La Vendée, by Anthony Trollope

Robespierre’s Character.

We will now jump over a space of nearly three months, and leaving the châteaux of royalist La Vendée, plunge for a short while into the heart of republican Paris. In the Rue St. Honoré lived a cabinet-maker, named Duplay, and in his house lodged Maximilian Robespierre, the leading spirit in the latter and more terrible days of the Revolution. The time now spoken of was the beginning of October, 1793; and at no period did the popularity and power of that remarkable man stand higher.

The whole government was then vested in the Committee of Public Safety — a committee consisting of twelve persons, members of the Convention, all of course ultra-democrats, over the majority of whom Robespierre exercised a direct control. No despot ever endured ruled with so absolute and stringent a dominion as that under which this body of men held the French nation. The revolutionary tribunal was now established in all its horror and all its force. A law was passed by the Convention, in September, which decreed that all suspected people should be arrested and brought before this tribunal; that nobles, lawyers, bankers, priests, men of property, and strangers in the land, should be suspected unless known to be acting friends and adherents of the ultra-revolutionary party; that the punishment of such persons should be death; and that the members of any revolutionary tribunal which had omitted to condemn any suspected person, should themselves be tried, and punished by death. Such was the law by which the Reign of Terror was organized and rendered possible.

At this time the Girondists were lying in prison, awaiting their trial and their certain doom. Marie Antoinette had been removed from the Temple to the Conciergerie, and her trial was in a day or two about to commence. Her fate was already fixed, and had only to be pronounced. Danton had retired from Paris to his own province, sick with the shedding of so much blood, jealous of the pre-eminence which Robespierre had assumed; watching his opportunity to return, that he might sell the republic to the royalists; equally eager, let us believe, to save his country as to make his fortune, but destined to return, only that he also might bend his neck beneath the monster guillotine. Marat, the foulest birth of the revolution, whose licentious heat generated venom and rascality, as a dunghill out of its own filth produces adders’ eggs — Marat was no more. Carnot, whose genius for war enabled the French nation, amidst all its poverty and intestine contests, even in the pangs and throes of that labour in which it strove to bring forth a constitution, to repulse the forces of the allied nations, and prepare the way for future conquests, was a member of the all-powerful Committee, and we cannot suppose that he acted under the dictation of Robespierre; but if he did not do so, at any rate he did not interfere with him. The operations of a campaign, in which the untaught and ill-fed army of republican France had to meet the troops of England, Flanders, Prussia, Austria, Sardinia, and Spain, besides those of royalist France, were sufficient to occupy even the energies of Carnot.

Robespierre, in the Convention and in the Committee, was omnipotent; but he also had his master, and he knew it. He knew that he could only act, command, and be obeyed, in union with, and dependence on, the will of the populace of Paris; and the higher he rose in that path of life which he marked out for himself with so much precision, and followed with se much constancy, the more bitterly his spirit chafed at the dependence. He knew it was of no avail to complain of the people to the people, and he seldom ventured to risk his position by opposing the wishes of the fearful masters whom he served, but at length he was driven to do so, and at length he fell.

Half a century has passed since Robespierre died, and history has become peculiarly conversant with his name. Is there any one whose character suffers under a more wide-spread infamy? The abomination of whose deeds has become more notorious? The tale of whose death has been oftener told; whose end, horrid, fearful, agonized, as was that of this man, has met with less sympathy? For fifty years the world has talked of, condemned, and executed Robespierre. Men and women, who have barely heard the names of Pitt and Fox, who know not whether Metternich is a man or a river, or one of the United States, speak of Robespierre as of a thing accursed. They know, at any rate, what he was — the demon of the revolution; the source of the fountain of blood with which Paris was deluged; the murderer of the thousands whose bodies choked the course of the Loire and the Rhone. Who knows not enough of Robespierre to condemn him? Who abstains from adding another malediction to those which already load the name of the King of the Reign of Terror.

Yet it is not impossible that some apologist may be found for the blood which this man shed; that some quaint historian, delighting to show the world how wrong has been its most assured opinions, may attempt to vindicate the fame of Robespierre, and strive to wash the blackamoor white. Are not our old historical assurances everywhere asserted? Has it not been proved to us that crooked-backed Richard was a good and politic King; and that the iniquities of Henry VIII are fabulous? whereas the agreeable predilections of our early youth are disturbed by our hearing that glorious Queen Bess, and learned King James, were mean, bloodthirsty, and selfish.

I am not the bold man who will dare to face the opinion of the world, and attempt to prove that Robespierre has become infamous through prejudice. He must be held responsible for the effects of the words which he spoke, and the things which he did, as other men are. He made himself a scourge and a pestilence to his country; therefore, beyond all other men, he has become odious, and therefore, historian after historian, as they mention his name, hardly dare, in the service of truth, to say one word to lessen his infamy.

Yet Robespierre began his public life with aspirations of humanity, which never deserted him; and resolutions as to conduct, to which he adhered with a constancy never surpassed. What shall we say are the qualifications for a great and good man? — Honesty. In spite of his infamy, Robespierre’s honesty has become proverbial. Moral conduct — the life he led even during the zenith of his power, and at a time when licentiousness was general, and morality ridiculous, was characterized by the simplicity of the early Quakers. Industry — without payment from the State, beyond that which he received as a member of the Convention, and which was hardly sufficient for the wants of his simple existence, he worked nearly night and day in the service of the State. Constancy of purpose — from the commencement of his career, in opposition at first to ridicule and obscurity, then to public opinion, and lastly to the combined efforts of the greatest of his countrymen, he pursued one only idea; convinced of its truth, sure of its progress, and longing for its success. Temperance in power — though in reality governing all France, Robespierre assumed to himself none of the attributes or privileges of political power. He took to himself no high place, no public situation of profit or grandeur. He was neither haughty in his language, nor imperious in his demeanour. Love of country — who ever showed a more devoted love? For his country he laboured, and suffered a life which surely in itself could have had nothing attractive; the hope of the future felicity of France alone fed his energies, and sustained his courage. His only selfish ambition was to be able to retire into private life and contemplate from thence the general happiness which he had given to his country. Courage — those who have carefully studied his private life, and have learnt what he endured, and dared to do in overcoming the enemies Of his system, can hardly doubt his courage. Calumny or error has thrown an unmerited disgrace over his last wretched days. He has been supposed to have wounded himself in an impotent attempt to put an end to his life. It has been ascertained that such was not the fact, the pistol by which he was wounded having been fired by one of the soldiers by whom he was arrested. He is stated also to have wanted that firmness in death which so many of his victims displayed. They triumphed even in their death. Louis and Vergniaud, Marie Antoinette, and Madame Roland, felt that they were stepping from life into glory, and their step was light and elastic. Robespierre was sinking from existence into infamy. During those fearful hours, in which nothing in life was left him but to suffer, how wretched must have been the reminiscences of his career! He, who had so constantly pursued one idea, must then have felt that that idea had been an error; that he had all in all been wrong; that he had waded through the blood of his countrymen to reach a goal, which, bright and luminous as it had appeared, he now found to be an ignis fatuus. Nothing was then left to him. His life had been a failure, and for the future he had no hope. His body was wounded and in tortures; his spirit was dismayed by the insults of those around him, and his soul had owned no haven to which death would give it an escape. Could his eye have been lit with animation as he ascended the scaffold! Could his foot have then stepped with confidence! Could he have gloried in his death! Poor mutilated worm, agonised in body and in soul. Can it be ascribed to want of courage in him, that his last moments were passed in silent agony and despair?

Honesty, moral conduct, industry, constancy of purpose, temperance in power, courage, and love of country: these virtues all belonged to Robespierre; history confesses it, and to what favoured hero does history assign a fairer catalogue? Whose name does a brighter galaxy adorn? With such qualities, such attributes, why was he not the Washington of France? Why, instead of the Messiah of freedom, which he believed himself to be, has his name become a bye-word, a reproach, and an enormity? Because he wanted faith! He believed in nothing but himself, and the reasoning faculty with which he felt himself to be endowed. He thought himself perfect in his own human nature, and wishing to make others perfect as he was, he fell into the lowest abyss of crime and misery in which a poor human creature ever wallowed. He seems almost to have been sent into the world to prove the inefficacy of human reason to effect human happiness. He was gifted with a power over common temptation, which belongs to but few. His blood was cool and temperate, and yet his heart was open to all the softer emotions. He had no appetite for luxury; no desire for pomp; no craving for wealth. Among thousands who were revelling in sensuality, he kept himself pure and immaculate. If any man could have said, I will be virtuous; I, of myself, unaided, trusting to my own power, guarding myself by the light of my own reason; I will walk uprightly through the world, and will shed light from my path upon my brethren, he might have said so. He attempted it, and history shows us the result. He attempted, unassisted, to be perfect among men, and his memory is regarded as that of a loathsome plague, defiling even the unclean age in which he lived.

At about five o’clock in the afternoon on an October day, in 1793, Robespierre was sitting alone in a small room in the house of his friend, Simon Duplay, the cabinet-maker. This room, which was the bed-chamber, reception-room, and study of the arbitrary Dictator, was a garret in the roof of Duplay’s humble dwelling. One small window, opening upon the tiles, looked into the court-yard in which were stored the planks or blocks necessary to the cabinet-maker’s trade. A small wooden bedstead, a long deal table, and four or five rush-bottomed chairs, constituted the whole furniture of the apartment.

A deal shelf ran along the wail beneath the slanting roof, and held his small treasure of books; and more than half of this humble row were manuscripts of his own, which he had numbered, arranged, and bound with that methodical exactness, which was a part of his strange character. He was sitting at a table covered with papers, on which he had now been laboriously preparing instructions for those who, under him, carried on the rule of terror; and arranging the measured words with which, at the Jacobins, he was to encourage his allies to uphold him in the bloody despotism which he had seized.

The weight upon his mind must have been immense, for Robespierre was not a thoughtless, wild fanatic, carried by the multitude whether they pleased: he led the people of Paris, and led them with a fixed object. He was progressing by one measure deeply calculated to the age of reason, which he was assured was coming; and that one measure was the extermination of all who would be likely to oppose him. The extent of his power, the multiplicity of his cares, the importance of his every word and act, and the personal danger in which he lived, might have ruffled the equanimity of a higher-spirited man than he is supposed to have been; but yet, to judge from his countenance, his mind was calm; the traces of thought were plain on his brow, but there was none of the impatience of a tyrant about his mouth, nor of the cruelty of an habitual blood-shedder in his eyes. His forehead showed symptoms of deep thought, and partially redeemed the somewhat mean effect of his other features. The sharp nose, the thin lips, the cold grey eyes, the sallow sunken cheeks, were those of a precise, passionless, self-confident man, little likely to be led into any excess of love or hatred, but little likely also to be shaken in his resolve either for good or evil. His face probably was a true index to his character. Robespierre was not a cruel man; but he had none of that humanity, which makes the shedding of blood abominable to mankind, and which, had he possessed it, would have made his career impossible.

His hair was close curled in rolls upon his temples, and elaborately powdered. The front and cuffs of his shirt were not only scrupulously clean, but starched and ironed with the most exact care. He wore a blue coat, a white waistcoat, and knee-breeches. His stockings, like his shirt, were snow-white, and the silver buckles shone brightly in his shoes. No one could have looked less like a French republican of 1793 than did Robespierre.

He had just completed a letter addressed jointly to Thurreau and Lechelle, the commissioners whom he had newly appointed to the horrid task of exterminating the royalists of La Vendée. Santerre had undertaken this work, and had failed in it, and it was now said that he was a friend and creature of Danton’s; that he was not to be trusted as a republican; that he had a royalist bias; that it would be a good thing that his head should roll, as the heads of so many false men had rolled, under the avenging guillotine. Poor Santerre, who, in the service of the Republic, had not shunned the infamy of presiding at the death of Louis. He, however, contrived to keep his burly head on his strong shoulders, and to brew beer for the Directory, the Consulate, and the Empire.

Thurreau and Lechelle, it was correctly thought, would be surer hands at performing the work to be done. They had accepted the commission with alacrity, and were now on the road to commence their duties. That duty was to leave neither life nor property in the proscribed district. “Let La Vendée become a wilderness, and we will re-populate it with patriots, to whom the fertility of fields, rich with the blood of traitors, shall be a deserved reward.” Thus had Robespierre now written; and as he calmly read over, and slowly copied, his own despatch, he saw nothing in it of which he could disapprove, as a reasoning being animated with a true love of his country. “Experience has too clearly proved to us that the offspring of slaves, who willingly kiss the rod of tyrants, will have no higher aspiration than their parents. In allowing them to escape, we should only create difficulties for our own patriot children. Hitherto the servants of the Convention have scotched the snake, but have not killed it; and the wounded viper has thus become more furiously venomous than before. It is for you, citizens, to strike a death-blow to the infamy of La Vendée. It will be your glory to assure the Convention that no royalist remains in the western provinces to disturb the equanimity of the Republic.” Such were the sentiments he had just expressed, such the instructions he had given, calmly meditating on his duty as a ruler of his country; and when he had finished his task, and seen that no expression had escaped him of which reason or patriotism could disapprove, he again placed the paper before him, to write words of affection to the brother of his heart.

