Madame Roland - John S. C. Abbott

Fate of the Girondists

As the fate of the Girondist party, of which Madame Roland was the soul, is so intimately connected with her history, we must leave her in the prison, while we turn aside to contemplate the doom of her companions. The portentous thunders of the approaching storm had given such warning to the Girondists, that many had effected their escape from Paris, and in various disguises, in friendlessness and poverty, were wandering over Europe. Others, however, were too proud to fly. Conscious of the most elevated patriotic sentiments, and with no criminations of conscience, except for sacrificing too much in love for their country, they resolved to remain firm at their post, and to face their foes. Calmly and sternly they awaited the onset. This heroic courage did but arouse and invigorate their foes. Mercy had long since died in France.

Immediately after the tumult of that dreadful night in which the Convention was inundated with assassins clamoring for blood, twenty-one of the Girondists were arrested and thrown into the dungeons of the Conciergerie. Imprisoned together, and fully conscious that their trial would be but a mockery, and that their doom was already sealed, they fortified one another with all the consolations which philosophy and the pride of magnanimity could administer. In those gloomy cells, beneath the level of the street, into whose deep and grated windows the rays of the noonday sun could but feebly penetrate, their faces soon grew wan, and wasted, and haggard, from confinement, the foul prison air, and woe.

There is no sight more deplorable than that of an accomplished man of intellectual tastes, accustomed to all the refinements of polished life, plunged into those depths of misery from which the decencies even of our social being are excluded. These illustrious statesmen and eloquent orators, whose words had vibrated upon the ear of Europe, were transformed into the most revolting aspect of beggared and haggard misery. Their clothes, ruined by the humid filth of their dungeons, moldered to decay. Unwashed, unshorn, in the loss almost of the aspect of humanity, they became repulsive to each other. Unsupported by any of those consolations which religion affords, many hours of the blackest gloom must have enveloped them.

Not a few of the deputies were young men, in the morning of their energetic being, their bosoms glowing with all the passions of this tumultuous world, buoyant with hope, stimulated by love, invigorated by perfect health. And they found themselves thus suddenly plunged from the heights of honor and power to the dismal darkness of the dungeon, from whence they could emerge only to be led to the scaffold. All the bright hopes of life had gone down amid the gloom of midnight darkness. Several months lingered slowly away while these men were awaiting their trial. Day after day they heard the tolling of the tocsin, the reverberations of the alarm gun, and the beating of the insurrection drum, as the demon of lawless violence rioted through the streets of the blood-stained metropolis. The execrations of the mob, loud and fiend-like, accompanied the cart of the condemned, as it rumbled upon the pavements above their heads, bearing the victims of popular fury to the guillotine; and still, most stoically, they struggled to nerve their souls with fortitude to meet their fate.

From these massive stone walls, guarded by triple doors of iron and watched by numerous sentinels, answerable for the safe custody of their prisoners with their lives, there was no possibility of escape. The rigor of their imprisonment was, consequently, somewhat softened as weeks passed on, and they were occasionally permitted to see their friends through the iron wicket. Books, also, aided to relieve the tedium of confinement. The brother-in-law of Vergniaud came to visit him, and brought with him his son, a child ten years of age. The features of the fair boy reminded Vergniaud of his beloved sister, and awoke mournfully in his heart the remembrance of departed joys. When the child saw his uncle imprisoned like a malefactor, his cheeks haggard and sunken, his matted hair straggling over his forehead, his long beard disfiguring his face, and his clothes hanging in tatters, he clung to his father, affrighted by the sad sight, and burst into tears.

"My child," said Vergniaud, kindly, taking him in his arms, "look well at me. When you are a man, you can say that you saw Vergniaud, the founder of the Republic, at the most glorious period, and in the most splendid costume he ever wore—that in which he suffered unmerited persecution, and in which he prepared to die for liberty." These words produced a deep impression upon the mind of the child. He remembered them to repeat them after the lapse of half a century.

