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FOR JANUARY, 1848.
MAXIMILIAN ROBES PIERRE:
HIS LIFE AND OPINIONS.
By PERCY B. ST. JOHN.
CHAPTER 1.-AN EXAMINATION OF HISTORIC OPINIONS. It appears to be the fate of all men who have shaken the fabric of existing institutions, and in any shape or form advocated the cause of the people and humanity-who have, throwing off the yoke of ages, and the trammels of political superstition, done battle for a more generous and comprehensive policy than that of kings and aristocracies—who have in so doing shattered the prescriptive privileges of classes, and reduced men to the level of worth, talent, and genius, to meet with calumny, falsehood, and ingratitude for their reward. Calumny and falsehood from those whose right to govern and enjoy all pleasure and power they have called in question, ingratitude from those who profit by their arduous and thankless labours ; for thankless indeed is the task of him who struggles against oppression and monopoly, if he be not satisfied with the calm approval of his own conscience.
For nearly two hundred years Oliver Cromwell, the greatest name in English history, lay under a weight of odium which is readily understood. His enemies triumphed when the mighty dead was gone. The spirit of the Lord Protector gathered to his Maker the souls of the servile—the toad-eaters, the crawlers of creation felt relieved; they breathed more freely when they knew him to be departed. He gone, there was hope in England for courtiers and courtisans ; for a young king was coming who, instead of seeking to raise Great Britain in the scale of nations, instead of striving to give us powerful navies—instead of extending commerce and trade-instead of endeavouring to promote popular comfort and enlightenment, would spend the money of the nation in making of his palace a—we dare not say what—and in endowing actresses and others, his creatures, with titles and fortunes ; who, when Cromwell consumed the midnight oil studying to make his country great, would roam about in night hovels, in company with minions, puppies, and other respectable personages whose names exist in the records of infamy. But reckless, worthless, and despicable as were Charles the Second and his court, they could not shake off the influence of him whose great soul still hovered over England; there was so glaring a contrast between them and the good husband, good father, and most honest and pious man who went before, albeit he was a tyrant-and it is a question whether or not England was then fit for a republic--that for very shame they must now and then blush beneath their paint and red-plastered cheeks. There were then, as now, however, hireling writers, men capable of selling their fathers' bones for knife handles; and away they went to work. The reward was rich—a king's favour. Verily they had
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their reward. Their pamphlets, scrawled in pot-houses and vintners’, smelt not of the lamp, but of ale and viler liquors; but they were distributed, they were read; and none daring to hold up his hand in defence, they were believed. It was left for the present age, which some think degenerated, to seek and find the truth. The name of Carlyle will in future be quoted as that of one who did tardy justice to the memory of a great warrior statesman and legislator reduced by pigmies to their own level. The fate of Robespierre has been similar. The causes have in part been the
When Tallien, Courtois, and other profligate and debauched demagogues overthrew Robespierre, St. Just, and Couthon, because Robespierre, incorruptible, utterly without their vices, single-minded and sincere, was striving to steer the bark of France to peace, prosperity, and a calm government--because he was inexorable to their vices, and would have crushed the whole brood, they felt the necessity of calumniating him and loading his memory with infamy to excuse the most unhappy day in the whole French revolution, that of the 9th Thermidor. To Courtois was given the task. This ponderous writer drew up a report on the so-called Robespierre Conspiracy, in which he gave a succinct history of every tyrant and monster the world had seen; with a view of showing that the member for Årras was worse than the whole of them put together. This report was published a whole year after the execution of the mighty Jacobin. To it was appended
a selection of papers found in his humble lodgings—some true, some forgeries, as Lord Brougham allows, but scarcely any of his own production. They consisted of letters written to him, some atrocious, some admirable, but proving nothing, as very many of the infamous correspondents who addressed him, pouring forth sanguinary ideas, were by him denounced and sent to the scaffold.* Then followed the Directory, a time of transition, when men without principle ruled; succeeded by the tyranny of Napoleon. In one day perished at the will of this man more human beings than fell during the whole tottering rule of Robespierre; blood shed on one hand for personal aggrandisement; on the other—and this is Robespierre's crime-allowed to be shed, because he was not strong enough to stay it, or because he thought it necessary. We shall see who were the few men sent by Robespierre himself to the scaffold, and we must recollect that all Europe was raging at the gates of France, with sixty departments out of ninety-three in stark rebellion.
