Georges Couthon

Last updated

Georges Couthon
Georges Couthon.png
Georges Auguste Couthon by Bonneville, Musée Carnavalet, Paris
Member of the Committee of Public Safety
In office
10 July 1793 28 July 1794
32nd President of the National Convention
In office
21 December 1793 5 January 1794
Preceded by Jean-Henri Voulland
Succeeded by Jacques Louis David
Deputy of the National Convention
In office
20 September 1792 10 July 1794
Succeeded byGilbert-Amable Jourde
Constituency Puy-de-Dôme
Personal details
Born(1755-12-22)22 December 1755
Orcet, Kingdom of France
Died28 July 1794(1794-07-28) (aged 38)
Place de la Révolution, Paris, France
Political party The Mountain
Signature Couthon signature, French politician during the French Revolution.jpg

Georges Auguste Couthon (22 December 1755 – 28 July 1794) was a French politician and lawyer known for his service as a deputy in the Legislative Assembly during the French Revolution. Couthon was elected to the Committee of Public Safety on 30 May 1793 and served as a close associate of Maximilien Robespierre and Louis Antoine de Saint-Just until his arrest and execution in 1794 during the period of the Reign of Terror. Couthon played an important role in the development of the Law of 22 Prairial, which was responsible for a sharp increase in the number of executions of accused counter-revolutionaries.



Couthon was born on 22 December 1755 in Orcet in the province of Auvergne. His father was a notary, his mother the daughter of a shopkeeper. Couthon, like generations of his family before him, was a member of the lower bourgeoisie. Following in his father's footsteps, Couthon became a notary. The skills he acquired enabled him to serve on the Provincial Assembly of Auvergne in 1787, his first experience of politics. [1] He was well-regarded by others as an honest, well-mannered individual. [2]

As the Revolution grew nearer, Couthon started to become disabled due to advancing paralysis in both legs. While doctors diagnosed Couthon with meningitis in 1792, Couthon blamed his paralysis on the frequent sexual experiences of his youth; although he began treating his condition with mineral baths, he grew so weak by 1793 that he was confined to a wheelchair [3] driven by hand cranks via gears. [4] His political aspirations took him away from Orcet and to Paris, where he joined the Freemasons in 1790 in Clermont. While in Clermont, he became a fixture at its literary society, where he earned acclaim for his discussion on the topic of "Patience." [5] In 1791, Couthon became one of the deputies of the Legislative Assembly, representing Puy-de-Dôme. [6]


Georges Auguste Couthon Couthon1.png
Georges Auguste Couthon

In 1791, Couthon traveled to Paris to fulfill his duty as a deputy in the Legislative Assembly. He then joined the growing Jacobin Club of Paris. He chose to sit on the Left at the first meeting of the Assembly, but soon decided against associating himself with such radicals as he feared they were "shocking the majority." [7] He was a very proficient speaker, and there is evidence that he exploited his condition as a paraplegic in order to gain the ear of the Assembly on issues he found important. [8]

In September 1792, Couthon was elected to the National Convention. During a visit to Flanders, where he sought treatment for his health, he met and befriended Charles François Dumouriez, later writing praises of him to the Assembly, referring to him as "a man essential to us." [9] His relationship with Dumouriez caused Couthon to consider joining the Girondist faction of the Assembly briefly, but after the Girondist electors of the Committee of the Constitution refused Couthon a seat on the Committee in October 1792, he ultimately committed himself to the Montagnards and the inner group formed around Maximilien Robespierre - a man with whom he shared many opinions. Couthon became an enthusiastic supporter of the Montagnards and often echoed their opinions. At the Trial of Louis XVI in December 1792, he argued loudly against the Girondist request for a referendum. He would go on to vote for the death sentence without appeal. [10] On 30 May 1793, Couthon was elected to the Committee of Public Safety, where he would work closely with Robespierre and Saint-Just in the planning of policy strategy and policing personnel. [11] Three days after rising to this position, Couthon was the first to demand the arrest of proscribed Girondists. [12]