The cells in which they were imprisoned still remain as they were left on the morning in which these illustrious men were led to their execution. On the dingy walls of stone are still recorded those sentiments which they had inscribed there, and which indicate the nature of those emotions which animated and sustained them. These proverbial maxims and heroic expressions, gleaned from French tragedies or the classic page, were written with the blood which they had drawn from their own veins. In one place is carefully, written,

"Quand d n'a pu sauver is liberté de Rome,

Caton est libre encore et suit mourir en homme."

"When he no longer had the power to preserve the liberty of Rome,

Cato still was free, and knew how to die for man."


"Cui virtus non deest

Ille nunquam omnino miser."

"He who retains his integrity

Can never be wholly miserable."

In another place,

"La vraie liberté est celle de l'ame."

"True liberty is that of the soul."

On a beam was written,

"Dignum certe Deo spectaculum

fortem virum cum calamitate colluctantem."

"Even God may look with pleasure

upon a brave man struggling against adversity."


"Quels solides appui dans le malheur supreme!

J'ai pour moi ma vertu, l'équité, Dieu meme."

"How substantial the consolation in the greatest calamity

I have for mine, my virtue, justice, God himself."

Beneath this was written,

"Le jour n'est pas plus pur que le fond de mon coeur."

"The day is not more pure than the depths of my heart."

In large letters of blood there was inscribed, in the hand-writing of Vergniaud,

"Potius mori quam foedari."

"Death is preferable to dishonor."

But one sentence is recorded there which could be considered strictly of a religious character. It was taken from the "Imitation of Christ."

"Remember that you are not called to a life of indulgence

and pleasure, but to toil and to suffer."

La Source and Sillery, two very devoted friends, occupied a cell together. La Source was a devoted Christian, and found, in the consolations of piety, an unfailing support. Sillery possessed a feeling heart, and was soothed and comforted by the devotion of his friend. La Source composed a beautiful hymn, adapted to a sweet and solemn air, which they called their evening service. Night after night this mournful dirge was heard gently issuing from the darkness of their cell, in tones so melodious and plaintive that they never died away from the memory of those who heard them. It is difficult to conceive of any thing more affecting than this knell, so softly uttered at midnight in those dark and dismal dungeons.

"Calm all the tumults that invade

Our souls, and lend thy powerful aid.

Oh! source of mercy! soothe our pains,

And break, O break our cruel, chains!

To Thee the captive pours his cry,

To Thee the mourner loves to fly.

The incense of our tears receive—

'Tis all the incense we can give.

"Eternal Power! our cause defend,

O God! of innocence the friend.

Near Thee forever she resides,

In Thee forever she confides.

Thou know'st the secrets of the breasts

Thou know'st the oppressor and the oppress'd

Do thou our wrongs with pity see,

Avert a doom offending thee.

"But should the murderer's arm prevail;

Should tyranny our lives assail;

Unmoved, triumphant, scorning death,

We'll bless Thee with our latest breath.

The hour, the glorious hour will come,

That consecrates the patriots' tomb;

And with the pang our memory claims,

Our country will avenge our names."

Summer had come and gone while these distinguished prisoners were awaiting their doom. World-weary and sick at heart, they still struggled to sustain each other, and to meet their dreadful fate with heroic constancy. The day for their trial at length arrived. It was the 20th of October, 1793. They had long been held up before the mob, by placards and impassioned harangues, as traitors to their country, and the populace of Paris were clamorous for their consignment to the guillotine. They were led from the dungeons of the Conciergerie to the misnamed Halls of Justice. A vast concourse of angry men surrounded the tribunal, and filled the air with execrations. Paris that day presented the aspect of a camp. The Jacobins, conscious that there were still thousands of the most influential of the citizens who regarded this Girondists with veneration as incorruptible patriots, determined to prevent the possibility of a rescue. They had some cause to apprehend a counter revolution. They therefore gathered around the scene of trial all that imposing military array which they had at their disposal. Cavalry, with plumes, and helmets, and naked sabers, were sweeping the streets, that no accumulations of the multitude might gather force. The pavements trembled beneath the rumbling wheels of heavy artillery, ready to belch forth their storm of grape-shot upon any opposing foe. Long lines of infantry, with loaded muskets and glittering bayonets, guarded all the avenues to the tribunal, where rancorous passion sat enthroned in mockery upon the seat of justice.

