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).

Memoir on the Estates General (1788)

Lavoisier's political views at this time can be gauged most clearly from a manuscript memoir which he submitted to Necker in 1788 on the composition of the Estates-General [See Reading below]

His specific proposals followed Turgot's scheme of 1774, which retained election by order but envisaged  the deputies sitting together in a single assembly. However, unlike Turgot and the Physiocrats, who saw assemblies purely as an adjunct to royal administration, Lavoisier supported a limited monarchy on the English model.  He defends the radical view that the national representative body should share in legislative sovereignty: "the plenitude of legislative power resides in the Estates-General presided over by the king."  Executive power, on the other hand, remains wholly with the monarch.  Its proper exercise should be ensured by constitutional guarantees  - immunity of deputies, freedom of the press and regular meetings of the Assembly. The principal of consent, already acknowledged for taxation, should be extended to the whole spectrum of individual rights, notably freedom from arbitrary arrest. 

How inclusive was Lavoisier's social vision?  Lavoisier consistently identifies himself as a "democrat" by which he means an opponent of noble privilege, particularly fiscal exemptions. His scheme for the Estates-General assumes the continued existence of three orders, but he includes a long discussion of  how their representation should most equitably be weighted. In his view, the Third Estate was "the most numerous, the hardest working and most oppressed" part of the nation. He also declares: "When it is a question of representing the nation, the least individual has rights just like the foremost"(p.319)  Clearly, like most liberals of 1789, he failed to see any collision of interests between economic classes and did not anticipate the degree of popular resentment which the Revolution was soon to articulate.  Although he does not explicitly say so, he almost certainly envisaged a property qualification for election to the Third Estate.

Lavoisier's candidature 

Lavoisier left Paris in late February 1789 in order to secure his own election to the Estates-General. He stood initially in Blois as a candidate for the Third Estate.  The electoral assembly  met on 9th March at the Palais Royal.  Lavoisier was taken by surprise at the degree of animosity which greeted him; for all his reforming zeal, he remained a noble and, even worse, a member of the hated General-Farm;  the lawyer, Jacques Samuel Dinocheau, who was subsequently elected as one of the two deputies,  directed at him  a "web of insults fit for inflaming passions" (Poirier, p.226).  In the end he was disqualified on the technicality that Villefrancoeur  was in the bailliage of Tours.  

Since there was no time to appeal against this decision, Lavoisier then tried his luck with the Nobility of Blois. His candidacy was again rebuffed,  though his services were retained as recording secretary.  In this capacity he drafted the cahier adopted on 28th March 1789; the assembled nobles, went on to elect the Vicomte de Beauharnais and the Chevalier de Phelines, with Lavoisier selected only as substitute.   The cahier, with its pristine Enlightenment agenda,  was published in the same year as a brochure of fifty-three pages [See Reading] 

On 22nd April 1789, after his return to Paris, Lavoisier was  chosen as one of eight elector for the nobility of the Hôtel de Ville district in Paris, which included the gunpowder administration and his residence in the Arsenal. For reasons which are uncertain, he did not go on to pursue candidature as a deputy (Poirier  Lavoisier, p.231-2)

Lavoisier's career in Revolutionary politics thus stalled at the outset. 


Lavoisier's Memorandum on the Estates-General (MS of 1788) - SUMMARY

Preamble :  The conditions which must be fulfilled by the Estates-General are firstly that it must be truly representative; and, secondly, that it must be be organised in such a way as to procure, as far as possible, the greatest good for all those represented (p.313)

Historical precedents:  We should consult history, to discover the nature of our existing constitution, and what needs to be done to make it a good and wise constitution, one that protects "all the individuals of the nation" (p.313)
However, a historical survey leads us to the conclusion that the French government has never had "a fixed and certain" constitution (p.314) The Parlements, as bodies composed only of legal officials,  are not truly representative (p.317).  Likewise the Estates-General in its historical form is not fit for purpose.  

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 (p.320)

The authority of the Estates-General

The King of France does not reign by divine Right or by the power of the sword but by the "free choice of the French people".

Let us speak frankly: legislative power does not reside in the King alone, but in the concurrence of his will and that of the nation. The King and his Ministers have recognized this principle with regard to taxation; they have agreed that no subsidy or subvention can be raised unless it is agreed and consented to;  indeed, the contrary principle would attack the inviolable right of property.

And what then? The King, as he himself declares, cannot make a law to dispose of the meanest possessions of his subjects, and yet he would be able to make laws to dispose at his will of their liberty, their honour, their lives! What good is there in respecting the right of property, if other rights, no less inviolable but much more important, are to be trampled underfoot?

 Let us therefore take it as established that, whether a law must be proposed by the King and approved by the people, or whether it must be proposed by the people and approved by the King, the plenitude of legislative power resides in the States-General presided over by the King; that this august assembly has the right, not only to grant or to reject taxation, not only to draw up vain records of grievances, but also to examine the laws and how they can be reformed, and to make general regulations on legislation, on their own internal government, on trade, as well as on taxation.

