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

By George Armstrong Kelly | Go to book overview

10. Difficulties of a Statesman

In 1789, writes Delisle de Sales, "France...had an inkling that the man of letters with great talents, who never stooped to intrigue, could be a statesman, and she placed a portion of her omnipotence in Bailly's hitherto clean hands."1 The truth is more complicated. France was not a coherent actor: Bailly was funneled into politics. In Bailly's words, hearing of the summoning of the first Assemblée des Notables in December 1786: "I was struck. I foresaw a great event, a change in the situation, and even in the form of government. I did not foresee the revolution that would ensue, and I don't think that any man could have foreseen it...."2 One day, it seems, Rivarol (the wit, later an ultraroyalist journalist) said to him in jest that his talents would soon be required, for only the astronomer's art with digits could cope with the financial ills of the realm.3 Yet a veil of scrim seems to hang between the momentous shocks of the Revolution and Bailly's appreciation of his part. There is perpetually an air of amazement in his memoirs: "I had no way of foreseeing the great scenes and revolutions to be played in that theatre [the Hôtel de Ville], nor the role in which I was to be cast in that very place."4 Only his political experience in the world of science and literature had prepared him for his destiny.

The Revolution came to disturb his tranquillity and fame. He had been quietly married in 1787 to a cheerful and supportive widow, Jeanne Gaye, née Le Seigneur, two years younger than himself. Their brief life together was companionable and affectionate: Madame Bailly called her husband "Coco," a name cruelly picked up by journalistic detractors. At Chaillot she was a cordial hostess with her hot chocolate, but she did not find politics glamorous or go out in the social world, except to one or two official receptions while Bailly was mayor of Paris.

After 24 January 1788, when the Ministry published the letter of convocation and electoral regulations for the Estates-General, political excitement ran high in the city. In Bailly's words: "There was talk about who the deputies from Paris would be; lists were passed around; and it was said in public (dans le monde), and especially in the Club des Arts where I was a member, that I would be a deputy. However, I wasn't on those lists. Those who were had pretensions, and I had none."5 The "lists" were probably like the documents published by Chassin, where one reads among the most conspicuous names: La Rochefoucauld, LallyTollendal, Condorcet, Duport, Hérault de Séchelles, Sieyès, Dr. Guillo

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