DURING the course of the events described in the last chapter, that is, between the 1st and the 10th of May 1796, it has been proved by recent researches that the government, namely, the executive Directory, together with the Minister of Police, was kept fully informed of everything important that was taking place. We have already spoken of Grisel, the government spy, who was in the innermost councils of the Babouvist Committee, or Secret Directory, as it was called, and himself a member of the Military Committee, upon which the task of drawing up and carrying out the plan of the insurrection devolved. But it would appear that, although perhaps the principal, he was by no means the only agent to keep the authorities au courant with the progress of the insurrectionary movement. In addition to the ordinary police spies, of which there were the usual contingent of eavesdroppers, in cafes or elsewhere, where political questions were likely to be canvassed, there were undoubtedly other more important sources of information as to the places of assembly and the actions of the chiefs of the conspiracy.
Among the principal informers was the keeper of the Café des Bains Chinois, which was a rendezvous of the Babouvists and those favourable to the movement. Of especial interest, as regards the relations of the government and the insurrectionary movement of Babeuf and his colleagues, is the question of the part played by Barras, who was the most influential of the five Directors, and the most prominent man at the time. Buonarroti states, in general terms, that Barras had coquetted with the Babouvists, but does not give particulars. In fact, for long the precise relations between Barras and the movement remained in historical obscurity. In a recent work, however (Histoire et Droit, 1907, vol. i. pp. 267-293), M. Paul Robriquet has collected evidence of the part played by Barras in the affair, including some unpublished documents in the Archives nationales. The next strongest man to Barras on the Directory was Carnot, and between these two men was implacable discord, which culminated later in the affair of the “18th Fructidor”. Hippolyte Carnot, the son of the famous “organiser of victory”, in his memoirs of his father, alludes to the complicity of Barras in the matter of the “Equals”, thinking that it was only the timely arrest of Babeuf and his friends that averted catastrophe (i.e. from the point of view of the government and the dominant classes). In confirmation of this, M. Robriquet cites a letter he has discovered, signed by one Armand, who was evidently a police agent, to the Minister of Police, containing the words, “I am persuaded that Barras is betraying us, for he has interviews with Rossignol”; and later, in another letter, “the director Barras is more than ever suspect to me. He has had Rossignol informed that he begs the Committee of Insurrection to send him ‘a confidential man’, because, says he, ‘the moment of the insurrection’, he wishes to pass over to the Faubourg St Antoine with a part of the État major”, explaining, however, at the same time, that in case the committee does not send him the man he asks for, he would, none the less, “throw himself into the arms of the people”.
The same author quotes, further, a letter of Charles Germain to Babeuf, relative to an interview he had had with Barras on the 30th Germinal, anno IV (19th April 1796). “You ought to know from Darthé or others,” writes Germain, “that I was sent for by Barras this morning, the 30th of Germinal. I have had an audience with the director.” Germain goes on to give a statement of his conversation with Barras, as much as possible in the language used. After enlarging on the dangers the country ran from the Royalists, Barras asked his visitor what the patriots thought. “We know,” he said, “they are preparing a movement. Good men, their zeal has blinded them; they are going to get themselves prairialised, whereas, in order to save the country, we have got to vendémiarise.” This, of course, referred to the abortive insurrection of the populace on the 1st of Prairial of the previous year, when the Convention was invaded, but which, after a few hours’ triumph, was suppressed, and which led to the expulsion and indictment of the Mountainist section of the Convention for having supported the demands of the insurgents. Barras opposes this to his own exploits, with the aid of Napoleon and his cannon, on the 13th of Vendémiaire, when the Royalist insurrection was suppressed.
