[The following passage comes from the author's Life of Maximilien Robespierre (1849), which I have used in the Hathi Digital Library Trust web edition. — George P. Landow]
uring the discussions on the Rights of Man, Robespierre was not idle. Hitherto we have seen him a royalist; but now the republican begins to appear. In these discussions of abstract questions, the philosophy of Rousseau carried him beyond the limits of royalism. He said nothing important until they came to discuss the question of the veto. This brought the whole existence of monarchy into question. Is the King the absolute ruler of the nation, or is he only its accepted delegate? The lovers of England and the English constitution, all voted in favour of the veto. Even Mirabeau was for it. In a famous speech on that occasion, he said, "I would rather live in Constantinople than in France, if laws could be made without the royal sanction." He could conceive of no other state than one in which the King had supreme voice and power! It was then that Robespierre, as the disciple of Rousseau, stood boldly forth, and spoke:—
He who says that one man has the right to oppose himself to the law, says that the will of one man is above the will of all. He says that the nation is nothing, and that one man is everything. If he adds that this right belongs to him who is endowed with the-executive power, he says that the man chosen by the nation to execute the will of the nation, has the right to contradict and enchain the will of that nation. He has created a monster, inconceivable in morals and in politics: and that monster is nothing else than the royal veto. It is idle to tell us continually that France is a monarchical state; and from this axiom to derive the rights of the King as the first and most precious part of the constitution; as if the rights of the nation were but a secondary matter. Let us first know what the real signification of monarchy is. It merely expresses the state in which the executive power is confided to a single man. We must remember that governments, such as they are, are established by the people, and for the people. That those who govern, and consequently the kings themselves, are only proxies and delegates of the people.
Strange language this to hear in an assembly, and from an obscure member! But this obscure member, instead of occupying himself with the verbiage of political or parliamentary eloquence, had gone back to first principles. "We must remember," he continued, "that the functions of all political powers, and consequently of royalty, are public duties and not personal rights; and therefore we must not be startled to hear in an assembly of the representatives of the French nation, citizens who think that the liberty and the rights of a nation are the first objects which ought to occupy them; the real aim of their labours, and that royal authority merely established or their preservation, ought to be regulated in the manner most fitting to fulfil that destination.
The representatives of the nation may abuse their authority, it is said, consequently we must give the King a power of opposing himself to the law. "This is just as if one said: 'The legislator may err, therefore we must abolish him.' "It presupposes a great want of confidence in the legislative body, and an extreme confidence in the executive power. Let us examine how far that opinion is well-founded.
There was no man, except Sieyes, who could have spoken in this manner; who, calm amidst these stormy discussions, could have pursued this logical sequence of ideas; and summed them up in so clear, distinct, and comprehensive a formula.
I say, therefore, with frankness, that both the absolute veto, and the suspensive veto, appear to me to differ far more in words than in effects: and that they are both equally capable of annihilating our liberty." From this time forward we may date Robespierre's republicanism. The germs sown by Rousseau were now beginning to flower. Yet so little was republicanism the distinct creed of the Assembly, that at this very time they enthusiastically voted the hereditary succession of the crown, and the inviolability of the royal person. And when, on the 8th of October, as they were discussing the formula to be observed in the royal edicts, Robespierre proposed to do away with the terms of ancient despotism, he was only met with inextinguishable laughter.
Lewes, George Henry. The Life of Maximilien Robespierre; with extracts from his unpublished correspondence. London, Chapman and Hall, 1849. Hathi Digital Library Trust online version of a copy in the Harvard University Library. Web. 25 April 2017.
Last modified 28 April 2017