The Immortal Lavoisier

4th Frimaire, Year 2 of the Republic. It was twenty hours since du Pont had seen his wife and baby. Returning from Bois-des-Fosses to Paris meant a prolonged passport inspection at the barrier, and crossing the Seine and the dark city to his empty apartment. In the Place de la Revolution, blood clotted in rivulets beneath the guillotine. The cathedral was re-dedicated ‘To Philosophy’; its statues were dismembered; the Cult of Reason replaced ‘superstitions’ with ‘Enlightenment’; people worshipped ‘Liberty’, personified by an actress in white drapery. Life was getting harder.

Du Pont, aged twenty two, ran his father’s printing press. After an hour’s sleep he had spent the day touring the city with wads of worthless assignats, procuring paper supplies for the new decimal calendars. Now a crescent moon floated in a black-banded winter sky. People stayed inside, leaving the streets to the night and the surveillance of unseen eyes. With no time to rest, he donned his uniform and reported for Guard duty.

Their captain, back from the Depot, clapped the door of the Guards’ post shut behind him. He read out the arrest warrants in a lantern’s ochre light.

“The informers are keeping us busy. Sector 2, the Widow La Bresse, harbouring a priest, Citizen Andre Colombe and Citizeness Yvette Brun, both Rue de la Loi, sedition..”

He let out a gluttonous chuckle.

“Well. The Farmers-General, our respected tax collectors, to the Port-Libre Prison. Embezzlement, corruption, adding water to tobacco, stealing from the nation. Here, du Pont, you read it.”

The captain pulled him forward into the light. “You know any of these men?” he asked. Du Pont took the papers, keeping his face under control.

“Read it out.”

“Delaage, Bagneux, Paulze, Lavoisier, Puissant…” Thirty-four financiers.

“Fat parasites,” said someone. “Give them to the Terror.”

“About time,” said another. “Terror is Freedom.”

“Didn’t you work with Lavoisier?” The captain was looking straight at Du Pont.

“I’m a printer.”

“You studied at the Arsenal.”

“Four years ago. I was at Essonne gunpowder mills, but I left for the printing press.” Du Pont read on, raising his voice. “This warrant to be expedited with all urgency before the bloodsuckers liquidate their properties and betray the Nation’s wealth to her enemies.”

“So, du Pont, you know where to find your old boss? Go with Joseph, bring him in.”

They left the guard post. Du Pont buried his hands in his coat pockets, shoulders hunched against the stinging cold.

“Where now?” asked Joseph. He was a big, stupid man who had once worked in the royal stables. The Revolution had made him workless and wasted; he starved and blamed it on ‘tyranny’.

Du Pont wanted to avoid the Boulevard de la Madeleine, at least for long enough for Lavoisier to get away.

“The Arsenal. He might hide there,” he ventured, hoping he was wrong.

The Arsenal was beside the ruined Bastille. The laboratories were abandoned; the guards walked them past bare shelves and benches.

“No-one here,” said Joseph.

“I wonder where the apparatus went,” said du Pont. “He had the best balance scales in Europe here, huge things taller than your head, yet able to weigh even a few grains. He showed that metals gained weight when they burned, instead of losing phlogiston.”

“Grains are horse feed,” Joseph said. “What are you talking about?”

“Nothing, let’s go.” He would never explain oxygen to Joseph.

‘Try the Boulevard de la Madeleine,” said the guards. “No 243.” David portraitThe Lavoisiers’ butler, acknowledging du Pont with merely a raised eyebrow, asked them to wait in the salon. The candles were lit, and a fire burned in the hearth. The apartment was furnished with a restrained grandeur.

“Is that what he looks like?” asked Joseph. David’s portrait showed Lavoisier at a writing desk over which blood-red velvet flowed. Sleek, dressed in black, he gazed up at his wife who stood resting her arm on his shoulder. She looked ready to utter a sarcasm, her chin firm, her eyes bright. Around them were glass vessels and brass instruments, and a folio of her scientific engravings.

Madame Lavoisier entered the room. Despite the late hour, her blonde hair was carefully dressed; her body was rigid in green twill. Du Pont lowered his eyes, ashamed of his uniform, and the arrest warrant in his hand.

“My husband is not here.” She glared at du Pont, who willed her not to betray any information. “He should have returned from Guard duty three hours ago.”

Du Pont relaxed. Lavoisier must know of the arrest warrant; perhaps he had escaped Paris by now.

