Madame Roland - John S. C. Abbott

Last Struggles of the Girondists

The Jacobins now resolved to bring the king to trial. By placards posted in the streets, by inflammatory speeches in the Convention, in public gatherings, and in the clubs, by false assertions and slanders of every conceivable nature, they had roused the ignorant populace to the full conviction that the king was the author of every calamity now impending. The storm of the Revolution had swept desolation through all the walks of peaceful industry. Starvation, gaunt and terrible, began to stare the population of Paris directly in the face. The infuriated mob hung the bakers upon the lamp-posts before their own doors for refusing to supply them with bread. The peasant dared not carry provisions into the city, for he was sure of being robbed by the sovereign people, who had attained the freedom of committing all crimes with impunity. The multitude fully believed that there was a conspiracy formed by the king in his prison, and by the friends of royalty, to starve the people into subjection. Portentous murmurs were now also borne on every breeze, uttered by a thousand unseen voices, that the Girondists were accomplices in this conspiracy; that they hated the Revolution; that they wished to save the life of the king; that they would welcome the army of invasion, as affording them an opportunity to reinstate Louis upon the throne. The Jacobins, it was declared, were the only true friends of the people. The Girondists were accused of being in league with the aristocrats. These suspicions rose and floated over Paris like the mist of the ocean. They were every where encountered, and yet presented no resistance to be assailed. They were intimated in the Jacobin journals; they were suggested, with daily increasing distinctness, at the tribune. And in those multitudinous gatherings, where Marat stood in filth and rags to harangue the miserable, and the vicious, and the starving, they were proclaimed loudly, and with execrations. The Jacobins rejoiced that they had now, by the force of circumstances, crowded their adversaries into a position from which they could not easily extricate themselves. Should the Girondists vote for the death of the king, they would thus support the Jacobins in those sanguinary measures, so popular with the mob, which had now become the right arm of Jacobin power. The glory would also all rebound to the Jacobins, for it would not be difficult to convince the multitude that the Girondists merely submitted to a measure which they were unable to resist. Should the Girondists, on the other hand, true to their instinctive abhorrence of these deeds of blood, dare to vote against the death of the king, they would be ruined irretrievably. They would then stand unmasked before the people as traitors to the Republic and the friends of royalty. Like noxious beasts, they would be hunted through the streets and massacred at their own firesides. The Girondists perceived distinctly the vortex of destruction toward which they were so rapidly circling. Many and anxious were their deliberations, night after night, in the library of Madame Roland. In the midst of the fearful peril, it was not easy to decide what either duty or apparent policy required.

The Jacobins now made a direct and infamous attempt to turn the rage of the populace against Madame Roland. Achille Viard, one of those unprincipled adventurers with which the stormy times had filled he metropolis, was employed, as a spy, to feign attachment to the Girondist party, and to seek the acquaintance, and insinuate himself into the confidence of Madame Roland. By perversions and exaggerations of her language, he was to fabricate an accusation against her which would bring her head to the scaffold. Madame Roland instantly penetrated his character, and he was repulsed from her presence by the most contemptuous neglect. He, however, appeared before the Assembly as her accuser, and charged her with carrying on a secret correspondence with persons of influence at home and abroad, to protect the king. She was summoned to present herself before the Convention, to confront her accuser, and defend herself from the scaffold. Her gentle yet imperial spirit was undaunted by the magnitude of the peril. Her name had often been mentioned in the Assembly as the inspiring genius of the most influential and eloquent party which had risen up amid the storms of the Revolution. Her talents, her accomplishments, her fascinating conversational eloquence, had spread her renown widely through Europe. A large number of the most illustrious men in that legislative hall, both ardent young men and those venerable with age, regarded her with the most profound admiration—almost with religious homage. Others, conscious of her power, and often foiled by her sagacity, hated her with implacable hatred, and determined, either by the ax of the guillotine or by the poniard of the assassin, to remove her from their way.

The aspect of a young and beautiful woman, combining in her person and mind all the attractions of nature and genius, with her cheek glowing with heroine resolution, and her demeanor exhibiting the most perfect feminine loveliness and modesty, entering this vast assembly of irritated men to speak in defense of her life, at once hushed the clamor of hoarse voices, and subdued the rage of angry disputants. Silence the most respectful instantly filled the hall. Every eye was fixed upon her. The hearts of her friends throbbed with sympathy and with love. Her enemies were more than half disarmed, and wished that they, also, were honored as her friends. She stood before the bar.

