Revolutionary Tribunal

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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.

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.

Court judicial institution with the authority to resolve legal disputes

A court is any person or institution with authority to judge or adjudicate, often as a government institution, with the authority to adjudicate legal disputes between parties and carry out the administration of justice in civil, criminal, and administrative matters in accordance with the rule of law. In both common law and civil law legal systems, courts are the central means for dispute resolution, and it is generally understood that all people have an ability to bring their claims before a court. Similarly, the rights of those accused of a crime include the right to present a defense before a court.

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.



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. [2] :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. [2] :202 [3]

Maximilien Robespierre French revolutionary lawyer and politician

Maximilien François Marie Isidore de Robespierre was a French lawyer and politician, as well as one of the best known and most influential figures associated with the French Revolution. As a member of the Constituent Assembly and the Jacobin Club, 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 petition. He campaigned for universal manhood suffrage, abolition of celibacy and the abolition of slavery in the French colonies. Robespierre played an important part in the agitation which brought about the fall of the French Legislative Assembly in August 1792 and the summoning of a National Convention.

Trial of Louis XVI legal process

The trial of Louis XVI was a key event of the French Revolution. It involved the trial of the former French king Louis XVI before the National Convention and led to his execution.

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. [4] :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; [4] :325 on 9 March it decided to send a représentant en mission from the Convention to every département. [4] :326

War of the First Coalition 1790s war to contain Revolutionary France

The War of the First Coalition is the traditional name of the wars that several European powers fought between 1792 and 1797 against the French First Republic. Despite the collective strength of these nations compared with France, they were not really allied and fought without much apparent coordination or agreement. Each power had its eye on a different part of France it wanted to appropriate after a French defeat, which never occurred.

Levée en masse French term for a policy of mass national conscription

Levée en masse is a French term used for a policy of mass national conscription, often in the face of invasion.

<i>Représentant en mission</i>

During the French Revolution, a représentant en mission was an extraordinary envoy of the Legislative Assembly (1791–92) and its successor the National Convention (1792–95). The term is most often assigned to deputies designated by the National Convention for maintaining law and order in the départements and armies, as they had powers to oversee conscription into the army, and were used to monitor local military command. At the time France was in crisis; not only was war going badly, as French forces were being pushed out of Belgium, but also there was revolt in the Vendée over conscription into the army and resentment of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy.

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. [2] :235“Let us be terrible, said Danton, so that the people will not have to be”. [5] On this basis, the Convention finally agreed that there should be established in Paris the Extraordinary Criminal Tribunal [6] :162 [7] (Tribunal criminel extraordinaire), which received the official name of the Revolutionary Tribunal by a decree of 29 October 1793. [8]

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".

Other measures taken in response to the crisis around the same time included the formal establishment of a Revolutionary Watch Committee in every neighbourhood [4] :328 and the creation of the Committee of Public Safety on 6 April. [4] :331

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 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.


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), [6] :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. 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.

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.

On 5 September 1793 the Convention declared that "terror was 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. [2] :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. [9] [10] [11]

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. [12] 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. [3] The Law of Suspects (17 September 1793) greatly increased the number of prisoners who were imprisoned and might be brought to trial. [2] :257–8 Between October and the end of 1793 the Tribunal issued 177 death sentences. [3]

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. [4] :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. [13] 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. [14]

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. [4] :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. [5] :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. [15]

Three days after the Priarial 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. [4] :427


The powers of the Revolutionary Tribunal were granted by the Convention, and there was only limited criticism of it. Royalists, emigrés 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 [16] [17] and Hébertists [5] :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". [18] As a result of his criticisms he was expelled from the Jacobin Club. Later he was arrested, tried and executed together with Danton. [2] :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." [19]

Although the Revolutionary Tribunal was not criticised directly in the Convention while Robespierre held power, his proposals for the Priairial 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. [20]

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. [4] :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. [4] :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. [4] :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. [4] :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). [4] :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. [21] 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. [4] :468 On 27 June other members of the same tribunal received the same treatment. [4] :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. [4] :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). 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). [8]

See also

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