IV. THE “GREAT COMMITTEE”: 1793

The Convention had reserved the right to revise, monthly, the membership of the Committee of Public Safety. On July 10—his peace policy, foreign and domestic, having failed—it removed Danton; then on July 25, as if to show its continuing regard, it elected him its president for the customary fortnightly term. His first wife had died in February, leaving him with two young children; on June 17 he had married a girl of sixteen; by July 10 he was redomesticated.

On July 27 Robespierre was appointed to the Committee. Danton had never cared for him; “that man,” he said, “has not wits enough to cook an egg.”42 Yet, on August 1, he urged the Convention to give the Committee absolute power. Perhaps in a reaction of regret for this advice he remarked to Desmoulins, as they saw a sunset inflaming the Seine, “the river is running blood.” On September 6 the Convention proposed to restore him to the Committee; he refused.43 Weary and ill, he left Paris on October 12, and sought rest in the home that he had bought in his native Arcis-sur-Aube, in the valley of the Marne. When he returned, on November 21, the Seine was running blood.

During that summer the “Great Committee,” as it came to be called, took its historic form. Now it consisted of twelve men: all of the middle class, all with good education and incomes, all acquainted with the philosophes and Rousseau; eight of them lawyers, two engineers; only one of them, Collot d’Herbois, had ever worked with his hands; a proletarian dictatorship is never proletarian. We call the roll:

1. Bertrand Barère, thirty-eight, added to divers duties the task of presenting and defending before the Convention the decisions reached by the Committee, and having them confirmed by decrees; amiable and persuasive, he turned death sentences into eloquence, and statistics into poetry. He made few surviving enemies, changed with the political tide, and lived to the age of eighty-six, long enough to learn the mortality of governments and ideas.

2. Jean-Nicolas Billaud-Varenne, thirty-seven, argued that the Catholic Church was the most dangerous enemy of the Revolution, and had to be destroyed. He kept in touch and tune with the sections and the Commune, and followed his uncompromising policies with a pertinacity that made even his fellow committeemen fear him. He took charge of correspondence and relations with the provinces, headed the new administrative machinery, and became for a time “the most powerful member of the Committee.”44

3. Lazare Carnot, forty, already distinguished as a mathematician and military engineer, took charge of the French armies, mapped campaigns, instructed and disciplined generals, won universal respect for his ability and integrity. He alone of the Committee is honored throughout France today.

4. Jean-Marie Collot d’Herbois, forty-three; formerly an actor, he had suffered the disabilities that oppressed the theatrical profession before the Revolution; he never forgave the bourgeoisie for closing its doors to him, or the Church for holding him, by his profession, excommunicate. He became the most severe of the Twelve in dealing with the “aristocracy of merchants,” and once proposed, as a measure of economy, that the Paris prisons —crowded with suspects, hoarders, and profiteers—should be blown up with mines.45

5. Georges Couthon, thirty-eight, was so crippled by meningitis that he had to be carried in a chair wherever he went; he attributed the ailment to sexual excesses in his youth, but he was adored by his wife. He was a man of kind heart and iron will who distinguished himself by his humane administration of pivotal provinces during the Terror.

6. Marie-Jean Hérault de Séchelles, thirty-four, seemed out of place and step among the Duodecemvirs; he was a noble of the robe, a wealthy lawyer, noted for his elegant manners and Voltairean wit. When he felt the revolutionary tide swelling under him he joined in the attack upon the Bastille, wrote most of the Constitution of 1793, and served as a rigorous executor of the Committee’s policies in Alsace. He lived comfortably, and kept a noble mistress, until the guillotine fell upon him on April 5, 1794.

7. Robert Lindet, forty-seven, had charge of food production and distribution in the increasingly managed economy, and accomplished logistic wonders in feeding and clothing the armies.

8. Claude-Antoine Prieur-Duvernois, called “Prieur of the Côte d’Or,” aged thirty, accomplished similar miracles in supplying the armies with munitions and matériel.

9. Pierre-Louis “Prieur of the Marne,” thirty-seven, spent his rough energy trying to win Catholic and royalist Brittany to the Revolution.

