The Amis du Peuple and France’s Judicial System

The revolution of 1830 was, then, a victory for the wealthy elite; the few constitutional adjustments left intact the exclusion of the vast majority, including most of the July combatants, from the political body. The beneficiaries of the revolution–wealthy members of the bourgeoisie and pragmatic members of the aristocracy–referred to themselves as the juste milieu. As a class of “notables,” they shared an increasingly oligarchical entrenchment in the power of the state, as officeholders, as fonctionnaires, and often as both at the same time; in the 1846 Chamber, 40 percent of the deputies were also public functionaries, and thus automatic votes (if they wished to keep their lucrative positions) for the ministry.

The guiding philosophy of Orléanism, according to historian Jean Touchard, emerged from the blending of two liberal political tendencies during the Restoration. The Doctrinaires saw themselves as holding the middle ground between the ancien régime and democracy; the chambers, representing not the citizenry but financial “interests,” were to be reserved for those with property and wealth. The Liberals, most prominently exemplified by Benjamin Constant, gave pre-eminence to the liberty of the individual and, in political terms, believed in ministerial responsibility to the chambers, a decentralized government, freedom of religion, and a king who reigned but did not rule. Their preference for a smaller and more limited government generally caused them to oppose an active foreign policy. In practice, the devotion to individual liberty allowed Orléanists to foster a laissez-faire economic program that benefited the already affluent.

Republicans were hostile to the bland foreign policy of Louis-Philippe, which they denounced as cowardly. They regarded the concept of the juste milieu, the supposed function of holding the middle, as no more than a mask for bourgois domination. But the key to understanding republicanism during the July Monarchy lies in its failure to embrace liberalism, in spite of many shared values, including the civil liberties of speech, press, assembly, and conscience. Liberal economic theory separated the two ideologies, for July Monarchy republicanism was increasingly imbued with socialist ideas. The other major difference lay in liberalism’s wariness about the uses of government; republicans hoped to wield the power of a strong centralized state. Finally, the moderate, non-violent republican movement was discredited early in the regime, both by its own failure to seize control of events in 1830 and by the government offensive against it.

Having lost the battle for the Republic, the new Société des Amis du Peuple shifted their aims to the preservation of basic civil rights, especially of assembly and press. Throughout the group’s existence they would actively insist upon publicity, attempting to republicanize fellow Parisians through open meetings and inexpensive brochures, though in the end their most important field of combat proved to be the courtroom. The Amis had a bourgeois, educated leadership, and shared members with a number of other early leftist (though not necessarily republican) middle-class groups, such as the Société pour la Défense de la Liberté de la Presse patriote, which provided legal expenses and subsidies for struggling provincial papers, or the Association libre pour l’Education du Peuple, which offered public courses that enrolled some 2,500 working-class adults.

Unlike the other groups, however, the Société des Amis du Peuple moved steadily leftward. Philippe Buchez, leader of a Saint-Simonian splinter group and an advocate of worker association, was influential in shifting the Amis away from economic liberalism. In the 1840s, he became one of the proponents of Christian socialism and the inspiration behind the workers’ journal L’AtelierCarbonariveteran Dr. Ulysse Trélat, a noted alienist and future minister in 1848, was president of the society during much of its first year. François-Vincent Raspail was a respected scientist who eventually devoted most of his time to a free clinic for the poor. He was the author of a popular book of home remedies (1843) and an admirer of Jean-Paul Marat.

Behind the scenes was the venerable conspirator Philippe Buonarroti, an Italian aristocrat who had dedicated himself to the French Revolution. In 1828, his reputation had been explosively revived with his La Conspiration pour l’Égalité, an account of the 1796 Babeuf conspiracy in which he had participated (and the inspiration for many montagnard political ideas). Buonarroti was befriended by the socialist aristocrat and deputy René Voyer d’Argenson, who supported him financially until his death in 1837. But his chief contact in the Amis was probably Charles Teste, a founding member and radical writer with whom he had been in correspondence for many years. (Ironically, his older brother, the cabinet minister Jean-Baptiste Teste of the 1847 Teste-Cubières corruption scandal, probably did more to undermine the regime.) The three men were important in broadening the purely political focus of the early July Monarchy into social and economic issues.

