Wednesday 17 April 2024

The Robespierre-Danton duel reconsidered

How do modern historians view relationship between Danton and Robespierre?  

Here is a translation/ summary of Hervé Leuwers's article, "Danton et Robespierre: le duel réinventé", published in Biard & Leuwers (ed): Danton: le mythe et l'Histoire (2016).  A close reading of the evidence suggests that there was no profound conflict between the two men and that Robespierre moved against Danton only reluctantly, when he felt that the  elimination of factions was "necessary to the Revolution."

Hervé Leuwers - like Colin Jones in his recent The Fall of Robespierre (2021) - moves away from the idea of Robespierre as the victim of personal neurosis or emotional pressure.  Instead  we see the dedicated Revolutionary who was both an idealist and a skilful and calculating political player.  This Robespierre is more human, but perhaps all the more formidible. 

Saturday 13 April 2024

"Even unto death" - Robespierre's letter to Danton

In March of last year an iconic piece of Revolutionary history went under the hammer when the Versailles auction house Osenat offered for sale the original manuscript of Robespierre's famous letter of 5th February 1793 to Danton.  Heavy with the resonances of betrayal to come, Robespierre offers his condolences for the death of Danton's wife and expresses his friendship and love "even unto death".

5 February 1793. If, in the troubles that can shake a soul like yours, the certainty of having a tender and devoted friend can offer you some consolation, I offer you this. I love you more than ever and unto death. In this moment, I am yourself. Do not close your heart to the accents of friendship that feel all your pain. Let us cry over our friends together, and let us soon show the effects of our deep sorrow to the tyrants who are the originators of our public misfortunes and our private misfortunes. My friend, I have sent you this letter from my heart to Belgium; I would have come to see you, if I had not respected the first moments of your just affliction. Embrace your friend.  Robespierre
ROBESPIERRE (Maximilien de). Autograph letter... - Lot 18 - Osenat

Oeuvres de Maximilien Robespierre, vol.III-1, p.160.

Wednesday 10 April 2024

Robespierre - what's new?

May 2022 saw the publication of Volume 12 of the critical edition of the works of Robespierre, containing - among other items - the long awaited transcripts by Annie Geoffroy of the Le Bas manuscripts acquired by the French state in 2011. [On which see my post of 15.05.2015]

The event was marked on 8th February 1793 with a lecture by Hervé Leuwers, given at Arras as part of a series hosted by the ARBR-Les Amis de Robespierre. Here is a summary/English translation of his talk which has been made available on YouTube.  As always, it is a great pleasure to rediscover that the foremost French expert on the Incorruptible is such a cheerful and unassuming scholar.

Professor Leuwers  begins by reviewing briefly the background to the present publication.  The work of editing the complete works was begun by the Société des Études Robespierristes as long ago as 1910.  Ten volumes were eventually published, followed in 2007 by a supplementary volume edited by Florence Gauthier. Until the unexpected discovery of the Le Bas collection in 2011, it was thought that the Robespierre corpus was more or less complete.

Friday 19 January 2024

A little-known heroine of the Nancy Affair

It is a curious footnote to the story of Désilles to discover that a second person was credited with heroism the "Nancy Affair" - and that this was a woman, indeed a "woman of the people":  the wife of the Concierge at the Porte Stainville.  Here she is in Le Barbier's painting, serving the cause of peace by determinedly pouring a bucket of water over one of the cannons:

Wednesday 17 January 2024

Le Barbier's "Heroic courage of Désilles"

Le Barbier, Heroic courage of the young Désilles (1794) - detail

The making of an artist

The career of Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier is a revealing case study of  how professional artists made a living in late 18th century France - and of the strategies they employed to weather the storms of the Revolutionary years.

Monday 15 January 2024

André Désilles - forgotten Revolutionary hero

Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier (1738, Rouen - 1826, Paris)
Le Courage héroïque du jeune Désilles, le 30 août 1790, à l’affaire de Nancy
Huile sur toile
H. 317 ; L. 453 cm
Inv. 512
Dépôt par le Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nancy au Musée de la Révolution française, Vizille

This imposing canvas by Le Barbier, now displayed in the Museum of the French Revolution in Vizille,  was once intended to hang in the hall of the National Assembly as a pendant to David's Tennis Court Oath. The scene which it depicts is an all but forgotten episode from the early Revolution, the heroic action of the young lieutenant, André Désilles, who sacrificed his life in an attempt to prevent bloodshed during the mutiny in Nancy in 1790.