“We’ll search your premises,” said Joseph.

“Masselot will show you.”

The butler, holding a candlestick, conducted them through several rooms. A dining room, a study piled high with papers, a library, bedchambers. A large wine cellar was stuffed with a jumble of apparatus, thousands of vessels in brass and glass, jars of minerals, calorimeters, a pneumatic machine with two copper cylinders, compasses, barometers, and scales.

‘Careful!’ said du Pont, as a piece of glass cracked under Joseph’s boot. Masselot ushered them out, following Joseph up the cellar steps, with du Pont behind him. Halfway up, Masselot passed du Pont a letter.

It had struck two when du Pont got home. Lighting a candle behind closed shutters, Du Pont sat on his unmade bed and read the letter. Lavoisier had addressed it to the Committee of Public Instruction.

‘Citizen Lavoisier, of the former Academy of Sciences,’ had left the General-Farm three years ago, for the National Treasury Committee and the National Committee on Weights and Measures. He asked permission to continue his scientific work, particularly metrication: ‘one of the most beautiful and vast conceptions of the human mind..a general system embracing geography, navigation, surveying, currency, and measurements of solids and liquids.. eliminating all calculation problems by the use of decimal divisions.’

Du Pont put out the light. He was exhausted beyond sleep. Couldn’t Lavoisier see they meant to finish him? People cared nothing for metrication when their prey was a financier. It was a risk to help him. But, in the morning, he called on Fourcroy, who remembered him as a student from the Arsenal.

Fourcroy had worked with Lavoisier on the chemical elements, and now was rising to power in the National Convention. He was in his office at the Tuileries.

“I shan’t ask where you got this letter, young man.” Fourcroy had a cherub’s face, with a plump mouth and serene eyes, but he frowned at du Pont, who was silent.

Fourcroy sighed. “I’ll take it to the Committee of Public Instruction, but they can’t help. There are criminal charges – fraud, the corruption of tobacco.”

“But he’s innocent,” objected du Pont.

“Why is he hiding, then?”

“I don’t know. But he lives for precision. He’d never commit fraud.”

“Naturally.” Fourcroy half closed his eyelids. “But his colleagues may be less precise. Anyway, detention will compel the Farmers-General to submit their accounts. Once all is in order, they will be released. ”

“But he hasn’t worked there for three years.”

“Because the General-Farm was abolished three years ago by the National Assembly. But the accounts are still incomplete. They were due months ago. Citizen Lavoisier is one of the few who understood them, and he should come forward. Anyway, Citizen Halle is compiling a report, and I’m sure..” Fourcroy’s cherubic smile indicated that the interview was at an end.

“Please convey this information to whoever gave you the letter,” he said.

Du Pont delayed at the printing press before returning to Madame Lavoisier, wary of being followed. The darkness of the winter afternoon lay between the tall grey buildings of the Boulevard de la Madeleine.

‘I told both Messieurs to flee Paris,’ Masselot said, on seeing du Pont was alone. ‘My sister in the Jura would hide them.’ Paulze, Madame Lavoisier’s father, was also a Farmer-General.

Madame Lavoisier sat in her usual place, beneath the portrait. After du Pont’s apologies were over, she enquired about his family, as if he were still a guest at one of her soirees.

He explained they were safe at Bois-des-Fosses. His brother Victor was back from America, and in the gendarmerie. “He wants us all to emigrate. America’s a better place for business, where people are truly free.”

“And your Papa?”

“In hiding over a year, Madame. Since we defended the King at the Tuileries, the day the Swiss Guards were killed by the mob. Papa hid in the dome of the Observatory. He escaped Paris during the September massacres, when the barriers were opened in the chaos.”

He reported what Fourcroy had said, that the Farmers-General would be released, if the accounts were in order.

Her chin jutted out.

“Of course they’re in order. Lavoisier would never permit otherwise.”

“These are dangerous times, Madame. It would be safer for him to escape. I could get him to Bois des Fosses. We could get him a passage to America.”

“They would harm a man of my husband’s standing – Europe’s foremost man of science?”

“The Revolution cares little for science, Madame. The Academy of Sciences has been banned, its members have fled. Condorcet is a fugitive, Coulomb and Laplace have gone to the country. I myself saw Bailly’s execution – I was on Guard duty. They made him wait two hours for the guillotine, in freezing rain. He was mocked, beaten, pelted with filth. An astronomer, a member of the Academy, Mayor of Paris! His hands were tied and he couldn’t even wipe his face.”

