On this date in 1963, Iraq’s infant Ba’ath government executed at least 21 soldiers — all Shi’a — who had participated in a Communist coup attempt on July 3.
The Ba’ath were newly in the saddle after overthrowing Qasim earlier that year, and would be ousted again a few months hence before their definitive seizure of power several years later.
For the moment, they were a fledgling government trying to tilt away from the Soviet bloc and towards the west while navigating a minefield of domestic politics. If the coup really occurred as described, it was the fruit of an Iraqi Communist Party with daggers drawn for the regime after the Ba’athists had massacred their membership with CIA help in the course of offing Qasim. (The name is also transliterated Qassim or Kassem.) If it was bogus, it was probably an official cover story to keep massacring Shi’a Communists.
The affair, in either guise, amounted to a minor hazard in the jagged path of the Ba’ath — but of course, we come by that judgment with benefit of hindsight. Far more interesting to follow, courtesy of this site‘s library of historic cables, the perceived unfolding of the situation through the anxious American diplomatic pouch:
On this date in 1811, Mexican independence icon Miguel Hidalgo was shot for treason at the government palace in Chihuahua.
The subversive priest had set the spark to the Mexican War of Independence in the hours before sunrise of September 16, 1810. There, he rang the parish bell in the small town of Dolores and issued his “Grito de Dolores” — “Cry of Dolores” — summoning native Amerindians and mestizos to throw off the Spanish.
The movement got added juice from the fact that the Spanish jackboot was then being worn by Napoleon, who had installed his brother as king.*
Hidalgo tributes are a mainstay of every Mexican town. This Orozco mural is in a government building in Guadalajara.
Hidalgo’s fired-up downtrodden mob slaughtered the local garrison and gathered numbers on a march towards Mexico City before the professional Spanish soldiery rallied to stop it. But the priest wouldn’t make his father-of-the-country credentials in generalship: he’d been relieved of command after repeated combat debacles by the time the insurrection’s leaders were betrayed in March.**
While his comrades Ignacio Allende, Jose Mariano Jimenez and Juan Aldama were shot on June 26, Hidalgo got an old-school detour through the ecclesiastical arm for defrocking (and a highly suspect alleged retraction).
When he was shot this day, he directed the firing squad to aim for the hand he placed over his heart.
Then, his head was cut off and stuck on a pike as a warning.
The struggle lived on, long past Hidalgo’s execution and Bonaparte’s fall, and finally resulted in Mexican independence in 1820. Today, the padre whose call to action not only started the revolt but made it a mass movement is the face on the 1,000-peso note, and his Grito de Dolores is repeated every Diez y Seis de Septiembre as an independence day tribute by Mexican authorities — as in this from 2006:
On this date in 1747,* the Swedes beheaded Scottish-born adventurer Alexander Blackwell for meddling with their line of succession.
Blackwell, “a man of mercurial and adventurous temperament,” had his printing business busted in England for having failed to precede it with the required apprenticeship, and was thrown in jail as a debtor.
To extricate the family from poverty, Blackwell’s wife Elizabeth thereupon launched an amazing career as an herbal limner, drawing, engraving, and hand-coloring editions with hundreds of plants that became a standard reference in the field in the late 1730’s, and whose revenues managed to liberate her spouse. (Elizabeth is still remembered on a plaque at the Chelsea Old Church, in her old neighborhood.)
That mercurial ex-deadbeat might have done better to stick close by his now highly esteemed wife (or possibly his brother, a bloviating classicist), but the wanderlust sent Alex abroad to wash ashore in Stockholm as physician to King Frederick I, where he was soon convicted (on evidence uncertain, apart from the torture-extracted confession) of having intrigued to alter the royal line of succession further to enmeshing Sweden in an alliance with Britain.
He protested his innocence on the scaffold. More memorably, perhaps, he laid his head the wrong way upon the chopping block, requiring the executioner to correct him — whereupon Blackwell cracked wise that he, after all, lacked experience at the art of being beheaded.
* Some sources, like this Google Books biography, offer August 9 as Blackwell’s execution date. The 11-day discrepancy is due to the still-pending adoption of the Gregorian calendar: July 29 was the date on the Julian calendar still in use in the realms both of Blackwell’s birth and death; in 1752 and 1753, respectively, Britain and Sweden would adopt the Gregorian system.
On this date in 1794, the curtain — and the blade — fell on the Terror.
Maximilien Robespierre, who had breakfasted the previous day as master of France, was guillotined this evening with his chief lieutenants and partisans.
His fall came as sudden and inevitable as his rise had been unpredictable.
Five years before, Robespierre was an unprosperous Arras attorney of fashionably liberal philosophies, and you wouldn’t have given a sou for the prospects of his being remembered five minutes after he died. Yet it would come that his inseparable lieutenant Saint-Just would remark with understatement, “The words we have spoken will never be forgotten on earth.”
The historic convocation of the Estates-General thrust him onto the political stage where he would make the dread name that follows him, starting off in the Revolution’s inception as a far-left deputy. He took a notable early stand against the death penalty, with several arguments that are quite familiar by our day:
The first obligation of a legislator is to form and preserve public morals, the source of all freedom, source of all social happiness. When in running to a particular goal he turns away from this general and essential goal he commits the most vulgar and dire of errors. The king must thus present to the people the purest model of justice and reason. If in place of this powerful, calm and moderate severity that should characterize it they place anger and vengeance; if they spill human blood that they could spare and that they have no right to spread; if they spread out before the people cruel scenes and cadavers wounded by torture, it then alters in the hearts of citizens the ideas of the just and the unjust; they plant the seed in the midst of society of ferocious prejudices that will produce others in their turn. Man is no longer for man so sacred an object: we have a less grand idea of his dignity when public authority puts his life at risk. The idea of murder inspires less fear when the law itself gives the example and the spectacle. The horror of crime is diminished when it is punished by another crime. Do not confuse the effectiveness of a penalty with the excess of severity: the one is absolutely opposed to the other. Everything seconds moderate laws; everything conspires against cruel laws.
