We are approaching the mountain top.
Here is the Convention.
The attention must be fixed on this summit.
Never did anything higher appear on man's horizon.
There is Mt. Himalaya, and there is the Convention.
The Convention is perhaps the culminating point in history.
During the lifetime of the Convention, for it lived as an assembly, people did not realize its significance. Its grandeur was exactly what escaped the contemporaries; they were too much frightened to be dazzled. There is a sacred horror about everything grand. It is easy to admire mediocrity and hills; but whatever is too lofty, a genius as well as a mountain, an assembly as well as a masterpiece, seen too near, is appalling. Every summit seems an exaggeration. Climbing wearies. The steepnesses take away one's breath; we slip on the slopes, we are hurt by the sharp points which are its beauty; the foaming torrents betray the precipices, clouds hide the mountain tops; mounting is full of terror, as well as a fall. Hence, there is more dismay than admiration. People have a strange feeling of aversion to anything grand. They see abysses, they do not see sublimity; they see the monster, they do not see the prodigy. Thus the Convention was judged at first. The Convention was measured by the shortsighted, when it was made to be contemplated by eagles.
To-day it is in perspective, and it stands out against the deep sky in a serene and tragic distance—the immense profile of the Revolution.
The fourteenth of July gave it birth.
The tenth of August thundered it forth.
The twenty-first of September founded it.
The twenty-first of September, the equinox, the equilibrium, Libra. The balance. In accordance with Romme's suggestion, it was under this sign of Equality and Justice that the Republic was proclaimed. A constellation announced its coming.
The Convention is the first avatar of the people. With the Convention, the great new page is turned, and the future of to-day begins.
Every idea must have a visible covering; every principle must have a dwelling-place; a church is God within four walls; every dogma must have a temple. When the Convention came into existence, there was a first problem to be solved; where to locate the Convention.
First, the Ménage was taken, then the Tuileries. A frame-work was raised, with scenery, a great camaieu, painted by David, seats systematically arranged, a square tribune, parallel pilasters, with socles like blocks, and long rectilinear stems, rectangular alveoles, where the multitude crowded, and which were called public tribunes; a Roman velarium, Greek draperies, and within these right angles and these straight lines the Convention was established; in this geometrical space the tempest was confined. On the tribune, the red cap was painted in gray. The Royalists began by laughing at this gray red cap, this artificial hall, this monument of pasteboard, this sanctuary of papier-maché, this pantheon of mud and spittle. How quickly all that was to disappear! The columns were of barrel staves, the arches of batten, the bas-reliefs of mastic, the entablatures were of deal boards; the statues were made of plaster, the marbles were paint, the walls were linen; and out of this temporary structure, France has made an everlasting institution.
When the Convention held its sessions in the hall of the Ménage, the walls were completed, covered with notices which had flooded Paris at the time of the return from Varennes. One read thus: "The king returns; whoever cheers him will be beaten, whoever insults him will be hanged." Another, thus: "Peace. Hats on the head. He is going to pass before his judges." Another, thus: "The king has aimed at the nation. He has hung fire; it is the nation's turn to shoot now." Another: "Law! Law!" It was within these walls that the Convention judged Louis XVI.
At the Tuilleries, where the Convention began to sit on the tenth of May, 1793, and which was called the National Palace, the place of assembly occupied the entire space between the Pavilion de l'Horloge, called Pavilion of Unity, and the Pavilion Marsan, called Pavilion of Liberty. The Pavilion de Flore was called the Pavilion of Equality. The assembly hall was reached by the grand staircase of Jean Bullant. Under the second story occupied by the assembly, the entire ground floor of the palace was a sort of long guardroom, filled with bundles and camp beds of the armed troops which watched over the Convention. The assembly had a guard of honor, called the "grenadiers of the Convention."
A tricolored ribbon separated the castle, where the assembly was held, from the garden where the people came and went.
Let us finish describing the hall where the sessions were held. Everything about that terrible place is full of interest.
What struck one's notice on entering was a lofty statue of Liberty, standing between two large windows.
Forty-two metres long, ten metres wide, eleven metres high, these were the dimensions of what had once been the theatre of the king, and which was to be the theatre of the Revolution. The elegant, magnificent hall built by Vigarani for the courtiers disappeared beneath the rough timber-work which in '93 supported the weight of the people. This framework on which the public tribunes were erected, had for its only point of support, a single post, a detail worthy of note. This post was in one single piece, and was ten metres in length. Few caryatides have accomplished as much as this post; for years it held up the weight of the Revolution. It bore cheering, enthusiasm, insults, noise, tumult, the immense chaos of anger, riot. It never gave way. After the Convention, it saw the Conseil des Anciens. The eighteenth Brumaire relieved it.
Percier then replaced the wooden pillar with columns of marble, which were less durable.
The ideal of architecture is sometimes strange; the architect of the Rue de Rivoli had the trajectory of a cannon-ball for his ideal, the architect of Carlsruhe had a fan for his ideal; a gigantic bureau drawer seems to have been the ideal of the architect who planned the hall where the Convention first sat the tenth of May, 1793; it was long, high, and flat. On one of the long sides of the parallelogram was a wide semicircle; this was the amphitheatre, with seats for the representatives, but without tables or desk; Garan-Coulon, who wrote much, wrote on his knee; opposite the seats was the tribune; in front of the tribune, a bust of Lepelletier-Saint-Fargeau; behind the tribune, the president's arm-chair.
