I want a hero: an uncommon want,
When every year and month sends forth a new one,
Till, after cloying the gazettes with cant,
The age discovers he is not the true one
Barnave, Brissot, Condorcet, Mirabeau,
Petion, Clootz, Danton, Marat, La Fayette
Were French, and famous people, as we know;
And there were others, scarce forgotten yet,
Joubert, Hoche Marceau, Lannes, Desaix, Moreau,
With many of the military set,
Exceedingly remarkable at times,
But not at all adapted to my rhymes.
-Lord Byron, Don Juan
On this date, French Revolution orator Antoine Barnave — a founder of the short-lived Feuillants faction — became short-lived himself courtesy of the Paris Terror.
Just one of the side courses when the Revolution devoured its own children, Barnave (English Wikipedia entry | French) was a smart young avocat in the 1780s who distinguished himself at the Parlement of Grenoble.
Avant-garde ideas like political power redistributed to reflect “the new distribution of wealth” were just the sort of revolution that a wealthy lawyer could get behind.
Barnave’s genteel vision of the Revolution transferring the estates of the ancien regime into the mercantile hands of his friends in the bourgeoisie fell spectacularly to pieces in 1791.
That April, Mirabeau died. He was Barnave’s great debating rival in the Jacobin Club, but both men actually represented the same fundamental persuasion: constitutional monarchy. Needless to say, this Revolution was not built to halt at that particular milepost.
Within mere weeks, almost as if the players had been awaiting the literal death of Mirabeau’s moderation, events hurtled past Barnave’s sensibilities. The desperate royal family made its ill-chosen flight to Varennes in June, and the well-regarded Barnave was one of the Constituent Assembly delegates sent to escort Louis XVI back to a Paris now boiling with republican sentiment. Did not the sovereign’s literally attempting to desert from his patrimony entail an abandonment of his station?
In perhaps the pinnacle of Barnave’s rich career in political oratory, he delivered to the National Assembly on July 15 a thundering no to that proposition, challenging his fellow delegates to choose “between attachment to the Constitution and resentment against a man.”
I ask to-day of him among you who may have conceived every kind of prepossession and the deepest and most violent resentment against the executive power — I ask him to tell us whether his anger with that power is greater than his attachment to the law of his country.
Those who would thus sacrifice the Constitution to their resentment against one man seem to me far too liable to sacrifice liberty in their enthusiasm for another; and since they love a republic, now is the time to say to them: How can you wish for a republic in a nation where you hope that the action, easily pardoned after all, of an individual who has much to plead in his justification, that the action of an individual, who though certain qualities of his are now condemned, long possessed the people’s affection — when, I say, you hoped that the deed he has done might change our Government, how was it that you were not afraid that this same variableness of the people, if once they were moved by enthusiasm for a great man, by gratitude for great deeds — because the French nation, you know it, can love much better than it can hate — would overthrow your absurd republic in one day? (Source)
Barnave, to his grief, was entirely clear on what he desired in July of 1791: “all change is fatal now; all prolongation of the Revolution is disastrous now; the real question to my thinking is this, and the national interest is bound up with it; are we going to end the Revolution, or are we going to begin it again?”
His speech carried the motion on July 15th: Louis remained king. Still, the Revolution did not exit into past tense on Barnave’s say-so, and certainly not on so insubstantial a basis as “a resolve to be peaceful, a common resolve, a drawing together.”
He had the applause of the Assembly, which printed his speech for national distribution. But tempestuous debates broke out in Jacobin clubs and other radical circles, and amid intemperate accusations of treasonable conduct by the all-change-is-fatal-now crowd there were oaths sworn never to recognize the kingship of Louis XVI.
On July 17, a huge crowd led by Georges Danton filled the Champs de Mars to petition Louis’s removal. And in response to the Jacobin Club’s announced intention to support this demonstration — which turned into a galvanizing massacre when the Marquis de Lafayette had his national guardsmen fire on the protesters — Barnave with his friends and political allies Adrien Duport and Alexandre Lameth dramatically abandoned the Jacobins and split off the rival Feuillants.
In their day, this so-called “triumvirate” had been the Jacbins’ left wing. By now, they were the the revolution’s conservatives: the monarchists against the republicans, and the guys who liked the Revolution’s existing changes just fine.
