If the “revolutionary extremist” exists at all as an identifiable type, he exists in purest incarnation in Gracchus Babeuf. No revolutionary better fits the description “narrowminded to the point of genius”; few have defined their heaven more clearly or crusaded so fanatically, ascetically, so religiously to bring it to earth.
Francois-Noel — he styled himself “Gracchus” after the populist Roman tribunes — was a young man of Desmoulins‘ generation but from a considerably more hardscrabble background. Like the starry-eyed Dantonist scribbler, Babeuf discovered himself a brilliant journalist and pamphleteer with the onset of the Revolution; he did several prison stints during various revolutionary phases of the early 1790s for his too-radical-for-school opinions.
The order of the day was class consolidation with the spoils of the aristocracy apportioned among a new oligarchy of wealth. As France rushed headlong towards Bonaparte and Bourbon restoration, Babeuf was the man left to rally “the party which desires the reign of pure equality.”
The French Revolution was nothing but a precursor of another revolution, one that will be bigger, more solemn, and which will be the last.
The people marched over the bodies of kings and priests who were in league against it: it will do the same to the new tyrants, the new political Tartuffes seated in the place of the old.
And if the Directory had known who Nicholas II would be, it would have had no intention of going the way of his family.
Instead, it shut him down in February, 1796: Napoleon Bonaparte personally carried out the operation, just days before he wed Josephine.
The Babeuf Conspiracy. Anonymous French print.
Babeuf’s party comes down to us as a “conspiracy,” under which word the state would charge him and which his follower Philippe Buonarroti would later rebrand the “Conspiracy of Equals”. It was not so much a grassy-knoll type of conspiracy as it was an underground organization.
When its adherents placarded Paris with the seditious “Analysis of the Doctrine of Babeuf” as the city endured a potentially dangerous economic crisis in April 1796, the government was put to a test of its strength.
Having infiltrated Babeuf’s network, it arrested the principals on the eve of the Conspiracy’s intended insurrection. They were hailed out of Paris (a safeguard against sympathetic risings) to the commune of Vendome and there put on trial.* Babeuf and his associate Augustin Alexandre Darthe were condemned to death on May 26th and guillotined the very next day.
The last gasp of the French Revolution dropped with their heads into the basket.
Revolutionary Babeuvism, however, had scarcely just begun.
I don’t know what will become of the republicans, their families, and even the babies still at their mothers’ breasts, in the midst of the royalist fury that the counter-revolution will bring. O my friends! How heart-rending these thoughts are in my final moments! … To die for the fatherland, to leave a family, children, a beloved wife, all would be bearable if at the end of this I didn’t see liberty lost and all that belongs to sincere republicans wrapped in a horrible proscription.
* The trial of Babeuf was itself a jurisprudential milestone: it was the first French trial to be transcribed verbatim.
What might look today like a nifty little advance for efficient judicature was bitterly controversial in 1797. The French Revolution had overturned an ancien regime practice of professional magistrates accepting legal testimony by written deposition and deciding matters behind closed doors. The liberte, egalite, fraternite way would instead demand that testimony be given live in the courtroom where citizen jurors could weigh its credibility.
Babeuf’s lawyer, Pierre-Francois Real, protested against the court stenographers, arguing that “The law insists that the system of written depositions not be restored in any way. That system will undoubtedly return if any means are used to save testimony given orally.”
There’s a fascinating disquisition on the curious and contradictory development of this issue and the way it “violates … common assumptions about the advance of textuality in the West” during the French Revolution in Laura Mason, “The ‘Bosom of Proof’: Criminal Justice and the Renewal of Oral Culture during the French Revolution” The Journal of Modern History, March 2004.
After decades of voluptuously indecisive Catholic-versus-Hugeunot slaughter, matters had finally been settled by the man upon whom French absolutism would erect its (ill-fated) edifice.
Henri IV, the first Bourbon monarch and a Huguenot, had unified the country by the sword, capped by his memorably politic conversion to Catholicism in 1593 to win over the holdout capital of Paris — the occasion of his understated declaration that “Paris is worth a mass”.
Let us tarry here to appreciate “the good king Henri” in a kaleidoscope of flattering artwork to the tune of Vive Henri IV, the monarchy’s unofficial anthem after its subject’s passing:
Did you catch that last image?
Henri’s fine gesture of sectarian triangulation and the reign of relative calm it inaugurated were naturally resented by godly partisans of both camps who either considered his conversion a betrayal or considered the king a closet Protestant.
Readers unconstrained by time may enjoy this Tolstoyan trek into the regicide’s mind and milieu, but it will suffice us to say that the modern shotgun-wielding postal clerk who just seemed like a quiet, harmless type to all his coworkers might like the cut of Ravaillac’s jib. A bit of a loner, a bit of a professional washout, with a penchant for religious visions and a passel of ill-arranged grievances … by this point in the movie, that’s about what you expect the police profiler to be reciting.*
It is only right that such a contemporary-sounding lone nut story ought to have a vigorous conspiratorial counternarrative.
There has always been a strong suspicion that behind Ravaillac’s hand was the work of the scheming Catholic Duc d’Epernon, perhaps even with the complicity of Henri’s wife Marie de’ Medici, who had conveniently been crowned as queen the day before the murder** and promptly teamed up with Epernon to cement an alliance with a traditional French rival, the ultra-Catholic Habsburgs.
all of [her] actions were prejudicial to France … Marie de’ Medici wasted the wealth amassed by Henri IV.; she never purged herself of the charge of having known of the king’s assassination; her ‘intimate’ was d’Epernon, who did not ward off Ravaillac’s blow, and who was proved to have known the murderer personally for a long time. … [T]he victory Richelieu at last won over her (on the Day of the Dupes) was due solely to the discovery the cardinal made, and imparted to Louis XIII, of secret documents relating to the death of Henri IV.
The historical jury is out on that question, presumably for good.
If Ravaillac was a conspirator, he proved to be a damned good one, denying under repeated torture that he had any accomplices. On this date, the tortures reached their crescendo and conclusion — to the horrible delight of the Parisian mob, as reported by Alistair Horne (via The Corner):
On 27 May, still protesting that he had acted as a free agent on a divinely inspired mission, Ravaillac was put to death. Before being drawn and quartered, the lot of the regicide, on the Place de Grève scaffold he was scalded with burning sulphur, molten lead and boiling oil and resin, his flesh then torn by pincers. Then his arms and legs were attached to horses which pulled in opposite directions. One of the horses “foundered,” so a zealous chevalier offered his mount; “the animal was full of vigour and pulled away a thigh.” After an hour and a half of this horrendous cruelty, Ravaillac died, as the mob tried to prevent him receiving last rites. When he finally expired,
“…the entire populace, no matter what their rank, hurled themselves on the body with their swords, knives, sticks or anything else to hand and began beating, hacking and tearing at it. They snatched the limbs from the executioner, savagely chopping them up and dragging the pieces through the streets.”
Children made a bonfire and flung remains of Ravaillac’s body on it. According to one witness, Nicholas Pasquier, one woman actually ate some of the flesh. The executioner, supposed to have the body of the regicide reduced to ashes to complete the ritual demanded by the law, could find nothing but his shirt.
Ravaillac was the last Frenchman drawn and quartered for a century and a half — but his punishment as a regicide formed the precedent for that handed down in 1757 to Damiens.
* No need, though, as Francois wasn’t hard to catch: he stepped up to Henri’s carriage when it was caught in a traffic jam on May 14, 1610, and stabbed the king to death plain as can be. He was lucky (sort of) to avoid a lynching.