The Legislative Assembly

October 1, 1791-September 20, 1792


THE elections for the second revolutionary congress were zealously monitored by the journalists and powerfully supervised by the clubs. Since censorship of the press had almost disappeared, the journalists had acquired new influence on public policy. Brissot, Loustalot, Marat, Desmoulins, Fréron, Laclos—each had a periodical for his tribune. Paris alone had 133 journals in 1790, and there were hundreds in the provinces. Nearly all of them followed a radical line. Mirabeau had told the King that if he wished to keep his throne or his head he must buy some popular journalists. “The old nobility,” said Napoleon, “would have survived if it had known enough to become master of printing materials…. The advent of cannon killed the feudal system; ink will kill the modern system.”1

The clubs were almost as effective as the journals. The Breton Club, having followed King and Assembly to Paris, renamed itself Society of the Friends of the Constitution, and leased as a meeting place the refectory of a former Jacobin monastery near the Tuileries; later it expanded into the library, and even the chapel.2 The Jacobins, as history came to call them, were at first all deputies, but they soon enriched their membership by admitting persons prominent in science, literature, politics, or business; here former deputies like Robespierre, self-debarred from the new Assembly, found another fulcrum of power. Dues were high, and until 1793 most of the members came from the middle class.3

The Jacobin influence was multiplied by the organization of affiliated clubs in many of the communes of France, and their general acceptance of the parent club’s lead in doctrine and strategy. There were some 6,800 Jacobin clubs in 1794, totaling half a million members.4 They formed an organized minority in a disorganized mass. When their policies were supported by the journals their influence was second only to that of the communes—which, through their municipal councils and constituent sections, controlled the local regiments of the National Guard. When all these forces were in harmony the Assembly had to do their bidding or face an unruly gallery, if not armed insurrection.

An Englishman in Paris in 1791 reported that “clubs abound in every street.”5 There were literary societies, sporting associations, Freemason lodges, workmen’s gatherings. Finding the Jacobins too expensive and bourgeois, some radical leaders formed in 1790 the “Society of the Friends of Man and the Citizen,” which the Parisians soon called the Cordeliers Club, because it met in the former monastery of the Cordelier (Franciscan) friars; this gave a platform to Marat, Hébert, Desmoulins, and Danton. Finding the Jacobins too radical, Lafayette, Bailly, Talleyrand, Lavoisier, André and Marie-Joseph de Chénier, and Du Pont de Nemours formed the “Society of 1789,” which began, in 1790, regular meetings in the Palais-Royal, to support the tottering monarchy. Another monarchical group, led by Antoine Barnave and Alexandre de Lameth, formed a club briefly known to history as the Feuillants, from their meeting in the convent of Cistercian monks so named. It was a sign of the rapid secularization of Parisian life that several abandoned monasteries were now centers of political agitation.

The rival tempers of the clubs showed during the elections which slowly harvested, from June to September, 1791, the ballots for the new Assembly. The loyalists, softened to tolerance by education and comfort, relied on persuasion and bribery to garner votes; the Jacobins and the Cordeliers, hardened by the marketplace and the streets, seasoned bribery with force. Interpreting the law to the letter, they kept from the polls anyone who refused to take an oath of allegiance to the new constitution; so the great majority of practicing Catholics were automatically excluded. Crowds were organized to raid and disperse meetings of loyalists, as in Grenoble; in some cities, like Bordeaux, the municipal authorities forbade all club meetings except of the Jacobins; in one town the Jacobins and their followers burned a ballot box suspected of harboring a conservative majority.6

Despite such democratic trimmings, the election sent to the Legislative Assembly a substantial minority dedicated to preserving the monarchy. These 264 “Feuillants” occupied the right section of the hall, and thereby gave a name to conservatives everywhere. The 136 deputies who acknowledged themselves Jacobins or Cordeliers sat at the left on an elevated section called the Mountain; soon they were named Montagnards. In the center sat 355 delegates who refused to be labeled; they came to be called the Plain. Of the 755 total 400 were lawyers, as befitted a lawmaking body; now the lawyers succeeded the clergy in control of the nation. Nearly all the deputies were of the middle class; the Revolution was still a bourgeois feast.