The prisoners had nerved themselves sternly to meet this crisis of their doom. Two by two, in solemn procession, they marched to the bar of judgment, and took their seat upon benches surrounded by gene d'armes and a frowning populace, and arraigned before judges already determined upon their doom. The eyes of the world were, however, upon them. The accused were illustrious in integrity, in rank, in talent. In the distant provinces there were thousands who were their friends. It was necessary to go through the formality of a trial. A few of the accused still clung to the hope of life. They vainly dreamed it possible that, by silence, and the abandonment of themselves to the resistless power by which they were crushed, some mercy might be elicited. It was a weakness unworthy of these great men. But there are few minds which can remain firm while immured for months in the wasting misery of a dungeon. In those glooms the sinews of mental energy wither with dying hope. The trial continued for a week. On the 30th of October, at eleven o'clock at night, the verdict was brought in. They were all declared guilty of having conspired against the Republic, and were condemned to death. With the light of the next morning's sun they were to be led to the guillotine.

As the sentence was pronounced, one of the accused, M. Valaze, made a motion with his hand, as if to tear his garment, and fell from his seat upon the floor. "What, Valaze," said Brissot, striving to support him, "are you losing your courage?" "No," replied Valaze, faintly, "I am dying;" and he expired, with his hand still grasping the hilt of the dagger with which he had pierced his heart. For a moment it was a scene of unutterable horror The condemned gathered sadly around the remains of their lifeless companion. Some, who had confidently expected acquittal, overcome by the near approach of death, yielded to momentary weakness, and gave utterance to reproaches and lamentations. Others, pale and stupefied, gazed around in moody silence. One, in the delirium of enthusiasm, throwing his arms above his head, shouted, "This is the most glorious day of my life!" Vergniaud, seated upon the highest bench, with the composure of philosophy and piety combined, looked upon the scene, exulting in the victory his own spirit had achieved over peril and death.

The weakness which a few displayed was but momentary. They raffled their energies boldly to meet their inevitable doom. They gathered for a moment around the corpse of their lifeless companion, and were then formed in procession, to march back to their cells. It was midnight as the condemned Girondists were led from the bar of the Palace of Justice back to the dungeons of the Conciergerie, there to wait till the swift-winged hours should bring the dawn which was to guide their steps to the guillotine. Their presence of mind had now returned, and their bosoms glowed with the loftiest enthusiasm. In fulfillment of a promise they had made their fellow-prisoners, to inform them of their fate by the echoes of their voices, they burst into the Marseillaise Hymn. The vaults of the Conciergerie rang with the song as they shouted, in tones of exultant energy.

"Allow, enfans de la patrie,

Le jour de glorie est arrive,

Contre none de In tyrannie

L'etendard sanglant est lave.

"Come! children of your country, come!

The day of glory dawns on high,

And tyranny has wide unfurl'd

Her blood-stain'd banner in the sky."

It was their death-knell. As they were slowly led along through the gloomy corridors of their prison to the cells, these dirge-like wailings of a triumphant song penetrated the remotest dungeons of that dismal abode, and roused every wretched head from its pallet. The arms of the guard clattered along the stone floor of the subterranean caverns, and the unhappy victims of the Revolution, roused from the temporary oblivion of sleep, or from dreams of the homes of refinement and luxury from which they had been torn, glared through the iron grating upon the melancholy procession, and uttered last words of adieu to those whose fate they almost envied. The acquittal of the Girondists would have given them some little hope that they also might find mercy. Now they sunk back upon their pillows in despair, and lamentations and wailings filled the prison.

The condemned, now that their fate was sealed, had laid aside all weakness, and, mutually encouraging one another, prepared as martyrs to encounter the last stern trial. They were all placed in one large room opening into several cells, and the lifeless body of their companion was deposited in one of the corners. By a decree of the tribunal, the still warm and bleeding remains of Valaze were to be carried back to the cell, and to be conveyed the next morning, in the same cart with the prisoners, to the guillotine. The ax was to sever the head from the lifeless body, and all the headless trunks were to be interred together.

