French revolutionary François Hanriot (1759–1794) played a decisive role as a street-level commandant in Paris during the Reign of Terror. Allied with controversial faction leader Maximilien Robespierre, Hanriot was part of a militant group that participated in the arrest and execution of hundreds of ordinary citizens denied due process. The Robespierre cabal eventually became the victim of retaliatory justice and Hanriot died by guillotine during the late July 1794 events known as the Thermidorian Reaction.
Scant information survives about the individual François Hanriot, who is mentioned by name in Times of London dispatches from Paris during the bloodsoaked summer of 1794. He is sometimes misidentified as “Henriot,” and even French sources give differing dates for his birth. While many sources record Hanriot's birth as September 3, 1761, in Nanterre, that municipality's historical society records the same event as occurring on December 2, 1759. The same Enfant de Nanterre source mentions that Hanriot shared a birthday with a sister, Marie-Cécile, and lists his parents as Edme Hanriot and Marguerite Davoine Hanriot. Both parents were domestic servants, with Edme's records attached to those of a wealthy Nanterre household, the Jusdairay family.
More than a century after Hanriot's death at age 34, French historian Théodore Gosselin attempted to unearth details about his life in pre-revolutionary France for a multivolume set about lesser-known figures of this period. Written under the pseudonym G. Lenôtre, Gosselin's 1904 work Paris révolutionnaire: Vieilles maisons, vieux papiers appeared a few years later in English translation as Romances of the French Revolution. “Some people asserted that they knew him when he kept a dram-shop; afterwards he had dragged a handbarrow of hosiery from fair to fair,” Lenôtre states, while his footnote reiterates the unreliability of information about Hanriot. “He asserted he had been through the American campaign, under Lafayette,” noted the historian, referring to the American Revolutionary War and the forces commanded by the Marquis de Lafayette. “It was also said that he had denounced his mother, for which reason his flatterers called him Brutus—which was the highest possible praise in those days.”
The mention of Hanriot's mother and his act of reprisal against her likely refers to events that occurred later, during the Reign of Terror, or the period when Robespierre wielded immense power. Five years earlier, amid the calamitous events that sparked the French Revolution in the summer of 1789, Hanriot would have been 29 years old. Ongoing food shortages and widespread abuses of power ignited street demonstrations that took a particularly vicious turn in Paris. Again, there are conflicting accounts of what happened in Paris on the night of July 13, when Hanriot had secured a lucrative customs-collection government post in the Faubourg Saint-Marcel. One version claims that his station was attacked by a mob as a readily overtaken symbol of the oppressive power of the state; another version claims that Hanriot set the booth on fire to prevent the discovery of financial irregularities in a coming audit. The next day, a much larger crowd breached the fortifications of the enormous Bastille prison in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine. This well-defended edifice had become a widely loathed detention center for opponents of King Louis XVI and the ancien régime.
Hanriot was arrested for his actions in the Faubourg Saint-Marcel and jailed in the Bicêtre facility in Paris. Among the most influential figures in the revolutionary fervor of the era was Jean-Paul Marat, a gifted physician, political theorist, and ardently left-leaning polemicist whose newspaper L’Ami du peuple (“Friend of the People”) campaigned for amnesty for Hanriot and other Faubourg Saint-Marcel rioters. After his release, Hanriot aligned himself with Marat and the sans-culottes, the name given to the brigades that evolved into an unofficial but moderately well-organized revolutionary army. Its name referred to the fact these men did not wear the silk breeches favored by aristocrats in prerevolutionary France, where specific laws regarding apparel and even fabric quality reinforced a draconian level of social control.
Those sumptuary laws were abolished later in 1789 with the formation of the National Constituent Assembly and the issuance of the historic Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which instituted universal male suffrage. Aristocratic privileges, the influence of Roman Catholic clergy, and other long-entrenched features of the French état, or state, were abolished. The powers of the king were severely curtailed as well, and members of the royal family were eventually confined to the magnificent Palais des Tuileries in Paris. On August 10, 1792, a mob stormed the palace and seized Louis XVI, his Austrianborn wife Marie Antoinette, and their children.
Hanriot emerged as a reliable local militia-unit leader in those turbulent weeks of August and September 1792. The French Revolution, now in its third year of attempting to enact genuine democratic reform according to highminded Enlightenment principles, was beset by vicious internal rivalries. It was also besieged externally by the armies of major European powers whose dynastic monarchs had intricate family ties to the now-ousted French sovereign and his wife. These power struggles often played out on the streets of Paris, which had been divided into 48 separate administrative sections and granted some selfgoverning privileges along with enhanced electoral representation in the national political sphere. As a result of this special status, the municipal government—known as the Paris Commune—was protected by its own militia, a force that later came under Hanriot's control.
