Modern history


Brumaire to Germinal year II/ November 1793 to April 1794

The ‘foreign plot’, the fall of the ‘factions’: trial and execution of the Cordeliers and Dantonists

Robespierre, alone: ‘Oh, my Camille! They are all abandoning me. How empty and barren everything is … I am alone.’

– Büchner, Danton’s Death

Why a struggle to the death?

The halt to dechristianization and the law of 14 Frimaire formed part of a triangular struggle between the revolutionary government, the Indulgents and the Exagérés.

This confrontation would become a struggle to the death. But why? If we ignore the commonplace about the Revolution being, like Chronos, doomed to devour its children, there are at least two possible answers, one bearing on the political culture of the time, the other on the conjuncture.

The first of these is suggested by the contrast with the American Revolution, which, despite its violent beginnings, ended up with a pacified system inspired by England. For the American historian Lynn Hunt:

[In] France there was no ‘Whig science of politics’, no familiarity with the ins and outs of ministerial turnovers, no practice with patronage systems and interest group formations … The struggle between the regenerated French nation and her presumed enemies was particularly divisive, thanks to the combination of the novelty of political mobilization, the intensity of social antagonism (as exemplified in talk of famine plots), and the unparalleled emphasis on doing something entirely new in the world. If Americans and Englishmen found it difficult to accept the emergence of party politics and factional competition, then the French refusal to sanction such developments was all the more determined. And the consequences of such a refusal were all the more disastrous.1

The second answer is bound up with the fact that France was at war with the coalition of European powers. The men in government were obsessed by the idea of collusion between their opponents and the enemy abroad. It is easy to wax ironic over this fear today, to see it as a kind of collective paranoia, and believe that: ‘Like the people’s will, the plot was the figment of a frenzied preoccupation with power; they were the two facets of what one might call the collectively held image of democratic power.’2 It is easy, because we know that no such plot existed. But in autumn 1793, everyone was mindful of recent betrayals (Mirabeau, Louis XVI, Lafayette, Dumouriez). That new plots might be being spun in the shadows hardly seemed improbable.

The conflict that began in October–November 1793 ended in Germinal of year II (March–April 1794) with the fall of the so-called ‘factions’. (This term was highly pejorative at the time, when ‘factious’ was tantamount to ‘criminal’.3 To use the word without scare quotes is to give credence to that accusation.) It was essentially a Parisian battle, and waged above all in the Convention and the Jacobins club. The popular movement, if it continued to be noisy and even deafening at times, no longer played the decisive role that it had done in the previous power struggles.

The standard story of these six months posits a linear process, Robespierre starting with the elimination of the Exagérés, helped by the Indulgents, then turning against these very Indulgents and sending them too to the guillotine. This kind of simplification masks the entanglement of interests and destinies, the human and political complexity of the moment, everything that lends it tragic force and gives it a general significance, even beyond its own era.

The forces at play: the Committee of Public Safety, Exagérés, Hébertistes and Cordeliers, Indulgents and Dantonists

The first force here was the revolutionary government – chiefly the Committee of Public Safety, an emanation of the Convention that had elected it and regularly confirmed it unchanged throughout the period.4 If the Committee spoke for a long time with a single voice, this did not mean it was homogeneous, as we have seen: internal differences would harden as difficulties mounted. The central bloc, formed by Robespierre, Saint-Just and Couthon, was usually reinforced by Saint-André and Lindet when they were not out on mission. Billaud-Varenne and Collot d’Herbois, elected to the Committee in the wake of the quasi-insurrectional journées of 4 and 5 September 1793, had links with the popular movement. We shall see how on several occasions Collot sought to steer the revolutionary government towards Cordelier policies. On the other side, Carnot was more representative of the ‘right’, though without being close to Danton and the Indulgents. Opposed to a radical application of democracy in the army, he was surrounded by career officers, often former nobles, and stood for expansion to France’s natural borders – hence his frequent altercations with Saint-Just, much opposed to a war of conquest.

The Committee of Public Safety was not all-powerful vis-à-vis the Convention, which remained largely ‘centrist’ even after the elimination of the Girondins. The Plaine did not always follow it: after rowdy sessions, the Committee’s recommendations might be amended or even rejected. Finally, as the second element in the government, the Committee of General Security, statutorily subject to the Committee of Public Safety, gained increased independence over time. It would be decisive in the fall of the Robespierrists in Thermidor.

After the Enragés had left the stage, the ‘left’ opposition is often described as ‘Hébertiste’ – scarcely an appropriate term, since while Hébert was very influential as a journalist, he was not a party leader. In fact the word ‘hébertiste’ rarely appears in texts of the time, which more commonly speak of ‘exagérés’ or ‘ultra-révolutionnaires’. In the reports of interior ministry informants, which retain the language of the street, Hébert is often mentioned, but not ‘hébertistes’. Soboul, in one of his notes to Jaurès’s Histoire, wrote: ‘We put “hébertistes” in apostrophes. Cordeliers would be the better word’,5 which is quite correct, and certainly better than the ‘plebeians’ proposed by Daniel Guérin.

Whatever the name they are given, this group is poorly regarded by most historians. Those whose heroes are the Enragés see the Cordeliers/Hébertistes as opportunists: ‘They had become knowledgeable about the people, they were marvellously skilled at pastiche of their language; they were experts in the art of manipulating and making use of them … The plebeians served the bourgeois revolution at the same time as serving themselves’, writes Guérin.6 For Jaurès, ‘the Hébertiste party, which had neither a social programme, a religious programme, a military tactic, an administrative system, or indeed humanity, represented no more than an overbidding of blood and the boundless promotion of military officialdom and exhausting war.’7 Nor were they more highly esteemed by Mathiez: ‘The majority were less desirous of realizing a social programme than impatient to satisfy their own ambitions and grudges. They had no social policy to speak of.’8 The only historian to praise the Hébertistes, to my knowledge, was Gustave Tridon, the right hand of Blanqui, who wrote in 1864:

Through them, the human spirit, the spirit of Greece and Rome, came close to eternal triumph. At their voice, bastilles, monasteries and parliaments crumbled, and in the regenerated Notre-Dame, on the sacrificial altar, Reason – the heretic of the Middle Ages, the friend of Voltaire and Diderot – was enthroned! We salute those pure and noble citizens, Hébert and Pache; Chaumette, whom the people loved as a father; Momoro, with his burning pen and generous spirit; Ronsin, the intrepid general; and you, gentle and melancholic figure in whom German pantheism joined hands with French naturalism, Anacharsis Cloots!9

In less lyrical vein, Morris Slavin’s judgement seems to me the most well-founded:

Despite their verbal extremism, the Hébertistes constantly pressed the sans-culottes to lead a more democratic politics, to conduct a social program to the benefit of themselves and their allies, to limit the power of the possessors and the new bureaucracy, to create new institutions. They helped to educate the people politically and restore them their dignity. In this sense, they deserve to be treated sympathetically by historians.10

The Cordeliers, while their base was primarily Parisian, were also influential in the departments through the committees of popular societies, which organized congresses at Marseille, Valence and Dunkirk – the embryonic organization of a local executive power, absolutely incompatible with the legislative centralism imposed by the law of 14 Frimaire.11

The Indulgents, the ‘right opposition’ around Danton, Desmoulins and Fabre d’Églantine, maintained that the bloodshed had to stop. Desmoulins proposed the creation of a clemency committee that would gradually take over from the other committees. Le Vieux Cordelier, his newspaper whose first issue appeared on 15 Frimaire of year II (5 December 1793), disseminated this idea together with a critique of economic regulation (the maximum) and a suggestion of compromise with the foreign enemy. But rumours of corruption gradually enveloped the Indulgents. Already in September, Chabot, Basire, Julien de Toulouse and Osselin – ‘business deputies’, Robespierre called them – were accused of involvement in fraudulent deals and favouring dubious suppliers, and were dismissed from the Committee of General Security. Among the scandals of this time, the most serious was that of the liquidation of the Compagnie des Indes, which would divide the Montagne and precipitate the fall of the Indulgents.

