Sunday, June 30, 2013
Confrontation in the Jacobin Club
I'll borrow Stanley Loomis' words in "Paris in the Terror" to relate a scene that took place at the Jacobin Club in the days approaching the trial of the Dantonists that typifies Robespierre's sleazy, back-handed way of operating and Camille's impetuousity..:
"The quarrel between Camille and Hébert came to a head a few days later in the Jacobin Club, that theatre in which was enacted most of the crucial political dramas of the Revolution. They went at each other's throat over Camille's accusation that Hébert was a thief. Robespierre suggested that explanations and a frank "purifying scrutiny" were now called for. This was exactly the kind of situation on which Robespierre thrived. Affecting to be a dispassionate judge, he would be able to pass judgement on two quarreling factions, both of which were a danger to him. On January 7, Robespierre went to the rostrum of the Jacobin Club and in a paternal tone of voice called on Camille to "abjure his errors."
"Camille," he declared in words that betray his rankling envy of Desmoulins' success, "who sits there all puffed up over the prodigious sale of his newspaper and by the perfidious praise which the aristocrats have showered on him, has not left the path of error. His writings are dangerous. They give hope to our enemies and they stir up public malignity….. Camille's writings are to be condemned, but we must distinguish between the person and his works. Camille is a spoiled child who once had good inclinations but who is now led astray by bad companions. We must use severity towards his paper… yet we must keep Camille among us." Robespierre lifted his spectacles, in that gesture described by Fievée, and gazed about the room with the long, searching stare that is said to have paralyzed the will of his auditors. His glasses came down again as he returned to his theme. "I demand," he concluded,
"that the offensive issues of this journal be burned in the hall of the Society!"
Provoked at first by Robespierre's patronizing tone, then angered beyond control by his demand for book burning…, Camille's too-quick tongue ran away with him. His answer came with the speed of a rapier and it struck Robespierre where he was the most vulnerable.
"Brûler," replied Camille, "n'est pas répondre." They were the famous words of Rousseau, used by him when Émile had been condemned to the fire by the magistrates of the ancien régime: "To burn is not to answer." Camille's audacious identification of himself with Rousseau (and Robespierre with tyranny) left Robespierre momentarily speechless. His green face is said to have suddenly turned red."
(Rousseau, incidently, was Robespierre's idol.)
"Now know this, Camille, " he replied with menace. "If you were not Camille, the amount of indulgence shown you here would be unthinkable. Your attitude proves to me that your intentions are dishonest." Robespierre, in effect, pronounced Camille's death sentence that night at the Jacobin Club. "I retract my motion, therefore. If Camille wishes it so, then let him be covered with ignominy. A man who so stubbornly defends such perfidious writings is more perhaps than a mere laggard."
Too late, Camille realized where his reckless tongue had led him. He blanched. Danton noticed his fear-ridden expression and spoke a few comforting words, exhorting him not to be frightened…."