The French Revolution (Belloc)/Chapter 4
THE PHASES OF THE REVOLUTION
From May 1789 to 17th of July 1789.
The first point which the reader must hold in the story of the Revolution is the quarrel between its first Parliament and the Crown.
Of what nature was that quarrel?
It was not, as it has sometimes been represented, a simple issue between privilege and a democratic demand for equality, or between traditional organs of government and a democratic demand for self-government by the nation. To imagine this is to read history backwards, and to see in the untried conditions of 1789 the matured results which only appeared after years of struggle.
The prime issue lay between legality and illegality.
The forms of French law and all the inherited method of French administration demanded a certain form of authority: a centralised government of unlimited power. The King was absolute. From him proceeded in the simplest fashion whatever will was paramount in the State. He could suspend a debtor’s liabilities, imprison a man without trial, release him without revision of his case, make war or peace, and in minor details such as the discipline and administration of public bodies, the power of the Crown was theoretically and legally equally supreme. It was not exercised as the enormous power of modern government is exercised, it did not perpetually enter into every detail of the life of the poor in the way in which the power of a modern English Government enters into it; it is in the very nature of such autocratic power that, while unlimited in theory, it is compelled to an instinctive and perpetual self-limitation lest it break down; and autocracy may be compared in this to aristocracy, or more properly speaking to oligarchy, the government of a few: for where a few govern they know that their government reposes upon public opinion or public tolerance; they are very careful not to exceed certain limits the transgression of which would weaken the moral foundation of their power; they welcome allies, they recruit themselves perpetually from other classes in the community.
In the same way an autocracy always has the desire to be popular. Its strokes affect the great and the powerful, and are hardly ever aimed at the mass of the community. The intellectual, the wealthy, the privileged by birth, fortune or exceptional personal powers, are suspect to it. As for the mass of men an Autocracy attempts to represent and, in a certain sense, to obey them.
Now the French autocracy (for it was no less) erred not in the will to act thus popularly in the early part of the Revolution, but in the knowledge requisite for such action.
The Parliament, shortly after it had met in May 1789, began to show, in the Commons part of it, the working of that great theory which had leavened all France for a generation. The Commons said, “We are the people; at once the symbols of the people, the direct mandatory servants of the people, and” (though this was a fiction) “we are of the people in our birth and origin. We are therefore the true sovereign; and the prince, the head of the Executive, is no more than an organ of government, morally less in authority than ourselves, who are the true source of government.” This attitude, which was at the back of all men’s minds, and which was concentrated, of course, in the Commons, clashed with legality. It could not express itself in the terms of law, it could not act save in a fashion which should be, in the strictest sense of the word, revolutionary.
Now the Crown, on the whole national in sympathy, and comprehending this new theory well (I mean by the Crown the general body of advisers round the King, and the King himself), was offended at the illegality not of the theory or of the pretence (for these were not illegal), but of the action of the Commons. And this comparatively small source of friction was the irritant upon which we must fix as the cause of what followed. The Nobles, by 108 to 47, decided, the day after the opening of the Parliament, to sit as a separate House. The Clergy, by a much smaller majority, 133 to 114, came to the same decision, but carefully qualified it as provisional. The Commons declared that the hall in which they met should be regarded as the hall of the National Assembly, and later made it their business (to quote the phrase of the motion) “to attempt to unite in common all the deputies of the nation in that hall and never to abandon the principle of voting individually” (that is, not by separate Houses) “or the principle that the States-General formed one undivided body.” This attitude was qualified and compromised with to some extent in the days that followed, but it held the field, and while the Commons were insisting upon this attitude as a moral right, the Nobles countered by a reaffirmation of the right of each House to a separate judgment upon public matters. The Nobles were standing upon legal precedent: the Commons had nothing in their favour but political theory; if the orders sat all together and voted as individuals, the Commons, who were in number equal to the two other Houses combined, would, with their noble and clerical sympathisers, have a majority.
Now the King and his advisers, notably Necker, who still had great weight, were by no means “Impossiblists” in this struggle. They desired an understanding, and through the last days of May and the first days of June the attempt at an understanding was made. But the attempt dragged, and as it seemed that nothing would come of it, on the 10th of June Sièyes moved that the Assembly should “verify its powers” (a French phrase for admitting and registering the presence of each member as acceptable to the whole body, and to the theory of its Constitution), and that this should be done “in the case of each member” (meaning members of all the three orders and not of the Commons alone), “whether the members of the two privileged Houses were present or absent.” The roll was called and completed upon the 15th. None of the nobles attended the common roll-call, three of the parish clergy (they were from the province of Poitou) did so, and thus admitted the right of the Commons so to act. A dozen of their colleagues joined them later; but that was all.
So far there had been no action which could be precisely called illegal or revolutionary. The Commons had affirmed a right based upon a political theory which the vast majority of the nation admitted, and the legal depositary of power, the King, had not yet reproved. One may draw a parallel and compare the action of the Commons so far to some action which a trade union, for instance, may take in England; some action the legality of which is doubtful but upon which the courts have not yet decided.
It was upon the 17th of June, two days after the completion of the roll-call by the Commons, that the first revolutionary act took place, and the student of the Revolution will do well to put his finger upon that date and to regard it not indeed as the moral origin of the movement, but as the precise moment from which the Revolution, as a Revolution, begins to act. For upon that day the Commons, though in fact only joined by a handful of the Clerical House, and by none of the nobility, declared themselves to be the National Assembly; that is, asserted the fiction that Clergy, Nobles and Commons were all present and voted together. To this declaration they added a definite act of sovereignty which trespassed upon and contradicted the legal authority of the Crown. True, the motion was only moved and passed “provisionally,” but the words used were final, for in this motion the self-styled “National Assembly” declared that “provisionally” taxes and dues might be raised upon the old authority but that only until the National Assembly should disperse; “after which day”—and here we reach the sacramental formula, as it were, of the crisis—“the National Assembly wills and decrees that all taxes and dues of whatever nature which have not been specifically formally and freely granted by the said Assembly shall cease in every province of the kingdom no matter how such that province may be administered.” (This is an allusion to the fact that in some provinces there was a representative machinery, in others nothing but the direct action of the Crown.) “The Assembly declares that when it has in concert with (not in obedience to) the King laid down the principle of a national re-settlement, it will busy itself with the examination and ordering of the public debt.” Etc., etc.
Such was the point of departure after which sovereignty was at issue between the Crown and the States-General; the Crown a known institution with its traditions stretching back to the Roman Empire, and the National Assembly a wholly new organ according to its own claims, basing its authority upon a political theory stretching back to the very origins of human society.
Two days later, on the 19th of June, the “National Assembly,” still only self-styled and possessing only the powers which it had ascribed to itself beyond all forms of law, set to work, nominated its committees, and assumed the sovereignty thus claimed. The Nobles protested (notably the Bishops), and the King, on the advice of Barentin, keeper of the Seals, determined upon immediate resistance. The excuse was taken that the Royal Session, as it was called, in which the King would declare his will, needed the preparation of the hall, and when the Commons presented themselves at the door of that hall on the next day, the 20th, they found it shut against them. They adjourned to a neighbouring tennis court, and took a solemn corporate oath that they would not separate without giving France a Constitution. They continued to meet, using a church for that purpose, but on the 23rd the Royal Session was opened and the King declared his will.
The reader must especially note that even in this crisis the Crown did not offer a complete resistance. There was an attempt at compromise. Necker would have had a more or less complete surrender, the Queen and her set would have preferred an act of authority which should have annulled all that the Commons had done. What actually happened was a permission by the Crown that the three Orders should meet as one body for certain common interests, but should preserve the system of voting as separate Houses in “all that might regard the ancient and constitutional rights of the three Orders, the Constitution to be given to future Parliaments, feudal property, and the rights and prerogatives of the two senior Houses.” As a mere numerical test, such a conclusion would have destroyed the power of the Commons, since, as we have seen, numbers were the weapon of the Commons, who were equal to the two other Houses combined, and if all sat together would, with the Liberal members of the clergy and the nobility, be supreme. But apart from this numerical test, the act of sovereignty affirmed by the National Assembly when it declared itself, and itself only, competent to vote taxes, was annulled. Moreover, the royal declaration ended with a command that on the next day the three Orders should meet separately.