The Compagnie des Indes affair, the ‘foreign plot’

Two affairs provide the backdrop to this period, the scandal of the Compagnie des Indes12 and the foreign plot – although in reality there was only one, as the foreign plot was an invention of Fabre d’Églantine who, being at the centre of the Compagnie scam, dreamed it up to create a diversion and discredit his opponents.

On 19 Vendémiaire of year II (10 October 1793), Fabre read a long memorandum about the plot at a meeting attended by Robespierre and Saint-Just, for the Committee of Public Safety, and Le Bas, Vadier, Amar, David and Guffroy for the Committee of General Security.13 Fabre pointed the finger at Proli, Dubuisson (‘another cunning fellow and a subject of the emperor’), and Pereira (‘both Spaniard and Jew by nation, a protégé of Beaumarchais and in his debt’). He raised the spectre of espionage:

How can it be that these men I have named and their cabal know all the secrets of the government two weeks before the National Convention? … How is it that Desfieux and Proli, being great patriots, are inseparable companions of the most dangerous foreign bankers? … These suspect characters have managed to win faithful supporters in every milieu, particularly in the Convention, and even in the Jacobins.

Fabre was so convincing that the speeches of Saint-Just and Robespierre in the days that followed sound like echoes of his denunciation.

The sensation caused by this ‘plot’ was not simply due to Fabre d’Églantine’s fertile mind; the idea came just at the time when the Revolution’s attitude towards foreigners was undergoing a total change. The situation in the autumn of 1793 was a far cry from the internationalism of the previous year, when the Legislative Assembly decided to give French citizenship to a series of eminent foreigners, including Joseph Priestley, Thomas Paine, Jeremy Bentham, Anacharsis Cloots, George Washington, Friedrich Schiller and Tadeusz Kościuszko.14 With the war, this generous universalism gave way to distrust and even explicit hostility towards foreigners. On 5 April 1793, at the Jacobins, Augustin Robespierre (Maximilien’s younger brother) had demanded the expulsion of all the foreign generals ‘to whom we have foolishly entrusted the command of our armies’.15 On 11 July, in the Convention, Barère proposed that ‘all Englishmen not domiciled in France before 14 July 1789 be held to leave within a week’. Cambon, finding the measure too lenient, suggested arresting all suspect foreigners, and eventually (1 August) the Assembly decreed that ‘foreigners from countries with which the Republic is at war, and who were not domiciled in France before 14 July 1789, shall be immediately arrested and seals placed on their papers, files and effects.’16

In this climate, the foreign plot was all the more credible in that Paris was indeed full of ‘suspect’ foreigners, particularly political refugees and bankers: Walter Boyd, an English banker who had opened a Paris office and was protected by Chabot; Perrégaux, a banker from Neuchâtel (and so a Prussian subject); Proli, a Belgian banker (so an Austrian subject); the Frey brothers, originally from Moravia, who had been suppliers to Joseph II at the time of the Turkish war; Pereira, a businessman established in Bordeaux; and many others. In his denunciation, Fabre cleverly mingled truth and falsehood: it is perfectly possible that these individuals were engaged in shady financial activities, and they may well have used their fortunes to corrupt the political milieu and advance their own interests; but they are thoroughly unlikely to have been agents of foreign powers, or to have acted together to foment any real plot.

However this may be, the ‘plot’ served as a weapon in the struggle between Indulgents and Exagérés; the former, accused of trafficking with foreign financiers and protecting aristocrats and royalists, replied by accusing the latter of being pawns of foreign plotters, who were whipping up popular fury and pressing for extreme measures in order to undermine the Republic. Indeed, foreigners could be found on both sides, and some would also show up in the tumbrils taking the various ‘factions’ one after the other to the guillotine in Germinal of year II.

The Indulgents’ offensive, Camille Desmoulins and Le Vieux Cordelier

The dramatic confrontation during the autumn and winter of year II had two successive phases. In the first phase, from Frimaire to Ventôse (November–December 1793 to February–March 1794), the Indulgents and Exagérés were at each other’s throats, while the revolutionary government played the role of arbiter: on several occasions, Robespierre took a position above the mêlée and dismissed the pleas of both ‘factions’. In the second phase, however, from Ventôse to Germinal (March–April 1794), the deepening crisis impelled the revolutionary government to take the initiative that would end with the elimination of the factions.

Even before Robespierre turned against against dechristianization, the Indulgents had moved to the offensive. On 20 Brumaire (10 November), Basire and Chabot pushed through a decree that limited the powers of the Committees to arrest deputies. The following day, the counter-offensive at the Jacobins was led by Hébert: ‘The guilty must perish, even those within the Convention itself, for they are even guiltier than the rest … I demand the expulsion of Thuriot from the Société des Jacobins, the investigation of the conduct of Chabot and Basire, and the prompt judgement of the deputies who were accomplices of Brissot and his faction.’17 On 22 Brumaire, in the Convention, Barère and Billaud-Varenne had the decree of the 20th unanimously rejected.

A few days later (25 Brumaire), the same Basire and Chabot each separately denounced, in the Committee of General Security, the great foreign plot: they explained that the baron de Batz, a royalist agent, had used the money of the Compagnie des Indes to pay ‘exagéré patriots’, all friends of Hébert, grouped behind Anacharsis Cloots. The revolutionary army, the war ministry and the popular societies were preparing a new 31 May that would lead to the dissolution of the Convention. Chabot maintained that he had joined the plot the better to denounce it. The Committees let themselves be convinced by the denunciations of Chabot and Basire, which in their eyes corroborated those of Fabre d’Églantine the previous month, but the tale-tellers themselves seemed so suspicious that they were arrested on 27 Brumaire, at the same time as the deputies whom they had denounced, Julien de Toulouse and Delaunay d’Angers. Only Fabre d’Églantine was left in peace, and was even asked by the Committee of General Security to assist with the investigation of the plot.

Danton, who had returned in haste from Arcis-sur-Aube, relaunched the Indulgents’ offensive. On 11 Frimaire (1 December), Cambon proposed the demonetizing of gold and silver coin. Danton spoke against the decree, adding a sideswipe at the Exagérés: ‘Any man who takes an ultra-revolutionary stance will bring results as dangerous as the most decided counter-revolutionaries could bring … Let us remember that if the pike is the weapon of overthrow, it is with the compass of reason and talent that the social edifice must be raised and consolidated.’18

On 13 Frimaire (3 December), at the Jacobins, Danton replied to a member of the Le Havre society who had asked for a detachment of the revolutionary army, complete with guillotine, to be sent to the Seine-Inférieure to arrest and punish the rebels who had escaped from the Vendée, and for the Le Havre church to be placed at the disposal of the local society: ‘I say we should beware of those who seek to carry the people beyond the limits of the Revolution, and who propose ultra-revolutionary measures.’ Danton was violently attacked by Coupé de l’Oise, who taunted him with ‘diminishing the vigour of the revolutionary movement’, and booed by other members. He defended himself with some difficulty: ‘Am I not the same man who was at your side in moments of crisis? Am I not he whom you often embraced as your friend and who is ready to die with you? … I shall remain standing with the people.’

