After the 10th of August and the events that arose out of it of which he was the heart and soul, Danton had proved something of a failure. His peace negotiations with England had led to nothing, his attempts at reconciliation between Mountain and Gironde had likewise proved abortive; he had played no important part since the 31st of May in the Convention itself, and finally retired with his young wife for some weeks in disgust to his native town of Arcis sur Aube, whence he returned some time after to join his friend Camille Desmoulins in attacking the system of the terror. It should be explained that the Cordeliers Club, of which Danton had formerly been the head, had been reconstituted some time since, and was now entirely composed of Hébertists. Camille, at the beginning of December, started a new journal called The Old Cordelier, which attacked the terrorists and especially the Commune with bitter sarcasm. At first Robespierre approved of the sentiments there expressed, and even looked over and corrected the proofs of the first numbers. It pleased him, possibly, that the Hébertists were sharply attacked. For the pedantic Rousseauite prig Robespierre, was mortally offended with the atheism of the party of the Commune, and had recently been delivering violent harangues, against the worship of Reason, at the Jacobins’ Club. There was also an old standing jealousy on the part of the Committee of Public Safety with the Commune on account of the influence the latter wielded with the aid of its “revolutionary army.” Nevertheless Robespierre’s two colleagues on the committee, Billaud Varennes and Collot D’Herbois, were enraged at the idea of even mitigating “the terror”, and the notion found but little support generally. Robespierre, whose influence was now immense, became alarmed lest he should be tarred with moderation, and hence a coolness sprang up between him and his friend Camille and the other Dantonists.
Meanwhile he guillotine was working steadily, and some noteworthy heads were failing or had lately fallen. Among them we may notice Philippe D’Orleans Egalité, the ex-member of the Mountain and the king’s cousin, arrested at the time Dumouriez’s intrigues with his son became known, and decreed accused along with the Girondins, but not convicted till later. In November Madame Roland was also put on her trial. She was condemned, and went to the Place de la Revolution by the side of a poor printer, whom she endeavoured to console. Arrived there she asked for paper and ink to write down “the strange thoughts that were arising within her.” She died with real heroism. It can only be regretted that a woman of so many fine qualities should have allowed herself to be so blinded by party fanaticism as to pen the slanders against the leaders of the Mountain which stain her Memoirs, Her Girondism may have been a. matter of honest conviction, but it is hard to believe that many of these calumnies were not deliberate inventions.
Bailly, the first mayor of Paris under the new régime, him of the red flag of the Champ de Mars, in July, 1791, was one of the executed. Barnard, the constitutionalist leader in the Constituent Assembly, also suffered. The corpse of the Girondist Pétion, who succeeded Bailly in the mayoralty of Paris, was found, about this time in a wood near St. Emilion, partly devoured by wolves. The heads of ex-ministers and generals were falling by the score.
But to return to the contest of parties in the government. Put in a few words, the matter stood as follows: on one side were the Hébertists, representing the Commune and the Terror; on the opposite were the Dantonists, representing to a large extent the Mountain or Convention party, hostile to both the commune and the terror, wishing to see the constitution established and the Convention all powerful. Between the two were the committees that of “public safety” being the dominant one. The committeemen were mostly hostile to the power of the Commune which stood in their way, but were determined to maintain the system of the terror, and not to let the Convention override them.
Robespierre, after some hesitation ranged himself on the side of his committee alike against the Dantonists, with whom he had, up till now, been friendly, and the Hebertists, to whom he had been always more or less hostile. The struggle lasted between three and four months. Since the reconstitution of the Committee of Public Safety in July, when Billaud and Collot came into it, the Dantonists had had no influence on either of the committees. The attack on the Hebertist’s was begun by the suppression of the revolutionary armies in the provinces, and a decree forbidden the sending of agents into the provinces by the Commune, and this was followed up in inside and outside the Convention by attacks on every action of the commune from the Dantonists and the mountain, and from the committees. The Jacobins’ Club continued to be the battle-ground between Robespierre and the Hébertists. Then Robespierre thundered nightly against atheistic intolerance, said that atheism was aristocratic, on the logical ground that certain aristocrats had been atheists, just as though anyone were to argue that Socialism couldn’t be Secularistic because Mr. Bradlaugh is a Secularist. He maundered about the necessity of a supreme being as the avenger of injured innocence, &c.
At last the compact between Robespierre and his fellow committee men, Billaud and Collot, was struck. They were to surrender the Hébertists while he was to surrender the Dantonists. Accordingly Hébert, Ronsin, Vincent, Clootz, Momoro, &c., already expelled from the Jacobins club were arrested, and after a mock trial, in which they here accused of taking money from the English Government to discredit the Republic by their excesses were, on March 24th, 1794, sent to the guillotine. Poor Chaumette’s turn came a few days later. A week afterwards Danton. who had come back to Paris at the earnest solicitation of his friends, and had sought ineffectually to compromise matters with Robespierre, was sent before the revolutionary tribunal. His oratory was nearly securing his acquittal when Robespierre got a special law hurried through the Convention which closed his mouth, and he, too, went his way in company with Camille Desmoulins, Phillipeaux, Herault de Sechelles and others, to the Place de la Revolution. Thus was the revolution, indeed, like Saturn, devouring its own children.
When we first came across Robespierre he was, although a prig and a repulsive prig at that, apparently actuated by as much honesty of purpose as any other leader. His services to the revolution at all the great crises were real. But the germ of ambition and personal self-seeking, which was always observable, grew with the progress of events, until, at the period we have now reached, he had developed into a monster, possessed of one aim – to become dictator, and prepared to make any sacrifice whatever for the accomplishment of that aim. The murder of friends like Danton and Camille Desmoulins, with whom he had lived and worked on terms of close intimacy since the beginning of the revolution, yields to nothing in history for its treachery and infamy.
The Commune was now overthrown, and all independence stifled in the Convention, No initiative remained but that of the Committee of Public Safety, and in the Committee itself little, at least, in internal affairs, but that of Robespierre and his partisans. The chief among the latter were Couthon and Lebas in Paris, and St. Just as Commissioner in the provinces. The municipality, now that most of the old members were guillotined or expelled, was filled up with subordinate creatures of Robespierre. A Belgian architect, named Fleariot-Lescot replaced the sincere and noble-minded Pache as mayor of Paris. The same sort of thing went on all round. Robespierre had succeeded in reducing the Jacobins’ Club to a mere claque of his own. The Convention was not much better. A look from the “Incorruptible” sufficed to frown down all opposition.
