A Citizen of New-Heaven: The Marquis de Condorcet
In the spring of 1778 John Adams dined at the home of the duchesse d’Enville in Paris. Among the guests on this occasion was the marquis de Condorcet. Afterwards, he made this notation in his diary: “Mr. Condorcet, a Philosopher with a face as pale or rather as white as a Sheet of paper, I suppose from hard Study.”1 Irascible “Honest John” Adams would have much more to say about him in the future.
Franklin, Thomas Paine, Jefferson,2 William Short, and Gouverneur Morris also knew Condorcet personally. Not surprisingly, Morris, in his own diary, mentioned the philosopher’s wife: “Go to Supper [March 17, 1791] at Made. D’Angivilliers. Made, de Condorcet is here. She is handsome and has une Air spirituelle [sic].”3
Condorcet is generally considered the last of the important philosophes, and he has received much attention from many scholars. Indicated in my notes is a major recent study which contains a very extensive bibliography of writings by and on him.4 Mathematician, pioneer social scientist, and political theorist, he became perpetual secretary of the Académie des sciences in 1776 and a member of the Académie Française in 1782. As secretary of the Academy of Sciences, he eulogized the deceased Franklin on November 13, 1790.5
Condorcet was one of France’s leading Americanists. He wrote, to cite only one example of his lively interest in the American experiment, De l’Influence de la Révolution d’Amérique sur l’Europe (1786).6 A later supplement to this little work included a translation of, and his comments on, the Constitution drawn up at Philadelphia. The American Philosophical Society elected him a member in 1775. A bust of Condorcet still occupies a prominent position in the society’s reading room.7 In 1785 he was made an honorary citizen of New Haven.8 This explains the pseudonym used by him in his Lettres d’un Bourgeois de New-Heaven à un Citoyen de Virginie, sur l’inutilité de partager le pouvoir législatif entre plusieurs corps.9 The typographical error in the title could hardly have been more appropriate for one of his lofty idealism.
Circumstances warranted American publication of certain of his writings. Here is the list: Lettres d’un Citoyen des Etats-Unis, à un Français, sur les affaires présentes (Philadelphie [that is, Paris], 1788); Sentiments d’un Républicain, sur les Assemblées provinciales et les Etats-Généraux (Philadelphie [that is, Paris], 1788), a continuation of the preceding; The Life of Voltaire … To which are added Memoirs of Voltaire, written by himself. Translated from the French (Philadelphia: W. Spotswood, 1792); A Letter from M. Condorcet, a Member of the National Convention, to a Magistrate in Swisserland (New York: Printed for the Booksellers, 1793); and Outlines of an Historical View of the Progress of the Human Mind, Translated from the French (Philadelphia: Printed by Lang and Ustick, for M. Carey …, 1796).