"What is your name?" inquired the president.

She paused for a moment, and then, fixing her eye calmly upon her interrogator, in those clear and liquid tones which left their vibration upon the ear long after her voice was hushed in death answered,

"Roland! a name of which I am proud, for it is that of a good and an honorable man."

"Do you know Achille Viard?" the president inquired.

"I have once, and but once, seen him."

"What has passed between you?"

"Twice he has written to me, soliciting an interview. Once I saw him. After a short conversation, I perceived that he was a spy, and dismissed him with the contempt he deserved."

The calm dignity of her replies, the ingenuous frankness of her manners, and the manifest malice and falsehood of Viard's accusation, made even her enemies ashamed of their unchivalrous prosecution. Briefly, in tremulous tones of voice, but with a spirit of firmness which no terrors could daunt, she entered upon her defense. It was the first time that a female voice had been heard in the midst of the clamor of these enraged combatants. The Assembly, unused to such a scene, were fascinated by her attractive eloquence. Viard, convicted of meanness, treachery, and falsehood, dared not open his lips. Madame Roland was acquitted by acclamation. Upon the spot the president proposed that the marked respect of the Convention be conferred upon Madame Roland. With enthusiasm the resolution was carried. As she retired from the hall, her bosom glowing with the excitement of the perfect triumph she had won, her ear was greeted with the enthusiastic applause of the whole assembly. The eyes of all France had been attracted to her as she thus defended herself and her friends, and confounded her enemies. Marat gnashed his teeth with rage. Danton was gloomy and silent. Robespierre, vanquished by charms which had so often before enthralled him, expressed his contempt for the conspiracy, and, for the last time, smiled upon his early friend, whom he soon, with the most stoical indifference, dragged to the scaffold.

The evening after the overthrow of the monarchy and the establishment of the Republic, when there was still some faint hope that there might yet be found intelligence and virtue in the people to sustain the Constitution, the Girondists met at Madame Roland's, and celebrated, with trembling exultation, the birth of popular liberty. The Constitution of the United States was the beau ideal  of the Girondists, and, vainly dreaming that the institutions which Washington and his compatriots had established in Christian America were now firmly planted in infidel France, they endeavored to cast the veil of oblivion over the past, and to spread over the future the illusions of hope. The men here assembled were the most illustrious of the nation. Noble sentiments passed from mind to mind. Madame Roland, pale with emotion, conscious of the perils which were so portentously rising around them, shone with a preternatural brilliance in the solemn rejoicing of that evening. The aged Roland gazed with tears of fond affection and of gratified pride upon his lovely wife, as if in spirit asking her if all the loftiest aspirations of their souls were not now answered. The victorious Republicans hardly knew whether to sing triumphant songs or funeral dirges. Vergniaud, the renowned orator of the party, was prominent above them all. With a pale cheek, and a serene and pensive smile, he sat in silence, his mind evidently wandering among the rising apparitions of the future. At the close of the supper he filled his glass, and rising, proposed to drink to the eternity of the Republic. Madame Roland, whose mind was ever filled with classic recollections, scattered from a bouquet which she held in her hand, some rose leaves on the wine in his glass. Vergniaud drank the wine, and then said, in a low voice, "We should quaff cypress leaves, not rose leaves, in our wine to-night. In drinking to a republic, stained, at its birth, with the blood of massacre, who knows but that we drink to our own death. But no matter. Wore this wine my own blood, I would drain it to liberty and equality." All the guests, with enthusiasm, responded, "Vine la Republique!" After dinner, Roland read to the company a paper drawn up by himself and wife in reference to the state of the Republic, which views were to be presented the next day to the Convention.

The royal family were still in the dungeons of the Temple, lingering through the dreary hours of the most desolate imprisonment. Phrensied mobs, rioting through the streets of Paris, and overawing all law, demanded, with loudest execrations, the death of the king. A man having ventured to say that he thought that the Republic might be established without shedding the blood of Louis, was immediately stabbed to the heart, and his mutilated remains were dragged through the streets of Paris in fiendish revelry. A poor vender of pamphlets and newspapers, coming out of a reading-room, was accused of selling books favorable to royalty. The suspicion was crime, and he fell, pierced by thirty daggers. Such warnings as these were significant and impressive, and few dared utter a word in favor of the king.

