1794: Madame Lavergne and Monsieur Lavergne, united in love

Add comment March 31st, 2018 Headsman

The below will be found in Elizabet Starling’s Noble Deeds of Woman, Or, Examples of Female Courage and Virtue; similar glosses on the same narrative are afoot in several other public domain volumes.

As will be affirmed by a glance at a converter for France’s revolutionary calendar, this text badly botches its translation of the date of “11 Germinal” — another reminder that nobody cares about the dates. “Germinal” means “seed” and so is of course a spring month; there are rosters of the Paris Terror victims available which confirm that March 31 is the correct execution date for both Monsieur and Madame Lavergne.

CONSTANCY OF MADAME LAVERGNE.

Mightier far
Than strength of nerve or sinew, or the sway
Of magic potent over sun and star,
Is love, though oft to agony distrest,
And though his favorite seat be feeble woman’s breast.

-WORDSWORTH.

Madame Lavergne had not long been married when her husband, who was governor of Longwy, was obliged to surrender that fort to the Prussians. The French however, succeeded in regaining possession of the place, when M. Lavergne was arrested and conducted to one of the prisons in Paris. His wife followed him to the capital: she was then scarcely twenty years of age, and one of the loveliest women of France. Her husband was more than sixty, yet his amiable qualities first won her esteem, and his tenderness succeeded to inspire her with an affection as sincere and fervent as that which he possessed for her. While the unfortunate Lavergne expected every hour to be summoned before the dreaded tribunal, he was attacked with illness in his dungeon. At any other moment this affliction would have been a subject of grief and inquietude to Madame Lavergne; under her present circumstances, it was a source of hope and consolation. She could not believe there existed a tribunal so barbarous as to bring a man before the judgment-seat who was suffering under a burning fever. A perilous disease, she imagined, was the present safeguard of her husband’s life; and she flattered herself that the fluctuation of events would change his destiny, and finish in his favor that which nature had so opportunely begun. Vain expectation! The name of Lavergne had been irrevocably inscribed on the fatal list of the 11th Germinal, of the second year of the republic, (June 25th, 1794,) [sic; see above -ed.] and he must on that day submit to his fate.

Madame Lavergne, informed of this decision, had recourse to tears and supplications. Persuaded that she could soften the hearts of the representatives of the people by a faithful picture of Lavergne’s situation, she presented herself before the Committee of General Safety: she demanded that her husband’s trial should be delayed, whom she represented as a prey to a dangerous and afflicting disease, deprived of the strength of his faculties, and of all those powers, either of body or mind, which could enable him to confront his intrepid and arbitrary accusers. ‘Imagine, oh citizens!’ said the agonized wife of Lavergne, ‘such an unfortunate being as I have described dragged before a tribunal about to decide upon his life, while reason abandons him, while he cannot understand the charges brought against him, nor has sufficient power of utterance to declare his innocence. His accusers, in full possession of their moral and physical strength, and already inflamed with hatred against him, are instigated even by his helplessness to more than ordinary exertions of malice: while the accused, subdued by bodily suffering and mental infirmity, is appalled or stupefied, and barely sustains the dregs of his miserable existence. Will you, oh citizens of France! call a man to trial while in the phrensy of delirium? Will you summon him, who perhaps at this moment expires upon the bed of pain, to hear that irrevocable sentence, which admits of no medium between liberty or the scaffold? and, if you unite humanity with justice, can you suffer in old man — ?’ At these words, every eye was turned on Madame Lavergne, whose youth and beauty, contrasted with the idea of an aged and infirm husband, gave rise to very different emotions in the breasts of the members of the committee from those with which she had so eloquently sought to inspire them. They interrupted her with coarse jests and indecent raillery. One of the members assured her, with a scornful smile, that, young and handsome as she was, it would not be so difficult as she appeared to imagine to find means of consolation for the loss of a husband, who, in the common course of nature, had lived already long enough. Another of them, equally brutal and still more ferocious, added, that the fervor with which she had pleaded the cause of such a husband was an unnatural excess, and therefore the committee could not attend to her petition.

