In the late 1770, under the influence of Du Pont Nemour and the Physiocrats, Lavoisier became seriously interested in agricultural economics. He initially experimented on the estate he had inherited at Le Bourget, then from 1778 began to acquire land in the Beauce. In March 1778 he purchased, within a few days of each other, the estate of Champrenault, which had belonged to the future American War hero, the comte de Rochambeau, and Freschines, both near the commune of Villefrancoeur. In 1784 he acquired as a final major addition, the seigneurie of Thoisy (parish of La Chapelle-Vendômoise). In total his holdings amounted to about 1,100 hectares (2,250 acres) for an investment of some 389,000 livres.
Facsimiles of documents relating to Lavoisier's 1778 purchases can be found on the website of the Departmental archives for Loir-et-Cher (See below) The archives also hold "lettres à terrier" dated 1781 which authorise Lavoisier as seigneur of Freschines to renew the register of landholdings, rents and dues. According to the website, this exercise exemplifies the "feudal reaction" of the 1780s - certainly Lavoisier, as a careful administrator, would have been keen to know the exact extent of his property. The details of the various transactions, are available in an article by Amédée Cauchie, published in 1900, which gives a good sense of the complexities of tenure and the encumbrances of the various manors.
Loir-et-Cher Departmental Archives, "Rendez-vous de l'histoire 2017: Sciences en Loir-et-Cher sous l'Ancien Régime: Lavoisier en Loir-et-Cher"
Amédée Cauchie, "Le domaine de Freschines sous Lavoisier", Mémoires de la Société de Sciences et Lettres du Loir-et-Cher, 1900, 14(2): p. 47-71.https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k5505190h/f143.image.r=lavoisier#
|View of Lavoisier's estate at Freschines|
Denis Duveen, A bibliography of the works of Antoine Lavoisier, supplement. Frontispiece.
Pierre de Bizemont, a local expert on Collet, visited Freschines in 2019 and pronounced himself well pleased with the château's state of preservation. The 18th-century wing was substantially intact; there were original fireplaces and even an 18th-century carved wooden screen in the sacristy. (The chapel itself is a 19th-century addition.)
On the other side of the grand salon was the wood-panelled library.... [Here] Lavoisier kept six large ledgers to record the results of his agronomic experiments as well as a few scientific instruments.
|Postcard of Freschines, with the old château in the background|
Lavoisier was able to spare time to visit Freschines for only a few weeks, two or three times a year, in spring and at harvest time. Madame Lavoisier, it seems, was a reluctant visitor: she was uninterested in agriculture and disliked the conservative small-town society on offer. She at first she took an interest in the development of local trade and industry, such as cotton spinning and hosiery production; but soon returned to Paris, where she began a liaison with Dupont Nemours.
In 1788 Lavoisier was able to present the results of ten years of agronomic research at Freschines to the Society of Agriculture in Paris and to the Committee of Agriculture, set up by the Controller of Finance in 1785, of which he was secretary and prime-mover.
His report emphasised the need for practical experiment and the relevance of agricultural production to the wider context of national wealth: "It is not simply in armchairs that economics must be studied; it is only by a well planned investigation of an extensive development of land, by sustained calculations over a number of years on the distribution of recurring wealth, that one can form an accurate idea of what contributes to the prosperity of a large kingdom." (translated in Poirier, p.121)
Lavoisier's own work was characterised not only by an interest in the scientific basis of agricultural improvement but also by scrupulous attention to local conditions. As the basis for his study he cultivated 120 hectares of the poorest soil directly, and took over a half-lease on arable land on three other farms, making 360 hectares in all. Although he was Freschines for only a few weeks each year, he keep close control of operations through the intermediary of his intendant, the Blois notary Louis Michel Lefebvre, who visited at least once a fortnight. The estate steward, Joseph Roger and his son-in-law Nicolas Mercier, were in charge of the day-to-day work. Precise measurements and costings were entered into the ledgers kept in the library - those for the period 1781-87 have survived in the dossiers of the Archives de l’Académie des sciences (see Beretta, note 34).
Lavoisier sought to improve the fertility of his land by supporting more livestock. He created artificial meadows, experimented with forage crops and introduced the cultivation of turnips and potatoes. Breeding stock was imported, sheep from Spain and cows from Choiseul's model vacherie at Chanteloup. Although initial results were encouraging, Lavoisier admitted that progress had been slow and fraught with setbacks. It had taken eight or ten years of considerable investment to get a return, and even then his wheat yield had improved only slightly. He had not realised an income of even 5 percent on his invested capital. The problems besetting French agriculture were financial as well as technical; the peasant farmer, hampered by short-term leases, was caught in a cycle of poverty: "At the end of the year, the cultivator has nothing left; he counts himself lucky if he can make ends meet". The taille destroyed incentives to improvement and even wealthier farmers saw little point in investing in agriculture when they could get better returns on government bonds.
The production at Freschines continued to improve in the years after 1788. According to Madame Lavoisier, by 1793 the wheat harvest had doubled, yielding ten times the amount sown, and the number of livestock had increased fivefold. Farmers in the Blois region had also accepted Lavoisier's innovations: potatoes, artificial meadows, and the use of sheep folds as a means of fertilising the soil.
