Madame Roland - John S. C. Abbott

Madame Roland and the Jacobins

The Prussians were now advancing on their march to Paris. One after another of the frontier cities of France were capitulating to the invaders as the storm of bomb-shells, from the batteries of the allied army, was rained down upon their roofs. The French were retreating before their triumphant adversaries. Sanguine hopes sprung up in the bosoms of the friends of the monarchy that the artillery of the Prussians would soon demolish the iron doors of the Temple, where the king and the royal family were imprisoned, and reinstate the captive monarch upon his throne. The Revolutionists were almost frantic in view of their peril. They knew that there were tens of thousands in Paris, of the most wealthy and the most influential, and hundreds of thousands in France, who would, at the slightest prospect of success, welcome the Prussians as their deliverers. Should the king thus prove victorious, the leaders in the revolutionary movement had sinned too deeply to hope for pardon. Death was their inevitable doom. Consternation pervaded the metropolis. The magnitude of this peril united all the revolutionary parties for their common defense. Even Vergniaud, the most eloquent leader of the Girondists, proposed a decree of death against every citizen of a besieged city who should speak of surrender.

It was midnight in the Assembly. The most extraordinary and despotic measures were adopted by acclamation to meet the fearful emergence. "We must rouse the whole populace of France," exclaimed Danton, in those tones which now began to thrill so portentously upon the ear of Europe, "and hurl them, en masse, upon our invaders. There are traitors in Paris, ready to join our foes. We must arrest them all, however numerous they may be. The peril is imminent. The precautions adopted must be correspondingly prompt and decisive. With the morning sun we must visit every dwelling in Paris, and imprison those whom we have reason to fear will join the enemies of the nation, even though they be thirty thousand in number."

The decree passed without hesitation. The gates of Paris were to be locked, that none might escape. Carriages were to be excluded from the streets. All citizens were ordered to be at home. The sections, the tribunals, the clubs were to suspend their sittings, that the public attention might not be distracted. All houses were to be brilliantly lighted in the evening, that the search might be more effectually conducted. Commissaries, accompanied by armed soldiers, were, in the name of the law, to enter every dwelling. Each citizen should show what arms he had. If any thing excited suspicion, the individual and his premises were to be searched with the utmost vigilance. If the slightest deception had been practiced, in denying or in not fully confessing any suspicious appearances, the person was to be arrested and imprisoned. If a person were found in any dwelling but his own, he was to be imprisoned as under suspicion. Guards were to be placed in all unoccupied houses. A double cordon of soldiers were stationed around the walls, to arrest all who should attempt to escape. Armed boats floated upon the Seine, at the two extremities of Paris, that every possible passage of escape might be closed. Gardens, groves, promenades, all were to be searched.

With so much energy was this work conducted, that that very night a body of workmen were sent, with torches and suitable tools, to open an access to the subterranean burial-grounds extending under a portion of Paris, that a speedy disposal might be made of the anticipated multitude of dead bodies. The decree, conveying terror to ten thousand bosoms, spread with the rapidity of lightning through the streets and the dwellings of Paris. Every one who had expressed a sentiment of loyalty; every one who had a friend who was an emigrant or a loyalist; every one who had uttered a word of censure in reference to the sanguinary atrocities of the Revolution; every one who inherited an illustrious name, or who had an unfriendly neighbor or an inimical servant, trembled at the swift approach of the impending doom.

Bands of men, armed with pikes, brought into power from the dregs of society, insolent, merciless, and resistless, accompanied by martial music, traversed the streets in all directions. As the commissaries knocked at a door, the family within were pale and paralyzed with terror. The brutal inquisitors appeared to delight in the anguish which their stern office extorted, and the more refined the family in culture or the more elevated in rank, the more severely did vulgarity in power trample them in the dust of humiliation. They took with them workmen acquainted with all possible modes of concealment. They broke locks, burst in panels, cut open beds and mattresses, tore up floors, sounded wells, explored garrets and cellars for secret doors and vaults, and could they find in any house an individual whom affection or hospitality had sheltered, a rusty gun, an old picture of any member of the royal family, a button with the royal arms, a letter from a suspected person, or containing a sentiment against the "Reign of Terror," the father was instantly and rudely torn from his home, his wife, his children, and hurried with ignominious violence, as a traitor unfit to live, through the streets, to the prison. It was a night of woe in Paris.

