Madame Roland - John S. C. Abbott

The Ministry of M. Roland

From all the spacious apartments of the magnificent mansion allotted is the residence of the Minister of the Interior, Madame Roland selected a small and retired parlor, which she had furnished with every attraction as a library and a study. This was her much-loved retreat, and here M. Roland, in the presence of his wife, was accustomed to see his friends in all their confidential intercourse. Thus she was not only made acquainted with all the important occurrences of the times, but she formed an intimate personal acquaintance with the leading actors in these eventful movements. Louis, adopting a vacillating policy in his endeavors to conciliate each party was losing the confidence and the support of all. The Girondists, foreseeing the danger which threatened the king and all the institutions of government, were anxious that he should be persuaded to abandon these mistaken measures, and firmly and openly advocate the reforms which had already taken place. They felt that if he would energetically take his stand in the position which the Girondists had assumed, there was still safety for himself and the nation. The Girondists, at this time, wished to sustain the throne, but they wished to limit its power and surround it by the institutions of republican liberty. The king, animated by his far more strong-minded, energetic, and ambitious queen, was slowly and reluctantly surrendering point by point as the pressure of the multitude compelled, while he was continually hoping that some change in affairs would enable him to regain his lost power.

The position of the Girondists began to be more and more perilous. The army of emigrant nobles at Coblentz, within the dominions of the King of Prussia, was rapidly increasing in numbers. Frederic was threatening, in alliance with all the most powerful crowns of Europe, to march with a resistless army to Paris, reinstate the king in his lost authority, and take signal vengeance upon the leaders of the Revolution. There were hundreds of thousands in France, the most illustrious in rank and opulence, who would join such an army. The Roman Catholic priesthood, to a man, would lend to it the influence of all its spiritual authority. Paris was every hour agitated by rumors of the approach of the armies of invasion. The people all believed that Louis wished to escape from Paris and head that army. The king was spiritless, undecided, and ever vacillating in his plans. Maria Antoinette would have gone through fire and blood to have rallied those hosts around her banner. Such was the position of the Girondists in reference to the Royalists. They were ready to adopt the most energetic measures to repel the interference of this armed confederacy.

On the other hand, they saw another party, noisy, turbulent, sanguinary, rising beneath them, and threatening with destruction all connected in any way with the execrated throne. This new party, now emerging from the lowest strata of society, upheaving all its superincumbent masses, consisted of the wan, the starving, the haggard, the reckless. All of the abandoned and the dissolute rallied beneath its banners They called themselves the people. Amazonian fish-women; overgrown boys, with the faces and the hearts of demons; men and girls, who had no homes but the kennels of Paris, in countless thousands swelled its demonstrations of power, whenever it pleased its leaders to call them out. This was the Jacobin party.

The Girondists trembled before this mysterious apparition now looming up before them, and clamoring for the overthrow of all human distinctions. The crown had been struck from the head of the king, and was snatched at by the most menial and degraded of his subjects. The Girondists, through Madame Roland, urged the Minister of the Interior that he should demand of the king an immediate proclamation of war against the emigrants and their supporters, and that he should also issue a decree against the Catholic clergy who would not support the measures of the Revolution. It was, indeed, a bitter draught for the king to drink. Louis declared that he would rather die than sign such a decree. The pressure of the populace was so tremendous, displayed in mobs, and conflagrations, and massacres, that these decisive measures seemed absolutely indispensable for the preservation of the Girondist party and the safety of the king. M. Roland was urged to present to the throne a most earnest letter of expostulation and advice. Madame Roland sat down at her desk and wrote the letter for her husband. It was expressed in that glowing and impassioned style so eminently at her command. Its fervid eloquence was inspired by the foresight she had of impending perils. M. Roland, impressed by its eloquence, yet almost trembling in view of its boldness and its truths, presented the letter to the king. Its last paragraphs will give one some idea of its character.

"Love, serve the Revolution, and the people will love it and serve it in you. Deposed priests agitate the provinces. Ratify the measures to extirpate their fanaticism. Paris trembles in view of its danger. Surround its walls with an army of defense. Delay longer, and you will be deemed a conspirator and an accomplice. Just Heaven! hast thou stricken kings with blindness? I know that truth is rarely welcomed at the foot of thrones. I know, too, that the withholding of truth from kings renders revolutions so often necessary. As a citizen, a minister, I owe truth to the king, and nothing shall prevent me from making it reach his ear."