Robespierre sped to his aid: ‘Does no one raise their voice? Well! I shall do so … Danton! Do you not know that the more courage and patriotism a man has, the more the enemies of the public cause pursue his downfall? Do you not know, do you not all know, citizens, that this method is infallible?’19

It was at this critical moment that Camille Desmoulins launched his new paper, Le Vieux Cordelier. The first number, composed in haste, contained, besides blatant flattery of Robespierre, the repeated theme of the Exagérés as foreign agents and a defence of Danton: ‘Already fortified by the ground gained during Danton’s illness and absence, this party, insolent and dominant in the Society, amid the most touching and persuasive passages of his [Danton’s] justification, booed him from the galleries, whilst in the Assembly they shook their heads and smiled with pity, as if hearing the speech of a man whom all votes had condemned.’20

The manoeuvre was followed up over the next few days by Thuriot, who proposed to the Convention on 17 Frimaire (7 December) that patriots detained under the law of suspects should be released: ‘It has clearly been shown that men who have served the Republic well are languishing in the dungeons. An authority is needed that is strong enough, and vested with sufficient trust, to return them to the freedom for which they fought.’21

The third number of Le Vieux Cordelier, which appeared on 25 Frimaire (15 December), was devoted to the subject of clemency. This critique of the law of suspects and revolutionary violence was constructed on a paraphrase of Tacitus. After taking the reader ‘to Les Brotteaux [in Lyon] and the place de la Révolution, and [showing] him these places drowned in the blood that flowed there for six months, for the eternal emancipation of a people of 25 million men, and not yet washed down by liberty and public happiness,’ Desmoulins imagined what Pitt might say:

Although the patriot Pitt, having become a Jacobin, in his order to the invisible army that he funds in our midst, had told it to demand, like the marquis de Montaud, five hundred heads in the Convention, and that the army of the Rhine should execute the Mainz garrison; to demand, like a certain petition, that 900 thousand heads should fall; like a certain requisition, that half the French people should be imprisoned as suspect; and, like a certain motion, that barrels of powder be placed beneath these countless prisons, with a fuse permanently alongside22

This was very well received by the Paris public, and boosted the energy of the Indulgents. In the Convention on 27 Frimaire (17 December), Fabre attacked Bouchotte and the ministry of war, the stronghold of the Exagérés: ‘There is a ministry whose influenceequals that of Roland, which has peopled the Republic with its agents and commissioners, which has appointed those mustachioed men with their big sabres trailing on the ground and striking the cobbles, who frighten the children.’23 And Fabre demanded the arrest of Vincent, the powerful general-secretary of the ministry of war, of Maillard and of Ronsin, a general of the revolutionary army. That same evening, Bourdon de l’Oise had Ronsin expelled from the Jacobins. A few days later, Fabre obtained the arrest of Mazuel, head of cavalry in the revolutionary army. The Indulgents were victorious all along the line, while Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety, still under Fabre’s influence, remained convinced of the dangers of the foreign plot.

Three days later (30 Frimaire / 20 December), the Convention was invaded by a crowd of women demanding the release of their relatives and husbands. The pressure was so strong that Robespierre had to speak. He began with recriminations: ‘Is this how republicans demand the liberty of the oppressed? … Why come here with such a great show? Is the idea of appearing with such fracas at the bar not to force the Convention to reconsider?’ But he was obliged to tack, and ended by proposing a decree to the effect that ‘the Committees of Public Safety and General Security shall appoint commissioners to find ways of freeing any patriots who might have been imprisoned.’24 This was not so different from the clemency committee demanded by Desmoulins, and the Indulgents had won another point.

Counter-attack by the Montagnards and Exagérés, rout of the Indulgents

At the end of Frimaire, however, the wind would change under the impact of two events. The first was a discovery in the investigation Amar was conducting on Chabot’s denunciation: the original of the false decree of liquidation of the Compagnie des Indes bore the signature of Fabre, who had thus accepted a text contrary to his own amendment. Robespierre – as shown by his notes – began to wonder if he had not been deceived by a cunning swindler.

The second event was the return to Paris of Collot d’Herbois. He felt threatened by the arrest of Ronsin, on top of which a petition from the inhabitants of Lyon had appealed to the Convention to put an end to the punishment of Commune-Affranchie.25 On 1 Nivôse (21 December), escorted from the Bastille to the Tuileries by a great popular procession and a delegation of Lyon sans-culottes carrying the head and ashes of Chalier, Collot appeared before the Convention, justifying his actions in Lyon and denouncing the unhappy effects of Ronsin’s arrest:

Energetic men were paralysed by the news that the Convention disapproved of all strict measures. To you were ascribed traits of weakness and pusillanimity such as you are not capable of … The general of the revolutionary army [Ronsin] left Commune-Affranchie to consult with the Committee of Public Safety … Before his departure, the aristocrats were already spreading the story that he had been summoned to your bar – and two hours after arriving here he was placed under arrest. Imagine what hay the ill-disposed will be able to make from this circumstance.26

Hébert’s comment, in no. 326 of Le Père Duchesne: ‘Fortunately – damnation! – Collot d’Herbois, the intrepid defender of the sans-culottes, has arrived to disentangle the whole plot. The giant has appeared, and all the dwarves who were plaguing the best patriots have retreated a hundred feet under the ground.’

That same evening at the Jacobins, the Montagnards and Exagérés laid into Desmoulins. Nicolas: ‘I accuse Camille Desmoulins of having published a libel with criminal and counter-revolutionary intentions. Camille Desmoulins has long been flirting with the guillotine.’ He demanded Desmoulins’s expulsion from the society. Hébert: ‘Ever since he married a rich woman, he has frequented only aristocrats and has often been their protector.’ He violently attacked Fabre d’Églantine:

A man who is the kingpin of every plot: a man forever busy with exaggerating our perils and sowing discord among the patriots, getting each to accuse the other in order to destroy them: this man is Fabre d’Églantine … I demand that Camille Desmoulins, Bourdon [de l’Oise], Philippeaux and Fabre d’Églantine be expelled from the Society … and that the Society finally declare that Vincent and Ronsin have not forfeited its trust.27

Two days later, at the Jacobins, Collot attacked the Indulgents and their policy of clemency:

What! The Committee of Public Safety is being attacked in the press! It is accused of having spilled the blood of patriots! Blamed for the death of fifty thousand men! And do you believe that the authors of these tracts have acted in good faith? That men who translate the ancient historians for you [an allusion to Desmoulins] are patriots? They want to moderate the revolutionary movement. Well! Does one direct a storm? Let us cast far behind us any thought of moderation. Let us remain Jacobins, let us remain Montagnards, let us save liberty.

Philippeaux replied by once again attacking Ronsin and Rossignol, ‘who were never at the head of their troops. Just once, Ronsin led his own forces; that was the day he had forty thousand men beaten by three thousand rebels.’ The session grew stormy, and Robespierre intervened to restore calm, placing himself above the parties and against divisions:

Citizens, where does all this agitation come from that has been tormenting you in recent days? Do you know that foreign powers have here encircled you? They have placed you between two reefs: between moderation, which has been eternally defeated, and the Prussian perfidy of those men who want a universal republic, or rather universal conflagration. You may be sure of this, that the tactic of our enemies, an unfailing one, is to divide us; they want us to tear ourselves apart in close combat with our own hands.28

On 6 Nivôse (26 December) in the Convention, Barère presented on behalf of the Committee of Public Safety his report on the implementation of the law on suspects. This was a long charge-sheet against a policy of clemency:

So, I shall say with better reason and policy than certain writers in newspapers who, without knowing it and perhaps without wishing it, have favoured counter-revolutionaries and rekindled the ashes of the aristocracy, I shall say: nobles, suspect; priests, men of the court, men of law, suspect; bankers, foreigners, known speculators, suspect; citizens who disguise their condition or outward form, suspect; men who complain of everything required to make a revolution, suspect; men afflicted by our successes at Dunkirk, at Maubeuge and in the Vendée, suspect. Oh! What a fine law it would have been to declare suspect those who, at the news of the taking of Toulon, did not feel their heart beat for the patrie … Arrests like these would not have motivated a new translation of Tacitus, who wrote only for tyrants without revolution, and not against revolutionary republicans.29

On 15 Nivôse, the seals on Delaunay’s house were removed, and Fabre’s false declaration came dreadfully to light. On 18 and 19 Nivôse (7 and 8 January), a dramatic sequence of events took place at the Jacobins, heralding the end of Fabre d’Églantine and the rout of the Indulgents.30

At the start of the session of the 18th, Philippeaux, Bourdon de l’Oise, Camille Desmoulins and Fabre d’Églantine were called three times to explain themselves before the Society. None of them appeared. Robespierre confined himself to asking that the meeting not concern itself overmuch with Philippeaux, but rather with the crimes of the English government. When Camille appeared, he admitted his mistake, and Robespierre reproved him in a firm but friendly manner:31

I consent for liberty to treat Desmoulins like a foolish child who has a pleasant disposition but was led astray by bad company; but we must require him to prove his repentance for all his follies by abandoning the company that misled him … I shall end by demanding that these numbers [of Desmoulins’s paper] be treated like the aristocrats who buy them, with the contempt that the blasphemies they contain deserve. I move that the Society burn them in the centre of the hall.32

Camille was offended: ‘Robespierre was good enough to reproach me in a language of friendship; I am disposed to reply to him in the same tone. I shall start with the first line. Robespierre said that my numbers should be burned; I reply, like Rousseau, “Burning is not an answer.” ’ Robespierre’s tone then became more threatening: ‘Learn, Camille, that were you not Camille, it would not be possible to be so indulgent towards you. The manner in which you seek to justify yourself proves to me that you have bad intentions.’

