Story of the French Revolution - Alice Birkhead


"Robespierre will follow me; I drag down Robespierre," so said Danton, ascending the scaffold by the judgment of his former friend. "Oh, it were better to be a poor fisherman than to meddle with the governing of men."

Robespierre's hands were stained with the blood of the man who had himself created the Revolutionary Tribunal and craved pardon for it "from God and man." But Robespierre went about the business of living, without echoing that desire for an obscure life to which some of his greater colleagues had given utterance.

The word "virtue" was everywhere. The people had taken it up eagerly, thinking it good for the Republic. Their nation was in ill odor with Europe, scandalized by the overthrow of all religion. Disorder seemed to be rife in the France which had tried to worship Reason. The festival, in which the printer's beautiful wife had been enthroned on the high altar of Notre Dame as Goddess of Reason, shocked the God-fearing, and that festival in the Church of Saint Eustache, where there was every appearance of a tavern in the choir, "decorated with cottages and boskets of trees. Round the choir stood tables over-loaded with bottles, with sausages, pork-puddings, pastries and other meats. The guests flowed in and out through all doors: whosoever presented himself took part of the good things: children of eight, girls as well as boys, put hand to plate in sign of Liberty; they drank also of the bottles and their prompt intoxication created laughter. Reason in azure mantle sat aloft, in a serene manner; Cannoneers, pipe in mouth, serving her as acolytes. And out of doors were mad multitudes dancing round the bonfire of chapel balustrades, of Priests' and Canons' stalls."

The rumour of this wild orgy did not fail to spread abroad, causing mortification to Robespierre, a decent man, whose family had been connected with the ancient Catholic faith. He swept away Hebert and the party delighting in excess of irreligion. When the guillotine had deprived them of their heads, they could no longer mock. They could never cause again such consternation to the reverent in foreign lands. It was time for Virtue to be established. The people must have festivals on the Tenth Days which were now free from labour.

France was doing well at home and abroad that summer. Her armies were victorious, her crops promised to be most plentiful. It was fitting that the Republic should give thanks for conquest and prosperity. Robespierre was prepared to proclaim his own belief in the existence of a Supreme Being, governing all the world. He had often spoken against those who refused to recognize a deity. The Republic itself was Virtue, he declared, and all its enemies were vices excited against it and paid by kings. Anarchists, corrupt men, and atheists were the agents of Pitt, the English statesman, who was so great a traitor to the cause of Liberty.

There should be festivals on the Tenth Days, not only to the Supreme Being but to Liberty, and the martyrs of Liberty, and to hatred of tyranny and traitors. The inscriptions lately put on churches, dedicating them to Reason, were torn down and others substituted, explaining that they were to be used for the worship of the Supreme Being. Rousseau's remains were removed to the Pantheon, and a pension given to his widow, For, in this, as in all actions, Robespierre had a master. He knew the writings of Rousseau by heart, though the scenes of violence staining Paris were not displeasing to him, the follower of a man detesting bloodshed. He decreed the establishment of religion with an air of satisfaction, and the prisons were more crowded than ever, the carts bore daily a heavier load of victims to the executioner.

Spies had been encouraged, wretched creatures, often men disbanded from the Revolutionary army. They wanted to earn money and found it very easy. They thronged in every cafe, in every theatre, and every public place, making up their lists of "suspects." Seven thousand prisoners were counted soon, and the lot of these became much harder. "Grey hairs and youthful forms, countenances blooming with health and faces worn with suffering, beauty, and talent, rank and virtue were indiscriminately rolled to the fatal doors. Sixty persons often arrived in a day, and as many were, on the following morning sent out to execution. Night and day, the cars incessantly discharged victims into the prison. The extent of the calamity had rendered men suspicious even of those they loved most. Every one assumed the coarsest dress and most squalid appearance. An elegant exterior would have been the certain forerunner of destruction. With trembling looks they gazed round the room, fearful that the very walls might harbor traitors. The sound of a foot—the stroke of a hammer—a voice in the street froze all hearts with horror. If a knock was heard at the door, every one, in agonizing suspense, expected his fate. Unable to endure such protracted misery, numbers committed suicide."

There were some to applaud when an attempt was made on Robespierre's life, for his name it was that chilled the blood of all the so-called enemies of the Republic. Cecile Renault, a girl of twenty, had it in her heart to follow Charlotte Corday, but she was not successful. She asked to see Robespierre, but the family of Duplay, with whom he still lived, refused to admit her. She persevered till suspicion was aroused, and she was seized and taken before the Committee of Public Safety. A basket she possessed was searched and found to contain knives as well as the articles of a woman's dress. She refused at first to acknowledge the purpose of the knives, but said that the clothes were to adorn her own person, if she were sent to the guillotine. Fouquier-Tinville perceived that she loved fine raiment and thought to humiliate her. She was clad in filthy rags when she appeared for trial again, but made very light of this treatment. She died cheerfully, and the Jacobins received Robespierre with enthusiasm because he had escaped assassination.

