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The Girondists in the La Force Prison after their arrest. Woodcut from 1845.

The Girondins (in French Girondins, and sometimes Brissotins or "Baguettes") were a political faction in France within the Legislative Assembly and the National Convention during the French Revolution. The Girondists were a group of loosely-affiliated individuals rather than an organised political party with a clear ideology, and the name was at first informally applied because the most prominent exponents of their point of view were deputies from the Estates-general Gironde.

There were twelve of these deputies, six of whom—the lawyers Pierre Victurnien Vergniaud, Marguerite Élie Guadet, Armand Gensonné, Jean Antoine Laffargue de Grangeneuve and Jean Jay, and the tradesman Jean François Ducos—sat both in the Legislative Assembly and the National Convention. In the Legislative Assembly, these represented a compact body of opinion which, though not as yet definitely republican, was considerably more advanced than the moderate royalism of the majority of the Parisian deputies.

Associated with these views was a group of deputies from elsewhere, of whom the most notable were Thomas Paine, the Marquis de Condorcet, Claude Fauchet, M. D. A. Lasource, Maximin Isnard, the Comte de Kersaint, Henri Larivière, and, above all, Jacques Pierre Brissot, Jean Marie Roland and Jérôme Pétion, elected mayor of Paris in succession to Jean Sylvain Bailly on 16 November 1791.

Contents

Rise of the Girondists

Madame Roland, whose salon became their gathering-place, exercised a powerful influence on the spirit and policy of the Girondists; but such party cohesion as they possessed they owed to the energy of Brissot, who came to be regarded as their mouthpiece in the Assembly and in the Jacobin Club. Hence the name "Brissotins", coined by Camille Desmoulins, which was sometimes substituted for that of "Girondins", sometimes closely coupled with it. These first came into use strictly as party designations after the assembling of the National Convention (20 September 1792), to which a large proportion of the deputies from the Gironde who had sat in the Legislative Assembly were returned. Both names appeared as terms of opprobrium in speeches by the orators of the Jacobin Club, who freely denounced "the Royalists, the Federalists, the Brissotins, the Girondins and all the enemies of the democracy" (FA Aulard, La société des Jacobins, Recueil de documents (6 volumes, Paris, 1889, etc., V. 531)).

In the Legislative Assembly, the Girondists represented the principle of democratic revolution within and of patriotic defiance to the European powers without. They were all-powerful in the Jacobin Club, where Brissot's influence had not yet been ousted by Robespierre, and they did not hesitate to use this advantage to stir up popular passion and intimidate those who sought to stay the progress of the Revolution. They compelled the king in 1792 to choose a ministry composed of their partisans—among them Roland, Charles François Dumouriez, Étienne Clavière and Joseph Servan de Gerbey; and it was they who forced the declaration of war against Habsburg Austria. In all this there was no apparent line of cleavage between La Gironde and The Mountain. Montagnards and Girondists alike were fundamentally opposed to the monarchy; both were democrats as well as republicans; both were prepared to appeal to force in order to realise their ideals; in spite of the accusation of "federalism" freely brought against them, the Girondists desired as little as the Montagnards to break up the unity of France. Yet from the first the leaders of the two parties stood in avowed opposition, in the Jacobin Club as in the Assembly.

Temperament largely accounts for the party dividing line. The Girondists were radicals, doctrinaires and theorists rather than men of action; they initially encouraged the armed petitions which resulted, to their dismay, in the émeute (riot) of June 20; but Roland, turning the ministry of the exterior into a publishing office for tracts on the civic virtues, while in the provinces riotous mobs were burning the châteaux unchecked, is more typical of their spirit. They did not share the ferocious fanaticism or the ruthless opportunism of the future Montagnard organisers of the Reign of Terror. As the Revolution developed, the Girondists frequently found themselves opposing its results; the overthrow of the monarchy on 10 August 1792 and the September Massacres of 1792 occurred while they still nominally controlled the government, but the Girondists tried to distance themselves from the results of the September massacre.