The increase of the terror now became frightful all over France, but especially in Paris. Robespierre himself directed the police department. On the 22nd of Prairial (the 10th of June), as atrocious law was passed at the instigation of the dictator, whereby persons sent before the Revolutionary Tribunal, now divided into four sections, were refused the right of defence. This meant, of course, that whereas before about a third of those accused were acquitted, henceforth all prisoners were condemned, when nothing else could be alleged against them, on the general and vague charge of “conspiracies in the prisons.” Men and women were now tried by the public prosecutor, Fouquier Tinville, and the judges of the Tribunal, in batches of fifty or sixty at once. It would be a mistake to suppose that it was chiefly the well-to-do that suffered. On the contrary, out of 2,750 victims of Robespierre’s, only 650 belonged to the upper or middle classes. The tumbrils that wended their way daily to the Place de la Revolution were largely filled with workingmen. During the last three weeks of the tyrants rule, 1,125 persons were executed in Paris alone. Thus did this criminal monster drown the Revolution itself in the blood of his victims. Marat had already foreseen the results of Robespierre’s self-idolatry, when during a speech of the latter in the Convention, he whispered to his neighbour Dubois-Cranci, “with such doctrines as that he will do more harm than all the tyrants put together.”
The notion of becoming the high-priest of a new religion had been working in Robespierre’s mind ever since the fall of the Hébertists. After many speeches in the Jacobins’ Club, Maximilian at last, on the 18th of May, mounted the Convention tribune to demand that it be decreed that “the French. people recognises the existence of a Supreme Being and the immortality of the soul,” and that a festival should be held in the honour of such Being. In his speech, he dwelt on the distinction between a pure Deism and the superstitious cults of priests, said that it mattered not whether the existence of God were demonstrated or even probable, that in the eyes of the legislator all is truth which is useful in the world and in practice,” and that a god was an indispensable article of state-furniture, and much more to the same effect. Deputations from the new Robespierrised Commune, from the Jacobins, and from the sections next filed in with the petition that the Convention should vouchsafe to grant them a God and immortality. The resolution was carried amid thunders of applause in the same Convention which six months previously had applauded the atheistic worship of Reason. A few days later one undoubted; and another more questionable, attempt at assassination were made. The first on Collot D’Herbois, on the steps of his house; and the second on Robespierre himself by a young woman named Cécile Rinault. Robespierre was out when she called, but she was arrested, and knives were found in her possession. She was guilliotined, together with all her family. Fifty-four persons were involved in this execution, which took place in the Faubourg St. Antoine, the great workmen’s quarter.
At last the eventful day, the 20th of Prairial (8th of June), fixed for the glorification of the Supreme Being, arrived. The Convention, the Jacobins, and Sections in gala attire, might have been seen wending their way through the Tuilleries’ gardens, the procession headed by Robespierre, radiant in sky-blue coat and black breeches, bearing in his hand an enormous bunch of corn, fruits, and flowers, a classical touch suggested by the pagan functions of antiquity. Arrived at an artificial altar, on the top of which were allegorical figures intended to represent Atheism, Anarchy, &c., Robespierre proceeded to set fire to the latter with a torch. They blazed away, and presently by a triumph of mechanical art the Supreme-Being himself emerged from their ashes, rather the worse for smoke, it is said. The “Incorruptible” made three harangues, but the hopes of those who expected an announcement of a cessation of the Terror were damped when he proclaimed: “To-day, let us enjoy ourselves, to-morrow begin afresh to fight the enemies of the Revolution.” All knew what this meant, and two days later the monstrous law before spoken of was passed, and the Terror entered upon its last and acutest stage. This disappointment of the public hopes was the beginning of the fall of Robespierre’s popularity outside the governing bodies. Suppressed hatred and jealousy of him had long been the growing feeling in the Convention, while on the Committee of Public Safety he had become at loggerheads with all except his own henchmen. The law of Prairial was the last occasion that the Committee appeared united before the Convention. So strained were their relations that Robespierre henceforth rarely attended the sittings of the Committee, and appeared comparatively seldom in the Convention itself, leaving everything to Couthon, St. Just, and Lebas. On the other hand, he was assiduous in his attendance at the Jacobins. He never went out of doors, indeed, now, without an escort of Jacobins armed with bludgeons. An incident occurred about this time which was dexterously used by his enemies to throw ridicule on the high-priest and would-be dictator. A crazy woman named Catherine Thirt, calling herself the Mother of God, proclaimed the advent of a Messiah, and in conjunction with an ex-priest, set up a kind of free masonic society. Barrere, the dexterous trimmer, drew up a clever report on the subject, in which he hinted at Robespierre’s desiring to profit by the proceedings of the fanatics without naming him. Billaud, Collot, and the members of the “Committee of General Safety,” who had been attached to the old Commune, and were partisans of the Worship of Reason took offence at the cultus of the Supreme. Being. “You and Your Supreme Being,” Billaud was heard to say in a stage-aside on the occasion, “are beginning to bore me.” It was now a case of “aut Caesar, aut nullus,” with Robespierre.
It now became a matter of life and death to Robespierre to overthrow the hostile members of the committees and get himself recognised as dictator. St Just tried it on behalf of his friend several times with the “Public Safety”, but without effect. St. Just, by the way was probably the most sincere and enthusiastic of all followers of Robespierre. Not yet twenty-five years of age he had made a great mark on the Revolution. His large poetic eyes, his tall and dignified figure, his long dark hair, had obtained for him the nickname “of the apocalyptic.” It was necessary to take action without delay. The whole of the Committee of General Security and the majority of the Committee of Public Safety were against him. The Convention therefore had to be tried, and failing the Convention an insurrection proclaimed, headed by the Jacobins and the Commune. The latter bodies were prepared some time beforehand to resort to force if necessary to the ends of their champion, and a conspiracy was actually formed, the leaders of which were St. Just, Couthon, who, together with Robespierre, constituted the so-called triumvirate, the Mayor Fleuriot, the “national agent” Payan and Dumas, the president, and Coffinhal, the vice-president of the Revolutionary Tribunal. St. Just had been recalled in great haste by Robespierre from his mission with the army of the North, and when apprised of the state of affairs he advised an immediate coup d’état. This, however, was impracticable. The Convention had to be sounded first, otherwise the pretext for rising was wanting. Accordingly early on the 26th of July (8th of Thermidor) Robespierre repaired to the Assembly and opened the sitting with along and dexterous speech, denouncing the Committees and defending himself in the name of the national sovereignty. He wound up by recommending a general “purification” all round of the Committees and of the Convention.
Robespierre sat down amid absolute silence. Not a sound or word of applause greeted his challenge. Presently, a member, Lecointre, rose and moved the printing and circulation of the harangue. This was at once vigorously resisted, but was eventually carried.
