Vergniaud, Pierre

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Pierre Victurnien Vergniaud (1753-1793): French Revolutionary.

Pierre Vergniaud is considered one of the supreme figures of the French Revolution and the revolution’s greatest orator along with Danton.

Pierre Vergniaud was born 31 May 1753 in Limoges, a city in west-central France in a middle-class family. His father was contractor and purveyor to the king in the Limousin region. Young Vergniaud received his first education in the city’s Jesuit college. Turgot, Anne Robert Jacques, intendent of the province and acquainted with Vergniaud’s father, was astonished by the precocious oratorical abilities of his friend’s son and was instrumental in getting him a grant to study in Paris at the famous Collège du Plessis. Later on, Vergniaud chose to enter the seminary to study theology but realized that the clergy was not a career for him. The following three years, he tried his hand at writing verses and epigrams. In 1778, back in Limoges, Alluaud, his brother-in-law, heard him improvising a speech and was so impressed that he offered to pay for him to study law. On 20 April 1780, Vergniaud arrived in Bordeaux, a major city in the Southwestern part of France, reputed nationwide for its law school. Thanks to his aptitude, he quickly became the protégé of the parlement’s president, Dupaty, who was also one of Bordeaux’s greatest jurists.

On 13 April 1782, Vergniaud defended his first case, and his talent soon brought him fame and success. He was then in charge of defending Marie Bérigaud, accused of infanticide. His victory sealed his reputation as one of the best lawyers in the region. His eloquence was verified in each of the cases he defended; however, along with his eloquence, he also developed a reputation for being indolent, often accepting cases when in financial straits. Vergniaud liked to plea cases with a lot of drama, which would attract much attention. The Pierre Durieux case was certainly one of his most famous because the accused, Pierre Durieux, was a national guard known for his revolutionary inclinations and the alleged victim, Mr. de la Maze, was a powerful, antirevolutionary aristocrat. The trial started in February 1791 and Vergniaud’s eloquence granted him another triumph which gave him national attention. He turned the case into a revolutionary issue and, upon the release of Durieux, became the defender of the people against social injustices.

In 1789, by the outbreak of the revolution, one month after the fall of the Bastille, Vergniaud had joined the newly formed Bordeaux National Guard and was elected captain of his company. He then decided to spend a few months in Paris to see firsthand the movements of the revolution. In April 1790, he joined Bordeaux’s Jacobin Society and was quickly recognized for his talent as orator; one month later, his friend Gensonné was elected president of the group and he its secretary. In September 1791, he was elected deputy to the new National Legislative Assembly along with his friends Ducos, Guadet and Gensonné to represent the Gironde region. Upon his arrival in the capital, he joined the Paris Jacobin club where he met Brissot, Jacques Pierre and Condorcet, Marie Jean Antoine Nicholas Caritat, Marquis de, the future leaders of the group later known as the Girondins. His reputation as an eloquent orator had preceded him to Paris, and he was soon elected vice-president of the Assembly. On October 20, Vergniaud delivered a speech against the “émigrés” signaling the beginning of his fame as one of France’s greatest orators. He eloquently presented the dangers of the counterrevolution and demanded for the princes to return to France and for the king to be loyal to the revolution and the constitution. Many deputies saw then in Vergniaud, Mirabeau, Honoré Gabriel Riquetti, Comte de’s long-expected successor. His speech gained him so much success that he was elected president of the Assembly. Very early on, his decisions were characterized by his desire to keep the revolution within the border of justice. Vergniaud, Gensonné, Ducos, Guadet, Condorcet, Roland and Brissot met regularly to discuss the Assembly proceedings. The first four were deputies for the Gironde region. The group was also called “Brissotins” or “Rolandins” by their political adversaries.

In November 1791, assuming that Austria, Russia, Prussia and Sweden were about to invade France to restore the monarchy, Vergniaud and his group lobbied openly in favor of war against the European powers. Robespierre, Maximilien François Marie Isidore de who at first favored the war, changed opinion. Believing that the Brissotins were gaining too much influence in the Assembly, he insinuated that the real enemies of the revolution were within the country and even within the Assembly. Vergniaud answered the veiled attacks in the Assembly, revealing that some of the king’s ministers were paving the way for the Austrians to deal a fatal blow to the revolution. Consequently, Louis XVI had no choice but to dismiss his ministers and named a Girondin ministry led by Clavière and Roland. The latter, minister of the interior, was very strongly influenced by his wife, Madame Roland, who regularly invited the Girondin deputies to decide on their policy. Vergniaud seldom attended those house meetings.