Horror, indignation, and despair, took possession of the soul of Madame Lavergne; she had heard the purest and most exalted affection for one of the worthiest of men condemned as a degraded passion; she had been wantonly insulted, while demanding justice, by the administrators of the laws of a nation; and she rushed in silence from the presence of these inhuman men, to hide the bursting agony of her sorrows.

One faint ray of hope yet arose to cheer the gloom of Madame Lavergne’s despondency. Dumas was one of the judges of the tribunal, and him she had known previous to the Revolution. Her repugnance to seek this man, in his new career, was subdued by a knowledge of his power and her hopes of his influence. She threw heiself at his feet, bathed them with her tears, and conjured him, by all the claims of mercy and humanity, to prevail on the tribunal to delay the trial of her husband till the our of his recovery. Dumas replied, coldly, that it did not belong to him to grant the favor she solicited, nor should he choose to make such a request of the tribunal; then, in a tone somewhat animated by insolence and sarcasm, he added, ‘And is it, then, so great a misfortune, madame, to be delivered from a troublesome husband of sixty, whose death will leave you at liberty to employ your youth and charms more usefully?’

Such a reiteration of insult roused the unfortunate wife of Lavergne to desperation; she shrieked with insupportable anguish, and, rising from her humble posture, she extended her arms towards Heaven, and exclaimed, ‘Just God! will not the crimes of these atrocious men awaken Thy vengeance? Go, monster!’ she cried to Dumas; ‘I no longer want thy aid, — I no longer need to supplicate thy pity; away to the tribunal! — there will I also appear; then shall it be known whether I deserve the outrages which thou and thy base associates have heaped upon me.’ From the presence of Dumas, Madame Lavergne repaired to the hall of the tribunal, and mixing with the crowd, waited in silence for the hour of trial. The barbarous proceedings of the day commenced, and on M. Lavergne being called for, the unfortunate man was carried into the hall by the gaolers, supported on a mattress. To the few questions which were proposed to him, he replied in a feeble and dying voice, and the fatal sentence of death was pronounced upon him.

“Scarcely had the sentence passed the lips of the judge, when Madame Lavergne cried, with a loud voice, ‘Vive le roi!’ The persons nearest the place whereon she stood eagerly surrounded, and endeavored to silence her; but the more the astonishment and alarm of the multitude augmented, the more loud and vehement became her cries of ‘Vive le roi!’ The guard was called, and directed to lead her away. She was followed by a numerous crowd, mute with consternation and pity; but the passages and staircases still resounded every instant with ‘Vive le roi!’ till she was conducted into one of the rooms belonging to the court of justice, into which the public accuser came to interrogate her on the motives of her extraordinary conduct.

‘I am not actuated,’ she answered, ‘by any sudden impulse of despair or revenge for the condemnation of M. Lavergne, but from the love of royalty, which is rooted in my heart. I adore the system that you have destroyed. I do not expect any mercy from you, for I am your enemy; I abhor your republic, and will persist in the confession I have publicly made, as long as I live.’

Such a declaration was without reply, and the name of Madame Lavergne was instantly added to the list of suspected persons: a few minutes afterwards, she was brought before the tribunal, where she again uttered her own accusation, and was condemned to die. From that instant, the agitation of her spirits subsided, serenity took possession of her mind, and her beautiful countenance announced only the peace and satisfaction of her soul.