He became more powerful still, and was adored by a little court of women. He was not ill-pleased to hear that an old woman looked upon him as the Messiah. He alienated numbers of adherents by his manner of conducting himself at the Great Festival in honor of the Supreme Being. There were already rivals, eager to condemn his arrogance. "Men of the high hand," they called Robespierre, Saint-Just, and Couthon, because they betrayed contempt for other mortals as inferior.

The 20th prairial (20th June) was full summer, and Robespierre set off jauntily from the Rue St Honore. He had forsaken the sober raiment of his first choice and clad himself in a light blue coat with black silk breeches and waistcoat of white silk, richly embroidered. White stockings and gold shoe-buckles proclaimed his pride of appearance, and indeed he was to be priest and prophet henceforth, the hero of this day of festival. His carefully powdered hair was adorned with feathers oddly out of harmony with his cast of countenance. There could never be anything unrestrained and joyous about the bearing of Maximilien Robespierre. He carried the bunch of flowers, fruit, and ears of corn rather awkwardly. The tricolour sash did not suit him, but he must wear it to please the patriots fawning to-day on him alone.

The garden of the Tuileries had a royal spectacle, recalling to some the old order they despised. The Convention sat in an amphitheatre with groups of the people on either side of them. All wore wreaths according to their years, ivy and olive crowning the old people, oak being symbolical of the strength of manhood, myrtle decking the brow of beauteous youth, and violet being the flower of the immature on that occasion. Figures representing Atheism, Discord, and Selfishness were burnt by Robespierre, the President, after he had delivered one of those set and formal speeches in which his soul delighted. Pompously he applied the torch, and from the ashes of the burning statues rose the figure of Wisdom, somewhat blackened by the flames. He made a second speech—on the duty of rooting out the vices arrayed against the Republic—before the procession started to the Field of Mars, the scene of former festival.

Robespierre did not hear the jeers of his enemies when he walked apart from them in the supreme place of honor. He was gratified by the public admiration, and the hissed-out "Tyrant" passed by him unheeded. Beneath the boughs of a tree planted on a lofty mount, the Convention seated themselves, with fast rising jealousy of this member who would make himself an idol. Songs and music did not soothe their sense of injury, nor that most patriotic spectacle of youths drawing their swords and swearing to defend their country.

The pride of Robespierre was wounded before the crowd, who resented the honours heaped upon him. A man approached and said with amazing boldness, "I like your festival, Robespierre, but you I detest mortally."

The luster of the brilliant tribute was dimmed by this coarse reminder of rivals eager to displace him. He complained of the insults rather peevishly to colleagues of the Assembly. Their want of sympathy galled him. He succeeded in passing a law, concerning the trial of suspects, in the face of opposition.

Until this time, there had been some pretence of a legal trial, with witnesses and jury. "To calumniated patriots the law gives patriot jurors as defenders; to conspirators it grants none." Henceforth, the basest injustice could reign unchecked.

The Committee grew alarmed, fearing every day to be brought to trial without defence. Robespierre retired from their meetings in disgust because they would have suppressed the sect which honoured him as prophet. He left Couthon, the energetic cripple who was wheeled about Paris in a bath-chair. Saint-Just was with the army. It was time for Billaud-Varenne and Collot d'Herbois to reveal their enmity.

The Jacobins welcomed Robespierre and he continued to speak in that club. Couthon was applauded when he declared that the followers of Danton and Hebert were still attacking the Republic. There were wild stories spread by dangerous persons that members of the Committee were to be brought to the bar in great numbers, but there were only about six men tried in all, and they deserved their fate.

The familiar sight of tumbrils was ceasing to please the people of Paris, who no longer paid for chairs to watch the guillotine at work. They had grown weary of the spectacle which was repeated constantly, and nearly all the aristocrats had fallen. Death was climbing down to the lower orders, and casting shadow over humble households. The first dreadful massacres of September, 1792, had been caused by the real fear of an invading, ruthless army. The Republic was out of danger, and ordered executions because it had become a habit.

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


Formalities were discarded in the tribunal over which Fouquier-Tinville presided. One man protested that his name was not down on the list of the accused. "What signifies that?" said Fouquier.

"Give it, quick!" The prisoner was sent to the scaffold with the others.

