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Barbès, Armand Sigismond Auguste (1809-1870)

Known to contemporary admirers as the "peerless conspirator" and the "Bayard of democracy," Armand Barbès is more likely to be recognized today as a typical "romantic revolutionary" of the early nineteenth century, brave, generous, and a genuine democrat, but essentially, as one recent source puts it, "a man of action without a program."

This future bane of the establishment was born into a well-off bourgeois family at Point-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe, on September 18, 1809. His father, a regimental surgeon from Carcassonne (Aude) and a veteran of Bonaparte's Egyptian campaign, was stationed in Guadeloupe from 1801 until the fall of the Empire, when he returned with his family to Carcassonne and what appears to have been a lucrative medical practice.

It was there that the doctor's eldest son made his revolutionary debut in 1830. Possessed of precocious republican sentiments and an imposing physique, twenty-year-old Armand, who had modeled himself on Fennimore Cooper's Natty Bumppo, was chosen to lead the local national guard battalion during the 1830 revolution. It did not hurt his chances that his father was prepared to equip the troop out of his own pocket. The next year Armand was off to Paris to study medicine. But he was not destined to follow his father into the medical profession. Instead, like Flaubert's hero, Frederic Moreau, he studied fitfully at the law. And, again like Moreau, a lucrative inheritance eventually liberated Barbès from the need to follow any profession and freed him to pursue what had become his great passion: conspiracy to overthrow the July Monarchy.

Membership of the Société des Droits de l'Homme earned Barbès his first arrest in 1834 following demonstrations in Paris in support of the workers' insurrection then taking place in Lyon. Freed in early 1835, he served as legal counsel to the one hundred sixty four republicans charged with insurrection after the 1834 upheaval; in July 1835 he helped twenty eight of them escape from prison.

The Société des Droits de l'Homme having been dismantled by police in 1834, Barbès formed a new republican secret society, the Société des Familles, the following year. This was the beginning of his long and troubled relationship with Louis-Auguste Blanqui. It was also Barbès who composed the oath administered to all aspirants for membership in the new society. The text of the oath reveals the democratic and republican sympathies that characterized Barbès's politics.

[Q]uestion: What do you think of the current government?
[A]nswer: That it has betrayed the people and the country.
Q: What should be the basic principle of a proper society?
A: Equality.
Q: What are the rights of a citizen in a properly-regulated society?
A: The right to live, the right to free schooling, the right to take part in government. The duties [of a citizen] are: dedication to the welfare of society and to solidarity among its citizens.

On March 10, 1836, Barbès and Blanqui were surprised by police in the process of loading cartridges in the apartment they shared in Paris. Barbès was sentenced to a year in prison. He was freed by the amnesty of 1837 and remained for a time with his family in Carcassonne, where he laid plans for a new secret society and wrote the brochure which is his only contribution to revolutionary literature, "Quelques mots à ceux qui possedent en faveur des Proletaires sans travail."

Returning to Paris in 1838, Barbès joined with Blanqui to form yet another republican secret society, the more proletarian Société des Saisons. By 1839 the Société had some nine hundred members and on May 12 of that year felt strong enough to attempt a coup d'etat in Paris. The four hundred insurgents managed to briefly hold city hall and the Palais de Justice, but lacked the numbers and weapons to prevail. Wounded, Barbès was captured and, on July 12, 1839, condemned to death. His family's connections in high places saved him, however. Thanks to the intervention of Alphonse de Lamartine , his sentence was commuted to life in prison. The failure of the coup d'etat of 1839 led to an estrangement between Barbès and Blanqui which would have a deeply divisive effect on the extreme left during the revolution of 1848. Barbès, who was the first of the coup leaders to be taken prisoner in 1839, seems to have believed that Blanqui, who had remained at large for some time, had lost courage and run out on his fellow insurgents.

Thus, released from prison in 1848, Barbès appears to have placed himself at the disposal of the moderate revolutionaries in order to thwart Blanqui. At the urging of Lamartine, he formed a Club de la Révolution to counter Blanqui's insurrectionary Société républicaine centrale. Named colonel of the national guard legion of the twelfth arrondissement, Barbès led his troops as part of a counter-demonstration on April 16 against workers led by Louis Blanc and Blanqui who were demanding postponement of the upcoming elections to the national constituent assembly and a more activist social program. The demonstrators were motivated by the prescient belief that unless the government had time to "educate" the people of the provinces, the new assembly was likely to be dominated by conservatives. In March 1848 hostility between Barbès and Blanqui had burst into the open with the publication by a journalist named Taschereau of a document from police files which purported to show that Blanqui had betrayed his fellow conspirators in 1839. It now appears likely that the document was "leaked" by the government to discredit Blanqui. Barbès's acceptance of the document as genuine provoked divisions among the extreme left which had still not fully abated by the end of the century.

Elected to the constituent assembly in the April 23, 1848 elections, Barbès represented his native Aude department on the extreme left of the assembly. His parliamentary career was brief, however. On May 15, demonstrators invaded the assembly, ostensibly to present a petition urging the government to press harder for the liberation of Poland. Barbès, who had originally opposed the demonstration, at first tried to get the crowd to disperse, but appears to have lost his head upon seeing Blanqui in the audience. In an effort to take control of the demonstration from his nemesis, he offered to lead a march on the city hall, where a new, more radical republic was proclaimed. The insurrection fizzled with the arrival of the national guard, and Barbès was arrested. Later, Karl Marx would write in the Class Struggles in France : "[O]n the 15th of May, [the proletariat] sought in vain to recapture its revolutionary influence and only delivered up its energetic leaders to the jailers of the bourgeoisie." More recent historians of the event have been even less kind: Georges Duveau has called it "farcical."

It was the last hurrah for the "peerless conspirator." Sentenced to life in prison in 1849, Barbès was freed by Napoleon III in 1854. He went into voluntary exile in the Netherlands and never returned to France. Armand Barbès died in The Hague on June 26, 1870, just a few weeks before the replacement of the Second Empire by a republic, an event the old plotter no doubt would have welcomed.

Bruce Vandervort


Jeanjean, J.-F. Armand Barbès (1809-70), 3 vols. (Paris and Carcassonne, 1909-52).

Tchernoff, I. Le parti républicain sous la monarchie de juillet (Paris, 1905).

Wasserman, Suzanne. Les clubs de Barbès et de Blanqui en 1848 (Paris, 1913).

Dommanget, Maurice. Blanqui à Belle-Ile (Paris, 1935).

Weill, Georges. Histoire du parti républicain en France, 1814-1870 (Paris, 1928).

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