Front Page Titles (by Subject) XXII: After the Terror - Lectures on the French Revolution (LF ed.)
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
XXII: After the 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).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
After the Terror
It remains for us to pursue the course of French politics from the fall of the Terrorists to the Constitution of the year III., and the close of the Convention in October 1795. The State drifted after the storm, and was long without a regular government or a guiding body of opinion. The first feeling was relief at an immense deliverance. Prisons were opened and thousands of private citizens were released. The new sensation displayed itself extravagantly, in the search for pleasures unknown during the stern and sombre reign. Madame Tallien set the fashion as queen of Paris society. Men rejected the modern garment which characterised the hateful years, and put on tights. They buried the chin in folded neckcloths, and wore tall hats in protest against the exposed neck and the red nightcap of the enemy. Powder was resumed; but the pigtail was cut off straight, in commemoration of friends lost by the fall of the axe. Young men, representing the new spirit, wore a kind of uniform, with the badge of mourning on the arm, and a knobstick in their hands adapted to the Jacobin skull. They became known afterwards as the Jeunesse Dorée. The press made much of them, and they served as a body to the leaders of the reaction, hustling opponents, and denoting the infinite change in the conditions of public life.
These were externals. What went on underneath was the gradual recovery of the respectable elements of society, and the passage of power from the unworthy hands of the men who destroyed Robespierre. These, the Thermidorians, were faithful to the contract with the Plain, by which they obtained their victory. Some had been friends of Danton, who, at one moment of the previous winter, had approved a policy of moderation in the use of the guillotine. Tallien had domestic as well as public reasons for clemency. But the bulk of the genuine Montagnards were unaltered. They had deserted Robespierre when it became unsafe to defend him; but they had not renounced his system, and held that it was needful as their security against the furious enmity they had incurred when they were the ruling faction.
The majority in the Convention, where all powers were now concentrated, were unable to govern. The irresistible resources of the Reign of Terror were gone, and nothing occupied their place. There was no working Constitution, no settled authority, no party enjoying ascendancy and respect, no public men free from the guilt of blood. Many months were to pass before the ruins of the fallen parties gathered together and constituted an effective government with a real policy and the means of pursuing it. The chiefs of the Commune and of the revolutionary tribunal, near one hundred in number, had followed Robespierre to the scaffold.
The Committees of government had lost their most energetic members, and were disabled by the new plan of rapid renewal. Power fluctuated between varying combinations of deputies, all of them transient and quickly discredited. The main division was between vengeance and amnesty. And the character of the following months was a gradual drift in the direction of vengeance, as the imprisoned or proscribed minority returned to their seats. But the Mountain included the men, who by organising, and equipping, and controlling the armies had made France the first of European Powers, and they could not at once be displaced. Barère proposed that existing institutions should be preserved, and that Fouquier should continue his office. On August 19, Louchet, the man who led the assault against Robespierre, insisted that it was needful to keep up the Terror with all the rigour that had been prescribed by the sagacious and profound Marat. A month later, September 21, the Convention solemnised the apotheosis of Marat, whose remains were deposited in the Pantheon, while those of Mirabeau were cast out. Three weeks later, the master of Robespierre, Rousseau, was brought, with equal ceremony, to be laid by his side. The worst of the remaining offenders, Barère, Collot d’Herbois, and Billaud-Varennes, were deprived of their seats on the Committee of Public Safety. But in spite of the denunciations of Lecointre and of Legendre, the Convention refused to proceed against them.
All through September and a great part of October the Mountain held its ground, and prevented the reform of the government. Billaud, gaining courage, declared that the lion might slumber, but would rend his enemies on awaking. By the lion, he meant himself and his friends of Thermidor. The governing Committees were reconstructed on the principle of frequent change; the law of Prairial, which gave the right of arbitrary arrest and unconditional gaol delivery, was abrogated; and commissaries were sent out to teach the Provinces the example of Paris.
Beyond these measures, the action of the State stood still. The fall of the men who reigned by terror produced, at first, no great political result. The process of change was set in motion by certain citizens of Nantes. Carrier had sent a batch of 132 of his prisoners to feed the Paris guillotine. Thirty-eight of them died of the hardships they endured. The remainder were still in prison in Thermidor; and they now petitioned to be put on their trial. The trial took place; and the evidence given was such as made a reaction inevitable. On September 14, the Nantais were acquitted. Then the necessary consequence followed. If the victims of Carrier were innocent, what was Carrier himself? His atrocities had been exposed, and, on November 12, the Convention resolved, by 498 to 2, that he should appear before the tribunal. For Carrier was a deputy inviolable under common law. The trial was prolonged, for it was the trial not of a man, but of a system, of a whole class of men still in the enjoyment of immunity.
