1794: Jacques Roux, the Red Priest, cheats the guillotine

Add comment February 10th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1794, French Revolution firebrand Jacques Roux committed suicide to avoid execution during the Terror.

Roux was a Catholic vicar on the eve of the Revolution, and “of the many priests who had left the church to join the Revolution none was more articulate and socially aware.”

He became a leading exponent of the radical enragés, a faction that really took the Revolution’s purported egalite to heart.

In early 1793, Roux was an official representative to the execution of Louis XVI — one can read his minimalistic report here; knowing that Roux was a priest, Louis tried to press him for some spiritual aid, and was rebuffed. “I am only here,” Roux answered icily, “to lead you to the scaffold.”

The man’s invective against the merchant classes packed considerably more heat.

Roux’s Manifesto of the Enrages minced no words:

Freedom is nothing but a vain phantom when one class of men can starve another with impunity. Equality is nothing but a vain phantom when the rich, through monopoly, exercise the right of life or death over their like. The republic is nothing but a vain phantom when the counter-revolution can operate every day through the price of commodities, which three quarters of all citizens cannot afford without shedding tears.

For the last four years the rich alone have profited from the advantages of the Revolution. The merchant aristocracy, more terrible than that of the noble and sacerdotal aristocracy, has made a cruel game of invading individual fortunes and the treasury of the republic; we still don’t know what will be the term of their exactions, for the price of merchandise rises in a frightful manner, from morning to evening.

Unfavorably contrasting the new haves with the ancien regime is the sort of thing that gets you into trouble in a bourgeois revolution.

Burdened by multiple wars, and then by poor harvests, France’s economy was a mess. Later that same year, Paris’s urban poor, the sans-culottes, invaded the Convention to force anti-hoarding and price control measures. Roux didn’t create that situation: he just had the nerve to risk his neck talking about it.

But by then, that prim ascetic Robespierre had already begun hounding Roux. He would hound him to his death.

Kropotkin‘s anarchist history, The Great French Revolution, 1789-1793, valorizes the courageous former priest. In Kropotkin’s narration, we find Roux ordered transferred out of ordinary police court to the Revolutionary Tribunal on some spurious charge of financial impropriety.*

Knowing what that meant, Roux stabbed himself in court thrice with a knife. The president of the court hastened to his assistance and displayed much friendliness towards him, even giving him the kiss of civic brotherhood, before he was removed to the Bicetre prison. In the prison infirmary Roux “tried to exhaust his strength,” as it was reported to the procurator of the Revolutionary Tribunal, Fouquier-Tinville, by opening his wounds; and finally he succeeded in stabbing himself once more, this time mortally, through the lung.

In terms of present-day iconographic potential, the French Revolution probably did not produce a more outstanding radical leftist; Roux’s direct critique of economic power clearly marks him as a forerunner of subsequent generations’ communist and anarchist movements … as well as even more contemporary voices.


(cc) image from Elentari86.

And undoubtedly, Roux’s project remained (and remains) unfinished. Surveying the scene after the Terror, Roux’s onetime ally Jean-Francois Varlet remarked, “In my country there has only been a change of dress.”

There’s more of Roux’s writing on Marxists.org.

* A much more serious graft charge would likewise be deployed to topple Danton.

Longtime readers may recall that this post was briefly (and mistakenly) up on this date in 2011. Oops.

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1793: 213 or so Lyonnaise

Add comment December 22nd, 2011 Headsman

Upon learning of the recent Republican capture of Toulon from the British and anti-revolutionary allies — a military achievement authored by a 24-year-old artillerist by the name of Napoleon Bonaparte — Joseph Fouche dispatched the following missive from the city where he his iron-fisted occupation was earning the epithet “Executioner of Lyon(s)”

Despite showing himself a ferocious Jacobin during the Terror, the Machiavellian Fouche helped author Robespierre‘s downfall and later became ennobled as the Duke of Otranto under Bonaparte. Needled by the Corsican about having voted for Louis XVI’s execution, Otranto aptly riposted, “Yes, sire; and that is the first service I had the honour of rendering your majesty!”

Joseph Fouche to Collot d’Herbois
22nd December 1793

And we likewise, my friend, have contributed to the surrender of Toulon, by spreading terror amongst the traitors who had entered the town, and by exposing to their view the dead bodies of thousands of their accomplices.

