Louis Antoine Saint-Just (B. Vinot)
Decize (Nièvre), 25 August 1767 - Paris, 28 July 1794
Saint-Just was born to a father who was in his fifties, a captain of cavalry, and to a mother from the bourgeoisie of Decize. He lived in this environment of notables from Nièvre until the age of nine under the roof of his maternal grandfather where his parents had been accommodated. It is nonetheless the influence of the father, a war hero of the 18th century who had gained the cross of Saint-Louis after a long and rough career, that seems to have been the most crucial. The future conventionnel often demonstrated these outstandingly military qualities which are the sense of authority, the rigour of principle, the spirit of decision.
In 1776, Monsieur de Saint-Just returned to his native Picardie where his ancestors, who had been farmers since several generations, had left him some goods. Less than one year before dying, he settled in Blérancourt (Aisne) with his family in this huge house that is still visible today, where Louis Antoine stayed until the age of 25.
At the age of 12, he entered the Oratorians at the Collège Saint-Nicolas of Soissons (today the Collège Saint-Just) which then shone in a bright light. The prices which he gained give evidence of his good intellectual skills but the narrowly religious education, the wise liberalism of his masters and the discreet censorship which was exerted towards the boldest ideas of the philosophy of the Enlightenment made a rebel out of him very early.
All the more since he hardly left the college, following a family dispute and a run away, his mother caused him to be arrested in Paris and obtained a lettre de cachet against him. He put a detention of six months to good use in order to begin the writing of a scandalous poem of nearly eight thousand verses, Organt, a violent satire against the political and religious institutions which appeared some days before the opening of the Estates-General.
From the first convulsions of the summer 1789, he entered into complicity with the small people of labourers, gardeners, weavers and artisans of Blérancourt. During three years, alternately using persuasion, conciliation and intimidation, he shared their hopes and animated their fights. In order to change things, he then resorted more to reformism (it is during this phase that one has to place his very wise essay : Esprit de la Révolution et de la Constitution de France) than to revolutionary violence, but understood in the trial of facts the futility of the negotiation with an aristocracy that was strongly determined to conserve its privileges.
The experience of being neck and neck with the people of the land is crucial in the life of Saint-Just. It explains his preferences for agriculture, his choices in favour of small property, his prejudice towards merchants, enriched rentiers, nobles. It instilled the sense of the concrete in him. Few of the deputies who surrounded him sitting on the banks of the Convention had stood alongside the peasants like him.
During these years in the Picardy, Saint-Just converted to the idea of a social revolution. He also joined the group of the advanced Montagnards led by Robespierre. In this Girondin era, this was not a choice of opportunism! Still unknown the day before, the young deputy from Aisne suddenly became popular in the whole country by pronouncing at the Convention, on 13 November 1792, a violent indictment against Louis XVI, naturally guilty since « every king is a revel and an usurper » and since « one cannot reign innocently. » His youth, his appearance, his firmness and the passion of his argumentation weighed heavy in the condemnation of the king. This feat reveals one of the best orators of the Revolution. In difficult situations, he would henceforth be the attracted spokesman.
Having entered the Committee of Public Safety in June 1793, he would devote all of his energy and his talent for one year, notably by participating in the writing of the new constitution, by exerting his influence on all great governmental decisions and by playing an outstanding role in the defence of the republican patrie. Thus, in Year II, he spent no less than 146 days at the armies. As a representative of the Committee, he was one of the great architects of the victories of Landau at the army of the Rine (December 1793) and of Fleurus at the army of the North (June 1794).
Integrated in the hard core of the Montagne, he was not content with the liberty and equality of rights from 1789, but wished to endow the future Cité with a moral and social content by anchoring it on Institutions républicaines such as, as Fichte said, « everyone [should] always agree » and that one would no longer be « in need of judges in order to end their differences. »
No one gave hope to the helpless to be able to change life as much as him. In Ventôse (February - March 1794), he affirms that « happiness is a new idea in Europe », and in order to no longer see « [any] wretch or an oppressor on French territory », he proposed to distribute the goods of the enemies of the Revolution to indigent patriots. Confronted with a succession of dreadful tasks : federalist revolt, foreign invasion, opposition of the factions, social reform, Saint-Just became the active architect of a politique de circonstance where the end justifies the means. « Above all, it is necessary to place the sword next to abuse, so that everyone is free in the Republic, except for those who conspire against it or govern badly. » [… ] It was him who, in the name of the Committees, raised the axe on the Girondins, the Dantonists and the Hébertists. But […] he ended up being crushed himself with his Robespierrist friends on 9 Thermidor Year II (27 July 1794). […]
The collective memory associates to his remembrance the one of the Terror, but it also retains the image of a sincere & courageous young man, always having adapted his acts to his principles. He was not yet 27 years old when he climbed the steps of the scaffold, after having written : « I despise the dust that forms me and speaks to you, one may persecute and kill it! But I defy you to rob me of that independent life which I have given myself in the ages and in the heavens ». The charisma which Saint-Just exerts in his life is not extinguished.