Here follows a remarkable utterance of Barras, as reported by Germain: “Like you,” Barras is alleged to say, “I know myself that the present state of things is not the end which was contemplated by the men who overthrew the Bastille, the Throne, and Robespierre. Like you, I recognise myself that a change must be made, and that this change is not so far away as some might think; and when one has the most need of patriots to effect this change, they are meditating our ruin, our death! They are making themselves, without intending it, perhaps, the instruments of the emigrants, the fanatics, the Royalists, who have ever seen the restored monarchy near at hand.” Barras continued, alluding to the pretended complicity of the Babouvists with the Royalists in their intrigues with Pitt and Cobourg, and wound up by challenging Germain to give his own opinion. The latter replied, denying any knowledge of the alleged intrigues with Cobourg, Pitt, Isnard, Robert, etc., but assuring the Director that the people was tired of its oppressors, and would be no more satisfied with a Vendémiaire than with a Prairial, the former having proved of no more benefit to them than the latter. Barras, here interrupting him, expressed regret at not having worked the oracle (“travaillé la marchandise”), if for only three days, in a manner to satisfy the patriots.
He then launched forth into an invective against the Royalists, expressing the wish that the movement might become general and be directed against the Royalists. “I have confidence,” he exclaimed, “in the means at my disposal.” He then went on to relate that he had lately made an excursion through the popular faubourgs, and that the people all appeared calm and peaceable. “If I had seen anything stirring,” he said, “the thing would have been done. I should have marched with the people, for it is by and through the people that, as I hold, the national will manifests itself. The people,” he added, “is not represented by a handful of clumsy agitators.” He thereupon renewed his suggestions that the Babouvists should rally round the Directory rather than maintain a secret directory of their own, in opposition to the governmental one. “You cry out,” said Barras, “against us, Crucify them! and yet to whom do you propose to attach yourselves? To the Court of Verona! Yes, my friends, it is thither that they want to lead you, whereas that is the very thing we have to kill and destroy. You ought now, my comrade,” said he, “to know my mind, my sentiment, and my principles. More than one patriot knows me already; my existence is bound up in that of the Republic and the people. Believe me, that, like all true patriots, I shall neglect nothing for their success; and it is only in order to serve them that I resist my own pressing inclination to abdicate my position, and to retire peacefully into an obscurity which is very dear to me.” Barras, in bidding good-bye to Germain, invited him to come and see him from time to time, giving him a carte de circulation to facilitate his movements in official regions.
Barras admits in his memoirs that he had received Germain sometimes, but denies absolutely that he had any relations whatever with Babeuf himself, whom, he states, he regarded as a great fool. He naturally was afterwards anxious to excuse himself from the suspicion of having actively favoured the movement of the Equals, but the testimony of others, among whom was Buonarroti, was to the effect that Barras had actually offered his services to “the conspiracy”, which certainly seems to be confirmed by the letter above quoted from, and which indeed, even apart from this, might be inferred from the admission of Barras himself, that he had “sometimes received” the ardent Germain. The fellow-director of Barras, Larivellière-Lèpeaux, certainly held strongly to the opinion of his having negotiated with the conspirators. “The conduct of Barras,” he says, “his relations, his sinister look, his opinions, sufficed to convince us.” He also states that this was the opinion of the other directors, and that so strongly were they impressed with the unreliability of their colleague, that the measures to be taken against the conspiracy were only discussed when Barras happened to be absent from the directorial sittings.
That Barras, from what we know of the man, was not actuated by disinterested enthusiasm or regard for principle in his attitude may be taken for granted, though what precisely his “game” was is not quite clear, any more than as to whether Napoleon was privy to it or not. It would seem, however, pretty evident that, notwithstanding the aggressive luxury of his private life, a luxury that had alienated many, as also the role he had played as a Thermidorean, he thought he might attain an influence with the revolutionary party by avowedly favouring their aims on the one side, while playing up to the representatives of property and the status quo on the other by posing as a man of moderating counsels. Whether Bonaparte knew of the matter, and had visions of a forestalled 18th of Brumaire, and an entry upon the scene as the saviour of society, as already said, cannot be determined for certain.
