The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle

Chapter 6

Do thy Duty.

Accordingly alongside of these bonfires of Church balustrades, and sounds of fusillading and noyading, there rise quite another sort of fires and sounds: Smithy-fires and Proof-volleys for the manufacture of arms.

Cut off from Sweden and the world, the Republic must learn to make steel for itself; and, by aid of Chemists, she has learnt it. Towns that knew only iron, now know steel: from their new dungeons at Chantilly, Aristocrats may hear the rustle of our new steel furnace there. Do not bells transmute themselves into cannon; iron stancheons into the white-weapon (arme blanche), by sword-cutlery? The wheels of Langres scream, amid their sputtering fire halo; grinding mere swords. The stithies of Charleville ring with gun-making. What say we, Charleville? Two hundred and fifty-eight Forges stand in the open spaces of Paris itself; a hundred and forty of them in the Esplanade of the Invalides, fifty-four in the Luxembourg Garden: so many Forges stand; grim Smiths beating and forging at lock and barrel there. The Clockmakers have come, requisitioned, to do the touch-holes, the hard-solder and filework. Five great Barges swing at anchor on the Seine Stream, loud with boring; the great press-drills grating harsh thunder to the general ear and heart. And deft Stock-makers do gouge and rasp; and all men bestir themselves, according to their cunning:— in the language of hope, it is reckoned that a ‘thousand finished muskets can be delivered daily.’ (Choix des Rapports, xiii. 189.) Chemists of the Republic have taught us miracles of swift tanning; (Ibid. xv. 360.) the cordwainer bores and stitches; — not of ‘wood and pasteboard,’ or he shall answer it to Tinville! The women sew tents and coats, the children scrape surgeon’s-lint, the old men sit in the market-places; able men are on march; all men in requisition: from Town to Town flutters, on the Heaven’s winds, this Banner, THE FRENCH PEOPLE RISEN AGAINST TYRANTS.

All which is well. But now arises the question: What is to be done for saltpetre? Interrupted Commerce and the English Navy shut us out from saltpetre; and without saltpetre there is no gunpowder. Republican Science again sits meditative; discovers that saltpetre exists here and there, though in attenuated quantity: that old plaster of walls holds a sprinkling of it; — that the earth of the Paris Cellars holds a sprinkling of it, diffused through the common rubbish; that were these dug up and washed, saltpetre might be had. Whereupon swiftly, see! the Citoyens, with upshoved bonnet rouge, or with doffed bonnet, and hair toil-wetted; digging fiercely, each in his own cellar, for saltpetre. The Earth-heap rises at every door; the Citoyennes with hod and bucket carrying it up; the Citoyens, pith in every muscle, shovelling and digging: for life and saltpetre. Dig my braves; and right well speed ye. What of saltpetre is essential the Republic shall not want.

Consummation of Sansculottism has many aspects and tints: but the brightest tint, really of a solar or stellar brightness, is this which the Armies give it. That same fervour of Jacobinism which internally fills France with hatred, suspicions, scaffolds and Reason-worship, does, on the Frontiers, shew itself as a glorious Pro patria mori. Ever since Dumouriez’s defection, three Convention Representatives attend every General. Committee of Salut has sent them, often with this Laconic order only: “Do thy duty, Fais ton devoir.” It is strange, under what impediments the fire of Jacobinism, like other such fires, will burn. These Soldiers have shoes of wood and pasteboard, or go booted in hayropes, in dead of winter; they skewer a bass mat round their shoulders, and are destitute of most things. What then? It is for Rights of Frenchhood, of Manhood, that they fight: the unquenchable spirit, here as elsewhere, works miracles. “With steel and bread,” says the Convention Representative, “one may get to China.” The Generals go fast to the guillotine; justly and unjustly. From which what inference? This among others: That ill-success is death; that in victory alone is life! To conquer or die is no theatrical palabra, in these circumstances: but a practical truth and necessity. All Girondism, Halfness, Compromise is swept away. Forward, ye Soldiers of the Republic, captain and man! Dash with your Gaelic impetuosity, on Austria, England, Prussia, Spain, Sardinia; Pitt, Cobourg, York, and the Devil and the World! Behind us is but the Guillotine; before us is Victory, Apotheosis and Millennium without end!

