Ernest Belfort Bax

Gracchus Babeuf

VIII. The Trial of Babeuf and his Colleagues

ON the opening of the proceedings on the 2nd Ventose (anno V), forty-seven prisoners were brought up, eighteen of the accused being en contumace. Among the latter were Drouet, Lindet, Reys, Le Pelletier, and Rossignol. A large force of troops surrounded the building where the trial was held, while each of the accused was guarded by two gendarmes. The place reserved in the large audience hall for the public was always filled admirers of the incriminated movement, who vigorously applauded every utterance of the prisoners. Many of the accused, it should be remarked, though belonging to the revolutionary movement, had had nothing whatever to do with the actual conspiracy but were arrested out of spite. Amongst the prisoners present might have been seen the old Jacobin and landlord of Robespierre, Duplay and his son

Those whose voices were chiefly heard in defence of the movement were those of Babeuf, Germain, Antonelle, and Buonarroti.

Darthé remained silent, refusing to recognise the jurisdiction of the court. He made one speech only at the beginning of the proceedings, which is given by Buonarroti. “As for me,” it is related that he said, “if providence has fixed for this epoch the end of my career, I shall end it with glory, without fear and without regret. What have I indeed to regret? When liberty succumbs; when the edifice of the Republic is crumbling piece by piece; when its name has become odious; when its friends, worshippers of Equality, are pursued, are hunted, scattered, given over to the rage of assassins or to the Prey of hunger; when the people are the prey of famine and of want, deprived of all their rights, abused, despised, crushed beneath a yoke of iron; when this sublime Revolution, the hope and consolation of oppressed nations, has ceased to be more than a phantom; when the defenders of the country are everywhere covered with outrages, deprived of all, maltreated, bent beneath the most odious despotism; when, as the price of their sacrifices, of their blood poured out in the common defence, they are treated as criminals, assassins, and brigands, their laurels changed to cypress; when royalism is everywhere bold, protected, honoured, recompensed even with the blood and tears of the unfortunate; when fanaticism grasps again its poignards, and with a new fury; when proscription and death are suspended over the heads of all virtuous men, of all the friends of reason, of all those who have taken part in the grand and generous efforts in favour of our generation ; when, to fill up the tale of horror, it is in the name of all that is most sacred, most revered on earth, in the name of holy friendship, of respected virtue, of honourable probity, and of beneficent justice, of sweet humanity, of the Divinity itself, that the brigands drag desolation, despair, and death at their heels; when profound immorality, horrible treason, execrable denunciation, infamous perjury, brigandage, and assassination are officially honoured, distinguished, recognised, and qualified with the sacred name of virtue; when all social ties are broken; when France is covered with a funereal crape; when she will soon offer nothing more to the horrified eye of the traveller than heaps of corpses and smoking deserts; when the country is no more – then is death indeed a blessing! As for myself, I leave to my family and my friends neither opprobrium nor infamy. They will be able to cite with pride my name among those of the defenders n! and martyrs in the divine cause of humanity. I claim with confidence to have passed through the whole revolutionary period without taint; never has the thought of a crime or of a meanness sullied my soul. Thrown when young into the Revolution, I have supported all its fatigues, have borne all its dangers, without ever falling back. I have had no other pleasure than the hope of seeing the day that should found the durable reign of equality and of liberty. Solely occupied with the sublimity of this philanthropic enterprise, I have entirely abnegated myself. Personal interests, the affairs of my family, everything has been forgotten and neglected. My heart has never beat save for my fellow-men and for the triumph of justice.”

The above harangue, with its characteristic eighteenth-century ring, were the only words spoken before the tribunal by Darthé. The prosecution from the very first gave evidence of the bitterness of its animus against the accused, as well as against everything savouring of democracy. The government prosecutor in his speech conjured up visions of a faction of monstrous beings hitherto unknown in the history of mankind, children of anarchy and crime, to which the prisoners belonged. To this hideous and diabolical faction he traced all the democratic episodes of the Revolution; its whole course, from the taking of the Bastille to the fall of Robespierre, was involved in one common anathema. The government prosecutors even went so far on the side of reaction as to condone the royalist insurrection of the 13th Vendémiaire of the preceding year. Great efforts were made by the judges as well as by the public prosecutors to prevent the accused from defending or even expounding the doctrines contained in the piéces d’accusation. The outrageous conduct of the court in this matter led to frequent “scenes” throughout the trial.

