William O'Connor Morris.

The French revolution and first empire : an historical sketch online

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than once abashed her judges a few hours before, did
not desert the Queen in her last moments; and it uas
observed that several of the woman fiends who crowded
round \^ yell as she passed shrank from her steady and
serene gaze. On the fatal journey she seemed perfectly
composed, except when, in the words of an eye-witness,
"her face gave signs of lively emotion " at the sight ol
what had been once the Tuileries ; and she encountered

1793- The Reign of Terror. 115

death without display or flinching. Her end was noble,
and the foul slanders which gathered against her pure
life were falsehoods ; and we need not inquire what, in
her case, was the iniquity of the Revolutionary Tribunal.
But it is not the less true that Marie Antoinette, like
Louis XVI., had wronged France ; and the wrong she
had done was the more grievous in that she was a chief
counsellor of her imbecile husband, and he was mere
clay in her proud hands. Still, in judging ^er character
her conduct, the associations of her life and ^"'^ conduct.
of her situation must be fairly weighed ; and History, as
it marks that stately figure, tossed, feebly resisting, over
the abyss, may well muse on the tyranny of circum-
stance, and echo the truth that the Tower of Siloam may
fall on those not the most guilty.

For several months few changes were t^. . .

^ Divisions

made in this system of wide-spread tyranny ; among the ja-

j ,■■ 111-1 • cobin rulers.

and. the men who had seized on power m
France forgot or sunk their differences under the stress
of danger. When, however, the Republic emerged from
its first trials, divisions sprung up among the Jacobin
chiefs ; and three parties gradually developed themselves,
representing the conflicting views of their leaders. Dan-
ton, who, even as early as July, had quitted ^^ , .

ii^ ■ /■T^iT^\-., J- "ree factions

the Committee of Public Safety, inclined be- form them-
fore long to the side of clemency; and his ^^^^^■
wishes were seconded by a large following, who looked
up to him as the champion of the revolution. These
men, turbulent and savage as they were, had neverthe-
less human sympathies and feelings ; they were not ma-
niacs of fanatical principles, and they aimed rather at
enjoyment and influence than at any fixed Republican
ideal ; and though, like Danton, they were morally cor-
rupt, they had desired to spare the Gironde victims, and

iiS 2 he Reign of Terror. CH. vi.

began to condemn the excesses of the Reign of Terror.
The second faction, led by a wretch called Hebert,* was
composed of the extreme anarchists of the Commune of
Paris, who had preached atheism, and given the freest
rein to license ; and the political object of these mis-
creants was to make the capital supreme in the State,
and to secure independence to the great cities, while their
social creed was mere sensual indulgence. The third
party was led by Robespierre, and by degrees it became
the strongest, for the reputation of that sin-

Growing as- .

cendency of gular being had gained for him a great moral

Robespierre. , i ,i • i r j

ascendency ; and the views he professed
with a parade of virtue fell in largely with the popular
sentiment, always gratified when its worst aspirations are
flattered in the name of the public good. The hope of
Robespierre and his immediate followers was to set up a
Republic in accordance with the wild and mischievous
notions of Rousseau; and as this end could not be
approached without carrying out relentlessly the system
of Terror, they condemned what they called the mode-
ration of Danton, while they abhorred, as opposed to
their theories, the godless licentiousness of the Commune
demagogues. Robespierre, though possibly not cruel by
nature, was, like all men of his type, pitiless when ruled
by the ideas on which he had brooded ; and this was the
character of one or two of his chief subordinates, though

* Jacques Rene Hebert, born in 1755, was a footman and a box-
Iceeper at a theatre, and had lost both places for dishonesty. When
the Revolution broke out he became Editor of the Pere Duchesne,
the most indecent and ribald print probably that has ever seen the
light, though an imitation of it appeared during the Jacobin
saturnalia of 1871. This miscreant became one of the chief officers
of the Commune of Paris, and it was he who made the unnatural
^nd foul charge against the Queen alluded to above.