The members of the two Committees, hitherto silent now took up the challenge. They attacked Robespierre in turn. The upshot was that the decree for the printing and circulation of the discourse was virtually rescinded, being referred to the Committees for examination. Robespierre, surprised at the unwonted resistance, left the sitting discouraged, but without despairing of the situation.
In the evening he repaired to the Jacobins, when he re-read the discourse of the morning, and where it was, of course, greeted with tumultuary applause. The committees, on their side, kept together all night. Nothing during this momentous night was omitted by either party to ensure victory on the morrow. The Committees and the Mountain negotiated successfully with the Plain to bring about common action in the Assembly. Before noon the following day, July 27th (9th Thermidor), members were to be seen encouraging each other in the corridors. The sitting was opened by St. Just. He had scarcely begun his speech, attacking the Committees, when he was interrupted and denounced by an ex-commissioner, who demanded that the veil should be withdrawn from the conspiracy. He was supported on all sides.
Billaud Varennes then spoke of “packed” meetings of Jacobins, of threats against the representatives &c. At this point of Billaud’s speech the whole Convention rose and swore to defend the national sovereignty, amid the applause of the public in the galleries. All eyes were now turned towards Robespierre, who finally made a dash at the tribune. Before he could speak, however, the cry of “Down with the tyrant” resounded, throughout the hall.
Tallien, in a vigorous address, then demanded the arrest of Henriot, the commander of the reconstituted National Guard, or armed force of Paris, Billaud the arrest of other partisans of Robespierre, measures which were at once acceded to Robespierre repeatedly attempted to defend himself but his voice was always drowned with shouts of down with the tyrant and by the ringing of the President’s bell. He turned to the “Plain,” he turned to the public in the galleries, there was no response from either. Finally he sank down on a seat, exhausted, and foaming at the mouth.
“The blood of Danton chokes the wretch,” cried a member of the Mountain.
Robespierre’s arrest was demanded on all sides. His brother, Augustin Robespierre, Couthon, Lebas, and St. Just all claimed to share his fate, and were finally all given into the hands of the gendarmerie. The moment this became known at the Hotel de Ville, where the Mayor, Payan, Fleuriot and Henriot were assembled with the Commune, orders were given for the barriers to be closed, the sections assembled, the tocsin sounded, the generale beaten, and the insurrection proclaimed. The cannoneers were ordered to repair to the Place de Greve by the Hotel de Ville, and the Revolutionary Committees were hurried hither to take the oath of insurrection.
The Jacobins, who declared themselves in permanent session, formed a subordinate centre of insurrection. Henriot, who then rushed through the streets, pistol in hand, calling on the people to rise, was arrested by two deputies and brought to the Committees, but he was liberated by Coffinhal at the head of two hundred cannoneers, of which Henriot himself at once took the command, placing them in position round the Convention.
The Assembly, which had adjourned for a couple of hours, had now reassembled. It was seven o’clock. “Citizens.” said the President, “Now is the time for us to die at our post.” Affairs did indeed look hopeless for the Convention. Orders were almost immediately given by Henriot to fire, when, strange to say, the cannoneers, who, up to this time, had been with the insurgents, hesitated, wavered, and finally refused to comply. In the hands of those two hundred cannoneers lay the fate of France. Henriot hurried off to the Hotel de Ville. It was now the turn of the Convention to take the aggressive. The response of the sections to the call of the Commune was not altogether satisfactory. The fact is the movement of the last two days had been sudden even for Paris, and had developed out of a quarrel inside the government with which the general public were imperfectly acquainted. Though the sections assembled at nine o’clock they confined themselves to sending messages to the Commune, asking for further information.
While the assembled sections were discussing the matter in the various wards of the city delegates from the Convention arrived apprising them of the real position of affairs. They now no longer hesitated, but, arming themselves, immediately proceeded to the Tuilleries, where they were of course received with great enthusiasm. A small body, with a few pieces of artillery, having been left as a guard to the Convention the remainder then marched off to attack the head centre of the insurrection – the Hotel de Ville. The crowds which had assembled outside at the sound of the tocsin had gradually dispersed finding the sections did not arrive, and the space was now much thinned. Emissaries from the Convention proclaimed the outlawry of the insurgents, upon which all that remained went home.
The armed sections now arrived, occupied all the outlets, and set up a prolonged shout of “Long live the Convention!” The insurgents saw at once that all was lost. Robespierre shot himself, but, only succeeded in breaking his jaw. His brother threw himself from the third story. Lebas killed himself with a pistol. Couthon mangled himself with a knife. Coffinhal pitched Henriot from the window into the common sewer and managed to escape. St.Just alone awaited his fate with dignity and calmness. It was now about one-o’clock in the morning. The conspirators were conducted. First to the Committee of General Security. Robespierre lay upon a litter suffering horribly, exposed to the jeers and taunts of the bystanders, who upbraided him with all his crimes. They were afterwards taken to the prison of the Conciergerie, and brought up thence the next day before the Revolutionary tribunal, with others of their associates. They were of course, condemned, and were executed the same evening at six o’clock. Immense crowds, hooting and jeering, thronged the streets to see the tumbrils as they passed. A halt was made before the house where Robespierre had lodged. All eyes were turned on him in his “Supreme Being” blue coat and the jeers and invectives grew louder. The sullen hatred which had been growing for weeks past had suddenly found vent. At the time of his fall he probably had scarcely two or three hundred real followers in all Paris.
Instead of mitigating or abolishing the terror at the moment when the danger of invasion being past, it had no longer any solid backing in public opinion, he had chosen to exacerbate it, only too obviously for his own ambitious purposes. Thus he speedily degenerated from one of the most popular to the most hated man in all France. Robespierre was the last to ascend the scaffold. As Samson the executioner wrenched off the bloody linen which bound up his jaw a horrible yell escaped him. This was the only sign of life he had made since his arrest. The moment his head fell a roar of applause, which lasted some minutes, resounded far and wide on the evening air. Such was the celebrated revolution of “Thermidor.”
It is plain that the fall of Robespierre meant the end of the Terror, although the partisans of the system on the Committee could not see it. The Billaud Varennes, Collot D’Herbois, and Barreres thought still to carry on the proscriptions with the other methods of revolutionary government. They lost influence every day. The Terror was at once abolished, except for the “tail” of Robespierre, the members of the Commune, some of the leading Robespierrists, Jacobins, &c., who were guillotined to the number of some hundred and fifty in a few days. In the relief which even “Sans culottes” felt at being rid of the perpetual Damocles’ sword, of Tinville, and of the endless rant about “virtue,” “austerity,” “incorruptibility” with which Robespierre and his crew had sickened everyone, they little thought that the end of the Revolution itself, in so far as it interested the working classes of France; was at hand. In truth, the reaction had begun four months before, with the execution of the party of the old Commune the Hébertists.
