« 36.10 The Revolution of the Jacobins |Contents | 36.12 The Directory »

36.11 The Jacobin Republic 1792-1794

And now followed a strange phase in the history of the French people. There arose a great flame of enthusiasm for France and the Republic. There was to be an end to compromise at home and abroad; at home royalists and every form of disloyalty were to be stamped out; abroad France was to be the protector and helper of all revolutionaries. All Europe, all the world, was to become republican. The youth of France poured into the Republican armies; a new and wonderful song spread through the land, a song that still warms the blood like wine, the Marseillaise. Before that chant and the leaping columns of French bayonets and their enthusiastically served guns the foreign armies rolled back; before the end of 1792 the French armies had gone far beyond the utmost achievements of Louis XIV; everywhere they stood on foreign soil. They were in Brussels, they had overrun Savoy, they had raided to Mayence; they had seized the Scheldt from Holland. Then the French Government did an unwise thing. It had been exasperated by the expulsion of its representative from England upon the execution of Louis, and it declared war against England. It was an unwise thing to do, because the revolution which had given France a new enthusiastic infantry and a brilliant artillery, released from its aristocratic officers and many cramping traditions, had destroyed the discipline of its navy, and the English were supreme upon the sea. And this provocation united all England against France, whereas there had been at first a very considerable liberal movement in Great Britain in sympathy with the revolution.

Of the fight that France made in the next few years against a European coalition we cannot tell in any detail. She drove the Austrians forever out of Belgium, and made Holland a republic. The Dutch fleet, frozen in the Texel, surrendered to a handful of cavalry without firing its guns. For some time the French thrust towards Italy was hung up, and it was only in 1796 that a new general, Napoleon Bonaparte, led the ragged and hungry republican armies in triumph across Piedmont to Mantua and Verona. An Outline of History cannot map out campaigns; but of the new quality that had come into war, it is bound to take note. The old professional armies had fought for the fighting, as slack as workers, paid by the hour; these wonderful new armies fought, hungry and thirsty, for victory. Their enemies called them the «New French». Says C. F. Atkinson,[1] «What astonished the Allies most of all was the number and the velocity of the Republicans. These improvised armies had in fact nothing to delay them. Tents were unprocurable for want of money, untransportable for want of the enormous number of wagons that would have been required, and also unnecessary, for the discomfort that would have caused wholesale desertion in professional armies was cheerfully borne by the men of 1793-94. Supplies for armies of then unheard-of size could not; be carried in convoys, and the French soon became familiar with living on the country. Thus 1793 saw the birth of the modern system of war -rapidity of movement, full development of, national strength, bivouacs, requisitions and force as against cautious, manoeuvring, small professional armies, tents and full rations, and chicane. The first represented the decision-compelling spirit, the second the spirit of risking little to gain a little..».

And while these ragged hosts of enthusiasts were chanting the Marseillaise and fighting for La France, manifestly never quite clear in their, minds whether they were looting or liberating the countries into which they poured, the republican enthusiasm in Paris was spending itself in a far less glorious fashion. Marat, the one man of commanding intelligence among the Jacobins, was now frantic with an incurable disease, and presently he was murdered; Danton was a series, of patriotic thunderstorms; the steadfast fanaticism of Robespierre dominated the situation. This man is difficult to judge; he was a man of poor physique, naturally timid, and a prig. But he had that most necessary gift for power, faith. He believed not in a god familiar to men, but in a certain Supreme Being, and that Rousseau was his prophet. He set himself to save the, republic as he conceived it, and, he imagined it could be saved by no other man than he. So that to keep in power was to have the republic. The living spirit of the republic, it seemed had sprung from a slaughter of royalists and the execution of the king. There were insurrections: one in the west, in the district of La Vendée, where the people rose against the conscription and against the dispossession of the orthodox clergy, and were led by noblemen and priests; one in the south, where Lyons and Marseilles had risen and the royalists of Toulon had admitted an English and Spanish garrison. To which there seemed no more effectual reply than to go on killing royalists.

Nothing could have better pleased the fierce heart of the Paris slums. The Revolutionary Tribunal went to work, and a steady slaughtering began.[2] The invention of the guillotine was opportune to this mood. The queen was guillotined, most of Robespierre’s antagonists were guillotined, atheists who argued that there was no Supreme Being were guillotined, Danton was guillotined because he thought there was too much guillotine; day by day, week by week, this infernal new machine chopped off heads and more heads and more. The reign of Robespierre lived, it seemed, on blood, and needed more and more, as an opium-taker needs more and more opium.

Danton was still Danton, leonine and exemplary upon the guillotine. «Danton», he said, «no weakness!»

