The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle

Chapter 5

Stretching of Formulas.

But how this Question of the Trial grew laboriously, through the weeks of gestation, now that it has been articulated or conceived, were superfluous to trace here. It emerged and submerged among the infinite of questions and embroilments. The Veto of Scoundrels writes plaintive Letters as to Anarchy; ‘concealed Royalists,’ aided by Hunger, produce Riots about Grain. Alas, it is but a week ago, these Girondins made a new fierce onslaught on the September Massacres!

For, one day, among the last of October, Robespierre, being summoned to the tribune by some new hint of that old calumny of the Dictatorship, was speaking and pleading there, with more and more comfort to himself; till, rising high in heart, he cried out valiantly: Is there any man here that dare specifically accuse me? “Moi!” exclaimed one. Pause of deep silence: a lean angry little Figure, with broad bald brow, strode swiftly towards the tribune, taking papers from its pocket: “I accuse thee, Robespierre,” — I, Jean Baptiste Louvet! The Seagreen became tallow-green; shrinking to a corner of the tribune: Danton cried, “Speak, Robespierre, there are many good citizens that listen;” but the tongue refused its office. And so Louvet, with a shrill tone, read and recited crime after crime: dictatorial temper, exclusive popularity, bullying at elections, mob-retinue, September Massacres; — till all the Convention shrieked again, and had almost indicted the Incorruptible there on the spot. Never did the Incorruptible run such a risk. Louvet, to his dying day, will regret that the Gironde did not take a bolder attitude, and extinguish him there and then.

Not so, however: the Incorruptible, about to be indicted in this sudden manner, could not be refused a week of delay. That week, he is not idle; nor is the Mother Society idle, — fierce-tremulous for her chosen son. He is ready at the day with his written Speech; smooth as a Jesuit Doctor’s; and convinces some. And now? Why, now lazy Vergniaud does not rise with Demosthenic thunder; poor Louvet, unprepared, can do little or nothing: Barrere proposes that these comparatively despicable ‘personalities’ be dismissed by order of the day! Order of the day it accordingly is. Barbaroux cannot even get a hearing; not though he rush down to the Bar, and demand to be heard there as a petitioner. (Louvet, Memoires (Paris, 1823) p. 52; Moniteur (Seances du 29 Octobre, 5 Novembre, 1792); Moore (ii. 178), &c.) The convention, eager for public business (with that first articulate emergence of the Trial just coming on), dismisses these comparative miseres and despicabilities: splenetic Louvet must digest his spleen, regretfully for ever: Robespierre, dear to Patriotism, is dearer for the dangers he has run.

This is the second grand attempt by our Girondin Friends of Order, to extinguish that black-spot in their domain; and we see they have made it far blacker and wider than before! Anarchy, September Massacre: it is a thing that lies hideous in the general imagination; very detestable to the undecided Patriot, of Respectability: a thing to be harped on as often as need is. Harp on it, denounce it, trample it, ye Girondin Patriots:— and yet behold, the black-spot will not trample down; it will only, as we say, trample blacker and wider: fools, it is no black-spot of the surface, but a well-spring of the deep! Consider rightly, it is the apex of the everlasting Abyss, this black-spot, looking up as water through thin ice; — say, as the region of Nether Darkness through your thin film of Gironde Regulation and Respectability; trample it not, lest the film break, and then —!

The truth is, if our Gironde Friends had an understanding of it, where were French Patriotism, with all its eloquence, at this moment, had not that same great Nether Deep, of Bedlam, Fanaticism and Popular wrath and madness, risen unfathomable on the Tenth of August? French Patriotism were an eloquent Reminiscence; swinging on Prussian gibbets. Nay, where, in few months, were it still, should the same great Nether Deep subside? — Nay, as readers of Newspapers pretend to recollect, this hatefulness of the September Massacre is itself partly an after-thought: readers of Newspapers can quote Gorsas and various Brissotins approving of the September Massacre, at the time it happened; and calling it a salutary vengeance! (See Hist. Parl. xvii. 401; Newspapers by Gorsas and others, cited ibid. 428.) So that the real grief, after all, were not so much righteous horror, as grief that one’s own power was departing? Unhappy Girondins!

In the Jacobin Society, therefore, the decided Patriot complains that here are men who with their private ambitions and animosities, will ruin Liberty, Equality, and Brotherhood, all three: they check the spirit of Patriotism, throw stumbling-blocks in its way; and instead of pushing on, all shoulders at the wheel, will stand idle there, spitefully clamouring what foul ruts there are, what rude jolts we give! To which the Jacobin Society answers with angry roar; — with angry shriek, for there are Citoyennes too, thick crowded in the galleries here. Citoyennes who bring their seam with them, or their knitting-needles; and shriek or knit as the case needs; famed Tricoteuses, Patriot Knitters; — Mere Duchesse, or the like Deborah and Mother of the Faubourgs, giving the keynote. It is a changed Jacobin Society; and a still changing. Where Mother Duchess now sits, authentic Duchesses have sat. High-rouged dames went once in jewels and spangles; now, instead of jewels, you may take the knitting-needles and leave the rouge: the rouge will gradually give place to natural brown, clean washed or even unwashed; and Demoiselle Theroigne herself get scandalously fustigated. Strange enough: it is the same tribune raised in mid-air, where a high Mirabeau, a high Barnave and Aristocrat Lameths once thundered: whom gradually your Brissots, Guadets, Vergniauds, a hotter style of Patriots in bonnet rouge, did displace; red heat, as one may say, superseding light. And now your Brissots in turn, and Brissotins, Rolandins, Girondins, are becoming supernumerary; must desert the sittings, or be expelled: the light of the Mighty Mother is burning not red but blue! — Provincial Daughter–Societies loudly disapprove these things; loudly demand the swift reinstatement of such eloquent Girondins, the swift ‘erasure of Marat, radiation de Marat.’ The Mother Society, so far as natural reason can predict, seems ruining herself. Nevertheless she has, at all crises, seemed so; she has a preternatural life in her, and will not ruin.

