Louis de Saint-Just


Louis de Saint-Just

Louis Antoine Léon de Saint-Just (August 25, 1767 – July 28, 1794), usually known as Saint-Just, was a French revolutionary leader. Closely allied with Robespierre, he served with him on the Committee of Public Safety and perished with him after the events of 9 Thermidor.

Biography

He was born at Decize (Nièvre), in the Nivernais, the eldest child of Louis Jean de Saint-Just de Richebourg (1716-1777), a retired French cavalry officer, and Marie-Anne Robinot (1736-1791), the daughter of a notary. He had two younger sisters. The family later moved to Oise, and in 1776, settled in Blérancourt (Aisne). A year after the move, Louis' father died leaving his mother with the three children. She gave up all vanity and saved every penny to give her son an education. From 1779 to 1785, Saint-Just attended the Oratorian school at Soissons. In 1786, he ran away from home, taking a portion of his mother’s silver to Paris. Following this, she had him sent to a reformatory ("maison de correction") in Paris from September 1786 to March 1787. In October 1787, he went to the School of Law at Rheims, before returning the following year to Blérancourt, where he lived until September 1792.

In May 1789, he published twenty cantos of licentious verse (after the fashion of the time) under the title of "Organt au Vatican". The poem was strongly critical of the monarchy and the Roman Catholic Church.

He was elected lieutenant-colonel of the National Guard of the Aisne, and sought to become a member of his district’s electoral assembly.

In 1790, he wrote to Maximilien Robespierre for the first time, asking him to consider a local petition. The letter was filled with praise, beginning: “You, who uphold our tottering country against the torrent of despotism and intrigue, you whom I know, as I know God, only through his miracles—it is to you, Monsieur, that I address myself.” [Thompson, J. M.: "Robespierre, volume I", page 109. Howard Fertig, 1968.] Through their correspondence, the two became friends. With Robespierre's support, Saint-Just became deputy of the "département" of Aisne to the National Convention. He gave his first speech, a condemnation of Louis XVI, on 13 November 1792. This gained him attention, and he soon became a prominent figure of The Mountain. His close friendship with Robespierre became known to the Convention, the Jacobin Club, and the people, and he was dubbed the "St. John of the Messiah of the People" ("saint Jean du Messie du peuple").

Involvement in the Revolution

Saint-Just supported the Revolution from its outbreak, and became involved in local political affairs. In his earlier years he boasted about the current government (constitutional monarchy) and showed great political knowledge beyond that of most young men his age. The treason of the King changed his mind, as it did many others and he was one of the main driving forces which brought the king's death. “As for me I see no middle ground: this man must reign or die! He oppressed a free nation; he declared himself its enemy; he abused the laws: he must die to assure the repose of the people, since it was in his mind to crush the people to assure his own. Did he not, before the fight, pass his troops in review? Did he not take flight instead of preventing them from firing? What did he to stop the fury of his soldiers?”(Curtis38). He spoke these words at the trial of the king.

When the Girondins were banished from the Convention on May 30, 1793, Saint-Just was elected to the Committee of Public Safety. In the autumn of that same year, he was sent on a mission to oversee the army in the critical area of Alsace. He proved himself a man of decisive action, relentless in demanding results from the generals as well as sympathetic to the complaints of run of the mill soldiers. He repressed local opponents of the Revolution but did not agree in the mass executions ordered by some of the other deputies on the mission. Upon his return to the Convention, in year II (1793-1794) of the French Republican Calendar, Saint-Just was elected president. He persuaded the Convention to pass the radical Ventôse Decrees, under which confiscated lands were to be distributed to needy patriots. These were the most revolutionary acts of the French Revolution, because they took from one class for the benefit of another. He also joined with Robespierre in supporting the execution of the Hebertists and Dantonists. During the same period, Saint-Just drafted "Fragments sur les institutions républicaines", proposals far more radical than the constitutions he had helped to frame; this work laid the theoretical groundwork for a communal and egalitarian society. Sent on mission to the army in Belgium, he contributed to the victory of Fleurus on 8 Messidor, year II (June 26, 1794), which gave France the upper hand against the Austrians. These months were the high point of his career. But his rise to power had wrought a remarkable change in Saint-Just's public personality. He became a cold, almost inhuman fanatic; even more daring and outspoken than his idol Robespierre. “The vessel of the Revolution can arrive in port only on a sea reddened with torrents of blood,” Saint-Just once declared to the Convention. He, rather than Robespierre, showed himself to be the forerunner of the totalitarian rulers of the 20th century when he said on another occasion, “You have to punish not only the traitors, but even those who are indifferent; you have to punish whoever is passive in the republic, and who does nothing for it.” In this way, Saint-Just saw social passivity to be the real threat to society.