“They hated him for the Champ de Mars massacre. My husband is innocent, he has harmed no-one, and he is a man of genius.”

“Genius is considered a form of Inequality.”

“He must clear his name,” said Madame Lavoisier. “He is being hidden by Lucas, the usher at the Louvre, where the Academy once met. Masselot will take him a message.”

Two days later, du Pont heard that Lavoisier and Paulze had surrendered at the Port-Libre Prison. Calendrier-republicainBy 5th Nivôse, Year 2 of the Republic, the Farmers-General had been moved to their old offices. It would once have been Christmas Day. Tipping the gaoler, and handing over a food parcel, du Pont was conducted to their room. Iron bars were at the broken windows, and snow lay on the windowsill. Paulze shivered in a blanket on the floor. Lavoisier was writing at a desk, turning the pages of a ledger.

“Du Pont! My dear boy!” He looked thin, but his eyes were as bright as ever. He cupped his inkwell in his palm. “My ink is freezing, but the first two volumes of the Memoirs of Chemistry are ready for typesetting. I’m preparing the rebuttal of our indictment.”

“Can you defend the charges?” asked du Pont.

“Well, yes, if I knew exactly what they were. At least I can consult our records, and draw up comprehensive accounts. The General-Farm was always ahead with payments to the Treasury. Nothing was ever owed. ” Lavoisier launched into a complicated description, and stopped, seeing du Pont’s look of bemusement. He changed the subject to the printing business.

“We’re struggling,” said du Pont. “Almanacs, government documents, reference tables – the publications of the Academy of Sciences couldn’t be sold.”

“I told you to publicise the editions to the booksellers in advance,” said Lavoisier.

“It wasn’t that,” said du Pont. “It’s a risk. The Academy was part of the old regime.”

Lavoisier shook his head.

“I fought to save the Academy, you know. I’m still writing to my Boards and Committees for letters of recommendation. France needs the sciences.”

As du Pont left, the Memoirs of Chemistry under his arm, the gaoler took his arm with a grin.

“What if Fouché came back to Paris, eh? Forget the guillotine! He’d tie these buggers up in the Place de la Revolution and finish them with cannon! Let them scream! Not just the men, these bloodsuckers are enemies of the people, every man, woman and child.”

By 16th Floréal, Year 2 of the Republic, du Pont felt that he was visiting Lavoisier for the last time; the trial by the Revolutionary Tribunal was imminent. Lavoisier returned the Memoirs of Chemistry with a grimace.

“I’ve corrected the proofs extensively,” he said. “Your forte is not in the printing house. It’s a pity you gave up gunpowder manufacture.”

“I’m secretary to the Saltpetre Committee,” said du Pont, “but it doesn’t pay. I’d need to leave France to set up by myself. Victor talks of America.”

“What stops you? Sentiment? This is the Age of Reason, my boy. Be rational.”

“It’s a big step. I’m barely keeping the printing house from bankruptcy.”

“Well, I want you to print this.” Lavoisier passed du Pont another manuscript. “Urgently. It’s our defence, the entire accounts for the past five years, with financial tables. When the Tribunal see it, we’ll be acquitted.”

Du Pont leafed through it dubiously. “It’s quite lengthy,” he said, “are you sure they’ll understand the tables?”

“Surely,” Lavoisier retorted, “a court appointed to examine charges related to financial matters, and professing a belief in Reason, must understand the truth.”

“I’ll print it anonymously.” Du Pont slipped the manuscript amongst the proofs of the Memoirs of Chemistry. He lowered his voice. “Since Danton was executed, it’s got harder. Robespierre’s power is absolute. Anyone can be denounced. I don’t even trust my staff.”

“Marie went to see Dupin, the chief investigator, but it failed. He expected her to beg for mercy, and she spoke her mind instead.” Lavoisier shrugged. “I’ll be acquitted. Even if I lose my fortune, I can work as a pharmacist, and perhaps resume my research.”

Du Pont, hollow with regret, tried to think of something suitable to say. Lavoisier’s eye-gaze was suddenly unflinching and intense. “You think the Tribunal won’t show mercy. Well, remember that experiment on Seguin? We measured the oxygen he consumed in respiration. That’s all life is, my friend, a slow combustion. We are but creatures of chemistry.”

