Victor Nuovo: Condorcet and the French Revolution

Editor’s note: This is the eighth in a series of essays about political liberalism and conservatism.
Nicholas de Condorcet (1743–94) was a French aristocrat, mathematician, philosopher and revolutionary. He pioneered in the use of probability theory to explain social behavior, decision-making and voting patterns. He was a founder of modern political science. He was also a tragic figure: he was a leader in the French Revolution and became one of its victims.
At the start of the French Revolution Condorcet was elected a delegate from Paris to the Legislative Assembly, which was the new national government; he became one of its leaders. He was also made a member of a special commission to frame a new constitution for the nation.
He sided with the radical republicans, the Jacobins, who desired the abolition of the monarchy, against the moderates, the Girondins, who favored a constitutional monarchy patterned after the English constitution. He supported the move to depose the king, Louis XVI, and to try him as an enemy of liberty. However, when the king was found guilty, he was outspoken against the death sentence. He stood on principle, for he regarded the death penalty as a cruel and irrational practice, inconsistent with the principles and purposes of a liberal civil society.
He considered violence and the use of force for political ends reprehensible, if not criminal, and therefore, in spite of the radical policies he advocated, he inclined towards moderation and conciliation. He was patient, ready to engage in rational discourse concerning what must be done, confident that an agreeable outcome would eventually be achieved. This moderation made him odious to the radicals, who regarded him weak and hypocritical and therefore not a true friend of liberty. In October 1693, they secured a warrant for his arrest.
Condorcet went into hiding. During the next five months, which would be his last, his chief occupation was to reflect on the meaning of history. He recollected the past, considered the present and speculated on the future. Despite his misfortunes, Condorcet remained an optimist, confident of the perfectibility of mankind, confident that progress towards this goal would continue for as long as there was life on earth.
He summarized his thoughts in a manuscript, which he entitled Sketch of a Historical View of the Progress of the Human Mind. It was published posthumously, in Paris and London in 1795, in French and English.    
The Sketch will be the subject of my next essay. For the remainder of this essay, I will focus on two major innovations that he advocated — on slavery and a woman’s right to vote — and which show him to be “the most clear-headed liberal of the French Revolution.”
Indeed, Condorcet was a consummate liberal in his beliefs and actions. As already mentioned, he opposed the death penalty. He took the lead in calling for the abolition of slavery for the clear reason that it was criminal. To enslave another human being, “to buy him, sell him, to keep him in servitude, all these are real crimes,” he wrote. Moreover, “to tolerate slavery while having the power of destroying it is also a crime.”
Yet his characteristic moderation caused him to seek a gradual rather than a sudden end of the institution. He proposed the immediate end of the slave trade. Those who owned slaves should set a fixed time, not to exceed 35 years, for their emancipation. It was this sort of gradualism that was contemplated in the new United States, doubtless with Condorcet’s concurrence, for he was a friend of Franklin, Jefferson and Madison, and they were conversant with his thoughts.
The abolition of the slave trade was no easy matter. During the late 18th century it represented a major industry, a “Big Business” of its day. Not only did it secure the fortunes of many individuals, it also contributed to the wealth of nations in Europe and North America, and this wealth brought with it many economic and cultural benefits. Therefore, the rich and powerful gathered together and lobbied to retain it.
In 1788, Condorcet was a founder of a Society of Friends of Negroes and he composed a preamble for it. It is full of insight. He describes the slave trade as a conspiracy of the global economy, for not only did it condemn groups of peoples to a life of involuntary servitude, it also actively promoted political and tribal conflict; it brutalized the culture, and perverted the economy of an entire continent, Africa, and its population. That Condorcet should have described such behavior as criminal was prescient; surely the charge of crimes against humanity perfectly fits the African slave trade.
The slave trade was abolished in Great Britain in 1807; the United States followed suit in 1808. Ending the slave trade did not end slavery, however. Emancipation and the achievement of complete equality would take much longer, and there is evidence that these goals have not yet been fully achieved. The corrosive and corrupting affects of the slave trade are still with us: racism, white nationalism, contempt for foreigners who don’t conform in appearance or manner to the waspish character of our traditional culture.
In 1786, Condorcet married Marie-Louise-Sophie de Grouchy (1764–1822), a philosopher, author and translator. They were lovers and intellectual partners. Not long after their marriage they founded a society for the emancipation of women. In 1790, Condorcet composed a series of philosophical letters arguing the case for it. He based his argument on equality. The argument for equality among men is that they are sentient beings, capable of acquiring moral ideas and of applying them rationally. Because women also possess these very qualities, they cannot be denied equality with men.
He reviewed opposing arguments, “the usual suspects.” Against the claim that women are unfit for an active life because they suffer from pregnancies and monthly indispositions, he observed that likewise men are commonly indisposed by gout and other male-only problems. He refuted the claim that women are not fit to rule by citing the examples of Elizabeth of England or Catherine the Great of Russia among others.
He demolished other false claims: that women do not write as well, speak as well, or pursue science as well as men. In short, he showed that the belief that women are inferior to men is nothing more than a male prejudice, which requires social remediation. If these prejudices were not also tyrannical, an account of them would be a mere comedy. It is a sobering reminder of the recalcitrant force of such male prejudices that in France women did not receive the right to vote until 1944.

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