THE third Revolutionary assembly was the National Convention, which was in existence for three years, from September 20, 1792, to October 26, 1795. Called to draft a new constitution, necessitated by the suspension of Louis XVI, its first act was the abolition of monarchy as an institution. Before its final adjournment three years later it had drafted two different constitutions, one of which was never put in force, it had established a republic, it had organized a provisional government with which to face the appalling problems that confronted the country, it had maintained the integrity and independence of the country, threatened by complete dissolution, and had decisively defeated a vast hostile coalition of European powers. In accomplishing this gigantic task it had, however, made a record for cruelty and tyranny that left the Republic in deep discredit and made the Revolution odious to multitudes of men.
On September 21, 1792, the Convention voted unanimously that “royalty is abolished in France.” The following day it voted that all public documents should henceforth be dated from “the first year of the French Republic.” Thus unostentatiously did the Republic make its appearance upon the scene “furtively interjecting itself between the factions,” as Robespierre expressed it. There was no solemn proclamation of the Republic, merely the indirect statement. As Aulard observes, the Convention had the air of saying to the nation, “There is no possibility of doing otherwise.” Later the Republic had its heroes, its victims, its martyrs, but it was created in the first instance simply because there was nothing else to do. France had no choice in the matter. It merely accepted an imperative situation. A committee was immediately appointed to draw up a new constitution. Its work, however, was long postponed, for the Convention was distracted by a frenzied quarrel that broke out immediately between two parties, the Girondists and Jacobins. The latter party was often called the Mountain, because of the raised seats its members occupied. It is not easy to define the differences between these factions, which were involved in what was fundamentally a struggle for power. Both were entirely devoted to the Republic. Between the two factions there was a large group of members, who swung now this way and now that, carrying victory or defeat as they shifted their votes. They were the center, the Plain or the Marsh, as they were called be- cause of the location of their seats in the convention hall.
On one point, the part that the city of Paris should be permitted to play in the government, the difference of opinion was sharp. The Girondists represented the departments and insisted that Paris, which constituted only one of the departments of the eighty-three into which France was divided, should have only one eighty-third of influence. They would tolerate no dictatorship of the capital. On the other hand the Jacobins drew their strength from Paris. They considered Paris the brain and the heart of the country, a center of light to the more backward provinces; they believed that it was the proper and predestined leader of the nation, that it was in a better position than was the country at large to appreciate the significance of measures and events, that it was, as Danton said, “the chief sentinel of the nation.” The Girondists were anxious to observe legal forms and processes; they disliked and distrusted the frequent appeals to brute force. The Jacobins, on the other hand, were not so scrupulous. They were rude, active, forceful, indifferent to law, if law stood in the way. They were realists and believed in the application of force wherever and whenever necessary. Indeed their great emphasis was always put upon the necessity of the state. That justified everything. In other words anything was legitimate that might contribute to the safety or greatness of the Republic, whether legal or not.
But the merely personal element was even more important in dividing and envenoming these groups. The Girondists hated the three leaders of the Jacobins, Robespierre, Marat, and Danton. Marat and Robespierre returned the hatred, which was thus easily fanned to fever heat. Danton, a man of coarse fiber but large mould, above the pettiness of jealousy and pique, thought chiefly and instinctively only of the cause, the interest of the country at the given moment. He had no scruples, but he had a keen sense for the practical and the useful. He was anxious to work with the Girondists, anxious to smooth over situations, to avoid extremes, to subordinate persons to measures, to ignore the spirit of faction and intrigue, to keep all republicans working together in the same harness for the welfare of France. His was the spirit of easy-going compromise. But he met in the Girondists a stern, unyielding opposition. They would have nothing to do with him, they would not cooperate with him, and they finally ranged him among their enemies, to their own irreparable harm and to his.
The contest between these two parties grew shriller and more vehement every day, ending in a life and death struggle. It began directly after the meeting of the Convention, in the discussion as to what should be done with Louis XVI, now that monarchy was abolished and the monarch a prisoner of state.
The King had unquestionably been disloyal to the Revolution. He had given encouragement to the emigres and had entered into the hostile plans of the enemies of France. After the meeting of the Convention a secret iron box, fashioned by his own hand, had been discovered in the Tuileries containing documents which proved beyond question his treason. Ought he to have the full punishment of a traitor or had he been already sufficiently punished, by the repeated indignities to which he had been subjected, by imprisonment, and by the loss of his throne? Might not the Convention stay its hand, refrain from exacting the full measure of satisfaction from one so sorely visited and for whom so many excuses lay in the general goodness of his character and in the extraordinary perplexities of his position, perplexities which might have baffled a far wiser person, at a time when the men of clearest vision saw events as through a glass, darkly? But mercy was not in the hearts of men, particularly of the Jacobins, who considered Louis the chief culprit and unworthy of consideration. The Jacobins at first would not hear even of a trial. Robespierre demanded that the King be executed forthwith by a mere vote of the Convention, and Saint-Just, a satellite of Robespierre, recalled that “ Caesar was despatched in the very presence of the Senate without other formality than twenty-two dagger strokes.” But Louis was given a trial, a trial, however, before a packed jury, which had already shown its hatred of him, before men who were at the same time his accusers and his judges. The trial lasted over a month, Louis himself appearing at the bar, answering the thirty-three questions that were put to him and which covered his conduct during the Revolution. His statements were considered unsatisfactory. Despite the eloquent defense of his lawyer the Convention voted on January 15, 1793, that “ Louis Capet” was “ guilty of conspiracy against the liberty of the nation and of a criminal attack upon the safety of the state.” The vote was unanimous, a few abstaining from voting but not one voting in the negative. Many of the Girondists then urged that the sentence be submitted to the people for their final action. Robespierre combated this idea with vigor, evidently fearing that the people would not go the whole length. This proposition was voted down by 424 votes against 283.
