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March 25, 2022

Sophie de Grouchy: The most interesting French Revolutionary you’ve never heard of by Dr. Kathleen McCrudden Illert

Sophie de Grouchy: The most interesting French Revolutionary you’ve never heard of by Dr. Kathleen McCrudden Illert

Dr. Kathleen McCrudden Illert talks about one of the most fascinating revolutionaries you've probably never heard of and her impact on France.


Gary: Today’s special episode is by Kathleen McCrudden Illert. McCrudden Illert received her Ph.D. from Yale University in 2021. She is currently a Max Weber Fellow at the European University Institute in Florence. In today’s episode she will be talking about Sophie de Grouchy, a prominent French philosopher before, during and after the French Revolution. At a time when women were often sidelined, Groucy left her mark as the Madame de Condorcet, but perhaps she was a much larger figure than that name would imply.


Picture the scene. A woman, thirty years old, makes her way through the streets of Paris. She is dressed in the clothes of a peasant, with a hood drawn over her dark hair. Looking quickly over her shoulder to ensure she hasn’t been followed, she allows herself to be swept up in the crowds heading eagerly towards the spectacle awaiting in the Place de la Révolution. Averting her eyes from the looming, grisly sight of the guillotine, she hurries on, extricating herself as she has many times before from the swarms of people, and crosses the river. Her pace quickens, and she clutches the roughly tied bundle of papers closer to her chest as she makes her way through evernarrowing streets. With one, final, heart-stopping glance around her, she knocks on a door in an alley — an alley which looks much the same as the others sheltering in the lee of the Église Saint-Suplice — and enters.

This woman is Sophie de Grouchy, and she is visiting her husband, the former marquis de Condorcet. Condorcet has been in hiding at 21 rue des Fossoyeurs, now 15 rue Servandoni since July 1793. We are in the middle of the French Revolutionary Terror, the period between September 1793 and July 1794 when at least 17,000 people were condemned to death by the French government. Condorcet has been, since 1789, an increasingly important player on the French Revolutionary stage. He has, however, made the mistake of criticising the new Constitution, which had been principally designed by one of the key architects of the Terror: Maximillian Robespierre. It is this that had forced him into hiding in the rue des Fossoyeurs with Madame Rose Vernet. Although he will escape the fate that his wife dreaded — the guillotine — Condorcet is not destined to survive the Terror. In March 1794, terrified that his hiding place had been discovered, and that Madame Vernet and his family would be punished for concealing him, Condorcet will leave the safe house, and attempt to escape into the open countryside. Although dressed as a poor servant, his polished manners, sword-stick, and latin copy of Horace will draw attention to him at the road-side inn he enters to sate his growing hunger. Unable to produce papers attesting to his identity as ‘Pierre Simon’ — the false name he will give — he will be arrested. Twenty-four hours later, Condorcet will be found dead in his prison cell. The reasons for his death remain, to this day, a mystery. Was it self-administered poison? Assassination? Or natural causes? The answer lies lost forever in an unmarked grave, the location unknown even to his family.

Condorcet was famous even in his own lifetime. He was a renowned philosopher and mathematician and, once the French Revolution began, a fierce advocate for rights, including the rights of women and the liberation of enslaved people. Political scientists and economists today still study his theories of probability and his jury theorem. But this episode is not about Condorcet. It is about the other figure in this story: an individual who was also well-known while she lived, but whose importance has since been forgotten. Today, I want to tell you about Sophie de Grouchy.

Grouchy not only survived the Terror, but lived another twenty-eight years. She saw the fall of Robespierre, Napoleon Bonparte’s coup d’état, the creation of the French Empire, the Battle of Waterloo, and the Restoration of the French Monarchy. To tell the story of Sophie de Grouchy, then, is also to tell the tale of one of the most significant portions of French History — from the end of the ancien régime, through the Revolution, to the return of the Bourbon monarchy. Studying Grouchy, we get to experience all of that through the eyes of a fiercely intelligent, independent, and politically involved woman, who was physically present at the centre of many of these events. But Grouchy was much more than simply a passive observer. She also helped shape the political world of the French Revolution. Her story is one of determination, intellect, survival, political canniness, spies, love and sex. If you’ve heard of her — congratulations! But why have so many of us not? In this episode, I want to do two things. I’m going to describe why I think Grouchy was so important and interesting. And I want to explain, in part, why her story has been lost to history. I could talk for hours about Grouchy, because I just think she’s fascinating but — you’ll probably be glad to hear — I’m not going to. Instead, I’m going to focus on a handful of stories from her life that will help us answer those two questions.