The vile attempts of these government agents to blacken and vilify the characters of the accused – imputing dishonesty to men who had notoriously risked their lives for the country, and who, unlike their enemies and accusers, the members of the then governing classes, had left the public offices occupied by them, before the triumph of the reaction, in a state of poverty, amounting in some cases to positive indigence – led to many an out burst of indignation from prisoners and public alike. For these men the fundamental principles of the Revolution, as enshrined in the “Rights of Man” and the Constitution of 1793, were a religion, the sacred trust for which they were proud to suffer all things, and if need were to sacrifice their lives. The spirit animating them was shown by the enthusiasm with which they chanted their republican hymns in court each day at the close of the trial.

The chief witness against the accused was the traitor Grisel. Together with him were other, police spies, who, however, we are informed by Buonarroti, in spite of their métier, were animated by so strong a moral repulsion to the archtraitor that they refused to sit beside him. The defence attempted to get rid of Grisel by invoking the law which made the evidence of a denunciator legally inadmissible in cases where he could personally profit by his denunciation, whether by direct payment or otherwise. The public prosecutors, in order to get over this difficulty, had to maintain that Grisel was not a denunciator “within the meaning of the Act”, because, forsooth, his first declaration was made, not to the police, but to one of the Directors (Carnot), a fact which constituted his statements a simple revelation, and not a denunciation in the true sense of the word, thereby excluding him from the category of the law as invoked by the prisoners. Naturally this quibble excited universal derision, but the court, as might have been expected, admitted it all the same Grisel must be received as a witness at all costs.

There were in all five hundred piéces de conviction, consisting of documents seized in the house where Babeuf was lodging at the time of his arrest. The most of them were at once recognised by their authors, though, in a few cases, experts were called in to fix the identity of those responsible for them. Among them were the reports of the agents working in the interests of the Secret Directory in the several arrondissements. The latter documents which for the most part bear the superscription Égalité, Liberté, Bonheur Commun, relate to the question of the state of feeling in the different districts and the persons who might be relied on at the moment of insurrection, to the places where arms were stored, etc.

But here and there flashes afford us an interesting glimpse of the life of Paris at the time: thus (liasse xix, 17) in one of these documents, dated in the hand of Babeuf, 8 Floreal, we read: – “Yesterday morning the placard, Soldier, halt again! produced the greatest effect in the seventh arrondissement. Among other places, at the corner of the Rue Cloche-Perche, Rue Antoine, more than two thousand readers formed a queue. A patrol of cavalry passing by wanted to see what was attracting so great a concourse. The commandant, dismounting, read it through, and was desirous of tearing it down, in order, as he said, to give it his comrades to read. On its being represented to him that he could not remove it without destroying it, he replied, ‘In that case it had better be left for the people to read.’ He remounted his horse and went off towards the boulevard. Some sought, nevertheless, to pull it down; but a group of readers opposed themselves to this, saying that it contained truth.” That a crowd of two thousand persons should so readily collect to read a placard is symptomatic of the excited state of feeling still dominating the Paris populace.

A great fuss was made as to a document containing some words which Babeuf had covered with a great blot of ink. The discussion on this subject bid fair to become a free fight between the prisoners, their counsel, and the court. The séance had to be abruptly terminated, the prisoners, as was their custom, intoning a couplet of the Marseillaise : Tremblez, tyrans, et vous perfides!

On one occasion, when the public prosecutors complained to the judges of the prolongation of the trial, alleging that a number of voices were being raised against the dilatoriness of the proceedings in the high court, Babeuf sprang to his feet, exclaiming, “Whose are those voices?” and, turning to the public, “You will divine, friends of the people!” He proceeded to denounce the privileged classes, many of whom could not wait the ordinary course of law in their bloodthirsty impatience to immolate their victims. In this cry one would hearken in vain for the voices of the four-and-twenty millions of oppressed people of whose cause they, the prisoners, were the defenders. “Virtue does not die,” he concluded. “Tyrants may wallow in atrocious persecution; they do but destroy the body; the soul of good men does but change its covering; on the dissolution of one, it animates at once other beings, with whom it continues to inspire generous movements which never more allow the crime of tyranny to rest in peace. After these last thoughts, and after all the innovations that I see introduced every day to hasten my holocaust, I leave to my oppressors all the facilities they desire; I neglect useless details in my defence; let them strike without reaching anything; I shall sleep in peace in the bosom of virtue.”

