Chapter I. The Revolution.


Before writing a life of Danton in English it is necessary to do three things. First, to take a definite point of view with regard to the whole revolutionary movement; secondly, to explain, so far as is possible, the form which it took in France; thirdly, to show where Danton stood in the scheme of events, the nature of his personality, the effects of his brief action. This triple task is necessary to a book which, but for it, would be only a string of events, always confused, often without meaning.


What was the Revolution? It was essentially a reversion to the normal—a sudden and violent return to those conditions which are the necessary bases of health in any political community, which are clearly apparent in every primitive society, and from which Europe had been estranged by an increasing complexity and a spirit of routine.


It has never been denied that the process of gradual remoulding is a part of living, and all admit that the State (which lives like any other thing) must suffer such a process as a condition of health. There is in every branch of social effort a necessity for constant reform and check: it is apparent to the administrator of every kind: it is the business of a politician continually to direct and apply such correction:—the whole body of the law of England is a collection of the past results of this guiding force.


But what are the laws that govern it? What is the nature of the condition that makes reform imperative? What distinguishes the good from the bad in the matter of voluntary change, and separates the conservative from the destructive effort?


It is in the examination of this problem that we may discover how great a debt the last century owed to nature—a debt which demanded an immediate liquidation, and was often only paid at the expense of violence.


It would seem that the necessity of reform arises from this, that our ideas, which are eternal, find themselves expressed in phrases and resulting in actions which belong to material environment—an environment, therefore, that perpetually changes in form. It is not to be admitted that the innermost standards of the soul can change; if they could, the word “reform” would lose all moral meaning, and a thing not being good would cease to be desired. But the meaning of words, the effect on the senses of certain acts, the causes of pleasure and pain in a society, the definition of nationality—all these things of their nature change without ceasing, and must as ceaselessly be brought into accordance with the unchanging mind.


What test can be applied by which we may know whether a reform is working towards this rectification or not? None, except the general conviction of a whole generation that this or that survival obstructs the way of right living, the mere instinct of justice expressed in concrete terms on a particular point. It is by this that the just man of any period feels himself bound. This is not a formula: it seems a direction of the loosest and of the most useless kind; and yet to observe it is to keep the State sane, to neglect it is to bring about revolution. This much is sure, that where there exists in a State a body of men who are determined to be guided by this vague sense of justice, and who are in sufficient power to let it frame their reforms, then these men save a State and keep it whole. When, on the contrary, those who make or administer the laws are determined to abide by a phrase or a form, then the necessities accumulate, the burden and the strain become intolerable, and the gravitation towards the normal standard of living, which should act as a slight but permanent force, acts suddenly at a high potential and with destructive violence.


As an example of the time when the former and the better conditions prevailed, I would cite the period between the eleventh and the fourteenth centuries, when a change of the most fundamental kind passed over the society of Europe, indeed a change from barbarism to civilisation, and yet the whole went well. Reform, being continual, was easy. New institutions, the Parliaments, the Universities, the personal tax, rose as they were demanded, and the great transition was crowned with the security and content that surrounded St. Louis. Simplicity, that main condition of happiness, was the governing virtue of the time. The king ruled, the knight fought, the peasant dug in his own ground, and the priest believed.


It is the lack of simplicity that makes of the three centuries following the fifteenth (with vices due perhaps to the wickedness of the fifteenth) an opposite example. Every kind of phrase, emblem, or cloak is kept; every kind of living thing is sacrificed. Conditions cease to be flexible, and the body of Europe, which after all still breathes, is shut in with the bonds of the lawyers, and all but stifled.


In the sixteenth century one would say that the political quarrels of the princes were a mere insult to nature, but the people, though they are declining, show that they still exist; the passions of their religions enliven the dead game of the Tudors and the Valois, In the seventeenth the pedants give their orders, the upper classes fight the princes, the people are all but silent. Where were they in the Fronde, or in that less heroic struggle the Parliamentary Wars? As the eighteenth century falls further and further into decay all is gone; those who move in comfort above the souls which they have beneath them for a pavement, the rich and the privileged, have even ceased to enjoy their political and theological amusements; they are concerned only with maintaining their ease, and to do this they conjure with the name of the people’s memories.


They build ramparts of sacred tombs, and defend themselves with the bones of the Middle Ages, with the relics of the saint and the knight.


It is this which necessitates and moulds the Revolution. The privileged men, the lawyers especially, held to the phrase. They excused themselves in a time most artificial by quoting the formulæ of a time when life was most natural and when the soul was nearest the surface. They used the name of the Middle Ages precisely because they thought the Middle Ages were dead, when suddenly the spirit of the Middle Ages, the spirit of enthusiasm and of faith, the Crusade, came out of the tomb and routed them.


I say, then, that the great disease of the time preceding the Revolution came from the fact that it had kept the letter and forgotten the spirit. It continued to do the same things as Europe at its best—it had entirely neglected to nourish similar motives. Let me give an extreme example. There are conditions under which to burn a man to death seems admissible and just. When offences often occur which society finds heinous beyond words, then no punishment seems sufficient for the satisfaction of the emotion which the crime arouses. Thus during the Middle Ages (especially in the latter part of their decay), and sometimes in the United States to-day, a man is burned at the stake. But there are other conditions under which a society shrinks with the greatest horror from such a punishment. Security is so well established, conviction in this or that so much less firm, the danger from the criminal so much less menacing, that the idea of such an extreme agony revolts all men. Then to burn is wrong, because it is unnecessary and undesired. But let us suppose the lawyers to be bent on a formula, tenacious from habit and become angrily tenacious from opposition, saying that what has been shall be; and what happens? The Parliament of Strasbourg condemns a man to be burnt while the States General are actually in session in 1789!


Again, take the example of the land. There was a time when the relations of lord and serf satisfied the heart. The village was a co-operative community: it needed a protector and a head. Even when such a need was not felt, the presence of a political personage, at the cost of a regular and slight tax, the natural affection which long habit had towards a family and a name these made the relation not tolerable, but good. But when change had conquered even the permanent manorial unit, and the serf owned severally, tilling his private field; when the political position of the lord had disappeared, and when the personal tic had been completely forgotten—then the tax was folly. It was no longer the symbol of tenure drawn in a convenient fashion, taken right out of the cornfield from a primitive group of families; it had become an arbitrary levy, drawn at the most inconvenient time, upsetting the market and the harvest, and falling on a small farmer who worked painfully at his own plot of ground


It is difficult to explain to English readers how far this deadening conservatism had been pushed on the Continent. The constitution of England and the habits of her lawyers and politicians were still, for all their vices, the most flexible in Europe. Even Pitt could tinker at the representative system, and an abominable penal code could be softened without upsetting the whole scheme of English criminal law. To this day we notice in England the most fundamental changes introduced, so to speak, into an unresisting medium: witness those miniature revolutions, the Income Tax and Employers’ Liability, which are so silent, and which yet produce results so immeasurable.


