Marie-Jeanne Roland (1754-1793) was a French writer and political figure, who presided over a salon and was influential in her husband's career during the early years of the French Revolution until she was arrested and executed for treason.
Marie-Jeanne "Manon" Philipon, better known as Madame Roland, was born in Paris sometime in 1754. The only surviving child of a master engraver, she was born into an age of reason and wit, the France of the philosophes. After spending the first two years of her life with a wet-nurse, Manon returned to her parents' middle-class household where she watched her father and his apprentices make decorated snuffboxes, jewel and watch cases, elaborate buttons, and picture frames. Taught to read at an early age, her intellectual curiosity was insatiable. She devoured books on virtually every subject including history, philosophy, poetry, mathematics, and religious works. From her mother, she learned the domestic duties of cooking and sewing. It was reading, however, that remained her greatest joy, and she spent the majority of her waking hours engaged in study. As she herself noted: "I need study as I need food." At the age of nine, Manon discovered Plutarch's Lives which made an indelible impression upon her. It was Plutarch, she later admitted, who made her a firm believer in the republican form of government.
Religion held a strong hold on the young girl who, at age 11, expressed an earnest desire to become a nun. Her parents agreed to a one-year trial and on May 7, 1765, she entered the Convent of the Ladies of the Congregation, in the Faubourg Saint-Marcel. Here, she met the Cannet sisters, Henriette and Sophie, who became her lifelong friends.
Convinced that the monastic life was not for her, Manon left the convent in the spring of 1776 to live for a year with her grandmother Philipon on the Ile Saint-Louis. It was during one of their infrequent social outings that Manon was introduced to Madame de Boismorel, a wealthy noble-woman who left an unfavorable impression on the young bourgeoisie. Madame Boismorel exhibited all of the pretentiousness and arrogance of the ancien regime aristocracy, and Manon maintained a critical and hostile attitude towards them for the rest of her life.
Upon her return home, Manon continued her extensive reading by making use of circulating libraries. Mastering Italian and with a good knowledge of English, she delighted in reading the works of English novelists and poets such as Fielding, Richardson, Pope, and Shakespeare. Voltaire became one of her favorite authors and, from the age of 14, she began to have serious doubts about her religion. She eventually chose to reject the staunch Catholicism of her childhood and instead relied on a sentimental form of deism. Nonetheless, she concluded that orthodox Christianity was useful and necessary for poor people in order to give them hope. Historian Gita May has concluded that "from her study of the philosophes, Manon came away a resolute optimist and a firm upholder of the dignity of the individual."
Her optimism was temporarily shattered by the death of her mother in June 1775. Estranged from her father, whose heavy financial speculations began to destroy his business, Manon kept to herself, spending more and more time alone. In 1776, at the age of 22, she resolved to remain a spinster for the rest of her life. Rejecting the young suitors her father suggested, she preferred the company of older men, with whom she could enjoy intellectual and social companionship without the burden of physical attraction. It was during this period that she first read Rousseau. Gita May asserts that "Rousseau … shaped her whole moral being and … determined her every important act both in her private and political life." In her Memoirs, Madame Roland discussed the philosopher's impact:
Rousseau … made the same impression on me as had Plutarch when I was nine… . Plutarch had predisposed me to become a republican; he had inspired in me the true enthusiasm for public virtues and liberty. Rousseau showed me the domestic happiness to which I had a right to aspire and the ineffable delights I was capable of tasting.
Of all her elderly companions, Manon had not yet chosen a suitor whom she could consider marrying until January 1776 when she was introduced to Jean-Marie Roland de la Platière, an inspector of Commerce and Manufactures at Amiens. Twenty years her senior, M. Roland was a thin, slightly stoop-shouldered man who dressed like a Quaker and whose angular, sharp features gave him a somewhat striking appearance. Roland appeared more respectable than seductive, and Manon appreciated his broad range of interests and gravity of mind.
Their courtship was lengthy and often stormy. Roland spent long periods without visiting or corresponding with her. In addition, Manon's father disliked him intensely while Roland's family were wary of allowing their son to marry a dowerless bourgeoisie. In spite of these objections, they became engaged in April 1779 and, after Roland's procrastination, were finally married on February 4, 1780. As a couple the Rolands made an interesting sight. He looked more like her father than her husband while she, with her dark hair and pale complexion, radiated youth and vigor.
For the first six months of their marriage they lived in Paris even though Roland's office was in Amiens. During this time, he came to rely more and more upon his wife's literary and intellectual talents. Madame Roland helped him edit his writings, becoming not only his secretary, but also his copyist, editor, researcher, proofreader, and, finally, coauthor. In Paris, she became acquainted with men of letters and scientists with whom she was to maintain lifelong friendships. Louis Bosc, a botanist, and François Lanthenas, a businessman, quickly became enamored of her lively wit and charming personality. It was with some regret that she left Paris for Amiens in the autumn of 1780. One year later, on October 4, 1781, she gave birth to the couple's only child Marie-Thérèse Eudora.