The war will be at an end if we know how to profit by this memorable victory; let us show ourselves terrible, that we may not fear becoming weak or cruel; let us annihilate in our anger, and at one single blow, every conspirator, every traitor, that we may not feel the pain, the long torture of punishing them as Kings would do.

Let us follow the example of nature in the exercise of justice. Let us be avenged as a nation, let us strike as quick as lightning, and let even the ashes of our enemies disappear from the land of liberty.

Let the perfidious and ferocious English be assailed from every quarter; let the whole republic turn into a volcano, and pour forth the devouring lava upon them: may the infamous island that produced those monsters, who no longer belong to the human species, be hurled for ever in the waves.

Farewell, my friend: tears of joy gush from my eyes, and overflow my heart. The courier is setting off. I shall write to you by the post.

FOUCHE

P.S. We have but one means of celebrating our victory. We shall this evening send 213 rebels to the place of execution: our loaded cannons are ready to salute them.

(Translation primarily as rendered in the London Times, July 18, 1815)

Whether this horrifying last bit of revolutionary braggadocio was in fact effected does not seem to be quite clear. This book claims that Fouche had 192 executed that day for the amusement of a party of Jacobins and prostitutes, which has the suspicious whiff of propaganda about it.

Hubert Cole, in Fouche: The Unprincipled Patriot reckons it “only” 67, with Fouche routinely inflating his atrocity figures a la military body counts for the benefit of ardent revolutionaries in Paris.

The use of cannon loaded with anti-personnel grapeshot — condemned tied together in pairs and then indiscriminately blasted; troops on hand to finish off survivors with bayonets — was an innovation in death-dealing technology that the National Convention did not appreciate, and Fouche was obliged to return to the more decorous methods of regular firing squads and that newfangled beheading machine.

* Not to be confused with Nazi torturer Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon. We hope the good people of Lyon will not require too many more synonymous sobriquets.

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1793: Adam Philippe, Comte de Custine

Add comment August 28th, 2010 Headsman

The best defense would have been a good offense for French General Adam Philippe, Comte de Custine — guillotined in Paris this date in 1793 for inadequacy in command of the French revolutionary armies fighting continental monarchist armies.

You must be this tall to go on the General Moustache* ride, and poor results in the field at this time could leave you shorter. Losing to the enemy looked an awful lot like conspiring with the enemy, especially when there was a “Comte” in your name.

Custine spent the winter of 1792-1793 coughing up French conquests across the Rhine. (In his defense, several of them were things that he’d previously conquered himself.)

Recalled once to Paris to justify himself, the bewhiskered general was defended by no less than Robespierre, and thereafter returned to the field. Given this background, it was not wise of him to resume the losing streak — but he did.*

The resultant second recall saw the moustache — and its associated head — permanently shaved for treacherously throwing battles like the 1919 White Sox. This met with the great approval** of Hebert‘s Pere Duchesne :

“Epitaph on General Custine”

Here lies an headless General—(I’ll say dead)
As many living Generals want an head.

You have just done something worthy of me by denouncing Custine. You have brought into broad daylight his plots and his treason. If we had waited a few more days to recall him freedom would have been fucked. This infamous rascal, after having had the French in Frankfurt massacred, after having abandoned Mainz, after having allowed Valenciennes to be encircled, after having delivered Condé, only awaited the right moment to lead his army into a slaughter and to deliver the coup de grace to the republic by sacrificing its last resources. Fortunately, the bugger has been put to the side. His crimes have been proved, let his head promptly fall under the national razor, but let his not be the only one! Let all the scoundrels who compose his headquarters also be shortened. Pursue, denounce without rest the infamous Tourville, who was the right arm of Lameth, and who will deliver Maubeuge if we leave him in command. Make known the swindler Lapallière, and especially the ci-devant marquis de Verigni, known in all the gaming houses under the name of Debrulis. Tell the Sans Culottes in the army that this rat has emigrated twice. Don’t forget Leveneur, the intimate friend of Lafayette, and the henchman of Custine. Don’t allow these bandits a moments rest until they’ve been chased and punished as traitors.

Custine’s son also got the chop for defending his old man.

Surviving the purge: Adam Philippe’s then-three-year-old grandson, Astolphe Custine. Custine would become famous as “the de Tocqueville of Russia,” and for his aphoristic and still-current travelogue La Russie en 1839.

* Actual nickname.

** And characteristically profane. Pere Duchesne would not have had a lot of patience for coy little cunnilingus references where a salty sans-culotte f-bomb would do instead.