The head of the bust came a little above the edge of the tribune, which caused its removal later on.
The amphitheatre was composed of nineteen semi-circular benches, rising one behind another; portions of the benches, prolonged the amphitheatre into the two corners.
Below, in the horseshoe at the foot of the tribune, stood the ushers.
On one side of the tribune, in a black wooden frame, was fastened to the wall a placard nine feet high, bearing on two pages, separated by a sort of sceptre, the declaration of the rights of man; on the other side was an empty space which was filled later by a similar frame containing the constitution of the year II., the two pages of which were separated by a sword. Above the tribune, above the head of the orator, from a deep box divided into two compartments, filled with people, fluttered three great tricolored flags resting almost horizontally on an altar bearing this word, "LAW." Behind this altar rose, like the sentinel of free speech, an enormous Roman fasces, as tall as a column. Colossal statues straight against the wall, faced the representatives. The president had Lycurgus on his right and Solon on his left, above the Mountain was Plato.
The pedestals of these statues were simple dies, placed on a long, projecting cornice extending all around the hall and separating the people from the assembly. The spectators leaned their elbows on this cornice.
The black wooden frame containing the rights of man, reached to the cornice and cut into the design of the entablature, breaking the straight line; this caused Chabot to complain, "It is ugly," he said to Vadier.
The heads of the statues were crowned alternately with wreaths of oak and laurel.
A green drapery, painted with similar crowns in a darker shade of green, fell in deep, straight folds from the cornice of the periphery, and entirely covered the wall of the lower part of the hall occupied by the assembly. Above this drapery, the wall was white and cold. In this wall, as if hollowed out with a punch, with neither moulding nor foliage were two rows of public tribunes, square at the base and round at the top; according to the rule, for Vitruvius was not dethroned; the archivaults were superimposed on the architraves. There were ten tribunes on each of the long sides of the hall, and at each of the two ends two huge boxes; in all, twenty-four. Into these the multitudes flocked.
The spectators in the lower row of tribunes overflowed on all the gunnels, and formed in groups on all the reliefs of the architecture. A long iron bar, securely fastened breast high, served as a railing for the upper tribunes and protected the spectators from the crowding of the throngs coming up the staircase. Once, however, a man was pushed over into the assembly; he fell a little on Massieu, bishop of Beauvais, and so was not killed, and said: "Well! so a bishop is really good for something!"
The hall of the Convention could hold two thousand people: on days of insurrection, three thousand.
The convention had two sessions, one in the daytime, one in the evening.
The back of the president's chair was round, decorated with gilt nails. His table rested on four winged monsters with a single foot, that seemed to have come out of the Apocalypse to be present at the Revolution. They looked as if they had been taken out of Ezekiel's chariot to draw Samson's tumbrel.
On the president's table there was a great bell, almost as large as a church bell, a large copper inkstand, and a folio volume bound in parchment, which contained the official reports.
Decapitated heads, borne on the end of a pike, dripped blood on this table.
The tribune was reached by means of nine steps. These steps were high, steep, and difficult to mount; Gensonné stumbled one day as he was ascending them. "They are scaffold stairs!" he said. "Serve your apprenticeship," exclaimed Carrier.
In the corners of the hall, where the wall semed too bare, the architect had placed fasces for ornamentation, with the axe outside.
On the right and on the left of the tribune, there were pedestals bearing two candelabra twelve feet high, each with four pairs of lamps. Each public box had similar candelabra. On the pedestals of these candelabra there were carved circles, which the people called "guillotine collars."
The seats of the Assembly rose almost to the cornice of the tribunes; the representatives and the people could converse together.
The exits of the tribunes opened into a labyrinth of corridors, usually filled with a furious din.
The convention crowded the palace and overflowed into the neighboring mansions. Hôtel de Longueville and Hôtel de Coigny. Hôtel de Coigny was where the royal furniture was removed after the tenth of August, if a letter of Lord Bradford's can be believed. It took two months to dismantle the Tuileries.
The commitee had their quarters in the vicinity of the hall; the Committees of Legislature, Agriculture, and Commerce were in the Pavilion Egalité; those of the Marine, Colonies, Finance, Assignats and Public Welfare in the Pavilion Liberté. The committee of War was in the Pavilion Unité.
The Committee of General Safety communicated directly with the Committee of Public Welfare by means of a dark passage lighted day and night by a reflector, where the spies of every party came and went. People never spoke there.
The bar of the Convention was several times removed. Usually, it was at the president's right hand.
At the ends of the hall, the vertical partitions which closed the concentric semicircles of the amphitheatre, left between them and the wall two narrow, deep lobbies from which opened two dark square doors. These were means of entrance and exit.
The representatives entered the hall directly by a door opening from the Terrace des Feuillants.
This hall, dimly lighted in the daytime by small windows, poorly lighted in the evening with ghastly lamps, had a strange nocturnal gloom about it. This dim illumination, together with the evening shades, made the sessions by lamplight dismal. The people could not see each other; from one end of the hall to the other, from right to left, groups of indistinct faces insulted each other. People met without recognizing one another. One day as Laignelot was hurrying to the tribune he ran against some one in the inclined passage. "Beg pardon, Robespierre," he said. "Whom do you take me for?" replied a harsh voice. "Beg pardon, Marat," said Laignelot.
