1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Vergniaud, Pierre Victurnien

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VERGNIAUD, PIERRE VICTURNIEN (1753–1793), French orator and revolutionist, was born on the 31st of May 1753 at Limoges. He was the son of a merchant of that town who lost the greater part of his means by speculation. The boy was early sent to the college of the Jesuits at Limoges, and soon achieved distinction. Turgot was then intendant of Limousin. In his presence young Vergniaud on one occasion recited some verses of his own composition. Turgot was struck with the talent they displayed, and by virtue of his patronage Vergniaud, having gone to Paris, was admitted to the college of Plessis. It is impossible to read the speeches of Vergniaud without being convinced of the solidity of his education, and in particular of the wide range of his knowledge of the classics, and of his acquaintance—familiar and sympathetic—with ancient philosophy and history.

Duputy, president of the parlement of Bordeaux, with whom Vergniaud became acquainted, conceived the greatest admiration and affection for him and appointed him his secretary. Vergniaud was thereafter called to the bar (1782). The influence of Duputy gained for him the beginnings of a practice; but Vergniaud, though capable of extraordinary efforts, too often relapsed into reverie, and was indisposed for study and sustained exertion, even in a cause which he approved. This weakness appears equally in his political and in his professional life: he would refuse practice if his purse were moderately well filled; he would sit for weeks in the Assembly in listlessness and silence, while the policy he had shaped was being gradually undermined, and then rise, brilliant as ever, but too late to avert the calamities which he foresaw. In 1789 Vergniaud was elected a member of the general council of the department of the Gironde. Being deeply stirred by the best ideas of the Revolutionary epoch, he found a more congenial sphere for the display of his great powers in his new position. About this period he was charged with the defence of a member of the national guard of Brives, which was accused of provoking disorders in the department of La Correze. Abandoning all reserve, Vergniaud delivered one of the great orations of his life, depicting the misfortunes of the peasantry in language of such combined dignity, pathos and power that his fame as an orator spread far and wide.

Vergniaud was chosen a representative of the Gironde to the National Legislative Assembly in August 1791, and he forthwith proceeded to Paris. The Legislative Assembly met on the 1st of October. For a time, according to his habit, he refrained from speaking; but on the 25th of October he ascended the tribune, and he had not spoken long before the whole Assembly felt that a new power had arisen which might control even the destinies of France. This judgment was re-echoed outside, and he was almost immediately elected president of the Assembly for the usual brief term. Between the outbreak of the Revolution and his election to the Legislative Assembly the political views of Vergniaud had undergone a decided change. At first he had lauded a constitutional monarchy; but the flight of Louis XVI. filled him with distrust of the sovereign, and his views in favour of a republic were rapidly developed. The sentiments and passions which his eloquence aroused were, however. watchfully utilized by a more extreme party. It happened thus even with his first Assembly speech, on the émigrés. His proposal was mainly that a treble annual contribution should be levied on their property; but the Assembly confiscated their goods and decreed their deaths. One great blot on his reputation is that step by step he was led on to palliate violence and crime, to the excesses of which his eyes were only opened by the massacres of September, and which ultimately overwhelmed the party of Girondists which he led. The disgrace to his name is indelible that on the 19th of March 1792, when the perpetrators of the massacre of Avignon had been introduced to the Assembly by Collot d’Herbois, Vergniaud spoke indulgently of their crimes and lent the authority of his voice to their amnesty. In language sometimes turgid, but nearly always of pure and powerful eloquence, he worked at the theme of the émigrés, as it developed into that of the counter-revolution; and in his occasional appearances in the tribune, as well as in the project of an address to the French people which he presented to the Assembly on the 27th of December 1791, he shook the heart of France, and, especially by his call to arms on the 18th of January, shaped the policy which culminated in the declaration of war against the king of Bohemia and Hungary on the 20th of April. This policy in foreign affairs, which he pursued through the winter and spring of 1791–92, he combined with another—that of fanning the suspicions of the people against the monarchy, which he identified with the counter-revolution, and of forcing on a change of ministry. On the 10th of March Vergniaud delivered a powerful oration in which he denounced the intrigues of the court and uttered his famous apostrophe to the Tuileries: “In ancient times fear and terror have often issued from that famous palace; let them re-enter it to-day in the name of the law!” The speech overthrew De Lessart, whose accusation was decreed; and Roland, the nominee of the Girondists, entered the ministry. By the month of June the opposition of Vergniaud (whose voice still commanded the country) to the king rose to fever heat. On the 29th of May Vergniaud went so far as to support the disbanding of the king’s guard. But he appears to have been unaware of the extent of the feelings of animosity which he had done much to arouse in the people, probably because he was wholly unconnected with the practices of the party of the Mountain as the instigators of actual violence. This party used Vergniaud, whose lofty and serene ideas they applauded and travestied in action. Then came the riot of the 20th of June and the invasion of the Tuileries. He rushed among the crowd, but was powerless to quell the tumult. Continuing for yet a little longer his course of feverous, almost frenzied, opposition to the throne, on the 3rd of July he electrified France by his bold denunciation of the king, not only as a hypocrite and a despot, but as a base traitor to the constitution. His speeches breathe the very spirit of the storm, and they were perhaps the greatest single factor in the development of the events of the time. On the 10th of August the Tuileries was stormed, and the royal family took refuge in the Assembly. Vergniaud presided. To the request of the king for protection he replied in dignified and respectful language. An extraordinary commission was appointed : Vergniaud wrote and read its recommendations that a National Convention be formed, the king be provisionally suspended from office, a governor appointed for his son, and the royal family be consigned to the Luxembourg. Hardly had the great orator attained the object of his aim—the overthrow of Louis as a sovereign—when he became conscious of the forces by which he was surrounded. He denounced the massacres of September—their inception, their horror and the future to which they pointed—in language so vivid and powerful that it raised for a time the spirits of the Girondists, while on the other hand it aroused the fatal opposition of the Parisian leaders.