Until June 20, 1792, the most vigorous group in the legislature was that which later received the name of the department of the Gironde. They were not an organized party (nor were the Montagnards), but they were nearly all from regions of industrial or commercial activity—Caen, Nantes, Lyons, Limoges, Marseilles, Bordeaux. The inhabitants of these thriving centers were accustomed to considerable self-rule; they controlled much of the money, the commerce, the foreign trade of the realm; and Bordeaux, capital of the Gironde, proudly remembered having nurtured Montaigne and Montesquieu. Nearly all the leading Girondins were members of the Jacobin Club, and they agreed with most other Jacobins in opposing the monarchy and the Church; but they resented the rule of all France by Paris and its populace, and proposed instead a federal republic of largely self-governed provinces.

Condorcet was their theorist, philosopher, specialist in education, finance, and utopia; we have long since paid our debt to him.*Their great orator was Pierre Vergniaud: born at Limoges of a businessman father; left a seminary, studied law, practiced at Bordeaux, and was sent thence to the Legislative Assembly, which repeatedly made him its president. Still more influential was Jacques-Pierre Brissot, native of Chartres, something of an adventurer, sampling occupations, climates, and moral codes in Europe and America, briefly imprisoned in the Bastille (1784), founder (1788) of the Société des Noirs Amis, and sturdy worker for the emancipation of slaves. Sent to the Assembly as a deputy from Paris, he took charge of foreign policy, and led the way into war. Condorcet introduced him and Vergniaud to Mme. de Staël; they became devoted attendants at her salon, and helped her lover, the Comte de Narbonne-Lara, to appointment as minister of war by Louis XVI.7 For a long time the Girondins were called Brissotins.

History remembers better Jean-Marie Roland de La Platière, chiefly because he married a brilliant woman who provided him with ideas and style, deceived him, celebrated his memory, and dignified her ascent to the guillotine with a famous and possibly legendary sentence. When Jeanne-Manon Phlipon, aged twenty-five, met Jean-Marie at Rouen in 1779, he was forty-five years old, incipiently bald, and somewhat worn out by business cares and philosophical rumination. He had a pleasant paternal smile, and preached a noble stoicism that enchanted Manon. She was already familiar with the ancient classics and heroes; she had read Plutarch at the age of eight, sometimes substituting him for the prayerbook when in church; “Plutarch prepared me to be a republican.”8

She was a high-spirited child. “On two or three occasions when my father whipped me I bit the thigh across which he placed me,”9 and she never lost her bite. But also she read the lives of the saints, and prophetically longed for martyrdom; she felt the beauty and moving solemnity of Catholic ritual, and retained her respect for religion, and some vestiges of the Christian creed, even after relishing Voltaire, Diderot, d’Holbach, and d’Alembert. She did not take much to Rousseau; she was too tough for his sentiment. Instead she lost her heart to Brutus (either one), to both the Catos, and both the Gracchi; it was from them that she and the Girondins took political ideals. She read, too, the letters of Mme. de Sévigné, for she aspired to write perfect prose.

She had suitors, but she was too conscious of her accomplishments to tolerate any ordinary lover. Perhaps, at twenty-five, she thought it best to compromise. She found in Roland “a strong mind, incorruptible honesty, knowledge, and taste…. His gravity made me consider him, as it were, without sex.”10 After their marriage (1780) they lived in Lyons, which she described as “a city superbly built and situated, flourishing in commerce and manufactures, … famed for riches of which even the Emperor Joseph was envious.”11 In February, 1791, Roland was sent to Paris to defend the business interests of Lyons before the committees of the Constituent Assembly. He attended meetings of the Jacobin Club, and developed a close friendship with Brissot. In 1791 he persuaded his wife to move with him to Paris.

There she graduated from his secretary to his adviser; not only did she draw up his reports with an elegance that revealed her mind and hand, but she seems to have guided his political policy. On March 10, 1792, through the influence of Brissot, he was made minister of the interior to the King. Meanwhile Manon established a salon where Brissot, Pétion, Condorcet, Buzot and other Girondins regularly met to formulate their plans.12 She gave them food and counsel, and to Buzot her secret love; and she followed or preceded them bravely to death.

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