Hello, and welcome to Revolutions.
The National Convention had convened on September 21, 1792, in the midst of a great national crisis. The insurrection of August 10 had violently overthrown a 1,000 year old monarchy. A combined Austrian and Prussian army was practically at the gates of Paris. Fear of that army had just led to the horrible and bloody September massacres. It was a time of fear, panic, and paranoia. Now, the official purpose of the Convention had been to write a new republican constitution that would replace the failed constitutional monarchy laid out in the broken Constitution of 1791.
But taking office in the midst of all these crises and with more springing up every day, the Convention delegates wound up lurching from emergency to emergency without ever being able to get far enough ahead of the domestic insurrections, foreign invasions, economic catastrophes, and bitter internal power struggles to lay down the unconstitutional, ad hoc revolutionary government they had fallen into. And this went on for three solid years.
The National Convention, again, what was supposed to be only a temporary Constitutional Convention, turned out to be the national government of France from 1792 to 1795. It presided over some of the most infamous episodes of the French Revolution and produced some of the Revolution’s most infamous leaders. But the time has come for them to finally finally lay down their burden and hand the nation over to an official constitutional government.
Elections for the Council of 500 and the Council of Ancients were held on October 12, 1795. And then, on October 26, the National Convention met for the last time. At that final meeting, they tried to set a conciliatory tone for the future by declaring a general amnesty. All political prisoners would be released from jail and all suspects in hiding were allowed to come out of the shadows. But this amnesty was not without exceptions. Émigrés were still persona non grata and liable to be executed if anyone caught them inside France. Anyone arrested in the most recent insurrection of 13 Vendémiairie remained in custody and also all counterfeiters remained in custody because we hate counterfeiters. But other than that, hey, it’s a brand new day, so let’s turn over a brand new leaf. Of course, the other thing that the Convention did on that final day was form themselves into an electoral assembly of France to decide which of their membership would move on to fill up two thirds of the membership of the Legislative Council succeeding them. So really it’s a brand new day, let’s turn over one third of a new leaf because we don’t really trust you with the other two thirds.
When the Council of 500 and Council of Ancients met for their inaugural sessions on October 31, the first thing on the agenda of both houses was electing the first five Directors, the men who would run the executive branch. The method of election was that the Council of 500 would propose a list of acceptable candidates and the Council of Ancients would select the five they thought best, or at least the five they thought most likely to be functional bureaucrats without turning into power mad tyrants. So the men they selected were first, 42 year old Louis Marie de La Révellière-Lépeaux who had been purged from the Convention as one of the 75 back in 1793, had to stay in hiding until after Thermidor at which point he was invited back to the Convention and played a prominent role on the Committee of Eleven, which had drafted the Constitution of Year III. He received the most votes and became the first president of the Directory.
Next was La Révellière’s ally in the Directory, 48 year old Jean-François Rewbell. Now Rewbell’s revolutionary career had started back when he was elected as a delegate to the Estates General. He had drifted in the Feuillants camp and came back as a staunch Republican in the National Convention. He was rarely in Paris though, and spent most of his time as a representative on mission in Alsace and when he was recalled he joined the Thermidorian conspiracy. After the fall of Robespierre, Rewbell went back out on mission and served as one of the negotiators in the recent treaty with the Batavian Republic. La Révellière and Rewbell were friends and allies and they wound up forming one block inside the Directory.
The other block was formed by an alliance of the two war technocrats in the Directory. First was Étienne-François Letourneur, a steady military organizer who would basically run the Navy during his term in office. He would also be the first selected by lot to resign, so let’s not worry too much about him. The other war technocrat in the Directory was none other than Lazare Carnot. The great organizer of victory had escaped Thermidor with his reputation pretty much intact. Now, Carnot continued to put all his efforts into winning the war, but there were some lingering fears out there about his deep involvement with the terror government of Year II. But no one really needed to worry on that front. Carnot was mostly interested in forging a stable and strong central government that would help him win the war. Far from being a leftist sympathizer, he is going to be the hammer that drops down on the Conspiracy of Equals.
