Story type: Literature
No period of equal length in the whole era of history yields us such a succession of exciting and startling events as those few years between the convening of the States-General in France and the rise of Napoleon to power, and particularly that portion of the Revolution known as the Reign of Terror. A volume of thrilling stories might have been made from its incidents alone; but it would have been a volume so full of tales of blood and woe, of misery and massacre, of the dominance of those wild-beast passions which civilization seeks to subdue in man, that we may well be spared the telling. As with the fall of the Bastille began the long dominion of the populace, so with the fall of Robespierre it ended, and civil order returned to unhappy France. We have told the story of the one; we shall conclude with that of the other.
Three men dominated the Terror,–Danton, Marat, and Robespierre; the first named best deserving the title of man, for he possessed certain qualities of manliness not shown by his brutal colleagues. As Lamartine says, “Nothing was wanting to make Danton a great man except virtue.” He had too much manliness, as it seems, for the purposes of Robespierre, and was brought by him to the guillotine on April 5, 1794.
The triumvirate of the Reign of Terror was broken by his death and that of Marat, who had fallen under the avenging knife of Charlotte Corday in July, 1793. Robespierre was left sole director of the Revolution, being president of the Committee of Public Safety, leader of the Jacobin Club, favorite of the extreme terrorists, and lord and master of the Convention, whose members were held in subjection by his violence and their fears.
His dominion was not to be of long continuance. It was signalized by such a frightful activity of the guillotine, in which multitudes of innocent persons daily perished, that the terror which he produced was quickly followed by indignation, and a combination of many of the leading spirits of the Convention was formed against him. One after another he had vanquished all his enemies, and stood alone. But he stood on such a ghastly pyramid of the dead that he could not hope to maintain his dangerous elevation. The voice of vengeance, long choked by terror, at length began to rise against this wholesale executioner.
The outbreak was precipitated by a demand of Saint-Just, the most prominent supporter of Robespierre, that a dictatorship should be established in France, and that the “virtuous and inflexible, as well as incorruptible citizen,” Robespierre, should be made Dictator. It was a declaration of war. Many of the members of the Convention knew that it meant their death. Once give their terrible foe the extreme power which this demand indicated, and every known enemy of Robespierre in France would be doomed. Yet to oppose it was to oppose the Jacobins and the revolutionary sections, the controlling powers in Paris. The boldest members of the Convention might well pause and tremble before assailing their seemingly impregnable foe. But the rule of Robespierre had been opposed in committee; it had ceased to be a secret that he had enemies in the Convention; as yet the sentiment against him had spoken only in the dark, but the time was rapidly approaching when an open struggle could no longer be avoided.
Robespierre himself began the battle. He said to a deputation from Aisne, “In the situation in which it now is, gangrened by corruption, and without power to remedy it, the Convention can no longer save the republic; both will perish together.”
He repeated this accusation before the Convention itself, in a threatening speech, in which he declared that there was in its midst a conspiracy against public liberty; there were traitors in the national councils; the Convention must be purged and purified; the conspirators must be punished. His words were listened to in sullen silence. When he had ceased no word was spoken, except in whispers from member to member. The glove of defiance had been cast into their midst; were there none among them with the courage to take it up, or must they all yield themselves as the slaves or the victims of this merciless autocrat? No; there were men of courage and patriotism left. Three delegates rose simultaneously, three voices struggled for precedence in the right to attack the tyrant and dare the worst.
“The man who has made himself master of everything, the man who paralyzes our will, is he who has just spoken–Robespierre!” cried Cambon, in ringing tones of defiance.
“It is Robespierre! It is Robespierre,” came from other unsealed voices. “Let him give an account of the crimes of the members whose death he demanded from the Jacobins.”
The attack was so unexpected and so vehement that Robespierre hesitated to reply.
“You who pretend to have the courage of virtue, have the courage of truth,” cried Charlier; “name the individuals you accuse.”
Tumult and confusion followed these daring words. Robespierre, unable to gain the ear of the assembly, which now seemed filled with his enemies, and finding the feeling against him rapidly spreading, left the hall and took refuge with the Jacobins, where he repeated his address, this time to applauding hearers. Violent councils followed. Henriot, commandant of the troops, proposed to march on the Convention and put an end to its existence. “Name thy enemies,” shouted the members to Robespierre; “we will deliver them to thee.” Yet there was hesitation and doubt among the leaders; they feared the result of violent measures, and felt inclined to temporize and wait.
The Convention met the next day. It met inspired with a new spirit. Courage animated the members. They had crossed the Rubicon, and felt that there was no return. During the interval since the last session their forces had been organized, their plans considered. Saint-Just appeared and sought to speak. He was interrupted and his words drowned by the voices of indignant members.
“I see here,” cried Billaud-Varennes, who stood beside him, “one of the men who yesterday, at the Jacobins, promised the massacre of the National Convention; let him be arrested.”
The officers obeyed this order. Saint-Just was in custody. Billaud continued his remarks, declaring that the members were in danger of massacre, denouncing Robespierre and his supporters, bidding them to be firm and resolute. His boldness infected the assembly; the deputies stood up and waved their hats, shouting their approval. In the midst of this scene Robespierre appeared, livid with rage, his eyes flashing with the fury which inspired him.
“I demand liberty to speak,” he exclaimed.
“Down with the tyrant!” rose in a roar from a hundred voices.
Tallien, the leader of the opposition, sprang into the tribune.
“I demand that the veil be torn away instantly,” he exclaimed. “The work is done, the conspirators are unmasked. Yesterday, at the Jacobins, I saw the army of the new Cromwell formed, and I have come here armed with a dagger to pierce his heart if the Assembly dares not decree his accusation. I demand the arrest of Henriot and his staff.”
