Albert Mathiez 1910
Source: Annales Révolutionnaires. October-December 1910;
Translated: for marxists.org by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) marxists.org 2010.
The socialists of the first generation, those who because they are insufficiently known are summarily qualified as utopians, professed a limitless admiration for Robespierre. The leader of the Chartists, Bronterre O’Brien, openly proclaimed himself his disciple and wrote an entire book in defense of his memory, a book whose title bespeaks its content: “The Life and Character of Maximilien Robespierre, proving by facts and arguments, that that much-calumniated person was one of the greatest men, and one of the purest and most enlightened reformers, that ever exited in the world.”
Bronterre O’Brien strove to demonstrate in that work that “the only ambition in the life of Robespierre was that of establishing in France the rule of virtue and universal happiness and reforming the social organization of all its members.” Robespierre rose up against the bourgeois class, which wanted to confiscate the Revolution to its profit by the constitution of 1791 and engaged it in a merciless combat.” Robespierre and his friends aspired to a true democracy which guaranteed every man the right to the entire product of his labor. If they worked at ensuring the constitution of 1793 it was more with socialist than political aims.” Political equality for them was nothing but the means; social equality was the goal.
The Chartist movement was thus directly inspired by Robespierrist thought.
Bronterre O’Brien came to Robespierre via Buonarotti, whose “Conspiracy for Equality” he had translated in 1836.
It’s a remarkable thing, and one to which insufficient attention has been paid, that English and French socialism have the same origin; that both grew out of Babouvism, which presented itself as the continuator and resurrection of Robespierrism.
All historians are in agreement in granting Buonarotti the most important part in the formation and education of the French socialist party of the era of 1830. The venerable descendant of Michelangelo, the glorious escapee of the High Court of Vendôme, was the leader of a school, a man who continued to preach by example; a kind of patriarch whose counsels were attentively listened to.
Ranc, who at the beginning of his career produced a popular edition of the “Conspiracy for Equality,” correctly noted that Buonarotti was the living link between the revolutionaries of the Directory and those of the Restoration, and that thanks to him the socialist tradition was not interrupted a single minute.
Little is known about his life under the Consulate and the Empire, and there is nothing surprising in this. A conspirator leaves as few traces of his actions as possible. It is known, however, that placed under surveillance in Geneva he founded, with the assistance of Marat’s brother, the Masonic lodge “Amis Sincères,” (Sincere Friends) which was affiliated with the Philadelphes. The lodge was dissolved by the prefect. We also know that after 1815 Buonarotti founded the group of “Sublimes Maîtres Parfaits” (Sublime Perfect Masters) which continued the Philadelphes. He strove to free Italy and worked at this through one of his students, Andryane, who was arrested in Milan in 1823. Expelled from Geneva after Andryane’s arrest he settled in Brussels and soon formed new disciples, like the Delhasse brothers and Charles Teste. It was there that he wrote “The Conspiracy for Equality,” whose first edition appeared in 1828.
Returned to France after 1830, he was actively involved in revolutionary agitation from the beginnings of the reign of Louis-Philippe. He inspired the most ardent section of the Society of the Rights of Man and the Society of Friends of the People. The insurgents of Lyon consulted him, but didn’t listen to the counsels of calm he sent them. Voyer d’Argenson had him to his home. Trélat and Hauréau listened to him recount his memories with admiration. Raspail went to see him. Louis Blanc, who perhaps owed him a few of his social ideas left us an apologetic portrait of him: “The gravity of his bearing, the authority of his ever-unctuous but severe speech, his visage nobly altered by the habit of meditation and a long practice of life, his vast forehead, his gaze full of thoughts, the proud outline of his lips, accustomed to prudence, all of this made him resemble the sages of ancient Greece. He had their virtue, the penetration, their goodness. Even his austerity was of an infinite gentleness.” Louis Blanc, who proclaimed himself Buonarotti’s student, explained that he was little known to the crowd, living retired and unnoticed. “His action was far from being without strength... Poor and in order to live reduced to giving music lessons, from deep within his retreat he governed generous spirits, made many hidden gears move, and in the sphere in which he exercised his ascendant, assisted by Voyer d’Argenson and Teste, he held the reins of propaganda, whether it needed to be speeded up or to be slowed down.” It is probable that Louis Blanc owed him his admiration for Robespierre.
M. Fournière made the likely supposition that Blanqui received from Buonarotti “the triple imprint that characterized his entire life: democracy, patriotism, and communism.”
It is thus not an exaggeration to say that French socialism from the period of 1830, like Chartist socialism, both emanate from Buonarotti and through Buonarotti from Robespierre.
