Story of Modern France - Helene Guerber

Story of Charlotte Corday

"The Tyrant," as the Revolutionists styled poor Louis XVI., was no more, and the news of his death reached the ears of his stricken family only by means of news-vender's cries. Thus also it became known to his eldest brother,—one of the émigrés,—who immediately proclaimed the captive Dauphin, Louis XVII., assuming himself the title of Regent—because Monarchists, of course, did not accept the decree of the Convention that there should be no more royalty in France.

The new Republic, meantime, had its hands very full, for all Europe was rising up against it, the Revolution being everywhere considered as a menace to law and order. The French Royalists, too, were ready to rebel, those in the northwest being particularly rabid, as they were anxious to avenge both their king and the Church. They therefore organized what is known in history as the Insurrection of the Vendee, an uprising in and near Brittany, headed by very brave leaders. Composed of a few nobles, and of many peasants,—who were armed at first merely with scythes and pitchforks, and hooted like screech owls to signal to each other,—this royalist force carried on a guerrilla warfare in that wild section of the country for about three years. These Vendee royalists or Chouans (meaning "screech owls"), many thousands of whom gave their lives for their cause, were also known as the Whites, because they rallied around the royal standard, while their opponents, the Republicans, were known as the Blues, and proudly bore the flag which France now uses.

With so many enemies without and within, immediate measures of defense were imperative, so, while Carnot began to raise armies, Danton organized a Revolutionary Tribunal, before which "suspects" were brought and summarily judged. There was no appeal from its decrees, and as it had scores of branches in different parts of the country, no enemy of the Republic could hope to escape. Finally, the Convention intrusted all public authority to a secret Committee of Public Safety, consisting of nine able and active members. One of them, Danton, had said, "Let the reign of terror be the order of the day!" and this bloodthirsty remark furnishes the name for the darkest epoch of French history, the Reign of Terror, extending from June 2, 1793, to July 17, 1794, fourteen dreadful months!

Among those who were not satisfied with the way things were being conducted, was General Dumouriez,—the victor of Valmy and Jemappes,—who wished to restore monarchy in France, although in favor of a son of the Duke of Orleans, and not of poor little Louis XVII. When the Convention began to suspect him, after his defeat at Neerwinden, four commissioners were sent to his camp to question and, if need be, arrest him. Dumouriez, on hearing what these men had to say, exclaimed, "The tigers want my head, but I won't give it to them!" Then he turned the tables by having the commissioners summarily handed over to the Austrians, to be detained in their camp as hostages, and, after vainly trying to induce his army to follow him, he and his royal protégé (later King Louis Philippe) went over to the enemy, too.

During April and May, 1793, one reads of nothing but accusations, arrests, and riots, for the whole country was in a terrible ferment, the passions in Paris, in particular, being constantly at the boiling point. Then, early in June, thirty-four members of the Convention—known as the Girondists, because they came mostly from the Gironde—were proscribed by order of the two leaders now most influential, Marat and Robespierre, their main crime being heroic attempts to restrain the bloodthirsty element in the country. Some of the Girondists managed to escape, and fled to Lyons, Caen, and elsewhere; but more than a score were arrested and imprisoned to await trial.

The Girondists who escaped began to raise armies, using all their eloquence against their foes. Their denunciations so fired Charlotte Corday,—a girl of twenty-five, living at Caen,—that, pretending a voyage to England, she took leave of her family and betook herself to Paris. There, she intended to rid her beloved country of the monster whom she deemed the author of all its woes. So, on the pretext that she had information of importance to convey, she obtained admission to Marat's presence, although he was then suffering from a skin disease which caused such intense irritation that he was in the habit of spending most of his time in a medicated bath. To enable him to write for his paper, The People's Friend, and also to receive his many visitors, Marat lay in a covered bathtub, from which only his head and right arm emerged.

[Illustration] from The Story of Modern France by Helene Guerber


When the beautiful young woman was ushered in, Marat invited her to sit down beside him, and began eagerly inquiring the names of the deputies who had taken refuge at Caen. He had just written down the last, and was saying in a tone of grim satisfaction that their heads would soon fall, when Charlotte Corday, drawing a dagger from the folds of her kerchief, drove it deep into his heart! A moment later the dauntless girl, seized by Marat's servants, was dragged off to prison, but at her trial she calmly testified: "I wished to put a stop to the civil war, and to offer up my life for the good of my country. I have no accomplices."

Tried and found guilty, Charlotte Corday was condemned to be guillotined, but faced death with great fortitude, convinced that her deed had been fully as praiseworthy as that of Jael or Judith. And, although at that time people so admired Marat that they solemnly buried him in the Pantheon, like a great patriot, they changed their minds about him even before the Revolution was over, and removed his remains to another, less conspicuous resting place.

Meanwhile, the Girondists had stirred up rebellions in several parts of France, which were later put down with the utmost cruelty. At Lyons, as the guillotine could not work fast enough, the rebels were bunched together and mowed down in crowds with grapeshot. As for the city, it was almost destroyed, and this inscription was placed on a mound of ruins, "Lyons made war against Liberty,—Lyons is no more!" Such an example, as you may well imagine, struck terror into the hearts of all, and the cry now became, "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, or Death!"

Toulon, which the rebels had turned over to the English, was closely besieged by Republican troops. It was at this siege that Bonaparte—then a young lieutenant of artillery—pointed out the spot from which batteries could best command the enemy's position, thereby securing for the Republic a decisive advantage in the struggle for this important city. Bonaparte's unusual abilities were then and there seen and recognized by Barras, a member of the Convention, who, as you will see, was later to give this young officer a chance to distinguish himself as general in the French army.

Meantime, the Convention had been at work upon a new constitution for France, "the Constitution of 1793," which, though finished and adopted in that year, was never put into effect; instead, the Convention and its Committee of Public Safety continued to rule.