As Jean-Clément Martin notes,  Desilles's heroism, like that of Bara and Viala,  excited great popular acclamation at the time, but his reputation was rapidly overtaken by the evolution of Revolutionary politics: 

The example of the chevalier Désilles gives pause for thought concerning such posthumous glory  In the Spring of 1790 the garrison in Nancy mutinied and rose up against its officers, but quickly capitulated to the marquis de Bouillé, who was charged by the Assembly with re-establishing order. However, a number of the mutineers threatened Bouillé's army with their cannons.  At this point a  young officer, Lieutenant Desilles placed himself in front of the cannons to prevent them from being fired and was mortally wounded.  The incident was followed by brutal repression: 22 men were hanged, one broken alive on the wheel, 41 condemned to the galleys in Brest.  Desilles attracted immediate  nationwide glory.  His action was popularised in engravings, sculptures and theatre productions; his name was given to streets throughout the country and his bust was crowned with oak leaves in the National Assembly.   Two years later,  following the flight to Varennes, Bouillé had become a  reviled counter-revolutionary. The rebels of Nancy were amnestied in September 1791 and rehabilitated in 1792. The Assembly welcomed the former galley slaves, who paraded through Paris in their red bonnets, whilst the memory of Desilles became odious to the Revolutionaries and was soon forgotten.  Adulated for a short time, then scorned - this would seem to be the fate of such heroes, tied in as they were with the vicissitudes of political events.
Jean-Clément Martin, "Bara, de l'imaginaire révolutionnaire à la mémoire nationale".  In : Révolution et Contre-Révolution en France de 1789 à 1989  (1996)

Friday 28 April 2023

Lavoisier and religion

Lavoisier "anti-clérical"?

Was Lavoisier a sceptical Enlightenment rationalist or (as a number of websites insist) a Christian believer? 

This is a difficult question to answer: in the his writings and in his many letters which have come down to us, there is almost no mention of religion. 

However, in October 1791 he penned the following tirade against clerical education:

Public education as it exists in almost the whole of Europe, has been set up not to form citizens but to produce priests, monks and theologians. The spirit of the Church has always opposed innovation, and because the first Christians spoke and prayed in has been deemed necessary to pray in Latin to the end of time.  For this reason the European education system is almost entirely directed towards teaching Latin.

If one reviews the public acts, the thesis of metaphysics and ethics defended in the Colleges, one sees that they are only an introduction to theology, that theology is the highest form of knowledge, which shapes whole education system. 

The only goal of public education is to form priests.  For a long time the Colleges were open only to those who studied for the priesthood.  Since an ecclesiastical career led to honour and fortune, the catholic nations were naturally divided into two classes: ecclesiastics, who had all the instruction and the illiterate who formed almost all the rest of the nation.   This is how, at first by chance, and then by strategy, all the  means to destroy errors and prejudices was concentrated in the hands of those who had an interest in propagating them.

This era, composed of sixteen centuries almost entirely lost to reason and philosophy, during which the progress of the human mind was almost entirely suspended, where often there were retrograde steps, will always be remarkable in the history of humanity, and one must judge how great will be those in the eyes of posterity who have overturned these antique monuments of ignorance and barbarism.
Introduction to Lavoisier's Reflections on the Plan for Public Instruction presented by M. Talleyrand-Perigord. 
First published in James Guillaume,  Procés verbaux du Comité d'Instruction publique (1894), vol.2, Introduction p. lxiii-lix.

This uncharacteristically forthright piece prefaces a long manuscript which Lavoisier prepared for Talleyrand. The latter had unsuccessfully presented a plan for public education to the Constituent Assembly just days before it adjourned.  The new Legislative then almost immediately created a Committee on Public Education which asked Talleyrand to revise and publish his report.  He  initially consulted Laplace, Monge, Condorcet Vicq d'Azyr and La Harpe, then submitted his second version to Lavoisier, asking for a response within eight days; "I would be most grateful if you would show great severity and tell me frankly what you find displeasing about this lengthy work". Lavoisier replied conscientiously, but in the event Talleyrand chose not to modify his report further and Lavoisier's work remained unpublished.  Lavoisier was later to elaborate his ideas on technical education in his Réflexions sur l'instruction publique, presented to the Convention on behalf of the Bureau de Consultation des Arts et Métiers in September 1793.

