Modern history


Autumn 1793

Dechristianization, the cultural revolution of year II, the Frimaire reversal

In a moment, the moment it became possible to speak, priests fell into the most profound disrepute.

– Restif de la Bretonne, Vingt nuits de Paris

Dechristianization: political manoeuvre or popular movement? Notre-Dame becomes a temple of Reason; the cult of martyrs

In October 1793, just when the situation on every front had recovered, a movement broke out across France which contemporaries – Robespierre, Danton, Chaumette – described as a torrent, an explosion, a volcanic eruption. This was dechristianization.

Historians differ as to what triggered it. Some see it as a political manoeuvre: for both Jaurès and Daniel Guérin,1 responsibility lay with the Hébertistes seeking to mobilize their popular clientele. For Mathiez, rather, it was the Indulgents who ‘unleashed the movement of dechristianization, cunning overbidders who sought to create new forms of patriotic service’.2 For Soboul, on the other hand, the movement had a popular origin: ‘Dechristianization followed a current whose manifestations can be seen right from the entry of the sansculottes into political life at the start of 1792.’3 Likewise, for Serge Bianchi, dechristianization ‘lay in the straight line of a popular impulse’.4

The most plausible explanation is that the movement had a popular base made up of the most advanced activists, while ‘politicians’ supported it and sometimes used it, only rarely preceding or instigating it. This was however the case in the department of the Nièvre. In September 1793, Fouché, as the representative on mission, hosted Chaumette who was visiting his family at Nevers. The anti-religious campaign then took a strong upturn: on 25 September, it was decreed that ‘any minister of the Catholic faith or other priest paid by the nation’ was obliged ‘to marry or adopt a child, or to keep and feed at his table an indigent old person’, failing which he would be removed from his position. On 10 October, Fouché issued a decree prohibiting the exercise of all forms of religious worship ‘outside of their respective temples’, ordering the destruction of ‘all religious signs’ in public places, and instructing that the gates of cemeteries should bear the notice: ‘Death is an eternal sleep’.5 A few days later he wrote to Chaumette, who had returned to Paris: ‘Things have reached the point where this most superstitious of regions no longer offers the traveller a single sign that recalls a dominant religion, priestly ceremonies have all returned inside the temples. The aristocracy of manufacturers and forge-masters is crushed, everything is working and the rich are paying up.’6 This is certainly one instance in which the action of politicians played a predominant role in triggering the movement.

But there are abundant examples showing how dechristianization was a movement of genuine popular initiative. On 12 September, the Panthéon-Français section demanded the opening in all sections or cantons of the Republic of a ‘school of liberty’, which would preach the ‘horror of fanaticism’ on Sundays and holidays. On 2 October, the Croix-Rouge section asked for its name to be changed to ‘Bonnet-Rouge’, fearing that ‘the present name [Red Cross] perpetuates the ferment of fanaticism’.7

In the Brie, on 10 Brumaire (31 October), the commune of Ris adopted Brutus as its patron in place of Saint Blaise, and expelled its parish priest. And on 16 Brumaire, delegates from the commune of Mennecy, also in the region of Brie, presented themselves at the bar of the Convention ‘decked in cassocks and chasubles, some carrying pennants and banners, others crosses, censers and chalices’.8 Their demands were:

1.that from this day on the commune of Mennecy should dispense with a parish priest;

2.that the presbytery be put on sale as national property;

3.that the building formerly used as a church should become the meeting-place of the popular society; as a consequence, busts of Marat and Lepeletier should replace the statues of Saint Peter and Saint Denis, their former patrons, the statue of liberty be placed at the centre of the altar, and every sign of fanaticism disappear before that of liberty;

4.that the commune of Mennecy-Villeroy should from now on be known as the commune of Mennecy-Marat.

The petitioners presented to the nation the 1,500 livres that the parish priest received, along with the church’s silverware and precious cloths.

At the same memorable session, the Convention voted on Thuriot’s proposal a decree legalizing dechristianization: ‘Departmental administrations are authorized to decide the suppression, combination and boundaries of parishes without recourse to the National Convention.’ The Mennecy proposal was written into the Bulletin as a kind of appendix, a model for the application of this decree.

Each commune, therefore, could abandon Catholic worship and allocate its church to other activities. Churches were soon transformed into temples of Reason, meeting halls, schools or hospitals. Cemeteries were secularized, the marriage of priests encouraged, and ecclesiastics banned from public education.

