JULY 1793 was the low point in the Jacobin Republic’s struggle against its enemies. All the military news was bad. The forces of the coalition were established on French soil in Flanders and along the Pyrenees. Thousands of French troops surrendered when Mainz fell; while a British fleet cruised off Marseilles hoping to link up with the ‘Federalist’ rebels there. Nor was news from the interior much better. The Vendéans’ retreat from Nantes only seemed to consolidate their grip on the heartland of the rebellion. The only general successful against them, Biron, retook Saumur, but was dismissed on 12 July under suspicion as a former duke. He was replaced by his sansculotte deputy Rossignol, politically sound but a drunken incompetent. And whereas the Federalist revolt in Normandy rapidly collapsed after Brécourt, Lyons proclaimed its continued defiance with the execution of Chalier; and Toulon, hitherto loyal, became a new centre of resistance. Charlotte Corday was denounced as the agent of a far-flung Girondin plot; and after her execution on 17 July she was adopted as a martyr by a whole spectrum of anti-Montagnards from moderates to royalists. It was feared that she was one of thousands operating in the capital, suspicions fanned by political struggles in some of the sections. Not all of them were in the grip of solid sansculottes. Control of some at the western end of the city changed hands almost nightly, and when elections were held for the post of commander of the Paris National Guard, Hanriot was only confirmed after massive gerrymandering against a candidate who had fired on the republican petitioners in the Champ de Mars.
‘The evil which besets us’, declared Jeanbon Saint-André on 1 August,1 ‘is that we have no government.’ As a member of the Committee of Public Safety, he ought to have known. But when Danton proposed, in the same session, that the Committee be recognized formally as France’s provisional government, the Convention would not agree. The Committee seemed adequate for its purpose without taking new powers; and, with the addition to its ranks on 11 August of two experienced military technocrats, Carnot and Prieur de la Côte d’Or (the latter just released from Federalist clutches in Caen), it now set about vindicating the Convention’s confidence. It never did become the government, or enjoy undisputed executive authority. But in the course of the next twelve months it was to give the country the leadership to mobilize its resources with unprecedented assurance, and put the crisis of 1793 behind it.
The first step was to defeat the ‘Federalists’—or rather, those who were not already managing to defeat themselves. No further military operations were necessary in Calvados after Brécourt. The disgusted Bretons marched out of Caen on 25 July, along with the fugitive Girondin deputies, leaving the city to its fate. By 3 August a representative on mission and member of the Committee of Public Safety, Robert Lindet, was in control again. Nor did the Bretons hold out long. In mid-August they issued public retractions of their earlier defiant proclamations, and the fugitive deputies moved on again, making their way south to what they imagined would be the safety of Bordeaux. Bitter disappointment awaited them: resistance was collapsing in the Gironde, too. In the last week of July the Popular Commission still seemed very much in charge, seizing all the coinage in the local mint to defray its mounting expenses. Then, on 2 August, alarmed by threats of military vengeance issuing from Paris, and mounting problems of food supply, it abruptly dissolved itself and recalled its volunteer army. If it hoped to fend off Montagnard vengeance it was to be disappointed. Although none of the money was used, the raid on the mint was viewed as theft of national property. Besides, ever since its establishment the Commission had been the source of much virulent anti-Parisian propaganda, and had dispatched emissaries to foment Federalism all over the south and west. Its contribution, in fact, to the national crisis was regarded as far more damaging than that of Caen or Rennes, and retribution was accordingly going to be far more drastic. On 6 August all members of the Popular Commission were declared traitors and outlawed. Representatives on mission arrived on 19 August, to restore legitimate authority, but they did not find the cowed and contrite city they expected. Jostled and threatened by ugly crowds of Muscadins, they felt safer withdrawing the next day to the republican safety of La Réole, thirty miles up river. From there they reported their reception to the Convention, and called for troops to accompany their next entry to the city. Not until 17 October did they feel secure enough to attempt it. By then Bordeaux had been bracing itself for several weeks. On 27 August the National Club reopened, and three weeks later a new Jacobin-dominated municipal council was elected. A festival in honour of Marat had even been held. But, remarked Tallien, the deputy now sent from the Vendée to deal with Bordeaux, ‘this is pure face-saving. Hunger and fear alone have brought the twenty-eight sections together for even a minute.’2
Similar pressures also precipitated the surrender of Marseilles. Detachments from the army in the Alps were ordered in July to march against both Marseilles and Lyons. By the beginning of August Lyons was surrounded but seemed bent on resistance. Marseilles, however, now cut off from sympathizers further up the Rhône, began to panic. The departmental army of the Bouches du Rhône withdrew from Avignon, pursued by regular troops under Carteaux. With the port blockaded and the new harvest not yet in, bread riots broke out in the city in the early days of August. The Popular Tribunal began to execute known Jacobins, and priests reappeared in public praying for divine aid to save the rebels. Finally, as Carteaux’s army closed in, the rebels appealed to the British admiral Hood to allow grain ships from Italy to pass his blockade. This was treason, and it proved too much for some of Marseilles’s sections to follow. Fighting broke out on 23 August between advocates of surrender to Carteaux and partisans of collaboration with the British. Two days later, Carteaux arrived. Those who could, made their escape to Toulon, where they had a dramatic effect on the situation. The Toulon Federalists had had no previous thoughts of collaboration with the enemy, even though they knew that if Carteaux took Marseilles their own turn must come. But, surprised by the approach from Marseilles, Hood concluded that Toulon might be ripe for negotiation, too. On 23 August, accordingly, he formally offered Toulon military protection if the port would proclaim Louis XVII. Many were outraged, but others were equally appalled by atrocity stories spread by refugees from Marseilles. After agonized debate, the sections decided to accept Hood’s offer. It took another three days to persuade the sailors of the Mediterranean fleet that resistance at this stage would be futile, but on 27 August the British fleet sailed into France’s Mediterranean naval base and coalition forces occupied the town. They met with no resistance.
The fall of Toulon to the British precipitated a new crisis in Paris. Ever since the death of Marat various factions in the capital had been jostling to appropriate his mantle and his following; hence the venom and persistence of the Montagnard attack on theenragés. But no sooner had Roux been dislodged from influence at the commune than others came forward to appropriate his programme. The new populists had until now been orthodox spokesmen for Montagnard policies in the commune (in the person of Chaumette, its procurator, and Hébert, his deputy) and at the war ministry.
They also dominated the Cordeliers Club. Hébert’s Père Duchesne, written in the oath-strewn vernacular, became the undisputed best-selling paper in Paris once Marat was silenced. It also began, soon after that, to call for sterner measures against hoarders and speculators, the extension of the maximum to all goods of first necessity along with stricter enforcement, faster progress in the organization of the Revolutionary Armies decreed on 2 June, and greater efforts to marshal the people’s revolutionary enthusiasm through mass effort. These demands were barely distinguishable from those still being made by Roux and his journalist ally Leclerc, who had even given his own paper Marat’s old name of L’Ami du Peuple. Both groups believed that only ruthless use of the guillotine would eliminate traitors, backsliders, suspects, speculators, and ‘egoists’. The answer to the nation’s problems lay in Terror.
