- Pierre Gaspard Chaumette
Pierre Gaspard Chaumette
Pierre Gaspard Chaumette
Born 24 May 1763
Died 13 April 1794
Nationality French Fields botany
Alma mater University of Paris
Born in Nevers France, 24 May 1763, his main interest was botany and science. Chaumette studied medicine at the University of Paris in 1790, but gave up his career in medicine at the start of the Revolution. Chaumette began his political career as member of the Jacobin Club editing the progressive Revolutions de Paris journal from 1790. His oratory skills proved him a valuable spokesperson of the Cordelier Club, and more importantly, the sans-culotte movement in the Parisian neighbourhood Sections. In August of 1792 Chaumette became the Chief Procurator of the Commune of Paris; on 31 October 1792 he was elected President of the Commune and was re-elected in the Municipal on 2 December of that same year. As member of the Paris Commune during the insurrection of 10 August 1792, he was delegated to visit the prisons, with full power to arrest suspects. He was accused later of having taken part in the September Massacres, but proved that at that time he had been sent by the provisional executive council to Normandy to oversee a requisition of 60,000 men. Returning from this mission, he spoke eloquently in favour of the French Republic.
Presidency of the Commune
His conduct, oratorical talent, and the fact that his private life was considered beyond reproach, all made him influential, and he was elected president of the Commune, defending the municipality at the bar of the National Convention on 31 October 1792. Re-elected in the municipal elections of 2 December 1792, he was soon given the functions of procureur of the Commune, and contributed with success to the enrollments of volunteers in the army by his appeals to the population of Paris. Chaumette was one of the instigators of the attacks of 31 May and of 2 June 1793 on the Girondists, carrying out a virulent and intransigent attack. Further, Chaumette held a strong opinion about the fate of Louis XVI after his fall. He was greatly outspoken in his demand for the king's blood. Chaumette’s thesis was that as long as Louis XVI went unpunished prices would remain high, and shortages and the profiteering that created them, which he assumed to be the work of the royalists, would go unchecked. Chaumette ultimately was one of the men to vote in favor of the former king's execution.
Chaumette is considered one of the ultra-radical enragés of the French Revolution. He demanded the formation of a Revolutionary Army which was to "force avarice and greed to yield up the riches of the earth” in order to redistribute wealth, and feed troops and the urban populations. He is associated much more with his views on the de-Christianization movement, however. Chaumette was an ardent critic of Christianity, which he believed to consist of "ridiculous ideas" that "have been very helpful to [legitimize] despotism.” In his ultra-radical views, he was heavily influenced by atheist and materialist writers Paul d'Holbach, Denis Diderot and Jean Meslier. Chaumette believed religion to be a relic of superstitious eras that did not reflect the intellectual achievements of his enlightened age. Indeed, for Chaumette "church and counterrevolution were one and the same." Thus, he proceeded to pressure several priests and bishops into abjuring their positions. Chaumette organized a Festival of Reason on 10 November 1793, which boasted a Goddess of Reason, in the guise of an actress, on an elevated platform in the Notre Dame Cathedral. Chaumette was so passionately involved in the de-Christianization process that he even publicly changed his name from Pierre-Gaspard Chaumette to Anaxagoras Chaumette. He stated his reason for changing his name that, “I was formerly called Pierre-Gaspard Chaumette because my god-father believed in the saints. Since the revolution I have taken the name of a saint who was hanged for his republican principles.”
The Cult of Reason, of which Chaumette was an avid follower alongside Jacques Hébert, emphasized so called natural facts. Chaumette's adherence to this ideology becomes lucid in his views toward the suffragist movement at the time. He has been recorded to answer “Since when is it permitted to give up one's sex? […] Is it to men that nature confided domestic cares? Has she given us breasts to feed our children?” to a group of women demanding equal treatment in October of 1793. He evidently believed nature to have clearly defined the political scene as man's domain, and the domestic realm as woman's. He reminded a different group of suffragists of Olympe de Gouges' fate whose "forgetfulness of the virtues of her sex led her to the scaffold.”
