The French Revolution— Volume 3

Author: Hippolyte Adolphe Taine

IV. The Statesmen.

Billaud-Varennes, Collot d’Herbois, Robespierre, Couthon and Saint- Just. - Conditions of this rule. - Dangers to which they are subject. - Their dissensions. - Pressure of Fear and Theory.

If such are the ravages which are made in an upright, firm and healthy personality, what must be the havoc in corrupt or weak natures, in which bad instincts already predominate! - And note that they are without the protection provided by a pursuit of some specific and useful objective. They are "government men," also "revolutionaries" or "the people in total control;"[44] they are in actual fact men with an overall concept of things, also direct these. The creation, organization and application of Terror belongs wholly to them; they are the constructors, regulators and engineers of the machine,[45] the recognized heads of the party, of the sect and of the government, especially Billaud and Robespierre, who never serve on missions,[46] nor relax their hold for a moment on the central motor. The former, an active politician, with Collot for his second, is charged with urging on the constituted authorities, the districts, the municipalities, the national agents, the revolutionary committees, and the representatives on mission in the interior.[47] The latter, a theologian, moralist, titular doctor and preacher, is charged with ruling the Convention and indoctrinating the Jacobins with sound principles; behind him stands Couthon, his lieutenant, with Saint- Just, his disciple and executor of works of great importance; in their midst, Barère, the Committee’s mouthpiece, is merely a tool, but indispensable, conveniently at hand and always ready to start whatever drum-beating is required on any given theme in honor of the party which stuffs his brain. Below these comes the Committee of General Security, Vadier, Amar, Vouland, Guffroy, Panis, David, Jagot and the rest, those who undertook, reported on, and acted in behalf of universal proscription. All these bear the imprint of their service; they could be recognized by "their pallid hue, hollow and bloodshot eyes,"[48] habits of omnipotence stamped "on their brows, and on their deportment, something indescribably haughty and disdainful. The Committee of General Security reminded one of the former lieutenants of police, and the Committee of Public Safety, of the former ministers of state." In the Convention, "it is considered an honor to talk with them, and a privilege to shake hands with them; one seems to read one’s duty on their brows." On the days on which their orders are to be converted into laws "the members of the Committee and the reporter of the bill, keep people waiting, the same as the heads and representatives of the former sovereign power; on their way to the Assembly hall, they are preceded by a group of courtiers who seem to announce the masters of the world."[49] - In fact, they reign - but observe on what conditions.

"Make no complaints," said Barère,[50] to the composer of an opera, the performance of which had just been suspended: "as times go, you must not attract public attention. Do we not all stand at the foot of the guillotine, all, beginning with myself?" Again, twenty years later, in a private conversation, on being interrogated as to the veritable object, the secret motive of the Committee of Public Safety, he replied:

"As we were animated by but one sentiment,[51] my dear sir, that of self-preservation, we had but one desire, that of maintaining an existence which each of us believed to be menaced. You had your neighbor guillotined to prevent your neighbor from guillotining you."[52]

The same apprehension exists in stouter souls, although there may have been, along with fear, motives of a less debased order.

"How many times," says Carnot,[53] "we undertook some work that required time, with the conviction that we should not be allowed to complete it!" - " It was uncertain[54] whether, the next time the clock struck the hour, we should not be standing before the revolutionary Tribunal on our way to the scaffold without, perhaps, having had time to bid adieu to our families. . . . We pursued our daily task so as not to let the machine stand still, as if a long life were before us, when it was probable that we should not see the next day’s sun."

It is impossible to count on one’s life, or that of another, for twenty-four hours; should the iron hand which holds one by the throat tighten its grasp, all will be over that evening.

