J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, September 05, 2021

“She thinks her forte is the understanding”

Marie Anne Pierrette Paulze was only thirteen years old in 1771 when she was married to Antoine Laurent de Lavoisier.

Marie Anne’s family was under pressure to marry her to a powerful nobleman in his fifties, so Lavoisier—a twenty-eight-year-old colleague of her father’s—seemed preferable.

Marie Anne’s father and husband both worked as tax collectors for the French monarchy, a lucrative and unpopular profession. In 1775 Antoine Lavoisier was also appointed to oversee the manufacture of gunpowder at the Paris Arsenal, which stimulated his interest in science.

Over the following years the Lavoisiers worked together closely. Marie Anne helped Antoine set up laboratory experiments, took notes on the results, translated English scientific treatises into French (adding her own commentary), and created illustrations for the papers Antoine wrote. The image above shows Marie Anne’s own drawing of them and their staff at work.

Those papers included demonstrations of the conservation of mass, arguments against phlogiston theory, a new system for naming chemicals, and the first attempt to list the modern elements. Lavoisier also advocated for some social reforms, but of course he continued to collect taxes.

Gouverneur Morris arrived in Paris in 1789 and wrote about the Lavoisiers in his diary:
[8 June 1789:] Dine with Mr. deLavoisier. . . . Madame appears to be an agreeable woman. She is tolerably handsome, but from her manner it would seem that she thinks her forte is the understanding rather than the person.
In other words, she valued her brains over beauty.
[25 Sept 1789:] Go to the Opera according to my promise and arrive towards the close of the piece at the loge of Madame Lavoisier. . . . Go to the Arsenal and take tea with Madame Lavoisier en attendant le retour de Monsieur [while awaiting the return of Monsieur] who is at the Hôtel de Ville. As Madame tells me that she has no children I insist that she is une paresseuse [an idle girl], but she declares it is only a misfortune. Monsieur comes in and tells us of the obstination of the bakers. . . .

[6 Oct 1789:] Go to the arsenal. Admitted with difficulty. They are at dinner. Madame Lavoisier is detained in town, as all carriages were stopped and the ladies obliged to join the female mob. While we sit at table, we learn that the militia and the Régiment National are marching towards Versailles.
The French Revolution was breaking out around this upper-class set.

At first the Lavoisiers kept up. Antoine sponsored a press to publish political and scientific material, proposed education reforms, and helped to promote the new metric system. In 1791 the republic abolished the tax-collecting organization. The next year, Antoine lost his job overseeing gunpowder and had to move out of the Arsenal.

But the Lavoisiers were still very rich. Marie Anne hosted dinner parties and after-dinner salons. In 1791 Morris visited her gatherings with William Temple Franklin. At one the company discussed a “riot at Birmingham,” blaming it on British government policy. After another Morris wrote, “there are a number of Gens d’Esprit [wits] who are in general but so so company.”

In January 1793, the French government executed Louis XVI. That spring the radical Jacobin party took over, and in October the government executed Marie Antoinette. The next month, the authorities arrested Antoine Lavoisier and his former tax-collecting colleagues, including Marie-Anne’s father. They were convicted of defrauding the state and guillotined in May 1794.

Two months later, the Thermidorian counterrevolution began. Near the end of 1795 Antoine’s clothing was delivered to his thirty-seven-year-old widow with a note declaring that he had been “falsely convicted.”

TOMORROW: The widow Lavoisier.

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