What should be the punishment? Voting on this question began at eight o’clock in the evening of January 16, 1793. During twenty-four hours the 721 deputies present mounted the plat- form one after the other, and announced their votes to the Convention. At eight o’clock on the evening of the 17th the vote was completed. The president announced the result. Number voting 721; a majority 361. For death 387; against death, or for delay, 334.
On Sunday, January 21st, the guillotine was raised in the square fronting the Tuileries. At ten o’clock Louis mounted the fatal steps with courage and composure. He was greater on the scaffold than he had been upon the throne. He endeavored to speak. “Gentlemen, I am innocent of that of which I am accused. May my blood assure the happiness of the French.” His voice was drowned by a roll of drums. He died with all the serenity of a profoundly religious man.
The immediate consequence of the execution was a formidable increase in the number of enemies France must conquer if she were to live, and an intensification of the passions involved. France was at war with Austria and Prussia. Now England, Russia, Spain, Holland, and the states of Germany and Italy entered the war against her, justifying themselves by the “murder of the King,” although all had motives much more practical than this sentimental one. It was an excellent opportunity to gain territory from a country which was plainly in process of dissolution. Civil war, too, was added to the turmoil, as the peasants of the Vendee, 100,000 strong, rose against the republic which was the murderer of the king and the persecutor of the church. Dumouriez, an able commander of one of the French armies, was plotting against the Convention and was shortly to go over to the enemy, a traitor to his country.
The ground was giving way everywhere. The Convention stiffened for the fray, resolved to do or die, or both, if necessary. No government was ever more energetic or more dauntless. It voted to raise 300,000 troops immediately. It created a committee of General Security, a committee of Public Safety, a Revolutionary Tribunal, all parts of a machine that was intended to concentrate the full force of the nation upon the problem of national salvation and the annihilation of the Republic’s enemies, whether foreign or domestic.
But while it was doing all this the Convention was floundering in the bog of angry party politics. Discussion was beginning its work of dividing the republicans, preparatory to consuming them. The first struggle was between the Girondists and the Jacobins. The Girondists wished to punish the men who had been responsible for the September Massacres. They wished to punish the Commune for numerous illegal acts. They hated Marat and were able to get a vote from the Convention sending him before the Revolutionary Tribunal, expecting that this would be the end of him. Instead, he was acquitted and became the hero of the populace of Paris, more powerful than before and now wilder than ever in his denunciations. Sanguinary Marat, feline Robespierre, were resolved on the annihilation of the Girondists. Danton, thinking of France and loathing all this discord, when the nation was in danger, all this exaggeration of self, this con- temptible carnival of intrigue, thinking that Frenchmen had enemies enough to fight without tearing each other to pieces, tried to play the peacemaker. But he had the fate that peacemakers frequently have. He accomplished nothing for France and made enemies for himself.
The Commune, which supported the Jacobins, and which idolized Marat and respected Robespierre, intervened in this struggle, using, to cut it short, its customary weapon, physical force. It organized an insurrection against the Girondists, a veritable army of 80,000 men with sixty cannon. Marat, himself a member of the Convention, climbed to the belfry of the City Hall and with his own hand sounded the tocsin. This was Marat’s day. He, self-styled Friend of the People, was the leader of this movement from the beginning to the end of the fateful June 2, 1793. The Tuileries, where the Convention sat, was surrounded by the insurrectionary troops. The Convention was the prisoner of the Commune, the Government of France at the mercy of the Government of Paris. The Commune demanded the expulsion of the Girondist leaders from the Convention. The Convention protested indignantly against the conduct of the insurgents. Its members resolved to leave the hall in a body. They were received with mock deference by the insurgents. The demand of their president that the troops disperse was bluntly refused until the Girondists who had been denounced should be expelled. The Convention was obliged to return to its hall conquered and degraded and to vote the arrest of twenty-nine Girondists. For the first time in the Revolution the assembly elected by the voters of France was mutilated. Violence had laid its hand upon the sovereignty of the people in the interest of the rule of a faction. The victory of the Commune was the victory of the Jacobins, who, by this treason to the nation, were masters of the Convention.
But not yet masters of the country. Indeed this high-handed crime of June 2 aroused indignation and resistance throughout a large section of France. Had the departments no rights which the Commune of Paris was bound to respect? The Girondists called the departments to arms against this tyrannical crew. They responded with alacrity, exasperated and alarmed. Four of the largest cities of France, Lyons, Marseilles, Bordeaux, and Caen, took up arms, and civil war, born of politics, added to the civil war born of religion in the Vendee, and to the ubiquitous foreign war, made confusion worse confounded. In all some sixty departments out of eighth-three participated in this movement, three-fourths of France. To meet this danger, to allay this strong distrust of Paris felt by the departments, to show them that they need not fear the dictatorship of the Commune, the Convention drafted in great haste the constitution which it had been summoned to make, but which it had for months ignored in the heat of party politics. And the Constitution of 1793, the second in the history of the Revolution, guarded so carefully the rights of the departments and the rights of the people that it made Parisian dictation impossible.
The Constitution of 1793 established universal suffrage. It also carried decentralization farther than did the Constitution of 1791, which had carried it much too far. The Legislature was to be elected only for a year, and all laws were to be submitted to the people for ratification or rejection before being put into force. This is the first appearance of the referendum. The executive was to consist of twenty-four members chosen by the legislature out of a list drawn up by the electors and consisting of one person from each department.
This constitution worked like a charm in dissipating the distrust of the departments. Their rights could not be better safeguarded. Submitted to the voters the constitution was overwhelmingly ratified, over 1,000,000 votes in its favor, less than 12,000 in opposition. But this is the only way in which this constitution ever worked. So thoroughly did it decentralize the state, so weak did it leave the central government, that even those who had accepted it cordially saw that it could not be applied immediately, with foreign armies streaming into France from every direction. What was needed for the crisis as every one saw, was a strong government. Consequently by general agreement the constitution was immediately suspended, as soon as it was made. The suspension was to be merely provisional. As soon as the crisis should pass it should be put into operation. Meanwhile this precious document was put into a box in the center of the convention hall and was much in the way.