Those were no common times. The cup of the French monarchy had been filled to overflowing, its awful crimes had crowded the book of its fate, till not a spare leaf was left. Nothing in the history of the world ever paralleled the oppression, crime, and debauchery of Gallic royalty. Massacres, assassinations, murders, heads falling from the scaffold, fratricides, parricides, poisonings; dungeons beneath the soil where rotted God's fair creatures; a long series of reigns, of which debauchery and vice of the most odious kind were the chief ornaments—an aristocracy which, while producing many men of talent, could scarce show one good and worthy member—a church, whose vow was chastity, dancing attendance in boudoirs and bending over alcoves, intriguers, profligates, worldly-minded-a people degraded, debased, shorn like sheep, starved, ignorant, and hungry victims of systematic famines;t-such is the history of divine right, and such the account of their stewardship, which alone its kings could render; and when the fabric fell, when the people rose and drove the whole pestilent brood away, and sought to substitute a free and good government, they found all Europe in arms to give them back their gentle noblesse, their pious bishops and abbés; and then, because this people, offspring of ages of despotism, slaves emancipated, but ignorant, starved, angry—who knew of the holy truths of religion nothing, but of vile prelatic example much-whose acquaintance with
* Among the letters extracted were several from Napoleon to Robespierre.
+ The pactes de famine : those infamous schemes to make money out of the people's sufferings still exist.
those who should be ministers of a saviour's will, the very truest friends of the people, tended to show them, not only as in Milton's time,
--hireling wolves, whose gospel is their maw,” but the most debauched courtiers of the time, because this people did not suddenly become calm, dignified, and great, and practise every Christian virtue, every priest and lordling who has since written has described the Great Revolution as a saturnalia of crime.
Beneath Napoleon, of course, praise of a Republican was vainly to be hoped for. Under the Restoration two classes of writers appeared. Those who sought to disfigure, calumniate, and falsify the event which had brought so many blessings upon France, those who had to avenge their being chased from the temple by the popular scourge, and those who sought to restore it in some measure to its true features. Charles Nodier and Tissot did almost justice to Robespierre, but the great work of that time was the history of Thiers, a book which-lv complete and sterling history of the great drama-obtained, necessarily, wide popularity: as unfortunately as necessarily. Thiers is a man of great talent, of much research, and possessed of all the advantages of style and diction. He wants, however, the great quality of an historian, sincerity. A would-be minister, a place-hunter, an office-seeking statesman, his History of the French Revolution" is, above all, written to advance his own interests. With this view, a line of demarcation is drawn in his pages between the leaders of the French bourgeoisie, who are the electors, and the leaders of the people, who are not. With this view, Lafayette, Mirabeau, the Girondins, the Ñoltairians, and all those who wished to use the French Revolution for the advantage of the middle classes only are lauded immeasurably; while all those who were the champions of equality, of rights for all men, the Rousseauites, are treated as Jacobins, demagogues, atheists, bloody-minded and tyrannical. Let Robespierre reply:
“What! shall I have existed upon this earth but to leave behind me the name of tyrant? Of tyrant! if I were one they would crawl at my feet; I should cram them with gold; I should ensure them the right to commit every crime; and they would be grateful. What am I–I whom they accuse ? A slave of liberty, a living martyr of the Republic, the victim, more even than the scourge, of crime.”
