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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1794: The last cart of the Terror, not including the Marquis de Sade

July 27th, 2008 Headsman

July 27th, 1794 — the 9th of Thermidor, year II — is inscribed in history as the day Robespierre fell, when a parliamentary coup d’etat between the right and the remnants of the parties he had destroyed shouted him down as he readied the National Convention for his next purge.

This scene from the multinational bicentennial epic La Revolution Francaise conflates the events of 8 Thermidor — when Robespierre delivered a menacing two-hour address but provoked outcries by failing to name the deputies he implicated in “conspiracy” — and 9 Thermidor, when Robespierre’s lieutenant Saint-Just was shouted down from the podium and Robespierre ended up staggering through the benches appealing against the imprecations of his colleagues as his arrest is decreed.

Even as the month of Thermidor’s eponymous epochal event was unfolding, the daily gears of Revolutionary justice were turning: the usual haul of unfortunates condemned, including seven women from the previous day’s batch of Saint Lazare prison conspirators who had pled their bellies to buy a day.

That day was one day too little.

Stanley Loomis is overtly hostile to the Revolution, but his middlebrow sensibilities are well-tuned for the pathos of the scene:

Indifferent to the storms that were raging in the Convention, the Revolutionary Tribunal continued to go about its implacable business with cold efficiency. The arrest of its President [the Robespierrist Rene-Francois Dumas (the link is French), who was taken in the courtroom] startled no one. Since its inception that court had been witness to too many dramas to be astonished any further. Dumas quietly departed; the trials continued. Forty-two prisoners were sentenced to death. By four o’clock their hair had been cut and they were ready to be sent on their way. But Samson, aware of disturbances in the St. Antoine quarter of the city, suggested to [prosecutor] Fouquier[-Tinville] that the executions be deferred until the morrow.*

“Justice must take its course,” snapped the Public Prosecutor. “Do your work.”

And so the last “batch” lumbered off in the direction of the Faubourg St. Antoine and the Place de la Nation. With the exception of the Princesse de Monaco, they were nearly all obscure and humble members of the petite bourgeoisie. Hanriot, waving his sabre, conducted the procession to the place of execution. By seven o’clock that evening, as the minutes of the military escort poignantly show, the unfortunate victims, who had been so close to deliverance, had all been executed.

Henriot proceeded directly from his escort service to the Convention to liberate Robespierre for the night’s brief pitched battle against the Convention, and here we take our leave of them, for now. We shall meet both of them on the scaffold tomorrow.

Not on the wagon** with the Princess of Monaco was a man whom Loomis would have pitied rather less.

The bloated, penniless 54-year-old fruit of an ancient noble house, Donatien Alphonse François de Sade, Marquis de Sade had, in the most recent chapter of his astounding career, navigated the Revolution in the improbable guise of a proletarian section head and revolutionary tribunal judge, until his own arrest late the previous year.

This day, de Sade’s name was on a list of prisoners to be seized from Madelonnettes Prison — “Sade, former count, captain of Capet’s guards in 1792, has corresponded with enemies of the republic,” it said — which he had occupied until a recent transfer to Picpus, a monastery converted into a prison adjacent to the guillotine’s place at the Place de la Nation. Whether the result of another of the many bureaucratic snafus we’ve witnessed this week or a well-placed bribe from his friend and/or mistress Marie-Constance Quesnet, the guards were in the wrong place, didn’t find him, and didn’t care to dig any further.

Three months later, he was — for the last time in his life — a free man.

One could hardly say that the Revolution made the author of Justine the man he so (in)famously was — but having lived within sight of the blade that might any day be called upon to chop off his own head, and the entire tableau of the years preceding, left their impression. Hundreds of bodies from the Terror were stuffed in the unpropitious clay of the makeshift jail’s yards under de Sade’s cell. “Those few months in the shadow of the guillotine did me more harm than all the years of my incarceration under the King,” he wrote a friend.

According to Writing the Orgy: Power and Parody in Sade, Revolutionary France would inexorably influence his subsequent work,

strangely mixing real memories with very Sadean embellishments … Plots, betrayals, denunciations, beheadings: these fictional motifs and Sadean phantasies are linked with the reality and the imaginary of the Revolution.

Good for what ails you.

* Sanson’s diaries — a memoir of the family business constructed by the famous executioner’s grandson — leave off before the events of Thermidor and suggest that the hecatombs of the Terror were taking their toll on the aging headsman. Other accounts of this day have the tumbrils stopped in the streets by clemency-inclined onlookers, only to be forcibly extricated by Henriot.

