The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle

Chapter 1

The Gods are athirst.

What then is this Thing, called La Revolution, which, like an Angel of Death, hangs over France, noyading, fusillading, fighting, gun-boring, tanning human skins? La Revolution is but so many Alphabetic Letters; a thing nowhere to be laid hands on, to be clapt under lock and key: where is it? what is it? It is the Madness that dwells in the hearts of men. In this man it is, and in that man; as a rage or as a terror, it is in all men. Invisible, impalpable; and yet no black Azrael, with wings spread over half a continent, with sword sweeping from sea to sea, could be a truer Reality.

To explain, what is called explaining, the march of this Revolutionary Government, be no task of ours. Men cannot explain it. A paralytic Couthon, asking in the Jacobins, ‘what hast thou done to be hanged if the Counter–Revolution should arrive;’ a sombre Saint–Just, not yet six-and-twenty, declaring that ‘for Revolutionists there is no rest but in the tomb;’ a seagreen Robespierre converted into vinegar and gall; much more an Amar and Vadier, a Collot and Billaud: to inquire what thoughts, predetermination or prevision, might be in the head of these men! Record of their thought remains not; Death and Darkness have swept it out utterly. Nay if we even had their thought, all they could have articulately spoken to us, how insignificant a fraction were that of the Thing which realised itself, which decreed itself, on signal given by them! As has been said more than once, this Revolutionary Government is not a self-conscious but a blind fatal one. Each man, enveloped in his ambient-atmosphere of revolutionary fanatic Madness, rushes on, impelled and impelling; and has become a blind brute Force; no rest for him but in the grave! Darkness and the mystery of horrid cruelty cover it for us, in History; as they did in Nature. The chaotic Thunder-cloud, with its pitchy black, and its tumult of dazzling jagged fire, in a world all electric: thou wilt not undertake to shew how that comported itself, — what the secrets of its dark womb were; from what sources, with what specialities, the lightning it held did, in confused brightness of terror, strike forth, destructive and self-destructive, till it ended? Like a Blackness naturally of Erebus, which by will of Providence had for once mounted itself into dominion and the Azure: is not this properly the nature of Sansculottism consummating itself? Of which Erebus Blackness be it enough to discern that this and the other dazzling fire-bolt, dazzling fire-torrent, does by small Volition and great Necessity, verily issue, — in such and such succession; destructive so and so, self-destructive so and so: till it end.

Royalism is extinct, ‘sunk,’ as they say, ‘in the mud of the Loire;’ Republicanism dominates without and within: what, therefore, on the 15th day of March, 1794, is this? Arrestment, sudden really as a bolt out of the Blue, has hit strange victims: Hebert Pere Duchene, Bibliopolist Momoro, Clerk Vincent, General Ronsin; high Cordelier Patriots, redcapped Magistrates of Paris, Worshippers of Reason, Commanders of Revolutionary Army! Eight short days ago, their Cordelier Club was loud, and louder than ever, with Patriot denunciations. Hebert Pere Duchene had “held his tongue and his heart these two months, at sight of Moderates, Crypto–Aristocrats, Camilles, Scelerats in the Convention itself: but could not do it any longer; would, if other remedy were not, invoke the Sacred right of Insurrection.” So spake Hebert in Cordelier Session; with vivats, till the roofs rang again. (Moniteur, du 17 Ventose (7th March) 1794.) Eight short days ago; and now already! They rub their eyes: it is no dream; they find themselves in the Luxembourg. Goose Gobel too; and they that burnt Churches! Chaumette himself, potent Procureur, Agent National as they now call it, who could ‘recognise the Suspect by the very face of them,’ he lingers but three days; on the third day he too is hurled in. Most chopfallen, blue, enters the National Agent this Limbo whither he has sent so many. Prisoners crowd round, jibing and jeering: “Sublime National Agent,” says one, “in virtue of thy immortal Proclamation, lo there! I am suspect, thou art suspect, he is suspect, we are suspect, ye are suspect, they are suspect!”

The meaning of these things? Meaning! It is a Plot; Plot of the most extensive ramifications; which, however, Barrere holds the threads of. Such Church-burning and scandalous masquerades of Atheism, fit to make the Revolution odious: where indeed could they originate but in the gold of Pitt? Pitt indubitably, as Preternatural Insight will teach one, did hire this Faction of Enrages, to play their fantastic tricks; to roar in their Cordeliers Club about Moderatism; to print their Pere Duchene; worship skyblue Reason in red nightcap; rob all Altars, — and bring the spoil to us! —

Still more indubitable, visible to the mere bodily sight, is this: that the Cordeliers Club sits pale, with anger and terror; and has ‘veiled the Rights of Man,’ — without effect. Likewise that the Jacobins are in considerable confusion; busy ‘purging themselves, ‘s’epurant,’ as, in times of Plot and public Calamity, they have repeatedly had to do. Not even Camille Desmoulins but has given offence: nay there have risen murmurs against Danton himself; though he bellowed them down, and Robespierre finished the matter by ‘embracing him in the Tribune.’