Everything that could be brought to light gave strength to the Thermidorians against their enemies, and gave them the command of public opinion. On December 16 Carrier was guillotined. He had defended himself with spirit. The strength of his case was that his prosecutors were nearly as guilty as himself, and that they would all, successively, be struck down by the enemies of the Republic. He did his best to drag down the party with him. His associates, acquitted by the revolutionary tribunal on the plea that their delinquencies were not political, were then sent before the ordinary courts. On the day on which the convention resolved that the butcher of Nantes must stand his trial, they closed the Jacobin Club, and now the reaction was setting in.
On December 1, after hearing a report by Carnot, the assembly offered an amnesty to the insurgents on the Loire, and on the 8th those Girondins were recalled who had been placed under arrest. This measure was decisive. With the willing aid of the Plain they were masters of the Convention, for they were seventy-three in number, and, unlike the Plain, they were not hampered and disabled by their own iniquities. They were not accomplices of the Reign of Terror, for they had spent it in confinement. They had nothing to fear from a vigorous application of deserved penalties, and they had a terrible score to clear off. There were still sixteen deputies who had been proscribed with Buzot and the rest. They were now amnestied, and three months later, March 8, they were admitted to their seats. There they sat face to face with the men who had outlawed them, who had devoted them to death by an act the injustice of which was now proclaimed.
The cry for vengeance was becoming irresistible as the policy of the last year was reversed. In the course of that process La Vendée had its turn. On the 17th of February, at La Jaunaye, the French Republic came to terms with Charette. He was treated as an equal power. He obtained liberty for religion, compensation in money, relief from conscription, and a territorial guard of 2000 men, to be paid by the government, and commanded by himself. The same conditions were accepted soon after by Stofflet, and by the Breton leader, Cormatin. In that hour of triumph Charette rode into Nantes with the white badge of Royalism displayed; and he was received with honour by the authorities, and acclaimed by the crowd. Immediately after the treaty of La Jaunaye which granted the free practice of religion in the west, it was extended to the whole of France. The churches were given back some months later; there is one parish, in an eastern department, where it is said that the church was never closed, and the service never interrupted.
In March the Girondins were strong enough to turn upon their foes. The extent of the reaction was tested by the expulsion of Marat from his brief rest in the Pantheon, and the destruction of his busts all over the town, by the young men stimulated by Fréron. In March, the great offenders who had been so hard to reach, Collot d’Herbois, Billaud, and Barère, were thrown into prison. Carnot defended them, on the ground that they were hardly worse than himself. The Convention resolved that they should be sent to Cayenne. Barère escaped on the way. Fouquier-Tinville came next, and his trial did as much harm to his party in the spring as that of Carrier in the preceding autumn. He pleaded that he was but an instrument in the hands of the Committee of Public Safety, and that as the three members of it, whom he had obeyed, were only transported, no more could be done to himself. The tribunal was not bound by the punishments decreed by the Assembly, and in May Fouquier was executed.
The Montagnards resolved that they would not perish without a struggle. On April 1 they assailed the Convention, and were repulsed. A number of the worst were thrown into prison. A more formidable attack was made on May 20. For hours the Convention was in the power of the mob, and a deputy was killed in attempting to protect the president. Members who belonged to the Mountain carried a series of decrees which gratified the populace. Late at night the Assembly was rescued. The tumultuous votes were declared non-existent, and those who had moved them were sent before a military commission. They had not prompted the sedition, and it was urged that they acted as they did in order to appease it, and to save the lives of their opponents. Romme, author of the republican Calendar, was the most remarkable of these men; and there is some doubt as to their guilt, and the legality of their sentence. One of them had been visited by his wife, and she left the means of suicide in his hands. As they left the court, each of them stabbed himself, and passed the knife in silence to his neighbour. Before the guards were aware of anything, three were dead, and the others were dragged, covered with blood, to the place of execution. It was the 17th of June, and the Girondins were supreme. Sixty-two deputies had been decreed in the course of the reaction, and the domination of the Jacobin mob, that is, government by equality instead of liberty, was at an end. The middle class had recovered power, and it was very doubtful whether these new masters of France were willing again to risk the experiment of a republic. That experiment had proved a dreadful failure, and it was more easy and obvious to seek relief in the refuge of monarchy than on the quicksands of fluttering majorities.
