Revolutionary Tribunal

From New World Encyclopedia
The Tribunal, from La Démagogie en 1793 à Paris by Dauban (H. Plon; 1868)

The Revolutionary Tribunal (French: Tribunal révolutionnaire; unofficially Popular Tribunal)[1] was a court instituted by the National Convention during the French Revolution for the trial of political offenders. It was established August 17, 1792 shortly after the Storming of the Tuileries, which had heightened the political struggles between the Monarchists and the Revolutionaries.

The stated purpose was to have a process for trying suspected traitors to the Revolution rather than just summary executions. However, as the conflict spread to include different revolutionary factions, with the passage of the Law of Suspects and the Law of 22 Prairial, it eventually became one of the most powerful instruments of the Reign of Terror.


Judicial reforms

Accusateur public – Insigne du Tribunal révolutionnaire

By early 1791 freedom of defense became the standard; any citizen was allowed to defend another.[2][3] From the beginning, the authorities were concerned about this experiment. Derasse suggests it was a "collective suicide" by the lawyers in the Assembly.[4] In criminal cases, the expansion of the right ... gave priority to the spoken word.[5] By December 1791 deputies voted themselves the power to select the judges, jury and accusateur public (Prosecutor).[6] On February 15, 1792 the Tribunal Criminel was installed with Maximilien Robespierre as accusateur. On April 10, Robespierre decided to give up his position and became an ordinary citizen who published a magazine.[7] Along with other Jacobins, he urged in the fifth issue of his magazine the creation of an "Sans-culottes armée révolutionnaire (revolutionary army)" in Paris, consisting of at least 20,000 or 23,000 men, [8] to defend the city, "liberty" (the revolution), maintain order in the sections and educate the members in democratic principles - inspired by his reading of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.[9]


The provisional Revolutionary Tribunal was established on August 17, 1792 in response to the Storming of the Tuileries. Originally it was created to ensure that there was some appropriate legal process for dealing with suspects accused of political crimes and treason, rather than arbitrary killing by local committees. Maximilien Robespierre proposed that the new Tribunal be set up, with extraordinary powers to impose the death sentence.[10] The Tribunal was abolished in November 1792 at the start of the trial of Louis XVI. During its tenure it had sentenced twenty-eight people to death. Most were ordinary criminals rather than political prisoners.[10][11]

It incorporated elements from the reformed criminal justice system of 1791 as well as features with a more "extraordinary" or "revolutionary" potential. A bench of five judges would be responsible for running the court itself, but the Convention would control the caseload through deputies elected to a commission de six. Cases would then be presented to the court by an accusateur public (public prosecutor) helped in his work by two deputies, and jurors would decide on the guilt or innocence of defendants. The judges would then invoke punishments in accordance with the 1791 Penal Code...[12]


In early March the War in the Vendée and the War of the Pyrenees began. The population of the Austrian Netherlands were in insurrection against the French invasion. The situation became alarming.[13] On the evening of March 9, a crowd gathered outside the Convention, shouting threats and calling for the removal of all “traitorous” deputies who had failed to vote for the execution of the king. On March 12, 1793, a provisional Revolutionary Tribunal was established. Three days later the Convention appointed Fouquier-Tinville as the "accusateur public" and Fleuriot-Lescot as his assistant. On March 11, Dumouriez addressed the Brussels assembly, apologizing for the actions of the French commissioners and soldiers.[13] On March 12 Dumouriez criticized the interference of officials of the War Ministry which employed many Jacobins.[14] He attacked not only Pache, the former minister of war, but also Marat and Robespierre.[15] Dumouriez had long been unable to agree with the course of the Convention. He was disenchanted with the radicalization of the revolution and its politics and put an end to the annexation efforts.[13]

The Revolutionary Tribunal was re-established at a time of crisis in the new French Republic. The War of the First Coalition was going badly.[16] An unsatisfied Dumouriez wanted to restore a (constitutional) monarchy and reintroduce the French Constitution of 1791. The provisional government responded by taking a number of measures to defend the integrity of the Republic. On February 24 the National Convention decided to create an army of 300,000 by means of a levée en masse;[16] On March 9 it decided to send a représentant en mission from the Convention to every département.[16]

