Defense of the Committee of Public Safety
If my quality as member of the Committee of Public Safety must prevent me from explaining myself with entire independence on what has happened, then I must abdicate it this instant. And after having separated myself from my colleagues, who I esteem and honor (and it’s well-known that I am not prodigal in the sentiment) I will tell my country the necessary truths. The truth is the only weapon that remains in the hands of the intrepid defenders of freedom in order to bring down the perfidious agents of aristocracy. He who seeks to debase, to divide, to paralyze the Convention is an enemy of the fatherland, whether he sits in this hall or is a foreigner (applause). Whether he acts by stupidity or perversity he is of the party of the tyrants who make war upon us. But this project of debasement exists in the very places where patriotism should reign, in the clubs that claim to be more than patriotic. War is made on the Convention in the persons of all the defenders of freedom. And what is most deplorable is that this cowardly system has partisans here.
For a long time the Committee of Public Safety has put up with a war made on it by several members who are more envious than just. While it is busy day and night with the great interests of the Fatherland, written denunciations, presented with guile, are brought here. Can it then be that the Citizens you have charged with the most difficult functions have lost the title of imperturbable defenders of freedom because they've accepted this burden? Are those who attack them more patriotic because they haven’t received this mark of confidence? Do you claim that those who defended freedom here at the risk of their lives, in the midst of daggers, should be treated like vile protectors of aristocracy? We will brave calumnies and intrigues. But the Convention is attached to the Committee of Public Safety; your glory is tied to the success of those who you have garbed in national confidence.
We are accused of doing nothing, but has our position been thought on? Eleven armies to direct, the weight of all of Europe to bear; everywhere there are traitors to unmask, emissaries bribed by the gold of foreign powers to foil, unfaithful administrators to watch over, to pursue; everywhere we must level the obstacles and hindrances to the execution of the wisest measures; all the tyrants to combat, all the conspirators to intimidate, those who can almost always be found in a caste once so powerful because of its riches, and even more by its intrigues, these are our functions. Do you believe that without unity in action, without secrecy in its operations, without the certainty of finding support within the Convention that the government could triumph over so many obstacles and so many enemies? No. Only the most extreme ignorance, only the most profound perversity could claim that in such circumstances those who play the cruel game of vilifying those who are at the helm of affairs, of hindering their operations, of slandering their conduct are not enemies of the fatherland. It is not with impunity that you will leave aside the necessary force of opinion. No other proof is necessary than the discussions that have just taken place.
The Committee of Public Safety sees treason in the midst of a victory. It dismisses a general still garbed in the splendor of an apparent victory, and his very courage is called a crime! It expels traitors and casts its gaze on the officers who showed the most civisme. It chooses them after having consulted the representatives of the people who had particular knowledge of the characters of each of them. This operation required secrecy in order to be completely successful, the safety of the fatherland demanded it. We took all the necessary measures so that secrecy should be guarded, even if it was only in relation to other armies. And now, at the moment in which we are impatient to know the result of these measures, we are denounced at the National Convention, our work is criticized without knowledge our motives, they want us to divulge the Republic’s secrets, that we give traitors the time to escape; it is hoped to strike with disfavor the new choices, doubtless in order to prevent the reestablishment of confidence.
The nobles are ceaselessly declaimed against; it is said that they must be dismissed and, by a strange coincidence, when we execute this great revolutionary measure, and we bring to it all possible consideration, we are denounced. We have just dismissed two nobles, that is, one of the men of this proscribed caste, those must suspect by their former relations with the court, and another known for his ties and his zeal with foreign nobles, the one and the other pronouncedly aristocratic. So we're accused of disorganizing everything. We're told that we wanted to see only true sans-culottes at the head of the armies. We chose those whose new exploits in the affairs at Bergues and Dunkirk designated them for national recognition, who won despite Houchard, who deployed the greatest talent, for the attack of Hondschoote should have wiped out the French army. It’s principally to Jourdan that the amazing success that honored that army is due, which forced the raising of the siege of Dunkirk. It is that officer who, at the moment when the army didn’t expect to find 18,000 well-entrenched men, and where it was surprised by the discharge of a frightening artillery, it is Jourdan who at the head of a battalion took off into the enemy camp, which made his courage pass to the rest of the army, and the taking of Hondschoote was the effect of his able dispositions and the ardor he knew how to inspire.
The head of headquarters being justly suspect, we replaced him by a man whose talents and patriotism were attested to by all the commissioners; a man known by exploits that signaled him at the very time when the most odious treasons sacrificed that army. His name is Ernould. He distinguished himself in the last affair and was even wounded. And we are denounced!
We have made the same changes in the armies of the Moselle and the Rhine. All of our choices were made for men of the character of he I just depicted to you. And we are still accused!
If there are some moral presumptions that can guide the government and serve as rules for legislators, it is certainly those which we have followed in these operations.
What is then the cause for this denunciation?
I dare say that that day was worth three victories for Pitt. What success can he claim if it is not the annihilation of the national Government established by the Convention, dividing us, and making us tear ourselves apart with our own hands? And if in Europe we pass for imbeciles or traitors, do you think that they will have more respect for the Convention that chose us, that they will even be disposed to respect the authorities that you will afterwards establish?
It is thus important that the government be consistent, and that you replace a committee that has successfully been denounced in your midst (No! No! the assembly cries out with unanimity).
It’s not a question here of individuals; it’s a question of the fatherland and of principles. I declare this: in the current state of affairs, it is impossible for the Committee to save the public thing. And if I am contested on this I will remind everyone how perfidious, how widespread is the system to vilify and dissolve us; how many paid agents foreigners and internal enemies have to this effect; I will recall that the faction is not dead, that it conspires in the depths of its cells, that the serpents of the Marais have not yet all been crushed (applause.)
