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XVIII: The Reign of Terror - John Emerich Edward Dalberg, Lord Acton, Lectures on the French Revolution (LF ed.) 
Lectures on the French Revolution, ed. John Neville Figgis and Reginald Vere Laurence, with a foreword by Steven J. Tonsor (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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The Reign of Terror
The liberal and constitutional wave with which the Revolution began ended with the Girondins; and the cause of freedom against authority, of right against force was lost. At the moment of their fall, Europe was in arms against France by land and sea; the royalists were victorious in the west; the insurrection of the south was spreading, and Précy held Lyons with 40,000 men. The majority, who were masters in the Convention, had before them the one main purpose of increasing and concentrating power, that the country might be saved from dangers which, during those months of summer, threatened to destroy it. That one supreme and urgent purpose governed resolutions and inspired measures for the rest of the year, and resulted in the method of government which we call the Reign of Terror. The first act of the triumphant Mountain was to make a Constitution. They had criticized and opposed the Girondin draft, in April and May, and only the new declaration of the Rights of Man had been allowed to pass. All this was now re-opened. The Committee of Public Safety, strengthened by the accession of five Jacobins, undertook to prepare a scheme adapted to the present conditions, and embodying the principles which had prevailed. Taking Condorcet’s project as their basis, and modifying it in the direction which the Jacobin orators had pointed to in debate, they achieved their task in a few days, and they laid their proposals before the Convention on June 10. The reporter was Hérault de Séchelles; but the most constant speaker in the ensuing debate was Robespierre. After a rapid discussion, but with some serious amendments, the Republican Constitution of 1793 was adopted, on June 24. Of all the fruits of the Revolution this is the most characteristic, and it is superior to its reputation.
The Girondins, by their penman Condorcet, had omitted the name of God, and had assured liberty of conscience only as liberty of opinion. They elected the executive and the legislative alike by direct vote of the entire people, and gave the appointment of functionaries to those whom they were to govern. Primary assemblies were to choose the Council of Ministers, and were to have the right of initiating laws. The plan restricted the power of the State in the interest of decentralisation. The Committee, while retaining much of the scheme, guarded against the excess of centrifugal forces. They elected the legislature by direct universal suffrage, disfranchised domestic servants, and made the ballot optional, and therefore illusory. They resolved that the supreme executive council of twenty-four should be nominated by the legislature from a list of candidates, one chosen by indirect voting in each department, and should appoint and control all ministers and executive officers; the legislature to issue decrees with force of law in all necessary matters; but to make actual laws only under popular sanction, given or implied. In this way they combined direct democracy with representative democracy. They restricted the suffrage, abolished the popular initiative, limited the popular sanction, withdrew the executive patronage from the constituency, and destroyed secret voting. Having thus provided for the composition of power, they proceeded in the interest of personal liberty. The Press was to be free, there was to be entire religious toleration, and the right of association. Education was to become universal, and there was to be a poor law; in case of oppression, insurrection was declared a duty as well as a right, and usurpation was punishable with death. All laws were temporary, and subject to constant revision. Robespierre, who had betrayed socialist inclinations in April, revoked his earlier language, and now insisted on the security of property, proportionate and not progressive taxation, and the refusal of exemptions to the poor. In April, an unknown deputy from the Colonies had demanded that the Divinity be recognised in the preamble, and in June, after the elimination of the Girondins, the idea was adopted. At the same time, inverting the order of things, equality was made the first of the Rights of Man, and Happiness, instead of Liberty, was declared the supreme end of civil society. In point of spiritual quality, nothing was gained by the invocation of the Supreme Being.
Hérault proposed that a Grand Jury should be elected by the entire nation to hear complaints against the government or its agents, and to decide which cases should be sent for trial. The plan belonged to Sieyès, and was supported by Robespierre. When it was rejected, he suggested that each deputy should be judged by his constituency, and if censured, should be ineligible elsewhere. This was contrary to the principle that a deputy belongs to the whole nation, and ought to be elected by the nation, but for the practical difficulty which compels the division into separate constituencies. The end was, that the deputies remained inviolable, and subject to no check, although the oldest member, a man so old that he might very well have remembered Lewis XIV., spoke earnestly in favour of the Grand Jury.
