A Green Revolution; the Incorruptibles: Robespierre and (Inset) Rainsborough

Daily Mail (London), March 11, 2008 | Go to article overview

A Green Revolution; the Incorruptibles: Robespierre and (Inset) Rainsborough


Byline: Charles Legge

QUESTION How did Maximilien Robespierre earn his nicknamethe 'sea-green incorruptible'? PROVINCIAL lawyer Maximilien Francois MarieIsidore de Robespierre (1758-1794) became leader of the Jacobin faction inFrance's 1792 Revolutionary National Convention. He supported the execution ofLouis XVI and the overthrow of the Right-wing republican Girondins.

In July 1793, he was elected to the Committee of Public Safety, which cementedthe Revolution by the imposition of a bloody totalitarian regime known tohistory as The Terror. The upheaval of this period led to Robespierre's ownexecution by guillotine in 1794.

Robespierre earned from his contemporaries the nickname The Incorruptible byvirtue of his dogmatic stance on the administration of the Republic and hislack of interest in money.

He is said to have ordered only 72 executions personally, leading some to claimthat he has been unfairly blamed for The Terror, but he has long been viewed inthis country as the arch-villain of the Revolutionnowhere more so than in the writings of Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881).

It was Carlyle who gave him the epithet 'the sea-green incorruptible' not, ashas been claimed, because of the olive green coat he usually wore, but becausehe is described as having had a 'bilious complexion'.

Carlyle is highly disparaging: 'So moves the incorruptible seagreenRobespierre; with cheap magnanimity' and 'O seagreen Prophet, unhappiest ofwindbags blown nigh to bursting &' His description of Robespierre, in TheFrench Revolution (1837), is taken from the eyewitness account of Madame DeStael (1766-1817).

Carlyle describes him as: 'that anxious, slight, ineffectual-looking man, under30, in spectacles ... his complexion of a multiplex atrabiliar colour, thefinal shade of which may be the pale sea-green.' But was Carlyle reflecting,consciously or unconsciously, an echo from an earlier time and anotherRevolution? In January 1647, former navy officer turned army officer ThomasRainsborough (1610-1648) was elected to the English Parliament, where heassumed a leading role among Left-wing MPs and what became the popular Levellerfaction.

He took part in the Putney Debates and helped draw up the Heads Of TheProposals document, demanding a proper constitutional monarchy. At every stageof political development, not unlike Robespierre, he declined to be seduced bythe trappings of power or to compromise revolutionary gains.

Like Robespierre, he supported the trial and execution of the monarch and, likeRobespierre, he too fell victim to the machinations of civil war violence.

Sent north by the Parliamentary Army grandees to the siege of Pontefract, onthe night of October 30, 1648, he was surprised by a party of four Royalistspretending to be Parliamentarians who tried to take him prisoner. In theensuing struggle, Rainsborough was killed.

Many believed the Army grandees were implicated in the plot to get rid of aninconvenient Left-winger.

Rainsborough's body was brought back to London, where his soldiers andthousands of Levellers lined the route of his funeral processionwearing in their hats strips torn from his regimental flags in sea-green silk.

Sea green was subsequently adopted as the Levellers' colour.

James Westwood, Birmingham.

QUESTION The tail flukes of the whale family are horizontal, while those of thefishes are vertical. Is there any biological reason for this, and which is themost efficient method of propulsion? THREE major groups of mammals havereturned to the ways of distant ancestors by returning to the sea: the Sirenia(dugongs and manatees), the Cetacea (whales and dolphins) and the Pinnepedia(seals, sea lions, and walruses). All have adopted the horizontal tail flukeand propel themselves by beating them up and down.

Many hydrodynamic studies have documented both the mode and efficiency of bothforms of underwater locomotion, and the general consensus is that each isequally efficient. …

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