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Chambers's Edinburgh Journal, No. 426 Volume 17, New Series, February 28, 1852   By:

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Some characters are a puzzle to history, and none is more so than that of Robespierre. According to popular belief, this personage was a blood thirsty monster, a vulgar tyrant, who committed the most unheard of enormities, with the basely selfish object of raising himself to supreme power of becoming the Cromwell of the Revolution. Considering that Robespierre was for five years 1789 to 1794 a prime leader in the political movements in France; that for a length of time he was personally concerned in sending from forty to fifty heads to the scaffold per diem; and that the Reign of Terror ceased immediately on his overthrow it is not surprising that his character is associated with all that is villainous and detestable. Nevertheless, as the obscurities of the great revolutionary drama clear up, a strange suspicion begins to be entertained, that the popular legend respecting Robespierre is in a considerable degree fallacious; nay, it is almost thought that this man was, in reality, a most kind hearted, simple, unambitious, and well disposed individual a person who, to say the least of it, deeply deplored the horrors in which considerations of duty had unhappily involved him. To attempt an unravelment of these contradictions, let us call up the phantom of this mysterious personage, and subject him to review.

To understand Robespierre, it is necessary to understand the French Revolution. The proximate cause of that terrible convulsion was, as is well known, an utter disorder in all the functions of the state, and more particularly in the finances, equivalent to national bankruptcy. That matters might have been substantially patched up by judicious statesmanship, no one doubts; but that a catastrophe, sooner or later, was unavoidable, seems to be equally certain. The mind of France was rotten; the principles of society were undermined. As regards religion, there was a universal scepticism, of which the best literature of the day was the exponent; but this unbelief was greatly strengthened by the scandalous abuses in the ecclesiastical system. It required no depth of genius to point out that the great principles of brotherly love, humility, equality, liberty, promulgated as part and parcel of the Christian dispensation eighteen centuries previously, had no practical efficacy so far as France was concerned. Instead of equality before God and the law, the humbler classes were feudal serfs, without any appeal from the cruel oppressions to which they were exposed. In the midst of gloom, Rousseau's vague declamations on the rights of man fell like a ray of light. A spark was communicated, which kindled a flame in the bosoms of the more thoughtful and enthusiastic. An astonishing impulse was almost at once given to investigation. The philosopher had his adherents all over France. Viewed as a species of prophet, he was, properly speaking, a madman, who in his ravings had glanced on the truth, but only glanced. Among men of sense, his ornate declamations concerning nature and reason would have excited little more attention than that which is usually given to poetic and speculative fancies.

Amidst an impulsive and lively people, unaccustomed to the practical consideration and treatment of abuses, there arose a cry to destroy, root up; to sweep away all preferences and privileges; to bring down the haughty, and raise the depressed; to let all men be free and equal, all men being brothers. Such is the origin of the three words liberty, equality, and fraternity, which were caught up as the charter of social intercourse. It is for ever to be regretted that this explosion of sentiment was so utterly destructive in its character; for therein has it inflicted immense wrong on what is abstractedly true and beautiful... Continue reading book >>

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