In Paris, the central committee of popular societies, based at the Évêché, demanded the abolition of priests’ salaries, so that their survival would in future depend solely on the generosity of their congregations. On 17 Brumaire (7 November), the Convention opened with a long series of letters and delegations from communes donating their church’s silverware to the nation, announcing their decision to change their names, or reporting the marriage of their priest. Next came a delegation from the department and commune of Paris, led by Momoro, Chaumette, Lullier and Pache. Momoro: ‘The bishop of Paris and several other priests, guided by reason, have come before you to cast off the character imposed on them by superstition.’ Bishop Gobel now stepped up:

Born a plebeian, I learned early on the principles of liberty and equality … Now that the Revolution is striding forward to a happy outcome, there must no longer be any other public and national religion than that of liberty and holy equality, as this is what the sovereign wishes; consistent with my principles, I bow to its will and have come proudly to declare that from this day forth, I renounce the exercise of my functions as minister of the Catholic religion, joined in this by my citizen vicars present here.9

The erstwhile bishop, with the liberty bonnet on his head, was embraced by the session’s president (Laloy) amid the cheers of the people. Several members of the Convention who had once been ecclesiastics, including Coupé de l’Oise, former curé of Sermaize, Robert Lindet, former bishop of the department of Eure, Gay-Vernon, former bishop of Limoges, and Julien de Toulouse, a Protestant minister, likewise renounced ‘all religious duties’.

Over the following days, various sections paraded before the Convention:

The Gravilliers section was introduced, with a body of men at its head dressed in priestly and pontifical robes … The citizens all shed these simultaneously, and beneath the travesties of fanaticism there emerged defenders of the patrie dressed in national uniform. Each threw away the garment he had doffed, and stoles, mitres and chasubles went flying through the air, to the sound of instruments and repeated cries of ‘Vive la liberté! Vive la République!10

On 20 Brumaire (10 November), the Paris Commune held a great civic festival in the former cathedral of Notre-Dame, now a temple of Reason. In the centre of the nave a mountain had been constructed – in homage to the Montagne of the Convention – topped by a small temple bearing the inscription: ‘To Philosophy’. From this temple emerged Liberty, represented by a young female actor draped in the tricolour, ‘in lieu and stead of the former Blessed Virgin’.11 After the ceremony, a large crowd accompanied the general council to the Convention.

An immense host of musicians made the vaults resound with the cherished airs of the Revolution; a procession of republican girls, dressed in white with tricolour sashes and flowers in their hair, preceded and surrounded Reason. This was a faithful image ofbeauty, with the liberty bonnet on her head. Today the whole people of Paris thronged beneath the Gothic vaults, for so long stricken by the voice of error, and that now for the first time echoed to the cry of liberty … The people have said: ‘No more priests, no gods but those bestowed on us by nature.’ They led Reason to the president, who gave her the fraternal kiss to the sound of applause.12

The Convention then proceeded in a body towards the temple of Reason, acclaimed by the crowd. On arrival, deputies and people together sang a hymn composed by Gossec to lyrics by M. J. Chénier.13

This journée of 20 Brumaire quickened the pace of dechristianization. The popular societies and revolutionary committees gave the movement an irresistible momentum.14 The committee of the Marat section decided to remove from the church of Saint-André-des-Arts ‘its baubles and other objects of charlatanism, and to give this national building the name of Temple of the Revolution’. The section committees of Arsenal, Droits-de-l’homme and Indivisibilité announced to the Commune their decision to bring the Convention all the decorations and silverware of the church of Saint-Paul. The sections of Faubourg-du-Nord, Brutus and Unité took similar decisions.15 By the end of Brumaire year II, Catholic worship had practically ceased in the churches of Paris.

However, this unbridled dechristianization created a vacuum which would be spontaneously filled by the cult of revolutionary martyrs, including the ‘young martyrs’ (Bara, the thirteen-year-old drummer killed at Cholet, and Viala, the twelve-year-old fromAvignon killed in a battle against the Marseille insurgents), with a certain continuity of rituals and practices. The revolutionary cults were celebrated in the temples of Reason, and clearly emulated traditional worship in their setting, liturgy and practices. Statues of Marat, Lepeletier and Chalier replaced those of Catholic saints, and the revolutionary colours supplanted the black of the detested priests. ‘Impelled in each section by a few men brought up on the philosophy of the eighteenth century, this republican cult firmly established itself in the winter of year II, giving a large fraction of the sansculottes, now severed from Catholicism, the religious sustenance that they seemed unable to do without.’16

The cultural revolution of year II: names, the republican calendar, the family, the universal ‘tu’

Dechristianization, initially so surprising, is more understandable when placed in a broader configuration, which Serge Bianchi has dubbed the ‘cultural revolution’ of year II.17 This is a legitimate label, as between the revolution of 2 June 1793 and the counter-revolution of 9 Thermidor great upheavals took place in the life of the country, some launched by the Montagnards in government, others produced by the inventiveness of the popular movement, but together aiming to make a clean slate of the past and found a ‘regenerated’ society – the word used at the time.

