Tuesday, July 27, 2010

27 July 1793 Robespierre Joins the Committee of Public Safety

On this day in 1793, Maximilien Isidore Robespierre joined the Committee of Pubic Safety.  A year later, to the day, his opponents arrested him and then sent him to the guillotine.

The Committee had been created in April, and then reorganized on 10 July at a time of crisis, when Danton's government fell. The French Revolution was threatened by an ongoing and disastrous foreign war and civil war at home.  The assassination of Jean-Paul Marat (13 July) only increased the tensions and fears.

As R. R. Palmer put it in his classic study of the Committee, Twelve Who Ruled:  The Year of the Terror in the French Revolution (1941; rpt. 1969):
Anarchy within, invasion without. A country cracking from outside pressure, disintegrating from internal strain.  Revolution at its height.  War.  Inflation.  Hunger.  Fear.  Hate.  Sabotage.  Fantastic hopes. Boundless idealism.  And the horrible knowledge, for the men in power, that if they failed they would die as criminals, murderers of their king.  And the dread that all the gains of the Revolution would be lost.  And the faith that if they won they would bring Liberty, Equality and Fraternity into the world.
This was the situation in which the twelve men who came to the green room acted.

As for Robespierre, Palmer points out that he was not, contrary to popular belief, a would-be dictator or even a man with a plan.
In four years of revolutionary activity he had never held official power.

Robespierre had no detailed or specific program at this time.  His economic ideas were unformed.  He gave expression to the feelings that patriots most widely shared, glorifying the people, calling for vengeance upon aristocrats and traitors, urging that government bodies be purified, branding as counter-revolutionary both middle-class moderates and proletarian malcontents.  Eagerly heard at the Jacobins, respected as a democrat by the Commune, he was an idol, not a master, for the unruly cohorts from which he drew his strength.

He had a sense of the responsibility of government. Time and again he defended the Committee, even before he became a member.  He resisted the proposals of some excited contemporaries, when they suggested that the constituted authorities be cashiered wholesale, or that the Jacobins keep running to the Committee with petitions and advice, or that the Committee deliberate in public where all citizens could hear its plans.  He was aware, when he saw it in others, of one of the most unsettling of Jacobin proclivities, the habit of loose and unfounded denunciation, which undermined all feeling of confidence and security.  He noted, in others, the extravagance of oratory, the use of 'wild hyperbole and ridiculous and meaningless metaphors.' He believed that 'new men, patriots of a day, want to discredit in the people's eyes its oldest friends.'  Calling for order, authority, confidence, unity and efficiency, Robespierre was ceasing to be a revolutionary in the old sense of the word.  The term 'revolutionary' had itself undergone a change.  When men asked for revolutionary measures in 1793 they meant speedy and effective measures, not sweeping innovations.  'Revolutionary' referred to the stabilizing of an accomplished fact, the Revolution.
Robespierre expressed some of his own views in his defense of the Committee in 1793:
I know that we cannot flatter ourselves that we have attained perfection. But when one must support a republic surrounded by enemies, arm reason in favor of freedom, destroy prejudices, render void individual efforts against the public interest, moral and physical forces are necessary that nature has perhaps refused both to those who denounce us and those we combat.

. . . .

for two years, 100,000 men have been killed by treason or weakness; it is weakness before traitors that harms us. We are tender towards the most criminal men, towards those who deliver the fatherland to the enemy’s steel. I only know how to be moved by the fate of a generous people who are slaughtered with so much villainy (applause).

I add a word on our accusers: it cannot be that, on pretext of the freedom of opinion, a committee that serves the fatherland well should be slandered with impunity by those who, being able to crush one of the hydra heads of federalism, did not do so due to an excess of weakness,  . . .(applause.)

I say that it is not necessary to believe in probity in order to suspect the Committee of Public Safety (applause). That the tyrants who hate us, their salaried slanderers, the journalists who serve them so well spread those falsehoods to vilify us, this I can conceive. But it’s not up to us to ward off such charges and respond to them. It’s enough that I feel in my heart the strength to defend unto death the cause of the people, which is great and sublime. It’s enough for me to hold in contempt all the tyrants and the rascals who second them (applause).

I summarize and I say that all the explanations that have been given are insufficient. We can hold the slanderers in contempt, but the agents of the tyrants who surround us observe us and gather all they can to vilify the defenders of the people. It’s for them, it’s to ward off their impostures, that the National Convention must proclaim that it maintains its confidence in the Committee of Public Safety.

(Perils of Wikipedia:  I am in general a big fan of Wikipedia and its underlying principles, but I am also all too aware that many articles are shallow and shoddy (perils and pitfalls here, for example). The current entry on the Committee of Public Safety is a case in point, and a ratherpedestrian scribble. About the only sensible and meaningful statement in it is the explanation that the Committee was created at a time of national crisis. Someone, please fix this.)

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