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A Zealous Desire of the Welfare of Mankind

June 1793 — Intended to be read before the Revolutionary Tribunal, Paris, France

 

The charge brought against me rests entirely upon the pretended fact of my being the accomplice of men called conspirators. My intimacy with a few of them is of much older date than the political circumstances, in consequence of which they are now considered as rebels; and the correspondence we kept up through the medium of our common friends, at the time of their departure from Paris, was entirely foreign to public affairs.

Properly speaking, I have been engaged in no political correspondence whatever, and, in that respect, I might confine myself to a simple denial, for I certainly cannot be called upon to give an account of my particular affections. But I have a right to be proud of them, as well as of my conduct, nor do I wish to conceal anything from the public eye. I shall therefore acknowledge that, with expressions of regret at my confinement, I received an intimation that Duperret had two letters for me, whether written by one or by two of my friends, before or after their leaving Paris, I cannot say. Duperret had delivered them into other hands, and they never came to mine. Another time I received a pressing invitation to break my chains, and an offer of services, to assist me in effecting my escape in any way I might think proper, and to convey me whitherso ever I might afterward wish to go. I was dissuaded from listening to such proposals by duty and by honor; by duty that I might not endanger the safety of those to whose care I was confided; and by honor because, at all events, I preferred running the risk of an unjust trial to exposing myself to the suspicionof guilt by a flight unworthy of me. When I consented to be taken up on the 31st of May, it was not with the intention of afterward making my escape.

In that alone consists all my correspondence with my fugitive friends. No doubt, if all means of communication had not been cut off, or if I had not been prevented by confinement, I should have endeavored to learn what was become of them, for I know of no law by which my doing so is forbidden. In what age, or in what nation was it ever considered a crime to be faithful to those sentiments of esteem and brotherly affection which bind man to man? I do not pretend to judge of the measures of those who have been proscribed: they are unknown to me; but I will never believe in the evil intentions of men, of whose probity, civism, and devotion to their country I am thoroughly convinced. If they erred it was unwittingly; they fall without being abased; and I regard them as unfortunate without being liable to blame. I am perfectly easy as to their glory, and willingly content to participate in the honor of being oppressed by their enemies.

I know those men, accused of conspiring against their country, to have been deter mined republicans, but humane, and persuaded that good laws were necessary to procure the republic the good-will of persons who doubted whether it could be maintained, which, it must be confessed, is more difficult than to kill them. The history of every age proves that it requires great talents to lead men to virtue by wise institutions, while force suffices to oppress them by terror or to annihilate them by death. I have heard them assert that abundance, as well as happiness, can only proceed from an equitable, protecting, and beneficent government, and that the omnipotence of the bayonet may produce fear, but not bread. I have seen them animated by the most lively enthusiasm for the good of the people, disdaining to flatter them, and resolved rather to fall victims to their delusion than be the means of keeping it up. I confess these principles and this conduct appeared to me totally different from the sentiments and proceedings of tyrants or ambitious men, who seek to please the people to effect their subjugation. It inspired me with the highest esteem for those generous men. This error, if an error it be, will accompany me to the grave, whither I shall be proud of following those whom I was not permitted to accompany.

My defence, I will venture to say, is more necessary to those who really wish to come at the truth than it is to myself. Calm and contented in the consciousness of having done my duty, I look forward to futurity with perfect peace of mind. My serious turn and studious habits have preserved me alike from the follies of dissipation and from the bustle of intrigue. A friend to liberty, on which reflection had taught me to set a just value, I beheld the revolution with delight, persuaded it was destined to put an end to the arbitrary power I detested, and to the abuses I had so often lamented, when reflecting with pity upon the fate of the indigent classes of society. I took an interest in the progress of the revolution, and spoke with warmth of public affairs ; but I did not pass the bounds prescribed by my sex. Some small talents perhaps, a considerable share of philosophy, a degree of courage more uncommon, and which did not permit me to weaken my husband’s energy in dangerous times; such, perhaps, are the qualities which those who know me may have indiscreetly extolled, and which may have made me enemies among those to whom I am unknown. Roland sometimes employed me as a secretary, and the famous letter to the king, for instance, is copiedentirely in my handwriting; this would be an excellent item to add to my indictment, if the Austrians were trying me, and if they should have thought fit to extend a minister’s responsibility to his wife. But Roland long ago manifested his knowledge and his attachment to the great principles of politics; the proofs of them exist in his numerous works, published during the last fifteen years. His learning and his probity are all his own, nor did he stand in need of a wife to make him an able minister. Never were conferences or secret councils held at his house; his colleagues, whoever they might be, and a few friends and acquaintance, met once a week at his table, and there conversed in a public manner on matters in which everybody was concerned. As to the rest, the writings of that minister, which breathe throughout a love of order and of peace, and which lay down in the most forcible manner the best principles of morality and politics, will forever attest his wisdom, as his accounts will prove his integrity.

