June 27th, 2013 Headsman
On this date in 1794, Simon-Nicholas Henry Linguet was guillotined during the French Revolution for having written praise of foreign tyrants.
Linguet (English Wikpiedia entry | French) was a brilliant lawyer and a prolific but prickly man of letters. Famous in his own day for his prose, he’s of less account to a modernity that’s long forgotten the various axes he had to grind.
The one sure constant in his life was a gift for making enemies.
Linguet was an Enlightenment philosophe at the start of his public life, and made an early name for himself when his forceful intervention in the case of the Chevalier de la Barre helped save La Barre’s friends from sharing his fate.
He soon apostasized from the Reason-worshipping “fanatical” philosophes, and eventually found himself disbarred for irritating too many fellow barristers. Turning instead to journalism, his Annales politiques, civiles et litteraires — published mostly in exile from 1777 to 1792 — became, as his biographer put it, “a quasi-independent force for molding opinion and policy in the power centers of Europe. Maneuvering among the great powers of Europe wielding the power of his public’s opinion, Linguet institutionalized political influence for himself, and liberty as well.” And of course the writing business really let Linguet’s native gift for pissing people off shine.
He scalded the French Academy and settled scores with rivals old and new. Eventually a suit by one of them landed Linguet in the Bastille when the latter tried to return to Paris in 1780.
Linguet got out (and left France again) in 1782, turning his spell in the Bourbon dungeons into a Memoirs of the Bastille,* which didn’t buy him as much sympathy as one might assume come revolutionary times since his sufferings had scarcely been on behalf of the masses.
Linguet was finally able to return to his country with the Austrian embassy courtesy of ennoblement conferred by Marie Antoinette‘s brother Emperor Joseph II. His restored relations with Europe’s crowned heads, however, did not prevent him taking up the cause of Belgium’s Brabant Revolution as well as the Haitian Revolution.
An early member of the Cordeliers and temporary enthusiast of the Revolution, Linguet would later be bold enough to write Louis XVI offering to defend him. He was easy pickings in the end for a revolutionary tribunal that accused him of prostituting his literary gifts to Europes various ancien regimes: Linguet had taken refuge in his time with all of revolutionary France’s principal enemies, and had flattered their princes for his trouble; his provocative pen had set his name to a defense of slavery; and he’d even mounted an attack on Alexander the Great which in the great tradition of contrarian provocateurs compared the legendary conquerer unfavorably (on the body count metric) with the Emperor Nero. Literally defended Nero was the epitaph his prosecutors pinned to him, and it’s never fully come unstuck. It’s unfair, sure … but Linguet was the last man in a position to complain, and not just because he’d had his head cut off.
A manuscript of a history of France Linguet was working on was found among his papers after his visit to the guillotine. It made fine cartridge paper for France’s muskets.
* At one point in this text — an overwrought rant against the rigors of his imprisonment from the pen of a man whose previous treatises had scornfully defended absolutism against his former buddies among the philosophes — he mounts a defense of executioners, who “ought to be much less ignominious in the public opinion.” After all, they
are only the ministers of an indispensible severity: they are officers, and necessary officers, of a lawful power they may sometimes execute unjust orders; but they act constantly in obedience to justice and the laws. They are certain that the unfortunate being who is delivered to them, either has had, or will have, the means of defending himself: they are sure, or at least must believe, that an equitable and impartial enquiry has preceded the rigorous decision under which they act. They are authorized to think that none but the guilty, or at least men justly suspected, have ever been the objects of them.
Also on this date
- 1740: Artemy Volynsky
- 1845: Not William Weaver, defended by Abraham Lincoln
- 1497: Michael An Gof and Thomas Flamank, leaders of the Cornish Rebellion
- 1777: William Dodd, mind wonderfully concentrated
- 1950: Milada Horáková, democrat and feminist