The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle

Chapter 6

The Circular.

But the Constituted Authorities, all this while? The Legislative Assembly; the Six Ministers; the Townhall; Santerre with the National Guard? — It is very curious to think what a City is. Theatres, to the number of some twenty-three, were open every night during these prodigies: while right-arms here grew weary with slaying, right-arms there are twiddledeeing on melodious catgut; at the very instant when Abbe Sicard was clambering up his second pair of shoulders, three-men high, five hundred thousand human individuals were lying horizontal, as if nothing were amiss.

As for the poor Legislative, the sceptre had departed from it. The Legislative did send Deputation to the Prisons, to the Street–Courts; and poor M. Dusaulx did harangue there; but produced no conviction whatsoever: nay, at last, as he continued haranguing, the Street–Court interposed, not without threats; and he had to cease, and withdraw. This is the same poor worthy old M. Dusaulx who told, or indeed almost sang (though with cracked voice), the Taking of the Bastille, — to our satisfaction long since. He was wont to announce himself, on such and on all occasions, as the Translator of Juvenal. “Good Citizens, you see before you a man who loves his country, who is the Translator of Juvenal,” said he once. — “Juvenal?” interrupts Sansculottism: “who the devil is Juvenal? One of your sacres Aristocrates? To the Lanterne!” From an orator of this kind, conviction was not to be expected. The Legislative had much ado to save one of its own Members, or Ex–Members, Deputy Journeau, who chanced to be lying in arrest for mere Parliamentary delinquencies, in these Prisons. As for poor old Dusaulx and Company, they returned to the Salle de Manege, saying, “It was dark; and they could not see well what was going on.” (Moniteur, Debate of 2nd September, 1792.)

Roland writes indignant messages, in the name of Order, Humanity, and the Law; but there is no Force at his disposal. Santerre’s National Force seems lazy to rise; though he made requisitions, he says, — which always dispersed again. Nay did not we, with Advocate Maton’s eyes, see ‘men in uniform,’ too, with their ‘sleeves bloody to the shoulder?’ Petion goes in tricolor scarf; speaks “the austere language of the law:” the killers give up, while he is there; when his back is turned, recommence. Manuel too in scarf we, with Maton’s eyes, transiently saw haranguing, in the Court called of Nurses, Cour des Nourrices. On the other hand, cruel Billaud, likewise in scarf, ‘with that small puce coat and black wig we are used to on him,’ (Mehee, Fils ut supra, in Hist. Parl. xviii. p. 189.) audibly delivers, ‘standing among corpses,’ at the Abbaye, a short but ever-memorable harangue, reported in various phraseology, but always to this purpose: “Brave Citizens, you are extirpating the Enemies of Liberty; you are at your duty. A grateful Commune, and Country, would wish to recompense you adequately; but cannot, for you know its want of funds. Whoever shall have worked (travaille) in a Prison shall receive a draft of one louis, payable by our cashier. Continue your work.” (Montgaillard, iii. 191.) — The Constituted Authorities are of yesterday; all pulling different ways: there is properly not Constituted Authority, but every man is his own King; and all are kinglets, belligerent, allied, or armed-neutral, without king over them.

‘O everlasting infamy,’ exclaims Montgaillard, ‘that Paris stood looking on in stupor for four days, and did not interfere!’ Very desirable indeed that Paris had interfered; yet not unnatural that it stood even so, looking on in stupor. Paris is in death-panic, the enemy and gibbets at its door: whosoever in Paris has the heart to front death finds it more pressing to do it fighting the Prussians, than fighting the killers of Aristocrats. Indignant abhorrence, as in Roland, may be here; gloomy sanction, premeditation or not, as in Marat and Committee of Salvation, may be there; dull disapproval, dull approval, and acquiescence in Necessity and Destiny, is the general temper. The Sons of Darkness, ‘two hundred or so,’ risen from their lurking-places, have scope to do their work. Urged on by fever-frenzy of Patriotism, and the madness of Terror; — urged on by lucre, and the gold louis of wages? Nay, not lucre: for the gold watches, rings, money of the Massacred, are punctually brought to the Townhall, by Killers sans-indispensables, who higgle afterwards for their twenty shillings of wages; and Sergent sticking an uncommonly fine agate on his finger (‘fully meaning to account for it’), becomes Agate–Sergent. But the temper, as we say, is dull acquiescence. Not till the Patriotic or Frenetic part of the work is finished for want of material; and Sons of Darkness, bent clearly on lucre alone, begin wrenching watches and purses, brooches from ladies’ necks ‘to equip volunteers,’ in daylight, on the streets, — does the temper from dull grow vehement; does the Constable raise his truncheon, and striking heartily (like a cattle-driver in earnest) beat the ‘course of things’ back into its old regulated drove-roads. The Garde–Meuble itself was surreptitiously plundered, on the 17th of the Month, to Roland’s new horror; who anew bestirs himself, and is, as Sieyes says, ‘the veto of scoundrels,’ Roland veto des coquins. (Helen Maria Williams, iii. 27.) —