Grisel related his experiences during two hearings of the court. Buonarroti says that what he stated was in the main true. What revolted everybody was his cynical avowal of treachery and breach of confidence. Turning towards the bench where the accused were sitting, he said, “I only see agents here; not one of them was the real chief of the conspiracy; behind the curtain were men who caused these to work and act.” This remark was doubtless aimed by Grisel, who was in the service of Carnot, against the latter’s fellow-director and enemy, Barras. The statement, however, called forth from Germain the retort, “If we are too insignificant, go to the banks of the Aube to dig out the sand which covers the corpse of my wife! go dispute it with the worms, less worthy than yourself to devour it! fling yourself like a famished tiger on my mother! add my sisters and their children to your abominable feast! tear my son from the feeble arms of his nurse and crush his tender limbs under your carnivorous fang!” Grisel having referred to the insurrection of Prairial, ann. III, in contemptuous terms, was countered by Babeuf, who, in a harangue redolent of eighteenth-century eloquence, glorified the insurrection and its victims, till the court compelled the speaker to resume his seat. Two soldiers named Meunier and Barbier respectively, who had been condemned already to two years’ hard labour for disaffection in the legion o£ police, were brought up from Vendôme to confirm certain statements made by them in moments of weakness. Far from doing what was demanded of them, they now denied everything. Bowing to the accused, they saluted them by republican songs. They greeted them as friends of the people, demanding to partake in their glory. Their conduct resulted subsequently in a fresh condemnation. Of the five hundred incriminating documents seized at Babeuf’s lodging, many were obviously written by his own hand, though some of these were doubtless only copied out by him.

The whole weight of the prosecution bore upon Babeuf. His interrogation lasted during nine long sittings. The attempts to explain away these documents on the part of the accused were naturally successful only in a very limited degree. As Buonarroti observes, their defence amounted to no more than a not very coherent tissue of sophism, which, he adds, they only permitted themselves out of consideration for their companions in misfortune. “The true defence of the accused,” he says; “rests entirely in the avowal that they made of their democratic doctrines; in the solemn homage which they rendered to the Constitution of 1793, and in their perseverance in justifying hypothetically the object of the conspiracy.” The conspiracy, of course, centred in the formation of a Secret Directory, the object of which was insurrection. It was this “usurpation of they sovereignty”, as it was termed, that formed the central indictment of the prosecution. “We have not here,” said Babeuf, “a trial of individuals; have a trial of the Republic itself. It must, in spite of all, be treated with the dignity, the majesty, and the devotion that so powerful an interest commands. All republicans,” said Babeuf, “are implicated in this affair; consequently it belongs to the Republic, to the Revolution, to history.” He proceeded to thank the genius of liberty for having furnished him with a tribune, even though it were the bench of the accused, from which to declare the truth.

A vehement assertion of admiration for the Constitution of ’93, and the denunciation of the illegal violence with which those in power had: deprived the people of the rights belonging to them by virtue of it, brought down upon him the intervention of the judges, who condemned him to silence. Buonarroti, when his turn came justified the existence of the Secret Director and its manifestoes as in no way contrary to law or to revolutionary precedent. Babeuf subsequently returned to the charge, proclaiming at the top of his voice “the awakening of the true people, the reign of happiness, the reign of equality and liberty, abundance for all, equality and liberty for all, the happiness of all-such are the aims of these pretended conspirators, who have been painted in such horrifying colours before the eyes of all France!” He justified the revolutionary principle of the sacred right of insurrection, repudiating with energy the whittling away of this principle by the prosecution with specious sophism that insurrection is only legitimate when it is made by the universality of the citizens, such being obviously equivalent to the assertion that it was never justified. On some of his colleagues, notably Ricord, seeking to throw the responsibility for certain of the most aggressive manifestoes on the agents provocateurs of the government, Grisel’s name being mentioned in connection with the “Insurrectionary Act”, Babeuf indignantly spurned this cowardly method of defence by shamefaced denial and falsehood. Turning to Ricord, “No!” he exclaimed, “Grisel did not do it. It is not a piece which need make its author blush, and Grisel is too great a scoundrel to have drawn up any such document.” Buonarroti, when his turn came to speak, detailed career since the dawn of the Revolution defended the Constitution of 1793, and denounced the usurping government based on that of the: year III.

