The most compelling incident for which Jean Denis, Comte Lanjuinais, is known unfolded one heated June day in the National Convention – the French revolutionary parliament – in 1793. It involved an extraordinary display of nerve on his part. Even more remarkable, perhaps, was the fact that he survived it.
The background to the scene was not a happy one. The Jacobin movement had by then split decisively into the generally more moderate ‘Girondins’ and the more radical ‘Montagnards’. Lanjuinais, a former professor of ecclesiastical law at Rennes, was an independent thinker who, depending on the issue, often voted either with the Girondins or the centrist deputies known as ‘The Plain’.
Yet he had a significant revolutionary hinterland: an early advocate for constitutional change, he was known for his outspoken attacks upon the clergy, nobility and royalty, and was a founder member of the Breton Club, a forerunner of the Jacobin Club.
Still, the increasingly vicious rift between the Girondins and the Montagnards – in which the Girondins had their own undeniable moments of pugilism – reflected not only ideological schisms, but wider geographical loyalties. The Girondin deputies, who sat to the right in the Convention, had their power-base in the departments outside Paris. They were mostly in favour of France’s war with Austria and Prussia, while condemning street violence and the decision to execute King Louis XVI. The Montagnards sat high up on the left-hand side, or ‘Mountain’, and took the opposite position on all three questions. They possessed far greater political clout in Paris itself.
When the Convention first opened, in September 1792, the Girondins held the greatest power, although it was gradually sliding from their hands. But on this day, June 2nd 1793, their position was to change drastically and irrevocably.
The firebrand journalist and politician Jean Paul Marat, an expert agitator who sat with Robespierre and Danton among the Montagnards, had judged it the moment to rout the Girondins entirely from the National Convention. To this end, he had helped persuade the forces of the Paris Commune to surround the Convention with an estimated 80,000 troops led by Francois Hanriot, the recently-appointed commander of the National Guard.
Hanriot, a ruthless enthusiast for populist violence, had augmented his forces with cannon, and was preventing any of the deputies from leaving the building. His demand was that the besieged Convention must surrender twenty-two named Girondin deputies for arrest. This the elected body was understandably reluctant to do.
It was against the backdrop of this historic stand-off that the 40-year-old Lanjuinais took to the tribune, or rostrum. He was the first to speak, described by the French historian Adolphe Thiers (who published his history of the revolution in the 1820s) as one ‘whom neither the galleries, the Mountain, or the imminence of the danger were sufficient to intimidate.’
He did not mince his words, but ferociously attacked the Paris Commune as an ‘autorité usurpatrice,’ or usurping authority, which had set up a conspiracy against the Convention by manipulating the uneducated.
At this provocation, a hot-headed Montagnard deputy called Legendre – a former Saint-Germain butcher – first heckled and then attempted to drag him away from the tribune. Lanjuinais fought him off, however, and continued railing against violence and corruption, denying the charge that he was defaming the name of Paris – ‘Paris is good, only Paris is oppressed by tyrants thirsting for blood and domination.’ Eventually, amid wild clamour, he was wrestled down by a larger group of Montagnard deputies that included Robespierre’s brother Augustin.
There had already been many days of fierce invective in the Convention. But within the chamber, and outside it, June 2nd was the definitive day when the elected legislature found itself in a show-down with the physical might of the Parisian masses, and brute force won.
The eventual vote – under duress, and with the Girondins refusing to participate – was to surrender the 22 Girondin deputies to Hanriot’s forces as demanded. The course of the Revolution towards terror was now set. But Lanjuinais had not only recognised the danger for what it was, but – by his open opposition – put himself and his family in further danger because of it.
Now under arrest, Lanjuinais managed to escape from Paris back to his birthplace of Rennes in Brittany, using a passport identifying him as a schoolmaster called ‘Jean Denis’. He hid there for eighteen months, in a concealed section of his family home, with the help of his wife and a discreet maid-servant called Julie Poirier. From Rennes, he even managed to produce a pamphlet denouncing the Montagnard constitution under the teasing title ‘The Latest Crime of Lanjuinais’.