For the next four years, Manon's life remained uneventful. She continued to work along side her husband, providing him with invaluable assistance. In spite of her intellectual abilities and obvious talents, Madame Roland was no feminist. In a letter addressed to her friend Bosc she confessed:
I believe … in the superiority of your sex in every respect. In the first place, you have strength, and everything that goes with it results from it: courage, perseverance, wide horizons and great talents… . But without us you would not be virtuous, loving, loved, or happy. Keep therefore all your glory and authority. As for us, we have and wish no other supremacy than that over your morals, no other rule than that over your hearts … . It often angers me to see women disputing privileges which ill befit them…. [Women] should never show their learning or talents in public.
Her quiet life in Amiens was interrupted when she embarked on a trip to Paris in March 1784 in order to obtain a patent of nobility for Roland. They both believed that his long service of duty entitled him to recognition and respect. Unfortunately, her charm, intelligence, and perseverance did not win over the hostile attitudes which the officials held about her husband, although she did manage to obtain for him a transfer from Amiens to Lyon and a promotion to general inspector. After a brief trip to England in July 1784, the Rolands moved to his family home at Villefranche-sur-Saone. Much of their time, however, was spent at their country retreat, Le Clos, which Manon greatly admired and enjoyed. In spite of the abject poverty she encountered, she was content and serene.
This was not the situation in the rest of the country. The French monarchy had become increasingly unpopular from the mid-18th century, and revolutionary language was circulating in France after the revolt of the American colonies. By 1787, the royal treasury was bankrupt from the wars with Great Britain, and a disastrous harvest in 1788 caused food shortages and subsequent bread and grain riots. Louis XVI, in order to alleviate the crown's financial difficulties, summoned a meeting of the Estates General which had not met since 1614. The Third Estate, made up of mostly lawyers, doctors, engineers, and merchants, demanded double representation which the king and his finance officer, Jacques Necker, granted. It was a fatal move. The delegates, who had drawn up a number of grievances, or cahiers, were disappointed when the Estates General met on May 4, 1789, and the king failed to address their concerns. More important, he chose to ignore the question of whether the assembly would vote by order, which usually ensured the dominance of the privileged estates, or by head, which would give the Third Estate control. Disappointed by the king's reluctance to decide upon this issue, the Third Estate took a momentous step and proclaimed itself the National Assembly on June 17. The king finally intervened by locking the delegates out of their meeting hall but, defying his will, they met in a nearby tennis court and bound themselves by a solemn oath not to separate until they had drafted a constitution for France. The French Revolution had begun.
Madame Roland's complacent and quiet life in the country was disrupted when news of the events taking place in Paris reached her. From the outset of the Revolution, she and her husband supported the goals of the insurgents. Convinced that the revolutionary movement would only be successful if it abolished the monarchy, she continued to suspect the King of plotting with counterrevolutionaries which turned out to be true. Remaining in Lyon, Manon and her husband became correspondents for a revolutionary newspaper, the Patriote français published by Jacques-Pierre Brissot, a lawyer whom they had met in 1787 and who was currently an active leader of the revolutionaries. In November 1790, sympathizers of the Revolution dominated the municipal council of Lyon, and Roland was subsequently appointed an officer.
The city was in the midst of an economic crisis due to its exorbitant debt, and Roland was appointed to negotiate for a loan from the National Assembly. Accompanying her husband to Paris in February 1791, Madame Roland opened her first political salon at the Hôtel Britannique in the rue Guénégaud. Many of the leading revolutionary figures attended, including Brissot, Petion, Robespierre, Buzot and Thomas Paine. Unlike other hostesses, she did not choose to be the center of attention, refraining from speaking until the meetings were finished.
By August 1791, with her husband's mission nearing its end, they decided to return to Le Clos. Their residence was short-lived. On September 27, the Inspectorate of Manufactures was abolished and Roland was consequently deprived of his profession. Having served for nearly 40 years, he felt that he deserved a pension and, as a result, the Rolands returned to Paris in December 1791 where they immediately became embroiled once again in revolutionary politics.
Louis XVI had signed the constitution on September 14, 1791, and from the first meeting of the Legislative Assembly on October 1, the question of war dominated its mood and work. The strongest advocates for war came from a group later known as the Girondists, whose unofficial leader was Roland's friend and fellow journalist Brissot. In speeches to the assembly and to the radical Jacobin Club, the Girondists advocated war with Austria as a means of rallying popular support for the Revolution, testing the loyalty of the king, and suppressing counterrevolutionaries. In March 1792, Louis XVI appointed a new cabinet which included Roland as minister of the interior. One month later, on April 20, war against Austria was finally declared.