On January 17, 1792, Vergniaud gave one of his most famous speeches at the Assembly in favor of the war on Austria. His eloquence was such that, except for Robespierre and some of the Montagnards, the vast majority of the Assembly was convinced of the benefit of the war. Many compared his talent to speeches by Demosthene and Cicero and Aeschylus’s war songs. Later, the issue was put to a vote, and only Robespierre and seven of his followers voted against the war, an event which transformed his opposition to the Girondins into a real obsession. Desmoulins, Camille, siding with the Montagne, started to write in his Tribune des Patriotes against the Gironde deputies. In June 1792, vetoing two requests made by the Girondins, the exile of refractory priests (clergy members refusing allegiance to the constitution) as well as the creation of a 20,000 men camp to protect the Assembly, the king asked for the dismissal of the Girondin ministers who, anticipating the king’s decision, presented their resignation.

In July 1792, with the alliance of Austria and Prussia, and the inertia of Louis XVI facing a likely invasion, Vergniaud, the new voice of France, delivered an eloquent speech on the dire situation of the country and the inaction of the king and the suspicious attitude of Lafayette. On 10 August 1792, the Parisian mob, who had lost faith in their monarch since his failed attempt to flee France on 20-21 June 1791, marched to the Tuileries threatening and insulting the royal family who had to found refuge at the National Assembly under Vergniaud’s protection. That safeguard given to the king would later turn out to be Saint-Just’s and Robespierre’s point of accusation during the Girondins’s trial. Fearing an imminent invasion, Roland, Clavière and Servan suggested the government should immediately flee to Blois, whereas Vergniaud, like Danton, Georges, denounced this plan as a cowardly move that would anger the people of Paris. Hearing news that the city of Verdun had fallen to the invaders, Vergniaud, again like Danton, gave eloquent speeches to motivate the nation to heroically fight the enemies. After the September 1792 massacres in which the Parisian mob murdered 1,600 inmates (mainly royalist sympathizers and refractory priests), Vergniaud blamed the Commune (the revolutionary governing body of Paris) and pointed at its tyrannical leaders, Marat, Jean-Paul and Robespierre. Vergniaud, often in agreement with Danton, had this time placed himself in the forefront of Robespierre’s no longer rivals but enemies. He had been reelected deputy in the new National Convention that replaced the National Assembly. Organized more like a republic, the Convention moved away from the monarchy and the king’s executive power and lasted until October 1795. In spite of his election, Vergniaud started to struggle to stay in political life. He remained partly to oppose the dictatorial ambition of Robespierre, hoping to keep France within the limits of justice, equality, and freedom. The Battle of Valmy on 20 September 1792, in which generals Dumouriez and Kellerman unexpectedly defeated the Prussians of the Duke of Brunswick, hurried the end of the French monarchy. Louvet, a Girondin, incited by Madame Roland, relentlessly attacked Robespierre and Marat for their involvement in the September massacre; a move that Vergniaud, like Danton, Georges, believed was timed very poorly because it would divide the Convention when national unity was much needed. Their fear proved correct since hard-core revolutionaries like Marat and ultra-revolutionaries (also called “enraged”) like Hebert used their newspapers for vitriolic attacks on all Girondins to defend Robespierre. Danton, like Vergniaud, had hoped for a reconciliation between Girondins and Montagnards, which would counterbalance Robespierre’s growing support from the Parisian mob, but Madame Roland’s feelings for Danton and Dumouriez made any such rapprochement unlikely.

