When Brissot decided that he would set up his republican colony in France, rather than America, he first approached his friends Bosc and Lanthenas. The latter had some money and was enthusiastic about the idea – although he might have preferred the original plan of going to America. Bosc and Lanthenas suggested the include the Rolands in the plan. Their current way of living, between Lyon where Roland worked, and their idyllic country house, le Clos, together with their shared republican dreams made them perfect for the project. Brissot was introduced, and the friends corresponded. It was decided that they would contact a few others and try to put together enough money, in installments, to buy land and set up the colony.
Brissot drafted a plan for what he called an agricultural society, or society of friends. The aim of the society would be twofold: to ‘regenerate’ its own members by cultivating the earth, and to regenerate the local community through a ‘rural education’. The first part of the plan would be to buy property, a land vast enough to house twenty families, each in its own simple and luxury free house, and with room to grow. The land should be in the countryside, contain a wooded area, water, be close to a mountain, and served by a large road.
The plan says nothing about how the rural life would help ‘regenerate’ the members of the society. Maybe he felt there was no need, and that anyone interested would already believe in the healing powers of the simple, rural life. This was certainly true of Manon, who even before she was married, and while she still lived in Paris, claimed that the Spartans led the best lives, because they lived in the country, simply, without any luxury. She embraced, and sought to reproduce, whenever she could, the life led by Rousseau’s Julie at Etanges, simply, luxury free, industrious, and always with an eye to the needs and education of the men, women and children working the land she lived on. At le Clos, she even participated in the Vendanges when the season came, picking grapes alongside her peasant neighbours, making friends with them and treating them as equals. When the Great Fear happened, and those who had locked their doors against those who did not, she was secure enough in her relationship with the poor of Le Clos not to run away.
Another reason why Brissot may not have felt the need to explain what was in it for the colonists lies in the title of the document in which he details his plan: a society of friends. Brissot had ties with the Quakers of England, whose philosophy and way of life he admired, and when he travelled to America, it is the Quakers he sought, both because he regarded them as a model and because of their work against slavery. His brother in law had immigrated to Philadelphia, a Quakers town, so there were possibly ties to the sect from that side of the family too.
Another possible clue to Brissot modeling his proposal on Quakers communities is the content of the educational program the colonists were to dispense to the locals – one in which religion was taught but in very simple, rational terms. Members of the society, when they were not labouring the earth, or reading philosophy, would teach peasants ‘the purest morals, the simplest religious beliefs and how to work with their hands.’ Although the colons were to live simply one thing they would not have to compromise about was reading materials. Brissot takes care to specify in his plan that the colony will house a good library held in common.
Should we talk about a colony when they were in fact not planning on leaving the country? It seems so – and moreover that what they intended was a colony in the strong sense, i.e. they wanted to colonize the people living around them, teach them to be other than they were, more virtuous, more efficient in their work, and better republicans. But at the same time they had no intention of living among the peasants as equals, or of integrating the peasants more closely into their communities. The community was one of teachers, who would benefit from a more rural lifestyle, but not peasants. Agriculture and philosophy might live side-by-side, but not together.
This separation of status between the colonists and the colonized is reflected in Jean-Marie Roland’s letter to Champagneux in early 1792 – by which time all the land had been bought and all had given up on the dream:
I was as sure of this as my existence - to create a monument to patriotism and the useful arts, such as does not exist even in Paris [...] we would have made a community such as never existed before in the provinces, which could have become famous and would have rewarded our pains with either reputation or profit.
Perhaps this was not Brissot’s intention, but it seems that for Manon’s husband at least, there was a third aim, beyond self-improvement and improvement of the local peasantry: fame and wealth for the founders.
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