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1793: Charlotte Corday, Marat’s murderess

13 comments July 17th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1793, Charlotte Corday lightly dropped her head beneath the guillotine for the murder of Jean-Paul Marat.


The Death of Marat, by David.

She is of stately Norman figure; in her twenty-fifth year; of beautiful still countenance: her name is Charlotte Corday, heretofore styled d’Armans, while Nobility still was … A completeness, a decision is in this fair female Figure: ‘by energy she means the spirit that will prompt one to sacrifice himself for his country.’ What if she, this fair young Charlotte, had emerged from her secluded stillness, suddenly like a Star; cruel-lovely, with half-angelic, half-demonic splendour; to gleam for a moment, and in a moment be extinguished: to be held in memory, so bright complete was she, through long centuries!–Quitting Cimmerian Coalitions without, and the dim-simmering Twenty-five millions within, History will look fixedly at this one fair Apparition of a Charlotte Corday; will note whither Charlotte moves, how the little Life burns forth so radiant, then vanishes swallowed of the Night.

Carlyle’s voluptuous prose is well-suited to our heroine (for so she has officially seemed, since fall of Robespierre, or from the very first): in the mere hours from striking dead the ferocious Jacobin Jean-Paul Marat on July 13 to her beheading this day, she captivated the country and immortalized her name.

Hapless beautiful Charlotte; hapless squalid Marat! From Caen in the utmost West, from Neuchatel in the utmost East, they two are drawing nigh each other; they two have, very strangely, business together.

Or was it strange at all?

Implacable in her purpose, utopian in her design, unafraid to plant a butcher’s knife into the chest of an enemy of France, Corday has a little something in common with her mortal foe.


Charlotte Corday, by Paul-Jacques-Aime Baudry.

These make casting too easy: Marat, bad because he was ugly and ugly because he was bad; Charlotte, therefore, just the reverse. (She was also a virgin; they made sure to check at the autopsy.) Our Norman assassin’s looks have inordinately exercised her interlocutors from the moment of her arrest; her prosecutors, too, understood them as essential.

“Not at all pretty,” a contemporaneous government article (cited in Crisis in Representation) put about. “She was a virago, brawny rather than fresh, without grace, untidy as are almost all female philosophers and eggheads … an old maid … with a masculinized bearing … [who] had thrown herself absolutely outside of her sex.”

And there it is. Charlotte Corday’s power to excite both rapture and repulsion is plainly rooted in the unexpected contradiction between her sex and her crime. If she is a resolute political assassin, surely she is not feminine … or is it the other way around?

Take Andre Chenier‘s engorged ode: “Fair, young, resplendent, led to the executioners, you seemed to be riding in your bridal car … You alone were a man and vindicated the human race. And we, vile eunuchs, a cowardly and soulless herd, we know how to repeat some womanly whimper, but the steel would weigh heavy in our feeble hands. … One scoundrel less crawls in this slime. Virtue applauds you. Hear the majestic sound of its virile praise, heroic maid.” This is “throwing herself outside of her sex” in the affirmative sense of uplifting herself beyond mere womanhood, a girl so heroic she might almost qualify as a dude.

Place it at the historical pivot into a modernity unready to reckon with the place of the woman, and confusion reigns.

“The spectacle of such wickedness, beauty, and talent united in the same person,” a newspaper recorded, “the contrast between the magnitude of her crime and the weakness of her sex, her appearance of actual gaiety, and her smile before the judges, who could not fail to condemn her, all combined to create an impression on the spectators that is difficult to portray.”*

Still, this judgment offers more insight than some latterly “tributes,” like this Anglo magazine piece 30 years later: “an ornament and an honour to the sex of woman … Woman is the child of feeling. From this source spring up all her good and bad qualities. It is seldom ambition or policy which leads her on to any enterprise: it is the passions. … it was under the influence of such feelings that Charlotte Corday performed that act, which virtuous and generous minds, so far from considering a crime, will look upon as one of the most heroic deeds of recorded history.”