To really understand who Grouchy was — and how she ended up in that alley near the Luxembourg Gardens in 1793 — we have to start with her childhood. Grouchy was born in 1763 to a family of French nobles. The Grouchy family had long been associated with the French court: her father, for example, had served as a page boy to King Louis XV. She grew up in a beautiful château called Villette — which still stands today, and incidentally, was used as a set in the filming of the movie the Da Vinci Code. Grouchy was a precocious child: the oldest of four siblings, she enjoyed playing school-teacher to her younger brothers and sister.

At the age of twenty-one, Grouchy was sent away from home to a convent: called Neuville-les-Dames. The intention wasn’t to turn her into a nun: Neuville-lesDames was used by wealthy and noble families in France during this period as a finishing school for their daughters. The days of the young ladies were filled more with dresses and balls than prayers and religious observance. Unfortunately, the young Grouchy was equally bored by both. She was homesick and lonely, and quickly sunk into melancholy. Her only distraction were books, and she threw herself into reading some of the great philosophers of the Enlightenment: Rousseau, Voltaire, and Montesquieu. She even tried her hand at translating the works of eighteenthcentury English travel writer Arthur Young and sixteenth-century Italian poet Torquato Tasso. Yet Grouchy was equally determined not to take what would have been the easy way out of her situation for a woman of her age and status: marriage. When Monsieur de Claye, a fifty-year-old widowed captain of the guard proposed to her, he was rejected. According to Grouchy’s uncle, he was turned down due to Claye’s incompatibility with Grouchy’s ‘taste for study, her aversion for the irritations of the world, her way of thinking, so solid in many regards, and above all the firmness and absolute independence of her character’. Grouchy was clearly determined to choose, as far as was possible, her own future.

Grouchy was to continue to demonstrate this streak of independence when she returned home from Neuville in April 1786. She announced to her deeply Catholic mother than she no longer believed in God because, and I’m quoting a biography written by her daughter here, ‘she couldn’t reconcile the great number of damned souls and the very small number of the elect with the existence of a good God’. In horror, Grouchy’s mother burnt the heretical books that Grouchy had brought back with her: but it was too late. Grouchy’s brain was already filled with the ideas of the Enlightenment.

If Grouchy’s new ways of thinking were shocking to her mother, they were of great interest to two men who would shape the course of the rest of Grouchy’s life. The first was the uncle who had praised her ‘absolute independence’. This was Charles Dupaty, a magistrate in Bordeaux and himself an author of a work on Italy. Dupaty and Grouchy quickly formed a close intellectual bond, exchanging letters and ideas on what they were reading. When Dupaty died in 1788, he left all his papers to his young niece, demonstrating the trust he had in her, and the esteem in which he held her abilities.

Now Dupaty, in the mid-1780s, had become involved in a rather interesting legal case. This affair had begun on the night of the 29th of January 1783, when three men forced their way into the house of a couple named Thomassin, farmers in the village of Vinet, near Troyes in the Champagne region of France. The couple were tied up, possibly tortured, and robbed of their meagre possessions. Soon after, three suspects were arrested. They were Nicolas Lardoise, Charles Bradier, and JeanBaptiste Simare. Bradier and Simare were brothers-in-law and cattle traders.

