The Committee of Public Safety (F. Brunel)
The trace left
in history be the most famous of the Convention’s committees is profound and
sometimes unexpected: it was, let us remember, the schemes of a rebellious Committee
of Public Safety which presided over the instauration of the Fifth French Republic.
One must not be surprised by the late creation of the committee. While the notion of salut public was one of the founding concepts of the Revolution, the Assembly could fear that the ascendancy of such an institution would be too great, and, at the same time, that it would infringe upon the remit of the Provisional Executive Council and that it would tend towards an autonomy contrary to the principle of legislative centrality. Thus, on 1 January 1793, the Girondin deputy Kersaint only proposed the establishment of a Comité de défense générale which was to be composed of deputies chosen among the members of the seven committees (War, Marine, Colonies, Finances, Trade, Diplomatic Committee and Constitution Committee). This new committee at first gathered thrice per week, later, from 21 January onwards, every day, even two times per day, at noon and at seven o'clock in the evening. The defeat of Neerwinden and the beginning of the Vendéan insurrection justified the creation of an ephemeral Commission de salut public on 25 March 1793: the term was therefore finally adopted. On 6 April 1793, the Convention decreed, at the end of a long debate, the creation of a Comité de salut public and immediately proceeded to the election of its members by roll-call. The first nine elected members were Barère, Delmas, Bréard, Cambon, Danton, Jean de Bry (who resigned, being replaced by R. Lindet), Guyton-Morveau, Treilhard and Delacroix (d'Eure-et-Loire). They held two sessions per day (at nine o'clock in the morning and seven o'clock in the evening) in the Pavillon de Flore (renamed Pavillon de l'Egalité). On 30 May 1793, the Convention added five deputies charged with presenting the articles of the constitution, Hérault de Séchelles, Ramel, Saint-Just, Mathieu and Couthon. After the fall of the Gironde, the Committee of Public Safety was reorganised: bureaus were created and the affairs were divided into six sections. Enlarged by successive elections, it counted eighteen members on the eve of the new reorganisation of 10 July 1793. On this day, the Convention decided to re-elect nine members by roll-call: these were, elected in this order, Barère, Jeanbon Saint-André, Gasparin, Couthon, Hérault de Séchelles, Thuriot, Prieur (de la Marne), Saint-Just and Robert Lindet. On 27 July, Robespierre replaced Gasparin, who had resigned, and on 14 August, Carnot and Prieur (de la Côte d'Or) were elected. On 6 September 1793, at last, Billaud-Varenne and Collot d'Herbois made their entrance, whereas Danton and Granet refused their election. After Thuriot, in turn, resigned on 20 September, the Committee of Public Safety was the composed of twelve members, Twelve Who Ruled, to use Robert Palmer’s suggestive […] formula.
What one calls the « great Committee of Public Safety » – composed, in fact, of eleven deputies, as Hérault de Séchelles, sent on mission in Alsace, denounced in Frimaire Year II and executed in Germinal, no longer sat there – has aroused the attention of historians. Relying, sometimes uncritically, on post-Thermidorian sources (particularly the Reports of Le Cointre and of Saladin or the Defences of Barère, Billaud and Collot), historiography has erected the committee as the centrepiece of the « Jacobin dictatorship ». One has often paid particular attention to the growing number of its employees (67 in Frimaire, 418 in Prairial Year II), the sign of an undeniable « bureaucratisation », to its agents (such as Eve Demaillot, Pottofeux or the young Jullien, called Jullien de Paris) who had became an executive power independent of the Convention, and, finally, to its Bureau de police générale, whose activities, from Floréal to Thermidor Year II, had largely overflowed onto the duties of the Committee of General Security. All of this demands to be nuanced. First of all, because the law of 14 Frimaire Year II clearly defined the area of competence of the Committee of Public Safety, which was obliged to report to the Convention every month and was composed of deputies who were elected and personally responsible. The decree of 27 Germinal Year II (16 April 1794), which clarified that the supervision of public servants was confided to the Committee and which led to the creation of this bureau de surveillance administrative et de police générale, hardly modified, in this regard, the Law of 14 Frimaire (2nd section, article 2). As to the « rivalry » between the bureau and the Committee of General Security, Arne Ording has demonstrated that it was necessary to moderate it, at least until Messidor Year II, when a conflict undoubtedly broke out about the commissions populaires which had been created in Floréal.
If the Committee of Year II has aroused publications and polemics, it has also reasonably clouded the history of the post-Thermidorian Committee. It has also been accepted that the decree of 7 Fructidor Year II (24 August 1794) deprived it of its essential prerogative, thereby bringing about the « dislocation » of the Revolutionary Government. Yet, reading article I of title II, which defines the new duties of the Committee of Public Safety, this affirmation does not seem to be totally clear. Even if, indeed, it lost « the supervision of the civil administrations », henceforth entrusted to the Committee of Legislation, it retained functions that were no less important, such as the « direction of foreign relations », the planning of campaigns, the levying and organisation of troops, the supervision of the military agents and, together with the Committee of General Security, the possibility to arrest the civil servants who were within its purview and to send them before the Revolutionary Tribunal. Its twelve members were renewable by a quarter every month (like the members of all committees), but ineligible to the two committees of General Security and of Public Safety for at least a month ; they were appointed by roll-call. The names of the deputies who were elected in Year III seem to highlight the persistent and known importance of the committee ; Merlin (de Douai), Boissy d'Anglas, Sieyès, Reubell or Cambacérès, for example, cannot pass for obscure deputies. On 14 Germinal Year III (3 April 1795), the number of its members was increased to sixteen, and on 21 Floréal (10 May 1795), on a proposal of Cambacérès, the Committee of Public Safety recovered a kind of pre-eminence, being declared the only institution capable of issuing legally binding decrees. From Floréal to Fructidor Year III, it was dominated by the moderates and, particularly, by the Girondins who has been reinstated (eight of them sat there on 15 Prairial: Aubry, Defermon, Henry-Larivière, Rabaut-Pornier, Pontécoulant, Gamon, Blad and Vernier, i.e. half of the committee’s members). The last vote, on 15 Vendémiaire Year IV (7 October 1795), was marked by a return of the « Montagnards réacteurs », the election of Chénier, Eschassériaux and Thibaudeau, marking the « anti-royalist » line of the aftermath of the Parisian insurrection.
Thus, until the disbandment of the Convention, the Committee of Public Safety remained one of the essential organs of the Revolutionary Government, and the concern to be elected to it, clearly displayed by the post-Thermidorian leaders, undoubtedly reveals its leading political role.