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Billaud-Varennes

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Billaud-Varennes

Post  Bunnies on Sun Feb 17, 2013 1:45 am

In my excessively verbose ramble in the Robespierre thread I mused about the comparative negligence in historiography when it came to Billaud. I'm no bona-fide historian, but I figured I'd try mending the omission right now.



Of course, for all that he has been neglected, the historians who have devoted a focused period of study on this individual have tended to be hostile. Danish historian Jan ten Brink even insisted that Billaud and his partner Collot had been the true dictators of France in 1793-1794. Rivera Boyd, who is one of the very few men who devoted an Anglophonic work to Billaud, also agrees with this thesis although he asserts that Billaud's accomplice had been the clever Barère rather than the wild Collot.


(Pictured: Collot and Barère, respectively.)

John Morley said of Billaud:

"[Billaud was] the most powerful member of the Committee of Public Safety. His pale, sober and concentrated physiognomy seemed a perpetual menace. He had no gifts of speech, but this silence made people shudder, like the silence of thunder when the temper rages at its height. It was said by contemporaries that if Vadier was a hyena, Barere was a jackal, and Robespierre a cat, Billaud was a tiger."

I don't know if I necessarily agree with the assertions that Billaud was the most powerful member or dictator of the Committee, although he certainly was not cowed by any tyrant, but generally the description seems accurate - catchy imagery aside. As Morley said, Billaud was a poor speaker. When the Committee chose him to make a report to the Convention he fainted mid-speech. Whether his spell was due to exhaustion or an emotional reaction to a phobia has been debated.

As to Billaud's personality, since he did not often put pen to paper he will likely remain obscure to us. Robespierre complained that Billaud had a habit of pretending to be asleep during meetings of the Committee of Public Safety, although it is entirely likely that Billaud was not pretending. His fainting mid-speech would seem to indicate that he was overworked and he would also be caught napping at important points in the Revolution, most notably during Thermidor.

The most well-documented personality trait of Billaud's appears to be his drowsiness.

His colleague on the Committee of Public Safety, Saint Just, complained publicly about Billaud's habit of ostentatiously pretending friendship while simultaneously conniving at destruction. However, it should be said that at the time of Saint Just's comment Robespierre and Billaud were quarreling and it should not surprise us that Saint Just would be hostile to a man who was arguing with his friend.

As to other contemporary opinions, in 1795 one deputy of the Convention broke decorum for a moment and blamed all the hemorrhages of the Terror on the fault of one human being: Billaud-Varennes. This is odd, if only because the Convention seemed to have earlier chosen its scapegoat as Robespierre.

Jean-Nicolas Billaud-Varennes was born at La Rochelle in 1756, making him 33 at the advent of 1789. Billaud obtained his law degree in 1778 but soon participated the congregation of the Oratians in 1783. He did not actually enter the order but instead had a position as Prefect of studies.

He was later dismissed from the college and got married. He seems to have been uninterested in the legal profession and so soon tried to make his living in literary work and published articles such as Le Despotisme des ministres des France. He made no particular impression. Most amusingly for an historical figure, he wrote his first memoirs in 1786 which is well before they could offer us any insight as to his feelings on the turmoil of the Revolution.

Come the Revolution, Billaud became an assiduous attendant at the Jacobin Club as well as the rowdier Cordelier Club. He took a job as Danton's clerk and it may have been due to Danton's influence that Billaud received his first official position and was elected to the Insurrectionary Commune.

It is here that Billaud's reputation starts becoming assailed. During the September Massacres, the government officials were largely just chillingly indifferent. At worst, men such as Marat were accused of conniving at them in cold-blood. Billaud was one of the very few who was accused of actively taking part in the massacres. Some were kinder and merely accused him of lingering outside and making a point to shake hands with exiting murderers. Obviously, calumny was being thrown all around at the innocent and guilty and it is impossible to know whether or not these stories are true. Still, where there is smoke there is often fire and I suspect that Billaud at the very least had indicated a degree of 'radicalism' that would be inspired these colorful stories.

The next year, in September 1793, the Parisians were thoroughly unsatisfied with their Committee of Public Safety. For one, Marie Antoinette and the Girondins were rotting in prison, but nobody in government seemed to be inclined to put them on trial. Billaud vowed that he would see their heads removed and was subsequently elected to the Committee of Public Safety alongside Jean-Marie Collot d'Herbois at the behest of a mob. Billaud immediately proved himself to be zealously energetic and was principally involved in the creation of the levee en mass, which many military historians have cited as the salvation of the France during the invasion of the Allies.

Billaud's election platform had been to deliver the Parisians heads and he proceeded to satisfy his constituents. In early October, still relatively green as a member of the government, Billaud seems to have been eager to assert his authority. He decided to flex his muscles and demanded that the Convention create an appel nominal which was to identify Girondin supporters for future vengeance.

Robespierre spoke against it.

One of Billaud's supporters tried a different tactic. There were some-70 Girondin deputies currently rotting in prison. When would their execution be? He demanded a scheduling.

Once again, Robespierre defeated the motion and saved the deputies' lives.

After two defeats, it has been speculated by historians such as Norman Hampson - and indeed it is worth speculating - that Billaud-Varennes's final gambit was less a sign of irreconcilable bloodlust or twisted ideology than it was his need to assert dominance and illustrate that his faction did have sway in Revolutionary politics.

