Wednesday, 12 May 2021

Two friends: Goujon & Tissot

You will see how two young and ardent minds who throw themselves into a career without counting the obstacles, may change the face of the world and lift themselves by virtue above all other beings.  
Letter of Goujon to Tissot, 1792

The late 18th century was the great age of sentimental Rousseauism, of romantic love affairs, family affection and emotionally charged friendships. The same attitudes, translated to the public stage,  contributed to the Revolution era its peculiar strand of fervent idealism  This phenomenon is perfectly illustrated in the lives of the two friends, Pierre François Tissot and the ill-fated Goujon, "martyr of Prairial".  There is an overwhelming amount of  detail available about Goujon's public career, so I have just tried to pick out some of the more personal aspects.

Two miserable clerks

The two young men first met in 1786 in the offices of Maître Soutez, procureur to the Châtelet Court, where they were both clerks. 

GOUJON, the elder by two years, had been born in Bourg-en-Bresse on 13th April 1766. His father was  director of "les droit-réunis" for the Ferme des aides, which had 278 bureaux across France administering an assortment of indirect taxes and duties on behalf of the Crown;  later he was to move to directorships in Poivins (1772) and  Orléans (1778).  This places the family among the respectable well-to-do bourgeoisie of provincial society, though by no means among the monied elite.  When Goujon was only twelve, he was sent to Saint-Domingue where a relative who was a rich plantation owner offered  him the chance of a career in the colonies. In later years Goujon seldom talked about this time -  the shy teenager met a lot of people but made no friends: "I saw many faces in very few years...but rarely anyone who was true, who had moral principles, in whom the voice of humanity could be heard." [Letter of Goujon  to his mother of 14th March 1789, Guyot & Thénard. p.3-4]

He also failed signally to make his fortune;  in 1786 his father died and he returned home.  His mother, sister, and two small brothers were now lived in Auxerre in straited circumstances, reliant on a modest income from rents and a pension from a  rich aunt, tante Cottin, in Paris.  Goujon's position with Maître Soutez represented a hope of financial security for the whole family. 

Engraving by Bonneville after Isabey
File:Bonneville Jean-Marie Goujon.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
According to an article by Antoinette Ehrard, the  Musée de Brou in Bourg-en-Bresse possesses the original oil painting on which this engraving is based. Until 1957 it hung in the town hall. It is attributed to Isabey, though it is neither signed nor dated.    
See: Antoinette Ehrard,"La mémoire des 'Martyrs de Prairial' dans l'espace public." AHRF 304 (1996): p.434-5.

TISSOT  was born in Versailles on 10th March 1768, the oldest of six children.  His social origins were more privileged.  His father, originally from Savoy, was a dealer in perfumes with premises in the rue Vieux-Versailles and in central Paris in the precinct of the Abbey Saint-Germain-des-Prés.   As an official supplier to the Court, he accumulated several imposing titles, including Merchant Perfumer to the King  and valet de chambre to Madame the Duchess of Provence.  Tissot himself gain entry to fêtes at the Trianon  -  he met Madame Elisabeth on several occasions. He received an extensive literary education, finishing in Paris at  the Collège Montaigu.  His first introduction to progressive ideas probably dated from his earlier schooldays, when he boarded in the pension in the rue Saint-Louis in Verssailles, run by Antoine-Joseph Gorsas, the future Revolutionary journalist and Girondin deputy.  Among Gorsas's visitors at this time were Laurent Lecointre and Marat, then  médecin des écuries.  In later years Tissot was to keep in touch with Gorsas, and those who lodged with him in Paris. For the moment, however, his enthusiasms focused on Rousseau and Virgil. At the age of eighteen, in 1786  he  was packed off to the procureur's office to learn legal procedures, and his literary ambitions confined to spare time. Whereas Goujon comes across as  gauche, Tissot was a poised and personable young man. 

Both Goujon and Tissot thoroughly hated life in the lawyer's office. 