Now at this critical point the King was disobeyed. The current of the time chose the revolutionary bed, and as it began to flow deepened and confirmed its course with every passing day and event. Already the majority of the clergy had joined the National Assembly when it had affirmed its right to sit in spite of the check of the 20th of June. There was a half-hour on that decisive day of the Royal Session, the 23rd of June, when armed force might have been used for the arrest and dispersion of the Deputies. They declared themselves inviolable and their arrest illegal, but there was, of course, no sanction for this decree. As a fact, not a corporal’s file was used against them. The next day, the 24th, the majority of the clergy again joined the Commons in their session (in flat defiance of the King’s orders), and on the 25th, forty-seven of the nobles followed their example. The King yielded, and on the 27th, two days later, ordered the three Houses to meet together.
The National Assembly was now legally constituted, and set out upon its career. The Crown, the old centre of authority, had abandoned its position, and had confirmed the Revolution, but in doing so it had acted as it were in contradiction with itself. It had made technically legal an illegality which destroyed its own old legal position, but it had done so with ill-will, and it was evident that some counter-stroke would be attempted to restore the full powers of the Crown.
At this point the reader must appreciate what forces were face to face in the coming struggle. So far, the illegal and revolutionary act of the 17th of June, the Royal Session which replied to that act upon the 23rd, the King’s decree which yielded to the Commons upon the 27th, had all of them been but words. If it came to action, what physical forces were opposed?
On the side of the Crown was the organised armed force which it commanded. For it must never be forgotten that the Crown was the Executive, and remained the Executive right on to the capture of the palace three years later, and the consummation of the Revolution on the 10th of August, 1792. On the side of the National Assembly was without doubt the public opinion of the country (but that is not a force that can be used under arms), and, what was much more to the point, the municipal organisation of France.
Space forbids a full description of the origins and strength of the French municipal system; it is enough to point out that the whole of Gallic civilisation, probably from a moment earlier than Cæsar’s invasion, and certainly from the moment when Roman rule was paramount in Gaul, was a municipal one. It is so still. The countrysides take their names mainly from their chief towns. The towns were the seats of the bishops, whose hierarchy had preserved whatever could be preserved of the ancient world. In the towns were the colleges, the guilds, the discussion and the corporations which built up the life of the nation. The chief of these towns was Paris. The old systems of municipal government, corrupt and varied as they were, could still give the towns a power of corporate expression. And even where that might be lacking it was certain that some engine would be found for expressing municipal action in a crisis of the sort through which France was now passing. In Paris, for instance, it was seen when the time came for physical force that the College of Electors, who had chosen the representatives for that city, were willing to act at once and spontaneously as a municipal body which should express the initiative of the people. It was the towns, and especially Paris, prompt at spontaneous organisation, ready to arm, and when armed competent to frame a fighting force, which was the physical power behind the Assembly.
What of the physical power behind the King? His power was, as we have said, the Regular Armed forces of the country: the army. But it is characteristic of the moment that only a part of that armed force could be trusted. For an army is never a mere weapon: it consists of living men; and though it will act against the general opinion of its members and will obey orders long after civilians would have broken with the ties of technical and legal authority, yet there is for armies also a breaking point in those ties, and the Crown, I repeat, could not use as a whole the French-speaking and French-born soldiery. Luckily for it, a very great proportion of the French army at that moment consisted of foreign mercenaries.
Since the position was virtually one of war, we must consider what was the strategical object of this force. Its object was Paris, the chief of the towns; and round Paris, in the early days of July, the mercenary regiments were gathered from all quarters. That military concentration once effected, the gates of the city held, especially upon the north and upon the west, by encamped regiments and by a particularly large force of cavalry (ever the arm chosen for the repression of civilians), the Crown was ready to act.
On the 11th of July, Necker, who stood for Liberal opinions, was dismissed. A new ministry was formed, and the counter-revolution begun. What followed was the immediate rising of Paris.
The news of Necker’s dismissal reached the masses of the capital (only an hour’s ride from Versailles) on the afternoon of the 12th, Sunday. Crowds began to gather; an ineffectual cavalry charge in one of the outer open spaces of the city only inflamed the popular enthusiasm, for the soldiers who charged were German mercenary soldiers under the command of a noble. Public forces were at once organised, arms were commandeered from the armourers’ shops, the Electoral College, which had chosen the members of the Assembly for Paris, took command at the Guild Hall, but the capital point of the insurrection—what made it possible—was the seizure of a great stock of arms and ammunition, including cannon, in the depot at the Invalides.
With such resources the crowd attacked, at the other end of the city, a fortress and arsenal which had long stood in the popular eye as the symbol of absolute monarchy, the Bastille. With the absurdly insufficient garrison of the Bastille, its apparent impregnability to anything the mob might attempt, the supposed but doubtful treason of its governor in firing upon those whom he had admitted to parley, we are not here concerned. The Bastille was rushed, after very considerable efforts and an appreciable loss in killed and wounded. By the evening of that day, Tuesday, the 14th of July, 1789, Paris had become a formidable instrument of war. The next news was the complete capitulation of the King.
He came on the morrow to the National Assembly, promising to send away the troops; he promised to recall Necker, a municipal organisation was granted to the city, with Bailly for its first mayor, and—a point of capital importance—an armed militia dependent upon that municipality was legally formed, with La Fayette at its head. On the 17th Louis entered Paris to consummate his capitulation, went to the Guild Hall, appeared in the tricoloured cockade, and the popular battle was won.
It behoves us here to consider the military aspect of this definitive act from which the sanction of the Revolution, the physical power behind it, dates.
Paris numbered somewhat under a million souls: perhaps no more than 600,000: the number fluctuated with the season. The foreign mercenary troops who were mainly employed in the repression of the popular feeling therein, were not sufficient to impose anything like a siege. They could at the various gates have stopped the provisioning of the city, but then at any one of those separate points, any one of their detachments upon a long perimeter more than a day’s march in circumference would certainly have been attacked and almost as certainly overwhelmed by masses of partially armed civilians.
Could the streets have been cleared while the ferment was rising? It is very doubtful. They were narrow and tortuous in the extreme, the area to be dealt with was enormous, the tradition of barricades not forgotten, and the spontaneous action of that excellent fighting material which a Paris mob contains, had been quite as rapid as anything that could have been effected by military orders.
The one great fault was the neglect to cover the Invalides, but even had the Invalides not been looted, the stock of arms and powder in the city would have been sufficient to have organised a desperate and prolonged resistance. The local auxiliary force (of slight military value, it is true), the “French Guards,” as they were called, were wholly with the people. And in general, the Crown must be acquitted of any considerable blunder on the military side of this struggle. It certainly did not fail from lack of will.
The truth is (if we consider merely the military aspect of this military event) that in dealing with large bodies of men who are (a) not previously disarmed, (b) under conditions where they cannot be dispersed, and (c) capable by a national tradition or character of some sort of rapid, spontaneous organisation, the issue will always be doubtful, and the uncertain factor (which is the tenacity, decision and common will of the civilians, to which soldiers are to be opposed) is one that varies within the very widest limits.
In massing the troops originally, the Crown and its advisers estimated that uncertain factor at far too low a point. Even contemporary educated opinion, which was in sympathy with Paris, put it too low. That factor was, as a fact, so high that no armed force of the size and quality which the Crown then disposed of, could achieve its object or hold down the capital.
As for the absurd conception that any body of men in uniform, however small, could always have the better of civilian resistance, however large and well organised, it is not worthy of a moment’s consideration by those who interest themselves in the realities of military history. It is worthy only of the academies.
So ends the first phase of the Revolution. It had lasted from the opening of the States-General in May to the middle of July 1789.
From the 17th of July 1789 to the 6th of Oct. 1789.
We have seen the military conditions under which the attempt at an armed counter-revolution failed. There follows a short phase of less than three months, whose character can be quickly described.