Finally, the Amis du Peuple included many future montagnard leaders. In 1830, the professional revolutionary Louis-August Blanqui was a law student and reporter for the Saint-Simonian Globe. Early in 1831, he founded his first group, a student association that demanded “the destruction of the University” as an “odious monopoly” of knowledge. Most influential among the young republicans was journalist Godefroy Cavaignac, a leader of the Amis and of the soccessor Sociéte des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen. Like Blanqui the son of a conventionnel (a member of the revolutionary Convention of 1792-95), Cavaignac was a carbonari veteran and would later become one of the founders of the newspaper La Réforme in 1843. He was the older brother of the future general Eugène Cavaignac, who would crush the insurgents of the June Days of 1848.

In early September, the Amis began regular meetings in the large Pellier Hall in Montmartre, arguing that article 291 of the Penal Code, which prohibited groups of over twenty people from meeting regularly without police authorization, had been nullified by the revolution. The right of free assembly had been one of those “republican institutions” set aside for later consideration during the hasty consolidation of the regime, but the new government soon began to have second thoughts. On 25 September, Interior Minister François Guizot denounced the Amis du Peuple as one of those societies “where all things are called into question” at every moment: “It is the government, the distribution of fortunes and properties, that one agitates in these societies.” That evening the group was expelled from their meeting place. The official story held taht the neighbors, “the merchants and small manufacturers,” had finally had enough; seeing their “commerce paralysed,” “the tranquillity of their quarter incessantly troubled,” they had taken matters into their own hands. In contrast, the republican version blamed the police for surrounding their hall with hired troublemakers, whose threats had forced them to leave. The group would continue to meet in various locations but always, from this moment on, under threat of harassment.

After several minor skirmishes, the government’s first major assault on the group was the Procès des Dix-Neuf (Trial of the Nineteen). For republicans, this case provided their first major opportunity to manipulate the courtroom to their own advantage, their strategy possible only because of the judicial reforms of the first revolution. French trials under the old regime had been conducted according to the fundamental Ordonnance of 1670, which had codified an inquisitorial process. Professional judges read the written evidence–the depositions of suspects and witnesses (assembled in a closed session by investigating magistrates), and mémoires from the defense–and issued a verdict based on this material, according to strict rules of evidence. This secret procedure had been opened up in the course of the revolution through the adoption of the jury system and oral arguments, confirmed in the Code d’Instruction criminelle of 1808.

An element of the 1670 procedure survived in the preliminary investigation by the juge d’instruction, who continued to possess many intangible advantages. The suspect was not allowed to have a lawyer present, nor was he told of the charges or the evidence against him, unless the examining magistrate chose to reveal this information. In the Procès des Dix-Neuf, an unusual number of defendants and witnesses complained that their written depositions (used against them in trial) did not conform to what they had said to the examining magistrate; Dr. Ulysse Trélat told of questions so complex that one needed “great power of concentration,” as well as practice in debate, in order not to be tripped up. Because of the ease with which their words could be manipulated, many republicans refused to give pretrial depositions. The underground Société des Familles, founded by Blanqui in 1834, formally prohibited its members from speaking to the juge d’instruction.

Nevertheless, the judiciary could exert pressure by holding a defendant in custody for lengthy periods of time before filing formal charges. The law required only that a defendant be questioned before the end of 24 hours. Republicans complained that this formality was often fulfilled merely by asking the arrested individual his name. Months would then pass before further interrogation, a particular source of frustration for working men whose families were depending on their income. In 1833, the Procureur-Géneral of Paris frankly acknowledged the value of constant harassment through frequent police searches, whether followed by arrest or not. “It takes from them all their courage.”

