Madame Roland - John S. C. Abbott

Trial and Execution of Madame Roland

The day after Madame Roland was placed in the Conciergerie, she was visited by one of the notorious officers of the revolutionary patty, and very closely questioned concerning the friendship she had entertained for the Girondists. She frankly avowed the elevated affection and esteem with which she cherished their memory, but she declared that she and they were the cordial friends of republican liberty; that they wished to preserve, not to destroy, the Constitution. The examination was vexatious and intolerant in the extreme. It lasted for three hours, and consisted in an incessant torrent of criminations, to which he was hardly permitted to offer one word in reply. This examination taught her the nature of the accusations which would be brought against her. She sat down in her cell that very night, and, with a rapid pen, sketched that defense which has been pronounced one of the most eloquent and touching monuments of the Revolution. It so beautifully illustrates the heroism of her character, the serenity of her spirit, and the beauty and energy of her mental operations, that it will ever be read with the liveliest interest.

"I am accused," she writes, "of being the accomplice of men called conspirators. My intimacy with a few of these gentlemen is of much older date than the occurrences in consequence of which they are now deemed rebels. Our correspondence, since they left Paris, has been entirely foreign to public affairs. Properly speaking, I have been engaged in no political correspondence whatever, and in that respect I might confine myself to a simple denial. I certainly can not be called upon to give an account of my particular affections. I have, however, the right to be proud of these friendships. I glory in them. I wish to conceal nothing. I acknowledge that, with expressions of regret at my confinement, I received an intimation that Duperret had two letters for me, whether written by one or by two of my friends, before or after their leaving Paris, I can not say. Duperret had delivered them into other hands, and they never came to mine. Another time I received a pressing invitation to break my chains, and an offer of services to assist me in effecting my escape in any way I might think proper, and to convey me whithersoever I might afterward wish to go. I was dissuaded from listening to such proposals by duty and by honor: by duty, that I might not endanger the safety of those to whose care I was confided; and by honor, because I preferred the risk of an unjust trial to exposing myself to the suspicion of guilt by a flight unworthy of me. When I consented to my arrest, it was not with the intention of afterward making my escape. Without doubt, if all means of communication had not been cut off, or if I had not been prevented by confinement, I should have endeavored to learn what had become of my friends. I know of no law by which my doing so is forbidden. In what age or in what nation was it ever considered a crime to be faithful to those sentiments of esteem and brotherly affection which bind man to man?

"I do not pretend to judge of the measures of those who have been proscribed, but I will never believe in the evil intentions of men of whose probity and patriotism I am thoroughly convinced. If they erred, it was unintentionally. They fall without being abased, and I regard them as being unfortunate without being liable to blame. I am perfectly easy as to their glory, and willingly consent to participate in the honor of being oppressed by their enemies. They are accused of having conspired against their country, but I know that they were firm friends of the Republic. They were, however, humane men, and were persuaded that good laws were necessary to procure the Republic the good will of persons who doubted whether the Republic could be maintained. It is more difficult to conciliate than to kill. The history of every age proves that it requires great talents to lead men to virtue by wise institutions, while force suffices to oppress them by terror, or to annihilate them by death. I have often heard them assert that abundance, as well as happiness, can only proceed from an equitable, protecting, and beneficent government. The omnipotence of the bayonet may produce fear, but not bread. I have seen them animated by the most lively enthusiasm for the food of the people, disdaining to flatter them, and resolved rather to fall victims to their delusion than to be the means of keeping it up. I confess that these principles and this conduct appeared to me totally different from the sentiments and proceedings of tyrants, or ambitious men, who seek to please the people to effect their subjugation. It inspired me with the highest esteem for those generous men. This error, if an error it be, will accompany me to the grave, whither I shall be proud of following those whom I was not permitted to accompany.

