Revolutionary Tribunal

Last updated

The Tribunal, from La Demagogie en 1793 a Paris by Dauban (H. Plon ; 1868) Tribunal revolutionnaire 04.jpg
The Tribunal, from La Démagogie en 1793 à Paris by Dauban (H. Plon ; 1868)

The Revolutionary Tribunal (French : Tribunal révolutionnaire; unofficially Popular Tribunal) [1] 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. [2]



Tribunal President Herman interrogating Marie-Antoinette Portrait d'Herman d'apres L'interrogatpore de Marie-Antoinette de Pierre Bouillon.jpg
Tribunal President Herman interrogating Marie-Antoinette

The provisional Revolutionary Tribunal was established on 17 August 1792 in response to the Storming of the Tuileries. To ensure that there was some appropriate legal process for dealing with suspects accused of political crimes and treason, rather than arbitrary killing by local committees, Maximilien Robespierre proposed that a new Tribunal be set up, with extraordinary powers to impose the death sentence. [3] :201 The Tribunal was abolished in November 1792 at the start of the trial of Louis XVI, and during this time had sentenced twenty-eight people to death. Mostly these were ordinary criminals rather than political prisoners. [3] :202 [4]

The Revolutionary Tribunal was re-established at a time of crisis in the new French Republic. In the Spring of 1793, the war with the First Coalition was going badly and food shortages were worsening. [5] :325 The government responded by taking a number of measures to defend the integrity of the Republic. On 24 February the National Convention decided to create an army of 300,000 by means of a levée en masse; [5] :325 on 9 March it decided to send a représentant en mission from the Convention to every département. [5] :326

Even in these circumstances, the Convention was initially reluctant to restore the Revolutionary Tribunal. On 10 March, responding to serious disorder in the streets of Paris, Georges Danton, with Robespierre's support, proposed its revival, but the majority of deputés were not in favour. After a long debate, towards midnight, Danton was able to persuade a majority to vote for it only by raising the spectre of further uncontrolled massacres, as had taken place the previous September. If the Convention did not agree to create the Tribunal, he argued, the people would be compelled to make their own justice. [3] :235“Let us be terrible, said Danton, so that the people will not have to be”. [6] On this basis, the Convention finally agreed that there should be established in Paris the Extraordinary Criminal Tribunal [7] :162 [8] (Tribunal criminel extraordinaire), which received the official name of the Revolutionary Tribunal by a decree of 29 October 1793. [9]

Other measures taken in response to the crisis around the same time included the formal establishment of a Revolutionary Watch Committee in every neighbourhood [5] :328 and the creation of the Committee of Public Safety on 6 April. [5] :331


The court was to hear cases of alleged counter-revolutionary offences from across France. It was composed of a jury of twelve. This was an innovation in French justice, borrowed from English law (although for the Revolutionary Tribunal the jury was carefully selected from politically reliable activists). [7] :162 It had five judges, a public prosecutor and two deputy prosecutors, all nominated by the Convention; and from its judgments there was no appeal. [9] Jacques-Bernard-Marie Montané  [ fr ] became President of the Tribunal until he was replaced in his post on 23 August 1793 by M. J. A. Herman. Fouquier-Tinville served as public prosecutor. The lists of prisoners to be sent before the tribunal were prepared by a popular commission and signed, after revision, by the Committee of General Security and the Committee of Public Safety jointly. [9]

On 5 September 1793 the Convention declared that "terror is the order of the day" and split the Revolutionary Tribunal into four concurrent chambers so that the number of cases it dealt with could be greatly increased. It also decided that all jurors in the Tribunal should be directly appointed by the Committee of Public Safety or the Committee of General Security. This followed the news that rebels in Toulon had handed the city over to the British and several days of rioting in Paris. [3] :257–8


One of the earliest cases brought to the Tribunal led to its most famous acquittal. On 13 April 1793 Girondin deputés brought an accusation against Jean-Paul Marat. Crucially this involved waiving the immunity enjoyed up to then by members of the Convention (Marat was himself a deputé). Not only did the case against Marat collapse, but two days after his case was brought, members of the Paris Commune responded by bringing a case to the Tribunal against 22 leading Girondins. This case was dismissed but the principle that Convention members could be tried by the Tribunal was an important one, and ultimately led to the Girondin leaders being tried and executed in October 1793. [10] [11] [12]

