Albert Soboul, writing in 1966.
|Charles Ronot, Les derniers Montagnards, 1882. (Oil, 315cm x 202cm)|
Musée de la Révolution française, Vizille
Les derniers montagnardsPortail des collections Département de l'Isère (isere.fr)
On 29 Prairial, Year III, 17th June 1795, the mathematician Gilbert Romme, and five of his fellow Montagnard deputies, were sentenced to death by the Military Commission set up after the uprising of Prairial. Rather than submit to the Thermidorean state, the deputies chose to take their own lives in an act of collective suicide. It was a crude and desperate affair. Shortly after the sentence was handed down, they stabbed themselves with makeshift weapons - two concealed knives and the blade from some scissors, which they passed from one to another. Three managed to kill themselves outright; a third was dead by the time he reached the guillotine.
In the years which followed, the "martyrs of Prairial" rapidly earned a hallowed place in the radical Republican tradition, particularly through the work of Pierre-François Tissot, the brother-in-law of Goujon, who in 1799 published a volume of moving letters and documents relating to the case. More grandiose commemorations, like Ronot's picture above, are mostly the product of the Third Republic in the 1880s. (Ronot's canvas, at over 3 metres high, is truly colossal)
Anxious as they were to avoid charges of conspiracy, the six denied that they knew known each other. However, this was not entirely true. Certainly Romme and Soubrany, both natives of Riom, were firm friends. Their close intellectual ties are attested by Soubrany's correspondence which was published in 1867. Goujon, on mission with the Army of the Rhine, co-signed letters with Bourbotte. All six had been out of Paris "on mission" at the time of the fall of Robespierre and returned to the Convention to find the political situation vastly changed. Soubrany exemplified a general determination to hold fast to Jacobin principles: "Several of my colleagues, returning from mission, aware of the new system, had the weakness, from fear of being attacked, not to go back to the Mountain; I would have been ashamed to stoop to such a measure". [Soubrany, Dix-neuf lettres, p.45].
Françoise Brunel, historian of the "Last Montagnards", observes that the glorification of the "martyrs of Prairial" - a tradition which goes back to Tissot and Buonarroti - has tended to isolate the men from their political context. Her researches on the composition of the Convention in the post-Thermidor period, suggest there were perhaps a hundred or so deputies associated with the extreme Left ("les crêtois", ie. the crest of the Mountain). In the months before Prairial the six were not necessarily more active than other radical deputies, although they did make notable interventions: on 11-12 Fructidor (28th-29th August 1794) Goujon denounced Tallien's speech on the Terror and opposed Le Cointre's accusations against members of the Committees of Year II: "terror" had not been the system of Robespierre but the policy of the Convention. In later retellings, he cuts a conspicuous figure - only twenty-nine and six-feet tall, with long flowing hair, he combined Romantic good looks with "the presence of a Spartan". In Brumaire Romme, was chosen by lot as one of the Commission of Twenty-One charged with examining the case against Carrier. He cast doubt on the documentary evidence against Carrier and questioned the good faith of his denunciators. Bourbotte, who had just returned from twenty months on mission, stated that, if Carrier had committed crimes, it was only through error and "delirious patriotism" During the insurrection of 12 Germinal Romme, Soubrany and Bourbotte were among the 51 signatories to the demand for an appel nominal against the proscription of Barère, Billot, Collot and Vadier. From then on, radical deputies were obliged to lay low - this was true even of Romme who was a member of the Commission of Sixteen charged with implementing the 1793 Constitution. According to Tissot, "The patriots, menaced from all sides, incarcerated or slaughtered, could not meet together for any enterprise. Wealth, journals, power, public opinion, were all in the control of their enemies(...) From 12 Germinal to the 1 Prairial, Goujon was unable to utter a word in the Assembly" [Tissot, Vie de Goujon, quoted by Françoise Brunel]
The events of 1er Prairal, however, were to seal the deputies' fate.
The events of Prairial
On 1er Prairial Year III (20 May 1795) an angry and volatile crowd of demonstrators invaded the Convention, demanding "Bread and the Constitution of '93". In the course of the ensuring confrontation, the head of the deputy Feraud was paraded threateningly in front of the president, Boissy d'Anglas. The deputies had been in their seats at ten in the morning; by the evening they were at breaking point. At seven o'clock, at the insistence of the crowds, it was finally agreed that the representatives of the Mountain should descend to the lower benches to deliberate. Now, irrevocably, the radicals of the Left gave voice to their convictions.