A clean slate meant first of all getting rid of all images of kings. The statue of Louis XIV on the place des Victoires was pulled down, and there was a plan to replace that of Henri IV on the Pont-Neuf with an immense effigy of Hercules sculpted by David, the base of which would be made of the heads of the statues from the façade of Notre-Dame: ‘a monument to the glory of the French people, erected over the double tyranny of kings and priests’.18 The royal tombs at Saint-Denis were partly destroyed. Bronze statues were melted down for cannon. The entire country was expunging the traces of monarchy.

In order to throw off the past, names were changed, above all those of towns, from which saints, nobles and kings all vanished. Three thousand communes changed their names, with ‘Montagnes’ becoming widespread – Villeneuve-Saint-Georges was now Villeneuve-la-Montagne, and Saint-Germain-en-Laye renamed Montagne-Bon-Air. Montmartre became Montmarat, and Soisy Soisy-Marat. The sans-culotte influence was felt even in remote departments, for example with Han-les-Sans-Culottes (formerly Han-les-Moines, in the Ardennes), or Rocher-dela-Sansculotterie (Port-Breton in the Vendée).19 Streets were likewise given new names. In Paris, besides the saint-shedding faubourgs Antoine and Marcel, the rue Michel-le-Comte became Michel-le-Peletier; the place Royale (today place des Vosges) became place des Fédérés; the place Vendôme, place des Piques; the place du Carrousel, place de la Fraternité; the rue Princesse, rue Révolutionnaire; the rue Dauphine, rue de Thionville; and the quai des Théatins, quai Voltaire (as it still is today).

Children born at this time might be given first names like Bara, Rousseau, Brutus or Mucius Scaevola, and adults could change their names, becoming Gracchus Babeuf or Anaxagoras Chaumette.

In September 1793, the Convention decided to replace the traditional calendar with its Sundays and saints. The adoption of the republican calendar was a political measure, but went hand in hand with the impulse to rationalize national life by the decimal system: as early as August 1793, the new units of metre and gram were created to put an end to the diversity of measures in different provinces. On 20 September, Gilbert Romme delivered a long report in the name of the Committee of Public Instruction.20 Criticizing the traditional calendar as a ‘monument of servitude and ignorance’, he proposed to divide the year into twelve months of thirty days, each made up of three décades. The names he chose recalled the great episodes of the Revolution (Jeu de paume, Bastille) and revolutionary virtues (Unity, Fraternity).21 Sunday, an essential day in Catholic life, thus disappeared – leading Aulard to see this as the most anti-Christian measure of the Revolution.

Calendars would be printed in thousands of copies to be sent throughout the country, indicating for the first year the equivalent days and months of the Gregorian calendar. They were illustrated with etchings by the best artists of the day, with revolutionary mottoes on the frontispiece and medallions of revolutionary martyrs around the edge.22

Convincing and educating the people: press, posters, almanacs, public instruction

The popular societies demanded recognition of social categories that had been marginalized and shut out by the Church: unmarried mothers, illegitimate children, foundlings. On these points, and the rejection of traditional patriarchy as a whole, the Convention adopted measures that were astonishing for a country until recently subject to a generalized patriarchal system. In October 1793, the law established equal rights of inheritance for sons and daughters, extending this also to children born out of wedlock. It became impossible to favour one child in particular or to disinherit them. Within marriage, each spouse acquired equal right of control over common property, and a common contract for the whole of France was created to enshrine this equality.23 Foundlings, who made up a third of all births in Paris, became ‘natural children of the patrie’.


The concern for equality that lay at the heart of the collective thinking of the sans-culottes was expressed among other things by the generalized use of the familiar ‘tu’. On 10 Brumaire (31 October), a deputation from all the Paris popular societies addressed the Convention as follows: ‘This abuse [the use of ‘vous’] perpetuates the arrogance of the perverse and their adulation.’ The sans-culottes demanded a law to impose the informal tu, which would give ‘greater visible familiarity, a greater inclination to fraternity, and consequently greater equality’. The Convention proceeded to debate this. Thuriot wondered: ‘Is it not contrary to liberty to prescribe to citizens the way in which they should express themselves?’24 Nonetheless, on 22 Brumaire, the directorate of the Paris department decreed that tutoiement would be used in offices and in correspondence. The tu form spread rapidly in all the popular organizations, then to the Convention itself: by the end of autumn 1793, vous had disappeared from its speeches. A play was performed in Paris entitled La Parfaite Égalité ou les tu et les toi. As in every cultural revolution, change can also happen from the bottom up.

