An English Translation Excerpt of the Text Transcript of Maximilien Robespierre's Virtue of Terror Speech

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An English Translation Excerpt of the Text Transcript of Maximilien Robespierre's Virtue of Terror Speech

(delivered before the National Convention in Paris, France on February 5, 1794).

It is time to mark clearly the aim of the Revolution and the end toward which we wish to move.

It is time to take stock of ourselves, of the obstacles which we still face, and of the means which we ought to adopt to attain our objectives…

What is the goal for which we strive? A peaceful enjoyment of liberty and equality, the rule of that eternal justice whose laws are engraved, not upon marble or stone, but in the hearts of all men.

We wish an order of things where all low and cruel passions are enchained by the laws, all beneficent and generous feelings aroused; where ambition is the desire to merit glory and to serve one’s fatherland; where distinctions are born only of equality itself; where the citizen is subject to the magistrate, the magistrate to the people, the people to justice; where the nation safeguards the welfare of each individual, and each individual proudly enjoys the prosperity and glory of his fatherland; where all spirits are enlarged by the constant exchange of republican sentiments and by the need of earning the respect of a great people; where the arts are the adornment of liberty, which ennobles them; and where commerce is the source of public wealth, not simply of monstrous opulence for a few families.

In our country we wish to substitute morality for egotism, probity (honesty) for honor, principles for conventions, duties for etiquette, the empire of reason for the tyranny of customs, contempt for vice for contempt for misfortune, pride for insolence, the love of honor for the love of money . . . that is to say, all the virtues and miracles of the Republic for all the vices and snobbishness of the monarchy.

We wish in a word to fulfill the requirements of nature, to accomplish the destiny of mankind, to make good the promises of philosophy . . . that France, hitherto illustrious among slave states, may eclipse the glory of all free peoples that have existed, become the model of all nations…

That is our ambition; that is our aim. What kind of government can realize these marvels? Only a democratic government…

But to found and to consolidate among us this democracy, to realize the peaceable rule of constitutional laws, it is necessary to conclude the war of liberty against tyranny and to pass successfully through the storms of revolution. Such is the aim of the revolutionary system which you have set up…

Now what is the fundamental principle of democratic, or popular government, that is to say, the essential mainspring upon which it depends and which makes it function? It is virtue. I mean public virtue…

That virtue is nothing else but love of fatherland and its laws…

The splendor of the goal of the French Revolution is simultaneously the source of our strength and of our weakness: our strength, because it gives us an ascendancy of truth over falsehood, and of public rights over private interests; our weakness, because it rallies against us all vicious men, all those who in their hearts seek to despoil the people…

It is necessary to stifle the domestic and foreign enemies of the Republic or perish with them. Now in these circumstances, the first maxim of our politics ought to be to lead the people by means of reason and the enemies of the people by terror.

If the basis of popular government in time of peace is virtue, the basis of popular government in time of revolution is both virtue and terror. Virtue without which terror is murderous, terror without which virtue is powerless.

Terror is nothing else than swift, severe, indomitable justice; it flows, then, from virtue.

Gracchus Babeuf and the Conspiracy of the Equals 1797

Babeuf’s last letter to his family before his execution

To my wife and my children:

Good evening, my friends. I am ready to wrap myself in the eternal night. I express myself better to the friend to whom I addressed the two letters you saw; I better express to him my situation as far as it concerns you than I do to you yourselves. It seems that feeling too much, I feel nothing. I put your fate in his hands. Alas, I don’t know if you’ll find him in a position to do what I ask of him: I don’t know how you can reach him. Your love for me has led you here through all of poverty’s obstacles. Your faithful feelings have led you to follow every instant of this long and cruel proceeding which you, like me, have drunk to the dregs; but I don’t know how you will return to the place from which you started; I don’t know how my memory will be appreciated, though I believe I carried myself in an irreproachable manner; finally, I don’t know what will become of the republicans, their families, and even the babies still at their mothers’ breasts, in the midst of the royalist fury that the counter-revolution will bring. O my friends! How heart-rending these thoughts are in my final moments!... To die for the fatherland, to leave a family, children, a beloved wife, all would be bearable if at the end of this I didn’t see liberty lost and all that belongs to sincere republicans wrapped in a horrible proscription. Ah, my tender children! What will become of you? I can’t defend myself against the strongest of feelings.... Don’t think that I feel any regret for having sacrificed myself for the most beautiful of causes; even if all I did for it was useless, I fulfilled my task...

If contrary to my expectations you are able to survive the terrible storm that breaks over the republic and everything connected to it, if you are able once again to find yourselves in a peaceful situation, and find a few friends who can assist you in triumphing over your ill fortune, I suggest that you all live together. I recommend to my wife that she attempt to guide the children with much kindness, and I recommend to my children that they merit the kindnesses of their mother by respecting her and always obeying her wishes. The family of a martyr for freedom must set an example of all the virtues in order to attract the esteem and attachment of all good people. I would like my wife to do everything possible to give her children an education, by having all her friends assist her in doing everything that is possible for them with this aim in view. I invite Emile to accept this wish on the part of a father who believes he was loved, and who loved in his turn; I invite him to do so without wasting any time, and as soon as possible.

My friends, I hope you’ll remember me, and that you’ll speak of me often. I hope that you’ll believe that I always loved you. I couldn’t conceive of any other way to make you happy than through the happiness of all. I failed; I sacrificed myself; it is also for you that I die.

Speak of me often with Camille; tell him thousands and thousands of times that I had him with tenderness in my heart.

Say the same to Caius, when he’ll be able to understand it.

Lebois has said that he’ll publish our defense separately: you must give mine the widest possible publicity. I recommend to my wife, my good friend, that she never give Baudoin, Lebois, or anyone else a copy of my defense without having another correct one in her possession, in order to be sure that this defense is never lost. You will know, my dear friend, that this defense is precious, and that it will always be dear to the virtuous hearts of the friends of their country. The only property that will be left to you will be my reputation. And I am sure that you and the children will be consoled in having possession of it. You will love hearing all feeling and upright hearts say, in speaking of your spouse: he was perfectly virtuous.

Farewell. I hold on to the earth by a thread, which tomorrow shall break. This is certain, I see it clearly. The sacrifice must be made. The evil are the stronger, and I surrender to them. At least it is sweet to die with a conscience as clean as mine; the only thing that is cruel, that is heart-rending, is to tear myself from your arms, O my tender friends! O all that is dear to me!!! I tear myself away; the violence is done...Farewell, farewell, ten million times farewell...

...One more word. Write to my mother and my sisters. Send them, by coach or otherwise, my defense as soon as it’s published. Tell them how I died, and try to make these good people understand that such a death is glorious and far from being dishonorable...

So farewell again , my beloved, my tender friends. Farewell forever. I wrap myself in a breast of a virtuous sleep...

-G. Babeuf

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