It is impossible to say, in the ensuring chaos, whether the deputies were consumed with enthusiasm or merely carried along by events. The six maintained afterwards, that they had sought only to preserve the Assembly from popular anarchy. Proposals flew to and fro. After several hours of commotion, Romme demanded the release of the patriots arrested on 12 Germinal. He also proposed that there should be only one sort of bread (le pain d'égalité) and that domiciliary visits should be carried out to find stores of grain and flour. Bourbotte demanded the arrest of reactionaries. More coupably still, Soubrany proposed the nomination of an extraordinary commission of four to replace the government committees. Duquesnoy, Prieur de la Marne, Bourbotte and Duroy were duly nominated as the members. The sections were to remain in permanent session.
This time, of course, the popular agenda was destined not to prevail. By midnight the troops of Legendre, Auguis and Kervélégan, had put down the insurrection with sabres and bayonets. Order was restored to the Convention and the members of the Mountain stood accused of orchestrating the revolt.
There was some initial hesitation about which deputies would be singled out for proscription. At the close of the session on 1er Prairial, the arrest of fourteen deputies was decreed. However, only eight - the six later condemned to death and two others - were subsequently taken into detention; Philippe Rühl and Prieur de la Marne were held in house arrest, others were released; Antoine Albitte later managed to evade capture.
Their written defences reveal the rationale behind the decision to take their own lives. The language of these writings is throroughly Stoic. Romme asserted "although my body is subject to the law, my soul remains independent and cannot be crushed". His colleagues, Soubrany, Goujon and Bourbotte similarly used the rhetoric of Epictetus and Seneca, and invoked the example of Cato the Younger. The deputy Marc-Antoine Baudot was later to refer to the six as "the last of the Romans" (M.-A. Baudot, Notes historiques sur la Convention nationale (1893) p.153)
The journey back from Brittany was rapid. On 20 prairial at eight in the evening, seven of the representatives detained in the Taureau (Forestier was substituted for one of the eight), arrived in Paris where they were held in the Prison des Quatre-Nations in the rue Mazarine. Here they were kept under strict surveillance, though relatives were allowed limited access. When Romme's wife visited him, she found him dining with Soubrany on chicken and veal: they are fattening us up to kill us, Soubrany quipped, to which Romme remarked plaintively that he would prefer to be at home with only bread and water.
At midday on 29 Prairial, the men were brought in to have the verdict read. They stood in front of the judge separated by a table, with six grenadiers at each end. Goujon, in his deputy's coat, with his long hair, was a head taller than the soldiers. The six were condemned to death and the seventh man Peyssard to deportation; the case against Forestier was dismissed due to lack of proof, though he was to remain held in prison.
|Philippe-Auguste Hennequin, The suicide of the Crêtois, c.1831, Musée Carnavalet |
Suicide des Crêtois après leur condamnation à mort le 1er Prairial de l'an III (20 mai 1795). | Paris Musées
The most reliable account of what followed comes again from Aimé Jordan in the Moniteur. He notes that he had gone to unusual trouble not only to record what he saw but to seek clarification from other witnesses. Although by no means sympathetic to their political views, Jourdan was clearly impressed by the bravery of the six deputies and disgusted at their fate:
After the judgment was read, Forestier laughed. Goujon placed a portrait of himself on the table requesting it to be given to his wife. Duquesnoy handed over a letter containing his farewells to his wife and friends. "I want my blood to be the last innocent blood to be spilled; let us hope it will serve to consolidate the Republic. Long live the Republic!"The enemies of liberty were the only ones who wanted my life; said Bourbotte; my last vow, my dying breath will be for my country."The condemned men placed on the desk their identity cards as deputies, their pocketbooks etc. to be handed over to their families.They were taken out.Going down the stairs, they stabbed themselves with knives and scissors. It was reported that Bourbotte exclaimed, as he stabbed himself, "This is how a man of courage finishes his life!".The men had only two knives and an old pair of scissors between them, which they took turns to use, one after the other. They were taken into a room on the ground floor which had formerly served as their prison.An officer of the gendarmes brought the president of the Commission the knife which Bourbotte had used to stab himself. Soon afterwards it was announced that the five others had also stabbed themselves. The second knife and the scissors were brought in.
The president read out the Commission's order that the men were to be searched, on the evening before and again on the morning of the judgment, in order to remove their knives, scissors, and any other sharp objects; even their beds were to be checked. It was believed that the weapons had been concealed in the lining of their coats.
The commander of the guard was immediately arrested.
A medical officer was summoned to assess the state of the condemned men and to ascertain whether they could be transported from the prison to the place of execution. He reported that Romme, Goujon and Duquesnoy were dead. It seemed that Romme had stabbed himself not only in the body, but in the throat, and even the face; the amount of blood with which he was covered, rendered him unrecognisable.
