The Committee of Public Safety

Hello, and welcome to Revolutions.

As the array of political and military disasters that erupted on all fronts in mid 1793 threatened to consume revolutionary France, the now Mountain-dominated National Convention decided that they were absolutely not going to go down without a fight. The Federalists would be crushed, the rebels in the Vendée exterminated, the old regimes of Europe would be conquered by the armies of France. They aim for nothing less than total victory on all fronts

But accomplishing this extraordinarily ambitious plan would require a far more omnipotent national government than the Revolution had yet allowed. And it is one of the great ironies of the French Revolution that just as it was publicly celebrating the super democratic Constitution of 1793, it was simultaneously being converted into an authoritarian dictatorship, a dictatorship run through the newly reorganized Committee of Public Safety

The Committee of Public Safety had been established back in March as a direct response to the terrible news coming down from Belgium and then out of Vandée. And as I mentioned, the dominant figure of the first few months of the Committee’s existence was George Danton, who had become of late, a voice of moderation. But as the bad news from all fronts continued to flood in, the delegates left in the National Convention after the purge of the Girondins were now open to the argument that moderation very possibly meant death

As we will see in a few moments, though, the turn away from moderation did not imply a turn toward further radicalism. Instead, the turn away from moderation was in the direction of, let’s call it, uncompromising patriotic commitment that would tolerate challenges from neither the right nor the left. The coming Jacobin Reign of Terror, a far more colorful way of putting it than uncompromising patriotic commitment, would be directed as much against the populace on the left as against crypto Royalists on the right. 

The first move in this turn against moderation was the removal of Danton from the Committee of Public Safety. As we’ve seen, ever since the insurrection of August 10 and the September Massacres, Danton had been projecting an image of himself as a pragmatic and level headed statesman rather than as a fire breathing agitator. His patriotism had already been called into question after he publicly supported the treasonous General Dumouriez, and after the insurrection of May 31 – June 2, suspicions about his commitment to the revolutionary cause only grew. 

Rather than promoting vindictive reprisals against the Federalist insurrectionaries, Danton counseled leniency, bring them back into the fold with the carrot, not the stick. His answer to the collapse of the armies in Belgium was to try to open negotiations with the Prussians to try to dislodge them from the allied coalition. Danton’s apparent willingness to bargain with the Revolution’s enemies rather than crush them sparked a political backlash. When the monthly elections for the Committee of Public Safety came round again on July 10, Danton, ostensibly its most powerful member, was not reelected, nor were any of his allies. 

And though Danton would remain a powerful force for months to come, this is really the moment when he and the Old Cordeliers inner circle, once the most extreme leading edge of the Revolution, will begin their tragic march to the guillotine. 

The new Committee of Public Safety that started to take shape on July 10 promised to be more vigorous in its approach to everything. Their mission was nothing less than the salvation of France and the Revolution, and they would work tirelessly and without remorse until that mission was complete. As the young Saint-Just said:

Those who would make Revolution in the world, those who want to do good in this world, must sleep only in the tomb.

You can accuse the Committee of Public Safety of a lot of things, but you cannot accuse them of being lazy. 

After the election of July 10 removed moderate voices from the Committee, a series of supplemental appointments over the next few months brought the total number of Committee members up to twelve. And it was these twelve men who would turn the Committee of Public Safety into the engine of terror that continues to haunt the Western imagination. Each of the twelve is interesting and important in his own way, but it would be silly to sit here and rattle them off to you one by one, because by the time I got to guy number twelve, you wouldn’t be able to remember who guide number one was. So what I’ll do right now is highlight a few of the really important members and then in the episodes to come, introduce the others as they enter and exit the stage. 

So for now, let’s first of all, remember that Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, all of 26 years old, had already been appointed to the Committee back in June to work on the Constitution of 1793, and he was elected to an official spot on July 10. The most famous member of the Committee, though, was not elected on July 10. And that was, of course, Saint-Just’s mentor the indomitable leader of the mountain, Maximilian Ropespierre. Robespierre, oddly enough, continued to cast a skeptical eye on the Committee he was destined to dominate, and he was not persuaded to take a seat until July 27. 

