Education — Three-grade system — Metric system — Its importance — The Republican calendar — Its connection with Church — Severe laws against priests — First attempts at “dechristianisation” — Encouraged by Convention — Bishop Gobel's renunciation — Enthusiasm of Assembly — Movement spreads — File of Liberty and Reason — Opposition of Robes-Pierre — Conduct of Danton — Robespierre and Danton — Triumph of Catholicism — Féte of the Supreme Being — Prelude to 9th Thermidor
Amidst all these struggles, the revolutionists did not lose sight of the great question of national education. They tried to lay its foundations on principles of equality. An enormous amount of work was actually done in this direction, as may be seen by the documents of the Committee of Public Instruction, recently published. The admirable report of Michel Lepelletier on education, found after his death, was read before the Convention, and a series of measures for a three-grade system of education — primary schools, central schools and special schools — was adopted.
But the greatest intellectual monument of this period of the Revolution was the metric system. This system did much more than simply introduce into the subdivisions of linear, surface, volume, and weight measures, the decimal system which is the basis of our numeration — which of itself would have gone a good way towards the simplification of mathematical instruction, and helped to develop the mathematical turn of mind. It also gave to the fundamental measure, the mètre, a length (one forty-millionth part of the earth's meridian) which could always be re-established with a very fair degree of accuracy, in case our measures should be lost in future ages, as those of the old civilisations have been lost — and this very fact opened up new vistas for thought. Besides, by establishing a simple ratio between the units of length, surface, volume and weight, the metric system prepared the mind of the next generation for the great victory of science in the nineteenth century — its certainty as to the unity of physical forces and the unity of Nature.
The new Republican calendar was a logical outcome of the metric system. It was adopted by the Convention, after two reports by Romme, read on September 20 and October 5, and another report of Fabre d'Eglantine, read on November 24, 1793. The new calendar inaugurated also a new era in the reckoning of years, which was to begin with the proclamation of the Republic in France, on September 22, 1792, which was also the autumn equinox. The Christian week was abandoned. Sunday disappeared — the day of rest being each tenth day, the decadi.
This decision of the Convention, which struck out the Christian calendar from our daily life, necessarily emboldened those who saw in the Christian Church and its servants the chief support of servitude. The experience they had had with the clergy who had taken the Oath to the Constitution had proved the impossibility of winning over the Church to the cause of progress. Consequently the question of abolishing the payment of the clergy by the State, and of leaving the expense of supporting the ministers of their various cults to the members of these cults themselves, necessarily arose. Cambon had already brought it before the Convention in November 1792. But on three different occasions the Convention decided to retain a National Church, subject to the State and paid by it — while it treated the refractory priests (who had not taken the oath) with great severity.
Against these priests very severe laws were passed: deportation for those unsworn, and, from March 18, 1793, death for those who should take part in disturbances in connection with the recruiting, and those who should be found on the Republic's territory after having been condemned to deportation. On October 21, 1793, even more expeditious laws were decreed, and deportation became applicable also to the constitutional, sworn priests, if they were accused of “incivism” by six citizens of their canton. This proved the growth of a conviction in France that the jureurs (the priests who had taken the oath) were often quite as dangerous as the non-jureurs or papistes.
The first attempts of “dechristianisation” were made at Abbeville and at Nevers. The commissioner of the Convention, Fouché, who was at Nevers and who acted no doubt in agreement and perhaps under the influence of Chaumette, whom he met in this town, declared, on September, 26, 1793, war “against all superstitious and hypocritical worship,” as also the desire to substitute for them “a worship of the Republic and of natural morality.” A few days after the introduction of the new calendar he issued, on October 10, a new order, according to which the ceremonies of various cults might only be practised inside their respective temples. All “religious emblems on the high roads,” &c., were to be destroyed, the priests were no longer to appear in their vestments anywhere except in their churches, and, finally, burials were to be conducted without any religious ceremony, in fields planted with trees, “beneath the shadow of which shall be erected a statue representing Sleep. All other emblems shall be destroyed,” and “the gates to this field, consecrated with religious respect to the shades of the dead, shall bear this inscription: `Death is eternal sleep'.” He also explained the meaning of these decrees to the people, by means of materialist lectures.
At the same time, Laignelot, another commissioner of the Convention, transformed the parish church in Rochefort into a Temple of Truth, where eight Catholic priests and one Protestant minister came to “renounce” their orders on October 31, 1793. At Paris, on October 14, at the instigation of Chaumette, external religious practices were forbidden, and on the 16th the order issued by Fouché on burials was in principle by the Commune.
That this movement was in no way a surprise, and that men's minds had been prepared for it by the Revolution itself and its forerunners, is self-evident. Encouraged now by the acts of the Convention, the provinces threw themselves enthusiastically into the movement of dechristianisation. Following the lead of the borough of Ris-Orangis, the whole district of Corbeil renounced Christianity, and this step received the approbation of the Convention, when deputies from Corbeil arrived on October 30 to report what had been done.