Growing unrest had been occurring in Lyon in late February and early May. By 5 July 1793, the National Convention determined the city of Lyon to be "in a state of rebellion", and by September, the Committee of Public Safety decided to send representatives to Lyon to end the rebellion. [13] Couthon would be the representative that Lyon would surrender to on 9 October 1793. He was suspicious of the unrest in Lyon upon his arrival, and would not allow the Jacobins of the local administration to meet with one another, fearing an uprising. [14]

On 12 October 1793, the Committee of Public Safety passed a decree that they believed would make an example of Lyon. The decree specified that the city itself was to be destroyed. Following the decree, Couthon established special courts that would supervise the demolition of the richest homes in Lyon, leaving the homes of the poor untouched. [15] In addition to the demolition of the city, the decree dictated that the rebels and the traitors were to be executed. Couthon had difficulty accepting the destruction of Lyon and proceeded slowly with his orders. Eventually, he would find that he could not stomach the task at hand, and by the end of October, he requested the National Convention to send a replacement. [16] Republican atrocities in Lyon began after Couthon was replaced on 3 November 1793 by Jean Marie Collot d'Herbois, who would go on to condemn 1,880 Lyonnais by April 1794. [17]

Law of 22 Prairial

Couthon's wheelchair Fauteuil de Georges Couthon.jpg
Couthon's wheelchair

Following his departure from Lyon, Couthon returned to Paris, and on 21 December, he was elected president of the Convention. He contributed to the prosecution of the Hébertists and continued serving on the Committee of Public Safety for the next several months. On 10 June 1794 (22 Prairial Year II on the French Republican Calendar), Couthon drafted the Law of 22 Prairial with the aid of Robespierre. On the pretext of shortening proceedings, the law deprived the accused of the aid of counsel and of witnesses for their defense in the case of trials before the Revolutionary Tribunal. [18] The Revolutionary Tribunals were charged with quick verdicts of innocence or death for the accused brought before them.

Couthon proposed the law without consulting the rest of the Committee of Public Safety, as both Couthon and Robespierre expected that the Committee would not be receptive to it. [19] The Convention raised objections to the measure, but Couthon justified the measure by arguing that the political crimes overseen by the Revolutionary Tribunals were considerably worse than common crimes because "the existence of free society is threatened." Couthon also famously justified the deprivation of the right to a counsel by declaring that the guilty have no right for a counsel and the innocents do not need any. [20]

Robespierre assisted Couthon in his arguments by subtly implying that any member of the Convention who objected to the new bill should fear being exposed as a traitor to the republic. [21] Both Couthon and Robespierre would be seen as amoral, bloodthirsty dictators due to their vehement defense of the Law of 22 Prairial, and popular opinion would turn against them in the coming weeks.

The law passed, and the rate of executions promptly rose. In Paris alone, compared to an average of 5 executions that was the norm two months earlier (Germinal), 17 executions would take place daily during Prairial, with 26 occurring daily during the following month of Messidor. [22] Between the passing of the Law of 22 Prairial (10 June 1794) and the end of July 1794, 1,515 executions took place at the Place du Trône-Renversé, now Place de la Nation, more than half of the final total of 2,639 executions that occurred between March 1793 and August 1794. [23]


During the crisis preceding the Thermidorian Reaction, Couthon showed considerable courage, giving up a journey to Auvergne in order, as he wrote, that he might either die or triumph with Robespierre and liberty. Robespierre had disappeared from the political arena for an entire month because of a supposed nervous breakdown, and therefore did not realize that the situation in the Convention had changed. His last speech seemed to indicate that another purge of the Convention was necessary, though he refused to name names. In a panic of self-preservation, the Convention called for the arrest of Robespierre and his affiliates, including Couthon, Saint-Just and Robespierre's own brother, Augustin Robespierre. [24] Couthon was guillotined on 10 Thermidor alongside Robespierre, although it took the executioner fifteen minutes (amidst Couthon's screams of pain) to arrange him on the board correctly due to his paralysis. [25]


Bust of Georges Couthon by David d'Angers (1844). David d'Angers - Couthon.jpg
Bust of Georges Couthon by David d'Angers (1844).