For Robespierre, it was an abomination for the nation to deal out death within its community, but his Rousseauan elevation of the collective and abstract People made extirpating existential threats to the community itself an altogether different matter.
The future tyrant’s anti-death penalty case for executing the deposed Louis XVI, flowing directly from those principles, makes interesting reading and is excerpted at length (all emphases added) here for its topicality:
When a nation has been forced to resort to the right of insurrection it returns to a state of nature as regards its tyrant. How can the latter invoke the social compact? He has annihilated it. The nation can preserve it still, if it thinks fit, in whatever concerns the interrelations of its citizens: but the effect of tyranny and insurrection is to break it entirely as regards the tyrant; it is to throw them into mutual war; the tribunals, the judiciary procedures, are made for the members of the city. … The right to punish the tyrant and that to dethrone him are the same thing. The one does not admit of different forms from the other. The tyrant’s trial is insurrection; his judgment is the fall of his power; his penalty, whatever the liberty of the people demands.
Peoples do not judge like judiciary courts. They pass no sentences; they hurl the thunderbolt. They do not condemn kings: they thrust them back into oblivion; and this justice is not inferior to that of courts. If they arm themselves against their oppressors for their own safety, why should they be bound to adopt a mode of punishing them which would be a new danger to themselves?
As for me, I abhor the penalty of death so lavish in your laws, and I have neither love nor hatred for Louis. Crimes only I hate. I have asked the Assembly, which you still call Constituent, for the abolition of the death penalty, and it is not my fault if the first principles of reason seem to it moral and political heresies. But if you never bethought yourselves to invoke them in favor of so many unfortunates whose offenses are less their own than those of the government, by what fatality do you remember them only to plead the cause of the greatest of all criminals? You ask an exception to the death penalty for him alone against whom it can be legitimate! Yes, the penalty of death generally is a crime, and for that reason alone, according to the indestructible principles of nature, it can be justified only in cases when it is necessary for the safety of individuals or the social body. Public safety never demands it against ordinary offenses, because society can always guard against them by other means and make the offender powerless to harm it. But a dethroned king in the bosom of a revolution which is anything but cemented by laws, a king whose name suffices to draw the scourge of war on the agitated nation, neither prison nor exile can render his existence immaterial to the public welfare: and this cruel exception to ordinary laws which justice approves can be imputed only to the nature of his crimes.
It is with regret that I utter this fatal truth. But Louis must die, because the country must live.
“Pity is treason.”
Months later, as head of the Committee of Public Safety — the Orwellian name harkens to the body’s power to judge who lay inside the community and who, lying outside, made war upon it — he would find an inexhaustible fifth column of kindred threats to the Revolution.
But Revolutionary France really was in a war for its survival, against external and internal foes alike. The monarchist for whom crime multiplied upon crime every day after the Tennis Court Oath has the easiest time of this period, for every step brings a new monstrosity. And it is well enough to call Robespierre illiberal, to shudder at his prim and icy persona.
But if the French Revolution’s liberte, egalite, fraternite is a legacy for celebration — as it is to much of the west, and much of the world — one must grapple with the place of this man and his methods.
Merely because they are the paths not taken, one hardly seems entitled to assume that at that tumultuous moment the rule of a constitutional monarchy heir to all the monstrosity of the ancien regime, the government of the Girondins who had launched the nearly fatal war against Austria, or that of Danton‘s haute bourgeoisie would necessarily have delivered France to a better place, or even a different one.
For a Dickens, Robespierre’s Terror is simply the appalling wrong turn of a high-minded movement. For Trotsky, “the Incorruptible”* is the admirable sword of France’s bourgeois revolution who effects the needful task of annihilating the feudal nobility, who presses fearlessly forward seeing that the only alternative is the slide into Bonaparte. Between the two lie many readings of the man.
Whether an aberration, a visionary, or a necessity, he waded a sea of blood for his frightening twins Virtue and Terror.
The fall of 9 Thermidor preceded Robespierre’s execution by a full — and very eventful — day. Arrested by the Convention, he was promptly liberated by his base in the Paris Commune which came within a whisker of overthrowing the Convention at that very moment. Instead, a frantic few hours of marshaling the armed power of the Revolution’s rival claimants to leadership ensued ending in a fray which saw the Robespierrists overpowered.
Robespierre was shot through the jaw in the process of signing an appeal to arms — some say a botched suicide, but a wound from the invading national guard is more generally believed; at any rate, the bloodied document with his signature begun “R-o-” is one of the age’s most arresting historical artifacts.
Horrifically injured, he lay most of the following day exposed for public derision before he was hauled with his party to the guillotine, re-erected in the Place de la Revolution for this most memorable execution. In Carlyle’s florid (and free) narration:
Robespierre lay in an anteroom of the Convention hall, while his Prison-escort was getting ready; the mangled jaw bound up rudely with bloody linen: a spectacle to men. He lies stretched on a table, a deal box his pillow; the sheath of the pistol is still clenched convulsively in his hand. Men bully him, insult him: his eyes still indicate intelligence; he speaks no word. … -O reader, can thy hard heart hold out against that? His trousers were nankeen; the stockings had fallen down over the ankles. He spake no more word in this world.
