[Note: This is Part 2 of 3 of this posting… Other parts will appear over the next few days.]"You have broken the scepter of despotism, you have pronounced the beautiful axiom [that] ... the French are a free people. Yet still you allow thirteen million slaves shamefully to wear the irons of thirteen million despots! You have devined the true equality of rights—and you still unjustly withhold them from the sweetest and most interesting half among you! ..."
— Olympe de Gouges, “Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen”
The leaders during the Constitutional Monarchy (the ‘Girondists’):
In Part 1 of this discussion, we looked at the background factors and political groupings of the key participants in the French Revolution of 1789. We continue our presentation in this installment of the ‘Girondists’ who were the intellectuals and learned leaders under the Constitutional Monarchy that prevailed in the period of 1789 to 1792. In that time, these men and women provided the concrete bureaucratic leadership required by the new form of government. They also provided the conceptual and theoretical grounds for the first Republic. Their influenced waved when two events transpired — the King and his family attempted to flee from Paris in 1792, the aftermath of which the more radical members of the ‘Jacobin Club’ and the Constitution, especially Robespierre and the ‘Mountain’ (‘Montagnards’), who were calling for the execution of the King.
These ‘Girondists’ leaders included:
◊ Brissot (Leader of the ‘Girondists’)… Brissot was a leader of the left-center group from the Girond province (the area that included Bordeaux) and was a dedicated follower of the ethical teachings of Montesquieu and Rousseau. Above all, he was an accomplished pamphleteer and believed that the ideals of the American Revolution could improve the French government. He was famous for his speeches and was in charge of most of the foreign policy during this initial stage of the Revolution. He was very much opposed to the radical factor, the ‘Montagnards’, in the ‘Jacobin Club’. He met his death on the Guillotine.
◊ Pétiôn (Writer and Politician)… Pétiôn was a lawyer and a bold reformer. He attacked the Old Regime (‘ancien regimé’), especially in the traditional hereditary rights of the nobility and the feudal system that kept most of the French population as serfs of their landlords. He became the second mayor of Paris and supported a republican form of government. He permitted the attacks on the Royal family while they were held in the Tuilerie Palace as well as the September Massacres as the Austrian coalition army approached Paris. He became a member of the initial ‘Committee of Public Safety’ but opposed the ‘Reign of Terror.’ When Robespierre and his ‘Montagnards’ took control of the ‘Jacobin Club’ and the Constitutional Assembly, he escaped to Caen, in the Normandy region of Northern France. While there, he attempted to stir up insurrection among the populace. When that failed, he escaped to the Bordeaux region where he committed suicide in 1794.
◊ Roland (Manufacturer and Leader of the ‘Girondists’)… Roland was a spokesman for the ‘Girondist’ faction in the ‘Jacobin Club’. While his group was in power, he served both as the Minister of the Interior and, later, as the Minister of Justice. He wrote the “Manifesto of Disaffectation” in protest of the King’s attempted veto of the decrees passed by the assembly to sanction the nobility fleeing Paris, the ‘émigrés’, and the clerics; he was dismissed from his ministry position along with other protesting ministers. The Assembly reinstated these ministers in an effort to limit the King’s interference with government operations. Like other ‘Girondists’, he opposed Robespierre and the ‘Montagnards’ who were trying to move the Revolution into a more radical stage. He also felt that the ‘Commune of Paris’ was too radical as well. He opposed the execution of the King and Royal family unless confirmed by a vote of the people. When these ‘Montagnards’ tried to bring Roland to trial, his wife, Madame Manon Roland, helped him escape to Normandy. After his wife was convicted and executed on the guillotine, he committed suicide.
◊ Madame Roland (Writer and Supporter of the ‘Girondists’)… Madame Roland was the only woman involved in the ongoing activities of the Revolution. She helped edit her husband’s correspondence and wrote many of his speeches. In Paris, she opened a salon that hosted meetings of many members of the ‘Jacobin Club’, including Brissot, Pétiôn, Robespierre and other leaders of the movement. She was an avid reader and was a follower of Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Rousseau. She believed that a proper government was one that included: “enlightened and well-meaning…” She was imprisoned after opposing the excesses of the Revolution and helping her husband to escape from Paris; during this time, she wrote her memoirs. After her trial, she was convicted and sentence to be executed on the guillotine.
◊ Buzat (Politician and Leader of the Revolution)… Buzat was a man of radical opinions, especially against the Catholic Church. He sought to have the Church’s property nationalized; he also believed in the right of the people to bear arms. As a ‘Girondist’, he wanted to protect the people, the ‘sans-culottes’, of Paris from the invading Austrian coalition armies by raising an army. Unlike other ‘Girondists’, he supported the execution of the King and the Royalist ‘émigrés’. When the Assembly started to prosecute the ‘Girondists’, he fled to Calvados (in Normandy) and then to Bordeaux where he committed suicide with Pétiôn.
Women of note for specific contributions during the ‘Reign of Terror’:
◊ Corday (Assassin of Jean-Paul Marat)… Corday was self-educated and a follower of Plutarch, Rousseau, and Voltaire. She was repulsed by the excesses of the September Massacres and feared that Marat was a threat to the republic. She assassinated Marat in his bathtub; she was tried, convicted and executed on the guillotine.
◊ Olympe de Gouges (Playwright, Political Activist, and Feminist)… Olympe led the women’s march on the Versailles Palace when the Assembly was locked out of their meeting space. In addition, she is probably most remembered for her “Declaration of the Rights of Women and the Female Citizen” (1791) that attempted to win for women the same rights that the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizens” had for the men of France. For her activism and attempts to force the Assembly to admit women to the deliberations, Olympe was tried, convicted and executed on the guillotine.
This set of centrist liberals helped to transition the Revolution from an absolute Monarchy to a Constitutional Monarchy. They were guided by the philosophy of government of Montesquieu more than that of Rousseau. They sought a government that ‘worked,’ but did not necessarily address the critical needs or wishes of the poor, the ‘sans-culottes.’ It was this latter failure that precipitated the plunge of the Revolution into the ‘Reign of Terror’ under Robespierre and the ‘Montagnards’. The King and most of the leaders of the ‘Girondists’ met their death by execution on the guillotine. Those that escaped committed suicide.
Next Time: We will continue our exploration in Part 3 by an examination of the radicals and ultra-radicals of the Revolution. Join us for that adventure…