Helen Maria Williams, Letters written in France (1793): The September Massacres

[P 1]


Paris, January 25, 1793

Dear Sir,

The event which has this week taken place in Paris, will no doubt furnish you with ample matter for speculation. Imagination contemplates with an overwhelming emotion, that extraordinary vicissitude of fortune which conducted Lewis the Sixteenth from the radiant Palace of Versailles, to the gloomy Tower of the Temple -- from the first throne of Europe, to the scaffold and the block -- while the feelings of the heart, which [P 2] run a faster pace than the reasonings of the head, reject for a while all calculation of general good or evil, and melt in mournful sympathy over "greatness fallen from its high estate." But, when we consider the importance which this event may have in its consequences, not only to this country, but to all Europe, we lose sight of the individual sufferer, to meditate upon the destiny of mankind.

While you observe from a distance the great drama which is acting in France, I am a spectator of the representation -- I am placed near enough the scene to discern every look and every gesture of the actors, and every passion excited in the minds of the audience. I shall therefore endeavour to fill up the outline of that picture which France has presented to your contemplation since the memorable epocha of the tenth of August.

That conflict, which after the King's acceptance of the new constitution existed [P 3] in this country between the executive and legislative powers, between the court and the people, has since the tenth of August been succeeded by a conflict far more terrible: a conflict between freedom and anarchy, knowledge and ignorance, virtue and vice. While the real patriots of France, in their different conflicts with the ancient despotism, risked their lives, and shed their blood, and by their desperate valour confirmed the liberty of their country, a set of men, who exposed not their persons to the smallest danger in the enterprize, contrived, without peril or exertion, to seize upon a considerable portion of power; and never surely in the annals of tyranny have we heard of power more shamefully abused. Those demagogues, known by the appellation of the "Commune provisoire de Paris," have, during the short period of their usurpation, committed more crimes than despotism itself would have [P 4] achieved in ages. The crimes of tyrants, by exciting our abhorrence, serve to promote the cause of freedom. It was reserved for the Commune of Paris to check the generous glow of sympathy with a great and magnanimous nation, which had nobly emancipated itself from slavery, and to lead all the feelings of humanity to take part with its oppressors. Surounding nations, who might perhaps have been animated by the example of a country which has long served as a model to the rest of Europe, have heard of the second of September, and have shrunk back into the torpor of slavery. Thye have beheld, in the room of the pure and sublime worship of liberty, the grim idol of anarchy set up, and have seen her altar smeared with sanguinary rites. They have beheld the inhuman judges of that night wearing the municipal scarf which their polluting touch profaned, surrounded by men armed with pikes and sabres [P 5] dropping with blood -- while a number of blazing torches threw their glaring light on the ferocious visages of those execrable judges, who, mixing their voices with the shrieks of the dying, passed sentence with a savage mockery of justice, on victims devoted to their rage. They have beheld the infernal executioners of that night, with their arms bared for the purposes of murder, dragging forth those victims to modes of death at which nature shudders. -- -- Ah! ye slaughtered heroes of the immortal 14th of July, was it for this ye overthrew the towers of the Bastile, and burst open its gloomy dungeons? -- was it for this, ye generous patriots, that with heroic contempt of life, ye shed your blood to give liberty and happiness to your enslaved country? -- Ah! had ye foreseen that the fanatics of liberty, fierce as the fanatics of superstition, would have had their day of St. Bartholomew, would not your victorious [P 6] arms have been unnerved? Would not the sacred glow of freedom have been frozen in your veins? Ah! what is become of the delightful visions, which elevated the enthusiastic heart? -- What is become of the transport which beat high in every bosom, when an assembled million of the human race vowed on the altar of their country, in the name of the represented nation, inviolable fraternity and union -- an eternal federation! This was indeed the golden age of the rvolution. -- But it is past! -- the enchanting spell is broken, and the fair scenes of beauty and of order, through which imagination wandered, are transformed into the desolation of the wilderness, and clouded by the darkness of the tempest. If the genius of Liberty -- profaned Liberty! does not arise in his might, and crush those violators of freedom, whose crimes have almost broken the heart of humanity, the inhabitants of Paris may indeed [P 7] "wish for the wings of the dove, that they may fly away and be at rest -- for there is violence and strife in the city."