It has always been a difficulty in writing of the Revolution for English readers, that in England the tendency to reform, though strong, was not irresistible. It was a desire, but it was not a necessity, and that on account of the quality which has just been mentioned, the lack of form and definition in the English constitution and legal habit.


But if we go a little deeper we shall see a further cause. Nothing will so deaden the common sense of justice in a legislator or a lawyer, nothing will separate him so much from the general feeling of his time, as distinction of class from class. When a man cannot frequently meet and sympathise with every kind of man about him, then the State lacks homogeneity; the general sentiment is unexpressed, because it has no common origin of expression, and you obtain in laws and legal decisions not the living movement of the citizens, but the dead traditions of a few.


Now by a peculiar bent of history, the stratification of society which is so natural a result of an old civilisation, was less marked in England than elsewhere in Europe. The society of the Continent is not more homogeneous to-day, as contrasted with that of modern England, than was the society of England a hundred years ago, as contrasted with that of the Continent then; and any English traveller who is wise enough to note in our time the universal type of citizen in France, will experience something of the envy that Frenchmen felt when they noted the solid England of the eighteenth century. There great lawyers were occasionally drawn from the people; there a whole mass of small proprietors in land or capital—half the people perhaps—kept the balance of the State, and there a fluctuating political system could, for all its corruption, find a place for the young bourgeois Wolfe to defeat the great gentleman Montcalm.


But while in England reform was possible (though perhaps it has been fatally inadequate), in the rest of Europe it was past all hope. Everywhere there must be organs of government, and these on the Continent could no longer be changed, whether for better or worse: they had become stiff with age, and had to be supplanted. Now to supplant the fundamental organs of government, to make absolutely new laws and to provide an absolutely new machinery—all this is to produce a violent revolution.


You could not reform such a body as the Châtelet, nor replace by a series of statutes or of decisions such a mass as the local coûtumes. Not even a radical change in the system of taxation would have made the noblesse tolerable; no amount of personal energy nor any excellence of advisers could save a king enveloped with the mass of etiquette at Versailles. These numerous symptoms of the lethargy that had overtaken European society, even the disease itself, might have been swept away by a sharp series of vigorous reforms. Indeed, some of these reforms were talked of, and a few actually begun in the garrulous courts of Berlin and of St. Petersburg. Such reforms would have merited, and would have obtained, the name of Revolution, but they might have passed without that character of accompanying excess which has delayed upon every side the liberties of Europe. We should be talking of the old regime and of the Revolution as we do now, but the words would have called up a struggle between old Parliaments and young legists, between worn-out customs and new codes, between the kings of etiquette and the kings of originality, between sleep and the new science; the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries would have been united by some curious bridge—not separated by an abyss.


As it is, the word Revolution recalls scenes almost as violent as those which marked the transition of Rome from the Republic to the Empire, We remember the name not of Condorcet but of Marat: in place of the divided Europe and complicated struggle which (on the analogy of the Reformation) should have attended a movement upon which sympathy was so evenly divided, in place of a series of long, desultory campaigns, you have a violent shock of battle between the French and every government in Europe; you have the world outlawing a people; you have, as a direct consequence of such a pressure, the creation of a focus from whose extreme heat proceeds the conquering energy of Napoleon. Blows terrible and unexpected are struck in the first four years of the war, and there appears in 1796 a portent—the sword that was not broken until it had cut down and tilled the old society of the West.


To all these accidents which flow from the form the Revolution took, one more must be added, and that the most important. The shock was of such violence that all the old bonds broke. I mean the permanent things which hold society together, not the dead relics, which would in any case have disappeared.


Many great changes have passed over Europe and have left the fundamentals untouched; the Revolution, which, might so easily have remoulded the shape of society, did more and possibly worse: it rebuilt from the foundations. How many unquestioned dogmas were suddenly brought out into broad daylight! All our modern indecision, our confused philosophies, our innumerable doubts, spring from that stirring of the depths. Is property a right? May men own land? Is marriage sacred? Have we duties to the State, to the family? All these questions begin to be raised. A German Pole has denied the sequence of cause and effect. Occasionally a man suddenly rises and asks, “Is there a God?” There is nothing left in reserve for the amusement of posterity.


Well, this unexampled violence, which, like the wind on the Red Sea, has bared for a moment things that had lain hidden for centuries—this war of twenty years and its results were due to the fact that the Revolution, which might have started in a different form from almost any European centre, started as fact from France.


That France was the agent of the reform is the leading condition of the whole story, for it was her centralisation that made the change so rapid and so effectual, her temperament that framed the abstract formulae which could spread like a religion, her political position in Europe that led to the crusade against her; and this war in its turn (acting on a Paris that led and governed the nation) produced all the further consequences of the Revolution from the Terror to Waterloo.


Let us examine the conditions of the Revolution as a purely French thing, see what it was that made it break out when it did, what guided its course, what gave Paris Its position, what led to the wars and the Terror.


In the first place, the causes of the Revolutionary movement in France. They were two: First, the immediate material necessity for reform which coincided with the Revolutionary period; secondly, the philosophy which had permeated society for a generation, and which, when once a change was undertaken, guided and controlled the development of that change.


As for the material circumstances that led to so urgent a necessity for reform, they may be stated as follows: —The governmental machinery, which had been growing more and more inefficient, had finally broken down; and this failure had been accelerated by a series of natural accidents, the most prominent among them being two successive years of scarcity.


Now why was France alone in such a deplorable condition? Why was she all but bankrupt, her navy in rapid decay, her armies ill-clothed, ill-fed, in arrears of pay? Why could Arthur Young, observant, honest, and inept, make his tour through France (in which the mass of accurate detail is balanced by so astounding a misconception of French society[1]), and in that book describe the land going out of cultivation, the peasant living on grass, the houses falling down, the roads impassable? The answer is discovered in the very causes that led to the past greatness of the country. Because France alone in Europe was a vast centralised body—a quality which had made the reign of Louis XIV; because centralisation could not continue to work under the old regime—a condition which led to the abrupt wreck of 1788 and 1789.


The government of France, in the century preceding the Revolution, might be compared to a great machine made with admirable skill out of the disjointed parts of smaller engines; a machine whose designer had kept but a single end in view—the control of all the works by one lever in the hand of one man. But (to continue the metaphor) the materials to which his effort had been confined forbade simplicity; the parts would be repaired with difficulty, or sometimes not at all; the cleaning and oiling of the bearings was neglected, of necessity, on account of their position; and after two generations of work the machine had ceased its functions. It was clogged upon every side and rusty—still dependent upon one lever, but incapable of movement.


