Front Page Titles (by Subject) XIX: Robespierre - Lectures on the French Revolution (LF ed.)
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XIX: Robespierre - 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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We reach the end of the Reign of Terror, on the 9th of Thermidor, the most auspicious date in modern history. In April Robespierre was absolute. He had sent Hébert to death because he promoted disorder, Chaumette because he suppressed religion, Danton because he had sought to restrain bloodshed. His policy was to keep order and authority by regulated terror, and to relax persecution. The governing power was concentrated in the Committee of Public Safety by abolishing the office of minister, instead of which there were twelve Boards of Administration reporting to the Committee. That there might be no rival power, the municipality was remodelled and placed in the hands of men attached to Robespierre. The dualism remained between representation in the Assembly and the more direct action of the sovereign people in the Town Hall. When the tocsin rings, said a member of the Commune, the Convention ceases to exist. In other words, when the principal chooses to interfere, he supersedes his agent. The two notions of government are contradictory, and the bodies that incorporated them were naturally hostile. But their antagonism was suspended while Robespierre stood between.
The reformed Commune at once closed all clubs that were not Jacobin. All parties had been crushed: Royalists, Feuillants, Girondins, Cordeliers. What remained of them in the scattered prisons of France was now to be forwarded to Paris, and there gradually disposed of. But though there no longer existed an opposing party, there was still a class of men that had not been reduced or reconciled. This consisted chiefly of deputies who had been sent out to suppress the rising of the provinces in 1793. These Commissaries of the Convention had enjoyed the exercise of enormous authority; they had the uncontrolled power of life and death, and they had gathered spoil without scruple, from the living and the dead. On that account they were objects of suspicion to the austere personage at the head of the State; and they were known to be the most unscrupulous and the most determined of men.
Robespierre, who was nervously apprehensive, saw very early where the danger lay, and he knew which of these enemies there was most cause to dread. He never made up his mind how to meet the peril; he threatened before he struck; and the others combined and overthrew him. He had helped to unite them by introducing a conflict of ideas at a time when, apparently, and on the surface, there was none. Everybody was a Republican and a Jacobin, but Robespierre now insisted on the belief in God. He perished by the monstrous imposture of associating divine sanction with the crimes of his sanguinary reign. The scheme was not suggested by expediency, for he had been always true to the idea. In early life he had met Rousseau at Ermenonville, and he had adopted the indeterminate religion of the “vicaire Savoyard.” In March 1792 he proposed a resolution, that the belief in Providence and a future life is a necessary condition of Jacobinism. In November, he argued that the decline of religious conviction left only a residue of ideas favourable to liberty and public virtue, and that the essential principles of politics might be found in the sublime teaching of Christ. He objected to disendowment, because it is necessary to keep up reverence for an authority superior to man. Therefore, on December 5, he induced the Club to break in pieces the bust of Helvétius.
Although Rousseau, the great master, had been a Genevese Calvinist, nobody thought of preserving Christianity in a Protestant form. The Huguenot ministers themselves did nothing for it, and Robespierre had a peculiar dislike of them. Immediately after the execution of Danton and before the trial of Chaumette, the restoration of religion was foreshadowed by Couthon. A week later it was resolved that the remains of Rousseau, the father of the new church, should be transferred to the Pantheon.
On May 7, Robespierre brought forward his famous motion that the Convention acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being. His argument, stripped of parliamentary trappings, was this. The secret of the life of a Republic is public and private virtue, that is, integrity, the consciousness of duty, the spirit of self-sacrifice, submission to the discipline of authority. These are the natural conditions of pure democracy; but in an advanced stage of civilisation they are difficult to maintain without the restraint of belief in God, in eternal life, in government by Providence. Society will be divided by passion and interest, unless it is reconciled and controlled by that which is the universal foundation of religions. By this appeal to a higher power Robespierre hoped to strengthen the State at home and abroad. In the latter purpose he succeeded; and the solemn renunciation of atheism impressed the world. It was very distinctly a step in the Conservative direction, for it promised religious liberty. There was to be no favour to churches, but also no persecution. Practically, the advantage was for the Christian part of the population, and irreligion, though not proscribed, was discouraged. The Revolution appeared to be turning backwards, and to seek its friends among those who had acquired their habits of life and thought under the fallen order. The change was undoubted; and it was a change imposed by the will of one man, unsupported by any current of opinion.