A wealthy friend, who had escaped proscription, and was concealed in Paris, had agreed to send them a sumptuous banquet the night after their trial, which banquet was to prove to them a funeral repast or a triumphant feast, according to the verdict of acquittal or condemnation.

Their friend kept his word. Soon after the prisoners were remanded to their cell, a table was spread, and preparations were made for their last supper. There was a large oaken table in the prison, where those awaiting their trial, and those awaiting their execution, met for their coarse prison fare. A rich cloth was spread upon that table. Servants entered, bearing brilliant lamps, which illuminated the dismal vault with an unnatural luster, and spread the glare of noon-day light upon the miserable pallets of straw, the rusty iron gratings and chains, and the stone walls weeping with moisture, which no ray of the sun or warmth of fire ever dried away. It was a strange scene, that brilliant festival, in the midst of the gloomy of the most dismal dungeon, with one dead body lying upon the floor, and those for whom the feast was prepared waiting only for the early dawn to light them to their death and burial. The richest viands of meats and wines were brought in and placed before the condemned. Vases of flowers diffused their fragrance and expanded their beauty where flowers were never seen to bloom before. Wan and haggard faces, unwashed and unshorn, gazed upon the unwonted spectacle, as dazzling flambeaux, and rich table furniture, and bouquets, and costly dishes appeared, one after another, until the board was covered with luxury and splendor.

In silence the condemned took their places at the table. They were men of brilliant intellects, of enthusiastic eloquence, thrown suddenly from the heights of power to the foot of the scaffold. A priest, the Abbe Lambert, the intimate personal friend of several of the most eminent of 'the Girondists, had obtained admittance into the prison to accompany his friends to the guillotine, and to administer to them the last consolations of religion. He stood in the corridor, looking through the open door upon those assembled around the table, and, with his pencil in his hand, noted down their words, their gestures, their sighs—their weakness and their strength. It is to him that we are indebted for all knowledge of the sublime scenes enacted at the last supper of the Girondists. The repast was prolonged until the dawn of morning began to steal faintly in at the grated windows of the prison and the gathering tumult without announced the preparations to conduct them to their execution.

Vergniaud, the most prominent and the most eloquent of their number, presided at the feast. He had little, save the love of glory, to bind him to life, for he had neither father nor mother, wife nor child; and he doubted not that posterity would do him justice, and that his death would be the most glorious act of his life. No one could imagine, from the calm and subdued conversation, and the quiet appetite with which these distinguished men partook of the entertainment, that this was their last repast, and but the prelude to a violent death. But when the cloth was removed, and the fruits, the wines and the flowers alone remained, the conversation became animated, gay, and at times rose to hilarity. Several of the youngest men of the party, in sallies of wit and outbursts of laughter, endeavored to repel the gloom which darkened their spirits in view of death on the morrow. It was unnatural gayety, unreal, unworthy of the men. Death is not a jest, and no one can honor himself by trying to make it so. A spirit truly noble can encounter this king of terrors with fortitude, but never with levity. Still, now and then, shouts of laughter and songs of merriment burst from the lips of these young men, as they endeavored, with a kind of hysterical energy, to nerve themselves to show to their enemies their contempt of life and of death. Others were more thoughtful, serene, and truly brave.

"What shall we be doing to-morrow at this time?" said Ducos.

All paused. Religion had its hopes, philosophy its dreams, infidelity its dreary blank. Each answered according to his faith. "We shall sleep after the fatigues of the day," said some, "to wake no more." Atheism had darkened their minds. "Death is an eternal sleep," had become their gloomy creed. They looked forward to the slide of the guillotine as ending all thought, and consigning them back to that non-existence from which they had emerged at their creation. "No!" replied Fauchet, Carra, and others; "annihilation is not our destiny. We are immortal. These bodies may perish. These living thoughts, these boundless aspirations, can never die. To-morrow, far away in other worlds, we shall think, and feel, and act and solve the problems of the immaterial destiny of the human mind." Immortality was the theme. The song was hushed upon these dying lips. The forced laughter fainted away. Standing upon the brink of that dread abyss from whence no one has returned with tidings, every soul felt a longing for immortality. They turned to Vergniaud, whose brilliant intellect, whose soul-moving eloquence, whose spotless life commanded their reverence, and appealed to him for light, and truth, and consolation. His words are lost. The effect of his discourse alone is described. "Never," said the abbe "had his look, his gesture, his language, and his voice more profoundly affected his hearers." In the conclusion of a discourse which is described as one of almost superhuman eloquence, during which some were aroused to the most exalted enthusiasm, all were deeply moved, and many wept, Vergniaud exclaimed,

