Thursday, 27 December 2007

Pitt's 'Reign of Terror'

A threat of revolution?
There is no doubt that Pitt’s government was fearful of a home-grown revolutionary insurrection and that in the mid 1790s there was what Boyd Hilton has described as ‘a significant increase in the coercive powers of the state’. (A Mad, Bad and Dangerous People? Oxford, 2007) But were the fears justified? The Home Office files for the last months of 1792 show that alarmist reports were being received of Frenchmen armed with daggers on the road from Harwich to London, and of a disturbance in Dundee where the liberty tree was planted. Did the government manipulate the information for its own purposes? (Hilton). Or did it show a reasonable reaction to what it thought was a genuine threat? (See Edward Royle, Revolutionary Britannia? Manchester, 2000)

The Scottish trials
The full weight of the growing loyalist reaction was first felt in Scotland where a vigorous parliamentary reform moving had grown up in the course of 1792. Scottish societies, modelled on the London Corresponding Society, spread rapidly. There were disturbances in some parts of Scotland and the reformers’ protestations that they did not want violence were taken as merely hypocritical.

Scottish political life was controlled by the Home Secretary (1791-4), Henry Dundas (‘King Henry IX’). He probably over-estimated the revolutionary threat in Scotland. However when a group of English and Scottish reformers summoned an unfortunately named (?) Convention in Edinburgh in December 1792, the government became deeply alarmed.

In January 1793 a series of trials for sedition or seditious libel took place in Edinburgh. These trials were remarkable for the freedom with which the judges expressed themselves. They were the preliminaries to the sensational trials in the late summer.

In August 1793 the lawyer, Thomas Muir (1765-1799), vice-president of a Jacobin discussion group in Glasgow, was sentenced to 14 years’ transportation after an outrageously biased trial. In September the English Unitarian, Thomas Palmer (1747-1802), then minister at Dundee was sentenced to seven years.

In October 1793 the National Convention of British reformers met at Edinburgh. The London Corresponding Society, the Society for Constitutional Information and the Sheffield Society all sent delegates. Its two London delegates were Joseph Gerrald (1760-1796) and Maurice Margarot (1745-1815). The meeting declared itself a British Convention and appointed a secret committee to act in case of emergency. The authorities broke up the meeting and placed Gerrald and Margarot and the Scottish secretary William Skirving (d. 1796) under arrest. Margarot was accompanied to his trial in early 1794 by a procession holding a ‘tree of liberty’ in the shape of a letter M above his head. He was sentenced to 14 years transportation, Gerrald received the same sentence a month later (he had tuberculosis).

The London trials
The government was greatly alarmed by the success of the London Corresponding Society’s new tactic of open air meetings and by its decision to hold an English Convention in the summer of 1794. In May and the authorities arrested seven members of the LCS, including Hardy, John Thelwall, its best orator and six members of the Society for Constitutional Information, including John Horne Tooke, but excluding Cartwright.

At the same time Pitt proposed the suspension of Habeas Corpus, provoking the fiercest Commons debate of the century. He opened the debate with a fierce attack on the ‘monstrous’ doctrine of the Rights of Man. Grey responded by calling Pitt an apostate. Fox and his diminished band divided the Commons fourteen times over the legislation, but could muster only 28 votes.

Of the thirteen arrested only three were brought to trial. The first was Hardy charged in the Old Bailey in October with high treason under the statute of 1351: ‘imagining the king’s death’. The Whig politician Charles Grey wrote to his wife: ‘
If this man is hanged, there is no safety for any man ... and I do not know how soon it may come to my turn.’
In his defence of Hardy, his barrister Thomas Erskine insisted that for the London Corresponding Society, as for earlier reforming organizations, it was never a question of using force but rather
‘a design to undermine monarchy by changes wrought through public opinion, enlarging gradually into universal will’.
The medium was to be the works of Thomas Paine; even the name (LCS) testified that the society was concerned with ideas rather than violent action. But though no convincing evidence was produced that Hardy had been gathering arms, some of his correspondence seemed damning and treasonable, with provincial societies urging a convention that by implication could overrule Parliament. But how far was Hardy to be responsible for letters addressed to him? After a short recess the jury found him not guilty. The verdict transformed popular sentiment from approving the prosecution of lionising the acquitted shoemaker and his defending council.

