1794: Jean-Baptiste Carrier, of the Noyades de Nantes

5 comments December 16th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1794,* a revolutionary Montagnard who had overstayed his welcome made his departure through the guillotine’s window.

Carrier (English Wikipedia entry | French) was the Revolutionary Convention’s proxy in Nantes where he distinguished himself in bloodthirstiness while putting down a counterrevolutionary revolt.

He’s most particularly noted for the Noyades de Nantes, a series of mass drownings in the Loire that claimed two thousand or more victims — mostly priests and civilians viewed as refractory. Overall the casualties in the Vendee ran to six figures; there’s been latter-day debate over whether the Republican policy there rose to the level of genocide.


Les noyades de Nantes en 1793, by Joseph Aubert (1882).

He was “one of those inferior and violent spirits, who, in the excitement of civil wars, become monsters of cruelty and extravagance” Adolphe Thiers judged him. (Ironically, considering Thiers’ subsequent career.) “This frantic wretch imagined that he had no other mission than to slaughter.”

Now, one could author a bloodbath in the provinces and still stick around for posterity, but that play depended on a timely volte-face with the Thermidorean reaction.

Unlike Fouche and Tallien, Carrier couldn’t pull that off. He was left in an increasingly untenable position after Robespierre fell.

What would follow Robespierre? Carrier’s own person and the Noyades de Nantes were central to this question in the tumultuous latter half of 1794. His beheading would be the climax of a string of pivotal trials.

Ninety-four Bretons already under arrest by the revolutionary committee were put to trial in the weeks following Thermidor. En route to their spectacular acquittal, these accused

subpoenaed as witnesses the members of the Nantes revolutionary committee, who had also been arrested … [and] charged that they were guilty of summary executions and of mass drownings in the Loire; they acknowledged these acts but placed the responsibility for them on Carrier. This meant that there were three trials — that of the ninety-four, that of the Nantes revolutionary committee, and that of Carrier — each revealing ghastly atrocities, which were given wide coverage in the anti-Jacobin press throughout France. (Gilded Youth of Thermidor)

The atrocious stories from Nantes promulgated in Paris by these first trials soon had the city in an uproar and dealt the already-reeling Jacobins “a terrible blow in public opinion” according to one newspaper also quoted in Gilded Youth. The Nantes revelations would provide the impetus (or the pretext) for the riots that soon shuttered the Jacobin Club and placed the Parisian bourgeoisie firmly in control.

If Carrier was the casualty in all this, well, he wasn’t exactly in a position to complain about being sacrificed for someone’s ideology.

Gracchus Babeuf, later to drop his own head into the basket, campaigned against Carrier furiously during a robust pamphlet war.

Carrier: this horrible name strikes all ears, is issued from all mouths. Merely speaking it causes a shiver of horror. There is not a single Frenchman for whom this word does not suffice to tell the story of the man it designates. It reminds all of his contemporaries of the most irascible of carnivorous beings. Posterity will not be able to find in any tradition an exterminator who was his equal. The crimes of this master villain are recognized by, and proven to, all, and yet he has unofficial defenders in the National Convention, and it even appears that there exists a strong party that wants to save him. Even more, there are signs that announce that there are those who want to influence, even terrify the just tribunal that, with its usual wisdom, is investigating the affair of the infamous drowner who has far surpassed Nero and all the other great executioners. …

they’ll justify the mass killer of the west with the excuse that the terrorism he provided the earth an example of was necessary for the salvation of the Fatherland.

Exterminable system! It was necessary for the salvation of France to erase the entire population of its western parts! It was necessary for the salvation of the Fatherland to turn its most beautiful countryside into a horrible desert, to make it the lair of voracious animals both terrestrial and aquatic by covering the waters, fields, and woods with corpses! …

