Pierre Victurnien Vergniaud

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Pierre Victurnien Vergniaud
Pierre Vergniau.jpg
Born(1753-05-31)31 May 1753
Limoges, France
Died31 October 1793(1793-10-31) (aged 40)
Paris, France
Cause of death Guillotine
EducationCollège du Plessis
Political party Girondist faction

Pierre Victurnien Vergniaud (31 May 1753 – 31 October 1793) was a French lawyer and statesman, a figure of the French Revolution. A deputy to the Assembly from Bordeaux, Vergniaud was an eloquent orator. He was a supporter of Jacques Pierre Brissot and the Girondist faction. [1]

French Revolution Revolution in France, 1789 to 1798

The French Revolution was a period of far-reaching social and political upheaval in France and its colonies beginning in 1789. The Revolution overthrew the monarchy, established a republic, catalyzed violent periods of political turmoil, and finally culminated in a dictatorship under Napoleon who brought many of its principles to areas he conquered in Western Europe and beyond. Inspired by liberal and radical ideas, the Revolution profoundly altered the course of modern history, triggering the global decline of absolute monarchies while replacing them with republics and liberal democracies. Through the Revolutionary Wars, it unleashed a wave of global conflicts that extended from the Caribbean to the Middle East. Historians widely regard the Revolution as one of the most important events in human history.

Bordeaux Prefecture and commune in Nouvelle-Aquitaine, France

Bordeaux is a port city on the Garonne in the Gironde department in Southwestern France.

Jacques Pierre Brissot French revolutionary

Jacques Pierre Brissot, who assumed the name of de Warville, was a leading member of the Girondins during the French Revolution and founder of the abolitionist Society of the Friends of the Blacks. Some sources give his name as Jean Pierre Brissot.


Early life and education

Vergniaud was born in the city of Limoges in the province of Limousin, to the elder Pierre Vergniaud and his wife Catherine Baubiat. The Vergniauds had both come from well-to-do merchant families with a long history in the province, and the family enjoyed a comfortable prosperity. At the time of Vergniaud's birth, his father was a contractor and purveyor for the king, supplying food for the royal garrison in the city. [2]

Limoges Prefecture and commune in Nouvelle-Aquitaine, France

Limoges is a city and commune, the capital of the Haute-Vienne department and was the administrative capital of the former Limousin region in west-central France.

The younger Vergniaud was first tutored at home by a Jesuit scholar, Abbé Roby, a master of ancient languages: it is likely that Vergniaud's lifelong love of the classics was inspired by him. [3] The boy was sent to the Jesuit college at Limoges where he excelled. The future French statesman Turgot was at that time the intendant of the province, and knew the elder Vergniaud well. On one occasion, young Pierre recited some of his own poetry in the presence of Turgot, who was greatly impressed by his talent. Through Turgot's patronage, Vergniaud was admitted to the Collège du Plessis at Paris. Little is known of Vergniaud's personal life during his time at Du Plessis, but his education there was clearly a major formative experience: his deep, personal absorption of classical history and philosophy is evident throughout his later life. [4]

Society of Jesus male religious congregation of the Catholic Church

The Society of Jesus is a scholarly religious congregation of the Catholic Church for men founded by Ignatius of Loyola and approved by Pope Paul III. The members are called Jesuits. The society is engaged in evangelization and apostolic ministry in 112 nations. Jesuits work in education, intellectual research, and cultural pursuits. Jesuits also give retreats, minister in hospitals and parishes, sponsor direct social ministries, and promote ecumenical dialogue.

Paris Capital of France

Paris is the capital and most populous city of France, with an area of 105 square kilometres and an official estimated population of 2,140,526 residents as of 1 January 2019. Since the 17th century, Paris has been one of Europe's major centres of finance, diplomacy, commerce, fashion, science, and the arts.

After his studies were complete, Vergniaud went unsure of his direction in life. He drifted lazily through several years, dabbling in fiction and theater, and losing his short career as a clerk in the provincial revenue office. [5] Much to his father's dismay, his chief preoccupation became frequenting salons and engaging in conversation, but in these pursuits Vergniaud excelled magnificently: important new friendships and associations grew richly for him in the salons. [6] He was particularly favored by the Countess de Maleyssie, who let the frequently destitute Vergniaud live freely in her estate, and Charles Dupaty, President of the parlement of Bordeaux, who urged him to study law. [7]

Salon (gathering) Social gathering

A salon is a gathering of people under the roof of an inspiring host, held partly to amuse one another and partly to refine the taste and increase the knowledge of the participants through conversation. These gatherings often consciously followed Horace's definition of the aims of poetry, "either to please or to educate". Salons in the tradition of the French literary and philosophical movements of the 17th and 18th centuries were carried on until as recently as the 1940s in urban settings.