Once he showed up, though, Robespierre would become the Committee’s voice inside the Convention, defending its conduct and its further consolidation of power, and then, of course, serve as the key ideologue of the whole project. And in short order, Robespierre would emerge as the anchor of the political wing of the Committee, the wing most concerned with rooting out and destroying the enemies of the Revolution. And this would eventually lead Robespierre to put the Committee, and, by extension, all of France, under his personal control

But in the midst of the crisis of mid 1793, the political wing of the Committee was emphatically not the most important wing of the Committee, because though consolidating national political power was a key objective, the really, really key objective was the objective that would ultimately make the consolidation of national power possible. And that was winning the war. 

So on August 14, the two more men were appointed to the Committee who would anchor what I’ll call the military wing. And of those two men, one of them deserves special attention, because he is going to go down in history as the great organizer of victory, the man who almost single handedly turned the fortunes of war around and kept revolutionary France from being defeated by all her enemies right then and there in 1793: Lazare Carnot

So though the ideological terror unleashed by Robespierre and the political wing is more famous, had Carnot and the military wing not succeeded, and wildly succeeded, as it would turn out, the political wing never would have had the power or the legitimacy to do what it did. Lazar Carnot had been born up in Burgundy in 1753, and from an early age, he showed a great aptitude in math and science. He went off to study at a military college specifically focused on artillery and engineering, where he established a reputation as one of the brightest minds of his generation. But unfortunately, Carnot was a commoner entering the ranks of the army of the Ancien Régime, which, as you might recall from way back when, was currently in the process of making it even harder for non nobles to rise to senior positions. 

So, despite his obvious abilities, Carnot was commissioned as a lieutenant, soon promoted to captain, and from there left to languish, despite the fact that in his spare time, he was actually making genuine advances to theoretical and practical physics and publishing papers that were very well received by the scientific community. So, for obvious reasons, Carnot was sympathetic to the Revolution when it broke out. And though he was not and never would be a politician per se, he had spent a lot of time thinking about the kinds of reforms that, let’s say, the army could use if it was going to survive in the modern world. So he stood for and won a seat in the Legislative Assembly in 1791. Now, try as I might, I cannot find a source that will tell me what Carnot thought about the war mongering of Brissot and the Girondins, whether he supported them or thought the whole thing crazy. And if anybody out there has any idea, please drop me a line. 

After the King was overthrown in August 1792, Carnot was dispatched to the army of the Rhine to ensure that the officer corps there was prepared to fight for the new regime. Then he was elected into the National Convention, but was basically absent from Paris the whole time, being dispatched first down to the Pyrenees to set up a defensive line to block any advance by the Spanish, a line that, unfortunately, did not hold after he left. And then when things started going badly up in Belgium, he was one of those representatives on mission sent up to hold the line. 

Now, Carnot was, to be sure, in favor of aggressive action, and he was one of the ones pushing the generals to fight and not retreat. But Carnot was far more of a military technocrat than some raging ideologue. And after witnessing firsthand the setbacks that followed Dumouriez’s defection, Carnot came away convinced that the army was not suffering from a lack of ideological commitment so much as a lack of manpower, proper organization, training, material. And he started sketching plans to completely transform the French armies

When he was recalled from the front lines and appointed to the Committee of Public Safety on August the 14th and told, hey, man, go win the war, he already had a pretty good idea of exactly what needed to be done. So it did not take long for new committee member Carnot to roll out his great project. And on August 23, the Committee of Public Safety decreed and the National Convention supported the justly famous Levée en Masse, the simultaneous mobilization of the entire nation to arms. 

The levée en masse bluntly demanded that the citizens of France recognized an absolute and universal obligation to serve in the military. From here on out, every citizen was a potential soldier. The first round of conscriptions specifically targeted all unmarried men ages 18 to 25, and more specifically, those unmarried young men in regions that were currently threatened by either foreign attack or local Federalist insurrection. The idea was to simply raise so many men so fast that they would overwhelm the Revolution’s enemies. 

Now, before I really started picking my way through the minutiae of the French revolution, I knew that the levée en masse was a big deal, but I never realized just how truly audacious it was. I mean, it was just back in February that the Convention issued the levée of 300,000, and look what that had gotten them: the Vendée uprising and the Federalist revolt. So to go back to that same well looking not just for more water, but for all the water, that’s pretty crazy. But it worked. 

