Victims, Authority, and Terror: The Parallel Deaths of d'orlaeans, Custine, Bailly, and Malesherbes

By George Armstrong Kelly | Go to book overview

9. A Savant of the Old Regime

Jean-Sylvain Bailly was a bourgeois aristocrat; that is to say, he belonged to an "aristocracy of merit" which, by 1750, was invading the values of the three traditional orders, rendering them progressively fractured and incoherent.1 He was born a commoner, committed to a certain station and style of life both by his middling, though ample, means and by his temperament. He lived a bourgeois life of ambition, frugality, and sobriety, except for a mild display of pomp that he affected during his tenure as mayor of Paris ( 17July 1789-16 November 1791). Though he carried the weight of his ancestry far less truculently than a prince of the blood or a military noble, he was not a misfit creature of the Old Regime, for he obtained eminence within its rules and boundaries. He was not a convive of Versailles, Chantilly, or the Palais-Royal, nor did he draw his saber in America; but he was as typical and vital a part of the system that the Bourbons sustained as any cardinal, any noble of the sword or the robe.

Bailly was not a bourgeois of the legal profession or of commerce; his values were not especially theirs, except to the degree that all these commoners had an interest in wresting equal rights and equal respect from the privileged estates. He gained the reputation of an homme de lettres (if not quite a philosophe): unquestionably this caste mentality marked him more deeply than his bourgeois origins. For he participated freely, if prudently, in a favored milieu where advanced nobles and clergy mingled corporately with bourgeois savants in the glare of the lumières. What Bénichou has called the "sacre de l'écrivain" was now beginning.2 As a writer and academician Bailly became part of a set of interlocking corporations that enhanced and reflected the crown's glory, while at the same time gradually undermining the sanctified precepts of its closed society and metaphysical supremacy. The great majority of the savants accepted, and depended on, what I have called the usufructory view of authority; they halted before the chasm of political upheaval. Busying themselves with practical reforms and the diffusion of scientific knowledge, they consigned their most subversive impulses to allusive utopian excursions or attacks on the perimeter of deferential superstition. Bailly was at most a fellow-traveler in these enterprises, content to seek, and when possible, obtain, the approval of his greater elders like Voltaire, d'Alembert, and Buffon. He was a courtier of the Academy and its elective monarchs.

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