Madame Roland - John S. C. Abbott

The National Assembly

Madame Roland was thus living at La Platiere, in the enjoyment of all that this world can give of peace and happiness, when the first portentous mutterings of that terrible moral tempest, the French Revolution, fell upon her ears. She eagerly caught the sounds, and, believing them the precursor of the most signal political and social blessings, rejoiced in the assurance that the hour was approaching when long-oppressed humanity would reassert its rights and achieve its triumph. Little did she dream of the woes which in surging billows were to roll over her country, and which were to engulf her, and all whom she loved, in their resistless tide. She dreamed—a very pardonable dream for a philanthropic lady—that an ignorant and enslaved people could be led from Egyptian bondage to the promised land without the weary sufferings of the wilderness and the desert. Her faith in the regenerative capabilities of human nature was so strong, that she could foresee no obstacles and no dangers in the way of immediate and universal disfranchisement from every custom, and from all laws and usages which her judgment disapproved. Her whole soul was aroused, and she devoted all her affections and every energy of her mind to the welfare of the human race. It is hardly to be supposed, human nature being such as it is, but that the mortifications she met in early life from the arrogance of those above her, and the difficulties she encountered in obtaining letters-patent of nobility, exerted some influence in animating her zeal. Her enthusiastic devotion stimulated the ardor of her less excitable spouse; and all her friends, by her fascinating powers of eloquence both of voice and pen, were gradually inspired by the same intense emotions which had absorbed her whole being.

Louis XVI. and Maria Antoinette had but recently inherited the throne of the Bourbons. Louis was benevolent, but destitute of the decision of character requisite to hold the reins of government in so stormy a period. Maria Antoinette had neither culture of mind nor knowledge of the world. She was an amiable but spoiled child, with great native nobleness of character, but with those defects which are the natural and inevitable consequence of the frivolous education she had received. She thought never of duty and responsibility; always and only of pleasure. It was her misfortune rather than her fault, that the idea never entered her mind that kings and queens had aught else to do than to indulge in luxury. It would be hardly possible to conceive of two characters less qualified to occupy the throne in stormy times than were Louis and Maria. The people were slowly, but with resistless power, rising against the abuses, enormous and hoary with age, of the aristocracy and the monarchy. Louis, a man of unblemished kindness, integrity, and purity, was made the scapegoat for the sins of haughty, oppressive, profligate princes, who for centuries had trodden, with iron hoofs, upon the necks of their subjects. The accumulated hate of ages was poured upon his devoted head. The irresolute monarch had no conception of his position.

The king, in pursuance of his system of conciliation, as the clamors of discontent swelled louder and longer from all parts of France, convened the National Assembly. This body consisted of the nobility, the higher clergy, and representatives, chosen by the people from all part, of France. M. Roland, who was quite an idol with the populace of Lyons and its vicinity, and who now was beginning to lose caste with the aristocracy, was chosen, by a very strong vote, as the representative to the Assembly from the city of Lyons. In that busy city the Revolutionary movement had commenced with great power, and the name of Roland was the rallying point of the people now struggling to escape from ages of oppression. M. Roland spent some time in his city residence, drawn thither by the intense interest of the times, and in the saloon of Madame Roland meetings were every evening held by the most influential gentlemen of the revolutionary party. Her ardor stimulated their zeal, and her well-stored mind and fascinating conversational eloquence guided their councils. The impetuous young men of the city gathered around this impassioned woman, from whose lips words of liberty fell so enchantingly upon their ears, and with chivalrous devotion surrendered themselves to the guidance of her mind.

In this rising conflict between plebeian and patrician, between democrat and aristocrat, the position in which M. Roland and wife were placed, as most conspicuous and influential members of the revolutionary party, arrayed against them, with daily increasing animosity; all the aristocratic community of Lyons. Each day their names were pronounced by the advocates of reform with more enthusiasm, and by their opponents with deepening hostility. The applause and the censure alike invigorated Madame Roland, and her whole soul became absorbed in the one idea of popular liberty. This object became her passion, and she devoted herself to it with the concentration of every energy of mind and heart.

