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.|
The evidence against the reality of the pronouncement was first presented by Édouard Grimaux in his 1888 biography of Lavoisier and, subsequently, in still more detail, by James Guillaume, in an article of 1909. Their chief reservations were as follows:
- There is no record of any such exchange between Lavoisier and his judges in the official reports or minutes of the trial.
- The attribution of the dictum to different individuals counts against its authenticity. The speaker would have to be Coffinhal, since neither Dumas nor Fouquier were present at the trial. (Coffinhal was the presiding judge and the indictment was read by Fouquier's substitute Gilbert Liendon).
- There is no account of the incident in the memoirs of Étienne Marie Delahante, one of three associate Farmers who were present at the trial but escaped condemnation.
- There is no reference in the records of the trials of members of the Revolutionary Tribunal which took place after Thermidor. The judgment against the Farmers-General was reviewed in some detail in two hearings in Floréal Year III; one of the witnesses was Dobsen, the judge who had saved the lives of Delahante and his two colleagues. The compte-rendu includes a paragraph on the death of Lavoisier, but no mention of either Lavoisier's request or the response of the Tribunal. See: Histoire parlementaire de la Révolution française, vol. 35, p. 124. [Google Books]
- There is no mention in the earliest biographical notice for Lavoisier, by the astonomer Lalande, which was published in the Magasin encyclopédique for Nivôse Year IV (December 1795)
The first reference comes from the eulogy delivered by the chemist Antoine François de Fourcroy, at the memorial ceremony in Lavoisier's honour held at the Lycée des Arts on 15 Thermidor Year IV (2nd August 1796). Fourcroy asks:
Fourcroy, Notice sur la vie et les travaux de Lavoisier, lue, le 15 Thermidor, an 4, au Lycée des Arts (Paris, 1796), p.46. [On Google Books]
Here is a longer extract, which puts the throwaway quote (really little more than a rhetorical flourish) in context:
A second reference is to be found in some song lyrics from the same ceremony by Charles Désaudray, founder of the Lycée des Arts. These contain the first clear reference to Lavoisier's request for a stay of execution. Here are the relevant verses:
Reread those fatal pages of our history and reply to those who dredge up from those horrible sacrifices, perfidious doubts, or still more criminal slanders against men who supposedly had some power or influence to stop these executions. From the tyrant's viewpoint, did not these men, by their works and lives completely dedicated to public service, merit the same fate as Lavoisier? Were they not already under the shadow of arrest? Would their blood not have been mixed with that of the illustrious victim in just a few more days? Had not the judge-executioner proclaimed that the republic had no need of scientists, and that a single intelligent man sufficed to run its affairs?
A la mort condamné, cependant il espère
Qu'il pourra terminer un travail important:Pour être utile encore, il lui faut un instant.De quelques jours il veut que l'on diffère!Un vandale* à ces mots répond en rugissant«Dans le fond des tombeaux emporte ta science;De tes arts nous saurons nous passer à présent;C'est du fer qu'il nous faut, il suffit à la France».
Condemned to death, he still hopes / That he will be able to finish an important work / To be useful again, he needs another instant / He wants them to defer a few days.
A vandal replies to his words by roaring / Take your science into the grave/ We have no need of your arts at present / We need weapons - that is enough for France.
An annotation reads: "Memorable response by the brigand Dumas"
Charles Désaudray, "La mort de Lavoisier, hiérodrame mis en musique par citoyen Langlé." published in Mullin's Magasin Encyclopédique vol. 8 for 1796 [On Google Books]
Lavoisier's request was not in itself implausible. A written deposition on his behalf from the Advisory had been submitted by the Advisory Board for Arts and Trades during the trial but not admitted.
Joseph Jérôme Lalande, “Notice sur la vie et les ouvrages de Lavoisier,”, Magasin encyclopédique, 5 (1795), 174-188; p.183. [On Google Books]
Later versionsIn the years after Thermidor, the authenticity of both Lavoisier's request and the memorable reposte, was reinforced by repetition. However, the works concerned were popular compilations rather than first-hand accounts. Thus we read in a notice by P. Quénard, prepared for the the Collection des portraits de Bonneville in Year VII: "He asked for a reprieve to finish a last work. The people has no need of chemistry, was the reply". In the following year, Des Essarts in his Siècles littéraires de la France, gave the anecdote its definitive form:
It was on the 16 Floréal Year II (1794) that Lavoisier was brought before the Revolutionary Tribunal. Since he foresaw the fate that awaited him, he asked his judges, or rather his executioners, to defer his death for a fortnight." I have need of this time", he told them, " to finish experiments for an important project, which I have been working on for several years. After this I will not feel regret for my life. I will sacrifice it to my country. The tiger who presided over that Tribunal of blood, Coffinhal, gave this barbaric reply to Lavoisier: "The Republic has no need of savants and chemists. Justice must run its course".
Des Essarts, Siècles littéraires de la France. vol.4 (1801) [On Google Books] p.124.
In contrast, the exchange was not included in more scholarly works, notably the account of the trial by Jean-Baptiste Biot in his Essai sur l’histoire générale des sciences pendant la Révolution française in1803. As Guillaume notes, although Biot was a serious scholar, he did not hesitate to include interesting anecdotes if he felt that they were authentic.
Grimaux was troubled by the entry on Lavoisier in Michaud's Biographie universelle:
A courageous citizen, M. Hallé, was the only one who dared to make a public effort [on Lavoisier's behalf]. He hastened to draw up for the Lycée des Arts a report on the utility of the great man's discoveries, and this report was produced at the tribunal. Lavoisier himself did not disdain to ask the wretches who had condemned him for a delay of a few days in order, he said, to complete experiments useful to humanity. He meant no doubt the research on evaporation that had been suspended by his imprisonment and which promised excellent results. Everything was useless. The chief of this horrible band replied in a ferocious voice that there was no need for savants and the fatal blow was struck on 8th May 1794.
The author, the naturalist Georges Cuvier had access to unpublished documents supplied by Madame Lavoisier. Grimaux reports that he has "in his own hands" her manuscript biographical sketch which Cuvier reproduced almost verbatim. However, Guillaume observes that these memoirs went up only to 1793. Cuvier could be caught out in minor inaccuracies: for example Hallé wrote on behalf of the Advisory Board not the Lycée des Arts. His vague reference to the "chief of this band" suggests he was not even certain who had spoken.