Policing Public Opinion in the French Revolution: The Culture of Calumny and the Problem of Free Speech

By Charles Walton | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE
Policing in the Old Regime

Can there exist a more reasonable and incontestable relationship than the one
between policing and the science of mœurs?

—J. Peuchet, “Discours préliminaire,” Jurisprudence, Encyclopédie méthodique, 1791


Virtue and Terror

Standing before the National Convention on February 5, 1794 (17 Pluviôse, Year II), Maximilien Robespierre delivered his most famous speech, “On the Principles of Political Morality.” “The moral force of popular government in times of revolution,” he declared, “is both virtue and terror.” Few statements express so succinctly the pathological spirit of the Terror. For historian R. R. Palmer, the speech constitutes “one of the most notable utterances in the history of democracy.”1 Indeed, from the perspective of stable liberal democracies today, it reads like a blueprint for totalitarianism. Put in context, however, the speech can be understood as a tactical response to the revolutionary predicament. As a leading member of the Committee of Public Safety, which held executive power, Robespierre found himself pinched between those who wanted to dismantle the Terror (the Indulgents) and those who wanted to push it further (the hébertistes). He felt compelled to justify the Terror, aware that repudiating it would leave too many revolutionaries who had blood on their hands—not least himself—vulnerable to countervengeances. At the same time, he recognized that rampant vengeances were threatening to consume the whole Revolution. Thus, even as he presided over efforts to channel them into judicial institutions, he tried to inspire civil restraint by invoking virtue. Finally, he felt obliged to pay lip

-17-

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