See accordingly, on all Frontiers, how the Sons of Night, astonished after short triumph, do recoil; — the Sons of the Republic flying at them, with wild ca-ira or Marseillese Aux armes, with the temper of cat-o’-mountain, or demon incarnate; which no Son of Night can stand! Spain, which came bursting through the Pyrenees, rustling with Bourbon banners, and went conquering here and there for a season, falters at such cat-o’-mountain welcome; draws itself in again; too happy now were the Pyrenees impassable. Not only does Dugommier, conqueror of Toulon, drive Spain back; he invades Spain. General Dugommier invades it by the Eastern Pyrenees; General Dugommier invades it by the Eastern Pyrenees; General Muller shall invade it by the Western. Shall, that is the word: Committee of Salut Public has said it; Representative Cavaignac, on mission there, must see it done. Impossible! cries Muller, — Infallible! answers Cavaignac. Difficulty, impossibility, is to no purpose. “The Committee is deaf on that side of its head,” answers Cavaignac, “n’entend pas de cette oreille la. How many wantest thou, of men, of horses, cannons? Thou shalt have them. Conquerors, conquered or hanged, forward we must.” (There is, in Prudhomme, an atrocity a la Captain–Kirk reported of this Cavaignac; which has been copied into Dictionaries of Hommes Marquans, of Biographie Universelle, &c.; which not only has no truth in it, but, much more singular, is still capable of being proved to have none.) Which things also, even as the Representative spake them, were done. The Spring of the new Year sees Spain invaded: and redoubts are carried, and Passes and Heights of the most scarped description; Spanish Field-officerism struck mute at such cat-o’-mountain spirit, the cannon forgetting to fire. (Deux Amis, xiii. 205–30; Toulongeon, &c.) Swept are the Pyrenees; Town after Town flies up, burst by terror or the petard. In the course of another year, Spain will crave Peace; acknowledge its sins and the Republic; nay, in Madrid, there will be joy as for a victory, that even Peace is got.

Few things, we repeat, can be notabler than these Convention Representatives, with their power more than kingly. Nay at bottom are they not Kings, Ablemen, of a sort; chosen from the Seven Hundred and Forty-nine French Kings; with this order, Do thy duty? Representative Levasseur, of small stature, by trade a mere pacific Surgeon–Accoucheur, has mutinies to quell; mad hosts (mad at the Doom of Custine) bellowing far and wide; he alone amid them, the one small Representative, — small, but as hard as flint, which also carries fire in it! So too, at Hondschooten, far in the afternoon, he declares that the battle is not lost; that it must be gained; and fights, himself, with his own obstetric hand; — horse shot under him, or say on foot, ‘up to the haunches in tide-water;’ cutting stoccado and passado there, in defiance of Water, Earth, Air and Fire, the choleric little Representative that he was! Whereby, as natural, Royal Highness of York had to withdraw, — occasionally at full gallop; like to be swallowed by the tide: and his Siege of Dunkirk became a dream, realising only much loss of beautiful siege-artillery and of brave lives. (Levasseur, Memoires, ii. c. 2–7.)

General Houchard, it would appear, stood behind a hedge, on this Hondschooten occasion; wherefore they have since guillotined him. A new General Jourdan, late Serjeant Jourdan, commands in his stead: he, in long-winded Battles of Watigny, ‘murderous artillery-fire mingling itself with sound of Revolutionary battle-hymns,’ forces Austria behind the Sambre again; has hopes of purging the soil of Liberty. With hard wrestling, with artillerying and ca-ira-ing, it shall be done. In the course of a new Summer, Valenciennes will see itself beleaguered; Conde beleaguered; whatsoever is yet in the hands of Austria beleaguered and bombarded: nay, by Convention Decree, we even summon them all ‘either to surrender in twenty-four hours, or else be put to the sword;’ — a high saying, which, though it remains unfulfilled, may shew what spirit one is of.

Representative Drouet, as an Old–Dragoon, could fight by a kind of second nature; but he was unlucky. Him, in a night-foray at Maubeuge, the Austrians took alive, in October last. They stript him almost naked, he says; making a shew of him, as King-taker of Varennes. They flung him into carts; sent him far into the interior of Cimmeria, to ‘a Fortress called Spitzberg’ on the Danube River; and left him there, at an elevation of perhaps a hundred and fifty feet, to his own bitter reflections. Reflections; and also devices! For the indomitable Old-dragoon constructs wing-machinery, of Paperkite; saws window-bars: determines to fly down. He will seize a boat, will follow the River’s course: land somewhere in Crim Tartary, in the Black Sea or Constantinople region: a la Sindbad! Authentic History, accordingly, looking far into Cimmeria, discerns dimly a phenomenon. In the dead night-watches, the Spitzberg sentry is near fainting with terror: Is it a huge vague Portent descending through the night air? It is a huge National Representative Old-dragoon, descending by Paperkite; too rapidly, alas! For Drouet had taken with him ‘a small provision-store, twenty pounds weight or thereby;’ which proved accelerative: so he fell, fracturing his leg; and lay there, moaning, till day dawned, till you could discern clearly that he was not a Portent but a Representative! (His narrative in Deux Amis, xiv. 177–86.)

