CONVERSATION BETWEEN TWO OLD CORDELIERS
‘ If you do not see what the times demand; if you speak rashly; if you make yourself noticeable; if you pay no attention to those around you, I will not call you wise.’
The virtuous spirit of Cato was disgusted by this maxim. Surely pushing the Jansenism of the republic further than the times allow contributes a little to the reversal of liberty; just as suppressing the extortions of the chevaliers encouraged them to side with Caesar because of their desire for gain. But Cato was inclined to agree more with the stoics in the republic of Plato, than the senator who had dealings with the more criminal elements of the children of Romulus.
These thoughts introduce this epigraph! It is Cicero, writing with the faults of his century who thought to prevent the fall of the republic and it is the austerity of Cato which hastened the return of the monarchy. Solon said the same thing in other terms
‘The legislator who works on a rebellious matter must not give his country the best theoretical laws but the best which he can put into practice.’
And J-J Rousseau later said
‘I am not going to treat incurable cases’
It has rightly been said that my number 6 lacked interest because it lacked personalities; that those who only look in this journal to find fodder for their spite and pessimism will withdraw their subscriptions. I believe I have done well for the patrie in taking up my pen against the ultra-revolutionaries in the Old Cordelier, despite its mistakes.
Some few errors do not cover up an abundance of truths. But I accept that my editions would have been more useful if I had not mixed the names of personalities with other matters. As soon as my wish, the wish of Coligny, the wish of Mezerai is finally accomplished and France has become a republic we must expect parties or rather cliques and ceaselessly renewed intrigues. Liberty could not proceed without this following of cabals, above all in our country where the national spirit and indigenous character has been factious and turbulent since ancient times, when Julius Caesar, in his own words, said in his Commentaries:
‘Amongst the Gauls one finds only factions and cabals, not only in the departments, cantons and districts but even in the hamlets and villages.’
So it is necessary to expect factions, or to put it better accomplices, who hate the good fortune of those who are in their clique or on the other side more than their principles, and who never fail to call the love of liberty and patriotism, ambition and personal interest which set one group against another. But all these factions, all the little cliques, will always be contained within the great circle of good citizens, who will never suffer the return of tyranny; and I only want to be part of this great circle. I share Gordon’s opinion that there will never be a sect, society, church, club, lodge or assembly of any sort that is entirely composed of men of perfect probity or total badness; I believe that it is necessary to exercise leniency for the ultras as well as the citras insofar as they do not disrupt the intras, and the great circle of friends of the republic, one and indivisible. We read, in a speech on the principles of revolutionary government:
‘If we accept that citizens of good faith have fallen into the error of moderation, without knowing it, why should there not be patriots of equally good faith who have been swept towards extremism by a praiseworthy sentiment?’
This is how reason speaks; and this is why I have curbed my pen which rushes down the slope of satire. A stranger to all factions, I wish to serve none except the republic, which cannot be better served than by the sacrifice of one’s pride: my journal will be much more useful if, in each edition, for example, I limit myself to dealing in generalisations and abstract terms about people; some questions and articles of my profession of faith and my political testament. Today we are speaking of the English Government, the grand order of the day.
AN OLD CORDELIER [replies to Camille]
(An old believer from the Cordelier district, who comes to my house to see if I deal worthily with the topic in my number 7 and that I don’t let the side down)
What is all this nonsense? From 1789 till now, from Mounier up to Brissot; what has been the question if not to establish, in France, two chambers and an English government? Everything we have said; everything that you in particular have written for the last five years has been nothing other than a critique of the aristocratic constitution of Great Britain.
Finally the day of August 10 put an end to the discussion and the pleadings, and democracy was proclaimed on the 21 September. Now all political interests in Europe turn their gaze on democracy in France and aristocracy in England. No more speeches, these are the facts which will be decided before the world’s jury, considering which of these two constitutions is best.
Now the only, most powerful satire to make of the English government is the wellbeing of the people; it is the glory and good fortune of the French republic. Foolish athletes, instead of training and rubbing ourselves with oil, we will not dress the wounds of our enemy. We need to heal ourselves; and to do that we need to know our faults; we must have the courage to admit them.
Do you realize that all this preamble to your number 7, these circumlocutions, the oratorical precautions; all this is hardly Jacobin? How, I ask you, do we recognize a true republican, a genuine Cordelier? It is in his righteous indignation against traitors and mischief makers, in the harshness of his censure.
A republican is not characterised by his century or the government under which he lives; it is by the honesty of his language. Montausier was a republican in the Bull’s Eye, in the Misanthrope Moliere described republican and royalist characters to perfection; Alceste is a Jacobin, Philint ended as a Feuillant.
