Hello, and welcome to Revolutions.
So Last week it was a bit of a grab bag of topics to bring everything up to speed so that we could spend today talking about the great factional battle between the Danton-led Indulgents and the Jacques Hébert-led Ultras in the first few months of 1794. As we established last week, this latest factional battle was fought over Dechristianization and the Terror. The Indulgents wanted to pull back from both. The Ultras wanted to go even further with both. Now, had the Revolution continued on the path it had been on since Controller General Calonne first declared bankruptcy back in 1786, the outcome would not have been in doubt. The radical dechristianizing terrorists would have defeated the moderate Indulgents. I mean, that’s the way it’s always gone, right? Right. Except that since the insurrection of September 5, the Revolution has been on a new path. So this time around, the radical Ultras will actually be the first ones to go down. Not that the more moderate Indulgents would have long to savor their victory, as they themselves would be led to the guillotine less than two weeks later because the Revolution’s new path is now being paved by Maximilian Robespierre. And it was a very narrow path that only he could see.
The battle between the Indulgents and the Ultras burst out into the open in early December 1793, when Camille Desmoulins launched a new weekly newspaper specifically designed to counter Jacques Hébert’s antichristian pro-terror screeds. Desmoulins dubbed his new paper The Old Cordeliers, clearly trying to recapture the magic of the early Revolution and reclaim spiritual ownership of the Cordeliers name. You see, when the original corps of Cordeliers leaders surrounding Danton had graduated up to running the country, control of the Cordeliers Club had passed into the hands of sans-culottes-backed radicals and the current president was none other than Jacques Hébert. It had to hurt him a lot to see the club he and his buddies had founded now perverted to serve the bloodthirsty sacrilegious ends of the Ultras.
The first issue of The Old Cordeliers was published on December 5 and was an instant bestseller. There were tons of people in Paris who had been cowed into silence by the radical fury of the Ultras and they were thrilled to finally have someone giving voice to all their fears. The journalistic broadsides were echoed in the Convention by the alliance between Robespierre and Danton that we touched on a bit last week. They both delivered speeches denouncing dechristianization and the excesses of the terror.
On December 6, the Convention passed a decree reaffirming the right to the freedom of worship, a right that was a core part of the Declaration of Rights and a right that dechristianization clearly threatened. And I completely forgot to mention this last week, but this is the moment in history when the word vandalism enters the world lexicon. Opponents of dechristianization liken the destruction of church property with the destruction of Rome by the Vandals. So that’s where vandalism comes from.
In the third issue of the Old Cordeliers, published on December 15, Desmoulins ripped off Tacitus and drew a specific parallel between revolutionary Paris and Rome under Tiberius, a time when fear and brutality spread like a sickness through a once great civilization. With the rhetorical foundations laid, the Old Cordeliers stalwart Fabre d’Eglantine stood up in the Convention and denounced two primary carriers of the dreaded sickness: Charles Philippe Ronsin and Francois Nicolas Vincent.
Ronsin was the leader of the Paris Revolutionary Army and he was just back from Lyon where he had been a zealous accomplice of Collot d’Herbois. Vincent was General Secretary of the War Department and he had been using his position to push for an even more rigorous application of the Terror. Both were arrested December 17. A few days later, Robespierre gave his task at approval to form yet another committee, a committee who would be tasked with investigating wrongful arrests. Obviously, this oversight panel would act as a check on those who wanted to turn the Terror into an indiscriminate bloodbath.
These sudden and surprisingly popular attacks on their position caught the Ultras off guard. But despite the flurry of attacks against them, the Ultras regained their footing just a few days later. When Collot d’Herbois heard that Ronsin had been arrested, he raced back from Lyon to Paris. He reached the capital on December 22 and gave a fiery speech in the Jacobin Club, denouncing what he saw as a sudden turn to spinelessness. When I left, we were united behind the goal of purging France of her enemies. And now I return to find the best and most patriotic men we have in jail? I mean, what the hell, people?
This speech re-energized the radicals. Collot then teamed up with his fellow radical on the Committee of Public Safety, Jacques Nicolas Billaud-Varennes, and together they got the new oversight panel shut down before it even started up. So as 1793 gave way to 1794, it looked like the Committee of Public Safety itself might become a front in the war between the Indulgents and the Ultras. And then, maybe inevitably, a casualty.
