The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle

Chapter 5

Like a Thunder–Cloud.

But the grand, and indeed substantially primary and generic aspect of the Consummation of Terror remains still to be looked at; nay blinkard History has for most part all but overlooked this aspect, the soul of the whole: that which makes it terrible to the Enemies of France. Let Despotism and Cimmerian Coalitions consider. All French men and French things are in a State of Requisition; Fourteen Armies are got on foot; Patriotism, with all that it has of faculty in heart or in head, in soul or body or breeches-pocket, is rushing to the frontiers, to prevail or die! Busy sits Carnot, in Salut Public; busy for his share, in ‘organising victory.’ Not swifter pulses that Guillotine, in dread systole-diastole in the Place de la Revolution, than smites the Sword of Patriotism, smiting Cimmeria back to its own borders, from the sacred soil.

In fact the Government is what we can call Revolutionary; and some men are ‘a la hauteur,’ on a level with the circumstances; and others are not a la hauteur, — so much the worse for them. But the Anarchy, we may say, has organised itself: Society is literally overset; its old forces working with mad activity, but in the inverse order; destructive and self-destructive.

Curious to see how all still refers itself to some head and fountain; not even an Anarchy but must have a centre to revolve round. It is now some six months since the Committee of Salut Public came into existence: some three months since Danton proposed that all power should be given it and ‘a sum of fifty millions,’ and the ‘Government be declared Revolutionary.’ He himself, since that day, would take no hand in it, though again and again solicited; but sits private in his place on the Mountain. Since that day, the Nine, or if they should even rise to Twelve have become permanent, always re-elected when their term runs out; Salut Public, Surete Generale have assumed their ulterior form and mode of operating.

Committee of Public Salvation, as supreme; of General Surety, as subaltern: these like a Lesser and Greater Council, most harmonious hitherto, have become the centre of all things. They ride this Whirlwind; they, raised by force of circumstances, insensibly, very strangely, thither to that dread height; — and guide it, and seem to guide it. Stranger set of Cloud–Compellers the Earth never saw. A Robespierre, a Billaud, a Collot, Couthon, Saint–Just; not to mention still meaner Amars, Vadiers, in Surete Generale: these are your Cloud–Compellers. Small intellectual talent is necessary: indeed where among them, except in the head of Carnot, busied organising victory, would you find any? The talent is one of instinct rather. It is that of divining aright what this great dumb Whirlwind wishes and wills; that of willing, with more frenzy than any one, what all the world wills. To stand at no obstacles; to heed no considerations human or divine; to know well that, of divine or human, there is one thing needful, Triumph of the Republic, Destruction of the Enemies of the Republic! With this one spiritual endowment, and so few others, it is strange to see how a dumb inarticulately storming Whirlwind of things puts, as it were, its reins into your hand, and invites and compels you to be leader of it.

Hard by, sits a Municipality of Paris; all in red nightcaps since the fourth of November last: a set of men fully ‘on a level with circumstances,’ or even beyond it. Sleek Mayor Pache, studious to be safe in the middle; Chaumettes, Heberts, Varlets, and Henriot their great Commandant; not to speak of Vincent the War-clerk, of Momoros, Dobsents, and such like: all intent to have Churches plundered, to have Reason adored, Suspects cut down, and the Revolution triumph. Perhaps carrying the matter too far? Danton was heard to grumble at the civic strophes; and to recommend prose and decency. Robespierre also grumbles that in overturning Superstition we did not mean to make a religion of Atheism. In fact, your Chaumette and Company constitute a kind of Hyper–Jacobinism, or rabid ‘Faction des Enrages;’ which has given orthodox Patriotism some umbrage, of late months. To ‘know a Suspect on the streets:’ what is this but bringing the Law of the Suspect itself into ill odour? Men half-frantic, men zealous overmuch, — they toil there, in their red nightcaps, restlessly, rapidly, accomplishing what of Life is allotted them.

And the Forty-four Thousand other Townships, each with revolutionary Committee, based on Jacobin Daughter Society; enlightened by the spirit of Jacobinism; quickened by the Forty Sous a-day! — The French Constitution spurned always at any thing like Two Chambers; and yet behold, has it not verily got Two Chambers? National Convention, elected for one; Mother of Patriotism, self-elected, for another! Mother of Patriotism has her Debates reported in the Moniteur, as important state-procedures; which indisputably they are. A Second Chamber of Legislature we call this Mother Society; — if perhaps it were not rather comparable to that old Scotch Body named Lords of the Articles, without whose origination, and signal given, the so-called Parliament could introduce no bill, could do no work? Robespierre himself, whose words are a law, opens his incorruptible lips copiously in the Jacobins Hall. Smaller Council of Salut Public, Greater Council of Surete Generale, all active Parties, come here to plead; to shape beforehand what decision they must arrive at, what destiny they have to expect. Now if a question arose, Which of those Two Chambers, Convention, or Lords of the Articles, was the stronger? Happily they as yet go hand in hand.

As for the National Convention, truly it has become a most composed Body. Quenched now the old effervescence; the Seventy-three locked in ward; once noisy Friends of the Girondins sunk all into silent men of the Plain, called even ‘Frogs of the Marsh,’ Crapauds du Marais! Addresses come, Revolutionary Church-plunder comes; Deputations, with prose, or strophes: these the Convention receives. But beyond this, the Convention has one thing mainly to do: to listen what Salut Public proposes, and say, Yea.

Bazire followed by Chabot, with some impetuosity, declared, one morning, that this was not the way of a Free Assembly. “There ought to be an Opposition side, a Cote Droit,” cried Chabot; “if none else will form it, I will: people say to me, You will all get guillotined in your turn, first you and Bazire, then Danton, then Robespierre himself.” (Debats, du 10 Novembre, 1723.) So spake the Disfrocked, with a loud voice: next week, Bazire and he lie in the Abbaye; wending, one may fear, towards Tinville and the Axe; and ‘people say to me’ — what seems to be proving true! Bazire’s blood was all inflamed with Revolution fever; with coffee and spasmodic dreams. (Dictionnaire des Hommes Marquans, i. 115.) Chabot, again, how happy with his rich Jew–Austrian wife, late Fraulein Frey! But he lies in Prison; and his two Jew–Austrian Brothers-in-Law, the Bankers Frey, lie with him; waiting the urn of doom. Let a National Convention, therefore, take warning, and know its function. Let the Convention, all as one man, set its shoulder to the work; not with bursts of Parliamentary eloquence, but in quite other and serviceable ways!

Convention Commissioners, what we ought to call Representatives, ‘Representans on mission,’ fly, like the Herald Mercury, to all points of the Territory; carrying your behests far and wide. In their ‘round hat plumed with tricolor feathers, girt with flowing tricolor taffeta; in close frock, tricolor sash, sword and jack-boots,’ these men are powerfuller than King or Kaiser. They say to whomso they meet, Do; and he must do it: all men’s goods are at their disposal; for France is as one huge City in Siege. They smite with Requisitions, and Forced-loan; they have the power of life and death. Saint–Just and Lebas order the rich classes of Strasburg to ‘strip off their shoes,’ and send them to the Armies where as many as ‘ten thousand pairs’ are needed. Also, that within four and twenty hours, ‘a thousand beds’ are to be got ready; (Moniteur, du 27 Novembre 1793.) wrapt in matting, and sent under way. For the time presses! — Like swift bolts, issuing from the fuliginous Olympus of Salut Public rush these men, oftenest in pairs; scatter your thunder-orders over France; make France one enormous Revolutionary thunder-cloud.

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