However this may be, and whatever the motives underlying the attitude of Barras, there is no doubt whatever of his haste to adopt an “I know not the man” attitude so soon as he saw the way things were turning. The moment he was apprised of the imminent arrest of the Babouvist leaders, and perceived that the movement was lost, he made a violent scene with his colleagues, extracting from them a declaration that they had given no credence to the reports of his treachery circulated by malevolents. At the same time he talked of appearing before the Council of Five Hundred, in order to obtain a public satisfaction. Not caring to show a divided counsel at a moment of peril, the other Directors calmed Barras, assuring him that they had no thought of bringing any accusation against him.
On the 10th of May (21st Floreal, anno IV), Carnot, who was president of the executive Directory, sent a message to the Council of Five Hundred to inform them that a horrible plot was to be hatched on the morrow, and that its object was “to overthrow the French Constitution, to slaughter the legislative body, all the members of the government, the État major of the Army of the Interior, and to deliver this great city to general pillage and frightful massacres.” It concluded with the information that the executive Directory were informed of the place of meeting of the chiefs of this conspiracy, and had given orders for their immediate arrest. The same day, indeed, at the very moment when the Secret Directory was planning the final arrangements for the insurrection, a body of soldiers invaded the room where the sitting was being held and seized the principal leaders, amongst them being the ex-conventionals belonging to the Mountainist section of the now united revolutionary party – Vadier, Ricord, Laignelot, and Drouet. Babeuf himself, however, was not there, neither was he to be found at his old address, No. 29 Faubourg St Honoré, but at the house of the tailor Tissot, No. 21 Rue de la Grande Truanderie, where the meeting of the 11th of Floréal was held, and where, as before related, he had taken refuge as a measure of precaution, which events proved was ineffectual.
At the moment that the police burst into his apartment he was engaged in drawing up, in company with Buonarroti and another, the manifestoes intended to determine the lines of the insurrection. All the important papers relating to the movement were seized. In spite of the generosity of the one man of means in the party, Le Pelletier, [This Le Pelletier, it should be noted, was the younger brother of the well-known Louis Michel Le Pelletier de Saint Fargeau, who was assassinated in a café on the day after the vote in the of the king’s death, i.e. the 21st January 1793.] there was only found in ready cash 2000 livres in assignats. What this amounted to in the depreciated currency of the time is easy to reckon. The poverty, indeed, of the movement threatened to cause its failure, even had it not been prematurely betrayed. Without the co-operation of military, or at least a considerable section of them, it was impossible that the insurrection could have succeeded; and to ensure the support of the military, it was necessary that they should be paid. It was proposed to divide the insurgent army onto three divisions; three generals were to command it, under the order of the general-in-chief. Fion, Germain, Rossignol, and Massart were those designated. All was arranged up to the moment when the tocsin should ring out, and when, at the beat of the générale, the popular wards of the city would rise to claim the heritage the revolution had promised them. The arrest immediately produced a great sensation on the general public.
The press gave blood-curdling accounts of the projected movement and the objects of the stillborn insurrection. Every day brought reports of fresh arrests of the insurrectionists, besides those of Royalists and others. Babeuf and his friends were removed at once to imprisonment in the Temple. All were apparently at first taken to the prison of the Abbaye. This was on the 21st Floreal (10th May). Brought up the same day before the Minister of Police, Charles Cochon Laparent, a former member of the Convention, Babeuf claimed to be the author of the plan of insurrection found among the papers seized. This was, of course, not strictly true, but Babeuf was anxious not to incriminate his associates, whom he steadily refused to name. Two days later he indicted the following letter to the executive Directory:–
CITIZENS AND DIRECTORS, – Would you regard it as beneath you to treat with me as between power and power? You have already seen the vast confidence of which I am the centre! You have seen that my party may well balance yours! You have seen its vast ramifications! I am more than convinced that the outlook has made you tremble!
