Ernest Belfort Bax

Gracchus Babeuf

IV. The Society of the Pantheon

THE constitution of the year III, drawn up by the Abbé Sièyés, and adopted by the Convention, abolished universal suffrage, reimposed a high property qualification, and created two chambers, a lower house, called the Council of Five Hundred, and an upper house, called the Council of the Ancients, composed of two hundred and fifty members. It further provided that two-thirds of the representatives in the new Assembly should consist of members of the Convention itself. The executive government was to consist of a directory of five, nominated by the two chambers. This constitution was the final expression of the Thermidorean reaction. It is needless to say that the old democratic principles and revolutionary organisation, which had found their expression in the Constitution of 1793, were thus swept away by a stroke of the pen. The Constitution of 1793, which had never come into force, had now become the rallying-cry of the people’s party. The last of the popular insurrections, that of the 1st of Prairial, ann. III (May 20th, 1795), had as its cry the “Constitution of ’93 and the release of the patriots”.

This insurrection, in spite of its momentary success, was defeated the same day, and had as its upshot the definite proscription of the old party of the Mountain, who having, on the expulsion of the other members of the Convention, accepted the demands of the insurgents, were now treated as rebels. As may well be imagined, Babeuf’s indignation at the new constitution, which tricked the people out of all the political rights which it had won during the Revolution, knew no bounds. In a letter written to the patriots of Arras, shortly before his removal to Paris, he points out the effect of the new constitution. “According to this Constitution,” he writes, “all those who have no territorial property and all those who are unable to write, that is to say, the greater part of the French nation, will no longer have the right to vote in public assemblies; the rich and the clever will alone be the nation ... According to this Constitution you have two chambers, an upper and a lower, a chamber of peers and a chamber of commons; it is no longer the people who sanction the laws, it is the upper chamber that has the veto; they might as well have left it to the chamber of Louis XVI.”

As we have seen, Babeuf had many friends and sympathisers in the departments, notably in his own department of the Pas-de-Calais, where his Tribun was much read. Many of these were now in Paris. With them, and with the considerable following he had already obtained among the Parisians, Babeuf started in October of this year (1795) a political society, having for its avowed aim the triumph of Economic no less than of Political Equality. A little later this society amalgamated with another similar body with revolutionary objects, and the two organisations, merged into one, now received the title of the Society of the Pantheon, from its meeting-place. It was not long before all that was revolutionary – Jacobin, as the phrase went – attached itself to the new movement. Of this movement Babeuf’s Tribun became the official organ. On his release from prison, Babeuf had at once taken up the paper at the point, No.34, where it was dropped eight months previously. We have already quoted passages in these later numbers, showing that the vigour of its denunciation of the dominant parties had lost nothing from the interval of its suspension. The new movement grew daily in strength during the following autumn and winter; nightly meetings were held, at which articles from the Tribun would be publicly read and discussed. The government began to get seriously alarmed. Neither the Tribun nor the Society of the Pantheon affected any longer to conceal the true aim of the movement.

A word should be said here as to the causes which led the new executive Directory to tolerate so long the public meetings of the Society of the Pantheon. It was founded, it should be premised, immediately after the defeat and the suppression by Napoleon of the royalist insurrection of October 1795 (13th Vendémiaire). On this occasion the government had armed a certain number of Jacobins, under the name of the “Patriots of ’89”, against their new royalist enemies, whose hopes of triumphs at the elections had been foiled by the decree of the Convention that two-thirds of the old Convention members were to be retained in the new legislative body. The royalists, who had recourse, in their turn, on this occasion, to an armed insurrection, had to be immediately defeated at all costs. The regular troops momentarily available being inadequate for that purpose (the insurgents under arms numbering something like 125,000), the aforesaid Jacobins were enrolled, and acquitted themselves manfully in dispersing the royalist insurgents. In consequence of these events, it occurred to the Directory, which had now come into being, that the temporary policy of conciliation towards the extreme parties was desirable. In the first place, they might require their services again in a similar way; and in the second place, they could be played off as a bogey to the other parties, thereby strengthening the hands of the government by showing it up in the light of the only bulwark against anarchy and Jacobinism.