Until his final day Buonarotti never ceased defending the leader of the Mountain and to glorify his policies. In his private letters Robespierre for him is “the great man.” He signed the letter he addressed to the Lyon Committee for the Rights of Man on the eve of the insurrection of 1834 “Maximilien.” In the very year of his death, 1837, he sent to his young friend, the Saint-Simonian Genevoix, a notice in which he rehabilitated the Incorruptible. The same year, 1837, the newspaper le Radical of Brussels published through the brothers Delhasse “Observations Concerning Robespierre” which were written by Buonarotti. Before dying, the old conspirator gave Buchez and Roux several details on the 9 Thermidor for their “Histoire Parlementaire de la Révolution Française.”
Buonarotti’s admiration was in no way blind. It rested on experience; it gave its reasons.
Buonarotti knew Robespierre personally. He stayed in Paris twice during the Terror, the first time at the beginning of August 1793 when he denounced Paoli and presented to the Convention the demand of the inhabitants of the isle of Saint-Pierre for annexation and the second time, after his return from his mission to Lyon and the Midi from October 1793- January 1794. These two stays coincide with two important crises, the first with the events of May 30 and June 2, which gave the Mountain its victory over the Gironde, the second with the dechristianization campaign and the beginning of the campaign of the Hébertists and Dantonists against the Committee of Public Safety. Louis Blanc, who was well informed, tells us that Buonarotti frequented the Duplay house. Lebas, a lover of Italian music, “was heard at those intimate gatherings where Buonarotti played the piano.”
Buonarotti thus had a direct vision of Robespierre. His judgment can be considered direct testimony.
Well placed to receive the confidences of the great Jacobin and those close to him, or at the very least to know his intentions, he was also well placed to appreciate from personal experience the methods of administration of the Terror, having been one of the collaborators of this government.
At the beginning of 1793 he was named commissioner of the Executive Council with the mission of enlightening the Corsican people, of bringing it to the principles of equality, of “watching over and denouncing the malevolent and inspiring holy terror of the laws in aristocrats.” He was not, however, able to accomplish his mission. After a stay in Lyon where he was briefly arrested by Chalier’s murderers and in Provence, where Ricord and Saliceti employed him at important tasks in Toulon and Marseilles, he returned to Paris. He was confided with a new mission in 1794. For ten months , with the title of National General Agent and the most extensive powers, he administered the Oneille circle, conquered from the tyrant of Sardinia.
Included in the year III in the persecution which all the Jacobins were victims of who remained faithful to the ideals of the year II and Robespierre’s ideas, he was removed from office and jailed in the prison of Plessis, which he left only after the events of 13 Vendémiaire. We know that in Plessis he made contact with the future organizers of the Conspiracy of Equals. He found there Duplay, Robespierre’s host, who recounted the 9 Thermidor and its causes
We can thus say that through Buonarotti’s voice it is Robespierre and his party who make a final appeal to posterity. The appeal was heard by the socialists of 1830. Why would it not be even more so by those of 1910?
One of the Just, victim of the plots of the evil, one of the greatest reformers mankind has ever known: this is how Robespierre appears in the introduction that Buonarotti placed at the head of “The Conspiracy for Equality;” this is how he appears, with new specifics in the unpublished notes we will read below.
These notes preserved in his papers at the Bibliothèque Nationale form a dozen pages written on on both sides with numerous marginal additions, all in the same hand and the same ink, without many crossings out.
When did Buonarotti write these pages? With what aim? It is difficult to say. One can only hazard a conjecture.
It seems that these notes were a first more developed sketch of a part of the introduction with which “The Conspiracy for Equality” opens. The essential ideas and the same arguments can be found there. But the notes enter into more detail, give names, recounts anecdotes and conversations that disappeared from the introduction.
It would be very interesting to compare them with the “Observations” that the Delhasse brothers published in 1837. Unfortunately, I was unable to find that brochure.
We must add that these notes begin ex abrupto, without preparation, and they end with words that suddenly end and which seem to be the beginning of ideas that are to be developed. In summary, they seem to be a rough draft. In them we grasp the spontaneous burst of the author’s ideas.
“Robespierre thought that the National Convention would go along with his demands and that there was within it a majority capable of recognizing the purity of his intentions.
“In fact, one is forced to accept that this was his opinion when we consider that being supported by the Jacobins, by the Commune, by the general staff of the National Guard of Paris and by the camp on the plain of Sablons, he could easily have parried the blow which brought him down if he had wanted to take the measures by which it would have been easy for him to fend it off. Not only did he not do this; not only did he not conspire as he was falsely accused, but the very morning of 9 Thermidor he entirely relied on the justice of his cause and the uprightness of the majority of the Convention. Upon leaving his home to go to the Assembly he answered his host, who had advised him to be on his guard, that he had nothing to fear since there was much virtue in the national representation. 
