Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Robespierre and the French Revolution (Part 2)

 The first part of this humble monograph concluded with France fighting the preponderance of Europe in March 1793. Internal opposition to the war arose as well.

A revolt in the Vendee region against the Revolution, ignited by massive war time conscription, broke out and Federalist revolts (Girondins inspired) in Bordeaux, Lyon and elsewhere rose up in opposition to the Parisian centrist control of the Revolution. At the same time as the Vendee the Revolutionary Tribunal and the Committee for Public Safety, and “deputies-on-mission”, the initial steps toward the Terror were established in March and April under Danton’s Girondins Leadership. Opposition to the Revolution was bloodily and brutally suppressed; hundreds of thousands of royalists in the region would die in the conquest. One of the most odious incidents, four thousands of royalist sympathizers and others suspected of not supporting the Revolution were killed in Nantes in the Loire River in a series of mass drownings led by a one, Jean-Baptiste Carrier, a deputy-on-mission. This revolt would be crushed but it would take years to be completely extinguished.


In response to the Brunswick Manifesto on May 25, 1793 Robespierre at the Jacobin Club called the people to revolt. The powerful Parisian sections (48) had their own militia. Robespierre crystalized the violent demands of the Parisian mob (divided into 48 sections as they are called). Paris and the country were suffering shortages, largely brought on by the ravaging inflation, precipitated by the demands of war. It no longer profited the peasantry to sell their goods; basic commodities were scarce. The Parisian mob demanded solutions.



Robespierre buttressed mob violence in his speech, “On Subsistence of Goods”. He would counter Girondins advocacy of the free market. Among other ideas he would posit that, “The first social law is thus that which guarantees to all society’s members the means of existence; all others are subordinated to it. Property was only instituted or guaranteed to cement it. It is in order to live that we have property in the first case.” And further, “No man has the right to build up mountains of wheat, beside his fellow man dying of hunger.” He took the moral position that free markets, in the guise of hoarders and monopolists, couldn’t be allowed to fully seek optimum prices that would lead to starvation of the populace. This is a powerful argument but nonetheless when this inflation is largely a function of the Revolutionary government printing unlimited Assignats, then Robespierre’s solution is to demonize retailers and businesses caught in the vise of higher prices demanded of them to purchase their inventory and the rabid populace incensed with the higher prices for goods for sale.  He’s advocating an irrational, demented policy.

Shortly thereafter, a most dramatic moment occurred on May 30-31 and June 2; the Parisian mob in the thousands would invade the National Assembly’s legislative chambers to intimidate the Convention into expelling Girondinist delegates. They would be detained by the Commandant Hanriot, leader of the Parisian Sections militia. This would end the Girondins as a party in the Convention. Robespierre would continue to utilize this mob to spur the government into a policy of unhinged terror.

The surrender of the naval port by the Royalist sympathizers at Toulon to the British Navy would add to the general paranoia. Shortly thereafter on September 5, 1793, Robespierre as President of the National Convention oversees a vote on ‘terror as the order of the day’.

Some months prior to this, Robespierre, in his eyes the only one able to truly direct the Revolution, makes his first strike against the Left, denouncing former priest, enrage, Jacques Roux, proto-Marxist and champion of the sans culotte and working class earlier in June. Roux would be imprisoned and later commit suicide. Robespierre would strike again at the Left in the future. Only he would know the true course of the Revolution, according to his own estimation, and no one else. This eliminated opposition of the Left.

The Paris mob, organized into the 48 Sections, was crucial, having again intervened in the legislative process by invading the Convention’s meeting hall, the salle de machines that seated up to 8,000 spectators within the Tuileries palace on September 5, 1793. This assault would frighten once again the Convention to take a draconian measure.

On September 17, 1793 the Law of Suspects granted the Committee of Public Safety broad arrest powers of which Robespierre is in the complete agreement. Citizens were required to possess certificates of civism, attests to condition of being a citizen in good standing. Under the Law of Suspects additional powers were granted the Committee of Public Safety. It would now oversee armies, supervise the economy, and mobilize manpower and supplies. Later, it was granted it even more power, including the ability to suspend local elections and appoint national agents to influence provincial politics. This law directed every commune in France to set up surveillance committees and arrest suspects— people simply related to émigrés or nobles or given support by emigres.