Although the pretrial procedures remained similar to those of the old regime, the trial itself had been transformed through the revolutionary innovation of the jury, including both a jury of judgment and a jury d’accusation, or grand jury, to bring indictments. The latter was replaced, during the Empire, by a panel of judges called the chambre des mises en accusation, or indictment chamber; the mighty weapon of prosecution, then, was entirely in the hands of appointed government officials. On the other hand, the power of juries in assessing penalties was dramatically increased by the law of 28 April 1832. This major legislation reduced the number of capital crimes, abolished branding and mutilation, and allowed juries to consider “extenuating circumstances” that would lead to a reduction of the penalty–the last measure to end acquittals by jurors who found the prescribed penalties too harsh. The number of jurors necessary to convict varied from 7 to 9 (out of 12) between 1830 and 1848; the jury list was selected each year from among the electors, or eligible voters, by the appointed departmental prefect, who had the power to weed out enemies of the regime. Political suspects nevertheless preferred the Cours d’Assises, with a jury, to the Tribunal de police correctionnelle, where a panel of magistrates issued the verdict; even though the possible sentences were less severe in the lower court, the conviction was more certain.

The presiding magistrate or président had considerable power: to direct the debates, to summon new witnesses, to order the reading of pretrial depositions when they conflicted with oral testimony. Immediately after the reading of the indictment, the presiding magistrate conducted an interrogation of the defendant, often in the manner of a prosecutor. Until 1881, the président finished the case by a summary of the evidence which, because of an “unconscious esprit de corps,” frequently amounted to a second summation for the prosecution. The nature of the judicial hierarchy–a part of the government bureaucracy–further skewed the entire procedure. It was possible to move back and forth between the “seated” magistracy, or the judges’ bench, and the “standing” magistracy, or prosecutorial bench; judges had permanent tenure, but prosecutors might advance through the ranks–or perhaps, from the provinces to Paris–more quickly. In both branches there was a strong incentive for junior members to defer to the opinions of their superiors; as Benjamin Martin has remarked, they were not seen, by “themselves or by outsiders, as an independent judiciary.”

In the courtroom, attorneys and defendants deliberately portrayed themselves as Davids against multiple Goliaths. The defense attorney’s chief opportunity to sway the jury was through his pleading (plaidoyer) at the end, delivered after the prosecutor’s summation (réquisitoire); thus, much depended on his persuasiveness and oratorical skill. Many of the frequent political defendants–Cavaignac, Raspail, Blanqui–also developed a reputation for public speaking, and often played to a full house. In addition, their words were frequently immortalized in one of the republican trial brocures, cheap pamphlets that highlighted the lawyers’ plaidoiries and defendants’ statements, omitting much extraneous testimony in order to provide a clear narrative. When the cases involved press offenses, the brochures included reprints of the offending articles–permissible because the prosecutors had read them into the record as evidence–and thus provided even wider circulation for the original material. Finally, the republican trial pamphlets included a generous sampling of audience reaction, always at the expense of the government.

The Procès des Dix-Neuf, the first judicial tournament of the regime, concerned the street disturbances of 20-22 December 1830 during the Procès des Ministres, the trial of four of Charles X’s ministers (those, including the hated Polignac, who were unlucky enough to get caught). When it was announced that the ministers had been sentenced to life imprisonment instead of death there had been minor riots, in which the government had professed to see a conspiracy to overturn the new regime; hence the extraordinary exaggeration of the chargers against the protesters, which could concievably have resulted in death sentences. Most saw in this case a preemptive strike against the republican leadership; the nineteen defendants included republican notables Cavaignac, Trélat, Joseph Guinard, and the two Garnier-Pagès brothers, the elder Étienne (age 28), soon to be a republican deputy, and Louis, age 20, a future member of the Provisional Government in 1848. And the trial was meant to be impressive, with 96 witnesses for the prosecution (témoins à charge) and 84 witnesses for the defense (témoins à décharge). But sheer volume could not make a case.

The first part of the indictment centered around the student radical Jules Sambuc, author of a pamphlet published in December 1830. In labored metaphors he noted that the men of the older generation were building the future, but “it is we who have to live in it”; if his generation destroyed the edifice, “it is because up to now the architects have not acknowledged the slightest obligation to conslut the taste of the young tenants.” He had read this brochure to a group of ten fellow students on 9 December 1830. His Société, “definitively constructed” on 11 or 12 December, had lasted only until the beginning of January, with a total membership of 32. This was dangerous stuff indeed, but the prosecution was even more interested in Sambuc’s private diary which was, to his acute embarrassment, read out in court and published in the newspapers.

