Articles

6. Maximilien Robespierre and the French Revolution


Prof: I’m going to talk
about the French Revolution. It’s hard to do.
I’ll leave myself about
forty-five minutes after I screw around at the beginning.
I want to do two things.
I want to see the Revolution
through the eyes of Maximilien de Robespierre,
a member of the Committee of Public Safety–arguably,
with Saint-Just, its most important member.
In a way, Jacobin–he
incarnated the French Revolution.
In doing so I want to talk
about the terror and, above all, why it was that
people supported or opposed the Revolution.
It comes down a great deal to
religion, as we’ll see. But first, because I promised
that we had the only live, bootlegged album of the trial
of the king, and of his execution,
I thought I’d play those and also the death of Citizen Marat
in his bathtub. To do that, I decided to bring
a prop. I’m not making light of instant
death. I just finished a book about a
guy who ends up putting his head in a little window.
You knew people were smaller
back in those days, but you really didn’t imagine
that they were this small. Do you know what this is,
what this comes from, this guillotine?
Do you know what this is for?
What?
No.
This is real.
That hurt, actually,
when I did that. Don’t write your parents,
especially you freshman, and say, “he was running
here waving a guillotine, running around the place.
There he goes again.”
No, it’s for cigars.
Student::
That was my idea. Prof: That was your idea?
Student::
Cigars, awesome! Prof: No, don’t smoke.
Anyway, can you put on the
first one? This is the trial of the king.
This is the king.
I’ll just translate part of it.
I’m not going to translate the
whole thing. It doesn’t matter if you don’t
know French. This is just for ambience.
This is ambience.
They’re putting him on trial.
He did bad things.
I’ll translate part in a minute.
This takes probably too much
time, but it’s cool. This is from a rock opera about
the French Revolution. Keith Richards live here.
Keith Richards?
This is too long to get to it.
I apologize.
Louis XVI, this was his finest
moment. This is not Louis XVI.
They’re going to ask him to
respond to the charges, and the old boy will.
“Answer the accusation,
the indictment, what you’ve done against the
nation.” It’s nice.
Listen.
“Among you,
I’m looking for judges and all I see is accusers.”
(I won’t do the whole thing.)
“I never did this horrible
thing. I never betrayed my
country” (which is patently false).
“Life has given me some
misfortunes and death doesn’t frighten me at all.
Maybe you can do France better
than me, take care of France better than I could.
Keep it from its own excesses.
Take care of my family.”
(They didn’t come out very well
either.) “Take care of my children.
It’s only favor I’ll ask you to
carry out. Je n’ai plus rien à
vous dire. I have nothing more to say to
you.” (They’re going to vote now.
Got live, got dead.)
La mort, death.
Saint-Just, “death.”
Marat–he’ll get his in a few
minutes. He will get his, too.
Now, they execute the old guy.
This is the death of Citizen
Marat. He meets Charlotte Corday,
who is from Normandy and a royalist.
He’s in his bathtub.
I won’t translate everything.
“Citizen,
you’re coming without knocking. You’re seeing Citizen Marat
nude in his bath. What’s your name?
Charlotte.
You have very nice eyes.
Come here a little closer.
What can I do for you?”
(I won’t translate that.)
“Do you like them, Citizen?
Why are you looking so mean all
of a sudden? To make you afraid, you bastard.
What’s the knife for?
Argh!”
You heard it live.
That’s it.
Okay.
Can we get the lights, please?
Maximilien Robespierre was born
on May 6,1758 in Arras, a beautiful town destroyed in
World War I in the north of France.
His father was a lawyer.
He was the son and grandson of
lawyers. His father married the daughter
of a well-to-do brewer and they were married a few months before
the birth of Maximilien. Two daughters,
one who died, this is fairly normal,
and Augustin, his brother,
followed. His mother died giving birth to
a fifth child who barely survived her.
The father was unstable,
always leaving home at the time of the birth of all of his
children. He finally died in Germany.
So, Robespierre never had a
family. Psychohistorians have done a
lot with this. The family of four was left in
the care of a maternal grandmother and aunts.