This is the September Massacre, otherwise called ‘Severe Justice of the People.’ These are the Septemberers (Septembriseurs); a name of some note and lucency, — but lucency of the Nether-fire sort; very different from that of our Bastille Heroes, who shone, disputable by no Friend of Freedom, as in heavenly light-radiance: to such phasis of the business have we advanced since then! The numbers massacred are, in Historical fantasy, ‘between two and three thousand;’ or indeed they are ‘upwards of six thousand,’ for Peltier (in vision) saw them massacring the very patients of the Bicetre Madhouse ‘with grape-shot;’ nay finally they are ‘twelve thousand’ and odd hundreds, — not more than that. (See Hist. Parl. xvii. 421, 422.) In Arithmetical ciphers, and Lists drawn up by accurate Advocate Maton, the number, including two hundred and two priests, three ‘persons unknown,’ and ‘one thief killed at the Bernardins,’ is, as above hinted, a Thousand and Eighty-nine, — no less than that.

A thousand and eighty-nine lie dead, ‘two hundred and sixty heaped carcasses on the Pont au Change’ itself; — among which, Robespierre pleading afterwards will ‘nearly weep’ to reflect that there was said to be one slain innocent. (Moniteur of 6th November, Debate of 5th November, 1793.) One; not two, O thou seagreen Incorruptible? If so, Themis Sansculotte must be lucky; for she was brief! — In the dim Registers of the Townhall, which are preserved to this day, men read, with a certain sickness of heart, items and entries not usual in Town Books: ‘To workers employed in preserving the salubrity of the air in the Prisons, and persons ‘who presided over these dangerous operations,’ so much, — in various items, nearly seven hundred pounds sterling. To carters employed to ‘the Burying-grounds of Clamart, Montrouge, and Vaugirard,’ at so much a journey, per cart; this also is an entry. Then so many francs and odd sous ‘for the necessary quantity of quick-lime!’ (Etat des sommes payees par la Commune de Paris, Hist. Parl. xviii. 231.) Carts go along the streets; full of stript human corpses, thrown pellmell; limbs sticking up:— seest thou that cold Hand sticking up, through the heaped embrace of brother corpses, in its yellow paleness, in its cold rigour; the palm opened towards Heaven, as if in dumb prayer, in expostulation de profundis, Take pity on the Sons of Men! — Mercier saw it, as he walked down ‘the Rue Saint–Jacques from Montrouge, on the morrow of the Massacres:’ but not a Hand; it was a Foot, — which he reckons still more significant, one understands not well why. Or was it as the Foot of one spurning Heaven? Rushing, like a wild diver, in disgust and despair, towards the depths of Annihilation? Even there shall His hand find thee, and His right-hand hold thee, — surely for right not for wrong, for good not evil! ‘I saw that Foot,’ says Mercier; ‘I shall know it again at the great Day of Judgment, when the Eternal, throned on his thunders, shall judge both Kings and Septemberers.’ (Mercier, Nouveau Paris, vi. 21.)

