John Thelwall, "A Parallel between the Character of PITT and ROBESPIERRE," The Tribune (1795)
The Tribune, a Periodical Publication, consisting Chiefly of the Political Lectures of J. Thelwall. Taken in short-hand by W. Ramsey, and revised by the lecturer. Vol. I. London: Printed for the Author, and Sold at the Lecture-Room, Beaufort-Buildings; And by the following Booksellers: D.I. Eaton, Newgate-Street; Smith, Portsmouth-Street, Lincoln's-Inn-Fields; and Burks, Crispin-Street, Spitalfields. 1795.
The Tribune, No. XI. Saturday, 23d May, 1795.
Citizens, I shall now proceed to the last part of the lecture of this evening, namely, a comparison between the character of Robespierre and the immaculate minister of this country. I know well, citizens, what dangerous ground I tread upon: I know very well that though treason once meant compassing and imagining the death of the King, it now means telling truth to the shame and confusion of Ministers. I know also, "'Twere better pluck the master by the beard, than hurt the favorite's heel." I have no doubt, either, that there are persons here of various opinions: some of them, perhaps, good pious men, who, when they say their prayers, forget the name of God, and whisper Pitt. Let such, however, perform the bidding of their purblind deity. I invite them–I wish them to note every word I say. Let them call upon me to repeat any part they think good ground of prosecution: I will repeat it; for I can support, by historical facts, the opinion that I give; and if the country is so lost in degeneracy that a jury can be bought to deprive an Englishman of his liberty, for saying the truth, this is no longer Britain, and I am desirous of being no longer in it. Send me with my beloved compatriot Gerrald–with him let me try the inhospitable climate of New Holland, herd among felons, or escape to the abodes of savages.
Let us compare, then, the usurper Robespierre with the boasted Minister of this country:–a Minister who has been constantly imitating, for a long time, the worst parts of every oppressive measure of the French dictator and his faction, at the very moment while he was calumniating and abusing those measures: that Minister who, without the energy of Robespierre, has all his dictatorial ambition; who, without the provocations which Robespierre and his faction experienced, has endeavoured, vainly endeavoured, to carry into execution the same system of massacre for opinion, of sanguinary prosecution for proclaiming truth, of making argument High Treason, and destroying every individual who dared to expose his conduct, or oppose his ambitious views. Does this appear too strong a censure. It is only so, because the
sanguinary malice of the English Minister has been as impotent as it was malignant;–because he and his faction had not energy enough, and British juries had too much honesty, to crown his malice with success. But if you want proofs of the views and objects of the man, peruse the facts relative to the late prosecutions, and particularly the trials, and the documents upon which those trials were founded.–If you find, from beginning to end, one single attempt, one single act, that leans towards what the law of this country calls treason–if you find any one act of violence, or attempt at violence, proved against any of the persons tried–if you do not find that the witnesses for the Crown (I should say for the Minister, for it is he, I must believe, and not the Crown, that stained the annals of the country with these prosecutions)–if it is not proved, even by the witnesses for the prosecution, that several of the men prosecuted for High Treason were most determinately hostile to all systems of violence; that they had opposed regularly and consi[st]ently every thing that looked like violence; that they had always contended that truth and reason were to be their only weapons–if you do not find these things as I now state them, brand me in the forehead, let me be marked with contempt and odium; let me (what can be worse) let me be baptized a William, and nicknamed a Pitt!
If it should be proved, and I have the documents to prove,–that is to say, I have lodged them where those who have an interest in suppressing the truth shall not be able to seize them till they are printed, and then they may get the printed copies.–If it should be proved also, that those men had all this in evidence before them in the Privy Council, from the witnesses they examined, what will you say, but that Terror was to have been the order of the day here also; that all argument was to be treason, and opinion felony; and that men for the future were to be afraid to open their lips to a friend at the table, or encore a speech at the playhouse, for fear of being hanged, drawn and quartered, for High Treason?–I think, when you consider these facts, you can have no doubt what the disposition of this man was: what the inclination, however deficient he might be in energy, to imitate the tyranny of Robespierre.–If you recollect, also, as it is pretty well agreed, that 800 warrants for high treason were signed and sealed, ready to be executed upon the conviction of Hardy: of which they entertained no doubt: not recollecting that English Juries are not Scotch Juries, nor always ready to obey the nod of a minister, you
will start with horror at the recollection of the precipice from which you have escaped.
But let us pursue the parallel.
Both of them have proved themselves to be men equally destitute of philosophy, and of those social affections, and tender sympathies that smooth the rugged temper of the politician, and make gentleness and energy go hand in hand. They have both, also shewn themselves to be sanguinary and revengeful, prone to suspicion, and exhibiting a strange mixture of personal cowardice and political impetuosity.