“However, at the session of the 8th a great uncertainty could be noted in the spirit of the deputies. Robespierre bitterly complained of the Committees of Public Safety and Public Security and of an immoral and conspiratorial faction, whose members he didn’t designate.
“This speech was at first applauded and its publication was ordered. But the Convention soon reversed its decision and sent Robespierre’s speech to the committees he’d denounced for their examination.
“On the night of 8-9 Thermidor all the conspirators against Robespierre conferred and assigned the roles they were to play. Robespierre took no measures, entirely confident in his good faith.
“The thing that best proves that there was no plot against the Convention by Robespierre and his friends is the speech begun on the 9th by Saint-Just. This orator submitted the entire dispute to the judgment of the Assembly. He expected nothing from his resolutions other than the righting of grievances he complained of and the salvation of the Republic.
“The previous evening Robespierre had spoken in the same way. In truth he had denounced a criminal coalition that conspired within the National Convention and had demanded the punishment of the traitors. This was the denunciation that frightened the true conspirators. They claimed that invoking justice against them constituted conspiring against the Convention and the Republic.
“These conspirators denounced by Robespierre knew how to bring into play the passions of a great number of their colleagues and to make them auxiliaries in the violence they were contemplating.
“Who were these conspirators and auxiliaries and how did they arrive at combining their forces and carrying out together the catastrophe of Thermidor? 
“One must first remember that the royalists and the Girondins had been fiercely combated by Robespierre, who they considered the leader of the party of equality, one which they considered an anarchistic faction. These men, forming at least half the National Convention, had been repressed by the insurrection of May 31; had since that time been condemned to hostile inactivity and secretly aspired to avenge themselves. They avidly seized the occasion when they saw almost the whole of the other part of the Assembly rise up against Robespierre. There can be no doubt that animosity against and hatred towards democracy were the veritable causes of their cooperation in the events of that day. As soon as they were no longer frightened of the Mountain they pronounced themselves with a mass of votes capable of tipping the balance in their favor. This was the weight of royalism, the aristocratic nobility, and the bourgeoisie.
“This section submitted to the momentum but didn’t set it in motion. In order to fully understand how the storm that broke out over the Mountain on 9 Thermidor was formed we must fully understand the elements it was made of and the reasons for its action. Let us return to the time before the Revolution. Enslaved France was repressed by the nobility of the sword and the robe and by the religious opinions propagated and supported by a numerous and powerful clergy. In the midst of this general repression many vicious penchants and elevated sentiments we also repressed and stifled. When the pressure was relieved both took off, and in the same arena could be seen wise men animated by the love of humanity and the fatherland and low men who covered their base passions with the varnish of philosophy.
“The former combated superstition and priests in order to destroy the prestige that weighed the people down with the yoke of its tyrants; the latter unleashed themselves against any religious idea in order to quench their passions and to justify their immorality. The former proscribed distinctions and hereditary power in order to lead the people to equality and virtue; the latter combated the great in order to take their place. The former strove to abolish great fortunes in order to make poverty and suffering disappear; the latter rose up against the rich in order to replace them.
“These two types of men appeared at the beginning of the revolution among the people and were carried by them to the Convention because of the heat with which they both rose up against abuses and oppression.
“Among the members of the Convention who had arrived there with interested and non-popular ideas all were not vicious in the same way. Some wanted to triumph through sophisms and politesse, and they became Girondins; the others, who claimed to carry the day through impetuosity and roughness, became Montagnards.
“Ten months before the 9 Therimidor those who attentively observed that Assembly counted no more than fifty men who were truly just and friends of equality. 
“It is important to understand the role that irreligious ideas played in the troubles in the Convention.
“In the eighteenth century the divinity of revelation was publicly combated. All dogmas were considered fables. In the end people came to profess the atheism of the orators among the scholars, at court and even among priests.
“However, a few philosophers confronted the storm and pronounced themselves in support of deism, among who was Rousseau. He demonstrated that the ideas of God and the immortality of the soul are firm supports for morality, justice, freedom, and the law.
“Those capable of coming to a firm judgment on these serious questions were few in number. Nevertheless, the number of those who pronounced themselves for atheism was quite large, a few by conviction, a few from vanity and to show off a science superior to that of the clergy and magistrates, the mass to rid themselves of the brake that religion imposes on the passions.
“It is given to only a small number of eminently virtuous men to prescribe for their actions and to follow the rules most in conformity with the interests of society.
“For the others, as soon as the divine sanction is erased from their spirits they are left with no other guide than purely personal interest.
“However sincere the laws, however thorough an education might be, there will always remain a great number of cases where man can only be led to sacrifices and devotion by a rare virtue or the thought of a secret and omniscient judge and a life to come.
