Jean Jaurès Socialist History of the French Revolution

The Law of Prairial and the Great Terror (Fall, year IV)

Source: Histoire Socialiste de la Révolution Française. Paris, Éditions Sociales, 1968;
Translated: for by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2012.

But this time Robespierre, as if struck with fever, wanted to bring all this to an end. He wanted to hasten the march of revolutionary justice and free it of any hindrances so it could deliver decisive blows. To start with, the prisons were too full and Robespierre could no longer open their gates, even though the Justice Committee that he set up in opposition to Camille Desmoulins’ Pardons Committee. Because of his inopportune Festival of the Supreme Being he had revived the hopes of counter-revolutionaries and the suspicions of the over-excited revolutionaries. He had to deliver a dagger blow to counter-revolution so as to have the strength to deliver the same blow to the revolutionaries threatening him: what was left of Hébertism and perhaps a portion of the Committee of Public Safety. And so there began again, with a sinister monotony, the see-saw ride with Hébertists and Dantonists on opposite seats of the same board. But this time he needed a more frighteningly ambiguous murder weapon.

When there were parties they could be attacked through general but sufficiently precise definitions. Every party has its tendency, its characteristics that the revolutionary judge can take note of. But when the factions are smashed, when the revolutionary power only has individual hatreds, obscure and unstable intrigues, and uncertain groups to fear, then the law of death must be as formless as the feared conspiracy.

Robespierre, because of his powerlessness in the aftermath of his victory over the Hébertists and Dantonism, because of the mistrust awakened by his clumsy deist inspiration, was forced to kill again. And he had to kill at the same time and with the same law, in a frightful confusion, the counter-revolutionaries, the suspects held in the prisons, and the men like Carrier, Fouché, and Barras whom he feared and who feared him.

He would say something in his final speech during Thermidor that is the key to those dark days: “The fall of the factions set all vices free.” He meant by this that the revolutionary power, whose highest representative he was, was no longer threatened by political systems, but by the dispersed intrigues of egoism, envy, and fear. It was necessary that the law of death insinuate itself into the diversity of hearts. And in order for it to adapt to all forms it had to be formless, be a kind of ambiguous specter that on the same day would recruit its victims in the prisons, on the Mountain of the Convention, and at the Committee of Public Safety.

This was the law of Prairial. In summary, it created terribly vague crimes, dispensed the accuser of providing any proof, and deprived the accused of any means of defense:

“The revolutionary tribunal is established to punish the enemies of the people.

“The enemies of the people are those who seek to destroy public liberty either by force or by ruse.

“The enemies of the people are those who provoked the reestablisment of royalty or sought to demean or dissolve the National Convention and the revolutionary and republican government of which it is the center;

“Those who betrayed the Republic in the command of forts and armies and any other military function;

“Those who sought to prevent the provisioning of Paris or caused famine in the Republic;

“Those who assisted the projects of the enemies of France, either by favoring the freeing and the impunity granted conspirators and the aristocracy, or by corrupting the elected representatives of the people, or by abusing the principles of the Revolution, or the laws and measures of the government by false and perfidious applications of them;

“Those who mislead the people or the representatives of the people in order to lead them to undertake measures contrary to the interest of liberty;

“Those who seek to inspire discouragement in order to favor the undertakings of the tyrannies leagued against the Republic;

“Those who spread false news in order to divide and trouble the people;

“Those who seek to lead public opinion astray and to prevent the education of the people, to deprave morals, and to corrupt the public consciousness.”

“Truly, with such vague crimes there was not a man in France, counter-revolutionary or revolutionary, who wasn’t threatened by the law of 22 Prairial. And what summary procedures! What a terrible sanction!

“The punishment for all crimes falling under the jurisdiction of the revolutionary tribunal is death.

“The proof necessary to condemn the enemies of the people is any kind of document, either material or moral, either verbal or written, which would naturally obtain the assent of any fair and reasonable person. The rule governing judgment is the conscience of the jurors enlightened by the love of the Fatherland. Their goal: the triumph of the Republic and the ruin of its enemies. The procedure: the simple methods that good sense indicates to arrive at the knowledge of truth in the forms determined by the law.

“If there exist either material or moral proofs independent of testimonial proofs no witnesses shall be heard unless this formality appears to be necessary in order to uncover accomplices or for other major considerations of public interest.

“The law grants patriotic jurors as defenders of slandered patriots. It grants none to conspirators.”

And so, no witnesses, except witnesses for the prosecution; no defenders; no discussion: there was only summary execution. This law of Prarial is like a fantastic knife able to slide itself in everywhere, to insinuate itself like a shadow, and suddenly, when it touches the vertebrae of the neck, finds its murderous rigidity.