That a shriek of inarticulate horror rose over this thing, not only from French Aristocrats and Moderates, but from all Europe, and has prolonged itself to the present day, was most natural and right. The thing lay done, irrevocable; a thing to be counted besides some other things, which lie very black in our Earth’s Annals, yet which will not erase therefrom. For man, as was remarked, has transcendentalisms in him; standing, as he does, poor creature, every way ‘in the confluence of Infinitudes;’ a mystery to himself and others: in the centre of two Eternities, of three Immensities, — in the intersection of primeval Light with the everlasting dark! Thus have there been, especially by vehement tempers reduced to a state of desperation, very miserable things done. Sicilian Vespers, and ‘eight thousand slaughtered in two hours,’ are a known thing. Kings themselves, not in desperation, but only in difficulty, have sat hatching, for year and day (nay De Thou says, for seven years), their Bartholomew Business; and then, at the right moment, also on an Autumn Sunday, this very Bell (they say it is the identical metal) of St. Germain l’Auxerrois was set a-pealing — with effect. (9th to 13th September, 1572, Dulaure, Hist. de Paris, iv. 289.) Nay the same black boulder-stones of these Paris Prisons have seen Prison-massacres before now; men massacring countrymen, Burgundies massacring Armagnacs, whom they had suddenly imprisoned, till as now there are piled heaps of carcasses, and the streets ran red; — the Mayor Petion of the time speaking the austere language of the law, and answered by the Killers, in old French (it is some four hundred years old): “Maugre bieu, Sire, — Sir, God’s malison on your justice, your pity, your right reason. Cursed be of God whoso shall have pity on these false traitorous Armagnacs, English; dogs they are; they have destroyed us, wasted this realm of France, and sold it to the English.” (Dulaure, iii. 494.) And so they slay, and fling aside the slain, to the extent of ‘fifteen hundred and eighteen, among whom are found four Bishops of false and damnable counsel, and two Presidents of Parlement.’ For though it is not Satan’s world this that we live in, Satan always has his place in it (underground properly); and from time to time bursts up. Well may mankind shriek, inarticulately anathematising as they can. There are actions of such emphasis that no shrieking can be too emphatic for them. Shriek ye; acted have they.

Shriek who might in this France, in this Paris Legislative or Paris Townhall, there are Ten Men who do not shriek. A Circular goes out from the Committee of Salut Public, dated 3rd of September 1792; directed to all Townhalls: a State-paper too remarkable to be overlooked. ‘A part of the ferocious conspirators detained in the Prisons,’ it says, ‘have been put to death by the People; and it,’ the Circular, ‘cannot doubt but the whole Nation, driven to the edge of ruin by such endless series of treasons, will make haste to adopt this means of public salvation; and all Frenchmen will cry as the men of Paris: We go to fight the enemy, but we will not leave robbers behind us, to butcher our wives and children.’ To which are legibly appended these signatures: Panis, Sergent; Marat, Friend of the People; (Hist. Parl. xvii. 433.) with Seven others; — carried down thereby, in a strange way, to the late remembrance of Antiquarians. We remark, however, that their Circular rather recoiled on themselves. The Townhalls made no use of it; even the distracted Sansculottes made little; they only howled and bellowed, but did not bite. At Rheims ‘about eight persons’ were killed; and two afterwards were hanged for doing it. At Lyons, and a few other places, some attempt was made; but with hardly any effect, being quickly put down.

Less fortunate were the Prisoners of Orleans; was the good Duke de la Rochefoucault. He journeying, by quick stages, with his Mother and Wife, towards the Waters of Forges, or some quieter country, was arrested at Gisors; conducted along the streets, amid effervescing multitudes, and killed dead ‘by the stroke of a paving-stone hurled through the coach-window.’ Killed as a once Liberal now Aristocrat; Protector of Priests, Suspender of virtuous Petions, and his unfortunate Hot-grown-cold, detestable to Patriotism. He dies lamented of Europe; his blood spattering the cheeks of his old Mother, ninety-three years old.

As for the Orleans Prisoners, they are State Criminals: Royalist Ministers, Delessarts, Montmorins; who have been accumulating on the High Court of Orleans, ever since that Tribunal was set up. Whom now it seems good that we should get transferred to our new Paris Court of the Seventeenth; which proceeds far quicker. Accordingly hot Fournier from Martinique, Fournier l’Americain, is off, missioned by Constituted Authority; with stanch National Guards, with Lazouski the Pole; sparingly provided with road-money. These, through bad quarters, through difficulties, perils, for Authorities cross each other in this time, — do triumphantly bring off the Fifty or Fifty-three Orleans Prisoners, towards Paris; where a swifter Court of the Seventeenth will do justice on them. (Ibid. xvii. 434.) But lo, at Paris, in the interim, a still swifter and swiftest Court of the Second, and of September, has instituted itself: enter not Paris, or that will judge you! — What shall hot Fournier do? It was his duty, as volunteer Constable, had he been a perfect character, to guard those men’s lives never so Aristocratic, at the expense of his own valuable life never so Sansculottic, till some Constituted Court had disposed of them. But he was an imperfect character and Constable; perhaps one of the more imperfect.