To meet the crisis, to enable France to hew her way through the tangle of complexities and dangers that confronted her, a provisional government was created, a government as strong as the one provided by the constitution was weak, as efficient as that would have proved inefficient. The new system was frankly based on force, and it inaugurated a Reign of Terror which has remained a hissing and a byword among the nations ever since. This provisional or revolutionary government was lodged in the Convention. The Convention was the sole nerve center whence shot forth to the farthest confines of the land the iron resolutions that beat down all opposition and fired all energies to a single end. The Convention was dictator, and it organized a government that was more absolute, more tyrannical, more centralized than the Bourbon monarchy, in its palmiest days, had ever dreamed of being. Montesquieu’s sacred doctrine of the separation of powers, which the Constituent Assembly had found so excellent, was ignored.
The machinery of this provisional government consisted of two important committees, appointed by the Convention, the Committee of Public Safety, and the Committee of General Security; also of representatives on mission, of the Revolutionary Tribunal, and of the political clubs and committees of surveillance in the cities and villages throughout the country.
The Committee of Public Safety consisted at first of nine, later of twelve members. Chosen by the Convention for a term of a month, they were, as a matter of fact, reelected month after month, changes only occurring when parties changed in the Assembly. Thus Danton, upon whose suggestion the original committee had been created, was not a member of the enlarged committee, reorganized after the expulsion of the Girondists. He was dropped because he censured the acts of June 2, and his enemy Robespierre became the leading member. At first this committee was charged simply with the management of foreign affairs and of the army, but in the end it became practically omnipotent, directing the state as no single despot had ever done, intervening in every department of the nation’s affairs, even holding the Convention itself, of which in theory it was the creature, in stern and terrified subjection to itself. Installing itself in the palace of the Tuileries, in the former royal apartments, it developed a prodigious activity, framing endless decrees, tossing thousands of men to the guillotine, sending thousands upon thousands against the enemies of France, guiding, animating, tyrannizing ruthlessly a people which had taken such pains to declare itself free, only to find its fragile liberties, so resoundingly affirmed in the famous Declaration, ground to powder beneath this iron heel. No men ever worked harder in discharging an enormous mass of business of every kind than did the members of the Committee of Public Safety. Hour after hour, around a green table, they listened to reports, framed decrees, appointed officials. Sometimes overcome with weariness they threw themselves on mattresses spread upon the floor of their committee room, snatched two or three hours of sleep, then roused themselves to the racking work again. Under them was the Committee of General Security, whose business was really police duty, maintaining order throughout the country, throwing multitudes of suspected persons into prison, whence they emerged only to encounter another redoubtable organ of this government, the Revolutionary Tribunal.
This Tribunal had been created at Danton’s suggestion. It was an extraordinary criminal court, instituted for the purpose of trying traitors and conspirators rapidly. No appeal could be taken from its decisions. Its sentences were always sentences of death. Later, when Robespierre dominated the Committee of Public Safety, the number of judges was increased and they were divided into four sections, all holding sessions at the same time. Appointed by the Committee, the Revolutionary Tribunal servilely carried out its orders. It acted with a rapidity that made a cruel farce of justice. A man might be informed at ten o’clock that he was to appear before the Revolutionary Tribunal at eleven. By two o’clock he was sentenced, by four he was executed.
The Committee of Public Safety had another organ — the representatives on mission. These were members of the Convention sent, two to each department, and two to each army, to see that the will of the Convention was carried out. Their powers were practically unlimited. They could not themselves pronounce the sentence of death, but a word from them was sufficient to send to the Revolutionary Tribunal any one who incurred their suspicion or displeasure.
There were other parts of this governmental machinery, wheels within wheels, revolutionary clubs, affiliated with the Jacobin Club in Paris, revolutionary committees of surveillance. Through them the will of the great Committee of Public Safety penetrated to the tiniest ham- let, to the remotest corner of the land. The Republic was held tight in this closely-woven mesh.
This machinery was created to meet a national need, of the most pressing character. The country was in danger, in direst danger, of submersion under a flood of invasion; also in danger of disruption from within. The authors of this system were originally men who appreciated the critical situation, who grasped facts as they were, who were resolute to put down every foreign and domestic enemy, and who thrilled the people with their appeals to boundless, self-sacrificing patriotism. Had this machinery been used in the way and for the purpose intended, it is not likely that it would have enjoyed the dismal, repellent reputation with posterity which it has enjoyed. France would have willingly endured and sanctioned a direct and strong government, ruthlessly subordinating personal happiness and even personal security to the needs of national welfare. No cause could be higher, and none makes a wider or surer appeal to men. But the system was not restricted to this end. It was applied to satisfy personal and party intrigues and rancors, it was used to further the ambitions of individuals, it was crassly distorted and debased. The system did not spring full-blown from the mind of any man or any group. It grew piece by piece, now this item being added, now that. Those who fashioned it believed that only by appealing to or arousing one of the emotions of men, fear, could the government get their complete and energetic support. The success of the Revolution could not be assured simply by love or admiration of its principles and its deeds — that was proved by events, the difficulties had only increased. There were too many persons who hated the Revolution. But even these had an emotion that could be touched, the sense of fear, horror, dread. That, too, is a powerful incentive to action. “ Let terror be the order of the day,” such was the official philosophy of the creators of this government, and it has given their system its name. Punish disloyalty swiftly and pitilessly and you create loyalty, if not from love, at least from fear, which will prove a passable substitute.
