced line,
and set with plain and ineffaceable landmarks. The French Revolution has
nearly always been handled in this way, alike by those who think it
fruitful in blessings, and by their adversaries, who pronounce it a
curse inflicted by the wrath of Heaven. Historians have looked at the
Revolution as a plain landsman looks at the sea. To the landsman the
ocean seems one huge immeasurable flood, obeying a simple law of ebb and
flow, and offering to the navigator a single uniform force. Yet in truth
we know that the oceanic movement is the product of many forces; the
seeming uniformity covers the energy of a hundred currents and
counter-currents; the sea-floor is not even nor the same, but is subject
to untold conditions of elevation and subsidence; the sea is not one
mass, but many masses moving along definite lines of their own. It is
the same with the great tides of history. Wise men shrink from summing
them up in single propositions. That the French Revolution led to an
immense augmentation of happiness, both for the French and for mankind,
can only be denied by the Pope. That it secured its beneficent results
untempered by any mixture of evil, can only be maintained by men as mad
as Doctor Pangloss. The Greek poetess Corinna said to the youthful
Pindar, when he had interwoven all the gods and goddesses in the Theban
mythology into a single hymn, that we should sow with the hand and not
with the sack. Corinna's monition to the singer is proper to the
interpreter of historical truth: he should cull with the hand, and not
sweep in with the scythe. It is doubtless mere pedantry to abstain from
the widest conception of the sum of a great movement. A clear, definite,
and stable idea of the meaning in the history of human progress of such
vast groups of events as the Reformation or the Revolution, is
indispensable for any one to whom history is a serious study of society.
It is just as important, however, not to forget that they were really
groups of events, and not in either case a single uniform movement. The
World-Epos is after all only a file of the morning paper in a state of
glorification. A sensible man learns, in everyday life, to abstain from
praising and blaming character by wholesale; he becomes content to say
of this trait that it is good, and of that act that it was bad. So in
history, we become unwilling to join or to admire those who insist upon
transferring their sentiment upon the whole to their judgment upon each
part. We seek to be allowed to retain a decided opinion as to the final
value to mankind of a long series of transactions, and yet not to commit
ourselves to set the same estimate on each transaction in particular,
still less on each person associated with it. Why shall we not prize the
general results of the Reformation, without being obliged to defend John
of Leyden and the Munster Anabaptists?

M. D'Héricault's volume naturally suggests such reflections as these. Of
all the men of the Revolution, Robespierre has suffered most from the
audacious idolatry of some writers, and the splenetic impatience of
others. M. Louis Blanc and M. Ernest Hamel talk of him as an angel or a
prophet, and the Ninth Thermidor is a red day indeed in their
martyrology. Michelet and M. D'Héricault treat him as a mixture of
Cagliostro and Caligula, both a charlatan and a miscreant. We are
reminded of the commencement of an address of the French Senate to the
first Bonaparte: 'Sire,' they began, 'the desire for perfection is one
of the worst maladies that can afflict the human mind.' This bold
aphorism touches one of the roots of the judgments we pass both upon men
and events. It is because people so irrationally think fit to insist
upon perfection, that Robespierre's admirers would fain deny that he
ever had a fault, and the tacit adoption of the same impracticable
standard makes it easier for Robespierre's wholesale detractors to deny
that he had a single virtue or performed a single service. The point of
view is essentially unfit for history. The real subject of history is
the improvement of social arrangements, and no conspicuous actor in
public affairs since the world began saw the true direction of
improvement with an absolutely unerring eye from the beginning of his
career to the end. It is folly for the historian, as it is for the
statesman, to strain after the imaginative unity of the dramatic
creator. Social progress is an affair of many small pieces and slow
accretions, and the interest of historic study lies in tracing, amid the
immense turmoil of events and through the confusion of voices, the
devious course of the sacred torch, as it shifts from bearer to bearer.
And it is not the bearers who are most interesting, but the torch.

* * * * *

In the old Flemish town of Arras, known in the diplomatic history of the
fifteenth century by a couple of important treaties, and famous in the
industrial history of the Middle Ages for its pre-eminence in the
manufacture of the most splendid kind of tapestry hangings, Maximilian
Robespierre was born in May 1758. He was therefore no more than five and
thirty years old when he came to his ghastly end in 1794. His father was
a lawyer, and, though the surname of the family had the prefix of
nobility, they belonged to the middle class. When this decorative prefix
became dangerous, Maximilian Derobespierre dropped it. His great rival,
Danton, was less prudent or less fortunate, and one of the charges made
against him was that he had styled himself Monsieur D'Anton.