"Death is but the greatest act of life, since it gives birth to a higher state of existence. Were it not thus there would be something greater than God. It would be the just man immolating himself uselessly and hopelessly for his country. This supposition is a folly of blasphemy, and I repel it with contempt and horror. No! Vergniaud is not greater than God, but God is more just than Vergniaud; and He will not to-morrow suffer him to ascend a scaffold but to justify and avenge him in future ages."

And now the light of day began to stream in at the windows. "Let us go to bed," said one, "and sleep until we are called to go forth to our last sleep. Life is a thing so trifling that it is not worth the hour of sleep we lose in regretting it."

"Let us rather watch," said another, "during the few moments which remain to us. Eternity is so certain and so terrible that a thousand lives would not suffice to prepare for it."

They rose from the table, and most of them retired to their cells and threw themselves upon their beds for a few moments of bodily repose and meditation. Thirteen, however, remained in the larger apartment, finding a certain kind of support in society. In a low tone of voice they conversed with each other. They were worn out with excitement, fatigue, and want of sleep. Some wept. Sleep kindly came to some, and lulled their spirits into momentary oblivion.

At ten o'clock the iron doors grated on their hinges, and the tramp of the gens d'armes, with the clattering of their sabers, was heard reverberating through the gloomy corridors and vaults of their dungeon, as they came, with the executioners, to lead the condemned to the scaffold. Their long hair was out from their necks, that the ax, with unobstructed edge, might do its work. Each one left some simple and affecting souvenir to friends. Gensonné picked up a lock of his black hair, and gave it to the Abbe Lambert to give to his wife "Tell her," said he, "that it is the only memorial of my love which I can transmit to her, and that my last thoughts in death were hers." Vergniaud drew from his pocket his watch, and, with his knife, scratched upon the case a few lines of tender remembrance, and sent the token to a young lady to whom he was devotedly attached, and to whom he was ere long to have been married. Each gave to the abbe some legacy of affection to be conveyed to loved ones who were to be left behind. Few emotions are stronger in the hour of death that the desire to be embalmed in the affections of those who are dear to us.

All being ready, the gens d'armes marched the condemned, in a column, into the prison yard, where five rude carts were awaiting them, to convey them to the scaffold. The countless thousands of Paris were swarming around the prison, filling the court, and rolling, like ocean tides, into every adjacent avenue. Each cart contained five persons, with the exception of the last, into which the dead body of Valaze had been cast with four of his living companions.

And now came to the Girondists their hour of triumph. Heroism rose exultant over all ills. The brilliant sun and the elastic air of an October morning invigorated their bodies, and the scene of sublimity through which they were passing stimulated their spirits to the highest pitch of enthusiasm. As the carts moved from the court-yard, with one simultaneous voice, clear and sonorous, the Girondists burst into the Marseillaise Hymn. The crowd gazed in silence as this funereal chant, not like the wailings of a dirge, but like the strains of an exultant song, swelled and died away upon the air. Here and there some friendly voice among the populace ventured to swell the volume of sound as the significant words were uttered,

"Contre none de la tyrannie

L'étendard sanglat est levé."

"And tyranny has wide unfurl'd

Her blood-stain'd banner in the sky."

