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François-Noël Babeuf

François-Noël Babeuf (November 23, 1760 - 1797), known as Gracchus Babeuf, was a French political agitator and journalist of the revolutionary period.

He was born at Saint-Quentin. His father, Claude Babeuf, had deserted the French army in 1738 for that of Maria Theresa of Austria, rising, it is said, to the rank of major. Amnestied in 1755, he returned to France, but soon sank into poverty, and had to work as a casual labourer to earn a pittance for his wife and family. The hardships endured by Babeuf during his early years contributed to the development of his political opinions. His father gave him a basic education, but until the outbreak of the French Revolution, he was a domestic servant, and from 1785 occupied the invidious office of commissaire à terrier, assisting the nobles and priests in the assertion of their feudal rights over the peasants.

Babeuf was working for a land surveyor at Roye when the Revolution began. His father had died in 1780, and he now had to provide for his wife and two children, as well as for his mother, brothers and sisters. In the circumstances it is not surprising that he was became a malcontent. He was a prolific writer, and the signs of his future socialism are contained in a letter of March 21 1787, one of a series - mainly on literature - addressed to the secretary of the Academy of Arras. In 1789 he drew up the first article of the cahier of the electors of the bailliage of Roye, demanding the abolition of feudal rights. From July to October 1789, he lived in Paris, superintending the publication of his first work: Cadastre perpetuel, dedié a l'assemblée nationale, l'an 1789 et le premier de la liberté française, which was written in 1787 and issued in 1790. The same year he published a pamphlet against feudal aids and the gabelle, for which he was denounced and arrested, but provisionally released.

In October, on his return to Roye, he founded the Correspondant picard, whose violent character cost him another arrest. In November he was elected a member of the municipality of Roye, but was expelled. In March 1791 he was appointed commissioner to report on the national property (biens nationaux) in the town, and in September 1792 was elected a member of the council-general of the department of the Somme. Here, as everywhere, the violence of his attitude made his position intolerable, and he was soon transferred to the post of administrator of the district of Montdidier. There he was accused of fraud for having altered a name in a deed of transfer of national lands. The error was probably due to negligence; but, distrusting the impartiality of the judges of the Somme, he fled to Paris, and on the 23 August 1793 was sentenced in contumaciam to twenty years' imprisonment. Meanwhile he had been appointed secretary to the relief committee (comité des subsistances) of the commune of Paris. The judges of Amiens pursued him with a warrant for his arrest, which took place in Brumaire of the year II (1794). The court of cassation quashed the sentence, through defect of form, but sent Babeuf for a new trial before the Aisne tribunal, which acquitted him on July 18 1794.

Babeuf returned to Paris, and on September 3 1794 published the first number of his Journal de la liberté de la presse, the title of which was altered on 5 October 1794 to Le Tribun du peuple. The execution of Robespierre on July 28 1794 had ended the Reign of Terror, and Babeuf - now self-styled "Gracchus" Babeuf in memory of the Gracchi - defended the men of Thermidor and attacked the fallen terroristss with his usual violence. He also attacked, from a socialist point of view, the economic outcome of the Revolution.

This was an attitude which had few supporters, even in the Jacobin club, and in October Babeuf was arrested and imprisoned at Arras. Here he was influenced by terrorist prisoners, notably Lebois, editor of the Journal de l'égalite, and afterwards of the Ami du peuple, papers which carried on the traditions of Jean Paul Marat. Babeuf emerged from prison a confirmed terrorist and convinced that his Utopia, fully proclaimed to the world in No. 33 of his Tribun, could only come about through the restoration of the constitution of 1793. He was in open conflict with the trend of public opinion. In February 1795 he was again arrested, and the Tribun du peuple was solemnly burnt in the Théatre des Bergeres by the jeunesse dorée, young men whose mission it was to root out Jacobinism. But for the appalling economic conditions produced by the fall in the value of assignats, Babeuf might have shared the fate of other agitators who were whipped into obscurity.

It was the attempts of the Directory to deal with the economic crisis that gave Babeuf his historical importance. The new government was pledged to abolish the system by which Paris was fed at the expense of all France, and the cessation of the distribution of bread and meat at nominal prices was fixed for 20 February 1796. The announcement caused the most widespread consternation. Not only the workmen and the large class of idlers attracted to Paris by the system, but rentiers and government officials, whose incomes were paid in assignats on a scale arbitrarily fixed by the government, saw themselves threatened with starvation. The government yielded to the outcry; but the expedients by which it sought to mitigate the evil, notably the division of those entitled to relief into classes, only increased the alarm and discontent. The universal misery gave point to virulent attacks by Babeuf on the existing order, and gained him a hearing. He gathered round him a small circle of followers known as the Societé des égaux, soon merged with the rump of the Jacobins, who met at the Panthéon; and in November 1795 he was reported by the police to be openly preaching "insurrection, revolt and the constitution of 1793".

