Jacques Nicolas Billaud-Varenne

Jacques Nicolas Billaud-Varenne

Billaud-Varenne portraited by Jean-Baptiste Greuze, c. 1790 (Dallas Museum of Art)
3rd President of the Committee of Public Safety
In office
31 July 1794  1 September 1794
Preceded by Maximilien Robespierre
Succeeded by Merlin de Douai
27th President of the National Convention
In office
5 September 1793  19 September 1793
Deputy of the National Convention
In office
7 September 1792  26 October 1795
Constituency Seine
Personal details
Born Jacques Nicolas Billaud
(1756-04-23)23 April 1756
La Rochelle, Kingdom of France
Died 3 June 1819(1819-06-03) (aged 63)
Port-au-Prince, Haiti
Nationality French
Political party The Mountain
Spouse(s) Anne-Angélique Doye
Alma mater University of Poitiers
Occupation Lawyer, politician
Religion Deism
(Cult of the Supreme Being)
Nickname(s) "The Tiger"

Jacques Nicolas Billaud-Varenne (23 April 1756  3 June 1819), also known as Jean Nicolas, was a French personality of the Revolutionary period. Though not one of the most well known figures of the French Revolution, Jacques Nicolas Billaud-Varenne was an instrumental figure of the period known as the Reign of Terror. Billaud-Varenne climbed his way up the ladder of power during the period of The Terror, becoming a member of the Committee of Public Safety. He was recognized and worked with French Revolution figures Georges Danton and Maximilien Robespierre, and is often considered one of the key architects of the period known as 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."[1]


Early life

Billaud-Varenne was born in La Rochelle as the son of a lawyer to the parlement of Paris. Since both his grandfather and father were lawyers, and he was the first son in his direct family, Varenne was guaranteed a solid education and the same profession. Billaud-Varenne was educated at the College of Oratorians of Niort and took Philosophy at La Rochelle. His education at Niort was particularly important in shaping his character because its methods of teaching were uncommon to the revolution. At Niort, modernity and tolerance were emphasized, as opposed to overbearing and possibly obstructive religious instruction present in most other schools of the time. Billaud-Varenne was also sent to Oratory school at Juilly, where he later became a professor when he felt dissatisfied with practicing law. Here he remained for a short while, until his writing of a comédie strained his relationship with those who ran the school and he was obliged to leave [2] in 1785, the Oratorian college where he was Hall prefect of studies. He then went to Paris, married and bought a position as lawyer in the parlement. In early 1789 he published at Amsterdam a three-volume work on the Despotisme des ministres de la France, and he adopted with enthusiasm the principles of the Revolution.

Early activism

Jean Nicolas Billaud-Varenne

Joining the Jacobin Club, Billaud-Varenne became, from 1790, one of the most violent anti-Royalist orators, closely linked to Jean-Marie Collot d'Herbois. After the flight to Varennes of King Louis XVI, he published a pamphlet, L'Acéphocratie, in which he demanded the establishment of a federal republic.[3]

On 1 July, in another speech at the Jacobin Club, he spoke of a republic, arousing the derision of partisans of the constitutional monarchy. But when he repeated his demand for a republic a fortnight later, the speech was printed and sent to the Jacobin branch societies throughout France.[3]

On the night of 10 August 1792 (during the attack on the Tuileries Palace) he was elected one of the deputy-commissioners of the sections who shortly afterwards became the general council of the Paris Commune. He was accused of having been an accomplice in the September Massacres in the Abbaye prison.[3]

Projects in the Convention

Elected, like Maximilien Robespierre, Georges Danton, and Collot d'Herbois, a deputy of Paris to the National Convention, he spoke in favour of the immediate abolition of the Bourbon monarchy, and the next day demanded that all acts be dated from the Year I of the French Republic (a measure adopted a little over a year later in the form of the French Revolutionary Calendar).[3]

At the trial of Louis XVI he added new charges to the accusation, proposed to refuse counsel to the king, and voted for death "within 24 hours". On 2 June 1793, in the context of Jean-Paul Marat's anti-Girondist instigations, he proposed a decree of accusation against the Girondists; a week later, at the Jacobin Club, he outlined a programme which the Convention was to fulfil soon after: the expulsion of foreigners, the establishment of a tax on the rich, the deprivation of the rights of citizenship of all "anti-social" men, the creation of a French Revolutionary Army, the monitoring of all officers and ci-devant nobles (i.e.: those of aristocratic families who no longer held status after the abolition of feudalism), and the death penalty for unsuccessful generals fighting in the French Revolutionary Wars.[3]

Mission and Reign of Terror

On 15 July he made a violent speech in the Convention in accusation of the Girondists. Sent in August as representative on mission to the départements of the Nord and of Pas-de-Calais, he showed himself inexorable to all suspects.[3]

On his return, Billaud-Varenne was included in the Reign of Terror's Committee of Public Safety, which had decreed the mass arrest of all suspects and the establishment of a revolutionary army, caused the extraordinary criminal tribunal to be named officially "Revolutionary Tribunal" (on 29 October 1793), demanded the execution of Marie Antoinette, and then attacked Jacques René Hébert and Danton. Meanwhile, he published Les Éléments du républicanisme, in which he demanded a division of property among the citizens.[3]

Thermidor and exile

Becoming concerned about his own safety, he turned against Robespierre, whom he attacked on 8 Thermidor as a "moderate" and a Dantonist. Surprised by the Thermidorian Reaction, he denounced its partisans to the Jacobin Club. He was then attacked himself in the Convention for his ruthlessness, and a commission was appointed to examine his conduct and that of some other members of the former Committee of Public Safety.[3]

Billaud-Varenne was arrested, and as a result of the Jacobin-led insurrection of 12 Germinal of the Year III (1 April 1795), the Convention decreed his immediate deportation to French Guiana, along with Collot d'Herbois and Bertrand Barère de Vieuzac. After Napoleon Bonaparte's 18 Brumaire coup, he refused the pardon offered by the French Consulate. In 1816 he left Guiana, went to New York City for a few months, and finally took refuge in Port-au-Prince (Haiti), where he died of dysentery.[3]



  1. Schama, Simon. Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 809, 840.
  2. Levitine, George. Culture and Revolution: Cultural Ramifications of the French Revolution (College Park, Maryland: Department of Art History, 1989), 70-79.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Chisholm 1911.


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