France had become a despotism, but a despotism which lacked organisation; all centred in the king, with the result that none could act but he, and yet, when he strove to act, the organs of action were useless. All had been made dependent upon one fountain-head, yet every channel was stopped up.


It is of the utmost importance in studying the Revolution to appreciate this fact: that nearly every part of the national life was sound, with the exception of the one supreme function of government; I do not mean that France and the world needed no new ideas, nor that a material change in the form of the executive would have sufficed for society. But I mean that, more than is usually the case in a time of crisis, a political act was the supreme need of the moment.


Capital was not well distributed, but at least it was not centralised as it is in our modern industrial societies. All men owned; the peasant was miserable beyond words, but his misery was not the result of an “Economic Law;” it was due to that much more tangible thing, misgovernment The citizen was apathetic, but potentially he was vigorous and alert. If he knew nothing of the jury or of public discussion, it was the system oppressing the man, not the man creating, or even permitting, the system. In a word, the vices or the misfortunes of France were not to be traced to the character of the social system or of the national temper. They were to be found in an artificial centre, the Government


Now of all governments a pure despotism can most quickly establish reforms. In Russia the serfs were freed, the Jews expelled, by a stroke of the pen; in India you may see great financial experiments, great military groups, come into being almost simultaneously with the decision that creates them. Why could not the central government have saved France? Because on every side its action was deadened by dead things, which it pretended were alive; because throughout the provinces and towns there lay thick the corpses of what had once been local institutions, and because so far from the Crown removing these, it had left to them the privileges which at one time were the salaries of their activity, but which had now become a kind of bribe to continue inactive.


How had this come about? How had a government been developed whose note was centralisation and despotism, and which yet carefully preserved the fossils of local administration?


To answer that question it is necessary to consider the original matter of which French society was composed and the influences that modified without destroying this matter in the course of the Middle Ages. The French, like every other national group in Western Europe, may be said to have differentiated from the mere ruins of the Empire in that dark period which follows the death of Charlemagne; until that epoch some shadow of unity remained, and certainly the forces working against unity had not yet begun to be national The order of Rome, which had remained as an accepted ideal for five hundred years, takes under Charlemagne a certain substance and reality, as mystical and as strange, as full of approaching doom and yet as actual as a momentary resurrection from the dead. It ceases with the close of his reign, and what Dr. Stubbs has well called “the darkness of the ninth century” comes down.


The northern pirates fall on the north and west, and cut off the islands from the mainland, giving us in England the barrier of the Danish invasions, beyond which Anglo-Saxon history grows dim; they crush out the customs, and even the religion, of the coasts of the Continent The Hungarian certainly, the heathen Slavs of the Baltic presumably, cut in streams through the Germanic tribes, The Saracens held the Mediterranean. Society fell back upon its ultimate units; in all that mechanical disintegration the molecules of which it is composed remained. The village community, self-sufficing self-contained, alone preserved an organisation and a life.


For more than a century it hung upon a thread whether the Roman tradition should survive, or whether our civilisation should fall into the savagery which has apparently been elsewhere the fate of systems almost as strong, A new thing arose in Europe, destined more than any other factor to deflect the current of its Latin tradition. There was found, when the light began to grow upon this darkness, in nearly every village a little king. Whichever men had in the old times been possessed of power, local officials, large owners of land, leaders in the great armies, emerge from the cataclysm welded into one new class—the nobles; and with the appearance of this caste, with the personal emotions and the strong local fooling that their system developed, Europe becomes a feudal society. But that society contained another element, which was destined to control and at lust to destroy the feudality. For strangely enough, this period, which had thrown Europe into such Anarchy, had produced an idea the very opposite of such a character. The nationalities begin to arise. The kings—weak shadows—nobles, often of small power, but no longer the mere leaders of armies, become symbols of a local unit, separated from the Empire. They stood for the nation round which the patriotism that you will discover in the old epics was to gather.


France, more perhaps than any of the new divisions, illustrates all this, A small weak king, one Capet, was elected from among the nobles at the end of the tenth century, and the family which ultimately toppled over from the immensity of its burden, descended from him in direct line from father to son through more than eight hundred years.


In the early years of that crusading century which is the vigorous opening of the life that was to produce our Europe, a discovery was made which was destined to help this new kingship to take a very different shape. In the loot of Amalfi, in a petty war, the Roman Code of Law was rediscovered.


It had the effect which might be imagined in a barbarous society which the Normans and Hildebrand had at last aroused. It suddenly gave a text and an accurate guide to those splendid but vague memories of Imperial order and civilisation.


Everywhere the Universities arise; from Bologna come out the corporation of the lawyers, the students of the code, the men whose decisions were final, who led mediæval society as the scientists lead ours to-day; and everywhere they tended to the two bases of the Roman idea—absolute sovereignty in the case of the State, absolute ownership in the case of the Individual.


The logical end of such a movement should have been the Empire—citizens all equal before the law, the feudal system destroyed, the Church dominated by the State, the will of the prince supreme. But Europe contained a hundred elements beside the lawyers, though these were the most permanent and active force of her civilisation. The Manorial unit was strong; there are places where it survives to-day[2]. The aristocracy was strong. In Poland and England it ended by conquering the Crown and the Roman law. The Church, affected as it was by the new ideas, still had a host of anomalous habits and institutions, grown up since the fall of the Empire.


In the anarchy of the dark ages the framework of intense local differences had been constructed; the village, the guild, the chapter, each had their special customs born of isolation. Finally, the spirit of secondary nationalities was powerful in many places; notably among the Germans it conquered every other tendency.


Now France was especially favourable to the growth of the influences of this law; she was very Roman by tradition, and by tradition Imperial. Charlemagne had left his clothes to Germany, but his spirit to Gaul. The sub-nationalities, Provence, Normandy, the Gascons, had, in spite of their local patriotism, epics in which they harped on “Doulce France Terre Majeure” But though the national forces on the whole inclined towards the lawyers and the Crown, the path by which absolute centralisation could be reached was tortuous and had to be well chosen. The nobles are slowly bereft of political power, but their privilege remains; the peasant gradually acquires the land, but many feudal dues lie on a tenure which has lost all its feudal meaning. The Church becomes the king’s, but it remains in administration of its vast possessions: to the last the Crown works through (or attempts to work through) the local organisation that was once supreme and is fast dying.


You may compare the progress of the Capetians towards absolute power to the action of a gentleman who obtains an estate at the cost of perpetual bribery, and finds himself crippled when he has at last succeeded.


Finally, the lawyers themselves become sterilised in the general decay which their policy has created. Even the Crown is half-allied to the privileged bodies in practice, and altogether allied in sentiment; the government which had for centuries created and sustained the people now found itself remote from them and the source of its power cut off.


