Modern history


Robespierre’s teachers at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand must have been important to his political education since, in the end, he saw himself as a messianic schoolmaster, wielding a very big stick to inculcate virtue. He came to conceive of the Revolution itself as a school, but one in which knowledge would always be augmented by morality. Both, moreover, depended on discipline. Terror and virtue, he was fond of saying, were part of the same exercise in self-improvement, “virtue without which terror is harmful and terror without which virtue is impotent.” Once the criminal element, morally and politically speaking – the libertines, the atheists, the prodigals – had been eliminated, it would be possible to begin this vast exercise of enrolling an entire nation in the school of virtue.

In some respects, then, for Robespierre the most important committee of the Convention was neither that of public safety nor that of general security (which he came to see as the fief of low-life policemen like Vadier and Amar) but that of public instruction. It was, moreover, an institution that had accompanied the Revolution from its very beginnings, when Talleyrand and Sieyès had been important members, right through to the Terror, producing enormously long and ambitious plans that covered education from the elementary level through the new technical colleges that would produce an elite of enlightened engineers. At his death, Michel Lepeletier, of sainted memory, was working on just such a plan to create “houses of national education” at the elementary level, and it was this grandiose plan that Robespierre expanded. Its essence was to bring together those two pillars of the moralized republic: the school and the family. Perhaps it could have only been created by aristocratic schoolboys like Lepeletier whose parents had habitually surrendered them at tender ages to the mercies of gloomy Jesuits, since its principal object was to bring mothers and fathers back into the “house of instruction.” The size of each school was to be determined not by an arbitrary decision but by a specification for the ideal number of families it comprised. This was set at fifty. For one décade during the year, each mother and father would come to live at the school as the children’s residential parents, dispensing fatherly severities and motherly tenderness as the children might require. In this way, the acquisition of knowledge would be reinforced by domestic virtue. There would be Spartan games, speeches from the Romans and a great deal of botany.

Needless to say, nothing came of such schemes, not least because, as the post-Jacobin committees of public instruction discovered, by decimating the clergy the Terror had destroyed the only reliable (and cheap) source of teaching personnel available for elementary education. But the passion for Improvement which fired Robespierre in the last months of the Terror flowed into all his policies and speeches until, in the end, politics itself seemed a rather squalid pastime compared with the transcendent calling of the Missionary of Virtue.

For those Jacobins who shared Robespierre’s vision, there were two necessary stages to this enterprise of moral regeneration. First, the appalling cultural anarchy unleashed by the dechristianizers and the Hébertistes had to be stopped in its tracks; second, it had to give way to an imposing and orderly program of republican edification. That program would leave no part of a citizen’s life untouched. It would use music, open-air pageants and theater; colossal public monuments; libraries, exhibitions, even sports competitions, to stimulate the great republican virtues: patriotism and fraternity. The exaltation of the collective life would be in the strongest possible contrast to the acts of indiscriminate destruction characteristic of the extreme phase of the Terror.

One of the most enthusiastic devotees of this Rousseauean cultural revolution, Henri Grégoire, the ex-constitutional Bishop of Blois, had coined the term vandalism when denouncing the most wanton assaults on statues, paintings and buildings condemned as part of the ecclesiastical, feudal and royal past. One of the most glaring instances of this had been the wholesale destruction of the royal tombs in the Saint-Denis chapel. Though Thermidorian stories of sans-culottes playing skittles with the bones of the Valois and the Bourbons were probably apocryphal, a painting by Hubert Robert, that connoisseur of ruins, certainly shows coffins being lifted from their graves and stones being overturned and removed. Grégoire had to be careful in his criticism, since the ransacking of Saint-Denis had been authorized by a decree of the Convention of August 1, 1793, and he was, in any case, anxious not to repudiate the official attack on totems of the past. No Jacobin even in this “instructional” phase of the Terror would have dared suggest restoring the statues of Louis XIV and Louis XV to their pedestals in Paris. But from Germinal onwards, Grégoire pressed on the Committee of Public Instruction an activist program which would turn back the vandal hordes from the gates of the new Rome and begin to “make the walls speak” the dignified language of republicanism.

