Steps taken by committees to increase their power — War with England — Condition of provinces — Burning of Bedouin — Special commission formed to deal with arrested citizens — Robespierre's law of 22nd Prairial — Effect of law — Aim of Robespierre — Attempts on his life — Arrests and executions — Terror — Hatred of Jacobin government
After the downfall of their enemies of the Left and of the Right, the committees continued to concentrate more and more power in their own hands. Up to that time there had been six Government departments, which were indirectly subordinate to the Committee of Public Welfare through the intermediary of the Executive Committee composed of six ministers. On the 12th Germinal (April 1) the State departments were suppressed and their place taken by twelve Executive Commissions, each of them under the supervision of a section of the committee. Furthermore, the Committee of Public Welfare obtained the right of recalling by its own authority the commissioners of the Convention. And finally, it was decided that the supreme revolutionary tribunal should sit in Paris under the eye of the committees. Those who were accused of conspiracy, in any part of France, were to be brought to Paris for trial. At the same time measures were taken for purging Paris of all dangerous elements. All ci-devants (dispossessed nobles) and all the foreigners belonging to the nations at war with France, with a few indispensable exceptions, were to be expelled from Paris.
The other great pre-occupation of the Government was the war. In January 1794, there had still been hope that the opposition party in the English parliament supported by a considerable number of people in London and several influential members of the House of Lords, would prevent the Prime Minister, Pitt, from continuing the war. Danton must have shared this illusion — which was one of the crimes imputed to him. But Pitt carried the parliamentary majority with him against “the impious nation,” and since the beginning of spring England, and Prussia whom she subsidised, pushed on the war vigorously. There were soon four armies, 315,000 strong, massed on the frontiers of France, confronting the four armies of the Republic, which numbered only 294,000. But by this time the armies of France were Republican armies, democratised, with tactics of their own elaborated, and they were not long in gaining the upper hand over the allied Powers.
The darkest spot, however, was in the condition of things in the provinces, especially in the South. The indiscriminate extermination of all the counter-revolutionists — both the leaders and their irresponsible followers — to which the local Jacobins and the commissioners of the Convention had resorted when their party triumphed, aroused such bitter hatred that it was war to the knife everywhere. To make matters still more difficult, there was no one either on the spot or in Paris who could have suggested any remedy but extreme measures of repression. Here is an instance in point.
The department of the Vaucluse had always been full of royalists and priests; and it happened that in Bedouin, one of these remote villages at the foot of Mont Ventoux which had never forsaken the old régime nor concealed the fact, “the law had been scandalously outraged.” On May 1, the “Tree of Liberty” had been cut down and “the decrees of the Convention dragged through the mud.” Suchet, the local military chief, who was presently to become an imperialist, wished to make a terrible example of the village and demanded its destruction. Maignet, the commissioner of the Convention, hesitated and applied for instructions to Paris, whence came the order “Punish severely,” whereupon Suchet set fire to the village and 433 houses were rendered uninhabitable. With such a system one can easily imagine that there would be no choice but to “punish severely.”
So it was in reality. A few days later, it being found impossible to transfer to Paris all the arrested citizens, for, as Maignet said, it would have required an army and a commissariat to do it, Couthon proposed a special commission to deal with them. This commission was to be formed of five members to sit at Orange and try the enemies of the Revolution in the departments of the Vaucluse and the Bouches-du-Rhône. The two committees agreed to the proposal. Robespierre with his own hand drew up the instructions for this commission, and these instructions presently served as a model for his law of Terror issued on the 22nd Prairial.
A few days later, Robespierre enlarged upon these principles before the Convention, saying that hitherto they had shown too much consideration for the enemies of liberty and that they must now go beyond the judicial forms and simplify them. And two days after the Fête of the Supreme Being he proposed, with the consent of his colleagues on the Committee of Public Welfare, the famous law of the 22nd Prairial (June 10) — concrning the reorganisation of the revolutionary tribunal. By virtue of this law, the tribunal was to be divided into sections, each composed of three judges and nine jurors. Seven of their combined number were to be sufficient for making decisions. The rules for passing sentence were to be those which have just been described as contained in the instructions to the commission at Orange, except that among the crimes deserving of death they included also the spreading of false news to divide or stir up the people, the undermining of morality and the corrupting of the public conscience.
It is evident that to decree such a law to sign the bankruptcy of the revolutionary Government. It meant doing under a pretext of legality what the people of Paris had done in an insurrection and in a moment of panic and desperation during the September days. And the effect of the law of the 22nd Prairial was to bring the counter-revolution to a head in six weeks.
