The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle

Chapter 5

Sansculottism Accoutred.

Let us look, however, at the grand internal Sansculottism and Revolution Prodigy, whether it stirs and waxes: there and not elsewhere hope may still be for France. The Revolution Prodigy, as Decree after Decree issues from the Mountain, like creative fiats, accordant with the nature of the Thing, — is shaping itself rapidly, in these days, into terrific stature and articulation, limb after limb. Last March, 1792, we saw all France flowing in blind terror; shutting town-barriers, boiling pitch for Brigands: happier, this March, that it is a seeing terror; that a creative Mountain exists, which can say fiat! Recruitment proceeds with fierce celerity: nevertheless our Volunteers hesitate to set out, till Treason be punished at home; they do not fly to the frontiers; but only fly hither and thither, demanding and denouncing. The Mountain must speak new fiat, and new fiats.

And does it not speak such? Take, as first example, those Comites Revolutionnaires for the arrestment of Persons Suspect. Revolutionary Committee, of Twelve chosen Patriots, sits in every Township of France; examining the Suspect, seeking arms, making domiciliary visits and arrestments; — caring, generally, that the Republic suffer no detriment. Chosen by universal suffrage, each in its Section, they are a kind of elixir of Jacobinism; some Forty-four Thousand of them awake and alive over France! In Paris and all Towns, every house-door must have the names of the inmates legibly printed on it, ‘at a height not exceeding five feet from the ground;’ every Citizen must produce his certificatory Carte de Civisme, signed by Section–President; every man be ready to give account of the faith that is in him. Persons Suspect had as well depart this soil of Liberty! And yet departure too is bad: all Emigrants are declared Traitors, their property become National; they are ‘dead in Law,’ — save indeed that for our behoof they shall ‘live yet fifty years in Law,’ and what heritages may fall to them in that time become National too! A mad vitality of Jacobinism, with Forty-four Thousand centres of activity, circulates through all fibres of France.

Very notable also is the Tribunal Extraordinaire: (Moniteur, No. 70, (du 11 Mars), No. 76, &c.) decreed by the Mountain; some Girondins dissenting, for surely such a Court contradicts every formula; — other Girondins assenting, nay co-operating, for do not we all hate Traitors, O ye people of Paris? — Tribunal of the Seventeenth in Autumn last was swift; but this shall be swifter. Five Judges; a standing Jury, which is named from Paris and the Neighbourhood, that there be not delay in naming it: they are subject to no Appeal; to hardly any Law-forms, but must ‘get themselves convinced’ in all readiest ways; and for security are bound ‘to vote audibly;’ audibly, in the hearing of a Paris Public. This is the Tribunal Extraordinaire; which, in few months, getting into most lively action, shall be entitled Tribunal Revolutionnaire, as indeed it from the very first has entitled itself: with a Herman or a Dumas for Judge President, with a Fouquier–Tinville for Attorney–General, and a Jury of such as Citizen Leroi, who has surnamed himself Dix–Aout, ‘Leroi August–Tenth,’ it will become the wonder of the world. Herein has Sansculottism fashioned for itself a Sword of Sharpness: a weapon magical; tempered in the Stygian hell-waters; to the edge of it all armour, and defence of strength or of cunning shall be soft; it shall mow down Lives and Brazen-gates; and the waving of it shed terror through the souls of men.

But speaking of an amorphous Sansculottism taking form, ought we not above all things to specify how the Amorphous gets itself a Head? Without metaphor, this Revolution Government continues hitherto in a very anarchic state. Executive Council of Ministers, Six in number, there is; but they, especially since Roland’s retreat, have hardly known whether they were Ministers or not. Convention Committees sit supreme over them; but then each Committee as supreme as the others: Committee of Twenty-one, of Defence, of General Surety; simultaneous or successive, for specific purposes. The Convention alone is all-powerful, — especially if the Commune go with it; but is too numerous for an administrative body. Wherefore, in this perilous quick-whirling condition of the Republic, before the end of March, we obtain our small Comite de Salut Public; (Moniteur, No. 83 (du 24 Mars 1793) Nos. 86, 98, 99, 100.) as it were, for miscellaneous accidental purposes, requiring despatch; — as it proves, for a sort of universal supervision, and universal subjection. They are to report weekly, these new Committee-men; but to deliberate in secret. Their number is Nine, firm Patriots all, Danton one of them: Renewable every month; — yet why not reelect them if they turn out well? The flower of the matter is that they are but nine; that they sit in secret. An insignificant-looking thing at first, this Committee; but with a principle of growth in it! Forwarded by fortune, by internal Jacobin energy, it will reduce all Committees and the Convention itself to mute obedience, the Six Ministers to Six assiduous Clerks; and work its will on the Earth and under Heaven, for a season. ‘A Committee of Public Salvation,’ whereat the world still shrieks and shudders.

If we call that Revolutionary Tribunal a Sword, which Sansculottism has provided for itself, then let us call the ‘Law of the Maximum,’ a Provender-scrip, or Haversack, wherein better or worse some ration of bread may be found. It is true, Political Economy, Girondin free-trade, and all law of supply and demand, are hereby hurled topsyturvy: but what help? Patriotism must live; the ‘cupidity of farmers’ seems to have no bowels. Wherefore this Law of the Maximum, fixing the highest price of grains, is, with infinite effort, got passed; (Moniteur, du 20 Avril, &c. to 20 Mai, 1793.) and shall gradually extend itself into a Maximum for all manner of comestibles and commodities: with such scrambling and topsyturvying as may be fancied! For now, if, for example, the farmer will not sell? The farmer shall be forced to sell. An accurate Account of what grain he has shall be delivered in to the Constituted Authorities: let him see that he say not too much; for in that case, his rents, taxes and contributions will rise proportionally: let him see that he say not too little; for, on or before a set day, we shall suppose in April, less than one-third of this declared quantity, must remain in his barns, more than two-thirds of it must have been thrashed and sold. One can denounce him, and raise penalties.

By such inextricable overturning of all Commercial relation will Sansculottism keep life in; since not otherwise. On the whole, as Camille Desmoulins says once, “while the Sansculottes fight, the Monsieurs must pay.” So there come Impots Progressifs, Ascending Taxes; which consume, with fast-increasing voracity, and ‘superfluous-revenue’ of men: beyond fifty-pounds a-year you are not exempt; rising into the hundreds you bleed freely; into the thousands and tens of thousands, you bleed gushing. Also there come Requisitions; there comes ‘Forced–Loan of a Milliard,’ some Fifty–Millions Sterling; which of course they that have must lend. Unexampled enough: it has grown to be no country for the Rich, this; but a country for the Poor! And then if one fly, what steads it? Dead in Law; nay kept alive fifty years yet, for their accursed behoof! In this manner, therefore, it goes; topsyturvying, ca-ira-ing; — and withal there is endless sale of Emigrant National–Property, there is Cambon with endless cornucopia of Assignats. The Trade and Finance of Sansculottism; and how, with Maximum and Bakers’-queues, with Cupidity, Hunger, Denunciation and Paper-money, it led its galvanic-life, and began and ended, — remains the most interesting of all Chapters in Political Economy: still to be written.

All which things are they not clean against Formula? O Girondin Friends, it is not a Republic of the Virtues we are getting; but only a Republic of the Strengths, virtuous and other!

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