The Committee of Public Safety and the Convention lost no time in striking a fast pace. To meet the needs of the war a general call for troops was issued. Seven hundred and fifty thousand men were secured. “ What we need is audacity, and more audacity, and audacity always “ was a phrase epitomizing this aspect of history, a phrase thrown out by Danton, a man who knew how to sound the bugle call, knew how to mint the passion of the hour in striking form and give it the impress of his dynamic personality. Carnot, one of the members of the Committee of Public Safety, performed herculean feats in getting this enormous mass of men equipped, disciplined, and officered. A dozen armies were the result and they were hurled in every direction at the enemies of France. Representatives of the Convention accompanied each general, demanding victory of him or letting him know that his head would fall if victory were not forthcoming. Some did fail, even under this terrific incentive, this literal choice between victory or death, and they went to the scaffold. It was an inhuman punishment but it had tremendous effects, inspiring desperate energy. The armies made superhuman efforts and were wonderfully successful. A group of fearless, reckless, and thoroughly competent commanders emerged rapidly from the ranks. We shall shortly observe the reaction of these triumphant campaigns upon the domestic political situation.
While this terrific effort to hurl back the invaders of France was going on, the Committee of Public Safety was engaged in a lynx-eyed, comprehensive campaign at home against all domestic enemies or persons accused of being such. By the famous law of “suspects,” every one in France was brought within its iron grip. This law was so loosely and vaguely worded, it indicated so many classes of individuals, that under its provisions practically any one in France could be arrested and sent before the Revolutionary Tribunal. All were guilty of treason, and punishable with death, who “having done nothing against liberty have nevertheless done nothing for it.” No guilty, and also no innocent, man could be sure of escaping so elastic a law, or, if arrested, could expect justice from a court which ignored the usual forms of law, which, ultimately, deprived prisoners of the right to counsel, and which condemned them in batches. Yet the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which had seemed a new evangel to an optimistic world, had stated that henceforth no one should be arrested or imprisoned except in cases determined by law and according to the forms of law.
A tree is judged by its fruits. Consider the results in this case. In every city, town, and hamlet of France arrests of suspected persons were made en masse, and judgment and execution were rendered in almost the same summary and comprehensive fashion. Only a few instances can be selected from this calendar of crime. The city of Lyons had sprung to the defense of the Girondists after their expulsion from the Convention on June 2. It took four months and a half and a considerable army to put down the opposition of this, the second city of France. When this was accomplished the Convention passed a fierce resolution: “ The city of Lyons is to be destroyed. Every house which was inhabited by the rich shall be demolished. There will remain only the homes of the poor, of patriots, and buildings especially employed for industries, and those edifices dedicated to humanity and to education.” The name of this famous city was to be obliterated. It was henceforth to be known as the Liberated City (Commune affranchie). This savage sentence was not carried out, demolition on so large a scale not being easy. Only a few buildings were blown to pieces. But over 3,500 persons were arrested and nearly half of them were executed. The authorities began by shooting each one individually. The last were mowed down in batches by cannon or musketry fire. Similar scenes were enacted, though not on so extensive a scale, in Toulon and Marseilles. It was for the Vendee that the worst ferocities were reserved. The Vendee had been in rebellion against the Republic, and in the interest of counter-revolution. The people had been angered by the laws against the priests. Moreover the people of that section refused to fight in the Republic’s armies. It was entirely legitimate for the government to crush this rebellion, and it did so after an indescribably cruel war, in which neither side gave quarter. Carrier, the representative on mission sent out by the Convention, established a gruesome record for barbarity. He did not adopt the method followed by the Revolutionary Tribunal in Paris, which at least pretended to try the accused before sentencing them to death. This was too slow a process. Prisoners were shot in squads, nearly 2,000 of them. Drowning was resorted to. Carrier’s victims were bound, put on boats, and the boats then sunk in the river Loire. Women and children were among the number. Even the Committee of Public Safety was shocked at Carrier’s fiendish ingenuity and demanded an explanation. He had the insolence to pretend that the drownings were accidental. “ Is it my fault that the boats did not reach their destination?” he asked. The number of bodies in the river was so great that the water was poisoned and for that reason the city government of Nantes forbade the eating of fish. Carrier was later removed by the Committee, but was not further punished by it, though ultimately he found his way to the guillotine.
Meanwhile at Paris the Revolutionary Tribunal was daily sending its victims to the guillotine, after trials which were travesties of justice. Guillotines were erected in two of the public squares and each day saw its executions. Week after week went by, and head after head dropped into the insatiable basket. Many of the victims were emigres or non-juring priests who had come back to France, others were generals who had failed of the indispensable victory and had been denounced as traitors. Others still were persons who had favored the Revolution at an earlier stage and had worked for it, but who had later been on the losing side in the fierce party contests which had rent the Convention. Nowadays political struggles lead to the overthrow of ministers. But in France, as in Renaissance Italy, they led to the death of the defeated party, or at least of its leaders. As the blood-madness grew in intensity, it was voted by the Convention, in order to speed up the murderous pace, that the Revolutionary Tribunal after hearing a case for three days might then decide it without further examination if it considered “its conscience sufficiently enlightened.”
The Girondists were conspicuous victims. Twenty-one of them were guillotined on October 31, 1793, among them Madame Roland, who went to the scaffold “fresh, calm, smiling,” according to a friend who saw her go. She had regretted that she “had not been born a Spartan or a Roman,” a superfluous regret, as was shown by the manner of her death, “ at only thirty-nine,” words with which she closed the passionate Memoirs she wrote while in prison. Mounting the scaffold she caught sight of a statue of liberty. “ O Liberty, how they’ve played with you!” she exclaimed.
She had been preceded some days before by Marie Antoinette, the daughter of an empress, the wife of a king, child of fortune and of misfortune beyond compare. The Queen had been subjected to an obscene trial, accused of indescribable vileness, the corruption of her son. “ If I have not answered,” she cried, “ it is because Nature herself rejects such a charge made against a mother: I appeal to all who are here.” This woman’s cry so moved the audience to sympathy that the officials cut the trial short, allowing the lawyers only fifteen minutes to finish. The Queen bore herself courageously. She did not flinch. She was brave to the end. Marie Antoinette has never ceased to command the sympathy of posterity, as her tragic story, and the fall to which her errors partly led and the proud and noble courage with which she met her mournful fate, have never ceased to move its pity and respect. She stands in history as one of its most melancholy figures.