Essentially,
he was an orphan at the age of eight.
He felt his father’s guilt
about causing the death of his wife.
His sister remembered after his
father left, disappeared,
“A total change came about in him,
forming like all other children of his age,
he was thoughtless and turbulent and flighty.
But since he became the family
head, so to speak, by virtue of being the eldest,
he’s become settled, responsible and laborious.
He spoke to us with the kind of
gravity which impressed us. If he was to take part in our
games, it was in order to direct them.
He loved us tenderly and there
were no attentions and caresses that he did not lavish upon
us.” Henceforth, if you buy a
psychohistorian’s interpretation,
“He could only be a man of order.
He desperately tried to
assimilate himself to the social order.
He both loved and hated his
father as he adored his dead mother.
His whole life was marked by
feeling of his father’s guilt, which also represented the
death in a real way of his own childhood.”
In his last hours,
his death wish, his inability to act when he
might have saved himself can be seen, if you will,
in that context. He was forced into a
seriousness and responsibility. He always had a passion for
solitude, isolation. He knew what it was to be poor.
He was an example of sort of
downward mobility. He went to school and he was
really smart, supported by charitable
foundations, first in Arras and then in Paris.
At age eleven to the
college or middle school of Louis le Grand,
where he became a star classics scholar.
He was selected among all the
other pupils to read a poem that he had composed to none less
than the king and the queen as they passed by Reims,
also in the north of France, in champagne country.
As it was raining,
the king and the queen ordered the driver to go on,
not stopping to listen to Robespierre’s little poem and,
indeed, splashing his only good suit of
clothes with mud as they drove off.
He became a lawyer,
getting his degree in 1780 in Paris, a lawyer at the
Parlement of Paris. His scholarship passed,
as things did in the old regime, to his younger brother.
He entered literary contests
that were run by the Académie.
It was once said that he even
caught sight of the great Rousseau, but that seems a
little unlikely. But in Metz,
the Académie awarded him 400 pounds, which was a lot of
money. He was elected to the
Académie of Arras. In law cases he championed the
poor, the humble. He took the side of a man in an
abbey who had been accused by the monks of a theft,
when in fact one of the monks had done the ripping off.
He once said when somebody was
condemned to death, “I know very well that he
is guilty, but I can’t imagine to send
someone to his own death.” At the beginning,
but only in the beginning, he did not believe in capital
punishment; although, arguably those who
agree with him would say that he saved the Revolution by meting
out capital punishment. Because of his reputation–this
was a classic case of a young lawyer on the make–he’s elected
to the Estates General from Artois.
He’s unknown.
When he goes to Paris he’s
called in the minutes sometimes “Robes-Pierre,”
sometimes Robespierre. Sometimes Robert,
like the name Robert, or sometimes simply Robert,
as if that was his first name, and Pierre, his second name.
But he began to make a mark,
speaking always very softly. Sixty-eight times he spoke in
1789 and he gradually gets his reputation there.
He opposes all restrictions on
the freedom of the press, and of course that would change
later as well. He invokes Rousseau’s concept
of the general will to support the view that the king should
have no right to oppose or delay legislative measures proposed by
the assembly. You know this from your reading.
He sided on the left of the
assembly with those who went to Varennes to bring back Louis XVI
when he and Marie Antoinette tried to hightail it to the
southern Netherlands or, that is, to Belgium.
That was the king, by the way.
He should have been there first.
That’s the king.
There’s Marat fully clothed.
There is Maximilien Robespierre.
Although he spoke often,
he lacked presence and color. This would be the case until
the very end. The English writer, Carlyle,
saw him as “anxious, slight,
an ineffectual looking man in spectacles,
his eyes troubled, careful, with an upturned face.
Dimly trying to understand the
uncertain future times, but he spoke with an intense
passion and conviction, a belief in all that he
said.” Mirabeau, who died of syphilis,
one of the king’s main advisors,
said of him, “That man will go far,
because he believes every single thing that he says.”
He seemed rigid in his
principles, plain, unaffected in his manners.
“Nothing,”
said an Englishman, “of the volatility of a
Frenchman in his character.”
He supported the idea that all
male citizens should have the right to vote and thus,
he opposed the idea of having active citizens,
who pay taxes, and passive citizens,
who did not have enough money to pay taxes and thus could not
vote. He calls for,
among others, the deposition of–the king’s
being deposed, both in the legal sense and
being deposed from the monarchy. He was already known as
“the incorruptible.” He received letters of
admiration. Once leaving the assembly a
crowd put oak leaves around him and carried him around the city
in triumph. He always wore impeccably white
clothes. He wore a powdered wig,
which is very much an old regime thing and not a
revolutionary thing. He was not somebody who was
going to go out and tutoie easily.
The revolutionaries
tutoient–tutoie is in the familiar form,
like du in German, as opposed to Sie.
Du is the familiar form.
All were equal,
therefore, he didn’t say vous to people who were
above you in the social ladder. He didn’t like people touching
him. Indeed, probably he was chaste.
He had only a few flimsy and
only by mail flirtations with women.
When they picked him up,
you have to imagine a sort of crassly American analogy,
where a football coach who’s sort of swept off his feet after
a big upset or something. He doesn’t like people touching
him. He doesn’t like being carried
away by them. He was ascetic,
always preferred being alone. He ate very modestly.
One letter to him said,
“As incorruptible as you are courageous,”
and he was that, “you have always openly
displayed your feelings. It has never been self interest
that has made you act or speak, only the general
interest.” He identified with ordinary
people and he ends up living in western Paris,
a more prosperous part of Paris,
but in the home of a carpenter on a street called the Faubourg
Saint-Honoré. Those were really his happiest
moments. It provided him with a family.
It had young children in it
that he really hadn’t had–a very normal circumstance.
People who came to see him saw
him sort of stretched out on the couch with his family trying to
guess from the way he looked what he might want.
Would he want more grapes?
Would he want more milk,
et cetera? He read a lot.
He wrote his speeches,
which were written out by hand. He was always well combed and
powdered, the cleanest of dressing gowns,
et cetera. He began to be a frequenter of
the Jacobin Club. These clubs,
like the Feuillants, and the Cordeliers,
and the Jacobins, were called that not because
they had anything to do with the religious orders,
like the Jacobins were a religious order.
The biggest places you could
meet were churches and abbeys. Those were always the biggest
buildings. The Jacobins,
who were on the left of these clubs, begin meeting right even
before the Bastille falls on the 14^(th) of July,
1789. He begins to go to the Jacobin
Club. The Jacobin become the great
leftwing centralizers of the revolution.
They trumpet the authority of
the Parisian Sans-Culottes. That’s another French term so
important it worked its way into English dictionaries.
The Sans-Culottes were those
who supported the Revolution. Technically,
if you said sans culottes it meant somebody
who was not wearing pants. That’s not what it meant.
What it meant was not wearing
fancy kind of aristocratic breeches, and it became
identified with a form of political behavior.
You could be an aristocrat,
and there were liberal aristocrats,
in a meeting in a club called the Club of the Thirty,
who helped push the Revolution really toward constitutional
monarchy, at least in the beginning.
If you were against the
Revolution, you were an aristo.
You were an aristocrat.
If you were for the Revolution,
you were part of the people. You chose the color red,
because red becomes the color of the leftwing interpretation
of the Revolution. You gave people kisses on both
sides of the cheeks or three times,
depending on where you were in France,
as recognizing the solidarity you had as being a
citoyen, that is, a male citizen,
or a citoyenne, female citizen.
The whole idea of kissing,
by the way, is terribly important in France,
but that’s mostly a late-nineteenth and
early-twentieth-century thing. People really kept their
distance, whereas now if you live in Paris you kiss twice,
or in the Sixteenth Arrondissement not at all;
you merely shake hands. If you live in the Parisian
suburbs, often you kiss four times.
If you live in the south of
France, you kiss three times. In the Department of the
Hérault, which is Bas-Languedoc,
if you live in Béziers, you kiss three times.
