|Engraving of Lavoisier by M.R.G. Brossard presented to the Institut de France in 1806.|
Grimaux identified this portrait as a last image made during Lavoisier's imprisonment.
However, in an accompanying letter of dedication, the artist explains that the work was done from memory on the basis of previous sketches.
See Beretta, Imaging a career in science (2001), p.12-14.
Lavoisier in 1790-91
In late 1789 order was temporarily restored in Paris and the work of national reconstruction could begin. Despite the ambiguities of his personal position as a Farmer-General, Lavoisier was a natural member of the new liberal élite and his financial and administrative expertise were much in demand.
In 1789-91 we see Lavoisier take his place in Revolutionary Paris, resume his social position and continue to play a prominent role in the international scientific community. :
Although denied a place in the Assembly, he was active in the administration of Paris.
In September 1789 he was elected to the reconstituted Commune of Paris as one of the five representatives for the district of Saint-Louis-la-Culture. His colleagues, besides Lafayette and Bailly, included Condorcet, Antoine Laurent de Jussieu and other members of the Academy of Sciences; Louis Lefèvre-Gineau, Professor at the Collège de France, the chemist Demachy and the Farmer General Duvaucel. When the Civic, later National, Guard was formed, Lavoisier was enrolled in the section for the Arsenal.
On July 14th 1790 he invited the representatives of the National Guard of Blois to stay in his house in the rue Neuve-des-Bons-Enfants, offered them hospitality and earned thanks of the inhabitants of Blois.
He was a member of the Société de 1789.
The "Society of 1789" was formed in April 1790 when a group of constitutional monarchist ceded from the Jacobin Club: a splendid inaugural banquet took place at the Palais Royal on 13 May 1790. Members numbered around 300 men, including 40 or 50 deputies from the Constituent Assembly, among them Lafayette, Mirabeau, Bailly, Sieyès,Talleyrand, Condorcet and Le Chapelier. The Jacobins, perhaps with justification, condemned the Society as a remnant of the privilege and élitism of the Ancien Régime. The subscription was five louis and meetings featured fine dining followed by brandy and wine, served on a balcony overlooking the Palais Royal. The agenda was not day-to-day affairs but problems of a general kind and what was called "political metaphysics". According to the rubric it was "neither a sect nor a party, but a company of the friends of men or, as might be said, agents in the exchange of social truths". Such a forum chimed perfectly with the outlook of Lavoisier who - on principle and by temperament - saw no place in a well-run administration for faction and politicking.
Membership dwindled in course of 1790, with the majority moving to the Feuillants, founded in July 1791. See McKie, Lavoisier, p.311: Little is known of the last days of the '89 Club; only one volume of its journal was ever published, so it probably came to an end in the course of 1791. Lavoisier himself was its last recorded secretary in January 1791.
He continued his scientific work
The Traité élémentaire de chimie had been published to much acclaim in February 1789 and was a rapid success throughout Europe. At the end of 1788 the Société des Annales de chimie was founded in order to publicise the new chemistry. Whilst he did not instigate the project, Lavoisier acted as treasurer and members included many of his collaborators, among them Claude Louis Berthollet and Louis-Bernard Guyton de Morveau. In 1789 the first issue of the Annales de chimie was published by Lavoisier’s printer, Gaspard-Joseph Cuchet, and its soon became a formidable tool of dissemination.
Although Revolutionary administration took up much of his time, we still find Lavoisier in his laboratory. In 1790 he resumed his work on respiration and transpiration with a new ambitious series of experiments in collaboration with his younger colleague Armand Séguin. As late as April 1793 he renewed a contract with the publisher Pankouche to provide entries for the Encyclopédie méthodique on gunpowder and allied topics. In 1791 he began work on the projected five-volume Mémoires de physique et chimie. The first proofs arrived at Pierre Samuel Dupont's publishing house on 10th March 1793, and printing went ahead under the supervision of Lavoisier and Séguin until July 1793. Madame Lavoisier was to distribute the first copies in the summer of 1805.
Financial advisor to the Revolution
During the Constituent Assembly, Lavoisier was much called upon as a financial expert, in his quasi-official capacity as director of the caisse d’escompte .
"Lavoisier possessed both the drive and the practical knowledge to take charge of industrial and financial initiatives. As Farmer-General and banker, he commanded a considerable personal fortune; he had close contacts in the world of royal administration, his precise accounting and commitment to practical science promised an effective outcome." (J.-P Poirier)
The Caisse d'escompte or "Discount bank"was a private company set up by Turgot in 1776 as chief creditor of the Royal Treasury. Necker and Lavoisier proposed to buy out the shareholders and create a true national Bank, but the Assembly mistrusted the idea of so powerful an institution in the hands of the Royal Administration.