Charlotte Corday, a Norman girl, who had stabbed the notorious Marat to death, thinking thus to free her country, paid the penalty with serenity and dignity. All through these months men witnessed a tragic procession up the scaffold’s steps of those who were great by position or character or service or reputation; Bailly, celebrated as an astronomer and as the Mayor of Paris in the early Revolution; the Duke of Orleans, who had played a shameless part in the Revolution, having been demagogue enough to discard his name and call himself Philip Equality, and having infamously voted, as a member of the Convention, for the death of his cousin, Louis XVI; Barnave, next to Mirabeau one of the most brilliant leaders of the Constituent Assembly; and so it went, daily executions in Paris and yet others in the provinces. Some, fleeing the terror that walked by day and night, caught at bay, committed suicide, like Condorcet, last of the philosophers, and gifted theorist of the Republic. Still others wandered through the countryside haggard, gaunt, and were finally shot down, as beasts of the field. Yet all this did not constitute “ the Great Terror,” as it was called. That came later.
Thus far there was at least a semblance or pretense of punishing the enemies of the Republic, the enemies of France. But now these odious methods were to be used as a means of destroying political and personal enemies. Politics assumed the character and risks of war.
We have seen that since August 10, 1792, there were two powers in the state, the Commune or government of Paris and the Convention or government of France, now directed by the Committee of Public Safety. These two had in the main cooperated thus far, overthrowing the monarchy, overthrowing the Girondists. But now dissension raised its head and harmony was no more. The Commune was in the control of the most violent party that the Revolution had developed. Its leaders were Hebert and Chaumette. Hebert conducted a journal, the Fere Duchesne, which was both obscene and profane and which was widely read in Paris by the lowest classes. Hebert and Chaumette reigned in the City Hall, drew their strength from the rabble of the streets which they knew how to incite and hurl at their enemies. They were ultra radicals, audacious, truculent. They constantly demanded new and redoubled applications of terror. For a while they dominated the Convention. Carrier, one of the Convention’s representatives on mission, was really a tool of the Commune.
It was the Commune which now forced the Convention to attempt the dechristianization of France. For this purpose a new calendar was desired, a calendar that should discard Sun- days, saints’ days, religious festivals, and set up novel and entirely secular divisions of time. Henceforth the month was to be divided, not into weeks, but into decades or periods of ten days. Every tenth day was to be the rest day. The days of the months were changed to indicate natural phenomena, July becoming Thermidor, or period of heat; April becoming Germinal, or budding time; November becoming Brumaire, or period of fogs. Henceforth men were to date, not from the birth of Christ, but from the birth of Liberty. The year One of Liberty began September 21, 1792. The world was young again. The day was divided into ten hours, not twenty-four, and the ten were subdivided and subdivided into smaller units. This calendar was made obligatory. But great was the havoc created by the new chronology. Parents were required to instruct their children in the new method of reckoning time. But the parents had been brought up on the old system and experienced much difficulty in telling what time of day it was according to the new terminology. Watchmakers were driven to add another circle to the faces of their watches. One circle carried the familiar set of figures, the other carried the new. Thus was one difficulty partially conjured away. The new calendar lasted twelve years. It was frankly and intentionally anti-Christian. The Christian era was repudiated.
More important was the attempt to improvise a new religion. Reason was henceforth to be worshiped, no longer the Christian God. A beginning was made in the campaign for dechristianization by removing the bells from the churches, “ the Eternal’s gewgaws,” they were called, and by making cannon and coin out of them. Death was declared to be “ but an eternal sleep “ — thus Heaven, and Hell as well, was abolished. There was a demand that church spires be torn down “ as by their domination over other buildings they seem to violate the principle of equality,” and many were conse-quently sacrificed. This sorry business reached its climax in the formal establishment by the Commune of Paris of the Worship of Reason. On November 10, 1793, the Cathedral of Notre Dame was converted into a “Temple of Reason.” The ceremony of that day has been famous for a century and its fame may last another. A dancer from the opera, wearing the three colors of the republic, sat, as the Goddess of Reason, upon the Altar of Liberty, where formerly the Holy Virgin had been enthroned, and received the homage of her devotees. After this many other churches in Paris, and even in the provinces, were changed into Temples of Reason. The sacred vessels used in Catholic services were burned or melted down. In some cases the stone saints that ornamented, or at least diversified, the facades of churches, were thrown down and broken or burned. At Notre Dame in Paris they were boarded over, and thus preserved for a period when their contamination would not be feared or felt. Every tenth day services were held,
They might take the form of philosophical discourses or political, or the form of popular banquets or balls.
The proclamation of this Worship of Reason was the high-water mark in the fortunes of the Commune. The Convention had been compelled to yield, the Committee of Public Safety to acquiesce in conduct of which it did not approve. Robespierre was irritated, partly because he had a religion of his own which he preferred and which he wished in time to bring forward and impose upon France, partly because as a member of the great Committee he resented the existence of a rival so powerful as the Commune. The Hebertists had shot their bolt. Robespierre now shot his. In a carefully prepared speech he declared that “ Atheism is aristocratic. The idea of a Supreme Being who watches over oppressed innocence and who punishes triumphant crime, is thoroughly democratic.” He furtivelyurged on all attacks upon the blasphemous Commune as when Danton declared, “ These anti-religious masquerades in the Convention must cease.”