The advice contained in this letter was most unpalatable to the enfeebled monarch. The adoption of the course it recommended was apparently his only chance of refuge from certain destruction. We must respect the magnanimity of the king in refusing to sign the decree against the firmest friends of his throne, and we must also respect those who were struggling against despotic power for the establishment of civil and religious freedom. When we think of the king and his suffering family, our sympathies are so enlisted in behalf of their woes that we condemn the letter as harsh and unfeeling. When we think for how many ages the people of France had been crushed into poverty and debasement, we rejoice to hear stern and uncompromising truth fall upon the ear of royalty. And yet Madame Roland's letter rather excites our admiration for her wonderful abilities than allures us to her by developments of female loveliness. This celebrated letter was presented to the king on the 11th of June, 1792. On the same day M. Roland received a letter from the king informing him that he was dismissed from office. It is impossible to refrain from applauding the king for this manifestation of spirit and self-respect. Had he exhibited more of this energy, he might at least have had the honor of dying more gloriously; but, as the intrepid wife of the minister dictated the letter to the king, we can not doubt that it was the imperious wife of the king who dictated the dismissal in reply. Maria Antoinette and Madame Roland met as Greek meets Greek.

"Here am I, dismissed from office," was M. Roland's exclamation to his wife on his return home.

"Present your letter to the Assembly, that the nation may see for what counsel you have been dismissed," replied the undaunted wife.

M. Roland did so. He was received as a martyr to patriotism. The letter was read amid the loudest applauses. It was ordered to be printed, and circulated by tens of thousands through the eighty-three departments of the kingdom; and from all those departments there came rolling back upon the metropolis the echo of the most tumultuous indignation and applause. The famous letter was read by all France—nay, more, by all Europe. Roland was a hero. The plaudits of the million fell upon the ear of the defeated minister, while the excoriations of the million rose more loudly and ominously around the tottering throne. This blow, struck by Madame Roland, was by far the heaviest the throne of France had yet received. She who so loved to play the part of a heroine was not at all dismayed by defeat, when it came with such an aggrandizement of power. Upon this wave of enthusiastic popularity Madame Roland and her husband retired from the magnificent palace where they had dwelt for so short a time, and with a little pardonable ostentation, selected for their retreat very humble apartments in an apparently obscure street of the agitated metropolis. It was the retirement of a philosopher proud of the gloom of his garret. But M. Roland and wife were more powerful now than ever before. The famous letter had placed them in the front ranks of the friends of reform, and enshrined them in the hearts of the ever fickle populace. Even the Jacobins were compelled to swell the universal voice of commendation. M. Roland's apartments were ever thronged. All important plans were discussed and shaped by him and his wife before they were presented in the Assembly.

There was a young statesman then in Paris named Barbaroux, of remarkable beauty of person, and of the richest mental endowments. The elegance of his stature and the pensive melancholy of his classic features invested him with a peculiar power of fascination. Between him and Madame Roland there existed the most pure, though the strongest friendship. One day he was sitting with M. Roland and wife, in social conference upon the desperate troubles of the times, when the dismissed minister said to him, "What is to be done to save France? There is no army upon which we can rely to resist invasion. Unless we can circumvent the plots of the court, all we have gained is lost. In six weeks the Austrians will be at Paris. Have we, then, labored at the most glorious of revolutions for so many years, to see it overthrown in a single day? If liberty dies in France, it is lost forever to mankind. All the hopes of philosophy are deceived. Prejudice and tyranny will again grasp the world. Let us prevent this misfortune. If the armies of despotism overrun the north of France, let us retire to the southern provinces, and there establish a republic of freemen."

