Ernest Belfort Bax

Gracchus Babeuf

IX. End of Trial, and Tragic Death of Babeuf

The leader of the accused having terminated his long discourse, observations were addressed to the Court by Buonarroti, Veillart, Massart, Ballyer, Didier, and others. Laflantry, a counsel who appeared for some of the accused, pleaded eloquently on behalf of Buonarroti, and several of the defendants made vain attempts to obtain a hearing, but were cut short by the President, who refused to listen to them. This brought the duration of the trial to the sixty-sixth sitting of the High Court (3 Prairial V – 23rd May 1797), when the President addressed the jury, stating that he was about to put to them three questions which would bring the accused into three categories. The text of the first question of each series was as follows:–

I. Did there exist in Germinal and Floreal of the year IV. a conspiracy to overthrow the government, and set the citizens up in arms, one against the other?

II. Did there exist a conspiracy against the legitimate authority?

III. Did there exist a conspiracy to force the dissolution of the two Councils and of the executive Directory?

In these were involved two other uniform questions:–

1. Who of the accused took part in such conspiracy?

2. Did he do so with the intention of facilitating the carrying into execution of its intentions?

Reypalade, the president juryman, criticised the questions, and particularly remarked as to the law of 27 Germinal, that it had been voted and. created expressly to meet the present case and the acts of accusation under consideration. Veillart, in a long speech, appealed to the jury to disregard that law. He submitted that when the jury were convinced that an accused came within only one of the chief questions, they ought to declare that the three must be taken together, and not each of them as capital. One will gather from the above, the bias of the Court.

At the following sitting, Rèal, a prominent member of the bar, and one of the principal defending counsel, argued with considerable eloquence against the classification of these questions: submitted that if they were based on the law 27 Germinal, as Reypalade had suggested, that the words “méchamment et à dessein”, which would coincide with the English terms maliciously, and with criminal intent must be added to that of intentionelle, or intentionally.

Veillart contested the proposition of Real, and insisted upon the conclusions of the day before, and the rejection of the suggested amendments. He was constantly interrupted by the dissenting murmurs of the accused. He was supported in his argument by his colleague Bailly. The discussions which then followed are only of mediocre interest in comparison with those of the opening days.

The defence was exhausted, and the defendants awaited the verdict. As to the prosecution, it was resumed in a virulent harangue launched by the above-mentioned Bailly, one of the national Prosecutors. He said, in effect, that the defendants were accused of the most heinous of crimes against the very foundations of French society; that had they a succeeded in the objects of their conspiracy, they would have overthrown the Republic “on a mountain of corpses covered with blood and tears.” The atrocity of their plans and the extraordinary wickedness of their designs made the ultimate success of such an abominable plot impossible. France was tired of having revolution upon revolution thrust upon her, and so on. He called also to mind the reign of Terror, most disastrous to the State, and the eighteen months of execrable horrors that they had passed through. He said, “Robespierre and his abominable commune have passed away, all the factions did not go with them. There existed those who would do away with all authority, who wished to have no government, republican or otherwise. And among the journals that agitated such principles was notoriously that of Babeuf, the oft-quoted Tribun du Peuple, which, he alleged, advocated absolute disorganisation, and Babeuf, the professed leader of the faction of the pretended ‘Equals’, had a preponderance that had astonished all those who had followed the evidence given during the trial. This great luminary, Babeuf, who was, their shining light and the very spirit of the movement, and who regarded himself, and was recognised by his colleagues, as the only person capable directing such stupendous enterprises, this exceedingly hot politician and ardent reformer, now appeared ignominiously before the Court as a very cold and insignificant person, posing as a mere copyist, a servile follower of a small coterie of philanthropic fanatics who dreamt of ways to lead the people to pure democracy.”

In addition to the above series of questions pub to the jury by the President of the High Cow others were added, relating to alleged provocations, written and verbal, to the re-establishment of the Constitution of 1793. This was done through the mediation, and at the request of the foreman or president of the jury, as just mentioned. In view of the circumstances relating to the constitution of the Court, the violent speech above referred to by the prosecutor Bailly was utterly superfluous, and was simply playing to the gallery.

