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  • Stepson of the Enlightenment: The Duc Du Châtelet, The Colonel who “Caused” the French Revolution
  • Ken Alder* (bio)

Shortly after the fall of the Bastille contemporaries began to describe the changes underway in France as a revolution. As they looked back, those in the patriot camp could cite many to whom credit was due for their achievements. But in the dispirited royalist camp there was one man in particular whom many singled out for blame. According to contemporaries, Florent-Louis-Marie, duc Du Châtelet-Lomont, colonel of the French Guards, was the man most responsible for having “caused” the French Revolution. Appointed in November 1788 to this sensitive post—the French Guards were responsible for policing the city of Paris—Colonel Du Châtelet had so bungled his command at this critical juncture (or so the story went) that he had lost the city of Paris for the king. He had done so by offending his noble officers, alienating his experienced sergeants, and so infuriating the main body of troops that they defected to the side of the populace and contributed to the taking of the Bastille. As the pro-royalist journalist, Montejoye, noted in 1791: “There is no doubt that the defection of the French Guards must be attributed principally to their colonel, who may be said to have, more than anyone else in France, forwarded and caused the revolution.” 1 [End Page 1]

Accusatory fingers had been pointed at the colonel even before the fortress fell. On 23 June 1789, the English traveler, Arthur Young, noted in his diary that Du Châtelet’s “treatment, conduct and maneuvers . . . had disgusted” many of his troops. “If an order is given to the French Guards to fire on the people,” he predicted, “they will refuse obedience.” The bookseller Hardy observed the growing desertions of the Guards and concluded they had decided to no longer serve as the “instrument” of their colonel. And Ambassador Thomas Jefferson reported on a rumor that the troops were dissatisfied with their commander. The events of July 1789 greatly amplified these allegations. In 1795, Gabriel Sénac de Meilhan, the self-styled “Montesquieu of the French Revolution,” was still mulling over “the fatal influence of [Du Châtelet] in the terrible circumstances at issue.” And even at the distance of 1838, a former colleague of Du Châtelet still felt it necessary to deny the duke’s responsibility for having caused the French Revolution. 2

Of course, this accusation, in all its specificity, is absurd; one colonel does not a revolution make. Just as one Bastille does not a French Revolution make. Yet we may still wonder: who was this Du Châtelet and what did he do to so alienate the troops? Our curiosity should be further piqued when we learn that he was the son of the savant, Emilie Du Châtelet (also famous as Voltaire’s mistress) and that his childhood was associated with some of the most illustrious names of the High Enlightenment. More to the point, Du Châtelet, throughout his career, was closely associated with the attempt to reform the French army in line with Enlightenment principles—or at least in line with that stepson version of the Enlightenment which Foucault has called the “other Enlightenment.” 3 By this phrase, the “other” Enlightenment, Foucault meant to distinguish the disciplinary Enlightenment of penal institutions from the humanist Enlightenment of the jurists—while acknowledging their close family connection. In this paper, I use the strange circumstances of Du Châtelet’s career to spy into the elusive relationship between this “other” Enlightenment and the French Revolution. In doing so, I hope also to shed some light on an old and difficult problem in the conceptualization of historical and Revolutionary causality.

The Contingency Thesis and Event History

The two-decade-long revisionist turn toward a political and cultural analysis of the French Revolutionary period has placed ever greater emphasis on the contingent nature of the events of 1787–1789. In these accounts, due attention is paid to the financial crisis that culminated in the calling of the Estates General and the breakdown in royal authority. And there is even sometimes a...

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