1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Babeuf, François Noel
BABEUF, FRANÇOIS NOEL (1760–1797), known as Gracchus Babeuf, French political agitator and journalist, was born at Saint Quentin on the 23rd of November 1760. His father, Claude Babeuf, had deserted the French army in 1738 and taken service under Maria Theresa, rising, it is said, to the rank of major. Amnestied in 1755 he returned to France, but soon sank into dire poverty, being forced to earn a pittance for his wife and family as a day labourer. The hardships endured by Babeuf during early years do much to explain his later opinions. He had received from his father the smatterings of a liberal education, but until the outbreak of the Revolution he was a domestic servant, and from 1785 occupied the invidious office of commissaire à terrier, his function being to assist the nobles and priests in the assertion of their feudal rights as against the unfortunate peasants. On the eve of the Revolution Babeuf was in the employ of a land surveyor at Roye. His father had died in 1780, and he was now the sole support, not only of his wife and two children, but of his mother, brothers and sisters. In the circumstances it is not surprising that he was the life and soul of the malcontents of the place. He was an indefatigable writer, and the first germ of his future socialism is contained in a letter of the 21st of March 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. Then, from July to October, he was in Paris superintending the publication of his first work: Cadastre perpétuel, dédié à 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, the violent character of which 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 to himself and others, and he was soon transferred to the post of administrator of the district of Montdidier. Here he was accused of fraud for having substituted one name for another in a deed of transfer of national lands. It is probable that his fault was one of negligence only; but, distrusting the impartiality of the judges of the Somme, he fled to Paris, and on the 23rd of August 1793 was condemned 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, however, 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, by which he was acquitted on the 18th of July.
Babeuf now returned to Paris, and on the 3rd of September 1794 published the first number of his Journal de la liberté de la presse, the title of which was altered on the 5th of October to Le Tribun du peuple. The execution of Robespierre on the 28th of July had ended the Terror, and Babeuf—now self-styled “Gracchus” Babeuf—defended the men of Thermidor and attacked the fallen terrorists with his usual violence. But he also attacked, from the point of view of his own socialistic theories, 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 sent to prison at Arras. Here he came under the influence of certain terrorist prisoners, notably of Lebois, editor of the Journal de l’égalité, afterwards of the Ami du peuple, papers which carried on the traditions of Marat. He emerged from prison a confirmed terrorist and convinced that his Utopia, fully proclaimed to the world in No. 33 of his Tribun, could only be realized through the restoration of the constitution of 1793. He was now in open conflict with the whole trend of public opinion. In February 1795 he was again arrested, and the Tribun du peuple was solemnly burnt in the Théâtre des Bergères by the jeunesse dorée, the young men whose mission it was to bludgeon Jacobinism out of the streets and cafés. 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 this economic crisis that gave Babeuf his real historic importance. The new government was pledged to abolish the vicious 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 the 20th of February 1796. The announcement caused the most wide-spread 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 actual starvation. The government yielded to the outcry that arose; 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 the discontent. The universal misery gave point to the virulent attacks of Babeuf on the existing order, and at last gained him a hearing. He gathered round him a small circle of his immediate followers known as the Société des Égaux, soon merged with the rump of the Jacobins, who met at the Pantheon; 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; for it suited the Directory to let the socialist agitation continue, in order to frighten the people from joining in any royalist movement for the overthrow of the existing regime. 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 “égorgeurs.” With the development of the economic crisis, however, Babeuf’s influence increased. After the club of the Pantheon was closed by Bonaparte, on the 27th of February 1796, his aggressive activity redoubled. In Ventôse and Germinal he published, under the nom de plume of “Lalande, soldat de la patrie,” a new paper, the Éclaireur du peuple, ou le défenseur de vingt-cinq millions d’opprimés, which was hawked clandestinely from group to group in the streets of Paris. At the same time No. 40 of the Tribun excited an immense sensation. In this he 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 to be appalling; and in March the attempt of the Directory to replace the assignats (q.v.) 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 ouvrier began to rally to Babeuf’s flag. On the 4th of April it was reported to the government 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 Babœuf (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 were current that the disaffected troops in the camp of Grenelle 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. (11th of May 1796), in which Jacobins and socialists were combined. On the 10th of May Babeuf was arrested with many of his associates, among whom were A. Darthé and P. M. 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 coup was perfectly successful. The last number of the Tribun appeared on the 24th of April, but 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 (27th and 28th of August), 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 (7th of September) to rouse the soldiers at Grenelle met with no better success. The trial of Babeuf and the others, begun at Vendôme on the 20th of February 1797, lasted two months. The government for reasons of their own made the socialist Babeuf 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 (26th of April 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).
Babeuf’s character has perhaps been sufficiently indicated above. He was a type of the French revolutionists, excitable, warm-hearted, half-educated, who lost their mental and moral balance in the chaos of the revolutionary period. Historically, his importance lies in the fact that he was the first to propound socialism as a practical policy, and the father of the movements which played so conspicuous a part in the revolutions of 1848 and 1871.