The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle

Chapter 8

The Jacobins.

Nevertheless let not Patriotism despair. Have we not, in Paris at least, a virtuous Petion, a wholly Patriotic Municipality? Virtuous Petion, ever since November, is Mayor of Paris: in our Municipality, the Public, for the Public is now admitted too, may behold an energetic Danton; further, an epigrammatic slow-sure Manuel; a resolute unrepentant Billaud–Varennes, of Jesuit breeding; Tallien able-editor; and nothing but Patriots, better or worse. So ran the November Elections: to the joy of most citizens; nay the very Court supported Petion rather than Lafayette. And so Bailly and his Feuillants, long waning like the Moon, had to withdraw then, making some sorrowful obeisance, into extinction; — or indeed into worse, into lurid half-light, grimmed by the shadow of that Red Flag of theirs, and bitter memory of the Champ-de-Mars. How swift is the progress of things and men! Not now does Lafayette, as on that Federation-day, when his noon was, ‘press his sword firmly on the Fatherland’s Altar,’ and swear in sight of France: ah no; he, waning and setting ever since that hour, hangs now, disastrous, on the edge of the horizon; commanding one of those Three moulting Crane-flights of Armies, in a most suspected, unfruitful, uncomfortable manner!

But, at most, cannot Patriotism, so many thousands strong in this Metropolis of the Universe, help itself? Has it not right-hands, pikes? Hammering of pikes, which was not to be prohibited by Mayor Bailly, has been sanctioned by Mayor Petion; sanctioned by Legislative Assembly. How not, when the King’s so-called Constitutional Guard ‘was making cartridges in secret?’ Changes are necessary for the National Guard itself; this whole Feuillant–Aristocrat Staff of the Guard must be disbanded. Likewise, citizens without uniform may surely rank in the Guard, the pike beside the musket, in such a time: the ‘active’ citizen and the passive who can fight for us, are they not both welcome? — O my Patriot friends, indubitably Yes! Nay the truth is, Patriotism throughout, were it never so white-frilled, logical, respectable, must either lean itself heartily on Sansculottism, the black, bottomless; or else vanish, in the frightfullest way, to Limbo! Thus some, with upturned nose, will altogether sniff and disdain Sansculottism; others will lean heartily on it; nay others again will lean what we call heartlessly on it: three sorts; each sort with a destiny corresponding. (Discours de Bailly, Reponse de Petion (Moniteur du 20 Novembre 1791).)

In such point of view, however, have we not for the present a Volunteer Ally, stronger than all the rest: namely, Hunger? Hunger; and what rushing of Panic Terror this and the sum-total of our other miseries may bring! For Sansculottism grows by what all other things die of. Stupid Peter Baille almost made an epigram, though unconsciously, and with the Patriot world laughing not at it but at him, when he wrote ‘Tout va bien ici, le pain manque, All goes well here, victuals not to be had.’ (Barbaroux, p. 94.)

Neither, if you knew it, is Patriotism without her Constitution that can march; her not impotent Parliament; or call it, Ecumenic Council, and General–Assembly of the Jean–Jacques Churches: the MOTHER-SOCIETY, namely! Mother–Society with her three hundred full-grown Daughters; with what we can call little Granddaughters trying to walk, in every village of France, numerable, as Burke thinks, by the hundred thousand. This is the true Constitution; made not by Twelve–Hundred august Senators, but by Nature herself; and has grown, unconsciously, out of the wants and the efforts of these Twenty-five Millions of men. They are ‘Lords of the Articles,’ our Jacobins; they originate debates for the Legislative; discuss Peace and War; settle beforehand what the Legislative is to do. Greatly to the scandal of philosophical men, and of most Historians; — who do in that judge naturally, and yet not wisely. A Governing power must exist: your other powers here are simulacra; this power is it.