Two of the lower tribunes, to the right and left of the president were reserved, for strange to say, there were privileged spectators at the Convention. These were the only tribunes having any drapery. In the centre of the architrave this drapery was caught up by two gold tassels. The tribunes for the people were bare.
The effect of all this was intense, savage, regular. Savage correctness; this is a suggestion of the whole Revolution. The hall of the Convention offers the most complete specimen of what artists have since called "architecture Messidor"; it was massive and slender. The builders of that period took symmetry for beauty. The last word of the Renaissance had been spoken under Louis XV., and a reaction followed. The noble in art had been carried to insipidity, and purity to monotony. There is such a thing as prudery in architecture. After the dazzling orgies in form and color of the eighteenth century, art was put on a diet, and allowed nothing but the straight line. This sort of progress ended in ugliness. Art reduced to a skeleton, was the result. This was the advantage of this kind of wisdom and abstinence; the style was so sober that it became lean.
Setting aside all political feeling, and looking at it from an architectural point of view, there was something about this hall that made one shiver. One recalled confusedly, the former theatre, the garlanded boxes, its blue and crimson ceiling, its facetted chandeliers, its girandoles, with diamond reflections, its dove-colored hangings, its profusion of cupids and nymphs on the curtains and draperies, the whole royal and erotic idyl painted, carved and gilded, which had filled this stern place with its smile, and one saw all about him these hard right angles, cold and sharp as steel; it was something like Boucher guillotined by David.
Whoever saw the Assembly never gave a second thought to the hall. Whoever saw the drama gave no thought to the theatre. Nothing was more deformed, nor more sublime. A pile of heroes, a herd of cowards. Wild beasts on a mountain, reptiles in a marsh. There swarmed, jostled, challenged, threatened, fought and lived, all those combatants who are to-day but phantoms.
A gathering of Titans.
On the right, the Gironde,—a legion of thinkers; on the left the mountain,—a group of athletes. On one side, Buissot, who received the keys of the Bastille; Barbaroux, whom the Marseilles troops obeyed; Kervélégan, who had the battalion of Brest garrisoned in the Faubourg Saint Marceau, under his hand; Gersonné, who established the supremacy of representatives over generals; the fatal Gaudet, to whom the queen showed the sleeping dauphin one night at the Tuileries, Gaudet kissed the child's forehead and caused the father to lose his head; Salles, the fanciful denouncer of the intimacies between the Mountain and Austria; Sillery, the humpback of the Right, as Couthon was the cripple of the Left. Lause-Duperret, who when called a "rascal" by a journalist, invited him to dine with him, saying: "I know that rascal means simply a man who does not think as we do"; Rabaut-Saint-Etienne, who commenced his Almanac of 1790 with these words: "The revolution is ended"; Quinette, one of those who overthrew Louis XVI.; the Jansenist Camus, who framed the evil constitution of the clergy, believed in the miracles of the deacon Pâris, and knelt down every night before a Christ seven feet high, nailed against the wall of his room; Fauchet, a priest who, with Camille Desmoulins, caused the fourteenth of July; Isnarn, who committed the crime of saying "Paris will be destroyed," at the same moment that Brunswick said: "Paris will be burned"; Jacob Dupont, the first one to exclaim "I am an Atheist," and to whom Robespierre replied: "Atheism is aristocratic"; Lanjuinais, a stern, wise, and brave Breton; Ducos, the Euryalus of Boyer-Fonfrède; Rebecqui, the pylades of Barbaroux, Rebecqui gave in his resignation because Robespierre had not been guillotined; Richaud, who fought the permanency of the Sections; Lasource, who uttered this murderous apophthegm: "Woe to thankful nations!" and who afterwards at the foot of the scaffold, was to contradict himself by hurling this proud speech at those of the Mountain: "We die because the people are asleep, and you will die because the people will awaken"; Biroteau, who had the abolition of inviolability decreed, and was thus unconsciously the forger of the chopping-knife, and erected the scaffold for himself; Charles Villatte, who shielded his conscience behind this protestation: "I do not wish to vote under the knife"; Louvet, the author of Faublas, who was to end as a bookseller in the Palais Royal with Lodoïska behind the counter; Mercier, the author of the "Tableau de Paris," who exclaimed: "Every king felt for the nape of his neck the twenty-first of January"; Marec, whose anxiety was the faction of ancient boundaries; the journalist Carra, who said to the executioner at the foot of the scaffold: "It annoys me to die. I should have liked to see what follows"; Vigée, who had the title of grenadier in the second battalion of Mayence-et-Loire, who, when threatened by the public tribunes, cried out: "I ask that at the first murmur of the public tribunes, we withdraw and march to Versailles, sword in hand!" Buzot, destined to die of hunger; Valazé, victim of his own dagger; Condorcet, who was to die at Bourg-la-Reine, changed to Bourg-Egalité, denounced by the Horace he carried in his pocket; Pétion, whose fate was to be worshipped by the multitude in 1792, and devoured by the wolves in 1794; twenty others beside, Pontécoulant, Marboz, Lidon, Saint-Martin, Dussaulx, the translator of "Juvenal," who took part in the campaign of Hanover; Boileau, Bertrand, Lesterp-Beauvais, Lesage, Gomaire, Gardien, Mainvielle, Duplantier, Lacaze, Antiboul, and at their head a Barnave called Vergniaud.
