Pierre Aubry was the son of Olympe de Gouges and the man she was forced to marry as a teenager. He was born in 1766, a year after his parents were married. In 1767, his father either died or disappeared, and Olympe became solely responsible for his upbringing.
As a single mother, Olympe de Gouges did everything she could to ensure that her son received the good education she did not have, paying for tutors to make up for the fact that she could not teach him herself. She also included him in her own life, and as a child he became part of her theatrical group. When he was old enough, she bought him a place in the army.
Given this, what happened after her death seems like the lowest possible treason. Five days after his mother's death, Aubry published an 'Address to the public' in which he recused his mother and all her work. Yes, this was not the end of the story. In a letter written on 11 April 1795, a year and a half after his mother's death, Pierre Aubry wrote to the National Convention to ask that Olympe de Gouges's name be rehabilitated.
I am writing to ask you to rehabilitate an illustrious victim.
Henri Grégoire, known as the Abbé Grégoire, a catholic priest with jansenist sympathies, leading member of the Third Estate, Constitutional Bishop of Blois, was an important figure in the French Revolution, especially for his work against slavery in the French colonies. Grégoire, a close friend of Brissot, one of the few Girondins to survive the Terror, kept on fighting for abolitionism until his death in 1820.
Given their shared enthusiasm for abolition, and the fact that they moved in the same circles it may seem surprising that his name and Olympe de Gouges' are not found together more often, or that there is no correspondence between them. When I was in the Archives Nationales, I found out why: Grégoire may have a great abolitionist, but his treatment of women did not measure up.
The first clue as to Grégoire's attitude is a footnote from his 'Lettre aux philanthropes', (p. 19, note 1) written in 1790, to shame the French into action in the colonies:
Readers, I confess to you, in great secrecy, a story about myself that the white colonists are murmuring to each other: 'it is not surprising that he defends the mixed bloods because his brother has married a woman of colour'. Honestly, if I did have a virtuous mixed-raced sister in law, I would prize her more than I do the near totality of your women, whose amiability receives such praise, but who cannot even, underneath their apocryphal modesty, conceal the ugliness of their vice; and who are all at once brazen in their gaze, impudent in their talk, and cynical in their acts.
One might be prepared to forgive and forget – this is after all only a footnote, if it were not for a letter written to Brissot a few months later, in which he more than reiterated his views on women:
In other words, some women may be virtuous, most are not. Either way – women should shut up.
On 20thNovember 1792, Olympe de Gouges wrote to Jacques Pierre Brissot, editor of Le Patriote Francais, sending him a set of documents and asking that he should extract them in his paper. She had been denounced at the Jacobins club and feared for her safety. In the PS, she says that she has also received threatening letters and would like to set up a meeting with Brissot to discuss her situation.
Gouges had in fact been denounced at the Jacobins by Leonard Bourdon, for having written against the Jacobins's actions leading to the massacres of 10 August and 2 September 1792. The Jacobins, she claimed, especially Marat and Robespierre, were entirely responsible for inciting popular violence. Interestingly, Manon Roland had blamed Danton for the same thing. But from inside the Government, Manon knew, or suspected, that it was Danton who'd ordered the signal to start the massacre, while Olympe, as a public writer and philosopher, knew that it was the speeches and writings of Marat and Robespierre that had prepared the people to react to that signal.
The two documents that Olympe sent Brissot can be found on Clarissa Palmer's excellent site :
Court correspondence. A principled report and my last words to my dear friends, by Olympe Degouges [sic], to the National Convention and to the People. On a denunciation made to the Jacobins, against her patriotism, by Monsieur Bourdon
Prognostic of Maximilien Robespierre, by an Amphibious Animal published 5 November 1792, in which she attacks Robespierre and Marat for inciting the people to violence on August 10 and September 2.
Below is a translation of the letter to Brissot and a photograph of the actual letter taken at the Archives Nationale on 5 June 2019 (446AP/7-18)
Note that the letter and the signature are in different hands, as Gouges was using a secretary. Note also that she signs herself 'Olimpe', not 'Olympe'.
