The Apostle of the French Revolution

Ty Koh/Arc de Triomphe, Paris

The sun was rising over France in the 1770s. A young new king, Louis XVI, sat on the throne. Eminent philosophes had the ears of Europe and preached a new world of reason, progress, and enlightened men. A vast network of correspondence connected France to Switzerland, England, Germany, and the New World. And in the far-flung French province of Lorraine, a tailor’s son from the backwater town of Veho had finally received his ticket into the midst of it all.

The young Henri Gregoire was ambitious from the start. With his humble beginnings, his ordination as a Catholic priest already made him a success. But devout as he was, Gregoire was not interested in merely reaching the apex of a rural clerical career. In the provincial capital of Nancy, he had immersed himself in the intellectual world of the philosophes whose ideas now influenced the throne. He had written poetry and debated at the local Nancy Academy. 

It was a productive intellectual frenzy, and it got him noticed. At long last, Gregoire had come on the radar of the illustrious Societe des Philantropes de Strasbourg (SPS). It was a para-Masonic organization of Strasbourg’s foremost scholars and reformers, and its avowed goal was “the physical and moral perfection of man.” The SPS provided a closed space where members could collaborate and discuss ideas. Its restricted membership was a feature—as with the Masonic orders, which initiated their members, and the salons, where eminent women known as salonnières carefully cultivated their attendees. The uneducated and uncouth were barred from entry. The fraternal language of the SPS did much to close religious and national divides, but it did not eliminate social rank.

The SPS and societies like it were part of a massive shift in the culture of European elites, especially in France. Throughout the early eighteenth century, the policies of the absolutist King Louis XIV had centralized political power and entire sections of French society. Tridentine Catholicism, with its emphasis on confessional unity, had stamped out rivals like Protestantism and established a religiously unified state. But the generations born under this establishment had increasingly come to question and even reject key parts of it. Gregoire and the SPS, for example, would have read Voltaire’s critique of the church and Rousseau’s social contract theory.

The result was a new social fabric that sprang up among the highest classes in French society, one informed by the project they called the Enlightenment. Advancements in the sciences, philosophy, and literature gained prestige and respect for participants. A new form of intellectual authority developed as well, with loose and informal groups of collaborators gaining recognition due to the quality and sheer ambition of their work. Titanic projects like the Encyclopédie, the 18,000-page collection overseen by the philosopher and intellectual Denis Diderot, grew out of such informal intellectual communities.

To join these circles, Gregoire had to prove himself through his familiarity with both literature and the sciences. Fortunately for Gregoire, his work had paid off, and as with all new members the Society unanimously voted to accept him, preserving “the sweet intimacy that must reign between Philanthropes.”

Despite its closed nature, the SPS foresaw the Enlightenment expanding far beyond its current circles. Previous generations of philosophes, like Voltaire, had seen the peasants and urban, lower class sans-culottes as ignorant, with no real role in the Enlightenment project. Gregoire, like the rest of the SPS, rejected this assumption. For the fruits of higher learning to reach every sphere of French life, all classes would ultimately have their role to play. In the words of the SPS program, the peasant would have his own place in “the beneficent philosophy of his century.”

Gregoire supported this expansionist wing of the Enlightenment, inspired by his religious career in the countryside. Working as a priest, he built libraries to educate his parishioners; his goals, as he related to a friend, were “enlightened piety, the purity of morals, and the culture of intelligence among the country people…fortifying their attachment to this type of work.” He participated in the Richerist movement, which asserted the rights of ordinary clerics in the church, seeing them as vehicles for lay education and development—clashing with the higher clergy as a result. The mobilized priest, morally and socially improving his congregants, was the religious counterpart to the worldly Philanthropist.

But Gregoire’s work also made him aware of a discomforting reality: the bands of enlightened men whose company he kept—and who were able to think in terms of France and its higher destiny—were only a tiny minority. They lived in a country divided into many languages, regional cultures, and private factional interests. Someone from Languedoc could hardly understand a Breton’s dialect, let alone think of him as a countryman. The new France taking shape existed mainly in the minds of Gregoire and his collaborators. Extending the culture of the enlightened to the country required a people ready to participate in it. To achieve their dreams, the enlightened would first have to make this France a reality.

The Beginnings of Regeneration

In 1787, Gregoire had an opportunity to begin laying out a pathway to this broadened Enlightenment. That year, King Louis XVI’s Edict of Versailles expanded toleration for non-Catholics, ending official persecutions and allowing them to marry freely. France’s Jews were among those who benefited. The move sparked a renewed debate among Gregoire’s enlightened circles: just what was the place of Jews in French society? 

