The Making of a Terrorist: Alexandre Rousselin and the French Revolution

By Jeff Horn

What led an educated twenty-year-old from a poor family to embrace the methods and goals of revolutionary politics strongly enough to become a “missionary of the republic” willing to deploy violence on behalf of the French state?[1] Having “electrified” the politics of the departments of the Marne and the Aube in late 1793, how did Alexandre Rousselin (1773-1847) deal with the consequences of his choices during that fateful fall?[2] These two big questions drove my decision in 2013 to write the biography of a relatively unknown figure. I first encountered Rousselin at the outset of research on my dissertation during the bicentenaire of 1789.  The Making of a Terrorist: Alexandre Rousselin and the French Revolution is an intimate portrait of a second-rank figure who was an eyewitness or participant in a startling number of pivotal events between 1789 and his death in 1847. His biography presents the rhythms of revolutionary political culture and how their echoes reverberated decades into the nineteenth century.

The book explores in detail Rousselin’s choice to employ revolutionary violence, his astonishing escape from denunciation by Maximilien Robespierre and subsequent appearance before the Revolutionary Tribunal in Thermidor, Year II (Summer 1794). Rousselin’s career enables an examination of the interactions between the Parisian and provincial Terrors from the perspective of the activists and bureaucrats who implemented the soaring rhetoric and broad policies articulated by the Committee of Public Safety, National Convention, and Parisian Jacobin Club. The clash between Parisian priorities and the conflicting needs of provincial political elites illuminates the lived experience of revolutionary violence as well as why it was perceived as a system of Terror.[3]

The victims of his missions began to denounce Rousselin soon after his mentors, Camille Desmoulins and Georges-Jacques Danton, went to the guillotine in April 1794.  Despite the repeated threat to his liberty—he was jailed five separate times in 1794-95—he managed not only to survive, and but eventually to thrive. As the former secretary to Desmoulins and then Danton and editor of the official newspaper of the Committee of Public Safety, Rousselin remained firmly linked to revolutionary politics in the public mind. The twists and turns of his rehabilitation between 1795 and 1799 involved finding new patrons in Generals Lazare Hoche and Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, publishing a series of romantic-tinged biographies of military heroes, and public service in army supply, before becoming secretary general of the department of the Seine, and later, of the War Ministry.

Close friendships with Anne-Germaine de Staël and Benjamin Constant, association with Paul Barras, Bernadotte, and the remaining Jacobins left Rousselin on the outs after Napoleon Bonaparte’s coup d’état. There were also rumors that he had an affair with Joséphine after Bonaparte set her aside. Excluded from public service until the Hundred Days when he re-emerged as a secretary general of the Ministry of the Interior under Lazare Carnot, Rousselin had to find other ways of occupying his prodigious energy and keeping body and soul together. He spent years in hiding earning a meagre living as a police spy and informer while seducing Clémentine de Montpezat, the granddaughter of a duke. His elder son Hortensius was born in 1805, more than 18 months before the couple wed. During the Empire, Rousselin was also adopted by his mother’s second husband and inherited the title of comte de Saint-Albin upon his foster father’s death in 1813.  

Once again barred from public service by the Restoration for his political affiliations, the newly minted count invested in and became one of the chief editors of a paper that became Le Constitutionnel. During the 1820s, Rousselin was part of a noted editorial team that embraced a moderate liberalism in their struggle against royal censorship becoming the standard-bearer of the liberal opposition. Le Constitutionnel became the world’s best-selling newspaper making Rousselin de Saint-Albin a wealthy and influential man especially after the accession of Louis-Philippe who once told Rousselin, “There is only you and me who know the entire history [of the French Revolution] which so few suspect.”[4]A widower, Rousselin married a second time and had two additional children. But public reminders of his actions during the Terror resurfaced regularly, challenging his liberal political stance. An inescapable past led Rousselin to withdraw from the newspaper in 1838 ostensibly to write works of history that would burnish his legacy, both political and literary. His last political act just days before his death in 1847 was to endorse a call to abolish slavery in France’s colonies as had taken place during the Revolution.