But Robespierre was the secret enemy of Danton as well, though for a very different reason. The Commune stood for the Terror in all its forms and demanded that it be maintained in all its vigor. On the other hand Danton, Camille Desmoulins, and their friends, ardent supporters of the Terror as long as it was necessary, believed that now the need for it had passed and wished its rigor mitigated and the system gradually abandoned. The armies of the Republic were everywhere successful, the invaders had been driven back, and domestic insurrections had been stamped out. Sick at heart of bloodshed now that it was no longer required, the Dantonists began to recommend clemency to the Convention. The Committee of Public Safety was opposed to both these factions, the Hebertists and the Dantonists, and Robespierre was at the center of an intrigue to ruin both. The description of the machinations and manceuvers which went on in the Convention cannot be undertaken here. To make them clear would require much space. It must suffice to say that first the Committee directed all its powers against the Commune and dared on March 13, 1794, to order the arrest of Hebert and his friends. Eleven days later they were guillotined. The rivalry of the Commune was over. The Convention was supreme. But the Committee had no desire to bring the Terror to an end. Several of its members saw their own doom in any lessening of its severity. Looking out for their own heads, they therefore resolved to kill Danton, as the representative of the dangerous policy of moderation. This man who had personified as no one else had done the national temper in its crusade against the allied monarchs, who had been the very central pillar of the state in a terrible crisis, who, when France was for a moment discouraged, had nerved her to new effort by the electrifying cry, “We must dare and dare again and dare without end now fell a victim to the wretched and frenzied internecine struggles of the politicians, because, now that the danger was over, he advocated, with his vastly heightened prestige, a return to moderation and conciliation. Terror as a means of annihilating his country’s enemies he approved. Terror as a means of oppressing his fellow-countrymen, the crisis once passed, he deplored and tried to stop. He failed. The wheel was tearing around too rapidly. He was one of the tempestuous victims of the Terror. When he plead for peace, for a cessation of sanguinary and ferocious partisan politics, his rivals turned venomously, murderously against him. Conscious of his patriotism he did not believe that they would dare to strike him. A friend entered his study as he was sitting before the fire in revery and told him that the Committee of Public Safety had ordered his arrest. “Well, then, what then?” said Danton.
“You must resist.” “That means the shedding of blood, and I am sick of it. I would rather be guillotined than guillotine,” he replied. He was urged to fly. “Whither fly?” he answered. “You do not carry your country on the sole of your shoe,” and he muttered, “ They will not dare, they will not dare.”
But they did dare. The next day he was in prison. In prison he was heard to say, “ A year ago I proposed the establishment of the Revolutionary Tribunal. I ask pardon for it, of God and man.” And again, “ I leave everything in frightful confusion; not one of them under- stands anything of government. Robespierre will follow me. I drag down Robespierre. One had better be a poorfisherman than meddle with the governing of men.” On the scaffold he exclaimed, “ Danton, no weakness!” His last words were addressed to the executioner. “ Show my head to the people; it is worth showing.”
The fall of Danton left Robespierre the most conspicuous person on the scene, the most influential member of the Convention and of the Committee of Public Safety. He was master of the Jacobins. The Commune was filled with his friends, anxious to do his bidding. The Revolutionary Tribunal was controlled and operated by his followers. For nearly four months, from April 5 to July 27, he was practically dictator.
A very singular despot for a people like the French. His qualities were not those which have characterized the leaders or the masses of that nation. The most authoritative French historian of this period, Aulard, notes this fact. As a politician Robespierre was “astute, mysterious, undecipherable.” “What we see of his soul is most repellent to our French instincts of frankness and loyalty. Robespierre was a hypocrite and he erected hypocrisy into a system of government.”
He had begun as a small provincial lawyer. He fed upon Rousseau, and was the narrow and anemic embodiment of Rousseau’s ideas. He had made his reputation at the Jacobin Club, where he delivered speeches carefully retouched and finished, abounding in platitudes that pleased, entirely lacking in the fire, the dash, the stirring, impromptu phrases of a Mirabeau or a Danton. His style was correct, mediocre, thin, formal, academic. “Virtue” was his stock in trade and he made virtue odious by his everlasting talk of it, by his smug assumption of moral superiority, approaching even the hazardous pretension to perfection. He was forever singing his own praises with a lamentable lack of humor and of taste. “ I have never bowed beneath the yoke of baseness and corruption,” he said. He won the title of “The Incorruptible.”
As a politician his policy had been to use up his enemies, and every rival was an enemy, by suggesting vaguely but opportunely that they were impure, corrupt, immoral, and by setting the springs in motion that landed them on the scaffold. He had himself stepped softly, warily, past the ambushes that lay in wait for the careless or the impetuous. By such processes he had survived and was now the man of the hour, immensely popular with the masses, and feared by those who disliked him. How would he use his power, his opportunity?
He used it, not to bring peace to a sadly distracted country, not to heal the wounds, not to clinch the work of the Revolution, but to attempt to force a great nation to enact into legislation the ideas of a highly sentimental philosopher, Rousseau. It was to be a Reign of Virtue. Robespierre’s ambition was to make virtue triumphant, a laudable purpose, if the definition of virtue be satisfactory and the methods for bringing about her reign honorable and humane. But in this case they were not.
Robespierre stands revealed, as he also stands condemned, by the two acts associated with his career as dictator, the proclamation of a new religion and the Law of Prairial altering for the worst the already monstrous Revolutionary Tribunal. Robespierre had once said in public, “ If God did not exist we should have to invent him.” Fortunately for a man of such poverty of thought as he, he did not have to resort to invention but found God already in- vented by his idolized Rousseau. He devoted his attention to getting the Convention to give official sanction to Rousseau’s ideas concerning the Deity. The Convention at his instigation formally recognized “the existence of the Supreme Being and the Immortality of the Soul.” On June 8, a festival was held in honor of the new religion, quite as famous, in its way, as the ceremonies connected with the inauguration, a few months before, of the Worship of Reason. It was a wondrous spectacle, staged by the master hand of the artist David. A vast amphitheater was erected in the gardens of the Tuileries. Thither marched the members of the Convention in soemn procession, carrying flowers and sheaves of grain, Robespierre at the head, for he was president that day and played the pontiff, a part which suited him. He set fire to colossal figures, symbolizing Atheism and Vice, and then floated forth upon a long rhapsody. “Here,” he cried from the platform “is the Universe assembled. O Nature, how sublime, how exquisite, thy power! How tyrants will pale at the tidings of our feast!"/’ A hundred thousand voices chanted a sacred hymn which had been composed for the occasion and for which they had been training for a week. Robespierre stood the cynosure of all eyes, at the very summit of ambition, receiving boundless admiration as he thus inaugurated the new worship of the Supreme Being, and breathed the intoxicating incense that arose. Profound was the irony of this scene, the incredible culmination of a century of skepticism. Some ungodly persons made merry over this mummery, indulging in indiscreet gibes at “The Incorruptible’s “ expense. The power of sarcasm was not yet dead in France, as this man who never smiled now learned.