At the head of this band of conspirators is Roberspierre -- gloomy and saturnine in his disposition, with a countenance of such dark aspect as seems the index of no ordinary guilt -- fanatical and exaggerated in his avowed principles of liberty, possessing that species of eloquence which gives him power over the passions, and that cool determined temper which regulates the most ferocious designs with the most calm and temperate prudence. His crimes do not appear to be the result of passion, but of some deep and extraordinary malignity, and he seems formed to subvert and to destroy. "One, next to him in power, and next in crime," is Danton, who, though not inferior in ability, having less self-command, is consequently less dangerous. -- [P 8] This man, at the period of the massacres, was Minister of Justice, and, being conjured to exert his authority in putting a stop to those horrors, coolly answered, "Quand le peuple ont exercé leur droits, je reprendrai les miennes." [When the people have exerted their rights, I will resume mine.]

Marat, though sometimes spoken of as one of the leaders of this faction, is in reality only one of its instruments ----

A fellow, by the hand of nature mark'd,
Quoted, and sign'd to do a deed of shame;
And taking note of his abhorred aspect,
Finding him fit for bloody villainy,
[adapted from King John, IV.ii.221-5]

he is employed to execute the purposes of more able heads.

This triumvirate, resembling the celebrated triumvirate of Rome in every thing that bears the marks of baseness and of crimes, had associated in their guilt a number of lesser chiefs, who in their turn had enlisted others as instruments of the [P 9] same horrid purpose. The organization of this executive assembly was formed with so much address, that the less confidential members of it were ignorant how they came together, whilst those who were the primary movers were careful to leave no positive traces of their guilt. Hence arises the extreme difficulty of punishing these murderers; for though the complicated chain of evidence may be pursued to a certain length, yet it always breaks off in the link that leads to conviction. These chiefs had contributed to the annihilation of the power of the legislative assembly by their audacity, as much as itself had done by its want ot energy and courage; and taking advantage of its weakness and little consideration with the people, they had carried their views, as it is generally believed, to the immediate overthrow of what remained of the then existing system, and meant to establish a government of [P 10] municipalities, Mr. Burke's forty-four thousand republics, of which Paris should be the center, and they the worthy protectors. The idea was great, byt the atchievement was difficult. Who believes, that knows any thing of the character of these men, or who has observed with any attention their conduct since, that any thing but such inordinate ambition was their aim? But was it likely, you will ask, that the extirpation of priests, of the imprisoned agents of the aristocracy, and proscribed conspirators, could lead to the furtherance of their views? How, by making themselves the executors of such summary justice, could they arrive at the accomplishment of their wishes? Those victims alone would certainly have proved insufficient to the accomplishment of their designs, and there is no doubt that the proscription extended to the most distinguished members of the Assembly, and to the most virtuous and [P 11] respectable men of the executive council. But these statesmen of the Commune felt that to strike at once those men, whom the people had been accustomed to consider their firmest friends, would be too daring and desperate an act. A general insurrection of the mob, therefore, seemed to them the best mode of eventually accomplishing their purpose. And as no mob sufficiently great was to be procured by their own means, they contrived to make the Assembly itself ignorantly acquiesce in their diabolical projects. On the day, therefore, when these massacres began, the Commune appeared at the bar, and informed the Assembly, that at two o'clock they should order the alarm guns to fire, and the tocsin to sound, that the people summoned into the Champ de Mars might from thence march directly to meet the approaching enemy, who were coming with hasty steps to [P 12] Paris, after having cut off the four thousand men sent to the relief of Verdun. -- This was a falsehood, contrived and calculated, as they hoped, to accomplish their purpose: but though the people were much agitated, they were not sufficiently wound up for such an enterprize. Instead therefore of meeting in immense crowds in the Champ de Mars, where these assassins would have more readily found the means of urging them to any crime, they met peacably in their different sections to consult on the best measures for the public safety, totally ignorant at the moment what horrid deeds were about to be transacted. Finding, therefore, that the people were not to be made the instruments, they were forced to make use of the means which they had previously concerted. The priests confined in the Carmes, under pretence of waiting some opportunity for banishment, [P 13] according to a decree of the Assembly, fell the first victims. -- The prisoners in the Abbaye were the next, who had been sent thither since the 10th of August by warrants from their murderers: the other prisons were visited successively, where this work of death, for the executioners were very few, lasted two days, and at the prison of La Force extended to four. One is tempted to enquire with Lear, "Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?" Various conjectures have been formed respecting the number put to death in those four days -- they have been lessened or exaggerated according to the political opinions of the relater. Lists of all the prisoners, at that time confined, are now printed by authority; and the amount is stated at one thousand and eighty-eight, including the felons, who formed nearly half the [P 14] number. "But, it has been said," said Louvet, in his accusation of Roberspierre, "if the people did not participate in these murders, why did they not prevent them? Why? Because the tutelar authority of Petion was fettered; because Roland spoke in vain; because the minister of justice remained silent; because the presidents of the forty-eight sections, who were ready to suppress these horrible outrages, waited for orders, which the commander in chief never issued; because municipal officers, [P 15] wearing the national scarf, the ensign of their judicial authority, presided at these atrocious executions." [Williams's translation]