Goujon's letters give a glimpse of the long hours and monotonous work of a legal clerk in the age of quill pens and handwritten ledgers.   He recounts to his mother how he laboured from eight in the morning until half-past nine in the evening; copying petitions.  "Sometimes the dullness of this task, the desire to learn something I want to know...or to read the books that I have so little time for....fills me with boredom, resentment and impatience."  [Letter of 14th March 1789,  Guyot & Thénard. p.3-4]

To Tissot he wrote: 

You are lucky, dear friend, to have escaped for an instant this miserable scribbling.  It becomes more distasteful to me every day.   I am persuaded that there are few galley slaves who find their chains more heavy than I do mine...When I have been writing all day long,  I find only an immense emptiness in my mind. [Letter of 4th February 1789,  Jarrin, p.8]

Goujon would stay up late after supper, or perhaps he would rise early, to work on his own projects.  An earnest and self-righteous young man, he had little taste for pleasures such as dancing or the theatre. He found other youths frivolous and  preferred the company of older, more serious men.  Among his acquaintances was the archaeologist  Antoine Mongez,  canon of Sainte-Geneviève, later the friend of David and Marat.  He  complains  to his mother that he was bored by his aunt and her circle of  elderly ladies and matchmaking mothers who considered him honest and incapable of deceiving anyone, "which in their language means un peu bête"  This disillusionment passes easily into a general criticism of social corruption: "Souls have fallen into vileness and the most gentle and beautiful sentiments are regarded as belonging to the feeble-minded or as imaginary virtues that none can possess". Goujon sententiously dedicates himself to Rousseau's ideal of virtuous simplicity: "If I was offered my greatest wish... I would ask to be the most virtuous man in the world.. " [Goujon to his mother, 14th March 1789, Guyot & Thénard. p.3-4]

An interlude at Meudon

In 1790, as Paris settled down after the momentous events of 1789, the friends finally staged a rebellion of their own.  Unbeknownst to their families they left their jobs and moved to Meudon where they rented a little house on the banks of the Seine near the edge of the wood. Their savings were meagre and they lived in Rousseauesque simplicity, with little furniture or linen and the minimal services of a housekeeper.   Tissot could reach Versailles on foot in two hours and Goujon could visit Mongez to collect his correspondence.  What better place to find oneself!  With the self-possession of youth, Tissot continued his attempts at tragedy and Goujon devoted himself to study.

Letter of Tissot to his father.  

In June 1790 Tissot wrote a letter of self-justification to his discontented father; he explains that he had always followed the set course; but when he "looked inside himself" and "appreciated his true worth" he found he was deeply unhappy.  He did not wish to become a procureur, a profession now dishonoured in the public mind.  He had retired to the country with his companion in order to exercise the physical and moral faculties which he had previously sacrificed entirely for the sum of 400 livres a year!

Like many young people in later times, Tissot expressed his defiance of parental values with a style statement - in this case a fashionably short coiffure à la Titus.  As might be imagined, this did not go down well with the Versailles parfumier:  

Now we must come to my haircut. I must admit that the distress it causes you astonishes me.  It never entered my head that you would place such importance on it, but it is only because of other people; you fear the charge of oddity.  But before knowing if it is odd, you must know whether it is good - Yes, without doubt, for it is the most natural, the most simple, the most clean, and the most convenient both for oneself and others .... 

Tissot refuses to see those who are displeased by his haircut. He ends with a swipe at the social hierarchy.  He wants neither favours nor position from the nobility.  If he ever gains fortune or consideration, it must be by the fruit of his own labours, not through the caprices of  "ces fripons titrés".  [Letter of June 1790.  Quoted, Fromageot, p.228-9]

A political education

Goujon fancied himself from early days as an essayist and orator.  His interest in politics was nurtured by Mongez whom he visited in the library at Sainte-Geneviève at least once a week whilst he was in Paris. The two would spend whole Sunday afternoons in fervent discussion of public law and history.   Mongez guided Goujon's reading of Montesquieu, Rousseau and Raynal and encouraged him to try his hand at an essay competition set by the Academy of Dijon at the end of 1788, on the "influence of the morality of governments on people".  The entries were adjudicated in August 1790; the prize was not awarded but Goujon received an "honorable mention". (The essay was published by Tissot his Souvenirs on Prairial in 1797). Goujon argues that Man is naturally good, but corrupted by ignorance, prejudice and despotic governments. If  the people regained its rightful place, just laws and liberty would inevitably follow.  Inevitably, he was a  ready revolutionary: as he wrote to his mother at the time of the opening of the Estates-General: " My studies have convinced me  that our laws, our moral values, and our political system, create a real obstacle for those among us who are truly virtuous citizens". (Letter of 14th May 1789, Guyot & Thénard, p.5) 