Couthon, during the course of the French Revolution, had transitioned from an undecided young deputy to a strongly committed lawmaker. Aside from his actions in Lyon, it is perhaps the creation of the Law of 22 Prairial, and the number of individuals who would be executed due to the law, that has become his lasting legacy. Following the acceptance of Couthon's new decree, executions increased from 134 people in early 1794 to 1,376 people between the months of June and July in 1794. The Law of 22 Prairial also allowed tribunals to target noblemen and members of the clergy with reckless abandon, as the accused no longer could call character witnesses on their behalf. Of the victims executed during June and July 1794, 38 percent were of noble descent and 26 represented the clergy. More than half of the victims came from the wealthier parts of the bourgeoisie. Couthon's lawmaking not only greatly increased the rate of executions across France, but also brought the Terror away from mere counter-revolutionary acts and closer to social discrimination than ever before. [26]

Related Research Articles

Reign of Terror Violent period during the French Revolution

The Reign of Terror, commonly The Terror, was a period of the French Revolution when, following the creation of the First French Republic, a series of massacres and numerous public executions took place in response to revolutionary fervour, anticlerical sentiment, and spurious accusations of treason by Maximilien Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety.

French First Republic Republic governing France, 1792–1804

In the history of France, the First Republic, officially the French Republic, was founded on 22 September 1792 during the French Revolution. The First Republic lasted until the declaration of the First Empire in 1804 under Napoleon, although the form of the government changed several times. This period was characterized by the fall of the monarchy, the establishment of the National Convention and the Reign of Terror, the Thermidorian Reaction and the founding of the Directory, and, finally, the creation of the Consulate and Napoleon's rise to power.

Bertrand Barère

Bertrand Barère de Vieuzac was a French politician, freemason, journalist, and one of the most prominent members of the National Convention, representing the Plain. During the French Revolution he stopped supporting and became an opponent of Maximilien Robespierre.

Committee of Public Safety De facto executive government in France (1793–1794)

The Committee of Public Safety, created in April 1793 by the National Convention and then restructured in July 1793, formed the provisional government in France during the Reign of Terror (1793–1794), a phase of the French Revolution. The Committee of Public Safety succeeded the previous Committee of General Defence and assumed its role of protecting the new republic against foreign attacks and internal rebellion. As a wartime measure, the committee was given broad supervisory powers over the armed forces, judiciary and legislature. It was formed as an administrative body to supervise and expedite the work of the executive bodies of the convention and of the government ministers appointed by the convention.

Jacobin political club during the French Revolution

The Society of the Friends of the Constitution, renamed the Society of the Jacobins, Friends of Freedom and Equality after 1792 and commonly known as the Jacobin Club or simply the Jacobins, was the most influential political club during the French Revolution of 1789. The period of its political ascendancy includes the Reign of Terror, during which time well over ten thousand people were put on trial and executed in France, many for political crimes.

National Convention Single-chamber assembly in France from 21 September 1792 to 26 October 1795

The National Convention was a parliament of the French Revolution, following the two-year National Constituent Assembly and the one-year Legislative Assembly. Created after the great insurrection of 10 August 1792, it was the first French government organized as a republic, abandoning the monarchy altogether. The Convention sat as a single-chamber assembly from 20 September 1792 to 26 October 1795.

The Mountain Political group during the French Revolution

The Mountain was a political group during the French Revolution. Its members, called the Montagnards, sat on the highest benches in the National Assembly.