The next day, the order of the day included a public reading of numbers 3 and 5 of Le Vieux Cordelier. Momoro started off with number 3, but when it came to number 5, Hébert asked to refute it: ‘It is particularly directed against me. Not that I think myself wounded by it: this man is so covered with mud that he can no longer touch a true patriot.’ Robespierre opposed this: ‘It is pointless to read the fifth number of Le Vieux Cordelier, the opinions on Camille must already be settled … I am not espousing the quarrel of either man. Camille and Hébert have committed equal wrongs in my view.’

At the end of this speech, Fabre d’Églantine stood up to move towards the rostrum. Robespierre ‘invited the Society to beg Fabre to remain’. Fabre continued, but Robespierre stopped him in his tracks:

If Fabre d’Églantine has his subject all prepared, mine is not yet finished. I beg him to wait. There are two plots, one of which has the object of frightening the Convention, and the other of troubling the people. The conspirators who lie behind these hateful schemes seem to be fighting one another, and yet they work together in defending the cause of the tyrants … I ask this man, who is never seen without a lorgnette in his hand, and who is so very skilled at explicating plots in theatrical works, to be so kind as to explain himself here: we shall see how he acquits himself with this one.33

The attack left Fabre speechless. He was expelled from the Jacobins and on 23 Nivôse (12 January 1794) the Committees of Public Safety and General Security issued an arrest warrant for him that was executed the following day. Amar gave a report to the Convention, recapping the whole affair and justifying Fabre’s arrest. Danton attempted a sideways defence of Fabre: ‘I demand that the Convention confirm the arrest of Fabre d’Églantine, that the Committee of General Security take all necessary measures, and that those charged be then brought to the bar to be tried before the whole people, so that these know who still deserves their esteem.’ This brought a menacing riposte from Billaud-Varenne: ‘Woe to him who sat alongside Fabre d’Églantine and who is still his dupe.’34That was the end of it, the Indulgents were more than discredited; they would continue their efforts but their days were now numbered.

Outside of the clubs and assemblies, the popular movement incessantly demanded the liberation of Ronsin and Vincent who, from prison, had posters in his defence put up throughout Paris. The Guillaume-Tell section presented themselves en masse at the Convention on 11 Nivôse (31 December): the petition of the ‘so-called Lyonnais’ had been written in Paris ‘to inveigle pity’; the requests of the prisoners’ wives were ‘one of the cogs in this hellish machinery’. It was ‘the product of the aristocracy of priests, nobles, parliamentarians, financiers, bourgeois’. In conclusion: ‘Chains for the suspects, axes for the guilty heads.’35 On 12 Pluviôse (31 January), it was the sections of Mutius Scaevola, Bonnet-Rouge, Unité and Marat – those most in the van at this period – who demanded that Ronsin and Vincent be either released or judged by the Revolutionary Tribunal. On 14 Pluviôse, faced with popular pressure and the initiatives of the Cordeliers, and given the lack of any material evidence against them, the Committee of General Security proposed – with Danton’s support – the liberation of Ronsin and Vincent, which the Convention decreed without debate.

The abolition of slavery

One moment of light in this dismal time was on 16 Pluviôse year II (4 February 1794), when the Convention voted the abolition of slavery in the colonies. We recall how in May 1791, a decree of the Constituent Assembly on ‘unfree persons’ had amounted to making slavery constitutional. Since then, however, the slave uprising in Saint-Domingue, which began on the night of 22 August 1791, had changed everything. In France, the Société des Citoyens de Couleur led by Julien Raimond36 had helped to inform the Jacobins about the situation, counterbalancing the influence of the colonial lobby. In April 1792, the Legislative Assembly had voted to recognize the political rights of free men of colour and to dispatch two civil commissioners to restore order. The task fell to Polverel and Sonthonax, who took measures against the slave-owning colonists and reorganized the administration, incorporating free men of colour. They conducted a policy of appeasement towards the insurgents, going so far as to free runaway or abandoned slaves. But in France the Convention under the Girondins declared war, as we saw, on England and Spain, and appointed a governor of Saint-Domingue by the name of Galbaud, who disembarked with his troops at Cap-Français in May 1793. He took the side of the colonists against the commissioners, but on 23 June the insurgent slaves crushed the expeditionary force and its colonist supporters. Galbaud fled to Canada. This was the end of the rule of the slave-owners in Saint-Domingue.37

In August 1793, the Cap-Français municipality voted the abolition of slavery, which was ratified by Sonthonax. The nouveaux libres elected a deputation sent to inform revolutionary France of all these happenings. Three of these deputies appeared at the bar of the Convention on 18 Pluviôse.38 Their spokesman, Dufaÿ, related this turbulent history at length. ‘The blood of Frenchmen flowed. The torch of civil war was lit in Saint-Domingue by counter-revolutionaries with Galbaud at their head, the traitor Dumouriez’s friend and second-in-command.’39 He told how the slaves had come to the aid of the commissioners, saying: ‘We are blacks, Frenchmen, we are going to fight for France, but in return we want liberty – they even added the rights of man.’ And Dufaÿ concluded: ‘Legislators, the blacks are slandered, all their actions depicted in a poisonous light, because they can no longer be oppressed. We place them under your safeguard.’

One deputy exclaimed: ‘Any further discussion would dishonour this assembly’, and Delacroix proposed a resolution that ‘The National Convention decrees that slavery is abolished throughout all the territory of the Republic; in consequence, all men without distinction of colour shall enjoy the rights of French citizens.’ Some members protested that the very word ‘slavery’ risked sullying a decree of the Convention, and that liberty was ‘a right of nature’. Grégoire opposed this attempt to derail the resolution: ‘The word slavery must be included; without it, some would claim that you intended something else.’

The president (Vadier) pronounced the abolition of slavery ‘amid applause and shouts of Vive la République, vive la Convention, vive la Montagne!

Popular agitation: Saint-Just and the Ventôse decrees

While these events were unfolding in the foreground of the winter stage, popular discontent was becoming increasingly noisy. Paris was supplied fairly adequately with bread, but other essential items – meat, butter, eggs, soap, candles – were either lacking or priced out of reach. Early in Ventôse (February 1794), interior ministry observers described the tension in the streets:

The difficulty that there is in obtaining the most common and essential things is already giving rise to angry murmurs. The spectacle of several injured women in the groups that cluster round the door of every shop has caused unruliness in several neighbourhoods. In the distribution of the least items it is force that decides, and this morning several women nearly lost their lives trying to obtain a little butter.40

The word on the street was that only the guillotine could sort matters out. As one observer, Pourvoyeur, reported:

What struck me most was the situation in the Saint-Jean market, where at least three thousand women stood in line, grumbling loudly about having spent four hours there without obtaining anything; they made remarks that were far from patriotic; there were many guards, both mounted and on foot. ‘Is this how we are fed?’ they said. ‘They must want to see us starve, since they take no forceful measures to supply Paris! Of what use is the revolutionary army?’41

Unrest spread through the war manufactures and cotton-spinning workshops, where women workers, advised by Hébert, wrote a petition that they circulated with the aid of the popular society of the Marat section. ‘When reproved for the uncivic character of their demands, these workers replied that “they didn’t give a f …, they had Père Duchesne at their head”.’42 The assembly of the Finistère section contended that the revolutionary army’s powers had been ‘castrated, by not attaching to each of its divisions some revolutionary judges and a guillotine, the terror of our enemies’.43

It was in this climate that Saint-Just presented to the Convention, on 8 Ventôse (26 February), his report on persons imprisoned. This was a response to Le Vieux Cordelier and the attempts of the Indulgents to challenge the law on suspects, free the detainees and terminate the Terror:

Those who demand the freedom of aristocrats do not want the Republic at all, and they fear for them. It is a flagrant sign of treason, this pity displayed towards crime, in a Republic that can only be based on inflexibility … It is enough for them to be virtuous in writing; they exempt themselves from probity; they grow fat on the spoils of the people, glutted with it, they insult the people, and they march in triumph on the coattails of crime for which crime they seek to excite your compassion; surely it is impossible to remain silent about the impunity of these great offenders, who wish to do away with the scaffold because they fear mounting it themselves … It would seem that every one of them, appalled by his own conscience and by the inflexibility of the laws, has said to himself: ‘We are not sufficiently virtuous to be so ruthless; philosopher legislators, take pity on my weakness; I dare not tell you that I am rotten, I would rather say that you are cruel.’44

The audience waited for precise accusations, but Saint-Just, with one of those leaps that are a feature of his speeches, moved on to something else: ‘No man who has proved himself the enemy of his country can be a possessor … Let us abolish begging, which dishonours a free state; the properties of patriots are sacred, but the assets of conspirators are there for the unfortunate. The unfortunate are the powers of the Earth; they have the right to speak as masters to the governments that neglect them.’