20 November, year 1 of the Republic
In the Archives Nationales, I found a set of letters from Louise Keralio to Jacques Pierre Brissot. The letters are kept in a folded paper, which notes that one of the letters is about Marat. The letter in question is undated, but from the reference to Marat’s denunciation of Necker means that the letter must be have been written towards the end of October 1789. Here is a – translated – extract:
It is my honour to send you, Monsieur, a claim on behalf of M. Marat which was handed me yesterday evening by a man of letter who deserve our consideration. M. Carra was at my home, and asked me for a copy that I sent him this morning, and we made a pact to win us over to our side and to [?] with you and all good patriots against the illegal and tyrannical acts that have been allowed against the ‘Ami du Peuple’ whose zeal is perhaps a little inconsiderate, but for in cause all free writers should recognize their own. I do not judge of the content with respect to M.Necker, M.Bailly or M. Joly. If M.Marat allowed himself to make accusations without probable proofs, he must be judged either as a madman or a slanderer. It is nonetheless the case that to suppress his writings, and to attack his person belond entirely to the ancient and odious regime of censorship and ministerial revenge. […] One cannot put a stop to the writings or the person of an author on a simple denunciation without violating the rights of man. We have done nothing by destroying the Bastille if the tribunal’s lock-ups serve as arbitrary prisons.
Louise Keralio was then already a friend and correspondent of Brissot – they had advertised each other’s journals, and praised each other’s work and ideas. Keralio had not, however, met Marat, and had only read a few articles by him. She supposes that Marat is a good citizen whose zeal has carried him beyond acceptable limits. But what she cares about is that the French Press should be treated legally, and not tyrannically. She cites Beaumarchais’ Figaro, jesting that the press should be free, provided it does not mention important people, religion, or anything contentious. She begs Brissot to use his influence to interfere on behalf of Marat, l’Ami du Peuple, and make sure that he is asked to present his proofs so that if he has them, it is known that he did not slander Necker, Bailly and Joly, and that if he doesn’t, the reputation of these three will be cleared in the eyes of all.
Marat quickly came to be regarded as a threat by the Girondins – especially after he voiced his opinion that the best way to safeguard the revolution would have been to cut off six hundred heads. He went into exile, came back, was tried, imprisoned for a month, and acquitted before he became one of the leaders of the Terror. In September 1792, he tried to have Brissot arrested. One wonders if Brissot looked back then, on Louise Keralio’s petition three years earlier, that he should stand up for Marat…
Marat was murdered in July 1793, by Charlotte Corday, who’d decided that by killing Marat she could put a stop to the Terror and protect the republic.
Beginning in the summer 1793, Antoine Quentin Fouquier-Tinville, public prosecutor of the Revolutionary Tribunal, signed hundreds of death decrees.
Prisoners of the Republic were moved from their prison to the Conciergerie a few days before their trial, and they were tried in the Palais de Justice next door. When found guilty, they were generally executed within one or two days of the judgment.
One decree stands out as having happened even faster: that of Manon Roland (whose name is misspelt in the document ordering her death). Manon was killed on the very same day she was condemned.
The document above, a printed form filled in with the relevant details, asks the commendant-general of the Paris armed forces to organize the execution of the 'widow Rolland' - and her unfortunate companion, Lamarche, Armed soldiers were to pick up the condemned from the 'Palace court' outside the Conciegerie, and escort them to the Place de la Revolution, where they would be executed at 3:30pm exactly. The armed men were to be dispatched 'immediately'. To this Fouquier-Tinville adds the following by way of explanation:
Bear in mind that this is the wife of the ex-minister and that for the sake of the public interest it is imperative that she should be executed today.
Given that no-one expected Manon to act in any way dangerously, we must suppose that what Fouquier-Tinville feared was that public sentiment would act against him if it became known that Manon Roland was condemned to die.
Just in case the commandant-general didn't get the message, Fouquier Tinville adds in the bottom left of the page 'very urgent''.
Pierre-Jean-George Cabanis, Sophie de Grouchy's long time friend, the C*** of her Letters on Sympathy, and husband of her sister Charlotte, and Claude Fauriel, Sophie's lover from 1801 till her death in 1824, developed a close friendship from the time Fauriel became part of their circle in 1801 till Cabanis died in 1808.
