1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Girondists

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GIRONDISTS (Fr. Girondins), the name given to a political party in the Legislative Assembly and National Convention during the French Revolution (1791–1793). The Girondists were, indeed, rather a group of individuals holding certain opinions and principles in common than an organized political party, and the name was at first somewhat loosely applied to them owing to the fact that the most brilliant exponents of their point of view were deputies from the Gironde. These deputies were twelve in number, six of whom—the lawyers Vergniaud, Guadet, Gensonné, Grangeneuve and 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 other parts of France, of whom the most notable were Condorcet, Fauchet, Lasource, Isnard, Kersaint, Henri Larivière, and, above all, Jacques Pierre Brissot, Roland and Pétion, elected mayor of Paris in succession to Bailly on the 16th of November 1791. On the spirit and policy of the Girondists Madame Roland, whose salon became their gathering-place, exercised a powerful influence (see Roland); but such party cohesion as they possessed they owed to the energy of Brissot (q.v.), who came to be regarded as their mouthpiece in the Assembly and the Jacobin Club. Hence the name Brissotins, coined by Camille Desmoulins, which was sometimes substituted for that of Girondins, sometimes closely coupled with it. As strictly party designations these first came into use after the assembling of the National Convention (September 20th, 1792), to which a large proportion of the deputies from the Gironde who had sat in the Legislative Assembly were returned. Both were used as terms of opprobrium 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” (F. Aulard, Soc. des Jacobins, vi. 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 (see Jacobins), 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, Dumouriez, Clavière and Servan; and it was they who forced the declaration of war against 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 realize 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. It was largely a question of temperament. The Girondists were idealists, doctrinaires and theorists rather than men of action; they encouraged, it is true, the “armed petitions” which resulted, to their dismay, in the émeute of the 20th of June; but Roland, turning the ministry of the interior 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. With the ferocious fanaticism or the ruthless opportunism of the future organizers of the Terror they had nothing in common. As the Revolution developed they trembled at the anarchic forces they had helped to unchain, and tried in vain to curb them. The overthrow of the monarchy on the 10th of August and the massacres of September were not their work, though they claimed credit for the results achieved.

The crisis of their fate was not slow in coming. It was they who proposed the suspension of the king and the summoning of the National Convention; but they had only consented to overthrow the kingship when they found that Louis XVI. was impervious to their counsels, and, the republic once established, they were anxious to arrest the revolutionary movement which they had helped to set in motion. As Daunou shrewdly observes in his Mémoires, 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.[1] Thus the Girondists, who had been the Radicals of the Legislative Assembly, became the Conservatives of the Convention. But they were soon to have practical experience of the fate that overtakes those who attempt to arrest in mid-career a revolution they themselves have set in motion. The ignorant populace, for whom the promised social millennium had by no means dawned, saw in an attitude seemingly so inconsistent obvious proof of corrupt motives, and there were plenty of prophets of misrule to encourage the delusion—orators of the clubs and the street corners, for whom the restoration of order would have meant well-deserved obscurity. Moreover, the Septembriseurs—Robespierre, Danton, Marat and their lesser satellites—realized that not only their influence but their safety depended on keeping the Revolution alive. Robespierre, who hated the Girondists, whose lustre had so long obscured his own, had proposed to include them in the proscription lists of September; the Mountain 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. They had behind them the revolutionary Commune, the Sections 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. And as the motive power of this formidable mechanism of force they could rely on the native suspiciousness of the Parisian populace, exaggerated now into madness by famine and the menace of foreign invasion. The Girondists played into their hands. At the trial of Louis XVI. the bulk of them 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’État,” by which France was being betrayed to her ruin, and his parrot cry of “Nous sommes trahis!” was re-echoed from group to group in the streets of Paris. The Girondists, for all their fine phrases, were sold to the enemy, as Lafayette, Dumouriez and a hundred others—once popular favourites—had been sold.

The hostility of Paris to the Girondists received a fateful advertisement by the election, on the 15th of 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 the 4th of February 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 Chaumette, procureur of the Commune, and Hébert, deputy procureur, controlled the armed organization of the Paris Sections, and prepared to turn this against the Convention. The abortive émeute of the 10th of March warned the Girondists of their danger, but the Commission of Twelve appointed on the 18th of May, the arrest of Marat and Hébert, and other precautionary measures, were defeated by the popular risings of the 27th and 31st of May, and, finally, on the 2nd of June, Hanriot with the National Guards purged the Convention of the Girondists. Isnard’s threat, uttered on the 25th of May, to march France upon Paris had been met by Paris marching upon the Convention.

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 organize a movement of the provinces against the capital. This attempt to stir up civil war determined the wavering and frightened Convention. On the 13th of June 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 suppléants, 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 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 (q.v.) only served to increase the unpopularity of the Girondists and to seal their fate. On the 28th of July 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-Fonfrède, 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 the 24th of October, 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.

The trial of the twenty-one, which began before the Revolutionary Tribunal on the 24th of October, was a mere farce, the verdict a foregone conclusion. On the 31st 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-Étienne and Rebecqui. Roland had killed himself at Rouen on the 15th of November, a week after the execution of his wife. Among the very few who finally escaped was Jean Baptiste Louvet, 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. The survivors of the party made an effort to re-enter the Convention after the fall of Robespierre, but it was not until the 5th of March 1795 that they were formally reinstated. On the 3rd of October of the same year (11 Vendémiaire, year III.) a solemn fête in honour of the Girondist “martyrs of liberty” was celebrated in the Convention. See also the article French Revolution and separate biographies.

Of the special works on the Girondists Lamartine’s Histoire des Girondins (2 vols., Paris, 1847, new ed. 1902, in 6 vols.) 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 vols., Paris, 1861, new ed. 1890); with which cf. Alary, Les Girondins par Guadet (Bordeaux, 1863); also Charles Vatel, Charlotte de Corday et les Girondins: pièces classées et annotées (3 vols., Paris, 1864–1872); Recherches historiques sur les Girondins (2 vols., ib. 1873); Ducos, Les Trois Girondines (Madame Roland, Charlotte Corday, Madame Bouquey) et les Girondins (ib. 1896); Edmond Biré, La Légende des Girondins (Paris, 1881, new ed. 1896); also Helen Maria Williams, State of Manners and Opinions in the French Republic towards the close of the 18th Century (2 vols., London, 1801). Memoirs or fragments of memoirs also exist by particular Girondists, e.g. Barbaroux, Pétion, Louvet, Madame Roland. See, further, the bibliography to the article French Revolution.  (W. A. P.) 

  1. Daunou, “Mémoires pour servir à l’hist. de la Convention Nationale,” p. 409, vol. xii. of M. Fr. Barrière, Bibl. des mém. rel à l’hist. de la France, &c. (Paris, 1863).