Story of the French Revolution - Alice Birkhead

The Incorruptible

There was a time when Robespierre, beloved of Paris, might have checked the awful monotony of the passage to the scaffold. He was, by nature, opposed to violence and bloodshed, being more than any man of his time the follower of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. But the Terror gave him what his ambition craved, the leading place among the people, and he would not risk that precious role by denouncing the insatiable lust for lives that had seized upon a section of society.

He had climbed by very gradual steps to the supreme height where he sat enthroned in 1794. Born in the northeast of France, the quietly aristocratic town of Arras had produced a lawyer, differing little in first youth from the generations of lawyers who preceded him. The family of Robespierre was almost noble, counting members of honourable eminence in the profession of the law. There were, too, dignitaries of the Church among them, and the prefix of aristocratic names had been dropped only a short while before the Revolution, which forbade such marks of distinction.

In May 1768, Maximilien-Marie-Isidore was christened at the church of the Madeleine some few hours after birth. He was the eldest of four children, the issue of a love-match wherein the family of Robespierre were thought to have condescended from their rank and ancient pride. Another son and two daughters were born before the mother died some seven years after Maximilien's birth, and the father left his family to shift for themselves, never taking kindly to his duties afterward, and roaming to rid himself of life-long sorrow. The children were well educated, but lacked money sorely as they grew up, and Maximilien had to suffer many humiliations to his pride when he was a fellow-student with Camille Desmoulins at the University of Paris. He had an honor it was ironical to dwell on in his later days, when he was singled out from among his companions to read a Latin speech in the presence of Louis XVI, the guest of the college, very soon after the glories of the coronation. He acquitted himself well, no doubt, being a clever youth of great composure; but he was not a worshipper of kings, and chose always to follow the teaching of Rousseau, an ill-disciplined genius, unlike himself in temperament.

The student returned to Arras after a career of distinction, and took up a regular life in the family house, which was a harmonious setting for a frugal, narrow household, being a formal, plain dwelling, without any of the lavish architecture figuring in the quaint streets of the northeast country. He was happy in his work and the society it opened to him. There was cultured leisure for the lawyer who had been elected a member of the Academy, and in spring Robespierre had a certain taste of the frivolity of the intellectual kind when he dallied with the other founders of the Rosati, a society which met to drink wine and wear garlands of roses in the classic manner. He wrote verses, not too brilliant, and made his reputation by defending an admirer of Benjamin Franklin, who had alarmed a spinster neighbour by putting up a lightning-conductor on a house at St Omer. This local glory was eclipsed in 1789 when Arras sent Maximilien Robespierre to Paris as a deputy of the States-General. There was a general feeling in the family that the fortunes of the eldest son should be promoted by the sacrifices of the others. Charlotte Robespierre gave up her tiny income to her brother, and was satisfied by an assurance that she should never be forsaken. The new deputy must have additions to his modest wardrobe, which contained always suits of warm brown ox olive green. He was of a very clear, pale complexion, described by writers of a later time as "sea-green," and studied the effects of his toilette. Although a poor man, he never neglected his person, and would appear in times of dangerous disturbance immaculately arrayed, with buckles on his shoes, silk stockings, powdered hair, and carefully shaven countenance.

[Illustration] from Story of the French Revolution by Alice Birkhead


No sensation was made by the deputy of Arras in that Assembly where so many greater men assumed the leading roles. Robespierre's greenish eyes and insignificant features were inconspicuous as his voice, which was too weak to dominate an audience of several thousands. He was present at the taking of the Tennis-Court Oath, and gained slighting attention because he stood with two hands upon his breast, "as though he had two hearts for liberty." The first time he came forward to rouse the people was the day when the women came into the Assembly at Versailles, and he demanded an inquiry into their loud-voiced grievances.

Once moved to Paris with the other deputies, Robespierre did not find his pride hurt by the shifts of poverty. He was always obliged to economize, dining on fifteen sous, and unable on one occasion to buy necessary mourning. Part of his scanty pay as deputy went to Charlotte, whose claims were eager if she thought her brother likely to forget them. It was possible to live in a garret of the great city and be constantly invited to dine with the great in Paris.

Robespierre began to win the favour of the people of the capital by constant repetition of the popular beliefs. He spoke very often at the Jacobin Club; dull wearisome speeches he read by the aid of spectacles. He had risen to be president of the club in 1790, and began to work against the traditions of the monarchy. He had no grudge against the King and Queen as private persons, but he did not believe that they were of use to France. Every man should have a vote, regardless of land or property, he repeated in the dry and formal tones that rendered an audience mocking, if it were accustomed to being roused by giant Mirabeau.

One ardent disciple, at least, Robespierre gained with the general favour of Paris. Saint-Just, a wild and beautiful boy, was devoted to him. He had friends among the first rulers of the Republic, numbering Danton and Desmoulins.

Danton succeeded Mirabeau, being of the nature for a leader. He had qualities which Robespierre lacked—fire, and the love of companionship, and the readiness to seize power in an hour of danger, and the subtle magic of a singular personality. Still the deputy plodded with his frequent speeches and reiterated phrases, the anchor of the Revolution, so long as he continued the one creed he had adopted from the beginning. "One empty word does not create a Republic," he would repeat, "it is made rather by the character of the citizens." He urged forward the destruction of the old order, swept along by the people who made him soon their idol. Cold and incorruptible, there was a permanent strength in him they trusted. He turned on the Girondins when their control of the country slackened. He was attacked by them, for they were virile, and despised him as pretentious and too virtuous. He was accused of aiming at the dictatorship through the will of the people. He bided his time and kept silence, noting the false nature of Dumouriez, a man born with the fascination over men so foreign to Robespierre's own austere nature, and the meddlesome traits of Brissot, a character of finer idealism. They fell, and he profited by their fall, for Danton would not suffer himself to lead the Terror. He was strong, and knew it to be stronger. He chose to retire from the turmoil of public life to the country, where he contracted a second marriage. Robespierre took a place in the Committee of Public Safety very shortly after Danton left it.

