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The Girondists (French: Girondins, pronounced: [ʒi.ʁɔ̃.dɜ̃]; also called Brissotins [bʁi.sɔ̃.tɜ̃]) were a political faction in France within the Legislative Assembly and the National Convention during the French Revolution. They campaigned for the end of the monarchy but then resisted the spiraling momentum of the Revolution. They came into conflict with The Mountain (Montagnards, a more radical faction within the Jacobin Club). This conflict eventually led to the fall of the Girondists and their mass execution, the beginning of the Reign of Terror. The Girondists comprised a group of loosely-affiliated individuals rather than an organized political party, and the name was at first informally applied because the most prominent exponents of their point of view were deputies to the States-general from the department of Gironde in southwest France.
The famous painting Death of Marat depicts the killing of radical journalist (and denouncer of the Girondists) Jean-Paul Marat by the Girondist sympathizer Charlotte Corday. Prominent Girondists included Jacques Pierre Brissot, Jean Marie Roland and his wife Madame Roland. They had an ally in American Founding Father Thomas Paine. Brissot and Madame Roland were executed with the guillotine and Jean Roland (who had gone into hiding) committed suicide when he learned what had transpired. Paine was arrested and imprisoned but narrowly escaped execution.
Twelve deputies represented the départment of the Gironde in Paris; six men hold the distinction of having sat in both the Legislative Assembly and the National Convention for this départment. These were five lawyers: Pierre Victurnien Vergniaud, Marguerite Élie Guadet, Armand Gensonné, Jean Antoine Laffargue de Grangeneuve and Jean Jay (also a Protestant pastor), and one tradesman Jean François Ducos. 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.
A group of deputies from elsewhere became associated with these views, most notably the Marquis de Condorcet, Claude Fauchet, Marc David 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.
Madame Roland, whose salon became their gathering-place, had a powerful influence on the spirit and policy of the Girondists. But the party cohesion they possessed was due 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".
In the Legislative Assembly, the Girondists represented the principle of democratic revolution within and of patriotic defiance to the European powers. They also supported an aggressive foreign policy. 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 Marie Servan de Gerbey; and they 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; despite being accused of "federalism", 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 but then were dismayed when this led to the émeute (riot) of June 20. Jean Marie Roland is typical of their spirit, 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. Girondists 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 often 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.
With the advent of the National Convention (22 September 1792), the core of like-minded deputies from the Gironde expanded, as Boyer-Fonfrède, Lacaze, and Bergoeing joined five of the six stalwarts of the Legislative Assembly (Jean Jay, the Protestant pastor, having drifted to the Montagnard faction). Their numbers were increased by the return to national politics by former National Constituent Assembly deputies such as Rabaut Saint-Étienne, Pétion, and Kervélégan, as well as some newcomers as British-American writer Thomas Paine, and popular journalist Jean Louis Carra.
The Girondists proposed suspending the king and summoning of the National Convention; but they had agreed not to overthrow the monarchy until Louis XVI had become impervious to their counsels. Once the republic was established, they were anxious to stop the revolutionary movement which they had helped to set in motion. Girondist and historian Pierre Claude François Daunou argues in his Mémoires that the Girondists were too cultivated and too polished to retain their popularity for long in times of disturbance, and so they were 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 (1791-1792), became the conservatives of the Convention (1792-1795).
The revolution had failed to deliver the immediate gains that had been promised, and this 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. 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.
A group including some Girondists prepared a draft constitution, known as the Girondin constitutional project, which was presented to the National Convention in early 1793. Thomas Paine was one of the signers of this proposal.
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 more radical 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, most 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 first decreeing its abolition but withdrawing the decree at the first sign of popular opposition.
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 growing hostility of Paris to the Girondists received a fateful demonstration by the election, on 15 February 1793, of the bitter 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 replaced as minister of war by a vote of the Convention. This was enough to secure him the votes of the Paris electors when he was elected mayor ten days later. The Mountain was strengthened by the accession of a significant ally whose one idea was to use his new power to revenge himself on his former colleagues. Mayor Pache, with procureur of the Commune Pierre Gaspard Chaumette, and deputy procurer Jacques René Hébert, controlled the armed militias of the 48 revolutionary Sections of Paris, and prepared to turn this weapon against the Convention. The abortive émeute of 10 March warned the Girondists of their danger, and they responded with defensive moves including the appointment of the Commission of Twelve on 18 May, the arrest of Marat and Hébert, and other precautionary measures. They unintentionally increased the prestige of their most vocal and bitter critic, Marat, by prosecuting him before the Revolutionary Tribunal, where his acquittal was a foregone conclusion (April, 1793). The ominous threat by Girondist leader Maximin Isnard, uttered on 25 May, to "march France upon Paris" were instead met by Paris marching hastily upon the Convention. The Girondist role in the government was undermined by the popular uprisings of 27 and 31 May, and, finally, on 2 June 1793, François Hanriot, head of the Paris National Guards, purged the Convention of the Girondists. (see Days of 31 May and 2 June 1793).
Reign of Terror
The fateful list drawn up by Commandant-General of the Parisian National Guard, François Hanriot, (with help from Marat), and endorsed by a decree of the intimidated Convention, included 22 Girondist deputies and 10 of the 12 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 assassination of Marat by Charlotte Corday (13 July 1793) only served to increase the unpopularity of the Girondists and to seal their fate.
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 (Austria, Prussia and Great Britain), on the west by the Royalist insurrection of La Vendée, and the need for preventing at all costs the outbreak of another civil war. On 28 July 1793, a decree of the Convention proscribed 21 deputies as traitors and enemies of their country. They were 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. Those were sent to trial. Another 39 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.
Trial of Girondists (1793)
The trial of the 21, began before the Revolutionary Tribunal on 24 October 1793. The verdict was 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—was carried with them. They met death with great courage, singing the refrain Plutôt la mort que l'esclavage ("rather death than slavery").
Of those who escaped to the provinces, after wandering about singly or in groups, most were either captured and executed or committed suicide. They included 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. A very few escaped, including Jean-Baptiste Louvet de Couvrai, whose Mémoires give a thrilling picture of the sufferings of the fugitives.
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 IV) a solemn fête in honour of the Girondist "martyrs of liberty" was celebrated in the Convention.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press Please update as needed.
- Robert Sobel The French Revolution (1967)
- Alphonse De Lamartime, History of the Girondists, or, Personal Memoirs of the Patriots of the French Revolution: From Unpublished Sources. In Three Volumes. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1848-1850. Volume 1, Volume 2 | Volume 3
- François Furet and Mona Ozouf (eds.), La Gironde et les Girondins. Paris: éditions Payot, 1991.
- Stanley Loomis, Paris in the Terror. New York, NY, Dorset Press, 1964.
- Simon Schama, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1989.
- Otto Scott, Robespierre: The Fool as Revolutionary: Inside the French Revolution. Windsor, NY, The Reformer Library, 1974.
- Charles Vatel, Charlotte Corday et les Girondins: Pièces classées et annotées. In Three Volumes. Paris, 1864–1872.
- Leigh Ann Whaley, Radicals: Politics and Republicanism in the French Revolution. Gloucestershire, England: Sutton Publishing, 2000.
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