In order to save the Fatherland were the 23 noyades of Nantes, one of 600 children, needed? Were “republican marriages” necessary, where young boys and girls tied together naked were knocked unconscious with saber blows and then tossed into the Loire? (Deposition by Philippe Tronjoli and Bourier) Was it necessary (another deposition of 25 Vendémiaire) to cause to die in the prisons of Nantes through hunger, infection, and misery, 10,000 citizens, 30,000 if we include the executions and noyades? Were the sabrades necessary (deposition of Laéné) on the departmental square, which occupied 300 men for six weeks filling the mass graves with those who perished from this torture? Was it necessary for Carrier (deposition of Tronjoli of the 27) to sleep with three beautiful women and then drown them? Was it necessary to execute (deposition of Renaudot) infantry and cavalry detachments of the rebel army who had voluntarily surrendered? Was it necessary to drown or execute (deposition of Thomas) 500 children, the oldest of whom wasn’t fourteen and who Carrier called vipers that must be suppressed? Was it necessary (same deposition) to drown 30-40 women eight and eight and a half months pregnant and to offer horrified eyes the still palpitating corpses of the babies tossed into a tub filled with excrement? Was it necessary (deposition of Abraham and goodwife Puchotte) to kill in one night by suffocation (caused by infection and lack of air) 50-60 prisoners in a galleon whose side panels were shut expressly to cause suffocation?

Carrier’s likeness is preserved in wax at Madame Tussaud’s.

* A few sources give November 16; this is unambiguously mistaken. (See e.g. London Times, Jan. 15, 1795, reporting the December 16 execution.)

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1801: Chevalier, bomb plot scapegoat

1 comment January 11th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1801, a Jacobin chemist was wrongly executed for Royalists’ plot against Napoleon.

Our scene is France, the year following Napoleon’s coup of 18th Brumaire (November 9, 1799 on the stodgy old Gregorian calendar). Marx’s “first time as tragedy”* saw the Corsican achieve monarch-esque power, and the months ensuing saw a plethora of plots against him.

The ranks of aggrieved potential assassins included both Jacobins, incensed at the military dictatorship, and Bourbons, incensed that it wasn’t their dictatorship — in both cases exacerbated by Napoleon’s decisive battlefield triumphs which consolidated his hold on power.

On Christmas Eve 1800, the man on horseback was a man in a carriage, careening through Paris to catch a performance of Haydn’s oratorio The Creation.

When, all of a sudden, a gigantic explosion on the Rue Saint-Nicaise attempted to un-create the First Consul. It failed, exploding after Napoleon had passed and before Josephine’s family followed, “merely” killing and maiming fifty-some miscellaneous Parisian bystanders instead.


Kablamo! The explosion of the Infernal Machine.
The Catherine Delors historical novel For the King (author’s teaser) is built around investigating the Plot of the Rue Saint-Nicaise.

“Every one,” wrote Sir Walter Scott,

shocked with the wild atrocity of such a reckless plot, became, while they execrated the perpetrators, attached in proportion to the object of their cruelty. A disappointed conspiracy always adds strength to the government against which it is directed; and Buonaparte did not fail to push this advantage to the uttermost.

This “Infernal Machine” had actually been built by disgruntled monarchists at the instigation of intriguer Georges Cadoudal, as was swiftly discerned by Napoleon’s Minister of Police, the ruthless ex-revolutionary Joseph Fouche.

Realpolitik exigencies — Napoleon was trying (unsuccessfully) to reach political terms with the royalist faction — instead drove a rush to pin the detonation on the Jacobins.

Who, it should be said, made themselves the primary suspects by virtue of the fact that they’d also been trying to blow up Napoleon. Chevalier had been arrested a couple of months before when a bomb of his, evidently an experiment for a similar Jacobin plot, loudly blew up near Salpetriere.

Four other Jacobins followed Chevalier to death later in January (and two royalists actually involved in the bomb got the same treatment). Some 130 other prominent Jacobins (French link) were expelled on Napoleon’s say-so — no legislative consultation — to the empire’s far-flung colonies, pretty much putting the remains of the long-supine revolutionary left permanently out of the picture as a political force.

* See the 18th Brumaire; the “second time as farce” also came with its own history-repeating-itself executions.

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1793: Philippe Egalite, hoisted on his own petard

5 comments November 6th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1793, Philippe Egalite was hoisted on his own petard.

To hoist with one’s own petard actually has an older derivation, dating to siege warfare engineers whose primitive bombs, petards, were liable to detonate unexpectedly and gave their makers a “hoist.”

Still, the phrase sounds like something that ought to come right out of the French Revolution, redolent (as are petards themselves: the explosive word is from the French “to fart”) of angry mobs hoisting aristocrats, as was their wont, up on pikestaffs and lampposts and … petards. Whatever those are.