As for the external policy of France, “I know” he said “only one means of resisting Europe: to oppose to her the genius of freedom” (Béraud97). He did not want the military to be made up of slaves, he wanted free men to fight for France. Saint-Just proposed that, through its committees, the National Convention should direct all military movements and all branches of the government (report of 10 October 1793). Under this policy, Saint-Just, along with friend and fellow deputy Philippe Le Bas, was dispatched to Strasbourg to command military operations. Saint-Just's experience with terror in Paris guided him in dealing with suspected treason in Alsace. In Strasbourg, he repressed the excesses of Jean-Georges Schneider, who, as public prosecutor of the revolutionary tribunal of the Lower Rhine, had ruthlessly applied the Terror in Alsace. Schneider was sent to Paris and guillotined.

Saint-Just succeeded in inspiring the Army of the Rhine and Moselle. Taking a lead role in the fight, he saw the frontier secured and the German Rhineland invaded. He returned to Paris in January 1794. He was instrumental in the downfalls of the Hébertists and the Dantonists. Later, he served with the Army of the North, where he gave generals the choice of victory over their enemies or trial by revolutionary tribunal; he organized a unit specially charged with eliminating deserters. Once more he saw success, and Belgium was gained for France by May 1794.

Robespierre and Saint-Just shared the ideals of Enlightenment and some even say that Saint-Just was superior to Robespierre in many ways political and otherwise. Anything Robespierre wanted to get done, Saint-Just was sent to do it. At the end of May, Robespierre recalled Saint-Just to the capital, but he soon departed again with the army until 28 June. According to Barère, on 5 Thermidor (23 July) Saint-Just proposed dictatorship as the remedy for society’s disorder. This report, however, is highly questionable: as a leader of the Thermidorian Reaction, his testimony is suspect, and it has been argued (Fayard, p. 311) that this alleged policy is not at all typical of Saint-Just. At the famous sitting of 9 Thermidor, Saint-Just gave his defense of Robespierre. While he tried to present his report as that of the committees of General Security and Public Safety, he had actually refused to show it to them the previous day. He was loudly interrupted by his fellow committee members, and the sitting ended with an order for Robespierre's arrest. The following day, twenty-one men, including Saint-Just and Robespierre, were guillotined.

Camus and Saint-Just

Saint-Just is discussed extensively in Albert Camus's philosophical essay of 1951, "The Rebel". His actions during the course of the Revolution are examined in the context of Camus's analysis of the progression of rebellion and revolution towards enlightenment and freedom throughout history. His fierce advocacy of the execution of Louis XVI and his philosophical treatises on the nature of the Revolution in speeches to the Assembly, are both used by Camus to illustrate how the downfall of the Bourbon monarchy was brought about and from what basis the political ideology of the Revolution grew. Camus claims Saint-Just "introduced Rousseau's ideas into the pages of history" and incorporates Saint-Just and his ideals into his humanist study of the progression of humanity towards enlightened liberalism and democratic pluralism; and the traps and mistakes that have ensnared previous revolutionary attempts towards this goal.

Saint-Just and his fellow Jacobins are lauded as 'Regicides'; with Camus attributing the gradual decline of absolute monarchy that spread throughout Europe following the French Revolution and the resultant growth of popular representation and democracy to the philosophical and political developments initiated and executed by Saint-Just and his fellow Jacobins.

The theological implications of Saint-Just's rhetoric are also discussed by Camus, in successfully arguing for the King's execution, Saint-Just destroyed the façade of monarchical divine right and ensured that kings could never again enjoy such unchecked power as the Bourbons did. Camus identifies Saint-Just's successful advocacy of the execution of Louis XVI as the Nietzschean 'twilight of the idols'.

However, Camus also holds Saint-Just as a cautionary parable, a lesson in how revolutions, their ideals, and the idealists that lead them can descend into despotism and tyranny. He discusses how Saint-Just and his fellow Jacobins would not compromise their ideals to accommodate the will of the common people, the sans-culottes, and so brought about the Jacobin Terror and their eventual downfall in the events of the Thermidorian Reaction.

Death of Saint-Just

The fate of Saint-Just is inextricably woven with that of Robespierre- his mentor, and close personal friend. Due to the violence which Robespierre demanded from the Convention and all the blood which was spilled by his speeches, the people and the Convention became disillusioned. And as Robespierre himself had done many times with people who threatened the path of the revolution, the Convention was to sentence Robespierre and his colleagues to death. The idealistic fervour of the revolution was coming to an end. The prestige of Robespierre was ending rapidly also. Robespierre’s “revolutionary fantasy” was hated by many; he was blamed for the path which the Terror had taken. The Committee could not simply impeach Robespierre and his colleagues, that would create weakness in their currently strong system, so they slowly cut him, Saint-Just and Couthon out of the picture. At the end of his life Robespierre gave the famous speech on Thermidor 8. “It has been said too often that the greatest mistake made by Robespierre in his speech of Thermidor 8 was his failure to name any of the men at whom his denunciations were leveled” (Bruun128).

