LE VIEUX CORDELIER 7
By Camille Desmoulins
Deputy in the Convention and Doyen of the Jacobins
Quintidi Pluviôse, Deuxième Décade, l’an II de la république, une et indivisible
A CONTINUATION OF MY POLITICAL CREED.
Pros and Cons
A conversation between two old Cordeliers on freedom of the press .
I believe that freedom is justice, and in her eyes mistakes are personal. I do not believe that she pursues the innocent son for the crime of the father; and unlike Père Duchesne, the commune attorney, in one of his editions, she does not demand that we cut the throats of the Capet children; because although policy sometimes leads tyrants to cut the throats of the last offshoot of the family of another despot, I believe that the policy of a free people, of a sovereign people, is equity; and in supposing that this idea, true in general, may be wrong in certain cases and may have exceptions, at least you can admit to me that when reasons of state necessitate these sorts of murder, the order is given secretly, and that Nero never challenged decency by calling out the death sentence and poisoning of Britannicus in the streets.
What! Can it be a crime to debase the constituted powers of a nation, yet not be a crime to thus debase the nation itself, to defame the French people by making them dip their hands in innocent blood in the face of the world?
I believe that freedom is humanity; thus, I believe that liberty does not forbid husbands, wives, mothers or children of detainees or suspects from visiting their spouses or their children in prison; I do not believe that liberty would condemn Barnave’s mother to knock for eight hours on the door of the Conciergerie to speak to her son, and when this unhappy woman had walked a hundred leagues, in spite of her great age, condemn her to walk the road to the scaffold just to see him one more time.
I believe that prison was not created to punish the guilty, but to hold them under the judges’ hand. I do not believe that freedom confuses the wife or mother of the guilty with the guilty person themselves, because Nero did not keep Seneca in isolation, he did not separate him from his dear Pauline, and when he learned that this virtuous woman had opened her veins along with her husband he sent his doctor to help her, and by his skills to save her life. And that was Nero!
I do not believe that liberty would force prisoners to use their own money for food as the committe intends them to, and to spend more than 20 sous a day; Tiberius allowed prisoners all the necessities of life, he said 'quibus vita conceditur, us vitae usus concede debet'; and those whom we rightly call tyrants nevertheless paid out between 12 and 25 francs a day to feed those of their subjects whom they had imprisoned as suspects. Commodus, Heliogabalus and Caligula would never dream of demanding [as the revolutionary committees do], that their citizens pay rent for their prison, and of charging them, like my father in law, 12 francs a day for the 6 feet they gave him for a bed.
I believe that liberty would never require the decapitation of the dead body of a condemned man who had committed suicide; because Tiberius said
‘The estates of those condemned people who have the courage to commit suicide, will not be confiscated and will remain with their families, my way of thanking them for having spared me the misery of sending them to their agony.’ And that was Tiberius!
I believe that liberty is magnanimous; she does not insult the condemned right up to the foot of the scaffold and after execution, because death wipes out the crime; because Marat, whom the patriots have taken as their model and whom they consider to be the line of moderation between themselves and the extremists, Marat, who pursued Necker so fiercely, stopped speaking about him as soon as he was no longer in power or dangerous, and he said ‘Necker is dead, let his ashes rest in peace’
It is savage people, anthropophagi and cannibals, who dance around the stake. Tiberius and Charles IX certainly went to see the body of a dead enemy; but at least they didn’t make a trophy of the corpse. Neither did they make revolting jokes the next day, like Hébert, a people’s magistrate:
‘At last I have seen the National Razor separate the bald head of Custines from his rounded back.’
I do not believe in Custines’ fidelity or his republicanism any more than the next man; but I confess I have begun to doubt whether the extraordinary, almost ferocious determination with which certain people pursued him was not commissioned by Pitt and came, not from what Custines had betrayed but rather from what he had not betrayed sufficiently, the siege of Mayenne had cost the enemy 32,000 men and that of Valenciennes, 25,000; seven to eight similar betrayals will be enough to bury the combined armies of the despots in their trenches.