Goujon seemed to have suffered some sort of spasm in death, since his face, and particularly his lips were strikingly contracted.
Charles-Edmond Chabrillac, Mort de Goujon, c.1830 (Oil sketch, 19.8 cm x 18.8 cm c.1830)
"They killed themselves with the same knife that they passed from one to the other, crying out "Vive la République
La mort de Goujon Portail des collections Département de l'Isère
Of the three taken out to be executed, Soubrany seemed the most severely injured. His wound was in his side, and he was bleeding profusely. He was very weak from loss of blood and lay flat in the cart.
Duroy appeared normal.
Bourbotte was the one who showed the greatest courage. He sat up and looked around him.
In the courtyard before they left, Duroy exclaimed, "Let the assassins enjoy their work...I am sorry to miss it. How is it that these hand are bound by the bourreau! Rejoice, messieurs les aristocrates!
He then hurled insults at several people in the courtyard.
Soubrany said, "Let me die".
When they arrived at the place de la Révolution, they had to carry Soubrany to the scaffold. Bourbotte, who died last, was required to give further proof of the courage which had never deserted him throughout the trial. As they strapped him down, he was still talking to the people next to the scaffold. But at the moment when he was lowered to receive the fatal blow, it was noticed that the blade had not been hoisted back up. He had to be removed to reset the instrument. He used the time to carry on speaking to those around him. He is reported to have said that he died an innocent man and that he wanted the Republic to prosper.
The number of people who attended the execution was small; the condemned men were escorted by a regiment of cavalry. A battalion of infantry was on watch in the Champs-Elysées and another stationed on the pont de la Révolution.Such was the end of these men.Love of truth alone, and the desire leave a record for posterity, has persuaded me to linger so long over this painful subject and to seek information to supplement what I myself witnessed.
Happily I have no more to say. All men of sensibility who read these details will surely think, like me that, whatever the crimes of the guilty, such spectacles fatigue the imagination, sadden the spirit and offend one's sense of humanity.
The men were brought to hear the verdict at midday. By two o'clock in the afternoon they were all dead.
From the final letter of Goujon, entrusted to his mother, three days before his death.
I have lived for liberty. I have always done what I believed to be good, just and useful to my country. My conduct has always been dictated by probity. I repent nothing; I will repent nothing even if it costs me my life. In the same circumstances, I would say and do the same things; for I have always believed that one should act, not according to personal advantage, but only as duty dictates. My life is in the hands of other men; it is the plaything of their passions; but the memory I leave behind does not belong to them, but to posterity; it is the heritage of all just men in all times, of sensitive and generous hearts, of true friends of the Fatherland, of Liberty, of Equality. (Tissot, Souvenirs, p.149)
The autograph manuscript of Goujon's last letter was sold by Piasa in May 2005. The details don't quite tally: according to the lot essay, it is addressed to his wife, and dated 29 Prairial, ie. the actual day of his death.
Jean-Marie-Claude-Alexandre GOUJON (1766-1795) L.A.S., [29 prairial III (17 juin 1795)] | lot 691 | "Révolution Française", Faïences, Estampes, Souvenirs Historiques, Autographes chez Piasa | Auction.fr
From the last letter of Bourbotte, written a few hours before his death
I declare that I die innocent, pure, virtuous, always faithful to my country, assassinated by tyrants who wish to oppress and enslave it. I forgive those who, by error, have helped them snatch away my life; I give it up without regret because I am convinced that my sacrifice will be useful to liberty. I am honoured to be one of its martyrs. I love liberty with passion, I uphold it with the courage of a man who defends the object of his greatest affections.....Oh my country! All my actions, all my vows, are devoted to your happiness.Oh liberty! I live only for you and by you.Oh Republic! You have no more faithful friend than me. I die because I wanted to defend you....Virtuous Cato, no longer will it be your example alone that teaches free men how to escape the scaffold of tyranny. Live forever, Liberty, Equality, and the one and indivisible French Republic!Signed: Pierre Bourbotte, representative of the people. (Tissot, Souvenirs, p.195)
Les derniers Montagnards - Google Books
Gilbert Romme. Actes du colloque de Riom (19-20 mai 1995)
Annales historiques de la Révolution française, n°304, 1996. Gilbert Romme. Actes du colloque de Riom (19-20 mai 1995) - Persée (persee.fr)
........,"Pourquoi ces « six » parmi les « derniers montagnards » ? Annales historiques de la Révolution française 1996 304 pp. 401-413
La liberté ou la mort, mourir en député, 1792-1795 - Google Books