Antoine Barnave

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Harrison W. Mark
published on 23 August 2022
Available in other languages: French, Spanish
Presumed Portrait of Antoine Barnave (by Joseph Boze, Public Domain)
Presumed Portrait of Antoine Barnave
Joseph Boze (Public Domain)

Antoine Pierre Joseph Marie Barnave (1761-1793) was a French lawyer, politician, and one of the most influential orators of the early stage of the French Revolution (1789-1799). He is notable for being a champion of constitutional monarchy, and for co-founding the Feuillant Club to offset the influence of the radical Jacobins.

Eloquent and well-read, Barnave made a reputation for himself as one of the National Assembly's best speakers. A member of the Assembly's unofficial 'triumvirate', he was instrumental in some of the Revolution's earliest accomplishments. However, his refusal to back the abolition of slavery in France's colonies alienated him from his radical colleagues. As he lost influence in the Jacobin Club, he gradually became a supporter of constitutional monarchy; his efforts to increase the power of the monarchy included correspondence with Queen Marie Antoinette (1755-1793), a correspondence that, when discovered in 1792, led to his arrest and execution the following year.

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Early Career

Antoine Barnave was born on 22 October 1761 in Grenoble, in the province of Dauphiné. Born into an upper-bourgeois Protestant family, his father was an advocate of the Parlement of Dauphiné, while his mother was a highly-educated woman. When he was ten, he and his mother had to be thrown out of an empty theatre box reserved for the noble friend of the provincial governor. The incident, an act of protest on the part of Madame Barnave, had a profound impact on young Antoine, who would later say that it gave him his life purpose: "to raise the caste to which [he] belonged from the state of humiliation to which it seemed condemned" (Doyle 26).

Barnave dreamed of either political or literary fame, longing to make his impact on the world.

As a Protestant, he was not allowed to receive an education at the Catholic-run schools and was homeschooled by his mother. He was later privately tutored in law and debuted at the bar in 1781. Now a small-town lawyer, Barnave was eloquent, sociable, studious, and well-read. He excelled in the French and English languages and had a penchant for the Enlightenment-era philosophies that inspired all of France's revolutionary leaders. Not content with a quiet life in Grenoble, Barnave dreamed of either political or literary fame, longing to make his impact on the world. He would not have to wait for long.

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In the summer of 1788, the French Revolution had a sort of dress rehearsal in Barnave's hometown of Grenoble. On 7 June, protests erupted in response to the Revolt of the Parlements, when King Louis XVI of France's (r. 1774-1792) chief minister Étienne Loménie de Brienne (1727-1794) attempted to break the power of the parlements after they refused to pass his edicts. When royal soldiers were sent in to crush the protests, citizens picked up stones and cobbles from the streets, climbed onto roofs, and pelted the soldiers with projectiles. Following this event, known as the Day of Tiles, Barnave sensed an opportunity to thrust himself into politics. Around this time, he wrote his first pamphlet, Spirit of the Edicts Registered by Military Force at the Parlement of Grenoble, the general thesis of which was an appeal to the king to convene an Estates-General.

The Day of the Tiles
The Day of the Tiles
Alexandre Debelle (CC BY-SA)

He was not the only one in Grenoble to make this demand. On 14 June, an illegal assembly of the three societal orders in Grenoble gathered and decided to convoke the Estates of Dauphiné without the king's consent. The representation of the Third Estate (commoners) was to be equal in number to the combined representation of the upper two estates (clergy and nobility). The ensuing meeting took place at a nobleman's mansion of Vizille, organized by the judge Jean-Joseph Mounier (1758-1806). Mounier himself drafted the resolution, calling on the king to convene an Estates-General while asking that he restore power to the parlements and retract Brienne's edicts. Barnave, although playing a secondary role, made an impact with his oratory and energetic presence. His participation at Vizille, along with his pamphlet, thrust Barnave into fame; when Louis XVI conceded and announced the Estates-General of 1789, Barnave was the second deputy elected from his province, following Mounier.