Nevertheless, it was not until June 1785 — two and a half years after the original crime, most of which time the three men had spent rotting in gaol — that the regional authorities began to investigate the case. A mere two months later, the judges of Chaumont pronounced the verdict: guilty. The sentence: life as galley slaves. But this was not the end of the tale. The procureur du roi, or prosecution lawyer, felt that this punishment was far too lenient for such hardened and reckless criminals. He appealed to a higher court, the Parlement of Paris. And it seemed that the judges of the Parlement agreed with the procureur. On 20th October 1785, they condemned Lardoise, Bradier, and Simare to death on the wheel. This meant that they would be tied to cartwheel, with their limbs stretched out. As the wheel slowly turned, their arms and legs would be broken with a steel bar. In a final act of mercy, they would then be strangled.

If you are recoiling in horror at this image, do not despair: you are not alone. Indeed, one of the Parlement judges who had dissented from this judgement, Emmanuel Fréteau de Saint-Just, put his foot down. In a move that was itself highly illegal, he showed the trial papers to his brother-in-law, and asked for his help. Who was this brother-in-law? None other than Charles Dupaty, Grouchy’s uncle. Dupaty was equally horrified, and became convinced of the three men’s innocence. He persuaded Fréteau to petition for a stay of execution, and in the meantime set about producing a public defence of the three men in the form of justificatory pamphlets. His indignation about the injustice of the legal system and heartfelt appeals to the compassion of the population proved wildly popular: Marie Antoinette, the queen of France herself, was said to have purchased one of his mémoires. Eventually his campaign bore fruit. In December 1787 Bradier Simaire and Lardoise were declared innocent, and, what is more, allowed to turn the tables and sue their accusers.

Now, importantly for our story, Dupaty also got his young niece interested in the case. Grouchy was just as indignant as Dupaty about the treatment of the three men, and equally prepared to defend them. Indeed, while their fate still hung in the balance, she declared to a shocked drawing room her desire to demonstrate her support by kissing the men. Grouchy’s involvement, in turn, had two further consequences. The first, so contemporary rumour has it, was to tempt the involvement of none other than the already-famous philosopher, the marquis de Condorcet. Condorcet published pamphlets of his own defending the three men in particular, and attacking the ancien régime judicial system in general. The most famous of these was his Réflexions d’un citoyen non gradué. The causality here is not quite clear — gossips at the time whispered that Condorcet had only gotten involved as an excuse to court the young Grouchy, although this seems to sell Condorcet and his own idealism rather short — but it is certain that the cause célèbre was instrumental in introducing the pair in August 1786. Five months later, in December of that year, the forty-three year old Condorcet and the twenty-three year old Grouchy were married in her family chapel at Villette. The marquis de Lafayette, fresh from the American Revolutionary war, served as witness. As if to underline the importance of the three housebreakers in bringing them together, Condorcet gave Grouchy the son of Charles Bradier, dressed up as an English jockey, as a wedding present. Condorcet himself explained how this whirlwind romance came about in a letter to an old friend, written in early January.

‘You find me married!’ He wrote. ‘You can well guess that at my age, with the principles by which you know me, my taste for study, the interests that occupy me, I did not make a marriage of convenience. It was necessary that love should begin the work and that reason should complete it. But what you will not guess is that this event, which must be the happiest of my life, is the reward for the little I have done for the progress of enlightenment and the good of humanity! You yourself have contributed to this. These Reflexions d’un citoyen non gradué, which you had printed in Brussels, strengthened my old relationship with Monsieur Dupaty, and gave me the opportunity to get to know one of his nieces, who is beautiful and only twenty-three years old. My zeal for the business which occupied her uncle, and for everything which can enlighten men or make them happier, made her forgive my age, and my lack of agreeable qualities, and she was kind enough to join me in sharing my feelings, my work, and to reward me for it. Since the month of August I have been almost exclusively occupied with one object; I am still occupied with it; I am only on the fifth day of my marriage’.