Twice Petion wrote to Santerre, the commander in chief of the national guard of Paris, conjuring him to send a sufficient guard to the prisons, to protect the prisoners from violence; but Santerre was called upon in vain. Twice Petion went himself to the prison de la Force, and after describing, in his speech upon Roberspierre's accusation, the spectacle which there presented itself, with all the sensibility of indignant virtue, he adds, "And the men who passed judgment, and the men who executed that judgment, performed [P 16] their office with as much security as if the law had called upon them to fulfil those functions. They boasted to me of their justice, their attention to distinguish the innocent from the guilty, and their important services. They demanded, can it be believed! they demanded payment for their time. I was filled with horror at the request.

"I spoke to them the austere language of the law -- I spoke to them with that feeling of deep indignation with which I was penetrated. I obliged them to depart. Scarcely was I gone myself, when they returned. I went a second time, and again forced them to leave the place; but that [P 17] night they finished their horrible butchery." [Williams's translation]

Such were the immediate evils of the second of September: their consequences will probably extend far beyond the limits of that country which was the theatre of this inhuman violence. The inhabitants of Paris must bear, through every succeeding age, the recorded disgrace of having remained in a state of stupified astonishment and terror, while no more than fifty hired assassins imprinted an indelible stain upon the country. But the bitter punishment of having incurred that disgrace, is, perhaps, all which this country has to fear. Anarchy cannot be lasting. The evils it may produce will be but the evils of this day and of tomorrow ---- Those disorders which may for a while convulse the infant republic, will cease with the lives of their perpetrators, who can assassinate individuals, but cannot assassinate opinions, [P 18] which appear to be widely diffused. Yet these are considerations which may lead us to fear, that, if the evils of anarchy will be temporary, they will also be terrible. It is well known that all the legislative assembly did, was to undo what the constituent assembly had done. Convinced, from the conduct of the court, that the liberty of France could only be preserved by the terrible means of another revolution, the second legislature, not deeming the national guard sufficient for this purpose, armed every man in Paris, and consequently placed a formidable power in the hands of that swarm of idle and profligate persons which infests great capitals, and who, having nothing to lose, feel that "havock, and spoil and ruin are their gain." Such persons are, under an established government, checked in their outrages on society, by the terror of punishment; but in the [P 19] crisis of a revolution they become the dangerous instruments of party rage and faction. They may still commit enormities, of which the bourgeois of Paris, who appear since the second of September to be sunk in a state of complete stupefaction, may remain pusillanimous witnesses; but which may provoke the indignation of the other departments of the kingdom, where, in general, the love of liberty is connected with the utmost horror of anarchy. Hence civil commotions may arise. Upon the whole, the French revolution is still in its progress, and who can decide how the last page will finish?

The surrounding nations of Europe, after contemplating the savage spectacle which the second of September presented, will perhaps feel that despotism, armed with its arbitrary impositions, its gloomy towers, and its solitary dungeons, is not more hideous than anarchy. Despotism [P 20] may be compared to a stream, which, supplied from a casual spring, or unequal source, leaves, for the most part, the region through which it passes parched and desolate; yet sometimes shedding partial moisture, cheers the eye with a spot of scanty verdure -- but anarchy is the impetuous torrent that sweeps over the land with irresistible violence, and involves every object in one wide mass of ruin.

On the 20th of September the national convention assembled at Paris. On the assembly every eye was fixed with eager expectation. Invested with unlimited powers, its august mission was to give a new impulse to human affairs, to introduce a better order of things. -- The fate not only of France, but of Europe, of mankind, seemed entrusted to its wisdom and its virtue; and the happiness or misery of ages appeared to be suspended on its decisions. It was fondly [P 21] hoped that its edicts would dispel the moral chaos of popular passions, and give birth to intellectual harmony and order.

Here be it thine to calm and guide
The swelling democratic tide,
To watch the state's uncertain frame,
And baffle faction's partial aim.
[M. Akenside, "Ode to the Right Honourable Francis Earl of Huntingdon," 171-4.]