It was the month of January, 1793, when the imprisoned monarch was brought into the hall of the Convention for his trial. It was a gloomy day for France, and all external nature seemed shrouded in darkness and sorrow. Clouds of mist were sweeping through the chill air, and a few feeble lamps glimmered along the narrow avenues and gloomy passages, which were darkened by the approach of a winter's night. Armed soldiers surrounded the building. Heavy pieces of artillery faced every approach. Cannoneers, with lighted matches, stood at their side, ready to scatter a storm of grape-shot upon every foe. A mob of countless thousands were surging to and fro through all the neighboring streets. The deep, dull murmurings of the multitude swelled in unison with the sighings of the storm rising upon the somber night. It was with no little difficulty that the deputies could force their way through the ocean of human beings surrounding the Assembly. The coarse garb, the angry features, the harsh voices, the fierce and significant gestures, proclaimed too clearly that the mob had determined to have the life of the king, and that, unless the deputies should vote his death, both king and deputies should perish together. As each deputy threaded his way through the thronging masses, he heard, in threatening tones, muttered into his ear deep and emphatic, "His death or thine!"

Persons who were familiar with the faces of all the members were stationed at particular points, and called out aloud to the multitude the names of the deputies as they elbowed their way through the surging multitudes. At the names of Danton, Marat, Robespierre, the ranks opened to make way for these idols of the populace, and shouts of the most enthusiastic greeting fell upon their ears. When the names of Vergniaud, Brissot, and others of the leading Girondists were mentioned, clinched fists, brandished daggers, and angry menaces declared that those who refused to obey the wishes of the people should encounter dire revenge. The very sentinels placed to guard the deputies encouraged the mob to insult and violence. The lobbies were filled with the most sanguinary ruffians of Paris. The interior of the hall was dimly lighted. A chandelier, suspended from the center of the ceiling, illuminated certain portions of the room, while the more distant parts remained in deep obscurity. That all might act under the full sense of their responsibility to the mob, Robespierre had proposed and carried the vote that the silent form of ballot should be rejected, and that each deputy, in his turn, should ascend the tribune, and, with a distinct voice, announce his sentence. For some time after the voting commenced it was quite uncertain how the decision would turn. In the alternate record of the vote, death and exile appeared to be equally balanced. All now depended upon the course which the Girondists should pursue. If they should vote for death, the doom of the king was sealed. Vergniaud was the first of that party to be called to record his sentence. It was well known that he looked with repugnance and horror upon the sanguinary scenes with which the Revolution had been deformed, and that he had often avowed his sympathy for the hard fate of a prince whose greatest crime was weakness. His vote would unquestionably be the index of that of the whole party, and thus the life or death of the king appeared to be suspended from his lips. It was known that the very evening before, while supping with a lady who expressed much commiseration for the captives in the Temple, he had declared that he would save the life of the king. The courage of Vergniaud was above suspicion, and his integrity above reproach. Difficult as it was to judge impartially, with the cannon and the pikes of the mob leveled at his breast, it was not doubted that he would vote conscientiously.

As the name of Vergniaud was called, all conversation instantly ceased. Perfect silence pervaded the hall, and every eye was riveted upon him. Slowly he ascended the steps of the tribune. His brow was calm, but his mouth closely compressed, as if to sustain some firm resolve. He paused for a moment, and the Assembly was breathless with suspense. He contracted his eyebrows, as if again reflecting upon his decision, and then, in a low, solemn, firm voice, uttered the word "Death."

The most profound silence reigned for a moment, and then again the low murmur of suppressed conversation filled the hall. Vergniaud descended from the tribune and disappeared in the crowd. All hope for the king was now gone. The rest of the Girondists also voted for death, and Louis was condemned to the scaffold.