I should also probably mention in passing that Carnot was actually the sixth man selected to be a Director because the original slate included Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès, known commonly as the abbé Sieyès. He was the guy whose hugely influential pamphlet “What Is the Third Estate?” was good enough to lend its name to Episode 3.9. Now we’ll talk more about Sieyès down the road since he’s going to have a major hand in bringing Bonaparte to power. But we should note right now that he considered himself something of a constitutional genius, was ticked off that none of his recommendations had been folded into the Constitution of Year III and so refused to serve in the Directory, even though he was voted into it. Mostly he’s going to go off and pout until he gets in on a plot to overthrow the system of government he despised because it had not been his idea.
The wild card in the Directory and the man who more than any other came to define it, was Paul Barras. Now he’s popped up a few times now, obviously running the Convention’s forces during Thermidor and Vendémiairie, but I haven’t really given him a full introduction yet because there was too much else to talk about. But since he’s basically the poster child for everything that turned out to be wrong with the Directory, let’s introduce him a little more fully.
First of all, Barras was a noble, or ex noble I should say, one of the very few left with any kind of influence or authority. And though he emerged in the late 1780s as a noble of the liberal variety, his motivation for supporting the Revolution was somewhat suspect. He was chronically in debt, thanks to a gambling addiction, and he also kept company with various men of flexible morals and ladies of disrepute. So for Barras, the Revolution was mostly an opportunity to get out from under the scandalous debt clouds hanging over him so he could keep on gambling and drinking and hanging out with men of flexible morals and ladies of disrepute. And he was happy always to change his political stripes to suit the prevailing political winds. He served in neither the National Assembly nor the Legislative Assembly and did not join national government until he was elected into the Convention. At that point, he tended to side with the Mountain over the Girondins, but was away on mission so often, it didn’t really matter which side he took.
He was, as I’ve previously noted, the lead representative down in the southeast as the Republic crushed the Federalist uprising so he oversaw both the implementation of the Terror and the confiscation of a lot of property, both of which he deployed quite profitably. It should come as no surprise then, that Barras was high on the incorruptible Robespierre’s hit list, which is what turned him into a principal Thermidorian conspirator and now, somewhat surprisingly, a prominent national leader.
Inside the Directory, Barras tended to side with La Révellière and Rewbell, but really he seemed to be running a program on his own. A program that involved him living as luxuriously as he could, making as much money as he could, and always keeping an eye out for opportunities to preserve his position at the expense of whoever. So, like I say, Barras is a poster child for the Directory.
Now, the big problem facing the directors when they took office was that the French economy was in really bad shape. The previous winter had, of course, been one of the worst on record, when the effects of the long late freeze were felt in the harvest of 1795 which was not particularly good. And with the general maximum lifted, prices were still sky high and commodities everywhere scarce. On top of that, the national government was once again stony broke. Their hard specie reserves were down to nothing. Their nationalized lands were now selling for a fraction of what they should have, thanks to the insane inflation rates.
To address this problem, the Thermidorian Convention had continued to print assignat to pay their bills, but that only made everything worse. But wait a minute. You say print assignat? Didn’t you say just a few episodes ago that in the spring of 1795 the assignat had fallen to 8% face value and was dead? Well, yes, I did say that, but it appears that I took some exaggerated notes I made about it too literally. The assignat was not technically dead, it was still around. The Thermidorian Convention kept printing them. And upon taking office, the Directory kept printing them.
But the Thermidorians at least recognized that there was a problem with printing all of these assignat. And so they decreed in the Summer of 1795 that taxes had to be paid 50% in kind. And then when they were drawing up the salaries for the members of the Directory and the Legislative Councils, those salaries were all listed by bushels of wheat, not any kind of monetary amount. So when the Directory took over and found the coffers of the national government had run dry, they decreed another emergency forced loan. But in doing so, they all but admitted that the assignat really were worthless, and accepted them at just 1% face value. This even as they continued to pump out the paper money to cover daily expenses.
There was now an estimated 40 billion livre worth of face value assignat floating around out there, all of it basically worthless. Farmers refused to accept it as payment for their crops, demanding metal specie instead. But since specie had long been driven under the mattresses, if somebody did show up with coins to buy something, your first instinct was to believe that it was counterfeit. So it was ruinous to buy, and it was ruinous to sell. These were not happy times for anyone.