"My defense is more important for those who wish for the truth than it is for myself. Calm and contented in the consciousness of having done my duty, I look forward to futurity with perfect peace of mind. My serious turn and studious habits have preserved me alike from the follies of dissipation and from the bustle of intrigue. A friend to liberty, on which reflection had taught me to set a just value, I beheld the Revolution with delight, persuaded it was destined to put an end to the arbitrary power I detested, and to the abuses I had so often lamented, when reflecting with pity upon the indigent classes of society. I took an interest in the progress of the Revolution, and spoke with warmth of public affairs, but I did not pass the bounds prescribed by my sex. Some small talents, a considerable share of philosophy, a degree of courage more uncommon, and which did not permit me to weaken my husband's energy in dangerous times—such, perhaps, are the qualities which those who know me may have indiscreetly extolled, and which may have made me enemies among those to whom I am unknown. M. Roland sometimes employed me as a secretary, and the famous letter to the king, for instance, is copied entirely in my handwriting. This would be an excellent item to add to my indictment, if the Austrians were trying me, and if they should have thought fit to extend a minister's responsibility to his wife. But M Roland long ago manifested his knowledge of, and his attachment to, the great principles of political economy. The proof is to be found in his numerous works published during the last fifteen years His learning and his probity are all his own. He stood in no need of a wife to make him an able minister. Never were secret councils held at his house; His colleagues and a few friends met once a week at his table, and there conversed, in a public manner, on matters in which every body was concerned. His writings, which breathe throughout a love of order and peace, and which enforce the best principles of public prosperity and morals, will forever attest his wisdom. His accounts prove his integrity.

"As to the offense imputed to me, I observe that I never was intimate with Duperret. I saw him occasionally at the time of M. Roland's administration. He never came to our house during the six months that my husband was no longer in office. The same remark will apply to other members, our friends, which surely does not accord with the plots and conspiracies laid to our charge. It is evident, by my first letter to Duperret, I only wrote to him because I knew not to whom else to address myself, and because I imagined he would readily consent to oblige me. My correspondence with him could not, then, be concerted. It could not be the consequence of any previous intimacy, and could have only one object in view. It gave me afterward an opportunity of receiving accounts from those who had just absented themselves, and with whom I was connected by the ties of friendship, independently of all political considerations. The latter were totally out of the question in the kind of correspondence I kept up with them during the early part of their absence. No written memorial bears witness against me in that respect. Those adduced only lead to the belief that I partook of the opinions and sentiments of the persons called conspirators. This deduction is well founded. I confess it without reserve. I am proud of the conformity. But I never manifested my opinion in a way which can be construed into a crime, or which tended to occasion any disturbance. Now, to become an accomplice in any plan whatever, it is necessary to give advice, or to furnish means of execution. I have done neither. There is no law to condemn me.

"I know that, in revolutions, law as well as justice is often forgotten, and the proof of it is that I am here. I owe my trial to nothing but the prejudices and violent animosities which arise in times of great agitation, and which are generally directed against those who have been placed in conspicuous situations, or are known to possess any energy or spirit. It would have been easy for my courage to put me out of the reach of the sentence which I foresaw would be pronounced against me. But I thought it rather became me to undergo that sentence. I thought that I owed the example to my country. I thought that if I were to be condemned, it must be right to leave to tyranny all the odium of sacrificing a woman, whose crime is that of possessing some small talent; which she never misapplied, a zealous desire to promote the welfare of mankind, and courage enough to acknowledge her friends when in misfortune, and to do homage to virtue at the risk of life. Minds which have any claim to greatness are capable of divesting themselves of selfish considerations. They feel that they belong to the whole human race. Their views are directed to posterity. I am the wife of a virtuous man exposed to persecution. I was the friend of men who have been proscribed and immolated by delusion, and the hatred of jealous mediocrity. It is necessary that I should perish in my turn, because it is a rule with tyranny to sacrifice those whom it has grievously oppressed, and to annihilate the very witnesses of its misdeeds. I have this double claim to death at your hands, and I expect it. When innocence walks to the scaffold at the command of error and perversity, every step she takes is an advance toward glory. May I be the last victim sacrificed to the furious spirit of party. I shall leave with joy this unfortunate earth, which swallows up the friends of virtue and drinks the blood of the just.

"Truth! friendship! my country! sacred objects, sentiments dear to my heart, accept my last sacrifice. My life was devoted to you, and you will render my death easy and glorious.