Or see Saint–Just, in the Lines of Weissembourg, though physically of a timid apprehensive nature, how he charges with his ‘Alsatian Peasants armed hastily’ for the nonce; the solemn face of him blazing into flame; his black hair and tricolor hat-taffeta flowing in the breeze; These our Lines of Weissembourg were indeed forced, and Prussia and the Emigrants rolled through: but we re-force the Lines of Weissembourg; and Prussia and the Emigrants roll back again still faster, — hurled with bayonet charges and fiery ca-ira-ing.

Ci-devant Serjeant Pichegru, ci-devant Serjeant Hoche, risen now to be Generals, have done wonders here. Tall Pichegru was meant for the Church; was Teacher of Mathematics once, in Brienne School, — his remarkablest Pupil there was the Boy Napoleon Buonaparte. He then, not in the sweetest humour, enlisted exchanging ferula for musket; and had got the length of the halberd, beyond which nothing could be hoped; when the Bastille barriers falling made passage for him, and he is here. Hoche bore a hand at the literal overturn of the Bastille; he was, as we saw, a Serjeant of the Gardes Francaises, spending his pay in rushlights and cheap editions of books. How the Mountains are burst, and many an Enceladus is disemprisoned: and Captains founding on Four parchments of Nobility, are blown with their parchments across the Rhine, into Lunar Limbo!

What high feats of arms, therefore, were done in these Fourteen Armies; and how, for love of Liberty and hope of Promotion, low-born valour cut its desperate way to Generalship; and, from the central Carnot in Salut Public to the outmost drummer on the Frontiers, men strove for their Republic, let readers fancy. The snows of Winter, the flowers of Summer continue to be stained with warlike blood. Gaelic impetuosity mounts ever higher with victory; spirit of Jacobinism weds itself to national vanity: the Soldiers of the Republic are becoming, as we prophesied, very Sons of Fire. Barefooted, barebacked: but with bread and iron you can get to China! It is one Nation against the whole world; but the Nation has that within her which the whole world will not conquer. Cimmeria, astonished, recoils faster or slower; all round the Republic there rises fiery, as it were, a magic ring of musket-volleying and ca-ira-ing. Majesty of Prussia, as Majesty of Spain, will by and by acknowledge his sins and the Republic: and make a Peace of Bale.

Foreign Commerce, Colonies, Factories in the East and in the West, are fallen or falling into the hands of sea-ruling Pitt, enemy of human nature. Nevertheless what sound is this that we hear, on the first of June, 1794; sound of as war-thunder borne from the Ocean too; of tone most piercing? War-thunder from off the Brest waters: Villaret–Joyeuse and English Howe, after long manoeuvring have ranked themselves there; and are belching fire. The enemies of human nature are on their own element; cannot be conquered; cannot be kept from conquering. Twelve hours of raging cannonade; sun now sinking westward through the battle-smoke: six French Ships taken, the Battle lost; what Ship soever can still sail, making off! But how is it, then, with that Vengeur Ship, she neither strikes nor makes off? She is lamed, she cannot make off; strike she will not. Fire rakes her fore and aft, from victorious enemies; the Vengeur is sinking. Strong are ye, Tyrants of the Sea; yet we also, are we weak? Lo! all flags, streamers, jacks, every rag of tricolor that will yet run on rope, fly rustling aloft: the whole crew crowds to the upper deck; and, with universal soul-maddening yell, shouts Vive la Republique, — sinking, sinking. She staggers, she lurches, her last drunk whirl; Ocean yawns abysmal: down rushes the Vengeur, carrying Vive la Republique along with her, unconquerable, into Eternity! (Compare Barrere (Chois des Rapports, xiv. 416–21); Lord Howe (Annual Register of 1794, p. 86), &c.) Let foreign Despots think of that. There is an Unconquerable in man, when he stands on his Rights of Man: let Despots and Slaves and all people know this, and only them that stand on the Wrongs of Man tremble to know it.

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