Story of Modern France - Helene Guerber

Many Executions

The end of the year 1793 was marked by a new change; namely, the formal abolishment of Christian religion in some parts of France, and the introduction of the "Worship of Reason." Many of the Revolutionists pretended not to believe in God, or in any life to come, so these men—Hebert and his followers—wrote over the gates of cemeteries, "Death is an eternal sleep," and decreed that the Church of Notre Dame should henceforth be used as the Temple of Reason. Their new worship was introduced by a pageant, an actress of the lowest type being dressed up like Minerva, placed on a golden chariot, and dragged into the building sanctified by many centuries of real devotion. There, all bowed down before the new goddess, while young girls strewed flowers before her, singing hymns. The whole ceremony was a ghastly parody of the religious ceremonies in the past, and shocked all good Christians, Catholic or Protestant, although no one dared express all one felt in such dangerous times.

Meantime, the siege of Toulon had been going on; and before the year closed, the Republic, thanks to Bonaparte, recovered possession of that port. One day during that siege Bonaparte called for a man to write under his dictation. Junot, a young officer, volunteered his services, and just as he finished writing, a cannon ball, striking near by, scattered dirt over his paper. Without changing color, Junot laughingly exclaimed, "Good! I shall not need any sand!" (In those days, sand was shaken over one's paper, to absorb extra ink, for blotters were not yet invented.) His coolness on this occasion not only attracted Bonaparte's attention, but won his genuine admiration. And Junot fully returned that feeling, for he said a little later, "General Bonaparte is one of those men of whom nature forms but few, and casts them on our globe perhaps once in a century!"

The new year 1794 was ushered in by a decree from the Convention, ordering the people to celebrate the anniversary of Louis XVI.'s death as a national festival. Then, too, were destroyed the remains of the former kings of France, hitherto so carefully preserved at St. Denis. In carrying out this destruction, many famous historic tombs, priceless works of art, were badly damaged, and valuable relics were stolen or lost. Still, the remains were not so radically disposed of as some supposed, for it is said considerable royal dust was later discovered in these very tombs, which have since been carefully restored.

The Reign of Terror had spread all over France because members of the Convention were sent out, clothed with absolute power, to take charge of affairs in the various provinces. Carrier, for instance, the member who had control in the Vendee, proved a most cruel man, and about this time began executing all captured rebels—men, women, and children. As the guillotine could not work fast enough, he embarked hosts of captives in rotten ships, which he ordered scuttled in the middle of the river Loire. After a while, however, even old ships seemed too precious to sacrifice, so the prisoners, tied in cruel derision in pairs, this was called a Republican marriage,—were thrown overboard, to sink after a few vain efforts to keep afloat. Thus the Loire kept rolling corpses down to the sea for several months, as, all told, in these drownings, Carrier disposed of at least fifteen thousand victims.

Indeed, no one was safe in those days; those who were up to-day were likely to be down to-morrow. Desmoulins, the man who started the Revolution by his speech in the Palais Royal garden, after being a popular favorite for some time, was arrested and sent to the guillotine, heartbroken at the idea of being separated from his beautiful young wife. And, because this unfortunate lady haunted the neighborhood of his prison, in quest of news, she, too, was arrested and executed, a fortnight later. Danton, whose fiery speeches excited the people to invade the Tuileries and massacre the Swiss guards, and who argued for the execution of the king, was further noted as president of the Jacobin Club, and founder of the Revolutionary Tribunal. Although he now began to advocate moderation, his voice was no longer heard; he who had once been leader, having incurred the jealousy of Robespierre, was arrested with Desmoulins and brought to trial, too. When asked, as usual, his name and abode, Danton proudly stated: My name? It is Danton, a name tolerably well known in the Revolution. My dwelling? It will soon be nowhere, but my name will live in the Pantheon of history!" During his trial he stated: "Just one year ago, I was instrumental in instituting the Revolutionary Tribunal; I beg God and men to forgive me." The bloody tribunal which he founded now sentenced him to death (1794), and his last words to the executioner were, "Show the people my head; it is worth seeing!"

Not only were politicians executed, but harmless poets like Chenier, who on the scaffold struck his brow, exclaiming, "I have done naught as yet for posterity, and still, there was something there!" Scientists fared no better. Condorcet, the mathematician, was tracked from one hiding place to another, and would have been guillotined, had not sudden death by apoplexy, or poison, saved him from that fate. The "Founder of Modern Chemistry," Lavoisier, begged for time to leave the world some record of an invaluable discovery he had made, only to be harshly informed by his grossly ignorant judges that "the Republic has no need of scientists!" Thus, as another writer remarked, "It took them only a moment to decree the fall of that head, and still a hundred years perchance will not suffice to produce another like it!" Even the philanthropic physician, Dr. Guillotin—a friend of Franklin, who had persuaded Louis XVI. that it would be more humane to execute criminals by a mechanical device than to rely solely as heretofore upon an executioner's ax and uncertain aim—proved another of the innocent victims of the guillotine, which, although it owes its name to him, was invented by some one else.