Wednesday 12 April 2023

Lavoisier, Revolutionary: 2. Explosive situations (1789)

François Louis Brossard de Beaulieu, or Marie-Renée-Geneviève Brossard de Beaulieu, 
 Portrait of a man, presumed to be Lavoisier, in the uniform of Inspecteur général des poudres and holding  a Leyden jar. (1784)  Musée de Versailles
See Beretta, Imaging a career in science p.10-13.

In  July 1789, as one of the directors of the Régie des poudres et salpêtres - the state gunpowder monopoly - , Lavoisier quite literally faced an explosive situation. The Petit-Arsenal, which housed the gunpowder warehouse, stood immediately adjacent to the Bastille.

The Plan Turgot shows clearly this area of Paris, with the looming walls of the old fortress and the twin complexes of the Grand and Petit Arsenal.  To the right, on the Seine, occupying the site of the present quai des Celestins, was the Port-St. Paul which handled cargoes to and from the Arsenal.   The entrance gate to the Petit Arsenal, was at the end of the rue de la Ceriseraie.

Gunpowder had not been actually  manufactured at the Arsenal for a long time.  The main function of the Grand Arsenal, with its five courtyards, overlooking the river, was to accommodate the marquis d'Argenson's magnificent library.  The Petit Arsenal, however,  housed the offices of the Régie and  served as a gunpowder warehouse.  From 1775 onwards Lavoisier had occupied a private apartment here, which accommodated his extensive library, and a huge laboratory in the attic.  His apparatus had soon proliferated in adjoining sheds and warehouses. The exact location is not known (See Beretta, 2022 for all the available details) 

There is not much to see today of Lavoisier's residence in the Arsenal -
1 rue Bassompierre, once site of the 
Hôtel of the 
Régie des poudres 

Prelude - The Gunpowder Commission and the Fall of the Bastille

In the immediate run-up to the attack on the Bastille, the atmosphere in Paris was tense. The 407 district electors for the Third Estate had seized power and installed themselves in the Hôtel de Ville, and a bourgeois militia had been formed.  On 13th July the electors from Saint-Louis-de-la-Culture, which contained the Arsenal and the Bastille, appointed twelve commissioners to maintain order, one of whom was Lavoisier.

On the night of the 12th to 13th the governor of the Bastille, Launay, requested the transfer of a large quantity of gunpowder from the Petit Arsenal as a precautionary measure:  250 barrels were moved by the Swiss Guards (thirty-two of whom were assigned to the fortress). At six o'clock in the morning of the 14th, Jean-Baptiste Clouet, one of the four directors and intendant to the Bastille, supervised the final transfer of the powder from the Bastille's kitchens, where it had been stowed in violation of all safety regulations, to the cellars of the fortress.  He left at about ten o'clock. The basement of the Tour de la Liberté now contained 20 milliers of powder (about 9.8 tonnes/21,000 pounds). 

That morning, nonetheless,  it was business as usual for the four directors of the Gunpowder Commission - Lavoisier, Clouet and Le Faucheux, father and son;  a routine note dated the 14th bears all four of their signatures. In addition, a letter from Lavoisier to the Belgian chemist Van Mons is dated 14th July - perhaps Lavoisier penned it before commencing his official duties. 

As the day progressed the situation in the surrounding area grew dangerously volatile. In the afternoon, a considerable crowd forced its way into the Bastille and by five o'clock in the afternoon the fortress had surrendered.  There is little doubt that  Launoy could have held his position, had he be prepared to use his cannon, or if his men, the majority of whom were war veterans and invalids, had been an effective force.  At one point Launay had indeed decided to set fire to the gunpowder, which would have blown most of the quartier sky-high - but two of his soldiers had barred the way.  He finally gave in to popular demands, and was subsequently lynched.

Lavoisier, meanwhile, had made his way to the Hôtel de Ville for the meeting of the Assembly of Electors.  He was well aware that his situation was a delicate one since, by ceding the gunpowder to Launay, he could be seen as serving the enemies of the Revolution.  As a guarantee of loyalty, he pledged a week's supply of  gunpowder to the new National Guard and proposed that  additional supplies should be brought from the powder mill at Essonne as necessary.   In a  memoir,  probably written shortly afterwards, though not published until January 1791, he emphasised that the directors of the Régie had played no direct part in the defence of the Bastille [see Reading below]. 

