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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Reign of Terror
By Thomas Babington, Lord Macaulay (1800–1859)
 
From the Essay on ‘Barère’

NO great party can be composed of such materials as these [disinterested enthusiasts]. It is the inevitable law that such zealots as we have described shall collect around them a multitude of slaves, of cowards, and of libertines, whose savage tempers and licentious appetites, withheld only by the dread of law and magistracy from the worst excesses, are called into full activity by the hope of impunity. A faction which, from whatever motive, relaxes the great laws of morality, is certain to be joined by the most immoral part of the community. This has been repeatedly proved in religious wars. The war of the Holy Sepulchre, the Albigensian war, the Huguenot war, the Thirty Years’ war, all originated in pious zeal. That zeal inflamed the champions of the Church to such a point that they regarded all generosity to the vanquished as a sinful weakness. The infidel, the heretic, was to be run down like a mad dog. No outrage committed by the Catholic warrior on the miscreant enemy could deserve punishment. As soon as it was known that boundless license was thus given to barbarity and dissoluteness, thousands of wretches who cared nothing for the sacred cause, but who were eager to be exempted from the police of peaceful cities and the discipline of well-governed camps, flocked to the standard of the faith. The men who had set up that standard were sincere, chaste, regardless of lucre, and perhaps, where only themselves were concerned, not unforgiving; but round that standard were assembled such gangs of rogues, ravishers, plunderers, and ferocious bravoes, as were scarcely ever found under the flag of any State engaged in a mere temporal quarrel. In a very similar way was the Jacobin party composed. There was a small nucleus of enthusiasts; round that nucleus was gathered a vast mass of ignoble depravity; and in all that mass there was nothing so depraved and so ignoble as Barère.  1
  Then came those days when the most barbarous of all codes was administered by the most barbarous of all tribunals; when no man could greet his neighbors, or say his prayers, or dress his hair, without danger of committing a capital crime; when spies lurked in every corner; when the guillotine was long and hard at work every morning; when the jails were filled as close as the hold of a slave-ship; when the gutters ran foaming with blood into the Seine; when it was death to be great-niece of a captain of the royal guards, or half-brother of a doctor of the Sorbonne, to express a doubt whether assignats would not fall, to hint that the English had been victorious in the action of the first of June, to have a copy of one of Burke’s pamphlets locked up in a desk, to laugh at a Jacobin for taking the name of Cassius or Timoleon, or to call the Fifth Sans-culottide by its old superstitious name of St. Matthew’s Day. While the daily wagon-loads of victims were carried to their doom through the streets of Paris, the proconsuls whom the sovereign committee had sent forth to the departments reveled in an extravagance of cruelty unknown even in the capital. The knife of the deadly machine rose and fell too slow for their work of slaughter. Long rows of captives were mowed down with grape-shot. Holes were made in the bottom of crowded barges. Lyons was turned into a desert. At Arras even the cruel mercy of a speedy death was denied to the prisoners. All down the Loire, from Saumur to the sea, great flocks of crows and kites feasted on naked corpses, twined together in hideous embraces. No mercy was shown to sex or age. The number of young lads and of girls of seventeen who were murdered by that execrable government is to be reckoned by hundreds. Babies torn from the breast were tossed from pike to pike along the Jacobin ranks. One champion of liberty had his pockets well stuffed with ears. Another swaggered about with the finger of a little child in his hat. A few months had sufficed to degrade France below the level of New Zealand.  2
  It is absurd to say that any amount of public danger can justify a system like this, we do not say on Christian principles, we do not say on the principles of a high morality, but even on principles of Machiavellian policy. It is true that great emergencies call for activity and vigilance; it is true that they justify severity which, in ordinary times, would deserve the name of cruelty. But indiscriminate severity can never, under any circumstances, be useful. It is plain that the whole efficacy of punishment depends on the care with which the guilty are distinguished. Punishment which strikes the guilty and the innocent promiscuously operates merely like a pestilence or a great convulsion of nature, and has no more tendency to prevent offenses than the cholera, or an earthquake like that of Lisbon, would have. The energy for