But, in a fortnight more, this great Question of the Trial, while the fit Committee is assiduously but silently working on it, receives an unexpected stimulus. Our readers remember poor Louis’s turn for smithwork: how, in old happier days, a certain Sieur Gamain of Versailles was wont to come over, and instruct him in lock-making; — often scolding him, they say for his numbness. By whom, nevertheless, the royal Apprentice had learned something of that craft. Hapless Apprentice; perfidious Master–Smith! For now, on this 20th of November 1792, dingy Smith Gamain comes over to the Paris Municipality, over to Minister Roland, with hints that he, Smith Gamain, knows a thing; that, in May last, when traitorous Correspondence was so brisk, he and the royal Apprentice fabricated an ‘Iron Press, Armoire de Fer,’ cunningly inserting the same in a wall of the royal chamber in the Tuileries; invisible under the wainscot; where doubtless it still sticks! Perfidious Gamain, attended by the proper Authorities, finds the wainscot panel which none else can find; wrenches it up; discloses the Iron Press, — full of Letters and Papers! Roland clutches them out; conveys them over in towels to the fit assiduous Committee, which sits hard by. In towels, we say, and without notarial inventory; an oversight on the part of Roland.

Here, however, are Letters enough: which disclose to a demonstration the Correspondence of a traitorous self-preserving Court; and this not with Traitors only, but even with Patriots, so-called! Barnave’s treason, of Correspondence with the Queen, and friendly advice to her, ever since that Varennes Business, is hereby manifest: how happy that we have him, this Barnave, lying safe in the Prison of Grenoble, since September last, for he had long been suspect! Talleyrand’s treason, many a man’s treason, if not manifest hereby, is next to it. Mirabeau’s treason: wherefore his Bust in the Hall of the Convention ‘is veiled with gauze,’ till we ascertain. Alas, it is too ascertainable! His Bust in the Hall of the Jacobins, denounced by Robespierre from the tribune in mid-air, is not veiled, it is instantly broken to sherds; a Patriot mounting swiftly with a ladder, and shivering it down on the floor; — it and others: amid shouts. (Journal des Debats des Jacobins in Hist. Parl. xxii. 296.) Such is their recompense and amount of wages, at this date: on the principle of supply and demand! Smith Gamain, inadequately recompensed for the present, comes, some fifteen months after, with a humble Petition; setting forth that no sooner was that important Iron Press finished off by him, than (as he now bethinks himself) Louis gave him a large glass of wine. Which large glass of wine did produce in the stomach of Sieur Gamain the terriblest effects, evidently tending towards death, and was then brought up by an emetic; but has, notwithstanding, entirely ruined the constitution of Sieur Gamain; so that he cannot work for his family (as he now bethinks himself). The recompense of which is ‘Pension of Twelve Hundred Francs,’ and ‘honourable mention.’ So different is the ratio of demand and supply at different times.

Thus, amid obstructions and stimulating furtherances, has the Question of the Trial to grow; emerging and submerging; fostered by solicitous Patriotism. Of the Orations that were spoken on it, of the painfully devised Forms of Process for managing it, the Law Arguments to prove it lawful, and all the infinite floods of Juridical and other ingenuity and oratory, be no syllable reported in this History. Lawyer ingenuity is good: but what can it profit here? If the truth must be spoken, O august Senators, the only Law in this case is: Vae victis, the loser pays! Seldom did Robespierre say a wiser word than the hint he gave to that effect, in his oration, that it was needless to speak of Law, that here, if never elsewhere, our Right was Might. An oration admired almost to ecstasy by the Jacobin Patriot: who shall say that Robespierre is not a thorough-going man; bold in Logic at least? To the like effect, or still more plainly, spake young Saint–Just, the black-haired, mild-toned youth. Danton is on mission, in the Netherlands, during this preliminary work. The rest, far as one reads, welter amid Law of Nations, Social Contract, Juristics, Syllogistics; to us barren as the East wind. In fact, what can be more unprofitable than the sight of Seven Hundred and Forty-nine ingenious men, struggling with their whole force and industry, for a long course of weeks, to do at bottom this: To stretch out the old Formula and Law Phraseology, so that it may cover the new, contradictory, entirely uncoverable Thing? Whereby the poor Formula does but crack, and one’s honesty along with it! The thing that is palpably hot, burning, wilt thou prove it, by syllogism, to be a freezing-mixture? This of stretching out Formulas till they crack is, especially in times of swift change, one of the sorrowfullest tasks poor Humanity has.

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