The men who perpetually declaim, whether here or elsewhere, against those men who are at the head of the government have themselves given proof of lack of civisme and baseness. Why then do they want to debase us? Which of our acts have deserved this ignominy?
I know that we cannot flatter ourselves that we have attained perfection. But when one must support a republic surrounded by enemies, arm reason in favor of freedom, destroy prejudices, render void individual efforts against the public interest, moral and physical forces are necessary that nature has perhaps refused both to those who denounce us and those we combat.
The Committee has earned the hatred of kings and rascals; if you don’t believe in its zeal, in the services it has rendered to the public thing, smash this instrument. But before doing so, examine the circumstances in which you find yourselves. Those who denounce us have themselves been denounced to the committee. From the accusers they are today, they are going to become the accused (applause). But who are these men who rise up against the conduct of the Committee, who in this session have worsened your reverses in order to worsen their accusations?
The first declared himself the partisan of Custine and Lamorliére. He was the persecutor of patriots in an important fortress, and lately he dared to advise the abandonment of a territory united with the republic, whose inhabitants, denounced by him, defend themselves with energy against the fanatics and the English.
The second has not yet repaired the shame with which he covered himself in returning from a place whose defense was confided in him after having surrendered it to the Austrians. Without a doubt, if such men manage to prove that the Committee isn’t composed of good men, then liberty is lost, for it will doubtless not be to them that enlightened opinion will give its confidence and hand over the reins of government! And don’t think that it is my intention to render imputation for imputation. Jep commits to never dividing the patriots, but I don’t include among the patriots those who only wear the mask, and I will unmask the conduct of two or three traitors who have here been the artisans of discord and dissension (applause).
I thus think that the fatherland is lost if the Committee doesn’t enjoy unlimited confidence, and if it isn’t composed of men who deserve it. I demand that that the Committee of Public Safety be renewed (No! No! is cried out throughout the assembly)
- Interventions by Briez, Jeanbon Saint-André and Billaud Varenne. The order of the day is demanded.
To pass to the order of the day is to open the door to all the misfortunes that I just exposed. The Convention cannot be silent on that which tends to paralyze the government. The explanations that have been given are insufficient. The only result is that the members of the Committee of Public Safety who have spoken seemed to be defending their cause, and you haven’t pronounced. It means giving the advantage to those men who slandered it, not always here, but secretly, in a way all the more perfidious for having seemed to applaud it before you when it made its reports. For I say to you that the most painful sentiment I felt was having seen Barére applauded by the very men who have never ceased indiscriminately slandering all the members of the Committee, by those very men who would perhaps like to see us with a dagger in the breast (applause).
A member has said that everyone should be able to give his opinion on the operations of the Committee of Public safety; I don’t disagree. The functions of the Committee of Public Safety are arduous, and it is because of this that it cannot save the fatherland without the Convention. In order to save the fatherland one must have a great deal of character, great virtues. Men are needed who have the courage to propose strong measures, who even dare to attack the pride of individuals (applause). Without a doubt everyone is free to express his opinion about the Committee. But this freedom should not go so far that a deputy recalled from the depths of the departments because he has been judged to have ceased serving the people well should go on the attack and accuse the Committee (applause).
Citizens, I promised you the whole truth and I'm going to tell it; in this discussion the Convention has not shown all the energy it should have; a report was delivered to you about Valenciennes, the apparent goal of which was to instruct you on all the circumstances surrounding the surrender of that place, but the real object of which was to indict the Committee of Public Safety. As price for his vague accusation, the author of this report is an assistant on the Committee he denounces. Well I say to you, he who was at Valenciennes when the enemy entered there is not fit to be member of the Committee of Public Safety (lively applause). This member will never respond to this question:
Are you dead? (applause repeated several times). If I had been in Valenciennes under those circumstances I would never have been in a position to deliver a report on the events of the siege. I would have wanted to share the fate of the brave defenders who preferred an honorable death to a shameful capitulation (applause). And since one must be republican, since one must have energy, I say to you that I wouldn’t be member of a committee in which such a man could participate.
This might seem harsh, but what is harsher still for a patriot is that for two years, 100,000 men have been killed by treason or weakness; it is weakness before traitors that harms us. We are tender towards the most criminal men, towards those who deliver the fatherland to the enemy’s steel. I only know how to be moved by the fate of a generous people who are slaughtered with so much villainy (applause).
I add a word on our accusers: it cannot be that, on pretext of the freedom of opinion, a committee that serves the fatherland well should be slandered with impunity by those who, being able to crush one of the hydra heads of federalism, did not do so due to an excess of weakness, nor any of those who, at this tribune, coldly proposed the abandonment of Mont-Blanc to the Piedmontese. (applause.)
As for the proposal of Billaud-Varenne, I attach no importance to it, and I don’t find this impolitic. If the 50 million put at the disposal of the Committee could fix the attention of the Convention one instant it wouldn’t be worthy of working for the salvation of the fatherland. I say that it is not necessary to believe in probity in order to suspect the Committee of Public Safety (applause). That the tyrants who hate us, their salaried slanderers, the journalists who serve them so well spread those falsehoods to vilify us, this I can conceive. But it’s not up to us to ward off such charges and respond to them. It’s enough that I feel in my heart the strength to defend unto death the cause of the people, which is great and sublime. It’s enough for me to hold in contempt all the tyrants and the rascals who second them (applause).
I summarize and I say that all the explanations that have been given are insufficient. We can hold the slanderers in contempt, but the agents of the tyrants who surround us observe us and gather all they can to vilify the defenders of the people. It’s for them, it’s to ward off their impostures, that the National Convention must proclaim that it maintains its confidence in the Committee of Public Safety.