This brief outline does not do justice to an extraordinary life. Many revolutionaries were not important enough to face exile, but their lives and reputations were still forever linked to the decisions they made and actions they took in 1793-94. Rousselin and others like him made the revolutionary government work. The contemporary figure he most resembled was Jacobin-turned-liberal Marc-Antoine Jullien, another young commissioner of the Committee of Public Safety whose literary career lasted into the July Monarchy.[5] The difference between them is that Rousselin did not just survive, he made a new, even more successful career for himself in the nineteenth century that allowed his family to join the French elite. How many comparable figures whose careers spanned the revolutionary era have we overlooked because they changed their name, acquired a title, or changed residence?  Rousselin’s careers suggests that there might have been a broader cohort of regime-spanning figures that might be delineated in the fashion pioneered by Alan B. Spitzer.[6]

Rousselin’s actions during the Terror marked his life. He spent the next five decades trying to escape the consequences of his actions. The creation and perpetuation of historical memory was of enduring fascination to Rousselin and his contemporaries.  This sense of an intertwined past, present, and future shaped his emotional responses to events and drove the practical measures he took to rehabilitate his reputation. This biography provides an entry into the hopes and fears of a revolutionary political class that endured well into the nineteenth century. Whenever the sources allowed, I explore Rousselin’s emotional journey and how national trauma forced its survivors to accommodate regime change. The Making of a Terrorist concentrates on the pivotal 26 months between the fall of the monarchy and the amnesty of the Year IV, but it is also the story of why and how a dedicated revolutionary became a liberal.


Jeff Horn is Professor of History at Manhattan College. He has published numerous books on French political culture and European political economy. He is co-president of the Society for French Historical Studies (2020-21) and co-moderator of the New York French History Group as well as a former president of the Western Society for French History (2014). Horn is hard at work on A People’s History of the World to be published by Oxford University Press in 2022. Contact him at jeff.horn@manhattan.edu

Title Image:  Pierre-Antoine Demachy (1723 – 1807); Une exécution capitale, place de la Révolution (Place de la Concorde), vers 1793. Huile sur papier marouflé sur toile, 37 x 53,5 cm. Musée Carnavalet – Histoire de Paris.

Further readings:

Alpaugh, Micah, Robert Blackman, and Ian Coller. Eds. “Becoming Revolutionaries: Papers in Honor of Timothy Tackett.” H-France Salon vol. 11, no. 16 (2019), https: //h-france-net/h-france-salon-volume-11-2019/. 

Biard, Michel and Marisa Linton.  Terreur! La Révolution française face à ses démons. Paris: Armand Colin, 2020.

Corbin, Alain. The Life of an Unknown: The Rediscovered World of a Clog Maker in Nineteenth-Century France. Trans Arthur Goldhammer. New York: Colombia University Press, 2001.

McPhee, Peter. Robespierre: A Revolutionary Life. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012.

Palmer, Robert R. From Jacobin to Liberal: Marc-Antoine Jullien, 1775-1848. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993. 

Serna, Pierre. La République des girouettes : 1789-1815 et au-delà une anomalie politique : La France de l’extrême centre. Seysel: Champ Vallon, 2005.

Steinberg, Ronen. The Afterlives of the Terror: Facing the Legacies of Mass Violence in Postrevolutionary France. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2019.

Tackett, Timothy. The Coming of the Terror in the French Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015.

Endnotes:

[1] See Michel Biard, Missionnaires de la République. Les représentants du peuple en mission (1793-95) (Paris: CTHS, 2002).

[2] The effect of Rousselin’s mission was reported to the National Convention by the popular society of Provins.  Quoted in Réimpression de l’ancien Moniteur seule histoire authentique et inaltérée de la Révolution française depuis la reunion des états-généraux jusqu’au consulat (Mai 1789-Novembre 1799) avec des notes explicatives, vol. 18 (Paris: Henri Plon, 1860), 411, #54, 14 November 1793. 

[3] For the current state of debate about this term, see Michel Biard and Marisa Linton, Terreur! La Révolution française face à ses démons (Paris: Armand Colin, 2020).

[4] Quoted by Hortensius de Saint-Albin, ed., Documents relatifs à la Révolution française extraits des oeuvres inédites de A. R. C. de Saint-Albin (Paris: E. Dentu, 1873), 10.

[5] Robert R. Palmer, From Jacobin to Liberal: Marc-Antoine Jullien, 1775-1848 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993).

[6] Alan B. Spitzer, The French Generation of 1820 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987).

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