Both exclusionary and tolerant attitudes were accepted in these circles. Nearly all agreed that assimilation would require the culture of France’s Jews to radically change. Gregoire published his response two years later as the Essai sur la régénération physique, morale et politique des juifs

Gregoire accepted the mainstream view of his circles that France’s Jews were currently not capable of assimilating into French society. But he also believed their condition was the fruit of centuries of exclusion. Persecution by French society had kept them from working in agriculture and trades and enhanced the power of their religious authorities to the detriment of Christianity. Segregation to ghettos, he claimed, even forced them into “dismal abodes” with “a continual fermentation of putrid air” that contributed to their physical decline. 

But under different conditions, history showed that Jews could become full members of the body politic. In Morocco, modern Jews still practiced agriculture and lived in relative harmony with society. French Sephardim already enjoyed greater privileges and had assimilated to a higher degree than their Ashkenazi cousins. And in the classical era, Gregoire wrote, Jews had been “a nation who had shone in armies of Alexander and of the Ptolemies…who, for four centuries, made a distinguished figure under the banner of the Roman legions.”

By dismantling the institutions which divided Jews from French society, integrating them into the mainline productive economy, and by transforming their culture, they would assimilate into France. Once “attached to it by the ties of pleasure, security, liberty, and ease…he will cherish his mother, that is to say his country, the interests of which will be confounded with his own.” 

Gregoire and his contemporaries saw French Jews as existing in a politically, morally, and even physically degraded state. But for Gregoire, these were more like the symptoms of social disease. “The Jew is born with the same disposition as we,” he wrote. The question, then, was how to restore them to health—and what a healthy social organism looked like at all. Gregoire called this process “regeneration,” and the concept became the basis of his political work. 

Regeneration had applications beyond French Jews, who were far from the only group his contemporaries saw as degraded. Enlightenment thinkers compared their new learning in science and philosophy to what they saw as popular superstition. Admirers of classical Rome contrasted its notions of civic virtue to the self-interest and corruption of the French state. Even in religion, many French Catholics—particularly some of the Richerists that Gregoire collaborated with—had been influenced by movements like Jansenism, which believed the Church was corrupted by religious superstition, theological ignorance, and moral laxity. Despite their differing worldviews, one theme prevailed over and over again: the social organism was sick, and needed curing.

The twin influences of Catholicism and Enlightenment culture informed Gregoire’s understanding of a regenerated society. Christian morals of charity and justice would direct the hearts of men. Public interest would drive political activity. The arts, trades, sciences, and industry would flourish as citizens were unbound from legal constraints and obsession with custom. Advances in agriculture and physical health would even improve the bodies of the population. His vision was not strictly egalitarian; the farmer and the statesmen should feel fraternal bonds, enjoy the same civic rights, and be ambitious and experimental in their work—but they served society in different ways.

One enduring theme was his insistence that regenerated man would learn to identify his interests with the good of humanity. Since no universal state or language existed, this meant that the national state was the best vehicle for creating an enlightened society; the French nation would be the vehicle by which individuals learned to cultivate reason and civic virtue.

But the reality was that not only the Jews were cut off from the French nation—nearly all so-called Frenchmen were as well. Gregoire’s Essai attacked Yiddish as a “Tudesco-Hebraico-Rabbinical jargon…[that] will doubtless one day be extirpated.” But only about 12 percent of France’s populace spoke the Parisian standard at all. Dialects like Occitan, Breton, and Basque dominated entire regions. France’s regeneration, and even its real national existence, could only begin once these various regions, statelets, dialects, and communities had been welded together into a national polity. To solve this problem, the enlightened minority would essentially have to colonize the national territory.

The language problem embodied a central paradox in regeneration: those who had not yet undergone it lacked the understanding, even the virtue, to appreciate its necessity. Those who were the objects of regeneration could hardly also be its agents. Education was necessary and as a result would be compulsory, Gregoire wrote, “else prove to me that the state cannot force its subjects to acquire knowledge.” But early resistance from subjects undergoing this regeneration would ultimately give way to understanding as they became citizens and learned what enlightened humanity was worth: “We must merit their gratitude in spite of them,” he declared.