To ‘regenerate’ society it was not enough to obliterate the signs of the past; it was also necessary to act constructively, and above all to convince and educate the people. Newspapers such as Hébert’s Le Père Duchesne, the Jacobins’ Journal de la Montagne, theJournal des hommes libres and Desmoulins’s ephemeral Le Vieux Cordelier, were read in the evenings at the popular societies, and during the day in the workplace and the public square: workers and passers-by gathered around public readers. In October 1793, the Arsenal section and the popular society of l’Harmonie demanded ‘the organization of spoken publicity by means of a newspaper expressly made for the people, and read out even in the villages by public officials and publicists’.25

The press, therefore, was not enough, and new modes of information flourished in year II: posters, which could issue a challenge to a deputy as well as announce the decrees of the Convention or the decisions of its representatives on mission; almanacs, which popularized the principles of the Revolution – such as Collot d’Herbois’s L’Almanach du Père Gérard or Sylvain Maréchal’s L’Almanach des Républicains.26 Hundreds of revolutionary songs were written and sung, many composed by celebrated musicians such as Grétry, Gossec, Cherubini, Méhul (Chant du Départ), with lyrics by Chénier, Maréchal and a host of others now forgotten. They were sung in the solemn processions of civic festivals, or in carnival-type masquerades in which the participants, often disguised as priests, pulled carts full of ciboria and stoups that would be burned while they danced the farandole around the bonfire.

The sans-culottes demanded the organization of public instruction. On 14 July, the Droits-de-l’homme section demanded ‘a public instruction that teaches citizens the rules of duty and the practice of the virtues’. It was not just moral principles that required to be instilled: the section of Faubourg-Montmartre wanted ‘an instruction designed to perfect the arts and crafts, to give a great boost to national industry and the activity of our manufactures, and to destroy tyranny for ever’.27

On 13 July, Robespierre had read to the Convention the report of Lepeletier de Saint-Fargeau on public instruction; on the 29th, he proposed a decree that adopted it almost word for word.28 This long text, rather more in the tradition of Sparta than of Rousseau, stipulated in its first article that ‘all children shall be brought up at the expense of the Republic, from the age of five until twelve for boys, and eleven for girls’. (None of the texts discussed by the Convention called for gender equality: ‘girls shall learn spinning, sewing and laundering’.) Since national education was ‘a debt of the Republic to everyone’, it would be free and compulsory (Art. 3). When children had ‘completed their national education, they shall be returned to the hands of their parents or guardians’ (Art. 5), which evidently meant, without saying so outright, that children would be removed from their parents for the duration of their schooling. The decree provided for strict moral and civic education, work in factories or in the fields, and sanctions for breaches of discipline: ‘Any child of either sex, aged more than eight years, who has not performed a task equivalent to his or her meal, will only eat after the other children have finished, and will bear the shame of eating alone’ (Art. 16).

The Committee of Public Instruction, in whose name Robespierre spoke, was divided over this decree.29 Only two of its six members supported it, Robespierre himself and Bourdon. Grégoire and Coupé de l’Oise were opposed. Grégoire: ‘We all agree as to the necessity of a common education, but need it be common in the sense that all the children residing in national homes are to be brought up at the expense of the Republic? … It is not enough that a system comes surrounded by illustrious names, that it has Minos, Plato, Lycurgus and Lepeletier as its patrons.’30 In the end, no decision was taken, and when the Convention debated the question in Frimaire of year II, the decree adopted was short and vague, providing only that school was free and compulsory from the age of six and for a minimum of three years.

The slowness of the law’s application led to popular recriminations. In no. 349 of Le Père Duchesne, Hébert expressed ‘Père Duchesne’s great anger at seeing how lame is the progress of public instruction, and that there are monopolists of the mind who do not wish the people to be instructed, so that beggars may continue to beg’.

In the field of the arts, on the other hand, the cultural revolution obtained a marked success. The old academies were suppressed; painters and Opéra performers publicly burned their qualifications and diplomas. The Republic employed and subsidized revolutionary artists: thousands of statues of its martyrs and the great names of antiquity were commissioned for public buildings. At the 1793 Salon, a thousand paintings were exhibited, and the most honoured painters included Girodet, Van Loo, Carle Vernet, Boilly and David. The National Museum (the Louvre), established under the Legislative Assembly, opened its rooms to the public. Alexandre Lenoir founded a Museum of French Monuments in the Couvent des Petits-Augustins,31 to display many of the statues and paintings confiscated from churches and châteaux. The Convention decided to organize in each department a museum for ‘the paintings, statues, engravings and other artistic monuments found in national buildings and the homes of émigrés’.32 Topino-Lebrun, a politically committed painter (also a juror on the Revolutionary Tribunal) declared: ‘Republicans, let us seize hold of the arts, or rather, restore them to their original dignity. Only then will they have the right to be public and free of charge. Servile and cringing under despotism, they will obey the omnipotence of the sovereign people: they will adopt the people’s sublime stance.’33