Jacques-Nicolas Billaud-Varenne French revolutionary leader

Jacques-Nicolas Billaud-Varenne, also known as Jean Nicolas, was a French personality of the Revolutionary period. Though not one of the most well known figures of the French Revolution, Jacques Nicolas Billaud-Varenne was an instrumental figure of the period known as the Reign of Terror. Billaud-Varenne climbed his way up the ladder of power during that period, becoming one of the most militant members of the Committee of Public Safety. He was recognized and worked with French Revolution figures Georges Danton and Maximilien Robespierre, and is often considered one of the key architects of The Terror. "No, we will not step backward, our zeal will only be smothered in the tomb; either the Revolution will triumph or we will all die."

Jean-Lambert Tallien

Jean-Lambert Tallien was a French political figure of the revolutionary period.

Jean-Baptiste Carrier

Jean-Baptiste Carrier was a French Revolutionary and most notable for his actions during the Reign of Terror in Vendée. While suppressing a Royalist counter-revolution, he commanded the execution of 4,000 civilians, mostly priests, women and children in what Carrier described as "the National Bathtub." After the fall of the Robespierre government, Carrier was tried for war crimes, found guilty and executed.

Philippe-Antoine Merlin de Douai

Philippe-Antoine Merlin, known as Merlin de Douai was a French politician and lawyer.

Louis Antoine de Saint-Just Leader during the French Revolution

Louis Antoine Léon de Saint-Just was a Jacobin leader during the French Revolution. He was a close friend of Maximilien Robespierre and served as his most trusted ally during the period of Jacobin rule (1793–94) in the French First Republic. Saint-Just worked as a legislator and a military commissar, but he achieved a lasting reputation as the face of the Reign of Terror. He publicly delivered the condemnatory reports that emanated from Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety and defended the use of violence against opponents of the government. He supervised the arrests of some of the most famous figures of the Revolution and saw many of them off to the guillotine. For his unyielding severity, later writers dubbed him the "Angel of Death".

Law of 22 Prairial

The Law of 22 Prairial, also known as the loi de la Grande Terreur, the law of the Great Terror, was enacted on 10 June 1794. It was proposed by Georges Auguste Couthon but seems to have been written by Robespierre according to Laurent Lecointre. By means of this law the Committee of Public Safety simplified the judicial process to one of indictment and prosecution.

Revolutionary Tribunal Tribunal during the French revolution

The Revolutionary Tribunal was a court instituted by the National Convention during the French Revolution for the trial of political offenders. It eventually became one of the most powerful engines of the Reign of Terror.

Edmond Louis Alexis Dubois-Crancé

Edmond Louis Alexis Dubois-Crancé was a French soldier and politician.

First White Terror

The White Terror was a period during the French Revolution in 1795, when a wave of violent attacks swept across much of France. The victims of this violence were people identified as being associated with the Reign of Terror – followers of Robespierre and Marat, and members of local Jacobin clubs. The violence was perpetrated primarily by those whose relatives or associates had been victims of the Great Terror, or whose lives and livelihoods had been threatened by the government and its supporters before the Thermidorean Reaction. Principally these were, in Paris, the Muscadins, and in the countryside, monarchists, supporters of the Girondins, those who opposed the Civil Constitution of the Clergy and those otherwise hostile to the Jacobin political agenda. The Great Terror had been largely an organised political programme, based on laws such as the Law of 22 Prairial, and enacted through official institutions such as the Revolutionary Tribunal, but the White Terror was essentially a series of uncoordinated attacks by local activists who shared common perspectives but no central organisation. In particular locations, there were however more organised counter-revolutionary movements such as the Companions of Jehu in Lyon and the Companions of the Sun in Provence. The name 'White Terror' derives from the white cockades worn in the hats of royalists.

Maximilien Robespierre French revolutionary lawyer and politician

Maximilien François Marie Isidore de Robespierre was a French lawyer and statesman who was one of the best-known and most influential figures of the French Revolution. As a member of the Constituent Assembly and the Jacobin Club, he campaigned for universal manhood suffrage and the abolition both of celibacy for the clergy, and slavery. In 1791, Robespierre became an outspoken advocate for the citizens without a political voice, for their unrestricted admission to the National Guard, to public offices, and for the right to carry arms in self-defence. He played an important part in the agitation which brought about the fall of the French monarchy on 10 August 1792 and the summoning of a National Convention. His goal was to create a united and indivisible France, equality before the law, to abolish prerogatives and to defend the principles of direct democracy.