When a Revolution proceeds to exterminate its most enthusiastic adherents its fate is obviously sealed. Robespierre had denounced the Hebertists as Atheists and Communists, To the inventor of the “Supreme Being” and the “declaration of rights,” which was foisted upon the Jacobins in opposition to Chaumette and Hebert, and according to which “the right of property is the right of every citizen to enjoy and dispose as he pleases of his goods,” which provided also that “no commerce should be prohibited,” and no property ever confiscated even for public purposes “without indemnity” to such a one the Hébertists were offensive without doubt.
What Robespierre desired was in short a Republic of starched, middle-class prigs, of which he himself was to be the type. The Hébertists, especially men like Chaumette and Anacharsis Clootz, whatever their faults may have been, at least desired a change better worth fighting for than this. Their instincts were Socialistic, though their ideas may have been vague, as they could scarcely fail to have been a century ago, when the “great industry” had hardly begun. As to the Terror, Robespierre substituted for the irregular methods of the Commune a systematic plan of butchery, which enabled him to rid himself conveniently of personal enemies. Still, even Robespierre, in spite of their contradicting the free Trade principles he had laid down, did not dare to suggest abolishing the maximum and other measures passed under the influence of the Commune for ensuring a possible livelihood to the working classes. This it was reserved for the Thermidorians to do.
The Committeemen had accepted the aid of the Convention in overthrowing Robespierre and his party. They soon found that the Convention was as determined to rid itself of the dictatorship of the Committees as the committees themselves had been that of Robespierre. The very next day the committees began to be attacked. The abolition of the Revolutionary Tribunal was proposed, Barrere, who spoke in its support, was taunted with having been a constitutional royalist before the 10th of August. The Convention nevertheless confined itself this time to issuing a decree of accusation against Fouquier Tinville and abolishing the law of Prairial.
The Committees themselves were next reorganised and their power curtailed. The Paris Commune never again rose after its second defeat under Robespierre. The old suspects were gradually released from prison. But the reaction did not stop at abolishing the terror. It began at once undoing all the “Sansculottic” work of the Revolution. First, the daily meetings of the sections were reduced to one in ten days. Next the allowance of twenty sous a day for indigent members was done away with. Next, the maximum was abolished. The commissioners Labon and Carrier (the author of the noyades at Nantes) were now tried. Most of the old members of. the Committees shortly after; this either resigned or were ousted, and their places were filled with Thermidorians.
Fréron, an; ex-Mountainist and now reactionist, started a paper in which he proposed that the youth of the upper and Middle-classes should arm themselves with loaded sticks to resist the Sansculottes. The suggestion was eagerly, adopted, and a new and fantastic dress was assumed as a counter-blast to the Carmagnole costume of the popular party. An open-breasted front, long hair, done up behind in tresses, called cadenettes, and low shoes, formed the costume à la victime of the “Jeunesse dorée” (gilded youth), as they were called. Every day street fights took place between them and the Jacobins. The latter, though they had undergone one of their customary purificiations after the fall of Robespierre, and had duly sent a deputation congratulating the Convention on the death of “the tyrant” found themselves daily getting into worse odour with the dominant party.
The Convention before long broke up the vast federation of clubs of which the Paris Jacobins’ was the head by arbitrarily forbidding any further correspondence between the centre and the provincial branches. The Assembly, at the same time, declined to receive any further Jacobin deputations. Nevertheless the club was still the rallying point of every revolutionary influence in Paris. An attempt was made to liberate Carrier, which, although unsuccessful gave rise to a formidable disturbance, and led to the suspension of the Jacobin sittings by the Convention. The members assembled the next day notwithstanding, in defiance of the decree, but the meeting-place was attacked by the “gilded youth”, and the Jacobins driven out. The Convention thereupon suppressed the club altogether. (November 12).
The Thermidorian party at first wanted a revolutionary reputation to counterbalance that of Robespierre and chose Marat, who, owing to the jealousy of the former, had not as yet received the honours of the Pantheon, which the Convention had granted after his death. But it was not long before the reputation of Marat, like everything else belonging to the Proletarian side of the Revolution, fell under the ban of the reactionary party. His busts were everywhere destroyed, and his name became the byeword has been ever since, or at least until quite recently.
The decree of expulsion agains the nobles and priests was now rescinded. The seventy-three members who had protested against the expulsion of the Girondins were released from prison and reinstated in their places in the Convention. The monument in front of the “Invalides,” celebrating the victor of the Mountain over the Gironde, was destroyed. Soon after this the few remaining Girondist leaders who had come out of hiding, were received back into the Convention, thus further strengthening the great “moderate party” which had formed out of the wreckage of various parties. In January, 1795, the churches were again opened for Christian worship, though here some caution was observed, a good many restrictions on religious propagandism being still maintained. The armies were now supplied by contract instead of by requisitions on private property as heretofore. The confiscated goods of suspects and of those executed during the Terror, were restored in the first instance to themselves, in the second to their nearest relations.
The reaction was daily growing in intensity. The fury of the new “White Terror” in Paris had reached other leaders than Carrier and Lebon, both of whom had been guillotined. These other leaders were our old friends Billaud Varennes, Collot D’Herbois and Barrere, together with Vadier. A demonstration in their favour, organised by the workmen’s faubourgs of St. Antoine and St. Marceau, availed nothing. On 1st March (1st Germinal) they were brought before the Convention, and the proceedings lasted nine days.
Though gallantly defended by the wreck of the Mountain, they were like to be condemned, when once more the loyal Workmen’s quarters made an attempt to rescue them and stormed the Convention to the cry of “Bread, the Constitution of ’93, and the Liberty of the Patriots.” This, too, proved abortive. Yet possibly fear of popular resentment prevented the Convention from passing a capital sentence this time. It confined itself to condemning the accused to transportation to Cayenne, where Collot took the yellow fever, drank a whole bottle of brandy, and died; and Billaud amused himself with breeding negroes and tame parrots.
The turn of Fouquier Tinville and the jurymen of the revolutionary tribunal came next. They were condemned and executed early in May. “Where are now thy batches?” mockingly exclaimed some of the crowd, as Fouquier mounted the scaffold. “Wretched canaille,” replied he, “is your bread any the cheaper for not having them?” In truth, the economic situation was fearful. The abolition of the maximum and the forced currency produced a terrific crisis. The value of 5,000 francs in paper (assignats) sank to 20 francs in silver or gold. Forestalling, swindling, and extortion of every kind had a high time of it. Never before had starvation claimed so many victims as now. Death by the guillotine was succeeded by death from hunger. The crowds at the bakers’ doors were worse than even before the Revolution. Bitterly did St. Antoine and St. Marceau look back on the time when., under the Commune and the Committees, they had a sufficiency and power.