Robespierre against dechristianization

This festive moment, when the leaders were overwhelmed by popular enthusiasm and the ‘torrent’ of dechristianization seemed to break through every dyke, lasted less than two months. The ebb began in late November, its spectacular turning-point being Robespierre’s speech of 1 Frimaire year II (21 November 1793).

The Jacobins had been the scene of concerted attacks against the dechristianizers. The first skirmish took place on 18 Brumaire (8 November). Hébert accused Laveaux, editor of the Journal de la Montagne, of having published the day before an article against atheism, in which he had ‘opened on the subject of God, an unknown and abstract entity, disputes more fitted to a theologically-inclined friar’. Laveaux replied: ‘I believed this view [atheism] to be dangerous, I refuted it; that is my opinion and I am proud of it.’34

The next day, Robespierre went on the offensive against the popular societies, the uncontrolled motors of dechristianization: ‘The aristocrats,’ he said, ‘awaiting the favourable moment for a counterrevolutionary movement, gather together in clubs that they are careful to call popular societies.’ And he demanded that ‘patriots proceed to the purging of all the popular societies in the sections, the number of which is increasing daily’.35

On 1 Frimaire, Robespierre, who played a major personal role in this matter, launched a frontal attack on the dechristianizers:

Is it still true that the chief cause of our ills is fanaticism? Fanaticism! It is dying; I could even say it is dead. By fixing all our attention on it in recent days, are we not looking away from our genuine dangers? … By what right do men, unknown until now in the course of the Revolution, come to seek amid all these events the means of usurping a false popularity, leading even patriots into taking false measures, and loosing trouble and discord among us? By what right do they disturb freedom of worship in the name of freedom, and attack fanaticism with a new fanaticism? … Why should we permit the dignity of the people to be trifled with in this way, and the bells of folly to be attached to the sceptre of philosophy itself?

It was believed that by accepting civic offerings, the Convention had proscribed the Catholic cult. No, the Convention had in no way taken such a bold step. The Convention will never do so. Its intention was to maintain the freedom of worship that it proclaimed, and at the same time to repress all those who would abuse this to disturb public order … I may perhaps be called narrow-minded, a man of prejudices, even, who knows, a fanatic. I have already said that I speak neither as an individual nor as a systematic philosopher, but as a representative of the people. Atheism is aristocratic; the idea of a great being that watches over oppressed innocence and punishes triumphant crime is completely of the people. The people, the unfortunate, will applaud me; if I should find critics, it would be among the rich and among the guilty. I have been, since my schooldays, a poor enough Catholic; I have never been a cold friend or faithless defender of humanity. I am only the more attached to the moral and political ideas that I have just expounded before you. If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.36

At the end of this long speech, Robespierre attacked some ‘foreign agents’ by name, shady characters involved in all kinds of financial swindles, and moreover active dechristianizers: he had Dubuisson, Desfieux, Proli and Pereira expelled from the Jacobins.37Three days later, Danton called for ‘no more anti-religious masquerades in the precinct of this Convention’.

In the wake of these attacks, the Convention, on Robespierre’s proposal, recalled by a solemn decree of 16 Frimaire (6 December) its commitment to freedom of worship. Article 1 spelled out that: ‘All acts of violence and measures contrary to freedom of worship are prohibited.’ However, on Barère’s proposal, an additional article clarified that: ‘The Convention does not intend to undo what has been done up to this day by virtue of the decrees of the people’s representatives’, meaning that the churches that had been closed would remain so.38

The leaders of the Commune, who had been wholeheartedly involved in dechristianization, put up only a weak defence and were soon backing down. In the Jacobins, Hébert, criticized for attacking Laveaux who had spoken in favour of the Supreme Being, replied: ‘I am accused of atheism, I flatly deny the accusation … As for the religious opinions I am accused of having emitted in my paper, I flatly deny the fact and declare that I preach to the rural population that they should read the Gospel. This book of morals seems to me excellent, and by following its every maxim one may become a perfect Jacobin. I regard Christ as the founder of the popular societies.’39 Chaumette, for his part, spoke to the Commune in praise of tolerance, albeit ambiguously: ‘It matters little whether someone is theist or atheist, Catholic or Greek, whether someone believes in the Koran, in miracles, in werewolves or in fairy tales, that is not our concern … We need not inquire whether he goes to Mass, to the synagogue or the preacher; we need only inquire whether he is a republican.’40

