Debate on the Law of 22 Prairial

Many in the Convention, including some on the Committee of Public Safety, opposed the proposed law, which they feared concentrated too much power in too few hands and would only further destabilize the Republic. This passage from the memoirs of Bertrand Barère, a member of the committee, reveals how opponents of the law had to confront the fear that opposition would expose adversaries to the Terror. The passage of this law marked the beginning of the period known to historians as the "Great Terror," when violence, no longer necessary to protect the Republic, accelerated and became more focused not only on former nobles and clergy but more broadly on "the wealthy." From 22 Prairial until 10 Thermidor (10 June–28 July 1794), over 1,300 were executed in Paris and nearly 1,500 in the provinces, some 15 percent of the total number put to death in the entire fifteen–month reign of Terror.


In several evening sessions, the two Committees met to decide how to go about revoking the Law of 22 Prairial. After several debates that took place during the month of Messidor, they called in Robespierre and Saint-Just to force them to revoke the law themselves, which had been the result of a combination that all of the other members of the government had been unaware of. It was a very stormy session. Of the members of the National Security Committee, it was Vadier and Moïse Bayle who attacked the law and its authors with the most force and indignation. As for the Committee of Public Safety, they stated that they had played no role in the matter, and disowned the law completely. Everyone agreed that it would be revoked the next day. After this decision, Robespierre and Saint-Just stated that they would put the matter before the public. They stated that it was perfectly clear that a party had been created to ensure immunity for the enemies of the people and that in this way, Liberty's most ardent friends would be lost. But, they said, they would know how to protect the good citizens against the combined maneuvering of the two governmental committees. They departed, threatening members of the committee, including Carnot, among others, whom Saint-Just called an aristocrat and threatened to denounce to the Assembly. It was like a declaration of war between the two committees and the triumvirate.

Source: Bertrand Barère de Vieuzac, Mémoires de B. Barère, membre de la constituante, de la Convention, du Comité de Salut public, et de la Chambre des représentants, vol. 2 (Paris: J. Labitte, 1842), 205–6. 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), 250.