which the Jacobin administration is praised was merely the energy of the Malay who maddens himself with opium, draws his knife, and runs a-muck through the streets, slashing right and left at friends and foes. Such has never been the energy of truly great rulers; of Elizabeth, for example, of Oliver, or of Frederick. They were not, indeed, scrupulous. But had they been less scrupulous than they were, the strength and amplitude of their minds would have preserved them from crimes such as those which the small men of the Committee of Public Safety took for daring strokes of policy. The great Queen who so long held her own against foreign and domestic enemies, against temporal and spiritual arms; the great Protector who governed with more than regal power, in despite both of royalists and republicans; the great King who, with a beaten army and an exhausted treasury, defended his little dominions to the last against the united efforts of Russia, Austria, and France,—with what scorn would they have heard that it was impossible for them to strike a salutary terror into the disaffected without sending schoolboys and schoolgirls to death by cart-loads and boat-loads!  3
  The popular notion is, we believe, that the leading Terrorists were wicked men, but at the same time great men. We can see nothing great about them but their wickedness. That their policy was daringly original is a vulgar error. Their policy is as old as the oldest accounts which we have of human misgovernment. It seemed new in France and in the eighteenth century only because it had been long disused, for excellent reasons, by the enlightened part of mankind. But it has always prevailed, and still prevails, in savage and half-savage nations, and is the chief cause which prevents such nations from making advances towards civilization. Thousands of deys, of beys, of pachas, of rajahs, of nabobs, have shown themselves as great masters of statecraft as the members of the Committee of Public Safety. Djezzar, we imagine, was superior to any of them in their new line. In fact, there is not a petty tyrant in Asia or Africa so dull or so unlearned as not to be fully qualified for the business of Jacobin police and Jacobin finance. To behead people by scores without caring whether they are guilty or innocent, to wring money out of the rich by the help of jailers and executioners; to rob the public creditor, and to put him to death if he remonstrates; to take loaves by force out of the bakers’ shops; to clothe and mount soldiers by seizing on one man’s wool and linen, and on another man’s horses and saddles, without compensation,—is of all modes of governing the simplest and most obvious. Of its morality we at present say nothing. But surely it requires no capacity beyond that of a barbarian or a child.  4
  By means like those which we have described, the Committee of Public Safety undoubtedly succeeded, for a short time, in enforcing profound submission and in raising immense funds. But to enforce submission by butchery, and to raise funds by spoliation, is not statesmanship. The real statesman is he who, in troubled times, keeps down the turbulent without unnecessarily harassing the well-affected; and who, when great pecuniary resources are needed, provides for the public exigencies without violating the security of property and drying up the sources of future prosperity. Such a statesman, we are confident, might in 1793 have preserved the independence of France without shedding a drop of innocent blood, without plundering a single warehouse. Unhappily, the republic was subject to men who were mere demagogues and in no sense statesmen. They could declaim at a club. They could lead a rabble to mischief. But they had no skill to conduct the affairs of an empire. The want of skill they supplied for a time by atrocity and blind violence. For legislative ability, fiscal ability, military ability, diplomatic ability, they had one substitute,—the guillotine. Indeed, their exceeding ignorance and the barrenness of their invention are the best excuse for their murders and robberies. We really believe that they would not have cut so many throats and picked so many pockets, if they had known how to govern in any other way.  5
  That under their administration the war against the European coalition was successfully conducted, is true. But that war had been successfully conducted before their elevation, and continued to be successfully conducted after their fall. Terror was not the order of the day when Brussels opened its gates to Dumourier. Terror had ceased to be the order of the day when Piedmont and Lombardy were conquered by Bonaparte. The truth is, that France was saved, not by the Committee of Public Safety, but by the energy, patriotism, and valor of the French people. Those high qualities were victorious in spite of the incapacity of rulers whose administration was a tissue, not merely of crimes, but of blunders.  6
 
 
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