“I said ‘a rare virtue,’ and it wasn’t without reason. This virtue consists in sacrificing oneself for others without any thought of personal good, without any other enjoyment that that which results from the contemplation of the immediate or distant contemplation of our assemblies. It is the total sacrifice of our affections, of our sensations and interests which, in their perfection, can only be the share of a small number of souls of an extraordinary stripe.
“For all the others, if you take from them the fear of or the hope for another life, the only motive that will be left for their actions would be the love of pleasure and the fear of pain. They would be capable of neither impulses towards dedication nor the movements inspired by the passion for true glory. They would be souls strictly occupied with themselves, seeking their advantage in everything, and in every circumstance envisioning how they could profit from it. The hatred for religious ideas was the distinctive characteristic who promoted, with their eyes wide open, the first glowing moments of the revolution. This hatred has since been so confused with political principles that it isn’t rare to meet men who counted among the enemies of freedom anyone who believed in God. 
“This was also the dominant opinion among the members of the National Convention, be they Girondins or Montagnards. Among a great number of the latter this opinion was found tied to the immorality which I have already spoken of, and it followed from this that most of those who shared it in order to prevent the establishment of the equality they hated, or to cast aside the virtue that got in their way, or to serve the powers that paid them, were incapable of generous views or sustained efforts.
“This immorality was the distinctive characteristic of those men, of the Convention or not in which we saw a faction of Orleanists, and it was their great depravity that led people to believe that the Orleanists paid them so they would open their way to the throne.
“The immorality I am speaking of is composed of bad faith, vanity, avarice, aversion towards virtue, the habit of only judging the worth of actions by their success, and of recognizing in these determinations no other motive than that of the profit that might result from it.
“If you separate out from the Convention the part that formed the party of the Gironde and that which joined immorality to revolutionary enthusiasm, there is left only a small number of sages, true friends of equality, and no less enemies of the arrogance of aristocrats than of the depravity of those who aimed to replace them.
“Of this number was Robespierre, who fought equally the royalists, the noble and bourgeois aristocracy, the atheists and the dissolute avid for money and power. All saw in him an enemy and a tyrant, and though there was a hatred between them that wouldn’t delay in bursting forth, on the 9 Thermidor they joined their efforts to avenge themselves and escape the justice they felt was threatening them.
“In order to preserve within the Convention, the sole center of all power, the force of opinion that it needed to accomplish its great mission, it was necessary that it preach from doctrine and example; it was necessary that its morality be pure and that before imposing obligations outside it force all its members to submit to them. 
“This is what Robespierre wanted and what the Committee of Public Safety seemed to want. And this was the goal of the famous decree that consecrated the existence of the Supreme Being and the immortality of the soul, confirmed the freedom of religion, and established national festivals.
“This was also the reason for the decrees against the preachers of atheism and those deputies who had dishonored themselves through infamous acts. This return to religious ideas dictated by simple good sense and this war declared on immorality frightened men more inclined to license than liberty, those who didn’t honestly demand equality, those whose patriotism had no other support than irreligion, and those who had increased their patrimony through the abuse of the powers they’d exercised. The decree that placed virtue and probity on the order of the day struck them like a lightning bolt. The awareness of their faults and their aversion to the purity of principles upon which the Republic was to be constructed rendered them fearful. They believed themselves lost and became furious. They called tyranny what was to ensure liberty; they conspired in the destruction of Robespierre and those who shared his way of seeing things.
“The Committees of Public Safety and General Security were not composed of homogenous elements. I believe that all their members had applauded the revolution and aspired to a republican government. None of them were reproached with having trafficked in their authority. If they did evil it was through ignorance, weakness, jealousy, or lack of good principles.
“Fear and immorality divided the members of these committees. Not everyone on the Committee of Public Safety shared Robespierre’s doctrines, and several looked on the ascendancy his virtue gave him over the people with jealousy.
“Several if its members like Barrère, Collot, Billaud, and Carnot placed obstacles before revolutionary actions. After having struck Danton and some of his friends they refused to clamp down on the twenty or so seditionists and prevaricators in the National Convention who opposed public regeneration and wanted to avenge the death of their leaders with the blood of those who had denounced them. Those against who the grievances of Robespierre, backed by Saint-Just and Couthon, were directed were warned of this. Sieyes was warned by Barrère. It was these culpable indiscretions that exalted the fury of those who felt themselves threatened and they did all they could to overthrow the form of government. Something more serious that Barrère has to reproach himself for is that he knew the crimes of those he wanted to serve and who afterwards repaid him with the worst ingratitude.