The Essai had its critics when it was finally published. One English reviewer sniffed that Roman Catholic priests hardly had less ridiculous customs than Jews, while a number of Gregoire’s Jewish correspondents criticized its heavy-handedness. But by then, the young priest was no longer concerned with essay contests.  The monarchy was on the brink of bankruptcy, and Louis XVI had taken a radical decision. For the first time since 1614, the Estates-General would gather in Versailles. And in Nancy, Gregoire was elected to be one of the representatives.

With political power gathering in his hands, Gregoire had an opportunity to undertake the regeneration of France itself.

Making the French Republic

By the time of the king’s call in 1788, the state had been in gridlock for nearly two years. An absolute monarch in theory, Louis XVI had been battling the various parlements—judicial, not legislative bodies—in Paris and other parts of France to try to financially rescue the state. Louis and his advisors began planning to circumvent them instead. 

By calling the Estates-General, the king hoped to use popular support to overcome these obstructions. The three estates of church, nobility, and commoners had traditionally voted by order—one vote each, giving the clergy and nobles the power to outvote the commons. Despite this rule, Louis permitted double the number of delegates to be elected to the Third Estate as a nominal show of favor. But if Louis had bet on the support of the commons, he had miscalculated. The common people of France faced even more crushing financial burdens than the nobles. 

Among the aristocratic Second Estate, the influence of Enlightenment culture was also making itself felt. Nobles who had spent years in societies like the SPS even embraced reformism, with some choosing election to the Third Estate instead. Reformist nobles included the Marquis de Lafayette, freshly returned from fighting in the American Revolutionary War, the sexually scandalous but charismatic Comte de Mirabeau, and the Duc d’Orleans, the king’s own cousin. As for the First Estate, elections for clerical representatives ended up drawing the majority of their lot from the lower clergy, including Henri Gregoire. Many had been formed in movements like Richerism.

Before long, conflicts about how the Estates were represented had left taxation in the dust. Things descended into chaos. To secure its position, the Third Estate unilaterally voted to represent the people as a whole and redefine itself as the National Assembly, inviting the other Estates to join them. In response, Gregoire led members of the lower clergy to join the new body. 

Days later, the body met on a tennis court and vowed to remain united and to formally establish a constitution for France. Gregoire, among the first clerics to take the Tennis Court Oath, later found himself front and center in a famous depiction of the event. His ideas were making themselves felt too—one of the tasks to which the oath called the Assembly was “the regeneration of public order.”

The National Assembly’s success served to radicalize it further. By July, the body had been reconstituted as the National Constituent Assembly, and Gregoire found himself in its leadership roles for the next several years. By August, feudalism was formally abolished and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen had been promulgated, largely written by the Abbé Sieyès, another radical priest. The circles in which Gregoire had spent so many years were now attaining political power, and so were their ideals. Most of France still languished in backwardness, but now the time had come to expand the Enlightenment to the whole country.

Gregoire began aggressively advocating key elements of his regeneration program. He pushed for the removal of exclusionary laws regarding Jews—all became citizens by 1791. He also agitated in the Assembly on behalf of the gens de couleur, mixed-race property owners from the French colonies who sought citizenship in the new regime. This put him on the radical end of an already-radical revolution. From Gregoire’s perspective, the gens de couleur were living proof of ongoing regeneration—men with mixed African blood and French civilizational identity. While he did not consider Africans yet ready for full participation in republican society, the gens de couleur and enlightened French colonists would be the advance guard of regeneration in the colonies. All mixed-race and free black inhabitants received citizenship in 1792.

Gregoire also believed that it was time to expand his linguistic program to all of France. He summed up the work begun in this period several years later in a report to the new government. “Those who were in the Pyrénées-Orientales in October 1792,” he recounted, “wrote to you that, among the Basques…a large number were accessible to fanaticism, because the idiom is an obstacle to the propagation of knowledge.” In many departments, he found that “scoundrels founded on ignorance of our language the success of their counter-revolutionary machinations.”

He charged that linguistic differences prevented national unification, protected superstitious beliefs, and even undermined agriculture by maintaining multiple names for the same grains. “It is therefore necessary…to standardize their technical idiom,” he declared. “[And] it is necessary that the disseminated knowledge illuminate the whole surface of the French territory.” 

As with other parts of the regeneration program, the initial effort had to come from the top. Gregoire recommended that the national government stop the practice of translating its edicts locally and that it distribute pamphlets in French on useful knowledge like meteorology, agriculture, and basic physical sciences. Histories and even folk songs would bring French to the household and to the rhythms of working life. Municipalities, he declared, must use French in governance—by police force, if needed—and ensure the use of French measures and place names. 

