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.

Keep reading

Séance du 15 mai 1791 à l'Assemblée constituante (AP, t. XXVI, p. 95-96)
  • M. l’abbé Maury : [...] Je demande, Messieurs, deux conditions [à l'exercice des droits de citoyen par les hommes libres de couleur] et je vais en établir les principes. La première condition, c’est que les gens de couleur soient nés de légitime mariage ; la deuxième, c’est qu’ils soient tenus de prouver l’état de liberté de leurs père et mère.
  • M. Rœderer : Ah ! mon Dieu ! quelle horreur !
  • M. Prieur : Est-ce qu’on n’est pas toujours né libre ?
  • M. Lucas : La liberté est de droit commun ; c’est l’esclavage qui doit être prouvé. (Bruit.)

The Twelve

«Stranger set of Cloud-Compellers the Earth never saw.»

Carlyle: The French Revolution

Bertrand Barère, b. 1755, “Anacreon of the Guillotine,” a lawyer bred in a lawyer’s family, easy going, affable, hard-working, eloquent.

Jean-Nicolas Billaud-Varenne, b. 1756, also a lawyer and son of a lawyer, a writer and agitator, impatient, clamorous.

Lazare Carnot, b. 1753, army officer, engineer, mathematician, stern patriot, “Organizer of Victory.”

Jean-Marie Collot d'Herbois, b. 1750, actor and playwright, self-made, crude, excitable.

Georges Couthon, b. 1756, lawyer, humanitarian, family man, a paralytic unable to walk.

Marie-Jean Herault de Sechelles, b. 1759, nobleman and aristocrat, lawyer, wit, poseur.

Robert Lindet, b. 1743, steady, sensible, middle aged. 

Prieur of the Cote-d'Or (Claude-Antoine Prieur-Duvernois), b. 1763, army officer and engineer, a young man of promise.

Prieur of the Marne (Pierre-Louis Prieur), b. 1756, lawyer.

Maximilien Robespierre, b. 1758, lawyer and son of a lawyer, introspective, self-righteous, idealistic.

Andre Jeanbon Saint-Andre, b. 1749, Protestant minister, one time ship’s captain, diligent, masterful.

Louis-Antoine Saint-Just, b. 1767, “Angel of Death,” youngest of the Twelve, law graduate, imperious, incisive.

Source: The Twelve Who Ruled (R. R. Palmer)

For the developments during the night of Thermidor 8-9 (July 26-27, 1794) the sources are fragmentary and largely undependable, but it is possible to reconstruct an outline of the events. The populace of Paris was in a restless mood, partly as result of the unusual heat, the temperature for days having stood abnormally high even in the early morning. Robespierre, whose energies were unimpaired, hastened in the evening to the Jacobin Club, where he re-read the discourse which the Convention had heard that afternoon. The enthusiastic reception accorded it by the Society restored his faith in his oratory. Billaud-Varennes and Collot d'Herbois, who also attended the meeting, attempted to reply to his veiled charges, but they were hooted down and left the Club pursued by threats. WIthout loss of time they sought the Pavillion de Flore.

There they found Carnot, Barère and Prieur (de la Côte-d'Or), discussing the situation in low voices. Saint-Just, who was also present, had been engaged since eight o'clock drafting a speech which he planned to read to the Convention the following morning. His colleagues, knowing the close understanding which existed between him and Robespierre, were apprehensive regarding the contents of his discourse, but they hesitated to question him. At one o'clock, however, the quiet of the committee room was broken by the agitated entrance of Collot and Billaud, still shaken by the turn events had taken at the Jacobin Club, and Saint-Just glanced up from his writing.

‘What’s new at the Jacobins’, Collot?’ he called across the room in a casual voice. The calm indifference of the query turned Collot’s fear to sudden anger. 'He saw how deeply I was agitated,’ he admitted afterwards, 'and he was marble.’ Striding swiftly forward he seized Saint-Just by the arm, determined to know the worst, and peered hurriedly at the closely written pages that littered the table.

'You are drawing up our act of accusation!’ Saint-Just attempted to shuffle together the sheets of the report, but Collot persisted. 'You can’t fool us! That is our indictment!’ There was a moment’s pause, and then Saint-Just rose coolly to his feet.

'Well, yes, you are not altogether wrong, Collot,’ he admitted. 'I am drawing up your accusation.’ then, turning upon Carnot with calm arrogance, he added, 'You are not forgotten either, and you find that I have treated you in a masterly fashion.’
—  From Geoffrey Bruun's Saint-Just: Apostle of the Terror (1966) pg. 130. The source Bruun credits for this description of the incident is: L.H. Carnot, Mémoires sur Carnot, pp. 532-34, quotes a memoir of Prieur (de la Côte-d'Or) describing this dispute. 

Le Prieure (by tetsumaru)

How can we call the last ten years a good time? Because TV screens got bigger? Because there are now cars with ten cup holders? Because computers now enable us to sit alone staring at a screen to do many things we used to have to do face to face with humans, who we find increasingly disgusting and intolerable?

We call the last ten years a good time because of a giant legal gambling scheme called the “stock market,” where people buy and sell tokens representing shares of ownership by “corporations,” which are giant centralized patterns of human and machine activity that channels human work and attention from human interests to corporate interests. And the people who are run by this system calculate special numbers that represent how many stock-tokens exist and how much they’re worth, and these numbers are taken everywhere as indicators of how prosperous and secure we all are. Liberal radio stations, which are supposedly critical of corporate interests, report these numbers many times per day.

And these numbers rose to all-time highs through the 1990’s; so by skewing our perspectives to focus on these and a few other numbers that claimed to show our well-being but really showed the entrenchment of the ruling powers, we declared ourselves at an all-time high, when other views would show us near the bottom of a long, long slide.

The decline and fall of the Roman Empire went largely unnoticed at the time. For one thing, the changes were so slow that you would only see a few in a lifetime. But I’m sure they also rewrote their history the same way we do, to make it seem like the bad things have always been there and the good things are new, to make the good changes seem important, and the bad changes seem trivial, and the questionable changes seem good.

In hindsight, the sacking of Rome by the Visigoths looks like a fall at the end of centuries of decline. But Roman writings from right before the sack declare the glory of Rome greater than ever. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see writings after the sack that called it a minor complication or ignored it completely, the same way my contemporaries are downplaying massive species extinctions and food supply epidemics and the spread of genetically manipulated organisms.

—  Ran Prieur; Civilization Will Eat Itself