1793- ^f^'^ Reign of Xerj'or. 117

the great mass of the party were mere Jacobins, yielding
to that impulse which always secures authority for a re-
solute faith, sustained by real or seeming probity.
Before 1793 had closed, the ascendency

-TIG becomes

of Robespierre was complete. He was the supreme in the
especial favorite *of the Jacobin Club ; his ^^^^'
influence in the Convention was supreme, and he was the
dictator of the Committee of Public Safety. The dissen-
sions between the hostile parties soon broke out into
open discord, and personal antipathies deepened the
feud. With the system of government which prevailed,
the possessors of power could easily destroy their rivals ;
and Robespierre and his satellites turned without scruple
the tremendous machinery in their grasp against their
adversaries on either side. Under the pretence of con-
spiracies, of which proofs were always forthcoming in an
atmosphere of preternatural suspicion and passion, He-
bert and the leaders of the Commune were first swept
away, and with their fall that famous organi-

1-1111 • • r 1 Destruction

zation which had been a mam-sprmg of the of Hubert and
Revolution, and had made Paris dominant ^^ Commune
in the State, lost a great deal of its immense ^. l^ant°n and

' ° his followers,

influence. The turn of Danton and his March 24,

i-/-r-i 11 11 April 3, 1794.

chief iriends came next; and though the

struggle was perilous and long, they too passed before

the Revolutionary Tribunal, and were immolated by

means of a special decree obtained from the overawed

Convention. With them perished what maybe described

as the Moderates of the Reign of Terror, and compassion

must be felt for the fate of their leader. Danton was a

man of great natural powers ; courageous,

resolute, with a genius for command, with Danton!*^^^'^ °

an eloquence, rude, but of extraordinary

force ; and if the blood of September be on his head^


1 1 8 The Reign of Terror. CH. vi.

and he often played the demagogue for his own ends —
he had, nevertheless, a patriotic heart ; he is entitled to
any merit which belongs to the Jacobin scheme of na-
tional defence ; and it is to his lasting honor that he
risked and lost his life in the sacred cause of humanity.
After his death Robespierre and his creatures became
the absolute masters of France, and they lost no time in
strengthening their sway. The authority of the Com-
mittee of Public Safety was made more com-
of Robespierre, plstc than it had cver been ; and in order to
keep down the Commune of Paris, the revo-
lutionary army was disbanded, and the democracy of the
sections was in a great measure controlled, while the
chief magistrates were chosen from dependents of
Robespierre. At the same time clubs and

riis measures ^ _ .

to secure his popular societies, with the one exception, of
^^^' the trusty Jacobins were suppressed by a

summary mandate ; and, as if to show what a Republic
of virtue was to be, atheism was pronounced "an aristo-
cratic falsehood," the worship of "the Supreme" was

declared the national faith, and Christianity
of the^upreme. ^^^^ proclaimed a base superstition, and its

ministers criminal dupes or impostors.
And now, mastered by Robespierre, the Reign of
Terror at Terror quickened its march, and grew more

Its height. fearful in its murderous activity. A merci-

less fanatic swayed the small oligarchy of which the
powers had been just increased ; and, as if to prove what
Jacobin " freedom " was, the worst deeds of which the
old Monarchy had been guilty in the course of ages
were infinitely surpassed in a few months, under a form
of government in many respects similar. A decree was
wrung from the oppressed Convention by which the
Revolutionary Tribunal was set free from all checks.

1793- The Reign of Terror. 119

and "moral conviction" was made sufficient proof of
crime ; and the energy of that instrument of slaughter
became suddenly more than ever appalling. Prisoners
were tried by forties and fifties at a time, and sent to
their doom with summary glee at a nod or a wink of
infamous accusers ; and — a fitting emblem of the revolt-
ing scene — the guillotine appeared in the place of
judgment. " Suspects " were crammed, literally in
thousands, in dens, in which vile informers glided about,
making sure of the means to do them to death ; and
when other charges could not be made ^ . , ^

. Frightful

" conspiracies in the prisons " were feigned state of
to serve the purpose. The dread and agony
which had taken possession of all within the possible
reach of this frightful tyranny proved often too much
for nature to endure ; and suicides and madness awfully
increased, while Paris bore the look of a city abandoned
to a mere multitude of reckless barbarians, what was
orderly and decent having cowered out of sight. Mean-
while, the system of spoliation inaugurated by the maxi-
mum and forced assignats was carried on more strin-
gently than ever ; and as authority had become fully
concentrated, devices of escape grew more difficult.
At the same time the most atrocious vengeance ever
witnessed perhaps in western Europe was wreaked on
the hapless revolted cities. Attempts were made to raze
Lyons and Toulon to the earth ; and "floods of death,"
as it was said, "swept away traitors and moderates" in
these devoted places. Similar horrors were seen at Bor-
deaux, Arras, and Marseilles ; and for miles ,,