As the trial went on, day by day, the interest of the public in the proceedings and the sympathy shown with the prisoners grew rather than abated. It had its echo outside the walls of the court-house in an abortive attempt to induce a mutiny in their favour on the part of the soldiers: placed on guard at the tribunal. A plot was formed for the escape at least of those most seriously compromised. Suitable tools were smuggled into the prison, by the aid of which a large breach in one of the walls was made. The moment for escape had actually arrived when, through the careless conduct of one of the accused, suspicion was aroused with the authorities, the plan discovered, and all hope of flight was at an end.

Meanwhile, the public prosecutors demanded the guillotine for sundry of the prisoners, while their task in demonstrating at once the reality and gravity of the conspiracy was an easy one, given the mass of incriminatory material. The accused, on their side, for the most part took the line of defence that, even if there had been a conspiracy it was justified by the fact that the Constitution against which it was admittedly directed, was itself illegal, being contrary to the will of the people, by which it had never been ratified, and subversive of that will, inasmuch as it abrogated the Constitution of 1793, which, on its side, had been solemnly accepted by the popular voice. In word, they argued that the existing government, and the constitution on which it was based, was null and void, having no claim on the allegiance of French citizens. The attempt to overthrow it, therefore, so far from being a crime, was rather the assertion of legality against usurpation.

The public prosecutors refused to enter into this question of right and justification, confining their speeches to a demonstration of the facts which could not effectively be denied. They could show without difficulty that there had been a conspiracy, which aimed at subverting the government and at overthrowing the existing economic bases of society. Beyond this, it only remained for them to paint in vivid terms the horrors of anarchy, bloodshed, and general destruction which would have ensued on the success of the conspirators, whose characters and intentions were, of course, blackened by suitable calumnies. The conclusion drawn was, that the equality and popular sovereignty aimed at by the prisoners must inevitably lead, through anarchy, to the return of a king.

The prosecution demanded that the jurors should be limited to examining the question of fact, whether there had really been an attempt to destroy the Constitution of the year III, and that all questions as to its justification should be ruled out. This; view was, of course, adopted by the court, but; its adoption did not prevent the prisoners from developing their own principles and their full consequences to the jury, including a drastic indictment of the authors of the Constitution of the year III, which placed full power in the hands of an oligarchy, with the dictatorship of a co-opted committee at its head. These expressions of opinion the judges found it impossible to suppress. In championing the cause of the popular Constitution of 1793, the accused were careful to expose the trick by which the governing classes, the authors of the Constitution of the year III, which supplanted it, had endeavoured to get public opinion on their side in attempting to tar it and all revolutionary principles with the responsibility for the excesses of the government of the Terror.

“You are always recalling,” said they (through the mouth of Babeuf), “the measures of 1793, but you pass over in silence all that preceded the unhappy necessity that originated them. You forget to remind France of the innumerable treacheries which caused thousands of citizens to perish; you forget to speak of the alarming progress of the war in La Vendée, of the liberation of our frontiers, of the defection of Dumouriez, and the revolting protection found for him in the very heart of the Convention itself; you forget to recall the unheard-of cruelties by which the barbarous Vendéans tore to pieces and put to death with the most refined torments the defenders of the country and all of those who retained some attachment to the Republic. If you invoke the shades of the victims of a deplorable severity brought about by the ever-growing dangers of the country, we shall exhume the corpses of the Frenchmen strangled by the counter-revolutionaries at Montauban, at Nancy, at the Champs de Mars, in La Vendée, at Lyons, at Marseilles, at Toulon. We shall awaken the shades of the millions of republicans mowed down at our frontiers by the partisans of that tyranny for :the return of which they ceaselessly conspired, even in the bosom of France itself; we shall pour into the balance the bloodshed by your friends in cold calculation with that which the patriots have caused to flow, with regret, in the urgency of defence and the exaltation of the love of liberty. Is it us or is it liberty that the national accusers have charged themselves to prosecute? Their infatuation will not be useless to us, and the jurors will discover, doubtless, in the partiality of the pictures they draw, in the affectation with which they distort history, and in the zeal with which they heap on heads of the accused acts to which the latter are total strangers, that secret hatred which the enemies the Republic, cleverer than ourselves, have vowed to its intrepid and too confident defenders.”