Re-reading the rest of Hébert’s papers will convince us that today he must not lead the nation, the French people, back to a time when their ancestors disinterred the body of Conciny from St Eustache in order to fight over the scraps, and roast and eat them; in the same way Hébert, in this way so different from Marat, cannot be allowed to lead the people to fight over the remnants of such a number of bodies.
I believe that the great joys of Père Duchesne are often the cause of greater good to Pitt and Calonne, for example when he took the liberty of writing on the closure of the churches and declericalism, so that where a year ago, villagers fanatically bowed down before an innocent man, crucified for his opinions, whom they called the good god, today they shoot at him like a target, as if he had been to blame for their devotion.
I believe that more than once, when Père Duchesne was ‘in a bloody bad temper’, Pitt and Calonne felt even more strongly on the same subject; such as when Hébert wept blood on reading le Vieux Cordelier, the friend of good sense and humanity, which strove to make the republic loved; and when Hébert wanted to deal with Rouen as we did with Lyon, proscribing all the generals, bankers, lawyers, wealthy, shop owners, and showing mercy to none of them and sending every last one of the Brissotins to the guillotine; such as when the Deputy Montaut explained to the Jacobins in the evening what Père Duchesne had meant in his rag in the morning. Just as he determined, by an example, the scope of this word of the Brissotins in explaining what he meant when he reported to the deputies and said in my presence and in front of more than a thousand people ‘there were, in the convention, a great gang of thieves, 21 were dead, but were there not more guilty than 21? Among those 21 there were also 5 or 6 imbeciles and we would condemn ourselves if we did not pass the same judgement against the 75. When I say 75, those are the Brissotins who agree with the direction of the Brissotins and after the nominal appeals there were 4 – 500. [I’m not entirely sure of his point here, I think he's criticizing the attempt to condemn more conventionels with the Girondists, but all these numbers – please god Camille have mercy!]
I believe it is the skilful politics of Pitt, that is the Coblenz party, foreigners, and anti-republicans which it is convenient to lump together under the name of Pitt, I believe it is the skilful politicians from this group who, appearing zealous to regenerate morality, under cover of Anaxagoras, closed the disorderly houses at the same time as the houses of religion; not in the spirit of philosophy, which, like Plato, tolerates preachers and courtesans, the mysteries of Eleusis as well as those of the good goddess; which looks in pity equally on Mary Magdalene in both roles, at her window or in the confessional; but in order to increase the enemies of the revolution, to stir up the mud in Paris and to stir up both libertines and the devout against the republic.
Thus it is that the deceitful politicians removed at the same time, two of the greatest motivators of government, religion and lax morals.
Religion is one lever of the legislator. Consider Cromwell’s famous ruling on Sundays; three sermons on that day, the first before sunrise for the servants; markets, nightclubs, gaming houses, all closed. Anyone who went for a walk on that day, during divine service was to be thrown into prison or condemned to pay a fine. Travelling was forbidden on that day. Banquets, theatres, hunting, dancing, all were forbidden on pain of corporal punishment. In this century England was inundated with a deluge of new religious opinions, John Bull was a Presbyterian and a Jansenist; and if the art of the philosopher is to direct opinion, the art of the ambitious is to follow them and to keep in the fashion.
On the other hand does the philosophical spirit have the ascendancy? Does egotism, the only mover of human actions in all systems, focus all its speculations on this world, rather than on the breast of Abraham? In one word does the generation corrupt itself? The politician, whose only aim is to govern, simply needs to follow the wind, to make himself a Molinist and to give oars and sails to public opinion.
Thus it is that Mazarin and Charles II, seeing the roundheads and the reforms of the lank haired pass out of fashion, relaxed the tight rein on morality and secured by the relaxation of morality the same result that Cromwell got with religion, for the peaceful exercise of their tyranny.