During the months when Montané served as its President, the Tribunal dealt with 178 accused. 53% of these were set free after initial examination by a judge, without a full trial, while a further 17% were tried and acquitted by a jury. 5% were convicted and sentenced to imprisonment or deportation, and 25% were sentenced to death. [13] From its formation up to September 1793, the Tribunal heard 260 cases and handed down 66 death penalties. As a result, it was criticised as ineffective by some Jacobins. [4] The Law of Suspects (17 September 1793) greatly increased the number of prisoners who were imprisoned and might be brought to trial. [3] :257–8 Between October and the end of 1793 the Tribunal issued 177 death sentences. [4]

Similar tribunaux révolutionnaires were also in operation in the various French departments. However, on 16 April 1794 (27 Germinal Year II) the Convention approved a report by St. Just proposing the abolition of the existing revolutionary tribunals in individual départements and requiring all suspects to be sent to the main tribunal in Paris. [5] :417 On 21 May 1794 the government decided that the Terror would be centralised, with almost all the tribunals in the provinces closed and all the trials held in Paris. [14] The provincial tribunals which were allowed to continue their work were Bordeaux, Arras, Nîmes in the South, as well as Arras and Cambrai in the North. [15]

Following the attempted assassinations of Convention members Jean-Marie Collot d'Herbois on 23 May and Maximilien Robespierre on 25 May 1794, on 10 June (22 Prairial Year II) the so-called "Prairial Laws" were passed. These limited trials in the Revolutionary Tribunal to three days. [5] :426 They also prevented the Revolutionary Tribunal from calling witnesses, or from allowing defence counsel. Juries were to convict or acquit entirely on the basis of the accusation and the accused's own defence. Further, the new laws confined the Tribunal to only two possible verdicts – acquittal or death. [6] :837 Finally, the law cancelled all previous legislation on the same subject. Without being explicit, this removed the immunity of members of the Convention which up till then had protected them from summary arrest and required that the Convention itself vote to send any of its members to trial. [16]

Three days after the Prairial laws were passed, the guillotine was moved out of Paris. It had previously stood on the Place du Carrousel, was then moved to the Place de la Revolution, and then again to the Place St Antoine and later to the Place du Trône-Renversé. As the Revolutionary Tribunal accelerated the pace of executions, it became impractical to have it in the city. [5] :427


The powers of the Revolutionary Tribunal were granted by the Convention, and there was only limited criticism of it. Royalists, émigrés and federalists were clearly opposed to the Tribunal and its workings, but since public criticism in Paris or in the press would be regarded as treasonable, it barely existed. At the same time, there were periodic demands from Enragés [17] [18] and Hébertists [6] :806 that the Tribunal accelerate its work and condemn more of the accused.

Among the first to speak up publicly against the Tribunal was Camille Desmoulins in his short-lived journal, "Le Vieux Cordelier". [19] As a result of his criticisms he was expelled from the Jacobin Club. Later he was arrested, tried and executed together with Danton. [3] :286

On the eve of his execution, Danton expressed his regret for having advocated the Tribunal. "It was just a year ago that I was the means of instituting the Revolutionary Tribunal; may God and man forgive me for what I did then; but it was not that it might become the scourge of humanity." [20]

Although the Revolutionary Tribunal was not criticised directly in the Convention while Robespierre held power, his proposals for the Prairial Laws were met with dismay when they were presented to the Convention. Some of the deputies were uneasy, in particular, about the removal of their immunity. They agreed to the law when Robespierre insisted on it, but the following day attempted to amend it, obliging Robespierre to return to the Convention and make them restore the original version. [21]

After Thermidor

Sketch of Fouquier-Tinville made during his trial Fouquier Tinville par Vivant Denon.jpg
Sketch of Fouquier-Tinville made during his trial

After the overthrow of Robespierre in July 1794, some people expected the Revolutionary Tribunal to be abolished, but this did not happen. In the five days after the Thermidorean Reaction, the Convention freed 478 political prisoners, but 8,000 still remained incarcerated, despite popular demands for a general amnesty. [5] :441

On 1 August 1794 (14 Thermidor Year II) the Prairial Laws were revoked, meaning that the burden of proof against suspects was once again with the prosecution. Soon afterwards, all of the judges on the Revolutionary Tribunal were replaced, and the local surveillance committees were curtailed, so that there were henceforth to be only twelve in Paris and one per district outside the capital. [5] :440 The Law on Suspects however remained in force.

