Chapter 61: The Constitution of the Central Government — Reprisals

Submitted by GrouchoMarxist on April 28, 2012

Committees of Public Welfare and Public Safety — Condition of Paris — Power of old régime — Middle classes in opposition to Revolution — Paper-money forbidden by Convention — Weakening of Commune — Convention and sections — “Law of suspects” — Jacobins obtain power — Robespierre and expelled Girondins — Report of Saint-Just — Central Government established — Military situation — Republican reverses — Massacres of Republicans — Attempts to rescue Marie-Antoinette — Her trial ordered, but postponed — Her execution — Condemnation of arrested Girondins — Others follow — Beginning of Terror

Since May 31 and the arrest of the principal Girondin members, the “Mountain” had patiently worked during the summer of 1793 at the constitution of a strong Government, concentrated in Paris and capable of grappling with the foreign invasion, the revolts in the provinces, and any popular risings that might occur in Paris itself under the guidance of the Entagés and the communists.

We have seen that in April the Convention had entrusted the central power to a Committee of Public Welfare, and after May 31 it continued to strengthen this committee with new Montagnard elements.[309] And when the application of the new Constitution was put off till the termination of the war, the two committees — of Public Welfare and of General Safety — continued to concentrate power in their hands, while pursuing a moderate policy — that of standing midway between the advanced parties, represented by the Enragés and the Commune of Paris, and the followers of Danton, behind whom stood the Girondins.

In this work of concentration of power the two committees were strongly seconded by the Jacobins, who were extending their sphere of action into the provinces and were closing up their ranks. From eight hundred in 1791, the number of societies affiliated to the Jacobin Club of Paris rose to eight thousand in 1793, and each one of these societies became a support of the republican middle classes; they were also nurseries whence the numerous officials of the new bureaucracy were drawn, and police centres which the Government used for discovering its enemies and for getting rid of them.

Besides, forty thousand revolutionary committees were formed in the towns and the village communes, as well as in the sections, and all these communities, which mostly stood, as Michelet had already noticed, under the leadership of educated middle-class men — very often officials of the old régime — were soon subordinated by the Convention to the Committee of General Safety, while the sections themselves, as also the Popular Societies, were as rapidly transformed into organs of the central government, so as to become mere branches of the republican hierarchy.

Meanwhile the state of Paris was far from reassuring. The energetic men, the best revolutionists, had enlisted in 1792 and 1793 in the army, and had gone to the frontiers or to La Vendée, while the royalists were beginning to lift their heads. Taking advantage of the slackened supervision of the sections, they returned in great numbers to Paris. In August, the extravagant luxury of the old réime suddenly made its reappearance. The public gardens and the theatres were crowded with “muscadins”.[310] In the theatres royalist plays were cheered vociferously, while republican plays were hissed. In one of the former, the Temple prison and the rescue of the Queen were represented, and it needed but little for the escape of Marie-Antoinette to become an accomplished fact.

The sections were overrun by Girondist and royalist counter-revolutionists. And when the young workmen and artisans, weary after their long day's work, assembled in the general meetings of the sections, the young men of the middle classes, armed with cudgels, came to these meetings, and carried the voting at their will.

Of course the sections would have withstood these incursions, as they had already done once before, by each helping the neighbouring sections, but the Jacobins regarded the power of the sections with jealousy, and made use of the first opportunity to paralyse them. That opportunity was not long in coming.

Bread still continued scarce and dear in Paris, and on September 4 crowds began to assemble round the Hôtel de Ville, with cries of “We want bread!”[311] These cries were becoming threatening, and it needed all the popularity and good-humour of Chaumette, the orator most loved by the poor of Paris, to soothe the crowd. Chaumette promised to provide bread, and to have the administrators charged with provisioning Paris arrested. By these promises he staved off a rising, and the next day the people only sent deputations to the Convention.