A month later, June 8, the Feast of the Supreme Being was held with all the solemnity of which Paris was capable. Robespierre walked in procession from the Tuileries to the Champ de Mars, at the head of the Convention. As the others fell back, he marched alone with his hair powdered, a large nosegay in his hands, wearing the sky-blue coat and nankeens by which he is remembered, for they reappeared in the crisis of Thermidor. He had attained the loftiest summit of prosperity and greatness that was ever given to man. Not a monarch in Europe could compare with him in power. All that had stood in his way during the last five years had been swept to destruction; all that survived of the Revolution followed obedient at his heels. At the last election of a President in the Convention there had been 117 votes; but 485 had voted for Robespierre, that he might parade at their head that day. It was there, in that supreme and intoxicating moment, that a gulf opened before him, and he became aware of the extremity of his peril. For he could hear the hostile deputies in the front rank behind him, muttering curses and sneering at the enthusiasm with which he was received. Those fierce proconsuls who, at Lyons, Nevers, Nantes, Toulon, had crushed all that they were now forced to venerate by their master, vowed vengeance for their humiliation. They said that this was to be a starting-point for divine right, and the excuse for a new persecution. They felt that they were forging a weapon against themselves, and committing an act of suicide. The decree of the month before would have involved no such dire consequences; but the elaborate and aggressive ceremonial was felt as a declaration of war.
Experienced observers at once predicted that Robespierre would not last long. He lost no time in devising a precaution equal to the danger. He prepared what is known as the law of the 22nd of Prairial, which was presented by Couthon, and carried without a division on June 10, two days after the procession. It is the most tyrannical of all the acts of the Revolution, and is not surpassed by anything in the records of absolute monarchy. For the decree of Prairial suppressed the formalities of law in political trials. It was said by Couthon, that delays may be useful where only private interests are at stake, but there must be none where the interest of the entire public is to be vindicated. The public enemy has only to be identified. The State despatches him to save itself. Therefore the Committee was empowered to send whom it chose before the tribunal, and if the jury was satisfied, no time was to be lost with witnesses, written depositions, or arguments. Nobody whom Robespierre selected for execution would be allowed to delay judgment by defence; and that there might be no exception or immunity from arbitrary arrest and immediate sentence, all previous decrees in matter of procedure were revoked. That article contained the whole point, for it deprived the Convention of jurisdiction for the protection of its own members. Robespierre had only to send a deputy’s name to the public accuser, and he would be in his grave next day. The point had been so well concealed that nobody perceived it. Afterwards, the deputies, warned by the great jurist Merlin, saw what they had done, and on June 11, they stipulated that no member should be arrested without leave of the Convention. Couthon and Robespierre were not present. On the 12th, by threatening that the Committees would resign, they caused the decree of the previous day to be rescinded, but they assured the Assembly that it was superfluous, and their design had been misunderstood. They maintained their text, and gained their object; but the success was on the other side. The scheme had been exposed, and the Convention had resisted, for the first time. The opposing deputies had received warning, and showed that they understood. From that moment they were on the watch, and their enemy shrank from employing against them a clause the validity of which he had denied. He gave them time to combine. Over the rest of the nation he exerted his new power without control. The victims increased rapidly in number. Down to the middle of June, in fourteen months, the executions had been about 1200. In seven weeks, after the law of Prairial, they were 1376; that is, an average of 32 in a week rose to an average of 196. But the guillotine was removed to a distant part of the city, where a deep trench was dug to carry away such quantities of blood.