Few voices were raised to criticize the retreat on dechristianization. Lequinio, a deputy for the Morbihan and representative on mission at Rochefort, wrote to the Committee of Public Safety: ‘You speak to me of the decree of 16 Frimaire; well, I have to tell you that this decree nearly brought about great evils in the surrounding departments; the patriots did not understand the spirit behind it and became dejected, while it so greatly emboldened the aristocrats that it was necessary to use armed force in many places to stifle insurrections.’41 At the popular society of Moulins, an anonymous sans-culotte proposed sending an address to the Committee of Public Safety inviting it to acknowledge its mistake: ‘You will have as much satisfaction in retracting as regret at having been mistaken.’42 Certain representatives on mission – Javogues in the Saône-et-Loire, Albitte in the Mont-Blanc, Lanot in the Corrèze – sent letters to the Committee of Public Safety explaining the risks of the new policy. They were recalled. ‘I shall leave,’ wrote Lanot to the Committee, ‘satisfied of taking as my reward the hatred of plotters, priests and Moderates, which I have applied myself to deserving.’43

How can we explain Robespierre’s reversal on the question of worship? (‘Reversal’ is not too strong a word: on 18 June 1793, in the discussion on the draft Constitution, he had said: ‘I fear that conspirators will draw from the constitutional act confirming the freedom of worship the means for annihilating public liberty; I fear that men who wish to form counter-revolutionary associations will disguise them in religious forms.’)

Robespierre explained his reasons himself. Some of these bore on foreign policy: he feared that dechristianization would shock the neutral countries, and particularly Switzerland, which he counted on to act as intermediary when negotiations with the Coalition opened.44 Others arose from the concern to avoid trouble in the departments. On 15 Frimaire (5 December), at the Convention, he explained that ‘there are communes that are not fanatical, but where nonetheless it is seen as deplorable for the authorities, backed by armed force, to order churches to be vacated and ministers of the cloth to be arrested simply because of their occupation.’

Robespierre’s turnaround reflected his personal philosophy. As a good disciple of Rousseau, he detested the materialist philosophers. ‘Helvétius’, he declared to the Jacobins, ‘was a brigand, a wretched smooth talker, an immoral individual, one of the cruellest persecutors of the good Jean-Jacques, who most deserves our homage. Had Helvétius lived in our day, do not believe that he would have embraced the cause of liberty; he would have joined the crowd of smooth-talking intriguers who are a curse to thepatrietoday.’45 He was no more tender towards the Encyclopédie, ‘that sect which, in matters of politics, always failed to accept the rights of the people’. Robespierre was a deist, and thus opposed to atheism. However, there were numerous atheists among the dechristianizers; one was Sylvain Maréchal, whose hit philosophical poem, ‘Dieu et les prêtres’, dedicated to Chaumette, was quite explicit: ‘That God whom you feared was but a false giant/Born from your ignorance and nourished by the priests …’46 Whatever the case, the position now adopted – in which Robespierre played, as we have said, a very prominent role – marked a distance from the sans-culotte movement, all the greater inasmuch as the Committee of Public Safety was simultaneously moving to control the popular organizations.

Curbing the popular movement: the law of 14 Frimaire year II

In his report ‘on provisional and revolutionary government’, a prelude to the law of 14 Frimaire, Billaud-Varenne explained: ‘As soon as the centrality of the legislature ceases to be the linchpin of government, the edifice lacks its main foundation and inevitably crumbles.’47 During the discussion, Merlin de Thionville suggested renaming the Committee of Public Safety as the Committee of Government. Billaud opposed this, as did Barère: ‘Only the Convention governs, and it alone must govern. The Committee of Public Safety is not the only instrument that it uses; it also uses the Committee of General Security and the Executive Council [the ministers]. We are the advance post of the Convention, we are the arm that it moves, but we are not the government.’48 And yet it was indeed in the hands of the Committee of Public Safety that this law would concentrate the fundamentals of power.

The decree passed on 14 Frimaire49 dealt first of all with the execution of laws. It established a commission charged with the daily publication of every new law and decree, and with conveying these immediately to all the officials and authorities affected by their application.

In the departments, districts and communes, all elected positions (general councillors, departmental presidents, procureurs généraux, procureurs syndics) were suppressed. In their place, a national agent in each district and each municipality, appointed by the government, would supervise the execution of the laws. He was to render an account to the government Committees every ten days.50

It was the district administrations that were responsible for the application of revolutionary laws and measures of public safety. The departmental administrations now dealt only with the allocation of contributions, and the maintenance of manufactures, roads and canals: their role became secondary.