On the day of execution, Madame Lavergne first ascended the cart, and desired to be so placed that she might behold her husband. The unfortunate Lavergne had fallen into a swoon, and was in that condition extended upon straw in the cart, at the feet of his wife, without any signs of life. On the way to the place of execution, the motion of the cart had loosened the bosom of Lavergne’s shirt, and exposed his breast to the scorching rays of the sun, till his wife entreated the executioner to take a pin from her handkerchief and fasten his shirt. Shortly afterwards, Madame Lavergne, whose attention never wandered from her husband for a single instant, perceived that his senses returned, and called him by his name; at the sound of that voice, whose melody had been so long withheld from him, Lavergne raised his eyes, and fixed them on her with a look at once expressive of terror and affection. ‘Do not be alarmed,’ she said; ‘it is your faithful wife who called you; you know I could not live without you, and we are going to die together.’ Lavergne burst into tears of gratitude, which relieved the oppression of his heart, and he became once more able to express his love and admiration of his virtuous wife. The scaffold, which was intended to separate, united them forever.

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1794: The Comte de Feuillide, Jane Austen in-law

Add comment February 22nd, 2018 Headsman

To Madame la Comtesse de Feuillide this novel is inscribed by her obliged humble servant The Author.

-Jane Austen’s author’s dedication in Love and Freindship

On this date in 1794, the guillotine brought tragedy to Jane Austen’s family.

The blade’s more immediate victim was Jean Gabriel Capotte, the Comte de Feuillide and the husband of Eliza de Feuillide (nee Hancock), Jane Austen’s “outlandish cousin.”

Fourteen years the novelist’s senior, Eliza was born in India to Jane’s Aunt Philadelphia who went abroad seeking a mercenary marriage and landed an unhappy one to a surgeon twice her age, Tysoe Saul Hancock. Eliza Hancock might possibly have been the illegitimate daughter of colonial administrator Warren Hastings, who stoked rumors by establishing a trust for the young woman. (Eliza also later named her only son “Hastings”.)

Either way, she didn’t grow up in the colonies but in England and France, where her vivacity conquered the heart of a prosperous French officer on the make, a barrister’s son who self-aggrandized his rank of Comte de Feuillide. As a gadabout exile “French countess” during the French Revolution, the charming Eliza de Feuillide was a hit both with London society and with her debutante cousin Jane, “whose kind partiality to me” Eliza would write in a letter “indeed requires a return of the same nature.”

Eliza exerted a magnetic influence on her kinswoman, and she’s popularly suspected to be the model for the Mansfield Park character Mary Crawford.* There’s even a book theorizing that this peripatetic polyglot was the true author of Jane Austen’s canon.


Lucy Cohu as Eliza de Feuillide makes some guillotine banter in Becoming Jane.

Back in France, where he served in the army, the hubby with an emigre wife and an aristocratic pretension made a decidedly poorer impression upon the Jacobins, as Maggie Lane observes in Jane Austen’s Family:

On 22 February 1794 the Comte de Feuillide fell victim to the guillotine. He had foolishly, if gallantly, tried to bribe one of the Secretaries of the Committee of Safety to secure the liberty of the widow of an army colleague, Jacques Marboeuf, Marquis and Marechal-de-camp. The fifty-five-year-old Marquise stood accused of laying down certain arable lands on her estate to fodder crops, with the idea of producing a famine in an effort to undermine the Republic.

De Feuillide was double-crossed by the Secretary and arrested at his lodging in the rue Grenelle et St Honore, where incriminating documents and sums of money parcelled up for the bribery were seized. The Marquise, the Comte and the Marquise’s man of business who had acted as a go-between in the attempt, all were sentenced to death.

After a few years as a merry widow, Eliza wed her cousin Henry Austen — Jane’s brother and Eliza’s “perpetual sunshine”. Eliza Austen died in 1813, with Jane Austen at her bedside.

* In Jane Austen and the French Revolution, Warren Roberts argues that the Comte de Feuillide has his own literary doppelganger in the unfinished Austen novel Catherine, in the form of Edward Stanley.

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1793: Armand Louis de Gontaut

Add comment December 31st, 2017 Headsman

Armand Louis de Gontaut, duc de Lauzun and later duc de Biron, an officer in the American Revolution and and the French Revolution, was guillotined during the Paris Terror on this date in 1793.