"There were certain days so difficult that one could see no way to control circumstances; those who were directly menaced resigned themselves wholly to chance."[55] - " The decisions for which we are so much blamed," says another,[56] "were not generally thought of two days, or one day, beforehand; they sprung out of the crisis of the moment. We did not desire to kill for the sake of killing . . . but to conquer at all hazards, remain masters, and ensure the sway of our principles." - That is true, - they are subjects as well as despots. At the Committee table, during their nocturnal sessions, their sovereign presides, a formidable figure, the revolutionary Idea which confers on them the right to slay, on condition of exercising it against everybody, and therefore on themselves. Towards two o’clock, or three o’clock in the morning, exhausted, out of words and ideas, not knowing where to slay, on the right or on the left, they anxiously turn to this figure and try to read its will in its fixed eyes.

"Who shall fall to-morrow? " -

Ever the same reply steadily expressed on the features of the impassable phantom: "the counter-revolutionaries," under which name is comprised all who by act, speech, thought or inmost sentiment, either through irritation or carelessness, through humanity or moderation, through egoism or nonchalance, through passive, neutral or indifferent feeling, serve well or ill the Revolution.[57] - All that remains is to add names to this horribly comprehensive decree. Shall Billaud do it? Shall Robespierre do it? Will Billaud put down Robespierre’s name, or Robespierre put down Billaud’s, or each the name of the other, with those he chooses to select from among the two Committees? Osselin, Chabot, Bazire, Julien de Toulouse, Lacroix, Danton, were on them, and when they left, their heads fell.[58] Hérault-Séchelles, again, was on them, maintained in office with honor through the recent approbation of the Convention,[59] one of the titular twelve, and on duty when an order issued by the other eleven suddenly handed him over to the revolutionary Tribunal for execution. - Whose turn is it now among the eleven? Seized unawares, the docile Convention unanimously applauding, after three days of a judicial farce, the cart will bear him to the Place de la Révolution; Samson will tie him fast, shouters at thirty sous a day will clap their hands, and, on the following morning, the popular politicians will congratulate each other on seeing the name of a great traitor on the bulletin of the guillotined.[60] To this end, to enable this or that king of the day to pass from the national Almanac to the mortuary list, merely required an understanding among his colleagues, and, perhaps, this is already arrived at. Among whom and against whom? - It is certain that, as this idea occurs to the eleven, seated around the table, they eye each other with a shudder they calculate the chances and turn things over in their minds; words have been uttered that are not forgotten. Carnot often made this charge against Saint-Just: "You and Robespierre are after a dictatorship."[61] Robespierre replied to Carnot : "I am ready for you on the first defeat."[62] On another occasion, Robespierre, in a rage, exclaimed: "The Committee is conspiring against me!" and, turning to Billaud, "I know you, now!" Billaud retorted, "I know you too, you are a counterrevolutionary!"[63] There are conspirators and counterrevolutionaries, then, on the committee itself; what can be done to avoid this appellation, which is a sentence of death ? - Silently, the fatal phantom enthroned in their midst, the Erinyes[64] through which they rule, renders his oracle and all take it to heart:

"All who are unwilling to become executioners are conspirators and counter-revolutionaries."


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Chicago: Hippolyte Adolphe Taine, "IV. The Statesmen.," The French Revolution— Volume 3, ed. Braybrooke, Richard Griffin, Baron, 1783-1853 and trans. Ingram, J. H. (James Henry) in The French Revolution—Volume 3 (New York: Doubleday, Page, 1909), Original Sources, accessed April 20, 2018,

MLA: Taine, Hippolyte Adolphe. "IV. The Statesmen." The French Revolution— Volume 3, edited by Braybrooke, Richard Griffin, Baron, 1783-1853, and translated by Ingram, J. H. (James Henry), in The French Revolution—Volume 3, Vol. 36, New York, Doubleday, Page, 1909, Original Sources. 20 Apr. 2018.

Harvard: Taine, HA, 'IV. The Statesmen.' in The French Revolution— Volume 3, ed. and trans. . cited in 1909, The French Revolution—Volume 3, Doubleday, Page, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 20 April 2018, from