Even in the Convention this cry was increasingly being heard. Deputies like the ferocious Billaud-Varenne, who had moved the death penalty for hoarding, and his close ally Collot d’Herbois, former actor and already known as a ruthlessly efficient representative on mission, increasingly stood out from their fellow Montagnards in spurning caution and conciliation. And the Committee of Public Safety did authorize some popular gestures: the levée en masse proclaimed on 23 August was a response to a petitioning campaign from the sections. But stirringly as Carnot’s prose read and spectacularly effective as his implementation of the decree was to be, the conscription it authorized fell far short of the universal national enlistment dreamed of in the sections. The Nation’s resolve, Leclerc proclaimed, was being sapped by a ‘spirit of moderation’ in the Convention that needed to be expunged, if necessary, by the sort of popular action already seen on 2 June. Hébert, defeated to his great surprise in a bid to be elected minister of the interior on 20 August, seized on the same theme, and began to work the Jacobin Club up to accepting it. Economic circumstances favoured him. Over the summer the assignat had continued to decline, reaching a mere 22 per cent of its face value in August—a loss of 14 per cent since the purge of the Girondins alone. Weeks of hot weather had produced a good harvest, but many watermills were becalmed by drought, so flour remained scarce. All basic goods had risen in price since June, and some quite spectacularly: soap was up threefold. For all this moderates and dozers (endormeurs) in the Convention were blamed: and when on 2 September news arrived of the loss of Toulon it was easy to focus popular anger on them. Billaud-Varenne had already come close to condemning the incompetence of the Committee of Public Safety with a proposal for a new committee to supervise ministers.
So when what appears to have originated as a spontaneous demonstration by manual workers for higher wages and more bread broke out on 4 September, Hébert and his allies at the commune and in the clubs were quick to turn it to their advantage. Confronted by crowds in the place de Grève, they persuaded them to reassemble on the fifth for a march on the Convention. They used their official powers to close all workplaces the next day, and that evening they persuaded the Jacobins to back their initiative, brushing aside the temporizings of Robespierre, who as current president of the Convention would have the task of confronting the morning’s demonstration. There was certainly no hope of resisting it. Chaumette, at the head of thousands of sansculottes, denounced the shortages, the failure to implement existing laws to deal with them, and those who caused them: ‘Legislators, the immense gathering of citizens come together yesterday and this morning… has formed but one wish; brought to you by a deputation, it is this: Our subsistence, and to get it, apply the law!’3 That meant first of all organizing the Revolutionary Armies and launching them against the hoarders and greedy, unpatriotic inhabitants of the countryside. The Convention voted to do it on the spot—although it did not authorize the guillotines on wheels which Chaumette thought every detachment of the new force ought to have. The motion was moved by Billaud-Varenne and seconded by Danton. Danton also moved that arms production be stepped up until every patriot had a musket, that the Revolutionary Tribunal be divided so as to get through more business; and that, as he put it, to permit ‘hardworking men, who live by the price of their sweat’, to attend their sectional assemblies, these assemblies should take place twice weekly and attendance at them be paid at 40 sous a time. It was all carried by acclamation, amid scenes, in Barère’s words, of delirium.
Terror, he observed, was now the order of the day. The sansculottes appeared to have coerced the Convention for the second time in three months and to be set to dictate its policies without resistance. Over the next few weeks the legislature certainly committed itself to radical and energetic action on a scale not seen since the emergency of March. Billaud-Varenne and Collot d’Herbois were now added to the Committee of Public Safety, although Damon refused nomination. On 17 September a comprehensive Law of Suspects was passed, which empowered the watch committees set up the previous March to arrest anyone who ‘either by their conduct, their contacts, their words or their writings, showed themselves to be supporters of tyranny, of federalism, or to be enemies of liberty’, as well as a number of more specific categories such as former nobles ‘who have not constantly manifested their attachment to the revolution.’4 Practically anybody might fall foul of such a sweeping law. In the weeks following even everyday speech acquired a sansculotte style. Those who refused to call each other ‘citizen’ rather than the deferential ‘Monsieur’, and to use the familiar form of address (tutoiement), fell under automatic suspicion. Then on 29 September the Convention passed a General Maximum Law which imposed price controls on a wide range of goods defined as of first necessity from food and drink to fuel, clothing, and even tobacco. Those who sold them above the maximum would be fined and placed on the list of suspects. The Revolutionary Army was at last set on foot, and command of it went not, as the Committee of Public Safety would have liked, to Hanriot, but to Ronsin, one of the fiercest allies of Hébert. Ever since June many sections had also been calling for the Girondins still in captivity to be put on trial, along with Marie-Antoinette. Such gestures were bloody (since acquittal was inconceivable) but empty, as Robespierre saw. He campaigned against them and sought to impede them as long as he could. But on 9 September news broke of a plot to free the former queen from the solitary confinement in which she was now kept, and after that her fate was inevitable. She was sent for trial on 3 October, the same day as the Girondins. All Robespierre could do was dissuade the Convention from the roll-call demanded by Billaud-Varenne to identify those favouring mercy for traitors.
The first well-known victims of the reign of terror, however, came from the other end of the political spectrum. The radicals used their triumph to eliminate the rivals whose policies they had stolen. In the course of September the leading enragés were all arrested. Roux, first imprisoned as early as 22 August, then released, was rearrested on 5 September. Varlet, who with some prescience denounced Danton’s idea of payment for attendance at fixed weekly sectional meetings, followed him into custody on the eighteenth. Leclerc stopped publishing and disappeared. No more was now heard of the call, periodically taken up by the enragés, for the constitution to be brought into force, with all its democratic practices and implicit renewal of the national representation. Quite the reverse. On 10 October the Convention formally accepted that it was impossible to activate it as things were. At a time of emergency the processes it enshrined were too cumbersome and slow. ‘It is impossible’, declared Saint-Just in the name of the Committee of Public Safety,5 ‘for revolutionary laws to be executed if the government itself is not constituted in a revolutionary way.’ He therefore proposed that the Committee itself should take on the central direction of the entire state apparatus, subject only to the oversight of the Convention. Such ‘Revolutionary Government’ would be temporary; but the government of France was declared revolutionary until the peace.
Thus began the most famous stage of the French Revolution, when in the course of nine months around 16,000 people perished under the blade of the guillotine. The cold, mechanical efficiency of the method had all Europe watching with fascinated horror. The Terror began—and ended far into 1794—with famous victims. Marie-Antoinette went to the scaffold, her defiant appearance in the tumbril memorably sketched by David, on 17 October. Two weeks later (31 October) 21 Girondins, including Brissot and Vergniaud, followed her, after a show trial cut short when the eloquence and debating skills of the accused threatened to prolong it indefinitely. They went to their deaths defiantly singing the ‘Marseillaise’. Those who had signed the secret protest against their purging in June were imprisoned as Girondins after its existence was revealed in the preparations for the trial; but Robespierre always blocked moves to have them too put on trial. Of those who had escaped in June, four went to the guillotine in Bordeaux, while Pétion and Buzot shot themselves. Their bodies were later found, half-eaten by wolves. Roland too committed suicide when he heard of his wife’s execution in November. November also saw the execution of Égalité, no Girondin, but a prince of royal blood with an émigré son, and suspect figures from the past like Barnave, arrested a year previously when his 1791 intrigues with the queen were revealed; and Bailly, still hated by the sansculottes for his part in the massacre of the Champ de Mars. For him a special guillotine was erected at the scene of the crime. The others all met their deaths where the guillotine now permanently stood, close to where Louis XVI’s head had fallen in the place de la Révolution.