The friends of the monarchy soon found all efforts at concealment unavailing. They had at first crept into chimneys, from which they were soon smoked out. They had concealed themselves behind tapestry. But pikes and bayonets were with derision thrust through their bodies. They had burrowed in holes in the cellars, and endeavored to blind the eye of pursuit by coverings of barrels, or lumber, or wood, or coal. But the stratagems of affection were equally matched by the sagacity of revolutionary phrensy, and the doomed were dragged to light. Many of the Royalists had fled to the hospitals, where, in the wards of infection, they shared the beds of the dead and the dying. But even there they were followed and arrested. The domiciliary visits were continued for three days. "The whole city was like a prisoner, whose limbs are held while he is searched and fettered." Ten thousand suspected persons were seized and committed to the prisons. Many were massacred in their dwellings or in the streets. Some were subsequently liberated, as having been unjustly arrested.

Thirty priests were dragged into a room at the Hotel de Ville. Five coaches, each containing six of the obnoxious prisoners, started to convey them to the prison of the Abbaye. A countless mob gathered around them as an alarm-gun gave the signal for the coaches to proceed on their way. The windows were open that the populace might see those whom they deemed traitors to their country, and whom they believed to be ready to join the army of invasion, now so triumphantly approaching. Every moment the mob increased in density and with difficulty the coaches wormed their way through the tumultuous gatherings. Oaths and execrations rose on every side. Gestures and threats of violence were fearfully increasing, when a vast multitude of men and women and boys came roaring down a cross-street, and so completely blocked up the way that a peaceful passage was impossible. The carriages stopped. A man with his shirt-sleeves rolled up to the elbows, and a glittering saber in his hand forced his way through the escort, and deliberately standing upon the steps of one of the coaches, clinging with one hand to the door, plunged again, and again, and again his saber into the bodies of the priests, wherever chance might direct it. He drew it out reeking with blood, and waved it before the people. A hideous yell of applause rose from the multitude, and again he plunged his saber into the carriage. The assassin then passed to the next coach, and again enacted the same act of horrid butchery upon the struggling priests crowded into the carriages, with no shield and with no escape. Thus he went, from one to the other, through the whole line of coaches, while the armed escort looked on with derisive laughter, and shouts of fiendish exultation rose from the phrensied multitude.

The mounted troops slowly forced open a passage for the carriages, and they moved along, marking their passage by the streams of brood which dripped, from their dead and dying inmates, upon the pavements. When they arrived at the prison, eight dead bodies were dragged from the floor of the vehicles, and many of those not dead were horridly mutilated and clotted with gore. The wretched victims precipitated themselves with the utmost consternation into the prison, as a retreat from the billows of rage surging and roaring around them.

But the scene within was still more terrible than that without. In the spacious hall opening into the courtyard of the prison there was a table, around which sat twelve men. Their brawny limbs, and coarse and brutal countenances, proclaimed them familiar with debauch and blood. Their attire was that of the lowest class in society, with woolen caps on their heads, shirt sleeves rolled up, unembarrassed by either vest or coat, and butchers' aprons bound around them. At the head of the table sat Maillard, at that time the idol of the blood-thirsty mob of Paris. These men composed a self-constituted tribunal to award life or instant death to those brought before them. First appeared one hundred and fifty Swiss officers and soldiers who had been in the employ of the king. They were brought en masse  before the tribunal. "You have assassinated the people," said Maillard, "and they demand vengeance." The door was open. The assassins in the court-yard, with weapons reeking with blood, were howling for their prey. The soldiers were driven into the yard, and they full beneath the blows of bayonets, sabers, and clubs, and their gory bodies were piled up, a hideous mound, in the corners of the court. The priests, without delay, met with the same fate. A moment sufficed for trial, and verdict, and execution. Night came. Brandy and excitement had roused the demon in the human heart. Life was a plaything, murder a pastime. Torches were lighted, refreshments introduced, songs of mirth and joviality rose upon the night air, and still the horrid carnage continued unabated. Now and then, from caprice, one was liberated; but the innocent and the guilty fell alike. Suspicion was crime. An illustrious name was guilt. There was no time for defense. A frown from the judge was followed by a blow from the assassin. A similar scene was transpiring in all the orisons of Paris.