I will give but a couple of examples to illustrate the centralisation and the hopeless confusion that accompanied it. The first is from De Tocqueville. A village near Paris wished to raise a small local rate to mend the steeple of the church. They could not do so without appealing to Versailles. The leave was granted after two years, but the steeple had broken down. The second is from the records of the election of ‘89. In a bailiwick of Champagne it was discovered that no one accurately knew the boundaries of the district, that the next bailiwick was similarly ignorant, and finally an arbitrary line was drawn. This is one out of dozens of cases. The population of Paris was not known; the number of electors in every division was uncertain.


Such was the France in which reform was necessary. The land, by a continual and misdirected interference with exchange, was going out of cultivation—or rather (for even in the worst cases of depression this symptom is rare) it was yielding less and less as time went on.


The classes into which society was divided had become separated by an etiquette as rigorous as a religion, and though the thing has gone, the phrases that described it are vigorous to this day, and lead continually to the gravest misconception. A France where one Frenchman has grown so like another still lets its literature run upon some of the old lines.


Five great divisions should especially be noticed in connection with the Revolution—the peasants, the artisans, the middle class, the professionals, the noblesse; and side by side with these, a separate thing, the Church, sharply divided into the higher and lower clergy. Let me, at the risk of some digression, enter into the details of these various groups.


The peasants were the majority of the nation, as they are to-day. At a rough guess, out of some five million heads of families, three and a half at least were of this class. What were they? They were more ignorant, more fearful, and more unhappy than ever the inhabitants of French soil had been before. I believe it is no exaggeration to say that the worst of the barbarian invasions had not produced among them such special and intense misery as had the running down of the governmental machine in the eighteenth century. Their songs had ceased. Search the folk-lore of France, and you will find a kind of gap after the centralisation was complete, and after the lords had left them—after the seventeenth century. It is as though that oldest sign of communal life, the traditions and the stories of the little circle of the village, had died just before the death of the village itself. As to religion, with which all this natural and fertile love of legend is so closely knit, it lingered, but it lingered hardly. The priest still survived, but his action was cut off by penury; in places the extreme physical needs of the peasantry, whose lot he shared, entered into his life to an intolerable degree, and a half-paganism resulted. Twenty, thirty pounds a year is not enough for the celibate who holds the sacramental power in the village. I will show you in the rural communes of France church after church part of whose buildings are very old, part very new: and what is the reason? That in all these places the church fell into ruins till the new State came to rebuild it. You may discover many cases of restoration in the eighteenth century where a great cathedral or a famous church or abbey is renewed: it is the work of the upper clergy, and the dole out of their vast fortunes. In the villages such cases are rare and eccentric. The Revolution, for all its antagonism, gave to the Faith a new life. There are to-day more monasteries and convents, more of the clergy, both regular and secular, by far more missionaries, than there were in 1789, but there are fewer bishops.


The peasant owned land, his roof and a few acres beside; he had been buying for generations, and the drift of the law when it turned feudal tenant-right into ownership was in his favour. But this ownership of the land, the foundation of his future citizenship, was for the moment his curse. It made him an independent man, while he still had to pay the dues of his feudal dependence. And independence works both ways. He stood, ignorant and extremely poor, face to face with the all-powerful State, His natural support and guide had left the village for the court; the lord was nothing more than a name for endless annoyance and local exaction. The symptom that comes just before death showed itself in the ploughman and the labourer in the vineyard. He lost heart; he was too tired and too beaten to work; the great burden of the State, its taxes, its follies, had accumulated on his shoulders, and had bent them so low that he could no longer stir the earth with vigour into harvests.


Such men did not make the Revolution; they were the inert mass upon which it worked. They did not sing the war-songs; they did not understand the meaning of the invasions. No peasant marked the assemblies with the sense or cunning of the fields, the sound of patois was lacking in the great chorus, and as you read the Revolution you feel continually the lack of something closely in touch with Nature, because the most French of all Frenchmen had forgotten how to speak.


The Revolution has made them; and to this day the heirs of the Republic wonder at the peasant in his resurrection. From him come the humour, the gaiety, the manhood; it is his presence in the suffrage that criticises and tones down the crudities of political formulae. He has re-created a host of songs, he has turned all France into a kind of walled garden; underneath the politicians, and in spite of them, he is working out the necessary thing which shall put flesh on to the dry bones of the Revolution, —I mean the reconciliation of the Republic and the Church.


As to the artisans, they play in the story of the movement a subsidiary but an interesting part. The artisans (in the sense in which I use the term) were found only in the great towns. At least the artisans outside these centres must be reckoned as part of the peasantry, for their spirit was that of the village. These craftsmen of the towns did not form a large percentage of the nation. Perhaps half-a-million families—perhaps a trifle more. But their concentration, the fact that they could come in hundreds and hear the orators, the fact that they alone, by the accidents of their position, could form mobs, these were the causes of their peculiar effect upon the Revolutionary movement.


Like the peasant, the ouvrier gives hardly any type to politics. If we except Hébert, on the strength of his being a vagabond ticket-collector, there is hardly any one of prominence who comes from the labourers in the towns. But the combined effort of the class was great and was as follows: —It furnished for the party of revolt an angry and ready army of the streets; it was capable of follies and of violence almost unlimited; it was capable also of concentration and common action. It filled the tribunes of the clubs, and more than once terrorised the Parliament. It was patriotic, but wofully suspicious; and in all it did the main fault was a lack, or rather a dislike, of delay, of self-criticism, and of self-control: the ruling passion anger, and the motive of this anger the partial information, the extreme false idea, of the political movement, which it was willing to read into every speech delivered.


I will attempt to say why this character, the worst mid the most dangerous of the period, was developed in the labour of the towns. In the first place, the industrial system is of itself fatal to the French character. It is not in the traditions of the nation; it is opposed to the tendencies which the most superficial observer can discover in them. The Frenchman saves and invests in small parcels, loves to work with his own tools, is impatient of a superior unless it be in some domestic relation, is attached to the home life, and above all is no good specialist: “Il veut rester homme.” You will find too many artists, too few machines in a crowd of them.


It may be that a cheap distribution of power, or that some other economic change, will reinstate the small capitalist; till then, for all his industry, the French workman will be at a disadvantage. In the great towns, in the manufactory, under a central control which has no political basis of right, cut off from the fields for which the peasant in him always yearns, he is like good wine turned sour.


In the second place, the system of the old regime had produced an aristocracy of labour such as many reformers demand in England to-day. Mediæval restrictions, which had once applied to all workers, and had been designed to limit competition between men all of whom were employed, survived in 1789 as guilds and companies strictly protected by law, with fixed hours of labour, fixed wages—every kind of barrier to exclude the less fortunate artisans. A system that under St. Louis had made life more secure for all, had, under his descendants, separated the workmen into two classes of the over- and the under-paid, and these last increased.


