Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
The Height of the “Terror”
By Adolphe Thiers (1797–1877)
From the ‘History of the French Revolution’: Translation of Frederic Shoberl

NEVER had the terror been greater, not only in the Convention, but in the prisons and throughout France.  1
  The cruel agents of Robespierre, Fouquier-Tinville the accuser and Dumas the president, had taken up the law of the 22d of Prairial, and were preparing to avail themselves of it for the purpose of committing fresh atrocities in the prisons. “Very soon,” said Fouquier, “there shall be put up on their doors bills of ‘This house to let.’” The plan was to get rid of the greater part of the suspected persons. People had accustomed themselves to consider these latter as irreconcilable enemies, whom it was necessary to destroy for the welfare of the republic. To sacrifice thousands of individuals, whose only fault was to think in a certain manner,—nay, whose opinions were often precisely the same as those of their persecutors,—to sacrifice them seemed a perfectly natural thing, from the habit which people had acquired of destroying one another. The facility with which they put others to death, or encountered death themselves, had become extraordinary. In the field of battle, on the scaffold, thousands perished daily, and nobody was any longer shocked at it. The first murders committed in 1793 proceeded from a real irritation caused by danger. Such perils had now ceased; the republic was victorious: people now slaughtered not from indignation, but from the atrocious habit which they had contracted. That formidable machine which they had been obliged to construct in order to withstand enemies of all kinds, began to be no longer necessary; but once set going, they knew not how to stop it. Every government must have its climax, and does not perish till it has attained that climax. The Revolutionary government was not destined to end on the same day that all the enemies of the republic should be sufficiently terrified: it was destined to go beyond that point, and to exercise itself till it had become generally disgusting by its very atrocity. Such is the invariable course of human affairs. Why had atrocious circumstances compelled the creation of a government of blood, which was to reign and vanquish solely by inflicting death?  2
  A still more frightful circumstance is, that when the signal is given, when the idea is established that lives must be sacrificed, all dispose themselves for this horrid purpose with an extraordinary facility. Every one acts without remorse, without repugnance. People accustom themselves to this, like the judge who condemns criminals to death, like the surgeon who sees beings writhing under his instrument, like the general who orders the sacrifice of twenty thousand soldiers. They frame a horrid language according to their new operations; they contrive even to render it gay; they invent striking words to express sanguinary ideas. Every one, stunned and hurried along, keeps pace with the mass; and men who were yesterday engaged in the peaceful occupations of the arts and commerce, are to-day seen applying themselves with the same facility to the work of death and destruction.  3
  The Committee had given the signal by the law of the 22d. Dumas and Fouquier had but too well understood it. It was necessary, however, to find pretexts for immolating so many victims. What crime could be imputed to them, when most of them were peaceful, unknown citizens, who had never given any sign of life to the State? It was conceived that being confined in the prisons, they would think how to get out of them; that their number was likely to inspire them with a feeling of their strength, and to suggest to them the idea of exerting it for their escape. The pretended conspiracy of Dillon was the germ of this idea, which was developed in an atrocious manner. Some wretches among the prisoners consented to act the infamous part of informers. They pointed out in the Luxembourg one hundred and sixty prisoners who, they said, had been concerned in Dillon’s plot. Some of these list-makers were procured in all the other places of confinement; and they denounced in each, one or two hundred persons as accomplices in the “conspiracy of the prisons.” An attempt at escape made at La Force served but to authorize this unworthy fable; and hundreds of unfortunate creatures began immediately to be sent to the Revolutionary tribunal. They were transferred from the various prisons to the Conciergerie, to be thence taken to the tribunal and to the scaffold. In the night between the 18th and 19th of Messidor (June 6th), the one hundred and sixty persons denounced at the Luxembourg were transferred. They trembled on hearing themselves called: they knew not what was laid to their charge, but they regarded it as most probable that death was reserved for them. The odious Fouquier, since he had been furnished with the law of the 22d, had made great changes in the hall of the tribunal. Instead of the seats for the advocates and the bench, which would hold eighteen or twenty persons and had been appropriated to the accused, an amphitheatre for the accused was constructed by his order, with a capacity of one hundred or one hundred and fifty at a time. This he called his “little seats.” Carrying his atrocious activity still further, he had even caused a scaffold to be erected in the very hall of the tribunal; and he proposed to have the one hundred and sixty accused in the Luxembourg, tried at one and the same sitting.  4
  The Committee of Public Welfare, when informed of the kind of mania which had seized its public accuser, sent for him, ordered him to remove the scaffold from the hall in which it was set up, and forbade him to bring sixty persons to trial at once. “What!” said Collot-d’Herbois in a transport of indignation: “wouldst thou then demoralize death itself?” It should however be remarked that Fouquier asserted the contrary, and maintained that it was he who demanded the trial of the one hundred and sixty in three divisions. Everything proves, on the contrary, that it was the Committee which was less extravagant than their minister, and checked his mad proceedings. They were obliged to repeat the order to Fouquier-Tinville to remove the guillotine from the hall of the tribunal.  5