After the September massacre, the Parisian mob incited by Marat and Hebert, Jacques demanded Louis XVI’s head already stripped of his royal title. On 13 December 1792, Vergniaud delivered a speech against the king’s punishment and also attacked Robespierre and Saint-Just for attempting to replace the monarchy with their own dictatorship. At the Convention, the Girondins with Buzot chose to accuse the Montagnards to support Philippe Egalité, Duke of Orleans, who would replace Louis XVI after his elimination and subsequently would be used as Robespierre's puppet. The Girondins mistakenly hoped this accusation would demonstrate the Montagne's royalist inclination. From then on, Robespierre realized the need to eliminate the Girondins if he wanted to survive and, five days later, accused Vergniaud of treason for a note sent by the latter to Louis XVI. Like most Girondins, Vergniaud voted for the King’s death, conscious that voting against it would make them look like counterrevolutionaries. The paradoxical decision captured the political failure of the Gironde deputies who were against the king’s death but voted for it because of their political inability to rally the Convention and the Paris streets around them. After the king’s death, Robespierre used Hebert and Marat to gain the support of the Commune and to eliminate the Girondins in order to completely dominate the Convention.

Well aware that Robespierre, Saint-Just, Louis-Antoine de, and Couthon wanted to send them to the guillotine, the Girondins asked Vergniaud to speak at the Convention to defend them and point out the dangers of the new revolutionary tribunal. The speech was highly successful and was turning the tide in favor of the Gironde; however, an unexpected event sealed the fate of the latter. General Dumouriez’s attempted coup to overthrow the government and subsequent defection to the Austrians in April 1793 condemned Vergniaud, who had been regarded as one of the general’s closest allies. Desmoulins’s vitriolic Brissot Unmasked and History of the Brissotins finalized the mob’s fury for the Girondins’s blood. Danton, who mistrusted Robespierre, let the rage against the Girondins grow unimpeded because of Madame Roland and her coterie incessantly accusing him of corruption. On 10 April 1793, Robespierre delivered a venomous speech against the Girondins using Vergniaud’s letter to the king, supposedly proving the Girondin’s attachment to the monarchy and counterrevolutionary ideal. Pressed by the Mountain and the Parisian mob, on June 2, 1793, the Convention voted a decree of accusation against the Girondins. Many went into hiding but, after one day in a friend’s house, Vergniaud decided to return to his home where he remained under house arrest until early July when he was moved to prison. Danton considering the violent turn taken by the revolution showed remorse about his inability to save the Girondins from the guillotine. Saint-Just, Louis-Antoine de wrote the decree of treason against Vergniaud, Gensonné, Chabot, and Condorcet. The coup de grâce came with Charlotte Corday’s assassination of Marat on 13 July 1793 annihilating all hope for salvation for the Girondins. The Parisian mob and the Mountain wanted immediate retribution against the Gironde deputies in revenge for Marat’s death.

Through manipulations, Robespierre was now in control of the Committee of Public Safety and therefore had superseded Danton as the leader of the revolution. The Great Terror was in full motion. Fouquier-Tinville, the public prosecutor, was waiting for Robespierre and Saint-Just to provide him with any evidence of the Girondins’s alleged treason. In October, the prisoners were moved to the Conciergerie, the antechamber for the guillotine; Danton—remorseful and worn out by political intrigues, anticipating the Girondins’s demise—left Paris for his country home. When pressed by his comrades to mount his defense, Vergniaud very realistically admitted that his fate was sealed and that his eloquence would not save him this time. The trial began on 24 October 1793; the charges were absurd but supported by ultra-revolutionaries like Hebert, Jacques and Chaumette. Vergniaud was accused of protecting the king, allying himself with Dumouriez, and inciting the nation to civil war. The trial was quickly shortened because Robespierre did not want to give Vergniaud the opportunity to elaborate his defense. Vergniaud was guillotined on 31 October 1793 along with twenty-one other deputies for the Gironde. Five months later, on 5 April 1794, Danton, who had republican and anti-clerical views similar to those of Vergniaud , was also sent to the scaffold by Robespierre.

The Girondins cannot be considered a firm political party with a strong ideology; they are generally viewed as more moderate. Most were united by friendship and many, but not all, by representing the Gironde region in the Assembly and then in the Convention. Many opposed the Montagnards who wanted a strong centralized power in Paris, whereas the Girondins preferred decentralization.

Further Reading:

Claude G. Bowers, Pierre Vergniaud, Voice of the French Revolution, 1950


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