One and all of the prisoners gloried in their affection for the Constitution of the year 1793, as guaranteeing to the people the inalienable right of making its own laws, and for its having been accepted with all but unanimity by the French people. So conclusive was the logic of the defence that it did not fail at certain times to stagger the public prosecutors themselves, who were often at a loss for a reply. Were they being indicted, demanded the accused, for having called the attention of the people to the violation of their rights that had been practised upon them? In that they were only making use of that freedom of speech and of the press that even the Constitution of the year III. itself guaranteed to all Frenchmen While contending that their accusers had altogether failed to prove the existence of the “dangerous and criminal conspiracy” alleged by them, they nevertheless maintained, that had they really conspired to re-establish the Constitution of 1793, they would only have been doing their duty as citizens in fulfilling the oath to be faithful to liberty, to the sovereignty of the people, and to the Republic. Speaking of the communism with which he and companions were charged, Babeuf boldly reaffirmed the proposition he had often enough preached in the Pantheon Club, as well as in the Tribun du Peuple, that private property is the cause of all the evils on the face of the earth.

By the preaching of this doctrine – said he – long ago proclaimed by the wise, I have sought to rally to the Republic the people of Paris, tired of revolutions, discouraged by misfortunes, and almost converted to royalism by the intrigues of the enemies of liberty.

Babeuf’s defence occupied four days. It was very diffuse in character, constituting an elaborate vindication of his whole theory and policy. It is scarcely necessary to say that the scope and intention of the present work precludes its being given in extenso, or indeed in anything fuller than a comparatively summary analysis. The complete text, as revised by Babeuf, and left by him for publication, extends over more than three hundred closely-printed pages. These, however, comprise most of the material – proclamations, decrees, manifestoes, etc. – already given or described.

The many incidents referred to generally in the foregoing, respecting the conduct of the proceedings, reached their climax during the twenty-first sitting, when the President, losing his temper, stopped Babeuf abruptly with the words: – “Up till now it is you who have been conducting these discussions. I declare to you that from this day it will be me.” He expressed his indignation at hearing Babeuf deny the conspiracy, recalling the letter to the Directory of the 21st of Floréal (see above previous chapter), after his arrest, in which he offered to treat with them on of equality, claiming that he was the centre of the last conspiracy of Democrats. To this Babeuf replied, he only wanted to scare the Government in order to save the Democrats, and convey the impression of a great conspiracy. Babeuf was continuing the discussion when the President again interrupted, and, with menacing gestures, called out, “We have had enough of your speeches, considering that you now say you only took a secondary part in the movement. Who were, then, the real instigators of the conspiracy?” The answer of Babeuf to this question was, that the moment had not yet arrived for him to give that explanation. This question of the President was not warranted by the facts, because throughout the proceedings Babeuf never shrank from the responsibility of the part that he had taken, and in no way endeavoured to foist the blame upon his colleagues; on the contrary, he did everything to emphasise his personal responsibility for all that had taken place.

These are examples only of the various episodes that arose in the course of the proceedings, and were prior to the actual opening by Babeuf of his defence-in-chief. The indignation of the audience was apparent, and someone shouted, “You have no right to put obstacles in the way of an accused in conducting his case; and in particular,” indicating Babeuf, “in any case his head is here to pay!” Considerable disturbance was created by the noise and angry exclamations from the accused, who shouted invectives against the judges, and demanded how it was possible for them fairly to defend themselves?

Although indisposed in health, owing to his long confinement, at the twenty-fourth sitting of the Court Babeuf demanded to be allowed to make an application to the Court. The President demurred, with harshness, saying: – “Are you going to read us all these volumes? How long do you mean to take?” Babeuf replied, “The time necessary to state my defence!” Then he asked for an adjournment for eight days to enable him to prepare his statement, urging that it was impossible to defend himself without preparation. After considerable discussion, the Court settled down; and order being restored, it was decided to grant a delay of four days. On the reassembling of the Court after a lapse of six days, Babeuf began his speech. He read from a written statement of two hundred folio sheets, and went through the documents forming the grounds of the charge against himself and his colleagues, which were, as already stated, very voluminous, making three or four large bundles. He reminded the Court of the extraordinary length of the Act of Accusation, and said that its length and the nature of the speeches for the prosecution had given to those proceedings such prominence and grave importance, and those documents and the speeches gave so many varied reports of the movement, that it was necessary for him to combat them in detail. He lost no opportunity of making propaganda for the principles underlying the acts brought against the accused warmly denouncing the corruption and treachery; towards the people of those in power. At the same time he did not spare the weak places in the armour of the prosecution. For example, the strong point made by the latter was the attempt of the “Equals”, as represented by their Secret Directory, to corrupt the Legion of Police. He showed that: the latter was already disaffected, quite apart from the agitation of his own party. As a matter of fact, the body called the “Legion of Police” was largely composed of members of the old “revolutionary army” of the First Paris Commune in the Hébertist days, and was rife with Hébertist views: Babeuf claimed indulgence for his prolixity and apparent disorder, and said that an accused before his judges must not be assumed guilty before he had been fully heard, that there was a danger of an apparent show of confusion, which might be mistaken for consciousness of guilt. He quoted the, words of Mably, who, writing upon criminal legislation, said, “The first sentiment of an honest man; when he is accused of crime is a certain feeling of shame which embarrasses him, and he is momentarily at a loss to defend himself. He dreads the uncertainty of human judgement. It would be monstrous to take this embarassment for a confession of guilt. He said it would be fairer if an innocent man, when accused, were enabled to calmly justify himself, and present the truth to his tribunal without the embarrassing presence and interruption of his accusers.

