Friday, 12 January 2018

Carrier: The early years

If Robespierre was already a successful lawyer whose Revolutionary career was of a piece with his early ambitions, the same cannot be said of Jean-Baptiste Carrier.  Carrier's early life was uneventful; his career showed “nothing out of the ordinary” (Brégeon, p.35)

Carrier by David(?) Musée Lambinet
The main source for Carrier's life before the Revolution is the biography of Jean Delmas published in 1895, some details of which were revised by the work of local teacher and historian Michel Leymarie (1904-1986).

Jean-Baptiste Carrier was born on 16th March 1756 in Yolet, a village  near Aurillac in the Auvergne, the third child of  a prosperous peasant farmer.  When he was six the family moved to Barrat within the parish of Notre-Dame-des-Neiges in Aurillac, where his father had acquired lands; they were to live there until 1781. Nesting in its valley, Aurillac was a small and sleepy market town. Carrier attended the local Oratorian Collège.  Delmas claimed that he did so under the patronage of his great-uncle who was chaplain to the local seigneur, the marquis de Miramon, but according to Leymarie, there would have been no need;  Carrier’s social background was similar to that of many other pupils.  The idea that Carrier was destined for a career in the Church but “had no vocation” is also probably inaccurate;  the likely source is his father’s will which left provision for both Jean-Baptiste and his brother Basile “if they wish to enter the ecclesiastical estate”, but this was a standard formula of no great significance.  No authentic account of his schooldays remain. The statement  that he was a taciturn, rough, but capable pupil  may be an authentic memory but it comes from an early biography by Amédée du Bast, rather than a first-hand account.

According to Delmas, Carrier left the college before the start of his Rhetoric year and became a clerk in the office of a local procureur, Basile Delsol, who was a distant relative.  Although there is no direct evidence, the dates fits with his father's death in May 1772.  In the mid-1770s he is referred to in legal documents as both a “student” and  a “practitioner” (a sort of minor legal agent)  According to Amédée du Bast, he worked diligently and was probably expected to take over the practice in due course.

View of Aurillac
At some point, Carrier moved to Paris to study.  By his own account, he spent "a long stay in the capital"; in a speech before the Convention on 21 November 1794, he refers to "those of my colleagues who did their law in Paris with me".  The move was probably connected with  a royal decree of April 1779 which restricted the number of procureurs in Aurillac to twenty and would have blocked his immediate progression in the profession.  In December 1784 he appears in documents as a "law student", elsewhere  as "student of the University of Paris", though his name is not listed in official registers of those proceeding to a degree.  At the age of 28 in 1785 he returned to Aurillac and in August 1785 was able to buy the office of a retiring procureur  for 10,000 livres, using funds borrowed from an uncle. On 4th October 1785 he married Françoise Laquairie, aged nineteen, daughter of a local merchant. He now settled into practice. He was one of the less prosperous procureurs in Aurillac, in the lower tax bracket. His clientele would have been small landholders and, in all probability, he came often into conflict with the local seigneurial system. He was a competent lawyer, remembered by one commentator in 1789 as "very gentle and quite charitable".

The Revolution

Carrier was from the first a Revolutionary, but we have only externals, nothing at all to indicate his intellectual trajectory.  He was involved actively in local preparations for the Estates-General.  He participated in the preliminary meetings, and in December 1788 his signature is one of many on a petition  demanding equal representation for the Third Estate of the Haute-Auvergne.  In July 1789 his signature appeared at the top of the procès-verbal for the establishment of Aurillac's new municipal government and citizen militia. The suppression of venal offices would have left him in personal difficulties and in all probability cemented his determination to build himself a political vocation. He was active in popular societies, frequenting  the Jeunes Amis de la Constitution, the most radical society in Cantal.  He served on the Committee of Surveillance, where he took turns as president and secretary.  However, he was not a candidate for the Legislative Assembly - perhaps his compatriots found him too radical and outspoken.  

In Aurillac, as elsewhere, the 10th August brought more radical figures to the fore, notably the ex-Constituent Hébrard de Fau;  Carrier placed himself in his following and both were candidates to the Convention.  Carrier was the fifth deputy, elected only with difficulty, on the third ballot.  He travelled immediately to Paris,where he took up residence at 135 rue Neuve-des-Petits-Champs.   He attended the Assembly and the Jacobins assiduously and, although he seldom spoke, he rapidly established his credentials as a man of the Left.

During the crisis of 1793 Carrier was a natural candidate to be sent "on mission".  In July 1793 he accompanied his fellow deputy  Pochelle to assist Robert Lindet in the departments of Normandy which were “infected with federalism”.  From the first he showed himself capable and efficient administrator.  He entered into Caen in triumph at end of July and was immediately mandated on a wider mission with the army in the war-torn areas of Brittany.  He first established himself in Rennes, then, at the end of September, made his entrance into Nantes.


Jean Delmas "La jeunesse et les débuts de Carrier", La Révolution française, 1895, p.417-39.

Michel Leymarie, "Origines familiales et sociales de Jean-Baptiste Carrier" in  Gilbert Romme (1750-1795) et son temps, colloque (1966), p.43-61.

Jean-Joël Brégeon, Carrier et la Terreur nantaise (2016, first ed.1987), Chapter 1.


Born in a little village in the haute Auvergne, at Yolai [Yolet], and destined at first for an ecclesiastical carrier, Carrier was admitted  at the request of the seigneur of his village, into the College established by the Jesuits at Aurillac.  A taciturn schoolboy, aggressive, and  rough-mannered in the refectory as well as in his studies, but hard working and self-disciplined, he passed all his classes without acclaim but with success.  When he was about to enter Rhetoric his parents took him out of college and placed him as third clerk to a procureur in Aurillac, where he stayed for five or six years.  This practitioner, seeing his new clerk working with ardour on cases which had hitherto lain forgotten and rotting in his office, had the habit of saying: "Carrier is a good worker and will become a clever man.  When I retire, should he become my successor, the clients will not perceive that the office has changed masters"(p.274-5)
Amédée de Bast, "Jean-Baptiste Carrier" in  Le Livre rouge : histoire de l'échafaud en France (1863), p.273-86. 

His parents, well-to-do farmers from Yolet, had destined him for an ecclesiastical career; it will come as no surprise that he lacked a vocation.  Serious, taciturn, appearing preoccupied almost to the point of stupidity, he crossed the floors of the palais de justice in his native town for ten or fifteen years, without exciting either opprobrium or affection.  He distinguished himself only by a precocious hatred for the nobility; he brought a sort of ferocity to the cases he conducted against them.  Only when his natural lack of moderation awoke him from his sleep, did the symptoms of that violence appear, which became his normal state during his mission in Brittany;  in the ordinary exercise of his functions, he lacked neither the vulgar cunning of the petty lawyer nor the prudence of the mountain peasant.
Marcellin Boudet, "Carrier, Jean-Baptiste" in Les tribunaux criminels et la justice révolutionnaire en Auvergne, 1873, p.17-8.

He is a man who is interested in politics, who is said to be gentle (tres doux) and even charitable.
[“un homme interessé aux affaires mais que l'on dit très doux et même assez charitable”]
From a "memoir of 1789". This comment, so much at variance with Carrier's later reputation, is quoted in several different secondary sources, but without any clear reference.

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