Even so, only 177 people were executed in Paris between October and the end of 1793. The pathetic spectacle of the once mighty and famous now brought low distracted attention from the thousands of less well-known provincials who made up the bulk of the Terror’s victims. Just as the show trials in Paris were beginning, Lyons finally surrendered to the besieging armies after two months of bombardment and resistance during which its defence was increasingly reliant on royalist volunteers commanded by a returnedémigré. Hoping to be relieved by a Piedmontese invasion from the east, the starving city had held out over the summer. But when in the first few days of October the invaders were thrown back, defeat became inevitable and Lyons surrendered to the representative on mission Couthon. His inclination was to adopt the policy of conciliation and clemency that had worked so effectively in Caen over the summer. But Lyons was different. The country’s second city had defied the Convention for a third of the year, when the Republic was in mortal peril. It had murdered Chalier and not hesitated to make common cause with other rebels, not to mention royalists and foreign enemies. The city’s name was reviled in Paris far more than those of the other ‘Federalist’ centres, and the Committee of Public Safety was resolved to make Lyons an example. On receipt of the news of its fall, on 12 October, the Committee moved a decree that Lyons should be destroyed. Its very name was to disappear, except on a monument among the ruins which would proclaim ‘Lyons made war on Liberty. Lyons is no more’, ‘The collection of houses left standing’—for the destruction of the city was glossed later in the decree as the destruction of the houses of the rich—was to be renamed Freed-Town (Ville Affranchie). Couthon had no stomach for such comprehensive vengeance. He set up special courts and began to demolish some of the city’s richest dwellings, but at the same time he asked to be transferred elsewhere. He was replaced at the beginning of November by Collot d’Herbois and Fouché, the latter previously on mission in Nevers. They came determined to exact the exemplary vengeance decreed from Paris, and to help them they brought units of the Paris Revolutionary Army, now fully organized under the direct authority of the Committee of Public Safety. Thousands of suspects were imprisoned as parties of sansculottes swept the city with ‘domiciliary visits’, but by the end of November scarcely more than 200 ‘Federalists’ had been condemned by the special courts. Collot thought a mere twenty deaths a day not enough. On 27 November a special ‘Tribunal of Seven’ was established to speed matters up, and within days had handed down capital sentences on almost 300 convicted rebels. This was too much for the local guillotine: in themitraillades of 4–8 December, condemned men were blown into open graves by cannon-fire and grape-shot. Even so executions continued into the spring. By April, 1,880 Lyonnais had been condemned. Arriving in the city with a detachment of the Paris Revolutionary Army on 22 January, a German adventurer who had joined them gazed in horror at:
whole ranges of houses, always the most handsome, burnt. The churches, convents, and all the dwellings of the former patricians were in ruins. When I came to the guillotine, the blood of those who had been executed a few hours beforehand was still running in the street … I said to a group of sansculottes … that it would be decent to clear away all this human blood.—Why should it be cleared? one of them said to me. It’s the blood of aristocrats and rebels. The dogs should lick it up.6
The troops who had taken Lyons had meanwhile moved on south to join the armies encircling Toulon. The coalition forces occupying the port were not reinforced, and so had done little to enlarge their bridgehead. But they could keep supplied from the sea so long as they occupied the heights around the harbour. Thus the siege of Toulon went on for 3½ months. But when, on 17 December, Captain Bonaparte’s gunners drove the British and Spanish troops from the key forts on those heights, Admiral Hood saw that he must evacuate the port immediately or have his fleet shot to matchwood. Perhaps 7,000 refugees crowded on to the warships which sailed out over the next three days under republican fire, including most of the leaders of Toulon’s original revolt. Nevertheless the Jacobins released from imprisonment were able to identify plenty of remaining rebels. 800 were shot without trial as French citizens caught in armed rebellion. A Revolutionary Commission set up by the representatives Barras (a former noble) and Fréron condemned 282 more to the guillotine over the next month for conniving at a revolt that had not only proclaimed Louis XVII, but also allowed the enemy to tow off or destroy over two-thirds of the French Mediterranean fleet as the occupation ended. ‘Mountain-Port’ (Port-de-la-Montagne), as it was now renamed, therefore suffered second only to Lyons in the Terror which purged the centres of ‘Federalism’. Only its vital strategic importance as a naval base cushioned it from further reprisals.
Repression at Marseilles and Bordeaux, in comparison, was relatively mild. Well controlled and formally meticulous, the Revolutionary Tribunal which sat at Marseilles between August 1793 and April 1794 tried 975 suspects and acquitted 476 of them. 289 of those convicted were executed—although of course many of the most guilty must have escaped to Toulon before Carteaux’s forces marched in. Even the attempt to give the city the new name of Nameless (Sansnom) was half-hearted. Bordeaux kept its own name throughout, although the Gironde department where it lay was redesignated Bec d’Ambès (from the point where Garonne and Dordogne meet). Despite bloodthirsty language from the representatives Tallien and Ysabeau, the Military Commission they established acquitted more suspects than it condemned, and between October 1793 and June 1794 only 104 were sentenced to the guillotine. So moderate had the repression been that the representatives themselves fell under suspicion. Ysabeau seemed too fond of the company of rich merchants, while Tallien was under the thumb of his beautiful, pleasure-loving mistress, Thérèse Cabarrus, the wife of a noble and herself daughter of a dubious Spanish financier. They were supplemented in June 1794 by a young, austere acolyte of Robespierre, Jullien, and in the two months of his rule 198 more heads rolled at Bordeaux. By then, the Terror was tailing off everywhere else except in Paris.