Of subsequent writers we shall speak in the course of our present inquiry, Lord Brougham, Lamartine, Louis Blanc, Michelet, Alphonse Esquiros, and others who have lately spoken of this remarkable man.* We shall now quote the several
* In the outset I must remark that I have no intention of making an attempt to prove Robespierre perfect, and to meet objection half way. On his claims to be considered a Christian I shall 'not pretend to decide. That is a matter between him and his God; but as he fully recognised Christ and his mission we cannot call him a Deist. Perhaps he was a Unitarian, but if any man shall, because I seek to defend this great republican, who was mighty and glorious as a tribune of the people, from the odium which rests on him, thence argue me heterodox, he will commit an injustice. To be a good Christian and a good citizen is my most earnest wish, however I may succeed in my aspirations. But this is not the question. Half the crimes of power have been committed under pretence of religion, which only proves the base hypocrisy of the kings, potentates, and popes so guilty; and if on inquiry Robespierre be found great, honest, patriotic, and yet not wholly a believing Christian, all we must conclude is that he erred most egregiously. But in an age when Voltaire reigned on the public mind, when the Girondins and Anarchists scoffed at religion, when atheism was loudly proclaimed by nobles, priests, and people, not one sentiment adverse to religion ever passed the lips of Maximilian Robespierre. Individually, as my own opinion, i do most sincerely believe that, after crushing, as he did, the age of reason, and bringing about a return to God, Robespierre would have restored Christianity, not as a state religion, but as one supported by the state. So wonderful was his influence on the popular mind, that a man, still living, who before had been a follower of the goddess of reason, says: “ When Robespierre declared God to exist by a decree, I hastened to obey." That man is now a humble Christian, and still love's
opinions which have been expressed about him; and then, by diligent and patient research, seek to rescue his memory from the calumny which has assailed him. Unfortunately the group which stands around him—the tiger Marat, the profligate Danton, author of the September massacres, Hebert, the atheist and socialist, Anacharsis Clootz, the pantheist, the splendid but materialist and atheistical Girondins,-has not a little tended to cloud his memory. Historians have hurried over evidence and come to the hasty conclusion that all were alike. It was perfectly natural that ferocity, brutality, crime, blood, should in the revolution of a people where kings and rulers had done their best to make them ferocious, brutal, criminal, and bloody; and the wonder is that the tide was stayed so soon; but the more honour to the small but devoted and rigid republican band, which strove to stem the waves and bring the nation to a solid and firm basis. Robespierre expected what would be his fate:
They wish,” he cries, “ to tear from me life, with the right of defending the people. Let them take my life; I give it them without regret. I have the experience of the past, I see the future. What friend of his country could survive the moment when he can no longer be useful to it, and defend oppressed innocence ? How can we support the sight of this horrible succession of traitors, more or less able to conceal their hideous souls under the veil of virtue and of friendship, and who will leave to posterity the embarrassment of deciding which of the persecutors of my country was the most cowardly and the most atrocious? While gazing on the multitude of crimes which the torrent of the revolution has rolled forth pell mell, with so many civic virtues, I sometimes fear, I confess, I shall be soiled in the eyes of posterity by the impure neighbourhood of so many perverse wretches; and I rejoice to see the fury of the Catilines and Verres of my country tracing a profound line of demarcation between them and all honest men. In every history have I seen the defenders of liberty crushed by calumny, murdered by factions; but their oppressors have died also. Both the good and the wicked disappear from the earth, but on very different conditions. No! Chaumette, no; death is not an eternal sleep, death is but the beginning of immortality."*
Before quoting the series of historic opinions which will give an idea of the calumnies by which Robespierre has been assailed, we select a passage from a writer to whom we owe many useful pieces of information on this subject.
“Some few years ago, in the church of Carvin, near Arras, was seen, and perhaps still is, a tomb decorated by a seignorial blazon, and by a name which will ever be immortal : it was the sepulchre of the family of Robespierre. Strange contrast of things here below! The man descended from patrician ancestors — Francois-Maximilian-Joseph-Isodere de Robespierre-raised by his heart, elevated by his reason above the odious prejudices of his caste, becomes the ardent and enlightened defender of the rights of human nature; and the obscure plebeian, ungrateful son of a revolution which opened for him the road to riches and power, becomes the systematic
as ignorant detractor of the most glorious martyr of that revolution. The fate of the just and of the right-minded man is indeed a sad fate. It would seem,' says Robespierre, somewhere, 'that truth is only destined to appear to men when it is no longer useful to them.' The only fault which can be reproached to the victim of the Thermidorians--and that
* As in the present work I take nothing at second-hand, but go to the fountain-head, where even the facts rest not upon exclusive information, as with Lamartine, I at once quote my authority for the speeches of Robespierre. Thiers, Tissot, and others scarcely ever quote their sources, which deteriorates from their works-Lamartine never. But Lamartine is a poet. Louis Blanc is more conscientious. The speeches of Robespierre are to be found in the Moniteur from 1789 to his death. An edition of this work, comprising the first ten years of the revolution, has just been published in thirty-two volumes, for 121., by Plon, Paris, which shows how popular is the study of this subject. The rest are to be found in “ L'Historie Parlementaire de la Revolution Française,” in 40 volumes, by Buchez and Roux, an invaluable work, which shows vast research and patience. It and the Moniteur are history of themselves.
