Ernest Belfort Bax

Gracchus Babeuf

I. Origin and Youth of Babeuf

FRANÇOIS NOEL BABEUF, it has now been decided by the researches of M. Victor Advielle, was born at St Quentin, on Sunday the 23rd November 1760. Babeuf, in some of the notes intimes which the industry of the same investigator has unearthed, states, that he was born of so delicate a constitution that he was not expected to live. This he attributes to the poor circumstances of his parents, and the privations of his mother during her pregnancy. Babeuf’s father appears to have been many years older than his mother. The former is described in the certificate of birth as “employé des fermes du roy au Faubourg St Martin de la ville de St Quentin”, of which town his mother was also a native. There is little doubt, however, that they originally came from the small town of Bobeuf, or Baboeuf, in Picardy, in the present department of the Oise. This commune is stated to have been founded by a descendant of the family of Calvin, to have been peopled by a colony of Protestant refugees from various quarters, and to have maintained relations with other similar Calvinist colonies, all composed of peasant cultivators.

It is related of Babeuf’s father that, on account of his abilities, he was in his younger days deputed by the members of the colony to undertake some negotiations in various foreign countries with a view to the union of the Lutheran and Calvinist sects, but his mission proving a failure, he took service in the troops of Maria Theresa, where he attained the rank of major under the name of l’Epine Babeuf, and that he was subsequently appointed tutor to the children of Maria Theresa. It is further related that in after years the Emperor Joseph II, as he happened to be passing through Picardy, became acquainted with the son of his former major, the hero of this book, to whom he made the most brilliant offers of employment at the Court of Vienna. François Noel’s severe democratic principles, even at that date, induced him resolutely to decline them. These details are taken from some manuscript notes respecting his youth, written by Babeuf at the close of his life. Considering the enthusiasm of the philosophic Emperor Joseph II for the very same revolutionary ideas to which Babeuf himself was devoted, and his expressed intention, as related in these same memorial notes, of using his power to carry these ideas into effect, the rigid refusal of Babeuf to accept employment under him seems strange, and, taking all the circumstances into consideration, not a little improbable, more especially when we consider the immaturity of Babeuf’s revolutionary principles at that time. One is inclined to suspect some exaggeration or distortion of the facts, probably unintentional, in Babeuf’s account of his relations with Joseph II.

Babeuf speaks of his father, Claude Babeuf, as of a man “as proud as a Castilian, always counting himself rich and happy even in the midst of profound misery”. He never, he says, “went to a wine shop, but delighted on rare occasions to don his soldier’s uniform, which he carefully preserved, together with his formidable sabre, which he handled with the greatest ease and dexterity.” He taught his son the elements of Latin, mathematics, and of the German language.

When about fifteen years of age, François Noel entered the service, as junior clerk, of a land commissioner, who taught him land surveying. Two years later it is stated that he became attached to a landowner, near the small town of Roye in Picardy. The elder Babeuf appears to have died some time in 1781, and henceforth his mother and sisters became the charge of François Noel. He kept them for over sixteen years. Old Claude

Babeuf, we are told, on his deathbed, handed to his son, as a last gift, a well-worn copy of Plutarch’s Lives, telling him that the book had been his solace throughout the joys and sorrows of his life. He continued to press upon his son to study the lives of the great men of antiquity. “As for me,” he went on to say, “I could have wished to have resembled Caius Gracchus, even though I were doomed to perish like him and his for the greatest of all causes, the cause of the common welfare; but circumstances have not been favourable to the accomplishment of my designs.” Expressing his conviction that his son would follow in his steps: “Swear,” said he, “upon this sword, that has never yet departed from the path of honour, never to abandon the interests of the people, which are everything, and to pour out, if need be, the last drop of your blood to enlighten and defend this downtrodden race.” The oath on the sword was taken as desired.

On the 13th of November 1782, young Babeuf married one of the lady’s maids of the Countess in whose husband’s service he was. His wife was a native of Amiens, of poor parents, and seems to have been, to a great extent at least, illiterate. Babeuf afterwards called her “a woman of nature”. Soon afterwards Babeuf found a position at Noyon in connection with land administration. The following year, after the birth of his first child, he again removed to the town of Roye, where he soon obtained a similar position as land-commissioner, [There seems to be some difficulty in ascertaining the status of Babeuf, or the precise nature of the office he held in the French bureaucratic system of the ancien régime. The exact title of Babeuf’s office was “Commissaire à Terrier”, the “Terrier” being a kind of “Domesday” of the various feudal holdings within the jurisdiction of the French monarchy.] the highest he had yet held, which was confirmed to him by letters patent.