The trial of Horne Took a fortnight later attracted more attention. He was an ex-parson who had been a well-known political figure since the days of Wilkes. The defence subpoenaed Pitt to show that many people in the 1780s had been advocating parliamentary reform. Tooke was also acquitted as was Thelwall after a trial of a day. The tension generated by the possibility of a guilty verdict and the death sentence were relaxed and the trials were held in something like a carnival atmosphere.

The difference between the English and Scottish trials reflects the different legal systems. Ironically, the acquittals made the loyalist case - that England was a country where a man could have a fair trial. It contrasts with Paine’s treatment at the hands of the revolutionaries - arrested in December 1793 with his life was saved by mere chance.

The Whigs split
Although Fox asked shrewd questions about the purpose of the war and though his attacks on government repression were arguably ‘right’ he did not gain politically. His refusal to support the war eventually split his party. The duke of Portland, the leader of the party, supported the war and at the turn of 1793/4, following a series of allied disasters in the Low Countries, he decided to break with Fox and the radical Whigs who had formed the Friends of the People. In May Pitt invited Portland to discuss the possibility of a ‘ministerial arrangement’ which ‘might make us act together as one Great Family’ against the 'Jacobin threat’. The negotiations took place over several weeks during which mixed news arrived from the war: Lord Howe’s naval victory of the Glorious First of June, and the French victory at Fleurus, which forced the duke of York’s retreat. At a meeting at Burlington House on 13 June conservative Whigs unanimously supported a coalition.

By early July a new cabinet was formed. Five posts went to the Whigs, with Portland becoming Home Secretary, Fox’s friend, the earl of Fitzwilliam becoming Lord President of the Council (with the understanding that he would soon become Lord Lieutenant of Ireland), the earl of Loughborough Lord Chancellor and Spencer Lord Privy Seal and (from Dec 1794) First Lord of the Admiralty. An aggrieved Dundas had to give up his post as Home Secretary, but he retained responsibility for War and the Colonies, previously a Home Office responsibility (thus creating a third office of Secretary of State). Burke’s friend William Windham became Secretary at War under Dundas.

Pitt intended the coalition to outlast the war and add to his security in any future regency crisis. The Foxites were reduced to a parliamentary rump of perhaps only fifty members of the Commons and a dozen peers. As Fox's biographer Leslie Mitchell notes,
‘They were no longer a credible opposition, bur rather a band who could only engage in guerrilla tactics on the edge of politics.’
A few days after the formation of the new cabinet Robespierre fell in the Thermidor coup (27 July). His execution marked the end of the Terror, but not the war. By the end of 1794 the French had not only retaken Belgium, but had driven the Austrians completely from the west bank of the Rhine and secured the way into northern Italy. In December Wilberforce moved an unsuccessful amendment to the King’s speech advising negotiations with the French. War weariness had already crept in and intensified when Amsterdam fell to the French in January and Holland was knocked out of the war. Pitt himself wished to negotiate peace with France, though by 1796 he came to believe that France was unwilling to enter realistic negotiations.

The Gagging Acts
The hardships of 1795 gave a final lease of life to the embattled LCS. A meeting near Copenhagen House, Islington on 26 October 1795 was followed three days later by an ugly demonstration against the king. The radical Francis Place reported that many in the crowd hissed the king, and called our
‘No Pitt, No War, Peace, Peace, Bread, Bread.’
When passing through a narrow street near St Margaret’s Church, a pane of glass in the king’s coach window broke - either by accident or a stone. When the coach returned empty, it was destroyed by protesters.

At the end of the year the government brought in the acts known colloquially as the Gagging Acts.
1. The Treasonable Practices Act forbade the expression of views calculated to bring king or government into contempt.
2. The Seditious Meetings Act forbade assemblies of more than 50 persons without prior notice and gave the magistrates power to disperse the onlookers if seditious observations were being made.
These measures were bitterly opposed by the Foxites. Petitions poured into parliament for and against the bills - the majority against. Wilberforce travelled to York to persuade a public meeting held there to back the bills. They passed into law on 18 December. Round the country magistrates took action against radicals.