The brief final decree centred on this famous paragraph: ‘The goods of persons recognized as enemies of the Revolution are confiscated to the benefit of the Republic; these persons shall be detained until peace, and then banished in perpetuity.’ A few days later (13 Ventôse), Saint-Just explained how this decree would be applied: every commune in the Republic would draw up a list of the indigent on their territory; the Committee of Public Safety would then make a report on the best way of compensating these unfortunates with the confiscated assets; the surveillance committees would be charged with conveying to the Committee of General Security ‘the names and the conduct of all those detained since 1 May 1789’.

Were these famous Ventôse decrees the prelude to ‘a whole future development of social equality’ (Jaurès)? Were they ‘a formidable attempt to extract a social programme from the confused aspirations of Hébertism’ (Mathiez)? Or was this rather a ‘demagogic manoeuvre’ to draw the masses away from the Hébertistes’ (Guérin), a ‘tactical manoeuvre to counteract advanced propaganda’ (Soboul)? There can be no doubt of Saint-Just’s sincerity: in Ventôse, he was working on the manuscript that has become known under the name of Institutions républicaines, and these decrees would not have looked amiss in the context of this wide social project. But at this particular moment, it was tempting to use them to wrong-foot the popular ‘agitators’.

‘The effect produced was immense’, wrote Jaurès, ‘and it was indeed, to use Saint-Just’s own expression, a stroke of genius.’45 That is saying too much. It is true that on 14 Ventôse the observer Latour-Lamontagne reported: ‘In every group and in all the cafés, the talk is only of the decree that orders the distribution of the goods of aristocrats to the sans-culottes; this popular law has excited universal joy, citizens are congratulating and embracing one another. Here is a decree, one of them said, that is worth more than ten battles won against the enemy.’46 But this joy was short-lived, as the measures would obviously bear fruit only in the long term, and could not bring immediate relief to a people in difficulty. Hence the melancholy remark with which Mathiez closes his chapter: ‘Strangely enough, and bewilderingly for [Saint-Just], he was neither understood nor supported by the very men he sought to satisfy.’47

The Cordeliers’ ‘offensive’

One indication that Saint-Just was not understood is that the day following the publication of these decrees, the Cordeliers launched what historians call their ‘offensive’. The cascade of events that would climax on the scaffold three weeks later began with a session at the Cordeliers on 14 Ventôse (7 March).48 The president started by reading the prospectus of the newspaper L’Ami du peuple, which, following Marat’s original, ‘would espouse the principles of that martyr of liberty’ under the guarantee of the Cordeliers. The tablet of the Rights of Man was then covered with black crepe, ‘and will remain veiled until the people recover their sacred rights through the annihilation of the faction’.49 What faction was this? Vincent denounced Basire, Bourdon de l’Oise and Philippeaux, whose conspiracy, ‘more to be feared than that of Brissot’, would overthrow liberty ‘if the full terror that the guillotine inspires in the enemies of the people is not deployed’.

Carrier, back from the Vendée, then took the floor:

I was dismayed, on my arrival at the Convention, by the new faces that I saw on the Montagne, and the whispered utterances there. The aim, I can see, is to make the Revolution retreat … The monsters! They want to break the scaffolds; but never forget, citizens, that those who want no more guillotine feel that they deserve it themselves. Cordeliers! You want to produce a maratiste paper; I applaud your enterprise; but this dyke against the efforts of those who seek to kill the republic is scarcely robust; insurrection, a holy insurrection, that is what you must confront the scoundrels with.

Hébert then denounced ‘the ambitious men who usher others forward and themselves stay behind the curtain; who the more power that they have, the less they can be satisfied, who want to reign. But the Cordeliers will not tolerate this (several voices: No, no, no!). I shall name the men who have shut the mouths of patriots in the popular societies; for the last two months I have held back …’ Boulanger, Momoro and Vincent pressed him to speak. He resumed, making a clear allusion to Robespierre:

Remember that [Camille Desmoulins] was expelled and struck off by the patriots, and that one man, who was no doubt misled … otherwise I should not know what to call it, was conveniently there to have him reinstated despite the wishes of the people, who had expressed themselves on this traitor very well … When sixty-one guilty men50 and their companions remain unpunished and do not fall beneath the sword, can you still doubt that a faction exists that wants to destroy the rights of the people? Well then! Since it exists, since we can see it, what are the means of delivering ourselves from it? Insurrection. Yes, insurrection; and the Cordeliers will not be the last to give the signal that will strike the oppressors dead.

The session rose at ten in the evening without mooting any practical measures to follow up what was more or less a declaration of war. Likewise in the next few days, apart from an initiative by the Marat section that proceeded en masse to the general council of the Commune on 16 Ventôse to call for insurrection, after itself covering the tablet of the Declaration of Rights. But Chaumette prudently pointed out to the delegation the dangers of provoking disturbances in Paris just when the spring military campaign was about to begin. The same day, Barère denounced in the Convention the manoeuvres of those who were agitating the people over provisions. The public prosecutor of the Revolutionary Tribunal was charged with informing against ‘the authors of the distrust inspired towards those bringing goods and provisions into Paris’.51

That evening in the Jacobins,52 Collot d’Herbois declared, after a long defence of the Committee of Public Safety:

The Cordeliers society, of which I shall never speak without respect, will not long remain the dupe of the intriguers who have manipulated it. This is not the first time it has been led astray; it has always returned; it has done so openly. Jacques Roux, too, attempted to seduce it; it brought him to justice. These ambitious men, who want to start insurrections only to profit from them, what have they done for the public cause? Can we recall a single sign of devotion to duty? We would have rushed to celebrate it. Do they think it enough to cover the walls with bad posters in order to prove their patriotism?

Momoro, followed by Carrier, protested these accusations against the Cordeliers. Carrier: ‘We said nothing about starting insurrections, except in the case of being forced to it by circumstances. If we thereby made any motion against the Convention, I shall lay down my head.’ Several members ‘upheld Carrier’s objection and complained that several passages in Hébert’s speech of 14 Ventôse had been misreported in the public broadsheets’.53

Both Jaurès and Mathiez view this as a retraction, a pitiful climbdown. Yet what the Cordeliers were saying was true. It is impossible to follow Jaurès when he maintains: ‘It was therefore a kind of military coup d’état that the Hébertistes were preparing, a demagogic 18 Brumaire that would have dishonoured, bloodied and ruined France.’54 What the Cordeliers were preparing, however, was not an armed insurrection: it is scarcely likely that hardened revolutionaries would have envisaged an armed action without any groundwork – and they knew that the revolutionary energy of the sections was more than restrained by the work of the bureaucratized revolutionary Committees. The Cordeliers’ insurrection was what would today be called a symbolic gesture. Soboul recalls the earlier cases when assemblies or sections declared themselves ‘in insurrection’, meaning thereby to signal ‘the resistance of a people that rises up, refuses to obey laws that it does not accept, takes back the exercise of its sovereign rights, holds its mandatories to account and dictates to them its wishes’.55 Robespierre himself, we recall, had declared himself in a state of insurrection before 31 May, and he certainly did not mean by this that he had any intention of taking up a pike or a musket.

