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Eighteenth-Century Studies 35.2 (2002) 299-301
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A Revolutionary Priest Remembered
Jeremy Popkin and Richard Popkin, eds. The Abbé Grégoire and his World (Dordrecht, Boston, London: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2000). Pp. xv +191. $ 97.00 cloth.
Rita Hermon-Belot. L'Abbé Grégoire: la politique et la vérité (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 2000). Pp. 506. FF 160.00 paper.
When, on the bicentenary of the French Revolution in 1989, the French government chose to honor the abbé Grégoire by transferring his remains to the Pantheon, it no doubt hoped to promote a new symbol of reconciliation around which Frenchmen and women of different persuasions could rally. The breadth of the abbé's humanitarian commitments, from his support for Jewish emancipation to his campaign for black rights, and his stature as both a reformer and a defender of tradition, made him seem a particularly suitable candidate for such a role. Paradoxically, however, the government's decision triggered a heated debate about the nature and significance of the abbé's convictions with further implications for our understanding of the Revolutionary legacy itself. The very fine books reviewed here are important contributions to this debate which should constitute indispensable reading for anyone interested in this key figure of the French Revolution.
In his introduction to The Abbé Grégoire and His Time,Jeremy Popkin notes that the abbé's views on human rights appear to have been "surprisingly close to modern conceptions," making him seem a veritable "prophet of modern values" (ix). Popkin would no doubt agree, however, that the particular merit of the assembled articles is precisely that they focus on the historical Grégoire, an eighteenth-century priest fully immersed in the culture and values of his time. Taken together, the articles point to the abbé's extraordinary range as a humanitarian reformer. Hans-Jürgen Lüsebrink argues that it was Grégoire's anthropological optimism--his belief that men of all classes, religions, and races were equally capable of intellectual and moral development--that lay behind his reforming vision. Convinced that differences between human beings were due only to social factors, Grégoire placed his faith in education and cultural assimilation. Rita Hermon-Belot ably defends and puts into historical context the abbé's work on behalf of Jewish emancipation, while Marcel Dorigny focuses on Grégoire's struggle on behalf of black rights. Anthony Vidler describes how Grégoire's campaign against revolutionary "vandalism" paved the way for the creation of France's first museum and helped to reestablish a sense of historical patrimony after the [End Page 299] destructive phases of the Revolution. Richard Popkin shows that the abbé's interests reached as far as America where he not only followed debates on church-state relations but became interested in a rather odd attempt to found a Jewish homeland on an island off Buffalo, New York. And Jeremy Popkin invites us to look at the abbé from an entirely original perspective: that of autobiography, which was essentially a new genre of writing at the time.
Besides giving us a broad overview of the abbé's many involvements, the articles in this volume also remind us that examining someone in historical context does not automatically serve to justify his positions, nor does it resolve any inconsistencies in his thought. Nor does it necessarily lead to scholarly agreement. While Rita Hermon-Belot defends the abbé's "sensitive soul" (18), Alyssa Sepinwall offers a more sobering assessment. Concentrating on the abbé's involvement with Haiti during the period of the Restoration, she warns us that Grégoire's "universalism" was more complicated and uneven than it might at first seem. She points out that in order to create peace between white, black, and mixed-race men, Grégoire recommended the hardening of gender boundaries. And although Grégoire may very well have inspired liberation movements around the world, his view that Haitians were just 'empty vessels' needing the inculcation of superior European values could also provide ideological support for their continued subjugation.