In the third place, the recent treaty of commerce with England had worked most disadvantageous for French manufacture, and in all the great towns, especially in Paris, thousands of men were out of work.


In the fourth place, the general scarcity of agricultural produce struck the ouvrier, even if he were employed at good wages, in the heaviest fashion.


Between the cornfield and the city came the taxes, the feudal dues, the provincial frontier duties, and finally the octroi paid at the city gates. So inept a method of continually harassing exchange could not but react upon production, and even when the harvest was plentiful bread was dear in the great cities. Even when these internal taxes did not diminish the output, they raised the price in the towns.


Finally, the Church, which, as we have seen, had none too firm a hold on the villagers, had lost all power over the townsmen. To what was this due? Presumably to the apathy which had overtaken the rich higher clergy, a class which naturally congregated in the towns, especially in Paris, and whose example influenced all the surrounding priests. Add to this the destruction of the old unit of the parish in the city. The industrial system had broken up the neighbourliness of the capital. Men rarely lived in their own houses, often changed their lodgings to follow their work. There is no worse enemy to the parochial and domestic character of our religion than the economic change from which we suffer. Now with the Church was associated all the morality of their traditions; without it they were lost. They had not read the philosophers; Rousseau had not permeated so deep. For the matter of that, they would have cared little for him or for Seneca; and, deprived of any code, they were at the mercy of every passion and of all unreason. Only this much remained: that they honestly hated injustice; that egotism had very little to do with their anger; that they were capable of admirable enthusiasms. They had not the little qualities of the rich, and they also escaped their vices. One great virtue attached to them: they did nothing at the expense of the country’s honour; no reactionary or foreigner bought them; they were patriotic through all their errors.


To these characters, which they brought into the Revolution, a further accident must be added. They became disfranchised. As we shall see later, the constitution of 1790, based upon the very sound principle of representing those only who supported the State, gave no provision (as it should have done) for making that support fall upon the shoulders of all. It enfranchised the great bulk of Frenchmen—over four million entered the ranks of the “Active Citizens”—but it disfranchised the very class which sat in the galleries of the Parliament or ran to the Place de Grève. The workman, living in lodgings or flats sublet, often changing his residence, rarely paid any direct tax; he alone, therefore, lost the vote to which practically every peasant was entitled. This accident (it was not planned) worked in two ways. It added to the discontent of the Parisian workman, but it also forbade his movements to take political shape. To the very last the initiative was in the hands of others.


These others were the three remaining divisions—the middle class, the professionals, and the nobles.


It would be an error to make too hard and fast the barriers between these classes. In the cart that took the Dantonists to the guillotine all three were to be found. Nevertheless it aids a history of the Revolutionary period to distinguish each from each.


The bourgeoisie meant almost anything from a small shopkeeper to a successful lawyer. It was not so much the man’s occupation as his breeding and domestic surroundings that made him of this rank. Let me explain what I mean. Suppose the family of a linendraper (such as was Priestley’s family or Johnson’s in England) possessed of several thousand pounds. Let them put a son to the bar, and let the son succeed at the profession; well, the man and his son, so different in their pursuits, would yet remain in the class I desire to define, unless by some accident they got “in with” one of the literary coteries with which the noblesse mingled. And this separation would be something much more definite than in the parallel case in England. This class of the bourgeoisie stood like a great phalanx in the Revolution. Not one in ten of the class I am attempting to describe had entered the salons; there was not (as there is in an aristocratic state) any great desire to know the noblesse. An accident of surroundings, of eminence, or of friendship might lift a man from this class, but he would leave it with regret.


Of this class were Robespierre, Marat (in spite of his aristocratic milieu), Bonaparte[3], Danton himself, Santerre, Legendre, Carnot, Couthon, Barrère dozens of all the best-known names in the second period of the Revolution.


Brewers, builders, large shopkeepers, a host of provincial lawyers—these all over France, to the number of at least a million voters, formed a true middle class such as we lack in England. Note also that they might rise to a very considerable position without leaving this rank. A man might be physician to the first houses, a king’s counsel, a judge, anything almost except the colonel of a regiment, and yet be a bourgeois, and his son after him. In the memoirs of the last century you will find continually a kind of disgust expressed by the upper class against a set just below them; it is the class feeling against the bourgeoisie, their choice of words, their restrictions of fortune, their unfashionable virtues. These men were often learned; among the lawyers they were the pick of France; they had a high culture, good manners, in the case of individuals wit, and sometimes genius, but they were not gentlefolk, and had no desire to be thought so.


Of those, however, who were technically bourgeois, possessing no coat of arms nor receiving feudal dues, some had practically passed by an accident of association into the upper class of all. They met constantly in some salon, library, or scientific body members of the privileged order; their dress, manners, and conceptions were those of the liberal noblesse. To such men, very small in number and very influential, I would give the name of Professionals. The class is complete if you add to it the many noble names who stood prominent in the sciences or the arts. It was recruited from legal families of long standing, from financiers. It was polite, wealthy, often singularly narrow. Of such a type were the Marquis de Condorcet, Bailly, Sieyès; even Roland might be counted, though he hardly stood so high. These were the theorisers of the Revolution, with no practical grievance, ignorant of the mob, despising and misunderstanding the bourgeoisie (save in their political speeches); they were the orators of the new regime, and died with the Girondins.


As to the noblesse (who partly overlapped these last, and yet as a class were so distinct), they formed a body with which this book will hardly deal, and upon which I will touch but lightly. In very great numbers, the bulk of them by no means rich (though some, of course, were the greatest millionaires of their day), they were defined by a legal status rather than an especial manner.


He was noble whom the king had ennobled or who could prove an ancestry from the feudal lords of the manors[4]. The family name was never heard, only the territorial name preceded by the “de.” They had also this in common, that the whole great swarm of families, thousands and thousands, had a cousinship with that higher stratum which made the court. This cousinship was acknowledged; it put them in the army; it gave them the right to be spitted in a duel, and, above all, it exempted them from taxes. It made them, wherever they went, a particular class, to be revered by fools, and able to irritate their enemies merely by existing a privilege of some value. They held together in the heat of the reform, and it was only from the higher part of the noblesse that the deserters came—Mirabeau, Lafayette, and De Séchelles. The great bulk of them were poor, and consequently determined in the matter of privilege and feudal right that gave them their pittance. The class was richer than the bourgeoisie, but numerous families in it had not the capital of a bourgeois household, and many a poor lady boasts to-day of family estates lost in the Revolution, whose ancestry had no estates at all, but only a few tithes and a chance in the spoil to be had at court