But it was soon found that one circumstance, of inauspicious omen, had cast a cloud over the rising sun of the republic. It was soon found that liberty had "fallen on evil days and evil tongues." Many of the electors of Paris were the adherents of that faction which had planned the massacres of September; and the sanctuary of the nation was profaned by the presence of men, who, after having violated all laws, appeared in the character of legislators. It was soon found that the cause of liberty had not only to fear the ambitious designs of the chiefs of this faction, who desired to rise upon the [P 22] ruins of their country, and the profligate wretches who were the instruments of their crimes; but also the mistaken attachment of men who were seduced into this party, not from depravity of heart, but from principles carried to excess; men who, taken from the lowest stations of life, and having no knowledge of public affairs, are, from the ardour of their zeal for liberty, made the dupes of its pretended champions. If the party Gironde* desire to relieve the wants of the poorer class of citizens, the Mountain [P 23] faction declare, that such expedients are at an abject distance from le hauteur de la revolution, which calls for an equal division of property.

What happier natures shrink at with affright,
The harden'd Maratist contends is right.
[adapted from A. Pope, Essay on Man, Epistle II, 229-30.]

This faction endeavour to lead the people to the last degree of moral degradation, by teaching them that the love of order is the love of depotism, and that the most unequivocal proof of patriotism is to remain in permanent insurrection. In the sections of Paris, which for the most part are under the influence of this faction, a man, in order to gain applause, must harangue in the grossest language of the lowest vulgar; and a person of education is hooted for that reason only; any superiority of mind being considered as an aristocratical deviation from the great principles of equality. This faction have declared war against every [P 24] improvement, and every grace of civilized society -- all that embellishes human life -- all that softens and refines our nature. -- They desire to send the arts and sciences into everlasting exile, to throw down all the monuments of taste and genius, and to destroy all literature in one impious conflagration. What gives room to suspect that a considerable number of these demagogues have been purchased by foreign courts, is, that the faction of the Mountain has been joined by all the former nobles and priests, who have been chosen members of the national convention. This coalition seems to arise from similarity of views: from the hope that the people, tired at length of the mischiefs and the miseries of anarchy, will again bend their necks to the yoke of despotism. It is asserted by many persons, that Marat is a determined aristocrate. And it is certain that, when he preaches insurrection and [P 25] massacre, he befriends the cause of tyrannic power; and if he is not the agent of the House of Austria, he is one of its most formidable allies. I lately asked a Frenchman of my acquaintance, who possesses distinguished talents, and the most ardent love of liberty, what prevented him from taking an active part in public affairs? "Disgust," he replied. "Our revolution," added he, "reminds me of the works of a celebrated Italian painter, who drew the most charming scenery, enriched with the most beautiful prospects and delicious walks -- but the groups of figures which were seen in those delightful regions, were grotesque and hideous. -- Such," said he, "appears our revolution in my eyes. The theory is beautiful, the principles are sublime, but many of the actors are detestable; and it is a system of which the present [P 26] race is not worthy." This want of virtue is, in truth, the sentence of their condemnation. They have indeed thrown off the fetters, but they have retained the vices of despotism.

And when contending chiefs blockade the throne,
Contracting regal power to stretch their own;
When I behold a factious band agree,
To call it freedom when themselves are free;
Fear, pity, justice, indignation start,
Tear off reserve, and rend my swelling heart;
Till, half a patriot, half a coward grown,
I fly from petty tyrants to the throne.
[O. Goldsmith, "The Traveller, or, A Prospect of Society," 380-391.]

After several weeks passed in tumultuous opposition, on the part of the Mountain, to every measure proposed by the party Gironde, and in violent denunciations against Roland, that minister, who, after having opposed with noble firmness the tyranny of the court, now resisted with the same inflexible virtue the tyranny of the demagogues, and [P 27] whom the Abbé Sieyes emphatically calls "Le Veto des coquins;" [The Veto of villains] the faction of the Mountain, in conjunction with the Jacobins and the sections of Paris, demanded with clamourous vehemence the trial of the dethroned monarch, or rather his execution, since the tedious forms of a trial did not accord with the summary proceedings of the judges of the second of September, who were accustomed to murder sans instruction prealable [without previous notice]. But before I give you an account of the trial, it is in the order of time to mention the victories obtained by the French arms in that memorable campaign, the brilliant successes of which it will require all the authenticity of modern history to render credible to posterity. . . .

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