There is little doubt that Laviosier and his colleagues had been in some personal danger.  

The Lavoisier residence, with its precious laboratory equipment, was absolutely in the line of fire.  In a letter to the Italian chemist Landriani, dated 1st October 1789, Madame Lavoisier noted that their house would have been one of the first to be destroyed had the cannons from the Bastille been deployed.  The gate of the Arsenal in the rue de la Ceriseraie was one of the principal entry points to the fortress.  It was through this gate that the insurgents brought their captured cannons to position them in the place de l'Orme, against the Bastille walls.  Since the Arsenal was part of the Royal Household rather than a military position, it was minimally defended - it boasted only a few Guardsmen and veterans from Les Invalides.  Rebel Gardes françaises were later able to force their way into the Hôtel des Régisseurs,  open the munitions chests and take the weapons they had captured to the crowd.  In the 19th-century it was erroneously (but plausibly) rumoured that Lavoisier's library had been ransacked and he himself had been obliged to take refuge at his aunt's property in Metz.

For the unfortunate Clouet, death had indeed come close. Smartly dressed and on horseback he was mistaken for Launay   and set upon  by the crowd  in the rue Beautreillis; he was rescued only by the timely intervention of the newly appointed deputy commander of the National Guard, Charles Désaudray.  Both men were seriously wounded [See Readings].

The record is reticent about Lavoisier's whereabouts in immediate aftermath of the fall of the Bastille. There is even some suggestion that his family might have subsequently tried to conceal his active involvement in the consolidation of the Revolution.  Lavoisier's allies were now in the ascendant. On 15th July his fellow Academician, Bailly, was elected Mayor of Paris and Lafayette took over command of the newly formed National Guard.   As part of the deputation to the  Assembly of electors at the Hôtel de Ville,  Lavoisier took part in  meetings, votes, and missions.  On 20th July he was at Versailles with members of the directorate of the Caisse d'escompte.  On 23rd he was mandated by his district to attend the Commune to request Lafayette to continue as commander of the National Guard. He was active in the newly formed Commission on sewers and public health.   Since the Bastille was sited within his district, Lavoisier also found himself heavily engaged in supervising its safe demolition - an odd outlet for his expertise, but one which no doubt provided a welcome opportunity to demonstrate  Revolutionary commitment.

The Gunpowder shipment

Engraving after Jean-Louis Prieur,  Bateau de poudre arrêté au port Saint-Paul (le 6 août 1789)
From Berthault's 
Tableaux historiques de la Révolution française

In August a new crisis erupted at the Arsenal.  At 10 o'clock in the evening of 5th August the alarm was raised at the Hôtel de Ville that a huge consignment of gunpowder was being loaded onto a boat at the Port Saint-Paul. The quarter was in uproar, suspecting that the powder was destined for the the troops of the prince de Lambesc. Bailly and Lafayette, who knew nothing about the affair, ordered that the powder be placed under guard and returned to the warehouse the following morning.

Lavoisier subsequently explained that the powder was a consignment of poudre de traité, an inferior grade of gunpowder used by slave traders for exchange.  21,000 pounds had been shipped from factories in Metz and Mézières to Paris, where it was to be divided into two consignments,  one to be sent to Orléans for shipment along the Loire to Nantes, and the other to make its way down the Seine to Rouen. In order to free up space in the Arsenal warehouse, which was filled to capacity, it had been arranged  to send 10,000 pounds immediately on the mill at Essonne; the boat carrying it was then to return with a cargo of the high-grade powder required by the National Guard (and the hunters) of Paris. As luck would have it, authorisation for this shipment had been signed by the marquis de La Salle on 14th July, only a day before he relinquished command of the National Guard to Lafayette.