Whom shall the Republic and a jealous Mother Society trust? In these times of temptation, of Preternatural Insight! For there are Factions of the Stranger, ‘de l’etranger,’ Factions of Moderates, of Enraged; all manner of Factions: we walk in a world of Plots; strings, universally spread, of deadly gins and falltraps, baited by the gold of Pitt! Clootz, Speaker of Mankind so-called, with his Evidences of Mahometan Religion, and babble of Universal Republic, him an incorruptible Robespierre has purged away. Baron Clootz, and Paine rebellious Needleman lie, these two months, in the Luxembourg; limbs of the Faction de l’etranger. Representative Phelippeaux is purged out: he came back from La Vendee with an ill report in his mouth against rogue Rossignol, and our method of warfare there. Recant it, O Phelippeaux, we entreat thee! Phelippeaux will not recant; and is purged out. Representative Fabre d’Eglantine, famed Nomenclator of Romme’s Calendar, is purged out; nay, is cast into the Luxembourg: accused of Legislative Swindling ‘in regard to monies of the India Company.’ There with his Chabots, Bazires, guilty of the like, let Fabre wait his destiny. And Westermann friend of Danton, he who led the Marseillese on the Tenth of August, and fought well in La Vendee, but spoke not well of rogue Rossignol, is purged out. Lucky, if he too go not to the Luxembourg. And your Prolys, Guzmans, of the Faction of the Stranger, they have gone; Peyreyra, though he fled is gone, ‘taken in the disguise of a Tavern Cook.’ I am suspect, thou art suspect, he is suspect! —

The great heart of Danton is weary of it. Danton is gone to native Arcis, for a little breathing time of peace: Away, black Arachne-webs, thou world of Fury, Terror, and Suspicion; welcome, thou everlasting Mother, with thy spring greenness, thy kind household loves and memories; true art thou, were all else untrue! The great Titan walks silent, by the banks of the murmuring Aube, in young native haunts that knew him when a boy; wonders what the end of these things may be.

But strangest of all, Camille Desmoulins is purged out. Couthon gave as a test in regard to Jacobin purgation the question, ‘What hast thou done to be hanged if Counter–Revolution should arrive?’ Yet Camille, who could so well answer this question, is purged out! The truth is, Camille, early in December last, began publishing a new Journal, or Series of Pamphlets, entitled the Vieux Cordelier, Old Cordelier. Camille, not afraid at one time to ‘embrace Liberty on a heap of dead bodies,’ begins to ask now, Whether among so many arresting and punishing Committees there ought not to be a ‘Committee of Mercy?’ Saint–Just, he observes, is an extremely solemn young Republican, who ‘carries his head as if it were a Saint–Sacrement; adorable Hostie, or divine Real–Presence! Sharply enough, this old Cordelier, Danton and he were of the earliest primary Cordeliers, — shoots his glittering war-shafts into your new Cordeliers, your Heberts, Momoros, with their brawling brutalities and despicabilities: say, as the Sun-god (for poor Camille is a Poet) shot into that Python Serpent sprung of mud.

Whereat, as was natural, the Hebertist Python did hiss and writhe amazingly; and threaten ‘sacred right of Insurrection;’ — and, as we saw, get cast into Prison. Nay, with all the old wit, dexterity, and light graceful poignancy, Camille, translating ‘out of Tacitus, from the Reign of Tiberius,’ pricks into the Law of the Suspect itself; making it odious! Twice, in the Decade, his wild Leaves issue; full of wit, nay of humour, of harmonious ingenuity and insight, — one of the strangest phenomenon of that dark time; and smite, in their wild-sparkling way, at various monstrosities, Saint–Sacrament heads, and Juggernaut idols, in a rather reckless manner. To the great joy of Josephine Beauharnais, and the other Five Thousand and odd Suspect, who fill the Twelve Houses of Arrest; on whom a ray of hope dawns! Robespierre, at first approbatory, knew not at last what to think; then thought, with his Jacobins, that Camille must be expelled. A man of true Revolutionary spirit, this Camille; but with the unwisest sallies; whom Aristocrats and Moderates have the art to corrupt! Jacobinism is in uttermost crisis and struggle: enmeshed wholly in plots, corruptibilities, neck-gins and baited falltraps of Pitt Ennemi du Genre Humain. Camille’s First Number begins with ‘O Pitt!’ — his last is dated 15 Pluviose Year 2, 3d February 1794; and ends with these words of Montezuma’s, ‘Les dieux ont soif, The gods are athirst.’

Be this as it may, the Hebertists lie in Prison only some nine days. On the 24th of March, therefore, the Revolution Tumbrils carry through that Life-tumult a new cargo: Hebert, Vincent, Momoro, Ronsin, Nineteen of them in all; with whom, curious enough, sits Clootz Speaker of Mankind. They have been massed swiftly into a lump, this miscellany of Nondescripts; and travel now their last road. No help. They too must ‘look through the little window;’ they too ‘must sneeze into the sack,’ eternuer dans le sac; as they have done to others so is it done to them. Sainte–Guillotine, meseems, is worse than the old Saints of Superstition; a man-devouring Saint? Clootz, still with an air of polished sarcasm, endeavours to jest, to offer cheering ‘arguments of Materialism;’ he requested to be executed last, ‘in order to establish certain principles,’ — which Philosophy has not retained. General Ronsin too, he still looks forth with some air of defiance, eye of command: the rest are sunk in a stony paleness of despair. Momoro, poor Bibliopolist, no Agrarian Law yet realised, — they might as well have hanged thee at Evreux, twenty months ago, when Girondin Buzot hindered them. Hebert Pere Duchene shall never in this world rise in sacred right of insurrection; he sits there low enough, head sunk on breast; Red Nightcaps shouting round him, in frightful parody of his Newspaper Articles, “Grand choler of the Pere Duchene!” Thus perish they; the sack receives all their heads. Through some section of History, Nineteen spectre-chimeras shall flit, speaking and gibbering; till Oblivion swallow them.

In the course of a week, the Revolutionary Army itself is disbanded; the General having become spectral. This Faction of Rabids, therefore, is also purged from the Republican soil; here also the baited falltraps of that Pitt have been wrenched up harmless; and anew there is joy over a Plot Discovered. The Revolution then is verily devouring its own children. All Anarchy, by the nature of it, is not only destructive but self-destructive.

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