The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle

Chapter 1

Decadent.

How little did any one suppose that here was the end not of Robespierre only, but of the Revolution System itself! Least of all did the mutinying Committee-men suppose it; who had mutinied with no view whatever except to continue the National Regeneration with their own heads on their shoulders. And yet so it verily was. The insignificant stone they had struck out, so insignificant anywhere else, proved to be the Keystone: the whole arch-work and edifice of Sansculottism began to loosen, to crack, to yawn; and tumbled, piecemeal, with considerable rapidity, plunge after plunge; till the Abyss had swallowed it all, and in this upper world Sansculottism was no more.

For despicable as Robespierre himself might be, the death of Robespierre was a signal at which great multitudes of men, struck dumb with terror heretofore, rose out of their hiding places: and, as it were, saw one another, how multitudinous they were; and began speaking and complaining. They are countable by the thousand and the million; who have suffered cruel wrong. Ever louder rises the plaint of such a multitude; into a universal sound, into a universal continuous peal, of what they call Public Opinion. Camille had demanded a ‘Committee of Mercy,’ and could not get it; but now the whole nation resolves itself into a Committee of Mercy: the Nation has tried Sansculottism, and is weary of it. Force of Public Opinion! What King or Convention can withstand it? You in vain struggle: the thing that is rejected as ‘calumnious’ to-day must pass as veracious with triumph another day: gods and men have declared that Sansculottism cannot be. Sansculottism, on that Ninth night of Thermidor suicidally ‘fractured its under jaw;’ and lies writhing, never to rise more.

Through the next fifteenth months, it is what we may call the death-agony of Sansculottism. Sansculottism, Anarchy of the Jean–Jacques Evangel, having now got deep enough, is to perish in a new singular system of Culottism and Arrangement. For Arrangement is indispensable to man; Arrangement, were it grounded only on that old primary Evangel of Force, with Sceptre in the shape of Hammer. Be there method, be there order, cry all men; were it that of the Drill-serjeant! More tolerable is the drilled Bayonet-rank, than that undrilled Guillotine, incalculable as the wind. — How Sansculottism, writhing in death-throes, strove some twice, or even three times, to get on its feet again; but fell always, and was flung resupine, the next instant; and finally breathed out the life of it, and stirred no more: this we are now, from a due distance, with due brevity, to glance at; and then — O Reader! — Courage, I see land!

Two of the first acts of the Convention, very natural for it after this Thermidor, are to be specified here: the first is renewal of the Governing Committees. Both Surete Generale and Salut Public, thinned by the Guillotine, need filling up: we naturally fill them up with Talliens, Frerons, victorious Thermidorian men. Still more to the purpose, we appoint that they shall, as Law directs, not in name only but in deed, be renewed and changed from period to period; a fourth part of them going out monthly. The Convention will no more lie under bondage of Committees, under terror of death; but be a free Convention; free to follow its own judgment, and the Force of Public Opinion. Not less natural is it to enact that Prisoners and Persons under Accusation shall have right to demand some ‘Writ of Accusation,’ and see clearly what they are accused of. Very natural acts: the harbingers of hundreds not less so.

For now Fouquier’s trade, shackled by Writ of Accusation, and legal proof, is as good as gone; effectual only against Robespierre’s Tail. The Prisons give up their Suspects; emit them faster and faster. The Committees see themselves besieged with Prisoners’ friends; complain that they are hindered in their work: it is as with men rushing out of a crowded place; and obstructing one another. Turned are the tables: Prisoners pouring out in floods; Jailors, Moutons and the Tail of Robespierre going now whither they were wont to send! — The Hundred and thirty-two Nantese Republicans, whom we saw marching in irons, have arrived; shrunk to Ninety-four, the fifth man of them choked by the road. They arrive: and suddenly find themselves not pleaders for life, but denouncers to death. Their Trial is for acquittal, and more. As the voice of a trumpet, their testimony sounds far and wide, mere atrocities of a Reign of Terror. For a space of nineteen days; with all solemnity and publicity. Representative Carrier, Company of Marat; Noyadings, Loire Marriages, things done in darkness, come forth into light: clear is the voice of these poor resuscitated Nantese; and Journals and Speech and universal Committee of Mercy reverberate it loud enough, into all ears and hearts. Deputation arrives from Arras; denouncing the atrocities of Representative Lebon. A tamed Convention loves its own life: yet what help? Representative Lebon, Representative Carrier must wend towards the Revolutionary Tribunal; struggle and delay as we will, the cry of a Nation pursues them louder and louder. Them also Tinville must abolish; — if indeed Tinville himself be not abolished.

We must note moreover the decrepit condition into which a once omnipotent Mother Society has fallen. Legendre flung her keys on the Convention table, that Thermidor night; her President was guillotined with Robespierre. The once mighty Mother came, some time after, with a subdued countenance, begging back her keys: the keys were restored her; but the strength could not be restored her; the strength had departed forever. Alas, one’s day is done. Vain that the Tribune in mid air sounds as of old: to the general ear it has become a horror, and even a weariness. By and by, Affiliation is prohibited: the mighty Mother sees herself suddenly childless; mourns, as so hoarse a Rachel may.

The Revolutionary Committees, without Suspects to prey upon, perish fast; as it were of famine. In Paris the whole Forty-eight of them are reduced to Twelve, their Forty sous are abolished: yet a little while, and Revolutionary Committees are no more. Maximum will be abolished; let Sansculottism find food where it can. (24th December 1794, Moniteur, No. 97.) Neither is there now any Municipality; any centre at the Townhall. Mayor Fleuriot and Company perished; whom we shall not be in haste to replace. The Townhall remains in a broken submissive state; knows not well what it is growing to; knows only that it is grown weak, and must obey. What if we should split Paris into, say, a Dozen separate Municipalities; incapable of concert! The Sections were thus rendered safe to act with:— or indeed might not the Sections themselves be abolished? You had then merely your Twelve manageable pacific Townships, without centre or subdivision; (October 1795, Dulaure, viii. 454–6.) and sacred right of Insurrection fell into abeyance!

So much is getting abolished; fleeting swiftly into the Inane. For the Press speaks, and the human tongue; Journals, heavy and light, in Philippic and Burlesque: a renegade Freron, a renegade Prudhomme, loud they as ever, only the contrary way. And Ci-devants shew themselves, almost parade themselves; resuscitated as from death-sleep; publish what death-pains they have had. The very Frogs of the Marsh croak with emphasis. Your protesting Seventy-three shall, with a struggle, be emitted out of Prison, back to their seats; your Louvets, Isnards, Lanjuinais, and wrecks of Girondism, recalled from their haylofts, and caves in Switzerland, will resume their place in the Convention: (Deux Amis, xiii. 3–39.) natural foes of Terror!

Thermidorian Talliens, and mere foes of Terror, rule in this Convention, and out of it. The compressed Mountain shrinks silent more and more. Moderatism rises louder and louder: not as a tempest, with threatenings; say rather, as the rushing of a mighty organ-blast, and melodious deafening Force of Public Opinion, from the Twenty-five million windpipes of a Nation all in Committee of Mercy: which how shall any detached body of individuals withstand?

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