Born in 1747, Lauzun had some youthful finding-himself years “wasting his fortune in dissipation in various parts of Europe” before he got serious about being an Enlightenment Man, penned an essay on British colonial defenses, and went and fought them in a colonial skirmish.

Satisfactory performance in West Africa qualified him to twist the lion’s tail again by raising a legion of hussars for the American Revolution. Lauzun fought at the independence-clinching upset of Yorktown, winning promotion back in the home country to marechal de camp.

That Lafayette-like package of liberal sensibility, blue blood, and battlefield competence was just the thing for the more moderate early years of the French Revolution, and just the thing to cost his head by the time of the Terror. Our man found himself by 1793 transferred from the French army on the Rhine to the against War in the Vendee where he arrived already too milquetoast for the extreme violence being demanded for pacification. The Jacobin firebrand Marat had already petitioned for the ex-nobleman’s removal; it was effected by Jean-Baptiste Carrier who in 1793 was busily blackening his name by pacifying the Vendee with indiscriminate slaughter.

Lauzun/Biron/Gontaut was arrested at Carrier’s behest for incivisme, that want of revolutionary ardor that in this moment stood tantamount to treason. Vainly he protested (pdf) from his confinement that “my conscience reproaches me for nothing.” Still, he met the inevitable fate at the Revolutionary Tribunal’s hands with peace and was reported to have gone calmly to the guillotine, the last words upon his lips a self-recrimination:

“I die punished for having been false to my God, my King and my order.”

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1789: Francois Bordier, Harlequin

Add comment August 21st, 2017 Headsman

On this date in the pregnant year of 1789, the former boulevard actor Francois Bordier hanged for a bit of revolutionary overexuberance.

He’d gained his fame in the 1780s for his portrayals of both Harlequin (on stage) and a besotted gambler (in Parisian society); “police records bulge with accounts of his gambling debts and spats with actresses.”

The summer of 1789, after the Bastille was stormed in Paris, was in the countryside la Grande Peur, the Great Fear: bread shortages and political upheaval put many a manor to the sack.

One such facility was Rouen’s Hotel de l’Intendance, assailed on August 3 by a mob led by Bordier, along with another fellow named Jourdain. Jourdain would perish at the gallows with Bordier but then as now the actor was all anyone wanted to talk about. The horror or heroism of Bordier moved purple pamphlets by the kiloquire, and even put Bordier on the other side of the playbill as a character in the next season’s pantomimes.*

At the news of the imprisonment of their harlequin, rumours were heard in Paris that thirty thousand Parisians, with Saint-Huruge at their head, would march to the rescue; but the authorities at Rouen, nothing daunted by the threat, put the two ringleaders on their trial. Both were condemned to death, and in spite of the intercession of Bailly and Lafayette on behalf of Bordier, both were hanged at Rouen on August 21.

-Source

His preserved head can still be gawked at the musée Flaubert et d’Histoire de la Médecine.

* See Political Actors: Representative Bodies and Theatricality in the Age of the French Revolution by Executed Today interviewee Paul Friedland. Bordier, Friedland observes elsewhere, “personified the mixing of theatrical and political forms, the profane and the sacred, that so suddenly upset the established order in 1789. And post-mortem characterizations of Bordier reflected that peculiar combination of amusement and horror that politico-theatrical hybrids seemed to inspire.”

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1795: Charles de Virot, after the Quiberon debacle

Add comment July 28th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1795, general Charles de Virot, marquis de Sombreuil was shot for leading the royalist invasion of Quiberon in the west of France.

It was not even a year since the end of the Paris Terror — indeed, Sombreuil would have the honor of dying on the anniversary of Robespierre’s beheading — when 5,000 emigres backed by British ships crowded like sardines onto a peninsula famous for canning them, intending to join and lead the domestic Chouan resistance.

Amid the uncertain interim of the Directory a yet-Republican France wracked by war, economic crisis, and political uncertainty looked ripe for the overthrow. And true enough, the Directory in time would give way to a king of sorts.

