A short biography of Marie-Jean Hérault de Séchelles by Katherine Emrick. Katherine is a history student with a keen interest in the French Revolution. You can follow Katherine on Tumbler at bunniesandbeheadings.
Born in the late 18th century, Marie-Jean Hérault de Séchelles boasted a pedigree that dated back to the 14th century. A silver spoon complemented his blue blood; his tastes were luxurious while his personality was affable, and from the burgeoning of his youth he managed to dazzle the most jaded of courtiers. And so, Marie-Jean Hérault de Séchelles was in many ways the quintessential French aristocrat. Like his peers he would find his life drastically altered by the French Revolution of 1789. Unlike his peers Hérault neither fled for the border nor conspired with his insulted monarchs. Instead, he settled into the comfortable orthodoxy of Jacobinism, adroitly riding the tide of the Revolution into the very bosom of the dictatorial Committee of Public Safety…and from thence to the scaffold.
Hérault could boast of a lineage marked with loyalty to the king, his great-grandfather having served as the king’s Controller of Finances, his grandfather having been Lieutenant General of Parisian Police — but such a boast would be made with an ironic smirk and a wink, as it is more likely that his paternal grandmother had had a dalliance with one Louis Georges Erasme de Contades and that Hérault’s father, Jean-Baptiste Hérault de Séchelles was the child of the adulterous union and not the lawfully wedded one. The fornication proved fortuitous. When Jean-Baptiste Hérault de Séchelles lost his life in the Battle of Minden just one month before his son was born, the child’s true biological grandfather was more than happy to care for the fatherless child as his paternal guardian.
Under the tutelage of Contades, Hérault flourished into a dashing courtier and successful libertine. His skill at the former allowed him to freely pursue the latter; even the prudish Marie-Antoinette found that his charms far outdid his sins and embroidered a scarf for him as a gift which he proudly wore throughout his life – even during the height of the Revolutionary Terror.
Presently, Hérault delighted in all the privileges his aristocratic birth allotted to him – and charming his way into more besides. Although tradition had it that no man could act as the king’s attorney in the Paris courts until they were of twenty-five years of age, Hérault swept into the position at nineteen and proved himself as adroit an attorney as he was an adroit courtier. Soon, Marie-Antoinette herself was pressing for his appointment as Advocate General at the Parlement of Paris.
Contemporaries remarked upon the stark contrast between his grave demeanor at the bar and his rambunctiousness in town; Hérault was adding political acumen to his repertoire. The political acumen was a fine complement to Hérault’s political convictions, which were leaning towards the radical. Hérault became an avid reader of Rousseau but perhaps missed the nuances of the philosopher’s egalitarian theories as he traipsed across Europe to collect an autographed copy of “Nouvelle Heloise” for the astronomical sum of 24,000 livres. With such a contrast between his touted theories and his actions, it is unsurprising that Hérault attracted the criticism that his politics were a matter of fashion rather than conviction.
With Louis XVI’s announcement of the commencement of the Estates-General, questions of a Constitution and alleged despotism became secondary to the rights of the Third Estate against those of the other two orders. The Patriot Party, which assumed the vanguard against the privileged orders, was formed of men of the bourgeois and the liberal aristocracy including the Marquis de Lafayette. Hérault de Séchelles swiftly joined their ranks in the rally for civil equality, equality in judicial and fiscal matters, basic human liberties, and representative government.
When the Estates-General finally formed, Hérault was not among the anointed deputies of the Second Estate and so took no part in their quarrels or compromises with the other orders. But when he heard of Necker’s dismissal and the troops summoned on behalf of the king to Versailles, Hérault helped make history in a way the politicians would not: on July 14, 1789 the dandified aristocrat stormed the Bastille and marked the beginning of the French Revolution.
From there Hérault cultivated a Revolutionary pedigree that rivaled its aristocratic counterpart. With his bastion of legal experience he had little difficulty securing himself a position as judge in the department of Paris, even being launched on a mission to Alsace to restore order. Upon his return he fit neatly into the Legislative Assembly and immediately allied with the extreme left but did little to antagonize the right. Despite the growing violence between the various political ideologies, nearly all were agreed on one point and from his Hérault did not dissent: a war with Austria was laudable, inevitable, and necessary.
But the war swung against the Revolution, encouraging the radical left to orchestrate the King’s violent overthrow in August 10, 1792. Hérault’s role, like that of most of the rising’s orchestrators, remains obscure, but his popularity was such that he was appointed president of the Legislative Assembly during the body’s dying hour and then was promptly resituated as a deputy of the new National Convention.
The Revolution was rising to a fevered pitch but Hérault was undaunted. His personality was suited for diplomatic overtures and so his talents called him away on mission in late 1792, forcing his absence during the political circus that was Louis XVI’s trial and execution. Nonetheless, Hérault made his feelings on the matter apparent. On January 13, he signed a letter confessing that while he was pleased that his absence excused him from voting for the death of the man in whose court he had once frolicked; it was his hope “for the conviction of Louis Capet by the National Convention without appeal to the people.”
