High Profile Marriages in Revolutionary Paris: The Condorcets

Sam Dobbie | University of Glasgow

Eighteenth-century France was a hotbed of political, social, cultural, and intellectual exchange. The Enlightenment was a stepping stone into modernity for those privileged enough to engage in this world that prioritised sociability, polite conversation, and debate. Salons, held in the front rooms of wealthy salonnières, were the hub for intellectuals to exchange ideas and opinions. These intellectuals gathered in these salons on a regular basis - often weekly or monthly - which were only open to those invited by the hostess, presented by an established guest of the salon, or in possession of a letter of recommendation from a notable figure. Anyone who wanted to be someone attended, and the likes of Voltaire, Diderot, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and the Marquis de Condorcet, graced these salons with their presence. Within these spaces intellectuals exchanged pleasantries, networked with one another, and sought patronage.

The Marquis de Condorcet was an intellectual anomaly in this setting because he was the least suited to sociable environments. As Élisabeth and Robert Badinter’s study of the life of Condorcet demonstrates, he was an extremely intelligent man with a naturally cold and unwelcoming presence, who detested small talk on trivial subjects and struggled to make light-hearted exchanges. However, his intellectual abilities were unmatched. A mathematician, philosopher, and Inspector General of the Monnaie de Paris, in 1774 under the minister Turgot, he played a significant role in both the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. He championed issues such as the abolition of slavery, using his membership in the Society of the Friends of the Blacks as his platform in this protest; republicanism; and human rights, which included education and citizenship. Amongst his written works were: Reflections on Negro Slavery (1781), a pamphlet which attacked the slave trade and the slaveholders who enabled this abhorrent practice; and Essay on the Application of Analysis to the Probability of Majority Decisions (1785), which applied his mathematical jury theorem to social science in the study of ballot voting, and concluded that the likelihood of the majority making a correct decision in the process of voting increased when the number of individuals voting increased.

In 1786 he married Sophie de Grouchy, who was twenty years his junior. A lively, passionate, and nurturing young woman, from an aristocratic background, she was a perfect complement to Condorcet. She was a wife, lover, companion, and intellectual equal. Following their marriage, he publicly championed women’s citizenship rights and educational opportunities, publishing On the Admission of Women to the Rights of Citizenship (1790). He argued that women and men possessed the same natural rights and that women were only inferior because they lacked the relevant education to exercise these rights. This was a shift away from the views of many enlightened thinkers who generally argued that women were intellectually and physically inferior to their male counterparts, and lacked the rationality to represent their own needs in the public sphere. For example, Rousseau, in Émile (1762), concluded that women were created to please and obey the male sex. Sophie, as a privileged and well-educated young woman, contradicted these assertions and was both testimony to and the inspiration behind Condorcet’s public support for improvements to the lived experiences of women. Charming and bright-spirited, she established a salon that attracted both national and international attention and welcomed the likes of Thomas Jefferson, Anacharsis Clootz, Thomas Paine, and David Williams. It became the place for scholars and philosophers to meet. Through her salon, she successfully networked on behalf of her husband. She also, from 1787, attended some lectures at the Lycée, where she followed arguments with diligence and rigour. She was a credit to Condorcet and was central to his success as a key revolutionary figure in the early 1790s. From this point onwards, they cemented their status as a ‘power couple’, in which both partners were equally important to the successes of the other.

They embraced the instabilities of revolutionary politics. Condorcet became affiliated with the Cordeliers Club and the Cercle Social. Composed primarily of enlightened and progressive men, these societies openly discussed issues including slavery, divorce rights, democracy, and women’s rights. Due to her inactive citizenship status, which was determined by her sex, Sophie was unable to enjoy the same access to political societies and clubs as her husband; with most limiting female participation to spectating in the galleries. As someone who was perceived as belonging to the inferior sex, she was expected to restrict most of her activities to the domestic sphere. However, Condorcet appreciated the intellectual qualities of his wife and encouraged her to pursue journalism and translation. This allowed her to engage with the intellectual and political debates occurring within revolutionary society in the initial years of the French Revolution.

In June 1791, the couple, alongside Paine and Brissot de Warville, established the journal, Le Républicain. It was short-lived, lasting four issues, but was an example of how those in high-profile marriages could work together to promote their causes. Focusing on arguments supporting the creation of a French Republic, this journal provided an outlet for those with republican sympathies to share their ideas more broadly with the public. For those, like Paine, who could not speak the French language, Sophie translated his articles and permitted his ideas to become accessible to a wider audience. She was, in short, the bridge that spanned the gap in the exchange of intellectual ideas within and between communities. The publishers used this journal to criticise the privileges bestowed upon individuals by the royal family via the civil list, claiming that they encouraged social inequalities. They argued that a republic, with democratic voting systems and deputies who represented the interests of individuals, was the best solution to ending this oppressive regime.

