Ernest Belfort Bax

Gracchus Babeuf

II. The Revolutionary Drama Opens

FRANÇOIS NOEL BABEUF was still at Roye on the convocation of the States-General in May 1789. He had indeed been active at the Cahier of the district of Roye. [It is perhaps scarcely necessary to remind the reader that the Cahier was the statement of grievances, and the remedies demanded, which was drawn up by every township and bailiwick throughout the territories of the French monarchy, by royal command, for the consideration of the States-General when they should assemble.]

The first article from the pen of Babeuf, which proposed the abolition of feudal tenures, and the substitution of a single tax, irrespective of class, for the mass of existing imposts, local and national, was sufficient to extinguish his career as Commissaire à Terrier. One of the Billecocqs, however, president of the committee for the reduction of the Cahiers, protested, with the result that Babeuf’s motion was rejected.

The first open revolutionary act of our hero appears to have been the part he took in procuring the destruction of the seigniorial archives of the neighbouring territories, which were publicly burned on the market-place at Roye: the details, however, of this transaction are wanting.

In July 1789 Babeuf made a hurried visit to Paris, just in time to be present at the taking of the Bastille. The following day he returned to Roye, and on his way succeeded in delivering a noble, the Comte de Lauraguais, who was besieged in his castle by his tenants, after the manner of the time. Babeuf succeeded in persuading the peasants to disperse. Among his papers was found a note claiming the Comte as a good patron and a friend of the people. In a few days he returned to Paris, presumably after having made his family arrangements, remaining in the capital until October. This residence in Paris finally converted the land-agent into a thoroughgoing partisan of revolutionary principles. Meanwhile the letters to his wife dealing with the events consequent on the fall of the Bastille are interesting. After describing the parading of the head of Foulon on a pike in procession along the Faubourg St Martin, in the midst of a hundred thousand spectators, who greeted it with shouts of joy, he continues: “How ill that joy made me! I was at the same time alike satisfied and ill content. I said, so much the better and so much the worse! I understand that the people should do justice for itself; I approve of that justice so long as the destruction of the guilty suffices for it, but has it not to-day become cruel? Punishments of all kinds – quartering, torture, the wheel, the stake, the whip, the gibbet, executions everywhere – have demoralised us! Our masters, instead of policing us, have made us barbarians, because they are such themselves. They reap, and will continue to reap, what they lave sown. For all this, O my poor wife! will have, as far as one can see, terrible consequences! We are as yet only at the beginning!” A truly significant forecast this.

The main object of Babeuf’s visit to Paris was, however, not political, but was for the purpose of getting further work in connection with land-agency. Babeuf was not long in coming to the conclusion that the days of his metier, in the old sense at least, were numbered. He heard everywhere indications that the time of feudal châteaux, of seigniorial rights and ecclesiastical privileges, was at an end; but he adds, “I am myself disposed, all the same, to put my shoulder to the wheel, to bring about that which would destroy my livelihood. Egoists would call me mad, but no matter!”

A further letter of the 16th August shows the state of impecuniosity in which his family were left. He also speaks of his working with M. Audiffret upon the land register before referred to. He further alludes to his hope of getting some employment in Paris. At this time he published a small pamphlet entitled, La nouvelle distinction des ordres par M. de Mirabeau. For Mirabeau, Babeuf appears to have had as great a dislike and distrust as that other tribune of the people, Jean Paul Marat.

Meanwhile, Babeuf’s wife seems to have written him heartrending letters on the state of the family economically at Roye ; and we find that he has to ask assistance, in the shape of money borrowed from his friend M. Audiffret.

