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Ça ira! : or, Danton in the French revolution, a study online

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After June 2 Danton resigns his membership ; and in his
place, as well as in that of the expelled Girondins, his friend
H(^rault de S^chelles and other Jacobins are elected. They
take up the draft of Condorcet ; make, in a couple of da)'s,
considerable changes in it, then submit it to the Commit-
tee oj Public IVei/are, where one day is devoted to examining
and slightly amending it; and finally, on the loth, the'dis-
cussion of it begins in the Convention, which adopts it on
June 23, — the whole work thus done in three weeks.

The differences between the draft of Condorcet and the
constitution as adopted were very marked and highly sug-

First, as to style : the Girondin draft was dry and diffuse ;
the Jacobin Constitution laconic, giving the impression of
gigantic letters hewn into granite and painted in warm colors.
One of its first articles ran, —

" French citizens are : every foreigner of the full age of
twenty-one who has resided one year in France, and lives
there by his labor, or acquires landed property, or marries
a French citizen, or adopts an infaiit, or supports an old

One of its last articles said, —

" The French Republic will not intermeddle with the gov-
ernment of foreign nations. It gives asylum to all foreigners
banished from tlicir country for the cause of liberty. It re-
fuses asylum to tyrants.^''

But the most important difference was the spirit that
pervaded the two documents from first to last.

The draft of Condorcet was the charter of individualism.
It had no conception of humanity, but only of a collection
of individuals, each standing aloof from, and sharply, even
hostiicly, opposed to others ; clad to the teeth in his "rii^^hts,"


as in a coat-of-mail. What it concerned itself about, and was
solicitous for, was to defend these individuals from oppression
and interference from others. It was a scheme oi guaranties.
It guaranteed the liberty of the person and the press, and
the security of the home, and to that end surrounded them
with a long array of sacramental forms, exactly as our con-
stitutions do. It prescribed minutely when, how, for what
causes, and by whom arrests might be made, and search-
warrants issued. In other words, this Girondin draft, as was
natural, gave expression to middle-class, plutocrat ideas, —
protected those who sufficed themselves ; but, if the burden
was too heavy for the weak, so much the worse for the weak.
Its motto was simply, " No despotism."

The Jacobin Constitution, on the other hand, was a charter
of fraternity. It did not look on society as a mass of
individuals, but as an organic loholc. It, however, did not
overlook the rights of individuals, for we read, —

" This constitution guarantees to all Frenchmen equality,
liberty, security, property, the free exercise of religion, a
common education, public assistance, unfettered freedom
of the press and of public gatherings."

But that is also all ; and this, it will be seen, is very
vague, very indefinite. The fact is, they were pre-occupied
with the duties of society, — pre-occupied with the weak that
were to be protected, the poor that were to be fed, the un-
fortunate that were to be saved, not merely from oppression,
but from abandonment. Therefore, when the Girondin draft
defined liberty as " consisting in doing all things not con-
trary to the rights of others," they added, " It must have
for rule justice.''

Condorcet's draft simply stated that public assistance
should be at the charge of the State. That did not satisfy
the Jacobins. They laid it down distinctly, so that he who
runs may read : " Society owes subsistence to unfortunate


citizens, either by procuring them work, or, in case they are
unable to work, by furnishing them means of existence."

Condorcet's draft was absokitely silent on the interde-
pendence of men. The Jacobins solemnly declared, "It is
to be accounted an injury to the social organism when one
of its members is injured."

Their motto, their dominant idea, then, was social pro-
tection; and this fact should with all men of heart, with
the working classes especially, cover these bourgeois with a
mantle of charity.

That was their great merit : tliat, however shallow their
reasoning might be, they felt that no man does eviluntempted,
unless he have all other men to help him to it by standing
aloof from him, and leaving him in abject penury, physical
or moral.

Their great merit : that they instinctively felt that our
human failures generally — yea, even our thieves and murder-
ers to a great extent — should be ascribed to the organized
inclemency of man to man ; to society being a niggard steza-
ard of nature's bounties and the accumulated labors of past

Intimately connected with this difference in spirit is the
circumstance that the Jacobin Constitution commenced with
these words : " In the presence of, and under the auspices
of the Supreme Being, the French people declare," while
the Girondin draft had no corresponding phrase anywhere.