It was that moment of the Revolution in which ideas had the freest play, in which least had been done to test their application, and most scope remained for pure enthusiasm. That is why we find in the midst of that short phase the spontaneous abandonment of the feudal rights by the nobility. And that is why the violent uprisings all over France continued. It is the period in which the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, a document which may fittingly stand side by side with the Declaration of Independence (for together they form the noblest monuments of our modern origins), was promulgated. In the same period were the elements of the future Constitution rapidly debated and laid down, and notably that national policy of a Single Chamber which the modern French have imprudently abandoned. In that same period, however, appeared, and towards the close of it, another form of resistance on the part of the Crown and of those who advised the Crown. The King hesitated to accept the Declaration of the Rights of Man, and similarly hesitated to promulgate the Decree of the 4th of August in which the nobility had abandoned their feudal dues. It would be foolish to exaggerate the military aspect of what followed. Louis did call in troops, but only in numbers sufficient for personal defence, and we can hardly believe that he intended anything more than to police the surroundings of his throne. But the brigade (for it was no more, nor was it of full strength) which he summoned was sufficient to kindle suspicion; and the determinedly false position of the Queen (who all her life was haunted by the idea that the regular soldiers, especially if they were well dressed and held themselves rigidly, were a sort of talisman) provoked an explosion. A feast was given in which the officers of the Regiment of Flanders, which had just reached Versailles, were entertained by the officers of the Guard. It was made the occasion for a good deal of drunkenness and a violent Royalist manifestation, at which the Queen was present, which she approved, and which some thought she had designed.
The failure of the harvest to relieve the scarcity of bread in Paris, the permanent state of alarm in which Paris had remained, and of suspicion for the safety of the Parliament which it continually entertained since the early part of the summer, needed no more to provoke an outbreak. It is an error to imagine that that outbreak was engineered or that such a movement could have been factitious. Great masses of women (in whom the movement originated), and after them a whole flood of the populace, marched upon Versailles.
There was no direct attack upon the palace, though the palace feared such an attack at any moment. The troops present were sufficient to prevent violence.
La Fayette followed in the night at the head of his new Parisian militia force.
Too much reliance was placed upon the military character of this force; the palace was invaded in the early morning, an attempt to assassinate the Queen on the part of the mob failed, though two of the Guards were killed. And after scenes whose violence and apparent anarchy only masked the common determination of the populace, the royal family were compelled to abandon Versailles and to take up their place in the Tuileries; the Parliament followed them to Paris, and neither King nor Parliament returned again to the suburban palace.
This recapture of the King by Paris is much more significant than a mere impulse of the mob. The King in Paris, the unison of his person with the capital city, had been the very sacrament of French life for century upon century. It was precisely a hundred years since Paris had been abandoned by Louis XIV for Versailles. The significance of that error may be understood by the citizens of an aristocratic country if they will imagine the abandonment of their countrysides by the squires, or, again, the future historian of our modern industrial civilisation may understand it when he describes how the wealthy manufacturers abandoned the cities in which their wealth was made, to dwell outside and apart from the living interests of their people.
With the return of the royal family to Paris, and with the presence of the Assembly within the heart of the national life, one prime factor appears, which is this: that while the National Assembly proceeds step by step to what it imagines to be a complete attainment of democracy (though how partial will soon be seen), the resistance of the Crown is transformed into a resistance of the mere Court. The attack on the Revolution becomes a personal thing. The King is still wholly the chief of the Executive; he can give what commands he wills to the armed force; he controls receipts and payments; he is for all active purposes the Government. But he is no longer considering that prime function of his, nor even using it to restore his old power. He acts henceforward as an individual, and an individual in danger. The Queen, whose view of the Revolution and its dangers had always been a purely personal one, is the directing will in the court-group from this moment, October 1789, onwards; and the chief preoccupation of that group for eighteen months is personal safety. Surrounded by the pomp of the Tuileries and amid all the external appearances of a power still greater than that of any other monarch in Europe, Louis and his wife and their very few immediate and devoted friends and followers thought of the palace as a prison, and never considered their position save as one intolerable.
From October 1789 to June 1791.
It is this which must explain all that followed in the succeeding phase, which lasted from these early days of October 1789 to the last week of June 1791. Throughout that period of twenty-one months the King is letting the Revolution take its course, with the fixed idea of thwarting it at last by flying from it, and perhaps conquering it by foreign aid. But even this policy is not consecutively followed. The increasing repugnance of the Court and of the King himself to the revolutionary development forbids a consecutive and purely hypocritical acceptation of the National Assembly’s decrees.
Deliberate and calculated intrigue might yet have saved the monarchy and the persons of the royal family. Oddly enough, an ally in the struggle, an excellent intriguer, a saviour of the monarchical institution and a true defender of the royal persons was at hand: it was at hand in the person of Mirabeau.
This man had more and more dominated the Assembly; he had been conspicuous from its first opening days; he had been its very voice in the resistance to the King at Versailles; it was he who had replied to the Master of Ceremonies on June 23, that the Commons would not disperse; it was he who had moved that the persons of the Commons were privileged against arrest. He was of a family noble in station and conspicuous before the people by the wealth and eccentricities of its head, Mirabeau’s father. He himself was not unknown even before the Revolution broke out, for his violence, his amours, his intelligence and his debts. He was a few years older than the King and Queen: his personality repelled them; none the less his desire to serve them was sincere; and it was his plan, while retaining the great hold over the National Assembly which his rhetoric and his use of men furnished him, to give to the Court and in particular to the Queen, whom he very greatly and almost reverently admired, such secret advice as might save them. This advice, as we shall see in a moment, tended more and more to be an advice for civil war. But Mirabeau’s death at the close of the phase we are now entering (on April 2, 1791), and the increasing fears of the King and Queen, between them prevented any statesmanship at all; they prevented even the statesmanship of intrigue; and the period became, on the side of the Revolution, a rapid and uncontrolled development of its democratic theory (limited by the hesitation of the middle class), and on the side of the Court an increasing demand for mere physical security and flight, coupled with an increasing determination to return, and to restore as a popular monarchy the scheme of the past.
The eighteen months that intervened between the fixing of the Assembly and the royal family in Paris, and the death of Mirabeau, are remarkable for the following points, which must all be considered abreast, as it were, if we are to understand their combined effects.
1. This was the period in which the constructive work of the National Assembly was done, and in which the whole face of the nation was changed. The advising bodies of lawyers called “Parliaments” were abolished (eleven months after the King had come to Paris), the Modern Departments were organised in the place of the old provinces, the old national and provincial militia was destroyed; but (as it is very important to remember) the old regular army was left untouched. A new judicature and new rules of procedure were established. A new code sketched out in the place of “Common Law” muddle. In a word, it was the period during which most of those things which we regard as characteristic of the revolutionary work were either brought to their theoretic conclusion or given at least their main lines.
2. Among these constructive acts, but so important that it must be regarded separately, was the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, which will be dealt with at length further in this book; it was the principal work (and the principal error) of that year and a half.
3. The general spirit of the Revolution, more difficult to define than its theory but easy to appreciate as one follows the development of the movement, increased regularly and enormously in intensity during the period. The power of the King, who was still at the head of the Executive, acted more and more as an irritant against public opinion, and—
4. That public opinion began to express itself in a centralised and national fashion, of which the great federation of the 14th of July 1790, in Paris, on the anniversary of the fall of the Bastille, was the nucleus and also the symbol. This federation consisted in delegates from the National Guard throughout the country, and it was of this capital importance: that it introduced into the revolutionary movement a feature of soldiery which made even the regular troops for the most part sympathetic with the enthusiasm of the time.
5. These eighteen months were, again, filled with the movement of the “Emigration.” That movement was, of course, the departure of many of the more prominent of the privileged orders and of a crowd of humbler nobles, as also of a few ecclesiastics, from France. The King’s brothers (one fled at the beginning of the emigration, the younger, the Comte d’Artois; the other, the elder, at its close, and coincidently with the flight of the King) must especially be noted in this connection; they formed in company with the more notable of the other emigrants a regular political body, which intrigued continually beyond the frontiers, in Germany and Italy, against the Revolution. And—
6. It was therefore during these months that the ultimate origins of the large European war must be found. The armed body of the emigrants under Condé formed an organised corps upon the Rhine, and though there was not yet the semblance of an armed movement in Europe besides theirs against the French, yet by the émigrés, as they were called, were sown the seeds the harvest of which was to be the war of 1792.
