Committee of Public Safety

views updated May 14 2018


The overthrow of King Louis XVI and his execution in January 1793 left the young French Republic without executive authority. Faced with a desperate military and economic crisis in the spring, the National Convention resorted to placing executive powers in the hands of a Committee of Public Safety, established by a decree of 6 April. Until 10 July Georges Danton dominated the committee. After his resignation, what became known as the "great" committee of twelve members was completed with the addition of Maximilien Robespierre on 27 July and two fellow Jacobins in September. Until the overthrow and execution of Robespierre and his associates on 9–10 Thermidor Year II (27–28 July 1794), this committee was to act as the emergency executive of the Convention, meeting in secret and with sweeping powers to pass decrees relating to the "general defense" of the republic.

The prime objective of the committee was to implement the laws and controls necessary to win the war and to strike "Terror" into the hearts of counterrevolutionaries. The Convention acquiesced in the committee's draconian measures—such as surveillance committees, preventive detention, and controls on civil liberties—seen as necessary to secure the republic to a point at which the suspension of the democratic constitution of June 1793 could be lifted. A mixture of coercion, propaganda, and the effectiveness of Jacobin officials succeeded in supplying a conscript army of nearly one million men, an extraordinary mobilization that effectively saved the republic.

In its declaration on revolutionary government of 10 October, the Committee of Public Safety announced that the "provisional government of France is revolutionary until the peace"; all government bodies and the army were placed under the control of the committee, which had to report weekly to the Convention. Despite repeated marks of approval of the committee's work—as much by admiration as intimidation—decrees were passed by the Convention and committee that went well beyond national defense and revealed a Jacobin vision of a regenerated society worthy of the grandeur of the Enlightenment and the Revolution. This was to be created, for example, by a secular and republican education system and a national program of social welfare. It was during the period of the committee's effective rule that a new calendar was inaugurated to commemorate the first anniversary of the proclamation of the republic on 21 September 1792, with a series of new civic festivals designed to edify public spirit.

While the military threat remained, so could the existence of the Terror be justified. In Prairial Year II (20 May–18 June 1794), for example, 183 of the 608 decrees of the Committee of Public Safety concerned supply and transport matters signed by Robert Lindet; 114 related to munitions were initiated by Prieur de la Côte-d'Or; and 130 were decrees by Lazare Carnot about the army and navy. Robespierre wrote just 14 decrees, but was highly visible as the main policy link with the Convention and the Jacobin Club. By the late spring of 1794, however, the execution of popular revolutionaries to the right and left of the dominant Jacobins, and the escalation of the Terror at a time of increasing military success, alienated even the most patriotic of Jacobins and sans-culottes. Those imprisoned as suspects ranged from the Marquis de Sade to Claude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle, author of the anthem "La Marseillaise." Its victims included the country's greatest scientist, Antoine Lavoisier, and its greatest poet, André Chénier.

The turning point came with the successful battle of Fleurus (26 June), which effectively removed the threat of foreign soldiers from the soil of the republic. This exposed the new purpose for which the Terror was being used: from March 1793 to 10 June 1794, 1,251 people were executed in Paris; following the law of 22 Prairial Year II (10 June 1794), which dramatically expanded definitions of "counterrevolutionary," 1,376 were guillotined in just six weeks. Robespierre's final speech to the Convention on 26 July (8 Thermidor Year II), with his threat to move against unnamed deputies, provided the motivation for reaction. When he was arrested the following day, his appeals for support failed to move most sans-culottes or Jacobins. The fall of Robespierre and his associates was welcomed as symbolizing the end of large-scale executions: the committee was reorganized so that one-quarter of its members had to be replaced each month. Then a decree of 24 August (7 Fructidor Year II) made it one committee among many, until in 1795 the regime of the Directory established a new executive structure altogether.

See alsoDanton, Georges-Jacques; Directory; Jacobins; Reign of Terror; Robespierre, Maximilien.


Furet, François, and Mona Ozouf, eds. A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Cambridge, Mass., 1989.

Gross, Jean-Pierre. Fair Shares for All: Jacobin Egalitarianism in Practice. Cambridge, U.K., 1997.

Jones, Colin. The Longman Companion to the French Revolution. London, 1988.

Palmer, R. R. Twelve Who Ruled: The Year of the Terror in the French Revolution. 1941. Reprint, with a new preface by the author, Princeton, N.J., 1989.

Peter McPhee

Committee of Public Safety

views updated May 14 2018

Committee of Public Safety a French governing body set up in April 1793, during the Revolution. Consisting of nine (later twelve) members, it was at first dominated by Danton, but later came under the influence of Robespierre, when it initiated the Terror. The Committee's power ended with the fall of Robespierre in 1794, and it was dissolved in 1795.

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Committee of Public Safety