We can follow the events of the early Revolution through the prism of Goujon's enthusiasm: in July 1790 the Fête de la Fédération provokes a quasi-religious response:

My dear Maman, 

I went to see the Federation, and I ran no risk.  I did not detect the slightest sign of disorder or discontent among the People, who are made out to be so untrustworthy.  I saw five hundred thousand men assemble together, arms outstretched to the Supreme Being, souls elevated, free and worthy of virtue! I saw them;  I joined with them;  my heart sought in nature a still more beautiful title than that of French citizen, and I gloried in what I found reserved for me.  I could not say a word, but the tears that escaped from my eyes bore witness to the feelings in the depths of my heart....Drunk with virtue, I felt myself transported into a new universe:  I felt worthy to be called a Man.  Ah! I made a pledge which I will never forget...  I will live in freedom or die!   [Letter of 15th July 1790., Guyot & Thénard,  p.12]

In defiance of his mother's anxious efforts to find him new gainful employment, he  now espoused the vocation of political publicist.: 

I can have no doubt about my inclination.  I am tormented by my love for public law and all fields of knowledge related to Man, his conduct, his happiness. I feel myself drawn towards this subject by an irresistible force.  Sometimes I am seduced enough to  see men made a little more happy by my efforts to find the truth, demonstrate it to them and force them to recognise it.  I know that all this is perhaps the chimera of a simple soul, but as long as this idea pursues me, I will not be capable of anything else.  [Letter of 5th June 1790, Guyot & Thénard ,p.11]

She, understandably, was less convinced.

An early 19th-century engraving of Tissot F.ois Tissot  (

Two Revolutionary administrators

Tissot and Goujon returned to Versailles in mid-1791; Goujon continued to make a name for himself as a orator and commentator, with an Éloge de Mirabeau (April 1791) and a  published letter in reply to the abbé Raynal (May 1791). He was soon involved in local politics and administration; indeed, "until October 1793 the biography of Goujon confounds itself with the history of the department of Seine-et-Oise"; He became an elector in June 1791 and was nominated to the Conseil Général of the department in September 1791.  On 21st September 1792 he became "Procureur général syndic".  Tissot too held municipal office. Both were active in the Jacobin Club.  In July 1792 the two faced their first major test when they were both in Versailles during the massacre of  the prisoners from Orléans. Like his colleagues,  including the mayor Richaud, Goujon "showed neither complicity nor weakness" but "neglected to take sufficient precaution". [see the review by Pierre Caron, L. Thénard et R. Guyot. Le conventionnel Goujon (1766-1793), 1908 - Persée (]

Romantic idylls

From September 1791 Goujon lived with an aunt of Tissot, who treated the two young men as if they were her own children. Goujon was anxious to pay his way and in 1792 his Aunt Cottin left him 25,000 livres, but he was obliged go to Tours to contest the legacy with other inheritors. (He was unsuccessful.) It was during the trial that he met his future wife, Lise Corméry (1771-1843) the twenty-one year old daughter of an administrator for the department of Indre-et-Loire.  He first struck up a friendship with Corméry himself - by the end of a week he was in love with his daughter.  He approach Corméry for her hand, but the father allowed the girl to decide. She accepted and  over the next five months the two exchanged long, cloyingly sentimental love letters.  Goujon could have given Rousseau himself a run for his money; here is a short excerpt from his marriage proposal:

I do not know if I should let my heart find rest in the the tumult that surrounds me; I do not know if I should ask someone else to share a life that might run its course in the midst of storms... But a force stronger than cold reason impels me.  I have seen many women but you are the first to awake in me the desire to marry.  I am not carried away by mere ephemeral sentiments.  I have learned to spurn cleverness, beauty, riches.   I have searched among mankind, without hope, for a truly just and sensitive soul to join with mine in pure and enduring felicity.  That simplicity, elevation and purity of soul, that echo of  Antique morality,  I find in you; they awakened in me a profound and tender sentiment that absence cannot diminished.  
Letter of 17th September 1792; Goyot & Thénard, Pt 2, p.51-53]

In the final months of 1792 and 1793 Goujon remained in Versailles.  His mother and siblings sold up the house in Auxerre and came to join him.  On 5th March 1793 Tissot married Goujon's sister Perrine-Claudine-Sophie. The wedding took place in the Mairie, with Goujon singing a song he had composed for the occasion. The couple had not a sou, for Tissot's father, the parfumier, had been ruined by the Revolution. Goujon himself married hastily at the end of March. The whole family lodged together in the rue de Chancellerie.