The last of the popular insurrections (unless we include the abortive Babeuf conspiracy as one) took place on the 20th May (1st Prairial) of this year, 1793 (III), and was a well-organised and determined movement, but lacked leaders and staying power, and consequently fell through. The chief demands were still “Bread, the Constitution of ’93, he Release of all imprisoned patriots,”, &c. The faubourgs this time marched fully armed upon the Convention, which was taken by surprise, the daily recurring disturbances having hidden from it the fact that an organised insurrection was brewing. The doors were forced, and the sansculottes rushed in. At first repulsed, they returned in greater numbers. They fired at the president, Boissy D’Anglas. A deputy, – Féraud, who rushed forward to protect him, was cut down by sabres, and his head fixed on a pike. All the deputies now fled except those forming the rump of the old Mountain, to the number of about sixty, Romme (him of the calendar) now took the chair, and all the demands of the insurgents were put and carried in rapid succession.
But the wealthy “sections” had been apprised of what had happened and had meantime quietly surrounded the Tuilleries. Finally, a drilled body of Jeunesse Dorée suddenly burst in and drove out the insurgents in confusion at the point of the bayonet. The deputies re-entered. All the decrees just passed were annulled. The members of the “Mountain” were arrested as accomplices of the insurgents, and secretly conveyed away from Paris. But the “sansculottes” did not consider themselves beaten. Next day they again assembled in the outer faubourgs and proceeded to march on the Convention, this time taking their cannon with them. The inner or wealthy middle-class sections were also drawn up in arms on the Place du Carrousel in defence of the assembly. The cannon of the Faubourgs was already pointed on the Tuilleries when the Convention sent commissioners to treat with the insurgents. Their demands were pretended to be favourably received, but nothing was definitely promised. This sufficed, however, to put the “sansculottes” off their guard. Not having an energetic commune and a determined commander at their back as on the 31st of May, 1793, they retired satisfied with some vague conciliatory phrases, a course proving fatal to the insurrection which, at the opening of the day, had stood a fair chance of success, and fatal also as the event showed to the cause of the democracy.
A few days later the assassin of Féraud who had been tried and condemned to death was on his way to execution when the populace delivered him and carried him in triumph into the Faubourgs. The Convention then ordered the latter to be disarmed. The interior sections surrounded the working-class quarters the next day for the purpose of carrying out this decree. After some resistance it was effected. The Faubourgs surrendered unconditionally with their arms and cannon.
The Paris working classes were now reduced, therefore, to the condition of an unarmed mob, and for them organised insurrection was a thing of the past. Royalism became again fashionable. It was openly advocated in newspapers and in public assemblies, and even inside the Convention itself, though here it remained in a minority. Meanwhile, the “White Terror” was raging in the provinces far worse than in Paris. The South, especially, became the scene of wholesale massacres of all supposed to be friendly to revolutionary principles. Bands of returned “emigrants” and wealthy young men called “Companies of Jesus” and “Companies of the Sun” went about killing every revolutionist, or suspected revolutionist, they could find. The Jacobins had been arrested wholesale during the last few weeks. The prisons were broken into, and every “sansculotte” massacred. At Lyons 300 Jacobins were enclosed in a shed, which was then set fire to, a cordon being formed round it till they were consumed to a man. At Tarascon hundreds of victims were hurled from the top of a rock into the Rhone. This sort of thing went on for weeks without any attempt to stop it on the part of the authorities. The canting middle-class humbugs who have dilated on the “horrors of the French Revolution” and of the “mob” with so much unction, have prudently passed over the still worse horrors of the Reaction and the “respectable classes.”
In Paris, encouraged by impunity, the Royalists at last attempted an insurrection against the Convention, finding that they were not likely to obtain a majority in that body. The immediate occasion of it was the conditions under which the Assembly was to be dissolved. The new Constitution which had been voted was very much on the model of that of 1791. A property qualification and indirect voting were, of course reintroduced, with two chambers, a council of 500, and a senate of 250 members, with an executive committee or Directory of five, having power to appoint six ministers. The electoral divisions: of France were re-organised in an antidemocratic sense. Now with this constitution the Royalists hoped to have obtained a majority in the next Parliament, and were grievously disappointed when the Convention enacted that two-thirds of the new body should be chosen from its own members. Hence the tears of the Royalists, and hence the insurrection of the wealthy and Royalist sections against the Convention on the 5th October, 1795 (13th of Vendemaire, III), the task of quelling which was entrusted by Barras, the generalissimo of the Convention, to a young artillery officer, Napoleon Bonaparte by name, a task the said young artillery officer duly accomplished by the aid of well-planted cannon on the evening of the same day.
The Babeuf Conspiracy and End of the French Revolution
The insurrection of Vendemiaire gave a slight check to the reaction which had, up to this time, gone on unimpeded. The majority of the Convention, much as they dreaded a return of real revolutionary government, were too much involved politically and economically in the Revolution to be able to tolerate a complete relapse to the old régime. What they desired was a plutocratic republic, in which money should take the place of privilege and a wealthy middle class succeed to the power of the old noblesse and the crown. And the new Constitution with its “council of five hundred,” its “senate of ancients,” its “Directorate,” its property qualification, and its indirect suffrage, was admirably calculated to ensure this end. On the 26th of October the National Convention proclaimed itself dissolved, after an existence of three years and a month. One result of the events of the 5th October (13th Vendemiaire) was not unnaturally a greater toleration of the popular party, many of whom had taken up arms on the last mentioned date in defence of the Convention and the republic. The democrats established a club for purposes of political discussion at the Pantheon, which was for some time unmolested by the directory. The leader of the club was Gracchus Babeuf, who obtained the title of “tribune of the people.” Though a member of the old Commune he had not hitherto played any important part in the Revolution.
The society at the Pantheon grew daily in numbers, and with it grew the influence of Babeuf. The members at length ventured to repair to their meeting-place in arms, and whispers of a projected insurrection soon made themselves heard. The Directory thereupon became alarmed, and on the 26th of February, 1796 (8th Ventose, IV.), peremptorily closed the Pantheon and forbade any further meetings of the club. The followers of Babeuf, among whom were the remnant of the old Commune and Committees, and of course all the old Jacobins, then resorted to direct -conspiracy and managed to win over the “legion of police,” but here again they were outwitted by the Directory, which immediately disarmed and disbanded this body. The Babeuvists (as they were called) now assembled secretly in a place they named the “Temple of Reason,” and concerted measures for an organised insurrection and attack on the governing bodies. They succeeded in rallying in a short time most of the revolutionary elements of France.
