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.

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 sources

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, portrait by François Dumont

 Had not the judge-executioner proclaimed that the Republic had no need of scientists, and that a single man of good sense sufficed to run its affairs?
 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]

This passage needs to be treated with caution. The ironic reference to Robespierre, as a "single man of good sense",  was calculated to strike a chord with a post-Thermidorean audience; but it does not really reflect the authentic language of 1794.  Moreover, Fourcroy had a hidden agenda. He wanted to refute the charge - which was to dog him for many years -  that he and his fellow Lycéens had stood by and allowed Lavoisier to go to his death. He  insists that during the Terror, not just Lavoisier but the entire scientific community had been mortal danger. They had been powerless,  forced "to hide their tears in their hearts so as not to alert tyranny to their feelings". 

Here is a longer extract, which puts the throwaway quote (really little more than a rhetorical flourish) in context:

 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 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: 

           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]

The fact that Désaudray has the wrong judge hardly inspires confidence.

For the details of the commemoration:  Pierre Lemay "La pompe funèbre de Lavoisier au lycée des Arts",  Revue d'histoire de la pharmacie,  1958. pp. 230-236.
Pierre Lemay notes that Madame Lavoisier did not attend the event;  she did not wish to absolve those she held responsible for her husband's death: "her sense of dignity opposed it; and she was not a woman to ignore it". 

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.

  Thus Lalandé:

At the moment when they were engaged in this so-called judgment, there was brought in a report by Citizen Hallé of the Advisory Board. This contained a description of the works and merit of Lavoisier, capable of making an impression on any thinking person,  but it was not even read by these men who were the blind, stupid and ferocious instruments of cruelty and death.
Joseph Jérôme Lalande, “Notice sur la vie et les ouvrages de Lavoisier,”, Magasin encyclopédique, 5 (1795), 174-188; p.183. [On Google Books

This testimonial had been solicited by Lavoisier himself  in a letter dated 29 Germinal.  Lavoisier had also requested references from Le Faucheux and Champy at the Administration of Gunpowder and Saltpetreand from  his two colleagues Cadet et Baumé at the Academy of Science.  In an earlier letter, dated 6 Brumaire,  he had petitioned the  Committee of General Security, asking to remain provisionally at liberty to continue his collaboration with the Commission on Weights and Measures.  (See Grimaux, Lavoisier, p.286-9)

Later versions

In 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.

Bas relief from the base of Lavoisier's statue in the place de la Madeleine

Could Lavoisier have been saved?

Lurking behind the dubious throwaway pronouncement, is  the larger question of the relationship between science and revolution.  But this is too much weight for it to carry.  It is worth reiterating, that Lavoisier was tried as a Farmer-General, not as a scientist.  Moreever, the trial itself was the product of a particular moment, and a particular confluence of personalities.

In his biography, Jean-Pierre Poirier addresses this more limited question of whether Lavoisier personally could have been extricated and answers an emphatic "yes". Of the forty-five Farmers-General with shares in the final lease, eleven successfully escaped the guillotine.   A man less naive and rigidly proud than Lavoisier, would have understood that the Revolutionary authorities were intent on his destruction and fled the country.  Even when the trial began, there was room for manoeuvre - Verdun de Monchiroux was released only moments before the Farmers entered the Tribunal. The three Associate Farmers were also saved. It was widely held that those involved in the prosecution -  Dupin de Beaumont, Coffinhal, Fouquier-Tinville - were  amenable to bribery or flattery. (Madame Lavoisier actually secured an interview with Dupin but, in Poirier's view, her high-handedness arrogance did not serve her husband well. See p.370-1 )

Poirier also reviews the efforts of the scientific community on Lavoisier's behalf:  Later opinion was divided as to whether Fourcroy had in fact intervened.  He was a member of the Convention and an extreme radical by conviction.  However, contemporaries like Georges Cuvier, Antoine Claire Thibaudeau and Eugène Chevreul all came to his defence.  He had worked through the Commission on Weights and Measures to protect Lavoisier. His student, André Laugier, claimed that he had even approached the Committee of Public Safety. (According to this story Robespierre remained silent, but was overheard to complain of Fourcroy's gall; Prieur de la Côte d'Or  ran out to warn the chemist not to return if he valued his own head. Quoted p.383. )

Other scientists, Borda, Haüy, Désaudray and Hallé,  had also done what they could, as had their colleagues at the Lycée des Arts and the Advisory Board for Arts and Trades. If Lavoisier had been let down, it was perhaps by his collaborators closer to power, Guyton de Morveau, Hassenfratz, Monge, who failed to act - whether through fear, political conviction or academic rivalry.  The arrogant Lavoisier, who claimed for his own "the theory of French chemists" did not inspire their affection.

Edouard Grimaux Lavoisier, 1743-1794 (1888), p.376-78.

James Guillaume, "Un mot légendaire : La République n'a pas besoin de savants", Études révolutionnaires, Série 1 (1909), p.136-155

Jean-Pierre Poirier, Lavoisier: chemist, biologist, economist (Engl. trans. 1998) Available on Internet Archive   Lavoisier's modern biographer, dismisses the exchange as apocryphal.

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