The tears glistened in the eyes of his wife as she listened to this bold proposal, so heroic in its conception, so full of hazard, and demanding such miracles of self-sacrifice and devotion. Madame Roland, who perhaps originally suggested the idea to her husband, urged it with all her impassioned energy. Barbaroux was just the man to have his whole soul inflamed by an enterprise of such grandeur. He drew a rapid sketch of the resources and hopes of liberty the south, and, taking a map, traced the limits of the republic, from the Doubs, the Aire, and the Rhone, to La Dordogne; and from the inaccessible mountains of Auvergne, to Durance and the sea. A serene joy passed over the features of the three, thus quietly originating a plan which was, with an earthquake's power, to make every throne in Europe tottle, and to convulse Christendom to its very center. Barbaroux left them deeply impressed with a sense of the grandeur and the perils of the enterprise, and remarked to a friend, "Of all the men of modern times, Roland seems to me most to resemble Cato; but it must be owned that it is to his wife that his courage and talents are due." Previous to this hour the Girondists had wished to sustain the throne, and merely to surround it with free institutions. They had taken the government of England for their model. From this day the Girondists, freed from all obligations to the king, conspired secretly in Madame Roland's chamber, and publicly in the tribune, for the entire overthrow of the monarchy, and the establishment of a republic like that of the United States. They rivaled the Jacobins in the endeavor to see who could strike the heaviest blows against the throne. It was now a struggle between life and death. The triumph of the invading army would be the utter destruction of all connected with the revolutionary movement. And thus did Madame Roland exert an influence more powerful, perhaps, than that of any other one mind in the demolition of the Bourbon despotism.

Her influence over the Girondist party was such as no man ever can exert. Her conduct, frank and open-hearted, was irreproachable, ever above even the slightest suspicion of indiscretion. She could not be insensible to the homage, the admiration of those she gathered around her. Buzot adored Madame Roland as the inspiration of his mind, as the idol of his worship. She had involuntarily gained that entire ascendency over his whole being which made her the world to him. The secret of this resistless enchantment was concealed until her death; it was then disclosed, and revealed the mystery of a spiritual conflict such as few can comprehend. She writes of Buzot, "Sensible, cadent, melancholy, he seems born to give and share happiness. This man would forget the universe in the sweetness of private virtues. Capable of sublime impulses and unvarying affections, the vulgar, who like to depreciate what it can not equal, accuse him of being a dreamer. Of sweet countenance, elegant figure, there is always in his attire that care, neatness, and propriety which announce the respect of self as well as of others. While the dregs of the nation elevate the flatterers and corrupters of the people to station—while cut-throats swear, drink, and clothe themselves in rags, in order to fraternize with the populace, Buzot possesses the morality of Socrates, and maintains the decorum of Scipio. So they pull down his house, and banish him as they did Aristides. I am astonished that they have not issued a decree that his name should be forgotten."

These words Madame Roland wrote in her dungeon the night before her execution. Buzot was then an exile, pursued by unrelenting fury, and concealed in the caves of St. Emilion. When the tidings reached him of the death of Madame Roland, he fell to the ground as if struck by lightning. For many days he was in a state of phrensy, and was never again restored to cheerfulness.

Danton now appeared in the saloon of Madame Roland, with his gigantic stature, and shaggy hair, and voice of thunder, and crouched at the feet of this mistress of hearts, whom his sagacity perceived was soon again to be the dispenser of power. She comprehended at a glance his herculean abilities, and the important aid he could render the Republican cause. She wished to win his co-operation, and at first tried to conciliate him, "as a woman would pat a lion;" but soon, convinced of his heartlessness and utter want of principle, she spurned him with abhorrence. He subsequently endeavored, again and again, to reinstate himself in her favor, but in vain. Every hour scenes of new violence were being enacted in Paris and throughout all France. Roland was the idol of the nation. The famous letter was the subject of universal admiration. The outcry against his dismission was falling in thunder tones on the ear of the king. This act had fanned to increased intensity those flames of revolutionary phrensy which were now glaring with portentous flashes in every part of France. The people, intoxicated and maddened by the discovery of their power, were now arrayed, with irresistible thirstings for destruction and blood, against the king, the court, and the nobility. The royal family, imprisoned in the Tuileries, were each day drinking of the cup of humiliation to its lowest dregs. Austria and Prussia, united with the emigrants at Coblentz, prepared to march to Paris to reinstate the king upon his throne. Excitement, consternation, phrensy, pervaded all hearts. A vast assemblage of countless thousands of women, and boys, and wan and starving men, gathered in the streets of Paris. Harangues against the king and the aristocrats rendered them delirious with rage. They crowded all the avenues to the Tuileries, burst through the gates and over the walls, dashed down the doors and stove in the windows, and, with obscene ribaldry, rioted through all the apartments sacred to royalty. They thrust the dirty red cap of Jacobinism upon the head of the icing. They poured into the ear of the humiliated queen the most revolting and loathsome execrations. There was no hope for Louis but in the recall of M. Roland. The court party could give him no protection. The Jacobins were upon him in locust legions. M. Roland alone could bring the Girondists, as a shield, between the throne and the mob. He was recalled, and again moved, in calm triumph, from his obscure chambers to the regal palace of the minister. If Madame Roland's letter dismissed him from office, her letter also restored him again with an enormous accumulation of power.