During this time the Tribunal was not acting against men actually in public life, and we are not compelled to study its judgments, as if they were making history. Whilst inoffensive people were suffering obscurely, the enemies of the tyrant were plotting to save themselves from the dreadful fate they saw so near them. Nothing bound them together but fear and a common hatred for the obtrusive dogmatist at the head of affairs; and it was not evident to each that they were acting in the same cause. But there was a man among them, still somewhat in the background, but gifted with an incredible dexterity, who hurled Napoleon from power in 1815 and Robespierre in 1794.
Fouché, formerly an Oratorian, had been one of the most unscrupulous deputies on missions, and had given the example of seizing the treasure of churches. For he said there were no laws, and they had gone back to the state of nature. After the execution of Hébert he was recalled from Lyons; and Robespierre, whose sister he had asked in marriage, defended him at the Jacobins on April 10. Being an unfrocked ecclesiastic, he was elected president of the Club on June 6, as a protest against the clerical tendencies of Robespierre. On the 11th, immediately after the procession, and the law of Prairial, Fouché attacked him in a speech in which he said that it is to do homage to the Supreme Being to plunge a sword into the heart of a man who oppresses liberty. This was the first opening of hostilities, and it seems to have been premature. Fouché was not supported by the club at the time, and some weeks later, when Robespierre called him the head of the conspiracy against him, he was expelled. He was a doomed man, carrying his life in his hand, and he adopted more subtle means of combat. July 19, five days after his expulsion, Collot was elected President of the Convention. He and Fouché were united in sacred bands of friendship, for they had put 1682 persons to death at Lyons. About the same day others joined the plotters, and on July 20, Barère, the orator of the Committee, who watched the turning of the tide, made an ambiguous declaration portending a breach. No plan of operations had been agreed upon, and there was yet time for Robespierre, now fully awake to the approaching danger, to strike an irresistible blow.
During the last few weeks the position of the country had undergone a change. On the 1st of June, Villaret Joyeuse had given battle to the English off Ushant. It was the beginning of that long series of fights at sea, in which the French were so often successful in single combat, and so often defeated in general actions. They lost the day, but not the object for which they fought, as the supplies of American grain were brought safely into port. That substantial success and the opportune legend of the Vengeur saved the government from reproach. At the end of the month St. Just brought news of the French victory over the Austrians at Fleurus, the scene of so many battles. It was due to Jourdan and his officers, and would have been lost if they had obeyed St. Just; but he arrived in time to tell his own story. Many years were to pass before an enemy’s guns were again heard on the Belgian frontier. St. Just entreated his colleague to seize the opportunity, and to destroy his enemies while the people were rejoicing over victory. It appeared, afterwards, that the battle of Fleurus, the greatest which the French had won since the reign of Lewis XIV., rendered no service to the government under whom it was fought. The soil of France was safe for twenty years, and with the terror of invasion, the need for terror at home passed away. It had been borne while the danger lasted; and with the danger, it came to an end.
The Committee of Public Safety resented the law of Prairial; and when asked to authorise the proscription of deputies refused. Robespierre did nothing to conciliate the members, and had not the majority. And he threatened and insulted Carnot. As the powers were then constituted he was helpless against his adversaries. The Commune and the Jacobins were true to him; but the Convention was on its guard, and the two Committees were divided. Lists of proscription had been discovered, and those who knew that their names were upon them made no surrender.
Two days after the speech which showed that Barère was wavering, when Collot had been chosen President, and Fouché was at work underground, a joint sitting of both Committees was called at night. St. Just proposed that there should be a dictator. Robespierre was ready to accept, but there were only five votes in favour—three out of eleven on one Committee, two out of twelve on the other. The Jacobins sent a deputation to require that the Convention should strengthen the executive; it was dismissed with words by Barère. One resource remained. It might still be possible, disregarding the false move of Prairial, to obtain the authority of the Convention for the arrest, that is, for the trial and execution of some of its members. They had delivered up Danton and Desmoulins, Hérault and Chaumette. They would perhaps abandon Cambon or Fouché, Bourdon or Tallien, four months later.
