One woman, Marie Antoinette, with her excesses, ignited the spark that started the French Revolution; another, Charlotte Corday, attempted to extinguish it with her murder of Marat. Between them stood a woman devoted to justice, republicanism, and liberty: Jeanne Manon Philipon Roland.
She was born in 1754. Her father, an engraver and a supposedly solid member of the bourgeoisie, was, in fact, a fervent revolutionary who lectured his daughter on the tyranny of the French church and state. The Greek and Latin philosophers were her primers, and she was required to keep a daily journal, a habit which she persisted in until her death.
At twenty five, Jeanne married Monsieur Roland de La Platiere, a fellow intellectual and scholar who was twenty two years her senior. In 1780, the couple moved to Lyons, M. Roland's ancestral home. Madame Roland had planned to continue with her studies, but when she saw the suffering and the misery caused among the peasants by the heavy taxation and the oppression of the nobility and the church, she picked up the red flag of radicalism. She turned her indefatigable pen toward petitioning for equal rights and justice. She studied medicine, in order to tend to the basic needs of the peasants, and turned their home into a hotbed of radical activity. When in 1790, owing to the widespread unrest among his subjects, Louis XVI was forced to call the previously dissolved National Assembly, it was predictable that M. Roland would be elected representative from Lyons.
Although, as a woman, Madame Roland could not participate directly in the Assembly, she attended every meeting, and when its members met at the Rolands' home, her opinions were listened to with respect. Alarmed at the way Danton, Robespierre, and Marat, the leaders of the Jacobin party, were inciting the people to a murderous rage against the king, the Rolands and other members of the Assembly formed the Girondist party, in the hope of retaining King Louis at the head of a republican government.
But just as Madame Roland was dictating Girondist policy through her husband, Marie Antoinette was manipulating Louis in an attempt to salvage the monarchy. Her cousin, Frederick of Prussia, secretly sent word to her that he was marching to Paris with his army to rescue the beleaguered monarchs.
As the rumor spread that Paris was about to be attacked by the Prussians, the Jacobins increased their attempts to rouse the populace to storm the palace and take the king and queen prisoner. Madame Roland realized that this would mean the death of not only the king, but also of the Girondists. She quickly wrote a letter to Louis asking him to set an army around Paris to guard against foreign invaders. She had her husband sign the letter and sent him to read it to the assembly. When he had finished, the Assembly rose up as one and applauded him. The letter was printed and thousands of copies were distributed. The name of Roland was on every Frenchman's lips, but it was no secret who was the real champion of the people. One member of the Assembly said, "Of all the men of modern times, Roland seems to me most to resemble Cato; but it must be owned that it is to his wife that his courage and talents are due.”
Madame Roland was now the virtual leader of the Girondists, but their influence was shrinking daily. It was obvious that the fate of France was in the hands of the mob, which called out unceasingly for the deposition of Louis. And, in the end the mob was triumphant. The royal family was imprisoned and the guillotine set up in the Place de la Révolution, now the Place de la Concorde, in Paris. The Assembly asked Madame Roland to draw up a constitution for the new republic, which she did, but her heart was not in it. She wrote to a friend, "We are under the knife of Robespierre and Marat. You know of my enthusiasm for the revolution. I am ashamed of it now. It has been sullied by monsters.”
Marat declared that the revolution would not be successful unless 260,000 people were executed. It was the start of the Reign of Terror. The guillotine could not do its bloody deeds fast enough for the mob, which began executing prisoners with their bare hands, ripping them to shreds, urged on by Danton and Robespierre. Madame Roland was horrified by these murders and demanded that the leaders be brought to trial. "Of what use is life," she asked, "if we must live in base subjection to a degraded mob? Let us contend for the right, and if we must die, let us rejoice to die with dignity and heroism." No one would support her. Her husband asked the Assembly to raise its own army to combat the Reign of Terror. His motion was not seconded. Disgusted, he offered his resignation. The other Girondists moved that he be invited to retain his seat. Quickly, Danton rose to speak. "I oppose the invitation. Nobody appreciates Roland more justly than myself. But if you give him this invitation, you must give his wife one also." Madame Roland begged her husband to stay on to try to stop the massacre, and for her sake he consented.
A few days later, the Assembly voted to execute King Louis. Roland resigned in protest. The Rolands were now at the mercy of their enemies. Assassins were sent to murder them, but they were unsuccessful. A friend brought Madame Roland a peasant dress so that she might escape from Paris, but she refused to leave her husband. "I am ashamed to resort to any such expedient. I will neither disguise myself nor make any attempt at secret escape. My enemies may find me always in my place. If I am assassinated, it shall be in my own home. I owe my country an example of firmness and I will give it." But she slept with loaded pistols beneath her pillow.
A warrant was issued for Roland's arrest. He refused to acknowledge the authority of the Assembly and sent the deputies away. Madame Roland hid her husband in the home of a friend, then hurried away to plead with the Assembly. The couple never saw each other again. Madame Roland was denied entrance to the Assembly and, the next morning, was arrested in her home. As the soldiers led her away, her servants followed, weeping uncontrollably, "How much you are loved," exclaimed a soldier, "Because I love," was her reply. As they rode to the prison, the mob crowded about the carriage, insulting her and pelting her with mud and refuse. The soldiers asked her if she wanted the windows of the carriage closed. "No," she said, "Oppressed innocence should not assume the attitude of crime and shame. I do not fear the looks of honest men, and I brave those of my enemies."
Four months later, she went to trial wearing a long white dress to proclaim her innocence. The only accusation brought against her was that she was the wife of Roland and the friend of his friends. She proudly admitted that she was guilty on both counts. The Assembly then ordered her to reveal her husband's hiding place. She said, "I do not know of any law by which I can be obliged to violate the strongest feelings of nature." Infuriated, the Assembly condemned her to death. "I thank you, gentlemen, for thinking me worthy of sharing the fate of the great men whom you have assassinated," she replied. "I shall endeavor to imitate their firmness on the Scaffold."
On November 10, 1793, the tumbrel took her to the guillotine. She asked for pen and paper to record her last thoughts. Her request was refused. As she rode through the streets, the people shouted, "A la guillo fine!" She addressed them calmly: "My friends, I am going to the guillotine. In a few moments I shall be there. They who send me thither will ere long follow me. I go innocent. They will come stained with blood. You who now applaud my execution will then applaud theirs with equal zeal." When they arrived at the guillotine, she climbed the steps of the scaffold, then turned and cried out, "O Liberty! Liberty! What crimes are committed in thy name!” The executioner bound her to the plank, placed the plank beneath the guillotine, and released the blade. The head of Madame Roland dropped into the basket waiting below. She was thirty nine years old.
A few days later, M. Roland's body was found in the woods outside Paris, his own knife plunged into his heart. A note was pinned to his coat: “Whoever thou art that findest these remains, respect them as those of a virtuous man. After hearing of my wife's death, I would not stay another day in a world so stained with crime.”