The Jacobins were not orthodox believers, any more than
the Girondins. They, just as little as these latter, bcHeved
in a lawless ruler outside humanity, rather leaning to the
side of the rich and powerful ; but, as has been said, tliey
believed in humanity, wliile the Girondins could see only a
crowd of independent beings. ^Vhilc, therefore, the latter,
like Bonaparte later on, had " no need of the hypothesis " of
a Supreme Spirit, the Jacobins precisely had such a need.


They did very much need a mystic bond to biiid society
together, and also the highest possible moral sanction for the
stern duties on which they insisted.

Then there was another noticeable difference between the
two documents, that on first view may puzzle the readers :
this, that Condorcet's draft seemed the most democratic

His draft divided France into a great number of small
primary assemblies, in which the people were to elect not
only the members of the national Legislature, but also all
executive officers of departments and the State, about in the
same way as the people of one of our States elect their gov-
ernor. The Girondins seemed already, then, to have learned
that universal suffrage, when used for the selection of men,
is perfectly compatible with the narrowest of class interests ;
that is to say, they had already learned the power of wealth,
of glib talkers, of intriguers, over a poor, ignorant, ingenuous
body of voters.

The Jacobins had learned that too. They were not
less democratic than their brother boia-geois, but they were
honest democrats, and they had a, for their time, really
remarkable insight into the essence of democracy. They
knew very well that a nation's business at no time — and,
above all, the business of France at that time — can be car-
ried on by votes of town-meetings ; " by the counting of
heads," as Carlyle has it. They knew — they showed that
by their acts — that an administration freely consented fo by
all, by the competent, skilful, and wise, for the benefit of the
whole society, is a truly democratic administration. They
knew also that competent and wise administrators can-
not possibly be selected by the whole people in primary
assemblies; that only persons in a position to know certain
personalities are able to tell whether tliey are competent and
wise, or otherwise. And it is very much to be wished that


those who arc to inaugurate the New Social Order will
know that too.

The Jacobins, therefore, amended the (iirondin draft in
this way : that while they let the people, in their primary
assemblies, elect their members of the Legislature, as for
executive officers they provided that the primary assemblies
should select departmental electoral assemblies, and these
should have the function of electing administrators of the
departments, and nominating a number of men froni'vyhom
the national Legislature was to appoint the executive officers
of the State.

The Jacobins did not at all, as it seemed, and as they
have been charged with, mistrust universal suffrage, — a mis-
trust which, however, the second Bonaparte's plebiscites
would amply justify ; but, as a matter of fact, they did not,
nor did they want to, govern from above. They simply said
that the people at large are wholly unfit for the function of
selecting agents to do the nation's business, a function they
will be eternally unfit for. But, further : they discovered the
function for which the people are fit ; to wit, that of passing
upon laws after they are made, and saying whether they want
them or not. That is to say, they inaugurated the refe-
rendum, at first to a very limited extent certainly. They
divided the expression of the national will into two classes,
decrees and laws ; the former were the enactments that were
urgent, and therefore operative without the people's assent ;
tlie "laws" became valid after forty days, unless a_ certain
number of primary assemblies had meanwhile protested.

What the Jacobins were after, and undoubtedly would have
secured, was a government by the competent for the masses ;
what the Girondins were after, and did afterwards secure,
was a government by the middle classes for the middle classes.

Among the clauses where the Jacobin Constitution agreed
with the Girondin draft were those on property and unre-


stricted private enterprise. The charge against the Jacobins
which is found in so many histories, and particularly in the
latest of them, by Von Sybel, that they wanted to abulisli
property rights in any shape, is the grossest falsehood. In
that respect they were precisely typical middle-class men,
most conservative even.

