Robespierre foretells end of Revolution — Causes of its termination — Hébert — Chaumette and Hébertists — Increased power of Committees of Public Welfare and Public Safety — The struggle for power — Robespierre and Danton — Camille Desmoulins — Robespierre attacks Cloots — State of insurrection in Southern France — Fabre d'Eglantine and Bourdon — Attempt to rouse Convention against Committee of Public Welfare — Fabre d'Eglantine demands arrest of three Hébertists — Cordeliers side with Hébertists — Toulon recaptured — Series of republican successes — Authority of Committee of Public Welfare restored — Arrest of Fabre d'Eglantine — False accusations against him — He is executed — Struggle between revolutionary factions continues — Influence of masonic lodges on Revolution
As early as December 1793, Robespierre spoke of the coming end of the revolutionary Republic — “Let us be careful,” he said, “for the death of the fatherland is not far off.” Nor was he alone in foreseeing it; the same idea recurred frequently in the speeches and letters of the revolutionists.
The fact is, that a revolution that stops half-way is sure to be soon defeated, and at the end of 1793 the situation in France was, that the Revolution, having been arrested in its development, was now wearing itself out in internal struggles and in an effort, as fruitless as it was impolitic, to exterminate its enemies while it was mounting guard over their property.
By the very force of events, France was drifting towards a new movement imbued with a communist spirit. But the Revolution had allowed a “strong government” to be consitituted, and this government had crushed the Enragés and gagged those who dared to hold similar opinions.
As to the Hebertists who predominated in the Cordeliers' Club and in the Commune, and had succeeded in invading, through Bouchotte, the Minister of War, the offices of his department, their ideas on government led them in paths remote from an economic revolution. It is true that Hébert had at times expressed communist sentiments in his paper, but to terrorise the enemies of the Revolution and to have the government seized by his party seemed to him far more important than to solve the questions of food, the land and organised labour. The Commune of 1871 also produced this type of revolutionist.
So far as Chaumette was concerned, by his popular sympathies and his manner of life he might almost have been ranked with the Communists. At one time he was indeed under their influence. But he was closely connected with the party of Hébertists, and this party was not in the least enthusiastic about Communism. They never tried to arouse a powerful manifestation of the people's social will. Their idea was to attain power by means of a new “weeding out” of the Convention: to get rid of the “worn out, the broken limbs of the Revolution,” as Momoro used to say, and to compel the Convention to submit to the Commune of Paris, by means of a new May 31, supported this time by the military force of the “revolutionary army.” Later on they would see what was to be done.
In this, however, the Hébertists had miscalculated. They did not realise that they had to deal now with two serious powers: a Committee of Public Welfare which during the past six months had become a force in the Government and had won general approval for the intelligent way in which it had directed the war; and a Committee of Public Safety, which had grown very powerful, since it had concentrated in its hands a wide system of police, and thus had the power to send whomsoever it wished to the guillotine. Besides, the Hébertists began to fight on ground where they were bound to be defeated — the ground of Terrorism. Here they had to meet the rivalry of a whole world of Government officials, even those who, like Cambon, considered Terrorism necessary for conducting the war. Terrorism is always a weapon of government and the government of the day turned it against them.
It would be tiresome to recount here all the intrigues of the different parties that struggled for power during the month of December 1793, and the first months of 1794. Suffice it to say that four groups or parties were then in the field: the Robespierrist group, consisting of Robespierre, Saint-Just, Couthon, and their friends, the party of the “worn out”; politicians who grouped themselves round Danton (Fabre d'Eglantine, Phélippeaux, Bourdon, Camille Desmoulins, and others); the Commune, which was in agreement with the Hébertists; and finally, those members of the Committee of Public Welfare (Billaud-Varenne and Collot d'Herbois) who were known as terrorists, around whom were grouped men who did not wish to see the Revolution lay down its arms, but did not want either that Robespierre, whom they secretly opposed, or the Commune and the Hébertists should gain the upper hand.
Danton was, in the eyes of the revolutionists, a man completely used up, but they saw in him a real danger, since the Girondins stood behind him, pushing themselves forward under cover of his great popularity. At the end of November, however, we saw Robespierre and Danton marching hand in hand against the anti-religious movement; and when it was Danton's turn to submit to a public examination of his life before the Jacobin Club, which was then “weeding itself out,” Robespierre again held out his hand to him. He did even more: he identified himself with Danton.