The National Assembly of 1789 had by now been supplanted by a democratically elected National Convention, and this body was riven by political infighting between moderates—known as the Girondists—and a hardline leftist faction of Montagnards. In fact, the terms “left” and “right” to convey political ideology in a law-making house of assembly date to the French Revolution. Hanriot was allied with the extreme left, the sans-culottes, and the Paris National Guard, a militia unit that was becoming an armed and much-feared independent actor in the ongoing unrest.
On May 30, 1793, after partisan rivalries at the Convention locked in a stalemate, the Montagnards appointed Hanriot as the new commandant-general of the Paris National Guard. The Montagnards were demanding the ouster and arrest of several Girondists over issues related to the arrest of Marat and the future direction of the Republic, including the matter of land distribution and a potentially serious royalist uprising in western France. Hanriot arrived on horseback with a detachment that swelled to 80,000 National Guard and sans-culottes over the next three days. This insurrection of May 31–June 2, 1793, is one of the three pivotal events marking the French Revolution, equating with July 14 (Bastille Day) and the arrest of Louis the previous August. Hanriot had also secured several cannons and a supply of grapeshot from the city's arsenal. No shots were fired, but delegates were prevented from leaving the grounds of the Tuileries until they capitulated to the Montagnards’ demands. Finally, with Hanriot's forces refusing to stand down, the Convention approved a measure to hand over the Girondists to the two-month-old Revolutionary Tribunal. This was a risky move: The tribunal was a special court of justice that was not bound by the terms of the landmark civil-rights protections enshrined in The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.
Hanriot's advancement as a military commander in Paris in the spring of 1793 was closely linked to the expansion of political power under Robespierre and the Jacobins. Robespierre was an attorney, adelegate to the Convention, and amember of the Committee for Public Safety; the Jacobins were fiercely anti-monarchist and members of a Paris political club whose name referred to its headquarters on the Rue St. Jacques. It had been Robespierre, leading a Jacobin faction, whose arguments convinced the Convention to approve the order mandating the death sentence by guillotine of the former king in January of 1793. The Widow Capet, as Marie Antoinette was known after all titles of nobility were abolished, was also beheaded publicly later that year.
Four months after the death of the former queen, there was another wave of political violence in the city, followed by a spate of arrests on March 13, 1794. Hanriot is mentioned in a Times of London article that ran six days later and refers to food shortages in the city. “In consequence of the scarcity of provisions, the Commandant General Hanriot has issued orders to the armed force of this city, to put itself in motion at a moment's warning, to apprehend the Counter Revolutionists,” it read. The eyewitness also noted that Hanriot was targeting for arrest “the women who go twice for provisions,” a reference to food hoarding and potential black-market transactions. “Large quantities of stinking lamb, veal, mutton, and beef, clandestinely killed and rotten, as well as fruit, are found every day in the sinks and common sewers,” the London Times correspondent reported.
In late March of 1794, Robespierre gave Hanriot command of artillery units in the city. On June 10, 1794, a new law went into effect permitting the Revolutionary Tribunal to act with far broader powers. Defendants suspected of counterrevolutionary activities were not allowed legal counsel, and there was only one sentence imposed for a guilty verdict, that of the guillotine. This was later known as the Law of the Great Terror, but at the time it was proclaimed as the Law of 22 Prairial, referring to the new revolutionary calendar that renamed the months and abolished the Christian year scheme that originated with the birth of Christ.
Robespierre became increasingly fearful about assassination plots. A year earlier, the famous Marat had been slain in his bath in one of the most dramatic events of an already tense and violent era. Robespierre's concerns about personal security prompted him to order National Guard units to detain large numbers of Parisians under the Law of 22 Prairial. The Reign of Terror also spread to other cities, but it was Hanriot who oversaw the apprehension and detention of suspects in the city. During the month of Messidor, which began on June 19–20, nearly 800 hastily convicted counterrevolutionaries were publicly executed.
Robespierre was by now a reviled figure, and there was a brief window when political figures were fearful of acting against him. In the end, it was his own words that brought his downfall in the form of a long and scathing speech before the Convention floor on July 26 in which he asserted that the conspiracy against the revolution was much more extensive than previously thought. His words prompted a torrent of debate, then finally there came a forming of ranks against him. The next day, the Convention issued an order for his arrest.
Andress, David, The Terror: The Merciless War for Freedom in Revolutionary France, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006.
Israel, Jonathan, Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from The Rights of Man to Robespierre, Princeton University Press, 2014.
Lenôtre, G. (Théodore Gosselin), Romances of the French Revolution, volume II, translated by Frederic Lees, Brentano's, 1909.
McPhee, Peter, Robespierre: A Revolutionary Life, Yale University Press, 2012.
Scurr, Ruth, Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution, Henry Holt, 2007.
Société d'histoire de Nanterre, Bulletin 42, 2010.
Times (London, England), March 19, 1794.❑