Georges Couthon


Georges Couthon
Georges August Couthon.

Georges Auguste Couthon (22 December 1755 – 28 July 1794) a French politician and lawyer in the French Revolution. Couthon would befriend Robespierre and serve on the Committee of Public Safety with him from 30 May 1793 until his and Robespierre’s deaths in 1794. Couthon would also play an important role in the development of the 22 Prairial.

Contents

Biography

Background

Couthon was born on December 22, 1755 in Orcet in the province of Auvergne. His father was a notary and his mother was the daughter of a shopkeeper. Couthon, just as the generations of his family before him, found himself the member of the lower bourgeoisie. Following in his father’s footsteps, Couthon would become a notary. His aspirations would take him away from Orcet and to Paris where he would join the Freemasons in 1790 in Clermont. In 1791, Couthon would become one of the deputies of the Legislative Assembly.[1]

Deputy

In 1791, Couthon traveled to Paris to fulfill his duty as a deputy to the Legislative Assembly. He then joined the growing Jacobin Club of Paris. He chose to sit on the Left at the first meeting of the Assembly, but soon decided against associating himself with such radicals as he feared they were "shocking the majority."[2] He was a very proficient speaker, and there is evidence that he exploited his infirmity—he was paralyzed in his lower body, and so used a wheelchair—in order to gain the ear of the Assembly on certain issues.

In September 1792 Couthon was elected to the National Convention. During a visit to Flanders, where he was treating his health, he met and befriended Charles François Dumouriez. At the trial of the king he voted for the death sentence without appeal. He hesitated for a time as to which party he should join, but finally decided for The Montagnards and the inner group formed around Maximilien Robespierre - with whom he shared many opinions, especially on religious issues such as revolutionary dechristianization (to which he was opposed- see Cult of the Supreme Being). He was the first to demand the arrest of the proscribed Girondists.

Lyon

Growing unrest had been occurring in Lyon in late February and early May. By 5 July 1793 the National Convention determined the city of Lyon to be “in a state of rebellion”, and by September the Committee of Public Safety decided to send representatives to Lyon to end the rebellion.[3] Couthon would be the representative that Lyon would surrender to on 9 October 1793.

On 12 October 1793 the Committee of Public Safety would pass a decree which they believed would make an example out of Lyon. The decree specified that the city itself be destroyed. Following the decree, Couthon established special courts that would supervise the demolition of the richest homes in Lyon, leaving the homes of the poor untouched.[4] In addition to the demolition of the city, the decree dictated that the rebels and the traitors were to be executed. Couthon had difficulty accepting the destruction of Lyon and proceeded slowly with his orders. Eventually he would find that he could not stomach the task at hand and by the end of October he would request the National Convention send a replacement.[5] The Republican atrocities began after Couthon was replaced, on 3 November 1793, by Jean Marie Collot d'Herbois.

Leadership of the Convention and Thermidor

Following his departure from Lyon Couthon returned to Paris, and on 21 December was elected president of the Convention. He contributed to the prosecution of the Hébertists, and was responsible for the Law of 22 Prairial, which in the case of trials before the Revolutionary Tribunal deprived the accused of the aid of counsel or of witnesses for their defence, on the pretext of shortening the proceedings.

During the crisis preceding the Thermidorian Reaction, Couthon showed considerable courage, giving up a journey to Auvergne in order, as he wrote, that he might either die or triumph with Robespierre and liberty. Robespierre had disappeared from the political arena for an entire month because of a supposed nervous breakdown, and therefore did not realize the situation in the Convention had changed. His last speech seemed to indicate that another purge of the Convention was necessary, though he refused to name names. In a panic of self-preservation, the Convention called for the arrest of Robespierre and his affiliates, including Couthon, Saint-Just and Robespierre's own brother, Augustin Robespierre.[6] Couthon was guillotined on 10 Thermidor alongside Robespierre, although it took the executioner fifteen minutes (amidst Couthon's screams of pain) to arrange him on the board correctly due to his paralysis.[7]

Legacy

Couthon, during the course of the French Revolution, had transitioned from an undecided young deputy to a strongly committed law maker. Aside from his actions in Lyon, it is perhaps the creation of the 22 Prairial, and the number of individuals who would be executed due to the law, which has become his lasting legacy. According to the 22 Prairial, individuals accused of a crime would be taken to a Revolutionary Tribunal that would choose between two outcomes, the first would be innocence and the second would be death. Trials would quickly move through the tribunal because those on trial would not have access to an attorney nor would they be able to have witnesses speak on their behalf. Couthon believed that the 22 Prairial was essential because a political crime was far more heinous than a traditional crime. A political crime was an attack on “the existence of free society”, whereas a traditional crime was merely an attack on the individual.[8] Following the acceptance of Couthon’s new decree, executions increased from 134 people in early 1794 to 1,376 people between the months of June and July in 1794. In total close to 20,000 people were legally executed according to the 22 Prairial.[9]