On the other side, Antoine-Louise-Léon Florelle de Saint-Just, pale, with a low forehead, regular profile, mysterious eye, exceedingly melancholy, twenty-three years of age; Merlin de Thionville, whom the Germans called Feuer-Teufel, "fire devil"; Merlin de Douai, the guilty author of the "Law of the Suspected"; Soubrany, whom the people of Paris, on the first Prairial asked to have for a general; the former priest Lebon, holding a sword in his hand which had once scattered holy water; Billaud-Varennes, who foresaw the magistracy of the future, no judges but arbiters; Fabre d'Eglantine who made a charming discovery, the Republican calendar, just as Rouget de Lisle had a sublime inspiration, the Marseillaise, and neither were guilty of a second offence; the attorney of the Commune, who said: "A dead king is not a man less"; Gougon, who entered Tripstadt, Newstadt, and Spire, and saw the Prussian army flee; Lacroix, a lawyer turned general, made chevalier de Saint-Louis six days before the tenth of August; Fréron Thersite, son of Fréron-Zoïle; Ruth the inexorable investigator of the iron press, destined for a great Republican suicide:—he was to kill himself the day the Republic died; Fouché, with the soul of a demon, and the face of a corpse; Camboulas, the friend of Father Duchesne, who said to Guillotin: "You belong to the club of the Feuillants, but your daughter belongs to the club of the Jacobins"; Jagot, who gave this savage reply to those complaining about the nakedness of the prisoner: "A prison is a garment of stone;" Javogues, the terrible spoiler of the tombs of Saint-Denis; Osselin, the proscriber, who hid in his house Madame Charry, one of the proscribed; Bentabolle, who, when he presided, made signs to the tribunes to cheer or to hoot; the journalist Robert, the husband of Mademoiselle Kéralio, who wrote: "Neither Robespierre nor Marat come to my house; Robespierre may come whenever he wishes; Marat never"; Garan-Coulon, who had proudly demanded, when Spain interposed in the trial of Louis XVI., that the Assembly should not condescend to read a letter from a king in behalf of a king; Grégoire at first a worthy bishop of the Primitive Church, but who afterwards under the Empire obliterated the Republican Grégoire with Count Grégoire; Amar, who said,—
"The whole earth condemns Louis XVI. To whom then shall we appeal for judgment? To the planets?"
Rouyer, who was opposed to having the cannon fired from the Pont-Neuf the twenty-first of January, saying,—
"A king's head will not make any more noise in falling than the head of any other man;" Chénier, André's brother; Vadier, one of those who laid a pistol on the tribune; Tanis, who said to Momoro,—
"I want Marat and Robespierre to embrace each other at my table in my house."
"Where do you live?"
"I should have been surprised if it were anywhere else," said Momoro. Legendre, who was the butcher of the French Revolution, as Pride was the butcher of the Revolution of England.
"Come, let me knock you down!" he exclaimed to Lanjuinais. And Lanjuinais replied,—
"First let it be decreed that I am an ox." Collot d'Herbois, that melancholy comedian, wearing over his face the ancient mask with two mouths which said yes and no, approving with one what it blamed with the other, branding Carrier at Nantes and defying Châlier at Lyons, sending Robespierre to the scaffold, and Marat to the Panthéon; Génissieux who demanded the penalty of death for those who wore the medallion, "Louis XVI. martyrisé; Léonard Bourdon, the schoolmaster, who offered his house to the old man of Mont Jura; Topsent, the sailor; Goupilleau, the lawyer; Laurent Lecointre, a merchant; Duhem, a physician; Sergent, the sculptor; David, the painter; Joseph Egalité, a prince.
Besides these, Lecointe Puiraveau, who asked to have Marat decreed to be "in a state of lunacy;" Robert Lindet, the disquieting creator of that devil-fish, whose head was the Committee of General Safety, and which covered France with twenty-one thousand arms called the Revolutionary Committees; Lebœuf, about whom Girey-Dupré, in his "Christmas of False Patriots" wrote this verse,—
"Lebœuf saw Legendre and bellowed."
Thomas Paine, an American, and merciful; Anacharsis Cloots, a German baron, a millionaire, atheist, Hébertist, candid; the upright Lebas, friend of the Duplays; Rovère, one of those rare men who are wicked for wickedness' sake, because art for art's sake exists more than people are aware of; Charlier who wished to have the aristocrats formally addressed; Tallien, an elegist and cruel, who will cause the ninth Thermidor from love; Cambacérès, an attorney who will be prince; Carrier, an attorney who will be a tiger; Laplanche, who exclaimed one day: "I demand priority for the alarm-gun;" Thuriot, who wanted to have the jury of the Revolutionary Tribunal vote by acclamation; Bourdon de l'Oise, who challenged Chambon, denounced Paine, and was denounced by Hébert; Fayau who proposed "to send an incendiary army" to la Vendée; Tavaux, who came near being a mediator between la Gironde and the Mountain; Venier, who asked to have the Girondist Chiefs and the chiefs of the Mountain serve as common soldiers; Rewbell, who shut himself up in Mayence; Bourbotte, who had his horse killed under him, at the taking of Saumur; Guimberteau, who directed the army of the coast of Cherbourg; Jard-Panvilliers, who directed the army of the coast of Rochelle; Lecarpentier, who directed the squadron of Cancale; Roberjot, for whom the ambush of Rastad was waiting; Prieur de la Marne, who in camp wore his old counter-epaulet of major; Levasseurde la Sarthe, who with a word decided Surrent, commandant of the battalion of Saint-Amand, to commit suicide; Reverchon, Maure, Bernard de Saintes, Charles Richard, Lequinio, and at the head of this group a Mirabeau called Danton.