The proceeding of the Court was, moreover, illegal, as was subsequently recognised by the criminal tribunal of the Seine, which pronounced these questions to have been admitted by the high court of Vendôme in contravention of the law. Buonarroti states that even the public prosecutors did not attempt to defend this action of the Vendôme tribunal against the protests of some of the prisoners, who pleaded that it was a matter suddenly sprung upon the jury, upon which they had not been heard in explanation or defence. But, notwithstanding this, the new counts were proceeded with. The accused laid great stress, moreover, on the form in which the question of intention was laid before the jury. They were much concerned, as already stated, that the adverb méchamment (maliciously) should be maintained as part of the questions put, since they specially challenged an examination of the motives which they contended would have actuated them had they been guilty, as the prosecution alleged, of the charge of conspiracy, which formed the Chief count in the indictment.

Some of the jurors, of whom there were sixteen, supported the accused, urging legality being observed in the interrogatories administered to them. But it was in vain. The judges composing the High Court insisted, as we have seen, on restricting the conspiracy indictment to the formula, “Has the accused conspired or provoked, with the intention of conspiring or provoking?”, thus intentionally excluding all reference to moral justification for the incriminated acts. Only three: of the sixteen jurors were consistently favourable throughout to the accused. Notwithstanding this, most of the counts relating to the conspiracy were met with an acquittal. It was only on the question of provocation, written and verbal, to the re-establishment of the Constitution of 1793, that certain of the prisoners, to wit, Babeuf, Darthé, Buonarroti, Germain, Cazin, Moroy, Blondeau, Menessier, and Bouin were convicted. Even then, “extenuating circumstances” were found for all except Babeuf and Darthé. The Blondeau referred to had been arrested for the share he had taken in attempting to corrupt the guards in order to enable Babeuf to effect his escape. The Government seemed to have used this prosecution as a convenient means of disposing of persons suspected by their agents, or otherwise inconvenient to them. Thus among the accused was a young man named Potofeux, who had been lying in gaol for twelve months, although absolutely a stranger to the Babouvists and their movement.

From the dawn of the 7th of Prairial, year V, the beating of drums, the noise of artillery, and unusual movements of troops announced to the inhabitants of the little town of Vendôme the tragic end of the judicial drama to which they had become so long accustomed. The day the prisoners appeared for the last time before the tribunal the building was filled by a sad and silent crowd. On the declaration of the jury above given, which the eye-witness Buonarroti tells us was pronounced with a voice betraying strong emotion by the foreman, the leading prosecutor rose to demand the penalty of death for the two principal prisoners, namely, Babeuf and Darthé, and transportation for the others. One of the counsel for the defence made a last desperate attempt to get the verdict quashed by invoking the article in the new Constitution of the year III, which declared that no law affecting the liberty of the press should be valid for longer than one year from the date of its promulgation. Hence it was contended that the law of the 27th of Germinal of the year IV, upon which the prosecution had based its indictment, being a law containing clauses contravening the liberty of the press, had ceased to have effect, owing to its having been in existence for more than a year. As might have been expected, the court refused to consider the point, and proceeded to pass sentence on the prisoners in accordance with the demands of the prosecution. Babeuf and Darthé were sentence to death, and the remaining seven to deportation t the French possessions in tropical America.

No sooner had sentence been pronounced than a violent tumult made itself heard. Babeuf and Darthé had stabbed themselves with daggers. A cry arose, “They are being assassinated!” Buonarroti sprang to his feet and appealed to the people. The public in the body of the court made a sudden movement, which was immediately suppressed by a hundred bayonets (the precincts of the tribunal were all occupied by military) suddenly appearing and being levelled at the crowd. But Babeuf a Darthe had relied on clumsy, self-made daggers worthless metal, which broke before reaching the hearts at which they aimed.[According to another account, quoted by Fleury (Babeuf) p.336), their hands were seized by the gendarmes guarding them before they could complete their purpose.] The only result their attempt was a night of agony in their cells. For the moment the excitement amongst the public had made itself apparent; and while the soldiers were in the act of driving back those surrounding the prisoners, the gendarmes rushed forward, seized the latter, and dragged them away to their dungeon threatening them the while with their sabres.