“I several times heard Vadier reproach the Committee of Public Safety and especially Robespierre for having trampled on the authority of the Committee of General Security. 
“Ingrand told me that Vadier was quite inclined to give rise to conflicts, was jealous of authority and had a tendency more to embitter than to reconcile spirits. 
“I recently had new proof of Vadier’s extreme irritation concerning Robespierre. We were speaking of Orléans-Égalité and he sang the praises of his character and patriotism. ‘Why then,’ I asked, ‘did you place him under accusation?’ ‘It was an intrigue and I know by whom.’ ‘He was accused based on a report by the Committee of General Security.’ ‘That’s not true; it was Robespierre who intrigued in Marseilles. He wanted to take away the authority of the Committee of General Security. This committee didn’t know anything about the measures taken against Orléans, and when he was led to the place of execution it didn’t know he’d been brought before a tribunal.’ ‘I have Amar’s report and the decree.’ ‘This is shameful; you defend Robespierre at our expense; you mustn’t touch on this and insult me.’ With the respect owed his age, I left.
“The decree that proclaimed the existence of the divinity had wounded the pride of these frivolous men, whose patriotism consisted in mocking all religious ideas without making any distinction between those that reason admits and those that owe their origin to error and imposture. Among the latter was Vadier, who the Convention had placed on the Committee of General Security, of which he was the president.
“This committee shared with that of Public Safety the functions of government. Charged with setting policy and invested with the right to arrest and liberate, it exercised an influence all the greater in that it was often called upon to deliberate with the other committee.
“If we except David, the other members of the Committee of General Security appeared little apt to conceive and second Robespierre’s great vision; they were jealous of his popularity. They were in rivalry with the authority of the Committee of Public Safety and when they attacked prevaricating deputies they saw – or feigned to see – in their crimes nothing but baseness and cupidity and weren’t able to perceive the conspiracy that aspired to prevent the establishment of equality through corruption and immorality.
“Those who feared the sincerity of the revolutionary government skillfully took advantage of the dispositions of the Committee of General Safety and pushed it to go against the views of the other committee, and in particular those of Robespierre and his friends. The decree on the divinity provided them the occasion for this.
“This decree was presented to some as the forerunner of a new religious fanaticism, and to others as proof of Robespierre’s ambition who, they said, had declared himself its grand pontiff. 
“Vadier made himself the organ of these iniquities. And in order to prove to France that this decree had inflamed the daring of the fanatics, he charged himself with rendering to the National Convention an account of the ridiculous play-acting of a mad woman, which he then depicted as a dangerous conspiracy so that the true conspiracy against virtue and the Republic would be lost sight of and looked upon as a chimera and so that no confidence be granted to Robespierre’s doctrines and councils. 
“Barrère and Vadier then placed themselves in opposition to the political system that Robespierre had counseled and to which the Republic owed its triumphs. It was mainly this opposition that the enemies of equality and virtue made use of to carry out the 9 Thermidor. Other members of the Committee of Public Safety joined with them either through jealousy, immorality, or an anti-republican spirit, but I am not concerning myself with the totality of their conspiracy. I only wanted to explain to myself in what way Barrère and Vadier played a principal role in this. 
“I have the following fact from Barrère:
“At a session of the Committee of Public Safety Saint-Just and Robespierre reproached Carnot (the latter was frightened and shed tears; Barrère then said ) for being an aristocrat and threatened to denounce him as such to the Convention. Barrère then said: In that case I will publish that you are against the man who organized the victory. 
“I had it from Baudot that Léonard Bourdon, having been sent on the 9 Thermidor to the Gravilliers section to get it to march against the Commune, met strong opposition there and he was only able to vanquish it by assuring them that Robespierre had signed a marriage contract with the daughter of Louis XVI. Baudot assured me that this fact was told him by Bourdon himself.
“When Robespierre said in the name of the Committee of Public Safety: “In the system of the French Revolution, what is immoral is impolitic, and what is corrupting is counter-revolutionary. Weakness, vice and prejudices are the road to royalty,” equality’s false friends blanched.
“When the same committee said of Couthon’s organ: ‘A revolution like ours is nothing but a rapid succession of conspiracies because it is the war of tyranny against liberty, of crime against virtue,’ the intriguers were frightened.
“When Saint-Just, secretary of the same committee, said: ‘You did nothing when you immolated the tyrant if you don’t immolate the corruption through which the foreign party returns you to royalty,’ the scoundrels felt that all was lost.
“When the National Convention placed virtue and probity on the order of the day, when Robespierre dared attack immorality, when he advised recognizing the existence of the Supreme Being and the immortality of the soul, the frightened corrupt men conspired against virtue, i.e., against the Republic.