Only one Jacobin has written Memoirs : it is the physician
Baudot, a member of the Convention. Certainly the fact
that such a man sat on the top of the Mountain ■ during the
whole term of the Convention, without hearing a word from
Danton, from Robespierre, or anybody else, destructive of
property, or about interference with property in any way, is
strong proof that such ideas did not exist in their heads
at all. These are his words : " The Convention regarded
property as the fundamental basis for social order. I never
heard any member of that assembly make any proposition
against the principle. Not a word, not a phrase, can be
quoted." And he was in the secret of the Jacobins.

On all economic subjects, it may be said, they believe
like their brother boio-gcois. Just as they, with the Giron-
dins, beheved that property is the necessary foundation of
society, so they believed with them that the wage system,
competition, and " private enterprise," lately freed from all
shackles, would prove unmixed blessings to all classes, work-
people as well as employers; and the greater the bless-
ings, the more unfettered they were ; that there was, indeed,
no other system under which industry could be so well
carried on. And so we find that the articles that treat
of property in the Constitution of '93 are just like those of
the Code in force in France to-day. Nay, more.

AVhen Robespierre (who on this subject really seemed to
have a prophetic insiglit into the future) proposed two
amendments that in our days should l)e acknowledged excel-

' So called because llicir seats were raised one above another, .inipliitlieatrically.


lent ones, — to wit, to define " property " as that part of the
fruits of a citizen's labors which the law guarantees to him,
and forbidding any industry found to be immoral and
harmful to the well-being of others (like our " corners "), —
the whole Convention ranged itself round the draft of
Cordorcet against him.

And as to "private enterprise," they were so jealous of
it that they violently opposed themselves to the establish-
ment of associations both of work-people and employers
(to which opposition it is due that trades-unions were not
legalized in France till 1884). This, again, was 7wt caused
by ill-will on their i)art to workingmen, for they say in their
constitution, naively, " Only the bond of help and gratitude
w/// exist between employed and employer."
* * *

As Danton was a lawyer by profession, it was not so very
remarkable that he had distinguished himself in the spheres
in which we hitherto have seen him active. It is more
remarkable that we are now going to find liim taking an
equal interest, and equally active, in matters that might be
supposed entirely foreign to his mind. Thus we shall find
that it is he, again, who makes the decisive motions on
economic and educational subjects. But, to speak the
truth, this is the case with all these wonderful conventionals :
they seem equally at home, and masters, whether in the
tribune or at the head of the armies, whether in the current
jjhilosophy or in commerce.

Danton never pretended to be a politico-economist. In
that field he entirely relied on and supported the judgment
of his friend Caml)on, the celebrated revolutionary finance
minister. But, as mentioned in the preceding chap-

ter, Danton had, down in the Low Countries, thought very
deeply on economic subjects, and had especially matured a
scheme, sketched in a memorandum in his own liand-

1793.] THE '' MAXIM UMr 15 I

writing, — a very rare relic, now found in tlie French
national archives, — as follows : " The Convention decrees,
that, in every section of the republic where the price of
corn is not in a just proportion to wages paid, the treasury
shall levy a contribution on the rich, out of which shall be
defrayed the difference between such price of corn and the
wages of the needy." This proposal he causes to be made
into a law on the 2d of April.

We have seen the whole Convention partisans of free
competition and private enterprise, — Jacobins just as much
as Girondins. But circumstances compelled them to vio-
late their cherished convictions, and adopt measures con-
siderably restricting competition. The boldest of these
extraordinary measures was the maximian ; that is to say,
the highest price for wares.

The Constituent Assembly had, as we saw, rehabilitated
the finances by issuing assignats based on the confiscated
estates. This basis amounted to fifteen milliards of francs,
or three thousand million dollars. The assignats certainly
would have remained at par if the counter-Revolution,
crushed at home and overwhelmed on the frontiers, had not
resorted to the most shameful and monstrous forgery of
them, reduced to a perfect system, and carried on in Lon-
don, Holland, and Switzerland. To this crime the
Convention opposed — death ! But that did not prevent
the paper money from sinking in value ; and that conse-
quently made all necessaries of life, and especially corn and
bread, rise in price.

To bring relief to the poor, and also to raise the paper
again to par, the first law of maximum was passed May 3,
1793. It ran as follows : —

" Every merchant and proprietor of corn and flour shall
make to the municipality of his domicile a declaration as to
the quantity and nature of what he has in his possession.