I have said that during these months in which most of the constructive work of the Revolution was done, in which the seeds of the great war were sown, and in which the absolute position of the Crown as the head of the Executive was increasingly irritating to the public opinion of the French, and especially of the capital, Mirabeau was the one man who might have preserved the continuity of national institutions by the preservation of the monarchy. He received money from the Court and in return gave it advice. The advice was the advice of genius, but it was listened to less and less in proportion as it was more and more practical. Mirabeau also favoured the abandonment of Paris by the King, but he would have had the King leave Paris openly and with an armed force, withdraw to a neighbouring and loyal centre such as Compiègne, and thence depend upon the fortunes of civil war.
Meanwhile the Queen was determined upon a very different and much more personal plan, into which no conception of statesmanship entered. She was determined to save the persons of her children, herself and her husband. Plans of flight were made, postponed and re-postponed. It was already agreed at the Court that not Mirabeau’s plan should be followed, but this plan of mere evasion. The army which Bouillé commanded upon the frontier was to send small detachments along the great road from Paris to the east; the first of these were to meet the royal fugitives a little beyond Chalôns and to escort their carriage eastward; each armed detachment in the chain, as the flight proceeded, was to fall in for its defence, until, once the town of Varennes was reached, the King and Queen should be in touch with the main body of the army.
What was then intended to follow remains obscure. It is fairly certain that the King did not intend to pass the frontier but to take refuge at Montmédy. The conflict that would have inevitably broken out could hardly have been confined to a civil war: foreign armies and the German mercenaries in the French service were presumably to be organised, in case the flight succeeded, for a march upon Paris and the complete restoration of the old state of affairs.
Had Mirabeau lived this rash and unstatesmanlike plan might yet have been avoided; it so happened that he died upon April 2, 1791, and soon after we enter the third phase of the Revolution, which is that leading directly to the great war, and to the fall of the monarchy.
Shortly after Mirabeau’s death a tumult, which excessively frightened the royal family, prevented the King and Queen from leaving the palace and passing Easter at St. Cloud, in the suburbs. Though further postponements of their flight followed, the evasion actually took place in the night of the 20th to 21st of June. It very nearly succeeded, but by a series of small accidents, the last of which, the famous ride of Drouet to intercept the fugitives, is among the best-known episodes in history, the King and Queen and their children were discovered and arrested at Varennes, within a few hundred yards of safety, and were brought back to Paris, surrounded by enormous and hostile crowds. With the failure of this attempt at flight in the end of June 1791, ends the third phase of the Revolution.
From June 1791 to September 1792.
To understand the capital effect both of this flight and of its failure, we must once more insist upon the supreme position of the monarchy in the traditions and instinct of French polity. The unwisdom of the flight it would be difficult to exaggerate: it is impossible to exaggerate the moral revolution caused by its failure. It was regarded as virtually an abdication. The strong body of provincial, silent, and moderate opinion, which still centred on the King and regarded it as his function to lead and to govern, was bewildered, and in the main divorced, in the future, from the Crown.
It is an excellent proof of what the monarchy had for so long been to France, that even in such a crisis barely the name of “a republic” was mentioned, and that only in the intellectual circles in Paris. All the constitutional and standing forces of society conspired to preserve the monarchy at the expense of no matter what fictions. The middle class Militia Guard under La Fayette repressed, in what is known as the Massacre of the Champ-de-Mars, the beginnings of a popular movement. The more Radical leaders (among whom was Danton) fled abroad or hid. The Duke of Orleans utterly failed to take advantage of the moment, or to get himself proclaimed regent: the monarchical tradition was too strong.
Immediately after the second anniversary of the taking of the Bastille, in July, the decrees of Parliament created the fiction that the King was not responsible for the flight, that he “had been carried off,” and in the following September, though until then suspended from executive power, the King, on taking the oath to the Constitution, was once more at the head of all the forces of the nation.
But all this patching and reparation of the façade of constitutional monarchy (a fiction whose tawdriness is more offensive to the French temper than its falsehood) had come too late. Already the Queen had written to her brother, the Emperor of Austria, suggesting the mobilisation of a considerable force, and its encampment on the frontier, to overawe the revolutionary movement. Her action coincided within a few days with the end of that great Parliament, which had been chosen on the most democratic suffrage, and which had transformed the whole of society and laid the basis of the revolutionary Constitution. With the meeting of the National Assembly’s successor on the 1st of October, 1791, war was already possible; that possibility was to be transformed very soon into probability, and at last into actuality.
In the new Parliament the weight, not of numbers but of leadership, fell to a group of enthusiastic and eloquent men who, from the fact that certain of their principal members came from the Gironde, were called The Girondins. They represented the purest and the most enthusiastic ideal of democracy, less national, perhaps, than that advocated by men more extreme than they, but of a sort which, from that time to this, has been able to rouse the enthusiasm of historians.
Vergniaud and Isnard were their great orators, Brissot was their intellectual intriguer, and the wife of Roland, one of their members, was, as it were, the soul of the whole group. It was the fact that these men desired war which made war certain, once the temper of this new second Assembly should be felt.
The extremists over against them, to whom I have alluded (known as “the Mountain”), were especially Parisian in character. Robespierre, who had been first an obscure, and later a sectarian orator of the National Assembly, though not sitting in this second Parliament, was perhaps the most prominent figure in that group, for he was the public orator of Paris; and indeed the Mountain was Paris; Paris, whether inside or outside the Parliament; Paris acting as the responsible brain of France. Later, it was the Mountain (that had first opposed the war) which was to ensure the success of the French arms by a rigidity and despotism in action such as the purer and less practical minds of the Girondins abhorred.
On the 3rd of December, 1791 (to quote a fundamental date in the rapid progress towards the war which was to transform the Revolution), the King—writing in a manner which betrays dictation by his wife—begged the King of Prussia (as she had begged the Emperor) to mobilise an armed force, and with it to back a Congress that should have for its object the prevention of the spread of the Revolution. That letter was typical of the moment. From both sides tension was rapidly proceeding to the breaking point. Nor was the tension merely upon generalities. The Revolution had broken a European treaty in the annexation of the Papal State of Avignon, and it had broken European conventions when it had abolished in Alsace feudal rights that were possessed by the princes of the empire. It was as though some State to-day, attempting Collectivism, should confiscate, along with other property, securities lying in its banks, but held by the nationals of a foreign State.
On the revolutionary side also there was a definite point at issue, which was the permission accorded within the empire for the emigrants to meet in arms and to threaten the French frontier.
But these precise and legal points were not the true causes of the war. The true causes of the war were the desire of the unreformed European Governments (notably those of Prussia and Austria) that the Revolution should, in their own interests, be checked, and the conviction that their armed forces were easily capable of effecting the destruction of the new French régime.
The Court of Vienna refused to accept a just indemnity that was offered the princes of the empire in Alsace for the loss of their old feudal rights; Leopold, the emperor, who was one of the same generation as the French King and Queen, died upon the 1st of March, 1792, and was succeeded by a son only twenty-four years of age and easily persuaded to war.
On the French side, with the exception of the Mountain and notably of Robespierre, there was a curious coalition of opinion demanding war.
The Court and the reactionaries were sufficiently certain of the victory of the Allies to find their salvation in war.
The revolutionary party, that is, the mass of public opinion and the “patriots,” as they called themselves, the Girondins, also, and especially, desired war as a sort of crusade for the Revolution; they suffered grievous illusions, as enthusiasts always must, and believed the French armed forces capable of sustaining the shock. The plans had already been drawn up for the campaign (and promptly betrayed to the enemy by the Queen); Dumouriez, an excellent soldier, had from the middle of March 1792 been the chief person in the ministry, and the director of foreign affairs, and a month later, on the 20th of April, war was declared against Austria, or, to be accurate, against “the King of Hungary and Bohemia.”
Such was still the official title of Marie Antoinette’s nephew, who, though now succeeded to the empire, had not yet been crowned emperor. It was hoped to confine the war to this monarch, and, indeed, the German princes of the empire did not join him (the Landgrave of Hesse-Cassel was an exception). But the one German power that counted most, the kingdom of Prussia, which Dumouriez had especially hoped to keep neutral, joined forces with Austria. The royal letters had done their work.
