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XVII: The Fall of the Gironde - John Emerich Edward Dalberg, Lord Acton, Lectures on the French Revolution (LF ed.) 
Lectures on the French Revolution, ed. John Neville Figgis and Reginald Vere Laurence, with a foreword by Steven J. Tonsor (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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The Fall of the Gironde
The Constitution of 1791 had failed because it carried the division of powers and the reaction against monarchical centralisation so far as to paralyse the executive. Until the day when a new system should be organised, a series of revolutionary measures were adopted, and by these the Convention governed to the end. Immediately after the death of Lewis XVI. they began to send out representatives with arbitrary powers to the departments. The revolutionary tribunal was appointed in March to judge political cases without appeal; and the Secret Committee of Public Safety in April, on the defeat and defection of Dumouriez. All this time, the Girondins had the majority. The issue of the king’s trial had been disastrous to them, because it proved their weakness, not in numbers, but in character and counsel. Roland at once resigned, confessing the defeat. But they stood four months before their fall. During that memorable struggle, the question was whether France should be ruled by violence and blood, or by men who knew the passion for freedom. The Girondins at once raised the real issue by demanding inquiry into the massacres of September. It was a valid but a perilous weapon. There could be no doubt as to what those who had committed a thousand murders to obtain power would be capable of doing in their own defence.
The Girondins calculated badly. By leaving crime unpunished they could have divided their adversaries. Almost to the last moment Danton wished to avoid the conflict. Again and again they rejected his offers. Open war, said Vergniaud, is better than a hollow truce. Their rejection of the hand that bore the crimson stain is the cause of their ruin, but also of their renown. They were always impolitic, disunited, and undecided; but they rose, at times, to the level of honest men. Their second line of attack was not better chosen. Party politics were new, and the science of understanding the other side was not developed; and the Girondins were persuaded that the Montagnards were at heart royalists, aiming at the erection of an Orleanist throne. Marat received money from the Palais Royal; and Sieyès to the last regarded him as a masked agent of monarchy. Danton himself assured the young Duc de Chartres that the Republic would not last, and advised him to hold himself in readiness to reap, some day, what the Jacobins were sowing.
The aim of the Jacobins was a dictatorship, which was quite a new substitute for monarchy, and the Orleans spectre was no more than an illusion on which the Gironde spent much of its strength. In retaliation, they were accused of Federalism, and this also was a false suspicion. Federal ideas, the characteristic of America, had the sanction of the greatest names in the political literature of France—Montesquieu and Rousseau, Necker and Mirabeau. The only evident Federalist in the Convention is Barère. A scheme of federation was discussed at the Jacobins on September 10, and did not come to a vote. But the idea was never adopted by the Girondin party, or by any one of its members, with the exception of Buzot. They favoured things just as bad in Jacobin eyes. They inclined to decentralisation, to local liberties, to restraint on the overwhelming activity of Paris, to government by representatives of the sovereign people, not by the sovereign itself. All this was absolutely opposed to the concentration of all powers, which was the prevailing purpose since the alarm of invasion and treason, and was easily confounded with the theory of provincial rights and divided authority, which was dreaded as the superlative danger of the time. That which, under the title of Federalism, was laid to their charge, must be counted to their credit; for it meant that, in a limited sense, they were constitutional, and that there were degrees of power and oppression, which even a Girondin would resist.
The Jacobins had this superiority over their fluctuating opponents, that they fell back on a system which was simple, which was intelligible, and which the most famous book of the previous generation had made known to everybody. For them there was no uncertainty, no groping, and no compromise. They intended that the mass of the people should at all times assert and enforce their will, over-riding all temporary powers and superseding all appointed agents. As they had to fight the world with a divided population, they required that all power should be concentrated in the hands of those who acted in conformity with the popular will, and that those who resisted at home, should be treated as enemies. They must put down opposition as ruthlessly as they repelled invasion. The better Jacobin would not have denied liberty, but he would have defined it differently. For him it consisted not in the limitation, but the composition of the governing power. He would not weaken the state by making its action uncertain, slow, capricious, dependent on alternate majorities and rival forces; but he would find security in power exercised only by the whole body of the nation, united in the enjoyment of the gifts the Revolution had bestowed on the peasant. That was the most numerous class, the class whose interests were the same, which was identified with the movement against privilege, which would inevitably be true to the new institutions. They were a minority in the Convention, but a minority representing the unity and security of the Republic, and supported by the majority outside. They drew to themselves not the best or the most brilliant men, but those who devoted themselves to the use of power, not to the manipulation of ideas. Many good administrators belonged to the party, among whom Carnot is only the most celebrated. Napoleon, who understood talent and said that no men were so vigorous and efficient as those who had gone through the Revolution, gave office to 127 regicides, most of whom were Montagnards.