The next day, 17 Ventôse, a delegation from the Jacobins proceeded to the Cordeliers, ‘introduced amid lively applause’.56 It was led by Collot d’Herbois, who played the role of conciliator throughout this period. He emphasized the need for unity: it was time ‘to close ranks to fight en masse, and by the force of opinion, the scoundrels who seek to divide [us]’. But this was soon followed by a reprimand: ‘Deceived by individuals more attentive to cries of revenge than to the voice of the patrie, you have uttered the word insurrection. But in what circumstance does one speak of this?’ And he evoked ‘Pitt and Coburg hovering over France like birds of prey’, before concluding with a tribute to the Convention.

Momoro, Ronsin and Hébert replied with a kind of honourable amends. Hébert explained that what had been meant by insurrection was ‘a closer union with the true Montagnards of the Convention, with the Jacobins and all good patriots, to obtain justice against unpunished traitors and persecutors’. The black cloth covering the Rights of Man was torn down and handed to the Jacobins as a mark of fraternity: the deputation was embraced to shouts of Vive la République.

But this reconciliation was only superficial. Collot had not succeeded in isolating the leaders from the mass of the Cordeliers. Over the days that followed, the turmoil in Paris continued. Anonymous posters appeared on walls, and there were threatening rumours of imminent revolt. In no. 355 of Le Père Duchesne, published on 23 Ventôse, Hébert called for the general unity of patriots around a Convention ‘purged of all the traitors who are conspiring against liberty’, which clearly sounded like an appeal for a new 31 May.

Arrest, trial and execution of the Cordelier leaders

On the previous evening, the Committee of Public Safety had resolved to put an end to the Cordelier movement, approving the report drawn up by Saint-Just ‘against foreign factions’. It is unlikely that the Committee had genuinely been shaken by the posters and rumours: its informers regularly reported the lack of any insurrectionary preparations, and the isolation of the Cordeliers from a large part of the sans-culottes. But the moment doubtless seemed ripe for strengthening the central power by liquidating a movement that was decidedly uncontrollable.

The report presented to the Convention by Saint-Just on 23 Ventôse denounced ‘a conspiracy led from abroad, preparing famine and new fetters for the people’.57 This reprise of the foreign theme was aimed as much against the Indulgents as against those who were to be arrested that night: he inveighed against ‘the faction of Indulgents, who want to save the criminals, and the foreigners’ faction, which makes a great noise because it cannot do otherwise without revealing itself, but which turns severity against the defenders of the people’. It was a long and rather confused speech, but the final decree that was unanimously adopted ordered the Revolutionary Tribunal to inform ‘against the authors and accomplices of the conspiracy being hatched against the French people and its liberty’. In the night of 23–24 Ventôse, the main Cordelier leaders, Hébert, Ronsin, Vincent, Momoro and Ducroquet, were arrested.

‘Amid general indifference’, writes Mathiez.58 It is true that news of the arrests was not followed by any great upset in the streets, and some of the ministry’s observers even noted that it was greeted here and there with satisfaction. The few overt protests came from the most advanced sans-culottes, such as those of the Marat section where, on 26 Ventôse, the observer Pourvoyeur reported: ‘Several argued for a mass procession to the Convention to demand the release of the oppressed.’ By and large, the people of Paris kept their trust in the Committees, Robespierre, and the Convention. The reality of the ‘horrible plot’ was not questioned.

The trial opened on 1 Germinal (21 March), presided over by Dumas and with Fouquier-Tinville as public prosecutor. The twenty-one accused were a mixture of groups and individuals whose selection was calculated to justify the different charges. For the appeal to insurrection, the Cordelier leaders, Hébert, Momoro, Ronsin and Vincent, the latter supplemented by agents of the war ministry, Mazuel, Leclerc and Bourgeois; for the attempt to starve Paris, Ducroquet, supplies commissioner for the Marat section, Descombes, responsible for purchases of provisions at the Commune, and Ancard, who had defended the arrested leaders at the Cordeliers; for the foreign plot, Anacharsis Cloots – who had no connection with the Cordeliers, but advocated a universal republic, ‘a deeply thought-out treachery that supplied a pretext for the coalition of crowned heads against France’,59 according to Renaudin, one of the thirteen jurors; also the banker Kock, Proli, and the group of agents at the foreign affairs ministry, Desfieux, Dubuisson and Pereira. A few other individuals had been thrown in, alleged to have made subversive statements.

After four days of debate, all the defendants were condemned to death except for one, Laboureau, who was an agent provocateur. They were guillotined on 4 Germinal of year II. ‘It is impossible to say’, noted Pourvoyeur, ‘the number of persons that there were to see the conspirators pass and be guillotined. Wherever they passed, there were shouts of Vive la République, with hats in the air and everyone calling out some injurious epithet, especially to Hébert.’60

The elimination of the Cordeliers by the governing Committees was such a serious turning-point in the course of the Revolution that we must dwell a moment on its interpretations (leaving aside the formidable question as to why all revolutions, from the great English Revolution through to the Cultural Revolution in China, ended up eliminating the far left).

The simplest explanation, and the one I would call Robespierrist, presents the Cordeliers as self-seeking arrivistes moved by the desire for revenge, who risked making France into ‘a demagogic, incoherent Poland, soon delivered to the European counter-revolution’ (Jaurès). The guillotine, for them, was ‘the alpha and omega of politics’ (Mathiez). Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety were models of patience up until the moment when they were forced to act. With all due respect for Jaurès and Mathiez, this explanation does not hold up. Robespierre and the Committees were well informed as to the situation, they therefore knew that there was neither a call for armed insurrection nor a foreign plot (for several weeks they had known that this was an invention of Fabre d’Églantine). Nor could they believe that the Cordeliers were manoeuvring to starve Paris (exploiting the discontent caused by shortages is quite another matter).

A different explanation is offered by Soboul: there was a social confrontation between the Committees and the Cordeliers. This was ‘one episode in the struggle embarked on by the Committees, from September 1793, against the popular movement, to integrate it into the Jacobin framework of bourgeois revolution’.61 For Soboul, not the most orthodox of Marxist historians, the bourgeoisie (in this case, the Committees) was the driving force of the Revolution, and those who opposed it (the Cordeliers, the popular movement) went against the current and were therefore crushed. Soboul seems ill at ease between his genuine empathy with the sans-culottes and his ‘Marxist’ conception of the bourgeois revolution.

However, this interpretation also fails to convince – at least me. Robespierre, Collot d’Herbois, Saint-Just, Vadier and Le Bas were no more bourgeois than Hébert, Momoro or Carrier. If there were differences in education and trajectory, these are found equally within the two groups, and above all, none of the individuals on either side belonged to the possessor class.62 Nor can their supporters be divided between bourgeois and sans-culottes: in Ventôse of year II, the governing Committees still enjoyed the trust of the great mass of the sans-culottes, even the ‘pronounced patriots’. And the Committees were far from being supported by the ‘Moderates’ (who could, in a strict sense, qualify as bourgeois) who worked openly against the revolutionary government. The confrontation between Committees and Cordeliers as an episode in a class struggle is a very fragile historical construct.

What seems to me more likely is that this confrontation was a matter of strategic priorities, compounded by antagonisms of persons and style (it would be an idealist view of history to neglect such questions).

The strategy of Robespierre and the Committees was completely focused on the war against the foreign coalition: it had to be won before the Constitution of 1793 could be applied, and a democratic and egalitarian republic constructed. But to win the war, all forces had to be united, all centrifugal movements controlled and if necessary repressed. The strategy of the Cordeliers, on the contrary, and of the whole leading wing of the popular movement, was to advance the revolution at home by putting the Moderates and Indulgents out of action, failing which the counter-revolution would triumph, with consequences that would include losing the war. The two strategies were irreconcilable. The first required a central grip, a brutal one if need be, the second relied on the autonomy of the popular societies and distrust towards any government, even a revolutionary one. The clash was inevitable.