At this critical moment the French armed forces and the French strongholds were at their worst. The discipline of the army was deplorable. The regular soldiers of the old régime had lost from six to nine thousand officers by emigration, and mixed no better than water and oil with the revolutionary volunteers who had been drafted (to the number of over two hundred battalions) into the ranks of the army; moreover, these volunteer battalions were for the most part ill provided, far below their establishment, some only existed on paper; none were trained as soldiers should be trained. In a more orderly time, when the decrees of the Government corresponded with reality, four hundred thousand men would have held the frontier; such a number was in the estimates. As it was, from the Swiss mountains to the English Channel, the French could count on no more than one-fifth of that number. Eighty thousand alone were under arms. The full Prussian army was, alone, apart from its allies, close upon treble the size of this disorganised and insufficient force.
Panics at once ludicrous and tragic opened the campaign upon the French side. The King took advantage of them to dismiss his Girondin Ministry and to form a reactionary Government. The Parliament replied by measures useless to the conduct of war, and designed only to exasperate the Crown, which was betraying the nation. It ordered the dismissal of the royal Guard, the formation of a camp of revolutionary Federals outside Paris, the transportation of the orthodox priests; in pursuit of the Court’s determination to resist the Assembly and to await the victorious allies, Louis vetoed the last two decrees. La Fayette, who was now in command of the army of the centre, with his headquarters at Sedan, right upon the route of the invasion, declared for the King.
Had the armies of Austria and Prussia moved with rapidity at this moment, the Revolution was at an end. As it was, their mobilisation was slow, and their march, though accurate, leisurely. It gave time for the populace of Paris to demonstrate against the palace and the royal family on the 20th of June. It was not until the first days of August that the main force of the combined monarchs, under the generalship-in-chief of the Duke of Brunswick (who had the reputation of being the best general of his time), set out for the march on Paris. It was not until the 23rd of August that the invaders took the first French frontier town, Longwy.
Meanwhile two very important things had lent to the French, in spite of the wretched insufficiency of their armed force, an intensity of feeling which did something to supply that insufficiency. In the first place, the third anniversary of the Fall of the Bastille, the 14th of July, had called to Paris deputations from all the provinces, many of them armed; this gave the national feeling unity. In the second place, Brunswick had issued from Coblentz, which was his base, upon the 25th of that same month of July, a manifesto which was known in Paris three days later, and which (though certain modern historians have questioned this) undoubtedly set revolutionary opinion ablaze.
This manifesto demanded, in the name of the Allied Army, a complete restoration of the old régime, professed to treat the French and their new authorities as rebels subject to military execution, and contained a clause of peculiar gravity, which excited an immediate and exasperated response from Paris. The authorship of this clause lay with Marie Antoinette, and it threatened, if there were any attack upon the palace, to give the capital over to military execution and total subversion.
Two days later the Federals from Marseilles, a middle-class body of excellent citizens, though merely amateurs at soldiering and small in numbers, marched into the city. Their marching song has become famous under the title of the “Marseillaise.” They had accomplished the astonishing feat of traversing France, drawing cannon with them, at the rate of eighteen miles a day, in the height of a torrid summer, for close upon a month on end. There is no parallel to such an effort in the history of war, nor did contemporary opinion exaggerate when it saw in the battalion of Marseilles the centre of the coming fight.
The shock between the palace and the populace was joined in the morning of the 10th of August. The palace was held by about six thousand men, of whom some twelve hundred were regulars of the Swiss Guard. The palace (the Tuileries) was, or should have been, impregnable. The popular attack, we may be certain, would have been beaten back had the connection between the Tuileries and the Louvre on the south been properly cut. The flooring had indeed been removed at this point for some distance, but either the gap was not wide enough or the post was insufficiently guarded; the populace and the Federals, badly beaten in their main attack upon the long front of the palace, succeeded in turning its flank where it joined on to the Louvre; they thus enfiladed the suites of rooms and utterly put an end to the resistance of its garrison.
Meanwhile the King and Queen, the Dauphin and his little sister, with others of the royal household, had taken refuge during the fighting in the hall of the Parliament.
After the victory of the populace their fate was debated and decided upon; they were imprisoned in the Tower of the Temple, a mediaeval fortress still standing in the north-east of Paris, and though monarchy was not yet formally abolished, the most extreme spirits which the Revolution then contained, and the most vigorous, stepped into the place of the old Executive, with Danton at their head. With them appeared in the seat of Government the spirit of military action, its contempt for forms and its rapid decision. The known accomplices of the supporters of the Court’s resistance and alliance with the invaders were arrested by the hundred. The enrolment of volunteers, already enthusiastic throughout France, was supported with the new vigour of official aid; and the Revolution left at once all its old moorings to enter an extreme phase. At the same moment the frontier was crossed and the national soil invaded on the 19th of August.
It is possible that the delay of the Prussians until that moment had been calculated, for the position in France was complicated and their decision to fight had been tardily arrived at. It was the news of the fall of the palace that seems to have decided them. The place, like the date, of this grave event, deserves to be more famous than it is. Brunswick touched what was then French soil, in that little triangle where now German and French Lorraine and Luxembourg meet. The village is called Redange: thence did the privileged of Europe set out to reach Paris and to destroy democracy. The first task occupied them for full twenty-two years, upon the latter they are still engaged.
What forces the French could there bring against Brunswick were contemptuously brushed aside. Four days later he had, as we have seen, taken the frontier stronghold of Longwy; within a week he was in front of Verdun.
Verdun had no chance of resistance, no garrison to call a garrison, and no opportunity for defence. The news that it must fall reached Paris on the morning of a fatal date, the 2nd of September; after its fall there would lie nothing between it and the capital; and from that moment the whole nature of the Revolution is wholly transformed by the psychological effect of war.
From the invasion of September 1792 to the establishment of the Committee of Public Safety, April 1793.
The fifth phase of the French Revolution may be said to date from these first days of September 1792, when the news of the successful invasion was maddening Paris, and when the revolutionary Executive, established upon the ruins of the old dead monarchy and in its image, was firmly in the saddle, up to the establishment of the yet more monarchical “Committee of Public Safety,” seven months later. And these seven months may be characterised as follows:—
They were a period during which it was attempted to carry on the revolutionary war against the Governments of Europe upon democratic principles. The attempt failed. In the place of discipline and comprehension and foresight the rising and intense enthusiasm of the moment was depended upon for victory. The pure ideal of the Girondin faction, with the model republic which it hoped to establish, proved wholly insufficient for the conduct of a war; and to save the nation from foreign conquest and the great democratic experiment of the Revolution from disaster, it was necessary that the military and disciplined side of the French, with all the tyranny that accompanies that aspect of their national genius, should undertake the completion of the adventure.
This period opens with what are called the Massacres of September. I have said upon a former page that “the known accomplices and supporters of the Court’s alliance with the invaders were arrested by the hundred,” upon the fall of the palace and the establishment of a revolutionary Executive with Danton at its head.
These prisoners, massed in the jails of the city, were massacred to the number of eleven hundred by a small but organised band of assassins during the days when the news of the fall of Verdun was expected and reached the capital. Such a crime appalled the public conscience of Europe and of the French people. It must never be confused with the judicial and military acts of the Terror, nor with the reprisals undertaken against rebellion, nor with the gross excesses of mob violence; for though votes in favour of the immediate execution of those who had sided with the enemies of the country were passed in certain primary assemblies, the act itself was the mechanical, deliberate and voluntary choice of a few determined men. It had, therefore, a character of its own, and that character made it stand out for its contemporaries as it should stand out for us: it was murder.
The prisoners were unarmed—nay, though treasonable, they had not actually taken arms; their destruction was inspired, in most of those who ordered it, by mere hatred. Those who ordered it were a small committee acting spontaneously, and Marat was their chief.
It was under the impression of these massacres that the Deputies of the new or third Assembly of the Revolution, known to history as The Convention, met in Paris.
This Parliament was to be at first the actual, later the nominal governing power in France during the three critical years that followed; years which were the military salvation of the Revolution, and which therefore permitted the establishment of the democratic experiment in modern Europe.