Lavoisier, "Résultats de quelques expériences d'agriculture, et réflexions sur leurs relations avec l'économie politique" Oeuvres, vol. 2 (1862) [On Google Books].
Lavoisier and the people of Villefrancoeur
|View of Villefrancoeur from mapcarta.com |
Meghan Roberts in her 2016 book Sentimental Savants emphasises the importance of Freschines for Lavoisier's self-image. "Lavoisier cast himself as an enlightened patriarch and benevolent public reformer. The estate became an "enlightened oasis" which featured values close to Lavoisier's heart: public education, charity and strong family ties." (p.152, limited preview on Google Books)
This is perhaps a little exaggerated. The image of Lavoisier as a much loved patriarch comes almost entirely from posthumous eulogies. Lavoisier's own writings - notoriously - have little in the way of personal comment: he totally lacked the effusive sentimentality which came so easily to many men of his generation. Lavoisier was also a modernist. Although he was acutely aware of the plight of the poor, and capable of acts of considerable generosity, he saw the solution to poverty not in paternalistic charity but in economic progress and fiscal reform.
In the immediate pre-Revolutionary years, Lavoisier became more involved in the local affairs, at least at provincial level. Following the devastating drought of 1785, he was a prime mover in the foundation of the Committee of Agriculture, a short-lived but ambitious government sponsored initiative to steer French agriculture. In 1788 he generously offered the mayor of Blois a loan without interest for 50,000 livres to alleviate shortages caused by the poor grain harvest. From September 1787 he was a prominent member of the new Provincial Assembly set up in Orléans, where he advocated a sweeping programme of fiscal reforms.
The Loir-et-Cher archives preserves the cahier de doléances for the parish of La Chapelle-Vendômoise, where Lavoisier's estate of Thoisy was located.
Cahier de doléances for the parish of La Chapelle-Vendômoise. The cahier for Villefrancoeur does not survive, but Lavoisier participated in drawing up this one, in his capacity as landowner of the parish. He is named first in the list of inhabitants. His influence is visible in the first article of cahier which speaks of the exercise of "personal and individual liberty". One of the two deputies from the parish was Lefebvre, Lavoisier's intendant.
For the text, see Département de Loir-et-Cher. Cahiers de doléances du bailliage de Blois... pour les États généraux de 1789 [Internet Archive], p.58ff.
Although his hopes of election were ultimately frustrated, Lavoisier continued to support the patriots of Blois. He offered accommodation and hospitality to the representatives who came to Paris for Fête de la Fédération in 1790, one of whom was Lefebvre.
Lavoisier made his final visit to Freschines in the autumn of 1792. He set out on 15th September and stayed for two months, through the momentous events of Valmy, the September massacres and the declaration of the Republic. At Villefrancoeur he attempted to support village celebrations by having a tree of liberty planted in the public square and donating a considerable sum of money to the local National Guard. (p.298-9) He returned to Paris in November 1792 for the reopening of the Academy of Sciences.
Later history of the château
In 1795 Freschines was restored to Marie Lavoisier, who in 1803 sold the house to the diplomat Charles René de la Forest. In 1863 the property was purchased by Joseph Law, marquis de Lauriston, on whose death it was inherited by his son-in-law, Le Général, Comte de Vibraye. His daughter, the Comtesse de Vienne ultimately ceded it to the nuns of the Providence de Blois, who still owned it when Douglas McKie visited in the early 1950s:
Douglas McKie, Antoine Lavoisier: scientist, economist, social reformer (1952), p.217
From Madame Lavoisier's biographical notes:
The work of the tireless Duhamel had given Lavoisier many new ideas about agricultural production. In 1779 he established a farm for practical experiment and observation on his estate at Freschines, near Blois
He introduced potatoes, which were unknown before him. Artificial meadows were established where none had existed. The farm was stocked with fine livestock. Precise registers entries were kept each piece of ground and its produce - one could say, there was a running account for each piece of land. All the work, the farming methods, the sowings and harvests were recorded: on one side the costs, on the other the production....The success was such that by the fifteen year the yield of wheat had doubled and the number of livestock the land could support had increased fivefold.
In this place, where Lavoisier did so much useful work, he should be imagined among the local people. He acted as magistrate of the peace, to resolve disputes between neighbours or to restore a son to paternal obedience; he set an example of patriarchal virtues; he cared for the sick not just by financial aid but by visits, attentions, exhortations to patience and hope. He founded a school for the young generation. He always sold foodstuffs at below market price out of consideration for those who were ashamed to receive charity, and were thus the more to be pitied. In a year of great famine, he came to the aid of the people of Blois. He advanced fifty thousand francs to the magistrates to buy corn...and feed the town, without asking for interest or for a single extra centime in return.
Translated from: Charles C. Gillispie "Notice biographique de Lavoisier par Madame Lavoisier", Revue d'histoire des sciences et de leurs applications, 1956. Vol.9(1): p. 52-61.
Fourcroy , Notice sur la vie et les travaux de Lavoisier, lue, le 15 Thermidor, an 4, au Lycée des Arts (Paris, 1796), p.43-4. [On Google Books]