To return to the offence imputed to me, I have to observe that I never was intimate with Duperret. I saw him now and then at the time of Roland’s administration; but he never came to our house during the six months that my husband was no longer in office. The same remark will apply to the other members, our friends, which surely does not accord with the plots and conspiracies laid to our charge. It is evident, by my first letter to Duperret, I only wrote to him because I knew not to whom else to address myself, and because I imagined he would readily consent to oblige me. My correspondence with him could not then be concerted; it could not be the consequence of any previous intimacy, and could have only one object in view. It gave me afterward an opportunity of receiving accounts from those who had just absented themselves, and with whom I was connected by the ties of friendship, independently of all political considerations. The latter were totally out of the question in the kind of correspondence I kept up with them duringthe early part of their absence. No written memorial bears witness against me in that respect, those adduced only leading to a belief that I par took of the opinions and sentiments of the persons called conspirators. This deduction is well founded; I confess it without reserve, and am proud of the conformity. But I never manifested my opinions in a way which can be construed into a crime, or which tended to occasion any disturbance. Now, to become an accomplice in any plan whatever, it is necessary to give advice, or to furnish means of execution. I have done neither; I am not then reprehensible in the eye of the law — there is no law to condemn me, nor any fact which admits of the application of a law.

I know that in revolutions, law as well as justice is often forgotten; and the proof of it is that I am here. I owe my trial to nothing but the prejudices and violent animosities which arise in times of great agitation, and which are generally directed against those who have been placed in conspicuous situations, or are known to possess any energy or spirit. It would have been easy for my courage to put me out of the reach of the sentence I foresaw; but I thought it rather became me to undergo it. I thought that I owed the example to my country. I thought that if I were to be condemned, it must be right to leave tyranny all the odium of sacrificing a woman whose crime is that of possessing some small talents which she never misapplied, a zealous desire of the welfare of mankind, and courage enough to acknowledge her unfortunate friends, and do homage to virtue at the risk of her life. Minds which have any claim to greatness are capable of divesting themselves of selfish considerations; they feel they belong to the whole human race, and their views are directed to posterity alone. I am the wife of a virtuous man exposed to persecution; and I was the friend of men who have been proscribed and immolated by delusion and the hatred of jealous mediocrity. It is necessary that I should perish in my turn, because it is a rule with tyranny to sacrifice those whom it has grievously oppressed, and to annihilate the very witnesses of its misdeeds. I have this double claim to death from your hands, and I expect it. When innocence walks to the scaffold, at the command of error and perversity, every step she takes is an advance toward glory. May I be the last victim sacrificed to the furious spirit of party ! I shall quit with joy this unfortunate earth, which swallows up the friends of virtue and drinks the blood of the just.

Truth! friendship! my country! sacred objects, sentiments dear to my heart, accept my last sacrifice. My life was devoted to you, and you will render my death easy and glorious.

Just Heaven! enlighten this unfortunate people for whom I desired liberty. . . . Liberty ! It is for noble minds, who despise death, and who know how upon occasions to give it to themselves. It is not for weak beings who enter into a composition with guilt, and cover selfishness and cowardice with the name of prudence. It is not for corrupt wretches who rise from the bed of debauchery, or from the mire of indigence, to feast their eyes on the blood that streams from the scaffold. It is the portion of a people who delight in humanity, practise justice, despise their flatterers, and respect the truth. While you are not such a people, oh, my fellow citizens, you will talk in vain of liberty. Instead of liberty you will have licentiousness, of which you will all fall victims in your turns. You will ask for bread; dead bodies will be given you; and you will at last bow down your necks to the yoke.

I have neither concealed my sentiments nor my opinions. I know that a Roman lady was sent to the scaffold for lamenting the death of her son. I know that in times of delusion and party rage, he who dares avow himself the friend of the condemned or of the proscribed exposes himself to their fate. But I despise death; I never feared anything but guilt, and I will not purchase life at the expense of a base subterfuge. Woe to the times ! woe to the people among whom doing homage to disregarded truth can be attended with danger, and happy he who in such circumstances is bold enough to brave it!

It is now your part to see whether it answer your purpose to condemn me without proof, upon mere matter of opinion, and with out the support or justification of any law.

 

 

Source: An Appeal to Impartial Posterity, by Citizeness Roland, Or, A Collection of Pieces Written by Her During Her Confinement in the Prisons of the Abbey, and St. Pélagie, by Mme Roland (T. Johnson), 1795, p. 134. 

 

Also: Among the Great Masters of Oratory: Scenes in the Lives of Great Orators (Boston: Dana Estes & Company), 1901, pp.171-184.