Sunday, June 30, 2013

Le Vieux Cordelier

The Cordelier Club, originally led by George-Jacques Danton, Camille Desmoulins and their friends, gradually changed leadership and became more radical.  Neither Robespierre nor Danton were politically aligned with the new Cordeliers, led by Hébert, and populated by anarchists, rabid atheists, and the remnants of Marat's horde.  Both Robespierre and Danton wanted them out of the way.

Hébert was the editor of the Pére Duchesne, a news rag that, according to author Stanley Loomis, made Marat's incendiary publication,  L'Ami du Peuple, read like the New York Times.  (Hébert, incidentally, was also the low-life that falsely accused Marie Antoinette, at her trial, of sexually abusing her son.)

In an effort to undermine Hébert's authority and power,  Danton, more closely allied to Camille than was Robespierre, at this point, and involved with an increasingly intense power struggle with Robespierre, encouraged Camille to pen and publish criticism of Hébert while subtly, at first, making jabs at Robespierre as well. Danton and Camille wanted to bring to a close the Reign of Terror which they believed had served its purpose and was running roughshod over the rights of men (to put it mildly.) One story goes that Danton and Camille were crossing the Pont Neuf, after a session at the Convention and paused, observing the way the light shone on the Seine, making the water appear red as if the river ran with blood.  No doubt, both men had become sickened by the course of the Revolution and regretted their parts in the some of the more pivotal, shameful events such as the September Massacres and the execution of the Girondins.  Danton told Camille to "Take up your pen and plead for clemency.  I will support you." encouraging him to use his writing to turn the bloody tide.  The vehicle by which Camille intended to advance these ideas was the publication Le Vieux Cordelier The name The Old Cordelier  was a reference to the good old days when the club was under the direction of Danton.

Initially, Camille had the support of Robespierre and even submitted the first couple of issues for his approval.  In the first issue, he not only brutally criticized Hébert and the Cordeliers, he pushed it further, into Robespierre's territory, urging, "Open the prisons and release the two hundred thousand suspects that are in them!  In the Declaration of Man's Rights there is no house of suspicion.  There are only houses of arrest." The premier edition was a resounding success, selling out within hours. Robespierre was not amused.  He was notably lacking in humor in every situation, so no surprise there.

The public was encouraged and inspired by Camille's words and, emboldened by the show of public support, Camille increased the pressure in the second and third editions.  Crowds began to appear at the Convention calling for release of prisoners.  These challenges to the authority of Robespierre's Committee of Public Safety were, at the same time, expressed by Danton's booming voice from the rostrum of the Convention.  Robespierre became alarmed at the budding insurrection and began, with the aid of his ice-cold right-hand man, Louis-Antoine de St. Just, his counter-attack.

In the fourth edition of Le Vieux Cordelier, Camille, ill-advisedly and/or bravely, wrote, in an obvious reference to Robespierre, "Love of country cannot exist where there is neither pity nor love for one's fellow countrymen, but only a soul dried up and withered by self-love…"  Within days, sinister rumblings from men on the Committee of Public Safety and the Revolutionary Tribunal, caused Camille to rein in and redirect his criticisms from Robespierre and the government back to Hébert.  Who wouldn't back peddle, in such a climate, at such overheard statements as "Camille is skirting very close to the guillotine." and "The man who complains about everything during a Revolution, is a suspect."?  The young journalist knew he had reason to fear.



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