The Girondins were one of the two principal factions that emerged in the National Convention during the radical phase of the French Revolution. Their opponents were known as the Montagnards, or the Mountain. These factions cannot be properly called political parties—they lacked the parliamentary discipline or cohesion to justify that label—but they did coalesce into loose groupings, and the struggle between Girondins and Montagnards came to dominate the proceedings of the National Convention from the fall of 1792 until late May 1793, when twenty-nine Girondin deputies were proscribed from that body.
The Girondins first emerged as a recognizable group in the Legislative Assembly, which sat from late 1791 until September 1792, and were known then as Brissotins, due to the prominent leadership role played by Jacques-Pierre Brissot de Warville (1754–1793). The group included the deputies Jean-François Ducos (1765–1793), Pierre-Victurnien Vergniaud (1753–1793), Armand Gensonné (1758–1793), and Marguerite-Elie Guadet (1758–1794), all of whom came from Bordeaux in the department of the Gironde, which gave the faction its later name. Outside of the Legislative Assembly, the Brissotins enjoyed the support of such prominent figures as Marie-Jean Caritat, marquis de Condorcet (1743–1794), Nicolas de Bonneville (1760–1828), Claude Fauchet (1744–1793), Jean-Marie Roland de la Platière (1734–1793) and his wife, Manon Roland (1754–1793), whose home functioned as a kind of salon for the Girondins under the National Convention.
Virtually all of the Brissotins were reelected to the National Convention, where they were joined by Condorcet, Fauchet, Charles-Jean-Marie Barbaroux (1767–1794), Jean-Baptiste Louvet de Couvray (1760–1797), Jérome Pétion de Villeneuve (1756–1794), and Antoine-Joseph Gorsas (1752–1793). The deputies from the Gironde, all eloquent orators, quickly emerged as the leaders of the group. The first critical issue to confront them was the September Massacres of 1792, a wave of killings that claimed the lives of more than one thousand alleged counterrevolutionaries in the prisons of Paris. Although initially silent, the Girondin leaders eventually condemned the leaders of the Montagnards—most notably Maximilien Robespierre (1758–1794), Georges-Jacques Danton (1759–1794), and Jean-Paul Marat (1743–1793)—as the instigators of the killings, demanding that they and others be brought to justice. Radicals in Paris soon branded this campaign as anti-Parisian hostility.
It was the trial of Louis XVI (1754–1793), deposed from his throne in the uprising of 10 August 1792, that crystallized opposition between Girondins and Montagnards. While leading Girondins had supported the end of the monarchy, they were reluctant to see the king executed. They favored the appel au peuple, a sort of national referendum, denounced by the Montagnards as an effort to deny the will of the people, which in their view had already been expressed in the streets of Paris. Girondins dominated the constitutional committee, chaired by Condorcet, but could not muster the necessary votes to secure passage of a new constitution. They also favored free trade, but failed in their efforts to prevent adoption of price controls, known as the grain maximum. The Girondins favored the declaration of war in 1792, but setbacks in that war not only led to the downfall of the king but also would eventually harm the political fortunes of the Girondins, most notably when General Charles-François du Perier Dumouriez (1739–1823), who had personal ties to several of the deputies, defected to the Austrians in April 1793.
Other events contributed to the growing tensions between Girondins and Montagnards in the National Convention in the winter and spring of 1793. Girondin deputies complained frequently that their lives were endangered by threats from anarchists and assassins in Paris, and those fears seemed substantiated in March by the pillaging of Gorsas's printing press. In April the Girondins filed impeachment charges against Marat, who regularly defended popular violence in the pages of his newspaper and called for the dismissal of all deputies who had voted for the appel au peuple. Marat was acquitted by a Parisian jury, however, which elevated his reputation and increased the hostility of Parisian radicals toward the Girondins. Girondin deputies responded by convening a Commission of Twelve to investigate allegations that the section assemblies of Paris were plotting an insurrection against the National Convention. That initiative also backfired. The arrests of Jacques-René Hébert (1757–1794) and Jean Varlet (1764–1832) incited Paris militants rather than cowing them, and the insurrection that the Girondins feared began on 31 May 1793.
The insurrection of 31 May, although it threatened violence, was remarkably peaceful, but three days of confrontation and demonstrations did result in the proscription of twenty-nine Girondin deputies from the National Convention. A number of the proscribed deputies fled Paris for Caen, where they tried to rally their provincial supporters against the Montagnards. Those who remained in Paris were placed under house arrest and were brought to trial in October, after the federalist revolt had been suppressed. They died on the guillotine on 31 October 1793. Others, including Barbaroux, Pétion, and Guadet, were eventually tracked down in the provinces and either committed suicide or were executed. Among the leading Girondins, only Louvet survived the Terror and after 9 Thermidor Year II (27 July 1794) resumed his place in the National Convention, as did most of the seventy-six deputies who had been expelled from the Convention for having protested the proscription of their leaders. While the Revolution now embraced the moderate republicanism that the Girondins had championed, the Girondin deputies themselves cannot be said to have reasserted themselves as a group after Thermidor.
Patrick, Alison. The Men of the First French Republic: Political Alignments in the National Convention of 1792. Baltimore, Md., 1972.
Slavin, Morris. The Making of an Insurrection: Parisian Sections and the Gironde. Cambridge, Mass., 1986.
Sydenham, Michael J. The Girondins. London, 1961.2
Paul R. Hanson