On the other hand, when Camille Desmoulins, who as a journalist excelled in calumny, issued, on the 15th and 20th of Frimaire (December 5 and 10), the two first numbers of his Vieux Cordelier, in which he attacked Hébert and Chaumette in the vilest manner, and started a campaign in favour of an abatement in the prosecution of the enemies of the Revolution, Robespierre read both these numbers before publication and approved them. During the examination of Desmoulins' life at the Jacobin Club, he also defended him. This meant that for the moment he was ready to make certain concessions to the Dantonists, provided they helped him to attack the party of the Left — the Hébertists.
This they did quite willingly and with much violence, by the pen of Desmoulins in his Vieux Cordelier, and through the organ of Phélippeaux and at the Jacobin Club, where the latter bitterly attacked the conduct of the Hébertist generals in the Vendeé. Robespierre worked in the same direction against Anacharsis Cloots, an influential Hébertist, whom the Jacobins had even elected president at that moment, attacking him with quite religious fanaticism. When it was Cloots' turn to undergo the civic examination of his life, Robespierre pronounced a speech against him, full of venom, in which he represented this pure idealist and worshipper of the Revolution, this inspired propagandist of the International union of all the sans-culottes, as a traitor, and that because he had had business relations with the bankers Vandenyver, and had taken some interest in them when they were arrested as suspects. Cloots was expelled from the Jacobin Club on the 22nd of Frimaire (December 12) and so became a victim marked for the scaffold. He was, in fact, arrested a fortnight later.
The insurrection in Southern France dragged on in the meantime, and Toulon remained in the hands of the English; so that the Committee of Public Welfare was accused of incapacity and it was even rumoured that it intended to give up Southern France to the counter-revolution. There were days when the Committee was but a hair's-breadth from being overthrown, “sent to the Tarpeian Rock “— which would have been a victory for both the Girondins and the “moderates,” that is to say, for the counter-revolutionists.
The soul of the campaign carried on in political circles against the Committee of Public Welfare was Fabre d'Eglantine, one of the “moderates,” seconded by Bourdon (of the Oise) a Dantonist, and between the 22nd and the 27th Frimaire (December 12-17) a serious attempt was made to rouse the Convention against its Committee of Public Welfare, and to impeach it.
However, though the Dantonists plotted against the Robespierrists, both parties joined hands to attack the Hébertists. On the 27th Frimaire (December 17) Fabre d'Eglantine made a report at the Convention demanding the arrest of three Hébertists: Ronsin, the general of the “revolutionary army” in Paris; Vincent, secretary general of the War Office, and Maillard, who had led the women to Versailles on October 5, 1789. This was the first attempt of the “party of clemency” to make a coup d'état in favour of the Girondins and a more moderate government. All those who had made fortunes by the Revolution were now in a hurry, as we have already said, to return to a state of “order,” and to reach this goal they were prepared to sacrifice the Republic, if need be, and to establish a constitutional monarchy. Many, like Danton, were weary of mankind, and said to themselves: “It is time to put an end to all this,” while others — and these are the most dangerous to all revolutions — losing faith in the Revolution, prepared to meet halfway the reaction which they already saw coming.
The arrest of the three Hébertists would have been granted without difficulty by the Convention, but for the fear of recalling the arrest of Hébert in 1793. It would have become obvious that a coup d'état was preparing in favour of the Girondins who would serve in their turn as a stepping-stone to reaction. The publication of the third number of the Vieux Cordelier, in which Desmoulins, under names borrowed from Roman history, denounced the whole revolutionary government, helped to unmask the intrigue, for all the counter-revolutionists in Paris suddenly lifted their heads after reading this number, and openly predicted the speedy end of the Revolution.
The Cordeliers immediately took up the cause of the Hébertists, but found no other basis for their appeal to the people than the necessity for acting more severely against the enemies of the Revolution. They too identified the Revolution with Terrorism. They carried the head of Chalier about Paris and began to prepare the people for a fresh May 31 rising, with the intention of bringing about a new “purification” of the Convention, and the removal of its “worn-out and its broken limbs.” But as to what they intended to do on attaining power — what direction they would try to give to the Revolution — nothing was said about that.
Once the fight was begun in such conditions, it was easy for the Committee of Public Welfare to parry the blow. They by no means rejected Terror as an arm of Government. In fact, on the 5th Nivôse (December 25), Robespierre had made his report on the revolutionary government, and if the substance of this report was the necessity of maintaining the balance between the too advanced parties and the too moderate ones, its conclusion was death to the enemies of the people! Next day he demanded, moreover, a greater rapidity in the pronouncement of sentences by the revolutionary tribunal.