It was agreed to form a new Convention, of which the nucleus was to be such remnant of the old Mountain as death and proscription had left Armed. Bands were suddenly to march from several points concentrically upon the Directory and councils. The Baboevists believed themselves sure of the military stationed at the Camp of Grenelle, and an officer named Grisel was in their confidence. Everything was arranged up to the night of the projected movement. Two placards were about to be posted up, one bearing the words “Constitution of 1793, Liberty, Equality, and general happiness.” the other the motto, “Those who usurp supreme power ought to be put to death by freemen,” and the signal was agree upon for action when, the chiefs were suddenly surprised and arrested in their council chamber (May 10th They had been betrayed by Grisel. Babeuf while in prison, wrote to the directors suggesting a compromise. He was nevertheless with the other leaders sent before the new high court of Vendome.
On the 7th of September following, while they were still awaiting their trial, their followers, to the number of some hundreds, made an armed attack on the Luxembourg, the palace of the directors, but were repulsed by the guards placed there for its defence. They then proceeded to the camp Grenelle, in the hope of raising the military, in which they were again unsuccessful, being met by a determined resistance. A sharp skirmish followed, ending in the complete rout of the insurgents, who left a large number of dead on the field. This was the last attempt of the democracy to recover its position.
Almost all the leaders and organisers of the Babeuf movement were executed by the sentence of military commissions, and numbers of other persons were imprisoned and exiled. Babeuf himself, and Darthé, the late secretary of Lebon, after acquitting themselves during their trial in a manly manner, fully avowing their principles, stabbed themselves to death with daggers on hearing their sentence. The objects of Babeuf and his followers were definitely and consciously communistic, which cannot be said of any other of the revolutionary parties. Babeuf himself (who, by the side of Marat, Chaumette, Clootz and Pache, may be regarded as one of the noblest and most disinterested of all the leaders of the time) if, in his theoretical scheme, he was the first of the utopian Socialists, also forestalled in his notion of the necessity of taking possession of the political power one of the foremost principles of the modern Socialist movement.
With the final extinction of the party of Babeuf in September, 1796, after which our French democracy never again rallied, the French Revolution, as a distinct event in history, may be considered to come to an end. From the meeting of the States General in May, 1789, to the date just mentioned, was only a little more than seven yeas, but what an experience France and Europe had passed through. Since Camille Desmoulins delivered his famous harangue in the Palais Royal Gardens on that July day in ‘89, when revolutionary ardour seemed so single in its purpose – so young and unsophisticated – how many parties had been consumed, how many enthusiasms had been burnt out!
With the forlorn attempt of the Babeuvists on Grenelle revolutionary fervour gasped its last breath. The Bourgeois had conquered; the day of the Proletarian was not yet, in spite of his temporary accession to power during the great revolutionary years.
The events succeeding the collapse of the Babeuf movement may be signalised in a few sentences. The populace of Paris and the other large cities gradually settled down into a private life of toil and hardship; and an indifference to public affairs. The wealthy classes plunged into every form of dissipation and extravagance. The new middle-class republic became apparently every day more consolidated. It flourished at home under the director Barras and his colleagues, of whom Carnot was one, and abroad under its new general, Bonaparte. Conquest again followed conquest. New republics, on the model of the French, sprang up like mushrooms in Holland, Liguria, Lombardy, Sardinia, Switzerland, etc. The fresh elections in May, 1797, nevertheless yielded a royalist majority in the Councils, the upshot of which was that Barras and the majority of the directors by the following September, when things came to a crisis, had to call in the aid of the army under General Augereau to overawe the legislature. This succeeded, and a large number of members including some “rats” of the old Dantonist party were exiled on the ground of royalist intrigue to overthrow the republic. Carnot and Barthelemy were driven from the Directory, The latter now became practically a dictatorship, with Barras as head dictator.
Most of the powers, tired of prosecuting an adverse war, were glad to make terms of peace. England soon became the only belligerent remaining. But the Directory, without money, and having only the armies to fall, back upon, could not afford to bring about a complete cessation of hostilities. Bonaparte, after having subdued the Continent, about this time returned to Paris, the most popular man in France. Barras, feeling his presence dangerous at home, invited him at once to undertake the task of subduing the British power. He readily acceded, and the brilliant Egyptian campaign entered upon with a view to India, was the result. The elections of 1798 which were, unlike those of the previous year, too radical to please the directory, were annulled, but those of the following year, 1799, produced the same result.
Meanwhile a new coalition had been formed, one of the principal factors of which was Russia. The unpopular directory could now no longer hold out against public opinion. Negotiations between the various parties were entered into without issue, and the government at home was in great confusion when Bonaparte suddenly appeared on the scene, having left his oriental army in the hands of General Kléber. A conspiracy was at once formed, led by the old constitutionalist Sièyes, to place dictatorial authority in the hands of the successful general. The Senate, seduced by the report of a pretended Jacobin insurrection in the departments, which was to shortly reach the capital, consented to decree the removal of both houses of legislature to the palace of St. Cloud, near Paris, and to placing Bonaparte at the head of the military forces.
This was the 9th November, 1799 (18th Brumaire, VII). The following day the legislature removed to St. Cloud. The “Council of Ancients” met in the “Gallery of Mars,” one of the apartments of the old Palace, and the council of five hundred in the “Orangery.” The “Council of Five Hundred” unanimously swore to the existing constitution, refusing to ratify the powers given by the other body. Bonaparte was driven away with cries of “down with the tyrant,” &c. His brother, Lucien Bonaparte, who was president, finding nothing was to be done, came out and harangued the troops, stating that the assembly was being intimidated by a minority of the members with drawn daggers. Bonaparte, thus fortified then gave orders for the “orangery” to be cleared by the military, which was immediately effected. Thus was the Consulate founded. From this, to the consecration as Emperor in 1804 was but a step.
The course of the Revolution cannot be properly estimated without taking into consideration the results of the confiscation of the property of the nobility and clergy, and afterwards of that of the guillotined. In the directoral constitution of 1795 (III.) we read, Article 374: “The French nation proclaims, as guarantee of public faith, that after an adjudication legally consummated, of the national goods, whatever may be its origin, the legitimate acquirer thereof cannot be dispossessed.” The same clause, but slightly modified, is introduced into the Consular Constitution of 1800 (VIII.), and the Imperial Constitution of 1804 (XII). There is more than meets the eye in these articles. They are the issue and sanction of a series of transactions which established a wealthy plutocracy on the ruins of the old feudal aristocracy of France.