The revolt of Lyon against the National Convention was a counter-revolutionary movement in the city of Lyon during the time of the French Revolution. It was a revolt of moderates against the more radical National Convention, the third government during the French Revolution. It broke out in June 1793 and was put down in December of the same year, after government forces had besieged the city.

Jacques-Alexis Thuriot de la Rosière French noble

Jacques-Alexis Thuriot, known as Thuriot de la Rosière, and later as chevalier Thuriot de la Rosière, chevalier de l'Empire was an important French statesman of the French Revolution, and a minor figure under the French Empire of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Fall of Maximilien Robespierre

The Coup d'état of 9 Thermidor or the Fall of Maximilien Robespierre refers to the series of events beginning with Maximilien Robespierre's address to the National Convention on 8 Thermidor Year II, his arrest the next day, and his execution on 10 Thermidor Year II. In the speech of 8 Thermidor, Robespierre spoke of the existence of internal enemies, conspirators, and calumniators, within the Convention and the governing Committees. He refused to name them, which alarmed the deputies who feared Robespierre was preparing another purge of the Convention.


  1. Geoffrey Brunn, "The Evolution of a Terrorist: Georges Auguste Couthon." The Journal of Modern History 2, no. 3 (September 1930): 410, JSTOR   1898818
  2. R.R. Palmer, Twelve Who Ruled: The Year of the Terror in the French Revolution (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1941), 13
  3. Palmer, Twelve Who Ruled, 13-14
  4. The wheelchair is still preserved in the Carnavalet Museum. See "Fauteuil de Georges Couthon" . Retrieved 5 July 2013.
  5. Palmer, Twelve Who Ruled, 13
  6. Brunn, "The Evolution of a Terrorist," 411.
  7. Bruun, "The Evolution of a Terrorist", 416.
  8. Bruun, "The Evolution of a Terrorist," 413.
  9. Brunn, "The Evolution of a Terrorist," 420.
  10. Bruun, "The Evolution of a Terrorist," 427-428
  11. Colin Jones, The Longman Companion to the French Revolution (London: Longman Publishing Group, 1990), 90-91
  12. David Andress, The Terror: The Merciless War for Freedom in Revolutionary France (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), 177
  13. David L. Longfellow, "Silk Weavers and the Social Struggle in Lyon during the French Revolution, 1789-94," French Historical Studies 12, no. 1 (Spring, 1981): 22, JSTOR   286305
  14. Longfellow, "Silk Weavers," 23
  15. William Doyle, The Oxford History of the French Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 253-254.
  16. Mansfield, Paul. "The Repression of Lyon 1793-4: Origins, Responsibility and Significance." French History, 1988: 74-101.
  17. Doyle, The Oxford History of the French Revolution, 254
  18. "The Law of 22 Prairial Year II (10 June 1794)," George Mason University, (23 January 2012)
  19. Doyle, The Oxford History of the French Revolution, 277.
  20. Les coupables n'y ont pas droit et les innocents n'en ont pas besoin cited from Compte Rendu Mission d’information sur les questions mémorielles of the French National Assembly.
  21. Simon Schama, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 836-837.
  22. Schama, Citizens, 837.
  23. Doyle, The Oxford History of the French Revolution, 275.
  24. Jones, Colin. The Longman Companion to the French Revolution. London: Longman Publishing Group, 1990.
  25. Lenotre, G. Romances of the French Revolution. Translated by George Frederic William Lees. New York: William Heinemann: 1909.
  26. Doyle, The Oxford Dictionary of the French Revolution, 275

Wikisource-logo.svg This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain : Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Couthon, Georges". Encyclopædia Britannica . 7 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 337.