Robespierre's youth was embittered by sharp misfortune. His mother died
when he was only seven years old, and his father had so little courage
under the blow that he threw up his practice, deserted his children, and
died in purposeless wanderings through Germany. The burden that the weak
and selfish throw down, must be taken up by the brave. Friendly
kinsfolk charged themselves with the maintenance of the four orphans.
Maximilian was sent to the school of the town, whence he proceeded with
a sizarship to the college of Louis-le-Grand in Paris. He was an apt and
studious pupil, but austere, and disposed to that sombre cast of spirits
which is common enough where a lad of some sensibility and much
self-esteem finds himself stamped with a badge of social inferiority.
Robespierre's worshippers love to dwell on his fondness for birds: with
the universal passion of mankind for legends of the saints, they tell
how the untimely death of a favourite pigeon afflicted him with anguish
so poignant, that, even sixty long years after, it made his sister's
heart ache to look back upon the pain of that tragic moment. Always a
sentimentalist, Robespierre was from boyhood a devout enthusiast for the
great high priest of the sentimental tribe. Rousseau was then passing
the last squalid days of his life among the meadows and woods at
Ermenonville. Robespierre, who could not have been more than twenty at
the time, for Rousseau died in the summer of 1778, is said to have gone
on a reverential pilgrimage in search of an oracle from the lonely sage,
as Boswell and as Gibbon and a hundred others had gone before him.
Rousseau was wont to use his real adorers as ill as he used his
imaginary enemies. Robespierre may well have shared the discouragement
of the enthusiastic father who informed Rousseau that he was about to
bring up his son on the principles of _Emilius_. 'Then so much the
worse,' cried the perverse philosopher, 'both for you and your son.' If
he had been endowed with second sight, he would have thought at least as
rude a presage due to this last and most ill-starred of a whole
generation of neophytes.

In 1781 Robespierre returned to Arras, and amid the welcome of his
relatives and the good hopes of friends began the practice of an
advocate. For eight years he led an active and seemly life. He was not
wholly pure from that indiscretion of the young appetite, about which
the world is mute, but whose better ordering and governance would give a
diviner brightness to the earth. Still, if he did not escape the ordeal
of youth, Robespierre was frugal, laborious, and persevering. His
domestic amiability made him the delight of his sister, and his zealous
self-sacrifice for the education and advancement in life of his younger
brother was afterwards repaid by Augustin Robespierre's devotion through
all the fierce and horrible hours of Thermidor. Though cold in
temperament, extremely reserved in manners, and fond of industrious
seclusion, Robespierre did not disdain the social diversions of the
town. He was a member of a reunion of Rosati, who sang madrigals and
admired one another's bad verses. Those who love the ironical surprises
of fate, may picture the young man who was doomed to play so terrible a
part in terrible affairs, going through the harmless follies of a
ceremonial reception by the Rosati, taking three deep breaths over a
rose, solemnly fastening the emblem to his coat, emptying a glass of
rose-red wine at a draught to the good health of the company, and
finally reciting couplets that Voltaire would have found almost as
detestable as the Law of Prairial or the Festival of the Supreme Being.
More laudable efforts of ambition were prize essays, in which
Robespierre has the merit of taking the right side in important
questions. He protested against the inhumanity of laws that inflicted
civil infamy upon the innocent family of a convicted criminal. And he
protested against the still more horrid cruelty which reduced
unfortunate children born out of wedlock to something like the status of
the mediæval serf. Robespierre's compositions at this time do not rise
above the ordinary level of declaiming mediocrity, but they promised a
manhood of benignity and enlightenment. To compose prize essays on
political reforms was better than to ignore or to oppose political
reform. But the course of events afterwards owed their least desirable
bias to the fact that such compositions were the nearest approach to
political training that so many of the revolutionary leaders underwent.
One is inclined to apply to practical politics Arthur Young's sensible
remark about the endeavour of the French to improve the quality of their
wool: 'A cultivator at the head of a sheep-farm of 3000 or 4000 acres,
would in a few years do more for their wools than all the academicians
and philosophers will effect in ten centuries.'

In his profession he distinguished himself in one or two causes of local
celebrity. An innovating citizen had been ordered by the authorities to
remove a lightning-conductor from his house within three days, as being
a mischievous practical paradox, as well as a danger and an annoyance to
his neighbours. Robespierre pleaded the innovator's case on appeal, and
won it. He defended a poor woman who had been wrongfully accused by a
monk belonging to the powerful corporation of a great neighbouring
abbey. The young advocate did not even shrink from manfully arguing a
case against the august Bishop of Arras himself. His independence did
him no harm. The Bishop afterwards appointed him to the post of judge or
legal assessor in the episcopal court. This tribunal was a remnant of
what had once been the sovereign authority and jurisdiction of the
Bishops of Arras. That a court with the power of life and death should
thus exist by the side of a proper corporation of civil magistrates, is
an illustration of the inextricable labyrinth of the French law and its
administration on the eve of the Revolution. Robespierre did not hold
his office long. Every one has heard the striking story, how the young
judge, whose name was within half a dozen years to take a place in the
popular mind of France and of Europe with the bloodiest monsters of myth
or history, resigned his post in a fit of remorse after condemning a
murderer to be executed. 'He is a criminal, no doubt,' Robespierre kept
groaning in reply to the consolations of his sister, for women are more
positive creatures than men: 'a criminal, no doubt; but to put a man to
death!' Many a man thus begins the great voyage with queasy
sensibilities, and ends it a cannibal.

