1793-1794 - Committee of Public Safety
The fifth phase of the French Revolution may be said to date from these first days of September 1792, when the news of the successful invasion was maddening Paris, and when the revolutionary Executive, established upon the ruins of the old dead monarchy and in its image, was firmly in the saddle, up to the establishment of the yet more monarchical" Committee of Public Safety," seven months later.
This was a period during which it was attempted to carry on the revolutionary war against the Governments of Europe upon democratic principles. The attempt failed. In the place of discipline and comprehension and foresight the rising and intense enthusiasm of the moment was depended upon for victory. The pure ideal of the Girondin faction, with the model republic which it hoped to establish, proved wholly insufficient for the conduct of a war; and to save the nation from foreign conquest and the great democratic experiment of the Revolution from disaster, it was necessary that the military and disciplined side of the French, with all the tyranny that accompanies that aspect of their national genius, should undertake the completion of the adventure.
This period opens with what are called the Massacres of September. Tthe known accomplices and supporters of the Court's alliance with the invaders were arrested by the hundred upon the fall of the palace and the establishment of a revolutionary Executive with Danton at its head. These prisoners, massed in the jails of the city, were massacred to the number of eleven hundred by a small but organized band of assassins during the days when the news of the fall of Verdun was expected and reached the capital. Such a crime appalled the public conscience of Europe and of the French people. It must never be confused with the judicial and military acts of the Terror, nor with the reprisals undertaken against rebellion, nor with the gross excesses of mob violence. Those who ordered it were a small committee acting spontaneously, and Marat was their chief. The legend that Danton was connected with the massacres is based on insufficient historical foundation.
It was under the impression of the September Massacres that the Deputies of the new or third Assembly of the Revolution, known to history as The Convention, met in Paris. This Parliament was to be at first the actual, later the nominal governing power in France during the three critical years that followed; years which were the military salvation of the Revolution, and which therefore permitted the establishment of the democratic experiment in modern Europe.
It was on 20 September 1792 that the Convention met for its first sitting, which was held in the palace of the Tuileries. During the hours of that day, while it was electing its officials, choosing its Speaker and the rest, the French Army upon the frontier, to its own astonishment and to that of its enemy, managed to hold in check at the cannonade of Valmy the allied invaders. Upon the morrow the new Assembly met in the riding school (the Manege), where the two former Assemblies had also sat. It was about to separate after that day's sitting when one of the members proposed the abolition of Royalty.
It was on 04 January, 1793 (the King had already made his will upon Christmas Day), that the chief orator of the Girondins moved that the sentence should be referred to the people for ratification. On the question which was the decisive one of the penalty, 721 only could be found to vote, and of these a bare majority of 53 declared for death as against the minority, of whom some voted for the death penalty "conditionally" — that is, not at all — or voted against it. A respite was lost by a majority of 70; and on the 21st of January, 1793, at about ten in the morning, Louis XVI was guillotined.
Danton, no longer a minister, but still the most powerful orator in the Convention, proposed a special court for trying cases of treason — a court which was later called "The Revolutionary Tribunal." A special Parliamentary committee already formed for the control of ministers was strengthened. The first "Committee of Public Safety", with its successor of the same name, was henceforward the true despotic and military centre of revolutionary government. It was granted secrecy in deliberation, the virtual though not the theoretic control of the Ministry, sums of money for secret expenditure, and, in a word, all the machinery necessary to a military executive. With the establishment of this truly national and traditional thing, whose form alone was novel, but whose power and method were native to all the military tradition of Gaul, the Revolution was saved.
There had been heavy fighting. The Royalists and the Girondins had combined and had carried the town hall and established an insurrectionary and unelected Municipal Government. Such news, coming immediately after the 31st of May, roused the capital to action. This time the Parisian forces actually marched against the Parliament. The demand for the suspension of the twenty-two named Girondin deputies was made under arms. Danton, the master of all that first movement towards centralization, the man who had made the 10th of August, who had negotiated with the Prussians after Valmy, who had determined upon and formed a central government against the Girondin anarchy, had broken down. His health was gone.
On 27 July 1793, Robespierre the joined Committee of Public Safety. Robespierre was at this moment the chief figure in the eyes of the crowd, and was soon to be the chief revolutionary figure in the eyes of Europe: that is the first point. The second is of equal importance, and is far less generally recognized. He was not, and was never destined to be, the chief force in the revolutionary Government. His position and reputation had increased by accumulation month after month for the whole four years. No one else was left in the political arena of whom this could be said. All the old reactionaries had gone, all the moderate men had gone; the figures of 1793 were all new figures — except Robespierre. He was more wholly possessed of the democratic faith of the Contrat Social than any other man of his time: he had never swerved from an article of it. There is no better engine for enduring fame than the expression of real convictions.
There developed the last and most violent attack upon what was believed to be the last remnants of Catholicism in the country, a hideous persecution of the priesthood, in which an uncounted number of priests died under the rigours of transportation or of violence. The reprisals against the rebels varied from severity of the most awful kind to cruelty that was clearly insane, and of which the worst examples took place at Arras and at Nantes.
Before the end of 1793 Danton began to protest against the system of the Terror; he believed, perhaps, that the country was now safe in the military sense and needed such rigours no more. But the Committee disagreed, and were evidence available we should perceive that Carnot in particular determined that such opposition must cease. Danton and his colleagues—including Desmoulins, the journalist of the Revolution and the chief publicist who promoted the days of July 1789 — were executed in the first week of April 1794.
Through April, that is, after the execution of Danton, through May and June and almost to the end of July, Robespierre appears with a particular prominence. Fads or doctrines of his own are admitted upon the Statute Book of the Revolution, notably his religious dogmas of a personal God and of the immortality of the soul.
The mass of those who might be the next victims and who, knowing nothing of the secret councils of the Committee, imagined Robespierre to be what he posed as being, the master of the Committee, were eager for his removal.
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