From this point on there was no doubt that Robespierre was lost. This law demonstrates that he was no longer capable of confronting the immensity of the problem and events, and that the void left by the disappearance of his enemies had caused him to suffer from vertigo. Obviously, if he proposed and imposed this atrocious law on the Committee of Public Safety it was with the hope and the thought of bringing things to a rapid conclusion. No discussions, nothing that recalled the scenes of the trial of the Dantonists: mute, rapid, and oppressive death. Robespierre told himself that after a few weeks of this regime, which would thoroughly freeze with fear all the enemies of the Revolution, he would so thoroughly have eliminated all those he called “false revolutionaries” that he would finally be able to introduce a normal regime.

The excesses of the Terror were to have led to the abolition of the Terror. Robespierre dreamed of intensifying terrorism, of concentrating it in a few terrifying and unforgettable weeks, in order to have the strength and the right to have done with terrorism. By diluting the Terror, in prolonging it, there was a risk of forever enervating the Revolution. Let all the horror be crammed into a few days. O Death, sinister craftsman, hurry, do your work in haste. Don’t rest either by day or by night. And when your horrible task is completed you will be placed on permanent leave.

This was a mad dream. Instead of playing this desperate card at the risk of seeming the dupe, Robespierre should have demonstrated confidence in all the survivors of the factions he'd smashed. Even if he succeeded, or appeared to succeed; even if he managed to strike at the same time both the counter-revolutionary and suspect prisoners and those revolutionaries who caused him trouble or disgusted him, it would only have been a temporary solution. It would have been necessary to start over the next day, and the policy of confidence that alone could have saved the revolutionary government after the elimination of organized Hébertism and Dantonism had become even more difficult after the period of frantic executions. New mistrusts were awakened, provoking new rigorous measures. But there was a strong chance that this risky and terrible operation would not succeed. Barely had it begun than it silently brought all worries and fears together in a coalition against Robespierre. The counter-revolutionaries, the suspects, and the moderates, become the bloody ransom for future and uncertain maneuvers for clemency, immediately tied the name of Robespierre to the system of the Terror. In their eyes he became the man of the law of Prairial.

The Girondins and their friends that he had saved suddenly asked if he hadn’t done so calculatedly and if they weren’t going to be sacrificed to new calculations. Hanging over the Dantonists was the threat of “morality.”

All the representatives on mission who according to Robespierre had “abused revolutionary principles” and compromised the Convention by their cruelties or disorders: Tallien, Barras, Carrier, and Fouché, read on Robespierre’s face – however closed it might have been – their death sentence. They instinctively found their means of defense: Robespierre was headed towards dictatorship, or rather he exercised it. At the Festival of the Supreme Being low yet audible voices had murmured as he passed: “There are still Brutuses.” The law of Prairial had not received the whole-hearted consent of the entire Committee of Public Safety. Robespierre had written it with Couthon and Saint-Just; the others had gone along with it. Billaud-Varenne and Collot d'Herbois began to be frightened by Robespierre’s primacy and the latter for his safety, the former for his share of power. The Convention only passed the law with a reservation that annulled the useful effect that Robespierre hoped for from it: the Convention decreed that it alone could proceed to the arrest of its members. Robespierre couldn’t strike with the rapid and decisive blows he'd hoped for.

The same distrust could be found in the Committee of General Security whose police bureau, created by Robespierre and annexed by him to the Committee of Public Safety, had offended many. Robespierre felt himself caught in a network of hostilities, and the terrible law he counted on for the final liquidation of the Terror was paralyzed and falsified in his hands.

From that point, through a sudden change in tactics he affected to lose interest in it. From the moment the law couldn’t touch the principal guilty parties, those seated in the Convention; from the moment that it couldn’t with certainty and at the moment chosen by Robespierre himself purge the Revolution of Carrier, Fouché, Bourdon de l'Oise, Tallien, and Barras, it became nothing but a useless killing machine. It was thus better to leave the responsibility for its functioning to those who had thwarted its political value.