Gregoire even proposed proof of French ability as a prerequisite for marriage, likening it to Swiss proofs of military service or ancient Roman duties to learn reading and swimming. As their regeneration was accomplished, Frenchmen would comprehend the necessity of the program: “To true republicans, it suffices to show the good; we are dispensed from ordering it from them.”

The unification of language ultimately became his most enduring initiative, undergirding later laws that established French as the language of education and governance. The Republic’s tumultuous life ultimately precluded it from fully implementing Gregoire’s proposals. But successive regimes, especially the public schools of Napoleon and later of the Third Republic, imposed French on generations of schoolchildren and effectively extinguished the role of dialects in public life.

Gregoire’s revolutionary efforts took a turn when the Assembly passed the Civil Constitution of the Clergy in 1790. It was a radical document that cemented recent confiscations of church lands, the abolition of tithes, and the dissolution of nearly all monastic orders. It also mandated the election of bishops and priests by citizens—even non-Catholics—and effectively turned the clergy into agents of the state who would swear an oath to the Constitution. 

Always a fervent Christian, Gregoire’s calls for priests to go out with “the Gospels in one hand and the Constitution in the other” were sincere. When he was elected Bishop of Blois, he set out on a tour of his diocese to preach both to the Catholic faithful. But his new rank also brought him into contact with popular opposition to the revolution, particularly from those loyal to his predecessor bishop—who, as far as many Catholics were concerned, no secular Assembly had any right to remove. Away from the center of the action, his immense patriotic faith wavered. “The most dangerous enemy of the people,” he remarked, “is the people themselves.”

Back in Paris, events were moving fast. France’s neighbors were threatening war, and the king’s conflicts with his new government had made him suspect. Gregoire, now a member of the popular Jacobin Club, had already attacked the monarchy in its meetings. When France declared war on Austria in 1792, the German Duke of Brunswick released an infamous manifesto. Written by one of Louis’s cousins, it threatened revenge on the French populace if the royal family was harmed. It served as political proof that the king was a traitor to the nation, and he was arrested soon after.

Gregoire’s moment came on September 21st as he addressed what was now the National Convention. Standing up amid the roar of the crowd, he called on them to put a formal end to monarchy once and for all. “Kings are in the moral order,” he reminded his colleagues, “what monsters are in the physical order.”

The official minutes record a long silence before the final vote on Gregoire’s motion. Once taken, the fate of a thousand years of kingship was decided.

“The National Convention decrees that royalty is abolished in France.” 

The delegates broke out into “cheers of joy.”

Regeneration by Fire

The French Republic was a state born in blood. Mere weeks before Gregoire moved to abolish the monarchy, the Jacobins had already mobilized armies of urban sans-culottes and armed provincial to overthrow the city government. Soon afterward, “surveillance committees”—in reality hardly more than vigilante bands—scoured the city for counter-revolutionaries. The prisons were quickly filled. 

Incited by radical members of the government, the popular tribunals turned into massacres. For several days, mobs hauled prisoners from their cells, enacted show trials consisting of only a few questions, and either freed or killed them on a whim. At the Prison de l’Abbaye, “guilty” prisoners were sent to a nearby courtyard where raging mobs, including children, made bloodsport of them. Four days later, nearly half of the prisoners in Paris had been slaughtered.

During the chaos, the property of royalist emigres was seized and redistributed to the impoverished population of Paris. The winds of the Revolution were picking up speed. By January of 1793, Louis XVI himself had been executed by guillotine. 

But Gregoire was not there to see the king’s death—he had left Paris several months earlier on the business of revolution. The Republic was now fighting for its life against an alliance of European powers. Along with several other deputies, Gregoire was inspecting territories annexed by French troops: Nice, Savoy, and Monaco. What he saw disturbed him, particularly in Italy. He complained of the “moral putridness” of the region in his correspondence. Royalist emigres attacked their presence, local officials demanded bribes for basic tasks, and local nobles and clerics incited crowds against them. 

While the Enlightenment had been underway in Italy as well, its real centers were in Naples and Milan, not the region of Piedmont in which Gregoire now found himself. The broad ideological unity and coordination of Paris, or even of provincial Lorraine, was simply not replicable here. Even the local Jacobins who should have been their most stalwart supporters were condemned by Gregoire as lowlives and spies of the aristocracy. Gregoire and his fellow deputies also had to deal with the fact that the most legitimately “popular” elements of the region were the most adamantly opposed to them. 