The Constitution wisely rescinded the standing offer of support to insurgent nations, and renounced all purpose of intervention or aggression. When the passage was read declaring that there could be no peace with an invader, a voice cried, “Have you made a contract with victory?” “No,” replied Bazire; “we have made a contract with death.” A criticism immediately appeared, which was anonymous, but in which the hand of Condorcet was easily recognised. He complained that judges were preferred to juries, that functionaries were not appointed by universal suffrage, that there was no fixed term of revision, that the popular sanction of laws was reduced to a mere form. Condorcet believed that nearly all inequality of fortune, such as causes suffering, is the effect of imperfect laws, and that the end of the social art is to reduce it. There were others who objected that the Constitution did not benefit the poor. In regard to property, as in other things, it was marked by a pronounced Conservatism. It was adopted by a national vote of 1,801,918 to 11,610, and, with solemn rites, was inaugurated on August 10. No term was fixed for it to come into operation. The friends of Danton spoke of an early dissolution, but the Convention refused to be dissolved, and the Constitution was never executed. Although other acts of the legislature at that time are still good law, French jurists do not appeal to the great constitutional law of June 24 and August 10, 1793. In the course of the autumn, October 10 and December 4, it was formally suspended, and was never afterwards restored. France was governed, not by this instrument, but by a series of defining enactments, which created extraordinary powers, and suppressed opposition.
After the integrity of the Assembly, the next thing to perish was the liberty of the Press. The journalists could not claim the sanctity which had been violated in the representatives, and gave way. Marat remained, and exercised an influence in Paris which his activity on June 2 increased. He had his own following, in the masses, and his own basis of power, and he was not a follower of either Danton or Robespierre. By his share in the fall of the Girondins he became their equal. When he died, the vacant place, in the Press and in the street, was at once occupied by a lesser rival, Hébert. In a little time, Hébert acquired enormous power. Marat’s newspaper had seldom paid its way; but Hébert used to print 600,000 copies of the Père Duchesne. Through his ally Chaumette, he controlled the municipality of Paris, and all that depended from it. Through Bouchotte and Vincent, he managed the War Office, with its vast patronage and command of money, and distributed his journal in every camp. To a man of order and precision like Robespierre, the personage was odious, for he was anarchical and corrupt, and was the urgent patron of incapable generals; but Robespierre could not do without his support in the Press, and was obliged to conciliate him. Between Hébert and Danton there was open war, and Danton had not the best of it. He had been weakened by the overthrow of the Girondins whom he wished to save, and was forced to abandon. In the Convention, he was still the strongest figure, and at times could carry all before him. But when he lost his seat on the governing Committee, and was without official information, he was no match at last for Robespierre. All through the summer he was evidently waning, whilst the Confederates, Chaumette, Hébert, and Vincent, became almost invincible.
On the 10th of July the Committee of Public Safety, after acting as a Committee of Legislation, was recomposed as an executive body. There had been fourteen members, there were now nine. Barère had the highest vote, 192; St. Just had only 126; and Danton was not elected. The influence of Robespierre was supreme; he himself became a member, on a vacancy, July 27. The fortunes of France were then at their lowest. The Vendeans were unconquered, Lyons was not taken, and the Austrians and English had broken through the line of fortresses, and were making slowly for Paris. A few months saw all this changed, and those are the earlier months of the predominance of Robespierre, with his three powerful instruments, the Committee of Public Safety, the Revolutionary Tribunal, and the Jacobin Club, which made him master of the Convention. On July 27, the day before he was elected to the Committee, an important change occurred. For the first time, an order was sent from the Tuileries to the army on the frontier, in a quarter of an hour. This was the beginning of the semaphore telegraph, and science was laying hold of the Revolution. On August 1, the metrical system was introduced, and the republican calendar followed; but we shall speak of it in another connection.
