Story of the French Revolution - Alice Birkhead

The Month of September

After the fall of the Tuileries, the Girondin ministry had come into power again. Once more they gathered in Mme Roland's salon. Brissot, the Norman deputy, was all for the war that would compel the King to declare his policy. Louis might take the opportunity of aiding the party of Revolution, or he might declare himself openly against it, in which case it would be easy to call him traitor and set up a Republic. Handsome Barbaroux had called for volunteers and met the gallant response from Marseilles. Buzot, who won the heart of Marie-Jeanne Roland from a husband, elderly now and growing enfeebled, was also an advanced Girondin. They had enemies in the Assembly and enemies in Paris. There was the Commune or Municipality, which claimed to direct the actions of the Revolution. It had been foremost in the attack on the Tuileries and was violent through success. Secretly appointed, the members were bold in their demands. They despised the older body, and condemned its powers as feeble. They had overthrown the King and saved the people by that gallant rush to the royal palace when the prudent would have stayed them. They were going to have their way, and show Roland and his men what force could do to crush the treason of these aristocrats, with the monarchs of Europe in alliance.

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


Danton, whose voice reverberated with some of that passion which had made Mirabean so mighty, had been president of the club taking its name from the meeting-place at the convent of the Cordeliers. Men who listened heard once more an orator whose powerful personality swayed them more than his actual words. He was strong and shaggy, and believed to be a lover of the people. The Girondin party had to receive him as Minister of Justice, though he had little in common with these men of dreams and visionary ideals.

The patriots were frantic in their cries for justice on the old oppressors of the country. Let their houses be searched for arms, since there was reason to believe that they encouraged Austrian and Prussian armies to advance on Paris. Longwy and Verdun fell before the evening. The national danger called for stringent measures. The Town Hall raised the flag which had once called forth so many volunteers, and this raised a spirit of new violence. The nobility were more than ever suspect. 'Why should not the new Minister of Justice summon them before a tribunal to answer to the charge of treason?

Danton so far yielded as to allow the domiciliary visits by which men were sent out from the Town Hall in tricolour sash and cockade to knock at the doors of fine hotels and demand entrance without ceremony. They were dazzled in some houses by the sight of luxuries they had not hitherto imagined. The sumptuous furniture and personal appointments they now saw roused a passion of envy and revenge in many a loyal citizen. They spared neither the fine lady's boudoir nor the scholar's library. Everywhere they found costly articles of the toilette the uses of which they did not understand, and silver which was too beautiful for food cooked by plebeian households; jewels that had been worn lavishly by wearers careless of their wealth, and clothes that had once been part of the radiant spectacle of Versailles.

None could defend themselves against the intrusion of rough men in Municipal uniform. They were from the Town Hall. They had the orders of Danton, Minister of Justice. It was their duty to discover whether arms had been concealed or fine horses, of which the patriots had need to drag their cannons. There were few like Santerre the brewer, who possessed dray-horses of such strength that they were famed throughout Paris and were always at the service of good patriots. One of these steeds was so immense that it was wont to figure annually at a fair, disguised by coverings, as an elephant! Santerre was the soul of kindness; he would lend his horses and give away huge draughts of red wine for which his brewery was famous. It was another story with those of the First Estate. They hid their wealth, and grudged it to the cause of the army which, no doubt, they were hoping to see defeated.

Mme de Stael, the daughter of Necker, now in exile, was loud in her expostulations. She parleyed for a long time with Manuel, one of the search-party, deigning to remind him that they both were members of the world of letters. That plea did not serve well during the visits of the Municipal search-party. They arrested many writers; even Beaumarchais, late distrusted by the King, had become an object of suspicion to the people. They hunted him, forcing the once bold satirist to become an abject fugitive. He was rescued finally by Manuel, but never regained prosperity after he had left the prison.

Two thousand stand of arms were discovered among the dwellings of the patriots' ill-wishers. They were confiscated for the use of Brunswick's opponents. The suspected persons placed in various prisons totaled some four hundred. The charges against them were not always quite satisfactory, for it was open to doubt what "anti-civism" might be in 1792. The definition of a citizen was always changing. Yet they would be safer under lock and key, where plotting must be useless—they could be considered hostages of war and tremble before the vengeance exacted for defeat in battle or the blood shed by the patriot army.

The Royalists fled by every road that might be open; but guards watched at the end of every street, and barges were stationed to prevent flight along the river. Guiltless tried to escape with the guilty, since it was useless to protest against denunciation by one in favour at the Town Hall. A priest with an enemy would be dragged to the dungeons, charged with refusing to take the oath to the civil constitution. The charge of writing pamphlets was one means of bringing down the wealthy. The presses were said to be free, but they were free only to the upholders of the Revolution.

