A dictatorship had, in fact, been spoken of, but it was Saint-Just, on returning from the army, who had uttered this terrible word, in a conference of the Committees of Public Safety and General Security expressly convoked by Robespierre.
Continuing The Reign Of Terror,
our selection from Popular History of France From the Earliest Times by François P. G. Guizot published in 1869. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages. The selection is presented in seven easy 5 minute installments.
Previously in The Reign Of Terror.
The same terror also, and the same atrocities which desolated the West, reigned in the North and the South. In the Department of Vaucluse, Maignet, in the Pas-de-Calais, Joseph Lebon, had obtained the erection of local revolutionary tribunals. “The arrests which I have ordered in the Departments of Vaucluse and the Bouches-du-Rhône amount to twelve or fifteen thousand,” wrote Maignet to his friend Couthon. “It would require an army to conduct them to Paris; besides, it is necessary to appall, and the blow is only terrifying when struck in the sight of those who have lived with the guilty.” They had felled the tree of liberty in the little town of Bédouin; sixty-three of the inhabitants were executed; the rest fled. “I have wished to give the national vengeance a grand character,” wrote Maignet to the Committee of Public Safety, “and I have ordered that the town should be given to the flames. If you think this new measure too rigorous, let me know your wishes, and do not read my letter to the Convention.” To the complaints of Rovère, representative of Vaucluse, Robespierre replied, “We are content with Maignet; he knows well how to guillotine.” Joseph Lebon established an orchestra close by the guillotine; he caused the Ça ira * to be sung during the executions, which he witnessed from his balcony. Formerly a priest and well esteemed, he was moderate at the outburst of the Revolution, but his reason had yielded to the dizziness of despotic power; it was of a veritable madman that Barère said: “Lebon has completely beaten the aristocrats, and he has protected Cambrai against the approaches of the enemy; besides, what is there that is not permitted to the hatred of a republican against the aristocracy? The Revolution and revolutionary measures must only be spoken of with respect. Liberty is a virgin whose veil it is culpable to raise.”
[* “It will go.” One of the most popular songs at the beginning of the Revolution (1789), said to have been suggested by Benjamin Franklin, who, in speaking of the progress of the American Revolution, said: “Ça ira” meaning, “It will succeed.” — ED.]
For some time Robespierre had appeared but rarely at the Committee of Public Safety; he reserved himself for the department of general police, that is to say, the direction of the “Terror” throughout France. Underhand dissensions and jealousies began to creep in among these criminals, secretly disquieted by projects of which they were reciprocally suspicious. Billaud-Varennes and Collot d’Herbois dreaded Robespierre and began to conspire against him. Robespierre established himself with the Jacobins, as in an impregnable fortress. The President and Vice-President of the Revolutionary Tribunal, and the commandant of the armed forces, Henriot, awaited his orders. They pressed him to take action against the enemies whom he had himself denounced to the Jacobins. “Formerly,” said he, “on the 13th Messidor [July 1st], the underhand faction that has sprung from the remnant of the followers of Danton and Camille Desmoulins attacked the committees en masse; now they prefer to attack a few members in particular; in order to succeed in breaking the bundle, they attribute to a single individual that which appertains to the whole Government. They dare not say that the Revolutionary Tribunal has been instituted in order to swallow up the National Convention; they have spoken of a dictator, and named him; it is I who have been thus designated, and you would tremble if I told you in what place.”
A dictatorship had, in fact, been spoken of, but it was Saint-Just, on returning from the army, who had uttered this terrible word, in a conference of the Committees of Public Safety and General Security expressly convoked by Robespierre. The latter had proposed the institution of four great revolutionary tribunals, in order to forge new weapons for himself; but the conference refused. Robespierre went out irritated and gloomy. “Misfortune has reached a climax,” cried Saint-Just. “You are in a state of anarchy. The Convention is inundating France with laws inoperative and often impracticable. The representatives accompanying the armies dispose at their will of the public fortune and our military destinies; the representatives sent as Commissioners to the Provinces usurp all power and amass gold for which they substitute assignats. How can such political and legislative disorder be regulated? I declare upon my honor and my conscience, I see only one means of safety; and that is the concentration of power in the hands of one man who has enough genius, force, patriotism, and generosity to become the embodiment of public authority. It is necessary, above all, to have a man endowed with long practical knowledge of the Revolution, its principles, its phases, its modes of action, and its agents. Finally, he must be a man who has the general good-will and confidence of the people in his favor, and who is at once a virtuous and inflexible as well as an incorruptible citizen. That man is Robespierre; it is he only who can save the State. I ask that he be invested with the dictatorship, and that the committees make a proposition to this effect at the Convention to-morrow.”
The imprudence of the speech equaled the audacity of the act. The members of the two councils looked at each other, hesitating to accept the declaration of war. A few of them contended for their lives against the vengeance of Robespierre and his friends. “This Robespierre is insatiable,” said Barère, with anger. “Let him ask for Tallien, Bourdon de l’Oise, Thuriot, Guffroy, Rovère, Lecointre, Panis, Barras, Fréron, Legendre, Monestier, Dubois Crancé, Fouché, Cambon, and all the Dantonist remnant, well and good; but to Duval, Audouin, Léonard Bourdon, Vadier, Vauland, it is impossible to consent.”
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