Cabanis's text on Stoicism and Physiology, The Letter on First Causeswas written to and for Claude Fauriel. Fauriel intended to write a book about Stoic philosophy (the manuscript was lost before he could finish it).
The few personal letters from Cabanis to Fauriel that survive give this sense of a nineteenth century ‘bromance’, with Cabanis writing excitedly to Fauriel that Sophie’s father has reserved the room next to his own for his upcoming visit, and signing off his letters with tender embraces and assurances of ever lasting love. In one of his letters, he enquires after Fauriel’s project of a Greek History, and promises him the notes made by Garat on a similar topic. Garat was either Sophie's ex, Mailla Garat, or his older brother: in neither case, does it seem like it was an entirely appropriate person to turn to!
His friendship with Cabanis still resonated in Fauriel's life long after both Cabanis and Sophie's deaths. Cabanis’s widow, who was also Sophie’s sister, Charlotte, in her correspondence with Fauriel refers to a person they both loved and lost, for whom they felt ‘a huge, and unshakeable tenderness, which must be very deep and sweet until your last day’. She meant her husband, not her sister.And when she claims his time and affection, it is as the ‘companion of the man you loved so’, and not as the sister of his life partner.
The posthumous publication of the Letter on First Causes, which happened towards the end of Charlotte Cabanis’s life, was a cause for much concern for both Fauriel and Charlotte. Charlotte had allowed the Letterto be published, but she had had no control over the process, and only read the introduction once it was in print. She found it full of mistakes and bad interpretations, and reflected that the author of the introduction was more interested in promoting his own dualism than making Cabanis’s view clear. The last few letters exchanged between Fauriel and Charlotte Cabanis concern the publication of a bibliographical notice on Cabanis, a project that Daunou had offered to take on before he died. There is much discussion as to whom might be a good person to edit Cabanis’ s paper, and once the choice is made, about how much control his widow might be able to exercise over the process. At no point during the correspondence is Sophie mentioned, even though she died 14 years after Cabanis, and had thus been part of Fauriel’s life much longer. The biographical notice, based on a text drafted by Cabanis himself, was written by Peisse, and published alongside an edition of the Rapports du Physique et du Moral and the Lettre sur les Causes Premieres by Destutt de Tracy in 1844.
That same year, perhaps even before the book was out, Claude Fauriel and Charlotte Cabanis died, both in their seventies.
Born in le Havre, Marie Masson le Golft discovered marine biology through a friend of her father’s Jacques-Francois Dicquemare. After his death, she continued to work on his project on Molluscs and then on her own work which earned her a place in the Academy of Arras. Masson le Golft was elected as an honorary member alongside Louise Keralio, in February 1787. Robespierre gave their admission speech, citing the absence of women in Academies as a scandal for this enlightened century.
Masson Le Golft was a practicing catholic, and did not join in the Revolutionary efforts. Instead she kept a low profile in Rouen, teaching geometry and drawing.
So I imagine that this time of year, 230 years ago, as the Estate Generals were meeting, she was busy, like me, grading papers.
In the 18thcentury, a total of 6 548 195 Africans children and adults embarked on vessels to be sold as slaves, and a total of 5 654 009 disembarked on the other side.
1 141 059 were destined to be sold to French planters (960 603 made it that far), 2 570 366 for England (and 2 169 659 made it alive) 2 235 417 for Brazil and Portugal (with 1011 417 arriving alive) and 189 342 to the United States. 
(Note that the United States only existed for the last 21 years of the 18thcentury, so most of the slaves brought to the Americas were in that century were ‘owned’ by Europeans).
Numbers obtained from the Transatlantic Slave Trade Database
and ‘World Population Growth’ by Max Roser and Estaban Ortiz-Ospina, 2017.