His ultra-radical ideas were soon regarded as affront to the National Conventions' policies, and as the public and official opinion began to turn against the likewise minded Hébertists in the early spring of 1794, Chaumette increasingly became target of counterrevolutionary allegations. Maximilien Robespierre - as promoter of the Cult of the Supreme Being that was in direct opposition to Chaumette's Cult of Reason - had him accused with the Hébertists as being part of a conspiracy to starve Paris and subsequently overthrow the Convention. He was sentenced to death on the morning of April 13 and guillotined that same afternoon.
Pierre-Gaspard Chaumette's legacy mainly consists of his ultra-radical philosophies that were regarded excessive even by his contemporary colleagues. Especially his convictions on the uselessness of religion were frowned upon by deist Robespierre and most other "moderate" Montagnards and they ultimately led to his execution. In a time in which Catholicism was still deeply embedded in France, Chaumette's views can safely be regarded as shared by a very small minority only. Yet, they are emblematic of the ideological progression to evermore radical ideas that was prevalent in Revolutionary France. Furthermore, his emphasis on reason and natural facts are the high point of the French Enlightenment thinking as they are the logical heir of Rousseau, Voltaire, and the atheist philosophers mentioned above.
In 1790 Chaumette reviewed the work of Saint-Martin, a French Catholic philosopher wishing for a theocratic society in which the most devout people would commission and guide the rest of the population. The review provides a substantiated outline of Chaumette's philosophies. He criticizes Saint-Martin's ideal due to its similarity to France's feudal order before the Revolution in which the rule of the monarch was legitimized by the Divine right of kings. The review soon develops into a much broader affront towards religion, though. Chaumette calls all Christians "enemies of reason", and calls their ideas "ridiculous." He wonders “over whom to get more embarrassed; him who believes he can deceive humans in the eighteenth century with such farces or him who has the weakness to let himself be deceived.” He moves on to criticize the very notion of free will as construct that authorizes Christianity to proscribe certain "unmoral" actions.
His criticism is reminiscent of Friedrich Nietzsche who would denounce Christianity on many of the same grounds eighty years later. Just like Nietzsche, Chaumette emphasizes a greater reliance on our instincts and a greater embracing of the apparent world, instead of Christianity's concern with the afterlife. In his philosophy, he is rather critical of human beings stating that "everyone knows that humans are nothing more than what education makes of them; [...and thus] if one wants them just, one must furnish them with notions of fairness, not ideas from seventh heaven [...] because the sources of all of human’s grief are ignorance and superstition.". Chaumette valued education as key for producing virtuous republican Frenchman who would no longer "fall for" Christianity's unreasonable teachings.
Besides this review, Chaumette left some printed speeches and fragments, and memoirs published in the Amateur d'autographes. His memoirs on the events of 10 August were published by François Victor Alphonse Aulard, preceded by a biographical study.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
- Andress, David. The Terror. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005.
- Chaumette, Pierre-Gaspard. Schlüssel des Buchs: Irthümer und Wahrheit. Hildesheim, Germany: Georg Olms Verlag, 2004.
- Jaher, Frederic Cople. The Jews and the Nation: Revolution Emancipation, State Formation, and the Liberal Paradigm in America and France. New York: Princeton University Press, 2002.
- Jervis, William Henley. The Gallican Church and the Revolution. France: K. Paul, Trench, & Co, 1882.
- Jones, Colin. The Great Nation. Chicago: Columbian University Press 2002
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- Lytle, Scott H.. "The Second Sex." The Journal of Modern History Vol. 27, no. 1 (1955): 14-26.
- Scott, Joan Wallach. "French Feminists and the Rights of 'Man': Olympe de Gouges's Declarations." History Workshop No. 28 (Autumn 1989): 1-21.
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