Was Robespierre's purpose in drawing up this law only to strike at those members of the Convention whom he believed to be most harmful to the Revolution, as some historians have tried to prove? His withdrawal from the business of government after the discussions in the Convention had proved that the Assembly would not allow itself to be bled by the committee without defending its members, gives an air of probability to this supposition. But the well-established fact that the instructions to the commission at Orange had also emanated from Robespierre upsets this theory. It is more probable that Robespierre simply followed the current of the moment, and that he, Couthon and Saint-Just, in agreement with many others, including Cambon, wanted to use the Terror as a general weapon of warfare as well as a menace to some members of the Convention. In reality, without mentioning Hébert, they had been steadily approaching this law since the decrees of the 19th Floréal (May 8) and 9th Prairial (May 28) which dealt with the concentration of authority. It is also very probable that the attempt of Ladmiral to kill Collot d'Herbois and the strange affair of Cécile Renault helped to secure the acceptation of the law of the 22nd Prairial.
Towards the end of April there had been a series of executions in Paris which must have stimulated to a high degree the hatred on the royalists' side. After the “batch” guillotined on the 24th Germinal (April 13), which included Chaumette, Gobel, Lucile Desmoulins, the widow of Hébert, and fifteen others, they had executed d'Eprélmesnil, le Chapelier, Thouret, old Malesherbes, the defender of Louis XVI. at his trial, Lavoisier, the great chemist and good republican, and the sister of Louis XVI., Madame Elisabeth, whom they might have set at liberty at the same time as her niece, without in the least endangering the Republic.
The royalists were much infuriated by this, and on the 7th Prairial (May 25) a certain Ladmiral — an office-keeper aged fifty — went to the Convention intending to kill Robespierre. Ladmiral, however, fell asleep during a speech by Barère and missed the “tyrant.” He therefore fired instead at Collot d'Herbois as he was mounting the stairs to his lodging. A struggle ensued between the two men in which Collot disarmed Ladmiral.
The same day, Cécile Renault, a girl of twenty, the daughter of a royalist stationer, entered the courtyard of the house where Robespierre lodged with the Duplays, and insisted on seeing him. Her intentions were suspected and she was arrested. Two small knives were found in her pocket and her incoherent answers were interpreted as meaning that she had intended to make an attempt on Robespierre's life. If it was so, the whole affair was very childish; but these two attempts probably served as an argument in favour of the Terrorist Law.
At any rate the committees took advantage of both incidents to make a huge “amalgam.” They had the father and brother of the young girl arrested, and several persons whose sole crime was that they had known Ladmiral more or less intimately. In the same “batch” they included Madame Saint-Amaranthe, who kept a gambling-house to which many people were attracted by the beauty of her daughter, Madame de Sartine. As the establishment had been frequented by all sorts of people, among others by Chabot, Desfieux, Hérault de Séchelles, and visited, it seems, by Danton and apparently by a younger brother of Robespierre, the affair was made out to be a royalist conspiracy, in which it was attempted to implicate Robespierre himself. They also dragged in old Sombreuil, whom Maillard had saved during the September massacres, the actress Grand'-Maison, a mistress of Baron de Batz, Sartino, “a knight of the dagger,” and along with these notables a poor innocent little dressmaker, seventeen years old, named Nicolle.
Under the new law of the 22nd Prairial, the trial was soon over. This time the “batch” numbered fifty-four persons, who all went to the scaffold in red smocks of parricides, their execution lasting two hours. This was the first outcome of the new law, which every one called Robespierre's law, and at one stroke it made the rule of the Terrorists detested by all Paris.
One can imagine the state of mind of those who had been arrested as “suspects” and flung into prisons in the capital, when they heard the terms of the new law and its application in the case of the fifty-four red-smocks (les chemises rouges). A general massacre to clear out the prisons was expected, as at Nantes and Lyons, and preparations were being made by the prisoners to resist. It is even probable that a rising was planned. The number of accused persons tried at one time rose to one hundred and fifty, who were executed in three “batches” — convicts and royalists going to the scaffold together.
It is useless to dwell upon these executions. Suffice it to say that from April 17, 1793, the day when the Revolutionary Tribunal was established, until the 22nd Prairial in the Year II. (June 10, 1794), that is, within fourteen months, the tribunal had sent 2607 persons to the guillotine in Paris; but after the passing of the new law, within forty-six days from the 22nd Prairial to the 9th Thermidor (July 27, 1794) the same tribunal caused 1351 to perish.
The people of Paris soon sickened with the horror of seeing the procession of tumbrils carrying the condemned to the foot of the guillotine, where it was as much as five executioners could do to empty them every day. There was no longer room in the cemeteries to bury the victims, and vigorous protests were raised each time a new cemetery was opened in any of the faubourgs. The sympathies of the working people were now turned to the victims of the guillotine all the more because those struck down belonged chiefly to the poorer classes — the rich having emigrated or concealed themselves. As a fact, among the 2750 guillotined persons of whose social status Louis Blanc found record only 650 belonged to the well-to-do classes. It was even whispered that on the Committee of Public Safety there was a royalist, an agent of Baron de Batz, who urged on the executions so as to render the Republic detested.
One thing is certain; each new “batch” of this kind hastened the fall of the Jacobin Government. The Terror had ceased to terrorise, a thing which statesmen cannot understand.