The west of France, in Brittany adjacent the Vendee which had long troubled Jacobin rule, ought to have been the place to raise the fleur-de-lis but the expedition as cogitated from London was plagued from the start by disorganization and came to a speedy grief in June and July of 1795, remembered only in the dourest of palettes.


An episode in the affair of Quiberon, by Paul-Camile Boutigny.


An episode in the rout of Quiberon, by Pierre Outin.

A mere pup of 25, Gen. Sombreuil had already lived long enough to quaff the Revolution’s horrors: his father and brother had fallen under the sans-culotte blade in Paris in 1794, while his sister is famous for literally quaffing the blood of the guillotined to prove her loyalty and thereby save her family from the September Massacres.

Our man Charles shared the ill fruit of Quiberon with 747 other captured prisoners as the Republicans made policy of showing no mercy to invading emigrants. They were shot over a period of weeks at Quiberon and nearby Vannes and Auray; a nearby grounds would become hallowed of the Bourbon restoration as the Champ des martyrs with the burial of these martyrs’ remains. A expiatory chapel to their memory still stands there to this day.

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1794: Nicolas Luckner, German marshal of France

1 comment January 4th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1794, Nicolas Luckner was guillotined in Paris.

A count with his own manor on the German-Danish frontier, Luckner (English Wikipedia entry | German, where he’s Nikolaus von Luckner) made the sort of cross-national career pivot that was still possible in the pre-revolutionary world by going from commanding hussars against France in the Seven Years’ War to serving in the Bourbon army.

Allegedly convinced that Marie Antoinette had blocked his advancement, Luckner supported the French Revolution, and by 1791 had summited his profession as Marshal of France.

He was the very commander of the Army of the Rhine to whom Rouget de Lisle dedicated the 1792 Chant de Guerre pour l’Armée du Rhin … the marchable tune which later became the Marseillaise. (Luckner’s name also appears on the Arc de Triomphe.)

Things did not go as swimmingly with the Army of the North, where he bogged down in the Low Countries — and the incriminating defection of the Marquis de Lafayette to France’s royalist enemies did him no favors in the court of Jacobin opinion. Luckner was relieved of his command by the impatient National Convention.*

This septuagenarian foreign count showed a lordly blindness to his adoptive country’s situation both fiscal and political by journeying to Paris later in 1793 to complain that his pension was not being funded in full. Other officers had already fallen under the Terror’s blade for command failure, where any shortcoming in the field could be readily conflated with treachery — and Luckner, no surprise, was soon denounced as a royalist.

City hall in the small Bavarian town of Cham, where Luckner was born in 1722, still chimes the Marseillaise every day to honor its native son … whose name also associates with Germany’s World War I naval hero Felix von Luckner, the great grandson of our man Nicolas.

* The Convention’s emissary on this occasion was Choderlos de Laclos … best known now (and then) as the author of the viperous epistolary novel of ancien regime misbehavior Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

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1792: Barnabé Farmian Durosoy, royalist journalist

Add comment August 25th, 2015 Headsman

Litterateur Barnabé Farmian Durosoy was guillotined in Paris on this date in 1792.

Playwright, poet, and (most problematically) journalist, Durosoy‘s newspaper Gazette de Paris took issue with the French Revolution’s radical and anti-clerical turn — incurring the dangerous denunciation of Marat.

Durosoy had the boldness to denounce in print the 10 August coup whereby Georges Danton and the Paris Commune* toppled the monarchy.

“If these rebels dare to degrade the king then they dare to judge, and if they judge then their verdict is death!” Durosoy thundered.

He would not even live long enough to see his prophecy fulfilled: the Gazette was immediately suppressed and Durosoy brought to trial as “cashier of all the Anti-revolutionists of the interior.” (Carlyle)

He was the first journalist guillotined in revolutionary France — noting that he died as a royalist ought on the feast day of St. Louis.

* No, not that Paris Commune.