I believe also that Pitt must have had at least one joy as great as Père Duchesne, the day that he learned that just as children who have fallen down will beat the pavement, they made us declare national vengeance against the high walls and decree the annihilation of the town of Lyon. A strange thing, such was the folly of the best patriots, that on the subject of the order to raze Lyon [a measure which combined the joy of England with the sadness of French commerce just as much as the taking of Toulon] Couthon, who is nevertheless a good citizen and a man of sense, started one of his letters in the Bulletin thus;
‘Citizens, colleagues, we have anticipated you in all your measures; but how can it be that the wisest has escaped us, that of razing the town to its foundations?’
What giddiness had taken hold of our best minds, when Collot d’Herbois wrote to us a month later?
‘You have already dared to stir up indulgence for an individual; soon you will trigger it for a whole town. Up to now we have not dared ask for the report of your decree on the annihilation of the town of Lyon, but until now we have scarcely done anything to carry it out. The destruction is too slow; republican impatience demands speedier methods. In place of a hammer which demolishes brick by brick can we not use gunpowder to smash up the roads en masse?’
It is the good father Gérard who speaks thus, and how impatient are London and Amsterdam to see, destroyed by our own hands, a rival town, the most commercial and the most ancient ancestor of all our cities? What efforts the great Greek ministers made to have their towns approach the flourishing state of Lyon today. The law of Solon says
‘Foreigners, who come with their entire families to establish themselves in Athens, to build a career or a factory, will be instantly raised to the status of citizens’.
It was to attract a great number of people to the place and to encourage the growth of commerce there, that the Greeks instituted chariot racing, offered wreaths to athletes, musicians, poets, painters, actors, and even to the priestesses of Venus; whom they called the curators of the towns, before they become, as they have since Christopher Columbus, the great scourge of Europe; since when one can say that they practice a profession unknown in antiquity, that of plague spreader. In the same way, people lived well in Rome, the dictators confiscated the most noteworthy towns, to auction for the profit of their soldiers, like Sulla who got Florence, and Octavius who got Mantua and Cremona, but they didn’t raze them to the ground; if it was necessary to reduce Pérugia and Nursia to ashes, at least the speed of the flames lessened their hideous anger unlike the long lasting assault of Collot against Lyon. When we read Barrère’s report on this project, and see the enthusiasm with which the beauty of this measure seized the reporter to the committee of public safety, we feel we can hear N crying in Voltaire
‘To build is fine, but destroying is sublime.’
Again on Barrère’s motion the convention pronounced the most inconceivable decree against itself that any senate has ever passed; this truly suicidal decree, which allows any deputy, invested with the confidence of 30,000 citizens for whom he speaks and whom he represents in the National Assembly, to be imprisoned without a hearing simply on the order of the two committees, and the fine reason given for this is that the Brissotins were not given a hearing.
In vain Danton has explained the difference; then there was a manifest conspiracy and we find the same admission in the speeches of the two parties at the opening of the English Parliament today; The Convention listened to the accused every day for six months on the same basic question; we were all witness to their federalism; so on the subject of conspiracy there was a pressing need to convict the conspirators; but on one venal and fabricated accusation there was no need to trample over our principles and there would have been no disadvantage in giving d’Eglantine a hearing. Even in their most extreme frenzies the Brissotins themselves respected Marat, in his role as representative of the people and they allowed him to speak for two hours and say as much as he wanted before sending him to the Abbaye.
In the middle of these compelling reasons Danton was booed by his colleagues. Danton claimed that it was passed on faulty grounds, and it was evident that the decree set a most dangerous example; if the members of the committees were ambitious and lacked republican feeling, it would soon reduce the national assembly to the servile condition of a parliament in which they imprison members who refuse to endorse draft laws,.
Already the committee appoints all the seats on all the committees of the convention, and all the commissars who they send out into the departments and to the armies. In their hands is one of the greatest drivers of politics, expectation, by which the government attracts to itself all ambitions and interests.
What more do they need to control or rather to annihilate the convention and to exert the full strength of the decemvirate, if those deputies whom it cannot entice onto its side by rewarding them for their flexibility and adulation by shining the panache of the tricolor into their eyes, can be restrained by the fear of being sent to the Luxembourg if they should make themselves unpopular?