Robespierre’s brother was much younger than himself; but there was no one whom he more thoroughly trusted with State secrets, and State services of importance; and no one who regarded him with so entire a devotion. Robespierre the elder believed only in himself; Robespierre the younger believed in his brother, and his belief was fervid and assured, as is always that of an enthusiast. To him, Maximilian appeared to be the personification of every virtue necessary to mankind. Could he have been made to understand the opinion which the world would form of his brother’s character, he would have thought that it was about to be smitten with a curse of general insanity. Robespierre’s vanity was flattered by the adoration of his brother, and he loved his worshipper sincerely. The young man was now at Lyons, propagating the doctrines of his party; and in his letters to him, Robespierre mingled the confidential greetings of an affectionate brother with those furious demands for republican energy, which flooded the streets of the towns of France with blood, and choked the rivers of France with the bodies of the French.

“I still hope,” he wrote, slowly considering the words as they fell from his pen, “for the day when this work will have been done — for the happy day when we shall feel that we have prevailed not only against our enemies, but over our own vices; but my heart nearly fails me, when I think how little we have yet effected. I feel that among the friends whom we most trust, those who are actuated by patriotism alone are lukewarm. Lust, avarice, plunder, and personal revenge, are the motives of those who are really energetic . . . It is very difficult for me to know my friends; this also preys heavily on my spirits. The gold of the royalists is as plentiful as when the wretched woman, who is now about to die, was revelling in her voluptuous pride at Versailles. I know that the hands of many, who call themselves patriots, are even now grasping at the wages for which they are to betray the people. A day of reckoning shall come for all of them, though the list of their names is a long one. Were I to write the names of those whom I know to be true, I should be unable to insert in it above five or six. . . . I look for your return to Paris with more than my usual impatience. Eleanor’s quiet zeal, and propriety of demeanour, is a great comfort to me; but even with her, I feel that I have some reserve. I blame myself that it is so, for she is most trustworthy; but, as yet, I cannot throw it off. With you alone I have none. Do not, however, leave the work undone; remember that those who will not toil for us, will assuredly toil against us. There can be none neutral in the battle we are now waging. A man can have committed no greater crime against the Republic than having done nothing to add to its strength. I know your tender heart grieves at the death of every traitor, though your patriotism owns the necessity of his fall. Remember that the prosperity of every aristocrat has been purchased by the infamy of above a hundred slaves! How much better is it that one man should die, than that a hundred men should suffer worse than death!”

When he had finished his letter, he read it accurately over, and then having carefully wiped his pen, and laid it near his inkstand, he leant back in his chair, and with his hand resting on the table, turned over in his mind the names and deeds of those who were accounted as his friends, but whom he suspected to be his enemies. He had close to his hand slips of paper, on which were written notes of the most trivial doings of those by whom he was generally surrounded; and the very spies who gave him the information were themselves the unfortunate subjects of similar notices from others. The wretched man was tortured by distrust; as he had told his brother, there were not among the whole body of those associates, by whose aid he had made himself the ruling power in France, half-a-dozen whom he did not believe to be eager for his downfall and his death. Thrice, whilst thus meditating, he stopped, and with his pencil put a dot against the name of a republican. Unfortunate men! their patriotism did not avail them; within a few weeks, the three had been added to the list of victims who perished under the judicial proceedings of Fouquier Tinville.

It had now become nearly dark, and Robespierre was unable longer to read the unfriendly notices which lay beneath his hand, and he therefore gave himself up entirely to reflection. He began to dream of nobler subjects — to look forward to happier days, when torrents of blood would be no longer necessary, when traitors should no longer find a market for their treason, when the age of reason should have prevailed, and France, happy, free, illustrious, and intellectual, should universally own how much she owed to her one incorruptible patriot. He thought to himself of living on his small paternal domain in Artois, receiving nothing from the country he had blessed but adoration; triumphant in the success of his theory; honoured as more than mortal; evincing the grandeur of his soul by rejecting those worldly rewards, which to his disposition offered no temptation. But before he had long indulged in this happy train of thought, he was called back to the realities of his troubled life by a low knock at his door, and on his answering it, a young woman, decently, but very plainly dressed, entered the garret with a candle in her hand; this was Eleanor Duplay; and when Robespierre allowed himself to dream of a future home, she was the wife of his bosom, and the mother of his children.

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