1902 Encyclopedia > Jean-Marie Roland, vicomte de la Platière

Jean-Marie Roland, vicomte de la Platière
Leader of the Girondist faction in the French Revolution
(1734-93)




ROLAND. JEAN MARIE ROLAND DE LA PLATIERE (1734-1793), who, along with his wife, MANON JEANNE PHLIPON (1754-1793), played a prominent part in the history of the French Revolution, in connexion chiefly with the policy and fortunes of the Girondists, was born near Villefranche in 1734. He received a good education, and early formed the studious habits which remained with him through life. Proposing to seek his fortune abroad, he went on foot to Nantes, but was there pros-trated by an illness so severe that all thoughts of emigra-tion were perforce abandoned. For some years he was employed as a clerk; thereafter he joined a relative who was inspector of manufactures at Amiens, and he himself speedily rose to the position of inspector. To these two employments may be ascribed those qualities of assiduity and accuracy, and that familiarity with the commerce of the country, which distinguished his public career. In 1781 he married Manon Jeanne Phlipon, who was his junior by twenty years. She was the daughter of Gratien Phlipon, a Paris engraver, who was ambitious, speculative, and nearly always poor. From her early years she showed great aptitude for study, an ardent and enthu-siastic spirit, and unquestionable talent. She was to a considerable extent self-taught ; and her love of reading made her acquainted first with Plutarch—a passion for which author she continued to cherish throughout her life —thereafter with Bossuet, Massillon, and authors of a like stamp, and finally with Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Rousseau. These studies marked stages of her develop-ment ; and as her mind matured she abandoned the idea of a convent which for a year or two she had entertained, and added to the enthusiasm for a republic which she had imbibed from her earlier studies not a little of the cynicism and the daring which the later authors inspired. She almost equalled her husband in knowledge and infinitely excelled him in talent and in tact. Through and with him she exercised a singularly powerful influence over the destinies of France from the outbreak of the Revolution till her death.

For four years after their marriage Roland lived at Amiens, he being still an inspector of manufactures ; but his knowledge of commercial affairs enabled him to con-tribute articles to the Encyclopédie Nouvelle, in which, as in all his literary work, he was assisted by his wife. On their removal to Lyons the influence of both became wider and more powerful. Their fervent political aspirations could not be concealed, and from the beginning of the Revolution they threw in their lot with the party of advance. The Courier de Lyon contained articles the success of which reached even to the capital and attracted the attention of the Parisian press. They were from the pen of Madame Roland and were signed by her husband. A correspondence sprang up with Brissot and other friends of the Revolution at headquarters. In Lyons their views were publicly known ; Roland was elected a member of the municipality, and when the depression of trade in the south demanded representation in Paris he was deputed by the council of Lyons to defend the interests of the -city before the constituent assembly. Accompanied by his wife, he appeared in the capital in February 1791.





They had made many and influential friends in advance, and Madame Roland's salon soon became the rendezvous of Brissot, Pétion, Robespierre, and other leaders of the popular movement. In person Madame Roland was attract-ive though not beautiful ; her ideas were clear and far-reaching, her manner calm, and her power of observation extremely acute. It was almost inevitable that she should find herself in the centre of political aspirations and pre-siding over a company of the most talented men of progress. Her resolve was fixed, and gradually she impressed it upon all: the France of 1791 was a France of transi-tion ; a republic alone was its destiny, was the ideal of philosophy, the expression of liberty, the goal of history. This was the constant aim of her influence and her speech ; it was accompanied with a petty animosity, almost hatred, towards the king and queen ; but it found a ready echo in the minds of those leaders who willingly admired her calm and learned reasoning. The royal flight in June and the ignominious return lent impetus to these ideas ; a journal entitled The Republican appeared in Paris, but at its second number was suppressed. In its organization Madame Roland had a hand.