“If the Revolution takes one more step, it cannot do so without danger,” Barnave intoned in that July 15 address of his. (Source) “If it is in the direction of liberty, the first act to follow could be the destruction of royalty; if it is in the direction of equality, the first act to follow could be the violation of property … is there still to be destroyed an aristocracy other than that of property?”**
Not everyone found those one-more-steps quite so terrible to contemplate as did the the silver-tongued Grenoble barrister.
Political cartoon of the Janus-faced Barnave — the man of the people in 1789, turned the man of the royal court in 1791.
If we have the luxury from posterity to smile at the notion of the Revolution’s peacably halting itself in 1791, the Feuillants had cause in their moment to think they could pull the trick.
Their move at first dramatically weakened the Jacobins, as the ranks of moderates flocked to Barnave’s prestige and eloquence. The Paris Jacobin Club lost three-quarters of its membership almost overnight, and most of its Assembly deputies. Public sentiment, at least so well as its contemporaries could discern, veered towards Barnave as well, and he was able to finalize the long-awaited Constitution of September 1791 preserving a number of important executive powers for the king’s own person.
The period of governance under that constitution opened with an address by the king that Barnave had written for him; its first few months are the “Feuillant Ministry”. Barnave was the beleaguered royal family’s chief advisor in this period.
But the Feuillant Ministry was crumbling almost from its inception. Its supporting club was founded on abhorrence for the popular politics whose force was still being uncovered in the Revolution; Barnave wanted nothing so much as the end of such societies altogether. So while the monarchists had secretaries exchanging delegated backslaps at private confabs, the reduced Jacobins — now the most passionate rump, helpfully purged of their milquetoast liberals — redoubled themselves under the sway of men like Marat and Robespierre. Barnave’s apparent alignment with the now-constitutional monarch gave legs to the “royalist” charge that was more and more laid at his feet, and Jacobin Clubs soon began receiving as prodigals former members who had found their dalliances with the Feuillants unsatisfactory.
Barnave and his faction came under relentless siege by pamphleteers, journalists, and radical democrats. One wonders if, in the end, Barnave took some cold comfort in having seen an implacable antagonist like Brissot precede him to the guillotine when his own Girondin faction, formerly the fire-eaters, tipped over the Revolution’s starboard bulwarks.
Meanwhile, the impolitic demand emanating from Marie Antoinette’s brother, the Holy Roman Emperor that the French royal family be safeguarded put France on its way to war with Austria, an outcome entirely contrary to not taking one more revolutionary step.
The hounded Barnave retired to Grenoble in January 1792 by which time the constitution he had so diligently promulgated had already virtually ceased to function, and he himself lost influence with both the king and the Assembly. In the months to follow the war tocsin undid his fellow-constitutionalists remaining in Paris. Consigned to the sidelines, their faction was arrested as royalists after the August 10, 1792 overthrow of the Bourbons.
Barnave’s papers were inventoried for hints of treasonable correspondence with the fallen king and queen, but as the curtain had not yet raised on the Terror — and Barnave had not been deported to the prisons of the capital in time for the September Massacres — he had an uncommonly lengthy period of political imprisonment. Barnave exercised this time composing his De la Révolution et de la Constitution (later published as Introduction à la révolution française), an economic history arguing that the rise of industry and manufacturing had transferred the leading role from France’s aristocrats to her bourgeoisie.
With the onset of the Terror, he was shipped to Paris to face treason charges owing to correspondence with Marie Antoinette, where his famous oratory took its last public turn for an audience that had stopped up its ears.
Finally, citizens, I recall this to you; I might have left France in all safety. Perhaps those who still love me will have reason to lament that I did not do what was so easy for me; but, whatever happens, I shall not have to reproach myself with having challenged the judges of my country, with having cast doubts on their integrity, their justice. I shall be sacrificed perhaps, but I had rather owe my ruin to human error than have pronounced my own condemnation. I shall carry to the scaffold the same calmness which you have seen me show in the debate, and to the last moment I shall pray for the welfare of my country. (Source)
He was beheaded with four other people at the Place de la Revolution on the morning of the very next day.
* It later emerged that Mirabeau was being paid by the royalist party.
** One of the steps towards equality so troubling to Barnave had been a push among Jacobin radicals to resolve upon the emancipation of black slaves in the colonies. Fretting the loss of, e.g., the lucrative sugar revenues of Saint-Domingue (Haiti), Barnave staunchly opposed this; he was one of the leading lights of the pro-slavery Massiac Club. (French link)