The Convention, however, neither knew nor wished to deal with the true causes of this movement. All it did was to threaten the counter-revolutionists with drastic measures, and to strengthen the central government. In fact, neither the Convention, nor the Committee of Public Welfare, nor even the Commnne — the existence of which, it must be said, was already threatened by the committee — showed any capacity for facing the situation. There was no one to express the communist ideas which were growing among the people, with the same vigour, the same daring and precision that Danton, Robespierre, Barère, and so many others had used in expressing the aspirations of the early days of the Revolution. The advocates of “strong government” — middle-class mediocrities, more or less democratic in their views — were steadily gaining the upper hand.

The truth is, that the old régime still retained an immense power, and this power had been augmented lately by the support it had found among precisely those on whom the Revolution had poured its gifts. To shatter this power, a new, popular and equalitarian revolution was necessary; but the greater number of the revolutionists of 1789-1792 wanted no such thing. The majority of the middle classes, who had held revolutionary views in 1789-1792, now considered that the Revolution was going too far. Would this Revolution be able to prevent the “anarchists” from “levelling wealth”? Would it not make the peasants too comfortable? so comfortable that they would refuse to work for the purchasers of the national lands? Where, then, should they find the labourers to get profits from their estates? For if the buyers had put millions into the Treasury to buy national lands, it was certainly with the intent of getting profits out of them, and what was to be done if there were no more unemployed proletarians in the villages?

The Court party and the aristocracy, threfore, had now as allies a whole class of men who had bought national lands, troops of the so-called “black gangs” (Les bandes noirrs) who were speculating in the purchase and sale of the national estates, crowds of contractors speculating in the supplies for the army, and multitudes of stock-jobbers speculating in the paper-currency and in all the necessaries of life. All of them had made their fortunes, and they were in a hurry now to enjoy them unhindered — to put an end to the Revolution, on one condition only, that the properties they had bought and the fortunes they had amassed should not be taken from them. A newly created crowd of lower middle-class people backed them up in the villages. And all of them cared but little as to the kind of Government they were to have, provided it was strong, provided it could keep the sans-culottes in order and withstand England, Austria and Prussia, which otherwise, if victorious, might try to restore to their previous owners the properties taken by the Revolution from the clergy and the emigrant royalists.

Consequently, the Convention and the Committee of Public Welfare, seeing that their authority was endangered by the Commune and the sections, had every facility for taking advantage of the lack of cohesion in the movement of the first days of September, and for giving new powers to the central government.

The Convention decided, it is true, to stop the trade in paper-money, by forbidding it on pain of death, and a “revolutionary army” of 6000 men was organised, under the command of the Hébertist Ronsin, for the purpose of checking the counter-revolutionists and requisitioning in the villages victuals wherewith to feed Paris. But as this measure was not followed by any vital act which would have given the land to those who wished to cultivate it themselves, or would have helped them to cultivate it, the requisitions of the revolutionary army became another cause of hatred in the villages against Paris, and resulted only in increasing the difficulties of providing food-stuffs for the capital.

For the rest, the Convention did not go beyond uttering threats of a “Terror,” and endowing the Government with fresh powers. Danton spoke of an “armed nation” and menaced the royalists. “Every day,” he said, “some aristocrat, some scoundrel ought to pay with his head for his crimes.” The Jacobin Club demanded the arraignment of the arrested Girondins. Hébert spoke of an “itinerant guillotine.” The revolutionary tribunal was going to be rendered more efficacious, and searches in private houses were allowed to be made, even at night.

At the same time, while threatening the nation with a reign of terror, measures were taken to weaken the Commune. As the revolutionary committees of the sections, which held powers of judicial police, including that of arrest, had been accused of various abuses of these powers, Chaumette succeeded in placing them under the surveillance of the Commune and in making them eliminate their less reliable members; but twelve days later, on September 17, 1793, the Convention, becoming jealous of the thus increased power of the Commune, took away this fight from its rival, and the revolutionary committees were now placed under the direct supervision of the Committee of Public Safety — that sinister force of secret police which grew by the side of the Committee of Public Welfare, threatening soon to absorb it.

