Position and influence of Robespierre — Causes of his power — His incorruptibility — His fanaticism — His accusation against Fabre — His character and policy
Robespierre has been often mentioned as a dictator; his enemies in the Convention called him “the tyrant,” and it is true that as the Revolution drew to a close Robespierre acquired so much influence that he came to be regarded both in France and abroad as the most important person in the Republic.
It would, however, be incorrect to represent Robespierre as a dictator, though certainly many of his admirers desired a dictatorship for him. We know, indeed, that Cambon exercised considerable authority within his special domain, the Committee of Finance, and that Carnot wielded extensive powers in matters concerning the war, despite the ill-will borne him by Robespierre and Saint-Just. But the Committee of Public Safety was too jealous of its controlling power not to have opposed a dictatorship, and, besides, some of its members detested Robespierre. Moreover, even if there were in the Convention a certain number who were not actually averse to Robespierre's preponderating influence, these would have been none the less unwilling to submit to the dictatorship of a Montagnard so rigorous as he in his principles. Nevertheless, Robespierre's power was really immense. Nearly every one of his enemies as well as his admirers felt that the disappearance of his party from the political arena would mean, as indeed it proved, the triumph of reaction.
How then is the power of Robespierre and his group to be explained? First of all, Robespierre had been incorruptible in the midst of a host of men who readily yielded to the seductions of riches and power, and this is a very important trait in time of revolution. While the majority of the middle-class men about him shared in the spoils of the national estates when they were put up for sale by the Revolution, and took part in the stock-jobbery; while thousands of Jacobins secured posts under Government for themselves, Robespierre remained an upright judge, steadfastly reminding them of the higher principles of republicanism and threatening those keenest after spoil with the guillotine.
In all he said and did during those five troubled years of revolution, we feel even now, and his contemporaries must have felt it still more, that he was one of the very few politicians of that time who never wavered in their revolutionary faith, nor in their love for the democratic republic. In this respect Robespierre was a real force, and if the communists had been able to oppose him with another force equal to his own in strength of will and intelligence, they would undoubtedly have succeeded in leaving a far deeper impress of their ideas on the Great Revolution.
These qualities, however, which even his enemies acknowledge in Robespierre, would not suffice alone to explain the immense power he possessed towards the end of the Revolution. The fact is, his fanaticism, which sprang from the purity of his intentions, kept him incorruptible in the midst of a widespread corruption. At the same time, he was striving to establish his authority over men's minds, and to accomplish this he was ready, if necessary, to pass over the dead bodies of his opponents. In the work of establishing his authority he was powerfully seconded by the growing middle classes as soon as they recognised in him the “happy mean” — equally removed from the extremists and the moderates — the man who offered them the best guarantee against the “excesses” of the people.
The bourgeoisie felt that here was a man who by the respect he inspired in the people, the moderate scope of his aims and his itch for power, was just the right man to establish a strong government, and thus put an end to the revolutionary period. So long, therefore, as the middle classes had anything to fear from the advanced parties, so long did they refrain from interfering with Robespierre's work of establishing the authority of the Committee of Public Welfare and of his group in the Convention. But when Robespierre had helped them to crush those parties, they crushed him in his turn, in order that middle class Girondins should be restored to power in the Convention, after which the Thermidorean reaction was developed to its fullest extent.
Robespierre's mind was admirably suited for the rôle he was required to play. To be convinced of this, one has only to read the rough draft of the deed of accusation against the Fabre d'Eglantine and Chabot group, which is written in Robespierre's own hand, and was found among his papers after the 9th Thermidor. This document characterises the man better than any amount of arguments.
“Two rival coalitions have been quarrelling, to the public scandal, for some time past,” it begins. “One of them is inclined to moderation and the other to excesses which are practically working against the Revolution. One declares war against all energetic patriots and preaches indulgence for conspirators, the other artfully slanders the defenders of liberty, and would crush, one by one, every patriot who has ever erred, while remaining at the same time wilfully blind to the criminal plottings of our most dangerous enemies. . . . One tries to abuse its credit with or its presence in the National Convention [Danton's party], the other misuses its influence with the popular societies [the Commune and the Enragés]. One wants to obtain from the Convention dangerous decrees and measures of oppression against its adversaries; the other makes use of dangerous language in public assemblies. . . . The triumph of either party would be equally fatal to liberty and national authority. . . .” And Robespierre goes on to say how the two parties had attacked the Committee of Public Welfare ever since its formation.
After charging Fabre with preaching clemency, in order to conceal his own crimes, he adds: “The moment no doubt was favourable for preaching a base and cowardly doctrine, even to well-disposed men, when all the enemies of liberty were doing their utmost on the other side; when a venal philosophy, prostituted to tyranny, neglected thrones for altars, opposed religion to patriotism, made morality contradict itself, confounded the cause of religion with that of despotism, the Catholics with the conspirators, and tried to force the people to see in the revolution not the triumph of virtue but the triumph of atheism — not the source of happiness, but the destruction of moral and religious ideas.”
We can see plainly from these extracts that if Robespierre had not the breadth of view and boldness of thought necessary for the leader of a party during a revolution, he possessed in perfection the art of inciting an assembly against this or that person. Every phrase in his deed of accusation is a poisoned arrow that hits the mark.
The most striking point in all this is the fact that Robespierre and his friends did not realise the part the “Moderates” were making them play until the time had come for their own overthrow. “There is a scheme to incite the people to level everything,” his brother writes to him from Lyons. “If care is not taken, everything will be disorganised.” And Maximilien Robespierre could see no further than his brother. In the efforts of the advanced party he saw only attacks on the Government of which he was a member. Like Brissot, he accused them of being the tools of the London and Viennese Cabinets. The attempts of the Communists were for him only “disorganisation.” It was necessary to “take care” of them — to crush them by the Terror.
“What are the means of ending the civil war?” he asks in a note. And he replies:
“To punish the traitors and conspirators, especially the guilty deputies and administrators.
“lTo send patriotic troops under patriot leaders to subdue the aristocrats of Lyons, Marseilles, Toulon, the Vendée the Jura, and every other region where the standard of revolt and royalism has been set up.
“And to make terrible examples of all the scoundrels who have outraged liberty and shed the blood of patriots.”
It is not a revolutionist who speaks but a member of a Government using the language of all Governments. This is why Robespierre's whole policy, after the fall of the Commune until the 9th Thermidor, remained absolutely sterile. It did nothing to prevent the impending catastrophe, it did much to accelerate it. It did nothing to turn aside the daggers which were being secretly whetted to strike the Revolution; it did everything to make their blows mortal.