Robespierre and his faction ravaged France, it is true, for the destruction of royalty. Pitt and his faction have depopulated Europe, and spread a general famine through this quarter of the universe, for the annihilation of liberty.
Robespierre adopted a fair and impartial requisition, for the defence of the liberties of his country: (I say a fair and impartial requisition, for what so just, and so impartial, if you are to have war, as to compel every man, whatever be his fortune, to partake of the hardships and perils of that war? to suffer no man, by procuring a substitute, to put the life of a human being who happens to be in a different state of society in competition with his paltry pittance of property, however it may be acquired?) Pitt, on the contrary, has adopted a partial requisition, by which the poor are submitted to the absolute controul, without appeal, of any justice of the peace, who chooses to pronounce that they have no visible means of subsistence; and in which the lower orders of society are to be compelled, exclusively, to bleed for the promotion and aggrandizement of the great.
Both have had their parties and their partialities.
Robespierre unjustly oppressed the rich, that he might support his popularity among the poor. Pitt has neglected, and by his wars and consequent taxes, oppressed the poor, to secure his pop[u]larity among the rich.
Robespierre, in order to preserve a plentiful circulation of the necessaries of life, punished combinations (cruelly and unjustly punished them!–for severity and cruelty are always unjust!) among the merchants and monopolists, that he might shew his partiality for the laborious part of the community. Under the administration of Pitt, punishments still continue to be awarded against the labourers who combine to increase their wages, while monopoly is connived at and encouraged, among the wealthy, upon whom alone administration chuse to rest their confidence.
Both have made use of extraordinary means for filling the ranks of their armies, and manning their fleets.
Pitt has tolerated crimps, kidnappers, and press-gangs. Robespierre took care that, whatever might be the condition of the other members of society, the army and navy should be well clothed, well fed, and well paid.
Robespierre set up a free constitution, and tyrannized in direct opposition to it. Pitt praises another free constitution, and tramples all its provisions under foot.
One effected his purpose by a dependent Committee of Public Safety. The other by a packed majority of boroughmongers and white slave-merchants: for such we must consider them, if the assertion of Mr. Alderman Newnham is true, that the common people of this country, of whom they dispose, are in the condition of West-India slaves.
Both pretended to reverence Trial by Jury: and both endeavoured to undermine it as fast as they could. Robespierre by erecting a Revolutionary Tribunal, which had a perpetual Jury, of his own appointment; and Pitt by fabricating innumerable acts, which vest the trial of Englishmen (especially the poor, dependent, classes of Englishmen) in the arbitrary discretion of Justices of the Peace.
Robespierre is accused of keeping a set of witnesses to swear whatever he chose, and of calling them his lambs. I don't know whether Pitt may be called the good shepherd, but he also has as fine a flock as ever grazed on the bounty of his rival: he has his Groves's, his Taylors, his Walshes, his Alexanders, his Lynams, his Uptons, and a long list of gentlemen, equally respectable, equally valuable, I don't say with himself, but with each other; and whom we will dignify, if you please, with the title of Knights of the honorable order of Confidants, or retainers of gentlemen high in office.
Pitt has, however, escaped the odium of part of this parallel; for Robespierre has been accused of actually sacrificing, by these means, a monstrous number of people–A much greater number he has been charged with destroying, than in reality have fallen: for I remember having read of one man's being guillotined six times, who was afterwards killed in a massacre, which never took place, and after that had the honors of the sitting in the Convention: and to add to the pathos, he was a man 70 years old, and had nine children.–Santerre was guillotined twice, and had afterwards the honors of the sitting in the Convention. General Mirande was guillotined several times, also; and Kellerman, who has now
the command of one of the armies. Undoubtedly however he did, under the pretence of law, commit a monstrous train of massacres.–But I will ask you, what might have been the situation of this country, if the late prosecutions had succeeded? Consider that there were many thousand members of the London Corresponding Society,–and that a part of the doctrine was, that every member, whether present at their objectionable deliberations or not, was answerable for the whole acts of the society, and for every political act of every individual connected with it.
But, suppose they meant to go no farther than the destruction of those whom they had marked as their first victims–though I am credibly informed that a noble Lord was heard to say, that he believed they must hang a third part of the Constitutional Society, and perhaps that might be enough. Now, as it was admitted that the Constitutional Society was not so bad as the London Corresponding Society, we may conclude that one half of the Members of the latter were to be hanged also; and that might have been enough for them. But who knows, when you once begin a system of massacre, and especially legal massacre, for opinion, where you can stop? I do not believe that Robespierre meditated, in the first instance, those scenes of carnage into which he at last was plunged. But fear of revenge, and the brooding malice of suspicion, hurried him from act to act of accumulating horror, till nothing but his own destruction could retrieve the country. And I have strong suspicions in my mind, that, if they had touched the life of an individual who stood at the bar of the Old Bailey, the gaols of London (and we all know we have abundance) would have been as crammed as ever the prisons of Paris were, even in the very dog-days of the tyranny of Robespierre.