Two days later Robespierre caused a bill to be introduced into the Convention which showed that this delicate hand could brandish daggers as well as carry flowers and shocks of corn. The irreverent, the dangerous, must be swept like chaff into the burning pit. This bill, which became the Law of 22nd Prairial, made the procedure of the Revolutionary Tribunal more murderous still. The accused were deprived of counsel. Witnesses need not be heard in cases where the prosecutor could adduce any material or “ moral “ proof. Any kind of opposition to the government was made punishable with death. The question of guilt was left to the “ enlightened conscience “ of the jury. The jury was purged of all members who were supposed to be lukewarm toward Robespierre. The accused might be sent before this packed and servile court either by the Convention, or by the Committee of Public Safety, or by the Committee of General Security, or by the public prosecutor alone. In other words, any life in France was at the mercy of this latter official, Fouquier-Tinville, a tool of Robespierre. The members of the Convention itself were no safer than others, nor were the members of the great Committee, if they incurred the displeasure of the dictator.
Now began what is called the Great Terror, as if to distinguish it from what had preceded. In the thirteen months which had preceded the 22nd of Prairial 1,200 persons had been guillotined in Paris. In the forty-nine days between that date and the fall of Robespierre, on the 9th of Thermidor, 1,376 were guillotined. On two days alone, namely the 7th and 8th of July, 150 persons were executed. Day after day the butchery went on.
It brought about the fall of Robespierre. This hideous measure united his enemies, those who feared him because they stood for clemency, and those who feared him because, though terrorists themselves, they knew that he had marked them for destruction. They could lose no more by opposing him than by acquiescing, and if they could overthrow him they would gain the safety of their heads. Thus in desperation and in terror was woven a conspiracy — not to end the Terror, but to end Robespierre.
The storm broke on July 27, 1794 (the 9th of Thermidor). When Robespierre attempted to speak in the Convention, which had cowered under him and at his demand had indelibly debased itself by passing the infamous law of Prairial, he was shouted down. Cries of “ Down with the tyrant!” were heard. Attempting to arouse the people in the galleries, he this time met with no response. The magic was gone. There was a confused, noisy struggle, lasting several hours. Robespierre’s voice failed him. “Danton’s blood is choking him!” exclaimed one of the conspirators. Finally the Convention voted his arrest and that of his satellites, his brother, Saint-Just, and Couthon.
All was not yet lost. The Revolutionary Tribunal was devoted to Robespierre and, if tried, there was an excellent chance that he would be acquitted. The Commune likewise was favorable to him. It took the initiative. It announced an insurrection. Its agents broke into his prison, released him, and bore him to the City Hall. Thereupon the Convention, hearing of this act of rebellion, declared him and his associates outlaws. No trial therefore was necessary. As soon as re-arrested he would be guillotined. During the evening and early hours of the night a confused attempt to organize an attack against the Convention went on. But a little before midnight a drenching storm dispersed his thousands of supporters in the square. Moreover Robespierre hesitated, lacked the spirit of decision and daring. The whole matter was ended by the Convention sending troops against the Commune. At two in the morning these troops seized the Hotel de Ville and arrested Robespierre and the leading members of the Commune. Robespierre had been wounded in the fray, his jaw fractured by a bullet.
He was borne to the Assembly, which declined to receive him. “The Convention unanimously refused to let him be brought into the sanctuary of the law which he had so long polluted,” so ran the official report of this session. That day he and twenty others were sent to the guillotine. An enormous throng witnessed the scene and broke into wild acclaim. On the two following days eighty-three more executions took place.
France breathed more freely. The worst, evidently, was over. In the succeeding months the system of the terror was gradually abandoned. This is what is called the Thermidorian reaction. The various branches of the terrible machine of government were either destroyed or greatly altered. A milder regime began. The storm did not subside at once, but it subsided steadily, though not without several violent shocks, several attempts on the part of the dwindling Jacobins to recover their former position by again letting loose the street mobs. The policy of the Convention came to be summed up in the cry “Death to the Terror and to Monarchy!” The Convention was now controlled by the moderates, but it was unanimously republican. Signs that a monarchical party was reappearing, demanding the restitution of the Bourbons, but not of the Old Regime, prompted the Convention to counter-measures designed to strengthen and perpetuate the Republic.
To accomplish this and thus prevent the relapse into monarchy, the Convention drew up a new constitution, the third in six years. Though the radicals of Paris demanded vociferously that the suspended Constitution of 1793 be now put into force, the Convention refused, finding it too “anarchical “ a document. Instead, it framed the Constitution of 1795 or of the Year Three. Universal suffrage was abandoned, the motive being to reduce the political importance of the Parisian populace. Democracy, established on August 10, 1792, was replaced by a suffrage based upon property. There was practically no protest. The example of the American states was quoted, none of which at that time admitted universal suffrage. The suffrage became practically what it had been under the monarchical Constitution of 1791. The national legislature was henceforth to consist of two chambers, not one, as had its predecessors. The example of America was again cited. “Nearly all the constitutions of these states,” said one member, “our seniors in the cause of liberty, have divided the legislature into two chambers; and the result had been public tranquillity.” It was, however, chiefly the experience which France had herself had with single-chambered legislatures during the last few years that caused her to abandon that form. One of the chambers was to be called the Council of Elders. This was to consist of 250 members, who must be at least forty years of age, and be either married or widowers. The other, the Council of the Five Hundred, was to consist of members of at least thirty years of age. This council alone was to have the right to propose laws, which could, however, not be put into force unless accepted by the Council of Elders.