During all the dread days of massacre and regicide, the dapper little lawyer was retired in his quiet lodging. Few visitors were admitted into the fourth floor of the Rue St Honort which was filled now by medals, prints, and tokens of the recognition of a patriot by the people of the city which had made him their foremost deputy. The family of Duplay, with whom he lodged, guarded their famous guest like fierce watch-dogs, driving off poor Charlotte Robespierre when she would have sought a shelter. He was not to be troubled by private affairs. He had to decide the fate of a Republic. Lonely was the life of Maximilien because he chose loneliness. He had too little in common with his fellow-men.

At first, the tribune of the people had been firm in his principles and deserved the name "Incorruptible," when so many were corrupted by the bribes of power and place. Temptation came to him in the shape of ambition. He would let the Terror hold France in deadly grip lest he should lose his unique prestige among the commons. He made some effort to check the ceaseless insults to religion, because he was wise enough to see that such excesses would bring about reaction. Men would be disgusted by the fanatics rushing up and down Paris to destroy the priests, and holding sacrilegious services in the churches which they would not have open for their original purposes. He did not want that reaction, for his sovereignty would fail if mercy prevailed against tyrannical government. Saint-Just did not want it, for he knew that the system of Terror supplied soldiers for his armies, which would be disorganized by a new reign of peace. Couthon, in charge of finance, did not want it, because he feared that the national coffers would not be well filled if the new exactions could not be enforced, Gold was plentiful from the plunder of the wealthy and the stern discipline of the lower classes, who dare not refuse to pay lest they be accused of "incivism," a dreadful crime, punished by the guillotine.

The procession of tumbrils must thread its way drearily through the streets from the prisons still too crowded. Spies must "beat up game" by the most extraordinary accusations. One man was arrested for keeping the silver of an aristocrat in his house, another for residing in a chateau once belonging to an emigrant.

Friends should be sacrificed if there were need of it. Robespierre's pale eyes glittered when he heard how Danton and Desmoulins had become earnest in their demands for mercy. The extreme party who had made a mockery of religion were guillotined, and it seemed there would be fresh victims before the knife was to rust again. Danton had been a close friend, but friends made mistakes sometimes. He had made a mistake when he left the pleasant country, so soothing to his nature, and began to talk of releasing captives from their dungeons. There was only one man to dictate the wishes of the people and hold fast to the purifying of the Republic of France by blood. The Incorruptible must not shrink from a course abhorrent to his nature. He did not wish ill to a former colleague, but he placed the safety of the citizens before the safety of the individual. With a firm hand Robespierre signed the death-warrant of the mighty Revolutionary.

Danton had asked why there should be still so many victims, neither Royalists nor conspirators, since these had perished early. There must be innocent names on the lists of doomed heads. He spoke to Robespierre in friendly-wise and was a little daunted by the answer.

"And who says that any innocent man has perished?" The query was abrupt and menacing. It was not long before Danton was arrested and, by the wish of the Dictator, was not allowed to plead his cause at the bar.

Desmoulins must be given up to judgment because his pamphlets had begun to preach humanity, and this meant opposition to the Terror. Was there no such word as "pity"? bold Camille demanded. He was happily united to a woman he had loved when, as a struggling student, he had seen her a pretty child running in the alleys of the Luxemburg green gardens. Lucile was his now, and much that had been beyond the dreams of hot-headed, stuttering Camille, unable to find work as an advocate, and writing agitated demands to his father for "six louis or a bed." He had lain softly since those days, and had reason to cling to life for the sake of pretty, childish Lucile. But the spirit of truth and justice woke within the orator of the Palais Royal, and his last pamphlets were for liberation of the unrighteously condemned and the triumph of compassion. He thought to have Robespierre on his side, for they had been friends since college days in Paris; but Robespierre would not yield, and, hesitating not long to act, persisted in the Terror, which claimed two fresh victims for the spring-time.

In March 1794 Camille received the news of his mother's death with a dim foreboding that his own was not far off. He spent the day weeping, and when night fell heard the measured tread of soldiers coming to arrest him. Lucile clasped him in her arms, and would have protected the father of her sleeping child had not he decided to meet fate carelessly. With one agonized glance round the home where he had spent his happiest hours, the writer on behalf of mercy opened the door to admit his captors. He looked back to the window where Lucile stretched out her arms to him in mute farewell. He thought of the first vision he had had of her in gracious childhood. His window looked out on the Luxemburg gardens, always haunted by that memory. He wrote letters to his wife far surpassing the pamphlets which had raised him from obscurity. "I was born," he said, "to compose verses, to defend the unfortunate, and to make you happy."

Lucile followed her husband to death in April, for Robespierre had not scrupled to use his power against a former hostess. He was alone in his pitiless isolation above the rest of France. He could not have believed in the guilt of Danton and Desmoulins, but he thought not of guilt and innocence. He was the Republic. He must live on while all around him perished. The noise of the tumbrils came to him when the evening shadows filled the quiet apartment of the Rue St Honor. Did they bring an ominous warning that the tide which bore him upon its crest would soon begin to ebb?