On 5 April 1793 French General Charles-François Dumouriez, Dumouriez defected to Austria. He did so because of an incendiary letter he sent to the National Convention that threatened he would march on Paris if the National Convention did not accede to his wishes. At the time, France was not only threatened by foreign armies and dealing with revolts in Vendée, but also dealing with rumors that foreign plotters would overthrow the revolutionary government from within. Dumouriez’s letter made it seem plausible.
Dumouriez’s defection increased the alarm that an overthrow was imminent and heightened fears and tensions within Paris. This resulted in a Girondin leader, Maximin Isnard, proposing a nine-member committee to protect the newly established republic against foreign invaders and to prevent internal attacks. Georges Danton, a leading figure in the early stages of the French Revolution, heartily agreed with Isnard’s proposal and stated, “This Committee is precisely what we want, a hand to grasp the weapon of the Revolutionary Tribunal.” Thus, the committee was formally formed on 6 April 1793.
The Committee of Public Safety (Comité de salut public) as it came to be known, originally consisted of nine members. Those members included Bertrand Barère (de Vieuzac), Jean-Jacques Bréard, Pierre-Joseph Cambon, Georges Danton, Jean Antoine Debry (who declined due to illness and was replaced by Jean-Baptiste Robert Lindet), Jean-François-Bertrand Delmas, Jean François Delacroix, Louis-Bernard Guyton de Morveau, and Jean Baptiste Treilhard. What follows is a brief description of each man.
Bertrand Barère (de Vieuzac) – Barère was one of most notorious members of the National Convention. He is well-known because he presided over Louis XVI’s trial and voted for Louis’s immediate execution, ending his speech with, L’arbre de la liberté ne croit qu’arrosé par le sang des tyrans (The tree of liberty grows only when watered by the blood of tyrants). After he was appointed to the Committee of Public Safety, he joined Maximilien Robespierre’s Jacobin faction, participated in the second Committee of Public Safety, and voted for the deaths of Girondists at the beginning of the Reign of Terror.
Jean-Jacques Bréard – Bréard’s first taste of politics involved organizing elections in the Estates General. Later, he was elected as a deputy to the National Convention. After being selected to serve on the Committee of Public Safety, he was sent to Brest to manage the organization of coastal defenses. While there he succumbed to the demands of overzealous followers and authorized the formation of a Revolutionary Tribunal. He also dispatched activist groups to indoctrinate local people into a radical brand of republicanism.
Pierre-Joseph Cambon – Cambon was the last president of the Legislative Assembly. He also drew up a petition for the National Constituent Assembly to proclaim a Republic and created the consolidation of all state debt in the “Great Book of the Public Debt.” He did not belong to any factions or political clubs, but he did uphold the institutions of the state. He also succeeded in getting laws passed to confiscate the possessions and estates of émigrés. After being elected to the Committee of Public Safety, he opposed Dumouriez and incurred Robespierre’s hatred by proposing the suppression of pay to clergy, which would have meant the separation of church and state and thereby undermined Robespierre’s Cult of the Supreme Being.
Georges Danton – Danton voted for the death of Louis XVI and “threw down as the gage of battle the head of a king.” Danton was colossal in size and considered an engaging speaker. However, he was also known for his displeasing appearance. He became a leading figure in the early stages of the French Revolution. As mentioned, he supported the formation of the Committee of Public Safety, which was initially known as “the Danton Committee,” and because of his influence served as the committee’s first President. He also adopted the values of the sans-culottes and inspired them with his powerful room-shaking oratories.
Jean Antoine Debry – Debry, also sometimes called de Bry, was elected to the Legislative Assembly and became the President of the National Convention in March of 1793. He voted for the death of Louis XVI and was elected to the Committee of Public Safety but declined because of illness. Jean-Baptiste Robert Lindet then functioned as his substitute before finally replacing Debry. Lindet was unique among the committee members in that he was 46 years old, when the average age of the members was 30. He became famous for the slogan, La patrie est en danger, which in English means “The Fatherland is in danger.”
Jean-François-Bertrand Delmas – Delmas was a deputy in the Legislative Assembly and member of the National Convention. “He is generally credited with beginning the custom of referring to ‘left’ and ‘right’ to distinguish radical from conservative deputies in the Legislative Assembly.”
Jean François Delacroix – Known as “Lacroix of Eure-et-Loir,” Lacroix was affiliated with the Jacobins and became a good friend to Danton. Lacroix called for the abolition of slavery and for the deportation and confiscation of property from emigrants. He felt Louis XVI was the cause of all France’s problems and voted for the king’s death.
Louis-Bernard Guyton de Morveau – The son of a lawyer, Morveau was first elected to the National Assembly and served as president for a short time. Although he was a member of the right-wing, he voted for the king’s death. He served on the Committee of Public Safety for only a few months—from the 6th of April 6 to the 10th of July. He left to devote his time to the manufacture of firearms and the formation of a balloonist corps.
Jean-Baptiste Treilhard – Treilhard had great political savvy and held a number of important positions, including President of the National Constituent Assembly and President of the National Convention. He was also an associate’s of Danton.
The original Committee of Public Safety did not last long. It was restructured three months later on 10 July 1793 and this time did not include Danton. On 20 July 1793, Robespierre was elected to the Committee. The new Committee was much more powerful than the old one. They created a dictatorship in conjunction with the Committee of General Security, and they appointed a Revolutionary Tribunal to try political offenders. The new Committee also governed the war — this included making appointments and provisioning the forces — and they interpreted and applied the decrees of the National Convention, thereby implementing some of the harshest policies related to the Reign of Terror.
- Belloc, Hillaire, Danton, 1911
- Bourne, Henry Eldrigde, The Organization of the First Committee of Public Safety, 1896
- Hanson, Paul R., The A to Z of the French Revolution, 2007
- Hoyt, Jehlel Keeler, The Cyclopedia of Practical Quotations, 1869
- Stephens, Henry Morse, Orators of the French Revolution, 1892