Louis Antoine Leon de Saint-Just was a young man desperate to participate in the Revolution that so enthralled him – but how, exactly? He was a provincial man with few connections and even less friends. He joined the local National Guard and rose quickly through its ranks but this counted for little. Yet within five years he would be a deputy in the National Convention, a leading member of the Committee of Public Safety, and one of the main architects of the ‘Terror’ earning himself the title of ‘Angel of Death.’ What was responsible for this remarkable rise to power? A letter he wrote in the autumn of 1790 to Maximilien Robespierre, the central figure at the Jacobin Club in Paris who would soon come to dominate the National Convention and determine the course of the French Revolution.
The letter was short, vacuous, flattering, deeply ingratiating, and much to Saint-Just’s surprise, replied to. Robespierre was impressed it seems, and the two men would correspond further over the next few months forming a relationship that would see Saint-Just emerge as Robespierre’s most devoted follower and effective right-hand man. They would henceforth work closely together and they would die together, guillotined on the same day, 28 July, 1794, before cheering crowd in Paris.
St Just’s short letter of introduction, for that was its real intention, had turned out to have a significance way beyond even its authors wildest dreams:
Saint-Just, constituent of the department of Aisne to Monsieur de Robespierre in the National Assembly in Paris.
Blérancourt, near Noyon, August 19, 1790.
You who supports the tottering country against the torrent of despotism and intrigue, you whom I only know, like God, through his wonders; I speak to you, sir, to ask you to unite with me in order to save my sad country. The city of Gouci has relocated (this rumour goes around here) the free markets from the town of Blérancourt. Why do the cities devour the privileges of the countryside? Will there remain no more of them to the latter than size and taxes?
Support, please, with all your talent, an address that I make for the same letter, in which I request the reunion of my heritage with the national areas of the canton, so that one lets to my country a privilege without which it has to die of hunger.
I do not know you, but you are a great man. You are not only the deputy of a province, you are one of humanity and of the Republic. Please, make it that my request be not despised.
I have the honour to be, Monsieur, your most humble, most obedient servant.