As to the sections, under the pretext that they were being invaded by counter-revolutionists, the Convention decided, on September 9, that the number of their general meetings should be reduced to two a week; and to gild the pill, two francs a meeting were allotted to those of the sans-culottes who attended these assemblies, and who lived only by the work of their hands — a measure which has often been put forward as very revolutionary, but which the sections seem to have judged differently. A few of these (the Contract social, the Halleaux-blés, the Droits de l'homme, under the influence of Varlet) refused the indemnity and condemned the principle; whilst others, as Ernest Mellié has shown, only made very moderate use of this allowance.

On September 19, the Convention increased the arsenal of repressive laws by the terrible “law of suspects.” This law made possible the arrest as suspects of all ci-devants — dispossessed nobles — of all those who might show themselves “partisans of tyranny or federalism,” of all who “do not fulfil their civil duties” — whosoever, in fact, had not continually shown devotion to the Revolution. Louis Blanc and all the admirers of the State describe this law as a measure of “tremendous policy” (formidable politique), whereas in reality it simply revealed the incapacity of the Convention to continue in the direction that has been opened and traced by the Revolution. It also prepared the way for the terrible overcrowding of the prisons, which led later on to the drowning (noyades) of prisoners by Carrier in Nantes, to the wholesale shooting by Collot in Lyons, to the fournées (batches) of June and July 1794 in Paris, and more than anything else prepared the downfall of the Montagnard régime.

As a formidable government thus grew up in Paris, terrible struggles inevitably arose between the various political factions, to decide in whose hands this powerful weapon should be. On September 25, a free fight took place at the Convention between all the parties, the victory remaining with those who represented the party of the golden mean among the revolutionists — with the Jacobins and Robespierre their faithful representative. Under their influence, the revolutionary tribunal was constituted from their nominees.

Eight days later, on October 3, the new power asserted itself. On that day, Amar, member of the Committee of Public Safety, was forced to make, after much hesitation, his report about the Girondins who had been expelled on June 2 from the Convention, in which he demanded that they should be sent before the revolutionary tribunal; and either from fear or from some other consideration, he now went a good deal further the other way, and demanded, besides the thirty-one men whom he accused, the prosecution also of seventy-three Girondist deputies who had protested in June against the violation of the national representation in the Convention, but had continued to sit. To every one's great astonishment Robespierre violently opposed this proposition. It was not the rank and file, said he, who should be punished; it sufficed to punish their leaders. Supported as he was by both the Right and by the Jacobins, he carried his point with the Convention, and thus gained the aureole of a conciliator, capable of dominating both the Convention and the two committees.

A few days more and his friend Saint-Just read before the Convention a report, in which, after complaining of corruption, and of the tyranny of the new bureaucracy, he made allusions to the Commune of Paris — Chaumette and his party — and concluded with a demand that “the revolutionary government be maintained till peace be concluded.”

The Convention accepted his conclusions. The central government was thus definitively constituted.

Whilst these struggles were taking place in Paris, the military situation offered a most gloomy prospect. In August, an order for a levy had been issued, and Danton having again recovered his energy and his penetration of the people's mind, had the splendid inspiration of putting the entire work of enlistment into the hands, not of the revolutionary bureaucracy, but of the eight hundred confederates who had been sent to Paris by the primary electoral assemblies to signify their acceptance of the Constitution. This plan was adopted on August 25.

However, as one-half of France had no desire for war, the levy progressed but slowly; both arms and ammunition were lacking.

There was a series of reverses at first, in August and September. Toulon was in the hands of the English, Marseilles and Provence were in revolt against the Convention; the siege of Lyons was still going on — it continued till October 8 — and in La Vendée the situation was not improving. It was only on October 16 that the armies of the Republic gained their first victory, at Wattignies, and on the 18th that the Vendeans, beaten at Chollet, crossed the Loire to march northwards. But still the massacres of the republicans did not cease, and at Noirmoutiers, Charette shot all who surrendered to him.