But then the East India Company scandal blew up and changed the whole dynamic. Because in the current political fight, Maximilian Robespierre was the critical swing vote. He had been leaning towards the Indulgents but after the East India scandal broke, he straightened up very quickly. So what was the East India Company scandal? Or maybe we should start with so what was the East India Company?
The East India Company was first chartered by Louis XIV back in 1664 to help the French compete with the English and Dutch in the rapidly expanding oriental trade markets. The Company was given a monopoly over trade in the Pacific and Indian oceans. But as everyone discovered over the next century or so, state chartered monopolies are a horrible, horrible way to do business. The French East India Company was a mess, thoroughly corrupt and always in financial trouble. As the minister surrounding Louis XV started to attempt some much needed reforms after the disastrous conclusion to the Seven Years War, the East India Company was targeted and abolished in 1769.
But 16 years later, the Company was recharged by Controller General Calonne and once again given a monopoly over trade east of the Cape of Good Hope. Now, originally, this monopoly was supposed to run for seven years. But of course, then along comes the Revolution in 1789 and in January 1790 the more free market inclined delegates of the National Assembly stripped the Company of its monopoly. Now exposed to the terrors of competition, the Company predictably started to implode and by the summer of 1793 was limping towards death.
It was finally put out of its misery when the newly reshuffled Committee of Public Safety banned all joint stock companies in August 1793 and the East India Company was ordered to liquidate all its assets by January 1, 1794. And that is when the scandal comes into it. The scandal itself is a little complicated, but the gist of it is that with the company slated for liquidation, financial speculators with insider information started manipulating the process to reap huge profits for themselves by selling the stock short. But that in and of itself wasn’t actually the scandal.
The scandal was when certain members of the Convention discovered this illegal stock manipulation and rather than doing something about it, decided, hey, let’s get in on the action. They threatened to expose the corruption and turn the speculators over to the Revolutionary Tribunal unless they were given a cut of the ill gotten gains. To make sure no one else was tipped off to this extortion, the Convention committee assigned to oversee the company secretly altered the rules of the liquidation process, allowing the company to sell off its own assets rather than having government agents handle it. This would mean fewer questions about what was being sold, how much it was being sold for, who it was being sold to, and, of course, whose pocket the money was actually winding up in. And wouldn’t you know it, Fabre d’Eglantine was the chairman of that committee, and he was the one who signed the crooked paperwork after being promised a fat bribe. This was a fatal mistake, not just for d’Eglantine, but for all of his friends.
By mid October, the fishiness of the liquidation process started to stink, and d’Eglantine decided to get out in front of things before it all blew out into the open. And that is when he went to Robespierre with the details of the Foreign Plot. A plot that just so happened to implicate his accomplices in the East India Company extortion racket. By coming forward first with the denunciations, d’Eglantine was briefly insulated from the scandal because when another one of the compromised delegates came to Robespierre in mid November with his own version of what was going on, a version that implicated d’Eglantine, Robespierre believed that this was just a revenge denunciation. But then at some point in late December or early January, Robespierre was handed incontrovertible proof of d’Eglantine’s involvement, probably the falsified paperwork he had signed. The incorruptible Robespierre was furious. Doubly so, because he had been clearly duped by the slick talking d’Eglantine.
On January 8, Robespierre publicly denounced d’Eglantine in the Convention. And on January 12, the corrupt poet revolutionary was arrested. But always one to embrace a guilt by association mentality, Ropesbierre could not believe that d’Eglantine’s corruption was the personal failing of just one man. Instead, it was proof that the Indulgent faction he fronted for was compromised. Robespierre was only further convinced of their shared guilt when Danton stood up and defended d’Eglantine, the only member of the Convention willing to do so.
In Robespierre’s head, Danton could not possibly be motivated by old ties of personal loyalty. It had to be something more sinister. And then, in an unfortunate coincidence of timing, just as d’Eglantine’s guilt was being established, Desmoulins used the Old Cordeliers to criticize the Committee of Public Safety and the leadership of Robespierre. So now we have a conspiratorial pattern.