On the morning of the 6th August, the district committees were more than ever convinced that the boat contained not only gunpowder but guns and ammunition to suppress Revolution in Paris.  According to Jean Dusaulx at the Commune, they misunderstood poudre de traité (trade powder) for poudre de traître (traitors' powder) and nothing could be said to persuade them out of this error.  Passions continued to rise.    A few ringleaders put to the test Lavoisier's claim that the  gunpowder was of inferior quality by trying it out  in a musket;  the fact that it duly ignited, did nothing to allay their suspicions.  Lavoisier and his fellow régisseur Jean-Pierre Le Facheux, an infirm man of seventy, were now seized by the crowd and escorted to the Hôtel de Ville.  It is possible that only the presence of the National Guard saved them from being lynched. Le Faucheux's son,  joined them voluntarily "with the courage of innocence" (See Lavoisier's account below)  In the heated public debate which followed Lavoisier calmly and patiently explained where the gunpowder had come from, its nature, quality and destination. He emphasised that everything had been done openly and in due form. According to botanist Auguste Fougeroux de Bondaroy, who kept a diary of events, members of the Academy of Sciences waited fearfully, "dreading that we were about to learn the end of our colleague, M. Lavoisier, and the persons compromised in his misfortune." (quoted, Poirier, p243.;  Bondaroy had a house on the rue des Lions Saint-Paul;  his manuscript journal was published by Charles Gillespie in 1961.)

With Lavoisier finally exonerated, the crowd turned instead on La Salle, who beat a hasty retreat. Lavoisier himself was able to slip away to his apartment close to the Palais Royal - presumably the house in the rue Neuve-des-Bons-Enfants which he still owned -  where,  on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons, it was his custom to discuss science or carry out experiments with his colleagues from the Academy. 

As was inevitable, a replay of the incident took place on the morning of 8th August when the boat docked at Port Saint-Louis on its return journey with a new cargo of gunpowder from Essonne.  This time representatives from the four adjacent districts were present to oversee its unloading and transfer to the Arsenal warehouse. Lavoisier was also there, with six commissioners appointed by the Commune,  to make a detailed inventory of the munitions.  At three o'clock Lavoisier calmly left for the Academy of Science and resumed his activities. According to Fougeroux, "This afternoon I was at the Academy where I saw M. Lavoisier who assured me that the night before, when he had been taken to the Hôtel de Ville, he had remained completely serene" (Poirier, p.243-4)


Lavoisier's situation remained precarious and he was probably more rattled than he let on. He insisted on reading a statement of justification to the Committee of Saint-Louis-de-la-Culture but the district refused to print it.  On 18th August the director of the salon de Peinture asked him to remove his portrait by David from the exhibition.  In the capital popular violence remained close to the surface. On 5th October 1789 Gouverneur Morris, the American Minister to France, reported that Madame Lavoisier had been detained in town because women were being obliged to descend from their carriages and walk with the crowd which was about to march on Versailles. (Morris, Diary of the French Revolution, vol.1, p.243).    

After October, the Gunpowder Commission came under the control of the Commune of Paris.  Lavoisier continued as a director until December 1791 when he took on a position with the National Treasury and the Régie was reduced to three men.  Within a year of the fall of the Bastille, he would ask for nine authorisations to move further consignments of gunpowder. When  a convoy was stopped in Étampes, Lavoiser wrote in exasperation to Bailly, that it was high time the municipal authorities believed that powder was not in the hands of the nation's enemies: "those who are in charge of producing and distributing it are second to none in their patriotism". (Poirier, p.246, note 90) 

Lavoisier returned to the Commission for a short time in 1792 after the departure of Clouet, then resigned definitively and  quit his residence in the Arsenal on 15th August 1792. Three days later the Hôtel des Régisseurs was invaded by Sectional commissioners and seals placed on the Commission's papers. Jean-Pierre Le Facheux, helpless through age and infirmity, is said to have killed  himself in despair.  His sonJean-Baptiste-Antoine ("Lefaucheux Desaunois") was detained in La Force for only five days, then allowed to resume direction of the Commission,  a duty which he fulfilled until the suppression of the Régie by the Committee of Public  Safety on 5th July 1794.


The narrative in this post is mostly summarised from Jean Pierre Poirier's biography, Lavoisier: chemist, biologist, economist (Engl. trans. 1998) Available for loan on Internet Archive

See also: William Nuttle, "Paris walking tour - Antoine Lavoisier escapes an explosive situation in the Marais", Eiffel's Paris - an Engineer's Guide, post of 26.12.2016.