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The Triumvirate

It did not take long for Barnave to make an impression once the Estates-General opened on 5 May 1789. He proved himself an excellent orator, capable of improvising entire arguments without stumbling over his words, while most of his colleagues were reading speeches prepared for them ahead of time. His speeches were not as passionate as those of another of the Estates-General's foremost speakers, Honoré-Gabriel Riqueti, comte de Mirabeau (1749-1791), who once said of Barnave that there was "no divinity in him" (Furet, 187). Still, Barnave's youth, personal charisma, and devotion to the commoners' plight helped give his speeches their own unique flair; that he did not share Mirabeau's scandalous past gave him one up on the older man.

On 17 June, Barnave split with Mounier, his old ally from Grenoble, for the first time when he voted to bestow the title 'National Assembly' on the deputies of the Third Estate, thus breaking from the other estates. From this point, Barnave would become a staunch revolutionary. No longer needing Mounier, he quickly made new allies, men of his own generation who shared his fiery commitment to the cause; namely, Adrien Duport, ex-councilor of the Parlement of Paris, and Alexandre de Lameth, a young colonel and veteran of the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783). Both men, although of the noble class, were dedicated to the destruction of the Ancien Regime; together with Barnave, they became known within the National Assembly as the 'triumvirate'.

Portrait of Antoine Barnave
Portrait of Antoine Barnave
Victor Cassien (Public Domain)

The triumvirate played an important part in the passage of the August Decrees, which abolished feudalism and was authored in part by Duport, and they voiced their support for the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Barnave himself became a leading figure on the radical left, rising to prominence in the newly established Jacobin Club, for which he drew up the manifesto and first set of rules. As they grew in popularity and influence, Barnave and the other triumvirs began to see themselves as the three most qualified men to determine the course of the Revolution, justifying their newfound power. As historian Francois Furet states, this period found Barnave at his peak: "This was surely the happiest period of his life: at the age of twenty-eight, glory was his, and his role on the great stage of history had brought deep contentment into his troubled soul" (187).

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Yet, public opinion during the French Revolution was a fickle thing, and popularity rarely lasted for long. A week after the Storming of the Bastille, a mob murdered and beheaded finance minister Joseph-François Foullon and his son-in-law Bertier de Sauvigny. When questioned about the nature of their deaths, Barnave approved of the killings, asking, "What, then, is their blood so pure?" (Schama, 406). This response, although initially reflecting the opinion of many other radicals, would later come back to haunt Barnave after the tide of political favor had turned against him.

As Barnave upheld the institution of slavery, he appeared more of a hypocrite, while Brissot & Robespierre became the true champions of liberty.

More immediately damaging to his career, however, was his time on the Assembly's Committee on the Colonies, a position to which he was elected in March 1790. During this time, as the revolutionaries attempted to forge a new society based on equality and natural rights, the question of slavery in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (modern Haiti) naturally came to the forefront. While mulling over this issue, Barnave yielded to the pressure of the Lameth brothers, who had a vested interest in West Indies trade and therefore urged him to uphold the status quo. On Barnave's recommendation, the Assembly voted to maintain French trading monopolies in the West Indies, and to uphold the authority of colonial slave-owners.

With this one stroke, Barnave's reputation as a freedom fighter was tarnished, and his previously secure position as a leader of the Jacobins began to waver. He earned the wrath of influential enemies, including the radical abolitionist Jacques-Pierre Brissot (1754-1793), who wrote an open letter denouncing Barnave, accusing him of sacrificing his principles over colonial issues.

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Despite the backlash, Barnave refused to back down. At the end of the year, he again spoke of his nervousness regarding slave uprisings in the West Indies and again maintained the authority of white slave-holders at the expense of the liberties of both free and enslaved blacks. The radical wing of the Jacobins, meanwhile, continued to rally around abolitionism; Barnave's decline in influence led to the rise of a new group of radical leaders, particularly Maximilien Robespierre (1758-1794). As Barnave upheld the institution of slavery while simultaneously advocating for the natural rights of white Frenchmen, Robespierre welcomed everyone to reap the benefits of the Revolution, regardless of skin color. Barnave appeared more of a hypocrite, while Brissot and Robespierre became the true champions of liberty.

Rivalry with Mirabeau

For the rest of 1790, Barnave continued to cling to the remaining influence he still enjoyed on the political left. He voiced his support for the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, a controversial policy that subordinated the Catholic Church to the French government. As a Protestant, Barnave was perhaps remembering his own treatment at the hands of the Catholics when he said, "The clergy only exists by virtue of the nation, so, if the nation chooses it can destroy it" (Schama, 489). He also championed other radical notions, such as challenging Mirabeau on the issue of giving the king the right to declare war and make peace. Such blatant royalism, Barnave argued, would curtail the Revolution's achievements and cause the abridgment of democracy.

