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[Editor’s note: Today is Bastille Day, which celebrates the storming of the Paris fortress known as the Bastille on July 14, 1789. The poor, led by a young lawyer named Maximilien Robespierre, had already constituted themselves into a National Assembly and had begun writing a new constitution for France, and the king had been unable to prevent these developments. Fears of a bloody counterstroke by royal troops persisted until the military detachment sent to rescue the guards of the Bastille decided to fight with the peasants rather than against them. The storming of the Bastille thus heralded the final and irreversible defeat of Louis XVI and the successful conclusion of the French Revolution. Notoriously, however, power corrupted even Robespierre, who had been nicknamed “the incorruptible.” Beginning in 1793 Robespierre helped lead the bloody “Terror” during which over 40,000 French citizens were arrested and executed, many without trials of any kind.
Depressingly, it would be possible to select any number of liberty-oriented quotations from Robespierre about the natural rights of man. But Robespierre, like so many others both before and since, evidently stopped believing in liberty after he attained personal power. So perhaps a better lesson for Bastille Day comes from another Frenchman who wrote a few decades later about how Robespierre’s revolution went so horribly wrong. Here then is Frédéric Bastiat on Robespierre and his plan for using force to make people more virtuous.]
“Listen to Robespierre:
‘The principle of the Republican Government is virtue, and the means to be adopted, during its establishment, is terror. We want to substitute, in our country, morality for self-indulgence, probity for honor, principles for customs, duties for decorum, the empire of reason for the tyranny of fashion, contempt of vice for contempt of misfortune, pride for insolence, greatness of soul for vanity, love of glory for love of money, good people for good company, merit for intrigue, genius for wit, truth for glitter, the charm of happiness for the weariness of pleasure, the greatness of man for the littleness of the great, a magnanimous, powerful, happy people for one that is easy, frivolous, degraded; that is to say, we would substitute all the virtues and miracles of a republic for all the vices and absurdities of a monarchy.’
“At what a vast height above the rest of mankind does Robespierre place himself here! And observe the arrogance with which he speaks. He is not content with expressing a desire for a great renovation of the human heart, he does not even expect such a result from a regular Government. No; he intends to effect it himself, and by means of terror. . . . It is not until after he, Robespierre, shall have accomplished these miracles, as he rightly calls them, that he will allow the law to regain her empire. Truly it would be well if these visionaries, who think so much of themselves and so little of mankind, who want to renew everything, would only be content with trying to reform themselves; the task would be arduous enough for them.”
Frédéric Bastiat, The Law