On the 20th of February, 1791, Madame Roland accompanied her husband to Paris, as he took his seat, with a name already prominent, in the National Assembly. Five years before, she had left the metropolis in obscurity and depression. She now returned with wealth, with elevated rank, with brilliant reputation, and exulting in conscious power. Her persuasive influence was dictating those measures which were driving the ancient nobility of France from their chateaux, and her vigorous mind was guiding those blows before which the throne of the Bourbons trembled. The unblemished and incorruptible integrity of M. Roland, his simplicity of manners and acknowledged ability, invested him immediately with much authority among his associates. The brilliance of his wife, and her most fascinating colloquial powers, also reflected much luster upon his name. Madame Roland, with her glowing zeal, had just written a pamphlet upon the new order of things, in language so powerful and impressive that more than sixty thousand copies had been sold—an enormous number, considering the comparative fewness of readers at that time. She, of course, was received with the most flattering attention, and great deference was paid to her opinions. She attended daily the sittings of the Assembly, and listened with the deepest interest to the debates. The king and queen had already been torn from their palaces at Versailles, and were virtually prisoners in the Tuileries. Many of the nobles had fled from the perils which seemed to be gathering around them, and had joined the army of emigrants at Coblentz. A few, however, of the nobility, and many of the higher clergy, remained heroically at their posts, and, as members of the Assembly, made valiant but unavailing efforts to defend the ancient prerogatives of the crown and of the Church. Madame Roland witnessed with mortification, which she could neither repress nor conceal, the decided superiority of the court party in dignity, and polish of manners, and in general intellectual culture, over those of plebeian origin, who were struggling, with the energy of an infant Hercules, for the overthrow of despotic power. All her tastes were with the ancient nobility and their defenders. All her principles were with the people. And as she contrasted the unrefined exterior and clumsy speech of the democratic leaders with the courtly bearing and elegant diction of those who rallied around the throne, she was aroused to a more vehement desire for the social and intellectual elevation of those with whom she had cast in her lot. The conflict with the nobles was of short continuance. The energy of rising democracy soon vanquished them. Violence took the place of law. And now the conflict for power arose between those of the Republicans who were more  and those who were less  radical in their plans of reform The most moderate party, consisting of those who would sustain the throne, but limit its powers by a free constitution, retaining many of the institutions and customs which antiquity had rendered venerable, was called the Girondist party. It was so called because their most prominent leaders were from the department of the Gironde. They would deprive the king of many of his prerogatives, but not of his crown. They would take from him his despotic power, but not his life. They would raise the mass of the people to the enjoyment of liberty, but to liberty controlled by vigorous law. Opposed to them were the Jacobins—far more radical in their views of reform. They would overthrow both throne and altar, break down all privileged orders, confiscate the property of the nobles, and place prince and beggar on the footing of equality. These were the two great parties into which revolutionary France was divided and the conflict between them was the most fierce and implacable earth has ever witnesses.

M. Roland and wife, occupying a residence in Paris, which was a convenient place of rendezvous, by their attractions gathered around, them every evening many of the most influential members of the Assembly. They attached themselves, with all their zeal and energy, to the Girondists. Four evenings of every week, the leaders of this party met in the saloon of Madame Roland, to deliberate respecting their measures. Among them there was a young lawyer from the country, with a stupid expression of countenance, sallow complexion, and ungainly gestures, who had made himself excessively unpopular by the prosy speeches with which he was ever wearying the Assembly. He had often been floored by argument and coughed down by contempt, but he seemed alike insensible to sarcasm and to insult. Alone in the Assembly, without a friend, he attacked all parties alike, and was by all disregarded. But he possessed an indomitable energy, and unwavering fixedness of purpose, a profound contempt for luxury and wealth, and a stoical indifference to reputation and to personal indulgence, which secured to him more and more of an ascendency, until, at the name of Robespierre, all France trembled. This young man silent and moody, appeared with others in the saloon of Madame Roland. She was struck with his singularity, and impressed with an instinctive consciousness of his peculiar genius, He was captivated by those charms of conversation in which Madame Roland was unrivaled. Silently—for he had no conversational powers—he lingered around her chair, treasured up her spontaneous tropes and metaphors, and absorbed her sentiments. He had a clear perception of the state of the times, was perhaps s sincere patriot, and had no ties of friendship, no scruples of conscience, no instincts of mercy, to turn him aside from any measures of blood or woe which might accomplish his plans.