The following day the two wounded men were carried to the guillotine. All, even their most vehement political opponents, admit that both, especially Babeuf, mounted the scaffold with a splendid courage that never deserted them to the last. The two bodies were thrown by the executioner and his assistants, according to Buonarroti, into the common sewer, but, according, to other accounts, were buried superficially in a plot of land not far off: In any case they were exhumed shortly after by their admirers, and reverently interred in a field belonging to one of the neighbouring peasants. The inhabitants of the little town of Vendôme seem to have deeply sympathised with these victims of counter-revolution. Buonarroti assures us that a deep gloom overhung the town the day of the execution - “a general mourning” is his expression.

During his last painful night, Babeuf manned himself to what must have been the terrible ordeal of inditing the following touching letter to his wife and family:– “Good evening, my friends. I am about to be enveloped in eternal night. I have better expressed to the friend [viz. Le Pelletier], to whom I addressed the two letters you have seen, my situation as regards you than I can do to yourselves. It seems to me that I feel nothing in order to feel too much. I leave your lot in his hands. Alas I know not if you will find him able to do that which I have asked of him. I know not how you will be able to reach him. Your love for me has brought you hither in spite of all the obstacles of our misery. You have supported yourself here in the midst of obstacles and privations. Your constancy has made you follow all the proceedings of this long, cruel trial of which, like myself, you have drunk the bitter cup. But I do not know how my memory will be judged, notwithstanding that I believe I have conducted myself in a manner without reproach Lastly, I am ignorant of what will become of all the republicans, their families, and even their infants at the breast, in the midst of the royalist madness which the counter-revolution will bring with it. Oh! my friends, how agonising are these reflections in my last moments! To die for the country, to leave my family, my children, my dear wife, would be more supportable did I not see at the end of all, liberty lost, and all that belongs to sincere republicans covered by the most horrible proscription! Oh! my tender children, what will you become? I cannot struggle against the strongest emotion on your account. Do not believe, nevertheless, that I feel regret at having sacrificed myself for the best of all causes, even though all my efforts should be useless to save it. I have fulfilled my task. If you should survive the terrible storm that now bursts over the Republic and over all that is attached to it; if you should find yourself once more in a situation of tranquillity, and should secure some friends who would aid you to triumph over your bad fortune, I would urge you to live in union together; I would urge my wife to try and bring up her children in all gentleness, and I would urge my children to merit the goodness of their mother by respecting her and always submitting themselves to her. It belongs to the family of the martyr of liberty to give an example of all the virtues in order to win the esteem and attachment of all good men. I would desire that my wife should do all that is possible to give an education to her children, while entreating all her friends to aid her to the utmost of their power in this object. I beg Émile to pay attention to this wish of a father whom I believe he loves well, and by whom he was so much beloved; I beg him to pay attention to it without loss of time, and as soon as he is able.“

My friends, I hope you will remember me and often speak of me. I hope that you will believe I have loved you all very much. I could conceive of no other way of rendering you happy than through the common welfare. I have failed; I am sacrificed; it is for you also I die. Speak much of me to Camille. Tell him again and again a thousand times how tenderly I have always borne him in my heart. Say the same to Caius as soon as he is capable of understanding it.

Lebois has announced that he will print separately our defences. He should give as much publicity as possible to mine. I advise my wife as my dearest friend, not to hand over to Baudouin nor to Lebois, nor to others, any copy of my defence without keeping another correct copy by her, in order to make sure that this defence will never be lost. You will know, my dear friend, that that this defence is precious, that it will be always dear to virtuous hearts and to the friends of their country The only legacy which will remain to you from me will be my reputation. And I am sure that the enjoyment of it will console greatly both you and your children. You will love to hear all sympathetic and just hearts say, when speaking of your husband, your father, he was perfectly virtuous.