John Adams had some writings of Condorcet in his library.10 Jefferson owned many of his works, and in French, including the Essai sur l’application de l’analyse à la probabilité des décisions rendues à la pluralité des voix.11 Jefferson, Franklin, John Jay, and Robert Morris received in 1786 as gifts Condorcet’s Vie de Turgot.12 Jefferson wrote to Madison from Paris in 1788 that he was sending him two pamphlets of Condorcet “wherein is the most judicious statement I have seen of the great questions which agitate this nation [France] at present.”13 These were the two French items published in Philadelphia the same year. Madison later sent these pamphlets on to Edmund Randolph, telling him that they “contain more correct information than has been communicated to the public through any other channel.”14 Previously, Madison had sent to Randolph Condorcet’s “essai [sic] on the probability of decisions resulting from plurality of voices.”15 Jefferson wrote again to Madison from Paris in January 1789 that he was getting for him Condorcet’s Essai sur la constitution et les fonctions des assemblées provinciales (Paris, 1788). Dr. Benjamin Rush showed familiarity with the French thinker in his Two Essays on the Mind (New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1972). To cite only one other person at this point, Philip Freneau, poet and journalist, “was steeped in the philosophy of Rousseau and Condorcet,” according to an investigator.16
Books by Condorcet were available in Philadelphia libraries and elsewhere. According to its 1789 catalog the Library Company of Philadelphia contained two copies of an English translation of his Vie de Turgot. Its next catalog shows that this library had later acquired a copy in English of his Vie de Voltaire and Outlines of an Historical View of the Progress of the Human Mind.17 Moreau de Saint-Méry, the Philadelphia bookseller, offered in his 1795 catalog various writings of Condorcet in French.18 The Records of the Union Library of Hatborough (Pennsylvania) show the purchase in 1797 of “Condorcet on the Mind.” The Outlines, and a copy of the French original of this book, as well as the Vie de Turgot were to be had in New York City.19 Barr found that “Condorcet’s Life of Voltaire in both English and French was listed in Boston and Philadelphia library and booksellers’ catalogs thirty times from 1792 to the close of the century.”20
Excluded from this survey are booksellers’ advertisements noted in newspapers of Condorcet’s writings. These advertisements contained offerings of his books published in English in the United States, and other things, such as his Vie de Turgot, which were not.
One finds mention of Condorcet in various newspapers. John Adams referred to him occasionally in his Discourses on Davila, which originally appeared in issues of the Gazette of the United States in 1790. In passing references, he was praised in the General Advertiser, October 17, 1792, and in the Baltimore American and Daily Advertiser, December 4, 1800; and derided in the Gazette of the United States, September 18, 1798, and July 12, 1800. He was also quoted. The National Gazette, December 5, 1792, under the heading “Thoughts on Constitutions,” printed in translation almost an entire column from his pen. The General Advertiser, January 18, 1793, reprinted “From the Chronique de Paris, by Condorcet,” a good half-column of his reflections on Robespierre. This Philadelphia newspaper also reprinted A Letter from M. Condorcet to a Magistrate in Swisserland on January 28, 1793. Loughrey found that the Newport Mercury was the only Rhode Island paper to quote from Condorcet. This was an extract from his Life of Voltaire.21 This book too was quoted at some length in a reprint published in the Maryland Journal and Baltimore Advertiser, February 4, 1796. The original French of the quotation in English appeared in a footnote. There was also a citation of the author in English and French on the importance of the invention of printing in the annihilation of slavery.
Condorcet was in many respects far ahead of his time. He advocated, for instance, equal rights for women. According to David Williams, these demands for granting full legal and constitutional rights to women were first formulated in the second of the Lettres d’un bourgeois de New-Heaven and Sur l’admission des femmes au droit de cité.22 Another scholar, Mary S. Benson, concluded that “his argument [for the political rights of women] though ably developed seems to have been quite unnoticed in America.”23
It goes without saying that Condorcet, like other philosophes, opposed the institution of slavery. Signing himself as secretary of the Academie des sciences, he wrote a letter in December 1773 to Dr. Franklin, then in London. In this letter he put five questions to the American Philosophical Society and bespoke Franklin’s help in obtaining answers to them.24 All but one of the inquiries were scientific in nature. The other, the fourth, had to do with free blacks in the English colonies. Bernard Faÿ has translated these questions, and here is his rendition of the latter:
I should be glad to know if there are in the English Colonies Negroes who having obtained their liberty have lived without mixing with the white people? If their black children born free and educated as such have retained the genius and character of the Europeans? If men of genius and parts have been observed among them?25