Is it to your interest, is it to the interest of the country, to give special notoriety to the conspiracy and its inspirers? I do not think so. I will give you the reasons why my opinion ought not to appear suspicious. What would happen if this affair should appear in the full light of day? That I should play the most glorious of all roles! I should demonstrate with all the force of character, with all the energy of which you have known me to be possessed, the righteousness of the conspiracy, of which I never denied having been the ringleader. Departing from that cowardly path strewn with denials, which the common ruck of accused persons use to justify themselves, I should dare to develop great principles, plead the eternal rights of the people, with all the advantage which close absorption and the grandeur of the subject gives me. I should dare, I say, to demonstrate that this trial is not one of justice, but it is one of strength against weakness, of oppressors against oppressed and their magnanimous defenders, of the strong against the weak. You may condemn me to deportation or death, but your judgment will be at once seen to be pronounced by powerful vice against feeble virtue. My scaffold will figure gloriously beside that of Barneveldt or of Sidney. Would you fear to see, after my execution, altars raised to me beside those where to-day Robespierre and Goujon are revered as illustrious martyrs? It is not in this way that governments and rulers are rendered secure. You have seen, citizens and directors, that you hold nothing when I am in your hands. I am not all the conspiracy, it is clear; nay, I am only a single link in the long chain that composes it. You have to fear all the other parties no less than mine. You have, indeed, the proof of all the interest they take in me, that you strike at them all in striking at me, and you will irritate them.
You will irritate, I say, the whole democracy of the French Republic. But you know already that it is not such a small matter as you may have imagined at first. You must recognise that it is not only in Paris that it exists in strength, you must see that there is not one of the departments where it is not powerful. You would judge of the matter still better if your agents had seized the vast correspondence which enabled us to form the lists of which you have only seen a fragment. It is all very well to seek to stifle the sacred fire which burns and will burn. What though it seems at certain instants extinguished if its flame threatens to revive suddenly with the force of an explosion? Would you undertake to deliver yourselves entirely to that vast sans-culotte sect which has not yet deigned to declare itself vanquished ? Even in any possibility of this where would you find yourselves afterwards? You are not quite in the same position as he who after the death of Cromwell ruled some millions of English republicans. Charles II was king, and whatever you may say you are not that yet. You have need of a party to support you, and if you removed that of the patriots you are left alone in the face of royalism. What do you think would be your lookout if you were standing before it single-handed? You will say that the patriots are as dangerous as the royalists, and perhaps more so. You deceive yourselves. Consider well the character of the enterprise of the patriots. You will not find that they desire your death, and it is a calumny to have allowed the statement to be published. For myself, I can tell you that they do not desire it. They wish to walk in other paths than those of Robespierre. They desire no blood. They would force you to confess of yourselves that you have made an oppressive use of power, that you have got rid of all popular forms and safeguards, and they desire you to replace them. They would not have gone as far as they have, if, as you promised after Vendémiaire, you had made the attempt to govern popularly.
I myself in my earlier numbers [of his paper] have sought to open the door to you. I have said how I thought that you might cover yourselves with the blessing of the people. I explained how it seemed possible to me that you might cause to disappear all that the constitutional character of your government exhibits in contrast to true republican principles.
Well, there is still time. The turn the latest events have taken may become profitable, and the salvation alike of yourselves and the public interests. Do you disdain my advice and my conclusions, which are that your own interest and that of the country consists in not giving notoriety to the present affair? I seem to perceive that it is already your intention to treat the matter politically. It seems to me that you would be wise in doing so. Don’t think that my present action is interested. The open and unusual manner in which I do not cease to declare myself guilty, in the sense in which you accuse me, must show you that I do not act from weakness. Death or exile would be to me the pathway to immortality, and I shall tread it with a heroic and religious zeal, but my proscription, like that of all other democrats, will not advance you one whit, or ensure the salvation of the republic.