The executions of alleged counter-revolutionaries was certainly nothing new, and seemed absolutely necessary at the time of these crises. Execution by guillotine was, in fact, viewed as humane (when compared to the methods employed by the French monarchy) and was seen as rendering every man equal in death. However, time passed and the internal and external threats were eventually suppressed. Yet more and more possibly innocent people charged on flimsy evidence were being executed, and many began to see this radical government as unnecessary and in fact tyrannous. In the end, the "National Razor" (as the guillotine was so aptly called) ended up eradicating the very ones who had put it to such frequent use.

Unfortunately, the Terror did not stop with the execution of Robespierre and his triumvirate of Couthon and Saint-Just. France, still in disarray and confusion, continued the executions and even went into a stage of reaction against the virtue held so dear to the heart of Robespierre and revolutionaries. What was once scorned (silk stockings and short pants called culottes) was now being paraded by prisoners set free from the prisons of Paris. It was in these times that a prominent general would come to the fore and create one the mightiest armies Europe had seen at that time: Napoleon Bonaparte.

References

  1. ^ Brunn, Geoffrey. "The Evolution of a Terrorist: Georges Aguste Couthon." Journal of Modern History, 1930: 410-429.
  2. ^ Bruun, Geoffrey. “The Evolution of a Terrorist: Georges Auguste Couthon.” Journal of Modern History 2, no. 3 (1930), http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=00222801%28193009%292%3A3 %3C410%3ATEOATG%3E2.0.CO%3B2-9.
  3. ^ Longfellow, David L. "Silk Weavers and the Social Struggle in Lyon During the French Revolution 1789-1794." French Historical Studies, 1981: 1-40.
  4. ^ Doyle, William. The Oxford History of the French Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
  5. ^ Mansfield, Paul. "The Repression of Lyon 1793-4: Origins, Responsibility and Significance." French History, 1988: 74-101.
  6. ^ Jones, Colin. The Longman Companion to the French Revolution. London: Longman Publishing Group, 1990.
  7. ^ Lenotre, G. Romances of the French Revolution. Translated by George Frederic William Lees. New York: William Heinemann: 1909.
  8. ^ Schama, Simon. Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.
  9. ^ Higonmet, Patrice. Goodness Beyond Virtue: Jacobins During the French Revolution. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998.
  • The 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, in turn, gives the following references:
    • Francisque Mége, Correspondance de Couthon … suivie de l'Aristocrate converti, comédie en deux actes de Couthon, Paris: 1872.
    • Nouveaux Documents sur Georges Couthon, Clermont-Ferrand: 1890.
    • F. A. Aulard, Les Orateurs de la Legislative et de la Convention, (Paris, 1885–1886), ii. 425-443.
  • R.R. Palmer, 12 Who Ruled: The Year of the Terror in the French Revolution , Princeton U. Press, 1970(reprint)
  • Bruun, Geoffrey. “The Evolution of a Terrorist: Georges Auguste Couthon.” Journal of Modern History 2, no. 3 (1930), http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=00222801%28193009%292%3A3 %3C410%3ATEOATG%3E2.0.CO%3B2-9.
  • Doyle, William. “The Republican Revolution October 1791-January 1793.” In The Oxford History of the French Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
  • Furet, François, and Mona Ozouf. “Committee of Public Safety.” In A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1989.
  • Jones, Colin. The Longman Companion to the French Revolution. London: Longman Publishing Group, 1990.
  • Kennedy, Michael L. The Jacobin Clubs in the French Revolution 1793-1795. New York: Berghahn Books, 2000.
  • Kennedy, Michael L. The Jacobin Clubs in the French Revolution: The Middle Years. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988.
  • Lenotre, G. Romances of the French Revolution. Translated by George Frederic William Lees. New York: William Heinemann: 1909.
  • Schama, Simon. Citizens. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.
  • Scott, Walter. The Miscellaneous Prose Works of Walter Scott. London: Whittaker and Co., 1835. http://books.google.com/books?id=aasCAAAAYAAJ&printsec=titlepage#PPA 195.M1.
  • The French Revolution. London: The Religious Tract Society, 1799.

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 


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