This united vote upon the death of the king for a short time mingled together again the Girondists and the Jacobins. But the dominant party, elated by the victory which they had gained over their adversaries, were encouraged to fresh extortions. Perils increased. Europe was rising in arms against the blood-stained Republic. The execution of the king aroused emotions of unconquerable detestation in the bosoms of thousands who had previously looked upon the Revolution with favor. Those who had any opulence to forfeit, or any position in society to maintain, were ready to welcome as deliverers the allied army of invasion. It was then, to meet this emergency, that that terrible Revolutionary Tribunal was organized, which raised the ax of the guillotine as the one all-potent instrument of government, and which shed such oceans of innocent blood. "Two hundred and sixty thousand heads," said Marat, "must fall before France will be safe from internal foes." Danton, Marat, and Robespierre were now in the ascendency, riding with resistless power upon the billows of mob violence. Whenever they wished to carry any measure, they sent forth their agents to the dens and lurking-places of degradation and crime, and surrounded and filled the hall of the Assembly with blood-thirsty assassins. "Those who call themselves respectable," said Marat, "wish to give laws to those whom they call the rabble. We will teach them that the time is come in which the rabble is to reign."

This Revolutionary Tribunal, consisting of five judges, a jury, and a public accuser, all appointed by the Convention, was proposed and decreed on the same evening. It possessed unlimited powers to confiscate property and take-life. The Girondists dared not vote against this tribunal. The public voice would pronounce them the worst of traitors. France was now a charnel-house. Blood flowed in streams which were never dry. Innocence had no protection. Virtue was suspicion, suspicion a crime, the guillotine the penalty, and the confiscated estate the bribe to accusation. Thus there was erected, in the name of liberty and, popular rights, over the ruins of the French monarchy, a system of despotism the most atrocious and merciless under which humanity has ever groaned.

Again and again had the Jacobins called the mob into the Assembly, and compelled the members to vote with the poniards of assassins at their breasts. Madame Roland now despaired of liberty. Calumny, instead of gratitude, was unsparingly heaped upon herself and her husband. This requital, so unexpected, was more dreadful to her than the scaffold. All the promised fruits of the Revolution had disappeared, and desolation and crime alone were realized. The Girondists still met in Madame Roland's library to deliberate concerning measures for averting the impending ruin. All was unavailing.

The most distressing embarrassments now surrounded M. Roland. He could not abandon power without abandoning himself and his supporters in the Assembly to the guillotine; and while continuing in power, he was compelled to witness deeds of atrocity from which not only his soul revolted, but to which it was necessary for him apparently to give his sanction. His cheek grew pale and wan with care. He could neither eat nor sleep. The Republic had proved an utter failure, and France was but a tempest-tossed ocean of anarchy.

Thus situated, M. Roland, with the most melancholy forebodings, sent in his final resignation. He retired to humble lodgings in one of the obscure streets of Paris Here, anxiously watching the progress of events, he began to make preparations to leave the mob-enthralled metropolis, and seek a retreat, in the calm seclusion of La Platiere, from these storms which no human power could allay. Still, the influence of Roland and his wife was feared by those who were directing the terrible enginery of lawless violence. It was well known by them both that assassins had been employed to silence them with the poniard. Madame Roland seemed, however, perfectly insensible to personal fear. She thought only of her husband and her child. Desperate men were seen lurking about the house, and their friends urged them to remove as speedily as possible from the perils by which they were surrounded. Neither the sacredness of law nor the weapons of their friends could longer afford them any protection. The danger became so imminent that the friends of Madame Roland brought her the dress of a peasant girl, and entreated her to put it on, as a disguise, and escape by night, that her husband might follow after her, unencumbered by his family; but she proudly repelled that which she deemed a cowardly artifice. She threw the dress aside, exclaiming, "I am ashamed to resort to any such expedient. I will neither disguise myself, nor make any attempt at secret escape. My enemies may find me always in my place. If I am assassinated, it shall be in my own home. I owe my country an example of firmness, and I will give it."

She, however, was so fully aware of her peril, and each night was burdened with such atrocities, that she placed loaded pistols under her pillow, to defend herself from those outrages, worse than death, of which the Revolution afforded so many examples. While the influence of the Girondists was entirely overborne by the clamors of the mob in Paris, in the more virtuous rural districts, far removed from the corruption of the capital, their influence was on the in-crease. The name of M. Roland, uttered with execrations in the metropolis by the vagabonds swarming from all parts of Europe, was spoken in tones of veneration in the departments, where husbandmen tilled the soil, and loved the reign of law and peace. Hence the Jacobins had serious cause to fear a reaction, and determined to silence their voices by the slide of the guillotine The most desperate measures were now adopted for the destruction of the Girondists. One conspiracy was formed to collect the mob, ever ready to obey a signal from. Marat, around the Assembly, to incite them to burst in at the doors and the windows, and fill the hall with confusion, while picked men were to poniard the Girondists in their seats. The conspiracy was detected and exposed but a few hours before its appointed execution. The Jacobin leaders, protected by their savage allies, were raised above the power of law, and set all punishment at defiance.