There were, however, two groups who did stand to gain from the economic privations. The first were speculators in national land. Generally well to do bourgeoisie from the towns and cities, these speculators bundled up stacks of worthless assignat, went down to the auctions that were held in their local departmental capitals, and bought up old church lands and emigrated émigré for pennies on the dollar. There is a rule in place that the land was not supposed to sell for less than 22 times what it had profitably produced in 1790. But with inflation running away with the economy, it was easy to get land for just two to three times the 1790 profitability level. And on top of that, with only a few people really able to bid, bribery of auctioneers and land surveyors was a pretty simple trick. So you could get land at scandalously low prices.
So though the French economy was crippling just about everybody, if you had a little bit of a financial cushion, at least enough to get in on the speculation, you could get very rich very quick, because often what you do then is turn around and either lease the land or sell the land to somebody else, demanding hard specie or in kind payments.
The other group that hoped to exploit the economic troubles was not aiming at financial gain, but rather political gain. And this group also happened to be the principal beneficiaries of the amnesty that had been declared at the end of the National Convention. I speak of the old Jacobins, who had been driven underground after the Thermidorian Reaction.
In the wake of the royalist Vendémiairie insurrection, the new leaders of the Directory hoped to make common cause with the old Jacobins. And so it was those Jacobins, more than any other group, who were invited to come out of the shadows. Now, a few of the more prominent among them were prohibited from standing for election into the Directory’s Legislative Councils, but they were allowed to hold other lower level municipal offices and more or less allowed to meet with one another without fear of harassment. But as we’re about to see, many of those old Jacobins were not interested in reconciling with the new regime, they were interested in toppling it and returning to power.
On November 16, 1795, a few of these core ex-Jacobins formed a new club. Officially called the Union of Friends of the Republic, it soon became known as the Pantheon Club because their meeting hall was right next door to the Pantheon. From the beginning, this club tended to attract men who had been involved in the government of year II, that is, the terrorists and functionaries of the great dictatorial committees. Among them were former members of both the Committee of Public Safety and Committee of General Security, and that included two of the Four we talked about just last week. Both the Escape Barère and gone to ground, Vadier. Collot d’Herbois and Billaud-Varennes, however, were specifically denied amnesty and left to rot in French Guiana.
At the outset, most of the guys in the Pantheon Club were looking to rehabilitate themselves, reconnect their old political network and maybe help bring the Directory back around to a more leftwing point of view. They did not like the greedy speculators who gobbled up on the land. They did not like the antidemocratic spirit of the constitution of year III. The Pantheon Club has soon attracted over 1,000 members, though steep entry dues naturally led the membership to be well off. Democracy and equality were fine things to talk about, but much easier without the rabble making a bunch of noise. But gentlemen Jacobins were not the only ones led out of prison by the amnesty. Also among those released were various populist radicals locked up before and after the Germinal and Prairial uprisings. The most prominent among that lot turned out to be François-Noël Babeuf, everyone’s favorite proto-communist.
Babeuf and his weekly paper, the Tribune of the People, made a cameo appearance back in Episode 3.41, ginning up support for Bread and the Constitution of 1793. But he had been arrested and his paper shut down back in January 1795. Finally released in the Amnesty, Babeuf wasted no time getting back to work cranking out the first issue of the Tribune of the People on November the 6th. But Babeuf’’s time in jail had solidified and sharpened a few of his more radical ideas. And so when he started publishing again, he first of all took on the moniker Gracchus for reasons I sure hope no one out there needs me to explain. And then he started expounding his ideas about how to fix the economic mess that benefited so few and hurt so many. He was now calling for total land nationalization, collective farming, and equal distribution of the produce of the land.
But before we get into Babeuf’s revolutionary communism, we should back up a bit, because he’s an interesting dude with some interesting ideas. Babeuf was born in 1760, and his father was a small-time excise tax collector and his mother was a servant. So Babeuf himself spent his formative years in a degree of poverty. There is apparently no record of how he came by his education, whether he was self taught or if his parents managed to scrape together enough to send him to school. But he emerges as a young man in the 1780s as a sort of highly skilled domestic servant who was an expert in the intricate rules and obligations of senorial law. He was basically the guy who advised the local lord what peasants owed and how to get it out of them.