The news of Brunswick's forces approaching caused a wild fluttering among the captives. They took heart of grace again after days of desperation, and, outside their cage, the citizens enrolled themselves to the sound of an alarm gun. "To dare, and again to dare, and without end to dare!" So Danton inspired them.

The voice of Marat croaked continually against the danger from the Royalists still within the walls of Paris. There were some thirty thousand, and there was talk of a rising of the prisoners. Once get rid of this element of foreigners, agents of the old order, and soldiers without uniform, and the Town Hall would see to the safety of the people.

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


The Assembly believed Danton to be acting against them, and refused to notice his appeal for aid in directing the movements of Paris, which was frantic with terror of an army brought at the instigation of the Queen, who did not love the country. The Committee of Watchfulness became all powerful under Marat, who preached massacre, and on September 2nd the woeful work began.

The Friends of the People allowed twenty-four prisoners to be taken from the Mairie to the Abbaye. It was giving them up to death, for the six carriages were surrounded by an excited crowd, and the cries proved the temper of the spectators. "There they are, there they are—those who would kill our children and our wives. Come, help us; kill them!" In the very vehicles the unfortunates were butchered, and in the courtyard of the Abbaye. They were priests who would not take the oath, not members of an arrogant nobility.

The justice of the People was to be the supreme test now of loyalty or disloyalty. The tribunal was under the presidency of Maillard, who had led the women out to Versailles. He assumed control of the frantic mob, and administered a certain kind of legal trial before condemning prisoners. Many escaped, thanks to his influence, for he would not yield to the tyranny of voices calling for vengeance without distinction. He was a strange wild figure, with his great height and suit of closely fitting black. He had some knowledge of the law and some knowledge of humanity.

Leaving the Abbaye, the avengers went to the Chatelet Prison and spared only about forty out of two hundred prisoners. The thieves claiming to have stolen only from aristocrats met with compassion. It went ill with the victims of Royalist tendencies. After they had met their fate the taste for blood was whetted. There were other prisons and they all held aristocrats.

September the 4th saw the assembly at La Force, where there were many women, including Mme de Stael, whose pleas had been so unsuccessful. She was saved from death, at least, but the Swiss prisoners of the Tenth of August met no response to their cry for mercy. One of them led the way to death with the unfailing courage of his regiment. "I go first," he said, "since it must be so: adieu!" He appeared outside the prison gates where the murderous pikes were waiting. He flung himself upon them and died heroically. None should say henceforth that it was men from Marseilles alone who knew well how to die.

The beautiful were to perish with the brave at La Force and were to be as long remembered. The Princesse de Lamballe had been lying on her bed when she was roused to be removed to the prison of the Abbaye. She was reluctant to leave one place of terror for another. She must arrange her dress if they would insist on taking her, for it was disagreeable to appear before the crowd without that dainty air of elegance associated with her person. They suffered her to make a hasty toilette, remarking grimly that she had not far to go. She was received by a threatening array of sabres. The chief adviser of the Austrian woman, they declared her. She had indeed been true in friendship, but her spirit was not strong to sway imperious Marie Antoinette. Yet no pleading could avail now to save poor, beautiful De Lamballe the crowning humiliation. Her head was severed with an axe and carried, with its fair locks waving, to the Temple. That building was encircled by a tricolour ribbon, so that the Terror might not reach there. Royal hostages must be saved till there came further tidings of the army.

At Bicetre the massacre became wilder, none being questioned as to opinions or parties. The sick and poor were seized by their own Order, and even children left the prison where cruelty had been their lot, to meet death instead of freedom.

The people of Paris had given themselves up to lawless violence, and cared nothing for a reckoning that would come long after the blood was spilt beyond redemption. Marat defended the massacre which Roland condemned so hotly. Marat was determined on the doom of the aristocracy, and cared not to feign any pity for his fellow-mortals.

The dark days in Paris had been followed by dark days in the provinces. There was an increase of theft and the dread of utter lawlessness. Blows were struck by the Assembly before they finally lost their old standing. They gave place on September the 20th to the National Convention, which declared France a Republic.

To this convention the most distinguished men of the two former assemblies were elected, forming separate parties now at variance. Robespierre, the lawyer from Arras, led the deputies of the Mountain, so called from the high benches where they sat. They included the more vigorous Republicans and were chiefly deputies of Paris, while the Girondins were of the South and advocated moderation. It was not long before the Convention split on the question of the massacres, said to have been encouraged by the Mountain. They had another dispute of higher importance as the year drew to an end. Robespierre would have had Louis XVI put to death without the formalities of a royal trial such as had been given to King Charles I of England. The Girondins were in favour of imitating the Republicans of England, who had become the first of free people, but the "patriots" were not with the party so averse to regicide—their cry was for Equality, and the proof of it by the trial, not of King Louis Seize, but of plain Louis Capet.