I have dared to conceive and preach the following doctrine:–

The natural right of men and their destiny to is to be happy and free. Society is instituted to guarantee the more certainly to each member the natural right of his destiny. When these natural rights are not the lot of all, the social pact is broken. In order to prevent the social pact being broken, it is necessary to have a guarantee. This guarantee can only reside in the right of each citizen to watch over its infractions, to denounce them to all its members, to be the first to resist oppression, and to exhort other members to resist. Hence the inviolable, indefinite, and individual right to think, to reflect, and to communicate one’s thoughts and reflections; to observe continually the conditions of the social pact are maintained in their integrity, in their entire conformity to natural rights; to rise up against their invasion by oppression and against tyranny so soon as recognised; to propose means for repressing these attempts at usurpation by those who govern, and to reconquer all rights lost. Such is the doctrine solely on account of which I am persecuted. All the rest of what they impute to me is a mere pretext.

Once more we see in the foregoing how inevitable social compact theory incarnated is Rousseau dominated the revolutionary mind. In this respect Babeuf was no more than the echo of contemporary thought. He continues: “Ah, indeed, we are not the first men who have been persecuted by the powers on earth for holding the like principles. Socrates there was, whose end was the poisoned cup; Jesus, the Galilean, who preached equality of men, the hatred of riches, the love of justice and truth; Lycurgus, who exiled himself to avoid being sacrificed by those whom he had benefited; Agis, the only just one among the kings, who was killed because he was an exception to the rule; the Gracchi at Rome, who were massacred; Manlius, who was thrown from the capitol; Cato, who stabbed himself; Barneveldt and Sydney, who went to the scaffold; Margarot, who vegetated in the deserts; Kosciusko, who languished in the dungeons of St Petersburg; James Welldon, who had his heart torn out; and, nearer home, in our revolution, the martyr Michel Le Pelletier, who perished by the steel of the assassin.” Babeuf says, further, that it cannot be too often repeated that the proceedings of the accusers against himself and his colleagues were political movements in the French Revolution, and that upon the ultimate issue would depend the standing or falling of the Republic. The royalists, always on the alert, were vigilantly waiting at all the doors for the results of the trial. “My name,” says he, in effect,” has acquired a fatal celebrity, as it has been given to the sect which saw through them all, and had already devoted them to the poignards. The epithets, etc., of Robespierrists, Terrorists, Jacobins, and Anarchists have disappeared; their place is taken by that of Babouvists. In the democracy of Rome I should have been convoked before an assembly of the people in a public place, and the people themselves would have been my judges as to whether I had betrayed them; but in a great State like France such a trial is impossible, and the people cannot constitute themselves a tribunal to judge those who are accused of conspiring against them or their accepted Government.” Babeuf contended that he and his colleagues could not be brought within the definition of conspirators as given by the prosecution in its opening speech, according to which “conspiracy” meant to overthrow the legitimately established Government, for they had been unable to show by any of the numerous writings and documents quoted and produced against him any elements of such a conspiracy. He claimed that his writings, manifestoes, decrees, and proclamations contained nothing more than the precepts put forward by such eminent writers as Mably, Rousseau, Diderot, Morelly, and others, who were all tolerated, and were the great masters of whom he and his colleagues were only the disciples; that he claimed the liberty of the press to dilate on and review the doctrines and teachings. of such great authorities. Men like Tallien and Armand de la Meuse had advocated the same principles in their writings and speeches, and still remained in the legislative assembly. Why were they not also brought before the High Court? And he quoted passages from Tallien’s paper, Les des Sans-culottes, No.71, and a long speech of the deputy Armand de la Meuse before the Convention in which views were expressed such as were common at the time, as to reducing the income of the rich for alleviating the needs of the poor, the result being a tendency to the equalisation of income, at least to the rendering impossible of anything approaching the extremes of luxurious wealth on the one hand and penurious indigence in the other such as was the usual form assumed by aspirations towards economic equality during the French Revolution. Exclaimed Babeuf in conclusion “These, then, Gentlemen of the Jury, are the doctrines preached to the conventional assembly by a man who is still actually a member of Corps Legislatif, and whom nobody ever dream of calling a conspirator!” The inevitable allusion to Christian teaching followed, with the remind that these same doctrines brought the founder Christianity to a similar position to that in which he himself was now placed, and ultimately led to his condemnation and execution as a conspirator. Babeuf refers with dramatic eloquence and sensational warmth to the fact of the arrest of his wife, already told of, which he characterises as an act of “gross immorality” on the part of the authorities, and complains of the conduct of the magistrate or police official who was responsible for that act, and to the petition of the people of Arras to the Executive Directory asking for the punishment of that magistrate. It will be remembered that Arras was the town where, with Charles Germain and others, he was retained in prison for a long period without trial. He further goes on to relate to the jury the facts relative to the Bodson correspondence, applying for a fair consideration by them of the above-mentioned document. This correspondence with Bodson, Babeuf maintains, was absolutely confidential, and most unfairly brought forward against him by the prosecution. He says: – “Is it not permitted to me to write? Is it not permitted to me, the same as to others, to communicate by letter with whom I wish? Since when have confidential communications in friendship been liable to be delivered to a tribunal, and to be made the foundation of a prosecution?” He emphasises these incidents, and claims that they show the undue severity and harshness meted out him and his, and to those friends who participated in his ideas, and urges that nothing contained in these documents could be evidence of conspiracy against him; and if at times he had been violent in his expressions in the articles published in his paper Le Tribun, especially referring to No. 40, it was occasioned by the unjust acts of the authorities, which were an outrage on humanity, justice, and: the constitution. He points out an important passage in the Act of Accusation which was to the following effect:–