He had so far embraced every Revolutionary overhaul and proved his convictions several times over. But soon Hérault was confronted with a jarring ultimatum. On the 2nd of June 1793, the deputies arrived to find their assembly hall surrounded by the armed forces of Paris and menaced by cannon. The deputies were presented with a demand to vote the arrest of twenty-two Girondin deputies. The leftist Montagnarde and right-wing Girondin factions of the Convention had finally locked blows, the Montagnarde faction organizing an uprising to banish their opposition from government. Hérault, although of Montagnarde sympathy, was patently displeased with the idea of the mob cajoling the Convention into surrender and so proposed to call the crowd’s bluff: he decided to lead the deputies, Girondins and all, out of the hall and from there they would return home, daring the crowd to harm them if they would.
Upon exiting the Convention, no deputy was harmed but the crowd refused to let them pass. Hérault boldly demanded that the sans-culotte commander open a passage for the Convention, but the other man would not be moved: “I come,” he answered, “in the name of the people of Paris to obtain the arrest and removal of thirty-two [sic] deputies who are a daily obstacle to the deliberations of the Assembly and who are opposed to the public welfare.” Unperturbed, Hérault then tried his charm on an artilleryman and met with similar failure. Despite Hérault’s attempts, the deputies finally shuffled back into their meeting hall and voted for the house arrest of the twenty-two Girondin deputies.
If Hérault was reluctant to submit to the purge, he was not reluctant to continue zealously servicing the government in every other capacity. Others shared his zeal, and in order to draft a new Constitution for the new regime, Hérault was elected to the Committee of Public Safety alongside his future antagonists, Louis Antoine Saint-Just and Georges Couthon. Together they drafted, in Hérault’s hand, the Constitution of 1793. It boasted of universal suffrage, annual assemblies, the referendum, and freedom of worship. It was the crowning achievement of Hérault’s Revolutionary career, and had it been put into force his status as Father of the French Republic would have been cemented – but it was never put into force. Almost immediately it was shelved for the duration of the patrie’s danger and was never removed from storage.
Hérault, who sat on the dictatorial Committee of Public Safety, probably didn’t mind what he believed to be his Constitution’s brief postponement and dutifully served in his new post. Hérault had grown familiar with Saint-Just and Couthon when they helped him draft the Constitution and the cold demeanor of the newly elected Robespierre was not a new sight, even if it greatly contrasted his own cheery demeanor. Initially, Hérault worked peacefully alongside what has been called the Robespierrist Triumvirate. He found their marble radicalism off-putting but endurable while they found his foppery irritating but tolerable. Hérault would have probably remained firmly entrenched had a man named Fabre d‘Eglantine not implicated him in a shattering scandal.
Certain prominent Jacobins were lining their pockets by attacks on private business. Fabre was one of these and the government’s hostility towards corruption and the looming guillotine were suddenly very frightening. And so to blow smoke over his own dabbles, he went to the morally austere Robespierre and the lower Police Committee and made a great denouncement, implicating his accomplices and rivals alike in a Foreign Plot to overthrow the Revolutionary Government.
The Plot’s veracity is a subject of rabid contention among historians and Hérault’s complicity is a matter of speculation. It could be that the Jacobins, offended by Hérault’s foppish manner, found it easy to believe in his treachery and that the flimsiest of evidence would have managed to condemn the ci-devant aristocrat. But it is also a fact that a bulletin was intercepted to the allied opposition detailing some of the secrets of the Committee of Public Safety, indicating a genuine leak. Whatever the truth, it seems that the majority of the Committee did believe in the idea of the Foreign Plot and so Hérault found he was censured by his colleagues.
Hérault was too entrenched in the government to be abruptly arrested but if Fabre’s denunciations were true, he couldn’t be trusted to be intimate in the Committee’s deliberations any longer. Hérault simplified the conflict for his colleagues by applying to leave on mission to Alsace. The other members on the Committee, obligated to treat Hérault as their equal, ratified his request.
On this final mission, Hérault acted as a Jacobin terrorist but distanced himself from excesses, even having some of the more rabid radicals arrested for displaying a zealous penchant for blood. He oversaw one or two executions but otherwise focused himself on war munitions. Aside from Hérault’s penchant for dechristianization, he conducted his mission similarly to how Saint-Just managed just a few miles away. Nonetheless, Saint-Just fostered his hostility towards his colleague and when Hérault wrote him messages of friendship, Saint-Just grew disgusted and wrote to Robespierre in Paris, “Confidence no longer has value when shared with corrupt men!”
Shortly after Hérault’s return from mission to Paris the Committee offered him an ultimatum. He could either submit to an investigation of his conduct or resign from the body. Hérault chose resignation but he did not delude himself that he had saved his life.
He surrendered any pretension to puritanical Jacobinism and promptly returned to his life of courtier’s debauchery. “I mean to cram ten years of living in one day,” he boasted to one mistress. Perhaps his love for women led him to shelter a comely émigré from the guillotine; it was for this crime that he was accused by Saint-Just and arrested.
Hérault was put on trial alongside the most notable of Indulgents, a party to which he did not belong. Nevertheless he rode the tumbril to the guillotine alongside Georges Danton and Camille Desmoulins. While Danton soothed Desmoulins, Hérault maintained his gallant bearing, as though he was riding to one of his court functions rather than to the guillotine. And so Marie-Jean Hérault de Séchelles, the aristocratic Jacobin, was executed on April 5, 1794.
Sources: “The Twelve Who Ruled” by R.R Palmer, “The Reign of Terror” by Wilfred B. Kerr, “The French Revolution 1787-1799” by Albert Soboul