The French Revolution's Angel of Death

The embodiment of the youthful revolutionary, Louis-Antoine de Saint-Just was devoured by the Terror he helped unleash.

Among the leaders of the French Revolution none has a more mythical status than Louis-Antoine de Saint-Just. His brief political career encompassed the most radical moment of the 18th century: the Jacobin Republic of the Year Two (1793-4). The Jacobins tried to forge a better world, one in which democracy, liberty and equality would become a reality, but to achieve it they used state-sponsored coercion and violence, in what became known as the Terror. The experiment ended when Saint-Just, along with Robespierre, succumbed to the guillotine in the bloodbath of Thermidor (July 1794). For many people, Saint-Just, even more than Robespierre, embodies the revolution itself: young, full of feverish energy, courage and idealism, but, like the revolutionary Terror, capable of sacrificing human lives, including his own, to make the ideal a reality. When Victor Hugo in his 1862 novel, Les Misérables, described the young student Enjolras, who leads the climatic fight on the barricade, as having ‘too much of Saint-Just’ about him, his readers knew what that meant. A few years earlier, Hugo’s contemporary and fellow countryman, the great republican historian Jules Michelet, described Saint-Just as ‘the archangel of death’, a phrase that encapsulated the legend of the unnaturally beautiful and cold-bloodedly terrible Saint-Just.

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The French Revolution's Angel of Death

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