On 20 Germinal, Grégoire turned his attention to another group of vandals as dangerous as the iconoclasts: bibliophages, the eaters of books. These were men who, in the name of misguided republicanism, wanted to burn down libraries, destroying in its entirety the wisdom accumulated before the Revolution, with perhaps a few honored exceptions, such as the work of the English regicide Algernon Sidney and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Such barbarians were, said Grégoire, doing the work of the enemies of France by stripping it of its cultural patrimony and, in all likelihood, like the worst Hébertistes, they were actually foreign agents. What Grégoire proposed by way of a counter-attack was a great national bibliography – the bibliographie française – that would compile a record of the entire holdings of private libraries, which could then be made available to the Nation. It could be extended to include related objects of interest: medals and portraits, collections of scientific instruments and, most important, maps. In the Versailles ministries alone, he reported to the Convention, there were twelve thousand maps waiting to be catalogued. The department of Paris was even more “engorged” with these patriotic assets: some 1,800,000 volumes, which constituted the founding inventory of abibliothèque nationale. Properly organized for the promotion of republican virtue, libraries and museums would be, he said, “workshops of the human mind,” designed especially to lead the young away from the customary frivolities of their age, to places where they could “commune with the great men of every country and every age.”

The other major figure in this program of republican instruction was Jacques-Louis David. He had already taken charge of the commissions to create permanent monuments from some of the statues used in the Fê te de l’Unité: a colossal Hercules representing the French People, for example, was to be erected on the Pont-Neuf. Together with his brother-in-law the architect Hubert, he was producing a plan to relandscape the Champs Elysées as a huge Jardin National, with an enormous domed amphitheater at its center crowned by a statue of Liberty, suitable for the mass spectacles and patriotic games favored by Robespierre. (Albert Speer was not, then, the first to plan an architectural ideology around this kind of colossal collectivism.) At the same time, David was also busy designing “national costumes” that would express the proper dignity of true republicans – and which were clearly meant as a correction to the aggressive display of bonnets rouges and striped trousers that had been the hallmark of the militant sans-culotte. As if all this was not enough, David produced one of his most grandiose designs for the curtain of a composite production at the Opéra called The Inauguration of the French Republic, in which the usual woodenly didactic drama was enlivened with songs, speeches, poems, military marches and the occasional cannon designed to wake up those of the audience stunned into slumber by this relentless onslaught of republican virtue.

As a specimen of the juggernaut approach to Jacobin culture, David’s curtain was rather impressive. Clearly inspired by antique reliefs, it lines up in profile a procession of republican paragons, at the center of which is a triumphal car whose wheels are rolling over the debris of royalty and episcopacy. In front of the chariot, muscled patriots are about to plunge their swords into hapless fallen monarchs, all viewed by the impassive giant Hercules, on whose lap rest the miniaturized female figures of Liberty and Equality. By the side of and behind the car are ranged exemplars of the virtues: Cornelia and the Gracchi (dropped from David’s final design); Brutus; William Tell (rapidly becoming a cult hero in Paris) and a group of martyrs, including Marat bearing his stigmata; Lepeletier; and, the latest additions to the pantheon, two patriots hanged by the British at Toulon.

All of these cultural techniques were brought together by David and Robespierre in their most ambitious political production: the Festival of the Supreme Being, held on the eighth of June (20 Prairial). Robespierre had announced the creed a month earlier, on May 7 (18 Floréal), in a painfully crafted speech on “the relations between moral and religious ideas with republican principles.” “The true priest of the Supreme Being,” Robespierre declared to the baffled and the bemused, “is Nature itself; its temple is the universe; its religion virtue; its festivals the joy of a great people assembled under its eyes to tie the sweet knot of universal fraternity and to present before it [Nature] the homage of pure and feeling [sensible] hearts.” At the end of his deist sermon, the Convention decreed that “the French people recognize the existence of the Supreme Being [for which, presumably, he was to be duly thankful] and the immortality of the soul.”

It hardly needed spelling out that the decree on the Supreme Being was a frontal attack on the dechristianizers, many of whom, like Fouché, were still important deputies of the Convention. The festival, announced at the same time as the decree, was to be the occasion when the Supreme Being’s moral and political ascendancy over the infidels was to become irreversible. This time there would be no Hérault de Séchelles (a notorious unbeliever) to steal his thunder. Robespierre was elected president four days before the festival to ensure that he would play, ex officio, a central role.