Apart from the work in land registration before mentioned, Babeuf was already considerably occupied with Audiffret in connection with what is described as a new mathematical instrument called the Graphometre-Trigonometrique, to which was added, a little later, another instrument called the Cyelometre, designed to supplement the functioning of the former. The precise nature of these instruments it is impossible now to determine, though it appears they were intended to be used in land surveying. But, in any case, nothing seems to have come of the invention in the shape of profit to the inventors, and its subsequent fate rests in obscurity. At last the Cadastre perpetuel, which Babeuf had begun some years before, and which was a kind of “cast-off” of the territorial division and conditions of land tenure throughout France, was completed. Babeuf’s son, Emile Babeuf, claims that this work “fixed the mode for the division of the departments, but brought nothing to its author”, referring, of course, to the cutting up of the old French provinces into departments by the Constituent Assembly.

It may be mentioned that about this time François Noel took the additional name of Camille, for what reason it does not appear. His family still remained at Roye, and seem to have been left very much to themselves.

The year 1790 was an active one for Babeuf. We find him in April at Noyon, in May at St Quentin, and in July in Paris at the great fete of the Confederation. He was very diligent in his adopted town of Roye during this year, drawing up petitions to the Assembly, and redacting the proclamations of the municipal council. He appears to have come into collision, notwithstanding, with the municipality respecting a pamphlet claiming taxation according to means, which he was accused of having had printed and circulated by the official machinery of the municipality without its authorisation.

He also agitated among the cabaretiers (wineshop keepers), urging them to resist their taxation, and had in consequence a decree of arrest launched against him, which, however, was not acted upon. His local popularity was now becoming great, but, on the other hand, he had to encounter the hostility of his old enemies, Billecocq family, who succeeded in making any continuance of his old profession impossible in the district. He now definitely abandoned his old means of livelihood, and started upon a career of political journalism, founding, with a friend who was a printer at Noyon, a journal, having for its title Le Correspondant Picard. Forty numbers in all appeared, and, according to a statement of his, brought him two hundred lawsuits in six months! A certain strict patriot took Babeuf severely to task for calling his journal Le Correspondant Picard, objecting that there was no longer a Picardy, the new régime only recognising the departments of the Somme, Oise, and Aisne. The paper, it is needless to say, was nevertheless thoroughly revolutionary, and was not wanting in the profusion of classical allusions and references to Roman history so characteristic of the time.

Probably in the above-mentioned lawsuits was included a criminal prosecution for one of his articles in connection with which we find him in prison at the beginning of July 1790. He was released, however, in time to take part in the festival of the Federation, the anniversary of the taking of the Bastille, the 14th of July, owing to the pressure brought to bear on the authorities by Marat. In an article in the Ami du Peuple of July 4th, Marat claims the release of the “Sieur Babeuf”, then lying in gaol for a press offence.

Accused by an aristocrat of being a turncoat, of having become the most vehement enemy of every remnant of the feudal system after having gained his living as a feudalist and a seigniorial agent, Babeuf replied, that in his youth he did not reason; since then he had believed that all that was ought to be – that it was absolutely necessary that there should be persecutors and persecuted; until recently, therefore, he stood in awe of his “mother, the feudal system”, but since he had become a man, since “the sun of the Revolution” had enlightened him, he perceived that this mother was a “hydra with a hundred heads”.

Neither his journal nor any other occupation that he then had proved sufficient to keep Babeuf and his family in the necessaries of life. Hence, in September 1792, he was glad to accept the post offered him of administrator and archivist of the department of the Somme, and he finally left Roye. His position brought him to Amiens, where he settled down for the time being, but where he found a formidable rival from Roye, a representative of the people, a certain Andrè Dumonge. The rivalry developed into a quarrel between the two men, in which Babeuf got the worst of it and had to leave. He succeeded, notwithstanding, in obtaining a similar if somewhat inferior post in the district of Montdidier. Here, however, he was still more unfortunate than at Amiens. The president of the district was an extreme royalist and aristocrat, whom, it was said, though the details are wanting, Babeuf saved on one occasion from the fury of the populace. Whether this be true or not, the man seems to have nourished a personal grudge against Babeuf, either from political or private reasons, and to have only waited for an opportunity of serving him a bad turn. Babeuf found himself accused one day of having substituted one name for another in an act of sale of one of the national lands; for his position involved a great amount of work in connection with the repartition and sale of the nationalised property of the Church. Babeuf immediately repaired to Amiens to justify himself for what was undoubtedly due to an accidental negligence, but there he was at once arrested on the charge of forgery in connection with the affair. Probably aware that he was not likely to have a fair trial, Babeuf profited by an opportunity which offered itself for escape from his gaolers. The trial continued all the same, and many months later, on the 23rd of August 1793, Babeuf was condemned, in contumaciam, to twenty years’ penal servitude.