The popular organizations were more than reined in:

Any congress or central meeting established either by representatives of the people or by the popular societies, under any name whatsoever, even the name of central surveillance committee or revolutionary or military central commission, is revoked and expressly prohibited, as subversive of the unity of action of the government and tending toward federalism. Those existing will be dissolved within twenty-four hours of the date of publication of the present decree.

The local revolutionary armies were likewise dissolved. (‘Any army other than that established by the Convention and common to the whole Republic is dismissed by the present decree.’)

The representatives on mission were invested with full powers to propose the purging and reorganization of existing authorities. To those who asked for the new administrators to be appointed by the electoral assemblies, Couthon replied that ‘in the extraordinary government it is from the centre that all impulses must spring, it is from the Convention that elections must come. I ask for the purging of administrations to be conducted here, and for the Convention to make the appointments to replace the administrators who will be removed.’ Adopted.

Thus all elections were suppressed and all powers concentrated in the hands of the government Committees, the arms of the Convention in both senses. Legislative centralization was maximal. The Executive Council no longer had any raison d’être. It was finally abolished on 12 Germinal (1 April 1794) and replaced by twelve executive commissions attached to the Committee of Public Safety.

Was the curbing of the popular movement in Frimaire of year II, as Daniel Guérin believes, a victory of the revolutionary bourgeoisie united against those whom it called the bras nus? This view, in keeping with Guérin’s thesis of the class struggle during the Revolution, is unconvincing. The hypothesis of a kind of union sacrée of the ‘Montagnard bourgeoisie’ against the people does not take account of the divergences separating Robespierre and his friends both from the liberal-Voltairean members of the Convention, in the Plaine, and, in the other direction, from the turbulent Cordeliers whose base was in the Commune and the ministry of war. There could be no unity between such contrary currents, as indeed the course of events would show. Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety – which it makes no sense at all to call ‘bourgeois’ – took alone the decision to halt dechristianization and cut short the popular ferment. Robespierre said: ‘Democracy is not a state in which the people rule by themselves on all public affairs.’ For him, order was necessary to straighten out the country and win the war. It would seem that he no longer remembered what he had asserted in spring 1793: ‘The Montagne needs the people; the people are supported by the Montagne.’51 He did not see – no doubt he could not – that his volte-face would cut him off from his main support, without which things would rapidly take a turn for the worse.


1Jaurès, Histoire socialiste, vol. 6, pp. 304–7; Guérin, La Lutte de classes, vol. 1, chapter 6: ‘A diversion that became a groundswell’.

2Albert Mathiez, Robespierre et la déchristianisation, Le Puy: Imprimerie Peyriller, Rouchon et Gamon, 1909, p. 17.

3Soboul, Les Sans-Culottes parisiens, p. 287.

4Serge Bianchi, ‘La déchristianisation de l’an II, essai d’interprétation’, AHRF, no. 233, July–September 1978. This gives a summary of the historiographical controversies over dechristianization, arguing the case for a popular origin of the movement.

5Albert Mathiez, Contribution à l’histoire religieuse de la Révolution française, 1907, cited in Guérin, La Lutte de classes, vol. 1, p. 268.

6Cited by Soboul, Les Sans-Culottes parisiens, p. 287.

7Soboul, Les Sans-Culottes parisiens, pp. 284–5. In the article cited above (‘La déchristianisation de l’an II’), Serge Bianchi emphasizes the role of ‘day-labourers, apprentices, builders, foresters, poor peasants … social categories that were little or poorly Christianized’ and had long escaped regimentation by the Church (p. 363).

8A. P., vol. 78, pp. 465–7.

9Ibid., p. 550ff.

10Le Moniteur, vol. 18, p. 401.

11See the detailed description and relevant engraving in Lynn Hunt, Politics, Culture and Class in the French Revolution, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004, pp. 63–5.

12A. P., vol. 78, p. 710.

13The first verse was: ‘Descend, Liberty, daughter of nature/The people have regained their immortal power/Over the pompous debris of the old imposture/Their hands raise your altar once more.’

14The popular societies had been formed to get around the ruling of 5 September 1793 that restricted the general assemblies of sections to two weekly sessions. The revolutionary committees had been instructed from September to draw up lists of suspects and see to the application of revolutionary laws.

15Soboul, Les Sans-Culottes parisiens, p. 295.

16Ibid., p. 309.

17Serge Bianchi, La révolution culturelle de l’an II, élites et peuple, 1789–1799, Paris: Aubier, 1982.

