Victims, Authority, and Terror: The Parallel Deaths of d'orlaeans, Custine, Bailly, and Malesherbes

By George Armstrong Kelly | Go to book overview

17. Conclusion

Four cases of victimization by the Jacobin Terror, studied in considerable biographical detail, cannot permit us to extrapolate the complex rationale -- regional, personal and vengeful, micropolitical, or even haphazard -- that would account for the killing of some thirty-five or forty thousand persons, and the imprisonment of perhaps five times as many others, by the government of the Year II.1 However, we have cleared away a lot of the debris that concealed the major structural outlines and implicit meaning of the Terror. Although biography has been used for this experiment, it has never been asserted that the Terror was an aggregated bundle of psychological reactions, either by the executioners or the victims. A richness of personal detail has been used to exemplify and symbolize Jacobin repression in France, by relating individuals to roles, roles to significant parts of the social spectrum, and the latter to ideological models of authority current at the time. There is a legitimate explanatory history that builds by such devices, not crudely and inductively, but representatively and symbolically, without committing the psychological fallacy.

As I pointed out much earlier, this work goes only part way to securing a definition of Jacobinism. Although enough of Jacobin doctrine has been canvassed in these pages for us to treat it as something less than impenetrable, we have not made the attempt here to analyze its particulars or to give the creative aspect of Jacobinism due credit. Having come this far, it would still be possible to construct a moral or prudential defense of Jacobinism -- for we have not been arranging a parade of dead heroes. The title of this chapter is, therefore, in part a conclusion and in part an irony. Surely if there is one single bold thesis to the work, it is that Jacobinism, in a position to organize Terror just as it organized victory, attempted to uproot all those elements of the social body that it perceived as aristocracies, within the course of a revolution largely prepared and launched by aristocrats. Jacobinism's definition of aristocracy was drawn first from surviving residues of the mentalities of the Old Regime and persons in whom its corporate attitudes seemed embodied, secondly from the extension of vendettas, through this justification, to other parties. The many opportunistic elements of real-life Jacobinism do not refute its ground swell of moral outrage and its doctrinaire political vision. But here we face the irony. For we have said little or nothing about the "Republic of Virtue." There were republicans in France, such

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