Mirabeau argued that the Revolution was over and that France needed a strong monarch going forward. Although secretly in the pay of Louis XVI at this point, Mirabeau became the face of strong constitutional monarchism within the Assembly, participating in the creation of the Club of 1789 to act as a moderate alternative to the increasingly radical Jacobins. Mirabeau clearly had little respect for Barnave's faction, who he referred to as "self-righteous windbags", yet a rivalry quickly sprouted between the early Revolution's two greatest orators. Barnave and the triumvirs accused Mirabeau of resembling a dictator, with Lameth shouting that Mirabeau's attempt to silence them would fail since the Jacobins would "never be divided" (Schama, 541). Barnave's resistance to Mirabeau helped his reputation enough that he was able to be elected president of the Assembly in October 1790.

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Portrait of Honoré-Gabriel Riqueti, comte de Mirabeau
Portrait of Honoré-Gabriel Riqueti, comte de Mirabeau
Joseph Boze (Public Domain)

Yet this return to form was merely temporary, as Barnave soon found himself outmaneuvered within the Jacobins. Most notably, he was defeated on the issue of Assembly deputies standing for reelection; Barnave believed that not allowing it would deprive France of valuable leadership. His opposition, led by the fiery rhetoric of Robespierre, argued that no individuals should dominate government. Of course, this ran contrary to Barnave's belief that he and his allies were the best men to determine the path of the Revolution. Quickly, he began to wonder if perhaps Mirabeau had been right; perhaps the Revolution had reached a natural conclusion, and France was in danger of men like Robespierre pushing it too far. Barnave found himself being pushed out of the political left and, to avoid irrelevance, was drifting toward the center.

In April 1791, Mirabeau suddenly died, depriving Barnave of a potentially invaluable ally. Perhaps in an attempt to endear himself to the constitutional monarchist faction, Barnave referred to his former rival as the "Shakespeare of oratory" and grieved with the rest of the Assembly at the comte's death. As the Constitution of 1791 came closer to completion, Barnave realized he would have to make new allies if he wished to strengthen the monarchy, thwart Robespierre, and end the Revolution before it went too far. He would find one in the unlikeliest of places.

Correspondence with the Queen

On the night of 20-21 June 1791, Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and their family attempted to escape their virtual imprisonment in the Tuileries Palace in Paris, riding fast in their carriage for the border with the Austrian Netherlands. They were stopped at the town of Varennes and escorted back to Paris by the National Guard. Barnave and two other Assembly deputies were chosen to meet the royal family on the way back and accompany them back to the capital.

Without asking for permission, Barnave and the Robespierre-aligned deputy Jérôme Pétion sat themselves in the royal carriage, where they rode for two days packed shoulder to shoulder with the royal family. Perhaps in juxtaposition to the rudeness of Pétion, Barnave came across as quite the gentleman, engaging in polite conversation with the king's sister, Madame Elizabeth, and with Marie Antoinette herself. The queen made a striking impression on the young deputy, impressing him with her melancholic demeanor and refined gracefulness. Barnave, too, had an effect on the queen, who would later write of his "most animated and captivating eloquence" (Fraser, 354).

Return of Louis XVI to Paris After Varennes
Return of Louis XVI to Paris After Varennes
Jean Duplessis-Bertaux (Public Domain)

This fortuitous meeting would result in a secret correspondence between Barnave and Marie Antoinette. They would write each other through an intermediary, the Chevalier de Jarjayes, with Marie Antoinette referring to Barnave in code as 2:1 (a reference to the first two letters of his name). As with every male acquaintance of Marie Antoinette, steamy rumors began to sprout surrounding the two. In 1791, a pornographic play, Le Bordel Patriotique (the Patriotic Brothel), depicted Barnave and other revolutionary figures engaged in sexual acts with the queen. Even Count Axel von Fersen, Marie Antoinette's friend and plausible romantic partner, was aware of these rumors, recording in his journal, "they say the Queen is sleeping with Barnave" (Fraser, 354).

