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1795: Unspecified Robespierrists

January 25th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1795, a Balzac story La Comedie humaine reaches its climax as the tumbrils of the Thermidorian Reaction wind their way to the scaffold.

In “An Episode Under the Terror”, a mysterious man appears to a priest in hiding and prevails upon him to say a secret mass for the recently executed Louis XVI.

It transpires in an exchange between the two that the stranger’s own conscience is somehow troubled.

“Remember, my son, [said the abbe] that it is not enough to have taken no active part in the great crime; that fact does not absolve you. The men who might have defended the King and left their swords in their scabbards, will have a very heavy account to render to the King of Heaven — Ah! yes,” he added, with an eloquent shake of the head, “heavy indeed! — for by doing nothing they became accomplices in the awful wickedness—-”

“But do you think that an indirect participation will be punished?” the stranger asked with a bewildered look. “There is the private soldier commanded to fall into line — is he actually responsible?”

We have no more answer in the text than we have in life.

Spoiler (That You Saw Coming) Alert

The stranger returns on the anniversary of the king’s martyrdom, but he remains enigmatic, until the abbe is caught up in a crowd watching the procession to the guillotine.

“What is the matter?” [the abbe] asked Madame Ragon.

“Nothing,” she said; “it is only the tumbril cart and the executioner going to the Place Louis XV. Ah! we used to see it often enough last year; but to-day, four days after the anniversary of the twenty-first of January, one does not feel sorry to see the ghastly procession.”

“Why not?” asked the abbe. “That is not said like a Christian.”

“Eh! but it is the execution of Robespierre‘s accomplices. They defended themselves as long as they could, but now it is their turn to go where they sent so many innocent people.”

The crowd poured by like a flood. The abbe, yielding to an impulse of curiosity, looked up above the heads, and there in the tumbril stood the man who had heard mass in the garret three days ago.

“Who is it?” he asked; “who is the man with—-”

“That is the headsman,” answered M. Ragon.

Meaning (though unnamed as such by Balzac), the phenomenally prolific Sanson.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Fictional,France,Guillotine,Known But To God,Mass Executions,Notable Participants,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries

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One thought on “1795: Unspecified Robespierrists”

  1. Joe Parker says:

    By January, 1795, the Thermidorian Reaction had passed its main phase. Although the Terror’s public prosecutor, Fouquier-Tinville, was not executed until May, 1795, most of the major Robespierrists (“la queue de Robespierre”) were executed the two days following the dictator’s own execution, i.e. July 29 & 30, 1794. By January, 1795, it would be unlikely that an entire tumbril of Robespierrists would be on their way to the guillotine. Does anyone have the facts on this, or did Balzac make a mistake?

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