Jeanne Manon Roland may be remembered for her dramatic last words—“O Liberté, que de crimes on commet en ton nom!” (Oh Liberty, what crimes are committed in thy name!)—as she was led to the guillotine, but the French revolutionary’s life as one of the most influential salonnieres of all time is an even better story. Settle in with a glass of champagne and let us tell you about Madame Roland, a trailblazing femme who made her mark in Paris in the late 1700s with the city’s most influential political salon.
Born to Gratien Phlippon and Madame Phlippon in March 1754, Manon—as she was known—showed an early affinity for intellectual thought, philosophy, and literature that focused on democratic ideals. However, it wasn’t until Manon wed the politically minded Jean-Marie Roland de la Platière, who later became a leader of the Girondist faction during the French Revolution, that her desire to throw philosophy-driven fêtes began to form.
Jean-Marie Roland de la Platière
Jean-Marie Roland de la Platière, who was 20 years her senior, welcomed his wife as a partner to his political aspirations, and Manon collaborated with him on several of his most important writings—Dictionnaire des Manufactures, Arts et Métiers, and Panckoucke’s Encyclopedie Methodique. The couple’s outspoken support of the French Revolution won them many fans among the Girondist elite, which Manon, now addressed as Madame Roland, leveraged by creating her own weekly salons at the Hotel Britannique in Paris.
A sketch of Madame Roland at her weekly salon
A staunch supporter of the French Revolution, Madame Roland used her salon—as well as her charm, intelligence, and networking skills—to bring together some of the greatest political thinkers of the time. Her guests of honor included many of the most important figures of the day, such as François Buzot (with whom, rumor had it, she was in love) and one-time friend Maximilien Robespierre, who would later order her execution during the Reign of Terror. But we’ll get to that shortly…
An artist’s depiction of the Girondins, the dominant faction in France until mid-1793
Before long, Madame Roland’s gatherings became known as the places to be for anyone who was anyone in French politics. In fact, receiving a highly coveted invitation to Madame Roland’s salon signaled that you were an important member of the Gironde faction and ensured a role in the new government.
Interestingly, unlike other famous salonnieres of the time, Madame Roland preferred to wield her influence from behind the scenes, letting her husband take the reins when it came to speaking at her salons. During her parties, she could be found quietly taking notes and catering to her guests, while the others discoursed on the future of the republic. However, anyone who knew Madame Roland knew that she was anything but a passive bystander. She and her husband were a package deal—it was no secret that Madame Roland was responsible for penning many of her husband’s writings and correspondences. While she believed men should assume the visible roles in politics, Madame Roland sometimes had a hard time vouching for them: “The more I see of men, the more I admire dogs,” she once famously said.
The execution of Madame Roland
While salons were de rigeur in Paris at the time, Madame Roland’s salon was unique in that it was one of the few dedicated exclusively to politics, rather than general discussions about the Age of Enlightenment. Unfortunately, her focus on politics brought about her demise. The rise of the more extreme Jacobist faction led to the persecution of the Girondists, and Madame Roland was accused of treason, thrown into prison, and executed by guillotine at the age of 38. Brave and determined to the end, she accepted her fate with her customary passion and some final fighting words: “The tyrants may well oppress me, but demean me? Never, never!” What a dame. Sources
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