Jullien was chosen to go to Bordeaux on the strength of his success in uncovering terroristic abuses in Nantes under the representative sent there in October 1793, Carrier. Nantes by then was the main centre of operations against the Vendée, and bursting with prisoners as the war began to turn against the rebels. After their failure to take the great port in the first days of July the ‘whites’ melted back into the countryside. A republican counter-offensive began, spearheaded by regular troops who had surrendered at Mainz and been repatriated by the coalition on condition of not being put back in the line. They, and a legion of sansculotte volunteers from Paris under Rossignol, now carried a deliberate policy of terror and devastation into the Vendéan heartland. The rebels rapidly abandoned Saumur and Angers, and their leaders fell to quarrelling about who should have overall command. Reactivated by messages from London that the British would send them aid if they could capture a port, they regrouped and defeated the Parisian army at Coron on 18 September and the Mainz veterans at Torfou the next day. But characteristically afterwards most of the rebels went home to sing Te Deums instead of pursuing their advantage. Early in October the Committee of Public Safety launched a new drive to crush the ‘inexplicable Vendée’, as Barère called it. Command of the various republican armies was unified, and by mid-October four columns were converging on the very headquarters of rebel territory, the bocage around Cholet. There, on 17 October, they defeated the rebels decisively and killed several of their leaders. Only now, pursued by triumphant republicans, did the Vendéans break out of their home country in a bold and desperate bid to link up with the British. They crossed the Loire and struck north under Stofflet, making for the nearest port to British territory, Granville, on the Cotentin peninsula opposite Jersey. As they went they were joined by chouans from the disaffected countryside of upper Brittany, and by the time they reached Granville on 14 November they may have been 60,000 strong. But the British were not there. There were plenty of troops and supplies in Jersey, but news of the march only reached their commander, via London, on 26 November, and even then he did not know that Granville was their destination. The port was well fortified and defended, whereas the Vendéans had no siege train. By the time British warships appeared off Granville on 2 December the rebel army was in retreat, far to the south. By the fourth they were once more at Angers, but this time the republican garrison held firm, and they were unable to get back across the Loire. They turned north again, and on 12 December republican forces at last caught up with them at Le Mans, where they were routed in a night battle fought in pouring winter rain. Many escaped, but in complete disorder. Westermann, in command of the blues pursuing them westwards back into Brittany, ordered no quarter to be given. ‘The road to Laval is strewn with corpses’, reported one of his men,7 ‘Women, priests, monks, children, all have been put to death. I have spared nobody.’ Perhaps 10,000 died during this retreat. On 23 December, finally, the remnant of the Catholic and royal army turned to face its pursuers at Savenay. Only 4,000 or 5,000 were left in any state to fight, although twice that number were crammed into the little town. Two-thirds of them were destroyed in the battle and the mass shootings which followed. The ‘Great War of the Vendée’ was over, but republican vengeance was not. In a macabre but untranslatable pun, the area was now to be called Vengé. Over the spring of 1794 general Turreau sent ‘infernal columns’ of blues to crisscross the heartland of rebellion, ravaging, destroying, and killing everything in their path. ‘Comrades,’ declared one of his subordinates to his men, ‘we are entering insurgent country. I order you to deliver to flames everything that can be burnt and to bayonet any locals whom you meet on your way. I know there might be a few patriots in this country; never mind, we must sacrifice them all.’8 Even republican troops sickened by scenes of gang rape and infanticide dared not protest. Historians are still arguing about how many people perished during the whole episode of the Vendée uprising, but a quarter of a million on the rebel side alone does not seem an overestimate. Certainly the population of the region did not recover to its 1790 levels until the 1820s.
Alongside casualties on this scale, even the number of victims who perished in the judicial Terror of Nantes seems modest. Yet nowhere else was the Terror so destructive. Forty-two per cent of the death sentences during the entire Terror were passed in the three departments most affected by the Vendée rebellion, and the various special courts established in the Loire-Inférieure, Nantes’s department, accounted for 3,548 capital sentences. Carrier, whose previous record at Rennes, dealing with mere Federalists, had been moderate and conciliatory, believed that fanatical royalist counter-revolutionaries deserved far harsher treatment. As at Lyons, the guillotine could scarcely cope with the flood of victims: yet the prisons were overflowing, ravaged by epidemics, and there was not enough food to feed innocent citizens, let alone condemned traitors and rebels. These considerations led Carrier to approve perhaps the most notorious expedient of the whole Terror: the noyades. On 19 November some 90 priests were executed by sinking them, hog-tied, in a holed barge in the Loire. In the six weeks that followed six other batches of victims, many though not all of them non-juring priests convicted (or sometimes just suspected) of exciting the fanaticism of devout rebels, were disposed of in the same way. Perhaps 1,800 perished altogether in the noyades, and their bodies were washed up on the tidal banks of the Loire for weeks afterwards. But the citizens of Nantes, repeatedly threatened by insurgents who reputedly gave no quarter, raised little objection to such methods, or to the hundreds of shootings of armed rebels that Carrier also authorized. They believed they would have been massacred if the whites had triumphed: the Vendée rebellion had begun, after all, with massacres of good republicans. And hardly any Nantais were executed under Carrier. What brought him down, and precipitated his recall to Paris on 8 February, was rumours of the sheer scale of his operations in Nantes at a time when the Committee of Public Safety was beginning to wonder—however temporarily—whether ferocity was not now making the Republic more enemies than it eliminated. In this climate subordinate terrorists in Nantes were anxious to blame the representative on mission for as much excess as possible; and Jullien, as the confidant of the always-suspicious Robespierre, was a willing recipient of their denunciations. Repression under Carrier, Jullien reported, had been indiscriminate, and too often the letter of the law had been ignored. Official policy was now to set severe limits to the independent initiative of representatives on mission, and Carrier was the first, and most spectacular, casualty of the changed atmosphere.
Throughout the autumn of 1793, however, representatives on mission had been free to interpret their role much as they wished. This phase of the Terror was anarchic, unco-ordinated, and little subject to central direction. Its characteristic instruments were the Revolutionary Armies, which mushroomed throughout the provinces in imitation of that of Paris, and whose numbers may have reached 40,000 men at their height. Terroristic jacks-of-all-trades, their purpose was to intimidate and punish, arrest and repress, anyone suspected of activities that could be deemed hostile to the Revolution. Representatives arriving in districts suspected of disaffection tended to establish such forces as a matter of priority, as rallying-points for active and reliable patriots. Overwhelmingly they were recruited in towns, among married artisans, and they tended to operate locally: the Paris battalions sent to Lyons were exceptional. Local knowledge, in fact, was essential to their functioning. They knew who the suspects were, and where to find them; and, recruited as they were, it was not surprising that they spent much of their time foraging in surrounding countryside, hunting down hoarders and speculators whose greed threatened to starve hungry patriot families in the towns and flouted the Law of the Maximum. The same local knowledge underpinned the powers of the watch committees sitting in most localities since the spring. On to them devolved the responsibility of implementing the Law of Suspects passed in September, as well as a whole range of other duties such as issuing certificates of civisme—identity cards and testimonials of public reliability all in one. Originally only foreigners had been required to carry these documents, but the Law of Suspects made the requirement general. Those without them were liable to arrest and imprisonment; and in fact up to half a million people may have been imprisoned as suspects of one sort or another during the Terror. Up to 10,000 may have died in custody, crowded into prisons never intended for such numbers, or makeshift quarters no better equipped. These too, deserve to be numbered among the victims of the Terror, although not formally condemned. So do those who were murdered or lynched without trial or official record during the chaotic, violent autumn of 1793, when the supreme law of public safety seemed to override more conventional and cumbersome procedures. Altogether the true total of those who died under the Terror (excluding the Vendée) may have been twice the official figure—around 30,000 people in just under a year. Even so it was far from the bloodiest episode in a murderous decade for Europe: the same number died in a matter of weeks in Ireland in 1798, in a country with only one-sixth of France’s population; while two-thirds of that number may have been slaughtered in a single day in Warsaw on 4 November 1794. Nor is it true that most of those killed in the Terror were members of the former ‘privileged orders’, whatever the Revolution’s antiaristocratic rhetoric might suggest. Of the official death sentences passed, less than 9 per cent fell upon nobles, and less than 7 per cent on the clergy. Disproportionately high as these figures may have been relative to the numbers of these groups in the population as a whole, they were not as high as the quarter of the Terror’s victims who came from the middle classes. And the vast majority of those who lost their lives in the proscriptions of 1793–4—two-thirds of those officially condemned and doubtless a far higher proportion of those who disappeared unofficially—were ordinary people caught up in tragic circumstances not of their own making, who made wrong choices in lethal times, when indifference itself counted as a crime. It is scarcely a coincidence that most death sentences were passed in areas of ‘Federalist’ or royalist rebellion, or in frontier districts where the repeated passage of opposed armies demanded rapid but ultimately unconvincing changes of allegiance from those who lived there.