Six days later, deputies from the commune of Mennecy presented themselves at the Convention, attired in copes. They, too, were well received, and the Convention recognised the “right that all citizens have to adopt whatsoever worship suits them best, and to suppress those ceremonies which displease them.” A deputation from Seine-et-Oise asking that the Bishop of Versailles, who had recently died, should not be replaced, was also received with due honours.
The Convention encouraged the movement against Christianity not only by its attitude towards dechristianisation, but also by the use to which it put the Church treasures, brought to it by the inhabitants — including the shrine of the Church of Sainte-Geneviève, which was transferred, by order, to the Mint.
Encouraged undoubtedly by this attitude of the government, Anacharsis Cloots and Chaumette then took another step forward. Cloots, a Prussian baron, who had whole-heartedly espoused the cause of the Revolution, and who advocated with courage and sincerity an International Federation of all peoples, and the precureur of the Commune, Chaumette, who was a true representative of the Paris working man, persuaded Gobel, the Bishop of Paris, to lay down his ecclesiastical duties. Having received the consent of the Episcopal Council, and having announced his decision to the department and to the Commune, Gobel came in state on the 17th Brumaire (November 7, 1793), accompanied by eleven of his vicars, and followed by the mayor Pache, the procureur Chaumette, and by two members of the department, Momoro, and Lullier, to the Convention, to divest himself openly of his prerogatives and titles.
His speech on this occasion was full of dignity. Revering as he did “the eternal principles of equality and morality, the necessary foundations of every truly republican government,” he now obeyed the voice of the people and renounced the practice of “the functions of a minister of the Catholic faith.” Depositing his cross and his ring, he accepted and put on the red cap which one of the members handed him.
The Assembly was seized thereupon with an enthusiasm which could only be compared to that of the night of August 4. Two other bishops, Thomas Lindet and Gay-Vernon, and some other ecclesiastical members of the Convention, rushed to the tribune to follow the example of Bishop Gobel. Abbé Gregoire, however, refused to join them. As to Sieyès, he declared that for many years already he had abandoned all ecclesiastical forms, that he had no other faith than that of liberty and equality, and that his prayers had long since called for the triumph of reason over superstition and fanaticism.
The result of this scene in the Convention was tremendous. The whole of France and all the neighbouring nations heard of it. And everywhere, among the governing classes, there rose a flood of hatred against the Republic.
In France, the movement spread rapidly to the provinces. Within a few days several bishops and a great number of clergy had divested themselves of their titles, and their abdications were at times the occasion of striking scenes. It is touching, indeed, to read, for instance, the following description of the abdication of the clergy at Bourges, which I found in a local pamphlet of the period.
Having mentioned a priest, J. Baptiste Patin, and Juliende-Dieu, a member of the Benedictine Order, who came to lay down their ecclesiastical prerogatives, the author of the pamphlet continues: “Privat, Brisson, Patrou, Rouen and Champion, all metropolitan ex-curés, were not the last to step into the arena; Epsic and Calende, Dumantier, Veyreton, ex-Benedictines, Rauchon and Collardot came after them; the ex-canon Desormaux, and Dubois, his companion, bent beneath the burden of years, followed them with slow steps, when Lefranc exclaimed: `Burn, burn the credentials of our priesthood, and may the very memory of our past state disappear in the flames which consume them. I lay upon the altar of our fatherland this silver medal; it bears the image of the last of those tyrants who, by reason of the scheming ambition of the clergy, was called “most Christian”.' All the documents of priesthood were then burnt in a pile; and a thousand cries arose: `Perish for ever the memory of the priests! Perish for ever Christian superstition! Long live the sublime religion of Nature!'” After which the pamphlet enumerates the patriotic gifts. This list is really touching. Presents in linen and silver shoe-buckles are very numerous. The patriots and the “brothers” were poor. They gave what they could.
On the whole the anti-Catholic feeling, in which a “religion of Nature” was blended with patriotic sentiments, seems to have been far deeper than one was led to think before consulting the documents of the period. The Revolution made men think, and gave courage to their thoughts.
In the meantime, the Department and the Commune of Paris decided to celebrate the following decadi, the 20th Brumaire (November 10), in Notre Dame itself, and to organise a Fête of Liberty and Reason, during which patriotic hymns were to be sung before the statue of Liberty. Cloots, Momoro, Hébert and Chaumette carried on an active propaganda among the popular societies, and the fête was entirely successful. This fête has been so often described that we need not dwell on the details. It must be mentioned, however, that in representing “Liberty” a living creature was preferred to a statue, because, said Chaumette, “A statue would also have been a step towards idolatry.” As Michelet had already remarked, the founders of the new faith recommended “the choice, for the fulfilment of so august a part, of persons whose character makes them chastely beautiful, and whose strictness of habits and views repudiates any base idea.” Far from being a gay mockery, the fête was rather a “chaste ceremony, cheerless, dull and tedious,” says Michelet, who was, it is known, very favourably inclined towards the dechristianisation movement of 1793. But the Revolution, he said, was already “old and weary, too old to engender anything new.” The attempt of 1793 was not born of the fiery enthusiasm of Revolution, “but of the dialectical schools of the Encyclopedic times.” Indeed, it closely resembled the modern Ethical Societies' movement, which also remains out of touch with the masses.