But far from thinking the system he was now an expert in just, Babeuf came to despise it. And when the call went out in 1789 for everyone to drop their grievance lists in anticipation of the coming Estates General, Babeuf, by then having given up his old line of work, wrote the section in his own local assembly calling for the total abolition of feudalism. After the Revolution got going, Babeuf then spent the next five years living a very checkered life, bouncing between local municipal office, a prison cell, independent journalism, another prison cell, municipal office again, prison again. He basically couldn’t stop saying and doing things that got him thrown in jail. Just before Thermidor, he managed to dodge a 20 year sentence for allegedly altering some deeds while serving as a local administrator, though it’s hard to tell whether he actually did it or whether he had just ticked off the wrong people.
So he moved to Paris after Thermidor and took up the pen again, setting up the Tribune of the People in October 1794 as a way to defend the old terror regime and call for the implementation of the Constitution of 1793. Also bread! We need bread. And that’s when he first intruded into our little story. The Thermidorians then got sick of him super quick, shut down his press and locked him up in January 1795.
While Babeuf was bouncing through this checkered career, he got to thinking about the problems of the inherently unjust and unequal society everyone lived in and how France was so rich and so fertile and yet so many citizens starved. His final bout of prison time, spent among many other persecuted leftists, who seems to have turned him decisively towards what is generally described as a form of agricultural communism. Now, in his younger days, Babeuf had focused mostly on the idea of setting up a small-scale community that would collectively farm and share the wealth. And in this, he wasn’t much different from other socialist utopians, certainly no different than the Diggers who were saying basically the same thing 100 years earlier.
But now Babeuf was advocating this on a mass scale, that all land should be nationalized, all harvested grains should be deposited in publicly owned warehouses and then distributed to the citizens of France on an equal basis. There was no reason why a rich landowner or a prominent doctor should get priority access to food just because they have the money to pay for it. Basically, all stomachs are created equal, and the entire system of food production and delivery should treat them as such.
For these communal equalitarian principles, Babeuf has earned himself a place in the Marxist pantheon as an early kind of communist. But it is worth pointing out that Babeuf was almost solely concerned with rural peasants, not urban workers. Babeuf didn’t even really like people living in towns and cities, which he considered morally corrupting and generally a drain on the kind of agricultural labor that was needed to provide food for everyone. So he never spent much time thinking about or advocating for the rights of the urban worker, or most especially trying to rally them to be the foot soldiers in the social, economic and political revolution he was now aiming for. And in fact, it was this disdain, or at least disinterest in organizing and playing to the urban mobs that led Babeuf to what ultimately became his real innovative contribution to the development of revolutionary theory.
If you recall, Danton and his guys can be considered the first professional revolutionaries. They got together in the clubs and cafes of the old Cordeliers district, consciously plotted a violent insurrection, toppled the old regime and seized power. But their revolutionary program was specifically designed to be a popular uprising. The point was to lead the people in a mass insurrection to overthrow their oppressors. Babeuf’s innovation was to drop the masses from the program. He pretty much thought the common people were a bunch of ignorant dupes who could not be relied on and their political masters to be self interested demagogues who would betray the people the first chance they got.
So what Babuf proposed instead was that a small cadre of dedicated conspirators could get together, launch a lightning coup, set themselves up as a dictatorship, and impose their social and economic revolution from the top down. So this is basically the beginning of party vanguardism, the idea that a close knit group of revolutionary leaders need to seize power to usher in the sought after anarchism or communism or whatever your revolutionary bag happens to be.
The workers and peasants themselves are simply too complacent or too brainwashed to do it for themselves. So basically, Babeuf is the spiritual godfather of Lenin.
When Gracchus Babeuf started printing his equalitarian ideals, not the Revolutionary vanguard stuff, of course that was for private time, the Directory was immediately like, oh, okay, this one is actually off his rocker and we need to go re-arrest him. But when they came for him this time, Babeuf managed to escape, and he remained hidden by friends and supporters. The Tribune of the People continued to roll off the presses.
Now Babeuf was also initially shunned by the members of the Pantheon Club as exactly the kind of dangerous radical they did not need in their midst. But a few of the members of the Pantheon were not happy with the complacency and moderation they saw around them, and they sort of liked what Babeuf was saying. And so a secret club within the Pantheon Club began to meet and seriously discuss how to retake power. And these guys became known as the Conspiracy of Equals. This inner club then turned back around and started working on their friends and associates in the wider Pantheon Club and saying, hey, this guy Babeuf might actually be onto something.