At the end of each verse their voices sank for a moment into silence. The strain was then again renewed, loud and sonorous. On arriving at the scaffold, they all embraced in one long, last adieu. It was a token of their communion in death as in life. They then, in concert, loudly and firmly resumed their funereal chant. One ascended the scaffold, continuing the song with his companions. He was bound to the plank. Still his voice was heard full and strong. The plank slowly fell. Still his voice, without a tremor, joined in the triumphant chorus. The glittering ax glided like lightning down the groove. His head fell into the basket, and one voice was hushed forever. Another ascended, and another, and another, each with the song bursting loudly from his lips, till death ended the strain. There was no weakness. No step trembled, no cheek paled, no voice faltered. But each succeeding moment the song grew more faint as head after head fell, and the bleeding bodies were piled side by side. At last one voice alone continued the song. It was that of Vergniaud, the most illustrious of them all. Long confinement had spread deathly pallor over his intellectual features, but firm and dauntless, and with a voice of surpassing richness, he continued the solo into which the chorus had now died away. Without the tremor of a nerve, he mounted the scaffold. For a moment he stood in silence, as he looked down upon the lifeless bodies of his friends, and around upon the overawed multitude gazing in silent admiration upon this heroic enthusiasm. As he then surrendered himself to the executioner, he commended anew the strain,

"Allons! enfans de la patrie,

Le jour de gloire est arrivé"

"Come! children of your country, come!

The day of glory dawns on high."

In the midst of the exultant tones, the ax glided on its bloody mission, and those lips, which had guided the storm of revolution, and whose patriotic appeals had thrilled upon the ear of France, were silent in death. Thus perished the Girondists, the founders of the Republic and its victims. Their votes consigned Louis and Maria to the guillotine, and they were the first to follow them. One cart conveyed the twenty-one bodies away, and they were thrown into one pit, by the side of the grave of Louis XVI.

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


They committed many errors. Few minds could discern distinctly the path of truth and duty through the clouds and vapors of those stormy times. But they were most sincerely devoted to the liberties of France. They overthrew the monarchy, and established the Republic. They died because they refused to open those sluice-ways of blood which the people demanded. A few of the Girondists had made their escape. Petion, Buzot, Barbaroux, and Gaudet wandered in disguise, and hid them selves in the caves of wild and unfrequented mountains. La Fayette, who was one of the most noble and illustrious apostles of this creed, was saved from the guillotine by weary years of imprisonment in the dungeons of Olmutz. Madame Roland lingered in her cell, striving to maintain serenity, while her soul was tortured with the tidings of carnage and woe which every morning's dawn brought to her ears.

The Jacobins were now more and more clamorous for blood. They strove to tear La Fayette from his dungeon, that they might triumph in his death. They pursued, with implacable vigilance, the Girondists who had escaped from their fury. They trained bloodhounds to scent them out in their wild retreats, where they were suffering, from cold and starvation, all that human nature can possibly endure. For a time, five of them lived together in a cavern, thirty feet in depth This cavern had a secret communication with the cellar of a house. Their generous hostess, periling her own life for them, daily supplied them with food. She could furnish them only with the most scanty fare, lest she should be betrayed by the purchase of provisions necessary far so many mouths. It was mid-winter. No fire warmed them in their damp and gloomy vault, and this living burial must have been worse than death. The search became so rigid that it was necessary for then; to disperse. One directed his steps toward the Pyrenees. He was arrested and executed. Three toiled along by night, through cold, and snow, and rain, the keen wind piercing their tattered garments, till their sufferings made them reckless of life. They were arrested, and found, in the blade of the guillotine, a refuge from their woes. At last all were taken and executed but Petion and Buzot. Their fate is involved in mystery. None can tell what their sufferings were during the days and the nights of their weary wanderings, when no eye but that of God could see them. Some peasants found among the mountains, where they had taken refuge, human remains rent in pieces by the wolves. The tattered garments were scattered around where the teeth of the ferocious animals had left them. They were all that was left of the noble Petion and Buzot. But how did they die? Worn out by suffering and abandoned to despair, did they fall by their own hands? Did they perish from exposure to hunger and exhaustion, and the freezing blasts of winter? Or, in their weakness, were they attacked by the famished wolves of the mountains? The dying scene of Petion and Buzot is involved in impenetrable obscurity. Its tragic accompaniments can only be revealed when all mysteries shall be unfolded.