In the middle of August, Prieur, an engineer officer, was elected to the Committee, to conduct the business of war; but Prieur protested that he was the wrong man, and advised them to take Carnot. Therefore, August 15, very much against the wish of Robespierre, the organiser of victory joined the government. The Hébertists had proposed that the entire population should be forced into the army, more particularly the richer class. Danton modified the proposal into something reasonable, and on August 23, Carnot drew up the decree which was called the levée en masse. It turned France into a nominal nation of soldiers. Practically, it called out the first class, from eighteen to twenty-five, and ordered the men of the second class, from twenty-five to thirty, to be ready. It is to Danton and Carnot that France owed the army which was to overrun the Continent; and by the end of the year the best soldiers in the world, Hoche, Moreau, Masséna, Bonaparte, were being raised to command.
On August 9, an event occurred in the civil order which influenced the future of mankind as widely as the creation of the French army. While the Committee of Public Safety was busy with the Constitution, the Committee of Legislation was employed in drawing up a Code of Civil Law, which was the basis of the Code Napoleon. Cambacérès, who, with the same colleagues, afterwards completed the work, presented it in its first form on that day. Lastly, August 24, Cambon, the financial adviser of the Republic, achieved the conversion and unification of the Public Debt.
These were the great measures, undertaken and accomplished by the men who accepted the leadership of Robespierre, in the first weeks of his government. We come to those by which he consolidated his power.
At the beginning of September, the Committee was increased by the admission of Billaud-Varennes, and of Collot d’Herbois, of whom one afterwards overthrew Danton, and the other, Robespierre. The appointment of Collot was a concession to Hébert. The same party were persuaded that the hands of government were weak, and ought to be strengthened against its enemies. Danton himself said that every day one aristocrat, one villain, ought to pay for his crimes with his head. Two measures were at once devised which were well calculated to achieve that object. September 5, the Revolutionary Tribunal was remodelled, and instead of one Revolutionary Tribunal, there were four. And on September 17 the Law of Suspects was passed, enabling local authorities to arrest whom they pleased, and to detain him in prison even when acquitted. In Paris, where there had been 1877 prisoners on September 13, there were 2975 on October 20. On September 25, the mismanagement of the Vendean War, where even the Mentz garrison had been defeated, led to a sharp debate in the Convention. It was carried away by the attack of the Dantonists; but Robespierre snatched a victory, and obtained a unanimous vote of confidence. From that date to the 26th of July 1794, we count the days of his established reign, and the Convention makes way for the Committee of Public Safety, which becomes a Provisional government.
The party of violence insisted on the death of those whom they regarded as hostages, the Girondins, for the rising in the south, the queen for the rising in the west. An attempt to save the life of Marie Antoinette had been made by the government, with the sanction of Danton. Maret was sent to negotiate the neutrality of minor Italian States by offering to release her. Austria, not wishing the Italians to be neutral, seized Maret and his companion Sémonville, in the passes of the Grisons, and sent them to a dungeon at Mantua. The queen was sent to the Conciergerie, which was the last stage before the Tribunal; and as her nephew, the emperor, did not relent, in October she was put on her trial, and executed. The death of the queen is revolting, because it was a move in a game, a concession by which Robespierre paid his debts to men at that time more violent than himself, and averted their attack. We have already seen that the advice she gave in decisive moments was disastrous, that she had no belief in the rights of nations, that she plotted war and destruction against her own people. There was cause enough for hatred. But if we ask ourselves who there is that comes forth unscathed from the trials that befell kings and queens in those or even in other times, and remember how often she pleaded and served the national cause against royalist and émigré, even against the great Irishman1 whose portrait of her at Versailles, translated by Dutens, was shown to her by the Duchess of Fitzjames, we must admit that she deserved a better fate than most of those with whom we can compare her.