Philippe Egalite — the Duke of Orleans, as he was known for most of his life — was such an aristocrat: in fact he was royalty, the First Prince of the Blood and a cousin to Louis XVI.

And he was the member of the royal house who most vibed on the revolutionary spirit of the times, literally bankrolling the Jacobins before the Revolution. Hilary Mantel* notes that Orleans made the Palais Royal “into a sort of demagogue’s shopping centre — Paris’s most volatile public space, crammed with cafés and bookshops, a gathering place for the disaffected. In July 1789, three days of orchestrated violence began there, and culminated in the taking of the Bastille.”

Now that is a petard.

Philippe’s class-traitor politics obviously exposed him to the wrath of the monarchists — a particular irony since the man’s son Louis-Philippe, was France’s last king from 1830 to 1848 — but as usual in Paris during the Terror, it was the the Revolution devouring its children that did him in.

Despite taking up during the Revolution the very Republican name Egalite by which we know him, and despite Egalite‘s vote in the Convention in favor of guillotining Louis XVI (this is sometimes described with more melodrama than accuracy as the “decisive” vote), and despite his many years’ prior revolutionary sympathy, the Duke of Orleans was rounded up with the rest of the available Bourbons when the French General Dumouriez‘s spring 1793 defection prompted a panicky revolutionary purge in Paris. Philippe’s own son, the future king, had gone over with Dumouriez to the Austrians.

Rosebud

The Duc d’Orleans employed Choderlos de Laclos, author of the notoriously delicious Dangerous Liaisons.

As an individual citizen turned politician turned guillotinee, Egalite doesn’t much stand out in those perilous years: one more vulnerable Convention delegate outmaneuvered by Robespierre et al.

As the Daddy Warbucks of the Rights of Man, however, Egalite was a titanic figure for his contemporaries. Not many held him in high personal esteem, but movements need moneybags, and the Prince of the Blood bankrolled his from the bottomless revenues he earned on estates that would dwarf entire departements.

The Duke of Orleans and those around him, according to George Armstrong Kelly in “The Machine of the Duc D’Orléans and the New Politics” (The Journal of Modern History, Dec. 1979)

invented something novel in the history of French politics: the massive use of wealth, research, and propaganda** for the purpose of forming public opinion and swaying public policy. No doubt there are analogues among the Romans and the eighteenth-century English; but here we are almost reminded of the Rockefellers and Kennedys.

Orleans was accused of generating all this mayhem to make his own bid for the throne; those accusations may even hold a bit of truth. Such machinations remain for the conspiratorial among posterity a shadow-play upon the wall; one is left to guess at their potential dimensions from shreds of evidence and the vying vituperations of various contemporary revolutionary factions.

But if extant, such schemes were fatally compromised by the mediocrity of the figurehead who lost his head this day. Though a revolutionary in his philosophy, he was still a doughy Bourbon scion in his soul, and heir to the many shortcomings that characterized that dynasty in its decadence.

Dissolute in the enjoyment of privilege; irresolute in the conquest of power; blithely rearing wolves to his own destruction. That was some petard.


Philippe Egalite and his onetime lover Grace Elliott are the titular characters of the 2001 Eric Rohmer movie The Lady and the Duke.

* Hilary Mantel is the same author who penned the acclaimed historical novel Wolf Hall, about Thomas Cromwell.

** Kelly claims that Egalite funded Marat.

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1794: Maximilien Robespierre, Saint-Just and the Jacobin leadership

30 comments July 28th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1794, the curtain — and the blade — fell on the Terror.

Maximilien Robespierre, who had breakfasted the previous day as master of France, was guillotined this evening with his chief lieutenants and partisans.

His fall came as sudden and inevitable as his rise had been unpredictable.

Five years before, Robespierre was an unprosperous Arras attorney of fashionably liberal philosophies, and you wouldn’t have given a sou for the prospects of his being remembered five minutes after he died. Yet it would come that his inseparable lieutenant Saint-Just would remark with understatement, “The words we have spoken will never be forgotten on earth.”