Fouquier had but to identify; his Prisoners being already Out of Law.** At four in the afternoon, never before were the streets of Paris seen so crowded. From the Palais de Justice to the Place de la Revolution … it is one dense stirring mass; all windows crammed; the very roofs and ridge-tiles budding forth human Curiosity, in strange gladness. … All eyes are on Robespierre’s Tumbril, where he, his jaw bound in dirty linen, with his half-dead Brother, and half-dead Henriot, lie shattered; their “seventeen hours” of agony about to end. The Gendarmes point their swords at him, to show the people which is he. A woman springs on the Tumbril; clutching the side of it with one hand; waving the other Sibyl-like; and exclaims: “The death of thee gladdens my very heart, m’enivre de joie;” Robespierre opened his eyes; “Scelerat, go down to Hell, with the curses of all wives and mothers!” — At the foot of the scaffold, they stretched him on the ground till his turn came. Lifted aloft, his eyes again opened; caught the bloody axe. Samson wrenched the coat off him; wrenched the dirty linen from his jaw: the jaw fell powerless, there burst from him a cry; — hideous to hear and see. Samson, thou canst not be too quick!
Samson’s work done, there bursts forth shout on shout of applause. Shout, which prolongs itself not only over Paris, but over France, but over Europe, and down to this generation. Deservedly, and also undeservedly. O unhappiest Advocate of Arras, wert thou worse than other Advocates? Stricter man, according to his Formula, to his Credo and his Cant, of probities, benevolences, pleasures-of-virtue, and such like, lived not in that age. A man fitted, in some luckier settled age, to have become one of those incorruptible barren Pattern-Figures, and have had marble-tablets and funeral-sermons. His poor landlord, the Cabinet-maker in the Rue Saint-Honore, loved him; his Brother died for him. May God be merciful to him, and to us!
* Even his enemies agreed — sometimes adding it to the bill of particulars against him — that Robespierre lived a life of personal moderation; he lived as a boarder with a working-class family, and disdained to avail the politician’s typical harvest of political graft.
** The Convention had decreed Robespierre’s outlawry when he escaped custody; his immediate execution was, of course, akin to the logic he had once turned against the king.
July 27th, 1794 — the 9th of Thermidor, year II — is inscribed in history as the day Robespierre fell, when a parliamentary coup d’etat between the right and the remnants of the parties he had destroyed shouted him down as he readied the National Convention for his next purge.
This scene from the multinational bicentennial epic La Revolution Francaise conflates the events of 8 Thermidor — when Robespierre delivered a menacing two-hour address but provoked outcries by failing to name the deputies he implicated in “conspiracy” — and 9 Thermidor, when Robespierre’s lieutenant Saint-Just was shouted down from the podium and Robespierre ended up staggering through the benches appealing against the imprecations of his colleagues as his arrest is decreed.
Stanley Loomis is overtly hostile to the Revolution, but his middlebrow sensibilities are well-tuned for the pathos of the scene:
Indifferent to the storms that were raging in the Convention, the Revolutionary Tribunal continued to go about its implacable business with cold efficiency. The arrest of its President [the Robespierrist Rene-Francois Dumas (the link is French), who was taken in the courtroom] startled no one. Since its inception that court had been witness to too many dramas to be astonished any further. Dumas quietly departed; the trials continued. Forty-two prisoners were sentenced to death. By four o’clock their hair had been cut and they were ready to be sent on their way. But Samson, aware of disturbances in the St. Antoine quarter of the city, suggested to [prosecutor] Fouquier[-Tinville] that the executions be deferred until the morrow.*
“Justice must take its course,” snapped the Public Prosecutor. “Do your work.”
And so the last “batch” lumbered off in the direction of the Faubourg St. Antoine and the Place de la Nation. With the exception of the Princesse de Monaco, they were nearly all obscure and humble members of the petite bourgeoisie. Hanriot, waving his sabre, conducted the procession to the place of execution. By seven o’clock that evening, as the minutes of the military escort poignantly show, the unfortunate victims, who had been so close to deliverance, had all been executed.
Henriot proceeded directly from his escort service to the Convention to liberate Robespierre for the night’s brief pitched battle against the Convention, and here we take our leave of them, for now. We shall meet both of them on the scaffold tomorrow.
Not on the wagon** with the Princess of Monaco was a man whom Loomis would have pitied rather less.
This day, de Sade’s name was on a list of prisoners to be seized from Madelonnettes Prison — “Sade, former count, captain of Capet’s guards in 1792, has corresponded with enemies of the republic,” it said — which he had occupied until a recent transfer to Picpus, a monastery converted into a prison adjacent to the guillotine’s place at the Place de la Nation. Whether the result of another of the many bureaucratic snafus we’ve witnessed this week or a well-placed bribe from his friend and/or mistress Marie-Constance Quesnet, the guards were in the wrong place, didn’t find him, and didn’t care to dig any further.
Three months later, he was — for the last time in his life — a free man.
One could hardly say that the Revolution made the author of Justine the man he so (in)famously was — but having lived within sight of the blade that might any day be called upon to chop off his own head, and the entire tableau of the years preceding, left their impression. Hundreds of bodies from the Terror were stuffed in the unpropitious clay of the makeshift jail’s yards under de Sade’s cell. “Those few months in the shadow of the guillotine did me more harm than all the years of my incarceration under the King,” he wrote a friend.
strangely mixing real memories with very Sadean embellishments … Plots, betrayals, denunciations, beheadings: these fictional motifs and Sadean phantasies are linked with the reality and the imaginary of the Revolution.
Good for what ails you.
* Sanson’s diaries — a memoir of the family business constructed by the famous executioner’s grandson — leave off before the events of Thermidor and suggest that the hecatombs of the Terror were taking their toll on the aging headsman. Other accounts of this day have the tumbrils stopped in the streets by clemency-inclined onlookers, only to be forcibly extricated by Henriot.
On this date in 1794, the Jacobin government struck what would prove to be its last blow against the “Conspiracy of the Prisons.”
The “conspiracy” was really a cover story for Robespierre‘s boys to wield their purifying torch against prisons and (of course) tighten the grip of authority by wild reference to treasonable plots abroad.