The avoidance of capture was no small feat. The consequences of discovery – both for himself and for the members of his household – would have been horrific, particularly since the commander charged with hunting him down was Jean-Baptiste Carrier, perhaps the most notorious enforcer of the Terror. On a later mission in the Vendée, Carrier became known for herding large numbers of alleged royalist sympathisers – men, women and children – on to specially designed boats before sinking them in mass drownings known as noyades.
Emerging from hiding some time after the Thermidorean reaction – the revolt in which Robespierre was deposed and executed – Lanjuinais returned to the Convention on March 8th 1795. Few thereafter could match his bird’s eye view of political drama across his long career: he sat, in total, for nearly 33 years in an assembly of one kind or another, across various administrations.
Reliably unintimidated by authority, he had protested against the creation of the First French Empire in 1804 and openly opposed Napoleonic autocracy. He was still politically active during the Hundred Days’ War, the period between Napoleon’s return to Paris from exile on Elba, and the second Bourbon restoration under King Louis XVIII on July 8th 1815. Indeed it was to Lanjuinais, as President of the Chamber of Representatives, that Napoleon sent his letter opening peace negotiations after his defeat at Waterloo.
His intellectual interests ranged widely: in addition to his political activities, he was an eminent lecturer on Roman law, historian, author and student of oriental religions. But intellect was only ever part of the point of Lanjuinais. The really striking aspect was his stubborn independence of thought.
The Revolution was a feverish period in which a large number of political actors took decisions increasingly based on factional loyalties or well-justified fears for their own self-preservation, something which has certain echoes in public discourse today. Lanjuinais seemed unusually resistant to both these influences, but rather followed his principles to their natural conclusions, regardless of whatever storms were raging around his head.
On the question of what should be done with Louis XVI, for example – which became a source of frantic factional signalling – Lanjuinais supported the king’s conviction, but opposed his execution on the grounds that it was wrong for the nation to kill a vanquished prisoner. He openly abhorred the mob violence of the September Massacres of 1792, to which Danton and Robespierre turned a blind eye – yet he held in common with Robespierre a strong and consistent opposition to slavery.
His judgements, while sincerely held, were by no means infallible by modern-day standards, particularly on the question of including women in the political sphere, a question which had arisen more strongly now the old order was in flux. In April 1793 – shortly before his own forcible dislodging from the Convention – he observed that the committee on the proposed new constitution had appeared to exclude women from political rights. Some deputies had objected, Lanjuinais said, adding, ‘It is true that the physique of women, their goal in life, and their position distance them from the exercise of a great number of political rights and duties.’
Yet this ‘distancing,’ he argued, would be necessary for at least a few more years. ‘If the best and most just institutions are those most in conformity with nature, it is difficult to believe that women should be called to the exercise of political rights.’
In the months that followed, of course, the Terror would devour some outspoken female political activists such as Olympe de Gouges just as readily as it did men, and silence others. But it is nonetheless for standing against terror, during one of the great turning-points of the Revolution, that Lanjuinais should be remembered.
The vision of him being physically dragged away from the tribune, while still declaiming against the Montagnard authorities, brings to mind Atticus Finch’s definition of courage to his children in To Kill A Mockingbird: ‘I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.’
Although he did not know it at the time, however, Lanjuinais’ own ‘licking’ was miraculously temporary. With rare exceptions, the majority of prominent Girondins – including Brissot, Vergniaud, Roland and Lasource – were either executed or committed suicide to avoid arrest. The Montagnard leaders on the opposing side, men such as Marat, Danton and Robespierre, all met infamously violent deaths in their turn.
Lanjuinais, perhaps one of the lesser-known names of the French revolution – who nonetheless found himself defiantly at the heart of its crucial argument – lived until 1827. He eventually died in Paris, aged 73, of natural causes. His son Victor followed him into politics.