[Illustration] from Madame Roland by John S. C. Abbott


Though the Girondists and the Jacobins were the two great parties now contending in the tumultuous arena of French revolution, there still remained the enfeebled and broken remains of the court party, with their insulted and humiliated king at their head, and also numerous cliques and minor divisions of those struggling for power. At the political evening reunions in the saloon of Madame Roland, she was invariably present, not as a prominent actor in the scenes, taking a conspicuous part in the social debates, but as a quiet and modest lady, of well known intellectual supremacy, whose active mind took the liveliest interest in the agitations of the hour. The influence she exerted was the polished, refined, attractive influence of an accomplished woman, who moved in her own appropriate sphere. She made no Amazonian speeches. She mingled not with men in the clamor of debate. With an invisible hand she gently and winningly touched the springs of action in other hearts With feminine conversational eloquence, she threw out sagacious suggestions, which others eagerly adopted, and advocated, and carried into vigorous execution. She did no violence to that delicacy of perception which is woman's tower and strength. She moved not from that sphere where woman reigns so resistlessly, and dreamed not of laying aside the graceful and polished weapons of her own sex, to grasp the heavier and coarser armor of man, which no woman can wield. By such an endeavor, one does but excite the repugnance of all except the unfortunate few, who can see no peculiar sacredness in woman's person, mind, or heart.

As the gentlemen assembled in the retired parlor, or rather library and study, appropriated to these confidential interviews, Madame Roland took her seat at a little work-table, aside from the circle where her husband and his friends were discussing their political measures. Busy with her needle or with her pen, she listened to every word that was uttered, and often bit her lips to check the almost irrepressible desire to speak out in condemnation of some feeble proposal or to urge some bolder action. At the close of the evening, when frank and social converse ensued, her voice was heard in low, but sweet and winning tones, as one after another of the members were attracted to her side. Robespierre, at such times silent and thoughtful, was ever bending over her chair. He studied Madame Roland with even more of stoical apathy than another man would study a book which he admires. The next day his companions would smile at the effrontery with which Robespierre would give utterance, in the Assembly, not only to the sentiments, but even to the very words and phrases which he had so carefully garnered from the exuberant diction of his eloquent instructress. Occasionally, every eye would be riveted upon him, and every ear attentive, as he gave utterance to some lofty sentiment, in impassioned language, which had been heard before, in sweeter tones, from more persuasive lips.

But the Revolution, like a spirit of destruction, was now careering onward with resistless power. Liberty was becoming lawlessness. Mobs rioted through the streets, burned chateaux, demolished convents, hunted, even to death, priests and nobles, sacked the palaces of the king, and defiled the altars of religion. The Girondists, illustrious, eloquent, patriotic men, sincerely desirous of breaking the arm of despotism and of introducing a well-regulated liberty, now began to tremble. They saw that a spirit was evoked which might trample every thing sacred in the dust. Their opponents, the Jacobins, rallying the populace around them with the cry, "Kill, burn, destroy," were for rushing onward in this career of demolition, till every vestige of gradations of rank and every restraint of religion should be swept from the land. The Girondists paused in deep embarrassment. They could not retrace their steps and try to re-establish the throne. The endeavor would not only be utterly unavailing, but would, with certainty, involve them in speedy and retrieveless ruin. They could not unite with the Jacobins in their reckless onset upon every thing which time had rendered venerable, and substitute for decency, and law, and order, the capricious volitions of an insolent, ignorant, and degraded mob. The only hope that remained for them was to struggle to continue firm in the position which they had already assumed. It was the only hope for France. The restoration of the monarchy was impossible. The triumph of the Jacobins was ruin. Which of these two parties in the Assembly shall array around its banners the millions of the populace of France, now aroused to the full consciousness of their power? Which can bid highest for the popular vote? Which can pander most successfully to the popular palate? The Girondists had talent, and integrity, and incorruptible patriotism. They foresaw their peril, but they resolved to meet it, and, if they must perish, to perish with their armor on. No one discerned this danger at an earlier period than Madame Roland. She warned her friends of its approach, even before they were conscious of the gulf to which they were tending. She urged the adoption of precautionary measures, by which a retreat might be effected when their post should be no longer tenable. "I once thought," said Madame Roland, "that there were no evils worse than regal despotism. I now see that there are other calamities vastly more to be dreaded."

