The Revolutionary Tribunals (in French, tribunals révolutionnaire) were politically-motivated courts charged with upholding revolutionary justice by investigating and dealing with enemies of the revolution. They were formed in March 1793 and gained significance during the Reign of Terror.
Organs of the Terror
The first Revolutionary Tribunals were small in number and relatively benign, however, their numbers and powers were expanded during the Reign of Terror. At the height of the Terror, there were almost 200 of these tribunals around France.
The Revolutionary Tribunal of Paris, led by the notorious public prosecutor Antoine Fouquier-Tinville, was the most prolific organ of the Terror, sending more than 2,700 people to their deaths, sometimes as many as 30 in a single day.
As the Terror intensified, and the cases heard by Revolutionary Tribunals became more political, they began to override or abandon legal procedures. The use of justice in the Revolutionary Tribunals was questionable. Many of their hearings were little more than show trials, conducted without any regard for evidence, fairness or the rights of the defendant.
The formation of the Revolutionary Tribunals is often attributed to Georges Danton but their true creator was Jean-Baptiste Carrier (1756-94).
A Jacobin lawyer, Carrier was known for his sharp tongue, revolutionary zeal and murderous cruelty. He had a particular hatred of organised religion and the clergy. Later, during the Reign of Terror, Carrier would order the mass drowning of hundreds of suspected Royalists in Nantes, many of them priests, nuns, women and children.
In March 1793, Carrier stood in the National Convention and proposed a revolutionary court, to be based in Paris and given wide-ranging powers.
Carrier’s proposal was supported by Danton, who spoke eloquently in favour of the idea. This body would allow the Convention to flex its muscle and deal with its enemies, Danton argued, while placating the radicalism of the sans culottes. “Let us be terrible”, Danton said, “to dispense the people from being so”.
The Paris Tribunal
The Revolutionary Tribunal of Paris contained five judges, a 12-man jury and a small group of public prosecutors, headed by Fouquier-Tinville. These officials were appointed by the National Convention on advice from its security committees.
The Paris tribunal was given extensive powers to deal with anyone suspected of opposing, undermining or working against the revolution. Most suspects were delivered to the tribunal by the Committee of General Security, which itself operated several surveillance groups. Other suspects were referred directly to the tribunal by the Committee of Public Safety, the National Convention or représentants en mission (the Convention’s provincial agents).
In its first months, the Paris Revolutionary Tribunal was subject to frequent complaints, mainly about its slowness in processing and finalising cases. There were also complaints about the number of acquittals. Both were attributed to the tribunal’s strict legal procedures which, under existing French law, required a preliminary interrogation, a deposition, evidence, witnesses and investigation of suspects.
Streamlining the tribunals
On September 5th 1793, the National Convention, under pressure from the Paris sections, moved to streamline the city’s Revolutionary Tribunal and improve its efficiency. The tribunal was increased in size, becoming four courts rather than one. The number of judges was expanded to 16 and another 48 jurors (mostly educated sans culottes) were added.
The Law of Suspects, which was passed on September 17th, had an even greater impact on the tribunals. Previously, arrests and charges required a brief of evidence to proceed. Now, just being vaguely suspected or accused of counter-revolutionary activities or political views was enough to be indicted.
Free of restrictions, the tribunals began to evolve into political courts. Radical political clubs, particularly the Jacobins, would decided who was a candidate for investigation. Needless to say, they usually nominated their political rivals.
The line between Jacobin groups and the revolutionary tribunals quickly became blurred. Many who sat on the magistrates’ benches or the juries of Revolutionary Tribunals during the day could be seen in the local Jacobin club at night. In Amiens, the Jacobins and the Revolutionary Tribunal even shared the same building.
The revolution’s most notable victims – Marie Antoinette, the Duke of Orleans, Charlotte Corday, Jean-Sylvain Bailly, Georges Danton and others – were all dispatched by the guillotine after brief appearances in the Revolutionary Tribunal.
Marie Antoinette’s trial makes an interesting case study in how the tribunals operated. The former queen was only sent to trial after a vitriolic press campaign led by Jacques Hébert. She was interrogated on October 12th 1793 and sent to trial just two days later, accompanied by two mediocre and underprepared defence lawyers.
Fouquier-Tinville’s opening charges were excoriating, condemning the “Widow Capet” (as she was then known) as “the scourge and leech of the French people”. Antoinette was accused of manipulating the king, funding her brother the Austrian emperor, and orchestrating or supporting scandalous events like the Champ de Mars massacre.
When these political charges were completed, the Tribunal then gave the floor to Jacques Hébert, her persecutor from the gutter press. Hébert accused the queen of numerous sexual excesses – from hosting orgies to acts of incest with her eight-year-old son. Very little concrete evidence was presented against the former queen, yet the tribunal’s jury took just an hour to find her guilty. Antoinette was guillotined the following day, October 16th 1793.
Law of 22 Prairial
During the Great Terror in June-July 1794, the Revolutionary Tribunals became little more than machines of death. The Convention’s Law of 22 Prairial (June 10th) stripped away even more trial procedures and accountability. Accused persons were denied the right to a defence counsel or to call witnesses on their behalf. Juries could convict on the vague basis of “moral certainty”.
More significantly, the tribunals could only acquit or send to the guillotine – no other verdicts or punishments were permitted.
With defendants now without rights and representation, the Tribunals’ prosecutors dominated and determined proceedings. This produced a significant increase in the rate of convictions and executions.
In its 25 months in operation, the Revolutionary Tribunal of Paris sent around 2,750 people for execution. More than half of these death sentences were passed in the 49 days between the Law of 22 Prairial and the toppling of Robespierre. The provincial Revolutionary Tribunals are believed to have executed around 15,000 people during the Reign of Terror.
A historian’s view:
“Revolutionary tribunals were presented as a means of defending the Republic during its early stages, against the actions of provocateurs, whether in the services of royalists, the church or foreign powers… The purview of the tribunals was eventually expanded to such an extent that any criticism of the government could become the basis for criminal charges… It was not long before Robespierre recognised the strategic political value of the revolutionary tribunals as a means of dealing with his political opponents and his rivals among the Jacobins and their allies…”
1. The Revolutionary Tribunals were politically motivated courts, formed by the National Convention in March 1793. They were best known for sending people to the guillotine during the Reign of Terror.
2. The Tribunals were formed on the suggestion of Jean-Baptiste Carrier and Georges Danton, who called for a judicial body to dispense revolutionary justice to suspected counter-revolutionaries.
3. The Tribunals became one of the main organs of the Reign of Terror. In September 1793 they were expanded and given increased powers that allowed them to process cases more quickly.
4. The Revolutionary Tribunal of Paris, led by the notorious prosecutor Antoine Fouquier-Tinville, was the most prolific of the tribunals, sending more than 2,700 people to their deaths in the space of 25 months.
5. The Law of 22 Prairial in June 1794 stripped accused persons of rights, reduced standards of evidence and required the Tribunals to either acquit or sentence to death. This led to a dramatic increase in the number of executions.
Title: “The Revolutionary Tribunals”
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
Date published: October 16, 2019
Date updated: December 30, 2022
Date accessed: March 18, 2023