In another move to ensure control of the Parisian sections, Robespierre supports limiting meetings to two per week of which they’d be paid in a sop. Robespierre would know the revolution better than anyone; he would even say at one point,I am not the courtier, nor the moderator, nor the tribune nor the defender of the people, I am the people myself”.

In June 1793 former allies then rivals would become enemies of the Revolution, and find themselves arrested. The Girondins, who advocated for a constitutional monarch, a limited suffrage, for war with foreign powers, for a decentralized Revolution, (under “Federalism”), who under Danton had utilized violence in September 1792, and who themselves began to question the influence of the Parisian mob, become objects of the Terror. They would go under the guillotine in October 1793.

Robespierre, along with Desmoulins and Danton, found enemies on the Left in the group called the Hebertists, led by Jacques Hebert, a journalist. They advocated the de-Christianization campaign and state intervention into economic matters as in governmental purchase of wine and grain to insure adequate supply for the poor. Robespierre vigorously opposed de-Christianization, fearing it would set the populace against the Revolution. Part of the de-Christianization campaign was promotion of the Cult of Reason. An official nationwide Fête de la Raison was supervised by Hébert. Churches across France were transformed into modern Temples of Reason. Even the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris held a ceremony where the altar was replaced by an altar to Liberty with the inscription "To Philosophy" carved in stone over the cathedral's doors.

March 2, 1794 Jacque-Baptiste Carrier, a Herbertist, was recalled from his slaughter of anti-revolutionary opposition in the Vendee in Nantes. He and Herbert called to remove Robespierre and the rest of the Montagard from the Convention. They had hoped to intimidate the Convention, as it was done earlier to remove the Girondins, by summoning the Sections, the Paris mob on March 4, 1794. The Paris Commune was not enticed and failed to provide military support. They were arrested on March 13, were tried by the Revolutionary Tribunal and Hebert went to the guillotine on March 24. Carrier dodged this round of Revolutionary retribution only to be harvested in December.

During this moment, Robespierre would go on to defend his brand of Revolutionary violence under the Terror, which had a mere pretense of law:

If virtue be the spring of a popular government in times of peace, the spring of that government during a revolution is virtue combined with terror: virtue, without which terror is destructive; terror, without which virtue is impotent. Terror is only justice prompt, severe and inflexible; it is then an emanation of virtue; it is less a distinct principle than a natural consequence of the general principle of democracy, applied to the most pressing wants of the country ... The government in a revolution is the despotism of liberty against tyranny."

Two former political allies and associates of Robespierre would find themselves subject to the fierceness of the Terror. Georges Danton leader of the former Girondins, the remainder of whom were now termed Indulgents, and a boyhood friend, former classmate at the College Louis-le-Grand, Camille Desmoulins encountered the displeasure of the Montagnards. Danton and Desmoulins were contributing to a newspaper, Le Vieux Cordelier critical of the Terror, calling for the end of the de-Christianization campaign, negotiations to conclude the foreign wars, conclusion of the terror and personal attacks on Robespierre. This alienated the members of the Committee of Public Safety. Robespierre deemed them to be misguided and during the Terror that could only me one thing. They would be guillotined on April 5, 1794.

Thus Robespierre had dispatched opposition on the Left and the Right; under the axiom I am myself, the people. He embodied the Revolution. The fanatic will abandon principles to achieve the objective; all measures no matter how extreme are salutary when directed against the enemies of the Revolution! They ignore that their own draconian measures and bungling policies created much of the opposition in the first place.

On May 7 Robespierre made his speech on the Cult of the Supreme Being. He thought a full scale campaign by the atheists to suppress Christianity would cause too much opposition, be counterproductive and possibly de-rail the Revolution. In addition he espouses the thoughts of Rousseau, his intellectual founder, by saying, “Nature tells us that Man is born for freedom, and the experience of the centuries shows us Man enslaved. His rights are inscribed in his heart, and his humiliation in history…”. (Note the stark contrast to the American Constitution where inalienable rights are from God and does not rely on the putative justice of the public or the forbearance of the State.)