Billaud-Varennes demanded that the Convention immediately schedule the trial of Marie Antoinette. Since Robespierre was often being bombarded with charges of royalism during this time frame, it could even be interpreted that he was challenging the Incorruptible to object to this final proposal.

Robespierre, either out of survival instinct or human apathy (I suspect the latter), this time raised no objection - nor did anyone else - and the trial was scheduled.

In December 1793, Billaud would write and present to the Convention the Law of Frimaire, which consolidated authority into the Committee of Public Safety and has been derided as 'the Constitution of the Terror.' However, it should be noted that the Law of Frimaire was likely drafted in order to prevent the excesses of proconsuls in the provinces and that the motive for writing it was likely humanitarian. That he wrote this during the period of Collot's excesses in Lyons indicates that Billaud was unaware of his ally's activities and that they were performed without his sanction. Billaud and Collot were political allies, but Billaud had not predicted Collot's savagery and should not be blamed for the crimes of his friend.

Not that this has prevented posterity from believing Billaud and Collot to be synonymous. While the two shared several political platforms and tended to work as allies they were not identical and an action of one is not necessarily indicative of the opinions of the other. I mentioned in the other thread that Robespierre is often blamed for the work of Billaud; Billaud is is in turn often blamed for the work of Collot, and so we have a situation where everyone is being criticized but few are being criticized for their own actions.

To take a moment to criticize Billaud for his own actions, he publicly accused Robespierre of counter-revolutionary moderation because he had proposed a Committee of Justice which was to analyze the evidence against prisoners and, in Robespierre's words, "promptly free the innocent." However, the existence of such a Committee would imply that there were innocent people in prison, Billaud argued, and so was in his words "stupid." It is notable, in terms of the charge of dictatorship that has been leveled against Billaud, that Robespierre's Committee of Justice had in fact received a majority in the Convention and had been legally put on the books. It was Billaud's objection, buffered only by a few other members of the Committee, that kept it from being created in reality.

Robespierre and Billaud do seem to have been quarreling behind the scenes as well as in public during this period (December 1793), as Billaud would later complain that he had demanded the Dantonists' heads only to have Robespierre "rise up like a wild man and accuse me of wanting to murder the best of patriots!"

Robespierre and Billaud would actually quarrel a lot and I suspect that a great deal of their antagonism rested on the fact that before the two had been good friends: and we are always harshest to those we once called friend. Aside from the dissension above, Billaud was of Hébert's opinion that religion had to be wiped out whereas Robespierre believed that Freedom of Religion should continue to be sanctified. Upon Robespierre's proposal of a Festival of the Supreme Being, Billaud reportedly told him that "your Supreme Being is getting on my nerves."

But for all Billaud's professed bloodlust, beyond legislating the Law of Frimaire he had little direct role and signed 'only' 162 decrees of arrest, of which only 7 are in his hand. For all his radicalism, Billaud was uninterested in hounding individuals.

As for the three great purges that tend to define the Committee's dictatorship: Billaud's role in the Hébertist purge seems to have been comparatively minimal, although he did later complain of Robespierre's reluctance to accede to the Committee's will. The Dantonist Trial, meanwhile, was largely organized on his initiative, as he and his friend Collot had been demanding it for months.

Later, Billaud would become a Thermidorian and was in fact one of the few men to register formal charges against Robespierre. While Robespierre was being derided with the chant of "Down with the tyrant!" Billaud charged him with protesting against the aforementioned purges, preventing the execution of the Theot 'conspirators' and preventing the arrest of a thief. Upon hearing that Robespierre had been executed Billaud commented, "At last! We have rid ourselves of that moderate!"

Billaud initiated the proceedings against Marie Antoinette, the Girondins, and the Dantonists and had been enthusiastically involved in the deaths of the Hébertists and Robespierrists, making him the principle antagonist in the fall of the figureheads of every political ideology in the Revolution. This is likely why he has been almost unanimously disliked before posterity; everyone from the Royalist to Hébertist historians have a "bone" to pick with him, so to to speak.

He was not yet satisfied. During the Thermidorian reaction, Billaud publicly spoke in favor of reinstituting the Reign of Terror.

The Thermidorians hastily had him, is friend Collot d'Herbois, and Barère exiled.



Collot and Billaud were sent to Cayenne and were separated. However, both came down with a fever and apparently suffered from raving delirium. Both haters of the Church, it is somewhat ironic that some merciful soul took pity on the prisoners and carried them to a hospital run by nuns in the settlement. Collot died while Billaud lay terribly sick in the next bed.

Billaud was luckier and recovered through the work of the sisters, who apparently became fond of their troublesome patient and protected him from the cruelties of the penal colony's governor. When his conditions were lightened Billaud took up farming and settled down with a slave girl named Virginie who he effectively married. The two would be inseparable until the end of his life.

A few years later, Billaud courageously refused Napoleon's offer to return to France, saying that he had been exiled by a Republic and so only a Republic could invite him back. When the Bourbons were restored to France Billaud was worried that his conditions would be made harsher so he and Virginie traveled to the New World where they visited New York. They would migrate to Haiti where they were welcomed with open arms by the young Republic, Billaud even being permitted to have a minor role in government, becoming a counselor of high law.

Still, he found himself scolded for having publicly raged against ex-Girondins and the restored monarchy.

He seems to have been relatively happy but for one thing. He complained of having nightmares in regards to his involved role in the different purges of the Convention, particularly the deaths of Danton and Robespierre.

He died in 1819 at the age of 63.
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