What outrages me is that I see scarcely any republicans in the republic. Is it then the name which we give the government which decides its nature? In that case Holland and Venice are also republics; England would also be a republic during the protectorate of Cromwell, who ruled his republic as despotically as Henry VIII ruled his kingdom. Rome would have been a republic too, under Augustus, Tiberius and Claudius, who called it The Roman Republic in their consulate as Cicero did in his. Why however, do we not remember these ages except as times of great subjugation for human kind? It is because freedom was banished from society, commerce and life; it is because as Tacitus said,
‘We dare not speak, we dare not even hear.’ Omisso omni non solum loquendi, imo audiendi, commercio.
What distinguishes the republic from the monarchy? A single thing; freedom to speak and freedom to write. Allow freedom of the press in Moscow, and tomorrow Moscow will be a republic.* Thus it is that in spite of Louis XVI and the two right wing factions, and the entire government, conspirators and royalists, freedom of the press alone has led us by the hand towards August 10 and overturned a fifteen hundred year monarchy almost without bloodshed.
*In the original manuscript it says ‘have press freedom in Constantinople and tomorrow the district of Pera will be as republican as St. Marceau. On the contrary, destroy press freedom in France and tomorrow the republic will be destroyed; the time is near when you undermine the freedom to speak and write.
What is the best defence for a free people against the invasions of despots? It is freedom of the press; and the next best? It is freedom of the press. And after that the next best is still freedom of the press.
We have known all this since the 14th of July; it is the childhood ABC of republics. And Bailly himself, aristocrat that he was, on this point was more republican than us. We have retained his maxim:
'Publicity is the safeguard of the people.'
This metaphor should shame us. Who cannot see that the freedom to write is the greatest threat to criminals, ambitious men and despots, but in its wake comes a little inconvenience for the people’s security. To say that this freedom is dangerous to the republic is as foolish as if one were to say that beauty should be afraid to stand in front of a mirror. One is right where one is wrong, one is just, virtuous and patriotic where one is not. If we make mistakes we must redress them; and to do that we must have a newspaper to show us; but if you are virtuous what fear will you have of editions published against injustice, vice and tyranny. That mirror is not for you.
Before Bailly, Montesquieu professed the same principle that a republic cannot exist without freedom to speak and write. He says that when the décemvirs, in the laws which they brought to Greece, slipped in one against calumny and the writers of it, their aim of destroying freedom and perpetuating their decemvirate was discovered [because tyrants are never short of judges to destroy anything which displeases them on the pretext of calumny]
In the same way, four hundred years later Octavius revived the décemvirs law against words and writing, and added an additional article to the Julian law against crimes of lèse-majesté. We can say that was the last sigh of Roman freedom. In one word, the soul of republics, their pulse and, if we can speak this way, the breath in which we can see that freedom still lives, is in freedom of speech.
See in Rome what invectives Cicero came out with to drown Verrus, Catilinus, Claudius, Pison and Mark Antony in their infamy. What a cataract of insults fell upon these scoundrels from the high tribune! [The poet Catullus dragged Julius Caesar through the mud. You yourself have quoted the passage from Cicero’s letter on the subject of the savage posters which Bibulus incessantly directed against the dictator. Bibulus's papers pleased the people so much that it was impossible to get through the streets where they were posted].
It is better to be wrong, like Père Duchesne in his senseless, mistaken denunciations but with that energy which typifies republican spirits, than to see that terror which freezes and enchains both thought and words. Marat expressed it in this way:
'Bourdon de l’Oise, a republican, dared to speak his mind entirely and showed a republican spirit.'
Robespierre gave proof of his great character, some years ago, at the Jacobin tribune. One day, in a moment of violent disfavour, he clung on to the tribune and exclaimed that he must needs be assassinated there or be heard; but you, Camille, made yourself a slave and him a despot on the day when you allowed him to cut you off so brusquely after your opening words,
‘Burning is not replying’
But you did not pursue your justification doggedly enough. Representative of the people,today will you dare to speak to the first clerk of the war as courageously as you did four years ago to St Priest, Mirabeau, Lafayette, and to Capet himself? We have never been so enslaved since we were republicans, so grovelling since we had the hat on our head.
Today, even in England, where liberty is decrepit and lies in extremis, in her agony, with scarcely a breath left in her, see how she speaks out on war and on the French ministers and the French nation. Stanhope says;
‘In France, in the upper chamber, the ministers speak, write and act in the shadow of the guillotine. It would be good if our ministers had the same healthy fear, then they would not outwit us so grossly.
They tell us that the French troops are without uniforms, but they are the best dressed in Europe.