Sambuc’s journal provided an intimate look into post-July exuberance, a period of heated meetings and events rushing by too rapidly for detailed recording. On December 19, Sambuc wrote: “Interview with Captain [of the National Guard] Cavaignac; meeting at his home. Opinions shared; nothing fixed, nothing certain. It is believed that the Napoleonists will attack tomorrow; should they be allowed to do so or stopped?” On December 21: “Recruited some fifteen first-rate individuals; brought them to the home of Antoine to fraternize with us; distribution of lists.” And then on December 22: “Judgment of the ministers, meetings, scuffles, trips to the Bastille, 1 franc, return, speeches in various places, at the École de Médecine, at the École Polytechnique; went to the estaminet hollandais, the crisis is abating, useless efforts.” The prosecutor had apparently found this sinister enough to bring to trial, despite the inclusion of personal banalities (one franc per trip). Sambuc’s associates, similarly menacing, included Pierre-Louis Chapparre, a 21-year-old pharmacy student, who had been captured with the following note in his pocket: “Six students have been arrested and imprisoned. It is necessary to know who they are, where they are, and see what is best to do. Pass it on.”

The second part of the case focused on the second and third batteries of the national guard artillery, commanded by Guinard and Cavaignac, which included many members of the Amis du Peuple. The six guards on trial were charged with having conspired to turn over their artillery to the people in the December disturbances. The prosecution’s evidence was fragmentary: at the time of the troubles the members of the Amis du Peuple “held themselves apart, and mysteriously”; they “ceased their conversations when someone approached them”; there had been dinner table talk of the Republic; defendant Edouard Chauvin had been seen at the grille of the Louvre, with “shabbily-dressed individuals,” and another artilleur had had a “nocturnal rendezvous” under the Pont-des-Arts. As the prosecutor promised, after the reciting the other bits of doubtful hearsay that made up the government’s brief, “it is in appreciating the totality of these general facts” that the case could be fully understood.

But the hearsay did not wear any better in open court. A certain Fourchon, a witness in the matter of turning over the cannons to the people, said that he knew only what he had been told by M. Leclerc; Leclerc himself, testifying immediately after, reported that it was “A grenadier, I don’t know which one, in effect [who] reported these words to me, not as having heard them himself, but as having them from a third person.” Other evidence, suggesting the defendants’ involvement in midnight meetings under the bridges, or talking through the gates with tattered men, completely fell apart and was rightly held up to ridicule by the defense.

The last phase of the case was the most unfocused part of the trial, involving several men who were supposed to have encouraged the people to revolt. Most of the witnesses in this loosely related group were called against Jean-François Danton, a 28-year-old editor ofLa Tribune and one of the founders of the Amis du Peuple (though not related to “Danton le conventionnel”). The proprietor of the Sorbonne café asserted that his billiard room had become the hangout of “young men who do not dissimulate their intention of working for the overthrow of the government,” but he could not remember Danton as having been among them. A cabriolet driver testified that on 20 December he had picked up an individual who “appeared to be a provocateur of troubles”; the subversive passenger was not Danton or indeed any of the other nineteen. A lodginghouse keeper had heard the following words: “Robespierre and Marat were honest patriots; Christ himself was an excellent patriot, for he was the first to preach equality.” He did not know who had sait it; he was only sure that it was not Danton, whom he had never seen until this moment in the courtroom. Finally, a cafekeeper recognized Danton as having criticized the light sentence given Charles X’s ministers; he rather spoiled the effect by adding casually that “everybody said that in the faubourg.” (With some prompting, he recalled that he himself had declared that “If the faubourg Saint-Marceau turns out, the faubourg Saint-Antoine will follow.”) As a final blow to the case, the police commissaire was reluctantly forced to admit on the stand that the information against Danton and another “co-conspirator” came from the reports of a police informer, a certain “Joanny aka Ceratti.”