Now, Desmoulins had strayed over the line once before, but in that case Robespierre had merely ordered copies of the offending issue burned. But by mid January, with the East India Company scandal squirreling, word went round to the printers of Paris that the Old Cordeliers was a dangerous thing to be caught printing. And it was only after considerable delays that Desmoulins was able to get the sixth issue published on February 3. And that sixth issue would also be the final issue. After just three months, the Old Cordeliers was killed, stone dead.
With Robespierre now coming to believe that the Indulgents were a bunch of self serving partisans, he really started to go in for the notion that factional fighting in itself was a danger to the nation, and that everyone needed to stop the bickering and come together as one, or else. As an olive branch to the Ultras, Ronsin and Vincent were released from jail in early February, and it was hinted to them that now would be a very nice time to take the high road and not seek reprisals. Danton tried to get in the spirit of things by publicly applauding their release, but then he undermined his own position by saying, hey, maybe we should let d’Eglantine out of jail too. He’s a good guy, I swear.
Then, on the 5 February, Robespierre laid out his vision for the future in a speech to the Convention entitled “Report on the Principles of Public Morality”. I’m going to set aside the details of that speech until next week, when we talk more about Robespierre’s Republic of Virtue. But just to give you a heads up, as it turns out, that Republic of Virtue will only be achieved after everybody who isn’t virtuous is murdered, and that has a lot to do with what comes next.
But after giving this speech, Robespierre got very, very sick, and he disappears off to bed for a month. Nobody took his advice about coming together as one in his absence. As soon as Rosin and Vincent were let out of jail, they started gearing up for a big fight. They could see the effect that the Law of 14 Frimaire was having, and saw how the Committee of Public Safety was now stifling dissent on all sides. If they didn’t act now, they might never have another chance. But unlike the past two years, when the dark days of winter helped radical forces muster sans-culottes anger into political action, this time the drive to insurrection went nowhere.
And it’s not that the sections of Paris weren’t getting restless, they were. As usual, there were commodity shortages in the capital. The general maximum had gone some way towards alleviating the problem of spiraling costs but mostly, it just pushed everything into a thriving black market that even the threat of the guillotine couldn’t close down. So there were street clashes regularly through February that looked eminently exploitable. So, from their base in the Cordeliers Club, the new Cordeliers Club, Jacques Hébert and the Ultras started trying to organize yet another Paris insurrection.
And that is when they discovered that by early 1794, the well of sans-culottes political wrath was mostly empty. It had been sucked dry by all the decrees passed in the wake of the insurrection of September 5. The insurrection, ironically enough that Hébert himself had orchestrated. Because for the average sans-culottes, every decree he had ever wanted had already been enacted: the General Maximum, the law of suspects, punishment for hoarding, the streamlined revolutionary tribunal, men they trusted placed on the Committee of Public Safety. And on top of all that good stuff, the Convention had just passed the so-called Laws of Ventôse, that is, the Republican month of Ventose, at the end of February and beginning of March. Those laws promised to take property confiscated from suspects and emigrants and redistributed to the poor. And that is to say nothing of the payments they were all receiving for attending sectional assemblies.
Now, super radicals denounced these 40 or so patriots who came down twice a week to pick up their checks. But it was working out exactly the way the Committee of Public Safety hoped it would. The Parisian streets were pretty well bought off. All of this made it very hard to convince the Parisians that there was a desperate need for yet another revolt. And, oh, one more thing. Since taking power, all the Committee of Public Safety had done was pushed the allied armies out of France, crushed the Federalist uprising, and put down the Vendée insurrection. And now you want me to overthrow these guys? I’m sorry, dude, but I’m actually kind of on their side now.
But the Ultras pressed on. On March 4, they launched a new incarnation of the Friends of the People, obviously trying to recapture some old magic themselves. And then they scheduled a mass demonstration. On March 6, Hébert and the Ultras led a mob out of Section Marat, which is what they were calling the old Cordeliers district these days, to the Hotel de Ville. But not a single one of the other 47 Paris sections followed their lead. It was a combination of lack of interest and poor planning. So there will be no insurrection of March 6 on the test, because it pathetically fizzled out and went home.
While the Ultras found themselves unsupported from below, they also found themselves unsupported from above, because this was the moment that Collot d’Herbois decided it was far better to stay in power with the Committee of Public Safety than to tear it down and try to start over again. He went down to the Jacobin Club and gave another fiery speech, except this one was about the importance of sticking with the revolutionary authorities. Look at all the good we’ve done. Don’t throw it away just for the sake of a few crazy radicals.