In 1791, Lavoisier had been successively elected National Treasury Commissioner, member of the Committee on Weights and Measures, Treasurer of the Academy of Sciences and member of the Advisory Board for Arts and Trades.Thisextraordinarily talented man who had been able to hold ten jobs at once began to be overwhelmed, to the detriment of his personal research.
Commissioner of the National Treasury (April 1791 to February 1792)
Even at a fairly early date, Lavoisier was pessimistic about his prospects for future office in the new government:
In a letter of 24th July 1790 to the Scottish chemist Joseph Black, Lavoisier expressed his hope to travel to England and Edinburgh: "The Revolution that is taking place in France must naturally make some of those attached to the former administration superfluous and it is possible that I may enjoy more freedom". See McKie, Lavoisier, p.310-11. McKie observes, "There is a note of personal anxiety about the future not well concealed in his words"
However, in April 1791, he was appointed as a Commissioner to the National Treasury
Following departure of Necker the National Assembly dismantled the remaining organs of royal finance and took over direction of the Public Treasury; Lavoisier was appointed, along with Condorcet, as one of six Treasury commissioners. The post enjoyed a wide remit.
In 1997 Jean-Pierre Poirier published a hitherto unknown manuscript by Lavoisier and Condorcet which outlined a sweeping programme for the National Treasury ("De la situation du trésor public au 1er juin 1791", summaried in Poirier's biography, p.281-85). The document shows that the two men were still filled with optimism and idealism. They outline the plan for an quasi-independent treasury, which Condorcet was later to put forward in his project for the Constitution of 1793. As Poirier comments, the officials of the Treasury did indeed enjoy a high degree of autonomy and immunity throughout the Revolution.
In January 1792, two months after the convocation of the Legislative Assembly Lavoisier presented a report on the "State of the Finances of France". He was strongly advised to give an optimistic estimate, but characteristically confined himself impartial facts and met with little response. His speech betrayed his increasing discomfort with the political climate:
Lavoisier's success at administering the [National Treasury], and his failure to persuade the Assembly to adopt sound fiscal policy, offer an instructive instance of the interplay of expertise with politics in revolutionary circumstance. He was very bad at politics: "This piece of writing will be as cool as reason ("froid comme la raison") he wrote in the preamble to his estimate of the state of national finances in January 1792, a season of intense political heat".(Charles Gillispie, in the introduction to Poirier's biography p.xvi)
Lavoisier leaves office
By the time the Legislative Assembly met, Lavoisier must have been aware his situation was increasingly precarious.
He had wrong-footed himself with attempts to decline a salary for his post at the Treasury and was subject to searing personal attacks in the radical press, notably from Marat (See Readings). The King's flight to Varennes in June 1791 left the constitutional monarchists in disarray; the Scottish chemist Sir James Hall, who visited Paris in the course of 1791,describes Lavoisier himself in an uncharacteristic state of uncertainty about the merits of a republic (See Readings). His allies dispersed. In September 1791 Pétion replaced Bailly as mayor of Paris and Talleyrand discreetly disappeared to England. Condorcet also left the Treasury Commission in order to stand as a deputy in the new assembly.
Lavoisier now began to distance himself from the world of finance.
He resigned from the caisse d'escompte in January 1792. In February, as the mood of antagonism in the Convention intensified, he left the National Treasury, to be followed shortly afterwards by two of his colleagues, Savalette de Langes, and Rouillé de l'Estang. On 24th March the shortlived Girondin ministry ushered in the implacably hostile Étienne Clavière as Minster of Finance. On 12 June, in the subsequently reshuffle, Louis offered Lavoisier the post of Minister of Taxation, but he this he turned down (See letter below). He cited as his reasons his distaste for faction and his opinion that the Assembly had exceeded its authority. He must also have been well aware that the post was an empty shell.
By 15th August, when he finally left the Gunpowder Commission, he had relinquished all non-academic public office.
In his American biographer Arthur Donovan's graphic simile, Lavoisier had built his public career like a country estate. The Revolution now gradually demolished the carefully placed building blocks: the collapse of the Tax Farm, his disapproval of the government's reliance on assignats, his misgivings over the Gunpowder Commission, ran in tandem with the failure of the limited monarchy he believed should be at the heart of the French Constitution; ""one by one the subjects he was prepared to address were dragged beyond his reach by the unfolding drama of revolution" . He was to continue until "the last of the rooms in the estate that had been his career was converted into a prison cell" (Donovan, p.274).