Wednesday 26 April 2023

Lavoisier - The Republic has no need for scientists?

La république n'a pas besoin de savants et de chimistes; le cours de la justice ne peut être suspendu
[The Republic has no need of savants and chemists.  Justice must run its course.]

This Revolutionary condemnation of scientific endeavour is so notorious that the geneticist and writer Steve Jones used it for the title of his book on late 18th-century science (No Need for Geniuses: Revolutionary Science in the Age of the Guillotine. Little, Brown, 2016).  

However, there is no convincing evidence that it was ever really said.  It is yet another example of a small distortion of the historical record which has resulted in significant misrepresentations.

The dictum was supposedly delivered at the trial of Lavoisier and his fellow Farmers-General by the Revolutionary Tribunal on 8th May 1794.  Lavoisier had asked for a stay of execution in order to finish a scientific project. The speaker was variously identified as the Vice-President of the Tribunal, Jean-Baptiste Coffinhal,  his colleague René-François Dumas, or even Fouquier-Tinville himself.

The trial of Lavoisier - 19th-century engraving from Louis Figuier's Vies des savants illustres.

Friday 21 April 2023

Lavoisier, Revolutionary: 4. The unravelling

Engraving of Lavoisier by M.R.G. Brossard presented to the Institut de France in 1806.
 Grimaux identified this portrait as a last image made during Lavoisier's imprisonment.
   However, in an accompanying letter of dedication, the artist explains that the work was done from memory on the basis of previous sketches.
See Beretta, Imaging a career in science (2001), p.12-14.

Lavoisier in 1790-91

In late 1789 order was temporarily restored in Paris and the work of national reconstruction could begin.  Despite the ambiguities of his personal position as a Farmer-General,  Lavoisier was a natural member of the new liberal élite and  his financial and administrative expertise were much in demand. 

In 1789-91 we see Lavoisier take his place in Revolutionary Paris, resume his social position and continue to play a prominent role in the international scientific community. :

Although denied a place in the Assembly, he was active in the administration of Paris

In September 1789 he was elected to the reconstituted Commune of Paris as one of the five representatives for the district of Saint-Louis-la-Culture.  His colleagues, besides Lafayette and Bailly, included Condorcet, Antoine Laurent de Jussieu and other members of the Academy of Sciences;   Louis Lefèvre-Gineau, Professor at the Collège  de France,  the chemist Demachy and the Farmer General Duvaucel. When the Civic, later National, Guard was formed, Lavoisier was enrolled in the section for the Arsenal.

Sunday 16 April 2023

Lavoisier, Revolutionary: 3. A letter to Franklin (1790)

 There was no denying Lavoisier had a close call in 1789; he can have been left in little doubt that his personal position remained vulnerable. Nonetheless, by early 1790 the cause of Constitutional monarchy seemed to be triumphant. The spectre of popular revolution had receded and power appeared safely consolidated in the hands of Lavoisier's friends and allies.  He looked forward to the work of national regeneration which lay ahead.

A rare piece of evidence as to Lavoisier's state of mind at this time is provided by a letter dated 2nd February 1790 written to Benjamin Franklin. Lavoisier informs his illustrious correspondent that the Revolution has succeeded but expresses regret that popular armed intervention had been necessary.  One sense a certain unease: 

After telling you about what is happening in chemistry, it would be appropriate to give you news of our political revolution. We look upon it as successfully and irreversibly accomplished. The aristocratic party still exists and offers some useless resistance, but it is evidently the weaker.  The democratic party is in the majority and is supported by the educated, philosophically-minded, and enlightened members of the nation.

Persons of moderate opinion, who kept their sang-froid during the general excitement,  think that circumstances have carried us too far. They consider it very unfortunate that we were compelled to arm the people and all the citizens.  It is not good political practice  to allow the employment of force by those whose role is to obey.  It is to be feared that the new constitution will be obstructed by the very people for whose benefit it was created.... We greatly regret your absence from France at this time; you would have been our guide and would have marked out for us the boundaries that we should not cross.

Translation from the Edinburgh Review (1890), p.98  ["Even while announcing to Franklin, the "successful and irreversible accomplishment" of the political revolution in France, it is plain that Lavoisier was troubled, in his view of the rising sun of democracy, by some vapour of misgiving..."]

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