Inspired by the arguments put forward in Le Républicain, the Condorcets and their political allies established the first French republican society. Its principals emerged from its Appel en faveur de la République (1791), a poster calling for the establishment of a republic and promoting republican ideals, which was plastered over the walls of Paris. Emerging in the immediate aftermath of Louis XVI’s attempted Flight to Varennes, which was perceived as an attempt to rally counter-revolutionary support, the republican society was also short-lived. It was created in a politically turbulent context. Throughout July 1791, debates over the role of the royal family ensued and a petition calling for a republic was created. This was the petition that, on 17 July, an estimated 20,000 people turned up to sign at the Champ de Mars, when the National Guard fired upon the crowd and killed around fifty people with many more wounded. Sophie and her fourteen-month-old daughter, Eliza, were present that day and narrowly avoided injury. This event, referred to as the Champ de Mars massacre, influenced the decline in the couple’s intellectual involvement in revolutionary society as republicanism and its ideals became associated with this unfortunate event.

Whilst Condorcet continued to be present in debates, particularly during the trial of Louis XVI, when the fate of the monarch was in dispute; Sophie restricted her presence in the public sphere out of concern for the safety of both herself and her family. From 1793, Condorcet was forced to flee due to the political persecutions occurring under the Terror, the bloodiest period of the Revolution under the leadership of Robespierre. Nevertheless, Sophie risked her life frequently to visit him, delivering the necessary writing implements to continue his Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind (1795), which she published after his death in 1794. Meanwhile, living on her own, Sophie devoted time to translating works for money. One such work she translated in the early 1790s but did not publish until 1798, was Scottish economist Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments. To the end of this direct translation, she attached her own response in an essay composed of eight letters and entitled, Letters on Sympathy. Sophie was also devoted to publishing edited collections of her husband’s works, a task she continued until her death in 1822.

Both Sophie and her husband were progressive thinkers who promoted reform and exemplified intellectual equality. They shared similar ideals and interests, in spite of their significant age gap, and collaborated with one another frequently throughout their marriage. She not only, following their marriage, inspired Condorcet to become an advocate of women’s rights but acted as his confidant. Their marriage provided her with the space to translate the works of others, such as Paine and Smith, and co-create a revolutionary political journal and club. She was also able to establish close connections with influential revolutionaries and other enlightened thinkers. In contrast, for Condorcet, the union brought not only a wife, but a companion and intellectual partner with whom opinions, beliefs, and ideas were exchanged. They may not have successfully implemented reforms on the issues close to their hearts, but they certainly raised awareness of them. Without her devotion, edited collections of his works on such a grand scale would not have appeared in the aftermath of his death because no one else knew him so well. She commemorated the memory of her husband by ensuring the existence of his works for future generations. Their high-profile marriage represented the best example of an eighteenth-century power couple, securing their legacies as progressive republicans.

Further Reading:

  • See Antoine Lilti, The World of the Salons: Sociability and Wordliness in Eighteenth-Century Paris, trans.by Lydia G. Cochrane (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015) for more information on salons from the Enlightenment period.

  • Élisabeth and Robert Badinter, Condorcet, 1743-1794: Un intellectuel en politique (Paris: Fayard, 1988). Whilst this is a useful source, it is only available in French.

  • Sandrine Bergès, ‘Sophie de Grouchy’, The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, ed.by Edward N. Zalta <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2019/entries/sophie-de-grouchy/>

  • Bergès, Sophie de Grouchy on the Cost of Domination in the “Letters on Sympathy” and Two Anonymous Articles in “Le Républicain”’, The Monist 98(1) (2015), 102-112.

  • Antoine Gullois, La Marquise de Condorcet, Sa Famille, Son Salon, Ses Amis, 1764-1822, 2nd edition (Paris: Paul Ollendorff, 1897).

  • Marie Jean Nicolas de Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet (1743-1794), Thomas Paine (1737-1809) and Achille Du Châtelet (1759-1794), eds., Le Républicaine, ou le Défenseur du Gouvernement Répresentatif; par une société de républicains (Paris: 1791). There are four issues of this revolutionary journal which can all be obtained via Gallica, the Bibliothèque nationale de France’s (Bnf) online platform.

Sam Dobbie is a PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow. She specialises in the role of women in Revolutionary Paris between 1789 and 1795. Other interests include the 1848 and 1871 revolutions in France, gender theories, and theories of revolution more broadly.

Twitter: @DobbieSamantha