Carts were continually arriving to remove the dead bodies, which accumulated much faster than they could be borne away. The court-yards became wet and slippery with blood. Straw was brought in and strewn thickly over the stones, and benches were placed against the walls to accommodate those women who wished to gaze upon the butchery. The benches were immediately filled with females, exulting in the death of all whom they deemed tainted with aristocracy, and rejoicing to see the exalted and the refined falling beneath the clubs of the ragged and the degraded. The murderers made use of the bodies of the dead for seats, upon which they drank their brandy mingled with gunpowder, and smoked their pipes. In the nine prisons of Paris these horrors continued unabated till they were emptied of their victims. Men most illustrious in philanthropy, dank, and virtue, were brained with clubs by overgrown boys, who accompanied their blows with fiendish laughter. Ladies of the highest accomplishments, of exalted beauty and of spotless purity, were hacked in pieces by the lowest wretches who had crawled from the dens of pollution, and their dismembered limbs were borne on the points of pikes in derision through the streets of the metropolis. Children, even, were involved in this blind slaughter. They were called the cubs of aristocracy.

We can not enter more minutely into the details of these sickening scenes, for the soul turns from them weary of life; and yet thus far we must go, for it is important that all eyes should read this dreadful yet instructive lesson—that all may know that there is no despotism so dreadful as the despotism of anarchy—that there are no laws more to be abhorred than the absence of all law.

In the prison of the Bicetre there were three thousand five hundred captives. The ruffians forced the gates, drove in the dungeon doors with cannon, and for five days and five nights continued the slaughter. The phrensy of the intoxicated mob increased each day, and hordes came pouring out from all the foul dens of pollution greedy for carnage. The fevered thirst for blood was inextinguishable. No tongue can now tell the number of the victims. The mangled bodies were hurried to the catacombs, and thrown into an indiscriminate heap of corruption. By many it is estimated that more than ten thousand fell during these massacres. The tidings of these outrages spread through all the provinces of France, and stimulated to similar atrocities the mob in every city. At Orleans the houses of merchants were sacked, the merchants and others of wealth or high standing massacred, while some who had offered resistance were burned at slow fires.

In one town, in the vicinity of the Prussian army, some Loyalist gentlemen, sanguine in view of the success of their friends, got up an entertainment in honor of their victories. At this entertainment their daughters danced. The young ladies were all arrested, fourteen in number, and taken in a cart to the guillotine. These young and beautiful girls, all between the ages of fourteen and eighteen, and from the most refined and opulent families, were beheaded. The group of youth and innocence stood clustered at the foot of the scaffold, while, one by one, their companions ascended, were bound to the plank, the ax fell, and their heads dropped into the basket. It seems that there must have been some supernatural power of support to have sustained children under so awful an ordeal. There were no faintings, no loud lamentations, no shrieks of despair. With the serenity of martyrs they met their fate, each one emulous of showing to her companions how much like a heroine she could die.

These scenes were enacted at the instigation of the Jacobins. Danton and Marat urged on these merciless measures of lawless violence. "We must," said they, "strike terror into the hearts of our foes. It is our only safety." They sent agents into the most degraded quarters of the city to rouse and direct the mob. They voted abundant supplies to the wretched assassins who had broken into the prisons, and involved youth and age, and innocence and guilt, in indiscriminate carnage. The murderers, reeking in intoxication and besmeared with blood, came in crowds to the door of the municipality to claim their reward. "Do you think," said a brawny, gigantic wretch, with tucked-up sleeves, in the garb of a butcher, and with his whole person bespattered with blood and brains, "do you think that I have earned but twenty-four francs to-day? I have killed forty aristocrats with my own hands!" The money was soon exhausted, and still the crowd of assassins thronged the committee. Indignant that their claims were not instantly discharged, they presented their bloody weapons at the throats of their instigators, and threatened them with immediate death if the money were not furnished. Thus urged, the committee succeeded in paying one half the sum, and gave bonds for the rest.

M. Roland was almost frantic in view of these horrors, which he had no power to quell. The mob, headed by the Jacobins, had now the complete ascendency, and he was minister but in name. He urged upon the Assembly the adoption of immediate and energetic measures to arrest these execrable deeds of lawless violence. Many of the Girondists in the Assembly gave vehement but unavailing utterance to their execration of the massacres. Others were intimidated by the weapon which the Jacobins were now so effectually wielding; for they knew that it might not be very difficult so to direct the fury of the mob as to turn those sharp blades, now dripping with blood, from the prisons into the hall of Assembly, and upon the throats of all obnoxious to Jacobin power. The Girondists trembled in view of their danger. They had aided in opening the sluice-ways of a torrent which was now sweeping every thing before it. Madame Roland distinctly saw and deeply felt the peril to which she and her friends were exposed. She knew, and they all knew, that defeat was death. The great struggle now in the Assembly was for the popular voice.

