And so the King and Queen were dead as well as thousands of other “Enemies of the republic.” There were now two governments in France; the Commune or the government of Paris and the Convention, the elected government o France. now directed by the Committee of Public Safety. Both had cooperated in the overthrow of the monarchy and the Girondists, but now dissension raised its head and harmony was no more.
The Commune was in control of the most violent party the revolution had developed. Its leader was Jacques Hebert who published a newspaper which was both obscene and profane and which was widely read in Paris by the lowest classes. He reigned at City Hall and drew his strength from the rabble in the streets which he was able to incite and throw at his enemies. Audacious and truculent, he constantly called for new applications of the terror. The Commune dominated the convention, and now had a new idea: the “dechristianization” of France.
A new calendar was introduced for this purpose; a calendar which discarded Sundays, saint’s days, religious festivals and set up a novel thoroughly secular division of time. “Decades” or periods of ten days replaced weeks. Each tenth day was a day or rest. Names of the months indicated natural phenomena – July becoming Thermidor, or period of heat; April becoming Germinal or budding time. November becoming Brumaire, or period of fog. Dates were measured from the “Birth of Liberty” or September 21, 1792. The day was divided into ten hours, not twenty four.
Watch makers went mad. Common folk did not know how to tell time anymore and couldn’t teach their children. It created havoc when it was made obligatory. It was purposely anti-Christian. The Christian era was repudiated.
More importantly, a new religion was introduced. Reason was henceforth to be worshipped; no longer the Christian God. Church bells were removed and melted down. Death was declared to be “eternal sleep,” abolishing heaven and hell. Church steeples were torn down as their height over other buildings violated the concept of equality.
On November 10, 1793 Notre Dame cathedral was converted to the “Temple of Reason.” A ceremony that day included a dancer from the opera, wearing the tricolor, sitting as the “Goddess of Reason” upon the “Altar of Liverty.” After this many churches were changed to “Temples of Reason.’
The Worship of Reason became the high water mark of Commune power. As a member of the Committee of Public Safety, Robespierre resented the presence of so powerful a rival as the Commune. Besides, he had his own religion which he wished to impose upon France.
Robespierre furtively urged attacks on the blasphemous Commune, supported by Danton as well who declared “These anti-religious masquerades in the Convention must cease!” Robespierre however, while taking Danton’s support was becoming his enemy. Robespierre supported the terror while Danton was becoming more and more moderate after the execution of thousands.
Danton believed in the terror when he thought it was necessary and now believed the time for it had passed. The armies of the republic had been everywhere victorious and domestic insurrections had been stamped out. The Dantonists were now advocating clemency in the Convention halls. The Committee of Public Safety was opposed to both the Hebertists and the followers of Danton.
Robespierre and the Committee first directed their fire against the Commune and dared on March 13, 1794 to order the arrest of Hebert and his friends. Eleven days later they were guillotined and the rivalry with the Commune was over. The convention was supreme but the Committee had no desire to bring the terror to an end. Several members now saw their own doom in bringing it to an end.
They decided to kill Danton as the representative of the dangerous policy of moderation.
“This man, who had personified as no one else had done the national temper in is crusade against the allied monarchs, who had been the very central pillar of the state in a terrible crisis, who, when France was for a moment discouraged, had nerved her to new effort by the electrifying cry, “We must dare and dare again and dare without end!” now fell a victim to the wretched and frenzied internecine struggles of politicians because now that the danger was passed over, he advocated with his vastly heightened prestige a return to moderation and concilliation.”
Terror as a means of annihilating the country’s enemies he approved. Terror as a means of oppressing his fellow countrymen. the crisis now passed, he deplored and tried to stop. When he plead for peace his rivals turned on him.
When arrested, he commented “I would rather be guillotined than guillotine.” In prison, he said “Not one of them has any concept of government; Robespierre will follow me. I would rather be a poor fisherman than meddle in the governing of men.”
His last words were addressed to his executioner; “Show my head to the people! It is worth showing!” The death of Danton left only Robespierre on the scene; a veritable Caesar with his Senate. He was member of the convention and of the Committee of Public Safety; master of the Jacobins, the Commune now filled with his friends. For the next four months he was dictator.
Historians have characterized him as correct, mediocre, thin, formal, academic. “Virtue” was his stock in trade and he made it odious by his everlasting talk of it and the smug assumption of moral superiority, his pretensions of perfection. He had a lamentable lack of humor and taste. He suggested vaguely that every one of his enemies, and all of his rivals were his enemies were corrupt and immoral.