Now to all these, without exception, reform seemed necessary; it was only when the Revolution was in full swing that the opposition of particular bodies appeared. The peasant was in misery; the artisan was angry; the middle class, possessed of that feeling which Sieyès expressed in a phrase: “Qu’est-ce que le Tiers État? —Rien;” and they were determined to work upon the sequel: “Que doit-il être? —Tout.” To this general chorus of demand the professionals added a strong conviction (in the abstract) of the good of self-government and of the necessity for removing State interference. The noblesse, as a class, expected nothing in particular to happen, but they were not unwilling for a Parliament to meet; they also suffered from the extreme complexity, or rather anarchy, into which things had fallen. Talent saw itself wrecked by court intrigue; piety was offended by the sight of a starving priest side by side with a careless, wealthy, often irreligious member of the higher clergy. Moreover, there ran through the nobility this curious feeling—an error which you will always find in the more generous of a privileged class namely, that in some mysterious way their special rights might be abolished and they not suffer for it—as though there were some vast sum in reserve, into which the State had but to put its hand and relieve the poor without taxing the rich. On the moral as on the material side this error obtained, and Lafayette, a man created by privilege, thought that when privilege was abolished his native virtues would lift him into the first rank.


To all this attitude of expectancy, and to this instant demand for reform, was added the insurmountable thing that made the Parliament necessary. The great symptom of decay had shown itself—the revenue could no longer be raised. Luckily for France, there existed in the last century no such international finance as exists at present, and the fatal temptation of external debt was not offered. With a population not quite two-thirds what it is to-day, the country failed to raise one-twentieth of what it now pays with ease. The debt was increasing with a terrifying rapidity, and since all the methods of centralised routine had failed, it was necessary to turn to the last resource, and the nation was asked to vote a tax. With promises of redress, with an understanding that the Assembly was to reform upon all sides, with a special demand for a statement of grievances, but especially for the necessities of revenue, the States General were summoned for the first time in a hundred and seventy-five years.


Such was the condition that preceded the Revolution. We have seen the attitude of the various social classes and the material necessity that prepared the reform. Now what were the ideas that were about to guide it? What theory was moving the men who met at Versailles? What form would the national character give to the changes which were in preparation?


It will be necessary here to propose a paradox. The French character, which has been blamed so frequently since the Revolution (and so justly) for an excess of idealism, possesses at the same time a passion for the positive, the objective, and the certain. In the man you will continually find some idea which pushes him to extremes, and in the ordinary affairs of life a most exact sense of reality, even sometimes an exasperating accuracy of detail. They are not alone in discovering an antithesis in the national character; in England, Germany, or Northern Italy it would he equally possible to show two apparently opposite characteristics united in the same civic type. But perhaps the nearest parallel we have at home to the contrasts of the French is to be seen in the Scotch people; like the French, a nation of independents, thrifty, investing continually in small sums, zealous of pence; like the French, on the other hand, they delight in the abstract problem; they will attach themselves to some idea, and hold it to the point of martyrdom.


What was the result of these two tendencies? In some characters they balanced each other. Condorcet comes to the mind as an example. But, as with other nations, the two aspects of France appeared (in much the greater number of her citizens) exalted to a violent degree that corresponded with the extreme danger and the extreme hopes of a moment of crisis.


I do not mean that you would have found in France two factions, the one of visionaries, the other of practical men; I mean that throughout the Revolution the goal and the method of attaining it reflected this double nature. Consider the decrees and their effects. At the sight of what the Assemblies from 1789 to 1795 are trying to do you would say, “A set of men attempting to build a city of dreams;” there is hardly anything so unnatural but that they will attempt it; they are ready to reconstruct from the foundation. The most violent period, that of 1794, is nothing but an effort to make all men conform to civic virtue and believe the necessary things; the most sane, that of 1791, is yet an attempt to realise in the State an equality and a justice that can only exist in the soul.


But if you turn to their methods and to the measure of their success, then you have a very different idea. They succeeded beyond all hope. They struck in a few months the blows that remoulded all France. The centralisation which the practical side of the character had created was used to transform France as rapidly as though the nation had been a household; and not only do they find means to do this, but, when the necessity arises, they suddenly raise armies of three hundred thousand, of a million; they find the commissariat somewhere in a starving people, and they succeed.


While, then, the nation was fitted for action to such a degree, what was the theory which its idealism was about to embrace? There had permeated throughout the noblesse and the bourgeoisie something more than a philosophy. It was not only a set of eighteenth-century phrases, of Reason, and Nature, and Right, but all these things turned into a religion. The apostolic quality of Rousseau had touched the mind of France.


It is the fashion to belittle this man. Something in him angers our successful and eager century, and yet but for him our century would not have taken the shape it has. It is needless to recall the movement which had preceded and which surrounded him. He did but complete the theory of the social contract; he hardly did more than repeat the conclusions of the rationalists; in the matter of economics he was entirely ignorant; he fell continually into the error of superficiality where history or where the details of institutions were concerned. A resident in England, he imagined that her people were represented; writing his famous work at Nuneham Courtenay, he could not see that the squire was everything in the little village. He had all the faults of weakness; he invited a persecution which he had not the wit to attack nor the stamina to sustain. What, then, made him such a prophet? In the first place, the power of words. All his critics in this country (with the exception of Mr. Morley perhaps) have failed to appreciate how great this power was. See what the Jacobean translation of the Bible has done in England; note what the pure rhetoric of Burke, proceeding solely from passion and untouched by any movement of reason, effected in England within a year of the fall of the Bastille: it was this that Rousseau did in France. But not this alone. If he possessed the power of words, he also had to an extraordinary degree that other quality which does not reside in style but in the texture of the mind. He could write in the pure abstract, and produce a piece of clear exposition deduced in an unbreakable chain from some fundamental dogma. He never commits the error of supposing his first principles to rely upon reason; he postulates a Faith. He allows that Faith to illumine his every sentence. He is certain that the things common to all men are the things of immeasurable importance; he is certain that the accidents of living are secondary. He is certain that our being part of all nature is the condition of happiness and of good; he is certain that the complexity of living which separates us from Nature is an evil, and to a France tortured with age he proposes this simple water of youth: that it should return to the first conditions of a small hamlet; where the families met together dictate the law; where each sees himself to be a part of the whole, and where the harmony that all men sought comes easily to an ideal democracy hidden in happy valleys. It is idle to argue that complexity was there; that France could not have at once the patriotism of twenty million, and the institutions of a hundred, hearths. Every one saw that difficulty, and in the midst of ‘94 the most fervent apostles of Bousseau compromised on the chief point, for the principle of election, which he hated, remained of necessity the chief method in their scheme of democracy.


It is not the obstacles, but the motive force that you must examine if you would comprehend the fervour of the Republic. And the motive force was that passion for the conditions under which the race has passed how many aeons of its tutelage, the harking back to the prehistoric things, the village and the tribe, all of whose spirit ran through the books that preached simplicity with such admirable eloquence.