 In this speech Robespierre offers his State sponsored religious alternative. State backed festivals, directed towards the Divine Being, could inspire the citizenry to patriotic virtue and devotion to the Revolution. Belief in a Divine Being and a higher moral code, he said, were "constant reminders of justice" and thus essential to a republican society. These public festivals were conceived to replace the antiquated, outdated Catholic religious rituals.

The promotion of a Civic Deity culminated at the Festival of Supreme Being on June 8, 1794. It is said nearly all of Paris turned out, some half a million Parisians. It was a colossal event. Nonetheless, there appears to have been some undercurrent of discontent, gauging by audible sneers and innuendo. A former member of the Committee of Public Safety, an ally of Danton, was heard to mutter: “Look at the bugger. It is not enough for him to be master. He has to be God.”

Robespierre here did the upmost to create a stupefying celebration. He employed the famous artist Jacques-Louis David to construct a colossal plaster of paris mountain some five stories high with a Liberty on top, a 2400 member chorus, a pageant to the Champ de Mars, all geared to impress the multitude. Despite the monumental effort cracks began to appear in Robespierre’s image; he had overdone things, reached too far in his effort to produce a religious cult of the Revolution.

Two days after the Festival the Convention passed the Law of 22 Prairial, written by Robespierre, that reduced the trial of anti-revolutionary suspects to a mere formality. It seems too many brought before Revolutionary Tribunal were being acquitted. Jails in Paris were filled to the brim. Under this law no defense attorney would be in attendance, nor evidence need be presented. Juries were to come to judgement entirely on the basis of the accusation and the accused's own defense. Among the charges 'slandering patriotism', 'seeking to inspire discouragement', 'spreading false news' and 'depraving morals, corrupting the public conscience and impairing the purity and energy of the revolutionary government'.

On June 26, 1794 a watershed battle was fought and won by the French Revolutionary army at Fleurus over the First Coalition (Britain, Hanover, Dutch Republic and Austria) that halted the immediate threat to the French Republic. France could take a breath from its enemies or could it? According to Robespierre danger continued to lurk in hidden internal enemies. The Terror would need to be continued.

There was beginning to be dissension in the Committee of Public Safety; there were those on the Committee fearful of Robespierre. Those connected to the Hebertists (largely struck down by the guillotine) were anxious because of the associations and those associated with Joseph Fouche (member of the Jacobin Club), who led a brutal repression in Lyon of those deemed to be enemies of the Revolution, as well had reason to wonder if they would be next. Agents of the Committee like Fouche and Carrier who were overzealous in their repressions were right to be uneasy. Robespierre, despite his advocacy of continued Terror, looked askance at these butchers, who gave the Revolution a bad name. Incidentally, Carrier and Fouche had shared wine and poetry six years earlier with Robespierre, who you have noted saw his classmate, Desmoulins go under the blade. When Fouche mocked Robespierre’s Festival of the Supreme Being, Robespierre exchanged an angry message with him and then Robespierre attempted to throw him out of the Club June 14. Fouche, in hiding, actively worked to gather support against him.

On June 28 a stormy argument took place within the joint meeting of the Committee of Public Safety and General Security (police).  Carnot, an associate on the Committee of Public Safety, delegated to  military matters, accused Robespierre and his co-delegate, Saint Just, (adept on military matters) of being ridiculous dictators. Robespierre stormed out and didn’t attend the Committee for a month. He did attend the Jacobin Club sporadically and made a speech on July 9, outlining the threats to the Revolutionary Government, responding to calls to relax vigilance. The vigilance (Terror) couldn’t cease until “execution of the laws of nature, which require that every man be just, and in virtue, the fundamental basis of society”. Man would need to become more virtuous before this Terror would end, it seems.

Under the new Law of 22 Prairial convictions increased. 726 were guillotined between June 19 and July 18, nearly doubling the number. That is only one out of five were ruled innocent as opposed to prior when about half.