Among Robespierre's associates in the festive mummeries of the Rosati
was a young officer of Engineers, who was destined to be his colleague
in the dread Committee of Public Safety, and to leave an important name
in French history. In the garrison of Arras, Carnot was quartered, - that
iron head, whose genius for the administrative organisation of war
achieved even greater things for the new republic than the genius of
Louvois had achieved for the old monarchy. Carnot surpassed not only
Louvois, but perhaps all other names save one in modern military
history, by uniting to the most powerful gifts for organisation, both
the strategic talent that planned the momentous campaign of 1794, and
the splendid personal energy and skill that prolonged the defence of
Antwerp against the allied army in 1814 Partisans dream of the
unrivalled future of peace, glory, and freedom that would have fallen to
the lot of France, if only the gods had brought about a hearty union
between the military genius of Carnot and the political genius of
Robespierre. So, no doubt, after the restoration of Charles II. in
England, there were good men who thought that all would have gone very
differently, if only the genius of the great creator of the Ironsides
had taken counsel with the genius of Venner, the Fifth-Monarchy Man, and
Feak, the Anabaptist prophet.

The time was now come when such men as Robespierre were to be tried with
fire, when they were to drink the cup of fury and the dregs of the cup
of trembling. Sybils and prophets have already spoken their inexorable
decree, as Goethe has said, on the day that first gives the man to the
world; no time and no might can break the stamped mould of his
character; only as life wears on, do all its aforeshapen lines come into
light. He is launched into a sea of external conditions, that are as
independent of his own will as the temperament with which he confronts
them. It is action that tries, and variation of circumstance. The leaden
chains of use bind many an ugly unsuspected prisoner in the soul; and
when the habit of their lives has been sundered, the most immaculate are
capable of antics beyond prevision. A great crisis of the world was
prepared for Robespierre and those others, his allies or his destroyers,
who with him came like the lightning and went like the wind.

At the end of 1788 the King of France found himself forced to summon the
States-General. It was their first assembly since 1614. On the memorable
Fourth of May, 1789, Robespierre appeared at Versailles as one of the
representatives of the third estate of his native province of Artois.
The excitement and enthusiasm of the elections to this renowned
assembly, the immense demands and boundless expectations that they
disclosed, would have warned a cool observer of events, if in that
heated air a cool observer could have been found, that the hour had
struck for the fulfilment of those grim apprehensions of revolution that
had risen in the minds of many shrewd men, good and bad, in the course
of the previous half century. No great event in history ever comes
wholly unforeseen. The antecedent causes are so wide-reaching, many, and
continuous, that their direction is always sure to strike the eye of one
or more observers in all its significance. Lewis the Fifteenth, whose
invincible weariness and heavy disgust veiled a penetrating discernment,
measured accurately the scope of the conflict between the crown and the
parlements: but, said he, things as they are will last my time. Under
the roof of his own palace at Versailles, in the apartment of Madame de
Pompadour's famous physician, one of Quesnai's economic disciples had
cried out, 'The realm is in a sore way; it will never be cured without a
great internal commotion; but woe to those who have to do with it; into
such work the French go with no slack hand.' Rousseau, in a passage in
the Confessions, not only divines a speedy convulsion, but with striking
practical sagacity enumerates the political and social causes that were
unavoidably drawing France to the edge of the abyss. Lord Chesterfield,
so different a man from Rousseau, declared as early as 1752, that he saw
in France every symptom that history had taught him to regard as the
forerunner of deep change; before the end of the century, so his
prediction ran, both the trade of king and the trade of priest in France
would be shorn of half their glory. D'Argenson in the same year declared
a revolution inevitable, and with a curious precision of anticipation
assured himself that if once the necessity arose of convoking the
States-General, they would not assemble in vain: _qu'on y prenne, garde!
ils seraient fort sérieux!_ Oliver Goldsmith, idly wandering through
France, towards 1755, discerned in the mutinous attitude of the judicial
corporations, that the genius of freedom was entering the kingdom in
disguise, and that a succession of three weak monarchs would end in the
emancipation of the people of France. The most touching of all these
presentiments is to be found in a private letter of the great Empress,
the mother of Marie Antoinette herself. Maria Theresa describes the
ruined state of the French monarchy, and only prays that if it be doomed
to ruin still more utter, at least the blame may not fall upon her
daughter. The Empress had not learnt that when the giants of social
force are advancing from the sombre shadow of the past, with the thunder
and the hurricane in their hands, our poor prayers are of no more avail
than the unbodied visions of a dream.

The old popular assembly of the realm was not resorted to before every
means of dispensing with so drastic a remedy had been tried. Historians
sometimes write as if Turgot were the only able and reforming minister
of the century. God forbid that we should put any other minister on a
level with that high and beneficent figure. But Turgot was not the first
statesman, both able and patriotic, who had been disgraced for want of

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