** Also not (really) on the cart: the fictional occultist Zanoni, who is beheaded in this batch in the novel of the same title by legendary awful writer Edward George “it was a dark and stormy night” Bulwer-Lytton.

Part of the Themed Set: Thermidor.

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1794: Not Thomas Paine

11 comments July 24th, 2008 Headsman

An avidity to punish is always dangerous to liberty. It leads men to stretch, to misinterpret, and to misapply even the best of laws. He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself. -Thomas Paine

On this date in 1794, revolutionary firebrand Thomas Paine got a date with the guillotine when the public prosecutor Antoine-Quentin Fouquier-Tinville put his name on the list for the next batch of heads.

Paine — “Mad Tom” to foes of his fire-eating opposition to despotic church and crown — is best-known for his part in the American Revolution; his pamphlet “Common Sense” made an incendiary and influential case for revolution.

More so than any other high-profile compatriot in the cause of American independence, Paine took to heart the age’s revolutionary spirit, the fine principles of solidarity, the zeal to put life and fortune at liberty’s service.

Not content to retire to the estate granted him for his services to the fledgling United States of America — Paine coined that name, by the way — the hellraiser sailed for the Old World to help overthrow the sclerotic Bourbon despotism whose geopolitically-minded aid* had had such material effect for American liberty.

Paine served in France’s National Convention, one of the highest-profile and least-impeachable members of that body as well as one of only two foreigners. These distinctions offered him some safety in the Revolution’s internecine tempests — some, but not quite enough. He drew the ire of the Montagnards by opposing the execution of Louis XVI.

The terrible gears of mass fratricide which apparently doomed Paine as the Terror unfolded turned out to be his refuge, and that of three fortunate fellows with him. Had he gone to the scaffold as a single high-profile traitor, there would have been no mistake about it; now, at the height of the Terror, jailers marked dozens for death by the fallible expedient of chalking their cell doors. If the guillotine made mass execution feasible, the bureaucratic apparatus to manage it was still catching up.

Here’s the version of a Paine’s preservation that he himself later related — albeit second-hand, since he was suffering this day “a violent fever which had nearly terminated my existence” and “was not in a condition to be removed, or to know of what was passing, or of what had passed, for more than a month. It makes a blank in my remembrance of life. The first thing I was informed of was the fall of Robespierre.”

[T]he manner in which I escaped that fate is curious, and has all the appearance of accident.

The room in which I was lodged was on the ground floor, and one of a long range of rooms under a gallery, and the door of it opened outward and flat against the wall; so that when it was open the inside of the door appeared outward, and the contrary when it was shut. I had three comrades, fellow-prisoners with me, Joseph Vanhuile, of Bruges, since president of the municipality of that town, Michael Robins, and Bastini, of Louvain.

When persons by scores and hundreds were to be taken out of prison for the guillotine, it was always done in the night, and those who performed that office had a private mark or signal by which they, knew what rooms to go to, and what number to take. We, as I have said, were four, and the door of our room was marked unobserved by us with that number in chalk; but it happened, if happening is a proper word, that the mark was put on when the door was open and flat against the wall, and thereby came on the inside when we shut it at night, and the destroying angel passed by it. A few days after this Robespierre fell, and the American ambassador arrived and reclaimed me and invited me to his house.

During the whole of my imprisonment, prior to the fall of Robespierre, there was no time when I could think my life worth twenty-four hours, and my mind was made up to meet its fate.

Presumably this would have been a short reprieve, had not Jacobin rule (and rulers) promptly expired.

We noticed two days ago the U.S. mission’s willingness to exert itself for Lafayette’s wife, who surely had not done better service for the American Revolution than had Paine himself.

Paine waited in vain for American intervention, and was incandescent with rage at George Washington and his envoy Gouverneur Morris for abandoning him (Morris was replaced by the more Paine-friendly James Monroe a few weeks later). In a wide-ranging 1796 denunciation of Washington’s conduct and American political tilt towards Britain and away from France, Paine accused his country** of giving the Jacobins the green light to cut off a gadfly’s head.

Could I have known to what degree of corruption and perfidy the administrative part of the Government of America had descended, I could have been at no loss to have understood the reservedness of Mr. Washington toward me, during my imprisonment in the Luxembourg. There are cases in which silence is a loud language.