He had, however, fled to Paris, whence he writes, under date 24th February 1794, relating the steps he was taking with the minister concerned, with a view to saving his honour. He justly ridicules the absurdity of the accusation of his having made money by forgery, calling to witness the indigence of himself and his family. He states that an American named Fournier is giving him a little literary work; that he is also undertaking the presentation of a petition for the said Fournier.

Meanwhile, Babeuf’s family, that he had left at Montdidier, were indeed in terrible straits, everywhere in debt, with clamorous creditors on all sides. On the 6th of March we find Mme. Babeuf compelled to compound for her liabilities by abandoning the whole of her furniture.

Just at this time, however, Babeuf again succeeded in obtaining an appointment, on this occasion in connection with the Commune of Paris, as secretary to the Administration of Subsistence. His wife and family now came to join him in Paris. At the Bureau des Subsistances, on which he was engaged, Babeuf discovered a great deal of peculation, or at least a great deal of leakage in the accounts. This may well have been the work of subordinates, and unknown to the authorities. Babeuf, however, got it into his head that it was the result of a conspiracy on the part of those in high places to produce an artificial famine. He thereupon denounced certain prominent persons to the Paris sections, and the latter ordered the publication of the reports of Babeuf, and an investigation into the charges through a commission, which was, however, suppressed by the government (i.e. the Committee of Public Safety). The many influential enemies he had raised up in Paris in connection with this affair were probably responsible for the speedy success of the Montdidier authorities in obtaining his arrest, with a view to his being delivered over to them as a prisoner.

Babeuf, his wife and family, now lived at 27 Porte St Honor. It was here that he was arrested, and, together with the clerks of the Bureau des Subsistances, imprisoned in the Abbaye. Babeuf himself was some weeks later sent to take his trial before the criminal tribunal of the Aisne on the old charge of forgery, but on a fresh indictment. On the 28th Floreal (18th of July 1794), however, the judges of the supreme tribunal of the Aisne, at Laon, on examination of the evidence, unanimously declared that there was no case on which to proceed against the accused. Thus Babeuf’s honour was finally rehabilitated. The whole business would seem to have been originally plotted by various political and personal enemies of Babeuf in Picardy. Several royalist members of the Roye municipal council appear to have been implicated. Add to this, that the friends of various emigrant aristocrats from the district of Montdidier, whose domains were therefore forfeited to the nation, were naturally anxious to throw every obstacle they could in the way of their partition and sale, while the commissioner Babeuf was not less zealous in his determination to bring to naught their aristocratic intrigues to rob the nation of its newly acquired property.

After his acquittal, Babeuf returned to Paris at the time that Robespierre was still remaining in power. Here, however, he seems to have been content to “lie low” politically, thereby escaping the unpleasant attentions of Robespierre and his committee. A short time later we find him back at Laon, where his son Emile was lying dangerously ill. He was at Laon when the news of the Revolution of the 9th Thermidor, ann. II (27th of July 1794), and the fall of Robespierre, reached him. Babeuf, on finding the turn things had taken, returned immediately to Paris, where he started his Journal de la liberté de la presse, in which he vehemently attacked the fallen government, and the system of the Terror generally, in the interests of the Thermidoreans, though it was not long before he began to attack the latter as vehemently as the former. In this way, as we shall see, Babeuf stirred up fresh enemies against himself, and before long landed himself once more in gaol.

Last updated on 15.3.2004