The problem was that the ideology of regeneration was meant to be the bridge from an Enlightenment restricted to a small elite to one in which the entire nation participated—but only after a moral, political, and even physical transformation imposed from above. This armed wing of the Enlightenment could not have existed without successive generations building up its core culture, norms, and ideology, propagating them through societies like the SPS. 

But the revolutionary experience had erased such careful barriers to entry, even as it inflamed the collective consciousness of its participants. With no agreement on who was included in the people, or when a particular group would be regenerated, anyone could appeal to the actual crowds outside the Assembly and mobilize them for support or violence. As Gregoire visited the frontlines of the Italian theater, riding on horseback in his clerical robes and urging on French troops against Piedmontese cannons, his enemies were exploiting exactly this contradiction. 

In Paris, meanwhile, those best able to inflame the mobs were now exercising power. Among these were men like the journalist Jacques Hébert and the actor turned revolutionary Jean-Marie Collot d’Herbois. Hébert used his writing to depict himself as a representative of the sans-culottes, and his paper was renowned for its lurid stories, foul language, and innuendo. Under the monarchy, he indulged widespread hatred of the Queen by portraying her as a nymphomaniac and Louis as a cuckold. Once the revolution was underway, he incited the most violent factions of the populace, defending the September massacres of prisoners as revolutionary violence. Collot, likewise, had come to power during the overthrow of the Paris government. Drawing on his skills in writing and oratory, he became one of the most extreme members of the Convention. Noting those who had voted against the immediate execution of the king, he began to denounce them in violent terms, preparing the way for a purge.

When Gregoire returned to Paris in the spring of 1793, it was just in time to witness the purge itself. The conflict between the moderate Girondin faction—which had tried to oppose the execution of the king—and a radical coalition of Jacobins, Montagnards, and sans-culottes was coming to a head. Over three violent days, from May 31 to June 2, an army raised by the government of the Paris Commune effectively held the Convention hostage and deemed the Girondins to be traitors. Radicals like Hébert, as well as the army, demanded that the Convention turn over the leading Girondins. 

On May 31st, the Montagnard hardliner Maximilien Robespierre called for the arrest of the Girondin leaders. The next day, as Gregoire presided over the Convention, things descended into chaos as the mobilized soldiers forced delegates to remain assembled at cannon point. When the dust settled, 29 Girondins and two ministers were under house arrest and the Jacobins were in control. By October, the Girondin leaders had been executed by the Revolutionary Tribunal, Robespierre was on the Committee for Public Safety, and the Terror was beginning to unfold.

The Revolution was beginning to outrun those who had begun it. When moderates in Lyon sympathetic to the Girondins tried to resist the Convention in the months after the purge, the government besieged the city. Once the Jacobins had consolidated their rule, the government sent deputies to begin its destruction, ordering the demolition of houses owned by “traitors” in addition to executions. Collot, one of those charged with the task, gave up on the guillotine entirely and began ordering the execution of entire groups with cannon. In Paris, the government ordered that a monument would be placed: “Lyon made war on liberty: Lyon is no more!”

As the bloodletting accelerated, Gregoire attempted to continue the work of regenerating France. Growing quieter in the daily strife of the Convention, he devoted himself to the Committee of Public Instruction—the same committee from which he gave his report on languages. The CPI had the mission of creating a new republican education system. While the old system had serviced around 50,000 men, the new one was to serve a much wider population.

The proposed system not only nationalized education but also restricted it to men. While a number of convents had maintained girls’ schools in the old order, republican education was tied to a masculine public square. When the republicans spoke about virtue, they conceived of it as the Roman virtus: manly courage, discipline, and self-sacrifice. In contrast to rabble-rousers like Hébert and Collot, leading Jacobins had built their careers on invoking Roman virtues. The young deputy Louis Antoine de Saint-Just was pre-eminent among them, a reputation which made Robespierre his most loyal ally. When sent by the Convention to review the military at the front, he promised “justice and severity as the Army has not yet witnessed.” Saint-Just made sure to deliver: officers faced the firing squad for insufficient performance. Later, when overseeing a hard-won victory against Austria, he ordered retreating soldiers to be shot.

Since virtus was an explicitly male quality, Gregoire and other revolutionaries conceived of their work as re-masculinizing France. The regenerated man of republican art is physically powerful: he crushes the symbols of royalty and reaction beneath his feet, the sciences amplify his abilities, the Constitution is his banner, and the heavens send lightning to announce his coming. Conversely, treachery was a thing expressed in feminine terms; Gregoire himself stridently attacked both the vanity of urban women and the ignorance of those in the country. While women’s associations played a role in the early revolution, the Jacobins ultimately banned all such organizations. Women were never granted full citizenship under the French Republic. 

In Gregoire’s rhetoric, treason began at the feet of unpatriotic mothers, who spoon-fed their children counterrevolution, religious fanaticism, and the hated patois. The Committee, Gregoire and the Jacobins believed, would need to root out these tendencies as early as possible from the young men in its schools. Gregoire devoted long hours to devising the necessary policies.

But in accepting a place on the Committee, Gregoire had also become an accomplice against his own religious goals. The Republic was now in a dechristianizing phase; a new Cult of Reason, operating under the leadership of Hébert, now carried out attacks even on Constitutional priests. Gregoire, who still defiantly wore his violet bishops’ robes to the Convention, was increasingly in the crosshairs. 

On November 7, 1793, the Constitutional Archbishop of Paris, a man named Gobel, was hauled before the Convention. There, he was forced to renounce his episcopate, and then his religion entirely. Gregoire was called on to do the same that very day. Making one of his few stands against the revolutionary majority, he refused. After he returned to his seat, “[e]veryone moved away from me as if I had the Plague. When I turned my head, I saw looks of fury directed at me…For eighteen months, I was expected at the scaffold.”

Soon after, Robespierre himself moved against the campaign and condemned atheism as aristocratic decadence. His political power was sufficient to counter the threat, and Gregoire likely escaped the Terror by the skin of his teeth. But soon, history overtook Robespierre as well—his head rolled by the end of summer. It marked a turning point in the Revolution: Robespierre’s enemies now consolidated as the Thermidorian faction and took control. The Terror was coming to its close.

The dream of early Revolutionaries of expanding the Enlightenment to all of France had failed. Instead of the “sweet intimacy” of the Philanthropes, France had felt Robespierre’s “swift, severe, indomitable justice.” Genteel intellectuals had been willing to join the clamor for bloodshed under the logic that revolution made it necessary—many now found themselves in mass graves, headless, after denunciation by those they had called friends. In a barbed illustration, the arch-royalist diplomat Joseph de Maistre illustrated their fate as Providence’s reply to hubris: “I accept your recommendation,” he depicted it saying, “but you shall be one of the victims.”

Despite their failures, the revolutionaries had created something new. The Republic had mobilized all of French society, raised ideologically-motivated mass armies, used law and language as nation-building tools, and established a regime that could rapidly assimilate the rising classes in France. It was a political logic that would last far beyond the Terror, and even the Republic itself.

A Republican in the Empire

Throughout the rest of its life, the Republic convulsed through several governments. Under a new government called the Directory, royalists and emigres began quietly returning to France, and the purged Jacobins radicalized even further in their time out of power. Soon, leading politicians were convinced that only radical action could save the state. To do this, they approached the rising general Napoleon Bonaparte. But on November 9, 1799, Napoleon betrayed his Jacobin allies and established the Consulate in a coup d’etat, which became his vehicle for consolidating personal power. His republican backers quickly lost control as well. In 1804, Napoleon became Emperor of the French.

Even though Napoleon removed certain radicals from power and reinstated some royal-era official roles, the Empire actually centralized and institutionalized the Revolution. The Imperial Senate included openly anti-imperial republicans and former Jacobins, including Gregoire. The Napoleonic legal code’s emphasis on individual rights in the court system reflected the goals listed in the Declaration of the Rights of Man. The Empire finally brought in a restructured secondary education system and definitively implemented Parisian French as the standard for education. It ended ghetto restrictions for Jews across Europe and even established a new Grand Sanhedrin to religiously underwrite the civil participation of French Jews, banning their involvement in moneylending. 

In some ways, it should have been the culmination of Gregoire’s dreams. Napoleon knew Gregoire personally and occasionally called on him. But while Napoleon generally saw the Revolution as an advancement, he was by nature a pragmatic opportunist; Gregoire, on the other hand, was a true believer. In the Imperial Senate, he became the holdout against Napoleon’s new nobility and refused his own title as an Imperial count. 

Napoleon bet that pragmatic statecraft would end the years of chaos and preserve the Revolution’s gains. Gregoire, meanwhile, was convinced that moral corruption lay at the heart of its failures. He had become disillusioned with the Enlightenment culture in which his career had begun. In his letters, he now wrote against the “so-called philosophes” and their thought which “would like to rip all religious principles…from the heart of man.” 

Gregoire never repudiated his fundamental Enlightenment ideals, nor did he end up sharing Voltaire’s stance that it should never have been a popular project at all. Instead, reflection brought him to identify more strongly with the Christian reformists of his younger years. Gregoire thought that while men like Voltaire and Rousseau believed that enlightenment could happen without moral and spiritual health, this amounted to hubris. In reality, it was the Richerist priests—and their successors in the Constitutional Church—who had actually been carrying out the work of regeneration. Gregoire worked for years to rebuild the Constitutional Church, which had been scarred by years of persecution and abandonment by many of its own clerics. But in 1801, Bonapartist pragmatism cost Gregoire his bishopric when Napoleon reconciled with the Papacy and put an end to the Constitutional Church entirely. 

For all of Gregoire’s agreement with some imperial policies, to him regeneration was effectively the purpose of the state. Insofar as it refused to pursue these goals, it delegitimized itself and became a liability to history. While Napoleon did much to cement the Revolution, he was ultimately a regime-builder. He did not entertain actions that could threaten his new consensus and did not feel bound to observe Republican political pieties. While Gregoire defended the original motivations of the Revolution, Napoleon recognized the efficacy of its means and institutions instead—and it was these that he sought to integrate into the new regime. The devout priest and the military emperor acted, in a sense, according to their natures.

No cause brought out this contrast between the two so much as the abolition of chattel slavery. Gregoire had opposed slavery from early on in the Revolution and was in close contact with abolitionists in Britain and America. As Consul, Napoleon reinstituted slavery in the colonies. He also took measures to reconquer Saint-Domingue, which at that time was under the control of the former slave Toussaint Louverture. Previously, Louverture had been seen as a stabilizer. He had expelled a Spanish military threat, was loyal to France, invoked republican language in his regime, and backed Catholicism as the island’s religion against its many vodou practitioners. He had also put an end to the violence carried out against whites in the early rebellion, when slaveholders and their families were torn from their beds by night and slaughtered. 

Napoleon, however, saw a greater advantage in backing the interests of the planters in restoring slavery to the island, and so Louverteur was captured in 1802. What followed was a brutal conflict in which both sides undertook racial extermination: French forces carried out mass killings of the black populace, while the rebels did the same to the whites. When General Jean-Jacques Dessalines defeated the French with British aid and declared the independent Republic of Haiti, he ordered the massacre of nearly all remaining whites on the island. After Dessalines himself was killed, the island was divided between a northern, black-ruled, and semi-feudal kingdom and a southern republic dominated by mixed-race families.

Gregoire became notorious in Europe for being among the sole defenders of Haiti, and he was continually in contact with its leaders. For him, Napoleon’s actions had endangered the prospects of French colonialism as a vector of regeneration in the New World in the name of temporary economic benefit. But while he encouraged his Haitian friends, he also emphasized that Haiti’s regeneration had barely begun. In particular, he spurned the northern kingdom and turned his attention to the southern leadership. Partially, this was out of republican disgust for the northern monarchy, but he also saw the south as far better prepared demographically to carry out the long-term mission. 

While supporting political rights for all Haitians, he stressed that regeneration was a process of including former slaves in the European culture from which they had been excluded—a process in which wealthy French free blacks and the gens de couleur already found themselves ahead. He also toyed with the idea, popular among physiognomists of the time, that “crossed races” could produce a “more robust” population even as it eliminated the color differences on the island. As ever, regeneration ultimately had to be physical as well.

Ever the guardian of the Republic’s legacy, Gregoire saw fit to oppose the pragmatism of Napoleon when it conflicted with the mission of regeneration. In the end, the Emperor seems to have come to the abbé’s view himself. During his final reign in the Hundred Days, he re-proclaimed the abolition of the slave trade. And while under exile on St. Helena, he expressed regret about not ruling Haiti directly through Toussaint Louverture.

Regeneration Without Enlightenment

Gregoire’s life ended with many disappointments. After Napoleon’s final defeat, France came under the rule of kings again. Even on his deathbed, he had to fight to receive the last rites from a returned clerical establishment that demanded he recant his oath to the Constitutional Church, something he never did. On May 28, 1831, he breathed his last. His funeral, attended by around 25,000 people, became a moment of Republican unity for a man who arguably helped ensure its survival—and ultimately, France’s return to a republican state years later.

Until the end, Gregoire was seen as a radical by his contemporaries. But within a century of his death, societies around the world underwent transformations as extreme as anything that he had endorsed. An alliance between liberal republics and the new industrial class saw slavery abolished across the Americas. Colonialism brought European institutions to nearly every corner of the earth, and Westernized colonial subjects repeatedly turned them against their rulers.

While Gregoire had seen the Republic as linked with the ideology of regeneration, its institutional forms were strategically powerful in their own right. In general, states that homogenized their national cultures and languages better mobilized their peoples, while empires that failed to do so—like the Ottomans and Austria-Hungary—collapsed as they became unable to match the coordination of their rivals. Napoleon’s bet had been that the institutions and social advancements established by the Revolution were not bound to the ideology of those who carried it out. It turned out to be a winning one.

Republicanism could operate distinctly from its Enlightenment ideological roots to a remarkable degree. In the case of Brazil, the country’s republic was implemented by its reactionary coffee farmers and planters following the abolition of slavery under its Emperor, Pedro II. Even the dictatorships that operated in Chile and Brazil in the twentieth century had a distinctively “republican” nature, emanating from professional militaries that collaborated with civilian elites.

But the ideology of regeneration proved similarly adaptive. The political rhetoric of restoring societies from sickness to health would be invoked again and again from South America to Asia, as well as in Europe itself—sometimes by transmission, other times by convergence. In Latin America, Simon Bolivar became the foremost representative of French revolutionary ideas as the region broke away from Spain. Bolivar was a contemporary of Gregoire’s and was even in Paris during the imperial coronation. Gregoire defended Bolivar’s revolution in the continent, while Bolivar accepted military aid from Haiti in exchange for a commitment to abolitionism. 

Bolivar, in turn, replicated both Gregoire’s revolutionary universalism and his belief that freedom depended on a transformed populace. For him, universalism—specifically, Pan-Americanism—could be the ideological vehicle to transform society. “Surely unity,” he proposed, “is what we need to complete our work of regeneration.” Although throughout the nineteenth century his prediction that Latin America would be divided among many regimes came true, these successor regimes replicated many of the policies on language and national identity that France had begun decades earlier. 

The concept of regeneration also became popular in Asia, both in the French colonies and beyond them. While Gregoire was known to Ho Chi Minh—who called him the “apostle of the liberty of peoples”—many of the national liberation movements in Asia found their way to Gregoire-style ideas and policies on their own terms. States from Meiji Japan to Communist China embraced various forms of “modernization without Westernization,” which accepted that national liberation depended on fully absorbing the advances made by the West, even as it used them to overthrow Western hegemony. Unlike figures like Gandhi, who identified anticolonial resistance with maintaining traditional life, revolutionaries in China, Japan, Korea, and elsewhere eradicated folk customs, imposed national languages, and rapidly industrialized their countries.

Ultimately, even some movements that reviled Gregoire could not resist the logic of regeneration. Zionists in particular opposed the popularity of Gregoire among liberal Jews, seeing him and his Essai as threats to Jewish identity. Yet the project of a Jewish state itself invariably took on the language of national regeneration—even down to the regenerated “new muscle Jew” of the Zionist Max Nordau. Zionist intellectuals like Theodor Herzl invoked the Maccabeans as opposed to the Hellenized Jews idealized by Gregoire. But his vision in Der Judenstaat of “a wondrous generation of Jews” living “at last as free men on our own soil” in a world “freed by our liberty, enriched by our wealth, magnified by our greatness” is undeniably one of a regenerated people. Though they rejected Gregoire and the assumptions of the old SPS, the early Zionists envisioned Jews contributing to “the physical and moral perfection of man” on terms all their own.

The ideology of regeneration and the republican power structures shared a remarkable adaptability, making them powerful tools for regime-builders and revolutionaries of many stripes. What neither the regime nor the ideology could replicate, however, were the conditions under which the Enlightenment culture had arisen. The dream that they might expand it could not survive the revolutionary experience. The Revolution passed judgment on France, and in doing so it changed the world, achieving many of Gregoire’s own goals. But it did so on the basis of its own structural logic, which proved irresistible even as it escaped the grasp of those who brought it into being.

Ash Milton is Contributing Editor at Palladium Magazine. You can follow him at @miltonwrites.