Adieu! I am bound to the earth by but a thread, that to-morrow will break. That is certain. The sacrifice has to be made. The wicked are the stronger, and I give way to them. It is at least sweet to die with a conscience as pure as mine. What is cruel, what is agonising, is to be torn from your arms, oh! my tender friends, oh! all that is most dear to me!!! I tear myself away; the violence is done. Adieu! adieu! Adieu! ten millions of times adieu!

Yet one word more. Write to my mother at my sisters. Send them, by diligence or otherwise my defence, as soon as it is printed. Tell them that I am dead, and try to make these worthy people understand that such a death is glorious, far from being dishonourable.

Adieu then, once more, my dearest ones, my tender friends, adieu for ever! I wrap myself in the bosom of a virtuous slumber.

Fifty-six of the accused were acquitted. Among these was Vadier, the late Mountainist member of the Convention, and president of the Committee of General Security during the Terror. He was naturally an object of special hatred to the Reaction; and although he was residing in Toulouse at the time of the Babeuf conspiracy in Paris, and had no connection whatever with the movement, the opportunity was too good to be let slip by his enemies, so the unfortunate old man was dragged from Toulouse to the capital, and thence to Vendôme, to stand his trial before the special high court for a matter of which he knew nothing. But that was not all. So incensed were the authorities against him that he was not allowed to speak even in his own defence. Notwithstanding this, the evidence against him being practically nil, the jury acquitted him without hesitation. Nettled by this failure, and not to be baulked of their prey, the court ordered him to be kept in arrest on the strength of an alleged decree of the Convention for the deportation of certain members of the Mountain, which had since been rescinded. He remained in prison till the Coup d’État of the 18th of Brumaire.

The five prisoners who were convicted of participation in the attempt to re-establish the Constitution of ’93, but were given the benefit of extenuating circumstances, were shortly after their conviction interned, together with the acquitted Vadier, in the fortress on the island of Pelée, situated at the entrance to the harbour of Cherbourg. The whole of the way thither they were kept chained and confined in iron cages, exposed in many cases to the insults and threats of reactionary crowds, though towns were not wanting through which they passsed where they were received with the most friendly greetings. At Saint Lô, for example, the mayor at the head of the municipal council, received them with every cordiality as “our unfortunate brothers” In a speech, he declared them to have defended the rights of the people in a manner for which every good citizen owed them gratitude and love.

It may be interesting to follow the careers of some of the actors in the events we have been describing. Rèal, the chief counsel for the defence in the Vendôme trial, whose zeal and energy in performance of his duties on this occasion are not to be gainsaid – notwithstanding that Babeuf, more anxious to affirm his principles than to get off the denial of the truth, or even on technical grounds was certainly a difficult client to deal with from advocate’s point of view – this same Rèal became, under the Empire, Prefect of Police, then Councillor of State, and finally Count7. Germain died in 1830, a prosperous agriculturalist, having long deserted the fields of politics. Drouet, the postmaster of St Menehould, and strenuous member of the Mountain the Convention, also took service under the Napoleonic regime, when he became sub-prefect, after having first been decorated with the Legion of Honour. The Marquis d'Antonelle, the colleague of Drouet on the Mountain, and a fellow-participator with the other Montagnards in the conspiracy of the Equals, appears, after some years obscurity, after the Restoration, as a strong partisan of the resuscitated Bourbons. Vadier died in honourable consistency in exile during the Restoration period. The time and place of the death of his colleague on the Committee of General Security, Amar, remain in some doubt. Felix le Pelletier, who succeeded in escaping imprisonment or transportation, was probably the wealthiest man in the movement, and nobly fulfilled his obligations towards the children of his dead friend. Émile he adopted, while he saw towards the placing of the two younger brothers, Camille and Caius, with an old friend of his, a former member of the Convention.