"Just Heaven! enlighten this unfortunate people for whom I desired liberty. Liberty! it is for noble minds, who despise death, and who know how, upon occasion, to give it to themselves. It is not for weak beings, who enter into a composition with guilt, and cover selfishness and cowardice with the name of prudence. It is not for corrupt wretches, who rise from the bed of debauchery, or from the mire of indigence, to feast their eyes upon the blood that streams from the scaffold. It is the portion of a people who delight in humanity, practice justice, despise their flatterers, and respect the truth. While you are not such a people, O my fellow-citizens! you will talk in vain of liberty. Instead of liberty you will have licentiousness, to which you will all fall victims in your turn. You will ask for bread; dead bodies will be given you, and you at last will bow down your own necks to the yoke.

"I have neither concealed my sentiments not my opinions. I know that a Roman lady was sent to the scaffold for lamenting the death of her son. I know that, in times of delusion and party rage, he who dares avow himself the friend of the condemned or of the proscribed exposes himself to their fate. But I have no fear of death. I never feared any thing but guilt, and I will not purchase life at the expense of a base subterfuge. Woe to the times! woe to the people among whom doing homage to disregarded truth can be attended with danger; and happy is he who, in such circumstances, is bold enough to brave it.

"It is now your part to see whether it answer your purpose to condemn me without proof upon mere matter of opinion, and without the support or justification of any law."

Having concluded this magnanimous defense, which she wrote in one evening with the rapidity which characterized all her mental operations, she retired to rest, and slept with the serenity of a child. She was called upon several times by committees sent from the revolutionary tribunal for examination. They were resolved to take her life, but were anxious to do it, if possible, under the forms of law. She passed through all their examinations with the most perfect composure and the most dignified self-possession. Her enemies could not withhold their expressions of admiration as they saw her in her sepulchral cell of stone and of iron, cheerful, fascinating, and perfectly at ease. She knew that she was to be led from that cell to a violent death, and yet no faltering of soul could be detected. Her spirit had apparently achieved perfect victory over all earthly ills.

The upper part of the door of her cell was an iron grating. The surrounding cells were filled with the most illustrious ladies and gentlemen of France. As the hour of death drew near, her courage and animation seemed to increase. Her features glowed with enthusiasm; her thoughts and expressions were refulgent with sublimity, and her whole aspect assumed the impress of one appointed to fill some great and lofty destiny. She remained but a few days in the Conciergerie before she was led to the scaffold. During those few days, by her example and her encouraging words, she spread among the numerous prisoners there an enthusiasm and a spirit of heroism which elevated, above the fear of the scaffold, even the most timid and depressed. This glow of feeling and exhilaration gave a new impress of sweetness and fascination to her beauty. The length of her captivity, the calmness with which she contemplated the certain approach of death, gave to her voice that depth of tone and slight tremulousness of utterance which sent her eloquent words home with thrilling power to every heart. Those who were walking in the corridor, or who were the occupants of adjoining cells, often called for her to speak to them words of encouragement and consolation.

Standing upon a stool at the door of her own cell, she grasped with her hands the iron grating which separated her from her audience. This was her tribune. The melodious accents of her voice floated along the labyrinthine avenues of those dismal dungeons, penetrating cell after cell, and arousing energy in hearts which had been abandoned to despair. It was, indeed, a strange scene which was thus witnessed in these sepulchral caverns. The silence, as of the grave, reigned there, while the clear and musical tones of Madame Roland, as of an angel of consolation, vibrated through the rusty bars, and along the dark, damp cloisters. One who was at that time an inmate of the prison, and survived those dreadful scenes, has described, in glowing terms, the almost miraculous effects of her soul-moving eloquence. She was already past the prime of life, but she was still fascinating. Combined with the most wonderful power of expression, she possessed a voice so exquisitely musical, that, long after her lips were silenced in death, its tones vibrated in lingering strains in the souls of those by whom they had ever been heard. The prisoners listened with the most profound attention to her glowing words, and regarded her almost as a celestial spirit, who had come to animate them to heroic deeds. She often spoke of the Girondists who had already perished upon the guillotine. With perfect fearlessness she avowed her friendship for them, and ever spoke of them as our friends. She, however, was careful never to utter a word which would bring tears into the eye. She wished to avoid herself all the weakness of tender emotions, and to lure the thoughts of her companions away from every contemplation which could enervate their energies.