By the end of 1795, the Tribune of the People was being regularly read aloud at the Pantheon Club, where it was met by pretty enthusiastic applause. Babeuf and the slowly but surely resurgent Left was helped along its road to resurgency by the continued failure of the economy. Winter had now truly settled in, and people were starving to death and freezing to death once again. Babeuf even wrote a little song about it called Dying of Hunger, Dying of Cold.
The settling in of winter also brought with it the final, final collapse of the assignat. And I mean that seriously this time. The Directory finally decided that they just couldn’t keep pumping worthless paper out into the economy. They needed to start over from scratch. On February 19, 1796, they closed the presses and then held a ritual ceremony within which all the printing plates were broken. At this same moment, the Directory also seems to have suddenly realized that the Left was getting resurgent. So, pulling a classic Thermidorian pivot, they ordered the Pantheon Club to close its doors on February 26.
Now, to put the slightest veneer on the sudden about face, they also closed a few right wing clubs. But this was clearly about re-repressing Jacobinism. The newly re-prescribed Jacobins were then booted from whatever petty offices they had taken up. Now, the main upshot of this particular round of repression was to convince even more of those guys that Babeuf was right, that there could be no reconciliation with the regime. And shortly thereafter, Babeuf’s own rhetoric picked up the pace.
In issue 40 of the Tribune of the People, he applauded the September Massacres and then called the leaders of the Directory a bunch of starvers, bloodsuckers, tyrants, hangmen, rogues, and mountebanks. As they were being assailed from the Left, the Directory then tried to figure out how it was going to keep the economy functioning now that they had abandoned the assignat. What they came up with was a moderately kind of good idea, but one that was going to fail spectacularly in practice.
Basically, the idea was to start all over with a brand new paper currency. So they invented this piece of paper called the Territorial Mandate, which, like the assignat, would be ultimately redeemable for a portion of national lands. But the mandate was doomed from the start. On the day the first one rolled off the presses on March 18, 1796, it was immediately being traded at just 80% face value. This quick devaluation was then further exacerbated when the Directory decreed that an assignat out in circulation could be redeemed for a mandate at a 30 to 1 exchange rate. But out in the market, they were being traded at like, 400 to 1. So people started cashing out their assignat for mandates. But then those mandates themselves plummeted in value as a result.
As had been going on for a while now, the only people who benefited from all this were speculators who could quickly swap out their worthless assignat for slightly less worthless mandates and then turn around and buy up national land for a song. Accompanying this role out of the mandates, the Directory then got going with the potentially dangerous plan to start weaning Paris off of their subsidized food rations. The rations had never been technically free free, but all you had to do was show up with a few assignat and you could pick up your allotment. On March 25, though, the Directory announced that they were raising the price of the ration.
Now, politically, this was, of course, very dangerous. Messing with hungry Parisians had never been the smartest thing in the world to do. But the men who had been elected into the Legislative Councils of the Directory had never been happy with the program that had built up after August 10, that has prioritized the citizens of Paris at the expense of everyone else. It had long been the secret dream of many of the delegates to stop Paris from leaching off the rest of the country. And frankly, since the capital had never been weaker politically, they may as well take their shot right now.
So with the financial system collapsing and not really being revived, and Paris continuing to starve and freeze, Babeuf and his cadre of vanguards got together and on March 30 and officially formed an insurrectionary committee. But there were not enough hard core members of the Conspiracy of Equals to pull the coup off. So Babeuf had to be convinced to form an alliance with the re-repressed gentleman Jacobins, the ones who had scorned him and then praised him and now wanted in on his insurrectionary movement. But to bring them, their influence and hopefully some of their money into the fold, Babeuf also had to be convinced to modify his aims. Look, we can’t just go all in on nationwide equalitarianism on day one. Let’s start with something simple and go from there. So they decided that the most viable wedge they could use to overthrow the Directory was to become the champions of the Constitution of 1793. It worked before, kinda, but maybe it’ll work better now. Babeuf reluctantly agreed.
