1797: Gracchus Babeuf, for the Conspiracy of Equals

Add comment May 27th, 2010 Headsman

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.

Gracchus Babeuf: The First Revolutionary Communist

On this date in 1797, Francois-Noel Babeuf lost his head for the Conspiracy of Equals — the last Jacobin upheaval of the French Revolution, or the first Communist upheaval of post-Revolution modernity.

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.

He did another in 1795 under the French Directory for his firebreathing rag Le Tribun du Peuple, which was particularly unfashionable stuff during the post-Robespierre Thermidorian regime.

Nothing daunted, Babeuf emerged from prison the leading apostle of the Parisian proletariat which had by then been decisively separated from power.

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.

Manifesto of the Equals, 1796

One can see why later revolutionaries — Marx included; Babeuf makes a cameo in the Communist Manifesto — would adopt this sort of thing as a harbinger of the next century’s revolutions.

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.

It passed.

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.

-Babeuf’s last letter to his family

* 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.

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1796: Francois de Charette, Vendee rebel

3 comments March 29th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1796, Republican France subdued the troublesome Vendee with the execution of its last great rebel.

Royalist officer Charette (English Wikipedia link | French) had assumed leadership of the anti-Republican revolt that broke out in the Vendee in 1796 — albeit with some turf rivalry with other anti-Republican figures in the area.

After a capable stretch of guerrilla campaigning, Charette had no sooner laid down his arms than the desperately counterrevolutionary English pushed for an ill-considered resumption of hostilities.

This time, the rebels took it in the culottes.

Charette, having upheld the monarchist cause long past his fellows — and much past any hope of success — became the figure the Republic had to eliminate to pacify the region. As English historian Archibald Alison has it, Charette paid a grim price for refusing to just be bought off.

Anxious to get quit of so formidable an enemy on any terms, the Directory offered [Charette] a safe retreat into England with his family and such of his followers as he might select, and a million of francs for his own maintenance. Charette replied, “I am ready to die with arms in my hands; but not to fly, and abandon my companions in misfortune. All the vessels of the Republic would not be sufficient to transport my brave soldiers into England. Far from fearing your menaces, I will myself come to seek you in your own camp.” …

This indomitable chief, however, could not long withstand the immense bodies which were now directed against him. His band was gradually reduced from seven hundred to fifty, and at last, ten followers. With this handful of heroes he long kept at bay the Republican forces; but at length, pursued on every side, and tracked out like a wild beast by bloodhounds, he was seized after a furious combat, and brought, bleeding and mutilated, but unsubdued, to the Republican headquarters. … Maltreated by the brutal soldiery, dragged along, yet dripping with blood from his wounds, before the populace of the town, weakened by loss of blood, he had need of all his strength of mind to sustain his courage; but, even in this extremity, his firmness never deserted him.

He was shot in Nantes after a perfunctory trial, refusing a blindfold and giving the orders to his own firing squad.


The execution of Charette. Mid-19th century illustration.


Execution of General Charette, in Nantes, March 1796, by Julien Le Blant.

Napoleon, who had done well to duck a possibly career-killing assignment to the Vendee the year before and was in consequence at this very moment the Revolution’s emergent man on horseback,* paid tribute from his suitable distance to Charette’s brilliance.

Charette was a great character; the true hero of that interesting period of our Revolution, which, if it presents great misfortunes, has at least not injured our glory. He left on me the impression of real grandeur of mind; the traces of no common energy and audacity, the sparks of genius, are apparent in his actions.

* Having made his name by efficiently putting down a royalist putsch in Paris a few months before, Napoleon had wed Josephine just three weeks before Charette’s execution.

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1794: Alexandre de Beauharnais, widowing Josephine for Napoleon

7 comments July 23rd, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1794, Napoleon Bonaparte’s future Empress became a widow.

Alexandre de Beauharnais — excuse me, that’s Alexandre François Marie de Beauharnais, Vicomte de Beauharnais to you — a liberal noble from Martinique who had served as a general in the American Revolution, was a pol with some juice in the earlier stages of the French Revolution, even declining to become Minister of War in June 1793.

It was a long fall to a short chop when he was accused of allowing Mainz to fall to the Germans through incompetence and/or insufficient revolutionary ardor. His brother Augustin was also among the day’s batch.

Just another forgettable aristocrat, shaved by the national razor.

But surviving Beauharnais — in prison herself at this moment, and in some danger of following his footsteps were it not for the imminent coup of Thermidor — was his wife by arranged marriage, 31-year-old sugar plantation heiress Josephine, later immortalized by remarrying the officer who would go on to bend all Europe to his will, Napoleon Bonaparte.

Thanks to his widow’s well-chosen conquest, Beauharnais’ children, dynastically married off under Napoleon’s adoption, would go on to sire a plethora of European royalty.

Part of the Themed Set: Thermidor.

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