Hébert, Jacques René (1757-1794): French Revolutionary and Journalist
Jacques René Hébert was born on November 15 in the city of Alençon in the northwestern part of France. His father, a successful jeweler, also served as magistrate and at age 60, got married a second time to a 29 year old woman, Marguerite Beunaiche de La Houdrie, with whom he had four children, Jacques René being the second one. At age 11, young Hébert lost his father, and his mother chose to send him to college instead of going into his father’s trade. After graduating, he worked as a clerk but ruined his family’s finances upon defaming a physician. He decided to first move to Rouen but shortly after settled in Paris where he lived in misery and starvation.
By 1786, he was scarcely surviving by picking up some odd jobs. In 1790, he wrote a pamphlet, Petit Carême de l’Abbé Maury, which sealed his destiny as a journalist and by the end of the year, his famous journal, Le Père Duchesne, was already on sale. The journal’s success stemmed from Hébert’s ability to often predict events to come but also from his talent in writing articles in the vernacular street language used by the “Sans-Culottes” (radical revolutionaries that belonged to the lowest classes of society). This achievement made Le Père Duchesne more popular than Marat’s journal, L’Ami du Peuple and Hébert, the main spokesman for the Sans-Culottes. His feelings pro or against a specific personality were quickly adopted by his numerous readers. Like many revolutionaries, he was first a monarchist but presented strong anticlerical inclinations. By March 1791, after the king’s flight to Varennes, he was no longer a monarchist, had become a fervent republican, had joined the Cordeliers Club and therefore was a member of the Commune, the political body that governed Paris. In 1792, he married a former nun, Marie Goupil. In March, he was shortly jailed for his vitriolic attacks on Marie-Antoinette whom he referred to as “Mme Veto.” He was also instrumental in the antimonarchist demonstration that took place on June 20, 1792. He was clearly becoming a popular figure of the revolution and in July was elected president of the Cordeliers’. Serving as commissioner to the Commune on the night of August 9-10, he was influential to the king’s overthrow and his vicious and violent criticisms of Louis XVI and his wife played a crucial role in motivating the perpetrators of the September massacres of royalist sympathizers. In December 1792, Pierre Gaspard Chaumette was elected “Procureur” of the Commune and Hébert second alternate. Early on, during the king’s trial, he was against his execution but later changed his mind and lobbied in favor of the king’s death. In his journal, he refused to describe the king’s dignified attitude before being guillotined for fear it would make him a martyr.
In his Père Duchesne, Hébert continued targeting many individuals but on the top of his list came Brissot, Jacques Pierre and Vergniaud, Pierre leaders of the Girondins and their followers who were in favor of the war with Austria. He was also very suspicious of the revolutionary general, Dumouriez, who did change side later on, betrayed the revolution and joined the Austrians. In April 1793, when the Girondins had Marat, Jean-Paul arrested, he did his utmost to defend him but his efforts resulted in being jailed himself. While incarcerated, he managed to have published the 240th issue of his journal. The Cordeliers Club acting on his behalf had him freed on May 27. Hébert’s popularity reached new heights which gave him the boldness to press for the Girondins’ demise more vehemently and the brashness to challenge the Convention in demanding the creation of a national Commune. The Montagnards viewed this move as a contest to their power and thus considered the Hebertists as potential rivals. On August 20, 1793, the scission was complete when Hébert failed to secure for himself the position of Minister of the Interior that went to Jules Paré, Danton’s protégé. He, therefore, positioned himself against Danton, Georges and to some extent Robespierre, Maximilien François Marie Isidore de as well. The fight between Danton and Hébert continued to rage as the former headed the Indulgents –more moderate- clearly opposed politically to the latter leading the Hebertists or “Enragés” –more extremist-. Hébert did not refrain from spreading rising rumors accusing Danton of stealing government money. In return, Danton retaliated by suspending Le Père Duchesne’s free distribution to soldiers on the front. At this stage, Hébert’s popularity started to slowly wane because of his support for the country’s dechristianization. Most historians believe Hébert was rather a deist than an atheist; however, the Hebertists were considered the launchers of the dechristianization movement even though Robespierre himself had inaugurated the Cult of the Supreme Being on June 8, 1793. Hébert’s fierce and recurring diatribes against the Pope and the church had placed him in the forefront of dechristianization.
After the elimination of most Girondins in October 1793, the open conflict with the Montagnards and more specifically the Dantonists intensified. Desmoulins, Camille preaching moderation in his Le Vieux Cordelier denounced the Hebertists for having derailed the revolution’s ideals because of their violence. In addition to Danton, Georges and Desmoulins, Hébert’s list of enemies was fast growing due mainly to his personal attacks against Convention’s members like Philippeaux, Legendre, or Fabre d'Eglantine. Hébert was losing more popular support and although the Cordeliers did regard Danton and the Indulgents as too moderate, they also regarded the Hebertists’ violence as a menace to the revolution. Danton, Desmoulins, Camille and the Indulgents’ clear stand against the Terror put them at odds with Robespierre, Maximilien François Marie Isidore de who paradoxically did not want to side with the Hebertists because of their extremism and their decline in popularity. In spite of Le Père Duchesne’s triumph with the Sans-Culottes, Robespierre was still the most popular figure among the latter. Early in 1794, Hébert unwisely spoke out against the Convention for its failure to fix the terrible food shortage and its incapacity to price controlling. The Hebertists or “Ultrarevolutionaries” were amid the most vocal about the food scarcity and the need for price-fixing and did find some support among the poor and the most discontent Sans-Culottes but at the same time appeared suspiciously more treacherous to Robespierre and Saint-Just, Louis-Antoine de. The Vendée campaign worsened the struggle between the Hebertists, a more urban movement, and the Indulgents. The Vendée, a western maritime region of France greatly populated by peasants, had revolted several times against the Republic; the Indulgents who preconised clemency were opposed to the Enraged who demanded and often obtained a total enforcement of the Terror for all suspects. This episode caused several factions among the revolutionaries, the Cordeliers against the Jacobins, the Dantonists against the Hebertists, the Committees against each other, and the Sans-Culottes fractioned among the many factions.
Yet, another political faux-pas doomed Hébert’s future; at the Cordeliers’, he was heard referring to Robespierre as a “misled man” for having saved Desmoulins, the “traitor” and also uttering the perilous and hazardous word “insurrection”. Hébert was therefore immediately placed on the top of Robespierre’s list of enemies. Feeling the danger, Hébert tried to justify himself by writing that he held Robespierre in the highest respect, that the term “insurrection” was taken out of context and that he only considered the Indulgents as the foes of the revolution. But Robespierre and Saint-Just feeling they had enough support decided the time was ripe to strike a fatal blow at the Hebertists and on March 14, 1794 had Hébert, Ronsin, Momoro and many other Hebertists as well as Cordelier members arrested. Fouquier-Tinville, the public prosecutor, received instruction from Saint-Just, Louis-Antoine de leaving no doubt to what the issue of the trial should be. Except for one accused, Laboureau, they were all condemned and guillotined on 24 March 1794. One week later, Danton and the Indulgents were arrested and were sent to the scaffold on 5 April. The "Enragés" and the Indulgents, each on the opposite side of the political spectrum of the revolution could not survive without each other.
Jacques René Hébert being the spokesman of the Sans-Culottes, his end signified the end of the deep popular phase of the revolution.
Morris Slavin, The Hebertistes to the Guillotine, 1994.
Guy David Toubiana