If you live in Montpellier,
which is a more aristocratic city traditionally,
a more formal city–it was a big university town,
it really rocks–you kiss only twice.
But this idea of kissing people
on the cheeks was a sign of revolutionary solidarity.
Symbols were very important.
If you carried pikes around,
pikes at the Battle of Valmy, which you can read about–is
the pikes of the Sans-Culottes that stopped the
highly-professional armies of the enemies of the Revolution.
So, he believes in the
necessity of a single will. Again, this comes out of
Rousseau’s idea of the general will to save the revolution
against its enemies. He is one of the people that
helps push the French Revolution to the left.
His principles were totally
unshakable. He doesn’t budge on them at all.
Of course, it’s just insane to
look back and see in Robespierre the origins of totalitarianism,
despite the Committee of Public Safety.
Robespierre also was a man of
his times. He was not against all property.
He was against les gros,
people having too much unearned property.
He thought everybody should
have enough to get along, but that even people who didn’t
have any property and thus didn’t pay any taxes,
as I said before, ought to have the right to vote.
He also, like the Jacobins,
believed that they ought to have enough to eat.
One of the tensions that one
found in French Revolutionary political clubs,
and political societies, and in the neighborhood
sections that began planning how you would defend your
neighborhood against foreign invaders or insurgents from
within–the price of bread, of course, counted enormously.
In a couple of weeks I’m going
to talk about what difference bread made in terms of popular
protest. People who believed in the kind
of free trade that Turgot had in the 1870s believed that the
market ought to determine the price of bread.
But there was always a
tradition that the price of bread ought to be kept at a
reasonable amount, so that everybody ought to have
enough to eat. So, the Jacobins,
most of them believed in the maximum, “the
maximum,” which was a maximum on the
price of bread. Now, their enemies on the
revolutionary left, or left central,
were called the Girondins, which I wrote on the board and
a name I sent around on the class server.
The Girondins,
G-I-R-O-N-D-I-N-S–which is also the name of the Bordeaux
soccer team–were from Bordeaux and the department of the
Girondin, many of them were.
They are merchants.
They are free trade people and
they also were extremely interested in launching foreign
wars to carry liberty, fraternity, and equality
abroad. I’m scrambling for this great
quote. The Girondins were in love with
war. There was this great rhetoric
about conquest and carrying “freedom”
to other countries. Although one had to be,
and many people were, cynical about this,
when the French troops poured into the Rhineland,
the prostitutes of the Rhineland cities dressed up in
red, white, and blue flags to welcome their
new clients. Robespierre made a series of
speeches against this Brissot, who was the former Grub Street
writer that I mentioned before, arguing that France should not
go to war. He said that–and more about
this in a minute–that the danger to the Revolution did not
come from a handful of émigrés in
Germany, but from within France,
from the counter-revolution. That’s important.
That’s worth underlining.
Secondly, he argued that
launching wars all over the place will merely play into the
hands of the king, who at this point was still the
king, and the counter
revolutionaries, perhaps paving the way for some
sort of military dictatorship. How forward-looking was that?
Because that’s exactly what
they ended up with, of course, with Napoleon.
Moreover, he argued that war
would separate soldiers from the rest of the people.
Indeed,
the levée en masse–my guillotine almost
fell down–would compromise that,
because all citizens become soldiers, et cetera,
et cetera. But he said something.
This is an amazing little
speech that he gave. I’m going to read just a few
lines of it. If you think about current
politics in this country in the last five years,
it may also ring true. Robespierre said,
“The most extravagant idea that can arise in a politician’s
head is to believe that it is enough for a people to invade a
foreign country to make it adopt their laws and their
constitution. No one loves armed missionaries.
The declaration of the rights
of man is not a beam of sunlight that shines on all men,
and it is not a lightening bolt which strikes every throne at
the same time. I am far from claiming that a
revolution will not eventually influence the fate of the world,
but I say that it will not be today.”
Amazing!