There remains one feature to be discussed before we turn to a brief outline of Danton’s place in the movement—a feature which will be of capital importance throughout this book. That feature is the hegemony of Paris. It was the rule of Paris that made the whole course of the Revolution. In that focus of discussion and of passion the great advances and the great blunders of the Revolution took place. Paris alone made the 14th of July, almost alone the 10th of August, alone and against France the 2nd of June. Many an historian has seen in her position an error that should have been and could have been avoided. It is an opinion which from the time of Mirabeau to our own day has lain in the mind of French statesmen, that Paris must be jealously watched, played, forbidden control.


Why does Paris hold this position? Here is a city-state, eager, concentrated, the centre in many things of our European civilisation; that it should continually exert a moral influence over the State is easily to be understood, but Paris did more—it conquered and dominated the State, and France continually permitted that leadership.


There is, I believe, a point of view from which this historical fact becomes no longer an accident but a reasonable thing; and if we take that point of view it will be possible to understand why from the beginning she preserved the initiative, and became and remained till Thermidor the mistress of France.


The people of that country are, for much the greater part, the peasants whom I have described. They have for centuries been owners of the soil, and for at least two thousand years (perhaps far longer) they have found all their social, all their physical, and most of their intellectual interests in the intense but narrow life of a village community. In any great expanse of view you see the white houses, all huddled together without gardens, and between each group bare vast brown fields empty of farmsteads. These peasants have in them an admirable cousinship with the soil; their phrases and their proverbs are drawn directly from the fields and rivers; they are as healthy as Nature herself. Such is the general mass of France; but these innumerable villages, these vigorous swarms of men who work in the sunlight, need a bond. Some concrete object must be present to give true unity to many vague national impressions. Something must be the persona of these millions, and through the mouth of that something they must hear action formulated, patriotism expressed, the law defined. From it must come the executive, and of it are expected the direct orders and the government by which, in times of crisis, a nation is saved.


This brain, which is necessary to a complex organism, might have been found in a high priest or a despot; but we in England unconsciously look for it in an oligarchy. Seeing the squires wanting, we think there is nothing, and we draw doleful conclusions when we note the absence in the French villages of the forces that invigorate our own. We complain of the centralisation that atrophies, forgetting the oligarchy that cows and debases the inferior class; and while we despise the political apathy of French country life, we ignore the negation of society in our great cities.


The truth is that no definite system can escape attendant evils, and that if one nation does not adopt the methods that have succeeded in another it is because those methods are connected with instinct, and instinct can neither be taught nor adopted.


It was instinct that forbade the growth in France of oligarchic institutions. Everything was ready for it; the feudal system would seem its proper parent; the lords of the manors were so many seeds of what should have been a territorial aristocracy. They were destined to fail, and to say why is impossible, because it is impossible to explain Nature; we can only feel. Something in the genius of the nation makes for equality with the depth and silence of a strong tide at night. It is not the Roman law—all the nations had that. It is not even the Church—there is a something in the Church which neglects if it does not despise civic ideals. It is not the distribution of capital—that can be distinctly proved to be an historical result and not a cause. No, it is not an exterior force, but something from within which has produced this passion, the soul (as it were) forming the body. “La France a fait la France.”


If aristocracy were impossible, what remained? The walled towns. They are like pins on which the lace of France is stretched; the roads unite them and make a web which supports the rural communes. Never far apart, always living a life intensely their own, the walled towns stood guardian over surrounding villages. Here was the cathedral or the abbey, the judges, the college. It would give the name to a district, it would form with its dependent communes a kind of little state. News from the outside was concentrated here, and if a religious or political enthusiasm ran from the Rousillion to the Artois, it was not the villages that caught fire in the mass, but the towns, that passed the message on like beacons.


Now as the roots of this municipal system were to be found in Rome, these needed a little Rome to cap it. These towns being all of a kind, they of necessity fell grouped under the largest of their class. The tendency was well marked even before Gaul was re-united; the same force that made the great archbishoprics makes the metropolitan civil influence. Thus Rheims, Lyons[5], and Toulouse stand out hierarchically the heads of provinces—a very different kind of town from Canterbury (let us say) or Lichfiold, where once they talked of an arch-bishopric for Mercia.


Well, as the power of the Crown increases (which is another way of saying, “as the nation realises its memories of unity”), there increase with it the means of communication, and especially the strong centralised system which, as we have seen in another part of this chapter, had become a fatal necessity to Trance. Remember also that till the very end of the seventeenth century Paris had been uniquely the king’s town, and had so been (with one short interval) for more than a thousand years. Here was every single organ which the executive of a centralised government may need, and (what is more important) here was the place where each organ had grown; they were in the fibre of the place. Even if we go back no farther than the Capetians, we have a full seven hundred years of development in one spot from the familiar domestic origins, the little barbarous court in the palace on the island to the great city of nearly a million souls, whose terms and professions and classes, and whose every institution had developed round the throne.


When one remembers that the king had abandoned Paris but a hundred years; that he had left in the capital by far the greater part of the central machinery, especially the lawyers; that even from what he had taken many relics remained, and that professional men of all classes had the family tradition of the court in the capital—then we can understand what Paris was, is, and must be to a France where no class is permitted to govern. Add to this the increasing specialisation of function as the organism develops—the concentration of the brain—and Paris of the eighteenth century, abandoned as it is, hurt in its dignity, and a little uncertain of its action, still fulfils the geography-books, and is the capital of France.


She herself hardly knew how certainly power would fall into her hands, yet from the first mention of the States General it war, fated.


This, then, is the position as the States General meet. A nation in absolute material need of reform, that must have new institutions, especially new financial institutions, or die; classes separate from each other, mutually ignorant of each other, yet all in some degree feeling the position into which France had fallen: in the case of the bulk of the people, misgovernment appearing in the form of starvation; in the case of the upper classes and of the government itself, a conviction that the existing system was contrary to all reason and opposed to every sound interest


In this society, at least in that part of it that will be called upon to govern, is a conviction—a religion, if you will—whose basis was the faith of Rousseau. Conditions will moderate this for a time; the necessary compromise with what exists, the desire for peace that was uppermost in the first two years, will make men slow to uproot and destroy what may touch the interests of Mends and of large classes. They will always attempt a legal though a rapid reform. But, in spite of them, on account of that passionate conviction which underlay their most moderate actions, the Revolution will move up towards the region of unattainable things. The reformer will give way to the Republican idealist when once the serious opposition of the court is felt; he in his turn will give way to the man of passion and of action when the country is in danger; and even the man of passion and of action—the man of realities—will give way to the more visionary before reaction can come to sweep the floor clean in 1794.


