Law of 22 Prairial

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Contemporary cartoon showing Robespierre executing the executioner. The monument in the background carries the inscription 'Here Lies All Of France' Robespierre executant le bourreau.jpg
Contemporary cartoon showing Robespierre executing the executioner. The monument in the background carries the inscription 'Here Lies All Of France'

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 (22 Prairial of the Year II under the French Revolutionary Calendar). It was proposed by Georges Auguste Couthon but seems to have been written by Robespierre according to Laurent Lecointre. [1] By means of this law the Committee of Public Safety simplified the judicial process to one of indictment and prosecution.

Reign of Terror Period during the French Revolution

The Reign of Terror, or The Terror, refers to a period during the French Revolution after the First French Republic was established in which multiple massacres and public executions occurred in response to revolutionary fervor, anti-clerical sentiment, and frivolous accusations of treason by Maximilien Robespierre and his Committee of Public Safety.

Georges Couthon French politician and lawyer

Georges Auguste Couthon 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.

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 de facto, interim, and executive government in France during the Reign of Terror (1793–1794), a stage of the French Revolution. The Committee of Public Safety succeeded the previous Committee of General Defence and assumed its role of protecting the newly established republic against foreign attacks and internal rebellion. As a wartime measure, the Committee—composed at first of nine and later of twelve members—was given broad supervisory powers over military, judicial and legislative efforts. 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. As the Committee tried to meet the dangers of a coalition of European nations and counter-revolutionary forces within the country, it became more and more powerful.

Contents

Background

The immediate background to the introduction of the Prairial Law was the attempted assassinations of Jean-Marie Collot d'Herbois on 23 May and of Maximilien Robespierre on 25 May. Introducing the decree at the Convention, Georges Couthon, who had drafted it, argued that political crimes were far worse than common crimes because in the latter 'only individuals are wounded' where as in the former 'the existence of free society is threatened'. Under these circumstances, 'indulgence is an atrocity... clemency is parricide.'. [2] The law was an extension of the centralisation and organisation of the Terror, following the decrees of 16 April and 8 May which had suspended the revolutionary court in the provinces and brought all political cases for trial in the capital. [3] The result of these laws was that by June 1794 Paris was full of suspects awaiting trial. On 29 April it was reported that the forty prisons of Paris contained 6,921 prisoners; by 11 June this number had increased to 7,321 and by 28 July to 7,800. [4]

Jean-Marie Collot dHerbois French actor and writer

Jean-Marie Collot d'Herbois was a French actor, dramatist, essayist, and revolutionary. He was a member of the Committee of Public Safety during the Reign of Terror and, while he saved Madame Tussaud from the Guillotine, he administered the execution of more than 2,000 people in the city of Lyon.

Maximilien Robespierre French revolutionary lawyer and politician

Maximilien François Marie Isidore de Robespierre was a French lawyer and politician 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 of both celibacy for the clergy and of slavery. Robespierre was an outspoken advocate for the citizens without a voice, for their unrestricted admission to the National Guard, to public offices, and for the right to carry arms in self-defence. Robespierre played an important part in the agitation which brought about the fall of the French monarchy in August 1792 and the summoning of a National Convention.

'No Revolutionary Tribunal could work fast enough to prevent the ship of state sinking under such a sea of crime. What was to be done? Precedents had been created at Lyon, Marseille and elsewhere.... at Orange in particular, there had been set up, by decree of the Convention, a Commission of Five, which, by dispensing with the usual formalities of counsel and witness, had succeeded in condemning to death, within two months, 332 out of the 591 persons brought before it'. [4]

The law was also prompted by the idea that members of the Convention who had supported Georges Danton were politically unreliable - a view shared by Robespierre, Couthon, Saint-Just and others. They felt that these people needed to be brought swiftly to justice without a full debate by the Convention itself. They considered Jean-Pierre-André Amar, for example, to be suspect. [5]

Georges Danton French revolutionary

Georges Jacques Danton was a leading figure in the early stages of the French Revolution, in particular as the first president of the Committee of Public Safety. Danton's role in the onset of the Revolution has been disputed; many historians describe him as "the chief force in the overthrow of the French monarchy and the establishment of the First French Republic".

Louis Antoine de Saint-Just military and political leader

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".