Outside these two camps, and respected by both, rose a single man, Robespierre.
Below crouched Terror, which can be noble, and Fear which is base. Beneath passion, beneath heroism, beneath devotion, beneath rage, was the melancholy crowd of the anonymous. The dregs of the Assembly were called la Plaine. It contained everything drifting; men who doubted, who hesitated, who recoiled, who procrastinated, those who were spies, each fearing somebody. The Mountain was the elite; la Plaine was the common crowd. La Plaine was summed up and condensed in Sieyès.
Sieyès was a deep man who had grown shallow. He had stopped at the Third-Estate and had never been able to rise to the height of the people. Certain minds are so constituted that they never pass beyond mediocrity. Sieyès called Robespierre a tiger, and he called Sieyès a mole. This metaphysician had arrived not at wisdom, but at prudence. He was the courtier, not the servitor of the Revolution. He took a shovel and went to work with the people in the Champ-de-Mars, harnessed to the same wagon with Alexandre de Beauharnais. He advised energy, but never made use of it. He said to the Girondists: "Put the cannon on your side." There are thinkers who are fighters, such as Condorcet with Vergniaud, or Camille Desmoulins with Danton. There are thinkers who are anxious to live; such were with Sieyès.
The most generous vats have their dregs. Below even the Plaine there was the Marais. Hideous stagnation disclosing the transparencies of egotism. There the fearful trembled in dumb expectation. The infamous without shame; latent anger; revolt under servitude. They were cynically frightened; they had all the courage of cowardice; they preferred la Gironde and chose the Mountain; the final result depended on them; they poured out on the successful side; they delivered Louis XVI. to Vergniaud, Vergniaud to Danton, Danton to Robespierre, Robespierre to Tallien. They pilloried Marat while he was alive, and deified Marat after he was dead. They upheld everything till the day when they overthrew everything. Their instinct was to give a decisive push to everything that tottered. In their eyes, as they had been brought into service on condition that there should be solidity, to waver was to betray them. They were numbers, they were force, they were fear. Hence the daring of baseness.
They were the cause of May 31st, the eleventh Germinal, the ninth Thermidor; tragedies knotted by giants and untied by dwarfs.
With these men full of passion, were mingled men full of dreams. The Utopia was there in all its forms; in its warlike form, which admitted the scaffold, and in its innocent form which abolished capital punishment; a spectre when facing thrones, an angel when facing the people. Opposed to the fighting minds were the brooding minds. The first had war in their heads; the others, peace; one brain, Carnot, gave birth to fourteen armies; another brain, Jean Derby, meditated an universal democratic confederation. In the midst of this furious eloquence, among these voices howling and raging, there were fecund silences. Lakanal was silent, and thought out public national education; Lanthenas was silent, and created the primary schools; Revellière-Lepaux was silent, and dreamed of elevating philosophy to the dignity of religion. Others busied themselves with questions of detail, less pretentious and more practical. Guyton-Morveaux studied the salubrity of hospitals; Maire, the abolition of actual servitude; Jean-Bon-Saint-André, the suppression of arrest and imprisonment for debt; Romme, the proposition of Chappe; Duboë, the ordering of the archives; Coren-Fustier, the creation of the cabinet of Anatomy and the Museum of Natural History; Guyomard, river navigation and the damming of the Escaut.
Art had its monomaniacs; January 21st, while the head of the monarchy was falling in the place de la Revolution, Bézard, representative from l'Oise, went to see a picture by Rubens, found in a garret in Rue Saint-Lazare. Artists, orators, prophets, great men like Danton, petty men like Cloots, gladiators and philosophers, all were striving for the same end,—progress. Nothing disconcerted them. The grandeur of the Convention lay in finding out how much reality there was in what men called impossible. At one extreme, Robespierre had his eye fixed on Law; at the other extreme, Condorcet had his eye fixed on Duty.
Condorcet was a dreamer and a clear-sighted man; Robespierre was a man of executive ability; and sometimes in the final crises of worn-out societies, execution means extermination. Revolutions have two slopes, ascent and descent, and bear, terraced on these slopes, all the seasons from ice to flowers. Each zone of these slopes produces men suited to its climate, from those who live in the sun to those who live in lightning.
People showed each other the corner of the passage on the left where Robespierre whispered in the ear of Garat, Clavière's friend, this terrible epigram: "Clavière has conspired wherever he has respired." In this same nook, convenient for asides and whispered anger, Fabre and d'Eglantine had quarrelled with Romme, and reproached him for disfiguring his calendar by changing Fervidor to Thermidor.
People pointed out the corner where the seven representatives of the Haute-Garonne sat, elbow to elbow; the first called to pronounce their verdict on Louis XVI., they replied one after another: Mailhe, "death"; Delmas, "death"; Projean, "death"; Calés, "death"; Ayral, "death"; Julien, "death"; Dasaby, "death."
An eternal reverberation which has filled all history, and which, since human justice exists, has always given the echo of the grave to the wall of the tribunal. People pointed out, among this riotous crowd of faces, all those men who had been the cause of the hubbub of tragic votes:—Paganel, who said,—
"Death. A king is of no use until he is dead." Millaud, who said,—
"If death did not exist to-day, it would be necessary to invent it." The old Raffron du Trouillet, who said,—
"Death, come quickly!" Goupilleau, who exclaimed,—
"The scaffold immediately. Slowness aggravates death." Sieyés, who exclaimed with funereal conciseness,—
"Death." Thuriot, who rejected the appeal to the people proposed by Buzot,—
"What! primary assemblies! what! forty-four thousand tribunals! Trial without end. The head of Louis XVI. would have time to turn white before it would fall." Augustin-Bon Robespierre, who exclaimed after his brother,—
"I know nothing of a humanity which slaughters nations, and pardons despots; to ask a reprieve is to substitute an appeal to tyrants for the appeal to the people. Foussedoire, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre's substitute, who said,—
"I have a horror of shedding human blood, but the blood of a king is not the blood of a man. Death." Jean-Bon-Saint-André, who said,—
"No free people, unless the tyrant dies." Lavicomterie, who proclaimed this formula,—
"While the tyrant breathes, liberty suffocates. Death." Chateauneuf-Randon, who cried,—
"The death of Louis the Last." Guyardin, who gave utterance to this wish,—
"Let the 'Barrière-Renversée' be executed (the Barrière-Renversée, or overthrown barrier, was the Barrière du Trône). Tellier, who said,—
"Let a cannon of the size of Louis XVI.'s head be forged, to use against the enemy."
And the indulgents: Gentil, who said,—
"I vote for imprisonment. To make a Charles I. is to make a Cromwell." Bancal, who said,—
"Exile. I want to see the first king of the universe condemned to learn a trade in order to earn his living." Albouys, who said,—
"Banishment. Let this living spectre go to wander about thrones." Zangiacomi, who said,—
"Let us keep Capet alive for a scarecrow." Chaillon, who said,—
"Let him live, I would not put to death one whom Rome would canonize."
While these sentences were falling from these stern lips, and one after another became historical, in the tribunes, women wearing low-necked dresses and jewels, holding the list, counted the voices and pricked each vote with a pin.
Wherever tragedy enters in, horror and pity remain.
To see the Convention during any period of its reign was to see the judgment of the last Capet over again; the legend of January 21st seemed mingled with all its proceedings; the dreadful assembly was full of those fatal breaths, which had blown over the old torch of monarchy lighted for eighteen centuries, and had put it out; the decisive trial for all kings in one king was like the crises in the great war on the Past; at whatever session of the Convention one was present, the shadow cast by the scaffold of Louis XVI. seemed to brood over it; the spectators related to each other the resignation of Kersaint, the resignation of Roland, how Duchâtel, the deputy of the Deux-Sèvres, being ill, was brought on his bed, and, while dying, voted for the king's life, which caused Marat to laugh; people looked around for the representative, forgotten by history to-day, who, after that session of thirty-seven hours, dropped on his bench overcome with weariness and sleep, and, awakened by the usher when it was his turn to vote, opened his eyes, said "Death!" and fell asleep again.
At the time Louis XVI. was condemned to die, Robespierre had eighteen months longer to live; Danton, fifteen months; Vergniaud, nine months; Marat, five months and three weeks; Lepelletier-Saint-Fargeau, one day. Short and terrible breath from human mouths!
The people had one window opening on the Convention, the public tribunes, and when this was insufficient they opened the door, and the street entered the Assembly.
These invasions of the multitude into the senate are one of the most extraordinary sights of history. These irruptions were usually cordial. The street-crossing fraternized with the curule-chair. But it was a terrible cordiality which the people showed one day when in three hours they took the cannon and forty thousand guns, from the Invalides.
Each instant the session was interrupted by a march of men; deputations, petitions, homages, offerings were received at the bar. The pike of honor from the Faubourg-Saint-Antoine entered, borne by women. The English offered twenty thousand shoes to our bare-footed soldiers.
"Citizen Arnoux," said the Moniteur, "priest of Aubignan, commandant of the battalion de la Drôme, asks to march to the frontiers, and to have his parish preserved for him."
Delegates came from the sections, bringing on hand-barrows, dishes, patens, chalices, monstrances, piles of gold, silver, and silver-gilt, as offerings to the country from this multitude in rags, and asked as a recompense permission to dance the carmagnole, or Revolutionary dance, before the Convention. Chenard, Narbonne, and Vallière came singing verses in honor of the Mountain.