The Girondins, vacillating and divided, would never have made the Republic triumph over the whole of Europe and the half of France. They were immediately confronted by a general war and a formidable insurrection. They were not afraid of war. The great military powers were Austria and Prussia, and they had been driven to the Rhine by armies of thirty or forty thousand men. After that, the armies of Spain and England did not seem formidable. This calculation proved to be correct. The audacity of the French appeared in their declaration of war against the three chief maritime powers at once—England, Spain, and Holland. It was not until 1797, not for four years, that the superiority of the British fleet was established. They had long hoped that war with England could be avoided, and carried on negotiations through a succession of secret agents. There was a notion that the English government was revolutionary in character as it was in origin, that the execution of the king was done in pursuance of English examples, that a Protestant country must admire men who followed new ideas. Brissot, like Napoleon in 1815, built his hopes on the opposition. Mr. Fox could not condemn the institution of a Republic; and a party that had applauded American victories over their own countrymen might be expected to feel some sympathy with a country which was partly imitating England and partly America.
War with continental absolutism was the proper price of revolution; but the changes since 1789 were changes in the direction of a Whig alliance. When the Convention were informed that George III. would not have a regicide minister in the country, they did not debate the matter, but passed it over to a committee. They acted not only from a sense of national dignity, but in the belief that the event was not very terrible. The Girondins thought that the war would not be popular in England, that the Whigs, the revolutionary societies, and the Irish would bring it to an early termination. Marat, who knew this country, affirmed that it was an illusion. But there was no opposition to the successive declarations of war with England, Holland, and the Spanish and Neapolitan Bourbons, which took place in February and March. Eight hundred million of assignats were voted at once, to be secured on the confiscated property of the émigrés. France, at that moment, had only 150,000 soldiers in the field. On February 24, a decree called out 300,000 men, and obliged each department to raise its due proportion. The French army that was to accomplish such marvels in the next twenty years begins on that day. But the first consequence was an extraordinary diminution in the military power of the State. The Revolution had done much for the country people, and had imposed no burdens upon them. The compulsory levy was the first. In most places, with sufficient pressure, the required men were supplied. Some districts offered more than their proper number.
On March 10, the Conscription was opened in the remote parishes of Poitou. The country had been agitated for some time. The peasants, for there were no large towns in that region, had resented the overthrow of the nobility, of the clergy, and of the throne. The expulsion of their priests caused constant discontent. And now the demand that they should go out, under officers whom they distrusted, and die for a government which persecuted them, caused an outbreak. They refused to draw their numbers, and on the following day they gathered in large crowds and fell upon the two sorts of men they detested—the government officials, and the newly established clergy. Before the middle of March about three hundred priests and republican officials were murdered, and the war of La Vendée began. And it was there, and not in Paris, that liberty made its last stand in revolutionary France.
But we must see first what passed in the Convention under the shadow of the impending struggle. A committee had been appointed, October 11, to draw up a constitution for the Republic. Danton was upon it, but he was much away, with the army in Belgium. Tom Paine brought illumination from America, and Barère, generally without ideas of his own, made others’ plausible. The majority were Girondins, and with them Sieyès was closely associated. On February 15, Condorcet produced the report. It was the main attempt of the Girondins to consolidate their power, and for three months it occupied the leisure of the Convention. The length of the debate proved the weakness of the party. Robespierre and his friends opposed the work of their enemies, and talked it out. They devoted their arguments to the preamble, the new formula of the Rights of Man, and succeeded so well that no part of the Constitution ever came to a vote. The most interesting portion of the debate turned upon the principle of religious liberty, which the draft affirmed, and which was opposed by Vergniaud. Whilst this ineffectual discussion proceeded, the fight was waged decisively elsewhere, and the Jacobins delivered a counterstroke of superior force.