It is easy to understand that at the sight of all this bloodshed, of the superhuman efforts made by France to liberate its territory from the invaders, and the incredible sufferings of the great mass of the French people, the cry of “Strike the enemies of the Revolution, high or low!” came from the hearts of the revolutionists. A nation cannot be oppressed beyond endurance without awakening revolt.

On October 3 the order was given to the revolutionary tribunal for the trial of Marie-Antoinette. Since February there had been continual talk of attempted rescues of the Queen. Several of these, as we know to-day, very nearly succeeded. The municipal officers whom the Commune put in charge of the Temple were continually being won over by partisans of the royal family. Foulon, Brunot, Moelle, Vincent, and Michonis were amongst them. Lepître, an ardent royalist, was in the service of the Commune and attracted attention in the sections by his advanced opinions. Another royalist, Bault, had obtained the post of warder in the Conciergerie prison, where the Queen was now kept. An attempted escape had fallen through in February; but another attempt, organised by Michonis and the Baron de Batz, came very near succeeding. After the discovery of this attempt (July 11) Marie-Antoinette was first separated from her son, who was placed in the keeping of the cobbler Simon. The Queen was then transferred (August 8) to the Conciergerie. But the attempts to rescue her continued, and a Knight of Saint-Louis, Rougeville, even succeeded in penetrating to her, whilst Bault, as warder, kept up relations with the outer world. Every plan for her liberation produced great excitement among the royalists, who threatened a coup d'état and the immediate massacre of the conventionals and all patriots in general.

It is very likely that the Convention would not have postponed the trial of Marie-Antoinette till October had it not hoped to stop the invasion of the allied monarchs as a condition of the Queen's liberation. It is known, indeed, that the Committee of Public Welfare had given (in July) instructions in this sense to its commissioners, Semonville and Maret, who were arrested in Italy by the governor of Milan; and it is also known that the negotiations for the liberation of the Crown Princess were carried on still later.

The efforts of Marie-Antoinette to call into France a German invasion, and her betrayals to facilitate the victory of the enemy, are too well known — now that her correspondence with Fersen has been published — for it to be worth while to refute the fables of her modern defenders who wish to prove that she was almost a saint. Public opinion was not mistaken in 1793, when it accused the daughter of Marie-Thérèse of being even more guilty than Louis XVI. She died on the scaffold on October 16.

The Girondins soon followed her. It will be remembered that when thirty-one of them were arrested on June 2, they had been allowed the liberty of moving about in Paris, under the condition of being escorted by a gendarme. There was so little idea of taking their lives that several well-known Montagnards had offered to go to the departments of the arrested Girondins, to be kept there as hostages. But most of the arrested Girondins had escaped from Paris and had gone to preach civil war in the provinces. Some roused Normandy and Brittany, others urged Bordeaux, Marseilles, and Provence to revolt, and everywhere they became the allies of royalists.

At this time, of the thirty-one arrested on June 2, only twelve remained in Paris. Ten more Girondins were added to these, and the case was brought into Court on the 3rd Brumaire (October 22). The Girondins defended themselves with courage, and as their speeches seemed likely to influence even the picked jury of the revolutionary tribunal, the Committee of Public Welfare hurriedly obtained from the Convention a law on the “acceleration of the pleadings” in Court. On the 9th Brumaire (October 29), Fouquier-Tinville had this new law read before the Court, the case was closed, and the twenty-two Girondins, were condemned. Valazé stabbed himself, the others were executed on the morrow.

Madame Roland, the real inspirer of the Girondist party, was executed on the 18th Brumaire (November 8); the ex-mayor of Paris, Bailly, of whose connivance with Lafayette in the massacre Of July 17, 1791, there was no doubt, Girey-Dupré from Lyons, the Feuillant Barnave, won over by the Queen while he accompanied her from Varennes to Paris, soon followed them, and in December the Girondin Kersaint and Rabaut Saint-Etienne mounted the scaffold, as also did Madame Dubarry of royal fame. Roland and Condorcet committed suicide.

Thus began the Terror, and once begun, it had to follow its inevitable course of development.