And the grotesque thing about the story is that Robespierre was indubitably honest. He was far more honest than any of the group of men who succeeded him. He was inspired by a consuming passion for a new order of human life. So far as he could contrive it, the Committee of Public Safety, the emergency government of twelve which had now thrust aside the Convention, constructed. The scale on which it sought to construct was stupendous. All the intricate problems with which we still struggle today were met by swift and shallow solutions. Attempts were made to equalize property. «Opulence», said St. Just, «is infamous». The property of the rich was taxed or confiscated in order that it should be divided among the poor. Every man was to have a secure house, a living, a wife and children. The labourer was worthy of his hire, but not entitled to an advantage. There was an attempt to abolish profit altogether, the rude incentive of most human commerce since the beginning of society. Profit is the economic riddle that still puzzles us today. There were harsh laws against «profiteering» in France in 1793—England in 1919 found it necessary to make quite similar laws. And the Jacobien government not only replanned -in eloquent outline- the economic, but also the social system.

Divorce was made as easy as marriage; the distinction of legitimate and illegitimate children was abolished . . . A new calendar was devised, with new names for the months, a week of ten days, and the like that has long since been swept, away; but also the clumsy coinage and the tangled weights and measures of old France gave place to the simple and. lucid decimal system that still endures . . . There was a proposal from one extremist group to abolish, God among other institutions altogether, and to substitute the worship of Reason. There was, indeed, a Feast of Reason in the cathedral of Notre-Dame, with a pretty actress as the goddess of Reason. But against this Robespierre set his face; he was no atheist. «Atheism», he said, «is aristocratic. The idea of a Supreme Being who watches over oppressed innocence and punishes triumphant crime is essentially the idea of the people».

So he guillotined Hébert, who had celebrated the, Feast of Reason, and all his party.

A certain mental disorder became perceptible, in Robespierre as the summer of 1794 drew on. He was deeply concerned with his religion. (The arrests and executions of suspects were going on now as briskly as ever. Through the streets of Paris every day rumbled the Terror with its carts full of condemned people.) He induced the Convention to decree that France believed in a Supreme Being, and in that comforting doctrine, the immortality of the soul. In June he celebrated a great festival, the festival of his Supreme Being. There was a procession to the Champ de Mars, which he headed, brilliantly arrayed, bearing a great bunch of flowers and wheat ears. Figures of inflammatory material, representing Atheism and Vice, were solemnly burnt; then, by an ingenious mechanism, and with some slight creakings, an incombustible statue of Wisdom rose in their place. There were discourses -Robespierre delivered the chief one- but apparently no worship . . .

Thereafter Robespierre displayed a disposition to brood aloof from affairs. For a month he kept away from the Convention.

One day in July he reappeared and delivered a strange speech that clearly foreshadowed fresh prosecutions. «Gazing on the multitude of vices which the torrent of Revolution has rolled down», he cried, in his last great speech in the Convention, «I have sometimes trembled lest I should be soiled by the impure neighbourhood of wicked men . . . I know that it is easy for the leagued tyrants of the world to, overwhelm a single individual; but I know also what is the duty of a man who can die in the defence of humanity». . . .

And so on to vague utterances that seemed to threaten everyone.

The Convention heard this speech in silence; then when a proposal was made to print and circulate it, broke into a resentful uproar and refused permission. Robespierre went off in bitter resentment to the club of his supporters, and re-read his speech to them!

That night was full of talk and meetings and preparations for the morrow, and the next morning the Convention turned upon Robespierre. One Tallien threatened him with a dagger. When he tried to speak, he was shouted down, and the President jingled the bell at him. «President of Assassins», cried Robespierre, «I demand speech!» It was refused him. His voice deserted him; he coughed and spluttered. «The blood of Danton chokes him», cried someone.

He was accused and arrested there and then with his chief supporters.

Whereupon the Hotel de Ville, still’ stoutly Jacobin, rose against the Convention, and Robespierre and his companions were snatched out of the hands of their captors. There was a night of gathering, marching, counter-marching; and at last, about three in the morning; the forces of the Convention faced the form of the Commune outside the Hotel de Ville. Henriot, the Jacobin commander, after a busy day was drunk upstairs; a parley ensued, and then, after some indecision, the soldiers of the Commune went over to the Government. There was a shouting of patriotic sentiments, and someone looked out from the Hotel de Ville. Robespierre and his last companions found themselves betrayed and trapped.

Two or three of these men threw themselves out of a window, and injured themselves frightfully on the railings below without killing themselves. Others attempted suicide. Robespierre, it seems, was shot in the lower jaw by a gendarme. He was found, his eyes staring from a pale face whose lower part was blood.

Followed seventeen hours of agony before his end. He spoke never a word during that time, his jaw being bound up roughly in dirty linen. He and his companions, and the broken, dying bodies of, those who, had jumped from the windows, twenty-two men altogether, were taken to the guillotine instead of the condemned, appointed for that day. Mostly his eyes were closed, but, says Carlyle, he opened them to see the great knife rising above him, and struggled. Also it would seem he screamed when the executioner removed his bandages. Then the knife came down, swift and merciful.

The Terror was at an end. From first to last there had been condemned and executed about four thousand people.

[1]In his article, “French Revolutionary Wars,” Encyclopaedia Britannica.
[2]In the thirteen months before June, 1794, there were 1,229 executions; in the following seven weeks there were 1,376. —P.G.

« 36.10 The Revolution of the Jacobins |Contents | 36.12 The Directory »

comments powered by Disqus

Table Of Contents