I have seen, on reflection, that in the last resort you have not always been the enemies of this republic. You were once evidently republicans in good faith. Why will you not be so again? Why will you not believe that you who are men have been temporarily led astray like others by the inevitable effect of exaggerations into which circumstances have thrown you? The patriots and the mass of the people have a lacerated heart. Would you tear it still more? What would be the final result? Do not these patriots rather deserve that, instead of aggravating their wounds, you should think at last of curing them? You have, when it pleases you, the initiative of well being, since in you resides the whole force of public administration. Citizen Directors, govern popularly! Such is all these patriots ask of you! Speaking thus for them, I am sure that they will not interrupt my voice. I am sure of not being repudiated by them. I see but one policy that it is wise for you to take. Declare that there has never been any serious conspiracy. Five men, in thus showing themselves great and generous, can to-day save the country. I allege still further that the patriots will cover you with their bodies, and that you will have no more need of entire armies to defend you. The patriots do not hate you; they only hate your unpopular acts. I will then give you, on my own account, a guarantee as extended as is my habitual frankness. You know the measure of influence that I have with this class of men – I refer to the patriots. Well, I employ it to convince them that if you are at one with the people, they ought to act at one with you. It would not surely be an unhappy thing if the effect of this simple letter were to pacify the internal condition of France in checking the notoriety of which this affair is the subject. Would it not, at the same time, check all that now opposes itself to the calm of Europe?
This letter, not perhaps very wise or altogether dignified under the circumstances, had, as might be expected, no effect on its recipients. Four of the Directors at least were uncompromising in their determination mercilessly to stamp out the movement, while the fifth, Barras, whatever may have been his private ideas or inclinations, found himself already an object of secret suspicion to his colleagues, and had to fall in with their projects, with all the alacrity he could assume, if he was to avoid placing himself in a false, and even a dangerous, position. The president of the Directory, Carnot, that “organising genius”, carried everything before him at this juncture by his energy and determination. His struggle with the only other man of real ability at the head of affairs, Barras, was deferred to a later day. Barras won on the 18th Fructidor, though only himself to be overthrown by Bonaparte on the 18th Brumaire.
But, to return to our prisoners, they were all at first interned in the Abbaye, three days later to be brought up before the Directors and Jury of the department of Paris. But the Government took an early opportunity of transferring the more important of the prisoners, amongst them Babeuf and Buonarroti, to the prison of the Temple. One important prisoner, however, was allowed to remain at the Abbaye. We refer to Jean Baptiste Drouet, whose name has been several times mentioned in connection with the proceedings of the Secret Directory. Drouet had a special significance as being a Mountainist member of the Convention, and one of the few who succeeded in getting into the new Council of Five Hundred. It was he who was the postmaster at the small town of Ste. Menehould, and who procured the arrest of Louis XVI at the time of his flight to Varennes in June 1791. He was a man whose past gave him influence with all the existing parties, and his adhesion the movement of Babeuf obtained for him additional importance.
Now this man Drouet, in his capacity of political prisoner, was rather a white elephant to the executive Directory. In the first place, his being among the accused prevented the great trial coming under the jurisdiction of the High Court of Justice of Paris, as in the ordinary course it would have done. For by article 265 of the Constitution of year III. it was provided that members of the Legislature were not to be tried before the ordinary tribunals, but that a special high court to be established to deal with their cases. Hence it was that the government decided that whole process should take place before a special high court, whose seat was fixed at the town of Vendôme, in the department of the Loir et Cher. But, for reasons of his own, Barras was particularly unwilling that Drouet should be brought to trial at all. Hence, shortly before the time of the trial came on, on the 1st Fructidor, ann. IV (17th August 1796), Drouet was allowed, it has now been proved, with the connivance of Barras, to effect his escape from the Abbaye. Drouet succeeded in getting away from France into Switzerland. From thence he went to Teneriffe, where he took a leading part in the successful resistance to the attack of Nelson in the following year. He became a sub-prefect under the Empire, and died at Mâcon in 1824.