That month of October, 1793, with its new and unprecedented development of butchery, was a season of triumph to the party of Hébert. The policy of wholesale arrest, rapid judgment, and speedy execution was avowedly theirs; and to them Robespierre seemed a lethargic, undecided person who only moved under pressure. He was at last moving as they wished; but the merit was theirs, and theirs the reward. One of them, Vincent, was of so bloodthirsty a disposition that he found comfort in gnawing the heart of a calf as if it was that of a royalist. But the party was not made up of ferocious men only. They had two enemies, the aristocrat and the priest; and they had two passions, the abolition of an upper class and the abolition of religion. Others had attacked the clergy, and others again had attacked religion. The originality of these men is that they sought a substitute for it, and wished to give men something to believe in that was not God. They were more eager to impose the new belief than to destroy the old. Indeed, they were persuaded that the old was hurrying towards extinction, and was inwardly rejected by those who professed it. While Hébert was an anarchist, Chaumette was the glowing patriarch of irreligious belief. He regarded the Revolution as essentially hostile to Christian faith, and conceived that its inmost principle was that which he now propounded. The clergy had been popular, for a day, in 1789; but the National Assembly refused to declare that the country was Catholic. In June 1792 the Jacobin Club rejected a proposal to abolish the State-Church, and to erect Franklin and Rousseau in the niches occupied by Saints, and in December a member speaking against divine worship met with no support. On May 30, 1793, during the crisis of the Gironde, the procession of Corpus Christi moved unmolested through the streets of Paris; and on August 25, Robespierre presiding, the Convention expressly repudiated a petition to suppress preaching in the name of Almighty God.
On September 20, Romme brought the new calendar before the Assembly, at a moment when, he said, equality reigned in heaven as well as on earth. It was adopted on November 24, with the sonorous nomenclature devised by Fabre d’Eglantine. It signified the substitution of Science for Christianity. Winemonth and fruitmonth were not more unchristian than Julius and Augustus, or than Venus and Saturn; but the practical result was the abolition of Sundays and festivals, and the supremacy of reason over history, of the astronomer over the priest. The calendar was so completely a weapon of offence, that nobody cared about the absurdity of names which were inapplicable to other latitudes, and unintelligible at Isle de France or Pondicherry. While the Convention wavered, moving sometimes in one direction and then retracing its steps, the Commune advanced resolutely, for Chaumette was encouraged by the advantage acquired by his friends in September and October. He thought the time now come to close the churches, and to institute new forms of secularised worship. Supported by a German more enthusiastic than himself, Anacharsis Cloots, he persuaded the bishop of Paris that his Church was doomed like that of the Nonjurors, that the faithful had no faith in it, that the country had given it up. Chaumette was able to add that the Commune wanted to get rid of him. Gobel yielded. On November 7, he appeared, with some of his clergy, at the bar of the Convention, and resigned to the people what he had received from the people. Other priests and bishops followed, and it appeared that some were men who had gone about with masks on their faces, and were glad to renounce beliefs which they did not share. Sieyès declared what everybody knew, that he neither believed the doctrines nor practised the rites of his Church; and he surrendered a considerable income. Some have doubted whether Gobel was equally disinterested. They say that he offered his submission to the Pope in return for a modest sum, and it is affirmed that he received compensation through Cloots and Chaumette, to whom his solemn surrender was worth a good deal. The force of his example lost somewhat, when the bishop of Blois, Grégoire, as violent an enemy of kings as could be found anywhere, stood in the tribune, and refused to abandon his ecclesiastical post. He remained in the Convention to the end, clad in the coloured robes of a French prelate.
Three days after the ceremony of renunciation, Chaumette opened the Cathedral of Notre Dame to the religion of Reason. The Convention stood aloof, in cold disdain. But an actress, who played the leading part, and was variously described as the Goddess of Reason or the Goddess of Liberty, and who possibly did not know herself which she was, came down from her throne in the church, proceeded to the Assembly, and was admitted to a seat beside the President, who gave her what was known as a friendly accolade amid loud applause. After that invasion, the hesitating deputies yielded, and about half of them attended the goddess back to her place under the Gothic towers. Chaumette decidedly triumphed. He had already forbidden religious service outside the buildings. He had now turned out the clergy whom the State had appointed, and had filled their place with a Parisian actress. He had overcome the evident reluctance of the Assembly, and made the deputies partake in his ceremonial. He proceeded, November 23, to close the churches, and the Commune resolved that whoever opened a church should incur the penalties of a suspect. It was the zenith of Hébertism.
