Spirit of the Terror

La 1ère République

by Albert Soboul
Calmann-Lévy, 365 pp., $19.90 francs

Annales Historiques de la Révolution Française

Société des Etudes Robespierristes, 6 francs

English Historians on the French Revolution

by Hedva Ben-Israel
Cambridge, 311 pp., $11.50

Saint-Just, the collaborator of Robespierre and one of the moving spirits of the Terror, was born in 1768. His bi-centenary last year was the occasion of tributes to his memory and to the regime in which he played one of the principal roles. The Annales devoted to him the whole of its January-March issue. Professor Soboul brought out his 1ère République in which, as has long been fashionable, the period of the Terror is portrayed as the heroic period of the Revolution. As the jacket to this work informs us, though the first republic endured until Napoleon was proclaimed Emperor in 1804, the events after Thermidor (July 27, 1794), when Robespierre and Saint-Just were executed, have been eclipsed by “the tragic grandeur of the year II. In the eyes of history the first republic remains that of 1793.”

In 1793 Saint-Just became a member of the Committee of Public Safety, which between the fall of the Girondins and Thermidor was the effective government of France. He was one of the leaders of the group of men who put down revolt at home and laid the civil and military foundations for victory abroad, and whose economic measures halted the progress of inflation and preserved the poor from starvation. The practical part, however, which he played in these events does not seem to have been large. One of the contributors to the Annales shows that as a representative on mission to the armies, he had considerable administrative achievements to his credit, but these could hardly entitle him to the claim of having been one of the Revolution’s great men of action. Nothing, indeed, has so far emerged to upset Georges Lefebvre’s judgment that on the principal occasion when action was required of him, that is, at Thermidor, he proved incapable of it. He is famous primarily as an orator who in his speeches gave an inflexible support to the republic, and to the Terror which he saw as the instrument of its preservation. It is because of these services to the revolutionary cause that Professor Soboul, in his Introduction to the issue of Annales of January 1968, claims that Saint-Just will never fail to arouse men’s admiration.

Saint-Just, who was only in his twenty-seventh year when he was guillotined, began his adult life as a rascal who stole his mother’s silver and sold it in Paris to pay his debts—an offense for which he was imprisoned in a house of correction designed for the delinquent children of families who could afford to pay for their board and lodging, but lacked the social standing necessary to get them into the Bastille. No one knows how the young libertine was transformed into the model of revolutionary virtue; the transformation was, however, complete by November 1792 when Saint-Just delivered his famous speech in the Convention in favor of the execution of Louis XVI.

Saint-Just’s reputation for virtue rested on his incorruptibility, at a time when many of the …

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