Perhaps the weather on June 8 – the day of Pentecost on the old Gregorian calendar – convinced skeptics that there was, after all, a Supreme Being and Robespierre was his prophet. A radiant sun shone down on the Tuileries, where thousands of Parisians gathered for the morning ceremonies. Looking down from a window on the banks of roses that David’s team of florists had gathered and on the regiments of girls in white lawn dresses who carried baskets of fruit, Robespierre remarked to his companion Vilate, as if in rehearsal for his speech: “Behold the most interesting portion of humanity assembled here.” Working with his usual music-lyrics team of Gossec and Marie-Joseph Chénier, David had conceived the event as a vast revolutionary oratorio. One huge choral group was formed by twenty-four hundred delegates from the sections of Paris, each divided into human groups of old men, mothers, young girls, boys and small children (there seems, as usual, to have been no place for old women in the universe of Jacobin culture). Atvarious moments each of these groups were to sing choruses appropriate to their role in the new France and would then be echoed by their counterparts among the mass audience listening. At the moments of maximum drama – like the first and last verses of the “Marseillaise” and the new “Hymn of the Supreme Being” – the entire twenty-four hundred would sing out together, their voices dissolving into an immense chant of the people, which echoed throughout the amphitheater Hubert had constructed for the occasion. For Robespierre the new hymn was to be the anthem of his republican religion, and when Chénier’s draft verses displeased him, he fired him angrily from the production team, replacing him with the poet Théodor Désorgues. Gossec and David had fretted about the audience’s unfamiliarity with the hymn so much that in the weeks before the festival they had sent out teams of music teachers from the Institut National to instruct patriots in the sections on the melody and words.

As the last strains of the hymn faded, Robespierre appeared for his morning speech. He was dressed exquisitely in a blue coat, a tricolor sash and plumed hat, though in his nervousness he had forgotten the huge bouquet that one of the Duplay girls had specially made for him. (Each of the deputies of the Convention was carrying wheat sheaves and bouquets of flowers, though it seems incredible that Barras, for example, would have done so with a straight face.) “French Republicans,” Robespierre declaimed, as if he were announcing the return of the Ovidian Golden Age, “it is for you to purify the earth that has been soiled and to recall to the earth Justice which has been banished from it. Liberty and virtue spring together from the breast of the divinity – neither one can live without the other.” At the conclusion of the oration he took a flaming torch and, in one of David’s visual metamorphoses, burned the effigy of Atheism from which (some said, in pure whiteness; others said, looking slightly sooty) the statue of Wisdom emerged. “He has returned to nothingness,” intoned the Incorruptible, “this monster that the genius of Kings has vomited up on France.”

In the afternoon, the crowds of people formed a long procession to the Champ de Mars. At the parade’s center was a triumphal car (similar in design to that featured on the Opéra curtain) drawn by eight oxen, with their horns painted gold and bearing in the wagon a printing press and a plow, symbols of different kinds of officially approved labor. Further ahead a cart of blind children sang a “Hymn to Divinity” and were followed by columns of mothers bearing roses, and fathers leading their sons, who were armed with swords in the manner of David’s Horatii. At the center of what had been renamed the Champ de Réunion, where the altar of the patrie had stood since 1790, David had built, at astonishing speed, an enormous plaster-and-cardboard mountain (modeled in fact on the one used at Lyon for the Fête de la Fédération). On its summit, standing on a fifty-foot column, was a colossal Hercules with the ever-diminishing figure (now virtually a figurine) of Liberty in his hand. Liberty had not been altogether banished from the world of the Supreme Being, since it was represented, also at the top of the mountain, by an enormous tree. Its presence was a response to another disquisition of Grégoire’s, in which he sought to revive the liberty-tree cult of 1791–92 and even declared that the most appropriate species to celebrate the resurrection of primitive freedom was the oak, “the most beautiful of all the vegetables of Europe.” It was, he said, the genealogical tree of the Great Family of the Free which, one day, would people the universe. Since it would endure for so many generations, children who were small at its planting would be able to gather their offspring beneath its branches and recount to them the heroic days of the founding of freedom.

For the afternoon music the fruited and floreated deputies of the Convention climbed to the summit and looked down to the twenty-four hundred deployed along the paths, slopes and terraces that had been cut into the mountain. At a crucial moment, when the singing and blaring of martial brass had been silenced, Robespierre descended from the mountain like some Jacobinical Moses, parting the waves of tricolored patriots, and graciously received the burst of orchestrated applause that broke over his head. Even hearing, unmistakably, the sounds of cackling disrespect or outright hostility from some quarters could not spoil the apotheosis. “Oh day forever blessed,” Robespierre would exclaim to the Convention on July 26 (8 Thermidor), “Being of Beings! Did the day of Creation itself – the day the world issued from thy all-powerful hands – shine with a light more agreeable in thy sight than that day on which, bursting the yoke of crime and error, this nation appeared in thy sight in an attitude worthy of thy regard and its destinies?” The question was, of course, strictly rhetorical.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!