Current estimates of slavery in the 21stcentury range from 21 to 40 millions, with the majority of cases being forced to engage in sex labor. These numbers, however, are subject to controversy. The often quoted 27 million was a speculative number arrived at in the 1990s by Kevin Bales. The NGO responsible for the higher figure is Walk Free, who produces an annual Global Slavery Index This number, however, is indicative of ‘modern slavery’ which includes a number of different categories such as bonded labour, forced marriage, child labour, and sex trafficking. These ways of treating human beings, while highly objectionable, do not, however, always constitute slavery. And even if were tempted to redefine slavery, or ‘modern slavery’ to include all of these categories no matter what the circumstances, the numbers would still be unrepresentative when compared to 18thcentury numbers, as forced marriage, child labour, sex trafficking and prison labour were mostly deemed acceptable. (Thanks to Laura Brace for alerting me to the controversy about modern slavery data).
Another way of looking at this is through proportions. There are now 7.5 billion people in the world but less than a billion (0.8) in the 18th century. This means that at worst, the percentage of slaves in this century is just under 1% of the population (which is a huge amount) and at best less than 0.3% (which is still a huge amount). Given the fact that we are comparing ourselves to a century where child labour and forced marriage were very common, it makes more sense to take the lower figure (which may be more accurate).
According to the reliable numbers we get from the Transatlantic Slave Trade database, in the 18thcentury, the slave population amounted to 0.8% of the population. But this percentage only takes into account the number of slaves transported in the 18thcentury, and not the number of slaves in a country at any one time. For a more accurate comparison, we would need to know how many were enslaved, taking into account not only survival rates from the transportation but also children born in slavery. So the proportion of slaves to free people was a little higher in the 18thcentury than it is now.
In her ‘Unofficial Defence’ of Louis XVI, Olympe de Gouges concludes her argument with the following:
Louis Capet’s greatest crime, it must be conceded, was to be born a king at a time when philosophy was silently laying the foundations of the republic.
What did Olympe mean when she said that philosophers had laid the foundations of the republic? Though we often hear that Rousseau and Voltaire were great influences for the French Revolution, it often feels as if we’re reading them back into history while they probably weren’t all that significant. Why would a mostly uneducated people – those who took the Bastille, or marched to Versailles – know or care anything about the philosophers of the Enlightenment?
But if it is a myth that Rousseau and Voltaire had laid the foundations for the Revolution, it is not a recent one. In 1817, two years after the restoration of the Bourbon family on the French throne, the church issued a pastoral letter, to be read at mass throughout the country and posted on church doors.
This document denounced two new editions of the works of Voltaire and Rousseau and went on to argue at length that the works of these philosophers were mostly responsible for the Revolution:
Their writings have perverted public character and morals […] it is to the principles of incredulity, immorality and rebellion they present so seductively that France owes the first attempts of those who provoked its revolution, the prestige of so-called rights of the people, which led so many crowned heads to the scaffold, and threatened all nations with a universal upheaval, civil wars, an armed confusion, which, abandoned to its fluctuations will have been for humanity nothing short of a first hell, which would have continued, and grown more terrible each day, until the end of days.
(Mandement de messieurs les vicaires généraux du chapitre métropolitain de Paris, 9 Fevrier 1817. (20))
We might be tempted to dismiss this pastoral as an isolated eccentricity but it did not go unnoticed by the French people.
In March 1817 The popular satirical song writer P.J. de Beranger composed a song with the title of the edict: ‘Mandement des vicaires generaux de Paris to be sung to the tune of another song: Allez voir a St Cloud’. The song was reported and printed in L'Esprit des journaux franc̜ais et étrangers, Volume 468 April 1817 alongside a review of a volume of Voltaire’s complete works. (p266).
The song, which was still being printed 50 years later is composed of 20 verses of 8 lines each, with the refrain (in the 6thand 8thline): 'C’est la faute de Voltaire, C’est la faute de Rousseau' (It’s Voltaire’s fault, it’s Rousseau’s fault).
The song remained popular, and when Victor Hugo wrote Les Miserables four decades later, he gave a version of the song to his young hero, the street boy Gavroche.
Here’s a version of the song with the lyrics translated into English.
But the best version of this song was sung in 1980 by 12 year old Fabrice Ploquin, who played Gavroche in the original musical Les Miserables, by Claude-Michel Schönberg. (The lyrics were unfortunately lost in translation when the musical became a Broadway success)
This is where I live blog about my new book project, an intellectual biography of three French Revolutionary women philosophers.