Role of free press in bringing down policy of terror in French revolution

Sep 2019
After the fall of Robespierre, Saint-Just and Couthon on 27. July 1794, the commitie of public safety with its remaining members and commitie of general security agreed with national convention that forces which overthrew the dictators, which were concentrating more and more power in their hands, should work together. But on the other hand the members of the commities were not so much ready to really end the policy of terror. Just after the fall of Robespierre Barrere proclaimed that terror and revolutionary governament will remain in place. But between the deputies of national convention it was great distrust toward concentration of power. The majority thought that it corrupts. Deputies voted for the proposal of Cambon that each month 1/4 of members of commities must be re-elected and changed. So after elections one of the main opponents of Robespierre Jean Tallien became member of commitie for public safety.

On the 1. August 1794 deputies struck down the law of 22. prairal one of the main tools which radical jocobins formed for the purpose of making terror even more harsh. The decree which was allowing that commitie of public safety can arrest deputies of national convention was also struck down and national guard was subordinated directly to convention. With this changes revolutionary governament lost many of its powers. Tallien and Barrere agreed that some political prisoners should be released. In only five days around 500 people were released just in Paris. Between them were also actors of French theatre.

Encouraged by popular support some deputies like Tallien or Freron started now to demand freedom of the press. But jacobin club was against it. They wanted the policy of terror to go on and even excluded Tallien and Freron from the club. The movement for the freedoms was an unusual coalition between pro-democracy deputies, former political prisoners now released, rich people from towns which were living under the burden of high taxes under Robespierre and even some left wing radicals which suffered under terror. The most important between the last was Francois Babeuf. He established new newspaper called 'Newspaper for the freedom of press' and work day and night together with his wife and young son in his new job. He took the nickname 'Gracchus' to demonstrate that he is a fighter for the rights of small people. ( after the Roman example of Tiberius Gracchus ). The ally of Tallien on the other hand was also Jean Mehee who served in the early stages of French revolution as spy in Russia and Poland. Later he took part in the attack on king's residence in Tuileries and as other jacobins also in September 1792 massacres. Deputy Freron established his newspaper in September 1794 and claimed he is the real follower of Marat. This sounds unusual because Marat was in favour of dictatorship but Freron was strongly against it.

The final blow for jacobins which wanted to continue the policy of terror yet not so harsh as Robespierre and Saint-Just came with the discovery of massive crimes of jacobin member Jean Baptiste Carrier. In a twenty-page letter to his fellow republicans, Carrier promised not to leave a single counter-revolutionary at large in Nantes. His vigorous action was endorsed by the Committee of Public Safety, and in the following days Carrier put large numbers of prisoners aboard vessels with trap doors for bottoms, and sunk them in the Loire river. These executions, especially of priests and nuns, as well as women and children became known as drownings at Nantes. At least 2000 people were killed on that way but probably more.

The new newspapers went in to the action and big public campaign was launched with full success. Mehee published a special booklet about massacres in Vendee, Babeuf claimed Robespierre tried to kill half of French population and Freron encouraged his young supporters to fight with jacobins on streets with clubs. Public opinion turned copmletely against terror. After the trial of Carrier jacobin club was dissolved in November 1794. Yet this ended also the unusual coalition which brought it down which again split between right and left mostly because of the question if maximum prices should be abolished.


Albert Mathiez French revolution, book 2, published in Ljubljana in 1938.

Personal notes from lectures about French revolution
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