The first property to be sold was that of the church. This, which in a sense may be considered as having been held in trust for the poor, was primarily disposed of, not to benefit them, but to reduce the public debt. The sales began in 1789, and the period of greatest activity was from August 1790 to January 1791. French companies, English companies, Dutch companies disputed for the spoil, only a comparatively few lots falling to the share of the peasantry. The sales were the more easily effected inasmuch as only a small percentage of the purchase-money had to be paid down. When the time came for the second instalment the money for payment was, naturally, considering the vast extent of the purchases, in many cases not available. This led many of the speculators to favour the Revolution, and all of them to urge on the foreign war, both of which would serve as an excuse for postponement. War was accordingly proclaimed in April, 1792, and the following August the throne was overturned. After the latter event it was decided that the lands and property of the emigrant aristocrats should not be sold haphazard and en masse like the ecclesiastical property, but should be duly apportioned into small lots, which the small cultivator might hire or purchase on easy terms.
This concession on the part of the middle classes was, however, simply the result of fear of imminent foreign invasion. No sooner had the armies of Dumouriez driven the enemy back than a new assembly, the Convention, announced that the partition of the public land; must be indefinitely postponed. During the winter ’92-3 the movable effects of the “emigrants” came into the possession of speculators and jobbers by means of sham sales. So flagrant was the abuse that the Convention had to step in, but without much effect. After the fall of the Girondins the partition of the communal lands was again definitely ordered. The second grand campaign now intervened, arid France was for the moment converted into one vast camp. Exceptional measures were the order of things all round, and few transfers were effected. But this did not prevent the confiscation both of lands and movables of the nobles and suspects going on at a greater pace than ever. The various agents of the Government in the departments made fortunes by clever manoeuvring. Two-thirds of the houses in Paris were now national property. The Convention decreed that “goods” to the value of one milliard should be reserved for the citizen soldiers returned from the wars. This milliard, we need scarcely say, remained a promise to the end of the chapter.
The Committee of Public Safety, early ’94, ordered the sale of the confiscated lands to be proceeded with, but while recommending that the principle of partition should be adopted, did not insist upon it, the net result of the a new sales being that large tracts of public land went into the possession of a new class of thieves; to wit, the victuallers of the armies.
Robespierre, through his agent St. Just, now got a decree passed that indigent patriots should be indemnified out of the goods of the “enemies of the Revolution,” but this decree was merely procured to maintain his popularity with the people, and was never so much as attempted to be put into execution.
The 9th of Thermidor arrived without the working classes of the towns having touched any of the “goods” of the emigrants, the clergy, or the suspects, while the peasantry had to be satisfied with here and there a few crumbs in the shape of the partition of communal lands. Barrere had said that they had coined money on the Place de la Revolution, but the working classes cannot be accused of having shared in this ill-gotten gain.
After the revolution of Thermidor the traffic in the “national property” proceeded more unblushingly than ever. As soon as the maximum was abolished, however, the plutocracy found it more to their interest to hocus the currency than to purchase lands at however reduced a money value. By procuring a practically unlimited issue of paper they succeeded in reducing the value of the assignats to next to nothing. The forestalling of the necessaries of life, which was the immediate cause of the various insurrections after Thermidor up to that of Baboeuf was also a stupendous source of gain. The reopening of the Bourse, the repudiation of the hypothec of the assignats on the confiscated lands, the latter a piece of thieving of the most impudent character, followed in the natural course of things. Lotteries were instituted, the prizes of which were the “national property.” One deputy even had the impudence to propose to take back the lands already distributed amongst the peasantry. This was thought to be too risky, however. Meanwhile the victories of the armies under Bonaparte opened fresh fields and pastures new for every form of swindling by means of provisioning “contracts.” Verily a cessation of the war would have been a grievous thing for the rising plutocracy of France. Under the directory the exploiters flung themselves anew upon the as yet undistributed territories. Everything was now in their own hands. No stone was left unturned to diminish for the nonce the market value of this property. The which was paid in depreciated paper taken at the nominal value was in most cases simply farcical.
But all means of robbing were not yet exhausted. The army contractors refused to be paid any longer in assignats, but insisted on large sums being placed to their credit in the books of the national debt, thus saddling themselves in perpetuity on the French people. Deputies, Government, agents, generals, contractors, engaged in a mad scramble which could make the most out of the situation. The masses of France had but two purposes in their eyes – to labour at home and at starvation wages, insufficient to support life for any but the strongest, and to serve as food for powder abroad. The vast territorial estates of the feudal aristocracy, and the house property of the towns, thus passed into the hands of another and a meaner set of lords. The new middle class of France was consolidated economically and politically. Verily the French Revolution was a success – for them. And now having reached the summit of their ambition it only remained to kick over the ladder which had helped them up. The hearth, the throne, and the altar must be re-established on a new basis; we must have done with revolution and all its ways, said they. Revolution must be henceforth a thing accursed, But a republic, however, safeguarded against the intrusion of the “common people,” seemed to many an insufficient guarantee under the existing circumstances for the newly created “order.” A military dictator, who knew bow to smother insurrections in the birth, he was the man for the situation, and his name was – Napoleon Bonaparte.
The French Revolution closes in a final and definite manner an epoch in the world’s history. The middle ages proper, it is true, came to an end with the 16th century. But they left a kind of afterglow behind them in the shape of the centralised and quasi-absolutist princedoms and monarchies which prevailed during the 17th and 18th centuries; in the continuance in rural districts and the smaller towns of the old methods of industry but slightly, if at all, modified; in the perpetuation unabated for over a century at least of mediaeval and renaissance superstitions and habits of thought; but slightly if at all modified in short in the survival of most of the external forms of the old-world civilisation, decayed as in a St. Martin’s summer. The conversion of the feudal hierarchies into centralised monarchies but imperfectly freed the middle classes; the combined or workshop system of production had not in any marked or violent manner revolutionised industry ; the learning of the renaissance had, to a large extent, merely given a quasi-scientific and systematic shape of to old habits of thought.
The leading political, moral and social changes leading on to modern times were of changes course going on all the while, and were observable to the truly observant, but were not precisely a “run and read” character.
The French Revolution definitely closes this epoch. It does even more. It constitutes the dividing line between a world to-day and all past ages whatever. The Revolution was scarcely over when the electric telegraph appeared on the scene. At the same time the idea of the steam engine was brewing in the heads of the ingenious, and the closing years of the century saw the first of the new industrial machines established in the factories of the north of England. New stage-coach roads, canals, and then “improvements” sprang up in all directions. A couple of decades or so more and the great industry was to start of human production the metamorphosis of human production and distribution, yet another, and the railway was to begin the transformation of the face of nature and the externals of human life in other directions. In short, from the French Revolution we advance straight by leaps and bounds to the modern world.
