Brissot, Jacques Pierre
From Enlightenment Revolution
Brissot, Jacques Pierre (1754-1793): French Journalist and Revolutionary.
Jacques Pierre Brissot was born in Chartres, a small town sixty miles southwest of Paris. He was the thirteenth child in a family of seventeen children. His father, owned a restaurant, and soon realized that the passion for learning his son demonstrated should enable him to become a barrister. Young Brissot displayed a great memory which helped him master English and Italian and gave him some knowledge of Greek, Spanish and German. Later in his life, he would change his name to Brissot de Warville.
Brissot’s characterized romanticism did not agree with the exactness, and stoic objectivity needed to be a lawyer, he therefore chose to embrace the career of journalist. Before he reached thirty years of age, he had already published much work of diversified interests such as treatises on criminal law, Théorie des lois criminelles (1781) and Bibliothèque philosophique du législateur (1782), essays on literature, a short philosophical book, Universal Pyrrhonism, all the while writing for the Mercure de France and the Courrier de l’Europe. He also maintained an intense correspondence with Alembert, Jean Le Rond d’, Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet de and Bentham, Jeremy. His liberalism has often been explained by his reading of Locke, Montesquieu, Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de and Montaigne. In 1784, upon his return from London, he was jailed in the Bastille for two months for writing a libel against the government. Between 1784 and 1788, he lived in Paris where he became gradually involved with the social and political events of the period. He developed a close friendship to Roland and his wife, acted as secretary of the Gallo-American Society supporting trade exchange between the two countries and founded the “Ami des Noirs” society to protect the black population of the West Indies. His simplicity, love of his fellow-men, utopian ideals and taste for adventures led him to sail to Pennsylvania in June 1788 but returned to France six months later when hearing the news of the revolution. In July 1789, he founded his journal, Le Patriote français, which gained him popularity and built for himself a reputation of a philanthropist and an expert in international law. His political career really took off in this period; in 1791, he was elected at the Legislative Assembly and then later at the National Convention. Meanwhile in June of the same year, the King and the Queen‘s flight to Varennes had greatly contributed to destabilize the political situation. In July, the National Guards fired upon the crowd at the Champ de Mars and it was an open secret that the king felt compelled to accept the new Constitution of September, which abolished the privileges of the French nobility.
Brissot and his followers opted to militate in favor of the war against Austria and the “émigrés”, royalists that fled France hoping to lead foreign armies back to Paris and reestablished an absolute monarchy. The Brissotins also hoped to take over the Rhineland, Poland and Holland to spread the revolution through Europe. They represented the strong resentment of many in France against the “émigrés” and the counterrevolutionaries and were betting on a French victory that would place them in a favorable political stand and consequently able to manipulate the king and control the Montagnards, more extreme revolutionaries led by Robespierre, Maximilien François Marie Isidore de and Danton, Georges. Using his journal to spread his vision, Brissot rallied many patriots around him but unfortunately became Robespierre’s principal foe. When the latter, who did not believe in a French victory at the time, pointed out that the court would likely side with foreign powers in case of war, Brissot replied in what was later judged very poor political foresight that the country needed betrayal so that traitors could be identified and then eliminated. War meant to him the riddance of external as well as internal enemies.
In March 1792, war arrived followed by disastrous defeat which increased resentment against the King. A new ministry was chosen among many of Brissot’s friends, Roland, Claviere and Servan being the most prominent. However, the situation worsened within a few weeks and anger roused against the new ministers. On June 20 1792, Brissotins’sympathizers directed the people in an attack on the Tuileries hoping that this show of force would help them gain influence on the Assembly and on Louis XVI. The king’s lack of reaction resulted into the Brissotins’failure and over one month later when the members of the Cordelier Club, all partisans of Robespierre and Danton, led their own attack on the Tuileries, it had the expected outcome. Their display of force seemed to have paralyzed their opponents and Vergniaud, Gensonné and Guadet, all Girondins - this name started to be used in the XIXth Century to describe the Brissotins because so many were originally from the Gironde, the soutwestern part of France - and all leaders of the Assembly, stayed passive and unable to turn the negative spiral of events against them. At this stage, Brissot had already become the main target of the Ultrarevolutionaries or Hebertists led by Hebert, Jacques who vehemently criticized him in his journal Le Père Duchesne and openly accused him of being traitor to the revolution. Brissot was politically cornered and proposed another change of the King’s ministers. The Girondins had been incapable to seize the opportunity to be in charge of the country. From then on, the Montagnards and the Girondins were opposed on most political issues.
The Montagnards, led by Robespierre, Danton, Saint-Just and Marat, Jean-Paul, wanted a centralized power in Paris whereas the Girondins led by Brissot, Roland, Vergniaud and Pétion stood for decentralization and more political and economic strength for the provinces. The Girondins were not a tight political party but rather regrouped loosely together many deputies with similar views. In spite of their desire to rid the country of the violence inspired by the Jacobins they took on some paradoxical stands. They voted to send Louis XVI to the scaffold but on the other hand attempted to save him; they initiated committees and tribunals but were powerless to control them. Very instrumental in France’s foreign policy, Brissot was again in favor of war against Austria and Great Britain; he considered conflicts necessary propaganda for the revolution. War was declared in February 1793. However, the tide was definitely turning against Brissot and his allies. Hebert, Jacques was relently asking for his execution and Desmoulins, Camille published his vitriolic History of the Brissotins for which he would be remorseful later but that precipitated their end. On May 22, Brissot reacted and denounced in one article the Jacobins’conspiracy but the Montagne had already gained Paris popular support. On May 29, the Commune decreed the Girondins’arrest that prompted many to flee their home. Brissot quickly left Paris but was soon arrested in Moulins and on July 8, Saint-Just, Louis-Antoine de demanded in the Committee of Public Safety the immediate arrest and execution of all the Girondins that went into hiding. Brissot was found guilty along with twenty-one other Girondins to be counterrevolutionaries and agents of foreign powers, accusations that he had refuted at length during the trial. He was guillotined on October 31st. The reign of the Terror had already begun and was going to end only with Robespierre’s demise. With Brissot’s death, the Montagnards killed a dangerous political opponent but also eliminated his idea of a federalized republic in France.
Leonore Loft, Passion, politics, and philosophie : rediscovering J.-P. Brissot, 2002.
Eloise Ellery, Brissot de Warville; a study in the history of the French Revolution, 1970.
Guy David Toubiana