Other districts, meanwhile, particularly in the centre of the country, remained almost untouched by the Terror. Here even more than in disturbed areas the personal whims and idiosyncrasies of representatives on mission could be decisive. Sometimes they could even set an example that would be widely followed. The Nièvre, for example, deep in central France, had given the Convention no cause for worry. But the arrival there in September 1793 of the representative Fouché transformed it into a beacon of religious terror. Fouché, himself a former priest, came from the Vendée, where he had witnessed the ability of the clergy to inspire fanatical resistance to the Republic’s authority. Christianity, he concluded, could not coexist in any form with the Revolution and, brushing aside what was left of the ‘constitutional’ Church, he inaugurated a civic religion of his own devising with a ‘Feast of Brutus’ on 22 September at which he denounced ‘religious sophistry’. Fouché particularly deplored clerical celibacy: it set the clergy apart, and in any case made no contribution to society’s need for children. Clerics who refused to marry were ordered to adopt and support orphans or aged citizens. The French people, Fouché declared in a manifesto published on 10 October, recognized no other cult but that of universal morality; and although the exercise of all creeds was proclaimed as free and equal, none might henceforth be practised in public. Graveyards should exhibit no religious symbols, and at the gate of each would be an inscription proclaiming Death is an eternal sleep. Thus began the movement known as dechristianization. Soon afterwards Fouché moved on to Lyons; but during his weeks in Nevers his work had been watched by Chaumette, visiting his native town from Paris. He was to carry the idea back to the capital, where it was energetically taken up by his colleagues at the commune.
Other representatives on mission, meanwhile, had also taken to attacking the outward manifestations of the Catholic religion. At Abbeville, on the edge of priest-ridden Flanders, Dumont favoured forced public abjuration of orders, preferably by constitutional clergy whose continued loyalty to the Revolution could only now be proved by such gestures. On 7 October in Rheims, Ruhl personally supervised the smashing of the phial holding the sacred oil of Clovis used to anoint French kings. None of this was authorized by the Convention; on the other hand the adoption on 5 October of a new republican calendar marked a further stage in the divorce between the French State and any sort of religion. Years would no longer be numbered from the birth of Christ, but from the inauguration of the French Republic on 22 September 1792. Thus it was already the Year II. There would be twelve thirty-day months with evocative, seasonal names; each month would have three ten-day weeks (décades) ending in a rest-day (décadi). Sundays therefore disappeared and could not be observed unless they coincided with the less-frequent décadis. The introduction of the system at this moment only encouraged representatives on mission to intensify their lead; and dechristianization became an important feature of the Terror in all the former centres of rebellion when they were brought to heel. Once launched it was eminently democratic. Anybody could join in smashing images, vandalizing churches (the very word was coined to describe this outburst of iconoclasm), and theft of vestments to wear in blasphemous mock ceremonies. Those needing pretexts could preach national necessity when they tore down bells or walked off with plate that could be recast into guns or coinage. Such activities were particular favourites among the Revolutionary Armies. The Parisian detachments marching to Lyons left a trail of pillaged and closed churches, and smouldering bonfires of ornaments, vestments, and holy pictures all along their route. Other contributions took more organization, but Jacobin clubs and popular societies, not to mention local authorities, were quite happy to orchestrate festivals of reason, harmony, wisdom, and other such worthy attributes in former churches; and to recruit parties of priests who, at climactic moments in these ceremonies, would renounce their vows and declare themselves ready to marry. If their choice fell on a former nun, so much the better.
When Chaumette returned from Nevers, the Paris Commune made dechristianization its official policy. On 23 October the images of kings on the front of Notre-Dame were ordered to be removed: the royal tombs at Saint-Denis had already been emptied and desecrated by order of the Convention in August. The word Saint began to be removed from street names, and busts of Marat replaced religious statues. Again the Convention appeared to be encouraging the trend when it decreed, on 20 October, that any priest (constitutional or refractory) denounced for lack of civisme by six citizens would be subject to deportation, and any previously sentenced to deportation but found in France should be executed. Clerical dress was now forbidden in Paris; and on 7 November Gobel, the elected constitutional bishop, who had already sanctioned clerical marriage for his clergy, came with eleven of them to the Convention and ceremonially resigned his see. Removing the episcopal insignia, he put on a cap of liberty and declared that the only religion of a free people should be that of Liberty and Equality. In the next few days the handful of priests who were deputies followed his example. Soon Grégoire, constitutional bishop of Blois, was the only deputy left clinging to his priesthood and clerical dress. The sections meanwhile were passing anti-clerical motions, and on 12 November that of Gravilliers, whose idol had so recently been Jacques Roux, sent a deputation to the Convention draped in ‘ornaments from churches in their district, spoils taken from the superstitious credulity of our forefathers and repossessed by the reason of free men’9 to announce that all churches in the section had been closed. This display followed a great public ceremony held in Notre-Dame, or the ‘Temple of Reason’, as it was now redesignated, on the tenth. On this occasion relays of patriotic maidens in virginal white paraded reverently before a temple of philosophy erected where the high altar had stood. From it emerged, at the climax of the ceremony, a red-capped female figure representing Liberty. Appreciatively described by an official recorder of the scene as ‘a masterpiece of nature’, in daily life she was an actress; but in her symbolic role she led the officials of the commune to the Convention, where she received the fraternal embrace of the president and secretaries.
However carefully choreographed, there was not much dignity about these posturings; and attacks on parish churches and their incumbents (who were mostly now popularly elected) risked making the Revolution more enemies than friends. Small-town anti-religious Jacobin zeal, for example, provoked a minor revolt in the Brie in the second week in December. To shouts of Long live the Catholic Religion, we want our priests, we want the Mass on Sundays and Holy Days, crowds of peasants sacked the local club. Several thousands took up arms and joined the movement, and only a force of National Guards and sansculottes from the Revolutionary Army restored order in a district whose tranquillity was vital to the regular passage of food supplies to the capital from southern Champagne. But even before this the Committee of Public Safety was growing anxious about the counter-productive effects of dechristianization. Robespierre in particular, who believed that religious faith was indispensable to orderly, civilized society, sounded the alarm. On 21 November he denounced anti-religious excesses at the Jacobin Club. They smacked of more fanaticism than they extinguished. The people believed in a Supreme Being, he warned, whereas atheism was aristocratic. At the same time he persuaded the Committee to circularize popular societies warning them not to fan superstition and fanaticism by persecution. On 6 December, finally, the Convention agreed to reiterate the principle of religious freedom in a decree which formally prohibited all violence or threats against the ‘liberty of cults’. But by then it was too late. The example of Paris had encouraged Jacobin zealots everywhere, and with the repression of revolt in full swing and the role of priests in the Vendée particularly notorious, the remaining trappings of religion were too tempting a target to ignore. The commune’s response to Robespierre on 23 November had been to decree the closing of all churches in the capital; and soon local authorities were shutting them wholesale throughout the country. By the spring, churches were open for public worship only in the remotest corners of France, such as the Jura mountains. By then, perhaps 20,000 priests had been bullied into giving up their status, and 6,000 had given their renunciation the ultimate confirmation by marrying. In some areas, such as Provence, dechristianization only reached its peak in March or April 1794. On the other hand it was scarcely a movement that could go on indefinitely. When most churches had been closed, and stripped of their furnishings and relics, and had no incumbents, what more could be done? All that remained was vigilance against continued religious practice behind closed doors; but the Committee of Public Safety, and the law itself as enunciated in the decree on the freedom of cults, were against such harassment; and the reach of both, from the end of 1793, was growing ever closer and more sure.