In September 1791, Roland's mission being executed, they returned to Lyons. Meanwhile the inspectorships of manufactures had been abolished ; he was thus free ; and they could no longer remain absent from the centre of affairs. In December they again reached Paris. Roland became a member of the Jacobin Club. The rupture had not yet been made evident between the Girondist party and that section still more extreme, that of the Mountain. For a time the whole left united in forcing the resig-nation of the ministers. When the crisis came the Giron-dists were ready, and in March 1792 Roland found him-self appointed minister of the interior. As a minister of the crown Roland exhibited a remarkable combination of political prejudice with administrative ability. While his wife's influence could not increase the latter it was success-fully exerted to foment and embitter the former. He was ex officio excluded from the legislative assembly, and his declarations of policy were thus in writing,—that is, in the form in which she could most readily exert her power. A great occasion was invented. The decrees against the emigrants and the non-juring clergy still remained under the veto of the king. A letter was penned by Madame Roland and addressed by her husband to Louis. It remained unanswered. Thereupon, in full council and in the king's presence, Roland read his letter aloud. It con-tained many and terrible truths as to the royal refusal to sanction the decrees and as to the king's position in the state ; but it was inconsistent with a minister's position, disrespectful if not insolent in tone, disloyal in spirit, and grossly disfigured by repeated threats of violence on the part of the people. It was meant, and it was used, simply as a lecture to the king's face and as an accusation behind his back. Roland's dismissal followed. Then he com-pleted the plan : he read the letter to the assembly ; it was ordered to be printed, became the manifesto of dis-affection, and was circulated everywhere. In the demand for the reinstatement of the dismissed ministers were found the means of humiliation, and the prelude to the dethronement, of the king.

After the abolition of royalty on the 10th of August, Roland was recalled to power, one of his colleagues being Danton. To his dismay he found that the passions which he had lent his aid in evoking he was powerless to allay, and that the party of the Mountain was, on the contrary, utilizing these passions for purposes of incredible excess. From this moment, though too late, the conduct of Roland, his wife, and the whole Gironde became heroic. They fearlessly denounced the massacres of September, Roland writing boldly to the assembly on the subject. Both husband and wife became the butt of calumny and the object of increasing dislike on the part of the ultra-revolutionists,—Robespierre shunning them, Danton de-nouncing them, and Marat in his journal heaping upon them the foulest falsehoods. Still the Girondists, from Vergniaud downwards, banded themselves bravely on their side ; but on 22d January 1793 Roland sent in his resigna-tion. It was the day after the execution of the king.

Still they remained in Paris, unflinchingly, but with ever less and less success, attempting to regulate and elevate the Revolution. Calumny continued. Once Madame Roland appeared personally in the assembly to repel the falsehoods of an accuser, and her ease and dignity evoked enthusiasm and compelled acquittal. But violence succeeded violence, and early on the morning of the 1st of June she was arrested and thrown into the prison of the Abbaye. Roland himself escaped secretly to shelter in Rouen. Released for an hour from the Abbaye, she was again arrested and thrown among the horrors of Sainte Pélagie. Finally she was transferred to the Conciergerie. In prison she won the affections of the guards, and was allowed the privilege of writing materials and the occa-sional visits of devoted friends. She there wrote her Appeal to an Impartial Posterity, those memoirs which display a strange alternation between self-laudation and patriotism, between the trivial and the sublime. On 8th November 1793 she was conveyed to the guillotine. Before yielding her head to the block, she bowed before the clay statue of Liberty erected in the Place de la Revolution, uttering her famous apostrophe— "O Liberty! what crimes are committed in thy name!" One week later Roland, having heard of his wife's death, wandered some miles from his refuge in Rouen ; maddened by despair and grief, he wrote a few words expressive of his horror at those massacres which could only be inspired by the enemies of France, protesting that "from the moment when I learned that they had murdered my wife I would no longer remain in a world stained with enemies." He affixed the paper to his breast, and unsheathing a sword-stick fell upon the weapon, which pierced his heart, on 15th November 1793. (T. S.)






The above article was written by: Thomas Shaw, M.A., LL.D., Advocate.



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