The Conspiracy of Equals then designated agents to go out and try to drum up support. Though a general popular uprising was not really what Babeuf was aiming at, it would help to have men scattered around Paris priming everyone to get ready for the big day. More important than that, though, were the agents sent to the regular army garrisons and the new police legion of Paris. The mob may not be that important to the plan, but professional men under arms were going to be vital to pull off the lightning coup. If the Conspiracy of Equals could turn the men protecting the Directory against the Directory, well, then, boys, we are in!
The regular soldiers camped at the garrison near the Champ de Mars were a tough nut to crack. But it turned out that some of the men in the new police region were open to persuasion. So what was this new police legion that you’ve never heard about before? Well, I’ll tell you. After the Convention started systematically disarming Paris and shutting down their locally controlled National Guard units, there needed to be some kind of force in the capital to keep order. So the Convention had formed a new police region, about 7,000 strong, that was controlled by the central government, not by the people of Paris.
But clearly the loyalty of these guys has not yet settled in. And so when the Conspiracy of Equals agents came sniffing around, there was some positive interest, but there was not going to be nearly enough interest to pull the coup off. The problem for the Conspiracy of Equals was that they simply did not have the financial resources to bribe the people they needed to bribe to induce a full blown mutiny.
By early April, word was not only leaking around all over the place that something was up, but the people of Paris seemed to be getting genuinely excited about Babeuf and his call for the equal distribution of food. Facing its first very real crisis, the Directory was paralyzed. Rewbell, for example, was afraid of cracking down too hard on the leftist agitators because he was still personally more concerned about the Directory’s right flank. Meanwhile, Paul Barras was taking private meetings with some of the men connected to the conspiracy. Now, Barras later claimed he had been trying to talk them out of doing anything stupid, but those guys subsequently reported that Barras had, in fact offered to put himself at their head, or at the very least, let himself be taken as a hostage.
Among the directors, the only one who seemed resolute was Lazare Carnot, and he wanted to crush this thing before it got off the ground. So that’s what the Directory did. On April 16, at Carnot’s insistence, the Directory decreed that advocating either a return to monarchy or the Constitution of 1793 was now a capital offense. Then Carnot moved on to the police legion. Suspecting them of being fatally compromised, Carnot transferred police power to the regular army and then ordered the police legion to the front lines to serve as an infantry brigade. Far more terrified of being sent to the front than they were actually supporters of the Conspiracy of Equals, three battalions within the police legion’s mutiny and declared for Babeuf. They were suppressed and disarmed with almost no effort at all. And that was right around the time one of the inner circle members of the Conspiracy of Equals either got cold feet or turned out to have been a government plant all along. He delivered to the Directory all the details of the planned insurrection that was set for May the 11th. With all the names, places and plans in hand, Carnot simply waited until the conspirators started to put themselves in the places they were supposed to be on May 10, then swooped down and arrested everybody.
Babeuf and his accomplices had no idea that they had been betrayed, and the crackdown, the raids and arrests caught everyone by surprise. The Conspiracy of Equals was completely broken.
So the legacy of Gracchus Babeuf and his revolutionary vanguard was not then for what they accomplished, because they didn’t accomplish anything, but for what they had been aiming to accomplish and more importantly, the way they had been trying to accomplish it. Babeuf himself is going to go down as a martyr, though he’s not going to be martyred yet. There’s one more little twist in the story, because they don’t actually kill him right away. But some of his accomplices were not killed at all and they would go on to spread the memory and ideals and strategies that they had come up with in 1796. Ideals and strategies that would eventually be fed to the men who fought in 1830 and then 1848 and then 1870, and in a roundabout way would wind up in the hands of, among others, Lenin and his Bolsheviks.
So while we’ve dealt with the drama in Paris this week, we’ve been neglecting the war fronts. And so when we come back next week, we’re going to double back to deal with the struggles along the Rhine and General Pichegru, the success of General Hoche and the final suppression of the Vendée uprising, and then, of course, get General Bonaparte over to Italy. Also, before I go this week, I should mention that the episode of Ten American Presidents by Royfield Brown that features me talking about our old friend George Washington has been posted. So if you Google Ten American Presidents podcast, you find it. You can also find it on itunes and I will also post a link to it at revolutionspodcast.com.
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