Robespierre, who had associated with the Girondists with rather a sullen and Ishmaelitish spirit, holding himself in readiness to go here or there, as events might indicate to be politic, began now to incline toward the more popular party, of which he subsequently became the inspiring demon. Though he was daily attracting more attention, he had not yet risen to popularity. On one occasion, being accused of advocating some unpopular measure, the clamors of the multitude were raised against him, and rows of vengeance were uttered, loud and deep, through the streets of Paris. His enemies in the Assembly took advantage of this to bring an act of accusation against him, which would relieve them of his presence by the decisive energy of the ax of the guillotine. Robespierre's danger was most imminent, and he was obliged to conceal himself. Madame Roland, inspired by those courageous impulses which ever ennobled her, went at midnight, accompanied by her husband, to his retreat, to invite him to a more secure asylum in their own house. Madame Roland then hastened to a very influential friend, M. Busot, allowing no weariness to interrupt her philanthropy, and entreated him to hasten immediately and endeavor to exculpate Robespierre, before an act of accusation should be issued against him. M. Busot hesitated, but, unable to resist the earnest appeal of Madame Roland, replied, "I will do all in my power to save this unfortunate young man, although I am far from partaking the opinion of many respecting him. He thinks too much of himself to love liberty; but he serves it, and that is enough for me. I will defend him." Thus was the life of Robespierre saved. He lived to reward his benefactors by consigning them all to prison and to death. Says Lamartine sublimely, "Beneath the dungeons of the Conciergerie, Madame Roland remembered that night with satisfaction. If Robespierre recalled it in his power, this memory must have fallen colder upon his heart than the ax of the headsman."

The powerful influence which Madame Roland was thus exerting could not be concealed. Her husband became more illustrious through that brilliance she was ever anxious to reflect upon him. She appeared to have no ambition for personal renown. She sought only to elevate the position and expand the celebrity of her companion. It was whispered from ear to ear, and now and then openly asserted in the Assembly, that the bold and decisive measures of the Girondists received their impulse from the youthful and lovely wife of M. Roland.

In September, 1791, the Assembly was dissolved, and M. and Madame Roland returned to the rural quiet of La Platiere. But in pruning the vines, and feeding the poultry, and cultivating the flowers which so peacefully bloomed in their garden, they could not forget the exciting scenes through which they had passed, and the still more exciting scenes which they foresaw were to come. She kept up a constant correspondence with Robespierre and Busot, and furnished many very able articles for a widely-circulated journal, established by the Girondists for the advocacy of their political views. The question now arose between herself and her husband whether they should relinquish the agitations and the perils of a political life in these stormy times, and cloister themselves in rural seclusion, in the calm luxury of literary and scientific enterprise, or launch forth again upon the storm-swept ocean of revolution and anarchy. Few who understand the human heart will doubt of the decision to which they came. The chickens were left in the yard, the rabbits in the warren, and the flowers were abandoned to bloom in solitude; and before the snows of December had whitened the hills, they were again installed in tumultuous Paris. A new Assembly had just been convened, from which all the members of the one but recently dissolved were by law excluded. Their friends were rapidly assembling in Paris from their summer retreats, and influential men, from all parts of the empire, were gathering in the metropolis, to watch the progress of affairs. Clubs were formed to discuss the great questions of the day, to mold public opinion, and to overawe the Assembly. It was a period of darkness and of gloom; but there is something so intoxicating in the draughts of homage and power, that those who have once quaffed them find all milder stimulants stale and insipid. No sooner were M. and Madame Roland established in their city residence, than they were involved in all the plots and the counterplots of the Revolution. M. Roland was grave, taciturn, oracular. He had no brilliance of talent to excite envy. He displayed no ostentation in dress, or equipage, or manners, to provoke the desire in others to humble him. His reputation for stoical virtue gave a wide sweep to his influence. His very silence invested him with a mysterious wisdom. Consequently, no one feared him as a rival, and he was freely thrust forward as the unobjectionable head of a party by all who hoped through him to promote their own interests. He was what we call in America an available candidate. Madame Roland, on the contrary, was animated and brilliant. Her genius was universally admired. Her bold suggestions, her shrewd counsel, her lively repartee, her capability of cutting sarcasm, rarely exercised, her deep and impassioned benevolence, her unvarying cheerfulness, the sincerity and enthusiasm of her philanthropy, and the unrivaled brilliance of her conversational powers, made her the center of a system around which the brightest intellects were revolving. Vergniaud, Petion, Brissot, and others, whose names were then comparatively unknown, but whose fame has since resounded through the civilized world, loved to do her homage.