There are several interesting things about this letter. Condorcet underlines Grouchy’s own intelligence and investment in the political affair that brought them together. He also goes out of his way to stress that their marriage would be one of intellectual partnership: he describes Grouchy as sharing his work. This is of a piece with what we’ve already heard about Grouchy, and her rejection of her earlier suitor. She turned Monsieur Claye down because he wasn’t going to provide space for her own intellectual pursuits. This was clearly not going to be the case with Condorcet. And it seems that Grouchy’s first major philosophical accomplishment comes precisely out of this context. Grouchy is best known for her translation of the Scottish moral philosopher and economist Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, which was originally written by Smith in 1759. Grouchy published her translation into French in 1798. Alongside this translation, Grouchy also published her own treatise of moral and political philosophy, which she entitled Letters on Sympathy, or Lettres sur la sympathie. Now, there is a great deal of debate over when Grouchy first wrote this text, and scholars generally think that it was composed around 1791. However, my archival research shows that a far more convincing date is 1786: the year of her marriage to Condorcet, and the year of her engagement with the court case of the three housebreakers.

The reason why this matters is because knowing the context of when and why Grouchy wrote one of her key philosophical texts can help us understand the meaning of the text itself. This, in turn, can help us comprehend what Grouchy really thought about politics in the 1780s, how this might have impacted her actions, and how her ideas might have changed in later life. I think that Grouchy’s Letters on Sympathy was initially written, with the encouragement of Condorcet, to be a similar text to Condorcet and Dupaty’s pamphlets defending the three housebreakers and attacking French ancien régime society. Grouchy’s main interest in Letters on Sympathy was in showing how French society could be better run when it was founded on the natural rights that belonged to every individual, rather than on the distinction of status that currently defined feudal France. She further argued that if we wanted to understand what rights belonged to each person, we had to begin with the sentiment of sympathy: with our ability to empathise with others. In other words, Grouchy wrote, around 1786, what we would now think of as a defence of human rights.

These pieces of evidence: Grouchy’s determination not to marry anyone who would not allow her space for her own intellectual aspirations; Condorcet’s declaration that their marriage would be a partnership; and the fact that already in the 1780s Grouchy was writing a sophisticated text on natural rights, begin to give us an indication both of Grouchy’s political interests, and how she would pursue them. She was clearly not prepared to forfeit her own autonomy for her husband or anyone else. But that did not mean rejecting all relationships or collaborations. Condorcet already had a proven track record in defending the rights of man: together they could make a formidable team. And, when the Estates General were called, the Parisian mob stormed the Bastille, and the French Revolution began in 1789, so it proved to be. Grouchy and Condorcet had already, since their marriage, been hosting a gathering in Paris for some of the most famous and influential men of the period: Lafayette, Thomas Jefferson, Emmanuel Sieyès, and the marquis de Mirabeau, to name but a few. After 1789, their joint operation ramped up. They began writing together: articles for journals and speeches for the new National Assembly. When King Louis XVI attempted to flee Paris in June 1791, Grouchy and Condorcet were the first among the Revolutionary élites to declare themselves as republicans, in the sense of opposing the institution of the monarchy. They did so in a particularly dramatic fashion: they and a small circle of their friends had posters plastered around the city deriding ‘Monsieur Louis Bourbon’ as, quote, an ‘imbecile’, and announcing the publication of their new journal, Le Républicain. Together, they edited this short-lived journal, and both contributed articles to it. Perhaps most influentially, they also co-wrote the 1791 Cinq mémoires sur l’instruction publique, a series of essays detailing how the new French government could launch a national system of free, universally available education. Historian David Williams has argued that these mémoires would, quote, ‘provide the basis for the next century’s framework of public education in France’. These texts elaborated on many of the ideas that Grouchy had first put forward in her Letters on Sympathy.

Grouchy was thus a central figure in French Revolutionary politics. She was among the first, in 1791, to publicly and repeatedly argue that France should be a republican state. The first French Republic would be declared just over a year later, in September 1792. She also helped write one of the foundational texts about public education in France, thus setting the terms of the debate for generations to come. And the funny thing is, her contemporaries all knew that she was an important and influential figure. She corresponded regularly with Mirabeau and Sieyès, but also Thomas Paine, Jacques Pierre Brissot and Pierre Louis Roederer — all important revolutionary figures. Sieyès, in fact, when he first read her Letters on Sympathy, reported that he was ‘astonished’ by it, and his friends teased him for being in love with the brilliant young woman. True, many of her peers saw such a formidable female as a danger rather than something to be applauded. Grouchy was attacked several times in the Jacobin club, for example: one of the main radical political clubs of the period. In particular, she was accused of quote ‘blinding’ Condorcet, and dominating him with her own political principles. A royalist journal, the Journal de la cour et de la ville, launched frequent assaults, which were often pornographic in nature, on Grouchy’s political activities.