The Girondists hoped, though almost in despair, that it was not yet too late to show the people the horrors of anarchy, and to rally around themselves the multitude to sustain a well-established and law-revering republic. The Jacobins determined to send their opponents to the scaffold, and by the aid of the terrors of the mob, now enlisted on their side, resistlessly to carry all their measures. A hint from the Jacobin leaders surrounded the Assembly with the hideous howlings of a haggard concourse of beings just as merciless and demoniac as lost spirits. They exhibited these allies to the Girondists as a bull-dog shows his teeth.

In speeches, and placards, and proclamations they declared the Girondists to be, in heart, the enemies of the Republic. They accused them of hating the Revolution in consequence of its necessary severity, and of plotting in secret for the restoration of the king. With great adroitness, they introduced measures which the Girondists must either support, and thus aid the Jacobins, or oppose, and increase the suspicion of the populace, and rouse their rage against them. The allied army, with seven thousand French emigrants and over a hundred thousand highly-disciplined troops, under the most able and experienced generals, was slowly but surly advancing toward Paris, to release the king, replace him on the throne, and avenge the insults to royalty. The booming of their artillery was heard reverberating among the hills of France, ever drawing nearer and nearer to the insurgent metropolis, and sending consternation into all hearts. Under these circumstances, the Jacobins, having massacred those deemed the friends of the aristocrats, now gathered their strength to sweep before them all their adversaries. They passed a decree ordering every man in Paris, capable of bearing arms, to shoulder his musket and march to the frontiers to meet the invaders. If money was wanted, it was only necessary to send to the guillotine the aristocrat who possessed it, and to confiscate his estate.

Robespierre and Danton had now broken off all intimacy with Madame Roland and her friends. They no longer appeared in the little library where the Girondist leaders so often met, but placing themselves at the head of the unorganized and tumultuous party now so rapidly gaining the ascendency, they were swept before it as the crest is borne by the billow. Madame Roland urged most strenuously upon her friends that those persons in the Assembly, the leaders of the Jacobin party, who had instigated the massacres in the prisons, should be accused, and brought to trial and punishment. It required peculiar boldness, at that hour, to accuse Robespierre and Danton of crime. Though thousands in France were horror-stricken at these outrages, the mob, who now ruled Paris, would rally instantaneously at the sound of the tocsin for the protection of their idols.

Madame Roland was one evening urging Vergniaud to take that heroic and desperate stand. "The only hope for France," said she "is in the sacredness of law. This atrocious carnage causes thousands of bosoms to thrill with horror, and all the wise and the good in France and in the world will rise to sustain those who expose their own hearts as a barrier to arrest such enormities."

"Of what avail," was the reply, in tones of sadness, "can such exertions be? The assassins are supported by all the power of the street. Such a conflict must necessarily terminate in a street fight. The cannon are with our foes. The most prominent of the friends of order are massacred. Terror will restrain the rest. We shall only provoke our own destruction."

"Of what use is life," rejoins the intrepid woman, "if we must, live in this base subjection to a degraded mob? Let us contend for the right, and if we must die, let us rejoice to die with dignity and with heroism."

Though despairing of success, and apprehensive that their own doom was already sealed, M. Roland and Vergniaud, roused to action by this ruling spirit, the next day made their appearance in the Assembly with the heroic resolve to throw themselves before the torrent now rushing so wildly. They stood there, however, but the representatives of Madame Roland, inspired by her energies, and giving utterance to those eloquent sentiments which had burst from her lips.