The dangerous chaos of dechristianization, in fact, seems to have been one of the most important factors pushing the Committee of Public Safety towards taking a firmer grip on the government of the country. It was certainly when the anti-religious paroxysm was at its height in Paris that the ‘Revolutionary Government’ proclaimed in October was given a structure and a chain of authority under a ‘decree constituting Revolutionary Government’ first proposed on 18 November, passed on 4 December, and known, from the latter date under the republican calendar, as the Law of 14 Frimaire. The principle animating it was extreme centralization. Executive power, subject always to the overriding authority of the Convention, was vested in the Committee of Public Safety in matters of internal administration and police. An executive council of ministers was still maintained, although Billaud-Varenne in the course of debates on the proposal repeated Danton’s earlier call for its abolition; but it was now down-graded to a passive channel for transmitting the orders of the two committees. And all subordinate authorities, at whatever level, were expressly forbidden to alter, gloss, or interpret the law in any way. The obvious targets of this provision were the representatives on mission, who for much of 1793 had ruled their assigned territories subject to hardly any central control. They were, it is true, to be entrusted with the first application of the Law of 14 Frimaire, but it was to be their last great assignment. Subsequently, the execution of revolutionary laws at local level was to be the responsibility of district and commune councils, who would report directly, every ten days, to the governing committees. The departments, a consistently conservative force since their creation and motors of ‘Federalism’ in many areas since the spring, were bypassed for all except routine administrative functions such as tax-collection and public works. But to ensure that the districts and communes discharged their new and wider responsibilities properly, each was assigned a ‘national agent’ appointed by and reporting independently to the central committees. Meanwhile all unofficial local bodies set up in the course of the emergency since March including any local Revolutionary Armies, were abolished as ‘subversive of the government’s unity of action, and tending to federalism’. Only the watch committees, established uniformly everywhere in March and now reporting to the Committee of General Security, retained a role, no doubt because the operation of the Law of Suspects depended on them. Plainly the committees were now aiming at uniform, obedient administration, responding rapidly to central initiatives, and incapable of resisting, adapting, or varying government policy in any substantial way. The spirit of the Law of 14 Frimaire was the very opposite of that aspired to by the constitution-makers of 1791, or even, in the main, that of the Convention’s own suspended constitution. But decentralization and separation of powers were ideals for calmer times, as Robespierre explained in moving a supplementary measure to reorganize the Revolutionary Tribunal on 25 December. ‘The goal of constitutional government’, he declared,10 ‘is to preserve the Republic; that of revolutionary government is to found it. The revolution is the war of liberty against its enemies: the constitution is the regime of liberty victorious and peaceful. Revolutionary government requires extraordinary activity, precisely because it is at war.’
Thus the Law of 14 Frimaire heralded the end of the anarchic Terror. It heralded the end of the depredations of the Revolutionary Armies, now reduced to a single force under close central supervision; and the end, by implication, of dechristianization. Above all it heralded the end of the proconsular autonomy hitherto enjoyed by the representatives on mission. It established the first strong central government that France had enjoyed since 1787. But although it aimed at a regime of instant obedience, the new law certainly did not take instantaneous effect. It was some months before the last provincial Revolutionary Armies were wound up, or dechristianization began to flag. And this was above all because many representatives on mission found the trimming of their powers hard to accept. ‘Yes,’ declared Javogues,11 representative in the new department of the Loire, created to dismember the old Lyons-dominated Saône-et-Loire, ‘there exists a plan for Counter-Revolution in the Committee of Public Safety; I have seen signs of it developing wherever I have been. They have tried to turn the Revolution back by sending out men who paralysed vigorous measures.’ The Law of 14 Frimaire was not applicable, he argued, to a department like his, still in rebellion. Only after two months of defiance was he recalled. By then accusations of abuse of power and resistance to central authority by representatives had become a main plank in a campaign led by Danton and his friends to abandon government by terror. It was in this atmosphere that Robespierre sanctioned the missions of Jullien to Nantes and Bordeaux which led to the recall, in turn, of Carrier and Tallien. Ultimately, the Dantonists’ campaign for ‘indulgence’ failed. But by the time it was over the power once wielded by the representatives on mission had been broken.
Yet the Law of 14 Frimaire was not the first attempt to impose uniform practice on the embattled Republic. The Law of the General Maximum had theoretically done so ever since 29 September 1793. It, too, had encountered initial difficulties. For most commodities the price it fixed was one-third above the local price of 1790, but in many cases that was more than the current price, and the days before the law took effect were marked by disorderly runs on shops stocking such goods. Local variations in price made supplies extremely uneven as producers preferred to sell their stocks where prices were higher. In any case it took far longer for local authorities, harassed by a myriad of other problems, to draw up comprehensive scales of prices than the week allowed between the promulgation of the decree and its implementation. Within a month the crude guideline of 1790 prices plus a third had had to be modified to take account of transport costs and reasonable levels of profit for those who handled the goods. And the provision of the Maximum Law which limited the level of wages was scarcely implemented at all; it would have required a whole extra apparatus of investigation and control, and in a place like Paris the commune knew that its power ultimately depended on the support of the wage-earners who made up the majority of the sansculottes, and that the wages many of them were earning were already in excess of the maximum laid down. Nevertheless by November district authorities were beginning to control prices, at least, over much of France, and on 27 October supply of provisions on a national scale was placed under the supervision of a ‘Subsistence Commission’ answerable directly to the Committee of Public Safety, and more particularly to one of its longest-serving members, Robert Lindet. He soon became the Carnot of economic organization as the commission took powers to direct bulk purchases, distribute grants, and regulate exports and imports. Above all it addressed itself to establishing a nationwide schedule of maximum prices for necessities, which was promulgated on 21 February 1794. Despite the draconian penalties of the law against hoarding, the less severe but still serious ones laid down in the Maximum Law itself, and the informal terror exercised against rural producers over the autumn by the Revolutionary Armies, the black market flourished behind the spreading apparatus of economic controls. The market was also disrupted by bulk-purchasing for the armed forces, when payments were made in cash and if necessary at rates above the maximum. Nevertheless by the spring of 1794 France was obviously making substantial progress towards a controlled economy. The most vivid evidence came from the value of the assignats. Controlled prices diminished the demand for a paper currency which had been legal tender since April 1793. Consequently fewer need be printed. Standing at 22 per cent of their face value in August 1793, they rose to 33 per cent in November and 48 per cent in December. Although from then on they began to decline again, the fall was nothing like as steep as in the spring of 1793 until economic controls began once more to be abandoned in the autumn of 1794.