Occasionally, in the solitude of her cell, as the image of her husband and of her child rose before her, and her imagination dwelt upon her desolated home and her blighted hopes—her husband denounced and pursued by lawless violence, and her child soon to be an orphan—woman's tenderness would triumph over the heroine's stoicism. Burying, for a moment, her face in her hands, she would burst into a flood of tears. Immediately struggling to regain composure, she would brush her tears away, and dress her countenance in its accustomed smiles. She remained in the Conciergerie but one week, and during that time so endeared herself to all as to become the prominent object of attention and love. Her case is one of the most extraordinary the history of the world has presented, in which the very highest degree of heroism is combined with the most resistless charms of feminine loveliness. An unfeminine woman can never be loved  by men. She may be respected for her talents, she may be honored for her philanthropy, but she can not win the warmer emotions of the heart. But Madame Roland, with an energy of will, an infallibility of purpose, a firmness of stoical endurance which no mortal man has ever exceeded, combined that gentleness, and tenderness, and affection—that instinctive sense of the proprieties of her sex—which gathered around, her a love as pure and as enthusiastic as woman ever excited. And while her friends, many of whom were the most illustrious men in France, had enthroned her as an idol in their hearts, the breath of slander never ventured to intimate that she was guilty even of an impropriety.

The day before her trial, her advocate, Chauveau de la Garde, visited her to consult respecting her defense. She, well aware that no one could speak a word in her favor but at the peril of his own life, and also fully conscious that her doom was already sealed, drew a ring from her finger, and said to him,

"To-morrow I shall be no more. I know the fate which awaits me. Your kind assistance can not avail aught for me, and would but endanger you. I pray you, therefore, not to come to the tribunal, but to accept of this last testimony of my regard."

The next day she was led to her trial. She attired herself in a white robe, as a symbol of her innocence, and her long dark hair fell in thick curls on her neck and shoulders. She emerged from her dungeon a vision of unusual loveliness. The prisoners who were walking in the corridors gathered around her, and with smiles and words of encouragement she infused energy into their hearts. Calm and invincible she met her judges. She was accused of the crimes of being the wife of M. Roland and the friend of his friends. Proudly she acknowledged herself guilty of both those charges. Whenever she attempted to utter a word in her defense, she was brow-beaten by the judges, and silenced by the clamors of the mob which filled the tribunal. The mob now ruled with undisputed sway in both legislative and executive halls. The serenity of her eye was untroubled, and the composure of her disciplined spirit unmoved, save by the exaltation of enthusiasm, as she noted the progress of the trial, which was bearing her rapidly and resistlessly to the scaffold. It was, however, difficult to bring any accusation against her by which, under the form of law, she could be condemned. France, even in its darkest hour, was rather ashamed to behead a woman, upon whom the eyes of all Europe were fixed, simply for being the wife of her husband and the friend of his friends. At last the president demanded of her that she should reveal her husband's asylum. She proudly replied,

"I do not know of any law by which I can be obliged to violate the strongest feelings of nature." This was sufficient, and she was immediately condemned. Her sentence was thus expressed:

"The public accuser has drawn up the present indictment against Jane Mary Phlippon, the wife of Roland, late Minister of the Interior for having wickedly and designedly aided and assisted in the conspiracy which existed against the unity and indivisibility of the Republic, against the liberty and safety of the French people, by assembling, at her house, in secret council, the principal chiefs of that conspiracy, and by keeping up a correspondence tending to facilitate their treasonable designs. The tribunal, having heard the public accuser deliver his reasons concerning the application of the law, condemns Jane Mary Phlippon, wife of Roland, to the punishment of death."