Which is a fascinating form of sexism, since it was precisely Corday’s unearthly calm — masculine virtue! — that awed the Revolutionary Tribunal. But everything about Charlotte Corday is up for interpretive grabs; Nina Rattner Gelbart even argues, in “The Blonding of Charlotte Corday” (Eighteenth-Century Studies 38.1 (2004)) that though a real-life brunette, her depictions trend increasingly flaxen-haired.**

As for Charlotte Corday her work is accomplished; the recompense of it is near and sure. The chere amie, and neighbours of the house, flying at her, she ‘overturns some movables,’ entrenches herself till the gendarmes arrive; then quietly surrenders; goes quietly to the Abbaye Prison: she alone quiet, all Paris sounding in wonder, in rage or admiration, round her. …

On Wednesday morning, the thronged Palais de Justice and Revolutionary Tribunal can see her face; beautiful and calm: she dates it ‘fourth day of the Preparation of Peace.’ A strange murmur ran through the Hall, at sight of her; you could not say of what character. Tinville has his indictments and tape-papers the cutler of the Palais Royal will testify that he sold her the sheath-knife; “all these details are needless,” interrupted Charlotte; “it is I that killed Marat.” By whose instigation? — “By no one’s.” What tempted you, then? His crimes. “I killed one man,” added she, raising her voice extremely (extremement), as they went on with their questions, “I killed one man to save a hundred thousand; a villain to save innocents; a savage wild-beast to give repose to my country. I was a Republican before the Revolution; I never wanted energy.” There is therefore nothing to be said. The public gazes astonished: the hasty limners sketch her features, Charlotte not disapproving; the men of law proceed with their formalities. The doom is Death as a murderess. To her Advocate she gives thanks; in gentle phrase, in high-flown classical spirit. To the Priest they send her she gives thanks; but needs not any shriving, or ghostly or other aid from him.

On this same evening, therefore, about half-past seven o’clock, from the gate of the Conciergerie, to a City all on tiptoe, the fatal Cart issues: seated on it a fair young creature, sheeted in red smock of Murderess; so beautiful, serene, so full of life; journeying towards death,–alone amid the world. Many take off their hats, saluting reverently; for what heart but must be touched? Others growl and howl. Adam Lux, of Mentz, declares that she is greater than Brutus; that it were beautiful to die with her: the head of this young man seems turned. At the Place de la Revolution, the countenance of Charlotte wears the same still smile. The executioners proceed to bind her feet; she resists, thinking it meant as an insult; on a word of explanation, she submits with cheerful apology. As the last act, all being now ready, they take the neckerchief from her neck: a blush of maidenly shame overspreads that fair face and neck; the cheeks were still tinged with it, when the executioner lifted the severed head, to shew it to the people. ‘It is most true,’ says Foster, ‘that he struck the cheek insultingly; for I saw it with my eyes: the Police imprisoned him for it.’†

In this manner have the Beautifullest and the Squalidest come in collision, and extinguished one another. Jean-Paul Marat and Marie-Anne Charlotte Corday both, suddenly, are no more. ‘Day of the Preparation of Peace?’ Alas, how were peace possible or preparable, while, for example, the hearts of lovely Maidens, in their convent-stillness, are dreaming not of Love- paradises, and the light of Life; but of Codrus’-sacrifices, and death well earned? That Twenty-five million hearts have got to such temper, this is the Anarchy; the soul of it lies in this: whereof not peace can be the embodyment! The death of Marat, whetting old animosities tenfold, will be worse than any life. O ye hapless Two, mutually extinctive, the Beautiful and the Squalid, sleep ye well,–in the Mother’s bosom that bore you both!

In Carlyle’s third volume on the French Revolution, “Charlotte Corday” is the first chapter in Book IV: The Terror.

While the assassin went contentedly to her death, and left smitten admirers in her passing, more realistic politicians saw that all her magnificent stoicism, all her self-sacrifice, had doomed the liberals who were her political fellow-travelers and opened the door to the very Terror she meant to avert. (And also that the gesture might have been better directed elsewhere, since Marat was already dying.)

“She has killed us,” prophesied Girondin deputy Pierre Vergniaud. “But she has taught us how to die.”

What meaning this leaves one with — any at all? — is the subject of the Peter Weiss play-within-a-play Marat/Sade, which sets a cast of lunatics in the Napoleonic era under the direction of the Marquis de Sade to portraying Marat’s rendezvous with Charlotte Corday.

* Cited by Elizabeth R. Kindleberger in “Charlotte Corday in Text and Image: A Case Study in the French Revolution and Women’s History,” French Historical Studies, Vol. 18, No. 4 (Autumn, 1994).

** Also of interest from Gelbart is the Vichy government’s affinity for our murderess: “Antisemitism made of Marat a Jew and a vile creature, dark, dirty, satanic, a bloodthirsty monster. In contrast, Corday was pure, saintly, beautiful, virginal, and of course fair.”