Are there any deputies, are there any men, completely immune to hope and fear? Even in the republic, history does not recount more than one Cato out of more than a million men. For freedom to be maintained by the side of such an excessive power it needed all citizens to be Cato, it needed virtue to be the sole driver of government. But if virtue were the sole driver of government, if you suppose all men to be virtuous, the form of government would be irrelevant and everything would be equally good. Why then are some governments detestable and others good? Why do we have a horror of monarchy and cherish the republic? It is because we assume rightly that men are not all equally virtuous, it is necessary for the goodness of government to provide the virtue and the excellence of the republic consists in exactly that, it provides the virtue.
I still believe what I said in my Revolutions de Brabant number 3, bad luck to the kings who want to enslave an insurgent population. France was never as fearsome as in the civil war.
When the whole of Europe joined forces and I exclaimed, like Isaiah; ‘Come on Assyrians and you will be defeated! Come on Medes and you will be defeated! Come on all of you and you will all be defeated!’ I always counted on the national energy and impetuosity of the French, redoubled by the revolution; not on the skill and tactics of the generals.
Amongst all the foolishness which Hébert came out with, apparently with the intention of putting me in my place, there was no more ridiculous proposal than suggesting at the Jacobin tribune, that if I went to dine with Dillon it was to prevent him being a prince Eugene and to win against us the battles of Malplaquet and Ramillies. I continue to believe that if we had had patriot generals at the head of our armies who had the military understanding of Dillon, the courage of the French republicans, guided by the skill of the officers would have already penetrated to Madrid and the mouth of the Rhine.
I persist in believing that I had reason to anticipate the fatal incompetence in the Vendee, when I heard ten months ago in the Jacobins, the thunderous applause which shook the room at the words of d’Herbois, that we had three million generals in France and that all the soldiers are equally entitled to their turn in command and by seniority of medals. How could they ignore the advantages of military science and genius on this point?
In my credo I am obliged to repeat what I have said time and time again, because the question here is not to make my reputation as an author, but to defend it as that of a patriot, to impress on my fellow citizens and to divulge to them my political dogma, and to submit in the Vieux Cordelier, my profession of faith to the judgement of my contemporaries and posterity; so that you can finally judge my reputation not as an writer but as a patriot; the question is not about me or my reputation but to impress sound political dogma and to inculcate in my fellow citizens those principles which a state cannot dismiss with impunity.
For example, it is certain, as I have said that war is a skill and as with all skills it cannot be perfected in a short time. You can find only two generals, Lucullus and Spinoza, whose extraordinary genius dispensed with this rule, and who took bold command of 40,000 men every day. Turenne, who was such a great captain, could not imagine how a general could put himself in charge of more than 35,000 men. And in effect it was with an even smaller army that he marched every day to new victories.
If skill is needed in a doctor, who has only the life of one man in his hands and if his skill is of prime importance, how much more important is military skill and how absurd is it to take no account of its ignorance in a general, who can dispose of the lives of 10,000 men whom he can lose or save by a wise or misjudged order.
I have heard Merlin de M and Westerman the Vendéen and many other soldiers who cannot be suspected of partiality or lack of citizenship say that the great mistake of Philippeaux, in his well-known denunciation, was to have imputed to treason that which should have been counted as impiety and not to attribute it to this system, preached and supported by the war office, that all the clerks’ relatives and the brothers of all the actresses they had slept with were as good as Villard to cover our borders.
It certainly was the reversal of all the ideas taught by the experience of time; because it was more than 3,000 years ago, if we are to believe Xenophon, that old Cambyses addressed these words to his son Cyrus, in the last instructions he gave him when saying goodbye and when the young man had already sounded the tocsin to ride with the cavalry to the aid of his father in law Cyaxerus.
‘My son it is not permitted to ask the gods for the rewards of skill, when you have not practised the skill, nor to guide a vessel into port, when you are ignorant of the sea, nor to be unvanquished if you have not provided a defence’
Camille did not finish his profession of faith, he was intending to continue it in the eighth edition of Le Vieux Cordelier of which we have only fragments, and in following issues.-[Matton ainé]