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)
On 12 Pluviose, An VI, or 31 January 1798, Sophie de Grouchy wrote a letter asking for her name and that of her deceased husband to be struck off a register of the French people who had emigrated during the Revolution.
Being on that list meant that all of one’s property could be confiscated. At that time Sophie was struggling to make ends meet for herself and her extended family.
Their names had been added to that list after Condorcet’s disappearance, following his being proclaimed an outlaw. Because Condorcet was in hiding, and because his death went unreported for several months, it was assumed that he’d left the country.
On the other hand, Sophie had officially divorced him, and she was a registered occupant of a house in Auteuil, where she been nearly arrested on more than one occasion.
In the letter, Sophie stated that she could provide ample evidence for the fact that neither she nor Condorcet had left the country. She submitted 13 pieces, including certificates of her residence in Auteuil, a passport for her to travel to Villette to visit her father, and a report on the death of Condorcet.
Sophie’s letter was then forwarded to the Minister of the Police so that he could make a very prompt report.
The report was indeed prompt – the decision is dated two days later - but it was not succinct: and the same dossier containing Sophie’s letter, also has several lengthy documents detailing the request that hers and Condorcet’s name be taken off the list. The decision states that there is no need to call forward witnesses (she had provided a long list, with Cabanis listed first) and that the presence of Grouchy and Condorcet’s names on the list was clearly a consequence of the persecution Condorcet had been subjected to during the Terror.
It must have helped that the Directoire was in power at the time of her request, the government in which her friends, the ideologues, played an important role. It’s also likely that this was how she eventually found out that the reason she could not reclaim her or Condorcet’s property was that they were listed as immigrants, and therefore, in debt to the government.
Sophie’s bout of poverty is what led her, according to her daughter, to publish her translation of Adam Smith, the translation to which she appended her letters. So without this particular injustice, we may never have known the Letters on Sympathy.
As I'm still catching up with a mound of 'stuff', this week I'm sharing another one in my series of portraits of women philosophers at work, paired with fictional extracts from their diaries. This week it's Olympe de Gouges, proofreading her Rights of Women (which she did and which is evidence against the 'mauvaises langues' that she could read and write perfectly well) with a fictional extract from a diary from the spring 1792.
Standing at the printer again, and again, as I read my proofs, I think of more to add. The printer grumbles, but really he doesn’t mind. He’ll just charge me more, and I’ll be poorer and my text will be full of mistakes, because these words will be set and printed along with the proofs.
I am incensed against the driver who brought me here. He wants to charge me three times what the normal cost is. Just because I am a woman, well-dressed and coming from Auteuil, he thinks he can lord it over me, and threaten me with the lantern if I protest. But I know my rights - I too am a citizen and he’ll answer to the authorities. I’ll see to it even if I have to waste the entire day.
As I scribble furiously, the printer’s son is looking at me, from the corner of his eye. No doubt he’s heard the rumor that I can’t write. Why else would I have a secretary after all? Well, any idiot who checks my handwriting against the neat letters that Jean produces will know: I write messily. And it’s true, I never did learn to write well. The sisters at the school were much more interested in teaching us to embroider, or just keeping us out of trouble. But how dare they assume I can’t write! It’s not even as though I’m only writer who uses a secretary - Condorcet does. His handwriting is not so messy as mine, perhaps, but try copying his tiny dry script, with lines crossed out in thick ink and illegible scribbles in the margins! Except that they know he can write, that he was educated by the best. How could an Academician not know how to write!
I pause and I stare hard at the boy. He looks down and scuffles off to the back of the shop. My reputation maybe that of an illiterate, but a scary illiterate!
This is where I live blog about my new book project, an intellectual biography of three French Revolutionary women philosophers.