IT was composed of five bodies. First, a Council of Five Hundred (Les Cinq Cents), empowered to propose and discuss measures, but not to make them into laws. Second, a Council of (250) Ancients, or elders (Les Anciens), who had to be married and forty or more years old; they were authorized not to initiate legislation but to reject, or ratify into law, the “resolutions” sent to them by the Five Hundred. These two assemblies, constituting the Legislature (Corps Législatif) were subject to annual replacement of a third of their membership by the vote of the electoral colleges. The executive part of the government was the Directory (Directoire), composed of five members, at least forty years of age, chosen for a five-year term by the Ancients from fifty names submitted by the Five Hundred. Each year one of the directors was to be replaced by the choice of a new member. Independent of these three bodies and of each other were the judiciary and the Treasury, chosen by the electoral colleges of the departments. It was a government of checks and balances, designed for the protection of the victorious bourgeoisie from an unruly populace.
The Directory, lodged in the Luxembourg Palace, soon became the dominant branch of the government. It controlled the Army and Navy and determined foreign policy; it supervised the ministers of the interior, of foreign affairs, of marine and colonies, of war and finance. By the natural centripetal tendency by which power flows to leadership, the Directory became a dictatorship almost as independent as the Committee of Public Safety.
The five men first chosen as directors were Paul Barras, Louis-Marie de Larevellière-Lépaux, Jean-François Rewbell, Charles Letourneur, and Lazare Carnot. All of these had been regicides, four had been Jacobins, one—Barras—had been a viscount; now they adjusted themselves to a bourgeois regime. All were men of ability, but, excepting Carnot, they were not distinguished by scrupulous integrity. If survival is the test of worth, Barras was the most able, serving first Louis XVI, then Robespierre, and helping both of them to their deaths; maneuvering safely through crisis after crisis, through mistress after mistress, gathering wealth and power at every turn, giving Napoleon an army and a wife, outliving them, and dying in easy circumstances in re-Bourbonized Paris at the age of seventy-four (1829);1 he had nine lives and sold them all.
The problems faced by the Directory in 1795 might by their diverse multitude excuse some failures of their government. The populace of Paris was always facing destitution; the British blockade joined conflicts within the economy to impede the movement of food and goods. Inflation deflated the currency; in 1795 five thousand assignats were needed to buy what a hundred had bought in 1790. As the Treasury paid interest on its bonds in assignats at their face value, the rentiers who had invested in government “securities” as a protection in old age found themselves joining the rebellious poor.2 Thousands of Frenchmen bought stocks in a wild race to cheat inflation; when values had been swollen to their peak, speculators unloaded their holdings; a wild race to sell collapsed stock prices; the innocent found that their savings had been harvested by the clever few. The Treasury, having forfeited public confidence, repeatedly faced bankruptcy, and declared it in 1795. A loan exacted from the rich resulted in price rises by merchants and the ruin of luxury trades; unemployment rose; war and inflation went on.
Amid the chaos and poverty the communistic dream that had inspired Mably in 1748, Morelly in 1755, Linguet in 1777*continued to warm the hearts of the desperate poor; it had found voice in Jacques Roux in 1793. On April 11, 1796, the working-class quarters of Paris were placarded with posters offering an “Analysis of the Doctrine of Babeuf.” Some of its articles:
1. Nature has bestowed on every man an equal right to the enjoyment of all goods.…
3. Nature has imposed on every man the obligation of labor; no one, without crime, can abstain from work.…
7. In a free society there should be neither rich nor poor.
8. The rich who will not part with their superfluity in favor of the indigent are the enemies of the people…
10. The purpose of the Revolution is to destroy inequality and to establish the common happiness.
11. The Revolution is not at an end, for the rich absorb all goods of every kind, and are in exclusive domination, while the poor labor as actual slaves, … and are nothing in the eyes of the state.
12. The Constitution of 1793 is the true law of the French.… The Convention has shot down the people who demanded its enforcement.… The Constitution of 1793 ratified the inalienable right of each citizen to exercise political rights, to assemble, to demand what he believes useful, to educate himself, and not to die of hunger—rights which the counterrevolutionary act [Constitution] of 1795 has completely and openly violated.3
François-Émile “Gracchus” Babeuf, born in 1760, first entered recorded history in 1785 as an agent employed by landlords to enforce their feudal rights over the peasantry. In 1789 he changed sides, and drew up for distribution a cahier demanding the abolition of feudal dues. In 1794 he settled in Paris, defended and then attacked the Thermidoreans, was arrested, and emerged in 1795 as a fervent communist. Soon he organized the Société des Égaux (Band of Equals). He followed up his “Analysis” with a proclamationentitled “Act of Insurrection,” signed by the “Insurrectionary Committee of Public Safety.” A few articles:
10. The Council and the Directory, usurpers of popular authority, will be dissolved. All their members will be immediately judged by the people.…
18. Public and private property are placed in the custody of the people.
19. The duty of terminating the Revolution, and of bestowing upon the Republic liberty, equality, and the Constitution of 1793, will be confided to a national assembly, composed of a democrat from each department, appointed by the insurgent people upon the nomination of the Insurrectionary Committee.
The Insurrectionary Committee of Public Safety will remain in permanence until the total accomplishment of the Insurrection.4
This sounds ominously like a call for another dictatorship, a change of masters from one Robespierre to another. In his journal Tribune du Peuple, Babeuf amplified his dream:
All that is possessed by those who have more than their proportional part in the goods of society is held by theft and usurpation; it is therefore just to take it from them. The man who proves that by his own strength he can earn or do as much as four others is none the less in conspiracy against society, because he destroys the equilibrium and … precious equality. Social instruction must progress to the point where they deprive everyone of the hope of ever becoming richer, or more powerful, or more distinguished by his enlightenment and his talents. Discord is better than a horrid concord in which hunger strangles one. Let us go back to chaos, and from chaos let a new regenerated earth emerge.5
An agent provocateur informed the Directory that an increasing number of Parisian proletaires were reading the placards and journals of Babeuf, and that an armed uprising had been planned for May 11, 1796. On May 10 an order was issued for his arrest and that of his leading associates: Filippo Buonarrotti, A. Darthé, M.-G. Vadier, and J.-B. Drouet. After a year’s imprisonment, during which several attempts to free them failed, they were tried at Vendôme on May 27, 1797. Buonarrotti served a prison sentence, Drouet escaped. Babeuf and Darthé, condemned to death, tried suicide, but were hurried to the guillotine before they could die. Their plan, of course, was so impracticable, so innocent of the nature of man, that even the proletariat of Paris had not taken it seriously. Besides, by 1797, poor and rich alike, in France, had found a new hero, the most fascinating dreamer and doer in the political history of mankind.