Judicial Terror

From early 1793, with growing internal and external threats, both the Girondin Government and the Jacobin Revolutionary Government engaged in the use of judicial Terror to provide a legal basis for their actions in dealing with suspected counter-revolutionaries.

On 10 March 1793, the Girondin Government established the Revolutionary Tribunal. This was to be a legal body that dealt with alleged political enemies within. Initially, this was a fair and just body which did due legal diligence and ensured a legal trial for all convicted, with the right of legal representation afforded. Furthermore at this time, judges at the Revolutionary Tribunal were allowed flexibility in their sentencing for those found guilty, including options for both imprisonment and execution. However, with subsequent laws such as the Law of Suspects and especially the Law of 22 Prairial, the function of the Tribunal greatly narrowed to the point where it effectively became a “murder machine” according to Sutherland, as all legal process was deemed unnecessary and sentencing restricted to execution. For the first time with the Law of 22 Prairial, deputies of the National Convention were no longer immune from the free provisions of arrest, trial and execution. It is considered to be the key piece of legislation which helped catalysed the fall of the Jacobins.

Soon after on 21 March 1793, the Girondins also set up Watch Committees. These were local groups of people, overall managed by the Committee of General Security, who would monitor their neighbours and report any activity or action that could be considered as treason or counter-revolutionary. Arrest and trial would subsequently be arranged on the basis of these reports. However, these Committees were ultra-revolutionary with some reporting people for reasons such as not wearing a revolutionary cockade or not singing the Marseillaise with enough enthusiasm and conviction. It introduced significant levels of subjectivity to the legal system, undermining its integrity, and further heightened the general atmosphere of fear and paranoia across France.

On 17 September 1793, the Revolutionary Government passed the Law of Suspects which now formally allowed the blanket arrest of all counter-revolutionaries and likely counter-revolutionaries, including any remaining nobles, any officials accused of treason, anyone suspected of hoarding grain and other goods, and generally anyone who had not “consistently demonstrated their commitment to the Revolution”. This Law therefore caused the Revolution to diverge yet further from the ideals of the legal system set out in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.

The final, and most severe law was the Law of 22 Prairial, passed on 10 June 1794. This widened the definition of the term ‘counter-revolutionary’ to its broadest yet, with it now fully legitimising any subjective reasoning as to why an individual is suspected of treason. It was drafted only by Robespierre and Couthon from the Committee of Public Safety, with there being some opposition from some in the CPS. The Law of 22 Prairial is widely considered by historians to be one of the foremost reasons which caused the downfall of Robespierre and the CPS, with Worrall saying that it made “moral absolutes…the criteria for revolutionary patriotism”.

 

See Also

Reign of Terror

Committee of General Security

Committee of Public Safety

Girondins

Jacobins