Parlement Ancien Régime justice court

A parlement, in the Ancien Régime of France, was a provincial appellate court. In 1789, France had 13 parlements, the most important of which was the Parlement of Paris. While the English word parliament derives from this French term, parlements were not legislative bodies. They consisted of a dozen or more appellate judges, or about 1,100 judges nationwide. They were the court of final appeal of the judicial system, and typically wielded much power over a wide range of subject matter, particularly taxation. Laws and edicts issued by the Crown were not official in their respective jurisdictions until the parlements gave their assent by publishing them. The members were aristocrats called nobles of the gown who had bought or inherited their offices, and were independent of the King.

Jurisprudence theoretical study of law, by philosophers and social scientists

Jurisprudence or legal theory is the theoretical study of law. Scholars of jurisprudence seek to explain the nature of law in its most general form and provide a deeper understanding of legal reasoning, legal systems, legal institutions, and the role of law in society.


Vergniaud's sister Marie had married a wealthy porcelain maker from Limoges named A.M. Alluaud, and it was this brother-in-law who gave fortifying encouragement and critical financial support to the aspiring law student. [8] With his help, and the powerful guidance of Dupaty, Vergniaud was accepted by the bar and went straight into practice in April 1782. [9] He did not take long to make his mark in the field. His first few cases were successful enough, but before the end of his first year in practice he was handed the case of Marie Bérigaud, a local woman accused of promiscuity and a consequent infanticide. This sordid and sensational affair held the city in thrall and Vergniaud was given the difficult assignment of proving her innocence. At the trial's end, the young woman was absolved of all charges, and her false accuser was imprisoned instead. With this shockingly complete victory, Vergniaud was widely recognized as a rising star. [10]

Limoges porcelain

Limoges porcelain is hard-paste porcelain produced by factories in and around the city of Limoges, France beginning in the late 18th century, but does not refer to a particular manufacturer. By about 1830 Limoges, which was close to the areas where suitable clay was found, had replaced Paris as the main centre for private porcelain factories, although the state-owned Sèvres porcelain near Paris remained dominant at the very top of the market. Limoges has maintained this position to the present day.

Durieux Affair

Years of successful advocacy followed, and Vergniaud's eloquence was frequently met with loud bursts of applause in the courtroom. [11] In 1790 he took on the defense of Pierre Durieux, a National Guardsman of Brive who had been imprisoned and sentenced to death for having incited a riot. The Durieux affair arose from the boisterous celebrations of revolutionary peasants in the small village near Brive called Allassac. Incensed members of the local aristocracy had attempted to quell the indecorum by firing shots in the air; met with rocks and stones, they turned their guns on the crowd and killed several peasants. When Durieux's unit arrived to restore order, the soldier found himself repelled by his duty, and according to the charges he urged the rioters to fight back. [12] Durieux was not alone: many Guardsmen were arrested and two were swiftly condemned to death. While Durieux languished in jail awaiting his turn, the news spread and sparked the furious interest of revolutionaries all around the nation. [13] Vergniaud had already been greatly moved by revolutionary rhetoric, and was an enthusiastic supporter of the reforms which had caused the initial celebrations at Allassac. As Durieux's lawyer, Vergniaud entered his first truly political case. [14]

National Guard (France) 1789–1872 military reserve and police branch of Frances military

The National Guard is a French military, gendarmerie, and police reserve force, active in its current form since 2016 but originally founded in 1789 after the French Revolution.

Allassac Commune in Nouvelle-Aquitaine, France

Allassac is a commune in the Corrèze department in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region of central France.

The trial began in February 1791 before a packed courtroom. Vergniaud's case was built on the fact that his client had not actually committed any offense: could he be hanged, Vergniaud asked, just for something he said in a moment of righteous anger? He reminded the court of similarly imprudent remarks that had recently been made in the National Assembly itself: "One of its members... speaking of those to whom the people owe their liberty [said], 'One must fall upon these people saber in hand.' Have you asked for a scaffold to be raised for him?" With rising drama, he repeated the question four times to the hushed courtroom. In a long and incandescent speech, he widened his defense of Durieux to include the whole of the peasant crowd: "They trod in indignation the soil which they so long had watered with their sweat and tears. Their eyes turned with the somber disquiet of resentment to the superb château where they had so often gone to lower themselves by shameful homage, and from which, more than once, the caprices of pride... had spread like devastating torrents." [15] Vergniaud's oration put the entire Revolution on trial, and, like Durieux, it was exonerated completely. Revolutionaries printed copies of his defense and circulated them throughout France. Vergniaud had delivered one of the great speeches of his life, and now the provincial lawyer would be coaxed from all quarters to join the revolution at the national level. [16]

In the Legislative Assembly

In 1789 Vergniaud had been elected a member of the general council of the département of the Gironde. After the Durieux affair, he was chosen to be a representative to the Legislative Assembly and he proceeded to Paris in August 1791. The Assembly met on 1 October, and for a time Vergniaud refrained from speaking publicly. Soon after his first speech on October 25, however, he was 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. [17]

The sentiments and passions that his eloquence aroused were made use of by a more extreme party. Even his first Assembly speech, on the émigrés , proposing for 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, the excesses of which he realised only by the September Massacres, which ultimately overwhelmed the party of Girondists that he led. [17]

On 19 March 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. [17]

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 27 December 1791, he stirred the heart of France, especially by his call to arms on 18 January, shaped the policy, which culminated in the declaration of war against the king of Bohemia and Hungary on 20 April.