The executive power was to be exercised by a Directory, consisting of five persons, of at least forty years of age, elected by the Councils, one retiring each year. The example of America was again recommended, but was not followed because the Convention feared that a single executive, a president, might remind the French too sharply of monarchy or might become a new Robespierre.
The Constitution of 1795 was eminently the result of experience, not of abstract theorizing. It established a bourgeois republic, as the Constitution of 1791 had established a bourgeois monarchy. The Republic was in the hands, therefore, of a privileged class, property being the privilege.
But the Convention either did not wish or did not dare to trust the voters to elect whom they might desire to the new Councils. Was there not danger that they might elect monarchists and so hand over the new republican constitution to its enemies? Would the members of the Convention, who enjoyed power, who did not wish to step down and out, and yet who knew that they were unpopular because of the record of the Convention, stand any chance of election to the new legislature? Yet the habit of power was agreeable to them. Would the Republic be safe? Was it not their first duty to provide that it should not fall into hostile hands?
Under the influence of such considerations the Convention passed two decrees, supplementary to the constitution, providing that two-thirds of each Council should be chosen from the present members of the Convention.
The constitution was overwhelmingly approved by the voters, to whom it was submitted for ratification. But the two decrees aroused decided opposition. They were represented as a barefaced device whereby men who knew themselves unpopular could keep themselves in power for a while longer. Although the decrees were finally ratified, it was by much smaller majorities than had ratified the constitution. The vote of Paris was overwhelmingly against them.
Nor did Paris remain contented with casting a hostile vote. It proposed to prevent this consummation. An insurrection was organized against the Convention, this time by the bourgeois and wealthier people, in reality a royalist project. The Convention intrusted its defense to Barras as commander-in-chief. Barras, who was more a politician than a general, called to his aid a little Corsican officer twenty-five years old who, two years before, had helped recover Toulon for the Republic. This little Buona-Parte, for this is the form in which the famous name appears in the official reports of the day, was an artillery officer, a believer in the efficacy of that weapon. Hearing that there were forty cannon in a camp outside the city in danger of being seized by the insurgents, Bonaparte sent a young dare-devil cavalryman, Joachim Murat, to get them. Murat and his men dashed at full speed through the city, drove back the insurgents, seized the cannon and dragged them, always at full speed, to the Tuileries, which they reached by six o’clock in the morning. As one writer has said, “Neither the little general nor the superb cavalier dreamed that, in giving Barras cannon to be used against royalists, each was winning a crown for himself.”
The cannon were placed about the Tuileries, where sat the Convention, rendering it impregnable. Every member of the Convention was given a rifle and cartridges. On the 13th of Vendemiaire (October 5) on came the insurgents in two columns, down the streets on both sides of the Seine. Suddenly at four-thirty in the afternoon a violent cannonading was heard. It was Bonaparte making his debut. The Convention was saved and an astounding career was be- gun. This is what Carlyle, in his vivid way, calls “ the whiff of grapeshot which ends what we specifically call the French Revolution,” an imaginative and inaccurate statement, quite characteristic of this vehement historian. Though it did not end the Revolution, it did, however, end one phase of it and inaugurated another.
Three weeks later, on October 26, 1795, the Convention declared itself dissolved. It had had an extraordinary history, only a few aspects of which have been described in this brief account. In the three years of its existence it had displayed prodigious activity along many lines. Meeting in the midst of appalling national difficulties born of internal dissension and foreign war, attacked by sixty departments of France and by an astoning array of foreign powers, England, Prussia, Austria, Piedmont, Holland, Spain, it had triumphed all along the line. Civil war had been stamped out and in the summer of 1795 three hostile states, Prussia, Holland, and Spain, made peace with France and withdrew from the war. France was actually in possession of the Austrian Netherlands and of the German provinces on the west bank of the Rhine. She had practically attained the so-called natural boundaries. War still continued with Austria and England. That problem was passed on to the Directory.
During these three years the Convention had proclaimed the Republic in the classic land of monarchy, had voted two constitutions, had sanctioned two forms of worship and had finally separated church and state a thing of extreme difficulty in any European country. It had put a king to death, had organized and endured a reign of tyranny, which long discredited the very idea of a republic among multitudes of the French, and which immeasurably weakened the Republic by cutting off so many men who, had they lived, would have been its natural and experienced defenders for a full generation longer, since most of them were young. The Republic used up its material recklessly, so that when the man arrived who wished to end it and establish his personal rule, this sallow Italian Buona-Parte, his task was comparatively easy, the opposition being leaderless or poorly led. On the other hand, the Republic had had its thrilling victories, its heroes, and its martyrs, whose careers and teachings were to be factors in the history of France for fully a century to come.
The Convention had also worked mightily and achieved much in the avenues of peaceful development. It had given France a system of weights and measures, more perfect than the world had ever seen, the metric system, since widely adopted by other countries. It had laid the foundations and done the preliminary work for a codification of the laws, an achievement which Napoleon was to carry to completion and of which he was to monopolize the renown. It devoted fruitful attention to the problem of national education, believing, with Danton, that “next to bread, education is the first need of the people,” and that there ought to be a national system, free, compulsory, and entirely secular. “The time has come,” said the eloquent tribune, to establish the great principle which appears to be ignored, “ that children belong to the Republic before they belong to their parents.” A great system of primary and secondary education was elaborated, but it was not put into actual operation, owing to the lack of funds. On the other hand, much was done for certain special schools. Among the invaluable creations of the Convention were certain institutions whose fame has steadily increased, whose influence has been profound, the Normal School, the Polytechnic School, the Law and Medical Schools of Paris, the Conservatory of Arts and Crafts, the National Archives, the Museum of the Louvre, the National Library, and the Institute. While some of these had their roots in earlier institutions, all such were so reorganized and amplified and enriched as to make them practically new. To keep the balance of our judgment clear we should recall these imperishable services to civilization rendered by the same assembly which is more notorious because of its connection with the iniquitous Reign of Terror. The Republic had its glorious trophies, its honorable records, from which later times were to derive inspiration and instruction.