His speech successfully kept the Jacobin Club on the side of the Committee, and the Ultras suddenly found themselves dangerously isolated. After that, it didn’t take long for the hammer to fall. Or I guess I should say, it didn’t take long for the guillotine to fall.
The members of the Committee of Public Safety were all collectively reelected on March 10. And then Robespierre emerged from his illness, ready now more than ever to destroy the hated Ultras. On March 13, Saint Just denounced the radicals in the Convention as agents of a vast foreign plot to discredit the Revolution. The next day, Jacques Hébert, Vincent, and Ronsin were arrested, along with a dozen or so foreigners living in Paris, including the colorful Prussian Anacharsis Cloots, who has been around the Revolution since the early days, but who I’m just mentioning now because he’s about to get his head chopped off.
This group was collectively tried from March 21 to March 24 on charges of fomenting insurrection, intentionally inducing famine, and plotting another prison massacre, all apparently at the behest of British Prime Minister William Pitt. They were, of course, all found guilty and led straight away to the scaffold. Apparently, their executions drew the largest crowd of any execution in the whole Revolution. I’m surprised it drew better than the King’s execution, but I guess there was something thrilling about watching men who had just spent the last year calling for everyone and their mother to be shaved with the national razor to themselves get shaved by the national razor.
Over the next week, the Committee of Public Safety completed its liquidation of the Paris radicals. Three days after the execution, the oh-so recently organized revolutionary army was dissolved. Then, using its authority under the Law of 14 Frimaire, the Committee purged the Paris Commune’s General Assembly of anyone it didn’t like, including its president, Pierre Gaspar Chaumette, who was one of the arch-instigators of dechristianization.
He and another batch of radical sympathizers were arrested and would subsequently be executed on April 13. Just like that, the Paris Commune was put under the thumb of the Committee of Public Safety. And for the first time since, let’s see, probably the flight to Varennes, the Paris Commune was subservient to the national government rather than the other way around. Once the engine of the Revolution, the Paris Commune is now a broken shell of its former self.
So here we are now at the end of March 1794. The Terror is clearly about to start winding down, right? The Law of 14 Frimaire is in place, and most of the out of control representatives have been brought to heel. Jean Baptiste Carrier, for example, has just been recalled to Paris so that he would stop doing all the terrible things he was doing in Nantes. Collot d’Herbois just reaffirmed his loyalty to the Committee of Public Safety. And in a fine and ironic twist, the most zealous advocates of the Terror have just fallen victim to it. So this has got to be the end, right? You can’t blame everybody for thinking this at the time, but they turned out to be very wrong.
In an even finer ironic twist, the execution of the Ultras turned out to usher in not the end of the terror, but the beginning of its darkest phase the so called Great Terror, which was run, of course, by the incorruptible Robespierre, following that very narrow path of virtue that only he could see.
The first sign that this was not in fact, the end of the Terror came when the Revolutionary Tribunal turned its attention to prosecuting those implicated in the East India Company scandal. Because the tribunal is about to cast a far wider net than the facts possibly warrant in a blatant attempt to catch the biggest revolutionary fish of them all, the one guy who might possibly be able to beat Robespierre in the Committee of Public Safety in a fair fight: Georges Danton.
On March 16, the head of the Committee of General Security, the head of the national police force, if you will, finally issued a report on the India Company scandal. And he dutifully found that a number of Convention delegates and assorted speculators had indeed committed fraud on a massive scale. But Robespierre found the report too narrowly focused on the financial details. It failed to properly take into account the broader political crimes.
So three days later, the Committee of General Security came out with a new report that called for a much more open-ended trial of these traitors to France. Once Hébert and the Ultras were dispatched, the defendants in the India Company trial were next up on the Revolutionary Tribunal’s docket. As the trial date approached, a debate erupted in both the Committee of Public Safety and the Committee of General Security about whether all the right suspects had been rounded up.