The royalists were wreaking vengeance on their enemies in the south, by what was afterwards known as the White Terror; and they showed themselves in force at Paris. For a time, every measure helped them that was taken against the Montagnards, and people used publicly to say that 8 and 9 are 17, that is, that the revolution of 1789 would end by the accession of Lewis XVII. Between Girondin and royalist there was the blood of the king, and the regicides knew what they must expect from a restoration. The party remained irreconcilable, and opposed the idea. Their struggle now was not with the Mountain, which had been laid low, but with their old adversaries the reforming adherents of Monarchy. But there were some leading men who, from conviction or, which would be more significant, from policy began to compound with the exiled princes. Tallien and Cambacérès of the Mountain, Isnard and Lanjuinais of the Gironde, Boissy d’Anglas of the Plain, the successful general Pichegru, and the best negotiator in France Barthélemy, were all known, or suspected, to be making terms with the Count of Provence at Verona. It was commonly reported that the Committee was wavering, and that the Constitution would turn towards monarchy. Breton and Vendean were ready to rise once more, Pitt was preparing vast armaments to help them; above all, there was a young pretender who had never made an enemy, whose early sufferings claimed sympathy from royalist and republican, and who shared no responsibility for émigré and invader, whom, for the best of reasons, he had never seen.
Meantime the Republic had improved its position in the world. Its conquests included the Alps and the Rhine, Belgium, and Holland, and surpassed the successes of the Monarchy even under Lewis XIV. The confederacy of kings was broken up. Tuscany had been the first to treat. Prussia had followed, bringing with it the neutrality of Northern Germany. Then Holland came, and Spain had opened negotiations. But with Spain there was a difficulty. There could be no treaty with a government which detained in prison the head of the House of Bourbon. As soon as he was delivered up, Spain was ready to sign and to ratify. Thus in the spring of 1795, the thoughts of men came to be riveted on the room in the Temple where the king was slowly and surely dying. The gaoler had asked the Committee what their intention was. “Do you mean to banish him?” “No.” “To kill him?” “No.” “Then,” with an oath! “what is it you want?” “To get rid of him.” On May 3, it was reported to the government that the young captive was ill. Next day, that he was very ill. But he was an obstacle to the Spanish treaty which was absolutely necessary, and twice the government made no sign. On the 5th, it was believed that he was in danger, and then a physician was sent to him. The choice was a good one, for the man was capable, and had attended the royal family. His opinion was that nothing could save the prisoner, except country air. One day he added: “He is lost, but perhaps there are some who will not be sorry.” Three days later Lewis XVII. was living, but the doctor was dead, and a legend grew up on his grave. It was said that he was poisoned because he had discovered the dread secret that the boy in the Temple was not the king. Even Louis Blanc believed that the king had been secretly released, and that a dying patient from the hospital had been substituted for him. The belief has been kept alive to this day. The most popular living dramatist1 has a play now running at Paris, in which the king is rescued in a washerwoman’s linen basket, which draws crowds. The truth is that he died on June 8, 1795. The Republic had gained its purpose. Peace was signed with Spain; and the friends of monarchy on the Constitutional Committee at once declared that they would not vote for it.
At the very moment when the Constitution was presented to the Assembly by Boissy d’Anglas, a fleet of transports under convoy appeared off the western coast. Pitt had allowed La Vendée to go down in defeat and slaughter, but at last he made up his mind to help, and it was done on a magnificent scale. Two expeditions were fitted out, and furnished with material of war. Each of them carried three or four thousand émigrés, armed and clad by England. One was commanded by d’Hervilly, whom we have already seen, for it was he who took the order to cease firing on August 10; the other by young Sombreuil, whose father was saved in September in the tragic way you have heard. At the head of them all was the Count de Puisaye, the most politic and influential of the émigrés, a man who had been in touch with the Girondins in Normandy, who had obtained the ear of ministers at Whitehall, and who had been washed in so many waters that the genuine, exclusive, narrow-minded managers of Vendean legitimacy neither understood nor believed him. They brought a vast treasure in the shape of forged assignats; and in confused memory of the services rendered by the titular of Agra, they brought a real bishop who had sanctioned the forgery.