It was on the 20th of September that the Convention met for its first sitting, which was held in the palace of the Tuileries. During the hours of that day, while it was electing its officials, choosing its Speaker and the rest, the French Army upon the frontier, to its own astonishment and to that of its enemy, managed to hold in check at the cannonade of Valmy the allied invaders.
Upon the morrow the new Assembly met in the riding school (the Manège), where the two former Assemblies had also sat. It was about to separate after that day’s sitting when one of the members proposed the abolition of Royalty; the Convention voted the reform unanimously and dispersed.
On the third day, the 22nd of September, it was decreed that the public documents should henceforward bear the date “First Year of the Republic”; but there was no solemnity on the occasion; the idea of “No King” was novel and untried; there was as yet no enthusiasm for any save the monarchic form of government. It was not until the title “Republic” began to connote in men’s minds political liberty, and had become also the flag, as it were, for the victorious national defence, that the Republican name acquired in our Europe, and from France, that strong and almost religious force which it has since retained.
The check given to the invaders at Valmy (again to the astonishment of both soldiers and statesmen!) determined the campaign. Sickness and the difficulty of communications made the further advance of the invaders impossible. They negotiated for and obtained an unmolested retreat, and a few weeks later they had re-crossed the frontier.
Meanwhile, in Paris the great quarrel had begun between the Municipal and the National Government, which, because Paris was more decided, more revolutionary, and, above all, more military in temper than the Parliament, was destined to terminate in the victory of the capital. The Girondins still stood in the Assembly for an ideal republic; a republic enjoying to the utmost limit individual liberty in its citizens and the autonomy of local government in every city and parish; but opposed to this ideal, and far more national, was that of the revolutionary extremists, called in the Convention “the Mountain,” who had the support of the Municipal Government of Paris (known as “the Commune”), and were capable of French victories in the field. These stood for the old French and soldierly conception of a strong central Government, wherewith to carry on the life-and-death struggle into which the Revolution had now entered: therefore they conquered.
All that autumn the quarrel between France and Europe remained doubtful, for though the armies of the Republic under Dumouriez won the battle of Jemappes, swept across the north-eastern frontier and occupied Belgium, while to the south another French army swept right up to the Rhine. Dumouriez himself knew well enough that a campaign undertaken merely upon enthusiasm, and with troops so mixed in character and many of them so undisciplined, would end fatally. But until the advent of the new year public opinion was not instructed upon these lines, and the revolutionary war seemed to have passed suddenly from the defence of the national territory to a crusade against the kings and the aristocratic Governments of Europe. Enthusiasm, and enthusiasm alone, was the force of the moment. Violent decrees such as the Declaration of Fraternity (which decreed an alliance with all people struggling to be free) and the opening of the Scheldt (a direct violation of treaty rights to which England, among other nations, was a partner) were characteristic of the moment; chief act of all, the King was put upon his trial at the bar of the Parliament.
It was upon the 4th of January, 1793 (the King had already made his will upon Christmas Day), that the chief orator of the Girondins moved that the sentence should be referred to the people for ratification. The fear of civil war more than anything else forbade this just suggestion to pass. Upon the 15th of January the question was put to the Parliament, “whether the King had been guilty of conspiring against public liberty and of attempting the general safety of the State.” Many were absent and many abstained: none replied in the negative; the condemnation of Louis was therefore technically almost a unanimous one.
The voting on these grave issues was what the French call “nominal”: that is, each member was called upon “by name” to give his vote—and an expression of opinion as well if he so chose. A second attempt to appeal to the people was rejected by 424 to 283. On the third question, which was the decisive one of the penalty, 721 only could be found to vote, and of these a bare majority of 53 declared for death as against the minority, of whom some voted for the death penalty “conditionally”—that is, not at all—or voted against it. A respite was lost by a majority of 70; and on the 21st of January, 1793, at about ten in the morning, Louis XVI was guillotined.
Then followed war with England, with Holland, and with Spain; and almost at that moment began the inevitable reflux of the military tide. For the French eruption up to the Rhine in the Low Countries and the Palatinate, had no permanent military basis upon which to depend. Dumouriez began to retreat a month after the King’s execution, and on the 18th of March suffered a decisive defeat at Neerwinden. It was this retreat, followed by that disaster, which decided the fate of the Girondin attempt to found a republic ideally, individually, and locally free. Already, before the battle of Neerwinden was fought, Danton, no longer a minister, but still the most powerful orator in the Convention, proposed a special court for trying cases of treason—a court which was later called “the Revolutionary Tribunal.” The news of Neerwinden prepared the way for a stronger measure and some exceptional form of government; a special Parliamentary committee already formed for the control of ministers was strengthened when, on the 5th of April, after some negotiation and doubt, Dumouriez, despairing of the armies of the Republic, thought to ally his forces with the invaders and to restore order. His soldiers refused to follow him; his treason was apparent; upon the morrow the Convention nominated that first “Committee of Public Safety” which, with its successor of the same name, was henceforward the true despotic and military centre of revolutionary government. It was granted secrecy in deliberation, the virtual though not the theoretic control of the Ministry, sums of money for secret expenditure, and, in a word, all the machinery necessary to a military executive. Rousseau’s Dictator had appeared, the great mind which had given the Contrat Social to be the gospel of the Revolution had also foreseen one of the necessary organs of democracy in its hardest trial; his theory had been proved necessary and true in fact. Nine members formed this first Committee: Barère, who may be called the clerk of it, Danton its genius, and Cambon its financier, were the leading names. With the establishment of this truly national and traditional thing, whose form alone was novel, but whose power and method were native to all the military tradition of Gaul, the Revolution was saved. We have now chiefly to follow the way in which the Committee governed and in which it directed affairs in the great crisis of the war. This sixth phase lasts for nearly sixteen months, from the beginning of April 1793 to the 28th of July 1794, and it is convenient to divide those sixteen months into two divisions.
From April 1793 to July 1794.
The first division of this period, which ends in the height of the summer of 1793, is the gradual consolidation of the Committee as a new organ of government and the peril of destruction which it runs, in common with the nation it governs at the hands of allied Europe.
The second period includes part of August and all the rest of 1793, and the first seven months of 1794, during which time the Committee is successful in its military effort, the nation is saved, and in a manner curiously dramatic and curiously inconsequential, the martial régime of the Terror abruptly ceases.
The first step in the consolidation of the power of the Committee was their letting loose of the Commune of Paris and the populace it governed against the Girondins.
Looked at merely from the point of view of internal politics (upon which most historians have concentrated) the attack of the populace of Paris and their Commune against the Parliament seems to be no more than the end of the long quarrel between the Girondins with their ideal federal republic, and the capital with its instinct for strong centralised government. But in the light of the military situation, of which the Committee of Public Safety were vividly aware, and which it was their business to control, a very different tale may be told.
When the defeats began the Parliament had voted a levy of three hundred thousand men. It was a mere vote which came to very little: not enough in numbers and still less in moral, for the type of troops recruited under a system of money forfeit and purchased substitutes was wholly beneath the task of the great war.
This law of conscription had been passed upon the 24th of February. The date for its first application was, in many villages, fixed for the 10th of March. All that country which borders the estuary of the Loire, to the north and to the south, a country whose geographical and political peculiarities need not here detain us, but which is still curiously individual, began to resist. The decree was unpopular everywhere, of course, as military service is everywhere unpopular with a settled population. But here it had no ally, for the Revolution and all its works were grossly unpopular as well. The error of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy was a powerful factor in this revolt. The piety and the orthodoxy of this district were and are exceptional. Some such resistance in some such quarter was perhaps expected: what was not expected was its military success.
Four days before the defeat of Neerwinden itself, and four days after the decree of conscription in the villages, a horde of peasantry had taken possession of the town of Chollet in the southern part of this district, Vendee. Three days before the Committee of Public Safety was formed the insurgents had defeated regular forces at Machecoul, and had tortured and put to death their prisoners. The month of April, when the Committee of Public Safety was first finding its seat in the saddle, saw the complete success of the rebels. The forces sent against them were worthless, for all military effort had been concentrated upon the frontier. Most of them were not even what we should call militia. A small force of regulars was to have moved from Orleans, but, before they could attack, Thouars, Parthenay, and Fontenay fell into the power of the rebels. These posts afforded an advanced triangle right into the regularly administered territory of the Republic: the great town of Nantes was outflanked. Even in such a moment the Girondins still clung to their ideal: an individually free and locally autonomous republic. It is little wonder that the temper of Paris refused to support them, or their influence over the Parliament, and we can easily understand how the new Committee supported Paris in its revolt.