Some wanted to keep the scope of the next trial narrowly focused on the fraud, execute the men guilty and leave it at that. But another camp wanted to use this all as an excuse to dispose of the whole Indulgent faction and most especially their leader, George Danton. The swing vote in this debate was Robespierre. And though a lot of later historians are always ready to paint Robespierre as nothing but a poisonous little snake who you should always think the worst of, I for one am willing to believe he was genuinely conflicted about going after Danton and Desmoulins. I think it’s well established that he pulled back from any public alliance he might have been forging with the Indulgents after d’Eglantine was exposed. And I think it’s also well established that d’Eglantine’s corruption had made Robespierre very suspicious of his old allies.
But Danton and Desmoulins were not aristocratic swine or out of control rabble rousers or mere faceless enemies of the state. Remember Robespierre and Desmoulins had gone to school together as children. They were friends. Robespierre was the godfather of Desmoulins’s son. And Danton? Well, it was no secret that Robespierre privately thought Danton an immoral ogre. And it was also no secret that Danton thought Robespierre a repressed little prig who needed to loosen the hell up. But neither had ever doubted the other’s revolutionary commitment. And at a couple of key moments, they had stood side by side when the winds were blowing really hard in the other direction. I’m thinking here of the run up to the war with the Austrians, when Robespierre was practically the only guy to oppose war fever, and Danton was practically the only guy who would stand up and defend him. I’m also thinking about what just happened in the last episode, Danton had gone out on a limb by saying, look, the emergency is past. Let’s wind down the terror.
He was lambasted by the rest of the Jacobin Club, but Robespierre rose to his defense. They both thought dechristianization to be the height of folly and joined forces trying to combat it. This is all just a few months ago. I think it’s fair to say that Danton and Robespierre were not friends, but they clearly had had each other’s backs for years. So the idea of now going after Danton, arresting him, accusing him of treason and then executing him, that cannot have been an easy idea to swallow, even for somebody as heartlessly pure as Robespierre.
Plus, Danton was Danton. He was a giant, a force to be reckoned with. Going after him might actually blow up in all their faces. And it would be their heads, not Danton’s, that would wind up in the basket.
In March 1794, Danton and Robespierre met twice to try to hash out their differences and avert any kind of dramatic conclusion to their shared revolutionary careers. I don’t think Robespierre was yet ready to abandon Danton after the first meeting and when he was pushed to support an arrest warrant while the trial of the Ultras was occupying everyone’s attention, Robespierre, for the moment, refused to do it.
But at some point before they met for the second and final time on March 29, Robespierre had made up his mind that Danton posed too great a threat to let roam free. Events after the meeting progressed too quickly and were too well prepared for the wheels to not have already been in motion.
At the meeting, Danton begged Robespierre to recognize that his mind was being poisoned, and Robespierre demanded Danton denounce his old friends as proof of his commitment to the Revolution. Neither really heard a word that the other was saying. But as I said, I’m pretty sure Robespierre had already begun drawing up Danton’s indictment. And this whole exercise was simply meant to lull the great ogre into a false sense of security.
Initially, the plan was for Saint Just to take to the floor of the convention on March 31 and denounce Danton and his friends, paving the way for their collective arrest. But when this was all being laid out for the members of the Committee of General Security, they shook their heads and said, holy crap. Are you crazy? First arrest Danton, then denounce him. If you give that guy even a five minute head start, he’ll kill us all. So that’s what they did. Danton was, of course, tipped off that an arrest warrant was being prepared, but it appears that he just couldn’t believe it was true. He was George Danton! Surely, of all the men in France, he was the one guy who could not possibly be accused of being a counterrevolutionary. He was the Revolution.
Except he wasn’t anymore. Robespierre was. And Robespierre was the one who prepared the indictment. On the night of March 30, Danton and Desmoulins and a few of their closest associates were arrested. Also picked up were Marie Jean Herault de Sechelles, the nobleman on the Committee of Public Safety Robespierre had been keeping his eyes on these past few months. And then also Danton’s old friend and recent scourge of Vendées, General Francois Westermann, who had come back to Paris just in time to get picked up in the sweep.
The trial of Danton and his friends was, of course, a complete farce. And not to get off on a tangent here, but I’ve really come to love this whole historical subgenre of political show trials when the defendants refuse to play the part assigned to them. When the Earl of Strafford runs circles around the Long Parliament, or when Charles I refuses to enter a plea and just grind his trial to a halt. Or then when the Girondins get up one by one and just eviscerate every charge levied at them. And now, here we have one of the greatest shows of them all. Because if you think Danton is just going to sit back and take it, you are out of your mind. The courtroom was packed. The crowd was rowdy and ready for a show, and Danton gave it to them.