He lost this debate in 1792
and, in fact, his denunciation of plots
against the Revolution may have contributed to revolutionary
paranoia, which would be acted out in the
terror. On the 20^(th) of April,
1792 the Girondins and the king got their wish and war was
declared on Austria and French troops crossed into Belgium,
that is, the Austria-Netherlands,
and the wars went on and on. I want to make a couple points
that are pretty important. I’m not going to use these
papers to do this. The threat to the Revolution
did not come just from Austria, from Great Britain,
from Prussia, from Russia,
from the big allies. Robespierre got this right.
There are two–and the timing
of this you can read about in the chapter and please do–main
counter-revolutionary threats to the Revolution.
The first, which was not the
most important but still is worth mentioning was what has
been called the federalist revolt.
This was based in cities in
which merchants, free traders,
played a big role in that. Here is a map of la belle
France. Bordeaux we’ve already talked
about. You’ve got all these wine
merchants and all this fancy land and who merchant other
things as well. You’ve got Marseilles.
Toulon is not yet the huge port
it had become in the nineteenth century.
We’ve got Marseilles.
You’ve got Lyon,
then France’s second city, first in gastronomy,
one could still argue today. Varennes was merely where the
king is caught. That’s up there.
By the way, in 1790,
in order to undercut local elites,
that is clergy and nobles, and also to impart a more
rational organization of the country–it comes right out of
the Enlightenment, out of the
philosophes–they create départements.
They name most of them after
rivers, though some are named after mountains.
They create a capital in each
of them. None of this matters,
but it’s just to tell you what’s going on.
That’s Haute-Vienne,
the capital is Limoges. That’s the Corrèze,
the capital is Tulle. Up there is the Creuse,
the capital is Guéret. This is Rouen in the
Seine-Maritime,. This is the Atlantic Pyrenees,
the capital is Pau, et cetera, et cetera.
The federalist revolt also in
Cannes, that’s where the aforementioned Charlotte Corday
came from, from that part. That’s the department of the
Calvados, which is also the name of a wonderful apple brandy.
The federalist revolt comes in,
above all, in Lyon, Cannes, Marseilles,
and Toulon. Of course, the revolutionary
armies, the armies of ordinary citizens in the republic,
what has become the republic, crush them.
They crush them like grapes.
In Lyon, one of the members of
the Committee of Public Safety, who was confined to a
wheelchair, a man named Couthon,
who you can read about, C-O-U-T-H-O-N,
says he’s going to plow Lyon under like Carthage;
and they do execute people on the Place Bellecour.
So, this federalist revolt is
against the Jacobins, a Parisian-centered,
far-left interpretation of the French Revolution.
By the way, there are groups
even further to the left. The Jacobins really weren’t
that far to the left, but there are groups like The
Enraged, les Enragés.
There’s even a guy called
Gracchus Babeuf, who believed that property
should be abolished. These are just very small
groups. Babeuf is guillotined in
Vendôme, which is south of Paris near
the Loire. His trial is a wonderful
source, the trial of Gracchus Babeuf, an original source.
Anyway, that’s the federalist
revolt. But the most important threat
to the revolution comes from peasants.
It comes from peasants in the
west of France, also down where we live,
in this part of France, too.
That comes later.
Basically, what I’m going to
talk about for a few minutes is the revolt in the west.
It was often said that peasants
would never march more than a day away from their fields;
but certainly, as Mao, or Ho Chi Minh,
and lots of other people have shown, that’s not the case at
all. The war was fought with a
savagery, with a brutality that was simply staggering.
There were massacres on both
sides. The Vendée,
which is in dark there, became a department,
good old number eighty-five. But it became such a major
blood bath, that the entire counter-revolution in the west
is often simply called the Vendée.
I am in history literally
because I read a long time ago a book written by my late and
much-missed friend, Charles Tilley,
called The Vendée ,
which sought to explain, and did explain,
and really hasn’t been nuanced very much over the decades,
why some people opposed the revolution,
taking big-time chances. Other people who didn’t live
that far away supported the revolution.
What he found–he studied an
area, it doesn’t matter where,
but sort of the north of that dark area,
actually in the Maine-et-Loire, a different department–but
here’s another French word that’s also English,
in the bocage country, B-O-C-A-G-E.