Even in these circumstances, the Convention was initially reluctant to restore the Revolutionary Tribunal. On March 10, responding to serious disorder in the streets of Paris, Georges Danton, with Robespierre's support, proposed its revival, but the majority of deputés were not in favor. After a long debate, towards midnight, Danton was able to persuade a majority to vote for it only by raising the specter of further uncontrolled massacres, as had taken place the previous September. If the Convention did not agree to create the Tribunal, he argued, the people would be compelled to make their own justice.[10] "Let us be terrible," said Danton, "so that the people will not have to be."[17] On this basis, the Convention finally agreed that there should be established in Paris the Extraordinary Criminal Tribunal[18][19] (Tribunal criminel extraordinaire), which received the official name of the Revolutionary Tribunal by a decree of October 29, 1793.

Robespierre became one members of the Committee of General Defense to coordinate the war effort. Danton, Charles-Francois Delacroix, Beurnonville and several other deputies were sent to Belgium to question and arrest Dumouriez. Other measures taken in response to the crisis around the same time included the formal establishment of a Revolutionary Watch Committee in every neighborhood and the creation of the Committee of Public Safety on April 6, 1793.[16]


Procès de Marie-Antoinette le 15 octobre 1793

The court was to hear cases of alleged counter-revolutionary offenses from across France. It was composed of a jury of twelve. This was an innovation in French justice, borrowed from English law (although for the Revolutionary Tribunal the jury was carefully selected from politically reliable activists).[18] It had five judges, a public prosecutor, and two deputy prosecutors, all nominated by the Convention. No appeal was afforded to those convicted. Jacques-Bernard-Marie Montané became President of the Tribunal until he was replaced in his post on August 23, 1793 by M. J. A. Herman. Fouquier-Tinville served as public prosecutor. The lists of prisoners to be sent before the tribunal were prepared by a popular commission and signed, after revision, by the Committee of General Security and the Committee of Public Safety jointly.

On the news that rebels in Toulon had handed the city over to the British, there was several days of rioting in Paris.[10] Then on September 5, 1793, the Convention declared that "terror is the order of the day" and split the Revolutionary Tribunal into four concurrent chambers so that the number of cases it dealt with could be greatly increased. It also decided that all jurors in the Tribunal should be directly appointed by the Committee of Public Safety or the Committee of General Security.


One of the earliest cases brought to the Tribunal led to its most famous acquittal. On April 13, 1793 Girondin deputés brought an accusation against Jean-Paul Marat. Crucially, this involved waiving the immunity enjoyed until then by members of the Convention (Marat was himself a deputé). Not only did the case against Marat collapse, but two days after his case was brought, members of the Paris Commune responded by bringing a case to the Tribunal against 22 leading Girondins. This case was dismissed, but the principle that Convention members could be tried by the Tribunal became an important precedent. As the war went badly, the political fortune of the Girondins, supporters of the war, shifted. After the Insurrection of 31 May-2 June, the Girondins were purged from the Convention. Ultimately it led to the Girondin leaders' trial and execution in October 1793. At this point the struggle between the revolutionaries and the monarchists turned into a struggle among the revolutionaries. The Tribunal became an instrument of the internecine strife.[20][21][22]

During the months when Montané served as its President, the Tribunal dealt with 178 accused. 53% were set free after initial examination by a judge, without a full trial, while a further 17% were tried and acquitted by a jury. 5% were convicted and sentenced to imprisonment or deportation, and 25% were sentenced to death.[23] From its formation up to September 1793, the Tribunal heard 260 cases and handed down 66 death penalties. As a result, it was criticized as ineffective by some Jacobins in its pursuit of "counterrevolutionaries."[11] The Law of Suspects (September 17, 1793) greatly increased the number of prisoners who were imprisoned and might be brought to trial.[10] Between October and the end of 1793 the Tribunal issued 177 death sentences.[11]