“Robespierre strongly advised the adoption of natural religion and only opposed the efforts of those who wanted to proscribe any religious ideas. On that occasion he demonstrated great firmness of character and profound political insights. At that time the number of those who were materialists, either by system or immorality, was considerable, and in combating them one risked attracting to oneself dangerous accusations.
“Under bad laws moral truths find themselves surrounded with an envelope of prejudices and errors. Political revolutions, by tearing envelopes without any precautions, despite themselves damage the nucleus they contain. This is what occurred over the course of the French Revolution. In shedding themselves of religious prejudices many individuals felt they could dispense with that natural morality that is essential to every society. For example, as soon a people no longer believed in the divinity of the Old Testament they also believed themselves freed of the rigorous probity commanded by the precepts of the Decalogue, and there were people in whose eyes theft and libertinage lost all their deformity as soon as they no longer feared hell.
“True citizens had substituted in their hearts the ties of benevolence, the movements of pity, the attractions of equality, the love of virtue, and the charms of glory for the extremely fragile brake of religious prejudices. But others, confusing depravity with liberty, freed of any fear of or hope for the future, listened only to the voice of avarice and ambition. Men invested with public authority displayed Asiatic excess, abused their power to enrich themselves, insulted modesty, and treated the people with insolence. These disorders were provoked and justified by the preaching of relaxed doctrines and were encouraged by the efforts made to erect atheism into a national dogma. This unhappy morality went so far that it produced within the National Convention itself swindlers, falsifiers of decrees, protectors of public enemies, and revealers of state secrets. 
“Such degradation was frightening. What could we not fear from, what could we hope for from men disgusted by virtue, enervated by luxury and aspiring for nothing but gold and power? Everything authorized us to think that this immoral faction was the instrument the league of kings was using to prevent the establishment of the Republic. Robespierre charged himself with denouncing and foiling this, with the view of saving the people from their evil counsels and more particularly that of preserving in the National Convention the notion or purity that was necessary for it to complete its undertaking. It was Robespierre who advised that august assembly to recognize before the world the existence of the Supreme Being and the immortality of the soul; to confirm the liberty of religions and to establish national festivals. This decree, whose dispositions are only condemnable by the frivolous, combined with the severity that was deployed against the seditious, displeased the immoral and provoked their sarcasm – along with that of several irreligious sophists – against the man who proposed it. In order to render him odious they spared neither malicious insinuations nor inappropriate jokes, nor police maneuvers. He was depicted by some as a fanatic, by others as an ambitious man who employed the prestige of religion to usurp power. War was declared on heaven in order to destroy virtue on earth. A criminal conspiracy succeeded the intrigues. Robespierre complained to his colleagues on the Committee of Public Safety. The guilty were warned, their fright doubled, and their boldness became extreme. Immorality and wounded vanity finally consummated the counter-revolution of 9 Thermidor. ”
An entire volume would be needed to comment on these remarkable notes in a way worthy of them.
What is immediately striking is the repeated affirmation that Robespierre represented the party of honesty, justice, and equality. This affirmation seems to me to be in large measure in conformity with historical truth. It is certain that among Robespierre’s most ferocious enemies there were individuals of suspect morality: Rovère, Freron, Barras, Tallien, Fouché, and Courtois. Their Republic was not in the least concerned with virtue.
Louis Blanc, noting the depredations and thefts which the national goods were the object of, wrote: “The deeper we go into the history of the Revolution the more we are forced to recognize that the party Robespierre and his friends represented was the party of honest men.” Buonarotti’s notes lend new force to Louis Blanc’s judgment.
But Buonarotti also considers Robespierre the precursor of Babouvism as a socialist of action and intention. When we read the reflections Robespierre noted day-by-day for his own use in his notebook it must be admitted that Buonarotti was right. In any case, wasn’t he better situated than we are to know what the case was?
“What is the goal?” Robespierre wrote in his notebook, which Courtois – who published it – called his “version of a catechism.” What is the goal? The execution of the constitution in favor of the people.
“Who will be our enemies? Vicious and wealthy men.” And further on: “The internal dangers come from the bourgeois. In order to vanquish the bourgeois we must rally the people. Everything was in place to impose on the people the yoke of the bourgeois and to make the defenders of the Republic perish on the gallows. They triumphed in Marseilles, in Bordeaux, in Lyon; they would have triumphed in Paris without the current insurrection.”
If we were to seek such phrases in the works of Danton we wouldn’t find them, and note that these phrases were written for Robespierre himself; that they summarize his intimate thoughts, and that consequently they reveal his true thoughts.
After this, what difference does it make that Robespierre didn’t leave behind beautiful theories or an ingeniously constructed system like so many of our contemporaries, one where communism would have been demonstrated by A+B? Is he any less socialist? He is infinitely more so in my opinion than today’s so numerous artists who put their socialism in their words and posters so as not to have to put them into action.