' ' ' Massacres

below Nantes the Loire rolled to the sea in the


hundreds of corpses twisted in ghastly em-
braces, the victims of what, with hellish mirth, were
designated as " republican marriages," having been tied

I20 The Reign of Terror. CH. vi.

together, and, crowded in barges, deliberately scuttled
and then set adrift. Simultaneously La Vendee, still in
part insurgent, was traversed throughout by " infernal
columns ; " and, notwithstanding a manly protest of
Kleber, who foresaw the inevitable results, these bands
everywhere marked their advance by murder, pillage,
and widespread havoc. Commissioners, despatched with
"full powers" from the capital, urged the populace,
wherever they could, to these crimes ; and Robespierre
was the sovereign head and absolute lord of this system
of blood. If in the chambres ardentes of the Bourbon
monarchy, in the frequent oppression of the old Parlia-
ments, in the horrors of the Bastille and other State
prisons, in the massacres of St. Bartholomew and at La
Rochelle, in the centralized, cruel and suspicious gov-
ernments of more than one of the Kings of France, we
see a faint foreshadowing of this order of things, tyranny
so rapid and deadly had never before been witnessed ;
and few probably will think that the execrable character
of the last and worst phase of the Reign of Terror was
mitigated by blasphemous festivals to " the Supreme,"
or even by empty and illusory projects to " abolish pov-
erty" and other social evils.

Such was the fulfilment of the glowing hopes which
had animated France four short years before ; such was
the practical issue of the philosophy which had dazzled
a generation by its glittering chimeras. The land was a
land of mourning and carnage ; and the Rights of Man
terminated in a ruthless despotism sustained by the
worst dregs of the masses. And what made this ty-
ranny the more atrocious was that the impulse was
failing which had first given the Jacobins overpowering
force ; for, instead of being threatened with destruction,
the Republic was entering on a career of victory. The

1794* -^^ Reign of Terror. 121

discomfiture of 1793 had made the Allies more than ever
divided ; the long-standing jealousies of Austria and
Prussia were aggravated by intrigues about Poland; and
when the war was renewed in the spring of ^, ^ ,

1 Ihe Repub-

1794, the Coalition was ill-prepared to en- lie obtains fresh

J • J 1 , successes in

counter a daring and resolute enemy, the campaign
Meanwhile, the gigantic efforts of France <^^^794-
had been attended with great results, and fully half a
million of men stood in arms on her frontiers to con-
front her adversaries. The consequences were such as
usually follow a struggle between discordant weakness
and earnest and enthusiastic strength, though other and
potent causes concurred. The new French levies,
indeed, were still often defeated, even with a large ad-
vantage of numbers on their side ; and, without an ad-
mixture of trained soldiers, they still proved compara-
tively worthless. On the sea too, the hastily _ . ,

•in riT-. 11- 1 Enghsh nava)

equipped fleets of the Republic met a crush- victory of
ing reverse ; and the great victory of June
I gave England the first of a long series of triumphs.
But numerical force, union, and patriotism told ; and
they were aided by a direction at least always bettei
than that existing in the hostile camps. The Spaniards
were driven behind the Pyrenees ; Savoy and Nice wera
brilliantly regained ; and the young conqueror of
Toulon, baffling the Piedmontese by one of those ma-
noeuvres which began to show his powers, beheld, Han-
nibal-like, from the tops of the Alps, the plains soon to
be the scenes of his most splendid exploits. Meantime,
after a protracted struggle, the Duke of York .j-j^g ^lu^g
was beaten on the Belgian frontier ; and while defeated on all

° other points of

Pichegru and Moreau advanced into Flan- the theatre,
ders, Carnot repeated the operation of the Fieurus, Jun«
preceding year, and, profiting by the remiss- ^^' ^^^'^"

122 TTie Reign of Terror. ch. vl

ness of the enemy in the Vosges, moved a considerable
force from the Meuse to the Sambre, which gave the
French victory on the plains of Fleurus, and made them
masters, in a few days, of Brussels.

