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Pierre Victurnien Vergniaud
He was born at Limôges, the son of a merchant who lost most of his money by speculation. The boy was sent to the college of the Jesuits at Limôges, where he did well. Turgot was at the time the intendant of Limousin. The young Vergniaud on one occasion recited some of his own poetry in the presence of Turgot, who was struck impressed by his talent. Through his patronage, Vergniaud was admitted to the college of Plessis at Paris. The speeches of Vergniaud reveal the solidity of his education, and in particular of the wide range of his knowledge of the classics, and of his acquaintance--familiar and sympathetic--with ancient philosophy and history.
Charles Dupuy, president of the parlement of Bordeaux, with whom Vergniaud became acquainted, conceived the greatest admiration and affection for him and appointed him his secretary. Vergniaud was afterwards called to the bar (1782). Dupuy's influence gained for him the beginnings of a practice; but Vergniaud, though capable of extraordinary efforts, lacked the stamina for study and sustained exertion, even in a cause which he approved. This weakness appears equally in his political and in his professional life: he would refuse work if he was not short of money, and would sit for weeks in the Assembly in listlessness and silence, while the policy he had shaped was being gradually undermined, and then rise, brilliant as ever, but too late to avert catastrophe.
In 1789 Vergniaud was elected a member of the general council of the départment of the Gironde. Stirred by the best ideas of the Revolutionary epoch, he found a more congenial sphere for the display of his eloquence in his new position. At about this time, he took on the defence of a member of the national guard of Brives, which was accused of provoking disorders in the département of Corrèze. Vergniaud delivered one of the great speeches of his life, depicting the misfortunes of the peasantry in language of such combined dignity, pathos and power that his fame as an orator spread far and wide.
Vergniaud was chosen a representative of the Gironde to the Legislative Assembly in August 1791, and he proceeded to Paris. The Legislative Assembly met on October 1. For a time, according to his habit, he refrained from speaking; but on October 25 he ascended the tribune, and he had not spoken long before the whole Assembly felt that a new power had arisen which might control even the destinies of France. This judgment was re-echoed outside, and he was almost immediately elected president of the Assembly for the usual brief term. Between the outbreak of the Revolution and his election to the Legislative Assembly the political views of Vergniaud had undergone a decided change. At first he had supported the idea of a constitutional monarchy; but the flight of King Louis XVI made him distrust the sovereign, and he began to favour a republic.
The sentiments and passions which his eloquence aroused were made use of by a more extreme party. Even his first Assembly speech, on the émigrés - proposing that a treble annual contribution be levied on their property - resulted in a measure passed by the Assembly, but vetoed by the king, mandating the death sentence and confiscation of their goods. Step by step he was led on to tolerate violence and crime, to the excesses of which his eyes were only opened by the September Massacres, and which ultimately overwhelmed the party of Girondists which he led. On March 19 1792, when the perpetrators of the massacre of Avignon had been introduced to the Assembly by Collot d'Herbois, Vergniaud spoke indulgently of their crimes and lent the authority of his voice to their amnesty.
He worked at the theme of the émigrés, as it developed into that of the counter-revolution; and in his occasional appearances in the tribune, as well as in the project of an address to the French people which he presented to the Assembly on December 27 1791, he stirred the heart of France, and, especially by his call to arms on January 18, shaped the policy which culminated in the declaration of war against the king of Bohemia and Hungary on April 20. This policy in foreign affairs, which he pursued through the winter and spring of 1791-92, he combined with arousing the suspicions of the people against the monarchy, which he identified with the counter-revolution, and of forcing a change of ministry. On March 10 Vergniaud delivered a powerful oration in which he denounced the intrigues of the court and uttered his famous apostrophe to the Tuileries: "In ancient times fear and terror have often issued from that famous palace; let them re-enter it to-day in the name of the law!"