Similar tribunaux révolutionnaires (revolutionary tribunals) were also in operation in the various French departments. However, on April 16, 1794 (27 Germinal Year II) the Convention approved a report by Saint-Just proposing the abolition of the existing revolutionary tribunals in individual départements and requiring all suspects to be sent to the main tribunal in Paris.[16] On May 21, 1794 the government decided that the Terror would be centralized, with almost all the tribunals in the provinces closed and all the trials held in Paris.[14] The provincial tribunals which were allowed to continue their work were Bordeaux, Arras, and Nîmes in the south, as well as Arras and Cambrai in the north.[24]

Following the attempted assassinations of Convention members Jean-Marie Collot d'Herbois on May 23 and Maximilien Robespierre on May 25, 1794, the so-called "Prairial Laws" were passed on June 10 (22 Prairial Year II) . These limited trials in the Revolutionary Tribunal to three days.[16] They also prevented the Revolutionary Tribunal from calling witnesses, or from allowing defense counsel. Juries were to convict or acquit entirely on the basis of the accusation and the accused's own defense. Further, the new laws confined the Tribunal to only two possible verdicts – acquittal or death.[17] Finally, the law cancelled all previous legislation on the same subject. Without stating so explicitly, this removed the immunity of members of the Convention which up till then had protected them from summary arrest and required that the Convention itself vote to send any of its members to trial.[25]

Three days after the Prairial laws were passed, the guillotine was moved out of Paris. It had previously stood on the Place du Carrousel, was then moved to the Place de la Revolution, and then again to the Place St Antoine and later to the Place du Trône-Renversé. As the Revolutionary Tribunal accelerated the pace of executions, it became impractical to have it in the city.[16]


The powers of the Revolutionary Tribunal were granted by the Convention, and there was only limited criticism of it. Royalists, émigrés and federalists were clearly opposed to the Tribunal and its workings, but since public criticism in Paris or in the press would be regarded as treasonable, it barely existed. At the same time, there were periodic demands from Enragés[26][27] and Hébertists[17] that the Tribunal accelerate its work and condemn more of the accused.

Among the first to speak up publicly against the Tribunal was Camille Desmoulins in his short-lived journal, Le Vieux Cordelier.[28] As a result of his criticisms he was expelled from the Jacobin Club. Later he was arrested, tried and executed together with Danton in April 1794.[10]

On the eve of his execution, Danton expressed his regret for having advocated the Tribunal. "It was just a year ago that I was the means of instituting the Revolutionary Tribunal; may God and man forgive me for what I did then; but it was not that it might become the scourge of humanity."[29]

Although the Revolutionary Tribunal was not criticized directly in the Convention while Robespierre held power, his proposals for the Prairial Laws were met with dismay when they were presented to the Convention. Some of the deputies were uneasy, in particular, about the removal of their immunity. They agreed to the law when Robespierre insisted on it, but the following day attempted to amend it, obliging Robespierre to return to the Convention and force them restore the original version.[30]

After Thermidor

Sketch of Fouquier-Tinville made during his trial

After the overthrow of Robespierre in July 1794, some people expected the Revolutionary Tribunal to be abolished, but this did not happen immediately. In the five days after the Thermidorian Reaction, the Convention freed 478 political prisoners, but 8,000 still remained incarcerated, despite popular demands for a general amnesty.[16]

On August 1, 1794 (14 Thermidor Year II) the Prairial Laws were revoked, meaning that the burden of proof against suspects was once again with the prosecution. Soon afterwards, all of the judges on the Revolutionary Tribunal were replaced, and the local surveillance committees were curtailed, so that there were henceforth to be only twelve in Paris and one per district outside the capital.[16] The Law of Suspects however remained in force.