Madame Roland, who had already proved a worthy partner to her husband, was now virtually indispensable. She was often present when colleagues and friends brought up matters of state with her husband at home. Enjoying his fullest confidence, she wrote much of his correspondence and provided advice and support for his policies. With the reopening of her salon, Madame Roland found herself at the social and political center of the new government.
In spite of his earlier cooperation, Louis XVI became increasingly intractable by consistently refusing to endorse Girondist legislation. Military losses contributed to growing accusations that the king was secretly encouraging the Austrians. Distrust between the king and the government reached a climax in May 1792 when he vetoed three Girondist decrees. On June 10, Roland addressed a letter to the king, actually written by his wife, reprimanding him for his veto and encouraging him to become more patriotic. Madame Roland's dislike for the monarchy was clear: "I know that the stern language of truth is rarely welcomed by the throne, I know too that it is because truth is almost never heard there that revolutions become necessary."
Louis XVI not only ignored the letter but dismissed all of the Girondist ministers including Roland. His action led to an armed uprising of the Paris populace on June 20 and heightened anxiety throughout the country. Political excitement continued to increase until August 10 when a crowd of armed Parisians marched on the palace at the Tuileries, forcing the royal family to flee for protection to the National Assembly. The crowd, however, was in control, and the assembly had no choice but to suspend Louis XVI from his functions. As the monarchical constitution was clearly dead, they ordered elections for a new body, the National Convention. Roland and his colleagues were reappointed, and Danton was named minister of justice.
Madame Roland was once again in a position of influence as helpmate to her husband, although she fell increasingly under attack from Robespierre and his Jacobin allies. The Girondists were rapidly losing support in the French capital, and when the convention held its first meeting on September 21, 1792, the divisions were clear. On one side were the Girondists; on the other sat the Jacobin deputation from Paris which became known as the Mountain (Montagne) from the high seats it took at the back of the assembly. The rest of the deputies formed the Plain (Plaine) and were uncommitted to either faction.
The fate of the king led to a struggle for control of the convention itself. Roland became a favorite target of the opposition who accused him of royalist sympathies and secret correspondence. The slander directed against the Roland ministry included his wife who was summoned before the bar of the convention on December 7, 1792. After a dramatic defense of her politics, she was not only cleared of the charges brought against her but was voted honors of the session. Her husband was less successful. The convention voted in favor of the king's execution by a majority of one vote, and Louis XVI was guillotined on January 21, 1793. Roland handed in his resignation the following day.
Historians have debated upon the real reasons for Roland's decision to resign at this particular time and, until recently, were unaware of the personal crisis he and his wife were undergoing. Sometime before her husband's resignation, Madame Roland confessed to him her romantic attraction to the Girondist deputy from Evreux, François Leonard Buzot. Faced with a painful dilemma but realizing his dependence on her, Manon chose to remain with Roland. Thus, they continued to live and work together although their relationship was strained not only for personal reasons but by the uncertainty and growing danger of their political position.
In spite of repeated requests and petitions, they were prohibited from leaving Paris. Manon's sense of doom was realized when 21 Girondist deputies were expelled from the convention and arrested on May 31, 1793. Engineering her husband's escape, she did not elude the authorities. For the next five months, she spent her time in prison writing her Memoirs and her autobiography entitled An Appeal to Impartial Posterity. Throughout her imprisonment, she maintained a calm composure. After visiting Madame Roland in prison, an Englishwoman noted that:
She conversed with the same animated cheerfulness in her little cell as she used to do in the hotel of the minister…. She told me she expected to die; and the look of placid resignation with which she spoke of it, convinced me that she was prepared to meet death with a firmness worthy of her exalted character.
During her imprisonment she refused to agree to several plans for her escape; her fate was sealed when the Girondists, after a seven-day trial, were found guilty of counterrevolutionary activities and were executed on October 31, 1793. Madame Roland's trial before the Revolutionary Tribunal was set for November 8. Dressed in a gown of white muslin, she listened to witnesses against her but was forbidden to speak in her own defense. Pronounced guilty of a "horrible conspiracy against the unity and indivisibility of the Republic, and the liberty and safety of the French people," she was ordered to be executed that very afternoon. On a bleak, wintry November day, Madame Roland traveled in a cart to the foot of the guillotine in the Place de la Revolution. Mounting the platform, her eyes fastened on the artist David's statue of Liberty as she exclaimed, "Oh Liberty, what crimes are committed in thy name."
Her death produced a grievous sense of loss in the two men who loved her. Two days after hearing the news of his wife's execution, Roland left his sanctuary at Rouen and was later found impaled upon his sword cane. Buzot, also heartbroken, met a similar fate when his body was found on June 25, 1794, half-devoured by wolves.
Further Reading on Madame Roland
Clemenceau-Jacquemaire, Madeleine. The Life of Madame Roland. Longmans, Green, 1930.
May, Gita. Madame Roland and the Age of Revolution. Columbia University Press, 1970.