Robespierre personified two equally essential things in a republic that wants to live: the cult of principles and devotion to the public good. Who would say that his example no longer needs to be recalled, that there are no lessons to be drawn from his life or politics?
1. Buchez and Roux already knew about this tradition. They said they had it from Buonarotti, who had heard it directly from Duplay’s mouth in prison. But they don’t accept it: “It appears to us that this language is hardly in accord with the feeling of distress imprinted on the words Robespierre expressed at the podium of the Jacobin club.” (Histoire Parlementaire de la Révolution Française, vol. XXXIV, p. 4)
2. In the margins Buonarotti gives the following list: Sieyes, Garnier de l’Aube, Reubell, Thirion, Merlin de Thionville, Panis, Barras, Thuriet, Cambon, Freron, Bentabolle, Leonard Bourdon, Rovère, Lindet, Merlin de Douai, Brival, Poultier, Echasseriaux, Charlier, Bourdon de l’Oise, Dubarran, Tallien, Goupilleau, Lecointre de Versailles, Fouché, André Dumont, Courtois, Clausel, Dubois-Crancé, Barrère, Vouland, Charles Duval, Bayle, Granet, Montaut,. The same list, with only a difference in the order of the names and their spelling, can be found in B. Hauréau, “La Montagne.” This book appeared in 1834, so it is probable that at that time Buonarotti’s list was already circulating among his friends.
3. In the margins we can read:
“Members of the Convention accused of [concussion]:
Perrein de l’Aude: Sentenced to hard labor
Clausel: accused of the same crime; saved by Barrère
Danton, La Croix: fled to Belgium; their baggage, filled with silverware was seized at the border;
Courtois: stole from the army;
Reubell, Merlin de Thionville: Stole from Mainz silverware and [vermeil] belonging to the Republic. Their baggage was seized by the Committee of General Security;
Rovère and Poultier were accused of having simulated a theft of a significant number of assignats belonging to the nation;
Barras, Ricord, Freron stole from Toulon several wagons full of precious items;
Julien de Toulouse, Fabre de l’Églantine, Chabot, and Bazire each received 100,000 francs for having falsified a decree of the National Convention;
Sieyes received 300,000 francs from the consul for having betrayed the Republic;
Thibaudau received from Hamburg and passed to his father-in-law the correspondence of the latter’s son who distributed to émigrés the money his father sent him. The same list, from which Thibaudau, who was still alive at the time was removed, figures in Hauréau’s “La Montagne.” Hauréau adds details concerning the theft attributed by Buonarotti to Courtois: “Courtois, in concert with Danton, his relative, carried out a business deal with the Committee of Public Safety involving oxen and received money without, it is said, following all the regulations.”
4. This judgment on the part of Buonarotti remains true. Robespierre is only so harshly judged by certain contemporary anti-clerical historians because he admitted the social necessity for the belief in God. These historians would forgive him the Terror; they don’t pardon him for the Supreme Being.
5. In other words, the decree of 18 Floréal, which instituted the national festivals, served to disavow the excesses of the proconsuls and as a warning to those who might be tempted to imitate them. This interpretation is interesting if we recall that Robespierre had seen in the violent dechristianization a maneuver of the rotten and of agents of the foreigners.
6. This accusation of trampling on the authority of the Committee of General Security made by them against the Committee of Public Safety is proof of the pettiness of the members the former. The Committee of Public Safety was charged with the idea of government while the Committee of General Security had no other function than that of overseeing the conduct of individuals and preventing them from doing harm. Is it not clear from the nature of their functions that the second was subordinate to the first? Is it not obvious that there must have been cases where the Committee of Public Safety alone could judge the obstacles it met in the execution of its views and of the persons it had to assure itself of in order to put them out of the way? (Note by Buonarotti)
7. Ingrand, who played no part in the events of 9 Thermidor because he was on mission, told me that having gone to the Committee of Public Safety in the month of Messidor, Billaud told him that serious things were occurring and called on him to speak to Ruamps. Ingrand found the latter surrounded by several Montagnards, among them Maribon-Montaut. He heard there complaints of tyranny leveled against Robespierre. They complained of the influence he exercised over the Jacobins and at the Convention. They accused him of having had patriotic deputies killed (Danton, Lacroix, etc.) and they claimed that all the Montagnards were threatened with the same fate. These men were frightened and furious. Ingrand sought in vain to calm them. They told him that Robespierre owed the influence he enjoyed only to his advice; that Barrère said that Robespierre, having demanded from the Committee of Public Safety the accusation of twenty deputies who, through their vices and intrigues hindered the functioning of the Convention, the Committee consented concerning a few of them but refused to do so concerning several others, among them Vadier. Vadier then did everything possible to attract ridicule to the decree that recognized the Supreme Being and claimed that Robespierre wanted to raise himself to the throne with the assistance of religion fanaticism.