The historic convocation of the Estates-General thrust him onto the political stage where he would make the dread name that follows him, starting off in the Revolution’s inception as a far-left deputy. He took a notable early stand against the death penalty, with several arguments that are quite familiar by our day:

The first obligation of a legislator is to form and preserve public morals, the source of all freedom, source of all social happiness. When in running to a particular goal he turns away from this general and essential goal he commits the most vulgar and dire of errors. The king must thus present to the people the purest model of justice and reason. If in place of this powerful, calm and moderate severity that should characterize it they place anger and vengeance; if they spill human blood that they could spare and that they have no right to spread; if they spread out before the people cruel scenes and cadavers wounded by torture, it then alters in the hearts of citizens the ideas of the just and the unjust; they plant the seed in the midst of society of ferocious prejudices that will produce others in their turn. Man is no longer for man so sacred an object: we have a less grand idea of his dignity when public authority puts his life at risk. The idea of murder inspires less fear when the law itself gives the example and the spectacle. The horror of crime is diminished when it is punished by another crime. Do not confuse the effectiveness of a penalty with the excess of severity: the one is absolutely opposed to the other. Everything seconds moderate laws; everything conspires against cruel laws.

For Robespierre, it was an abomination for the nation to deal out death within its community, but his Rousseauan elevation of the collective and abstract People made extirpating existential threats to the community itself an altogether different matter.

The future tyrant’s anti-death penalty case for executing the deposed Louis XVI, flowing directly from those principles, makes interesting reading and is excerpted at length (all emphases added) here for its topicality:

When a nation has been forced to resort to the right of insurrection it returns to a state of nature as regards its tyrant. How can the latter invoke the social compact? He has annihilated it. The nation can preserve it still, if it thinks fit, in whatever concerns the interrelations of its citizens: but the effect of tyranny and insurrection is to break it entirely as regards the tyrant; it is to throw them into mutual war; the tribunals, the judiciary procedures, are made for the members of the city. … The right to punish the tyrant and that to dethrone him are the same thing. The one does not admit of different forms from the other. The tyrant’s trial is insurrection; his judgment is the fall of his power; his penalty, whatever the liberty of the people demands.

Peoples do not judge like judiciary courts. They pass no sentences; they hurl the thunderbolt. They do not condemn kings: they thrust them back into oblivion; and this justice is not inferior to that of courts. If they arm themselves against their oppressors for their own safety, why should they be bound to adopt a mode of punishing them which would be a new danger to themselves?

As for me, I abhor the penalty of death so lavish in your laws, and I have neither love nor hatred for Louis. Crimes only I hate. I have asked the Assembly, which you still call Constituent, for the abolition of the death penalty, and it is not my fault if the first principles of reason seem to it moral and political heresies. But if you never bethought yourselves to invoke them in favor of so many unfortunates whose offenses are less their own than those of the government, by what fatality do you remember them only to plead the cause of the greatest of all criminals? You ask an exception to the death penalty for him alone against whom it can be legitimate! Yes, the penalty of death generally is a crime, and for that reason alone, according to the indestructible principles of nature, it can be justified only in cases when it is necessary for the safety of individuals or the social body. Public safety never demands it against ordinary offenses, because society can always guard against them by other means and make the offender powerless to harm it. But a dethroned king in the bosom of a revolution which is anything but cemented by laws, a king whose name suffices to draw the scourge of war on the agitated nation, neither prison nor exile can render his existence immaterial to the public welfare: and this cruel exception to ordinary laws which justice approves can be imputed only to the nature of his crimes.

It is with regret that I utter this fatal truth. But Louis must die, because the country must live.

“Pity is treason.”

Months later, as head of the Committee of Public Safety — the Orwellian name harkens to the body’s power to judge who lay inside the community and who, lying outside, made war upon it — he would find an inexhaustible fifth column of kindred threats to the Revolution.

But Revolutionary France really was in a war for its survival, against external and internal foes alike. The monarchist for whom crime multiplied upon crime every day after the Tennis Court Oath has the easiest time of this period, for every step brings a new monstrosity. And it is well enough to call Robespierre illiberal, to shudder at his prim and icy persona.

But if the French Revolution’s liberte, egalite, fraternite is a legacy for celebration — as it is to much of the west, and much of the world — one must grapple with the place of this man and his methods.