The Revolutionary Tribunal was used by the Thermidorian Convention as an instrument to destroy the political leaders who had taken an active part in the Reign of Terror. On December 16, 1794 (26 Frimaire Year III) Jean-Baptiste Carrier was sentenced to death and executed.[16] On May 6, 1795 (17 Floreal Year III), the former President of the Revolutionary Tribunal, Martial Herman, the former Chief Prosecutor Fouquier-Tinville and fourteen former jury members of the Revolutionary Tribunal were convicted, and the following day, guillotined.[16] After most of those associated with the Reign of Terror had been eliminated, the Revolutionary Tribunal was finally discontinued on May 31, 1795 (12 Prairial Year III).[16]

While the Convention itself had most people associated with the Revolutionary Tribunal in Paris executed, no similar official process was followed in the provinces. In 1795, the First White Terror broke out in parts of the country, particularly in the South East, as anti-Jacobin mobs attacked and murdered people who had been associated with revolutionary tribunals in their area.[31] On February 14, 1795 for example, Joseph Fernex, who had served as a judge on the Tribunal in Orange, was killed and thrown into the Rhône by a mob.[16]} On June 27 other members of the same tribunal received the same treatment.[16]


From the beginning of 1793 to the Thermidorian Reaction, 17,000 people were sentenced and beheaded by some form of revolutionary court in France (in Paris or in the provinces), in addition to some 25,000 others who were summarily executed in the September Massacres, retributions in the War in the Vendée and elsewhere. The Paris Revolutionary Tribunal was responsible for 16% of all death sentences.[16]

Of all those accused by the Revolutionary Tribunal, about half were acquitted (the number dropped to a quarter after the enactment of the Law of 22 Prairial Year II) (June 10, 1794).[32] Before 22 Prairial the Revolutionary Tribunal had pronounced 1,220 death sentences in thirteen months; during the forty-nine days between the passing of the law and the fall of Robespierre 1,376 persons were condemned (an average of 28 per day).

List of court presidents

  1. Jacques-Bernard-Marie Montané March 13, 1793 to August 23, 1793
  2. Martial Herman August 28, 1793 to April 7, 1794
  3. René-François Dumas April 8, 1794 to July 27, 1794
  4. Claude-Emmanuel Dobsen July 28, 1794 to May 31, 1795

List of public prosecutors

  1. Louis-Joseph Faure March 13, 1793 (rejected election)
  2. Antoine Quentin Fouquier-Tinville March 13, 1793 to August 1, 1794
  3. Michel-Joseph Leblois August 1794 to January 1795
  4. Antoine Judicis January 1795 to May 31, 1795