He had power but didn’t use it wisely; didn’t use it to bind the wounds and clinch the victory of the republic. He too now founded his new religion; the nation was to worship “Virtue”. An enormous amphitheater was built in the gardens of the Tuileries and one evening thousands gathered as the members of the convention marched in solemnly bearing flowers and stalks of grain. He, Robespierre played Pontiff,leading the marchers as if floating forth upon a long rhapsody rising in the background.
“Here” he cried “is the universe assembled. O Nature, how sublime, how exquisite thy power! How tyrants will pale at the tidings of our feast!” One hundred thousand voices chanted the sacred hymn. Robespierre stood at the center of it all, at the very summit of ambition, basking in the boundless admiration.
There was much irony in this scene – and some ungodly persons made merriment over this mummery, indulging in indiscreet gibes, laughter and sarcasm. The power of sarcasm was not yet dead in France as this man who never smiled soon learned.
Two days later Robespierre introduced a bill into the convention. The irreverent, the dangerous must be swept like chaff into the burning pit. This bill which became the law of the 22nd Prairial, (June 10, 1794) made the procedure of the Revolutionary Tribunal more murderous still. The accused were deprived of Counsel. Witnesses need not be heard where the prosecutor had “moral proof.” Juries were purged of anyone only lukewarm toward Robespierre. Any public prosecutor in France could send anyone before the Committees. Any life in France was at his mercy.
One could be executed not only for having opposed the republic; one could now be charged with having done nothing for it, which would make one :suspicious” of not being a “true patriot.”
Now began the “Great Terror.” In the 13 months before the law 1,200 people had been guillotined n Paris. In the 49 days after 1,376 were guillotined. In two days, the 7th and 8th of July 150 persons were executed. Day after Day the butchery went on.
This hideous law united the enemies of Robespierre either because they had stood for clemency or knew they were marked for destruction. They could lose no more by opposing him.
The storm broke on July 27, 1794, the 9th of Thermidor. Robespierre attempted to speak to the conventionwhich had cowered under him. Someone shouted “Down with the tyrant!” Others quickly joined in. Attempting to rouse the people in the gallery he met with no response. The magic was gone. There was a confused noisy struggle for several hours.
Robespierre’s voice failed him..”Danton’s blood is choking him!” Finally the convention voted his arrest along with his allies. The Commune announced an insurrection, broke into the prison and freed him. The convention, hearing of this act of rebellion, declared him an outlaw.
No trial was now necessary.
A torrential rain storm broke up the crowds of his supporters gathering to attack the convention where upon the convention sent troops against the Commune and re-arrested him.
That day Robespierre and 20 others were sent to the guillotine. An enormous throng witnessed the scene and broke into wild acclaim. The following days 83 more executions took place.
France breathed more freely. The worst evidently, was over. The terror didn’t die that day but steadily declined in the succeeding months and was gradually abandoned. A milder regime began. The convention was now controlled by moderates but it was unanimously republican.
In order to combat a return to monarchy a new constitution was written – the 3rd in 6 years. The previous constitution was deemed “to anarchical.” Universal male suffrage was abandoned. Suffrage was again to be based on property. There was practically no protest. The example of American states was quoted, none of which had universal suffrage. The legislature would consist of two chambers, the example of America again cited. It was to consist of a Council of Elders, 250 members who had to be married or widowers and the Council of the Five Hundred, who had to be at least 30.
The 500 would propse laws and the Elders would accept and ratify them before they could be enacted. The executive would be the Directorate, consisting of 5 persons at least 40 years old elected by the councils, one retiring each year. France was not ready for a single President.
France was now run by men of property – a bourgeois republic.
Then in order to remain in power the members of the convention decreed that two thirds of each council should be chosen from the current membership. It was a way for those who knew they were unpopular to retain their positions.
There was another insurrection in Paris; this time by bourgeois and wealthier people to reinstall the monarchy.
A little known Corsican officer who two years before had recovered Toulon for the republic defended the convention, placing his cannon around the Tuileries. At four thirty in the afternoon on the 13th of Vendemiare (October 5th) as two columns of insurgents approached a violent cannonading was heard.
It was Napoleon Bonaparte making his debut.
With this whiff of grapeshot the Revolution is usually considered over. It was not. It would not end until Napoleon’s career was completed at Waterloo. Four years after the cannons were fired at the Tuileries he would overthrow the Directorate in a coup after leading French armies to victory against the Austrians in Italy and taking his campaign to Egypt in an effort to cut off the British from India.
After Napoleon, France would be ruled by a constitutional monarch, Louis XVIII.
The Napoleonic era however should be the subject of another series.
Happy Bastille Day.