Saint-Just, Louis-Antoine de
Saint-Just, Louis-Antoine de (1767-1794): French Revolutionary.
Louis Antoine de Saint-Just was born in Decize in the Nivernais region. In spite of the “de” his parents were not of noble blood. His father was a retired cavalry captain and his mother was from the upper middle class. Very early on, the family moves to Blérancourt in Picardie in Northern France. At the age of 10, Saint-Just loses his father and his mother sends him to Soissons to be educated by the Oratorian Monks. In the summer of 1786, he steals some of his mother’s silver trinkets and flees to Paris, but in November, his mother has him arrested. While in jail, he writes a very long epic poem, Organt. Six months later, his mother decides her son learnt a good lesson and let him go free. He goes to Rheims where he studies law. But after a year, he goes back to live with his mother in Blérancourt.
In 1790, he gives a speech on the choosing of the new capital for his department; he realizes then his taste for public political life. In July, he is back in Paris as the head of the Blérancourt National Guards. Upon his return home, he writes an admiring letter to Robespierre, Maximilien François Marie Isidore de that would seal a life friendship. In 1791, Saint-Just publishes his Esprit de la Révolution et de la Constitution de France which enjoys immediate popularity. In this work, the author is not unfriendly to monarchy since the king’s flee to Varennes has yet to happen and the court duplicities are still unrevealed. His swift style announces a future orator; his logic is inexorable which anticipates his inflexibility and firmness but also his lack of desire to charm his audience to lure it to his viewpoint.
In September 1791, he is elected deputy at the National Convention. His friendship to Robespierre draws him to the “Montagnard” side and he regards the “Girondists” as enemies responsible for the outbreak of the war with the Prussians. The Girondists led by Vergniaud and Brissot, Jacques Pierre accuse the Montagne of inciting the September Massacre where about 1600 inmates (mainly Royalist sympathizers) were murdered by the Paris mob. At 25, Saint-Just is one of the youngest deputies but his first speech calling for Louis XVI’s death has a lasting impact; his conviction and calm in justifying his decision impressed the Convention members. With men like Danton, Georges, Marat, Jean-Paul, Robespierre, Saint-Just, and Billaud-Varenne, the Montagnards become the dominant faction and make the Girondists less and less attune with the new direction taken by the revolution.
In May 1793, he joins the Committee of Public Safety along with Robespierre and other extremists like Billaud-Varenne and Collot d’Herbois. Attracted by legislation he is called on drafting the new constitution where he shows his political ideals. According to Saint-Just, the basic principles of social laws have to be based on Nature. On the matter of apportionment of provisions, Saint-Just believes in the theory of the Physiocrats but one of his greatest accomplishments is his reorganization of the French armies which do not seem capable of stopping a likely invasion from the Prussians and Austrians. In June, he is named member of a subcommittee to repress the royalist uprising in Western France and to strike at the Girondists imprisoned after their party’s fall. His indictment of the Girondist deputies marks his rise into politics and the beginning of the Terror. Even though he asks for clemency and amnesty for fourteen of the accused, his prosecution has been much too hard for his own party to settle for such a request. Many of the other deputies found his arrogance and austerity irritating. It is often believed that his gravity and coldness were to mask his young age and inexperience.
In October 1793, Saint-Just along with Lebas is sent to Alsace in the northeastern part of France with great powers conferred by the Convention to help a demoralized and disorganized French army in its fight against the Prussians and Austrians. Saint-Just decides to establish a military tribunal to punish negligence, insubordination, pillage, and theft. The Terror has found its way in the republican forces. His new decrees have galvanized the French soldiers; Generals Hoche and Pichegru obtained crushing victories against the imperial troops. Upon their success, Saint-Just and Lebas are now sent to Northern France with the same mission. However, Danton, Georges and his followers, known as "The Indulgents”, do not see the need to continue with the politics of Terror, and are in strong opposition to extremists such as Hébert and Chaumette. Robespierre needing support calls back Saint-Just to Paris. To the Committee of Public Safety, the Indulgents appear to be the most dangerous enemies. The rest of the Convention, intimidated, do not dare to vote against the resolutions proposed by Robespierre and his allies. However, Desmoulins, Camille in his Le Vieux Cordelier denounces the Terror as well as the “Enragés” like Hébert. Robespierre, Saint-Just, and Couthon consider the criticism as a direct attack. For Saint-Just, a relaxation of the Terror means a relaxation of strict moral which in turn could conduct to military defeat and the end of the revolution. In February 1794, he delivers a speech at the Convention to maintain the Terror and suppress the Indulgents. He lists all the dangers faced by the nation and how the decisions taken by the Committee of Public Safety saved France. Thanks to his political tactic, Saint-Just convinces the Convention to provide the Committee with even more draconian power which allows Robespierre, Maximilien François Marie Isidore de and himself to strike a final blow to the Indulgents, too moderate, and the Hebertists, too extremist. On March 13 and 14, the latter are arrested. Saint-Just pronounces a virulent and vituperative prosecution against the Enraged who are sent to the scaffold ten days later. Dantonists, like Fabre d’Eglantine and Hérault de Seychelles, had already been arrested previously for conspiracy with foreigners. By eliminating two of Danton’s close allies Robespierre weakens his political enemies and on March 30 has Danton incarcerated with Desmoulins and their followers. Saint-Just himself writes the indictment to convince the Convention that Dantonists represent the real threat to the revolution. The accusations are merely a list of gossip and rumors without solid proof. The trial opens on April 2 and on April 3, Danton speaks almost the entire day demonstrating Saint-Just’s false accusations. With his eloquence, Danton is turning the opinion in his favor and the members of the Convention, worried about their own fate, vote that the trial must continue without the presence of the accused and their witnesses because the aforementioned had supposedly insulted the tribunal. April 5, the jury reaches a guilty verdict and Danton, Desmoulins, Fabre d’Eglantine, and other Dantonists are publicly guillotined.
Saint-Just is then sent back to the Army of the North to ensure a stunning victory for the revolution. The battle of Fleurus, Belgium, in June, against the Austrians where the French are largely outnumbered achieves just that, but by defeating the Austrians, France is no longer in danger of being invaded and makes the Terror needless. In spite of his great victory, back in Paris, Saint-Just realizes that the atmosphere is turning againt him; the influence of the triumvirate, Robespierre, Maximilien François Marie Isidore de, Couthon and himself that are dominating the Committee of Public Safety is waning. The opposing faction at the Convention led by Tallien, Bourdon, Fouché, and Barras manage to recruit on their side Billaud-Varenne and Collot d’Herbois because of internal dissention within the Committee of Public Safety. On Thermidor 8 (July 26, 1794) at the Committee of Public Safety, Carnot and Collot d'Herbois fearing an indictment from Saint-Just have a violent argument with him. On Thermidor 9, Saint-Just takes the floor at the Convention with his customary arrogance even though he knows of a conspiracy to overthrow him and Robespierre, but Tallien not letting him speak, starts his attacks on members of the Committee of Public Safety and is followed on the platform by Billaud-Varenne and Collot d'Herbois who realize that publicly accusing Robespierre and Saint-Just might just save them. Robespierre and Saint-Just attempt to defend themselves but their voices are once again drowned by Tallien's. An indictment is promptly passed against Robespierre, Saint-Just, Couthon and other Robespierrists who are all guillotined the next day.
Norman Hampson, Saint-Just. 1991.
Guy David Toubiana