If these individuals associate together in meetings, communicating their ideas, their wishes, and their hopes; if they arrange a plan of execution in which all promise to concur ; if each of them charges himself with and fulfils a certain rôle; if the combined efforts of all are directed toward on common end; if amongst them they establish an organisation, chiefs who give orders and instructions; if they appoint their agents to carry out those orders conformably to those instructions, there then exists a conspiracy; it is concerted action which gives it that character; and this conspiracy is the most criminal of undertakings when its aim is the overthrow of the established government and the handing over of the nation to the most horrible anarchy.

Such is precisely the result of the documents that we shall produce. You will see that the was a complete organisation, a constituted directorate, with appointed and empowered agents who had accepted their positions; instructions given by the chiefs, only too faithfully performed by these same agents; an active correspondence between them; a perfectly concerted plan established, all working in accord, that they might more surely arrive at the common end. And what was that end? The overthrow of the constitution, the extinguishment of all legitimate authority, innumerable massacres, universal plunder, the absolute subversion of all social order.

Babeuf reviews this charge, saying:– “I hope, Gentlemen of the Jury, to be able to prove to you that such was not the result of the documents produced. That there was not such an organisation, directory, body of empowered agents, institution, execution, intention, and aim, as pretended by the prosecution.” He declares that he had shown during his examination that the organisation of which he was a member was not such an association, but a Club or Reunion of Democrats, who met together for the purpose of discussing the public misfortune and affairs of interest to the country, with the desire and intention of ameliorating the condition of the people, and that with this view they propounded plans and philanthropic schemes of all kinds; that this club was the outcome of the Society of the Pantheon which had been so violently dissolved by the Government, quite contrary even to its own law of the constitution of the year III. Amongst other things, he went onto say that such meetings of democrats were composed of malcontents, who had every kind of right on their side, and such malcontents were warm in their love of the people. They were not merely republican but were partisans of principles superior to the system of simple republicanism; in a word, democrats, or citizens who were not satisfied with a condition of semi-welfare for the people, but who wished for them perfect rights and independence; and would tolerate no restrictions of their liberty; that these same malcontents, seeing that people were far from enjoying the maximum of welfare, the plenitude of independence and liberty which they believed to have been the aim of the revolution, fostered a serious desire and hope to change the Government, which they deemed anti-popular and contrary to the general well-being; that these citizens from the first had put together and preserved for the public benefit papers containing their views and ideas, their projects and aims on behalf of the country; that these papers been wrongfully and illegally seized at the time his arrest; that they did not belong to him personally but to all republicans, members of that political club.