She listened calmly to her sentence, and then, rising, bowed with dignity to her judges, and, smiling, said,

"I thank you, gentlemen, for thinking me worthy of sharing the fate of the great men whom you have assassinated. I shall endeavor to imitate their firmness on the scaffold."

With the buoyant step of a child, and with a rapidity which almost betokened joy, she passed beneath the narrow portal, and descended to her cell, from which she was to be led, with the morning light, to a bloody death. The prisoners had assembled to greet her on her return, and anxiously gathered around her. She looked upon them with a smile of perfect tranquility, and, drawing her hand across her neck, made a sign expressive of her doom. But a few hours elapsed between her sentence and her execution. She retired to her cell, wrote a few words of parting to her friends, played, upon a harp which had found its way into the prison, her requiem, in tones so wild and mournful, that, floating, in the dark hours of the night, through those sepulchral caverns, they fell like unearthly music upon the despairing souls there incarcerated.

The morning of the 10th of November, 1793, dawned gloomily upon Paris. It was one of the darkest days of that reign of terror which, for so long a period, enveloped France in its somber shades. The ponderous gates of the courtyard of the Conciergerie opened that morning to a long procession of carts loaded with victims for the guillotine. Madame Roland had contemplated her fate too long, and had disciplined her spirit too severely, to fail of fortitude in this last hour of trial. She came from her cell scrupulously attired for the bridal of death. A serene smile was upon her cheek, and the glow of joyous animation lighted up her features as she waved an adieu to the weeping prisoners who gathered around her. The last cart was assigned to Madame Roland. She entered it with a step as light and elastic as if it were a carriage for a pleasant morning's drive. By her side stood an infirm old man, M. La Marche. He was pale and trembling, and his fainting heart, in view of the approaching terror, almost ceased to beat. She sustained him by her arm, and addressed to him words of consolation and encouragement, in cheerful accents and with a benignant smile. The poor old man felt that God had sent an angel to strengthen him in the dark hour of death. As the cart heavily rumbled along the pavement, drawing nearer and nearer to the guillotine, two or three times, by her cheerful words, she even caused a smile faintly to play upon his pallid lips.

The guillotine was now the principal instrument of amusement for the populace of Paris. It was so elevated that all could have a good view of the spectacle it presented. To witness the conduct of nobles and of ladies, of boys and of girls, while passing through the horrors of a sanguinary death, was far more exciting than the unreal and bombastic tragedies of the theater, or the conflicts of the cock-pit and the bear garden. A countless throng flooded the streets, men, women, and children, shouting, laughing, execrating. The celebrity of Madame Roland, her extraordinary grace and beauty, and her aspect, not only of heroic fearlessness, but of joyous exhilaration, made her the prominent object of the public gaze. A white robe gracefully enveloped her perfect form, and her black and glossy hair, which for some reason the executioners had neglected to out, fell in rich profusion to her waist. A keen November blast swept the streets, under the influence of which, and the excitement of the scene, her animated countenance glowed with all the ruddy bloom of youth. She stood firmly in the cart, looking with a serene eye upon the crowds which lined the streets, and listening with unruffled serenity to the clamor which filled the air. A large crowd surrounded the cart in which Madame Roland stood, shouting, "To the guillotine! to the guillotine!" She looked kindly upon them, and, bending over the railing of the cart, said to them, in tones as placid as if she were addressing her own child, "My friends, I am going to the guillotine. In a few moments I shall be there. They who send me thither will era long follow me. I go innocent. They will come stained with blood. You who now applaud our execution will then applaud theirs with equal zeal"

Madame Roland had continued writing her memoirs until the hour in which she left her cell for the scaffold. When the cart had almost arrived at the foot of the guillotine, her spirit was so deeply moved by the tragic scene—such emotions came rushing in upon her soul from departing time and opening eternity, that she could not repress the desire to pen down her glowing thoughts. She entreated an officer to furnish her for a moment with pen and paper. The request was refused. It is much to be regretted that we are thus deprived of that unwritten chapter of her life. It can not be doubted that the words she would then have written would have long vibrated upon the ear of a listening world. Soul-utterances will force their way over mountains, and valleys, and oceans. Despotism can not arrest them. Time can not enfeeble them.