" Corn and flour must be sold only in the public markets.
Nevertheless, it shall be lawful for private individuals to buy
provisions from the farmers, merchants, or proprietors of
their canton, if they procure a certificate from the munici-
pality to the effect that they do not deal in these articles,
and that their purchases are necessary for their own con-
sumption for a month.

" The average price at which each kind of corn shall have
been sold between Jan. i and May i, 1793, shall' be the
maxitmitn, above which corn must not be sold.

" Thus fixed, the maxiinum shall be reduced in the fol-
lowing proportions : On the ist of June by one- tenth, on
the ist of July by two-tenths, on the ist of August by three-
tenths, and on the ist of September by four- tenths.

'' Anybody who buys or sells above the maximuni shall
be fined from three hundred to a thousand francs, and his
corn or flour confiscated.

" Those who, with design, destroy or remove corn or flour
shall be punished with deaths

Now, this law did provide for the necessities of the
moment, and did prevent very grave perils ; at the same
time, it necessarily gave occasion to many obnoxious and
vexatious inspections. Therefore, also, the Girondin mem-
bers of the Convention had opposed it all they dared. But
the necessity was imminent, and their economic formula of
Free Competition had to give way.

Remember that France at that time was engaged in a
titanic struggle, forcing back all her enemies north, south,
east, and west, and compelling almost the world to recoil
in astonishment at her approach. It is not by ordinary
means that such prodigies are accomplished.

To feed fourteen armies on the frontiers while a fratri-
cidal struggle is raging within, and when all the sources of
wealth are dried up, is a problem wliich it is doubtful that

1793.] THE '' maximum:' 153

Free Competition could ha/e solveil, but wliich the assii^nats,
sustained by the maximiun, did solve.

Undoubtedly the establishment of the maximum was in
flagrant opposition to individualism and the doctrine of
laissez-faire ; and this fact remained the grand obstacle,
since the middle classes were de facto in social power since
the destruction of feudalism. Private interests opposed
themselves all they could to the exigencies of social welfare,
and the counter-Revolution encouraged this resistance all
it could and dared. The farmers would not bring their
corn to market, and force had to be used. Moreover,
certain local executive officers, speculating privately, neg-
lected to fix the maximum.

And then, there was in tlie law, as it stood, one great fault,
overlooked by the Convention, to whom the whole thing
was an experiment, which fault soon became apparent in
practice, and made itself felt. Corn showed a most natural
tendency to go from the departments where it was cheap
to other departments where it was dear.

It is now and here that Danton, carrying his wonted
boldness into the economic field, cuts the Gordian knot.
On the 4th of September, 1 793, he makes the following
motion, which is immediately adopted : —

" From to-day's date the quintal [two hundred pounds]
of wheat shall, until Oct. i, 1794, over the whole extent of
the republic, not exceed fourteen livres [about ^2.80]."

The memorandum above mentioned showed that Danton
was prepared, if occasion required it, to cut Gordian knots,
in economics as elsewhere. The occasion had come ; he
did it. And it proved successful. Corn was, if not

l)lenty, at all events to be had in sufficient quantity, at that
price, up to the fall of Robespierre.

But it will be easily perceived that these bokl innovators
would soon be brought to ask themselves, " If we lix a


maximum for wheat, why not fix it for other articles of jirune
necessity?" For them, again, it was only a step from regu-
lating the sale of commodities to dealing with the rate of

Hence another law, decreed Sept. 29, 1 793 : —

" The objects of first necessity, on which the Convention
hereby fixes a maximum, are, fresh and salt meat, pork,
butter, sweet-oil, catde, salt-fish, wine, whiskey, vinegar,
cider, beer, firewood, charcoal, coal, candles, salt, soap,
potash, sugar, honey, white paper, leather, iron, lead, steel,
copper, linen and woollen stuffs, cloths, raw materials for
factories, wooden and leather shoes, and tobacco.

"Th.Q ^naximum for firewood and charcoal shall be dieir
price in 1 790, and one-twentieth addetl.