Barnave did seem to be quite taken with the queen's charm, but whether he was truthfully enamored with her is irrelevant, for both parties had underlying political goals in their correspondence. The queen wished for a powerful ally in the Assembly to help restore the monarchy's power, while Barnave hoped that Marie Antoinette could convince the king to accept the constitution and to have the monarchy take more of an active part in the Revolution. In a letter on 25 July, Barnave wrote that the queen had misunderstood the Revolution's purpose, and that, while he understood she had been an object of ridicule, if she supported the constitution, she could overcome this and once again become beloved by her people.

The Feuillant Club

In the meantime, Barnave and his allies labored to make the constitution more acceptable to Louis XVI. Working with Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834), who, like Mirabeau, was a former rival turned ally, Barnave and the triumvirate attempted to ensure constitutional monarchy. This task was made more difficult after the king's Flight to Varennes; many now believed the king to be an untrustworthy traitor and that France should become a republic. To offset this growing republicanism in the Jacobin Club, Barnave, Lameth, and Lafayette formed the Feuillant Club, which became the new epicenter for constitutional monarchism. The creation of the Feuillants split the Jacobins, taking most of the moderate members, which, in effect, made the Jacobins more radical.

In the summer of 1791, Barnave and his allies worked tirelessly to amend the constitution, due to be released in September. They enjoyed some victories; they were able to exclude the Civil Constitution of the Clergy from the constitution of 1791, assuring the king that it could be retracted down the road. The Feuillants shot down a proposal that refractory priests who had not sworn an oath to the state could not return within 30 miles of where they had once preached. Most controversially, the Feuillants passed a law limiting press freedom, blaming the press for inciting most of the Revolution's most dangerous riots. Against virulent opposition by Robespierrists, the law forbade any writer from deliberately provoking disobedience to the law, on pain of prosecution or fine.

Barnave Imprisoned
Barnave Imprisoned
Alexandre Lacauchie (Public Domain)

Meanwhile, Barnave continued giving speeches. On 15 July 1791, he delivered one of his most famous on the Assembly floor, arguing that there was nowhere the Revolution could go from here without descending into chaos and anarchy.

Are we going to end the Revolution or are we going to begin anew? ... For those who may wish to go further, what other "night of August 4" can there be but laws against property? (Furet, 189).

On 3 September 1791, the finished constitution was presented to the king for his approval, which he gave ten days later. Seeing this as a success, Barnave wrote the queen, thanking her and the king for their cooperation and for "revolutionizing the monarchy." Unbeknownst to Barnave, Marie Antoinette believed the constitution to be "monstrous" and "a tissue of absurdities" (Fraser, 356). In reality, she and the king had only accepted it to bide their time, while they waited for an Austrian invasion to rescue them and restore them to absolute power.

Arrest & Execution

After the king accepted the Constitution of 1791, Barnave served out the rest of his term in the Assembly before returning to Grenoble at the end of the year. He led a quiet life, serving in his local chapter of the National Guard and writing. This would not last long; after the Storming of the Tuileries Palace by revolutionaries in August 1792, his secret correspondence with the queen was discovered. For this, he was arrested, imprisoned first in Grenoble, and then transported to Paris. For over a year, he defiantly continued writing from his prison cell. However, on 28 November 1793, he appeared before the Revolutionary Tribunal and was found guilty of treason, based on the letters discovered in the Tuileries. He was executed by guillotine the next day.

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About the Author

Harrison W. Mark
Harrison Mark is a graduate of SUNY Oswego, where he studied history and political science.


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Questions & Answers

Who was Antoine Barnave?

Antoine Barnave was a figure in the early stages of the French Revolution (1789-1799), known for his oratory ability, and known as a member of the National Assembly's unofficial "triumvirate."

What did Antoine Barnave do in the French Revolution?

Antoine Barnave was a supporter of a strong constitutional monarchy for France. He formed the Feuillant Club to offset the power of the radical Jacobins, worked to make the constitution of 1791 more acceptable to the king, and began a correspondence with Marie Antoinette.

What caused Antoine Barnave's fall from power?

Antoine Barnave's downfall came from his refusal to accept the abolition movement, and his strong support of constitutional monarchy after the Flight to Varennes made the king and queen unpopular.

Why was Antoine Barnave executed?

Antoine Barnave was executed because of his secret correspondence with Marie Antoinette.

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Mark, H. W. (2022, August 23). Antoine Barnave. World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from

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