A 'Reign of Terror'?

The consensus among historians has been that Pitt’s actions were excessive and there is no doubt that many innocent people suffered. This case has been recently reinforced by John Barrell’s The Spirit of Despotism: Invasions of Privacy in the 1790s (Oxford, 2006), which argues that eighteenth-century notions of privacy were constantly ‘invaded’ by the public and political concerns raised by war and the fear of revolution. But perhaps it is unfair to blame the government, as Europe seemed to be descending into war and anarchy. Pitt's repressive acts can be put into the context of other war-time legislation (1914, 1939). The cabinet believed it was faced with the threat of invasion, with the problem of maintaining food supplies, with the problems of manpower and war finance. The war against revolutionary France had an ideological aspect new to the 18th century, the opposition failed to support the government and within Britain radicals were openly subscribing to the enemy’s ideology. The majority of the country seems to have accepted the Acts without question.

There is also the fact that British wartime governments in the twentieth century adopted draconian powers. In the Second World War Oswald and Diana Mosley together with other Fascist sympathisers, lost their habeas corpus rights and were imprisoned under this emergency legislation. In retrospect, it does not seem very democratic.

Though the mass of the country seem to have remained loyal to the government, there were insurrectionary pockets. Very inflammatory literature was produced at Hardy’s trial. Wilberforce noted the presence of such literature in 1795. There was a religious dimension to the atmosphere of alarm. Paine’s Age of Reason (1794) was a direct attack on Christianity.

The End of the LCS
In the wake of the Gagging Acts the LCS began to experience serious internal divisions over the most appropriate tactics for combating government repression, with some urging violence - both to defend civil liberties and to complete a prepared revolution. In 1798 a clandestine organization called the United Englishmen was set up in London. But while debating whether to support this movement, its members were arrested.

Thursday, 6 December 2007

The Terror


Maximilien Robespierre (1758-94)

‘Nobody had dreamed of establishing a system of terror. It established itself by force of circumstances.’ William Doyle, Oxford History of the French Revolution.
Nevertheless, the Terror was the policy of the Jacobin government from the autumn of 1793 until its abandonment in August 1794. It is associated above all with Maximilian Robespierre

What was the Terror?
It was the period beginning on 5 September 1793 and ending with the death of Robespierre in July 1794. Famous victims included Marie Antoinette, the Girondins and eventually the Dantonist faction, but the bulk of the victims were ordinary people. In the course of the Terror, around 16,000 people were formally condemned to death, most of them in the provinces. An unknown number died in custody or were lynched without trial. Nearly 2,000 were executed in Lyon after the city fell to the revolutionaries. Over 3,500 were guillotined when the revolt in the Vendée was finally suppressed after terrible loss of life on the battlefield and the murder of an estimated 10,000 rebels and civilians in retreat. The most horrific event of the provincial Terror occurred in Nantes, the scene of the noyades (drowings) At a rough estimated 30,000 died (though it should be noted that more people died in Ireland in 1798 and in Poland in 1794). In Paris, the scene of these executions was the Place de la Révolution.

The Terror was accompanied by a policy of de-christianization – churches were closed and the calendar redrawn.

It was triggered by war, resistance within France to the Revolution, the increasingly violent actions of the sans-culottes in the face of economic hardship. It also developed its own momentum.

The ideology of the Terror
The Terror was prefigured in an article by Robespierre in September 1792 at the time of the meeting of the Convention:
‘It is not enough to have overturned the throne: our concern is to erect upon his remains holy equality and the imprescriptible Rights of Man. It is not in the empty word itself that a republic consists, but in the character of the citizens. The soul of a republic is vertu – that is love of la patrie, and the high-minded devotion that resolves all private interests into the general interest. The enemies of the republic are those dastardly egoists, those ambitious and corrupt men. You have hunted down kings, but have you hunted out the vices that their deadly domination has engendered among you? Taken together, you are the most generous, the most moral of all peoples…but a people that nurtures within itself a multitude of adroit rogues and political charlatans, skilled at usurpation and the betrayal of trust.’
The Terror was therefore inspired by the quest for vertu and the hunt for the enemy within.