Subsequently, after he was grown up, Émile joined the Spanish patriots in their struggle for independence. Happening to hear, while Spain, that Grisel, the traitor, who had delivered over his father to death and his father’s friends to imprisonment and exile, was also there, he sought him out and challenged him to a duel. The duel was one to the death. Émile Babeuf fought with a reckless bravery and fury. Finally he struck Grisel a mortal blow, but not before he himself had received a dangerous wound in the chest. This, however, was nothing to him. He had executed vengeance on the traitor. He subsequently became a bookseller in Lyons where, however, he failed. Returning to Paris he started a journal called the Nain Jaune, of strong Jacobin tendencies. But this also came to an untimely end, being seized by the police and suppressed. He tried bookselling again in Paris but this time also with disastrous financial results. He then seems to have joined the imperial cause and to have associated his fortunes with those of Napoleon the First. After the fall of the empire he emigrated to America, where he died in the early twenties of the last century. His brother Caius was killed in battle during the first invasion of French territory in 1814, while his other brother Camille committed suicide from column Vendôme in the following year, 1813, at the sight of the Cossacks entering Paris.

Émile Babeuf, it may be noted had one son Pierre Babeuf, who occupied various official posts, having been sub-prefect in 1848, inspector of insurances, etc. He died in Paris, 20th February 1871, at the age of sixty-two. With the death of this solitary grandchild of Gracchus Babeuf the name itself became extinct.

The appreciation of his father from the pen of Émile Babeuf, discovered among his papers by M. Victor Advielle, and reproduced by him in his Histoire de Gracchus Babeuf et du Babouvisme, vol.i, pp.344-5) may be of interest:–

As to the conduct of my father, this belongs to history; and the facts, however we may regard them, prove nothing against his heart. He may have erred in his actions, but his conscience was never compromised. I will go farther and venture the assurance that he always had pure and disinterested intentions, that he only valued life in so far as he believed it useful to his country, and he perished, a victim of his opinions, with same fervour that the saints walked to their martyrdom. I have only one trait to cite that cannot be made public, but which will decide your opinion. Long persecutions by private enemies caused my father to languish in prison till the 9th Thermidor. He cleared himself completely of an accusation of forgery, and was given back to society. But his fortune having been reduced to nothing, in order to obtain food for our little family we were obliged to sell part of our furniture for at that time famine reigned in Paris. My father was then again thrown into prison. The 13th of Vendémiaire liberated him again, and he continued his journal, entitled the Tribun du People. The government then deputed a man to go and see him, whose merits would be sufficiently proved did I but mention his name, in order to persuade him, like Fréron, to exchange his character, his conscience, his pen, for the ministry of finance! My father was revolted at the proposal and broke with the negotiation. No person has hitherto related the fact that at the time the entry of the Prussians into the plains Champagne, my father, sent as commissioner of the department of the Somme to Peronne to see the fortification of the place, defeated a conspiracy there, which aimed at nothing less the delivering the place over to the enemy. He had the guilty arrested, and saved the town from being surprised the following night by an advanced guard of the Prussian army. Finally, no one has told how Paris, notwithstanding neglect and the Maximum, owed its subsistence during eighteen months to the unremitting energies of the general secretary of the Administration of Subsistence, Babeuf, who passed nearly all his nights in working and in distributing their respective tasks to twenty-four employés.b

We have no means of testing the truth of the statements contained in the foregoing notice, with the exception of that respecting his work at the victualling commission in Paris, the conscientious thoroughness of which is otherwise confirmed. More especially, as regards the alleged tempt on the part of the government to corrupt Babeuf by means of its mysterious, emissary, we are left utterly in the dark, even by Émile himself, as to the nature of the position alleged to have been offered his father in the ministry of finance. But the notice, so far as Émile is concerned, certainly tends to confirm, what we gather from other indications in his career, namely, that with all his political worthlessness and general instability of character, Émile Babeuf always retained an affectionate regard for the memory of his father. In view of this fact, we would willingly believe that his turning his back on the principles in which he had been brought up, and which he himself so ardently championed earlier in his life, in order to cringe before the “Corsican adventurer”, was due to this weakness of character, acted on by stress of private circumstances, rather than to any intrinsic moral baseness.

Last updated on 21.6.2003