Sunday 30 April 2023

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 of this year 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 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..."]

Wednesday 12 April 2023

Lavoisier, Revolutionary: 2. Explosive situations (1789)

François Louis Brossard de Beaulieu, or Marie-Renée-Geneviève Brossard de Beaulieu, 
 Portrait of a man, presumed to be Lavoisier, in the uniform of Inspecteur général des poudres and holding  a Leyden jar. (1784)  Musée de Versailles
See Beretta, Imaging a career in science p.10-13.

In  July 1789, as one of the directors of the Régie des poudres et salpêtres - the state gunpowder monopoly - , Lavoisier quite literally faced an explosive situation. The Petit-Arsenal, which housed the gunpowder warehouse, stood immediately adjacent to the Bastille.

The Plan Turgot shows clearly this area of Paris, with the looming walls of the old fortress and the twin complexes of the Grand and Petit Arsenal.  To the right, on the Seine, occupying the site of the present quai des Celestins, was the Port-St. Paul which handled cargoes to and from the Arsenal.   The entrance gate to the Petit Arsenal, was at the end of the rue de la Ceriseraie.

Gunpowder had not been actually  manufactured at the Arsenal for a long time.  The main function of the Grand Arsenal, with its five courtyards, overlooking the river, was to accommodate the marquis d'Argenson's magnificent library.  The Petit Arsenal, however,  housed the offices of the Régie and  served as a gunpowder warehouse.  From 1775 onwards Lavoisier had occupied a private apartment here, which accommodated his extensive library, and a huge laboratory in the attic.  His apparatus had soon proliferated in adjoining sheds and warehouses. The exact location is not known (See Beretta, 2022 for all the available details) 

Saturday 8 April 2023

Lavoisier, Revolutionary: 1. the Estates-General (1788-89)

  •  We shall, therefore, not take as our guide what our fathers did, for they were wrong; we shall not travel along the road of ancient abuses; the time of enlightenment has come and we must now speak the language of reason and claim those human rights that are inalienable
  • Happiness ought not to be confined to a small number of men; it belongs to all.  
                                                                                                                             Antoine Lavoisier            
The opening act of the Revolution found Lavoisier, in his mid 40s, at the height of both his international scientific reputation and his influence in government circles.  A first opportunity for him to further his ideas for economic improvement on a large scale came in 1787 when Calonne revived Turgot's provincial assemblies.  Lavoisier became a leading member of the new Assembly of Orléanais, which opened with great  ceremony in September 1787.   He was designated as representative of the Third Estate, even though he was technically a noble. We see him spearheading a sweeping programme of proposed reforms aimed at greater economic freedom and fiscal equality.  [For details, see particularly the chapter in McKie, Lavoisier (1953) , p.231-49.].

Lavoisier welcomed  the calling of the Estates General as a means to further his aims: the Nation is too enlightened, he wrote to his colleagues in Orléans, not to act in the interests of the majority: "if  it is allowable to make exceptions in favour of any class, especially with regard to taxes, it can only be in favour of the poor." (quoted McKie, p.291).

Wednesday 5 April 2023

Lavoisier at Freschines

The château de Freschines at Villefrancoeur, twenty kilometres north of Blois, once belonged to Lavoisier. This fine 18th-century mansion is yet another historic French property which has  recently been happily preserved for posterity. Having served for forty years as a  psychiatric hospital, the house was put on the market in January 2013.  It stood empty and neglected for a further six years until 2019, when it was finally rescued by the Austrian architect Elisabeth Herring.  It has since been opened as an Airbnb so, for a (relatively) modest price, you can actually go and stay there.  As the video below shows, the ongoing restoration is a labour of love.  The atmosphere is stylish but relaxed, mostly 18th-century in inspiration, but with a few quirky mementos of the house's long years as an asylum.

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