The Section of Mont-Blanc brought the bust of Lepelletier, and a woman placed a red cap on the head of the president, who kissed it; "the citizenesses of the Section du Mail" threw flowers to "the legislators"; the "pupils of the country" came, to the sound of music, to thank the Convention for having "prepared the prosperity of the age"; the women from the Section of the Gardes-Françaises offered roses; the women from the Section of the Champs-Elysées offered a wreath of oak leaves; the women from the Section of the Temple came to the bar to take the oath "to marry none but true Republicans"; the Section of Molière presented a medal of Franklin, which was decreed to be suspended from the crown of the statue of Liberty; the Enfants-Trouvés, declared "children of the Republic" filed in, dressed in the national uniform; the young girls from the Section of Ninety-two came in long, white dresses, and the following day the Moniteur contained this line: "The president received a bouquet from the hands of a young beauty."
The orators saluted the crowds; sometimes they flattered them, they said: "You are infallible, you are irreproachable, you are sublime"; the people have a childish side, they like these sugarplums. Sometimes the disturbance went through the Assembly, entering in a rage and going out peacefully, as the Rhône passes through Lake Leman, looking like mud when it enters, and deep blue when it leaves it.
Sometimes it was less pacific, and Henriot had gridirons for heating the cannon balls brought to the door of the Tuileries.
At the same time the Assembly freed itself from the revolution; it produced civilization. A furnace, but a forge. In this vat where terror boiled, progress fermented. Out of this chaos of shadow and this stormy flight of clouds, shone immense rays of light parallel to the eternal laws. Rays which have remained on the horizon and forever visible in the sky of the people, and which are justice, toleration, goodness, reason, truth, love.
The Convention promulgated this great axiom: "The liberty of one citizen ends where the liberty of another citizen begins," which comprises in two lines the entire law of human society. It declared indigence sacred; it declared infirmity sacred, in the blind and the deaf-mutes who became wards of the State; maternity sacred, in the girl-mother, whom it consoled and relieved; childhood sacred, in the orphan that it caused to be adopted by the country; innocence sacred, in the acquittal of the accused, whom it indemnified. It branded the slave trade; it abolished slavery. It proclaimed civic joint responsibility. It decreed gratuitous instruction. It organized national education: by the normal school in Paris, by the central school in the principal towns, and primary schools in the Commune. It created conservatories and museums. It decreed unity of the Code, unity of weights and measures, unity of calculation by the decimal system. It established the finances of France, and caused public credit to follow the long monarchical bankruptcy. It brought the telegraph into use, gave endowed hospitals for the aged, clean hospitals to the sick, the Polytechnic school to instruction, the Bureau of Longitudes to science, the institute to the human mind.
It was cosmopolitan as well as national. Of the eleven thousand two hundred and ten decrees passed by the Convention, one third have a political aim, two thirds have a humanitarian aim. It declared morals to be the universal foundation of society, and conscience the universal foundation of law. And all this—slavery abolished, brotherhood proclaimed, humanity protected, human conscience rectified, the law of work transformed to a privilege, and from being onerous made helpful, national wealth strengthened, childhood brightened and assisted, letters and science propagated, light shed on every summit, help for all the wretched, encouragement of all principals,—all this the Convention brought about, having in its vitals that hydra, la Vendée, and on its shoulders that pile of tigers, the kings.
Tremendous stage! All types; human, inhuman, and superhuman were there. Epic gathering of antagonism; Guillotine avoiding David, Bagire insulting Chabot, Gaudet jeering at Saint-Just, Vergniaud scorning Danton, Louvet attacking Robespierre, Buzot denouncing Egalité, Chambon branding Pache,—all execrating Marat.
And how many other names ought to be recorded still! Armonville, called Bonnet-Rouge, because he would only sit in a Phrygian cap, a friend of Robespierre, and wishing "after Louis XVI. to have Robespierre guillotined" from a love of equilibrium; Massieu, a colleague and double of that good Lamourette, a bishop made to leave his name to a kiss; Lehardy du Morbihan stigmatizing the priests of Brittany; Barère, the man of majorities, who presided when Louis XVI. appeared at the bar, and who was to Paméla what Louvet was to Lodoïska: the orator Daunou, who said, "Let us gain time;" Dubois Crancé, in whose ear Marat stooped to whisper; the Marquis de Chateauneuf; Laclos, Hérault de Séchelles, who drew back before Henriot, exclaiming, "Gunners, to your guns!" Julien who compared the Mountain to Thermopylæ; Gamon, who wished to have one of the public tribunes reserved solely for women; Laloy, who bestowed the honors of the session on bishop Gobel, who came to the Convention to lay down the mitre and to don the red cap; Lecomte, who exclaimed, "So the honors are for any who will lay down his priestly robes!" Féraud, whose head Boissy-d'Anglas saluted, leaving it an open question to history, whether Boissy-d'Anglas saluted the head, that is to say the victim, or the pike, that is to say the assassins; the two brothers Duprat, one a Montagnard, the other, a Girondist, who hated each other, as did the two brothers Chénier.
At this tribune were spoken those giddy words which sometimes, though unknown to him who has uttered them, produce the prophetic accent of revolutions, and in consequence of which material facts seem abruptly to assume a strange discontent and passion, as if they had taken offence at the things they had just heard; passing events seem incensed at what is spoken; catastrophes arise full of wrath, and as if exasperated by the words of men. So a voice in the mountain is enough to let loose an avalanche. A word too much may be followed by a caving in. If the word had not been spoken, it would not have happened. It seems sometimes as if events were irascible.