For a time the government, while keeping itself informed of his activities, left him alone. It suited the Directory to let the socialist agitation continue, in order to deter the people from joining in any royalist movement for the overthrow of the existing régime. Moreover the mass of the ouvriers, even of extreme views, were repelled by Babeuf's bloodthirstiness; and the police agents reported that his agitation was making many converts - for the government. The Jacobin club of the Faubourg Saint-Antoine refused to admit Babeuf and Lebois, on the ground that they were "egorgeurs". With the development of the economic crisis, however, Babeuf's influence increased. After the club of the Panthéon was closed by Bonaparte on [[February 27 1796, his aggressive activity redoubled. In Ventose and Germinal he published, under the nom de plume of "Lalande, soldat de la patrie", a new paper, the Eclaireur du peuple, ou le defenseur de vingt-cinq millions d'opprimés, which was hawked clandestinely from group to group in the streets of Paris.

At the same time issue No. 40 of the Tribun excited an immense sensation. In this Babeuf praised the authors of the September massacres as "deserving well of their country", and declared that a more complete "September 2nd " was needed to annihilate the actual government, which consisted of "starvers, bloodsuckers, tyrants, hangmen, rogues and mountebanks".

The distress among all classes continued appal; and in March the attempt of the Directory to replace the assignats by a new issue of mandats created fresh dissatisfaction after the breakdown of the hopes first raised. A cry went up that national bankruptcy had been declared, and thousands of the lower class of ouvriers began to rally to Babeuf's flag. On 4 April 1796 the government received a report that 500,000 people in Paris were in need of relief. From the 11th Paris was placarded with posters headed Analyse de la doctrine de Baboeuf (sic), tribun du peuple, of which the opening sentence ran: "Nature has given to every man the right to the enjoyment of an equal share in all property," and which ended with a call to restore the constitution of 1793.

Babeuf's song Mourant de faim, mourant de froid (Dying of hunger, dying of cold), set to a popular air, began to be sung in the cafés, with immense applause; and reports circulated that the disaffected troops in the camp of Crenelle were ready to join an émeute against the government. The Directory thought it time to act; the bureau central had accumulated through its agents, notably the ex-captain Georges Grisel, who had been initiated into Babeuf’s society, complete evidence of a conspiracy for an armed rising fixed for Floréal 22, year IV (11 May 1796), in which Jacobins and socialists were combined. On 10 May Babeuf was arrested with many of his associates, among whom were Augustin Alexandre Darthé and Philippe Buonarroti, the ex-members of the Convention, Robert Lindet, J-A-B Amar, M-G-A Vadier and Jean-Baptiste Drouet, famous as the postmaster of Saint-Menehould who had arrested Louis XVI, and now a member of the Council of Five Hundred.

The government coup was perfectly successful. The last number of the Tribun appeared on April 24, though Lebois in the Ami du peuple tried to incite the soldiers to revolt, and for a while there were rumours of a military rising.

The trial of Babeuf and his accomplices was fixed to take place before the newly constituted high court of justice at Vendôme. On Fructidor 10 and 11 (27 and 28 August 1796), when the prisoners were removed from Paris, there were tentative efforts at a riot with a view to rescue, but these were easily suppressed. The attempt of five or six hundred Jacobins (September 7 1796) to rouse the soldiers at Grenelle met with no better success. The trial of Babeuf and the others, begun at Vendôme on February 20 1797, lasted two months. The government for reasons of their own depicted the socialist Babeuf as the leader of the conspiracy, though more important people than he were implicated; and his own vanity played admirably into their hands. On Prairial 7 (April 6 1797) Babeuf and Darthé were condemned to death; some of the prisoners, including Buonarroti, were exiled; the rest, including Vadier and his fellow-conventionals, were acquitted. Drouet had succeeded in making his escape, according to Barras, with the connivance of the Directory. Babeuf and Darthé were executed at Vendôme on Prairial 8 (1797),

Original text from a 1911 Encyclopedia. Please update as needed