Lavoisier and the fall of the monarchy
We catch a few glimpses of Lavoisier during the crisis of August 1792
On August 2nd the Arsenal Section met and asked Lavoisier and the lawyer Grillot to draw up a petition against the king's deposition. Three days later, on the 5th, he led a deputation, composed mainly of Gunpowder administration employees, lawyers and tax officials to read his declaration. He insisted that the decision belonged to the Assembly alone, as the only legally constituted authority. The occasion is described in Mortier-Tenaux's Histoire de la Terreur (see Readings)
This was not to be his hour. The report in the Moniteur did not even mention Lavoisier by name. On August 8th the local Jacobins, led by Juste Concedieu, wrested control of the Arsenal section and disavowed his text. They remained in control during the insurrection. On 10th August Feuillants like Dupont and Roederer were forced into hiding, but Lavoisier himself braved the crisis; as he later attested, he remained on duty with his National Guard battalion to defend the gunpower warehouse in the Arsenal. He was also to be on duty in the place de la Révolution during the insurrection of 31st May 1793.
In mid-September Lavoisier retreated to Freschines for what was to be his final sejourn. He returned to Paris in November 1792 in time for the reopening of the Academy of Sciences.In these months, Lavoisier was asked to return to the Gunpowder Commission, which he now did with reluctance. Since the elder Le Faucheux was old and infirm, he was obliged to continue in post until the son, who was away on tour, returned. He gave notice of his resignation, but for some time continued his scientific studies on methods of production: "The State will have four directors instead of three; thus will I reconcile my duty and my principles; I shall serve my country as an independent and free man who owes nothing to the authorities" (quoted Grimaux, p.212) He published his analysis of saltpetre in the Annales de chimie in December 1792 and, in a final address, declared to Clavière with some pride that he had rendered France "in a condition to sustain the most formidable war."
Lavoisier's personal finance
This aspect of his life casts a light on Lavoisier, the grand bourgeois, as he attempted (ultimately unsuccessfully) to survive the Revolution with his assets intact.
As Jean-Pierre Poirier notes, from Lavoisier's discussions of salaries and his unremitting efforts to defend his interests, it might be assumed that his personal finances were meagre; but this was far from the case.
In 1791 he began to acquire biens-nationaux on a considerable scale. His primary concern was to safeguard his fortune, following the liquidation of the General-Farm on 20th March 1791. He also needed to invest large quantities of assignats issued in compensation for advances to the Treasury made as a member of the Caisse d'escompte. He conducted an active correspondence with his cousin Nicolas Charles Parisis who acted as his real-estate agent. A table drawn up by Patrice Bret shows that between February 1791 and October 1792 he made 16 different purchases, for a total of 1,456.875 livres.. The ferme de Mortières in Tremblay, which had belonged to the nuns of Saint-Cyr, accounted for about a third of his investment.
|The Lavoisier residence in the Boulevard de la Madeleine|
Engraving by Leroy, 1827
A small anecdote: In a note of September 1792 Lavoisier certified that changes in fortune had obliged him to dismiss his principal servant Masselot who had served him for twenty years; he provided with him a horse which he declared to be "recognised as disabled" and therefore exempt from requisitioning . (p.298) It was this same loyal family servant who supported Mme Lavoisier in September 1794 when the confiscation of her husband's and father's property temporarily deprived her of all income. He was rehired in 1796.
The Terror and the defence of science
|Equipment from Lavoisier's laboratory at the Arsenal, Musée des Arts et Métiers |
During the final year of his life, Lavoisier, attempted, as did many others others, to weather the political maelstrom. Despite his withdrawal from public office, he continued to be in actively engaged with the Revolutionary authorities. The publication in 2012 of volume VII of his correspondence, for the period 1793-94, shows him constant communication with the Ministries, the Assembly and its committees. His concern was now for institutions of science. He was treasurer of the Academy of sciences from the end of 1791 and a member of the Advisory Board for Arts and Trades (Bureau de consultation des arts et métiers) from its creation in January 1792. Despite his efforts, the academies were suppressed in August 1793 but a temporary Commission on Weights and Measures was created, which continued the programme of standardisation and unification which he had long advocated.
The arrest of Lavoisier in November 1793 as part of the vendetta against the General Farm put a final end to his career. Commentators observe that his political, social and financial preoccupations had diverted him from scientific research in his final years. Ultimately, the guillotine put an end to his exceptional career.
Paradoxically, as Danielle Fauque remarks, his brand of enlightenment collided with the zeitgeist of the Revolutionary era: "He was too much a man of the Ancien Regime; he believed in natural order and the power of reason".
From the diaries of Sir James Hall, May/June 1791:
The Scottish geologist Sir James Hall spent several months in Paris in 1791. In May he was at the home of the Terray family where Lavoisier defend the political and fiscal achievements of the Revolution:
Monsieur Lavoisier spoke with perfect reason and truth, tho' with a degree of heat; this I was glad to see in him as his manner is generally rather shy and as till lately he has not spoken out fully about the revolution.