18On Hercules as a symbol of the people, see Lynn Hunt, Politics, Culture and Class in the French Revolution, pp. 98–110, which has an interesting iconography. The statues from the façade of Notre-Dame were beheaded in the (mistaken) belief that they represented kings.

19Bianchi, La Révolution culturelle, p. 216.

20A. P., vol. 74, p. 553. Romme was a scientist who had studied both mathematics and medicine. He was later one of the ‘Prairial martyrs’.

21[On 24 October the months would be given the beautiful names created by Fabre d’Églantine: Vendémiaire (from the Latin vindemia, grape harvest), Brumaire (brume or fog), Frimaire (frimas, frost), Nivôse (Latin nivosus, snowy), Pluviôse (Latin pluvius, rainy), Ventôse (Latin ventosus, windy), Germinal (Latin germen, germination), Floréal (Latin flos, flower), Prairial (prairie, pasture), Messidor (Latin messis, harvest), Thermidor (Greek thermon, summer heat), Fructidor (Latin fructus, fruit). [Year I of the new calendar opened with 1 Vendémaire on what by the Gregorian calendar was 22 September 1792. – Translator]

22Bianchi, La Révolution culturelle, p. 200.

23Divorce had already been legalized by the Legislative Assembly in 1792.

24A. P., vol. 78, p. 85. On tutoiement, see Soboul, Les Sans-Culottes parisiens, p. 656.

25Soboul, Les Sans-Culottes parisiens, p. 671.

26On posters and almanacs, see Bianchi, La Révolution culturelle, pp. 173–8.

27Soboul, Les Sans-Culottes parisiens, p. 498.

28A. P., vol. 69, pp. 659–64.

29Ibid., note to p. 659.

30A. P., vol. 70, p. 19. Rühl and Lakanal did not speak. As for Coupé, he proposed a far more Rousseauian project: ‘It might well be a misfortune for humanity were all men to become philosophers. Do not teach man this reasoned apathy, let him obey all the impulses of nature, and remain of the people.’

31This chapel now forms part of the École des Beaux-Arts on quai Malaquais.

32Bianchi, La Révolution culturelle, p. 172.

33Ibid., p. 191.

34Aulard, La Société des Jacobins, vol. 5, pp. 500–1.

35Robespierre, Œuvres complètes, vol. 10, p. 165.

36Ibid., pp. 195–7. The last sentence was of course borrowed from Voltaire.

37Pereira, along with Cloots, was part of the group that had convinced Bishop Gobel to announce his abjuration.

38A. P., vol. 81, p. 120. What is revealing here is that in the same session when this decree was voted, several societies from provincial towns came to the bar to proudly assert acts of dechristianization. The popular society of Mugron, for example: ‘Citizen representatives, you have opened the book of universal morality, you have lit the torch of philosophy, you have enlightened us. We want no other worship than that of liberty, our church will be called the Temple of Virtue. We no longer need a curé, the church silverware will be sent to Bayonne and the bells to the administration. Vive la République, vive la Montagne!

39Aulard, La Société des Jacobins, vol. 5, p. 549.

40Cited by Guérin, La Lutte de classes, vol. 1, p. 445.

41Ibid., p. 460. Lequinio had published in 1792 a book entitled Les Préjugés détruits, in which he argued for equality between men and women, the abolition of the death penalty and slavery, radical atheism and the condemnation of war.

42Ibid., p. 461.

43Ibid., p. 464.

44In a dispatch to the Committee of Public Safety, Soulavie, the French representative in Geneva, reported on a conversation with the baron de Staël, the Swedish minister, who said that it was imperative ‘to destroy absolutely the bad impression that the new form of worship has made in Europe’ (cited by Guérin, La Lutte de classes, vol. 1, p. 407).

45Aulard, La Société des Jacobins, vol. 4, p. 550. ‘Two ladders were brought in amidst applause, and the busts of Mirabeau and Helvétius were taken down. Soon they were broken, with everyone jostling for the glory of crushing them underfoot.’

46Cited by Guérin, La Lutte de classes, vol. 1, p. 421.

47A. P., vol. 79, 28 Brumaire year II, pp. 451–60.

48A. P., vol. 80, p. 360.

49Ibid., pp. 629–35.

50In fact, the existing procureurs syndics were usually appointed as national agents (Art. 15), except in the case of a purge decided locally. In this case, they were replaced by individuals ‘appointed to the post’. The list of persons ‘retained’ or new ‘appointees’ was then sent to the Convention, ‘so that the members of the Convention may offer information on individuals who might be known to them’.

51Robespierre, Œuvres complètes, vol. 9, p. 492.

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