The Convention Is Weak


The Convention Is Weak


The coup of Thermidor did not lead immediately to the dissolution of the Committee of Public Safety (CPS), although much of its power was quickly transferred to other committees, especially the Committee of General Security, and back to the Convention as a whole. This passage, from the memoirs of a member of the CPS after Thermidor, describes the committee’s efforts to continue to guide the Republic in the face of ongoing war, domestic unrest, and food shortages. Yet as the text below shows, both the committee and the Convention as a whole operated from a considerably weakened position, in part because without the Terror, the central government could not compel obedience by officials in the provinces. The steady deterioration of the government’s power over the next fifteen months increasingly made clear the need for a new constitution, with a strong central executive that would be constitutionally limited so as to avoid the excesses of revolutionary government.


Louis-Marie de La Révellière-Lepaux, Mémoires, 3 vols. (Paris: E. Plon, Nourrit, 1895), 1:245–55. Translated by Exploring the French Revolution project staff from original documents in French found in John Hardman, French Revolution Documents 1792–95, vol. 2 (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1973), 307–12.







Having concluded our work with the Committee of Eleven, [Pierre] Daunou and I were named to the Committee of Public Safety. He was handed the trident [gavel], and I was charged with suppressing the civil unrest that was disrupting departments in the west. It was the end of Year III, and the Convention was no longer the formidable assembly that it was. . . . Now it was nothing more than a spineless mob, a mass without cohesion, formed from the incoherent remnants of all the parties that had been successively removed and destroyed. The state of the Convention was a mirror image of that of France. The Committee of Public Safety, the true heart of the State and the only pillar onto which to hold, which alone could rally everyone and move them to action, had itself fallen into complete dissolution. Although I had been warned about this deplorable state, as soon as I saw the committee firsthand I thought I was entering the grave, buried under the rubble of France. I felt the most acute anguish that only a true friend of the homeland could feel when he sees it swallowed by the abyss.

The committee members only concerned themselves with their own business, or with the business of their friends or supporters. The only role they took in the Administration was to find a job for this person, or make that person pay something (which may or may not have been owed), etc. Each section of the Administration was given to one member in particular, and they managed it as they pleased. Only correspondence, to look official, had to be signed by two other members. But as I've already mentioned, it was not administration that took up our time. Moreover, as there was no unity in the committee, the administrative committees acted alone, in isolation, as they wanted and as best they could. I say as best they could, because procuring the two signatures needed to give orders, or answer them, which was very difficult to do for those members of the committee who still wanted to act amidst the chaos. Often it was necessary to wait several days before these two signatures could be obtained. These men, who only saw to their little schemes, were too busy with their own affairs to sign anything. When Daunou and I pressed them, telling them that it does not take long to sign, they objected that they didn't want to sign something until they had read it, which is the right thing to do. But they used this as a pretext, saying they didn't have time! . . . We shall soon see what they used this precious time for. That was the normal daily speed of the Committee of Public Safety when I arrived there. It remained that way until the end, which fortunately was not long in coming.