Supposedly, the prisons had birthed a scheme to effect a mass escape further to some sort of counterrevolutionary insurrection, or assassination of Robespierre. Marvelously, these conspiracies simultaneously spanned most all of Paris’ prisons, and their “authors” formed a dominant demographic among the Terror’s last tumbrils as the authorities purged each prison in turn.
While we have tarried to profile select victims individually this week, we have in fact repeatedly met so-called prison conspirators.
An efficient detour to the Carmelite Monastery converted by revolutionary Paris into another gaol netted Alexandre de Beauharnais.
And the first batch of St. Lazare Prison felled Andre Chenier, where, as elsewhere, dozens were punished for some impressively villainous designs.
Being convicted of having declared themselves the enemies of the republic, by keeping up communications with the enemies of the state; by furnishing them with assistance; by participating in the plots, conspiracies, and assassinations of the tyrant and his wife, against the people; by conspiring in the maison d’arret (lock-up house), called Lazare, to escape, and to dissolve, by the assassination and murder of the representatives of the people, and more especially of the members of the committees of public safety and general security, the republican government, and to re-establish royality; — in fine, by wishing to destroy the unity and indivisibility of the republic.
Each of these famous figures is a noticeable face among dozens of hapless wretches, largely drawn from the Third Estate and often laughably implausible escape artists and assassins — such as, among this day’s victims, an 80-year-old priest. The most poignant fate among the many forgotten threads threads of life clipped short is undoubtedly one Jean Simon Loizerolles, who was imprisoned with his son.
On the 7th Thermidor, about four o’clock, p.m., the bailiff of the tribunal presented himself at the prison with the mortuary list, or, in other words, the death-warrant.
Loizerolles was called for: it was Loizerolles, junior, whom death surrounded. Loizerolles, the father, did not hesitate to present himself; and, comparing his sixty-one years to the twenty-two years of his son, he determined to give him life a second time: the father went down, and was conducted to the Conciergerie.
He there received the bill of accusation, drawn up by order of the Committee of Public Safety, and headed Prison Conspiracy.
This bill bore the name of Loizerolles, junior.
The next day the father appeared for examination, with his twenty-five companions of misfortune.
The bill of accusation, which was joined to the depositions, stated that it was Francois Simon Loizerolles, junior, aged twenty-two.
The declaration of the sentence, prepared in anticipation upon the bill, bore the same designations. The recorder contented himself with effacing the name of Francois, and putting above it Jean.
Finally, the questions submitted, for the sake of form, to the jury, and drawn up in anticipation upon the same bill of accusation, contained the names and the designation mentioned in the accusation. But, at the time of the trial, when the charge was made to the jury, Coffinhal took care to efface the name of Francois, to substitute that of Jean, and to erase te word son, which was replaced by the word father. He rudely altered the two figures from twenty-two to sixty-one, and added the former profession of the father, which the accusation did not state.
And Jean Simon Loizerolles, against whom there was no accusation, was put to death on the 8th Thermidor.
Loizerolles is renowned for nothing in life save the touching valor of his death, but his name was a watchword for paternal devotion in France in the 19th century; Jadin wrote a short opera to his honor, and Victor Hugo references Loizerolles (bizarrely side by side with Robespierre’s younger brother) in Les Miserables as the sort of paragon of loyalty disdained by a gauche skeptic. But the gambit worked: Loizerolles junior survived the last days of the Terror, and was later pensioned by Charles X.
For every triumph, there were countless tragedies. The prisoners had wind of the enterprise to decimate their number days before; an anonymous account printed here (also the source of the Loizerolles story) describes a ramping-up of abuses great and petty in an effort to provoke a rising that would license a bloodbath, and the fear and desperation of the prisoners as death circled them.
Our melancholy and dejected hearts prepared themselves for death. The prison appeared surrounded by a funeral veil, and the death-like silence which pervaded it produced a dreadful feeling of misery in its inmates. Games and amusements were banished from the grounds, and our cadaverous countenances afforded an index of our afflicted souls; the refectory, which was wont to inspire a sentiment of cheerfulness, became a meeting of moving spectres, who quitted each other without exchanging a word.
The prisoners at St. Lazare could no longer indulge in illusions on the fate that awaited them … old age and infancy had ceased to be respected; all were alike condemned as guilty of the project of escape; and the man who was the most harmless and the most devoted to his country was no longer exempt from accusation.
But there was a small favor: a third repetition of the scene was postponed two days, which turned out to be all the difference between life and death.
[T]he Robespierrists, delighted in perpetuating our terrors, announced that the tragic scene would be renewed on the 10th.
The two days which we passed in anticipation of our destiny were two days of unmitigated agony: a general mourning reigned through our asylum; our eyes, in fancy, beheld on all sides the palpitating and struggling bodies of the victims of Robespierre, and of the villainy of his agents; tranquility quite abandoned us; death was hovering over our heads; and the prison appeared, to our diseased fancies, like a sea of blood, on which we had suffered shipwreck …
In this deplorable situation we saw no end to our sorrows but in death; and, however terrifying the grim visitant may naturally be, yet we deemed his arrival too long delayed, and invoked his coming, while we regretted that we had not been of the number of the first victims. When, about ten o’clock, p.m., of the 9th Thermidor, it was reported in the prison, that Robespierre was formally accused, the news, which had been brought by three new prisoners from without, inspired distrust, and savoured too much of the miraculous to be easily believed.
The following morning … the information was confirmed … in such a positive and circumstantial manner that we could no longer entertain a doubt of its truth.
It may easily be conceived how sudden was the change which was effected in the prison of St. Lazare: the prisoners began, for the irst time, since the 5th, to breathe more freely; their hearts, which had been so long cast down, received a fresh inspiration; their countenances cleared up; the full use of their suspended faculties was restored; and the images of death, which had affrighted them, were dissipated; and if they could have forgotten the assassination of their companions, they might have entirely lost the recollection of their misfortunes.
The death of Robespierre, and the close of his dark crimes, were the subject of an epigram, which an individual wrote upon the wall; it describes the monster too accurately, not to find a place here:
Il s’abreuva du sang d’un million de victimes, —
Il parla de vertus, et commit tous les crimes.
A thousand victims slaked his thirst for blood,–
He spoke of virtues while he swam in crimes.
On this date in 1794, proto-Romantic poet Andre Chenier went to the guillotine the unfortunate victim of his father’s love.
In the operatic version of this Istanbul-born poet‘s life story, Chenier is accused by a rival in love, convicted, and guillotined the next day together with his beloved Maddalena, who effects a Sydney Carton-like swap into the lot of the condemned in order to share his fate.
Chenier’s real end was both more mundane, and far more tragic.
A revolutionary of the constitutional monarchist variety and an open opponent of the Jacobins bold enough to compose an ode to Marat’s murderess, Chenier had spent a year staying out of sight when the police picked him up almost accidentally.
Prisoners suffocating in the Paris jails were suspended horribly between life and death, but the anonymity of this living tomb offered — as with Tom Paine — a measure of occasional safety.
When Chenier’s father blunderingly appealing to the authorities for his son, he accidentally stripped away that anonymity. Chenier had been under lock and key for three-plus months — writing, the whole time, in minuscule letters on scraps of paper he arranged to have smuggled out to his father — but once reminded of the writer’s existence, the authorities promptly had it snuffed out. (A friend and fellow poet, Jean-Antoine Roucher, shared his tumbril.)
Chenier’s prison verses are among the most affecting of his 32 years — like the acidic Iambes blistering his persecutors, and the heartbreaking “La Jeune Captive”, in which he gives voice to the young fellow-prisoner who has smitten him, excerpted here:
Mon beau voyage encore est si loin de sa fin!
Je pars, et des ormeaux qui bordent le chemin
J’ai passé les premiers à peine.
Au banquet de la vie à peine commencé,
Un instant seulement mes lèvres ont pressé
La coupe en mes mains encor pleine.
Je ne suis qu’au printemps, je veux voir la moisson;
Et comme le soleil, de saison en saison,
Je veux achever mon année.
Brillante sur ma tige et l’honneur du jardin,
Je n’ai vu luire encor que les feux du matin:
Je veux achever ma journée.
Chenier was not broadly published or extremely well-known in his own lifetime; many critics think he was pinched out while still maturing. The poet himself told a friend in parting, “I leave nothing for posterity; and yet, (touching his forehead) I had something there.” In the backstory to one of the tales in Balzac’s La Comedie Humaine, a grocer who annoys one of Robespierre‘s associates is also among this day’s batch and arouses more notice than the man of letters:
Though Descoings died, he had the honour, at any rate, of going to the scaffold with Andre de Chenier. There, no doubt, grocery and poetry embraced for the first time in the flesh; for they have always had, and will always have, their private relations. Descoings’ execution made a far greater sensation than Andre de Chenier’s. Thirty years elapsed before it was recognised that France had lost more by Chenier’s death than by that of Descoings.
Robespierre’s sentence had this good result — until 1830 grocers were still afraid of meddling in politics.
The salutary effect upon grocers has long faded, but Chenier’s reputation has steadily ripened like wine since his demise. And the title part of the late-19th century opera Andrea Chenier — however scant its resemblance to the man who inspired it — is one of the most gorgeous tenor roles in opera.
An avidity to punish is always dangerous to liberty. It leads men to stretch, to misinterpret, and to misapply even the best of laws. He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself. -Thomas Paine
On this date in 1794, revolutionary firebrand Thomas Paine got a date with the guillotine when the public prosecutor Antoine-Quentin Fouquier-Tinville put his name on the list for the next batch of heads.
Paine — “Mad Tom” to foes of his fire-eating opposition to despotic church and crown — is best-known for his part in the American Revolution; his pamphlet “Common Sense” made an incendiary and influential case for revolution.
More so than any other high-profile compatriot in the cause of American independence, Paine took to heart the age’s revolutionary spirit, the fine principles of solidarity, the zeal to put life and fortune at liberty’s service.
Not content to retire to the estate granted him for his services to the fledgling United States of America — Paine coined that name, by the way — the hellraiser sailed for the Old World to help overthrow the sclerotic Bourbon despotism whose geopolitically-minded aid* had had such material effect for American liberty.
Paine served in France’s National Convention, one of the highest-profile and least-impeachable members of that body as well as one of only two foreigners. These distinctions offered him some safety in the Revolution’s internecine tempests — some, but not quite enough. He drew the ire of the Montagnards by opposing the execution of Louis XVI.
The terrible gears of mass fratricide which apparently doomed Paine as the Terror unfolded turned out to be his refuge, and that of three fortunate fellows with him. Had he gone to the scaffold as a single high-profile traitor, there would have been no mistake about it; now, at the height of the Terror, jailers marked dozens for death by the fallible expedient of chalking their cell doors. If the guillotine made mass execution feasible, the bureaucratic apparatus to manage it was still catching up.
Here’s the version of a Paine’s preservation that he himself later related — albeit second-hand, since he was suffering this day “a violent fever which had nearly terminated my existence” and “was not in a condition to be removed, or to know of what was passing, or of what had passed, for more than a month. It makes a blank in my remembrance of life. The first thing I was informed of was the fall of Robespierre.”
[T]he manner in which I escaped that fate is curious, and has all the appearance of accident.