Two men unexpectedly united against Chaumette and appeared as champions of Christendom. They were Danton and Robespierre. Robespierre had been quite willing that there should be men more extreme than he, whose aid he could cheaply purchase with a few cartloads of victims. But he did not intend to suppress religion in favour of a worship in which there was no God. It was opposed to his policy, and it was against his conviction; for, like his master, Rousseau, he was a theistic believer, and even intolerant in his belief. This was not a link between him and Danton who had no such spiritualist convictions, and who, so far as he was a man of theory, belonged to a different school of eighteenth-century thought. But Danton had been throughout assailed by the Hébertist party, and was disgusted with their violence. The death of the Girondins appalled him, for he could see no good reason which would exempt him from their fate. He had no hope for the future of the Republic, no enthusiasm, and no belief. From that time in October, his thoughts were turned towards moderation. He identified Hébert, not Robespierre, with the unceasing bloodshed, and he was willing to act with the latter, his real rival, against the raging exterminators. From the end of September he was absent in his own house at Arcis. At his return he and Robespierre denounced the irreligious masquerades, and spoke for the clergy, who had as good a right to toleration as their opponents.
When Robespierre declared that the Convention never intended to proscribe the Catholic worship, he was sincere, and was taking the first step that led to the feast of the Supreme Being. Danton acted from policy only, in opposition to men who were his own enemies. Chaumette and Hébert succumbed. The Commune proclaimed that the churches were not to be closed; and early in December the worship of Reason, having lasted twenty-six days, came to an end. The wound was keenly felt. Fire and poison, said Chaumette, were the weapons with which the priests attack the nation. For such traitors, there must be no mercy. It is a question of life and death. Let us throw up between us the barrier of eternity. The Mass was no longer said in public. It continued in private chapels throughout the winter until the end of February. In April, one head of accusation against Chaumette was his interference with midnight service at Christmas.
Robespierre had repressed Hébertism with the aid of Danton. The visible sign of their understanding was the appearance in December of the Vieux Cordelier. In this famous journal Camille Desmoulins pleaded the cause of mercy with a fervour which, at first, resembled sincerity, and pilloried Hébert as a creature that got drunk on the drippings of the guillotine. Robespierre saw the earlier numbers in proof; but by Christmas he had enough of the bargain. The Convention, having shown some inclination towards clemency on December 20, withdrew from it on the 26th, and Desmoulins, in the last of his six numbers, loudly retracted his former argument. The alliance was dissolved. It had served the purpose of Robespierre, by defeating Hébert, and discrediting Danton. In January, the Vieux Cordelier ceased to appear.
Robespierre now stood between the two hostile parties—Danton, Desmoulins, and their friends, on the side of a regular government; Hébert, Chaumette, and Collot, returned from a terrible proconsulate, wishing to govern by severities. The energy of Collot gave new life to his party, whilst Danton displayed no resource. Just then, Robespierre was taken ill, and from February 19 to March 13 he was confined to his room. Robespierre was a calculator and a tactician, methodical in his ways, definite and measured in his ends. He was less remarkable for determination and courage; and thus two men of uncommon energy now took the lead. They were Billaud-Varennes and St. Just. When St. Just was with the army, his companion Baudot relates that they astonished the soldiers by their intrepidity under fire. He adds that they had no merit, for they knew that they bore charmed lives, and that cannon balls could not touch them. That was the ardent and fanatical spirit that St. Just brought back with him. During his leader’s illness he acquired the initiative, and proclaimed the doctrine that all factions constitute a division of power, that they weaken the state, and are therefore treasonable combinations.
On March 4, Hébert called the people to arms against the government of Moderates. The attempt failed, and Robespierre, by a large expenditure of money, had Paris on his side. At one moment he even thought of making terms with this dangerous rival; and there is a story that he lost heart, and meditated flight to America. In this particular crisis money played a part, and Hébert was financed by foreign bankers, to finish the tyranny of Robespierre. On March 13 he was arrested, Chaumette on the 18th; and on the 17th, Hérault de Séchelles, Danton’s friend, on coming to the Committee of Public Safety, was told by Robespierre to retire, as they were deliberating on his arrest. On the 19th the Dantonists caused the arrest of Héron, the police agent of Robespierre, who instantly had him released. March 24, Hébert was sent to the scaffold. On the way he lamented to Ronsin that the Republic was about to perish. “The Republic,” said the other, “is immortal.” Hitherto the guillotine had been used to destroy the vanquished parties, and persons notoriously hostile. It was an easy inference, that it might serve against personal rivals, who were the best of Republicans and Jacobins. The victims in the month of March were 127.
