Following the example ofestellacatwho made a birthday post for Prieur De La Marne, I have decided to open a serie of posts each one of them dedicated to discuss a revolutionary chosen among the less known (and loved) ones.
I know many of you will be maybe disappointed with it, neverthless I want to begin this work with a post dedicated to Billaud-Varenne who remains, despite my strong passion for Saint-Just and sympathy for Robespierre, one of my most beloved revolutionaries (-> I know you may find it strange - but this is unrational, so just take it as it comes !).
I don't put here his biography since I believe most of you know it (and if not, you can just have a look anywhere on the web), but I'd like to underline some stereotypes about his figure which doesn't appear so simple and one-faced as many treat it.
He perhaps doesn't embody the type of a tragical hero such as Saint-Just and doesn't possesses that "poetic aura" which makes Robespierre so impressive, he also doesn't has the force of enflaming entire masses like a Marat, but if you consider his action during the whole revolution you can't avoid regarding him as a key-actor in it, despite his role as a last-minute-enemy in Thermidor. More, if you have a look at his entire life - I mean also after the revolution - you have to notice he is a fashinating character, much more complex and nuanced than the square "bloodythirsty traitor" which much of the XIXth historiographical tradition brought to us in opposition to the process of heroicization (or demonization yes, but always with that touch of grandeur) which surrounded Robespierre and Saint-Just as well.
He was among the greatest workers at the Committee, he was a remarkable orator, he was the one who mostly urged Robespierre for the arrestation of Hébert and then Danton, he was also, beyond Robespierre, the real architect of the Terror - that means he officially systemathized the executoning of the opposers as an instrument which had to grant the surviving of the young republic.
More, despite he is often considered close to the demagogy of the Hébertism, he really was one of the few who (in a different way as Saint-Just did with his Ventose Decrees) really took into account a real attack to private properties during the French revolution. Some marxist and more generally left-related historicians recall him as some kind of protoanarchist.
Despite Thermidor, he remained true to his principles for the rest of his life. He strongly refused the amnesty the Consul Bonaparte granted him because he didn't recognize the legality of Napoleon's coup d'état, and he then suffered of dreadful nightmares about Danton and Robespierre's executions for many years. Nobody will give Robespierre back to life again and let him do what he had planned - of course :)- but I think one shouldn't judge with superficiality this late regret of Thermidor.
Billaud died in the free Republic of Haiti whose government had asked for his cooperation (which he promptly accepted).
So I believe his memory should be rehabilitated. Or if not, I hope at least his figure will be discussed again with more objectivity.
Yes I like you, Nick !
Some curiosities about him:
- He appears as a minor character in the novel "Explosion in a Cathedral" published by the excellent Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier in 1962, dealing with the situation in many Latinoamerican countries after the French Revolution.
- He is also the main character of the drama "The Jacobins part II" put on the Italian stages in 2002 by the director Arnald Picchi. The drama is sort of a sequel of Federico Zardi's "The Jacobins" featured in Milan in 1957. In this new 2nd part Billaud is shown in 1816 during his sea-travel from French Guyana to New York at night facing his past represented by apparitions of Robespierre, Danton and the Girondins who torment him.
A quote (about the Terror):
"No, we will not step backward, our zeal will only be smothered in the tomb; either the Revolution will triumph or we will all die".
You can read his memories (with a long and detailed biographical note) here: