During the summer 1791, when the royal family had escaped from their enforced Parisian home, been arrested in Versailles, and brought back to Paris, the Condorcets, together with Thomas Paine and a few others, and with the help of Brissot, had started a journal, Le Républicain. Sophie wrote two pieces for that journal, one of which was a satirical piece titled ‘Letter from a young mechanic’.
The letter proposes that the royal family and its entourage be replaced by a set of automata. Even though such machines are expensive, it says, they will cost a fraction of what the French people are spending on their actual king. And what's more, the mechanical king, far from being a tyrant, will raise its pen and sign everything its government wants it to! Jacques Vaucanson, the putative teacher of the fictional author was a famous inventor, and one whose inventions Condorcet had praised in his works as an example of the sort of technical activity that could be just as inspirational as theories.
Automata were generally meant to be humourous, rather than impressive scientific inventions, or serious art. Vaucanson had created many impressive moving statues, including that of a musician who could play twelve songs on two sorts of flutes. But his most celebrated piece was a copper duck that could be made to pick grain, swallow it and defecate them. Vaucanson claimed the duck could also digest the grain – this however, was discovered to be untrue in an autopsy conducted in 1844 – the ‘excrement’ was simply stored in a different part of the duck’s body, not metabolised from the grain it swallowed. Given this, the idea of the King and his family being replaced by automata is not simply insulting in that it reduces them to impotent machines: it is also ridiculous: the royal family, though they were used to perform their private functions in public, did not do so on demand!
The King would also have been pained, no doubt, by the memory of a previous attempt to liken him to a mechanical puppet. In 1777, a pamphlet was published – The Mannequins, telling the story of a bad King who one days wakes up and finds himself, his family and his entourage transformed into puppets, whose strings are pulled by another, but more autonomous puppet of the name Togur (a thinly veiled reference to Turgot).
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This is where I live blog about my new book project, an intellectual biography of three French Revolutionary women philosophers.