That revolt took place on the 31st of May. The forces under the command of the capital did not march, but a deputation of the sections of Paris demanded the arrest of the leading Girondins. The body of the debating hall was invaded by the mob. The Committee of Public Safety pretended to compromise between Paris and the Parliament, but a document, recently analysed, sufficiently proves that their sympathy was with the Parisian attack. They proposed, indeed, to put the armed force of Paris at the disposition of the Assembly: that is, in their own hands.
That day nothing of moment was done, but the Parliament had proved of no strength in the face of the capital. On the frontier the advance of the invaders had begun. The great barrier fortress of Valenciennes relied for its defence upon the neighbouring camp of Famars. The garrison of that camp had been compelled to evacuate it by the advance of the Allied Army upon the 23rd of May, and though some days were to be spent before the heavy artillery of the Austrians could be emplaced, Valenciennes was henceforward at the mercy of its besiegers. There was news that La Vendée was not the only rebellion. Lyons had risen three days before. There had been heavy fighting. The Royalists and the Girondins had combined and had carried the town hall and established an insurrectionary and unelected Municipal Government. Such news, coming immediately after the 31st of May, roused the capital to action. This time the Parisian forces actually marched against the Parliament. The demand for the suspension of the twenty-two named Girondin deputies was made under arms. Much has been written, and by the best historians, to make of this successful day a mere conquest by the Commune of Paris over the Parliament. Though Barère and Danton both protested in public, it was in reality their politics that conquered with Paris. To the twenty-two names that the forces of Paris had listed, seven were added. The great Girondins, Brissot, Vergniaud and the rest, were not indeed imprisoned, they were considered “under arrest in their houses.” But the moral authority of the Convention as an administrative machine, not as a legislative one, was broken on this day, the 2nd of June, 1793. Paris had ostensibly conquered, but the master who was stronger than ever and whom Paris had served, was the Committee of Public Safety.
This first Committee of Public Safety endured to the 10th of July. In the midst of such a war and of such an internal struggle the Convention had voted (upon the initiative of the Committee of Public Safety) the famous Constitution of ‘93, that prime document of democracy which, as though to mock its own ideal, has remained no more than a written thing from then until now. Therein will be found universal suffrage, therein the yearly Parliament, therein the referendum, therein the elected Executive—a thing no Parliament would ever give us to-day. The Constitution was passed but three weeks after the successful insurrection of Paris. A fortnight later still, on the 10th of July, the first of the Committees of Public Safety was followed by its successor.
All this while the Vendeans were advancing. Nantes, indeed, had held out against the rebels, but as we shall see in a moment, the Republican troops had not yet made themselves good. The rebellion of Lyons was fortifying itself, and a week later was to execute the Radical Chalier. Marseilles was rising. On the 10th of July the Convention summoned to its bar Westermann, the friend of Danton, who had just suffered defeat at the hands of the western rebels.
It is well to note at this point one of those small individual factors which determine the fate of States. Danton, the master of all that first movement towards centralisation, the man who had made the 10th of August, who had negotiated with the Prussians after Valmy, who had determined upon and formed a central government against the Girondin anarchy—had broken down. His health was gone. He was a giant in body, but for the moment he had tired himself out.
The renewing of his Committee was proposed: he was thrust out from the new choice. Barère remained to link the old Committee with the new. A violent sectarian Calvinist pastor, Jeanbon Saint-André, among the bravest and most warped of the Revolutionaries; Couthon, a friend of Robespierre; Saint-Just, a still more intimate friend (a young, handsome, enormously courageous and decisive man), entered, with others to the number of nine, the new Committee. Seventeen days later, on the 27th of July, Robespierre replaced one of the minor members thus chosen. He had precisely a year to live, and it is the moment for fixing before the reader’s mind the nature of his career.
Robespierre was at this moment the chief figure in the eyes of the crowd, and was soon to be the chief revolutionary figure in the eyes of Europe: that is the first point. The second is of equal importance, and is far less generally recognised. He was not, and was never destined to be, the chief force in the revolutionary Government.
As to the first point, Robespierre had attained this position from the following combination of circumstances: first, alone of the revolutionary personalities, he had been continually before the public eye from the beginning; he had been a member of the first Parliament of all and had spoken in that Parliament in the first month of its sessions. Though then obscure in Versailles, he was already well known in his province and native town of Arras.
Secondly, this position of his in the public eye was maintained without a break, and his position and reputation had increased by accumulation month after month for the whole four years. No one else was left in the political arena of whom this could be said. All the old reactionaries had gone, all the moderate men had gone; the figures of 1793 were all new figures—except Robespierre; and he owed this continued and steady increase of fame to:—
Thirdly, his conspicuous and vivid sincerity. He was more wholly possessed of the democratic faith of the Contrat Social than any other man of his time: he had never swerved from an article of it. There is no better engine for enduring fame than the expression of real convictions. Moreover—
Fourthly, his speeches exactly echoed the opinions of his audience, and echoed them with a lucidity which his audience could not have commanded. Whether he possessed true eloquence or no is a matter still debated by those who are scholars in French letters. But it is certain that he had in his own time all the effects of a great orator, though his manner was precise and cold.
Fifthly, he was possessed of a consistent body of doctrine: that is, he was not only convinced of the general democratic creed which his contemporaries held, and he not only held it unswervingly and uncorruptedly, but he could supplement it with a system of morals and even something which was the adumbration of religion.
Sixthly, he had, as such characters always can, but not often do, gather round themselves, a group of intensely devoted personal admirers and supporters, chief of whom was the young and splendidly courageous Saint-Just.
It was the combination of all these things, I say, which made Robespierre the chief personality in the public eye when he entered the Committee of Public Safety on the 27th of July, 1793.
Now let it be noted that, unlike his follower Saint-Just, and exceedingly unlike Danton, Robespierre possessed none of those military qualities without which it is impossible to be responsible for government over a military nation—especially if that nation be in the act of war: and such a war! The Committee of Public Safety was the Caesar of revolutionary France. Robespierre as a member of that Caesar was hopeless. His popularity was an advantage to his colleagues in the Committee, but his conception of action upon the frontiers was vague, personal, and futile. His ambition for leadership, if it existed, was subordinate to his ambition to be the saviour of his people and of their democratic experiment, and he had no comprehension of those functions of leadership by which it can co-ordinate detail and impose a plan of action. Robespierre, therefore, in every crisis of the last year we are about to study, yielded to his colleagues, never impressed them and never led them, and yet (it was the irony of his fate) was imagined by his fellow countrymen and by the warring Governments of Europe to be the master of them all.
The first weeks after his appearance in the Committee of Public Safety were the critical weeks of the whole revolutionary movement. The despotic action of Paris (which I have concluded to be secretly supported by the Committee) had provoked insurrection upon all sides in the provinces. Normandy had protested, and on the 13th of July a Norman girl stabbed Marat to death. Lyons, as we have seen, had been some weeks in revolt; Marseilles had rebelled in the first week of June, Bordeaux and the whole department of the Gironde had of course risen, for their men were at stake. Later Toulon, the great naval depot of France, revolted: a reactionary municipal provincial Government was formed in that port, the little boy imprisoned in the Temple, heir to the kingdom, was proclaimed under the title of Louis XVII, and before the end of August the English and Spanish fleets had been admitted into the harbour and an excellent foreign garrison was defending the town against the national Government.
Meanwhile the Allies upon the Belgian frontier were doing what they could, taking fortress after fortress, and while Mayence was falling on the Rhine, Valenciennes and Condé were capitulating on the north-eastern border, and a portion of the Allied Army was marching to besiege Dunquerque. The insurrection in Vendée, which had broken out in the early part of the year, though checked by the resistance of Nantes, was still successful in the field.
