Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Joseph Le Bon, the making of a Terrorist

What complex mixture of circumstance, conviction and psychology went into the making of a Terrorist?  Joseph Le Bon, former priest and notorious buveur de sang, orchestrated the Terror in the Pas-de-Calais.  As with so many Revolutionaries, there is little in his early history to presage his later extremism.

Le Bon's pre-Revolutionary career

Le Bon the young Revolutionary: a romanticised
 19th-century engraving by Delpech
Guislain-François-Joseph Le Bon (or Lebon), like Robespierre a native of Arras, was born in the parish of Saint-Aubert on 25th September 1765.  His father was a minor legal officer in the Conseil d'Artois.  Like Robespierre too, he was educated at the local Oratorian college, then, having decided on a religious vocation, he completed a year's novitiate at the famous Collège de Juilly in Paris.  In October 1783 he was sent to teach at the Oratorian college in Beaune, where he became Professor of Rhetoric in 1789.  He was ordained a priest (auspicious enough by Talleyrand) in Christmas 1789.

Le Bon's 19th-century biographer Auguste Paris* records a couple of recollections from his college days. According to one - possibly authentic - memory, the youthful Le Bon was volatile in mood, sometimes  "silent and withdrawn as a Carthusian", at other times wildly gay and voluble.  The second witness, a former professor from Juilly, conceded that he possessed a good memory and was an able orator, not without judgement and taste, though too vain to be liked by his fellows.(p.7-8)  By all accounts he was a successful schoolmaster:  at Beaune he taught the various age groups "in a brilliant manner"  and was adored by his pupils "to the point of fanaticism" (letter cited p.8).  Those who knew him at this time agree that he was "devoted to his state, submissive to the rule and sincerely religious" (p.9)  Shortly after ordination, he even aspired to become a missionary.  From the first his religious outlook was coloured by the Rousseauism of the age.  To a young correspondant he commended virtue based on duty and attention to the love and mercy of God, rather than ostentatious displays of piety.  Throughout 1790 he continued to sign himself "Priest of Jesus Christ".
*Auguste Paris, La Terreur dans le Pas-de-Calais et dans le Nord : histoire de Joseph Le Bon et des tribunaux révolutionnaires d'Arras et de Cambrai,  vol. 11864

The Constitutional Priest

Although at first first critical of local Revolutionary activities, Le Bon was soon won over to enthusiastic support.   A personal turning point came in May 1790 when, with his encouragement, a group of students from Beaune absconded to Dijon to take part in a patriotic festival.  Faced with a reprimand, he  threatened to leave the order and tore off his distinctive Oratorian collar in a fit of temper.  He later retracted but on 9th June he was excluded from the Oratory.

 Auguste Paris quotes a letter of Le Bon dated 4th June 1790.  Awaiting the verdict of the Oratorian Fathers he affirms his continuing affection for "a Congregation where I have always drawn the principles of justice and wisdom". However, slightly more ominously, he asserts that his primary allegiance is to "virtue": 
Alone  with God and my conscience, I only feel more clearly, that virtue is the greatest good, and fortune has no hold over a true Christian.  At all times, virtuous men have been the victims of persecution. (cited Paris, p.6)

By this time he was heavily involved in Revolutionary politics.  He became an influential member of Beaune's Society of the Friends of the Constitution and hoped to be elected to the Legislative Assembly.  Meanwhile at the end of May 1791 he took the oath to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy and was named constitutional priest for Levernois.  Under pressure from his family (his mother, already unstable, reacted hysterically to his oath-taking), he accepted the living of Neuville-Vitasse a short distance south of Arras.  By all accounts, he found the cure of souls little to his taste and spent most of his time reading, writing or preaching politics.

Le Bon seems to have shown notable tolerance and good humour in dealing with his refractory predecessor, Martin Lebas, who continued to live among his former parishioners.  He told him they were both priests:  
"It matters little to the Supreme Being that we do not agree over words, provided we both strive to glorify Him by our conduct"; 
"People are entitled to their own viewpoints: we cannot force anyone's belief;  persuasion, not force, brings people to truth" (See Bryne for the quotes).

By summer 1792 he was denying the sacraments and doubting the utility of the priesthood altogether: 
I am not unhopeful that I can lead my parishioners to pray directly to the Divinity, without the perfidious and funeste aid of any priesthood.  
At about this time he put aside his soutane and began wearing a wig.

Nonetheless, at his trial Le Bon emphatically refuted the charge of promoting atheism:  
I have always distinguished between the Divinity and the priesthood;  I have found the majority of revolutionary maxims in the Gospels, which, from beginning to end, preach against riches and priests 
(quoted Louis Jacob, Joseph LeBon, vol. 2, p.96-7).

The Revolutionary

Portrait of Le Bon(?) by Dominique
Doncre, Musée Carnavalet
From August 1791 Le Bon was active in the Society of the Friends of the Constitution in Arras and became known as a leader among the Arras radicals. Throughout his career he was a close ally of Robespierre.

By 1790 Robespierre already knew him well enough to address him with the familiar "tu".  In a letter dated 4 June 1791, found among Robespierre's posthumous papers, Le Bon calls him "mon brave ami", asking him to present to the Assembly the case for ecclesiastical marrage and the abandonment of distinguishing clerical dress. 

During his trip to Arras in the Autumn of 1791 Robespierre and his brother dined with Le Bon at Neuville-Vitasse.  The coincidence of views between the two men is clear.  According to one anecdote, their intense discussion of politics was not to Augustin Robespierre's taste (McPhee, Robespierre, p.105-6;  Paris, vol. 1, p.39).  

On 5th November 1792, Le Bon married his cousin Marie-Élisabeth-Joseph Régniez. 

In September 1792, he was elected as a substitute to the Convention and took up the post of mayor of Arras in a purged municipal administration.  He was subsequently elected administrator of the Department. In June 1793,  following the arrest of the Girondin Antoine-Guillain Magniez, he finally took his seat in the National Convention as a deputy.

To be continued.


Joseph F. Byrnes, Priests of the French Revolution: saints and renegades in a new political era (2014), p.137-142 

"Qui était réellement Joseph Le Bon ?", ARBR, post dated 3 May 2017

Pas-de-Calais, Archives, "25 septembre 1765 : naissance de Joseph Lebon, député du Pas-de-Calais à la Convention nationale",  post dated 20 September 2017

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