(The FRENCH REVOLUTION – continued)
Georges Danton, the great orator and first President of the Committee of Public Safety. He drew back from the positions of the hardliners and paid for it with his life – another instance of revolutionaries killing their own.
Robespierre, a believer in divine providence and virtue, he led the terror until he too was executed by his fellow revolutionaries.
By the end of 1793 the revolts outside Paris were largely crushed, with a lot of bloodshed. In the city of Lyon, 1,800 were sentenced to death. In Marseille and Bordeaux, hundreds were executed. The revolutionaries imprisoned thousands, and many of the imprisoned were to die by early 1795.
Meanwhile, by the spring of 1794, France's military was winning victories again. Conscription was changing warfare. With the first citizen's army in 2000 years and a massive army of conscripts, France's army was showing its superiority over smaller professional armies. France's generals were using mass attacks at bayonet point to overwhelm their enemy.
In Paris the terror continued. Differences of opinion existed also among the radicals of the National Convention. One of the prominent members of the National Convention, and a member of the Committee of Public Safety, was the thirty-six year-old Maximilien de Robespierre, a former lawyer active in the revolution since having been chosen as a delegate for the Third Estate back in early 1789. Robespierre had urged the emancipation of Jews and slaves and the abolition of the death penalty, and in late 1791 and early 1792 he had been opposed to France going to war. He had distrusted the wisdom of the Parisian mobs and had often sided with moderation, but when the mob had begun exercising more power over government he had swung to their side, deciding that they represented the real engine of revolution.
Robespierre was devoted to the writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau. Like Rousseau, he believed in a personal god, in divine providence and the immortality of the soul, and, like Rousseau, he saw morality and virtue as rising from the faith and hope of religious people. Robespierre described the revolution as grounded in virtue. He found fault with those in the convention associated with Jacques René Hébert. He identified them as atheists and anti-Christians. Robespierre saw anyone who did not believe in a Supreme Being as subversive, and he saw atheism as corrosive, morally offensive and a useless provocation against the sensibilities of common people. Hébert led a faction in the Convention that rivaled Robespierre's identification with the will of the Paris mob. Robespierre joined others on the Committee of Public Safety in judging the Hébertists as anarchists guilty of conspiracy and of collusion with foreign powers, and on March 24, 1794, Hébert and nineteen of his colleagues were guillotined.
Robespierre than came into conflict with another prominent deputy, Georges Jacques Danton. Initially Danton supported executing suspected enemies of the revolution, but in 1793 he had not wanted a repeat of the massacres of 1792, and he was having second thoughts about continuing the war. His fellow deputies spoke of his opposition to the terror as encouraging those opposed to the revolution. Danton was an outstanding orator, and he still had a following among some of the deputies. The Committee of Public Safety feared that he might be able to rally the convention against their positions. Robespierre disliked Danton. Danton rejected his talk of virtue, and Robespierre asked how a man "with so little notion of morality ever became a champion of freedom." [note]
On March 29, 1794, Danton and a few of his allies were arrested. A phony trial was conducted, the judge himself fearing accusations against him by the Committee of Public Safety. Danton and his friends were accused of conspiring against the French people, of dealings with the Girondists, of attempting to restore the monarchy, embezzling state funds and other charges. They were guillotined on April 5, 1794.
Robespierre's idea of virtue was devotion to the revolution, exemplified by those volunteering to risk their lives by joining the military. He continued his celebration of the Supreme Being and acknowledgment of the immortality of the soul – to the applause of the Convention. He was one of those who thought in absolutes and was soon to say that he recognized only two parties: "virtuous citizens and bad citizens." By his fellow deputies he was called the incorruptible because he was uninterested in money and could not be bought. Robespierre appeared to be giving his all to the welfare of the revolution, and whatever he did he justified in the name of serving France.
Robespierre was elected president of the National Convention, but by the other deputies he was not really popular or well liked. And, now that they had been killing each other, more were asking themselves about the need for limits - while Robespierre was apparently interested in demonstrating his certainty that the terror was still the right thing to do.
A law passed by the National Convention on June 10, 1794 gave Robespierre the power to indict anyone on the flimsiest of charges. No witnesses were to be allowed. Court proceedings were reduced to mere condemnations. Between June 12 and July 28, 1285 persons were guillotined in Paris – the greatest period of work for the city's executioners.
In late July, Robespierre announced to the Convention that more cleansing was to come, without saying whom the targets were to be. He spoke of having "trembled" lest he be "soiled by the impure neighborhood of wicked men." The Convention held its applause.
On the revolution's new calender the month had the name Thermidor, and what followed was to be called the Thermidorean Reaction. Delegates feared their own imperfections, or perceived imperfections, and that they might be targeted. The following day, when Robespierre rose to speak again to the deputies they howled him down. Robespierre responded with demands that he be allowed to speak. Instead, the deputies voted overwhelmingly that he and several of his supporters be arrested. He was charged with crimes against the republic. Robespierre and his supporters escaped and tried to rally Parisians to their support. That night there were marches and counter marches. In an exchange of gunfire, Robespierre received a shot to his jaw, and his jaw was tied shut with a bandage made from a torn sheet. His speaking days were over. Those with guns who opposed Robespierre triumphed, and the following day, July 28, 1794, it was the turn of Robespierre and 21 of his associates to be beheaded by the guillotine.
Copyright © 2009-2013 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.