A night was again designated, in which bands of armed men were to surround the dwelling of each Girondist, and assassinate these foes of Jacobin domination in their beds. This plot also was revealed to the Girondists but a few hours before its destined catastrophe, and it was with the utmost difficulty that the doomed victims obtained extrication from the toils which had been wound around them.

Disastrous news was daily arriving from the frontiers. The most alarming tidings came of insurrections in La Vendee, and other important portions of France, in favor of the restoration of the monarchy. These gathering perils threw terror into the hearts of the Jacobins, and roused them to deeds of desperation. Though Madame Roland was now in comparative obscurity, night after night the most illustrious men of France, battling for liberty and for life in the Convention, ascended the dark staircase to her secluded room, hidden in the depth of a court of the Rue de la Harpe, and there talked over the scenes of the day, and deliberated respecting the morrow.

The Jacobins now planned one of those horrible insurrections which sent a thrill of terror into every bosom in Paris. Assembling the multitudinous throng of demoniac men and women which the troubled times had collected from every portion of Christendom, they gathered them around the hall of the Assembly to enforce their demands. It was three o'clock in the morning of the 31st of May, 1793, when the dismal sounds of the alarm bells, spreading from belfry to belfry, and the deep booming of the insurrection gun, reverberating through the streets, aroused the citizens from their slum hers, producing universal excitement and consternation. A cold and freezing wind swept clouds of mist through the gloomy air, and the moaning storm seemed the appropriate requiem of a sorrow-stricken world. The Hotel de Ville was the appointed place of rendezvous for the swarming multitudes. The affrighted citizens, knowing but too well to what scenes of violence and blood these demonstrations were the precursors, threw up their windows, and looked out with fainting hearts upon the dusky forms crowding by like apparitions of darkness. The rambling of the wheels of heavy artillery, the flash of powder, with the frequent report of fire-arms, and the uproar and the clamor of countless voices, were fearful omens of a day to dawn in blacker darkness than the night. The Girondists had recently been called in the journals and inflammatory speeches of their adversaries the Rolandists. The name was given them in recognition of the prominent position of Madame Roland in the party, and with the endeavor to cast reproach upon her and her husband. Through all the portentous mutterings of this rising storm could be heard deep and significant execrations and menaces, coupled with the names of leading members of the Girondist party. "Down with the aristocrats, the traitors, the Rolandists!" shouted in incessantly hoarse voices and shrill voices, of drunken men, of reckless boys, of fiendish women.

The Girondists, apprehensive of some movement of this kind, had generally taken the precaution not to sleep that night in their own dwellings. The intrepid Vergniaud alone refused to adopt any measure of safety. "What signifies life to me now?" said he; "my blood may be more eloquent than my words in awakening and saving my country. I am ready for the sacrifice." One of the Girondists, M. Rabout, a man of deep, reflective piety, hearing these noises, rose from his bed, listened a moment at his window to the tumult swelling up from every street of the vast metropolis, and calmly exclaiming, "Ilia suprema dies," it is our last day, prostrated himself at the foot of his bed, and invoked aloud the Divine protection upon his companions, his country, and himself. Many of his friends were with him, friends who knew not the power of prayer. But there are hours in which every soul instinctively craves the mercy of its Creator. They all bowed reverently, and were profoundly affected by the supplications of their Christian friend. Fortified and tranquilized by the potency of prayer, and determining to die, if die they must, at the post of duty, at six o'clock they descended into the street, with pistols and daggers concealed beneath their clothes. They succeeded, unrecognized, in reaching the Convention in safety.

One or two of the Jacobin party were assembled there at that early hour, and Danton, pale with the excitement of a sleepless night, walking to and fro in nervous agitation, greeted his old friends with a wan and melancholy smile. "Do you see," said Louvet to Gaudet, "what horrible hope shines upon that hideous face?" The members rapidly collected. The hall was soon filled. The Girondists were now helpless, their sinews of power were out, and the struggle was virtually over. All that remained for them was to meet their fate heroically and with an unvanquished spirit.