Dumouriez’s reverses had begun, and there was new urgency in the demand for concentration. Danton came to an understanding with Robespierre, and they decided on establishing the revolutionary tribunal. It was to consist of judges appointed by the Convention to try prisoners whom the Convention sent before it, and to judge without appeal. Danton said that it was a necessary measure, in order to avert popular violence and vengeance. He recommended it in the name of humanity. When the Convention heard Danton speak of humanity there was a shudder, and in the midst of a dead silence Lanjuinais uttered the word “September.” Danton replied that there would have been no massacres if the new tribunal had been instituted at the time. The Convention resolved that there should be trial by jury, and that no deputies should be tried without their permission. The object of Robespierre was not obtained. He had meant that the revolutionary tribunal should judge without a jury, and should have jurisdiction over the deputies. The Girondins were still too strong for him. Danton next addressed himself to them. They agreed that there should be a strong committee to supervise and control the government. On March 25 they carried a list of twenty-five, composed largely of their own friends, and, by thus subjecting the Assembly at large to a committee, they once more recovered supreme power. Immediately after, the defection of Dumouriez was reported at Paris, and the Convention rightly believed that they had narrowly escaped a great danger. For Dumouriez had intended to unite all the forces he could collect in the Dutch and Belgian Netherlands, and to march into France at their head, to establish a government of his own. He had been in close communication with Danton, and the opportunity of attacking Danton was too good to be lost. On April 1 Lasource accused him of complicity in the treason. The truce between them was at an end, and the consequences were soon apparent. The committee of twenty-five was too bulky, and was made up from different parties. A proposal was made to reduce the number, and on April 6 a new committee of nine, the real Committee of Public Safety, was elected, and no Girondins were included in it. On the same day the first execution took place of a prisoner sentenced by the new tribunal. The two chief instruments of the revolutionary government were brought into action at the same time. But they did not enable the Jacobins to reach their enemies in the Assembly, for the deputies were inviolable. Everybody else was at the mercy of the public accuser.
The Girondins, having failed in their attack on Danton, now turned against Marat, and by 220 to 132 votes sent him before the revolutionary tribunal to be tried for sedition. On the 24th he was acquitted. Meantime his friends petitioned against the Girondins, and demanded that twenty-two of them should be expelled. The petition was rejected, after a debate in which Vergniaud refused to have the fate of his party decided by primary assemblies, on the ground that it would lead to civil war. Vendée was in flames, and the danger of explosion was felt in many parts of France.
Down to the month of May, the Girondins had failed in their attacks on individual deputies, but their position in the Assembly was unshaken. By their divisions, and by means of occasional majorities, especially by the uncertain and intermittent help of Danton, Robespierre had carried important measures—the Revolutionary Tribunal, the Committee of Public Safety, the employment of commissaries from the Convention to enforce the levies in each department. By a series of acceptable decrees in favour of the indigent, he had established himself and his friends as the authors of a new order of society, against the representatives of the middle class. The people of Paris responded by creating an insurrectionary committee to accomplish, by lawful pressure or otherwise, the purpose of the deputation which had demanded the exclusion of the twenty-two. On May 21 a commission of twelve was appointed to vindicate the supremacy of the Convention against the municipality. The Girondins obtained the majority. Their candidates received from 104 to 325 votes. No Jacobin had more than 98. It was their last parliamentary victory. There was no legal way of destroying them. The work had to be left to agitators like Marat, and the committee of insurrection. When this came to be understood, the end was very near. The committee of twelve, the organ of the Convention and of the moderate part of it, arrested several of the most violent agitators. On May 26, Robespierre summoned the people of Paris against the traitorous deputies. Next day they appeared, made their way into the Convention, and stated their demands. The men were released, and the commission of twelve was dissolved. But on the 28th the Assembly, ashamed of having yielded tamely to a demonstration which was not overwhelming, renewed the commission, by 279 votes to 239.