The defence of the Farmers-General was forty-two pages of quarto; du Pont printed fifty copies. He delivered them to the Revolutionary Tribunal, the Committee of Public Safety, and the public prosecutor Fouquier-Tinville. He gave Madame Lavoisier twenty copies to take to the Farmers-General. Before leaving Paris, he took a copy to Fourcroy.

“I interrupted a meeting of the Committee of Public Safety,” said Fourcroy. “Citizen Robespierre was presiding. I explained Citizen Lavoisier’s immense value to France, how he gave us an understanding of the chemical elements. Instead of alchemy, phlogiston, butter of arsenic, flowers of zinc, we have the gases, nitrogen, and oxygen, we have sulphur, phosphorus, metals, acids, oxides. We know that elements combine in set ratios. I told them about metrication, respiration, and of his transformation of gunpowder manufacture. No-one could have represented Citizen Lavoisier’s work more favourably.”

He smiled sweetly.

“Even though, in regard to oxygen, Lavoisier merely copied the experiments of Priestley and Scheele, under the direction of his wife.”

Du Pont was about to argue, but Fourcroy continued.

“I was ignored. Citizen Robespierre looked around the table, and said, ‘Shall we continue, gentlemen?’ They carried on as if I’d not spoken. I had to leave. Then Citizen Prieur came running after me in the corridor; he begged me to be silent if I would save myself, because Citizen Robespierre was furious. Every morning, I check whether my head still remains on my shoulders. My young friend, the Convention cares nothing for science. It must revenge the people, tyrannised by the Farmers-General and their henchmen.”

“The tax collected was demanded by the Treasury,” said du Pont. “The Farmers-General paid it in advance, and collected it from the people, according to set rates. Tough measures were needed to prevent tax evasion.”

Fourcroy spread his hands in a gesture of finality.

“I’ve done what I can. Citizen Halle has written a report for the Tribunal. I hope it will be heard. But you must understand the mood of the Convention.”

“But what about Lavoisier’s scientific excellence, his great genius?”

“Genius is a form of Inequality.”

Screenshot 2015-07-20 22.30.5715th Thermidor, Year 4 of the Republic. Du Pont next saw Fourcroy two years later, at Lavoisier’s memorial service. The hall of the Lycée des Arts was draped in black, with banners inscribed ‘To The Immortal Lavoisier’, and twenty columns representing scientific discoveries. A choir sang secular hymns beside simulated tombs.

Lavoisier lay in a mass grave, with his fellow Farmers-General, and a thousand headless others, including even the perpetrators of the Terror. His spirit was invited to hover above the assembly, and receive its homage. Fourcroy eulogised the man whose place in the sciences he now occupied. He spoke of the glorious years, during which Lavoisier created a new chemistry. And of a time when grief had been concealed, when friends were divided by terror, and when compassion led to danger. Of a prosecutor who declared the Republic had no need of scientists.

His hands spread wide, Fourcroy raised his face upwards. “And you, dear ghost of a philosopher, bear witness to our sorrow, accept the honours which we confer upon your memory, and leave amongst us the indelible mark of your virtue, of the genius which illuminated your life, and of the courage and stoicism which honoured your death.”

Lavoisier’s rehabilitation was complete. The huge audience included the most distinguished survivors; Du Pont looked for Madame Lavoisier, but she had stayed away. After leaving prison, she had been sheltered by Masselot. She had spared no effort until all of her confiscated property – the furniture, the books, the portrait, every single piece of scientific equipment – was recovered. She ensured the publication of the Memoirs of Chemistry, commenting in her preface that Lavoisier had planned eight volumes, not two, but ‘Europe knows why these could not be achieved’. Screenshot 2015-07-20 22.25.19Du Pont raised capital, and crossed and re-crossed the Atlantic. America was the future, offering stability, freedom, and a developing market. Six years later, in 1802, he stood beside the Brandywine Creek, Delaware, looking at the land where he foresaw a gunpowder mills, a family home, and a leading chemical company.

Brandywine Creek©, 2015.

Acknowledgements: Lavoisier: Chemist, biologist, economist. Jean Pierre Poirier. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.

Du Pont Family Archives, Hagley Museum and Library:

Du Pont: The autobiography of an American enterprise. E I du Pont de Nemours & Company, 1952.

Dedication: To my son, on the occasion of his achieving a Masters degree (with Honours) in Chemical Engineering, from the University of Sheffield, July 2015.

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