Robespierre went on to quote Rousseau and to develop his prescriptions. The austerely virtuous lawgivers should be
‘treading underfoot vanity, envy, ambition and all the weaknesses of petty souls, inexorable towards crime armed with power, indulgent toward error, sympathetic toward misery and tender and respectful toward the people’.
‘The point was to ensure the triumph of the good, pure, general will of the people – what the people would want in ideal circumstances – and this needed to be intuited on their own behalf until they received sufficient education to understand their own good.’ Ruth Scurr, Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution.
St-Just, February 1794: ‘The republic is built on the ruins of everything anti-republican. There are three sins against the republic: one is to be sorry for State prisoners; another is to be opposed to the rule of virtue; and the third is to be opposed to the Terror.’
The coming of the Terror
On 10 March 1793 the Convention was persuaded by Georges-Jacques Danton to revive the Revolutionary Tribunal with its extraordinary powers to put people to death. He saw it as a necessary weapon for a country torn by war, civil strife and hunger, and never imagined that this would be the body that would condemn him to death. The Tribunal consisted of twelve jurors and a public prosecutor (Antoine Fouquier-Tinville). There could be no appeal against its judgements.

Following the defeat at Neerwinden and the defection of Dumouriez to the Austrians, Danton, returned from the front, urged the creation of the Committee of Public Safety, a provisional revolutionary government of twelve men briefed to supervise and accelerate the exercise of ministerial power. It was to work alongside the larger Committee of General Security that had been set up in September 1792. Members had to be re-elected every month. None of the members was a Girondin.
The second result of the disaster at Neerwinden was the fall of the Girondins. Brissot and his associates were accused of being in leave with Dumouriez and in the pay of Pitt. On 31 May a crowd of Parisian petitioners arrived at the Convention (recently moved from the Manège to the Tuileries) and took possession of the deputies’ seats. On 2 June the Girondin leaders who had not already fled were provisionally arrested. Their fate was sealed by Charlotte Corday’s assassination of Marat.

On 27 July Robespierre was finally elected to the Committee of Public Safety. It was he and his associates who decreed the levée en masse and decreed mass executions after the fall of Lyons on 6 October.

The Terror arrives
Although the summer of 1793 was good and the harvest plentiful the dry weather meant that the watermills could not word and food became scarce in Paris. At the same time news reached Paris of the surrender of Toulon to the British. On 5 September the mob once more invaded the Convention, pressurizing the Convention into a series of radical emergency measures. It declared terror ‘the order of the day’ and expanded the Revolutionary Tribunal. On 17 September the Law of Suspects empowered watch committees to arrest anyone who had in any way shown themselves hostile to the Revolution. Up to 10,000 people, arrested under the Law of Suspects, may have died in custody in over-crowded prisons; others were murdered or lynched with no official record.

On 29 September a General Maximum Law imposed price controls on a wide range of goods. In October the Committee of Public Safety took on the central direction of the entire state apparatus.
The queen’s trial began on 14 October. On 9 July she had been separated from her son and during the two day trial she was accused of having sexually abused him. She was guillotined on 16 October. David sketched her on her way to execution. The picture speaks for itself.

The trial of twenty-one Girondins began on 24 October. Brissot had been captured at Moulins. Roland committed suicide on hearing of the execution of his wife in early November. Their ‘treason’ had been their federalism and their comparative political moderation.
In October the republican calendar was adopted, backdated to 22 September 1792, in spite of Robespierre’s misgivings (Scurr, 263-4).

The Terror changes direction
The first phase of the Terror was spontaneous, unco-ordinated and difficult to control. This is seen, for example, in the Convention’s surrender to the demand for price controls that was, in effect ‘a pact with street violence’ (Scurr, 265). The second phase was a government response to the anarchy of mass deaths and the de-christianization. The de-christianization was marked by some dramatic events. The aged archbishop of Paris renounced his Catholicism at the bar of the Convention. Soon afterwards a Convention decree closed all the churches in Paris – a measure that was widely imitated in France. On 10 November (20 Brumaire) in a ceremony organized by the virulent journalist René Hébert, a printer’s wife was worshipped in Notre Dame as the goddess of reason. This disgusted Robespierre was fiercely antagonistic to atheism, which he saw as ‘aristocratic’. Now that the Girondins had gone he saw the virulent Hébertist faction as the new counter-revolutionaries.