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1793: A Lyon mitraillade

Add comment December 14th, 2014 Headsman

The executions on December 14, 1793 illustrated above (image from here) date to Revolutionary France’s violent suppression that month of the France’s second city for its resistance to Jacobin power.

We have alluded before to this bloody interim, led by the National Convention‘s ruthless emissaries Collot d’Herbois and Joseph Fouche — two men well aware that any appearance of undue leniency in the chastisement of Lyons might send their own heads under the guillotine back in Paris.

To accomplish such an urgent task, they dispensed with the mere guillotine and rolled out a new death-dealing technology: the mitraillades, or execution by grapeshot.*

This bizarre killing method involved lining up the prisoners to be executed — scores or hundreds at once at the height of the Lyons crackdown — before the mouths of cannon loaded with anti-infantry balls. When the cannons fired, they mowed down the victims en masse. And then, gloated the executioners’ Convention ally Barere, “the corpses of the rebellious Lyonese, floating down the Rhone, would warn the citizens of Toulon of their coming fate!”

Now, grapeshot is an outstanding weapon in the right spot, but it is not at all certain to kill its targets. On the battlefield, mangled survivors were just about as good as dead bodies when it came to mauling the soldiery.

But executioners usually aim for something a bit more predictably lethal. The mitraillades could not offer anything close to dependable, near-universal slaughter … and so the horror of the artillery discharge was followed (as one sees in the drawing above) by the horror of the many stunned and injured survivors of the cannonade being finished one by one at close quarters with muskets and bayonets. Though a single coup de grace might count as a mercy, a hundred at once made for simple butchery.

The mitraillade did such brutal work that the national government soon ordered its Lyons deputation to lay off the innovation and return to the standard device for a Republican execution — the guillotine.

* Present-day Francophones will most likely associate the word mitrailleuse with the machine gun. That term dates to a a 19th century “volley gun” capable of spitting out 25 rounds from a cluster of rifle barrel activated by a single crank; for obvious reasons, this weapon inherited its name from the French word for grapeshot, mitraillade.

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1793: Antoine Barnave, constitutional monarchist

Add comment November 29th, 2014 Headsman

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.

Duly elected at the ripe old age of 27 to France’s watershed (and last) Estates-General of 1789, Barnave was a very early member of the Jacobin Club. You know, before it was cool.

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.

French speakers might enjoy this public domain book by Jules Gabriel Janin. This post has also quoted several times from Eliza Dorothy Bradby’s 1915 English biography of the man.

* 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)

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1793: Madame Roland, éminence grise

Add comment November 8th, 2014 Amelia Fedo

(Thanks to Amelia Fedo, a graduate student in French literature, for the guest post.)

On this date in 1793, Manon Roland (née Phlipon)* was guillotined as part of the Girondist purges in the Paris Terror.

As Olympe de Gouges — who preceded her to the guillotine by only a few days — observed, being a woman may have prevented her from holding political power under her own name, but it didn’t stop her from losing her own head.

Born in Paris to a bourgeois engraver, she married up through her alliance with quasi-aristocrat Jean-Marie Roland de la Platière. Twenty years her senior, he was chosen by her for his class status and intellect rather than for the love he inspired.

Ambitious from the start, Madame Roland took advantage of her husband’s (and later, her Girondin not-quite-lover François Buzot‘s) engagement in civic life to catapult herself into the role of behind-the-scenes stateswoman. She had been prepared for this role since childhood, when she had voraciously read Rousseau and Plutarch. Unlike Olympe de Gouges, she internalized the idea that women did not belong in politics — yet still she yearned to have an influence on the Republic.

And she did indeed succeed in wielding political power, with enough competence that Robespierre wanted her guillotined at least as much as her husband: everyone knew that she was the real force to be reckoned with.

Her political career was inextricably tied to her husband’s. Unable to hold political office herself, she lived vicariously through him. At first he was a bureaucrat, and she his secretary and personal assistant; but then he became involved in Parisian politics and was eventually appointed Minister of the Interior.