Franklin replied to Condorcet’s letter in March 1774, giving him short answers to his questions and informing him that he had transmitted the inquiries to the society. With regard to the query concerning Negroes Franklin told him, “I think they are not deficient in natural Understanding, but they have not the Advantage of Education.”26
In 1781 Condorcet’s Réflexions sur l’esclavage des nègres was published at Neufchâtel. Jefferson bought two copies of a Paris edition of 1788 and began a translation of this little work, but did not complete it.27 Years later, and almost as if in reply to his fourth question, Jefferson wrote to Condorcet from Philadelphia on August 30, 1791. In this letter, somewhat in the tenor of Franklin’s short answer, Jefferson said,
I am happy to be able to inform you that we have now in the United States a negro [Benjamin Banneker], the son of a black man born in Africa, and of a black woman born in the United States, who is a very respectable mathematician. I procured him to be employed under one of our chief directors in laying out the new federal city on the Potowmac, & in the intervals of his leisure … he made an Almanac … which I inclose to you. … he is a very worthy & respectable member of society. He is a free man. I shall be delighted to see these instances of moral eminence so multiplied as to prove that the want of talents observed in them is merely the effect of their degraded condition, and not proceeding from any difference in the structure of the parts on which intellect depends.28
Condorcet’s most famous work is of course L’Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrès de l’esprit humain. Published posthumously in 1795, an English translation, Outlines of an Historical View of the Progress of the Human Mind, was printed in London in the same year. As indicated above, this translation was reprinted in Philadelphia in 1796.29
James Kent, the Columbia law professor, owned a French edition.30 William Duane, the Philadelphia newspaper editor, had two copies in English.31 William Dunlap, the dramatist, noted in his Diary on July 21, 1797: “Read Condorcet on the Human mind to my Wife.” And on August 2 this: “Finish reading Condorcet.”32 Jefferson compiled a list of books for study by those whose reading was placed under his direction. On this list one finds “Condorcet, Progres de l’esprit humain.”33 Many persons possessed or had access to the book, in French or English.
The dramatic story of the composition of L’Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrés de Vesprit humain, and of the writer’s arrest and death shortly afterward, has been told many times and needs no retelling here. Condorcet calls his book an Esquisse (outlines or sketch) because he had projected a complete tableau. It consists of ten stages or epochs, the tenth being the future.34 In this work the scientistic author sets forth his version of the heavenly city of the eighteenth-century philosophes—a city that shall be built on a double foundation of progress and the indefinite perfectibility of humankind. Neither the idea of progress nor belief in indefinite perfectibility proceeded from him,35 but in the Outlines they are preeminent.
“John Adams Flays a Philosophe: Annotations on Condorcet’s Progress of the Human Mind” is the title of an essay by Zoltán Haraszti.36 According to Haraszti, Adams read the work at least twice, in 1798 and 1811, and his comments run over four thousand words. In short, Adams, musing on the Outlines, considered Condorcet a visionary. This book aside, he never hesitated to treat the philosophe with scorn as a political thinker. He never ceased censuring him as a champion of a unicameral legislature. And he ridiculed the idea of the “Perfectibility of Man,” had much to say on this subject.37 The philosophical notion of indefinite perfectibility bothered the religious-minded Adams no end. He told Jefferson in 1814, “I am a believer, in the probable improvability and improvement, the ameliorability and amelioration in human Affairs; though I never could understand the doctrine of the perfectibility of the human mind.”38 The Reverend James Madison, president of William and Mary College, was more sure of himself. In 1800 he had written to Jefferson:
The old-fashioned Divines look out for a millenium; the modern Philanthropist for the epoch of infinite Perfectibility. Both equally distant, because equally infinite. The advancement of man to this state of Perfection, is like those two geometrical lines, which are continually approaching, &: yet will never touch. Condorcet appears to me the ablest, & at the same Time, equally as visionary as Godwin, or any other.39
Jefferson gave his own view in this passage from a letter he wrote to Du Pont de Nemours in 1816:
Although I do not, with some enthusiasts, believe that the human condition will ever advance to such a state of perfection as that there shall no longer be pain or vice in the world, yet I believe it susceptible of much improvement, and most of all, in matters of government and religion; and that the diffusion of knowledge among the people is to be the instrument by which it is to be effective.40
The doctrine of human perfectibility elicited several objections from the discerning and orthodox Samuel Miller.41 To mention only one, it is inconsistent with the scriptural account of creation and the present state of human beings. He contrasts the millenium of scripture and the millenium dreamt of by Condorcet and others. Miller admits, however, that the doctrine is “too flattering to the pride of man not to have considerable currency among certain classes of society.”