On the 9th Prairial, ann. IV (26th May 1796), the old members of the Society of the Pantheon, together with some of the Mountainists, attempted to raise the populace to deliver the prisoners. The attempt, however, was a failure. During the earlier period of his detention in the Temple, Babeuf’s enthusiasm for the cause seemed at times to render him indifferent to every other consideration, even to the welfare of his wife and family. As the weeks went on, however, he softened, and the following letter to his well-to-do friend Felix Le Pelletier is of interest, as expressing at once his political testament and his regard for the domestic affections, and, lastly, as a specimen of his literary style at its best. It is dated – , “The Tower of the Temple, 26th Messidor, anno IV (10th of August 1796),” and is as follows:–
Greetings, dear Felix! Don’t alarm yourself on seeing these lines traced by my hand. I know that all that bears the imprint of relations with me gives the right to disquietude. I am the being that all fly from; that all regard as dangerous, and of a deadly approach. However, my conscience tells me that I am pure; and my true friends, that is, certain just men, know also that I have nothing wherewith to reproach myself. If even they shun me it is not from any real aversion which I inspire in them, but it is the effect of the factitious terror imposed upon them by malice, lest by chance they should be reputed criminals, and treated as such. In this position the consideration that I owe to good men prescribes to me the interdiction of all intercourse with them, in order to avoid giving them the smallest alarm. But urgent considerations, such as present themselves naturally to the thoughts of a man on the brink of the tomb, have decided me to make one more advance towards one of my fellow-citizens whom I especially esteem. I do this the more willingly inasmuch as I am sure to run no other risk than that, perhaps, of somewhat disquieting him. It is a sacrifice that friendship can make. I shall lighten it in reassuring you, as quickly as possible, my good Felix, that there is nothing to fear. I was certain, in getting this epistle conveyed to you, the last that I shall address to you, that it would overcome without peril all the obstacles that might come between you and me.
Behold us, then, without doubt, more at ease with one another – you to read me, I to conclude what I have to tell you! I have built my text, in speaking to you, on friendship. I have called you friend! I have believed, and I believe, that I may do so. It is by this title that I address you in confidence – respecting do you know what? – my testament, and last recommendation.
I make the following assumptions subordinate to its execution – that proscription will not always pursue you; that the tyrants, sated with my blood and that of some of my unhappy companions, will be contented, and their own policy will not counsel them, perhaps, to do what they at first appeared to propose doing, namely, to make a hecatomb of all republicans. On the other hand, it might still happen, after my martyrdom, that fortune will tire of striking our country, and then that her true children may breathe in peace. If it is otherwise, I lose all hope as to what shall survive me. Then all will perish in the vast cataclysm that crime against virtue and justice will engender. The work of the good, their memory, their families, will fall into eternal night, and be involved in one universal destruction. Then, again, all is said: I need take no more care for those who are still dear to me, whom my thought has followed up to the repose of nothingness, the last inevitable end of all that exists.
It is on the first supposition that I am acting, my friend. I believe I have remained worthy of the esteem of men who are as just as you are. I have not seen you in the ranks of those evil Machiavellian politicians who multiply my sufferings a hundredfold, and are looking forward to my death. The traitors! In causing those for whom they appeared to have interested themselves most to appear in a cowardly and shameful light, they have pictured me – whose every public act has testified to the rectitude, to the purity of my intentions; to me, whose sighs and tenderness ever for unfortunate humanity are painted in unequivocal traits! – me, who have worked with such courage and devotion for the enfranchisement of my :brothers! – me, who in this sublime enterprise have had at the moment of misfortune, following on the great success which attests that I have at least brought some intelligence to the work before me! – they have pictured me, I say, either as a miserable dreamer in oblivion, or as a secret instrument of the perfidy of the enemies of the people. They have not blushed to agree with the tyrants as to the culpability of the most generous efforts to break down slavery and to cause the horrible misery of the country to cease. They have not blushed, finally, to seek to cast upon me alone this capital offence, in ornamenting it with all the accessories by which they thought to be able effectively to give it the colour of crime; and, nevertheless, I myself had the delicacy to compromise no one by name, only involving in the charge brought against me the coalition of all the democrats of the entire Republic, because I thought it, at first useful to strike at despotism with terror, and because I thought it would be an insult to any democrat not to present him as a participant in an enterprise so obligatory for him as that of the re-establishment of equality! What have. they gained, these false brothers, these apostates from our holy doctrine? What have they gained by this evil system which they appear to regard as the non plus ultra of cleverness? They have gained nothing beyond dishonour to themselves, to discredit revolutionaries with the people, who necessarily always disperse when they see themselves abandoned by their leaders. They have also succeeded in encouraging the enemy by the spectacle of such weakness. They have succeeded, finally, in precipitating the more rapidly their own protéges into the abyss. You have not taken part in these turpitudes, my friend. You have already begun to render to us the tribute of homage, which a just posterity will pay in full.