The room in which I was lodged was on the ground floor, and one of a long range of rooms under a gallery, and the door of it opened outward and flat against the wall; so that when it was open the inside of the door appeared outward, and the contrary when it was shut. I had three comrades, fellow-prisoners with me, Joseph Vanhuile, of Bruges, since president of the municipality of that town, Michael Robins, and Bastini, of Louvain.
When persons by scores and hundreds were to be taken out of prison for the guillotine, it was always done in the night, and those who performed that office had a private mark or signal by which they, knew what rooms to go to, and what number to take. We, as I have said, were four, and the door of our room was marked unobserved by us with that number in chalk; but it happened, if happening is a proper word, that the mark was put on when the door was open and flat against the wall, and thereby came on the inside when we shut it at night, and the destroying angel passed by it. A few days after this Robespierre fell, and the American ambassador arrived and reclaimed me and invited me to his house.
During the whole of my imprisonment, prior to the fall of Robespierre, there was no time when I could think my life worth twenty-four hours, and my mind was made up to meet its fate.
Presumably this would have been a short reprieve, had not Jacobin rule (and rulers) promptly expired.
We noticed two days ago the U.S. mission’s willingness to exert itself for Lafayette’s wife, who surely had not done better service for the American Revolution than had Paine himself.
Paine waited in vain for American intervention, and was incandescent with rage at George Washington and his envoy Gouverneur Morris for abandoning him (Morris was replaced by the more Paine-friendly James Monroe a few weeks later). In a wide-ranging 1796 denunciation of Washington’s conduct and American political tilt towards Britain and away from France, Paine accused his country** of giving the Jacobins the green light to cut off a gadfly’s head.
Could I have known to what degree of corruption and perfidy the administrative part of the Government of America had descended, I could have been at no loss to have understood the reservedness of Mr. Washington toward me, during my imprisonment in the Luxembourg. There are cases in which silence is a loud language.
Soon after I was put into arrestation and imprisonment in the Luxembourg, the Americans who were then in Paris went in a body to the bar of the Convention to reclaim me. They were answered … that I was born in England, and … their reclamation of me was only the act of individuals, without any authority from the American Government.
A few days after this, all communication from persons imprisoned to any person without the prison was cut off by an order of the police. I neither saw, nor heard from, anybody for six months; and the only hope that remained to me was that a new Minister would arrive from America to supersede Morris …
One hundred and sixty-nine were taken out of the Luxembourg one night, in the month of July, and one hundred and sixty of them guillotined. A list of two hundred more, according to the report in the prison, was preparing a few days before Robespierre fell. In this last list I have good reason to believe I was included. A memorandum in the hand-writing of Robespierre was afterwards produced in the Convention, by the committee to whom the papers of Robespierre were referred, in these words:
Demander que Thomas Payne soit de decrete d’accusation pour les interets de l’Amerique, autant que de la France.
I had then been imprisoned seven months, and the silence of the Executive part of the Government of America (Mr. Washington) upon the case, and upon everything respecting me, was explanation enough to Robespierre that he might proceed to extremities.
This venomous open letter and the deistic tract The Age of Reason he was banging out during the Revolution, combined with the frightening turn of the French Revolution itself, helped send Paine’s public regard into decline. “Atheist,” they tutted, and he’s been the most untouchable Founding Father ever since.
Next year is the bicentennial of his death in obscurity and pauperhood; his homelessness, so to say, in the annals of political thought and national pantheons testifies in some ways to the defeat his principles suffered in his very lifetime. The American Revolution turned conservative; France’s fell to despotism; England’s was strangled in its crib.
Even so, he fired the imaginations of many troublemakers still to come. A man of no wealth or position who etched in fire the spirit of his times, Paine saw further and spoke plainer than most of his contemporaries. If a prophet is not welcome in his own country, it scarcely diminishes the power of the prophecy.
* Given by the French crown in opposition to France’s great rival Britain, of course.
** Paine certainly considered himself American, though he wouldn’t have made that inconsistent with being French, too. The matter of his citizenship between England (where his pamphlets had him attainted in absentia on a capital charge), France and the United States was a contested one at a time when the very notion was being reforged in the heat of revolution; at any rate, as diplomatic pretext for failing to ask for his life, citizenship makes a feeble excuse.
Republican radicals in England didn’t mind claiming him as their own, developing this alternate lyric sheet to the national anthem:
God save great Thomas Paine
His ‘Rights of Man’ explain
To every soul.
He makes the blind to see
What dupes and slaves they be,
And points out liberty,
From pole to pole.
Thousands cry ‘Church and King’
That well deserve to swing,
All must allow:
Birmingham blush for shame,
Manchester do the same,
Infamous is your name,
On this date in 1794, Napoleon Bonaparte’s future Empress became a widow.
Alexandre de Beauharnais — excuse me, that’s Alexandre François Marie de Beauharnais, Vicomte de Beauharnais to you — a liberal noble from Martinique who had served as a general in the American Revolution, was a pol with some juice in the earlier stages of the French Revolution, even declining to become Minister of War in June 1793.
It was a long fall to a short chop when he was accused of allowing Mainz to fall to the Germans through incompetence and/or insufficient revolutionary ardor. His brother Augustin was also among the day’s batch.
Just another forgettable aristocrat, shaved by the national razor.
But surviving Beauharnais — in prison herself at this moment, and in some danger of following his footsteps were it not for the imminent coup of Thermidor — was his wife by arranged marriage, 31-year-old sugar plantation heiress Josephine, later immortalized by remarrying the officer who would go on to bend all Europe to his will, Napoleon Bonaparte.
Thanks to his widow’s well-chosen conquest, Beauharnais’ children, dynastically married off under Napoleon’s adoption, would go on to sire a plethora of European royalty.
On this date in 1794, three women of the Noailles family were guillotined in Paris.