  1. David Andress (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of the French Revolution (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2015, ISBN 978-0199639748), 447.
  2. Journal des États généraux convoqués par Louis XVI, septembre 28, 1791.
  3. Nicolas Derasse, "Les défenseurs officieux : une défense sans barreaux," Annales historiques de la Révolution française (350) (octobre-décembre 2007).
  4. Nicolas Derasse, "Words and Liberty: Hopes for Legal Defence During the French Revolution," Quaderni Storici 47(141, 3) (2012): 763.
  5. Herve Leuwers, "Defence in writing: The end of the printed legal brief (France, 1788–1792)," 2012. Retrieved August 19, 2023.
  6. Étienne Cabe, 1790–1792: Volume 2 of Histoire populaire de la Révolution Française de 1789 á 1830: précédée d'un précis de l'histoire des Français depuis leur origine ... continuée jusquén 1845, dédiée au peuple (Paris, FR: Au Bureau du Populaire, 1845), 38. Retrieved August 30, 2023.
  7. Herve Leuwers, Maximillien Robespierre (Paris, FR: PUF, 2019, ISBN 2130800270), 211.
  8. Alan Forrest, "Robespierre, the war and its organization," in Robespierre eds. Colin Haydon and William Doyle (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2006, ISBN 978-0521026055), 133-136.
  9. Claire R. Snyder, Citizen-Soldiers and Manly Warriors: Military Service and Gender in the Civic Republican Tradition (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1999, ISBN 978-0847694440), 46, 55. Retrieved August 20, 2023.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 10.4 10.5 Ruth Scurr, Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution (New York, N.Y.: Henry Holt and Company, 2007, ISBN 978-0805082616), 201-2, 235, 257-258, 286. Retrieved August 20, 2023.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 Jean Tulard, "Tribunal Révolutionnaire," Encyclopædia Universalis. Retrieved August 20, 2023.
  12. Alex Fairfax-Cholmeley, "Creating and Resisting the Terror: the Paris Revolutionary Tribunal, March–June 1793," French History 32(2) (June 2018): 203–225.
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 Patricia Howe, "Endgame, March–December 1793," in Foreign Policy and the French Revolution: Charles-François Dumouriez, Pierre LeBrun, and the Belgian Plan, 1789–1793 (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008, ISBN 978-0230604483), 150, 159, 162, 172.
  14. 14.0 14.1 Ian Davidson, The French Revolution – From Enlightenment to Tyranny (London, U.K.: Profile Books Ltd, 2016, ISBN 978-1681772509), 108, 150.
  15. Sampson Perry, An Historical Sketch of the French Revolution: Commencing with Its Predisposing Causes, and Carried on to the Acceptation of the Constitution, in 1795 (London, U.K.: H. D. Symonds, 1796). Retrieved August 19, 2023.
  16. 16.00 16.01 16.02 16.03 16.04 16.05 16.06 16.07 16.08 16.09 16.10 16.11 16.12 16.13 16.14 Louis Nevin, Chronicle of the French Revolution (London, U.K.: Longman, 1989, ISBN 0582051940), 325-326, 328, 331, 426-427, 437, 440-441, 462, 468, 477-479, 484.
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 Simon Schama, Citizens (London, U.K.: Penguin, 1989, ISBN 0140087281), 707, 806, 837.
  18. 18.0 18.1 David Andress, The Terror: Civil War in the French Revolution (London, U.K.: Abacus, 2005, ISBN 0349115885), 162.
  19. George Armstrong Kelly, Victims, Authority and Terror: the parallel deaths of d'Orléans, Custine, Bailly, and Malesherbes (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1982, ISBN 0807814954), 125. Retrieved August 30, 2023.
  20. Michael L. Kennedy, The Jacobin Clubs in the French Revolution, 1793–1795 (Oxford, U.K. and New York, NY: Berghahn Books, 2000, ISBN 978-1571811868), 18. Retrieved August 20, 2023.
  21. Lisa Rosner and John Theibault, A Short History of Europe, 1600–1815: Search for a Reasonable World (London, U.K.: Routledge, 2000, ISBN 978-0765603289), 363. Retrieved August 20, 2023.
  22. David P. Jordan, Revolutionary Career of Maximilien Robespierre (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2013, ISBN 978-0226410371), 152. Retrieved August 20, 2023.
  23. Philip Dawson and Fernand Nicolaÿ, Provincial Magistrates and Revolutionary Politics in France, 1789–1795 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972, ISBN 978-0674719606), 305. Retrieved August 20, 2023.
  24. Hugh Gough, "The Terror in the French Revolution," in Terror: From Tyrannicide to Terrorism eds., Brett Bowden and Michael T. Davis (Queensland, AU: University of Queensland Press, 2008, ISBN 978-0702235993), 88. Retrieved August 20, 2023.
  25. J.M. Thompson, Robespierre (London, U.K.: Blackwell, 1988, ISBN 978-0631155041), 508.
  26. Jacques Roux, "Manifesto of the Enragés," trans. Mitchell Abidor, Marxist Internet Archive, June 25, 1793. Retrieved August 20, 2023.
  27. Denis Richet, "Enragés," in Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989, ISBN 978-0674177284), 339.
  28. "Revolution Devours Its Own – Le Vieux Cordelier," George Mason University, December 15, 1793. Retrieved August 20, 2023.
  29. Adolphe Thiers, The History of the French Revolution trans. Frederick Shoberl (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2011, ISBN 978-1108035262), 183. Retrieved August 20, 2023.
  30. Jean Matrat, Robespierre: Or, The Tyranny of the Majority (New York, NY: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1975, ISBN 978-0207954771), 260-261. Retrieved August 20, 2023.
  31. Denis Woronoff, The Thermidorean Regime and the Directory 1794–1799 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1984, ISBN 978-0521289177), ix–x. Retrieved August 20, 2023.
  32. "Le Tribunal révolutionnaire," Ministry of Justice of France. Retrieved August 20, 2023.

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External links

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