"The maximum for tobacco shall be twenty cents a pound ;
for salt, two cents a pound ; for soap, twenty-one cents a

''The maximum for all other above-mentioned articles
shall be, over the whole extent of the republic, until next
month of September, the prices of each in 1790, as shown
by the price-currents, and onc-tJiird added ; deduction being
made of all duties then levied.

"The maxi/iu/ii! for all wages and prices paid for piece-
work shall be, until next September, what they were in 1790,
with one-half atlded, to be determined by the various gen-
eral councils of communes."

The law was guarded by severe ix'nalties : " All -persons
buying or selling above the maximum shall be punished by
a fine, double the value of the object sold, and inscribed
among the suspected.^^

That law was certainly a stronger slap in the face of the
doctrine of laissez-faire and the principle of demand and
sui)ply. It was a kind of democratic i)rotest against con-
sidering a state of society which allows demand and supply

I793-] THE '' maximum:' 155

to rule, unharnessed so to say, as " the best of all possible
words " — except for the plutocrats.

But now the smaller middle class — the smaller middle-
men — rebelled. As soon as the law was proclaimed, dealers
were seen closing their shops, declaring they had no more
sugar, oil, candles ; manufacturers threatened to close their
factories. Those who had ready money took advantage of
this state of things, and soon emptied all the shops. The
police had to interfere, and forbid traders to deliver more of
one merchandise to one than to another.

It was then seen that the maximum had to embrace all
the agents in production ; as the law stood, it very much
wronged the retailer. The maximitin ought to commence
at the source.

The law was therefore amended as follows : —

"The price of every kind of merchandise comprised in
the law of maximum shall be what it was in 1 790, at tlic
place of its production, plus one-third of said price, plus
five per cent for the wholesaler, plus five per cent for the
retailer, and, furthermore, a fixed price per mile for trans-
port added."

Another decree ordered the Committee on Subsistence to
make out a so-called Tableau of Maximum, which should
make known the cost of raw materials and the values which
labor added to the products.

A truly gigantic work, and of an imposing novelty ! All
the mysteries of production were explored ; daylight was let
into all factories ; industry was interrogated by commissioners
as indefatigable as learned, and from their labors issued an
immense statistical work, — the said Tableau.

This law did its work well. We cannot sufficiently insist
on this : that the assignats rose io par again, and remained
pretty nearly there until the fall of Robespierre ; that these
assignats sustained fourteen armies, and were the instruments

1 5 6 FRA TERNIT] ' OF THE J A Ci )IUXS. [ Sept. ,

that saved France ; and, further, tliat // was this maximum
that sustained the assignats and gave them life.

"However, the normal working of the maximumm\(\Q\\h\.-
edly presupposes a social organization founded on intimate
harmony between all interests [a Co-operative Common-
wealth, so to speak]. Had the Revolution been allowed to
pursue the path farther, those who established the maximum
would have been led, step by step, to a social revolution, the
depth of which they could not possibly at the time' have
foreseen," thinks Louis Blanc.

I, on the contrary, should say that it would have obviated
all the difficulties of the transition period which we now
experience, and smoothed the passage over into the New
Social Order.

Note, first, what this Tableau really was. Just as the French,
as we saw, first inaugurated our Universal Expositions, so
this Tableau was the first precedent for the splendid sta-
tistical tables which are periodically issued by the unique
Bureaus of Statistics of Labor of the United States, to
which no other country as yet has any thing corresponding.

We have seen that the wage-system, and competition, and
"private enterprise," were necessary in order to accomplish
the great desideratum, — increase of productive power. That
has been splendidly accomjilished. The wage-system and
competition have thus justified themselves, and have i)roved
themselves historic necessities.

Note, also, that the Jacobins were perfectly in accord witli
their brother bourgeois as to the necessity and desiral)ility
of this wage-system and competition.

But there are some decidedly evil effects following at the
heel of the good ones. Competition now causes every one
to produce for himself, sell for himself, /// secret, without
knowing what his rivals ])roduro and sell. And yet his very

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Online LibraryLaurence GronlundÇa ira! : or, Danton in the French revolution, a study → online text (page 12 of 21)