François Noel Babeuf (1760-1797), known as Gracchus Babeuf, French political agitator and journalist, was born at Saint Quentin on the 23rd of November 1760. His father, Claude Babeuf, had deserted the French army in 1738 and taken service under Maria Theresa, rising, it is said, to the rank of major. Amnestied in 1755 he returned to France, but soon sank into dire poverty, being forced to earn a pittance for his wife and family as a day labourer. The hardships endured by Babeuf during early years do much to explain his later opinions. He had received from his father the smatterings of a liberal education, but until the outbreak of the Revolution he was a domestic servant, and from 1785 occupied the invidious office of commissaire à terrier, his function being to assist the nobles and priests in the assertion of their feudal rights as against the unfortunate peasants. On the eve of the Revolution Babeuf was in the employ of a land surveyor at Roye. His father had died in 1780, and he was now the sole support, not only of his wife and two children, but of his mother, brothers and sisters. In the circumstances it is not surprising that he was the life and soul of the malcontents of the place.
He was an indefatigable writer, and the first germ of his future socialism is contained in a letter of the 21st of March 1787, one of a series - mainly on literature - addressed to the secretary of the Academy of Arras. In 1789 he drew up the first article of the cahier of the electors of the bailliage of Roye, demanding the abolition of feudal rights. Then, from July to October, he was in Paris superintending the publication of his first work: Cadastre perpétuel, dédié à l'assemblée nationale, l'an 1789 et le premier de la liberté française, which was written in 1787 and issued in 1790. The same year he published a pamphlet against feudal aids and the gabelle, for which he was denounced and arrested, but provisionally released. In October, on his return to Roye, he founded the Correspondant picard, the violent character of which cost him another arrest. In November he was elected a member of the municipality of Roye, but was expelled. In March 1791 he was appointed commissioner to report on the national property (biens nationaux) in the town, and in September 1792 was elected a member of the council-general of the department of the Somme. Here, as everywhere, the violence of his attitude made his position intolerable to himself and others, and he was soon transferred to the post of administrator of the district of Montdidier. Here he was accused of fraud for having substituted one name for another in a deed of transfer of national lands.
It is probable that his fault was one of negligence only; but, distrusting the impartiality of the judges of the Somme, he fled to Paris, and on the 23rd of August 1793 was condemned in contumaciam to twenty years' imprisonment. Meanwhile he had been appointed secretary to the relief committee (comité des subsistances) of the commune of Paris. The judges of Amiens, however, pursued him with a warrant for his arrest, which took place in Brumaire of the year II. (1794). The court of cassation quashed the sentence, through defect of form, but sent Babeuf for a new trial before the Aisne tribunal, by which he was acquitted on the 18th of July.
Babeuf now returned to Paris, and on the 3rd of September 1794 published the first number of his Journal de la liberté de la presse, the title of which was altered on the 5th of October to Le Tribun du peuple. The execution of Robespierre on the 28th of July had ended the Terror, and Babeuf - now self-styled "Gracchus" Babeuf - defended the men of Thermidor and attacked the fallen terrorists with his usual violence. But he also attacked, from the point of view of his own socialistic theories, the economic outcome of the Revolution. This was an attitude which had few supporters, even in the Jacobin club, and in October Babeuf was arrested and sent to prison at Arras. Here he came under the influence of certain terrorist prisoners, notably of Lebois, editor of the Journal de l'égalité, afterwards of the Ami du peuple, papers which carried on the traditions of Marat. He emerged from prison a confirmed terrorist and convinced that his Utopia, fully proclaimed to the world in No. 33 of his Tribun, could only be realized through the restoration of the constitution of 1793. He was now in open conflict with the whole trend of public opinion.
In February 1795 he was again arrested, and the Tribun du peuple was solemnly burnt in the Théâtre des Bergères by the jeunesse dorée, the young men whose mission it was to bludgeon Jacobinism out of the streets and cafés. But for the appalling economic conditions produced by the fall in the value of assignats, Babeuf might have shared the fate of other agitators who were whipped into obscurity.
It was the attempts of the Directory to deal with this economic crisis that gave Babeuf his real historic importance. The new government was pledged to abolish the vicious system by which Paris was fed at the expense of all France, and the cessation of the distribution of bread and meat at nominal prices was fixed for the 20th of February 1796. The announcement caused the most wide-spread consternation. Not only the workmen and the large class of idlers attracted to Paris by the system, but rentiers and government officials, whose incomes were paid in assignats on a scale arbitrarily fixed by the government, saw themselves threatened with actual starvation. The government yielded to the outcry that arose; but the expedients by which it sought to mitigate the evil, notably the division of those entitled to relief into classes, only increased the alarm and the discontent. The universal misery gave point to the virulent attacks of Babeuf on the existing order, and at last gained him a hearing. He gathered round him a small circle of his immediate followers known as the Société des égaux, soon merged with the rump of the Jacobins, who met at the Pantheon; and in November 1795 he was reported by the police to be openly preaching "insurrection, revolt and the constitution of 1793."