There was, apparently, much discussion of progress and perfectibility by the Connecticut Wits (John Trumbull, Timothy Dwight, David Humphreys, and Joel Barlow).42 Fisher Ames, a Massachusetts political leader, and Benjamin Silliman, a scientist and Yale professor, spoke sarcastically of Condorcet and perfectibility.43
According to one scholar, “The doctrine of the indefinite perfectibility of man and of institutions … became the dominant motif of the Enlightenment and of the revolutionary democratic movements in America and France.”44 This is a sweeping statement. Not every philosophe believed in indefinite perfectibility. The doctrine, furthermore, came to be bruited about only late in the eighteenth century, too late to have been as influential as the statement implies. With regard to the United States, I can only point to two other mentions of the idea. In an oration delivered before the Tammany Society, the orator spoke of the “perfectable nature of man” without mentioning Condorcet.45 Charles Brockden Brown, the novelist, “came to believe in the perfectibility of man.”46 So much for the Outlines and this notion. As for the book’s basic idea of progress, belief in progress was already a fundamental concept in eighteenth-century American thought.47
Here are some expressions of opinion on Condorcet himself, and his work. Franklin, in a letter to Benjamin Rush in 1774, called him “a very respectable Man.” Bitterly anti-French Federalists such as William Cobbett and Robert Treat Paine vilified him. Cobbett railed against his atheism, characterized him as “pre-eminent in infamy.”48 Paine rebuked him for his “absurd philanthropy.”49
Federalists of the stamp of John Adams and Noah Webster were more objective. Adams, in a letter written in 1809, said, “I was personally acquainted with Mr. Turgot, the Duke de la Rochefoucauld, and Mr. Condorcet. They were as amiable, as learned, and as honest men as any in France.”50 And to James Madison he wrote in 1817, “I was personally treated with great kindness by these three great and good men…. Condorcet’s Observations on the twenty-ninth book of the Spirit of Laws; Helvétius, too, in his Letters to Montesquieu … Condorcet’s Life of Turgot; his Progress of the Human Mind … appear to me the most pedantical writings that ages have produced.”51 As noted elsewhere, Webster believed that the Frenchman’s theories were “founded on artificial reasoning, not on the nature of man; not on fact and experience.”52
An enthusiast for the French-Revolutionary cause, the fiercely republican-minded Elihu Palmer held him in high esteem. In an Independence Day oration he proclaimed that “the names of Paine, Volney, Barlow, Condorcet, and Godwin will be revered by posterity, and these men will be ranked among the greatest benefactors of the human race.”53
In the Republican camp, Philip Freneau, editor of the National Gazette (Philadelphia), “did not hesitate to publish attacks against Condorcet” in the first numbers of this newspaper, said Gilbert Chinard.54 According to him, these numbers were nonpartisan. William Short, Jefferson’s secretary in France, wrote to Hamilton from Paris in 1791 that “Condorcet… is considered as a man of knowlege [sic] in these matters [of currency], though I think too theoretical in all.”55 Madison told John Adams in 1817 that “the idea of a Government ‘in one centre,’ as expressed and espoused by this Philosopher [Condorcet] and his theoretic associates, seems now to be every where exploded.”56
The Sage of Monticello said, “Diderot, D’Alembert, D’Holbach, Condorcet, are known to have been among the most virtuous of men.”57 And Jefferson told Short, who had been instrumental in obtaining Houdon’s bust of Condorcet from a member of the family, “I am glad the bust of Condorcet has been saved and so well placed [in the American Philosophical Society]. His genius should be before us.”58