10. André-Jeanbon Saint-André, forty-four, of Protestant lineage and Jesuit education, became captain of a merchant vessel, then a Protestant minister; he took charge of the French Navy at Brest, and led it into battle with a British fleet.

11. Louis-Antoine Saint-Just, twenty-six, was the youngest and strangest of the Twelve, the most dogmatic, indomitable, and intense, the enfant terrible of the Terror. Brought up in Picardy by his widowed mother, admired and indulged, he fell passionately in love with Saint-Just, rejected all rules, fled to Paris with his mother’s silver, spent it on prostitutes,46 was caught and briefly jailed, studied law, and wrote an erotic poem in twenty cantos, celebrating rape, especially of nuns, and extolling pleasure as a divine right.47In the Revolution he found at first an apparent legitimation of his hedonism, but its ideals inspired him to exalt his individualism into a Roman virtus that would sacrifice everything to make those ideals come true.48 He transformed himself from an epicurean into a stoic, but remained a romantic to the end. “When the day comes,” he wrote, “which satisfies me that I cannot endow the French people with mild, vigorous, and rational ways, inflexible against tyranny and injustice, on that day I will stab myself.”49 In Republican Institutions (1791) he argued that the concentration of wealth made a mockery of political and legal equality and liberty. Private riches must be limited and spread; the government should be based upon peasant proprietors and independent artisans; universal education and relief must be provided by the state. Laws should be few, intelligible, and short; “long laws are public calamities.”50 After the age of five all boys should be brought up by the state in spartan simplicity, living on vegetables and trained for war. Democracy is good, but in wartime it should yield to dictatorship.51 Elected to the Committee on May 10, 1793, Saint-Just gave himself resolutely to hard work; he rebutted rumors of his having a mistress by claiming that he was too busy for such amusements. The willful and excitable youth became a stern disciplinarian, a capable organizer, a fearless and victorious general. Returning in triumph to Paris, he was chosen president of the Convention (February 19, 1794). Proud and confident, overbearing to others, he humbly accepted the leadership of Robespierre, defended him in his defeat, and—aged twenty-six years and eleven months—accompanied him to death.

12. Robespierre did not quite replace Danton as the master mind or will of the Twelve; Carnot, Billaud, Collot were too tough to be ruled; Robespierre never became dictator. He worked by patient study and devious strategy rather than by open command. He maintained popularity with the sansculottes by living simply with plain folk, extolling the masses and defending their interests. On April 4, 1793, he had offered the Convention “A Proposed Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen”:

Society is obliged to provide for the subsistence of all its members, either by procuring work for them or by assuring the means of existence to those who are unable to work…. The aid indispensable to whoever lacks necessaries is a debt of whoever possesses a surplus…. To make resistance to oppression subject to legal forms is the last refinement of tyranny…. Every institution that does not assume that the people are good, and that the magistrates are corruptible, is vicious…. The men of all countries are brothers.52

All in all these twelve men were not mere murderers, as superficial acquaintance might describe them. It is true that they followed too readily the tradition of violence that had come down to them from the wars of religion and the Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve (1572); most of them learned to execute their enemies without qualm, sometimes with virtuous satisfaction; but they claimed the needs and customs of war. They themselves were subject to these mishaps; any one of them could be challenged, deposed, and sent to the guillotine; several ended so. At any moment they were subject to insurrection by the Paris populace, or the National Guard, or an ambitious general; any major defeat on the front or in a rebellious province might topple them. Meanwhile they labored night and day on their various tasks: from eight in the morning till noon in their offices or subcommittees; from one to four in the afternoon in attending the Convention; from eight till late in the evening in consultation or debate around the green table in their conference room. When they took charge France was torn with civil war by emergent capitalism in Lyons, by Girondin uprisings in the south, by Catholic and royalist revolts in the west; it was threatened by foreign armies in the north-east, the east, and the southwest; it was suffering defeat on land and sea, and was blockaded in every port. When the Great Committee fell, France had been hammered into political unity by dictatorship and terror; a new breed of young generals, trained, and sometimes led into battle, by Carnot and Saint-Just, had thrown back the enemy in decisive victories; and France, alone against nearly all of Europe, had emerged triumphant against everything but herself.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!