The spirit of the Revolution was still advancing with gigantic strides, and the already shattered throne was reeling beneath the redoubled blows of the insurgent people. Massacres were rife all over the kingdom. The sky was nightly illumined by conflagrations. The nobles were abandoning their estates, and escaping from perils and death to take refuge in the bosom of the little army of emigrants at Coblentz. The king, insulted and a prisoner, reigned but in name. Under these circumstances, Louis was compelled to dismiss his ministry and to call in another more acceptable to the people. The king hoped, by the appointment of a Republican ministry, to pacify the democratic spirit. There was no other resource left him but abdication: It was a bitter cup for him to drink. His proud and spirited queen declared that she would rather die than throw herself into the arms of Republicans for protection. He yielded to the pressure, dismissed his ministers, and surrendered himself to the Girondists for the appointment of a new ministry. The Girondists called upon M. Roland to take the important post of Minister of the Interior. It was a perilous position to fill, but what danger will not ambition face? In the present posture of affairs, the Minister of the. Interior was the monarch of France. M. Roland, whose quiet and hidden ambition had been feeding upon its success, smiled nervously at the power which, thus unsolicited, was passing into his hands. Madame Roland, whose all-absorbing passion it now was to elevate her husband to the highest summits of greatness, was gratified in view of the honor and agitated in view of the peril; but, to her exalted spirit, the greater the danger, the more heroic the act. "The burden is heavy," she said; "but Roland has a great consciousness of his own powers, and would derive fresh strength from the feeling of being useful to liberty and his country."

In March, 1792, he entered upon his arduous and exalted office. The palace formerly occupied by the Controller General of Finance, most gorgeously furnished by Madame Necker in the days of her glory, was appropriated to their use. Madame Roland entered this splendid establishment, and, elevated in social eminence above the most exalted nobles of France, fulfilled all the complicated duties of her station with a grace and dignity which have never been surpassed. Thus had Jane risen from that humble position in which the daughter of the engraver, in solitude, communed with her books, to be the mistress of a palace of aristocratic grandeur, and the associate of statesmen and princes.

When M. Roland made his first appearance at court as the minister of his royal master instead of arraying himself in the court-dress which the customs of the times required, he affected, in his costume, the simplicity of his principles. He wished to appear in his exalted station still the man of the people. He had not forgotten the impression produced in France by Franklin, as in the most republican simplicity of dress he moved among the glittering throng at Versailles. He accordingly presented himself at the Tuileries in a plain black coat, with a round hat, and dusty shoes fastened with ribbons instead of buckles. The courtiers were indignant. The king was highly displeased at what he considered an act of disrespect. The master of ceremonies was in consternation, and exclaimed with a look of horror to General Damuriez, "My dear sir, he has not even buckles in his shoes!" "Mercy upon us!" exclaimed the old general, with the most laughable expression of affected gravity, "we shall then all go to ruin together!"

The king, however, soon forgot the neglect of etiquette in the momentous questions which were pressing upon his attention. He felt the importance of securing the confidence and good will of his ministers, and he approached them with the utmost affability and conciliation. M. Roland returned from his first interview with the monarch quite enchanted with his excellent disposition and his patriotic spirit. He assured his wife that the community had formed a totally erroneous estimate of the king; that he was sincerely a friend to the reforms which were taking place, and was a hearty supporter of the Constitution which had been apparently forced upon him. The prompt reply of Madame Roland displayed even more than her characteristic sagacity. "If Louis is sincerely a friend of the Constitution, he must be virtuous beyond the common race of mortals. Mistrust your own virtue, M. Roland. You are my an honest countryman wandering amid a crowd of courtiers—virtue in danger amid a myriad of vices. They speak our language; we do not know theirs. No! Louis can not love the chains that fetter him. He may feign to caress them. He thinks only of how he can spurn them. Fallen greatness loves not its decadence. No man likes his humiliation. Trust in human nature; that never deceives. Distrust courts. Your virtue is too elevated to see the snares which courtiers spread beneath your feet."