- 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.
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 Memorandum on the Estates-General (MS of 1788) - SUMMARY
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.
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. . – Alde.fr
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 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 (hanover.edu)