For its part the revolutionary tribunal, as if it too wanted to escape its frightful responsibility by taking on an appearance of automatism, interpreted the law of Prairial as a law of mechanical murder. It was simply a matter of killing as many as possible. Every day the accused filled several rows of seats and they were sent off with barely a word; heads fell by the hundreds. This was the great Terror that caused more victims in the few weeks between 22 Prairial and the 9 Thermidor than the revolutionary regime had between March 1793 and 22 Prairial of the year II. There were frightful intrigues around the guillotine. Robespierre didn’t intervene, didn’t moderate the use of the terrible machine, thus showing that it was no longer his machine, that it was no longer his law. In addition, Fouquier-Tinville, the public prosecutor, and the juries, affecting not to see that the law had lost a large part of what, for Robespierre, had been its raison d'être, saw to it that it functioned at full steam. It consoled them all the more in that it rendered Robespierre odious without making him any stronger. And Robespierre couldn’t say, “You know full well that the law has lost its object since it can no longer render justice to the wretches taking refuge in the Convention.” No, he couldn’t say this; he couldn’t disavow the mangled machine that killed in his name. His enemies didn’t let pass a single occasion that could compromise him or do him harm. They made much noise converning the petition of a zealot of the Supreme Being who demanded that the name of god not be profaned by oaths.

Was the Inquisition to be reborn? Yes, an Inquisition and a dictatorship, and Robespierre, as Saint-Just said, was going to “have Scylla’s phalanxes march before God.”

A crackpot, a madwoman, Catherine Théot, tied to the Benedictine Dom Gerle, announced a mystical era when Robespierre would be the savior of men. The Committee of General Security carried out an inquest concerning this absurd affair, inflated its importance, and it was only with difficulty that Robespierre was able to save the prophetess from the gallows.

Was the Incorruptible preparing his tyranny by corrupting the spirits of the simple through religious fanaticism? Barère cynically praised the law of Prairial, perhaps to court Robespierre, perhaps in order to aggravate the universal terror with fright-inducing comments. He said with a calculated and atrocious joviality, “It is only the dead who never return.”

Billaud-Varenne and Collot d'Herbois either sulked or, at the stormy sessions of the Committee of Public Safety, attacked Robespierre. Barère remained silent; Saint-Just was with the army; Carnot and Prieur closed themselves off in their military specialty. Lindet dealt with virtually nothing but subsistence goods and we will recall that he had refused to sign Danton’s death saying, “I'm here to feed patriots, not to kill them.”

Isolated and embittered, at the beginning of Messidor Robespierre refused to appear at the Committee of Public Safety. Or at least he ceased to assume his portion of action and responsibility. Why does M. Hamel insist on denying this? He cites in vain a few Committee decrees signed by Robespierre in these final weeks. This signifies nothing but the carrying out of a mechanical task.

But political deliberations were suspended, as Saint-Just himself declared in his speech of 9 Thermidor. Robespierre, no longer able to count on the law of Prairial, affected to have no interest in it. And no longer the master of the government, he left responsibility for governing to others. For his part, he prepared his revenge. He was going to attempt by other means to the heads fall that the law of Prairial could no longer give him. He assured himself of the ever closer cooperation of the Jacobins. They had continued to be united with Robespierre. It was in him and him alone that they saw democracy, the Revolution sovereign and organized. In the Commune, national agent Payan had replaced Chaumette, and mayor Fleuriot and Pache were totally devoted to him. Hanriot, who commanded the National Guard was also in his pocket. Would he use the might of the people to force the Convention’s hand, to wrest from it the accusation against those he wanted to destroy and the initiative for which it had reserved to itself? No; Robespierre still counted on the force of his words, on his moral authority, on all those things which secret intrigues had undermined but hadn’t destroyed. At the Jacobin Club he took the initiative against Fouché. He reproached de la Nièvre for his materialist and atheist policies; he also reproached him, as if to mix all grievances together and to provide a guarantee to the revolutionaries, of having mistreated the most fervent democrats of Lyon, the friends of Chalier. Fouché refused to accept combat in the closed field of the Jacobins. Surprised by the first attack and invited to explain himself at a later session, he didn’t appear, but instead brought together the threads of the conspiracy against Robespierre. During the night he was to warn the members of the Convention he knew to be – or believed to be, or wanted to believe to be – threatened. Lists of the proscribed circulated, every day growing longer through intrigue and fear. Perhaps the Convention, finding a burst of courage in its excess of fear, would strike first.

And precisely during the period when Robespierre seemed to have withdrawn his thoughts from the Committee of Public Safety the army achieved its most brilliant victories. The Army of the Sambre-et-Meuse under the command of Jourdan, with Kléber and Marceau as lieutenants, had accelerated its march. On the 7 Messidor it took Charleroi; on 8 Messidor, after a long and glorious combat, it dislodged the Austrians from the battlefield of Fleurus and forced them to retreat. On 22 Messidor it made its triumphant entry into Brussels. With each new victory it became more difficult for Robespierre to strike at the Committee of Public Safety. This is why Barère would later say, “Victories descended on Robespierre like Furies.” The moment of crisis had arrived.