fault constitutes his glory—is that he conceived in his great soul too lofty an opinion of human nature. As time, in its way, shall become distant from him, he will become great in the admiration of the people. But how many ages must elapse ere the city of Arras shall dare to pay public homage to his
Marie-Joseph-Chenier thus alludes to Robespierre :-" To this bloody epoch succeeded that of the Thermidorians—memorable, immortal epoch—when the National Convention alone, using that strength which some supposed them to have lost, reconquered public liberty. Then were crushed dictatorship and the triumvirate"—to be replaced by the directory, who had three horses in a row to their carriages, a pretorian guard, and whose favours were sought, like those of kings, by supplicating at the door of frail beauty.
Baudin, president of the Convention, speaking of the fall of Robespierre, said, “The day of virtue succeeds to the horrible day of crime. As long as Mirabeau lived Robespierre remained confounded in the crowd of deputies attached to the popular cause. He dared to think that, after the death of this athlete, he had no superior, The true crime of the Girondins was to have wished the quick organisation of the republic when Robespierre aspired at dictatorship; of having discovered, in the sombre soul of the tyrant, the thirst of power by which he was devoured; of having irritated his pride by their talents, of which he could not support the lustre ; of having published truths fit for the people to know, instead of deceiving them by base flattery. • Approach, ferocious tyrant; come, and feast your eyes, pitiless as they are, on the horrid spectacle.” With the addition of calling him tiger, coward, &c., the speech is made up of these words. We must recollect the man voted with him when he was alive.
Carnot accuses him of being a man without principles, a monster. Carnot is one of the very greatest of French republicans, but he spoke to suit the passions of the time. Another speaks thus :-“Robespierre was gifted in the highest degree with those qualities which make the revolutionist, and the virtues which constitute the republican; he was perfect in his integrity, inaccessible to ambition, and devoured alone by the desire of naturalising on the soil of France the social system which should regenerate it. All the acts of the revolutionary tornado were for him cruel necessities, which he suffered while he sighed over them. But the atrocities of the proconsuls, the frightful joys of the siecles of the guillotine, were strange to him; and the infamy of them must be thrown upon his adversaries, the men of the 9th Thermidor. Submissive to the laws passed by the Convention, he preferred perishing to employing against this emanation of the popular sovereignty the imposing forces of the Jacobins and the Parisian militia-all devoted to him.”+
The same writer says-“In bringing to the light his true enemies, the 9th Thermidor signalises better than by all his speeches his desire of founding the republic on institutions, of bringing a terrible government to ideas of moderation, which his victories enabled him to proclaim without danger.” It must be remembered that the Paris Jacobins and Cordeliers ruled France, and that a hungry mob, maddened by ignorance, distress, and the ferocious doctrines of Marat, Hebert, and others, ruled the clubs. To steer his way through these was the task of Robespierre, and he had just reached the end of his journey when his enemies overthrew him. Who were his enemies? The anarchists whom, out of pity, he had spared, but who ceasing not their infamous designs, he had determined on sacrificingAmar, Vadier, Voulaud, the terrorists of the committee of public safety, Billaud Varennes, the horrid purveyor to the guillotine ; Collet d'Herbois, with the former, and Danton, author of the September massacres, and the bombardier of the Commune affranchie, as Lyon was called, the most impure faction of the committee; Tallien, Freron, the butcher Legendre, friend of Marat; the two * Arthur Guillot, in “ Revue Independente.” Vol. 21, July, 1845: Paris. + "Memoirs de Robespierre.” Paris : 1830.