The grandmother, mother and sister of Adrienne Noailles all shed their blue blood on the scaffold (grandpa, with impeccable timing, had died of natural causes the previous summer) for their aristocratic stock — the eldest had been Marie Antoinette‘s etiquette tutor.
They are noteworthy of themselves because their courageous Catholic confessor, one Abbe Carrichon, made good a promise to accompany them to the very shadow of the blade to give them absolution and left to us in a description of these pious ladies’ nerve-wracking journey on the tumbrils one of the surprisingly few first-hand narrative descriptions of the Terror’s guillotine at work. We’ll come to it momentarily.
But they are noteworthy, too, for the fourth kinswoman who stood in the same mortal peril but did not join them. Adrienne was the wife of the the Marquis de Lafayette.
Adrienne and Lafayette had hitched wagons in their teens — an arranged match, but one that evidently blossomed into real love between like-minded partners — before the Marquis ran off to become that famous imported general and patron of the American Revolution.
Such liberal credentials made him an early star in the French Revolution, but by the time of the Terror the reformist gentleman rated a hidebound right-winger on the political spectrum and in short order a refugee in Prussia and Austria; neither his name nor (obviously) his title would have availed him safety had he had the misfortune to be captured in France.
A (possible) portrait of the Marquise de Lafayette, c. 1790. (More.)
But American regard for the name remained high — and at a time when virtually the whole world set its hand against France. Future U.S. president James Monroe arrived in Paris as ambassador just after the Terror, when his predecessor Gouverneur Morris had delicately impressed upon the Committee of Public Safety the damage Adrienne’s beheading would do to one of France’s few remaining friendly foreign relations. Together with his wife Elizabeth, who visited the still-imprisoned Adrienne in an intentionally theatrical gesture, Monroe was able to procure her eventual her release.
(Adrienne decamped to Austria where her husband was considered not a dangerous reactionary but a dangerous radical, and had been imprisoned on that ground. She voluntarily shared his dungeon until Napoleon forced their release. There’s a short account of her life from the New York Timeshere (pdf))
If Adrienne’s married name was insufficient to purchase the lives of her own family, the latter have acquired a measure of remembrance in their death in one of the Revolution’s most human and emotional scenes, and not least because one is conscious in the account that the priest who gives them comfort and absolution and whose narrative remains for us was himself running a mortal risk at every step (he confesses in the narrative to his nerve having failed him in such a mission on a previous occasion, as it nearly fails him this time).
Here — because it is of such deep interest not only to the theme not only of this week, but of this blog altogether — is the Abbe Carrichon’s account excerpted at length, as drawn from Madame de Lafayette and Her Family, a biography in the public domain and available free at Google Books. (There is another free biography whose focus is the Marquis Lafayette that also treats this episode here.)
One day, as the ladies were exhorting each other to prepare for death, I said to them, as by foresight: ‘If you go the scaffold and if God gives me strength to do so, I shall accompany you.’
They took me at my word and eagerly exclaimed: ‘Will you promise to do so?’ For a moment I hesitated.
‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘and so that you may recognize me, I shall wear a dark blue coat and a red waistcoat.’ … On the 22nd of July on a Tuesday morning, as I was just going out, I heard a knock. I opened the door and saw the Noailles children with their tutor. The children were cheerful … the tutor looked sad, careworn, pale, haggard. ‘Let us go to your study,’ said he, ‘and leave the children in this room.’ We did so. He threw himself on a chair.
‘All is over, my friend,’ he said. ‘The ladies are before the Revolutionary Tribunal. I summon you to keep your word. I shall take the boys to Vincennes to see [their sister]. While in the woods I shall prepare those unfortunate children for their terrible loss.’
Although I had been prepared for this news, I was greatly shocked … I soon recovered myself, and after a few questions and answers full of mournful details, I said to M. Grellet:
‘You must go now, and I must change my dress. What a task I have before me! Pray that God may give me strength to accomplish it.’
Thoughtful and irresolute, I slowly retraced my steps to the ‘Palais de Justice,’ dreading to get there and hoping not to find those for whom I was seeking. I arrived before five o’clock. There were no signs of departure. Sick at heart, I ascended the steps of the Saint-Chapelle, then I walked slowly unto the Grande salle, and walked about. I sat down, I rose again, but spoke to no one. From time to time I cast a melancholy glance towards the courtyard, to see if there were any signs of departure. My constant thought was that in two hours, perhaps one, they would be no more. I cannot say how overwhelmed I was by that idea, which has affected me all through life on such occasions, and they have been only too frequent. While a prey to these mournful feelings, never did an hour appear to me so long or so short as the one which elapsed between five and six o’clock on that day. Conflicting thoughts were constantly crossing my mind, which made me suddenly pass from the illusions of vain hopes to fears, alas! too well founded. At last I saw from a movement in the crowd, that the prison door was on the point of being opened. I went down and placed myself near the outer gate … The first cart was filled with prisoners and came toward me. It was occupied by eight ladies whose demeanor was most edifying. Of these seven were unknown to me. The last, who was very near me, was the Marechale de Noailles. A transient ray of hope crossed my heart when I saw that her daughter and grand-daughter were not with her, but alas! they were in the second cart.