The farce of it all was obvious from the beginning. All the East India Company defendants and Danton’s group would be tried together. Desmoulins was immediately outraged, and he protested. He said “Let us be sacrificed alone. What do we have to do with these rogues?” When Westermann was brought in after the others and neither asked to identify himself nor formally indicted, the general protested. When the judge shrugged and said, those are mere forms, Danton shouted out, “Form? We’re all of us here only for form” much to the laughing delight of the audience.
When the judge told him to pipe down and respect the proceedings, Danton boomed back that the judge had better respect their proceedings, too. “Remember”, said Danton, “I’m the one who created this tribunal, so I know something about it”. The judge then rang his little bell that signaled for order in the court. And when the court did not return to order, the judge asked, “don’t you hear the bell?” And Danton barked at him, “A man defending his life does not care about a damn bell, no, he keeps shouting”.
The prosecutors were clever, though, and knowing that Danton would continue to seize the stage any chance he got, they spent the first two days of the trial focused on the boring and eminently provable crimes of the East India Company fraudsters, which gave Danton no ability to talk since he had nothing to do with it. But on the third day, they finally had to come round to him. The problem was, they didn’t really have anything on him, just a bunch of vague stuff going all the way back to the allegations that he had been too busy apologizing for General Dumouriez to realize General Dumouriez was plotting a coup, and then even further back, that he had once been friends with the now disgraced Mirabeau. All of which Danton had very good answers for, and all of which the Tribunal had no proof of any actual wrongdoing.
As he parried each thrust, Danton continuously counter-demanded that he and his friends be allowed to call witnesses in their defense. Danton planned to call every member of the Committee of Public Safety and no doubt subject them to some very uncomfortable cross examination. These demands were repeatedly rebuffed, but it was getting hard for the judge and prosecutor to maintain order. To help speed matters along, the Committee of Public Safety seized on a report of a rumor that Desmoulins’s beloved wife, Lucille, had been spotted at the prison where the defendants were being kept with a large amount of money, supposedly a bribe to help facilitate a prison break. Not really caring whether the story was true or not, the Committee ordered Lucille arrested on the night of April 4, and a decree was passed that if the defendants did anything further to insult the majesty of the Tribunal, that they could be removed from the courtroom.
The next day, April 5, 1794, Danton once again got into an argument about whether or not he could call a witness, and the judge invoked the new decree. The defendants were removed from their own trial. Especially handpicked jurors were then asked to deliver a verdict, and they did. Without proof, witnesses, or the defendants present, they found everybody guilty of defrauding the nation and conspiring to restore the monarchy. An absurd verdict, of course, but also a final verdict.
As they waited their last few minutes in the Conciergerie, Danton lamented the poor state he was leaving the Republic and allegedly said, “if only I could leave my balls to Robespierre and my legs to Couthon, the Committee might live a little longer”. At four in the afternoon, Danton, Desmoulins, Fabre d’Eglantine, Westermann, Herault, some of the most dedicated, passionate, ferocious revolutionaries, were led out onto the tumbrels. These were the men who had taken down the Bastille, overthrown the monarchy, sentenced the King to death, and then defended the Republic with every fiber of their being. But now it is time for the Revolution to devour a few more of her children.
One wonders if Fabre d’Eglantine contemplated “lettuce” on his way to the guillotine. This, after all, being the 16th of Germinal the day he had so poetically set aside for the contemplation of lettuce. Desmoulins no doubt died fearing for his arrested wife, Lucille. Not that she would suffer for long after his death, she herself would be executed just a week later. George Danton was, of course, the last of the group to be killed. After watching his friends die one by one, he approached the guillotine himself and told the executioner, “don’t forget to show my head to the people. It is worth a look“. Then zip, thud, the end.
Next week, we will continue to follow Robespierre as he leads France along the razor thin path to the Republic of Virtue. A republic that could only be forged by its evil twin the Reign of Terror. And though his accomplice Saint-Just had just promised the Convention that the execution of the Indulgents would finally, finally bring an end to the political massacres, it turned out that they were just getting warmed up.
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