All the available evidence concerning Lavoisier's residence in the Arsenal can be found in:
Marco Beretta and Paolo Brenni, The Arsenal of eighteenth-century chemistry: the laboratories of Antoine Laurent Lavoisier (1743-1794)  [Nuncius , Volume: 10], 2022.  Chapter 3, "Sites of experiments" [Open access book].

See also: Patrice Bret, "Lavoisier à la régie des poudres : Le savant, le financier, l'administrateur et le pédagogue" 1994.


Lavoisier's Memoir in defence of the Régie: 

For some time the Gunpowder Commission  and its directors have been so maliciously maligned in public papers and respectable societies, ...that I am obliged to defend their honour and to justify publicly  the confidence and esteem that the administration has always invested in them. ..

Lavoisier goes on to describe the organisation of the Commission, the improvements to gunpowder production it had made possible, its benefits to the Treasury and its public accountability.  He defends the personal probity of the four directors.  The first, Jean-Pierre Le Faucheux is characterised as "an old man of seventy, infirm and suffering from paralysis, fatigued by fifty years of work, simple in his habits". In proposing the formation  of the Commission he had showed himself to be a patriot at a time when the word "patrie" was rarely heard or taken to heart.(p.717).

Lavoisier then outlines his own record: 

Another (le sieur Lavoisier) was chosen by M. Turgot because of his knowledge of chemistry and physics, so necessary for gunpowder and saltpetre.  He hurried to fulfil the wishes of this wise minister, in addition to his many other important administrative services which have contributed more than one might suppose to the success of the Revolution.  He has published works, translated into many languages, which have become the basis of public education in chemistry in many places and have earned him membership of almost all the learned societies of two worlds....Before and since the Revolution, he has never ceased -  as  elector, representative of the Commune, substitute deputy, adviser to the committees of the Assembly - to demonstrate  pure patriotism and tireless activity. 

Thirdly, Clouet:

The third (le sieur Clouet) was for a longtime the director of a considerable powder mill; he knows all the practical details of the industry [and has proved his patriotism by the many improvements he has introduced].  Sustained by the sincere conviction that the Revolution would bring about felicitous results, his zeal has not been dampened by his decline in fortune.  Nor has he been put off by the ill treatment meted out to him by the people on the 14th July, when he was mistaken, on a false denunciation, for the governor of the Bastille.  Having recovered from twenty wounds inflicted on that day, he has devoted himself without reserve to the service of the municipality.  This he has done despite the appalling new danger to which the Régie was subjected on 6th August, a danger shared by the younger Le Faucheux who, with the courage of innocence, presented himself voluntarily at the Hôtel de Ville where his father and Lavoisier had been escorted. Le sieur Clouet has served continuously in the National Guard, as a simple soldier, as a grenadier, and then as a captain....

And finally, the younger Le Facheux, who had been promoted to director in 1788. He had previously been an Inspector General, a post which demands "expertise, absolute personal probility, a scrupulous sense of justice and a spirit of economy" During the Revolution he has devoted himself without reservation to civic duties, and has twice been elected president of the Arsenal district.


After this presentation of honest and irreproachable individuals, the Régie would be justified in abandoning its calumniators to public scorn;  but hatred would only interpret their silence as an admission.  They must therefore provide a summary justification of their actions.

Lavoisier goes on to review the events of July and August 1789.

From 15th May to 14th July the Régie delivered only 3,400 livres of poudre de guerre by order of the government -  to the barracks at Saint-Denis and to the Swiss guards.  This was normal practice. There was usually little military grade gunpowder stored in the Arsenal magazine.  No powder was sent to troops stationed outside Paris, who had their own supplies.

The transfer of powder from the Arsenal to the Bastille took place on the night of Sunday 12th to Monday 13th.  It was carried out by a detachment from the garrison, acting on a superior order addressed to the governor. The officer in command at the Arsenal notified the directors at about midnight; at this time two were absent, the third had to be roused from his bed to open up the magazine. The reason given for the action was as a safeguard in case the magazine was set on fire.  The Commissioners were not in a position to object, but they stipulated that a week's worth of powder should be left behind.  At six in the morning an alarmed Launoy sent for Clouet to advise on a safe place for the powder to be stored.  He chose the basements furthest away from the kitchens and servants' areas where the powder had been deposited. He left the Bastille at 9 or 10 in the morning.  The Commissioners did not have close contacts with the governor, whom they saw hardly twice a year. That Tuesday was an ordinary working day for the Régie. At about midday Clouet went with the intendant of finances to his offices in the rue Sainte-Avoye. It was on his return, in the rue Beautreillis, that he was set upon and assaulted by the crowd.

