Madame Roland (1754-1793): French salonniere and writer
Madame Roland, also known as Manon Roland, was born Jeanne-Marie Phlipon on 17 March 1754 in Paris. Her parents were well off and had seven children. Except for Jeanne-Marie, all the children died at a young age. As a result, she received all her parents’ affection. Her father was a master-engraver. As a child, she was a very avid reader; she read the bible, Plutarch, Fénelon, and Tasso. As a young adult, she read Montesquieu, Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de, Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet de, Shakespeare, Richardson and Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The latter exercised great influence in her life.
When she was 10 years of age, one of her father’s apprentices attempted to force her into sexual acts. (She was not raped but forced to help the apprentice to gratify himself). This episode had a profound and painful impact on her life; she recounted this moment in her Mémoires because of its lasting effect on her character. In 1765, she entered a convent where she met Sophie and Henriette Cannet, with whom she would keep a lifelong friendship and epistolary exchange. In 1776, the Cannet sisters introduced her to Jean-Marie Roland de la Platière. Roland was twenty years older, grim, morose, and anxious; he worked as an Inspector of Commerce. The courtship lasted a few years due to her father’s reluctance to the wedding. After much hesitation from her part, they married in 1780. She was 26 and he, 46. They had one daughter in 1781. She clearly held the leadership in their couple. Their relation was very platonic, more philosophical than carnal, and her love regressed into simple friendship. Roland, thanks to his Dictionnaire des Manufactures, Arts et Métiers, was promoted General Inspector.
When the revolution started, she embraced it with great passion, pouring her soul into it. She pushed her husband into politics because she herself wanted to be in the heart of the new movement that was shaking France. In 1790, he was elected representative to the General Council of his Lyon commune. Both husband and wife got more involved in the revolution. The couple wrote accounts of their new views for France which they sent to Brissot, Jacques Pierre and Desmoulins, Camille to be published in their journals. Always encouraged and pushed by his wife, Roland was chosen to go to the National Assembly to inform deputies of the situation that paralyzed trade in Lyon. His wife accompanied him to Paris, convinced that there was the real theater of the revolution and felt she had an important role to play in its development. Once in Paris, one of her admirers, Bosc d’Antic, helped the couple to find lodging. She finally met Brissot in person and got acquainted with Petion, Buzot, Claviere, Danton, Georges and Robespierre. She attended meetings of the Assembly and formed her opinion on most men whom she judged mediocre because of the Ancien Regime’s influence on them. She opened her house to the men of the left four days a week to discuss the future of the country, and that was the making of her first salon. She saw herself continuing the centuries old tradition of great women who through their salon contributed to the brilliance of France such as Marguerite de Valois, Madame de Rambouillet, Mademoiselle de Scudéry or Madame du Deffand. Madame Roland rarely invited other women and neither did she attend herself other salons. Petion, Buzot, Bosc d’Antic, Lanthenas and her husband formed the nucleus of her first salon. The king’s flight to Varennes in June 1791 had greatly upset her. She believed that a successful escape would have been more beneficial to France because it would have caused a civil war. According to her war regenerated men. She had lost confidence in Lafayette; despite her mistrust of Robespierre, Maximilien François Marie Isidore de, she believed only the men on the left were the ones able to save the nation. Early autumn 1791, the couple returned to Lyon but she did not stop publishing anonymous articles. Roland lost his job and decided to take his wife and daughter back to Paris hoping to get a pension from the government. Unable to get a pension, his desire was to go back to a tranquil life in Lyon countryside but Madame Roland did not want to leave Paris and abandon the possibility of being in the center of the political turmoil that roused French society. She not only convinced her husband to remain in Paris but also to go back into politics. She surrounded herself with a group of admirers and threw the base of her second salon with many Gironde members, particularly Bosc d’Antic who harbored a deep unrequited love for her.
In 1792, the king was faced with a new crisis and had to form a new government. In an attempt to stop the looming calamity, Louis XVI called on Dumouriez to choose the new ministers. With his own ambition in mind, Dumouriez offered many portfolios to Brissotins (Brissot’s followers) later on called Girondins. Deputies were not eligible to ministry appointment, Brissot, Vergniaud, Pierre and Louvet consequently could not be selected. The Ministry of the Interior was given to Roland thanks to Brissot’s friendship and more specifically to the friendship between Brissot, Jacques Pierre and Madame Roland. Roland was dubious about the appointment but Manon Roland saw it as her opportunity to be the real Minister of the Interior. She took charge and composed many of his speeches and checked on much of his official writings. Barbaroux, Buzot, Gaudet, Brissot, Petion, Louvet all frequented her salon, which was firmly under her aegis. She had her theories on the revolution and managed to impose them on her admirers; the Sans-Culottes were just dangerous rabble and riffraff, Robespierre could not be trusted since he did not show her much respect and did not make much effort to be included in her circle. She also disliked Dumouriez and Danton who refused to accept her influence like so many Girondins did. She believed that to be true to France and its future, she must be in the center of the action, unyielding and steadfast, willing and ready to give her life for the good of her country. She considered her salon the real Ministry of the Interior.