 As the King has sole and undivided executive power, it belongs to him alone, after having concurred in giving the law the necessary approval, to decree it and to order its publication, to watch over its execution, and to pursue and punish those who break it. (p.293-4).

Preliminaries to the calling of the Estates-General (p.322-24)

There are three indispensable precautions to safeguard the assembly and ensure freedom of deliberation:

1. Immunity of deputies from coercion and arbitrary arrest (p.322)

2. Freedom of the press (p.324).  Lavoisier remarks that all individuals in society "even those who are neither deputies nor participants" should be allowed to express their opinions.  He is confident that common voice will lead to "as great a degree of perfection as it is allowed humanity to achieve".

3. Regular meetings of the assembly should be guaranteed.

Form of the Estates-General

Following a historical survey (p.324-28), Lavoisier outlines his specific proposals.

He follows Turgot's scheme of 1774 which advocated a three-tier electoral system  based on division of  Provinces into electoral districts, then municipalities. He envisages elected members sitting in a single assembly.

"Mémoire sur la convocation des États Généraux" (1788)  Oeuvres, vol.6, p.313-334.
According to an editorial note, the manuscript is written by a copyist but has corrections in Lavoisier's own hand. An accompanying note by Lavoisier contains an outline plan for publication.

Address to the inhabitants of Villefrancoeur

Adresse de remerciemens aux habitans de la paroisse de Villefrancœur, bailliage de Blois, le 4 mars 1789 (Bailliage de Blois, 4th March 1789, p.2) 

See Poirier, Lavoisier,  p.235: "As candidate for the Third Estate from Villefranceour, Lavoisier had made a slightly demagogic procession of political faith on 4th March:  I declare that in accepting the noble post as your representative, I henceforth renounce all financial exemptions not shared by you; I will have myself included on the next roll for the taille for the farms I am exploiting in the parish of Villecoeur and Champgny;  I will pay all the ancillary taxes including in the roll, even the representative right of the corve, in proportion to the vingtièmes.  Thus from now on there will be no financial distinction separating us;  we shall all be brothers and friends".

A copy of this very rare leaflet was sold by Alde in January 2022:

 Adresse de remerciemens aux habitans de la paroisse de Villefrancœur
bailliage de Blois, le 4 mars 1789. S.l.n.d. [1789]. –

Instructions given by the nobility of the Bailiwick of Blois to its deputies - SUMMARY


The object of every social institution is to confer the greatest possible happiness upon those who live under its laws.

Happiness ought not to be confined to a small number of men; it belongs to all. It is not an exclusive privilege to be contested for; it is a common right which must be preserved, which must be shared, and the public happiness is a source from which each has a right to draw his supply.

Such are the sentiments which animate the nobility of the bailliage of Blois, at a moment when we are called upon by the sovereign to give our representatives to the nation.

The text goes on to make a series of recommendations under various headings: ..

  • The liberty of the individual, "the first and most sacred of human rights", must be safeguarded by the abolition  of arbitrary arrest and imprisonment without trial.  There should be freedom of the press, provided that publications carry the names of authors and printers to protect against libel.  
  • Taxation should be imposed on all citizens without exemption according to their net incomes.  
  • The legal system should be simplified and procedures improved; advisory councils should operate in parishes to settle differences without resort to the courts. A panel of experts, included some who had studied English criminal jurisprudence, should be appointed to reform the civil and criminal codes. 
  • Public finance should be subject to strict budgetary control, with Royal ministers made financially accountable to the Estates General. Sinecures and useless offices should be suppressed and detailed annual accounts submitted.  
  • A national constitution should by established by the Estates-General, with a law that the assembly should meet frequently, without interference from the executive power. 

Among other  recommendations, which clearly reflect Lavoisier's input,  are improved stipends for parish priests, a uniform system of weights and measures, and a council to draw up a national system of education. 
"Instruction donnée par la noblesse du bailliage de Blois à ses députés aux États-Généraux" (1789),  
in Lavoisier, Oeuvres, vol. 6, p.335-363.
A full English translation is available here: Cahiers 2 (

On the social worth of science 

Lavoisier and his younger colleague Armand Séguin published a report on "Memoir on Animal Respiration"  in the Memoirs of the Academy of Sciences for 1789. [Oeuvres II, p.688-703] Lavoisier's frustration at his exclusion from political life can perhaps be discerned in the concluding  comments on the utility of scientific research:

We finish this memoir with a consoling reflection. To be of merit to humanity and pay tribute to one's country, it is not indispensable to be called to  prominent public functions that contribute to the organisation and regeneration of empires. The physicist, too, can, in the silence of his laboratory, carry out the functions of a patriot. He can hope, by his work, to lessen the evils that afflict mankind; to increase happiness....and so also to aspire to the glorious title of benefactor of humanity.(p.703)

As the writer of this post on Le blog d'histoire des sciences notesLavoisier and his young associate  had a Revolutionary  take on respiration, which they saw as taking a greater toll on the health of the hardworking poor man: 
Let us praise philosophy and humanity, which join together to promise us wise institutions, which tend to make fortunes more equal, increase the just rewards of labour, and to present to all classes of society, above all the indigent, greater enjoyment and happiness. (p.699)

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