He continued to read extracts from several numbers of Le Tribun, his correspondence with Germain, Debon, and others, that the prosecutor endeavoured to twist into evidence of an existing conspiracy, and to claim that the jury could not, on fair consideration, find that they contained anything of the sort.

On the fourth day he concluded the reading of his long statement with the following peroration:

If, notwithstanding, our death is resolved upon ; if the fatal chime has sounded for me; if my last hour is fixed at this moment in the book of destiny, I have for long been prepared this hour. An almost perpetual victim from the first year of the Revolution of my love for the people; identified with dungeons; familiarised with the idea of torture and of violent death, which are almost always the lot of revolutionaries, what could there be to astonish me in this event? For a year past have I not had the Tarpeian rock ever present to me? It has nothing affright me! It is beautiful to have one’s name inscribed on the column of victims for the love of people. I am sure that mine will be there! Too happy art thou, Gracchus Babeuf, to perish for the sake of virtue! What, indeed, all things considered, is lacking to my consolation? Can I ever expect to finish my career in a nobler moment of glory? I shall have experienced before my death such sensations as have rarely accompanied those have also sacrificed themselves for humanity. The power which persecuted them has almost always succeeded in stifling for them the voice of truth. Their contemporaries, deceived or terrified by tyranny, have only poured upon their wounds the burning caustics of atrocious calumny and bloody outrage! The thirst of their agony; has, for the most part, been assuaged by foul poisons; who knows if, even at the sight of the injustices of the misguided crowd and its perverse seducers, they have not been far from the consoling foresight, that time, the avenger, would rehabilitate: their revered names, would ensure for them the: worship of every age and guarantee their rights to immortality? At least they had to await posterity. As for us, we have been happier! The power, strong enough to oppress so long, has not been strong enough to defame us. We have seen truth spring forth from every pen during our lifetime, to register those deeds which honour us, and which will redound to the eternal shame of our persecutors. Even our enemies, at least those who are most opposed to us in opinion, even their passionate annalists, all have rendered justice to our virtues. How much the more ought we not to be secure in the thought that impartial history will engrave our memory in honourable traits. I leave to it written monuments, of which each line will witness that I have lived only for justice and the welfare of the people. Who, indeed, are the men among whom I am treated as guilty? A Drouet! a Le Pelletier! names dear to the Republic! They are then my accomplices. Friends! you who surround me on these benches, who are you? I know you; you are well-nigh all the founders, the firm sustainers, of this Republic. If they condemn you, if they condemn me, then indeed are we the last of Frenchmen, the last of the energetic Republicans. The fearful royalist Terror which has already so long crushed your brethren, triumphing in your fall, goes about everywhere with its poignards, and horrible proscription mows down all the friends of liberty.[Babeuf here refers to the so-called “white Terror”, the massacres of “Jacobins” in the south of France by the bands known as “Companies of Jesus”, “Companies of the Sun”, etc.] But is it not better not to be witnesses of these last disasters? Is it not better not to have survived slavery, to have died for having sought to have preserved our fellow-citizens? What an abundant source of consolation! Is it not also a source of consolation to have been followed here by our children and by our wives? O! vulgar Prejudices, you are nothing for us! Our dear ones have not blushed to follow us to the feet of our judges, since the acts which have conducted us there cannot humiliate either their brows or ours. They will follow us to the feet of Calvary, there to receive our benedictions and our last adieux. But oh! my children, these benches are the only place from whence I can make you hear my voice, since they have taken away from me, contrary to the laws, the satisfaction of seeing you. I have only one bitter regret to express to you. It is that having desired to the utmost to contribute to leave you liberty, the source of all good things, I see after me slavery, and I leave you the prey of al evils. I have indeed nothing to bequeath to you; I would not bequeath to you my civic virtues, my deep hatred of tyranny, my ardent devotion to equality and liberty, my intense love for the people I should be making you a too cruel present. What would you do with it, under the royal oppression that must infallibly establish itself? I leave you slaves, and this thought is the only one that will rend my soul in its last moments. I ought, things are, to give you advice on the means supporting your fetters more patiently, but I feel that I am utterly incapable of doing so.”

Last updated on 21.6.2003