Saturday, December 17, 2011

Georges Couthon (1755-1794)

It was as a footnote in a book by Michel Foucault that I first encountered Georges Couthon, a leading light of the French revolution who had paraplegia. Since then, I have visited the Musee de Carnavalet in Paris several times to see Couthon’s wheelchair, a padded wooden contraption with a handwheel for propulsion, but despite dragging myself up several flights of stairs, it has never been on display. I still cannot work out whether Couthon was barbarous or benign, but the idea that a wheelchair user was at the core of the dramatic political events of the French revolution interests me hugely.

Georges Couthon was born in the Auvergne, son of a lawyer, grandson of a shopkeeper. He also trained as a lawyer, and practised as a barrister in Clermont-Ferrand, where he was noted for the gentleness of his manner and his amiable character as well as for his clear, precise and persuasive language. He gave free legal advice to the poor and supported charitable institutions. He also became a Free Mason.

Although Couthon had suffered from joint problems since his childhood, it was not until 1782 that he progressively lost the use of first one and then his other leg, despite attempting various treatments such as electrotherapy, a milk diet and sulphur baths, . Disability did not stop him marrying in 1787, and he had two children. But for the rest of his life he suffered considerable pain and experiecnced regular health crises which often forced him to stay in bed. His paralysis has never been satisfactorily diagnosed, but may have arisen from an infection of the spinal nerves, or even multiple sclerosis.

In 1791, Couthon became a deputy of the Legislative Assembly. In Paris, he joined the Jacobin club. In the Assembly, he was noted for his eloquence and his democratic ideals. For example, when the King came to the Assembly, Couthon proposed that he be called “King of the French” but neither “Sire” nor “Majesty”.

In 1792, Couthon was elected to the National Convention. At first, he did not take sides in the struggle between the Montagnards and the Girondins. He voted for the death of Louis XVI, and became an associate of Robespierre. When the Girondin faction fell from power, he asked that moderation be used against them in defeat. He then became a member of the Committee of Public Safety.

When in 1793 the city of Lyon rebelled against the new regime, the Committee of Public Safety passed a degree calling for Lyon to be destroyed, to set an example. Couthon was sent to take charge. However, he ensured that while the houses of the rich were pulled down, those of the poor were exempted. Nor was he keen to supervise the mass executions which were demanded. So he requested to be relieved of his commission, and a more brutal leader was sent to replace him. Predictable atrocities followed.

Couthon had returned to Paris, where he became President of the Convention for a few weeks, to be succeeded by the painter Jacques Louis David. From early 1794 he began to use a wheelchair, which had formerly belonged to the Countess of Artois at Versailles. Neither then nor earlier did his disability prevent him carrying out political activity, important missions for the government, and family life.

Couthon helped Robespierre and Saint-Just bring down Danton: it is said that before his execution Danton remarked “If I left my legs to Couthon the Committee of Public Safety might stagger on a bit longer”.

However, less to Couthon’s credit was the Law of 22 Prairial, which, in order to shorten the proceedings of the Revolutionary Tribunal, removed the right of legal defence for people accused of polical opposition to the Revolution,. Couthon argued that a crime against the people was worse than a crime against an individual person, and such “attacks on the existence of a free society” should be treated differently. As a result of this law, tens of thousands were executed during the Terror which followed.

Ironically, it was Couthon himself who was one of the first victims. When Robespierre threatened a new purge of the Convention, his enemies moved against him and his followers before they themselves could be executed. Georges Couthon could have left Paris on a mission to the Auvergne, but he wrote that he wanted either to die or triumph with Robespierre and liberty. During his arrest, he fell down the stairs, and injured his head. Sincere to the last, he said to his enemies: “I am accused of being a conspirator: I wish that you could read into the depths of my soul”.

On 10 Thermidor (28 July), Couthon was executed, along with Robespierre and Saint-Just. Couthon was taken to the scaffold first, but it took the executioners 15 agonising minutes to arrange his body under the guillotine. Never blood-thirsty or cruel like his co-defendents, in death as in life Georges Couthon achieved what my French disability colleagues call “the equality of the Guillotine”.