A more decisive action was now resolved upon, and the Jacobins prepared what they called a moral insurrection. They desired to avoid bloodshed, for the tenure by which the Revolutionary Tribunal existed was that it prevented the shedding of blood otherwise than by legal forms. The Girondins, after expulsion, could be left to the enjoyment of all the securities of a trial by jury. Meanwhile, the Girondin scheme of Constitution was dropped, and five new members were appointed to draw up a new one; and on May 30, for the first time, a president was taken from the deputies of the Mountain. On May 31 the insurrectionary masses invaded the Assembly. There was no actual violence, and no resistance. The Girondins did nothing to defend their cause, and their commission of twelve was again dissolved. The deputies remained uninjured; but Roland fled, and his wife was sent to prison. Two days later, June 2, the victory of moral force was completed. The Tuileries were surrounded with cannon, the deputies were not permitted to go out, and some of the Girondins agreed to resign their seats in order to prevent an outbreak. It was called a voluntary ostracism.
In the extreme weakness of the party Lanjuinais alone spoke and acted with courage and decision. Legendre went up to the Tribune while he was speaking, and threatened to kill him. As Legendre was a butcher, Lanjuinais replied, “First decree that I am a bullock.” When Chabot, who had been a Capuchin, reviled the fallen statesmen, Lanjuinais exclaimed, “The ancients crowned their victims with flowers, and the priest did not insult them.” This brave man lived through it all, lived to witness the destruction of his enemies, to be the elect of many departments, and to preside over the Chamber that decreed the downfall of Napoleon. At the last moment, an obscure supporter of the Girondins saw Danton, and called on him to interfere to save the Convention from violence. Danton answered that he could do nothing, for they had no confidence in him. It is a redeeming testimony. On the evening of June 2 the more conspicuous Girondins, without being sent to prison, were placed under arrest. In the capital, the victory of the Jacobins was complete. They had conquered by the aid of the insurrectionary committee, to which no man was admitted who did not swear approval of the September murders.
Rout and extermination ensued upon the fall of the Gironde. They had been scrupulous not to defend themselves by force, and preferred the Republic to their party. While some remained as hostages in the power of the foe, others went away to see what France would think of the mutilation of its parliament. Their strength was in the departments, and in several departments the people were arming. In the west there was no hope for them, for they had made the laws against which La Vendée rebelled. They turned to the north. In Normandy the royalists were forming an army, under the famous intriguer, Puisaye. Between such a man and Buzot no understanding could subsist. There was no time for them to quarrel, for the movement broke down at once. The people of Normandy were quite indifferent. But there was one among them who had spirit, and energy, and courage, and passion enough to change the face of France. This extraordinary person was the daughter of M. d’Armont, and she passed into the immortality of history as Charlotte Corday. She was twenty-four. Her father was a royalist, but she had read Raynal, and had the classical enthusiasm which was bred by Plutarch in those as well as in other days. She had refused the health of Lewis XVI., because, she said, he was a good man, but a bad king. She preferred to live with a kinswoman, away from her own family, and her mind was made up never to marry. Her bringing up had been profoundly religious, but that influence seems to have been weakened in her new home. There is no trace of it during the five days on which a fierce light beats. In her room they found her Bible lying open at the story of Judith. From the 31st of May she had learnt to regard Marat as the author of the proscription of the Girondins, some of whom had appeared at Caen in a patriotic halo. When the troops were paraded, on July 7, those who volunteered for the march against Paris were so few that the hope of deeds to be done by armed men utterly vanished. It occurred to Charlotte that there may be something stronger than the hands and the hearts of armed men. The Girondins were in the power of assassins, of men against whom there was no protection in France but the dagger. To take a life was the one way of saving many lives. Not a doubt ever touched her that it is right to kill a murderer, an actual and intending murderer, on condition of accepting the penalty. She told no one of the resolution in her mind, and said nothing that was pathetic, and nothing that was boastful. She only replied to Pétion’s clumsy pleasantries: “Citizen, you speak like that because you do not understand me. One day, you will know.” Under a harmless pretext she went to Paris, and saw one of the Girondin deputies. In return for some civility, she advised him to leave at once for Caen. His friends were arrested, and