Both these men also have a happy knack of sacrificing their friends, whenever they find it convenient to get rid of them. Thus we find if a Danton and a Hebert have been cut off by Robespierre, as soon as they had answered his purpose, Pitt has also abandoned a Jackson, a Fitzwilliam, and a Robert Watt.
But here, Citizens, the parallel ends. For, though Pitt has the dictatorial ambition, he can never be accused of the energy or virtues of Robespierre.
Pitt is the tool of an oligarchic faction, over whom he appears to tyrannize, but who can make him, when they please, their slave? Robespierre made every thing subservient to his own views, and the greatness of his own mind.
The one was firm, steady, and constant; the first in the original assembly of France who declared himself hostile to royalty; and he never departed from his text—Whether that text was right or wrong I am not now enquiring. The other, on the contrary, throughout his whole conduct, has been shuffling, treacherous, and evasive. The most anxious advocate for parliamentary reform, associated with the first modern projectors of the plan of universal suffrage and annual parliaments; he has since been the bitterest enemy to reformation, and has even thirsted for the blood of every individual who would not be as great an apostate as himself.
He has, indeed, pretended to be consistent with respect to the slave trade; but it was only, I am afraid, consistent hypocricy. He can command a majority for places and pensions; but he cannot command a vote for the interests of humanity.
Robespierre had a soul capacious, an imagination various, a judgement commanding, penetrating, severe. Fertile of resources, he foresaw, created, and turned to his advantage all the events that could possibly tend to the accomplishment of his designs. The mind of Pitt is barren and inflated, his projects are crude, and his views short sighted.
One was always politically intrepid and unmoved; his means always adequate to the end, and always persevered in with steadiness and consistency. The other, indecisive, fluctuating, and capricious, adopts a project to-day, and abandons it to-morrow; issues an order from the Privy Council in the morning, and countermands it at night. His calculations (which do not depend upon the rule of three) have always been erroneous and deceitful; and his consequent blu[n]ders have been such as nothing but his smoothe verbosity could cover.
One possessed the key of the passions and understood how to estimate their influences, and command the various operations of the human mind. The whole knowledge of the other is confined to his numeration table. Figures he can command, but in events he has always been so mistaken that he has attempted no one thing without effecting the very contrary.–Anxious to suppress Jacobinism in France, he adopted the very measures best calculated to make "the banner of Jacobinism triumph without a struggle." The projector of the seizure of the French West India Islands, the means he has employed have been so inadequate to the object, that the event in all probability, must be, after being flattered with a transient gleam of success, the total loss of all our own possessions in that part of the world.
The one, though dreaded was respected; he was revered while he was abhorred. The energy of his mind commanded success; victory attended upon the arms he directed, partly, it is true, from the energy of the country; but partly, from the energy, also, of his directing mind; which planned, which formed, which pervaded the whole system; saw all the parts, and knew to which in particular, it was necessary for him to direct his powers. Every one of his plans were conducted to its accomplishment except the last he undertook, and in which he was disappointed because France was too much enlightened, after having shaken off the chains of one tyrant, to yield to those of another. We find attendant upon the heels of his rival–on the contrary–not victory and triumph, but disgrace and defeat: disgraces so innumerable that nothing but the muddy imaginations of the inventors could possibly have occasioned them all: defeats so continued that scorn, instead of lamentation, followed at their heels.
Add to this that Robespierre had a mind too great to be debauched by any thing but ambition. He grasped at no accumulation of places and emoluments; he neither enriched himself nor his family; he indulged in no voluptuous pleasures; he was incorruptible; severe in simplicity to the last; and we cannot do greater justice to his memory than by closing this lecture by a quotation from the works of one of his bitterest enemies, Montgaillard:–"He possesses a character of incorruptibility," says he, "which hath preserved his influence against all the attacks of the Brissotines, and of the Commune of Paris. Solely confined in appearance to his functions of Member of the Committee of Public Safety and of Jacobin, Robespierre shews every appearance of the most unaffected man. This modesty of triumph, this oeconomy of person, and the obscurity of his private life, have so long secured him the popular favour: he lives as he did in 1790, neither altering his manners, nor his taste, and always changeless."
Having reviewed these facts, it is impossible to doubt which of these characters we must prefer.