Chateaubriand's memoirs, V, 13

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book V - Chapter 13
The sessions of the National Assembly - Robespierre



Paris, December 1821.

The sessions of the National Assembly offered an interest that the sessions of our own Chambers are far from approaching. One had to rise early to secure a place in the crowded galleries. Deputies arrived eating, talking, gesturing; they grouped themselves in various parts of the room, according to their opinions. The order of the day was read; after that the agreed subject was discussed, or an extraordinary motion. It was not a question of insipid points of law; the order of the day rarely omitted some scheme of destruction. They spoke for and against; everybody improvised as best he could. Debates grew stormy; the galleries joined in the discussion, applauding and cheering, hissing and booing the speakers. The president rang his bell; the deputies shouted from one bench to another. Mirabeau the Younger seized his opponent by the collar; Mirabeau the Elder cried: ‘Silence, the thirty votes!’ One day, I was seated behind the royalist opposition; a noble from the Dauphiné in front of me, a swarthy little man, leapt on to his seat in fury, and called to his friends: ‘Let us fall, sword in hand, on those rascals there.’ He pointed to the majority side. The market women, knitting away in the galleries, heard him, rose from their seats, and shouted together, stockings in hand, foaming at the mouth: ‘To the lamp-posts, with them!’ The Vicomte de Mirabeau, Lautrec and a few other young nobles wanted to take the galleries by storm.

Soon this fracas was drowned out by another: petitioners, armed with pikes, appeared at the bar: ‘People are dying of hunger,’ they said, ‘it is time to act against the aristocrats and to rise to the level of events.’ The president assured these citizens of his respect: ‘We have our eye on the traitors,’ he replied, ‘and the Assembly will mete out justice.’ At this, fresh tumult: the deputies of the Right shouted that we were heading for anarchy; the deputies of the Left replied that the people was free to express its will, that it had the right to complain of the supporters of despotism, sitting in the midst of the nation’s representatives: they spoke thus of their colleagues to that sovereign people, which waited for them under the street lamps.

The evening sessions were more scandalous than the morning ones: people speak better and more boldly by candlelight. The hall of the Manège was then a veritable theatre, where one of the world’s greatest dramas was played out. The leading characters still belonged to the old order of things; their terrifying understudies, hidden behind them, said little or nothing. At the end of one violent discussion, I saw a common-looking deputy mount the rostrum, with a grey impassive face, neatly dressed hair, decently dressed like the steward of a good house, or the notary of a village careful of his appearance. He gave a long and tedious report; nobody listened; I asked his name: it was Robespierre. The men in shoes were ready to leave the salons, and already the clogs were kicking at the door.