It was for this reason that we find Grouchy wrapped so tightly in the cloak of a peasant as she hurries through the streets of Paris in 1793. She was, of course, terrified of leading the authorities to her husband, who was by that point a wanted man. But she was also living in fear of arrest herself. Grouchy had become a prominent Revolutionary figure, and she was taking no chances. Indeed, we are told by her daughter that the Revolutionary Guard came several times to where Grouchy was staying in order to arrest her, and she only managed to put them off by painting the portraits of the soldiers. In fact, it was was through Grouchy’s skill with the paintbrush that she managed not only to avoid prison, but also to survive the lean times of the Terror, and provide food for her young daughter and sister. Setting up a lingerie shop on the rue Saint-Honoré, in a little backroom studio she painted the miniatures of those who were condemned to die at the guillotine.

We are now, I hope, starting to get a sense of why Grouchy was an important and interesting historical figure. But given all of this, especially the contemporary recognition of her influence, why doesn’t she take up more space in the historical record? Why have we forgotten her? Part of the answer must, of course, be the pure misogyny of many nineteenth-century historians, who typically focused their attention on famous men, particularly when it came to saving precious archival material. This means that we simply do not have as much information about Grouchy as do about, say, her husband Condorcet. But I think there is more to the story than that. I think it comes down, in part, to Grouchy’s own actions in the latter part of her life.

Grouchy was left heartbroken by Condorcet’s death in the Terror. She wrote to her aunt of the ‘inexpressible pain’ she felt. A manuscript fragment reveals her grief at the fact that she could not throw ‘flowers on the grave where revolutionary fury tries to enclose your genius — on this grave where you descended without my tears being able to soften your last sigh, and to answer your eternal farewell!’ Soon, however, this despair turned into a steely determination: a determination that the Committee of Public Safety, who had condemned her husband to death, would not get the final say on how Condorcet was remembered. He would not go down in history as a criminal, as a traitor to the revolutionary cause. Instead, she would ensure that he was remembered as the final great philosopher of the Enlightenment, and as representing a martyr to the true values of the Revolution.

The mission to shape Condorcet’s legacy came to be one of the great causes of Grouchy’s life. I don’t want, by any means, to suggest that she didn’t continue with other forms of intellectual and political pursuits. As we have heard, she translated Adam Smith: she also launched, edited and wrote for another journal, and collaborated with others in numerous other projects. These endeavours could be the subject of many more podcasts! But she also dedicated many of her remaining years to memorialising her dead husband. She ensured that his final work, the Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrès de l’esprit humain, or the Sketch for a historical picture of the progress of the human mind, was published after his death, and wrote a forward to it. She was also the driving force behind the publication of the first ‘Collected Works’ of Condorcet, published in 1804. She collected and edited the hundreds of texts that went into the twenty-one volumes, and helped decide how they would be presented. She wrote to newspapers to correct false rumours about her husband, particularly the manner of his disappearance and death. Finally, on her deathbed, she bequeathed this work of legacy-building to her daughter, who would go on to help produce a revised version of the Collected Works of Condorcet in 1847. This dedication to preserving the memory of her dead husband and shaping his legacy as revolutionary and philosopher would cause friction in her personal life.