What chiefly strikes us to-day is that the Convention, notwithstanding the requests which came from all quarters, refused to broach the great question, the abolition of salaries for priests paid by the State. On the contrary, the Commune of Paris and its sections openly put into practice dechristianisation. In every section one church was dedicated to the cult of Reason. The General Council of the Commune even risked hastening events. In reply to a religious speech by Robespierre, delivered on the 1st Frimaire, the Council issued on the 3rd Frimaire (November 23), under the influence of Chaumette, an order by which all churches or temples of all religions in Paris were to be immediately closed; the clergy were made individually responsible for religious disturbances; the Revolutionary Committees were invited to keep a watch on the clergy; and a resolution was made to demand that the Convention exclude the clergy from any form of public service. At the same time a course of “morality” lectures was established, to prepare the preachers of the new cult. It was also decided to destroy the bell towers, while in various sections fêtes of Reason were organised, during which the Catholic faith was ridiculed. One section burnt some missals, and Hébert burnt some relics at the Commune.
In the provinces, says Aulard, nearly all the towns, especially in the south-west, seemed to rally round the new rationalist faith.
Yet the government, that is to say, the Committee of Public Welfare, from the very beginning showed a decided opposition to this movement. Robespierre combated it openly, and when Cloots came to tell him with enthusiasm of the abdication of Gobel, he showed his displeasure roughly, asking what the Belgians, whose union with France was desired by Cloots, would say to it.
For a few days, however, he kept quiet. But on November 20 Danton returned to Paris, after a prolonged stay at Arcissur-Aube, where he had retired with his young wife, whom he had married in church immediately after the death of his first wife. The next day, the 1st Frimaire (November 21), Robespierre pronounced at the Jacobin Club his first speech, and a very violent one, against the worship of Reason. The Convention, he said, would never take the rash step of forbidding the practice of the Catholic faith. The liberty of religion would be maintained, and the persecution of the peaceful priests would not be permitted. He then pointed out that the belief in a “great Being watching over oppressed innocence and punishing crime “was entirely popular, and he treated the dechristianisers as traitors, as agents of the enemies of France who wished to repel those foreigners whom the cause of humanity and common interests attracted towards the Republic.
Five days later Danton spoke almost to the same effect in the Convention, and attacked the anti-religious processions. He demanded that a limit be fixed to such manifestations.
What had occurred during these few days to draw Robespierre and Danton together? What new combinations, diplomatic or otherwise, presented themselves at this moment, to call Danton to Paris and to induce him to oppose himself to the dechristianising movement, while he was a true disciple of Diderot, and did not cease to affirm his materialistic atheism even on the scaffold? This move of Danton's is the more striking because during the first half of the month of Frimaire the Convention continued to view the dechristianisers favourably. On the 14th Frimaire (December 4) the “Robespierrist” Couthon had displayed some more relics from the tribune of the Convention and mocked at them.
The question therefore arises, Was not Robespierre making use of some new turn in the negotiations with England to influence Danton and to freely express his views on religion which had always remained dear to this deistic disciple of Rousseau?
Towards the middle of the month, Robespierre, reinforced by the support of Danton, decided to act, and on the 16th Frimaire (December 6) the Committee of Public Welfare came before the Convention to demand a decree concerning religious liberty, the first article of which forbade “all violence and measures against the liberty of religions.” Was this measure dictated by the fear of revolt in the villages, where the closing of the churches was usually very badly received, or were there other reasons, unknown to us — the fact remains, at any rate, that from that day Catholicism triumphed. The Robespierrist Government took it under its protection, and once again Catholicism became the State religion.
Later in the spring, Robespierre and his followers went still further: they made an attempt to oppose to the worship of Reason a new worship, that of the Supreme Being, conceived after the fashion of the Vicaire savoyard of Rousseau. This worship, however, in spite of governmental support and the prospect of the guillotine for its adversaries, became confused with the cult of Reason, even though it was called the cult of the Supreme Being, and under this name — Aulard says — a half-deistic and half-rationalistic cult continued to spread up to the time when the reaction of Thermidor got the upper hand.
As to the fête of the Supreme Being which was celebrated with great pomp in Paris on the 20th Prairial (June 8, 1794), and to which Robespierre, posing as the founder of a new State religion, which was to combat atheism, attached much importance — this fête was as beautiful, it appears, as a popular theatrical performance can be, but it called forth no echo in the feelings of the people. Celebrated as it was by the wish of the Committee of Public Welfare — soon after Chaumette and Gobel, who had all the sympathies of the masses with them, had been executed for their irreligious opinions by this committee — the fête wore too much the character of a bloody triumph of the Jacobin government over the advanced spirits among the people and the Commune, to be agreeable to the people. And by the openly hostile attitude of several members of the Convention towards Robespierre, during the fête itself, it became the prelude of the 9th Thermidor — the prelude of the grand finale.