On 28th June, in the immediate aftermath of the flight to Varennes, Hall dined with Lavoisier; also present were Dupont de Nemours, Achille Pierre Dionis du Séjour, Jean Antoine Cousin, Armand Séguin and Jean Baptiste Meusnier. Discussion turned to the possible deposition of the King:
Lavoisier's letter of resignation to the King, 15th June 1792.
Sire,-Neither through a pusillanimous fear wholly alien to my character, nor through indifference to public affairs, nor yet, I admit, through a sense of my own insufficiency, I am compelled to decline the mark of confidence with which your Majesty has honoured me, in the offer of the ministry of public contributions. Cognisant, during my connection with the national treasury, of your Majesty's patriotic motives, tender solicitude for the people's happiness, inflexible severity of principle, and unalterable probity, I feel more deeply than I can express all that I lose in renouncing the opportunity of becoming the mouth-piece of these sentiments to the nation. But, Sire, an honest man cannot, consistently with his duty, accept an important post unless with the hope of fully discharging its obligations.
I am neither a Jacobin nor a Feuillant. I belong to no society, to no club. Accustomed to form my opinions by the light of conscience and reason, I can never consent to place them at the disposal of any party. I have sincerely sworn fidelity to the constitution accepted by you, to the authorities established by the people, to you, Sire, the constitutional king of the French, whose virtues and misfortunes are too little appreciated. Persuaded, as he must be, that the legislative body has transcended the limits of the constitution, what could a constitutional minister do? Incapable of compounding with his principles and conscience, he would vainly invoke the authority of the law which all Frenchmen are bound by oath to obey. Should he counsel resistance, by means legally entrusted to your Majesty, it would be imputed to him as a crime; he would perish, the victim of duty, and the inflexibility of his character would serve but to originate fresh misfortunes.
Translation from The Edinburgh Review 1890, p.100
Lavoisier appears before the Assembly, 5th August 1792
This passport was on the occasion of Lavoisier's final journey to Freschines. It contains his only known physical description:
M. Antoine Laurent Lavoisier of the Academy of Sciences, native of Paris, aged 49 years, height five foot, four inches, brown hair and eyebrows, brown eyes, long nose, small mouth, round chin, average forehead, thin face.
(Illustration from Denis Duveen, “Lavoisier.” Scientific American 194, no. 5 (1956): 84–96. [JStor])
An autobiographical note
This text, in which Lavoisier defends his Revolutionary record, is from a manuscript in his own hand, first published by Grimaux. There is no date but it was probably written close to the end of Lavoisier's life. It is moving, to see the great man reduced to sifting out the ideologically acceptable from the immense catalogue of his scientific and administrative achievements. See: Poirier, p.367-8.
Notice of what Lavoisier, former Official of the National Treasury and of the Academy of Sciences, member of the Advisory Board for Arts and Trades, agriculturalist in the district of Blois, in the department of Loir-et-Cher, has done for the Revolution.
Lavoisier, who is a member of almost all the academies of Europe, has devoted his life principally to the study of chemistry and physics.
During the twenty-five years that he was a member of the Academy of Sciences, he published more than 80 papers, many of which contain important discoveries for the arts and sciences, and for humanity. He devoted a significant part of his personal fortune to this work.
He did not wait for the Revolution to demonstrate his commitment to the principles of liberty and equality.
In 1787, he was a member of the Provincial Assembly of Orléans, where he ceaselessly and courageously defended the interests of the people; the whole town of Orléans will bear witness to this.
In the winter of 1788 to 1789 he lent without interest 50,000 livres to the commune of Blois and 6,000 to Romorantin, in order to feed the people, stock the granaries and lower the cost of subsistence.
Always constant in his principles, for the last ten years, in times of want, he has sold grain in the market at Blois at below its current price.
He was an elector in 1789.
Reserve deputy to the Constituent Assembly in the same year.
Representative to the Provisional Commune of Paris at the end of 1789 and the beginning of 1790.
Active member of the National Guard from the first moments of the Revolution.
A work of his on the wealth of the nation, its land, population and produce was printed by order of the Constituent Assembly in 1790.
He was a member of the Committees on Public Health and on Monies.
He was nominated as director of the National Treasury in 1791 in order to set up its organisation, a post which he left after a year-and-a half, only when the task was completed.
He was nominated in 1791 by decree of the Legislative Assembly as a member of the Advisory Board for Arts and Trades which was charged with the national recompense of artisans who were deserving but poor.
In 1793 he was charged by the Committee on Assignats and Monies to devise a plan to reissue assignats and make them impossible to counterfeit.
He was responsible from 1790 to 1792 for all operations related to the establishment of a new system of weights and measures, as decreed by the national representation.
Translated from Grimaux, Lavoisier (1888), p.384