† The slap given Charlotte Corday’s severed head is historically attested by the French press (which was aghast); the famous story about it of a much more fantastic quality is that the severed head blushed — and, in the phrasing of Englishwoman Helen Maria Williams, “exhibited this last impression of offended modesty.” The legend of Charlotte’s crimsoned cheeks always comes up in the backstory of the guillotine’s experiments to determine if a head retained consciousness; Charlotte’s blush may in fact be credited as one of the reasons these experiments actually came to pass.

Part of the Themed Set: The Feminine Mystique.

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1795: The last Montagnards

1 comment June 17th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1795, the Mountain that had so recently dominated revolutionary France was destroyed by the blade.

This largely forgotten date is actually a significant milestone of those years’ imbroglio: the date on which the French bourgeoisie achieved its revolution by slaying the last sans-culottes-affiliated deputies in punishment for the last sans-culottes uprising.

In the year since the fall of Robespierre, a White Terror had purged his former adherents — or in class terms, had put Madame Guillotine to work pushing the Paris working class out of its former political authority.

The latter’s last hurrah of resistance was the Prairal Rebellion of May 20, 1795, when a mob stormed the Convention.

In the florid narration of Thomas Carlyle,

[I]t billows free through all Corridors; within and without, far as the eye reaches, nothing but Bedlam, and the great Deep broken loose! … Insurrection rages; rolls its drums; will read its Paper of Grievances, will have this decreed, will have that.

… National Representation, deluged with black Sansculottism, glides out; for help elsewhere, for safety elsewhere; here is no help.

About four in the afternoon, there remain hardly more than some Sixty Members: mere friends, or even secret leaders; a remnant of the Mountain-crest, held in silence by Thermidorian thraldom. Now is the time for them; now or never let them descend, and speak! They descend, these Sixty, invited by Sansculottism: Romme of the New Calendar, Ruhl of the Sacred Phial, Goujon, Duquesnoy, Soubrany, and the rest. Glad Sansculottism forms a ring for them; Romme takes the President’s chair; they begin resolving and decreeing. Fast enough now comes Decree after Decree, in alternate brief strains, or strophe and antistrophe, — what will cheapen bread, what will awaken the dormant lion. And at every new decree,* Sansculottism shouts “Decreed, decreed!” and rolls its drums.

Fast enough; the work of months in hours, — when see, a Figure enters … And then Gilt Youth, with levelled bayonets, countenances screwed to the sticking-place! Tramp, tramp, with bayonets gleaming in the lamp-light: what can one do, worn down with long riot, grown heartless, dark, hungry, but roll back, but rush back, and escape who can? The very windows need to be thrown up, that Sansculottism may escape fast enough. Money-changer Sections and Gilt Youth sweep them forth, with steel besom, far into the depths of Saint-Antoine. Triumph once more! The Decrees of that Sixty are not so much as rescinded; they are declared null and non-extant. Romme, Ruhl, Goujon and the ringleaders, some thirteen in all, are decreed Accused. Permanent-session ends at three in the morning. Sansculottism, once more flung resupine, lies sprawling; sprawling its last.

The so-called Cretois were hailed before a tribunal; six were condemned to death on this date.**

They dramatically attempted to cheat the headsman by stabbing themselves after the trial, somehow passing down the line without intervention a single knife smuggled by Goujon.

Three of them died of their self-inflicted injuries. The other three went immediately to the guillotine.

“They were,” Carlyle concludes, “the Ultimi Romanorum … Sansculottism sprawls no more. The dormant lion has become a dead one; and now, as we see, any hoof may smite him.”

* According to A Popular History of France from the First Revolution to the Present Time, one of the decrees was abolition of the death penalty “except in the case of emigrants and forgers of assignats.”

** Other less treasonably culpable former Montagnards who had not cast their lot squarely with the Thermidorians were proscribed or otherwise cut off from power in the aftermath of the Prairal rebellion.

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1795: Antoine Quentin Fouquier-Tinville, Robespierre’s prosecutor

5 comments May 7th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1795, the attorney who had engineered the Terror was guillotined for engineering the Terror.

Antoine Quentin Fouquier de Tinville (English Wikipedia page | French), or just plain Fouquier-Tinville, had emerged during the Revolution from penurious obscurity to wrangle a jury foreman’s position courtesy of his connection to Camille Desmoulins. When Desmoulins ally Georges Danton spearheaded creation of a Revolutionary Tribunal (French link), Fouquier-Tinville drew the choice gig of Public Prosecutor.