The society, on its formation, first of all met in the old refectory of the Convent of St Géneviève, of which the tenant of the now secularised religious house, himself a Jacobin, granted the gratuitous use. Later on, after it had increased in numbers, the society’s meetings were transferred to a large subterranean vault in the same building, where, according to Buonarroti, the flare of torches, the hollow echo of voices, and the attitudes of the audience standing, leaning against pillars, or lying on the ground, produced a weird effect, well calculated to impress those present with the magnitude and the dangers of their enterprise. From the first the constitution of the society was very irregular, no provision being made for the keeping of books or minutes, and the only condition of admission to its membership being the sponsorship of two persons already members. This looseness of organisation was largely due to a fear of coming into conflict with the new law concerning the right of public assembly, which imposed many restrictions, and especially to a desire not to give colour to the notion that the Pantheon Society was a revival of the Jacobin Club under another name, which, it was felt, would at once arouse hostility in influential circles, and lead to suppression of the society and to the persecution of its members. On the other hand, the looseness of procedure was the fruitful cause of many undesirable persons being admitted, although the nature of the movement at the outset, not being a wholly secret society, but avowedly a political party (albeit with well-nigh undisguised insurrectionary aims), rendered anything like a strict scrutiny of candidates for admission a practical impossibility.

The society had not been long in existence before it counted over two thousand constant members. But it might have been remarked that it was not altogether homogeneous in respect of principles. There seems to have been a right. and left wing, the first composed of miscellaneous Jacobins, calling themselves “Patriots of ’89”, many of whom had fought against the royalist insurgents on the 13th of Vendémiaire, and who, in consequence, had some influence with the government, and the more thoroughgoing and definite adherents of the doctrine of Equality, as understood by Babeuf and his friends. While the latter were untiring in agitating against the constitution recently come into force, and the fraudulent manner in which the small middle and working classes had been cheated of the fruits of the Revolution, the former were more concerned to get places for themselves and their associates. Nevertheless, for a time all worked fairly harmoniously together. A demand was made for the giving effect to a decree passed during the Terror, according to which one milliard of the proceeds derived from the sale of the national lands should be distributed among the “defenders of the country,” to wit, those returned from the wars; and in the case of those slain, for their families. The application of the poor law of ann. II was also demanded. Other similar societies to that of the Pantheon now began to be formed, and to hold meetings in various parts of Paris.

Babeuf, as already intimated, boldly proclaimed in his paper, the Tribun du People, the doctrine of equality, scathingly criticised the Directory, and continued unremittingly to denounce individual property – holding as the principal source of all the evil weighing on society. It was not long indeed before a new mandate of arrest was launched against him. Early in February 1796 the Directory decided to take vigorous measures for the suppression of the Tribun. Accordingly, an officer of the Court repaired to the Faubourg St Honoré No.29 to execute the warrant. Babeuf, however, resisted, eventually succeeding in shaking the officer off, and dashed down the street, with the government representative at his heels shouting “stop thief!” Babeuf was successful, however, in getting away to a shelter afforded him by Darthé and another friend. Foiled in their attempt to seize the person of Babeuf, the authorities consoled themselves by ordering the arrest of his wife and two children, one of whom was ill at the time. Members of the Society of the Pantheon subscribed financial aid, as did also his friends and followers at Arras. The prosecution, however, succeeded in its object; and although Babeuf managed to issue a few more numbers from his retreat, the journal came to an end in a few days with the 43rd issue, which exceeds in boldness all that had gone before it. The Tribun du People, after criticising the proclamation of the Directory, its severe penal laws recently enacted against the liberty of public meeting and of the press, winds up: “All is finished. The Terror against the people is the order of the day. It is no longer permitted to speak; it is no longer permitted to read; it is no longer permitted to think; it is no longer permitted to say that we suffer; it is no longer permitted to repeat that we live under the reign of the most abominable tyrants.” The “abominable tyrants” were the Thermidoreans, Barras, Merlin de Thionville, Tallien, Fréron, Legendre, etc., the would-be austere republicans of yesterday, to-day for the most part the wealthy parvenus, who had become possessed of vast portions of the national property, confiscated from the Nobility and the Church.

But even now Babeuf did not give up hope. “O people!” he exclaims, “do not despair; we shall break all the chains to prevent thee dying the victims of those who torture thee, who plunder thee, and who abuse thee these twenty months past.” But the prophecy of Babeuf was not to be fulfilled. The Republic of the Rich, in which the new class that had entered into the spoils of the feudal and ecclesiastical aristocracy of old was to play the dominant role, was, before many years were over, destined to cast off even its republican form, and become an undisguised military despotism. Not for nothing had the young artillery officer won his spurs in the royalist insurrection of the 13th of Vendémiaire.