The Assembly listened in silence as M. Roland, in an energetic discourse, proclaimed the true principles of law and order, and called upon the Assembly to defend its own dignity against popular violence, and to raise an armed force consecrated to the security of liberty and justice. Encouraged by these appearances of returning moderation, others of the Girondists rose, and, with great boldness and vehemence, urged decisive action. "It requires some courage," said Kersaint, to rise up here against assassins, but it is time to erect scaffolds for those who provoke assassination." The strife continued for two or three days, with that intense excitement which a conflict for life or death must necessarily engender. The question between the Girondist and the Jacobin was, "Who shall lie down on the guillotine?" For some time the issue of the struggle was uncertain. The Jacobins summoned their allies, the mob. They surrounded the doors and the windows of the Assembly, and with their howlings sustained their friends. "I have just passed through the crowd," said a member, "and have witnessed its excitement. If the act of accusation is carried, many a head will lie low before another morning dawns." The Girondists found themselves, at the close of the struggle, defeated, yet not so decidedly but that they still clung to hope.

M. Roland, who had not yet entirely lost, with the people, that popularity which swept him, on so triumphant a billow, again into the office of Minister of the Interior, now, conscious of his utter impotency, presented to the Assembly his resignation of power which was merely nominal. Great efforts had for some time been made, by his adversaries, to turn the tide of popular hatred against him, and especially against his wife, whom Danton and Robespierre recognized and proclaimed as the animating and inspiring soul of the Girondist party.

The friends of Roland urged, with high encomiums upon his character, that he should be invited to retain his post. The sentiment of the Assembly was wavering in his favor. Danton, excessively annoyed, arose and said, with a sneer, "I oppose the invitation. Nobody appreciates M. Roland more justly than myself. But if you give him this invitation, you must give his wife one also. Every one knows that M. Roland is not alone in his department. As for myself, in my department I am alone. I have no wife to help me."

These indecorous and malicious allusions were received with shouts of derisive laughter from the Jacobin benches. The majority, however, frowned upon Danton with deep reproaches for such an attack upon a lady. One of the Girondists immediately ascended the tribune. "What signifies it to the country," said he, "whether Roland possesses an intelligent wife, who inspires him with her additional energy, or whether he acts from his own resolution alone?" The defense was received with much applause.

The next day, Roland, as Minister of the Interior, presented a letter to the Convention, expressing his determination to continue in office. It was written by Madame Roland in strains of most glowing eloquence, and in the spirit of the loftiest heroism and the most dignified defiance. "The Convention is wise," said this letter, "in not giving a solemn invitation to a man to remain in the ministry. It would attach too great importance to a name. But the deliberation honors me, and clearly pronounces the desire of the Convention. That wish satisfies me. It opens to me the career. I espouse it with courage. I remain in the ministry. I remain because there are perils to face. I am not blind to them, but I brave them fearlessly. The salvation of my country is the object in view. To that I devote myself, even to death. I am accused of wanting courage. Is no courage requisite in these times in denouncing the protectors of assassins?"

Thus Madame Roland, sheltered in the seclusion of her library, met, in spirit, in the fierce struggle of the tribune, Robespierre, Danton, and Marat. They knew from whose shafts these keen arrows were shot. The Girondists knew to whom they were indebted for many of the most skillful parries and retaliatory blows. The one party looked to her almost with adoration; the other, with implacable hate. Never before, probably, in the history of the world, has a woman occupied such a position, and never by a woman will such a position be occupied again. Danton began to recoil from the gulf opening before him, and wished to return to alliance with the Girondists. He expressed the most profound admiration for the talents, energy, and sagacity of Madame Roland. "We must act together," said he, "or the wave of the Revolution will overwhelm us all. United, we can stem it. Disunited, it will overpower to." Again he appeared in the library of Madame Roland, in a last interview with the Girondists. He desired a coalition. They could not agree. Danton insisted that they must overlook the massacres, and give at least an implied assent to their necessity. "We will agree to all," said the Girondist, "except impunity to murderers and their accomplices." The conference was broken up. Danton, irritated, withdrew, and placed himself by the side of Robespierre. Again the Jacobins and the Girondists prepared for the renewal of their struggle. It was not a struggle for power merely, but for life. The Girondists, knowing that the fury of the Revolution would soon sweep over every thing, unless they could bring back the people to a sense of justice—would punish with the scaffold those who had incited the massacre of thousands of uncondemned citizens. The Jacobins would rid themselves of their adversaries by overwhelming them in the same carnage to which they had consigned the Loyalists. Madame Roland might have fled from these perils, and have retired with her husband to regions of tranquillity and of safety but she urged M. Roland to remain at his post and resolved to remain herself and meet her destiny, whatever it might be. Never did a mortal face danger, with a full appreciation of its magnitude, with more stoicism than was exhibited by this most ardent and enthusiastic of women.