Such will be the phases through which the form of the Revolution will pass. As for the soul of it, France will be steadily transformed, and, in spite of visionaries, reactions, and every political accident, a new and a strong society will be created. So the salt water comes in through old dykes; on its surface you will note the phases of a flood, innumerable little streams, a torrent, a spreading lake, and ultimately calm, but only one thing all the while is happening—where there has been land there will be the sea.


What place did Danton take in this transformation? Of his opinions in detail, his habit of body and mind, his convictions, the accidents of his life, it is the purport of this biography to treat. I will attempt only a very brief description of his position, to make clear the drift of his Revolutionary career, and with this close a chapter whose only object has been to describe the surroundings of a character with which the rest of this book is concerned.


Danton belonged to the bourgeoisie in rank, to the less visionary in the bent of his mind. A young and successful lawyer of thirty, the Revolution found him unknown to politics and not desiring election. It was the accident of oratory that gave him his first position. He discovered himself to be a leader, and there grouped round him a knot of most ardent, some of them the most brilliant, young reformers. The electoral district to which he happened to belong became through him the most democratic, and, in some ways, the most violent of Paris.


That part of him which led to such a position was his sympathy. His tenderness (and he had a great share of this quality) was hidden under the energy of his rough voice, great frame, and violent gesture. His pity he was slow to express. But the great crowd of men who were unrepresented, the smaller but more influential class of those who felt and knew but could not speak—these were attracted to him because he had the instinct of the people. He was a demagogue at moments and for a purpose, but never by profession nor for any period of time. What he was, however, all his life and by nature, was a Tribune.


The secret workings of the soil, the power that makes all the qualities of a nation from its wine to its heroes, these had produced him as they produce the tree or the harvest He is the most French, the most national, the nearest to the mother of all the Revolutionary group. He summed up France; and, the son of a small lawyer in Champagne, he was a peasant, a bourgeois, almost a soldier as well. When we study him it is like looking at a landscape of Rousseau’s or a figure of Millet’s. We feel France.


His voice was a good symbol of his mind, for there was heard in it not only the deep tone of a multitude, but that quality which comes from the mingling of many parts—the noise of waters or of leaves. In his political attitude he attained this collective quality, not by a varying point of view which is confusion, but by an integration. His opinions erred on the side of bluntness and of directness. They were expressed in plain sentences of a dozen words; he abhorred the classical allusion, he was chary of metaphor. He spoke as a crowd would speak, or an army, or a tribe, if it had a voice.


This was Danton, the public orator and the Tribune, who for two years was heard at the Cordeliers, who spoke always for the purely democratic reform, who opposed the moderates, and who helped to destroy the compromise. Never identified with Paris, he yet saw clearly the necessity of Paris. He admitted her claim, fenced with her arrogance, but never worshipped her idols; once or twice he even dared to blame her worst follies. Elected to the administration of the city, he played but a slight role, and until the spring of 1792 there is in him no other quality.


The spring of 1792 produced the war with Europe, and from that date Danton appears in another light. Had he died then, we should have known him only by chance references, a centre of strong reforming speeches, an obscure man in opposition. But with the outbreak of a war which he had done nothing to bring on, and which his party thought unwise, Danton shows that his character, in summing up his fellows, caught especially their patriotism. France was the first thought, and if we could hear not the debaters only, but all the voices of France when the invasion began, it would be this immediate necessity of saving the country that would drown all other opinions. Thence, and for a full year after, Danton becomes the leading man of France. The ability which has led to his legal success (now that his office is abolished and its reimbursement invested in land) seems turned upon the political situation, and such ability combined with such a representative quality pushes him to the front. Two qualities appeared in him which he himself perhaps had not guessed—the power of rapid organisation, and the power of so judging character as to bring diplomacy to bear upon every accident as it arrived.


It was not strictly he who made the 10th of August, but he was the leader. He saw that with the king in power the Prussians would reach Paris, and more than any man he organised the insurrection. That was the one act of violence in his life.


The rest of the nineteen months that fate allowed were spent in the attempt to reconcile, and harmonise all the forces he could gather for the salvation of the nation. Perhaps it was his chief fault that in this matter he held to no pure idea.


A Republican and an ardent reformer, he yet seems to have thought France of so much the first importance that he compromised and trafficked with all possible allies. He attempted to stave off the war with England; he attempted to keep Dumouriez; he tried to prevent vengeance from following the Girondins; when the extremists captured the great Committee, he acquiesced, and still wrestled with the forces of disunion. He would have hidden, if possible, those wounds which weakened France in the eyes of the world, and he waged a futile war with the pure idealists—the men of one dogma, who in so many separate camps were destroying each other for their civic faith, and preparing all the evils of a persecution.


On another side of political action he appeared more resolute than any man. It was he who saw the necessity of a strong government, he who created the revolutionary tribunal, and he who is chiefly responsible for the first Committee of Public Safety. He made the dictatorship, caring nothing for the principle, caring only to throw back the foreigner. “He stamped with his foot, and armies came out of the earth.” The violent metaphor is just. There is a succession, a stream of great armies (they say four millions of men!) pouring out from France for twenty years. If you will glance at the head of that stream, and wonder when you read of Napoleon what first called up the regiments, you may see on the Champ de Mars in ‘92, and later demanding the great levy of ‘93, the presence of Danton, the orator with the voice of command, the attitude of a charge, the right arm thrown forward in the gesture of the sword.


Possessed of astounding vigour, but lacking ambition, a lover of immediate but not of permanent fame, his superb energy after a year of effort spent itself in a demand for repose. In September 1793 he thought his work done and his position secure. He went back into his country home, walked in the fields he loved (and of which he talked before his death), revelled in Arcis, filling himself with the convivial pleasure that he had always desired. He came back in November secure and happy—ready, almost from without and as a spectator, to continue the task of welding the nation together. It was too late. He had created a machine too strong for his control. He had seen the Terror swallow up the Girondins, and had cried because he could not save them.


With the winter he began his protests, his persistent demands for reason and for common-sense; in the religious and in the political persecution he called for a truce; always his effort turned to the old idea—a united Republican France, strong against Europe, with exceptional powers against treason in a time of danger, but with a margin on the side of mercy.


He failed. The extreme theorists whom he despised had captured his dictatorship, and in April 1794 they killed him.


[1] E.g. he says the “gentry” of France should imitate the gentry of England. But to do this it is necessary to own the houses of the peasantry; and even then the system does not always suit the Celtic temperament, they say.


[2] For example, the island of Serque.


[3] Bonaparte may hare had a noble ancestry. But so had more than one true bourgeois whose family had had neither the means nor the desire to insist upon the privileged rank in the past.


[4] For the sake of clearness I do not mention the large class who had purchased fiefs, all technically noble, many practically bourgeois.


[5] Lyons was, of coarse, a frontier town of the empire, but locally it is the centre of its own country the “Lyonnais.”