It’s the hedgerow country.
He found that the people who
rose up against the revolution and took big-time chances–the
republicans didn’t screw around, and there was a lot of horrible
brutality. They drowned thousands of
clergy in the swirling waters of the Loire River,
which is a really dangerous river,
by putting them out into the river with holes drilled in the
bottom of the boat, which didn’t give them a big
hope. They killed lots of people on
the Il de Ré, which is up here off La
Rochelle. Of course, the forces
representing the monarchy, representing the nobles,
were, if anything, more brutal.
They crucified people,
literally. They made them kiss the cross
before they beat them to death. It was really a nasty time.
Looking at people who rebelled
and ones who didn’t, one of the things we can say at
least about that particular area,
but it really rings true, is that areas in which that
traditional elite, noble and priest,
had not been broken down by the economic and social changes of
the eighteenth century. They were physically isolated.
These hedges,
you see them also in the in the Manche in Normandy.
These are huge hedgerows that
you literally can’t fight your way through and can’t really
climb over. People tended to marry within
their village or within a nearby village.
The priests still walked tall.
The noble was somebody who they
still respected, even though many of the nobles
had left. Many of them they still had to
pay dues to the nobles. Their only contact with this
kind of bourgeois world of economic change was with people
who were farming taxes, for example,
whom they hated, people who were putting out
work into the countryside who cheated them and said,
“I told you I’d give you five sous last time,
but there are a lot of women doing that same work.
I’m going to give you three and
if you don’t like that, too bad.
I’ll walk away and I won’t take
the cloth work that you’ve done for me.
Too bad for you.”
Or people that collected the
taxes for the nobles. If you look up further along
the Loire River where you had this sort of economic change in
the eighteenth century, people accepted this new lead.
They were willing to ditch the
idea of the monarch. It wasn’t that they all read
Rousseau instead of the Bible before they went to bed,
but these were big-time changes that reflected the way things
had evolved. Let me give you some more
examples. One of the most important
moments of the French Revolution–and this is also
worth remembering, and you can read about it–is
the civil constitution of the French clergy.
The revolutionaries get the
very good idea that you’re broke.
We already know that.
The monarchy is just flat
broke, so where are you going to get the money?
Who has money?
Well, nobles who leave France
have money, because they have a lot of
property, particularly in areas like
Brittany and in Burgundy and in Ile-de-France,
around Paris. But the church has enormous
amounts of money, enormous amounts of land.
What they do is they
essentially nationalize the church,
the details you can get, and they force people to take
an oath to the French Revolution, to the nation.
In certain parts of France,
particularly those that rose up against the Revolution,
the priests don’t take the oath.
They refuse to.
They are called non-juring,
that is, non-swearing, priests, J-U-R-I-N-G.
In other parts of France,
the priests were more willing to take the oath and they were
called juring clergy. This is important.
If you just look at this map,
you see this is by cantons,
cantons within departments. You can see all that white up
in Brittany and those revolutionary areas.
It corresponds exactly to the
area of people who fought against the French Revolution.
Because the clergy still has
enormous influence, and so do the nobles,
even if they’re living in England at the moment,
or living in Britain, or living in the Austrian
Southern Netherlands, or in the Rhineland or
somewhere else in the German states.
But this isn’t enough.
That’s not enough.
We have to see really
what–here we go. This is by district.
This is an even better map of
it. You see that in the central
part of France here, priests refused to swear
allegiance, as in our village, to the French Revolution.
But in Brittany and in Normandy
they did, massively. And in Alsace and Lorraine they
did, massively. And in the north of France they
did, massively. So, okay, that’s fine.
That’s interesting.
So, what’s going on here?
What’s going on?
Why does it go like that?
It’s not just that people all
start getting together and say, “Let’s not swear to the
Revolution. Let’s go have a drink of
Calvados instead.” More important changes are
going on. The word
“dechristianization,” which I also sent around,
has two meanings. One is the campaign against the
church by the revolutionaries to melt down church bells,
et cetera, et cetera. Dechristianization,
to change the calendar so that it’s no longer January,
February, March, but it’s Germinal,
Thermidor, Ventôse, names that have to do with
winds and plants and the agricultural calendar.
