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The Cordeliers Club (J. Guilhaumou)

The Cordeliers Club « is more famous than known » : with these words, the historian Albert Mathiez defined the major difficulty of every overview on the club, within whose history entire sections, for lack of sources or studies, remain obscure.

It is highly probable that the club already existed in April 1790 under the title « club of the rights of man ». It appeared under its full name Society of the friends of the rights of man and of the citizen in June 1790. An address of the Cordeliers of the same year proclaims that the patriots have to devote themselves « to the defence of the victims of suppression and to the relief of the unfortunate », and, in this capacity, adopted the eye, a symbol of surveillance, as the seal of the society. In the beginning, the club held its sessions in a room of the Cordeliers Convent. Being persecuted by the municipality, the Cordeliers ended up settling in the locale of the Musée, Hôtel de Genlis, Rue Dauphine, where they would remain throughout their existence.

Under the auspice of the rights of man and of the citizen, displayed behind the president in the debate room, the club presented a particular physiognomy. It thereby clearly distinguished itself from the Jacobin Club on the various levels of its existence : local (around the section of the Théâtre-Français), regional (in Paris) and national (in 1793). The Jacobins endeavoured to follow the initiatives of the National Assembly as closely as possible and to form a network of affiliated societies which would reverberate and enrich their propositions. The Cordeliers favoured their mission of surveillance and of control towards the constituted authorities. This is why they admitted women to their society, as well as passive citizens. A. Mathiez could say that they formed « a group of action and combat » that was always in a state of alert when it was a matter of reacting to breaches of the rights of man. Thus, the club was a favoured place of encounters, of exchanges between spokespersons, hommes de liaison, commissioners and other political mediators who wanted to apply the avowed droit naturel, the Constitution.

The club owes its first success, in 1791, to the federation which it established with the fraternal societies, which originally have been formed in its wake. Marat, a Cordelier par excellence, received the title « father of the fraternal societies ». Numerous revolutionary personalities frequented the club, although it is not possible to point out a leader : Danton, Hébert, Vincent, Rutledge, Legendre, Marat, Lebois, Chaumette, etc.

Increasingly critical towards the executive power, the club took the helm, during the spring of 1791, of the democratic movement in favour of the establishment of the Republic. After the king’s flight, and in the moment of the composition of the Champ de Mars petition, the Cordeliers defined their principal and permanent objective : it was necessary to « proceed to the replacement and the organisation of a new executive power ». In the aftermath of the Champ de Mars Massacre (17 July 1791), due to repression and internal divisions, the club was weakened. It recovered its strength, in 1792, through the mediation of the network which it had built with the popular societies of the provinces. Thus, it would serve as the voice of the fédérés of 10 August and play a non-negligible role in the proceeding of the insurrection against the king. The position of the Cordeliers was consolidated during the winter of 1792-1793, at the time where the Jacobins collided with the Enragés. The growing importance of figures such as Hébert, the Père Duchesne, and Marat assured them a certain renown. But the club only reached a national dimension at the end of the insurrection of 31 May, 1 and June. Around it, several institutions gathered : the revolutionary committees of the sans-culotte sections, the Ministry of War where Vincent cut his teeth, the Commune of Paris and, of course, the popular societies. During the summer of 1793, the club conquered, with the help of the delegates for the festival of 10 August, a hegemonic position within the Jacobin movement. One can speak, at that time, of the Cordelier or « Hébertist » movement (A. Mathiez). Hébert, in Le Père Duchesne, defined the watchwords of the revolutionary movement. Vincent, for his part, explained his project for the organisation of the executive power at the club. The Cordeliers distanced themselves from the sans-culotte movement through their refusal of direct democracy. The Cordelier programme began to be realised, particularly in Marseille, by the assembly of the popular societies’ central committees. But the Robespierrist Jacobins, partisans of « legislative centrality », were determined to put an end to the Cordelier offensive. In spite of their victory during the revolutionary journées of 4 and 5 September, which brought about the creation of the revolutionary army and the mise à l'ordre du jour of the Terror, the Cordeliers were attacked at the Jacobin Club by Robespierre and Coupé de l'Oise, at the National Convention by Billaud-Varenne during the second fortnight of September. Then began a series of skirmishes which resulted in the arrest of Vincent and Ronsin (17 December 1793). In the provinces, the representatives en mission, denounced by the Cordeliers, forced the central committees to dissolve.

In early 1794, the club turned back into a district club, influential in some sections, and closer to the demands of the Parisian popular movement. Now, what about the famous « Cordelier insurrection » of Ventôse, Year II? It was in fact a matter of political « manipulation » that was arranged by the Montagnards in order to deliver a first blow to the popular movement. The journalists, interpreting Hébert’s moral call to insurrection in a political sense, strongly contributed to such a manipulation. It was their revenge against the Père Duchesne! After the arrest and execution (14 and 24 March 1794) of the Cordelier « leaders », the club, even after having been purified, ceased to gather permanently.

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