The questions whether Louis XVI. was to be judged, and if so by whom, were the subject of protracted debate in the Convention. They were of absorbing interest to Paris, to France and to Europe; and upon them the Girondist leader at last, on the 31st of December 1792, broke silence, delivering one of his greatest orations, probably one of the greatest combinations of sound reasoning, sagacity and eloquence which has ever been displayed in the annals of French politics. He pronounced in favour of an appeal to the people. He pictured the consequences of that temper of vengeance which animated the Parisian mob and was fatally controlling the policy of the Convention, and the prostration which would ensue to France after even a successful struggle with a European coalition, which would spring up after the murder of the king. The great effort failed; and four days afterwards something happened which still further endangered Yergniaud and his whole party. This was the discovery of a note signed by him along with Gaudet and Gensonne and presented to the king two or three weeks before the 10th of August. It contained nothing but sound and patriotic suggestions, but it was greedily seized upon by the enemies of the Gironde as evidence of treason. On the 16th of January 1793 the vote began to be taken in the Convention upon the punishment of the king. Vergniaud voted early, and voted for death. The action of the great Girondist was and will always remain inscrutable, but it was followed by a similar verdict from nearly the whole party which he led. On the 17th Vergniaud presided at the Convention, and it fell to him, labouring under the most painful excitement, to announce the fatal result of the voting. Then for many weeks he sank, exhausted, into silence.

When the institution of a revolutionary tribunal was proposed, Vergniaud vehemently opposed the project, denouncing the tribunal as a more awful inquisition than that of Venice, and avowing that his party would all die rather than consent to it. Their death by stratagem had already been planned, and on the 10th of March they had to go into hiding. On the 13th Vergniaud boldly exposed the conspiracy in the Convention. The antagonism caused by such an attitude had reached a significant point when on the 10th of April Robespierre himself laid his accusation before the Convention. He fastened especially upon Vergniaud's letter to the king and his support of the appeal to the people as a proof that he was a moderate in its then despised sense. Vergniaud made a brilliant extemporaneous reply, and the attack for the moment failed. But now, night after night, Vergniaud and his colleagues found themselves obliged to change their abode, to avoid assassination, a price being even put upon their heads. Still with unfaltering courage they continued their resistance to the dominant faction, till on the 2nd of June 1793 things came to a head. The Convention was surrounded with an armed mob, who clamoured for the "twenty-two." In the midst of this it was forced to continue its deliberations. The decree of accusation was voted, and the Girondists were proscribed.

Yergniaud was offered a safe retreat. He accepted it only for a day, and then returned to his own dwelling. He was kept under surveillance there for nearly a month, and in the early days of July was imprisoned in La Force. He carried poison with him, but never used it. His tender affection for his relatives abundantly appears from his correspondence, along with his profound attachment to the great ideas of the Revolution and his noble love of country. On one of the walls of the Carmelite convent to which for a short time the prisoners were removed Vergniaud wrote in letters of blood: "Potius mori quamfoedari." Early in October the Convention brought forward its indictment of the twenty-two Girondists. They were sent for trial to the Revolutionary tribunal, before which they appeared on the 27th of October. The procedure was a travesty of justice. Early on the morning of the 31st of October 1793 the Girondists were conveyed to the scaffold, singing on the way the Marseillaise and keeping up the strain till one by one they were guillotined. Vergniaud was executed last. He died unconfessed, a philosopher and a patriot.

See Gay de Vernon, Vergniaud (Limoges, 1858); and L. de Verdiere, Biographie de Vergniaud (Paris, 1866).

(T. S.)