The Girondins were opposed to the Montagnards because the former wanted to declare war to Austria, Prussia and England, following Madame Roland’s policy. She regarded Robespierre, Maximilien François Marie Isidore de as a political rival and her hostility had been considered a significant source of the divide between Girondins and Montagnards. According to her, for the sake of liberty, aristocracy should lose all power and the king should strictly follow Girondin policy. She wrote Robespierre criticizing his political stance and expected him to understand her obligation to show him his errors. Robespierre chose to ignore her, which grieved her further. The new ministry only lasted three months, March to June 1792. A few days before the end of his ministry, Roland had sent a letter to the king admonishing him on his constitutional obligations. The letter had been written by Manon. The king, anticipating yet another crisis, and unpleased with the letter’s tone dismissed his Girondin administration with Roland, Claviere and Servan. Roland decided then to read the letter directly to the National Assembly, which won him much ovation from the deputies. After the fall of the monarchy and with the king’s arrest on August 10, Roland gained back his position as Minister of the Interior; however, the Girondins’ influence was weakening. They held an ambiguous position during the king’s trial; in spite of violently criticizing Louis XVI they were hesitant to condemn him. They only did so not to lose their popularity, this edging stance backfired on them. The defection to the Austrians of General Dumouriez who was a great Girondin supporter contributed to their decline. The divergence between Robespierre’s party and Brissot’s was growing stronger. Manon blamed Danton, Robespierre and Marat for the September 1792 massacre in which the crowd brutally killed thousands of royalist sympathizers and refractory priests (priests which rejected the constitution). In order to limit the influence of Paris on French politics, she wanted to create a federation of provinces which could balance the domination of the capital. Buzot, her new impassionate admirer, was still a Convention member and fervently espoused all her ideas. This new platform only served to further accentuate the split between Montagnards and Girondins. Two days after Louis XVI’s execution on 21 January 1793, Roland gave his resignation as Interior Minister. Danton, Georges along with Fabre d'Eglantine tried reconciliation with some Girondin leaders but completely dismissed Madame Roland which enraged her to no end.
Manon Roland had formed a “Bureau de l’Esprit publique” in her husband’s name in order to educate people but quickly transformed it into Girondin propaganda and a tool against the Montagnards. The Convention suspected her of conspiracy against the government; she successfully deflected blame, but her attacks on Danton did not cease. Danton, who first attempted to work as an intermediary with the Girondins, ended up by abandoning them and joining Robespierre, Saint-Just, Louis-Antoine de and Marat, Jean-Paul against them. Madame Roland chose this crucial period to inform her husband of her remorseless and ardent love for another man, Buzot. She expected her spouse to understand her infidelity because in her eyes he was supposed to be her friend, loyal and sensitive to her feelings.
In the Spring of 1793, the worsening of the economy infuriated Parisians who hold the Girondins responsible for the crisis. Camille Desmoulins’s Histoire des Brissotins, a vitriolic attack on the Girondins, combined with Corday, Charlotte’s assassination of Marat sounded the final blows to Brissot’s party. Roland’s Observations de l’ex-ministre Roland written under his wife’s dictation, to counter the Montagnards’ accusations, did not have the expected outcome. Manon decided then to write letters hoping to trigger a revolt in the provinces against the Convention but that was to no avail. At the end of May, foreseeing the approaching downfall, she sent letters to the Convention President but the Sans-Culottes were already demanding Girondins’ arrest. On 31st May, the Paris Commune, the governing body of Paris, demanded the arrest of Girondin deputies. Robespierre and Saint-Just supported the request. On June 1st 1793, the Paris Commune declared an insurrection against the Convention to ensure the Girondin deputies would be arrested. On the night of June 1st, 1793 the comité insurrectionnel led by François Hanriot, a sans-culotte leader, along with 40,000 men surrounded the Convention and required the arrest of several leaders of the Gironde. The Montagnards were now in control of the Convention; thus began the Reign of Terror. She had chosen to stay in Paris even though her husband had fled to Rouen some days before. She was arrested on that very night. She hoped Buzot would rally the provinces and march with an army to save her and punish the Montagnards. During her imprisonment, she continued writing letters to the Convention, to different ministries, to journalists to prove her innocence. After one month, she was interrogated by the police, she was first set free on June 24th but was immediately re-arrested and sent to Sainte-Pélagie prison. She was charged because of her husband’s escape, her involvement with conspirators, and her discovered letters revealing her ambition to incite the provinces. She denied all the charges and started writing her Mémoires. She then went on a hunger strike but was transferred to the prison hospital. She planned to publicly poison herself at the coming Girondin trial after exposing all the treacheries and duplicities of the Montagnard leaders. She relied on Bosc d’Antic to supply the poison but he refused her request. The trial came but she did not have a chance to express herself. She still had the need to write and plead her emotions and unfair experience. She was moved to the Conciergerie under suspicion of promoting civil war. On November 8th, 1793, she was condemned to death by the very law that her husband’s ministry had passed previously, anyone attempting to divide the unity of the government or the republic was subjected to the guillotine. She went to the scaffold the same day with another man, Lamarche. Some sources suggested that she asked the executioner to be guillotined after Lamarche. Custom was to have women go first to save them from witnessing the savagery and violence of decapitation. Realizing that the man was significantly more distressed than she was she asked the executioner to break away from usual practice. Upon seeing her courage and resolve, the executioner accepted her request. This anecdote has not been verified. After learning the news of her death, her husband stabbed himself with a sword.
In her utmost devotion to her country, Madame Roland sacrificed her husband, her lover, her friends and the Girondins. Her antipathies and rage for Danton, Georges was undoubtedly the biggest of her mistakes. The Girondins’ refusal for reconciliation with the Montagnards was partly due to Manon’s rage for Danton. She could not stand how he casually dismissed her tragic and grand posture. Madame Roland’s critical fault was to let her sentiments affect her politics.