It was in the month of August that a successful effort was made. Carnot, who soon proved the military genius of the Revolution, entered the Committee of Public Safety. On the 23rd of the month a true levy, very different from the futile and insufficiently applied attempt of the spring, was forced upon the nation by a vote in Parliament. It was a levy of men, vehicles, animals and provision, and soon furnished something not far short of half a million soldiers. With September the tide turned, the first victory in this crisis of the struggle, Hoondschoote, relieved Dunquerque in the early days of September. By mid-October a second and decisive victory, that of Wattignies, relieved Maubeuge. Lyons had been taken, Normandy was pacified long before; by the end of the year Toulon was reoccupied, and at the same time the last cohesive force of the Vendeans destroyed.
But meanwhile the crisis had had a double effect, moral and material. The moral effect had been a sort of national madness in which the most extreme measures were proposed and many of them carried through with what one may call a creative audacity. The calendar itself was changed, the week itself abolished, the months re-named and readjusted. Such an act sufficiently symbolises the mental attitude of the Revolutionaries. They were determined upon a new earth.
There went with this the last and most violent attack upon what was believed to be the last remnants of Catholicism in the country, a hideous persecution of the priesthood, in which an uncounted number of priests died under the rigours of transportation or of violence. The reprisals against the rebels varied from severity of the most awful kind to cruelty that was clearly insane, and of which the worst examples took place at Arras and at Nantes.
In all this turmoil the governing centre of the country, the Committee of Public Safety, not only kept its head but used the enormous forces of the storm for the purposes of achieving military success, under that system known as “the Terror,” which was for them no more than martial law, and an engine of their despotic control. Of the two thousand and more that passed before the revolutionary tribunal and were executed in Paris, the large majority were those whom the Committee of Public Safety judged to be obstacles to their military policy; and most were men or women who had broken some specific part of the martial code which the Government had laid down. Some were generals who had failed or were suspected of treason; and some, among the most conspicuous, were politicians who had attempted to check so absolute a method of conducting the war.
Of these the greatest was Danton. Before the end of 1793 he began to protest against the system of the Terror; he believed, perhaps, that the country was now safe in the military sense and needed such rigours no more. But the Committee disagreed, and were evidence available we should perceive that Carnot in particular determined that such opposition must cease. Danton and his colleagues—including Desmoulins, the journalist of the Revolution and the chief publicist who promoted the days of July 1789—were executed in the first week of April 1794.
Parallel to this action on the part of the Committee was their sudden attack upon men of the other extreme: the men whose violence, excessive even for that time, threatened to provoke reaction. Hébert was the chief of these, the spokesman of the Commune of Paris; and he also perished.
Meanwhile the Committee had permitted other persecutions and other deaths, notably that of the Queen. A sane policy would have demanded that she should be kept a hostage: she was sacrificed to the desire for vengeance, and her head fell on the same day on which the decisive battle of Wattignies was won. Later the King’s sister, Madame Elisabeth, was sacrificed to the same passions, and with her must be counted a certain proportion of the victims whose destruction could be no part of the Committee’s scheme, and proceeded purely from the motives of an ancient hatred, though in the case of many of these who were of aristocratic birth or of influence through their wealth, it is not easy to determine how far the possibility of their intrigue with the foreigner may not have led them to the scaffold.
In the last four months of the period we are considering in this book, through April, that is, after the execution of Danton, through May and June and almost to the end of July, Robespierre appears with a particular prominence. Fads or doctrines of his own are admitted upon the Statute Book of the Revolution, notably his religious dogmas of a personal God and of the immortality of the soul. Nay, a public solemnity is arranged in honour of such matters, and he is the high priest therein. The intensity of the idolatry he received was never greater; the numbers that shared it were, perhaps, diminishing. It is certain that he did not appreciate how far the supports of his great popularity were failing. It is certain that he saw only the increasing enthusiasm of his immediate followers. The Committee still used him as their tool—notably for an increase of the Terror in June, but it is possible that for the first time in all these months he began to attempt some sort of authority within the Committee: we know, for instance, that he quarrelled with Carnot, who was easily the strongest man therein.
In the past they had permitted him to indulge a private policy where it did not interfere with the general military plan. He was largely responsible, not through his own judgment but from his desire to voice opinion, for the trial and execution of the Queen. He had temporised when Danton was beginning his campaign against the Terror at the end of 1793, and it is an ineffaceable blot upon his memory and his justly earned reputation for integrity and sincerity, that he first permitted and then helped towards Danton’s execution. We may presume from the few indications we have that he protested against it in the secret counsels of the Committee, but he had yielded, and what is more, since Saint-Just desired to be Danton’s accuser he had furnished Saint-Just with notes against Danton. Though it was the Committee who were morally responsible for the extreme extension of the Terror which proceeded during those last few months, Robespierre had the unwisdom to act as their instrument, to draft their last decrees, and, believing the Terror to be popular, to support it in public. It was this that ruined him. The extreme Terrorists, those who were not yet satiated with vengeance, and who hated and feared a popular idol, determined to overthrow him.
The mass of those who might be the next victims and who, knowing nothing of the secret councils of the Committee, imagined Robespierre to be what he posed as being, the master of the Committee, were eager for his removal. In his fictitious character as the supposed chief power in the State, all the growing nausea against the Terror was directed against his person.
Coincidently with such forces, the Committee, whom, relying upon his public position, he had begun to interfere with, and probably to check in their military action (he certainly had attempted unsuccessfully to save certain lives against the decision of his colleagues), determined to be rid of him. The crisis came in the fourth week of July: or as the revolutionary calendar then went, in the second week of Thermidor. He was howled down in the Parliament, an active and clever conspiracy had organised all the latent forces of opposition to him; he still so trusted in his popularity that the scene bewildered him, and he was still so beloved and so ardently followed, that when at that same sitting he was outlawed, his brother sacrificed himself to follow him. Saint-Just was included in the sentence, and his strict friend Lebas voluntarily accepted the same doom.
What followed was at first a confusion of authority; put under arrest, the governor of the prison to which Robespierre was dispatched refused to receive him. He and his sympathisers met in the Hôtel de Ville after the fall of darkness, and an attempt was made to provoke an insurrection. There are many and confused accounts of what immediately followed at midnight, but two things are certain: the populace refused to rise for Robespierre, and the Parliament, with the Committee at its back, organised an armed force which easily had the better of the incipient rebellion at the Hôtel de Ville. It is probable that Robespierre’s signature was needed to the proclamation of insurrection: it is certain that he did not complete it, and presumable that he would not act against all his own theories of popular sovereignty and the general will. As he sat there with the paper before him and his signature still unfinished, the armed force of the Parliament burst into the room, a lad of the name of Merda aimed a pistol from the door at Robespierre, and shot him in the jaw. (The evidence in favour of this version is conclusive.) Of his companions, some fled and were captured, some killed themselves, most were arrested. The next day, the 10th Thermidor, or 28th of July, 1794, at half-past seven in the evening, Robespierre, with twenty-one others, was guillotined.
The irony of history would have it that the fall of this man, which was chiefly due to his interference with the system of the Terror, broke all the moral force upon which the Terror itself had resided; for men had imagined that the Terror was his work, and that, he gone, no excuse was left for it. A reaction began which makes of this date the true term in that ascending series of revolutionary effort which had by then discussed every aspect of democracy, succeeded in the military defence of that experiment, and laid down, though so far in words only, the basis of the modern State.
- The reader should be warned that these numbers are hotly disputed. The latest authority will allow no more than 4000. After a full consultation of the evidence I can reduce the garrison to no less than 6000.
- The legend that Danton was connected with the massacres is based on insufficient historical foundation. There are several second or third hand stories in support of it, but the chief positive evidence brought forward in this connection is the stamped paper of the Minister of Justice which, it has been amply proved by Dr. Robinet, was taken by a subordinate and without Danton’s knowledge or complicity. To the much stupider story that the Federals of Marseilles took part in the massacres, the modern student need pay no attention; it has been destroyed piecemeal and on indefeasible documentary evidence in the monograph of Pollio and Marcel.
- On p. 403 of my monograph on Danton (Nisbet & Co., 1899) the reader will find an unpublished report of the Committee of Public Safety, drawn up immediately before the destruction of the Girondins on the 31st of May. It forms, in my view, conclusive evidence, read in the light of their other actions, of the Committee’s determination to side with Paris.