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The Apostle of the French Revolution
Beginning his career as a priest, Henri Gregoire was an unlikely figure of the French Revolution. Outrun by its upheavals at first, his ideas have become crucial in modernizing revolutions since.
Ash Milton, Palladium’s Managing Editor, has a new article on how the French Revolution did not begin as a popular uprising.
In reality, the revolution was born in the drawing rooms and salons of organizations like the Societe des Philantropes de Strasbourg (SPS), a meeting group for intellectuals interested in “the physical and moral perfection of man.”
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During the Enlightenment, informal intellectual communities like these were common. Members were proficient in the arts and sciences, participating in research projects like the creation of Denis Diderot’s 18,000 page Encyclopédie. Politics and political philosophy made for common conversation, and Voltaire and Rousseau would have been household names.
This was the environment that many of the original revolutionaries participated in, including the young Henri Gregoire. A priest from a humble background, he would go on to become a militant for revolution all his life, and an ideological progenitor for many revolutionaries afterward. There is a famous depiction of the first meeting of revolutionary France’s National Assembly that showcases Gregoire front and center. There, he and others took an oath to uphold “the regeneration of public order,” using the vocabulary from a concept of his own making.
Much of Gregoire’s life work was centered around the concept of regeneration, in which a socially, intellectually, and morally compromised population is lifted into enlightenment by introducing a shared language and culture alongside scientific economic management. This entailed the elimination of local dialect and custom:
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.
Even though Gregoire’s thought was overshadowed and outrun by the revolutionary violence of his day, it would continue to be invoked for the next two hundred years. Regeneration was referenced by Simon Bolivar in his program for the South American people, and Ho Chi Minh would cite him as the “apostle of the liberty of peoples”:
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.
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.
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. While there is no mention of the two meeting, Gregoire defended Bolivar’s revolution in the continent, while Bolivar accepted military aid from Haiti in exchange for a commitment to abolitionism.
Even if many future revolutionary leaders did not share the ideological underpinnings of the French Revolution, they were able to utilize regeneration for their own purposes. This also applies to many nationalist states of the modern period in general—linguistic standardization, universal education, and scientific management enable states to coordinate their human capital more effectively.
But if for Gregoire the end purpose was the enlightenment of peoples, the legacy of regeneration is that it was used to mobilize and discipline people for the purposes of the state—many of the geopolitical disasters of the 20th century were only possible in an age of highly standardized and technocratically managed societies. The arc of regeneration replicated the arc of the French Revolution, where high ideals for the public transmuted themselves into techniques that the state would wield against that same public.
But the archetype of restoration is a powerful one, and regeneration played exactly into a deeply felt need amongst the intelligentsia of the Enlightenment. If Gregoire were alive today, perhaps he would not try to extend the SPS’s enlightened structure to all society using the state as a vehicle. Perhaps regeneration may be possible by other means.
Here’s what’s been on the front page lately:
The Apostle of the French Revolution by Ash Milton. Beginning his career as a countryside priest, Henri Gregoire was an unlikely figure of the French Revolution. Outrun by its upheavals at first, his ideas have become crucial in modernizing revolutions since.
Everyone Is Moving to the Metropole by Adam Van Buskirk. As young people flock to the global cities to work, what happens to the rest of the world?
The Mineral Conflict Is Here by Brian Balkus. The future of energy will be more mineral-intensive than ever before, leading China and the U.S. to compete for the world’s mining and refinement capacity.
A Papal Revolt Created Europe’s First Bureaucracy by Jonathan Culbreath. In the eleventh century, Pope Gregory VII fought local rulers who dominated the church. To counter them, he created Europe’s first modern bureaucracies and changed the organization of power forever.
War Will Decide The Fate of Transnistria by Collin Mayfield. Soon after my interrogation by Transnistria’s state security, mysterious assailants attacked their headquarters with rocket launchers. The nearby war is drawing in the pro-Russian breakaway state.
That’s all for now.