The speech overthrew De Lessart , whose accusation was decreed; and Jean Marie Roland, the nominee of the Girondists, entered the ministry. By June the opposition of Vergniaud (whose voice still commanded the country) to the king rose to fever pitch. On May 29 Vergniaud went so far as to support the disbanding of the king's guard; yet he appears to have been unaware of the extent of the feelings of animosity which he had aroused in the people, probably because he was wholly unconnected with the practices of the party of the Mountain as the instigators of the violence. The party used Vergniaud, whose lofty and serene ideas they travestied in action. Then came the riot of June 20 and the invasion of the Tuileries. He was powerless to quell the riot. Continuing for yet a little longer his course of almost frenzied, opposition to the throne, on July 3 he boldly denounced the king as a hypocrite, a despot, and a base traitor to the constitution. His speeches were perhaps the greatest single factor in the development of the events of the time.
On August 10 the Tuileries was stormed, and the royal family took refuge in the Assembly. Vergniaud presided, replying to the request of the king for protection in dignified and respectful language. An extraordinary commission was appointed: Vergniaud wrote and read its recommendations that a National Convention be formed, the king be provisionally suspended from office, a governor appointed for his son, and the royal family be consigned to the Palais Luxembourg. Hardly had the great orator attained the object of his aim--the overthrow of Louis as a sovereign--when he became conscious of the forces by which he was surrounded. He denounced the massacres of September--their inception, their horror and the future to which they pointed--in language so vivid and powerful that it raised for a time the spirits of the Girondists, while on the other hand it aroused the fatal opposition of the Parisian leaders.
The question of whether Louis XVI should be judged, and if so by whom, was the subject of protracted debate. The Girondist leader at last, on December 31 1792, broke silence, delivering one of his greatest speeches. He pronounced in favour of an appeal to the people. The great effort failed; and four days afterwards Vergniaud and his whole party were further damaged by the discovery of a note signed by him along with Gaudet and Armand Gensonné and presented to the king two or three weeks before August 10. It was greedily seized on by the enemies of the Girondists as evidence of treason. On January 16 1793 a vote was taken in the Convention upon the punishment of the king. Vergniaud voted early, and voted for death. The action of the great Girondist was followed by a similar verdict from nearly the whole party which he led. On the 17th Vergniaud presided at the Convention, and it fell to him, labouring under the most painful excitement, to announce the fatal result of the voting. Then for many weeks he remained silent.
When the institution of a revolutionary tribunal was proposed, Vergniaud opposed the project, denouncing the tribunal as a more awful inquisition than that of Venice, and avowing that his party would all die rather than consent to it. Their death by stratagem had already been planned, and on March 10 they had to go into hiding. On the 13th Vergniaud boldly exposed the conspiracy in the Convention. The antagonism caused by such an attitude had reached a significant point when on April 10 Robespierre himself laid his accusation before the Convention. He fastened on Vergniaud's letter to the king and his support of the appeal to the people as proof that he was a moderate in its then despised sense. Vergniaud made a brilliant extemporaneous reply, and the attack for the moment failed. But now, night after night, Vergniaud and his colleagues found themselves obliged to change their abode, to avoid assassination, a price being even put upon their heads. Still with unfaltering courage they continued their resistance to the dominant faction, till on June 2 1793 things came to a head. The Convention was surrounded with an armed mob, who clamoured for the "twenty two." In the midst of this it was forced to continue its deliberations. The decree of accusation was voted, and the Girondists were proscribed .
Vergniaud took refuge for a day, then returned to his own home. He was kept under surveillance there for nearly a month, and in the early days of July was imprisoned in La Force. He carried poison with him, but never used it. His tender affection for his relatives abundantly appears from his correspondence, along with his profound attachment to the great ideas of the Revolution and his noble love of country. On one of the walls of the Carmelite convent to which for a short time the prisoners were removed Vergniaud wrote in letters of blood: "Potius mon quamfoedari." Early in October the Convention brought forward its indictment of the twenty-two Girondists. They were sent for trial to the Revolutionary tribunal, before which they appeared on October 27. The procedure was a travesty of justice. Early on the morning of October 31, 1793 the Girondists were conveyed to the scaffold, singing on the way the Marseillaise and keeping up the strain till one by one they were guillotined. Vergniaud was executed last. He died unconfessed, a philosopher and a patriot.
ReferencesPlease update as needed.
The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, in turn, gives the following references:
- Gay de Vernon, Vergniaud (Limoges, 1858)
- L de Verdière, Biographie de Vergniaud (Paris, 1866).
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