By this time the horrible excesses of the
agair^t the Reign of Terror had begun to provoke the
Reign of reaction certain at last to set in ; and the

T. error. '

triumphs of the Republic concurred in
making the system of Jacobinism, at its worst, disliked.
The conscience even of the populace of the towns re-
volted at the scenes of blood and despair which had
made France miserable in the midst of her glories ; and
a growing sentiment quickly spread that the discomfi-
ture of the enemy on the frontier ought to bring to an
end a state of things which had brought such frightful
confusion and havoc. The judges of the Revolutionary
Tribunal sickened at their cruel and execrable work ;
shouting crowds no longer followed the guillotine ; and
cries of pity often rose for the victims even in the least
wealthy parts of the capital. In this condition of opinion
the ultimate fall of the supremacy of Robespierre was
assured ; but it was accelerated by a movement in the
governing powers which had bowed under his sway for a
time. In a fit, apparently of moody discontent, he ab-
sented himself for several weeks from the ruling Com-
mittee of Public Safety ; and whether he did or did not
contemplate the decimation of the down-trodden Con-
vention, the execution of most of his nearest associates,
and an absolute dictatorship for himself, most of his
colleagues began to combine against him. When here-
^ „ .^ , appeared in the Convention, the dark

Fall of Robes- ^^ , , ' .

pierre, July 27, threats he Uttered seemed to mdicate only
^^^'^^ more measures of blood ; and, under the

influence of one or two courageous leaders, even the

1 794* Th^ Reign of Terror. 123

prostrate Assembly broke out in murmurs. Next day.
after a scene of violent excitement, his arrest and that
of St. Just and Couthon was decreed ; and the Revolu-
tionary' Mountain at last rose with the Plain and Right
against the dreaded tyrant. Robespierre, however, had
in the interval invoked the aid of the Jacobin Club and
of his satellites in the Commune of Paris ; and he was
rescued, with the two other prisoners, while a formida-
ble insurrection was set on foot to overawe the national
representation. The sections were, however, divided;
a small part only obeyed the Commune; and the ma-
jority sided with the Convention, especially after a
decree had been made declaring "the triumvirs" trai-
tors to the State. Robespierre and his associates were
quickly haled before the tribunal which, so

- , . - Execution of

to speak, had become the type of their fear- Robespierre,

ful government ; and most of the leaders rhon,"and

of the Commune, now again struck down, '^^^^'■s> J^^y

28, 1794.

perished with the abhorred and guilty
tyrant. This apostle of blood and his followers were the
last of the band, with a few exceptions, which was most
stained in the Revolution with crime, and the dagger of
Charlotte Corday* had some months before relieved
France of the presence of Marat.

Such was the Revolution of July 1794, or
of Thermidor, by the new French calendar. Reflections

on this

It Will always be a subject of reproach to event.

Frenchmen that they bowed their necks to

* Charlotte Corday, bom in 1768, was a young lady of a good
family in Normandy, and was a grand-daughter of Comeille. Her
imagination, deeply impressed by the atrocities of the Reign of
Terror, fired her to assassinate Marat, and she stabbed him in a
bath in July 1793. Her execution is touchingly described by Mr.

124 The Reign of Terror. ch. vi

the yoke of Robespierre ; and in this acquiescence we, no
doubt, see the national tendency to yield to despotism.
It must be recollected, however, that the success of the
Jacobins was largely due, in the first instance, to its
association with the cause of the independence of
France, and to the hold they had on patriotic minds,
and that it is impossible at a terrible crisis to check even
the worst tyranny at once ; and whon the danger of
foreign war had ceased, the Reign of Terror soon came
to a close. As for the horrors of that time, they show
how fierce were the hatreds of class which had long
existed, and how brutalized a part of the people was ;
but though France accepted the Jacobin rule, and even
welcomed it for some reasons, these atrocities ought, in
justice, to be charged against a minority of Frenchmen
only — the worst populace of a few great cities, and a
band of reckless and audacious dema-

The Terror- ^, ^ . , , ., ,

ists were not gogues. The Terrorists have been described

able men. r . j ^-u

as men of great powers, and the measures
they adopted for the defence of France have been
held up as a proof of ability ; but this misconception of
the worshippers of success ought to be contradicted by
impartial history. The Jacobin leaders, certainly, showed
energy ; bujt their system led to a civil war which was
destructive, and might have been fatal ; their policy of
force, especially in its social aspects, was cruel, ruinous,
and unwise alike ; and whatever seems to have been
achieved by them was really achieved by French genius
and valor. Besides, any credit to be given to them
ought to be confined to Danton alone — the Marats^ the
Robespierres, and their crew, were simply incapable as
political chiefs ; and not one of the distinguished soldiers
who appeared at this crisis was a Terrorist. The efforts
of France to resist her foes were heroic, and have hardly,