Merely because they are the paths not taken, one hardly seems entitled to assume that at that tumultuous moment the rule of a constitutional monarchy heir to all the monstrosity of the ancien regime, the government of the Girondins who had launched the nearly fatal war against Austria, or that of Danton‘s haute bourgeoisie would necessarily have delivered France to a better place, or even a different one.

For a Dickens, Robespierre’s Terror is simply the appalling wrong turn of a high-minded movement. For Trotsky, “the Incorruptible”* is the admirable sword of France’s bourgeois revolution who effects the needful task of annihilating the feudal nobility, who presses fearlessly forward seeing that the only alternative is the slide into Bonaparte. Between the two lie many readings of the man.

Whether an aberration, a visionary, or a necessity, he waded a sea of blood for his frightening twins Virtue and Terror.

The fall of 9 Thermidor preceded Robespierre’s execution by a full — and very eventful — day. Arrested by the Convention, he was promptly liberated by his base in the Paris Commune which came within a whisker of overthrowing the Convention at that very moment. Instead, a frantic few hours of marshaling the armed power of the Revolution’s rival claimants to leadership ensued ending in a fray which saw the Robespierrists overpowered.

Robespierre was shot through the jaw in the process of signing an appeal to arms — some say a botched suicide, but a wound from the invading national guard is more generally believed; at any rate, the bloodied document with his signature begun “R-o-” is one of the age’s most arresting historical artifacts.

Horrifically injured, he lay most of the following day exposed for public derision before he was hauled with his party to the guillotine, re-erected in the Place de la Revolution for this most memorable execution. In Carlyle’s florid (and free) narration:

Robespierre lay in an anteroom of the Convention hall, while his Prison-escort was getting ready; the mangled jaw bound up rudely with bloody linen: a spectacle to men. He lies stretched on a table, a deal box his pillow; the sheath of the pistol is still clenched convulsively in his hand. Men bully him, insult him: his eyes still indicate intelligence; he speaks no word. … -O reader, can thy hard heart hold out against that? His trousers were nankeen; the stockings had fallen down over the ankles. He spake no more word in this world.

Fouquier had but to identify; his Prisoners being already Out of Law.** At four in the afternoon, never before were the streets of Paris seen so crowded. From the Palais de Justice to the Place de la Revolution … it is one dense stirring mass; all windows crammed; the very roofs and ridge-tiles budding forth human Curiosity, in strange gladness. … All eyes are on Robespierre’s Tumbril, where he, his jaw bound in dirty linen, with his half-dead Brother, and half-dead Henriot, lie shattered; their “seventeen hours” of agony about to end. The Gendarmes point their swords at him, to show the people which is he. A woman springs on the Tumbril; clutching the side of it with one hand; waving the other Sibyl-like; and exclaims: “The death of thee gladdens my very heart, m’enivre de joie;” Robespierre opened his eyes; “Scelerat, go down to Hell, with the curses of all wives and mothers!” — At the foot of the scaffold, they stretched him on the ground till his turn came. Lifted aloft, his eyes again opened; caught the bloody axe. Samson wrenched the coat off him; wrenched the dirty linen from his jaw: the jaw fell powerless, there burst from him a cry; — hideous to hear and see. Samson, thou canst not be too quick!

Samson’s work done, there bursts forth shout on shout of applause. Shout, which prolongs itself not only over Paris, but over France, but over Europe, and down to this generation. Deservedly, and also undeservedly. O unhappiest Advocate of Arras, wert thou worse than other Advocates? Stricter man, according to his Formula, to his Credo and his Cant, of probities, benevolences, pleasures-of-virtue, and such like, lived not in that age. A man fitted, in some luckier settled age, to have become one of those incorruptible barren Pattern-Figures, and have had marble-tablets and funeral-sermons. His poor landlord, the Cabinet-maker in the Rue Saint-Honore, loved him; his Brother died for him. May God be merciful to him, and to us!

Part of the Themed Set: Thermidor.

* Even his enemies agreed — sometimes adding it to the bill of particulars against him — that Robespierre lived a life of personal moderation; he lived as a boarder with a working-class family, and disdained to avail the politician’s typical harvest of political graft.

** The Convention had decreed Robespierre’s outlawry when he escaped custody; his immediate execution was, of course, akin to the logic he had once turned against the king.

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