About the same time it became known in Paris (on the 4th Nivôse — December 24) that Toulon had been retaken from the English; on the 5th and 6th of the same month (December 25 and 26) that La Vendée was crushed at Savenay; on the 10th that the army of the Rhine, having taken the offensive, had retaken the lines of Wissembourg from the enemy; and on the 12th Nivôse (January 1, 1794) that the blockade of Landau was raised and that the German army had recrossed the Rhine.
A whole series of decisive victories had thus been won, and they strengthened the Republic. They also restored the authority of the Committee of Public Welfare. Camille Desmoulins in his fifth number hastened to make amends for his recent articles, but still, continued to attack Hébert violently, a proceeding which turned the meetings of the Jacobin Club in the second decade of Nivôse (from December 31 to January 10, 1794) into personal attacks ending in free fights. On January 10, the Jacobins passed a resolution excluding Desmoulins from their club, and only Robespierre's great popularity enabled him to induce the society not to carry it into effect.
On the 24th Nivôse (January 13) the committees decided to strike a blow and to terrify the camp of their detractors by ordering Fabre d'Eglantine to be arrested. The pretext was an accusation of forgery, and it was announced loudly that the committees had succeeded in discovering a great plot, the aim of which was to discredit the nation's representatives.
It is now known that the accusation which served as a pretext for the arrest of Fabre — that of having falsified a decree of the Convention to the advantage of the powerful Indian Company — was false. The decree dealing with the Indian Company had indeed been falsified, but by Delaunay, another member of the Convention. The document still exists in the archives, and since its discovery by Michelet, it has been proved that the falsification was in Delaunay's handwriting. But at the time of Fabre's arrest, Fouquier-Tinville, the public prosecutor of the revolutionary tribunal, and of the Committee of Public Safety, did not allow the document to be produced either before or during the trial in court, and Fabre perished as a forger, because the Government simply wanted to get rid of a dangerous foe. Robespierre took good care not to interfere.
Three months later, Fabre d'Eglantine was executed, as were also Chabot, Delaunay, the Abbé d'Espagnac, and the two brothers Frey, the Austrian bankers.
Thus the mortal struggle between the different factions of the revolutionary party went on, and one easily understands how the foreign invasion and all the horrors of civil war in the provinces were bound to render this struggle more and more violent and sanguinary. A question, however, necessarily arises: What prevented the struggle between the parties from taking the same sanguinary character at the very beginning of the Revolution? How was it that men, whose political views were so widely different as those of the Girondins, of Danton, Robespierre and Marat, had been able to act in concert against royal despotism?
It appears very probable that the intimate and fraternal relations which had been established at the approach of the Revolution in the masonic lodges of Paris and the provinces, between the leading men of the time, must have contributed to bring about such an understanding. It is known, indeed, from Louis Blanc, Henri Martin, and the excellent monograph of Professor Ernest Nys, that nearly all revolutionists of renown were freemasons — Mirabeau, Bailly, Danton, Robespierre, Marat, Condorcet, Brissot, Lalande, and many others were masonic brothers, and the Duke of Orléans (Philippe-Egalité) remained its national Grand Master down to May 13, 1793. On the other side, it is also known that Robespierre, Mirabeau, Lavoisier, and probably many more belonged to the lodges of the Illuminates, founded by Weishaupt, whose aim was “to free the nations from the tyranny of princes and priests, and as a first step, to free the peasants and the working men from serfdom, forced labour and guilds.”
It is quite certain, to quote M. Nys, that “by its humanitarian tendencies, its firm belief in the dignity of man, and by its principles of liberty, equality and fraternity,” freemasonry had helped immensely to educate public opinion in the new ideas — the more so that, thanks to it, in every part of France meetings were held, at which progressive ideas were expounded and applauded, and, what was much more important than is usually thought, men learned to discuss and to vote. “The union of the Three Estates in June 1789, and the movement on the night of August 4, were most probably prepared within the masonic lodges.”
This preliminary work must also have established personal relations and habits of mutual respect between the men of action, apart from the always too narrow party interests, and thus enabled the revolutionaries of different opinions to act with a certain unity, for four years, in the abolition of royal despotism. It was only later, towards the end of the Revolution, when their personal relations were subjected to the severest trials — especially after the freemasons themselves were divided upon the question of royalty — that these links were broken. And then the struggles began to be of the ferocious character they assumed before the fall of the Montagnards.