The Committees had refused Robespierre, and were in open revolt against his will. His opponents there would oppose him in the Assembly. But the mass of the deputies, belonging not to the Mountain but to the Plain, were always on his side. They had no immediate cause for fear, and they had something to hope for. Seventy of their number had been under arrest ever since October, as being implicated in the fall of the Girondins. Robespierre had constantly refused to let them be sent to trial, and they owed him their lives. They were still in prison, still in his power. To save them, their friends in the Assembly were bound to refuse nothing that he asked for. They would not scruple to deliver over to him a few more ruffians as they had delivered over the others in the spring. That was the basis of his calculation. The Mountain would be divided; the honest men of the Plain would give him the majority, and would purge the earth of another batch of miscreants. On his last night at home he said to the friends with whom he lived, “We have nothing to fear, the Plain is with us.”
Whilst Robespierre, repulsed by the committees which had so long obeyed him, sat down to compose the speech on which his victory and his existence depended, his enemies were maturing their plans. Fouché informed his sister at Nantes of what was in preparation. On the 21st of July he is expecting that they will triumph immediately. On the 23rd he writes: “Only a few days more, and honest men will have their turn.—Perhaps this very day the traitors will be unmasked.” It is unlike so sagacious a man to have written these outspoken letters, for they were intercepted and sent to Paris for the information of Robespierre. But it shows how accurately Fouché timed his calculation, that when they arrived Robespierre was dead.
The importance of the neutral men of the Plain was as obvious to one side as to the other, and the Confederates attempted to negotiate with them. Their overtures were rejected; and when they were renewed, they were rejected a second time. The Plain were disabled by consideration for their friends, hostages in the grasp of Robespierre, and by the prospect of advantage for religion from his recent policy. They loaded him with adulation, and said that when he marched in the procession, with his blue coat and nosegay, he reminded them of Orpheus. They even thought it desirable that he should live to clear off a few more of the most detestable men in France, the very men who were making advances to them. They believed that time was on their side. Tallien, Collot, Fouché were baffled, and the rigid obstinacy of the Plain produced a moment of extreme and certain danger.
Whilst they hesitated, Tallien received a note in a remembered handwriting. That bit of paper saved unnumbered lives, and changed the fortune of France, for it contained these words: “Coward! I am to be tried to-morrow.” At Bordeaux, Tallien had found a lady in prison, whose name was Madame de Fontenay, and who was the daughter of the Madrid banker Cabarrus. She was twenty-one, and people who saw her for the first time could not repress an exclamation of surprise at her extraordinary beauty. After her release, she divorced her husband, and married Tallien. In later years she became the Princesse de Chimay; but, for writing that note, she received the profane but unforgotten name of Notre Dame de Thermidor.
On the night of July 26, Tallien and his friends had a third Conference with Boissy d’Anglas and Durand de Maillane, and at last they gave way. But they made their terms. They gave their votes against Robespierre on condition that the Reign of Terror ended with him. There was no condition which the others would not have accepted in their extremity, and it is by that compact that the government of France, when it came into the hands of these men of blood, ceased to be sanguinary. It was high time, for, in the morning, Robespierre had delivered the accusing speech which he had been long preparing, and of which Daunou told Michelet that it was the only very fine speech he ever made. He spoke of heaven, and of immortality, and of public virtue; he spoke of himself; he denounced his enemies, naming scarcely any but Cambon and Fouché. He did not conclude with any indictment, or with any demand that the Assembly would give up its guilty members. His aim was to conciliate the Plain, and to obtain votes from the Mountain, by causing alarm but not despair. The next stroke was reserved for the morrow, when the Convention, by voting the distribution of his oration, should have committed itself too far to recede. The Convention at once voted that 250,000 copies of the speech should be printed, and that it should be sent to every parish in France. That was the form in which acceptance, entire and unreserved acceptance, was expressed. Robespierre thus obtained all that he demanded for the day. The Assembly would be unable to refuse the sacrifice of its black sheep, when he reappeared with their names.