The long procession arrived at the guillotine, and the bloody work commenced. The victims were dragged from the carts, and the ax rose and fell with unceasing rapidity. Head after head fell into the basket, and the pile of bleeding trunks rapidly increased in size. The executioners approached the cart where Madame Roland stood by the side of her fainting companion. With an animated countenance and a cheerful smile, she was all engrossed in endeavoring to infuse fortitude into his soul. The executioner grasped her by the arm. "Stay," said she, slightly resisting his grasp; "I have one favor to ask, and that is not for myself. I beseech you grant it me." Then turning to the old man, she said, "Do you precede me to the scaffold. To see my blood flow would make you suffer the bitterness of death twice over. I must spare you the pain of witnessing my execution." The stern officer gave a surly refusal, replying, "My orders are to take you first." With that winning smile and that fascinating grace which were almost resistless, she rejoined, "You can not, surely, refuse a woman her last request." The hard-hearted executor of the law was brought within the influence of her enchantment. He paused, looked at her for a moment in slight bewilderment, and yielded. The poor old man, more dead than alive, was conducted upon the scaffold and placed beneath the fatal ax. Madame Roland, without the slightest change of color, or the apparent tremor of a nerve, saw the ponderous instrument, with its glittering edge, glide upon its deadly mission, and the decapitated trunk of her friend was thrown aside to give place for her. With a placid countenance and a buoyant step, she ascended the platform. The guillotine was erected upon the vacant spot between the gardens of the Tuileries and the Elysian Fields, then known as the Place de la Revolution. This spot is now called the Place de la Concorde. It is unsurpassed by any other place in Europe. Two marble fountains now embellish the spot. The blood-stained guillotine, from which crimson rivulets were ever flowing, then occupied the space upon which one of these fountains has been erected; and a clay statue to Liberty reared its hypocritical front where the Egyptian obelisk now rises. Madame Roland stood for a moment upon the elevated platform, looked calmly around upon the vast concourse, and then bowing before the colossal statue, exclaimed, "O Liberty! Liberty! how many crimes are committed in thy name." She surrendered herself to the executioner, and was bound to the plank. The plank fell to its horizontal position, bringing her head under the fatal ax. The glittering steel glided through the groove, and the head of Madame Roland was severed from her body.

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


Thus died Madame Roland, in the thirty-ninth year of her age. Her death oppressed all who had known her with the deepest grief. Her intimate friend Buzot, who was then a fugitive, on hearing the tidings, was thrown into a state of perfect delirium, from which he did not recover for many days. Her faithful female servant was so overwhelmed with grief, that she presented herself before the tribunal, and implored them to let her die upon the same scaffold where her beloved mistress had perished. The tribunal, amazed at such transports of attachment, declared that she was mad, and ordered her to be removed from their presence. A man-servant made the same application, and was sent to the guillotine.

The grief of M. Roland, when apprised of the event, was unbounded. For a time he entirely lost his senses. Life to him was no longer endurable. He knew not of any consolations of religion. Philosophy could only nerve him to stoicism. Privately he left, by night, the kind friends who had hospitably concealed him for six months, and wandered to such a distance from his asylum as to secure his protectors from any danger on his account. Through the long hours of the winter's night he continued his dreary walk, till the first gray of the morning appeared in the east. Drawing a long stiletto from the inside of his walking-stink, he placed the head of it against the trunk of a tree, and threw himself upon the sharp weapon. The point pierced his heart, and he fell lifeless upon the frozen ground. Some peasants passing by discovered his body. A piece of paper was pinned to the breast of his coat, upon which there were written these words: "whoever thou art that findest these remains, respect them as those of a virtuous man. After hearing of my wife's death, I would not stay another day in a world so stained with crime."

The daughter of Madame Roland succeeded in escaping the fury of the tyrants of the Revolution. She lived surrounded by kind protectors, and in subsequent years was married to M. Champoneaux, the son of one of her mother's intimate friends.

Such was the wonderful career of Madame Roland It is a history full of instruction, and ever reminds us that truth is stranger than fiction.