So you’re probably wondering why the levée en masse wound up working, given the oh so recent wave of anti draft riots back in the spring. The answer is, first of all, as successful as the levée en masse turned out to be, quickly raising 300,000 and eventually leading to somewhere between 758,000 and 800,000 Frenchmen under arms by the end of the year, there was a lot of draft dodging everywhere. And let’s just say, for example, that the marriage rates in France mysteriously skyrocketed in September 1793 just as commissioners were coming around looking for unmarried men to ship off to the front lines. 

But those that did submit were doing so under very different circumstances than when the levée of 300,000 was going around. Back in February, the French armies on the frontier were still ascendant, and the call to arms was premised on an abstract need to reinforce the army. But by the Fall of 1793, everything had gone to hell. Foreign armies were camped inside French territory, the Federalist cities were calling for civil war, the Vendée was on fire, representatives on mission and local commissioners could plausibly argue that if you didn’t step up and do your duty, that revolutionary France will be crushed, and with it any hope that you might have of not just going back to being some oppressed peasant resettled to the yoke of a restored aristocracy. 

But the levée en masse was really successful because it was not just about raising troops, it was about putting everyone and everything to work to win the war. And this was described in the opening of the decree announcing the levée:

From this moment until such time as its enemy shall have been driven from the soil of the republic, all Frenchmen are in permanent requisition for the services of the armies. The young men shall fight. The married men shall forge arms and transport provisions. The women shall make tents and clothes and shall serve in the hospitals. The children shall turn old lint into linen. The old men shall betake themselves to the public squares in order to arouse the courage of the warriors and preach hatred of kings and the unity of the republic.

What all of that meant was that just as the allies were anticipating the imminent collapse of France, France was instead transforming itself into a massive war machine

Even before the levée had a chance to start making a difference, things actually started to look not quite so dire. When that little Girondin-led brigade of Norman Federalists tried to rally further support by marching towards Paris in July, they were broken and dispersed the moment they made contact with a National Guard brigade sent to stop them. By the middle of August, Bordeaux was pulling back from its lofty dreams of everyone getting together and marching on the capital and was hunkering down to brace for reprisals from Paris. 

In the east, both Lyon and Marseille were themselves facing the prospect of fighting regular army troops who are now redirected from their bases along the Alpine border to come down and retake the rebel cities. Now, we’ll come back to Lyon next week, since they’re going to hold out until October, and the subsequent reprisals visited upon the city will form an integral part of the opening of the reign of terror. But Marseille is about to capitulate, so let’s take care of that right now. 

Marseille was, of course, already suffering from an Allied blockade. That was part of the reason they had gone into revolt in the first place. But with regular troops now on the way, the Federalist leaders inside the city decided that the only way to survive was to open negotiations with the British to hand Marseille over to the Allies in exchange for provisions and protection. But when word of these negotiations leaked, it sparked a backlash, as most of the citizens who had supported the revolt against Paris were emphatic that they did not do it just to hand the keys to the city over to the British. After a series of street clashes, the most extreme Federalists were run out of the city, and Marseilles surrendered to the approaching regular troops on August 25. 

But though this was welcome news in Paris, the explosive news that followed right on its heels really, really wasn’t. And that news precipitated yet another insurrection in the capital. What had happened is that those hardcore Federalists who fled Marseilles made their way over to Toulon, which just so happened to be the home base of the French Navy in the Mediterranean. With the capture of Marseilles no longer an option, the British turned to the people of Toulon and made them the same deal that they had just offered to Marseille: let us sail in, and we’ll protect you

This proposal caused just as much heated controversy as it had in Marseilles. But with the hardcore Federalists from Marseilles now turning up with stories of vicious atrocities committed by the Jacobin-controlled regular troops, stories that, for the moment, were a bit overblown, the citizens of Toulon opted for what appeared to be the lesser of two evils. 

On August 27, they invited the British to sail into the harbor, thus allowing the Allies to capture the French naval yards without firing a shot. When word reached Paris of the betrayal of Toulon on September 2, it fed into another round of angry unrest already rising in the capital that soon culminated with yet another popular insurrection on September 5, an insurrection that would mark the beginning of the Reign of Terror

In many ways, the insurrection of September 5 looks a lot like the insurrections of May 31 – June 2. Both involved angry sans-culottes arming themselves surrounding the Convention and demanding a whole slate of populist reforms, with the Convention then capitulating. But is that really what happened on September 5? As it turns out, no, not really. And the insurrection of September 5 does not represent yet another stage in the process of increasing radicalization that has been ongoing since the Estates General first met way back in May 1789. Instead, it marks the end of that process. 