Jean-Pierre-André Amar French politician

Jean-Pierre-André Amar or Jean-Baptiste-André Amar was a French political figure of the Revolution and Freemason.

Purpose

Revolutionary Tribunal in session Tribunal revolutionnaire 04.jpg
Revolutionary Tribunal in session

i. The law extended the reach of the Revolutionary Tribunal, which henceforth could hear cases for 'slandering patriotism', 'seeking to inspire discouragement', 'spreading false news' and 'depraving morals, corrupting the public conscience and impairing the purity and energy of the revolutionary government'. [6]

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.

ii. It placed an active obligation on all citizens to denounce and bring to justice those suspected - 'Every citizen is empowered to seize conspirators and counterrevolutionaries, and to bring them before the magistrates. He is required to denounce them as soon as he knows of them.' As Couthon explained to the Convention, 'For a citizen to become suspect it is sufficient that rumour accuses him'. [7]

iii. It limited trials in the Revolutionary Tribunal to three days. [8]

iv. It prevented the Revolutionary Tribunal both from calling witnesses, or from allowing defence counsel to the accused. Juries were to come to judgement entirely on the basis of the accusation and the accused's own defence. [6]

v. It required the Tribunal to come to one of only two possible verdicts - acquittal or death. [6]

vi. The law cancelled all previous legislation on the same subject. Without being explicit, this removed the immunity of members of the Convention, which until then had protected them from summary arrest and required that the Convention itself vote to send any of its members to trial. [9]

Effect

The Prairial Law had an immediate effect on the tempo of executions under the Terror. From an average of five executions a day in Germinal, the rate rose to seventeen in Prairial and twenty-six in Messidor. [10] The law thus inaugurated the period known as "The Great Terror".

Revolutionary MonthExecutionsAcquittals
Germinal15559
Floréal354159
Prairial509164
Messidor796208
Thermidor 1-934284

Consequences

The proposals were met with dismay when they were presented to the Convention. The Committee of Public Safety had not reviewed the text before it was presented, although it was presented in the name of the Committee itself. The Committee of General Security had not even been informed that the law was being drafted. [11]

Some of the deputies were uneasy, in particular, about the removal of their immunity and asked for the debate to be adjourned so the clauses could be examined. Robespierre refused and demanded immediate discussion. At his insistence the entire decree was voted on, clause by clause. It passed. [5] The next day, 11 June, when Robespierre was absent, Bourdon de l'Oise and Merlin de Douai put forward an amendment proclaiming the inalienable right of the Convention to impeach its own members. The amendment was passed. [5]

Furious, Robespierre and Couthon returned to the Convention the next day, 12 June, and demanded that the amendment of the previous day be revoked. Robespierre made a number of veiled threats and during the debate clashed particularly with Jean-Lambert Tallien. [12] The Convention acceded to Robespierre's wishes and restored the original text of the decree Couthon had drafted. [5]

As the Terror accelerated and members felt more and more threatened, Tallien and others began to make plans for the overthrow of Robespierre. Less than two months later, on 27 July, Tallien and his associates overthrew Robespierre, beginning the Thermidorian Reaction.

The Law of 22 Prairial was repealed on 1 August 1794 and Antoine Quentin Fouquier-Tinville, who had presided over the Revolutionary Tribunal, was arrested and later guillotined. [13]

See also


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References

  1. ROBESPIERRE peint par lui-même, p. 33
  2. Schama, S. Citizens pp. 836-7 Penguin 1989
  3. Thompson, J.M. Robespierre p. 505 Basil Blackwell 1988
  4. 1 2 Thompson, J.M. Robespierre p. 506 Basil Blackwell 1988
  5. 1 2 3 4 Matrat, J. Robespierre p.261 Angus & Robertson 1971
  6. 1 2 3 Schama, S. Citizens pp. 837 Penguin 1989
  7. Matrat, J. Robespierre p.260 Angus & Robertson 1971
  8. Chronicle of the French Revolution p.426 Longman Group 1989
  9. Thompson, J.M. Robespierre p. 508 Basil Blackwell 1988
  10. Schama, S. Citizens p.837 Penguin 1989
  11. Matrat, J. Robespierre p.260 Angus & Robertson 1971
  12. Thompson, J.M. Robespierre p. 510. Blackwell 1988
  13. Chronicle of the French Revolution p.440 Longman Group 1989

Further reading