  The one hundred and sixty were divided into three companies, tried and executed in three days. The proceedings were as expeditious and as frightful as those adopted in the Abbaye on the nights of the 2d and 3d of September. Carts ordered for every day were waiting from the morning in the court of the Palace of Justice, and the accused could see them as they went up-stairs to the tribunal. Dumas the president, holding sessions like a maniac, had a pair of pistols on the table before him. He merely asked the accused their names, and added some very general question. In the examination of the one hundred and sixty, the president said to one of them, Dorival, “Do you know anything of the conspiracy?”—“No.”—“I expected that you would give that answer; but it shall not avail you. Another.” He addressed a person named Champigny, “Are you not an ex-noble?”—“Yes.”—“Another.” To Gudreville, “Are you a priest?”—“Yes—but I have taken the oath.”—“You have no right to speak. Another.” To a man named Menil, “Were you not servant to the ex-constituent Menou?”—“Yes.”—“Another.” To Vely, “Were you not architect to Madame?”—“Yes; but I was dismissed in 1788.”—“Another.” To Gondrecourt, “Had you not your father-in-law at the Luxembourg?”—“Yes.”—“Another.” To Durfort, “Were you not in the life-guard?”—“Yes; but I was disbanded in 1789.”—“Another.”  6
  Such was the summary mode of proceeding with these unfortunate persons. According to the law, the testimony of witnesses was to be dispensed with only when there existed material or moral proofs; nevertheless no witnesses were called, as it was alleged that proofs of this kind existed in every case. The jurors did not take the trouble to retire to the consultation room. They gave their opinions before the audience, and sentence was immediately pronounced. The accused had scarcely time to rise and to mention their names. One day there was a prisoner whose name was not upon the list of the accused, and who said to the Court, “I am not accused; my name in not on your list.” “What signifies that?” said Fouquier, “give it quick!” He gave it, and was sent to the scaffold like the others. The utmost negligence prevailed in this kind of barbarous administration. Sometimes, owing to the extreme precipitation, the acts of accusation were not delivered to the accused till they were before the tribunal. The most extraordinary blunders were committed. A worthy old man, Loizerolles, heard along with his own surname the Christian names of his son called over: he forebore to remonstrate, and was sent to the scaffold. Some time afterward the son was brought to trial; it was found that he ought not to be alive, since a person answering to all his names had been executed: it was his father. He was nevertheless put to death. More than once victims were called long after they had perished. There were hundreds of acts of accusation quite ready, to which there was nothing to add but the designation of the individuals.  7
  The trials were conducted in like manner. The printing-office was contiguous to the hall of the tribunal: the forms were kept standing, the title, the motives, were ready composed; there was nothing but the names to be added. These were handed through a small loophole to the overseer. Thousands of copies were immediately printed, and plunged families into mourning and struck terror into the prisons. The hawkers came to sell the bulletin of the tribunal under the prisoners’ windows, crying, “Here are the names of those who have gained prizes in the lottery of St. Guillotine.” The accused were executed on the breaking-up of the court; or at latest on the morrow, if the day was too far advanced.  8
  Ever since the passing of the law of the 22d of Prairial, victims perished at the rate of fifty or sixty a day. “That goes well,” said Fouquier-Tinville: “heads fall like tiles.” And he added, “It must go better still next decade: I must have four hundred and fifty at least.” For this purpose there were given what were called orders to the wretches who undertook the office of spies upon the suspected. These wretches had become the terror of the prisons. Confined as suspected persons, it was not exactly known which of them it was who undertook to mark out victims; but it was inferred from their insolence, from the preference shown them by the jailers, from the orgies which they held in the lodges with the agents of the police. They frequently gave intimation of their importance, in order to traffic with it. They were caressed, implored, by the trembling prisoners; they even received sums of money not to put their names upon their lists. These they made up at random: they said of one, that he had used aristocratic language; of another, that he had drunk on a certain day when a defeat of the armies was announced: and their mere designation was equivalent to a death-warrant. The names which they had furnished were inserted in so many acts of accusation; these acts were notified in the evening to the prisoners, and the latter were removed to the Conciergerie. This was called in the language of the jailers “the evening journal.” When those unfortunate creatures heard the rolling of the tumbrils which came to fetch them, they were in an agony as cruel as that of death. They ran to the gates, clung to the bars to listen to the list, and trembled lest their name should be pronounced by the messenger. When they were named, they embraced their companions in misfortune, and took a last leave of them. Most painful separations were frequently witnessed,—a father parting from his children, a husband from his wife. Those who survived were as wretched as those who were conducted to the den of Fouquier-Tinville. They went back expecting soon to rejoin their relatives. When the fatal list was finished, the prisoners breathed more freely, but only till the following day. Their anguish was then renewed, and the rolling of the carts brought fresh terror along with it.  9
  The public pity began to be expressed in a way that gave some uneasiness to the exterminators. The shopkeepers in the Rue St. Honoré through which the carts passed every day, shut up their shops. To deprive the victims of these signs of mourning, the scaffold was removed to the Barrière du Trone; but not less pity was shown by the laboring people in this quarter than by the inhabitants of the best streets in Paris. The populace, in a moment of intoxication, may have no feeling for the victims whom it slaughters itself; but when it daily witnesses the death of fifty or sixty unfortunate persons against whom it is not excited by rage, it soon begins to be softened. This pity, however, was still silent and timid. All the distinguished persons confined in the prisons had fallen,—the unfortunate sister of Louis XVI. had been immolated in her turn; and Death was already descending from the upper to the lower classes of society. We find at this period on the list of the Revolutionary tribunal, tailors, shoemakers, hair-dressers, butchers, farmers, publicans, nay, even laboring men, condemned for sentiments and language held to be counter-revolutionary. To convey in brief an idea of the number of executions of this period, it will be sufficient to state that between the month of March 1793, when the tribunal commenced its operations, and June 1794 (22d Prairial, year II), 577 persons had been condemned; and that from the 10th of June (22d Prairial) to the 17th of July (9th Thermidor) it condemned 1,285: so that the total number of victims up to the 9th of Thermidor amounts to 1,862.  10

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.