Hot Fournier, ordered to turn thither by one Authority, to turn thither by another Authority, is in a perplexing multiplicity of orders; but finally he strikes off for Versailles. His Prisoners fare in tumbrils, or open carts, himself and Guards riding and marching around: and at the last village, the worthy Mayor of Versailles comes to meet him, anxious that the arrival and locking up were well over. It is Sunday, the ninth day of the month. Lo, on entering the Avenue of Versailles, what multitudes, stirring, swarming in the September sun, under the dull-green September foliage; the Four-rowed Avenue all humming and swarming, as if the Town had emptied itself! Our tumbrils roll heavily through the living sea; the Guards and Fournier making way with ever more difficulty; the Mayor speaking and gesturing his persuasivest; amid the inarticulate growling hum, which growls ever the deeper even by hearing itself growl, not without sharp yelpings here and there:— Would to God we were out of this strait place, and wind and separation had cooled the heat, which seems about igniting here!

And yet if the wide Avenue is too strait, what will the Street de Surintendance be, at leaving of the same? At the corner of Surintendance Street, the compressed yelpings became a continuous yell: savage figures spring on the tumbril-shafts; first spray of an endless coming tide! The Mayor pleads, pushes, half-desperate; is pushed, carried off in men’s arms: the savage tide has entrance, has mastery. Amid horrid noise, and tumult as of fierce wolves, the Prisoners sink massacred, — all but some eleven, who escaped into houses, and found mercy. The Prisons, and what other Prisoners they held, were with difficulty saved. The stript clothes are burnt in bonfire; the corpses lie heaped in the ditch on the morrow morning. (Pieces officielles relatives au massacre des Prisonniers a Versailles in Hist. Parl. xviii. 236–249.) All France, except it be the Ten Men of the Circular and their people, moans and rages, inarticulately shrieking; all Europe rings.

But neither did Danton shriek; though, as Minister of Justice, it was more his part to do so. Brawny Danton is in the breach, as of stormed Cities and Nations; amid the Sweep of Tenth-of-August cannon, the rustle of Prussian gallows-ropes, the smiting of September sabres; destruction all round him, and the rushing-down of worlds: Minister of Justice is his name; but Titan of the Forlorn Hope, and Enfant Perdu of the Revolution, is his quality, — and the man acts according to that. “We must put our enemies in fear!” Deep fear, is it not, as of its own accord, falling on our enemies? The Titan of the Forlorn Hope, he is not the man that would swiftest of all prevent its so falling. Forward, thou lost Titan of an Enfant Perdu; thou must dare, and again dare, and without end dare; there is nothing left for thee but that! “Que mon nom soit fletri, Let my name be blighted:” what am I? The Cause alone is great; and shall live, and not perish. — So, on the whole, here too is a swallower of Formulas; of still wider gulp than Mirabeau: this Danton, Mirabeau of the Sansculottes. In the September days, this Minister was not heard of as co-operating with strict Roland; his business might lie elsewhere, — with Brunswick and the Hotel-de-Ville. When applied to by an official person, about the Orleans Prisoners, and the risks they ran, he answered gloomily, twice over, “Are not these men guilty?” — When pressed, he ‘answered in a terrible voice,’ and turned his back. (Biographie des Ministres, p. 97.) Two Thousand slain in the Prisons; horrible if you will: but Brunswick is within a day’s journey of us; and there are Five-and twenty Millions yet, to slay or to save. Some men have tasks, — frightfuller than ours! It seems strange, but is not strange, that this Minister of Moloch–Justice, when any suppliant for a friend’s life got access to him, was found to have human compassion; and yielded and granted ‘always;’ ‘neither did one personal enemy of Danton perish in these days.’ (Ibid. p. 103.)

To shriek, we say, when certain things are acted, is proper and unavoidable. Nevertheless, articulate speech, not shrieking, is the faculty of man: when speech is not yet possible, let there be, with the shortest delay, at least — silence. Silence, accordingly, in this forty-fourth year of the business, and eighteen hundred and thirty-sixth of an ‘Era called Christian as lucus a non,’ is the thing we recommend and practise. Nay, instead of shrieking more, it were perhaps edifying to remark, on the other side, what a singular thing Customs (in Latin, Mores) are; and how fitly the Virtue, Vir-tus, Manhood or Worth, that is in a man, is called his Morality, or Customariness. Fell Slaughter, one the most authentic products of the Pit you would say, once give it Customs, becomes War, with Laws of War; and is Customary and Moral enough; and red individuals carry the tools of it girt round their haunches, not without an air of pride, — which do thou nowise blame. While, see! so long as it is but dressed in hodden or russet; and Revolution, less frequent than War, has not yet got its Laws of Revolution, but the hodden or russet individuals are Uncustomary — O shrieking beloved brother blockheads of Mankind, let us close those wide mouths of ours; let us cease shrieking, and begin considering!

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