Arrest, trial and execution of Danton and his friends

No more than a week went by between the execution of the Cordeliers and the arrest of Danton, demonstrating how the government Committees saw the two affairs as connected – ‘all plots are united; they are waves that seem to separate, and yet they mingle’, Saint-Just had said. It is quite possible that some members of the Committees – Billaud-Varenne, Collot d’Herbois, Amar – had only agreed to send the Cordeliers to the guillotine on condition of seeing the Indulgents follow them without delay.

Danton was aware of the danger, but despite the advice of his friends (to escape, to attempt a coup against the Committees … ) he did nothing. He was no longer the Danton of summer 1792, the man who had personified energy and boldness. Though just thirty-four years old, he was tired, almost resigned. ‘In this struggle, despite the threat to his life, he seemed no more than the shadow of himself. The giant of the rostrum resembled a mere flimsy lawyer.’63

On the night of 10 Germinal (30 March), the two Committees in joint session ordered the arrest of Danton, Philippeaux, Delacroix and Desmoulins, who would join in prison the accused in the Compagnie des Indes affair, Chabot and Fabre d’Églantine. On the morning of the 11th, the session of the Convention was stormy.64 Legendre, a hero of the Bastille and 10 August, took the floor: ‘Citizens, four members of this assembly were arrested last night; I know that Danton is among them … I am here to demand that the arrested members be brought to the bar, where you will hear them out, and where they will be either accused or absolved by you. I believe Danton to be as pure as I am. He has been in irons since last night; there was a fear no doubt that his answers would destroy the accusations made against him.’ Loud applause, shouts of ‘Vote, vote!’ Fayau, a Montagnard deputy from the Vendée, opposed Legendre’s motion: ‘It seems to me that the Convention can never have two weights and measures. Is there a decree stipulating that detainees must be brought to the bar to be heard? No.’ He asked the Committees to make a report, on which the Convention would then pronounce.

Amid the tumult, Robespierre asked to speak:

The question is to know whether the self-interest of a few ambitious hypocrites is to prevail over the interest of the French people … He [Legendre] has spoken of Danton, because he believes no doubt that a privilege attaches to this name; no, we do not want any privileges; we do not want any idols. We shall see today whether the Convention will be able to break a supposed idol that long ago turned rotten, or whether in its fall it will crush the Convention and the French people.

Robespierre recalled his own connections with Danton:

They [the friends of Danton] believed that the memory of an old connection, an ancient faith in false virtues, would lead me to restrain my zeal and my passion for liberty … I, too, was Pétion’s friend; as soon as he was unmasked, I abandoned him. I also had connections with Roland; he betrayed, and I denounced him. Danton wants to take their place, and he is no longer in my eyes anything but an enemy of the people.65

Saint-Just then entered the hall, and a deep silence fell. He read a long report ‘on the conspiracy hatched over several years by criminal factions to absorb the French Revolution into a change of dynasty’, beginning with the words: ‘The revolution is in the people, and not in the renown of some individuals.’66 In this text, which he wrote based on some notes of Robespierre’s,67 Saint-Just attacked first of all Fabre and his friends, a party ‘lacking in courage, [which] conducted revolution like a theatrical plot’. It was then the turn of Danton, whom he painted as the accomplice of Mirabeau, the Lameth brothers, Philippe d’Orléans, Brissot and Dumouriez … all those who were or became enemies of the Revolution. He accused Danton of having slept through the night of 9–10 August [1792],68 of having always avoided taking sides: ‘In tempestuous debates, your absence and silence were a subject of indignation; you, you spoke of the countryside, the joys of solitude and idleness; but you were able to emerge from your torpor to defend Dumouriez, Westermann, and the generals who were his accomplices.’ Saint-Just pilloried Danton with extreme violence: ‘A bad citizen, you conspired; a false friend, you spoke evil of Camille Desmoulins two days ago, an instrument that you have lost. A bad man, you compared public opinion to a woman of ill-repute; you said that honour was ridiculous, that glory and posterity were folly: maxims that were bound to reconcile the aristocracy to you; they were the maxims of Catiline.’69

The Convention decreed unanimously, ‘and amid the most vigorous applause’, the arrest of Camille Desmoulins, Hérault de Séchelles, Danton, Philippeaux and Lacroix.

Their trial began on 13 Germinal (2 April 1794). Once again, the list of the accused was an amalgam of political figures, rogues involved in financial scandals (Fabre d’Églantine, Chabot, Basire, Delaunay d’Angers, d’Espagnac), and foreigners (the Frey brothers, Gusman, Diederichsen). At the hearing of the 14th, Danton found a new verve to defend himself and counter-attack: ‘I demand to measure myself against my accusers. Let them be produced for me, and I will plunge them back into the nothingness from which they should never have emerged! Vile impostors, show yourselves and I will tear off the masks that protect you from public condemnation!’70 The audience in the hall applauded. Through the open windows, Danton’s voice could be heard as far away as the quays, a crowd gathered and the jurors grew uneasy. The Committees then took the emergency decision to send Saint-Just to the Convention to obtain a decree allowing the trial to continue in the absence of the accused. ‘Miserable creatures,’ he said, ‘they admit to their crimes by resisting the law; only criminals are afraid of an awful justice.’ All the accused were condemned to death, and guillotined on 16 Germinal (5 April).

Whatever one thinks of Danton in his last phase, his dodgy friends and his political contortions, the accusation of having been a traitor from the start of the Revolution, and the emergency law voted to stifle his resounding voice, make this one of the blackest moments in the whole history of the Revolution.

At the time of the Cordelier group’s arrest, there was talk of adding Pache, the mayor of Paris, Bouchotte, the war minister, and Hanriot, commander of the National Guard. The Committees decided against this, but they did have Chaumette arrested on 28 Ventôse. His trial – the ‘prison conspiracy’ – opened on 21 Germinal (10 April). A batch of twenty-three other defendants was put together around him, some of whom might have fitted just as well into the trial of the Cordeliers, or that of the Dantonists–among them Lucile Desmoulins and Françoise Hébert, Godel (the ex-bishop of Paris), General Dillon … The charge against Chaumette was that he had tried to make the Commune – of which he was, to recall, procureur général, with Hébert as deputy – a rival to the Convention, to have used the revolutionary army to intimidate those supplying Paris, and to have propagated atheism to the point of making it an official position. After a trial of three days, Chaumette and sixteen of his fellow accused were condemned to death. Seven others, simple sans-culotte activists who had done nothing wrong, were acquitted.

1Hunt, Politics, Culture and Class in the French Revolution, p. 43.

2Furet, Interpreting the French Revolution, p. 54.

3Saint-Just, ‘Any faction is criminal, since it tends to divide the citizens’, in ‘Rapport sur les factions de l’étranger’, Œuvres complètes, p. 695.

4Apart from the elimination of Hérault de Séchelles, who was not replaced.

5Jaurès, Histoire socialiste, p. 281.

6Daniel Guérin, Bourgeois et bras nus, la guerre sociale sous la Révolution (1793–1795), Paris: Les Nuits rouges, 1998, pp. 132–3.

7Jaurès, Histoire socialiste, vol. 6, p. 327.

8Mathiez, La Révolution française, vol. 3, p. 150.

9Gustave Tridon, Les Hébertistes, plainte contre une calomnie de l’histoire, 1864. Thanks to Dominique Le Nuz, Blanquist emeritus, for having drawn my attention to this pamphlet. It is cited by Mathieu Léonard, L’Émancipation des travailleurs, une histoire de la Première Internationale, Paris: La Fabrique, 2011.

10Morris Slavin, The Hébertistes to the Guillotine, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994, p. 8. Thanks to Sebastian Budgen for having brought this excellent work to my attention.

11See Françoise Brunel, Thermidor, la chute de Robespierre, Brussels: Complexe, 1989, pp. 14–16. A remarkable volume in every way, despite its slimness.