We are told that lack of numbers stops our enemies from sustaining the war, yet we estimate that in France there is more gold, silver and bullion provided from the sacristies and enforced borrowing than in all the countries of Europe put together.
With respect to the assignats, they have increased in value by seventy per cent in six months and will undoubtedly gain even more in another six months.
We were told that the French troops would not withstand the Austrian, Prussian and English troops, the best disciplined in Europe; the reverse was proved true by a great number of battles. Some Austrian generals declared that by their discipline and courage in the middle of the carnage, the French became the terror of the allies.
Finally we were told that the French would run short of grain. That was a wicked idea, that 25 million men, who have never given you any offence, should suffer the horrors of famine just because the form of their government displeases a few despots. But this evil plan only served to instil in the people an enthusiasm which surpassed everything we have heard reported about the old republics.’
Afterwards Stanhope reproached the French people with the charge of atheism. He distinguished the constitution from the excesses indistinguishable from revolution; He added that the nation has renounced meddling with the governments of other states by solemn decrees. He defied all philosophers not to approve our Declaration of Rights, and finished by presenting as the base and corner stone of our republic, this sublime phrase|:
'Do not do unto others what you would not want done unto you.'
The opposition, in the House of Commons, speaks of us with no less respect and praise. M. Courtney says;
‘We are beaten everywhere, for as long as the French deploy an energy and courage worthy of the Greeks and Romans. In the mouth of the cannons they sing their republican anthems. The Emperor and the King of Prussia, with all their famous generals and their well-armed troops could not beat General Hoche, who, nevertheless, had been no more than a simple sergeant a short while before taking his command.’
If the praise which pleases most is that of an enemy, these are the speeches to flatter our ears. It is thus that some men, republicans from overseas, in full Parliament make a satire of their nation and praise those on whom they make war; and we, strong in liberty and democracy we dare to ban one number for saying something lacks perfection in our government. We dare not praise in England something which is less bad, like freedom of thought, habeas corpus, and propose them to our citizens as an example for fear that they do not become worse.
We mock freedom of speech in England, however, in the trial of Bennett, convicted of having said publicly that he
‘Wished for total success for the French republic and for the destruction of the English government,’
After a long deliberation, fifteen days ago, their jury found Bennett not guilty, and that thought should be free.
We mock the freedom to write in England; however it must be admitted that the ministerial party does not call for the head of Sheridan or Fox, for having spoken of the generals Brunswick, de Wurmser, Hoode, Moyra and even the Duke of York with at least as much contempt as Philippeaux and Bourdon de l’Oise used when speaking of generals Ronsin and Rossignol.
Strangely bizarre! In England which is all aristocrats, corruption, slavery, venal natures; it is Pitt, in one word, who calls loudly for the continuation of the war; and it is the patriots, republicans and revolutionaries who vote for peace, hoping that peace will effect a change in their constitution.
In France it is completely the opposite. Here it is the patriots and revolutionaries who want war and if we are to believe Barère, it is only the moderates, feuillants, counter revolutionaries and friends of Pitt who dare to speak of peace. Thus it is that the friends of liberty, whose interests it seems should be the same, want peace in London and war in Paris, and that the same man finds himself a patriot on this side of the channel and an aristocrat on the other side; montagnard in the convention; ministerial in Parliament.
But at least in the English Parliament they have never passed the unbelievable motion that those who did not at first make up their minds to war, became suspect for their opinion, in a question so delicate and of such importance that one cannot share Barère’s opinion without at the same time sharing the opinion of Pitt.
It has to be admitted at least that the tribune of the convention does not enjoy the same inviolability of opinion as the English tribune, and that it will not be safe to speak of our own setbacks in the way that Sheridan speaks of their defeats at Noirmoutiers, Dunkirk and Toulon. How far we still are from this harshness of criticism, this savage abrasiveness of harangues and habits which exist, albeit slightly it is true, in England, which ill fits the very humble and faithful subjects of George, but in which we recognise a republican spirit in JJ Rousseau, like the peasant on the Danube; in a Scythian, in Marat. We will discover amongst ourselves the appalling hate of Alceste;
‘This violent hatred which must give flaws to virtuous spirits’
In his rag Hébert denounces Legendre as a bad citizen and a disloyal representative, Legendre denounces Hébert to the Jacobins as a salaried libeller; Hébert is floored and has no reply. Momoro, who comes to his aid in this difficulty, says;
‘Come on make it up both of you embrace and shake hands’
Is this the language of the Romans or that of Mascarille in the theatre?
‘He’s a rascal, never mind, we’ll shoot a great number of his kind.’
