Law of Suspects

Note: This decree should not be confused with the Law of General Security (French: Loi de sûreté générale), also known as the "Law of Suspects," adopted by Napoleon III in 1858 that allowed punishment for any prison action, and permitted the arrest and deportation, without judgment, of anyone convicted of political offenses after 1848.

The Law of Suspects (French: Loi des suspects) was a decree passed by the Committee of Public Safety on 17 September 1793, during the Reign of Terror following the French Revolution. It marked a significant weakening of individual freedoms that led to "revolutionary paranoia" that swept the nation.[1]

With the Law of Suspects, anyone at all was deemed suspicious "who, by their conduct or their relationships, either by their words or writings, have been partisans of tyranny or federalism and enemies of freedom, those whose [actions] cannot justify, in the manner prescribed by the decree of 21 March, their financial means and remunerations from their civic duties; those to whom have been denied citizenship certificates, removed by public officials or suspended from their functions by the National Convention or its commissioners and have not been reinstated; those former nobles, all the husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, son or daughters, brothers or sisters, and agents of émigrés, who have not consistently demonstrated their commitment to the Revolution, those who emigrated from the interval between 1 July 1789 and its release between 30–8 March 1792, even though they returned to France within the time prescribed by such order or earlier."

The law ordered the arrest of all avowed enemies and likely enemies of the Revolution, which included nobles, relatives of émigrés, officials removed from office, officers suspected of treason, and hoarders of goods. The following year, it was expanded and became more strict. Implementation of the law and arrests were entrusted to oversight committees, and not to the legal authorities.[2] It also introduced the maxim that subjects had to prove their innocence, which was later extended by the Law of 22 Prairial.[3]


The Law of Suspects, actually a decree rather than a law, was based on a proposal by Philippe-Antoine Merlin de Douai and Jean Jacques Régis de Cambacérès, approved by the National Convention of the French First Republic.[4][5] It supplemented an earlier law of 10 March 1793, which created the revolutionary tribunals but contained a much narrower definition of suspects.[3]

Before its enactment, obstinate, anti-republican Catholic priests, called 'refractory clergy' (French: clergé réfractaire), were alleged to be royalist suspects by the Decree of 17 November 1791. Beginning on 10 August 1792, when the constitutional reign of Louis XVI was suspended by the Legislative Assembly, these priests, as well émigrés and their parents, had been expelled, deported, jailed, and sometimes murdered by radical revolutionary sans-culottes.

The term suspect had been in common parlance by 1793, but had not been defined by consensus. Radical sections of Paris demand that these suspects be arrested, but National Convention failed to act decisively. On 23 March it ordered a disarmament of suspects and, on 2 June, it decreed that those "notoriously suspected of aristocracy and bad citizenship" should be arrested.[6]

The Law of Suspects was finally debated after the invasion of the National Convention by the sections of Paris on 5 September. Its purpose was to define broadly who was to be arrested and examined before revolutionary tribunals. It also forced legislature to adopt the Maximum.[3]

The Committee of Public Safety was given broad powers to arrest and punish. On its behalf, the Surveillance Committees, constituted by a law of 21 March 1793, were responsible for drawing up lists of suspects and for issuing arrest warrants.[7] Citizens were required to carry certificates of civism, attesting to the bearer's good citizenship.[6]

The famous definition of suspects as: "Those who have done nothing against freedom, also have done nothing for it," was part of a provision written by the regional Paris Commune on 11 October 1793. It is often wrongly attributed to wording in the Law of Suspects itself.[8]

Estimated number of victims

The number of accused suspects under the Terror has been estimated to be 500,000 people by Donald Greer, based on research into historical records. He also has estimated that there were 35,000 to 40,000 casualties, including 16,594 executed following legal processes, and the other executions corresponding to the areas of civil war.[9] According to estimates by Albert Mathiez, which places the number of suspects in Paris – who originally numbered 6,000 Paris, and more than 8,000 on the eve of the Thermidorian Reaction – the number amounts to 300,000 people. For Louis Jacob, subsequent statements regarding the events of 9 Thermidor, including discussions with the Convention, can establish a total at 70,000 suspects.[10] According to Jean Tulard, there were 500,000 prisoners and 300,000 people assigned to house arrest.[1] The University of Chicago's Encyclopedia Britannica, more conservatively, puts the number detained by the law at "more than 200,000," noting that most never stood trial although they languished in disease infested prisons where 10,000 perished, and military commissions and revolutionary tribunals gave death sentences to 17,000 others.[11] Jean-Louis Matharan, for his part, considers that "any overall figure of detained suspects remain in the state is pure conjecture," especially since, from August 1792 to Thermidor Year II, "the release of jailed suspects was uninterrupted," although there were likely fewer arrests, and that there have been claims about the rapid release of those arrested and shorter terms of imprisonment.[12]

End of the law

The Law of Suspects fell into disuse by July 1794 with the end of the Terror - before Thermidorian Reaction - and direction was replaced by revolutionary surveillance committees (Comité de surveillance révolutionnaire) responsible for the practical exercise of repression, with oversight by district committees.[13] The law was officially abolished in October 1795, immediately preceding the installation of the Directoire in November 1795.


See also


  1. 1 2 Jean Tulard, Jean-François Fayard, & Alfred Fierro, Histoire et Dictionnaire de la Révolution française, Éd. Bouquins-Robert Laffont, 1997, ISBN 978-2-221-04588-6
  2. Larousse, Encyclopédie Larousse du XXe siècle, 1975, see: "Terreur"
  3. 1 2 3 Lee Baker (2007). Gregory Fremont-Barnes, ed. Encyclopedia of the Age of Political Revolutions and New Ideologies, 1760-1815. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 397. ISBN 9780313049514. Retrieved 8 January 2013.
  4. Université Lille III, Chronologie de la vie de Merlin de Douai (1754–1838)
  5. University of Chicago, Souvenirs de la Marquise de Créquy, vol. 8, ch. 5
  6. 1 2 Kennedy, Michael (2000). 1793 - 1795. Berghahn Books. pp. 73–75. ISBN 9781571811868.
  7. Anderson, James Maxwell (2007). Daily Life During the French Revolution. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 227–228. ISBN 9780313336836.
  8. La Révolution française: "Décision du 11 octobre 1793
  9. Donald Greer, Incidence of the Terror During the French Revolution: A Statistical Interpretation, Peter Smith Pub Inc., 1935, ISBN 978-0-8446-1211-9
  10. Jacob Louis, Les suspects pendant la revolution 1789–1794, Hachette, 1952
  11. Encyclopedia Britannica, online edition, The First French Republic
  12. Jean-Louis Matharan, "Suspects," in: Albert Soboul, dir., Dictionnaire historique de la Révolution française, PUF, 1989 (rééd. Quadrige, 2005, p. 1020-1025)
  13. Claude Mazauric, "Terreur," in: Albert Soboul, dir., Dictionnaire historique de la Révolution française, PUF, 1989 (rééd. Quadrige, 2005, p. 1020-1025)
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