On 4 December 1793 the Revolutionary Government passed the Law of 14 Frimaire (4 December), a measure of extreme centralization, which vested all power in the Committee of Public Safety (Doyle, 262-4, Scurr, 269). The Law of Frimaire, and power struggles within the Committee of Public Safety, allowed the elimination of the advocates of crowd disorder (the Hébertistes) in March 1794 after they mounted a failed coup. The mass of executions marked the end of the sans-culottes as a political force.

From December Camille Desmoulins (seen here with his wife Lucile and his baby son Horace, Robespierre's godson) had edited a journal called Le Vieux Cordelier, an attack on the Hébertists, and a call for a Committee of Clemency to provide justice for those arrested under the Law of Suspects. After a public quarrel in the Jacobin Club in January 1794, Danton came to fear that Robespierre, who had hitherto sacrificed his enemies, might now sacrifice his friends. On 10 January Camille was expelled from the Jacobins. Robespierre was now increasingly obsessed with cleansing the Republic of corruption.
‘If the basis of popular government in peacetime is virtue, its basis in time of revolution is both virtue and terror – virtue without which terror is disastrous and terror, without which virtue has now power.…Terror is merely justice, prompt, severe, and inflexible. It is therefore an emanation of virtue, and results from the application of democracy to the most pressing needs of the country.’ Quoted Scurr, 274-5.
In April the Dantonists were arrested and imprisoned in the Luxembourg, where they met Tom Paine. They were brought before the Revolutionary Tribunal and executed.

Danton’s death marked the inauguration of the Republic of Virtue, which was characterized by a concentration of power at the centre. In May the cult of the Supreme Being was established (as a counter to anti-Christian excesses). Article I of the new constitution stated:
‘The French people recognizes the existence of the Supreme Being and the immortality of the soul.’
On 20 Prairial (8 June, Whit Sunday in the old calendar) Paris celebrated the Festival of the Supreme Being in a ceremony stage-managed by David.

The Law of 22 Prairial (10 June) marks the height of the Terror. It was designed to speed up and expand the work of the Revolutionary Tribunal. Robespierre believed that the cult of the Supreme Being and the Law of Prairial would bring in the republic of virtue. The result of the law was to increase the number of executions. Between March and August 1794 2,639 people were guillotined, over half dying between June and July. Fouquier-Tinville was often summoned in the night to receive his orders of the day. He claimed he was followed everywhere by ghosts. Among those who died were the whole family of a girl who had tried to assassinate Robespierre and an underage maidservant.

Robespierre was brought down by his enemies outside the Committees of Public Safety and General Security. Many deputies were frightened that they would be brought before the Revolutionary Tribunal, especially those who had been recalled from their provincial missions, notably Joseph Fouché (a militant atheist who had committed atrocities in Nevers and Lyon) and Jean Lambert Tallien (who had terrorized the Vendée and Bordeaux).

Ever more isolated, Robespierre increasingly withdrew from the Convention and devoted his time to the Police Bureau where he spent hours analysing the reports of informers. On the morning of 8 Thermidor (26 July) Robespierre spoke for two hours to the Convention and threatened to name the conspirators against the Revolution. Everyone knew he meant Fouché, Tallien and their associates. Scurr, 311 ff. On the following day (9Thermidor ,27 July), Saint-Just was shouted down in the Convention and Robespierre, his brother Augustin, Saint-Just and three others were arrested. But some of the Parisian sections were growing restive and no prison would detain them. By 1 am on 10 Thermidor all five were in the Hotel de Ville waiting for the insurrection to begin when soldiers from the Convention burst in. Scurr, 321-2. Robespierre shattered his jaw in a botched suicide attempt. They were guillotined the same day under the provisions of the Law of Prairial. Over 100 of his supporters were executed on the following days. He had forced his enemies into the open and he paid the price.

On 1 August the Law of Prairial was repealed. In the following days there was a mass release of prisoners. In November 1795 a new government, the Directory, was set up. (Paine was released.) By this time France was becoming internally peaceful though the war was stepped up.