It was his wife who encouraged him to accept the position; for a year now she had been hosting salons frequented by a wide range of political movers and shakers, and she was itching to get in the game.

Monsieur Roland did not have a brilliant career as minister. His wife was the one with the vision and energy (the historian Lucy Moore claims that every good idea he had was hers); although devoted to Republican ideals he remained something of a milquetoast, and was attacked both by the snobby old guard (the lack of buckles on his shoes caused a scandal) and by the extreme left.

Although Madame Roland identified with Robespierre and was a good deal more radical than the Girondins (especially in her feelings about the monarchy), she and her husband were still officially associated with them. As such, they were swept up in Robespierre’s purges.

There were a few pre-Terror false alarms: a warrant was issued for Monsieur Roland’s arrest after the September Massacres, which Danton put the kibosh on; and in 1792, Madame Roland was dragged into court on trumped-up charges of corresponding with émigrés, but was able to use her oratorical skills to get herself acquitted.

When the Terror began, Monsieur Roland opted to keep his head down in the hopes of keeping it on, and resigned from his post as minister.

It was too late. In May 1793 Madame Roland was arrested again — unaccompanied by her husband, who had managed to escape into hiding.

She was subjected to a show trial like so many before and after her; although she had prepared a defense, she was not allowed to read it. Given that she was accused of “conspiring against the unity and the indivisibility of the Republic and attempting to introduce civil war,” neither her verdict nor her sentence are much of a surprise.

She was preoccupied with her husband (whom she declared would be driven to suicide by her execution), with Buzot (who was in grave danger of suffering her same fate), and with her own legacy. She seized the opportunity to be a martyr like the men she so admired — men who had been able to act in the open, rather than behind the scenes — and took advantage of the free time she had in prison to write her memoirs.

Most sources give similar accounts of her behavior before and during the execution. Content to die for her principles — or, perhaps, simply resolved to make a show of contentment — she maintained great calm and resignation in her final hours. The only favor she asked of anyone was that her childhood friend Sophie Grandchamp wait for her on the Pont-Neuf so that they could see each other when the tumbrel passed.

Influencing people up to the very end, Roland’s last political act was an attempt to impart some of her courage to the man who would share her tumbrel, a forger of assignats named Lamarche.

Lacking the sort of great social narrative that would give meaning to his death (such as a personal feud with Robespierre), Lamarche did not share Roland’s sanguine attitude; he thus found himself the recipient of a performance designed to alter his mood, consisting mostly of jokes, distractions, and modeled behavior. The events surrounding her execution have passed into legend, but various sources agree that she quipped to Lamarche after his hair was cut, “It suits you wonderfully. You have the head of a Roman.”

She also urged the executioner to leave her own hair long enough to serve as a suitable handle — for him to show her head to the crowd, of course.

As much as she detested Danton, it appears she had a few things in common with him after all.

Counterintuitively, it was considered a privilege to be guillotined first; it was merciful, the reasoning went, to kill someone before they could see others die. Roland chose to pass up this “privilege”; most attribute this to her desire to spare Lamarche the sight of her death, but Lucy Moore points out in Liberty: The Lives and Times of Six Women in Revolutionary France that she may have rejected the logic of such a “mercy” altogether and wished to live — like Madame du Barry — even a few moments longer.

After mounting the scaffold, she addressed a statue of Marianne, left over from a festival held in the Place de la Révolution; she is traditionally said to have exclaimed, “O liberty, what crimes are committed in your name!”, although a less reputable source (i.e., the apocryphal Sanson memoirs) assigns her the more prosaic last words, “Oh! Liberty, how they’ve tricked you!”

As she had predicted, her husband committed suicide two days later, falling on his sword as soon as he learned of her fate.

*This is only one of many names she has been called; Siân Reynolds explains in Marriage and Revolution: Monsieur and Madame Roland that “Manon” is a childhood name, and her adult name remains mysterious; it was either “Marie,” “Jeanne,” or “Marie-Jeanne.”

A few books about Madame Roland

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