The Committee of Public Safety

committee of public safety

The order forming the Committee of Public Safety in 1793

Faced with war, internal unrest and political division, the National Convention established the Committee of Public Safety (Du Comite de Salut Public, or CPS) in April 1793. Its purpose was to act as a kind of executive committee, able to make emergency decisions or day-to-day administration when the National Convention was not sitting. The CPS itself never possessed any intrinsic power; throughout its existence the CPS was reliant on the support of the National Convention, which had to ratify the actions of the CPS and affirm its membership with a majority vote. Yet over time the CPS has come to be seen as the fanatical, dictatorial body that led France into the Reign of Terror. The reality is that this responsibility should be shared with a number of other groups and movements, as well as the National Convention itself.

“Controversy over the Committee of Public Safety and its place in the history of the revolution began even before it disappeared. It is credited, on the one hand, for overseeing the defence of the country and guiding France to victory in war over almost all the other nations in Europe. But on the other hand, it is condemned for overseeing the machinery of the Terror and putting in place what has often been characterised as a Jacobin dictatorship. Whether the former required the latter lies at the heart of the debate.”
Paul R. Hanson, historian

The men who served on the CPS in 1793 held a genuine belief that they were ‘saving’ the revolution. Working on a long table covered with green felt, the group of twelve – eight of whom were lawyers, ten were from cities – formulated responses to military threat, public insurrection and economic despair. Not all were present at any one time, with individual members often absent on visits to the provinces or the army. Each adopted informal portfolios: Robert Lindet, for example, took on responsibility for supplying the army and boosting recruitment, enjoying success and earning him great praise. Bertrand Barere would represent the CPS on the floor of the National Convention, reporting on its actions, making recommendations and seeking conventional approval. Like a microcosm of the Convention itself, the CPS was comprised of moderates and radicals – but its early months were imbued with a reasonable sense of unity and common purpose. As the actions of the CPS were successful, so too did the Convention and the people place greater trust in this small group of men; consequently its influence increased.

The election of Robespierre to the CPS in July 1793 was an important change; strangely, he had not sought this position but accepted his election nonetheless. Historians have long debated exactly how and to what extent Robespierre would come to ‘dominate’ and steer the CPS throughout 1793-94. Some have suggested that Robespierre’s power of oratory and subtle accusation (he was called a “sanguinocrat” by one contemporary) gave him great influence within the Committee; others have suggested that a radical faction in the CPS — made up of Robespierre, Couthon and Saint-Just – guided its actions during the Terror. Whatever the case, division within the CPS increased and the moderates were eventually elbowed out and replaced by more radical deputies from the Montagnards. Robespierre adopted the line that strong government was needed to deal with the external threats and internal crisis; the CPS effectively became the government of France with the Convention only needed to ratify its decisions. In March 1794 the CPS began to target political opponents. The radical sans culottes leader Hebert and his allies (the enrages) were arrested and sent to the guillotine; they were followed a week later by the left-leaning moderates Danton and Desmoulins (the indulgents). Within the CPS there was increasing division about the legitimacy and the need for these purges, however nobody spoke out for fear that they may be next.

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