The letter then proceeds to exculpate Le Pelletier still further from any share in the base conduct of others, and to recall his loyal expressions of devotion to the cause, and to those who were now in prison as its martyrs. Babeuf continues, that to a man who has spoken and who. thinks thus, he has no hesitation in addressing the appeal for himself and his family, which forms the concluding portion of the letter.
I have no need – writes Babeuf – to assure you, that, in my complete devotion to the people, I have not thought of my personal affairs, neither have I ever forecast as to what might happen in the case of the failure that has now befallen me. I leave two children and a wife, and I leave them without a cent, without the means of livelihood. No! for a man like Felix, it will certainly not be too onerous a legacy to impose upon him, to charge him to aid these unhappy creatures in not dying of want. The daughter of Michel Le Pelletier [the before-mentioned murdered member of the Convention] will assist in this worthy work; her character, that I have had the opportunity of observing, her unmistakable sensibility, already accustomed to exercise itself towards those unfortunates that the world has made, assure me of all her movements, and of her resolution when you cause her to read this letter. You will permit me to give a little more in detail what I wish to be done for the unfortunates that I am abandoning. My two sons: the elder, as far as I can judge from the little that has been done for his education, will not have a great aptitude for the sciences. This would seem also to argue that he will not have the ambition to play any important role in the political arena. Hence he may pass his life quietly, and thus avoid the painful lot and misfortunes of his father. This boy has at least an excellent judgment and an independent spirit, the result of all the ideas in which he has been nourished. I have sounded him as to what he would like to be. Workman, he replied, but workman of the most independent class possible, and he cited that of the printer. He was not so far wrong, perhaps, and I desire nothing more than that he should follow his tastes. I can say nothing as regards his younger brother, who is too young as yet to decide anything as to his capacities; but if I have ground to hope that you will do as much for him as for the elder, I am content. Gracchus Babeuf has never been ambitious for himself or for his children. He has only been anxious to procure some good for the people. He would be too fortunate if he knew that his children were by way of becoming some day good and peaceable artisans, among the classes of which society has always need, and which consequently can never be wanting to her.
As regards my wife, in the face of the fact that she only has the domestic virtues and the simple qualities belonging to the mother of a family, all that will be necessary to preserve her from a pitiable want will be very little. It will suffice to advance her some small sum to place her in a position to undertake one of those minor occupations such as furnish all that is necessary to keep a small family.
And now, my good friend, I will ask of you one more favour. The nature of my trial and its slow progress tell me that I have still a certain number of days to live before that day when I shall go to sleep myself on the bed of honour, to expiate the acts which render me supremely culpable in the eyes of the enemies of humanity. I can wish, for consolation, that my wife and my children might accompany me, so to say, to the foot of the altar where I shall be immolated; that will do me much more good than a confessor. Place them, I pray of you, in a position to make the journey, so that I shall not be deprived of this last satisfaction.
My body will return to earth. There will remain no more of me than a sufficient quantity of projects, notes, and sketches of democratic and revolutionary writings, all tending to the last aim, to the complete philanthropic system for which I die. My wife will be able to collect them all; and one day, when the persecution shall have slackened, when perchance good men shall breathe again, with freedom enough to be able to cast a few flowers on our tomb, when people will have come to think again on the means for procuring to the human race the happiness we have proposed for it, you may look into those fragments, and present to all the disciples of Equality, to those of our friends who preserve our principles in their hearts – you may present to them, I say, for the benefit of my memory, a selection of these divers fragments, containing all that the corrupt of to-day call my dreams. I have finished. I embrace you and bid you adieu.