The Revolutionary Tribunal was used by the Thermidorean Convention as an instrument to destroy the political leaders who had taken an active part in the Reign of Terror. On 16 December 1794 (26 Frimaire Year III) Jean-Baptiste Carrier was sentenced to death and executed. [5] :462 On 6 May 1795 (17 Floreal Year III), The former President of the Revolutionary Tribunal, Martial Herman, the former Chief Prosecutor Fouquier-Tinville and fourteen former jury members of the Revolutionary Tribunal were convicted, and the following day, guillotined. [5] :477 After most of those associated with the Reign of Terror had been eliminated, the Revolutionary Tribunal was finally suppressed on 31 May 1795 (12 Prairial Year III). [5] :479

While the Convention itself had most people associated with the Revolutionary Tribunal in Paris executed, no similar official process was followed in the provinces. In 1795, the First White Terror broke out in parts of the country, particularly in the South East, as anti-Jacobin mobs attacked and murdered people who had been associated with revolutionary tribunals in their area. [22] On 14 February 1795 for example, Joseph Fernex (fr), a judge on the former Orange Tribunal, was killed and thrown into the Rhône by a mob. [5] :468 On 27 June other members of the same tribunal received the same treatment. [5] :484


From the beginning of 1793 to the Thermidorean Reaction, 17,000 people were sentenced and beheaded by some form of revolutionary court in France (in Paris or in the provinces), in addition to some 25,000 others who were summarily executed in the September Massacres, retributions in the War in the Vendée and elsewhere. The Paris Revolutionary Tribunal was responsible for 16% of all death sentences. [5] :437

Of all those accused by the Revolutionary Tribunal, about a half were acquitted (the number dropped to a quarter after the enactment of the Law of 22 Prairial Year II) (10 June 1794).[ citation needed ] Before 22 Prairial the Revolutionary Tribunal had pronounced 1,220 death-sentences in thirteen months; during the forty-nine days between the passing of the law and the fall of Robespierre 1,376 persons were condemned (an average of 28 per day). [9]

See also

Related Research Articles

Reign of Terror Violent period during the French Revolution

The Reign of Terror, or 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.

Georges Danton French revolutionary

George 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".

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, after 1792 renamed Society of the Jacobins, Friends of Freedom and Equality, commonly known as the Jacobin Club or simply the Jacobins, became 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.

Antoine Quentin Fouquier-Tinville French lawyer during the French Revolution and Reign of Terror

Antoine Quentin Fouquier de Tinville was a French prosecutor during the Revolution and Reign of Terror periods.

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.

<i>Sans-culottes</i> radical left-wing partisans of the lower classes during French Revolution

The sans-culottes were the common people of the lower classes in late 18th century France, a great many of whom became radical and militant partisans of the French Revolution in response to their poor quality of life under the Ancien Régime. The word sans-culotte, which is opposed to that of the aristocrat, seems to have been used for the first time on 28 February 1791 by officer Gauthier in a derogatory sense, speaking about a "sans-culottes army". The word came in vogue during the demonstration of 20 June 1792.

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."

The Thermidorian Reaction is the common term, in the historiography of the French Revolution, for the period between the ousting of Maximilien Robespierre on 9 Thermidor II, or 27 July 1794, to the inauguration of the French Directory on 1 November 1795. The "Thermidorian Reaction" was named after the month in which the coup took place, and was the latter part of the National Convention's rule of France. It was marked by the end of the Reign of Terror, decentralization of executive powers from the Committee of Public Safety, and a turn from the radical leftist policies of the Montagnard Convention to more conservative positions. Economic and general populism, dechristianization, and harsh wartime measures were largely abandoned, as the members of the Convention, disillusioned and frightened of the centralized government of the Terror, preferred a more stable political order that would have the approval of the affluent. The Reaction saw the Left suppressed by brutal force, including massacres, as well as the disbanding of the Jacobin Club, the dispersal of the sans-culottes, and the renunciation of the Montagnard ideology.

