Southey on Remarkable Characters ... from the Commencement of the French Revolution to the present time, in The Quarterly Review

Southey on "Remarkable Characters," in The Quarterly Review 7.14 (June 1812): 412-38.

Art. XIV. Biographie Moderne: Lives of remarkable Characters who have distinguished themselves from the Commencement of the French Revolution to the present time. From the French. 3 vols. 8vo. London; Longman and Co. 1812.


            ... To those readers who do not remember the beginning of the French revolution it would be difficult or impossible to convey the feelings which they [these volumes] have excited in us, in whom they revive the memory of that stirring season when the best and the worst principles and passions were not only called into action with equal force, but were even blended together as strangely as the discordant elements of chaos. That season has past away. A generation has gone by since the commencement of this bloody drama. They who were the chief actors in the first part have disappeared.


            The plans of the Terrorists themselves have never been explained. Danton, the only man among them in whom any of the elements of greatness were compounded, was influenced by personal


ambition, and provided he could enrich himself and trample upon his rivals, he cared not what principles, or what atrocities served for the means. Marat was a maniac, who having hardened his heart with anatomical cruelties, caught the revolutionary frenzy and ran wild with vague generalities. Robespierre began his political career without any predilections for a republican form of government; but we know from his own lips that he had conceived a system for the establishment of which his crimes were perpetrated. Two days after Cecile Renault, a poor girl, whom the horrors which were daily committed seem to have deranged, had called at his door just to see, she said, what a tyrant was like, he made one of his most remarkable speeches in the Convention; regarding this circumstance as an attempt to assassinate him, and perhaps believing it to be so. "Surrounded by assassins," he said, "I have already imagined myself to be in that new order of things to which they would send me; but the greater the endeavours to terminate my earthly career, the greater shall be my activity in the performance of actions useful to my equals. I will at least leave a will, the perusal of which will make tyrants and their satellites tremble ..."

            ... The will of which he had spoken never appeared: he left no other legacy to mankind than the history of his elevation and his fall, a lesson which ought ever to be present to those who would begin the work of revolutionizing a state.


            The fall of Robespierre was the triumph of fear rather than of justice, and the satisfaction with which it must be contemplated is incomplete, because a few monsters even worse than himself were among the foremost in sending him to the scaffold. His punishment however was as signal as his crimes. His under jaw was shattered with a pistol shot, either by himself in an ineffectual attempt at suicide, or by a gendarme in the struggle ...


            ... this man [Robespierre] is one of the many persons whom the revolution made wicked, though it did not find them so. He had been a studious youth, and a respectable man; and his character contributed not a little to the ascendancy which he obtained over rivals, some of whom were corrupt, others impudently profligate, and of whom there were few who had any pretensions to morality. He became bloody, because a revolutionist soon learns to consider human lives as the counters with which he plays his perilous game; and he perished after he had cut off every man who was capable of directing the republic, because they had committed the greatest abominations of the revolution united against him, that they might secure themselves and wash their hands in his blood.


            ... That the end will be good we believe with perfect faith: — but well will it be for us, if, in its progress, we discover those errors which have made its course hitherto so fatal. In our foreign relations the wickedness of the enemy has given us all that could be wished: we stand upon the ground which France occupied at the beginning of the contest, and we are at this moment leagued, not with corrupt courts, and oppressive governments, but with people fighting for their independence, and their hearths and altars — and with the friends of liberty wherever they exist. France has done this for us abroad; the example of France must be our security at home: it has been lost upon our Heberts and Marats, and Chaumettes, who go on inflaming the passions of the ignorant and ferocious part of the community, as if they themselves were not sure to be the victims in their turn, of the revolution which they are labouring to produce. The circumstances of England give these men far greater advantage than their fellow journalists and writers enjoyed in France. We may hereafter take occasion to show in what manner the state of society in this country is favourable to their nefarious prospects, and what are the means by which they may best be counteracted.