Soon after I was put into arrestation and imprisonment in the Luxembourg, the Americans who were then in Paris went in a body to the bar of the Convention to reclaim me. They were answered … that I was born in England, and … their reclamation of me was only the act of individuals, without any authority from the American Government.

A few days after this, all communication from persons imprisoned to any person without the prison was cut off by an order of the police. I neither saw, nor heard from, anybody for six months; and the only hope that remained to me was that a new Minister would arrive from America to supersede Morris …

One hundred and sixty-nine were taken out of the Luxembourg one night, in the month of July, and one hundred and sixty of them guillotined. A list of two hundred more, according to the report in the prison, was preparing a few days before Robespierre fell. In this last list I have good reason to believe I was included. A memorandum in the hand-writing of Robespierre was afterwards produced in the Convention, by the committee to whom the papers of Robespierre were referred, in these words:

Demander que Thomas Payne soit de decrete d’accusation pour les interets de l’Amerique, autant que de la France.

I had then been imprisoned seven months, and the silence of the Executive part of the Government of America (Mr. Washington) upon the case, and upon everything respecting me, was explanation enough to Robespierre that he might proceed to extremities.

This venomous open letter and the deistic tract The Age of Reason he was banging out during the Revolution, combined with the frightening turn of the French Revolution itself, helped send Paine’s public regard into decline. “Atheist,” they tutted, and he’s been the most untouchable Founding Father ever since.

Next year is the bicentennial of his death in obscurity and pauperhood; his homelessness, so to say, in the annals of political thought and national pantheons testifies in some ways to the defeat his principles suffered in his very lifetime. The American Revolution turned conservative; France’s fell to despotism; England’s was strangled in its crib.

Even so, he fired the imaginations of many troublemakers still to come. A man of no wealth or position who etched in fire the spirit of his times, Paine saw further and spoke plainer than most of his contemporaries. If a prophet is not welcome in his own country, it scarcely diminishes the power of the prophecy.

And/or, enjoy this free biography at Google Books.

* Given by the French crown in opposition to France’s great rival Britain, of course.

** Paine certainly considered himself American, though he wouldn’t have made that inconsistent with being French, too. The matter of his citizenship between England (where his pamphlets had him attainted in absentia on a capital charge), France and the United States was a contested one at a time when the very notion was being reforged in the heat of revolution; at any rate, as diplomatic pretext for failing to ask for his life, citizenship makes a feeble excuse.

Republican radicals in England didn’t mind claiming him as their own, developing this alternate lyric sheet to the national anthem:

[audio:God_Save_the_Queen.mp3]

God save great Thomas Paine
His ‘Rights of Man’ explain
To every soul.
He makes the blind to see
What dupes and slaves they be,
And points out liberty,
From pole to pole.

Thousands cry ‘Church and King’
That well deserve to swing,
All must allow:
Birmingham blush for shame,
Manchester do the same,
Infamous is your name,
Patriots vow.

Part of the Themed Set: Thermidor.

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Themed Set: Thermidor

21 comments July 22nd, 2008 Headsman

Paris, 1794

It is Thermidor — Month of Heat — by that queer artifact of the times, the Revolutionary calendar, and in the blistering summer the guillotine rots its own scaffold.

It is the climax of that emblematic moment of the French Revolution, often wrongly standing to casual observation as synonymous with the entire revolution. Jarring indeed how brief the span of those pregnant, dangerous days, that upon the storming of the Bastille the guillotine had not yet been erected and from that traditional birthdate of the Revolution were eclipsed successively the Bourbon monarchy, the Constitutionalist Assembly, the Girondin liberals, Marat, Danton … culminating in the bloody hegemony of Robespierre and the fatal test between the Jacobins and their enemies.

By the spring and summer of 1794, Paris is delivered fully to Robespierre. “Terror,” he says, “is only justice prompt, severe and inflexible; it is then an emanation of virtue; it is less a distinct principle than a natural consequence of the general principle of democracy, applied to the most pressing wants of the country.” A blip on the screen chronologically, this period seems endless to those who survive it, and it reverberates endlessly to those who succeed it.

In this Revolution-era cartoon, legendary Parisian headsman Sanson, having run out of victims, guillotines himself.

For the next week, join Executed Today in 1794’s Month of Heat as day by day the Terror rages at its apex, inscrutably suffering citizens to live or die — until of a sudden it succumbs to its own rot.

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