John Dunn

  • Saint-Just by Norman Hampson
    Blackwell, 245 pp, £27.50, January 1991, ISBN 0 631 16233 X

On ne peut point régner innocemment. Every king is a rebel and a usurper. This man must reign or die.’ Saint-Just’s maiden speech to the Convention on 13 November 1792 marked his unforgettable entrance onto the national political stage. Arguing that in place of the formal hypocrisies of a judicial tribunal, the representatives of the People of France, the Convention, must judge their king, and judge him as a vanquished foreign enemy under the law of nations, rather than as a fellow citizen subject to common laws and entitled to a share in their protection, it showed not only his extraordinary talent for brutal political simplification, and his capacity to seize the hour, but also the ease and completeness with which he was able to change his mind.

Some eighteen months earlier, in his Esprit de la Révolution et de la Constitution de France, Saint-Just had accepted without apparent strain (and with some explicit deference to the authority of Montesquieu) the view that what the Revolution had established was a moderate government: a constitutional monarchy, in which the monarch did not reign but simply governed, and in which, even if he had in the past been somewhat injudicious, he was plainly no closer to being an enemy alien (and rather less obviously inhumane, cruel and untrustworthy) than the mob which had stormed the Bastille and created the conditions which made a constitutional government possible. Less than two years later, on the tenth of Thermidor of the year II, Saint-Just himself was dead, guillotined with his friend Robespierre a few hours after a detachment of National Guards broke into the Hôtel de Ville, on the orders of the Convention, to arrest them.

No one could claim for him the manifest historical importance or the enduring political influence of Robespierre, let alone the intellectual penetration of a pioneer interpreter of the Revolution like Sieyès or a Thermidorian enemy like Constant. But in those two extraordinary years, no one in France came to have a sharper or more menacing political identity. L’archange de la mort, as Michelet called him, the man who, as Camille Desmoulins imprudently sneered, carried his head as though it were a consecrated host, was not just one of the most histrionic figures in a glitteringly theatrical cast, adjusting his immense silken stock painstakingly in front of the mirror while dictating death sentences to his secretary. He was also one of the most decisive and masterful members of the great Committee of Public Safety which did not merely impose the will of the Jacobin dictatorship on its less single-minded and bloodthirsty political opponents but led France to victory against the armies of Ancien Régime Europe. Saint-Just is certainly no contender for a place in any sanitised recuperation of a Revolution at last made safe for the Europe of 1992. It is unsurprising, for example, to find him missing from François Furet and Mona Ozouf’s Critical Dictionary. What Babeuf and Barnave and Carnot and Condorcet and Danton and Lafayette and Marat and Mirabeau and Burke and Constant and Fichte and Guizot and Kant and Maistre and Stael (and many, many others) have in common is that, in some way, either their role in the Revolution or their conception of what the Revolution really meant still demands to be taken seriously. Not so, apparently, with Saint-Just. This would certainly not have been the opinion of Michelet. It is a very nice point whether it is Norman Hampson’s.

When Michelet introduces Saint-Just to his readers he does so with as little enthusiasm as Hampson, showing him calling implacably for the death of Louis XVI and sending shivers of joy through the ranks of a Convention whose favourite speakers up to this point had been des parleurs, des prêcheurs, des pédagogues. Ici, c’était un tyran. But by the time Saint-Just goes to his execution, Michelet has clearly fallen under his spell, seeing in his death not just a striking theatrical dignity but genuine historical grandeur. Il mourut digne, grave et simple. La France ne se consolera jamais d’une telle espérance: celui-ci est grand d’une grandeur qui lui est propre. Hampson, however, never shows the faintest sign of entrancement. For him, Saint-Just is more or less grotesquely silly throughout, almost always disreputable in his motives or disagreeable in his attitude, and, as time goes by, ever more hideously dangerous to know. This is a far from unreasonable response to a human being who was in many ways authentically appalling. But it does not make for a very illuminating book.

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[*] University of California Press, 300 pp., $39.95, October 1990, 0 520 06879 3.