Yes, I repeat it, I prefer that we denounce wrongly, I almost said libel, even as Père Duchesne does but with that vigour which characterises strong spirits and a republican calibre, than what we see today, this bourgeois politeness, childlike and honest civility, the pusillanimous considerations of the monarchy, this circumspection, the face of the chameleon and the antechamber, in one word this B….ism, towards the stronger, the men of credibility or position, ministers or generals, representatives of the people or influential members of the Jacobins, just as long as one bases it with strong rigour, on patriotism in disfavour or disgrace.
The language of democracy deserves more than intemperance. The pessimism of these eternal detractors of the present time, whose bile pours out on all around them, the cold poison of fear which paralyses thought to the bottom of the soul, and prevents us speaking out at the tribune or in our writing!
The misanthropy of Timon, who could find nothing fine in Athens, would be better than this general terror which, like mountains of ice from one side of France to the other smother the sea of opinion and prevent its ebb and flow. The slogan of republicans, these are the winds which blow on the tides of the sea, with this legend;
Tolland sed attollunt. They stir them but they lift them.
Otherwise I see, in the republic no more than the calm shallows of despotism, and the surface united by the stagnant waters of a marsh; I see only an equality of fear, the levelling of courage, the most generous spirits brought as low as the most vulgar.
Yourself for example, I say it to you alone, not to flatter you in giving you no more than your merit, you, who have had the tact and the good sense to be as incorrupt, as unchangeable and as unmoveable as Robespierre. You, who in the revolution have had the good luck that in all its phases it has never raised your condition or your fortune; the good luck never to have been a minister, or a government committee member or a commissar in Belgium; not to have caught the sight of jealous eyes, sister of calumny, nor panache, nor the tricoloured ribbon on the side of your shoulder, nor the starred epaulettes, nor any of the signs of power, which above all seem to give people wings like the ants to abandon themselves and to throw them to the envy of the gods; but you, honorary deputy and still a journalist since 1789 who prays to the skies each day to leave the plain cloak of philosophy on your shoulders, free from responsibility; not, it is true, the torn and dirty cloak of Diogenes but the cloak of Plato and the flag of Ecbatana. You have attacked one after the other all the high placed men, like Bailly, Pache or Petion who have shown themselves to be in a faction opposed to the Declaration of Rights.
You, we surely know are not free from error, but there is not a man of good faith among those who follow you, who is not persuaded that all your thoughts, as you have repeated almost ad nauseam, have had the object of political and individual freedom for citizens; a Utopian constitution, the one and indivisible republic, the splendour and prosperity of the patrie and not an impossible equality of wealth but an equality of the right to happiness:
You are equipped with all the authentic certificates, having received wounds and beatings for the peoples’ cause, and with all these considerations, under a malevolent report from Barère you had to show less cowardice and have the right to speak your thoughts clearly. Will you dare to hold up to ridicule the political blunders of this or that member of the committee for public safety, as opposition all feeble, degenerate and useless as it is mocks the reports of Pitt, Grenville and Dundas?
CAMILLE-DESMOULINS [in reply]
I will dare if there are no errors which are more useful to the Patrie to hush up than to make felt. How can you say the convention defends truth when later on, by a notable decree pronounced on Danton’s motion it has just allowed or at least tolerated liars and calumniators?
The revolutionary government restricts freedom of the press for royalists and aristocrats; it is still intact for the Cordeliers club. We learn that Barère himself is such an avowed partisan for the freedom to write that he wanted it to be constitutionally indefinite for all citizens whose patriotism and intentions were not suspect.
Since Barère made me this profession of faith, I have been wanting only the lightest editing to my number 5; because it is impossible, to my mind, that a man of character who wants press freedom, who wants it to be without limits, even against himself, could not be an excellent republican.
Later on, when your speech is finished, I will take the parole in my turn and I will demonstrate the sagacity and the necessity of his revolutionary distinction, on the maximum press freedom for patriots and the minimum for aristocrats. At this moment, I forgive your anger on behalf of republican principles, as it smothers you in a torrent of words and like the smoke from a fire does not exhale in the conversation:
As you are not at the tribune of the cordeliers, nor in the presence of David, or La Vicomterie, but in the presence of my tolerant household gods, who would not refuse an old patriot the liberty they grant to slaves in their Saturnalias give vent, my friend to your suffocated spirit, open a passage to this smoke which smothers you inside and which darkens your imagination for lack of a chimney; speak, dissipate this melancholy vapour; in passing here is my provisional response to all your grievances:
The revolution is so beautiful as a whole that I will always say of her, as Bolingbroke once said of Marlborough, he was such a great man that I have forgotten his vices, Now continue your tirade.