Law of Suspects

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Note: This decree should not be confused with the Law of General Security (French : Loi de sûreté générale), also known as the "Law of Suspects," adopted by Napoleon III in 1858 that allowed punishment for any prison action, and permitted the arrest and deportation, without judgment, of anyone convicted of political offenses after 1848.

The Law of Suspects (French : Loi des suspects) was a decree passed by the French National Convention on 17 September 1793, during the French Revolution. Some historians consider this decree the start of 'the (Reign of) Terror' over France; [1] [2] they argue that the decree marked a significant weakening of individual freedoms that led to "revolutionary paranoia" that swept the nation. [3]

French language Romance language

French is a Romance language of the Indo-European family. It descended from the Vulgar Latin of the Roman Empire, as did all Romance languages. French evolved from Gallo-Romance, the spoken Latin in Gaul, and more specifically in Northern Gaul. Its closest relatives are the other langues d'oïl—languages historically spoken in northern France and in southern Belgium, which French (Francien) has largely supplanted. French was also influenced by native Celtic languages of Northern Roman Gaul like Gallia Belgica and by the (Germanic) Frankish language of the post-Roman Frankish invaders. Today, owing to France's past overseas expansion, there are numerous French-based creole languages, most notably Haitian Creole. A French-speaking person or nation may be referred to as Francophone in both English and French.

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

The National Convention was the first government 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.

French Revolution social and political revolution in France and its colonies occurring from 1789 to 1798

The French Revolution was a period of far-reaching social and political upheaval in France and its colonies beginning in 1789. The Revolution overthrew the monarchy, established a republic, catalyzed violent periods of political turmoil, and finally culminated in a dictatorship under Napoleon who brought many of its principles to areas he conquered in Western Europe and beyond. Inspired by liberal and radical ideas, the Revolution profoundly altered the course of modern history, triggering the global decline of absolute monarchies while replacing them with republics and liberal democracies. Through the Revolutionary Wars, it unleashed a wave of global conflicts that extended from the Caribbean to the Middle East. Historians widely regard the Revolution as one of the most important events in human history.


The law ordered the arrest of all avowed enemies and suspected enemies of the Revolution, and specifically aimed at unsubmissive former nobles, émigrés, officials removed or suspended from office, officers suspected of treason, and hoarders of goods.

Nobility privileged social class

Nobility is a social class normally ranked immediately under royalty and found in some societies that have a formal aristocracy. Nobility possesses more acknowledged privileges and higher social status than most other classes in society. The privileges associated with nobility may constitute substantial advantages over or relative to non-nobles, or may be largely honorary, and vary by country and era. As referred to in the Medieval chivalric motto "noblesse oblige", nobles can also carry a lifelong duty to uphold various social responsibilities, such as honorable behavior, customary service, or leadership positions. Membership in the nobility, including rights and responsibilities, is typically hereditary.

Treason Crime against ones sovereign or nation

In law, treason is criminal disloyalty to the state. It is a crime that covers some of the more extreme acts against one's nation or sovereign. This usually includes things such as participating in a war against one's native country, attempting to overthrow its government, spying on its military, its diplomats, or its secret services for a hostile and foreign power, or attempting to kill its head of state. A person who commits treason is known in law as a traitor.

The following year, the decree was expanded and became more strict. Implementation of the law and arrests were entrusted to oversight committees, and not to the legal authorities. [4] The decree also introduced the maxim that subjects had to prove their innocence, which was later extended by the Law of 22 Prairial (10 June 1794). [5]
The decree, with its effect of "Terror", lasted until July 1794, when the decree fell into disuse. [6]

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 be 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.


The Law of Suspects, actually a decree rather than a law, was based on a proposal by Philippe-Antoine Merlin de Douai and Jean Jacques Régis de Cambacérès, approved by the National Convention of the French First Republic. [7] [8] It supplemented an earlier law of 10 March 1793, which created the revolutionary tribunals but contained a much narrower definition of suspects. [5]

A decree is a rule of law usually issued by a head of state, according to certain procedures. It has the force of law. The particular term used for this concept may vary from country to country. The executive orders made by the President of the United States, for example, are decrees. In non-legal English usage, however, the term refers to any authoritarian decision. Documents or archives in the format of royal decrees or farming were issued by rulers.