Fall of the Girondists

The Girondists proposed the suspension of the king and the summoning of the National Convention; but they had only consented to overthrow the monarchy when they found that Louis XVI was impervious to their counsels. Once the republic was established, they were anxious to arrest the revolutionary movement which they had helped to set in motion[1]. Daunou argues in his Mémoires that they were too cultivated and too polished to retain their popularity long in times of disturbance, and were therefore the more inclined to work for the establishment of order, which would mean the guarantee of their own power. The Girondists, who had been the radicals of the Legislative Assembly, became the conservatives of the Convention.[2]

The failure of the revolution to deliver the immediate gains that had been promised made it difficult for the Girondists to easily draw it to a close in the minds of the public; moreover, the Septembriseurs—Robespierre, Danton, Marat and their lesser satellites—realised that not only their influence but their safety depended on keeping the Revolution alive[3]. Robespierre, who hated the Girondists, had proposed to include them in the proscription lists of September 1792; The Mountain Club to a man desired their overthrow.

The crisis came in March 1793. The Girondists, who had a majority in the Convention, controlled the executive council and filled the ministry, believed themselves invincible. Their orators had no serious rivals in the hostile camp; their system was established in the purest reason. But the Montagnards made up by their fanatical, or desperate, energy and boldness for what they lacked in talent or in numbers. This was especially fruitful because while the largest groups in the convention were the Jacobins and Brissotins, uncommitted delegates accounted for almost half the total number. The Jacobins' rhetoric had behind them the revolutionary Commune, the Sections (mass assemblies in districts) and the National Guard of Paris, and they had gained control of the Jacobin club, where Brissot, absorbed in departmental work, had been superseded by Robespierre. At the trial of Louis XVI the bulk of the Girondists had voted for the "appeal to the people", and so laid themselves open to the charge of "royalism"; they denounced the domination of Paris and summoned provincial levies to their aid, and so fell under suspicion of "federalism", though they rejected Buzot's proposal to transfer the Convention to Versailles. They strengthened the revolutionary Commune by decreeing its abolition, and then withdrawing the decree at the first sign of popular opposition; they increased the prestige of Marat by prosecuting him before the Revolutionary Tribunal, where his acquittal was a foregone conclusion.

In the suspicious temper of the times this vacillating policy was doubly fatal. Marat never ceased his denunciations of the faction des hommes d'Etat ("faction of the men of the State"), by which France was being betrayed to her ruin, and his cry of Nous sommes trahis! ("We are betrayed!") was re-echoed from group to group in the streets of Paris.

The hostility of Paris to the Girondists received a fateful advertisement by the election, on 15 February 1793, of the ex-Girondist Jean-Nicolas Pache (1746 - 1823) to the mayoralty. Pache had twice been minister of war in the Girondist government; but his incompetence had laid him open to strong criticism, and on 4 February 1793 he had been superseded by a vote of the Convention. This was enough to secure him the suffrages of the Paris electors ten days later, and the Mountain was strengthened by the accession of an ally whose one idea was to use his new power to revenge himself on his former colleagues. Pache, with Pierre Gaspard Chaumette, procureur of the Commune, and Jacques René Hébert, deputy procureur, controlled the armed organisation of the Paris Sections, and prepared to turn this against the Convention. The abortive émeute of 10 March warned the Girondists of their danger, but the Commission of Twelve appointed on 18 May, the arrest of Marat and Hébert, and other precautionary measures, were defeated by the popular risings of 27 and 31 May, and, finally, on 2 June 1793, François Hanriot with the National Guards purged the Convention of the Girondists. Isnard's threat, uttered on 25 May, to march France upon Paris had been met by Paris marching upon the Convention hastily.

In Thomas Flanagan's novel "Year of the French," George Moore says that the Girondists "prided themselves upon their oratory, and doubtless it is their oratory that they will be remembered. Of these circumstances the first may be said to have defended their weakness, and the second may serve as their epitaph. Here lie, headless, certain high-minded public figures. They spoke well." (page 55)

Girondists and the Terror

The list drawn up by Hanriot, and endorsed by a decree of the intimidated Convention, included twenty-two Girondist deputies and ten members of the Commission of Twelve, who were ordered to be detained at their lodgings "under the safeguard of the people". Some submitted, among them Gensonné, Guadet, Vergniaud, Pétion, Birotteau and Boyer-Fonfrède. Others, including Brissot, Louvet, Buzot, Lasource, Grangeneuve, Larivière and Bergoing, escaped from Paris and, joined later by Guadet, Pétion and Birotteau, set to work to organise a movement of the provinces against the capital. This attempt to stir up civil war determined the wavering and frightened Convention. On 13 June 1793 it voted that the city of Paris had deserved well of the country, and ordered the imprisonment of the detained deputies, the filling up of their places in the Assembly by their suppleants, and the initiation of vigorous measures against the movement in the provinces.