The debate went on, growing more violent minute by minute. Several times Robespierre strove to speak, but each time his voice was drowned in cries of “Down with the tyrant!” Pale with rage and fear, he turned from his opponents towards his former supporters, both hands nervously clutching the tribune.
“It is to you, pure and virtuous men,” he said, “that I address myself. I do not talk with scoundrels.”
“Down with the tyrant!” was the response of the members addressed. Evidently the whole assembly had turned against him.
Henriot, the president, rang his bell for order.
“President of assassins,” cried Robespierre, in a voice that grew feebler, “I once more demand liberty to speak.”
“The blood of Danton is choking him!” cried Garnier de l’Aude.
“Shall this man longer remain master of the Convention?” asked Charles Duval.
“Let us make an end! A decree! a decree!” shouted Lasseau.
“A tyrant is hard to strike down!” exclaimed Freron.
Robespierre stood in the midst of his circle of enemies, assailed on all sides, nervously turning in his hands an open knife.
“Send me to death!” he ejaculated.
“You have merited it a thousand times,” cried his foes. “Down with the tyrant!”
In the midst of the tumult a decree for his arrest was offered and carried. In it were included the names of his brother, of Couthon, and of Saint-Just. Henriot proclaimed the decree, while wild acclamations of triumph shook the room.
“Long live liberty! Long live the republic! Down with the tyrants! To the bar with the accused!” came from the lips of those who the day before had not dared to speak. The floodgates were down and the torrent of long repressed fury was rushing on the accused. The exciting scene ended in the removal of the prisoners, who were taken to separate prisons.
Tidings of what had taken place in the Convention ran like wildfire through Paris. Thousands of households were inspired with hope. The terrorists were filled with fury and dismay. The Commune and the Jacobins swore to support Robespierre. The tocsin peal rang out; the people gathered; the gates of Paris were closed; Henriot, half drunk, galloped along the streets, crying out that the representatives of the people were being massacred; an insurrection against the Convention was rapidly organized, headed by desperate men, among them Robespierre himself, who was again free, having been taken from the hands of the officers.
All was in peril. The Convention had assembled again, but had taken no steps in self-defence. Startling tidings were brought to the members in quick succession. It was said that the National Guard was coming with artillery, to direct it against the hall. The roar of the insurrection filled street and building. For the time it looked as if Robespierre had conquered, and all was at an end.
“I propose,” cried Elie Lacoste, “that Henriot be outlawed.”
As he spoke these words, the man named stood in the street without, ordering the artillerists, whose cannon were trained upon the Convention hall, to fire. The gunners hesitated. It was a critical moment. The fate of France hung in the balance. A group of the deputies came hastily from the hall and faced Henriot and his men.
“What are you doing, soldiers?” they exclaimed. “That man is a rebel, who has just been outlawed.”
The gunners lowered their matches. The Convention was saved. The National Guard had deserted Robespierre. Henriot put spurs to his horse, and fled at full gallop.
“Outlaw all who shall take arms against the Convention, or who shall oppose its decrees,” said Barere; “as well as those who have defied it by eluding arrest.”
This decree, repeated to the insurgents, completed their discomfiture. Rapidly they dispersed. Public opinion had changed; the Convention had triumphed. The gunners who had marched with the insurrection deserted their pieces; and a few hours afterwards returned to them, to protect the Convention.
The members of the Convention had run a serious risk in not taking active steps to assemble their friends, and in thus giving so perilous an opportunity to their enemies. This error was now retrieved; a section of their supporters came together, commanded by Leonard Bourdon and a gendarme named Meda. They reached the Hotel de Ville without opposition. Meda entered it, crying, probably as a strategem, “Long live Robespierre!” He reached the hall where the Jacobin leaders were gathered in silent dismay around the fallen dictator. Robespierre sat at a table, his head resting on his hand. Meda stepped towards him, pistols in hand.
“Surrender, traitor!” he exclaimed.
“It is you who are a traitor,” retorted Robespierre, “and I will have you shot.”
His words were barely spoken when Meda fired, his bullet shattering Robespierre’s lower jaw. It is well to state here, however, that in the belief of many Robespierre shot himself.
This decided action created consternation in the room. The younger Robespierre leaped from a window, receiving mortal injury from the fall. Saint-Just turned towards Lebas and said to him, “Kill me.”
“I have something better to do,” answered Lebas, shooting himself through the head.
A report from the stairway quickly followed. Meda with his second pistol had shot Couthon and badly wounded him. The hall had suddenly become a place of blood and death. The Jacobin chiefs, lately all-powerful, now condemned, dead, or dying, presented a frightful spectacle. Two days had changed the course of events in France. The Reign of Terror was at an end.
Robespierre lay on a table, his head supported by a small deal box. The blood flowed slowly from his mouth. He was silent, giving no sign of pain or feeling. He was taken to the Conciergerie, whither other prisoners of his faction were being brought. Saint-Just and Couthon were already there.
Five o’clock came. The carts had drawn up as usual at the gate of the prison, waiting for the condemned. This time there was a new spectacle for the people, who had become wearied with executions, but were on the alert for the fresh sensation promised them. It was no time to temporize. The Convention had ordered the immediate execution of its foes. As Robespierre, with a blood-stained cloth round his face, entered the cart, there was a shout of joy and triumph from the assembled crowd. The late all-powerful man had not a friend left.
On the scaffold the executioner tore the cloth from Robespierre’s wounded face. A terrible cry of pain followed, the first sign of suffering he had given. In a minute more his head had fallen into the gory basket, and France was avenged. It was the 28th of July, 1794, less than four months after the death of Danton had left all the power in his hands. In that and the following days one hundred and three executions sealed the fate of the defeated enemies of the Convention. Justice had been done; the Terror was at an end.