Antoine Pierre Joseph Marie Barnave (1761-1793), one of the greatest orators of the first French Revolution, was born at Grenoble in Dauphiné, on the 22nd of October 1761. He was of a Protestant family. His father was an advocate at the parlement of Grenoble, and his mother was a woman of high birth, superior ability and noble character. He was educated by his mother because, being a Protestant, he could not attend school, and he grew up at once thoughtful and passionate, studious and social, handsome in person and graceful in manners. He was brought up to the law, and at the age of twenty-two made himself favourably known by a discourse pronounced before the local parlement on the division of political powers. Dauphiné was one of the first of the provinces to feel the excitement of the coming revolution; and Barnave was foremost to give voice to the general feeling, in a pamphlet entitled Esprit des édits enregistrés militairement le 20 mai 1788. He was immediately elected deputy, with his father, to the states of Dauphiné, and took a prominent part in their debates. A few months later he was transferred to a wider field of action. The states-general were convoked at Versailles for the 5th of May 1789, and Barnave was chosen deputy of the tiers état for his native province.
He soon made an impression on the Assembly, became the friend of most of the leaders of the popular party, and formed with Adrien Duport and Alexandre Lameth (q.v.) the group known during the Constituent Assembly as "the triumvirate." He took part in the conference on the claims of the three orders, drew up the first address to the king, and supported the proposal of Sieyès that the Assembly should declare itself National. Until 1791 he was one of the principal members of the club known later as the Jacobins, of which he drew up the manifesto and first rules (see Jacobins). Though a passionate lover of liberty, he hoped to secure the freedom of France and her monarchy at the same time. But he was almost unawares borne away by the mighty currents of the time, and he took part in the attacks on the monarchy, on the clergy, on church property, and on the provincial parlements. With the one exception of Mirabeau, Barnave was the most powerful orator of the Assembly. On several occasions he stood in opposition to Mirabeau. After the fall of the Bastille he wished to save the throne. He advocated the suspensory veto, and the establishment of trial by jury in civil causes, but voted with the Left against the system of two chambers.
His conflict with Mirabeau on the question of assigning to the king the right to make peace or war (from the 16th to the 23rd of May 1791) was one of the most striking scenes in the Assembly. In August 1790, after a vehement debate, he fought a duel with J. A. M. de Cazalès, in which the latter was slightly wounded. About the close of October 1790 Barnave was called to the presidency of the Assembly. On the death of Mirabeau a few months later, Barnave paid a high tribute to his worth and public services, designating him the Shakespeare of oratory. On the arrest of the king and the royal family at Varennes, while attempting to escape from France, Barnave was one of the three appointed to conduct them back to Paris. On the journey he was deeply affected by the mournful fate of Marie-Antoinette, and resolved to do what he could to alleviate their sufferings. In one of his most powerful speeches he maintained the inviolability of the king's person. His public career came to an end with the close of the Constituent Assembly, and he returned to Grenoble at the beginning of 1792. His sympathy and relations with the royal family, to whom he had submitted a plan for a counter-revolution, and his desire to check the downward progress of the Revolution, brought on him suspicion of treason.
Denounced (15th of August 1792) in the Legislative Assembly, he was arrested and imprisoned for ten months at Grenoble, then transferred to Fort Barraux, and in November 1793 to Paris. The nobility of his character was proof against the assaults of suffering. "Better to suffer and to die," he said, "than lose one shade of my moral and political character." On the 28th of November he appeared before the Revolutionary Tribunal. He was condemned on the evidence of papers found at the Tuileries and executed the next day, with Duport-Dutertre.
Barnave's oeuvres posthumes were published in 1842 by Bérenger (de la Drôme) in 4 vols. See F. A. Aulard, Les Orateurs de l'assemblée constituante (Paris, 1882).