1795: Antoine Quentin Fouquier-Tinville, Robespierre’s prosecutor

On this date in 1795, the attorney who had engineered the Terror was guillotined for engineering the Terror.

Antoine Quentin Fouquier de Tinville (English Wikipedia page | French), or just plain Fouquier-Tinville, had emerged during the Revolution from penurious obscurity to wrangle a jury foreman’s position courtesy of his connection to Camille Desmoulins. When Desmoulins ally Georges Danton spearheaded creation of a Revolutionary Tribunal (French link), Fouquier-Tinville drew the choice gig of Public Prosecutor.

From that perch, he would supply the arbitrary exercises of the Committee of Public Safety their (increasingly scanty) scaffolding of formal legality in Paris’s greatest show trials.

Charlotte Corday.

The Girondists.

Marie Antoinette.

Fouquier-Tinville’s own onetime benefactors, Danton and Desmoulins. (He struggled to contain Danton’s rhetorical fireworks, as depicted in the 1983 film Danton — we see him plying his trade from about 3:29 of this clip.)

Heck … when the Terror ended, our good state’s attorney even signed off on the execution of Robespierre, with what must have been a lump in his throat. He was himself denounced within days, and narrowly preserved from the summary justice of his fellow-prisoners upon incarceration.

Naturally, like every criminal barrister since, Fouquier-Tinville’s defense was, hey, don’t blame me: the law made me do it. “I had only acted in the spirit of the laws passed by a Convention invested with all powers. Through the absence of its members [on trial], I find myself the head of a conspiracy I have never been aware of.”

Pity the lawyers.

This varietal of the only-following-orders defense did not impress in Fouquier-Tinville’s case; the Public Prosecutor had made the role too much his own.

I have been told by a gentleman who was at school with Fouquier, and has had frequent occasions of observing him at different periods since, that he always appeared to him to be a man of mild manners, and by no means likely to become the instrument of these atrocities; but a strong addiction to gaming having involved him in embarrassments, he was induced to accept the office of Public Accuser to the Tribunal, and was progressively led on from administering to the iniquity of his employers, to find a gratification in it himself.

And, indeed, he was condemned by his own hand. His lawyerly letter to the Convention during Danton’s trial — “the accused are behaving like madmen and demand the summoning of their witnesses … our judicial powers do not furnish us with any means of refusing” — duly elicited those heretofore absent powers, which the prosecutor immediately deployed to gag the defense.

Antoine Quentin Fouquier de Tinville, the sinister mediocrity who gave villainy the cover of law, was guillotined this morning in 1795 to the delight of the Paris mob: the last head to roll in a batch of 16.