His situation was not an enviable one. Elevated as it was in dignity and influence, it was full of perplexity, toil, and peril. The spirit of revolution was now rampant, and no earthy power could stay it. It was inevitable that those who would not recklessly ride upon its billows must be overwhelmed by its resistless surges. Madame Roland was far more conscious of the peril than her husband. With intense emotion, but calmly and firmly, she looked upon the gathering storm. The peculiarity of her character, and her great moral courage, was illustrated by the mode of life she vigorously adopted. Raised from obscurity to a position so commanding, with rank and wealth bowing obsequiously around her, she was entirely undazzled, and resolved that, consecrating all her energies to the demands of the tempestuous times, she would waste no time in fashionable parties and heartless visits. "My love of study," she said, "is as great as my detestation of cards, and the society of silly people affords me no amusement." Twice a week she gave a dinner to the members of the ministry, and other influential men in the political world, with whom her husband wished to converse. The palace was furnished to their hands by its former occupants with Oriental luxury. Selecting for her own use, as before, one of the smallest parlors, she furnished it as her library. Here she lived, engrossed in study, busy with her pen, and taking an unostentatious and unseen, but most active part, in all those measures which were literally agitating the whole civilized world. Her little library was the sanctuary for all confidential conversation upon matters of state. Here her husband met his political friends to mature their measures. The gentlemen gathered, evening after evening, around the table in the center of the room, M. Roland, with his serene, reflective brow, presiding at their head, while Madame Roland, at her work-table by the fireside, employed herself with her needle or her pen. Her mind, however, was absorbed by the conversation which was passing. M. Roland, in fact, in giving his own views, was but recapitulating those sentiments with which his mind was imbued from previous conference with his companion.

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


It is not possible that one endowed with the ardent and glowing imagination of Madame Roland should not, at times, feel inwardly the spirit of exultation in the consciousness of this vast power. From the windows of her palace she looked down upon the shop of the mechanic to where her infancy was cradled, and upon those dusty streets where she had walked an obscure child, while proud aristocracy swept by her in splendor—that very aristocracy looking now imploringly to her for a smile. She possessed that peculiar tact, which enabled her often to guide the course of political measures without appearing to do so. She was only anxious to promote the glory of her husband, and was never more happy than when he was receiving plaudits for works which she had performed. She wrote many of his proclamations, his letters, his state papers, and with all the glowing fervor of an enthusiastic woman. "Without me," she writes, "my husband would have been quite as good a minister, for his knowledge, his activity, his integrity were all his own; but with me he attracted more attention, because I infused into his writings that mixture of spirit and gentleness, of authoritative reason and seducing sentiment, which is, perhaps, only to be found in the language of a woman who has a clear head and a feeling heart." This frank avowal of just self-appreciation is not vanity. A vain woman could not have won the love and homage of so many of the noblest men of France.

A curious circumstance occurred at this time, which forcibly and even ludicrously struck Madame Roland's mind, as she reflected upon the wonderful changes of life, and the peculiar position which she now occupied. Some French artists had been imprisoned by the pope at Rome. The Executive Council of France wished to remonstrate and demand their release. Madame Roland sat down to write the letter, severe and authoritative, to his holiness, threatening him with the severest vengeance if he refused to comply with the request. As in her little library she prepared this communication to the head of the Papal States and of the Catholic Church, she paused, with her pen in her hand, and reflected upon her situation but a few years before as the humble daughter of an engraver. She recalled to mind the emotions of superstitious awe and adoration with which, in the nunnery, she had regarded his holiness as next to the Deity, and almost his equal. She read over some of the imperious passages which she had now addressed to the pope in the unaffected dignity of conscious power, and the contrast was so striking, and struck her as so ludicrous, that she burst into an uncontrollable paroxysm of laughter.