At the age of twenty-five, François Noel Babeuf thus found himself in a position, not only fairly remunerative, but involving a certain social standing. He was by this time a prosperous father of a family, the head of an office, with clerks employed under him, and with leisure enough to devote himself to literary pursuits and public affairs. During these years Babeuf had relations with the Academie Royale des belles lettres at Arras. The Academy of Arras was one of the numerous literary societies that sprang up in the course of the eighteenth century in most French towns of any importance, one of the functions of which was to start competitions for the solution of given questions. As is well known, Rousseau’s first important essay in literary composition was the attempted solution of a problem put forward for competition by a similar society at an earlier date.

In 1785 the Arras Academy started the following question: “Is it advantageous to reduce the number of roads in the territories of the villages of the province of Artois, and to give to those preserved a breadth sufficient to enable them to be planted with trees? Indicate, in the case of the affirmative, the means of effectuating such reduction.” Babeuf was one of the first to enter the lists as candidate, and sent in his paper on the 25th November 1785. In spite of his practical knowledge of matters connected with the subject in question, the paper was among those rejected by the society. The incident, however, was the occasion of a friendship and correspondence, which lasted some years, with Dubois de Fosseux, the secretary of the society, who, twenty years older than Babeuf, came, in course of time, to seek his opinion on all subjects.

Fosseux seemed to have been immediately struck with Babeuf’s capacity, and wrote him a friendly letter, suggesting he should continue his efforts to obtain recognition by the society. He, however, would not appear to have been a person remarkable for tact – and proceeded, in the ensuing letters, to inflict upon Babeuf posers entirely out of the range of his line of thought, such as, “Why are negroes born black?” “Which is the more happy in the social order, the sensitive man or the apathetic man?” and so forth. At the same time he loaded Babeuf with effusions of his own, poetical and otherwise. Notwithstanding the correspondents indulged in mutual flattery, they were not always in accord. Fosseux found some verses, sent to him by Babeuf, not fit to be read before ladies “with delicate nerves.” To this the future Tribune of the people suggests that they might be furtively brought under the notice “of robust men, who might acquire fresh force from them.”

In March 1787 Babeuf makes an appeal to Fosseux to circulate a brochure entitled La Constitution du Corps-militaire en France, dans ses rapports avec celle du Gouvernement et avec le caractère National, of which he sends him a copy. He says that it is written by a person of his acquaintance, who was particularly anxious that it should be widely read in the town of Arras. The work was of a distinctly revolutionary character, criticising severely the aristocratic caste-system of grades in the French army, by which all the higher positions were in the hands of courtiers and aristocrats; and also advocates the convocation of an assembly of the people, to which the king should be responsible for his acts, and which should be the ultimate court of appeal. M. Advielle would attribute this little work to Babeuf himself; but, although this may be so, no conclusive evidence as to authorship is adducible. Fosseux acknowledges the receipt of the book, with compliments to the anonymous author, in his usual effusive style; but a little later he writes “that it has been impossible for him to find anyone to undertake its distribution.” “All our booksellers,” he says, “fear to compromise themselves with the police, and, in my capacity as sheriff; it would be equally unsuitable for me to become the distributor, since, from beginning to end, it does not cease to attack the government. For the rest, the work seems to me to be well put together, excellently written, and very interesting. I should be extremely flattered to make the acquaintance of the author, who is assuredly a man of much spirit and merit. In these circumstances, Monsieur, and not having better fulfilled my commission, I feel bound to return to you the copy you confided to me. I have been well recompensed for the little trouble I have taken by the pleasure I have had in reading it.”

It is curious that in the very same letter in which he shirks the danger of helping to circulate La Constitution du Corps-militaire, Fosseux is enthusiastic over the project of a book bearing the title Le Changement du monde entier. It was to be divided into six parts: the first to contain a detailed table of the misery afflicting the society of the day, “of the abuses, the disorders, the calamities, the wrongs, the injustices, the bankruptcies, the subjects of despair, the brigandages, the thefts, the assassinations, the crimes and horrors of all sorts, which take place”; the second was to contain the cause of these evils; the third, to expound principles and preliminary notions; the fourth, the expedients, means, and regulations by which “all citizens who are in necessity, or who only enjoy a modest fortune, may, together with their wives and children, be in the future well nourished, clothed, lighted, and warmed, receive a perfect education, and enjoy, by means of their honest labour, each according to his or her strength, abilities, sex, age, talent, trade, or profession, much more ease, liberty, justice, comfort, and advantage than nowadays.” The fifth section should deal with the means of procuring at once an adequate sum of money without the imposition of taxes on the peoples! The sixth should consist of a reply to all objections.