Another factor in arresting the decline of the assignat had been a forced loan on the rich. The principle was first adopted in response to sansculotte pressure on 20 May 1793 but, despite the urgings of the enragés, nothing was done to implement it until the crisis of September. On the third of that month, however, it was decreed that all income over 6,000 livres for the unmarried and 10,000 livres for families should be taxed on a sliding scale which at the top end took everything. It looked punitive, but those subject to it were able to discharge their obligations in depreciated assignats, and millions therefore were taken out of circulation. In any case many local authorities were slow to identify those liable, although in the commercial centres of ‘Federalism’ terror against its now-vanquished paymasters produced substantial results. France’s wealthy were certainly to look back on the forced loan as one of the most shocking expedients of the year of terror, a time they would remember as one of vindictive class legislation. Another example was the decrees passed in the spring of 1794 on the disposal of lands confiscated from enemies of the Revolution, and known as the Laws of Ventôse. On 26 February (8 Ventôse) Saint-Just moved on behalf of the Committee of Public Safety that the goods of ‘persons recognized as enemies of the Revolution’ should be ‘sequestered’. On 3 March (13 Ventôse) he moved that watch committees should draw up lists of all those detained since 1 May 1789 with a view to their property being redistributed to approved ‘indigent patriots’. Ten days later a further decree established ‘popular commissions’ to decide which of those listed should be declared enemies of the Revolution and thus suffer confiscation and redistribution of their goods. In practice little was done to implement these decrees, and what was done was chaotic. Saint-Just himself seems not to have thought through the full implications of his proposals, and most of his colleagues on the governing committees were distinctly lukewarm. They supported such populist measures only in order to outbid the Parisian radicals in a new political crisis which reached its climax in this same revolutionary month of Ventôse.
‘Nobody’, recalled one deputy later,12 ‘had dreamed of establishing a system of terror. It established itself by force of circumstances.’ But that meant that nobody had control of it either, even among those with a vested interest in its continuance. And nobody, above all, seemed to have the power to end it, even when its purpose and achievements came to seem less and less self-evident. To criticize the Terror was to risk suspicion of sympathizing with its victims, and thereby become one of them. Yet many deputies, probably most, were deeply uneasy about terror as a basis for government from the start; and as soon as the emergency began to lift, with the first victories over the Austrians in October, the recovery of the centres of ‘Federalism’ in the weeks after that, and the defeat of theVendéans, pressure began to mount for a less savage way of running the country.
Among those sympathetic to this viewpoint was Robespierre, very conscious that needless excesses would discredit the Revolution at home and make enemies abroad more intransigent. His attempts to save the queen and the Girondins, his denunciation of dechristianization, and his strong support for extending the powers of central government in the Law of 14 Frimaire were all evidence of his concern. And in this he had the vocal support of Danton, who called on 22 November for less bloodshed, and played a constructive role in the elaboration of the 14 Frimaire Law. When attacked in the Jacobin Club for advocating moderation, he was vigorously defended by Robespierre. Two days later the friend of both, the veteran revolutionary journalist Desmoulins, launched a new paper with Robespierre’s blessing, the Vieux Cordelier. Its title proclaimed its approach, one critical of the new masters of the Cordeliers Club and leading advocates of continuing terror and dechristianization. By now Robespierre suspected that a number of Hébert’s allies, if not the man himself, might be more or less willing agents of Pitt, recruited to the counter-revolutionary cause by the notorious royalist intriguer the Baron de Batz. Their persistent attacks on Danton and his associates ever since the summer fell into place when it was suggested to Robespierre in mid-November by Chabot, ex-monk, exrepresentative on mission, and ex-member of the Committee of General Security (until voted off late in September under Hébert’s pressure), that there existed a plot of breath-taking proportions to discredit the Revolution and set its supporters at each other’s throats. While a clutch of corrupt deputies had sought to make illicit profits by manipulating the winding-up of the former Indies Company, they had worked to entangle others, this time good patriots like (as he naturally claimed) Chabot himself, so that Hébert and his friends could then denounce them.
It sounded less implausible to the suspicious mind of Robespierre than it does today. After all, Batz certainly existed, and his subversive activities were well known; and the allegations of shady dealing in Indies Company shares soon proved only too well founded. The Committee of General Security, suspecting that Chabot was only intent on saving his own corrupt skin, imprisoned him when he took his denunciation to them. Robespierre meanwhile continued to encourage Desmoulins in his attacks on terrorists and dechristianizers, and on 12 December stood by when an attempt was made to alter the membership of the Committee of Public Safety itself, seemingly designed to remove extremists like Billaud and Collot, and bring back Danton. Although it failed, the campaign went on. On 15 December the Vieux Cordelier compared conditions in France to the bloodiest times of imperial Rome, and made pointed allusions to the massacres at Lyons. On the twentieth Robespierre persuaded the Convention to establish a ‘committee of justice’ to investigate cases of wrongful arrest. By then, what Desmoulins and his friends considered some rightful arrests had been made: Ronsin, commander of the Paris Revolutionary Army, just back in the capital from Lyons, and Vincent, secretary general of the war ministry, who had been hinting at a new purge to silence the so-called ‘Indulgents’. Leading the attack on this occasion (17 December) was Danton’s friend the poet Fabre d’Eglantine.
The so-called ‘Hébertists’ were at first too stunned to fight back. Those still at liberty were reduced to babbling protestations of innocence. What put new heart into them was the sudden appearance of Collot d’Herbois in the capital on 21 December. Alarmed by news of the arrest of Ronsin, his close collaborator in the repression at Lyons, Collot rushed back to Paris determined to vindicate their methods before he too came under attack. He did so by proceeding straight to the Jacobin Club, where he delivered a rousing defence of those arrested. Urged on by Hébert, the club rallied to him, and demanded that the accusers substantiate their charges. The effect of Collot’s intervention was to reinvigorate defenders of terror as an instrument of government and thereby to polarize politics in a way not seen since the purge of the Girondins. The polarization extended at first into the Committee of Public Safety itself, when Billaud and Collot were able, on 26 December, to have Robespierre’s committee of justice abolished. It might have continued had it not been for the revelation, during the first week in January, that Fabre d’Eglantine had been deeply involved in the Indies Company scandal. Robespierre was devastated. Desmoulins by now (in Vieux Cordelier, no. 5) was denouncing Hébert for corruption, yet here was the indulgents’ main spokesman in the Convention himself deeply tainted by speculation and fraud. A bitter denunciation of Fabre at the Jacobin Club on 8 January marked the end of Robespierre’s flirtation with the Indulgents, and on 12 January Fabre was arrested. The only deputy to speak up for him was a personal friend, hitherto little involved in the factional strife of that winter: Danton.