his papers were already seized, but he told her that he could not desert the post of duty. Once more, she cried, “Believe me, fly before to-morrow night!” He did not understand, and he was one of the famous company that mounted the scaffold with Vergniaud. Next morning, Saturday July 13, Charlotte purchased her dagger, and called on Marat. Although he was in the bath where he spent most of his time, she made her way in, and explained her importunity by telling him about the conspirators she had seen in Normandy. Marat took down their names, and assured her that in a few days he would have them guillotined. At that signal she drove her knife into his heart. When the idiotic accuser-general intimated that so sure a thrust could only have been acquired by practice, she exclaimed, “The monster! He takes me for a murderess.” All that she felt was that she had taken one life to preserve thousands. She was knocked down and carried through a furious crowd to prison. At first she was astonished to be still alive. She had expected to be torn in pieces, and had hoped that the respectable inhabitants, when they saw her head displayed on a pike, would remember it was for them that her young life was given. Of all murderers, and of all victims, Charlotte Corday was the most composed. When the executioner came for the toilette, she borrowed his shears to cut off a lock of her hair. As the cart moved slowly through the raging streets, he said to her, “You must find the way long.” “No,” she answered, “I am not afraid of being late.” They say that Vergniaud pronounced this epitaph: “She has killed us, but she has taught us all how to die.”
After the failure in Normandy, of which this is the surviving episode, Buzot and his companions escaped by sea to the Gironde. Having been outlawed, on July 28, they were liable to suffer death without a trial, and had to hide in out-houses and caverns. Nearly all were taken. Barbaroux, who had brought the Marseillais, shot himself at the moment of capture, but had life enough to be carried to the scaffold. Buzot and Pétion outlived their downfall for a year. Towards the end of the Reign of Terror, snarling dogs attracted notice to a remote spot in the south-west. There the two Girondins were found, and recognised, though their faces had been eaten away. Before he went out to die, Buzot placed in safety the letters of Madame Roland. Seventy years later they came to light at a sale, and the suspected secret of her life told in her Memoirs, but suppressed by the early editors, was revealed to the world. She had been executed on November 10, 1793, four days after the Duke of Orleans, and the cheerful dignity of her last moments has reconciled many who were disgusted with her declamatory emphasis, her passion, and her inhumanity. Her husband was safe in his place of concealment near Rouen; but when he heard, he ran himself through with a sword-cane. The main group had died a few days earlier. Of 180 Girondin deputies, 140 were imprisoned or dispersed, and 24 of these managed to escape; 73 were arrested at Paris, October 3, but were not brought to trial; 21, among whom were many celebrities, went before the revolutionary tribunal, October 24, and a week later they were put to death. Their trial was irregular, even if their fate was not undeserved. With Vergniaud, Brissot, and their companions the practice began of sending numbers to the guillotine at once. There were 98 in the five months that followed.
During the agony of his party, Condorcet found shelter in a lodging-house at Paris. There, under the Reign of Terror, he wrote the little book on Human Progress, which contains his legacy to mankind. He derived the leading idea from his friend Turgot, and transmitted it to Comte. There may be, perhaps, a score or two dozen decisive and characteristic views that govern the world, and that every man should master in order to understand his age, and this is one of them. When the book was finished, the author’s part was played, and he had nothing more to live for. As his retreat was known to one, at least, of the Montagnards, he feared to compromise those who had taken him in at the risk of their life. Condorcet assumed a disguise, and crept out of the house with a Horace in one pocket and a dose of poison in the other. When it was dark, he came to a friend’s door in the country. What passed there has never been known, but the fugitive philosopher did not remain. A few miles outside Paris he was arrested on suspicion and lodged in the gaol. In the morning they found him lying dead. Cabanis, who afterwards supplied Napoleon in like manner, had given him the means of escape.
This was the miserable end of the Girondin party. They were easily beaten and mercilessly destroyed, and no man stirred to save them. At their fall liberty perished; but it had become a feeble remnant in their hands, and a spark almost extinguished. Although they were not only weak but bad, no nation ever suffered a greater misfortune than that which befell France in their defeat and destruction. They had been the last obstacle to the Reign of Terror, and to the despotism which then by successive steps centred in Robespierre.