Ruth Scurr has written a thoughtful biography: Fatal Purity:
Robespierre and the French Revolution. Obvious highpoints of her
narrative--such as the storming of the Bastille, the assassination of
Marat, the strange fates of Condorcet, Mirabeau and Lafayette, and the
executions by guillotine of Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, Madame
Roland, Georges Danton and finally her protagonist--pass, as in a
meditation. It's a serious book.
The French Revolution was serious but, nevertheless, crazy. After
Trudeau converted Canada to the metric system, my English Canadian
relatives complained for decades about metric madness. I myself love
the French Revolutionary Calendar (FRC). Hey kids, what time is it?
It's 8 Pluviose. Karl Marx famously used the FRC in "The Eighteenth
Brumaire of Louis Napoleon" to make fun of Louis Napoleon: "history
repeats itself," Marx says, "first as tragedy, then comedy."
More importantly, the French Revolution discredited European feudalism
and its divine right of kings, then paved the way for government by
law and the ballot, and the rights of the individual. It was all in
all a massive swirling progressive event. But a few passages in
Scurr's book make you shiver over the process. For instance, she says
invented a new official category of criminal: enemies of the people,
"those who, in any manner and no matter with what mask they have
concealed themselves, have sought to thwart the progress of the
Revolution and prevent the strengthening of the Republic
Robespierre recommended that the Tribunal should now accept "moral
proofs" against accused persons, who were no longer to be allowed
Enemies of the people included anyone seeking to re-establish the
monarchy, discredit the [constitutional] Convention, betray the
Republic, communicate with foreign enemies, interfere with food
provision, shelter conspirators, speak ill of patriotism, suborn
officials, mislead the people, spread false news, insult morality,
deprave the public conscience, steal public property, abuse public
office, or plot against the liberty, unity and security of the state.
The punishment for all these crimes was death. (page 328)
Robespierre as head of the Committee of Public Safety was powerful,
absolutely powerful, but, the French believed at first, incorruptible.
French support for the American Revolution bankrupted France.
We, too, live in troubled times. Louis XVI was the wrong king at the
wrong time, just as George Bush is the wrong president for this time.
His war in Iraq is bankrupting America. Is he an enemy of the people,
an enemy of God or just an enemy of reason? If we're lucky, he will
merely pass from office more hated than any president since Richard
The key to Bush's residual popularity remains his religion.
Robespierre, like Washington, Franklin and Jefferson, was a Deist. As
the Reign of Terror got underway, Robespierre suppressed the religion
of Reason and replaced it with the worship of the Supreme-Being. He
was no atheist. Unlike Bush, he was no Methodist. Bush, however, like
Robespierre, seeks to impose his religion on everyone. Bush is an
enemy of man. Man recovered from Robespierre, and will recover from
Bush. But will America?
As Robespierre rose, Lafayette was jailed as insufficiently
revolutionary. Wouldn't a guillotine set up in DC's Lafayette Park
sing volumes? It'd be an interesting work of art. I just saw Manet and
the Execution of Maximilien at MoMA. I couldn't help thinking of
Saddam. Saddam was the puppet of Reagan and Rumsfeld. Maximilien was
the puppet of Louis Napoleon.