Lavoisier now describes the events of 6th August which had almost cost three of the Commissioners their lives.  The poudre de traite which was discovered had been destined for Nantes.  It was to be sent first to Essonnes. The barge was intended to return to Paris with 10 milliers of military grade power for the municipality.  The powder was loaded  in broad daylight with an escort from the Saint-Louis de la Culture district.  There were no other munitions involved.  Lavoisier's procès-verbal to this effect was delivered in the presence of 500 people and subsequently published.  Its acceptance had saved the lives of three patriots and the honour of the people of Paris. 

On the morning of the 14th, when the National Guard was formed, one of the directors (ie. Lavoisier himself) went to the Hôtel de Ville to agree with the electors on the powder supplies for the new service.  He offered them the powder which remained in the Arsenal magazine with an undertaking to bring more from Essonne.  Since then the directors have been under the orders of the municipality and have not only fulfilled, but often anticipated requirements. They have been assisted by the commissioner in Essonne, who is an excellent citizen.  They regard the defence of liberty and the Constitution against those hostile to the Revolution in the same light as the defence of the empire against its external enemies...

"Mémoire de la Régie des poudres"  Oeuvres V, p.714-22.  MS.  A printed copy is dated January 1791, but the composition is probably earlier.

From the Moniteur - The director Clouet is mistaken for Launay

The crowd rushed into the square from the rue de l'Orme-Saint-Gervais shouting that they had captured the governor of the Bastille and were taking him to the Hôtel de Ville.

At that  moment several people came running up to say that the man arrested  was not the governor of the Bastille.  There was not a moment to lose if he was to be rescued from the angry crowd. 

The leaders of the militia placed themselves at the head of as many men of good will as they could muster;  they forced their way to the captured man, despite the press of people which blocked the main staircase of the hotel, and despite the threats and blows which rained down on them. 

M. le chevalier de Saudray, the second in command, threw himself on the prisoner to protect him from the weapons that threatened him; he received a sabre wound to the head which seriously wounded him, but failed to deter his efforts.

When he was forced back by the blow, M. le marquis de la Salle immediately seized hold of the captive and, between them, they managed to get him to safety and save his life.

Despite the rough treatment he had received and the blood from numerous wounds which covered him, the man was universally recognised as M. Clouet, director at  the poudres et saltpetres.  He declared that he had gone out on horseback that morning to report to M. Blondel the maitre de requetes in charge of the department of powders and saltpetres. Having given his customary account of the morning's business  he  made his way back peaceably along the rue Saint-Antoine. The huge crowd which had already gathered around the Bastille, made him doubt he would be able to get through the passage to the Cour de l'Orme, so he took a detour which seemed to take him away from the Bastille. This, and the fact that he was wearing a blue coat, with gold trim, provoked several women to shout that the governor of the Bastille was escaping. He found himself surrounded by a crowd of workmen, which gradualy swelled to five or six hundred.  He was thrown down from his horse, seized, and dragged, overwhelmed with blows, as far the Hotel de ville.  Without the help of a few honest citizens who had defended him tirelessly, he would have been killed a thousand times.

M. Clouet did not appear to have any part of his body that was free from a cut or wound of some sort; he was hastily brought the help his situation demanded. 

It is always interesting to follow the subsequent histories of the participants in these Revolutionary incidents.   Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Le Faucheux (1752-1834) was to enjoy a long and illustrious public  career, becoming first Prefect of the Vendée, then deputy to the Corps législatif under the Consulate. Clouet too prospered:  Having left Paris, he  acquired a  property at Vic-sur-Aisne  near Soissons where he served as Mayor from September 1792 to 1795.  He died in 1815.  (See "La vie de Jean-Baptiste Cloüet" on the  genealogical website )

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