Then it was seen that, in naming Cambon, the orator had made a mistake. For Cambon, having had the self-command to wait until the Convention had passed its approving vote, rose to reply. He repelled the attack which Robespierre had made upon him, and turned the entire current of opinion by saying, “What paralyses the Republic is the man who has just spoken.”
There is no record of a finer act of fortitude in all parliamentary history. The example proved contagious. The Assembly recalled its vote, and referred the speech to the Committee. Robespierre sank upon his seat and murmured, “I am a lost man.” He saw that the Plain could no longer be trusted. His attack was foiled. If the Convention refused the first step, they would not take the second, which he was to ask for next day. He went to the Jacobin Club, and repeated his speech to a crowded meeting. He told them that it was his dying testament. The combination of evil men was too strong for him. He had thrown away his buckler, and was ready for the hemlock. Collot sat on the step below the president’s chair, close to him. He said, “Why did you desert the Committee? Why did you make your views known in public without informing us?” Robespierre bit his nails in silence. For he had not consulted the Committee because it had refused the extension of powers, and his action that day had been to appeal to the Convention against them. The Club, divided at first, went over to him, gave him an ovation, and expelled Collot and Billaud-Varennes with violence and contumely. Robespierre, encouraged by his success, exhorted the Jacobins to purify the Convention by expelling bad men, as they had expelled the Girondins. It was his first appeal to the popular forces. Coffinhal, who was a man of energy, implored him to strike at once. He went home to bed, after midnight, taking no further measures of precaution, and persuaded that he would recover the majority at the next sitting.
Collot and Billaud, both members of the supreme governing body, went to their place of meeting, after the stormy scene at the Club, and found St. Just writing intently. They fell upon him, and demanded to know whether he was preparing accusations against them. He answered that that was exactly the thing he was doing. When he had promised to submit his report to the Committee of Public Safety before he went to the Assembly, they let him go. In the morning, he sent word that he was too much hurt by their treatment of him to keep his promise. Barère meanwhile undertook to have a report ready against St. Just.
Before the Assembly began business on the morning of Sunday the 9th of Thermidor, Tallien was in the lobby cementing the alliance which secured the majority; and Bourdon came up and shook hands with Durand, saying, “Oh! the good men of the Right.” When the sitting opened, St. Just at once mounted the tribune and began to read. Tallien, seeing him from outside, exclaimed, “Now is the moment, come and see. It is Robespierre’s last day!” The report of St. Just was an attack on the committee. Tallien broke in, declaring that the absent men must be informed and summoned, before he could proceed. St. Just was not a ready speaker, and when he was defied and interrupted, he became silent. Robespierre endeavoured to bring him aid and encouragement; but Tallien would not be stopped. Billaud followed in the name of the government; Barère and Vadier continued, while Robespierre and St. Just insisted vainly on being heard. The interrupters were turbulent, aggressive, out of order, being desperate men fighting for life. Collot d’Herbois, the President, did not rebuke them, and having surrendered his place to a colleague whom he could trust, descended to take part in the fray. If the Convention was suffered once more to hear the dreaded voice of Robespierre, nobody could be sure that he would not recover his ascendency. These tactics succeeded. Both parties to the overnight convention were true to it, and Robespierre was not allowed to make his speech. The galleries had been filled from five in the morning. Barère moved to divide the command of Hanriot, the general of the Commune, on whose sword the triumvirs relied; and the Convention outlawed him and his second in command as the excitement increased. This was early in the afternoon; and it was on learning this that the Commune called out its forces, and Paris began to rise.