At the end of November Goujon was reelected to the departmental Council,  though he himself would have preferred more leisure to taste "the savage simplicity of nature and the precious charm of tender love". [Goyot & Thénard, p.53].

Later Revolutionary careers

Shortly after his marriage, in May 1793, Tissot was forced to leave his young wife to accompany the 11th Battalion of Volunteers of Seine-et-Oise to the Vendée.  He had been elected quartermaster, but in effect served as secretary to Citizen Rodanger, the principal civilian commissart with the battalion.

In May to end July 1793, the correspondence of Tissot relates the  peripheries of the campaign around Nantes. On 21st July he reports that Rodanger, and a major of the company had been captured by the enemy. After three months the volunteers from Versailles were anxious to return home.  When a new delegate from Versailles replaced the unfortunate Rodanger, Tissot was charged with inspiring the battalion with "republican energy".  The efforts were to no avail, and the troop returned to Versailles in August.

On 5th September 1792 Goujon was elected to the Convention  as sixth (and final)  suppléant for Seine-et-Oise. He was given  an important role as one of the three members of the Commission for Subsistance, charged with applying the Maximum of 22nd October 1793, and in April 1794 took his seat in the assembly to replace Hérault de Séchelles.  In July 1794 he was en mission with the Army of the Moselle.  During this period Tissot seems to have contented himself with  a support role, acting as Secretary to the Commission for Subsistance and accompanying his friend to the Rhineland. When they returned in August, both protested against the excesses of the Thermidorean reaction, but Tissot was not pursued. 

Tissot's later life

Goujon's condemnation and suicide left Tissot sole responsibility  for  the entire extended family.  Removed from all public office,  he was reduced for a time to working as a factory hand.  With some courage,  as early as November 1795, barely five months after the condemnations of Prairial,  he set about publishing and circulating Goujon's defence and his final letters to his wife.  In the preface to his 1799 Souvenirs de Prairial, he affirms his determination to vindicate his friend in the eyes of posterity:

p.i-ii:  Goujon, my brother and my friend, entrusted to me on his death, the care of his memory:  it is without blemish for all  who knew him: it should come down without distortion to all those who might think themselves worthy to imitate him.  It is in order to keep his memory pure, as he himself was in life, that I publish his thoughts.  I received almost the last wishes of those generous victims who shared his faith; I fulfill their hopes and my promises.

Whatever the vagaries and fury of party might say to the contrary, the innocence of the deputies slaughtered in Prairial, the courageous sacrifice that they made together of their lives, is something which will forever honour the Revolution... everything which illustrates the terrible struggle of liberty against tyranny, of equality against the pride and usurpations of the aristocracy,  seems to me useful and necessary to publish.

Having worked for a short time in the Ministry of Police, Tissot retired to Tours to devote himself to literature.  Under the Consulate he moved back to Paris, to the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, where he built up a successful business manufacturing lanterns. His later career as a writer was to be long and distinguished.  He rallied to Napoleon and after 1830 received many honours; he became professor of Latin poetry at the Collège de France and, in 1833, was elected to the Académie Française.  Tissot always remained faithful to the ideals of the Revolution as he saw them.  He lived to see the Second Empire. He died on 7th April 1854,  aged eighty-six, almost six decades after the suicide of his brother-in-law and friend Goujon.


CH Jarrin, Alexandre Goujon (1886) 
Bound with: Suicide de Nicolas Beaurepaire - Google Books

R. Guyot, F. Thénard, Le Conventionnel Goujon (1908).  Published in instalments in Revue Historique, 1906-7 On JStor.  Or (with pages omitted) on Forgotten Books

Entry for Tissot in Françoise Huguet et Boris Noguès, Les professeurs des facultées des lettres et des sciences en France au XIXe siècle (1808-1880)  

Paul Fromageot,  "Pierre François Tissot (1768–1854)",  Revue de l'histoire de Versailles et de Seine-et-Oise, 1901, p.225–267. 

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