That’s part of
dechristianization, but that’s not the big issue.
The issue is that in these
areas in which the Revolution was accepted,
that old time religion was on the rope.
A friend of mine,
who was a great historian, called Michel Vovelle,
a long time ago did a book on dechristianization.
He looked at part of Provence.
He looked at what people did
with their money and wills. He looked at the number of
people that became priests or nuns.
He looked at all sorts of
things–how many people baptized their children within the three
days you were supposed to in the Catholic Church.
What he found is that the
church, it wasn’t the Revolution that destroyed the role of the
church or that reduced the role in ordinary people’s lives.
That had already happened.
It began after the
counter-reformation, that is, the Catholic
reformation. It was already well underway by
the 1730s and the 1740s. So, you can see political
behavior here reflecting these big-time, important trends.
Another way,
you could look at bishops’ sermons.
You look at how people named
their children. In the nineteenth century when
they stop naming their children after local saints,
for example. That’s another good indication.
Or, you don’t have many people
named Mary Magdeleine anymore in France,
or that kind of thing, or in the Limousin named Marcel
or Léonard. These are names of local saints.
Here again, the areas that were
counter-revolutionary, particularly up in Brittany and
Poitou and those regions there, the big story was these major
kinds of change. Ultimately, what I’m saying is
that religion was very likely to be–arguably the most important
cause for people supporting or opposing the Revolution,
particularly the radical revolution as the Committee of
Public Safety sat around this big table and made big
decisions. What about the terror itself?
The interpretations of the
terror basically have gone like this.
One, it was sort of a
bloodletting by the very poor of their social betters.
Well, that’s pretty much
nonsense. Secondly, that it’s a reflex
action to save the republic. That makes more sense,
basically, and somebody in the 1930s, before there was really
quantitative history, went to look.
A guy called Donald Greer said,
“Let’s look at the victims of the terror.”
What he finds fits into where
we started, which is Maximilien Robespierre and his attempt to
save the Revolution. Most people in the terror,
there was a higher percentage of clergy and nobles executed,
because there were small percentages of clergy and
particularly nobles in the French population.
But the vast majority of people
that either were given a prison sentence,
or put their heads through the little window,
or were shot down, executed as in Lyon,
were peasants and were artisans. Why?
Because there were more
peasants and artisans, above all peasants,
in France than any other social group.
That’s good to know that,
but even more important, that the incidents of the
terror in the French Revolution come in areas that are battle
zones. They reflect the war,
the professional soldiers of monarchies fighting in the north
of France or fighting in the east of France.
They reflect the civil war.
A lot of people were put to
death or executed because they were fighting or participating
in supplying troops in battle zones.
It’s possible,
as my friend David Bell has argued, to say that parts of
this represent the first total war.
I’ll talk more about that when
we get to Napoleon. That’s an interesting subject.
Anyway, the terror was no sort
of organized bloodletting or spontaneous–it was that,
too, despite the horrible
incidences, despite Nantes,
and despite the massacres in the prisons,
and the September massacres in Paris.
There was a logic to this and
it had to do with trying to save the Revolution.
Back to Robespierre–fumbling
through his papers here to get to the appropriate point–they
tried to kill Robespierre, of course,
as the terror gets more organized.
He had a tendency,
as does Saint-Just and the other ones that say,
“If we just have one more terror,
one more round of terror, we’ll finally save the
Revolution and all will be well.”
Lots of people in the assembly
looked around, reasonably enough,
and said, “We might be the next victims.”
He became increasingly tired,
fatigued. He was never a dramatic
speaker, but it was as if he no longer wanted to be heard.
Two attempts on his life.
It finally got him to come to
the Jacobin Club and to go the convention.