Jean-Lambert Tallien French political figure of the revolutionary period

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

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.

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".

Committee of General Security

The Committee of General Security was a French parliamentary committee which acted as police agency during the French Revolution that, along with the Committee of Public Safety, oversaw the Reign of Terror.

First White Terror counter-revolution in France in 1795

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.

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.

Pierre-Louis Bentabole French politician

Pierre Louis Bentabole was a revolutionary Frenchman, born in Landau Haut Rhin on 4 June 1756 and died in Paris on 22 April 1798. As lawyer, he presided practiced in the district of Hagenau and Saverne; he was deputy of the Bas-Rhin to the National Convention on 4 September 1792. He voted to execute Louis XVI. On 6 October 1794, he was appointed to the Committee of Public Safety.

Fall of Maximilien Robespierre The coup detat of 27 July 1794 (9 Thermidor II) which deposed 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.

Jean-Bertrand Féraud French politician

Jean Bertrand Féraud, was a French politician of the French revolutionary era.


  1. David Andress (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of the French Revolution, Oxford University Press, 2015, p. 447.
  2. Wikisource-logo.svg One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain : Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Revolutionary Tribunal, The". Encyclopædia Britannica . 23 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 224.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Ruth Scurr (17 April 2007). Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution. Henry Holt and Company. ISBN   978-0-8050-8261-6.
  4. 1 2 3 Tulard, Jean. "Tribunal Révolutionnaire". Encyclopædia Universalis. Retrieved 24 May 2018.
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 Nevin, Louis (1989). Chronicle of the French Revolution. London: Longman. ISBN   0-582-05194-0.
  6. 1 2 3 Schama, Simon (1989). Citizens. London: Penguin. p. 707. ISBN   0-14-008728-1.
  7. 1 2 Andress, David (2005). The Terror: Civil War in the French Revolution. London: Abacus. ISBN   0-349-11588-5.
  8. Kelly, George Armstrong (1982). Victims, Authority and Terror. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. p.  125. ISBN   0-8078-1495-4.
  9. 1 2 3 4 Chisholm 1911, p. 224.
  10. M A Kennedy; Michael L. Kennedy (2000). The Jacobin Clubs in the French Revolution, 1793–1795. Berghahn Books. p. 18. ISBN   978-1-57181-186-8.
  11. Lisa Rosner; John Theibault (26 March 2015). A Short History of Europe, 1600–1815: Search for a Reasonable World. Routledge. p. 363. ISBN   978-1-317-47792-1.
  12. David P. Jordan (16 October 2013). Revolutionary Career of Maximilien Robespierre. Simon and Schuster. p. 152. ISBN   978-1-4767-2571-0.
  13. Philip Dawson; Fernand Nicolaÿ (1972). Provincial Magistrates and Revolutionary Politics in France, 1789–1795. Harvard University Press. p. 305. ISBN   978-0-674-71960-6.
  14. Ian Davidson – The French Revolution – From Enlightenment to Tyranny – Profile Books Ltd – London, 2016
  15. Brett Bowden; Michael T. Davis (2008). Terror: From Tyrannicide to Terrorism. Univ. of Queensland Press. p. 88. ISBN   978-0-7022-3599-3.
  16. Thompson, J.M. (1988). Robespierre. London: Blackwell. p. 508. ISBN   978-0631155041.
  17. Jacques Roux. "Manifesto of the Enragés", Trans. Mitchell Abidor, 25 June 1793, Marxist Internet Archive
  18. Richet, Denis (1989). "Enragés" in Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution. Harvard University Press. p. 339. ISBN   9780674177284.
  19. "Revolution Devours Its Own—Le Vieux Cordelier". George Mason University. Retrieved 21 May 2018.
  20. Adolphe Thiers (10 November 2011). The History of the French Revolution. Cambridge University Press. p. 183. ISBN   978-1-108-03526-2.
  21. Matrat, Jean (1975). Robespierre: Or, The Tyranny of the Majority . New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. pp.  260–261. ISBN   978-0207954771.
  22. Denis Woronoff (23 February 1984). The Thermidorean Regime and the Directory 1794–1799. Cambridge University Press. pp. ix–x. ISBN   978-0-521-289177.

Further reading