Hard upon the final collapse of the Tribun du People, at its 43rd number, followed the publication of the celebrated Manifesto of the Equals, which proved decisive for the fortunes of Babeuf and his friends. To this important document we shall revert again shortly. The following was the order of the meetings held by the Society of the Pantheon: the public reading of journals, the reading of correspondence, the collection for unfortunate “patriots”, the discussion of steps to be taken to liberate those in prison, debate on questions of legislation and of general principles. Agents of the government worked their way into the confidence of the society, preaching non-resistance and submission to the Constitution of the year III. The policy of these government agents reached its climax in a motion proposing the sending of an obsequious address to the Directory, in which the society should formally declare its adhesion to the new constitution; and the influence of the section formed within the society by them was sufficiently powerful to overcome the stormy opposition with which the motion was received by that portion of the society which remained true to the principles on which it had been founded, and to get the motion of subservience carried. The tactics of the government in their dealings with the Pantheonists were distinctly clever, since it made evident an unmistakable cleavage in their body, which showed plainly who were those constituting the irreconcilable section and who were their leaders. The latter seemed to have regained their ascendancy in the society, as also in the branches scattered over Paris.

Among the many practical questions of the hour which occupied the attention of the Pantheonists, and were the subjects of the petitions of the partisans of the society to the legislative body, was the burning one – the fall in the value of the assignat. This was so violent that the price of the necessaries of life often doubled in the course of a single day, thus rendering it impossible for wages to keep on a level with them. Hence the handicraftsman, small trader, and the proletariat found ruin staring them in the face. Nevertheless, Babeuf and his friends deprecated any ill-considered and immature attacks upon the government, urging the discussion of the principles of the rights of man and of peoples rather than a too eager application of them to the tyrants of the hour, until public opinion should be sufficiently formed to admit of more drastic action. With the spread of their views in popularity, the leaders of the movement began to bethink themselves of means for extending still further their propaganda. Being many of them deists of the traditional eighteenth-century type, it was decided to present the political and economic doctrine of the Equals in a religious guise as part of the divinely ordained order of nature. They therefore decided, through the society, to apply to the authorities for permission to use one of the larger vacant churches in Paris for the purpose of celebrating a deistic festival.

It should be explained that the government itself, under the auspices of one of its members, Larivellière-Lépeaux, the “Theophilanthropist”, at this time was introducing popular festivals once a decade in the churches in place of the Mass and the abolished services of the Catholic Church. The government, of course, at once saw through this demand and refused the application, on the pretext that the popular services mentioned, which were about to be officially instituted, would meet the needs of the situation. But the project was not given up; the subject was discussed during many meetings of the society, and eventually the friends of Babeuf got their way. It was decided that the society should occupy “the decades” (the tenth days) in honouring in public the divinity by the preaching of the “natural law”. A commission was then appointed to hire a church and draw up regulations for the new cult. The project, it should be said, met with considerable opposition in the society, as being a return to forms of superstition, and it had to be explained to the members, as plainly as possible, consistently with safety, that the religious form was merely a disguise, hiding a social and political object.

By this time the Directory had become thoroughly alarmed at the progress of the discussions of the Society of the Pantheon. Henceforward the police were instructed to spy upon every movement of the orators. All that was wanting now was a colourable pretext for government action. The convent near the Pantheon where the society met was now known, in respectable and moderate circles, as the “Cave of Brigands”. By the beginning of February 1796 most of the doubtful and reactionary elements of the movement would seem to have left, and the influence of Babeuf and his friends dominated the whole body. There still remained, however, within the fold, a few police spies, whose function it was to report all that occurred at the meetings, and any private information they could obtain from individuals, to the authorities. The pretext sought for by the government was furnished by Darthé in the reading of a number of the Tribun of Babeuf, in which the Directors and the leading members of the legislative body were vigorously attacked. Darthé was applauded to the echo when he had finished, but a few days after, on the 29th February 1796, the closure of the meeting – place of the Pantheonists and the dissolution of the society was ordered by the Directory, and was carried out in person by General Bonaparte. He it was, indeed, as is alleged, who was the leading spirit in the affair, and who, by means of spy – information he had obtained as to the real aims of the society, succeeded in inspiring panic in the Directory. As stated, he came in person, and compelled the keys of the meeting-place to be given into his hands. The usual attempt was made to discredit the Babouvists, as we may now call them, in public opinion, by representing their leaders as disguised royalist agents, seeking by means of anarchistic exaggerations to discredit the Republic.

The closing of the Pantheon was succeeded by the suppression of popular societies and public meetings throughout the city.

Babeuf’s paper, as we have seen, died at this time (the 5th Floreal, year IV; 16th April 1796), in spite of a desperate attempt to carry it on in secret after his arrest.

At the same time that Babeuf was conducting the Tribun du People, he seems to have written articles in another journal of revolutionary principles published by Display, and entitled L’Éclaireur du People, which was conducted by his friend Sylvain Maréchal, but of which only a few numbers appeared.

Last updated on 21.6.2003