Danton did nothing to arrest the slaughter. His inaction ruined him, and deprived him of that portion of sympathy which is due to a man who suffers for his good intentions. Billaud and St. Just demanded that he should be arrested, and carried it, at a night sitting of the Committee. Only one refused to sign. Danton had been repeatedly and amply warned. Thibaudeau, Rousselin, had told him what was impending. Panis, at the last moment, came to him at the opera, and offered him a place of refuge. Westermann proposed to him to rouse the armed people. Tallien entreated him to take measures of defence; and Tallien was president of the Convention. A warning reached him from the very grave of Marat. Albertine came to him and told him that her brother had always spoken with scorn of Robespierre as a man of words. She exclaimed, “Go to the tribune while Tallien presides, carry the Assembly, and crush the Committees. There is no other road to safety for a man like you!” “What?” he replied; “I am to kill Robespierre and Billaud?” “If you do not, they will kill you.” He said to one of his advisers, “The tribunal would absolve me.” To another, “Better to be guillotined than to guillotine.” And to a third, “They will never dare!” In a last interview, Robespierre accused him of having encouraged the opposition of Desmoulins, and of having regretted the Girondins. “Yes,” said Danton, “it is time to stop the shedding of blood.” “Then,” returned the other, “you are a conspirator, and you own it.” Danton, knowing that he was lost, burst into tears. All Europe would cast him out; and, as he had said, he was not a man who could carry his country in the soles of his shoes. One formidable imputation was to call him a bondsman of Mr. Pitt; for Pitt had said that if there were negotiations, the best man to treat with would be Danton. He was arrested, with Camille Desmoulins and other friends, on the night of March 31. Legendre moved next day that he be heard before the Convention, and if they had heard him, he would still have been master there. Robespierre felt all the peril of the moment, and the Right supported him in denying the privilege. Danton defended himself with such force that the judges lost their heads, and the tones of the remembered voice were heard outside, and agitated the crowd. The Committee of Public Safety refused the witnesses called for the defence, and cut short the proceedings. The law was broken that Danton and his associates might be condemned.
There was not in France a more thorough patriot than Danton; and all men could see that he had been put to death out of personal spite, and jealousy, and fear. There was no way, thenceforth, for the victor to maintain his power, but the quickening of the guillotine. Reserving compassion for less ignoble culprits, we must acknowledge that the defence of Danton is in the four months of increasing terror that succeeded the 5th of April 1794, when Robespierre took his stand at the corner of the Tuileries to watch the last moments of his partner in crime.
The sudden decline of Danton, and his ruin by the hands of men evidently inferior to him in capacity and vigour, is so strange an event that it has been explained by a story which is worth telling, though it is not authenticated enough to influence the narrative. In June 1793, just after the fall of the Girondins, Danton was married. His bride insisted that their union should be blessed by a priest who had not taken the oaths. Danton agreed, found the priest, and went to confession. He became unfitted for his part in the Revolution, dropped out of the Committees, and retired, discouraged and disgusted, into the country. When he came back, after the execution of the queen, of Madame Roland, and the Girondins, he took the side of the proscribed clergy, and encouraged the movement in favour of clemency. In this way he lost his popularity and influence, and refused to adopt the means of recovering power. He neglected even to take measures for his personal safety, like a man who was sick of his life. At that time, seven of the priests of Paris, whose names are given, took it by turns to follow the carts from the prison to the guillotine, disguised as one of the howling mob, for the comfort and consolation of the dying. And the abbé de Keravenant, who had married Danton, thus followed him to the scaffold, was recognised by him, and absolved him at the last moment.
[1.]Burke, Reflections on the French Revolution.