Now, this is not the end of uncompromising patriotic commitment, not by a long shot, but this is the end of the ever increasing political and economic radicalization of the Revolution. That is not really how it looks on the surface, though, and there’s a lot of political sleight of hand going on here. So let’s get into it. 

To understand the insurrection of September 5, we must first understand the role played by Jacques Hébert. Hébert, you probably don’t remember, was one of the two men arrested by the Commission of Twelve back in May, arrests that helped trigger the purge of the Girondins. Hébert was a leftwing journalist who had been publishing a popular newspaper since 1790. He had started out advocating liberal noble-esque constitutional Royalism, but like so many others, the flight to Varennes turned Hébert against the monarchy and in favor of making France a republic. He was present at the massacre of the Champ de Mars, and after that his paper became a windmill of attacks against the King and the Queen and Lafayette, and most especially the Catholic Church

Hébert was an avowed atheist and one of the leading proponents of total dechristianization. All of this earned him enormous popularity among the sans-culottes and helped him secure a seat on the Insurrectionary Commune after August 10. From that seat, he supported the September Massacres and used his paper to publicly defend the necessity of the slaughter. But though Hébert was obviously a far left radical, he was also personally at odds with most of the Enragés leaders and vied with them for influence over the sans-culottes. And it was much to his chagrin that the Commission of Twelve lumped him in with the street maniacs when they went out looking for people to arrest. 

Hébert’s other great rival for the hearts of the sans-culottes was, of course, Jean Paul Marat, though it wasn’t really much of a rivalry as Hébert published in Marat’s shadow. Everyone did. But when Marat was assassinated in July, Hébert was determined to corner the market on revolutionary populism, and he was mostly successful. The circulation of his paper skyrocketed, and in no time Hébert became what Marat had so recently been: the most influential leftwing journalist in Paris

But as he was donning the mantle of the voice of the people, Hébert turned his virulent pen as much against the Enragés as against squishy moderates in the National Convention, and he was about to help orchestrate a plot to push the Enragés off the stage or, more precisely, up onto the scaffold.

In September 1793, Jacques Hébert was wearing a number of different hats. He was, of course, editor and publisher of a hugely popular newspaper. But he also sat on the Central Council of the Paris Commune and was a member in good standing of the Jacobin Club. This meant that he had followers in the street, power in city government, and plenty of allies in the National Convention. 

So when the streets once again began to get restless after news that Toulon had surrendered, Hébert and his allies in the Commune and the Jacobin Club and the Convention helped organize a popular uprising that would help them all co opt the Enragés’ platform, win the loyalty of the sans-culottes, and eliminate the Enragés as an independent political force. 

On September 4, a mostly spontaneous demonstration outside the Hotel de Ville by workers demanding economic relief provided the perfect opportunity to initiate the plan. As a member of the Commune, Hébert went out and told the workers to come back tomorrow, and we’ll have ourselves a real organized insurrection. Then he declared September 5 a work holiday to ensure a large turnout for the coming show. 

This time, of course, the leading delegates to the National Convention were not surprised when this mob showed up and were instead prepared to receive them. And when the mob showed up on September 5, the co-opting began in earnest. As we’ve seen, the Enragés, more than anything else, were driven by economic concerns. They had no money, they had no food, and their demands on September 5 reflected this. They said, above all, we demand subsistence, and demand that the government provide that subsistence by any means necessary. 

They wanted that promised revolutionary army to be raised so it could go charge around seizing the food that they just knew was being hoarded by the wealthy. They wanted those units equipped with mobile guillotines to enforce revolutionary order. They wanted no more compromises, no more moderation. Appeals to patriotism and compassion and national unity were clearly not working. So they demanded that terror be the order of the day. That is, that the government used unflinching violence to ensure compliance with its decrees

On the surface, the sans-culottes certainly appeared to get most of what they demanded. But the concessions offered by the Convention were designed mostly to complete the process of power centralization that had been ongoing since the insurrection of June 2. For example, though that revolutionary army that we’ve been talking about was finally given the green light to organize, it was initially limited to just 6,500 men. And when the 6,500 most militant sans-culottes in Paris joined up and went out into the countryside looking for grain, guess where they weren’t anymore? That’s right. In Paris, causing trouble for the Convention. 

