Revolution Devours Its Own—Le Vieux Cordelier

Despite the consolidation of power in the hands of the Committee of Public Safety and the creation of Revolutionary Tribunals across France to eliminate traitors to the Republic, the Convention continued to worry about conspiracies even among its political allies. By the end of 1793, the Committee of Public Safety feared the activities of those calling for an acceleration of the Revolution, notably followers of Jacques–Réné Hébert, as well as those who sought to moderate it, known as "Indulgents" and led by Georges Danton. This latter point of view was expressed by Danton’s ally Camille Desmoulins in the newspaper The Old Cordelier, which made use of Roman history to warn that a republic could be undermined from within by "evil emperors"—by which Desmoulins implied the leadership of the Committee of Public Safety.


There is still this difference between the Monarchy and the Republic . . . which is that the reigns of the most cruel emperors, Tiberius, Claudius, Nero, Caligula, Domitien, had pleasant beginnings. Every Queen makes a joyous entrance. The advantage of Republics is that they can improve themselves.

These are thoughts by which the patriot first responds to the royalist who is laughing up his sleeve at the present state of France, as if these violent and awful conditions could possibly continue. I hear you, royalist gentlemen, taunting the founders of the Republic under your breath, comparing the present with the time of the Bastille. You are counting on the frankness of my quill, and you take malicious pleasure in watching it as it faithfully sketches out the details of this latest period. But I know how to temporize your joy and enliven the citizens with new desire. Before taking the reader to Breteaux or to the Place de la Révolution, showing him the rivers of blood that flowed during those six months for the eternal freedom of a People of 25 million souls who had not yet been cleansed by liberty and public happiness, I am going to start by bringing my compatriots back to the reigns of the Caesars and to the river of blood, the gutter of corruption and refuse constantly flowing beneath the Monarchy. . . .

Historians state that after the siege of Pérouse, and despite the fact that they capitulated, Augustus's response was "You must all perish." Three hundred of the leading citizens were taken to the altar of Julius Caesar, and there, on the Ides of March, had their throats slit. Then the rest of the inhabitants were slaughtered helter-skelter by the sword, and one of the most beautiful cities in Italy was reduced to ashes, as totally erased from the surface of the earth as Herculanum. . . . As soon as comments became state crimes, from there it is but one step to turn simple looks, sadness, compassion, sighs, even silence, into crimes.

Soon it would be a crime of lese-majesty or counterrevolution for a town to raise a monument to its own who were killed at the siege of Modena, even though fighting for Augustus himself, but because Augustus fought with Brutus, and Nursia shared the fate of Pérouse . . . a counterrevolutionary crime was committed by the journalist Cremutius Cordus for having called Brutus and Cassius the last Romans. A counterrevolutionary crime was committed by one of Cassius's descendants for having a portrait of his ancestors in his home. A crime of counterrevolution was committed by Mamercus Scaurus for having written a tragedy in which there were verses that could be interpreted in two different ways. A counterrevolutionary crime was committed by Torquatus Silanu, for having expenses . . . A counterrevolutionary crime was committed for having taken off one's pants without emptying one's pockets, and for keeping a coin with a royal likeness on it in your coat, which showed a lack of respect for the sacred image of the tyrants. A counterrevolutionary crime was committed by complaining about the unfortunate times, since that was the government's job. A counterrevolutionary crime was committed by not calling upon the divine inspiration of Caligula. For failing to have done that, a large number of citizens were whipped to shreds, sent to the mines or to the animals, and some were even cut in half. A counterrevolutionary crime was committed by the mother of the Consul Fusius Geminus for having cried at the fateful death of her son.

You should show joy at the death of one's friend or relative if you do not want to expose yourself to danger. Under Nero, several people close to some whom he had killed went to render homage to the gods, and they were cheerful. At least you should seem content, open and calm. You were afraid that seeming to be afraid would make you guilty.

Everyone gave homage to the tyrant. If a citizen was popular, he was a rival to the Prince, which could spark a civil war. Suspicious.

Did you therefore shun popularity? Did you stay home by the fire? This retired life made you noticeable and made you respected. Suspicious.

Were you rich? There was imminent peril that the People would be corrupted by your generosity. Suspicious.

Were you poor? Why? Invincible Emperor, you must watch that man more closely. There is no more enterprising person than he who has nothing. Suspicious.

Were you of a somber nature? Melancholy or unkempt? What was bothering you was that the general economy was doing well. Suspicious.

. . . Finally, had you made a name for yourself during the war? There is no one more dangerous than he who is talented, and there is something to be said for a General who is inept. If the latter is a traitor, he can deliver the army over to the enemy, but most of them will return. But if a victorious officer of Corbulon and Agricola are treasonous then not a single life would be saved. The best action would be to get rid of him. At least, your Highness, could you not spare yourself the trouble by quickly separating him from the Army? Suspicious.

We can believe that it used to be much worse if we were a grandson or ally of Augustus. One day we could have a claim to the throne. Suspicious.

And unlike here, all these suspects of the Emperor did not leave to go to Madelonettes, or Ireandais, or Sainte-Pélagie (names of prisons). The Prince gave them orders to send for their doctor or apothecary, and in the next twenty-four hours they were to pick the type of death that would be the most pleasing for them. . . .

The death of so many innocent and commendable citizens seems less a calamity than the insolence and outrageous fortune of their killers and denouncers. Every day, the untouchable informer made his triumphant entry into the house of the dead, reaping an impressive inheritance. All these denouncers adorned themselves with the best names, calling themselves Cotta, Scipion, Regulus, or Cassius Severus. Informing was the only way to succeed, and Regulus was named Consul three times for his denunciations. Also, everyone threw themselves into a career that had such great perquisites that were so easy to come by. And to distinguish oneself by an illustrious debut and to develop his group of informers, Marcus Serenus brought charges against his elderly father who was already in exile. After that, he was proud to be called Brutus.

As go accusers, so go judges. The courts, protectors of life and property, became butcheries, where confiscation and torture became just euphemisms for theft and murder. . . .

Do not let the royalists come and tell me that this description does not allow us to draw conclusions. The reign of Louis XVI did not resemble those of the Caesars. If it did not resemble them, it is because here tyranny had lain for a long time alongside pleasure and rested upon the strength of the chains that our fathers wore for fifteen hundred years and because they believed that there was no more need of terror. Terror, as Machiavelli said, is only an instrument of despots, and an all-powerful instrument upon simpler souls, those timid and made for slavery. And today, with the People awoken and the sword of the Republic drawn against the Monarchies, let the Royals return to France. It is then that these medals of tyranny, so well crafted by Tacitus and which I just placed under the noses of my compatriots, shall be the living image of what evil they will have to suffer for fifty years. But must we look so far for examples? The massacres of the Champ de Mars and Nancy, what Robespierre recounted the other day at the Jacobins, the horrors that the Austrians committed at the borders, the English at Gênes, and the Royalists at Fougères and in the Vendée. The violence of the parties clearly shows that despotism which returned, furious amidst its destroyed possessions, can only become stronger by ruling like the Octaviuses and Neroes. In this duel between liberty and slavery, and in the cruel alternative to a defeat a thousand times more bloody than our victory, "exaggerating the Revolution was less perilous, and worth more than to stay on this side," as Danton said. But it was necessary, first and foremost, for the Republic to ensure its destiny on the field of battle.

Source: Le Vieux Cordelier, 25 Frimaire Year II (15 December 1793), 1–8. Translated by Exploring the French Revolution project staff from original documents in French found in John Hardman, French Revolution Documents 1792–95, vol. 2 (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1973), 186–193.