The defendants were universally acquitted. But despite its absurdities, the case had irrevocably altered the political landscape. The monarchy had clumsily declared war on moderate republican leaders, most of whom had hoped to support the new regime. This trial ended all good will; now the moderates were discredited and the montagnard faction strengthened, and there was, in the words of attorney and journalist F. Rittiez, “an uncrossable barrier” between the monarchy and its republican opponents. As relentless government prosecutions constrained the rights of assembly and press, moderates were forced to either drop out of the movement or follow the extremists into more flagrant illegality. Rittiez knew from experience; he was one of the dropouts.

Even before the triumphant Procès des Dix-Neuf, the Amis du Peuple had decided to diversify their activities. In February 1831, they determined upon a strategy of written propaganda; without renouncing “in any way the right of the [Society] to meet in public sessions,” they voted to create a publishing committee. Its members selected articles written by the membership but disclaimed responsibility for the content, asserting that the committee merely shepherded the pamphlets through production. After the government threatened their printer (legally responsible for anonymous publications), committee members initialed each article, though insisting that this did not imply authorship. The Amis du Peuple were soon visible primarily through brochures and trials provoked by them, both of which drew heavily upon the skills of educated members.

The Procès des Quinze involved the fifteen members of the publishing committee. Arrests began in the summer of 1831 for a trial finally held in January 1832, when the Amis unveiled a twofold defense strategy. First, they proclaimed the joint complicity of all society members in the publications, the course undertaken in advance; second, they attempted to prove that what was said in the incendiary brochures was factually true, a method that would allow them to turn the trial back on the government. The most provocative of their pamphlets, on the demonstrations in June 1831, charged that the police had deliberately incited the disturbances and had spread false rumors of pilage in an attempt to rouse the bourgeois national guards against the people. Thus defendant Anthony Thouret asked that the presiding magistrate question one witness “to learn if a citizen was not murdered in front of his eyes, rue Mauconseil”–an inflammatory reference to the death of one of the demonstrators. Attorney Dupont was able to go even further with the next witness, Symon: “We have caused the witness to be called to prove the truth of a fcat: last 15 June, a lawyer, M. Duverger, finding himself at the prefecture of police, chatted with one of the high-level chiefs. He asked how the police could publish placards to the effect that the shops had been pillaged, when that information was false. The high-level employee answered: ‘If the people don’t pillage shops, the police will cause some to be pillaged.’ M. Duverger reported these words to M. Symon who will testify to them”–not that there was much left to say. The jury deliberated for just under three hours, returning with acquittals. The celebration was extinguished when the court immediately handed down sentences for seditious remarks made in the course of the trial, including fifteen months for Raspail and one year for Blanqui (his first sentence). Shouted the youthful Thouret, who received six months: “We still have bullets!” But the government tactic of going after the publishing committees took its toll, as numerous republicans found their health worn down by long pretrial detentions and their courage diminished by uncertainty–for juries occasionallly convicted.

The Amis du Peuple also endured two important trials on the basis of article 291 of the Penal Code, as they continued their efforts to gather in large public sessions. They were mostly unsuccessful, with the police tracking them from one location to another and bullying their potential landlords. Prefect of Police Henri-Joseph Gisquet had no doubt about the stakes of the contest: “What was especially important was to disperse this agglomeration of capable and enterprising men . . . to take from them the means of speaking to the masses . . . and finally to reduce these proud enemies to their proportions, to the shameful role of obscure conspirators!” The last important trial was in December 1832, when 19 leaders of the group were tried for violation of the association law. The case resulted in universal acquittals, but also in a formal judicial dissolution of the Amis. But by the time this case came to court, the educated, gradualist republicanism of the Amis had given way to montagnard extremism, its debut marked by the insurrection of 5-6 June 1832.

© 2002 Jill Harsin; reproduced for nonprofit educational purposes.

1 Comment

  • Michelle Prather says:

    This is the most complete English version of these events that I have read. I am curious as to why you did not include that the famous American inventor, Norbert Rillieux was a member of the Amis du Peuple and was put on trial with the other leaders. According to testimony, he was back in America when the trial took place.

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