The first division sailed from Cowes on June 10. On the 23rd Lord Bridport engaged the French fleet and drove it into port. Four days later the émigrés landed at Carnac, among the early monuments of the Celtic race. It was a low promontory, defended at the neck by a fort named after the Duke de Penthièvre, and it could be swept, in places, by the guns of the fleet. Thousands of Chouans joined; but La Vendée was suspicious and stood aloof. They had expected the fleet to come to them, but it had gone to Brittany, and there was jealousy between the two provinces, between the partisans of Lewis XVIII. and those of his brother the Count d’Artois, between the priests and the politicians. The clergy restrained Charette and Stofflet from uniting with Puisaye and his questionable allies, whom they accused of seeking the crown of France for the Duke of York; and they promised that, if they waited a little, the Count d’Artois would appear among them. They effectively ruined their prospects of success; but Pitt himself had contributed his share. Puisaye declined to bring English soldiers into his country, and his scruples were admitted. But, in order to swell his forces, the frugal minister armed between 1000 and 2000 French prisoners, who were republicans, but who declared themselves ready to join, and were as glad to escape from captivity as the government was to get rid of them. The royalist officers protested against this alloy, but their objections did not prevail, and when they came to their own country these men deserted. They pointed out a place where the republicans could pass under the fort at low water, and enter it on the undefended side. At night, in the midst of a furious tempest, the passage was attempted. Hoche’s troops waded through the stormy waters of Quiberon bay, and the tricolor was soon displayed upon the walls.
The royalists were driven to the extremity of the peninsula. Some, but not many, escaped in English boats, and it was thought that our fleet did not do all that it might have done to retrieve a disaster so injurious to the fame and the influence of England. Sombreuil defended himself until a republican officer called on him to capitulate. He consented, for there was no hope; but no terms were made, and it was in truth an unconditional surrender. Tallien, who was in the camp, hurried to Paris to intercede for the prisoners. Before going to the Convention, he went to his home. There his wife told him that she had just seen Lanjuinais, that Sieyès had brought back from Holland, where he had negotiated peace, proofs of Tallien’s treasonable correspondence with the Bourbons, and that his life was in danger. He went at once to the Convention, and called for the summary punishment of the captured émigrés.
Hoche was a magnanimous enemy, both by character and policy, and he had a deep respect for Sombreuil. He secretly offered to let him escape. The prisoner refused to be saved without his comrades; and they were shot down together near Auray, on a spot which is still known as the field of sacrifice. They were six or seven hundred. The firing party awakened the echoes of Vendée, for Charette instantly put his prisoners to death; and the Chouans afterwards contrived to cut down every man of the four battalions charged with the execution.
The battle of Quiberon took place on July 21, and when all that ensued was over on August 25, another expedition sailed from Portsmouth with the Count d’Artois on board. He landed on an island off La Vendée, and Charette, with fifteen thousand men, marched down to the coast to receive him, among the haggard veterans of the royal cause. There, on October 10, a message came from the Prince informing the hero that he was about to sail away, and to wait in safety for better times. Five days earlier the question had been fought out and decided at Paris, and a man had been revealed who was to raise deeper and more momentous issues than the obsolete controversy between monarchy and republic. That controversy had been pursued in the constitutional debates under the fatal influence of the events on the coast of Brittany. The royalists had displayed their colours, sailing under the British flag, and the British alliance had not availed them. And they had displayed a strange political imbecility, contrasting with their spirit and intelligence in war.
The constitutional committee had been elected on April 23 under different auspices, when the Convention was making terms with Charette and Cormatin, as well as with the foreign Powers. Sieyès, of necessity, was the first man chosen; but he was on the governing committee, and he declined. So did Merlin and Cambacérès, for the same reason, and the three ablest men in the assembly did not serve.
Eleven moderate but not very eminent men were elected, and the draft was made chiefly by Daunou, and advocated by Thibaudeau. Daunou was an ancient oratorian, a studious and thoughtful if not a strong man, who became keeper of the archives, and lived down to 1840 with a somewhat usurped reputation for learning. Thibaudeau now began to exhibit great intelligence, and his writings are among our best authorities for these later years of the Republic and for the earlier years of the Empire. The general character of their scheme is that it is influenced more by experience than by theory, and strives to attach power to property. They reported on June 23; the debate began on July 4; and on the 20th Sieyès intervened. His advice turned mainly on the idea of a constitutional jury, an elective body of about one hundred, to watch over the Constitution, and to be guardians of the law against the makers of the law. It was to receive the plaints of minorities and of individuals against the legislature, and to preserve the spirit of the organic institutions against the omnipotence of the national representatives. This memorable attempt to develop in Europe something analogous to that property of the Supreme Court which was not yet matured in America, was rejected on August 5, almost unanimously.