During the month of July absent the Convention, Robespierre ordered the release of 320 suspects in the department of Aube, the recall of nine other deputies-on-mission (carrying out the dictates of the Committee of Public Safety in the departments), and expulsion of Fouche from the Jacobin. As already stated these raised the suspicions of the many nervous there would be a purge of those who had been excessive in their repression of anti-revolutionary elements. Robespierre had continued to meet with those on board of the Revolutionary Tribunal (court of those put on trial for revolutionary offenses) and continued to order some arrests. The divisions on the Committee were becoming more heated. Several attacking Robespierre and Saint Just for their utopianism.

On 23 July the Commune published a new wage maximum, limiting the wages of employees (in some cases by half) and provoking a sharp protest in the sections. Almost all the workers in Paris were on strike. This could not have endeared the sans-culottes to the Commune. This would have import shortly.

On July 26, after nearly a month’s absence, he addressed the Convention in a largely vague two hour speech. He reaffirmed his belief in virtue.

Virtue is a natural passion no doubt… this profound horror of tyranny, this sympathetic zeal for the oppressed , this sacred love of the patrie, this most sublime and most holy love of humanity….you can feel it at this very moment burning in your souls; I feel it in mine…

The crisis was not over, he would declaim. He repeated that there was a criminal conspiracy a foot that reached into the Convention and even into the Committees. He distanced himself from the innocents that had fallen under the guillotine, claiming instead his enemies had wanted to place the blame on him.

This speech put everyone on edge. He hadn’t named names. All were suspect. Robespierre delivered the same speech at the Jacobin Club that evening.

The next day on July 27 (9 Thermidor) there was upheaval in the Convention when first Saint Just attempted to speak then Robespierre stepped to the podium. Shouts were heard “down with the tyrant!” He was silenced with cries of “Down with him! Down with him!” He was not allowed to speak. Others shouted, “It’s Danton’s blood that is choking him”, as he struggled in shock to speak. The Convention arrested Robespierre, his brother Augustin, Saint Just and two other delegates of the Committee of the Public Safety, among other arrestees. They were eventually sent to various prisons, but no one wanted to risk taking them. They found their way to the Hotel de Ville. And here Hanriot (leader of the militia of the sections), Paris’ mayor and others summoned a special meeting of the Commune then called the National Guard and closed the city gates. A call went out to the forty eight sections to mobilize. Only thirteen Sections responded but those couldn’t be persuaded to march on the Convention. Execution of the Hebertists and the faction represented by Danton and Desmoulins (Robespierre’s boyhood friend) severed connection between the sans-culottes and the Convention.

As for the Convention it declared the five delegates lawbreakers. It collected armed forces of its own. The Parisian sections (the Paris mob) had melted away in front of the Hotel de Ville by this time. In the midst of signing his frantic petition to his Sections des Piques, Robespierre was interrupted. The document was blood spattered. Robespierre’s section chose to ignore the call to arms. This lack of response would not be a complete surprise, since the Jacobins had been attempting to reduce the influence of the Parisian Sections and their political clubs by eliminating the Herbertists (Left Opposition) and restricting the Sections to meet only 2 times a Revolutionary Ten day week. The Convention in efforts to dilute the fervor of the sections began to pay attendees, insuring participation of less zealous attendees.

The Convention’s forces broke in the Hotel de Ville to arrest the delegates once again at 2:30 AM. An associate LeBas, a former Convention’s Commissioner to the armies, had two pistols and committed suicide. It’s seems plausible that Robespierre used one of them and attempted the same, only shattering his left cheek, teeth and jaw in the process. At 3:30 AM he was taken to a waiting room at the Convention. At 5 AM he was administered bandages to soak up the blood. He was taken to be condemned to death at 11:00 AM, where he could only moan in response to the accusations. Twenty one other prisoners accompanied him at 6:00PM in three carts by a long journey through taunting crowds to the guillotine. At 7:30 PM the executions would begin. He would be 21st to die. Just before his seventeen hours of torture would be ended, his bandages were ripped off; he gave out a hideous scream of agony. The pain would end when his head fell into the basket. His younger brother, Augustin, joined him under the guillotine.