Rousseau, Robespierre, and English Romanticism

By Gregory Dart | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 1
Despotism of liberty: Robespierre and the
illusion of politics

Concerning the French, I wish Buonaparte had stayed in Egypt, and that Robespierre had guillotined Sieyès. These cursed complex governments are good for nothing, and will ever be in the hands of intriguers. The Jacobins were the men; and one house of representatives, lodging the executive in committees, the plain and common system of government. The cause of republicanism is over, and it is now only a struggle for dominion. There wanted a Lycurgus 1 after Robespierre, a man loved for his virtue, and bold, and inflexible, and who should have levelled the property of France, and then would the Republic have been immortal, and the world must have been revolutionised by example. 2


I

At the end of a letter to Samuel Taylor Coleridge of 23 December 1799, which was written immediately after Napoleon Bonaparte's coup d'état of 18 Brumaire, the young republican poet Robert Southey expressed sentiments which went directly against the grain of history. Not only did he distance himself from the counter-revolutionary consensus that was growing in England at this time, he also rejected the claims of Bonaparte and Emmanuel Sieyès that the French Constitution of 1799 represented the final fulfilment of the revolutionary ideal. 3 In his impatience with contemporary politics on either side of the Channel, Southey harked back to the Jacobin phase of the French Revolution, the period lasting from 1792 to 1794 during which the First Republic had been governed according to uncompromisingly egalitarian principles. As is well known, this phase was to culminate in Maximilien Robespierre's infamous 'Reign of Terror', which resulted in the imprisonment and execution of many thousands of people. By 1799 fewer and fewer English radicals still looked to France as the land of liberty and promise, and an even smaller number were concerned to rehabilitate Robespierre's reputation. How

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