Andrew Smeathers Prof. Hanson

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Andrew Smeathers

Prof. Hanson

French Revolution

November 24th 2012

In Defense of Gracchus Babeuf
During the 18th century in France, hundreds of citizens were put on trial for charges ranging from murder to conspiracy as of a result of the strict government control over the populous. In one of the most well known trials, François-Noël Babeuf, was held and tried in conspiring to overthrow the government in disagreement with the recently established revolutionary ruling body. In The Defense of Gracchus Babeuf, John Anthony Scott, presents information regarding the tactics for the defense used in Babeuf’s trial. His work elucidates the idea this represents a pivotal trial during the French Revolution because of the defense strategies that Gracchus Babeuf employed. While Scott does not add his own opinion to the critical discussion, I would argue through the historical context provided in this book that I do not agree with the courts decision to uphold the death penalty, although, ultimately, his death was inevitable due to the political upheaval of the time.

Like most in France during this period, Gracchus Babeuf was born into a humble and impoverished family. At the young age of fifteen he began working and soon after married and started a family, subsequently fathering seven children. Babeuf worked as the keeper of manorial rolls in the small town of Roye. In prerevolutionary France, this position was regarded with suspicion and skepticism because it acted in the favor of the aristocracy to collect taxes for the countries many debts. However as Scott notes, for Babeuf, his affluence and security afforded by this position was short-lived. In 1789 the end of the revolution swept into the discard commisssaires à terrier, along with the nobility and the survivals of feudalism. The rest of his life, some eight years, would be devoted to an unrelenting political struggle, waged amid the direst poverty, often in hiding, and punctuated for months at a time by periods in jail (Scott, 1). As a result of this outspoken struggle, Babeuf would be identified by the government as a conspirator and treated as a threat against society.

On February 20th 1798, Gracchus and others were placed on trial in the Vendôme Palais de Justice for conspiracy against the government of France. It was here that he was wrongly sentenced to death on May 27th 1797, for schemes against the French Government. Babeuf wanted “to defend the conjuration as a political movement against a tyrannical government while saving as many as possible of the defendant’s lives. Babeuf’s solution to this problem was, on the one hand, to deny the actuality of conspiracy but, on the other, to defend the right of revolution against a tyrannical government” (Scott, 11). In Babeuf’s defense he makes several key points clearly over looked by the jurors whose sole agenda was to purge the post revolutionary society of naysayers.

Babeuf divided his defense into four different parts. The first part noted the events that led the Babouvists to take action against the directory. Babeuf also discussed the right for citizens to start a revolution and the circumstances that led the conspirators who were on trial to want to start one. The second and third part of his defense he spoke about the true meaning of the confiscated material that led to the arrests. In his final section of the defense he focused on delivering his own personal defense against his charges of conspiracy (Scott, 11).

Gracchus Babeuf did not think the government of France was a legitimate government: he argued, “it is implied that actual conspiracy must be distinguished from the intent to overthrow ‘legitimate authority’” (Scott, 34). He claimed the government in post revolutionary France had turned into something unintended. And in fact the French people had fought long and hard for a legitimate authority and a constitution that was freely adopted by the people. What came to be of this new government was not what Gracchus Babeuf or his followers had wanted. During his defense, Gracchus Babeuf, brought up many different articles and doctrines providing various reasons for the conspiracy efforts. These notable doctrines include:
The natural right and destiny of man are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Society is created in order to guarantee the enjoyment of this natural right. In the event that this right is not so guaranteed to all, the social compact is at an end. To prevent this dissolution of the compact, a fundamental right is reserved to the individual. This is none other than the right of every citizen to be vigilant against violations of the compact (…) From this follows the inviolable right of the individual to think and to communicate his thought to others (Scott, 21).
These arguments were not in fact revolutionary in France during the time period and certainly represented the initial intentions of the French Revolution. Individuals conspiring against King Louis XVI had attempted to overthrow the crown and indeed succeeded in their revolution based on these tenants. Why should this man be punished for identifying and attempting to change a corrupt system? As Babeuf states, “The greatest error in all politics is doubtless the idea that the essence of conspiracy consists in the intent to overthrow established governments” (Scott, 35). If this were true then the attempt to overthrow the government on July 14th 1789, would have been considered a criminal conspiracy in and of itself. What Gracchus Babeuf was charged for is the same thing that these French men were able to achieve.

Babeuf was influenced by many of France’s greatest revolutionaries. Throughout his defense, Babeuf makes connections with the writings of Mably, Helvetius, Diderot, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and many more. Babeuf goes on to say, “In condemning me, gentlemen of the jury, for the ideas which I have openly espoused and advocated, you place these great thinkers, my masters and guides, in the dock. My ideas are the same as theirs; it was in their pages that I studied those principles of ‘plunder’ which the prosecution has branded as subversive” (Scott, 60). Babeuf made it his goal to educate and enlighten the public on the true mindsets of the French government. By educating his peers and working to help correct a tyrannical government he hoped to improve the French peoples lives.

Babeuf was not the first person to be tried for these types of charges. The difference between him and others is he knows and understands the history of conspiracy charges. He notes that he could list many different people who were charged the same as himself, but he chooses reference just one and his eyes the most pivotal: “I shall limit myself to citing the example of the founder of the Christian religion. Nothing could be more specific than his words: Love your brother as yourself; Do unto others as ye would that they do unto you. (…) It is true, of course, that when Jesus spread His message of human equality, he too was treated as the ringleader of a conspiracy” (Scott, 86).

And indeed, revolutions and conspiracies have historically occurred since before the time of Jesus Christ. When a government or legislative body tyrannically runs a nation it is up to someone to step up and intervene defending the human rights at stake. Babeuf attempted to do this by “conspiring” against an illegitimate French government using as his defense doctrines we critically consider today as inalienable human rights and exist explicitly in international documentation. He represents the exemplar of the philosophies of his teachers, Mably, Helvetius, Diderot, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Although it may appear Babeuf should not have been sentenced to death, this punishment was an inevitable consequence of the revolutionary body in control of the nation. Certainly he was acting well within his rights to speak and write against the government as many activists have done throughout history and even the predecessors of the French Revolution had done; however, this new government would not tolerate any voices of dissention resulting in his trial and unfortunate death.

Works Cited
Scott, John A., ed. The Defense of Gracchus Babeuf. New York: University of Massachusetts, 1967. Print.

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