It was in this way, by the chance word of an orator misunderstood, that Madame Elizabeth's head was made to fall. At the Convention, intemperance of language was allowable. Threats flew and crossed each other in a discussion like firebrands in a conflagration.
Pétion. Robespierre come to the point.
Robespierre. The point is yourself, Pétion. I will come to it, and you will see it.
A Voice. Death to Marat.
Marat. The day Marat dies there will be no more Paris, and the day Paris perishes, there will be no more Republic.
Billaud-Varennes rises and says: "We are willing."—Barère interrupts him: "You speak like a king." Another day Phillipeaux said: "A member has drawn his sword on me."
Audouin. President, call the assassin to order.
The President. Attention.
Audouin. President, I call you to order myself.
The people laughed rudely.
Lecointre. The priest of Chant-de-Bout complains of Fauchet, his bishop, who forbids him to marry.
A Voice. I don't see why Fauchet, who has his mistresses, wishes to prevent others from having wives.
Another Voice. Priest take a wife!
The tribunes joined in the conversation. They addressed the Assembly familiarly. One day Representative Ruamps went up into the tribune. One of his hips was much larger than the other. One of the spectators cried out to him: "Turn that to the right side, for you have a cheek like David." Such were the liberties that people took with the Convention. Once, however, in the tumult of April 11th, 1793, the president caused a disorderly spectator in the tribune to be arrested.
One day the session had old Buonarotti for a witness. Robespierre takes the floor and speaks two hours, looking at Danton, sometimes straight in the eye, which was serious, sometimes askance, which was worse. He thundered to the end, however. He ended in an explosion of indignation, full of ominous words: "We know the intriguers, we know the corrupters and the corrupted, we know the traitors; they are in this assembly. They hear us, we see them and our eyes do not leave their faces. Let them look above their heads, and they will see the sword of the law; let them look into their consciences and they will see their infamy. Let them be on their guard." And when Robespierre had ended, Danton with his face turned to the ceiling, his eyes half-closed, one arm over the back of his seat, throws himself back and is heard to hum,—
"Cadet Roussel fait des discours
Qui ne sont pas longs quand ils sont courts."
The imprecations called for retorts.—Conspirator!—Assassin!—Villain!—Factionist!—Moderate!—They denounced each other to the bust of Brutus which was there. Apostrophes, insults, challenges. Angry looks from one side to the other, threatening fists, pistols half shown, daggers half drawn. Tremendous blazing of the tribune. Some talked as if they were leaning against the guillotine. Heads wagged, ominous and terrible. Montagnards, Giroudins, Feuillants, Modérantistes, Terroristes, Jacobins, Cordeliers, eighteen regicide priests.
All these men! A mass of smoke driven in every direction.
Minds, a prey to the wind.
But this wind a miraculous wind.
To be a member of the Convention was to be a billow of the ocean. And this was true of the greatest. The impelling force came from above. In the Convention there was a will power belonging to all and belonging to none. This will power was an idea, indomitable and boundless, which blew from the height of heaven into the darkness below. We call this the Revolution. When this idea passed, it overcame one and lifted up another; it carried away some on the top of the wave, and shipwrecked others. This idea knew where it was going, and drove the gulf before it. To impute the Revolution to men is to impute the tide to the billows.
Revolution is an action of the Unknown. Call it good action or bad, according as you aspire to the future or the past, but leave it to whatever has caused it. It seems the common work of great events and great individuals combined, but it is in reality the resultant of events. Events spend, men pay. Events dictate, men sign. July 14 is signed Camille Desmoulins, August 10 is signed Danton, September 2 is signed Marat, September 21 is signed Grégoire, January 21 is signed Robespierre; but Desmoulins, Danton, Marat, Grégoire, and Robespierre are mere clerks. The immense and awful author of these great pages has a name, God; and a mark, Fate. Robespierre believed in God. Of course!
Revolution is one form of the inherent phenomenon which presses us on every side, and which we call necessity.
Before this mysterious complication of benefits and suffering arises the "Why?" of history.
"Because." This, the reply of one who knows nothing, is also the reply of one who knows everything.
In the presence of these climacteric catastrophes which destroy and give life to civilization, one hesitates to judge the details. To blame or praise men on account of the result, is almost like praising or blaming figures on account of the sum total. Whatever is to happen, happens; whatever is to blow, blows. The eternal serenity does not suffer from these north winds. Above Revolutions, Truth and Justice reign, as the starry heavens above the tempest.
Such was this boundless Convention; an intrenched camp of the human race attacked by all the powers of darkness at once, the night fires of a besieged army of ideas, the immense bivouac of minds on the edge of a precipice. Nothing in history can be compared to this gathering, both senate and populace, conclave and street crossing, areopagus and public square, tribunal and the accused.
The Convention always yielded to the wind; but the wind came from the mouth of the people and was the breath of God.
And to-day, after eighty years have passed, each time that the Convention comes up before the thought of a man, whatever he may be, historian or philosopher, that man stops and meditates. It is impossible not to give attention to this great procession of shades.
- The first Prairial occurred on May 20, 1793,—Tr.
- Roussel's speeches are of the sort
That are not long when they are short.