12The Compagnie des Indes affair was very complicated. To sum up: joint stock companies had been suppressed by a decree of 24 August 1793, in the wake of attacks from ‘business deputies’ who prospered by frightening companies and speculating on a fall in their shares. On 8 October 1793, Delaunay presented a draft decree on the liquidation of the Compagnie des Indes, which Fabre had amended more strictly by providing that this liquidation be carried out by the state rather than by the company itself. But when the text of the law was published, the original draft had been restored; the company was to conduct its own liquidation. The text of the falsified decree, which carried Fabre’s signature, appeared in the Bulletin des lois without anyone noticing this serious alteration. The ‘fripons’ (rogues) had extracted 500,000 livres from the Compagnie for changing its liquidation conditions. The ‘foreign plot’ was invented by Fabre d’Églantine in order to divert suspicions. See Albert Mathiez, Un procès de corruption sous la Terreur: l’affaire de la Compagnie des Indes, Paris: Alcan, 1922.

13See on this meeting Louis Jacob, Fabre d’Églantine, chef des ‘fripons’, Paris: Hachette, 1946, chapter 10.

14Three of these would be elected deputies to the Convention: Priestley (who refused, pleading his bad French), Thomas Paine, and Anacharsis Cloots, who were deputies for the Pas-de-Calais and the Oise respectively. The decree of 26 August 1792 began as follows: ‘Considering that the men who, by their writings and their courage, have served the cause of liberty and prepared the emancipation of peoples, cannot be regarded as foreigners by a nation that their enlightenment and courage has made free, the Assembly …’

15Aulard, La Société des Jacobins, vol. 5, p. 125.

16See on this question Albert Mathiez, La Révolution et les étrangers, cosmopolitisme et défense nationale, Paris: La Rénaissance du livre, 1918, and Sophie Wahnich, L’Impossible Citoyen, l’étranger dans le discours de la Revolution française, Paris: Albin Michel, 1997.

17Aulard, La Société des Jacobins, vol. 5, pp. 507–8. The supposed ‘accomplices of Brissot’ were the seventy-five members of the Convention who had protested against the purge of 31 May–2 June. Robespierre had always (and successfully) opposed their indictment.

18A. P., vol. 80, p. 454.

19Aulard, La Société des Jacobins, vol. 5, pp. 541–2. Robespierre’s outburst shows the friendship he felt for Danton, to whom he had written very affectionate letters at the time of the loss of his first wife.

20Camille Desmoulins, Le Vieux Cordelier, Paris: Armand Colin, 1936, p. 43.

21A. P., vol. 81, p. 90. that the revolutionary Committees were held to account within twenty-four hours for arrests of individuals not included stricto sensu in the law of suspects.

22Desmoulins, Le Vieux Cordelier, pp. 81–2. The author’s emphases. Les Brotteaux was the square in Lyon where the shootings ordered by Collot d’Herbois were carried out; Montaud had denounced in the Jacobins all the friends of Desmoulins, Danton, Thuriot, Chabot, etc.; the ‘imprisonment of half the people’ was an allusion to Chaumette’s charge-sheet against the suspects of 5 September 1793; ‘powder barrels beneath the prisons’ was a proposal made to the Convention on 17 September by Collot d’Herbois.

23A. P., vol. 81, p. 605.

24Robespierre, Œuvres complètes, vol. 10, pp. 263–4.

25Slavin, The Hébertistes to the Guillotine, pp. 77–8.

26A. P., vol. 82, p. 94.

27Aulard, La Société des Jacobins, vol. 5, p. 569ff.

28Ibid., pp. 573–6. The ‘Prussians’ who want a ‘universal republic’ is clearly an allusion to Anacharsis Cloots.

29A. P., vol. 82, pp. 365–6. The ‘translation of Tacitus’ was a veiled attack on Desmoulins.

30Aulard, La Société des Jacobins, vol. 5, p. 595ff.

31Robespierre had been a friend of Desmoulins since they were students together at the lycée Louis-le-Grand. He had been a witness at Camille’s marriage to Lucile.

32Robespierre, Œuvres complètes, vol. 10, pp. 308–9.

33Aulard, La Société des Jacobins, vol. 5, p. 603.

34A. P., vol. 83, pp. 291–2.

35Journal de la Montagne, 7 Nivôse year II, cited by Soboul, Les Sans-Culottes parisiens, p. 343.

36On Julien Raimond and the Société des Citoyens de Couleur, see Florence Gauthier, L’Aristocratie de l’épiderme, Paris: CRNS Éditions, 2007. On the course of the revolution in Saint-Domingue, see Gauthier, Triomphe et mort du droit naturel en révolution.

37For an overall presentation of these events, Florence Gauthier, ‘1793–94: la Révolution abolit l’esclavage. 1802: Bonaparte rétablit l’esclavage’,

38They were arrested on arrival on the order of the Committee of General Security, then released.

39A. P., vol. 84, pp. 276–85. Yves Bénot (‘Comment la Convention a-t-elle voté l’abolition de l’esclavage en l’an II?’, in Révolutions aux colonies, AHRF, special issue, 1993) has studied this session and the next day’s in detail, showing the resistance put up by remnants of the colonial party.

40Report of Latour-Lamontagne, 13 Ventôse, in C. A. Dauban, 1794, Histoire de la rue, du club, de la famine, Paris: Plon, 1869, p. 143.

41Ibid., p. 171.

42Soboul, Les Sans-Culottes parisiens, p. 685.

43Ibid., p. 689. The Finistère section was that of the faubourg Saint-Martin, which had renamed itself in honour of the Breton fédérés.

44Saint-Just, Œuvres complètes, p. 656ff.

45Jaurès, Histoire socialiste, vol. 6, p. 362.

46Dauban, Paris en 1794, p. 151.

47Mathiez, La Révolution française, vol. 3, p. 149.

48Le Moniteur, vol. 19, p. 629ff.

49It had already been covered up once, during the imprisonment of Vincent and Ronsin.

50These were the Convention members who had protested against 31 May, whose prosecution Robespierre had prevented.

51Le Moniteur, vol. 19, p. 635.

52Ibid., p. 647.

53This is highly likely, and Le Moniteur published a kind of apology: ‘We will promptly rectify the mistakes that are pointed out to us, by publishing the authentic minutes of the Society as soon as we have cognizance of them’ (vol. 19, p. 648).

54Jaurès, Histoire socialiste, vol. 6, p. 375.

55Le Moniteur, vol. 19, p. 663ff.

56Soboul, Les Sans-Culottes parisiens, p. 542.

57Saint-Just, Œuvres complètes, p. 675ff.

58Mathiez, La Vie chère, vol. 2, p. 190.

59See Walter, Actes du tribunal révolutionnaire, pp. 426–529.

60Caron, Paris pendant la Terreur, vol. 6, p. 85.

61Soboul, Les Sans-Culottes parisiens, p. 779.

62The sole exception being Amar, who possessed a fortune. Later he was the financial backer of Babeuf’s Conspiracy of Equals.

63Mémoires de R. Levasseur, vol. 3, pp. 29–30.

64A. P., vol. 87, p. 626ff.

65How did Robespierre come round to treating as a ‘rotten idol’ the same Danton whom he had defended at the Jacobins, as we saw, only a few weeks before? How could he accept sending his dear Camille to the guillotine? To these questions, unless I am mistaken, no answers have been given.

66Saint-Just, Œuvres complètes, p. 706.

67Albert Mathiez, ‘Les notes de Robespierre contre les Dantonistes’ [1918], in Études sur Robespierre, Paris: Éditions sociales, 1958, p. 121. Mathiez shows that these notes were written by Robespierre in order to correct and improve the initial report made by Saint-Just before the two Committees met in joint session on the night of 10 Germinal; the original report has been lost. Saint-Just took up many ideas from Robespierre, and even expressions, except on Desmoulins, whom Robespierre presented as having strayed, whereas Saint-Just blamed him squarely.

68Robespierre in these notes: ‘On that fatal night, he planned to go to bed, if those around him had not forced him to report to his section, where the Marseille battalion had assembled. He spoke there energetically: insurrection was already decided and inevitable’, which is rather different and probably more accurate as to what happened that night (ibid., p. 141). See on this point Lucile Desmoulins’s testimony (p. 72 above).

69It would seem that Saint-Just’s report made no allusion to Danton’s venality, a subject to which Mathiez devoted several works (in particular La Corruption parlementaire sous la Terreur, Paris: Armand Colin, 1927).

70Walter, Actes du Tribunal révolutionnaire, p. 564.

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