When Jane was a diffident maiden of seventeen, she went once with her aunt to the residence of a nobleman of exalted rank and vast wealth, and had there been invited to dine with the servants. The proud spirit of Jane was touched to the quick. With a burning brow she sat down in the servants' hall, with stewards, and butlers, and cooks, and footmen, and valet de chambers, and ladies' maids of every degree, all dressed in tawdry finery, and assuming the most disgusting airs of self-importance. She went home despising in her heart both lords and menials, and dreaming, with new aspirations, of her Roman republic. One day, when Madame Roland was in power, she had just passed from her splendid dining-room, where she had keen entertaining the most distinguished men of the empire, into her drawing room, when a gray-headed gentleman entered, and bowing profoundly and most obsequiously before her, entreated the honor of an introduction to the Minister of the Interior. This gentleman was M. Haudry, with whose servants she had been invited to dine. This once proud aristocrat, who, in the wreck of the Revolution, had lost both wealth and rank, now saw Madame Roland elevated as far above him as he had formerly been exalted above her. She remembered the many scenes in which her spirit had been humiliated by haughty assumptions She could not but feel the triumph to which circumstances had borne her, though magnanimity restrained its manifestation. Anarchy now reigned throughout France. The king and the royal family were imprisoned in the Temple. The Girondists in the Legislative Assembly, which had now assumed the name of the National Convention, and M. Roland at the head of the ministry, were struggling, with herculean exertions, to restore the dominion of law, and, if possible, to save the life of the king. The Jacobins, who, unable to resist the boundless popularity of M. Roland, had, for a time, co-operated with the Girondists, now began to separate themselves again more and more widely from them. They flattered the mob. They encouraged every possible demonstration of lawless violence. They pandered to the passions of the multitude by affecting grossness and vulgarity in person, and language, and manners; by clamoring for the division of property, and for the death of the king. In tones daily increasing in boldness and efficiency, they declared the Girondists to be the friends of the monarch, and the enemies of popular liberty. Upon this tumultuous wave of polluted democracy, now rising with resistless and crested billow, Danton and Robespierre were riding into their terrific power. Humanity shut its eyes in view of the hideous apparition of wan and haggard beggary and crime. The deep mutterings of this rising storm, which no earthly hand might stay, rolled heavily upon the ear of Europe. Christendom looked astounded upon the spectacle of a barbarian invasion bursting forth from the cellars and garrets of Paris. Oppressed and degraded humanity was about to take vengeance for its ages of accumulated wrongs. The throne was demolished. The insulted royal family, in rags and almost in starvation, were in a dungeon. The universal cry from the masses of the people was now for a republic. Jacobins and Girondists united in this cry; but the Jacobins accused the Girondists of being insincere, and of secretly plotting for the restoration of the king.

Madame Roland, in the name of her husband, drew up for the Convention the plan of a republic as a substitute for the throne. From childhood she had yearned for a republic, with its liberty and purity, fascinated by the ideal of Roman virtue, from which her lively imagination had banished all human corruption. But now that the throne and hereditary rank were virtually abolished, and all France clamoring for a republic, and the pen in her hand to present to the National Assembly a Constitution of popular liberty, her heart misgave her. Her husband was nominally Minister of the Interior, but his power was gone. The mob of Paris had usurped the place of king, and Constitution, and law. The Jacobins were attaining the decided ascendency. The guillotine was daily crimsoned with the blood of the noblest citizens of France. The streets and the prisons were polluted with the massacre of the innocent. The soul of Madame Roland recoiled with horror at the scenes she daily witnessed. The Girondists struggled in vain to resist the torrent, but they were swept before it. The time had been when the proclamation of a republic would have filled her soul with inexpressible joy. Now she could see no gleam of hope for her country. The restoration of the monarchy was impossible. The substitution of a republic was inevitable. No earthly power could prevent it. In that republic she saw only the precursor of her own ruin, the ruin of all dear to her, and general anarchy. With a dejected spirit she wrote to a friend, "We are under the knife of Robespierre and Marat. You know my enthusiasm for the Revolution. I am ashamed of it now. It has been sullied by monsters. It is hideous."