Philippe-Antoine Merlin de Douai French politician

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

Jean Jacques Régis de Cambacérès French lawyer and statesman during the French Revolution and the First Empire, best remembered as the author of the Napoleonic Code

Jean-Jacques-Régis de Cambacérès, duc de Parme, was a French nobleman, lawyer and statesman during the French Revolution and the First Empire. He is best remembered as one of the authors of the Napoleonic Code, which still forms the basis of French civil law and French-inspired civil law in many countries.

Before its enactment, obstinate, anti-republican Catholic priests, called 'refractory clergy' (French : clergé réfractaire), were alleged to be royalist suspects by the Decree of 17 November 1791. Beginning on 10 August 1792, when the constitutional reign of Louis XVI was suspended by the Legislative Assembly, these priests, as well émigrés and their parents, had been expelled, deported, jailed, and sometimes murdered by radical revolutionary sans-culottes .

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.

During the French Revolution, the National Assembly abolished the traditional structure of the Catholic Church in France and reorganized it as an institution within the structure of the new French government. One of the new requirements placed upon all clergy was the necessity of an oath of loyalty to the state before all foreign influences such as the Pope. This created a schism within the French clergy, with those taking the oath known as juring priests, and those refusing the oath known as non-juring or refractory priests.

An émigré is a person who has emigrated, often with a connotation of political or social self-exile. The word is the past participle of the French émigrer, "to emigrate".

The term suspect had been in common parlance by 1793, but had not been defined by consensus. Radical sections of Paris demand that these suspects be arrested, but National Convention failed to act decisively. On 23 March it ordered a disarmament of suspects and, on 2 June, it decreed that those "notoriously suspected of aristocracy and bad citizenship" should be arrested. [9]

The Law of Suspects was finally debated after the invasion of the National Convention by the sections of Paris on 5 September. Its purpose was to define broadly who was to be arrested and examined before revolutionary tribunals. It also forced legislature to adopt the Maximum. [5]

The Committee of Public Safety was given broad powers to arrest and punish. On its behalf, the Surveillance Committees, constituted by a law of 21 March 1793, were responsible for drawing up lists of suspects and for issuing arrest warrants. [10] Citizens were required to carry certificates of civism, attesting to the bearer's good citizenship. [9]

The famous definition of suspects as: "Those who have done nothing against freedom, also have done nothing for it," was part of a provision written by the regional Paris Commune on 11 October 1793. It is often wrongly attributed to wording in the Law of Suspects itself. [11]

Text of the decree

Text of the decree, issued by the French National Convention, ordering "the arrest of Suspect People", 17 September 1793. Decret du 17 septembre 1793 relatif aux gens suspect.png
Text of the decree, issued by the French National Convention, ordering "the arrest of Suspect People", 17 September 1793.

Decree that orders the arrest of Suspect People.

Of 17 September 1793.

The National Convention, having heard the report of its legislative committee on the method of bringing into effect its decree of last 12 August, decrees the following:

Art. I. Immediately after publication of this decree, all suspect people who are to be found on the territory of the Republic, and who are still in freedom, will be put under arrest.

II. Considered as suspect people are:
1º Those who, either by their conduct, or their relations, or by their words or writings, have shown themselves to be partisans of tyranny or of federalism, and enemies of freedom;
2º Those who cannot justify, in the manner prescribed by the decree of last 21 March, their means of existence and the acquittal of their civic duties;
3º Those to whom have been denied certificates of good citizenship;
4º Public officials who have been suspended or discharged from their functions by the National Convention or its commissioners and have not been reinstated, notably those who have been or ought to be discharged under the law of last 14 August;
5º Those former nobles, with their husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, son or daughters, brothers or sisters, and agents of émigrés, who have not consistently demonstrated their commitment to the Revolution;
6º Those who have emigrated during the interval between 1 July 1789 and the publication of the law of 8 April 1792, even if they have returned to France within the time prescribed by that law, or earlier.

III. (etc.) [12]

Estimated number of victims

End of the law

The Law of Suspects fell into disuse by July 1794, which meant the end of "the Terror". Direction was replaced by revolutionary surveillance committees (Comité de surveillance révolutionnaire) responsible for the practical exercise of repression, with oversight by district committees. [6] The law was officially abolished in October 1795, immediately preceding the installation of the Directoire in November 1795.


See also

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