The lists of people to be executed were called by hawkers underneath the windows of the prisons. "Those who have gained prizes in the lottery of Sainte-Guillotine" they called to the doomed wretches, living from hour to hour in an agony of expectation. The jailers would wake the night silence, sometimes, by the turning of keys and clanging of doors, to create panic among their charges. Natures became brutalized very quickly, even after Robespierre's sublime declaration of religion. After his new law had passed, the Public Accuser gloated over fifty or sixty a day, saying, "Heads fall like tiles. It must go better still next decade; I must have 450 at least." The spies renewed their efforts, making up lists at random. One was accused of using aristocratic language, another of having drunk wine on a day when the army had been defeated. There was abject fawning on these creatures in the prisons. Every one caressed them and spoke humbly to them in the hope of winning mercy. The "evening journal" was the jest they loved most of all the grim jests made on the Terror. The names read out caused such passionate farewells, such tears of anguish. Heroic self-sacrifice was a cause of laughter. An old man would take his son's place if he could, a lover that of his mistress.

Robespierre was the author of the system, the victims believed, as they were driven past the rue St Honore where he sat writing the speeches that should ruin the rival faction. Pache and Hanriot were on his side and would support him against jealousy and malice. He was surrounded, when he ventured out, by armed friends declaring themselves his bodyguard, and the family of Duplay all loved him.

In his absence all went well with the Government, the army winning fresh glories which brought honor to Carnot, a member not supporting Robespierre. He was tempted to wish for defeats, since victory was not to be of his making. He spoke slightingly of victory over armies in the field, and said France needed victories over factions. Billaud-Varenne and Collot d'Herbois were profiting by his retirement. He would denounce them in Thermidor. He made his great speech on the 8th, still trusting to words when his comrades would have made use of weapons.

Billaud, who would have liked to reign in Robespierre's stead, answered him. The famous speech of the Republican was not to be printed before further consideration. It was a check to Robespierre, and the Jacobins voted the expulsion of the deputies who would thwart their favourite. There was a scene between Saint-Just, recalled from the army, and Collot. The next day Billaud insisted on the arrest of the member of the Jacobins who had "threatened the faithful deputies." He threw off all disguise, and openly attacked Robespierre, averring that he intended to become absolute master of the country.

Robespierre turned at bay, his face white, his eyes flashing. "Down with the tyrant!" The voices were vigorous, and the cry was repeated. The misdeeds of the official were recited, and he was not allowed to speak. His friends were arrested, and cries of "Accusation" levelled at the tyrant. "I share the crimes of my brother; let me share his fate." Augustin Robespierre had not forgotten the family pride in the able elder brother. The decree was passed, and Couthon, Saint-Just, and Lebas were included in it. "To the bar! To the bar!" It was too late that day to accede to the wish of the Assembly. Hanriot was placed in the hall with his allies, after vainly trying to rouse a force in their favour. Paris had long been tired of the Terror, and would not free the authors of the system. Shops closed on the route followed by the victims would be open on the morrow if these five passed by in the tumbrils. There was feverish excitement in the places of confinement, for liberty might be coming to free the condemned. There was hope while Robespierre sat in the Luxemburg, proclaimed an outlaw. His friends might yet summon armies to save him, but fear had left those wont to tremble before him. He had been confused by the onslaught of his enemies. He had shown bewilderment to the crowd.

The prisoners were dismayed by Hanriot's discovery that the gunner he had led had deserted him. They were in extreme peril, and could not make any useful decision. Lebas shot himself, while Augustin Robespierre and Hanriot threw themselves out of a window. Saint-Just had a weapon but did not attempt to make use of it. His beautiful oval face was serene in expression, while the others were frenzied. Couthon dared not plunge a dagger in his heart, and Maximilien hesitated long before clapping a pistol to his head. He inflicted a wound that was not fatal, only breaking his jaw, and failed in the attempt to escape the knife which had so long done his bidding.

The Dictator was brought before the Committee in a disarray that told the story of his downfall. He still wore the light blue coat he had donned so proudly for the day of festival. In Thermidor, it was soiled, and the blood oozed on it from the wound roughly dressed by a surgeon.

It was the 10th of Thermidor when the "outlaws" were dismissed by Fouquier-Tinville without the mockery of a trial. The scaffold had been erected for them in the Place de la Revolution. A group of women danced round the cart which bore Robespierre, livid and exhausted. Friends of victims, done to death during the tyrant's sway, cursed him volubly. The windows were crowded with people, inspired by the same interest that had brought Eleanor Duplay, who loved the lodger, to watch the tumbrils he sent rolling past the Rue St Honore. As he passed to his death the gendarmes pointed their swords toward the man in the stained blue coat whom the nation had once acclaimed. They spoke of Danton, and wondered if this tyrant would be as sturdy in defiance of the guillotine. "The death of thee gladdens my very heart," a woman called out, clinging to the tumbril.

Saint-Just died with courage, and the reckless spirit that had made him notorious in early, youthful follies. The advocate from Arras was the last to lay his head before the executioner. Stoicism gave way for a moment of human pain and fear. He gave a sharp cry, and thus ended the Reign of Terror. The shouts of applause rang through Paris and echoed over Europe. The tyrant was gone. "Long live Liberty!" Better, indeed, to be a poor .fisherman than to meddle with the governing of men.