The Constitution was adopted by the Convention on August 17. It included a declaration of duties, founded on confusion, but defended on the ground that a declaration of rights alone destroys the stability of the State. And in matters touching religion it innovated on what had been done hitherto, for it separated Church and State, leaving all religions to their own resources. The division of powers was carried farther, for the legislative was divided into two, and the executive into five. Universal suffrage was restricted; the poorest were excluded; and after nine years there was to be an educational test. The law did not last so long. The electoral body, one in two hundred of the whole constituency, was to be limited to owners of property. The directors were to be chosen by the legislature. Practically, there was much more regard for liberty, and less for equality, than in the former constitutions. The change in public opinion was shown by the vote on two Houses which only one deputy opposed.
At the last moment, that there might be no danger from royalism in the departments, it was resolved that two-thirds of the legislature must be taken from the Convention. They thus prolonged their own power, and secured the permanence of the ideas which inspired their action. At the same time they showed their want of confidence in the republican feeling of the country, and both exasperated the royalists and gave them courage to act for themselves. On September 23 the country accepted the scheme, by a languid vote, but with a large majority.
The new Constitution afforded securities for order and for liberty such as France had never enjoyed. The Revolution had begun with a Liberalism which was a passion more than a philosophy, and the first Assembly endeavoured to realise it by diminishing authority, weakening the executive, and decentralising power. In the hour of peril under the Girondins the policy failed, and the Jacobins governed on the principle that power, coming from the people, ought to be concentrated in the fewest possible hands and made absolutely irresistible. Equality became the substitute of liberty, and the danger arose that the most welcome form of equality would be the equal distribution of property. The Jacobin statesmen, the thinkers of the party, undertook to abolish poverty without falling into Socialism. They had the Church property, which served as the basis of the public credit. They had the royal domain, the confiscated estates of emigrants and malignants, the common lands, the forest lands. And in time of war there was the pillage of opulent neighbours. By these operations the income of the peasantry was doubled, and it was deemed possible to relieve the masses from taxation, until, by the immense transfer of property, there should be no poor in the Republic. These schemes were at an end, and the Constitution of the year III. closes the revolutionary period.
The royalists and conservatives of the capital would have acquiesced in the defeat of their hopes but for the additional article which threatened to perpetuate power in the hands of existing deputies, which had been carried by a far smaller vote than that which was given in favour of the organic law itself. The alarm and the indignation were extreme, and the royalists, on counting their forces, saw that they had a good chance against the declining assembly. Nearly thirty thousand men were collected, and the command was given to an experienced officer. It had been proposed by some to confer it on the Count Colbert de Maulevrier, the former employer of Stofflet. This was refused on the ground that they were not absolutists or émigrés, but Liberals, and partisans of constitutional monarchy, and of no other.
The army of the Convention was scarcely six thousand, and a large body of Jacobin roughs were among them. The command was bestowed on Menou, a member of the minority of nobles of 1789. But Menou was disgusted with his materials, and felt more sympathy with the enemy. He endeavoured to negotiate, and was deposed, and succeeded by Barras, the victor in the bloodless battle of Thermidor.
Bonaparte, out of employment, was lounging in Paris, and as he came out of the theatre he found himself among the men who were holding the parley. He hurried to headquarters, where the effect of his defining words upon the scared authorities was such that he was at once appointed second in command. Therefore, when morning dawned, on October 5, the Louvre and the Tuileries had become a fortress, and the gardens were a fortified camp. A young officer who became the most brilliant figure on the battlefield of Europe—Murat—brought up cannon from the country. The bridge, and the quay, and every street that opened on the palace, were so commanded by batteries that they could be swept by grape-shot. Officers had been sent out for provisions, for barrels of gunpowder, for all that belongs to hospital and ambulance. Lest retreat should be cut off, a strong detachment held the road to St. Cloud; and arms were liberally supplied to the Convention and the friendly quarter of St. Antoine. The insurgents, led by dexterous intriguers, but without a great soldier at their head, could not approach the river; and those who came down from the opulent centre of the city missed their opportunity. After a sharp conflict in the Rue St. Honoré, they fled, pursued by nothing more murderous than blank cartridge; and Paris felt, for the first time, the grasp of the master. The man who defeated them, and by defeating them kept the throne vacant, was Bonaparte, through whose genius the Revolution was to subjugate the Continent.