I heard one near me say: ‘Look at the young one; how anxious she seems. See how she is speaking to the other one.’ For my part, I felt as if I had heard all they were saying. ‘Mama, he is not there.’ ‘Look again.’ ‘Nothing escapes me — I assure you he is not there!’ The first cart stopped before me during at least a quarter of an hour. It moved on, the second followed. I approached the ladies, they did not see me. … I followed the cart over the bridge, and thus kept near the ladies, though separated from them by the crowd. Mme. de Noailles still looking for me, did not perceive me. … I felt tempted to turn back. Have I not done all that I could, I inwardly exclaimed? Everywhere the crowd will be greater; it is useless to go any further. I was on the point of giving up the attempt. Suddenly the sky became overclouded, thunder was heard in the distance. I made a fresh effort. A short distance brought me before the carts to the Rue Saint-Antoine, nearly opposite the too famous La Force [prison]. At that moment the storm broke forth, the wind blew violently; flashes of lightning and claps of thunder followed in rapid succession; the rain poured down in torrents. I took shelter at a shop door. In one moment the street was cleared; the crowd had taken refuge in the shops and gateways. … By a precipitate and involuntary movement I quitted the shop door and rushed towards the second cart and found myself close to the ladies. Mme. de Noailles perceived me, and, smiling, seemed to say:
‘There you are at last! How happy we are to see you! How we have looked for you! Mama, there he is!’
… all the irresolution vanished from my mind. By the grace of God, I felt possessed of extraordinary courage. Soaked with rain and perspiration I continued to walk by them …
We were close to the carrefour preceding the Faubourg Saint-Antoine. I went forward, examined the spot, and said to myself, ‘This is the place for granting them what they so much long for.’
The cart was going slower. I turned towards the ladies and made a sign which Mme. de Noailles understood perfectly.
‘Mama, M. Carrichon is going to give us absolution,’ she evidently whispered. They piously bowed their heads with a look of repentance, contrition and hope. Then I lifted my hand, and, without uncovering my head, pronounced the form of absolution and the words which follow it distinctly and with supernatural attention. Never shall I forget the expression on their faces. From that moment the storm abated, the rain diminished, and seemed only to have fallen for the furtherance of our wishes. I offered up my thanks to God, and so did, I am sure, those pious women. Their exterior appearance spoke contentment, security and joy. …
At last we reached the fatal spot. I cannot describe what I felt. What a moment! What a separation! What an affliction for the children, husbands, sisters, relations, and friends who are to survive those beloved ones in this valley of tears! There they are before me full of health, and in one moment I shall see them no more. What anguish! Yet not without deep consolation at beholding them so resigned. … A ring of numerous spectators soon formed, most of whom were laughing and amusing themselves at the horrible sight. It was dreadful to be amongst them.
While the executioner and his two assistants were helping the prisoners out of the first cart, Mme. de Noailles’s eyes sought for me in the crowd. She caught sight of me. What a wonderful expression there was in those looks! Sometimes raised towards heaven, sometimes lowered towards earth, her eyes so animated, so gentle, so expressive, so heavenly, were often fixed on me in a manner which would have attracted notice if those around me had had time for observation. I pulled my hat over my eyes without taking them off her. I felt as if I could hear her say: ‘Our sacrifice is accomplished; we have the firm and comforting hope that a merciful God is calling us to him. How many dear to us we leave behind! but we shall forget no one. Farewell to them, and thanks to you. Jesus Christ who died for us is our strength. May we die in Him. Farewell. May we all meet in heaven!’
It is impossible to give an idea of the animation and fervour of those signs, the eloquence of which was so touching that a bystander exclaimed: ‘Oh, that young woman, how happy she seems, how she looks up to heaven, how she is praying! But what is the use of it all?’ and then, on second thoughts, ‘Oh, the rascals, the bigots!’
The mother and daughter took a last farewell of each other and descended from the cart. As for me, the outer world disappeared for a moment. At once broken-hearted and comforted, I could only return thanks to God for not having waited for this moment to give them absolution, or, what would have been still worse, delayed it until they had ascended the scaffold. We could not have joined in prayer while I gave and they received this great blessing as we had been enabled to do in the most favourable circumstances possible at such a time. I left the spot where I was standing and went over to the other side, while the victims were getting out. I found myself opposite to the wooden steps which led to the scaffold. An old man, tall and straight, with white hair and a good-natured countenance, was leaning against it. I was told he was a fermier general. Near him stood a very edifying lady whom I did not know. Then came the Marechale de Noailles [the grandmother] exactly opposite me, dressed in black taffetas, for she was still in mourning for her husband. She was sitting on a block of wood or stone which happened to be there, her large eyes fixed with a vacant look. … All the others were drawn up in two lines looking towards the Faubourg Saint-Antoine. From where I stood I could only see Mme. d’Ayen [the mother], whose attitude and countenance expressed the most sublime, unaffected, and devout resignation. She seemed only occupied with the sacrifice she was about to make to God, through the merits of the Saviour, his divine son. She looked as she was wont to do when she had the happiness of approaching the altar for holy communion. I shall never forget the impression she made on me at that moment. It is often in my thoughts. God grant that I may profit by it!
The Marechale de Noailles was the third person who ascended the scaffold. The upper part of her dress had to be cut away in order to uncover her throat. I was impatient to leave the place, yet I wished to drink the cup of bitterness to the dregs and to keep my promise, as God was giving me strength to do so, even in the midst of all my shuddering horror. Six ladies followed; Mme. d’Ayen was the tenth. How happy she seemed to die before her daughter! The executioner tore off her cap, as it was fastened by a pin which he had forgotten to remove; he pulled her hair violently, and the pain he caused was visible on her countenance.
The mother disappeared; the daughter took her place. What a sight to behold that young creature, all in white, looking still younger than she really was, like a gentle lamb going to the slaughter! I fancied I was witnessing the martyrdom of one of the young virgins or holy women whom we read of in the history of the church. What had happened to the mother also happened to her; the same pin in the removal of her cap, then the same composure, the same death. Oh! the abundant crimson stream that gushed from her head and neck; how happy she is now, I thought, as her body was thrown into that frightful coffin!
May Almighty God in his mercy bestow on the members of that family all the blessings which I ask and entreat them to ask for mine! May we all be saved with those who have gone before us to that happy dwelling where revolutions are unknown, to that abode which, according to the words of Saint Augustine, has truth for its King, Charity for its law, and will endure for eternity!