Great is the Mother–Society: She has had the honour to be denounced by Austrian Kaunitz; (Moniteur, Seance du 29 Mars, 1792.) and is all the dearer to Patriotism. By fortune and valour, she has extinguished Feuillantism itself, at least the Feuillant Club. This latter, high as it once carried its head, she, on the 18th of February, has the satisfaction to see shut, extinct; Patriots having gone thither, with tumult, to hiss it out of pain. The Mother Society has enlarged her locality, stretches now over the whole nave of the Church. Let us glance in, with the worthy Toulongeon, our old Ex–Constituent Friend, who happily has eyes to see: ‘The nave of the Jacobins Church,’ says he, ‘is changed into a vast Circus, the seats of which mount up circularly like an amphitheatre to the very groin of the domed roof. A high Pyramid of black marble, built against one of the walls, which was formerly a funeral monument, has alone been left standing: it serves now as back to the Office-bearers’ Bureau. Here on an elevated Platform sit President and Secretaries, behind and above them the white Busts of Mirabeau, of Franklin, and various others, nay finally of Marat. Facing this is the Tribune, raised till it is midway between floor and groin of the dome, so that the speaker’s voice may be in the centre. From that point, thunder the voices which shake all Europe: down below, in silence, are forging the thunderbolts and the firebrands. Penetrating into this huge circuit, where all is out of measure, gigantic, the mind cannot repress some movement of terror and wonder; the imagination recals those dread temples which Poetry, of old, had consecrated to the Avenging Deities.’ (Toulongeon, ii. 124.)

Scenes too are in this Jacobin Amphitheatre, — had History time for them. Flags of the ‘Three free Peoples of the Universe,’ trinal brotherly flags of England, America, France, have been waved here in concert; by London Deputation, of Whigs or Wighs and their Club, on this hand, and by young French Citizenesses on that; beautiful sweet-tongued Female Citizens, who solemnly send over salutation and brotherhood, also Tricolor stitched by their own needle, and finally Ears of Wheat; while the dome rebellows with Vivent les trois peuples libres! from all throats:— a most dramatic scene. Demoiselle Theroigne recites, from that Tribune in mid air, her persecutions in Austria; comes leaning on the arm of Joseph Chenier, Poet Chenier, to demand Liberty for the hapless Swiss of Chateau–Vieux. (Debats des Jacobins (Hist. Parl. xiii. 259, &c.).) Be of hope, ye Forty Swiss; tugging there, in the Brest waters; not forgotten!

Deputy Brissot perorates from that Tribune; Desmoulins, our wicked Camille, interjecting audibly from below, “Coquin!” Here, though oftener in the Cordeliers, reverberates the lion-voice of Danton; grim Billaud–Varennes is here; Collot d’Herbois, pleading for the Forty Swiss; tearing a passion to rags. Apophthegmatic Manuel winds up in this pithy way: “A Minister must perish!” — to which the Amphitheatre responds: “Tous, Tous, All, All!” But the Chief Priest and Speaker of this place, as we said, is Robespierre, the long-winded incorruptible man. What spirit of Patriotism dwelt in men in those times, this one fact, it seems to us, will evince: that fifteen hundred human creatures, not bound to it, sat quiet under the oratory of Robespierre; nay, listened nightly, hour after hour, applausive; and gaped as for the word of life. More insupportable individual, one would say, seldom opened his mouth in any Tribune. Acrid, implacable-impotent; dull-drawling, barren as the Harmattan-wind! He pleads, in endless earnest-shallow speech, against immediate War, against Woollen Caps or Bonnets Rouges, against many things; and is the Trismegistus and Dalai–Lama of Patriot men. Whom nevertheless a shrill-voiced little man, yet with fine eyes, and a broad beautifully sloping brow, rises respectfully to controvert: he is, say the Newspaper Reporters, ‘M. Louvet, Author of the charming Romance of Faublas.’ Steady, ye Patriots! Pull not yet two ways; with a France rushing panic-stricken in the rural districts, and a Cimmerian Europe storming in on you!

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Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:30