From that perch, he would supply the arbitrary exercises of the Committee of Public Safety their (increasingly scanty) scaffolding of formal legality in Paris’s greatest show trials.

Charlotte Corday.

The Girondists.

Marie Antoinette.

Fouquier-Tinville’s own onetime benefactors, Danton and Desmoulins. (He struggled to contain Danton’s rhetorical fireworks, as depicted in the 1983 film Danton — we see him plying his trade from about 3:29 of this clip.)

Heck … when the Terror ended, our good state’s attorney even signed off on the execution of Robespierre, with what must have been a lump in his throat. He was himself denounced within days, and narrowly preserved from the summary justice of his fellow-prisoners upon incarceration.

Naturally, like every criminal barrister since, Fouquier-Tinville’s defense was, hey, don’t blame me: the law made me do it. “I had only acted in the spirit of the laws passed by a Convention invested with all powers. Through the absence of its members [on trial], I find myself the head of a conspiracy I have never been aware of.”

Pity the lawyers.

This varietal of the only-following-orders defense did not impress in Fouquier-Tinville’s case; the Public Prosecutor had made the role too much his own.

I have been told by a gentleman who was at school with Fouquier, and has had frequent occasions of observing him at different periods since, that he always appeared to him to be a man of mild manners, and by no means likely to become the instrument of these atrocities; but a strong addiction to gaming having involved him in embarrassments, he was induced to accept the office of Public Accuser to the Tribunal, and was progressively led on from administering to the iniquity of his employers, to find a gratification in it himself.

And, indeed, he was condemned by his own hand. His lawyerly letter to the Convention during Danton’s trial — “the accused are behaving like madmen and demand the summoning of their witnesses … our judicial powers do not furnish us with any means of refusing” — duly elicited those heretofore absent powers, which the prosecutor immediately deployed to gag the defense.

Antoine Quentin Fouquier de Tinville, the sinister mediocrity who gave villainy the cover of law, was guillotined this morning in 1795 to the delight of the Paris mob: the last head to roll in a batch of 16.

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1795: Unspecified Robespierrists

1 comment 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.

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1793: Olympe de Gouges, a head of her time

9 comments November 3rd, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1793, Olympe de Gouges’ forward thoughts were removed from her shoulders in the Place de la Revolution.

Most recognizable today for her Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Citizen* — a proto-feminist call for equality of the sexes issued in response to the day’s revolutionary but guy-centric Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizende Gouges was much more than a one-issue woman.

Fully engaged with the liberal intellectual currents of the Enlightenment, de Gouges spent the 1770’s and 1780’s in Parisian salon circles cranking out plays (over 40) and petitions, pamphlets and manifestos on animal welfare, poverty, the treatment of orphans, and ending slavery.

The latter issue, and not women’s rights, was the cause her contemporaries would have most associated with her.

But the natural-born gadfly didn’t pick her battles with injustice, and the Terror was a bad period to be indiscriminate. Like some of her Girondist associates, she risked the Paris mob’s wrath by openly opposing Louis XVI‘s execution — right in character, Olympe was down on the whole idea of the death penalty — and she carried principle into foolhardiness by printing broadsides savaging Robespierre.

Show trial time.

There can be no mistaking the perfidious intentions of this criminal woman, and her hidden motives … calumniating and spewing out bile in large doses against the warmest friends of the people, their most intrepid defender.

Misogynist condescension veined the prevailing interpretation of this misbehavior.

Olympe de Gouges, born with an exalted imagination, mistook her delirium for an inspiration of nature. She wanted to be a man of state. She took up the projects of the perfidious people who want to divide France. It seems the law has punished this conspirator for having forgotten the virtues that belong to her sex.

And strange to say, that condescension outlived Robespierre by centuries.

Only recently, as mainstream thought has (sort of) caught up with de Gouges, has the scope of her work (French link) attracted renewed appreciation, and Olympe been acknowledged an Olympian herself.

* Article 10: “Woman has the right to mount the scaffold; she must equally have the right to mount the rostrum.” The work was dedicated to Marie Antoinette.

On this day..

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1794: Maximilien Robespierre, Saint-Just and the Jacobin leadership

30 comments July 28th, 2008 Headsman

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!

Part of the Themed Set: Thermidor.

* 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.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,France,Guillotine,Heads of State,History,Infamous,Intellectuals,Mass Executions,Milestones,Notable Participants,Politicians,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,The Worm Turns,Treason

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