Uneasy calm now descended after six bitter and noisy weeks. Desmoulins abandoned the Vieux Cordelier, but in any case repression in the provinces had now passed its peak, renegade representatives on mission were being brought to heel under the Law of 14 Frimaire, and Jullien was investigating their more questionable previous activities on behalf of Robespierre. Leading figures were now denouncing the faction fighting between Indulgents and Hébertists as the greatest problem faced by the Republic; and when, on 1 February, Vincent and Ronsin were released by the Committee of General Security for lack of evidence to their alleged crimes. Danton applauded the move. But he also called for the release of Fabre as well, which cast doubt on his motives. Vincent and Ronsin were certainly unimpressed. They emerged from prison determined to revenge themselves on those who had put them there, and so the factional strife was rekindled. The committees did all they could to lower the temperature: Desmoulins claimed that he was prevented from bringing out further issues of the Vieux Cordelier. But their attempts to stifle dissension only turned the fury of the Hébertists against them as much as against the Indulgents, whom they were now accused of protecting. Urged on by returning provincial terrorists like Carrier and Javogues, who were anxious to deflect any punitive action from their own heads, they began to proclaim that a new insurrection was necessary to cleanse the Convention of what they called ‘the faction’. From their base in the Cordeliers Club they began to try to stir up the sansculottes, and by the end of February addresses were trickling in from sympathetic sectional societies denouncing ‘disloyal’ deputies. On 4 March the club resolved to launch a new popular journal, taking Marat’s old title L’Ami du peuple; and meanwhile it decreed that the Declaration of Rights in its meeting hall should be draped in black until the ‘faction’ was destroyed. Hébert denounced Desmoulins as an enemy agent, accused him of misleading Robespierre himself, and joined in the cry for an insurrection, a ‘new 31 May’. On 6 March section Marat, where the Cordeliers were located, declared itself in a state of uprising (debout) ‘until the people’s murderers are exterminated’, and marched to the Hôtel de Ville to demand action. No other section followed its lead, and Chaumette accordingly received the demonstrators guardedly: but nobody mistook the echoes of the previous September.
The committees, whose mandate was due for renewal the next week, were now thoroughly alarmed. Paris was restive under a malfunctioning maximum, and every market day saw scuffles around stalls selling basic commodities, while black marketeers flourished. ‘A fine liberty we have’, an unemployed labourer was arrested for yelling at a grocer on 19 March.13 ‘It’s all for the rich. The only war they’re fighting is against the poor.’ In such conditions calls for insurrection might be all too readily answered. The committees began to close ranks. Even Collot d’Herbois, having saved his own position, now began urging the Jacobins to rally to the established order and invite the Cordeliers to join them. In one of those curious, aberrant waves of fraternal emotion which sometimes carried away revolutionary assemblies even at the tensest times, they agreed, and sent the black veil from the Declaration as a token of their goodwill. But Vincent and Ronsin denounced the gesture, and kept on calling for purges. Hébert, somewhat more equivocally, supported them. The Committee of Public Safety waited until its renewal was safely past, on 11 March; then, stiffened by the return of Robespierre after a month’s illness, it struck. On 13 March Saint-Just on its behalf denounced a far-reaching plot by ‘factions of foreign inspiration’ to ‘destroy representative government by corruption, and to starve Paris’. Thousands of copies of his speech were promptly distributed in the capital. It contained much grandiloquent rhetoric in which factions were denounced as divisive of the national will, and insurrection condemned as resistance to the people themselves, who now held power. It contained no specific charges against anybody. But on the strength of it Hébert, Vincent, Ronsin, and a number of their followers or presumed sympathizers, twenty in all, were arrested on the fourteenth and during the days following and sent before the Revolutionary Tribunal. Fouquier-Tinville, the public prosecutor, was ordered by the Committee of Public Safety to secure a conviction at all costs in what would be a blatantly political trial. Accordingly, they were accused of fomenting insurrection, attempting to create an artificial famine by sabotaging food supplies, and plotting a prison massacre. The trial took place on 21-4 March, its result a foregone conclusion. Among those who went to the scaffold with Père Duchesne on the afternoon of the twenty-fourth were Vincent, Ronsin, and the leader of section Marat, Momoro. To substantiate the charge of a foreign plot, a clutch of colourful aliens perished with them too, including Clootz, who bade farewell to his beloved human race in front of the biggest crowd ever to surround the guillotine.
It was a largely hostile crowd, too. In the end the sansculottes abandoned those who claimed to be their champions and most faithful spokesmen. Police reports make it clear that ordinary people in Paris were only too ready to believe the allegations cobbled together by Fouquier-Tinville. The Committee of Public Safety must have been relieved. The charge of trying to create famine, the simultaneous introduction of the Laws of Ventôse, and the wide distribution of Saint-Just’s speech of 13 March all showed how anxious it was to deprive the accused of popular support. So did a special grant made by the Subsistence Commission to steady the price of bread in the capital. But they need not have worried. The failure of the other 47 sections to follow the lead of Momoro’s section Marat on 6 March showed that those who had called so emotionally for insurrection two days before had taken no trouble to organize forces outside their own neighbourhood, any more than they had during their opportunistic triumph the previous September. And even if they had done so, it is by no means certain that their call would have evoked a response. After almost two years of revolutionary vigilance and tension, the sansculottes were showing signs of nervous exhaustion. Much of their programme had now been achieved—the law against hoarding, the levée en masse, the general maximum, a comprehensive policy on suspects, and a government prepared to enforce all these policies with terror. Patriots who had campaigned for all these things over the previous summer thought a government prepared to enforce them deserved support against factions of whatever sort. Many former ‘blood-drinkers’ were now in effect government employees in any case, as members of watch committees interning suspects and issuing civismecertificates, answerable ultimately to the Convention’s committees under the Law of 14 Frimaire; or simply as paid attenders at sectional meetings under Danton’s double-edged resolution of 4 September 1793. Purists might scoff at such ‘40-soupatriots’, who had given up the vital right to permanent sessions for a pittance; in many sections unofficial alternative assemblies, ‘sectional societies’, sprang up over the autumn. But the most energetic, practical, and experienced sansculottes had been creamed off into the state apparatus, and from that perspective were prepared to see Hébert and his friends as suspicious and ambitious trouble-makers, stabbing in the back a government which was winning the war both at home and abroad.
Yet it proved the end of the sansculottes as a political force, and the end of the Paris commune as their independent mouthpiece. Chaumette, though not arrested with Hébert and the others, was picked up four days after their execution; and he and a group of presumed sympathizers, including ex-bishop Gobel, went to the guillotine in their turn on 13 April. The presumption of sympathy came from the fact that it had taken the commune almost a week to congratulate the Convention on thwarting the alleged Hébertist plot. On this pretext too the Convention decreed a general purge of the commune’s personnel which left it, by the end of April, the docile tool of the Committee of Public Safety. The same charge of guilt through silence condemned the stunned Revolutionary Army, which Ronsin was supposed to have been preparing to lend force to the alleged insurrection. On 27 March it was dissolved, to the general relief of the peasants, priests, and comfortably-off citizens it had so spectacularly terrorized. The end of the Terror, foisted on the country by the bloodthirsty populace of Paris, seemed to be at hand. Few foresaw how long it had to run; or that, firmly in the hands of the government rather than the sansculottes, it was destined to get worse before it got better.