Did the person who warned Sieyes not also warn Vadier? I have no positive proof of this fact. Nevertheless, the close friendship that reigns between he and Barrère and Vadier and his wife’s certainty that if Robespierre had triumphed the latter would have lost his life renders this infinitely probable in my eyes. (Note by Buonarotti)
This anecdote was known to Louis Blanc, who recounts it more briefly: “A deputy on mission, Ingrand, having briefly come to Paris, Billaud-Varenne said to him: ‘Very important things are happening here; go find Ruamps who will tell you about everything.’ Ingrand hurried to Ruamps’ house, who informed him of the conspiracy. He stepped back in shock and shouted: ‘If they attack him the Republic is lost.’” (Louis Blanc, Histoire de la Révolution, vol II, p. 531). L. Blanc must have borrowed this tale from the “Histoire Parlementaire” of Buchez and Roux, for E. Hamel, who reproduces it, follows it with this note: “These details were provided to the authors of the Histoire Parlementaire by Buonarotti, who got them from Ingrand himself. Member of the Council of elders until 1797, around that time Ingrand entered the forestry service and ceased any political activity. Outlawed in 1816 as a regicide he moved to Brussels, lived there in poverty, suffering stoically like an old republican and returned to die in France after the revolution of 1830, faithful to the convictions of his youth.”
8. We know that this invention on the part of Robespiere’s enemies has been successful up to the present day. All of today’s school text books repeat, based on the word of M. Aulard, that Robespierre was the pontiff of the Supreme Being.
9. Buonarotti is alluding here to the Catherine Théot affair that Vadier and the Committee of General Security cooked up against Robespierre in order to discredit him in the public’s eye. I studied this maneuver which is void of good faith in my “Contributions à l’histoire religieuse de la Révolution.”
10. Vadier was imprisoned at Fort-National near Cherbourg along with five men condemned to deportation by the High Court of the Vendôme. I was among them. The conversation often turned to the unhappy 9 Thermidor and caused violent debates between Vadier and Germain, who was sincerely attached to democracy. One day Germain reproached Vadier for having announced that a cachet with a fleur de lys on it had been found at the home of Robespierre or on his desk at the Commune. Vadier shouted: “This slander was an invention of Barrère’s.” Another time, in order to demonstrate Robespierre’s and Saint-Just’s popular intentions to Vadier I reminded him the decrees that assured the poor the property of the enemies of the Revolution. Vadier interrupted me: “It’s precisely then... (Note by Buonarotti)
11. Phrase crossed out in the manuscript
12. Everyone was free to answer him that in destroying Robespierre they were destroying the Republic; that he could share neither their fears nor their designs. He left them without having been able to disabuse them and they dismissed him predicting that he would himself soon experience Robespierre’s tyranny. (Note by Buonarotti). This note would perhaps be better placed after the conversation reported above by Ingrand.
13. Buonarotti is alluding here to Perrin de l’Aube, sentenced for [concussion] to twelve years in irons, to Chabot, Basire, Delaunay d’Angers, Julien de Toulouse, who for payment falsified or allowed to be falsified the liquidation decree of the Indias Company, to Hérault de Séchelles, and Ossselin, etc., who gave asylum to émigrés. Hérault’s colleagues on the Committee of Public Safety didn’t want to meet in his presence, persuaded that he betrayed the secrecy of the deliberations.
14. The immorality was frightening. The immoral men were the intriguers who profited by the worries they gave birth to, the proud, who thought only of having themselves spoken of, the representatives and functionaries who stole, lived in luxury, treated the people harshly, insulted modesty, used public justice to avenge private insults, made mock of oaths, sought after wealth, mocked virtue and applauded vice. Through their vices these people were the enemies of equality. They feared the revolutionary government. They preached atheism to weaken souls and courage and to cause disgust with virtue and equality. They rendered patriotism odious and caused the people to be dissatisfied with the revolution. Robespierre saw the dangers of immorality. He saw that if it became dominant the immoral would hand the people over to aristocracy and royalty. He considered this system a form of conspiracy. He thought that if he didn’t oppose it the Republic and the Revolution were lost. He fought against that section of the people who had gone astray. He put a stop to atheist preaching. Virtue and probity. Festival of the Divinity. Sarcasm. Jokes. Calumnies. Intrigues. 9 Thermidor. Joined with the immoral were the demi-philosophers, the admirers of Voltaire, the materialists. (Note by Buonarotti)