The city of Paris well typifies the progress. One hundred years ago, in 1789 it was (unlike London, which in its mediaeval form was destroyed by the fire of 1666) to all intents and purposes a mediaeval city, substantially the Paris of Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame, a city of feudal fortresses high-walled enclosures, crooked narrow, unpaved streets.
The Committee of Public Safety in 1793 began alterations. Partly with a view of giving employment to distressed workmen. The changes went on gradually till, in 1859, Haussmann, under Napoleon III., totally destroyed what remained of old Paris, and laid out the city in the form we see it to-day – a city which would be as foreign to Danton, Robespierre or Marat as San Francisco itself. The Paris of centuries perished in little more than fifty years. What is true of Paris is true of Europe – of the whole of existing civilisation. The Europe of 1789 was in the main the Europe of the late middle ages – of the Renaissance – but in the last stage of decay. It had been practically dead for over two centuries, and like Edgar Poe’s mesmerised dead man it fell to pieces with a sudden convulsive awaking. No restoration could bring it together again. The new world of our time had meantime grown up with its science, its inventions, its intense self-consciousness, and placed insurmountable barrier, between us and our naive and simple-minded ancestors. In politics the reign of the bourgeoisie with its oppression resting on cunning and hypocrisy has long shut out the possibility of an enduring reaction to the coarse and more direct methods of feudal domination.
There are several points worthy of notice, afforded by the course of the French Revolution. One feature of the period, already alluded to, its perpetual reference to classical models, and its somewhat mechanical attempt to make history repeat itself, to reproduce the republics of ancient Greece and Rome in 18th century France, can never be left out of sight. Every man’s head was full of Plutarch’s lives. All men, however little else they knew, seem to have had at least a superficial school-boy smattering of Roman history. Almost every speech and every newspaper article of the time bristles with references to Coriolanus, Cato, Cicero, Brutus, Caesar, &c. In fact Roman history was to the French Revolution very much what the Jewish annals, contained in the Bible, were to the English rebellion under Charles I. We, or rather modern science and historical criticism, have changed all that. We no longer look to the past as a model for the society of the present or the future. The doctrine of evolution has taught us that human society, like everything else, is a growth, and that though corresponding and analogous phases certainly do recur in history, we can yet never argue back from one period to another, as though there had been no intervening development, and as though the economical, intellectual and political conditions were substantially the same, or might be made the same.
Another point the Revolution teaches us is the effective power of minorities. The Terror itself (whatever view we may take as to its justifiability), it cannot be denied, was kept up for nearly two years by a comparatively small but energetic minority in all the towns of France. Outside this minority (the Jacobins) there was a floating mass of inert sympathy with the objects of Sansculottism, and a belief in the necessity of drastic measures in view of the situation. Beyond this, again, was the vast mass of inert stupidity and indifference which was effectually cowed. The active enemies of the Revolution were, of course, reduced to silence. It is significant to notice that most of the great crises were connected with affairs on the frontiers. The 10th of August and the September massacres were the response to Brunswick’s manifesto, and the march of the enemy on the capital respectively. The 31st of May was directly brought about by the invasion of the new coalition and the disorganisation of Dumouriez’s armies, consequent on his defection. Finally, the 9th Thermidor and the abolition of the “Terror,” followed on the disappearance of the last trace of danger from the foreigner by the victories of the army of the north. The extraordinary enthusiasm which we find, the reckless readiness of all alike to inflict and to suffer death might lead us to suppose the men of the time to have been a race of born heroes, or monsters, or both. The average of them were neither the one nor the other. They were the products of social forces beyond their control. The feeling of the all-importance of the public interest carried all before it. Prior to the revolution they were probably either more courageous nor more truculent than ourselves. The same courage and the same truculency might manifest itself in any man of character under like circumstances. Even Robespierre was, as Carlyle suggests, probably neither better nor worse than other attorneys to start with. But in his case ambition ultimately assumed the mastery over his whole personality. This was partly owing to the fact that he was undeniably a man without a vice (in the ordinary sense of the word). Now only very exceptional men can afford to be without the ordinary vices of mankind and Robespierre was certainly not one of these men. With his ascetic Rousseauite notions of republican austerity he had suppressed his natural appetites, the consequence being that all the morbid elements in his character, having no other outlet, ran into the channel of self-idolatry and morbid ambition. The first condition of a well regulated man is to know how to properly distribute the quantum of vice with which a bountiful nature has endowed him. A false morality teaches him to suppress it. But this he can seldom do, and if he succeeds, it is at the expense of all or much that is distinctive in his character. In tearing off the coating of vice, he tears off his skin with it. The usual case, however, is that the vice is not got rid of, but only forced into some out-of-the way channel. And whenever vice is concentrated it is bad. When all the vice of a character is focussed on any single one of the natural appetites, a man becomes a sot, a satyr, a glutton, a confirmed gambler, &c. Robespierre sat upon all these valves. He and his ascetic band poured scorn on the Hébertists and the Dantonists alike for the “looseness” of their lives. But having closed up all the ordinary exits his vice came out none the less concentrated, but in the form of a truculent, remorseless ambition, of a quite peculiar kind.
The rank and file of the actors in the revolution it is difficult, for the reasons before stated, to characterise by any of the ordinary ethical standards. The best of them did things we cannot always approve while sitting comfortably in our chairs, the worst of them showed much genuine and disinterested devotion to the cause of the people. Were we called upon to name the five men whose aims were probably the purest we would mention Marat, Chaumette, Clootz, Fache, and Babeuf. Danton, apart from the disputed question of his bribery, was a mere politician, who only interested himself in social questions, when at all, in so far as they immediately affected the political situation.
The issue of the French Revolution was, as we have seen, the modern world of great capital and free trade, as opposed to the old world of land and privilege. In France, the political side of the great change was most prominent; in Germany, the philosophical and literary; in England, the industrial. While French politicians were engaged in establishing the republic, German thinkers were engaged in founding 19th century thought, and English inventors in establishing new modes of locomotion and production. But while the mediaeval organisation of society held together for centuries, the modern is already showing signs of approaching dissolution. Why is this? We answer, because the, latter contained, from the first, in its very nature, the seeds of dissolution. The capitalistic, system of necessity feeds upon, itself. Competition, which is the breath of its life, of necessity also destroys that life. It may be that the “opening up” of Africa and other as yet unexploited territories will give the system a further lease of existence, lasting some decades, but the end cannot in any case be a long by-and-bye.
Last updated on 4.3.2004