All this time Robespierre had not been personally attacked. Decrees were only demanded, and passed, against his inferior agents. The struggle had lasted for hours; he thought that his adversaries faltered, and made a violent effort to reach the tribune. It had become known in the Assembly that his friends were arming, and they began to cry, “Down with the tyrant!” The President rang his bell and refused to let him speak. At last his voice failed him. A Montagnard exclaimed, “He is choking with the blood of Danton.” Robespierre replied, “What! It is Danton you would avenge?” And he said it in a way that signified “Then why did you not defend him?” When he understood what the Mountain meant, and that a motive long repressed had recovered force, he appealed to the Plain, to the honest men who had been so long silent, and so long submissive. They had voted both ways the day before, but he knew nothing of the memorable compact that was to arrest the guillotine. But the Plain, who were not prepared with articulate arguments for their change of front, were content with the unanswerable cry, “Down with the tyrant!” That was evidently decisive; and when that declaration had been evoked by his direct appeal the end came speedily. An unknown deputy moved that Robespierre be arrested, nobody spoke against it; and his brother and several friends were taken into custody with him. None made any resistance or protest. The conflict, they knew, would be outside. The Commune of Paris, the Jacobin Club, the revolutionary tribunal were of their party; and how many of the armed multitude, nobody could tell. All was not lost until that was known. At five o’clock the Convention, weary with a heavy day’s work, adjourned for dinner.
The Commune had its opportunity, and began to gain ground. Their troops collected slowly, and Hanriot was arrested. He was released, and brought back in triumph to the Hôtel de Ville, where the arrested deputies soon assembled. They had been sent to different prisons, but all the gaolers but one refused to admit them. Robespierre insisted on being imprisoned, but the turnkey at the Luxembourg was unmoved, and turned him out. He dreaded to be forced into a position of illegality and revolt, because it would enable his enemies to outlaw him. Once outlawed, there was nothing left but an insurrection, of which the issue was uncertain. There was less risk in going before the revolutionary tribunal, where every official was his creature and nominee, and had no hope of mercy from his adversaries, when he ceased to protect. The gaoler who shut the prison door in his face sealed his fate; and it is supposed, but I do not know, that he had his instructions from Voulland, on the other side, in order that the prisoner might be driven into contumacy, against his will. Expelled from gaol, Robespierre still refused to be free, and went to the police office, where he was technically under arrest.
St. Just, who had seen war, and had made men wonder at his coolness under heavy fire, did not calculate with so much nicety, and repaired, with the younger Robespierre, to the municipality, where a force of some thousands of men were assembled. They sent to summon their leader, but the leader declined to come. He felt safer under arrest; but he advised his friends at the Commune to ring the tocsin, close the barriers, stop the Press, seize the post, and arrest the deputies. The position of the man of peace encouraging his comrades to break the law, and explaining how to do it, was too absurd to be borne. Coffinhal, who was a much bigger man, came and carried him away by friendly compulsion.
About ten o’clock the arrested deputies were united. Couthon, who was a cripple, had gone home. The others sent for him, and Robespierre signed a letter by which he was informed that the insurrection was in full activity. This message, and the advice which he forwarded from his shelter with the police prove that he had made up his mind to fight, and did not die a martyr to legality. But if Robespierre was ready, at the last extremity, to fight, he did not know how to do it. The favourable moment was allowed to slip by; not a gun was fired, and the Convention, after several hours of inaction and danger, began to recover power. By Voulland’s advice the prisoners out of prison were outlawed, and Barras was put at the head of the faithful forces. Twelve deputies were appointed to proclaim the decrees all over Paris. Mounted on police chargers, conspicuous in their tricolor scarves, and lighted by torches, they made known in every street that Robespierre was now an outlaw under sentence of death. This was at last effective, and Barras was able to report that the people were coming over to the legal authority. An ingenious story was spread about that Robespierre had a seal with the lilies of France. The western and wealthier half of Paris was for the Convention, but parts of the poorer quarters, north and east, went with the Commune. They made no fight. Legendre proceeded to the Jacobin Club, locked the door, and put the key in his pocket, while the members quietly dispersed. About one in the morning, Bourdon, at the head of the men from the district which had been the stronghold of Chaumette, made his way along the river to the Place de Grève. The insurgents drawn up before the Hôtel de Ville made no resistance, and the leaders who were gathered within knew that all was over.