C 794- '^he Reign of Terror. 12^

perhaps, been ever surpassed, but should

. . Notwith-

not bhnd us by false illusions. The Allies standing the
might, without the least difficulty, have en- French^the^
tered Paris in the summer of 170^; and, Allies could

' -'-' ' ' nave put

memorable as its struggles were, the Revo- down the

,~. . 11 11 1, I-.. Revolution.

lution trmmphed only through the divisions
and negligence of its antagonists. Nor does the eventful
contest of this period detract from the truth that armies
of recruits are weak and dangerous instruments of war,
and that in the military, as in other arts, experience and
training are of the greatest value. The young French
levies were for months useless unless supported by sea-
soned troops. Napoleon, indeed, has said that what
was really done was done by the Army of the old Mo-
narchy ; and the forces of the Coalition were, in every
respect, of better quality than their opponents. But mere
organization is not everything in war ; and unanimity,
numbers, patriotic devotion, and above all, superior
strategic skill — mistaken as Carnot was more than once
— prevailed as they have prevailed before. These con-
siderations ought not to lessen the admiration which is
justly due to the energy and constancy of the French
people ; they simply explain, on rational graunds, the
great success of the imperilled Republic, which national
enthusiasm has not unnaturally invested with a charac-
ter of marvel.

126 Thermidor. French Conquests. CH. vii.



The authors of the Revolution of Thermi-

Aeaction of , , , • i i i

Thermidor. uor nad no Conception that what they were
about to do would bring the Reign of Ter-
ror to a close. Some had been almost as bad as their
victims ; others were Jacobins of a decided type ; and
their principal object was to escape death, though the
majority of the Convention felt nobler motives, f But
the fate of Robespierre was a signal for France to throw
off a terrible incubus ; and a reaction against the Reign
of Terror began to set in with that passionate quickness
which is a distinctive feature of the national character.
The prisons Within a few days the astonished multitudes
opened. gf " suspects " wcre let out from their pri-

sons ; and even the populace of Paris joined in the
ecstacy of the hour of deliverance. Before long the
atrocities in the South and other places caused general
indignation, and several of the monsters who had en-
couraged these crimes met the fate which they righteously
Punishment dcserved. After a time, too, the Revolution-
°heTerror°^ ary Tribunal, with its detestable proce-
ists. dure, disappeared ; and some of the judges

justly perished by the violent means which

Abohtionof , , , ■,,-,■, i t,^ -, -i i

the Revohitio- they had recklessly abused. Meanwhile the
nary ri un , (^Q^vention, at last set free, endeavored
to confirm its restored supremacy, to check tyranny and
anarchy alike, and to inaugurate a policy of concilia-
tion. The powers of the Committee of Public Safety

1 794- Thennidor. French Conquests. 12}

were reduced, and its members changed by a speedy

rotation, though this obviously weakened the Executive.

The decrees which placed all France " in requisition "

to the State were either modified or re-

1 J 11 • 111 ^nd of ^^

pealed ; and the maximum was abandoned, maximum.

with the sanguinary laws which sought to 2ie%SuTcJ°*
force the value of assignats, although the conl"^^/^^'
results were not unforeseen. At the same
time energetic efforts were made to curb and guard
against mob license ; the National Guards were again
remodelled and recomposed from the middle classes ;
the band of pikemen were broken up ; the
authority of the Commune of Paris, already of Paris kept
shattered, was still further lessened by di- °^^'
viding its council and limiting its powers; the more
violent sections were jealously watched; and, last and
most important of all, the revolutionary committees were
everywhere suppressed, and the Jacobin
Club and its kindred societies, the centre Club sup-
and feeders of agitation, were shut up. The ^""^^^^
remains, too, of the proscribed Gironde, with the seventy-
three imperilled deputies, were invited to return to their
seats ; compensation was voted, to a certain extent, for
some of the worst outrages of the Reign of Terror ; and
at last Billaud Varennes, Collot d'Herbois, and Barere,
the three surviving chiefs of the terrible committee,
were prosecuted and sent beyond the seas, though they
had taken part with the men of Thermidor. Finally,
religion was solemnly declared free, and the churches
were given to their congregations, though the sentiment
of the Convention remained hostile for the most part to
priests of all kinds.

In this way the State tried to atone in some measure
for the horrors of the past, and the machinery of Jaco-

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Online LibraryWilliam O'Connor MorrisThe French revolution and first empire : an historical sketch → online text (page 11 of 26)