It was not until the 10th Fructidor, ann. IV (27th August 1796), that Babeuf and his associates were transferred to Vendôme during the night, in cages made on purpose, as Buonarroti alleges, to make of them an exhibition as of wild beasts. Gendarmes and a strong detachment of cavalry escorted the vehicles conveying the accused, which were followed by others containing their wives and children, among whom were Madame Babeuf and her son Emile. Three days later the cortége arrived at Vendôme, the accused being placed in the cells under the court buildings, to which all access from outside was severely prohibited. According to Buonarroti, the evenings were relieved by the singing of revolutionary songs on the part of the prisoners, in which the inhabitants of the town who happened to be in the neighbourhood of the prison frequently joined.
The high court which was to try them was composed of the president, Gandon, and of five other judges, Coffinhal, Pajou, Moreau, Audier, and Massillon. There were, in addition, two supplementary judges, Lalonde and Ladève. The public prosecutors were Viellart and Bailly. The jury was composed of sixteen members, four adjuncts, and four supplementary members. But the prisoners had still some months to wait in durance. At last, after the usual formalities, the trial began on the 2nd Ventose, ann. V (the 20th February ’97), and was destined to drag on its course to the 7th Prairial, ann. V (27th May 1797).
Meanwhile, the remains of the party of which Babeuf was the leader were not inactive in Paris. Babeuf and his associates had been scarcely a month in the dungeons beneath the courthouse of Vendôme before a final attempt, which had been some weeks in preparation, was made to win over to the revolutionary cause the military in the camp at Grenelle, near Paris. On the 7th of September some hundreds of followers of the Babeuf movement rose in abortive insurrection. Their plan was first of all to seize the palace of the Luxembourg, the official residence of the Directory, and where the five directors were sitting, and next, after securing the persons of the directors, to proceed to the camp of Grenelle, there to induce a movement among the military, and to bring back those favourable to their scheme as an armed force to Paris.
But the attack on the Luxembourg failed. The authorities, warned in time of the movement that was on foot, reinforced the guards round the governmental palace, and the attacking force was driven off, although not effectively dispersed. The insurgents rallied but did not a second time attempt to penetrate into the Luxembourg. Abandoning this part of their plan, they proceeded in a body to Grenelle. Here they had every hope of success, judging from the reports they had received, but here also they were likewise doomed to a failure that proved the final disaster to their party. On summoning the camp, in which General Latour was in command, to join them, they were greeted with an unexpected resistance, under the immediate orders of Colonel Marlo. Instead of, as they had hoped and expected, tokens of fraternisation, they were met by a series of volleys fired into their number. In a few minutes they were in panic-stricken flight, leaving more than a hundred dead and wounded on the field.
This attempt on the camp at Grenelle was the last dying flicker of the spirit of popular insurrection in Paris and France for a long time to come, and may be fittingly regarded as the closing episode of the French Revolution, considered as one distinct and connected historical event.
The Government could have wished for nothing better than this abortive demonstration. It afforded them an excuse for hunting down all suspected of revolutionary sympathies in Paris and the departments surrounding the capital. Those arrested soon approached the number of 800. These prisoners were not brought before the ordinary tribunals, but were tried by a specially appointed military commission, in other words, a court martial. As might be expected, numerous sentences of death were pronounced, and as many as thirty persons were executed by military platoons on the plain of Grenelle. In addition to this, a large number were sentenced to penal servitude and to deportation. The only prominent person who had the courage to defend the vanquished democrats was the noble-minded Pache, the late Mayor of Paris, during the period of the first commune, who issued, from his residence in the country, whither he had retired, a pamphlet zealously championing the unfortunate victims, and denouncing in scathing terms the conduct of the governing classes of the day.
Last updated on 21.6.2003