The collapse was instantaneous. A little earlier, a messenger sent out by Gaudin, afterwards Duke of Gaëta and Napoleon’s trusted finance minister, reported that he had found Robespierre triumphing and receiving congratulations. Even in those last moments he shrank from action. A warlike proclamation was drawn up, signed by his friends, and laid before him. He refused to sign unless it was in the name of the French people. “Then,” said Couthon, “there is nothing to be done but to die.” Robespierre, doubtful and hesitating, wrote the first two letters of his name. The rest is a splash of blood. When Bourdon, with a pistol in each hand, and the blade of his sword between his teeth, mounted the stairs of the Hôtel de Ville at the head of his troops, Lebas drew two pistols, handed one to Robespierre, and killed himself with the other. What followed is one of the most disputed facts of history. I believe that Robespierre shot himself in the head, only shattering the jaw. Many excellent critics think that the wound was inflicted by a gendarme who followed Bourdon. His brother took off his shoes and tried to escape by the cornice outside, but fell on to the pavement. Hanriot, the general, hid himself in a sewer, from which he was dragged next morning in a filthy condition. The energetic Coffinhal alone got away, and remained some time in concealment. The rest were captured without trouble.
Robespierre was carried to the Tuileries and laid on a table where, for some hours, people came and stared at him. Surgeons attended to his wound, and he bore his sufferings with tranquillity. From the moment when the shot was fired he never spoke; but at the Conciergerie he asked, by signs, for writing materials. They were denied him, and he went to death taking his secret with him out of the world. For there has always been a mysterious suspicion that the tale has been but half told, and that there is something deeper than the base and hollow criminal on the surface. Napoleon liked him, and believed that he meant well. Cambacérès, the arch-chancellor of the Empire, who governed France when the Emperor took the field, said to him one day, “It is a cause that was decided but was never argued.”
Some of those who felled the tyrant, such as Cambon and Barère, long after repented of their part in his fall. In the north of Europe, especially in Denmark, he had warm admirers. European society believed that he had affinity with it. It took him to be a man of authority, integrity, and order, an enemy of corruption and of war, who fell because he attempted to bar the progress of unbelief, which was the strongest current of the age. His private life was inoffensive and decent. He had been the equal of emperors and kings; an army of 700,000 men obeyed his word; he controlled millions of secret service money, and could have obtained what he liked for pardons, and he lived on a deputy’s allowance of eighteen francs a day, leaving a fortune of less than twenty guineas in depreciated assignats. Admiring enemies assert that by legal confiscation, the division of properties, and the progressive taxation of wealth, he would have raised the revenue to twenty-two millions sterling, none of which would have been taken from the great body of small cultivators who would thus have been for ever bound to the Revolution. There is no doubt that he held fast to the doctrine of equality, which means government by the poor and payment by the rich. Also, he desired power, if it was only for self-preservation; and he held it by bloodshed, as Lewis XIV. had done, and Peter the Great, and Frederic. Indifference to the destruction of human life, even the delight at the sight of blood, was common all round him, and had appeared before the Revolution began. The transformation of society as he imagined, if it cost a few thousand heads in a twelvemonth, was less deadly than a single day of Napoleon fighting for no worthier motive than ambition. His private note-book has been printed, but it does not show what he thought of the future. That is the problem which the guillotine left unsolved on the evening of June 28, 1794. Only this is certain, that he remains the most hateful character in the forefront of history since Machiavelli reduced to a code the wickedness of public men.