Although committed to honouring Condorcet, Grouchy was still a relatively young woman, and in the later 1790s she conducted a passionate affair with the handsome Jacques Joseph Garat, nicknamed Maillia. Maillia was the nephew of the well-known revolutionary politician Dominque-Joseph Garat, another friend of Grouchy’s, and Grouchy hoped that he would follow his uncle into politics. She wanted, as far as it was possible, to re-create the power-couple situation that she had enjoyed with Condorcet. Maillia, however, seemed more interested in drinking and partying than in the French Republic. He resented the constant reminder of Grouchy’s revered dead husband, griping to her that even ‘in your arms, I was incessantly pursued with the image of he whose place I filled’. Grouchy, moreover, steadfastly refused to marry Maillia, and give up the precious name of Madame Condorcet — although this refusal also, perhaps, had a lot to do with her desire to maintain her status as a widow, which gave her a greater degree of independence than as a wife. Perhaps it was Maillia’s continuing discomfort with this ghostly ménage à trois that led him to break Grouchy’s heart in a particularly brutal way. While still sleeping with her, he began a relationship with another woman, and cruelly left his new mistress’s love letters in Grouchy’s house for Grouchy to find.

Yet the dissolution of her relationship with Maillia was not the only consequence of her determined dedication to preserving Condorcet’s legacy. It meant that she was, to a certain extent intentionally, painted out of the picture. Much of her life became about promoting the name of Condorcet, and not publicising herself. None of her legacy-building pursuits, or that of her descendants, were dedicated to her own memory: all the energy was spent on Condorcet.

So why did she do it? Well, we’ve already had a hint as to the reason when she refused to change her name for Maillia. In ensuring that Condorcet’s ideas and political project was not forgotten, Grouchy did not see herself as sacrificing her own work. Remember that they were a team. She was a Condorcet as well. But she was also a woman. It was highly unlikely that anyone was going to put together a ‘Collected Works’ for her, especially given that much of her writings had been cowritten with her husband. But that is precisely the point. To promote the work of Condorcet was to promote her own work. Many of the ideas that ended up in the Oeuvres de Condorcet were ideas that Grouchy and Condorcet had come up with together. Carving out a spot for Condorcet in the history books was her best chance at ensuring that her own ideas and values found a place there too: even if they were found under her husband’s name.

Grouchy did what it took to survive. At Neuville, this meant burying her head in books. When she left for the real world, it meant choosing a husband — Condorcet — who would be her intellectual and political partner. During the Revolution, it meant working together with him to forward their political ideas and plans for the future of France. In the dark days of the Terror, it meant dressing as a peasant, snatching hurried visits at Rue des Fossoyeurs, and painting portrait after portrait of condemned men. And after Condorcet’s death, it meant shaping his legacy, and thus ensuring that her own ideas would not be lost in the mists of time. Grouchy would continue thrive until 1822. Having outlived Robespierre, she would go toe-to-toe with the next larger-than-life character on the Revolutionary stage: Napoleon Bonaparte. Initially supportive of Bonaparte’s regime, she grew increasingly horrified by the authoritarianism he displayed. Eventually, worn down by the overhanging fear of observation by Napoleon’s secret police spies, Grouchy retreated into the French countryside, where she hosted a literary retreat for likeminded thinkers and scholars from across Europe.

Let me finish with a story that, in setting and tone, could not be further away from the grim Paris streets, watched over by the looming shape of the guillotine, where we began. We are now in a lush Parisian dining room, late on a December evening in 1797. Perhaps snow is falling outside. The atmosphere holds the quiet, slightly sleepy contentment of a good meal just consumed, expensive wine still being enjoyed. The host is the foreign minister of France, and around the table sits pretty much anyone who is anyone in the political establishment of the day. The guest of honour is an up-and-coming young Corsican general, freshly returned from a campaign in Italy. Amongst the post-dinner chatter, this general suddenly turns to the woman sitting next to him: a woman who, according to a contemporary observer, was ‘very well known in France for her beauty, her mind, and the vivacity of her opinions’. Napoleon — for I’m sure you’ve already guessed the identity of this young general — abruptly informed this lady, ‘Madame, I don’t like women who occupy themselves with politics’. Sophie de Grouchy turned to Napoleon, and gravely replied: ‘You’re right, General. But in a country where women have their heads cut off, it is natural that they want to know why’.

Whether in the streets of Paris facing down the guillotine or in a dining room sparring with Napoleon, Grouchy was a force to be reckoned with. It is time for us to allow her to step out from behind the shadow of her husband, where she helped secrete herself all those centuries ago, and reveal herself for the fascinating, and important character that she was.