The 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 10 March, 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 Claude Antoine Valdec 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 29 May 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 20 June and the invasion of the Tuileries. [17]

He was powerless to quell the riot. Continuing for yet a little longer his course of almost frenzied opposition to the throne, on 3 July 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. [17]

On 10 August, 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 for National Convention to 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, but on the other hand, it aroused the fatal opposition of the Parisian leaders. [17]

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 31 December 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 10 August. It was greedily seized on by the enemies of the Girondists as evidence of treason. [17]

On 16 January 1793 a vote was taken in the Convention upon the punishment of the king. Vergniaud voted early and 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. He participated to the Constitution Committee that drafted the Girondin constitutional project. [17]

Proscription of the Girondists

When the institution of a revolutionary tribunal was proposed, Vergniaud opposed the project, denouncing the tribunal as a more awful inquisition than that of Spain, [18] and avowing that his party would all die rather than consent to it. Their death by stratagem had already been planned, and on 10 March 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 10 April 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 things came to a head on 2 June 1793. 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 is noted for his last gesture of defiance in standing up among the subdued deputies and offering them a glass of blood to slake their thirst, a metaphor for their betrayal of the Girondins.

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 Prison. 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 mori quam foedari—Death before dishonor. 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 27 October. The procedure was a travesty of justice. Vergniaud's moving oratory and persuasive lawyering upset the court's plans for a quick trial, but the predetermined verdicts were handed down anyway. [19] Early on the morning of 31 October 1793 the Girondists were conveyed to the scaffold, singing on the way the Marseillaise [20] and keeping up the strain till one by one they were guillotined. Vergniaud was executed last and buried in the Madeleine Cemetery.


  1. Doyle, William (1989); The Oxford History of the French Revolution; Clarendon Press; ISBN   0-19-822781-7. See p.238: "...in 1791 the department of the Gironde had sent eloquent radicals like Vergniaud... to the National Assembly." See also p.276: "Brissot and his most vocal supporters, who included a particularly eloquent group of deputies from Bordeaux, notably Vergniaud...."
  2. Bowers, Claude G. (1950); Pierre Vergniaud: Voice of the French Revolution; MacMillan & Co., NY; ISBN   978-1-4067-4509-2, pp. 26–27.
  3. Bowers (1950), p. 27.
  4. Bowers (1950), p. 29: "A microscopic investigation by the patient [French lawyer and writer Charles] Vatel failed to find any record of Vergniaud's life in Du Plessis, but his studies there are reflected in his speeches, showing the excellence of his classical training."
  5. Bowers (1950), pp. 29ff.
  6. Schama, Simon (1989); Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution ; Knopf, NY. ISBN   0-394-55948-7, p. 529: "It was in the large local clubs, at Bordeaux and Lyon for example, that the next generation of revolutionary politicians who would go on to be the Ciceros and Catos of the Legislative Assembly – Lanthénas, Isnard, Vergniaud, and Gensonné – had their apprenticeship."
  7. Bowers (1950). See pp.30, 33.
  8. Bowers (1950), pp. 33 and 42.
  9. Bowers (1950), p. 43.
  10. Bowers (1950), pp. 43–44: "He won a signal victory....Thereafter, Vergniaud's reputation was made, and he took his place as the most eloquent of the advocates...."
  11. Bowers (1950), pp. 55, 57, 59.
  12. Bowers (1950), pp. 59ff: "The charge was to be made that instead of trying to prevent the attack, Durieux fraternized with the rioters – which was probably true." Also, p. 60: "Durieux was also to be charged with having said: 'It is too much. Our brothers must be avenged. The château must be razed.' The château referred to was that of Sieur de La Maze, where the old aristocracy had conferred in secret and whence they had sallied forth with arms and ammunition."
  13. Bowers (1950), p. 61: "...[T]he condemnation of Durieux was resented as monstrous and indefensible. The scandal spread throughout France."
  14. Bowers (1950), p.63: "...[F]or the first time in his professional career Vergniaud was to treat the issue frankly as political."
  15. Plea made by M. Vergniaud, February 7, 1791, hearing in the District Court of Bordeaux; Chez J. Robin, publ., Paris, 1791.
  16. Bowers (1950), p. 68: "[T]wo thousand copies of the oration... instantly sold and the proceeds were given to the accused. Copies found their way to Paris, and Vergniaud became an object of interest in the Constituent Assembly...."
  17. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Chisholm 1911.
  18. Hibbert, Christopher (1999); "The Days of the French Revolution"; Perennial ; ISBN   978-0-688-16978-7. See p.195: “...laying the foundations of an Inquisition a thousand times more fearful than that of Spain”
  19. Doyle (1989). See p.253: "Two weeks later (31 October)... Vergniaud followed her [Marie Antoinette], after a show trial cut short when the eloquence and debating skills of the accused threatened to prolong it indefinitely."
  20. Doyle (1989). See p.253: "They went to their deaths singing the 'Marsellaise'.

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