This syllabus, sketched out by Dubois de Fosseux, is not only noteworthy as showing the beginnings of Utopian Socialism, which had been already formulated in Morelly’s Le Code de la nature, published in 1755, though at first attributed to Diderot. But what is especially interesting is the fact, that the Utopian scheme which so fascinated his friend Fosseux, in spite of its suggestion of the programme of the Equals of eight years later, does not seem to have attracted the future “people’s tribune” at all at this time. Writing a little later, he treats the supposititious author of the scheme, who may well have been Fosseux himself, as “a mere dreamer”.

Early in May of this year Babeuf went to Paris, on a visit of a few days, where he made the acquaintance of a rich merchant named Audiffret, who proved a true friend to him, and to whose purse he had recourse when, later on, he found himself abandoned by everyone. At this time he started a work on the simplification of the land register, but it did not appear until three years later, when it was associated with the name of his friend Audiffret, who had doubtless contributed to defray the cost of publication. Writing to a proposal of one Lemoignan to reform the magistracy, about this time, Babeuf expresses himself as partisan of a unified code of law, which would once for all sweep away the chaos of medieval customs and regulations, valid in one province and invalid in the next, and would “procure for all individuals indiscriminately, as regards the blessings and advantages enjoyed in this lower world, an absolutely equal position”.

We may regard this and other expressions of opinion in the correspondence of Babeuf at this time as showing that the beginnings of the future People’s Tribune, and leader of the “Equals” of 1796, were already present in the land-commissioner of 1787. The last letter in the correspondence between Fosseux and Babeuf was by the former, dated the 11th March 1788, and complains of the neglect of Babeuf to return certain literary pieces sent, and concludes with an urgent wish that this should be done promptly, even though without accompanying letter. From whatever reason, all relations between the two correspondents seem to have abruptly terminated at this time. Up to the present the future Tribune had not shown any marked signs of revolutionary sentiment or conviction, beyond a few expressions of opinion such as those above quoted – at least, unless we are to consider the Constitution militaire as coming from his pen.

Babeuf, we gather, read but few papers, and these irregularly, amongst which are mentioned Le Mercure de France and the Journal de la langue française. Neither, as far as we can see, was his other reading of a revolutionary character. Coming into contact, however, in the course of his professional duties, it may be mentioned, with the king’s Field-Marshal, the Comte de Casteja, who seems to have treated him with the haughtiness of the aristocrat of the ancien régime, Babeuf had a passage of arms with him, in which he defended himself with tact and dignity.

The year before the outbreak of the Revolution found Babeuf at the zenith of his prosperity as a land-agent, with a considerable clientele among the nobility and clergy, all of them eager to avail themselves of his knowledge of land tenure and of his practical ability as a business man. About this time he was charged by the Prior of St Taurin, a religious foundation in the neighbourhood of the town of Roye, to form an abstract of all the titles of the priory, together with all possible rights and privileges that could be invoked. The work occupied him six months. Shortly after, he also undertook important researches into the territorial archives of the Marquis de Soyecourt, one of the many nobles of the ancien régime who had exhausted his available substance in hanging round the court at Versailles, and who, in spite of his immense landed possessions, had at that time the not unusual aristocratic notoriety of not paying anyone, not even the innkeepers to whose houses he had resort on his travels. As might be expected, on the termination of his arduous labours, Babeuf found his bill of 12,000 livres (francs) disputed by his patron, who refused to hand over more than a hundred louis, a sum with which the creditor, hard driven as he was, and quite unable to risk the expenses of a lawsuit, had to be content. The affair absolutely ruined Babeuf, as it had occupied all his time for months, and had in consequence caused him to refuse several advantageous offers of other work. In this matter a certain influential family of the town of Roye, named Billecocq, had, it appears, been involved. The Billecocqs seem to have had an implacable hostility to Babeuf, whom they suspected of having done them an evil turn, they having lost their position as attorneys to the Marquis de Soyecourt, as they imagined, owing to the influence of Babeuf.

It was now the eve of the opening of the world-renowned series of events constituting the French Revolution; and our hero, under the combined influence of personal troubles, and of the social and political atmosphere in which he lived and moved, was rapidly becoming a changed man. Babeuf, at the time, it should be said, was the father of an increasing family.

Last updated on 15.3.2004