It’s possible to argue that
death and revolutionary immortality was something that
he chose because of his own childhood guilt,
primal guilt, about his own father and the
death of his mother. For someone who is ascetic and
withdrawn and preferred to be alone, he became increasingly
that way, unable to act. In 1794 in the month of
Thermidor, he became increasingly obsessed with his
own end, his own demise. He says, “If providence is
seen fit to snatch me from the hands of the assassins,
it was to ensure that I would profitably employ the moments
that still remain to me.” Yet he could only,
as people howled at him from every conceivable angle in the
convention, murmur almost inarticulately.
When he mounts the rostrum on
the 8^(th) of Thermidor, he gives an incredibly clumsy
speech for Robespierre. “I need to unburden my
heart. Everyone is in a league against
me and against those who hold the same principles that I hold.
What friend of the nation would
wish to serve the nation when he no longer is allowed to serve
it? Why remain in an order of
things in which intrigue eternally triumphs over truth?
How may one bear the torture of
seeing this horrible succession of traitors?”
Perhaps he thought that his own
death would rouse the patriots, that is the Sans-Culottes in
the sections, in the neighborhoods of
particularly central and eastern Paris.
Eleven times he is shouted
down, people shouting, “Down with the
tyrant.” He says only,
“I ask for death.” He leaves with his brother and
with Couthon and they go to the town hall, the same building is
not there, but it’s in the same spot.
They wait upstairs.
Occasionally somebody would say
to him, “Why don’t we go out and rouse up the sections?
We are at great risk here.”
And they just sit there.
They sit in this room.
They sit there all night.
Finally, inevitably the troops
of the conspiracy run up the stairs.
Couthon tries to escape in his
wheelchair and the wheelchair bounces along with him down the
stairs. Robespierre either takes a
pistol and shoots himself in the jaw or is shot in the jaw.
He spends time trying to rub
the blood, because he had this thing about clean,
white clothes. Until they know what to do with
him, at one point he’s laying on a
table and he points, with Saint-Just,
they point to the declaration of the rights of man and of
citizen. They said, “We did
that.” And indeed, they did.
They find themselves taken to
the Conciergerie, that is the prison of the
Conciergerie, which is still there.
It’s no longer a prison.
It’s one of the three great
gothic halls in France, along with Avignon and Mont
Saint-Michel. Of course, the trial is,
as he would have had it for the enemies of the Revolution,
is quick with no defense really permitted.
The next morning they clip his
hair back, as one did, so that the long hair would not
in any way slow the blade of the guillotine.
They take him,
put him in a wagon, and it takes,
because there were not major thoroughfares through Paris.
They take him to the Place de
la Revolution, which is now called the Place
la Concorde and they pass him by his house,
the house of the carpenters where he stayed,
where he had his happiest moments.
As he gets closer to the Place
de la Revolution, where he’s going to meet
Sanson–the executioners are all–it’s a blood trade,
after all. Rather like butchers,
they all intermarry. They lived outside the walls of
cities. He’s going to meet Sanson.
As he gets there,
he surely noticed that the women were more and more
well-dressed and so were the men.
As he gets there,
they’re shrieking at him obscene terms,
“Down with the maximum,”
the maximum on the price of bread.
It’s a very different crowd.
Thousands of people came to
hear, to lean forward to catch the
last words, to see the head held above,
as they did with Louis XVI and with Marie Antoinette.
“Hold my head up.
It’s a good one,”
said Danton–or something like that, when they’d executed him
on Saint-Just and Robespierre’s orders before.
He meets Sanson with blood
pouring out of the bandage holding his jaw and having come
loose. Even at the end,
even as they shove his head into the little window,
blood is pouring from him. One doesn’t know–we can’t
imagine as he looked up as his head is down.
He looks up and he sees the
throngs who have paid a fine price to sit on the roofs,
like living across from Wrigley Field or something like that,
to see the death of the tyrant-tyrant,
or the person who saved the Revolution,
or one of them. It’s very hard to say.
It depends on your view.
But certainly,
one can imagine that Robespierre breathed a breath of
relaxation, of leaving an existence that
had tortured him and of gaining for the Revolution–he
hoped–revolutionary immortality,
but also perhaps, one can argue,
paying a debt, a debt to his family that
stemmed from the death of his own mother long before in Arras.
See you on Wednesday.

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