Then there was the quote unquote concession, proposed by Danton by the by, that men be paid for attending the sectional assemblies and that those assemblies would be held twice a week. Now, that sounds great, right? Except that the sectional assemblies had been in permanent session since the insurrection of August 10. So the twice a week mandate was really about severely limiting their ability to organize rather than enhancing it. And the payments for attendance? Well, that’s just straight buying people off, because it would be the Convention doing the paying, not the sections themselves. And wherefore comes the money, so too goes the loyalty. 

Then the Convention agreed on September 6 to appoint two new members to the Committee of Public Safety. And these two appointments would bring the total up to the infamous twelve. These were two men who were adored by the sans-culotte: Jean-Marie Collot d’Herbois and Jacques Nicolas Billaud-Varenne. These two men would, in time become the most infamous architects of the terror. But for the moment, their inclusion on the Committee was all about legitimizing the Committee of Public Safety in the eyes of the sans-culottes and ensure that their especially uncompromising brand of patriotic commitment would be directed on behalf of the Committee rather than against the Committee. 

In the weeks that followed, further popular initiatives were handed down that again gave the appearance of radical populism, but which were mostly deployed to further consolidate central power. On September 11, another grain maximum was decreed that promised to keep the price of bread down. Once it was decreed, the harvest, collection, and transportation of grain was put under the direct supervision of the Committee of Public Safety

Then, on September 17, the Law of Suspects massively broadened both the definition of suspect and the surveillance powers of the authorities to the point that basically anyone could now be dragged before the Revolutionary Tribunal for any reason at any time. Now, these enhanced police powers were technically put under the control of the Convention’s Committee of General Security, the Committee that had been mostly superseded by the Committee of Public Safety, but which still had jurisdiction over local police and reports of domestic treason. 

Now, the sans-culottes wanted the jurisdiction of the Revolutionary Tribunal expanded and suspects easier to arrest because they were envisioning an all out war on rich hoarders who live fat on the food that they were intentionally withholding from Paris. But the Committee of General Security had no plans to use their enhanced police powers to simply wage class war.

Dominated by allies of Jacques Hébert, the Committee of General Security instead used it first to crush their enemies on the left. One of the first men arrested after the new Law of Suspects was decreed was none other than Jean Francois Varlet, Varlet being the other guy arrested by the Commission of Twelve along with Hébert back in May.  

Three days later, another of the major Enragés, Theophile LeClerc was intimidated into silence. Threatened with arrest, he ceased publication of his radical newspaper. But what about the ultra radical priest Jacques Roux, the most famous of the Enragés? Oh, that’s right, he’s already in jail. He was arrested on the night of September 5 for his role in inciting the insurrection. All of this is going to mark the end of the Enragés as a political force. 

A few weeks later, the Convention then completed its co-option of the san-culottes by rolling out an even more ambitious economic program. On September 29, they decreed the General Maximum. The General Maximum laid down a set of maximum prices for all sorts of essential commodities grain, flour, oil, meat, firewood, paper, soap, leather. The General Maximum was loved by the end consumer sans-culottes in Paris, but was, of course, pretty much a disaster for everyone else. It legitimized the notion that high prices were caused by hoarders and price gougers and profiteers, rather than the basic mechanism of too little supply meeting too much demand. 

Enforcement of the General Maximum was then folded into the Law of Suspects, and pretty soon shopkeepers either had to sell their goods for less than they cost to acquire or be denounced as traitors and executed. The General Maximum, though, worked great in one respect, it pretty much diffused any possibility that the Convention had to fear another sans-culottes uprising, which is really what it was designed to do

As I said now repeatedly, the insurrection of September 5 was not about putting into place a more radical political and economic program for its own sake. This was all about giving the State, as personified by the Committee of Public Safety, essentially unlimited power to do whatever it wanted and the means to enforce their will

So we are now a long, long way from the Tennis Court Oath and the Declaration of the Rights of Man. The French Revolution is now fundamentally no longer about liberty and rights, it is about obedience and sacrifice. What had begun as a project to free the individual from the capricious tyranny of the State had now become the opposite. The individual now existed to serve the needs of the State, needs defined now by the twelve men of the Committee of Public Safety. And if you refused, Madame la Guillotine awaits, because terror is the order of the day. So next week, we’ll we will begin the dark and bloody reign of terror, when the Revolution will well and truly begin to devour its children.

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