When the Jacobin club was taken, Robespierre was shot, shattering his jaw. Saint-Just was found standing next to Robespierre ministering to him. Robespierre did not respond, he was most likely in shock from his shattered jaw. Saint-Just went with the guard in silence and alone. Robespierre and his colleagues were guillotined the following day, 10 Thermidor (28 July 1794). Saint-Just went quietly and accepted his death.

All of the blood involved in the career of Saint-Just is what overshadows his political genius. He was given one job and took many others; he helped with the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen ("Déclaration des Droits de l'Homme et du Citoyen") and helped bring down entities which he saw as corrupt. In a scene days before he was guillotined he sat in a familiar room looking at the desk which he occupied just twenty-four hours earlier, with his friend and colleague Robespierre lying on a table at the front of the room with his shattered jaw. He knew his fate for he was now considered a traitor, yet he looked at the Declaration of the Rights of Men and said “There, after all, was my work.”

Character

In contrast to the manner of early antics such as "Organt au Vatican", Saint-Just assumed a stoical manner throughout his adult life. In combination with his devotion to a "tyrannical and pitilessly thorough" policy, as described by the "Encyclopaedia Britannica", this was a lifelong characteristic. Camille Desmoulins once said of Saint-Just: "He carries his head like a Holy Sacrament." "And I," replied Saint-Just, "will make him carry his like a Saint Denis." The threat was not vain: Desmoulins accompanied Danton to the scaffold.

Fictionalized accounts

* Saint-Just is featured in the play Danton's Death by German playwright Georg Buchner.
* He is also a minor character in both manga and anime version Rose of Versailles by Riyoko Ikeda, in which he's portrayed as a radical murderer much before the Revolution started, killing nobles and rebelling against Robespierre himself. He is also the nickname inspired for the character Asaka Rei in another Ikeda manga/anime, called "Oniisama e...". Since Rei's beauty and strong male personality resembles the man himself, she is dubbed "Saint-Just-sama" by her classmates and peers. The real Saint-Just's back story is explained in an episode where Rei's friend Nanako studies up on him to learn more about the enigmatic girl's personality.
* In Neil Gaiman's story "Thermidor", presented in the 29th issue of the Sandman comic series, St. Just is involved in attempting to arrest/kill Johanna Constantine and destroy the living head of Orpheus, as part of the Revolution's aims to eradicate the religions and superstitions of the past. His plans backfire, as he is exposed to the song of Orpheus - a song of the fate of tyrants. After this hearing, Saint-Just is so overwrought and disturbed, his skill with words fails him, leading to the debacle on 9 Thermidor and his eventual tyrant's fate.

References

"The 1911 "Encyclopaedia Britannica" gives the following references:"
* " [http://books.google.com/books?id=ETsuAAAAMAAJ Œuvres de Saint-Just, précédés d'une notice historique sur sa vie] " (Paris, 1833-1834).
* E. Fleury, "Études révolutionnaires" (2 vols., 1851), with which cf. articles by Sainte Beuve ("Causeries du lundi", vol. v), Cuvillier-Fleury ("Portraits politiques et révolutionnaires").
* E. Hamel, "Histoire de Saint-Just" (1859), which brought a fine to the publishers for outrage on public decency.
* FA Aulard, "Les Orateurs de la Législative et de la Convention" (2nd ed., Paris, 1905).
* The "Œuvres complètes de Saint-Just" have been edited with notes by C Vellay (Paris, 1908).
* "Théorie politique," edited by Alain Liénard, Paris: Seuil 1976.
* "Saint-Just," Bernard Vinot, Paris: Fayard, 1985.
* "The Rebel, " Albert Camus, 1951.
* "Œuvres Choisies," with introduction by Jean Gratien and forward by Dionys Mascolo. Gallimard, 1968.
*Bruun, Geoffrey. Saint-Just: Apostle of the Terror. Haden, Connecticut: Archon Books, 1966. 1-154.
*Béraud, Henri. Twelve Portraits of the French Revolution. Freeport, New Yord: Books for Libraries P, Inc., 1928. 89-113.
*Curtis, Eugene N. Saint-Just Colleague of Robespierre. New York: Octagon Books, 1973. 1-358.
*Hazani, Moshe. "The Duel That Never Was." Political Psychology (1989): 111-133. JSTOR. Terteling Library, Caldwell. 12 Feb. 2008. Keyword: Saint-Just.
*Soboul, A. "Robespierre and the Popular Movement of 1793-4." Past and Present (1954): 1-70. JSTOR. Terteling Library, Caldwell. 02 Feb. 2008. Keyword: Saint-Just colleague of Robespierre.

See also

* French Revolution
* "La Terreur"
* Maximilien Robespierre
* Committee of Public Safety

External links

* [http://www.saint-just.net Saint-Just.net]

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