The excuse for the Terror that followed was the imminent peril of France, menaced on the east by the advance of the armies of the First Coalition, on the west by the Royalist insurrection of La Vendée, and the need for preventing at all costs the outbreak of another civil war. The assassination of Marat by Charlotte Corday only served to increase the unpopularity of the Girondists and to seal their fate. On 28 July 1793 a decree of the Convention proscribed, as traitors and enemies of their country, twenty-one deputies, the final list of those sent for trial comprising the names of Antiboul, Boilleau the younger, Boyer-Fonfrêde, Brissot, Carra, Duchastel, the younger Ducos, Dufriche de Valazé, Duprat, Fauchet, Gardien, Gensonné, Lacaze, Lasource, Lauze-Deperret, Lehardi, Lesterpt-Beauvais, the elder Minvielle, Sillery, Vergniaud and Viger, of whom five were deputies from the Gironde. The names of thirty-nine others were included in the final acte d'accusation, accepted by the Convention on 24 October 1793, which stated the crimes for which they were to be tried as their perfidious ambition, their hatred of Paris, their "federalism" and, above all, their responsibility for the attempt of their escaped colleagues to provoke civil war.

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The Girondists on trial

Execution of the Girondists. Woodcut from 1862.

The trial of the twenty-one, which began before the Revolutionary Tribunal on 24 October 1793, was a mere farce, the verdict a foregone conclusion. On 31 October they were borne to the guillotine in five tumbrils, the corpse of Dufriche de Valazé—who had killed himself—being carried with them. They met death with great courage, singing the refrain Plutôt la mort que l'esclavage.

Of those who escaped to the provinces the greater number, after wandering about singly or in groups, were either captured and executed or committed suicide, among them Barbaroux, Buzot, Condorcet, Grangeneuve, Guadet, Kersaint, Pétion, Rabaut de Saint-Etienne and Rebecqui. Roland had killed himself at Rouen on 15 November 1793, a week after the execution of his wife. Among the very few who finally escaped was Jean-Baptiste Louvet de Couvrai, whose Mémoires give a thrilling picture of the sufferings of the fugitives. Incidentally they prove, too, that the sentiment of France was for the time against the Girondists, who were proscribed even in their chief centre, the city of Bordeaux.

Girondists as martyrs

The survivors of the party made an effort to re-enter the Convention after the fall of Robespierre on 27 July 1794, but it was not until 5 March 1795 that they were formally reinstated. On October 3 of the same year (11 Vendémiaire, year III) a solemn fête in honour of the Girondist "martyrs of liberty" was celebrated in the Convention.

Further reading

Of the special works on the Girondists Lamartine's Histoire des Girondins (2 volumes, Paris, 1847, new edition 1902, in 6 volumes) is rhetoric rather than history and is untrustworthy; the Histoire des Girondins, by A. Gramier de Cassagnac (Paris, 1860) led to the publication of a Protestation by J. Guadet, a nephew of the Girondist orator, which was followed by his Les Girondins, leur vie privée, leur vie publique, leur proscription et leur mort (2 volumes, Paris, 1861, new edition 1890), with which compare Alary, Les Girondins par Guadet (Bordeaux, 1863); also Charles Vatel, Charlotte Corday et les Girondins: pièces classées et annotées (3 volumes, Paris, 1864 - 1872).

  • A new addition to this theme is Prof. Leigh Ann Whaley's book, Radicals-Politics and Republicanism in the French Revolution (2000), Sutton Publishing, Gloucestershire, which has elicited several pungent reviews, some of which are noted in this text via direct link citations. Supplementary reading that helps separate the Jacobins from the Girondins (but are not specific works about the Girondins):
  • Schama, Simon. Citizens - A Chronicle of the French Revolution. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1989,(hardcover; ISBN 0-394-55948-7).
  • Scott, Otto. Robespierre, The Fool as Revolutionary - Inside the French Revolution. Windsor, NY, The Reformer Library, 1974 (softcover; ISBN 9-781887-690058)
  • Loomis, Stanley. Paris in the Terror. New York, NY, Dorset Press, 1964 (hardcover; ISBN 0-88029-401-9). This work relates in detail (1) the relationship of Charlotte Corday to the Girondins and the subsequent assassination of Marat and (2) the love-hate relationship between Danton and the Girondins.

See also

References

External links


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